Resisting Temptation: Berkeley Rep’s “Ain’t Too Proud”

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Christian Thompson (Smokey Robinson), Ephraim Sykes (David Ruffin), Jared Joseph (Melvin Franklin), Derrick Baskin (Otis Williams), Jeremy Pope (Eddie Kendricks), and James Harkness (Paul Williams)  in “Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations.” (Photo: Carole Litwin)

Berkeley Rep’s new Broadway try-out, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations, is another jukebox musical biography (or as playwright Dominique Morisseau refers to it, a “catalog musical”) in the vein of Jersey Boys and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, but focusing this time on the phenomenally successful Motown artists. (The production also shares a lineage with Motown: The Musical, Berry Gordy’s execrable paean to Berry Gordy. When you watch Motown, one of the things you think, aside from how much it stinks, is that any one of these groups deserves a show all of their own. Thither Ain’t Too Proud.) I had high hopes going in, because I adore The Temptations (who doesn’t?), their music is wedded to their choreography in a way that seems particularly stage-worthy, and their songs are emblematic of an era in American history in a way that the other two aren’t, no matter how much I may love their work.

The show is essentially sold-out, even after being extended, and it will almost certainly be a huge hit on Broadway. You can understand why when you hear those amazing hits performed by the five ferociously talented young actors and dancers who play the original members of the group. (The ensemble, playing roles such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Berry Gordy, replacement members of the group, and wives and lovers, is also exceptional.) With any justice, two of them, Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks and Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin, will become big stars. (Sykes played the role of Seaweed Stubbs on the recently televised Hairspray Live!, one of the few bright spots in that misbegotten venture.) Oozing charisma, Pope, with his gorgeous falsetto, and Sykes with his growling baritone hold the stage in every scene, projecting an effortless joy with their singing and dancing.

But for me the show is a major disappointment, with the fault for that lying directly in Morisseau’s book and director Des McAnuff’s conception. This is Morisseau’s first musical, having previously written such plays as Pipeline, Detroit ’67, and Skeleton Crew. Old hand McAnuff directed Jersey Boys, just one of a storied slew of his Broadway successes.

Morisseau’s based her book on The Temptations, written by Otis Williams, the last surviving member of the original group. Her solution to dramatizing his story is to tell it from his point of view, Williams being embodied by actor Derrick Baskin. Baskin is thus on stage for the entirety of the running time, mostly addressing the audience directly, interrupting songs and scenes to tell us information we already know. You’ll be shocked to learn that offstage, the Temptations had problems with drugs, were involved in marriage and relationship difficulties, endured racism, and fought a lot with each other. And that’s essentially all we learn about these artists.

Similar to Jersey Boys and Beautiful, Ain’t Too Proud presents the biographical details of its protagonists’ lives as generic soap opera. Morisseau and McAnuff are incapable of presenting the Temps as people, so it’s no surprise the cast ultimately comes through only as performers. The creators also split up and interrupt the songs, so that Baskin/Williams can explain and narrate, or unimaginative bits of dialogue or scenes of discord can take place. We almost never get to hear an entire song, despite these being some of the greatest tunes ever to come over the radio.

The creators also use certain numbers as book songs, as McAnuff did in Jersey Boys, a cheap theatricalization that drives me crazy. In a typical romantic musical, we go along with the illusion that when a character breaks into song, he or she is making it up on the spot, singing spontaneously in reaction to the circumstances. But in a musical biography, the show is supposed to be about the creation of that music, about the work, the rehearsal, everything that goes into making a hit recording or performance. So when a character breaks into one of the group’s hits to express their love for their girl or their anger at each other or their sadness at leaving the group, the show becomes as phony as it gets.

Robert Brill’s overly austere set tends towards greys and blacks as do Peter Negrini’s, projections (which are really what are relied on to set the scene). We get no brightness or color until the Supremes make an appearance in red sequined dresses, then it’s back to the greys with an occasional subtle blue. Negrini also anachronistically uses the modern, gleaming metallic Motown logo, a stylized ‘M.” That red, green, and yellow logo that adorns so many of my treasured records and 45s is nowhere to be found. Luckily, veteran Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is terrific and looks great on the cast. (Trujillo also created the movement for Jersey Boys, the Gloria Estefan “catalog musical” On Your Feet—a show I will never see—and a number of other prominent productions.)

Why can’t Broadway figure out how to personalize these artists when their stories are brought to the stage? (The much-reviled yet hugely successful late ‘70s smash Beatlemania at least had the good sense not to have any book at all.) The answer is pretty simple: Because they don’t have to. These shows have a built-in audience, tourists and theatregoers lap up tickets to hear songs they already know. The productions get Tonys and other awards even when the critics are lukewarm, and they run for years, spawning tour after tour. Why should the writers and directors work to create art, when the audiences are already responding to the music and aren’t asking for anything more? Well, despite the success of these shows, despite the royalties that pour in to the surviving artists, and the pots of money the producers make, theatre-goers get no real understanding of these artists as people, what it costs, emotionally, financially, and physically, to make an audience experience the joys of their art and performance. The books of these shows are about as interesting as Wikipedia entries, and the whole undertaking ends up undermining the artists and the very art they’ve created. But not even the Temptations are immune from temptation. This isn’t the first of these “catalog musicals” and it certainly won’t be the last. But I doubt I’ll be able to drag myself to another one, no matter how much I love the artist. They’re just too dispiriting.

Ain’t Too ProudThe Life and Times of the Temptations plays through November 5, 2017 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For more information, go to https://www.berkeleyrep.org/season/1718/12025.asp.

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The Poetic Equation: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

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Adam Langdon and the company of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The set for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (designed by Bunny Christie, who also did the costumes) is a large, open cube. The three sides seen by the audience are lined by a grid that looks like the graph paper used in math classes, and the vertical center line is the axis of origin, which has a small arrow at the top of it. You first notice the letter “M” toward the top of this line and immediately underneath it is the letter “E,” spelling “ME.” When you look closer you see above the “ME” a “T” partially obscured by the arrow of the axis, and underneath that, an “I.” You’re actually seeing “ME” in “TIME.”

Mark Haddon’s extraordinary 2003 novel, in which Christopher Boone, an autistic 15-year-old (actually, “15 years and 3 months and 2 days”), decides to investigate the murder of his neighbor’s dog, has become an extraordinary piece of theatre. Adapted by Simon Stephens (Harper Reagan, Heisenberg) and directed by Marianne Elliott (War Horse, so she has experience making extraordinary theater), the show begins with Christopher’s teacher Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez) reading aloud from the book Christopher has written. (It’s his account of his investigation, conducted in the manner of his hero, Sherlock Holmes.) The words are exactly the same as Haddon’s novel, and I was worried Stephens would follow the book too literally. In the first act, the words and the events do hew closely to Haddon’s work, but the committed and energetic work of Benjamin Wheelwright, who played Christopher the night I attended (Wheelwright performs the role on Wednesday nights and some matinees. Adam Langdon performs otherwise) and Elliott’s staging won me over, and by the time we have a flashback to a distant time on the beach with Christopher’s now absent mother (Felicity Jones Latta), the noise of the outside world and its confusing, noisy humans subsiding and we see how in his own way, Christopher misses his mother profoundly, we have an evening of transcendent theater.

Christopher lives with his working-class father (Gene Gillette) who loves his son, but isn’t always capable of doing the right thing by him. (And Christopher isn’t always capable of accepting the right thing when it is done.) Christopher is overly literal, does not understand metaphor, and cannot lie. (The show is thus rich in metaphor and very much concerned with lies and with truth.) As he continues in his detective work, an older neighborhood woman (superbly played by Amelia White), suffering from her own isolation, tries to make friends with Christopher and tells him a shocking story about the dog’s owner, Mrs. Shears. Christopher soon discovers more truths than he ever counted on, and decides to run away to London. This boy who can’t stand crowds and can’t stand to be touched, decides to risk all that to escape betrayals at home and seek answers in London.

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Mrs. Alexander (Amelia White) shares a story with Christopher (Adam Langdon). (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Elliott’s imaginative staging fills the blank grid of the set. Christopher constructs a train set as part of his therapy, and when assembled, it becomes his escape vehicle. At one point, Wheelwright is hoisted up horizontally by two of the cast members and he runs around the three walls sideways. (The movement choreography, precise, complicated, but executed so that it appears deceptively simple, is by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett.) Most of the cast play two or three or more roles, and Ian Dickinson’s sound design can transform the space into an idyllic seaside or a nightmarishly loud Tube station. What also fills the enormous grid is Wheelwright’s performance. On stage and in motion almost the entire time, Wheelwright darts from one side of the stage to the other, detecting, constructing, observing, explaining—imbuing the character with poetry despite his protestations that the poetic is unfathomable.

In the second act, Siobhan asks Christopher to turn his book into a play for the class to perform, and Christopher refuses, because, he says, actors pretend, making theater “a kind of lie.” And we realize we’re watching Christopher’s, and Haddon’s, and Stephens’, and Elliott’s beautiful, theatrical lie, forcing us to reexamine all that has come before, and it’s almost unbearable. (This is a genius addition on Stephens’ part.)

The only aspect of the production that didn’t quite work for me was Gillette’s performance as Christopher’s father, Ed. We’re told that Ed is quite good with Christopher, but Gillette tends to both over-emote and keep everything on the same level, so we never see a truly relaxed or natural moment between him and his son. Unlike the scenes with Latta, which have an ease and comfort to them even when Christopher is in the middle of a freak-out. The rest of the cast is amazing, whether called upon to be naturalistic in certain scenes, or expressionistic and theatrical in others.

Haddon’s book ends triumphantly, with Christopher writing “…and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.” The play ends with Christopher saying this to Siobhan, adding “Can’t I?” She looks forward and says nothing. “Can’t I?” Christopher repeats. Siobhan is both refusing to lie to him and asking the audience to answer his question. Can he? It tears you apart.

The heat and the hubbub may be down the block where Hamilton is playing, but The Curious Incident is where the magic and the mystery are. There isn’t a better show currently playing in the Bay Area.

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Adam Langdon as Christopher. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time continues through July 23 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street (at Market), San Francisco, 94102. Tickets and other information: www.shnsf.com.

Natural Disaster: Berkeley Rep’s “Monsoon Wedding”

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Jaaved Jaaferi as patriarch Lalit Verma in Berkeley Rep’s World Premiere of Monsoon Wedding. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

The new musical Monsoon Wedding is a huge hit for Berkeley Rep, with critical acclaim, sold-out houses, and several run extensions. Mira Nair and screenwriter-turned-bookwriter Sabrina Dhawan’s adaptation of their 2001 movie is also a case study in how not to rework a film for the musical stage. Nair and Dhawan appear not to understand what people responded to in the movie: its energy and color, its essential optimism in the face of life’s difficulties, its sense of family and community, its warmth and humor. Updating the material from 2001 to 2017, the creators attempt to deepen their characters by giving them modern problems and political issues, which don’t do anything to reveal personality, but certainly deaden any life and liveliness that existed in the movie.

The conceit of the play is that the audience are guests–American guests–invited by the groom’s family (who reside in the U.S.) to the wedding, so of course we have to have knowing asides about American immigration policy. Lalit Verma (the distinguished actor Javeed Jaaferi, who demonstrates a lifetime of performing technique, but never seems at home in this show), begins the evening by welcoming the audience to his daughter’s wedding while gently chiding us for the Trumpian mess we find ourselves in. In the movie, the fact that the groom-to-be lived in America was just a given. There was no examination of the clash of cultures or the Plight of the Immigrant. Now the groom Hemant sings a whole song, “Neither Here nor There,” about the disconnectedness of living in America. (Because a song list is not provided in the program, I’m guessing at the title.) And the play stops dead while we hear him sing it. (As Hemant, Michael Miliakel, is handsome and has a great voice, but he’s stiff and ill-at-ease as an actor.)

In the movie the only obstacle that stood between the domestic Alice and the wedding planner Dubey (who equate to the rustics in a Shakespearean comedy) was their intense shyness around each other. Now, she’s a Christian who won’t convert to Hinduism to marry him. He fears that his mother will frown upon the match, but then mom sings an endless song made more endless by a 10-minute re-enactment of the partitioning of India and Pakistan (her youthful lover was forever separated from her by the schism), to tell him not to worry about it.

Nair and Dhawan eliminate some characters and combine others. Because actors have to play double and triple parts, the two elderly women in the play are played by young women wearing grey wigs and walking stooped over in caricatures of old age, diminishing the sense of inter-generational community. The story’s villain, Tej, was a close family friend in the movie. Here, he’s Lalit’s brother-in-law, uncle to Ria, the bride’s cousin who was also raised by Lalit and his wife. This places more emphasis on the key conflict in the script, which is further underlined by having Ria’s revelation of wrong-doing by Tej incorporate not one song, but two. (I almost groaned aloud as the audience clapped when Tej received his come-uppance. The audience gets to pat itself on the back for being on the right side of things, which is never a sign of good theatre.) Everything that was delicate in the movie is now made obvious and heavy.

Nair’s directing is also a problem. She’s never helmed a musical before and her inexperience shows. Songs aren’t integrated organically and you often have to wait for the company to shuffle off stage at the end of a song, like the bad chorus staging so prevalent in opera of past decades. There’s also a puzzling use of aerials in the show. Alice and Dubey enter from either side of the stage, cables descend from the flies, they each strap the other in, they go up, they come down. And that’s it. The effect is more elevator ride than ecstatic weightlessness. (I didn’t like the wire-work in La-La Land, either, but I at least understood what they were trying to achieve.) The film used music, mostly folk songs, and dance much more freely and much more joyfully. Vishal Bhardwaj’s unmemorable score interrupts and slows the action down and underlines the melodrama. And Susan Birkenhead’s (Working, Jelly’s Last Jam) lyrics rarely rise above the banal. Lorin Latarro’s choreography lies uneasily between the naturalism of the movie and the stylization of a Bollywood production, but the actors don’t have the dancing skills to pull off Bollywood, and the movement doesn’t excite.

The film’s dominant colors were the oranges of saffron, curry, and marigold, and the entire movie was suffused in it. At one point Dubey is using white cloth in the tent he’s building for the wedding, and Lalit upbraids him for it—“This isn’t a funeral!”— insisting he use orange instead. The play’s dominant color is sky-blue, placid and calming. Orange eventually shows up, but only as an accent. (Mikiko Suzuki McAdams did the impressive yet wrong-headed set design.)

The 18-member cast works hard, but with one exception, you see the work, and you don’t see the joy. The exception is the astonishing Sharvari Deshpande as Ria, who’s completely at home on the stage, whether singing or acting. She alone in the cast makes the stylization of musical theatre seem lived-in and real.

Nair, an undeniably talented filmmaker, astonishingly appears not to trust or understand her accomplishments with the film, and she crushes its spirit by including all manner of modern ills and issues in the musical, to its—and our—detriment. In the movie, the characters were people with problems. In the musical, the characters are their problems. The soufflé Nair cooked up in 2001 has fallen flat.

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The company of Monsoon Wedding. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Monsoon Wedding has been extended through July 16 at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St, Berkeley, 94704. More information is available at berkeleyrep.org

Fort “Hamilton”

 

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Michael Luwoye and the company of the Hamilton national tour. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Four songs into the massive theatrical phenomenon Hamilton, when the Schuyler sisters sing about the excitement of being alive in a time of great ferment and hope, I was overcome by the undeniable immensity of what I was seeing. A theater packed with a diverse audience was watching the descendants of slaves, immigrants, and indigenous peoples retell and reclaim the American story. The house was enraptured by a musical that had no reliance on outlandish effects or impressive scenery but on a large, ferociously talented cast of actors—the very best kind of special effect. Later on, the spectacularly staged Battle of Yorktown, a masterfully directed Brechtian sequence using only rap, song, and dance, brought prolonged, enthusiastic applause. Here was an audience responding to the theatricality of what they were seeing, the undeniable immediacy of being in the same space as a group of performers palpably excited to be giving everything to this show at this time to this crowd. (Although there are lead roles, Hamilton is undeniably an ensemble piece.) The vast number of triple-threat players, their energy, the precise choreography they execute so flawlessly, the hip-hop aura that connects past to present—it’s no wonder audiences are thrilling to this piece.

Writer and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s reconception of the birth of the United States of America using actors of color as the founding fathers is an undeniably subversive and compelling idea. (Miranda was inspired by Ron Chernow’s lengthy, impressive, and eminently readable biography of Hamilton.) And with Andy Blankenbuehler’s dynamic choreography and Thomas Kail’s brilliant staging, Hamilton is undeniably an achievement.

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The company of the ‘Hamilton’ national tour. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

But as the evening goes on, it’s clear that Miranda wants to do more than just dazzle audiences with virtuosic theatricality, he also wants to create a living portrait of a man both equal and unequal to his times (as are we all, in hugely varying degrees). He wants to create a human being out of the myth and distance of history, and he wants the audience to believe in and feel for that human being. To do so, he turns from the distancing techniques of Brecht toward the conventions of the modern romantic American musical, and he’s unfortunately far less successful in that endeavor. Miranda turns away from the clash of ego and ideas that make up politics to focus on Hamilton’s personal tragedies (namely a sex scandal and the death of his son), giving more time to Hamilton’s wife Eliza, and the piece falls into the melodramatic and the maudlin. The hip-hop aspects of the score recede, and we revert to standard, somewhat bland, Broadway pop ballads. The songs aren’t very memorable (although they’re performed with commitment), and the show begins to feel more connected to Les Miz and other modern pop spectacles than to either American history or hip-hop culture. And neither Alexander nor Eliza fully comes to life. We see the events in their lives but their responses to those events, their songs, lack resonance, and the audience responds with pity rather than compassion.

After Eliza is humiliated by Hamilton’s public confession of an extra-marital affair (which he is driven to by charges of financial impropriety), her song “Burn” features the line “I’m erasing myself from the narrative.” The post-modern phrasing feels grad-schoolish and overly intellectual, rather than a cry of devastation. (As Eliza, Solea Pfeiffer conveys the anguish the song lacks.) When Hamilton’s son dies in a duel (foreshadowing his own death), he sings to Eliza, “If I could trade his life for mine/He’d be standing here right now” and of course, any parent would say that, but that’s the problem: any parent would say that. He follows with: “I don’t pretend to know/The challenges we’re facing/I know there’s no replacing what we’ve lost/And you need time/But I’m not afraid/I know who I married,” and we might as well be on the Dr. Phil show.

Thomas Jefferson (a foppish Desmond Newson, understudying Jordan Donica) then asks, “Can we get back to politics now?” drawing a laugh, but also underscoring that the play handles the political better than the personal. And the play isn’t even completely successful in its politics. Hamilton’s treatment of slavery is perhaps the most puzzling element of the production. Miranda may have thought using African-American actors to play slave owners was enough of a comment, and that’s certainly a better choice than the way that other beloved (but not by me) musical of the American Revolution, 1776 handles it, but the issue recedes so much as to be barely noticeable. (A friend of a friend completely missed that the show dealt with slavery at all. He thought it was purposefully left out.) Jefferson is mildly condemned for it (and Sally Hemings, his slave mistress, is briefly on stage), but if you don’t already know that Washington (a sober and commanding Isaiah Johnson) was a slave owner, you won’t hear anything about it here. It’s as if once Miranda had his big idea, he fudged on other ones. (He may have thought he didn’t need any others.)

I don’t want to minimize what Miranda and his co-presenters have achieved here: In a time when issues of representation and appropriation are pre-eminent, and when spectacle threatens to dwarf talent, people who haven’t ever been to the theater are flocking to see a show that relies on performance, on its cast’s abilities, to deliver an often exhilarating evening. I’m beyond grateful that Hamilton is proving to people that talent is spectacle. And for the actors of color who are portraying characters that, five or six years ago, no one would have ever thought they would be cast as, it must be a life-altering experience. (Among the phenomenal cast, I would single out Isaiah Johnson as George Washington and Pfeiffer as Eliza. And it’s hard not to enjoy Rory O’Malley in the comic-relief role of King George. Michael Luwoye as Hamilton and Joshua Henry as Aaron Burr also do fine work.)

But ultimately, Miranda handles the necessary condensing, editing, and excising inherent in adapting a lengthy biography too obviously, glancing on too many subjects and incidents so that many of them fail to register and we lose any sense of Miranda’s Hamilton as a person who existed. We know his achievements and we know his sorrows, but at the end of the three hours, we still don’t know the man.

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Solea Pfeiffer, Emmy Raver-Lampman (understudied by Julia K. Harriman the night I attended), and Amber Iman as the Schuyler sisters. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Hamilton plays through August 5, 2017 at the SHN Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Astonishingly, a very small number of tickets are available for most performances. Granted some of these tickets are at the exalted premium level (a whopping $868), but a cursory search found an amazing one-day-notice $197 ticket in the center orchestra, Row J. There is also a same day lottery for $10 tickets. Information about all of this can be found at www.hamilton.shnsf.com.

Existence: Bill Irwin’s “On Beckett”

 

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Bill Irwin performs a bit of Lucky’s speech from Waiting for Godot. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

 

Bill Irwin, trained as a clown, is America’s foremost interpreter of Samuel Beckett’s works, despite having performed in only three of them. On Broadway, in Waiting for Godot, he’s portrayed both Lucky (alongside Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and F. Murray Abraham) and Vladimir (opposite Nathan Lane as Estragon and with John Glover and John Goodman), and at ACT he’s performed in Endgame and a dramatization of several of Beckett’s Texts for Nothing. I was able to see both Texts for Nothing and the more recent production of Godot, and they were revelations. Irwin uses his clowning techniques to portray Beckett’s confused, ill-at-ease, physically uncomfortable, restless, never-at-home-in-this-or-any-other-realm everymen with humor, wisdom, and compassion.

He is now at ACT’s Strand Theatre in On Beckett, a short evening that’s part performance, part lecture, and part discussion. It’s a master class in the fullest sense of that term. Irwin humbly tells us that he’s not a scholar and that there’s more that he doesn’t know about Beckett than what he does. He sheepishly confesses to having never been able to get through any of Beckett’s novels, despite having found passages in them that left him amazed and overwhelmed. But he speaks with passion and eloquence about what Beckett’s work means to him as an actor, taking us through the some of the struggles he’s had with the various texts, and sharing the virtues and joys of that process to us in the audience.

It’s a wonderful evening of theatrical enlightenment. Irwin is smart and knowledgeable and conveys his experiences with enthusiasm and insight. You see an actor at the height of his powers, wrestling with one of the most difficult playwrights of the 20th century, but you also see a great teacher. Irwin isn’t lecturing, he’s explaining why this material excites him, why it energizes him as an actor, and why it’s more important and relevant than ever.

He describes the penultimate scene of Godot and how he sees two great choices in Didi’s line to the boy emissary of the never-seen Godot: “Tell him… tell him you saw me and that…that you saw me.” Is Vladimir asking the boy to tell Godot that he exists, that there is a man called Vladimir who is waiting for him? Or is he betraying the sleeping Estragon, asserting his own existence over that of his companion’s?

Irwin discusses Beckett’s carefully (and infamously) proscribed stage directions, as well as the necessary wardrobe. There’s a wonderful examination of the bowler hat, with Irwin deftly demonstrating how the size and angle of it can drastically change how a character comes across, and a demonstration of baggy-pants clowning, drawing the parallels between Irwin’s performing experience and Beckett’s own love of vaudeville and music hall.

Watching Irwin is like being at one of Stella Adler’s great lectures on performing Ibsen, or the scenes from the wonderful Canadian television series Slings and Arrows, where Paul Gross as the artistic director of a Shakespeare company explicates some bit of iambic pentameter and makes it come alive with dramatic possibilities. On Beckett is a portrait of an actor at work, and it makes for a thrilling evening

In the post-show discussion, which is an optional part of every performance, Irwin entertained some smart questions from the audience. Asked about the decision as Vladimir to reach for Estragon’s hand at the end of his most recent Godot, Irwin explained that it had been a difficult tech process, with Lane at one point leaving the stage and announcing he’d be back when everyone had learned their lines. (“Since I was the only other person on the stage, it was clear who he was talking about,” Irwin admitted.) A some later point, the handholding happened organically, and neither the director nor the notoriously protective Beckett estate objected. He talked about another moment when he played Lucky: In Act II, F. Murray Abraham as Pozzo accidentally dropped the rope that tethers Lucky to him. Because at this point in the play Pozzo is blind, Abraham couldn’t very well bend down and pick it up. So Irwin’s Lucky picked up the rope and handed it to Pozzo, effectively re-enslaving himself. Director Mike Nichols shouted “I love it!” and it was kept in.

Irwin was visibly thrilled when another member of the audience mentioned that she had seen the original 1953 Parisian production of Godot. She then asked Irwin if we would ever see him perform Krapp’s Last Tape, and a familiar voice shouted “Yes!” from the audience: ACT artistic director Carey Perloff. Irwin said he assumed he would someday but as of yet, it wasn’t a text he felt he understood well enough to do it justice. Here’s hoping that time comes soon.

On Beckett runs through January 22 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater at 1127 Market Street, San Francisco.

 

Atrocity: “The Scottsboro Boys” at ACT

The Interlocuter (Hal Linden, center), with Mr. Bones (Jared Joseph, left) and Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery) prepare to tell the tale of the Scottsboro Boys. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

John Kander and Fred Ebb’s last musical together, The Scottsboro Boys, opened on Broadway after Ebb’s death, where it flopped, managing a run of only 49 performances. But its historical and deadly serious subject matter, concerning a particularly heinous bit of Jim Crow injustice in 1930s Alabama, has ensured the musical has had a rather successful run at several important regional theaters. (Prior to the current run at ACT, this production played at The Old Globe in San Diego. A slightly different mounting also occurred at the Philadelphia Theatre Company.)

The show has a risky conceit—using minstrel show conventions to comment on and portray the plight of the nine men (boys, actually—the youngest was just 12 or 13 and the oldest were 19) who were falsely accused of raping two white women. But Kander and Ebb, along with book-writer David Thompson, attempt to upend those conventions, employing them not to denigrate blacks for the entertainment of largely white audiences, but to comment on white perceptions and treatment of blacks. The attempt is somewhat analogous to what Thompson did with his updated book (based on the original by Ebb and Bob Fosse) for the 1996 revival of Chicago, where a vaudeville structure is used to present the hardboiled comic tale of the (fictional) murderess Roxie Hart. But Chicago is a musical version of a classic American comedy (by Maurine Watkins). The Scottsboro Boys is a musicalization of a tragic historical event. It would take a special kind of brilliance to pull this off, a brilliance not in evidence here. Instead what we’re left with is a perfunctory presentation that renders the story just another generic account of southern racial injustice. There is no emotional or dramatic connection with the characters on stage, and the audience is left tsk-tsk-ing past injustices and congratulating itself on having seen something daring.

Worse, the minstrel show structure ensures that if we applaud and cheer the musical numbers (specifically, the performers who sing and dance them), we’re complicit in the racist minstrel tradition, which is unfair not only to the audience, but to the actors. (I had to double-check to make sure that George C. Wolfe hadn’t written the book. The concept also calls to mind Spike Lee’s sour, preposterous 2000 film about a modern-day minstrel show, Bamboozled.) Thompson uses irony as a sledgehammer: It’s so heavy-handed it ceases being ironic and becomes merely banal. The Brechtian distancing techniques that were used to such terrific effect in Chicago and Cabaret here put all of the characters at such a remove that empathy is impossible. They’re too distanced from us. They never become human, and we’re never moved by their plight, except in a general, oh-isn’t-that-terrible sort of way.

The show is introduced by the Interlocutor (Hal Linden, the only white cast member), who is soon joined by Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery, who understudied the part on Broadway) and Mr. Bones (Jared Joseph). All three are traditional minstrel stock characters. The Interlocutor serves an MC, doubling as the high-up white authority figures in the story, judges and governors. Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo are the clowns who also portray the other white roles: the sheriffs, prison guards, and lawyers. Then the nine actors who portray the accused appear, led by Clifton Duncan as Heywood Patterson. They sit in chairs arranged in a semi-circle (another feature of traditional minstrelsy), which are used in various configurations throughout to serve as train cars, prison cells, buses, and the like. Many of the actors double as other black characters, while two of them (Clifton Oliver and James T. Lane) portray the white girls who accuse the boys of rape, thus beginning their horrendous odyssey. While hopping a freight from Tennessee, the boys are arrested in Scottsboro, Alabama, because of a fight with some whites (which they may or may not have actually been involved in).  They are then charged with rape by the two white girls, fellow travelers who have clearly made up the accusations to get themselves out of trouble. Threats of lynching, sentences of death (never carried out), years of incarceration, and other shocking miscarriages of justice ensue.

Clifton Oliver (left foreground) and James T. Lane (right foreground) as the accusers Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. (Photo: Henry DiRocco)

Thompson plays fast and loose with the historical record, which wouldn’t matter if the show had any sort of dramatic truth, but it doesn’t, so the necessary compression and rearrangement become troublesome. Roy Wright (Clinton Roane) is portrayed as considerably older than the 13-year-old he was (Nile Bullock, a young actor who is credible as a pre-teen, plays Eugene Williams, the other 13-year-old defendant), and other details of their ordeal are reordered, omitted, or disregarded. Samuel Leibowitz (portrayed satirically by Mr. Bones), the white, Jewish New York lawyer who defended the boys (at no cost) in their many retrials and appeals is horribly mistreated by Thompson. He is criticized for having a black chauffeur and maid (would he be less racist if he refused to hire blacks for those positions?), and his own sacrifices on the boys’ behalf are dismissed because of impure motives (as if “pure” motives existed anywhere but in bad narratives). When one of the white girls recants her testimony, she is first handed a sheet of paper by Leibowitz, from which she reads her new testimony, suggesting that Leibowitz has somehow unethically orchestrated this new development.

This all comes to a head in the musical’s dramatic climax. After spending many years in prison, Leibowitz approaches Patterson with a chance for parole, if he will plead guilty to the rapes. But the script’s Patterson is nobility itself, so after (briefly) agonizing over the choice, he refuses to lie, even though it would free him. And so, we’re told, he dies in prison. Here’s what really happened: Patterson later escaped from prison and fled to Detroit. The governor of Michigan refused to extradite him back to Alabama, so he remained free, until he killed a man in a bar fight and was imprisoned for that crime. Then he died in prison. But these truths play havoc with Thompson’s conception of Patterson as the incorruptible hero and Leibowitz as the shyster who would dare ask his client to compromise his principles. Thompson can’t trust his audience to understand people are messy and complicated, a fact that doesn’t mitigate the injustice done to Patterson one iota. Thompson apparently fears it does.

What the audience does respond to is the terrific, talented cast. Montgomery, Joseph, Oliver, Lane, and especially Duncan are ferociously talented, as are the rest of the players. The one criticism I have is against Eric Jackson as Clarence Norris, who yells too much in his initial scenes. While anger is a justifiable reaction to being imprisoned on a false rape charge, Jackson’s performance is too one-note here, and it’s tiresome rather than moving. Superstar director and choreographer Susan Stroman (The Producers, Contact, The Music Man revival) acquits herself ably, using the chairs in their various guises ingeniously, but she’s unable to overcome the flawed concept and too-obvious book. And what of Kander and Ebb’s score? The jaunty “Commencing in Chattanooga” which occurs on the train journey before the arrest is sort of fun, and the wistful ballad “Go Back Home,” which expresses the boys’ sorrow and longing for freedom, is lovely. But the other songs are overly didactic or obvious, and the decisions as to when the songs should be in the minstrel show convention and when they shouldn’t seems arbitrary and not well thought out.

In a show full of bad ideas, perhaps the worst is the use of its lone female cast member (C. Kelly Wright, who does her best in perhaps the most thankless role ever). Silent and omnipresent for almost all of the play, she represents Silenced Black Womanhood, or perhaps Silenced Black Personhood. Then at play’s end, Thompson uses Wright to transform Rosa Parks’ famous act of bravery into sentimentality, an idea as dumb as the son in Next to Normal turning out to be a manic-depressive hallucination.

The Scottsboro Boys turns out to be just another act of injustice against a group of men and boys who have already suffered enough. Thompson gives us only the barest details of the defendants’ actual lives. All we know at play’s end is that they were innocent, they had mothers, and they wanted their freedom. But we knew that going in. The audience is also unjustly antagonized for responding to the performances. To judge from Kander’s program notes, this was unintentional, which makes the transgression even worse—Kander, Ebb, Stroman and Thompson are too smart to have overlooked this effect of employing a minstrel show construction. It’s also unfair to their talented cast, whose performances can’t be accepted on their own merits, and who aren’t allowed to portray actual human beings. Local critics are treating the production as an artistic triumph. It isn’t. It’s a disaster.

The ensemble, led by Clifton Duncan as Heywood Patterson, sings “Commencing in Chattanooga.” (Photo: Henry DiRocco)

The Scottsboro Boys plays until July 22 at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets and more information, go to www.act-sf.org.

The Destruction of Love: The Aurora Theatre’s Anatol

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Gabrielle (Delia MacDougall) and Anatol (Mike Ryan) share a memory on Christmas Eve.  (Photo: David Allen)

Arthur Schnitzler, the unjustly neglected chronicler of Viennese fin de siècle sexual mores, receives some well-deserved attention thanks to a new production of his play Anatol by the great Aurora Theatre Company. Schnitzler was friendly with Freud in the latter part of his life (both were Jewish and doctors), and they shared a fascination with the human psyche and the conflict between sexual behavior and conventional morality.

Schnitzler is most famous for La Ronde, (originally published in German in 1903 as Reigen, but more commonly called by its French name due to Max Ophuls’ famous movie adaptation), a theatrical rondel in 10 scenes portraying sex as the force that transcends class barriers and explodes hidebound conceptions of virtue. It was famously condemned and couldn’t be performed in many countries for years. Schnitzler is now probably more famous in the English-speaking world as the author of Dream Story (Traumnovelle in German), the novella that Stanley Kubrick adapted for his last film, Eyes Wide Shut. (Don’t judge Schnitzler by the moribund, enervating tableaux not-so-vivants that Kubrick brought to the screen.)

Anatol was initially published piecemeal in short scenes, but released in its full, seven-scene length in 1892. In a world-premiere translation by Schnitzler scholar Margret Schaefer, the Aurora presents six of those scenes in a slightly different order. (A program note mentions that Schnitzler wrote nine Anatol scenes, but I was not able to find any confirmation of this—the English translations I was able to glance at all have seven scenes.) The omission of “Agony,” the usual penultimate scene, emphasizes the comic in this mounting, but rue and regret still echo throughout the evening.

The title character is clearly modeled on Schnitzler himself: Anatol professes to believe in love, but flits from one tryst to another, always disappointed, never fully trusting the women he’s sleeping with, using that mistrust to disguise his own self-loathing. However, Anatol the play is a comedy of manners and several of the scenes are farcical, so the terrific Aurora cast and the wonderful direction by Aurora co-founder and artistic director emerita Barbara Oliver create a hilarious and exceedingly entertaining evening of theater, without slighting the melancholy inherent in Anatol’s exploits. (During this production, I was struck by the fact that Anatol is clearly a precursor to TV’s Frasier, a show which, at its best, juggled the same strains of farce, high comedy, romance, and melancholy.)

Anatol is a literary descendant of Don Juan, the seducer who aims to prove all women unworthy through the very act of seduction. He appears in all six of the vignettes and is almost never offstage. His friend Max is his foil, his confidant, his best friend, and also the person most capable of seeing through his self-justifications and fabrications. Max appears in four of the six scenes, and each scene features a different woman: a new conquest, two figures from the past, a lover no longer beloved, a fiancée, and a mistake. Oliver uses one actress to portray all of these roles, a strategy I was leery of. You need to see a parade of different women, of different types, to understand the energy and desperation of Anatol’s quixotic search for love. Could one actress convey these disparate types of women?

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Ilona (Delia MacDougall) avenges herself on Anatol (Mike Ryan) while Max (Tim Kniffin) observes. (Photo: David Allen)

Well, the right actress can, and that actress is Delia MacDougall. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen MacDougall in a play, and I had half-forgotten how ferociously talented she is. Here, each of her six women is absolutely distinct. She physicalizes and vocalizes each one completely, transforming herself with each new incarnation. As a willing hypnosis subject, whom Anatol hopes to bewitch into telling him the truth of her feelings for him, she’s breezy and delightful, possessing the self-confidence of youth. As Bianca the circus performer, she brandishes a Russian accent, purring with mock dismay when Max upbraids her for not recognizing Anatol. Her bearing is still and proud as the married woman Anatol runs into while shopping on Christmas Eve. Having had an affair with Anatol in the past (though we don’t know how far it went), she listens to Anatol describe his current flame while gently needling him. “I know your tastes,” she says, spitting off the end of “tastes.” And in a tender moment, she and Anatol almost kiss, but she breaks it off, knowing that such pleasures are in the past for her. There’s a gorgeous moment when she, in a generous final gesture, hands over to Anatol the bright orange hothouse tulips she’s been carrying around with her packages, a gift for his new paramour.

The tulips have a warm glow, a symbol of the passion she’s bequeathing to this new woman. (Krista Smith’s lighting and the properties design, credited to both Mia Baxter and Seren Helday are exquisite throughout.) This scene is Oliver’s best bit of direction: The blocking perfectly portrays an aimless winter’s stroll despite the tiny space of the Aurora stage, and the subtle shifts of mood are almost heartbreaking.

MacDougall’s Annie, a dancer with the Opera who’s decided to break up over supper with Anatol, carries a head that’s not quite attached to her body. It bobbles around merrily as she gobbles down oysters, dismissing Anatol unconcernedly, prattling in her sloshy diction. This amazing actress imbues Emilie, a fiancée who’s willing to put up with Anatol’s incessant tests of her love, but only to a certain point, with both a swooning romance and a shocking acquisitiveness. And as the furious Ilona, who’s had the misfortune to spend the night with Anatol at a most inopportune time, MacDougall is hilarious, wreaking havoc on his well-appointed apartment.

When you read the play, you may think of Anatol as slim and elegant, sort of like Algernon or Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest. Actor Mike Ryan is stout, possesses thinning hair, and sports a walrus-y mustache. Yet he possesses impeccable diction and uses his body expressively. When he hears something shocking from Max, his body turns from the hips, his neck held stiff, and he leans slightly backwards, the very definition of “reeling.” He shifts from outrage to cunning to earnestness within the confines of a single line. Ryan uses emphasis in surprising ways, such as accenting the second syllable of the name “Cora,” to underscore comically the infatuation that he mistakes for love. He’s a force of both nature and intellect, and you can see why he fascinates these women. He’s amazing at the difficult job of showing us Anatol’s self-deception, but letting us know that on a deeper level, Anatol is aware of his own games. He can con anyone, even himself, and it’s his belief in these cons that makes him so intriguing.

As Max, Tim Kniffin is slim and elegant, with an aquiline nose and a well-cut head of gray hair, immaculately put together. He’s slightly older than Anatol, which puts him at a slight remove from the younger man’s shenanigans. He’s clearheaded in his judgments, amused by his friend’s antics, but he also clearly knows whose side he’s on, even avenging Anatol when one old flame confesses that Anatol meant nowhere near as much to her as she to him. As the sly observer, Kniffin’s movements are and stiller, less animated than Ryan’s, and it’s perfect for the character.  Wiley Naman Stasser portrays Franz, Anatol’s manservant, and a waiter at the Sacher Hotel (whose famous torte makes an appearance), with a proud, upright bearing, weathering Anatol’s momentary tantrums and conspiring in his amorous plots with aplomb.

Schaeffer’s translation seems natural and unforced, modern, yet period-appropriate.  Only one phrase stuck out for me, when Max describes one of the women as “…a revenging fury who wants to avenge herself on all of us.” The repetition of the “-venge” root is jarring. (Frank Marcus translates the line as “…a figure from classical tragedy. One who tried to avenge her whole sex,” which seems more successful to me.)

Anna Oliver’s costumes are gorgeous and ingenious, especially in MacDougall’s case. A blood red skirt becomes a winter coat, an evening gown, and a chorus girl’s after-theater ensemble. The set, by John Iacovelli, features a rotating portal that enables rapid scene changes, shifting from Anatol’s blue drawing room with a bay window, to Max’s red den, to an exterior shop window, or a hotel’s private dining room. (I am curious about the decision to make Anatol’s room blue and Max’s red. It seems that reversing that scheme would better suit their characters.)

The show is perfectly calibrated by director Oliver, shifting seamlessly from farce to gentle sorrow, from humorous artifice to art, getting at the evanescence, the elusiveness, of love. The Aurora’s production of Anatol tells us that love can evaporate under the heat of observation and analysis, but knows that we can’t help looking anyway.

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Annie (MacDougall) lets neither decorum nor the end of an affair get in the way of her dinner. (Photo: David Allen)

Anatol plays from now until May 13 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. For more information, call 510-843-4822 or visit http://www.auroratheatre.org.