Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Moby Dick Variations

We met someone headed into the Mondavi Theater on Thursday night to see a concert. I told him we were on our way to see “The Moby Dick Variations” in the Vanderhoef Studio theater. “Good luck with that,” he said, rolling his eyes.

As I entered the theater, someone spotted me and said “I can hardly wait to read your review of this.”

Half an hour into the piece, when I was comparing it to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” meets “The Snake Pit,” I was wondering how I was going to handle it myself.

In an interview with the Cal Aggie earlier this week, director John Zibell described his work, saying “’s not a play, it’s 135 little theatrical events inspired by ‘Moby Dick.’” His comment gave me the perfect inspiration for trying to describe this piece...remarking on the “little theatrical events” that I personally took away from the evening.

As promised, this piece (I am reluctant to call it a “play”) “breaks every expectation that the audience has when they walk into the show.”

For one thing, there is no “audience” section. There are no seats (though a few small, uncomfortable wooden benches line two walls and can accommodate maybe a dozen people). There is a lengthy description of the director’s concept for this work in the program, but it is written in tiny print, in one long paragraph and there is not sufficient lighting in the theater to read it. The audience is expected to mill about and mingle with the performers throughout the two hour performance.

The program lists the twenty-two actors in the production, but there is no indication as to who is playing which role. And it probably doesn’t really matter because there is no real plot that follows any logical linear progression. (I only know that Will Klundt plays Ishmael because he is mentioned in the Aggie article. As to who played Ahab, or Queegqueg, or any other character, it doesn’t really seem to matter since most of the work didn’t really seem to be about Moby Dick anyway.)

At one point I wondered if things would be more clear if I had actually read Moby Dick at some point in my life, but I suspect that would not have helped at all.

For example, I don’t really think a lecture on basketball was written by Herman Melville. And while the scene of a young girl saying goodbye to her dying grandfather was touching, it didn’t have much to do with a white whale.

There was the feel of a frat party about it. Most of the people in the audience seemed to know all the performers and the noise level rose throughout the evening, accompanied by mostly cacophonous instruments playing music written especially for this work by Dylan Bolles and the Thingamajigs Performance Group.

I’m not sure what the girl in the pink lace dress and Superman undershorts was doing on roller skates being pulled through the crowd by someone hanging onto a rope.

Nor am I sure why the woman in the diaphanous gown was hanging from the door frame and then climbing down the outside of a staircase.

It seemed that whenever someone got hold of a microphone and began to say something you could actually understand, three other people in three other parts of the room also began to speak and you couldn’t understand anybody.

At an hour into it, I had a splitting headache, and I was counting down the last minutes of the two hours so I could escape. I hoped that maybe something worth mentioning would happen. But, no.

I finally decided that maybe I’m just too old to appreciate a show like this. Maybe avant garde theater is for the young. But I wasn’t alone. The best overheard quote of the night came from a group leaving the theater whispering to each other “We won’t say ANYTHING until we get to the car, OK?”

They were lucky they didn’t have to go home and write a review.

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure

Now we know what Sacramento Theatre Company’s Mrs. Badden-Rotten (Cinderella) looks like when she gets out of drag and off those impossibly high heels. Underneath, she’s … Sherlock Holmes!

Director Michael Laun has successfully reunited two of STC’s most beloved performers, William Elsman and Michael RJ Campbell, as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively, in a delightful adaptation of Stephen Dietz’s “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure,” based on the original 1899 play by William Gillette and Arthur Conan Doyle.

The opening-night performance was particularly delightful because of the large number of audience members who dressed in traditional Victorian costumes, with tall hats and day coats for the men and feathered hats and long, layered skirts for the women. It was like stepping back into the 19th century.

It’s difficult to know quite how to classify this play, which is both a tribute to the Conan Doyle mysteries and a parody of those mysteries. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter because, whether homage or parody, it was just downright fun.

Elsman is a delight to watch as Holmes, drawing conclusions about a person’s life and change of habits from clues (such as which side of the face is more poorly shaved), as does television’s “The Mentalist.” He is totally in command at all times, striding about the stage puffing on his calabash pipe and issuing orders.

It was, then, a bit of a surprise to discover that Holmes has his Achilles heel, a crush on Irene Adler (Michele Hillen), an American opera star whose career the detective has been tracking. Hillen is lovely and conniving and is that rare person who can match wits with Holmes.

Michael RJ Campbell is a perfect Watson, Holmes’ ever-obedient sidekick and best friend, with just enough bluster and always somewhat befuddled by the things Holmes is asking him to do.

The plot, which combines two original short stories (“A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem”) involves the King of Bohemia (Justin Munoz), about to be married but with the little matter of an affair with Ms. Adler hanging over his head. She has a photo of them that could derail his wedding plans and he enlists the help of Holmes to retrieve the photo.

Holmes’ attempts to retrieve the photo bring him into contact with the infamous Professor Moriarty (Troy Thomas) and carry the plot into areas we never expected. Thomas is deliciously malevolent, as befits one of the most famous villains in history.

Jake Murphy delivers a delightful performance as the would-be safe cracker, Sid Prince. Murphy’s performance is electric and makes him the person to watch in each of his brief scenes.

Brian Watson is James Larrabee, who marries Ms. Adler before his connections to Moriarty are uncovered.

Kristen Majetich is an energetic Madge Larrabee, who is either the maid or James’ wife. (There are so many cross-overs in amorous liaisons that it’s difficult to follow the players without a scorecard!)

The scenic design of Morgan McCarthy and Jarrod Bodensteiner (also the lighting designer) is nicely arranged so that a change of scene involves only a change in position on the stage and a change of lighting, and thus allows for a brisk progression through the story without having to wait for set changes.

Once again, Sacramento Theatre Company has given us a polished, intelligent, fast-paced production that will delight any theatergoer. And if you really want to get into the fun, try dressing to fit the period.