Monday, February 26, 2007

A Magnificent Hedda Gabler at A.C.T.

A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre) in San Francisco is currently showing Henrik Ibsen's masterpiece, Hedda Gabler, at the beautiful Geary Theatre. I went to see this show last Wednesday afternoon, and despite the coughing, wheezing, snoring, hearing aid mal-adjusted audience, it turned out to be one of the best theatre experiences I have ever had.

I am going to try something here as an experiment. Because of our overly committed lifestyles it seems that people tend to read blogs more often when they are written in a list format. So here's my list...


Top 5 Things that make A.C.T.'s Production of Hedda Gabler Great


1. Rene Augesen. Simply put, Rene's portrayal of Hedda is brilliant. Her ability to completely embody a character in all her complexity draws you in completely. I have never seen an audience so mesmerized by an actor on stage. You could feel the sold out crowd ride the roller coaster of Hedda's emotions from the first moment of the play to the end. What a fantastic actress she is.

2. Paul Walsh's translation is brilliant. He took a script written in 1890 and made it feel contemporary without losing the feel of the 19th century. I have read numerous translations of Ibsen's works, and this is the only one I have ever heard that completely removes the dated feel without losing any of the classical sound of the text.

3. The set and lights. Scaffolding surrounding a living room and sitting room turned the set into a realistic piece that also brought in the loneliness in a symbolic way. The actors would periodically appear on the scaffolding alone and lonely. It really added a creepiness that worked fabulously.

4. The sound. John Gromada wrote some original music for this piece that added a Hitchcockian feel to the piece. It really created an atmosphere of foreboding and isolation.

5. The humor. Whenever I have read Ibsen or scene a production I often feel like laughing out loud. Usually, however, I restrain myself because, after all it's Ibsen. You're not supposed to laugh. God might strike you dead or something. But, under Richard E.T. White's direction the actors unabashedly embrace Ibsen's humor and run with it. Like in an Albee play you laugh at the awful. It's very disconcerting but wonderful.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Theatre of Courage - "Intensive Care Unit"

A couple of days ago I came across that had the courage to stage a one act play depicting the horror that plagues the streets of Iraq. It's astonishing that both actors and playgoers risked their lives to speak out in this way. Imagine what it must be like to rehearse a play in Iraq in a bombed out building with the noise of war all around you.  Here's the text of the story..



No Respite from Reality in Baghdad Theater

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


A sculpture of a bomb-charred motorcycle and auto parts decorates the theater's foyer, and the concession stand lies empty under a layer of dust. Spectators are frisked by policemen, and a notice board announces that an employee has been "caught by the hand of treachery and terrorism," a Baghdad euphemism for a violent death.

Inside, the one-act play "Intensive Care Unit" offers more reminders of death and destruction in its portrayal of the war-torn lives of 10 Iraqis.

Theater is back in Baghdad — or is it real life?

If it was an oasis for the audience and the actors, the respite was brief.

The story on stage spoke at once of the city's relentless violence and the resilience of its people, a struggle for normalcy in the midst of mayhem, and if the audience of 300 or so still didn't get the message, it would soon be driven home on the street. As the crowd emerged from Monday's matinee opening at the National Theater, it saw black smoke rising in the distance — the aftermath of a triple car bombing that killed at least 80 people.

The arts once thrived in Iraq, but stage productions have been rare since Saddam Hussein was ousted nearly four years ago. Many in the theater community have fled abroad, while many Iraqis fear large gatherings that can become bombing targets.

"We must go on living," playwright and director Kaheel Khaled said after the show. "We don't want to die in a hole that we dug ourselves. We must end our differences so we can come out of this intensive care unit."

Dozens from the audience, apparently overcome with the depiction of their lives, climbed onto the stage, embracing cast members and posing for group photos.

The characters, played by students from a drama college, include a theater director forced to make a living by peddling cigarettes and candy on the street, and a man who has lost his ID card and has endless trouble at Baghdad's many checkpoints.

A third character is a black-clad woman who lost a leg in a bombing and then was abandoned by her lover. "Mother, Mother, I am sick. Get me the doctor quickly! Quick!" the woman says repeatedly in English, the only non-Arabic line in the show and what the director said is the play's bleak message.

In the background, a man's body is tied with ropes and lies motionless, a reminder of the sectarian abductions and killings afflicting the capital. A stern-faced man, a symbol of today's leaders in Iraq, comes on stage occasionally to bark bizarre orders that are obeyed at once.

"He is a man who makes reasonable demands," the character of a subservient poet says apologetically.

The play's premiere came as Baghdad braces for the escalation of a new security operation that many people see as a final bid by the U.S. military to calm the city of 6 million.

The cast held most of the rehearsals for "Intensive Care Unit" in the blackened shell of another theater that was looted and burned in the days after Saddam's fall, said actor Haidar Joma'a. "It was the only place where we could meet."

Rehearsals stopped for about five months early last year when the bombing of a Shiite shrine set off sectarian reprisal killings. Several members of the original cast fled Iraq, and others stopped showing up for rehearsals.

"But we finally became serious about rehearsals," said Joma'a, who plays a young man scorned by the woman he loves. "We realized that death lurks in the street just as it does at home, that death is really everywhere."

That spirit was shared by the theatergoers, whose decision to brave the deadly streets said as much about their determination to enjoy themselves as it did about the artistic merits of the play.

Dozens of men and women in the lobby before the play showed flashes of the secular Baghdad of old, when the city was a magnet for artists and writers from across the Arab world.

Women openly smoked and mingled freely with men. Some women embraced male friends, a public taboo in today's Baghdad. Only a few women wore the Islamic head scarves so common now, although some said they would wrap their heads when they left the theater.

"If every one of us stayed home, then our lives would be a waste," said Amal Yassin, an Iraqi actress who showed up in a fur coat, black trousers and checkered red scarf.

"Everyone will die on the day he is meant to die," she added. "Nothing will change that."