Monday, November 27, 2017

ReOrienting One's Thoughts on Immigration

One learns something new every day. In her article entitled Backlash Against “Mixed” Foods Led to the Demise of a One-time American Staple -- Why Did America Bid Adieu to This Classic Dish? Helen Zoe Veit explains that:
"Most Thanksgiving menus today have hardly anything in common with the 17th-century Plymouth Colony meal they commemorate. But there are some culinary echoes from the 19th century, when the American national holiday officially began. On Thanksgiving, Americans are more likely to eat 19th-century-style puddings than at any other time of the year. On some American tables, Indian pudding, sweet potato pudding or corn pudding make an annual appearance. By the early 20th century, new knowledge about nutrition science, combined with an obsessive (but misinformed) interest in digestion, fueled widespread 'expert' condemnation of dishes featuring a range of ingredients mixed together. This was due, in large part, to xenophobia; by then, many white Americans had come to associate mixed foods with immigrants. Instead, reformers insisted with great confidence (but scant evidence) that it was healthier to eat simple foods with few ingredients: meals where meats and plain vegetables were clearly separated. People started to view savory puddings as both unhealthy and old-fashioned."
If the first year of the Trump administration has proved anything, it is that xenophobia remains a powerful force in American culture. With so many speakers of indigenous languages dying off, I always like to recommend Aaron Lansky's delightful book, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books, to people seeking inspiration on how to keep their ethnic heritage alive.

Poster art for Outwitting History

Another way is to keep the art of storytelling alive. Most of Hawaiian history has been passed down from generation to generation in the form of oral histories and the chants that accompany hula kahiko. By making history during the 2017 election, minority candidates helped to increase the awareness of America's continuing legacy as a cultural "melting pot." Openly transgender candidate Danica Roem and Vietnamese refugee Kathy Tran won seats in the Virginia House of Delegates. Andrea Jenkins (an openly transgender person of color) won a seat on the Minneapolis City Council.

At the municipal level, Ravinder Bhalla became the first Sikh to be elected Mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey; Jenny Durkan became the first lesbian elected as Mayor of Seattle, Washington; Michelle Kaufusi became the first woman elected as Mayor of Provo, Utah; and Vi Lyles became the first African-American woman elected as Mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. Melvin Carter III became the first African-American elected as Mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota; a Hispanic woman (Michelle De La Isla) was elected as Mayor of Topeka, Kansas; and a Liberian refugee (Wilmot Collins) was elected Mayor of Helena, Montana.

While Wikipedia identifies six Asian-American dance companies, ten Asian-American comedy troupes (with such names as Asian Moms, Cold Tofu, Pork Filled Players, and Stir-Friday Night), and more than 30 Asian-American theatre companies, the Bay area is home to Bindlestiff Studio, En Acte Arts, Eth-Noh-Tec, Ferocious Lotus, Krea, NAATAK, Stanford Asian American Theatre Project, Theatre of Yugen at Noh Space, Theatre Rice, and Youth for Asian Theatre.

As part of its ReOrient 2017 Festival, San Francisco's Golden Thread Productions is celebrating its first collaboration with Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA), an international service organization founded in 1985 which is dedicated to the practice, promotion, advocacy, and education of the field of dramaturgy. This new partnership, led by Iranian-American dramaturg Nakissa Etemad, has been designed to provide ReOrient 2017 with a team of five dramaturgs who can bring their expertise to new play development, research, and contextualization. In her program note, Torange Yeghiarazarian (the founding artistic director of Golden Thread Productions) asks:
“Why do we ReOrient? As a small theatre company that produces only one or two mainstage productions a year, there is no way for us to really reflect the cultural, religious, linguistic, artistic, and aesthetic diversity of the Middle East. ReOrient is unique not only in its vision of cultural diversity but also for encouraging artistic collaboration and experimentation. Many of this year’s plays are set here in the United States and deal with simple domestic issues that have profound meaning in the context of an immigrant family. There is always the concern that, because of our long lead time, some of the plays will lose their urgency. But every time I’m reminded that artists are tuned into what Jung called the collective unconscious, producing primal images and ideas both familiar and surprising. To me, this reflects our struggle with our place in this country. These are stories you are unlikely to encounter anywhere else.”

Torange Yeghiarazarian of Golden Thread Productions

Often, when I attend an "anthology" program consisting of a half dozen short plays produced by companies like Playground or the Left Coast Theatre Company, the odds are that two plays will be impressive, two will show promise but need a lot of work, and the remaining plays will either be poorly conceived or severely underdeveloped. The seven plays presented during ReOrient 2017's program blew that formula to smithereens. Instead of one or two impressive works, all seven were superbly written powerhouse dramas -- the kind of work any audience would be thrilled to experience. That's a rare accomplishment for which Yeghiarazarian and Evren Odcikin (who produced ReOrient 2017) rightfully earned and deserve a continued standing ovation.

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Based on poetry by Junichi P. Semitsu, Shelter features the voices of Shoresh Alaudini, Nida Fuad Khalil, and Mikiko Uesugi woven into a stage soundscape adapted by Torange Yeghiazarian and James Ard. With no actors visible onstage, the audience's attention is divided between listening to the disembodied voices and examining the ghostly elements of Kate Boyd's unit set, which consists of numerous doors used to represent the physical, emotional, and spiritual transitions of immigrants as they exit their native lands and arrive in the United States.

Semitsu's poem captures the love and uncertainties faced by a mixed-race couple who grew up in Hiroshima and Beirut and must struggle to maintain a long distance relationship before they can settle down in one place. With a strained musicality, the voices seem equally applicable to couples who must find their true love (bashert) online or seek refuge in a new land that simultaneously welcomes and frightens them.

Kate Boyd's set design for Shelter (Photo by: David Allen)

Written by E.H. Benedict and poignantly directed by Sara Razavi, War on Terror reflects an airport ritual which can easily unnerve any traveler (especially during the holiday season). In order to fly from central Pennsylvania to a regional hub so that they can connect to another flight en route to a wedding in Chicago, Mr. Sadat (Mohamed Chakmakchi) and his mother (Bella Warda) must pass through a metal detector being manned by two TSA agents: Darlene (Jessica Lea Risco) and Junior (Stephen Kanaski).

While Junior is young, more considerate, and more broadminded than his superior, Darlene is a paranoid, stereotypical "Ugly American" convinced there could be a terrorist hiding under any kind of outfit that she herself would not wear. The fact that Mr. Sadat is a doctor does not impress her. The fact that his elderly, stubborn mother doesn't speak English and is obviously agitated (due to stress and fear of flying) sets off alarm bells in Darlene's bigoted mind, triggering the kind of radical reaction in which a frightened security guard invokes every clause in the training manual to make life miserable for someone she perceives as "the other." Even after Mrs. Sadat manages to pass through the metal detector (with help from Junior, who says that she reminds him of his grandmother), Darlene remains hopeful that something might happen which could prevent the Sadats from reaching their destination.

Stephen Kanaski, Bella Warda, and Mohamed Chakmakchi
appear in War on Terror (Photo by: David Allen)

Sevan K. Greene's A Is For Ali (also directed by Sara Razavi) depicts a young Arab-American couple celebrating their anniversary while arguing about whether or not it is too early to choose a name for their unborn child. Although Naomi (Atosa Babaoff) prefers to wait until they know what the infant's gender will be, Waleed (Mohamed Chakmakchi) has already made a list of his favorites. There's just one problem. Having grown up as a distinct minority child in Colorado, Naomi would prefer to choose a name which will not force their child to always have to "explain" a name that does not sound obviously American or "white." By contrast, having grown up in a large Arab-American community, Waleed (who goes by the nickname "Wally" at work) has trouble understanding his wife's concerns.

Naomi (Atosa Babaoff) and Waleed (Mohamed Chakmakchi) view an
ultrasound video of their baby in A is For Ali (Photo by: David Allen)

Perhaps the most troubling piece on the program is written by Melis Aker and directed by Erin Gilley with the help of dramaturg Anna Woodruff. In Manar, A distraught American mother (Jessica Lea Risco) in a failing marriage is convinced that she recognizes her missing son (Stephen Kanaski) in an ISIS video. Her panic is not helped by the fact that, unbeknownst to her, her husband (Lawrence Radecker) has been secretly meeting with her son's high school classmate and close friend, Najla (Naseem Etemad).

Manar's tensions erupt against a background in which Najla expresses fear that her friend might be dealing drugs, the boy's mother is terrified that her depressed and noticeably noncommunicative son may have been recruited over the Internet by a terrorist organization, and her abusive husband bends her over the kitchen table and rapes her after bringing home some groceries. Later, when Najla visits the mother of her missing (and presumed dead) friend, both women have difficult questions to ask (for which there are no easy answers).

Jessica Lea Risco and Lawrence Radecker are an unhappy couple
whose son has gone missing in Manar (Photo by: David Allen)

One of the more poignant pieces on the program was written by Betty Shamieh and directed by Susannah Martin with dramaturgy by Nakissa Etemad. Make No Mistake shows the compromises made by conflicted women who get involved with powerful political figures. What sets Shamieh's play in a zone of its own is that the two woman portrayed are Amal (Atosa Babaoff), a fictional wife of Osama bin Laden, and Amy (Jessica Lea Risco), a fictional mistress of President George W. Bush.

Although the play begins with Amal and Amy fully dressed in black, as they slowly disrobe and discuss their lives, they begin to spill their secret longings and reveal the social compromises they have been forced to make. Because she must remain in hiding, Amal is often forced to move on a moment's notice and cannot make any friends. Because she has heard so much about the President's family, Amy desperately wishes she could meet his daughters in order to satisfy her feelings of being a significant (if distant) part of the extended Bush clan.

Amal (Atosa Babaoff) and Amy (Jessica Risco) discuss their difficult
relationships in Make No Mistake (Photo by: David Allen)

In Hannah Khalil's political farce entitled The Rehearsal, three actors must try to figure out what their director (Stephen Kanaski) is trying to coax from them without doing anything that could potentially offend government censors.

The stage director keeps frustrating the actors by causing the first woman (Bella Warda) to keep repeating her entrance which, in turn, causes the man (Lawrence Radecker) and another woman (Naseem Etemad) to flub their timing as they lie underneath a sheet, waiting to be revealed in a compromising position. Under the direction of Evren Odcikin, The Rehearsal quickly demonstrates that practice does not make perfect when actors get so rattled that they can no longer be sure of their timing.

Bella Warda, Naseem Etemad, and Lawrence Radecker
appear in The Rehearsal (Photo by: David Allen)

The final piece on the program was Torange Yeghiazarian's carefully layered Thanksgiving at Khodabakhshian's. Directed by Susannah Martin (with dramaturgy by Nakissa Etemad), the setup is simple. Peter (Lawrence Radecker) and Bridget (Jessica Lea Risco) have only recently arrived in town. One of Peter 's co-workers, Dina (Bella Warda), has invited her new boss and his wife to join her Iranian-American family for Thanksgiving. What could possibly go wrong?

For one thing, Bridget is a Trump supporter who does not take well to being criticized. She also has an uncanny talent for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and not knowing when to back off or keep her mouth shut. Dina's daughter, Fay (Atosa Babaoff), is a leftist with strong political views who, like Bridget, can't always keep quiet. Not only has Fay's boyfriend left Dina's house because he felt insulted by the presence of their guests, when Bridget keeps asking why Fay's father can't join them for Thanksgiving, Fay blurts out that he was executed.

Caught in the crossfire are Peter (who seems tired and would prefer to avoid sparking any kind of confrontation with his host) and Dina (who has more life experience than her passionately political daughter, is acutely aware of the need to remain on good terms with her new boss, and is willing to put her Iranian past behind her as part of building a new life in America). Just when tempers flare and the holiday dinner seems like it will be a complete failure, the question of what to do with the leftovers helps to restore peace.

Lawrence Radecker, Jessica Risco, Bella Warda, and Atosa Babaoff in
Thanksgiving at Khodabakhshian’s (Photo by: David Allen)

In her article entitled Amazing Acrobatics of Language: The Theatre of Yussef El Guindi (published in American Studies Journal), Anneka Esch-Van Kan writes:
“It is commonly claimed that Arab-American theatre was born on September 11, 2001. But if one looks carefully enough, there is a history of Arab-American theatre that predates 9/11. One notable frontrunner is Golden Thread Productions, a theatre in San Francisco which has been focusing on Middle Eastern theatre from its inception in 1996 and running an annual festival called ReOrient since 1999. Dalia Basiouny (a theatre scholar working on Arab-American female playwrights) rightly finds that ‘one of the interesting features of the current flowering of Arab-American theatre and performance is that a great majority of the participating artists are women.’”
The compelling program of short plays presented during ReOrient 2017 bears witness to the impressive talent of emerging Arab-American playwrights and the powerful dramatic truths (especially as seen through women's eyes) that they bring to the stage. Performances of ReOrient 2017 continue through December 10 at the Potrero Stage (click here for tickets).

Friday, November 24, 2017

Welcome To The Winter Of Our Discontent

Friday, September 22nd marked 2017's autumnal equinox. As the days grew shorter and the darkness refused to abate, the media lit up with lurid revelations about Harvey Weinstein's sexual assaults followed by accusations against Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, and other public figures. It's hard to believe that in one week President George W. Bush's infamous Axis of Evil (Iran, Iraq, and North Korea) was recently bumped from the headlines by a new Axis of Evil (Donald Trump, Charles Manson, and Roy Moore). One's mind quickly turns to Gloucester's speech about "The winter of our discontent" from Shakespeare's Richard III:
"Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days."
As I re-watched the January 12, 2017 ceremony during which President Barack Obama presented Vice President Joe Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I was struck by how lucky we were to have two such honorable men in the White House for eight years. A November 20, 2017 birthday tweet from Obama to Biden (see below) delivered a shocking reminder that, just one year ago, our country was led by two men of unquestionable integrity and remarkable good will.

Just when it feels as if our culture is bottoming out, how ironic is it that a ray of decency and sunshine should come from The Church of Satan, which tweeted:
"Child abuse is directly forbidden in the 11 Satanic Rules of the Earth. Christians however have been abusing children for centuries. They own this."
It would be nice to believe that men rely on their better instincts but, as we head toward the December 21st winter solstice, the daily news makes us increasingly dubious. The following three articles do a great deal to explain why.
If you still think that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice, listen to what Stuart Russell (a Professor of Computer Science at UC-Berkeley) has to say about the dangers of artificial intelligence and watch this video from

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While Claire Dederer writes about artists who evolve into monstrous men, in his one-man show entitled Deal With The Dragon, Kevin Rolston delves into the mystery of how and why some artists become monsters. Not only does he demonstrate how weakened souls can be lured into codependent relationships with satanic forces, he has a lot more fun with the concept than the familiar path taken by such literary legends as Faust and Dorian Gray. In a perverse way, Rolston shows great restraint by not finishing off his act with a parody of Anthony Newley's 1962 hit song entitled "What Kind of Ghoul Am I?"

Working with magical realism can be lots of fun for a writer. Although Rolston originally aimed his work at "a very specific audience of middle-aged or older gay men," his tale of the eternal struggle between temptation and a person's self-destructive tendencies is designed to show that "desperation is a beast and we all strike bargains in order to survive."

Imagine if the devil in the Faust legend had been a bit more like Mart Crowley's Emory in The Boys in the Band ("Oh, Mary, it takes a fairy to make something pretty!") and then throw in some spicy special effects from 2010's How To Train Your Dragon. Let the monster's prey include two men vying for a prestigious prize from a small museum -- a prize that could dramatically transform any artist's career. Would you get a fierce dragon acting like Norma Desmond's mysterious valet, Max, as he waits for a victim to consummate his end of the bargain? Or a demon who can be temporarily pacified when allowed to lick the sugar off a donut?

Kevin Rolston in Deal With The Dragon (Photo by: Kenny Yun)

As Rolston's monologue begins, the audience meets Brenn, a character with a thick German accent who has been providing financial and emotional support for Hunter Keegan, a neurotic artist. Hunter has reluctantly gotten used to the perks of Brenn's fire-breathing companionship (even if it means putting up with an occasional scorched smartphone and a few of Brenn's hissing hissy fits). Even though Hunter may be a tightly-wound pain in the ass who refuses to let Brenn fly his freak flag, as the deadline for submission approaches he's been acting a bit strange. Is he suffering from impostor syndrome, multiple personality disorder, or is Hunter's tendency to sabotage his own work the mark of a true diva? Is his petulant perfectionism preventing him from finishing a painting or has he figured out a way to cheat Brenn out of a Faustian bargain?

Hunter's competition is a skinny and deeply needy gay man who, after many years of debauchery, has found his way to Narcotics Anonymous and worked to gain control over his sex addiction. The son of a distant father and a mother whose professional skills as a clinical psychologist stifled any maternal instincts, Gandhi Schwartz knows all the tricks of the therapy trade and can mercilessly "read" anyone who crosses his path.

After starting to grow bored by Hunter's tiresome self-absorption, the audience is introduced to Gandhi when he is called upon to substitute for someone who was supposed to lead a group meeting at Alcoholics Anonymous. Although drinking has never really been his "fach," Schwartz certainly knows how to grab and hog a spotlight. Could a bitter, damaged soul with a scathing sense of humor who can appreciate some manipulative mischief be a more pliable partner for Brenn's oily talents? As Sarah Palin would say, "You betcha!"

Kevin Rolston in Deal With The Dragon (Photo by: Kenny Yun)

The bottom line is that men are weak and will easily succumb to temptation. Billed as "a grown-up fairy tale laced with terror," Deal With The Dragon is meticulously written and exquisitely performed by Rolston. Aided and abetted by sound designer Sara Huddleston in key moments (such as when Brenn transforms from a pampering patron of the arts into a hissing, fire-breathing dragon), one is reminded of how, in Swan Lake, Odette suddenly changes from a pliant, submissive spirit into a fierce feathered creature as dawn arrives and a magic spell once again takes control of her.

In Tchaikovsky's famous ballet, the evil sorcerer (Baron von Rothbart) uses his sinister powers to entice and entrap Prince Siegfried by beguiling him with alternating visions of a beautiful white, swan (Odette) and her black alter ego (Odile). Therein lies the key to what makes Rolston's play so powerful. With help from director M. Graham Smith, Rolston has found a way to have a bit more fun with magical realism than most other writers. His acid-tongued Schwartz inspires as much laughter as the characters in Christopher Moore's hilarious San Francisco-based vampire trilogy (Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck, and Bite Me).

Following successful runs at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, A.C.T.'s Costume Shop, Z-Space, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's New Works Festival, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Deal With The Dragon is going through its final stage of fine tuning at the New Conservatory Theatre Center before heading to New York. Performances continue through December 3 in NCTC's Theatre 3 (click here for tickets).

Poster art for Kevin Rolston's Deal With The Dragon

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If you've ever wondered why so few American opera companies stage Carl Maria von Weber's 1821 opera, Der Freischutz, let me give you a clue. Despite its importance as an early work of German Romanticism and a plot in which Samiel (a/k/a The Black Huntsman) forges seven magic bullets, the opera is difficult to cast, tedious to sit through, and for nearly two centuries has been known primarily for its overture.

On March 30, 1990, a new musical directed by Robert Wilson based on the same German folktale about a "freeshooter" premiered in Hamburg. With its book by William S. Burroughs and music and lyrics by Tom Waits, The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets has been performed by numerous theatres, opera companies, and presented at arts festivals during the past 25 years. The Shotgun Players recently unveiled a production which features a unit set designed by Sean Riley, lighting by Allen Willner, costumes by Christine Crook, and sound design by Matt Stines. As stage director Mark Jackson explains:
"The three unique artists behind The Black Rider (William S. Burroughs, Tom Waits, and Robert Wilson) created a modern fairy tale nightmare for adults that broods on the powerful and pervasive patriarchy. Like all truly great artists, this trio made no attempt to assume answers, favoring the audience’s imaginations instead and content to let us be responsible for our own interpretations. Maybe this open quality is why The Black Rider has been revived so often since it premiered in Hamburg, Germany. Maybe this is also why the show can be as unsettling as it is entertaining. Or maybe it’s unsettling because it entertains. In that respect alone, The Black Rider is a peculiarly American take on the traditional European fairy tales that inspired it."
Rotimi Agbabiaka as Peg Leg in a scene from The Black Rider
(Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)
"I don’t believe The Devil has ever made anyone do anything. We are each 100% responsible for our own actions. This thing we call 'The Devil' is a metaphor for any impulses we’d rather not admit to having. That age-old myth of 'The Deal with The Devil' given form by countless artists (Bulgakov, Goethe, whoever wrote the Bible) is likewise a metaphor for the bargains we make with ourselves, participating in systems we don’t believe in, gambling away our integrity for the sake of our desire. Our country is in a very particular place at the moment with regard to its systems and assumptions. This production unsettles and entertains, but I don’t expect it to change the world, or America. That’s not the role of art, anyway."
Kevin Clarke as Old Uncle in a scene from The Black Rider
(Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

I had a rather puzzling reaction to the opening night performance of The Black Rider which, in a bizarre way, mirrored my experience with Der Freischutz. Despite an abundance of smartly-deployed theatrical craft, and a gifted ensemble featuring several beloved Bay area actors, because the narrative took a back seat to the show's strong production values, the performance kept losing momentum. Serial reappearances from a mobile coffin by the intriguing Rotimi Agbabiaka (Peg Leg) began to lose their edge. Grace Ng's hilarious portrayal of the nerdy Wilhelm got bogged down when she not tethered to the dark and forbidding trees framing the stage.

Grace Ng (Wilhelm) in a scene from The Black Rider
(Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Both Kevin Clarke (doubling as the Old Uncle and the Devil) and Noelle Viñas (who, as young Kätchen, is eager to marry Wilhelm) seemed to get mired in quicksand whenever they got close to the story line. Doubling as the masculine Robert and the curious George Schmid, the ever intriguing El Beh (along with Elizabeth Carter's Anne and Steve Hess's Bertram) frequently faded into the forest.

Steven Hess (Bertram) and Elizabeth Carter (Anne) in
a scene from The Black Rider (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

And yet, along with music director Dave Möschler, the band (Jacy Burroughs, Travis Kindred, Josh Pollock, and Carolyn Walter) was phenomenal. Was my problem due to having trouble hearing the show's lyrics? Or because parts of the evening tilted heavily in the direction of a musical freak show by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill? All I can say is that the audience response was a lot stronger than my own.

Steven Hess (Bertram) and El Beh (Robert) in a scene from The Black Rider
(Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Performances of The Black Rider continue through December 31 at the Shotgun Players (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Monday, November 20, 2017

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

One of the most famous Broadway legends tells how an unknown chorus girl got her big break in show business. On May 13, 1954, a new musical opened at the St. James Theatre starring Janis Paige and John Raitt. Among the supporting players in the cast of The Pajama Game were Eddie Foy, Jr., Reta Shaw, and Carol Haney. When Haney injured an ankle, her understudy (Shirley MacLaine) subbed for her, performing the famed "Steam Heat" number with Peter Gennaro and Buzz Miller. Hollywood producer Hal B. Wallis attended one of the performances during which MacLaine went on in the role of Gladys, liked what he saw, and signed MacLaine to a contract with Paramount Pictures. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sutton Foster's rapid rise to stardom followed a similar path. While appearing in the chorus of Thoroughly Modern Millie during its 2001 pre-Broadway tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, she was tasked with understudying the title role (which had originally been planned for Kristin Chenowith). When the producers decided to replace their leading lady's original successor, Foster's career track changed with one phone call. Luckily, she was ready to tap her troubles away.

A willingness to compromise is often seen as the key to realizing one's dreams. Some people work their asses off to overcome the obstacles blocking the path to achieving their goals while others seem to effortlessly sleep their way to to the top. For some women, their sexual skills might comprise what Stephen Sondheim called "a pleasurable means to a measurable end." For others, a pair of tap shoes can seal the deal.

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Directed by Lloyd Bacon and choreographed by Busby Berkeley, 1933's backstage musical, 42nd Street, became an easy favorite for audiences struggling through The Great Depression. With songs by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin, it told the tale of an eager, but naive young hoofer from Allentown, Pennsylvania who became an emergency replacement for the star of a Broadway-bound musical named Pretty Lady. With Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler as the romantic leads (and Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, and Ginger Rogers in supporting roles), 42nd Street was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1998.

In 1980, the beloved film was adapted for the musical stage by Gower Champion (whose unexpected death was announced to a shocked audience from the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre by producer David Merrick during the opening night's curtain call on August 25, 1980). With an original Broadway run of 3,486 performance, numerous productions of 42nd Street have been been staged around the world and toured extensively. The most recent production is currently holding forth at the Alcazar Theatre under the auspices of Bay Area Musicals.

The girls in the chorus of 42nd Street sing "Shuffle Off to Buffalo."
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

I'm always fascinated to see how well musicals that have earned iconic status due to the synergy of an historical original Broadway production (My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, Hello, Dolly!), and a powerful logo and marketing campaign (Hair, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera) fare once regional and community theatre groups can purchase the performing rights. Sometimes the results are cringe-worthy. On happier occasions, these shows can become impressive showcases for local talent.

Nikita Burshteyn as Billy Lawlor in a scene from
42nd Street (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

BAM's production of 42nd Street is a perfect example of what happens when the stars align above a foundation built on a lot of hard work. Not only does the show's book (by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble) retain its backstage sassiness, thanks to Daren A.C. Carollo's clever direction and Matthew McCoy's energetic choreography, the opening night proved to be quite a delightful experience. An added asset is that any show with lots of tap dancing is bound to make audiences happy.

Laurie Strawn as Dorothy Brock and Nikita Burshteyn as Billy
Lawlor in a scene from 42nd Street (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Laurie Strawn's characterization of a temperamental musical comedy star whose luster is rapidly fading showed Dorothy Brock to have a vulnerable streak that eventually allows her to feel some empathy for her replacement. Venis Goodman got some solid laughs as Dorothy's sugar daddy, Abner Dillon, with Peter Budinger doing nice work as her former dance partner and secret lover, Pat Denning. DC Scarpelli's portrayal of Julian Marsh had all the bluster necessary for a bull-headed producer who refuses to take "no" for an answer.

DC Scarpelli as Julian Marsh and Samantha Rose as Peggy Sawyer
in a scene from 42nd Street (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

While 42nd Street requires a capable ensemble of singing tap dancers with seemingly unlimited energy, the heavy lifting falls on the shoulders of the romantic leads. BAM hit casting gold with two indefatigable performers who have been seen on local stages in recent years. Not only did Samantha Rose's Peggy Sawyer rapidly progress from an insecure small-town girl to a hardworking chorine before being handed a make-it-or-break-it opportunity to take over on Pretty Lady's opening night from its injured star, the audience witnessed her tap dancing grow from nervous and tentative during the crammed rehearsals for Pretty Lady to confident and seemingly effortless on its opening night.

As Billy Lawlor, Nikita Burshteyn added another triumph to his collection of musical comedy leads which, even at a young age, he has performed with superb timing and unbridled enthusiasm. Tap dancing is a natural fit for his talents (I always look forward to his presence on a Bay area stage).

Samantha Rose as Peggy Sawyer and Nikita Burshteyn as Billy
Lawlor in a scene from 42nd Street (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

With scenery designed by Daren A.C. Carollo and Matthew McCoy, costumes by Brooke Jennings, and lighting by Courtney Johnson, the production was blessed with excellent sound design by Anton Hedman. Marisa Cozart's Maggie and Zach Padlo's Andy helped to strengthen the supporting cast.

Nikita Burshteyn as Billy Lawlor in a scene from
42nd Street (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Performances of 42nd Street continue through December 10 at the Alcazar Theatre (click here for tickets).

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Antoine François Prévost's romantic novel, L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731), has the rare distinction of inspiring three operas:
Of the three, Massenet's opera has been the most successful thanks to the irresistible appeal of its score, the composer's stunning orchestrations, and a love story that includes a tense relationship between an impulsive young man and his more conservative father (which rivals the one in Verdi's La Traviata). Set in 1721, the story follows a young country girl whose parents have sent her to a convent in order to keep her out of trouble.

Ellie Dehn stars in Massenet's Manon (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Although her brother, Lescaut (David Pershall), has come to meet her at a country inn, the unsophisticated Manon (Ellie Dehn) is fascinated by the wealth and fashions of a coach's passengers. Upon meeting the handsome young Chevalier des Grieux (Michael Fabiano), she falls in love at first sight and runs off to Paris with him. Before long, she becomes restless and is easily seduced by her brother's willingness to arrange for des Grieux to be kidnapped so that Manon can move up the social ladder.

Soon Manon is being kept by her brother's friend, De Brétigny (Timothy Mix), while an older and richer man, Guillot de Morfontaine (Robert Brubaker), lusts after her. Upon meeting her first lover's father, Le Comte des Grieux (James Creswell), she feels a twinge of regret for having abandoned her true love but cannot bear the thought that her handsome Chevalier has forgotten her.

A moment from Act II, Scene II of Manon (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Just when Guillot has arranged for a ballet to be presented in her honor, Manon rushes off to the Church of Saint Sulpice to try to win her Chevalier back before he can enter the priesthood. Alas, her triumph is short lived. Although Des Grieux has uncanny luck while gambling at a local casino, Guillot accuses him of cheating and has the couple arrested. Broke and exhausted, Manon dies on the road to Le Havre as she begs Des Grieux to forgive her for her selfishness.

The San Francisco Opera is presenting a new staging of Manon by Vincent Boussard as part of a co-production with the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre and the Israeli Opera. As Boussard (who also designed the production's costumes) explains in his program note:
“Manon discovers very quickly what kind of power she can have over men. Because men think of women as objects (and she’s a victim of that), it’s a double game of manipulation. At the beginning she’s the prey, but then the prey becomes the predator. Her problem will be that she can’t ever stop. Once she has something, she wants something more. Her passion has no limits. She can find her way out of any mess because she has instinct and the right intuition for tricky situations, but she’s not planning anything. Never. She’s always surprised by herself and extraordinarily aware of who she is, which makes her character very complex yet she remains naïve until the end. I have no sympathy for the way she is behaving, but I’m fascinated and want to know more about her and her processes.”
Ellie Dehn and Michael Fabiano in a scene
from Manon (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
“This is what makes the character extremely fascinating. We can’t forget where she’s originally coming from and the time of the composer, but it’s not because of her time that Manon behaves the way that she does. As a director, I try to create bridges between periods of time to make the story seem more immediate. We’re trying to build bridges between the time of the story (the beginning of the 18th century), the time of Massenet (1884) and now. We’re playing with the idea that the opera’s characters aren’t stuck in an actual historical context. I’m trying to give the character of Manon a chance to be imagined and received by the audience as if she could also be a lady of today. She should appear without any filter. That’s why I’m trying to mix up these three different dimensions and periods.”

While Boussard's concept may sound intriguing to audiences who have no previous experience with Manon, I'd recommend that those familiar with Massenet's opera keep their eyes closed for much of the performance. Despite the best efforts of conductor Patrick Fournillier, chorus director Ian Robertson, and some fine singing by Ellie Dehn, Michael Fabiano, and James Creswell, Boussard's production is the antithesis of what Manon is all about. So many carefully constructed moments fall victim to scenic and symbolic gimmicks (without paying attention to either the libretto or the music) that it makes one wonder if (like many of Donald Trump's political appointees) Boussard was chosen  because of his intention to tear Massenet's opera to shreds.

As one watches Act I's scene at the inn, the first thought that comes to mind is that set designer Vincent Lemaire must have gotten a great deal on used chairs from a restaurant supply business. While Boussard's Act I costume for Lescaut features a crazy mashup between a soldier's overcoat and some glittery black pants, his costumes for Manon in the bedroom and Cours La Reine scenes made soprano Ellie Dehn look eight months pregnant.

Act I, Scene II (which is supposed to take place in the young lovers' apartment in Paris) features a huge, unmade bed which De Brétigny proceeds to walk across while clad in military boots. During Manon's big aria, "Adieu notre petite table," the soprano never even acknowledges the table she is supposedly singing to. In Act II, Scene II, when a barefoot Manon attempts to win back Des Grieux's love in the chapel of Saint Sulpice, there is precious little physical or eye contact between the two (her desperate attempt to grab a cross out of his hands drew titters of laughter from the audience).

After the mellifluous trio of Monica Dewey (Pousette), Laura Krumm (Javotte), and Renée Rapier (Rosette) add vocal color to the gambling scene, a barely visible Manon, dressed in a black dress, dies in front of a black curtain. Her final duet with Des Grieux is almost lost in the darkness until the evening's first star (a lonely lightbulb) descends from above.

Michael Fabiano and Ellie Dehn in the final
moments of Manon (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Handicapped by a poorly articulated dramatic concept clogged with pretentious bits of symbolism, Boussard's costumes and stage direction ranged from merely inept to some mind-boggling "WTF" moments. Thankfully, he was unable to sabotage Massenet's score, the cast's excellent musicianship, or the stunning effects of Gary Marder's lighting. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Rolling With The Punches

In recent weeks, the news has been filled with headlines detailing the loathsome behavior of men who rape. As victims of sexual harassment come forward to describe the methodology of such predators as Kevin Spacey, Louis C. K., and Roy Moore, I find myself wondering if their attacks are not just due to learned behavior but if (especially for avowed sexual pigs like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump) there is a stronger predatory instinct at play.

For some sex addicts, the thrill of the chase is every bit as important as the actual sexual conquest. Like a carnivore teasing its prey before going in for the kill, some men are powerless to abandon a routine they've developed over years of assaulting victims they perceive as especially vulnerable. Some people like to think that orcas and great white sharks toss seals in the air in a playful attempt to stun them before chomping down on their carcasses but, as the following two videos reveal, the doomed seals are more nimble than the giant fish hunting them.

Whether watching a bitter married couple (like Edward Albee's George and Martha in 1962's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) or a bloodied boxer like Sylvester Stallone's determined Rocky Balboa, viewers sometimes wonder if the only reason these people keep fighting is because they don't know how to stop. Whether they're punch drunk on blood lust or their vengeance can never really feel complete, as they age it becomes harder for them to maintain their dominance as "King of the Hill."

* * * * * * * * *
As I watched a recent performance of Custom Made Theatre's production of The Lion in Winter, I couldn't help noticing how the bearish Steven Westdahl's portrayal of the 50-year-old King Henry II of England made me think of Harvey Weinstein. A classic bully who enjoyed manipulating the members of his family and court, Henry was noted for his temper as well as his unpredictability. Even though he had kept his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, imprisoned for ten years, he nevertheless enjoyed her intellect and wit even after he had lost all physical interest in her body.

James Goldman's 1966 play is set during Christmas of 1183, when Eleanor has been allowed to visit Henry at his castle in Chinon for the holiday. Equally disappointed in their three surviving sons, Henry and Eleanor are painfully aware that they have failed to produce an heir worthy of assuming Henry's throne following his death. Henry wants Eleanor to divorce him so he can marry his mistress (who was betrothed to him at the age of eight) but Eleanor is loathe to give her husband such satisfaction.

Steven Westdahl (Henry II) and Cat Luedtke (Eleanor of Aquitaine)
in a scene from The Lion in Winter (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Meanwhile, the couple's sons are starting to bear an acute resemblance to a contemporary American trio of doofuses. The clumsy ingrates who hunger for their father's approval (and can be easily manipulated by their scheming mother) are:
  • Richard Lionheart (Elliot Lieberman), a strong, masculine figure with notable military talent who may, at one time, have counted Phillip II, King of France as his lover. Often regarded as Eleanor's favorite son, Richard (like Donald Trump, Jr.) stands to inherit the most from his father.
  • Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany (Kalon Thibodeaux), is probably the smartest of Henry's sons. Alas, Geoffrey developed a reputation for treachery after being involved in numerous rebellions against his father and was often thought to have conspired with Philip II. Think of him as the Jared Kushner of his day.
  • John (Luke Brady). Although nearly a foot shorter than his brother, Richard (who he eventually succeeded on the English throne) at the time in which Goldman's play takes place, John is basically the Eric Trump of the Middle Ages.
Luke Brady (John) and Kalon Thibodeaux (Geoffrey) in
a scene from The Lion in Winter (Photo by: Jay Yamada)
  • To see Goldman's play through Richard's eyes, imagine a version of Home for the Holidays in which your mother has been temporarily let out of jail, your old boyfriend is the guest of honor, and your two younger brothers are acting like clumsy brats who could prevent you from getting your inheritance.
  • To view The Lion in Winter through Eleanor's eyes, imagine you have to protect your assets from your husband's schemes even if that means encouraging and enabling your sons in a plot to kill their father.
  • To view the situation through Geoffrey's eyes, imagine feeling as if no one takes you seriously despite having more brains than your brothers. Like a Trump supporter, you're willing to let everything go to ruin on the chance that you could still become king (that would really show them!).
  • If you're John, you're too stupid and hungry for your father's love to get anything right.
  • And if you're Henry, you've got to find a way to produce an heir despite your wife's scathing prediction that you'll probably be killed or dead from natural causes before a new wife can produce an heir apparent.
Elliot Lieberman (Richard Lionheart) and Cat Luedtke
(Eleanor of Aquitaine) in a scene from The Lion in Winter
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Working on a handsome unit set designed by Sarah Phykitt (with costumes by Brooke Jennings, lighting by Katie Basu, and sound designed by Ryan Lee Short), Stuart Bousel has directed The Lion in Winter with care to highlight a holiday's treachery while giving the audience plenty of laughs at the expense of Henry's family of fools. Top honors go to Cat Luedtke for her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine, with Caitlin Evenson as Alais (the only other female in Henry's orbit). Among the ill-behaving men, Steven Westdahl schemes and rages as Henry while Kalon Thibodeaux wallows in political irrelevance as Geoffrey. Elliot Lieberman is a handsome albeit conflicted Richard Lionheart while Luke Brady's John is a petulant fool. As Philip, Will Trichon presents a handsome foil to Henry's acutely dysfunctional family.

Will Trichon portrays Phillip, King of France, in
The Lion in Winter (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

It should be noted that the events depicted in Goldman's play are fictional, although it has done a splendid job of entertaining audiences for nearly half a century. The original Broadway cast featured Robert Preston as Henry, Rosemary Harris as Eleanor Aquitaine, and Christopher Walken as Philip. The 1999 Broadway revival starred Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing as the unhappy royal couple.

Most audiences know the story from the two film adaptations of Goldman's play. The 1968 film starred Peter O'Toole as Henry, Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor, Anthony Hopkins as Richard, and Timothy Dalton as Philip. In 2003, a made-for-television movie starred Patrick Stewart as Henry and Glenn Close as Eleanor.

Elliot Lieberman (Richard Lionheart), Cat Luedtke (Eleanor
of Aquitaine), and Kalon Thibodeaux (Geoffrey) in a scene
from The Lion in Winter (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Performances of The Lion in Winter continue at the Custom Made Theatre through December 2 (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
In 1968, when the Arena Stage's production of The Great White Hope moved from Washington, D.C. to Broadway, it was the first production from a regional company ever to make such a transfer. Not only did Howard Sackler's controversial, action-packed play about Jack Johnson (the first African-American man to become world heavyweight boxing champion) win 1969's Tony Award for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as directed by Ed Sherin it featured breathtaking performances by James Earl Jones as the boxer and Jane Alexander as his white wife. I was fortunate enough to catch two performances of this landmark production, which kept Broadway audiences on the edge of their seats.

A 1970 film version of The Great White Hope earned Jones and Alexander Academy Award nominations for their acting. Starting with 1976's Rocky, Sylvester Stallone's boxing films about Rocky Balboa became a long-running entertainment franchise that (together with pay-per-view boxing matches, wrestling exhibitions, and mixed martial arts events) helped to build a vast audience for faked brutality and ritualized humiliation.

When dramas about combat sports like wrestling and boxing move into small theatrical venues, playwrights and directors have to choose between faking the blood and gore or trying to create an aura of intense theatricality. Following up on its 2012 production of Kristoffer Diaz's award-winning play about professional wrestling's use of racial stereotypes (The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity), the Aurora Theatre Company is currently presenting the Bay area premiere of Marco Ramirez's stunning drama entitled The Royale.

Like The Great White Hope, The Royale focuses on how racism impacted Jack Johnson's boxing career. However, Ramirez's protagonist (played by Calvin M. Thompson) isn't just struggling to overcome the sport's power brokers who refuse to let him fight a white man. He's also trying to right a wrong he witnessed many years ago when his sister, Nina (Atim Udoffia), was a mere child. As Aurora's artistic director, Tom Ross, notes:
"One of the reasons I enjoy this play is that it is not a typical boxing narrative with two pugilists facing each other and punching in the ring. It is a highly stylized theatrical affair which frequently goes inside the head of our protagonist, who is now named Jay 'The Sport' Jackson."
Calvin M. Thompson (Jay) and Satchel André (Fish)
in a scene from The Royale (Photo by: David Allen)

Powerfully directed by Darryl V. Jones, The Royale rests on a highly effective musical element whereby actors punctuate the script with their feet, occasionally stomping out sound patterns that reflect the excitement of a boxing match. Instead of boxers actually coming to blows in front of the audience, a careful synchronization of sound and lighting effects with the actors' clapping hands lets the audience know whenever a punch has landed. As the playwright explains:
"There's something about the fiction surrounding boxing that's interesting to me. Boxing is very clear: two elements and one is going to win. Any time I see fight choreography onstage, I can't help but think it looks phony. It's a sport that's so brutal, but like jazz, is improvised. I knew I wanted to do this thing of abstracting the fight, almost like it's the Guernica of the boxing match. Even though it begins and ends with a fight, it's not really about what happens inside the ring. It distills the human struggle. It begins as a play about boxing and it becomes a play about home."
Tim Kniffin (Max) and Calvin M. Thompson (Jay)
in a scene from The Royale (Photo by: David Allen)

Set in 1905, Ramirez's Jackson is portrayed as a man who relishes charming the crowd and giving them the kind of thrills they can't even imagine. Simultaneously, Jay's business sense allows him to size up an opportunity from a vastly different perspective than the one held by his white manager, Max (Tim Kniffin). When a retired white heavyweight champion offers to fight Jay for 90% of the purse, Jackson quickly agrees to Bixby's terms over Max's objections. Why? He knows that's the only way he'll ever get an opportunity to fight a white man.

Satchel André as Fish in The Royale (Photo by: David Allen)

In addition to Max, Jay must rely on his trainer, Wynton (Donald E. Lacy, Jr.), for guidance and support. After fighting a young boxer named Fish (Satchel André), he's smart enough to hire the man to be his sparring partner. But when Jay's sister appears and begs him not to fight a white man, Jackson's long repressed memories keep haunting him as he prepares for the big fight. Having witnessed an envelope containing two $20 bills pass between Fish and an older white man, he starts to wonder if the people whose emotional support he's counting on may actually be betraying him behind his back.

Atim Udoffia as Nina in The Royale (Photo by: David Allen)

Richard Olmsted's simple unit set provides a stark playing ground for the dramatic as well as athletic confrontations in Ramirez's play. Thanks to boxing coach and co-choreographer Joe Orrach, the coordination between lighting designer Kurt Landisman, sound designer James Ard, and the two boxers allow key moments in the boxing ring to take on a dreamy, almost poetic tone. The period costumes by Courtney Flores add an historical anchor to an otherwise abstract production.

The cast of The Royale (Photo by: David Allen)

While the supporting cast does a superb job of framing Jackson's challenges, the key reason to see this production is to witness the finely-etched performances by Calvin M. Thompson and Satchel André as two African American boxers willing to put everything on the line in pursuit of their dreams. Performances of The Royale continue through December 10 at the Aurora Theatre Company (click here for tickets).