Monday, July 30, 2018

Douglas Messerli | Losing My Mind (on the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble's production of Side by Side by Sondheim)


losing my mind
by Douglas Messerli

Stephen Sondheim, with additional music by Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers, and Jule Styne Side by Side by Sondheim / directed by Dan Fishbach at Los Angeles, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble / the performance I saw with Howard Fox was the matinee on July 29, 2018.

Yesterday, my husband Howard and I attended a performance at Los Angeles’ famed Odyssey Theatre of the 1976 Ned Sherrin musical revue (directed this time around by Dan Fishbach), featuring Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and music, that started out in London and later transferred, with the same British cast, to Broadway, toting up, between the two, rather long runs.
      With a cast of only three singers and a narrator (here Mark D. Kaufmann), it might be described as the perfect musical theater event for smaller and community-based theaters which could feature the local talent, both dramatic (in the case of the narrator) and vocal in the case of the two female and one male singers.
     This small-theater production—produced in a theater that for 49 years has been known for its far more adventurous plays (everything from Beckett to Max Frisch and younger playwrights such as the American John O’Keefe)—did not disappoint. Despite the fact that I might also have attended the surely far more innovative version of Eduardo Machado’s Lyistrata Unbound, being performed in another of the Odyssey mini-theaters at the same hour, I felt that after the slog of daily political news, it might be nice to simply go back in time to Sondheim’s early career, covering the periods when he composed lyrics for other musicians (in this production represented by Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, her father Richard Rodgers, and Jule Styne) as well as several numbers from Company, Anyone Can Whistle, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, and Follies, as well as lesser known works such as the lovely piece from his television musical, Primrose Evening, Pacific Overtures, and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.
     Of course, when younger singers take on songs interpreted by some of the greatest of Broadway legends, even singers of talent—and these performers, Sarah Busic, Chris Kerrigan, and Rachel McLaughlan are definitely singers of talent—there will be, even if unspoken, the inevitable comparisons to Barbara Cook, Elaine Stritch, Dorothy Collins, Alexis Smith, Larry Kert, Chita Rivera—the list goes on.
     These younger stage folk have good voices and great theater pizazz, so why bother to compare them with legends? And they have the advantage in simply being fresh and young, and the ability to express Sondheim masterworks intimately in a new manner. I’ve seen most of Sondheim’s musicals on stage, but this was the first time that I could truly hear all the lyrics, which made pieces like the daffy analysis of the hero of Company by three Andrews Sister’s-like disappointed lovers, belting out “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” legible; no saxophones here, as in the 2006 Broadway revival I saw, to distract you from their piercing criticisms of Bobby.
      There was something so raw about McLaughlan’s and Busic’s tragic love duet, “A Boy Like That,” that it brought tears to my eyes. No dubbing necessary in this production. And if no one can ever match, perhaps, the exquisite shadings of Bernadette Peters’ “Send in the Clowns,” McLaughlan does a wonderful job that makes one hear that near-operatic piece all over again as if for the very first time.
      I believe Chris Kerrigan’s beautiful rendition of “Marry Me a Little” from Company easily matches Raul Esparza’s 2006 version; and who might have thought of a brawny fellow like Kerrigan singing the naughty husband-wife “splitting up” story, “Could I Leave You,” or replacing Charmian Karr’s wistful TV version of “I Remember” (sung late at night in a department store to Anthony Perkins) with a tenor-baritone voice. Both of these and other songs point up what Sondheim usually shoved under the rug, particularly given his remarkable ballads of heterosexual desire and compulsion, that he was gay man—much like the lyricist he often dismissed, Lorenz Hart—who was hiding his own attractions within various heterosexual narrative scenarios. Both of these female-based songs make good sense sung by a male, as do some of the gay and lesbian suggestions played out in a quick summary of 27 other Sondheim songs near the end of the show.
     Although it might be stunning to hear the last recording of the operatic star Licia Albanese, known for her Puccini interpretations, sing “Ah, Paree!” in Sondheim’s Follies in Concert, for the first time ever I comprehended the lyrics as sung by McLaughlan, who also sang a solid rendition of Follies’ “I’m Still Here” that certainly matches and, perhaps, surpasses Carol Burnett’s rather literal rendition on the DVD we own.
     I know, I promised that I was not going to compare. I’d just say, hey, these kids are “Broadway Babies,” even though they’re performing today in LA, who ought to see their names “all over Times Square.”
     I’d go back to this musical revue any day, except I can’t bear to think about hearing their wonderful singing all night long, as I did last night. I need my sleep. But you should go—and often. I will probably return as well, as soon as I can once again “lose my mind.”

Los Angeles, July 30, 2018


Monday, July 23, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "White Lace and Red Poetry" (on Murray Mednick's Mayakovsky and Stalin)

white lace and red poetry

Murray Mednick (author and director) Mayakovsky and Stalin / Los Angeles, Lounge Theatre / I saw the production with Pablo Capra on July 22, 2018

The legendary Murray Mednick’s most recent play, Mayakovsky and Stalin, which I attended yesterday with my editor Pablo Capra, might be described as less a traditional drama than as a kind of “parade” of figures in the early decades of Stalin’s long and brutish rule of Russia. Indeed, except for brief interchanges between the dictator (Maury Sterling) and his wife, Nadya (Casey McKinnon) and between the poet Mayakovsky (Daniel Dorr) and his married lover, Lilya (Laura Liguori), the characters—aligned in chairs with red-colored seats along the back of the small theater stage—come forward one by one to speak out about their values and ideas. Rhetoric rather than dialogue dominates this work, as each attempts to explain in a series of short speeches who they are and why they are driven to act the way they do.
     That is not to say there is no heart or emotional energy to the work. The great Soviet poet is impassioned with his homeland in Georgia, with language, and—to a certain extent—with the Communist Party and his love of Lilya, as well as his friendship with her complaisant husband, Osip (Andy Hirsch). And Mayakovsky, despite his belief in the party, is also doubtful of the ability of his fellow countrymen to make the necessary changes and, like everyone else, is quite terrified by Stalin and his henchman. After all, even though Mednick’s play does not represent this, Stalin would eventually kill and destroy almost all of the early believers in Communism who worked as writers, artists, dancers, and in theater (as Mayakovsky himself did). The poet’s cynicism, voiced several times in this work, is perhaps best expressed in a comic poem which I, myself, translated several years ago:

                      the tale of the little red hat

                      Once upon a time there was a Cadet*
                      a little Cadet who had a red hat.

                      But apart from that hat that capped
                      his head there was in him no shred of red.

                      But quick as revolution began
                      the Cadet ran home to get his red

                      tam. They all lived happily—
                      brother, father and Cadet granddad—

                      as they had until one day a wind blew
                      right through his hair to tear the red

                      hat from his head and reveal his black
                      roots. The revolting red wolf got his licks

                      of the boots and ate his way up to that Cadet’s
                      knees but was still so starved he carved

                      up to the heart. So please when you’re about to 
                          start
                      politics don’t forget how that Cadet got et.

*Cadet was the nickname for the Constitutional Democrats, the part of the political center.

As Maykovsky notes in Mednick’s play, he likes to rhyme.
     Stalin’s shuttered wife, Nadya, is represented by the playwright as a parallel version of Mayakovsky. An intelligent and sophisticated woman raised herself in a Communist family, Nadya might like better to live like the sexual open and more feminist-oriented Lilya Brik. But, of course, as the wife of the supreme leader, she is not allowed such choices; either she joins him in his social forays or lives only as a dedicated mother to his children, Vasiliy and Svetlana (the latter of whom later emigrated to the West). Closeted in a world of lace collected by Stalin’s first wife, who died under mysterious circumstances, Nadya increasing displays her dissatisfaction, not only with her personal life but with the various purges of individuals (doctors, artists, etc.) by her husband. She is aided by her trusted servant, Masha (Ann Colby Stocking), who is a true-believer in religion of the Orthodox school. But like Mayakovsky, she increasingly is given over to bouts of despair and disbelief.
     And then, of course, there is Stalin, a crude and rude dictator who sees himself as the representative of history itself. Like all such leaders his entire life is given over the great “cause” he believes he represents. There must be someone at the top, he declares, to make sure the Party progresses and moves forward in its intended path—even though Mednick makes clear that that “path” is something that is constantly shifting under the feet of the would-be believers. Sound familiar? (At least our current leader has only a made a “killing,” to our knowledge, in the marketplace; although he has bragged that nobody would take him to account if he might gun someone down in the street). Fortunately, Mednick does not milk the slight similarities, and centers his work on the subject at hand.
      Serving as a kind of chorus and, one might argue, as a cabaret host to these harangues and interchanges is Max Faugno, a Russian Jew who was born years later in the US of figures who left the Soviet Union to escape Stalin’s endless wrath. Mednick, however, gives him wide range to speak in the present and the future, commenting on and connecting the “parade” of figures he puts before us.
      Obviously in such a culture, the center cannot hold. Mayakovsky takes a gun to his heart in an apparent suicide in 1930—although some claimed that they heard two gunshots, and many suspected that it was Stalin’s thugs who oversaw his “suicide.”
       In the 1932 Nadya took up the same kind of gun and shot herself in the heart as well, a self-admitted victim to her husband’s reign.
      In short, these two very different figures suffered similarly through that period as brave and talented individuals whose very names were, at least temporarily wiped from history’s slate. After his wife’s death, Stalin never spoke her name; and only in 1988 did Mikhail Shatrov write in the Soviet press about what had happened, even though in the US several had commented on the truth long before.
     Mayakovsky’s great poems and plays were banned until Lilya wrote Stalin (also, incidentally a Georgian by birth) asking him to redeem the poet’s career. Amazingly, he did, declaring him the only great poet of the revolution.
     If Mednick’s work, accordingly, is somewhat static in the telling of this complex series of tales, it is centered upon matters of the heart, a work about people who had given their hearts to Communism, Stalinism, and their comrades, all of whom, in turn, broke those hearts before they were driven to explicitly demonstrate that in their desperate actions.
     With projected photographs (some of them, such as Mayakovsky’s body after his death, quite amazing) and a wonderful cast, Mednick has taken history and brought it to life through the telling rather than the showing. How can you “show,” after all, such broken hearts?

Los Angeles, July 23, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera and Performance (July 2018).


Besides the above translation I have had a larger connection with Vladimir Mayakovsky through a series of translations of his plays by Paul Schmidt. Pablo and I, just this year, published the most radical of those works, Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy, translated and designed according to the original by Guy Bennett, on my Green Integer press series.
      I also published Murray Mednick’s play, Switchback, in my Sun & Moon Press books, and reprinted it in Mac Wellman’s and my anthology, From the Other Side of the Century II: A New American Drama 1960-1995 in 1998.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Coming and Going" (on Stephen Sach's Arrival & Departure)


coming and going
by Douglas Messerli

Stephen Sachs Arrival and Departure (based on David Lean’s Brief Encounter) / directed by Stephen Sachs at Los Angeles, The Fountain Theatre / the production I saw was the matinee on Sunday, July 15, 2018

Anyone who has read my review of the Noel Coward / David Lean movie of 1945, Brief Encounter (in My Year 2012: Center’s Collapse) will know that am no fan of that melodrama about a young, rather unhappy British housewife who accidentally encounters a handsome and suave man (Trevor Howard), also married and with children, at a train station, which begins a series of “brief encounters” in which they increasingly begin to realize that they might have made the perfect couple as opposed to the flawed relationships in which they now live.
      Coward and Lean finally wake up their dreaming characters, forcing them apart and back into the snug corners of their provincial isolationism. It is, in fact, the almost perfect work for these Trump years, as we are all asked to stop seeking anything out of the ordinary and to return to a time that never was.
      Still, I like to be fair to things, particularly to such a much-loved film which has been adulated by most of the British public and admired in the US as well--where several variations of it, in film and on the stage, have recently occurred--and, accordingly, agreed to see this new production.
     Fortunately, Stephen Sachs, working in careful tandem with the Deaf married couple, actors Deanne Bray and Troy Kotsur, using the Coward work as an vague outline, transforms the work into a completely American drama which includes a zealously religious husband, Doug (Brian Robert Burns); a racially-mixed romance between a Dunkin’ Donuts Pilipino shop girl, Mya (Jessica Jade Andres) and a handsome black policeman, Russell (Shon Fuller); a confused, cellphone-tapping teenager, Jule (in the production I saw performed by Aurelia Myers); and most importantly, two Deaf people who sign instead of speaking, although Emily apparently has the ability, with the use of special hearing devices to speak in English, the man she meets in the New York subway, Sam, who works as a American Sign Language instructor, only signs.
      While Coward’s work on stage was titled Still Life, Sachs' version of this work is almost in constant motion, the various patrons of Mya’s donut stand are almost always on the move, marching with the play’s few cast members into patterned maneuvers to represent the busy streets of New York City; Emily’s and Sam’s encounters are presented in ASL as passionately expressed conversations with an ever-constant use of hands, arms, and eyes, and an emotionality that simply cannot be expressed in the simple home-bound conversations of Emily’s religious and hard-working husband.
      In fact, Bray and Kotsur, emanate love from the first second they meet, falling naturally into a relationship that, in this case, cannot be unspoken, and is witnessed by all around them in their vibrant movements. Even though she is in her last weeks of Bible study, ready to be baptized into what is clearly a “born-again” sect, anyone with two eyes can see that this is a completely wrong decision. Sachs doesn’t even try to bother to gather a linguistic debate about the issue; having worked for 30 years with the now nationally famous Deaf West actors, beginning at the very theater in which I witnessed this play, the writer/director instinctually knows that these issues are better played out visually than voiced, even though a chorus of fellow commuters played by Adam Burch and Stasha Surdyke do translate the ASL gestures into language for those of us who, I might argue, are hard of seeing.
      Sachs' work, accordingly, redeems the quiet repressions of Lean’s film by setting everything into the tumult of American life, with all its endless comings and goings, its constant sense of motion. The couple at its center fall increasingly in love in the midst of those greasy, sugar-coated tables serving donuts and coffee, not in a slightly steam-and-smoke filled cottage serving up English tea and other edibles. What was polite in the British version is here gritty, even somewhat violent, particularly when Emily dares to visit Sam on his own territory, in the classroom in which he appears to live. And even that visit terribly excites her, the halls filled with signing young men and women which reveal  the truth of her now repressed homelife of devotion and faith.
      Emily, Sam, Jule (Julia) remind one of primary and secondary characters in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, all figures who seek a world outside of their provincial lives, a play in which Kotsur starred in a major Pasadena Playhouse production.  Is it any wonder that this play’s Emily, after what she knows will be Sam's and her last meeting, is ready to throw herself into the subway tracks? The gentle Russell, the strange romanticist of this play, saves her, so that she might return home to a place she now must realize is not open to her own being.
      She returns for the sake of her daughter, Jule, who has just found out that she has been tricked by a girl pretending to be a young boy about whom she has fantasized and to whom she has poured out her love for on her Twitter or Facebook account. More than ever, this girl needs a strong mother who Emily has now become. But even Doug, who in fear of losing his wife forever had signed up for ASL training, now asks her to be his teacher, a loving act that, no matter how simple it may seem, cannot be ignored as a pleading for her to stay within the flock.
       Yes, like the major character of Lean’s film, she does return to the fold, the small town provincialism she knows is wrong for her; but here, at least, she is no longer just a housewife. She has become a powerful mother and a teacher, perhaps now to even stand up against Doug’s religiosity in order to seek out another version of an American Dream, a dream that is always coming and going in American thought and, perhaps, maybe should even be laid to rest. Dreams are dreams, but life is living out who we are and who we have become.

Los Angeles, July 16, 2018