Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Brothers and Sisters

Consciously or subconsciously, math plays a tremendous role in our daily lives. Whether we are in the process of paying for dinner, checking box office receipts for the previous weekend's new films, thinking about purchasing a book that has been on The New York Times best seller's list, or distracted by that hot number leaning against a lamppost (whose bulging pecs are straining against a metallic blue tank top), mathematical processes form the foundation on which many thoughts rest.

Think, for a minute, about how we use non-negative integers (also known as natural numbers) to name things and prioritize our thoughts. Gay men in China use zero and one to self-identify as bottoms or tops (if you can't understand why, think of how those two numbers are shaped). During The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere New England patriots were told to wait for a lantern signal from Boston's Old North Church (one if by land, two if by sea) that would tell them how British troops were advancing. And who could forget Billy Wilder's 1951 hit comedy film, One, Two, Three?

Stephen Sondheim refers to certain songs as "list songs" because they have been written around a particular theme. Other songs may focus on the strength of a particular number. Consider this lyric taken from "This Nearly Was Mine," a song written by Rodgers & Hammerstein for their Pulitzer prize-winning 1949 musical, South Pacific:
"One dream in my heart
One love to be living for
One love to be living for
This nearly was mine.

One girl for my dreams
One partner for paradise
This promise of paradise
This nearly was mine."
Numbers can trigger all kinds of cultural associations. The number "zero" (0) might connote:
  • Zero gravity
  • Someone we consider to be a total loser ("What a zero that guy is!")
The number "one" (1) might refer to:
  • The rousing finale of A Chorus Line: "One Singular Sensation."
  • A unique thing or individual, sometimes described as a "oner."
  • A dollar bill.
  • "One Is The Loneliest Number" (a hit song by Three Dog Night).
  • Michael's rare moment of introspection in The Boys In The Band ("One thing to be said for masturbation -- you certainly don't have to look your best!").
The number "two" (2) might bring to mind:
The number "three" (3) might elicit thoughts of:
Just think of some of our most popular sayings:
  • "Countdown to zero!"
  • "One down, two to go."
  • "One for the money, two for the road, three to get ready, and four to go!"
  • "It takes two to tango."
  • "Two's company, three's a crowd."
  • "Three strikes and you're out!"
  • And, of course, the alcoholic's method of counting drinks: "One. Two. Three. Floor!"
When critics refer to a key point that they consider to be "integral" to a film's plot -- or describe a character as being a person of integrity -- their statements refer to the wholeness or consistency of a person or thing. The number one (1) -- when multiplied or divided by one (1) --yields one (1). The number two (2) works differently. 

Two is the square root of four and the cube root of eight. Multiplying one by one will always yield a result of one. However, multiplying two by two leads to a wider range of permutationsTwo very intense dramas are being presented to the public this month by two of the Bay area's leading arts organizations. In each drama, the number "two" (2) plays a key role in moving the plot forward.

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Theresa Rebeck's intense drama, Mauritius, focuses on two sisters fighting over two very rare stamps coveted by two scheming philatelists. It is also an increasingly rare phenomenon for audiences attending San Francisco's Magic Theatre: a two-act play determined to show that there are at least two sides to every story. 

Zoe Winters and Arwen Anderson (Photo by: David Allen)

Rebeck's careful plotting and taut writing brings to mind such old-fashioned well-made plays as Frederick Knott's 1966 mystery thriller Wait Until Dark, Anthony Schaffer's 1970 thriller Sleuth, and Ira Levin's 1978 hit Deathtrap. Smartly directed by Magic Theatre's artistic director, Loretta Greco, the plot revolves around:
  • Jackie (Zoe Winters), a young woman who was undoubtedly abused and beaten as a child. Following the lingering death of her mother (for whom she played caretaker), Jackie has been going through the old woman's personal belongings and come upon a potential treasure that could change her life.
  • Mary (Arwen Anderson), Jackie's older sister, who learned about stamps from her grandfather, has a keener appreciation for what Jackie's find is worth, but could never quite get around to visiting her mother before the old woman passed away.
  • Philip (Warren David Keith), a disgruntled old curmudgeon who deals in rare stamps and hates people who come into his shop wanting to know if the stamps they've found have any value.
  • Dennis (James Wagner), Philip's friend/assistant who becomes much more motivated to help Jackie once he spies some extremely valuable stamps in the album she has brought into Phil's shop.
  • Sterling (Rod Gnapp), a ruthless businessman and stamp collector, easily driven to violence who, several years ago, pulled a fast one on Philip.
Zoe Winters, James Wagner and Warren David Keith
 (Photo by: David Allen)

Each of these characters could acquire vast wealth (more than $6 million) by selling the rare one-cent and two-cent stamps from the island nation of Mauritius (the only known home of the long-extinct dodo) that Jackie has stumbled across. Why? In 1847, Mauritius became the fifth place in the world to start printing and using postage stamps. Among the rarest stamps in the world, the Mauritius "Post Office" stamps shown below are the Holy Grail of philately.

The desperate lengths to which some people will go, the smarmy deceptions they will employ, and the sibling rivalry between two sisters with wildly different personalities, concerns, needs, and priorities lie at the heart of Rebeck's play. Seen at an early preview, the performances from each member of the ensemble were rock solid, intensely felt, and carefully guided by Greco's directorial hand.

Rod Gnapp and Zoe Winters (Photo by: David Allen)

It isn't often that one has a chance to experience such an intense well-crafted, beautifully directed, and magnificently acted two-act drama from a contemporary playwright. Although scheduled to run through June 14th, I would hope that Magic Theatre's production of Mauritius gets extended. It could easily become a desperately-needed cash cow for the company.  You can order tickets here.

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Give Me Your Hand (Donne-moi la main) -- which will be shown on Thursday, June 25th at the Castro Theater as part of Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) -- is by no means a typical road trip film. It begins with a curious animation segment in which two young men who have a near-psychic connection alternate between good-natured teasing and attempting to pummel each other to bits.

After the initial title sequence, we meet the film's two protagonists: 18-year-old identical male twins who are hitchhiking through the French countryside as they head south to attend their mother's funeral in Spain. Antoine (Alexandre Carril) is straight, has a distinctive scar above his left eye, is noticeably the more outgoing of the two, and has no qualms about trying to pimp out his gay twin brother when confronted with a desperate need for cash. Quentin (Victor Carril) is hypersensitive, artistic, frequently seeks refuge in his sketch pad, and tends to be moodier and more introspective than his brother. One twin likes to amuse himself making strange sounds (which he knows will drive his brother crazy) on a small harmonica he always carries in his pocket.
Pascal-Alex Vincent's hauntingly beautiful film is not about the kind of incestuous physical attraction between identical twins that so many gay men fantasize about. Instead, it is one of those "can't live with him, can't live without him" stories in which Antoine and Quentin's differences seem more and more to be two parts of a confused, frustrated, and often angry whole. While the twins seem to share an unwritten form of communication that is often quite noticeable in their body language, each knows how to infuriate his brother. It's obvious that these two young men have been fighting their "other half" for most of their lives.

The dialogue in this film is quite sparse. Much of the conflict is captured with careful editing underwritten by a curiously insightful musical score from Bernd Jestram and Ronald Lippok. As the brothers head south on foot, by car, by truck and by train, they are seen enjoying various sexual liaisons (Antoine with several women, Quentin with a migrant farm worker). The strength of the film comes not just from the near-magnetic force that keeps the twins bound to each other, but from the stunning cinematography by Alexis Kavyrchine which provides viewers with a rich visual treat. 

The linear narrative that sets Give Me Your Hand on its path is quite secondary to the ways in which the film examines the behavior of two testosterone-laden teenage twins and how they respond to a series of peculiar challenges. The following video by William Kara shows some behind-the-scenes action from the making of this stimulating and very satisfying film.

Here's the film's official trailer:

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