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Throwback Thursday: Theatre Commute

In early 2009 I commuted for a few weeks in “figure 8s” around the Bay Area from the East Bay into San Francisco and down to San Jose, then back to the East Bay. I compiled a few highlights for LiveJournal on several of the days, and here’s one of them.

I resumed my temporary routine of (total) 125 miles driving and travel from Richmond to San Francisco to San Jose and back today, a geographic figure eight around the Bay Area. Things were pretty smooth today, though here are some episodic highlights:

10:45am: Leave the house. No traffic on 580 East.
11:03am: Pass the Bay Bridge toll. Am surprised by the fact that the metering lights are on and the traffic is backed up after the morning commute.
11:25am: Am detoured from my usual parking spot by today being a “street cleaning” day. Instead I go to a completely different neighborhood where I know parking will be free and non-stickered.
12:00pm: My MUNI trip inbound from Noe Valley is free when the conductor waves passengers past the non-working ticket machine.
12:05pm: During the MUNI trip, I see an intense panoramic view from the top of Dolores Park that I had never seen before.
4:05pm: Near the end of my work shift, I step outside for a few minutes and have an experience out of an action movie. I’ve arranged to give a black suitcase filled with laundry to the show’s costume designer. Instead of stopping, she pulls up to the curb and wordlessly gestures for me to drop the suitcase in the open bed of her truck. I do, and feel like it should have contained lots of money, or we should have been filmed, especially since it is right on Market Street.
4:50pm: During the MUNI trip back to the parking spot, two high schoolers near me decide that they will make the biggest PDA possible while jointly blowing smelly bubble gum.
6:05pm: Arrive at the theatre in San Jose and am pleased that there was no traffic going south on 280.
11:20pm: Leave theatre and begin the trip home on 880.
12:00am: A CHP car suddenly begins to weave across the highway just a few cars ahead of me. Turns out there’s been a minor accident, and that was this officer’s way of alerting the drivers.
12:25am: Arrive home.

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Theatrical Throwback: The Year Of Magical Thinking

For this now – erratic series, this week I recall a play that attracted attention near the end of the 2000’s, but currently seems like it had its moment and will be “rediscovered” at some point down the road.

I came across Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking book in San Luis Obispo at some point in 2008, and can’t recall exactly what drew me to the story. Perhaps some wry acknowledgement of the New Yorker – Angleno’s observations from coast to coast while I was developing my own. Or an awareness of the then in – development (or recently opened?) stage version starring Vanessa Redgrave. I recall being taken with Didion’s prose and the intense story of losing both her husband (suddenly) and her daughter (gradually) over the course of a year.

I had the chance to see the stage version for myself sooner than I might have expected, at the end of a holiday trip home to Massachusetts in early 2009. A family friend and I met up at Boston’s Lyric Stage Company to catch their version of the production, starring North Shore local actress Nancy E. Carroll.

I don’t recall being especially enthralled by the production, given the downer subject matter, but I do think it was a rare example of monologue – based theatre, and a great opportunity for an actress to dive into sensitive, rich material.

Indeed, Redgrave suffered an unfortunate parallel of losing her daughter Natasha Richardson either while or soon after she was working on the play.

Theatrical Throwback: the enchantment of Cinnabar and the charms of modern technology

In the fall of 2010 I had one of my most spontaneous theatre experiences ever. This memorable evening took place in the bucolic setting of the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma, CA.

Cinnabar is just like that warm and cozy family member’s house that you wish you could stay longer at. Set high on a hill, with a very narrow driveway and sweeping views down to the Petaluma and greater Sonoma countryside, it invites guests to enjoy a wide array of theatre, opera, musical, dance, and other types of performances.

On this particular evening, the theatre offered a double – bill of one act performances. The first production, “We *Heart* U, Nosferatu!”, stood out more for me in the audience. The elaborate stage set – a husky interior with a random large screen for the benefit of the audience – felt like stepping in to someone’s home.

The uniqueness of the staging, where the primary actor (Keith Baker) was the only one seen onstage, while Allison Baker and Mary Gannon Graham appeared via an offstage and live Skype feed, certainly contributed to the memorable experience. As a backstage theatre person, I was excited by the risk taking and unknown of the production – what would they do if the feed failed? were the two actresses going to appear in the flesh? how did they manage to connect all of that technology?

The show was revived the following year at Main Stage West, using the same cast. I would have liked to have seen that production and am sure it maintained the same commitment to comedy on an even more intimate scale.

European Film Expeditions

This week I have caught up on some recently released and filmed in Europe films, making me stoked to go back to The Continent during spring break next March.

Two FacesFirst up was the new thriller The Two Faces of January, adapted from Patricia Highsmith and from the writer of Drive. Hossein Amini retained his costar in the earlier film, Oscar Isaac, and added Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst into the mix as a central trio caught up in a deceitful web within 1962 Greece. All three actors find several elements to highlight of their roles, with Mortensen nailing the disheveled intrigue of a shady businessman, longtime cinema veteran Dunst offering a mature portrayal of a young woman caught between several worlds, and Isaac continuing to come up the ladder, cinematically, filling in the role of a man who has his hands in several parts of Athens life.

The actors are aided by carefully chosen photography and film work, emphasizing the colorful contrasts of Greece, and a reminder of an era when locations felt more far away (presumably) than they do in the present day, with real effort needed to get a specific plane ticket, to make your next travel connection, or make sure you still have everything you need for your out of the country identification and security.

The film might suffer from what I assume is a flimsy source material. Highsmith’s interest in shady characters, same-gender relationships and European locales is all there, but at a 90 minute running time, there isn’t much depth aside from the inciting event and what happens after that experience. A more seasoned director might have gotten deeper performances from the leads, though Amini’s experience with narrative tension comes in well late in the film with a series of “will they or won’t they succeed in _______ activity” sequences.

The second film of the week, My Old Lady, is a cinematic interpretation of a play originally seen at my “other” hometown theatre, Gloucester Stage Company, in 1996 and 2005. (I remember hearing of both productions but did not see either of them performed.) The film also marks the belated cinema directorial debut of Israel Horovitz, former artistic director of GSC and well – known in the theatre world. Throughout the film, its stage origins are clear, with some positive and some negative results.

my old ladyThe film also seems to be an excuse for its central trio – Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas – to flex their acting muscles in a new project. Scott Thomas has been seen onscreen before with both Kline and Smith, but not in the same film. IMDB says her role was originally scheduled to be played by Jane Birkin, which might have made more sense in the story.

As it is, the start of the film introduces Matthias (Kline), a down on his luck New Yorker who has recently traveled to Paris to inspect an apartment his recently deceased father has left him. He quickly learns that the apartment has been inhabited for many years by Mathilde (Smith), a woman now in her 90’s, and her daughter (Scott Thomas), neither of whom is receptive to his intention to sell the house for income purposes. The focus alternates between the three central characters as Matthias debates whether or not he wants to go through with the sale, while through a series of circumstances, Mathilde reveals that she knows more than she lets on about her family history and how the two younger people are connected to her and each other.

The script’s stage origins are clearly visible throughout the film, with several long monologues still in place and a few scenes clearly added to “open up” the plot and take advantage of the perennially picturesque Parisian locations. Most of the story settles in the central location of the Marais apartment, which seems to be quite large and endless, complete with an attached garden.

Kline seems to be enjoying the demands of the part, showing awkward alcohol – induced stodginess in several scenes, but then following it up with hints of long emotional neglect. Smith also goes beyond her current Downton Abbey stereotype of twinkling eyes and cutting comments, not hesitating to be forceful in several scenes while also showing genuine heart. Scott Thomas falls somewhere in between with a difficult part that seems to be in the middle of the two-character seesaw solely for reaction – based purposes. I can’t say that the film fully convinced me as a drama, but if its taken as an acting class from veterans and perhaps isolated out with just a few of the character monologues and moments, then the best parts come to light.

It was cool to see the full Art Deco experience of the Main Art Theater in action last night.

Main Art

Angels land again

Last night turned into a late night when I ventured up to Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre for their closing performance of Angels in America: Part II. I had seen Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater take on Part I in early summer, 2012, and am not sure why I didn’t go back when they also ran Part II that fall in a similar arrangement to what the Ringwald has done this year.

I also briefly met Tony Kushner himself almost exactly seven years ago (picture below) so the timing felt right to re-visit his most well – known work, especially since the play(s) have continued to be held in wide acclaim, but don’t seem to be performed too often.

This production deserved acclaim for mounting a large – scale play in the Ringwald’s intimate space, and the company seems to enjoy challenging itself in that way. I found it to be an inconsistent performance, with some aspects, such as Dennis Kleinsmith’s intense portrayal of closeted dying lawyer Roy Cohn, standing out amongst the ensemble work, while other design and acting choices, such as having a too consistent chorale underscore to many scenes, were problematic to my eye.

The production received local attention including, but not limited to, a review in the Detroit Free Press.

In spite of my mixed impressions, the Ringwald’s commitment to Kushner’s material is notable, and any honors the company receives for their staging of both parts of the Angels epic will surely be deserved. I hope the production team also feels a sense of accomplishment today as they reflect on a journey of many months and experiences.

with tony k

 

Theatrical Throwback, 9/11

The Mercy Seat continues provocative playwright Neil LaBute’s early 2000s streak of intense, polarizing dramas that are heated and very much of the moment… and may be seen as dated in the present era.

I never saw this play performed, instead becoming aware of it sometime in 2004 when I placed an increased interest on LaBute’s work in preparation for directing The Shape Of Things at Hampshire College. The script focuses on a World Trade Center worker, Ben, who was coincidentally played by Hampshire alum Liev Schreiber in the original production. Ben happens to be away from the office on the faithful morning, and ends up at the home of his mistress, Abby, originally played by Sigourney Weaver. Ben discusses whether he wants to make the tragedy into an opportunity for him to run away from his existing life, believing that his family will think he has died. Abby tries to reason with him and take both sides of the argument, as they sit there in her apartment just one day after the attacks.

It would be interesting to know the production history of this play, as on the one hand it seems to have quickly dated, while on the other hand it continues to exist as a time capsule of a tense, uncertain time in US history when people didn’t know who to trust and couldn’t believe what had happened on that sunny Tuesday morning. And the US has moved so far away from that initial period of uncertainty — not in the best directions IMO — it sometimes seems like much longer than 13 years has passed.

Belated impressions of a Philadelphia premiere

There are just a few days left to catch Annapurna at Theatre Exile, and for some reason probably connected to my travel itinerary, I did not write it up here after attending the April 20 preview performance.

annapurnagal9

Actors Pearce Bunting and Catharine Slusar, pictured above, truly shine in this play, and I was very surprised to learn they had not worked together before, though they have likely crossed paths in the Philadelphia theatre community. I was interested to learn that the play premiered at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre shortly after I left the Bay Area in 2011 and also enjoyed a concurrent New York run this spring with the starry team of Megan Mullaly and Nick Offerman, as The New York Times highlighted prior to that production’s opening. Additionally, I had seen one prior production of the playwright’s work, and wish that I had seen another, and felt that this script offered a more mature and seasoned writing style than the earlier pieces.

In Philadelphia the setting is (presumably) more intimate from the bright lights of Off Broadway. Anything can happen in Theatre Exile’s versatile Studio X space, nestled in to the character – filled and city – wise South Philadelphia neighborhood. This time, the studio was evenly divided between an expansive set, designed by Thom Weaver, and the audience assembled on risers, with the stage management booth beyond that. The noticeably detailed and artfully strewn set evoked curiosity from the first moments of the play, with screen doors, a running shower and faucet, a bed, and several cabinets all contributing to the strong impression of Ulysses (Bunting) living an isolated life on a Colorado mountain.

A brief slapstick introduction, when Ulysses can’t believe that his wife Emma (Slusar) suddenly reappears after a 20 year absence and no contact whatsoever, gives way to a quick shift into a strand of mystery-based drama, as Emma’s motivations for coming to visit become more apparent, though never explicitly spelled out, and we learn more about Ulysses and his choices to live in isolation and face a terminal illness.

It sounds a little bit “movie of the week” cheesiness as I describe the plot there, but the reality of the tale was much more gripping. Aided by Joe Canuso’s tight and specific direction, the two actors subtly juggled power dynamics and held the audience’s attention through the 90 minutes or so of the play, which is not always an easy thing to do. As well, the plot continues to slowly unravel in such a way that the Big Revelation could be considered the start of a wider contemplation and reflection that continues after the lights have gone down on the show.

It was great to “touch in” again with the work of Theatre Exile, where I spent an intense two months working on A Behanding in Spokane exactly two years ago. I was happy to see a healthy audience crowd in place for that Easter Sunday matinee, with a noticeable (and welcome) diverse age range visible, and know that the play has matured even further as it moves towards a sure to be strong finish this Sunday, May 11.

Fallen Stars that Still Shine

Behanding group
Opening night of A Behanding in Spokane, Philadelphia, April, 2012.
(l-r) Matt, Reuben, Pearce, Jamel, me, Joe; Amanda, who played the lone female role, is not pictured here.

All this week I have been thinking about how Tuesday 11/12 was the one year anniversary of former theatre colleague Reuben Mitchell dying from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. While I don’t feel I can offer as heartfelt a tribute as his friend wrote here, or as immediate a memory as someone else he knew wrote here, I did want to mention him here on my own blog.

What to say about Reuben, or rather, what not to say?

He was a kind and generous Greenville, North Carolina native who maintained a sense of good humor and congeniality in everything he did. When I mentioned that my mom and my cat and I had visited Greenville in late 2007 and were surprised by some late-night violence happening across the street from our hotel, he laughed it off, saying “oh, that happens every week!” – but he was proud of his Southern heritage.

Reuben lit up the stage for the Martin McDonaugh play we worked on, taking what could have been just a stereotypical part and turning it in to a full individual. He was dedicated to his craft as seen in his extensive professional training, studying in locations such as New Orleans and Toronto among others, followed by moving to Philadelphia to pursue a career. This training was also evident in his daily preparation for our performances, as he was almost always first at the venue (and I was genuinely concerned when he wasn’t), undertaking a rigorous 10-20 minute vocal warmup and brief physical warmup as well – even though he spent 2/3 of the show tied to a wall. He showed a sense of civility and fun in his interactions with everyone on the production team, while clearly understanding that the “play was the thing” and that was our focus. He was an incredible storyteller with a vividness to his tales I’ve rarely heard other people make use of.

Inevitably I look back at that production bittersweetly, with Reuben gone. At the time I was excited to work on a script by a favorite writer, Martin McDonagh, and am grateful to have had the opportunity. But I had to juggle the theatre work and a more 9-5 oriented job alongside commuting from Delaware to Philadelphia, thus limiting my social opportunities with the actors. Eventually I felt a natural ease when I was able to join in on the social time (as seen in the photo above from opening night), but it was not as much as I would have liked. And we can never re-create that same dynamic.

I only saw Reuben once more a month after the production closed; he’d been invited to return to the same theatre company we’d worked with for a fundraiser/festive evening , employing his subtle and uncanny Barack Obama impersonation skills to use in several skits. (Incidentally, the event got some official political humor by featuring Arlen Spector, who died a few months later in 2012, as the opening act.) Reuben jumped me with his characteristic enthusiasm as we waited for the show to begin, and we chatted briefly before he went onstage…

It was very clear (painfully now of course) that Reuben loved his motorcycle. He often appeared at our rehearsals and performances with it. While I’m not a motorcyclist myself, I think he and I shared a love of driving towards the unknown and engaging in some derring-do along the way; I recall energetically describing my favorite road in Marin County (Ridgecrest Boulevard) to him, while he replied with tales of curvaceous roads in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania that he’d gone out to explore one Sunday morning.

I hope Reuben knew how much he impacted others, and they cared about him. I’m sure I will always remember him.

________

One day this week when I thought of Reuben, I also recalled another theatre-impacted tragedy out in the Bay Area. Summer Serafin, whom I never met nor saw onstage, but she did work with several people I knew in the Bay Area theatre scene, died in 2011 after an accidental fall from a fire escape in San Francisco. It is clear from a quick Google search of her name that she also made an impact on many individuals.

I don’t want to read too much into this – and it’s probably just a coincidence – but I noticed that Summer died on Reuben’s 30th birthday, while Reuben died one day before what would have been Summer’s 33rd birthday.