Staging the Impossible: Local Theaters Take on Daunting Feats of Interpretation

Word for Word, as its name suggests, is perhaps unique among theater companies in that, in adapting works for the stage, it doesn't change a word.

That's the 21-year-old company's mission: to bring literary texts to the stage as written, with all the descriptive passages and “he said”s that are typically anathema to live performance.

The adapting in Word for Word shows lies not in deciding what gets said but rather in who says it. There is no ponderous narrator sitting in the corner, jumping in to carry the prose in between lines of dialogue while characters pantomime. There are only the characters, speaking both dialogue and narration; some of the most powerful moments in Word for Word productions occur when one character voices narration — a description, a painful memory — that seems to belong to another. Suddenly, the godlike perspective of the author, which regular page-to-stage adaptations often minimize, itself becomes theatrical as multiple actors jockeying over what had been one person's point of view make prose into a scene.

In the company's latest, 36 Stories by Sam Shepard, the godlike perspective of the author is a problem not just of form but of content, and one the company, despite some fine acting by some of the Bay Area's most celebrated performers (Rod Gnapp, Delia MacDougall, JoAnne Winter, Patrick Alparone, and Carl Lumbly) can't quite surmount. Shepard, of course, is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, so his short stories, many of which contain play-like quantities of dialogue, seem a natural fit for the company. Yet Amy Kossow, who directs as well as adapts, unites the stories with a recurring narrator character, played by Gnapp, a seasoned Shepard interpreter. The character is a thinly veiled version of Shepard himself: a peripatetic loner, writing short sketches at different unsavory motels between aimless highway drives. Each scene, in Kossow's direction, is transported to the writer's imagination. Often Gnapp pecks at a typewriter as a scene unfolds then pins his page to the wall (to join scores of other pages in Giulio Perrone's set) upon its conclusion, effectively becoming the stodgy third-party narrator Word for Word usually avoids. While scenes that minimize his role or make him into a real character fare quite well — a surreal conversation about action as being between strangers in a greasy chicken-wing joint was particularly memorable — others take the device even further; one even attempts to dramatize his search for the right word.

Triassic Parq, a new musical by Ray of Light Theatre, also takes an unusual route in adapting. It was written by Marshall Pailet, Bryce Norbitz, and Steve Wargo. The show's chief concern, as it outlines in an early song, is to strike an uneasy balance between making as much fun as possible of a certain 1993 action movie and not borrowing so much as to get sued. But there are no Jeff Goldblum caricatures in director Alex Kirschner's inventive and spirited staging; the musical follows the giant reptiles, offering an explanation for why, in the film, they broke out of their laboratory confines on a Central American island to go on a rampage: getting jilted in love as complicated by a surprise gender transition, of course.

The six-person ensemble (Javi Harnly, Chelsea Holifield, David Naughton, Lewis Rawlinson, Alex Rodriguez, and Monica Turner), many of whom are newcomers, have so much fun with the exquisitely silly script that they make that explanation downright plausible. Even the exposition is a joy. It could so easily have been ponderous — how do you explain concisely how and why all the dinosaurs on the island are genetically engineered to be female? — but it succeeds by embracing the fact that it's ponderous. It's led, inexplicably, by a cross between Morgan Freeman and a gospel televangelist (Rodriguez, whose performance should be a study for faith healers everywhere) and backed up by lyrics like “ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling.” If a few jokes seem gratuitous, the products solely of “Wouldn't it be funny if…” impulses rather than concerns about advancing plot or character, on the whole Triassic Parq is a refreshing addition to contemporary musical theater, showing within the form's typical arc — a dreamer going on a journey of self-discovery — just how much rollicking fun can be had.

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