Wednesday, July 26, 2017

All Dolled Up and Nowhere To Go

Dolls have been an integral part of civilization throughout history. From simple dolls used in primitive rites aimed at bolstering fertility, crops, and hunting to highly sophisticated robots (designed to provide companionship and/or sex to their owners), children of all ages have lavished their affection and imagination on all kinds of dolls

From Barbie and Ken to voodoo dolls; from the dolls used by psychotherapists who work with abused children to teddy bears and nesting Matryoshka dolls, these toys (some handmade, others mass manufactured) have helped many a child to practice the art of conversation with a close friend and articulate surprisingly intimate thoughts.

Born on January 24, 1776, Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann's use of dolls with seemingly magical powers has inspired composers, librettists, and choreographers. On May 25, 1870, with a score by Leo Delibes, the ballet Coppélia premiered at the Théâtre Impérial l'Opéra. The story was based on two short stories by Hoffmann (1816's Der Sandmann and Die Puppe).

Based on three stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Jacques Offenbach's opera, Les Contes d'Hoffmann, premiered at the Opéra-Comique on February 10, 1881. The libretto portrays Hoffmann as a drunken poet chasing his muse as he pursues her through a series of misadventures. One of them involves a mechanical doll named Olympia.

With a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and a plot based on Hoffmann's short story entitled The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the two-act ballet known far and wide as The Nutcracker received its world premiere at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1892.

In each of these works some form of mental magic (a dream, a pair of special eyeglasses, or youthful infatuation) causes someone to pursue a fantasy whereby a doll comes to life.
  • In Coppélia, a doll made by an eccentric inventor named Dr. Coppelius has so entranced young Franz that his girlfriend (Swanhilda) puts the doll in a closet and substitutes for her in order to play a joke on her boyfriend.
  • In Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Dr. Coppelius proudly shows off his doll (Olympia) to an admiring crowd but, because of the magical eyeglasses Hoffmann is wearing, the poet thinks the doll is real.
  • In The Nutcracker, Herr Drosselmeyer gives his goddaughter a nutcracker doll as a Christmas present. After she goes to sleep, Clara has a dream in which the nutcracker battles a frightening mouse king. Upon winning the battle, the nutcracker takes off his mask and is transformed into the handsome prince who escorts Clara to the Land of Sweets.
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One of the unexpected delights of the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival was a screening of 1919's Die Puppe (The Doll). Directed with a grand sense of mischief by the 27-year-old Ernst Lubitsch (and screened with live musical accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius), the film focuses on young Lancelot (Hermann Thimig), a painfully shy young man who is terrified of marriage. Lancelot's uncle, the Baron of Chanterelle (Max Kronert), has insisted that in order for his nephew to inherit a fortune, Lancelot must find a bride and marry her. To help matters along, the Baron invites all of the women in the village to gather so that Lancelot can make a choice. Frightened to death by the mere thought of marriage, Lancelot jumps out of a window and tries to run away.

Hermann Thimig stars as Lancelot in 1919's The Doll

Surprisingly, he finds shelter in a local monastery filled with a group of extremely well-fed monks who like to live high off the church's wealth. Their clever Abbot (Jakob Tiedtke) comes up with a brilliant plan. If the monks can convince Lancelot to marry a doll made by the eccentric Hilarius (Victor Janson), the Baron's dowry will keep them dining on their beloved pig knuckles for years to come. And how does Hilarius market himself? As a maker of lifelike mechanical dolls who offers his services “to bachelors, widowers, and misogynists.”

Ossi Oswalda (Ossi) and Gerhard Ritterband
(the apprentice) in a scene from 1919's The Doll

Enter Ossi (Ossi Oswalda), the dollmaker's daughter, and his mischievous apprentice (Gerhard Ritterbrand). From that point on, Lubitsch's film becomes a merry sex farce featuring an all-too-human doll, lots of sight gags, and a gaggle of greedy and gluttonous monks whose appetites and ethics could make the Trump administration seem like rank amateurs.

Poster art for 1919's The Doll

In her program essay, Farran Smith Nehme writes:
“Deliciously weird for 1919 or any other year, Ernst Lubitsch’s Die Puppe (The Doll) declares its intent to please from the first shot. An appealing 27-year-old Lubitsch himself is the first person to appear, as he refuses to look his own camera in the eye. Instead, from a toy box he busily assembles a cute little diorama composed of a felt lawn and an S-curved driveway, a series of cutout trees on pencil-size trunks, and a house with one door, one window, and a removable roof. He opens the house, places two dolls inside, and presto: the story begins. The film unfolds like a mad picture-book come to life. The backdrops are mostly forced perspective, full of slanted picture frames and out-of-scale doorways. One character’s kitchen has the hanging pots and pans painted straight onto the flats. A carriage arrives pulled by two horses that are actually four men in vaudeville-style horse costumes. When one of the string tails falls off, the coachman casually sticks it right back where it belongs. The sun and moon are embodied by paper cutouts with faces (the movie often looks as though it were designed by a precocious seven-year-old). Our director is the doll-maker’s doll-maker, E.T.A. Hoffman with a camera, manipulating the characters for all they are worth. ”
“Written by Lubitsch and frequent collaborator Hanns Kräly (from the same Hoffmann story that gave us the ballet Coppélia), this fairy tale has even less truck with dreary reality than the all-dancing version. The jokes, however, are not necessarily for children. The Doll is essentially a sex comedy, about an effete young man who tries to marry a mechanical doll, only to discover that she’s flesh and blood, and more fun that way. The bizarrely suggestive intertitles pile up: “Familiarize yourself with the mechanism,” “Always dust her well,” and “Don’t forget to oil her every two weeks.””
Gerhard Ritterband (the apprentice) and Victor Janson
(Hilarius) in a scene from 1919's The Doll

“Here the film takes flight," explains Smith Nehme.
"We meet Ossi (played by Ossi Oswalda), daughter to Hilarius, model for his latest creation, and soon-to-be human substitute for a broken doll. Petite, charming Oswalda was sometimes called 'the German Mary Pickford' although she had a far more unruly mane of blonde hair and more of a hint of sex. Oswalda’s joyous energy is, quite deliberately, the most natural element of the film. Jokes and emotions dash across Oswalda’s big-eyed face like Mack Sennett actors. Her goofy allure has ensnared her father’s adolescent apprentice (Gerhard Ritterband), who necessitates the whole deception by trying to dance with Ossi’s mechanical replica and breaking the thing’s arm in the process. When her temporary masquerade as the doll turns into an elopement, her alarm lasts only a few minutes. By the time she’s in the carriage headed for the wedding, Ossi is back to finding the situation irresistibly funny and amuses herself by falling against her reluctant groom a few times.”
Hermann Thimig (Lancelot) and Ossi Oswalda
(Ossi) in a scene from 1919's The Doll

The screening of Die Puppe at the Castro Theatre kept the audience in stitches (the scenes at the monastery are hilariously corrupt). Although the two romantic leads (Hermann Thimig and Ossi Oswalda) are great clowns, Gerhard Ritterbrand steals the show whenever he is onscreen. Thankfully, you can watch the Lubitsch's hour-long farce in its entirety in the following clip.

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It's hard to believe that next year will mark the 35th anniversary of the Broadway premiere of La Cage aux Folles. With music by Jerry Herman and book by Harvey Fierstein, the show is a musical adaptation of Jean Poiret's 1973 play, whose 1978 screen adaptation had audiences roaring with laughter at Albin's shenanigans as the co-owner of a French nightclub that specialized in drag revues in which he starred as the legendary Zaza.

Ryan Drummond (Georges) and John Treacy Egan (Albin) in a
scene from La Cage aux Folles (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

When I saw the original Broadway production it was by no means love at first sight, for very specific reasons.
  • Although a heterosexual couple I knew who had seen the show during its Boston tryout raved about La Cage aux Folles, by 1984 many gay people were dying of AIDS/HIV.
  • Politically, the LGBT community had just spent 15 years celebrating their right to lead an openly gay lifestyle that was radically different from the traditional nuclear family.
  • Many gay men (who were stilled closeted with respect to their families and employers) were rebuffed by family members as they lay dying, too sick to explain how they had contracted the disease when they weren't even Haitian.
  • I did not think that Jerry Herman's score represented his best work.
  • With my own parents' marriage collapsing, I was in no mood to be overly sentimental about the sacrosanct institution of marriage.
Since the recent turn of the century, however, a great deal of social change has made La Cage aux Folles a much more interesting show.
The San Francisco Playhouse recently unveiled a new production of La Cage aux Folles which took me completely by surprise. Suddenly, I realized that one of the main reasons I had not enjoyed previous productions of this extremely popular musical was because I had seen the show performed in large theatres where audiences responded to the glitzy costumes more than they did to the musical's inherent drama.

Nikita Burshteyn (Jean-Michel) and Ryan Drummond (Georges)
in a scene from La Cage aux Folles (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

When seen in a 199-seat theatre (where the scenic design includes a runway that facilitates entrances and exits through the auditorium's center aisle) La Cage aux Folles takes on a much greater sense of intimacy and urgency. From the moment Albin started singing about how "a little more mascara" helps to soothe his nerves, the size of this venue made it possible for audiences to appreciate more nuanced interactions between the characters and feel as if they were part of Georges and Albin's extended family.

Ryan Drummond, Nikita Burshteyn, John Treacy Egan, and
Brian Yates Sharber in a scene from La Cage aux Folles
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The moment that genuinely shocked me came in Act II, when Albin makes a desperate attempt to dress as a man in order not to embarrass his son when the Dindons come to visit. As I watched John Treacy Egan squirming and sweating in a tailored suit (with his hair combed forward over his brow), I was struck by how much he looked like Oliver Hardy in his most vulnerable comic moments. Bill English (who directed this production) writes in his program note that:
La Cage Aux Folles hits a triple bullseye on our mission at San Francisco Playhouse. To uplift our spirits, there is no better recipe than La Cage, with the catchy tunes of Jerry Herman and the wicked book of Harvey Fierstein, to install a permanent grin on our faces. But La Cage digs deeper than the smile on our faces. It challenges us to fulfill part two of our mission, to deepen self-awareness. Watching rehearsal after rehearsal of La Cage, I find myself unable to avoid all the ways in which I don’t always live up to the song, “I Am What I Am.” Life is a perpetual struggle to live by the heart’s yearning. We know deep inside of us who we are capable of being, but we look the other way as we struggle for survival, power, wealth, and fame while our heart urges us to look inside to what our truth speaks and begs us to have the courage to live up to our convictions.”
Ryan Drummond, Samantha Rose Cardenas, Chris Reber, and Adrienne
Herro in a scene from La Cage aux Folles (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
“We are challenged by these ‘birds of a feather’ who ‘will’ be themselves, despite persecution and marginalization. This summer (perhaps more than many summers before), our American culture is challenged to protect our constitutional guarantees against rampant racism and prejudice against those with differing sexual and gender identities. All around us are those who would roll back progress and impose restrictions on who may immigrate, who may adopt, who may use which bathroom. The number of hate crimes has exploded, creating a nightmarish vision of horrors past. Now more than ever, to nurture compassionate community, we need to honor all humans’ rights to sing, ‘We are what we are’ and ‘I am what I am’ with pride.”
The Cagelles perform in La Cage aux Folles
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

With music direction by Dave Dobrusky, choreography by Kimberly Richards, scenery by Jacquelyn Scott, and costumes designed by Abra Berman, the San Francisco Playhouse's production works like a charm. The Cagelles -- Brian Conway as Chantal, Morgan Dayley as Angelique, John Paul Gonzalez as Hanna, Alex Hsu as Bitelle, and Nicholas Yenson as Phaedra -- are dressed more simply than in many other productions, yet bring a welcome element of grittiness to the show. Chris Reber and Adrienne Herro double as the Renauds (the couple who run a nearby bakery) and the Dindons (the conservative politician and his repressed wife).

John Treacy Egan, Adrienne Herro, Chris Reber, and Ryan Drummond
in a scene from La Cage aux Folles (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Nikita Burshteyn brings his strong tenor and dramatic skill to the role of the young Jean-Michel, who is head-over-heels in love with Anne Dindon (Samantha Rose Cardenas). Brian Yates Sharber draws lots of laughs as the black maid, Jacob, while Lee Ann Payne shines as the catty restaurant owner, Jacqueline. But the true heroes of the show are Ryan Drummond's sauve Georges and John Treacy Egan's magnificently comical yet deeply poignant portrayal of Albin.

Samantha Rose Cardenas, Nikita Burshteyn, and John Treacy Egan
in a scene from La Cage aux Folles (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Performances of La Cage aux Folles continue through September 16 at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here for tickets).

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