Monday, March 23, 2015

Sweet Clarity

One of the hardest tasks for theatre companies is to find a way to make classics of the dramatic literature accessible to modern audiences. Often, specific problems arise with regard to crafting translations from French, German, Russian, Italian, and other languages so that a word or phrase translated from its original cultural context can be understood by today's theatregoers.

For many years, opera companies would try to perform works like Johann Strauss II's 1874 operetta, Die Fledermaus, and his subsequent Wiener Blut (1899) -- as well as Franz Lehar's popular The Merry Widow (1905) in English translations which often fell short of the mark. During the late 20th century, Andrew Porter's translations of 37 operas (including Der Ring des Nibelungen) were used by numerous opera companies. Soon after Lotfi Mansouri introduced the use of Supertitles at the Canadian Opera Company for a 1983 production of Richard Strauss's 1909 opera, Elektra, the new technology proved to be a game changer.

Since then, more and more operas have been performed in their original language with Supertitles written in the language most familiar to the audience. In 1987, having just experienced Wagner's Ring at the Seattle Opera, I flew to Aarhus for the Danish National Opera's production of Der Ring des Nibelungen fully anticipating another production with the use of Supertitles. Indeed, the DNO used Supertitles -- but they were written in Danish!

In 1962, the creative team of Larry Gelbart, Burt Shevelove, Stephen Sondheim, and George Abbott mined three works by the ancient Roman playwright, Plautus, to create their hit Broadway musical entitled A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This month, San Francisco's intimate Custom Made Theatre will offer the world premiere of Evren Odcikin's new adaptation of Plautus's farce, Miles Gloriosus, entitled The Braggart Soldier or Major Blowhard.

In programming the classics for modern audiences, the question becomes:
  • Should one use an existing translation which might sound a bit stodgy to modern ears?
  • Should one commission a new translation and then make the choice of staging the work as intended by the playwright or updating it to a more contemporary setting?
  • Should one go with a contemporary adaptation of the play which may tighten the action, eliminate a few minor characters, and include some state of the art profanity?
I recently attended back-to-back openings of two works which chose the third option. One was a French comedy that was first performed in 1664; the other a Russian play first produced in 1896. With some inspired tinkering, could plays that were 350 and 119 years old (and written for wildly different cultures) be made accessible to modern audiences? The answer was a resounding and electrifying YES!

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My pathway to Molière's famous farce, Tartuffe, has taken a strange and winding course. Although I read it in college, the text was not particularly exciting. On May 27, 1980, I attended the world premiere of Kirke Mechem's operatic adaptation when the San Francisco Opera debuted Tartuffe at the Herbst Theatre. In the spring of 1988, I traveled to Oregon to catch two more performances of Mechem's Tartuffe at the Eugene Opera .

As often happens with college productions, the comedy was quite polite and never reached the biting sarcasm that was one of Molière's strong points. As Tony Taccone (the artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre) notes:
"Very few plays transcend the period in which they were written. Those that do become the standard by which we measure ourselves, both culturally and artistically. A great production of a classic work vivifies the past, illuminates the present, and inspires us to create work that dares to be important. Perhaps because he was an aspiring tragedian whose life was plagued with obstacles of every variety (or perhaps because his formative years were spent in the countryside learning the comic secrets of commedia dell'arte), Molière's work is a daring blend of the darkest and lightest aspects of human experience."
As part of a co-production with the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., Berkeley Rep is presenting the Bay area premiere of David Ball's new adaptation of Tartuffe using a beautifully austere, cream-colored unit set designed by Tom Buderwitz with costumes by Sonya Berlovitz and some magnificent sound design by Corinne Carrillo. Directed by Dominique Serrand, the cast includes several members of the tragically bankrupted Theatre de la Jeune Lune of Minneapolis who are now working with Serrand at his new artistic home, The Moving Company.

While many people like to think of Tartuffe as a 17th-century farce, when viewed through a contemporary lens it becomes a stinging indictment of both religious hypocrisy and the blind devotion and unspeakable stupidity with which gullible souls turn their lives over to religious charlatans. In this production, Tartuffe (Steven Epp) has thoroughly bamboozled the wealthy Orgon (Luverne Seifert), who is deaf to the concerns of his loyal housemaid, Dorine (Suzanne Warmanen); his brother-in-law, Cleante (Gregory Linington); his son, Damis (Brian Hostenske); and his wife, Elmire (Sofia Jean Gomez), about Tartuffe's false piety and predatory nature.

Sofia Jean Gomez (Elmire) and Steven Epp (Tartuffe) in a
scene from Molière's Tartuffe (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Orgon's teenage daughter, Mariane (Lenne Klingaman), is eager to wed the handsome, young Valere (Christopher Carley), but becomes panicked when her father -- hopelessly lost in his idolatry of a religious con man -- promises her to Tartuffe.

Lenne Klingaman (Mariane), Suzanne Warmanen (Dorine), and
Christopher Carley (Valere) in a scene from Molière's Tartuffe
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With no one in his household able to knock some sense into him, Orgon falls deeper and deeper under Tartuffe's spell until, in a spiteful rage, he disinherits his son, signs over all his assets, and even grants Tartuffe ownership of his home. A wily grifter, Tartuffe soon takes advantage of the situation by kicking Orgon and his family out of their home while acting more and more saintly by the moment. Adding insult to injury, he sends his servant, Laurent (Nathan Keepers -- looking like a malicious Alan Cumming), to deliver news of the family's eviction.

Luverne Seifert (Orgon), Steven Epp (Tartuffe), and Brian
Hostenske (Damis) in a scene from Tartuffe (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Serrand has paced this production with an astonishing sensitivity to the musicality of Molière's rhyming couplets. Lines are spoken a bit more slowly than usual, with crisp elocution so that the audience can truly savor Molière's wit. The addition of several moments of ominous liturgical music makes this production feel somewhat operatic.

As the play progresses, the style seems to evolve from bel canto to (if there even is such a thing) comic verismo. Instead of having the farcical nature of La Barbier de Seville (the first part of the Figaro trilogy by Pierre Beaumarchais), the atmosphere steadily darkens, becoming increasingly dangerous and making one think of such operas as Don Giovanni, Faust, and Mefistofele.

One might wonder if a 350-year-old French farce would lose some of its relevance in the 21st century, but let me offer a convenient little litmus test. Watch Stephen Epp's tightly-wound, muscular performance as the scheming, seducing religious hypocrite and think about what happens if the lead character's name (Tartuffe) is changed to Ted Cruz. As the French would say, et voila!

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Judging from the intense passion so many theatre people harbor for Anton Chekhov's play, The Seagull (1896), it's hard to believe that at the play's premiere in Saint Petersburg, it was roundly booed by the audience. The evening was such a disaster that, after witnessing the audience's reaction, the shocked playwright announced that he would abandon his life's work (writing plays). Over the years, however, The Seagull has become a staple of the dramatic literature and inspired numerous adaptations:

Directed by Frank Corsaro, Thomas Pasatieri's operatic adaptation of The Seagull (with a libretto by Kenward Elmslie) received its world premiere from the Houston Grand Opera on March 5,1974 with a cast headed by Evelyn Lear, Frederica von Stade, Richard Stilwell, and John Reardon, The Seagull was subsequently staged by opera companies in Seattle, Fort Worth, Washington, Atlanta, and San Francisco. The only complete recording was made with the 2002 student cast from the Manhattan School of Music (which presented the opera's New York premiere). A modern dress version of Pasatieri's opera was captured on video and can be watched on YouTube.

In May of 2008, the McCarter Theatre presented the world premiere of Emily Mann's new adaptation entitled A Seagull in the Hamptons. In 2012, the Marin Theatre Company staged the world premiere of Libby Appel's new adaptation, simply entitled Seagull.

Adam Magill as Con in Stupid Fucking Bird 
(Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli) 

First produced in Washington, D.C., Aaron Posner's hilariously updated version of Chekhov's classic (entitled Stupid Fucking Bird) is receiving its Bay area premiere from the San Francisco Playhouse in a production that has been brilliantly -- and very sensitively -- directed by Susi Damilano. As Bill English (San Francisco Playhouse's artistic director) explains:
"I first noticed Stupid Fucking Bird in its original production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in DC, ordered up a copy, and immediately fell in love. As a life-long Chekhov devotee, I was exhilarated to find The Seagull alive and breathing inside of this very contemporary fowl. And yet, it unmistakably bears the mark of the hippest contemporary dialogue and captures the sense of being alive 'now' beautifully. How glorious. Some tangy new wine in an old treasured bottle, reinforcing our deepest spiritual thirst to feel not only that we are all connected, but that it has always been so."
Carrie Paff as the narcissistic Emma in Stupid Fucking Bird
(Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli) 
"Aaron Posner has had his way with the story, not only by adding the elements of public address, but actually asking the audience questions about their take on the story and insisting on answers. These elements of meta-theatricality peel back the layers of worshipfulness which get in the way of Chekhov's grounded sensibility. And Mr. Posner has resurrected the humor. Chekhov wanted audiences to laugh at and with his characters and, ironically, he hated the very serious, dour approach that Stanislavski took to his work. We think he would love Stupid Fucking Bird."
Martha Brigham (Nina) and Adam Magill (Con) in a scene
from Stupid Fucking Bird (Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli)

Breaking through the fourth wall involves risks as well as rewards. On opening night, the audience's enjoyment was somewhat diminished by a claque of rowdy and very drunk women seated behind me who were feeling absolutely no pain. They reacted to every scripted laugh and bit of stage business like teenagers screaming for their favorite team at a high school football game. Like Queen Victoria, I was not amused.

Posner's approach to revamping The Seagull is at once ruthlessly iconoclastic and tenderly devout. He has updated the action to the present, so that the frustrated Con (Adam Magill) comes across as a painfully insecure hipster with minimal talent. His narcissistic mother, Emma (Carrie Paff), is an aging star of stage and screen whose primary goal is to be the object of adoration from anyone and everyone who crosses her path. Emma's introverted brother, Sorn (Charles Shaw Robinson), is an aging doctor with one foot in the grave.

The hangers-on temporarily revolving around this family include the depressed, sarcastic Mash (El Beh), who wants nothing to do with the plain, simple, and good-hearted Dev (Joe Estlack). Those familiar with Chekhov's play know that Con/Konstantin is hopelessly smitten with Nina (Martha Brigham); Dev/Semyon is head over heels in love with Mash/Masha; and Trig/Trigorin (Johnny Moreno) is Emma's current lover (and a man who does not hesitate to focus his gaze on Nina's perky young breasts).

Emma (Carrie Paff) and her lover, Trig (Johnny Moreno)
in Stupid Fuckinng Bird (Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli)

Posner (who did a smashing job of directing last summer's production of The Comedy of Errors for the California Shakespeare Theatre) has a long history of making the classics accessible to modern audiences. By eliminating some minor roles and combining two characters into one (Sorn), he has streamlined much of the narrative and intensified some of the relationships. His basic methodology is surprisingly simple:
"I trust and ask more from our audience. Television is so good these days -- the best of television is so fucking good and movies are spectacular. But they ask less and they just put you in a passive position. They do it brilliantly and in a spectacular fashion that we can't begin to match. But what we can do is ask audiences to step up and in and be part of the process and our capacity to engage with these people as actors at one moment and as fully embodied characters one second later. My daughter doesn't need consistency of play. We can be in a fairy kingdom one second, under a castle the next second, under the sea the next second and . . . Oh look, there's a sandwich. I'll go eat it. She doesn't need to do fucking transitions between her realities -- they're just all present for her. We have an innate capacity to do that, to enjoy that, and to like the dizzying nature of simultaneous realities.

That's the fun of theater for us, but I don't know that we always exploit it as much as we can. And, sure, that's certainly some of the impulse behind Stupid Fucking Bird. It's not coincidental that Stupid Fucking Bird uses a lot of Shakespearean devices in fact and that my 25 years of directing 20 different Shakespeare plays are all wrapped into my playwriting as well and so trying to make sure that the days are the days and that we're engaged with amazement and that kind of thing and full presence. Certainly those are all connected for me. The distance from Stupid Fucking Bird to The Tempest is not very far for me."
Charles Shaw Robinson, Joe Estlack, El Beh, and Johnny Moreno
in a scene from Stupid Fucking Bird (Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli) 

Working on Bill English's unit set, Damilano's ensemble does a superb job of sending up Chekhov while making the poignancy of his characters more relatable than usual. I particularly liked the performances by Adam Magill, Joe Estlack, and El Beh.

It doesn't matter how big a fan of Chekhov's plays you are -- Stupid Fucking Bird has something for everyone (including big heaping doses of depression, anxiety, narcissism, futility, and raucous laughter). Performances continue through May 2nd at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

Friday, March 20, 2015

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye

Final farewells are usually loaded with conflicting emotions. Although we live in an age where technology allows us to listen to recordings of a loved one's voice, view their pictures, and share stories about them, nothing is quite the same as a warm hug, a tender kiss, even the way they smell when their arms are wrapped around you.

One could question whether it's a loss of comfort or a loss of intimacy, but with the disappearance of a cherished friend or beloved icon, things change. No matter how one approaches the moment, it's with a bittersweet understanding that all good things must come to an end.

Two recent events brought the old saying "Parting is such sweet sorrow" into surprisingly clear focus. In an odd way, a short film reinforced the adage that "In space, no one can hear you scream." And yet, the stoked audience that filled the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco for the opening night performance of Dame Edna's Glorious Goodbye couldn't have had themselves a better time.

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One of the more intriguing films screened during the 2015 CAAMfest was part of a program of shorts entitled Tales of Tomorrow. Set in the year 2021, the action takes place aboard a spaceship launched by India whose mission is to try to colonize a distant planet in the hope of creating a new home for humans.

The advance team of astronauts is headed by Pankaj (Ravi Kapoor), Naaz (Hina Khan), and the spaceship's dying captain, Rishi (Anjul Nigam). With no chance of returning to India, once they receive word from Earth that they are the only hope for a fresh start for humanity, Pankaj and Naaz face a heartbreaking decision. Keenly aware of his predicament, Rishi has committed suicide by removing the nasal cannula which was supplying him with oxygen. But because they cannot bring any decomposed organic material with them to a new planet, his two heartbroken colleagues must dispose of Rishi's body by releasing it into outer space.

Poster art for Vimana

Beautifully written and directed by Faroukh Virani for his USC thesis project, Vimana takes its name from the mythical flying chariots and palaces that were described in ancient Hindu, Jain, and Sanskrit texts. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's fascinating to see how a small independent film can look so realistic, thanks largely to Maria Dirolf's production design, Zhe Chong's visual effects, and Alejandro Ernesto's cinematography. Here's the film's cheeky Kickstarter appeal:

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David Martin Bruson (the author of Dame Edna, the Megastar Who Cares) traces the beginning of Dame Edna Everage's spectacular career in show business to her first appearance at the Union Theatre in Melbourne on December 13, 1955. As he notes;
"Barry [Humphries], a student actor, had been touring Australia in a production of Twelfth Night starring opposite a then unknown Zoe Caldwell. The company would travel from town to town on a bus. They would ultimately be greeted by the lady mayor or chairwoman of the local Art Society who would thank them for coming. Before they would get to the next town, Barry would give a preview of what he though the next lady would say. He named her Edna. Later, Barry's director suggested he write a short sketch for Edna and present her on stage. Barry had thought Zoe Caldwell would play Edna, but the director decided it would be funnier for Barry to do it as a pantomime dame. Thus, Edna Mae Everage was born."
Recently, while watching a segment of Women in Theatre on YouTube, I heard Caldwell explain that when Humphries approached her and suggested that she portray Edna, she couldn't find anything she could bring to the character.  "YOU should do it," she told Humphries.

And thus a legend was born. Or perhaps a rhinestone-studded, mauve-haired monster who doesn't hesitate to explain to audiences that, after having had a coffee enema at an ashram in India, she promptly fell asleep and spent the rest of the night face down on her bed while staring at the ceiling. Edna went to great lengths to explain to the audience that if there were any empty seats, they probably belonged to subscribers -- stressing that if the seat was empty, it probably meant that (although paid for) the subscriber must have died. Whether bemoaning her late husband Norm's loud prostate murmur or her daughter's poor hygiene, Edna has never applied much of a filter to her deliciously tacky thoughts.

Dame Edna's Glorious Goodbye touched down at the Orpheum Theatre for a brief run where, despite some horrible distortion caused by poor sound design, there was no doubt that, at the ripe old age of 81, Barry Humphries had lost none of his wit, energy, or outrageousness. Having appeared around the world as Dame Edna for nearly 60 years, he's decided to retire from touring, as he explains in the following video clip:

Whether playing to the "paupers" in the balcony or her "possums" on the main floor, few entertainers can work a live audience as deftly (or mercilessly) as Dame Edna. And whether ragging on a senior citizen or briefly loaning a fake diamond bracelet to a young woman for just long enough to explain why holding on to it could spark a friend's betrayal, Edna delivered her shtick in the fun-loving fashion that has endeared her to audiences worldwide -- even those poor, terrified souls seated in the front rows of the orchestra.

Dame Edna's dancers surround her with lots of ostrich plumes

One of Edna's longstanding routines is to call someone up to the stage and lovingly terrorize them. On this occasion, she doubled the fun by choosing a middle-aged gay man and an elderly woman. After a few comedic bits, she then proceeded to perform a fake marriage between this very odd couple (the feisty woman proved to be a bit of a challenge even for Edna). Then Edna had a phone brought onstage by one of her assistants and proceeded to call the man's mother in the Midwest to tell her about her gay son's new marital status. Needless to say there was a great deal of eye-rolling and rubber-faced grimacing as Edna listened to the conversation (especially when she learned that the man's mother had no idea who Dame Edna was).

Dame Edna and her supporting cast prepare for the gladiola toss

Following the show's traditional tossing of gladiolas to those seated in the front of the orchestra, Edna exited the stage while a video tribute to her career played for the delighted audience. When the lights came up, Barry Humphries was standing center stage, nattily dressed in a smoking jacket.

His farewell speech was poignant, deeply touching, and cheered by one and all. Rest assured that there was nothing final or funereal about the moment. A wildly good time was had by all!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bitch Slaps For Everyone!

In the early days of the sexual revolution, it was commonplace to encounter prudes who flinched at the mere mention of a word like "Fuck." Even if one demonstrated that, by saying the word 50-100 times in a row ("Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck," etc.) it lost its power to shock, the next time someone said "Fuck" in front of that person it still left a bitter taste in their mouth.

Can a word lose its power to shock and offend? Some minority groups have reclaimed long-time slurs ("nigger," "faggot", "queer") as a way of owning them and, in some cases, redefining them. The word "bitch" has become overused in recent years, not only losing much of its power but also losing a great deal of the elegance and wit formerly associated with its use.

The word "bitch" has lost a lot of its power and is no longer exclusively uttered in reference to a woman. For veterinarians, of course, the meaning of the word remains crystal clear. But in 1997, Kander and Ebb wrote a song for their ill-fated musical, Steel Pier, which cast a ibidinous, aggressive woman in a new light.

In other situations, why rely on the word "bitch" when one can deliver an impressive display of bitchiness?

Few performers could match Bea Arthur when it came to the art of the slow burn. Jack Benny could roll his eyes, inspect his fingernails, and shift his posture, but Arthur would stand rigidly onstage, glowering at one of her colleagues until the precise moment to strike had arrived. My favorite memory of Bea Arthur doing a slow burn comes from Act II of 1966's hit musical Mame, in which she played Vera Charles opposite Angela Lansbury's Tony award-winning portrayal of Auntie Mame.

Having returned from secretarial school (where she learned how to record a person's dictation in shorthand in order to help Auntie Mame write a book), the homely Agnes Gooch unexpectedly becomes Mame's latest makeover project. As Mame's Japanese houseboy, Ito, whisks Agnes up the spiral staircase to try on one of her employer's sexy new outfits from Paris, the following dialogue takes place.

"I've patiently watched you for years with these asinine projects of yours. From orphans to health foods, you've searched for a niche."
"I feel that my search will be over the moment I finish my book.
I'll write about us, and who is the bitchier bitch!"
Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur performing "Bosom Buddies" in Mame

Lansbury then proceeded to milk a huge, extended laugh from the audience as she opened up a compact, checked her makeup in the mirror, and then folded it up and tucked it away in her purse before looking at Vera with a triumphant sense of satisfaction. Bea Arthur just kept glowering at Lansbury as she waited for the audience's laughter to subside. Then, in that wonderfully deep voice of hers, she brought down the house with two words: "I concede."

Two classic bitches are currently holding center stage in productions new to San Francisco audiences. One features an angry young bitch with a shitload of emotional baggage. The other is often dominated by the icy presence of a caustic, elderly bitch with severe control issues.

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In recent years, my encounters with the work of the gifted playwright and actor, Allison Page, revealed a stunning comedic streak and the ability to cripple an audience with laughter with the slightest change of her facial expression. In her new play, Hilarity, Page shows a different side of her talent by mining the part of comedy that comes from deep hurt and long years of anguish and accumulated pain. Presented by DIVAfest at the EXIT Theatre, her two-act play bridges a wide range of temper tantrums and cynical stand-up comedy while painting a horrifying portrait of a self-destructive woman who is her own worst enemy. As the playwright explains:
"This play came about from a love of some things and  a fear of others. On the love side: comedians, snarky comebacks, pastrami sandwiches, chaos, and complex relationships. On the fear side: manipulators, enablers, violence, lack of self control, misplaced rage, codependency, substance abuse, and complex relationships. So it's a big bunch of fun -- sometimes.  Cyd is often a nightmare version of myself; the things I fear I could do or become if given the exact wrong set of opportunities. I think we all have nightmare selves. Hopefully, yours doesn't make any of the decisions Cyd makes, but if they do I won't hold it against you. Everyone's got some chaos in them somewhere."
Allison Page as Cyd in Hilarity (Photo by: Claire Rice)

Hilarity begins with Cyd sound asleep on a mattress on the floor of her apartment, surrounded by empty packs of cigarettes, numerous bottles of booze, and the kind of godawful mess one might expect from an alcoholic who is close to bottoming out. Although Cyd has the undying support of of her closest friend, Liz (Heather Kellogg), and her manager, Sandy (Jennie Brick), her motivation has dried up and been replaced with the kind of rancid bitterness that can destroy any friendship.

One night, while drunkenly attempting to perform standup at a comedy club, she is heckled by Some Guy (Jason Pienkowski), whom she proceeds to drag up on stage and attempt to humiliate before taking him home for a conveniently anonymous fuck. When he starts to rough her up, Cyd punches back and eventually scares him into leaving.

Some Guy (Jason Pienkowski) heckles Cyd (Allison Page)
during her stand-up act in Hilarity (Photo by: Claire Rice)

Several months later, after Cyd manages to get sober and (thanks to the steady support of Sandy and Liz) begins to revive her career with a crucial booking on a television talk show, she is horrified to discover that the abusive guy she drunkenly dragged home from a comedy club is, in fact, Liz's new boyfriend, Clark. Her rage at having been abused by him and her fear for Liz's safety propel Cyd into a twisted scenario in which she forces Liz to choose between her Cyd (oldest and best friend) and Clark.

Needless to say, everyone loses.

Just when she is struggling to stay sober and control her rage, Cyd receives a surprise visit from her alcoholic mother, Deb (Marie O'Donnell), who boasts that her new boyfriend "looks" like he should ride a motorcycle.

A sober Cyd (Allison Page) is visited by her drunk mother, Deb
(Marie O'Donnell) in a scene from Hilarity (Photo by: Claire Rice)

Claire Rice has done a powerful job of bringing Page's script to life in the claustrophobic confines of the EXIT Theatre's studio space as her five-actor ensemble acts up a storm. But it is Allison Page's writing which makes the deepest impression.

This is an exceptionally talented playwright who knows how to blend the most acidic bitchiness with the genuine pain of a woman suffering from low self esteem while struggling to keep her head above the water. If, in the end, the only way to survive and stay sober is for Cyd to find herself some new friends, well, that's just one more lesson from the school of hard knocks. Performances of Hilarity continue at the EXIT Theatre through March 28 (click here to order tickets).

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Over at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, Artturo Catricala has directed a poignant production of Other Desert Cities (the play which made Jon Robin Baitz a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama). I first saw Baitz's dramedy during the summer of 2013. Seeing it again brought some remarkable surprises.

Often, when one sees a straight play again (especially a whodunit or mystery play), a second viewing can be a bit of a letdown because one already knows the secret plot twist. Instead,, I found myself admiring Baitz's craft even more than the first time around.

Much to my surprise, I felt more sympathetic for the wealthy, aging conservative parents who have been forced to live a lie ever since their oldest child became persona non grata. As NCTC's artistic director, Ed Decker, notes:
"Jon Robin Baitz is one of the most prolific openly gay writers in our orbit. Whether writing for the stage or screen, his work is distinct, unique, unconventional, and subversively sublime. Other Desert Cities is a well-crafted story that sings with scrupulousness while whispering a tauntingly rich subtext from start to finish. Listen carefully and you will find that which is unspoken sounding off rather loudly in this story about a family whose secrets are stuffed deep within the closets of the past (a circumstance that I find to be noticeably queer and another good reason to produce this brilliant play)."
Over the years, Lyman Wyeth and his tart-tongued wife have socialized with the Reagans, the Annenbergs, and others of their ilk. Lyman (Geoffrey Colton) was once a successful screen actor while Polly (Michaela Greeley) and her younger sister, Silda (Cheryl Smith), enjoyed artistic and commercial success writing romantic comedies for MGM. Unlike Polly and Lyman, Silda has always had liberal leanings. Since leaving rehab, she's been living with her older sister and brother-in-law on an indefinite guest basis.

Brooke Wyeth (Melissa Keith) with her parents, Polly
(Michaela Greeley) and Lyman (Geoffrey Colton) in a scene 
from Other Desert Cities (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Set in Palm Springs (where wealthy Republican dinosaurs retire without the slightest interest in attending the White Party), Baitz's play begins at Christmas 2004, a time when the United States was fighting wars in both Iraq and AfghanistanNeocons had taken over the Republican party, and the social  and political power of the Wyeths and their social circle had been sharply diminished. It's also the first time in six years that Polly's adult children will be home for Christmas.

Well, not all of her children. Trip (Paul Collins) is a womanizing television executive who produces game shows and only seems interested in having a good time. His older sister, Brooke (Melissa Keith), has flown in from her home in Sag Harbor, New York following her recent hospitalization for depression. Their oldest son, Henry, committed suicide many years ago after his involvement in a radical underground movement protesting the Vietnam War led to some unintentional deaths.

The big news is that Brooke has penned a tell-all memoir which she wants her parents to read before it is published in a few months (with a pre-release excerpt scheduled to appear in The New Yorker). Proud to have used the writing process as a therapeutic tool with which to relate how Henry's death impacted her life (he died when they were both teenagers), she's sure that the details of her personal life will be of interest to readers of her first novel. However, Brooke doesn't know the real story of how and why Henry (her best friend when she was very young) disappeared.

Brooke (Melissa Keith) and her brother, Trip (Paul Collins)
in a scene from Other Desert Cities (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Part of the problem with the Wyeth family is that Brooke has always seen her control freak of a mother as a stereotypical Republican ice queen, unable to show any emotion or be truly supportive of her daughter's writing. Brooke's father has always seemed weak and ineffectual. Perhaps that's why 3,000 miles has been such a healthy distance to keep between herself and her parents. With the house next door up for sale, Brooke's parents are pressuring her to let them buy it so she can live close to home.

After Polly warns that publishing a tell-all memoir could cause a severe rupture within the Wyeth family, she reads Brooke's manuscript and realizes that they have no choice but to tell their daughter the ugly truth. In all honesty, they had meant to tell Brooke what happened to Henry when she reached an age where she could better understand the unfortunate events of the past. Somehow, that moment never seemed to materialize. Faced with a February publishing deadline, Polly and Lyman suddenly find themselves without any wiggle room.

Surprisingly, it is Lyman (who simply can't bear the strain of continuing to live another day under the weight of such a heinous family secret) who forces the truth out into the open. With her usual cynical self-control, Polly tells Brooke to sit down before she details what happened to her errant son, quietly marveling at how easy it was for her to use her privileged status as a wealthy white woman to pull off Henry's disappearing act.

Polly's shocking revelations are handled with the kind of masterful storytelling that Baitz used to keep fans of Brothers & Sisters glued to their television sets. Yet, because of his rare sensitivity, the final scene (in which Brooke finds a personal grace and redemption of sorts) is exquisitely written.

While some may see Baitz's drama as a tug-of-war between a family's generations (or between two sisters of politically opposite persuasions), the bottom line is that Other Desert Cities is about the emotional and psychological toll suffered by people who choose to live a lie. Anyone who has spent years in the closet will find the way Baitz has shaped an older generation's hypocrisy to be of particular interest,

Cheryl Smith, Melissa Keith, Michaela Greeley, and Paul Collins
in a scene from Other Desert Cities (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Working on a unit set designed by Kuo-Hao Lo (with costumes by Keri Fitch), NCTC's cast does Baitz's script proud. While Melissa Keith delivers an impassioned portrayal of Brooke and Geoffrey Colton is appealing as a fading Hollywood star who knows how to act out a death scene, the evening really belongs to Michaela Greeley, who tackles the role of Polly Wyeth like a dog that won't let go of a bone. In recent years Greeley has delivered one powerhouse performance after another -- Polly may be one of her finest characterizations yet.

Paul Collins and Cheryl Smith lend sturdy support as Trip and Silda (both of whom are extremely sympathetic to Brooke). But in the final analysis, the two prime reasons to see this production are the brilliance of Baitz's writing and the frigid ferocity of Greeley's acting. Performances of Other Desert Cities continue at New Conservatory Theatre Center through April 5 (click here to order tickets).

Monday, March 16, 2015

Blood Ain't Always Thicker Than Water

The term "extended family" can have a very different meaning for one person than it does for another. For people whose extended families have grown strictly through marriage, their extended family is defined by nieces, nephews, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law and, in some cases, children who were adopted.

For others, their extended family forms a loving circle of trusted and trustworthy friends who can be relied upon for advice, compassion, and companionship when blood relations are geographically or emotionally distant.  Or simply unavailable.

Sometimes these "chosen" extended families contain people with shared interests, friends in common, or ex-lovers. Sometimes they consist of neighbors, coworkers, and casual acquaintances. But as a person grows older, their steady presence often allows for a more intimate sharing of thoughts and emotions than one might experience with relatives who may bring too much baggage to the table.

I've been extremely fortunate in life to have enjoyed the benefits of a remarkable extended family that began to form long before the onset of social networking. Many of these people hold cherished places in my heart, mind, and memory. One of those friendships came to an end when a woman I met more than 50 years ago passed away last summer on my birthday.

Two recent stories (one on film, the other onstage) highlight the role an extended family can play in the lives of ordinary people. While the situations in these two stories are wildly different, they point to the need for connection and inclusion as well as a sense of spiritual, intellectual, and emotional intimacy.

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Directed by Sara DosaThe Last Season is set in Central Oregon, where migrant workers arriving for the two-month mushroom hunting season find their treasured crop vastly diminished by a lack of rain. This documentary, however, is not about the mushrooms so much as it is about a most unusual friendship.

Roger Higgins was a trained sniper in the United States Special Forces in Vietnam. Now 75, the recovering alcoholic is in failing health and must rely on an oxygen tank and cane for physical support. A heavy smoker (despite the fact that he is wearing a nasal cannula), Roger and his wife Teresa live in an isolated cabin in the woods where Theresa must decide whether or not to call an ambulance if Roger's health takes a precipitous turn for the worse. Although he can still shoot at squirrels, Roger occasionally suffers from episodes of posttraumatic stress disorder in the form of vivid nightmares. His time is running out.

Roger Higgins in The Last Season

Kouy Loch was a platoon leader in Cambodia's Khmer Freedom Fighters who battled the Khmer Rouge. Following his mother's death from uterine cancer, he has been raising his daughter who, at nine years of age, is saving up for a trip to Disneyland. One of many migrant workers who comes to Oregon to hunt the rare matsutake mushroom (which brings top dollar from clients in Japan), Kouy seems fairly spry. The truth, however, is that he lost part of his left leg after stepping on a land mine (during the film he removes his prosthesis for the camera to reveal his post-surgical stump).

After the two men met during mushroom hunting season, they developed a friendship once they realized that they were both war veterans who had shared similar experiences fighting against the Vietnamese. By the time Dosa's documentary begins, their friendship has grown to the point where Kouy stays with Roger and his wife during mushroom season. He is more than happy to help out around their house, fixing things that Roger can no longer fix, and helping Theresa understand what happens when someone experiences an episode of PTSD.

Poster art for The Last Season

Dosa's film (which was screened at CAAMFest 2015) captures some intensely personal moments, such as when Kouy asks Roger and Theresa if they would become his new parents. One can easily sense the deep emotions felt by a childless elderly couple and a middle-aged man who lost his biological parents long ago.

The Last Season is a very quiet, intimate, and low-key documentary in which Theresa and Kouy are acutely aware that the ornery Roger's time is running out. It has many touching moments, especially after Kouy starts addressing Roger as "Dad" and Theresa as "Mother."

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Down in Palo Alto, TheatreWorks is presenting the West Coast premiere of The Lake Effect by Rajiv Joseph. As a playwright, Joseph has had a close relationship with TheatreWorks since 2009, when The North Pool was featured in the company's annual New Works Festival. A co-commission by the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Silk Road Rising in Chicago, Illinois, The Lake Effect represents an interesting hybrid of artistic missions. The artistic mission of Crossroads is:
" provide a nurturing working environment for writers and artistic collaborators through supporting the commissioning, development, presentation, and documentation of new scripts while celebrating the culture, history, spirit, and voices of the entire African Diaspora. The company aims to educate audiences by creating bridges of understanding between people of all cultural backgrounds in this society and the world and to use art to provoke and challenge a multicultural audience to a higher sense of communion."
Formerly known as the Silk Road Theatre Project, Silk Road Rising aims "to commission and develop new plays that can enrich the fabric of American storytelling by advancing a polycultural worldview with an emphasis on discovery, empathy, and pluralism."

For a talented playwright like Mr. Joseph, this co-commission opened up some new paths and allowed him to set The Lake Effect in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. As the playwright explains:
"I'm always interested in the relationships between minority groups and how they might interact, intersect, conflict -- it's a very rich story, one that tells a deeper story of America, beyond white and black  There are things that happen in the play that can spark debate about holding grudges, and being estranged, and also forgiveness. And finding your family where you least expect it."

Sensitively directed by Giovanna Sardelli (who has worked with Mr. Joseph on all of his plays), The Lake Effect takes place on a bitter cold night in Cleveland as Vijay (Adam Poss) is struggling to make sense of his sick father's financial records. His concentration is shattered by the arrival of Bernard (Jason Bowen), an African-American bookie who has become extremely close to Vijay's father, Vinnie, in the past year and, as usual, has come to the restaurant hungry for food and companionship.

Jason Bowen is Bernard in The Lake Effect (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Bernard and Vinnie used to take frequent walks together to the lake and, among other things, discuss the ups and downs of the tempestuous marriage between Vinnie's daughter, Priya (Nilanjana Bose) and her African-American husband. Although Vinnie had always been extremely cautious with his money, after meeting Bernard he started placing bets on football games and winning with the kind of accuracy that could make someone believe he was psychic. However, in all the time that Bernard has known Vinnie (who Bernard claims saved his life), he has never heard the restaurant's owner mention the fact that he had a son.

When Priya arrives from Florida, sibling tensions quickly start to heat up. Vijay is irked by the fact that Priya knows the combination to the restaurant's safe and obviously has some history with Bernard. Priya is pissed that Vijay never contacted her after leaving his job on Wall Street and experiencing a period of severe depression.

By the time their father passes away, Vinnie has won $18,900 betting on the Cleveland Browns. As soon as Vijay and Priya learn about the money from Bernard, a struggle ensues over who should get to keep it.
  • Will it be Vijay (the oldest child and the logical heir to his father's assets)?
  • Will it be Priya (who, along with her no-good husband, has been sued for running a marine salvage operation without a business license)? 
  • Or will it be Bernard, who suffers from intermittent bouts of amnesia and, to everyone's surprise, has been named as the sole heir to Vinnie's estate.
Vijay (Adam Poss) and his sister, Priya (Nilanjana Bose)
continue to argue in The Lake Effect (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Mr. Joseph's tense dramedy reinforces his reputation as someone who can craft solid laughs while getting to the core issues surrounding a person's hidden agendas, emotional baggage, and conflicted history. He continues to show great skill in plotting as he slowly lets one inconvenient fact after another shift the balance of power between three severely wounded egos as Vijay, Priya, and Bernard all struggle to cope with the death of a loved one.

Working on a unit set deigned by Wilson Chin, Sardelli's three actors deliver powerful performances, with Poss and Bose more animated than Bowen (for understandably emotional reasons). The play's final reveal -- and its curious resolution -- prove to be deeply touching.

Performances of The Lake Effect continue at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto through March 29 (click here to order tickets).

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Magic To Do

Over the years, acting has been hailed as a noble profession by some and equated with prostitution by others. Whether or not participants will get paid for their services is often in doubt. Yet there is no question that a wide variety of personalities benefit from participating in the art form.
  • For shy people who prefer not to be in the spotlight, acting provides plenty of jobs for stagehands, tech workers, and other support staff.
  • For people who thrive in team-oriented endeavors, acting can provide meaningful and challenging work.
  • For raging egomaniacs with talent to spare, acting can satisfy a narcissist's bottomless need for adoration.
While acting allows people (however briefly) to become someone other than themselves, it also provides a unique kind of therapy for introverts battling emotional securities. Many a performer will confess that, in their private lives, they are fairly quiet people. Famous opera singers like Leonie Rysanek often admitted that, without a costume to wear and a character to portray, they felt lost on a stage. And yet, for certain neophytes, acting can be a powerful portal to greater self confidence and awareness of those around them.

Two new documentaries show how acting affects different types of personalities. One focuses on an unusual group of Chinese students involved in a musical theatre project in Hong Kong. The other pays tribute to one of the greatest talents (and egos) in the history of film and theatre.

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Chuck Workman's new documentary entitled Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles is cursed with having so much good material that it's hard to narrow the film's length down to 90 minutes. Because of his subject's prodigious, multidisciplinary achievements, this film could have gone on for days. As Workman explains:
"Orson Welles was truly a magician, able to juggle complicated ideas and techniques (as well as a complicated life) to create the essence of art. A few things seem incontrovertible: that he was ahead of his audience, and even further ahead of his employers (one executive told Welles that the audience expected hamburgers, so no matter how good a dish he could make, better to just give them a hamburger). With Magician, we tried to show the power of Welles’s distinctive charm and provocative personality on screen and off, his life as a star, political figure, a fairly good magician, an aficionado of bullfighting, a lover of food, wine, the good life, and of many remarkable women, a man with a life of constant movement and exploration. Welles spent his life juggling art and commerce. Sometimes he behaved badly, selfishly and in many instances, against his own interests. Still, he was a fascinating personality with a remarkable life story and his films, in my opinion, are among the best there is in cinema.

We were committed to getting all of Welles’s finished films and as many of his unfinished films as possible into Magician. I had a wonderful couple of years working with and studying these films, which I had thought I knew. I realized that Welles, like Kubrick and Altman, created exceptional cinema that felt and looked like Hollywood films, but weren’t. Welles had a vision of his own, and a fantastic set of filmmaking skills. He was a strong writer, a great director of actors, an inventive visual artist, and a brilliant, innovative editor. He wasn’t without flaws, though, and I hope Magician shows that, too. He was not a great fundraiser, producer, or sufferer of fools. To tell this story, I was fortunate to have the participation of many members of the Welles community (scholars, associates, family, friends, even an enemy or two). At times they disagree with each other or with Welles. Whether Welles was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived (as many informed people feel) is something audiences can debate. That he was a singular filmmaking talent with a life that matched the singularity of his work was never in question."
Marlene Dietrich assisting Orson Welles
during one of his magic shows

Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin on May 6, 1915 (the day before the Lusitania was torpedoed), Welles was was deemed a musical prodigy at the age of 10, directed a Shakespearean play at 14, became a painter at 16, and (long before he started performing acts of prestidigitation) showed an early talent for kleptomania. He was a star of stage and radio by 20 and, at 25, co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred in his first film, Citizen Kane (1941).

At the age of 20, Welles directed a production of Macbeth for the Federal Theatre Project's Negro Theatre Unit, with music by Virgil Thomson. Set on a fictional Caribbean island (where Shakespeare's witches were replaced with witch doctors), it became known as the Voodoo Macbeth soon after its premiere in 1936. In 1937, he directed Marc Blitzstein's musical, The Cradle Will Rock, in a Federal Theatre Project production which became a legendary moment in theatrical history.

The Mercury Theatre's fascist-themed production of Julius Caesar

Shortly after co-founding the Mercury Theatre with John Houseman, Welles directed, produced, and starred in a famous production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar which opened on November 11, 1937 when he was only 22 years old. After that, Welles made history (and scared the bejesus out of millions of Americans) with 1938's legendary War of the Worlds radio broadcast about aliens landing on Earth.

Orson Welles performing in 1938's War of the Worlds radio broadcast

During his Hollywood years, Welles often performed magic shows with his good friend, Marlene Dietrich, appearing as his assistant (an unfinished television special was named Orson Welles' Magic Show). In later years, Welles became a familiar face on television talk shows and enjoyed making appearances in popular comedies. In 1975, he narrated a documentary entitled Bugs Bunny: Superstar.

Timed to the centenary of the birth of his subject, Workman's fast-paced documentary includes commentary from such cinematic and theatrical luminaries as Jeanne Moreau, Sir Peter Brook, Costa-Gavras, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater, Julie Taymor, Paul Mazursky, and Peter Bogdanovich. Throughout the film there is never any doubt that whether using his sonorous voice to pitch beer and wine or perform Shakespeare, Welles was always a force to be reckoned with.

Although Welles left numerous projects unfinished, Workman's documentary manages to include scenes from nearly every existing film made by Welles, including The Hearts of Age, which Welles filmed in one day at the tender age of 18. There are also clips from unfinished works like Don Quixote, The Other Side of the Dream, and The Deep.

One thing is certain: If you enjoyed 2008's Me and Orson Welles (starring Christian McKay, Zac Efron, and Claire Danes), you'll love Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles. It's the real thing. Here are the trailers for both films:

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For public schools in America that still have arts programs for their students, let me heartily recommend a new documentary by Ruby Yang entitled My Voice, My Life (which is being screened at CAAMFest 2015). In her film, Yang follows a half dozen students witih special needs from Hong Kong's underprivileged middle and high schools (as well as some from a local school for the visually impaired).

Students rehearsing for The Awakening

Some of the students Yang follows have problems which would not only prevent them from participating in musical theatre under normal circumstances, but whose situations could easily make them doubt the value of eve attempting to enter such a program. However, Nick Ho (a teacher, playwright, and producer) is someone who firmly believes in the power of musical theater to transform a person's life. Here are some of the students chosen to participate in his school production of The Awakening:
  • Ho Yin Hui failed to get into one of Hong Kong's top-tier secondary schools. Rrather than deal with the shame he feels about having to repeat a year of classes, he prefers to act out, joke around, and cover his pain with a lot of good-natured mischief.
  • Jason Chow is a good-looking, energetic teenager with lots of personality and a talent for getting into trouble with the authorities. Even though musical theatre has never appealed to him, his school principal hopes that getting Jason involved in a project that requires teamwork might give him a new perspective on life and instill some respect for his parents and teachers. A frequent smoker who has no problem cutting classes, Jason is one big challenge waiting to be solved.
Jason Chow's reputation as a troublemaker had his school principal
worried whether he deserved to participate in the program.
  • Sio Fan Lam may be blind, but she compensates for her lack of vision by working hard to prove to her peers that she is not disabled. After working with her, some of the sighted students in the program realize how much they get away with in comparision by slacking off just because they can.
  • Tsz Nok Lin is a teenager who lost his vision a year before this project took place. Not only does he face challenges in learning how to act and sing with a group of sighted students, he is is struggling to find a way to tell his parents not to be ashamed of his disability. He wants them to understand that he's going to be all right, and that he's only lost his vision -- not his life.
Music director Emily Chung works with a young blind
student named Tsz Nok Lin to help build his confidence

In her director's note, Ruby Yang explains that:
"When L Plus H Creations Foundation decided to put on a musical, I proposed that they train a group of high school students who, through their own youthful perspectives, would film the whole process. Six student filmmakers were chosen to participate. Several months later, I went to observe the rehearsals for the musical. The first thing I spotted was music director Emily Chung coaching Tsz Nok (a student who had recently lost his vision) on his singing. With great effort he read the Braille using both hands. I could feel the strength and immense effort he put into singing and found it deeply affecting. After much deliberation, I finally decided to return to Hong Kong to direct the documentary."
A make-up artist applies last-minute touches to Coby's face
"The students chosen for the production were from disadvantaged secondary schools. I do not regard them differently from their higher-achieving peers, but question why this label of 'low-performance' has been forced upon them. During the course of filming My Voice, My Life I was with these young people on a daily basis. To a few students, I served as their counselor. By filming them, the camera became kind of a therapeutic tool. At the same time, I witnessed the personal growth that the musical training had given them. Strong bonds were being formed with the school principals and teachers."
Nick Ho's students performing The Awakening

In 2010, a documentary about the Freddy Awards (written by Christopher Lockhart and directed by Matthew D. Kallis) focused on American high schools whose students were enthralled to be participating in musical theatre programs and competing against other schools in fully-staged productions of Broadway musicals. However, if one watched Most Valuable Players closely, it became obvious that most of the students iin the film were from financially stable families (as opposed to some of the students in Yang's documentary, whose parents work long hours just to be able to feed their children).

The students in these two documentaries differ widely in terms of financial comfort, burdens of shame and/or disability, and self-confidence. Without a doubt, watching the students in Hong Kong perform the Act I finale from Les Misérables brings a new and much deeper meaning to the moment. As filmmaker Ruby Yang notes:
"Although filming the documentary is over, this is just the beginning of a new chapter in the students’ lives. Whether they will take charge of their lives remains to be seen, but it is undeniable that the seeds of personal growth have been planted in their minds, waiting to bear fruit. For example, 16-year-old Jacky (one of the student filmmakers) struggled with dyslexia, poor reading ability, and found it difficult to express himself. During the course of filming My Voice, My Life, Jacky finally discovered his passions, learned new skills, and enrolled in video-making classes. 18-year-old Sau Yan Wong is a recent immigrant to Hong Kong who discovered her love of the stage during the filming process and applied to a film school in Taiwan. These are perfect examples of the impact one’s life can have on another: one’s own decision affects oneself, and also influences those around him or her."
For those working in the arts, there is never any doubt about the potential of a theatre program to have a profound impact on young minds. Compare the trailers for these two dopcumentaries (you'll probably have to watch the trailer for My Voice, My Life in full screen mode in order to read the subtitles) and see if you notice what sets them apart.