Life and Death and Dreams of Success!

" Someone Who'll Watch Over Me" - - A standing ovation in Walnut Creek!

I almost dread to open the newspaper each morning because every day’s dose of headlines brings another horrific story of man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man. Once in a while, I manage to see something that buoys up my spirits, but for the most part it seems that (according to the news) nobody likes anybody very much!

When it comes to dramatic theatre, an exceptionally well written piece can take one of those horrible stories and craft it into a play that makes us take a deeper look into the experience that has captured our attention. Through the eyes of a gifted author, we may be able to take a deeper look into the plight of the victims, their resiliency and their ability to overcome their scripted racial, nationalist and political baggage and bend their will toward their common good. Occasionally a really excellent playwright can find the words that will bring to us a marvelously moving experience. When crafted into a well directed play with perfectly chosen actors, costumes, lighting and appropriate set design, we may experience a piece of theatre that we will tend to remember for a very long time, because it strikes a familiar cord, while at the same time, not being overpowering or bombastic.

This past week I was given the privilege to experience “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me”, a brilliantly written play by renowned playwright, Frank McGuinness, at the Diablo Actor’s Ensemble Theatre in Walnut Creek.

This story was written in 1991 and takes place in latter-day Beirut, Lebanon, but it could be any time, any place in the mid-east. Vince Faso plays an American doctor, Adam, Dennis Markam portrays a British academic lecturer, Michael and Joel Roster portrays Edward, an Irish journalist. As the play opens to the sweet and dulcet strains of Ella Fitzgerald’s signature song, “Someone To Watch Over Me”, we find two of these men (Adam and Edward) chained to the stage floor. These non-combatant young men have not been engaging in any political posturing, or spying or covert actions, and through no fault of their own, they have been taken hostage and are being held as prisoners in a small, filthy, windowless, rough-hewn basement cell. Within a short passage of time they are joined by a third victim, Michael, left unconscious by the attack of his captors and likewise chained to the floor in this tiny community cell.

To the outside observer, this play would appear to be a statement about Middle Eastern politics. To the author’s credit, we never see their captors, so we can never quite label them. We can only guess as to who they are, and why these inauspicious men are now captives, fearing every moment of the night and day for their lives.

The play focuses entirely on these men and how they will learn to relate to people whom they would generally perceive as being very different from themselves if under different circumstances. The story shows us just how important unifying toward a common cause can be, and how men, who are poles apart in lifestyle, station, intellect and education, can come together to save themselves and their sanity when a life-threatening need arises. As a unified group, they hope to be able to better manage their fears and to form a more workable union. As the incarceration lengthens from days to weeks to months, the men begin the see the absurdity of their situation, and just how misguided and unimportant their capture and restitution to freedom is seen by their home countries.

To keep their sanity and demoralization under control, and to better pass the time, they take turns competing in physical exercises; they “verbally” write letters to home and express their letters’ contents to their cell-mates; they create verbal movie scripts and fantasize and act out feature length movies many times portraying their favorite lead characters. They pretend to have their own bar and to make their daily rations of water into their own special and favorite drinks. In order to keep from crying, breaking down and becoming completely demoralized, they buoy each other up and become each other’s keeper.

The play provides us with an opportunity to see the amazing depth and breadth of acting skills these gentlemen really have. It in some way reminds me of an acting class, where each and every actor has the opportunity to hone his skills! There is an excellent mixture of pathos, comedy, fear and rivalry, all at a very high level. At times it is very funny switching to very poignant in close succession. Will any or all of them survive? You will have to see the show to find out!

Following the curtain call, at which the audience gave a standing ovation to the three marvelous actors, I found myself taking some deep breaths and purposely digesting what I had seen, almost wishing that it wasn’t over yet! I sat spellbound in my seat for perhaps 5 to 10 minutes, before I looked up and realized that there was practically no one left in the theatre besides me.
These actors are truly terrific and the director, Clive Worsley, has produced a show that I will long remember. I hope you will attend and enjoy it as much as I did.

“Someone to Watch Over Me” will continue Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., now through February 22nd. The Theatre is located at 1345 Locust Street in Walnut Creek, in what used to be known at the Playhouse West Theatre venue. Tickets range between a very reasonable $10 and $25, and it is a true bargain in entertainment values. Call 482-5110 for more information or to secure tickets for a performance.

A Bizarre Guare unfolds at ACT in San Francisco!

A number of years ago, Karen and I went to the old Phoenix theatre in San Francisco to see a play by author John Guare entitled, “The House of Blue Leaves” (1971). A young actress by the name of Kimberly Richards played a slightly nutso housewife, a central character in that play, by the name of “Bananas”. The play and that particular performance has been one of those stellar moments, a production that I will probably never forget. Guare also wrote “Six Degrees of Separation” (1991), a play in which a young man tries to gain access to the home and circles of influence of some wealthy art dealers by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier as well as friends of their Harvard student children. The play was so successful that it was later converted into a movie, starring Will Smith. Author Guare has written a lot of “good stuff”, including “Muzeeka”, “Landscape of the Body”, “Bosoms and Neglect”, and the musical adaptation of “Two Gentlemen of Verona”, just to name a few.

When my invitation arrived for me to see this relatively newly revived and re-edited play entitled “Rich and Famous” (1976 script), by John Guare. I immediately promised to get my invitation to see this seldom produced play by him hoping to see another great award winning plays. Guare’s plays have long been considered dark comedy, in which reality and everyday life are wildly exaggerated and in some ways, poignant and frightening.

What I experienced at ACT is still somewhat puzzling theatre to me! It is without a doubt a major mad-cap-comedy, a bonkers exaggeration, a wild and wooly, dream escape about fictitious playwright, Bing Ringling, and his belief that he will finally discover “Fame and Fortune” at the opening of his 844th play. This play within a play, “The Etruscan Conundrum”, is destined to go the same way as all of his other plays (Bing Ringling’s plays, that is), a total flop, closing on opening night, described by one critic as “an obituary, not a review”.
Following the close of “The Etruscan Conundrum”, Bing laments that had he been able to enlist his childhood friend and major Hollywood movie star, Tybalt Donleavy, to play the lead in his show, he is sure everything would have turned out differently. The remainder of this dream takes us on the author’s search for approval by his parents and a musical composer that was so nutty that even Martin Short or Steve Martin would have cried “hold, enough!” When Bing’s childhood buddy, Tybalt Dunleavy, is discovered preparing to commit suicide in order to maintain his popularity through martyrdom, the play reaches a very wild and different form of dark comedy.

This satire on theater is so far out, that many people in the audience just didn’t want to work hard enough to get it. This entire play is like living one man’s dream, literally. We all know how disconnected and un-realistic dreams can be and this play is really a play about an author’s wild and disconnected search for himself and the realization of his dreams.

Was it funny? Definitely!, Was the acting great? Actually, quite excellent! Was the play something I want to write home to mom about? Nah, this one is just too crazy. An older couple behind Karen and I were arguing quite loudly about leaving the show before the intermission. After intermission, quite a number of seats were empty around us, seats that I do not remember being empty in the first act. What was overheard on the way out of the theatre at closing did not sound very promising either. I certainly thought that the play was fun, but apparently a bit off base for some people around us. Director John Rando probably did a great job bringing all the elements together, but then again, how can one be sure?

The cast consists of Brooks Ashmanskas, Mary Birdsong, Stephen DeRosa and Gregory Wallace, all terrific actors who gave this very strange play the value it has. The sets, designed by Scott Bradley, and the costumes, designed by Gregory Gale, were equally bizarre. “Rich and Famous” continues at American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco on Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinee performances on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., now through Sunday February 8th at 2 p.m.. You can reach ACT’s ticket services at (415) 749-2228 or visit the box office at 415 Geary Street in San Francisco, and or visit their web site at .