Thursday, May 28, 2015

Solo Perduta Abbandonata!

Take a good look at Carol Burnett's expression in this photo. Would you think, for a minute, that the character she was playing was severely depressed? Of course not!  Anyone can tell that she's spoofing Shirley Temple.

That picture is from 1964's Fade-Out, Fade-In, a box office failure as a result of the back injury Burnett suffered during the show's run. In the above scene, she teamed up with Tiger Haynes as two out-of-work Hollywood actors struggling to make some money by handing out leaflets. Haynes was imitating Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Burnett was mimicking one of America's most beloved child actors. You can hear them on the original cast recording singing "You Mustn't Be Discouraged."

No one is immune to depression. How severely depression can pull the rug out from beneath someone's feet depends, to a large degree, on their emotional and psychological strength.  Just listen to Ethel Merman singing "Down in the Depths on the Ninetieth Floor" from Cole Porter's 1936 hit musical, Red, Hot and Blue.

How well a person manages to cope with depression may also be a function of their personal philosophy. One of the best credos for survival can be found in the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields song entitled "Pick Yourself Up" that was introduced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in 1936's Swing Time.

Two recent stage productions introduced Bay area audiences to protagonists whose spiritual core was taken away from them by circumstances they could never have anticipated (much less mitigated). Whether it be spiritual, emotional, or professional, once people have been stripped of the core motivation that has propelled them through most of their adult lives, what chance do they have of a full recovery?

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Fans of bel canto opera are accustomed to sopranos delivering intensely dramatic (and often heavily ornamented) mad scenes in which a betrayed (and often betrothed) virgin loses her wits and bites the dust. Occasionally they may be treated to longer and more sober operas written for a solo soprano, such as Arnold Schoenberg's 30-minute Erwartung or Francis Poulenc's 40-minute La Voix Humaine.

Without a full orchestra, however, spoken monologues place exceptional demands of stamina, memorization, pacing, and nuance on an actor. When performed within the safety of a proscenium arch, the actor can concentrate his efforts in one direction. However, when performed in a three-quarter-round style of seating, a constant sense of motion and multidirectionality is required to establish and maintain communication with the audience.

Adapted by Gary Graves from a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper is currently receiving its world premiere production from CentralWorks. In his program note, Graves (who states that, in the process of crafting his adaptation, he hardly changed a word of Gilman's writing) explains that:
"At the age of 21, Charlotte Perkins Gilman married. A child soon followed and the young mother suffered a bout of what was then called 'neurasthenia, nervousness, or hysteria' (today, we would call it "postpartum psychosis").  A renowned physician of the day, Dr. Weir Mitchell treated Charlotte and prescribed for her a regimen he termed as 'the rest cure.' Mitchell instructed the patient to 'Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time...Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours' intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.' She was forbidden to write. Eight years later, in 1892, Charlotte published The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story of some 6,000 words, a cautionary tale about the risks of Dr. Mitchell's 'cure.'  The work was destined to become a landmark in American feminist literature, as well as a terrifying psychological drama in the vein of Gothic horror."
Erica  Wright stars in The Yellow Wallpaper
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

Directed by Jan Zvaifler, The Yellow Wallpaper stars Elena Wright as Jane, a woman whose physician husband (John) has prescribed an extended "rest cure" in a dilapidated old mansion. Left to her own devices, Jane eventually stops writing in her journal, starts hallucinating, and descends into madness as the room's yellow wallpaper continues to haunt her.

Elena Wright in The Yellow Wallpaper (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

The Yellow Wallpaper marks the 47th play to receive its world premiere from CentralWorks. As is so often the case, the production is beautifully framed with meticulous care by Gregory Scharpen's superb sound design. Working with violinist Cybèle D’Ambrosio (who composed and performs music appropriate to Jane's mental deterioration during the performances), Scharpen managed to create subtle annoyances (the sound of a baby crying in another room) as well as constant reminders of the sounds a mentally unstable person might be hearing in her head. The results were forcefully dramatic and occasionally quite creepy.

Elena Wright and Cybèle D’Ambrosio in
The Yellow Wallpaper (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Wright's carefully paced, beautifully layered and deeply compelling performance started as a model of innocence before accelerating into a dramatic tour de force which showed a desperately lonely woman trapped by fear and isolated against her will by the common wisdom that "father knows best." An added treat was the chance to be so close to the beautiful period costumes that Tammy Berlin designed for the two women.

Elena Wright in the final moments of
The Yellow Wallpaper (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

Performances of The Yellow Wallpaper continue at the Berkeley City Club through June 21 (click here to order tickets)

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In the process of converting a stage play to a screenplay, some changes can vastly improve the process of storytelling. Consider the case of 1999's Compleat Female Stage Beauty, which was written by Jeffrey Hatcher (who subsequently wrote the screenplay for its 2004 film adaptation, Stage Beauty, starring Billy Crudup and Claire Danes).

Hatcher's play was inspired by the story of Edward Kynaston, a 17th-century English actor whose strong suit was performing in drag (most notably as Desdemona in Shakespeare's tragedy, Othello). Kynaston rose to fame during a period when the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, had made sure that women were not allowed to act on an English stage. In his director's note, Ed Decker writes:
"I've wanted to produce and direct Jeffrey Hatcher's Compleat Female Stage Beauty for years. It is a wonderful play within a play about the theatre, featuring characters based upon many real people who lived in Restoration England circa 1660. We join the action just after the strict Puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell, at a time when the people of Britain were more than happy to embrace the reign of King Charles II and his love of pleasurable things."
Stephen McFarland stars as actor Edward Kynaston in
Compleat Female Stage Beauty (Photo by: Lois Tema) 
"In planning for our production of the play, we chose an unembellished scenic design in order to create an acting space that keeps the focus on the characters, their relationships, and the fluid ageless situations they are navigating. We also wanted to reflect that, with the sudden re-opening of theatres at the onset of the Restoration, there was quite a scramble to get performance spaces up and running. Resources were scant. Mechanized stagecraft and advanced scenic painting techniques that would later be imported from France and Italy were not yet available or affordable.  Theatre companies had to rely widely on their imagination and that of the audience's in the rebirth of the art form in England. To that end, choosing just the right costume, prop, or sound effect was crucial in persuading the audience to suspend their disbelief. These elements had to likely do double, triple, or quadruple duty on stage as part of the company's repertory of plays."
Edward Kynaston (Stephen McFarland) is helped by his dresser, Maria
(Sam Jackson) in Compleat Female Stage Beauty (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

In addition to being able to open up his story to include period splendor, realistic settings, lavish lighting, and powerful close-ups for the 2004 film, Hatcher combined the characters of Kynaston's dresser, Maria, with Margaret Hughes from his original stage play -- a move that helped to tighten the screenplay, strengthen dramatic motivations, and bring a new economy to a crucial part of his story.

On the surface, Compleat Female Stage Beauty would seem like a perfect fit for NCTC's audience.
  • Its main character is a talented drag personality who is also involved in a long-term relationship with a noble (George Villiers, the Second Duke of Birmingham).
  • The play includes a scene in which Kynaston is eager to experience the psychological differences in experiencing male and female sexuality depending on gender roles, gender identity, and sexual positions.
  • After losing his professional career to a "real woman," Kynaston finds himself without his romantic partner, his highly marketable skills as well as the fame and loyal audience he had grown to cherish.
  • When forced to coach his rival (the so-called Margaret Hughes) in how to perform Desdemona's death scene for a command performance before King Charles II, he is essentially being forced to train his replacement at no charge.
  • When the King's mistress, Nell Gwynne, shows Kynaston the trick that will allow him to return to the stage, an effeminate gay man (whose sexual identity was heavily invested in being a bottom) finds renewed success after being forced to "butch it up."
Edward Kynaston (Stephen McFarland) meets his rival, Margaret 
Hughes (Elissa Beth Stebbins) in Compleat Female Stage Beauty
(Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Unfortunately, the New Conservatory Theatre Center's opening night performance of Hatcher's play lacked a great deal of electricity until late in Act II, when Kynaston coaches his dresser, Maria (who has stepped into the role of Desdemona), and then performs the final scene of Othello before King Charles II. Up until that point, much of the evening had seemed quite labored. Some of the causative factors might include the following:
  • Although Charles II was known as "The Merrie Monarch" (not to be confused with Hawaii's King Kalākaua), Decker chose to portray him as a rather silly twit, which seemed a bit unnecessary.
  • While I understand Decker's desire for a stripped down playing space, it made Giulio Cesare Perrone's unit set look like a cheap high school production.
  • Although several of the actors in supporting roles did creditable work -- most notably Ali Haas as Nell Gwynne; Sam Jackson as Maria, Justin Liszanckie as Kynaston's lover, and Patrick Ross as the journalistSamuel Pepys -- there was never any doubt that Stephen McFarland was a much stronger performer than anyone else in the cast. Some of the other actors almost seemed amateurish by comparison.
Maria (Sam Jackson) tends to the degraded and humiliated
Kynaston (Stephen McFarland) in a scene from 
Compleat Female State Beauty (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Others in the cast included Colleen Egan as Lady Meresvale, Chris Morrell as Ms. Fayne, and Elissa Beth Stebbins as Margaret Hughes. Jeffrey Hoffman did double duty as the lisping Sedley and Ms. Revels while Matt Weimer took turns appearing as King Charles II and Betterton (the actor/theatre manager who is Kynaston's boss).

Colleen Egan (Lady Meresvale), Chris Morrell (Ms. Fayne),
and Elissa Beth Stebbins (Margaret Hughes) in a scene from
Compleat Female Stage Beauty (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Performances of Compleat Female Stage Beauty continue at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through June 14 (click here to order tickets).

Monday, May 25, 2015

Till Death Do Us Part

Many people fret about what will happen to them after they die. Will they find themselves rejoicing in heaven, repenting in hell, or will their body simply decompose? Will their ashes rest atop someone's mantle, be scattered at sea, be compressed into a diamond, or shaped into a flowerpot that can nurture new growth?

So many choices, with only one chance to get it right. Of course, depending on how superstitious a person might be, there is always the possibility of reincarnation or returning to haunt someone (or some place) as a meddling ghost.

In 1937, Cary Grant and Constance Bennett starred in Topper, the film adaptation of Thorne Smith's 1926 novel, The Jovial Ghosts. The plot revolved around Cosmo Topper, a wealthy, dull bank president who finds himself constantly being tormented by the ghosts of two of his clients: a rich married couple who died in an automobile accident.

After the initial success of 1937's Topper, two sequels were filmed followed by a television series that starred Leo G. Carroll, Anne Jeffreys, Robert Sterling, and a big, drooling St. Bernard. Several episodes of the popular 1950s series were written by a young Stephen Sondheim.

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Alas, not all ghosts are as friendly and fun-loving as George and Marion Kirby. Cinema is filled with malevolent characters ranging from screaming banshees and shapeshifters to Satanic influences.

In 1988, Winona Ryder starred in a black comedy set in a hugely dysfunctional high school in the fictional town of Westerburg, Ohio. When I first saw Heathers, I was accompanied by my father (a retired high school teacher). Neither of us could relate to the scenes of slut shaming, bitchy female cliques, murderous, gun-crazed teenagers, anorexia, or the ghosts of cheerleaders gone wrong.

Not only did Heathers develop a cult following, in 2010 it provided the source material for Heathers: The Musical (with book, music, and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy).  San Francisco's consistently adventurous Ray of Light Theatre recently presented the show's West Coast premiere in a highly energetic production directed by Eric Scanlon and choreographed by Alex Rodriguez with Ben Prince serving as musical director.

Lizzie Moss, Jocelyn Pickett, and  Samantha Rose Cardenas 
appear in Heathers: The Musical (Photo by: Erik Scanlon

Despite the rapturous audience response from shrieking high school students and screaming Heathers fans, ROLT's production suffered from one major flaw: Anton Hedman's severely over-amplified sound design. This became most apparent during musical numbers, when the sound distortion made it almost impossible for people to understand even 40% of the lyrics.

Let me be blunt: A show's lyricist writes lyrics that he expects to be heard. Audiences have a reasonable expectation of being able to understand a show's lyrics. While there was a slight lessening of the amplification during Act II of the opening night performance, there was still plenty of sound distortion undermining the performance.

My advice to Hedman would be to ratchet down the amplification by at least 30% so that his singers can have greater impact and provide a much more satisfying experience to ROLT's audience. As the following clips demonstrate, the lyrics to the songs in Heathers: The Musical are fucking hilarious and definitely deserve to be heard and thoroughly understood!

With costumes by Katie Dowse and scenic design by Angrette McCloskey, ROLT's production starred Jessica Quarles as Veronica Sawyer, the odd girl out who gets befriended by the school's triumvirate of mean girls: Heather Chandler (Jocelyn Pickett), Heather McNamara (Lizzie Moss), and Heather Duke (Samantha Rose Cardenas), a teen anorexic who spends a lot of time throwing up (and, in a superb bit of casting, bears a striking resemblance to Kim Kardashian).

Laura Arthur appears as Martha "Dumptruck" Dunnstock
in Heathers: The Musical (Photo by: Erik Scanlon) 

Veronica's best friend since kindergarten, Martha "Dumptruck" Dunnstock (nicely portrayed by Laura Arthur). is the constant victim of scorn from the three Heathers and all who worship them, including top jocks Kurt Kelly (Paul Hovannes) and Ram Sweeney (Nick Quintell).

Paul Hovannes and Nick Quintell appear as two clueless
jocks in Heathers: The Musical (Photo by: Erik Scanlon) 

Veronica's traumatic experiences at Westerburg High take a sudden and very dark turn with the arrival of Jason Dean (Jordon Bridges), the emotionally damaged son of a demolitions expert who has suffered severe abandonment issues ever since his mother intentionally walked into one of the buildings his father planned to demolish five minutes before the explosives were detonated.

With an audience that seemed to have memorized every moment in the movie, beloved lines like "Fuck me gently with a chain saw" were met with screaming approval from the enthusiastic crowd on opening night. Credit is also due to three supporting players who took on multiple roles:
  • Jessica Fisher appeared as Veronica's mother as well as the school guidance counselor, Ms. Flemming;
  • Mischa Stephens appeared as Coach Ripper, Bib Bud, and Ram Sweeney's father;
  • Andy Rotchadl appeared as Veronica's father, Kurt Kelly's dad, and Principal Gowan.
Jessica Quarles (Victoria Sawyer) and Jordon Bridges (Jason Dean)
star in Heathers: The Musical (Photo by: Erik Scanlon) 

Strongly cast and performed with great enthusiasm, Heathers: The Musical is a natural fit for ROLT"s audience. With better sound design, it could be a much more satisfying experience. Performances continue through June 13 at the Victoria Theatre (click here to order tickets).

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As long as we're talking about what happens to people after they die, mention should be made of Columbarium, a touching documentary short by Tyler Trumbo which will be shown during the 14th San Francisco Documentary Festival (DocFest). Shot on Super 16mm film, Trumbo's four-minute long black-and-white documentary explores the concept of death and remembrance through the eyes of Emmitt Watson, the long-time caretaker of nearly 80,000 cremated remains ensconced in the Neptune Society's beautiful Columbarium located in San Francisco's Richmond District.

Emmitt Watson at work in the Neptune Society's Columbarium

Trumbo's film is an extremely poignant short which may have deeper meaning for viewers who are single than those who belong to more traditional extended families. Short and sweet, Columbarium shows how (for some people) the memory of who they once were can be preserved along with their ashes. Here's the teaser:

Friday, May 22, 2015

Singular Sensations

On January 29, 1966, when Sweet Charity opened on Broadway at the Palace Theatre, the song which became one of the show's biggest hits was "Big Spender." With music by Cy Coleman. lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and provocative choreography by Bob Fosse, the number featured a lineup of bored, jaded, and cynical taxi dancers offering their bodies to prospective customers.

Often overlooked in the aggressiveness of their come-ons are these three lines:
"Do you wanna have fun?
How's about a few laughs?
I could show you a good time!"
Giving one's audience a good time has become a rare skill. Major stars like Kristin Chenowith, Hugh Jackman, Bette Midler, and Lady Gaga know how to deliver the goods. Powerhouse roles like Pseudolus (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Dolly Levi (Hello, Dolly!), Auntie Mame (Mame), and Professor Harold Hill (The Music Man) are almost foolproof vehicles for gifted actors.

Nevertheless, a show's creative team can only go so far in providing the foundation upon which a performer can build an unforgettable evening. Recently, while watching an outrageous entry in San Francisco's 14th annual DocFest and a brilliant new adaptation of a 272-year-old commedia dell'arte masterpiece, I was reminded of the wise words of Mel Brooks: "When you've got it, flaunt it!"

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When one starts looking around for "colorful characters," people with a tremendous lust for life (like Zorba the Greek) or a winning philosophy (like Auntie Mame, who insisted that "Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death!") quickly come to mind. Most fans of the popular Seinfeld series have fond memories of "The Soup Nazi" episode. But did you know there is an eccentric "Sandwich Nazi" in Vancouver?

Filmmaker Lewis Bennett's documentary about Salam Kahil (who proudly describes himself as “an Arab Muslim Lebanese with a Scandinavian deli with a French name in Canada" easily fits the bill for a portrait of a character who is "larger than life."

When Salam is not proudly describing the exploits of his 9-1/2 inch penis, playing the cello, or reminiscing about the best blowjobs of his life, he takes turns insulting his loyal, adoring customers and handing out free sandwiches to Vancouver's homeless. He never hesitates to brag about the fact that the way he got into Canada was by fucking one of its male immigration officials in the ass.

To say that Kahil has lived a remarkable life would be an understatement. As a child, he was sexually abused by his older brother. After getting kicked out of numerous schools in Beirut, he ran away from home at 14 and worked as a male escort throughout Europe. Over the years he realized that his foul mouth made it wiser for him to work alone rather than face an endless string of sexual harassment lawsuits from employees.

Salam Kahil slicing meat in his delicatessen in Vancouver

Bennett's documentary, The Sandwich Nazi, had its world premiere at 2015's South by Southwest Festival (where Salam happily dropped his pants and went full frontal before the audience during the post-screening Q&A session). The film focuses on a man who, in addition to constantly joking about his sexual prowess, remains refreshingly blunt (Kahil takes great joy in pointing out the cum stains he has left on the concrete floor in the back room of his sandwich shop).

An enthusiastic exhibitionist, Kahil is seen dealing with the problems of failing health, alienation from his family in Beirut (including a mother with Alzheimer's disease), and a keen awareness that, despite his hefty endowment, after turning 30 he was too old to continue working as an escort.

While some might find Bennett's documentary crude, and Kahil's extreme extroversion too abrasive, the man deserves credit for making no apologies about who he is and what he has to offer the world. Whether seeming unusually vulnerable during a hospitalization (following an automobile accident) or wondering whether ill health will force him to close his deli, Salam is the kind of man who has absolutely no filters. What you see is what you get -- and what you hear is bound to include a healthy dose of (often hilarious) insults.

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For many theatre historians, Carlo Goldoni's 1743 farce entitled The Servant of Two Masters is a classic of the commedia dell'arte style of comedy. In 2011, the Royal National Theatre in London presented a stunning new adaptation written by Richard Bean, directed by Nicholas Hytner, and starring James Corden that became such a hit that it transferred to the West End and, in April 2012, to Broadway (where Corden won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play).

Bean's adaptation moved the action up to the 1960s and relocated it from Venice to Brighton. In the following clip, Bean, Hytner, and Corden discuss the inspiration for the production and some of the lessons they learned after One Man, Two Guvnors went live before an audience.

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of One Man, Two Guvnors in a rollicking production directed by David Ivers with songs by Grant Olding. When the audience enters the Roda Theatre it is greeted by a skiffle band consisting of Casey Hurt (guitar, vocals and band leader), Andrew Niven (drummer), Marcus Högsta (bassist), and Mike McGraw (guitarist). The band performs during set changes and, in Act II, reappears dressed as an early rock band in outfits one might expect to see on a group like The Beatles.

When the star of a show's original production has received so much acclaim for a breakthrough performance, anyone who steps into the role in subsequent productions has big shoes to fill (think of Zero Mostel as Tevye or Ethel Merman as Mama Rose). However, the magic of live theatre is such a powerful force that, often, someone with a completely different body type than the original star can craftily make the show his own and have audiences eating out of his hand.

Francis Henshall (Dan Donohue) and Charlie Clench (Robert Sicular)
in a scene from One Man, Two Guvnors (Photo by:

That's the kind of theatrical triumph Dan Donohue achieved in the role of Francis Henshall.  A lanky redhead who is a skilled physical clown with a great sense of timing, Donohue is adept at improvising with the audience and at milking a laugh for all it's worth. Under Ivers's direction, Donohue doesn't try to rush through Bean's script or beat the jokes into the ground. Instead, he gives key moments the grace of a few extra beats so that the audience is laughing with him (as well as at him).

As Francis Henshall, Dan Donohue struggles to move a trunk across 
the stage in One Man, Two Guvnors (Photo by: 

The same can be said of the superb supporting cast. With veteran clown Ron Campbell as Alfie (an old, easily befuddled, and nearly deaf waiter who keeps falling down the stairs on his first day at a new job) and Danny Scheie as Gareth (a head waiter with a mischievous smirk and priceless delivery), Donohue has strong comedic shoulders to lean on.

Ron Campbell, Dan Donohue, and Danny Scheie keep the audience
in stitches in One Man, Two Guvnors (Photo by:

Add in the preening Brad Culver as Alan (a vain and overly dramatic aspiring actor) who is in love with the empty-headed Pauline (Sarah Moser), and Claire Warden as Dolly (a sex-starved bookkeeper) and complications quickly ensue. Top that all off with William Connell's hilarious performance as Stanley Stubber (a studly upper class fool who is head over heels in love with a young woman named Rachel (Helen Sadler).

Pauline (Sarah Moser) listens to Rachel (Helen Sadler) as her narcissistic
fiancé, Alan (Brad Culver), looks on in One Man, Two Guvnors
(Photo by: 

Here's where things get complicated.
  • Stanley is fleeing the police after having murdered Roscoe Crabbe (Rachel's twin brother). 
  • Rachel has disguised herself as a man in order to find her late brother's assassin.
  • Alan is threatening to kill someone with a butter knife he bought at Woolworth's.
  • Alan's father, Harry Dangle (John-David Keller), can't understand the difference between an identical twin and a fraternal twin
  • And, blessed with the sheer luck of being in the wrong place at the right time, Francis Henshall (who is so hungry he could kill...) finds himself employed as the servant to both Stanley and Rachel. Not only that, he must frequently dash offstage and reappear as his imaginary friend, Patty.
Francis Henshall (Dan Donohue) is asked to run an unpleasant errand
by Stanley Stubber (William Connell) in One Man, Two Guvnors
(Photo by: 

With sets by Hugh Landwehr and costumes designed by Meg Neville, Berkeley Rep's production is filled with laughter and sight gags (Dan Donohue's bravura efforts to serve dinner to his two bosses in a Brighton hotel includes some hilarious tricks played with meatballs, cucumbers, and dead fish). Gerry McIntyre scores strong points as Lloyd Boateng (an ex con who is a devoted friend of Rachel's) while Becca Lustgarten steals the show in ways too brilliant and numerous to count.

Dolly (Claire Warden) and Francis (Dan Donohue) share a clumsy
moment in One Man, Two Guvnors (Photo by: 

Performances of One Man, Two Guvnors continue at Berkeley Rep through June 21 (click here to order tickets). In the meantime, enjoy the trailer:

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Sense of Foreboding

Back in 1994, when Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels debuted the Dumb and Dumber franchise, audiences laughed so hard their sides hurt. In the following two decades, audiences welcomed an animated series (1995's Dumb and Dumber), a prequel (2003's Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd), and a sequel (2011's Dumb and Dumber To). That's a whole lot of dumb spread all over the place.

However, if one removes the letter "b" from the end of the word "dumb" and substitutes "dum" as a musical syllable, the results bear a strikingly different (and frequently criminal) connotation. Two "dums" form the ominous leitmotif for a scene change during any episode in the Law & Order franchise.

Three "dums" form a universally recognized cue that something bad is about to happen in a mystery.

For some people, four "dums" are easily recognizable as the beginning of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

However, four "dums" also introduce the musical theme from the popular Dragnet franchise.

Three dramas playing out on Bay Area stages during May were notable for their sense of foreboding coupled with the audience's suspicion that no good deed would go unpunished. Two were short plays on the program for the Best of Playground 19 festival. The other was an intense one-act black comedy receiving its world premiere from the folks at San Francisco Playhouse.

* * * * * * * * *
Written by Rachel Bublitz and directed by Rebecca Ennals, Reading Babar in 2070 is filled with the kinds of twists and turns worthy of a short story by Guy de Maupassant. As the action begins, a very pregnant Lucia (Stephanie Prentice) is asleep on the couch, taking a nap. When her husband, Michael (Michael Barrett Austin) and daughter Tina (Millie DeBenedet) return from grocery shopping and a trip to the library, Tina launches into an impassioned speech about why she loves elephants and asks her parents to read a book to her that she brought home from the library.

The politically correct Lucia scolds her husband for bringing home a book about Babar the Elephant, explaining that it's not really about elephants at all. But there is no stopping Tina, whose love for elephants nearly surpasses her love for her parents.

Lucia's self-righteous bubble quickly bursts when the conversation turns to the fact that, with the exception of the few pachyderms living in zoos, in 2070 elephants are extinct. With a child's laser-like instincts, Tina asks what her parents did to help save the elephants, only to learn that when Lucia and Michael were in college, they were "too busy" to pay attention.

* * * * * * * * *
In Erin Marie Panttaja's poignant Preapocalyptica, Melissa (Melissa Ortiz) is a homeless person living in a cardboard box who is visited by Will (Jomar Tagatac). At first, Will just seems like a good Samaritan trying to give the hungry Melissa some food and water.

But, as carefully directed by Katja Rivera, the audience soon becomes aware that Will is actually Melissa's husband and that he is desperately trying to break through her crippling fear about the need for everyone to work harder to conserve food, energy, and other resources. While Melissa worries aloud about not being able to conserve enough to help the world, Will gently tries to coax his wife to come back home so that he and their children can take care of her.

* * * * * * * * *
Those who were captivated by Jim Carrey's performance in 1998's popular film, The Truman Show, may find Richard Dresser's vicious farce, Trouble Cometh, even more compelling. Like Aaron Loeb's Ideation (which received its world premiere from San Francisco Playhouse in late 2014), Trouble Cometh probes the darker depths the lizard brains of corporate executives and the depraved depths to which they will go when necessary.

Poster art for Trouble Cometh

Skillfully directed by May Adrales, Dresser's script follows the misadventures of Joe (Kyle Cameron), a likable young man who desperately needs to hold onto the first job he's had in nearly a year. A man with precious little spine, Joe's loyalties are being tugged at from all sides.
  • His fiancée, Susan (Marissa Keltie), wants him to make up his mind about getting married.
  • His assistant, Kelly (Liz Sklar), enigmatically runs hot and cold when it comes to their mutual sexual attraction.
  • His boss, Dennis (Patrick Russell), is well aware that he is underqualified as a corporate executive. Dennis is subject to intense mood swings, is often irrational, and is extremely paranoid about the possibility of being fired by the upper management folks on the dreaded 11th Floor. He also has a deep-seated craving for some Bugles.
Joe (Kyle Cameron) and Dennis (Patrick Russell) in a
scene from Trouble Cometh (Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli)

No matter how desperately Dennis tries to outmaneuver his superiors (who are quite adept at switching meeting times and locations), his attempts to demonstrate his leadership qualities are often upended whenever Kelly arrives with a fresh change in corporate direction.

Kelly (Liz Sklar), Joe (Kyle Cameron) and Dennis (Patrick Russell)
in a scene from Trouble Cometh (Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli)

Just when things seem like they couldn't get worse, a new corporate decision maker named Vashti (Nandita Shenoy) arrives to rattle the tiny cage in which Joe, Kelly, and Dennis are trying to polish a sales pitch for an insanely brutal reality television show which will force two families to compete against each other. With the men completely thrown off their game by having to relate to a strong woman from another culture, their sense of white privilege (mixed with a lot of repressed sexism and racism) takes over.

With Joe's incessant ass-kissing causing Vashti to insist that he stop echoing everything being said in their meeting, it looks as if the project may be doomed. By the time Dennis and Liz resort to drinking the poison they've kept onsite to be used in just such an emergency, Joe can barely tell if the events he's witnessing are real or if the colleagues he's looked up to (and tried so hard to please) are completely insane.

The cast of Trouble Cometh (Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli)

Like Ideation, much of the action takes place in a corporate conference room where the frenzied fantasies of desperate executives flutter, crash, and burn with frequency, accompanied by the forceful sound design of Theodore J. H. Hulsker. Dresser piles on the laughs with sharp insight into the behavior of stressed out corporate whores who want to please their bosses but have no idea what they can do to deliver the goods. The cast of Trouble Cometh delivers in spades (especially Patrick Russell, whose juvenile meltdowns seem like a series of mad scenes written for an aging, incompetent jock).

Joe (Kyle Cameron) and Dennis (Patrick Russell) in a
scene from Trouble Cometh (Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli)

While Kyle Cameron's Joe and Liz Sklar's Kelly experience the greatest amount of change, the real star of the evening never appears onstage. That would be one of the Bay area's most talented set designers, Nina Ball, who has designed a unit set of such remarkable flexibility that, to my mind, she ended up stealing the show.

Dresser's play is a fast-paced, intelligently plotted, and merciless comedy which will easily entertain anyone who has dealt with incompetent bosses and corporate backstabbers. The surprise ending is beautifully handled with one of Nina Ball's greatest coups de theatre. Performances of Trouble Cometh continue through June 27 at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here to order tickets). Don't miss it!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Bits and Snatches

Most of us, upon hearing the term "amuse-bouche," instantly think of food. But in some situations I often think of programs which offer a collection of short plays -- or a retrospective of a composer or lyricist's career -- as a long string of amuse-bouches. Some are tastier and have more heft than others; some have an almost ethereal appeal.

Taken together, the whole often becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Yet it is the program's individual ingredients, like spices balanced against each other, which become the evening's true gems. Two such programs recently entertained Bay area audiences.
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Two of the short plays featured in the Best of Playground 19 program took a curious approach to issues affecting the lives of some San Franciscans. With George & Ira Gershwin's "Someone To Watch Over Me" as an emotional touchstone, Genne Murphy's three-character play entitled Someone looked at a recurrent fantasy affecting the lives of Max (Michael Phillis) and his husband, Andy (Michael Barrett Austin).

As directed by Jeffrey Lo, Max has been enjoying an imaginary visit with his daughter, Hannah (Melissa Ortiz), who should now be old enough to go to her school's prom. However, the sad truth is that, because Hannah's mother has kept the young girl away from her biological father, Max can only dream about the kind of devoted father he might have been. As usual, Phillis continues to impress audiences each season with the depth of his acting.  Here's a teaser from the play:

Directed by Jon Tracy, Kirk Shimono's Art and Tech focuses on a source of local tension that has impacted many San Franciscans: The power struggle between a new wave of tech workers and older San Franciscans who are being evicted and displaced by them.

As they jump back and forth in time, Art (Millie DeBenedet) and Tech (Lindsey Marie Schmeltzer) explore how they initially became good friends but, before long, the inequality of their incomes and judgmental triggers transformed two casual friends into bitter enemies.  With or without a fleet of Google buses, the battle is far from over.

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With artistic director Greg MacKellan acting as host and narrator, and company regulars Ryan Drummond, Darlene Popovic, Allison F. Rich, Anil Margsahayam, and Kelly Britt performing solo numbers as well as ensembles, 42nd Street Moon's tribute to Alan Jay Lerner was appropriately entitled Inventing Champagne. The evening's guest star was the venerable Nancy Dussault (whom I first saw when she was appearing as Maria late in the original Broadway run of The Sound of Music and later in Bajour).

With Dave Dobrusky acting as musical director, the evening paid tribute to Lerner's big hits (1947's Brigadoon, 1956's My Fair Lady, 1958's Gigi, 1960's Camelot, and 1965's On A Clear Day You Can See Forever). Some interesting twists of gender identity included Darlene Popovic's rendition of "Get Me to The Church on Time" (My Fair Lady) and Kelly Britt's surprisingly feminine version of "I Talk To The Trees" from 1951's Paint Your Wagon.

Lerner's on-again, off-again partnership with Frederick "Fritz" Loewe allowed him to work with such giants as Kurt Weill, Burton Lane, André Previn, Charles Strouse, Leonard Bernstein, and John Barry. Even if those shows did not produce the most memorable hits, I was fascinated by "I've Been Married" from 1984's My Man Godfrey (with music by Gerard Kenny and the droll "Economics" from Kurt Weill's Love Life (1948).

MacKellan also demonstrated how Lerner recycled some of the songs he wrote with Fritz Loewe after they had been cut from their original shows.
  • "What Do Other Folks Do?" (which was originally written for Paint Your Wagon) reappeared in Camelot as "What Do The Simple Folk Do?"  
  • "I Remember It Well" (which had first been used in Love Life) became a cherished duet for Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold in Gigi.
  • Although originally written for Eliza Doolittle to sing in My Fair Lady, "Say A Prayer for Me Tonight" was cut during that show's out-of-town tryout and later given to the young Gigi.

Not all of Lerner's shows were smash hits.
  • Had it not been for the box office draw of Katherine Hepburn in the title role, 1969's Coco would never have managed to rack up 329 performances (after Danielle Darrieux replaced Hepburn box office sales plummeted).
  • 1971's Lolita, My Love closed during its out-of-town tryout and never made it to Broadway.
  • 1976's flop (with music by Leonard Bernstein) entitled 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue only lasted for seven performances.
  • 1979's Carmelina (with music by Burton Lane) only lasted for 17 performances.
  • 1983's Dance A Little Closer (with music by Charles Strouse) closed after one performance.
In the following clip, soprano Meg Bussert sings two songs from Lolita, My Love and discusses some of the problems encountered during that show's out-of-town tryout.

MacKellan's narration did not include any mention of Lerner's hospitalization during Camelot's out-of-town tryout. Although the famous lyricist died nearly 30 years ago, he still holds a cherished spot in the hearts of many who worked with him. Here's John Collum (who co-starred with Barbara Harris in the original Broadway cast of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever) recalling the impact Lerner had on his life.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Keeping Up Appearances

When one thinks back on some of history's greatest hoaxes, the first two that come to mind are usually the Trojan Horse and the creation of Potemkin villages.  Both were brilliant projects conceived and executed on a grand scale with formidable results.

If we ratchet down the scale of deception to a much more intimate level, we end up examining the behavior of a very duplicitious character who has become so skilled at living a lie that it may be impossible for him to remember who he really is. For many of us, the perfect example would be a gay man who insists on living a closeted and severely compartmentalized life.

Maintaining such an exhausting charade can only last for so long. Recently, Bay area theatregoers were treated to two hilarious examples of what can go wrong when someone tries too hard to be someone he's not.

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Over at Thick House, Best of Playground Festival 19 presented six of the best short plays created during Playground's 2014-2015 season. Written by Davern Wright and directed by Jim Kleinmann, Cratchit examines what might happen if Ebeneezer Scrooge's time with the Ghost of Christmas Present didn't follow the path originally conceived  by Charles Dickens.

Instead, Wright posits that, knowing what a tightass Scrooge is about money, the Cratchit family must desperately try to pull off an elaborate ruse in order to con the old man into feeling some pity for them. Tim (Millie DeBenedete) is no cripple, but a healthy young grifter who has practiced every pose that can milk money out of a stranger's pockets.

Cratchit's two daughters, Emily (Stephanie Prentice) and Belinda (Melissa Ortiz), are two simpering teenage brats reluctant to share any credit for their role in preparing the family's Christmas dinner. Their father, Bob Cratchit (Michael Barrett Austin), is a frustrated, foul-mouthed Victorian-era clerk who couldn't stop cursing out his selfish employer.

As a result, when The Ghost of Christmas Present (Jomar Tagatac) guides Scrooge (Michael Phillis) to observe the misery in the Cratchit household caused by his stinginess, what Scrooge witnesses is quite different from what Dickens wrote.

Ebeneezer Scrooge (Michael Phillis) visits his clerk's schemiong
family on Christmas Day in Cratchit (Photo by: 

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To close out its 2014-2015 season, 42nd Street Moon is presenting a rare revival of Frank Loesser and George Abbott's hit, Where's Charley? Directed with gusto by Dyan McBride, this musical adaptation of Brandon Thomas's 1892 hit comedy, Charley's Aunt, was a star vehicle for Ray Bolger, whose career as a song-and-dance man included the original Broadway productions of Life Begins at 8:40 (1934) and two hit musicals by Rodgers and Hart: On Your Toes (1936), and By Jupiter (1942). Although Bolger may be best known for his performance as The Scarecrow in 1939's The Wizard of Oz, this clip from 1941's hit film, Sunny, gives a good sense of his loose-limbed charm.

When Where's Charley? opened on Broadway in 1948 at the St. James Theatre, it ran for 792 performances. A revival featuring most of the original leads opened in January 1951 at the Broadway Theatre and ran for 48 performances. A 1952 film version produced by Warner Brothers gives a hint at Bolger's charm in the title role and includes the sing-along to "Once In Love With Amy" that he made popular during the show's original run on Broadway.

For those who don't know, the ruse that lies at the core of Charley's Aunt and Where's Charley? is the predicament that Charley Wykeham finds himself in when he and his roommate, Jack Chesney, are visited by their girfriends (who arrive without a chaperone). This being Victorian England, such behavior is outrageous. In order to facilitate matters, Charley is convinced to dress up as his aunt, Dona Lucia D'Alvadorez, who is due to arrive in town while visiting from Brazil ("where the nuts come from").

Keith Pinto in drag as Dona Lucia D'Alvadorez in
Where's Charley? (Photo by: Patrick O'Connor)

Once the gimmick is established, the actor playing Charley is kept on the run as he undergoes quick costume changes between his naturally masculine appearance as Charley and a highly feminized version of his aunt. Needless to say, "Charley's Aunt" (who is rumored to be extremely wealthy) attracts the attention of several gold-digging old goats, including Jack Chesney's financially challenged father. Meanwhile, Charley finds himself suddenly gaining access to such forbidden areas as a ladies' dressing room.

Dona Lucia D'Alvadorez (Keith Pinto) finds himself in a ladies'
dressing room in Where's Charley?  (Photo by: Patrick O'Connor)

Some may claim that Frank Loesser's score for Where's Charley? is rather slight, but I don't think that's very fair. In many respects, George Abbott's book and Loesser's songs show a heavy influence of Gilbert & Sullivan.

This show is very much a period piece (as opposed to other Loesser musicals such as Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, Greenwillow, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).  The following selections from 1958's London cast recording (starring Norman Wisdom) give listeners a taste of the romantic style Loesser drew upon for his score to Where's Charley?

42nd Street Moon's revival featured James Bock as Jack Chesney, John-Elliott Kirk as Sir Francis Chesney, and Scott Hayes, who landed many fine comedic moments as Mr. Spettigue. Jennifer Mitchell and Abby Sammons lent their rich soprano voices to the roles of Kitty Verdun and Amy Spettigue, with Stephanie Rhoads appearing as Charley's real aunt Dona Lucia.

As a rule, the show rests on the shoulders of the actor playing Charley Wykeham. Keith Pinto brought a high energy, athletic determination to the role which paid off in spades. On opening night, it looked as if Pinto was having as much fun as the audience was having watching him in action.

Keith Pinto as Dona Lucia D'Alvadorez fends off Scott Hayes as
Mr. Spettigue in Where's Charley? (Photo by: Patrick O'Connor)