Theater Rhino’s The Habit of Art

Dave and I saw an early preview of Theater Rhinoceros’s production of The Habit of Art at the Eureka Theater last Friday evening.

This is a fairly recent comedy by Alan Bennett, about an imagined meeting between Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden late in their lives. Auden is living in semi-retirement at Oxford; he’s bored and feeling like a has-been, and he’s eager to find something new and exciting to work on, even if it’s dangerous; Britten, on the other hand, is still busy and much sought after, and he has such a project — he’s starting work on an opera based on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice — but he’s skittish about the subject matter, a man in late middle age who develops an obsession with an underage boy he sees at a hotel while vacationing in Venice. Britten fears the public might turn on him, and he wants to make the boy older, closer to adulthood, and to present the older man’s attraction as one of chaste appreciation of classical beauty. (Britten is a homosexual and a teacher of boy singers; he feels an infatuation for some of his underage students himself, and his behavior with some of them — not overtly sexual but not entirely innocent either — has already led to private gossip, though never a public scandal; so the very thing that draws him toward the subject matter also cuts uncomfortably close to home.) Auden urges Britten to be honest about both the boy’s age and the sexual element in the attraction. Auden would love to write the libretto; Britten has already chosen to work with a writer who is much less talented but will give him the less dangerous, more comfortable libretto that he wants.

Except that it’s more complicated than that, because The Habit of Art is really about a rehearsal of a play about this imagined meeting, so there are layers of reality that interrupt each other, with the actors breaking character frequently to argue with the playwright or to complain about the director’s choices or to ask the stage manager where they’re supposed to be standing now.

Dave and I saw this production at Z Space a couple of months ago and enjoyed it a lot; we’d meant to go back for a second look and weren’t able to get around to it, so we were very happy to see that it’s getting another month or so of performances at the Eureka Theater. The acting is really terrific. The play itself is very funny, some of it in a very silly, farcical way, some of it affectionately satirizing the foibles and weaknesses of artists; and yet at the same time it’s a sort of rambling meditation on how to make art when you are past the years of your greatest glory but you still have the habit. When you’re much venerated for what you’re already done, working in your own shadow, do you repeat what has worked well for you in the past, or attempt something that’s exciting and new but dicey and that could fail very badly, maybe not just embarrassing you but even damaging your reputation? The theme echoes and re-echoes in subtle ways through all the various levels — the play-within-a-play, the actors’ complaints about the writing, the playwright’s complaints about the direction, the stage manager’s attempts to soothe everyone and keep the rehearsal on track.

It’s a dense, thoughtful, complex, and very funny play. If you’re a fan of plays by Tom Stoppand and Caryl Churchill, you’ll probably like this, too. If you’re on a tight budget like us, discounted tickets are available through Goldstar.

The Orphan of Zhao at A.C.T.

Dave and I saw the American Conservatory Theatre production of The Orphan of Zhao over the weekend. We both found it a bit disappointing. Pleasant, very well acted, attractively staged, but not really compelling or deeply moving.

For one thing — despite an essay in the program that chides earlier Western translations for taking considerable liberties with the original — this version seemed to us to lack much of a feeling of the culture of China a thousand years ago, often giving the characters motivations and concerns that might be understandable to a modern Western audience but which seemed very much out of character with how people in that time and place thought about themselves and about their relationship with the society around them.

Now, I’m certainly well aware that Chinese culture — even modern Chinese culture, let alone the vast cultural history — is confusing and bewildering to most Americans. And I’m not opposed to updating or reinterpreting an old story to make it more accessible or relevant to a modern audience, God knows. But nothing about the production suggests that this is intended as an updating or a reinterpretation. What’s more, this approach didn’t actually seem to help the audience understand why the characters were making the choices they were making, to judge by the number of times somebody’s decision to commit suicide or to slay another person drew some uneasy laughter from the audience.

At intermission, Dave was giving the play more of a break than I was — he’s first-generation Chinese-American and knows the old story, and I think he really wanted the production to work for him. But by the end of the play, he too was very frustrated, feeling that too many things weren’t ringing true and that the production completely missed, at least for him, what the old story is about from a Chinese point of view.

Another thing that bothered us (and in this case especially me): The play is clearly trying to be poetic, and yet the lyrical, reflective sections didn’t seem to me to work well. Maybe the poetic parts of the play read better on the page, I don’t know, but when spoken or sung from the stage most of them came across as weak and unclear. The plainer and more straightforwardly dramatic portions worked far better and had much more strength, I thought.

All that said, the cast — led by B. D. Wong as the country doctor who saves the orphan and Sab Shimono as an elderly sage who helps him, both at terrible sacrifice to themselves — is terrific, and the production is attractive. Not a bad evening of theater at all, just not a very emotionally engaging one, at least for us.

A Comedy of Errors at CalShakes

Dave and I saw the first preview of A Comedy of Errors at California Shakespeare Theater last night. It’s a fun, lively, colorful production with a lot of clowning and slapstick. The standout performance for me was from Adrian Danzig, who according to his bio is not merely a professional clown but the artistic director of an entire clown theater company based in Chicago and how cool is that? He gets a real workout playing both Antipholuses, and he carries it off with flair, energy, and occasional bursts of gymnastics. Danny Scheie similarly plays both Dromios; a little of his shtick usually goes a long way for me, and there’s a double helping of it here, but this is the sort of silly farce where it fits in and works, and I enjoyed his performance.

Having each pair of identical twins played by one actor is a very appealing idea, at least until you get to the scenes where they have to appear together, and then it isn’t so much any more; the actors don’t really overcome the clumsiness of the scenes in which they are playing opposite themselves, but they do make the most of their double roles the rest of the time.

Seven actors play all the roles, and they make a lively ensemble. Most of their bios include the words clown and/or circus somewhere in their credits, it’s that kind of production. I thought Patty Gallagher was especially deft and funny switching back and forth between playing a courtesan and an abbess, but really they’re all great fun to watch.

Really, the only real drawback to the production is that, you know, it’s still A Comedy of Errors, which it seems to me nobody really needs to see more than once in a lifetime, and I think this is my third production, plus a couple of productions of The Boys from Syracuse along the way as well. I suppose if you’re going to call yourself a Shakespeare festival, you’re taking on the obligation to work your way through the whole book of plays sooner or later, no matter how slight some of them are, and they don’t get much slighter than this. But I can’t help wondering if there aren’t there some other amusing but flimsy Elizabethan farces that we could all agree to just pretend to attribute to Shakespeare, just for variety.

Status Report

Been way too long since I’ve posted much here. I have been insanely busy for months — pretty much since March, with just a couple of short breaks from the stress, not really enough to get unwound. This whole summer seems to have whooshed past in a blur of too much work, too much stress, and not enough sleep.

Some recent and important events, which I will try to write about in greater detail later:

The Lamplighters will be performing my new English-language version of the operetta Die Fledermaus, titled Die Fledermaus, or The Bat Bites Back, in late January and early February. I have been at work on this intermittently since last year, but when The Lamplighters expressed interest in mid-August, I still had a fair amount of work to do on it, and they needed to have a finished script by mid-October. Not enough time. But I have not worked with The Lamplighters before, and I very much wanted to, so I pushed myself to crank up the speed in order to finish in just two months. I finished the last remaining pieces of third act a couple days ago, a week later than planned but not too bad. (And there were reasons for the week’s delay; see next paragraph.) There will undoubtedly be some tinkering needed in rehearsal, too, but we have a good, complete script to start from. This is a somewhat free adaptation, rather than a close translation of the original, but it isn’t an updating or reimagining as some of my opera adaptations have been; it follows the original story and characters. I’ll write more about it later.

My father died in mid-September. Dave and I rented a car and drove to Phoenix for the funeral service. We tented in Joshua Tree National Park on the way there, stayed two nights in Phoenix with my brother and sister-in-law, and tented one night in Joshua Tree on the way back as well. My childhood was an unhappy one, but stopping in Joshua Tree was a lovely way to revisit a few good things about my relationship with my father, as certainly I got my love of the desert from him, and whatever knowledge of the constellations and planets I’ve managed to retain originated with him. (One of the wonderful things about nighttime in the desert is the reminder of how full of stars the sky really is. It’s always startling to me, no matter how well I think I remember from the last time. When you live in an urban area, you just don’t see very many stars at night.)

This year’s edition (the 14th) of Thrillpeddlers’ annual Shocktoberfest is terrific, and it plays through the weekend before Thanksgiving so there’s plenty of time to go see it. This is very intimate (and low-budget) theater in the Grand Guignol style, and it won’t be for everyone, but it’s good and effective stuff. The legendary Grand Guignol Theater in Paris specialized in evenings of short one-act plays, alternating between bawdy farces and gruesome horror plays. The centerpiece of this year’s Shocktoberfest is a one-act play about Jack the Ripper that was actually written for and performed at the Grand Guignol Theater. Very creepy — this was written by the Grand Guignol’s most prolific writer of short horror plays, and he clearly knew what he was doing. There’s a certain meandering quality to the play that comes across in the early scenes as perhaps carelessness in plotting and characterization, but it gradually creates the disturbing sense that the play could twist in any direction at any moment and that any character might suddenly decide do something horrifying. This uncertainty about where everything is heading heightens the suspense enormously while we’re waiting in the fog for the Ripper to strike again. A genuinely unsettling play.

Dave was in the aisle seat in the second row, and during a gruesome murder by the Ripper, he got spattered with some of the stage blood. (Yes, the theater is that small!) He received profuse apologies during intermission, and assurances that the staging would be adjusted so that this wouldn’t happen again. But really, Dave was delighted by the accident, and I expect his stage-blood-spattered program is going to end up framed on the wall somewhere. (Still, it might be prudent to wear machine-washable clothing!)

Butterfield 8’s evening of Gothic ghost stories and poems, Gaslight and Ghosts, was also terrific, but unfortunately it only played for two nights, and Dave and I attended the second night, so if you didn’t catch it, oh well. A cast of six actors read and performed four scary stories and two poems for us. Like Thrillpeddlers, this is a good company doing inventive stuff on a shoestring. Coming up are the company’s own adaptation of A Christmas Carol and an adaptation of The Maltese Falcon.

Lady Windermere’s Fan at Cal Shakes

On Saturday, Dave and I went to the opening of Lady Windermere’s Fan at Cal Shakes. It’s a very handsome production with a killer cast — Stacy Ross, Peter Callender, and James Carpenter are longtime favorites of ours, and Dan Clegg, Aldo Billingslea, Emily Kitchens, and Nick Gabriel have all impressed us several times in the past few years. For me, a little of Danny Scheie’s camp generally goes a long way, but he’s funny in matronly drag as an elderly duchess who pays a call on Lady Windermere in the first act.

Afterward, Dave told me about a science fiction publisher he knew of who used to say always put your best cover art on your weakest books, and I laughed, knowing exactly what he meant. Lady Windermere’s Fan has one of the strongest casts we’d seen at Cal Shakes in quite a while, but really, it’s a fairly weak play. It’s Oscar Wilde’s fourth play, and only the first of his comedies of upper-class society, and though there are signs of the wit and skill in dramatic construction that will culminate in The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde hadn’t yet gotten the knack of creating characters who are both satirical archetypes (which the characters in Fan certainly are) and distinctive (which they aren’t).

The play contains a fairly steady stream of witty epigrams (“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious”; “I can resist everything except temptation”; “A man who moralises is usually a hypocrite, and a woman who moralises is invariably plain”; “Good heavens! how marriage ruins a man! It’s as demoralising as cigarettes, and far more expensive”), but very few of them have all that much to do with either the characters who say them or the situations they’re said in. You could swap them around between characters, or move them from the first act to the fourth and vice versa, and for the most part it wouldn’t affect the play a bit.

Nor had Wilde figured out yet how he was going to break away from the popular Victorian sentimental comedy of his time. Earnest is brilliant and hilarious precisely because it isn’t an earnest play at all; there isn’t a noble character to be seen or a sincere speech to be heard from beginning to end. Fan, though, is too earnest by half. You can sort of see that Wilde is trying to pull off the Ibsen trick of beginning the play as though it were a conventional melodrama, only to start turning the clichés on their heads and revealing the hypocrisies underneath the conventional theatrical tropes; in Fan, though, Wilde makes only a half-hearted effort, and in the second half of the play he turns several of those sentimental clichés right side up again and presents them to us again in all seriousness.

Even so, the play has its strengths along with its weaknesses, and the cast makes the most of them. I thought Stacy Ross was particularly terrific as Mrs. Erlynne, the object of Lady Windermere’s scorn and, it seems to me, easily the best-drawn and most interesting character in the play. Emily Kitchens seems too young and ingenue-ish to be playing Lady Windermere, at least as I’ve imagined Lady Windermere to be when I’ve read the play, but Ms. Kitchens makes the part work well on her. The rest of the characters are not well drawn by Wilde, and they tend to blur together in the mind (in my mind, anyway), but the cast plays them all with invention and conviction and high spirits. It’s not a great play by a long shot, but it’s an interesting one and rarely done, and it’s getting a lively production here.

Michael Chekhov


Anyway, the reason I brought up Spellbound is that it led me to take Michael Chekhov’s To the Director and Playwright down from the shelf and browse through it. I haven’t looked at that book in a very long time. Chekhov has a delightful and important comic role in the movie as the elderly psychoanalyst who was once Constance’s teacher. The actor was the nephew of the great playwright, and he was a very respected actor and acting teacher, first in Moscow and then in other countries, eventually settling down in Hollywood.

220px-Michael_Chekhov_1910хThe picture above is Chekhov as Dr. Brulov in Spellbound; to the left is one of him as a very serious-looking young man.

The book, To the Director and Playwright, is actually a collection of some of his writing and lectures compiled by an editor after his death. It actually doesn’t contain all that much that is especially for the playwright, it seems to me, even though that’s why I bought it in the first place. What he has to say is mostly about creating characters and individual scenes that contain theatrical life, and he writes about them from the point of view of how the director and actors will think about these things. This is all very good and valuable for the playwright to know, certainly; you have to create characters and scenes that will give your director and actors the basis for doing their jobs well. But it nevertheless seems to me that these things are not at the heart of the playwright’s job, and that Chekhov didn’t say much about the larger structural matters that the playwright needs to understand in order to be able to sustain that feeling of theatrical life over the course of two to three hours.

Still, it’s a very good book, with a lot of good stuff in it, and now I want to reread it and find some of Chekhov’s other books and lectures as well.

Here’s a passage I like very much, as apt to playwriting — and to life itself, for that matter — as it is to acting and directing:

There are many things around us which we feel are ugly, unsympathetic, unpleasant, and our impulse is to shun them, have nothing to do with them. That is an understandable, atavistic, animal reaction. But suppose the very next time you encounter something unpleasant you try to find in it at least a grain of something which is not ugly or repulsive. I don’t mean this as plain blind optimism; it literally is possible to discover something good or pleasant in everything unpleasant. It might be so minuscule that is is almost microscopic, or it might even be something intangible, but finding it will be extremely worth while. This act of kindness, this perceptive, artistic form of love, will help you to understand why no character on stage can ever be all black. In order to like and enjoy even the most hateful of our character creations, we must see in them or endow them with something admirable.

Still another suggestion: Listen to conversations and discussions of people around you and pay particular attention to the way they utter such possessive words as “I,” “mine,” “to my way of thinking,” “in my opinion,” etc. Frequently, they put more emphasis on those than on the things they have to say. Your impulse is to be highly critical of their egotism. But if you stopped to view this failing in a charitable light, you would soon be asking yourself, “Don’t I measure the thoughts and opinions of others through the prism of my own agreement or disagreement?” I don’t mean to say that nobody should express opinions; without them no discussion or conversation would be possible. What I am suggesting is that we curb this small ego within our own selves. The best way to treat it is with a gentle and tolerable humor; laugh at it, but without your justifiable sarcasm or cynicism. Learn to laugh at and discourage your petty ego because it is one of the numerous foibles that work in opposition to selfless love. Our kind of love, the creative person’s love, must be all-pervading and expand us; the small egos of our life only contract us.

Spellbound and The Girl of the Golden West

Dave and I watched Hitchcock’s Spellbound Friday night. I’ve been a Hitchcock buff since my childhood and I’ve seen Spellbound many times before, but evidently not in some years, because I noticed some things in it I don’t remember noticing before. Including a really startling number of structural correspondences and similarities with Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West.

Think about it: Independent, strong-willed Minnie Falconer/Dr. Constance Petersen has been wooed without success by a number of the men in her community (the mining camp/the hospital), including the local sheriff/her supervisor at the hospital, but has turned them all down — and then falls hard for the handsome newcomer Dick Johnson/Dr. Anthony Edwardes. Then she learns that the man she has fallen for is in fact an imposter and wanted for murder. But she knows in her heart that it can’t be true, and when a group of men, including the local sheriff, come to her room one evening to warn her and show her a photograph that proves the man is not who he says he is, she conceals what she knows from them, even though she could help them capture him if she wanted to. Instead, she works to save his life and make things right with the law, so they can marry and start a new life together.

Another parallel: In both cases, the couple’s first kiss is marked by a door opening (well, several doors opening in the case of Spellbound, and no snow), which in both cases is a metaphor for the heroine’s opening herself up to physical passion for the first time.

Did Hecht notice the parallels in the two stories and model some of his scenes on scenes in the Belasco play? I don’t know, but there seem to me to be just enough similarities to make that entirely plausible. And I doubt there’s any way Hecht didn’t know the Belasco play — it had been too huge a hit.

“Wilder Times” at the Aurora

Dave and I saw Wilder Times at the Aurora Theatre several nights ago, thanks to a bring-some-canned-food-for-charity-and-pay-what-you-can offer (because we are really, really broke this month). Dave and I particularly wanted to see it because we’re big fans of Barbara Oliver, who directed, and of Stacy Ross, who is in the cast. So we were very glad of the opportunity, and I’m glad to say that we had a great time.

It’s a wonderful production, a collection of four one-acts by Thornton Wilder. The only one that I’d ever seen before, or even heard of before, was “The Long Christmas Dinner”. That was the last of the four plays, and probably the highlight of the evening, but all four plays were interesting and inventive and funny. Wilder had a great gift for evoking large ideas through a simple story and plain, folksy dialogue. The acting and direction were a lovely match for Wilder’s writing — simple and spare, yet full of all kinds of delightful and telling details.

The first half consists of “Infancy” and “Childhood”, two plays from a cycle of seven that Wilder was planning on the Seven Ages of Man (it seems he only finished four of them). I was particularly taken by “Childhood”, in which three children play at a strange fantasy, at times very ordinary and at times surreal, both whimsical and troubling, about becoming orphans, leaving home, and taking a bus trip to China. (Getting valid bus tickets is an obstacle. The Mississippi River is another.) The trip has its own strange dream logic, with a bus driver who reminds the children of their father and a mysterious veiled passenger in the back who resembles their mother. Of the four plays, this is the one that had me most wanting to see it a second time, just for another chance to sort out the feelings it brought up in me.

The second half consists of “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden” and “The Long Christmas Dinner”. “The Happy Journey” is probably the slightest piece of the four, a very simple story about a family of four on a drive to visit relatives; very little happens, but watching the family dynamics at work held my interest all the same, and the gentle little story becomes moving by the end.

“The Long Christmas Dinner” is, I think, fairly well-known. Ninety years in the history of a family pass during the course of one Christmas dinner; adults grow older and die, young people join the table and grow up in their turn, all while turkey is being carved and wine is being poured and people say the same old things they’ve said at all their Christmases.

I have ambivalent feelings about this play, because in my childhood Christmas dinner was always hellish. There were three hellish days every year for me when I was a kid, actually, the others being Easter and Thanksgiving. We got together at these times with my mother’s parents and sister, and later with my aunt’s husband and children as well (that’s all the family I ever knew much of; my father was estranged from the rest of his family, and most of my mother’s family were killed in the Holocaust), and every one of these holidays I had no choice but to be there and listen to people saying the very same cruel things to each other and having the very same bitter quarrels that they had said and had every holiday for as long as I could remember. So I can vouch to the persistence of family traditions, but the subject of Christmas is still a sore spot for me all these decades later, and as much as I enjoy the more benign forms of family dysfunction that are on display in “The Long Christmas Dinner”, it’s a hard play for me to give myself up to wholeheartedly. There’s always a part of me holding back, thinking, “Oh, you people have no idea!”

Still, it’s a beautifully staged and acted production of a great one-act play. Stacy Ross is wonderful, as she usually is, but so is the rest of the cast.

The publicity photo at the top is a moment from “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden” in which the family stops at a filling station along the way. Brian Tryborn is the station attendent, Stacy Ross in the back seat talking to him is the mother, Søren Oliver in the driver’s seat is the father, and Heather Gordon and Patrick Russell are the children. I love the expressions on the kids’ faces in this one, as the grownups chat pleasantly about nothing much.

Hamlet at Cal Shakes

I’ve been so tired and busy I haven’t even posted about Dave and I seeing Hamlet at Cal Shakes on opening night Friday before last. In spite of the fact that it is a totally kickass production. There are a number of rather bewildering things about this production, first and foremost being the fact that the set seems to be an abandoned urban public swimming pool, empty and littered with discarded pieces of furniture and other items. However, it isn’t long after the play began that I was so blown away by the force and clarity of the performances that I didn’t care much any more about the inscrutable parts.

LeRoy McClain as Hamlet and Zainab Jah as Ophelia as just amazingly good. Liesl Tommy’s direction — once you accept and get past the fact that it’s a swimming pool and you have no idea why — is sharp and full of inventive choices, and it keeps the story intense and clear.