Sunday, April 25, 2010


A.C.T.: American Conservatory Theater presents VIGIL written and directed by Morris Panych at the Geary Theatre, San Francisco.

The American Conservatory Theater is the American theatre company that I have seen most often in my US life. It goes back to the late seventies (I think) when my very first American production ever was BURIED CHILD with a standout performance by Larry Hecht as Tilden. A memorable experience, I suppose, for the authenticity of the performance qualities and because of the writing (Pulitzer Prize 1979), and especially the quality of the acting, as individuals and, most impressively, as an ensemble company of artists, add, the pregnant reciprocation of love and loyalty that the community of audience emanated in the physical witnessing of the work. Here was a theatre company that was enriched by its patrons as much as its artists. This was when the American Conservatory was still inspired vigorously by the great foundation leadership of William Ball (although he had moved on). Edward Hastings led the company before, and briefly, after an earthquake. Then came the appointment of Artistic Director, Carey Perloff (19 years, this year), the reconstruction and re-opening of the Geary Theatre (1996); an insidious loss of most of the original company of performing artists over time; a move of its administration and its then, internationally famous, Conservatory school to Grant Street (Now reduced to an intake of only 8 students a year !!!) and the creation in 2001, of a new core company of actors (5 or 6, perhaps). The program notes tell us the “AMERICAN CONSERVATORY THEATER nurtures the art of live theatre through dynamic productions, intensive actor training in the conservatory, and an ongoing dialogue with its community.”

So, it is sad to report that within a gorgeously restored theatre building, comfortable and glowing with promise, what is going on, on the stage, behind the gold gilt of the proscenium arch is what Peter Brook in THE EMPTY SPACE might call “Dead Theatre”. As the Prince of Morocco says in the MERCHANT OF VENICE, “All that glisters is not gold”.

VIGIL by Morris Panych, a much honoured Canadian writer, is a very nice, little play. But hardly worthy to be strutted on this illustrious stage. A two-hander, between a psychologically depressed under achiever, essentially a loser, or ‘an awkward social misfit’, Kemp (Marco Barricelli), who in refuge from a boring life as a lowly functionary in a bank, in response to a summons by letter, attempts to find respite in the home of an aunt, Grace (Olympia Dukakis), a silently dying, almost bedridden old woman. (In the major revelation of the play, this may not even be his aunt. Rather, the real aunt withered to death at a window across the way, which Kemp has had the opportunity to report upon in the play. Inept even in his act of opportunism!!! And what it tells us of the old lady, who, either, is a vile ‘user’ pretending the ‘blood ‘ relationship to have care or is suffering from Alzheimer’s, is not very attractive. Indeed, either of these choices in the ‘airy’ given circumstances of the writing does not reveal the community of family or society too well either, does it?!! )

The structure of the play is made up of many, many, many short scenes some as short as 30 seconds, none much longer than 3 minutes with very pleasant interludes of Sound Design (Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe – in fact, the best contribution to the night). Because the old lady is, maybe, in a mentally insecure place, she barely speaks (maybe 12 speeches) so that Kemp in ruminations and mindless chatter and observations of street life, is virtually in monologue for nearly, with interval, a hundred minutes. But so venal and banal is this character, in action and intellectual capacity and objective –the demise of this old lady (in fact, in one scene, he has built an euthanasia machine to carry out his needs - hopelessly inept, of course, when put into action, but the source of some mindless and contextually, unbelievable comedy, “Ha, Ha, Ha” ), that it is a perfect agony to endure, despite the television sit-com, occasional genius quality of joke, mostly stylistically, dealing with line reversals, that become as tiresome as any stylistic repetition can be, over this length of time. E.g. “Let’s not talk about anything depressing, alright? …Do you want to be cremated?” says Kemp to a mute old lady, scoffing pudding. The mechanism of the writing, once is amusing, twice is just acceptable, thrice is a bore. (The pudding eating is amusing, but who cleans it up, when it has passed through the body? No real details of the dying and extinction of the human animal is ever alluded too in this opportunistic shallowness. Strange?)The writing is decidedly on the escapist embrace of really desperate realities (these realities not to far from our own lives), a joke, lots of them, rather than a serious debate.

After having to negotiate myself past an onslaught of genuine beggars and the homeless on the streets of San Francisco to get to this theatre, even, almost at its doors, the humour of the core dilemma of the play and direction was not one that I could accept fully without feeling despicable for doing so. The quote above of “ an ongoing dialogue with its community” in the program note looks decidedly bourgeois in the light of the real world surrounding this jewel of a theatre. One felt that it is a “Let them eat cake” demeanour, from the inhabitants of this artistic co-hort and its supporters. Some of the talk about this play in San Francisco has been about the timely appropriateness of the issues of the circumstances of the play: a deserted and ill old woman, and the need for care. What with the aging population and the need to have a Health action plan in readiness, this could not be a more challenging matter to deal with in the theatre today in the US of A. Especially, since, in the audience I saw it with, most of us were on the verge of extinction, give it a year or two or so…The play also has a younger generation that seems to be motivated by selfish personal gain rather than genuine human compassion for others – a further opportunity to develop real issue in text.

In an article by Kim Blackwell called MORRIS PANYCH ON VIGIL, Blackwell says “But don’t expect VIGIL or any Panych play to be a political comment. In VIGIL don’t expect to find a searing condemnation of the health care system in this country or a cry to families to care for their aging family members” (won’t the Republicans/conservatives of the audience be relieved?). Besides, writes Panych, “there is so much political messaging going on in the theatre right now.” So, I suppose Mr Panych feels it is not a necessary brief for himself. But, surely that is exactly what we need our theatre to be. Ms Perloff has a penchant for the value of the Greek origins of theatre, where the play was/is used as a tool to discuss vital issues of the community. To help us to make a choice on how to live for the greater good. To choose this play because it is funny is not enough, I would venture to say, in any theatre organisation in 2010. Let alone the Flagship Company of San Francisco. It is dismaying to visit this wonderful company of yore, and to have to witness, contemporaneously, the demise of artistic standards to such a parlous quality. Compare my first play visit to my last. BURIED CHILD / VIGIL. ???? (If culture can be used as a reference point for the state of the union, the quality of the company, what are the differences between the revelations of BURIED CHILD to that of VIGIL? Where is the United States today? Where is the American Theatre Company today, as reflected in this work?) There has to be better writing and comedy than this to curate in a season (Only seven choices, next year only six!!????) To quote the program notes again: “Today, A.C.T. is recognized nationally for its groundbreaking productions of classical works and bold explorations of contemporary writing.” If this production choice and explication reflects the state of this company’s “groundbreaking” work or “bold explorations of contemporary writing”, it is indeed, delusional. The Artistic team needs to work harder.

“Since the reopening of the Geary Theatre …in 1996, A.C.T. has enjoyed a remarkable period of audience expansion and financial stability.” Some intimations of suspicion might surround the “financial stability” affirmation when one observes and notices that there is one less production being planned for next year and that the Conservatory training program is in a precipitate decline of numbers (repeat, down to 8 artists –in –training per year!!!) Do read the hyperbole concerning the Conservatory Training Program in the page 3 notes (that were probably written some years ago) and the number of empty seats in the performance. Further, A.C.T. has hardly developed artistic values, of late, of any real significance in the Bay area or at all nationally. Where is the local playwright/playwrights that this Artistic administration has nurtured to speak to, of and for the local community and its concerns? In nineteen years A.C. T. has not been able to find one such writer to chronicle the trials, tribulations and triumphs of this vibrant and influential culture? (Whoops, they are about to take on a musical version of TALES OF THE CITY based on Armistead Maupin’s chronicling of some of the lives of denizens of a long, sadly past San Francisco world? Nostalgia to keep the citizens comatosed, (if any good, it might also do some financial good for the company) instead of dealing with the present realities of the day surrounding and challenging them?) How about a consistent Californian voice or voices? California is (was?) the 5th largest world economy, is it not? Its economic and technological impact is (was?) certainly great, why not its cultural impact? This culture’s voice does not exist? No ‘Euripides’, no ‘Sophocles’, here, I fear. It seems to me bizarre that this is so. While questioning the cultural nurturing, where has the role model company of artists that gathered around Bill Ball and made their home in San Francisco and that made a major contribution to the life pulse of this cultural city gone? Why has it not being nurtured? A collection of artists that lived the life of the city and its politics alongside their audience. Each knew each other, and each, in my first experience in the Geary Theatre, of BURIED CHILD, nurtured and identified with each other in the art that was offered as performance in that ‘sacred space’. Stand this company’s achievements beside the Chicago Company STEPPENWOLF over the last nineteen /twenty years and embarrassment should be the dominating emotion.

What is the rationale for the appearance of VIGIL on this stage? I would, in growing cynicism, suggest for economic reasons. It is cosy to suggest that this is a vehicle, “a perfect way to reunite our favourite couple, Marco Barricelli and Olympia Dukakis” (speak for yourself, not for me), but, if we put our heads together, better vehicles might be found. (Repeat: Artistic body, just work harder.) This play is a good choice because, it only has two actors (although the expense of having two guest artists, needing to be accommodated etc for the length of the rehearsal/run in San Francisco, must at least be equivalent to the hiring of a local set of artists and therefore give the company a larger cast and, also, increase the possible repertory of play choice. It seems to me that there are local artists who are similarly “favourites” of the audience.) So, two actors; the writer and director all in one, pre-packaged production (Morris Panych); the Set and Costume Design, pre-packaged (Ken Mac Donald); Lighting Design, pre-packaged; Sound Designers, pre-packaged (Meg Roe and Alessandro Juliani). This Canadian import is a probably a cheaper proposition than otherwise. This is cool pragmatic economic rationalism. One can see, perhaps why there have been thirty productions of this work. Nothing wrong with that if the imported work and production is of quality, within the expectations of a leading theatre company in contemporary United States. It is, sadly, not. (Why the artistic industry is not crying “FOUL”, that not a single San Franciscan artist is employed in the above categories, might also suggest why this theatre company is not as rigorous as it ought to be in its responsibilities to the mission statements of the management.)

While both Marco Barricelli and Olympia Dukakis give impeccable ‘professional’ performances, the acting is simply, proficiently, technical in its receiving. Highly distinguished externalisations with no intimation of soul, depth or real humanity, REAL humanity (they simply lacked commedia masks to complete their expertise), cartoons. The moment when Kemp realises that he may have been in the wrong house, looking after the wrong old lady, is a text book lesson from Mr Baricelli in comic technique, in how to technically milk the laughs out of the moment. It hardly was Kemp experiencing the reality of his discovery (Watch me act. Forget the story. Watch Mr Baricelli, not, appreciate the situation of KEMP.) It did not have any other shading of humanity: shame, guilt, bafflement or what ever else… Ms Dukakis, relieved from not having to remember more than 12 or so lines, the role demands that she mime her way through the dilemmas of the character. Acutely deft physically, she wrings a whole series of cod responses and physical mugging that Lucille Ball has demonstrated for us in endless repeats of I LOVE LUCY. Here is a clown’s performance with nothing but stock sentimental responses to sustain her character’s journey. It is shallow and demands of us only admiration of skills. Do not look for subtlety or shading of pathos or struggle or anything much other than underscoring another laugh. This is hardly acting of great impact. It is responsible and routine. Maybe the material is the problem. Certainly it has to be the directing. These are two interesting artists and they have been permitted ‘to phone in’ their performances. Dire, dispiriting and probably lauded by this artistic management. Depressing, dull and horrible to watch as an audience. This director has no real ability to make demands of these performers, or if he has, then his demands as Director are as superficial as his observations of humanity as a writer. Clever but mendaciously surface.

To be truthful, a lot of the audience laughed. Of course, there is a great weight of advantage to have “our favourites’” performing for us. We generally ask little of them. I think my favourite aunt and uncle give delighting and amusing renditions of SOME ENCHANTED EVENING around our piano at home, family gives great credit and accommodation of standards, to each other. But I am not of this family, I am an external visitor who is here to be rewarded for my time spent with an experience that at best would be entertaining, enlightening and full of ecstasy. None of these things happened. It was like being at a love fest, at the local community theatre in the suburbs of a provincial town. It certainly makes San Francisco appear to be artistically a pleasant, uncritical, contented, little, provincial city, if this is what it celebrates as good theatre.

Why have I gone on so much? Because I care for an Institution that was once great, that now has sunk to a bathetic, artistically moribund shadow of its former great and influential self. When did it slip to this level of mediocrity? Over time. But, just as surely as the Titanic sank, this ship, based on this instance, is sinking.

I felt encouraged to express my grief by an article that I read in the New York Times several weeks ago. It intimated a criticism of the Artistic leadership that I, and many others have wanted to shout from rooftops for years. I have seen no reply, no discussion and on asking concerned individuals, just nervous acknowledgement. I suppose, because it is a small artistic community and survival of professional careers depends on being compliant and shut up, nothing has been really shouted, just murmured. I have nothing to lose, directly, except the loss of a great source of inspiration. Maybe, if I had been in town to see the PHAEDRA or THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE, I would not feel so disturbed. Maybe VIGIL is just a commercial aberration of misjudged economic rationalism. Tell me so. (It is not what I have heard.)

Here in Australia we must be wary of the over corporate approach to managing art. Money and mercenary success to the exclusion of the flesh and blood sweat that is the consequence of imaginative belief, that to fail gloriously, is more exciting then achieving dully; of passionate risks over dull product, bean counting certainties of accountants. The economic rationalisation of the arts, our training institutions, our performing arts organisations will be the wreck of our culture and our civilizing history unless we remain vigilant and vocal. The American Conservatory Theatre and my life engagement with it requires me to cry out warning for caution, in Sydney. Nurture with artists not accountants. BURIED CHILD began my affair with this company, VIGIL may have ended it. Oh, woe. One could not have a more tragic trajectory of standard.

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