Thursday, October 27, 2016

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Creating Los Angeles Theater" (on Gordon Davidson's death)

creating los angeles theater
by Douglas Messerli

The death of major one of the major theatrical figures of Los Angeles on Sunday, October 2, 2016 came as a shock to many, and particularly to Howard and me, who’d seen the Davidsons just a few weeks earlier at the MET opera HD production in Century City.
       Although we’d known Gordon Davidson for several years, we didn’t get a chance to talk with him on that occasion, a situation which I now regret. He looked healthy, but also, one has to admit, a little frail, and I’m not certain he recognized us, even though we sat only a few seats away. I had even recently seen him at an opening night production of A View from the Bridge at the Ahmanson Theater on September 14, but in the swirl of the opening night crowd, I didn’t have the possibility of speaking to him.

Image result for gordon davidson       Much has been written about his remarkable career, the invitation by Dorothy Chandler to have him run the then-newly founded Mark Taper Forum, and his numerous successful productions—not all plays which I openly admire, but important in developing an audience for contemporary theater nonetheless—including The Devils (controversial, to the say the least), In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Children of a Lesser God, and Tony Kushner’s absolutely remarkable Angels in America
       I recall when we first moved to Los Angeles, how my friend Marjorie Perloff expressed her delight in a Taper season devoted to several of Beckett’s plays, but was disgusted by the audience lack of attendance and their disparagement of these works. A couple of years ago, after Davidsons’ retirement from that organization, Howard and I saw a brilliant revival of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Taper, with full attendance and admiring reviews, so Davidsons’ great foresight finally did pay off.
      Although Davidson produced many more traditional works, he always attempted to push the envelope, so to speak, introducing new works whenever he could. Davidson liked “issues,” however, more than “experiments” in his plays. As he, himself, put it: “I believe it must be the job of theater to take hard looks at life, at issues people don’t always want to confront. They will listen to what is said to them from a stage. That is the power of theater. I respect it. I am in awe of it.”
      And, indeed, he did many “issue” plays, including The Shadow Box, for which he received a Tony Award, The Great God Brown, and a wonderful revival of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Perhaps his best known and most successful issue-oriented play was Luis Valdez’s musical play from 1978, Zoot Suit, presented in 1978 with Edward James Olmos in the lead role. Artist Carlos Almaraz painted some of the sets. It played to full houses for a year before it moved on to Broadway, introducing wealthy white audiences of the Bunker Hill theaters to a whole new theatrical tradition. That work, coincidentally, is scheduled to be revived at the Taper later this year, an event that Howard and I can’t wait to experience.
       I first met Davidson when I asked him to join the board of the Sun & Moon Press American Theater in Literature Series, which he gladly agreed to, occasionally attending Sun & Moon literary salons. 
       I worked with him, indirectly, when he invited director Peter Sellars to stage at the Taper playwright Robert Auletta’s modern version of Æschylus’ The Persians in 1993. Doing away with costumes and sets and placing the play firmly into the US wartime activities in Iraq, Sellar’s production was nearly unbearable, for much of the Taper audience, to watch. I know because, having published the play in my Sun & Moon American Theater in Literature series in time for this production, I attended almost every night, selling copies before and after the performances. Nearly every night, half of the audience stormed out in anger, and I think I sold very few copies. But I admired Davidson for bringing this play to his stage. It took guts.
      Even if Davidson did not always present the most innovative works, however, he permanently changed the theater scene in Los Angeles, lighting a fire under its dormant theatrical scene until we finally see today a wide range of theatrical events that in variety and number (there are literally hundreds of small amateur theaters throughout the metropolitan area) seems richer, in some respects, than New York’s Off Broadway. And now, also, with the Taper and Ahmanson on Bunker Hill, the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City (also a result of Davidson’s vision), the Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills, the Broad Theatre in Santa Monica, and the Geffen Playhouse, and the Pantages in Hollywood, Los Angeles might be said to contain a kind of mini-Broadway scattered across its vast spaces.
       Davidson, finally, was a natural charmer. He always had a smile, at least at the many social events in which Howard and I met him, and spoke, if often excitedly, gently, with a slightly bemused attitude. He was, always, a friend, inviting you into his theatrical vision. Los Angeles will truly miss him.

Los Angeles, October 13, 2016

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "The Sublime and the Ridiculous" (on Wagner's Tristan und Isolde)

the sublime and the ridiculous
by Douglas Messerli

Richard Wagner (writer and composer), Mariusz Treliński (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Tristan und Isolde / 2016 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast] 

The first "high definition" production of the new Metropolitan Opera season, Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is sublime, with outstanding performances by the great soprano Nina Stemme, Stuart Nelson (singing only his second Tristan), Ekaterina Gubanova as the intruding servant Brangäne, René Pape as King Marke, Evegeny Nikitin, singing the smaller role of Tristan’s loyal allay Kurwenal, and, perhaps most importantly, Simon Rattle conducting of the Met’s great orchestra.

       Yet this version of Tristan und Isolde is often equally leaden and confusing through production director Mariusz Trebliński’s decision to set the opera on a war ship in Act One, and upon another ship and in that ship’s enormous lower-deck storeroom filled with large containers of what appear to be weapons all stamped with “Warning” in Act Two. The return to Tristan’s childhood home, where Kurwenal has set up like a hospital room, where other portions of the home, having undergone a fire years earlier, appear ready to collapse, is nearly inexplicable, particularly when Tristan retrieves his father’s military jacket from the floor of a nearly creosote leaden room.

On top of this, set designer Boris Kudlička’s and projection designer Bartek Macias’ sets and projections sometimes clumsily recreated the story of the young Tristan’s loss of his mother (in child-birth) and father, along with the quite unexplained torching of their home and the woods around, further making murky what is generally a fairly simple tale of love, consuming desire, death, and transfiguration.
      Yes, these various elements do keep our eyes quite busy during the opera’s many long, static passages; and certainly they help to make clear that part of Tristan’s determination to find love—first in his obedience of and service to the King of Cornwall and, later, in his love of Isolde—has a great deal to do with his being an orphan. The worlds of Tristan’s Brittany, Isolde’s Ireland, and Marke’s Cornwall, moreover, obviously are structures of military might achieved through violence—just the kind of world in which Wagner generally locates his operas. Everyone here is a loyal warrior or a traitor, with heroes being awarded and traitors (i.e, the other side) being destroyed.

       But these things are fairly obvious within the long narrative passages Tristan and Isolde recount throughout the opera, and hardly need be reasserted with such heavy handed imagery and metaphorical projections.
       At moments, particularly the long, long love duet in Act II, the projections of clouds and spinning planets truly do give rise to the kind of splendiferous visions being experienced by the loving couple, particularly, as Brangäne interrupts their “maddened” lovemaking with her beautiful offstage song of warning—a moment, as Rattle himself described it, of near transcendence. But, for the most part, the maritime imagery and weapon’s room storage scenes seemed in opposition to the lovers’ Schopenhauerian ruminations about day/death and night/love. The fact that their verbal love play verges, in itself, on gobbledygook is certainly reiterated by the drab surroundings of this production.

       And finally, the metaphorical ghosts of both Tristan’s child-self and his dead father, particularly in Act Three—although again much-needed visual elements while Tristan lies dying—created more murkiness than clarity. It’s clear that Tristan is being visited by the ghosts of the past, but a child flashing the light of a cigarette-lighter into the dying man’s eyes seems nearly ludicrous—if not dangerous.
      As in all successful renditions of this great opera, moreover, any singer who credibly endures it is a wonder. Here, despite my cavils, this production, particularly given Rattle’s languid and highly nuanced musical direction, along with Stemme’s beautifully balanced and modulated singing and acting, will be recognized as one of the greatest of this opera’s performances. 
      Finally, even if by slashing her wrists, Isolde doesn’t quite go “gently into that good night,” it allows her to represent her “Liebestod” as a gradual transformation of worlds through the gradual loss of blood, making Marke’s and Brangäne’s reentries, once again, simple intrusions on the inseparable lover’s lives.  In Tristan’s and Isolde’s love there is no room for others, not even room for living.

Los Angeles, October 9, 2016
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2016)

Friday, October 7, 2016

Monday, October 3, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Permanent Outsiders" (on Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey)

permanent outsiders
by Douglas Messerli

Shelagh Delaney A Taste of Honey / Los Angeles, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, the performance I saw, with Deborah Meadows, was on Sunday, October 2, 2016

It’s interesting that this season has seen two new revivals of Shelagh Delaney’s 1959 play, one at New York’s Pearl Theatre, and the other at Los Angeles’ Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. I’ve not seen the New York production, but apparently, like the Los Angeles revival it includes an on-stage jazz ensemble, surely appropriate—as opposed to some of the other music used in Odyssey version (“Que Sera Sera,” sung by both the character Jo [Kestral Leah] and on record by Doris Day, one of my very least favorite songs of the 1950s).  Although I haven’t read the script for years, I certainly don’t recall, moreover, Jo’s mother, Helen (Sarah Underwood Saviano) taking up a saxophone to accompany the trio.

In any event, I am sure that, along with several statements, particularly by Helen, spoken directly at the audience, director Kim Rubinstein intended to “modernize” a play that does certainly creak some. I’m just not that sure all those updatings truly worked. Perhaps this late 1950s slice of kitchen sink drama—without, fortunately, the sink—is best presented as a kind of historical document. Perhaps, even in its original appearance—one of a handful of plays and films by the likes of John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Alan Sillitoe, and John Arden who, in their “angry young men” grouping, completely changed British theater—it would quickly seem dated, with far more experimental plays by Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and the American Edward Albee being performed nearly simultaneously and in the years following.

What is still amazing about this play is not its language—although Delaney always expressed her delight in the Salford dialect—but in its daring mix of subjects. Writing the play in response to the repressed gay sexuality of the plays of the elder statesman of the day, Terence Rattigan, Delaney, without a blink, calls up, quite straightforwardly, issues of prostitution, child abuse, and the vastly different ages of the marrying couple (in the behavior and relationships of Helen and her 20-year younger boyfriend, Peter [Eric Hunicutt]); teenage sex (both Jo and the author herself were under 18 when they became pregnant); interracial marriage (the young sailor with who whom Jo finds her “taste of honey,” Jimmie [Gerard Joseph] is black); and homosexuality (this, in the person of Geoffrey [Leland Montgomery] who cares for Jo when her sailor disappears). 
      If some of these themes seem introduced with almost accidental casualness, others are taken up quite seriously, presenting alternatives to the current—and sometimes still present—sentiments of the day. Yes, Geoffrey, as the gay nurse, is often a kind of stereotype, but he is very much more real and, at least, a different kind of stereotype from Rattigan’s whispering and tortured men and women.

What also doesn’t get much said about the play today—and I’m afraid the Odyssey production didn’t completely succeed in its attempts to portray it—is that A Touch of Honey is also very funny, sometimes in the manner of Pinter and Albee. Although Jo seems permanently damaged by her mother, their relationship is often a dependent one, based on their mad “Irish” sense of argument. 
      Saviano, perhaps the strongest member of this cast, did her best to make her lusty “good-time-girl” mother into less of a monster and more of a blustering fool. But it’s a complex role and needs a superlative thespian like Angela Lansbury, who played Helen on both the stage and in film, to get it right. Certainly, she has the lusty, loud-voiced monster down, but the kind of cow-like tenderness Albee discovers in his Martha, is here missing.
       All the actors did their credible best, with Leah having the benefit of a Manchester accent, while the others shifted in and out of Salford dialect. Joseph, moving from the jazz ensemble drums to sailor was a likeable and quite tender “black prince” for Jo, and helped us to comprehend what Jo sees in him.
      Montgomery’s character is one of the most complex of the play. As a gay man, seemingly still closeted , since he will not reveal why he has been thrown out of his previous digs—clearly because he has been caught in bed by his landlady with another man. He also has to channel, without being too effeminate, the campy humor of the day; no mean task.
      He is also quite evidently “in love”—whatever that might mean in a work where no one feels loved enough—with Jo, offering to marry her in a far more serious way that even Jimmie has. He’d surely be the most loving and caring father for her mixed-raced baby.

But he’s also a kind of coward, easily scared off by the returning Helen and, before that, by her drunken lover, Peter. And, ultimately, he leaves Jo, as she begins to go into birth contractions, in the lurch. Without him, more importantly, she has no one to help her escape the same patterns which have destroyed Helen, and one might imagine the two in the future locked in their hateful embrace a bit like the mother and daughter duo of Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens fame.
      Ultimately, however, everyone in this play is a permanent outsider, with no way to truly enter a society that would never be able to understand them even if they had been offered “entry.” Although Delaney hated to be described as one of “the angry young men,” she was certainly a very angry, and yes humorous, young woman. Although she wrote one other play, several film scripts, and a credible autobiographic work, Delaney had put all of her wrath into this one early play. For that reason, if for no other, A Taste of Honey is a work worth watching again, even if it does now function better as a document than a living modern theatrical masterwork.

Los Angeles, October 3, 2016