One of a Kind
John Farmanesh-Bocca somehow executes an amazingly whirlwind This Wonderful Life.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a holiday staple that reliably gets unpacked each year like a Christmas ornament. Its enduring optimism, masterful storytelling, endearing stock characters and iconic performance by Jimmy Stewart all conspire to make it a perennial movie classic. (Thanks are due also to the clerical copyright error that allowed TV stations to air it for free.)
PacRep and Not Man Apart-Physical Theatre Ensemble team up on the faithful 2005 stage adaptation, This Wonderful Life, conceived by Matt Setlock, written by Steve Murray and directed by John Rousseau. There’s a twist: a performance stunt that sounds like a dare.
Nearly all the characters– George Bailey, “Old Man” Potter, Clarence the angel, Mary, little Zuzu, more than 20 of them– are played by just one actor. That would be John Farmanesh-Bocca.
One thought presented itself at the end of his one-man show: Whoa.
This Wonderful Life delivers the story of It’s a Wonderful Life (watch those pronouns) in the vehicle of a modern-day public radio station on the verge of collapse after a fundraising drive fails, badly, to meet its mark. It’s Christmas Eve and the station’s weary owner, John Rand (Farmanesh-Bocca), complains over the phone to his mother that the actors who were to perform a live radio-theater broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life have been snowed out and, because of the underwhelming public support, he’s ready to scrap the final performance and close up shop for good.
He can’t do that, his mother insists– he owes it to his listeners. In deference, he agrees to play all the parts by himself. The show must go on.
He finishes the water in a plastic bottle, and crushes the bottle. He hurriedly prepares the props he will need around the five microphones that the absent actors would have used. Then he steadies himself behind the radio station console and speaks suavely into the microphone to his listeners.
“Hello. This is John Rand. Do you love It’s a Wonderful Life as much as I do?”
Various scripts at the ready, he launches into character(s).
When Farmanesh-Bocca plays the angels who enlist the wingless angel Clarence to intervene on George Bailey’s behalf, he speaks into a hanging microphone that carries an echo effect that lends a disembodied, celestial sound.
When Farmanesh-Bocca plays a group of kids, including George Bailey, sledding down a hill in the snow, he shifts his head around another hanging mic with each character, angling their approximate location.
To recreate the sound of a boy sledding past, he throws his head beyond the mic as he exhales “Swoooossshhhh!” When that boy, George Bailey’s brother, falls through thin ice, Farmanesh-Bocca takes the crumpled water bottle and blows it up like a balloon. It sounds like ice cracking. Ah-ha.
This isn’t just an homage to It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s an homage to radio theater, to the mechanics of storytelling, to the participation of the imagination, and to the art of acting.
Farmanesh-Bocca, as a 12-year-old George Bailey working at the local pharmacy, morphs his facial expressions, voice and body into the sprightly young boy and his grieving, elderly, drunk boss Mr. Gower. By the scene’s emotional climax, he’s hugging himself as Mr. Gower and little George Bailey, in a voice drenched with sobs: “Oh George, George… ”
He lingers just enough, then, “Cut forward,” he says. The calm narrative command sends the audience into the future as George, now a young man, shops for luggage.
“Now, now, now, now, now, now, now… hold on,” stutters Farmanesh-Bocca as radio station owner John Rand as Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey. The rich tenor and “aw shucks” mannerisms of Jimmy Stewart wow and tickle the audience.
To simulate George and Mary as they dance together, he looks up when he says Mary’s lines, down when he says George’s. He plays “Old Man” Potter as a greedy, gnarled misanthrope. He plays women, like Mary, with feminine refinement. This is good stuff. Even PacRep founder/executive director Stephen Moorer, also in the audience, looks rapt.
John Rand sits back at one point, awed at the magic of the conceit he’s creating. He has help.
On a table in the center of the set sits a Sony mini computer, queued for sound clips from the movie, like the syrupy score and atmospheric noises. When Farmanesh-Bocca throws an imaginary rock through an imaginary window, the arc of his swing comes down on the computer and activates the sound of shattering glass in one smooth, clever gesture.
But the heart is the star actor as he animates the narration with old-time radio pizzazz, gestures expressively with his free hand as he clutches scripts in the other, and nails accents, like Italian bar owner Martini’s (“I busted the juke-a-box just-a for you”.)
The compact, theater-in-the-round venue of the Circle Theater is the right setup for this whirlwind of a performance. You want to be close to the action, to catch the variety of sound effects, the nuance and inflection in the voice(s), the sweat beading off Farmanesh-Bocca’s lip as he stokes the acting fire, darting from mic to mic and prop to prop. It’s a sustained, 90-minute marathon of a performance, with no intermission, and it feels like it gets faster as the story progresses. This is something to witness.
This Wonderful Life plays 7:30pm Thursday through Saturday, and 2pm Saturday and Sunday (excluding Dec. 25; 2pm Dec. 27) until Dec. 28, at the Golden Bough Playhouse’s Circle Theater, Casanova between Eighth and Ninth, Carmel. $30-$35/adult; $22-$26/senior; $12-$15/student, military; $7/child 12 and under. 622-0100 or www.pacrep.org.