Sunday, June 4, 2023

Head Over Heels (The Empty Space 2023)

As regular readers of this blog know, I have a long history with local theater, The Empty Space, dating back to their founding (and, in a philosophical sense, with the old Stone Soup theater, which had some connections via people and location to it - my wife and I had our first date at Stone Soup, and have continued to attend at Empty Space during its 20 years of existence.) 


Recently, a series of events led to The Empty Space relocating to a new location, which in turn has meant some significant changes to the experience. This is not a bad thing, of course - the new place is bigger, with far better facilities for the actors. And it is also in a better neighborhood - that was the primary reason for the relocation: between actors being threatened after late rehearsals to break-ins to the vehicles of patrons (including my kid’s car one night), it was becoming untenable to remain in that place. 


The most noticeable difference in the new space is the switch to a more traditional stadium seating opposite the stage, rather than the three-sided theater-in-the-round. I have mixed feelings about this, I think, just because the former arrangement was unique and led to creative staging. The other huge factor is that the stage is literally three times the size of the old one, which was so tight as to require sets that worked for everything, and little room for dancing when required. 


So, bigger, more traditional, and what else? Oh, the air conditioning is a lot better because the building is newer, there is more room for the art gallery, and the concession stand doesn’t violate California livestock housing laws anymore. Overall, it is really nice, and a significant upgrade in comfort level. 


We attended the opening weekend of their official re-opening of the theater after the six month relocation process. Thus, desserts to nosh, and sparkling wine based drinks, and a festive mood. 


This is also Pride Month, so the musical was selected to fit with that theme. 


Oh, and what even is Head Over Heels


Well, it is based on a 15th Century prose pastorale/romance by Sir Phillip Sidney. It is a jukebox musical built around songs by The Go-Gos. It is a gender and sexuality bending storyline, with a message that seems particularly apropos right now: a kingdom that clings to empty tradition and rigid rules will die. If it wants to live and thrive, it needs to embrace the well-being and diversity of its people. That which doesn’t grow and evolve dies. 


Sidney’s original, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, exists in two forms: an early version, and a later unfinished revised and expanded version. Head Over Heels is based more on the earlier one. And “based on” is a good way to put it - the story is recognizable, but with a lot of changes, and some significant omissions of the various subplots, many of which would have been humorous back then, but haven’t aged well. Shakespeare also stole from this work, taking a subplot for King Lear, and a scene or two each for Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale


In the Head Over Heels version, the four prophecies that the king is outrunning turn more on the dynamics of his own family than on external forces, and women are given far more dynamic roles than in the original. The names of the characters are retained, as is the archaic language. (This is played for a pretty funny joke: the rustic characters speak in the most flowery language, which is labeled as “speaking Eclogue” - a sly reference to poems in classical language on a pastoral subject. Virgil’s are the most famous.) 


The kingdom of Arcadia (the pastoral Utopia, as Sidney’s readers would have known) has existed in peace and harmony for many years, sustained by a mystic power they call “The Beat.” (They got it, in case you wondered…) But this is threatened when Arcadia’s new oracle, Pythio, reveals that it may lose The Beat, because it has failed to grow and change. Pythio - who is non-binary, neither male nor female, as the characters notice - gives four prophecies. Should they all come true, the kingdom will fall, and destruction will ensue. Each fulfilled prophecy will be announced by a flag falling from the sky. 


The prophecies are kind of similar to the ones in the original work, but….just a bit different. 


First, "Thy younger daughter will bring a liar to bed. He thou shall forbid, she he'll then assume." 

Second, “"Thou elder daughter will consent to wed. She'll consummate her love but with no groom."


These two replace the originals in which “unsuitable suitors” run off with the daughters. 


Third, "Thou with thy wife, adultery shall commit.” This one is just a bit updated from the earlier prediction that the queen will cuckold the king. However, the actual events are the same as the original, which is pretty fun. 


Fourth, "You will meet and make way for a better king.” This is pretty similar to the original, but the actual events differ a lot. 


King Basilius, rather than do the sensible thing and tell his wife the prophecy and listen to her, decides to hide the truth from her, make up a story, and set off on a journey to find and kill the rival king. His neurotic visier, Dametas, warns that this never ends well, but the king ignores him. Dametas makes up a story about a golden stag, and they all set off. 


So, who else is involved? Well, the king and his queen, Gynecia. Their two daughters, the vain and gorgeous Pamela and her plain sister Philoclea. Dametas and his daughter Mopsa, servant to Pamela. And the shepherd Musidorus, madly in love with Philoclea yet forbidden to see her. 


All it takes to set the wheels of farce and tragedy in motion are a few events. Musidorus, with the help of Pythio, disguises himself as an Amazon woman. Which results in a really awkward love square: Philoclea is in love with Musidorus, of course, and he is in love with her. But then King Basilius falls in love with Musidoris believing he is a woman. And then Queen Gynecia catches Musidoris peeing and realizes he is a man, and falls in love with him. That’s an awkward family dinner, shall we say. 


Oh, and Pamela, who has steadfastly rejected all suitors, realizes she…swings the other way. Well, Mopsa, who has long been in love with Pamela, helps her to see what her subconscious already knows. 


I won’t go any further than that, other than to say that the ending has a lot of The Winter’s Tale in it. And a LOT of naughty double entendres throughout.


The production itself was pretty good, particularly for an opening weekend in a new venue. Credit to the stage and booth crew for seamless sound and lighting, and for getting the balance in a good place for the opening. 


Just an explanation here: The Empty Space does not use microphones, but relies on its actors to project over the recorded soundtrack. This is not easy, particularly in a new space, using essentially the same equipment. The sound balance was good, but I think there were a few times the actors struggled to hear the pitch cues, so there were a few brief fumbles. As is usual for this group, the ensemble singing tends to be strong. I think too that the shape of the space eats solo voices a bit, while making the ensemble sound more full than individuals. The challenges of not having a hundred million budget. 


I’ll just briefly mention the actors. It is nice to have Jeremiah Heitman back on stage and behind the scenes. He and Ron Warren were at Bakersfield College back when my wife and I were dating, so familiar faces from when we were all a bit younger. His performance as Dametas was frenetic and neurotic and great comic relief. Julie Verrell and Savanna May as Pamela and Philoclea respectively had good chemistry as sisters in a complicated relationship with each other. Verrell really embodied the girl who knows she is beautiful and milks it quite well. Nick Ono rocked the dress (and more scandalous things) as Gynecia - he has been one of the most reliably good lead actors in pretty much every theater around town. I mean, he sings and dances and acts with aplomb. This was a bit different from the leading man hearthrob role, but he was dang sexy. 


Props also to the ensemble, who had to carry the big musical numbers with song and dance and energy - that was solid work all around. 


Finally, I wanted to mention how much I loved the set - it was a plain black on white set of cutouts, drawn in old fashioned woodcut style. This was then illuminated with colors - starting with rainbow of course - that set the mood of each scene in a subtle but effective way. Sometimes, understated is more effective than flashy. 


I am thrilled that TES is back for another season, with new digs, and a continued commitment to creating art for everyone in our community. Head Over Heels is running through June 24, so if you are local, get out and see it. for tickets and information. 


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