Thursday, August 17, 2017

Magic To Do

It's an old joke, but a great one (Bette Midler loved to tell it during many of her shows). "What do you get when you cross an onion with a donkey? On most tries, you get an onion with four legs. But if you're lucky, you might just get a piece of ass that makes you want to cry!"

The same could be said about the risk one takes when attending live theatre. Thankfully, two productions that debuted this month at two of Berkeley's most ambitious theatre companies delivered the second outcome.
  • Each drama was crafted by a playwright of phenomenal skill and undeniable intelligence.
  • Each play sparkled with a subversive sense of humor that aided and abetted the action.
  • Each comedy was a complex creation that wove a unique spell over the audience.
  • Each playwright took the necessary time to let a multi-layered story unfold as it ricocheted across time and space.
* * * * * * * * *
Let's start at Shotgun Players with an intimate experience during which three actors portray a variety of characters over a story arc whose implications are nothing less than astonishing. To make matters easier to understand, let's begin with the premise that Sarah Mitchell portrays Eliza, Mike Mize appears as Merrick, and Brady Morales Woolery is Watson. While that may sound a bit simplistic, the audience needs to pay close attention because the action in Madeline George's intricate puzzle entitled The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence (which premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 2013) often resembles a psychological version of Three-card Monte.

Eliza (Sarah Mitchell) is a specialist in artificial intelligence in
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

As the play begins, Eliza is trying to train an AI robot named Watson (not unlike IBM's computerized genius that became a reigning champion on Jeopardy!) to bring it up to speed on certain linguistic details. Although Watson is very good at offering up carefully scripted answers in response to certain questions and statements ("I'd like to know how you feel about that," "Are you trying to nudge me in that direction?"), Eliza's work process runs amok whenever she loses patience and starts swearing or responds to a phone call from her ex-husband and keeps repeating the word "Fuck." After spewing such expletives, she must give Watson instructions on which words most definitely should not to be included in his conversational repertoire.

Brady Morales Woolery as the robotic Watson in
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Part of the problem is that Eliza's husband, Merrick, is a selfish asshole who has decided to run for political office. With Eliza too absorbed in her work to care about feeding Merrick's insatiable ego, it should surprise no one that she has moved out of their home and, in order to safeguard her independence, is not even asking Merrick for any financial support. Unable to figure out what she's up to (and assuming that his wife must be carrying on an affair with another man), Merrick's frustration peaks when his computer crashes and he must call for a member of the Dweeb Team to bring it back online.

Merrick (Mick Mize) plots to get back at his wife while an unassuming
technician from the Dweeb Team works on his computer in a scene from
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Curiously, the onsite support person sent to rescue Merrick is named Josh Watson. Not only does he answer some of Merrick's questions in the same reassuring tones as Eliza's Watson, when Merrick realizes how easily Josh can perform research online, he offers him some freelance work shadowing and investigating Eliza's daily life. But as Merrick quickly learns, things don't always turn out the way he had imagined.

Josh and Eliza soon cross paths and start to develop a friendship. Eliza is amazed to find Josh responding to her thoughts and needs with the same sense of empathy and solicitousness that she programmed into her robot named Watson. When they end up in bed together, the nebbishy Josh turns out to be a high achiever in the GGG department -- what sex columnist Dan Savage calls "Good in bed, giving of equal time and equal pleasure, and game for anything...within reason." Naturally, this leaves Eliza feeling emotionally conflicted. On one hand, she worries that she should reject Josh because he is so easy for her to manipulate (she also suspects that Josh might be working for husband). But, on the other hand, the love-starved Watson delivers the best sex she's ever had!

Brady Morales Woolery and Sarah Mitchell in a scene from
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Meanwhile, in another century, a woman named Eliza has arrived to interview Alexander Graham Bell about his new invention: the telephone. When Bell turns out to be unavailable, Eliza starts chatting with his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, and repeats the familiar story about how Bell famously shouted "Mr. Watson, come here -- I want to see you." Deeply concerned about how much words matter (and how badly the story has been misrepresented in the press), Watson tries to make Eliza understand that what his boss really said was "Mr. Watson, come here -- I want you." Unfortunately, Eliza is so attached to the popular version of this historical moment that she simply cannot comprehend that the Messrs. Bell and Watson may have had more than just a working relationship.

Brady Morales Woolery and Sarah Mitchell in a scene from
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Just in case a game of three-dimensional chess seems too simple for the audience, the playwright adds on another layer of intrigue by exploring the random event that led to the famous relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. In this subplot, Holmes is a less important figure than the egotistical Mr. Merrick, who likes to invest in interesting new inventions but (just like Eliza's 21st-century husband) simply cannot handle criticism.

Mike Mize (Merrick) and Brady Morales Woolery (Watson) appear
in a scene from The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence is a gem of a play that has been skillfully directed by Nancy Carlin with costumes by Valera Coble, lighting by Ray Oppenheimer, and sound design by Cliff Caruthers. As always, Nina Ball has designed an exquisitely intricate unit set that easily adapts to moments in multiple centuries and features a most convenient combination bed and fireplace.

Nina Ball's deceptively simple set design for
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

In his program note, Shotgun's artistic director, Patrick Dooley writes:
“As theatre artists, we all aspire to make works that fire the imagination, appeal to our core humanity and, yes, deeply entertain. When you can do all that and tap into a dominant zeitgeist in your society, you’ve hit the cultural lottery. No question is dominating the conversation of our world more than the influence of technology on modern life. It’s exhilarating to experience how fast it’s evolving. New inventions and advances are spun out monthly. Daily. Basic functions in everyday life are now completely intertwined with some new app, program, or automated service. While many of these 'advances' are designed to make us feel more 'connected' to each other, some are starting to feel a deeper sense of alienation. The very real fear that we cannot unwind this clock is starting to seep into our collective consciousness. These are the questions and issues that The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence thrusts forward.“
Mick Mize (Merrick) and Sarah Mitchell (Eliza) in a scene
from The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

With only three actors onstage, Carlin has directed this tantalizing play so that its physically lean production is never a distraction from its intellectual heft. This is the kind of play which, after a performance, people leave the theatre gasping "My God, what writing!" Performances of The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence continue through September 3 at the Shotgun Players in Berkeley (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
If the structure of The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence evokes thoughts of an exceptionally well-crafted piece of chamber music, then Marcus Gardley's sprawling black odyssey makes one wonder what might result from creating a mashup using music from a symphony by Gustav Mahler, Scott Joplin's 1911/1972 opera, Treemonisha, and Sergei Prokofiev's score for George Balanchine's 1929 ballet, The Prodigal Son.

Michael Gene Sullivan, Michael Curry, Dawn L. Troupe, Omozé Idehenre,
and Safiya Fredericks form an African-American version of a
traditional Greek chorus in black odyssey (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Not that anyone should be surprised. Commissioned by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the world premiere of black odyssey took place on January 23, 2014 at the Space Theatre in Denver. “Usually I write this big stuff and they say, ‘You gotta tone this down. It’s too long. It’s got too many actors. This is really black,’ recalls Gardley. “This commission was, ‘Do what you want to do.' I’m obsessed with myths and legends and [how] a group of people from a specific culture explain creation. What I like about theater is it’s like an orchestra. There are these different sounds from different people. I think of my plays as compositions in a way.”

The California Shakespeare Theater is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of black odyssey in a tantalizing and highly energetic staging by the company's new artistic director, Eric Ting. With Homer's epic poem providing the narrative skeleton for Gardley, audiences will find many familiar moments from ancient Greek literature vividly reimagined with comic flare, infused with cultural references to life in Oakland (where Gardley grew up), allowed to stew in African American folklore, and served up with a gut-busting poignancy.

J. Alphonse Nicholson, Safiya Fredericks, and Dawn L. Troupe
in a scene from black odyssey (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Bay area theatregoers who thrilled to previous productions of Gardley's plays (2009's This World In A Woman's Hands at the Shotgun Players, 2010's ...and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi at Cutting Ball Theatre, and 2014's The House That Will Not Stand at Berkeley Repertory Theatre) will find this hugely ambitious work filled with Gardley's poetry and loving embrace of magical realism as a major storytelling tool. If you've ever wanted to see Margo Hall impersonate Tina Turner, this is one show you can't afford to miss. As Gardley explains:
“What I love about the Odyssey is that it’s the story of a man who is essentially lost. He’s lost not necessarily because he can’t find his way, but because he has inner turmoil. It’s really [a story about] a man who’s on a journey to self discovery. Meanwhile, his wife and son are left alone and have to fend for themselves, so it’s sort of a parallel story. I really love that sort of structure in storytelling where you’re waiting the whole time to see the hero, if you will, and his family reunite."
J. Alphonse Nicholson (Ulysses) and Lamont Thompson
(Super Fly Tiresias) in a scene from black odyssey
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"For me, this was sort of the perfect context to tell the story of the history of African Americans in the United States. I feel like, as a culture, we are a group of people who have had an immense amount of struggle; this ability to survive against all odds really is remarkable and is unlike any other group of people in history. The chorus asks you to step in [Ulysses’] shoes because this being lost and being found really reflects to me the central point of the culture. What makes African American culture so fascinating is that there is something greater than who we are that unites us and that always allows us to get through the turmoil. We are always found, you know? We are always found when we are lost.”
Dawn L. Troupe (Circe) and J. Alphonse Nicholson (Ulysses)
in a scene from black odyssey (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With an ensemble of nine actors tackling more than 20 roles (and occasionally forming a Greek chorus with solid musical chops), Ting's staging boasts the kind of fluidity and quick costume changes that allow a gifted actor like Margo Hall to transform herself from the goddess "Pale-ass" Athena into a sympathetic human named Great Aunt Tina as well as a hard-rocking Calypso who bears a stunning resemblance to Tina Turner.

Aldo Billingslea (Poseidon) and Margo Hall (Athena) in
a scene from black odyssey (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Lamont Thompson does double duty as a regal Great Grand Daddy Deus (Zeus) and a blind Super Fly Tireseas while Dawn L. Troupe triumphs as a New Orleans waitress named Alsendra Sabine, the seductive Circe (whose song about the foods she likes to eat oozes with sexual innuendo), and a seductive Carib'diss who dresses like Diana Ross as she attempts to lure Ulysses from the safety of Super Fly's souped-up pimpmobile.

Carib'diss (Dawn L. Troupe) tries to lure Ulysses Lincoln
(J. Alphonse Nicholson) out of Super Fly Tiresias's pimpmobile
in a scene from black odyssey (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Those cast in more focal roles include Omozé Idehenre as Nella Pell (Penelope), J. Alphonse Nicholson as her itinerant husband, Ulysses Lincoln, and Michael Curry as their son, Malachai.

Omozé Idehenre (Nella Pell) and Aldo Billingslea (Poseidon)
in a scene from black odyssey (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Aldo Billingslea lends his powerful presence to the role of Great Grand Paw Sidin (Poseidon) while Michael Gene Sullivan is Louisiana's Artez Sabine and Safiya Fredericks portrays his young daughter, Benevolence Nausicca Sabine (these three actors also take on minor supporting roles).

J. Alphonse Nicholson, Margo Hall, and Safiya Fredericks
in a scene from black odyssey (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Gardley's magnificent adaptation is beautifully framed by Michael Locher's towering set design, Dede M. Ayite's costumes, Xavier Pierce's lighting, and the excellent sound design by T. Carlis Roberts. Linda Tillery and Molly Holm have woven their music into the production with
choreographers Latanya D. Tigner and Kendra Kimbrough Barnes helping the story to erupt in the kinds of movement befitting gods and mortals alike. A special shoutout goes to Dave Maier for his fight direction.

Margo Hall, Omozé Idehenre, Aldo Billingslea, and Michael Curry
in a tense scene from black odyssey (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Those who struggled through Homer's epic poems while in high school and college may be surprised at how deeply moved they will be by the power of Gardley's adaptation. While some of that may be due to having acquired a lot more life experience since their teens, the dramatic contributions of Eric Ting and his strong ensemble of gifted artists help immensely. Performances of black odyssey continue through September 3 at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda (click here for tickets).