Sunday, May 26, 2019

On Death

This post includes spoilers for William Shakespeare's four hundred and thirteen year-old play KING LEAR.
“Thou wilt come no more.
Never, never, never, never, never.”

- LEAR V.iii
Gloucester (Anne McEvoy) and Lear (Robert Hawkes)
My phone has this odd bug … I’ll be listening to a podcast and the Music app will suddenly start up, playing some song I purchased from iTunes at some point in the past fifteen years.

Today, before rehearsal, that song was "You’ll Be Back" from Hamilton. What an exciting time that was, three years ago, discovering this new musical, this national craze, at the same time as my seventh grade daughter.

I haven’t listened to this score for, what? Half a year? Since summer vacation last? So I had to ask myself, why this feeling of sadness, of melancholy, especially in reaction this, one of the lightest, most frothy tracks on the album?

Ah yes, always. Hamilton is steeped in melancholy for me. We purchased it shortly before my father died one February Friday morning. The year 2016 was dizzying, thrilling, full of anticipation, promise, and fear. And all year I was keeping my chin up, deep in mourning.

All the celebrity deaths that year. “Let’s all make a protective circle around Betty White!” I didn’t find it amusing. You know what I found amusing? That moment in Oh, Hello On Broadway when George St. Geegland (John Mulaney) says, “Ladies and gentlemen, it behooves you when a famous person dies, blame it on the year and make it about you.”

Just as we were adjusting to the new normal, death of a father, death of democratic norms, came the call. My father-in-law had cancer, the kind you don’t get better from. We were still in it, only my father dropped dead one day. They were all correct, those who said that was better. Yes, Chris hung on, danced at his daughter’s wedding. But his care took such a toll on my wife, on my mother-in-law.

My wife gently reminds me she wouldn't have traded those seven months with him for anything.

When he passed that December, my son was ashamed that he didn’t grieve in the same manner he had for my father. He didn’t openly weep, he was numb. We tried to reassure him. My father was a shock, a surprise. You knew this was coming.

But my son lost both grandfathers in as many years. I am glad he was close to my dad. But Chris was supposed to teach him so much more.

Kent in the stocks.
I am in therapy. I am having difficulty moving on, of making sense of all of this. Turning fifty, watching my children move into the last stage of childhood. I realize I may not have much longer, I didn’t used to be able to see the end, and now I can.

What have I accomplished? What have I yet to do? Will I do it?

And what will oblivion be like? I will miss this world, I want to see so much more. That is why I have been investigating Buddhism, to make peace with the void.

Performing in King Lear exacerbates this anxiety, especially in the role of Kent, working to help and protect those he loves from harm and then watching helpless as, in spite of his best efforts, they are all dragged down to their doom.

Kent survives, but Albany’s appeals for the nation to move forward do not compel him. He will die soon, too, of a broken heart.
“I have a journey, sir, shortly to go.
My master calls me, I must not say no.”

- LEAR V.iii
Have a beautiful Memorial Day.

Beck Center for the Arts presents "King Lear" directed by Eric Schmiedl, May 31 - June 30, 2019

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) (1999)

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) was either:
  1. Written by people who love Shakespeare for people who hate Shakespeare.
  2. Written by people who hate Shakespeare for people who love Shakespeare.
  3. Written by comedians for an audience of absolutely no one.
Nick Koesters, self & Allen Branstein
(Beck Center for the Arts, 1999)
The bane of critics everywhere and to the delight of audiences everywhere, this show has been produced constantly since first produced by the Reduced Shakespeare Company at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1987. The wife and I saw the original in 1997, near the end of its nine year run at the Criterion Theatre in London’s West End.

Classify this one as Shakespeare (not) On Stage, as not only does Shakespeare not appear, but the entire play ostensibly celebrates Shakespeare while simultaneously reinforcing those elements that everyone hates about Shakespeare.

It is also horribly dated, including gags that are casually sexist and outright racist, that is, unless you think the idea of three white guys deciding to interpret Othello as a rap song as “cute.”

This month, I will appear for only the third time onstage at Beck Center, and each time in the Studio Theatre. Eric Schmiedl’s adaptation of King Lear opens May 31. Seven years ago, I played Chris in Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn.

Twenty years ago, with Nick Koesters and Allen Branstein, we performed The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged).

I was shocked when director Roger Truesdell asked me to consider the role, especially playing against two accomplished comedic actors. “But Roger,” I said. “I’m not funny.”

“Yes, you are,” Roger said. “You’re just afraid people might think you are.”

The one saving grace of Complete Works is the note on the front page which reads:
“... it’s also important to keep the show fresh and timely by updating the many topical references as events warrant.”
To put it another way, you are free to change the script to make it funny. As a result we felt entirely justified in not only changing the late-80s pop culture references to late-90s pop culture references, but also anything else that wasn’t funny.

What we couldn’t do was write a different play, so we still labored with the Titus Andronicus cooking show, including my lame impersonation of the then-87-year-old Julia Child (huh-larious) and the aforementioned “Othello Rap.” At least we could pretend to be appalled, like you do, and to change truly offensive verses like:
Now Othello loved Desi like Adonis Loved VENUS
And Desi loved Othello cuz he had a big … SWORD
Into:
AL: Desdemona, she was faithful, she was chastity tight
DAVID: She was the daughter of a duke
NICK: Yeah, she was totally white
My voice was more Ad Rock than Ice Cube.

We also had great fun tweaking other local companies. Our changes are in red.
AL: One popular trend is to take Shakespeare’s plays and transpose them into modern settings. We have seen evidence of this with Shakespeare’s plays set in such bizarre locations as the lunar landscape, Nazi concentration camps and even Akron.
DAVID: Akron?
NICK: Who does Shakespeare in Akron?
Later, I had a discursion regarding ‘The Apocrypha’ or those works whose authorship was once in dispute, referred to as “‘The Lesser Plays,’ or simply, ‘The Bad Plays.’ And yet, not all of The Apocrypha are completely without merit … except Edward III.”

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival had produced the only-recently canonized Edward III that past summer. One night a contingent from the company were in the audience and they booed my little joke.

“Oh,” I ad-libbed,” you’ve seen it.”

I went on to to describe what a fascinating play Troilus and Cressida is, but then bore the shit out of absolutely everyone, which is coincidentally what I also did for Cleve Shakes audiences in 2018.

We changed scripted references about Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Boris Yeltsin to Donald Trump, Rudolph Giuliani and Vladimir Putin, which are more relevant now than they were twenty years ago.

The inclusion of Putin was odd, though, because the run of the show ran over into the year 2000, and Vladimir Putin was only just inaugurated on January 1st of that year -- we changed the reference from Boris Yeltsin after the announcement.

No one knew anything about him, except the name, so I suggested we change Nick’s recitation on "Chernobyl Kinsman" (Two Noble Kinsman, get it?) to include this exchange:
NICK: Does it have Vladimir Putin in it?
DAVID: It doesn’t have anybody pootin’ in it, Nick.
He's a monster. We didn't know.

We threw in Ally McBeal jokes, Jar-Jar Binks jokes, references to The Blair Witch Project, and my personal favorite, when Nick’s Macduff emerged with "the usurper's cursed head,” he was, in fact, holding a replica of his own head, which was the same prop used when he played the lead in Macbeth at Beck Center the previous season.

It gets better. As prescribed in the stage directions, “(drop kicks the head into the audience)” -- but then Nick hollered, "GOOOOOAAAL!!!!" and ran in a tight circle, before sliding on his knees and ripping off his shirt to reveal a Brandi Chastain inspired black sports bra (Google Women’s World Cup 1999.)

The script as written closes with a familiar theater cliché:
"If you enjoyed the show, tell your friends. If you didn't, tell your enemies."
By the second weekend we were sold-out in spite of receiving some scathing reviews from those aforementioned critics who simply hate the idea of this admittedly dumb little play.
AL: If you enjoyed the show, tell your friends.
DAVID: If you didn't ... you must work for the Free Times, man.
Exit, pursued by a laugh.

Beck Center for the Arts presents "King Lear" directed by Eric Schmiedl, May 31 - June 30, 2019

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Million Dollar Quartet (musical)

James Barry (airborn) as Carl Perkins
in "Million Dollar Quartet"
(Great Lakes Theater)
Finally took in our latest offering at the Hanna, the jukebox musical Million Dollar Quartet. Word has been strong, audiences are loving this, I have had the chance to meet and talk with several theatergoers who may not be familiar with the work of Great Lakes Theater but have seen and followed this show from Broadway to the tour to independently produced productions like this one, and their praise for these particular artists is high.

Personally, I was excited to bring my mother-in-law to see the show. She lives in Athens, and the time has never been right to get her to a show there, but I definitely did not want her to miss this one. She is a great fan of live music, rhythm and blues, and the works of Cash, Perkins, Presley, and Lewis. The whole family came and it was a great evening in downtown Cleveland.

Everyone had their favorites, I think my wife was particularly taken with Sky Seals’ soulful performance as Johnny Cash, and the girl had a lot to say about fiery Gabe Aronson as Jerry Lee Lewis, and the production is definitely constructed so that it is that man’s show to steal. The boy, the bass player, was very impressed by Eric Scott Anthony as Brother Jay. We asked if it was because he rode the bass on his back near the end, but no, he was the way he rode the thing across the floor playing slap bass, that he knew had a high level of difficulty.

The term “jukebox musical” used to be pejorative, used dismissively by critics to describe shows made of unoriginal tunes, strung together to create an artificial narrative. But these shows are so prevalent the term itself is no longer a put-down. Yes, these are previously written songs, but if the book is strong enough and carries you through and the artists are to-notch, what you get is an evening where everyone gets a live, powerful rendition of songs they already know and love. The audience last night was quite enthusiastic, indeed.

Growing up in suburban Bay Village, I was raised to believe rock and roll started in the sixties, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. We didn’t listen to R&B or rockabilly, I was only marginally aware of Elvis (who passed, as a punchline, when I was nine) and entirely unfamiliar with any of the black progenitors of rock and roll.

It wasn’t until hooking up with the woman I would later marry and getting to know her family and what they listened to that I started to know, understand, and deeply love the music which inspired the British Invasion acts. Most significantly was when we took a road trip to Memphis, visiting Graceland and Sun Studio.
July 10, 2000 (journal)

Did Graceland. I was amazed. Much more enjoyable than I ever imagined. It’s small -- homey, surprisingly un-opulent. It had been described to me as being tacky, but I would call that classist.

What my wife thought she saw was a man from dirt-poor roots who did not try to become someone else, struggling to be normal.

The much-maligned Jungle Room is great! The decor is fanciful, but also kind of sexy. Loved the wall fountain. It’s funny, by that I mean it has a sense of humor.

Everything is modest. A kidney-shaped swimming pool a small one. An ordinary-sized kitchen. Nothing grand. Normal-sized rec room. It was touching. Charming. Some fun, swinging, 60s, 70s era living.

We didn’t go overboard on souvenirs; postcards, a few books, a CD of gospel songs. I am starting to “get” Elvis.

Noticed Colonel Tom Parker was mentioned exactly once the whole time we were there.


July 11, 2000 (journal)

Drove over to Sun Studio. Our tour guide was named Mick, late 20s. Spiky black hair, great glasses, attitude.

And what’s the tour? The front office, the studio itself, that’s it. Mick described the scene, and played a selection of sound clips from recordings and outtakes created right in that very room. It was more than worth the admission.

Our guide was just so great. The tour group was small, and he engaged each of us. Mick was sincere, he loves this music, tapping his foot. He had this wry smile all the time. I wish we had asked him about himself.

Hard to put my finger on, but that is now my favorite rock and roll museum.
Great Lakes Theater presents Million Dollar Quartet at the Hanna Theatre through May 26, 2019

Friday, May 3, 2019

Family Theater Day (2019)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
(EnTechneVision Inc.)
The temperature spiked twenty degrees, and with it, face-ripping winds, ripping down Euclid Avenue. Because that is spring in Cleveland!

Spring also means the opportunity to check out some incredible, international touring companies share their work at student matinees in the days prior to Family Theater Day, this Saturday May 4 at Playhouse Square.

“Playwriting reached its peak with Shakespeare’s King Lear,” or so says Captain Nemo in the EnTechneVision, Inc. production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from Canada, a seriously intense production happening in the Ohio Theatre.

The reference to Shakespeare's mad king is echoed in a great storm scene in which the captain rails at the sea and sky with, "Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!"

Utilizing three live performers, puppets, actions figure and some seriously beautiful projections, this is a wild adventure perfectly suited for a third-to-sixth grade audience. The language is dense and the subject matter heady (the first children’s play I have seen to introduce the concept of nihilism) it has a strong message about ecological disaster, and urging humankind to find a balance between technology and nature.

Conversely, another program that questions our dominance over wildlife is Shh! We Have a Plan by the Northern Ireland troupe Cahoots, gently told with light and sound, puppets and pantomime and absolutely no dialogue.

There were several short plays we composed for Guerrilla Theater Company which did not include dialogue, though I have to admit I wasn't very good at it, not when I was twenty-five.

Dance of the Demented includes signs with words on them, and I still felt I needed there to be dialogue at the end. One piece I composed which was entirely choreographed (titled, without irony, The Dance) about the importance of human connection, was misinterpreted to be homophobic.

Torque wrote the best of our wordless scripts, The History of Western Civilization, which you can read more about that play here.

Plays that do not include language must be deceptively sophisticated. You must be understood, and we are acclimated to leaning heavily upon language to make ourselves clear. To tell an entire story, to communicate not only emotions but also plans and ideas, takes great plotting, and planning, and rehearsal and physicality and just, you know, everything that makes up live theater.

Now I want to write an hour-long, dialogue-free children's play.

Playhouse Square presents Family Theater Day this Saturday, May 4, 2019