Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Power of Art to Educate

Not every child grows up in a home where parents can afford to nourish a talent or interest in the arts. Despite the continued threat to cut funding for arts programs in the schools (as well as for the National Endowment for the Arts), many teachers strive to find ways that will keep their students interested and involved in school projects.

Some purchase classroom supplies that their school district cannot afford. Others try to create games which will help students build a link between telling stories and solving problems. With so many nonprofit arts organizations doing educational outreach work, some remarkable projects (which would have been unthinkable 50 years ago) now offer artists as well as youngsters meaningful opportunities which let the arts broaden their lives. This video clip of dancers from the New York City Ballet interacting with children with disabilities is a perfect example.

A recent article on entitled New York Subway Station Exhibit Devoted to David Bowie highlighted Spotify's coverage of a project at the Broadway-Lafayette Street/Bleecker Street subway station that was inspired by the Brooklyn Museum's "David Bowie Is" exhibit.

Part of the David Bowie exhibit at the Broadway-Lafayette train station
(Photo credit: Spotify)

The truth is that art is everywhere we look, whether one stares at a tree, a statue, or the setting sun. What's more, the arts can teach people all kinds of important life lessons. As part of their vocal training, aspiring opera singers learn that they must be fluent in the language they are singing, understand the proper usage of certain words in the libretto, and grasp how their character's behavior is affected in the context of the story. Above all, they learn that opera and acting are collaborative art forms which rely on a group dynamic. Rehearsals and performances are not about "I" but about the collective "we."

A short film being shown at CAAMFest 2018 stands out for the way it turns the standard arguments about color-blind casting, cultural appropriation, political correctness, and American exceptionalism upside down and inside out. Written and directed by Theodore A. Adams III, Othello-san focuses on Jason Brown (Theo Adams IV), a young African American actor who graduated from the Yale School of Drama and has performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C.

Far more focused on building his career than honing his craft, Jason has enrolled in Japan's most prestigious acting school with the goal of playing the title role in a Japanese language version of Shakespeare's 1603 tragedy, Othello (The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice). His assumption is that he's a natural choice for the role because he has dark skin and has already appeared as Othello on Broadway.

Research and process, however, are not Jason's strong points. At the first table reading it becomes obvious to the director, Yamada (Yuki Matsuzaki), that the young actor is not yet "off book." Nor has he learned the proper pronunciation of certain Japanese words. When asked who he thinks Othello is and why he wants to portray the Moor, Jason's answers are all about himself -- how this would be a logical stepping stone in his career that might help him get work in Japan. As the filmmaker notes:
"Othello-san challenges the audience to consider the fundamental concept of perspective. Each character brings a heavy dose of self-perspective to the story that causes a tremendous disconnect. The film demands an examination of race, gender, religion, nationality and culture. It uncovers deep-seated differences that will either bridge gaps or reinforce century-old barriers and misconceptions of two highly celebrated social groups. In the end, it may end up asking more questions than providing answers, but the ultimate goal is to start a dialogue, and from that discover a collective truth."

I was deeply impressed by Othello-san, and not just for Kunitaro Ohi's stark yet remarkably effective cinematography. The filmmaker's tightly-crafted script does a splendid job of emphasizing the distinction between approaching one's art as a business plan or treating one's relationships with professional colleagues as part of an actor's never-ending quest to learn from others. This short offers fascinating insights into what it means to learn how to build respect for one's craft, one's colleagues, and how to find and build character in one's roles as well as one's life. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
While documentary film has evolved into a powerful genre for examining stories that have been ignored, neglected, or intentionally buried (anyone for corporate and governmental obfuscation?), documentary theatre is an extremely different phenomenon. Although viewers may be able to sit back and watch a documentary film in a movie theatre, on television, or on a computer monitor, they remain safely -- and physically -- detached from the narrative unfolding in front of them. Documentary theatre makes them vulnerable to the presence of live actors and the collective responses of an engaged audience.

The Tectonic Theater Project recently announced the release of a book about the company entitled Moment Work: Tectonic Theater Project's Process of Devising Theater. Written by artistic director Moisés Kaufman and Barbara Pitts McAdams (along with members Leigh Fondakowski, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, Kelli Simpkins, Jimmy Maize, and Scott Barrow), the book offers a guide to the collaborative method the company developed during its work on such productions as Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, I Am My Own Wife, and The Laramie Project.

Matthew Shepard on a 1995 school trip to Morocco where
he was beaten and raped (Photo by Gina van Hoof)

For those who don't know, The Laramie Project is a powerful piece of verbatim theatre that was created by the Tectonic Theatre Project in the wake of the sadistic attack on Matthew Shepard (a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie) on October 6, 1998 that resulted in Shepard's death at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado on October 12. Not only did Shepard's murder give the world a grisly picture of what a homophobic hate crime looks like, on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. Shepard's mother subsequently founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which focuses on educational outreach and advocacy programs aimed at preventing violence and combating homophobia.

Poster art for The Laramie Project

First performed by the Denver Center Theatre Company in February of 2000, The Laramie Project was performed in Laramie in 2002 (the same year that HBO commissioned a film version of The Laramie Project that was also written by Moises Kaufman). To mark the 20th anniversary of Shepard's death, San Francisco's Left Coast Theatre Company recently staged a production of The Laramie Project directed by Stuart Bousel. The program contained the following explanatory statement from the playwright:
The Laramie Project was written through a unique collaboration by Tectonic Theatre Project. During the year-and-a-half development of the play, members of the company and I traveled to Laramie six times to conduct interviews with the people of the town. We transcribed and edited the interviews, then conducted several workshops in which the members of the company presented material and acted as dramaturgs in the creation of the play.”
Steve Mallers as Aaron McKinney in a scene from
The Laramie Project (Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wollins)
“As the volume of material grew with each additional trip to Laramie, a small writers’ group from within the company began to work more closely to further organize and edit the material, conduct additional research in Laramie, and collaborated in the writing of the play. This group was led by Leigh Fondakowski as head writer, with Stephen Belber and Greg Pierotti as associate writers. As we got closer to the play’s first production in Denver, the actors (including Stephen Belber and Greg Pierotti) turned their focus to performance while Leigh Fondakowski continued to work with me on drafts of the play, as did Stephen Wangh, who by then had joined us as an associate writer and ‘bench coach.’"
Terry Maloney Haley in a scene from The Laramie Project
(Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wollins)

On April 22, LCTC will stage a one-night-only reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later as a fundraiser. As noted on Wikipedia:
"Ten years after Shepard's murder, members of Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie to conduct follow-up interviews with residents featured in the play. Those interviews were turned into a companion piece, entitled The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. The play debuted as a reading at nearly 150 theatres across the United States and internationally on October 12, 2009 -- the 11th anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death, most whose opening was linked by webcam to New York City where Judy Shepard and the play's producers and writers gave an opening speech, followed by an address by Glenn Close."

Watching Left Coast Theatre Company's production of The Laramie Project in the intimate confines of the EXIT Stage Left venue proved to be a fascinating experience for reasons I had not anticipated. I had never attended a performance of the play before, which made it a refreshing night of theatre. And, because the past 20 years have witnessed a great deal of progress for LGBT rights (as well as progress in battling the HIV/AIDS epidemic), certain clouds of depression were not weighing as heavily on me as they might have at the time of the show's world premiere.

Even with a rise in homophobia aided and abetted by key figures in the Trump administration, the combined effect of Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement, teachers' strikes around the nation, and new waves of activism inspired by the Parkland students, seem to have fostered a greater sense of collective hope and determination. Having spent many hours during my career transcribing interviews I've recorded with artists and opera singers, I found myself in awe of the way Kaufman and his colleagues at Tectonic Theatre Project wove together an oral tapestry from the verbatim transcripts of their interviews as well as the transcripts of court proceedings against Shepard's murderers.

Tim Garcia as Fred Phelps in a scene from The Laramie Project
(Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wollins)

Seated beside me was a woman who had brought her teenage son with her to the performance. As we chatted during intermission, she told me what a godsend it was that her son (a senior in high school) was lucky enough to find a good program at his school for kids who are interested in theatre. When I told her how fortunate she is to be able to share her passion for theatre with a teenager (who showed no signs of the sullen behavior one often associates with kids that age), she confessed how grateful she was that she didn't have to spend three years going to football games.

Although The Laramie Project is written to be performed by anywhere from 8 to 100 actors, Bousel chose to work with an ensemble of 10 (Erica Andracchio, Megan Briggs, Andrew Calabrese, Ellen Dunphy, Tim Garcia, Terry Maloney Haley, Steve Mallers, Laylah Muran de Assereto, Alejandro Torres, and Wera von Wulfen) who tackle multiple roles during brief vignettes in which residents of Laramie (as well as the two murderers -- Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney) are questioned about their feelings and what they actually know about the tragic events that led to Shepard's death. As the show's director, Bousel kept the performance moving at a rapid clip without ever losing any of its dramatic momentum or depriving moments of the breathing space they required for maximum impact.

In case there are no theatres or community groups performing The Laramie Project where you live, HBO's film adaptation (with an amazing cast) is available for viewing on YouTube.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

That First Blush of Love

Can you remember the intoxicating, yet confusing emotions that ran through your head the first time you developed a crush on someone? The way your spirits soared at the mere thought of the person but took an alarmingly downward turn when you felt as if you had been deprived of their presence?

Such feelings aren't strictly limited to teenagers. People emerging from bouts of depression sometimes feel a rush of optimism at the mere hint that they could be enjoying a normal day. Others, who have lost someone (or something) precious, suddenly find themselves smiling or laughing out loud at a joke and realize how long it's been since they've felt that way. One need only remember Dolly Levi's words to recall how important that sense of excitement and exhilaration can be to one's well-being.
“Every night, I've put out the cat, made myself a rum toddy, and, before I went to bed, said a little prayer thanking God that I was independent, that no one else's life was mixed up with mine. Then, one night, an oak leaf fell out of my Bible. I placed it there when you asked me to marry you. A perfectly good oak leaf, but without color and without life. And I suddenly realized that I was like that leaf. For years I had not shed one tear, nor had I been filled with the wonderful hope that something or other would turn out well. And so I've decided to rejoin the human race.”
I recently witnessed two characters go through a similar transformation under vastly different circumstances. One was a young man on a diplomatic mission who couldn't understand what he was feeling after meeting an attractive woman. Luckily for him, Irving Berlin was more than happy to put his emotions into their proper context.

The other was a young man trapped in a small seaside town who knew he was gay, but also understood that he needed to leave home if he was ever to blossom. With his parents' blessing, he grabbed onto the closest shooting star and took a gigantic risk. And no, the film I'm referring to is most definitely not Call Me By Your Name.

* * * * * * * * *
Seen during the 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival, Dominique Choisy's wry comedy entitled My Life With James Dean features a cluster of intersecting relationships with more than a hint of craziness. Set in the tiny seaside town of Le Tréport on the coast of Normandy, its mischief and mayhem begin as gay filmmaker Géraud Champreux (Johnny Rasse) arrives in town on a bus to attend a screening of his film (also titled My Life With James Dean). As he rises from his seat to help an older woman reach her luggage, a little boy who has been staring at him reaches down and swipes Géraud's cell phone. A few minutes later, a car drives by with the boy leaning out the rear window and grinning triumphantly as he waves the stolen phone at Géraud (whose childhood imaginary friend was none other than James Dean).

Poster art for My Life With James Dean

That seemingly insignificant incident is just the beginning of Géraud's problems. Upon registering at the Hotel de Calais, he is greeted by a strange bookworm named Gladys (Juliette Damiens), whose vague responses mask the fact that she is an aspiring actress obsessed with the role of Nina in Anton Chekhov's 1896 play, The Seagull. Trapped in the middle of nowhere while trying to pay for her acting classes by working as a receptionist, Gladys turns out to be full of surprises.

After wondering why no one met him at the bus station, Géraud finds his way to the casino which hosts the cinema. The theatre's house manager, Jimmy (Yannick Becquelin), warns the filmmaker not to expect a large crowd since local audiences only turn out for comedies and American action films. Although the sole ticket buyer is a plainly-dressed elderly woman, the strapping tall projectionist, Balthazar (Mickaël Pelissier), watches the film intently and ends up carrying the drunk filmmaker from the theatre back to his hotel where, with help from Gladys, he puts the sleeping Géraud to bed.

The next morning, Géraud (who is often called Jerome by mistake) finally meets the cinema's distraught owner, Sylvia van den Rood (Nathalie Richard), who has booked his "dangerous" film into three theatres along the coast. Sylvia failed to meet him the previous night because she was having an emotional meltdown and is still in a state of hysterics because her lesbian lover, Louise (Marie Vernalde), has suddenly broken up with her and gone back to her husband, Bertrand (Eric Goulouzelle).

Stranded in the middle of nowhere, Géraud tries using the hotel's phone to contact the star of his film, Ludwig (Tancredi Volpert), leaving messages promising that he'll find a gym to work on "this body that you love" while imploring his ex-boyfriend to drive to Le Tréport so they can spend some time together.

When Balthazar finally gets a chance to be alone with Géraud, he professes his undying love for the filmmaker (even though he has never told anyone he is gay and has never even had sex with another man). At the cinema that night, Balthazar is startled when his father, Maxence (Bertrand Belin), buys a ticket to see the film. When father and son join Gladys and Géraud for a post-screening drink at the casino, the good-natured Maxence toasts the filmmaker with the words "Here's to poofters!"

Balthazar, Maxence, Géraud, and Gladys enjoy a drink
after a screening of My Life With James Dean

The following morning Géraud is awakened by someone knocking on his door. Not only is Balthazar asleep on the floor in the hallway outside the filmmaker's room, Sylvia has a big problem on her hands. She's kidnapped Louise, drugged her, and left her tied to a chair in her living room with duct tape over her mouth. With the help of Balthazar, Gladys, and Géraud, Louise gets released from bondage as Sylvia cries "I kidnapped you and knocked you out because I can't imagine this home without you!" After the two women kiss and make up, Louise volunteers to drive the group to a screening in Crécy which draws a busload of 57 seniors.

Balthazar (Mickaël Pelissier), Sylvia van den Rood
(Nathalie Richard), and Géraud Champreux (Johnny Rasse)
in a scene from My Life With James Dean

Gladys quickly warms to Tony (Julien Graux), the tall, kind man who runs the local retirement home. While waiting for the film to end, Balthazar receives a call from his father inviting everyone to brunch at their home the following day. Géraud asks Balthazar if he can borrow his cell phone to make a call and finally manages to connect with Ludwig. Soon after he finishes his call and hands the phone back to Balthazar, the projectionist presses the "redial" button and tells Ludwig that Géraud has met a young man, the two of them are very much in love, and Ludwig should leave his ex-boyfriend alone and just forget about him.

By the time the group returns to Le Tréport, a swarthy homeless man named Milad (Tajamul Faqiri-Choisy) -- who might be one of the many refugees in Calais -- has started cruising the filmmaker. Sylvia has continued trying to woo Louise back from her controlling husband. Gladys has fallen for Tony and, with the stubborn ardor of a teenager harboring a crush on an adult, Balthazar has fallen head over heels in love with the filmmaker. Géraud is just about to ask Balthazar if he has plans for that night when he spots Ludwig and instantly goes to greet him. The others start following the two men, curious to see if Géraud and Ludwig will spend the night together. Later that night, Géraud dreams that he is being seduced by the corpse-like ghost of James Dean.

The next morning, Géraud and Ludwig ride the funicular to the top of a local hill to say their goodbyes unaware that Balthazar is watching every move they make. After Ludwig gets into his wife's car and drives off, Géraud is surprised to encounter the young projectionist. Before they can kiss, the six-foot-tall Balthazar makes them change their positions on a flight of stairs so that he can be face-to-face with the smaller object of his desire.

Filmmaker Géraud Champreux (Johnny Basse) celebrates his
newfound freedom in a scene from My Life With James Dean

At brunch, Balthazar is beaming as he sits next to Géraud while his parents tease him about his fondness for coffee and shrimps. Then Maxence drops a bombshell, telling everyone that, starting Monday, his 15-year-old son (who grew more than 11 inches in five months) must return to middle school. The news that he is being chased by a giant child who is surprisingly mature for his age completely unnerves Géraud. Things only become worse when Maxence invites everyone to spend the afternoon on his fishing boat, where the filmmaker becomes seasick and starts hallucinating scenes from his next film.

Sylvia (Nathalie Richard) and Louise (Marie Vernalde) enjoy an
afternoon on Maxence's boat in a scene from My Life With James Dean

As the boat returns to its mooring, Sylvia and Louise spot Bertrand on the dock. Sensing trouble, Sylvia asks Gladys if she can drive Géraud to his film's final screening in Quend Plage. Crushed by rejection, Balthazar runs off in a huff. Before getting in the car, Gladys tells the projectionist's mother, Catherine (Sophie Matel), that she has an idea which might help.

Unfortunately, Gladys's car breaks down en route to Quend Plage and Géraud arrives just as the film is letting out. When he encounters the mysterious older woman who has attended each of his screenings, the audience discovers that she is Géraud’s estranged mother (Françoise Lebrun), whom he has not seen in nine years. After Gladys drives Géraud back to Le Tréport, she calls Catherine to let her know that they have returned to town. In a little while, Catherine arrives with Balthazar clutching a suitcase and gives him her blessing, promising to explain what has happened to Maxence. The projectionist goes up to Géraud's hotel room, and despite the older man's protestations, undresses and starts kissing the filmmaker, proving that he is definitely not a child.

Balthazar (Mickaël Pelissier) and Géraud Champreux
(Johnny Basse) in a scene from My Life With James Dean

The next morning, the two men are awakened by Sylvia, who once again is hysterical (Louise has gone back to Bertrand). As Géraud is about to follow Balthazar onto the bus to Lyons, Tony stops him, warmly embracing the filmmaker, and reminding him to make Balthazar's favorite breakfast dish (coffee and shrimps) for his son. At the last moment, Milad rushes onto the bus while fleeing the police. My Life with James Dean ends with a clip from Géraud's next film, a Bollywood-style musical called The Maharajah and the Seagulls.

Dominique Choisy's film is an intricate coming out/coming of age story which does a splendid job of mixing drama with farce. While it's easy to miss some of the cues and clues being laid down as the film unfolds, I found My Life With James Dean to be far more invigorating, intriguing, and fulfilling than the film adaptation of André Aciman's novel, Call Me By Your Name. Although no trailer is available at present, the film was sold to a distributor during the festival and should come out within a year.

* * * * * * * * *
Founded in 1993 with the goal of revisiting "neglected" Broadway musicals from the past, 42nd Street Moon, has evolved from concert-style performances to fully-staged productions over the past 25 years. Having recently taken on the managerial responsibilities for the Gateway Theatre (its home for the past 15 years), the current leadership team of Daren A. C. Carollo and Daniel Thomas has decided to maximize the venue's usage. As the company's production values have grown increasingly ambitious, the two men have elected to fill the auditorium on certain "dark" nights with the same kind of concert performances that got the company started.

The company recently offered two performances of Call Me Madam, Irving Berlin's 1950 musical that was inspired by Washington's Perle Mesta (who had been appointed as the United States Ambassador to Luxembourg). With Ethel Merman starring as the brassy Sally Adams, the show opened with "The Hostess With The Mostess." The musical's book (by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse) poked fun at Washington's fatuous combination of ignorance and financial generosity. Nearly 70 years after the show first opened at the Imperial Theatre on October 12, 1950, the script still features a clueless Congressman whose sole purpose is to remind people that he is a Republican and plenty of jokes about the political culture in the nation's capitol which show that nothing much has changed.

Berlin's scores offers plenty of appealing tunes (Call Me Madam was made into a 1953 movie musical starring Merman, George Sanders, Donald O'Connor, Billy DeWolfe, and Vera-Ellen). While the show was a perfect vehicle for a belter like Merman (whose understudy on Broadway was Elaine Stritch), not everyone had the vocal fortitude of the Merm (as evidenced in the following clip from a 1966 segment of The Andy Williams Show).

In September of 2009, 42nd Street Moon presented a semi-staged version of Call Me Madam starring Klea Blackhurst in the role created by Merman. Directed and choreographed by Cindy Goldfield (with Dave Dobrusky as music director), and starring Stephanie Prentice as Sally Adams, the company's recent performances featured Michael Patrick Gaffney (doubling as Henry Gibson and Grand Duke Otto), company co-founder Stephanie Rhoads as Grand Duchess Sophie, and Scott Maraj as the meddling Sebastian Sebastian. Andrew Mondello portrayed the lovesick Kenneth Gibson with Amanda Johnson revealing a lovely soprano as Princess Maria.

The performance included two delightful vocal surprises. As Cosmo Constantine, Will Giammona (who is frequently seen in productions at New Conservatory Theatre Center) had a chance to show off his beautiful baritone to much greater advantage than usual. Stephanie Prentice (who is not a belter in the Merman/Blackhurst style) delivered a much more tender and feminine portrayal of Sally Adams, which made the character seem a lot less ballsy and helped transform Sally into a more intuitive and sensitive woman.

Irving Berlin's score (which includes such oddities as "Washington Square Dance," "The Ocarina," "Can You Use Any Money Today?" and "They Like Ike") is also filled with romantic ballads such as "Marrying For Love and "The Best Thing For You (Would Be Me)." In addition to 'You're Just In Love," the other song from Call Me Madam which became a popular hit (back in the day when Broadway show tunes entered the popular culture through radio) is "It's A Lovely Day Today" -- a song which never fails to put a smile on a listener's face (note Irving Berlin's face on the sheet music Vera-Ellen holds in the following clip from the movie).

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Women on the Verge of a FOMO Breakdown

On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963 into law (which, as part of his New Frontier program, amended 1938's Fair Labor Standards Act). On January 29, 2009, the first bill President Barack Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. The new law (which amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964) redefined the previous 180-day statute of limitations for filing an equal-pay lawsuit charging wage discrimination by resetting the clock to include each new paycheck that reflected the discriminatory action in question.

This month, a unanimous panel of 11 judges from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that employers must pay women the same as men for the same work -- and cannot base their job offers on differences in their salaries at previous jobs. In his opinion, the late Judge Stephen Reinhardt stressed that "Although the (Equal Pay) Act has prohibited sex-based wage discrimination for more than 50 years, the financial exploitation of working women embodied by the gender pay gap continues to be an embarrassing reality of our economy."

While this is great news for working women, the vast population of housewives who, for one reason or another, must rely on their spouse's income often find themselves trapped in a cycle of dependency with no conceivable path to freedom and fulfillment. Some are victims of domestic violence. Others have watched their children grow up, leave home, and are struggling to cope with "empty nest syndrome."

While some feel overwhelmed by circumstances (as if trapped in a "fight or flight" situation), others feel as if they are experiencing a slow and stifling death of their soul as a result of a mind-numbing routine, a crushing sense of boredom, and a painful lack of options. Many years ago, when I asked my parents why they refused to move to Florida (where so many of their friends had retired), I got two distinctly surprising answers.
  • My father stated that one reason he hated Florida was the endless stream of "organ recitals" from senior citizens who felt compelled to "share" all of their ailments.
  • My mother told me that "Once you've listened to someone for 25 years, you've pretty much heard all they have to say."
Two recent performances captured the frustrated feelings of hopelessness and helplessness shared by depressed housewives whose husbands have started to take them for granted or who have been mourning the loss of joy and vitality they felt earlier in their lives.
  • One takes place in the American Midwest in 1965 (a time when the nuclear family was still relatively stable); the other takes place place 20 years later in Liverpool.
  • One focuses on a woman whose children still live at home; the other woman's children have long since left the nest.
  • Both women's opportunities are severely limited by their finances.
  • Both are terrified to leave the safety and security of their marriages.
When an opportunity is suddenly thrust into their hands to take a break from a lifestyle that no longer inspires or excites them, only one wife has the courage to defect from her marriage. As I watched both performances, I was struck by how radically our ability to consider new opportunities has changed since the Internet became a powerful force in our lives. If knowledge is truly power, these two women suffered as much from their social isolation as they did from the paucity of information to which they had access.

* * * * * * * * *
In 1962, when A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was trying out at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., things were not going well. Although the show was being directed by the legendary George Abbott, had music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a cast that boasted first-hand experience with the bawdy comedic style of vaudeville and burlesque, the opening ballad ("Love Is In The Air") was not landing with the audience.

When producer Harold Prince brought in director/choreographer Jerome Robbins as a show doctor, Robbins quickly diagnosed the problem: The audience needed to be told what kind of evening they could expect. Sondheim composed his now-famous 10-minute-long opening number ("Comedy Tonight") and the show's fortunes immediately turned around. When Forum opened in New York on May 8 it became a smash hit which ran for a total of 964 performances. Since then, creative teams for many musicals have taken care to lay out their show's premise clearly enough to win over the audience in the first scene.
  • In September 1964, when Fiddler on the Roof had its Broadway premiere, Robbins staged the seven-minute long opening number ("Tradition") in such a way that the audience understood the demographics and needs of Anatevka's residents.
  • In 1987, when Into the Woods bowed on Broadway, its 15-minute long prologue (magnificently crafted by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine) reacquainted audiences with some of their favorite fairy tales and put them in a very good mood.
  • When Ragtime opened on Broadway in 1998, its 9-1/2 minute long Prologue introduced the audience to the three blocs of people (upper class whites, middle class African Americans, and lower class immigrants) whose stories would unfold onstage.

The above video clips perfectly demonstrate how a show with a large cast and complex plot can deliver a wealth of exposition in one tightly constructed opening number. But what happens when a musical is not about spectacle, but tells the tale of a woman whose brief encounter with a man changed her life? What if the cast is small, key moments are intimate and introspective, and characters reveal their most closely-held feelings to the audience through song?

Rob Richardson (Robert) and Joan Hess (Francesca) in a scene
from The Bridges of Madison County (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

If you're a composer/lyricist like Jason Robert Brown, you begin the evening with a melancholic solo for cello as a woman looks back on her choices in life and the miracle that touched her heart. As her memories become more complicated, you let the orchestration swell until she is riding a wave of emotion.

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is currently presenting the regional premiere of The Bridges of Madison County, a musical adaptation of Robert James Waller's 1992 novel that (following three years on The New York Times Best Seller list) became a popular film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep in 1995. With music and lyrics by Brown and a book by Marsha Norman, the musical had its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in August 2013 prior to its Broadway premiere on February 20, 2014 with a cast headed by Kelli O'Hara, Stephen Pasquale, and Hunter Foster. If it only lasted for a disappointing 137 performances, my guess is that unlike blockbuster musicals which become hot tickets at the box office, The Bridges of Madison County is very much an acquired taste.

Set in 1965 in Winterset, Iowa and Naples, Italy in the past, The Bridges of Madison County chronicles an unexpected four-day romance between an Italian-American housewife and an itinerant photographer for National Geographic Magazine that occurs while Francesca's husband, Bud (Timothy Gulan), and teenage children, Michael (Matt Herrero) and Carolyn (Jessie Hoffman), have gone off to the state fair. While they are away, Carolyn's steer wins first prize, Michael gets to smoke some weed with a stable boy (Sean Fenton), and Bud becomes increasingly concerned about why his wife is acting so strangely whenever he calls home.

Rob Richardson (Robert) and Joan Hess (Francesca) in a scene
from The Bridges of Madison County (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The plot's dramatic tension revolves around the encounter between Francesca (Joan Hess) -- who left war-torn Naples to marry an American soldier and build a home with him far away on the safe soil of the United States -- and Robert Kinkaid (Rob Richardson). When Kincaid comes knocking on Francesca's door, asking for directions to one of the area's most photogenic covered bridges, the love-starved and homesick housewife suddenly realizes what she's been missing by spending the past 20 years in relative isolation on a farm. With some help from a bottle of brandy she's been saving for a special occasion, Francesca takes advantage of her family's absence to share some food, wine, and good loving with the sensitive and sensuous man who recently photographed her hometown in Italy.

Rob Richardson (Robert) and Joan Hess (Francesca) in a scene
from The Bridges of Madison County (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Meanwhile, Francesca's neighbors on a nearby farm, Charlie (Martin Rojas Dietrich) and Marge (Maureen McVerry), take turns watching Bud's house through a pair of binoculars as they speculate about why the photographer's pickup truck has been parked there overnight.

Martin Rojas Dietrich (Charlie) and Maureen McVerry (Marge) in a
scene from The Bridges of Madison County (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Like the show's director, I had neither seen the movie nor read the novel prior to attending a performance of the musical. Although The Bridges of Madison County may not be quite the crowd pleaser that many other shows become, there is no doubt in my mind about its musical strengths and dramatic appeal. As Robert Kelley writes in his Director's Note:
"In a glorious production on Broadway, The Bridges of Madison County overwhelmed me. Driven by a soaring, wistful score, it summoned a place, a past, a way of life. It captured the irresistible passion and possibility of two people discovering each other and themselves in one unexpected, unforgettable moment in time. Its scale was small, its emotions large, and its resonance larger still. It was romantic, as promised, but it was more. Here was a play about love itself -- the thrilling intensity of love newfound, and the lasting endurance of love long treasured, counterpointed in an achingly beautiful story of ordinary people made extraordinary by their experience of each other. I walked out of the theatre deeply moved by the thought that 'love is always better.'"
Rob Richardson (Robert) and Joan Hess (Francesca) in a scene
from The Bridges of Madison County (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Despite the temptation to run away with Robert, at the last minute Francesca gets cold feet and remains on the farm -- a decision similar to the one made by Lizzie Curry in 110 in the Shade, who turns down an offer from the roaming Bill Starbuck with the words "I've got to be Lizzie. Melisande's a name for one night, but Lizzie can do me my whole life long." Listening to Brown's score, one is struck by its near-operatic passion and the lack of "buttons" at the end of many musical numbers. In some ways, the show has been crafted as a cross between an intimate, romantic musical and a chamber opera.

Directed with great tenderness by Kelley, the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production was lit by Pamila Z. Gray, with excellent sound design by Jeff Mockus. Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes and Wilson Chin's scenic design were surprisingly effective. Sean Fenton (Young Paolo/Stable Boy), Christine Capsuto (Chiara), and Courtney Stokes (Marian/State Fair Singer) had some nice moments in supporting roles.

The craft that has gone into shaping The Bridges of Madison County shows that this project was very much a labor of love. With musical director William Liberatore leading a 10-piece ensemble, a radiant Joan Hess and charismatic Rob Richardson delivered beautifully layered performances as the two romantic leads, receiving tender and comic support from Martin Rojas Dietrich and Maureen McVerry.

This is not a perfect show, nor should it be approached as one (considering how much of its story deals with the emotional frailty of two lonely people who, over the course of a long and quietly momentous weekend get a taste of the physical, intellectual, and psychological fulfillment that's been missing from their lives). But I found the experience (most especially Brown's score) immensely satisfying.

Performances of The Bridges of Madison County continue through April 29 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Up in Walnut Creek, Center Rep is reviving Willy Russell's staged monologue, Shirley Valentine, in the tried and true hands of actress Kerri Shawn and director George Maguire (who have worked together on this play at least five times during the past 15 years). With costumes designed by Michael A. Berg, lighting by Scott Denison, and scenery by Andrea Bechert, this one-woman show becomes increasingly poignant in direct relation to the audience's age.

Commissioned by the Everyman Theatre, more than 30 years have passed since Shirley Valentine premiered in Liverpool and went on to become a powerful vehicle for Pauline Collins (who also starred in the 1989 film adaptation). The title character is a British housewife whose marriage has become ossified by routine. Her husband is extremely rigid, expecting his dinner to be ready and waiting, hot on the table, as soon as he walks in the door after work. Like many men, he has begun to regard his wife as a housekeeper rather than a partner. Not only is Shirley dying of boredom, her loneliness is so acute that she has taken to addressing the kitchen wall as if it were a person named "Wall" who was actively listening to her.

Kerri Shawn stars in Shirley Valentine (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Like Francesca, Shirley is painfully aware that she's been withering on the vine for quite some time. As a young girl, she used to be a fairly chipper, adventurous soul; now she's basically slogging through life from day to day. When her grown daughter announces that she is leaving her boyfriend to move back in with her parents, her imperious attitude toward Shirley is the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Although Shirley has previously scoffed at the idea of joining her friend Jane on a two-week vacation to Mykonos, after Jane surprises her with an airline ticket and announces that the entire trip is already paid for, Shirley finally takes the bait and packs her suitcase. Leaving a freezer full of prepared meals for her husband and a note that she has gone, she can barely contain her excitement about the giant step she is taking on her own behalf.

On the flight to Greece, Jane hits it off with a male passenger who is also heading to Mykonos. Insisting that Shirley won't mind, she makes plans to spend the first night (or two) with the handsome stranger, leaving her friend high and dry. Miraculously, the 52-year-old Shirley is relieved to have a chance to relish her newfound solitude, her freedom from menial responsibilities, and an opportunity to sit on the beach at night while listening to the ocean and gazing at the stars. She also meets a younger man who obviously likes older women and admires her stretch marks as signs of having lived.

As her vacation progresses, Shirley delights in swimming naked in the ocean with a man, making love to her new friend, and feeling as if she has come back to life. When she and Jane are at the airport checking in for their flight home, Shirley (realizing that no one is forcing her to return to Liverpool) suddenly bolts for freedom. In the next few days, she manages to get a job at the taverna where she had been staying, watch the man who seduced her set his sights on newly-arrived female tourists, and start to live life on her own terms. Her husband (who still can't understand why she went to Greece) informs his wife that he's flying down to Mykonos to bring her back home but, as the play ends, it's obvious that the newly-rebellious Shirley has other plans.

Kerri Shawn stars in Shirley Valentine (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Many people wonder how actors keep their performances in a long run fresh and why some people return to certain roles over the course of their careers. In opera, where a singer learns roles that they will repeat in cities around the world over the course of three decades, this is a common phenomenon. While certain roles are guaranteed meal tickets, a handful of them allow an artist to work with different directors, build greater nuance into their characterizations, and continue to learn more about their character's life from their experience performing the role onstage.

During a post-performance talkback with the audience, Shawn (now 66) and Maguire (now 71) discussed the mechanics as well as the rewards of revisiting a role over the course of several decades. Both have faced medical issues in recent years (Shawn is a breast cancer survivor) and become more acutely aware of the gift of life. They've also come to understand how, as part of their own aging process, they've developed different perspectives on the play and the character of Shirley Valentine.

Poster art for Shirley Valentine starring Kerri Shawn

In light of the growing strength of the women's movement and such developments as the #MeToo movement, Willy Russell's script often takes on a darker set of truths than it might have revealed in 1986. Although his play requires a huge amount of memorization for the actress portraying Shirley Valentine, it also enables gifted artists like Kerri Shawn to dig deeper and find more layers of humor, anger, and poignancy to add to their portrayal.

Performances of Shirley Valentine continue through April 29 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek (click here for tickets).

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Dark Side of the Wounds

One of the more quixotic challenges involved in writing about theatre, film, and opera is to try to articulate someone else's artistic vision. First introduced by the German philosopher K.F..E. Trahndorff in 1827, the term "Gesamtkunstwerk" (meaning a "total work of art" or, in some cases, a synthesis of the arts) has often used to describe the operas of Richard Wagner.

Some people mistakenly assume that an arts organization's mission statement is the same thing as its artistic vision. Having logged more than half a century attending live theatre and opera, I'd suggest that artistic vision is a bit like what former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United StatesPotter Stewart, said about 1964's Jacobellis v. Ohio:
"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [hard-core pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."
To my mind, someone's artistic vision is best understood by examining their creative output. Some artists, obsessed with the creative process, are compelled to continue experimenting in order to see what else they can do with their skills. One of the great polymaths of the opera world during the last half century was Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, a gifted stage and film director as well as a prolific costume and scenery designer. Ponnelle's productions were designed with such integrity, intricacy, insight, and innovation that some of them remain thrilling more than 30 years after their premieres.

Today, there are plenty of legends in their own mind whose greatest achievement seems to be talking about their art without producing much of anything. In today's fear-based environment, the statement "If you see something, say something" has taken on extremely negative connotations. I much prefer to apply that sentiment to artists whose vision and execution inspire rather than intimidate people.

* * * * * * * * *
Two short films shown at the 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival nearly leaped off the screen due to the brilliance and execution of their ideas. Each was like a signal flare indicating the presence of artists whose work merits continued attention in future years.

First up is Icebergs, a 10-minute stop motion film based on Efthymis Fillipou's book entitled Scenes. In 14 short vignettes (some relatively normal, others hysterically surreal), animator Eirini Vianelli introduces viewers to a cluster of crazed characters whose battles with loneliness and despair border on black comedy. Imagine putting Todd Solondz, Charles Addams, and William Steig in a room with a bunch of papier-mâché dolls that can cry and sweat, and then giving them a few hits of LSD. Then think what might happen if they could look down on a freeway clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic, a middle-aged African American man doing a belly flop into a swimming pool, or a waiter who had just dropped an entire dessert tray onto the floor of an upscale restaurant. And that's just for starters.
Created by Florian Brauch, Matthieu Pujol, Kim Tailhades, Yohan Thireau, and Romain Thirion, Hybrids may only be six minutes long, but it packs quite a wallop. This film is designed to explore an undersea world where pollution has inflicted some radical changes on marine life. Half biological and half mechanical, it's not really fair to call these hybrids genetic mutations. Among the creatures filling the screen are:
A mutant sea turtle from Hybrids

A predatory bird from Hybrids

A giant grouper from Hybrids

Bottle cap crabs strip a grouper's corpse in a scene from Hybrids

Poster art for Hybrids

Accompanied by Vincent Govindin's lush and spooky musical score, Hybrids examines what the "circle of life" might look like in an underwater realm where fish have mated with garbage. One longs to see a full-length feature from this creative team. Here's a teaser of their work:
* * * * * * * * *
When Tom Cipullo's opera, Glory Denied, received its world premiere from the Brooklyn College Opera Theater on May 5, 2007, it had an undeniable timeliness. Based on Tom Philpott's book about Colonel Floyd James Thompson (the longest-held prisoner of war in the history of the United States) and his struggle to re-assimilate into American life after spending nine years behind enemy lines in Vietnam, the opera debuted at a time when many American troops were returning home from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSDAnti-war sentiment was reaching new heights throughout the nation. In a note written in August 2001, the composer pointed out the unique aspect of his libretto:
Glory Denied may be the first opera adapted from an oral history. As such, it presents no linear narrative. Rather, it jumps from moment to moment, as a man’s mind might leap when subjected to horrific stress. Virtually all of the dialogue in the opera is taken literally from actual statements by the real people involved. On those few occasions where, for dramatic purposes, words have been changed or statements conflated, the composer has taken care not to alter the intent of the speaker.”
Morgan Balfour (Younger Alyce) and Ricardo Garcia
(Younger Thompson) in a scene from Glory Denied
(Photo by: San Francisco Conservatory of Music)

Since its world premiere, Glory Denied has been performed by New York's Chelsea Opera in 2010 and during the 2013 Fort Worth Opera Festival (a full-length recording is available on Albany Records). In 2015, Glory Denied was performed at the Vulcan Lyric Summer Festival in Philadelphia as well as the Syracuse Opera in November (with the help of a grant and a partnership with the Chittenango-based organization Clear Path For Veterans).

In April 2016, Opera Idaho performed Cipullo's opera in an airplane hangar at Aviation Specialties Unlimited near the Boise Airport. The Nashville Opera performed Glory Denied in November of that year.

In 2017, Glory Denied was performed by the Anchorage Opera in February, by Opera Memphis as part of its Midtown Opera Festival, and by the Tri-Cities Opera in Binghamton, New York in November,

In June of 2017, New York City's Opera Upper West performed Cipullo's work on the deck of the Baylander IX-514 (a former helicopter landing trainer billed as "the world's smallest aircraft carrier) which is now serving as a museum ship at Brooklyn Bridge Park. And in November of 2017, the Houston Grand Opera presented two performances of Glory Denied in the 1940 Air Terminal Museum Hangar at Hobby Airport as part of the company's four-year Veterans Songbook project (which gives voice to the stories of Houston-based men and women who served their country as well las to the stories of their loved ones).

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music recently staged two performances of Glory Denied in its Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall. Conducted by Curt Pajer, directed by Jose Maria Condemi, and using Cipullo's instrumentation for a 23-piece orchestra, the production featured costumes by Callie Floor. Peter Crompton's steeply raked set combined with a wealth of projections using photographs from the Department of Defense and The Record (from Bergen County New Jersey) transformed Glory Denied into one of the most successful multimedia opera productions I've ever seen.

Ricardo Garcia (Younger Thompson) in a scene from Glory Denied
(Photo by: San Francisco Conservatory of Music)

Clocking in at approximately 80 minutes in length, Cipullo's opera is written for four singers: two sopranos (Morgan Balfour and Taylor Haines) take on the roles of younger Alyce and older Alyce while a tenor and baritone take on the roles of younger Thompson (Ricardo Garcia) and older Thompson (Edward Laurenson).

Not only is Cipullo's score riveting, it maintains a sense of dramatic urgency from start to finish. He writes handsomely for the voice, taking care to ensure that dramatic moments make the strongest impact. The wildly uneven playing areas of Crompton's set (including a giant screen skewed at a stark angle) reinforce the concept that nothing that happens during war is as it should be, and that the stress and confusion borne by a lonely wife trying to raise four children on her own and get some honest answers from the military is enough to drive a person crazy.

Ricardo Garcia (Younger Thompson) and Edward Laurenson
(Older Thompson) in a scene from Glory Denied
(Photo by: San Francisco Conservatory of Music)

By the time Thompson returns home to America, he is a shell of his former self (and his wife is not doing much better). Not only has his war experience shattered this soldier's life and future, it has ruined his marriage and demolished every hope he held onto while in captivity. At one point, when he tells Alyce that he forgives her for not being faithful while he was held captive, Alyce looks him in the eye and barks "Ask me if I give a shit!"

I was deeply impressed by Glory Denied, not only for its musical strengths and the strong ensemble work at the performance I attended, but because this is the kind of timely and relevant opera/musical theatre piece that folks at OPERA America could only dream about back in the days when they launched the Opera into the '90's and Beyond program. When one thinks back to last fall's bloated and cringe-worthy world premiere of Girls of the Golden West (the new opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars that debuted at the San Francisco Opera), the contrast in theatricality, accessibility, and craft is mind boggling. There's no doubt in my mind which work will have a longer life and enjoy many more productions. Not only can Glory Denied spark community outreach to veterans support groups wherever it is performed, it is already scheduled to be staged by the Pittsburgh Opera in February 2019 (Girls of the Golden West is largely an academic exercise is mental masturbation). Nor can there be any doubt about which opera is the more culturally important and stageworthy artistic achievement.

Morgan Balfour (Younger Alyce) and Taylor Haines
(Older Alyce) in a scene from Glory Denied
(Photo by: San Francisco Conservatory of Music)