Wednesday, May 29, 2019

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Subtlety!

In recent years, Donald Lazere has been wrestling with the fact that although, as part of the dumbing down of America, conservatives have spent the past four decades devaluing the cost and benefits of a liberal arts education, many wealthy parents remain eager for their children to attend a college or university that specializes in the liberal arts. Lazere recalls that:
"Years ago, I taught a GE&B-required introduction to literature course at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, in the midst of prosperous farm country. One student, whose family owned a large ranch, kept ragging me: Why should he have to waste time on general education instead of taking just Ag Management courses? I tried repeatedly, and I hope cordially, to review justifications for liberal education and to explain why it is favored by society’s movers and shakers (including Jefferson’s notion of moral responsibility and Nussbaum’s 'ability to think well about political issues affecting the nation, to examine, reflect, argue, and debate'). After one of my efforts, he burst out, 'Are you telling us that we should study this stuff just so we can talk about it on the golf course?' Maybe he had a point, though I can’t envision a discussion of Socrates or Thoreau at any country club I know of."
If Barack Obama's two terms as President of the United States were hailed as a modern-day "Age of Reason," there can be no doubt that the Trump administration has kicked critical thinking skills and nuance to the curb. I'll be the first to admit that, like many creative people, I have a tendency to overthink issues, search for subtlety, and avoid the obvious. But sometimes the truth just wants to smack you upside the head. After a recent performance, I caught up with two friends struggling to understand what they were missing about the strangely confusing drama we had just seen. As they listed one plot possibility after another, I said "What you missed is that, in its present state, this play's a fucking mess!"

There's a reason why some people gravitate toward slapstickvaudeville, burlesque, and other forms of physical comedy. Like the popular wrestling events broadcast on cable television, these forms of entertainment don't require a whole lot of thought. They aim for the gut the same way President Trump aims to satisfy his "base."

Seven years ago I was lucky enough to be introduced to the Naked Empire Bouffon Company when they presented the world premiere of You Killed Hamlet, or Guilty Creatures Sitting At A Play at the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival. The group's theatrical style builds on a solid foundation of lewd, crude, and rude shenanigans reaching as far back in time as the Commedia dell'arte and given new life in the 1960s by Jacques Lecoq (who was hailed as "the only noteworthy movement instructor and theatre pedagogue in the 20th century with a professional background in sports and sports rehabilitation"). Naked Empire Bouffon's dramatic goal is to combine social activism with physically grotesque satire that is provocative, guilt-inducing, and ridiculously threatening.

Continuing take-no-prisoners approach to subversive clowning, Naked Empire Bouffon returned to the San Francisco Fringe Festival in 2017 with You Fucking Earned It (Behind Every Great Citizen is a Great Consumer), written by Cara McClendon, Nathaniel Justiniano, and Sabrina Wenske. Starring Wenske as Lil Queef and McClendon as WeEvil, the show mocked everything from today's rampant neediness to our society's overweening sense of entitlement. A highlight of their performance was a hilarious pantomime depicting the birth and death of civilizations ranging from the fertile crescent of Ancient Egypt up to contemporary America.

Sabrina Wenske (Lil Queef) and Cara McClendon (WeEvil)
co-star in You Fucking Earned It

Whether impersonating sex slaves, orangutans, black holes, or preening yoga moms, the two clowns went about explaining America's long and unfortunate history of economic imperialism with graphic depictions of the banana trade and an edgy rendition of the "other" verses written by Katharine Lee Bates for "America the Beautiful." Their enactment of "Hungry Mungry" transformed Shel Silverstein's poem into a timely and jaw-dropping demonstration of agitprop theatre.

What makes NEBC's work so interesting is the fearlessness of clowns who are perfectly at ease riffing with their audience prior to leading spectators to the edge of a dramatic precipice and then letting them teeter on the edge of discomfort before dragging people onstage to participate in a "spontaneous theatrical event" that makes use of smartphones in a most deliciously subversive way. In short, You Fucking Earned It was a piece of devilishly dangerous theatre.

Poster art for You Fucking Earned It

* * * * * * * * *
One of the key performers in You Killed Hamlet was Ross Travis, who founded his own company, Antic in a Drain, in 2014. Following successful runs of The Greatest Monkey Show On Earth and Bucko: Whaleman! Travis recently unveiled his latest creation, entitled Tempting Fate: A Satirical Freak Show Reflecting the House of Mirrors Called Climate Change.

Ross Travis stars in Tempting Fate (Photo by: Matthew Abaya)

With set design and stage direction by Ronlin Foreman, imaginative costumes and masks by Lydia Foreman, and custom-made wings designed by Ecco Pierce, this 80-minute piece of performance art is a cri de coeur from a deeply concerned and environmentally conscientious clown who (for the sake of edutainment) is happy to elucidate the various kinds of farts that add methane to Earth's atmosphere.

During the show, the shape-shifting Travis appears as an ingratiating host, a predatory bird, a silly "blonde tittie girl," a bouncing lump of coal, and uses a giant plastic garbage bag to portray a dangerous oil slick. In addition to showing off his tumbling skills, he spends part of the time clad in a dress that hosts our solar system while acting out an argument between Venus and Mercury about which planet is "hotter" and portraying the sibling rivalry between Uranus and Jupiter (who is eager to bend over and show everyone his big red spot) as Earth keeps huffing on an inhaler. Ross's revelation of what it looks like when one flies too close to the sun is both hilarious and revelatory.

Drawing audience members from their seats, Travis encourages people to join him in song, grow cornstalks out of his handheld paper sculptures, make a public confession about something they regret from their past, record the proceedings for posterity on their smartphones, assist a large styrofoam fish struggling to navigate imaginary waters, and help Ross search for a missing dolphin.

Ross Travis stars in Tempting Fate

Aided by Richard Newman's excellent sound design and James Sundquist's lighting, Travis pours his heart and soul into a performance that delights and challenges his audience with a production that calls for a lot more cultural awareness than just "a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down."

Whether or not Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh knows it, there's a big difference between "boofing" and bouffon. Performances of Tempting Fate continue at the Little Boxes Theatre through June 2 (click here for tickets).

Poster art for Tempting Fate

* * * * * * * * *
Saturday, May 25 may not have been a dark and stormy night in Orinda but, by the time intermission rolled around at the opening night performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Bruns Amphitheatre had turned cold and windy. Thankfully, a change in the weather lacked the power to dampen or diminish the hijinks and joy taking place before an enraptured audience.

Directed by Tyne Rafaeli with magic and energy to spare, the California Shakespeare Theater's new production is far and away the most enjoyable staging of Shakespeare's comedy in any form (opera, theatre, ballet) that I can recall ever attending. With lighting by Jiyoun Chang, sound design and music composed by T. Carlis Roberts, the creative team has put a bright new face on a classic which all too often reaches for the ethereal rather than the refreshingly blunt appeal of bouffon comedy.

Robyn Kerr (Puck) and Amber Chardae Robinson in a scene
from A Midsummer Night's Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The 16th-century street performers who inspired today's bouffon were most likely people society deemed to be undesirable. These actors (who may have been struggling with physical disabilities, mental illness, or simply did not  -- or could not -- conform to the sexual, social, or gender norms of their time) created over-the-top characters that often pushed people's boundaries. As the costume designer for this Calshakes production, Asta Bennie Hostetter, notes:
"The fairies are the aspect of ourselves we keep hidden from the world; the impulses, joy, and desire that we feel incapable of accessing as 'normal' human beings. We wanted to imagine the fairies as if they had aged for thousands of years, far away from civilization's norms of behavior, gender, and sexuality. Drawing on the French clowning tradition of bouffon inspired us to find forms that could express the adult humor of physical pleasure in a way that was safe to share with children."
Shakespeare's "Rude Mechanicals" in a scene from
A Midsummer Night's Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Nina Ball's exquisitely intricate unit set quickly identifies the stage as a play space (rather than a forest). From the moment Robyn Kerr's sprite, Puck, enters from one of its puzzle-like doors, all bets are off. The interplay between Rami Margron's short-statured Theseus and Jerrie Johnson's statuesque Hippolyta (a true queen of the Amazons who is not about to be bossed around by anyone) instantly sets aside the traditional gender roles seen in Shakespeare's comedy. When the two reappear as Oberon and Titania, their costumes have a touch of sci-fi fashion that sets them apart from mere mortals.

The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream cavort
in Nina Ball's set (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In contrast to today's dating culture, the tug of war over whether her father, Egeus (Anthony Fusco); her lover, Lysander (Dean Linnard); or his rival, Demetrius (Kevin Kemp), should have the power to decide the future for Hermia (Jenny Nelson) forces the audience back to the days when a woman was considered to be little more than a bargaining chip to be used as a piece of chattel by her father. In light of today's politics, where women are struggling to retain control over their own bodies, the patriarchal assumptions about a woman's rights and responsibilities border on the  repulsive.

Adding to the woes of Helena (Annie Worden), whose constant rejection by Demetrius is only made worse when Puck douses a love potion in the wrong man's eyes, Lysander's sudden infatuation with her is infinitely more cruel than she could ever have imagined.

Rami Margron (Oberon) and Robyn Kerr (Puck) in a scene
from A Midsummer Night's Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Thanks to a brilliantly outrageous performance by Marcel Spears as Bottom, the scenes with the Rude Mechanicals (during their rehearsal for and performance of Pyramus and Thisbe), provide some of the funniest moments to be seen on the Bruns stage in years. A young actor with an oversized talent for mischief and merriment, Spears excels when Puck's spell transforms him into an pompous ass who is ripe and ready for Titania's drug-induced professions of true love.

Marcel Spears (Bottom) and Robyn Kerr (Puck) in a scene
from A Midsummer Night's Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Audiences familiar with A Midsummer Night's Dream will have no problem embracing the casting of Rami Margron as Theseus and Oberon (both rulers in their own right) as well as Jerrie Johnson as their wives, Hippolyta and Titania. Great joy is generated by having three of the four young lovers reappear as members of The Rude Mechanicals. Dean Linnard's wildly impassioned Lysander provides a sharp foil his portrayal of a shy and seemingly introverted Flute. Jenny Nelson's deeply conflicted Hermia has strong appeal as Starveling. Annie Worden's fierce and justifiably furious Helena is the polar opposite of her riotously confused Lion (whose dimwitted sounds and blank facial expressions kept the audience roaring with laughter).

Others in the cast included Anthony Fusco doubling as Egeus and Quince, Kevin Kemp's energetic Demetrius, and in a variety of scene-stealing small roles, the gifted Amber Chardae Robinson demonstrating how a limited amount of speech can slyly magnify the comedic impact of a costume.

Rami Margron (Oberon) and Jerrie Johnson (Titania) in a scene
 from A Midsummer Night's Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream continue through June 16 at the California Shakespeare Theater (click here for tickets).

1 comment:

Unknown said...

We saw Midsummer on Saturday night and had a hilarious time. Love your description of the performance!! We are going to see it again........E