Monday, September 29, 2014

"Opium Den" is Rich With Stories

Playwright Julie Marie Myatt.
What could bring a heroin addict and a decorated war veteran together?

That’s the question explored in Opium Den, a new play by Los Angeles-based playwright Julie Marie Myatt. She is SCR’s Andrew W. Mellon Playwright-in-Residence. The play opens South Coast Repertory’s 29th season of the NewSCRipts reading series on Monday, Oct. 13.

At first glance, Lizzie is a privileged housewife who has made selfish life decisions, and Mac is a hero of the war in Afghanistan. Matthew—Lizzie’s brother and the photojournalist that made Mac famous—has reluctantly agreed to let them crash at his apartment in New York City. As Matthew’s colleagues nose around for more newsworthy material, Lizzie and Mac attempt to take control of the stories told about them in their own documentaries. Opium Den offers a glimpse into an impromptu halfway house for people who can't get enough of the dramas of war and the underbelly of society, and are caught in an endless well of desire for a more meaningful life.

Opium Den will be directed by Crispin Whittell. The Los Angeles-based Whittell directed last season’s world premiere of The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois by Adam Rapp at SCR’s 2014 Pacific Playwrights Festival

Past NewSCRipts readings include Donald Margulies' Collected Stories, Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain and Amy Freed's Freedomland, all of which went on to New York productions. Plays selected for the NewSCRipts series have earned six Pulitzer Prize nominations; Margaret Edson’s Wit won the prize in 1999.

SCR launched the NewSCRipts play reading series in 1985 to bring audiences into the process of creating new works with emerging and established playwrights. After each public reading on the Julianne Argyros Stage, audience members engage in lively exchanges with the playwright and are active participants in the play’s development by providing valuable feedback for the writer.

South Coast Repertory’s NewSCRipts series is generously underwritten by Elaine J. Weinberg.

Opium Den is one-night-only: Monday, Oct. 13, at 7:30 p.m., on the Julianne Argyros Stage.

Learn more and buy tickets.

"tokyo fish story" is Quiet Play With a Big Heart

Playwright Kimber Lee.

tokyo fish story by Kimber Lee is the “TBA” that completes the 2014-15 season on the Julianne Argyros Stage.

This play takes you inside the ritual of sushi-making. It’s the story of Koji, a Sushi Master with an undying love for his art. But his restaurant is declining while the new place down the street keeps packing them in. Takashi represents the younger generation—a brilliant protégé, but too respectful to display his talent, despite the urgings of his assistant, Nobu, and punked-out Ana, who’s trying to make her way in a man’s world. Generations, gender and tradition collide in this quiet play with a big heart, a touch of poetry, a hint of mystery—and just the right amount of enticing comedy.
Bart DeLorenzo will direct. He last directed the world premiere of Carla Ching’s Fast Company at SCR.

Lee’s plays include Fight and Brownsville Song (B-Side for Tray), which recently premiered at the 2014 Humana Festival and will also receive 2014-2015 productions at LCT3, Long Wharf Theatre, and Philadelphia Theatre Company. In May 2014, Center Theatre Group presented the world premiere of her play Different Words for the Same Thing directed by Neel Keller. Her work has been presented by Lark Play Development Center, Page 73, Hedgebrook, Seven Devils, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, TheatreWorks (Palo Alto), Magic Theatre, Great Plains Theatre Conference and Dramatists Guild Fellows Program. Lee is a Lark Playwrights Workshop Fellow, 2014-15: member of Ma-Yi Writers Lab; and she currently is under commission at Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3, South Coast Repertory, Denver Center Theatre Company and Hartford Stage. Lee is the recipient of the 2014 Ruby Prize, the 2013-14 PoNY Fellowship and the 2014-15 Aetna New Voices Fellowship. She earned her MFA from the University of Texas at Austin.

Learn more and buy tickets

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Fur Trade: Reinventing "Venus" for the Stage

by Andy Knight

Graham Hamilton and Jaimi Paige in Venus in Fur.
Bringing Venus to Life

SCR is delighted to welcome back director Casey Stangl to helm its production of David Ives’ steamy comedy. Stangl has directed on SCR’s stages a number of times, including Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play, Sofia Alvarez’s Between Us Chickens and many Theatre for Young Audiences productions.

Director Casey Stangl
Stangl is no stranger to Venus in Fur. Earlier this year, she directed a production of the play for American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. With that production under her belt, Stangl was excited to revisit Venus in Fur in an all new production at SCR. “The play is so rich in character and in its exploration of gender and power,” Stangl says, “I'm looking forward to new discoveries!”

Venus in Fur’s two actors have a daunting task. They have to be adept at not only broad comedy and period-style acting, but also at the utmost sincerity—and their chemistry is essential to the production’s success. SCR is lucky to have actors more than up for the challenge. SCR audiences will recognize Graham Hamilton (Becky Shaw, Saturn Returns and Hamlet) in the role of Thomas, but many might not know Jaimi Paige (Vanda), who makes her SCR debut. Venus in Fur is not the first time that Hamilton and Paige have shared the stage; last season, they appeared in a stirring production of Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm, which won them raves from both audiences and critics.

Stangl also assembled a first-rate design team to bring the play’s surprising world to life, including Scenic Designer Keith Mitchell, (Fast Company), Costume Designer David Kay Michelson (Five Mile Lake, The Parisian Woman), Lighting Designer Elizabeth Harper (Reunion) and Sound Designer Jeff Polunas (last season’s TYA musical Ivy + Bean).

More information on Venus in Fur’s cast and creative team can be found on SCR’s website.
David Ives’ Venus in Fur begins at the end of an afternoon full of unsuccessful auditions. Thomas Novachek still hasn’t found the right actress to play Vanda, the lead character in his stage adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 erotic novel Venus in Furs.

Thomas has a lot on the line: he not only wrote the adaptation, but also plans to direct the production. Everything has to be perfect. Now, alone in his rented rehearsal space in New York City, the exasperated Thomas bemoans the lack of skilled and sexy actresses to his fiancé over the phone. Outside, a storm rages.

A crash of thunder and lightning not only interrupts Thomas’ phone call, but also announces the unexpected arrival of a young actress. She introduces herself as Vanda, a strange coincidence—well it’s actually Wanda, she explains, but her parents called her Vanda—and she has a litany of excuses for why she is late to the auditions. Thomas, certain that this scattered and clueless real-life Vanda isn’t right for the clever and poised Vanda in the play, tries to dismiss her. But she’s persistent, and Thomas finally lets Vanda read for the part. Since everyone else has gone home for the day, he agrees to read with her.

Once they begin, Thomas is shocked by Vanda’s skilled performance and then by Vanda herself. She seems to simultaneously know nothing and everything about what she’s performing. Thomas’ play tells a story of sexual dominance and submission, and as Thomas and Vanda continue reading, the real world and the world of the play begin to blur together. Soon, role-playing takes on more than one meaning, and the sexual tension that fills the rehearsal studio threatens to become something much more dangerous.

Like Thomas, Venus in Fur's playwright David Ives had originally intended to write a more faithful adaptation of an erotic novel. That novel, however, was not Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, but instead the French novel Story of O, a very different—and much more explicit—examination of sexual submission. That adaptation never came to fruition because, as Ives wrote in an article printed before Venus in Fur’s Broadway run, Story of O “is fundamentally undramatic. If your main character submits on page one, where’s the drama?” So, Ives turned his attention to Venus in Furs next, which proved more inspiring:

David Ives
“I found myself electrified,” he recalls. “Dramaturgically electrified, I mean, because the relationship between Severin and Wanda, the two lovers of the plot, seemed to dramatize itself without the intervention of a playwright’s hands. Unlike Story of O, Venus in Furs sparks with the friction of two buttoned up people in an erotic power play who challenge, resist and disagree with each other even while bound by mutual sexual attraction. That sure sounded dramatic to me.”

Ives’ first draft of Venus in Fur adapted its source material faithfully, but the playwright quickly came to realize that it wasn’t successful. After a rewrite, Ives had a play that examined the novel’s central relationship in a new setting and with a fresh set of circumstances. The novel’s 19th century Austria became present-day New York City; the six-month love affair in the novel became a brief tryst in a play told in real time. “I don’t know what spurred me to take the route I took,” Ives wrote.

No matter his inspiration, Ives’ Venus in Fur cleverly converses with its source material in both explicit and subtle ways.

The play-within-the-play directly connects the audience to the original text, which in turn allows Ives to find more oblique parallels between his modern day characters and their literary counterparts. By changing the initial nature of the relationship to that between an actor and a director, for example, Ives simulates a power dynamic that may evoke the gender hierarchy of the 19th century. In that context, the audience can quickly identify who’s in power and, more importantly, recognize when things begin to shift.

Perhaps the play’s greatest departure from Sacher-Masoch’s novel is that it is a comedy. To those familiar with Ives’ body of work, however, this should be no surprise. Ives first gained national attention as a writer of short comedies when All in the Timing, an evening of six plays, premiered off-Broadway at Primary Stages in 1993. All in the Timing and Time Flies, another collection of short comedies, are the epitome of Ives’ singular style—writing that boasts bold, witty humor, mixed with keen insights. Ives is also no stranger to adaptation; he’s the translator/adaptor of a few classic French plays, including Georges Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear and Molière’s The Misanthrope, which he retitled A School for Lies.

Venus in Fur combines Ives’ special brand of humor, his skill for thoughtful adaptation and a dynamic relationship. Together they make a unique theatrical experience: a funny, titillating and peculiar rollercoaster.

Early in the play, Vanda quips, “Anyway, you don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism. I’m in the theatre,” and with Venus in Fur Ives proves that the theatre is the perfect place to become an expert.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Monday, September 22, 2014

It's All in the Cards

Nate Dendy in The Tempest.
Audiences have been astounded by Nate Dendy’s fantastic illusions during his performance as Ariel in The Tempest. In particular, his Ariel has a certain affinity towards card tricks and sleight of hand. But magic isn't something that Dendy had to master for this production. He’s been practicing magic as long as he can remember and as he puts it, “It’s a very big part of who I am.” We caught up with him during the run of The Tempest:

Your talent for card tricks is a major part of the magic you showcase on stage. Do you have a particular love for cards that draws you to it?
Everyone at some point has held, seen or played with a deck of cards. So, when a magician exploits that familiarity and does impossible things with them, it can be very exciting. Cards are also very cheap for a kid who wants to start practicing tricks. My taste in card tricks have changed over the years, but every time I see a kid trying to fool their brother, friend or parent...I see my childhood again. According to my parents, I started showing interest in magic at the age of 2. I have no memory of not doing magic. It's a very big part of who I am. Funny enough, I was even born on April Fool's Day.

Are there any misconceptions about cards?
Well, many people think I use trick cards but these are perfectly ordinary playing cards rights out of the box and some of my favorite cards come from Dan & Dave Industries. If I knew how to play Gin Rummy, I would play with these same cards.

In The Tempest, your character Ariel is costumed in a vest and no sleeves. Many audience members have been confounded by this fact since you literally can’t have anything up your sleeves. What are some of the challenges and fun in performing these tricks with this in mind?
I'm so glad I have no sleeves in this show. I get quite hot running around on that stage—it's a workout! The card work I do night after night is challenging with or without sleeves. You deal with other challenges like sweat, makeup, lighting, clarity...but if it all comes together just right, I hear perplexed reactions from random audience members. It fills me with absolute joy! It's a high I get to aim for eight times a week.

As the audience arrives you have a chance to interact with them and set the atmosphere with a few tricks. Is there something you find special when you get to perform magic with a volunteer?
Every preshow is a little different because every audience member is different. It has changed from theatre to theatre for that very reason. I used to do magic from table to table at a restaurant when I was 14. You learn very quickly—for better or worse—how to surrender to the different personalities that people bring to the mix. It's exciting and I'm always grateful to the people who play along with me because it's a very brave leap for them to make. A lot of the magic in the show is precise, like a classical symphony. However, the magic in the preshow...is more like a swanky jazz session. And I love jazz.

What’s one of you favorite card tricks from The Tempest?
It changes from night to night. Some nights I look forward to one card trick because I practiced a specific moment during the day and am anxious to try it out at night in front of an audience. I will have to say, I'm particularly proud of something I do in the preshow. It's my own invention and I was humbled when it got the seal of approval from the rest of the creative team and directors—including Johnny Thompson, our magic designer, and Teller. People talk about it and that's promising.

Interested in cards? Check out The Tempest’s source for cards and grab a deck of your very own. The Tempest has one week left for you to catch Nate’s amazing sleight of hand. Get your tickets now before they disappear.


A Little Bit of Rough Magic: Meet Vocalist Miche Braden

Miche Braden (right), Liz Filios, Joel Davel and Matt Spencer make up Rough Magic.
Miche Braden
That voice! Miche Braden uses her phenomenal voice to both belt out lyrics and sing tenderly with the band Rough Magic in The Tempest. Ms. Miche (“Mickey”), as she’s known, has been around music all her life and uses singing to express herself.  When she was cast for The Tempest, Braden admits she wasn’t a Tom Waits fan, but she says she grew “major respect for him” as she got immersed in the show.

How did you come to be a vocalist?
I've been around music all my life. I found that I could always express myself through singing, most times better than just talking. There was always a song that could express my feelings. If not, I could write one. Theatre was the perfect place for me to hone my talent. I had grown tired of feeling like a jukebox in the clubs and when I was asked to do theatre, I did not hesitate.

Who inspired you?
I have many mentors who inspired me and my music. Detroit, where I was born, had a plethora of amazing musicians that I worked with and studied under including Motown musician and leader of the Funk Brothers Earl Van Dyke and jazz master musicians Marcus Belgrave and Harold McKinney. My mother, Dr. Mildred J Dobey, was my main influence. Anything I wanted to do musically—including instruments, dance, sing and whatever else—she let me do. My uncle, Jim Hankins, also is a major influence. He's the reason why I play bass. He's the bassist in the other show that I do. Then there's Quincy Jones, my idol! He did music for everyone from Michael Jackson to Frank Sinatra, as well as film scores, television, big band and symphonies. That's what I want to do, as well as perform.

What were some of the challenges of working with Tom Waits’ music and Kenny Wollesen’s instruments?
Once I knew I had the gig, I really started listening to Tom Waits music. I wasn't a fan at first. That voice—jeez! Once I saw how the music merged with the play, I grew a major respect for him, his song lyrics and beautiful melodies. Kenny Wollesen was creating instruments for us as we rehearsed in Las Vegas. It was amazing what he could do with cast-out items that someone else would consider to be trash. And it all worked! I can't imagine anything else being used where we use his creations in the show.

What are some of the fun parts of this show?

The show was stressful at its inception, but it is a joy now that the hard part is done. I learn from watching; it was great watching Aaron [Posner] and Teller directing the actors as they created their characters; Johnny Thompson creating magic to fit into the story line; Matt Kent creating Caliban; Rough Magic, under Shaina Taub, creating arrangements, harmonies and sound effects with a mix of traditional instruments; and learning to play Kenny's creations. And I am thrilled with the new musicians we cast here as Rough Magic “2.0”—with band members Liz Filios, Matt Spencer and Joel Davel. They learned the show in four days!

Why does this particular production really resonate with people?
People love to be entertained. They want a full experience when going to the theatre, especially since it's live. The Tempest delivers on all fronts: classic Shakespeare, interpretation, music, laughter and magic. Audiences get more than their money’s worth!

What’s at the top of your playlist now?
I sing along to the Swingle Singers Jazz Sebastian Bach, Volume 1, to warm up my voice.

What’s up next for you after The Tempest?
My one woman show The Devil's Music: The Life & Blues of Bessie Smith, book by Angelo Parra and conceived by director Joe Brancato and I am music directing the show and have arranged all the music. We’re scheduled for a one-night performance at Kingsborough College in Brooklyn, a four-week run in Winnipeg at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Center in Canada and then a Blues Cruise. I've been doing the show almost 15 years and we haven't done a West Coast performance. I have too much fun doing it—I'd love to bring it to SCR!  I'm also working on creating a show from my CD Diva Out Of Bounds and a cabaret show on Nina Simone, as well as other singer/pianist/ composing women.

If you had to choose one word to describe yourself, what would it be?
Actually, I'd have to use the most powerful two-word phrase there is: “I Am.” I wrote a song with that title, which says: “I've been walking around, learning the sound of my own heart. I've been moving my feet to the beat of my own heart. How can I follow anyone else? I've got to find it for myself. I can be anything I want to be. I can do anything that I believe. I AM!!”

I live by these words everyday. I plan on the world knowing my name through my works, and will never stop believing in myself and achieving my goals.