Monday, October 19, 2009

Forced Into Exile

Nobody enjoys being booted from their nest. Whether it's a baby sparrow that must learn to fly or a moody adolescent being forced to leave home prematurely, an unexpected (and sometimes unwarranted) eviction notice -- whether it be personal or professional -- cuts to the quick. Especially when that decision has been made for you as opposed to being made by you.

Wounded egos react passionately. For some, the famous lyric by Percy Mayfeld (Hit The Road Jack) may echo through their brain. But when all the anger and hurt from rejection subsides, one must still focus on the future. What to do? What to do?
  • If you're a wide-eyed, shapely young girl like Belle Poitrine, you could look forward to what life has in store for you "On The Other Side Of The Tracks."
  • If you're a proud Southern woman like Scarlett O'Hara, you could defiantly declare that "Tomorrow is another day."
  • If, like Gypsy Rose Lee's mother, you're eager to hit the road in search of greener pastures, you could explain that you're just not cut from the same mold as "Some People."

No matter how angry one feels, no matter how bitter and resentful the circumstances in which the rug has been pulled out from under you, a classic Dorothy Fields lyric may offer the simplest and best advice for coping with bad news:
"Nothing's impossible I have found,
For when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up,
Dust myself off,
Start all over again.

Don't lose your confidence if you slip,
Be grateful for a pleasant trip,
And pick yourself up,
Dust yourself off,
Start all over again.

Will you remember the famous men,
Who had to fall to rise again?
So take a deep breath,
Pick yourself up,
Dust yourself off,
Start all over again."
Three new productions examine people caught in situations where they are being forced from their comfort zones. Viewed through alternating lenses of rejection, retribution, reassignment and release, the audience is asked to examine those painful moments when breaking up is not only hard to do, but totally beyond one's control.

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Anyone who has watched Inside The Actor's Studio knows that one of the most frequent themes discussed by host James Lipton is how actors have been affected by the divorce, separation, or the death of one of their parents. The breakup of any family is a painful process. But when seen through the eyes of prepubescent children, it can be especially confusing.

As part of its French Cinema Now mini festival, the San Francisco Film Society is presenting the North American premiere of Yuki and Nina, in which the close friendship between two little girls is blown apart when Yuki (Noë Sampy) learns that her parents are separating and she will soon be moving to Japan with her mother.

Nina (Arielle Moutel) and Yuki (Noë Sampy)

The daughter of a French father (Hippolyte Girardot) and Japanese mother (Tsuyu Shimizu), Yuki is an extremely well-behaved and thoughtful young girl whose beautiful face masks the emotions raging inside of her. When her mother shows Yuki their airline tickets, Yuki looks at her ticket very quietly as it sits on the table in front of her. She then gently pushes it away and says "I am not going to Japan."

Together with Nina, she drafts a letter from the Love Fairy to her parents, asking them to each explain why they are separating. While her mother is in Japan finding an apartment, Yuki is awakened one night by her father playing loud music. As she sleepily enters the living room of their apartment, she sees him trying to dance out his frustrations. What follows is a scene of such raw male ineptitude, as Yuki's father tries to explain to her how and why she will be better off in Japan, that audiences might want to reach out and choke her father to death.

Soon after Yuki and Nina have quarreled, Nina has an argument with her [divorced] mother and decides to run away. After convincing Yuki to join her on her trip, the two girls board a train from Paris to the suburb where Nina's father lives and set up a tent in his living room. When a curious neighbor checks for intruders, the girls flee to the neighboring forest in a sequence reminiscent of Hansel & Gretel.

Yuki (Noë Sampy) and Nina (Arielle Moutel)

The hook for this film is watching Yuki's delicate face as she tries to figure a way out of her predicament. A year later, when she is happily living in Japan, the audience sees her enjoying new friendships and watching a video message from Nina and her family in Paris. What I found most interesting about this film was how the girls' respective mothers explain the reasons why parents must separate and divorce.

Written and directed by Hippolyte Girardot and Nobuhiro Suwa, Yuki and Nina is a very gentle, quiet, and introspective film. Its tremendous charm emanates largely from the questioning eyes of Noë Sampy's beautiful face and her portrayal of a determined young girl struggling to make sense of the sudden change in her life. Here's the trailer:

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During the past year millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Some, like Ken Lewis (Bank of America's soon to be ex-CEO) were stunned to be forced out of positions they assumed would remain theirs for as long as they wished. In Richard Brauer's cynical Mr. Art Critic, we meet a protagonist who never imagined his job could be in jeopardy.

M.J. Clayton (Bronson Pinchot) has been the art critic for a major Chicago newspaper for several years. His caustic putdowns and disgust with so much of the art he encounters is aptly summed up by the bumper sticker on his pricey little sports car: "How Dare You Create Bad Art!"

When the audience first meets Clayton he is acting true to form. A pompous jackass whose sneering condescension could even curdle Cruella de Vil's blood, Clayton is quite content to have won the enmity of the people. Happy to hear that readers bitterly complain about the tone of his reviews, Clayton has never imagined that he could be replaced. As he heads for a long-overdue vacation on Mackinac Island, his only thought is to get out of town while the going is good.

Unfortunately, one of the last artists Clayton sparred with was a man named Frank Denham (John Lepard), whose exhibit was cancelled two days after a withering review ran in Clayton's newspaper. When Denham bumps into Clayton on Mackinac Island, he proceeds to ply the urban snob with booze. After Clayton drunkenly boasts that he could produce a better piece of art than any of the "real" artists, Denham enters Clayton as a contestant in the island's art competition.

Attracted by his reputation and the thrill of having a celebrity on the island, the head of the art competition promptly sets out to seduce Clayton while an attractive young artist named Lisa (Toni Trucks) solicits his advice about her work.

When push comes to shove, Clayton is forced to admit to himself that he is a fraud who lacks talent, ethics, and still views any woman who asks him a simple question as a potential sexual conquest. Suddenly, his editor arrives on the island to inform the critic that he has been let go from the newspaper.

Bauer's cinematography strengthens this little film, which rests largely on the supercilious shoulders of Bronson Pinchot's portrayal of a smug, self-satisfied critic. For those who have ever wanted to throttle a critic -- or been subject to the wrath of readers -- it's enjoyable to watch someone who thrives on unnecessary scorn get his comeuppance. Here's the trailer:

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While many teenagers are eager to escape what they consider to be a stifling home environment, some can't stop worrying about what they will leave behind. As John Kolvenbach's new play Goldfish begins, we witness a young man (obviously bound for college) as he meticulously explains where everything is to his father. As Albert carefully details which bills have been paid, which will come due, and how he has even left a bowl full of quarters that Leo can use for the laundry, the audience slowly begins to understand how much of Albert's childhood has been stolen from him.

Having been the caretaker for a single father who means well, but has a fierce addiction to gambling, Albert has, in effect, had to be a mother when he was still a boy, a nurse when he needed to be cared for, and a disciplinarian when most children are still at an age where they need discipline. After having spent much of his adolescence as the responsible adult in his household, the young man has dutifully prepaid a charge account for his father at the local grocery store.

"You put me on an allowance? My walking around money?" gasps his incredulous father. But Leo is painfully aware that Albert is just doing the best he can considering Leo's sorry circumstances.

Albert (Andrew Pastides) and his father (Rod Gnapp)
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Kolvenbach's powerful drama (which Magic Theatre will soon follow with the world premiere of its sequel, Mrs. Whitney) falls dead center into the field of theatrical dreams known as "The Great American Play." Along with such titans of the theatre as Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Tracy Letts, Kolvenbach builds his story around deeply-wounded, complex characters.

For a one-act play with only four characters, Goldfish packs quite a wallop. Some of the reason for its lean, mean, and yet often hilarious drama can be found in Kolvenbach's comments during a recent interview with Magic Theatre's dramaturg, Jayne Benjulian:
"My process can be summed up like this: I rewrite until I can read through the play without cringing. The process of writing plays isn't ever funny. Mostly, I'm struggling, fighting to deepen them, to make them more dramatic, to raise the stakes in the scenes.

But then you get them in front of an audience and people laugh.

Goldfish appears reasonably straightforward, but requires a deep commitment. A surface reading doesn't reveal the play at all. It needs to be precise. There's a lot of unspoken, secret, shameful, unmentionable history in the play. Much of that is conveyed in silence. There are silences between Albert and his father early in the play which are meant to hold accusation, for instance. It needs to be restrained but full to overflowing. And the precision can't be taken for granted. It has to be drilled in rehearsal, which is boring. But with enough practice, the actors can be free.

I'm experimenting with what an audience will bring to a moment -- how a roomful of people interprets an unwritten line, how they all derive the same meaning from nothing being said. If my plays were inspired by something inspiring, would that make them good? I think not. Plays about God have exactly the same chance of being brilliant as plays about dirt."
Lucy (Anna Bullard) and Albert (Andrew Pastides)
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Kolvenbach originally worked with director Loretta Greco on the world premiere of Goldfish at South Coast Repertory Theatre in March of this year. With Greco (who is Magic Theatre's artistic director) having the luxury of directing a second production of the play so soon, it was easier to understand where and how certain characters and dramatic moments need to hit their marks. In her director's note, she explains that:
"In John's work we see so clearly that heartbreak and laughter aren't contradictions; they are tightly linked expressions of what it means to be human. Distinct from the delectable character cadences of Theresa Rebeck or the heightened Hollywood profanity of David Mamet, John's verbal arsenal is unmistakably rooted in old-school American ethos -- from both sides of the tracks.

Much like the roux that gives any decent gumbo its depth, Goldfish is a distillation of the human experience, an exploration of the raw guts of parenting. Seen through the eyes of a 19 year old boy, it is primal and gritty and, against all odds, full of dignity, heart, and hope. Like all of John's plays -- the texts are akin to musical scores. Notes are comprised of both language and the silence/counterpoint, the inexpressible. Playing his music is an exercise in both absolute precision and utter abandon; to fulfill the musicality one must be intellectually sharp but emotionally naked."
There's a lot of raw emotion in this play, often covered with sarcasm and manipulation. Consider the emotional baggage that weighs so heavily on its four characters:
  • Albert (Andrew Pastides) has had to take care of his father since he was a little boy. He has carefully saved up for his college tuition and dreamed of going someplace where he cannot be embarrassed by his father's failures.
  • Leo (Rod Gnapp) knows that his gambling has cost him his marriage, his career, and his future. Horribly dependent on his son, he is terrified of being left alone. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Leo will do anything to bring Albert back home.
  • Lucy (Anna Bullard) has grown up in a bitter, cynical, loveless household with a mother whose defense mechanisms have built an impenetrable moat around her. Lucy would desperately like to meet someone who is more than a shell of a human.
  • Margaret (Patricia Hodges) retreated into a cloud of booze and cigarettes as her daughter approached college age. She has spent her life hiding any news about her ex-husband from Lucy's prying eyes.
With such carefully delineated characters, the challenges facing Magic Theatre's artistic team become fairly clear:

Even with the best preparation backstage and in rehearsal, there is no guarantee that a tragicomedy like Goldfish will succeed without an extremely gifted ensemble. This is where Magic Theatre has scored a major triumph.

As Albert, Andrew Pastides (who can apparently cry on cue) turned in a remarkably nuanced performance as the sadder but wiser young man who is as methodical about asking for his girlfriend's hand in marriage as he is about folding his clothes. As Margaret, Patricia Hodges etched a woman who has played far too many cat-and-mouse games with the truth to be amused by Albert's earnest conviction. Quick to deny his request to marry her daughter, she is a formidable sparring partner: grace with fire, rather than Grace Under Fire.

Anna Bullard's blunt, hungry for love Lucy offers a sobering anchor to Albert's dreams, even when he asks how long she would wait for him to be free from tending to Leo. But, in the long run, the evening belongs to Rod Gnapp. One of the Bay area's finest character actors, Gnapp specializes in damaged men whose brusque, macho moods can pull them right back down into emotional quicksand every time they think they've cheated fate.

Rod Gnapp as Albert's father, Leo (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

As a wreck of a man who comes to understand that his neediness has become his son's addiction, Gnapp adds yet another unforgettable portrait to his gallery of seductive rogues. His is a riveting performance that no serious Bay area theatregoer can afford to miss.

Goldfish continues at the Magic Theatre through November 8th. Its sequel, Mrs. Whitney, runs from October 21 to November 22. You can order tickets here.

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