Thursday, August 17, 2017

Magic To Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 14, 2017

A Good Man Is Hard To Find

In his 1726 satire entitled Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift described the Yahoos as "being filthy and with unpleasant habits, resembling human beings far too closely for the liking of protagonist Lemuel Gulliver, who finds the calm and rational society of intelligent horses, the Houyhnhnms, greatly preferable." According to Wikipedia, "The Yahoos are primitive creatures obsessed with 'pretty stones' they find by digging in mud, thus representing the distasteful materialism and ignorant elitism Swift encountered in Britain. Hence the term 'yahoo' has come to mean 'a crude, brutish or obscenely coarse person.'

With white supremacists foaming at the mouth like rabid dogs and anti-Semitism on the rise in the United States, it's hard to find a decent human being who can honestly claim to occupy high moral ground. The angry confrontations that flood the news all seem modeled on the hijinks one expects to witness at a televised professional wrestling event. The tragic confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia drew the following response from actor Michael Rapaport.

For those seeking solace as these disgusting events unravel (and will most likely continue), let me recommend three essays recently posted online.
Nearly ten years have passed since Chris Crocker uploaded his famous "Leave Britney Alone" video in September 2007. In case it's been crowded out of your memory by a certain orange-skinned celebrity (who hoped to be cast as the President of the United States in Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!), take a good hard look at Crocker's video and ask yourself: With white supremacists proudly marching in demonstrations meant to intimidate and terrorize their fellow Americans -- and the elected President of the United States threatening to start a nuclear war with North Korea on Twitter -- can we all just take a moment to scream "Leave Burning Man alone!"

That's right. Leave Burning Man alone -- unless you can point to some people who, under the most trying circumstances, did what they considered to be "the right thing." People who risked their lives so that others might live. People who acted bravely without any thoughts of becoming a profile in courage.

* * * * * * * * *
Earlier this year, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened the world premiere of a restored version of 1926's Silence, which had been produced by Cecil B. DeMille and directed by Rupert Julian. As board member Robert Byrne relates:
“For decades, Silence was considered lost until last year, when a 35mm nitrate print surfaced in the collection of the Cinémathèque Française. It initially appeared complete, however, there was a significant difference between the length of the original American release (8 reels, 7,518 feet) and the surviving French version (6 reels, 5,033 feet). We found no definitive records such as the original film script or cutting continuity, but we did locate an original cue sheet for the music, censorship records, film reviews, and trade press synopses, as well as the 1924 play on which the film is based. All these sources indicate that the excised portion, from early in the film, involves a subplot of the saloon keeper, Mollie Burke, blackmailing thief Jim Warren into marrying her instead of Norma, the woman he loves. The entire episode is conveniently papered over in the French print by the single intertitle, 'Jim Warren spent six years abroad. When he returned ….' For ethical as well as practical considerations, this restored print does not attempt to explain the excised portion and represents the version distributed in France.”
Poster art for 1926's Silence

Max Marcin's play, Silence, premiered on November 12, 1924 at the National Theatre which, years later, would house the world premieres of Grand Hotel (1930), The Little Foxes (1939), Inherit the Wind (1955), and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) as well as such popular musicals as Rent (1996), Newsies (2012), and War Paint (2017). The plot of Silence revolves around the mysterious past of Jim Warren (H.B. Warner) who, although sentenced to hang, has remained so stoic about his situation that his lawyer remains convinced of Warren's innocence.

Jim Warren (H.B. Warner) runs into his former blackmailer,
Millie Burke (Virginia Pearson), in a scene from 1926's Silence

The complicated plot involves a flaw in the marriage papers for Jim Warren and his first wife, Norma. When the money he gives her is stolen, Norma is tried as an accomplice and sent to jail. In order to free her, Jim must marry another woman. Convinced that she has been deserted by her husband, Norma succumbs to the overtures of the wealthy Phil Powers (Rockliffe Fellowes) and marries him. Years pass and, after Jim meets his biological daughter (also named Norma), the younger woman shoots the blackmailer who has been threatening to ruin her marriage. In order to protect her, Jim takes the blame and goes to jail in her place.

Jim Warren (H.B. Warner) comforts Norma Powers
(Vera Reynolds) in a scene from 1926's Silence

It takes awhile for the audience to grasp that Vera Reynolds plays both Norma Drake (Jim's first wife) and Norma Powers (their daughter). What's even more surprising is that Marcin's melodrama has a happy ending. In his program essay, David Kiehn explains that:
“The best plays of the theatrical stage in the 1910s and 1920s were adapted for movies. Anyone associated with the theater, famous or not, found that films could be their economic salvation. Cecil B. DeMille was one of the many struggling unknowns of the stage, overshadowed by his older brother (William) and parents (Henry and Beatrice), all successful playwrights. In 1924, DeMille struck out on his own, and looked to the theater to supply him with stories. Among them was Marcin’s Silence, about a career criminal refusing to speak of the murder he’s blamed for even as he awaits the hangman’s noose. The play was still touring on the theatrical circuit when DeMille bought the rights in May 1925 and signed Rupert Julian (who directed 1925's The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney) to direct Silence.”
Poster art for 1926's Silence

With the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanying the screening at the restored film at the Castro Theatre, Silence made a well-deserved comeback.

* * * * * * * * *
Directed by Sam Gabarski (who wrote his film's screenplay in collaboration with Michel Bergmann), Bye Bye Germany is set in 1946 in a displaced persons camp in Frankfurt. A small group of Holocaust survivors who desperately want to leave Germany in order to start their lives anew in America choose David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) to be their leader.

David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) and two friends conspire
to sell "French linens" in a scene from Bye Bye Germany

Bermann grew up in a family of peddlers who taught him how to charm potential clients and build relationships that could lead to repeat sales. When Jews were forced out of business by the Nazis, the Bermann family ended up abandoning their elegant department store. However, unlike his siblings who had gone into the family business, David became an entertainer whose ability to tell jokes helped him to survive in a concentration camp.

Poster art for Bye Bye Germany

Like many Jews, David's sarcastic sense of humor proved to be one of his strongest survival skills. Whether telling an American that "We need the lies because life is otherwise unbearable" or reminding his friends that "Hitler is dead, but we're still alive!" he faces each day with the knowledge that, if nothing else, he is loved by a homely three-legged mutt that keeps following him around.

David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) is comforted by a
three-legged dog in a scene from Bye Bye Germany

While his close-knit group of friends are eager to make enough money to book passage across the Atlantic and leave Germany forever, David faces a peculiar challenge. For some inexplicable reason, his application for a business license has been rejected. After convincing one of his friends to apply for the license, David starts training his gang in the basics of peddling; teaching them how to sell linens that have been "made in Paris" to German housewives while pocketing a huge profit.

David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) shows his friend the finer
points of peddling linens in a scene from Bye Bye Germany

Meanwhile, he has been meeting with a young German Jew who emigrated to the United States shortly after 1933 and has now returned to help process Holocaust survivors. Special agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue) has reason to suspect David of being a Nazi collaborator, but has no knowledge how he earned that reputation. David's bizarre and closely-held secret is that, at one point, he was hired by an SS officer at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to teach Hitler the art of telling jokes in preparation for the Fuhrer's upcoming meeting with Benito Mussolini. As David explains: "This is a true story. And what is not quite true is true anyway."

David's gang of friends help to load linens into
their delivery truck in a scene from Bye Bye Germany

Not merry enough to be a caper film and not sober enough to seem like a documentary, Bye Bye Germany benefits immensely from Virginie Saint-Martin's cinematography, Veronique Sacrez's production design, and a musical score by Renaud Garcia-Fons. As each member of Bermann's group struggles to escape his past, some succumb to psychological pressures. Surprisingly, Bermann elects to remain in Germany for reasons he explains at the end of the film.

Bye Bye Germany is meant to entertain with biting humor rather than send audiences into a tailspin. Its success is due largely to Gabarski's direction and a cast filled with strong character actors. Here's the trailer:

Friday, August 11, 2017

Pouring Body and Soul Into Singing The Blues

Back when Apple launched iTunes, a young friend of mine enthusiastically began to build his first playlist. As he described the new app's capabilities to me, I was more than a little startled to hear him describe a "symphony" as a "song." I tried to explain that a symphony is much longer and more complex in structure than a song. But as I quickly learned, as far as he was concerned, any digital file that contained music could be described as a song.

Digital playlists allow listeners to sort their preferences in ways that were never possible with LP recordings or compact discs (one can create a playlist with much greater ease than a mixtape). For some people, random samplings of music they have downloaded create the equivalent of a personalized radio station that can bring them the music they love whenever, wherever, and in whatever order they want to hear it.

As more and more people cut their ties to cable television packages they don't wish to purchase, new options for video on demand offer consumers more specialized choices than even Netflix, HBO, Fandor, and Hulu provide. In addition to the wealth of musical and theatre videos available on YouTube, one can stream Broadway shows at and search the Metropolitan Opera's vast database for recordings of live performances that are now available on Sirius XM, and Met Opera on Demand.

Quincy Jones recently announced plans to launch a streaming service called Qwest TV that will be the first of its kind dedicated to jazz music and jazz-inspired music forms. The plan is to offer original content including concerts, documentaries, interviews and archival footage so that subscribers can listen to such artists as Billie Holiday, Ravi Shankar, Esperanza Spalding, or Flying Lotus.

As Jones explains:
“At my core, I am a bebopper. Over the course of my 70-year career in music I have witnessed firsthand the power of jazz and all of its offspring (from the blues and R&B to pop, rock, and hip-hop) to tear down walls and bring the world together. I believe that 100 years from now, when people look back at the 20th century, they will view Bird, Miles, and Dizzy as our Mozarts, Bachs, Chopins, and Tchaikovskys. The dream of Qwest TV is to let jazz and music lovers everywhere experience these incredibly rich and diverse musical traditions in a whole new way. My hope is that Qwest TV will serve to carry forth and build on the great legacy that is jazz for many generations to come."
Entrepreneur and Kennedy Center Honoree Quincy Jones

What kind of archival footage might find its way to Qwest TV? One need only explore Mark Cantor's excellent Jazz on Film website to discover a wealth of musical numbers from Hollywood films. Who could resist any of these clips? (I must admit a special fondness for Slim Gaillard's rendition of "Dunkin' Bagels.")

* * * * * * * * *
One of the documentaries screened at the 2017 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is also a likely contender for inclusion in Qwest TV's lineup. Written and directed by Robert Philipson, Body and Soul: An American Bridge tells the story of how a great song was created by Jewish composer Johnny Green in 1929. Originally written for Gertrude Lawrence (the song premiered in London), Body and Soul was introduced on Broadway by Libby Holman on October 15, 1930 during the famous Jewish torch singer's appearance in a popular musical revue entitled Three's A Crowd (which ran for 271 performances at the Selwyn Theatre).

As one of the most recorded songs in the jazz repertoire (the original record label credits Johnny Green as "music director and schmuck"), Body and Soul has a unique place in history.
  • Although his recording didn't hit the charts until 1932, when Louis Armstrong recorded Body and Soul in October 1930 he became the first jazz musician to record Green's song.
  • In 1935, the song was recorded by the Benny Goodman trio with Gene Krupa on drums and Teddy Wilson (a phenomenally gifted African-American musician) on piano.
  • When the Benny Goodman trio performed in public in 1937, Wilson's presence effectively smashed the color barrier in jazz.

In his director's statement, Philipson writes:
"Why use the song Body and Soul to explore the multi-faceted relations between Blacks and Jews in American popular song? I could have chosen any number of songs by Jewish composers: “My Favorite Things” (Richard Rodgers), “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (Jerome Kern), “Cheek to Cheek” (Irving Berlin). They’ve all become much-recorded jazz standards, mostly performed by Black musicians. Body and Soul, however, is THE most recorded jazz standard of all time -- over 3,000 versions have been put to vinyl or tape. Knowing that, I began researching the history of the song, and lo! the modalities of Black/Jewish interrelations poured forth. 80% of the Great American Songbook can be attributed to Jewish composers, but while the biographies of Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin are well known, little has been written about Johnny Green, who penned three or four well-known jazz standards in his twenties, then entered a fantastically successful career (five Oscars) as a composer and music supervisor for the movies."
"My own interest in Black/Jewish interrelations stems from my time as a Professor of Comparative Literature when I taught courses in African American literature. Being Jewish myself, I was continually struck by the parallels and differences of the two minorities in America and especially by the heightened awareness that the two peoples had of one another. So intrigued was I by this connection that I published a full-length comparison of Black and Jewish autobiographies entitled The Identity Question: Blacks and Jews in Europe and America."
Filmmaker and jazz historian Robert Philipson

Philipson's hour-long documentary highlights a lot of American musical history that is often overlooked. Here's the trailer

* * * * * * * * *
The Custom Made Theatre is currently presenting the world premiere of a new musical revue entitled Blues Is A Woman: From Ma Rainey to Bonnie Raitt. Written by lead singer Pamela Rose (who also created the music and lyrics for "Blues Is A Woman" and "Blues Is A Mighty River"), the show benefits from Scott Sorkin's projections as well as the dramaturgical input and creative direction of Jayne Wenger. As Wenger explains in her program note:
“The history of the blues is embedded in the history of our remarkable country. From its heyday in the 1920s through its revival in the 1960s, blues women have been out there challenging each era’s rigid norms of race, gender, and cultural political correctness. When most people think of a blues singer, the image that comes to mind is one of a man holding a guitar (he is probably African American and, for sure, male). But the truth is different from that common visual picture because the most iconic performers of the classic blues era (the 1920s) were women.”
“Emerging from the American South, blues women hit the road and told their own stories. These women were pioneers and, through their music, their stories endure. It is hard to overstate the magnitude of their contributions, which effected changes in jazz, gospel, Broadway musicals, and eventually rock and roll. Pamela Rose is steeped in this history and carries in her blood, body, and voice the legacy of these matriarchs. I have never met anyone with the depth of musical and historical knowledge, interest, and determination to share the musical legacy of these unique American treasures.”
Tammy Hall and Pamela Rose in a scene from Blues is a Woman
(Photo by: Jane Higgins)

While Blues Is A Woman features music director Tammy Hall on piano, Shaunna Hall on guitar, Daria Johnson on drums, Ruth Davies on bass, and Kristen Strom on clarinet and saxophone, there is also a great emphasis on the blues women who were songwriters as well as performers. Among the 25 musical numbers are such classics as Ma Rainey's "Don't Fish In My Sea," Ida Cox's "One Hour Mama," Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues," Bertha 'Chippie' Hill's "Some Cold and Rainy Day,"
Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain," and Bonnie Raitt's "Love Me Like A Man." The extensive video clips include footage of such fine blues singers as Dinah Washington, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ruth Brown, Memphis Minnie, Etta James, and Alberta Hunter.

Pamela Rose and Shaunna Hall in a scene from Blues is a Woman
(Photo by: Jane Higgins)

As the lead singer and driving force behind Blues is a Woman, Pamela Rose acknowledges some of the tough decisions she faced in crafting the show.
“The biggest challenge in writing Blues is a Woman was deciding which blues women to feature in the show and whom to leave out. After years poring over archival recordings and history, I knew the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to introduce audiences to the extraordinary women who helped create and popularize blues, but I also wanted to amplify and celebrate that particularly powerful voice which women in the blues gave to us. Early table readings occurred smack in the middle of a turbulent, shocking period in which harrowing news of black citizens killed by white police unfurled daily, racial tension and outrage dominated most news cycles, and we all suffered through an election year in which sexism and racism became trump cards played with dizzying effect. Conversations amongst our cast about how often history seemed to be on a stubborn ‘replay’ setting inevitably became part of the narrative.”
The cast of Blues is a Woman (Photo by: Jane Higgins)
“With the depth of historical and living inspiration to draw from, making the decision about whom to highlight within a two-hour theatre experience wasn’t easy. I finally decided that it wasn’t so much this blues artist or that one which mattered most. What truly mattered was that audiences have a chance to meet the archetypal blues woman who was ‘fierce, passionate, and did not suffer in silence.’ She is still with us. embedded in our music. Like all blues women, she’ll get under your skin, haunt and beguile you until you wonder how you ever lived without her.”
Shaunna Hall and Kristen Strom in a scene from Blues is a Woman
(Photo by: Jane Higgins)

Performances of Blues Is A Woman continue through August 27 at the Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Cultural Exports

In 1976, while most Americans were focused on celebrating the country's bicentennial, a new musical opened on Broadway that genuinely challenged its audiences. With a score by Stephen Sondheim that employed a pentatonic scale -- and actors telling the musical's story in the style of Japan's legendary Kabuki theatre -- few theatregoers arrived at the Winter Garden Theatre with any knowledge of how Japan's island culture had been opened up to Western influences during the second half of the 19th century.

The opening number of Pacific Overtures ("The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea") was a marked departure from standard Broadway curtain raisers. The show's 11 o'clock number -- in which the Japanese voice their determination to rebuild their country after World War II and transform it into a major economic force -- came as a shock to many theatergoers.

Haruo Nakajima's recent death at the age of 88 (quickly overshadowed by the deaths of singers Barbara Cook and Glenn Campbell) was a bittersweet piece of news for fans of monster movies. The Japanese actor was the first to climb inside a monster suit and portray Godzilla in Ishirō Honda's beloved 1954 film (Nakajima continued in the role through 11 more Godzilla films). While Japan has become noted for such cultural exports as woodblock prints, Bunraku puppet theatre, Kabuki dramas, manga comics, samurai movies, and animé films, most of these art forms have been overshadowed by the Godzilla franchise (which has left the monster's giant footprints all around the world).

* * * * * * * * *
In 2013, the driving creative force behind such beloved full-length animation features as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and Ponyo announced his retirement due to advanced age. Studio Ghibli's catalogue of beautifully hand-drawn animé films has brought the artwork of Hayao Miyazaki to children of all ages throughout the world. The upcoming Japan Film Festival of San Francisco will screen a documentary produced by NHK Television entitled Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki, which shows the artist struggling with a difficult challenge at the age of 75.

When he closed down Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki still had ideas buzzing around in his head and was curious about how he might able to work with the kind of CGI scripting used in many of today's releases. With the help of some young animators, he started to learn about various techniques that could be applied to his style of art. However, in the end, Miyazaki found that he could work faster and better by sketching his ideas by hand. The big question was whether or not he would have the strength to see a full-length feature through to animation.

The NHK documentary does a spectacular job of letting viewers in on the artistic process which guides the veteran animator toward a finished product. It also captures the moment when Miyazaki announces to his team that he has decided to tackle one more feature film (Boro the Caterpillar), which now has a projected release date sometime in 2019.

A compulsive smoker whose right leg becomes increasingly jittery as he gets deeper into his work, Miyazaki displays a gentle, self-deprecating sense of humor throughout the film, even though he is shocked by the deaths of two younger animators who he fully expected would outlive him. Here's an abbreviated version of NHK's 70-minute documentary.

* * * * * * * * *
If one were to seek a shining example of how cultural exports have spread around the world, the logical place to start would be with the work of William Shakespeare.
  • In 2012, the World Shakespeare Festival did a stunning job of introducing new audiences to Shakespeare and helping mature audiences gain new insights into the Bard's plays.
  • The Year of Shakespeare website documents many of the productions that were involved in the event (the biggest intercultural Shakespeare festival ever devised).
  • In October 2015, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced its plan to commission 36 playwrights over the course of three years to perform a remarkable collective task: translating all of Shakespeare's plays into modern English that will be easier for contemporary audiences to understand.
  • A popular app available on iTunes entitled Heuristic Shakespeare - The Tempest debuted as "the first in a collection of 37 separate apps. Each app is a tool for demystifying one of Shakespeare’s plays, making it more accessible to a modern audience. Sir Ian McKellen and Professor Sir Jonathan Bate take us on a journey of discovery using the world-famous Arden Shakespeare texts."
  • Last year, the world celebrated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death on April 23, 1616.
Edward Nelson stars as Hamlet for West Edge Opera
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Many point to Hamlet (1602) as Shakespeare's most frequently performed work. Having been in the public domain for more than three centuries, Hamlet has been reinterpreted, updated, and subjected to numerous cuts as actors and stage directors attempt to bend Shakespeare's play to suit their artistic vision.
Few, however, have relied on another playwright's adaptation of Hamlet, especially when that adaptation severely changed the shape of the plot. Based on a French adaptation by Alexandre Dumas, père, and Paul Meurice, Ambroise Thomas's opera features a libretto by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier. The work premiered at the Paris Opéra (Salle Le Peletier) on March 9, 1868.

I first saw the operatic version of Hamlet in 1978 when the San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Thomas's grand opera (which used a new English translation by Andrew Porter). Directed by Tito Capobianco, the cast was headed by Sherrill Milnes as Hamlet, Ashley Putnam as Ophélie, and Robert Hale as Claudius. Designed by Carl Toms, the production was shared with the New York City Opera in 1982.

The San Francisco Opera staged Hamlet in 1996 with Thomas Hampson in the title role, Ruth Ann Swenson as Ophélie, Judith Forst as Gertrude, and Robert Lloyd as Claudius. In 2010, the Metropolitan Opera debuted a new production of Hamlet starring Simon Keenlyside with Marlis Petersen as Ophélie, Jennifer Larmore as Gertrude, and James Morris as Claudius,

West Edge Opera opened its 2017 season with a production of Hamlet performed in the cavernous expanse of the former Pacific Pipe warehouse in Oakland. Conducted by Jonathan Khuner (who also handled the orchestral reduction) on an abstract set designed by Jean-Francois Revon to accommodate the use of shadow play for scenes involving the ghost of Hamlet's father (Kenneth Kellog), the opening night performance was graced with an unusual addition to the score -- the constant rumble from a Burning Man event being held on the next block.

I was happy to hear Thomas's score again, which is best known for Hamlet's drinking song at the end of Act I and Ophélie's extended mad scene in Act II. However, it's important to note that when Hamlet had its world premiere in 1868, Parisian standards required a five-act opera with a ballet and, preferably, a happy ending. As a result, Shakespeare's cast of characters was severely trimmed (no sign of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, or Horatio). Laërte, Polonius, and Gertrude do not die at the end. Instead, Hamlet lives and is proclaimed King of Denmark while his father's ghost banishes Gertrude to a convent.

Edward Nelson and Susanne Mentzer in a scene from
West Edge Opera's production of Hamlet (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

An interesting note about the history of Hamlet concerns the Parisian frenzy that eventually led a French composer to consider adapting the story for the operatic stage. According to Wikipedia:
“The Parisian public's fascination with Ophelia, prototype of the femme fragile, began in the fall of 1827, when an English company directed by William Abbot came to Paris to give a season of Shakespeare in English at the Odéon. On 11 September 1827 the Irish actress Harriet Smithson played the part of Ophelia in Hamlet. Her mad scene appeared to owe little to tradition and seemed almost like an improvisation, with several contemporary accounts remarking on her astonishing capacity for mime. Her performances produced an extraordinary reaction: men wept openly in the theater, and when they left were ‘convulsed by uncontrollable emotion.’”
Emma McNairy as Ophélie in Hamlet (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
“The 25-year-old Alexandre Dumas, père, who was about to embark on a major career as a novelist and dramatist, was in the audience and found the performance revelatory, ‘far surpassing all my expectations.’ The French composer Hector Berlioz was also present at that opening night performance and later wrote: ‘The lightning flash of that sublime discovery opened before me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest depths. I recognized the meaning of dramatic grandeur, beauty, truth.’ It wasn't long before new clothing and hair styles, à la mode d'Ophélie and modeled on those of the actress, became all the rage in Paris.”
West Edge Opera's production offered some solid singing by Philip Skinner as Claudius, Daniel Curran as Laërte, and Susanne Mentzer as Gertrude. Emma McNairy delivered plenty of musical fireworks to accompany her powerfully dramatic interpretation of Ophélie's mad scene. Working in an environment with surprisingly rich acoustics, the production's only regrettable elements were some truly bizarre moments created by stage director Aria Umezawa and costume designer Maggie Whitaker's unfortunate ideas for the opera's two females.

Ophélie's costume, in particular, looked like a nylon parachute that had been dyed to resemble a dark, watery riverbed. For most of the opera, it was folded up around McNairy's waist, looking less like anything a young woman would want to wear and more like something a homeless person shod in sneakers might choose out of utter desperation. When unfurled for Ophélie's drowning, it created a dramatic image which may have seemed like a thrilling idea in pre-production but did not fare as well in performance. There was no earthly reason for the chorus to be sporting the kind of safety helmets worn by welders.

Edward Nelson stars in Hamlet at West Edge Opera
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

The indisputable star of the evening was Edward Nelson, a recent graduate of the San Francisco Opera's Merola and Adler Fellowship programs. Having been impressed with Nelson's work when seen on the main stage at the War Memorial Opera House, this role delivered resounding proof of his talent, stageworthiness, and artistic development. Clad in a simple costume consisting of black pants, a tailored white shirt, and an abbreviated black hoodie, Nelson looked like the kind of moody and rebellious youth Prince Hamlet is supposed to be.

No amount of melancholy brooding, baring his chest, glaring at his guilty mother, or attempting to prove his ardor by mounting Ophélie atop a table could detract from the thrilling power and shading of Nelson's vocal performance. Frequently featured on Barihunks, his robust baritone never lost its passion or focus (the following video was recorded earlier this year at a benefit for West Edge Opera).

West Edge Opera's 2017 season includes performances of Vicente Martin y Soler's 1787 opera entitled L'Arbore di Diana (The Chastity Tree) and Libby Larsen's adaptation of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (which I saw at its world premiere at the Minnesota Opera in 1990). Plans for 2018 include productions of Benjamin Britten's last opera, Death in Venice (1973); the West Coast premiere of Matt Marks's Mata Hari (2017); and Luca Francesconi's controversial Quartett (2011).