Friday, March 2, 2018

When Cultures Collide

If, like me, you are a heavy dreamer, you've experienced moments when it becomes difficult to determine whether you're awake (much less "woke") or still roaming around the nether regions of Dreamland. Pinching yourself isn't always an effective solution to the feeling of being caught between two worlds when bizarre moments seem so real that they could almost make sense.

They rarely do.

For example, I recently attended a god-awful piece of performance art (which shall not be named in order to protect the identities of all involved). It was so excruciatingly bad that I found myself feeling intensely grateful to the three tall people who stood in front of me and blocked my view of the performer. The following morning, as I struggled to rise to the surface of consciousness, I dreamed I was watching a mezzo-soprano friend (who was a smoking hot Carmen in her day) try out a new cabaret act which turned out to be a severely misconceived tribute to Carol Channing.

As luck would have it, that night I found myself in a small theatre in the East Bay, watching a production of Mary Zimmerman's one-act play entitled The Secret in the Wings. When an evil nursemaid spat out the words "I hate those queens," I instantly thought of Zsa Zsa Gabor's immortal performance in 1958's Queen of Outer Space.

The memory of Zsa Zsa's stellar acting skills provoked a moment of inappropriate laughter without any need for me to worry about being chastised by Ivanka Trump for questioning her status as America's Most Unloved First Daughter due to her skill at speaking out of both sides of her mouth.

As many know, Zimmerman is the controversial theatre artist whose reinterpretations of classic works of literature (1001 Arabian Nights, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Homer's Odyssey, Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes) and operatic productions (Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Bellini's La Sonnambula, Rossini's Armida, Dvorak's Rusalka) have challenged audiences. While some of her stagings fare better than others, there is no doubt that Zimmerman has a formidable imagination which she uses to bring new life to old works.

Alyssa Kim, Lisa Wang, and Julia Norton as the Three Blind Queens
in The Secret in the Wings (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Originally created for Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company in 1991, The Secret in the Wings weaves adaptations of several fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm into an 80-minute spookfest. In 2003, Zimmerman revised the script, adding two more stories to the plot.

Jenn Bates as the little girl in The Secret in the Wings
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

The basic structure is simple. A child is left in the care of a babysitter when her parents leave home to attend a party. The babysitter is one of the family's next-door neighbors, an extraordinary grouch who, in the long tradition of ogres intent on making bad fashion statements, drags a spiked reptilian tail behind him. If the child is terrified of the ogre as a result of their previous encounters, matters are not helped by his constantly asking her if she will marry him. Anyone familiar with Beauty and the Beast will be able to recognize the set-up of an innocent, young, pretty girl trapped in a hostage situation who eventually falls in love with her captor.

Jenn Bates as the Princess in The Secret in the Wings
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

In order to help pass the time, the babysitter reads several fairy tales to the girl, although frequent interruptions prevent him from finishing any of his stories. His narrations are roughly modeled on The Sea-Hare, The Three Snake Leaves, Allerleira or Thousand-Furs, and The Six Swans.

A scene based on The Six Swans from The Secret in the Wings
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)
  • In one tale, three blind queens end up becoming pregnant and then devouring their newborn infants in a blood-curdling display of family values.
  • In a story about death and transfiguration, a young woman (whose recently widowed father can't stop grieving) is frightened enough to run away when her father develops incestuous thoughts as he stares at her with lust in his eyes.
  • In another tale, a selfish and haughty Turandot-like princess says she will marry the man who can make her laugh, but makes sure that any suitor who fails to meet her challenge is beheaded (an act symbolized by a male actor being forced to wear a huge dunce cap while holding a bright red ball in his hands.
The three rejected suitors who failed to make the princess laugh
in The Secret in the Wings (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Directed by Jack Phillips on Kuo-Hao Lo's creepy unit set for a spooky basement (with costumes by Mackenzie Laurel Orvis, lighting by Courtney Johnson, and sound by Michael Kelly), the Contra Costa Civic Theatre's production of Zimmerman's play makes it clear that adults have as much (if not more) to fear from the recitation of fairy tales that retain the capacity to rattle the cages of their grown-up minds.

Kuo Hao-Lo's set design for The Secret in the Wings
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

As with other plays written by Zimmerman, a small ensemble tackles a variety of roles, easily morphing from members of a chorus into parents, princesses, bitter queens, and lizardly ogres. CCCT's nine-actor ensemble (Andrew Calabrese, Richard Friedlander, Jenn Bates, Avi Jacobson, Keith Jefferds, Alyssa Kim, Julia Norton, Joel Stanley, Lisa Wang) tackled the challenge with appropriate levels of gusto, relishing in the creepiness of the various fairy tales without ever making the experience creep along.

A scene from The Secret in the Wings (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

An odd side-effect of watching Zimmerman's play is a growing appreciation for the intricacy of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's beloved musical, Into the Woods, which had its Broadway premiere on November 5, 1987 (roughly four years before Zimmerman's play debuted in Chicago). Performances of The Secret in the Wings continue at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre through March 11 (click here for tickets).

Julia Norton and Joel Stanley in a scene from The Secret in the Wings
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

* * * * * * * * *
Drop one "m" from the name "Grimm" and you're left with the mood filling the theatre during early scenes of Julia Cho's controversial new play, Office Hour. Following its world premiere at South Coast Repertory in April 2016, Lisa Peterson's staging arrives in the Bay area as part of a co-production between the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Kerry Warren (Genevieve), Jeremy Kahn (David), and Jackie Chung
(Gina) discuss a problem student in a scene from Office Hour
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In the opening scene, three college English professors are seen discussing a problem student. David (Jeremy Kahn) and Genevieve (Kerry Warren) have already suffered through a semester with the malignant, brooding presence of Dennis (Daniel Chung) in their creative writing classes. A stubborn, pouting young Korean-American who radiates hostility toward students and teachers alike, Dennis's essays (which are filled with descriptions of rape and violence) have caused some students to drop the course while others (mostly women) have been appalled at having to listen to him read his assignments out loud to the class.

Obviously scared by Dennis's potential for violence, David and Genevieve are equally frustrated by the school administration's refusal to take pre-emptive measures against a dysfunctional young man with the potential to explode like a powder keg. In an era when high school students have surprisingly easy access to firearms, they hope that a Korean-American teacher like Gina (Jackie Chung) may be able to get through to Dennis and pull him out of his tightly-clamped shell.

Daniel Chung as Dennis in Office Hour (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Like many adjunct professors, Gina is struggling to survive financially. To make matters worse, she is also in the throes of a divorce. When Dennis finally shows up for a scheduled office hour with her, she struggles to break through his sullen, stone-like presence. When Dennis pulls a gun from his backpack, one can feel the audience recoiling in their seats.

Working on a stark unit set designed by Matt Saunders, lighting designer Scott Zielinski and sound designer Rob Kaplowitz have come up with fascinating ways to present the audience with multiple courses of action as if they were scrolling through a video game's library of potential scenarios. Director Lisa Peterson is quick to note that what makes Cho's play acutely different from many other new works are the pain and poignancy of its timeliness.
"This play is about the potential for violence, the fear of violence and the actuality of living in a world where acts of violence come out of the blue. It’s also very much about the articulation of fear, of need, and of loneliness. All four characters are writers. Office Hour is a meditation on how we dig our humanity out from this pile of crap.”

Nearly a half hour goes by before Gina is able to coax a simple sound from her troubled student. Even as she describes the problems she had communicating with her own father, Gina's interaction with Dennis leads to a growing sense of desperation as she tries to pierce the emotional armor of an angry young man who grew up in the shadow of an older sister who was a child prodigy, who feels that he has been routinely ignored for most of his life (to the point where he might as well be dead), and who does not expect to live much longer. As disgusted as Dennis might be with the various forms of therapy to which he has been subjected, when Gina tries a simple game that allows Dennis to act out a telephone conversation with his mother, the breakthrough she has struggled to achieve only leads to a bleak look inside her student's barren emotional landscape of disappointment. disgust, and depression.

Daniel Chung as Dennis in Office Hour (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Seeing Office Hour in the wake of the recent massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida adds the additional weight of current events to this particular theatregoing experience. As tense and alarming as it may feel to watch numerous shooting scenarios play out onstage, audiences are likely to feel more sadness than shock at the emotions roiling within Dennis as they recognize how bullying, loneliness, confusion, and a terrifying lack of social skills have warped his mind to the point where he has become a danger to himself as well as a danger to others. As Cho explains:
“The experiences that Dennis has are experiences of marginalization and disempowerment. For me, writing and being in the theatre has been like one very long, unending class in empathy and understanding. From what I’ve seen in writing classes (or from being around other writers and then being with actors and directors), so much of our energy has been trying to understand each other, trying to understand characters, trying to understand people who are different from ourselves. Office Hour was, at least for me, a piece of writing that could at least say, ‘Look, these are things I’m struggling with. Are you struggling with them, too?’”
Jackie Chung (Gina) and Daniel Chung (Dennis) in
a scene from Office Hour (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

It's a bit amusing that young Jeremy Kahn's condescending and bullying David comes across as the oldest character onstage. While I tip my hat with admiration to Jackie Chung (Gina) and Daniel Chung (Dennis) for their intense, fully committed portrayals, I can't help wondering if the slow but steady retreat I experienced from Cho's play was because (a) I don't watch the news on cable-TV, (b) I've spent the past 40 years working from home and have rarely had to spend time with people I don't like, (c) as the play progressed, I thought Cho's do-overs lost some of their dramatic punch, and (d) like many Americans, I've grown accustomed to the face of violence.

Performances of Office Hour continue through March 25 at Berkeley Rep (click here for tickets). Here are two teasers for the show:

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