Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Elements of Style

In his recent Op-Ed piece for The New York Times entitled Want Teenage Boys to Read? Easy. Give Them Books About Sex, author Daniel Handler (a/k/a Lemony Snicket) stated the obvious and proceeded it back it up with cherished examples of his reading preferences as a horny teenager. Handler's Op-Ed piece brought back memories of how easily young men with a puerile sense of humor could be reduced to giggles if asked to say the names of such famous authors as William Strunk Jr. (The Elements of Style) or the publisher Funk & Wagnalls (A Standard Dictionary of the English Language).

At an age when fart jokes are considered the height of sophistication, the idea that anything could even be called an element of style might seem unbelievably pretentious or, to use a really old-fashioned term, "hoity-toity." But as one matures and is exposed to various forms of art (ranging from cinema to opera, from comic books to the work of M.C. Escher), one begins to recognize a wide variety of styles and develop an appreciation for nuance -- or a total lack thereof.

M.C. Escher's Bond of Union

M.C. Escher's Baam, Netherlands

Artists such as Giovanni Battista Piranesi were able to achieve a wondrous sense of depth and detail through the strategic use of light shading and forced perspective.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi's sketch of a Roman rotunda

Giovanni Battista Piranesi's Via Appia Imaginaire

Often, some artists will play around with established norms of a particular style or genre. While their distortions can lead to fascinating (even nightmarish) visions, they can also make brilliant statements through exaggeration. One need only look at characters created by Berkeley Breathed for proof of how this works.

Two recent dramatic experiences witnessed artistic styles being pushed to their extremes. One depended on visual effects while the other was an acid-tinged intellectual farce whose comedic brilliance made me feel like I had been catapulted through time and space to the writers' room for Sid Caesar's legendary Your Show of Shows.

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I'm one of those people who, when attending a new play or watching a movie for the first time, prefers not to read up on it too intensely so that I can get the maximum enjoyment from the storytelling element of the experience. Plot twists? Surprises? Fine by me.

I say this because, after several decades spent in the company of rabid opera queens, I've concluded that too much information can ruin a dramatic experience. In recent years, I've found myself drowning in so much news and mental stimulation that, by the time I enter a theatre or start streaming a film, I've pretty much forgotten whatever I might have read on Wikipedia or in a press release. Believe it or not, that helps to keep the experience fresh!

Written and directed by Gordian Maugg, Fritz Lang (which was screened during the 2017 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) offers a perfect example of this phenomenon. After watching the film, I was amused to read conflicting reactions from people who knew a lot about Lang's career and were horrified by Maugg's presumptuous use of artistic license as well as comments by others who found the film imperfect and often confusing but, in its own way, quite fascinating.

Anna Cohn (Lisa Friederich) prepares to take a bath in Fritz Lang

Before explaining my own reaction, let's take a bare-bones look at Lang's career.
Heino Ferch stars in Gordian Maugg's Fritz Lang

Maugg's film is a fictional attempt to explain how and why Lang became interested in the story of serial killer Peter Kürten (who was known as "The Vampire of Dusseldorf" and is portrayed in Maugg's film by Samuel Finzi). Not only does the filmmaker take numerous liberties with the facts of Lang's life, he weaves actual footage from "M" into his own film so seamlessly that it becomes hard to determine where the cinematic archives end and Maugg's narrative continues.

Peter Lorre's face from 1931's "M" is superimposed on
Samuel Finzi's face in a scene from 2016's Fritz Lang

Since the silent film era ended in 1929 (when "talkies" took over), it seems reasonable to assume that Lang originally shot "M" using nitrocellulose film stock. According to Wikipedia:
Samuel Finzi and Heino Ferch in a scene from Fritz Lang

It's important to note that, in recent years, many silent films have undergone impressive restorations which attempt to recreate the filmmaker's original vision and remove any imperfections from damaged prints. For film noir enthusiasts and devotees of Lang's astonishing work, Maugg's attempt to recreate Lang's artistic process might well border on heresy (watching Maugg's Fritz Lang with the mind of an academic purist could easily impede one's enjoyment).

However, people who can watch this film without acting like a real-time cinematic fact-checker may find themselves awed by the way Maugg has used today's technology to recreate the noir style with a most luxurious approach to black-and-white filmmaking. A great deal of credit for the success of Fritz Lang goes to Fritz Günthner (production design), Sabine Dotzauer (art direction), Genoveva Kylburg (costume design), and Tobias Wagner (musical score). All of these artists have laid an impressive foundation for Lutz Reitemeier's stark and often stunning cinematography.

Johanna Gastdorf appears as the filmmaker's second
wife, Thea von Harbou, in a scene from Fritz Lang

The large cast is headed by Heino Ferch as Fritz Lang, Thomas Thieme as the powerful inspector Ernst Gennat, Samuel Finzi as the murderously warped Peter Kürten, and Johanna Gastdorf as Lang's second wife (Thea von Harbou). Lisa Friederich does double duty as Lisa Lang and Anna Cohn with Michael Mendl appearing as Lang's father, Anton, and Maryam El-Ghussein as his [Jewish] mother, Paula.

Maugg's film uses musical snippets such as "In The Hall of the Mountain King" (taken from the incidental music that Edvard Grieg composed in 1875 for Henrik Ibsen's drama, Peer Gynt) to heighten the suspense. However, the scenes of brutal violence against women by a serial killer may be difficult for some people to watch. Here's the trailer:

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Fifty years ago, Neil Simon was hailed far and wide as the funniest playwright on Broadway. After 1961's Come Blow Your Horn and 1963's Barefoot in the Park (starring Elizabeth Ashley and a 27-year-old Robert Redford), Simon took New York theatregoers by storm with 1965's The Odd Couple. Not only was that production directed by Mike Nichols, the original cast starred Walter Matthau and Art Carney (two veteran actors who certainly knew how to land a punch line). Audiences laughed so hard that they were gasping for breath.

I mention this because, in the years that Peter Sinn Nachtrieb has been a playwright in residence at Z Space in San Francisco, he has honed his writing to a point where the exuberantly fantastical and impossibly ridiculous become sublime; where a line like "One man's diarrhea is some plant's lucky day!" leaves audiences convulsed with giggles yet fearing that if they don't stop laughing they might miss the next joke.
Aysan Celik co-stars as Mona Barnes in Robert Sinn Nachtrieb's
The Making of a Great Moment (Photo by: Meghan Moore)

Nachtrieb returned to Z-Space in July with the rolling world premiere of The Making of a Great Moment, a comic masterpiece filled with in-jokes for theatre nerds as well as those who work in the entertainment industry. In a production designed by Apollo Mark Weaver (with costumes and puppets by Jessica Ford, lighting by Wolfgang Wachalovsky, and sound design by David Remedios), Devon LaBelle was rightfully credited was the company's "bicycle wrangler."

How does a playwright create a script that requires a bicycle wrangler? “As I was just conceiving the piece I was training for AIDS/Lifecycle, a 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles that raises money for AIDS charities. Biking was heavy on my mind when, in conversation with someone, I heard about a theater company touring a play by bicycle," recalls Nachtrieb. "Everything clicked. I thought: what a perfect and unusual way to showcase these two amazing actors (Danny Scheie and Aysan Celik), bring in our own experiences as artists, and set it in an odd, unfamiliar, and fun world."

Danny Scheie and Aysan Celik bicycle through Canada in a scene
from The Making of a Great Moment (Photo by: Meghan Moore)

One of the joys of Nachtrieb's new play is the tongue-in-cheek delight he displays in showing how, over the course of history, new words are formed and enter our vocabulary. The perky quaintness of his new comedy becomes evident as soon as one starts read the play-within-a-play's program note:
"Founded and led by Polly Kensington, The Victoria Canada Bicycle Theatre Company is a revolutionary company whose mission is to maximize cultural enlightenment while minimizing environmental impact. Pivoting on an axis of talent, dedication and electrolytes, V.C.B.T.C., as it’s affectionately known, commissions and produces important plays that send the mind wheeling with contemplation and cause the viewer to efficiently turn potential artistic energy into cultural kinetic energy. Actors must not only memorize all of their lines, but also the 503 statutes from the British Columbia Provincial Vehicular Traffic Code, and undergo a rigorous physical regime that involves lifting curling weights in time with Bryan Adams’ 'Cuts Like a Knife.' Notable productions include the first ever Canadian translation of Dick Wolf’s classic television show, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit."
Danny Scheie co-stars as Terry Dean in Robert Sinn Nachtrieb's
The Making of a Great Moment (Photo by: Meghan Moore)

Cole Porter famously warned that "You never want to write a bad lyric for Ethel Merman because people will hear it in the second balcony." Much the same can be said about Danny Scheie, a brilliant theatre artist who skillfully combines the brutal timing of an aging vaudevillian with the clarion voice of a carnival barker and the deadpan delivery of an actor like Bea Arthur. Whereas songwriters and opera composers are often asked if they write with a particular voice in mind, it's quite possible that Scheie has become Nachtrieb's muse -- an actor who land a comic line with laser precision while obliterating traces of well-intentioned political correctness in the theatre world.

Back in 1962, when the 19-year-old Barbra Streisand made her Broadway debut in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, her program bio claimed that she was "born in Madagascar, reared in Rangoon and educated at the Yeshiva of Brooklyn." Nachtrieb takes perverse joy in pushing the art of crafting a theatrical bio to new limits. For Scheie's older, more cynical character, he writes:
"Great Moments in Human Achievement marks Terry Dean’s 407th production he has been in and also represents his acting debut in the lower North Americas. The accidental result of heavy drug use at a farmer’s market, Terry Dean was born into a harsh and treacherous set of circumstances. Fortune, however, diverted his seemingly inevitable journey towards a life selling his body for cigarettes and soda and led him instead to a life in the theater, when he was discovered at the age of nine in a public park by the renowned Ontario director Argus Haversham, who instantly offered him a role in his acclaimed and controversial production of Caligula, Untold. As part of a subsequent legal settlement, Dean became the youngest person to be accepted into the Royal Academy of Canadian Dramatic Arts. He believes himself to be a success, despite what could objectively be described as a trajectory of achievement that seems to be lowering and lowering and lowering with every passing year. Survival is success in his book. This is his first play he has ever toured by bicycle."
Danny Scheie co-stars as Terry Dean in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's
The Making of a Great Moment (Photo by: Meghan Moore)

Scheie's colleague in comic crime is Aysan Celik, whose hysterically funny outbursts of rage prove that Mona Barnes is no one's straight man. With professional credits that include The Whore of Lake Charles, Where The Wolves Went, Why is the Flower Vase Empty, Patricia? and Falling Timber, Nachtrieb describes Celik's younger, infinitely more idealistic and emotionally volatile character as follows:
"Mona Barnes stresses that she is thrilled to be able to inspire under-served audiences across the continent with this important work and thrilled to be touring this important work by bicycle over the next several years. Mona would like to dedicate her performance to you, the spectator. You, the spectator, are why she has chosen her craft. You, the spectator are the reason that she has left her family, her friends, her home. She does this willingly, in the hopes that her performance will perhaps be the catalyst in giving you, the spectator, a fuller life, a more meaningful life, that is powerful and boundless. It would really thrill her if that happened.”
Aysan Celik co-stars as Mona Barnes in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's
The Making of a Great Moment (Photo by: Meghan Moore)

Developed at the NYUAD Theater Program in Abu Dhabi and Z Space in San Francisco, The Making of a Great Moment received its world premiere in January at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts. Director Sean Daniels has reunited with actors Danny Scheie and Aysan Celik for the Bay area premiere of this riotously sharp and subversive comedy. My reason for quoting the gems Nachtrieb has published in the program is to offer a taste of the ebullient lunacy, intense theatrical devotion to one's craft, willful whimsy, and heartfelt good intentions which all serve to prove that no good dead goes unpunished. Struggling to remember laugh lines from the opening night would simply spoil the fun for future audiences (click here to read the play's first 20 pages).

Performances of The Making of a Great Moment continue through August 26 at Z Space (click here for tickets). If, during the current political nightmare, you need an evening of caustic snark mixed with theatrical bliss and lots of belly laughs, this is the show for you. Here's the trailer:

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