Features & Columns

The Party's Over

Post-holidays, theaters go dark in a whole different way

After a dinner party, three women sit around in a kitchen lamenting their marriages' unhappiness and contemplating a more permanent alternative to divorce. Just around the corner from them, a father orchestrates the execution of his new son-in-law who, admittedly, is none too sterling a character—in fact, both men are criminals. A few blocks away, a misunderstood genius shares his complex theories on the mysteries of the universe.

Somehow, it was just last month that George Bailey was standing in some of these very same spots, rediscovering the wonderfulness of his life. Here, too, were fairytale characters romping through the woods. Or families basking in togetherness and peace on earth.

But that was the holidays. Now it's January, that chilly scold that arrives each year to shake us out of the past months' comfort food and culture coma. And after New Year's, local stages offer plays that take darker tacks with serious self-reflection, challenging themes or explorations of impulses that are the farthest possible from goodwill to all.

In November and December, shows that reinforce the warm feelings of the holiday season pop up like so many candycanes on stages around the Bay Area, aiming to keep spirits bright with tales of hearth and home or holiday wonder. Local companies celebrated the holidays this year with feel-good fare like It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Little Women and The Elves and the Shoemaker, while at area ballet and opera companies there were multiple productions of The Nutcracker or Hansel & Gretel.

However, the plays staged in the months that follow the holidays, taken as a whole, might have been designed to keep audiences reaching for the Prozac until spring. The partying may be over, but outside, it's still dark, gloomy—sometimes rainy—and bound to stay that way for another two or three months. And on stage: murder plots, betrayals, dark comedy and some life-altering big ideas. Is it some sort of cultural penance for the last month and a half of cheery excess? A collective case of artistic SAD?

Ron Campbell MODEL THINKER: Ron Campbell plays the titular genius in San Jose Rep's production of 'R. Buckminster Fuller: The HIstory (and Mystery) of the Universe.' He's seen here in a production of the show at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.

Dark Balance

By the end of December, it's clear: as tasty as Christmas confections may be, no one enjoys a steady diet of sugar, let alone thrives on it.

It's certainly a quick transition from holiday candy to January vinegar in the potentially lethal dish meant to pass for a dessert in Michele Lowe's The Smell of the Kill. In the dark comedy, which opens Jan. 23 at City Lights Theater Company, three disgruntled wives serve their husbands a "meringue" made of whipped cream-covered golf balls. It wasn't unbidden meanness: their dear hubbies had protested the lack of dessert on the evening's menu by pelting their wives with golf balls. Still, no make-nice sugarplum fairies lurking on either side here.

"I feel like there's permission to do those types of [plays] when the weather is dark and cold. It affects us emotionally, even if it's not that thought out. There's more of an acceptance for doing darker stuff. Either darker or slightly scary. I feel like people are also a little bit accepting of the end of the holidays. There's been so much partying, sometimes enforced cheer. I think everybody's ready for a break," says Lisa Mallette, executive artistic director for City Lights Theater Company.

The Smell of the Kill tells of a trio of women who've been only just tolerating each other at monthly dinner parties insisted upon by their husbands, who are chums. Their spouses' increasingly infantile behavior pushes the ladies well beyond serving a golf ball-based dessert—when the three men accidentally lock themselves in a walk-in freezer, their better halves all struggle to think of a reason to let them out. The motives for possible murder here go beyond some bad table manners, but still, there's not a lot of forgiveness and family feeling in the air.

"Running a theater in Boston, there was nothing nastier than Boston weather in January and February, yet that program would often have the biggest ticket sales of the season. What I discovered was, the worse the weather was outside the more the hunger seemed to exist to get out and share a communal experience—and a communal experience of some depth and challenge. There's the need to get around the campfire and hearth when the nights are longest and hear a good story," says Rick Lombardo, artistic director of the San Jose Repertory Theatre.

At San Jose Rep, the winter atmosphere has much less of a chill at least than the icy thoughts of the ladies at City Lights, but that company's show, R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, isn't a fluffy little amusement, either. The one-man play, which opens Jan. 30, is based on Fuller's writings.

"There are big questions—how do we live our lives, what is the meaning of our lives, our place in cosmos, big philosophical questions. The things that he thought about, that he dreamed about, really include the breadth of human experiences. He was a philosopher, a scientist, a theorist, a modernist, engineer, architect. The things that fascinated him about our world and our experience are just vast," Lombardo says.

Threepenny CHEAP THRILLS: The Threepenny Opera,' Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's satirical musical about dishonor among thieves-and officials-comes to San Jose Stage Company in Feburary.

Outside Influences

Of course, schedules aren't made in a vacuum and other factors beyond the seasonal ethos and the weather can push a play into a particular slot.

In early February, San Jose Stage Company will present The Threepenny Opera (a German musical—when it comes to darkness, enough said?). The 1928 satirical musical by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill savagely spoofs the conventions of opera and operetta in a tale of thieves double-crossing each other.

The musical tells of Polly Peachum, the daughter of one thief who marries Macheath, another crook—one with a reputation as a charming killer. Polly's parents plot to have Macheath arrested and executed.

If San Jose Stage Company had kept to its original plan, The Threepenny Opera would have been produced last spring, when the company ultimately staged Jane Austen's Persuasion. However, as rehearsals progressed, something wasn't clicking.

"It didn't feel right. The conversation shifted to Persuasion. We dropped Threepenny to reload it, to get it into a production where the muses were pushing it along. We put all the actors scheduled for Threepenny into Jane Austen and that gave us time to reload and keep the mission intact," says Randall King, founder and artistic director of San Jose Stage Company.

Even though The Threepenny Opera wasn't originally intended for the Stage's winter slot, the production will have a sensibility that should fit the gloom and doom profile of this time of year. King says that the show draws on dark cabaret and Dresden Dolls imagery and has the setting of an abattoir. "It's a slaughterhouse—it's powerful and scary, the imagery that [director Kenneth Kelleher] is using as inspiration for where he wants to take it all," King says.

Shifting the show to 2014, where it now happens to fall in the middle of winter, gave the production the chance to find that intangible creative boost.

"I'm grateful that we had the time to do it. Now it's started to click," King says.

Drawn In

Naturally, neither gloomy weather nor the New Year sets hard and fast rules for any company, and where dark themes descend on many stages each winter, brighter fare springs up on some others. Dramas, introspective works and dark comedies do hold sway coming right off the holidays, but many factors figure into a play's appeal.

Lombardo was drawn to The History (and Mystery) of the Universe play in part because of what he saw as its resonance for Silicon Valley and the region.

"Certainly [Fuller's] ideas, here on Spaceship Earth, his environmental theories, taking care of the planet, it's part of the Northern California ethos. And the possibility of finding technological solutions to how we're living," he says.Mallette's first impression of The Smell of the Kill was based on the types of roles it offered.

"My motivation behind that particular choice was women. It's a female playwright. Three women on stage the whole time. Being a woman in this field, there just aren't as many roles. This has great roles for women—that was a lot of what was I thinking. And these three women are rock solid, amazing local actresses. They're all funny, too," she says.

Once she did choose the play, however, there was one perfect spot for it. Mallette says that she often experiments most with the types of plays that City Lights stages in January and June—typically the two wild card slots in the season.

"This one, there was no question: 'well, that's the January show.' Part of it is because of the dark comedy aspects. To me it was the absolutely the right slot to put it in," she says.

"It starts out where you think it's just a light comedy. Not hugely deep. Those women just unravel. Little by little they just disintegrate. I also am intrigued by plays that have to do with secrets. We all have secrets. Unveiling those, revealing those secrets. Almost sort of a mystery element to things as they unfold. The audience has fun trying to figure it out. I'm always thinking if you can get people laughing, you can open the door to other emotions," Mallette says.

And maybe audiences sometimes like an unhappy ending—at least for a few months out of the year. That could be bad news for the three husbands locked in the walk-in freezer.

Spoiler alert: Breaking Bad didn't end up so well either.