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Some Like It Raw

12/31/2013 03:11 am ET | Updated Mar 01, 2014

While others were busily celebrating Thanksgivukkah, I chose to lay low during the last 10 days of November which, to no one's surprise, turned out to be a period of remarkable foment. Not only were there riots in Kiev, protests in Bangkok, and Republicans frothing at the mouth over the botched launch of the healthcare.gov website, these stories also proved newsworthy:

  • Pope Francis criticized global capitalism and trickle-down economics in an apostolic exhortation that showed a greater understanding of economics than that possessed by most policy makers.
  • In an article published in the Guardian, comedian Russell Brand laid waste to Rupert Murdoch, whom he labeled "an animatronic Al-Qaida recruitment poster."
  • Through his website, nobankwelfare.com, Congressman Alan Grayson collected comments from more than 100,000 petitioners, which he then delivered to federal bank regulators on the House Financial Services Committee.
  • As Black Friday spawned "Black Thursday: the Prequel," holiday shoppers were photographed pushing, stabbing, shooting, and tasering fellow bargain hunters in malls and big box stores across America.
  • During his appearance on the season finale of Real Time With Bill Maher, Dan Savage let loose with comments that nearly gave the Catholic League's President, Bill Donohue, a stroke.

  • House Speaker John Boehner advised Congressman Trey Radel (R-FL) -- who had been arrested while attempting to purchase 3.5 grams of cocaine (after having voted for legislation that would have forced food stamp applicants to be tested for drugs) -- not to resign from Congress.
  • Danita Kilcullen (a co-founder of Tea Party Fort Lauderdale) referred to local Log Cabin Republican activists as a group of "gay thugs" who had tried to take over the Broward Republican Executive Committee.
  • Occupy Wall Street's spinoff organization, Rolling Jubilee, announced that it had purchased $14.7 million of medical debt.
  • New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan complained that the Catholic Church had been "outmarketed" by gay marriage proponents and "caricatured" as anti-gay.
  • Amazon.com's CEO, Jeff Bezos, gave consumers a glimpse of its progress in adapting drone technology for future use as delivery-bots for Amazon Prime Air.

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Somehow, I don't think this is what Alan Greenspan had in mind when he coined the term "irrational exuberance." But change is the only real constant in life. So I was delighted to experience two productions new to the Bay area which changed the way audiences view two classic pieces of storytelling. One offered an upside-down and inside-out approach to one of the holiday season's most profitable attractions; the other enchanted audiences with a reworking of a medieval love story that has undergone numerous adaptations in the past.

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One of the occupational hazards of being a theatre critic is a jaded outlook with regard to seasonal moneymakers. It's easy to reach a point where one no longer wishes to attend performances of The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol, Handel's Messiah, or Hansel and Gretel because repetition has dulled the thrill (the same can be said for standards of the operatic repertoire like Carmen and La Bohème).

So when radical change is inflicted on a yearly ritual that has lost some of its lustre, such change can either be feared or embraced with open arms. In situations like Tom Mula's brilliant reworking of a Charles Dickens classic, resistance is futile.

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Poster art for Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol

Marin Theatre Company recently unveiled a new production of Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol directed by Jon Tracy with the kind of vitality guaranteed to raise the dead. In this case, the dead man is Jacob Marley (Khris Lewin) who, in the original version visits Ebeneezer Scrooge in order to give his former business partner a chance at redemption. In the original, Marley is not given the option of a second chance.

While playing Scrooge at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago for several years, Mula was asked by a friend's daughter what happened to Marley at the end of A Christmas Carol. With no apparent answer in the original text, Mula found the inspiration for a new take on Scrooge's holiday conversion. Soon, Mula (whose newest book, Hackers of Oz, is a modern sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum) was performing his own one-man show instead of appearing in the Goodman's annual production of A Christmas Carol. As the playwright explains:

Dickens created a wonderful illustration of the doctrine of karma in Marley and Scrooge being condemned to wear the chains they forged in their own lives. I based my afterlife on Dante's Inferno, and on the Hindu idea that the attachments that we form in life (by attraction or aversion) are the ones that stay with us in the afterlife. So people are bound to the things they inordinately loved -- or hated. One of the big attractions of Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol is that it's giving theaters the opportunity to do a holiday production with name recognition that is entertaining and fun and moves an audience and makes them laugh and cry and doesn't require a cast of 20 and 18 sets.

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The ghost of Jacob Marley (Khris Lewin) taunts Ebeneezer
Scrooge (Nicholas Pelczar) in Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

When Mula began to adapt Dickens's work so that it could be performed by a cast of four, he caught the attention of MTC's artistic director Jasson Minadakis (who was then the producing artistic director at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival). As Minadakis notes:

I love the way Marley intersects with and expands on Dickens's classic. The true delight of this play is how it celebrates all those who work quietly in the background to make everyday miracles happen, who support their fellow men with little expectation of thanks and sometimes work only for the satisfaction of having lent a helping hand. It is, perhaps, one of the greatest lessons of the season.

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Khris Lewin as Jacob Marley's ghost acts as the Spirit of
Christmas Present with Nicholas Pelczar as Ebeneezer Scrooge in
Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Anyone who has attended summer camp has probably sat around a campfire as someone held a flashlight under his face while telling a ghost story. One of the Bay area's most inventive stage directors, Tracy has armed his four actors with a variety of LED flashlights and handheld spotlights which can be deployed in rapidly changing configurations with remarkable storytelling efficiency. The breakneck pace at which his cast tells Dickens's story (while racing around Nina Ball's scaffolding) is similar to what audiences experienced in recent productions of The 39 Steps.

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Jacob Marley (Khris Lewin) and the Bogle (Rami Margron) in
Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Dickens wove a serious tale of redemption which is often drowned out by production values in staged adaptations of A Christmas Carol. In creating the role of the Bogle (brilliantly performed by Rami Margron), Mula has added a new supernatural element to the tale, a spirit guide who enables Marley's ghost to undergo a radical transformation of its own. In comparing A Christmas Carol (by Charles Dickens) with Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol (by Tom Mula), dramaturg Rachel Wiegardt-Egel notes:

The link between late December celebrations and ghost stories actually stretches back much further in time to the early commemorations of the winter solstice. The solstice is not only the longest night of the year, but is traditionally thought to be the most haunted because of its association with the death of the sun. Since both holidays honor a coming of the light, Victorian Christmas celebrations embraced many solstice traditions. The traditions of the ghost story and the redemption story are inextricably linked in both versions of this narrative. It is through supernatural intervention that Scrooge is able to find his humanity and internalize the essence of the Christmas spirit -- the spirit of compassion, charity, celebration and goodwill. Dickens's message is one that transcends any particular religion because it is a story, ultimately, of second chances, forgiveness, and helping one's community.

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Jacob Marley's ghost (Khris Lewin) and the Bogle (Rami Margron) in
Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With Khris Lewin as Jacob Marley's ghost, Nicholas Pelczar as Scrooge, Rami Margron as the Bogle, and Stacy Ross as the Record Keeper, Tracy's production breathlessly gallops back and forth across MTC's stage with a dramatic urgency that is rarely felt in traditional productions of A Christmas Carol. Add in the excellent lighting design by Kurt Landisman, sound design by Chris Houston, and the contribution of dialect coach Lisa Anne Porter and you've got one helluva holiday treat. MTC's production of Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol was a triumphant achievement in theatrical storytelling that gave me every inch of satisfaction I felt was lacking from the touring company of Peter and the Starcatcher. Here's the trailer:

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While many people are well acquainted with A Christmas Carol, the popular 12th century love story concerning Tristan and Iseult (Isolde) is much less familiar to American audiences. Despite the high regard for Richard Wagner's brooding 1865 operatic adaptation, it took me a long time to embrace this opera.

  • My first exposure to Tristan und Isolde was a January 26, 1967 performance at the Metropolitan Opera conducted by Georges Prêtre (with a cast headed by Pekka Nuotio, Ludmila Dvorakova, Walter Cassel, Nell Rankin, and Jerome Hines). A third of the audience left after each act.
  • On October 11, 1974, I attended a performance at the San Francisco Opera with a cast headed by Jess Thomas, Birgit Nilsson, Jef Vermeersch, Yvonne Minton, and Kurt Moll. What seemed like a brilliant idea (recuperating from the previous morning's extraction of my wisdom teeth during a five-hour Wagnerian opera) turned out to be a whole lot less wonderful than I had anticipated.
  • In November, 1980, the San Francisco Opera revived Tristan with a cast headed by Spas Wenkoff, Gwyneth Jones, Thomas Stewart, Ruza Baldani, and Simon Estes. Kurt Herbert Adler conducted (this was the season when columnist Herb Caen wrote about how Gwyneth Jones tried to crawl under the scrim in order to steal a bow).
  • On December 15, 1984, a Metropolitan Opera performance conducted by James Levine (with a cast headed by Richard Cassilly, Hildegard Behrens, Richard Clark, Tatiana Troyanos, and Aage Haugland) finally helped me to grasp the beauty of Wagner's score.
  • In December 1987, I attended a performance at the Los Angeles Opera (starring William Johns, Jeanine Altmeyer, Roger Roloff, Florence Quivar, and Martti Talvela) with Zubin Mehta on the podium. This was the first time I had seen Tristan performed with Supertitles. The media buzz around the production focused primarily on David Hockney's designs and lighting director Wally Russell's innovative use of Vari-Lite technology that could allow for slow cinematic fades.

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David Hockney's set design for Act I of Tristan und Isolde

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David Hockney's set design for Act II of Tristan und Isolde

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David Hockney's set design for Act III of Tristan und Isolde

Alas, I did not get to see the three most recent film adaptations of Tristan and Isolde:

  • 1997's Bollywood version, Pardes, starring Shahrukh Khan and Mahima Chaudhary.
  • 2002's Tristan et Iseut (a French animated film aimed at family audiences).
  • 2006's Tristan & Isolde (produced by Ridley Scott with James Franco and Sophia Myles as the young lovers).

I did, however, wallow in the fierce theatrics of Kneehigh Theatre's production of Tristan and Yseult, which recently graced the stage of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Familiar to Bay area audiences for its touring productions of The Wild Bride and Brief Encounter, Kneehigh's artistic vision relies on the three 'R's: reinvention, regeneration, and revolution. As adapter/director Emma Rice explains:

"We first made Tristan & Yseult as a site-specific piece. It was to perform in two outdoor venues only: Rufford in Nottinghamshire and Restormel Castle in Cornwall -- a wonderful, circular, ruined castle perched on a hilltop and open to the elements. It became immediately apparent that this show touched audiences in a very special way, that this ancient story resonated deeply and strongly in the modern psyche. It was spotted by the National Theatre who invested in the production to take it indoors, to make it more physical and more musical. This artistic investment really took the show, and the company, on to a new level, enabling us to develop the musicality of our work and create and tour on a larger scale. It went on tour nationally and internationally, and wherever in the world we go, this story touches the hearts of all."

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Andrew Durand and Patrycja Kujawska in Tristan & Yseult
(Photo by: Steve Tanner)

Kneehigh's production begins with the prim and matronly Whitehands (Carly Bawden) singing songs of unrequited love, backed by a lovelorn ensemble that goes by the name of "Martin and the Misfits." Their performance venue? "The Club of the Unloved." Needless to say, this interpretation of Tristan and Yseult is much bloodier and bawdier than Wagner's approach to the medieval legend. As the company's founder, Mike Shepherd (who portrays King Mark of Cornwall), explains:

"At the time of making the show in the early 2000s, Emma and I were really into [Quentin] Tarantino and films like Pulp Fiction. Bloody good storytelling and great music. This Tristan and Yseult is a Tarantino version of a medieval story."

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Andrew Durand as Tristan (Photo by Steve Tanner)

Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult is also a grand exercise in circus techniques that uses every theatrical trick in the book to keep audiences entertained.

  • Instead of a dour nurse who dabbles in secret potions, Brangian (Brangane) comes across as a ribald British housewife whose comic entrances are made with a run, hop and skip across the stage, followed by a jump from a trampoline onto the main playing area.
  • Frocin (Giles King) joins a long line of ass-kissing villains in the style of Bud Frump.
  • Craig Johnson doubles as the comic Brangian and the villainous King Morholt.
  • Andrew Durand (Tristan) and the multi-talented Patrycja Kujawska (Yseult) are riveting as the young lovers.

Written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy with music by Stu Barker, Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult is a sexy, hilarious, provocative and yet ultimately heartbreaking tale of how a magic potion can screw up the lives of three people who deeply love each other (special mention should be made of Bill Mitchell's set and costume design, Malcolm Rippeth's lighting design, and Gregory Clarke's sound design). Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape