Theater Around the Bay: Shirley Issel & Jamie Harkin of “Angel of Darkness”

From now through the end of August, we’ll be bringing you interviews with the writers and directors of the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays. First up: writer Shirley Issel and director Jamie Harkin of “Angel of Darkness”!

“Angel of Darkness” is a modern mystery play set in a contemporary bar. Death is the barman, and he informs Everyman that as soon as another patron, Fellowship, finishes his beer, Everyman will die… 

Brett Mermer plays Death, James F. Ross plays Fellowship, and Jamie Harkin pulls double duty by playing Everyman as well as directing the show.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized?

Shirley: I am part of a playwriting class at Stagebridge, taught by Anthony Clarvoe. Anthony gave us your Pint-Sized Play Festival call for submission and rules as a weekly assignment. The rules captured my imagination and I really liked the results, so I submitted.

Jamie: My dear friend Alejandro Torres, who is the deputy producer of Pint-Sized this year, knows me and recommended me.

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

Shirley: Coming up with a good idea.

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

Shirley: It is clear very quickly if you have something good.

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

Jamie: The idea of performing in front of such a huge crowd.

What’s been most troublesome?

Jamie: Finding actors.

Shirley Issel

Shirley Issel, Pint-Sized Playwright.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Shirley: I am in love with Shakespeare, especially the way one character in each play sets the ball rolling and in doing so calls in his own fate. “Angel of Darkness” takes place on Halloween. When the bartender/Death asks Everyman if he wants a “trick or treat,” Everyman asks for a trick, inviting Death to do his thing.

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

Jamie: Anthony Hopkins, Derek Jacobi, Benedict Cumberbatch or Alan Rickman (if I could bring him back I totally would). Cause, you know, I love me some Brits.

Shirley: I would cast Matthew McConaughey as the bartender. He’s naughty, playful and smart with a killer smile. I can just hear him with his Southern accent asking his customers, “Alright, Alright, Alright! What’ll you have, trick or treat?”

Jamie Harkin

Jamie Harkin, actor AND director!

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

Jamie: Hmm… I’d have to say James Carpenter. I’ve met him a couple times. He’s really really nice.

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

Jamie: I’m in the SF Fringe Festival this year as part of Alejandro’s show Projected Voyages, which is being remounted. I was an original cast member back in 2013.

Shirley: I’m sticking with my playwriting class at Stagebridge and I’m curious myself about what will happen next. One thing new I’m eager to pursue is a class on directing.

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

Shirley: I’m looking forward to seeing Dear Master come back to the Aurora in September. Joy Carlin is directing and she makes sure good material gets a good production.

Jamie: I really wanna see John Leguizamo’s show at Berkeley Rep.

What’s your favorite beer?

Jamie: Milk!

Shirley: Right now, I like Death and Taxes.

See “Angel of Darkness” and the other Pint-Sized Plays at PianoFight on August 15, 16, 22, 23, and 29!

 

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It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Who Needs a National Theatre?

In which Dave Sikula decries institutional theatre.

A few days ago, I was one of the many thousands who have been trooping to movie theatres to see a broadcast of Benedict Cumberbatch in the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet. I’ll begin this by saying that I’m generally a fan of Mr. Cumberbatch’s (the film of August: Osage County excepted; but, other than Margo Martindale, no one got out of that movie alive) and was highly looking forward to it.

My take on the overall reaction is that it’s been generally favorable, with reservations. That was pretty much my reaction. It was intelligent, reasonably well-spoken, and coherent, but not very gripping. (I’ll mention here that my wife loved it and found it “muscular” and though it clarified many of the knottier aspects of the text, so the opinions expressed herein are my own.)

What it lacked for me, though, was any sense of danger or even visceral excitement. In my mind, if Hamlet is anything, it’s everything. It’s a meditation on mortality. It’s a revenge story. It’s a comedy, a tragedy, a ghost story, an examination of the thought process. You name it, it’s got it. There’s so much in it that the one thing it shouldn’t be is routine. It’s not just another play; it’s the play. It’s the role. There’s got to be a reason to do it.

Unfortunately, the production I saw was just kinda there, trapped in a concept that had something to so with a big house and a lot of dirt. (Seriously, I felt sorry for the stage crew that had to lug all that dirt on stage at intermission and then clean it all up at the end of the evening.) It felt like the director had a big star and the huge budget that came with him and decided to spend all of it on her set rather than trying to tell her story in a gripping manner.

I’ve explained before about how tired I am of plays from London being broadcast on American movie screens. I’ve got nothing against the Brits per se, but I am tired of them being cast as Americans (I mean, how many more crappy accents do I need to hear?) and seeing their shows held up perfect exemplars of theatrical excellence. (“They have Training!”)

But the specific problem with this Hamlet, to me, was that, since the National is subsidized and paid for by the government, while it may not be swimming in money, it has so much that it can waste it on elephantine sets representing Elsinore.

The program cover. A shiny dime to anyone who can explain its relevance to the production.

The program cover. A shiny dime to anyone who can explain its relevance to the production.

Every so often, we hear calls for an American National Theatre. There have been numerous attempts to create one over the decades, probably as early as Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Rep in the ‘20s and ‘30s, Ellis Rabb’s APA-Phoenix in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre in the ‘90s and ‘00s. The problem with this plan is that it almost always centers around New York (there was some talk of creating a company at the Kennedy Center in Washington, but it didn’t last and was a rarity). That talk makes sense in that the center of commercial American theatre is indeed those 15 or so blocks in midtown Manhattan, but it also assumes that that’s the only place anything worthwhile is being done and that only work with a commercial focus is worthy. (One might also add parenthetically that it also seems to be the only place Equity actors who want to work in the Bay Area come from.)

This theory is, of course, arrant nonsense. One would be hard pressed to find a corner of the country where interesting and vital work isn’t being done. Seattle, Portland, Ashland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego – and that’s just part of the west coast and leaves out Denver, Chicago, Dallas, DC, Boston, Cleveland, Florida, Louisville, Minneapolis, and on and on and on and on. Any of these cities is producing work that can stand with anything done anyplace on the globe, but, of course, most of the country will never see or hear of it because it doesn’t come with the imprimatur of having a London or New York pedigree.

It makes sense for the Brits to put an English national theatre in London. The capitol is the center of the U.K.’s entertainment industry. TV, radio, film, and theatre are all headquartered there. But how would we justify placing an American national theatre in just one city? I suppose it would be possible to emulate the Federal Theatre of the New Deal era and have multiple locations and troupes, but the whole point of theatre is to be in that room with those people while they tell a story. Even screening productions in movie theatres wouldn’t be a solution, because, for all our pretenses, it’s really just another movie at that point. This is especially true if the production is recorded rather than live. Those actors are going to do the exact same things in the exact same way for eternity. The spontaneity and reaction to the audience that are at the heart of the art don’t exist. It doesn’t matter if the theatre is full or empty; the performances and production are frozen and will not change.

I remember in 1976, Christopher Durang and Mel Marvin’s A History of the American Film (which, I might add, is a very funny show that someone ought to revive – although, frankly, Americans’ knowledge of classic film isn’t as strong now as it was then, so most of the references would be lost) had three simultaneous premiere productions, in Los Angeles (where I saw it), Hartford, and DC. Was one of these more official than the other two? Despite doing the same script at the same time – even if they somehow each had the same design and same director (which they didn’t) – each was different because of the unique casts, venues, and regional receptions. There was no way to centralize the productions, and there never will be. Even a tour, which might be the best/only solution, would have variations from venue to venue.

The

The “Salad Bowl” number from A History of the American Film.

But the larger point, even if we could figure out a reasonable solution to the problem, was embodied for me in Hamlet and other shows I’ve seen at the National (either in person or on screen). They can be well done – really well done – but they’re safe and don’t take any risks. I don’t know if it’s that they don’t want to upset their government sponsors or don’t feel any pressure, but it never feels like there’s an imperative behind it. They’re nice to look at and intelligent, but they’re antiseptic.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I had no prejudice against the production because it had a big star in it. As I said, I him and actually applaud him for doing it. And there’s nothing wrong with big names in plays. I couldn’t have enjoyed Kevin Spacey or Nathan Lane in their own productions of The Iceman Cometh or Peter Falk and Joe Mantegna and Peter Falk in Glengarry Glen Ross, Harold Pinter in (yes, in) Old Times, or Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot any more if I’d tried.

The shows I’ve loved the most in my life – Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil production of Richard II, Mary Zimmerman’s Metamophoses, José Quintero’s The Iceman Cometh, Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and Ghost Quartet, even Casey Nicholaw’s The Drowsy Chaperone – were big and bold and personal and even messy in places, but there was a recognizable artistic sensibility behind them. They were shows that had to be done.

Mr. Malloy in Natasha and Pierre.

Mr. Malloy in Natasha and Pierre.

When I was in college, I remember overhearing the faculty planning the shows they’d be doing the next year. There was no excitement about the choices; it was more like “Well, we haven’t done a Moliere for a while … ” or “Do you want to do a Shakespeare this year?” “Naw, how about an Ibsen?” “Yeah. I guess … ”

If that kind of listless programming is the cost of creating a national theatre that doesn’t take enough chances to endanger its funding, I’ll take regional theatres that at least try something different.

Working Title: Broadcast This!!

This week features Will Leschber’s fall preview…but not the kind you were expecting You want Theatre? Well, go see this movie!

This is the time to look ahead. It’s Fall preview, so lets jump in while it’s cold. The theatre offerings coming down the autumnal road are plentiful. For a beautiful cross section taste of what’s coming, I’d recommend checking out (or rereading) Claire Rice’s recent post “Get the Fuck off the Couch“. BUT if you are looking for related entertainment in a different vein read on. Film Festivals and live theatre broadcasts may be the change of pace you are looking for.

Film festivals are a unique way to merge intimate audience engagement and the distance of film. Often these films have creators in attendance which can add a live spark to a viewing experience. So you want to keep it local (ish) and experience something more distinct than the multiplex fall fare…check these out.

Latino Film Festival

Sept 19-27th

The Cine+Mas SF Latino Film Festival showcases the work of emerging and established filmmakers from the US, Latin America, Spain and Portugal. It is a celebration of the latest work coming out of 20+ countries.

Mill Valley Film Festival

Oct 3-13

The festival site self-describes in this way, “Each year the festival welcomes more than 200 filmmakers, representing more than 50 countries. Screening sections include World Cinema; US Cinema; Valley of the Docs; Children’s FilmFest; a daily shorts program; and Active Cinema, MVFF’s activist films initiative. Festival guests also enjoy Tributes, Spotlights and Galas throughout.”

Known as a filmmakers’ festival, the Mill Valley Film Festival offers a high profile, prestigious and star-studded environment perfect for celebrating the best in independent and world cinema. Screen International named Mill Valley one of its top 10 US film festivals.”

mill_valley_film_festival copy

Sacramento Horror Film Festival

October 10th-12th

It may be less local than we’d like, but if you are looking for something to infuse seasonal scares into your spine, the Sacramento Horror Film Festival maybe be your trick or treat. The film site boasts, “The SHFF screens more films over fewer days than any other horror film festival thus providing a greater chance for exposure for the horror filmmaker. We have a profound dedication to the horror genre. The festival screens all things horror including features, shorts, documentaries, music videos, trailers, and animations.”

If sitting in a darkened movie theater for days on end isn’t your jam, perhaps National Theatre Live is the ticket. For those unaware, National Theatre Live is the National Theatre’s groundbreaking project to broadcast the best of British theatre live from the London stage to cinemas across the UK and around the world. Upcoming shows include: The Young Vic’s highly acclaimed production of the Tennessee Williams masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire, with Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster and Vanessa Kirby; A new potent version Euripides’ powerful tragedy, Medea; A live broadcast from London’s West End of David Hare’s Skylight directed by Stephen Daldry and featuring Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan; and last but not least National Theatre Live’s broadcast of Frankenstein returns to cinemas this fall. Audience demand has been unprecedented for this broadcast. Directed by Academy Award®-winner Danny Boyle, Frankenstein features Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating roles as Victor Frankenstein and his creation.

frankenstein copy

A Streetcar Named Desire
Captured Live:
Century 9 San Francisco Center- September 16th
AMC Bay Street 16-September 16th
Encore Performance:
Sundance Kabuki- October 13th & 18th

Medea
Encore performance:
Sundance Kabuki Theatre: October 6th & 11th.

Skylight
Sundance Kabuki- October 25th, 27th

Frankenstein
Encore Performance:
Rialto Cinema Cerrito, October 15th, 20th, 27th 29th

The National Theatre Live website lists additional productions and additional participating movie theatres.

Sources

O’Niell, Nikki. Mill Valley Film Festival. N.d. Photograph. http://www.mvff.com/Web. 19 Aug 2014.