Friday, September 22, 2017

The Updating Game

How many times can someone move to another apartment or rearrange the furniture? Change their wardrobe or get another nip and tuck? To what lengths will a person go to put a little more spring in their step, get more bounce to the ounce, or more bang for their buck? Will they learn anything from the process or just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over?

Makeovers are costly; their results cannot always be undone. But because a script is no more than a road map with good writing, updating a well-known theatrical property (be it a comedy, tragedy, or opera) offers directors and designers a chance to wipe the slate clean and see if a well-established tale can survive a makeover in order to attract newer (and presumably younger) audiences.

Bottom line: nothing ventured, nothing gained (assuming the property in question is within the public domain or the project's creative team has been given a green light by the playwright or whoever is handling the author's estate). An updated production can move the story to another time and place or switch out the race and gender of actors playing certain roles.

Whatever cosmetic changes are made (which can include cuts in the script), audiences must decide whether a new director and designer are trying to find the dramatic truth of the story or merely attempting to impose their egos on someone else's art in order to generate controversy.

Two recent productions were in the planning stage long before Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. And yet, in a perverse way, they have no trouble making audiences think about the eternal dangers of corruption, bitterness, violence, and injustice. While critics are called upon to respond to re-interpretations of long-established works, it's wise to remember the old adage that "opinions are like assholes -- everybody's got one."

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The first recorded performance of William Shakespeare's political dramedy, Measure for Measure, took place in 1604. California Shakespeare Theater is topping off its 2017 season with Tyne Rafaeli's updated staging of this play (a co-production with Santa Cruz Shakespeare) about the dangers of authoritarianism. With costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, a highly effective unit set designed by Annie Smart, and multiple actors tackling multiple roles, this production requires audiences to pay close attention to the proceedings.

Our nation's tradition of a peaceful transfer of power from one President to another has often been hailed as the bedrock of American government. But think back to the anguished emotions people felt in the aftermath of last year's election when it became evident that a respected and beloved President who had led the nation through numerous crises with grace, dignity, and an administration free of scandal, would be replaced by a contemptible, vindictive thug.

Angelo (David Graham Jones) and the Duke (Rowan Vickers)
in a scene from Measure for Measure (Photo by: rr Jones)

Just when it seemed as if the proverbial arc of the moral universe was starting to bend toward justice, our government did a 180-degree pivot to bullying, incompetence, and economic cruelty. Seemingly overnight, reason, science, and a sense of responsibility for the common good were replaced with a toxic blend of rampant prejudice, hyperreligiosity, insatiable greed, pathologic lying, and political corruption. As Eric Ting (the artistic director of CalShakes) asks:
“What possesses a person to lead? Is it ego? Power? The opportunity to do good? A sense of responsibility? Perhaps it’s an inherited right or it’s thrust upon them. What does it mean to be led? To put faith in another, to hold them accountable for your livelihood, your family’s livelihood. Sometimes we look to our leaders to define boundaries so we can exist comfortably within them. And when that comfort is disrupted, it is often replaced by fear.”
Provost (Patty Gallagher), Escalus (Tristan Cunningham),
and Angelo (David Graham Jones) in a scene from
Measure for Measure (Photo by: rr Jones)
“Director Tyne Rafaeli recognized that Measure for Measure begins first and foremost with one man’s decision to hand over power; and in that moment of regime change, uncertainty seizes the world. The boundaries are effectively redrawn. In moments such as this, the impulse might be to turn within, to look the other way, to retreat into the safety of our homes. But not everyone is afforded such refuge. Do we in that moment accept the edict of our leaders? Or do we look within and become leaders ourselves? Do we meet the urge to fall back with a vision of possibility or do we stand up for what we believe in? Do we take our power back?”
Escalus (Tristan Cunningham), Elbow (Annie Worden), Froth
(Patty Gallagher), and Pompey (Kevin Matthew Reyes) in a
scene from Measure for Measure (Photo by: rr Jones)

Consider the predicaments of those who thrived under the benevolent leadership of the Duke (an Obama-like figure) to those newly threatened by the rigid dictates of Angelo (a figure who uses the law as a strict and unforgiving tool rather than letting it be open to interpretation).
  • Because her dowry was lost at sea, Angelo has refused to marry his betrothed (Marianne) even though he has already had sex with her.
  • Claudio is doomed by a legal technicality to be beheaded in three days because he married Juliet and got her pregnant without finishing all of the necessary paperwork.
  • Claudio's sister, Isabella (who had been planning to enter a convent), learns that the only way she can save her brother's life is to sacrifice her soul by letting Angelo claim her virginity.
  • Mistress Overdone (who operates a popular brothel) is in peril of losing her livelihood simply because her business is located in a suburb of Vienna.
Pompey (Kevin Mathew Reyes) and Mistress Overdone (Annie Worden)
in a scene from Measure for Measure (Photo by: rr Jones)

Kevin Matthew Reyes alternated between portraying Claudio and Mistress Overdone's pimp, Pompey; while Adam Schroeder scored comic points as Lucio and Abhorson the executioner (there's a double meaning to this name depending on how you pronounce it). Clad in a dark green military uniform with storm-trooper boots, David Graham Jones was appropriately menacing as Angelo while Lindsay Rico's impassioned Isabella tried to maintain her purity.

While the goal of Shakespeare's intricate plotting is to expose Angelo's hypocrisy, there are so many twists and turns during the course of the play that it is easy to get disoriented as numerous actors leap in and out of different characters. The most versatile of these were Annie Worden (as Mistress Overdone,Elbow, Mariana, and Barnadine), Tristan Cunningham (as Escalus, Juliet, and Francisca), and Patty Gallagher (as Provost, Froth, and other minor characters).

Isabella (Lindsay Rico) and Francisca (Tristan Cunningham)
in a scene from Measure for Measure (Photo by: rr Jones)

As the Duke who states "I have seen corruption boil and bubble till it o'er-run the stew," a bespectacled Rowan Vickers made this critic long for a return of the cool-headed, logical wisdom of Barack Obama as an authority figure who can mete out justice with a sense of fairness and wisdom. The production also benefited from Kent Dorsey's lighting and Brandon Walcott's sound design.

Did Measure for Measure survive an updated directorial approach? Absolutely. Did Shakespeare's 413-year-old play remain relevant to modern audiences? Without a doubt (I was especially delighted to hear the word "bawd" brought back to life). Performances of Measure for Measure continue through October 8 at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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My first exposure to the music of Richard Strauss was the February 20, 1968 performance of Elektra at the Metropolitan Opera starring Birgit Nilsson with Ina DelCampo as Chrysothemis, Jean Madeira as Klytemnestra, and William Dooley as Orest. Over the next few years, I spent many hours listening to the Deutsche Grammophon recording with Karl Böhm conducting a cast headed by Inge Borkh, Marianne Schech, Jean Madeira, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. At the San Francisco Opera, I attended performances starring Ingrid Steger (1973), Danica Mastilovic (1979), Janis Martin (1984), and Gwyneth Jones (1991).

While many opera lovers will recommend The Magic Flute, The Barber of Seville, La Boheme, or Carmen to newbies, I have always felt that the intense passions and depraved music contained in Elektra's 100 stormy minutes might be a much better suggestion. I love the music and, in all honesty, the bloodthirsty drama is hard to beat.

Funny story: In the fall of 1977, I flew up to Oregon for a performance of Strauss's one-act masterpiece at the Portland Opera, where I ran into several opera queens from San Francisco who arrived at the Civic Auditorium intent on surreptitiously taping Ute Vinzing’s Elektra. After the performance, I offered them a lift to their hotel. However, on that cold November night (when the temperature was a crisp 30 degrees), as soon as we got in the car I heard the sound of tapes rewinding. “I wanna hear the high C before we go anywhere,” hissed one of the men. Whoosh, click. Whoosh, click. Suddenly, Sylvia Anderson’s hair-raising death scream as Klytemnestra filled the car, followed by an orgasmic moan of satisfaction which had nothing to do with the fact that we were all freezing. Later that night, as I roamed the hallways of the Majestic Hotel and Club Portland Bath, I heard those same screams emanating from behind a wall as a group of gay men clad in towels drew near a door, whispering “What’s happening in THAT room?”

After a 20-year absence from the repertoire, Elektra has returned to the San Francisco Opera in a production that might best be described as "a night at the museum...without Ben Stiller." In the following clip, Keith Warner describes his concept for this co-production with the National Theatre of Prague and the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe.

In addition to the thrill of seeing a totally new interpretation of Strauss's opera (which had its world premiere on January 25, 1909 at the Dresden State Opera), a key selling point for this production was the chance to hear Christine Goerke sing the title role.

Birgit Nilsson joked that singing Isolde wasn't so difficult, as long as the soprano had a comfortable pair of shoes. This is the first time I've seen a production of Elektra in which the lead soprano stalked the stage in black sneakers. But as Larry Rothe writes in his program note:
Elektra spends less time penetrating psyches than aiming for its listener’s gut. Some critics condemn Elektra’s creators for dismissing women as hysterics. But this is no tale told by a pair of misogynists. Elektra, a powerful woman, knows what she wants and does what she must. If at last she enlists a man to murder the queen and her lover, she remains the avenging force, for she has decreed the transgressors’ fate.”
Chrysothemis (Adrianne Pieczonka) and Elektra (Christine Goerke)
in a scene from Elektra (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
Elektra’s orchestra is its Greek chorus, commenting on the action. Here, as in Salome, Strauss fit sound to subject. To those who ridiculed him for resorting to what his biographer Matthew Boyden has called ‘the most contrapuntally complex work of music ever written’ (scored for 111 musicians playing 120 instruments that generate a teeth-shaking roar), Strauss had a ready response: ‘When a mother is slain on the stage, do they expect me to write a violin concerto?’”
Michaela Martens as Klytemnestra in a scene from Elektra
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

When it comes to Elektra, it's really all about the sound. Even though I had not attended a performance of Strauss's opera in 25 years, it took less than a minute for the music to come rushing back to me (a luxury which only heightened my appreciation for the composer's ability to capture the emotions bringing Elektra's blood to a boil).

The conducting by Henrik Nánási was rock solid, alternating between Elektra's depression, her sister's desperation to have a happy life, the tacky caricature of her mother's lover, Aegisth, and the somber determination of Orest to avenge the murder of his father, Agamemnon. The famed Recognition Scene soared with passion (as it rightly should).

Elektra (Christine Goerke) and Oreste (Alfred Walker)
in a scene from Elektra (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

With its handsome unit set designed by Boris Kudlička, Kaspar Glarner's costumes, John Bishop's lighting, and the haunting video projections by Bartek Macias, this co-production (directed here by Anja Kühnhold) is a welcome relief from the ragged rock formations of previous stagings. Alfred Walker's powerful Orest made the audience believe that his actions were indeed being guided by fate. As Klytemnestra, Michaela Martens (the Merola Opera Program alumna who stepped into the role on short notice) painted a lonelier, more feminine, and more introspective portrait of Elektra's selfish mother than the grotesque, shrieking harridan one usually encounters.

Michaela Martens as Klytemnestra in a scene from Elektra
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

At the core of Strauss's opera is the strained relationship between two emotionally conflicted sisters: the cynical Elektra and the optimistic Chrysothemis who yearns to escape her sister's wrath, get married, and have children. Although Adrianne Pieczonka's Chrysothemis was richly sung and acted, the evening was a smashing artistic triumph for Christine Goerke, whose solid musicianship was matched by her stamina.

Robert Brubaker as Aegisth in Elektra (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Updating certain operas can be risky but, no matter the time or place in which they are set, the tragedies of the House of Atreus always retain their dramatic power. Sitting through this production was a wonderfully fulfilling experience (the only things I missed were Klytemnestra's demonic cackling after hearing that Orest was dead, her death screams coming from offstage, and fond memories of Leonie Rysanek lurching around the stage and scooping her notes as Chrysothemis). A gruesomely good time was had by all.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Name That Tune!

Ask any American to describe The Great American Songbook and you'll find yourself with a lot of wild guesses and and quite a few misfires.

While it's easy to sort popular songs into genres such as show tunes, rhythm and blues, folk music, country, and gospel, what's often missing from the catalog of music that constitutes The Great American Songbook is their sociopolitical context. Although curators and musicologists have their hands full trying to analyze the importance of various strains of music, recordings and film footage rarely give these songs the same vitality that they achieve when performed before a live audience.

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For this past five years, Taylor Mac, along with his costume designer (Machine Dazzle'), musical director (Matt Ray), and co-director (Niegel Smith), have been workshopping a massive performance art project entitled A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. In January of 2016 I attended two workshop sessions at the Curran Theatre (which was still under reconstruction) during which the audience sat onstage facing the musicians, performers, and a dark, empty auditorium.

Since then, Taylor Mac has realized his artistic dream of presenting the entire song cycle (more than 240 musical numbers with one hour devoted to each decade) in a 24-hour marathon in New York modeled after a Radical Faeries realist ritual. His return to the Curran this month breaks the project down into four six-hour-long performances in a full theatrical setting with set design by Mimi Lien and some phenomenal lighting by John Torres.

Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Photo: Little Fang Photo)

Although opening night focused on the decades from 1776 to 1836 (with a few pre-Revolutionary songs for historical background, the six hours were devoted to the project's first chapter: "The American Revolution from the perspective of the yankee doodle dandy, the early women’s lib movement, an epic battle between drinking songs and early temperance songs, a dream sequence during which the audience dons blindfolds, and the heteronormative narrative as colonization."

What emerges is a retelling of American history but (as Machine Dazzle explains) "as seen through a gay, queer eye. It's the history that was never told. It just wasn't there. It's not in any of the books, so we're re-imagining that. There are all these creatives in history who might have been looked at as being crazy. There have always been people who think differently, and I feel like we're representing them."

Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Photo: Little Fang Photo)

Taylor Mac's early goal was "to make a work about communities building themselves as a result of falling apart. A Walt Whitman poem had a different meaning three years ago than it will today, but that’s the fun of the room," he says. "What hasn’t changed is the cycle of oppression in our country. Sure, the way of oppression changes, the intensity changes, but it’s the same oppression. Tactics that were used in the 1780s to keep women down were also used to stop Hillary Clinton from getting elected.”

While the music from each decade can range from songs of woe and political unrest to English ballads like "Johnny's So Long At The Fair," the overall experience is a mind-boggling exercise in deliciously wretched excess. After singing a popular 18th-century song about how people hate Congress, the performance may turn to "a workshop of a workshop for a backers' audition for a heteronormative jukebox Broadway musical about colonization that will go on to win an Oscar."

Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Photo: Little Fang Photo)
  • In addition to familiar bits of musical Americana like "Turkey in the Straw," the true narrative of a popular sea chanty is revealed to be about a group of sailors who are planning a rowdy trip ashore to gang rape a black slave.
  • One segment describes the tale of a young Cherokee girl who was adopted by Caucasians and forced to attend a Christian school (but could not relate to something as seemingly simple as singing the Alphabet Song because she had been raised in a Native American culture which responded differently to music).
Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Photo: Little Fang Photo)
  • Segments that feature audience participation include ping pong balls, a game of musical chairs, blindfolded audience members trying to find each other's mouths in order to insert apple slices, and communal exercises in flirting, The audience gets brought up to date on the social significance of a dandy.
  • In between recollections of some jaw-dropping sexual escapades while hitchhiking and bawdy tales about people who have no boundaries whatsoever, Taylor uses his show's format to explain how cultural appropriation becomes a handy-dandy way of whitewashing indigenous and queer culture (especially if money is at stake.
  • In between instructing members of the audience to play dead, pretend they're rowing a boat, and join in the singing, he captivates theatregoers by showing what can happen when "mythology meets melody."
Taylor Mac changing costumes onstage at the Curran Theatre
(Photo: Little Fang Photo)

Whether as a playwright (The Lily’s Revenge, HIR) or performance artist, Taylor Mac's work stands head and shoulders above the crowd for its searing strength and the phantasmagorical fearlessness of his artistic vision. An ambitious artist who is willing to push the creative envelope as far as possible in order to shake up the status quo, he stresses that "Perfection is for assholes." In addition to being an engaging storyteller, a compelling singer, a defiantly delicious drag artist, and a performer with seemingly endless stamina, his work achieves a great deal of consciousness raising with regard to gay, trans, and other gender-related issues. As he explains:
"I believe whole-heartedly in craft. I believe craft is essentially a commitment to learning the past, living in the present, and dreaming the culture forward. I try to see more theater than anyone else I know in a variety of venues, styles, genres, and forms and it’s made me a better director-producer-playwright in the process. I believe that, as a theater artist, I'm not a teacher; I'm a reminder. I'm just trying to remind you of things you've dismissed, forgotten, or buried.”
Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Photo: Little Fang Photo)

For many in the audience, the most obvious display of craft can be seen in the costumes (one for each decade) that Taylor wears during the show. "For me, the drag is not a costume -- I think of it as how I look on the inside, something I'm exposing that I would normally keep hidden. I found this wonderful artist who understands what I look like on the inside. We've worked together for so long that I'm able to trust him. I feel we have a kinship. I'm wearing both how I feel I look on the inside and what Machine sees inside of me."

Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Photo: Little Fang Photo)

There are some notable changes from the workshop events in 2016. Local performer El Beh now shares a tender duet with Taylor Mac and, following each decade, the costume Mac has been wearing is placed on a mannequin in the Curran's basement hallway so that members of the audience using the downstairs restrooms can examine them up close. Nobody is required to sit on the floor now that the Curran's reconstruction is complete and a song written for someone who is tone deaf has been dropped.

The decade from 1816 to 1826, which features songs popular with the blind (and has most attendees blindfolded), has been crafted to help the audience get in touch with their other senses. Despite Taylor's encouragement to treat their discomfort as a "bourgeois crisis," this segment still causes the show to lose momentum. When my blindfold became uncomfortable, I found great solace in removing it and focusing my attention on the magnificently hazy visuals created by lighting designer John Torres.

Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Photo: Little Fang Photo)

I also discovered that, like many murder mysteries (The Mousetrap, Deathtrap, Sleuth) or dramas that rely on a major reveal (The Sixth Sense, M. Butterfly), the thrill diminishes the second time around. Some of this could be due to the fact that, when I entered the theatre at 4:30 p.m. I was already feeling tired from not having slept well. However, as my friend pointed out, it could also be because I was sober (a man sitting two seats away from me was ecstatically tripping throughout the evening). It was also interesting to note that whenever I stepped out and left the auditorium to go to the men's room, there was a sizable throng hanging out at the lobby bar who were glued to their smartphones.

This does not in any way diminish my admiration for the amount of talent and effort that went into the production. I remain in awe of Taylor Mac's artistic vision and commitment to his art and continually find myself marveling at the lush beauty of Matt Ray's musical arrangements. Here's the trailer:

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While many of the songs highlighted in Taylor Mac's exploration of popular music from 1776 to 1836 reflect the sentiments of America's early (and primarily white) settlers, as one plows through American history up to and including the 21st century, the contributions of African-American artists become increasingly important to our culture.
David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes), Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope),
Paul Williams (James Harkness), Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin),
and Melvin Franklin (Jared Joseph) in a scene from Ain't Too Proud
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Following the explosive 1981 premiere of Dreamgirls on Broadway, jukebox musicals became extremely profitable vehicles for showcasing music from the 1960s and beyond. From 1998's The Boy From Oz (Peter Allen), 1999's Mamma Mia! (ABBA), 2002's Movin' Out (Billy Joel), and 2005's Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons) and All Shook Up (Elvis Presley) to 2009's Fela! (Fela Kuti), 2010's American Idiot (Green Day), 2014's Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and 2015's On Your Feet! (Gloria and Emilio Estefan), jukebox musicals have proven to be box office gold.

Melvin Franklin (Jared Joseph), Al Bryant (Jarvis B. Manning, Jr.)
and Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin) in a scene from
Ain't Too Proud (Photo by: Carole Litwin)

The newest arrival recently had its world premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. In all honesty, I have never seen a spit-polished out-of-town tryout so well-prepared to transfer to Broadway. Even at this early stage of its life, Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations should be considered a "shovel ready" project as soon as an appropriate theatre becomes available (possibilities for 2018 point to the Walter Kerr, Neil Simon, Al Hirschfeld, Nederlander, or Hudson Theatre). As Tony Taccone (Berkeley Rep’s artistic director) explains:
“In 1959 Berry Gordy founded Motown Records, part of a musical revolution that would eventually sweep the country. Mixing soul music with pop, Motown created hit after hit after hit, hoisting bands from The Miracles to The Four Tops to Martha and the Vandellas into the national spotlight. Berry wasn’t just building a label. He wanted his artists to cross the racial divide in America, to be embraced not only by African Americans but by all Americans. And no group was more important to his efforts than The Temptations.”
Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson) plays a new song for
The Temptations in Ain't Too Proud (Photo by: Carole Litwin)
“You couldn’t come of age during that time without hearing them on the radio, singing along with them, or damn well wanting to be them. They were the definition of cool, decked out in those tight suits and flaunting those tight dance moves. Bad-ass dudes who were crooning their way into the hearts of the girls and giving the boys all kinds of ideas. Years passed and the hits kept coming, the band weathering changes in music, fashion, and politics to forge a place in history. They never sought to create an immortal legacy, but as they morphed into the most successful Rhythm & Blues group of all time, The Temptations became a touchstone of our larger cultural heritage. Their story is a reflection of not only Motown but also the city of Detroit, the Civil Rights Movement, and the aspirations, failures, and triumphs of our society right up to the present day. This music is wildly addictive!”
Caliaf St. Aubyn as Dennis Edwards in a scene
from Ain't Too Proud (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Whereas Taylor Mac wants audiences to approach his performances understanding that "perfection is for assholes," the opposite applies to Ain't Too Proud. From the moment the audience enters the Roda Theatre and sees the gleaming, symmetrical doors to the Fox Theatre in Detroit to the band's final playout, Ain't Too Proud has been fine-tuned to perfection by its set designer, Robert Brill, costume designer Paul Tazewell, lighting designer Howell Binkley, sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy. director Des McAnuff (Big River, Jersey Boys) and choreographer Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, Memphis, The Addams Family, On Your Feet! and A Bronx Tale: The Musical).

With a lean libretto by Detroit playwright Dominique Morisseau, the creative team has found a way to locate the sweet spot between trying to cram a whole lot of personal history and a wildly popular song catalog into a storytelling format that holds the stage while creating an atmosphere of fast and furious fluidity. Much of this is accomplished by keeping physical scenery to a minimum and letting Peter Nigrini's projections paint the passage of time. However, the secret to the production's success lies in its floor plan: a downstage conveyor belt that allows for quick entrances, exits, and scene transitions coordinated with two concentric turntables located immediately upstage.

Derrick Baskin's determined Otis Williams serves as the evening's narrator, whose strained relationships with his wife, Josephine (Rashidra Scott) and son Lamont (Shawn Bowers) form a small part of the personal tragedies that haunt the singing group. Jeremy Pope portrays Eddie Kendricks as a lean crooner whose eyes flash with feral intensity. Other members of the original quintet include Jarvis B. Manning, Jr. as Elbridge "Al" Bryant, James Harkness as Paul Williams, and Jared Joseph as Melvin Franklin (Nasia Thomas has a delightful cameo as Franklin's fearsome Mama Rose).

Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin) tells the story of The Temptations
in Ain't Too Proud (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As the hot-headed David Ruffin, Ephraim Sykes introduces diving splits into the group's choreography. Caliaf St. Aubyn appears as Dennis Edwards (who replaced the temperamental Ruffin in 1968) and E. Clayton Cornelious portrays Richard Street (who eventually replaced the ailing Paul Williams).

The group's artistic growth is steered by Jahi Kearse as Berry Gordy and Jeremy Cohen as Shelly Berger, the Jewish manager who takes over the group's day-to-day responsibilities. Christian Thompson initially appears as songwriter Smokey Robinson (he later replaces one of the group's singers) while Candice Marie Woods portrays Diana Ross (with Nasia Thomas and Taylor Symone Jackson providing backup as The Supremes).

Taylor Symone Jackson, Candice Marie Woods, and Nasia Thomas
appear as The Supremes in a scene from Ain't Too Proud
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Because Ain't Too Proud and Motown the Musical both focus on career arcs heavily influenced by Berry Gordy, it's important to note a key difference in the storytelling technique that shapes each show's narrative.
  • Although the narrative for Ain't Too Proud is driven by the personal passions of its singers, the narrative for Motown: The Musical (whose book was written by Berry Gordy) is essentially driven by a relentlessly entrepreneurial ego with a dominant and manipulative masculine personality.
  • Whereas the score for Motown: The Musical offers a rapid sampling of nearly 60 musical hits reduced to quick snippets of music, Ain't Too Proud gives more time to each of its 31 musical numbers (which are sung with fervor and sweetness while being performed with muscle and sweat). Harold Wheeler's orchestrations coupled with Kenny Seymour's music direction and vocal arrangements do The Temptations proud with a vitality and sheen that will keep this show running for a long, long time.
Ain't Too Proud is very much an ensemble show populated by a high-energy cast that makes the old "triple threat" nomenclature (actor-singer-dancer) seem woefully inadequate to describe their strength as performers. Performances of Ain't Too Proud continue through November 5 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Friday, September 15, 2017

Broken Home Syndrome

Best known as the host of Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton frequently noted that during his extensive research in preparation for each interview, he was amazed by the number of successful actors whose childhoods were severely impacted by the stress resulting from their parents' separation and/or divorce. As parents begin to squabble, children can't help listening to the insults that are hurled back and forth. Sometimes children are asked to take sides in a failing marriage; at other times they learn (the hard way) that their parents no longer love each other and that their parents' love for their children might also be diminishing.

It doesn't matter if a crumbling relationship is a traditional marriage, a close friendship, or the intimate give-and-take between a mentor and mentee. Factors ranging from substance abuse and infidelity to financial pressures and constant lying can contribute to one's severe disillusionment. Alan Jay Lerner's lyric for this song from 1956's My Fair Lady sums up the situation pretty well.

What happens when a shining hero is revealed to be a pitifully flawed human being? Or when a loved one moves out and visitation rights strain a child's loyalty? In some cases, there is a gnawing sense of confusion and guilt that a parental split may have been caused by something the child said or did.
Back in the 1950s, few people talked openly about seeing a therapist. Nor did they discuss their family's problems in public. Nowadays, dysfunctional families have become so commonplace that anything even bordering on normalcy seems about as rare as a unicorn.

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One of the monologues I attended on the opening night of the 2017 San Francisco Fringe Festival was written and performed by Jeremy Julian Greco with appropriate levels of childhood awe, justifiable sarcasm, and an adolescent's frustration at his parents' repeated inability to deliver on their promises. Directed by Mark Kenward, Keeping Up With The Jorgensons takes the audience back to 1982, when 10-year-old Jeremy was taken on a road trip from Santa Cruz to Orange County to attend the wedding of a relative he's never met.

As far as Jeremy is concerned, the only upside to this trip is the chance that his father might take him to Disneyland. Even if that means tickling and massaging his father's smelly feet or sleeping in the same bed as his grandmother, he's willing to go the distance if it earns him admission to "the happiest place on earth."

Jeremy Julian Greco (Photo by: Ryan Bieber)

God knows, his family is not famous for providing the happiest experiences for Jeremy. Court-ordered visits with his father result in a drastic change of cuisine from his mother's healthy diet to the kind of fast food menu favored by his father's male roommates (one of whom is referred to as "One-Nut"), whose idea of decorating is to leave piles of old cheesecake magazines around their apartment.

Nor is a road trip with his cranky father much fun. Between constantly being addressed as "numb nut" and not being allowed to stop to relieve himself, Jeremy encounters an endlessly confusing obstacle course between his pants zipper and anything resembling a toilet. Even after arriving at his paternal grandparents' home (where his father is busy flirting with the next-door neighbor), Jeremy can barely lay claim to a moment of solitude without some relative trying to enter the bathroom to check if there is any blood in the boy's urine. While learning first-hand about the unfortunate genetic resemblance between himself, his father, and his paternal grandfather, the impressionable 10-year-old is introduced to a distant relative whom his father describes as "the ugliest woman alive."

Keeping Up With The Jorgensons proved to be a delightful hour of mirth mixed with adolescent angst brought on by a cast of characters that could make All in the Family, Roseanne, and Married...with Children seem a bit too Disneyfied. Here's a teaser of Greco's endearing performance.

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Although Barbara Selfridge's monologue (Sex, Math, and Seizures) is ominously subtitled “Be Kind to Your Children: They’ll Choose Your Nursing Home,” it is filled with hilarity as well as a few justifiably tear-jerking moments. Some members of the audience might have trouble juggling the misadventures of sex addicts, epileptics, and a fetish for prime numbers but, as directed by David Ford, Selfridge's strongest assets are revealed to be her warmth and compassion. A lusty sense of humor helps to balance much of the craziness in her family's history.
  • When Barbara was an impressionable 11-year-old, her father (a scholarly mathematician) made the decision to have her developmentally disabled sister, Margaret, institutionalized. When Barbara was 49, she found herself tasked with the responsibility of institutionalizing her strange and estranged father.
  • With an emotionally distant father and a rather ditsy mother, Barbara has been the only member of the family to be in constant touch with her sister who, although brain damaged and vulnerable to seizures, sings backup in New Hope (a rock band for people with special needs).
  • After coming onstage while pushing a walker, part of Selfridge's one-woman show involves her demonstration of how her sister's epileptic seizures look and sound. Such moments are offset by her riotous description of what it's like to juggle phone calls between one parent in Oregon and another in Florida in order to discuss the care of her sister at a facility in California.
Barbara Selfridge

Selfridge's recollection of going on a date with a man who is equally fixated on prime numbers (but deciding not to spend the night with him) delivers some poignant yet very funny moments for the audience. Her description of attending a professional conference where social workers were encouraged "to guilt-trip middle-aged women into forgiving the fathers who abandoned them at the time of their parents’ divorce" draws horrified gasps from the audience, only to be followed by her tale of helping her failing father prepare to give a speech at a conference for number theorists.

More than anything, Selfridge's monologue displays the kind of patience and unconditional love required to be a caregiver for members of her family who, under different circumstances, might be caring for her. As she outlines the daily frustrations of coping with a loved one's medical needs and the unexpected humor in discovering that her sister has a crush on one of the new Filipino male attendants at her facility, Selfridge gives a masterful lesson in how to make lemonade from the lemons life puts in the hands of so many people. Her brief Kickstarter video offers solid proof of her never-ending commitment to her sister while illustrating the challenge of transforming her life experiences into a tenderhearted, yet often hilarious, one-woman show.

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An infant's well-being lies at the core of Luna Gale, Rebecca Gilman's wrenching family drama which begins as two meth addicts wait in a secure room for news about the status of their baby girl, who was brought to an emergency room in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, suffering from dehydration under questionable circumstances. Peter (Devin S. O’Brien) is incoherent and barely arousable while Karlie (Alix Cuadra) is fiercely devouring a slice of cheesecake from the hospital's cafeteria and chasing it down with handfuls of Skittles.

Peter (Devin S. O'Brien), Karlie (Alix Cuadra), and Caroline
(Jamie Jones) in a scene from Luna Gale (Photo by: David Allen)

Eventually, a social worker named Caroline (Jamie Jones) enters the room. clipboard in hand, to assess Luna's young parents and see if she can steer them toward the kind of help which will allow them to raise their child once the infant is released from the hospital. Later, when Caroline visits Karlie's mother, Cindy (Laura Jane Bailey), she notes that the understandably nervous nurse keeps stressing her faith in Jesus and her devout Christianity. When Cindy asks why Caroline laughed at something she said, the exhausted social worker confesses that when Cindy said "Jesus is my personal savior" she misheard her and thought she said "Jesus is my personal trainer."

Caroline's reason for assessing Cindy's home is purely clinical. As Josh Costello (Aurora Theatre Company's Literary Manager and Artistic Associate) explains:
“Social workers are obliged to take children away from parents who are abusive or whose neglect threatens the children's safety. The top two reasons for children to be removed from their parents and placed in foster care are neglect and parental drug abuse (those two reasons are far more common than any of the others). High-profile cases of children being abused or even murdered by foster parents and by birth parents have brought blame and judgment on the system and on social workers themselves. In the play, baby Luna is initially placed in kinship care -- rather than a foster family, she stays with another relative while her parents attempt to complete their rehabilitation. This is usually seen as preferable to placement with a foster family. Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) ends the legal parent/child relationship and is considered a last resort.”
Caroline (Jamie Jones) discusses baby Luna's case with her boss, Cliff
(Joshua Marx), in a scene from Luna Gale (Photo by: David Allen)

Their initial meeting reveals that Cindy has a long history of being judgmental and is easily provoked into taking umbrage if she suspects someone is critical of her faith. As Karlie and Peter struggle to pull themselves together, Cindy, aided and abetted by her good friend, Pastor Jay (Kevin Kemp), starts pushing for TPR so that her grandchild can be kept away from evil and "saved" in time for the coming "End of Days." 

Caroline (Jamie Jones) observes Cindy (Laura Jane Bailey) and Pastor 
Jay (Kevin Kemp) in a scene from Luna Gale (Photo by: David Allen)  

Having dealt with all kinds of family situations during her 25 years as a professional social worker, Caroline (who is struggling to handle an impossible workload while suffering from occupational burnout, whose previous boss was guilty of gross incompetence and destruction of patient files, and whose new district supervisor is a white male bureaucrat with no field experience) tries to keep the proceedings moving along strictly by the book. But as little bits of information start to hint at a disturbingly familiar pattern, the social worker's gut instincts start to alter her perspective.

Karlie (Alix Cuadra) and Peter (Devin S. O'Brien) struggle with their 
rehabilitation in a scene from Luna Gale (Photo by: David Allen)

In February of 2014, when Luna Gale received its world premiere from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Charles Isherwood asserted in his review for The New York Times that Gilman's play focused on two pathologies making headlines: sexual abuse within a family and the corrosive effects of drug addiction. There is, however, a third, equally insidious pathology that rarely gets mentioned despite its increasing importance in American politics and aggressive proselytism within the United States Armed Forces: the willful acceptance of Christianity as a cultural default and the need for born-again Christians to accuse anyone who might challenge their beliefs and/or actions of persecution.

In his OpEd piece for The New York Times entitled The Dogma of Dianne FeinsteinSohrab Ahmari explained that, during a recent confirmation hearing, the senior senator from California may have subjected Amy Coney Barrett to intense grilling about Catholic dogma while being blind to her own liberal dogma. Easily overlooked in the case of baby Luna is a question that few people want to bring out into the open: If we can label pedophilia and drug abuse as aberrant and unacceptable behaviors, why should religious brainwashing, and bullying get a pass?

Working on Kate Boyd's effective unit set (with costumes by Callie Floor and lighting by Kurt Landisman), Tom Ross has directed Aurora's ensemble with care to make sure that despite the concerns and hysterics of a a self-righteous mother, her drug-addicted daughter, a manipulative pastor, an unprofessionally coercive administrator, and an emotionally exhausted social worker, the painful truth of baby Luna's predicament never fades from sight.

Caroline (Jamie Jones) chats with Cliff (Joshua Marx)
in a scene from Luna Gale (Photo by: David Allen)

It's hard not to feel sympathy for Alix Cuadra's Karlie and Devin S. O'Brien's Peter who, despite being placed in classes for "gifted" students have little to no skills in what is referred to these days as "adulting." Jennifer Vega has some nice scenes as Lourdes, a young female client of Caroline's who has turned 18 and graduated from rehabilitation.

The three Christians (portrayed by Laura Jane Bailey, Kevin Kemp, and Joshua Marx) present as unusually determined (if unintentional) villains in ways mirrored throughout contemporary society as Evangelicals become more outspoken about their preparations for the Rapture. As always, Jamie Jones delivers a knockout performance as Caroline, bringing her impressive dramatic versatility front and center in a performance that captures the cynicism and exhaustion of professional burnout in a woman who, for deeply personal reasons, is determined to remain optimistic about life.

Performances of Luna Gale continue at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley through October 1 (click here for tickets).