Theater Around the Bay: James Nelson and Neil Higgins of “Beer Culture”

The final performance of the Pint-Sized Plays is tonight at 8 PM and we’re concluding our interview series by talking with writer James Nelson and director Neil Higgins of “Beer Culture”!

“Beer Culture” offers some of the biggest laughs in the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays festival. When San Francisco hipster Annie (Caitlin Evenson) introduces her Stella-drinking Midwestern friend Billy (Paul Rodrigues) to her bow-tied beer-snob friend Charlie (Kyle McReddie), the stage is set for an uproarious satire of hipster snobbery and West Coast microbrew culture.

James headshot

Playwright James Nelson knows beer culture.

How did you hear about Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival, or if you’re returning, why did you come back?

James: I generally keep tabs on what Theater Pub is up to — they were the first group to welcome me in when I first was starting out in the Bay, and I’ve always admired the volume and variety of work that’s produced! I submitted to Pint-Sized this time because I was out of practice as a playwright, and wanted to use the festival as an excuse to churn something out.

Neil: I came back for the money.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

James: Establishing a world with rules.

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?

James: Honestly, they’re very quick to write. And they let you tell stories that are only interesting for a few pages.

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Neil: Seeing my actors scream about, and orgasm over, beer.

What’s been most troublesome?

Neil: Scheduling. Dear god, scheduling.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

James: Brian Friel, Peter Shaffer, Martin McDonagh, Anton Chekhov, Street Fighter (1994 film), and Benvenuto Cellini.

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

James: Patrick Stewart. It wouldn’t make any sense but he’s just that good.

Neil: Jesse Eisenberg because he seems like such a douche, which is exactly what my script calls for.

Neil Headshot copy

Director Neil Higgins prefers wine.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is… what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Neil: When Darren Criss isn’t in town, definitely Megan Cohen.

What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

James: I just moved to Indiana to start a MFA in Directing, so I’m knee-deep in grad school at the moment. I do hope I’ll have a chance to write while I’m here — I’ve got a lot of stuff brewing and a school setting is so rich in resources.

Neil: I’m writing for SF Olympians this year, and am directing and acting in Left Coast Theatre’s next show, Left Coast News.

What upcoming shows or events in the Bay Area theater scene are you most excited about?

James: I don’t want to think about it, I’m gonna cry.

Neil: Seeing if the Llama comes back.

What’s your favorite beer?

James: I’ll give you a top five in no particular order: Evil Twin (Heretic); Brother Thelonious (North Coast); Back in Black (21st Amendment); Wookey Jack (Firestone Walker); and Ruthless Rye (Sierra Nevada). Also, if you like beer but haven’t visited Fieldwork Brewing in Berkeley, you need to go right now. They’re going to be the most important brewery in the Bay Area within a few years.

Neil: Wine.

See the FINAL performance of “Beer Culture” and the rest of the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays tonight at 8 PM at PianoFight!

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Emotional Karaoke

Marissa Skudlarek, putting her heart into it.

Two schools of thought as to why people do karaoke even if they have mediocre singing ability. The first is that Americans are obsessed with fame and the idea of becoming a “singing sensation”; mediocre people think they have more talent than they actually do (the Dunning-Kruger effect); they crave attention and glory out of a narcissistic need. This theory is rather cynical for my tastes, though, and doesn’t seem to account for many of the types of people you’ll see at karaoke. I prefer the alternative explanation: as a society, we have only a few acceptable places in which to enact big, possibly overwhelming emotions in public, and one of them is singing karaoke. For hundreds of years, church served as the outlet for most Americans’ singing-in-public needs, but as fewer and fewer of us are religious regulars, we need somewhere else to go.

This theory explains why many people at karaoke sing songs that aren’t particularly famous or even particularly catchy, but obviously have great personal meaning for the singer. (If people were just trying to get applause and attention from doing karaoke, you’d think they’d stick to singing fun ‘greatest hits’ material.) It explains why, especially when you go to karaoke in the off-hours (when the Mint opens at four in the afternoon, say), you can get the feeling of being among people whose emotions run a little closer to the surface of the skin than most people’s do. There can be a desperation to these singers, but it doesn’t seem like a desperate yearning after fame and fortune; more the desperation of heartbreak or disappointment. And, while I’m by no means a karaoke regular, I’ve been known to use it in this fashion, as an emotional outlet; there was a period of time when, as soon as I had an exciting new romantic prospect in my life, I absolutely had to go to karaoke and belt out “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret.

(I’ve also often thought that, if I were a Stephen Sondheim-level songwriting genius, I would write a musical about the regulars at a karaoke bar, with all the songs being pastiches of music from the ’70s through today. Just as Follies tells a story of heartbreak and disappointment through a series of brilliant pastiches of Tin Pan Alley songs, this would do the same for the music of the Top 40 radio era.)

Karaoke lets you take another performer’s words and music and use it to process your own emotions, in a more powerful way than just listening to the song would allow. In the same way, reading a play aloud in a group setting can allow you to have a more powerful emotional reaction to it than you would if you read the script silently, or even attended a performance of it. Taking a playwright’s words into your own mouth — even if you are not a professional actor — can sometimes be more moving than watching even the most talented actor perform them.

On this blog, we’ve probably written some pieces praising the value of holding a living-room reading of a play if you’re a playwright who’s seeking to revise a script (hearing the current draft version of your script read aloud is a great way to discern what works and what doesn’t). But today I also want to emphasize the value of a less frequently mentioned kind of living-room reading: the kind where you gather people together to read a polished, published script, a classic of world literature or an overlooked gem.

Like our new columnist, Robert Estes, I find great comfort in the writings of Anton Chekhov, whose empathy for our funny little human lives is still bracing over one hundred years later. Several years ago, I got together with some friends in a living room to read Chekhov’s Three Sisters. As the youngest woman there, I was asked to play the youngest sister, Irina. Things were going along well — we were sitting on comfortable sofas and drinking wine — until I got to Irina’s Act Three monologue of despair. This is what I read aloud (from the Paul Schmidt translation):

Where is it? Where did it all go? Oh my God, my God! I’ve forgotten everything; my head is all mixed up… I can’t remember the Italian word for window, or ceiling… I keep forgetting things; every day I forget more and more, and life goes by and it won’t ever come back and we’re never going to Moscow, never, never. I can see it all now–we’re never going to get there… Oh, I’m so unhappy… I can’t work anymore, I won’t work anymore, I’m sick of it, I’ve had enough! I worked at the telegraph office, and now I work at the municipal building, and I despise it, I hate everything I have to do there… I’m almost twenty-four, I’ve been working all this time, and my brain has shriveled up; I’ve lost my looks, I’ve gotten old, and nothing, nothing! There’s no satisfaction in any of it, and the time passes and you realize you’ll never have the beautiful life you dreamed of; you just keep digging yourself deeper and deeper into a hole… I’m in despair, I am really in despair! And I don’t understand why I am still alive. I should have killed myself long ago.

At the time, I myself was about to turn twenty-four, I too was feeling bored and burnt-out at work, I too was learning to deal with the disappointment that comes from being a few years out of college and having to lower your expectations as you make your way as an adult in the real world. Reading Irina’s monologue aloud cracked something in me open; I felt an obscure comfort in knowing that a fictional character written over 100 years ago felt the same way that I did. The powerful emotions that I felt when speaking Irina’s words gave me permission to acknowledge that yes, I was unhappy, and I shouldn’t try to just smother or forget my unhappiness.

I therefore highly recommend the practice of getting together with friends to read plays aloud. In a culture that often frowns on the overt expression of negative emotions, the chance to explore different facets of the human condition, through the words of great playwrights and in the supportive company of friends, is a much-needed way to release emotional tension. (This could also work with appropriately dramatic works of fiction; think of the satisfaction that people in the Victorian era used to get by reading Dickens’ serialized novels aloud around the fire with friends and family.) Plays were meant to be spoken and heard. You were meant to feel and process and play out your emotions.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.

FOLLOW THE VODKA: Introductions

Today we’re excited to premier a new regular columnist: writer/producer/director Robert Estes!

Photo for Theater Pub

A few weeks ago, I was asked by SF Theater Pub if I would like to write an occasional, recurring entry for their blog wherein I would discuss a play while having one of my favorite drinks in one of my regular bar redoubts. Hey, I’m not an actor, I’m the booze relief.

Seriously, though, I’d feel remiss in writing about theater and drinking without acknowledging that there’s often a very troubled relationship between theater people and booze. I only got into theater in my 43rd year on the planet, and, then, shortly afterwards, for some reason, I began really looking forward to an artfully made drink. Often, when I mentioned grabbing a drink after rehearsal or performance, I was surprised how quickly and strongly that the theater person would say that they don’t touch a drop. The sharpness of the words instantly conveyed their painful journey to abstinence. In a future post, I’m sure that I’ll take up the tense relationship between the bipolar world of theatrical enterprise and problem drinking.

For now though, I’ll just say that I tend to follow my mother’s rule, “I like to drink, but I don’t like to be drunk,” which is sort of the perfect excuse for anything, “I like to drive 140 miles an hour, but I don’t like to crash.” Still, I find so far for me that drinking is often a necessary complement to the inherent anxiety of the theatrical endeavor as well as just being my way of following Montaigne’s warm advice that we should allow ourselves to cultivate one vice.

Although it is great fun to enjoy the drinking vice with other theater people, I also love going to places where not only it is unlikely that I’ll know anyone, it is unlikely that anyone from the bay area will be there. Such a place is The Buena Vista near Fisherman’s Wharf, where they serve, as many of you already know, rows and rows of Irish Coffees to throngs and throngs of tourists, so that I’m sure the place is often on the unwritten but ever-present avoid list of many native San Franciscans–although “native” in this use probably just means anyone that has lived here longer than someone newly arrived and much less cool than them.

Since I have pretensions of coolness, I rarely order the Buena Vista’s Irish Coffee; rather, I quite knowingly order one of their martinis, which, like milkshakes come not only with a glass but also with the accompanying tin, a very nice bargain. Tonight, in honor (or more accurately, in lack of honor) of reading Anton Chekhov, I’m having a Vodka Martini; yet, if I were being annoyingly true in spirit to Uncle Vanya, I would just be pounding vodka shots. I’m also reading what I consider to be the best Chekhov biography (although it is not a proper biography), which is a book of his letters entitled Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary, edited & annotated by Simon Karlinsky, translated by Michael Henry Heim. Interspersed among the many letters are sparkling essays on thematic and social concerns, and voluminous, yet concisely written footnotes—all of which are first rate and engaging and help greatly in gaining a deeper understanding of his works.

But nowhere in the whole book do they discuss the key character trait of Uncle Vanya’s Astrov–which leads directly to an understanding of his descent in the play–his vodka drinking! In the very first scene, when asked if he’d like a shot, he says no. Soon enough, he relents and has a shot, but with bread, so that the effect of alcohol will be lessened. By the end of the play, he’ll have the shot of vodka and specifically decline the bread —he most assuredly finishes the play as a confirmed alcoholic.

Naturally, Astrov’s alcoholic trajectory is not a happy thought or a thought that brings much comfort when sitting in a bar alone on a Monday night at midnight having a double vodka martini (oh yeah, that tin I mentioned before is definitely an entire second drink), but the beautiful part of the Buena Vista is that you can always talk to the people next to you because they’re not from here, they want to know where you’re from and they want to tell you where they’re from, it’s great. They’re tourists! Ugh!
But I love “tourists!” I love any group that gets some kind of derogatory name attached to it. In the 1980s, everyone would put down “yuppies,” even people who looked and acted completely like yuppies. I thought I was a yuppie. I was young, urban and sort of professional. Would you rather be an YSUPIE? Young, suburban, professional—and with a horrible acronym? Nowadays, everyone puts down “hipsters.” I wish I could be a hipster! But I’m not cool enough. As I thought a few months ago, my only true goal in life is to be the first yupster, so that I can be the most put-down person ever!

So I think these thoughts which seem to come from some unknown yet central part of myself as I sit in the bar and re-read the letters of Chekhov, particularly this one from March 4, 1888:

“The people I’m afraid of are the one who look for tendentiousness between the lines and are determined to see me as either liberal or conservative. I am neither liberal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, non indifferentist. I would like to be a free artist and nothing else, and I regret God has not given me the strength to be one. I hate lies and violence in all their forms…Pharisaism, dullwittedness and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and police stations. I see them in science, in literature, among the younger generation. I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take. Such is the program I would adhere to if I were a major artist.”

Wow, I suppose each person reading so much clarity would find their own sentence of bliss, but for me sitting in the bar, I now instantly recall when reading that letter for the first time decades ago how strongly the simple sentence “I look upon tags and labels as prejudices” pierced my own thoughts. And I hope and I think that reading that letter is why I’ve often felt like I was a “yuppie” or a “hipster” or a “tourist.” I would rather join with the labeled than be one of the labelers.

As Bill English of SF Playhouse says, theater is an empathy gym. And I do feel that the great reason to read Chekhov’s letters or attend one of his depressing plays—well, let’s face it, depressing is the typical can-do American’s putdown of the apparently terminally stalled nature of his plays—is that ultimately pained empathy is more beautiful than glossy positivity.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if I’m not really falling into the vice of labeling—a vice that I do not want to cultivate. It’s just damn hard for me not to label people that I disagree with politically. Of course, it’s easy to label the red state politicians, but I even caught myself labeling the other side in the current blue debate. The labels seem to be getting more extreme: “corrupt” for “hypocritical,” “deranged” for “misinformed,” “treasonous” for “just plain wrong.” But the thing is, some of the politicians that I don’t agree with are deranged, or close to it. Eek, well, Theater Pub Blog, an extended political handwringing is not on offer here, but I just want to note the obvious tension between trying not to label and seeing that right now in politics it is almost impossible not to do so.

Just for instance, I come back to an example of labeling that Chekhov once described that I wonder if many in San Francisco would not find perfectly valid: he said that in a dispute between a landlord and a tenant, so many people would automatically know who was in the right simply by the labels “landlord” and “tenant.” Some would instantly know the greedy landlord was to blame, others would say the scoundrel tenant. It almost seems that not using labels in this instance is a denial of the current reality in San Francisco.

So with my frustration about keeping a basic equilibrium about humanity as I try to figure out what is labeling and what is not and my simple desire to retain my usual enjoyment of human personality in all its contradictions, I find sitting in the Buena Vista, talking to people from all over the place is actually kind of soul-inspiring. Yes, you jaded San Franciscans, if you’re tired of all the hipster irony and yuppie, I mean techie, consumerist overreach, come on over and talk to Clare and Bill (from Ohio!), who are apparently completely irony-free and don’t know tech from teach. But they’re extremely nice, and gracious enough to treat yours truly to an Irish Coffee. Now I’m definitely not cool enough to pass up that action.

Cheers until next month and another adventure in pairing the perfect cocktail with a play!

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: “I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.”

In which the author (Dave Sikula) bids his constant readers farewell.

Let’s cut to the chase. I’m outta here. This is my last blog post around these parts for the foreseeable future. While I’m neither retiring from blogging nor the theatre (nor anything else, really), I am taking a break. Whether it’s a long one or a short one, I have no idea.

First of all, my thanks to the proprietor. Without his encouragement and support – and deadlines – I wouldn’t have resumed my long-form online writing. Everyone here at the Pub is wonderful and offers unique perspectives on what’s happening in the theatre in San Francisco – and beyond – and deserves your continued custom and patronage.

But now, moving on. Even though we’ve passed the traditional navel-gazing that accompanies the end of a year, it’s close enough that I feel like I can indulge myself.

There have been any number of topics I’d have liked to talk about over the past couple of weeks and years, but have restrained myself both for propriety’s sake – and out of common sense. I’ve talked (at length) about how there are certain things I just can’t/am not allowed to say.

It’s like how, on Facebook, there are a number of people I keep in my news feed for the sole purpose of having them annoy me. “This again?” I mutter as I hit the “Hide” button or roll my eyes at their obtuseness or forced witticisms. (And please be sure; I am under no illusions that there aren’t simply legions of my erstwhile friends who have hidden me or have a similar reaction when they see I’ve posted – or blogged – or done anything – yet again.)

(Ironically, I started writing something on this topic and found myself starting to say something I wanted to, but couldn’t, due to the possibility of being misinterpreted, in spite of it ultimately being self-deprecating.)

Regardless, this break couldn’t come at a better time. I suddenly find myself chockablock with theatre projects that will be eating up my life for the next few weeks. I’m about to go into rehearsal for Sam and Dede (or, My Dinner with Andre the Giant) at Custom Made Theatre Company (tickets here). It’s the story of the unlikely (and true!) friendship between Samuel Beckett (whom I play, despite my lack of cheekbones and general lack of grizzled aspect) and Andre the Giant.

Sam ...

Sam …

…and Dede

…and Dede

It’s a great script, but it’s a monster; about 140 pages of (basically) two- or three-word exchanges (which should take only about 90 minutes, but still … ). Because we have a limited rehearsal period, I’ve been working on my lines for a good three months now, and actually know many of them, Fortunately, Robert Shepard, who plays Andre, and I have been meeting to run lines and get a head start. Once we start rehearsing, it’ll be down and dirty and having to get a lot accomplished in a very short period of time. Once the show opens though, I think it’ll be a fun and interesting and entertaining evening.

I find myself of two minds about it, though. Brian Katz, Custom Made’s Artistic Director, was doing radio interviews last week and was plugging Sam and Dede (along with the rest of the season), and as he described the show, I suddenly realized that, other than Robert and I, no one knows what we’re doing with a very good script. While I’m more than anxious to share it with an audience (I think – knock wood – it’s going to go over very well), at the same time I like the idea that it belongs to Robert and me and no one else, though. It’s not dissimilar to the feelings I’ve had at final dresses of shows I’ve directed; that feeling that it no longer belongs to me.

Rehearsals will be so involved, though, that I’ll have to miss a good many (if not all) of the rehearsals for the production of my translation of Uncle Vanya at the Pear Avenue Theatre way down in Mountain View (tickets here). One of my goals with this production is that I want to tailor the language to the cast (which is a very good one), but I’ll be so involved with Sam and Dede that my contributions and consultations will mostly be limited to email.

"Bozhe moi. Sikula's translating my plays?"

“Bozhe moi. Sikula’s translating my plays?”

Somewhere in there, as well, I have to cobble together an audition for the TBA Generals.

So, all in all, I have a very jam-packed rest-of-winter, but, after that? Zilch. Nada. Nix. Zero Nothing. Hopefully, that will change, but right now? Nothin’. On the bright side, that means I’ll have plenty of time to work on my latest Chekhov translation (The Cherry Orchard, available – along with my translations of the other major plays – to producers who are interested) and another project (potentially a cash cow) that I’ve had in mind for a while. Not to mention a couple of other projects I’ve been wanting to pursue. (With lots of roles for actresses; be warned.) Unfortunately, that means I’ll have no excuse to not work on any or all of them.

So that’s it. I gotta run lines and tidy the place up for my replacement. I encourage you all to see Sam and Dede (it’s a really good script, even with me in it) and Uncle Vanya. All that’s left is for me to leave you with words to live by, my favorite curtain line; words that I’ve found are suitable to any occasion:

http://s1098.photobucket.com/user/allengu/media/ScreenShot2014-07-29at15615AM.jpg.html

“Son of a bitch stole my watch.”

I’m outta here, ya low-ridin’ punks!

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Shows I Didn’t Walk Out On — But Should Have (Part I)

Dave Sikula, full of regrets.

There have been three shows (among the hundred I’ve seen) that I nearly walked out on. There are probably dozens of others that could have made this list, but three were three that drove me close to the brink.

It’s at this point that I mention something I’ve mentioned previously; a show I liked a lot, but probably shouldn’t have: the production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” in Berkeley. It was done by the Berliner Ensemble – Brecht’s own company – in what was then its farewell tour (they’ve since reconstituted). The chance to see one of my favorite Brecht plays performed by his own company was irresistible, so we went.
The play, for those who don’t know it, is an allegory about Hitler’s rise to power, seen through the filter of the Chicago mob: Hitler as Al Capone. The play was written in 1941 (when Hitler was still a threat), and according to our friends at Wikipedia (in an entry I have to rewrite because it’s so badly done – the annoying use of “whilst” for “while” leads me to believe it’s a Brit) – and, as always with Wikipedia, consider the source – it was written in Helsinki while Brecht was waiting for his American visa. It wasn’t produced at all until 1958 and not in English until 1961, even though Brecht intended it to be produced in America.

Yeah, it's a wee but obvious, but it's Brecht, after all.

Yeah, it’s a wee but obvious, but it’s Brecht, after all.

The production, while good overall, had its … unique moments, such the opening, which had the actor playing Ui on all fours, acting like a dog (including barking and growling) while the song “The Night Chicago Died” played for about three minutes. That could strain any audience’s patience, but it was a good prologue for what followed; if you could tolerate that, you could tolerate anything else they were going to do.

Some time after intermission, then, it came as a surprise to us when another patron, who’d obviously had enough, rose noisily from his seat, loudly slammed the lobby doors open, and yelled “This is a nightmare!” While I don’t blame the guy for not liking the production – it was not to everyone’s tastes – but I’ll never understand why he stayed until after intermission to express his distress. If you find it that bad, just leave when there’s a break.

Imagine three minutes of this.

Imagine three minutes of this.

But I’ve digressed yet again.

Let me deal with the three plays that came closest to driving me to a similar scene.

First is the 1985 production of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” at the Los
Angeles Theatre Center. LATC was a failed early experiment to revive downtown Los Angeles. Even though it’s active in a new incarnation, it was originally an offshoot of LA Actors’ Theatre, a group which was founded by a number of TV and movie actors who wanted to do challenging theatrical fare. (I particularly remember a very good “Waiting for Godot” with Donald Moffat, Dana Elcar, Ralph Waite, and Bruce French.) LAAT worked in a very small space in Hollywood off Santa Monica, but their success there, and the city fathers’ wishes to revitalize downtown, led to them establishing an outpost in downtown LA.

We're waiting, we're waiting ...

We’re waiting, we’re waiting …

A small digression here (really, from me?) Even though it was hard to believe in those days of the mid-80s, downtown LA used to be chock-a-block with people. The movie palace district – the only one in the country, I believe – is a marvel of architecture and gives one a sense of what the movie-going experience used to be like. Nowadays, it’s filled again with restaurants and clubs.

The lobby of the Theatre Center.

The lobby of the Theatre Center.

Anyway, LAAT was given a former bank building downtown to turn into a theatre space. In those days, there were three theatres in the complex. I saw a number of shows there, some good (“The Petrified Forest” with Philip Baker Hall in the Bogart role and Rene Auberjonois in the Leslie Howard part; a few things by Spalding Grey) and some, like “The Three Sisters,” were so staggeringly bad as to make one wonder if it was intentional. The director was Stein Winge, a Norwegian who apparently had little command of either English or Chekhov. (I saw an early preview and got a glance at his notes, which were in Norwegian and seemed to be obsessed with the clock in the set’s drawing room.)

t was an interesting cast. Some appropriate actors – Stephen Tobolowsky as Baron Tuzenbach, Cliff DeYoung as Vershinin, Caitlin O’Heaney as Natasha, and Gerald Hiken as Dr. Chebutykin – and some wildly inappropriate actors – Meg Foster as Olga, Ann Hearn as Irina, and (the most bizarre of all) Kim Cattrall as Masha.

Regardless of the casting, a good and sensitive director could have made it all work. But Winge was anything but good or sensitive. Dan Sullivan (the fine then-critic for the LA Times) noted in his review that the evening began with Olga’s “first speech about its being a year since Father died (being) delivered from the floor, she having taken a spill.” It was all downhill from there, with self-indulgent performances and lame attempts at slapstick and physical comedy (that didn’t even qualify as garbage) prevailing. I particularly remember, 30 years later, Cattrall’s reaction to Vershinin leaving. She bawled her head off, sounding like an air-raid siren, and grabbed DeYoung around the neck, then slowly worked her way down his body, ending up clutching one leg as he tried to limp his way off-stage. It went from WTF? to “really?” to funny to embarrassing over the course of what seemed like two minutes. (Doesn’t seem that long? Count it off.)

There was every reason to leave, but it was hypnotic, like a slow-motion car crash. At every occasion where an interpretive choice could be made, they’d make the wrong one, and it was fascinating to wonder and watch just how they’d go wrong next.

It remains of my great evenings of theatre-going, but for all the wrong reasons.

Sullivan notes in his review that it ran 3 and a ½ hours, but I know better than that. As I said, I saw an early preview and, even though I couldn’t bear to go back, I knew one of the actresses (who will go unnamed). I was driving home from Hollywood one Saturday night, and, seeing that it was nearly 11:30, thought I’d stop in and say hello to her; maybe go for a drink. I drove to the theatre, parked, and went to the lobby – only to find out that the show was still performing. Over the course of the run – and this was only about three weeks later – they’d been so over-indulgent that they’d added 20 minutes to the running time. I love Chekhov, but not that much.

As it turned out, LAAT soon went bust (even though, as I mentioned, someone else has since taken over the building), mainly because the neighborhood was so dicey. There was one night when, after the shows let out, the audiences had to be held in the lobby because some kind of gang war had broken out in the nearby streets.

Either that, or they were theatre-lovers who’d just had enough.

Coming next time: The World’s Worst King Lear.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Chekhov’s Gun (or, “In Praise of Simplicity”)

Dave Sikula keeps it simple.

So, not to toot my own horn (because Jeebus knows that writing a blog post implies no personal aggrandizement), but I’m currently working on a translation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”

I find the process of translation and adaptation fascinating. In a sense, I’m writing the play along with Chekhov. As I work my way through the (surprisingly short) text, I get to see what he’s putting in and what he’s leaving out. I look at the choices he made and have to puzzle out why this character says this or that character does that. On top of that, I have feel I have to find a balance between what a Russian doctor wrote at the end of the 19th Century and how an American audience will receive that information in the 21st.

My process has changed over the years. I did my first translation (from “Три сестры” to “The Three Sisters”) after a good friend of mine went through a particularly bad breakup. The play has always been her favorite and I thought I’d do a translation to try to cheer her up. (She’s a very good director in Los Angeles, and I had hopes she’d direct it – she still hasn’t.) I went to the library (remember libraries?) and got a HUGE Russian-English dictionary, and started going through it, word by word.

It took me six weeks to get through the whole play. At first, I could manage half a page a night, but by the end, I was up to about two pages. (My current pace is about four or five.) I start with a literal translation. Taking “Елена Андреевна «одного часа, говорит, не желаю жить здесь… уедем да уедем… Поживем, говорит, в Харькове, оглядимся и тогда за вещами пришлем…» Налегке уезжают. Значит, Марина Тимофеевна, не судьба им жить тут. Не судьба… Фатальное предопределение” to “Yelena Andreyevna ‘one hour, speaks, I do not wish to live here . . . We shall leave yes we shall leave… We shall live, speaks, in Kharkov, we shall look round and then behind things we shall send. . .’ Rough leave. Means, Marina Timofyevna, not destiny it to live here. Not destiny… Fatal predetermination.” After wrestling with it, I turn it into “Yelena Andreyevna says ‘I can’t stand one more hour here.’ She says ‘I don’t want to live here . . . we have to leave, and we have to leave now’ . . . She says ‘We’ll live in Kharkov for a while. We’ll look around, and then send for our things’ . . . They’re leaving everything behind. Marina Timofyevna, it just wasn’t their destiny to live here; just not their destiny . . . It was predestined by Fate.” At this point it’s still not perfect, but after I finish Act Four, I’ll go back and clean it up, using the lessons I’ve learned from going through the whole play (realizing patterns, turns of phrase, and character traits, among other thing) to go back and make everything clean, clear, and consistent.

One of the things we know about Chekhov is that he and Stanislavskii argued over his plays. (When I was in Moscow, I visited Chekhov’s grave, and was delighted to find that he and Stanislavskii are buried virtually head-to-head, so they can continue to argue through eternity.) Chekhov insisted that his plays were comedies. Personally, I find them all very funny – at least, until the end when things go to hell. Stanislavskii drove Chekhov crazy by treating them as heavy dramas, casting a pall over them that exists to this day. I’ve seen probably dozens of productions of Chekhov, and they invariably steer right into the ditch of gloominess and self-indulgence. I’m not saying they’re broad farces (though Chekhov wrote plenty of those), but it seems like every time a translator or a director gets to a point in the script where it’s intended to be funny, they assume “Oh, it’s Chekhov; he couldn’t have meant that. What’s the darkest and most depressing way I can approach this?” That’s another challenge; making sure the humor and comedy are obvious enough to be apparent to even the dimmest director. Because of this assumption (that the plays are downers), directors and actors tend to indulge themselves and take the maximum time to wallow in emotion. This was another thing that drove Chekhov crazy; he insisted that his acts should take 12 minutes each to play. In spite of my feelings that the plays should have a brisk pace, I was surprised to see that this one has extraordinarily short acts. I’m well into Act Four and am only on page 38; I have to keep checking to make sure I haven’t left anything out.

That’s what I mean about simplicity. Chekhov could have given us much, much more, especially in terms of “events” happening. People sometimes complain that “nothing happens” in these plays, and while there aren’t any “plots” per se, and characters don’t really evolve for the most part (which is part of his point), they undergo massive emotion upheavals (which are frequently conveyed comedically). He figures out what he wants to do with his plays (which – like his stories – are usually intended to motivate people to change their stupidly mundane lives) and presents only the information he needs to get that point across.

I finished Act Three last night, which features one of the two guns in the canon. A lot of people talk about “Chekhov’s gun,” without really knowing either what it refers to (or even who Chekhov is; hint: he’s not the guy from “Star Trek” – whose name isn’t even spelled the same). The principle, to quote the man himself, is “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

Simplicity is something I’ve come to embrace over the years. I started out loving big physical productions with lots of sets, costumes, wagons, and projections, but I know they come with equally big price tags. I still love them where appropriate, but as often as not, they’re not necessary. They’re big, bloated dinosaurs that are less about supporting a story and more about showing patrons how well (and how much of) their money has been spent. Big and florid may be flashy, but I’m finding it doesn’t do as well as cutting through to the heart of the story. When think back on the shows I’ve seen, it’s almost never the flashy effects I recall; it’s the moments of human interaction. Whatever gets in the way of that is extraneous and should be lost. No one will ever notice.

Working Title: Sad Autumn Roses, a Comedy

Will Leschber gets Chekhovian. 

Let me begin by saying that I love visiting Chekhov. There’s nothing like the dark catharsis that comes from watching Anton Chekhov’s characters meander circles around each other for over two hours and end up in roughly the same place in which they started. Nothing earth shattering happens. Yet everyone is more clearly acquainted with growing ever older and increasingly colder. I don’t want to live in these plays. But to visit and mourn with these characters for a time, that satisfies some desire to feel and purge melancholy. This exact aspect of depressing hopeless is why many have relayed to me their disdain for this Russian playwright. But to each their own. Having this affection, I absolutely went out of my way to see the Berkeley Rep production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”. This Christopher Durang play takes the tropes of Chekhovian drama and packages them in a comedy.

It is said that Anton Chekhov thought of his plays as comedies which were turned into dramas by their respective directors. While I don’t agree with “Uncle Vanya” being categorized as a comedy, I do think that the balance of humor and sadness is inherent to Chekhovian drama. This is something that film director Louie Malle plays with in his 1994 film “Vanya on 42nd Street.” What would make for a better film/theatre comparison than a play realistically portraying characters trapped by their Chekhov namesakes and a film that parades itself as a play in pre-production.

Malle’s film opens with shots of New York City’s bustling 42nd St. The cast meets and greets each other with affection on their way to rehearsal. Immediately, we get a sense of the community aspects built into creating theater with a group of friends. The space in which they are rehearsing lies in the dilapidated New Amsterdam Theatre. The creative players are surrounded by a hundred years of theatre history falling apart around them. It’s simultaneously melancholy and invigorating. “Its all crumbling but its all so beautiful,” says one of the actors. Fitting for Chekhov, I’d say. Durang’s play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”, also takes place in the shadow of a hundred years of Chekhovian history. Old tropes and familiar character types are used to delight the audience and surprise them too.

Back on 42nd St, the actors and director converse about the day to day of life in the theatre. All of a sudden we then are thrown into the “actual” rehearsal. The switch between “real-life” conversation amongst actors and the written dialogue for “Uncle Vanya” is seamless. Our only tip is a small group including the director who are now shown now uniformly watching the interaction between performing actors. Where is the line between an actor and a character? Is there one? Christopher Durang plays with this line in his play as well. However he plays with it in a different way. The characters within “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” are named after Chekhovian characters. To most theatre goers, this goes without saying. The question watching the play unfold is then this: Is there a line between the original characters and the new? How closely are these recycled types tied to their original creations? Herein lies the fun. We are delighted to see characters making light (and dark) of their lot in life. We are also happy to see when Durang’s characters break away from the sad distinction of the Chekhovian original. We get to see a difference. This is not the case with the film. “Vanya on 42nd St” doesn’t draw a distinction between actors and the characters they portray. We know they are different but a clear distinction isn’t provided. They wear the same regular 90’s street clothes and speak in the same accents. This gives us question of identity to ponder. The ponderance of where one reality begins and another ends is intrinsic to the nature of theatre and yet, in this instance, it is more fully displayed in a film. The Berkeley Rep production presents characters who have to fight past the melancholic history built into their names and given identities. The film presents actors who are more real as characters rehearsing than as actors conversing.

It’s interesting how within the film, the delivered dialogue once the rehearsal has begun feels more natural than the conversations between actors at the opening. Is this just something in the way we expect to hear dialogue delivered within a performance that doesn’t line up with the less theatrical, everyday speech of the opening? Or is it a choice director, Louie Malle, is making about what is more real: everyday interaction or performance on a stage? The Vanya within Berkeley Rep’s production at one point writes and puts on a unconventional play. His aims to get at deeper truth than everyday experience. The play within the play finishes before its end as the author, Vanya, stumbles into a diatribe railing against change and reflecting on the culturally shared experiences he had as a youth. 106 million people watched the finale of MASH. More than half of all American households tuned in. If you didn’t watch, you heard about it. Everyone shared this. Nowadays we have so many more strands connecting us and only feel more isolated. This is the rampant subject matter of the tirade deftly delivered by Anthony Fusco. This idea is not new. Chekhov wrote about these things a century ago. But the presentation is stellar and the subject matter is still potent. As Nina says in “Uncle Vanya”, “The old are like the young. They want someone to pity them.”

In the end, the film uses the tools of the close proximity camera to access this Chekhov play through quiet realism. It’s an odd thing to say considering we are watching actors rehearse out of costume in a theatre that looks nothing like the setting of the play. The facade is on full display. The entirety of the story presentation is less realistic than a staged play and yet when we are shown these characters in close-up the emotions on screen resonate with a personal and quiet reality. That is where the film succeeds. “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” succeeds by playing with 100 year old characters and making them new again. The themes Anton Chekhov wrestled with in his life time still have to be fought through today. Have I wasted my youth? What is the point of a life unfulfilled? Is happiness illusory? Since these questions can only be answered individually, I welcome the altered Chekhov presentations given through Louie Malle’s film and Christopher Durang’s play.

The Berkley Rep production plays through Oct 27th. And “Vanya on 42nd Street” is available to purchase digitally on itunes, Amazon and Vudu.