Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Trapped In A Web Of Lies

There's an old saying that "curiosity killed the cat."  For those who have gone the extra distance of poking into someone's private affairs, their "need to know" has sometimes brought sudden death to a once vital friendship. For better or worse, there are reasons some people have secrets. Sometimes it's because they can't handle the truth. More often, it's because they have no desire to revisit an extremely painful truth.

Nevertheless, secrets are a source of dramatic tension that frequently offer fertile ground for writers of mystery and tragedy (as well as comedy).  This scene from Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta, H.M.S. Pinafore (in an updated version from New Zealand's Esgee Entertainment), explains how things are seldom what they seem.

A small Bay area theater company that has enjoyed consistent success in bringing new works to fruition, the Encore Theatre Company scored a resounding triumph with the world premiere of a new play by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. Billed as "a blog turned into a play," T.I.C. (Trenchcoat In Common) is a meticulous and deliciously crafted farce delicately balanced on top of a mystery caper that will tickle your funny bone while raising serious questions about the justifiable level of paranoia in your life.

The cast of characters includes:
  1. Sabra (Arwen Anderson), a ditzy blonde from Boston who has relocated to San Francisco after possibly killing a former boyfriend. When not bawling her eyes out, this desperately needy, pathologically perky dame (who volunteers for a questionable nonprofit) is nervously spreading sugar all over the place. Literally. Her personal ad states that she looks forward to going out on a date during which she could be mentally or physically challenged.
  2. Claudia (Anne Darragh), a disheveled, aging, angry and paranoid ex-hippie who stomps around in cargo pants and a rather butch haircut. When not toking on a joint, she likes to take out her aggressions against men using her favorite axe. Most of her social life has involved protests on behalf of political causes (No more wheat!) and attending rallies in San Francisco's parks.
  3. Kid (Rebecca White), an obnoxious, technically-savvy young hipster who, following her mother's death, has come to live with her sperm donor father. She's, like, totally grossed out by all the adults living in the building behind her father's cottage and thinks that one of them is just waaaaay too old to be on MySpace. Far too intelligent for her own good, she would happily explain what a tenancy-in-common is to the audience if she hadn't started boring herself after 10 words. She constructs her impressions of the people she meets through a combination of no-holds barred voyeurism (aided by a strategically placed fleet of webcams), some high-tech eavesdropping with her cellphone, and by Googling snippets of words each time she has a question. WTF!
  4. Dad (Michael Shipley), a narcissistic gay man addicted to cybersex who is convinced that his stomach talks like Oprah Winfrey. Quick to offer "too much information," he is desperately trying to find some common ground with his newly-arrived daughter.
  5. Shye (Lance Gardner), an unemployed, pouty and rebellious, possibly even suicidal gay musician wannabe who managed to scrape by on the $600 he earned last year.  Plus his trust fund. An extremely passive-aggressive spoiled brat who grew up in Marin County with a debatable level of talent, he has a few nasty secrets to hide.
  6. Terrence (Liam Vincent), the neighborhood pervert, is a flasher with more fetishes than you want to know about. A decidedly "old school exhibitionist," who has been having trouble shocking people on the street (because of all the free porn on the Internet), he's not about to give up a long tradition of public exposure that has been handed down through his family. 
Rebecca White (Photo by Evren Odcikin)

The setup is simple.  Shortly after arriving and being, like, totally grossed out by her biological father ("the seed source"), Kid sets up a series of webcams aimed to capture the action in the windows of the bedrooms belonging to the tenants-in-common of the apartment building in back of her. Furiously blogging her comments about what she has seen, she triggers a series of events and suspicions which dramatically increase the level of paranoia among the building's tenants.

Director Ken Prestininzi begins the evening with an intriguing soundscape of ring tones, garbled speech, and heavy breathing.  At critical moments each person's ring tone identifies the commentary that ensues and is reflected in Kid's blog. As the secrets revealed through a process of clandestine voyeurism and determined exhibitionism build to a juicy climax, Nachtrieb's script takes a sudden turn into the realm of murder mystery.

Liam Vincent and Rebecca White (Photo by Evren Odcikin)

The playwright, who does a lot of writing in Mission District cafes, has a great feel for the technoslang of young bloggers who are quite full of themselves.  Under Prestininzi's deft direction, the tightly-wired ensemble -- anchored by Rebecca White's Kid -- does yeoman work in a farce that requires split-second timing. 

Jessica Fletcher would, no doubt, be horrified by the snarkiness of it all. Perry Mason and Della Street would surely question Kid's technique. The audience, however, did not stop laughing from the beginning of T.I.C. straight through to its astonishing end.  

Neither will you.

* * * * * * * *

A much more somber exercise in voyeurism and intrigue can be found on Wednesday, January 21 at the Berlin & Beyond Festival. Written and directed by Christian Schwochow, November Child is a gripping identity drama that starts innocently enough, with two young women skinny dipping in the cold waters of northern Germany's Mecklenburg Lake District. 

Inga works at the local library and frequently visits her grandparents (who are starting to have problems with their health and wish she would move back in with them). Meanwhile, in Konstanz, a frustrated academic decides to take time off from work in the hope of finally writing his novel even if, by doing so, he risks losing his marriage.

What these two strangers have in common is a secret from their past.  When Robert (Ulrich Matthes) arrives at the library where 25-year-old Inga works -- seeking help with some information about her town's history -- he explains that he is trying to locate a child who would have been born in November, 1980.  Take one guess who fits that description....

Up until this point in her life, Inga has always believed that her mother, Annaliese Kaden, drowned in the Baltic Sea. Even the grandparents who raised her have never known the real story behind Anna's disappearance.  

In truth, Anna once gave shelter to a wounded Russian soldier, had a child (Inga), and then abandoned her six-month-old infant in order to follow Juri across the border to West Berlin. Although Juri had assured her that they would be able to send for the child, things didn't quite work out as planned. 

Anna (Anna Marie Muhe) and young Juri (Ilja Pletner)

Anna came into Robert's life several years later, when she enrolled as a student in one of his creative writing classes.  When Anna attempted to tell her story as part of a creative writing assignment, no one would believe her. Robert now wants to co-opt her story as the source material for his novel and, as part of his research, find Anna's child.

As Inga shows Robert around town, a friendship starts to build.  But when Robert breaks the news that he knew Inga's mother, all hell breaks loose. Inga becomes furious with her friends and grandparents for hiding the facts from her and sets off with Robert, determined to track down her mother. Although he knows that Inga will never find Anna, Robert is content to help her along because doing so will provide more background for his novel.

What he doesn't count on is Inga's resourcefulness  and her determination to track down the answers on her own terms (duh, she's a librarian). After Robert tells her how to find Juri -- who shares with her the true identity of her biological father -- Inge learns the sad reality of her mother's fate.  

Although the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 may have reunited Germany, it could not reunite a lot of German families (Anna's family being an obvious victim of circumstances). As Inga goes through the classic stages of grieving for her mother and a past she never knew, the film ends with her taking control of her life -- and her mother's past -- in a startling, yet empowering way.

Double cast as both Inga and Anna, Anna Maria Muhe delivers the kind of sharply focused, intelligent and insightful performance that makes one think of a young Meryl Streep. Ilja Pletner (young Juri), Yevgeni Sitokhin (older Juri), Christine Schorn (Inga's grandmother), Hermann Beyer (Inga's grandfather) and Thorsten Merten (the missing link to the puzzle) give strong support as poignant pieces of Anna's troubled past. Here's the trailer:

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