Thursday, March 31, 2011

Medea, I just met a girl named Medea

King Creon asked me a question tonight. He looks me in the eye and says, “Maybe I’m not being tyrannical enough.” I hold his glance, nod and shrug my shoulders as if to say maybe not. This lady is bad news.

King Creon’s referring to Medea of course — the title character in director Stinespring’s current production at Home Resource  — a hip furniture showroom that turned into the setting of a stomach-churning tragedy.

Once again, Stinespring changed the code. Instead of being part of an audience watching the action through the proscenium frame, you're in the action. No division between spectator and spectacle: you're there. Call it unmediated theater. Stinespring didn't invent it. But it's a nice trick.

For the script, I assumed Stinespring found some public domain translation of Euripides' tragedy and cut it to the bone. Basically, Jason rejects Medea for a new wife. She kills their two sons and Jason's entire family as an act of revenge. The Styrofoam packing peanuts are gone; what's left is just the action line a clean electric circuit sparking from decision to deed. The actors are in modern dress, which removes another barrier. Or tricks you into removing your barriers. Modern dress works like a boxer's feint. You think: "Ah, these characters are wearing suits and ties and evening dresses. They're just like us" and you drop your guard.

But the ancients are not like us. This isn't my area of literary expertise but I agree with Gregory Bateson on this score. The inhabitants of this particular Greek tragedy (and most of them) are more like a brood of Charlie Mansons. Their minds are wired differently. 

The horror of the play isn't simply Medea's deed. It's Medea's world and the people who live here. Infanticide happens every day, but not for these cold reasons. (We have more in common with Shakespeare's Macbeth. Macbeth may be a monster, but he's a human monster. His motives and self-consciousness about those motives aren't that far from Tony Soprano.) Medea's not exactly human. But none of the characters are. Biologically, they're like us. But in their minds and souls, they're not. Medea and the rest are something Other. 

Kudos to the actors for some excellent performances. Kudos to Stinespring for excellent scene blocking and pace. The action flows naturally and draws you in to the play's unnatural, disturbing conclusion.

March 31
Home Resources
741 Central Ave # A, Sarasota,

Monday, March 28, 2011

Laughing Matters Interview

"Monkeys is the craziest people” was the famous catch phrase of 1940s comedian Lew Lehr. Eventually, he turned that around to, “People is the craziest monkeys.” This nugget of comedy trivia has more than a grain of truth—as the daily news cycle proves. Us naked apes are the craziest monkeys of the whole bunch. Florida Studio Theatre’s Laughing Matters: Unconditional Surrender shamelessly turns humanity's craziness into comedy. This year’s production marks the fourth installment of the popular comedic review at the Goldstein Cabaret. The current cast includes past performers Jamie Day, and Stephen Hope and Richie McCall and newcomer Gavin Esham. Langford wrote the sketches and song parodies, along with Stephen deGhelder, W. Joseph Matheson, Jim “the Piano Man” Prosser and Adam Ratner. Richard Hopkins, FST’s artistic director, will direct the monkey business. In the following interview, Langford and Hopkins share some thoughts about the production:

How would you describe Laughing Matters to a Man from Mars who’s never heard of it?
Hopkins: I’d say that it’s like Saturday Night Live put to music. Assuming the Man from Mars had heard of Saturday Night Live
Langford: You could also compare it to The Capitol Steps. It’s satire to the tune of Broadway melodies in that tradition. The difference is, we tackle both social and political subjects on a local and national level. It’s all up for grabs.

Do you have to be up on the news to get the jokes?
Langford: If you get the jokes on The Daily Show, you’ll get the jokes in Laughing Matters. You don’t have to be a news junkie to have a good time. And it’s not just news. It’s the whole human comedy.
Hopkins: Exactly. Humor is our starting point. It’s not a political science class, it’s a comedy, and we play it pretty broad. As a director, I send the actors in different directions. A Man from Mars might miss the political references. But there’s plenty of physical comedy and universal human comedy to laugh at.
Langford: And we’re laughing with people more than we’re laughing at them. It’s satire without a mean streak. We don’t want to lay into anyone.
Hopkins: It’s never been mean-spirited.

Who are the targets?
Langford: Everybody and everything. Health care. President Obama …
Hopkins: Local issues like high speed rail and roundabouts.
Charlie Sheen?
Langford: He might make an appearance.

Is there a political slant? A theory?
Langford: No. Just the theory that people are essentially crazy. We try to stay evenhanded. We have no political axe to grind.

OK, but just to clarify—people are crazy?
Langford: Yeah. But that’s great! We’re not attacking the crazy side of human nature. We love it—because we know we’ll never run out of material. That’s what keeps us in the comedy business. 

And that’s not a left wing or right wing business?
Hopkins: No. Comedy’s comedy.

You don’t want to preach to the choir?
Langford: Preaching to the choir is pretty much impossible at FST. Our audience is 50% Republican, 50% Democrat. We wind up making fun of everybody.

How would you describe the creative process?
Hopkins: It’s no laughing matter.

That’s funny.
Langford: Seriously, comedy isn’t a cakewalk. I write a lot of the sketches, but I can’t do it alone. The great thing about this show is it’s very collaborative. I’m blessed to be working with a team of good writers, but it’s still hard work.

How does the collaboration work?
Langford: We start with a ton of song parody ideas and winnow it down. The material is always topical and we’re constantly changing it right up to the last minute. We all push each other to make the show better. And that makes us better. We all grow creatively—and it all pours into the show. 

I assume the writers’ words aren’t written in stone?
Hopkins: No. The actors are free to change their lines. They can shape the speech to their own tongue and make the words their own. We encourage them to come up with their own material, to bring things to the table. They have to be on their A-game. That can be very liberating. And a little intimidating, if the actor isn’t used to it.

And the writers don’t object? No bruised egos?
Hopkins: No. Comedy comes first, and ego comes last. Our prime directive is: “Let’s make it funny.” As Rebecca said, it’s a team effort.
Langford: Yeah. And I really want to say, I love the team approach. That’s the fun part, and that’s what I love about this show. We’re all on the same page. We just want to make it funnier and funnier. If somebody has a better idea, we go for it. That’s what makes it one of the more fun shows to work on.
Hopkins: And the hardest. We’re constantly refining, right up to the last minute.

So you’re adjusting the timing, seeing what works on stage?
Hopkins: We’re shaping as we go, you bet. Rebecca will look over my shoulder and say, ‘Hey you missed that laugh,’ and I’ll go back and pick it up. Every good musical revue, comedic or not, has a structure, a shape and its own emotional intelligence. As a director, my job is akin to sculpting an image out a block of material. I carve away until I’m left with the essence. 

So, some comedy gets left on the cutting room floor?
Langford: Yeah. Some of my favorite pieces didn’t make it. They’re too extreme; they’re duplicates; they’re not timely anymore. That always happens. We really have to boil it down.

Are the actors free to improvise?
Langford: Absolutely. Every performance is different. The actors stick to the script on the song parodies. They’re free to get creative with their spoken dialogue. It’s not a canned thing. We want it fresh every night—and I can promise you it will be.
Hopkins: It’s never the same show twice. That’s why our audience looks forward to it.

Do people collar you in supermarkets and say, “When’s the next Laughing Matters coming out?”
Hopkins: Yeah. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is there’s a dedicated fan base. That bad thing is we always have to be better than last time.
Langford: And it always is.
Hopkins: But that puts us under a unique pressure. The energy and effort that goes into it is amazing.

Now the pressure’s off?
Langford: We’re already working on the next show. 

Well, hopefully you’ll have some fresh craziness to work with.
Langford: I don’t think I’m worried about it.
Hopkins: Yeah. That’s never been a problem.

Laughing Matters: Unconditional Surrender
April 1 through June 19
Florida Studio Theatre
Goldstein Cabaret
1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota

Friday, March 18, 2011

Here comes the Sun King

In 1984, George Orwell wrote about an elite society of bastards who've taken control of the human mind for all time. This may seem to have little connection to Lynn Nottage's Las Meninas, but bear with me.

Nottage's play
Las Meninas takes its title from a Velasquez painting of the Spanish court in the 16th century. (Literal English translation: Ladies in Waiting). The painter is visible in the background. In the foreground, there's a cute little blonde girl in a circle of dwarves.

That little blonde-haired girl, it turns out, was a Spanish princess who's destined to marry the king of France
Louis 14 aka the Sun King. (Not my favorite person. He killed my ancestors. Don't get me started.) Destiny aside, their marriage was one of political convenience. Nottage shows you how inconvenient it turned out to be ...

Hitching the Spanish Princess up to the French Sun King ends the war between Spain and France. C'est bonne. C'est fini. That settled, Louis Quatorze sets his sights on his mistresses and doesn't touch his legitimate wife. The Spanish princess seethes with frustration. Merde! Caca! To placate her, Louis gives her a present: a pygmy in a box, freshly captured in Africa. AKA, Nabo Sensugali.

In Nottage's play, it's just a matter of time before the pygmy and the sexually-frustrated Ibernian princess start doing the nasty. Is that a historical fact? I dunno. Wikipedia doesn't confirm it, so what can I say?

History aside, there's no easy one-liner to explain the irrational hatred of white people to black people. The Spanish princess screwed the pygmy. Sensugali was buff; Louis XIV was a lardass; she screwed the cute African. Why the hell not? Who cares? Who knows?

I don't know. History (at least on Wikipedia) doesn't say. The elite French bastards of the 16th century did their best to erase this story from history
they stuffed Sensugali and his daughter in some Orwellian memory hole. Nottage was determined to pull the story out. So did she? Are they facts? Did they do it? I dunno. It seems plausible enough. But Nottage pulled the narrative out of the fire. (I can't fact-check it. But I'm willing to bet she did.) Her story feels like truth.

The result is a memory play a narrative told by the daughter of the pygmy and the Princess. Simply put? Sensugali and the Spanish princess share a private history and eventually share a bed. Their love is doomed. She gets pregnant; she gives birth; they get caught. The King sends the obviously African baby to a nunnery. Then he lops off Sensugali's head.

That's the story.

Aristotle might say, Hey, I know what's going to happen. There's no suspense anymore.

Nottage might say, Hey, this is what happened. I have to tell the story.

The story is damned sad. There's no suspense. You know where it's going. You know how it's going to end.

Fair enough. But the story's true. As horrible as it is as inevitable as it is the story is true. It had to be told. And Nottage told it.

As to the performance itself ...

Michael Donald Edwards' direction has no false notes. And that's no false compliment. From a director's standpoint, this play is a minefield. It'd be dead easy to turn it into an editorial cartoon about how rotten white people were to black people. Edwards plays the scenes naturalistically and never elbows you in the ribs. (Which, of course, drives the point home that white folks have some heavy karma on their heads.) And the staging
is amazingly inventive. Set designer Lee Savage's sliding walls and Dan Scully's trippy lighting effects combine to create a hallucinatory space that draws you into the reality and irreality of the play's situation. (Which would have been the experience of Sensugali and the Queen.)

Jud Williford’s placid Sun King is no ranting, raving, narcissistic tyrant. He has nothing to prove. He blandly assumes his superiority; there’s not a drop of insecurity in him. Lindsay Marie Tierce is excellent as the Queen-in-a-Gilded-Cage, a seething mass of sexual and personal frustration. Will Little puts in a strong performance as an African captive in a bizarre alien environment in which, essentially, he’s humoring the pale-skinned lunatics and trying to preserve his own sanity and self-respect. Devereau Chumrau is passionate in the role of the doomed daughter of their illicit union. Dropped in a nunnery, she's supposed to disappear. She’s not supposed to exist; erasing her from history was the goal.

Thanks to Nottage's play, the erasure didn’t work. The elite bastards lost.

George Orwell would be proud.

Las Meninas
Through May 15
An Asolo Repertory production
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota