All Over the Map
After the War in San Francisco, My Favorite Year in Chicago, and Chekhov Lizardbrain in Philadelphia.
His latest effort is After the War. Commissioned by the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, the play is currently receiving its world premiere production there, directed by artistic director Carey Perloff.
It is set in San Francisco following World War II and revolves around the inhabitants of a boarding house owned and operated by Chet Monkawa, a former jazz musician who was one of the nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans stripped of their civil liberties and relocated to American internment camps during the war. Monkawa was also one of a minority of men nicknamed "No-No Boys" for refusing to sign a loyalty questionnaire. "The No-No Boys were protesting the internment in the most general terms," says Gotanda, "but after the war, they were ostracized by their own communities because they caused trouble."
As part of his research, he drew inspiration from John Okada's groundbreaking 1957 novel No-No Boy. He dedicates his play to the novelist and to fellow playwright August Wilson, to whom Gotanda has been frequently compared: "August I knew, John Okada I didn't. But I wanted to tip my hat to an author who wrote about a subject that hadn't been written about and who never really received the recognition for it."
The A.C.T. production features original compositions by ethnomusicologist and Guggenheim Fellow Anthony Brown, as well as found music of the era. "The music is so much a part of this world," says Gotanda. "It paints the background and social context. This is the era when jazz was moving from swing into be-bop. In terms of who plays jazz, groups were segregated then; Chet talks about racial discrimination within the jazz scene."
The boarding house is home to a diverse array of characters, including an African American man and his sister-in-law; a Russian Jew recently arrived in America; a Japanese American bachelor; and a Caucasian taxi-hall dancer who's living with her dim-witted brother. According to Gotanda, "The play is about how communities rub up against each other. When people literally get into bed together, what is revealed in those moments of intersection?"
Many observers anticipated that the musical My Favorite Year -- with a score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and a book by Joseph Dougherty, based on the popular film of the same title -- would be a big hit when it opened at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater in 1992. But that production stumbled and closed in under three months, even though the cast was headed by such talents as Tim Curry, Andrea Martin, and Lainie Kazan.
Happily, the current revival of My Favorite Year at the Bailiwick Repertory in Chicago has been very well received. An especially noteworthy aspect of the production is that it incorporates some of the revisions that have been made by the creators with an eye toward giving the show another shot on Broadway.
"Flaherty and Ahrens hit the big time with Ragtime, so there's a tremendous amount of interest in their earlier shows," says David Zak, director of the Bailiwick production (and the company's artistic director). "My Favorite Year is sort of an old-fashioned musical. Maybe people didn't want that back in 1992; but I suspect that with some of the shows that have opened since then, like Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Drowsy Chaperone, audiences have again come to look at this type of entertainment as very valid."
Set in 1954, My Favorite Year tells the story of Benjy Stone, a freshman writer on TV's King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade, who's assigned to keep the reckless, boozing Hollywood swashbucker Alan Swann out of trouble while he's preparing for a guest appearance on the show.
"After analyzing what happened with the original production," says Zak, "I think the writers felt that the character of Swann was a little too dark. We're not using the revised version of the book for our production, but we do have two new songs for Swann. The first one is called 'Always Put on a Good Show.' It's upbeat and lively, so much so that we decided to use it as our curtain-call music. In the second act, there's a very funny new number called 'Swann Song,' which is all about his terror of live television."
Next up at Bailiwick is Jerry Springer: The Opera. Says Zak, "We enjoy doing these big musicals in a 150-seat theater. It allows us to focus on the characters, so that the audience can really connect to their journey."
"In our plays, we often try to take cultural chestnuts and chop 'em up," says Dan Rothenberg, co-artistic director of Philadelphia's award-winning Pig Iron Theatre Company and director of its latest project, Chekhov Lizardbrain. As the title implies, this new work from the physical theater troupe investigates the work of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, but in a unique manner. Although Rothenberg says that there are "a few Chekhovian gags," he insists that prior knowledge of the playwright is not necessary and comments that "Chekhov aficionados may read more into it than is actually there."
Concurrent with the troupe's study of Chekhov was its interest in the triune brain theory, initially proposed by Dr. Paul D. MacLean. "If you look anatomically at the brain, it's divided into three sections," says Rothenberg. "The brain stem is analogous to a lizard brain and controls basic functions like hunger, breathing, sleeping, and the startle reflex. The limbic system, or 'dog brain,' is where your emotions are generated. And the neocortex is where you solve logic problems, have two emotions at the same time, and look to both the future and past."
Chekhov Lizardbrain uses these concepts as a starting off-point, although Rothenberg calls what the company does "imaginative science" rather than labeling it as an attempt to impart factual lessons. "Chekhov himself was a doctor, and he certainly applied his scientific observation to his understanding of the human condition. We imagine this as a parallel project, taking the current neuroscience and trying to use it as a lens to see what people think human beings are and what consciousness is. One of the funniest and most unusual things we found is that when you try to have two emotions at the same time, you become completely still. It's very hard to breathe. A lot of people complain that, in Chekhov plays, everyone is so still. If you consider the way the characters are living in the future or living in the past and having two emotions at the same time, it makes sense that they would be so static."
Pig Iron creates its productions through a process of collaborative writing and improvisation. The company's workshops generated large amounts of material that has ended up in the show. Says the director, "We loved hearing one of the performers, James Sugg, try to talk from his lizard brain. We howled with laughter and were moved by his strange, Beckettian rhythms. We said, 'Wow, it's almost like you are Chekhov Lizardbrain.' So, that's now a character: the show's somewhat reluctant narrator, who's kind of a cross between George Burns and Hal from 2001."