Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Grandeur" at the Magic Theatre: a protean figure in a conventional play

Carl Lumbly is music legend Gil Scott-Heron and Rafael Jordan is journalist Steve Barron in Grandeur at the Magic Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
The set for Grandeur, the new play by Han Ong at the Magic Theatre, doesn’t look particularly grand at first glance: it’s a hoarder’s apartment in Harlem, with stacks of books and videocassettes and shabby old ‘60s furniture. But when the show begins and its central character, Gil Scott-Heron (Carl Lumbly) takes his seat in an old armchair, his face illuminated by a solitary lamp, there is no doubt that we are in the presence of majesty. In Lumbly’s portrayal, Scott-Heron is a wily old enchanter, a Prospero laying traps for the young and ingenuous. Later on, he plays with a Rubik’s cube as though it were a piece of spell-casting apparatus.

In Grandeur, the young person who must evade Scott-Heron’s traps is one Steve Barron (Rafael Jordan), a freelance journalist on assignment for the New York Review of Books. (It’s a somewhat distracting coincidence that this character’s name is just one consonant away from “Steve Bannon.”) Steve is an earnest and preppy black man whose face is hardly visible behind his mop of hair—it’s like he knows he shouldn’t steal the spotlight from Gil, a much stronger personality with many more stories to tell.

We also meet Scott-Heron’s caretaker, Julie (Safiya Fredericks), who mixes abiding affection for the old man with exasperation at his shortcomings, not least of which is his addiction to crack cocaine. Julie is also on hand to inform Steve of his role in all of this: “You’re death. You know that right? I mean not death-death but […] like a herald.” This heavy-handed metaphor gets under Steve’s skin and causes him to have an unconvincing breakdown near the top of Act 2.

Much more compelling is Scott-Heron’s anti-capitalist political rant, revealing his ambivalence toward the rappers who came after him. They sample his records and call him the “Godfather of Rap,” but their materialistic values are far different from his own. There’s also an implied contrast between the way Scott-Heron plays with language in his jazzman-poet fashion and the way a reporter uses language to pin down facts with precision.

Grandeur is obviously an attempt to wrestle with Scott-Heron’s legacy and his contradictions. It takes place in the last year of the musician’s life, just after he has released his first album in 16 years. (While Steve Barron and his NYRB article are fictitious, The New Yorker published an excellent profile of Scott-Heron, written by Alec Wilkinson, around this time. I’ve read hundreds of New Yorker profiles but this one has stuck with me.) But although Scott-Heron was undoubtedly a dramatic personality—brilliant and flawed, irascible and damaged—Grandeur is not, itself, a very dramatic show. It’s too bad that a play about an innovative and charismatic musician should have such a well-worn structure and setup.

Grandeur, by Han Ong, directed by Loretta Greco, is playing at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco through June 25. More information here.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Acting in ShortLived round 1 at PianoFight, June 15-17


Last year, I participated in PianoFight's audience-judged theater competition ShortLived as a playwright... this year, for a change, I am acting in a ShortLived play!

For three performances, tonight through Saturday, I am playing a video-game elf in "All the Worlds are Stages" by Ruben Grijalva, directed by Alejandro Emmanuel Torres. The other actors in the show are Andrew Chung, Tony Cirimele, and Danielle Doyle. It is a very fun, fast-paced script with some nice twists to it, and for the first time ever, I have to do a bit of stage combat! (Credit to Kyle McReddie for teaching me and Andrew the fight choreography.)

Tickets for this weekend's edition of ShortLived are available here. (Note: show starts at 7 PM, so don't be late!) You'll see 6 new short plays and be asked to rank them. The top-ranked play from this week's batch will move on to compete in the grand-prize round in early August, with a shot at a $5000 prize.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's my lunch hour and I need to run out and get a green eyeliner pencil for my elf costume tonight.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Country House Books: Edward Gorey & Cécile David-Weill

Quick reviews of two books I read recently that take place at two very different kinds of country houses.

 The Dwindling PartyThe Dwindling Party by Edward Gorey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An Edward Gorey pop-up book means that you can almost move and play around inside his elegant but eerie world! And even though The Dwindling Party looks like a kids' book, Gorey doesn't tone down any of his trademark dark humor, in this story of a Victorian family who tours a country house and, one by one, gets eaten by monsters. The verse is a bit verbose and there's really only the one joke throughout, but this is still a fun and interactive distillation of Gorey's style.

The SuitorsThe Suitors by Cécile David-Weill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Oh la la, here’s a book that promises to reveal what French old-money high society is really like! Unlike some authors who write lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous novels but have no firsthand experience with the world they describe, Cécile David-Weill comes by it honestly: her father and grandfather were chairmen of the Lazard Frères bank. As such, The Suitors could function as a handbook for how to behave (and how not to behave) if you are invited to a house party hosted by a fancy French family. They will love you if you are polite, gracious, and quietly elegant; they will despise you if you are effusive or ostentatious or try-hard. It’s rather like old-money American WASP society with more of an emphasis on good food, art collecting, and philosophical conversation.

Unfortunately, while David-Weill knows a lot about high society and the people who frequent it, she hasn’t figured out how to embed this knowledge in a captivating story. Her set-up is a fine premise for a romantic comedy: two sisters in their early 30s, learning that their parents wish to sell the family’s summer villa on the Cap d’Antibes, make a half-serious attempt to find wealthy husbands so that the property can stay in the family. But The Suitors quickly becomes an endless list of descriptions of the family’s houseguests and servants, their foibles and faux pas. Some of the observations are keen, but there are just too many characters and too little narrative drive. Scenes that are intended as farce or as drama fall flat, get resolved within a page or two, and are quickly forgotten. Worst of all are the moments when David-Weill tries to convince us that her characters are paragons of wit, charm, and decorum: the jokes they make are at best unfunny and at worst truly distasteful (as when the narrator tells her sister that her “shorty pajama set” is “an invitation to rape”).

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Like something out of Balzac or Colette

The happy couple: Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron. Photo: AFP/Getty.
It has come to my attention that not nearly enough Americans know that the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron has a love life like something out of a Balzac novel. And because Macron won the first round of the presidential election today and it looks like (fingers crossed) he’ll defeat his Fascist opponent in the second round, I feel justified in being a total gossip and telling you this very French, very juicy story.

OK, so Emmanuel Macron is a fresh-faced 39-year-old who started his own, centrist/independent political party. The established parties in France imploded this year; Macron surged to the top of the polls despite having an unpopular economic-reform law named after him in 2015. I could say a lot more about the wacky French presidential race of 2017, but you didn’t come here for politics, you came here for gossip.

Well, Macron is married to a woman named Brigitte, who is 24 years older than him and has grown children of her own from a previous marriage. Already, this is pretty unusual, even if younger-man older-woman relationships have more of a place in European culture than in American. (In Colette’s novel Chéri, Chéri and Léa are also 24 years apart.) It’s also been pointed out that 24 years is the same age disparity between Donald and Melania Trump – we just think it’s strange when a woman is the one who’s older.

But Donald was never Melania’s high school teacher.

That’s right: Macron is married to his former high school literature and drama teacher.

Now do you see why I am obsessed with this story?

Both of the Macrons are coy about how, exactly, the romance progressed. Brigitte is quoted as saying “Nobody will ever know at what moment our story became a love story. That belongs to us. That is our secret.” (Of course, giving quotes like this to the media practically invites everyone to speculate about the details of this “secret love story” and the French are eating it up.)

But what’s known is this: they grew very close when Emmanuel was in 11th grade and worked with Brigitte to adapt The Art of Comedy by Eduardo di Filippo. Then, he transferred to a high school in Paris for his senior year—some accounts say his parents made him transfer to put a stop to the relationship, some say that Brigitte herself asked him to go away. But before leaving for the capital, the boy promised his teacher, “I will come back and I will marry you.”

So maybe this isn’t exactly like a classic French novel after all. In a novel, the boy would still make this rash romantic promise, but either he wouldn’t follow through with it, or circumstances would intervene to thwart the couple’s love. But that didn’t happen here: Brigitte eventually divorced her husband, joined Emmanuel in Paris, and married him in 2007. She has been quoted as saying “We rub and polish each other's brains,” which is pretty much the greatest innuendo I’ve ever heard and is my new #RelationshipGoals.

In short: everybody should hope that Macron wins the second round on May 7, not only so that the Fascists will be defeated, but also so that France can continue its grand tradition of having leaders with scandalous love lives.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Workshop Production of "You'll Not Feel the Drowning," April 13-22


My play You'll Not Feel the Drowning, an hourlong drama about life in an earthquake zone, the bleak beauty of the Oregon coast, and the giant squids that lurk in our hearts, has been in development with Custom Made Theatre's Undiscovered Works program for the last year. Custom Made is now granting it a 6-performance developmental workshop at the EXIT Theatre. I've been hard at work this month in a whirlwind rehearsal process, and we open tonight!

If you're in the Bay Area, I'd be honored if you can attend, especially as this script is still in development and we will be soliciting audience feedback. (There's a space for comments on the back of the playbill, and there'll be talk-backs after the Friday performances.) I'll be at all of the shows, too, so please feel free to say hello if you're there.

The details:
  • Directed by Gabriel A. Ross, dramaturgy by Allie Moss, tech by Linda Huang
  • Cast: Terry Bamberger as Susan, Maria Giere Marquis as Laura, and Jason W. Wong as Greg
  • 6 performances: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 PM, April 13-22
  • All performances at the EXIT Studio, 156 Eddy Street in San Francisco, near the Powell BART/MUNI station
  • Facebook event
  • Tickets 
Hope to see you there!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Sentimental Journey through France and Austria: "The Baltimore Waltz" at Magic Theatre

Anna (Lauren English) gets a diagnosis from The Third Man (Greg Jackson)
while her brother Carl (Patrick Alparone) looks on. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
Last night, after I saw Magic Theatre’s production of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, I waited for a bus in a driving rainstorm and eavesdropped on two middle-aged women discussing Trump’s airstrike in Syria. “I’m just waiting for World War III to start,” said one. “Yeah, I look up and expect a nuclear bomb to fall on us any day now,” said the other. I’ve been having similar thoughts—how could I not? I’m about to turn 30 and I have serious doubts that I will make it to 40. And in response, I’ve thought a lot about chucking it all and going on a hedonistic spree—traveling and eating good food and hobnobbing with interesting people. Voraciousness in the face of death.

So I can relate to Anna, the heroine of The Baltimore Waltz, an American woman in her early 30s who receives a fatal diagnosis of Acquired Toilet Disease (ATD) and responds by taking a tour of the great cities of Europe and having a lot of sex. Lauren English’s performance as Anna shows a woman shaking off her good-girl inhibitions and letting her instincts drive her. Accompanying Anna on her European trip is her brother Carl (Patrick Alparone, precise and dapper in flannel pajamas, velvet slippers, and a suit jacket). Every other character in the show—doctors, waiters, European locals—is played by Greg Jackson, who seems to have made a specialty of quick-change comic versatility: his bio also lists credits for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and The 39 Steps.

Carl & Anna in the Parisian croissant-bed. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
There’s a strong sense of whimsy to The Baltimore Waltz, as Carl and Anna travel through a primary-colored, storybook version of Europe. (It’s probably significant that both characters work with children in their day jobs: he is a children’s librarian and she is a first-grade teacher.) In Paris, the headboard of the bed is decorated with croissants and the stagehands wear berets; in Amsterdam, the bed has a tulip-patterned coverlet and the stagehands wear Dutch bonnets.

Indeed, if The Baltimore Waltz were ever made into a movie, I think it should be directed by Wes Anderson, that most whimsical of filmmakers. It already features a lot of Anderson motifs: a caper-style plot, train journeys with stylish luggage, Central European bellhops who wear those funny little caps, characters who seem suspended between childhood and adulthood, allusions to classic cinema (The Third Man, in this case). This production reinforces the Anderson connection by having the actors take their bows to Joe Dassin’s song “Les Champs-Elysées,” which also plays at the end of The Darjeeling Limited. 

The trick with whimsy in theater or cinema, of course, is to employ it in service of a deeper emotion. Eventually, The Baltimore Waltz reveals that there is a heartbreaking reason for all of the kookiness and stereotypes of Carl and Anna’s European trip. Childlike escapist fantasies can be a defense mechanism against real, adult pain.

The Baltimore Waltz plays at Magic Theatre through April 16, 2017. I received a free ticket through the Magic Theatre’s press office.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Script Reading Roundup: Foote, Shakespeare, Goldman

In this month's edition of Script Reading Roundup (brief thoughts on plays that I've read): three plays about British Isles royalty and one play about a little old lady from Texas.

The Trip to BountifulThe Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I’ve waited a long time. Just to get to Bountiful. Twenty years I’ve been walkin’ the streets of the city, lost and grieving. And as I’ve grown older and my time approaches, I’ve made one promise to myself, to see my home again… before I die…”

Such is the premise of Horton Foote’s elegiac drama The Trip to Bountiful. Mrs. Carrie Watts lives in a cramped apartment in Houston with her kind but weak-willed son Ludie and her frivolous, overbearing daughter-in-law Jessie Mae. For years, she has been trying to sneak away to her East Texas hometown, Bountiful, and each time, her relatives catch her before she can leave Houston. But one day…

The Trip to Bountiful is largely a touching character study, but there is a surprising amount of suspense as we watch to see how Mrs. Watts will make her escape. I also liked how Mrs. Watts is kind of an opaque figure during Act One (which is dominated by Jessie Mae’s chattering) but comes into her own when she sets out on her journey.

Admittedly, it’s disconcerting to see that according to the stage directions, Mrs. Watts is only 60. She seems much older than the 60-year-old women I know nowadays; indeed, in recent productions, the role is often taken by a more elderly actress. (Cicely Tyson was 88 when she played Mrs. Watts on Broadway in 2013!) At any rate, it is a lovely role for an older lady who can project an unpretentious, middle-American dignity. It is not a “diva” role; quite the opposite.

Another Southern writer famously said “You can’t go home again.” The Trip to Bountiful complicates that statement: when Mrs. Watts returns to Bountiful, she finds it diminished, abandoned, a ghost town. But nonetheless, it is still home.

MacbethMacbeth by William Shakespeare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All right, Shakespeare, you win: I don’t hate Macbeth. But it took me a long time to get to this point. As a teenager, I saw a terrible production of Macbeth and then acted in a terrible production of Macbeth; later, I saw a few more productions that didn’t do much to change my prejudiced mind, and wrote an essay about how Macbeth is the most over-produced Shakespeare play merely because every middle-aged white male actor thinks he should play the Thane of Cawdor. By that point, my hatred of Macbeth had hardened into a kind of shtick: I found it amusingly contrarian to say I hated this play that everyone else seems to adore, so I played up my dislike for it.

But I’m nearly 30 now, so the time has come to put away childish things and admit on the Internet that Macbeth is never going to be my favorite Shakespeare play, but I certainly don’t think it’s bad.

How did I get to this point? Seeing Sleep No More in New York City helped—it’s not every Shakespeare play that lends itself to transformation into a physical-theater gothic-noir haunted house. The introduction to the Pelican Shakespeare edition helped, or at least allowed me to forgive my high-school drama teachers for not doing any cross-gender casting (which resulted in me playing a non-speaking ensemble member while boys who couldn’t speak blank verse played all the thanes). The Pelican editor, Stephen Orgel, digs deep into how the play presents women as a disruptive or antagonistic force, and managed to convince me that putting female thanes in Macbeth might well make a hash of its themes. Reading Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human helped; one of my objections to Macbeth was always that the minor characters do not have much personality, but Bloom suggests that that’s intentional. If the “secondary males in the play” are “wrapped in a common grayness,” Bloom says, it is only so that we more readily identify with Macbeth and “journey inward to [his] heart of darkness.” Or, in other words: Marissa, stop thinking that you’ve found a flaw in Shakespeare; the man was a genius and he knew exactly what he was doing.

So, all right: assuming that competent actors play them, Macbeth and his Lady are fascinating characters. The play moves swiftly and its language obsessively focuses on a few major threads of imagery: blood, shipwrecks, birds, sleep, nighttime and darkness. That imagery, plus the supernatural elements, give Macbeth a unique atmosphere among Shakespeare’s plays, even though I hate it when productions focus on the supernatural bits at the expense of everything else. (A pitfall that has beset Macbeth almost from the start, it seems; the Hecate character is an interpolation by Thomas Middleton. Jacobean audiences couldn’t get enough of those witches!) The scene where Macduff learns the news of his family’s death will wreck me every time. And, even though we know Macbeth is a murderous tyrant who deserves what’s coming to him, Shakespeare somehow makes us sympathize with his paranoia, terror, and nihilism.

I still think Macbeth is not a great choice to produce in a high school or college setting. And I still think there are probably too many productions of it overall.

But no, I don’t hate it.

CymbelineCymbeline by William Shakespeare
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can’t recount the plot of Cymbeline out loud without bursting into giggles. Which is kind of odd: this play is not really considered a comedy in the same way as A Midsummer Night's Dream or Twelfth Night are, yet I can describe the stories of those plays with a straight face. Cymbeline, though… when I try to explain the sequence of events that result in the heroine waking up next to a headless body and mistaking it for that of her husband, I can’t stop laughing.

As other people have said, this play feels like what would result if you fed all of Shakespeare’s other plays into an extremely intelligent super-computer and asked it to produce something “Shakespearean.” It’s easy to imagine that Shakespeare knew he was at the end of his career and decided to play around with his pet motifs, including some winks at the audience. I mean, the play begins with two unnamed lords saying, basically, “Remember when King Cymbeline’s two little boys vanished without a trace? I wonder what happened to them.” (Gee, do you think that’ll become important later on in the story?) And by the end, Shakespeare has thrown so many plotlines into the play that it takes a scene nearly 500 lines long to resolve everyone’s story.

Very little in Cymbeline is profound, but a lot of it is awfully fun. Princess Imogen is a delightful heroine, the role of the self-involved dolt Prince Cloten can be hilarious in the right hands, and there are many other nice opportunities for comedians and character actors. The most difficult role is probably that of Imogen’s husband Posthumus, because it’s very hard to feel sympathy for him after he makes a wager on his wife’s fidelity. (One possible solution, which I saw in a production in summer 2015: portray Posthumus as extremely drunk at the time he makes the wager.) Overall, I think Cymbeline can be a charming, amusing, and unexpected choice for summertime Shakespeare in the Park companies, or for high schools who don’t want to stage Twelfth Night or Midsummer for the umpteenth time. Because, trust me, it’s as funny as either of them.

The Lion in WinterThe Lion in Winter by James Goldman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where has The Lion in Winter been all my life? Why didn’t I read it when I was 16 years old and equally obsessed with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Edward Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (It really reads like a cross between those two plays.) As a lover of eloquent dialogue, larger-than-life characters, handsome men and strong women, why did I wait so long to encounter this brilliance?

James Goldman’s play is based on real-life political intrigues involving King Henry II, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, their three ambitious sons, and the French royal family, though with dramatic license taken to make it juicier. Taking place over a period of less than 24 hours, the plot is a complex swirl of alliances, manipulations, and betrayals, with various territories, marriages, and thrones used as bargaining chips.

Goldman makes no attempt to write dialogue that sounds “medieval,” or to replicate the exact circumstances of court life in 1183. (The royal family decks the halls with Christmas holly themselves—there are no servants or minor courtiers to be seen.) But at the same time, he grants his characters their full measure of dignity and charisma. He humanizes them but he does not cut them down to size. They are wittier, more attractive, more passionate, more conniving than everyday people, and I love all of these glorious monsters.

In one of the play’s most famous lines, Eleanor shouts “Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives. It is eleven eighty-three and we’re barbarians.” And indeed, the metaphor I keep thinking of to describe this play is a jeweled dagger. It is elegant and cutting, hard and glittering, extravagant and yet just right.