Alice Underground

Through the rabbit hole...Theater director Tom Segal has been through the rabbit hole and back. Well, nearly back. Through May 7, Segal oversees the Sonoma Community Center’s premiere production of former Sonoman Shann Nix’s ambitious musical fantasia Alice Underground.

Inspired by Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, the show is part psychosexual nightmare, part cathartic head-trip that finds an octogenarian Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Carrol’s famed titular character, left to die in a psychiatric hospital. Surrounded by hospital staff (who in her mental haze transform into the denizens of the Alice books) the elderly Alice begins to unpack the emotional baggage accrued from her lifetime of fame as an author’s personal obsession.

For Segal, mounting the original production was predicated on two notions: collaboration and interpretation.

“Collaboration I would say is one of the elements of an original piece. That’s an asset,” he says of the project, the music for which was composed by veteran composer Jef Labes. “Interpretation becomes a bigger part of it especially when the author is not present.”

Segal was brought in after Nix’s script had been completed, but had yet to be broken-down into
the pragmatic elements necessary to begin staging it.

“There was no map or format saying ‘this is how you should do it,’ but author suggestions of what she would like to see in terms of age, types of character or descriptions of the characters – those were in the script. I had to figure out how to break it down into scenes and decide what were ‘act one’ and ‘act two,’” explains Segal, who, as a rule, endeavored to maintain fidelity to Nix’s intentions.

“I personally always feel responsible to the author whether I’m directing or whether I’m a performer,” he says, though this process was complicated by the fact that the author, a former KGO radio personality, currently resides in Wales.

“Other than a few conversations and a few e-mails, I don’t exactly know what she wants other than what I’ve been able to gather from that,” Segal recalls.

To wit, the director relied on his training.

“From my training and my perspective in theater, you do what is written. If you’re going to do a departure from that, then it has to be very carefully chosen, in a way that pays respect to author’s intention,” he explains. “Sometimes you can take a script and go off into a completely different direction, use a script as a spring board to something else. That’s legitimate too. In this case, that isn’t what we were trying to do. In this case, I was trying to interpret the script that existed.”

That said, Segal did enjoy some liberty while trailblazing the new production.

“When you do an original production, you don’t have to follow what’s been done. You get to make things up as you go along. I’ve made some choices that are bizarre. They’re choice not on the beaten path but I think the script called for that,” he says. “It’s a twist of reality. It’s tough to pull that off if you want the audience to stay with you. They have to know when you’re going in and out of reality. You can’t just throw weirdness at them.”

And yet, “weirdness” is a defining feature of the often comic and occasionally harrowing story. Given the amount of teeth-bearing Alice and other characters endure, this production could alternately be titled “Malice in Wonderland.” The ad hoc psychedelia of the original Alice books is preserved and a sort of manic Rocky Horror Picture Show sexuality pervades much of the production (at one point, the White Rabbit, played confidently by Brandon Mears, dons heels and stockings and joins a burlesque number). Echoes of madhouse anti-war flick The King of Hearts and Broadway impresario Bob Fosse’s autobiographically-inspired All that Jazz abound as do elements of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf that likewise finds a character achieving redemption through madness.

As intended, looming throughout the production are unanswered questions about the nature of the relationship between author Carrol and muse Alice. The playwright does not directly accuse Carrol of inappropriate behavior, but a post-mortem tête-à-tête between the characters suggests a kind of acceptance if not forgiveness is in the cards.

“Alice has already died and she meets Lewis Carrol who has been dead almost 40 years in a spiritual realm where they work out the unfinished business of their relationship. Now they’re equals on par, it’s no longer an adult male and a pre-adolescent child. Now they’re both adults and able to communicate with each other and get real about who they were to one another and what it all meant and come to a peaceful conclusion to that,” explains Segal, who reminds that the socially maladjusted Carrol preferred the company of children — specifically girls, whom he often photographed — to that of adults.

“With his photographs, I believe his intentions were always artistic, I don’t see anything in them that’s pornographic. I think you really have to be looking under rocks to find his photos — at least the ones I’ve seen — in any way pornographic,” says Segal, “In terms of his relationship with these children and what happened behind closed doors, I can’t say, I wasn’t there — history knows. There’s no record of him doing anything inappropriate excerpt for having the inability to relate to adults and preferring the company of children, which most people find a bit odd.”

Like the playwright, Segal prefers to let the audience come to their own conclusions about Carrol, who through the course of the play, is judged by a peanut gallery of his own flawed creations, that suggests a sort of recrimination by his own psyche.

“Why did the author choose to have a trial scene in which Lewis Carrol is on trial for the pictures he took of children and for his behavior and his relationship with these underage girls? What’s the meaning of that, why is he on trial and in the end why does the author not draw any conclusions as to whether he did anything inappropriate or not? She doesn’t draw any conclusions, she just says ‘This is what happened.’ The characters in the book are putting him on trial and having fun with it in the lunatic way that they do,” explains Segal. “His characters are coming to judge him.”

Originally published in the Sonoma Valley Sun.

Nomaville: Love’s Labour Found

Title Match: Sacred vs. ProfaneFor those readers curious how the Contessa answered the question proposed in last week’s column (Will you marry me?), please know that she mercifully replied: “Yes.” Admittedly, it wasn’t overtly emphatic like Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses (“I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”). In fact, the Contessa never said “yes” as such, but rather “Of course.” Sigh. I must say that I admire her choice of words. I found it somehow more assuring, as if the “yes” were implicit, a notion that had been ripening on the vine for some time. Not that winning the Contessa’s hand is like picking low-hanging fruit, mind you. Quite the contrary – it’s like picking lots and lots of low-hanging fruit, crushing it, fermenting it, barreling and blending it, bottling it, uncorking it, pouring and tasting it, then having her say “Hmm, a bit too tannic, don’t you think?” and ordering a No. 209 gin and tonic instead.

Frankly, I’m just relieved I have good news to report here, otherwise this week’s column might have been an extended personal ad: “Rakish writer with stunning bedroom technique seeks woman of means who won’t humiliate him in the press…”

Likewise, for those readers who flattered me by offering their hands in lieu of the Contessa’s in the event of her declining my offer of never-ending marital bliss, I am grateful, but booked. I should also remind, who offered to have my babies (or as was more floridly written “be the vessel with whom you sire an army of tousled-headed Daedali”), that this is technically impossible – I know you’re a dude.

In the meantime, the wedding planning begins. I nominated getting hitched in Sonoma sooner than later, in case my charm begins to wane. Harvest seems like the time, but we have learned that the world’s other betrothed couples feel the same way. Nearly every hotel in town is already booked – so, come September, should you see a tent city in the Plaza, it is not some order of humanitarian disaster relief, but merely the Howell Wedding Party. Fortunately, the Contessa is able to overlook my poor timing.

“People who are having a love-sex relationship are continuously lying to each other because the very nature of the relationship demands that they do, because you have to make a love object of this person, which means that you editorialize about them,” said In Cold Blood author Truman Capote in an interview. “You cut out what you don’t want to see, you add this if it isn’t there. And so therefore you’re building a lie.”

Capote, it should be noted, died alone, but part of his insight resonates with me as a writer. Though I wouldn’t characterize the dance that couples do as an act of “continuously lying” as Capote did, I do think that writers are necessarily prone to editorializing. To wit, the Contessa (since some have asked) is so named in this column in deference to her privacy and because her Italian-American good looks suggest to me an aristocratic bearing. The fact is she is not an aristocrat means I must let go of my ambition to “Go Noble,” as that bumper sticker I once spied on La Côte d’Azur recommended, and marry a mere civilian. “So be it,” I might say if I were going to continue my patrician affectations. But then all men in love are kings, aren’t we gents?

Originally published in the Sonoma Valley Sun.

A bit of the old Ludwig Van…

Ludwig meet AndyLike many of us who came of age in the 80s, I styled my initial pretensions regarding classical music after the Milos Forman flick Amadeus, yes, that Academy Award-winning Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart biopic based on Peter Schaffer’s play of the same title. The film starred Tom Hulce as the titular character, who is now my personal nominee for the “What ever happen to…?” file, having passed on a role in my sci-fi flick FMRL (as an indie, our budget cannot afford an outright Hollywood grudge, so this will have to do).

Later, in my early teens I discovered A Clockwork Orange and became, like alpha-droog Alex, smitten with Beethoven, particularly as rendered electronically on Wendy Carlos’ synthesizers. And yes, everything I know about classical music I learned at the movies — you can thank John Williams for this, who pricked up my five year-old ears with his orchestral Star Wars score (tell me I’m not alone).

A few months ago, on one of those PBS-style braniac shows I chanced upon while channel surfing, I heard a pianist throw down a bracing performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Opus 53 “Waldstein” Allegro Con Brio on piano. It was staggering to me for two reasons: it was the first piece alleged to have been written by Beethoven following his descent into complete deafness (it’s aesthetic departure from his previous works, the pianist explained, can be attributed to the fact that he wrote the piece completely in his mind — imagine such focus: the soundtrack of my mind is awash with ancient pop tunes and commercial jingles); and somehow, in all my 33 and third years, I had managed never to have heard the Waldstein. This was astounding — after all, I had taken the music appreciation courses at the junior college and with the requisite attention needed to tip the balance of the credit/no credit option in my favor. So how is it that I missed such a seminal work in the canon? Because I’m a dilettante, that’s why, and like any worthy dilettante, I went straight to Internet to immediately spackle the gaping hole in my knowledge — an exercise akin to spackling Arizona’s Meteor Crater.

I went to purchase a copy of the Waldstein from iTunes and discovered to my chagrin that, though it was available, it could only be purchased when mixed into a “Greatest Hits” style album and not as a single, which I could buy with the ninety-nine cents left on my credit card. It’s as if the good folks at Apple knew that even Beethoven had a few B-sides and the only way to move them was to attach them to the hit and charge nine bucks for it. Schmucks. So, I went to their competition — Limewire. The file-sharing swap-meet had Beethoven by the bushel, but all the tunes were erroneously labeled by illiterate pirates, and none specifically were the Waldstein. Finally, I had to resort to a midi file of the sonata courtesy of Karadar Classical Music, an Italian online classical music information clearinghouse. It has none of the nuance of the PBS chap’s performance, of course – in fact, it’s rather like the plug-and-play Muzak that serves as the soundtrack on amateur websites. Um, like this one. But it’s the Waldstein nonetheless.

Black House

Chances are Raymond Martelli never whistled ska band Madness’ jaunty tune “Our House” while mowing his lawn. In fact, chances are Martelli never even mowed his lawn.

Perched atop a slow incline from Sonoma’s 4th Street East, a looming 3000 square foot structure sits dormant as it has since its purchase nearly 30 years ago.

Martelli, a resident of San Francisco, acquired the two story, three bedroom home, which sits atop 1.65 acres of prime Wine Country real estate, in 1977 for a mere $30,000 – a pittance to today’s market. An informal appraisal of the house suggests that the current price might be a hundred times what Martelli paid, putting the property and its sizable lot in the range of $3 million.

Shortly after its purchase Martelli, however, abandoned the property, which soon became overgrown with weeds and fell into a decline so precipitous that intervention from the City was necessary to prevent it from becoming a nuisance to the neighborhood.

The property at 131 4th Street East is now colloquially known as the “Black House” for it’s darkly painted exterior and generally ominous appearance.

“Property in Sonoma is at a premium, someone drives by, they’re looking around and see the property and are interested in possibly purchasing it because, obviously, it doesn’t appear to be lived in, so they come to City Hall and ask who owns it,” says Sonoma city planner David Goodison of the home, which has been boarded up since the early 90s.

“The city does have some very basic appearance standards that were updated fairly recently by city council that were intended to make sure that properties don’t become a nuisance through the manner in which they are maintained, or – as the case may be – not maintained,” explains Goodison. “In the case of this property, it actually went through an abatement process that I think was started in 1989 and probably finished up in 1993, in which the city came in through an abatement and cleared a lot of brush off the property and boarded it up, because it was just open to all comers before that time.”

There is little information available about the property. Local folklore suggests that a disagreement brewed between Martinelli and the city after the owner illegally erected bungalows on the site, later alleged to have been bulldozed by the city. Since then, the property has remained empty. Though Martinelli could not be reached for comment, however, St. Helena-based psychic Cynthea Knight could be.

After trespassing onto the property by stepping over a low, stone wall (which, of course, is not recommended), Knight, accompanied by this reporter, followed the “energy traces” of the property. She found particular resonance surrounding a decrepit fountain, but decided she could just as likely be remembering an episode of Rod Serling’s 70s era TV fright fest
Night Gallery, in which a partygoer learns his fellow guests are all ghosts. The clairvoyant quickly eschews this notion and soon receives a mental image of a man she surmises was once a Black House resident.

“I see an old guy, standing on the porch who owns the house and doesn’t want anybody in it. I don’t think he’s the current owner,” says Knight, a bright-eyed woman with bobbed hair. “He’s old and a little bit portly. He’s literally on the front step. Perhaps he’s the first owner. There were a lot of parties around the fountain,” she explains as her voice trails.

“Maybe there were little girls playing around the fountains.”
While discussing the fountain, the sound of running water becomes eerily audible. After following the vestige of a trail leading to the south side of the house (apparently blazed by a sweet-toothed trespasser as evidenced by the inexplicable presence of a strawberry soda can), we learn that the swishing noise is not water all. Undulating above head is a phalanx of bees darting in and out of a hive nestled in a hole in the upstairs attic wall.

Undaunted, Knight continues her reading, nodding her head as we stare at the buzzing colony.

“This just doesn’t happen,” she says forebodingly, then adds “People really loved it here.” After a beat, her eyes narrowed and she says drolly, “I get a lot of fairy energy around here and I’m not even into fairies.”

Knight points to what was once a terraced garden at the rear of the property, which is now a jungle of brambles rimmed by a cement walkway slicked with mud and algae.

“I keep seeing a little girl running through here, laughing and skipping wearing her fairy princess costume and doing her thing,” she says Knight.
Whether or not a fairy princess lived on the premises is lost to history.

“I don’t know of anyone ever living there,” says Wayne Wirick, Jr., the City’s Development Services Administrator.

Over a dozen years ago, it was Wirick’s task to oversee the boarding up of the property when it became something of a local hangout.

“That was something we did several years ago in response to kids and vagrants breaking into the building either causing damage or lighting fires and things like that inside the building,” recalls Wirick, after the City’s appeals to Martelli went unanswered. Finally, a formal abatement process had to been enacted to address the City’s concerns regarding the property.

“We asked Mr. Martelli to kind of clean things up and he didn’t do it, so we did it for him,” says Wirick. “Most people want to take advantage of their property in town. It’s definitely an unusual circumstance, but Mr. Martelli is an unusual individual.”
Wirick has never met Martinelli, but has attempted to contact him on several occasions to no avail.

“All of my attempts to contact him over the course of the 25 years that I’ve been here have been unsuccessful. For some reason, and this may relate to some issues that happened before I worked for the city, I don’t think he cares much for the city – so city bureaucrats trying to contact him doesn’t interest him. I’m speculating, I have no way of knowing that,” says Wirick. “As far as trying to figure him out, I stopped trying to do that a long time ago. It doesn’t make any sense in my mind.”

Psychic Cynthea Knight’s services can be retained through

Originally published in FineLife.