Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Since the beginning of time, man has struggled to make sense out of unexpected events. Lightning, rain, fire, projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea are powerfully motivating factors to question why misfortune keeps ruining one's life.  

Primitive civilizations built most of their beliefs upon cycles of vegetation and fertility.  Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough did a stunning job of trying to link the common elements of magic and worship from one culture to another.  Whether examining a monotheistic or polytheistic society, Frazer found numerous ways in which man felt that some kind of supernatural power was determining his fate.  Whether the gods were seen as mischievious or spiteful, generous or angry, their existence at least offered some structure on which to build excuses for events that made no sense whatsoever.

As part of its MFA program, the American Conservatory Theater is currently taking a look at the impact of the gods on mere mortals in an updated version of the Oresteia entitled Good Breeding.  As the Conservatory's director, Melissa Smith, notes in the program:

"We choose each of our MFA Program productions with the particular strengths and needs of the specific third-year class in mind.  The members of the class of 2009 are especially notable for their physical freedom and visceral presence. They are a bold and raucous group of artists whose innate wildness, huge heart, and irrevent humor are perfectly suited to the demand of this text."
Moving the action from ancient Greece to a modern day equivalent of Studio 54, director Timothy Douglas and playwright Robert O'Hara have crafted a curious dramatic piece which gives young actors multiple roles in which to stretch their talent.  An underlying theme to his production is Douglas's realization that:

"Those of us who are 'believers' look to God or the gods for guidance, deliverance, and all meaningful sustenance.  We place 'blind faith' in this agreement, even though we really have no idea what we're going to get in return, or what Fate truly has in store for us.  What this play -- and history -- points out is that, if we insist on looking to some bigger and uninvestigated power without our own clear intentions in mind, we will indeed be screwed with in order to wake our asses up!  The big reveal to my question of meaningful creative purpose?  'It happens through us, not to us.'"

Originally performed in Athens in 458 B.C. Aeschylus's Oresteia (which is part of a trilogy) centers on the events which end the curse on the House of Atreus  Familiar characters such as Elektra, Klytemnestra, Orestes, Helen of Troy, Iphigenia, and Agamemnon are featured among the mortals, while the usual godly suspects (Hera, Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Aphrodite) are seen manipulating them through ritual sacrifices, vengeful murders, and enjoy watching mere mortals get caught up in the complicated heat of lustful orgies and dysfunctional emotional entanglements.

Good Breeding is an extremely "busy" production, which uses every bit of available space in the Zeum Theater (sometimes to maximum effect, sometimes less so).  The young cast went at it with great zeal, with special kudos going to Patrick Russell and Christopher S. Tocco as two horny hermaphrodites, Erin Michelle Washington as Iphigenia/Persephone, Weston Francis Wilson as Orestes, and Britannie Bond as Elektra.

* * * * * 

Across town at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, a collaboration with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is continuing the series of films about Italian Jews during Fascism which served as the anchor of the SFJFF's 2008 film festival.  First up in the series was Francesco Rosi's The Truce (La Tregua) (1997), starring John Turturro as a Jewish Italian chemist (Primo Michele Levi) who was liberated from Auschwitz at the end of World War II.  

While quick to kiss the ground as they leave the concentration camp in a state of shock, Primo and his colleagues soon realize that they have been transferred from one hell to another.   The Russian army has no idea what to do with them and, instead of being sent south to Italy, they are herded north to Krakow.  Lack of a common language means that the Poles and Russians lack any skill with Italian (or other romance languages).  Failures to communicate happen every minute of the day.

Based on Levi's book "The Reawakening,"Rosi's film is visually quite rich, contrasting the dismally oppressive black and white memories of life in Auschwitz with the opulence of a Polish church, the magnificent strength of old Russian locomotives and the verdant greens of empty pastures.  Rade Serbedzija portrays a mysterious but practical Greek who tries to show the overly intellectual Primo the street skills he needs to survive  ("When there is war, two things remember: shoes, then food, because who has shoes, finds food").

Stefano Dionisi offers a powerfully brooding and masculine portrayal of Primo's friend Daniele, who acquires pneumonia in the concentration camp.  Although Primo and Daniele differ vastly in their beliefs about the existence of God (at one point Primo sadly states that "if Auschwitz can exist, then God cannot exist"), it is Daniele who, as they head home to Italy, suggests that perhaps it was God who gave Primo the ability to write so that he could chronicle his experiences-- both  in Auschwitz and on the long misguided trek home.

Throughout The Truce, Turturro offers one of the most introspective protagonists I have ever seen in a major film.  His portrayal of Primo is one of the most internal pieces of acting work to be seen in many a year.  Beaten, but not bowed, he carefully digests everything that is happening around him and slowly processes the information as he struggles to return home to Turin.  It is a performance well worth seeing for its subtlety, its depth and its quiet humanity.

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