Thursday, October 21, 2010

Les Feuilles Mortes


While I am sad not to be in Manhattan to enjoy the autumn, this best of all possible times of year in the city, I am comforted by the joys of fall in New England here in the Connecticut River Valley. We are at peak foliage time here, and the countryside is ablaze with reds, oranges, golds. I enjoyed a picture postcard of a Columbus Day with apple picking at sprawling Lyman Orchards in nearby Middlefield, bringing home pies and pumpkins to fill my actor's digs with seasonal delight. Bundling up and shuffling through the leaves, poking into the many antique shops that populate this quaint area; enjoying sunsets over the river that would make Maxfield Parrish jealous: pinks and lavenders reflecting off the water as the Opera House rises against the crazy quilt of fall foliage, a fantasy place that seems carved from ice cream. Truly there are many blessings that accompany this autumn sojourn with the rollicking joys of "How To Succeed," if one can put up with the lunacy of Connecticut drivers, who have made me christen this "the tailgate state."

We opened our show officially this week, with a warm and raucous first night audience. The show has found its legs, and all of us are enjoying our eight shows a week. My creative energy is not reserved only for my performances at Goodspeed. I am also teaching several classes for area high schoolers via Goodspeed's educational outreach programs, and am working on the details for the Audition Intensive I will be co-conducting at the beginning of December; a weekend of coaching for high school seniors preparing to try out for college theatre programs. In addition, I am also enjoying being a part of another artist's creative process by commissioning a piece from an extraordinarily talented local sculptor, Kara Knobelsdorff. I discovered this artist's work while working at Goodspeed over the summer, and have asked her to do a portrait of me as a birthday gift to myself. Some of my friends feel this to be a slightly narcissistic enterprise, but I see it as a way of celebrating this moment in my life while being on the inside of an artist's creative process. My first sitting was this week and I find the whole thing fascinating.

Speaking of fascinating... I must devote some of this post to rhapsodize about the current production at Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theatre, a new musical version of the Roald Dahl classic "James and the Giant Peach." Our company was invited to attend the final dress rehearsal of this workshop of a promising new piece, and I have to say it completely captivated me.
The music and lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a bright, witty contemporary score; the book is by Timothy Allen McDonald. The piece truly captures the simultaneously comic, macabre and touching aspects of this classic story. The cast is energetic and talented, with standout performances by Denny Dillon and Ruth Gottschall as the deliciously nasty Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. The revelation in this production is the incorporation of the elegant, gravity defying dancers of Pilobolus, who succeed stunningly at bringing to life everything from a man eating rhinoceros to a flock of seagulls, to the peach itself. Graciela Daniele, the visionary director behind this adventure, has returned to the essence of what theatre really means. Using a bare stage and the most rudimentary of props and costumes, she blends the musical and acting talents of her cast with the glorious movements of her dancers to create a world inhabited by insects, carnival creatures, paparazzi, sharks, swiftly moving clouds... the audience's imagination fills in the rest thereby engaging us in the creation of this world and never letting us go. Theatre is storytelling, at it's essence, and it is about the sharing of stories that illuminate the human experience and that touch our souls and our dreams. This show is doing just that. I couldn't stop thinking, as I watched this magical piece, about the daily reports coming in from the multi million dollar behemoth, "Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark"--the technical tangle of incorporating high tech CGI and other technologies with dangerous stunts that have produced injury after injury amongst the cast. Julie Taymor's vision for this new musical is pushing the limits of financing and technology, but only time will tell if her trademark creativity and inventiveness will shine through. Personally I remember Taymor's work at American Repertory Theatre when I was in college; productions that relied upon classic storytelling, shadow puppetry, mask and Commedia dell' Arte--the simplest effects created moments that sent chills down the spine. Graciela Daniele has given us a creative jewel that needs no fancy pyrotechnics or elaborate sets; she trusts the material and she inspires her performers to lead us into Roald Dahl's fanciful world. At the heart of "James and the Giant Peach" is a small and universal story of an orphaned boy searching for a family. I alternately cheered, gasped and wiped away tears as I witnessed this wonderful work. See it if you can!!

It is ironic to me that at this season, most often thought of as a time of decay and dead leaves, that I find myself a part of, and surrounded by, so much art and creativity. Truly, I feel very, very blessed. Fall passes so very quickly and soon we will hunker down for the long winter. Mull some cider, break out those fabulous layers and something spooky for Halloween, and savor this time, wherever you may be.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Merrily Machiavellian


This week I decided to wax a little dramaturgical, for no other reason but that I am a dork and love to trace the common threads between theatrical works we consider modern or contemporary and those of ages past. I find these classic themes fascinating. There is a reason that pieces like "How To Succeed" endure in the popular repertoire; of course Frank Loesser's witty and timeless score has much to do with it, as does Abe Burrows' well crafted book. But additionally, the story of the rise of the young opportunist J. Pierrepont Finch draws on classic themes that are a part of western cultural consciousness and it's fun to draw those connections.

As you probably know, the musical was adapted from a sharp, satiric best seller by Shepherd Mead of the same title, with the subtitle "The Dastard's Guide To Fame and Fortune." The dictionary defines a dastard as a 'mean, sneaking coward.' While we might disagree with this as a description of young Finch, our hero is a manipulator, a sneak, and will do just about anything not only to get ahead, but to save his own skin. Shepherd Mead drew upon his own experiences at an advertising firm, where he rose from mailroom clerk to vice president, and his witty observations of the corporate world were the basis of his comic 'self help' book, but the book itself didn't have a plot line or a main character. It was Abe Burrows and his collaborators on the book who created Finch and his story, drawing, in my view, upon the classic archetype of the Machiavel.

Machiavelli, the Renaissance philosopher who many consider the father of modern political science, laid out in his treatise The Prince, his proposed guidelines for achieving and maintaining power, mainly through cunning and manipulation.
The Prince was a very popular book during the English Renaissance, during which it formed the basis for many of the great villains of the plays of the era: Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (in which a character called Machiavelli actually delivers the prologue), Shakespeare's Richard III, and Ben Jonson's Volpone (The Fox). Moliere's Tartuffe and Don Juan also share similar characteristics; they are deceivers, chameleons who can put on just the right facade to fool those they wish to gull or manipulate. And they get where they want to be by their talent for playing on the weaknesses and vanity of others--it is in their astute, albeit cynical grasp of human nature that they find their power to get what they want. Finch plays on the weaknesses and foibles of those he meets at Worldwide Wickets-- J.B. Biggley's desire for his extramarital 'bit on the side,' Hedy LaRue; Bud Frump's lack of subtlety and desperate need to get ahead; Mr. Gatch's lecherous tendencies; the chairman of the board, Wally Womper's, disdain for elitist, college educated men. This is part of the reason that audiences love these merry villains; we don't want to identify with the Machiavel's victims, since they are so fatuous and so weak-- we want to align ourselves, perhaps despite our values, with the master manipulator, with an ego that can lead someone to climb the ladder of success without any concern for who he tramples on on the way up those rungs.

These Machiavellian heroes are attractive, charming, with steel trap minds and infinite ways of escaping the consequences of their actions. And often, like Finch, they not only get away with their machinations, but they triumph. There is something simultaneously thrilling and deplorable about such triumphs, but it is part of our human nature that we fantasize about getting everything we want without hindrance from others and without consequences. We often look askance at those who are so self centered and driven but we secretly wish we had the cahones to be that way ourselves. Eve Harrington in "All About Eve" is a great example of a feminine Machiavel. She is a great actress in every day life, playing on the weaknesses of those she encounters in the theatrical world, with a sophisticated strategic game plan for becoming the leading lady she so desperately wants to become. Would she have risen to such a success without all that conniving? Clearly, she's a talented actress, but going the usual route of working the way up the ladder is too slow for a single minded vixen like Eve. Shakespeare's Richard III isn't waiting for dust to settle on him either; he'd rather kill off everyone that stands between him and the English throne.
And he tells us through soliloquy at the very start of the play that that is his intention--and by confiding in the audience, he makes us complicit in his plots--part of the guilty pleasure for the spectator. Finch does the same thing in "How To Succeed" but it is in the form of a mischievous grin directed at us, checking in with us to make sure we are appreciating the master manipulations he is concocting. Funnily enough, I see a lot of similarities between the hunchback king and J. Pierrepont Finch. It is interesting to me that one of the hits from our show, recorded by many of our finest singers over the years, "I Believe in You," is actually a love song sung by Finch to Finch in the washroom mirror. The ultimate narcissist sings a stirring love song--to himself. In one of Richard III's many soliloquies he has a line that keeps coming back to me: "I am myself alone." Ultimately, while Finch ends up with Rosemary (she herself a sort of Machiavellian secretary striving to manipulate Finch into marrying her), he really is in love with only one person--himself. And in spite of ourselves--with perhaps a secret wish that we were as ballsy as Finch is--we love him for it.

As of this posting, it is Columbus Day and another crisp, sun drenched fall day in Connecticut. We have been blessed with several such days here, and I am reveling in the fresh breezes, falling leaves, and nights of starry skies and cold air slightly tinged with the smell of woodsmoke. Truly beautiful. Our show is playing to enthusiastic houses, and I am enjoying the many pleasures of working at Goodspeed, including teaching some outreach classes for area high school students, and activities with my comrades in the show. "How To Succeed" will play through the fall and I hope that many will make East Haddam a destination, enjoy the foliage and the many pleasures of autumnal New England and come have a good laugh with our merry Machiavel, Finch, and the gang at World Wide Wickets!