Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Weapons of Mass Corruption

The news is filled with stories about political corruption. But rarely do we get to put a face on the forces behind such corruption.
Two movies opening this week put clearly recognizable faces on the forces of corruption. Although one is a human face and the other an avatar, neither one speaks well for the sloppiness of American politics.

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If, for some severely misguided reason, you choose to sit through Casino Jack, let me suggest that you surround yourself with paper towels, sanitary wipes, and anything else that will help remove the suspicion that even a microscopic trace of the egomania, delusions of grandeur, pathological greed, overweening sense of entitlement, and smug self-righteousness that runs rampant throughout this poorly-written film might have landed on you. Based on the hubristic shenanigans of real live white trash Republicans, the school of smarmy scumbags (led by Jack Abramoff) that swims through a cesspool of social climbing slime will, at the very least, make you want to wash away their toxic waste as if their mere presence onscreen constituted a dangerous exposure to hazardous materials.

Directed by George Hickenlooper (who died several weeks prior to the film's release), Casino Jack brings to mind the group of hot-headed Young Republicans who thought they could easily produce a late night comedy talk show for Fox News that would be every bit as funny -- if not funnier -- than the work done by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They failed miserably at their task, as does this film which, had they been smart, should have been titled Gonifs Gone Wild.

As written by Norman Snider, the movie's pathetic screenplay quickly sinks to the bottom of the barrel with lines rivaling "Yonder lies the village of my muddah" (from 1960's Spartacus) and "The emperor wants to fuck you now" from that 1981 classic, Centurians of Rome (the gay porn film that was purportedly made with some of the $2 million stolen by a Brink's security guard in 1980).

There is one worthwhile moment in Casino Jack, though. It's an obvious writer's fantasy in which, during his Senate hearing, Jack Abramoff throws a tantrum exposing Senator John McCain as the corrupt hypocrite and hardened turd that the Arizonan asshole has become. But since McCain does a better job of making the public aware of his false patriotism every time he opens his rancid mouth and speaks with forked tongue, why compete with the Oracle at Belfry?

Although Hickenlooper directed a fairly stellar cast, the strongest moments in Casino Jack come where you might least expect them. Kevin Spacey does a lot of shouting, impersonating movie stars, and delivering the kind of slick shtick that has made him famous for being Kevin Spacey.

But it is Barry Pepper's portrayal of Michael Scanlon (Tom DeLay's former Communications Director turned lobbyist) that holds the film's true emotional center. Scanlon's eventual betrayal by his girlfriend (Rachelle Lefevre) turns out to be the movie's one carefully calculated and cold-blooded attempt to crawl out of the political primordial muck and make a desperately disillusioned grab for the moral high ground.

Barry Pepper as lobbyist Michael Scanlon

Supporting roles are filled by Kelly Preston as Pam Abramoff, Jeffrey R. Smith as Grover Norquist, Daniel Kash as Konstantine "Gus" BoulisChristian Campbell as conservative Christian activist/weasel Ralph Reed, and Spencer Garrett as the fatuous Tom DeLay.

I was surprised to see David Fraser cast as an extremely short Karl Rove (in real life Rove and George W. Bush are almost the same height). Veteran actor Maury Chaykin scores some nice moments as a gangster named Big Tony.

Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) yelling at Adam Kitan (Jon Lovitz)

While Hickenlooper and Snider attempt to transform Casino Jack into a snarky political romp like 2009's superb In The Loop, (a deliciously iconoclastic British spoof), the true mark of this film's overall sleaze is that Jon Lovitz (as the low-life king of mattress sales, Adam Kidan) actually delivers a surprising sense of integrity and class to a film that tries much too hard to make lobbyists seem like undeserving and misunderstood victims of their own avarice and ethical egoism.

Having lived through the disgustingly corrupt era of the Bush administration, my gut reaction to watching Casino Jack was that I never liked those people, anyway. But don't let that stop you from wasting your precious time and hard-earned money on this film (I guarantee it's nowhere as bad as The Nutcracker in 3D). Here's the trailer:

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Several weeks ago, while discussing America's growing disparity in wealth distribution and how the rich have managed to isolate themselves from the troubles faced by the middle class, I wondered what could possibly happen that would once again level the playing field. Recalling the random strikes in the early years of the AIDS crisis, my first thoughts focused on the potentially gruesome side effects of chemical or biological warfare.

But then I remembered a 1992 thriller called Sneakers (starring Robert Redford, Stanley Poitier, Dan Ackroyd, and Ben Kingsley) and realized that massive sabotage of computer technology will probably be the chosen tool.  

The plot of Sneakers involves the white-knuckled race to capture the secret code of one of the world's most important encryption keys. In the film's final scene, a television news reporter reveals that, in a bizarrely coincidental string of events, the Republican National Committee has somehow managed to misplace its funds and been forced into bankruptcy while organizations like The United Negro College Fund, Amnesty International, and Greenpeace have mysteriously registered financial gains as a result of donations from unanticipated -- and extremely generous -- anonymous sources.

One of this month's predictions about the big stories to expect in 2011 includes the news media switching from concentrating on search engine optimization to social media optimization.  However, with the growth of embedded malware and the description of one of this month's newest Facebook scams, I would strongly advise Janet Napolitano (the United States Secretary of Homeland Security) to sit herself down and watch a new Japanese animé film entitled Summer Wars.  

With Mark Zuckerberg having recently been named as Time Magazine's Person of the Year, and The Social Network having been hailed as one of the most important films of 2010, Facebook's controversial privacy policies take on surprising relevance in what should otherwise be a fairly innocent animated feature film.

Written by Satako Ukedera and directed by Mamoru Hosoda (who did such a beautiful job with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), Summer Wars chronicles the catastrophe that occurs when a malicious piece of artificial intelligence software obtains the encryption code for OZ, Japan's largest and most powerful social network service.

Whereas Facebook is still in the early stages of attracting business accounts, OZ is an international virtual world that handles all kinds of business transactions for government as well as the private sector. Although OZ promotes itself as being totally secure (users interact through their avatars), the events in this film offer a pretty good look at what might happen if hackers managed to sabotage a nation's electric grid or compromised critical government networks.

The avatar for Love Machine

Set in Ueda in Japan's Nagano Prefecture, Summer Wars weaves together several story lines that will appeal to different segments of its audience:
  • Cute teenage girl Natsuki Shinohara hires Kenji Koiso (an 11th grade math genius) to pose as her boyfriend during a family reunion which will celebrate the 90th birthday of her great grandmother, Sakae Jinnouchi.
  • Part of the movie focuses on how "the family that eats together, stays together" while one relative continues to watch a local baseball game on television (totally unaware of the crisis happening around her).
  • Natsuki's uncle Wabisuke is the prodigal son who went abroad to study in America, became a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and designed an artificial intelligence software program named "Love Machine" that he sold to the U.S. Intelligence Community. After losing touch with his family, Wabisuke has returned home depressed and disillusioned.
  • When Kenji solves a 2,056-digit math riddle sent to his cell phone, it allows Love Machine to break through OZ's supposedly impenetrable security wall. As Love Machine rapidly hijacks millions of OZ accounts (including those that hold data for everything from online shopping to the launch codes for guided missiles) all hell breaks loose.
  • Demonstrating the stark differences between today's analog and virtual worlds, Natsuki's cousin Kazuma Ikezawa (whose avatar is King Kazma) tries to engage Love Machine in a winner-takes-all game of Hanafuda while the 90-year-old Sakae Jinnouchi uses her handwritten address book and rotary phone to call in as many favors as possible.

King Kazma (cousin Kazuma's avatar)

Summer Wars is essentially about hackers and their potential to be arch villains and/or cultural heroes. High school math nerds like Kenji, his friend Takashi Sakuma (and dedicated gamers like Kazuma and Natsuki) are transformed into heroes while the careless abuse of U.S. intelligence turns out to be a hugely destructive power in need of better risk management.

While the pixelation and color renderings in Summer Wars are absolutely gorgeous, there is a much darker story here that -- in addition to providing an action packed scenario -- offers a model lesson about privacy issues and computer security. This film is definitely worth your time. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Different Strokes For Different Folks

There comes a time when a person outgrows the standard joys of the holiday season.

This month New York and Washington are getting holiday visits from the Kinsey Sicks who, in the following two videos , put a completely new spin on what makes Christmas special:

December is a month when one embraces shows that stand out from the usual holiday repertoire. Although two recent outings had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, they were filled with intelligence, spirituality, and proved to be highly entertaining.

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I doubt you could find a more San Franciscan celebration of diversity than the Marsh Youth Theatre's revival of its 2007 hit, Siddhartha, The Bright Path. Featuring Indian music, a Bollywood dance number as well as traditional kathak dance, the plot follows young Prince Siddhartha’s journey to becoming the Buddha.

The story alternates between ancient Nepal and modern-day San Francisco as Siddhartha turns from his family's palace filled with pleasures and goes out among the people to learn about the realities of pain, poverty, and old age. Meanwhile, a modern young girl named Chandra finds herself questioning the overly indulgent lifestyles of her family and friends after seeing homeless people struggling to survive on the streets of San Francisco (Chandra is the only one in her teenage clique who gets yearly presents celebrating the winter solstice from her relatives in Berkeley).

Siddhartha and Chandra magically meet on the banks of the Ganges River, where Siddhartha helps Chandra understamd that she can find her own way to deal with the brutal realities of modern day living. In her director's note, Emily Klion writes:
"If you visit San Francisco's Asian Art Museum and take the curator's suggested tour, you will follow the path of Buddhism from Siddhartha Gotama's miraculous birth in Lumbini, Nepal to his pervasive presence in the Far East.  This remarkable man discovered how personal enlightenment can heal the world's suffering, and challenged his followers to seek the same for themselves. The Marsh Youth Theatre's production of Siddhartha, The Bright Path was created to challenge its performers and audience to look at their own lives and find a personal pathway to change the world for the better.

Siddhartha becomes Gotama (Photo by: Doug McKechnie)

This path may look different to each individual, but the basic values of Buddha's Eight-Fold Path apply to all of us, including Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action.  We used these values to create a community that inspired and supported each performer. Coming from many different backgrounds, these amazing children joined together to create a single ensemble to tell Siddhartha's story through the common language of all cultures: acting, singing, and dancing."

Written by Klion, Lisa Quoresimo, and Danny Duncan (with music by Klion, Quoresimo and George Brooks), Siddhartha, The Bright Path has also been directed by Quoresimo. As performed in the Marsh's newly refurbished upstairs theatre, the sets by John Ramirez and choreography (by Antonia Minnecola and Russell Wright) fill the tiny space, making the performance seem much larger than its actual physical dimensions.

MYT's cast of 26 reflects the diversity of San Francisco's population. The young man appearing as Siddhartha is Jens Kwabena Asante Ibsen. A native of Accra, Ghana, Jens is the first African-born singer in the 510-year history of the Vienna Boys Choir (his father is a direct descendant of playwright Henrik Ibsen). Maddie Bartolome (of Filipino/Nicaraguan lineage) portrays Chandra.

Jens Kwabena Asasnte Ibsen as Prince Siddhartha

Others in the cast inlcuded Brendan Spohn as King Suddhohanna, Sarabeth Fonte as Queen Mahamaya, George Coker as Aista the Sage, Julian Litauer as Chandak, and Julian Cuyjet as Nanda. 

On a rainy night in San Francisco, Siddhartha, The Bright Path proved to be a breath of fresh air. Although such "holiday entertainment" might give conservative Christians like Senators Jon Kyl, Jim DeMint, and Jim Inhofe the heebie-jeebies, it isn't often one comes across a program credit for "Kathak and Ancient choreography"!

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You really can't have a more site-specific theatrical experience than seeing a play about one of America's famous architects in one of the buildings she designed. Becoming Julia Morgan neatly encapsulates the story of the first female architect to be admitted to the prestigious School of Architecture at L'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

Poster art by Helene Goldberg for Becoming Julia Morgan

Becoming Julia Morgan is, in the truest sense of the word, a lovely piece of edutainment. For many people (especially those who grew up on the East Coast), any knowledge of Morgan's work is limited to the Hearst Castle at San Simeon.  The following video clip gives a better idea of her work in the Bay area.

Focused primarily on the six years between 1931 and 1937, Belinda Taylor's well-crafted play has been beautifully directed by Barbara Oliver in the 50-seat performing space within the Berkeley City Club (which Morgan often referred to as "her little castle"). With Janis Stevens appearing as Julia Morgan, an ensemble of four actors takes on numerous roles, ranging from the Roman gods Janus and Vesta to William Randolph Hearst and Bernard Maybeck (who designed San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts), from Phoebe Hearst and Marion Davies to a young reporter named Jerry Mac and his wife (who would like to become a librarian).

Jerry Mac (Paul Baird) and Julia Morgan (Janis Stevens)
Photo by:  Lori Barnabe

While the evening is anchored by Janis Stevens's rock-solid portrayal of Julia Morgan as a force to be reckoned with, she is handsomely supported by Paul Baird (as her younger brother Avery and the reporter Jerry Mac), Sally Clauson in a variety of female roles, and Dave Garrett as numerous mentors, employers, and clients. The following brief promotional video for the Berkeley City Club offers a glimpse into Morgan's aesthetic as an architect:

Although I enjoyed the piece immensely, Becoming Julia Morgan deserves to reach a much wider audience. I hope its creative team, The Julia Morgan Project, can find a way to videotape the production or sell the film rights. Fans of architecture (as well as visitors to the Hearst Castle) should find this a fascinating addition to their video libraries. The play might also find an extended life as a summer attraction for tourists who spend the night in the seaside town of Cambria, California.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Plot Thickens

Those who devour murder mysteries often marvel at the inventiveness of their authors. Whether they have found new ways to bump off a victim, nab a criminal, or surprise a courtroom, it is the final plot twist that usually reveals the true identity of the murderer or the reason a crime was committed.

A dead body can lead to some wild improvisation, but comedy is much harder to craft. Writing a good farce takes exceptional skill.

One of the experts in this field was Sir William S. Gilbert who, together with Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote a series of comic operettas during the Victorian era. Observe how Gilbert meticulously sets up his hero's inner conflict in this scene from The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty:

[Pirate King]

For some ridiculous reason, to which, however,
I’ve no desire to be disloyal,
Some person in authority, I don’t know who,
Very likely the Astronomer Royal,
Has decided that, although
For such a beastly month as February,
28 days as a rule are plenty,
One year in every four
His days shall be reckoned as nine and twenty.
Through some singular coincidence
I shouldn’t be surprised if it were owing
To the agency of an ill-natured fairy
You are the victim of this clumsy arrangement,
Having been born in leap year on the 29th of February;
And so, by a simple arithmetical process, you’ll easily discover,
That though you’ve lived 21 years, yet, if we go by birthdays,
You’re only five and a little bit over!

I’m afraid you don’t appreciate the delicacy of your position:
You were apprenticed to us --

Until I reached my twenty-first year.

[Pirate King]

No, until you reached your twenty-first birthday (producing document) and, going by birthdays, you are as yet only five-and-a-quarter.


You don’t mean to say you are going to hold me to that?

[Pirate King]

No, we merely remind you of the fact, and leave the rest to your sense of duty.
Gilbert's ability to overcome a complex obstacle with a single masterstroke is evident in the following dialogue from the final moments of Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri:

[Queen of the Fairies]

You have all incurred death; but I can’t slaughter the whole company! And yet the law is clear -- every fairy must die who marries a mortal!

[Lord Chancellor]

Allow me, as an old Equity draftsman, to make a suggestion. The subtleties of the legal mind are equal to the emergency. The thing is really quite simple -- the insertion of a single word will do it. Let it stand that every fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal, and there you are, out of your difficulty at once!"

Witness Ko-Ko's brilliant explanation of how someone who is not really dead can be brought back to life (as seen in this final sequence from Essgee Entertainment's updated production of The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu in Brisbane, Australia).

With his taste for upending tradition, I wonder how Gilbert would have reacted to the Union Theatre of London's 2007 all-male production of H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved A Sailor (the company will present an all-male production of Iolanthe in April 2011 at Wilton's, the oldest surviving grand musical hall in the world). Here's countertenor Alex Weatherhill as Josephine singing "The hours creep on apace":

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The Theatre Department at San Francisco State University recently staged a farce about marriage written by Gilbert. Part of the plot twist that lies at the center of Engaged is the fact that a couple declared their love to each other (in what was then known as a "Scottish marriage") in a house that sat astride the border between England and Scotland. In his director's note, William Peters wrote:
"Speed of execution and complication of incident are the prime technical features of farce. Like Lucy in the chocolate factory, once life’s conveyor belt swings into high gear, there is simply no stopping it. Stephen Sondheim, in his new book Finishing the Hat, explains why songs disappear for up to 20 minutes at the end of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum: 'I don’t think that farces can be transformed into musicals without damage -- at least, not good musicals. The tighter the plotting, the better the farce, but the better the farce the more the songs interrupt the flow and pace. Farces are express trains; musicals are locals. Savoring moments can be effective while a farce is gathering steam, but deadly once the train gets going.'”

"The plays and novels of his time seem to have bothered Gilbert a great deal. He was an artist with more than a mild case of misanthropy, and his targets are the over-the-top sentimental weepies that clogged the theatres and musical halls of his day. He shared with Dickens a clear-eyed take on the economic imperative of modern life and its role in shaping the love relationships between men and women.
Written in 1887, at the height of Gilbert and Sullivan’s popularity, he chose to produce Engaged as a non-musical. Our work has been to try to recapture as much of the context of Gilbert’s play as possible while, at the same time, making it play for an audience unfamiliar with that context. The costumes are designed and created with exquisite attention to detail. The set creates a space that has the simplicity of a burlesque roll-drop, while keeping a distance from mere theatrical parody. The hardest task of all, of course, as with all comedy of a certain complexity, is to find the details in the text and make them all fly.
Time is comedy’s medium. Comic timing, to anyone who has tried to achieve it, is an infinitely subtle medium. It is always an astonishment to be reminded that the greatest clowns and farceurs are performers possessed of great delicacy. They touch time with a sensibility that makes the description 'a sense of humor' take on a fresh literal meaning.
There is a train in Engaged, and it does run off the rails -- but the calamity is intentional and leads to a cascade of troubles for the hapless characters involved. These characters are Gilbertian in the extreme: Driven by the need to establish a secure 'pecuniary position,' every character swings wildly between extravagant romantic declarations and sober financial calculations. 'Business is business' is the order of the day."

Poster art for SFSU's production of Engaged

To appreciate the intricacies of Gilbert's farce, I'd suggest you read its detailed plot synopsis. The SFSU production was handsomely designed by Abe Lopez with costumes by Sarah Correa. Under William Peters' astute direction, the cast did a superb job of carrying off a comedy of manners from a very different era. The only hindrance was a tendency to make their Scottish accents so thick as to at times be unintelligible.

As the miserly Cheviot (who falls in love with every woman he meets), Ian Hopps showed a strong flair for physical comedy while, as his friend Belvawney, Joseff Stevenson did some very nice work as his foil. Gabby Batista's Belinda and Cody Metzger's Minnie dominated Act II as each tried to figure out what their rights and rewards would be if married to Cheviot.

Bryce Duzan (Mr. Symperson), Catherine Pyne (Parker, the maid), Michael Saarela (Angus Macalister), Brandon Cusack (Major McGillicuddy), Frannie Morrison (Maggie MacFarlane) and James Mayagoitia (in drag as Mrs. MacFarlane) made notable contributions in supporting roles. A good time was had by all.

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On the other side of town, 42nd Street Moon was performing Babes in Arms, a 1937 Broadway classic by Rodgers & Hart in an adaptation by playwright John Guare. Directed by Dyan McBride (with choreography by Zack Thomas Wilde), this production went back to the original plot devised by its composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart.

As one considers the list of standards that emerged from this show's score ("Where or When," "I Wish I Were In Love Again," and "My Funny Valentine" for starters), it's sometimes hard to believe that these songs are nearly 70 years old. It's even harder to believe that these numbers were written during an era when songs from Broadway shows routinely entered the popular culture. Consider this recording of "The Lady is a Tramp" by the great Sophie Tucker (pay careful attention to her diction):

For a real blast from the past, here's Eydie Gorme singing "Johnny One-Note" (one of my favorite numbers from the show):

Because the 1939 film version of Babes in Arms that starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney eliminated much of the script from the original show, it's interesting to note, from a historical perspective, the role that Babes in Arms played in musical theatre's history of depicting race relations in America.

Gabriel Stephens, Michael Scott Wells, and Isaiah Boyd in
Babes in Arms (Photo by: David Allen)

While Guare's adaptation retains lots of digs at vaudeville performers and on-again, off-again Communists, there are enough bizarre plot twists in Babes in Arms to show the debt its creators owe to William Gilbert's style. Michael Scott Wells was most appealing as Valentine "Val" LaMar, with Joshua James aiding and abetting him as his sidekick, Marshall Blackstone. Danny Cozart got in some good comic moments as Gus Fielding (the young man who is a capitalist when he has money and a Communist when he's broke). 

Ben Euphrat was appropriately belligerent as Sam Reynolds, with Tyner Rushing as his flirtatious sister, Dolores. Dirk Leatherman did triple duty as their father (Sheriff Reynolds), vaudevillian Dan LaMar, and radio newsman Phil McCabe. Zachary Franczak did double duty as the bigoted Lee Calhoun and French aviator René Flambeau (who had just flown nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean). Gabriel Stephens showed strong appeal as Lee's younger brother, Beauregard Calhoun.

Alexandra Kaprielian as Billie Smith (Photo by: David Allen)

For me, the high point of the evening was watching Alexandra Kaprielian finally get a major role in which she could really show audiences what she's got (her renditions of "My Funny Valentine" and "The Lady is a Tramp" were layered and delightful). Sophia Rose Morris scored nicely with "Way Out West (On West End Avenue)." As the young black tap dancer, Irving DeQuincy, Isaiah Boyd lit up the stage of the Eureka Theatre. 

Last, but not least, 42nd Street Moon's revival offered a gentle reminder that, some 34 years before John Lennon wrote his own song named "Imagine," there was popular song using the same title that had been created by Rodgers and Hart for Babes in Arms

It's still a classic.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

It's The Vision Thing

Next to "Read my lips: no new taxes," one of the quotes former President George H. W. Bush probably regrets the most is "Oh, the vision thing." One reason why Bush may have been a one-term President is not that his campaign was based on the idea that the Presidency was owed to him simply because it was "his turn," but because it had a singular lack of vision.

While many operagoers bemoan the heavy influence of stage directors in modern productions, the truth is that the stage director often provides the artistic vision that unites a creative team of performers and musicians as well as costume, set, and lighting designers.  Some stage directors (Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Harold Prince, Jonathan Miller, Francesca Zambello, Mary Zimmerman) do such intriguing work that audiences are willing to follow them on a dangerous journey.

Sometimes, a simple idea can be used in different productions of different operas. In 1987, two operatic staples were subjected to the same directorial gimmick with fascinating results.

In June of 1987, Francesca Zambello's staging of La Cenerentola (1817) for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis updated Giaochino Rossini's treatment of the Cinderella legend to a l930s Busby Berkeley sound stage in Hollywood. The strength of Zambello's approach rested in her thorough re-examination of the score (a rock-solid piece of homework which allowed this acutely sensitive director to take some daring risks).

In OTSL's production, the tutor Alidoro doubled as a Busby Berkeley-ish film director. Prince Ramiro became an egotistical movie musical tenor. Offscreen, Dandini was a preening matinee idol while Cinderella was transformed into a Kathryn Grayson type of Hollywood starlet. Dominating the brick wall at the rear of the stage was a lightboard with the words "Silence," "Action," "Rehearsal" and "Storm," to indicate the mode of behavior being used onstage.

This gimmick worked brilliantly, allowing Zambello to circumvent the usual silliness employed in staging Rossini's operas while switching back and forth between rehearsal and action shots with uncanny ease (thanks largely to the work of set and costume designer Neil Peter Jampolis and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski). 

The storm scene, which showed the standard devices used on a Hollywood sound stage, was one of the funniest sequences I've seen on the operatic stage. Don Magnifico's drinking aria came precariously close to resembling a golden shower scene between a male soloist and male chorus.

Later that year, when the Houston Grand Opera moved into the new Wortham Theater Center, director Peter Mark Schifter took a brilliant multimedia approach to Mozart's opera, Abduction from the Seraglio (1782). Like Zambello, Schifter set the action on a 1930s Hollywood sound stage where all kinds of wild shenanigans were taking place.

When all the elements of a tricky production come together (as they did for that 1987 Abduction), the creative team can get some incredible results. Consider the following examples:

First, a scene from Jacques Offenbach's beloved The Tales of Hoffmann as staged outdoors in a Roman theatre in southern France (the Theatre Antique d'Orange seats approximately 9,000). Here is Natalie Dessay performing Olympia's famous "Doll Song" on a windy stage at the 2000 Choregies d'Orange:

Next, a sequence which shows how site specificity can influence a stage director. On some occasions, there have been historical reasons to perform a certain opera in a particular location.

In October of 2010, the Cairo Opera Company staged one of Verdi's most popular operas, Aida (which received its world premiere in Cairo on December 24, 1871 at the Khedivial Opera House in 1871), in front of the Pyramids at Giza. In 1999, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino staged Puccini's last opera, Turandot, where the opera's story takes place: in Beijing's Forbidden City. Here's the spectacular finale:

One of the great operatic stage directors of the 20th century, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle often designed the sets for his productions (which were staged by opera companies throughout Europe and North America). Ponnelle also filmed several of his productions using the same sets created for live performances.

In this 1981 film of Rossini's La Cenerentola, Ponnelle uses a special effect during the Act II sextet of Rossini's opera that he could never have achieved in live performance. Like several operatic ensembles,  "Questo è un nodo avvilupato" involves a group of characters expressing their inner thoughts as they react to a shocking piece of news.  Watch what Ponnelle did for the film version:

Sometimes, a new theatrical approach to an opera can bring a stunning theatricality to a long-neglected work. Planned as a co-production between the San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Grand Theatre de Geneve, Robert Carsen's staging of Arrigo Boito's only completed opera, Mefistofele, was essentially mounted as a vehicle for Sam Ramey. The following video clip of the opera's finale gives the viewer a sense of the production's theatrical impact:

Then, of course, a directorial concept can become the raison d'etre for a production. Since its 2006 premiere in Munich, the "Aida, Monumental Opera on Fire" production has traveled to Monterrey, Mexico, Sao Paulo, Budapest, and Abu Dhabi. This clip of highlights easily demonstrates its appeal to the masses:

While spectacle is a given with certain operatic productions, how does a stage director bring a grand artistic vision to life in a small theatre? Two recent productions by theatre companies in the East Bay approached the challenge from very different directions. Markedly different budgets led to markedly different results.

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There's an old saying that "Too many cooks spoil the broth." While that might not be what caused the world premiere production of Lemony Snicket's The Composer Is Dead to implode under its own artistic weight, this was a prime example of what happens when artists fall in love with their artistic process and try to "improve" it by adding too much of everything all at once. Like a steroid-enhanced and overly-endowed porn star whose blood flees his brain whenever he gets an erection, the Berkeley Rep's staging (which certainly looked buff and fabulous) turned out to be a remarkably dull affair.

It helps to consider how this project evolved in order to spot what might have gone wrong along the way. As director Tony Taccone explains:
"The show is based on Lemony Snicket's book The Composer Is Dead -- a deceptively slim little volume, which chronicles the fact that a composer has been murdered.  Lemony Snicket wanted to teach children what orchestras do and build appreciation for the classical music that he loved. He went out and collared his friend Nathaniel Stookey, who is a living composer, and the two of them dreamed up this story and symphonic landscape. It was published with a recording of the music by the San Francisco Symphony.  Then these guys said to us, 'Let's make a theatre piece based on this book.'
Photo by: Kevin Berne
By that time they had already partnered with Phantom Limb -- who are these expert puppeteers and designers -- to create the characters that were going to be in this world.  When we first talked about producing a play, the script only lasted a half an hour. We said, 'Well, we have to have a piece that lasts an evening,' which is at least an hour. So we came up with this idea for an interactive film.  Please don't ask me how or why. It seemed like a totally inspired choice. In order to introduce you to a live event -- the magic of living, breathing theatre -- we're going to show you a movie.  Right?  It makes absolutely no sense, except it absolutely does make sense in the world of Lemony Snicket, who is completely eccentric, wildly imaginative, and clever, and hysterically funny."
Geoff Hoyle with the puppets (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The wonderful thing about the creative process is that it is messy and allows artists to fail. The obvious risks in trying to turn a 40-page illustrated children's book into a 65-minute stage production include the following:
  • An illustrated book designed for children ages 4-8 is a very delicately crafted piece of work that can serve as a lean, mean teaching machine. Brevity is of utmost importance.
  • In her review of the book (which was published along with an accompanying CD of Stookey's music) in School Library Journal, Wendy Lukehart noted that "Due to the length of the musical portions, it is unlikely that children will listen and read simultaneously. It is quite likely, however, that both formats will provide entertainment and enlightenment, in whatever order they are encountered."
  • According to Taccone, making the film part of the production was an on-the-job learning experience for him (he had never made a film before).
  • The show's 65-minute length might be perfect for a children's audience, but seems rather skimpy to paying adults who are out for an evening of theatre.
  • The new work would inevitably invoke comparisons to a piece composed by Benjamin Britten in 1946: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Here's a clip of Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Britten's 18-minute piece:

Once Lemony Snicket's The Composer Is Dead (which was preceded by a short piece entitled The Magic of Living, Breathing Theatre) made it to the stage, something quite astonishing happened. Even under Tony Taccone's direction, veteran performer Geoff Hoyle (one of the Bay area's great talents) found the material falling flat with the audience. 

Geoff Hoyle with puppets (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

When the piece ended and the lights came up in the theatre, the noticeably confused audience started to rise, reach for their coats, and head up the aisle. Then the most interesting moment of the entire evening stopped the show.

Suddenly, the credits for the film began to roll, with outtakes from the rehearsals and filming process appearing on the screen. Those brief outtakes --which lasted less than two minutes -- were better than anything that had been seen onstage in the previous 65 minutes!

Although I loved the sets, costumes, and puppets designed by Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko, the film component seemed less silly (in an entertaining fashion) than just silly (as a bad idea).

In the end, I would recommend this piece primarily to students of scenic design. Here's Berkeley Rep's teaser for the production:

* * * * * * * *
Whereas Berkeley Rep's production seemed like it was trying to pump up a children's book with steroids, the exact opposite seemed to be taking place over at the Ashby Stage where the Shotgun Players were trying to cram all of Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, into their tiny theatre. Homer has had a pretty good run in the Bay area this year. In August, Shotgun Players presented Jon Tracy's adaptation of The Iliad entitled The Salt Plays, Part 1: In The Wound, Stanford Summer Theatre presented The Wanderings of Odysseus, and CentralWorks presented Penelope's Odyssey.

Tracy's latest piece, The Salt Plays, Part 2: Of The Earth, is an adaptation of The Odyssey that tries to pick up where In The Wound left off. However, unlike the vast outdoor performing space he enjoyed at Berkeley's John Hinkel Park (where all of his furious drumming dissipated into the air), the Ashby Stage is an acoustically bright environment which amplifies Brendan West's drumming and sound design until it becomes overpowering.

Dan Bruno returns as Odysseus with Lexie Papedo weaving and unweaving her threads as Penelope and Daniel Petzold as Telemachus (who is trying to reach his father through any means possible, including a new invention called television).The nurses/goddesses from In The Wound (Charisse Loriaux as Aphrodite and Elena Wright as Athena) have been joined by a furious Poseidon (Anna Ishida), a bitter Zeus (Rami Margron) and her disillusioned wife, Hera (Emily Rosenthal). Rest assured that no one is particularly happy, least of all Odysseus.

Odysseus (Dan Bruno) and his crew (Photo by: Pak Han)

In his work with Shotgun Players, Tracy has shown a great talent for achieving maximum dramatic impact with minimal physical resources. The depth and breadth of his imagination constantly amaze me (the way he depicts the Cyclops and the multi-headed monster Scylla are two low-budget coups de theatre). Aided by Nina Ball's stunning unit set, Lucas Krech's lighting, Lloyd Vance's videos, and Bridgette Loriaux's fierce choreography, Tracy delivers a riveting, heart pounding, blood pulsing (and potentially headache inducing) reenactment of Odysseus's struggle to return home to Ithaca.

Telemachus (Daniel Petzold) and Odysseus (Dan Bruno)
confront Scylla, a multi-headed monster  (Photo by Pak Han)

Tracy's artistic vision wrestles with disturbing questions about the uselessness and repetitiveness of war. As an arms dealer is Odysseus any better than someone who is pushing heroin? Is it worth sacrificing a person's daughter (Iphigenia) to satisfy the Gods? Does any of this make sense?

The way Tracy has staged the production could lead to endless debates about whether the action was all happening in a bad nightmare, a psych ward, or a parallel universe. As Margo Channing once said, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night."  It's also one helluva ride (however you react to the production, I can guarantee that you won't be bored).

Tracy's next project is directing Frank Galati's stage adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath, for Oakland's TheatreFIRST (January 27-February 20, 2011). In the meantime, The Salt Plays, Part 2: Of The Earth continues at the Ashby Stage through January 16, 2011 (you can order tickets here). Here's the trailer: