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A sampling of performances on Fort Wayne stages this month
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
TV is king
The Fort Wayne Civic looks at The Farnsworth Invention
Who’s the bad guy?
Bob Ahlersmeyer, who plays RCA head David Sarnoff in the Fort Wayne Civic’s production of The Farnsworth Invention, thinks Fort Wayne audiences will have a clear preconception of who they’re not going to be rooting for when the curtain first goes up.
“I think they’ll want to see Sarnoff as the villain,” Ahlersmeyer says. “By the time I get to the monologue at the end, my goal is to get people to see Sarnoff as, not necessarily this sympathetic character, but as this visionary, this person who really saw the potential of this medium and wanted to get it out there.”
But odds are, audiences will likely have abandoned looking for a stereotypical villain in The Farnsworth Invention long before Ahlersmeyer delivers his ending monologue.
The Farnsworth Invention tells the story behind the creation of television, and the battle between David Sarnoff at RCA and scientist Philo T. Farnsworth (played by Aaron Willoughby). Though in outline the play seems to have the makings of a populist indictment of big business and the plight of the little guy, there are actually many more layers to it than that, just as there are many more layers to the two men at the center of the story.
“For me, it’s the human story,” says director John Tolley. “It’s the giants in our lives that we tend to put on pedestals and idolize, and what this play does — what much great art does — is remind us that geniuses are very human, and fight the same kind of demons that we fight. The genius of course, is that they live with about the same hand each of us are dealt, and they triumph. Farnsworth struggles with grief and depression; Sarnoff’s egotism alienates people, yet these men triumph.”
In fact, Sarnoff and Farnsworth actually seem to have a lot in common — both very intelligent, both pioneers and both in their own way archetypes of the America dream, with Farnsworth the hardworking farm kid from rural beginnings, while Sarnoff is an immigrant who fled oppression and violence in his own country to become a leader of business in the United States.
Willoughby and Ahlersmeyer both use similar words to describe their respective characters, words like “vision,” “drive” and “ambition.” For Willoughby, it was that drive that helped him play the heady scientist Farnsworth. “He’s a genius, and he knows he’s a genius, but he knows he has to put a lot of effort and energy to get what he wants,” says Willoughby. “There’s this almost infectious drive that (Farnsworth) has. It’s important, and that’s what I try to emphasize.”
And for Ahlersmeyer, it was Sarnoff’s vision that undercuts the image of the man as just a ruthless business person. “Before radio had even been popularized, Sarnoff was thinking about television,” Ahlersmeyer says. “He was at the forefront of so many things.”
The Farnsworth Invention was written by Aaron Sorkin, whose many credits include The West Wing and a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar last year for The Social Network (another story about the minds and machinations behind an era-defining technological advance). Sorkin was criticized for playing loose with some historical facts in The Farnsworth Invention, in particular the ending. But on the positive side, the play bears Sorkin’s trademark fast-paced, dense dialogue, which resembles like two highly articulate people slinging ideas back and forth at each other. It’s a style that’s often parodied, but it’s a testament to Sorkin’s skill that he can make a discussion of patent laws sound like something out of The Thin Man rather than a pedantic lecture.
Still, it’s a style that presents its challenges. “As an actor, we are on all the time,” says Willoughby. “It’s fast, there’s little breathing room, and there’s a lot of material. But Sorkin lays a good map out there for an actor. It becomes easier than you might think because he crafts it so well.”
Ahlersmeyer is a big Sorkin admirer. “The wit is there, the humor is there… it’s just amazingly well written.”
Hovering in the background of the play is another, larger question: when it comes to era-defining advances in technology, the kind that end up dramatically transforming society and the way we live, who should get the credit? Is it the guy who invented something, or is it the guy who figured out what that invention might be used for?
John Tolley says that question isn’t definitively answered in the play. The emphasis on who gets the credit is how we determine success and failure, he says, but once again, the issues in The Farnsworth Invention are more layered than that. “It’s the story of how two men are shaped by their life circumstances, and how those circumstances create in them the drive to do what they do.”
The Fort Wayne Civic Theatre Off Main presents The Farnsworth Invention
Friday and Saturday, April 6 and 7 at 8 pm;
Friday and Saturday, April 13 and 14 at 8 pm
Sunday April 15 at 2 pm_
Allen County Public Library
Tickets: adults $16; ages 23 and under $11; seniors and Sunday matinees $13
Box Office: (260) 424.5220 or online: www.fwcivic.org
A new dance vocabulary
FWDC brings the innovative RUBBERBANDance Group to Fort Wayne
What exactly does the RUBBERBANDDance Group do?
According to Victor Quidja, the group’s founder, there’s no simple answer for that. “The sound bite is usually ‘oh, it’s like hip-hop and ballet fusion,’ but that’s not the truth of it,” he explains. “You don’t really see ‘oh, that’s the ballet step; oh, that’s the hip-hop step…’.”
Instead, what audiences will see when the Fort Wayne Dance Collective brings the Montreal-based group to town for a two day residency — including a performance on Saturday, April 14 — is a blend of inspirations that isn’t quite like anything else in the dance world. “I’ve kind of developed my own vocabulary and a technique, and that’s what makes RUBBERBANDance Group unique,” Quijada says. “It’s not really a cut-and-paste of my different influences; it’s more like I lived through all those bits, I ate up all those bits, I digested all those bits. This is a new form unto itself.”
Those influences Quijada refers to range pretty wide. Originally from LA, Quijada was brought up in the street dance culture when he was very young. As a teenager, he says he strayed from that culture as he was exposed to theater and more formal styles of contemporary dance. He moved to New York and became a professional dancer, working with Twyla Tharp and Eliot Feld, before going to Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, which focuses on contemporary and classical works. “So, in the course of my career, I went from the urban street dance end of the spectrum all the way to the formal concert dance world, and along the way I picked up a lot of influences, Yoga improvisation games from theater,” Quijada says.
Quijada formed RUBBERBANDance Group in 2002, when he says he wanted to explore what happened when he juxtaposed what he calls the “raw forms” of the different styles he was influenced by. But early on, he says it was difficult to find the right dancers — not many had Quijada’s depth of experience. “Everyone was coming in with a strength, but lacking on the other side,” he recalls. “I’d bring a break dancer into the company, and give them information from the contemporary side of dance, or vice-versa.”
“Now it’s a little bit different,” he adds. “The young dancers are very versatile. The way dancers are trained in the studios they have hip-hop classes, they have ‘breaking classes.’ 20 years ago, they’d teach tap dancing, jazz and ballet. Now, they do jazz class, they do a break dance class, they do classical… But that training didn’t exist back in the day.”
The group will perform “Gravity of Center” when they come to Fort Wayne. Quijada describes the piece as a loose narrative, and it represents another stage of the group’s exploration. I’m interested in seeing if I can tell stories with this new language. Is there anything still valuable in that way of presenting ideas, something concrete that the audience can follow?”
“It’s not necessarily a story — there’s a narrative there if you want to look for that, and if not, the music, the movement, is innovative and dynamic in itself, so that will grab your attention.”
The music for the piece was created by Jasper Gahunia, a frequent collaborator of Quijada’s who seems to share the dancer’s unusual depth of experience — Gahunia was trained in piano at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, and became a competitive scratch DJ. “Since he had both the classical and hip-hop in his background, I wanted see if we can use those DJ techniques on classical compositions,” Quijada says.
The RUBBERBand Dance Group has performed all over the world, and earned critical accolades for its groundbreaking work. Quijada says audiences respond to different elements of the work. Some are simply thrilled with the spectacle and athleticism of RBDG’s performances. Others respond to the classical subtleties in the music and the movement. “And those acclimated audiences, those dance audiences, they’re seeing the body move in a completely new way,” Quijada says. “It really is its own thing.”
The two-day residency will start with a lecture-demonstration at the Arts United Center — 303 East Main — Friday April 13, 4 p.m. for the public. Tickets are $5
Following will be a master class for experienced dancers at 7 p.m. in the FWDC’s Elliot Studio Theatre at 437 East Berry Street. The workshop is limited to 25, so sign up soon.
RUBBERBANDance Group performs “Gravity of Center”
Saturday, April 14, at 8 p.m.
Arts United Center
303 East Main
Tickets: In advance — $22/adults; $20/students
At-the-door — $27/adults; $25/students
Special discounted tickets $18 for groups of 10 or larger
Call 260.424.6574 to purchase tickets. Or visit fwdc.org for more information
IPFW presents Bertold Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan
Director Jeffery Casazza says he was always drawn to the work of Bertold Brecht, the German playwright and poet who penned (or co-penned) a long list of stageworks, including The Threepenny Opera, and whose ideas proved so influential that his last name was adjective-ized.
But despite Casazza’s admiration for the work, he says he never saw a production of a Brecht play that he liked.
Casazza’s theory: by the time Brecht’s work started to be translated and widely produced in the US in the 60s and 70s, the theater world had lost the original source. Brecht died in 1956, and his collaborators were writing in German, so all they had to go on to understand what Brecht was trying to do were theories.
“So, Brecht’s work was supposed to be cold and calculating; it was supposed to be educational,” Casazza says. “The play was supposed to teach the audience something.”
And that’s all accurate, Casazza says. Brecht liked a classical style of theater, where the audience was aware they were watching a play, as opposed to realism. Most of his plays dealt with some social issue, and it was usually pretty bleak. “Brecht didn’t want audiences to be ‘magically transported’ into the story,” Casazza explains. “If they do that, they’re going to be empathetic; they’re not going to learn anything.” If audiences feel the hopelessness of this bleak portrait, they’re not going to want to change it.
And as we said above, Casazza thinks that’s all accurate. But, it’s an incomplete picture. “Brecht is all about what he calls ‘dialectics’ — contradictions,” says Casazza. “They are all over his plays. But for a long time, directors and critics seem to miss some of the humor in those contradictions that come up in Brecht’s work. It’s not supposed to be all educational.”
In short, like any other theater person, Brecht wanted your attention. He wanted you to be entertained and amused as well as educated. He didn’t want to be a pendant. But his work is so idiosyncratic — and sometimes his vision is so bleak — that it’s difficult to see some of those nuances.
Casazza is putting some of his theories to the test when he directs Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan for IPFW.
The story itself sounds like a fable. Three gods come to the city of Szechuan, searching for people who still follow the principles of goodness, honesty, charity, kindness, etc. But they find those principles in short supply; the only person to show them any kindness is Shen Teh (Halee Bandt), as prostitute. They reward her, and the money allows ShenTeh to open a small shop. But ShenTeh’s inherent goodness makes her the target of unscrupulous people who try to take advantage of her. To protect herself and her interests, she “invents” a cousin, disguising herself as Shui Ta, who is as ruthless as ShenTeh is compassionate.
The Good Person of Szechuan is one of Brecht’s more popular plays, and is a great example of the “dialectics” Casazza says the playwright was drawn to. It’s serious social commentary, but it’s a fable (written at a time when realism was considered the correct way to tackle serious social issues); it paints the portrait of an incredibly bleak world, yet there’s something “removed” about the characters…
And in maybe one more contradiction, Brecht, for a mid-20th century Marxist, hardly toed the party line. The poor in The Good Person… are portrayed as lazy and conniving, just as corrupt as the rich.
“I don’t know the last time Brecht was done in Fort Wayne,” Casazza says, conceding he’s only been in town for a few years. “Hopefully, people who are somewhat familiar with Brecht won’t think ‘oh, that’s that educational stuff,’ because I don’t think that’s what Brecht wanted. Does this play deal with some dark issues? Absolutely. But it has its very funny, very energetic moments.”
IPFW Department of Theatre presents The Good Person of Szechuan
Fridays April 13, 20 at 8 p.m.
Saturdays April 14, 21 at 8 p.m.
Thursday April 19 at 8 p.m.
Sunday April 22 at 2 p.m.
Williams Theatre at IPFW
Admission for IPFW students with ID is free
$14 Adults, $12 Seniors/Faculty/Staff/Alumni
$10 Groups of 10 or more
$ 5 Students 18 and under
$10 Other “college” students with ID
The IPFW Larson Ticket Office in the Gates Athletic Center is open Monday – Friday, 12:30 – 6:30 pm from Sept. 1 – May 31. Patrons are encouraged to call in advance to reserve their tickets.
Box Office: 260-481-6555
For information call the IPFW Larson Ticket Office at 260-481-6555 or visit ipfw.edu/theater