Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Friday, July 31, 2009

OMG News

Just hit my inbox: A press release announcing that ACT's Heather Kitchen is stepping down at the end of August:
"Heather M. Kitchen, now in her 14th season as executive director at American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), will step down from her position at the end of August 2009. Ms. Kitchen will remain available to the company through the end of this year as a consultant and adviser during the transition process. The A.C.T. Board of Trustees is forming a search committee to conduct a comprehensive search for Ms. Kitchen’s successor."
No word of why she's stepping down.

This follows on the heels of news earlier this week that Marsha Mason has dropped out of Cal Shakes' Happy Days for personal reasons a couple of weeks before previews. Cal Shakes hasn't yet announced a replacement.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

The San Francisco Theater Festival

The crowd waits for Beach Blanket Babylon.

Performers from Beach Blanket Babylon.
(Closest I could get were the planters to the side and behind the stage.)

Performers from Broadway Bound.

Captain Jack Spareribs performs for the kiddies.

More Captain Jack.

Blue Blanket Improv.

The other shows I saw were indoors and couldn't get photos of. But The Marsh packed the Metreon's Action Theater with Don Reed, Wayne Harris and Kenny Yun. Charlie Varon nailed an excerpt of his Rabbi Sam for a packed house in the Goldman Theater (Contemporary Jewish Museum), followed by Dan Wolf and Tommy Shepherd's preview of Stateless, which opens at The Jewish Theatre (formerly Traveling Jewish Theatre) in October. Varon also brings Rabbi Sam back in October at The Marsh. I tried to see Dan Hoyle right after Stateless, but it was already "sold out."

It was sort of an embarrassment of riches this year. It was a huge crowd, and most indoor shows had long lines, and in some cases, like with Dan Hoyle, people were turned away. But the theatre people I spoke to were all really impressed with the big names (Wicked and Beach Blanket especially) this year and thought the festival was just getting bigger and better. So congratulations to Bill Schwartz and the rest of the SF Theater Festival crew for pulling off an excellent event--and bringing the sunshine out to boot.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Time Out Critiques the NY Theatre Scene

Time Out New York's theatre editor, David Cote, just published his 9 wishes for the New York theatre scene in the upcoming season. Now, I realize we are in San Francisco, with the entire country separating us from that theatre mecca, but let's face it: what happens in New York disseminates all the way out here--and pretty quickly at that.

In his article, Cote tells theatres everything from "you need to expand" to "you need a new, young artistic director." I really can't comment on most of this stuff, not being a New York resident. That said, there are some things that I had a very strong reaction to. My breakdown:

-Cote recommends that the Public Theater expand, putting up more productions more consistently and including events like art exhibitions and parties to attract a younger audience. Translation: Spend money you don't have to do what every theatre in the country is trying to do. Why is it only the Public Theater he recommends this for, and where does he expect anyone to find the money for it in the recession?

-Cote issues a call to arms to the blogosphere, telling it to get more angry and more exciting. He wants to "generate heat." What I find interesting is that he nowhere mentions traditional media. What about asking the few remaining theatre critics to imbue their words with more passion? In Chicago at least, Chris Jones, the Chicago Tribune's theatre critic, is still a force to be reckoned with. In a recent issue of Theatre Bay Area, associate editor Sam Hurwitt wrote about blogs as a niche medium, having less of an ability to attract wide audiences than the general interest newspapers. The niches are already passionate enough; it's the mass populace that should be reading diatribes and "noise." I refuse to believe that traditional media is dead--not yet.

-What has proven (thus far) to be the most controversial of his points on the article's comment thread is his #7: Architects should build new theatres to replace the "musty...antique jewel boxes." Those musty antique jewel boxes have so much character, though. Broadway theatres, at least, are big. Big modern spaces have a tendency to appear cold and austere. While that may suit big business just fine, it will only detract from the vibrant performing arts. And there is so much history in those theatres. Theatre as an art is ephemeral; the spaces in which it is performed should not be. It is all we have to remember the great productions of yesteryear--at least in the absence of archival video.

-Finally, Cote bemoans the sorry state of new pop-infused musical scores. He longs for lush orchestration and complexity. There is a whole school of composers producing invigorating and challenging work today, like Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, and Jason Robert Brown. It's not the music that's the problem, here, I think. It's the lack of originality in new musical books. Everything these days is an adaptation, a cash cow meant to capitalize on a franchise. We certainly do need more Next to Normals and fewer Legally Blondes, to use Cote's example, but the music is not the primary offender. Often, these big-budget knockoffs are written by very talented composers, but there's only so much you can do with something that's so blatantly profit-driven and pandering.

Take a look at the article and let me know what you think. What would you recommend for Bay Area theatre? Let's chat.

Image from

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Measure C in Oakland Passes!

While you have probably heard much in the news (I know I can't seem to get away from it) about Oakland voters passing Measure F, which allows for the taxing of medical marijuana dispensaries, local media outlets seem to be treating the passing of Measure C as a parenthetical news story.

The good news is that Measure C, which called for a 3 percent increase in the city hotel tax fund to go toward supporting arts and culture, was overwhelmingly passed. More details about the results of this vote can be found at


So, Theatre's in Trouble, Eh?

Victoria Nguyen has a fairly substantial article in this week's San Francisco Bay Guardian (on newsstands now!) on the state of the theatre community in the Bay Area, specifically looking at small and midsize companies. It's interesting to see the article in finished form, as Victoria has spoken to me and other Theatre Bay Area staff at least three times in the process of writing it. Verdict? It's about what I thought it was going to be.

I've got to say, the picture she paints is not necessarily pretty, and I sort of knew that was coming. In our discussions, Victoria particularly requested that she be pointed towards companies "struggling to stay afloat" and employees "suffering from 'burnout'." While I took some time to let her know that hunting out those stories doesn't make them the standard for the community right now, she seems to have continued on that path and written an article that paints a bleaker picture than I think is really representative of the current situation.

This is not to say that her article is inaccurate--as our Pulse Survey (which she references in the article) shows, things are not all sunshine and lollipops for companies right now, and it's a little unclear whether companies are reacting as proactively and forcefully as they might. And she highlights some great realities in the field right now, like a potential over-reliance on ticket income and a potential dearth of large-cast plays because of the financial realities of mounting them. I can nitpick that she claims that companies of all sizes are seeing reductions in ticketing income and individual donations, which doesn't actually seem to be true across the board (see this mention on PianoFight's blog and this article about DC's Arena Stage, for example). Anecdotally, two of the companies mentioned in the article (Impact and City Lights) have both told me that someof their shows have actually seen larger audiences than predicted, in some cases record-setting numbers.

Ultimately, while I'm a little sad that the positive stuff (the increased cooperation within the community, the new innovations occurring every day across size and scope, the new spaces being created by Z Space, Intersection and others) didn't make it in except insofar as it was mentioned as a direct effort to stay afloat, I am absolutely thrilled that the Bay Guardian spent five pictures (including the front page) and two pages talking about some of our best and brightest small companies.

And there is one bit of wisdom that is always good to remember. In the last paragraph, Victoria quotes Z Space AD Lisa Steindler saying, "We're artists--we're a smart group of people. We've just tightened, tightened, tightened. And who knows? Maybe we just caught it in time."

Here's hoping.

In other news (and running counter to my relative optimism), the Magic officially announced today that they're exiting stage right (okay, actually exiting the stage on the right as you go up the stairs to their venue in Fort Mason). They're dropping out of the Sam Shepard Theatre at Fort Mason and keeping only the thrust. The space is available for rent through Fort Mason, if you're interested.

Photo: Anne Galjour in Z Space Studio's upcoming production of You Can't Get There From Here. Photo by Clayton Lord (hey that's me!) Find out more.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Theatre Bay Area Walks to Eradicate AIDS

This past Sunday, many of the Theatre Bay Area staff participated in the 2009 San Francisco AIDS Walk through Golden Gate Park. As a team (there we are, at left!), we raised over $1,000 for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. It was a great experience for all of us, and we got a tremendous amount of support from friends, family and colleagues.

The walk itself is about 6 miles through Golden Gate Park with 25,000 other walkers from far and wide. The day was gorgeous in a way that San Francisco summer days rarely are--there was almost no fog, and the sun warmed everything to just the right temperature that we could walk in short sleeves. Monday morning (the morning after), commuting from sunny Petaluma, my bus plummeted into a big old layer of fog--much more traditional summer weather for the city. I’m glad we got the sun instead.

The organizers led a pre-walk stretching session and made sure we all were hydrated throughout the run. They had an inordinate number of high school-aged volunteers shouting encouragement through bullhorns all along the route, and they had set up bands to play at regular intervals along the route to encourage us along, and provided water, ice cream (my favorite part) and other snacks to keep us energized.

The walk attracted an extraordinarily diverse group of people. There were church groups and scientists, tons of little tiny dogs, ladies in their 70s and little kids on Razors all taking the route. It was a great feeling to be giving to such an important cause, and we’ve already got plans to take part again next year.

More photos:

Brad Erickson, Theatre Bay Area's executive director.

The walkers stretched for as far as we could see - 25,000 total!

Deputy director Cara Chrisman with a little friend.

The team on the move.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Exit, Hoppin'

I’ve seen three eclectic, fun and brilliant shows at the Exit Theatreplex in the past couple of weeks. (I also got to meet Ramona, the Exit’s new dog, who’s very sweet and affectionate.)

The hot ticket is Spare Stage’s production of Yasmina Reza’s The Unexpected Man, starring Ken Ruta and Abigail Van Alyn, on the Exit’s mainstage. What a treat to see Ken Ruta in an intimate theatre. His acting is so precise yet natural--he makes it look effortless. And Abigail Van Alyn is a wonderful counter to his bitter character, and she does a wonderful job of drawing the audience in. And why don’t we see more Yasmina Reza? The Unexpected Man may come off like a writing exercise, but the writing is fresh, smart, and the ending is brilliant. The Chronicle gave the show a glowing review earlier this week, and I’ve heard the tickets are going fast. Buy yours now. This is a master class in acting and writing.

The Flying Actor Studio was on the mainstage late this afternoon with The Zany and the Surreal, a show to promote its new school of physical theatre South of Market (you may have seen the ads in my Weekly Update e-newsletter for Theatre Bay Area members). James Donlon, John Gilkey and Leonard Pitt each performed several bits ranging from mime to clowning to mask work, all adding up to 80 minutes of pure fun. You’ll instantly recognize John Gilkey (if you don’t know his name already) from Cirque du Soleil, and here he performs some really dark comedy as well as some zany bits reminiscent of Looney Tunes. James Donlon is mesmerizing—his Fish routine is visual poetry. Leonard Pitt starts out with some stand-up, later offering some Dario Fo and enlightening mask work. Great fun. The next and last show is tomorrow (Sunday) at 3 p.m.

Across the hall at Exit Stage Left, Christian Cagigal is mindreading in Now and at the Hour, a hybrid magic/solo show that’s quite unlike anything on the San Francisco boards. He weaves his mindreading tricks into a backstory about growing up with his father, a Vietnam vet who returned from the war quite mentally altered. Christian’s performance demeanor is quite disarming. He immediately makes a connection with the audience, and you feel as if you’re in conversation with someone in his parlor. And his mindreading tricks are quite clever, but if you just focus on that you’re missing out on the complex story he’s telling you about time and memory. His story is kind of like magic in reverse: if magic looks hard but the explanation is easy, then the story looks easy until you realize how many secret compartments and trapdoors are in it.

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit I haven’t been going to the Exit as much as I used to—and now I realize again that I love the place so much.

Photo: Abigail Van Alyn and Ken Ruta in The Unexpected Man. Photo by Peter Prado for The Chronicle.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Smackdown: Audiences Vs. Donors! (Maybe)

A report out a couple days ago from Barclay’s Bank, reported on in the Daily Telegraph and brought to my attention by You’ve Cott Mail (click on “You’ve Cott Mail” in the left menu) presents an interesting picture of what’s happening with high-end individual donors across fields. And as they say, there’s good news and there’s bad news. Click here to download the whole White Paper (PDF).

Essentially, Barclay’s surveyed 500 wealthy donors and found that 75 percent of them have not reduced their charitable giving in the past 18 months--and that more than 25 percent have actually increased their charitable giving during that time. Per the Daily Telegraph:

“Now that governments are overburdened with debt, the rich felt it more important than ever that wealthy individuals did their bit for charity, the report said. When asked where they would make cuts if the downturn continued, respondents said they would be more likely to stint on luxury goods, holidays and eating out than curb their donations to charity.”

Good news, right? Well, maybe.

The bad news is that Barclay’s also reports that “traditional recipients of charitable donations”--the arts and religious organizations--are falling out of favor with these same donors in favor of more concrete causes like health care, children and environmental causes. In the words of the report, “This trend [will] accelerate over the next decade if the causes in question [Hey that’s us!] [fail] to engage in a meaningful way with the next generation of givers.”

Suddenly, the question of relevance is no longer an esoteric debate (if it ever was)--but now it has to be argued from both the audience development side and the donor cultivation side. Recently, this blog has had items (and very insightful comments) about what relevance actually means, specifically centered around the ability to develop new audiences. That discussion has primarily been fueled by representatives from smaller, more innovative companies who are reacting against exactly the comforting long-term sameness that I would argue most major donors (yes, a grand generalization) are drawn to. And many of their arguments, I think, are going to be hard to scale up to the larger companies, many of whom, as it happens, are the cultivators of more major donors. This is not to say that the “next generation of givers” that Barclay’s references will also be drawn to the traditions that are wrapped up in theatre, but I do think news like this begs the question: How do we both engage new audiences (new segments, people who are not looking for your same old presentational theatre experience) while also revitalizing the high-end donor base that (at least in large and some midsize companies) is supposedly the steadiest source of income over the long term?

Trends during this downturn locally (via the Pulse survey and anecdote) seem to indicate that loyal donors are indeed staying loyal, at least at a higher rate than foundations, corporations and non-donor attendees. I hope that continues. But that gets me to a quandary (which I realize is at least partially based in a stereotype of who those backbone donors are and what they enjoy): how can we innovate our way as a field into the hearts and minds of a new audience (more diverse, plucked from more distractions, used to on-demand everything and less appreciative of presentational cultural modes) while also continuing to court those staider, more traditional and, yes, more loyal would-be donors? Especially when competing (a sad word in this context) with things like poverty, heart disease, cancer, global warming, AIDS, etc.?

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Heads Up, Oakland Residents!

A heads up specifically to Oakland residents...

The city of Oakland, as you undoubtedly know, is in the midst of a mail-only election. The deadline for residents to return the ballot is July 21 (so it is suggested that it is mailed by July 16 or delivered in person).

The ballot has four measures to address the city financial crisis. One is Measure C, which provides additional funding to the cultural arts programs and festivals and the Oakland Convention and Visitors Bureau (and other organizations) by adding a three percent (3%) surcharge to the current eleven percent (11%) Transient Occupancy Tax (Hotel Tax) that persons who stay in Oakland hotels pay.

More details can be found at


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sad News

From our friends at Campo Santo.


We write to let you all know that our dear Luis Saguar passed on at 10:46 PM last night. He was incredibly peaceful, surrounded by warmth and love. He, Nancy, and his brother Pablo and sister Gloria were deeply moved and buoyed by the energy and support that each and every one of you channeled their way. Your beautiful stories, wishes and strength filled his journey with comfort, joy and so much love. We are all so lucky to be part of his circle. We will keep you informed as plans to celebrate Luis' life take shape. If you are would like to support the family in this time of need, any donations can be accepted through There you will find a foto of Luis on the homepage. There is a "donate now" button underneath the foto. Click that link and that page will give you two pull down menus, one asking how much you would like to give and the second asking for whom the donation is (on that pull down menu you will find Luis Saguar at the bottom). Any questions just ask,and bless you,,

Private Lives at Cal Shakes

Noel Coward writes the best insults. Even his most timid and "square" characters in Private Lives delivered some zingers.

The plot of Private Lives certainly provides plenty of opportunity for insults. It centers around two couples on their honeymoons, housed next door to each other in a French hotel. The problem? The next-door neighbors are divorcees who had a very fiery, tumultuous relationship. Hilarity ensues, hearts are broken, pillows are ripped open and records are broken over people's heads. It's a screwball comedy with British flair.

And the audience loved it. Those stinging comebacks made them literally react out loud. Which is exactly what any theatre company would want at a first preview.

In fact, the whole performance of Private Lives at the lovely Bruns Amphitheater during the preview on Wednesday night resembled a wrestling match. The audience vocalized absolutely every emotion, cheering, laughing and audibly gasping at how beautiful Diana Lamar's wardrobe for the character of Amanda looked.

I had never been to Cal Shakes before, so the whole experience was something new. And Cal Shakes is certainly an experience.

I have heard the chilly evening weather on a mountainside in Orinda can sometimes detract from enjoyment of the show, but last night it was a fairly mild evening. The free blankets on rental were still welcome, to be sure, but the weather was tolerable. The scenery was gorgeous and truly added to the show, particularly the first act, which is supposed to take place outside. It lent a nice air of credibility to have twilight actually falling around the actors. It really did feel like a hotel balcony in France with the birds chirping and wind rustling the trees. Being outside does have its drawbacks though: There were a couple of times the roar of airplanes overhead completely drowned out the action onstage.

Although I am a Cal Shakes neophyte, I am a Mountain Play veteran, and this felt like a more intimate version of that North Bay experience. You sit in the terrace section and wish that the woman behind you would move her feet just slightly farther away from the side of your face, that the mosquitoes would choose someone else to bother, and that the couple in front of you would stop repeating every line in voices more audible than a whisper (somehow, being outdoors makes people think sound doesn't carry). But in a way all that informality in the audience adds to the communal atmosphere and contrasts nicely with the bygone era Private Lives hearkens back to.

The production itself was certainly fun. It is always impressive when Coward becomes accessible to a modern-day audience. It can easily come off as very stiff, and here it didn't. This play presents a problem in that it makes light of such heavy stuff as domestic violence. But that only rarely bothered me, a testament to the ability of this production to take the audience out of present-day America and into 1930s Europe. In fact, I saw a live version of the love-hate wrestling match on BART on the way home. A young couple was clawing, slapping and pushing, all the while with smiles on their faces. It was an appropriate foil to the silly violence of the production I had just seen.

There were kinks in Private Lives, of course, as it was the first preview. There was one heart-stopping moment when one actor teetered on the edge of the couch he was standing on. The shape of the character arcs could be sharper and bigger--sometimes the acting was extreme when it needed more intimacy and not extreme enough when it needed to be over-the-top. But they're at a good jumping-off point and should have a good rhythm by opening night on Saturday.

The best thing about previews is that actors are still making discoveries. There is lots of cigarette smoking in this piece, and every time someone went to light one the wind would make the task near-impossible. This led to some hysterical moments in which this mundane act became a prolonged ordeal that heightened the tension between the divorces and elicited plenty of laughs. The fact that it kept happening only added. It's a bit the actors should keep regardless of the weather at each performance.

And it feels good to be a part of that process of discovery, to know that your reactions are shaping how this play will change. And it feels good to be out in (tamed) nature, watching art. It feels good to laugh at divorce and fighting and the French. If you go to Private Lives, you'll have a good time, no doubt. At the very least, you'll come away with some great lines to use in the next fight you have with your spouse.

Photo: (L to R) Diana Lamar, Jud Williford, Stephen Barker Turner and Sarah Nealis. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Skew: Critics and Users

As an offshoot to my previous post about advocacy and cheerleading--and as an offshoot of some of the comments it generated--I offer a couple of links that I picked up tonight while going through the some 50 blogs I subscribe to via Bloglines:

First, a Washington Post entry about whether or not critics matter, wherein;

Second, there's a link to a Goldstar survey about "entertainment habits".

I haven't yet processed all the info, so won't comment yet, but wanted to share and let y'all start the conversation.

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Advocacy or Cheerleading...Or Both?

The July/August issue of American Theatre hit my mailbox today, and I found an intriguing juxtaposition in its Letters section. I skimmed the page and saw Tony Taccone’s name as one of the letter-writers, and I knew right away he was going to take exception to the feature Karen D’Souza wrote about You, Nero, where she basically rehashed negative criticism of the South Coast Rep performance in a feature that in theory was supposed to be about the second production at Berkeley Rep. (For some reason, the May/June issue hasn't been archived online yet, otherwise I would provide a link.) Now, when I read Karen’s article, I thought to myself, Why would she be rehashing all this negativity—and some of it was fairly below the belt—in an article about new work for a magazine like American Theatre? Tony pointed out the same thing in his letter—that “instead of a thoughtful examination of this topic, the story read like a harsh review of the first production”—and he also went on to support his colleagues at South Coast Rep.

Another letter in the issue referenced a previous letter that took the magazine to task for the “negative tenor” of David Freedlander’s article about Danny Hoch and that said that the magazine should not publish articles that generate negativity. This letter-writer, J.T. Rogers, said, “Wrapped in [this] complaint is an idea I’ve heard put forward by many people in many theatres around this country: that this magazine’s role is to serve as a cheerleader for the work we do. Full stop…. My response to this is: Really?

Naturally, this topic really interests me. While I personally think that Karen D’Souza went way too far in her article—and question American Theatre’s decision to print it as is—I do understand the fine line of cheerleading and relevancy. While theatre does needs advocates, when does advocacy stray into cheerleading and start doing more harm than good? To give a simplistic example: Say a theatre critic always reviews every show she sees favorably. While the theatre community may be thrilled, in the longer term readers may start distrusting the critic because they spent money on shows they thought were awful. So they stop going to the theatre. So, what was the point in cheerleading? (I guess so companies could have good clippings for the funders?) Now, in this example, I’m assuming the critic is praising shows that are undoubtedly awful, not shows that elicit a more subjective response. Like I said, it’s simplistic. It also isn’t entirely relevant to American Theatre or Theatre Bay Area, because we don’t print straight reviews.

This is the gray area. In these two magazines, which advocate for theatre, is even a hint of negativity completely out of place, or does it provide, in J.T.’s words, “a serious response to a serious piece of theatre rather than a hagiographic profile”? Even though most of us can admit that sometimes our work is not up to par for any number of legitimate reasons or that our risks sometimes fail, do we still think that the job of the industry magazines is to completely disregard these facts and cheerlead instead? Or should the industry magazines paint a more multidimensional picture of the production, the person, etc.? I suppose it’s a case-by-case basis, but it seems to me that Karen’s article could have been much more nuanced without losing sight of the complexities of working on a new play that just isn’t, well, working—as well as some of the solutions.

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

On Theatre Etiquette

The LA Stage Blog posted a link to a fascinating little article in the London Times online edition called The 15 Golden Rules of Theatre Etiquette. It's neat, but it left me with a bit of an odd taste in my mouth, given how gung-ho I am on trying to bend our rules to incorporate new audiences into the fold.

As some of you may have read, I’ve been engaged in a pretty active conversation with some of our smaller companies about changes in theatre etiquette--and, really, changes in expectations about theatre etiquette. Of course there’s a fine line to walk, but one thing that has come up which I think deserves some merit is that, by sticking with all of these rules over time, we’re actually hurting ourselves by not adjusting to changes in audience demographics, attitudes, etc.

For example, this one from the Golden Rules:
“If the child you’re bringing is chatty, gag it. If it’s fidgety, handcuff and shackle it. And if you’re altruistic enough to bring a school party to a Shakespeare matinée, threaten potential wrongdoers with tickets to the next revival of Timon of Athens, to be followed by a ten-page essay on the ethics of Apemantus.”

Rebecca Novick wrote recently on the Chatterbox about taking her daughter to a National Dance Week performance--her first live performance ever. All the kid wanted to do was get up and dance (it was a dance performance), and Rebecca was told that she had to get the kid to calm down, quiet down, and sit still--or she had to leave. The girl, unfortunately but not surprisingly, lost interest as soon as she wasn’t able to engage the way she as a child would.

I totally get that there need to be levels of propriety. But I think we as a community really need to start thinking more outside that box, allowing for new ways to experience/interpret/participate in live theatre, or we’re going to get left in the dust….

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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo at ACT

Let me begin with an admission, in the spirit of full disclosure: Edward Albee went to my high school. I've shared a pedestrian dining hall lunch with him when he visited three years ago. And in the 45 minutes I spent with him, both Albee's genius and his jaded view of the world were evident. So the strangeness of his plays is no shocker.

Let me now begin with an admonition: the audience at last night's production was incredibly rude. A number of cell phones went off, prompting the stage manager to announce to the audience after intermission, "Please kindly turn off your cell phones." Applause followed the announcement, and yet one more cell phone went off during the performance. Furthermore, the woman behind me unwrapped her Altoids not right before the lights came up on the stage but right after. In what world that makes sense, I don't know. Later on, similar to what Clay experienced when he attended this production (see his earlier post on this blog), I too caught a whiff of alcohol, but this offender was not openly sipping from a glass -- he had a flask.

The sanctity of the theatre is officially dead.

Albee's At Home at the Zoo is really his first produced play, The Zoo Story, coupled with a new prequel called Homelife. The first act finds Peter and Ann, a married couple, who supposedly have a full (but completely silent) household with two children, cats and two parakeets, chatting about everything from the textbooks Peter publishes for a living to breasts, vanishing circumcisions and the mechanics and passion--or lack thereof--of sex. As they talk, you're never quite sure how they are jumping from one thing to another. I'm not sure if I found this realistic or unrealistic, though.

In fact, realism is where this play falters. I think it doesn't know where it wants to fall. Albee is known for his surrealism-- think Play About the Baby or Seascape--so in producing what amounts to a "day in the life" play, albeit with a little surprise at the end, ensuring this is no ordinary day, one can't help but question.

In the second act, Peter is reading in Central Park when a crazy man named Jerry comes up and starts vomiting up his personal life. In New York City, no self-respecting man would sit there and actually engage this man who is clearly off his rocker, despite the natural charm of actor Manoel Felciano. The educated, wealthy couple talks with essentially the same voice as crazy poor man Jerry, against all odds. Everyone walks a fine line between pedestrian and stylized speech, and at times it was distracting rather than engaging.

The set design certainly worked in harmony with the themes of repression and desperation in the play. Ann, however, plays the woman longing to break free of the repression surrounding her. One wonders why she doesn't just dirty up her white, sterile living room a la Lane in Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House. Instead she opts to slap her husband for no reason. The austerity of the house is matched by the austerity of scenic designer Robert Brill's Central Park, which again takes us out of realism, because Central Park should be bustling and busy, particularly given the abundant ambient noise.

At some point during one of Jerry's tirades, however, that ambient noise stopped. I am not sure when. It was just suddenly clear that Jerry was screaming into silence, much like Peter and Ann had in the first act. Silence permeates this show, in fact; there are perhaps too many pregnant pauses in the first act. But every time one of those pauses came around, this unusually noisy audience I had the great fortune to be a part of was rapt with attention. They were possibly the only moments when there was no rustling of paper, ringing of cell phones, people getting up to go to the lobby for God knows what reason. Complete silence in the theatre. To quell this audience, and make that ambient noise fade to the background until it's gone--that takes some powerful acting.

To me, that is the best thing the production had going for it. Nothing much happens in this play; it's really just talking heads. With an austere set only two people inhabit at any given time, it would be easy to lose the audience. But the actors' thoughtful performances, wholly committing to extreme characters, and the poignancy of Albee's poetry, however flawed in terms of voice, make two hours of talking heads bearable, even revelatory.

Manoel Felciano is brilliant as Jerry. He stole the show. Rene Augesen, the ACT standby, was predictably wonderful too. And Anthony Fusco, whose job for most of Act Two is really just to listen believably to Jerry, accomplishes this hardest of theatrical feats very admirably. But Jerry is the lesson of the play, Jerry is the crux, and Felciano infused the role with humanity, quirkiness and quiet desperation.

All in all, the production is flawed only by Albee's words. Perhaps this can be accounted for by the nearly 50-year time span between when Albee wrote the second act and the first, or maybe it lies in the fact that this story was his first (although I found the second act--the earlier one--stronger than the more recently-penned one). There was an awkwardness and a sense of the words trying to find a character. But the acting and production value of ACT's mounting is stellar. Go see it before it closes July 5. But unwrap your Altoids early, stay put, turn off your cell phones and leave the flasks at home.

Photo: Anthony Fusco (right) and Manoel Felciano. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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