Saturday, March 19, 2016

Other Desert Cities- a bit of a rambling thought on this show.

So this is what I've been told and this is what is talked about in the play- while driving in to Palm Springs there is a sign that leads people toward the small community and another sign that leads to "Other Desert Cities"- There's something allegorical about the title, something of a hint in what we're about to see when we sit down for a night at Paper Wing Theatre. But the truth of the matter is that the road beyond is going to be uncertain and filled with certain expectations- And "expectations" were the order of the day when I sat down to watch and experience this play.

I make no secret with regard to my own political leanings- they are slightly right of center, I am registered as a Republican, and I lean with favor toward capitalism and somewhat traditional values. And I've made mention with regard to the nature of political messages in art- specifically, I've come to largely expect and accept that my views are often going to be vilified and exemplified by the worst archetypes and characterizations possible. And I walked into this play with the expectation that I would probably need to grind my teeth and bear it. So before you stop reading, let me tell you that my expectations were absolutely shattered, crumpled, and destroyed by the reality of what this play had to offer. And I hope you stay with me for the ride I'm about to take you on because I'm going to do without spoiling the play itself-

In Jon Robin Baitz Pulitzer nominated play; we're introduced to the Wyath's on Christmas Eve. Polly and Lyman are country club Conservatives and former "old guard" Hollywood society people. Lyman served as an Ambassador under the Reagan administration after a fairly successful career as an actor. Polly was a screenwriter who gave up her career during the cultural shift of the 60's. Their youngest son, Trip, is a television producer working on a Celebrity Courtroom-styled show and their eldest daughter, Brooke, is about to publish her second novel. Unbeknownst to the family, this is going to be a memoir about the family and their eldest son who had committed suicide several years earlier. And so, of course, the family secrets, resentments, and chaos all come tumbling out to threaten the love that actually holds this family together.

Director Koly McBride prefaces the show with a foreword on the program itself- in it she shares her relationship with the show itself. A trip to New York, a powerful piece, and something she couldn't see on her own stage. And then she experiences life in a way that fundamentally changes her and the show has a new light in her eye and she once again explores the material and finds something different and it takes root. And whether these changes provoked a spark of creative genius or if the material just felt so familiar to her or if she's just this damn good, McBride delivers a show that doesn't just cut the edge- it delves into deep dark places and it forces the viewer to ask questions of themselves and their own expectations. There's that word again.

Polly is the family's alpha-Mom; a no-nonsense, take charge, do the right thing Republican work horse who has devoted much of her life to the example set by her good friend, Nancy Reagan. To "control everything" and keep everything working in tip top shape. And her husband, Lyman- well, he's very comfortable with just living his life according to a script without too many messy things disrupting things the way he likes it. And I expected the usual onslaught of jokes regarding their politics- the skewering of their beliefs, their life, and who they were as people. I even expected (that word again) these characters to be treated as anything BUT people, to be honest- But that's not all there is.

Because while I've told you a little bit about the daughter, the son, and both parents; there is one more member of the Wyeth Family. Polly's alcoholic sister, Silda Grauman. Theresa Del Piero sweeps in as this amazingly provocative character; somewhat ephemeral as she rebukes her sisters politics, lifestyle, her lack of humanity, her severity, parenting skills, and a perceived betrayal of her  roots and the person she WAS. She throws her support behind Brooke's writing and offers a few choice words of encouragement here and there- all while suckling at the teet of generosity from a supposedly cold and vicious older sister. Because while I might have expected(!) the usual litany of left leaning political insults, I never imagined they'd come from such a deeply flawed and hypocritical character.

And that's where Carry Collier and Keith Decker step in as Polly and Lyman- two parents in the twilight years of their lives forced into a confrontation with their elder sons suicide and the memoirs of a daughter just coming out of a deep depression. The mother is severe- driven to care for and direct her family as much as possible, to keep everything moving, and to live life the way she sees fit. When there's trouble she is the first to step in and the first to act and she isn't going to bother being nice about it. Wyman is a consummate politician- he wants to avoid direct confrontation and largely sits back for the ride, happy to let people go their own way so long as he can continue to go his. Collier brings layers to her performance, saying so much more with a glance or a turn than most actors can say with a soliloquy. She knows how her family talks about her and she lets it roll off her back- she has a job to do and to hell with what people think of her for it. Keith Decker steps up with an air of nobility and pride that begs to remain unblemished- but when he eventually crumbles beneath the weight of his daughter's revelations, we see the humanity struggling deep within the man himself.

Mindy Whitfield delivers a stunning performance as Brooke- a manic depressive writer who has been haunted by the memory of her elder brother's suicide. A brother she idolized; he was a left leaning firebrand, a protester, a rebel, and a direct dichotomy to the rigid politics of her parents. And she comes home for the holidays with a huge bombshell- she tip toes around the idea, she evades, and she ultimately drops it with an "expectation" that ultimately leads to twists she never saw coming.

And when events spin to a fine puree, youngest son Trip is always there to play peacemaker to the family he loves despite their differences in opinion, politics, philosophies, or tastes. He doesn't want to waste their valuable time debating those things- he'd rather love and laugh and experience the joy of just BEING with his family.  He's also the most brutally honest character on the stage- he calls the bullshit as he sees it, he confronts the issue head on, and he offers sympathy when it's needed most. He ultimately loves his family and doesn't want to see it torn apart- and Taylor Landess delivers the finest performance I've ever seen in the years I've seen him work in community theater.

I told you that the order of the day was "expectations". If you think you know these characters, you're going to find out that people are not the stereotypes we imagine. If you think you're going to find an easy answer- you're going to find out that life isn't always so easy or gentle, nor is it anything close to "simple". Let me be blunt- FUCK the expectations! If you have them, forget them. If you think you know something, don't be surprised if it bites you on the ass with just how much you don't know.  This is, by far, one of the ten best shows I've ever seen in the years that I've been attending Paper Wing Shows and is yet another reminder that art can sometimes be a little painful and it can show us a reflection of ourselves that maybe we don't find so flattering. And that's not such an awful thing when you really think about it.

10 out of 10. "Other Desert Cities" continues to play at Paper Wing Theatre, check website for showtimes.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Tempest at Paper Wing Fremont!

The Tempest

There are many reviews for “The Tempest” playing at Paper Wing Fremont. All of them talk about the controversial history of the play, it’s place in Shakespeare’s works, and so on so forth. So I’m going to skip all of that- because it’s not really all that important to my experience with this production. If you’re interested, I advise you to read Shane M. Dallmann’s review on his facebook page or look at the Monterey Arts Weekly page, or even check out the Monterey County Herald. Suffice to say that this is Shakespeare, it’s well read, and it’s been adapted a number of times.

I wasn’t going to write anything about the show, to be totally honest. I didn’t feel there was anything I could possibly add to the voices that were already praising the performances or the ability of the production team to adapt the material. And after I saw the show a few weeks ago, I simply didn’t see what I could write about that hadn’t already been covered well enough to the point where I could just share someone else’s words on my own feeds… but then I was sitting here and thinking about the show a week and a half later I was still thinking about it. I was thinking about how this play was so incredibly open to interpretation and that the shows script completely changes with the application of a director’s vision or an actor’s mannerism. “The Tempest” can be a harrowing adventure, a thrilling romance, or it can play as absurdist comedy. And I was thinking about how brilliantly Patrick Golden really was to tackle the material and strip it down to such bare bones minimalism and then deliver Shakespeare in a box.

It’s become kind of kitschy to refer to the show as a “Tempest in a teapot”- but the reality is that it’s got far more in common with a TARDIS than it does with a teapot. Simply put, the small stage certainly gets much bigger once we are in the show. And no one illustrates this point more strongly than Beverly Van Pelt in her portrayal of Ariel. She flutters around the stage throughout the show, appearing in doorways and peaking over the shoulders of the blissfully unaware while gesturing frantically from one spell to the next. The “island” seems far larger than it truly is and Van Pelt manages to maintain a great amount of playful and sometimes petulant energy throughout the show. And she becomes more than just a servant to Prospero (Clark M. Brown), she’s a friend and a confidant and, perhaps, even a companion.

All of the performers are fantastic in their roles- and none brought to life the vision I’d seen in my own head or what I’d previously seen in other adaptations of the material. The show was entirely unique to the experience and made it much more than “Another Shakespeare” performance. Each actor brought a different spin to the characters, from the scheming pair of villains to the bumbling pair of dullards, this is The Tempest in a way I’ve never seen it before. Philip Livernois brings a sense of casual conversation to the Olde English of Shakespeare’s writing that I found not only enjoyable, but extremely accessible for a younger audience. Cody Moore steps into the shoes of a handsome romantic lead and gives it a slight twist that reminded me a little of Zeppo Marx in his tenderness.  And the casting of Alyca Tanner in the role of Gonzala brought a maternal aspect to the compassion of a character normally played by a man (The name is Gonzalo in most productions).

When I caught the show, the role of the King was played by Jody Gilmore- his was a last minute substitution when Jay Devine took ill, but he has since stepped back into the role for the remaining shows. Gilmore was fantastic, however. I always enjoy his presence on the stage when it comes and this was a great role for him to step into.

The Tempest closes this weekend and runs Friday and Saturday nights at 8 PM with a final Sunday matinee at 3 PM at Paper Wing Fremont.

5 out of 5.