Monday, June 16, 2008

On the Road - in Washington DC

The Imaginary Invalid by Molière

In their 22-year history in the nation’s capital Michael Kahn and collaborators have created a theatre based on the classics, one that has no equal on this side of the Atlantic. Even the great British contemporary theatres must find these Americans hard to match. In April of 2007 I saw the Royal Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at the Kennedy Center one night, and on the next, the Americans’ Titus Andronicus in the much smaller and more traditional Landsburg Theatre on 5th street. Titus was the better play. And in my memory, their Washington Coriolanus of 2000 was a better production than that of the Royals in 2007. Eve Ziebert’s article on the competing presentations published in the Washington Post adroitly contrasted Shakespeare’s plays while tactfully omitting any direct comparison of the players.

Chicago has the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, out on downtown Navy Pier near the Ferris wheel, but it's a highly marketed, populist affair (the upcoming season includes "Willy Wonka" and their current Comedy of Errors puts Shakespeare's short early comedy into a dubious framework of a film company working during the London blitz -- amusing stuff but with a treacly overlay in the pre-war style of Shepperton Studios).

In Washington, however, Kahn has progressively attracted patronage of the Great and mostly Good, and last year the company opened a huge new theatre at the Harmon Center in downtown, just across from the former MCI center, home to sports events and circuses. They expanded their season from five to eight plays or more running drawn from the classical repertory (which stretches at times into the twentieth century). Each runs for a month or more. Currently you can attend Antony & Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, alternating in the Harmon Center, and from this past week, Molière’s Imaginary Invalid at the Landsburg, just two blocks away.

When we were season ticket holders back from 1997-2000, we always brought along our two children. In 1998 they were 14 and 11 years old – the youngest audience members by several decades. Although our younger one usually couldn’t stay awake past the third act, both were deeply impressed by the theatre. They are Shakespeare lovers today.

The Washington company offers an astonishing deal to subscribers under 30 years of age. Last year they charged only $120 for my daughter’s season ticket to the eight-play season – $15 a show, while full-price mid-week tickets at the box office cost $60 and up.

In addition to entertaining at a high level, the company offers the public a superb education about its plays. Their mail-out brochure for each play offers history, commentary, biographies of principal directors and players, and insights into the production and into the art of the theatre. For all there are Podcasts available on the website, along with videos, generally featuring the director and an academic expert exploring the play and the choices for the production.

Keith Baxter, director of the Imaginary Invalid, re-establishes the “new theatre” that Molière created in 1660s for Louis XIV, France’s “Sun King.” The farce gives a linear narrative – in this case, the intrigue is that of hypochondriac Arpagan to wed his tender daughter to a physician so as to guarantee “in-house” services for bleeding, enemas, and similarly ghastly treatments. This is the text that is regularly presented even today. But Baxter and the company provide as preface, interludes and celebratory coda graceful and amusing ballet, songs, and slapstick drawn directly from the Italian tradition of the commedia dell’arte. The show recreates in their imagination and ours the 4th performance of the piece at the court on February 17, 1674 – including the homages to the Sun King and at the last moment, the unexpected appearance of that regal figure onstage.

Rubber-faced René Auberjonois is a self-mocking delight as Molière playing one of his most famous characters. The actors’ diction is uniformly superb throughout, mime and business are subtle and so manifold that one could attend three nights in a row and not catch all the physical jokes. The broad style was perfectly appropriate – let’s call it Marx brothers done declamatory fashion in brilliant costumes and graced by acrobats.

The younger members of the family reported that a couple of 30-somethings seated in front of them got up and left abruptly during the first half (perhaps unwilling to stretch themselves beyond ‘Seinfeld’ -- maybe they should get their theatre at Chicago's Navy Pier). But the rest of us stayed and enjoyed it a great deal.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Eddy Izzard, Stripped -- the U.S. Tour

June 6-8, Paramount Theatre

Until very recently, I had no idea who Eddy Izzard was.

- - You’ve got to be kidding. Really? Eddy Izzard? Where have you been?

Well – in reverse chronological order, I’ve been living in the Dominican Republic, Switzerland, Gabon, Senegal, Cyprus, Ecuador, Algeria, etc., over the past three decades, with brief assignments to Washington DC. And we have never been plugged in to U.S. television anywhere, any time. So I lack some U.S. cultural references.

To tell the truth, I had, at least, heard of Eddy Izzard. A year ago, while my daughter was finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, the Episcopal chaplain sent her and others a link to an Izzard commentary on ritual in the Church of England. Pretty funny stuff, taking the mickey out of the clergy. And by the way, when the newly appointed Episcopal bishop in Chicago recently visited the school’s Brent House outreach to students, he did another Eddy Izzard routine for them, verbatim. Except maybe without the “***ng” parts.

Back in April we saw a full page ad in the New York Times for Izzard’s 30-city tour of the United States, which included three nights in Austin. Only four other cities got three nights of Izzard: Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco. And he'll wind it up with four nights in Los Angeles. ("I'm bicoastal. London and Los Angeles.")

I followed my daughter’s enthusiasm and I wrangled some “limited obstructed view” tickets in the first balcony, purchased directly from the box office. We got Netflix to send us the video of his 1995 “Definite Article” tour. After we watched that, we wondered what the hell we were getting ourselves into.

It didn’t help when the Austin Chronicle began its announcement of the man’s three-day engagement at the Paramount Theatre with, “Eddie Izzard. Eddie f***ng Izzard. Right: Make your reservations now.”

We had the tickets already. So we went, to his last show, on Sunday.

The house was full. Within the already rococo Paramount theatre stood a set that resembled something out of an Indiana Jones movie: stark side curtains looking like rock walls and a matching rear temple wall with a high window in it. Behind the excited buzz of the crowd we could hear the recorded warm-up music: a grandiose aria from Mozart’s Figaro, some sweeping Strauss waltz schmaltz, ballet music that had to come from Tchaikovsky, and then, oh, God,
Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance.

Then there he was, and the crowd went wild. He didn’t even have to say anything. He strode around the stage in well worn jeans and a frowzy cutaway coat with red lining, taking his first bows.

He charmed us all with his rapid fire, unpredictable patter, abrupt pauses during which we could almost see the cogs in his brain jamming and then letting loose, and all of it in that articulate, beautifully articulated, deliberately slangy and at times f****ng vulgar Brit speak. He did an early bit on how cross dressing as a young man had brought him the unforgettable experiences of being mocked, threatened and walloped -- grin, grimace, laughter. He riffed on Wikipedia as the source of all knowledge and on accepting computer updates (“then after all that you boot it back up and it’s no ***ing different!”).

“Welcome to Austin! Uh, your own city – I had no idea this was the capital, until I walked out and saw that big building out there.”
He talked about the vast distances and differences in America. In one early throwaway he reminded us that European history was different. “We went through the two big wars, and we had millions of bodies piled up.” He did a disquisition on killing through the ages, miming victims and murderers, playing assassins for laughs because they were high on hashish and incapable of thinking straight. He mocked ancient beliefs and then replied to himself by dispatching the mocker with a sword thrust (“Oh, yeah, Future Boy?”).

He took on knowledge itself, and time, language, religion and the Bible, the extinction of the dinosaurs and the nature of sin.
Meanwhile, that window high in the rear temple wall lit slowly, cycling through slow color changes first with a sun, then with a giant eye in a partially seen face that cycled through all the colors of the races of man and wept stars. In the second hour of Izzard’s no-intermission wild flight, the window shaded gradually toward night and a stark moon loomed through it. Eddy Izzard ignored that enigmatic window completely, striding about far downstage, close to the audience, driven by his own inner images.

And seized by sudden characters. Warriors. Flying fish. Dinosaurs (big, dumb and mute, trying to understand the world about them). Moses delivering the commandments (twice, the first in hilarious mime to fellow dinosaurs). Roman soldiers trying to conjugate and understand enough Latin to communicate the fact that Hannibal was coming over the Alps. Barnyard animals (noisy) and wild animals (silent). Flying fish. God himself, watching TV and drinking beer, too absorbed to pay attention to disasters of humankind. Egyptian soldiers pursuing fleeing Israelites through a plague of frogs (“Frogs? That’s not a plague. That’s just – lots of frogs! God must have run out of plagues. Oh, uh, yeah, send 'em frogs.”). Einstein. Jesus at the Second Coming, massively surprised to be unrecognized because his name in Aramaic is in fact “Eashoá.” A long bit on characters picking up flaming torches in spooky movies, with sound effects and an invitation to crawl down into a dark tunnel after treasure (“Hah! No way!”). The swelling Appendix, telephoning the Creator of Intelligent Design, for guidance.

And offering apparently spontaneous commentaries. “Oh, yes, this is tightly scripted, tightly scripted. Hah!” On history: “Either the world started about 7,000 years ago, according to some, or hundreds of millions of years ago. So what did the dinosaurs think about that?” On Darwin (“and his book: Monkey, Monkey, Monkey, Monkey, YOU!”). On the Bible – “Great stories, heroes, but why didn’t God tell us on the first page in Genesis, ‘by the way, it’s round’?” On the ethics of major religions: “Never mind the Ten Commandments. When you delve down into it all, you really need only one: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Oh, and one more: what goes around, comes around. But then that’s really the same thing. Only in reverse.”

Izzard didn’t comment much on politics, other than a harmless throwaway on George Bush, and he said not a word about Iraq. But at the encore, Eddy told us he hopes that Americans will elect Barack Obama and maybe Democrats will choose Hilary as vice president. “A great idea. Not just 8 years, go for 16!” He asked us to engage and work for our candidates for November.

After Izzard took his bows again and finally disappeared from the stage, behind the excited and satisfied buzz of the crowd, the exit music was high-energy rock ‘n’ roll with lots of drums.

Wow. Now I understand why the Episcopalians like this man. He has the energy and unpredictability of Robin Williams, but he is obsessing over so much more. This smart, cheery, vulgar not-politically-correct Brit is talking about the Whole Thing. We are laughing, beguiled by his changes and imagination, while Eddy Izzard is riffing on death and murder and faith and eternity. He is looking into the dark depths of history and pre-history, and he is lighting them up with sharp flashes of wit, amazement and contradiction. And don’t we wish that we had his acuity?

[Click for a brief review of the same performance, by Austin Statesman blogger John Forre, June 9]

Monday, June 9, 2008

Petra’s Sueño, Teatro Vivo

June 4-8, 2008

First of all, though Rupert Reyes and his Teatro Vivo assure you that this is a “bilingual comedy,” their generous-hearted Petra’s Sueño is in fact written more than 90% in English. The meaning of virtually every syllable of the Spanish dialogue is made clear by restatement in English, in context or in mime. You could speak not a word of Spanish and yet still capture everything; and if you do understand Spanish, this confection is more delicious still.

Matter-of-fact, optimistic, and industrious without complaint, the apparently childless middle-aged Petra (Irene González, center) operates a tortilla factory and shop in a small town somewhere in south Texas. The framed show posters displayed in the modest lobby of the Long Center’s Rollins Theatre show that over the past 8 years Petra has featured in the often-produced elements of a Teatro Vivo trilogy – Petra’s Pecado (Petra’s Sin), Petra’s Cuento (Petra’s Tale), and this dream play, Petra’s Sueño. Reyes, who plays Petra’s equally amiable and hard-working husband Rafa (Rafael, in light blue shirt) writes in the program, “. . . it’s time now to say farewell to the Petra plays. Well, maybe not farewell forever, but we do not have plans to produce these plays again in the near future. Now, Teatro Vivo is poised to take our wonderful audiences to another level.”

Assuming that other Teatro Vivo productions have followed the approach of artistic director/playwright Reyes, this declaration suggests that the group may have decided on a paradigm shift – and the announced 2008-2009 season (detailed below) reinforces such an interpretation.

Though perhaps half of the audience that filled the 400-seat Rollins theatre on Sunday afternoon was of Latino origin, this Petra play is a valentine to Anglos and to second-generation Mexican Americans, inviting them to appreciate and enjoy the friendship, family ties, honesty and humor of the thoroughly cross-cultural inhabitants of a small town. These characters are no complainers and no ideologues. They discuss briefly the inadequate compensation initially offered by a manufacturing firm planning to relocate to the town; and Rafa is detained by the border authorities (“la Migra”) because he forgets to take his citizenship papers when he goes to buy a tortilla machine in Mexico. But the townspeople are fully capable of dealing with these problems. They
agree on a counterproposal to the factory and Rafa is quickly set free by his distant cousin, who happens to be running the border crossing office. The problems and follies of Petra’s Sueño arise from misunderstandings, an occasional excess of pride, and from the literally diabolical machinations of the black-caped Devil (Michael Mendoza, right) who engages Petra’s guardian angel (Natalia Marlena Goodnow, left) in a contest for that good woman’s soul. (This is a dream, remember.)

The plot is light and builds a narrative with comic, illogical developments, in which the bad guys are caricatures of wickedness, as in the best vaudeville (in good groundling fashion, I was tempted at times to boo or hiss but I contained myself). Mendoza made a flamboyant Devil, seated in his throne of darkness above the sets, and he certainly enjoyed himself – though sometimes in his imprecations he deformed his deep and mellifluous voice with a fricative rasp not really needed for the characterization. Playing Mendoza’s obsequious devilish assistant Grano, Rudy Sandoval was a delight, a slender sinewy strutting clown with attitude. And Petra’s nemesis, the nefarious rival tortilla shop operator Tina Tamayo (Yvonne Flores), was a wonderful cartoon villain full of mendacity, so ambitious to defeat Rafa (Reyes) in the mayor’s race that she contracted devil’s assistant Grano as her political consultant without bothering to check the price: her eternal soul. Even non-Spanish-speakers got it when the wicked Tina offered arch campaign remarks in an impossibly Gringo accent.

Also appearing as a cartoonish character is Petra’s guardian angel (Natalie Marlena Goodnow, robed in white and sporting wings touched with tinsel). Wounded in her contest with the Devil, the Angel is obliged to stay with Petra for four weeks, until her wings can grow back. She is innocent and earnest as Petra shields her and creates a legend for her, but in her temporary mortal condition she progressively adopts human vices and passions. Goodnow incarnates these changes and becomes the bad daughter we all want never to have, at least until the resolution in the second act. This slim, focused young actress has great presence throughout, moving from cartoon to fully realized character.

But the actors giving us Petra, her husband and her employees – the merely human characters -- are the prizes of the piece. Even though the plot is by turns silly, wistful and illogical, with their warmth, vulnerability and sympathy, the actors make both their daily lives and their fantastical transports very real. As Petra throughout the 8 years of the trilogy, González is certainly well known and liked by Teatro Vivo’s audiences. Anyone there would have been happy to shop at Petra’s Tortillas and to vote for Rafa for mayor. A special applause goes to JoJanie Segura as the tortilla shop’s principal employee Tacha. She first appears in curlers and a billowing nightgown to answer a late-night telephone call from Petra. Alternately tough and tender, ebullient Tacha is the center of the play. Her voyage beyond death in Petra’s dream is dramatic and touching, as is her quiet deathbed reconciliation with fellow employee Chano (Tomás Contreras).

Mary Alice Carnes’ direction keeps the action lively, and she makes the most of the comic shifts of character and scene in Reyes’ script. This cast must have been a pleasure to work with. The set was functional and convincing; putting the Devil up above the action might not be theologically correct, but it certainly helped fill up the barren space of the Rollins Theatre, a cavern big enough to serve as a garage for three tractor trailers. Music was lively and appropriate, although I could have used a bit more volume on the “radio station” interludes. One quibble on the lighting, which was otherwise appropriate – the decision to use a “window frame” projection on stage right was unfortunate, since it cast unnecessary and distracting shadows on faces.

[Click here for Pati Hadad's July 2005 review in the Austin chronicle of
the earlier Petra's Pecado.]

[Click here for a profile of Michael and Celeste Mendoza, by Jeanne Claire van Ryzin]

[Click here for Elizabeth Cobbe's preview of the August 14-24 Voces de Vivo one-act plays, published by the Austin Statesman on August 15]

Teatro Vivo's 2008-2009 season

"August 14-24
Three original one-act plays created by company members Natalie Goodnow, Celeste Mendoza, Michael Mendoza and Rupert Reyes

"November 5-16
Fantasmaville by Raul Garza
"This dramatic comedy explores lives out of balance in the wake of community gentrification. Winner of the 2007 National Latino Playwrights Award, Fantasmaville sparkles with entertaining dialogue and engaging characters (including a human-sized Raccoon spirit guide).

"March 5-16, 2009
Keeping Track by Erica saenz
Inspired by the current usage of microchip technology for personal identification, Keeping Track explores the boundaries of personal freedom. In this bilingual comedy, family and friends become tangled up in each other's lives with shocking andhilarious results.

"July 16-27, 2009
Tripas by Lisa Cortez Walden
The word 'tripas' (Spanish for 'intestines') most often refers to the Mexican delicacy once banned by the FDA. In this play, Cortez Walden redefines it as the part of our lives that we have tried to suppress, but must ultimately face. This fast-moving story of old and new relationships will engage, enlighten and entertain."

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Austin Playhouse - A Funny Thing Happened. . . .May 23, June 29

At first glance, Austin Playhouse’s 150-seat theatre at Allen Field hardly seems large enough to contain the exuberance of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (May 23-June 29). Mysteriously, as we arrived in the foyer at 7:25 for an 8:00 Thursday curtain, the closed doors reverberated with the opening number, “A Comedy Tonight” - - a last-minute polishing? A run-through of a revision of the dance number? The familiar musical with a cast of 18 has a stage band of three, but they sounded like double that number.

In fact, the Playhouse does contain the action very nicely, in part because Don Toner has directed the focus toward the lower, center seats occupied by the season ticket holders. Mind you, there’s not a bad seat in the house, but those privileged viewers must be giddy with the ins and outs, appearances and disappearances that take advantage of the aisles to pop up just in front of them for the next bit of business.

You could assert that Funny Thing was already a war horse when the Sondheim-Shevelove-Gelbart musical opened in New York in 1963 and went on to do 964 performances before becoming a movie and then a mainstay of community theatres across the English-speaking world. The conventions of the “tricky slave” and the long-lost children eventually reunited go back to real Roman days, as in the plays of Plautus and his contemporaries. Shadowings of those elbow-in-the-audiences’-ribs jokes occur again and again throughout theatre history.

But familiar doesn’t mean boring or trite. Everyone loves a funny man, and we can all hum along with several of Sondheim’s songs (especially Comedy Tonight, Lovely, and Everybody Ought to Have a Maid).

This production is full of energy and cannily cast. Toner and lead “tricky slave” Pseudolus (Michael Stuart, right) deal with the ghost of Zero Mostel in forthright fashion by channeling him without embarrassment. Stuart is just as lumbering, pop-eyed, and stage-stealing as the Master, and he obviously has a huge amount of fun in delivering the character.

Characters just as diverting are Hysterium the house overseer (Hans Venable, left, by turns cranky, bewildered, feisty, and in one very funny moment even delicately feminine) and next-door panderer Marcus Lycus (Huck Huckaby, 3rd in line), who at times with his tilted angular face and transparent guile resembles the late, great British comic Peter Cook.

Plot: young man Hero (Clay Cartland) falls for the pretty face of Philia (the lovely, vacant-blue-eyed blonde Haley Smith), visible in the window of the house of panderer Marcus Lycus. Tricky slave Pseudolus (Stuart) elicits his master’s promise to free him if he can deliver the doll, who inconveniently has already been sold to the Roman captain Miles Gloriosus (another stock figure of Roman comedy, the soldier of “a thousand glories,” played by Brian Coughlin). The young man’s father Senex (Latin for “old man” and played by Tom Parker, 2nd in line) happens to be undertaking a trip out of Rome with his tough old bird of a wife Domina (yes, Latin for “the dominating woman” and done by Bernadette Nason). A near-sighted old neighbor Erronius (Dirk van Allen) returns from years of searching for his children, lost to pirates.

So the stage is set, so to speak, for intrigue, disguises, a failed attempt to use a sleeping potion, mistaken identities, horny old guys delighted by the prospects of young flesh, and wild chases through most of Act II. All turns out well for the lovers, of course, as well as for the rest of the cast, although usually via unexpected surprises.

Lovers Hero (Cartland) and Philia (Smith) are indeed “lovely,” as their song proclaims, but the book doesn’t give them a lot to work with for characterization. They sing well and pose delicately. Hero’s parents Senex (Parker) and Domina (Nelson) are much more endearing as old lechers with few romantic illusions.

The show calls for many extras to keep things moving – 6 courtesans (including a pair of putative twins) who get about 30 seconds each to tempt prospective buyers, 3 eunuchs (directed to emit squeaks, giggles and bounces worthy of silly bouncing six-year-olds) and 3 Protean soldiers (“hut-hut” marching and reacting in Keystone Cops confusion). Some of the dance numbers are crowded and the silliness of the extras gets a bit extreme, but the audience was loving it.

Toner directs his cast to build to a fine climax but races through the denouement too quickly for my taste. Yes, the lost children are rediscovered, resolving all – but there is a lost opportunity for inflection there. The expectant audience would enjoy just the tiniest moment of dawning – particularly from the squared-off Miles Gloriosus (Coughlin, credible, with a fine voice and by no means bombastic) and from the ancient near-sighted father, Erronius (van Allen), who has already established great affinity with the audience with his asides.

The dutiful Top Kat Trio sits at deep center stage since there is no orchestra pit, and the audience happily forgets that the bass (George Fahlund), keyboard (Steve Saugey) and percussion (Trevor Detling) are completely anachronistic. Sets by Janet Hurley Kimlicko make no effort to parade as anything other than cartoon representations, an approach appropriate with this musical.

We had a great time. As Austin newcomers, we were attending our second Austin Playhouse production - - and at the intermission I went out to the foyer and purchased season tickets for 2008 – 2009 from Producing Artistic Director Toner himself, who was happy to talk theatre with me.

[Click here for Elizabeth Cobbe's perceptive June 13 review in the Austin Chronicle]