Archive for October, 2008

“VERA WILDE,” Shotgun Players

October 31, 2008

There are certain things that Shotgun Players does that I feel very comfortable with, and I mean that in a good way. For most of my life, up until a few years ago, I wasn’t a regular theater-goer. I spent decades going to rock concerts and clubs, and before that I spent most of my free time reading comic books. Shotgun’s graphics are done in the rock poster format, an art form I know well. Their programs are laid out in the same style and size and printed on the same paper as comic books are these days. So going to any show at The Ashby Stage is a nice transition from my neurotic past to my self-actualized present. I feel at home, but I am also on the way to something new and more interesting.

“Vera Wilde” was very new and very interesting. It was based on historical facts, most of which I didn’t know. So from beginning to end I was spellbound by the story that was being told, and the way it was being told. I hope some high school and college students got to see this, because it was an entertaining approach to subjects that can be very dry in the classroom. Oscar Wilde I knew something about, but there were certain things that he did that I did not really understand just why he was doing them. This play was a good look at his emotions, and what motivated him. Vera Zasulich I had never heard of before I walked into the theater, and I was just amazed to find out that somebody like her had actually existed. She was awesome! By the end of the play I had something of a crush on her character, I guess you could say. For a play to make a 19th century Marxist that appealing was quite wonderful.

Director Maya Gurantz did a great job with a small cast that played many different characters. They were able to move the story back and forth in time, between different countries and cultures, using minimal props, scenery and costume changes. And I was right there with them – I got caught up in the whole story, and with what they were doing. I am always amazed when I see a play and one of the actors can change their hat or their accent and suddenly become someone completely different, or take me to a different place. And that went on all evening.

The music and choreography were well integrated into the production. Like everything else, they helped create the characters and tell the story. Another thing I really liked, and this is something that I see at every Shotgun Players show, is the way the lobby was decorated. There were altars for Vera and Oscar set up in the hallway leading into where the play was performed. I wonder how many people walked past them and didn’t even notice? But I noticed, and I kept going back and looking at them. I think the Ashby Stage used to be some kind of church, and there is still an atmosphere of reverence there. And that is very comforting.




October 28, 2008

I recently saw two excellent college productions of plays. The first one was “Machinal,” by Sophie Treadwell, at San Francisco State University. They have a really good theater department – I’ve seen several Shakespeare plays there, and I usually try and catch their spring musical. But I knew nothing about this play before I went there. It was written in 1928, so it was like a history lesson to me. The only thing I had to compare it to was some movies and art that were made around that time. When it was first performed it must have been considered quite radical and shocking. Even today it seems bold – I guess that says something about some things that haven’t changed much in the decades since then. The play dealt with murder, politics, feminist issues, and more, but not in a melodramatic or sensational way. I liked the way it was written. I was quite moved by the whole thing.  It seems like schools are one of the few places to see great neglected plays like this one, and I am glad that I got the opportunity. In December SF State is doing Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” I’ve only seen that once, and that was in the 90s at ACT, when their original theater was still closed from earthquake damage. I’m looking forward to seeing it again. I hope that it has some of the same cast that was in “Machinal.”

The next week I saw “Good Breeding,” by Robert O’Hara, performed by American Conservatory Theater’s third year graduate students at the Zeum Theater. I go to see just about everything ACT does, and their student shows are almost always as good, if not better, than the ones at the big theater. They have talented people acting in them, and professional production values. For this one they remodeled the interior of the Zeum Theater, including carpeting the entire floor right up to the front row. When I went inside after giving my ticket to the usher I had to walk on it to get to my seat. The affect they were trying to create, and that they succeeded in doing most spectacularly, was to turn the Zeum into a l970s New York City disco. There were also elements of seedy 42nd Street movie theaters and Times Square arcades thrown in.

The play itself was an updating of Greek mythology, and was staged with the Gods, Goddesses, heroes and heroines portrayed as characters from 1970s exploitation movies (including the kung-fu, blaxploitation, low-budget horror, and soft-core porn genres.) That doesn’t even begin to describe what this play was like, and what it was like to watch it. It sounds stupid, right? In fact, based on the description I read of it beforehand I almost didn’t go. But when I finally went I liked it so much I went back again the next night. A production like this has to be experienced live to be fully appreciated. I can say this much: The ancient legends were brought back to life! They were right there, in the flesh (so to speak.) All the weird and different elements that went into putting this on came together. Wow!

A few words about the play itself: “Good Breeding” was based on an ancient Greek trilogy of plays, but it wasn’t just a clever modern retelling – well, it was that, but it was more. It was a look into what mythology is, who the Gods and Goddesses are, and what our relationships, as humans, are to them. It was about what it is to be a God, to be a human, and what freedom anyone, mortal or immortal, has in controlling their own life. This play has only been staged twice, both times at schools. I hope it gets produced again. Like the gods themselves, “Good Breeding” deserves to live on.

And a few words about the ACT graduate students: when they finish this school year they go off to New York to audition and begin their professional careers. It’s too bad the casting people they’ll be performing for couldn’t have seen “Good Breeding.” It was quite a showcase.

Oh, and I have to mention one really cool thing that was going on in “Good Breeding:” There was a photo-booth that was part of the set. You know, the old kind with a curtain across the door, where you go inside and sit down for quick black and white photo strips. Well, the booth was used as the entrance to the underworld realm of Hades. And it made complete sense, and  explained so much to me…



“Spring Awakening,” “David Byrne”

October 24, 2008

At the Curran Theater the musical “Spring Awakening” was in its last week. I bought a rush ticket on Wednesday, Oct. 8, and I was giddy with delight from the opening number. I was immediately pulled into what was happening on stage. It was an intimate experience, even up in the balcony where I was. Part of this was because of the story and the songs, which were very intense and emotional. But it was also the way it was staged; the cast, the band, and members of the audience (sitting on bleachers) were all together up on the stage. The set was minimal. When a character was singing or acting the other cast members who weren’t in that scene would remain on stage and watch, sometimes just sitting on the floor, sometimes moving to various places and then jumping in to sing the chorus. Throughout the entire performance the actors were all simultaneously telling the story, in the story, and watching the story. The fourth wall was not even an option, so there was a feeling that we were all in on what was going on.

The music in “Spring Awakening” is awesome, especially when performed by such a talented bunch of singers (backed up by a great rock band.) Something else that made the whole show so special was the choreography. I didn’t really notice it while I was watching the show – probably because it was so well done and such an organic part of what was going on. It didn’t even feel like the cast was “dancing” – they were just being the characters, and moving the way the characters would move. But I thought about it afterwards – this was a production that left me thinking about a lot of things – and I realized that what I had experienced was a result of the brilliant choreography of Bill T. Jones. Bill T. Jones! I saw him and Arnie Zane performing together in a loft space 25 years ago. And here he is now, putting the magical touch on a Broadway show, making it an ecstatic experience.

The night before “Spring Awakening” I saw David Byrne at Davies Symphony Hall. He had a hot world-music band that was also able to rock out on old Talking Heads songs, and he had three interpretive dancers. I mention this because the style of dancing they were doing was, though not similar to the choreography of “Spring Awakening,” from the same alternative reality: a place that once was in a bunch of old buildings below 14th Street in New York City, and that now is in a neighborhood that is accessible to more people. I’m talking about “downtown.”   I don’t know who told Byrne’s dancers what to do, but their movements were the visual equivalent of his eccentric lyrics and music. They were so far downtown they were like a Jules Feiffer “Village Voice” cartoon come to life. What was really amazing about all this was that it was happening in the same space where Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony. And the place was packed, and the audience was going nuts. There was David Byrne, this geeky, neurotic guy, and they loved him and everyone, onstage and off, including me, was having a great time. Downtown, wherever it is these days, is a fun place to be.

I’m not sure what all this means, but it was pretty cool. The downtown aesthetic has moved uptown, to Broadway and the symphony concert hall. And I was there to enjoy it. 

Pax, Vox