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Of Tempests and Teapots

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Some people favor one marketing slogan over another. I have a fondness for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's motto: "True art transcends time."

With the current brouhaha over plans by Diane Paulus (who has the blessing of the estates of George Gershwin and Dubose Heyward) to mess around with the plot and presentation of Gershwin's 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess, critics from opposing camps have made their feelings known. Some believe it is permissible to update an opera, write revisions that might provide more backstory, and make certain alterations in the traditional approach to a work in order to make an opera more accessible to modern audiences. Others, most notably Stephen Sondheim, assert that there is a blunt line between "re-imagining" a classic and violating someone else's art on the self-righteous presumption that it needs rewriting and you're the one most qualified to do it simply because you said so.

In opera, as well as theatre, this stuff happens all the time.

  • I've seen The Mikado staged in an English seaside resort and Harrods department store.
  • Rigoletto has famously been updated to take place among Mafiosi and street thugs.
  • Romeo and Juliet has had any number of new interpretations ranging from 1957's West Side Story to 2000's Romeo Must Die.

Whether or not a piece of literature is in the public domain has a lot to do with how easily one can wield artistic license like a machete (I still shudder at the memory of the African-American Shakespeare Company's production of Othello, in which Iago was transformed into a fat black lesbian who resented the fact that Othello had married a white woman). If Mozart and Shakespeare are no longer alive to defend their work from predatory influences and acts of creative malfeasance, who can?

Most people assume that Herman Hupfeld's song, "As Time Goes By," was written for the 1942 movie, Casablanca. In truth, the song was written in 1931 for Everybody's Welcome. When used to gain perspective on updating works of art and literature, its lyrics retain a remarkable clarity.

"You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

And when two lovers woo
They still say, 'I love you.'
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.

Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date.
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate.
Woman needs man
And man must have his mate
That no one can deny.

It's still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by."

Two Bay area theatre companies are currently staging literary classics. One has put a daring new spin on a 400-year-old Shakespearean play; the other is staging a British adaptation of a beloved novel that is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its publication.

In each case, the challenge facing the stage director is how to make the story relevant for a modern audience. Does one cling to the text without the slightest deviation or make substantial cuts and condensations? Does one try to recreate the work's language and the culture of the period in which the original was written or take dramatic liberties while trying to respect the author's intent?

* * * * * * * * * *

Written in approximately 1611, The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's more difficult plays to follow. The language is dense and the plot quite convoluted. As director Jon Tracy (who recently staged the play for the Marin Shakespeare Company) notes:

"Every time I see The Tempest and meet Prospero, I check out. Prospero's got a plan and really nothing stands in his way. Sure, he grapples with all sorts of fears and guilt (and hey, that's great), but he never has to worry whether or not his revenge will work because, say it with me.... he's a wizard. Dumb! So I thought I'd change things up a bit. What if we stripped Mr. P of his magic and replaced it with science? What if our Prospero had the same mission, but actually had no idea if his plan would work? All of this led to a lot of research. Out sprang the theories of Tesla and da Vinci. Scientist, illusionist, inventor, this was the story I wanted to tell. From this idea, Prospero's relationships to other characters shifted and whole new perspectives began to emerge -- the product of which is very much The Tempest you know, except that you won't believe what happens next."

Prospero (Robert Parsons) and Caliban (Michael Torres)
arguing in The Tempest (Photo by: Eric Chazankin)

In his two works based on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey that received their world premieres from the Shotgun Players in 2010 -- Of The Earth and In The Wound -- Tracy and set designer Nina Ball (who have recently married) displayed a remarkable talent for pulling a whole lot of magic out of thin air. Ball's versatile wooden wagons reappear in this production The Tempest. Instead of a trio of drumming nurses/goddesses, Tracy has focused his fertile imagination on Shakespeare's desert island with impressive results.

Setting The Tempest in 1901, he has recast Prospero (Robert Parsons) as a frustrated scientist exiled from Milan (pronounced "Millin" in this production) who was once close friends with Caliban (Michael Torres), an indigenous scientist. Together, they built a laboratory which produced the "Ariel coil" which generates, stores, and controls electricity. Alas, Caliban's lust for Prospero's underaged daughter, Miranda (Sarah Gold), caused a permanent rift between the two men and Caliban is now in chains.

Sarah Gold as Miranda in The Tempest (Photo by: Eric Chazankin)

Not only does the Ariel coil provide the electricity for Prospero's inventions, it can power remote periscopes and microphones that monitor the motions of the latest shipwreck survivors to arrive on the island, thus capturing their sounds and images for future use. For an audience that takes computers for granted, it might seem difficult to make such a concept stageworthy. But think, for a moment:

What if you took six mischievous mimes, dressed them to look like a cross between the Artful Dodger and the early aviators in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, covered their eyes with customized aviator goggles, and trained them to pop in and out of trapdoors for a Shakespearean game of "Whack-a-Mole"? You'd have a lot of unscripted action being performed by Prospero's six "Qualities" that could bring a radically new sense of life to a 400-year-old play.

Whether aiming headlights from the set's towers, or tumbling over each other as they disappear through the stage floor, Tracy's "Qualities" do the work of stagehands and circus clowns. Since they can only move when the Ariel coil is switched on, their liveliness is akin to watching balloon figures come to life (their posture deflates and all movement stops as soon as the Ariel coil is turned off). Their fish-mouthed miming of words has an uncanny theatrical impact.

"The Qualities" (Photo by: Eric Chazankin)

Thanks in no small part to the costume design by Abra Berman and sound by Brendan Aanes, this production of The Tempest was so consistently diverting that none of the children present for the matinee I attended seemed to have any trouble paying attention. Some of that may have been helped by Managing Director Leslie Currier's pre-performance explanation of the play's backstory and plot twists.

One of the Prospero's mechanical Qualities in The Tempest
(Photo by: Eric Chazankin)

* * * * * * * * * *

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the adaptation of Jane Austen's first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, which is currently on display at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Conceived by Andy Graham and Roger Parsley and directed by Robert Kelley, this American premiere from TheatreWorks pretty much left me cold.

I can't tell whether Austen's novel (which was adapted for the screen by Ang Lee in 1995 and had television serials made in 1981 and 2008) was poorly adapted for the stage, didn't travel well across "the pond," or had much greater appeal to Jane Austen's devoted readers than it did to the opening night audience in Mountain View.

Elinor (Jennifer Le Blanc) and Marianne Dashwood (Katie Fabel)
in Sense and Sensibility (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

First published in 1881, Sense and Sensibility is very much about the intimate passions of two young women and how their unrequited loves for unobtainable men are eventually resolved. The tale of how Elinor Dashwood (Jennifer Le Blanc) and her younger sister, Marianne (Katie Fabel), are forced to leave their beloved home in Sussex following their father's death and stay with their gossipy Aunt Jennings (Stacy Ross), takes the newly-orphaned women to London and Somersetshire before they return to Barton Cottage in Devonshire to find true love and happiness.

Filled with various forms of female angst and bad behavior by two-faced men, it may just be that Austen's novel is more easily adaptable to the fluidity afforded by film and television than the hard reality of a stage. A clumsy attempt to have actors silhouetted upstage during a key scene in the second act failed to achieve the desired effect.

Elinor (Jennifer Le Blanc), Edward (Thomas Gorrebeeck) and
Marianne (Katie Fabel) in Sense and Sensibility
(Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Despite the gallant efforts of the play's seven-member ensemble, Sense and Sensibility proved to be a rather tedious and anemic evening of theatre. While I found Jennifer Le Blanc's portrayal of Elinor quite appealing, Katie Fabel's Marianne (as well as her pitch problems while singing) tended to grate on my nerves.

Lucy Littlewood offered some cold and sharp feminine contrast as the manipulative Lucy Steele, with solid supporting performances coming from Thomas Gorrebeeck as Edward Ferrars, Mark Anderson Phillips as Colonel Brandon, and Michael Scott McLean as the dastardly Willoughby. But when the projections used for the background landscapes in Joe Ragey's set become the highlight of one's evening, something is obviously missing. What should have been a delicious soufflé lacked a sense of stageworthiness.

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape