Too Absurd: Cutting Ball and Will Eno’s “Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and Other Plays”

The cast of "Intermission" ( l-r, David Sinaiko, Gwyneth Richards, Galen Murphy-Hoffman, and Danielle O’Hare) watches a not-very-good play.

The San Francisco-based Cutting Ball Theater has been surprisingly long-lived and successful offering up esoteric, experimental fare (Heiner Muller, Sartre, Ionesco, Beckett, the modern absurdist Mac Wellman), as well as new takes on classics by Shakespeare, Strindberg, and Euripides, among others.  I’ve seen only a smattering of their work, and the productions are almost always elegantly and creatively staged.  Their recent production of The Tempest, was beautifully conceived and thought out, even though it faltered at play’s end.  Artistic director Rob Melrose is currently directing three short plays by Will Eno, who has certainly made a name for himself in New York and here, with recent performances at both Cutting Ball and Berkeley Rep, and an extended Off-Broadway run of his best-known play Thom Paine (based on nothing).

I tend to be suspicious of writers who view non-standard capitalization as an act of rebellion, which is why I stayed away from Thom Paine.  The New York Time’s Charles Isherwood’s description of Eno as “… a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation,” meant as a compliment, seemed to me more of a warning: hip, ironic post-modernism wedded to issues of existence and meaning.  And by “ironic” I mean the cultural snarkiness pervasive in our times as opposed to the true, deep irony that underpins the theater’s great masterpieces: King Lear, Othello, Waiting for Godot, Three Sisters, and countless others.  Melrose addresses this in the program’s director’s note: “Just as Beckett exploited the forms of slapstick comedy, vaudeville, and silent movies, Eno puts his ideas in the forms of stand-up comedy and the 24-hour news cycle.  The fact that Eno is able to tackle such weighty themes in these forms (which we normally associate with glibness and superficiality) is exactly what makes his work so surprising and catches us off guard.”  And although this is an apt description of what Eno is attempting, Melrose and I disagree on how successful his approach is.  As evidenced by the three short plays presented here, Eno’s tone and style undercut his interest in aging, death, and decay.  His fascination seems forced and rather callow, not the desperate obsession, filled with both beauty and horror, it was for Beckett.

The evening’s first piece, Lady Grey (in ever lower light) (again with the weird capitalization) is an extended monologue (ably delivered by Danielle O’Hare) on life, death, and all the stuff in between that takes as its starting-off point the old grade school tradition of Show and Tell.  Show and Tell is of course, theater at its most basic, someone in front of an audience presenting a story.  Lady Grey (I assume there’s some sort of connection to Lady Jane Grey, the Protestant would-be queen executed by her cousin, the Catholic Mary I) addresses the audience directly and tells stories both about herself and a young girl named “Jennifer,” who may or may not be Lady Grey.  “You seem nervous,” she says to the audience at the opening, “so why don’t I start?”  Her stream-of-consciousness verbal meanderings include quips such as “I caught the acting bug very young—maybe it was a rash,” and she describes the audience as “white people in chairs.”  (Sigh.)  She sings a fragment of a song, stops in the middle, pauses, and says, “Sorry, I was thinking of something else.”  She describes her few love affairs, and bemoans the passing of time and its ultimate ending for her.  O’Hare couldn’t be better, but her performance only heightens the problems with the script and its tone. Lady Grey floats on the surface of what she’s discussing.  There’s no resonance, only a wry matter of fact-ness, and the piece evaporates as soon as it’s over. (Heather Basarab’s lighting design also couldn’t be better.  Subtle, evocative, and highly effective, there are no flashy effects, just a perfect heightening of mood.)

The show’s second piece Intermission is the most accessible of the three and the funniest, ostensibly about the impossibility of predicting how and to whom a piece of theater will communicate.  Two couples, one younger and one older, view the end of the first act of some medical-based life and death drama, and then discuss what they’ve seen at the intermission. The younger couple is less interested while for the older couple the life-and-death themes have more meaning.  But what makes this piece so enjoyable is Galen Murphy-Hoffman’s portrayal as the male half of the younger couple.  He’s pitch-perfect as a certain type of theatergoer, the man pulled along by his feminine counterpart to a play, unengaged but also without antipathy.  If this stuff on stage is supposed to mean something, so be it, but he doesn’t really see what the fuss is about.  He still manages to find his pleasures, though.  He reads the program and announces, “One of the actors thanks their dogs.”  He puts his hands in his pockets and says, “Look how much change I have.”  Murphy-Hoffman connects with the audience not just because most of them share his point of view (we’ve all been there, watching some work straining to be important—in fact, we’re there now), but also because of his relaxed, confident, and humorous performance.  I look forward to seeing him in more substantial roles.

The third one-act, Mr. Theatre Comes Home Different, begins with a tantrum as Mr. Theatre (David Sinaiko) comes home, turns over his kitchen table, talks a lot, and later eats a flower.  I checked out early on.  One sentence did catch my ear: “Would that my fake feelings could make yours more genuine.” Well, that’s pretty much the goal of theater, but Eno’s phrasing of it comes from a place of negation: achievement of the goal is not a possibility.  And maybe for him that’s true.  (These works certainly point to that.)  But when theater is successful, the fake is made real.  When Didi and Gogo pointlessly wait for Godot in some nameless place, we identify with them completely, no matter how abstract their situation.

Eno is self-consciously Beckettian.  He places profundities next to banalities and tends towards the epigrammatic.  But at the end of the day, he’s only appropriating Beckett’s themes and style, covering them with a hip veneer that ensures no real communication will happen.  Eno seems not to believe in his chosen art, in the possibility of connection.  In this chattering age, nothing can be heard, he seems to be saying, and he makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy.  At the end of the night, there’s nothing much at stake here.

Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and Other Plays shows from now until April 10 at EXIT on Taylor Street, 277 Taylor Street at Ellis, San Francisco.  For more information, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.cuttingball.com.

 

 

Only Connect: Z Space’s “The Companion Piece”

Jake Rodriguez headlines the festivities in Z Space's "The Companion Piece." Photo: Pak Han.

Mark Jackson’s staging of Mary Stuart was one of the highlights of Bay Area theater last year, and he and his Mary Stuart star Beth Wilmurt have teamed up again to provide what will surely be one of the most intriguing productions of 2011.  Joining forces with the amazing Christopher Kuckenbaker, a performer I’ve delighted in watching over the years, and the brilliant sound designer Jake Rodriguez, who also happens to be a very fine actor, they’ve collaborated on a new absurdist vaudeville for Z Space, entitled The Companion Piece.  It doesn’t quite match up to that other classic of absurdism with vaudeville roots, Waiting for Godot, but in its quirky rhythms, audacious inventiveness, and masterful stagecraft, there are flashes of true brilliance.

A meditation on companionship and solitude, The Companion Piece also explores the motivations of the artistic impulse.  Theater is of course a form of communication:  It begins in solitude, the playwright creating the script, and ends in cooperation as the director, actors, designers, and myriad others come together to fully present the piece, including even more people as an audience shares each performance. The Companion Piece too was conceived in solitude.  After reading the 2000 book A General Theory of Love, Drs. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannan’s beautifully literate examination of the neurological and chemical origins of love, Wilmurt was struck with the idea of presenting the book’s ideas theatrically in a vaudeville, and she, Jackson, Kuckenbaker, and Rodriguez began devising the show.  (Designer Gabe Maxson’s sure-handed use of light, especially his employment of the stark and isolating spotlight, is also an important facet.)  The work thus grew out of improvisation and group effort, but the final product is fixed, presented consistently at each performance.

It’s Rodriguez who opens the evening, standing in front of a painted drop with a caricature of himself and the words “The Sensation of the Stage” emblazoned underneath.  He sports a seedy tuxedo and greased-back hair, his face powdered and rouged, a pencil mustache adorning his upper lip.  In a voice that’s part borscht-belt comedian, part carnival sideshow barker, he delivers an astonishing monologue in a rapid-fire delivery.  Rodriguez has a manic gleam in his eye as he spouts his bad jokes, performs a few magic tricks, mangles a few lines from Shakespeare and other sources, and introduces in myriad oblique ways the show’s themes, relentlessly promoting himself along the way.  He sings a few songs, which I believe are originals: “I’ve Never Needed Anyone Less Than I’ve Never Needed You” and one that’s probably called “With You/Without You.”  (“With you, would my life stop before I reach the top?”) The audience laughs at the wrong times: never in response to his actual jokes, which are more desperate than funny.  “Say ‘knock, knock’!” he hectors the audience, which obliges him.  “Who’s there?” he asks, and silence reigns. “They don’t get it,” he mutters. And he does the routine again, with the same results.

The monologue is finely honed, down to the number of chomps he takes on a piece of gum, but behind it all is a despairing futility.  Rodriguez the character knows that the audience doesn’t comprehend what he’s doing, but he gives it all he’s got, and Rodriguez the actor conveys the irony and the pathos in the character’s actions.  The communication is all one way, except for brief glimpses of comprehension by the audience.  We get it, and we don’t get it.  He raises the drop behind him, picks up his props, wheels a giant metal staircase to a ridiculous door, 20 feet off the ground and adorned with a gold star.  He ascends the staircase and disappears behind the door.

Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker enter, conversing in a modern, naturalistic style, wearing plaid slacks and colored t-shirts.  They’re actors who have just completed their own show, and they grab a microphone and begin conducting a talkback with some unseen audience.  Kuckenbaker speechifies about how “comedy is really a science,” and then with an instant, invisible shift, we’re in a pre-show talk.  They ask for single words from the same unseen audience, presumably to be used in some improv routine that will come up.  “Door,” “synchronicity,” and “brilliant” are the apparent results.  (“Brilliant?  When’s that gonna happen?” grouses Wilmurt.)  Wilmurt starts musing about how they need a structure: “Improvisation is great, but…,” and a funny bit ensues about her hair improvising until she “choreographed” it. While she’s talking, Kuckenbaker begins running around, playing with props, searching for some funny piece of business, until Wilmurt too begins brainstorming about what they could do together.  But Kuckenbaker tends towards physical clowning while Wilmurt wants to incorporate musical numbers.  A tug of war ensues, with Kuckenbaker trying to set up a Cyrano de Bergerac skit with a puffy tunic and fake nose, singing The Police’s “Roxanne,” while Wilmurt wheels out a tinny upright piano and tries to change into a red tango dress, playing snippets of songs on the keyboard and on a ukelele.  The two run all over the cavernous Z Space stage (the former Theatre Artaud venue), flinging their bodies around with seeming abandon as they try to have their vision be the dominant one, without seeming as if they’re taking over.  (They constantly apologize for quashing the other’s ideas.)

At another point Kukenbaker is caught by the spotlight, clad in nothing but his comically striped briefs.  He immediately adopts a humorously presentational pose, but then he’s stuck, frozen.  He desperately grimaces towards Wilmurt, and she darts about the dusky, dusty theater, rummaging through costume racks and properties collections searching for something, anything for him to do.  It’s the old actor’s nightmare, caught on stage in your underwear with no idea of what’s required of you.  But Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker the artists also realize that’s what an actor has to do to be successful, to expose one’s self to the audience, no matter how terrifying.  And by extension, that’s also what has to happen in a relationship.

When the two do a simple dance together to “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” in ridiculous yellow pinafores and black bowler hats, it’s joyous—two bodies in unison, but when Wilmurt breaks off because she has a “better” idea and Kuckenbaker doggedly continues on, sadness pervades the stage.

Christopher Kuckenbaker and Beth Wilmurt. Photo: Pak Han

The sound and lighting cues interrupt and change the routines as well, forcing the performers to adapt when a snatch of music or a shift in the lights threatens to throw them off-course.

There’s an offstage argument between Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker, about the way the production is shaping up, and a lyrical waltz with two large rolling metal staircases, guided by the two actors.  You fear they’ll crash, but they never do.  You hope they’ll meet up, so that the performers can climb up and reach each other that way, but that doesn’t happen either.  The staircases end up side by side, striving towards the audience, not each other.

Wilmurt has a wonderful singing voice—an actress’s voice.  There’s no showiness, just a clarity that gets at the heart of a lyric, no matter how silly.  She and Kuckenbaker are about the same height, but her long legs give the illusion that she towers over him, while his protruding ears and receding hairline somehow make him seem shorter.  Kuckenbaker is a physical marvel, with clowning skills and postures reminiscent of Harry Langdon, and he’s fearless as a performer.  The two work together beautifully, and their energy is completely present, completely alive.  The two performers aren’t waiting for Godot, they’re waiting for each other– not to arrive, but to make each other better, and it’s just as vain a wait.

It’s difficult to convey the amount of beauty, humor, and skill in these routines, with their misleading sense of haphazardness.  It’s clear how much care has been lavished on what we’re seeing.  While on one level the narrative seems disjointed and scattered, as mercurial as a person’s moods, on another we see how finely wrought it is, how much work and intelligence went into making it that way. Even in moments of stillness, there’s no awkwardness in the staging, no wavering of the audience’s focus.

The problem lies in the last two speeches by Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker.  They take turns expressing their hopes for audience reaction, that we’ll understand their special brilliance, that they’ll connect with us in a new and dazzling way.  But in the naïve language used, the text doesn’t match the eloquence of their movement and their stagecraft.  When Wilmurt talks of being recognized as the “idea girl” and hopes that someone in the audience will communicate that to her fifth grade teacher who never believed in her, it’s too blatant, too clumsy.  Of course the desire for some kind of validation and retribution, even revenge, is a part of the artistic drive, as is the desire for appreciation and, yes, fame. An artist wants people to see her work, after all.  And it’s clear that Wilmurt the writer/creator ironically undercuts the speech: It’s Kuckenbaker who is carefully guiding a giant iron cross beam from which Wilmurt is suspended on a trapeze as she speaks: He slowly swings her out in front of the audience: No matter how talented you are, you can’t go it alone.  She even begins by proclaiming “When you see my act—our act…,” acknowledging Kukenbaker in a way he didn’t for her, but this nod to partnership is dropped as Wilmurt continues describing her dreams of connection and recognition.

I realize I’m probably asking for the impossible here.  These speeches need to be breathtaking, more sublime than anything else we’ve seen or heard so far.  They need to incorporate the myriad tones that have preceded it, combining the roles of character, actor, writer, and creator and playing with the conflicts and, yes, synchronicities of all of them.  They also need the sense of mystery that pervades so much else in the play.  Despite being beautifully delivered, the words themselves fail. As words so often do.

The coda to these speeches catches some of what’s missing in the text.  A curtain is hung between the two staircases, and a magician’s disappearing closet is placed under the curtain.  Kuckenbaker and Wilmurt repeatedly try to make the other disappear but they won’t cooperate with each other, and the trick doesn’t happen.  Until it does.  Kuckenbaker vanishes and Rodriguez steps out of the box.  As he repeats his opening monologue, Wilmurt again lowers the scenic drop seen at the opening, and The Companion Piece ends as it began: a lone performer trying to connect, but aware he’s failing.

What Jackson and his colleagues accomplish with The Companion Piece, is so rich, so daring, that I wish I could say its failure is small by comparison. Ironically, that failure is the failure of many human interactions.  A connection can feel so deep, so true, that when it breaks in some vital moment, when one person can’t see something important in exactly the way the other person does, it’s often devastating.  The Companion Piece breaks your heart, but in the wrong way.  That you dare to hope it might do so truly, artistically, is a major, major achievement.

"What about this?" Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker cook up a show. Photo: Pak Han

The Companion Piece plays from now until February 13 at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco, CA  94110.  For more information, call 415-626-0453 or visit http://www.zspace.org.

It’s Scapin’s world… or is It?

Bill Irwin as Scapin confers with Jud Williford as Sylvestre in ACT's "Scapin." (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Molière’s late farce, Les fourberies de Scapin (The Schemes of Scapin), takes about 45 minutes to read and seems to have taken Molière even less time to write.  Here’s the plot: Two young men, Octave and Leander, have fallen in love with women their fathers will likely disdain.  Leander’s servant, Scapin, enlists the help of Sylvestre, servant to Octave, to trick the miserly patriarchs out of sums of money and into accepting their sons’ romances.  Complications ensue.  Le Misanthrope it ain’t.

Nevertheless, the great clown and actor Bill Irwin adapted (with playwright Mark O’Donnell) this lesser work several years ago, as Scapin, directing and playing the title role in both Seattle and on Broadway.  He brings a new production to the American Conservatory Theatre, employing members of their core company and MFA program in his ensemble.

I’ve seen Irwin on stage several times, twice doing Beckett, and I’m convinced he’s the country’s finest Beckett interpreter.  His 2001 ACT production Texts for Nothing was brilliant, audacious, and incredibly moving.  (I still remember him struggling to find a comfortable place to sleep on the rocky, hostile setting, shifting and turning in an attempt to find rest in a landscape that offered none, rendering the abstractness of Beckett’s words extraordinarily concrete.) His 2009 Broadway performance as Vladimir opposite Nathan Lane’s Estragon, remains the best production of Waiting for Godot I’ve seen. Fool Moon, a clowning collaboration with David Shiner, was a sweet example of how audience participation should be done, with respect and without humiliation.  And in his conventional performances, as in the Jonathan Demme film Rachel Getting Married, he brings a well-observed humanity to his work. The man is a marvel.

However, Irwin’s clowning skills, wondrous as they are, can lead to self-indulgence.  His Broadway performance in last year’s Bye Bye Birdie was a disaster.  Irwin focused on the clowning and threw character out the window, resulting in a mannered, overwrought mess.  His vocal choices were so affected that he incomprehensibly garbled the first word of his one song.  (The word?  “Kids!”)

His Scapin falls short of the sublime, unfortunately.  There’s much that’s hilarious: the adaptation is free and has no problems making fun of the limitations of the original script; the cast ad libs with abandon; there are anachronistic references to gay marriage, terrorism, and other current events that are often quite funny; and the scenes are peppered with lots of sure-fire theater in-jokes.  (When Scapin is carried on stage, apparently near death, he asks, “Am I center?” He isn’t, and has to be hauled back stage left.)  There are comic Brechtian touches, such as a sign bearing the word “Exposition” extending out of a stage left window when one character gets a little too involved with his back story.

As co-author, director, and lead actor, the piece should be all Irwin’s, and there are times when he’s amazing.  His voice tosses off one-liners, shouting in alarm, mocking and cajoling. The plasticity of his limbs and spine can be astonishing, but he too often seems to be showing off, walking around in cringing postures, scrunching or pulling his face, his feet roaming off in different directions, the movements divorced from both the plot and his characterization.  He stops the show (not in a good way) for these displays of shtick, taking far too long for his entrances and exits. (The play, only an hour and 45 minutes as is, could easily stand to lose another 15-20 minutes.)

Irwin and O’Donnell add two plot elements not in the original, although one, a love interest for Scapin, is borrowed from another Molière work, La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas.  Omozé Idehenre portrays Nerine with great aplomb, intermittently lugging trunks over the stage that no one offers to help her with.  When Scapin become tongue-tied in her presence, he observes, “Molière did not write this part, did he?” and Nerine replies with a stern dignity, “It is among the parts he did not write.”

The other addition is far less successful. For some reason, Irwin and O’Donnell include a chase scene in the finale without any textual or dramatic reason. Scapin simply decides to bolt.  It goes on and on as everyone trots around the stage at the same tempo with no real urgency.  It’s neither fast enough nor funny enough, another lapse in judgment that ought to have been cut.

The show does feature one spectacular performance, one seamless integration of acting and clowning that never devolves into self-indulgence, that hits the right tone throughout.  Jud Williford as Sylvestre has a beefy body and long face with a prominent chin and forehead, and he ‘s the best second banana ever. Williford is relentlessly inventive without ever breaking character or overshadowing the text, the production, or his fellow actors.  Eager to help and easily flattered, his Sylvestre looks on with energetic interest, his mouth usually open as if all this idiocy was brand new to him. He possesses a sweet, winning bashfulness.  When Scapin tries to sweet talk him into helping with a scheme, he asks, “Do you have a theater arts background?” (a damn funny line all on its own), and Sylvestre replies with an embarrassed pleasure, “Well, I did a little acting back in servitude school.” In another scene, he channels bits of Taxi Driver (Williford molding his rubbery face into a passable DeNiro), Midnight Cowboy, and Dirty Dancing, and at the end of this tour de force, he looks to Scapin for affirmation that he’s done well.  In another sequence, Scapin pretends to be clairvoyant to Octave, relating Octave’s own story to him while Sylvestre mimes and charades the details behind Octave’s back.  It’s the evening’s high point: Irwin’s timing is perfect and Williford’s imagination knows no bounds.

Gregory Wallace as Octave tries out several things in his depiction, with little consistency and less success.  When describing his first meeting with his beloved Hyacinth (Ashley Wickett), he goes gay, describing the dress she wore and cooing over how adorable it was.  But since Octave isn’t gay, the moment makes no sense.  His voice is deep and tough-sounding at first (almost Brooklynesque in its accent) but this too goes by the wayside. At other moments, he just seems to be standing on stage, making no attempts at acting at all.  (Beaver Bauer’s costuming, otherwise fun and appropriate, fails here as well.  Octave wears huge thigh-high boots with a flare at the top, and an epauletted jacket with huge shoulders that comes down just above the hips, leaving his mid-section, garbed in tight, striped trousers, exposed and vulnerable.  If Wallace were to use this somehow, to make some choices consistent with his costume, it could be funny.  But as it is, he looks rather embarrassed.)

As Leander, Patrick Lane is better simply because he understands there isn’t much to the part.  He’s the young swain immersed in love and unconscious to the rest of the world unless it threatens to interfere.  Thankfully, René Augesen plays his paramour, Zerbinette with a worldly mirth that energizes the entire stage. Zerbinette takes her pleasure where she can, laughing at fools and delighted to find there’s such a large supply.  Despite the ridiculousness of her own name, she revels in getting Hyacinth’s wrong, hurling out whatever H-word comes to mind, including  “Hydrangea” and “Hyperbole.” Insisting that Leander marry her if he wants to continue the affair, she announces “Surprise! I’m a virgin!” and gets a huge laugh.  Steven Anthony Jones and Geoff Hoyle (a fellow Pickle Family Circus alum along with Irwin) are also both quite funny as the hapless heads of family.

But Williford is Scapin’s ultimate winner. He shines without overshadowing and triumphs without conquering.  He’s a supporting and supportive actor, the very best kind.  With his easy masculinity, he’s also, despite all the foolery, slightly sexy.  It’s a shame he wasn’t provided with his own love interest.

Irwin’s name is all over the marquee, and he’s an undeniable talent, but by evening‘s end, the show is Williford’s.

Zerbinette (Rene Augesen) listens as Geronte (Geoff Hoyle) pontificates. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Scapin plays from now until October 23 at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street,
 San Francisco, CA, 94102.  For more information, call 415-749-2228 or visit http://www.act-sf.org.