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Bringing Frank Zappa's Garage to Life

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 Arctic cruise:

“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.”