Friday, February 21, 2014

Ubu Roi in San Francisco

Alfred Jarry: Ubu Roi
translated from the French by Rob Melrose
Directed by Yury Urnov
The Cutting Ball Theater
277 Taylor Street, San Francisco;

Extended to March 9, 2014
A FRIEND, WHO IS an actor himself, posts (on Facebook) a link to this blogpost by Mike Lew, whose work I do not know. The post offers more for thought than its unfortunate heading, "Arts Education Won't Save Us from Boring, Inaccessible Theater", might indicate. (Of course this is the usual nature of headings and headlines.)

Lew writes that theater, to reassert itself in a time of declining attendance (which I'm not sure is true in San Francisco), should undertake the following "fixes":
•To attract a young, diverse audience, present work that’s reflective of a young, diverse audience.
•Widen the perspectives being presented onstage.
•Place more faith in the artists.
•More funding for artists, less funding for buildings.
•Make the theater a more friendly and welcoming place.
•Make seeing theater easier on working parents.
•Lower the barrier of entry by lowering ticket prices.
All of this is welcome comment, and much of it is being addressed in the San Francisco Bay Area. Last week we saw two plays whose theaters, productions, and acting seemed to me to address Lew's points. Perhaps the ticket prices did as well: I'm not too attentive to the prevailing costs of other kinds of entertainment. (On my fixed income, though, I must admit that our budget is strained by our theater attendance, running to a dozen or two plays in the course of a year.)

I do have a problem, though, with one paragraph in his post — the one which presumably suggested the heading:
In truth theaters have a serious curatorial problem when it comes to choosing plays that a young, diverse audience can get behind. The fantastic documentary Miss Representation introduces the concept of symbolic annihilation in the media, and it applies exceedingly well to the theater. Why would young people (or people of color, or women) bother coming to the theater when they’re so rarely depicted onstage, and when they're so rarely in command of the artistic process? Is our dwindling audience truly a reflection of the educational landscape, or is it a reflection of a chronic homogeneity onstage exacerbated by an attendant homogeneity in our staffing?
[His links]

It seems to me this paragraph is predicated on the notion that one attends theater in order to verify one's own, or one's group's, existence. Surely one's existence is not in question, so this must stand for something else: a verification of one's relevance to one's context — social, historical, natural. I understand the contemporary anxieties that contribute to the generally felt need for this kind of verification, but I'm not sure I agree that theater companies have a curatorial responsibility to supply it.

I do think, pace Mike Lew, that "arts education" can address the problem of theatrical relevance: the problem is that we think of "education" as synonymous with "schooling"; that we've delegated education almost exclusively to the public and private schools. I often see parents with children in restaurants: these kids are being "taught" to attend restaurants, to observe social conventions concerned with dining in public, to appreciate diverse cuisines. I wish I more often saw children accompanying their parents in the theater.

It will be argued that the subtleties and references in the theater will elude them, that they won't "understand" the play. It's in the nature of childhood not to "understand"; children are used to it. I suspect they even enjoy it; I know I did: I still do. Theater is not boring or inaccessible because its literature is subtle, arcane, or referential. If it (or anything) is boring, that's the fault of an attendee who is demanding; if it (or anything) is inaccessible, that's because the means of access have not been provided.

Last week we saw two plays full of reference, both foreign, both complex, both with the added layer of difficulty that they depended, some of the time, on irony. I've already written (here) about Jerusalem, by the British playwright Jez Butterworth; the play and its production have increased in my appreciation since writing that post. (This often happens, and is one of the reasons I don't really like to be thought of as a "critic".) Let me tell you now about the second play we saw.

Over the years we've seen a number of productions of Alfred Jarry's absurdist masterpiece Ubu Roi. This is one of the best of them. The translation seemed to me to be very close, yet practical for American actors, audiences, and the stage. (I haven't re-read the play, either in French or English, for many years.) Yury Urnov's direction is inventive, consistent, always pressing forward though allowing frequent changes of pace and moments for the re-gathering of stage energy.

David Sinaiko is a marvelous Father Ubu: greedy and impetuous, childish and charming, vicious and hilarious. Ponder Goddard provides an opulent, intelligent Mother Ubu. It was she who nailed the play's references to Macbeth: one truly wants to see this pair in the Scottish Play, preferably in a similarly enterprising production.

The remaining cast — royalty, soldiers, crowds, armies, peasants, a bear, and so on — are ingeniously collapsed onto an ensemble of four: Marilet Martinez, Andrew P. Quick, Nathaniel Justiniano, and William Boynton, each and all of whom provide flashes of individuation, of articulation, of brilliance. The entire cast is completely engsging, and engaged in the play.

The function of theater, I've often thought, is to provide community — a shared understanding of shared experience in the human condition, subject to Nature, Society, History, not to mention Comedy and Romance. I think it's true that many of us make too Serious A Thing. One comment on my friend's Facebook link to Mike Lew's blogpost conveys a common response:
My pet peeve with "serious" movies, and somewhat with theater, is the makers' desire to be taken seriously, which is always fatal. I call it medicinal art — choke it down, it's good for you.
Ubu Roi is "serious," but pretends to demand to be taken as pure satirical entertainment; I can't imagine anyone responding to it peevishly. Shakespeare, I think, would have loved it, and would have appreciated this production. I'd happily see it again.

Friday, February 14, 2014


WHAT TO SAY ABOUT Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalemseen last night at San Francisco Playhouse? We sat center, first row mezzanine, through the long first act; then moved back a few rows — there were only two or three other playgoers up there, though the orchestra seemed well populated — for the remaining two (long) acts. I mention this because Jerusalem is, if nothing else, talky, and depends on being understood, and between the acoustical properties of the house, and the thick accents put on with varying degrees of consistency and success, and the extent of British slang, I wasn't always able to follow just what the hell was going on.

We'll have to read the play, my companion said later. I'm not so sure I'll bother. The play is laudable in its intent: to transfer the traditional English reverence for the powers of Nature to our own time, when paganism is no longer taken seriously except as it typifies antisocial behavior. Much of the time the play reminded me of Michael Tippet's opera Midsummer Marriage, of all things, and I even wondered if the playwright might perhaps be related to another British composer, George Butterworth (1885-1916), remembered primarily for his pastoral setting of Houseman's A Shropshire Lad. The pastoral tradition runs through the English sensibility from Chaucer on, and more than once this Butterworth, in Jerusalem, seems to be glancing sidelong toward As You Like It. But it is very much of our time, bringing town council enforcers out to the woods to lean on "Rooster" Byron, a middle-aged motorcycle acrobat hanging out in a house-trailer squatting on Council land in the woods.

Here he plays host to underaged girls, drifters, and assorted social misfits who hang about for free booze and pills, entertaining  them with unlikely stories, linking himself to the English mythical and Romantic tradition. "What's an English forest for?", he asks pointedly, when it's pointed out he's harboring fugitive teen-agers.

As is so often the case, the relentless back and forth of dialogue and the constant narrative imperative of the play distract me from the playwright's real purpose, which is verifying the continued vigor and relevance of this pagan interplay of Man and Nature within the political and commercial corruptions of today's society. Apart from the vocal production, this performance has a lot to be said for it: a persuasive set, enterprising costuming, good blocking, detailed though not fussy stage direction. 

The cast seemed to me to wrestle with Butterworth's demands, which are considerable. Brian Dykstra has a particularly difficult role in Rooster Byron, and manages it persuasively if not commandingly. The rest of the large cast fit in well; I was particularly taken with Richard Louis James as the Professor, Ian Scott McGregor as Ginger,, and Courtney Walsh as one of the enforcers, a small but telling part.

Jez Butterworth: Jerusalem. San Francisco Playhouse , through March 8

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


John William Waterhouse: Undine (1872)
WE SAW DVOŘÁK'S OPERARusalka Saturday, as sent "live" from the Metropolitan Opera to a movie theater in a nearby town, its audience quite full, heads of white hair everywhere — it was the matinée. Ten o'clock in the morning is an odd time to begin seeing an opera, but before long, in spite of my many misgivings, we were swept up in the thing.

Misgivings first, to get them out of the way. Operas are written and generally produced to be seen and heard in a theater, the audience removed from the action. The voices, the expressions and gestures, the sets and costumes are designed to overcome the softening and "blossoming," you might say, that comes with distance. In the opera house the sound engulfs me. But in the movie theater it comes at me very clearly from loudspeakers front left and right. I see too clearly the mesh of the nets to which stage decor is attached. Closeups, no matter how beautiful the subject and how persuasive his expression, rob me of glances at the supporting actor standing just out of sight.

Still it must be said this Rusalka was beautifully and persuasively sung, acted, cast, and for the most part directed; and were surprised to hear the mistress of ceremonies, Susan Grant, seem to apologize for the physical production: we thought it remarkably apt.

One of my biggest complaints about these broadcasts-into-the-movie-theater is the treatment of the intermissions. Those interviews, well-meaning and "educational" as I suppose they are, intrude on my experience of the integrated work of art that is the opera. But it was amusing to watch the stage crew laboring at the complex and ambitious change of scene before the third act; and I was interested to hear the conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (French-Canadian, bio here) talk about the opera with his youthful enthusiasm.

I thought the principals well cast and in good form: Renée Fleming in the title role; Piotr Beczala as the Prince; Dolora Zajick as the witch Ježibaba; John Relyea as the Water Gnome; Emily Magee as the Foreign Princess. The orchestra played well, with a good central European sound, I thought.

It's startling to consider that Rusalka is, technically, a twentieth-century opera, having been completed in 1901. There's no doubt about certain Wagnerian influences; you are reminded of the "Forest Murmurs" from Siegfried for example: more deliciously, Dvořák actually parodies Wagner from time to time — notably in the three ladies ho-jo-to-ho'ing about friskily at the opening. In the end, though, it's not Wagner but Janáček, of all people, who I think about on leaving the theater, Janáček of The Cunning Little Vixen.

This is not entirely because of the sound of the opera, of course: it's the opera in its entirety that does this. To me, this production of Rusalka is a totally integrated success: visual production, score, libretto and the performances merged into a serious and profound presentation of the water-nymph narrative — which is well worth contemplation.

THE MEME OF THE NAIAD goes back to prehistory, when everyone must have known the primal significance of water, without which life is impossible. Nothing more sacred than a spring — how many such mysterious, resonant, sacred places there must have been, articulating the wanderings of early nomadic humans, anchoring settlements as they began to appear.

And nothing more mysterious, I suppose, than the underground movement of water, rivers appearing out of nowhere and, occasionally, disappearing into the ground for no apparent reason, perhaps to re-emerge elsewhere. And, always, the vitality of the water, whether flowing animatedly or profoundly still yet somehow pregnant with sustenance.

And, mercurial and capricious, the waters can be dangerous and sinister as well as sustaining and nourishing. This is particularly true of the still forest pools, sometimes surprisingly, even unknowably deep, often with marshy edges, sometimes edged with treacherous quicksands. To this day there are sinkholes, filled with stagnant water, that are dreaded by the folks living nearby — I remember one we visited in the Var, in Provence, said to have been inhabited by a spirit who lived on the bodies of babies snatched from its edge.

On getting home from the opera Saturday I fetched down from the shelf a book I hadn't looked at in a number of years but remembered fondly, a child's edition, in English, of Undine, written in 1811 by the German Romantic novelist Friederich de la Motte Fouqué. (The edition I have is "retold" by Gertrude C. Schwebell, illustrated by Eros Keith, and was published by Simon and Schuster, New York, ISBN 9780671651602: I see there are a number of copies available inexpensively online, here for instance. Project Gutenberg has three earlier, less cut translations available for free download, and I'm glad to see scores of people have been getting them recently.)

Undine was set as an opera almost immediately on its appearance, by E.T.A. Hoffmann; thirty years later by Albert Lortzing; then quickly by the Russian composer Alexi Lvov (1846), followed by Tchaikovsky (1869). Nor was Dvořák's the last musical treatment: Hans Werner Henze composed music for a ballet with choreography by Frederick Ashton, first produced in 1958 by the Royal Ballet, with Margot Fonteyn in the title role. (The score was recorded in the 1990s with Oliver Knussen conducting; I'd like to hear it.) And I remember being fascinated by the inscrutably expressive sounds of Akira Miyoshi's radio opera on Ondine, composed in 1959, produced in Italy that year, winner of the Prix Italia in 1960, and issued on Time Records not long afterward.

Undine, to revert to the German spelling, is what seems to be called these days, often dismissively, a "fairy tale." The genre has dropped out of favor, replaced by science-fiction often set in a future, or "fantasy" set in some unspecified present. As it developed as folk literature, though, such tales performed an important function, I think. They are often cautionary, reminding the listener — not always a child, by the way — of the truth and certainty of proper forms of address humans should take toward Nature, toward essentials, toward limits on human ambition, social or individual.

In this particular story a knight-errant falls in love with the adopted daughter of a poor woodcutter and his wife. She turns out to be an Ondine, of course, a water-nymph, who miraculously appeared to the couple soon after the accidental and mysterious drowning of their own daughter. He takes her to his castle, ignoring his already arranged impending wedding to another (foreign) princess. Ondine, in assuming mortality in order to marry, guarantees the tragic outcome.

The rusalka is the Slavic form of the naiad; other forms are called, by their various communities, nixies, or sirens. The Italian willii are similar: the restless ghosts of women who have died of a broken heart, usually on the doorstep of the church when their groom has failed to turn up. From them, the expression: they give me the willies.

The Greeks were right, I think, to believe there were underground streams connecting, for example, the fountain of Arethusa in Sicily (at water's edge, in Siracusa), with an ultimate source somewhere in the Peloponnese. La Motte Fouqué's Undine travels easily between the pool of Dvořák's first act to the fountain of his second, presumably by swimming along one of these underground streams. The English painter John William Waterhouse, perhaps inspired (or cursed!) by his surname, painted at least two versions of a similar naiad, in similar settings.

John William Waterhouse: A Naiad or Hylas with a Nymph (1893)
DVOŘÁK'S OPERA, as I say, strikes me as having contemplated all these poetic and philosophical implications, and having translated them admirably into musical theater; and the Met production is unapologetic in presenting the result with great respect for the composer and his milieu. Andrew Porter once wrote, in one of his otherwise admirable essays on music in The New Yorker, that the course of [western European "classical"] music would not have been changed had Dvořák never have been born: but music would be poorer, I think. Like Tchaikovsky, Dvořák was less successful, to my mind, when he wrote a symphony, than when he wrote unabashedly "poetic" program music. I think he was a bit of a pagan. If so, Rusalka is among his finest achievments.