Thursday, November 20, 2014

Artsville, USA


The wife and I recently returned from a trip to Ashland. Now, this does certainly not make us unique. I’d venture to say that a good portion of my constant readers (especially those in the Bay Area) have been there, and more than once. This trip was either my third or fifth (depending on how you count). I’ve seen shows there only three times, but auditioned there twice. (It obviously didn’t take – yet. I’m determined to go back, though.) It’s odd that I’ve been there only a few times. I went to grad school in Eugene, only a couple of hours north. I just never made the effort to see anything.

There was no particular reason for this; I mean, I had no enmity against them. In fact, I had great respect for what they do, even (years and years and years ago – before some of you were even born, I’ll wager) sending them a copy of my translation of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters (getting a very encouraging letter from Jerry Turner, the then-Artistic Director).

My experiences at Ashland have been hit-and-miss. A pretty good Hamlet (with a very good central performance), one of the worst Sea Gulls I’ve ever seen (which makes me kind of glad, in retrospect, that nothing ever came of my own translation. Remind me to talk about my theories about Chekhov sometime.) On this trip, though, we were four-for-four. We saw a very good and touching production of Water by the Spoonful, a fast-paced, lively – and actually funny – Comedy of Errors, the great Jack Willis giving a towering performance as Lyndon Johnson in The Great Society, and – the whole reason for going – a damn-near-perfect production of The Cocoanuts.

 Here; watch for yourself

Anyone who knows me will know how much I love the Marx Brothers. The book I’ve read the most is Joe Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo. It’s probably the definitive book on the brothers and their work. In previous installments (if not on the Theatre Pub blog, then certainly on my own blog), I’ve discussed how, prior to the current era of video on demand, moviegoers couldn’t count on ever seeing a film more than once. If it was in the theatre, you went out and saw it. If it was on TV, you made the time to sit and watch; you couldn’t even record it. Many of us combed through the TV Guide (which was essential reading) to check the movie listings and see if anything really good was going to be on. (And if it was, it was almost always at 3:00 in the morning.)

There are six and a half great Marx Brothers movies: the five they made for Paramount (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup), and at MGM the first one (A Night at the Opera) and some of the second one (A Day at the Races). None of the other six are worthless (though The Big Store comes close), but, in Adamson’s words, “they were never in anything as wonderful as they were.” By the early ‘70s, I’d probably seen all of them with two exceptions: Animal Crackers (which was unavailable for legal reasons) and The Cocoanuts. In checking the TV Guide, though, I saw that, after years of waiting, it was finally going to be on. But, as scheduling would have it, it was going to be on in the middle of the afternoon on a school day.

I have no memory of how I did it, but I somehow persuaded my mother to let me come home from school to watch it. I enjoyed the hell out of it (still do), and carry that memory fondly.

By all accounts, the Marxes may have been just about the biggest stars on Broadway in the days when that was the epitome of show business. With a couple of movie-star exceptions (Chaplin and Pickford), you really couldn’t get much bigger. The thing about the brothers was that every performance was apparently barely-controlled chaos and unique from any other: one night Harpo arrived late, forgot to underdress for a quick change and ended up naked on stage; songwriter Harry Ruby marched on stage one night to demand that he be given the bathrobe he’d been promised as a birthday present; ad libs outnumbered actual lines (one night, playwright George S Kaufman was standing backstage and told the person he was talking to “Quiet. I think I just heard one of my original lines”). There was no telling exactly what would happen, but whatever it was would undoubtedly be hysterically funny.

 "We're four of the Three Musketeers ... "


The script for both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers have been available for decades (I own them both), but it’s incredibly rare when someone does them – especially the former (most of Irving Berlin’s score was actually lost until the Ashland production). So when I saw they were doing Animal Crackers in Ashland, I figured I had to see it – and I ended up having one of the best evenings I’ve ever spent in the theatre. It was exactly what I wanted: full of chaos, spontaneity, ad libs, and inspired insanity. It was the next best thing to seeing the actual brothers on stage. And, on top of that, when it was announced that they’d be doing The Cocoanuts this season; well, there was no damn way I was going to miss it.

Because of my commitments to Slaughterhouse Five, we were unable to head north until the end of October. Looking at the schedule, I saw that that would be the last week of the run – and the season – so I decided we had to see the final performance, figuring that, if any performance would go off the rails (in the best way), it’d be this one. It indeed did; it was just one of those performances where I had a big stupid grin on my face for nearly three hours, just drinking in the brilliance of the writing and performances. It was one of those rare times when I went into a show with the highest of expectations and hopes, and not only where they met, but everything went to 11.

"The skies will all be blue/When my dream comes true" -- and it did!

The thing I most came away with from that weekend, though, was getting a sense of Ashland. It was the first extended period I’d spent in the town, and I could really see how it’s all focused on the festival (for good reason, but still …). Everything downtown seems to have some relation to what’s going on at the theatres; that the people in town have seen the productions and can talk about them intelligently; that the stores are doing more than selling books and tchotchkes that have a “Ye Olde” vibe. There’s a real sense of pride as to what the Festival means – and does – that I’ve never felt in another city, not even Stratford-Upon-Avon. It’s a real theatre-based town and economy that made me want to work there and become part of that experience.

 Downtown Ashland

It’s something I can’t imagine in another town or city. Theatre is either a minor or nonexistent part of most peoples’ lives in the Bay Area. The people I work with don’t go (they barely go to movies, let alone live non-musical performances), and certainly wouldn’t recognize names like Sarah Ruhl or Theresa Rebeck, let alone Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams. (Hell, they barely know movies or television shows that are more than five years old.)

Now, I hasten to add, I don’t think these people are stupid or poorly educated – at least, in areas that don’t relate to the arts. It’s just that so many of our communities ignore the arts – performing and visual – that to say they ignore them is a vast minimization. They don’t know them in the way they don’t know what the best bakery in Montevideo is; it just doesn’t exist for them. That’s what was so exhilarating about being in Ashland. There was a sense that not only is everyone aware of, and pulling for, what’s happening with the Festival; it’s that it matters to them.

And realizing that was simultaneously frustrating, sad – and inspiring.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Actus Interruptus


I write this in a sort of gobsmacked state. As I type these words, I’m painfully aware that, under usual circumstances, I’m doing it at the same moment I would normally be finishing up a performance of “Slaughterhouse Five” at Custom Made Theatre Co. (we close on Sunday the 26th, so there are still tickets). Something happened tonight that’s never happened to me in 42 years of doing theatre: we had to cancel a performance in the middle of the show.

Now, I’ve had performances cancelled – even whole productions. (And don’t get me started on that incident …) I’ve had an actor die (quite literally) in the middle of a run. I’ve worked with actors who were drunk or deathly ill. I’ve performed while being deathly ill myself or even lacking a voice, but the show, as the cliché has it, has always gone on.

Until tonight.

Now, I’m not going to go into the exact circumstances. Not only do I not know exactly what happened, but it’s not my place to violate the medical privacy of the actor in question.

What I will say that, whatever happened occurred during a scene change and I was getting ready to come on, so all I saw was the aftermath and another cast member, Sam Tillis, who was the hero of the evening, taking charge in an extremely admirable way, calling for the show to be stopped and doing all he could to get a cell phone and call the paramedics – who arrived within a matter of minutes and really took charge.

Sam Tillis rocks

The stage manager came down from the booth, assessed the situation and made the announcement that, basically, there was nothing we could do and we were going to have to cancel the rest of the performance.

After a few minutes, the audience pretty much cleared out, even the friends and family who were there – and for whom I felt especially bad, if only because I know them. We got out of costume, and the cast kind of stood and sat around, trying not only to sort out our feelings, but also what we should do. There was, of course, nothing. The paramedics were taking excellent care of our friend (who has, in the meantime, Facebooked from the ER about how the morphine was working well, so that’s a relief), so there was nothing we could do in that regard. There was nothing to be done in regard to the show or the audience, and we were all sort of dealing with – well, not shock (because that’s far too strong a word), but the sudden unexpectedness of it all. As with anything unexpected, we were all left to deal with whatever the hell had just happened and why we weren’t doing the show we were supposed to be in the middle of.

My approximate reaction to the whole situation.

Even now, two hours later, and at a time when I’d normally be home, I’m still sort of gobsmacked. To tell the truth, I felt a little off at the beginning of the performance. We’d had our usual few days off, so I’m sure that was the reason. It was little things; nothing major, and probably stuff no one else would ever notice, but then one’s perception of one’s own performance is always different from everyone else’s, isn’t it?

Anyway, we’re probably due for some changes in the show Friday. I can’t imagine it’ll be business as usual, but it’ll doubtless be interesting.

“The Magic of Live Theatre,” indeed.

“Let’s go on with the show!”

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Penultimate Chapter



So, at the end of our last installment, I was about to propound some deep thoughts on directorial interpretation.

I went on and on about Joanne Akalaitis’s version of “Endgame,” which deviated enough from Mr. Beckett’s intentions that he sought to stop it in the courts. Failing there, he had a note included in the program:

Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn't fail to be disgusted by this.

That would seem to have put an end to it. The production got what I take to have been mixed reviews, and even if Mr. Beckett wasn’t satisfied, everyone did make a case for their position.

Samuel Beckett at 70, but don't think he couldn't have taken you.

Mr. Beckett died in 1989, but his estate has closely guarded productions of his work ever since – even ill-considered ones (some of which shall go unnamed, given my potential readership; discretion indeed being the better part of valor …). So it was a surprise to me to find that, in 2009, ART had once again attempted a production of “Endgame” – though by this time, neither Ms. Akalaitis nor Mr. Brustein were on the premises, and ART was committed to doing the play in exactly the way Mr. Beckett had intended. Director Marcus Stern explained, "We had to sign a contract with the estate that we'd stick absolutely to the letter of the script. We are literally coloring inside clearly drawn lines by Beckett." Leaving that “literally” aside, this is a point I’ll return to in a minute.

According to the Boston Globe:

It's not easy to pull off, says Stern, who at first thought the directions would be limiting. But instead he says he finds it deeply challenging and exhilarating.

"It's very labor intensive and really exhausting," he says. "The task is really hyper-focused, but it's also very interesting getting the mechanics down. Normally it would be frustrating, but there is a great faith he's such a great writer that it will pay off to strictly adhere to his description."

 Stern and his actors, "literally" coloring inside the lines.

I remember some actor – I think it was George C. Scott, so I'll give him the credit – talking about how ridiculous it was to give awards in the arts. Not only is it impossible to compare performances in varied plays and movies (I mean, who gave a better performance? Kathy Bates in “’Night, Mother,” Groucho Marx in “A Night at the Opera,” or Robert Preston in “The Music Man?”) He felt the only real way to judge actors was to have everyone play Hamlet and then decide who was best. And even then, it would be purely subjective; there’s no empirical way to say that a performance is good, bad, or indifferent; it’s all up to the observer. We’ve all seen performances that others raved about and left us shrugging and saying “What the hell was that?”

Try to tell me this isn't the equivalent of Gielgud in "Hamlet" and you'll get an earful.
 
So, to get back to Mr. Stern’s comment, we have to color inside the creator’s lines. Not only is it what’s required legally, it’s also the only basis by which we can determine how closely a production comes to the writer’s intentions. Yeah, you might think “South Pacific” would make more sense if it were set on Mars, or that “The Farnsworth Invention” (remember that one? From all those days ago?) would be better with a different ending, but it’s not your decision to make. It’d be like walking into someone’s house and saying “those walls would look better if they were bright green” and painting them on your own volition. You might be right, but it’s not up to you. You might think my new shirt would look better if the sleeves were cut off, but if you try to do it, I’m probably gonna get pissed off and punch you.

So what’s the solution? Well, three come immediately to mind, but we'll discuss those next time. (I know, I know ...)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

"It Looks Like (Pause) A Small Controversy. Bad Luck to It!"

I ended our last meeting with a question from the estimable Eric L. of Oregon:

“How do you think this incident compares to the Beckett's objection and legal action against Akalaitis's production of ‘Endgame?’”

I’m glad Eric asked me the question, since I’d forgotten that particular incident.
Musing it over (thinking isn’t good enough, of course), I have a few thoughts and observations.

In 1984, Ms. Akalaitis was hired to direct a production of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” for the American Repertory Theater in Boston. In spite of Mr. Beckett’s well-known insistence on his plays being done exactly as he had written them, Ms. Akalaitis determined that the play not only needed to be moved from its creator’s stark setting (“Bare interior. Grey light. Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn. Front left, touching each other, covered with an old sheet, two ashbins”) to what the New York Times described as “an abandoned subway station, layered with trash as well as a derelict train,” she also added an overture and underscoring by minimalist composer Philip Glass (coincidentally, her ex-husband) that was, to quote the Times again, “peripheral but supportive, a fierce scraping, like the sound - to extend the underground imagery - of a subway car careening off the track at high speed.” Hardly the post-apocalyptic wasteland Beckett describes.

 ART's "Endgame."

It’s unclear from my research whether Mr. Beckett was asked in advance if the changes were permissible or learned about them by reading ART’s publicity -- the Times, in the review linked to above, summarizes the production as “Nuclear Metaphor ENDGAME,” so the cat may have been out of the garbage can well in advance – but, regardless, when he found out what Ms. Akalaitis intended to do, Mr. Beckett hit the metaphorical can lid and filed suit to stop the production. A settlement was ultimately reached, and a statement from the playwright was inserted into the program:

Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn't fail to be disgusted by this

As the author intended.

Beckett also objected to black actors being cast in two of the play’s four roles, which caused Robert Brustein, the then-artistic director of ART to bemoan the playwright’s apparent racism:

I was really astonished. Beckett was a playwright who we revered. We were shocked. We had black actors in the cast playing the parts of Ham and Nagg, and we were most upset about his objection to that.

Was Beckett a racist? Who knows? Given Beckett’s boycotting of apartheid-era South Africa and his concern for human rights, the charges are doubtful. Critic Thomas Garvey of the Hub Review defends him, noting:

Beckett always disapproved of productions of his plays that "mixed" the races (or the genders in ways not specifically described), because he felt that power relations between the races and genders were not a part of the artistic material he was trying to present, and so he wanted to leave them out entirely, as he felt they would inevitably draw attention in performance from his central concerns. He was happy, however, to see all-black productions of his plays - or all-female productions of single-sex scripts like “Waiting for Godot.

"Waiting for Godot" in New Orleans -- heaven only 
knows what Beckett would have made of this one.
  
(At this point, I’ll just note the cross-gender casting in Alchemist’s “Oleanna.”)

It should also be noted that Mr. Garvey didn’t have much use for Ms. Akalaitis’s production, saying that she’d “pasted her usual dim downtown appliqué onto ‘Endgame’ - she dopily literalized its sense of apocalypse by setting it in a bombed-out subway station  … it proved to be bombastic and, well, stupid).”

Now, with all of this in mind, two things occur to me – but, since I’m 600+ words into this – and am beginning to enjoy my reputation for taking forever to get to the damn point – I’m going to deal with them next time.