wet earth

The Play's the Thing

“I just want to see him naked.”

I almost turned around to look at the woman in the row behind me who had spoken these words to her friend, but chose not to.  I was in a movie theatre at a shopping center in Monterey.  The credits for “Frankenstein” were rolling on the screen.  Not the movie “Frankenstein,” though it was a movie we had just watched—we were in a movie theatre, after all—but footage of a live stage performance that was filmed at the National Theatre in London.

I had been unaware that “Frankenstein” was adapted for the stage.  Apparently it was a very big deal: directed by Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours” and mastermind behind the upcoming London 2012 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony); critical raves and a stream of sold-out performances; the two leads, Jonny Lee Miller (photo above) and Benedict Cumberbatch, switching off each night, a brilliant marketing ploy that was also a creative tour de force.  The “Frankenstein” I saw on a Wednesday at Monterey’s Century Theatres, at the Del Monte Center, featured Cumberbatch as Doctor Frankenstein and Miller as his monstrous creation.  On Thursday, the next night, the roles would be reversed.  I overheard several people say they were coming back on Thursday to see the show again with the alternate casting.  Some had even seen the original broadcast last year, and were back for this encore presentation.

Benedict Cumberbatch was the man the woman sitting behind me wanted to see naked.  Fair-haired and fine-boned, Cumberbatch gave a solid performance as the uptight Doctor, and indeed it would be interesting to see him take on such an utterly different role: the play, written by Nick Dent, opens with the creature, brutish and covered with ugly sutured scars, emerging from a transparent egg-like sac, naked except for a skimpy skin-colored loincloth, and grunting and contorting violently across the stage as the camera looms in close to reveal the pulsing skin and sweat of his freshly human anatomy.

I think we all go to the theatre to see people naked—the nakedness of their souls, their stories, which at bottom are so often similar to our own—but I’m not sure if seeing a live play that has been filmed to be shown on screen offers the same charge of connection we may feel in the darkened hall, with actors’ bodies that breathe the same air we breathe, their hearts beating in time with our own.

A week later, I attended another filmed play, this one featuring Christopher Plummer as Prospero in Shakespeare’s “Tempest.”  The production, from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, was sumptuous, superbly acted, with innumerable instances of creative freshness and imagination, including a hysterical Bruce Dow as Trinculo, here a fey, ravaged old queen, and a bright sky-blue Ariel (Julyana Soelistyo, at right), her costume and body make-up matching the cool tone of her voice and the gliding ease of her flight.

It was easy to be mesmerized by the production, which was filmed with multiple cameras and carefully edited, just like a movie.  Shakespeare’s language always mesmerizes, by whatever media it is conveyed.  With live theatre, of course, it is the viewer who does the editing, who turns his or her head to follow the action, take in the whole stage picture, or focus on one actor’s face or gestures.  When we watch a movie we agree to a certain passivity: other people have made these creative choices for us.

I found this “Tempest” more satisfying as entertainment than “Frankenstein,” which despite the strength of the two leads and its compelling subject suffered from a weak script and mediocre acting in the secondary roles.

When the Metropolitan Opera began broadcasting its performances to movie screens around the world, some observers wondered if people would become so accustomed to seeing glamorous operas productions at the multiplex they would stop attending performances of their local opera company.  I doubt that people will stop going to see plays because there is the occasional screening of a performance from London or New York or wherever.  Regular theatregoers tend to be a passionate bunch, and seeing a movie of a big production is just more of what they already love: language and bodies and feelings and stories on stage—the thrill of performance.  Yet perhaps even they—perhaps even I—will grow used to the fancier bells and whistles of the big companies, the brighter lights of celebrity actors, and our local productions will seem just a little bit smaller, a little bit dimmer.

That would be a shame.  The most moving and memorable local theatrical experience I’ve had since moving to the Monterey Peninsula over a dozen years ago was a quietly intense production at PacRep of “The Weir," starring Julie Hughett and John Rousseau and performed in PacRep's intimate Circle Theatre.  Rousseau’s long monologue near the end of the play was a gradual unveiling of human emotion, a stripping away of painful layers so raw and naked and true that I still get chills just to recall it, years later.  Some day I may experience this kind of powerful artistry which is unique to theatre as I watch actors speak and move on a white screen in a chilly popcorn-scented auditorium, but I’m not holding my breath.  The play’s the thing.

To find out about upcoming local screenings of productions from the National Theatre and other companies, visit fathomevents.com.

The Wagers of Freedom

“One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” currently playing at the Western Stage, in Salinas, begins in semi-darkness.  A man stands alone, his head bent.  He does not speak, but the audience hears his thoughts via recorded voiceover.  Against a relentless pulsing mechanical backdrop of sound, which he calls The Combine, the man named Chief laments over what has been ruined and taken away from his family’s tribal landscape.  He is grieving for what has passed, and afraid of what else those in control might do.

“One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Dale Wasserman’s theatrical adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel, is a story about freedom, power, and fear.  After being convicted of statuatory rape, R. P. McMurphy (Jeff McGrath) is admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Oregon, though we learn that he may be feigning mental illness in order to avoid spending time at a punitive work farm.  Conflict quickly grows between him and Nurse Ratched (Dawn Flood Fenton), a cold, regimented woman who employs humiliation and intimidation to keep a cowed band of male patients under her control.  McGrath, who is accustomed to dominating any environment he occupies, enjoys provoking her, and as his freewheeling, rebellious attitude begins to affect the other men, the tension soon escalates.

Although the 1975 film version of Kesey’s novel is especially memorable for the individually brilliant performances of Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, the stage version, by setting the entire play (with the exception of one short scene) in the patients’ Dayroom, emphasizes the “society in miniature” represented by the different characters.  In the Western Stage’s fine production, directed by Mark Shilstone Laurent, the collective and focused energy of the ensemble conveys with humor and dramatic intensity the innate human desire to be free, and the cost of freedom in an environment of cruel coercion.

As McMurphy, McGrath is a vital presence on the stage, animating every scene he is in.  He receives strong support from the cast of actors playing patients, including Skot Davis as the brittle, tempermental Dale, Ron Cacas as the sweetly deluded Martini, and Nathan Liittschwager, who is excellent as the vulnerable Billy Bibbit, a young man who stutters and whose fearful relationship with his mother will have tragic consequences.

“One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is very much about a man’s freedom, a world in which women are either dominating mothers, sexual objects, or, in the case of Nurse Ratched, villainous creatures out to emasculate and thwart the desires of men.  As the principal antagonist in the play, Dawn Flood Fenton’s portrayal is convincingly stern and authoritarian, though without touching the true monstrosity of her character’s disturbed nature.

If Nurse Ratched is McMurphy’s enemy,  Chief Bromden (Reynald A. Medrano II), the man on stage at the opening of the play, is his most important potential ally, a man desperate for a strong male figure in his life.  He yearns to be inspired by McMurphy’s quest for freedom.  Medrano has a strong physical presence and his scenes with McGrath are engaging, but his voiceover narrations are spoken too quickly and feel more rote than dramatically rhythmic.

The cast is rounded out by the hospital staff and two flirtatious women who visit the men for a party McMurphy has organized.  Especially notable is Shaye Angelo Acevedo as a night aide who croons winningly as he works—his own small wager of personal freedom in an uptight, unfree world.

It can feel awkward to laugh at the sight of mental patients behaving as we imagine mental patients to behave, yet laugh we do.  Sometimes laughter comes as a relief.  Alex Bush, as Ruckley, nearly steals the show with his performance of a man who seems the most disturbed of all—he spends long stretches of time with his hands nailed, he thinks, to a metal-mesh door—yet when his arms are employed to form a human basketball hoop, he moves to catch the ball.  The patients tell him to keep still, but his gesture is a reminder that even when we’re at our most insane, we may yet look for ways to reach out and connect.

“One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,”  A Play in Two Acts by Dale Wasserman, based on the novel by Ken Kesey, at the Western Stage’s Studio Theater through June 24.

Musical Storytelling

Art is about storytelling, and storytelling is about relationships: to oneself, to another, to a place, an idea, a god.  Music is the most abstract art, its storytelling qualities often hard to discern.  Yet we need only listen, for even music is about relationships: one note to another, one instrument to another, melodies and harmonies interacting and connecting in the limitless medium of space.  And in these relationships, these musical shapes, we can hear stories.

A fantastic journey of musical storytelling was presented last Friday at All Saints Church, in Carmel.  The husband-and-wife duo Edward Arron (cello) and Jeewon Park (piano) presented a traditional concert, featuring well-known composers and performing with commitment, polish and flair.  Yet what emerged, for me, was a sequence of musical meditations on how two people, two voices, can relate to one another.

In Mendelssohn’s op. 17 “Variations Concertantes,” the communication between the two voices was largely amicable and equal, as the cello and piano traded sweetly romantic melody lines back and forth.  At one striking moment, however, Arron played a long, sustained A note while Park busied herself developing an elaborate theme on the piano.  That long A note, played for many measures, sounded to me like the musical equivalent of listening, of waiting patiently, supportively, while one’s partner, who may have a lot to say, goes on and on.

I was not familiar with the Sonata in C Minor, op. 32, by Camille Saint-Saëns, but its unsettled, agitated, at times skittery energy reminded me of the dancing skeletons in his “Carnival of the Animals.”  Here the storytelling evoked not so much a conversation as a joint instrumental effort to plunge forward, hurrying and side-stepping obstacles along the way.  The effect was more orchestral than is typically found in chamber music, as the combined sounds of the two instruments seemed to merge as if to form a third instrument, whose sole purpose was to find its way amidst considerable turbulence to the crashing resolution of the final C-minor chord.

Another sonata, this one in G Minor (op. 19), by Rachmaninoff, displayed the Russian composer’s signature atmosphere of moody charm, created by a ceaseless shifting between major and minor tonalities, as if the notes were layers, each sliding above and then below the other, moving and merging with perpetual instability.  People like Rachmaninoff’s music because it reminds them of the human paradox, how the heart can hold deep joy and deep sadness at the same time.  It was a beautiful, passionate performance.

The most interesting work on the program, played after the Mendelssohn, was “Fratres,” by the living Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.  Pärt has arranged “Fratres” for a number of musical combinations; this was the first time I heard it for cello and piano.  It was a haunting piece, in which the two instruments played music so highly contrasting they seemed to be playing on opposite sides of a great landscape.  There were distant bell-like ringings from the piano as the cello moved through a series of exploratory musical pulses, now fast, now drawn out.  The effect was mesmerizing.  If there was a relationship here, perhaps it was our relationship to time, and space, and the mystery of what they contain.

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