The Rock Opera Is the Thing: September 17, 2008
By Steven Leigh Morris
Published on December 30, 2008
In a phone call this week, Martha Demson, artistic director of Open
Fist Theatre Company, quoted an e-mail from her mother, who was on an
"We had a lecture from the ice pilot this morning, who told us that
from now on, we are on an expedition and not a cruise, which means we
don't know where we are going or when we will get there. All is
subject to change, and he then gave us "Plan A."
Demson couldn't read it without bursting into laughter, followed by
her observation: "Isn't this the story of all our lives?"
It certainly is the story of Open Fist's biggest hit ever, Joe's
Garage, the premiere of the late Frank Zappa's rock/mock opera about
a garage-band musician losing his way in a repressive society that
bans music. Attracting Zappa fans from around the world, Joe's Garage
sold out most of its run in the cavernous 99-seat theater. The show
closes this week, and a trio of partners Demson, co-producer
Michael Franco and Zappa's widow, Gail Zappa are strategizing on
what to do with a show that, says Demson, is "an event with
unparalleled energy, which holds meaning for a span of generations."
Franco and Demson say that offers have come in from theater owners,
producers and investors around the world, but they are all wrestling
with how to make the economics of the show with 17 actors, a
seven-piece band and an expensive production design work in larger
theaters, which would demand union salaries for the actors. (Open
Fist operates under the Small Theater contract of Actors' Equity,
which allows actors to be paid a token per-performance fee for gas money.)
Franco says that some of the interested venues are simply too large
600 seats, for example to sustain the show's intimacy. Yet the
creative team is reluctant to downscale the production by cutting out
actors or musicians for fear of losing the kind of magic-generating
spectacle that satisfies them and audiences alike. So they're now
looking into alternate models of theater production, perhaps
something more closely resembling a rock-concert tour than a run in a
traditional theater venue. Both Demson and Franco agree the best
immediate solution would be to stage the show, even briefly, in a
local midsize venue in order to generate more financial backing for
whatever they deem workable in the future. All is subject to change,
and they're still looking for Plan A.
Excerpt from "Frank Zappa's Joe's Garage Gets Its Premier 29 Years
On," by Steven Leigh Morris
At 7 p.m., Anthony Sandoval leads warm-up exercises with the ensemble
of 12 Joe's Garage actors four of them from Open Fist's resident
company. Sandoval is an invited guest instructor and student of
Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, with whom Sandoval studied at the
University of Delaware and, later, in Japan. Sandoval is taking the
company through Suzuki movement exercises for balance and breathing,
which appear like a blend of martial arts and U.S. Army drills. They
are, by design, tortuous tests of mental discipline and physical stamina.
The company forms two lines of six. They're dressed in leotards and
sweats; some wear kneepads. Each actor crosses toward the opposite
line of actors, walking pigeon-toed, stepping on a beat that Sandoval
claps out with his hands. Among the goals is to sink into each step,
to complete the gesture, regardless of its contortion, and to do it
on time. This is a warm-up for the brutal choreography that's to come.
Now they're in a circle. Keeping their torsos erect, they're to dip
with their knees and then return up on eight counts that are clapped
out, then 10 counts dipping slowly is more stressful. Now they
execute a clean jump, a quick turn and an exclamation of "ha!"
which releases the accrued stress.
After a 10-minute break, director Patrick Towne and choreographer
Jennifer Lettelleir take over. Towne's co-writer/producer, Michael
Franco, crosses the front of the stage, speaking into a flashing Bluetooth.
Jason Paige portrays musician Joe, and the cast is rehearsing a scene
from his suburban garage, where the solipsistic bliss of his music is
interrupted by a police squad responding to an excessive-noise
complaint. Herbert Russell, a gifted, roly-poly comedian, leads the
squad, which strides in, with mimed weapons drawn. But this isn't an
episode of Law & Order it's closer to the Keystone Cops.
As they drag Joe away, Towne is concerned that the police exit is too
realistic and too sloppy.
"Stride, stride," he barks at the cops while pacing in the risers.
"Stride till the thighs hurt."