The Updating Game

09/23/2017 03:18 am ET

How many times can someone move to another apartment or rearrange the furniture? Change their wardrobe or get another nip and tuck? To what lengths will a person go to put a little more spring in their step, get more bounce to the ounce, or more bang for their buck? Will they learn anything from the process or just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over?

Makeovers are costly; their results cannot always be undone. But because a script is no more than a road map with good writing, updating a well-known theatrical property (be it a comedy, tragedy, or opera) offers directors and designers a chance to wipe the slate clean and see if a well-established tale can survive a makeover in order to attract newer (and presumably younger) audiences.

Bottom line: nothing ventured, nothing gained (assuming the property in question is within the public domain or the project's creative team has been given a green light by the playwright or whoever is handling the author's estate). An updated production can move the story to another time and place or switch out the race and gender of actors playing certain roles.

Whatever cosmetic changes are made (which can include cuts in the script), audiences must decide whether a new director and designer are trying to find the dramatic truth of the story or merely attempting to impose their egos on someone else's art in order to generate controversy.

Two recent productions were in the planning stage long before Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. And yet, in a perverse way, they have no trouble making audiences think about the eternal dangers of corruption, bitterness, violence, and injustice. While critics are called upon to respond to re-interpretations of long-established works, it's wise to remember the old adage that "opinions are like assholes -- everybody's got one."

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The first recorded performance of William Shakespeare's political dramedy, Measure for Measure, took place in 1604. California Shakespeare Theater is topping off its 2017 season with Tyne Rafaeli's updated staging of this play (a co-production with Santa Cruz Shakespeare) about the dangers of authoritarianism. With costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, a highly effective unit set designed by Annie Smart, and multiple actors tackling multiple roles, this production requires audiences to pay close attention to the proceedings.

Our nation's tradition of a peaceful transfer of power from one President to another has often been hailed as the bedrock of American government. But think back to the anguished emotions people felt in the aftermath of last year's election when it became evident that a respected and beloved President who had led the nation through numerous crises with grace, dignity, and an administration free of scandal, would be replaced by a contemptible, vindictive thug.

Angelo (David Graham Jones) and the Duke (Rowan Vickers) in a scene from <strong><em>Measure for Measure</em></strong>
(Photo by: rr Jones)
Angelo (David Graham Jones) and the Duke (Rowan Vickers) in a scene from Measure for Measure

Just when it seemed as if the proverbial arc of the moral universe was starting to bend toward justice, our government did a 180-degree pivot to bullying, incompetence, and economic cruelty. Seemingly overnight, reason, science, and a sense of responsibility for the common good were replaced with a toxic blend of rampant prejudice, hyperreligiosity, insatiable greed, pathologic lying, and political corruption. As Eric Ting (the artistic director of CalShakes) asks:

“What possesses a person to lead? Is it ego? Power? The opportunity to do good? A sense of responsibility? Perhaps it’s an inherited right or it’s thrust upon them. What does it mean to be led? To put faith in another, to hold them accountable for your livelihood, your family’s livelihood. Sometimes we look to our leaders to define boundaries so we can exist comfortably within them. And when that comfort is disrupted, it is often replaced by fear.”
Provost (Patty Gallagher), Escalus (Tristan Cunningham), and Angelo (David Graham Jones) in a scene from <em><strong>Measure
(Photo by: rr Jones)
Provost (Patty Gallagher), Escalus (Tristan Cunningham), and Angelo (David Graham Jones) in a scene from Measure for Measure
“Director Tyne Rafaeli recognized that Measure for Measure begins first and foremost with one man’s decision to hand over power; and in that moment of regime change, uncertainty seizes the world. The boundaries are effectively redrawn. In moments such as this, the impulse might be to turn within, to look the other way, to retreat into the safety of our homes. But not everyone is afforded such refuge. Do we in that moment accept the edict of our leaders? Or do we look within and become leaders ourselves? Do we meet the urge to fall back with a vision of possibility or do we stand up for what we believe in? Do we take our power back?”
Escalus (Tristan Cunningham), Elbow (Annie Worden), Froth (Patty Gallagher), and Pompey (Kevin Matthew Reyes) in a scene from
(Photo by: rr Jones)
Escalus (Tristan Cunningham), Elbow (Annie Worden), Froth (Patty Gallagher), and Pompey (Kevin Matthew Reyes) in a scene from Measure for Measure

Consider the predicaments of those who thrived under the benevolent leadership of the Duke (an Obama-like figure) to those newly threatened by the rigid dictates of Angelo (a figure who uses the law as a strict and unforgiving tool rather than letting it be open to interpretation).

  • Because her dowry was lost at sea, Angelo has refused to marry his betrothed (Marianne) even though he has already had sex with her.
  • Claudio is doomed by a legal technicality to be beheaded in three days because he married Juliet and got her pregnant without finishing all of the necessary paperwork.
  • Claudio's sister, Isabella (who had been planning to enter a convent), learns that the only way she can save her brother's life is to sacrifice her soul by letting Angelo claim her virginity.
  • Mistress Overdone (who operates a popular brothel) is in peril of losing her livelihood simply because her business is located in a suburb of Vienna.
Pompey (Kevin Mathew Reyes) and Mistress Overdone (Annie Worden) in a scene from <strong><em>Measure for Measure</em></strong
(Photo by: rr Jones)
Pompey (Kevin Mathew Reyes) and Mistress Overdone (Annie Worden) in a scene from Measure for Measure

Kevin Matthew Reyes alternated between portraying Claudio and Mistress Overdone's pimp, Pompey; while Adam Schroeder scored comic points as Lucio and Abhorson the executioner (there's a double meaning to this name depending on how you pronounce it). Clad in a dark green military uniform with storm-trooper boots, David Graham Jones was appropriately menacing as Angelo while Lindsay Rico's impassioned Isabella tried to maintain her purity.

While the goal of Shakespeare's intricate plotting is to expose Angelo's hypocrisy, there are so many twists and turns during the course of the play that it is easy to get disoriented as numerous actors leap in and out of different characters. The most versatile of these were Annie Worden (as Mistress Overdone, Elbow, Mariana, and Barnadine), Tristan Cunningham (as Escalus, Juliet, and Francisca), and Patty Gallagher (as Provost, Froth, and other minor characters).

Isabella (Lindsay Rico) and Francisca (Tristan Cunningham) in a scene from <strong><em>Measure for Measure</em></strong>
(Photo by: rr Jones)
Isabella (Lindsay Rico) and Francisca (Tristan Cunningham) in a scene from Measure for Measure

As the Duke who states "I have seen corruption boil and bubble till it o'er-run the stew," a bespectacled Rowan Vickers made this critic long for a return of the cool-headed, logical wisdom of Barack Obama as an authority figure who can mete out justice with a sense of fairness and wisdom. The production also benefited from Kent Dorsey's lighting and Brandon Walcott's sound design.

Did Measure for Measure survive an updated directorial approach? Absolutely. Did Shakespeare's 413-year-old play remain relevant to modern audiences? Without a doubt (I was especially delighted to hear the word "bawd" brought back to life). Performances of Measure for Measure continue through October 8 at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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My first exposure to the music of Richard Strauss was the February 20, 1968 performance of Elektra at the Metropolitan Opera starring Birgit Nilsson with Ina DelCampo as Chrysothemis, Jean Madeira as Klytemnestra, and William Dooley as Orest. Over the next few years, I spent many hours listening to the Deutsche Grammophon recording with Karl Böhm conducting a cast headed by Inge Borkh, Marianne Schech, Jean Madeira, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. At the San Francisco Opera, I attended performances starring Ingrid Steger (1973), Danica Mastilovic(1979), Janis Martin (1984), and Gwyneth Jones (1991).

While many opera lovers will recommend The Magic Flute, The Barber of Seville, La Boheme, or Carmen to newbies, I have always felt that the intense passions and depraved music contained in Elektra's 100 stormy minutes might be a much better suggestion. I love the music and, in all honesty, the bloodthirsty drama is hard to beat.

Funny story: In the fall of 1977, I flew up to Oregon for a performance of Strauss's one-act masterpiece at the Portland Opera, where I ran into several opera queens from San Francisco who arrived at the Civic Auditorium intent on surreptitiously taping Ute Vinzing’s Elektra. After the performance, I offered them a lift to their hotel. However, on that cold November night (when the temperature was a crisp 30 degrees), as soon as we got in the car I heard the sound of tapes rewinding. “I wanna hear the high C before we go anywhere,” hissed one of the men. Whoosh, click. Whoosh, click. Suddenly, Sylvia Anderson’s hair-raising death scream as Klytemnestra filled the car, followed by an orgasmic moan of satisfaction which had nothing to do with the fact that we were all freezing. Later that night, as I roamed the hallways of the Majestic Hotel and Club Portland Bath, I heard those same screams emanating from behind a wall as a group of gay men clad in towels drew near a door, whispering “What’s happening in THAT room?”

After a 20-year absence from the repertoire, Elektra has returned to the San Francisco Opera in a production that might best be described as "a night at the museum...without Ben Stiller." In the following clip, Keith Warner describes his concept for this co-production with the National Theatre of Prague and the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe.

In addition to the thrill of seeing a totally new interpretation of Strauss's opera (which had its world premiere on January 25, 1909 at the Dresden State Opera), a key selling point for this production was the chance to hear Christine Goerke sing the title role.

Birgit Nilsson joked that singing Isolde wasn't so difficult, as long as the soprano had a comfortable pair of shoes. This is the first time I've seen a production of Elektra in which the lead soprano stalked the stage in black sneakers. But as Larry Rothe writes in his program note:

Elektra spends less time penetrating psyches than aiming for its listener’s gut. Some critics condemn Elektra’s creators for dismissing women as hysterics. But this is no tale told by a pair of misogynists. Elektra, a powerful woman, knows what she wants and does what she must. If at last she enlists a man to murder the queen and her lover, she remains the avenging force, for she has decreed the transgressors’ fate.”
Chrysothemis (Adrianne Pieczonka) and Elektra (Christine Goerke) in a scene from <strong><em>Elektra</em></strong>
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)
Chrysothemis (Adrianne Pieczonka) and Elektra (Christine Goerke) in a scene from Elektra

Elektra’s orchestra is its Greek chorus, commenting on the action. Here, as in Salome, Strauss fit sound to subject. To those who ridiculed him for resorting to what his biographer Matthew Boyden has called ‘the most contrapuntally complex work of music ever written’ (scored for 111 musicians playing 120 instruments that generate a teeth-shaking roar), Strauss had a ready response: ‘When a mother is slain on the stage, do they expect me to write a violin concerto?’”

Michaela Martens as Klytemnestra in a scene from <strong><em>Elektra</em></strong>
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)
Michaela Martens as Klytemnestra in a scene from Elektra

When it comes to Elektra, it's really all about the sound. Even though I had not attended a performance of Strauss's opera in 25 years, it took less than a minute for the music to come rushing back to me (a luxury which only heightened my appreciation for the composer's ability to capture the emotions bringing Elektra's blood to a boil).

The conducting by Henrik Nánási was rock solid, alternating between Elektra's depression, her sister's desperation to have a happy life, the tacky caricature of her mother's lover, Aegisth, and the somber determination of Orest to avenge the murder of his father, Agamemnon. The famed Recognition Scene soared with passion (as it rightly should).

Elektra (Christine Goerke) and Oreste (Alfred Walker) in a scene from <em><strong>Elektra</strong></em>
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)
Elektra (Christine Goerke) and Oreste (Alfred Walker) in a scene from Elektra

With its handsome unit set designed by Boris Kudlička, Kaspar Glarner's costumes, John Bishop's lighting, and the haunting video projections by Bartek Macias, this co-production (directed here by Anja Kühnhold) is a welcome relief from the ragged rock formations of previous stagings. Alfred Walker's powerful Orest made the audience believe that his actions were indeed being guided by fate. As Klytemnestra, Michaela Martens (the Merola Opera Program alumna who stepped into the role on short notice) painted a lonelier, more feminine, and more introspective portrait of Elektra's selfish mother than the grotesque, shrieking harridan one usually encounters.

Michaela Martens as Klytemnestra in a scene from <em><strong>Elektra</strong></em>
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)
Michaela Martens as Klytemnestra in a scene from Elektra

At the core of Strauss's opera is the strained relationship between two emotionally conflicted sisters: the cynical Elektra and the optimistic Chrysothemis who yearns to escape her sister's wrath, get married, and have children. Although Adrianne Pieczonka's Chrysothemis was richly sung and acted, the evening was a smashing artistic triumph for Christine Goerke, whose solid musicianship was matched by her stamina.

Robert Brubaker as Aegisth in <em><strong>Elektra</strong></em>
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)
Robert Brubaker as Aegisth in Elektra

Updating certain operas can be risky but, no matter the time or place in which they are set, the tragedies of the House of Atreus always retain their dramatic power. Sitting through this production was a wonderfully fulfilling experience (the only things I missed were Klytemnestra's demonic cackling after hearing that Orest was dead, her death screams coming from offstage, and fond memories of Leonie Rysanek lurching around the stage and scooping her notes as Chrysothemis). A gruesomely good time was had by all.

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