Thursday, February 14, 2008

Renaissance Man

Rinde Eckert was in a taxi, heading to the airport on his way to Montreal, when he learned he was one of the top three nominees for a Pulitzer Prize for his 'Orpheus X.'

'I got a call from The Los Angeles Times, asking how I felt about none of the actual finalists have been chosen, and the award going to the fourth guy on the list,' Eckert recalled. 'The newspaper was looking for some sort of controversy.'

Eckert, who didn't realize his piece had been under consideration, was thrilled just to have his work nominated.

'I didn't care. I was happy to be close.

'The three of us who were Pulitzer finalists were very unconventional,' he continued. 'None of the pieces that were finalists made it to Broadway. They had, at best, been off-Broadway shows, but ultimately a Broadway piece was chosen.' (That would be David Lindsay-Abair's 'The Rabbit Hole.')

Eckert, a familiar name to UC Davis theatergoers, is back on campus as a Granada artist-in-residence. The Pulitzer near-winner will be presented for one performance only, at 8 p.m. Saturday at UCD's Main Theater, as a special American Repertory Theater presentation, prior to its heading off to a theater festival in Hong Kong.

This performance will be followed, next week, with a two-week run of Eckert's original piece, 'Fate and Spinoza,' now under development with a student cast.

Almost winning a Pulitzer has its advantages, Eckert acknowledges.

'It alerts people to some of the intricacies of the work, because the people choosing works for consideration aren't stupid, and they're aware of dimensions of a work that perhaps deserve attention. It helps to have someone in authority say, 'This stuff is worth getting. There's some deep stuff here.'

'That's an alert that says to the normal theatergoer, 'Wow ... I'd better take a closer look, because ... look, he was he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize! That isn't pig doots!' '

Eckert laughed.

In setting his piece, Eckert was inspired by the translation of a poem by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, called 'Orpheus, Eurydice and Hermes.' In the classic myth, Orpheus is broken-hearted at the death of his love, Eurydice, and descends into Hades to bring her back to the living world.

'It's Greek,' Eckert explains. 'There is only Hades. There is no other place. They don't have any choice in the Greek world. They all go to Hades. Unless they're rescued in some way and made into a god, but that doesn't happen very often.'

In the Rilke poem, Eurydice already has become comfortable with the afterlife. Her memories of a life with Orpheus have faded, and she's not interested in returning to his world. She's perfectly content to remain in Hades:

Already she was root. And when suddenly, abruptly the god stopped her and in a pained voice said, 'he's turned around,' she did not understand and quietly answered 'who?'

Eckert's Orpheus is a rock star who substitutes an electric guitar for the traditional lyre. ('I needed to have him have mythic proportions, and the modern rock star fits that.') Eurydice is a street poet whose writing has become mundane and unsatisfying to her. She's struck by the taxi in which Orpheus is riding. He becomes obsessed with the woman, who dies in his arms.

He gives up everything to go to Hades, to bring her back to his world.

The trip is arranged by his agent.

'Agents always have connections,' Eckert laughs.

In Eckert's version, Eurydice no longer makes a sacrifice for Orpheus' poetic life, but for hers.

'She doesn't want to go back to what was terrifying and hellish for her,' Eckert explains. 'There's nothing for her up there.'

The 'X' in 'Orpheus X' indicates a variable that denotes the 'x' number of previous productions of the classic Greek myth.

'I've tried to honor each of the dimensions of the myth, while putting a spin on it that was of much more intrigue and interest to me, and would be a worthwhile addition to the great number of iterations of Orpheus, rather than trying to do yet another kind of straight-ahead depiction that already has been done extremely well.'

Whether a 'stunning music-theater production ... powerfully acted and gorgeously sung' (Variety), 'a multi-sensory extravaganza' (Tufts Daily) or 'a lugubrious and second-rate piece [that] nevertheless offers a fresh slant on a familiar but always haunting myth' (Edinburgh Festival Review), it's clear that in the hands of a masterful playwright/performer, Eckert's 'Orpheus X' will be an evening to remember.


While 'Orpheus X' has been traveling around the world since 2006, 'Fate and Spinoza' will have its world premiere at the UCD Main Theater in a few weeks.

Christine Samson, a master of fine arts student playing a dual role (as are most of the actors), finds working with Eckert a novel experience.

'It's something he's creating as we go,' she said. 'It's the first time I've worked in a devised piece versus a pre-existing script. It's interesting to see his process, and what will and won't work as things change. Ultimately, it all makes sense and comes together.'

'I love working with Rinde,' said Hope Mirlis, who plays April Lansky. 'I love devised work; I love his language. I understand how his brain works, and I get his humor. He's an incredibly intelligent guy.'

The work grew out of Eckert's readings of Baruch Spinoza's 'The Ethics,' but as the work has progressed, the philosopher gradually has become more removed from the theatrical piece.

'I increasingly came to strip my character of the name 'Spinoza,' and it's come further and further into the fabric of the work,' Eckert said. 'It's imbedded in the work, certainly, but it's not an obvious connection.'

Eckert's Spinoza is a fatalist, and he hastens to assure me that Spinoza himself was no fatalist.

'Quite the opposite, in fact,' he said. 'He did have a lot to say about free will, and how free will is a kind of mistaken notion. He basically said that all of this religious lore is essentially superstition: stories you're telling yourselves for various purposes, but they have nothing to do with God. In the 17th century, this was radical stuff, which is why he was excommunicated. He was just too radical.'

Eckert's enthusiasm for the subject is infectious.

'This guy was writing in the 17th century. You suddenly appreciate why he survived. You realize he anticipated almost everybody. It's a remarkable work! He anticipated Freud. He identified subconscious desires.'

But how do you transform what might sound like a dry work of philosophy into a vibrant stage piece?

With music, dance, song, dialogue, visual intrigue and splendor.

'There's a line in 'Fate and Spinoza' that says any idiot can say 'God works in mysterious ways,' but only the scientists are proving it. We start the piece with this symbol of people looking up at a rocket launch of some kind, and then someone happens to say 'God forbid,' and it starts a discussion about whether the two characters believe in God.

'So we put that in the room to start with.'

Burlesque touches are added here and there for comic relief, while at the same time delivering powerful messages in the most matter-of-fact way.

Mirlis noted that the middle of the piece includes a big choral work, where the entire ensemble gathers and sings.

The play itself revolves around April Lansky, a wife, mother and engineer who designs satellites and telescopes. She's inexplicably compelled to revisit a hotel from her past, which is about to be torn down. While there, she encounters both the ghost of artist David (Spinoza) Cornell ... and the devil.

Through dialogue with these characters in the room that once was the artist's studio, April recovers what she lost 20 years earlier.

Spinoza's mythic presence permeates the work, as characters examine the past in order to come to terms with the present.

Spinoza concluded that most of what we claim about the world actually isn't true, and that free will is a figment of our imagination.

'Rinde's pieces always are theatrically surprising. He has that rare, happy knack of being both entertaining and thought-provoking,' said UCD theater and dance department chair Peter Lichtenfels. 'Rinde layers his pieces through singing, dancing, acting and playing musical instruments. I admire this range, and how he uses it to tell stories; that's why I'm so excited about his creation of 'Fate and Spinoza' with our students.'

The show was cast last quarter, and things were different right from the start, Mirlis explained, because Eckert gave the actors homework to complete during the quarter break.

'We had to come up with a sentence that used the words 'red' and 'hat.' We had to create a 30-second dance with a small box. We had to create a song in praise of Greenland, and we had to create an odd sound with either glass or metal. He wanted to see what we'd bring to the table, but he actually got some additional ideas. This play has been in his brain and in his book for awhile. We definitely were the next step, bringing it to the ensemble.'

'It's a great ensemble show with lots of energy,' said first year MFA student Rebecca David, who plays two minor characters. She loves the show for its 'otherworldly quality and its surreal set.'

'It takes awhile to generate a new work, especially in a university situation, where your time is really limited,' Eckert said. 'I'm usually working in professional situations, where my actors are there for eight hours a day, and they ain't doing nothing but this. We can go out to dinner after rehearsal, and discuss problems.

'Here, the cast disappears when rehearsal is over, because they have stuff to do, and they don't show up again until the next rehearsal.'

'I'm grateful to have a director who'll work with my schedule,' said Samson, an MFA student and mother who must plan around children's schedules. She explained her time constraints to Eckert before she was cast in the play.

'I needed some more mature actors within the company,' Eckert said, 'so I was willing to accept the limitations on her schedule.'

Samson, in her first year at UC Davis, finished her bachelor's degree at Sacramento State University in 1994, and then taught at Sacramento High School for several years before deciding to obtain her master's degree here. She'll eventually return to teaching.

What's ahead for Eckert, after he leaves UC Davis in March?

'I'm working on music for a performance at Joe's Pub in New York in May, and then I'm on a Guggenheim fellowship as a composer, so I'm doing a lot of compositional work over the summer. I have the money now to do that, thanks to Guggenheim.'

In the fall, he'll work with the medical school at the University of Iowa, under a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable trust. The piece will focus on issues surrounding blindness.

'I've interviewed doctors and people who are going blind. Out of that welter of information and impressions, I'll write a piece about the worlds that I've encountered, and some of the issues around blindness, and what it really is to see.

' 'Fate and Spinoza' actually is a precursor to that project. My artist is going blind, so I was imagining that maybe it would end up being a trilogy of pieces. I've been calling the Iowa piece the 'eye piece,' for lack of anything better. I thought the trilogy would be 'Fate and Spinoza' and 'The Eye Piece,' and then I'm doing another piece called 'Slide,' which is about perception.

'I suddenly realized that 'Fate and Spinoza' is about the lens and that transmission of light, so I've focused on the idea of the lens. The Iowa piece will be the retina: the place where light is collected and transmitted to the brain. It will be about blindness, to a degree, and then it will go into dealing with blindness.

'And then I wanted to get into perception: what happens in the brain after you get the information, and how does that stuff get over...'

And he was off.

As Eckert's fertile brain spewed a veritable cornucopia of ideas for future projects, I knew that the theatrical community would see a lot of this multi-talented man.

For decades to come.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Dinner With Friends

We never really know what’s going on in the lives of our friends when we part and they go behind their own closed doors, or so we learn in the Pulitzer Prize winning play, “Dinner With Friends” by Donald Margulies, now at Capital Stage, under the direction of Peter Mohrmann.

Karen (Jamie Jones), Gabe (Eric Wheeler), Beth (Karyn Casl) and Tom (Kenneth S. Figeroid) have been friends forever. In fact Karen and Gabe introduced Beth and Tom and now they spend lots of time together, their children play together.

As the play starts, Karen and Gabe, who are food and wine connoisseurs have just returned from a fabulous tour of Italy and are gushing to Beth about their eating, drinking and other food experiences, totally oblivious to Beth’s obvious state of disinterest and agitation. Karyn Casl is brilliant in this section of the play, completely conveying a woman whose life seems to be falling apart, trying to hang on to her sanity and stay focused on her friends, though her brain is a million miles away. Her pain is palpable and only the self-absorbed Karen and Gabe are unable to see it.

(Food is, by the way, central to this play, as each scene takes place in or around a kitchen, and fine foods and wines play an integral part in each of the discussions. The mouth-watering description of the dessert in Scene 1, which actually momentarily sidetracks an argument in Scene 2, sent me to Google looking for a recipe when I returned home!)

Karen finally notices that Beth is out of sorts and pulls from her the news that Tom has been having an affair and has announced that he is leaving their marriage.

Through the following scenes, we see what happens when close friends divorce, and the effect it has on their friends. Can you be friend with both husband and wife? Who is really the injured party? Aren’t there two sides of every story? If Tom has been Gabe’s best friend and Beth has been Karen’s best friend, where does that leave Karen and Gabe?

Margulies beautifully allows development of the effect of the break-up on the other couple. Karen feels betrayed when Beth finds herself a boyfriend, feeling she is rushing too quickly into another relationship, almost adamant that Beth break it off with her new love interest. Is Karen jealous that Beth is feeling the glow of fresh love? Or is she upset that this is someone Beth found on her own, without Karen’s assistance?

When Tom meets Gabe for drinks and extols the praises of his new girlfriend, Gabe is discomfited because he felt that he and Tom were going to “grow old and fat together,” and now Tom is feeling healthy, getting fit, and keeping up with a younger love interest.

Beth’s and Tom’s ability to move on is almost more difficult on Gabe and Karen than the news of their breakup was.

There is no resolution, or even a message, in this play. It’s simply an entertaining character study that gives much food for thought as we watch the chemistry between the characters, and their effect on one another. Just when we think one character is the bad person for whatever reason, we suddenly see things from the other side and it forces us to reassess who may be to blame. In the end, nobody is to “blame.” It’s just what happens.

The actors are marvelous. Jones and Wheeler are very funny as a couple absorbed in their passions for food and secondarily for each other. They are comfortable together and can’t seem to understand the temptations that have led to the break-up of their friends’ marriage.

Casl has perhaps the meatier part in the second relationship, conveying her utter despair and then her giddy happiness as she shares news of her new love with her friend.

Figeroid nicely portrays the man who never quite grew up into a responsible adult and who is ready to let himself be remolded into a middle-aged “man toy” for a new woman. It is not impossible to see this as a short-term relationship, but he’s enjoying it for all it’s worth at the moment.

Set designer David Fulk manages to find a way to use every bit of the Capital Stage stage to get more than one scene set at a time and somehow have it all work beautifully. The moveable windows were a particularly effective touch.

“Dinner with Friends” is a funny, yet thought-provoking play, that will leave you wondering what really does go on with your best friends behind closed doors.