Sunday, October 24, 2010

Independent Eye's "Hands Up!"

Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller don’t just work with puppets, they think about them. They say as much in their notes for their new Independent Eye show now on tour, Hands Up! which played two nights last week at Dell’Arte: “The show tonight is with puppets, and in a sense it’s about puppets.”

 Because puppets are dead objects that take on a life in performance and return to lifelessness afterwards, they suggest issues of mortality that become “more personal as you get older” (Independent Eye, based in Sebastopol, debuted in 1974.)

 Because puppets sometimes seem to take on a life of their own (and the puppet cannot hear the puppeteer), they suggest issues of control. This evening of nine unrelated pieces may also prompt related questions, such as the extent to which people are themselves puppets: reacting in predictable ways to repeated circumstances, neither of which they seem able to control. Who’s pulling your strings? Institutions? Lovers? Fate?

 The writing and performing by Fuller and Bishop is excellent as usual: original, inventive, layered, witty. Bishop’s puppets are exquisite, Fuller’s music is lively and haunting.

 Like the puppet plays they presented at the Arcata Playhouse about a year and a half ago, the humor in these tends towards the grim. In two pieces, confrontations (between a weed-obsessed gardener and a determined plant, and among dogs at a dish) turn to negotiations and at least temporary acceptance. But when the classic puppet Punch is required to be nice and not just beat up Judy, everybody else’s fears and aggressions get projected on him and violence ensues anyway.

 Other pieces are more wholly frightening, such as the door-to-door Messengers of Doom (though Merchants of Doom is more accurate) with the machine-gun patter of terrorist officials crossed with greed-speeded sub-prime mortgage salesmen, aimed at a woman whose plaintive refrain is “I don’t understand.”

 Then there’s the kid whose prom date is Kali, the Hindu goddess of time, change and death. This piece throws so many powerful punches so fast that it can’t be summarized, except to say that coming just before intermission, it may well increase sales at the bar.

 After the break, there’s the story of a dying man beset with guilt because he presided over the immolation of 1950s child star marionette Howdy Doody (bizarre, yes—but based on a true story) and a ghostly return to a crucial moment that nipped in the bud what might have been a life-changing relationship.

 In the last piece of the show the puppeteers emerge to speak for the audience, hoping that this is not another “downer,” but they still regard the happy ending of this apparently inane love story as sappy. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading him again lately, but this humor reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s. Every human life has value, says one of Independent Eye’s characters, and we should always pretend that’s true. That’s a Vonnegut-like formulation.

 Vonnegut (who late in his life said that if he were young and starting out now, he’d write for a small theatre company) often worked with the idea that people all too typically act like puppets or robots. But his view of life as bleak was mitigated by two things: the activity of art, and that among the sinners were some perfectly ordinary saints.

 To be honest, I admired this show more than I enjoyed it. Perhaps that says more about me. But as I started writing this I opened Victoria Nelson’s book, The Secret Life of Puppets, and the first words my eyes fell upon were these: “The grotesque, however, makes up only half—the dark half—of the complete religious experience...[and] ‘instills fear of life rather than fear of death.’ What it noticeably lacks is the experience of bliss, grace, divine joy.”

 These puppets were not entirely grotesque and neither were the stories. And even when the stories seemed simple they weren’t superficial. But I did feel a certain balance was missing, or maybe halfhearted. And the operative word is “feel.”

 Perhaps ironically, another issue of control was suggested in the Friday night performance when the computer-controlled light and sound malfunctioned, and the show ground to a halt. Who were exposed as the puppets then? But Bishop and Fuller reacted with both wit and vulnerability, leading to some of the bigger laughs of the night, as well as to the bonding that the audience so clearly wanted.

Friday, October 15, 2010

This N.C. Weekend: Brides of Dracula

Two shows open this weekend--M. Butterfly at HSU and Brides of Dracula at Ferndale Rep. I preview M. Butterfly (which I've now seen--an excellent production) in the post below. In this post I preview Brides of Dracula, expanded from my NC Journal column. It opens tonight.

The currently popular vampire genre has a long history that began in the sunny Swiss summer of 1816, with a group of young visitors: the Shelleys (Percy Bysshe and Mary, and Mary’s sister Claire), Lord Byron and his secretary, John Polidori. There was sexual tension amidst the forays into nature and the literary and scientific talk: Polidori had a crush on Mary, while Claire was pursuing Byron, and would eventually have a child by him. One night as thunderstorms broke a spate of oppressive weather, Lord Byron challenged them all to write a ghost story. The most famous outcome was eventually Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But another begun that night would result in The Vampyre, the first vampire story written in English and the first to center on a Dracula-like figure, suggested by Byron but written by Polidori.

Its more famous literary descendant at the end of the century was Dracula, by theatre business manager and pulp novelist Bram Stoker. Stoker’s hopes for a stage version starring his friend Sir Henry Irving were never realized, but various 20th century movie versions made Dracula a cultural icon ever since.

In considering the Stoker novel David Nyiri became interested in a theme that the movies ignored—the implications of immortality-- and characters that Stoker didn’t develop: namely Dracula’s three brides, who appear only briefly in the novel. “They’ve had hundreds of years of interpersonal history with Dracula,” Nyiri said. “I’m interested in how that drives everything they do.”

But Nyiri still uses the basic Bram Stoker plot. “It’s almost like two versions working simultaneously, where you have the familiar story, but you’re also seeing the offstage incidents and scenes, which are now actually propelling it forward. Also I re-imagined pretty much all the major characters in light of the themes I was trying to put forth.”

The Brides (played by Kyra Gardner, Elena Tessler and Heather Wood) represent failed attempts by Dracula (played by Charlie Heinberg) to find his perfect soulmate--and none of them are happy about it. Nyiri’s play begins when all their “dissatisfactions and disappointments and anger are coming to a head.”

A monster of evil or a master of dark sex, each time Dracula returns with a different emphasis. The current vampire craze focuses on romance, a theme Nyiri traces back to the Frank Langella version on Broadway in the 1970s, when “Dracula was re-imagined as a kind of Byronic figure—more haunted than haunting.” Though his play is in this mold, “I semi-jokingly refer to it as Twilight for intelligent adults.”

Nyiri is not interested in either Hollywood or Halloween caricature. “I’ve told my actors repeatedly, these aren’t monsters—they’re fully dimensional individuals” who are dealing with the search for the perfect partner with which to be happy literally ever after, amidst a basic conundrum: “the tradeoff for potentially an eternity of romantic bliss is that you also have to become a rampant serial killer.”

Nyiri is Ferndale Rep’s resident designer this season, so in addition to writing and directing, he’s designed sets, costumes and lights. Other cast members include Rachel Cardoza, Jeremy Webb, Craig Waldvogel, Steven Carter, Thomas Tucker, Alaina Ross, Devin Galdierie and Danielle Cichon.

Brides of Dracula opens at Ferndale Rep on Friday (Oct. 15) at 8 pm., and plays through October 31 on Friday and Saturday evenings, and Sunday afternoons at 2.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

This N.C. Weekend: M. Butterfly

Two shows open this weekend--M. Butterfly at HSU and Brides of Dracula at Ferndale Rep. I preview both of them for the NC Journal this week. Since M. Butterfly opens first (Thursday at 7:30), what follows here is slightly expanded from what that column says about it, but there's much more on the show at HSU Stage & Screen, which I wrote for HSU. Tomorrow I'll post an expanded version of the Brides of Dracula preview here. It opens Friday at 8.

M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang, opening at HSU’s Van Duzer Theatre, is based loosely on a true story. In Hwang’s now-classic 1988 play, a French diplomat in China named Gallimard thinks he’s living the imperial romance of Madame Butterfly (the submissive Eastern beauty happily yields to the powerful Western man) but he’s part of quite different stories, including Cold War manipulation and intrigue. Though the powerful image of perfect love is explored along with issues of colonialism, race and gender, the first question remains: how could he not know his perfect woman was a man?

“That question carries us through the whole show: how could this be?” said Michael Thomas, otherwise known as Managing Artistic director of North Coast Rep, who is directing his first HSU play. Further complications include Gallimard’s wife, his mistress and his boss, not to mention the Vietnam war.

Gallimard’s perfect love is Song Liling, a Chinese opera performer he first sees in a production of Madame Butterfly, so the color and music of theatre are intrinsic to the story. But more questions ensue from that first one, and for Thomas this is a virtue. “If a play gives us some juicy things to think about, to ponder,” he said, “then that’s a wonderful and successful evening of theatre. I think this play does that.” That intention seems to be something else these two productions have in common.

Lincoln Mitchell plays Gallimard, and Kyle Ryan plays Song Liling. Other cast members are Chelsea Snyder, Eva Rismanforoush, Denise Truong and Matt Kirchberg. Scenic designer is Calder Johnson, costumes by Amy Echeverria, lights by Kevin Landesman and choreography by Danielle Cichon.

M. Butterfly opens on Thursday (Oct. 14) at 7:30 pm in the Van Duzer Theatre, and runs this weekend and next, Thurs. through Sat. evenings, with a Sunday matinee on Oct. 24. There is some nudity as well as adult themes, so director Thomas recommends the show for high school age and older.

One intriguing historical note about the play: M. Butterfly opened on Broadway in March 1988, just days before August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone opened at another Broadway theatre. Both were finalists for the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in drama, but neither won. (M. Butterfly did win the Tony for Best Play.) Instead the Pulitzer went to The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein. All three of these plays are now recognized as classics of the 20th century, and particular classics of the American stage. Years go by, even a decade, without a single play that has the impact of any of them. Yet there they were, one after the other in 1988.