Thursday, September 28, 2017

Everything's Up To Date in Cannabis City

In 1998, Tom Brokaw published a book entitled The Greatest Generation. His subject was the subset of Americans who lived through The Great Depression and, even if they did not fight in World War II, contributed to the manufacturing effort which helped create a wave of productivity while American soldiers and sailors were defending their country overseas.

Whether they were women who resembled Rosie the Riveter as they helped to build ships or men who landed on the beaches of Normandy, these were people who, as they lived through harsh economic times, learned how to stretch a dollar as far as possible. After World War II ended, it was difficult for many of them to wrap their minds around the concept of planned obsolescence.

In the past 50 years, the growth of computer technology has had an astonishing impact on objects and practices that were once part of our daily lives.

Changes in our society have also affected the way some writers approach their work. As smartphones became more common, an increasing number of playwrights began to incorporate texting into their scripts (with simulated texts being projected on screens behind the actors). Changing attitudes toward casting have started to open up more roles to women, transgender, and other minority artists. I was fascinated to note how two recent revivals reflected huge changes in our society's attitudes toward "the way we were."

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For teenagers eager to acquire a driver's license, the thrill of getting their learner's permit is almost as intoxicating as puberty. Learning how to drive, however, depends as much on the teenager's motor skills as it does on the relationship between the student and driving instructor.

My earliest attempts to learn how to drive were guided by my father (a high school biology teacher) who was patient, but flummoxed by my obvious case of nerves. After driving around various parking lots in Brooklyn and practicing parallel parking near Floyd Bennett Field, he suggested that I try driving the family's Volkswagen Beetle home (which necessitated a trip across the Marine Parkway Bridge).

A vintage postcard for the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Bridge

Moments after starting across the bridge I began shaking with anxiety -- the first indication I ever had of a being afraid of heights. By the time we were halfway across the bridge, I had informed my father that I wasn't going to bother using the clutch. As soon as were back on firm ground, we both agreed that it would be better for me to take driving lessons from a certified instructor.

For many years, the concept of self-driving cars was very much a science fiction fantasy. However, today's auto manufacturers are working with software engineers to deliver autonomous cars and trucks that can take a load off families, taxi drivers, and long-haul truckers while helping to make our roads and highways safer.

Whether or not those dreams will soon be realized, the urgency of having "wheels" has diminished for those living in large urban and suburban areas. With car services like Uber and Lyft gaining popularity, many are choosing to forego the expenses of gasoline, automobile insurance, and parking tickets on the assumption that the financial investment in a car may no longer be worthwhile.

Amanda Farbstein stars as L'il Bit in How I Learned to Drive
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

On March 16, 1997, when the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, How I Learned to Drive, premiered at the Vineyard Theatre with Mary-Louise Parker starring as Li'l Bit, autonomous cars were the last thing on the playwright's mind. Paula Vogel's memory play consists of a series of flashback scenes in which L'il Bit recollects how the process of learning how to drive was far more traumatic than it should ever have been. Most of the scenes take place in rural Maryland in a highly dysfunctional family headed by an acutely misogynistic grandfather, a strangely submissive grandmother, and a maternal aunt who ranges between being downright ditsy and in a deep state of denial.

Valerie Fachman, Amanda Farbstein, and Gianna DiGregorio Rivera
in a scene from How I Learned to Drive (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

The male members of her family can't imagine why Li'l Bit would want to go to college or need an education when her only goal in life should be getting married and pumping out children. But Li'l Bit's curiosity to learn about Shakespeare and other worldly topics seems unquenchable, until things start to go wrong.

Slowly but surely, she realizes that she may not be interested in getting married and might even prefer to explore relationships with women. Her questions about her own sexuality, however, are dwarfed by the challenges posed by her alcoholic Uncle Peck, a pedophile with no sense of boundaries. Peck is a weak man whose incestuous lust for his developing teenage niece cannot be overcome despite the fact that he is still married to her aunt. He means well, but has no understanding of why his actions are so misguided.

Amanda Farbstein and Eric Reid in a scene from
How I Learned to Drive (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Most of Vogel's play is about how Li'l Bit comes to understand that she was molested as a child and manages to regain control of her life after years of being manipulated by her uncle. In the two decades since Vogel's play had its world premiere, audiences have become increasingly sensitized to misogyny, chronic alcoholism, and the ways in which the sexual abuse of children is often handed down within families from one generation to the next. While that knowledge makes it easier for audiences to recognize the pattern of predation taking place during Li'l Bit's adolescence, Vogel's drama makes the combination of alcohol and child abuse creepier than ever.

Amanda Farbstein, Valerie Fachman, and Eric Reid in a scene
from How I Learned to Drive (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Amanda Farbstein gives a winning performance as Li'l Bit, with Eric Reid rising to the challenge of being a sympathetic yet slimy authority figure as Uncle Peck. Vogel makes use of an interesting dramatic conceit, having one person (David Schiller) portray all the men in Li'l Bit's life as the "Male Greek Chorus" while Valerie Fachman takes on various roles as the "Female Greek Chorus" and Gianna DiGregorio Rivera appears as Li'l Bit's grandmother as well as various people enacted by the "Teenage Greek Chorus."

Amanda Farbstein, Gianna DiGregorio Rivera, and Valerie Fachman
in a scene from How I Learned to Drive (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Working on Tom O'Brien's unit set (with costumes by Kathleen Qiu, lighting by Maxx Kurzunski, and sound design by Ryan Lee Short), Katja Rivera has done an admirable job in directing a drama built upon a foundation of shame, old wives' tales, statutory rape, and driving lessons. But it is Farbstein's portrayal of the confused but resilient Li'l Bit that really holds the show together.

Amanda Farbstein stars as L'il Bit in
How I Learned to Drive (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Performances of How I Learned to Drive continue through October 7 at the Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets).

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San Francisco's Ray of Light Theatre recently unveiled a new production of Reefer Madness, the 1998 musical by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney which premiered in Los Angeles but whose Off-Broadway production had the misfortune to open on September 15, 2001 (just four days after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan). Although the Off-Broadway production quickly shuttered, a film adaptation debuted in 2005. In October of 2008, Ghostlight Records released a two-disc CD set containing the soundtracks for both the original 1998 cast and the 2005 movie musical.

Most nonprofit theatre companies make use of their programs to recognize those who help support the organization with their donations. ROLT went the extra distance by adding a "No Thanks" column that referenced Jeff Sessions, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, D.A.R.E., Harry Anslinger," and "Your Republican Uncle at Thanksgiving." Stage director Jenn Bevard added some important context in her program note:
"The early 20th century saw the rise of anti-immigrant fearmongering fueled by economic anxiety that was the result of the Great Depression. Marijuana, a formerly unregulated substance, was outlawed across several states. The argument was linked to the Spanish name of the drug and its perceived Latin-American origin (although, at the time, marijuana was grown throughout the United States in states like Michigan and Wisconsin). A government-funded propaganda campaign, published in the newspapers of Hearst and others, offered headlines like 'Murder Weed Found Up and Down Coast' and 'Deadly Marijuana Dope Plant Ready for Harvest that Means the Enslavement of California Children.'"
"In 2017, free to smoke legal pot but with the propaganda still churning (anti-immigrant, trans, people of color, women, worker, science -- our heads are spinning), we thought we'd dive into the propaganda of 1936, through satire, to find out how enslaved we might be to the kind of messaging that entertains, distracts, exploits our darkest fears, and demands proof of our patriotism. We found madness is just below the surface."
Adam Niemann (Ralph) leads a chorus of zombies in a
scene from Reefer Madness (Photo by: Zac Wollons)

President Ronald Reagan is famous for claiming that "I now have absolute proof that even one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast!" While Donald Trump's pathetically misguided attorney general has long held that "Good people don't smoke marijuana," Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is fighting a losing battle. In recent years, the states of Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and Alaska have all legalized recreational marijuana. Although California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., have also legalized its recreational use, retail sales of marijuana have not yet begun in those states. Nevertheless, the data coming in is most impressive (these numbers don't lie). According to an article in U.S. News & World Report:
  • In 2016, the state of Washington generated $256 million in pot tax revenue; Oregon produced $60 million.
  • According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, the state reported $1.3 billion in marijuana sales in 2016 (of which nearly $200 million was collected in tax revenues).
  • Between 2014 and May 31, 2017, cumulative cannabis sales generated $506 million in tax revenue for Colorado. About 51 percent of the accumulated tax revenue went to K-12 education, with $117.9 million used to fund school construction projects. Another 25% of the revenue was split between regulation substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.
Brigitte Losey (Mary Lane) and Phil Wong (Jimmy Harper)
in a scene from Reefer Madness (Photo by: Zac Wollons)

News out of San Antonio, Texas is that Bexar County will soon implement a program that treats certain misdemeanor crimes -- including Class A and Class B possession of marijuana (less than four ounces) -- similarly to traffic offenses, thus diverting offenders from jail. Under the new policy, "Offenders will be given a summons and the opportunity to attend a class, pay a fine, and do community service instead of being charged with a crime and jailed."

Phil Wong as Jimmy Harper in a scene from
Reefer Madness (Photo by: Zac Wollons)

Working on a unit set designed by Devon LaBelle with costumes by Maggie Whitaker, lighting by Keenan Molner, and sound design by Theodore Hulsker, ROLT put on one helluva performance. Aided by musical director Daniel Feyer, choreographer Alex Rodriguez put his dancers through an impressive workout.

The male dancers from Reefer Madness (Photo by: Zac Wollons)

What may have seemed even remotely plausible in Louis J. Gasnier's 1936 film designed to scare teenagers away from marijuana has evolved into hilariously campy fun eight decades later. The show begins with a lecturer (Leah Shesky) warning audiences about the dangers of smoking the Demon Weed and quickly segues to a scene in which the naive Jimmy Harper (Phil Wong) and Mary Lane (Brigitte Losey) nervously confess their attraction to each other as they study Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

With Mary Kalita's Placard Girl doing old-fashioned stage crossovers, the Lecturer then introduces the audience to the denizens of a local reefer den, starting with its hostess, Mae (Ashley Garlick) who is involved in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend/pusher, Jack (Matt Hammons, who doubles as Jack and Jesus Christ). It doesn't take long for Jack to lure Jimmy out of the five and dime store and bring him back to the reefer den, where he gets to smoke his first joint.

Leah Shesky (Lecturer) and Matt Hammons (Jesus) in a
scene from Reefer Madness (Photo by: Zac Wollons)

Jimmy's thoughts quickly turn from Shakespeare to the way he feels when high and he soon falls in with Ralph (Adam Niemann) -- a psychotic college dropout addicted to marijuana -- and Sally (Christen Sottolano), who supports her illegitimate child by selling her body to pay for a steady stream of dope. Soon, Johnny (who can't figure out why he's always hungry and has started to gain weight) is introducing Mary Lane to the joys of "Mary Jane," only to discover that his pure little girlfriend has one hell of a sadistic streak in her.

Ashley Garlick (Mae) in a scene from
Reefer Madness (Photo by: Zac Wollons)

The score to Reefer Madness includes such winning musical numbers as "The Stuff," "Lonely Pew," "Down at the Ol' Five and Dime," "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy," "The Brownie Song," and "Little Mary Sunshine." Many of the lyrics are sassy and sharp.

But what really makes this show rock is Phil Wong's hilarious portrayal of Jimmy Harper. A gifted performer who gives the audience much more than 100% during Reefer Madness -- as he did earlier this year in Word for Word's world premiere production of Smut: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson) and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's world premiere of Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga -- Wong displays the kind of physical agility, superb timing, and total commitment that allows a natural clown to shine in physical comedy. His performance alone is reason to attend this production.

Phil Wong (Jimmy Harper) and Christen Sottolano (Sally)
in a scene from Reefer Madness (Photo by: Zac Wollons)

Reefer Madness continues through October 7 at the Victoria Theatre (click here for tickets).

Monday, September 25, 2017

New Works From Local Playwrights

Writers don't become fully-developed wordsmiths overnight. It takes years of building a vocabulary, observing life, and finding a means by which to express one's feelings before a person starts to show any signs of having a genuine talent. Parents proudly put their children's crude artwork on the refrigerator door without any delusions that, at such an early stage of expression, these works of [extremely] primitive art will sell for record-breaking prices at trendy galleries. The presence of such pictures in the kitchen gives these drawings more sentimental than monetary value.

By the time children enter middle school they will have been exposed to sufficient storytelling from television, films, and video games to be begin formulating stories of their own. Those who become precocious readers may show signs of being able to string more than 140 characters together in order to express themselves (children whose minds stay afloat in the raging seas of anti-intellectualism have a better chance of developing good communication skills).

While there may be hints of talent, writing is like a muscle that must continually be flexed in order to gain strength. Just as doodlers display an artistic skill that shows potential, the strength of one's writing improves over time. The only proof required is to see how writers react to samples of their earliest work. Some will be amused, others will be embarrassed. Some might feel a tinge of nostalgia for their lost innocence, others will see no need for improvement.

The good news is that it's no longer necessary to live under the tyranny of "Publish or perish!" Thanks to the ability to self-publish one's work on a blog, many writers who would have received a steady stream of rejection slips from traditional publishing houses are now free to build their own brands online. E-books can be marketed to Kindle users through and other online channels. Nike's slogan ("Just Do It") now applies to writers as well as runners.

Last week I attended the world premiere productions of new works by two Bay area playwrights. Although each play was filled with carefully conceived characters and conflicts, the dramatic glue holding one play together demonstrated a mastery of craft; the other did not.

Due to calendaring issues, I was only able to attend the official opening night of one of these plays, which reminded me of a curious occupational hazard for theatre critics. Whether attending a season opener or the world premiere of a new work, audience expectations can be higher than usual. For those who have a financial investment in the success of an event (or an emotional investment in the success of friends involved in the event), there is a palpable nervous energy that can easily be magnified by celebratory pre-performance drinks and/or the anticipation of a post-performance party.

As a result, one often witnesses overly enthusiastic and occasionally shrill audience reactions (including standing ovations that can have a claque-like effect on compensating for less than stellar work). In a phenomenon similar to what happens after last call at some bars, those who are cold sober may have a noticeably different perception of the performance they just witnessed.

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I was unable to attend the opening night performance of Kheven LaGrone's first full-length play, The Legend of Pink, that is being presented by Theatre Rhinoceros at the Gateway Theatre. Directed by Aejay Mitchell, LaGrone's drama focuses on some hot-button issues familiar to Bay area audiences: racism, transphobia, gang violence, income inequality, and the challenges of living a closeted versus an out-and-proud lifestyle. The action takes place in 1989 in West Oakland as local drug wars continue to wreak havoc on the neighborhood.

Bradford (Maurice André San-Chez) is a young African American whose father is a respected judge and whose family lives in San Francisco. As he tours some local nightspots, he finds himself being regarded as a "good black" rather than a genuine black man. Is it the color of his skin, the expensive clothes he wears, or the fact that he's driving his father's Mercedes that sets him apart from the people he encounters in his nighttime pursuits?

One thing is clear: Bradford's not meeting the kind of people he yearns for. In a phone conversation with a close friend, he relates how his car "just seemed to drive itself" over the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and find its way to a rundown neighborhood that reeked of excitement and potential danger.

Charles Peoples III stars in The Legend of Pink
(Photo by: David Wilson)

In order to seem authentically ghetto, Bradford chooses the alias DeShawn and tries to go with the flow. While exploring the neighborhood, he meets Pink (Charles Peoples III), an ebullient and self-sufficient drag queen who lives in the basement of a crack house but maintains high standards with regard to the men she dates. Before they part, Pink gives him her business card and invites him to come visit her sometime.

Charles Peoples III (Pink) and Maurice André San-Chez (DeShawn)
in a scene from The Legend of Pink (Photo by: David Wilson)

Pink's closest friends are her butch lover, Ace (R. Shawntez Jackson), and the catty Nikki (Phaedra Tillery). Though Ace may still be confused about his sexuality (thinking that he "does his job" whenever he has sex with Pink), Nikki is the play's sarcastic truth teller. While Ace, Pink, and Nikki are all graduates of the School of Hard Knocks, DeShawn is a privileged college student with little in the way of street smarts. He naively accepts a joint from one of the local drug dealers without ever thinking that it might be laced with PCP.

The results aren't pretty. DeShawn begins to hallucinate, has a panic attack, strips off all his clothing, and starts running through the streets stark naked. When shots ring out, Pink and Ace understand that they need to make a quick exit in order to avoid a jail sentence (or worse). In his program note, John Fisher (the artistic director of Theatre Rhinoceros) writes:
"Kheven LaGrone's beautiful play about West Oakland in 1989 speaks to the changing natures of real estate, identity, and desire. I have ridden my bike around this neighborhood for three decades and the changes are startling. I have in the same time redefined my own identity and refocused my own desires. Maybe this is why the play spoke to me when we had a staged reading of it in the spring at the LGBT Historical Society. The things that spoke to me most about that experience were the immediacy of the language, the rich, fascinating characters, and the beauty of the relationships. Kheven and I are both devotees of Tennessee Williams and I hear in The Legend of Pink echoes of Williams' gorgeous dialogue and the complex, often troubled, always desperately needful relationships of his characters. It strikes me as a very Williams play except that, and this is what I love so much about it, Pink is about the Bay area, performance, and queerness, three things so important to me and so absolutely in need of constant portrayal. For if we don't put them on stage, who will?"
R. Shantez Jackson (Ace) and Charles Peoples III (Pink) in a
scene from The Legend of Pink (Photo by: David Wilson)

With costumes by Kitty Muntzel and a unit set designed by Bert van Aalsburg, the Wednesday night performance I attended generated far less excitement than people may have experienced on opening night. Some of this is due to LaGrone's script, which is in sore need of tightening. Too many moments seemed to implode due to some clumsy acting.

Whenever this happens, I ask myself one simple question: "Do I care about these people?" On many occasions, the answer is no. With regard to The Legend of Pink, there's no question that LaGrone's deeply-conflicted characters are desperately trying to live out their fantasies:
  • Pink would like to believe that, with the help of women's beauty magazines, a keen eye, and a determination to be her true self, she has created a colorful personality that can rise above the squalor of her surroundings.
  • Ace would like to believe that he's only having sex with a transgender woman because "it's his job" (and not because he actually likes to suck dick).
  • Brandon/DeShawn would like to believe that he's a whole lot cooler than his privileged background suggests.
All three of these people are deluding themselves. Unfortunately, LaGrone's weakly-conceived epilogue (in which the respectably married Ace and Pink return to their old neighborhood 20 years later to see what it looks like) ends the evening with a whimper. Top honors for acting go to Charles Peoples III (who scored a nice success earlier this year as Adam in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) and Phaedra Tillery for her robust portrayal of Nikki.

Phaedra Tillery as Nikki in The Legend of Pink (Photo by: David Wilson)

Performances of The Legend of Pink continue through September 30 at the Gateway Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's some footage from rehearsals:

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If one wanted to identify a promising, prominent, and prolific Bay area playwright, the obvious choice would be Christopher Chen. A graduate of U.C. Berkeley who earned his Master of Fine Arts in Playwriting from San Francisco State University, Chen's plays have been performed throughout the Bay area, starting with 2009's The Window Age at Central Works, 2012's A Game at the Bay Area One Acts Festival, 2016's Caught at the Shotgun Players, and 2017's You Mean To Do Me Harm as part of the San Francisco Playhouse's Sandbox Series for New Works.

In addition to receiving the 2017 Obie Award for Playwriting, Chen was co-winner of the 2017 Lanford Wilson Award. He currently holds commissions for new plays from San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as well as New York's LCT3, Manhattan Theatre Club, and Playwrights Horizons. As Chen's career has blossomed, he has become known for the complexity of thought matrices that link his characters as well as his gift for producing scripts that derive a great deal of dramatic strength from the musicality inherent in his use of language. In describing his 2009 play (which premiered at Berkeley's Central Works), Chen wrote:
"The Window Age captures a period of transition reminiscent of our current age of change and explores the ambiguities that surface when an old order is replaced by a new one. One of the play's primary questions is: In an era of breaking old structures apart, how do we create order out of the chaos that remains?"
Playwright Christopher Chen

Currently serving a term as resident playwright at San Francisco's Crowded Fire Theater, which has staged two of his plays (2012's The Hundred Flowers Project and 2014's The Late Wedding), Chen recently premiered an impressive new drama that deals with sociopolitical power grabs. Like many of his works, A Tale of Autumn has an acute timeliness that challenges audiences to examine how conscious choices can lead to shocking consequences.

The action takes place in and around Farm Company, a theoretically benevolent corporation whose founder and CEO has just died. Liv embraced the extremely progressive philosophy that a company could profit from providing sustenance and synergy through a policy of "ambitious citizenship." With its adherence to "The Way," FarmCo treads a fine line between being a corporatized cult like Scientology or a corporation like Apple, that has inspired a cult-like following.

Although FarmCo's seemingly altruistic stance ("We are united in a combined passion and purpose: that all citizens will have access to food and water under our watch") seeks to use the food it produces as a substitute for money, some of Liv's most devoted followers prove vulnerable to the age-old temptations of greed, power, market domination, conformity, and control over peoples' lives.

Chief among these is San (Nora el Samahy), an ambitious woman whose amorality starts to clash with FarmCo's altruistic philosophy as she becomes increasingly addicted to power. Despite the more rational influence of Marianna (Mia Tagano), the titular head of FarmCo's Board of Directors, San's ability to ruthlessly manipulate and intimidate people can barely be contained. As she vies with Dave (Lawrence Radecker) to become the company's next CEO, San plots her path to victory with carefully cloaked malice aforethought.

Nora el Samahy (San) and Christopher W. White (Xavier) in a
scene from A Tale of Autumn (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Dave's ambition is egged on by his boyfriend, Gil (Shoresh Alaudini), who makes no bones about the fact that he will leave Dave if he doesn't become CEO. In a moment of desperation, Dave inflicts multiple bodily injuries on Xavier (Christopher W. White). Perhaps that's because one of San's first steps was to call in a favor from her old friend, a chemist who discovered how to use his botanical knowledge to undermine Dave's crops.

Michele Apriña Leavy (Gesalm) and Maria Candelaria (Rena)
in a scene from A Tale of Autumn (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Meanwhile, an independent farmer named Gesalm (Michele Apriña Leavy) has been living a contented life without succumbing to FarmCo's corporate demands. When interviewed by the young and idealistic Rena (Maria Candelaria) who is posing as a journalist, Gesalm and her tenant, Yul (Skyler Cooper), demonstrate that there are ways of leading a life with integrity without being dominated by a corporation.

Lawrence Radecker (Dave) and Shoresh Alaudini (Gil) in
a scene from A Tale of Autumn (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

It doesn't take long for Rena and Yul to find themselves sexually attracted to each other (or for David and Gil to make peace with the handsome financial settlement they've received from San). But then things start to go wrong. Along with 20 other villagers, Gesalm suddenly and inexplicably dies from food poisoning.

With our nation careening toward more aggressive displays of corporate personhood ever since the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, “the systemic dominance of corporate power” became a likely subject for Chen to explore.
“It wasn’t difficult to conclude that corporations are the power sources of our modern society. In the Bay area, where our personal commerce guru (Steve Jobs) helped ease a relentless capitalism into the modern age by infusing his consumer products with an almost moral religiosity, our mindfulness movement sometimes seems like a cover for selfishness and complacency. We are often driven by values we claim to despise. I took this play as an opportunity to look closely and frankly at some of the most foundational values that guide our lives and motivations, even if they at times take on more benign, even altruistic forms.”
Nora el Samahy (San) proves that knowledge is power
in A Tale of Autumn (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)
“I’ve been interested in forging a play language that is nimble and flexible enough to more instantaneously react to up-to-the-moment dialogue around the social dynamics I see around me. I’m experimenting with creating a minimalist, timeless fable world where characters speak in disarmingly contemporary language. The fable trope is useful in that ideas can be explored with an almost primitive bluntness that is tempered by an easygoing naturalism. The idea behind this juxtaposition (fable realism) is to create almost scientific experiment conditions where characters can debate current issues stripped of associations that could cause prejudgment in the audience. In order for this dynamic to function correctly, the audience must be willing to genuinely think (in real time) about their own relationship to the questions being posed.”
Skyler Cooper (Yul) and Maria Candelaria (Rena) in a
scene from A Tale of Autumn (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Working on a unit set designed by Adeline Smith (with costumes by Miriam R. Lewis, lighting by Ray Oppenheimer, and sound and video design by Theodore J. H. Hulsker), Mina Morita has directed A Tale of Autumn with care to reveal the hidden agendas motivating Chen's characters as San continues to eliminate anyone who might block her path to glory. Judging by the play's surprise ending, her lust for power proves that when it comes to corporate backstabbing, the ends justify the means.

Performances of A Tale of Autumn continue through October 7 at the Potrero Stage (click here for tickets).

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."

* * * * * * * * *
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.