Friday, January 15, 2016

“I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.”

In which the author bids his constant readers farewell.

(I need to preface this for my "Hearty Handclasp" readers. For quite some time now, I've been posting over at the San Francisco Theatre Pub blog and repurposing those posts here. I'm giving up that work, though I will continue to blog at this space, so any farewells here are - hopefully - premature ...)

Let’s cut to the chase. I’m outta here. This is my last blog post around these parts for the foreseeable future. While I’m neither retiring from blogging nor the theatre (nor anything else, really), I am taking a break. Whether it’s a long one or a short one, I have no idea.

First of all, my thanks to the proprietor. Without his encouragement and support – and deadlines – I wouldn’t have resumed my long-form online writing. Everyone here at the Pub is wonderful and offers unique perspectives on what’s happening in the theatre in San Francisco – and beyond – and deserves your continued custom and patronage.

But now, moving on. Even though we’ve passed the traditional navel-gazing that accompanies the end of a year, it’s close enough that I feel like I can indulge myself.

There have been any number of topics I’d have liked to talk about over the past couple of weeks and years, but have restrained myself both for propriety’s sake – and out of common sense. I’ve talked (at length) about how there are certain things I just can’t/am not allowed to say.

It’s like how, on Facebook, there are a number of people I keep in my news feed for the sole purpose of having them annoy me. “This again?” I mutter as I hit the “Hide” button or roll my eyes at their obtuseness or forced witticisms. (And please be sure; I am under no illusions that there aren’t simply legions of my erstwhile friends who have hidden me or have a similar reaction when they see I’ve posted – or blogged – or done anything – yet again.)

(Ironically, I started writing something on this topic and found myself starting to say something I wanted to, but couldn’t, due to the possibility of being misinterpreted, in spite of it ultimately being self-deprecating.)

Regardless, this break couldn’t come at a better time. I suddenly find myself chockablock with theatre projects that will be eating up my life for the next few weeks. I’m about to go into rehearsal for Sam and Dede (or, My Dinner with Andre the Giant) at Custom Made Theatre Company (tickets here). It’s the story of the unlikely (and true!) friendship between Samuel Beckett (whom I play, despite my lack of cheekbones and general lack of grizzled aspect) and Andre the Giant.


Sam ...

... and Dede
 
It’s a great script, but it’s a monster; about 140 pages of (basically) two- or three-word exchanges (which should take only about 90 minutes, but still … ). Because we have a limited rehearsal period, I’ve been working on my lines for a good three months now, and actually know many of them, Fortunately, Robert Shepard, who plays Andre, and I have been meeting to run lines and get a head start. Once we start rehearsing, it’ll be down and dirty and having to get a lot accomplished in a very short period of time. Once the show opens though, I think it’ll be a fun and interesting and entertaining evening.

I find myself of two minds about it, though. Brian Katz, Custom Made’s Artistic Director, was doing radio interviews last week and was plugging Sam and Dede (along with the rest of the season), and as he described the show, I suddenly realized that, other than Robert and I, no one knows what we’re doing with a very good script. While I’m more than anxious to share it with an audience (I think – knock wood – it’s going to go over very well), at the same time I like the idea that it belongs to Robert and me and no one else, though. It’s not dissimilar to the feelings I’ve had at final dresses of shows I’ve directed; that feeling that it no longer belongs to me.

Rehearsals will be so involved, though, that I’ll have to miss a good many (if not all) of the rehearsals for the production of my translation of Uncle Vanya at the Pear Avenue Theatre way down in Mountain View (tickets here). One of my goals with this production is that I want to tailor the language to the cast (which is a very good one), but I’ll be so involved with Sam and Dede that my contributions and consultations will mostly be limited to email.

"Bozhe moi. Sikula's translating my plays?"
 
Somewhere in there, as well, I have to cobble together an audition for the TBA Generals.

So, all in all, I have a very jam-packed rest-of-winter, but, after that? Zilch. Nada. Nix. Zero Nothing. Hopefully, that will change, but right now? Nothin’. On the bright side, that means I’ll have plenty of time to work on my latest Chekhov translation (The Cherry Orchard, available – along with my translations of the other major plays – to producers who are interested) and another project (potentially a cash cow) that I’ve had in mind for a while.  Not to mention a couple of other projects I’ve been wanting to pursue. (With lots of roles for actresses; be warned.) Unfortunately, that means I’ll have no excuse to not work on any or all of them.

So that’s it. I gotta run lines and tidy the place up for my replacement. I encourage you all to see Sam and Dede (it’s a really good script, even with me in it) and Uncle Vanya. All that’s left is for me to leave you with words to live by, my favorite curtain line; words that I’ve found are suitable to any occasion:

  “Son of a bitch stole my watch.”

I’m outta here, ya low-ridin’ punks!


 



 

Monday, December 28, 2015

Five Things I Learned on My Last New York Trip



1)    “Traditional” Casting Is Over

Well, not totally, obviously, but, as Hamilton showed (among so many other things), anyone can play anything.

I’m old enough to remember when musicals had all-white casts, then, little by little, there would be one African American male and one African American female in the ensemble, and they always danced together. Gradually, you began to see more and more people of color in choruses, and they were now free to interact with anyone.

Now, of course, pretty much any role is up for grabs by any actor of any race or gender – or should be. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an Asian female eventually playing Hamilton himself. Whether this – and the other innovations of Hamilton – percolates into more mainstream fare remains to be seen, but it’s certainly to be hoped.



2)     A Good Director Can Make Even the Most Tired War-Horse Fresh and Vital

For my money, there aren’t many major playwrights whose work has aged more badly than Arthur Miller. Yeah, Death of Salesman is still powerful, but the rest of the canon isn’t faring so well. Years and years ago, I saw a lousy production of A View from the Bridge, and even then, it struck me as obvious, tired, and dull. Ivo van Hove’s production, then, had a couple of hurdles to overcome: 1) it’s a London import, and 2) it’s, well, it’s A View from the Bridge. Van Hove’s 2004 production of Hedda Gabler (surely one of the worst “important” plays ever written) was enough of a revelation that I wanted to see what he could do with this one, and boy, did he come through. Tough, powerful, and visceral, it’s nothing so much as what we hear Greek tragedy was so good at. It was so good, I’m anxious to see his upcoming production of The Crucible, and see if he can make another truly terrible play interesting.


3)    Even a Good Director Can’t Make a Tired Old War-Horse Work

In 2008, Bartlett Sher directed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a show I’d seen too much and from which (I’d thought) all the juice had long since been squeezed. By digging deep into the text and back story, though, Sher and company were able to make it vital, exciting, and relevant. Flash forward to last year and the reunion of some of the band to remount The King and I, another show whose time has all but passed. Despite breathtaking sets, more delving into two-dimensional characters by very good actors (Hoon Lee and Kelli O’Hara are doing superb work in the title parts), and marvelous staging, it just sits there. The problem to these tired old eyes is that musical dramaturgy of today doesn’t always fit well with that of the early 1950s, and the show itself just has too many fundamental flaws to work anymore. It’s a pity, because a lot of time and effort is being expended in a futile effort to make the unworkable work. In the words of Horace, “The mountain labors, and brings forth … a mouse!”


4)    There Is No Show So Bad That No One Will See It

We’ve dealt with the awfulness of China Doll before. Despite barely having a script and offering audiences little more than the chance to watch Al Pacino alternately get fed his lines and chew scenery, it’s still drawing people. Sure, that attendance is falling week by week, but last week, it was still 72% full and took in more than $600,000.  Running costs can’t be that much (two actors, one set), but even with what imagines is a monumental amount being paid Mr. Pacino, it’s probably still making money. If I may (correctly) quote the late Mr. Henry L. Mencken of Baltimore: “No one in this world, so far as I know - and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me - has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”


5)    It’s Still Magical

Despite the heavy lifting of New York theatre being done off- and off-Broadway and regionally, there’s still something that can’t be duplicated in seeing a really good show on Broadway that has a ton of money thrown at it – especially one you weren’t expecting anything from. I went into shows like An American in Paris or Something’s Rotten or – especially – Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 knowing next to nothing about them and came out enthralled and invigorated by what writers can create and actors can do. In the best cases, they give me something to shoot at. (And in the worst, multiple lessons on what to avoid … )




Friday, December 18, 2015

In Defense of Ebenezer Scrooge



In which the author expresses his belief that he’s not that bad.

Two things I have to explain before I begin this time around.


The first is my love for Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip Nancy. Nancy gets a bad rap in some circles for being moronic, but it truly is the Zen of comics. Everything in it has been boiled down to its most essential element, to the point where, as someone once said, “It takes less effort to read Nancy that it does to not read Nancy.”

 The three rocks ...

The second is a review of one the Star Trek movies – Search for Spock (best of the series) or The Final Frontier (one of the worst), I believe. The reviewer for the Los Angeles Times was discussing the plot and described the entrance of the characters as being “as ritualized as Kabuki;” that is to say, each of them had assigned characteristics that the audience both knew and expected to see.

Now, with those in mind, let’s turn our attention to A Christmas Carol, which is certainly one of those stories that not only does everyone know (it may be the only story everyone knows; it’s out there in the ether, just seeping into our consciousnesses), but is also something that takes more effort to not see than to see. I’m not even sure if I’ve read it or not; I think I have; but does it really matter?

It’s certainly one of the most parodied of stories (along with the hideously overrated It’s a Wonderful Life – and I have to say on that one is to echo Gary Kamiya: “Portersville rocks!”) All the characters act in the ways we’ve come to expect and demand. For Scrooge to not say “Bah! Humbug!” or Tiny Tim to not be tooth-achingly sweet is rather like expecting Spock to act illogically to McCoy claim to not be a doctor. These are archetypes whose behavior we have learned to anticipate and predict, maybe even dread.

Scrooge is just inescapable this time of year, isn’t he? No matter how much we may want to ignore him and give him a year off, he’s always there. It doesn’t matter if the adaptation is good (there have been at least a couple of those in town in recent days) or lousy (and some of those), no matter how much we want to be rid of this turbulent priest, he’s coming back.

But one of the versions which I saw recently got me thinking that, for the most part, he’s really not all that bad. Sure, he’s greedy and parsimonious, but in spite of his character flaws, he’s still managed to be successful in his chosen line of work. I mean, how good a businessman must he be if, in spite of the way he’s portrayed, people still do business –  a great deal of business – with him?

So, he’s smart, he’s relatively witty (able to pun in the face of seeing the ghost of his late partner), and successful. And, yet, everyone seems determined to “reform” him; make him live up to their expectations of proper conduct. Sure, he could treat Bob Cratchit a little better, but, even with the way Scrooge treats him, he seems happy in his state – except for his son Tim, of course, who’s dying of … something … Is that Scrooge’s fault?


George C. Scott. The best Scrooge. Don't even try to argue otherwise ...
 
So here’s a man minding his own business, happy in his state, being harassed by ghosts who demand that not only does he have to relive the pain of a bad breakup, he has to spend Christmas with his family, and then make the “discovery” that he’s going to die? Like he didn’t know that? Granted, the prospect of dying alone and unmourned isn’t the most pleasant, but he’s never given any indication that being friendless is a big deal for him. Do we condemn, say, Hamlet for treating his own friends so shabbily – even driving his girlfriend to suicide? Even Scrooge never went that far …

In fact, after his “reformation,” Scrooge pretty much shows signs of being bipolar, racing from grimness to mania, acting gleefully – and uncomfortably – cheerful, spending money like a drunken sailor, shouting, dancing, playing pranks. A little lithium might have done a world of good.

Parenthetical digression. Years and years ago, I was in a production of the musical Scrooge. (No, I played nephew Fred, not the title part – despite my unmerited public reputation.) Sparing no expense – except the one that involved paying the actors … – the producers emulated Act Two Scrooge and bought the largest goose they could find.

Not a prop goose. A real one. It must have weighed twenty pounds. It was the size of a small child; it may have been larger than the kid playing Tiny Tim.

Unfortunately, along with not paying the actors, the producers apparently also didn’t want to spring for refrigeration during the break between the first and second weekends of the show, so the goose carcass was left to do what unrefrigerated goose corpses do. During the second weekend, it was apparent to everyone on stage exactly where that goose was at any given moment. It made its presence known, and I’m actually kind of surprised it didn’t walk around.

End of digression.

A Christmas Carol (and its infinite number of adaptations) isn’t bad, by any means; it’s just tired. It’s like Kabuki or a Greek play; we know the myth, we know the outcome, we know the moves, we know the characters, we know how they’re going to end up. There’s no suspense. It’s like a bath – warm or cold, depending on your feelings about it. It’s just going to see how they’re going to tell it this time.

You could say that about any classic text; we know that Hamlet will die; we know that Sam I Am will eat (and like) the green eggs and ham; we know Dorothy will get home; we know the Star Wars spoilers – and we know that Scrooge’s heart will grow three sizes that night.

"Bah! Humb -- hey, wait; this is pretty good."
 
 So, despite what is ultimately an uplifting message – don’t be an asshole; help others – I still think Scrooge himself isn’t a bad guy; he’s just misunderstood. As such, let’s give him some time off for good behavior to try to get him out of our collective heads.

Imagine. A year without A Christmas Carol. That would be the greatest gift of all.