wet earth

Mmmmm...

If parody is often a mark of affection, then “The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!),” now playing in an MPC Theatre Company production directed by Gary Bolen at the Bruce Ariss Wharf Theatre, in Monterey, is a ginormous love-bomb to the grand history of American musical theater.  Last year, PacRep presented “Forbidden Broadway,” which shares with “MMM” an insider’s perspective about the popular musicals that continue to be the favorites of audiences.  “Forbidden Broadway,” however, mocked the stars as much as the shows, whereas “MMM” trains its wicked, loving sights on the creators responsible for such classics as “Oklahoma,” “Cabaret” and “Evita,” refraining from lampooning the hardworking performers, famous or not, who at the end of the day have to pay the rent.

And paying the rent is what “MMM” is ostensibly all about.  In five scenes, each devoted to a different musical-creating individual or pair, Eric Rockwell (music and book) and Joanne Bogart (lyrics and book) tell the story, more or less repeated five times, of thwarted lovers whose greatest dilemma is an inability to pay the rent.  The works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Kander and Ebb are mined to an almost alarming degree, with references to multiple musicals whizzing by at breakneck speed, sometimes in a single line.  “Follow your dream,” Mother Abby (Jennifer L. Newman) sings in "Corn," the segment inspired by “Oklahoma,” her hands reverently clasped like the warbling old nun's in “The Sound of Music.”  “Don’t ask me why,” she wisely adds.

Indeed, with a show like “MMM,” it’s best not to worry about the plot or ask questions, and instead just let the echoes of familiar shows and characters wash amusingly across one’s mind.  I especially enjoyed “A Little Complex,” the segment devoted to Sondheim musicals.  Many consider Sondheim’s songs to be inordinately complicated, unmelodic and full of neuroses, to which I say, what’s wrong with realism?  Maria Comstock, as the young apartment-dweller struggling to pay the rent, pulls off the rapid patter of a song similar to “I’m Not Getting Married,” from “Company,” and Mitchell Davis, as the Sweeney Todd-like Jitter, nicely conveys the wild intensity of Sondheim’s most inspired creation.

Because of a scheduling conflict, I watched the show during its preview performance instead of opening night, and while the cast was generally solid, there were a few songs offered in approximate pitches; I expect the production will tighten up throughout the run.  Standout performers include John Daniel as Jütter, the emcee-like character from “Cabaret,” whose sprechtstimme-style singing is excellent and whose movements across the stage are convincingly creepy and assured.  Less convincing in this segment (“Speakeasy,” referencing “Chicago” and “Cabaret”) was the show’s one gay embrace, which struck me as needlessly timid.

As I’ve written before, Camila De La Llata wonderfully channels the goofy charm of the young Carol Burnett; in “Aspects of Junita,” as the Evita-inspired character, she carries off one of the show’s funniest moments, which I won’t describe here, except to say that you may remember a certain chandelier in “Phantom of the Opera"...

Jennifer L. Newman and Phyllis Davis both offer strong voices and smart comedic timing in their scenes; the remaining cast provides capable support for this fast-moving show, especially the fine-voiced Kristin Grillo.

The Wharf Theatre boasts an interesting history; though the building has a somewhat crusty feel, which suits the Fisherman's Wharf atmosphere, its great advantage is the good acoustics, with not a bad seat in the house.  The singers perform without electronic enhancement.  What a joy to hear natural, unamplified voices!  The able Michael Blackburn, on piano, accompanies the entire show.  (But why no program bio for the pianist?)

At the performance I attended, the audience included several people who evidently knew as much about these musicals as the people who wrote them; the laughs were plentiful and frequent.  Those less familiar with the ins and outs of Broadway shows may not catch every gag (such as the hurrying woman who cries out “Sorry!” then adds, “Grateful!” as she exits stage left) but the obvious enjoyment with which Bolen’s talented company romps across the stage is contagious.  It’s the kind of show you leave humming a favorite tune, or perhaps two or three or more, and perhaps all of them at the same time.

“The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!),” plays at the Bruce Ariss Wharf Theatre through April 29.  For tickets and information, call the MPC Box Office, 831-646-4213, or visit www.mpctheatreco.com.

Unafraid of Emotion

In several of the stories in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, the 2005 collection by Yiyun Li, what connects one character to another is often vanishingly slim: the sight of “a wisp of hair” on a hard-to-manage, disabled adult daughter is all it takes to restore love to a weary mother’s heart; another mother looks at her gay, unmarried son with loving eyes “so eager and hopeful” the man must look away; a pregnant young woman, far from home and planning to abort, bursts into tears at the smallest movement of the growing life inside her.

These small human moments often provide the climax to Li's tender and truthful stories, as if the ability to bridge the gap between two people—or the inability to do so—were the single most important thing to say about a character.  Such stories generate real emotion in the reader like few other works of contemporary fiction can; Li, who appears at an author reading and signing in Carmel next week, is as unafraid of emotion as many of her characters are wary of its power.

Yet the emotions on display in Li’s work never sag into sentimentality.  Indeed, as she showed in The Vagrants (2009), her brilliant debut novel about life in a provincial Chinese town in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, she is remarkably unsentimental about children.  In The Vagrants, an entire community of men and women, boys and girls, is shaped by a shifting yet nonetheless unyielding political and social system that leads some to sad and surprising acts of cruelty and betrayal.  It is rare to encounter a book at once so sorrowful and so exhilarating; I was reminded of the novels of Emile Zola and Thomas Hardy, ambitious, carefully constructed works that set vivid individual characters into their environments like pieces of a puzzle in order to reveal a larger design about the nature of human suffering during a particular time and place.

In Li’s work, that time and place is mostly contemporary China.  Her second collection of stories, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2010), continues many of the themes found in A Thousand Years.  But if the emphasis in A Thousand Years was on the elusive, fragile nature of connection, in her latest book such connections are even more tenuous, if they exist at all.  In the title story, a gay man returns to China to live with his mother, a widowed, retired professor who is intent on seeing him marry one of her former students for reasons the story probes with extraordinary delicacy.  Such a marriage will not be founded on romantic love, but as in several other stories, Li explores how love is shadowy and unknowable, yet also tenacious.  “They were lonely and sad people,” Li writes, “all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.”

Li’s radiant stories enlarge the reader’s world, making our own human tragedies large and small more transparent, and so more bearable.

Yiyun Li, author presentation and book signing, Tuesday, April 10, at 7:00 p.m., at Carpenter Hall, Sunset Center, 9th & Mission, Carmel-by-the-Sea.  Presented by the Carmel Public Library Foundation as part of its Annual Arts & Literary Series.  $10 suggested contribution.

Finding the Women

When Jane Press was growing up in the 1950s, she noticed two things.  One, that she was living in a man’s world, where it was not usual for mothers to work outside the home, and two, that there were fabulous roles for actresses, women like Shirley Booth who were no longer young starlets but were not yet old.

Today, Press surveys the acting landscape and asks: Where are the women?

“I’m interested in actresses of a certain age,” she says.  “Acting is an art, a craft.  We rehearse, we practice, and over time we presumably get better, more skilled.  But then, in their fifties and sixties, women seem to disappear.  Jessica Lange is now playing old ladies.  Jessica Lange is not an old lady!  We’re relegated to pretending we’re older or younger.  Just at the age where women come into their own, have a wealth of experience and something to say, we’re not being given the roles to say it, except for playing mothers—most often portrayed as trivialized stereotypes or caricatures.”

So instead of looking for roles that didn’t exist, Press had another idea.

“I thought to myself, where are the women my age?” she says.  “Well, I’ll write them.  I’ll write about the most memorable women I knew.”

As a girl, Press would sometimes spend the night at her grandmother’s when she was hosting Mah Jongg games; Little Janie would help set up and serve.  When Press began to write her play, the voices of those women came back to her so clearly it was like taking dictation.  “I remember everything!” she says.  “They had such a keen sense of humor, based upon the foibles of human nature.  I know it’s a cliché, but I would hear them talking in my head, grab a pen and start writing."

Press’s play, “My Mother’s Keeper,” is about those women and the significant events that can shape a family across the generations.  “Every family has its craziness,” she says.  “I decided to trace my family’s craziness back through the matriarchal lineage to the source of ‘What happened.’  This led to an investigation of motherhood itself, with all its inherent blessings and curses that are passed on, most often unconsiously, from mother to daughter.”

The play revolves around a single shattering incident in 1914 which continues to reverberate down through the generations.  “I had written the entire play around it before I was able to go back and address the event head on,” she says.  “That part was enormously challenging.”

Press is interested in what she calls “our matriarchal inheritance.”  “All women are daughters” she says.  “Just as men know that the father-son dynamic is unique, the mother-daughter relationship is a very specific dynamic and that’s what I focused on in my play.”

She began by asking questions: who was my mother? and who was her mother? and who was her mother?

Both her mother and grandmother were actresses; Press herself has been on stage since childhood, carrying on a family tradition.  She vividly remembers her mother taking her to see Dame Judith Anderson perform in “Medea” in a theatre-in-the-round performance when Press was 15.  “It was tremendous—a huge impact,” she says.  Other favorite performances include Maggie Smith in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” Lotte Lenya in “Cabaret” and Sada Thompson as Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie.”  Press describes the character of Frankie in “Member of the Wedding,” which she performed as young woman, as her favorite role.

Since coming to the Monterey Peninsula eleven years years ago, Press has been very involved in the local theatre scene.  She says that her favorite place to perform has been the Magic Circle Theatre, where she has been in productions of “Lend Me a Tenor,” “The Laramie Project,” “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” “Rumours,” “My Son the Lawyer Is Drowning,” and “I Hate Hamlet.”  In September, she will appear there in “The Last Romance.”

She also enjoyed appearing in “Sidemen,” at the Cherry Center and “The Day They Shot John Lennon” at the Studio Theater at MPC.  While she was working on her play, she presented a scene from it at the Cherry, as a work-in-progress.  “It got a wonderful reception,” she says.  “The play is about a Jewish family, about women, but both men and women came up to me, and people were saying, ‘I’m Italian, I’m Greek, I’m Irish, and this was my family.’”

In addition to her stage work, Press has focused on theatre education for children since coming to the Peninsula.  Press teaches acting at the Carmel Academy of Performing Arts, and a summer program with the Community Partnership for Youth.  She was also the lead instructor at the Children’s Experimental Theatre for the last five years of its existence, working closely with CET founder Marcia Hovick, who passed away in January.

“I’m carrying on in my own way,” she says, “continuing her work, our work together, and the work I’ve developed.”

A major element of that work has been with girls ages 6-12.  “The last three years I happened to have all girls in my classes,” she says, “and through that I’ve developed a very specific work, helping girls navigate the transition, when bodies start to change.”  Press uses her own experience to help shape how she teaches girls.  “I was born in 1950,” she says.  “We had a childhood then; divorce was rare and grandparents were very much a part of the family.  It all changed when President Kennedy was assassinated.  The country lost its innocence. In the 60s, all hell broke loose.  In the 70s Gloria Steinem was my hero.  Now to see our little girls today so sexualized at such a young age—it assaults the natural sense of modesty they have and robs them of their childhood.  My work is to mitigate that. In my Acting for the Stage class, we explore what it means to be a female human being telling the stories of our lives.”

To help tell the stories of her mother’s, grandmother’s and her great-grandmother’s generation’s lives, Press has assembled a cast of seven women and an eleven-year-old girl.  “The play is dedicated to my grandmother, who will be played by Suzanne Sturn, a fabulous actress and director.  It’s a helluva part.  Well, my grandmother was a helluva woman, and a huge influence on me.”

“My Mother’s Keeper” will be directed by Robin McKee, featuring a group of accomplished actresses that includes the author.

Press hopes that her play will come to be performed in many venues annually on Mother’s Day, in the way that “The Vagina Monologues” has become a popular choice to perform on Valentine’s Day.  Perhaps it is fitting that Press’s daughter is scheduled to give birth during the show’s run, making Press a grandmother herself.

“My Mother’s Keeper” plays at the Carl Cherry Center for the Performing Arts, 4th and Guadeloupe, May 4 – 27, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m.  There will be a special Sunday evening performance on Mother’s Day, May 13, at 7:30 p.m.

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