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Authors Posts by Charles Brousse

Charles Brousse

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‘The Legend of Georgia McBride’ wildly entertaining

Marin Theatre Company’s amusing ‘The Legend of Georgia McBride’ is anything but a drag. Photo by Kevin Berne.

By Charles Brousse

Are you among those who find watching drag queens do their thing on stage exciting? Are you attracted by the thought of observing the graphic details of how men transform themselves into caricatures of women with wigs, costumes, makeup and figure-altering “enhancements?” Does the quality of the script and performances matter less than the performers’ ability to connect with their audience and deliver an entertaining show?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, you should consider attending Marin Theatre Company’s (MTC) Bay Area premiere of Matthew Lopez’ The Legend of Georgia McBride, the final production (through July 9) of its 2016-2017 season. If you answered “yes” to all three, get on the telephone or internet NOW and make your reservations. This show is for you!

Lopez’ previous connection with MTC was the well-received 2013 production of The Whipping Man, an intense drama set in Richmond, Virginia near the end of America’s Civil War. A pair of liberated black slaves risk their lives caring for the seriously wounded Confederate son of their former owner. The setting, style and overall “feel” of  this earlier work are so completely different from what we encounter in Legend, that it’s hard to imagine that they are by the same author.

We’re now in present-day Panama City, a backwater town on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Adam Magill is Casey, a sweet-tempered, personable young Elvis impersonator at Cleo’s, a rundown nightclub. His passion for the “The King” blinds him to the obvious fact that his audiences have been drastically shrinking, compelling Eddie (John R. Lewis), the club’s flamboyant owner, to conclude that a change of format is needed. For Casey, the timing couldn’t be worse. Lacking the rent money for their apartment, he and his anxious wife Jo (Tatiana Wechsler) may soon be homeless, a prospect that takes on greater gravity when she announces that she’s pregnant.

Then, suddenly, fortune intervenes. The drag queen act of Rexy (Jason Kapoor) and Miss Tracy Mills (Kraig Swartz) is barely in place and beginning to draw crowds to the club when Rexy’s drinking problem forces him to leave the show. A desperate Eddie asks Casey to fill in “temporarily,” but is initially rebuffed. Aware that his financial situation is deteriorating daily, however, the latter decides to give it a try without telling Jo, whose strict moral code might be an obstacle. Miss Tracy takes him (and us) on a crash course through the basics: How to dress, the use of overstuffed bras, hip pads, wigs and heavy makeup and, most importantly, how to lip-sync and “sell” the songs by well-known performers (Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Lady Gaga and others) that are the core of their show. Casey’s a fast learner and, as the duo’s popularity grows, he realizes that he doesn’t have to be gay to be a drag queen—it’s simply a role that he can play successfully and be handsomely rewarded for it. Gone are the days of poverty and insecurity for him, Jo and their baby—a resolution that Jo, despite her doubts, ultimately embraces.

By the end of two intermission-less hours, it’s “feel good time:” Everything is neatly tied up and the audience is ready to cheer, loud and long. No matter that the script is weighed down with clichés, or that much of the plot strains credulity.

This is not a work of theatrical art that should be judged as such. Nor does it make a convincing case for the social or moral value of informing the public about the life of drag queens and their contribution to the American cultural scene. The Legend of Georgia McBride is entertainment—a “show,” pure and simple. As such, it depends upon the ability of the performers and director Kent Gash to persuade ticket-buyers to overlook the author’s inadequacies and decide that their efforts—irrespective of any shortcomings that they also might have—are worth watching.

Go and judge for yourself.

NOW PLAYING: The Legend of Georgia McBride runs through July 9 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-5208; marintheatre.org.

Women of ‘The Roommate’ overcome challenges in script

‘The Roommate,’ currently in its Bay Area premiere run at the San Francisco Playhouse, is the story of two women in their 50s living together. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Playhouse.

By Charles Brousse

Strictly from a performance standpoint, a two-character play may be one of the most difficult forms of live theater to pull off successfully. Solo performers rely only on their own talent—either they’re up to the task, or they aren’t. Multi-character plays are a team effort, in which weakness in one place can be balanced by strength in another. But “two-handers” (as they’re called by people in the industry) depend on actors having exactly the right balance, especially when the script has some kinks in it that need to be overcome.

That’s the situation facing Susi Damilano and Julia Brothers in Jen Silverman’s The Roommate, which is currently in its Bay Area premiere run (through July 1) at the San Francisco Playhouse. Luckily for director Becca Wolff and the Playhouse, this is a match made in … well, I’ll leave the place up to you, but it isn’t anywhere warmed by fire and brimstone. Watching them, I can’t imagine a more effective casting; their brilliant response to the challenges that Silverman’s script poses almost (and I emphasize that word) makes one forget that there are problems waiting to be solved.

Damilano is “Sharon,” a fluttery, thoroughly conventional 54-year-old divorcee living in Iowa City. She suffers from “empty nest” syndrome brought on by a failed marriage and the refusal of her grown son, now living in Brooklyn, New York, to allow her to interfere in his life. (Although the play doesn’t specify it, Silverman has her sounding like a stereotypical Jewish mother.) Deciding that keeping a neat house and staying alert by attending regular meetings of a book club isn’t enough, she advertises for a boarder with the hope that having another person to talk to will make her loneliness easier to bear. Thus begins a chain of events that will have important consequences for both her and the new arrival.

Brothers’ character, “Robyn,” is the exact opposite. She’s a refugee from the Bronx: Tall, lanky, and given to ironic observations, she is, in dress and demeanor, the very image of post-hippie cool. When Sharon presses her about her background, she provides cryptic responses. Her reason for moving to the Midwest? To escape the stress she felt in New York and get a fresh start.

Instead of rejecting her, as might be expected, Sharon welcomes Robyn as a roommate and the fun begins. Act I feels like a knockoff of The Odd Couple formula.   

Robyn’s a vegetarian, which Sharon doesn’t understand. She’s a smoker, which Sharon won’t accept. Sharon worries that her son may be dating a lesbian, which Robyn thinks is just fine. Sharon also worries that he doesn’t love her anymore, which Robyn replies is par for the course. “Children,” she says, “don’t have to like us. They only have to survive long enough to be like us.”

It’s mostly lighthearted banter that elicits plenty of laughs, but underneath there’s a gathering tension as Robyn reveals more and more about herself and her past life. She’s gay. She makes “voodoo dolls” that she carries around in a suitcase. She loves Patti Smith. In New York, she was a con artist who telephoned old people and talked them into sending her their savings. She likes to grow and sell pot. She did (in her words) “a little bit of auto theft” when she was particularly hard up.

I’d say it’s not the best resume for a roommate, but instead of alarm, Act II finds Sharon engaging in a complete exchange of roles. Out with The Odd Couple and in with Breaking Bad. Defying Robyn’s attempts to restrain her newly awakened enthusiasm, this formerly straight-laced divorced housewife seeks to emulate and even outdo her boarder’s petty crimes, drug use and sexual libertinage—all (she claims) in the interest of achieving a transformative “liberation.” If that sounds pretty unconvincing, there is a surprise ending in which the author partially redeems herself and these two very fine actors work hard to keep the boat afloat. Long after the play is forgotten, we’ll remember their performances.

NOW PLAYING: The Roommate runs through July 1 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, 2nd floor, San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.

Energetic ‘Monsoon Wedding’ keeps spirits high

Film director Mira Nair’s ‘Monsoon Wedding,’ the story of an arranged marriage in India, is full of drama, love and laughs. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

By Charles Brousse

Anyone who has ever seen a Bollywood movie will know what to expect from Monsoon Wedding, a staged musical version of the eponymous 2001 film that is currently receiving its official world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (BRT) prior to a planned Broadway run. The details of the latter have not yet been released, but the enthusiastic reception (standing ovations and a pair of box office-driven extensions that have moved the closing date to July 9) should make it easier to raise the funds required for the transfer.

Despite the warm popular response here and to workshops around the country, however, the future for Monsoon Wedding is not entirely clear sailing. A perusal of reviews reveals that a sizable number of critics have had reservations about the musical’s chances for success in the “Big Apple.”

So, who’s right: The ordinary ticket-buyers who seem to like what they see, or reviewers who claim that this highly admired emperor has no clothes?

First, a bit of background. Bollywood combines two movie-making centers—Mumbai, India (formerly Bombay) and Hollywood—that have wide influence in their respective countries. While they play to different audiences, one inescapable characteristic that links them is a dedication to turning out films with the widest possible audience appeal, irrespective of artistic merit. For Hollywood, that means action movies, trendy stars and graphic sex. For Bollywood, the formula is usually a simple boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, but they-eventually-find-each-other storyline that weaves its way through up-tempo scenes that feature lavish sets and colorfully costumed actors singing and dancing their hearts out.

Monsoon adheres to this basic structure, with some extra issues added to give it a semblance of topicality and intellectual heft. Lalit Verma (Jaaved Jaaferi) and his wife Pimmi (Mahira Kakkar) are upper-middle-class Indian parents who are anxious to blend old and new by arranging the marriage of their daughter Aditi (Kuhoo Verma) to satisfy tradition, but selecting Hemant Rai (Michael Maliakel), who lives in Texas, as the groom. Following tradition, the nuptials will be celebrated with a four-day party that will bring relatives and friends from around the world to New Delhi just before the annual monsoon rains begin.

Unfortunately for them, however, Aditi has other ideas. She’s been having an affair with Vikram (Ali Momen), her married boss, and isn’t about to be told that she must marry a complete stranger. Pressured by her parents and beginning to be drawn to Hemant despite her initial resistance, she tries to find out what Vikram’s intentions are; when he continues to be evasive, she realizes that they have no future together. Not wanting to begin marriage under a cloud of deceit, she informs Hemant about the affair. Outraged, he is determined to cancel the ceremony, but at the last minute …

Well, even if you haven’t seen the film, you can guess the rest. It’s all part of a Bollywood formula that requires that the audience leave the theater in high spirits after witnessing a whirlwind finale. This should come as no surprise, since the core creative team of director Mira Nair, Sabrina Dhawan (book), Susan Birkenhead (lyrics) and Vishal Bhardwaj (composer) is well-versed in the genre. (The sole exception is veteran choreographer Lorin Latarro, who has a long list of stage credits.) In this case, Monsoon’s ending is an explosion of energy, as spectators are drawn into a happy resolution of not one, but two troubled relationship struggles.

The main reservation about Monsoon is that there isn’t much beneath all of the froth. Even the substantive “extras” previously referred to—things like the partition of India and Pakistan, the charges of child abuse leveled at Adita’s Uncle Tej (Alok Tewari) and the generational clash of cultural values—have no lasting impact. But does it really matter? The show is a splendid spectacle that leaves people feeling good about the world, if only temporarily. Seems to me that even cynical New Yorkers can benefit from that.

NOW PLAYING: Monsoon Wedding runs through July 9 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley; 510/647-2949; berkeleyrep.org.

‘Private Lives’ is entertaining—at first

‘Private Lives’ is the story of a once-married couple that finds themselves honeymooning with new partners at the same hotel. Photo by Robin Jackson.

By Charles Brousse

“I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives … Elyot and I were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle.”

That’s how the just re-married Amanda Prynne explains the divorce from her previous husband to new spouse Victor in Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which is currently occupying the stage at the Ross Valley Players’ (RVP) Barn Theatre. With its theme of the familiar pitfalls in marriage and accompanying witty repartee, it might seem a natural choice for a community theater like RVP. In fact, the opposite is true.

A bit of digging into the critics’ response to the 1930 London premiere reveals that while the play—which incidentally had an all-star cast that included Coward himself, Adrianne Allen, Gertrude Lawrence and the young Laurence Olivier in principal roles—was considered amusing, but as a distinctly English comedy of manners it would stand or fall on the ability of future productions to capture its special flavor. That’s a tall order for 21st century American performers, who are not skilled in this kind of droll humor, with its understated irony and sarcasm; Americans tend to plunge ahead full tilt. “Clear the deck and let ’er rip!” For better or worse, subtlety is not a value on these shores.

That being so, the bar for RVP was set pretty high, and although director Ken Rowland and his cast give it the old college try, they can’t clear it. The result is that while the first act is reasonably entertaining, the second act’s repetitious marital conflicts begin to feel like watching  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf twice in one sitting. Whatever comedy there was dissolves into tedium.

Coward reputedly wrote Private Lives in four days while recovering from influenza in a Shanghai hotel during a China tour. Literary critics differ as to the author’s intent. Some say that he wanted to write a vehicle for himself and Gertrude Lawrence, a good friend and the London stage’s leading actress. Others say that he was in a nasty mood because of the illness. Still others maintain that the play is a typical homosexual dig at heterosexual marriage as an institution.

Its plot can be quickly summarized. Newlyweds Sibyl (Laura Morgan) and Elyot (Gregory Crane) have chosen a seaside Deauville hotel for their honeymoon. This is a second marriage for both, the first having ended some years before, and already there are cracks in the relationship caused by Sibyl’s inability to repress her curiosity about her new husband’s past. Coincidentally, Amanda (LeAnne Rumble), Elyot’s ex, and Victor (Simon Patton), also just married, arrive on their honeymoon and are assigned a suite with an adjacent balcony (nicely conceived to capture the oceanfront ambience by set designer Ken Rowland). They, too, are having their problems as Victor annoys his bride with unending questions about her previous marriage.

When Amanda and Elyot discover their unexpected proximity to former spouses, a romantic flame is rekindled and they resolve to run off together to Amanda’s Paris flat. Almost immediately, the old pattern of quarrel and makeup ad infinitum begins again, echoed by Sibyl and Victor when they appear after tracking the fugitives down. Watching the latter couple bicker reminds the original two that the future will be stormy, but having concluded that although they can’t live with each other, they also can’t live without each other, and they tiptoe quietly away.

This “resolution”—if it can be called that—is certainly not an optimistic view of relationships that are clearly dysfunctional. But, when performed by actors who are skilled at English comedy, it can be very funny. The fact that RVP’s cast lacks that capacity is not their fault—few American actors do. It does, however, suggest that producers should be wary of scheduling such material unless they are assured the needed talent is available. Take this innocuous exchange between Amanda and Elyot:

Amanda: “Have you ever crossed the Sahara on a camel?”

Elyot: “Frequently. When I was a boy, we used to do it all the time. My grandmother had a lovely seat on a camel.”

Amanda: “There’s no doubt about it, foreign travel’s the thing.”

It’s all nonsense, of course, but (if delivered with just the right inflection) it’s such lovely nonsense!

NOW PLAYING: Private Lives runs through June 18 at the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.

Mountain Play presents a gripping ‘Beauty and the Beast’

‘Beauty and the Beast,’ this year’s Mountain Play atop picturesque Mt. Tamalpais, excels in every area by which annual productions are measured. Photo by McNally and Company Photography.

By Charles Brousse

Right away the omens were encouraging. After a short walk through the forest, my little party of four that included a visitor from rural Pennsylvania emerged into the sunlit bowl of Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre on Mt. Tam. (Yes, it’s true—we press people, performers, staff and other VIP types associated with the show are allowed to park in a nearby unpaved, dusty, abandoned quarry, while others have to find spots along the road, use one of the nice, clean, free buses from Mill Valley or hike up a trail with a spectacular view that begins thousands of feet below. Lucky us.)

As I was saying … we emerged from the forest and there it was: The curving rows of stones painstakingly put in place in the ’30s during the Great Depression by workers whose object was to recreate the atmosphere of the famous amphitheatres of ancient Greece and Rome. Beyond the imposing set (scenic design by Andrea Bechert, construction by technical director Ken Rowland and his crew and painting by scenic artist Dhyanis Carniglia) was the vast Bay Area vista that has attracted people to this spot each spring for 114 years of community celebrations. The sound clarity of the pre-show singing group of young performers indicated that there would be no problems in that department. The weather was warm, but not too warm, and for those super-sensitive to heat, an overhead hose above much of the seating area sprayed a fine cloud of cooling mist.  

A colorfully dressed crowd was assembling. Among them were many family groups whose members ranged from the most senior of seniors to the tiniest newcomers. Lunch baskets were everywhere. Finally, the preliminaries (which included a costume contest won by the only entrant, a vivacious little girl named Ruby, were over.) You could feel the anticipation building.

Frankly, I don’t see how anyone could have been disappointed by the main event. In my opinion, this year’s production, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, is one of the best Mountain Plays I have seen since I first started trekking up the mountain in the late ’70s. It excels in every area by which these annual productions are measured: A gripping story that will hold the attention of old and young, even if they have to sit on those very hard rocks for a couple of hours; a beautiful production that propels this classic French fairy tale into vivid life; and, finally, a heartwarming message that there is light as well as darkness in our conflict-ridden world.

To be honest, I hadn’t expected such copious rewards. My experience since former producer par excellence Marilyn Smith shifted the format from an amateur, locally generated, Mill Valley-centered community celebration to high quality, semi-professional presentations of Broadway’s most popular musicals that attracted viewers from all over the Bay Area and beyond, was that shows with expansive settings—Oklahoma, South Pacific, The Sound of Music and the like—were likely to be the most successful in a rustic, open-air stadium with a huge playing area. I didn’t think that Beauty’s intimate love story fit the bill.

As it turns out, I was wrong. The romantic core that traces how group prejudice and unjustified feelings of guilt can be overcome by requited love remains in place, but director Jay Manley and choreographer Nicole Helfer—ably assisted by costumer Michelle Navarre-Huff—and the sheer size of the cast, add an unexpected sense of spectacle. Of course, it helps enormously that the leading characters are so strong. Belle, the village beauty who is considered strange because she loves to read, is played with just the right combination of feistiness and compassion by Chelsea Holifield. Jeff Wiesen is Gaston, her bumbling, testosterone-driven suitor.

The Beast (a former prince who is less beastly than he appears) is given a sympathetic interpretation by Daniel Barrington Rubio. Surrounding him in his castle is a group of followers who are subject to the same spell that the prince fell under when, long ago, he refused to help an old woman who was in dire need of assistance. I don’t have the space to name them here, but their hilarious antics are among the show’s highlights. The corps de ballet is stunning, and a 22-piece orchestra, conducted by David Möschler, holds the whole enterprise together.

With its Disney ties, this is a sentimentalized version of the original fairy tale, but the musical’s message of the need for tolerance and good comes through loud and clear. Can’t argue with that!

NOW PLAYING: Beauty and the Beast runs at 2pm on Sundays through June 18, at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, Mt. Tamalpais State Park; 415/383-1100; mountainplay.org.

‘Guards at the Taj’ a shocking look at one of the world’s wonders

Marin Theatre Company’s ‘Guards at the Taj’ is light on historical fact, but heavy with schticky humor. Photo by Kevin Berne.

By Charles Brousse

When you’re out and about in the world and you pause to admire the great cathedrals, pyramids, castles and other manmade structures, have you ever wondered about the people who built them? Was it just a job, or were they aware of the lasting beauty they were helping to create?

If you’re looking for enlightenment on these issues, you won’t find much in Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj, which is currently receiving its Bay Area premiere at Mill Valley’s Marin Theatre Company (MTC). It’s a brief, intermission-less, two-character play that seems less concerned with historical fact or the human dimension in building spectacular projects like the Taj Mahal than in keeping the audience amused with schticky humor, some working class (yes, guards qualify) quasi-philosophical observations about the nature of beauty and an ending that features shocking and inexplicable carnage.  

It’s 1648 in Agra, India, capital of the powerful Mughal Empire. To honor the memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during childbirth, Mirza Shahabuddin Baig Muhammad Khan Shah Jahan (aka “Shah Jahan”) ordered that her body be interred in a magnificent mausoleum built on the banks of the Yamuna River. No expense was to be spared in making this the most beautiful edifice of its kind in the world—a marvel of Mughal architecture that drew its inspiration from ancient Persia and the Arab countries.

Joseph’s play opens on the day before the construction was deemed complete. On either side of the grand arched entrance to the Taj’s formal gardens (set design at MTC by Annie Smart), a pair of guards stand at attention with wicked-looking curved scimitars resting on their shoulders. Their job is to keep the public away while the cleanup proceeds, a task that is apparently very easy since nobody ever shows up.

Former army buddies, they are about the same age and both have names derived from previous Mughal emperors, but their personalities are completely different. Having been raised in a strict patriarchal household, Humayun (Jason Kapoor), believes in following orders to the letter; his companion Babur (Rushi Kota) is free-spirited and playful, with a mischievous streak. That distinction allows Humayun to be the straight man to Babur’s light-hearted discourse—but it also is a major factor in the tragedy that engulfs them at the end of the play.

While Humayun struggles to stand at attention without speaking, Babur, bored and restless in the absence of activity, finally draws him out with his insistent chatter. Soon, they are horsing around and discussing a variety of subjects: The bird calls that Humayun treasures, how wonderful it would be to guard the ladies in the shah’s harem and whether the Taj is worth all of the cost and effort. That leads to a discussion of beauty. To satisfy his curiosity and against his companion’s advice, Babur defies the rules and peeks inside the gate. What he sees has a profound effect: He has seen beauty and it has entered his soul.

This revelation sets in motion the gruesome events that conclude the play. Shah Jahan issues an edict that the finished Taj will be open for one day of public viewing, after which everyone connected with its construction—all 20,000 of them—are to have their hands chopped off so that nothing like it can ever again be built . . . and guess who is to do the chopping? Babur and Humayun comply with the order and a blood bath ensues—literally—but Babur expresses his frustration with what he considers an attack on his newly aroused appreciation of beauty by saying that he would kill the shah if he had the chance. That treasonous utterance, probably not seriously intentioned, seals his fate.

Without the arm-chopping—which lacks any historical support whatsoever—Guards at the Taj would be a mildly entertaining if innocuous fictional excursion into a Mughal culture that combined great cruelty with great art. MTC’s production, led by artistic director Jasson Minadakis, is sound throughout and the young cast arouses our sympathy. The disappointment derives from the playwright’s decision to sensationalize his story with an unnecessary shock instead of providing the cultural depth and psychological insight that it sorely needed.

NOW PLAYING: Guards at the Taj runs through May 21 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-5208; marintheatre.org.

‘Battlefield’ the story of a newly crowned king

‘Battlefield,’ written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, is based on what happened after the events described in ‘The Mahabharata.’ Photo courtesy of A.C.T.

By Charles Brousse

In this world of fractured cultures, British director Peter Brook comes about as close as anyone can to being the theatrical equivalent of a universally acknowledged rock star. The awards and honors seem endless. His name on a production like A.C.T.’s current Battlefield will bring on a flurry of media excitement and send ticket-buyers racing to their phones. The enthusiasm is fueled by the perception that Brook is sui generisa giant among his tradition-bound contemporaries and someone who doesn’t follow the rules and creates a unique experience with daring and risky experiments that are exhilarating even when they fail. On top of all of that, he’s a master showman, with a keen sense of what will attract public attention.  

Throughout his career, Brook has been a rebel. His apprentice work in various theaters in London’s commercial West End (the British equivalent of New York’s Broadway) during the early 1940s turned him against what he called their “lethargy, lifelessness and traditionalness,” but he chose a different escape route from the drab social realism embraced by John Osborne’s  post-war “Angry Young Men” movement. For him, theater should be a lively and entertaining spectacle—kind of a circus with words—even if the subject matter is occasionally dark. His immediate influences included Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty,” Bertolt Brecht’s integration of music and dramatic dialogue and Joan Littlewood’s and Jerzy Grotowski’s emphasis on action over speech. It was a winning formula, one which brought him to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he turned out hit after hit during the ’60s and ’70s.

That was when  I began to be aware of his presence, specifically in productions like Peter Weiss’ gripping Marat/Sade, the magical A Midsummer Night’s Dream at A.C.T. and the memorable film version of William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies. Ironically, though, this was precisely the point when Brook decided to jettison the directing style focused on movement and imagery that had brought him international fame—he now called it “youthful excess”—and to adopt an aesthetic based on simplicity which he described in a 1968 how-to book entitled The Empty Space. No need for fancy trappings, he wrote. Theater can take place anytime, anywhere, large or small, as long as there is an actor or two and somebody watching.

As it turned out, however, there was one last burst of the old showman spirit left. In the early 1980s, Brook directed a stage adaptation (by Jean-Claude Carrière) of the Hindu epic creation story poem The Mahabharata, performed in a quarry outside Avignon. He then took an English language version on a four-year world tour before bringing it to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for its American premiere in 1985. The piece was several times longer than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined. It required a multinational cast of dozens of actors, numerous scene and costume changes and an eight-hour playing time that left some audience members with (as one sly critic put it) “bruised bums.”

Well, now we have Battlefield and we know what simplicity meant. Written and directed by Brook and his longtime collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, it’s a highly condensed, 70-minute, no set, four actors and a drummer one-act account of what the writers imagine happened after the events described in The Mahabharata. The war between the forces of good and the forces of evil is over and the former have won following a battle that killed millions on both sides. After hearing a graphic description of how the bodies are being devoured by scavengers and learning that their king was actually a close relative, the leader of the victorious army declares that he’d rather live a quiet life in the forest than ascend to the throne.

Most of the remainder of the play is devoted to exploring this dilemma through a series of parables and historical references that I won’t attempt to recount for fear of getting it wrong. Lots of esoteric exchanges, but very little action—this from a former champion of physical theater! The actors are fine and the drummer (Toshi Tsuchitori, who has been with the production since its debut) is superb.

Given that Brook is only 92 and has changed direction multiple times, it wouldn’t surprise me if he did it again. Can’t wait.

NOW PLAYING: Battlefield runs through Sunday, May 21 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theatre, 415 Geary St., San Francisco; 415/749-2228; act-sf.org.

     

‘Temple’ demonstrates failure of the enlightened

English playwright Steve Waters’ ‘Temple,’ currently receiving its American premiere at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, is a blend of fiction and fact. Photo by David Allen.

By Charles Brousse

It’s October 28, 2011. In the square directly outside the front entrance to London’s famous St. Paul’s Cathedral, hundreds of activists (most of them university students and other young people) are gathered with their tents, sleeping bags and other necessities for long-term living. They’re part of the international “Occupy” movement, protesting the widening gap between the 1 percent “haves” and the 99 percent “have nots” that global free market capitalism has fostered throughout the Western world.

Their demonstration had begun a few blocks away—near Goldman Sachs’ London headquarters in the one-square-mile, semi-independent financial district known as “The City”—but the latter’s objections and a court order backed by police forced a shift to St. Paul’s. Now, the Occupiers have received an ultimatum: Either abandon the encampment or be forcibly evicted.

Meanwhile, in an attractive wood-paneled room inside the cathedral, a place where the tumult outside is invisible and even the sound of anti-corporate chanting is barely audible, members of the governing hierarchy debate what to do. One might expect that the issue would be whether to stand with the students—and there is some limited talk of that—or, at least, discuss their demands. But no, the main subject is whether the church doors, which had been locked for two weeks out of concern that the protest might spread into the building, should be reopened to allow for normal religious services.  

That’s the setup for English playwright Steve Waters’ Temple, which is currently receiving its American premiere at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. For some 95 intermission-less minutes, the principal decisionmakers and their advisors rotate around a large center stage table as they engage each other about church history and doctrine. Although (with one possible exception) the people involved and the positions taken are based on his research into what transpired inside that sealed chamber, in interviews Waters reminds us that his play is a blend of fiction and fact. Also with one exception, the emotional level is severely restrained as befits both the English temperament and the special injunction for men of the cloth to love and respect one another even if they disagree.

The exception to the general decorum is the Canon Chancellor. Portrayed by Mike Ryan, he is a fiery advocate of backing the Occupiers in their quest for political and economic justice. Throughout history, he argues, the church has championed the common man, a role that is central to the Christian message. “What would Jesus do?” he asks. The first part of that assumption is debatable, and when his colleagues seem disinclined to take the Jesus test, he decides his only honorable course is to resign.

As for the others, they methodically struggle to find a way out of their dilemma. Historical examples are cited and pertinent scriptural passages analyzed. They even contact Rowan Williams (the then serving Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church) to get an opinion. His answer? Something like, “It’s your problem. You figure it out.” Prodded by an anti-Occupy lawyer for the City of London (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), the church verger (Sharon Lockwood), who is anxious to see that the necessary preparations are in place for a reopening if one is ordered, and the by-the-book conservative Bishop of London (J. Michael Flynn), the choice ultimately falls to St. Paul’s Dean (Paul Whitworth, in a star turn), who is anything but decisive. Hamlet-like, he dithers. He dodges. He evades. He looks for an answer that will satisfy everyone, but can’t find one until a lively new personal assistant (Sylvia Burboeck), the only character that I suspect is not historically based, gives him a little push.

Which way the Dean lands I’ll leave for you to find out, except to say that it provides a fitting conclusion to a play—directed with admirable precision by Aurora’s artistic director, Tom Ross—that might be fascinating for those who also think a staged reading of the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer sounds like an entertaining way to spend an evening at the theater.

NOW PLAYING: Temple runs through May 14 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley; 510/843-4822; auroratheatre.org.

‘Autobiography of a Terrorist’ is a comedy

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s ‘Autobiography of a Terrorist’ is receiving a lively world premiere at San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions. Photo courtesy of Golden Thread Productions.

By Charles Brousse

I’m sure there will be potential theatergoers who will be put off by the title of Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s Autobiography of a Terrorist. The play is receiving a lively world premiere on San Francisco’s Potrero Stage, courtesy of Golden Thread Productions, a Bay Area company that specializes in Middle Eastern-themed events. Some may anticipate a stomach-churning account of how an ordinary individual may, for whatever reason (real or perceived), turn against the country that nurtured him and become a bomb-throwing monster. Others may not want to subject themselves to an all too familiar diatribe against the sins committed by the U.S. against weaker nations around the world—actions that, for those injured, make violence a justifiable response. In both cases, one might expect plenty of blood to be on the wall. On a nice spring night, who needs that?

Relax everybody—Autobiography is a comedy! Yes, you read that right. Its author’s proclaimed intent is to give people reasons to laugh as he uses satire to explore the absurdities that surround this country’s “War on Terror,” a conflict which, at the rate it’s going, may ultimately surpass Europe’s Hundred Years War in duration. No bombs or blood. Just a provocative (and amusing)  account of what it meant to be a “hyphenated American”—particularly one named Saïd Sayrafiezadeh—during a historical period that included the 1979-81 Iranian Hostage Crisis and the September 11, 2001 takedown of Manhattan’s World Trade Center by a disparate group of real terrorists from Muslim-dominated states.

While both were ground-shaking events, they are essentially background to the main story, which is: If you’re an American citizen, born and raised in this country, but have a name or color that betrays the fact that your parents are from somewhere currently in disfavor, how do you deal with events in the “old country,” and the impact that they have on the way more established Americans view you?

“Saïd” (from here on in, I’ll refer to the author by first name only, to avoid misspelling Sayrafiezadeh, and because it’s easier, which is itself an example of the accommodations that often occur when people emigrate to this country) has an Iranian businessman father and a New York Jewish mother. Neither parent puts much emphasis on ethnicity or religion, but their marriage technically made young Saïd a Jewish-Iranian-American, which is quite a burden to place on a boy who, like most boys, would like to know who he really is. It’s also the source of many of the script’s funnier moments.

In a pre-curtain appearance, Saïd introduced himself, welcomed the audience and provided background on what was happening on stage, where “director” Cassidy Jamahl Brown and two actors (Patricia Austin and Alan Coyne) were rehearsing what Saïd claimed was a work-in-progress, or “collage of scenes,” that would ultimately become his autobiographical play. While this was very irregular for a world premiere, I looked forward to any revelations he might provide.

Turns out this was all a clever ruse. Although he looked and sounded like I expected he would, this was not Saïd the playwright speaking, it was an actor (Damien Seperi) portraying Saïd in a play-within-a-play, nor was it the real director. For the remainder of the show, directed by Evren Odcikin, the real director, these four excellent performers—plus Jenna Apollonia, an assistant stage manager who makes a brief appearance as herself—dance around the moral issues posed by his mixed identity, without coming to any conclusive resolution.

There will be those who will fault Saïd for not taking firm positions against “the enemies of democracy,” even if they are “his people.” His answer seems to be that, fairly or unfairly, who and where you are often determines how you are labeled. One thing is clear from Saïd’s Autobiography, however: He’s a full-blown skeptic, and anything that links him with any form of terrorism is a contradiction in terms.

NOW PLAYING: Autobiography of a Terrorist runs through May 7 at the Potrero Stage,1695 18th Street, #C101 Annex, San Francisco; 415/626-4061; goldenthread.org.

The spectacle of ‘Needles and Opium’ lacks a human touch

In ‘Needles and Opium,’ now playing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, the lives of Parisian filmmaker Jean Cocteau and American jazz legend Miles Davis collide. Photo by Tristram Kenton and Nicola-Frank Vachon.

By Charles Brousse

There was a time, not so long ago, when I would attend every iteration of Cirque du Soleil that came to San Francisco. The productions were awe-inspiring, a marvel of colorful costumes, evocative music, unbelievable acrobatic skills and, above all, technological wonders that made the whole thing seem magical.

Entranced as I was, however, I became increasingly aware that something was missing. That “something” was human content, a narrative featuring real people that would bind the spectacle together and give it warmth instead of just being an eye and ear-pleasing show—a gaudy performance wrapping around a void. When that didn’t happen, I stopped going.

I mention this because Robert Lepage, the renowned French Canadian writer/director, whose Needles and Opium occupies A.C.T.’s Geary Theater stage (or at least a portion thereof) for one more weekend, has a resume that includes major roles in developing two of Cirque’s past projects (2004 and 2010) and echoes of that experience are evident throughout the current production. Instead of a grand-scale, multi-event circus, however, he has compressed his playing area into a smallish three-sided cube, standing upright on one corner to provide sloping walls, and a floor and ceiling that change orientation as it rotates. Within that small chamber, Lepage and his expert crew from his multidisciplinary production company, Ex Machina, are absolute masters.

Windows and doors appear and disappear. Lights, sound and projections shift to allow the play’s two actors, attached to safety lines, to exist in two different worlds, Paris and New York, with an occasional detour into the starry cosmos, where they are reminiscent of astronauts engaging in spacewalks. Whether intended as an opium dream, an excursion into virtual reality, or simply a demonstration of what technology can now do, the effect is spellbinding.

At least it was for awhile. About midway through the 90-minute, no-intermission performance I began to have the same uncomfortable feeling that I had with Cirque du Soleil. Was there something human underneath the razzle dazzle? Actually, Lepage does supply a storyline of sorts, but it’s so anemic and cliche ridden that it might have been better to present the show as an abstract performance piece.

Although the title suggests otherwise, Needles and Opium has relatively little to do with either one, or addiction in general. The idea came to Lepage when he stayed in Paris at the Hotel Louisiane in late 1989, researching famed jazz trumpeter Miles Davis for a documentary film and trying to overcome  depression over a  romantic breakup. After hearing that the room he occupied was where Davis and French singer/actress Juliette Greco had a brief but torrid love affair 40 years earlier, which ended unhappily, Lepage also learned that about the same time the brilliant, multi-talented French artist, writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau journeyed to New York to help him overcome the sorrow he still felt after the sudden death of his young lover a few years earlier. Since Cocteau and Davis never met, those events have no relationship beyond the fact that the two chose to visit each other’s country at roughly the same time, and both turned to opium to relieve their respective heartbreak.

True to his aesthetic, Lepage doesn’t bother to flesh out the foregoing scenario and the actors seem to have been chosen more for their ability to perform on all angles of a moving

“stage” than to convey any impression of being real people. A silent Wellesley Robertson III mainly strikes poses with his trumpet as Davis. Olivier Normand slips and slides around the rotating cube while delivering lines from Cocteau’s “Letter,” or extolling the virtues of opium. Normand is also Lepage’s despairing surrogate (here named “Robert”) who bookends the show and eventually floats off into the starlit heavens like a 21st century Mary Poppins.

In a program note, Shannon Stockwell sums up the challenge for viewers rather nicely. “For LePage,” she writes, “the spectacle is the substance. Form is content. Content is form.”

As the old saying goes, “You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.”

NOW PLAYING: Needles and Opium runs through Sunday, April 23 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco; 415/749.2228; act-sf.org.

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