Sunday, February 22, 2009

Unholy Alliances

Nature is filled with curious phenomena. One of the strangest, however, is symbiosis (a situation in which two very different types of creatures have a long-lasting relationship). Whether the relationship is mutually beneficial or strictly parasitic, it can be found throughout the animal kingdom.  

In a parasitic type of symbiosis, a remora (suckerfish) may attach itself to a shark, whale, boat, and any other large object that moves through the water and can offer it a free ride. In a mutually beneficial form of symbiosis, a territorial clownfish may  protect a sea anemone from larger fish who might try to eat it. A special kind of mucus on the clownfish protects it from the anemone's stinging tentacles (which can stun and paralyze the clownfish's predators).

Many shrimp perform cleaning activities on larger species of fish. In the following video clip, a dogface puffer waits patiently as a shrimp cleans its skin.

One of the most curious symbiotic relationships among sentient creatures involves the high level of trust and platonic intimacy shared beween some straight women and gay men. Each holds a curious attraction for the other.  Each rewards the other with certain favors and very specific types of attention. When such relationships are showcased onstage or onscreen, the results can range from inspiring to maddening.

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Fans of talent competitions like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance have witnessed numerous audition flameouts by aspiring contestants whose friends didn't have the heart to tell them that they had no talent. Sometimes enabling parents are to blame. At other times an ocean of self delusion fed by a river of denial can prevent a person from accepting the bitter truth.

"Everybody thinks that actors have these huge strong egos, but it's only the slightly talented amateur who has that much confidence," notes Judy Kaye.  "Everyone else is filled with doubt."  

Kaye, who starred as Mrs. Lovett in last year's production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the American Conservatory Theatre, is back onstage at the Geary Theater in A.C.T.'s new production of Stephen Temperley's Souvenir: A Fantasia On The Life of Florence Foster Jenkins. 

For those who don't know, Florence Foster Jenkins was a tone deaf society woman with absolutely no sense of pitch or rhythm who used to hold yearly recitals in the ballroom of New York's famous Ritz Hotel. At the ripe old age of 76 she rented Carnegie Hall for what turned out to be her final recital (as well as a performance that would live on in history). 

If you have never heard a recording of "Lady Florence" butchering Mozart's music, first listen to a great artist (Natalie Dessay) perform  the Queen of the Night's monstrously difficult aria, Der Holle Rache  kocht in meinem Herzen from The Magic Flute:

Then plant your feet on the ground, fasten your seatbelt, and listen to Madame Jenkins navigate the rocky challenges of Mozart's aria:

Souvenir begins with Cosme McMoon at the piano in a Manhattan cocktail bar, reminiscing about how he met Madame Jenkins and became her vocal coach and accompanist. As the play develops, we witness a very tenderly-drawn portrait of the symbiotic relationship between an aging society dilettante and a gay man who is too kind to speak a brutal truth to someone with the soul of a golden retriever and a puppy-like devotion to classical music.  

As McMoon, Donald Corren is a model of wit and charm, masking his musical frustration with the kind of patience required to handle an ego like that of Florence Foster Jenkins. As the years roll by (and climax with the dreaded one-night stand at Carnegie Hall), McMoon stands in loving awe of Florence's clueless joy.

Kaye's performance is a marvel for someone who has worked on many a Broadway and operatic stage. Singing off key (without damaging the voice) is not always easy for a professional musician. Mimicking the ghastly sounds that came from Florence Foster Jenkins is a daunting challenge.  At the end of the play, however, Ms. Kaye gets to sing the Gounod/Bach Ave Maria in her own voice (as McMoon imagines Florence heard it in her head). It is a moment of beautifully crafted theatrical magic, made even more touching by the fact that, by that point, the audience has succumbed to the questionable charms of Florence Foster Jenkins.

The trick here is that director Vivian Matalon never lets Judy Kaye play to the audience for laughs. He has staged the piece so that the audience is in on the joke and doesn't need to have the laughs telegraphed to them. As Florence is transformed from a rich fool to a more sympathetic figure, the audience -- like McMoon -- begins to feel a bit protective of her. 

Donald Corren and Judy Kaye (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

You won't find many plays like Souvenir (where the performances have been imbued with such gentle charm and loving tenderness). Judy Kaye and Donald Corren make a formidable team. Don't miss it!

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On Tuesday, March 21, 2006, the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival presented the world premiere of an exciting new movie musical that was written, produced, and directed by a talented young Asian American named H.P. Mendoza.  

The thunderous standing ovation which greeted Mendoza after the initial screening of Colma: The Musical also acknowledged his talent in casting the movie, composing its songs, and performing in the key role of Rodel.

Among the excited talents joining Mendoza on the stage of the Kabuki Cinema that night were his co-star L.A. Renigen and Richard Wong (who served as Director of Photography, co-producer, co-editor, and contributed to the film's sound design). Since then, Mendoza and Wong have collaborated on the movie musical thriller Option 3 (which was shown at the 2008 San Francisco Asian American Film festival). Wong also received a golden opportunity to work with Wayne Wang on The Princess of Nebraska.

The multitalented threesome returns to this year's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival with the world premiere of a new movie musical entitled Fruit Fly. A loving tribute to San Francisco's underground performance art scene (not to mention the many dysfunctional mini-dramas to be found in gay nightclubs, mixed roommate situations, and phone calls to relatives in the Philippines), Fruit Fly is filled with angst, anger, and pretentious young artists. L.A. Renigen stars as Bethesda, with Theresa Navarro as Sharon, Christine Augello as the hilarious Dirty Judy, and Shelly Kim,  M. Cat Alleyne, and Nanrisa Lee as a Greek chorus of faghags.

Fruit Fly opens with a musical number about the joys of public transit that should be embraced as a marketing tool by the managements of BART and MUNI. It then proceeds to cram an awful lot of bitter humor and emotional turmoil into 94 minutes. Mendoza's score ranges from songs about versatile bottoms to a love duet between a frustrated young man and his crooning image on the screen of his Macbook (a wondrously clever update of  the dramatic device which made The Pajama Game's "Hey There" such a hit back in 1954).

The talented men in the cast include Mike Curtis as Bethesda's gay roommate,Windham; Christian Cagigal as Gaz Howard (a slimy, egomaniacal straight magician); Aaron Zaragoza as Jacob (an aspiring, possibly untalented runaway teen), and Ryan Morales as Manny the landlord. H.P. Mendoza appears as Mark (a gay Asian man with a crush on Windham) while the festival's artistic director, Chi-Hui Yang, makes a cameo appearance as a less-than-threatening club bouncer.

Although there is much to admire and enjoy in Fruit Fly, I came away from the film with the strangest sensation. Despite H.P. Mendoza's prodigious and multifaceted creative output -- and the strong appeal of L. A. Renigen's screen presence -- the real talent to watch is Richard Wong. His stunning cinematography adds so much to this film that I found myself in awe of his "eye." 

San Francisco has received lots of exposure in various films and television series but, in many moments, Wong frames San Francisco's cityscapes in a stunning and refreshing new light. He could probably develop an impressive portfolio working on commerical travel videos (if that type of work appeals to him). He is definitely a talent whose career path merits careful attention.

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