Thursday, May 26, 2016

"The Last Five Years" at A.C.T.

This will be the first of what I intend to be regular impressions of the shows I see in the theater. These are not "reviews" per se, and are not necessarily meant to be helpful to you in deciding whether you want to see the play yourself. It's my opinion. And there will be spoilers. I hope you find it useful, and perhaps find yourself motivated to comment. It seems like this would be better as some kind of dialog.

Quick Summary

It's a musical, about two people and their five-year love affair (I don't think that's giving away too much). There are only the two characters, Cathy and Jamie (and the music). Sets are fairly minimal. The hook is that the play shows the trajectory of the relationship for each character separately, and in opposite directions. The play opens with Cathy lamenting the end of the relationship, followed by Jamie exulting in falling for his "shiksa goddess." And at the end, he's bitterly breaking up and she's excited about this new guy.

My Take

It's a clever notion, I guess. The sort of thing a playwright might undertake as an exercise, or maybe a thesis project for their MFA program. But I feel like the playwright got infatuated with this clever idea, and gets a bit stuck in the execution.

And the music is good, though stylistically pretty similar throughout. And at tonight's performance, at least, too loud initially. In Cathy's opening number in particular, it was hard to hear her (amplified) voice over the (amplified) music. They got it balanced better, but I was annoyed at the outset.

And I should mention that both actors (Zak Resnick and Margo Seibert) sing very well. That's important, because it's all singing. (Does that make this an opera? I'm a little fuzzy on the distinctions here.)

But here's the thing for me: it doesn't work. On a couple of levels. One is pretty obvious, which is that you have to try and remember what happened earlier so you can figure out how it meshes with the other character's take on a related (or same) scene later on. That's asking a lot.

But even if I'm willing to do all that work, there are two really serious problems that seem pretty much intrinsic to the work:

  1. The characters virtually never interact. Their timelines overlap in the middle, and that's a pretty nice scene, but hey, this is a love story, and we never really get to see the characters play off each other. We never get to see their chemistry (or the lack thereof). The whole show is pretty much the antithesis of the maxim "show, don't tell."
  2. The opening line of the first song gives away the entire plot. There is literally never any question of where all this is going, so no dramatic tension, no clever surprises, no chance for a happy ending. I suppose this could be overcome by having some personal ups and downs in the course of the play, but that's not really there. Everybody's on pretty much a one-way, downhill trajectory. We just see it from two ends at once.
And finally, I just don't get the relationship. Since we never get to see how the characters meet, what they do together, etc., we never have any basis for the relationship. Cathy manages to pull off a kind of "head over heels" enthusiasm (at the end of the show, of course), but Jamie always seems pretty clear that he's more about writing his novel and living his life than about his relationship. Maybe that's supposed to be the point, that Cathy puts her all into a relationship because she wants to be with this writing prodigy, and he's just happy to have her around to stroke his ego. But that's not a very satisfying story, and again, I get that story in the first two musical numbers. I expect a bit more development over the course of the play.

Personal Highlight

By far the highlight for me was Jamie's Christmas/Hanukkah number, where he is telling the story of Shmuel. This is really the one spot where we get to see some aspect of Jamie that isn't about himself, and it's really nicely written and quite sweet.

I wish I could say I liked more of the show overall. It has some nice bits, but ultimately this is trying to tell a story about two people who are supposed to be in love, but without ever showing them in love. It's like two ships passing in a five-year-long night: technically interesting, but not emotionally satisfying.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Better Than Average Week

Last week (May 9-15) provides an example of what in my family passes for a "pretty good week" of theater. Let's look at that:

  • Monday, the 9th, staged reading of "You Got Older" at the Shotgun Players
  • Tuesday, "The Heir Apparent" at Aurora Theatre Company
  • Wednesday, night off with the family
  • Thursday, further recuperation
  • Friday, I went to see "Hamlet" at the Shotgun Players, while others went to see "Treasure Island" at Berkeley Rep
  • Saturday, took the whole family, plus a couple of friends, to see "Hamlet" at Shotgun
  • Sunday, "Anne Boleyn" at Marin Theatre Company
Now, see? Clearly this is not "too much theater" because we had two whole nights without any at all! Truly, seeing "Hamlet" twice in a row was out of the ordinary, and we had already seen "Anne Boleyn" once before, so there was a bit more repetition than usual.

You Got Older

This was the first reading in Shotgun's Champagne Reading Series for this season. [Disclaimer: my wife and I are sponsors of the series this year.] I like the way Shotgun does their staged readings, with about four days of rehearsal, a little bit of blocking, lighting, sound, etc. And then two public readings: opening night on Monday, closing on Tuesday.
"You Got Older" by Clare Barron was a nice enough start to the week, though I have to say it wasn't as good as many of the readings they've done in the past. For one thing, the family coming to grips with the terminally-ill parent has been done a fair amount, so it feels a little trite. Something was missing from the scene that was supposed to be heartwarming at the hospital. Maybe in a full production with more rehearsal the chemistry would come together, but in the reading, I just didn't feel it.

The Heir Apparent

This was just theater candy. We went because we enjoy the intimate setting of Aurora, and a couple of actors we've enjoyed in other performances (Patrick Kelly Jones and Kenny Toll) had big roles. It was pretty much what we expected: silly and clever.


I will definitely have to do a separate posting about Shotgun's take on "Hamlet," so I'll be brief here. Seeing it back-to-back was great because it's a different casting every night. Director Mark Jackson dreamed up the notion of having the whole cast learn all the roles (in a heavily-edited version of the play), then five minutes before each performance, have the audience draw the roles out of Yorick's skull.
I've seen it five times now, and it's brilliant. I've also been fortunate enough to see five different actors play Hamlet, out of the seven in the cast.

Anne Boleyn

Sunday was the closing matinee performance of the West Coast premiere of Howard Brenton's clever take on an important slice of British history. We had the opportunity to see it several weeks before at a one-time-only performance at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, which was pretty spectacular, but after that I kind of wanted to see the play in its intended staging. It didn't hurt that they offered 2-for-1 tickets for the last few performances.
Added bonus: the lighting design was by Kurt Landisman, who happens to be an old friend. I always enjoy seeing his work.
Anyway, it was worth it. The cast for this show was very strong. Craig Marker obviously had a good time in the dual role of Henry VIII and James I, and Liz Sklar was terrific as Anne Boleyn. During this final extension of the run, the dual role of Woolsey/Cecil was played by an understudy (sorry...I didn't get his name, but he's extremely tall), replacing Charles Shaw Robinson, who had been excellent the first time we saw the show. I was worried that the change would adversely affect the play, but it didn't at all. It was quite seamless.
All in all, I was very pleased with our theater selections for the week, and what looked like it could be a bit of an overload was fine, especially since this week is remarkably theater-free.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Wherefore and Therefore

Time to write.

In truth, I've been writing quite a bit, just not where you can see it. As anyone who read my old blog knows, theater has been taking up a much bigger slice of my life than it used to. It's been about four years since I posted anything there, and one reason is that I've been both attending more theater performances and getting more involved in a theater company. Combine that with all my other activities (not to mention a family and a job!), and there doesn't seem to be much time to write.

But the fact is, one of the things I've been doing with my friends at the Shotgun Players is giving feedback on not just their shows, but pretty much every other play I see or read, which is a lot. So a friend suggested that maybe what I ought to do is turn some of that into a theater blog.


It strikes me as important to discuss my reasons for all this theater, as well as for sharing it. Theater has been part of my life for a long time. My mother was a drama teacher before I was born, and imparted a love of theater and dramatic literature in both of her children. But it wasn't until about twenty years ago, when I started going out with the woman who would become my wife that we started going to a lot of plays. We learned early on that we both enjoy plays more than movies, so we started looking for them.

What started with a season subscription to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre eventually became full-season subs to at least three or four theater companies, ad hoc tickets to plenty of other plays, and trips to New York City and London specifically to see plays. Pretty soon we had subscriptions to ACT, Berkeley Rep, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the SHN "Best of Broadway" series, and more.

Along the way, friends introduced us to Berkeley's Shotgun Players, specifically because they were undertaking a production of Tom Stoppard's trilogy, The Coast of Utopia. We are huge fans of Stoppard's work, and a trip to NYC to see "Coast" at Lincoln Center was one of our first trips out of town specifically for theater. We had assumed that would probably be our only chance to see it, ever. Learning that Shotgun was going to produce it right here in our backyard, we eventually got on board as production sponsors. Next thing I knew, I'd been invited to join Shotgun's board!


So, what to write about? Plays. Actors. Theaters. I see lots of all of them. I have opinions. I'm not really looking to write reviews, but I do see most of the major productions in the bay area as well as lots of minor ones. I'm looking for compelling plays, inspiring performances, trends good and bad. We'll see where that goes./p>

The Name

We've had a running gag going the last few years about the number of plays we see during brief trips to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Is it possible to see too much theater? The jury is still out, but so far, we don't seem to be close.

Perhaps if I try blogging about theater as well as attending, I can achieve "too much." Stay tuned.