Arts & Events

Around and About ... Performing Arts

By Ken Bullock
Wednesday October 13, 2010 - 08:07:00 AM

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—Mark Jackson's adaptation of Mary Stuart for Shotgun Players

Dancing on Glass, a social comedy from India

—Backyard Theater Revolution 


The first impressions—and they last—of Mark Jackson's adaptation of Schiller's Mary Stuart are of the set, by Nina Ball, an institutional green prison ward with video monitors displaying the empty corridors behind the doors that are the only openings in the walls, otherwise adorned with two-way mirrors. Some of the action will take place behind one of the mirrors, as if in a booth; one impressive, climactic moment takes place in a corridor on monitor, the moment after the door onto the stage is closed. The feeling remains that more could've been done with both set and tech set-up, sometimes strangely inert, unchanging, not just sterile yet brooding. 

A little subtler, David Graves' music/sound design—no Disney Music here!—accents and shapes certain moments, and by extension, the play itself. Graves, who was invited over two years to work with the Berkeley Symphony Under Construction development program, had only one theatrical score to his credit when he began working with Jackson a year and a half ago, on the Aurora production of Strindberg's Miss Julie. It's a pleasure to witness him becoming a good theater composer, as specialized in its way as film composer. (For a glimpse at what a great composer did, sparingly on film, to bring out a masterpiece adapted from theater, see Gregory Kozintsev's King Lear—with Shostakovich score (the director—a theater student of Meyerhold—and the composer worked together 40 years) at the Pacific Film Archive, October 23 at 8:30.) 

Schiller's play, his own combination of Weimar Classicism, echoes of the Sturm und Drang and Baroque theaters, as well as Kantian philosophy, pits the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots against her cousin and imprisoner, Elizabeth I. A circle of noblemen and councilors surround Elizabeth, with different views as to Mary's fate. Between the women, there's a complex of strong emotional enmity, some of it relating to religious and national differences, much to the rivalry of two claimants to the throne, one a passionate woman, several times a wife and mother, the other the Virgin Queen, a "bastard," as Mary the Catholic calls her, whose mother consorted with Henry VIII after he divorced and executed one wife and broke from Rome to marry Elizabeth's mother, eventually doing the same with her as well. 

The Shotgun production is in modern dress as well as a technological prison. Mary is dressed in sweats, takes off her shoes to walk in the grassy plot the stage pulls back to reveal, something a queen might do in a late 50s-early 60s movie. Elizabeth's (Beth Wilmurt) accoutered like a lady CEO, almost—but not quite—Meg Whitman or Carly Fiorina. 

The difficulty of playing Shakespeare in America, opined Orson Welles, is that Americans think a king is a gentleman wearing a crown instead of a hat. Schiller's a later middle class playwright, who wrote Mary Stuart after the French Revolution, knowing it's not just other monarchs who dispatch their fellow crowned heads. His play focuses on the conflict between personal emotion and the state embodied in a person, the claims of individuality and the divine right of queens. 

In the adaptation, "queen" and the rest of the idiom of monarchy—and of statecraft—is retained from the original. But there's no sense of gravity of presence, of regalness around either crowned head. A gauche lack of propriety has Mary (Stephanie Gularte) touched roughly by male keepers—which lets down what should be an almost shocking moment, when the fanatic closet Catholic Mortimer (Ryan Tasker), who has confused venerating Mary with possessing her, touches her boldly and amorously. There's a nagging sense throughout that a naughty schoolgirl's being punished by a schoolmarmish headmistress, a rebellious young employee by a jealous boss. The female roles, at the center of the play, acquire either a too-stiff or too-flimsy demeanor. 

The men fare better, though awkwardly so, as their roles are defined in relation to the women. Scott Coopwood plays a fleshed-out Leicester, himself caught between the two women he's made overtures to: one ambitiously, the other passionately. Jesse Caldwell plays a sturdy Paulet, Mary's gentleman jailer. John Mercer is Shrewsbury, Elizabeth's minister, who argues with the resentful Elizabeth not to make her cousin a martyr—and returns the royal seal of state to her in the high moment of the play's revelatory, Machiavellian finale, when Elizabeth punishes those who have responded to her version of her predecessor Henry II's barbed plea against Thomas a Beckett, "Who will rid me of this priest?" 

It's difficult to adapt an historical play to contemporary purposes, to media preoccupations of false imprisonment, torture ... Schiller's masterworks have their own problemata, according to Walter Benjamin: "No writer of modern times has struggled more intensely than Schiller to recreate the pathos of antiquity in subjects that have no connection with tragic myth. He believed that in the form of history he could renew the irrepeatable prerequisite which tragedy possessed in the myth ... [and] sought to base the drama on the spirit of history as understood by German idealism ... doing so, he wrested from classicism the possibility of giving a reflection of fate as the antipode of individual freedom." 

Wednesday at 7, Thursday-Saturday at 8, Sunday at 5, through November 7. Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue at MLK. $17-$26. 841-6500; 

Opening night of Mary Stuart, I was moved to describe to a friend at the reception a moment I'd witnessed of a great diva singing the title role of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, taken from Schiller's play, at San Francisco Opera. Expectations ran high; it was a farewell performance. And it was strangely flat. Until the last aria, when Maria bursts into joyous song just before her execution, assuring her ladies in waiting she goes to death happily. It was a powerful moment, sung and played with intense authority, enough to make your hair stand up. After the final curtain call, the diva was honored on the apron of the stage—and apologized to the audience: she had a cold, "I couldn't give it my all." She had saved it till the end, and showed us, unforgettably, what "All" means. The diva was Joan Sutherland, who died a few days later, this past weekend. 

To phone in a performance is usually a pejorative, but Ram Ganesh Kamatham's Dancing on Glass elevates it to a virtue. This skewed, bittersweet romantic comedy, about a software engineer and a customer service jobber in a Bangalore phone tank, gives humanity and social amplitude in a generous, yet critical way to the disembodied voices, often sporting fantastic, suburban American handles, we hear when dialing an 800 number and reaching an outsourced assistance center. May I help you? ... 

Can they help themselves? Directed nicely by Vidhu Singh, Amisha Veda and Amit Sharma play the unlikely couple with humor and charm, in a play that shows educated, middle class Indians caught up in a disorientingly globalized, 24/7 high tech world with no humane future to work for. Megha's boyfriend—Shankar's roommate—Pradeep, who the audience only knows as a voice on the phone, is an overworked manager at the call center. When he's killed, falling asleep while on the road, Megha and Shankar move close, but neither really knows what to do with themself, much less the other. "Her hormones are all over the place; he's constipated ..." 

Like many contemporary comedies, especially those essentially solo or duo, Dancing on Glass features material very much in the vein of comedy sketches and monologues—but much more integrated into a real theatrical form, one with genuine flexibility, no stiffness or recycled clichés. The climactic scenes of Megha and Shankar out on the town, for want of developing a real bond, were apparently shockers in India: "Nice young people don't swear, get drunk, get sick in the street," as Vidhu Singh explained. Here, where that's not news anymore—not in these parts, anyway—Kamatham's play succeeds, nonetheless, showing the waywardness of young people knocked off the clock, both the internal, biological clock and the social time keeper. It fulfills Pirandello's definition of humor, right up to the denouement: "What you find, instead of what you expect to find." There's truth, both funny and sad, to this picture of the other side of a world rapidly folding back in on itself. 

The little company responsible for the production, RasaNova, clearly does theater for the love of it. There was an unusually warm and lively audience as well on opening night at CounterPulse, from where it moves this week to finish a short run with performances 7 pm Thursday and Friday at the Red Poppy Art House,2698 Folsom at 23rd, near 24th St. BART in the Mission, San Francisco. (415) 826-2402; 

A few times lately, I've been to a real Berkeley scene—theater in the backyard. Jack Halton and George Killingsworth performed "Backyard Beckett," Rough for Theater 1, with the added treat of "phantasmagorical fiddle and Irish songs" by Hal Hughes, in George and Hal's backyard off Shattuck—later taken to the streets, performed in Kerouac Alley, next to City Lights (and Vesuvio's) in North Beach—played with humor and down-to-earth gutter charm, in other words, real Beckett. 

Back of another house, a Victorian this time, in the aptly-dubbed Gourmet Ghetto Gardens, Robert Estes directed a very serviceable "staged reading" of The Fantasticks, winsomely put over by a cast including, among others, Karma Raines, Stanley Spenger, others from Actors Ensemble, as well as at least one vet of the Lamplighters, Eric Casanova flying in from the Big Apple to essay a splendid El Gallo—and the aforementioned Curious George Killingsworth as the old ham thespian who, with his fake Indian, assists in the "planned abduction" of the female ingénue. Good singing and comedic turns in the brilliant autumn sunlight. 

George and I spoke about it afterwards, how right this sort of thing is, for the here-&-now of Big Recession, expensive rent on theatrical space, compressed schedules ... and a lack of social togetherness and mutual relaxation. We both vowed to spread the flame—metaphorically speaking, not to shout "Fire!" in a crowded patio—and fan up the Berkeley Backyard Theater Revolution—at least when good weather strikes again ... stay tuned for placards of more of the same ... 

Central Works' new play, Penelope's Odyssey, by Gary Graves, directed by John Patrick Moore—and produced using the unique Central works collaborative style—opens this Saturday at the Berkeley City Club on Durant, preceded by previews (the previews, October 14 and 15, and shows on the 21st and 26th are pay-what-you-can), running through November 25. Thursdays-Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 5. $25-$14, sliding scale. 558-1381; (A theater company that always delivers the goods.) 

Ed Reed, the classic jazz balladeer, is being celebrated—and benefited!—for his upcoming CD, Born To Be Blue, by The Cheeseboard Collective, 1512 Shattuck, between Cedar and Vine, in whose pizza annex Ed's sung with his talented and committed confreres on Tuesdays the past few years ... featuring Ed's soulful renditions of the Great American Song Book—mostly love songs—and a sharp quartet, with Noel Jewkes on saxophone, from 11 to 3 this Sunday afternoon. Another show, with the band from the CD sessions, later this month—Sunday, October 24 at 4, will be at Piedmont Piano, 18th & San Pablo, uptown Oakland. Further info: 

Hardboiled for Hard Times, a tour of local noir/detective fiction writers reading their fiction, including Owen Hill and Summer Brenner, will be at Moe's Books, 2476 Telegraph Ave. this Saturday at 7:30. Free.