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Battling the First Act Blues

05/15/2015 01:25 am ET | Updated May 14, 2016

Last fall, as Mike Daisey was performing his new tetralogy entitled The Great Tragedies for audiences at the California Shakespeare Theater, he recounted some of his experiences as a student on scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. One of his acting teachers was a fierce martinet with a habit of interrupting her students by yelling "YOU'RE BORING ME! "

Needless to say, many students lived in fear of having to perform a monologue in front of this woman. Daisey's story, however, raises some important points about contemporary drama:

  • How much leeway should a playwright expect to be given when his work can barely hold an audience's attention?
  • Can a playwright's clumsy attempts to carefully lay out the necessary exposition for his narrative become counterproductive?
  • At what point does boring the audience become inexcusable?

Many a theatregoer has suffered through the "First Act Blues," in which it seems like the first 30, 60 or even 90 minutes of a play has been a total waste of the audience's time. Whether due to pitifully pretentious and artistically lazy writing or a playwright's inability to edit his script, the "First Act Blues" have often left me wondering if certain productions might have been improved if the people sitting in the first row had simultaneously been seized with spasms of projectile vomiting.

Such a phenomenon would undoubtedly snap the audience out of its torpor. In some instances, it might even add some wit to the proceedings. On most nights, however, the situation is resolved in one of two ways:

  • If the gods of comedy and tragedy are in a benevolent mood, the playwright will be able to shift course, take the narrative in a new direction, and surprise the audience with a stronger second act which leads up to a sufficiently dramatic climax to send people home satisfied.
  • If, however, the gods of comedy and tragedy feel they are being given short shrift by a playwright possessing much less talent than most people imagine, some people may leave the theatre dazed and confused. Others might prefer to describe the play as a whopping piece of shit and qualify their opinion as merely being a clinical observation. As Dame Edna Everage would say, "...and I mean that in a kind and compassionate way."

Two of the Bay area's leading theatre companies recently presented the West Coast premieres of new dramas. One managed to move past the tedium of a first act mired in exposition. The other delivered as much satisfaction as a rancid fart. Trust me when I say that I mean that "in a kind and compassionate way.

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Danai Gurira's provocative play, The Convert, begins with two bare-chested African savages running through the auditorium as they desperately seek a safe haven. Tamba (JaBen Early) hopes that his aunt, Mai Tamba (Elizabeth Carter), can convince her employer, Chilford (Jabari Brisport), to take his cousin, Jekesai (Katherine Renee Turner), under his protection as a servant.

The urgency of their situation quickly sparks the audience's interest. But what follows (especially for those who have long grown weary of listening to speeches about the importance of accepting Jesus into one's life) quickly slows the pace of The Convert's first act.

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Jabari Brisport, Elizabeth Carter, Katherine Renee Turner, and
JaBen Early in Act I of The Convert (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

To be sure, there's a lot of history (unfamiliar to most Americans) which must be covered in order to lay the foundation for what happens in Acts II and III. The play begins at a time when tensions arising from the 19th century invasion of Africa by white Europeans (in search of natural resources) and Christian missionaries (in hot pursuit of dark-skinned savages with souls to save) is nearing a critical temperature.

Among the hot buttons included in Gurira's play are the conflict between tribal traditions -- including spiritual practices (witch doctors, animal sacrifices) and social practices (polygamy, ancestral worship) -- versus the monogamy and Christianity preached by zealous missionaries. Add in the simmering resentment of some African natives toward their Shona and Ndebele brothers who attempt to "act white" in order to curry favor with the Europeans and the brutal behavior of whites who think nothing of murdering any "savages" who get in their way.

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L. Peter Callender, JaBen Early, and Elizabeth Carter in a
scene from Act I of The Convert (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Perhaps most intriguing is the social engineering attempted by the Church, which offered all pagans who converted to Christianity (including women) opportunities to improve their lives through the power of free education. Unfortunately, there were moments during the evening's sluggish first act when I yearned for Ann Miller to burst through the door to Chilford's humble abode, jump up on his desk and start tap dancing. But, as director Jasson Minadakis explains:

"Danai's stated goal as a dramatist is to bring the varied stories of African women to the world stage. And, as you will see with this performance of The Convert, she is telling remarkable stories. What struck me as I first read The Convert was how Danai's meticulous attention to historical detail made the play both an amazing window into a past few of us know about and a reflection on current crises around the world where women are struggling for spiritual independence and personal freedom."

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Omoze Idehenre (Prudence) and Kathleen Renee Turner (Ester)
in a scene from The Convert (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The Marin Theatre Company presented The Convert at a time when the conflicts plaguing Mashonaland and Matabeleland at the tail end of the 19th century (sexism, racism, religious freedom) are oddly mirrored in contemporary American society. Gurira's drama -- in which Jekesai (after having received the "Christian" name of Ester) studies the Bible intensely and evolves into a fervent evangelist with a solid track record of bringing her Shona brothers and sisters to Christianity -- has strong parallels to George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play, Pygmalion. Gurira vividly contrasts the newly-enlightened Ester with the far more worldly and better educated Prudence (Omoze Idehenre), who even dares to smoke a pipe.

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Kathleen Renee Turner and Jabari Brisport in a
scene from The Convert (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Idehenre's powerful portrayal of a liberated African woman is matched by L. Peter Callender's aggressive Uncle and Jefferson A. Russell's lecherous Chancellor (Prudence's philandering husband who puts the make on the prim and proper Ester).

Gurira's script is a vehicle for impassioned performances, which the radiant Katherine Renee Turner and Elizabeth Carter deliver quite beautifully. I tip my hat to the company's dialect coach, Lynne Soffer, who did a solid job of helping the cast with Gurira's inverted sentence structures and the need to transpose L's and R's. Years ago, a friend who is a speech pathologist explained to me that if children are not taught how to pronounce certain sounds at an early age, they are often unable to do so later in life.

Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes added a colorful sense of period to the proceedings. If I have any criticism of Nina Ball's stark unit set, it is simply that a slight angling of Chilford's home may have intensified the dramatic impact in some of the major playing areas. As it stands, the sheer boxiness of MTC's set made the action seem as if it was unfolding within a diorama.

The Convert takes audiences on a long and methodical emotional journey with some fascinating plot twists. Here's the trailer:

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Have you ever heard the sound of one hand clapping? Have you ever wondered if such a half-hearted response was more than appropriate? If so, perhaps you were in the audience for the West Coast premiere of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play. The American Conservatory Theater's excruciatingly tedious production of this execrable work might have gotten solid acclaim if written and produced by a group of precocious high school students at a summer drama camp. I was certainly less than impressed.

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Anna Ishida, Nick Gabriel, and Jim Lichtscheidl in the first act
of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Have you ever listened to a friend (whose memory keeps failing him) struggle to tell a story that he really wants you to hear? It's a situation which can be awkward, embarrassing, and painful to endure. Imagine a group of people seated around a campfire trying to recreate the plot of the celebrated Cape Feare episode from the fifth season of The Simpsons and you'll quickly understand why some things (like the entire first act of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play) are better left undone.

Spread over a period of 80 years, Anne Washburn's largely incoherent play tries to depict what happens as successive generations of Simpsons fans retell (and in the process reinvent) the plot of the Cape Feare episode until it has morphed into something gruesomely different from the original. Along the way, Washburn cannibalizes material from Peter Pan, Gilbert & Sullivan's comic operas, and other pieces of popular culture. However, in the wise words of Meryl Streep's frustrated Witch in the film version of Into the Woods: "Who cares?"

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Ryan Williams French as Sam portraying Bart Simpson in
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Washburn's play is a form of artistic vulturism which roundly demonstrates why, if one is going to mock, adapt, or otherwise appropriate the work of previous cultural titans for one's own use, it helps to do something impressive with the source material. Merely putting pathetic drek onstage is not enough (and only proves one's talent to be far less than that of one's sources).

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The cast of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The second scene of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play takes place five years after the United States has suffered a massive electrical failure which subsequently triggered meltdowns at America's nuclear power plants. As a result, survivors have been forced to permanently live off the grid. By this point, competing groups of amateur actors are performing their interpretations of the Cape Feare episode.

Eighty years after the initial meltdown -- as seen through the outline of a giant fake television set -- the latest version of the Cape Feare episode has (despite Alex Jaeger's fanciful costume designs) devolved into the kind of appalling crap which I doubt Matt Groening has ever been capable of producing.

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Andrea Wollenberg as the narrator in Act II of
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

During intermission, as I wondered what in the world motivated Carey Perloff to include Washburn's play in A.C.T.'s season, I thought about people who loved The Simpsons, hated The Simpsons (and a few who confessed to me that they had never watched a single episode of The Simpsons) as I listened to a member of A.C.T.'s Development Department sitting behind me discuss how the show created some institutional nervousness about how donors and subscribers might react to such a challenging piece about popular culture.

His concern might have been merited if Washburn's play had proven to be the slightest bit provocative. Alas, I found it to be a crashing bore whose 90-minute first act (which combines the original Act I and II) could have been eliminated without causing much damage. Perhaps the greatest and saddest irony about Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play is that, although it was written to celebrate the power of storytelling, it turned out to be stultifyingly stagnant and dreadfully dull.

Forget any purported symbolism about the effects of nuclear radiation on humanity or the mutational power of storytelling to transform a tale into something radically different from its original source. Forget Mark Rucker's determined effort to breathe life into Washburn's incompetent script. This play is an unmitigated piece of theatrical crap. Nothing more, nothing less.

During the curtain call, I found myself applauding the ensemble (Nick Gabriel, Anna Ishida, Kelsey Venter, Ryan Williams French, Charity Jones, Jim Lichtscheidl, Tracey A. Leigh, and Andrea Wollenberg) out of sheer pity rather than any sense of joy or excitement.

I did, however, enjoy Ralph Funicello's set designs.

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape