Richard Strange, Mary Margaret O'Hara and Matt McGrath in The Black Rider / Craig Schwartz
Heart of darkness
Those traveling to the Ahmanson through June 11 should make sure they read the entire title of the play they're headed into: The Black Rider, The Casting of Magic Bullets, A Musical Fable. That final word is the double-edged key. On the dull side, Director/Designer Robert Wilson is signaling that this collaboration with composer/lyricist Tom Waits and writer William S. Burroughs is, at heart, a simple story with a benign moral. The other side of the story, however, cuts deep.
Every storytelling style from the gospels to Guignol has used fables to help one generation instill obedience in the next. In German culture, however, fables mutated into something wild and horrific. Here, the watery allegories and reassuring archetypes that are sufficient for bedtime tales elsewhere were twisted into grotesqueries. Characters who made mistakes weren't simply taught a lesson, they were damned for eternity. Poor marksmen didn't just lose contests, they shot their true loves.
The more seamless a culture's surface of uniformity and obedience, the deeper its artists must go to reach the root cellar of childhood memory that forms its collective unconscious. Consequently, Germans have produced some of the most severe, hauntingly beautiful and unforgettable images in Western art. This rich, fetid soil is where Robert Wilson and his collaborators have come to forge the dark heart of The Black Rider.
The story of The Black Rider has been told many times. First, as a written story in the 1810 collection Gespensterbuch ("The Book of Ghosts"), then in Carl Maria von Weber's 1817 opera, Der Freischtz ("The Free-Shooter"), and again in Thomas de Quincey's The Fatal Marksman, published in 1823.
The bare bones plot involves a young man, inclined towards the arts, who must prove himself a hunter to win a woman's hand away from her parents' chosen beau. Hopeless with a rifle, he accepts the Devil's help, in the form of magic bullets that never miss. The practice rounds are free, but bullets to challenge his rival will cost him his soul. On the day of the contest, the magic bullet he fires ignores his intended target and heads for his intended bride. The Devil made it do it, ending the contest so he could quickly collect payment. Losing his love and his soul in a single shot, the hero goes mad and is sent to an asylum.
The show begins by reversing time. At center stage, a casket-sized black box up-ends itself to create the doorway through which the cast emerges. To introduce them, an imposing figure (John Vickery) appears in the house in cowled black cape, shouting through a scratchy megaphone. Wings of vivid eye shadow wrap to the back of his short blond Oskar Werner hair. As welcoming as a camp commandant, he makes his way to the stage, introducing an extraordinary gallery of circus freaks, created by a more extraordinary company of players.
The actors – led by Matt McGrath as the hero, Vance Avery as the Devil, Mary Margaret O'Hara as the beloved, and Nigel Richards as the other suitor – have somehow found the humanity in these arch, over-stylized characters. Just as impressive, they have responded to Wilson's overbearing directorial cues to become so much of a unit that their individual contributions are all the more vivid. The commitment of these performers verges on obsession. The reward for giving the director his due is that the surreal piece about losing one's soul, has gained one. In the wrong hands, Wilson's style could strangle the life out of a production with these goals. It's unclear if the show could be mounted as successfully without Wilson in charge. Perhaps the insurance is the contribution of his collaborators, who strike the same dissonant chord while adding additional layers to it.
Nearly a century ago, European painters were pursuing a style they called Expressionism. Their mission was to create work that insinuated the artist's emotions into the art. One of two collectives based in Germany was "Der Blaue Reiter" (The Blue Rider). A key figure in the "Reiter," Russian-born Wassily Kandinsky, said they were "rejecting representational approaches and concentrating on the emotional influence of the human soul." "The Scream," by Norway's Edvard Munch a decade earlier, greatly influenced the "Reiters" and can be seen on the faces in Wilson's Rider. Their style, also present here in set elements, "used the motif of a work remembered from a dream, or drawn by a child." The German Expressionists did not survive World War I, but their ideas were adopted by film-makers from Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919) onward. They are celebrated in Black Rider, which became a huge hit during its 1990 (German-language) premiere in Hamburg.
Tom Waits, whose interest in songs about cars, coffee shops and bloodshot moons has faded like invisible fiancees in his rear-view mirror, has pursued his art wherever it takes him. He sacrificed mass appeal as quickly as it appeared he could have it. After "Ol' '55," the song he wrote for the first track on his first album, was a hit for the Eagles, he soon abandoned such vehicles in favor of songs for a netherworld where, to quote a Robbie Robertson song, "nobody here really knows where they're going; at the very same time, nobody's lost." This collaboration with Wilson and Burroughs, getting only its second North American production, boosts Waits words and music to new heights. Some songs – "November" and "Briar and the Rose" for example – are among the most poignant he has written.
Burroughs, who died seven years after the work's Hamburg premiere, lived long enough to hear the syringe-sharp language he loved punctuate the air around a Black Rider audience. As a rare surviving embodiment of the mid-Century American Beat Movement, he brought the aura of literary rebellion to the mix. His novels such as Junky, Queer and Naked Lunch established him as a keen, uncompromising writer of that era. As with the others, The Black Rider gives him new artistic credentials for access to any period hereafter.
No doubt The Black Rider will produce the gamut of responses from love to loathing. For the fortunate, the series of grand, skewed stage pictures, the harsh and haunting songs, and the sad cautionary story of sacrificing the soul to ease the heart, will unfold like enveloping dimensions of a new artistic heaven. For some, it may all sound like fingernails on a blackboard. For others, it may sound like artists reaching for something visionary, digging to unearth something real. In either case, it's a stretch. And going beyond realism means traveling in the dark without a map. That's how a culture discovers its heart and its soul – for better or worse.
Bahni Turpin, center, with some of the cast of Demeter in the City / Michael Lamont
Some years ago I read about a woman breaking a bond as fundamental to human nature as the atom is to nature. The story exploded in me like the splitting of an atom. A middle-aged woman had shot her only son and then drove to a railroad crossing to have Amtrak decapitate her. This horrific crime of mother taking her child and herself from the world began with another kind of separation, something the police never discovered.
Last weekend I thought about this incident for the first in a long time. It happened while watching the Cornerstone Theater Company's engrossing production of a new musical, Demeter in the City, by playwright/lyricist Sarah Ruhl and composers Shishir Kurup and David Markowitz (at REDCAT through June 18). Ruhl, with strong support from Kurup's direction and cast, successfully melds the Greek myth of Demeter's separation from her daughter Persephone, with community interviews for a wide-ranging exploration of contemporary life that touches on the ills of social services, discrimination, campus politics, drug abuse, education quotas, the court system and motherhood.
Demeter (Bahni Turpin) is standing in dim light downstage center when the house opens. Women, in variations of floral house dresses and sweaters, wander alone or in pairs the ramparts and steps of Shigeru Yaji's unit set. Although Demeter's body is frozen with hands upturned, her face reacts with sadness as a woman passes with a swaddled baby, then carefully hands it to another, then another, and so on until the show begins.
Ruhl incorporates the topical interviews – with young mothers, Young Republicans and veteran case workers – into a balanced, fluid story about the tragedy of separating mother and child. A callous official removes Demeter's baby when drug paraphernalia is found in her home. This surprising indictment of L.A. Social Services as invasive and destructive flies in the face of perceptions that the government is underfunded, over-worked and ineffectual. Later a judge bemoans the problems of not removing a child. In what we assume is a quote from someone, he recalls that a child returned to a similar home was murdered within months.
Demeter's failure to clean up within the court's alloted time means she does not get her back. While it devastates the mother, the daughter grows into a remarkable young woman, Persephone (a very impressive Sadé Moore), who, while bitter about the loss of her mother, is a brilliant achiever. She retains her awareness and values while being open to reasoned discussion, seeming to confirm the wisdom of removing her from a cycle of poverty and drugs. Cornerstone does too much research to spout easy answers, even though we in the audience may hunger for them. While the script threatens to leave its heart in many of the issues along the way, it ultimately remains true to its Greek myth.
Turpin is wonderfully natural in the role, which helps keep it from feeling like heavy myth. Her conversational delivery is so engaging that an audience member would be forgiven for unwittingly raising a hand to ask a question. In addition to the strong showing by Moore, there is a nice comic turn by Peter Howard (who was so memorable as Jacques the defrocked Hollywood agent in As You Like It earlier this year) and a slyly forgivable Young Republican shill created by Sonny Valicenti, who turns out to be Hades, unable to resist Moore's Persephone.
Near the end, Turpin's Demeter gets to let out all the pent-up sadness and anger against the system, the fates and herself. The actress makes it a rich moment, powerful enough to recall those feelings of implosion after reading about the poor mother who took her son's and her own life. It's powerful theater in a vividly realized production. And if that weren't enough, there's nearly a dozen songs that fit in beautifully with the storytelling and the sometimes off-beat tone. It's a wonderful way to enjoy the REDCAT space at the Disney Hall. Unfortunately the show only runs through this Sunday.
Pamela J. Gray, Natacha Roi, Bill Brochtrup and Martin Kildare in The Real Thing / Henry DiRocco
I had a real problem driving to The Real Thing at South Coast Repertory last weekend. No music CD. A glance around found the shoe box crammed with cassettes salvaged from the house my mother left last year. I slid in a collection of old pop songs my late pop had taped off the radio one day. As I headed down the 405, I imagined the afternoon of exquisite randomness and spontaneity that lead to this recording and in the process conjured up a kind of sonic hologram.
There he sat, pipe clenched in his teeth, straddling the ottoman that supported his portable cassette-recorder and transistor radio, missing the beginning of songs, cutting off the ends, and frequently hitting stop after the dj started talking. It was perfect. Whether or not manipulative, simplistic pop music should be considered "real" music alongside jazz or classical is open to debate. But its power is not. Its casual pervasiveness can't help but connect people. In The Real Thing (continuing through June 25), playwright Tom Stoppard uses the gap between high-brow and low as just one point of perspective to measure what truly affects us and what does not.
Czech-born Stoppard is among the most revered writers of the English language, and The Real Thing is one of his most popular plays. It is one of only two produced at SCR in the past 30 years: Arcadia in 1998 and Real Thing once before in 1987. Rosencratz and Guildenstern, The Real Inspector Hound/After Magritte and Jumpers were produced between 1970 and 1975. Affection for the script is not surprising as it is Stoppard's most openly affectionate. Ultimately, it is a love story. A brainy one to be sure, but a love story.
With his rare talent for writing literate dialogue Stoppard pursues the reconciling of contradictions with the ardor of a sportsman. Especially contradictions in his own thinking. "I write plays," he has said, "because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting myself. I put a position, rebut it, refute it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation. Forever. Endlessly."
There are several of those eternal conundrums driving The Real Thing. The central character, a playwright named Henry, believes in objective value. "It is not better because someone says it is," he insists. "It's better because it's better!"
Henry's confidence is ripe for shaking and Stoppard sends the appropriate tremors through his world. The characters in The Real Thing, primarily actors, writers and agitators, straddle the "camino real" dividing classical music and pop, playwriting versus agitprop, political commitment versus dilettantism, stage drama versus real life and, of course, true love versus simple lust or cloying neediness.
With the script a proven commodity, an individual production of Real Thing hangs on the actors playing Henry and Annie -- the woman he leaves a wife for, marries, and then suspects of infidelity. Here Bill Brochtrup's Henry is appropriately glib. But he layers the play's inherent cleverness with a topping of cuteness from the opening badinage with his first wife, Charlotte (Pamela J. Gray), and their actor-friend Max (Martin Kildare). The two actors are co-starring in Henry's new play, House of Cards. It's a weakening of Henry that Brochtrup never recovers from. He continues to wear his lines jauntily rather than having them at the core. Here, Henry's embrace of pop culture reads as one who can't grasp higher levels of art as opposed to someone who has reason to prefer them. Things get more grounded when Annie appears.
Annie, played here by Natacha Roi (seen last season in Lucinda Coxon's demanding Vesuvius), works well in this role. She is ravishing, but not glossy or superficial. Stoppard requires Annie to win the hearts of all four of the play's male characters and Roi does it projecting an earthy, hearty, heady range of nurturing and naughtiness that promises all four just what they need. Her trickiest assignment, the parrying with young play-within-the-play co-star Billy (David Barry Gray) that leads to a fling, is about as successful as it can be given Stoppard's contradictory demands.
A shout out to the backstage crew for getting that big turntable to reveal a completely new set after not letting a pin drop during the change. It's the kind of hard-won invisibility that has its reward in going unnoticed. Worth noting.
Director Martin Benson again displays his knack for getting the best from his cast. These people properly explore the feelings we know to be real because of how they affect us, and subtly distinguish them from the affectations that pass for emotion. It's a good way to see a great play.
Mention should be made of Amanda Cobb's contribution. So nice that she was able to stretch out in the recent Pacific Playwrights Workshop of Leitmotif. Here, she adds depth to a quick scene meant to bring together her separated parents – Charlotte and Henry – as she sets off with a young man. To her father's claim, "She's too young to travel with a man," her mother responds, "She's too young to travel without one." And so Stoppard pins another contradiction, suggesting perhaps that we are always too young to travel alone.
Back in the car, I decided to enjoy the randomness of radio directly. And who comes on to underscore Stoppard's theme of music, love and truth but George Clinton: "You've got a real type of thing going down, gettin' down. There's a whole lot of rhythm going round."
Mark Capri, Libby West and Laurence Ballard in Sherlock Holmes / Tim Fuller
Crime is afoot
When Sherlock Holmes was asked to explain how he could solve the most baffling mysteries he said, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." This answer was a verbal variation on the detective's penchant for disguise. Holmes' mind was such a high-powered Hoover, and his memory able to capture and retain such detail, that he could quickly review his knowledge of any subject – including human behavior – and confidently separate impossible and improbable from fact.
But without such encyclopedic knowledge such a quick study might lead to the forensic equivalent of Steven Dietz' new Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure. The play is currently at the Pasadena Playhouse through June 11 in the second-half of a co-world-premiere with the Arizona Theater Company.
What Dietz adds to the burgeoning history of Holmsian stage and film adaptations is the kind of musical hall melodrama that was popular when author Arthur Conan Doyle created his Baker Street sleuth. He justifies the limited scope of the writing in a program note that, "The popularity of Sherlock Holmes seems to revolve around one simple and enduring fact: it's fun to see someone get caught." That may be true for "Americaís Most Wanted," but in modern theatre the reason we like mysteries is the detection, not the detention. It's to say crossword puzzles are popular because we like inking in squares. What's more, an enigmatic character such as Holmes, who becomes more mysterious with every mystery he solves, cries out for a character study by a dramatist with a detective's obsession for investigation. Especially when Dietz has appropriated the two characters who most fully engage Holmes' intellect and passion: Professor Moriarty, the one criminal nemesis who avoids Holmes' capture, and Miss Irina Adler, the one woman who captures Holmes' heart.
According to press releases, The Final Adventure "is based on the original 1899 play by William Gillette and Arthur Conan Doyle." Gillette was an American actor who created Holmes' stage persona, inventing the deerstalker hat and Meershaum pipe accessories. He performed the role for several decades. That 1899 play draws on two stories: "A Scandal in Bohemia," which introduces Adler, and a "Memoir" from late in the series that features Holmes' fatal showdown with Moriarty.
Dietz' frequent director, David Ira Goldstein, is again his accomplice in crime. The tone ranges from too silly – as in some of the buffoonery assigned the King of Bohemia (Preston Maybank), the character who launches the story by enlisting Holmes to find Ms. Adler – to cartoonish – as when Moriarty and his henchmen set their trap with all the suspense of the dog-burglars in Disney's 101 Dalmations. It seems doubly frustrating to sense the missed opportunities while watching a production with actors in key roles who are clearly capable of delving deeper.
At the heart of any Holmes escapade are Sherlock and Dr. John Watson. As Holmes, Mark Capri is a fine fit for this role: not too quirky, not too gritty; a profile like Barrymore and a voice like Irons. He strikes a pose easily – perhaps a little too consistently – but has the range for more than is asked here ("The gameís afoot!" etc.). Victor Talmadge is even more appealing as the narrating Watson: owlish, earnest, enjoying the game, devoted to his wife and to his friend. He has the calm sense of importance in the proceedings. For it is only through him that Holmes' genius will be recorded correctly.
"Scandal in Bohemia" begins with the sentence, "For Holmes, she would always be the woman." In this production, that woman is created by Libby West, an actor capable of leaving that kind of impression. That she is supremely beautiful is not what attracts Holmes. Rather, it is the ways her superior intellect plays out across that beauty, or is masked by it. West gives Adler the studied diction of a performer whose career relies on enunciating for the rounders at the back of the hall. Her speech is one aspect of her detailed, perhaps obsessive intellect. Unfortunately, Dietz' goal is simply getting someone "caught," and not taking a moment to explore storylines that might interest modern audiences. (Like the way Holmes and Adler should throw themselves into romantic parry and riposte after so many lesser partners. Similarly, the Holmes vs. Moriarty stand-off is pretty tepid as we must only spend so much time before the need to re-stoke the plot with guns switching hands and feigned unconsciousness.
With all that said, however, give theaters have already lined up to do secondary productions. Holmes' cases may be open-and-shut affairs, but their dramatizations seldom are.
Lucas Hall and T. Scott Cunningham / Craig Schwartz
Late one afternoon around 1920, something in a Manhattan display window caught the eye of a passerby. Her reaction, haloed in glancing sun, caught the eye of a photographer who froze the moment, converting it to art.
Eighty years later, with the century setting, the photograph caught the eye of Richard Greenberg, who was about to write a play for California's first significant theater space to open in the new millennium. A shopper deciding whether to go in or go on and an artist freezing that turning point for all time helped inspire The Violet Hour, a play that celebrates the transforming powers of a single theater and a single evening, even as it fills them both. Greenberg's play, which bookends -- or cradles -- its action between finding lost theater tickets and determining to really use them, is currently receiving a near-definitive production at the Old Globe's main stage under the watchful guidance of director-to-watch Carolyn Cantor.
The play takes its name from the title of a ponderous book that Denis McCleary (Patch Darragh) has submitted to an embryonic publishing house launched by college and army buddy John Pace Seavering (Lucas Hall). McCleary explains his title as "that hour when the evening's about to reward you for the day." Seavering is still settling in to his office, which is on a floor high enough to enjoy each twilight sky, made up of the stuff McCleary describes as "violet light you walk between that hastens you places."
On this evening, preparing for a play that has been dismissed by everyone as "predictable," Seavering is at the turning point of deciding the first book he will publish. Not only is McCleary pushing for his to be chosen, Seavering has a secret lover – the well-known and known-to-be-troubled black singer Jessie Brewster (Christen Simon) – who has written an image-correcting autobiography she needs to see in print. With the help of another former classmate, Gidger (T. Scott Cunningham), who is trying to shoehorn his eccentric personality into the secretarial position, Seavering spends the two hours before heading to the theater juggling the solicitations of the would-be authors. A third advocate, a seductive agent for McCleary's book, is his lover, Rosamund Plinth (Kristen Bush). Plinth, a Midwestern meat-packing heiress with the Easternmost in tastes, needs the impoverished McCleary to have some credential – like "published author", if she is to introduce him to her father.
In the way the photographer used equipment to freeze those moments before a decision, Greenberg uses it to freeze the aftermath of one. Early on, Gidger announces the delivery of a strange machine in the anteroom. He's soon back to warn that it is now spewing pages of text. He manages to get Seavering aside long enough to read him some startling passages that forecast the history of the 20th Century – particularly as it impacts Seavering and his circle.
Under the steady hand of Cantor – a director who wowed us with a powerful 2005 Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of David Lindsay Abaire's Rabbit Hole – the Old Globe's cast of five is equal to the quintet who premiered the play to inaugurate South Coast Repertoryís Julianne Argyros Stage in 2002. One significant improvement and one lesser presence still make this a net gain on the acting. Hall and Darragh read younger here, giving them additional room for variance as the play arcs into darkness and back again. As Brewster, Simon may be too young for Seavering's older, been-around lover, but that doesn't diminish a fine performance. Kristen Bush's Rosamund unfortunately pales in comparison with Kate Arrington's beautifully detailed portrait. An unfair comparison, perhaps, but there it is.
The big improvement is in the role of Gidger. At SCR, Mario Cantone played Gidger as loud and in-your-face manic. Cunningham gives us a real person who gets plenty of honest laughs without being certifiably insane.
The differences in the sets are also worth noting. Chris Barreca created an historic work at SCR. More elaborate, it used frosted glass on an inner office to allow the mysterious machine to cast an ominous shadow over the proceedings. Here the inner walls are solid and there is no image of the machine. The SCR set was also consciously designed to recall New York's Flat Iron Building, with Seavering's office occupying an upper space in the vortex of the sharp end. This gave the feeling of being in the prow of a great forward-moving ship. Here, the set is a perfect cube set into flat, black proscenium-masking, like a date on a calendar. It is turned a perfect 45 degrees (like a baseball diamond) so that we are looking across the room's diagonal. Rather than forward motion we have the equally valid sense of being stuck in time.
Greenberg has plenty of fun as Gidger and Seavering discover surprising changes that will come later in the American Century: The demotion of The Great War to the first of two global catastrophes and the appropriation of the word "gay" by homosexuals provide two of the lighter moments. But Greenberg doesn't shy from the darkness that gives any violet hour its definition. The light of inspiration for artists like Greenberg contains the full spectrum. In it he sees the horror of mortality, and provides a glimpse in a line as funny as it is frightening when Seavering sizes himself up and suddenly erupts, "These aren't clothes. They're costumes!" Hall's portrayal shows Seavering's brief terror at the shadow of himself as a historic figure. He's Hamlet as he realizes hes not holding Yoric's skull, but his own. Seavering sees that the effects of decisions will be enormous. Lives will be ruined. Deterministic existence is a horrible yoke compared to the vacuum of free will. But can anything be done?
Remembering the occasion of the play's writing adds a wonderful dimension to this celebration of theatergoing. The final curtain of The Violet Hour signals the opening curtain of the play that Seavering and his fellow characters will now attend. Before one curtain can fall and another can go up, he must make his decision. The characters will head to the theater and the audience will leave it. And so Greenberg created his cycle of life and theater, separated by a time of changing light, of violet hours when – if we pay attention – we will find the rewards of our days, and the reasons not to fear the inevitable end of our plays.