Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre in May

by Rich Yurman

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june 2007

How much does what we anticipate beforehand color or even determine our experience of a particular performance?  Not a question that can be readily answered. Still, worth a bit of exploration. 

Perhaps I should call this: "Expectation and Its Discontents."

Serjeant Musgrave's Dance

I first read John Arden's 1959 drama attacking British Imperialism about 45 years ago, and found it cogent and powerful. However, it is so rarely performed I'd never actually seen it.  So when I heard that TheatreFIRST in Oakland was reviving the play, I was ready.

Arden's group of British Army deserters return to England and the home town of one of their comrades killed in some obscure backwater thousands of miles away. Led by Serjeant Musgrave, they hope to convince the locals to reject war and militarism and start a nationwide resistance movement.  The setting may be mid-19th Century but the situation surely taps into the current predicament of US troops trapped by imperial policies in Iraq and around the world.

Oh, I just knew it was going to be memorable theater.

Turns out, however, there are good reasons this play is not well remembered or often performed.  The motives of Musgrave and his band of deserters unfold very slowly. At first, they pretend to be recruiters, then find themselves caught in a tense standoff between the local coal operator and the union miners he's locked-out.  Despite the poverty of the area being the reason the dead young soldier joined up (can you say poverty draft?), his former co-workers are not clear about imperial wars, and given their current circumstances, such matters are the last thing on their minds.

Having raised the class basis of both industrial unrest and overseas adventurism, Arden seems unable to find a dramatic resolution for the tensions of this specific situation.  The ending, though bloody enough, feels flat, especially following the long build up (which this production takes at a torpid pace).          

All in all not the exciting evening I'd entered the theater expecting.

Tings Dey Happen
At The Marsh in San Francisco

A friend urged me not to miss Dan Hoyle's one man show based on his time in Nigeria as a Fulbright scholar studying oil politics, calling it the best theater piece she'd seen in at least 10 years. Hoyle turns his experiences into a performance in which he plays nearly 30 different characters, the vast majority of them black Africans. 

Can a young white guy from California get away with this without being accused of using racist stereotypes? And more important, can he make sense of the politics and power struggles in a major African country for a US audience that probably knows little about the details of Nigerian politics or African oil?

The first question was answered easily and immediately.  The person sitting on my right was from Nigeria and was laughing uproariously at the comic characterizations of many of his countrymen.  Dan Hoyle pulled that off with aplomb. 

The second question turned out to be more problematic.  In the attempt to fill in the context and to represent so many aspects of both Nigerian culture and the European and U.S. workers and diplomats active in the country, he's depicted a dizzying array of characters, at times returning too often to ones we'd already heard from, and at other times stumbling in the effort to portray this wealth of characters through different accents, tics, facial expressions and gestures, all the while struggling to create a solid through-line in order to maintain a clear narrative.

Despite these difficulties, Hoyle's versatility and imaginative capturing of the many characters for the most part worked, though the 90 minutes could have used a bit of editing and some clearer staging—more varied placing of the different "characters" than his three basic chair setups on an otherwise barren stage seemed to permit.

I would be hard pressed to call this brilliant or classify it as the best piece of theater I'd seen in years. Not greatness—good, entertaining work.   

Again expecting too much had undercut the experience.

Oliver Twist
Berkeley Rep

You've seen Oliver! and endlessly heard major songs from it. Plus you know the whole story already.  Plus you've been bombarded with the annual A Christmas Carol schmaltz—Dickens decked out in full Victorian sentimentality.  So why even consider sitting through more than two hours of yet another "new" version of this "classic"—a musical no less?

Ergo my "classical reluctance"—reluctance to revisit an overdone classic.

Perhaps it was simply curiosity that brought me to this Berkeley Rep production, or perhaps a sense of masochism (especially given my two most recent experiences there: the misconceived attempt to turn Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse into a stage play cum avant garde opera, and the West Coast premier of Tony Barfields' less than satisfying Blue Door).  Whatever the motive,there I sat for Neil Bartlett's reworking of Oliver Twist, reserving the option to  flee at intermission, of course.

And by gosh, it was riveting theater.  Not the sentimental Dickens of Broadway, Hollywood or Disney, but a darker, more mordant Dickens, reminiscent of his late novels, Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  London rendered via Brecht and Weill.  Cousin to The Three Penny Opera, rather than David Copperfield.   

A seductive, diabolical Fagin; a shapeshifting Artful Dodger, morphed from the narrator; an ensemble of actors playing multiple roles and singing sinister lyrics either a capella or backed by a set of odd handheld instruments—violin, hurdy-gurdy and serpent—added up to an indeed Twist-ed rendition of what we've come to expect.  

Everything dark, desolate, doomed.  The set, the lighting, the staging all conspiring to produce a world that drowns hope.  Even the Brownlow mansion—given a one panel slash of bright color—inhabits the same box set that serves for workhouse, Fagin's den of thieves, Bill Sykes' room, and a prison cell.  The lighting by turns dim and music hall glaring.  The stage filled with entrances and exits on all sides and above and below so characters appear and disappear in the most unexpected and creepy ways.

A cast of 14 fills a couple of dozen parts, serves as chorus, plays the instruments, and generally disports itself in grand guignol fashion.  And having Oliver and Fagin's gang of boys played by adult actors adds an edge child actors would not bring.

Against expectations, a powerful evening that reminds us how much of Dickens gets lost in the usual bland treatments.

Cover Photo - Oliver Twist - Kevin Berne, Berkeley rep

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©2007 Rich Yurman
©2007 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Rich Yurman is a poet, professor and lover of language.
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Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Arts and Media

june 2007

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