Archive for A.C.T.

Darn you Carey Perloff,  I lost my bet

My husband and I had tickets to see “Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard at A.C.T. in San Francisco directed by A.C.T.’s artistic director, Carey Perloff.   My husband doesn’t like the play, largely due to its length.   I saw the play in a production by Center Theatre Group while I was in college, and enjoyed it. (I also didn’t find it to be overly long.)  Prior to leaving, I endured taunts about dragging him to a four-hour long play, I responded that it was only two-and-a-half hours long.   Todays production clocked in at four hours and twenty minutes.   I had to eat crow before my husband.  So, I say again, “Darn you Carey Perloff!”

So what happened?   Well part-way through the second scene and actor left the stage and the curtain came down and the house lights came up.   After several minutes the usher came down and there was a technical problem, and to please remain in our seats.   A while later, an announcement was made that a cast member had been taken ill.   A while later we were told the show would resume in twenty minutes.  About an hour after the curtain was prematurely rung down, it went back up, with a new actor on stage.

At the end of my rant, I will specifically state details of my opinion of the production, which we both quite enjoyed.    What comes first is my issue with business as usual in theatre.   On professional contracts, understudies are not usually required to rehearse with the cast, and often do not start learning the show until opening night.   This is a cost saving rule negotiated by the producers.   Additionally, understudies very rarely get rehearsal with the rest of the company.  Instead the stage manager rehearses them separate from the cast on mornings when the stage managers are not otherwise engaged.  Lastly, understudies are not at the theatre once the curtain goes up.  (In fact, if my memory serves on the LORT contract, they are not even required to be at the theatre unless called.)  This is the way it is.  Today was a clear example of why it is a bad idea.

If the understudy was at the theatre, it should have taken no more than thirty minutes to get into costume and make up, and get on stage.    With an hour delay, it is clear our understudy had to get to the theatre before any getting ready could be done.

Our understudy, a very hardworking Robert Parsons did not know the show.   Inauspiciously, he had to call line several times in his first scene.  Thereafter, he carried pages of the script around with him looking when he needed to.   This did not completely eliminate the need of calling line but it dramatically reduced it.  Parsons also did not know his blocking.  Other cast members where giving him hints about where to go, but he still was out of his light for several key moments.

Prior to today, I said repeatedly that I have never been disappointed in an understudy’s performance.   That is still somewhat true, Parsons is a fine actor and with adequate rehearsal would have been outstanding.  I am disappointed in the realities of theatre.  At a professional theatre, I expect the show to go on.   I have seen understudies on tour, on Broadway, and in Los Angeles.  I’d have to look to see if this is totally true, but in my three years as a subscriber to Center Theatre Group, I never saw a show without an understudy appearing on the night we had tickets.  And in all of the cases before today, if I hadn’t known there was an understudy, I wouldn’t have known it was an understudy.   That was not what was experienced at A.C.T. today. Audiences deserve better than today.   The playwright deserves better than today.   I would say the director deserves better than today, but as artistic director of the theatre, as well as the director Perloff was at least partially responsible for these realities.   The union contract does not bar producers from adequately preparing understudies, it just gives producers the option to risk it.  My guess is that usually it is not a problem.   Today, A.C.T. earned a lot of ill-will from an audience.

An unprepared understudy going on hurts the production.   The pacing slowed down.   Ignoring the time we waited for the understudy to arrive at the theatre, get into costume, and the part of the scene they repeated, the play still ran longer than its two hour and forty five minute running time that the house staff informed us of as we had our tickets scanned.

The ushers informed us we could trade our tickets for another day.   I live 210 miles from the theatre, that was not an option for us.   The family in front of us had come from Sacramento to see the show using a bus or train.   They had allowed time for the show, a quick dinner and then back to catch their transportation home.  They asked an usher if they would make it.   He advised they try to skip dinner and try find a cab to meet their transportation.   They left during the curtain call.  I usually consider that an appallingly rude act ,but in this case I understood.   I hope they made it home tonight.

The play ran so long ,that the parking was far more expensive than the woman in front of us at the parking garage had budgeted.  She was shocked, and scrambled in her purse for more money.   Perloff was coming down the stairs in the parking structure as we were going up.   I am not sure what she was saying to her audience, but I doubt it was enough to get immediate forgiveness for what happened.   As pleased as the audience was with the show, and as loudly as they applauded for  Parsons, the audience was greatly annoyed at the extra hour-long intermission in the middle of the first act.

In one sense an actor taking ill is an unforeseen event, and in another sense it is not.  What is unforeseen is which actor will be taken ill and when.  That an actor will be taken ill during a run, is something that can be prepared for, that is why understudies exist.

What went a long way to redeem the whole debacle  for me today was that Perloff put together a damn fine show.  Douglas Schmidt’s set was clean, simple and beautiful.   Robert Wierzel’s tight beautiful lighting told the audience  at every moment when we were, which is especially important on Gus’s final entrance.   With the exception of the fact that the understudies costume did not seem to fit correctly, Alex Jaeger’s costume design was great, especially the period scenes.

Jack Cutmore-Scott had an understated lunacy about his performance of Septimus Hodge that could turn quickly to a heart-rending introspection.   Rebeckah Brockman as Thomasina expertly rode the line between innocent naïvety and ageless wisdom.    Nicholas Pelczar, Anthony Fusco and Nick Gabriel were fun, funny and passionate foils to Hodge’s plans.   Gretchen Egolf as Hannah was less “showy” than other actresses I’ve seen in the role, and her slow burning anger was a joy to watch.

Carey Perloff’s direction really seemed to find the fun, beauty and nuance in Stoppard’s script.  Her production was more understated than others I have seen, and refreshingly so. The period scenes sparkled like New Year’s Eve’s champaign, the modern scenes a deep undercurrents like a fine wine.  The final scene didn’t play up the pathos of death common in other productions I have seen, instead concentrating on the simple beauty of two people finding each other for a brief moment dancing.   My husband wondered if the audience remembered that Thomasina would die within an hour of the curtain falling at the end of the play.   I think they remember.   I think focussing on the death is siding with the neo-classists and the scientists who think that cold truth is the most important thing, instead of siding with the romantics who will take peace and beauty regardless of the cost.    This debate between my husband and I echos the debates had between the characters of the play, which means ultimately Perloff clearly, and cleverly, succeeded in bring Stoppard’s philosophical argument to this audience.

Now, if only it wasn’t four hours and twenty minutes long, start to finish.

Higher at American Conservatory Theatre

Last Saturday (Feb 11, 2012), I saw “Higher” by Carey Perloff at A.C.T. Unlike the other shows of the season, this play was presented the Theatre at the Children’s Creativity Center instead of A.C.T.’s main theatre. The Theatre at the Children’s Creativity Center is a charming 150 seat proscenium theatre. The only really unusual thing about the venue is this catwalk/ramp over the upstage portion of the stage. On Stage Right it is about 14′ or so above the ground, and across the stage goes up at an approximately 30 degree angle towards Stage Left.

“Higher” is a new play written by A.C.T.’s artistic director. “Higher” is a truly exciting new work. The play concerns itself with two architects (who happen to be dating) who, unbeknownst to the other, enter the same competition to design a memorial to group of people who died in a terrorist attack in Israel. Add to the mix, the Israeli son of one of the victims, and the American wife of another (these two are the co-chairs of the committee of judges for the contest), and the son of one of the architects and you have play that examines the sacrifices artists make for their work (and weather they need to), and a meditation on grief and remembrance.

Perloff’s plot is excellent, and mush of her structure is to be admired. I have three (very minor) quibbles with the play as it currently stands. First, I’m not sure the intermission is in exactly the right spot. The person I attended the performance with seemed to think it belonged one scene earlier. I almost think the play would be strongest without an intermission. Secondly, I feel that a scene is missing. An interesting dynamic is created between the two architects (Michael and Elena), and Michael’s son, Jacob… but the dynamic is never fully explained or explored. Jacob has scenes with his dad, and a scene with Elena, but at no point in the play do we see all three interact together. I would love a scene where the three have to walk the tightrope between polite conversation and the varying likes, dislikes, oppositions and allegiances between the three. My final wish for the script is an over all tightening. There are not scenes that need to be cut — but many of the scenes could have 30 to 90 seconds trimmed from them with no ill-effect, which would make the play fit nicer into a long one-act type of presentation.

The cast was excellent. Rene Augesen, and Andrew Polk as the architects (Elena Constantine, and Michael Friedman) had great chemistry and a great skills at both the comedy and the drama involved in the story. Ben Kahre and Alexander Crowther as the Architect’s Son and the Victim’s Son (respectively) were also wonderful and provided some of the most sensitive moments of the evening. Concette Tomei as the Victim’s Wife was the only person who didn’t seem perfectly cast. She was a fine performer, but I felt the actress’s natural good nature was coming through the “tough-as-nails” character and somewhat diminishing the power of the character. (That said, I have seen Tomei in other plays where she was fabulous, so I do not wish to blame her). Mark Ruker’s direction kept everything moving and believable. Rucker’s direction mixed with Perloff’s script mixed comedic moments with serious moments very skillfully. (The assault with the bagel being a perfect example of the blend of the two.)

To my (highly biased) mind the star of the show was Erik Flatmo’s set. So many of the key ideas of the play were expressed in that deceptively simple set. In the play, the two competing architects have radically different ideas of what the Memorial should be. Michael Freidman’s idea is a soaring glass tower, which is canted at the top, and has the names of the victims etched in such a way that they glow at sunset. Elena Constantine’s idea is a low building in the shape of a grieving praying man. These two ideas, and what they mean becomes the dramatic fodder seperating these two in the contest. Michael thinks architecture should impose its new order on its location, Elena thinks that arhictecture should integrate with its site. On stage, Flatmo uses the competing ideas to create a marvelous tension in the set. Tall steal and glass walls flank the set in an asymmetrical pattern. Between these walls is a graceful sloped wooden wall. The glass connects to Michael’s entry in the contest, the wooden wall, Elena’s. Remember that strange catwalk I mentioned in the theatre. To connect more with Elena’s theory of integrating with the site, the brown wooden wall is at the same angle as the catwalk above it, making a living example of the character’s theory. On this basic set, a few simple items were brought in to suggest every other location. The three offices in the play used the same desk (and in a brave move the desk wasn’t always in the same place even if it was to be the same office). Each office had its own 2 chairs. A bench in a hotel later became a foot board. The Bed was used for thee different hotel rooms. A marvelous simplicity! And in many ways, I loved that visible deck hands came and moved the set. I honestly think any slick automation would have hurt this production. The last thing I loved about the set was the small indent down stage containing “dirt” which allowed the director and actors to make real the feeling of burial and digging so central to the play’s plot.

Gabe Maxon’s lighting was subtle and beautiful. The play of light off of the set made the set (either the wooden wall or the glass towers) come alive. Much like the set, the lighting was kept simple, not drawing attention to itself, but never being less than all it needed to be. The same can be said for David F. Draper’s costumes. They told their part of the story without being intrusive. Will McCandless’ sound design was lovely within the play. I have become more and more disenchanted with “pre show” and “intermission” music. If it is not absolutely completely right it ends up being a distraction to the play rather than an aid. In this case, the music, while lovely, did not mesh well with the play I saw. All of the music during the play itself was wonderful, as were the subtle sound effects.

I recently received word that the play has been extended to Feb 25th, if you are in the San Francisco area, or can get their, I highly recommend it. And I eagerly await its next production. After any first production writers generally take what they have learned about the play and make small (or major) revisions. I would love to see what Perloff does with this play. It should have quite a life.

Humor Abuse

On Jan 21, 2012, I attended American Conservatory Theatre’s production of Humor Abuse.   Created by Lorenzo Pisoni and Erica Schmidt, the solo performance traces the true story of Pisoni growing up in the Pickle Family Circus.

What originally attracted me to the play was the idea of a behind-the-scenes tell-all about a life in the circus.   The play is much more than that.   At it’s heart the play is about a kid dealing with the fractured myth of the perfect father.    The performance mixed classic clown routines, acrobatics, pantomime, stunts, special effects, projection, and monologue.   Each moment is carefully crafted to mix the laughter and pathos.

Production wise, the set, coordinated by Brian Fauska, provides a playground for clowning.    A simple canvas backdrop served as a projection and lighting surface.  A series of suitcases and trunks decorated the stage, reminding the audience of the life of traveling, and concealing the many props used through out the show.  The set also concealed a number of special effects such as trick floor panels, attachment points for props and others items.   Add to this a ladder and moving stair case, and all the elements for a life story where there.   Contrary to conventional masking that is parallel to the proscenium arch, this set created a box of black drapes which contained the action.  Exposed lighting trees on  the side contributed to a “back-stage” feel.

Ben Stanton’s lighting was a playful addition to the show.  Humor was created through cues that created false expectations and foreshadowing to the audience.    Stanton’s palette,  a mix of subtle ambers, and chilling blues highlighted various moments of the story exceptionally well.   The color pallet was very important to make sure that Pisoni’s skin looked good.  Pisoni’s physical comedy caused to sweat a lot, and any make up he tried to wear would have been sweated off by the end of the show.

On a much more personal note…

I’ve worked on solo performances pieces.  They are hard — hard to write, hard to perform, hard to design.   There are not breaks for the actor  — nor does the audience get a “break” from the performer.   Costume changes, usually challenging in a solo performance were handled with aplomb.   The jumps in time and story, and style provided the variety the audience needs.  In my highly biased opinion, this play ranks with Jane Wagner’s “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” for a satisfying evening of theatre as a solo performance.    While I doubt that “Humor Abuse” can have any life with out its creator as its performer, the script is well enough written that it might be possible.

This is a play that made me laugh.   This is a play that made me think.  The is a play caused overwhelming emotions — and not just in me, in the audience surrounding me as well.

At the end of the day, really, what more can you ask for from an evening (or in this case, afternoon) at the theatre!

RACE: American Conservatory Theatre

Just over a week ago, I saw a matinee performance of “Race” by David Mamet at A.C.T.   The production was directed by Irene Lewis.  Scenery is by Chris Barreca, Costumes by Candice Donnelly, Lighting by Rui Rita, Sound by Cliff Caruthers.

Usually when I return from a show, I’m very eager to discuss the physical production… it is after all my passion.   However, much to my surprise, with “Race” I really want to discuss the play itself.   As this is my “Sets and Lights,” blog, I’m going talk about the design first, and then…. I’ll discuss the play.

Chris Barreca’s set of an ultra modern law office, with (according to the program) 370 linear feet of real law books and glass partisans set the tone marvelously.   I had some doubts in the audience that the lawyers at the center of the story would have quite such a rude conversation about their (potential) client when the only thing between them was a glass wall.   Candice Donnelly’s costumes impressed me in the first scene, and then I failed to notice them again — which is probably speaks well for the designer behaving with constant appropriateness.      Rui Rita’s lighting, was for the most part excellent.   The transitions between the scenes, struck me as a rather odd place between “enough lights for the actors to move their props around and find their new spot” and “lets do a pantomime scene to show that time has passed.”  As much as I would like to blame the Rita’s design, I suspect it was much more of a director and designer collaborative idea that just didn’t quite gel.   (I should note that the implied window for the night scene from stage right was an absolutely gourgious effect.)   Cliff Caruthers sound design had only one minor flaw, and that had to do with my position in the theatre which always put the cell phone rings placed, not quite right — I imagine if I wasn’t in the really really cheap seats it would have been great.

Now, to talk about the play.  I should begin by admitting, I have not in the passed liked Mamet’s writing.  I lit his play Oleana several times — and didn’t enjoy it.   I have seen a number of his plays, and read still more — and in general don’t like them.    In general, I find Mamet’s characters arch, and unsympathetic, and I find his plots rather convient.   I did not have high hopes going into Race, which I had acquired tickets to because it was part of a season which otherwise looked really good.

Race may end up being the high point of the A.C.T. season.   The cast ( Chris Butler, Anthony Fusco, Susan Heyward, Kevin O’Rourke) were fantastically cast, and created believable characters that spat out typically Mamet-esque  dialogue.   Irene Lewis’s staging and direction was outstanding.      BUT Mamet was the star of the show.

Mamet’s play centers around the concept of privilege.    This concept has been  on my mind a lot, and Mamet deals with it with aplomb.   Privilege is the concept that due to certain unchangeable things, one person is treated differently than another in the same situation.    Privilege can be afforded to one on the basis of race, gender, class, economic status, sexuality etc.     The other important factor in privilege, is that, in general, the perks one gets from it are not appreciated by the privileged.   For example, I am probably treated better in retail establishments due to the fact that am white, male, and usually dress in a way that indicates I am of a middle to higher economic status.     Alternatively, I am keenly aware of the concept of straight privilege, which I do not get to participate in.

Mamet doesn’t spend the play preaching about privilege, one way or another.   His characters preach at each other about privilege, although none of them can agree on what privilege exists and what are merely imagined.  Mamet also doesn’t provide answers, only questions.   The play concerns a rich white man accused of raping a poor black woman, and the rich white man fires his white lawyers and instead (because he thinks it will look betters), engages a more ethnically diverse law firm.

Mamet takes this premise and uses it to explore privilege and prejudice.  Some in the law firm assume the rich white man is guilty because he is rich, and white, and older while some assume the poor woman is falsely accusing the man in the hopes of a big settlement.  Mamet smartly structures each scene with a stunning reveal about the situation, while never actually telling the audience what really happened.  Normally, I object to a play that doesn’t tie up all the ends neatly into a clear statement at the end.  But Mamet’s point in this play particularly is that what really matters is the perception people have about who did what — who has power — who doesn’t have power — and what (if anything) se can do about it.

There are no easy answers when it comes to privilege and prejudice, and I thank Mamet for not trying to answer anything. Instead his play created a framework (not the only framework) — a starting point for an intelligent conversation about what  the topic.