Friday, December 9, 2016

Merseyside Miracle: "Paradise Street" at EXIT Theatre

The Queen and her courtiers. Christina Augello as Elizabeth, Phil Wong as Mulrooney,
Luke Brady as Essex. Photo by Jay Yamada.
Maybe a year and a half ago, my friend Stuart Bousel invited me and several other actors to his lair in the hills to read through a rarely-produced, genre-bending Christmas play about sex, violence, monkeys, miracles, Anglo-Irish relations, urban renewal, and a midnight visitation from Queen Elizabeth I.

I didn’t quite know then what to make of Clive Barker's Paradise Street—I still don’t quite know—but I know that the cast and crew* that Stuart has assembled to give this show its American premiere at the EXIT Theatre this month are killing it on all levels.

Cat Luetdke has expertly coached them on five different British Isles accents. They’ve removed a row of seats in the auditorium to accommodate Queen Elizabeth’s farthingale (designed by the amazing Brooke Jennings). Phil Wong gives a beautifully detailed performance as Mulrooney, the homeless Irish prophet. And Kyle McReddie, Jeunée Simon, Nicole Odell, Luetdke and more are great as the ordinary Liverpudlians witnessing a most unusual Christmas miracle.

More and more, when people ask me for general advice on playwriting, the only thing I can say is “Don’t be afraid to GO THERE. Don’t be afraid to BE WEIRD.”

(“Don’t be afraid.” The first words of the angel to the shepherds of Bethlehem.)

The team behind Paradise Street has certainly Gone There, and they’ve brought back tidings of both sorrow and joy. An off-kilter Christmas play for the end of an off-kilter year.

The EXIT Theatre production of Paradise Street plays through December 17 in San Francisco.

*Disclosure of bias: I am friends with many of the people involved in this production but had no involvement myself beyond that initial living-room reading. I attended the Saturday 12/3 performance and paid for my ticket.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

pink wigs & acting gigs

This quiz went around my circle of Facebook friends last week; it seems designed for people who act and audition more frequently than I do, but it also made me realize I've done more stuff onstage than I thought I had.

Last show added to your resume: As an actor, Hecate; as a writer, Macaria (both in Olympians Festival 2016)

Last show you auditioned for but didn't get cast: The Importance of Being Earnest, at Actors Ensemble of Berkeley, just last month. (I got a callback though!)

Favorite musical: today my heart is saying Sunday in the Park with George

Favorite play: Arcadia

Favorite role you've played: Prof. Renelle Fouche in the reading of Christian Teen Dolphin Sex Beach Party 

Favorite costume: Lucinda in Into the Woods; I had a lavender chiffon gown and a cotton-candy-pink wig!

"Beautiful of [dress], but vile and black of heart" as Lucinda.

Favorite superstition: I try not to say "Macbeth" or "good luck."

What was your very first show? The Mystery of the Royal Slippers, a kids' adaptation of "The 12 Dancing Princesses." I was 6; I played the Queen. And thus began my long history of always playing the mom and never playing the ingenue.

Have you ever had a dance solo? Nope

Have you ever had a singing solo? Yes, though it's tended to be solo lines/verses of a song rather than, like, the 11-o'clock-number.

Have you ever been the last person to take a bow? Not as an actor, but I have at opening nights of shows I've produced ("Pint-Sized Plays") or written (Pleiades).

Have you been to New York? Yes

Have you been to L.A.? Yes, though I didn't see any theater while I was there

What's the scariest part of an audition? When they make you do wacky physical or improv stuff.

What's the best part of an audition? When you can sing a song you love.

Name a show you could do for years: It might be lovely to do A Little Night Music for years, it's so beautiful and romantic. And maybe after a year I'd finally have "The Miller's Son" word-perfect!

What are you auditioning for next? Who knows?

Do you keep in touch with past cast members? Yes, but I could be better at it.

Something embarrassing or unexpected that happened to you while you were onstage? Nothing really comes to mind.

Ever been naked onstage? No

Been killed onstage? No

Been drunk onstage? I had to play drunk as Caesar in Our Country's Good. I was 14 and had no idea what I was doing.

Ever played someone half your age? Don't think so

Played someone twice your age? Lots of times

Cried onstage? I fake-cried in the first Theater Pub Christmas show, for comedy purposes, but I've never cried real, serious tears.

Fired a gun onstage? No

Been drenched? No

Been kissed? Yes, as Elsa in The Desk Set. Though you should know that I was the one doing the kissing.

First show you saw on Broadway? Cats.

Monday, October 31, 2016

On Broomsticks

"The Old Hall, Fairies by Moonlight; Spectres & Shades, Brownies and Banshees,"
by John Anster Fitzgerald
"Here were the young women of the highest intelligence, and the most daring and ingenious of them, coming out of the chiaroscuro of a thousand years, blinking at the sun and wild with desire to try their wings. I believe that some of them put on the armor and the halo of St. Joan of Arc, who was herself an emancipated virgin, and became like white-hot angels. But most women, when they feel free to experiment with life, will go straight to the witches' Sabbath. I myself respect them for it, and do not think that I could ever really love a woman who had not, at some time or other, been up on a broomstick."

--Isak Dinesen, from "The Old Chevalier" (Seven Gothic Tales)

Happy feminist Halloween!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Women in Black: the novella & the playscript

When I pitched American Theatre my idea to write about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as 19th-century melodrama, my editor asked if The Woman in Black would figure into my thinking. After all, it's another commercially successful British stage play with connections to popular fiction and vintage melodrama. (Not to mention a Harry Potter connection, since Daniel Radcliffe starred in the film version.)

I wasn't familiar with Susan Hill's novella or Stephen Mallatratt's stage adaptation of it, so I checked them both out of the library and read them eagerly. I'm such a Ravenclaw -- I love it when people suggest books to me and make me feel like I'm in school again.

Ultimately, my article ended up going in a different direction and I didn't have room to mention The Woman in Black, but I'm still glad to have read it. And, because I have a tradition of blogging about spooky literature during the month of October, I thought I'd post my reviews of the novella and the playscript today.

 The Woman in Black - A Ghost StoryThe Woman in Black - A Ghost Story by Susan Hill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a little surprised that Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black has become something of a horror classic, adapted into a long-running stage play and multiple films, because I didn’t find it to be all that remarkable. While it is smoothly written and has some effectively suspenseful scenes, it never truly creeped me out or got under my skin.

The premise is fairly standard for an old-fashioned ghost story: a young London lawyer, Arthur Kipps, is sent to a small village to look after the papers of an eccentric old woman who has recently died. There, he discovers suspicious townsfolk, eerie noises, and, finally, a vengeful ghost. The old woman's isolated mansion, on the edge of lonely marshes and accessible only by a causeway that floods twice a day, is an effective horror-story setting, but it isn't all that original. (For a much creepier story that also takes place in a seaside mansion that periodically gets cut off from the mainland — and was also written about 35 years ago by a British woman — try the title story of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber.)

The book’s novella length may also work against it. At half the length, the story would hurtle to its frightening conclusion; at twice the length, Hill could flesh out her characters and add more terrifying events. But as it is, the story just kind of ambles along.

I also got distracted trying to figure out what time period this is supposed to take place in. As other Goodreads reviewers have noted, it starts off feeling like a Victorian ghost story, but then the narrator refers to cars and electric lights as though they are common and unremarkable. I satisfied myself by deciding that it could be the 1920s (because it has to be an era when cars were common in cities, but people in rural areas still used pony carts). Still, I wish that Susan Hill had given a clear indication of the era early on — or, even better, I wish she’d written a story that was so gripping that it shut off my rational, questioning brain and overwhelmed me with horror.

The Woman in Black: A Ghost PlayThe Woman in Black: A Ghost Play by Stephen Mallatratt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn’t too impressed with the novella The Woman in Black (I gave it only three stars) but I honestly think that this play adaptation is a more effective version of the story.

First, the play uses the tools of theater to add another layer to the narrative. Its premise is that Arthur Kipps, a middle-aged lawyer, wants to tell his family about a terrifying encounter he once had with a ghost, and has hired a young actor to coach him in public speaking. However, the actor encourages Kipps to be more ambitious, and soon the two men are acting out the story, in kind of a primitive form of drama-therapy.

Then, the play eliminates the less-effective aspects of the novella. Sometimes it seems like playwright Stephen Mallattrat is slyly critiquing his source material! For instance, the novella begins with Kipps describing his country house, his second wife, and his stepchildren – all of which are irrelevant to the main story. In the play, when Kipps begins describing these things, the young actor tells him to stop rambling and cut to the chase!

I also think it might be more frightening to see the ghost stalking the theater, than it was to read about the ghost in the novella.

The Woman in Black is easy for small theaters to produce, relying on two actors, basic props, and recorded sound. And it improves on its source material, being more complex, faster-paced, and scarier. Companies seeking Halloween plays ought to consider it.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

for American Theatre: "School of Rock" & School of Wizardry

Two months left in 2016 and, as the holiday where we celebrate the undead and otherworldly approaches, I am attempting to raise this old blog from the dead (and catch up on posts that I meant to write this year).

Perhaps my biggest news is that I have started to contribute on a freelance basis to American Theatre's website!

In April, I reported on the first-ever youth production of School of Rock: The Musical, presented by Oakland School of the Arts at the historic Curran Theatre in San Francisco.

And, in September, I wrote a "Critic's Notebook" piece on the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, analyzing its affinity to nineteenth-century melodrama.

(I am convinced that being paid money to write about Harry Potter is a Millennial-writer rite of passage.)

Bonus link: the relationship between Oakland School of the Arts and the Curran is still going strong, as evidenced by this recent Curran-produced video of the OSA students singing their a cappella arrangement of "Ring of Keys" (which I briefly mentioned in my American Theatre article).

Monday, May 9, 2016

As a Stranger, Give It Welcome

Last Friday night at Shotgun Players, as I stood on the front steps drinking champagne and waiting for the house to open, a middle-aged woman walked by, glanced at the building, and asked me if this was a theater. I told her that it was.

"I pass by here all the time but I've never gone in."

She had obviously just come back from a trip to the corner store. She was carrying a big jug of Arizona Iced Tea.

"How much do tickets cost?" she asked.

"I'm a subscriber," I said. "I honestly can't remember what I paid." As I said that, I realized it's a cop-out; I realized I'm embarrassed about theater ticket prices and have a whole lot of complicated feelings about money and class.

Nonetheless, she continued to look intrigued. Tentatively, she went up the front steps. I heard her ask another woman "What do tickets cost?"

"I think they start at thirty-seven fifty, and they're all sold out for the run," said the other woman, who looked exactly like you'd picture a late-middle-aged Berkeley theater-going matron to be. "But I have an extra one that I've been trying to give away. My friend isn't coming."

"For free?"

"For free."

And just like that, the woman with the jug of iced tea got to see an experimental production of Hamlet, for free, on a whim. The whole exchange made me even giddier than the champagne did and restored my faith in humanity. I hope she enjoyed the show. I hope this was a magical Friday night for her and the first of many theater adventures to come. I thought about her a few times as I watched the play, especially during the following exchange:

"This is wondrous strange!" says Horatio, upon seeing the ghost.

Hamlet replies: "And therefore, as a stranger, give it welcome."

Saturday, April 30, 2016

#Eurojetsetters

My friend Stuart Bousel has been writing observational short stories as Facebook status updates, based on people he sees and conversations he overhears in airports or restaurants.

I have been sitting around Heathrow airport for the last two hours waiting to learn whether I'll get a seat or not on the overbooked flight back to SF; to distract myself from my anxieties, I did as Stuart would, and observed my neighbors, and wrote this.

 #Eurojetsetters

They ask if the seats near me – the bucket-shaped orange tweed chair, the squashy black leather couch – are taken. I say “No,” and “No problem,” knowing I sound like a slightly vulgar American whenever I say that, and cringing internally at how my speech betrays me.

They are a party of three, presumably a family, but an unusual one: three Eurojetsetters. The daughter has long, lush, rich-girl brown hair, and a lush pouting mouth, and lush olive skin, and wears a black miniskirt and black tights that probably cost forty euros. The mother is very bon chic bon genre: bottle blonde, grey cashmere sweater, navy blue knit jacket with big gold buttons, skinny cropped beige pants, and Prada wedge sneakers. The father has wavy gray hair that all must call “distinguished,” and a fine light-blue shirt that’s unbuttoned slightly too much, and designer jeans, and black loafers.

They have Longchamp bags and snakeskin bags and pebbled-leather bags.

They all have untraceable accents.

The man takes the chair; the women sink into the squashy couch.

I think of being friendly and offering them my free chocolate. The coffee shop gave me three free morsels of gianduja because my voucher was for five pounds’ worth of food and by golly, they were going to give me my money’s worth.

I am held back from the fear that my gianduja is of insufficient quality for such sophisticates. They seem like people who have strong opinions on gianduja.

Mother and daughter hold their phones two-handed in front of their faces, click through Instagram photos, chatter softly in their untraceable murmuring voices, compare notes on what they see.

“That’s what childhood should be like. Free,” says the woman. “It makes my heart hurt.”

She strokes her daughter’s long, lush, rich-girl hair.

The father reads Den of Thieves, pen in hand. He furrows his brow and pushes back his distinguished hair from his forehead, a studied gesture.

“They take the nicest photos, don’t they? This is a beautiful picture of the chateau. I want to go there; I want to be a child there. If that school was an English school in the country, a boarding school, would you go there?”

They offer their phones to Daddy so he can look at the photos. He strokes his chin with his left hand, and I notice he doesn’t wear a wedding ring, but the woman does. I try to puzzle out whether or not they’re married.

“Looks lovely, ja? The French way of life. I would like to go.”

The woman strokes the girl’s hair again. One primate grooming another. They would like to groom her for a good marriage, in the Milan cathedral I think, and a honeymoon in Tahiti.

“Stef, have you canceled with your brother? Because I think they think that we’re coming over on Monday.”

He furrows his brow and strokes his upper lip with his thumb as he texts his brother. They don’t have a good relationship. There is resentment and ill-feeling on both sides: my distinguished friend here thinks that his brother, who lives an average middle-class life in some suburb, is boring and basic; the brother regards this Eurojetsetter with a mix of schadenfreude and envy. He’s probably glad to know that their flight has been delayed and none of their money or style or sophisticated unplaceable accents can help them now.

“Next weekend, what do we do?”

“Toulouse.”

The mother continues to groom the daughter’s hair, the family’s pride and joy. Oh, all the Prada sneakers in the world cannot compare with the glory of that hair, which cannot be bought or sold, which grows entirely free!

The father still strokes his lip, finishes the onerous duty of texting his brother, then returns to his book with a still more furrowed brow.

Mother is trying to get set up on Instagram; she peppers the girl with soft, barely audible questions and opinions. “I’m just going to post interior pictures. Just let me post interior pictures, gardens, sunsets, pretty ones. Who am I now following? Three people. Nobody’s following me back; oh that’s marvelous. Will you follow me back, so I have one follower?”

“Stop asking me these questions,” says the girl. Even when she is irritated with her mother, she talks in a voice that I have to strain my ears to hear. The clicking of my computer keys almost drowns out the dialogue.

“Shall we go and eat something?”

“What time is it?”

“Twelve-twenty.”

“We go now. By the time we’re there… By the time we’re served…”

They do not move.

“Oh, that’s beautiful,” says the mother, still on Instagram.

The women scroll on their phones, the man strokes his forehead as though he were performing an auto-phrenological examination.

“Look, look! She was invited to the palace! Their Royal Highnesses request the pleasure of Madame M— at the reception for the launch of Pledge on Thursday. I don’t know what that is,” says the mother, still on Instagram.

“Oh, there you are. We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars,” she says, dreamily, still on Instagram.

“I’m a very bad dresser,” she says, two minutes later. I don’t know how much irony is intended by that statement but I do think that wedge sneakers are an abomination.

Another two minutes go by. “You know the girl who I’m staying with, the guy has the coolest house in Notting Hill. Blenheim Crescent, so cool.”

“How d’you know it’s cool?”

“Because it was up on the Internet, the house and garden.”

The girl lightly taps the man on the knee with her phone.

“We’re going?”

“Yeah. Don’t forget your charger.”

“Let’s go to Carluccio’s.”

“Thank you,” they say to me, gathering their pebbled-leather bags.

“No problem,” I say again, and hope that my eyes do not betray me as a spy, a gawker, an envious observer even more to be feared and hated than that bothersome brother, because the ties of familial love do not bind me to these people, and I have a laptop computer and two hours to kill in the airport.