Sunday, August 16, 2009

Everybody's Got Tsuris

Here's the nasty thing about secrets: they don't like to stay hidden. As hard as one might try to keep a secret, reminders keep popping up in plain view. Reminders that trigger memories.

  • The kind of memories that feed and exacerbate self-doubt.
  • The kind of memories that increase one's fear of being found out.
  • The kind of memories most people would like to forget.

  • What may have started out as a simple little lie often has a way of burrowing its way into a person's subconscious and popping up at inappropriate moments like a guilty game of Whac-A-Mole. The only problem is that, instead of furry little moles that one can attempt to hit with a mallet, what keeps popping up are unwanted memories that leave a person beating up on himself, instead.

    This month, three intense family dramas had their Bay area premieres. Two were Israeli films that were screened during the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The third was an award-winning play enjoying its first national tour. What these three dramas proved beyond any reasonable doubt was that a person doesn't have to be Jewish to have a shitload of tsuris on his hands. Whether in the Midwest or the Middle East, there are guilt trips galore!

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    Written and directed by Eran Marev, Zion And His Brother is filled with the raw emotions of dueling siblings. Young Zion (Reuven Badalov) and his 17-year-old brother Meir (the extremely hot and hunky Ofer Hayun) frequently wait by a pay phone for calls from their divorced father. Both boys cling to a belief that he will reunite with their mother (Ronit Elkabetz), who has been dating an older man named Eli (Tzahi Grad).

    With two overly energetic boys bursting with adrenaline and testosterone on her hands, Zion and Meir's mother is having a tough time keeping her family together. At 14, Zion is the smaller and more sensitive son, prone to questioning and introspection.

    Meier, on the other hand, is filled with rage (which he has no problem expressing with his fists). The fact that Zion and Meir must share a bedroom in their tiny apartment doesn't help matters at all. When the two young men are not giving each other total emotional support as brothers, they are trying to pummel each other to bits.

    Zion(Reuven Badalov) and Meir (Ofer Hayun)

    Eli, who has asked the boy's mother to move in with him, understands Zion's need to be physically separated from his older brother. While he is sensitive to the younger boy's needs, he's not about to take any shit from Meir, who has been dishing out insults in venomous attacks aimed at sabotaging the relationship between the two adults. While Zion is respectful and tender to his mother, Meir has taken to accusing her of being Eli's whore (and telling Eli that she's only after his money).

    One day, when Zion goes for a swim in the ocean, he returns to the spot where he had left his clothes to find that someone has stolen his sneakers. A few days later, when he sees a young Ethiopian student at his school wearing the same style of sneakers, he mistakenly assumes they are his stolen shoes. Tempers flare and, after Zion comes home bruised and battered, Meir gets on his bike and avenges his brother's beating.

    Unfortunately, just as Meier is chasing Salomon around the corner of a building that stands right next to some train tracks, a commuter train comes barrelling by and instantly kills the Ethiopian boy. When Meier returns without any explanation of what happened, Zion is stuck with the knowledge that by mistakenly identifying the Ethiopian as the thief who stole his sneakers, he has become responsible for the boy's death.

    Reuven Badalov as Zion

    As the two boys try to resume a normal life, the macho Meir orders a girl he has been seeing to get out of his truck and drives off, leaving her alone. When Michele (Liya Leyn) turns to Zion (who has been watching closely) for comfort, the two of them start to establish a bond. When Meir returns home one night to find his younger brother lying on the bed with Michele, his hostility only grows worse.

    Eventually, Zion is forced to choose between being loyal to his older brother through thick and thin, or choosing a path that will take care of his own needs -- a path that might even lead to less fighting.

    Marev's film benefits from Ofer Hayun's muscular performance as an extremely angry young man. While the others in the small cast also create strong characters, Hayun's sullen, pouting and highly energetic acting dominates any scene in which he appears. Here's the trailer:

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    Lost Islands introduces us to the Levi family, which has always enjoyed watching reruns of the Australian television series entitled The Lost Islands. An intensely close-knit clan, the Levis love to break out into spontaneous moments of dance in their living room, or sing the theme from Love Boat together. When their battered-down car breaks down in the middle of nowhere because their father (who is proud to own an American car that he claims was built with NASA's technology) refuses to die with a full tank of gas, they patiently wait for him to pour some whiskey into the car's gas tank so they can all start to push the vehicle.

    Instead of hoping to become a doctor or lawyer, eldest son David (Pini Tavger) has his heart set on a career as a plumber. As the movie begins, David is engaged to Shimha (Michal Levi), a rather jealous and possessive young woman.

    Ofer (Oshri Cohen) is a young macho Israeli who happily uses a set of dumbbells to strengthen his lean, athletic body for the day when he can join Israel's special forces and get where the action is. Ofer's twin brother, Erez (Michael Moshonov) is quieter and more intellectually inclined.

    As twins, Ofer and Erez have always had a pact that whoever spots something or someone they desire first, has dibs on it. The two brothers can often be found hanging out with their best friend, Boaz (Ofer Shechter), who has been given the loving nickname of "Grandma."

    The boys' father, Avraham (Shmil Ben Ari) and mother Sima (Orly Silbersatz) have their hands full. In addition to David and the twins, there is a younger son, Ido (Guy Kresner). Avraham has always stressed the importance of following your dream in life and never letting anything stop you from pursuing your goals. But when Ofer and Erez simultaneously fall in love with Neta (Yuval Sharf), an unexpected crisis hits the family.

    Yuval Sharf as Neta

    Ofer is quick to lay claim to the girl, despite the fact that she finds his macho attitude quite repulsive and thinks he is a total asshole. Instead, Neta is drawn to Erez who, out of loyalty to his pact with his twin brother, defers to Ofer's territorial claim on the young woman.

    After Neta and Ofer quarrel, she and Erez end up spending the night on a nearby beach. The next day, when they go to Avraham's office to get money for bus fare that will take them back home, Erez is shocked to see his father making out with his secretary. In a fit of pique, he jabs a knife into one of the tires on his father's car, thereby leaving the vehicle with a flat.

    Shortly after Erez and Neta return to the Levi home, the family receives news that Avraham has been in a car crash and is in the hospital. The accident leaves him paralyzed from the waist down, Erez consumed with guilt, and the family dynamic dramatically changed.

    In order to get away from home and prove himself to be a man, Erez enlists in the Israeli army, joining the special forces and effectively robbing Ofer of his dream. Ofer is left behind to bathe and take care of his newly-crippled father and deal with his growing resentment toward his twin brother.

    Ofer (Oshri Cohen) and his mother (Orly Silbersatz)

    Meanwhile, Daniel has gotten the neighbor's daughter (Noa Maiman) pregnant and, to his father's horror, is planning to end his engagement to the nagging Shimha. Ofer's frustration at having his dream snatched from his grasp quickly takes a toll on his relationship with Neta. Soon Ofer has acquired a mistress. Neta, who has moved back in with her father, has also found a new friend: a young man who has spent time in India and has invited her to join him when he returns to Goa.

    Upon returning home from active duty, Erez is determined to patch things up between Ofer and Neta, even if it involves suppressing his own feelings for the young woman. His efforts become pointless when news arrives that Ofer, who had insisted on volunteering to take some documents on a dangerous expedition to Lebanon, has been killed.

    Written and directed by Reshef Levy, Lost Islands examines how the unquestioning loyalty between twins can sabotage even the best of friendships. One careless move leads to a tragic accident which changes the course of the Levi family's fortunes.

    One night, when Neta finally tells Avraham the source of the guilt that has consumed Erez, he tries to dismiss it and claim that the accident was due to an oil slick. As Sima grieves over the loss of her "favorite" son (Ofer), Avraham insists that she never again talk about having a favorite among her children and warns that she must never tell Erez that they know the true cause of Avraham's accident.

    Lost Islands is a powerful family drama in which no one ends up where they had hoped to be. Strong casting is one of this film's greatest assets. Here's a teaser:

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    While both Zion And His Brother (Family #1), and Israel's Levi clan (Family #2) are only dealing with the conflicts between two generations, the Westons of Oklahoma (Family #3) arrive on the stage of the Curran Theater with bases loaded. As directed by Anna D. Shapiro, this production of August: Osage County had its world premiere on June 28, 2007 at Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company, received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, won five Tony Awards (including Best Play of 2008) and took London by storm.

    A monumental achievement by playwright Tracy Letts, August: Osage County is, without any doubt, a great American play that can easily hold its own with such legendary dramas as:
    Letts's play slowly unveils its secrets like a supertanker that has crawled into port and is starting to unload a human cargo full of wounded egos, wanton lust, and worried relatives. The Playbill for August: Osage County includes a family tree that explains the relationships between the cast of characters. To understand them better, let's take a quick look at who's who:
    • Beverly Weston (Jon DeVries) is the patriarch of the Weston clan. During the Great Depression his family was forced to live in their car for several years. At one time in his life, he was an acclaimed poet. Now, as he interviews a young Native American woman who is applying for a job, he explains what she can expect: "My wife takes pills and I drink." His mysterious death brings the rest of the Weston family back home to deal with yet another crisis.
    • Violet Weston (Estelle Parsons) is the matriarch of the Weston clan and a real piece of work. Now suffering from cancer of the mouth, she has been addicted to pain pills for many years (once, when she was placed in a rehabilitation facility, she managed to smuggle a bottle of pills onto the ward by hiding it in her vagina). Violet hates air conditioning, which is why even a series of tropical parakeets quickly succumbed to the heat in her house. Like an exhausted old gorilla playing King of the Hill, Violet often reminds people that nothing gets past her. She is still intent on proving to her family that, emotionally, she's the strongest in the tribe and, when crossed, may respond with one of her caustic "truth-telling" attacks.
    • Ivy Weston (Angelica Torn) is the only one of the Weston daughters who never left home. Now nearly 47 years old, she continues to endure her mother's nagging criticisms about her looks and suggestions about how to find a man.
    • Karen Weston (Amy Warren) is the youngest of the Weston daughters. Not particularly bright -- and indeed a bit ditsy -- she is very much a product of the "me" generation. Karen, who is engaged to Steve, is eagerly looking forward to being married on New Year's Day and spending her honeymoon in Belize. She currently lives in Florida.
    • Steve Heidebrecht (Laurence Lau) is Karen's fiancĂ©. He has already been married three times and likes to smoke really good pot. There can be little doubt that, in his business and personal lives, Steve is a player.
    • Mattie Fae Aiken (Libby George) is Violet's younger sister who came to the rescue when young Violet was being attacked by a man wielding a claw hammer. A tart-tongued shrew, she can never stop criticizing her son, Little Charlie.
    • Charlie Aiken (Paul Vincent O'Connor) is Mattie Fae's long-suffering husband, the kind of man who tries to find something good in everything. Back in the days when they first met and got married, he was a major pothead.
    • Little Charles (Stephen Riley Key) is the son of Mattie Fae and Charlie Aiken. Not particularly bright and prone to forgetfulness, he is now in his mid 30s and totally unemployable. Mattie Fae constantly ridicules him. His father tries to bolster the young man's confidence and reassure him that he is loved. Unbeknownst to their parents, he and Ivy are planning to leave Oklahoma and build a new life for themselves in New York.
    • Barbara Fordham (Shannon Cochran) is the oldest of the Weston sisters. Married to a teacher whose job opportunity forced them to leave Oklahoma and move to Denver, she is currently suffering from hot flashes, the breakup of her marriage, and the trials and tribulations of having a teenage daughter who hates her guts.
    • Bill Fordham (Jeff Still) is Barbara's husband who has been carrying on an affair with one of his former students. He has no plans to remain with Barbara.
    • Jean Fordham (Emily Kinney) is their 14-year-old daughter who has a passion for old movies. She is quick to remind her father that she's now at "just the age you like 'em."
    • Sherriff Dean Gilbeau (Marcus Nelson) was Barbara's high school prom date. Now divorced, he is the local boy who grew up to become the town sheriff. He still remembers how townspeople used to talk about "the Weston girls."
    • Johnna Montevata (DeLanna Studi) is a young woman of Cheyenne stock who has just been hired by Beverly to do domestic work for the Westons. Her presence occasionally prompts Violet to groan "There's an Indian living in my house!"
    Estelle Parsons and Shannon Cochran
    (Photo by: Robert J. Saferstein)

    Because August: Osage County deals with multiple complex characters spanning several generations, the dramatic web spun by the playwright can be better understood by watching a simple screen saver. Notice what happens as this piece of virtual string art starts to revolve:

    In order to fully appreciate the sturdy foundation of deceit, disillusionment, dysfunction, disgust, disenchantment and drug abuse on which Tracy Letts has erected his masterpiece work of theater, it's best to think in threes to understand the symmetry of its engineering:
    • August: Osage County is a rarity in modern American drama: an old-fashioned three-act play.
    • A typical performance lasts more than three hours.
    • As one enters the theatre, one can't help notice that Todd Rosenthal's unit set (which has nearly as many playing spaces as Shakespeare's Globe Theatre) is dominated by the isosceles triangle that frames the house's attic.
    • There are three main playing areas on the stage floor (the dining room, living room, and Beverly's study).
    • Three types of substance abuse -- marijuana, pills, and alcohol (often working in tandem) -- have taken a heavy toll on the various members of the Weston clan.
    • As the patriarch of the Weston household, Beverly's sperm has made its presence known in three people of his generation.
    • Three of the men onstage (Beverly Weston, Bill Fordham, and Steve Heidebrecht) share a typical male characteristic: the inability to keep their dicks in their pants.
    • As in Anton Chekhov's play, Three Sisters, the Weston family has three heavily conflicted daughters (Barbara, Karen, and Ivy) who are trying to overcome a ton of emotional baggage in order to get on with their lives.
    • The tragedy of Beverly's death brings three generations of the Weston family together under the same roof during the brutal heat of an Oklahoman summer.
    • Following Beverly's death, three women (Violet, Ivy, and Johnna) become virtual prisoners in a house haunted by guilt, sibling rivalry, and years of bitterness.
    • Throughout the course of the play Barbara Fordham confronts the heavy influence of three men in her life: her husband, her father, and the man who took her to her high school prom (and who, in his role as the local sheriff, is now asking her to identify her father's bloated body).
    • Simultaneously, her husband, Bill Fordham, is trying to juggle three women in his life: his menopausal wife, his rebellious, pot-smoking 14-year-old daughter, and the female student with whom he is having an affair.
    Estelle Parsons (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

    With all these triangular sources of pressure baking in the Oklahoma heat, it's no wonder that August: Osage County becomes a three-dimensional chess game in which each move is accompanied by the eruption of a foul-smelling pustule of regret, resentment, and retribution. Topping it all off is every daughter's biggest nightmare -- the fear of becoming her mother -- which has now landed like a bleeding cherry on top of Barbara's menopausal mountain of misery.

    What's amazing is that, in the midst of so much angst, the audience can erupt in so much laughter. Perhaps that's because the play's characters are all too familiar. Now nearing 82, Estelle Parsons gives one of her strongest performances since her tour de force in Miss Margarida's Way (1977 and 1990).

    Photo by: Joan Marcus

    Having seen the original Broadway production of August: Osage County last summer in New York, this touring production offered me a valuable chance to pay closer attention to the beauty of Letts's writing, appreciate the drama's meticulous construction, and enjoy another magnificent performance from a tightly-knit ensemble. Don't miss it!

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    Added bonus: If you've already seen the play, you'll love this spoof on YouTube:

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