Finding the Right Gimmick for Your Art

It's great to be talented, but in far too many cases one's talent can be as unwieldy as an extra-large penis. Size may be impressive, but what you do with your endowment is what really counts in the long run.

Ever wonder how lesser talents continue to survive? The answer can be found in this brilliant musical number composed by Jule Styne (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) for Gypsy: A Musical Fable.

Not all artists are limited to one form of expression. Performers like Tony Bennett and Zero Mostel were noted for their skill as painters. Polymaths like Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and Franco Zeffirelli were famous for designing the sets and costumes for many of their operatic productions and directing and filming some of them as well.

Storytelling is often underappreciated as an art form. But when great talents research, write, and tell stories in front of live audiences, the results can be electrifying. Since 1997, Mike Daisey has intrigued audiences with such brilliantly constructed and provocative monologues as The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, The Last Cargo Cult, How Theater Failed America, and American Utopias.

In June 2007, Daisey brought his tetralogy entitled Great Men of Genius (four separate monologues devoted to the lives of P.T. Barnum, Nikola Tesla, L. Ron Hubbard, and Bertolt Brecht) to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. In October, he brought another tetralogy The Great Tragedies (which featured meditations on Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear) to the California Shakespeare Theater.

In the following fascinating interview with radio host Jian Ghomeshi, Daisey discusses Dreaming of Rob Ford (a monologue he created about Toronto's notorious crack-smoking mayor).

Currently, the celebrated monologist is preparing Mike Daisey's Moby Dick which, according to the press release, will tackle:

"....Herman Melville's masterpiece of revenge, fate, and whaling terminology in a hilarious and breathtaking 90 minutes by weaving Melville's epic saga together with the greatest and most perfect film of the 20th century -- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Ornate nautical slipknots, space worms that crawl into your ears, tattooed harpooners, and Ricardo Montalban's rich Corinthian leather chest all combine with Melville's gorgeous language to tell a sweeping story of revenge and what temperature that dish is best served at. (Spoiler alert: the answer is 'cold.' Also, the whale wins.) "

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While Daisey's performance style has him sitting at a table with a glass of water and some handwritten notes in front of him, Hershey Felder's monologues are more elaborately staged affairs. Felder has the distinct advantage of incorporating slides and film into his presentations while performing on a grand piano throughout his shows. Let me be honest: I am in awe of performers who can talk to an audience while they play classical music on an instrument.

Over the past two years, Felder has brought his one-man shows devoted to George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein (both 20th century American composers) to the Thrust Stage at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. He recently returned to town with his most popular show, Monsieur Chopin (which he has performed more than 3,000 times in cities around the world).

Because Chopin lived during the 19th century, this show gives Felder a chance to perform in period costume and display his skill with foreign accents throughout the evening. Upon entering the auditorium, he sets up the show's basic premise: that Chopin has arrived late to teach a class to several music students. However, considering that this is their first time together, he is convinced that things will go better if he does all of the performing and lets the students listen to his compositions during their first class.


Hershey Felder in Monsieur Chopin (Photo by: John Zich)

As directed by his long-time collaborator, Joel Zwick, Felder leads the audience through Chopin's life, following him from his early days as a child prodigy growing up in Warsaw to his later years in Paris (where Chopin settled at the age of 21). Together, they skillfully create the ambiance of a long gone historical era in which manners were important, talent was valued (although sometimes in the strangest ways), love was never guaranteed, and the gift of one's genius could be a blessing or a curse.


Photo of Fryderyk Chopin taken by
Louis-Auguste Bisson in 1849

Monsieur Chopin deals candidly with the composer's rocky relationship with George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin), his financial sponsorship by Jane Stirling, his fateful visit to Scotland in 1848, and his death (due to tuberculosis) on October 17, 1849. The composer's body was laid in a tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris but, as he had wished, his heart was enshrined into the wall of the burial nave of the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. As part of his show, Felder tells the story of the soldier who rescued Chopin's heart from the bombed-out church during World War II and returned it after the war ended.


Hershey Felder in Monsieur Chopin (Photo by: John Zich)

One might think that Monsieur Chopin would conclude with Felder's performance of Chopin's Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53, but the actor has a fascinating trick up his sleeve. Because he has studied Chopin's life and music so intensely over the years, Felder is quite at ease opening up the event to a Q&A session with the audience. His advantage? Because Chopin is dead, he has the uncanny ability to comment on matters past, present, and future (which Felder does with a great deal of wit).

Some audiences members may prefer George Gershwin Alone to Monsieur Chopin (Felder has yet to perform Beethoven, As I Knew Him for Berkeley audiences). What I find so remarkable about his shows is the loving craftsmanship that he and Zwick have applied to create highly literate and entertaining evenings of cultural history and musicology that are accessible to contemporary audiences (an achievement much more easily said than done).

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The 2014 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival offered the California premiere of Argentinian filmmaker Hernán Guerschuny's tricky little spoof of romantic comedies entitled El Critico. Rafael Spregelburd stars as Victor Tellez, a widely read (and severely jaded) film critic who, like his fellow movie reviewers, is suffering from professional burnout.

As a result of what he calls the "maladie du cinema," Tellez has lost all patience with the standard formula for Hollywood-style romcoms. He can anticipate every cliché -- from the big kiss with fireworks exploding in the background to the anguished confrontation in the midst of a heavy downpour and the desperate scene in which the film's hero runs like crazy to try to salvage his romance with a mysterious woman. Tellez has seen it all and the standardization of this particular genre almost makes him want to gag.


Rafael Spregelburd stars as Victor Tellez in El Critico

While Tellez and his colleagues live in an infinitesimally tiny world of people who sit in darkened rooms tallying references to filmmaking trivia and petty offenses to their fragile egos (his editor describes him as "a terrorist of taste"), life outside the screening room has become increasingly difficult for him. Not only is Tellez battling a tight deadline to find a new apartment somewhere in Buenos Aires, he's also short of cash. His well-intentioned sister has tried to hook Victor up with a local businessman who would pay him good money to write ten scenes for a film script that he might be able to produce. She also wants Victor to spend some time with his moody niece, who is driving her up the wall.


Poster art for El Critico

It doesn't take long for the niece to insult Victor's taste (which leans heavily toward French cinema) with her fondness for standard Hollywood romantic comedies and their happy endings. Meanwhile, Tellez is being stalked by a young filmmaker named Leo Arce (Ignacio Rogers) who accuses Tellez of publishing a severely negative review (that could destroy his career as an artist) without even having viewed the entire film.

One day, Tellez's real estate agent, Pinni (Blanca Lewin), takes him to see an apartment which matches his desires in every way. There's just one problem: An attractive woman named Sofia (Dolores Fonzi) seems to have gotten there first. In his desperation to rent the apartment, Tellez starts following Sofia, hoping that he can charm her into letting him have the apartment instead.


Sofia (Dolores Fonzi) and film critic Víctor Tellez
(Rafael Spregelburd) fall in love in El Critico

Sofia is the perfect mystery woman, a stereotypical manic pixie dream girl. Not only is she devilishly attractive, she's a chronic kleptomaniac who is in town briefly for the unveiling of her father's headstone. As Victor's desperation to nab the lease for the apartment sends him in romantic pursuit of Sofia, he's unaware of Leo's villainous plan to take revenge on him by using all the clichés of romantic comedies that Tellez detests.

Soon, Victor finds himself living out each of those clichés in real life, culminating in a superb scene at a departure gate at Ministro Pistarini International Airport where Sofia is about to board her flight back to Spain.


Dolores Fonzi is Sofia in El Critico

Not only does Tellez fail to get his manic pixie dream girl to stick around, he finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to console and counsel the young filmmaker who intentionally broke the heart of Victor's niece as part of his revenge on the critic (Leo has since discovered that he really loves her and wants to win her back).

El Critico is refreshing in its awareness of the weaknesses of the romcom genre as well as the vulnerability of professional critics who, at the height of their cultural snobbery, can discover that their impulses are just as venal and human as anyone else's. Dolores Fonzi is especially appealing as the mysterious Sofia. Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape