ghost light

Some friends got us tickets to see Ghost Light at the Berkeley Rep for Xmas, and today was the day we got to go. It’s the emotional story of the son of George Moscone, the San Francisco mayor who was assassinated along with Harvey Milk in 1978. It’s directed by that son, Jonathan Moscone, and written by Tony Taccone.

Ghost Light takes its ghosts seriously. They are all over the play, in often confusing ways. Jon has dreams that take him back to his father’s death when he was 14, while he tries to put on a production of Hamlet that gets stuck with an inability to figure out how best to present the ghost of Hamlet’s father. This all works better on an emotional level than any other way … you always sense how tortured Jon is, but it’s not always clear exactly what is happening or whether this or that scene is “real” or a dream.

The acting was strong, although the dialogue felt stagy to me, and there was too much didactic speechmaking in the early part of the play. (I’ve been obsessing about an odd piece in Salon about sitcoms, which may have inspired me to look for staginess where it didn’t necessarily exist.) The play also runs too long after what feels like the proper ending.

But the entire production is innovative, and it is definitely worth seeking out. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a filmed version show up at some point on HBO.


anna deavere smith, let me down easy

Tonight we saw Anna Deavere Smith’s solo show at the Berkeley Rep. It consists of Smith performing as real-life interview subjects, a format she has used in several plays.

It’s Studs Terkel brought to life, with a couple of important differences. First and foremost, Smith conducted the interviews, but on stage, she plays the various interviewees, which is an impressive achievement, one that seems a bit exhausting (it doesn’t seem like the kind of performance where the actor would want to talk to folks immediately following the play). Smith does a fine job of delineating the characters, who range from Lance Armstrong and Lauren Hutton and Ann Richards to hospital workers and patients and religious leaders.

At the beginning, it’s not clear how these stories will connect, and Smith is never obvious. But by the end, you feel like you’ve seen a coherent work.

The more problematic difference between this play and any random Studs Terkel book is that Smith occasionally falls into a bit of snobbery. I’m sure she is quoting the exact words of supermodel Lauren Hutton, for instance, and for all I know the mimicry in that scene is accurate. But Hutton comes across as spacey and unconnected to the realities of life. Smith doesn’t do this for most of her characters, so it stands out when a less-than-positive portrait is painted. Studs always respected people, even ones he disagreed with.

Still, Smith’s performance overall is amazing, moving, funny, and effective. I’m glad we saw Let Me Down Easy.


tales of the city

Our friends Jillian and Doug gave me a very sweet birthday present, a trip to ACT for the new musical, Tales of the City. It was the perfect setting for the play … not only is it charmingly provincial that it takes place in The City, but, as librettist Jeff Whitty pointed out, it’s even more specific: when a character sings about bag ladies on Geary and points into the distance, she is pointing at the actual Geary Street on which the theater is located.

I also think Bay Areans of a certain age feel provincial in a protective way towards Tales of the City. We remember reading the daily installments in the Chronicle, and think of it as “ours.” What is fun about the musical is that it reminds us of the universal nature of the tales. Jake Shears and John Garden of Scissor Sisters do the music, and Shears tells of how important Tales was to him as a young gay man (who did not live in San Francisco). Jillian is from England, and she read the books when she first arrived in the Bay Area many years ago, feeling a firm connection to the basic story of Mary Ann Singleton, new to The City. And, of course, the television miniseries brought Tales of the City to a larger audience. So it’s not really “ours” at this point.

Still, there was a feeling that the audience was full of people who call San Francisco “The City,” and who chuckled at all the right reference points.

Yes, I hear you asking, but how was the play? I had a lot of subjective angles competing as I took it in. On the one hand, I remember the emergence of “Tales of the City” in the Chronicle, and it all came back to me … 28 Barbary Lane, Mrs. Madrigal’s secret, Mona Ramsey. And there’s the pleasure of being with friends on a lovely birthday excursion. Still, musical theater is not exactly my genre. And, a day later, I can only recall a few of the songs, and even in those cases, I remember lyrics, not melodies.

But I had a fine time! I think it could have been shorter by half-an-hour, and could have lost a few of the lesser songs, but the main actors were quite good, with Judy Kaye as Mrs. Madrigal and Betsy Wolfe as Mary Ann being the obvious vocal talents (which isn’t to say the rest of the cast was tuneless, only that Kaye and Wolfe are top-class singers, and thus had most of the show-stopping numbers). Mona has always been my favorite character … it didn’t hurt that Chloe Webb played her in the first miniseries … and Mary Birdsong was a delight in the part. (Her frizzy/curly wig had a life of its own, so I didn’t really recognize her, and was thus startled when I realized later she had been a regular on Reno 911 and an occasional correspondent on The Daily Show.)

Do I think my dear readers would like it? Yes, I do. None of the flaws are fatal, the spirit is good and fulfilling (and corny, but I suppose “good and fulfilling” implies “corny”), and it’s a solid production. (I should mention the set, which is a marvelous piece of carpentry and pulleys and backdrops, used in a versatile fashion.) All in all, a memorable start to my extended birthday weekend.


compulsion

We don’t go to the theater much since our friend Arthur moved south, but Robin loves Mandy Patinkin, so tonight we went to see him in Compulsion at the Berkeley Rep. They got the star worship out of the way quickly … Patinkin just walked onstage to begin the play, giving everyone a chance to cheer Inigo Montoya, after which we all settled in. Patinkin buried himself in his part (a semi-fictional recreation of Meyer Levin, who wrote a novel, play and movie based on Leopold and Loeb called Compulsion and who had a long, complicated relationship to Anne Frank’s diary), but to my eye, it was his interaction with the two other actors that wiped away the “look, it’s a big star” feeling … soon enough, we were watching three fine actors instead of a star and two fine actors.

The most interesting part of the play was the use of marionettes. I don’t know much about them, and haven’t seen them live more than once or twice, so it was fascinating me to see the remarkable way they were manipulated to not only appear as Anne Frank and others, but to be acting.

Patinkin’s character, called Sid Silver in the play, gradually goes over the top with his compulsive desire to get Anne Frank’s story told the “right” way. By “right,” he means to emphasize the Jewishness of Frank, and to connect her story as a Jew to the larger story of Jews during the Holocaust and forward into the creation of Israel. His criticism of the play based on the book, which is taken out of his hands and given to others (it won Tonys and a Pulitzer as a play, and three Oscars as a film), is directed to what he sees as the burying of Frank-as-Jew in favor of a more “universal” message. The play Compulsion insists, as well, on its identity within Jewish culture … it doesn’t make many efforts towards the universal, assuming, like Sid Silver, that the universal should come to the specific Jewish culture, rather than the culture giving way to the universal. But Silver’s obsession results in an unhappy man with an unhappy wife, beating his head against the wall unsuccessfully. If The Diary of Anne Frank is taken as oddly uplifting, Compulsion is the opposite, even as it ends by lifting the diary’s famous line, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”


40 years ago today: steven rubio IS winston smith

My primary extracurricular activity in junior high and high school was theater. I’m talking about officially sanctioned stuff, of course … my real primary activities were music, drugs, and chasing girls. I played a lot of parts over those six years … the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, a faux-William Jennings Bryan in Inherit the Wind, a faux-Boris Karloff in Arsenic and Old Lace, a faux-Harpo Marx in The Man Who Came to Dinner. In between all of these classics, I managed to meet my future wife … she was, in fact, my makeup girl for one play, and we ended up making out at the cast party, leading to the fine fellow you see before you today.

The last play I wassteven in makeup 1984 in was also the only time I was the lead, expected to carry much of the show. It was a version of 1984, with me as Winston Smith. Others will have to say if I’m right about this, but I suspect there was a bit of typecasting involved, as if I was already a faux-Winston Smith before I put on my makeup (or, as the photo shows, before someone else put on my makeup, in this case, not my future wife, although this person is still a friend): a rebellious sort who got squashed by The Man (no matter that I squashed myself far more than any Man ever did). I don’t know if I was any good, since I obviously never watched myself. I know that it was the only part I ever played where I was an inward sort of character, faceless, morose. I can remember one scene where my interrogator, O’Brien, is standing behind me and he smacks me on the ear … I was too lame to get the timing down right, I kept flinching before the hand got close to me, so I just said fuck it and took a big swat on the face each night, since I couldn’t figure out how to fake it realistically.

The other thing I remember was the end. The director, also the head of the drama department and a man who passed away not that long ago, decided on something different for the big penultimate scene where Smith, threatened with his greatest fear (rats), betrays his lover, shouting out “Do it to Julia!” Our director decided an implosion would be more effective … the play was in the round, the audience was close. So I started out screaming in fright, but when the moment of betrayal came, I went limp, barely muttered “Do it to Julia,” and crawled inside myself.

I suppose it worked. But it played havoc with my insides. Each night, I’d work myself up to a frenzy, and then, before I could release the tension, I’d shut down. Where, if memory serves (and it rarely does), I’d stay for hours afterwards.

It’s only a coincidence that my own attempt at something resembling “method acting” was also the last time I appeared on a stage. I was about to graduate from high school, I wasn’t going to be continuing in the theater in college (in fact, I wasn’t going to college), and, let’s face it, I was high pretty much every day of those last few months of high school, and wasn’t much good for anything else. But the feeling of being full of emotions that had nowhere to go? I can still remember that now, February 14 2010, which happens to be the 40th anniversary of my final performance as Winston Smith.


acting!

We miss our friend Arthur, whose acting exploits in the Bay Area were a regular feature on this blog for a few years. Arthur has moved to Los Angeles, where he is in the USC MFA in Acting program. He has begun blogging again after a long absence, and it’s good to read his voice as he describes what it’s like in the program. His life is full enough that I don’t suppose we can count on him being as obsessive with his blog posts as I am with mine, but while they are there, I recommend them: Artfan’s Lair. Here’s a sample:

[I]n the last few months I've experienced moments when I've acted in a way that I've never acted before in my life. In those moments I felt I wasn't standing there saying the words, I was needing to say the words, there was something I was desperate to say and I was saying it. And that something was my text. It was thrilling, bewildering, and exhausting. And watching the ten other people in my class go through the same process? It was the most engaging theatre I've ever been a part of.

(Since I am far more starstruck than Arthur will ever be, I’ll just add that the “Andy” he refers to later in the above post is Andrew Robinson, who is the current director of the program. I’ve been told that for many people, Robinson is best-known for his continuing role in Deep Space Nine, but for people like me, he’ll always be the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry.)


pump boys and dinettes

Pump Boys and Dinettes was an off-Broadway musical from 1982. It is the only play I've ever seen in New York. A country-rock revue without much of a plot, it was pretty good, spawning a soundtrack album and a failed pilot for a TV series. To the best of my knowledge, it remains a favorite for small theater companies to perform.

My favorite song from the musical is "No Holds Barred." It's catchy and you can sing along. It also has a special, sadder, meaning to me. One day, probably in 1992, we were driving to visit family and "No Holds Barred" came on the mixtape I'd made for the trip. At the time, the Giants were very close to moving to Florida. When the song started, I sang along with everyone else in the car. But then came the chorus: "No holds barred, baby, I'm goin' to Florida, won't you come along with me?" It just snuck up on me, and the next thing I knew, I was sobbing hysterically.

Here is a video from the Tony awards in '82. The sound doesn't do the music justice, but it's the best I can find. There are three songs ... "No Holds Barred" is the second. For trivia fans, note the female singer with the shorter blond hair. The actress is Debra Monk ... later she played Andy Sipowicz's ex-wife on NYPD Blue, a factoid that never fails to amaze Robin and I.


mr. marmalade

Tonight we went to see our friend Arthur in the play Mr. Marmalade. It’s his last play before he heads south to study acting at USC, so we didn’t want to miss it. As is often the case, he showed versatility, playing four different roles, and managing to suggest the differences in each, although I’m not sure the playwright gave him much to work with in that regard. But it is entirely possible I just missed the point … I found myself clueless about the intentions of the play, but on the ride home, Robin laid it down quite coherently, and I wondered why I hadn’t seen what she had seen, since her take was clearly on target. Mr. Marmalade is about a four-year-old girl with imaginary friends and a home life that sucks. The girl, like her five-year-old friend, is played by an adult, and I didn’t think either of them dove into their little-kidness they way Lily Tomlin or Gilda Radner, or even Paul Reubens, might. But Robin contended that the girl had a truly fucked-up life, that led to her very adult fantasies, and that there was no way a girl with that life would have acted like just another four-year-old. Makes sense to me, but even then, I don’t think the playwright pulled it off.

Still, it was intriguing, and the performances were as good as the material allowed. A couple of the actors were quite impressive, and Arthur was his usual fine self. It’s no surprise that he has been accepted into a top program in Los Angeles, and while I know there is lot of luck involved in the process, over the years that we have had the pleasure of watching him perform, it has become clear that he has the talent to succeed. We wish him luck, and are proud to have seen him and been exposed to everything from Shakespeare to Mr. Marmalade.