Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Sacred Brain Trust

We may like to flatter ourselves with the concept that all men are created equal, but we all know that is not the case. Genetic variations cause differences in the color of our hair, skin, and eyes as well as the size of our bodies and the strength of our immune systems.

Standard issue brains help humans to perform basic functions of life on earth. Rather than rising above evolution, some people gravitate to an intellectual level described by Florida Congressman Alan Grayson as "knuckle-dragging Neanderthals." At the opposite extreme of the intellectual spectrum are those rare and wonderful supercharged brains that place some people in a class all by themselves.
These men were all born with the same physiological makeup. However, their mental acuity and powers of imagination rose far above the norm. Just as a computer can function at a higher level with a faster chip set and increased memory, some human brains can process more information faster and with greater creativity than others. A potent combination of superior hardware with impressive software can make all the difference in the world.

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I recently had a chance to re-experience Dan Hoyle's whirlwind one-man show about the year he spent researching oil politics in the Niger delta. When I first saw Hoyle perform Tings Dey Happen (the show premiered at The Marsh in January of 2007), I was amazed by the depth and breadth of his dramatic skills.

Seeing the show again -- after Hoyle has had numerous opportunities to crawl inside the characters he has created -- I remain in shock and awe of this man's talent. His body language is as deft as that of a world-class mime. His skill with dialects would make Professor Henry Higgins green with envy. It was often hard to remember that Hoyle was performing just a few feet in front of me because the lightning dexterity with which he changes postures, the thrust of his jaw -- even the twinkle in his eyes -- has now placed him on a par with such supertalents as Robin Williams and John Leguizamo.

Dan Hoyle (Photo by: Lyra Harris)

Rapidly switching accents from Pidgin to Serbian and Japanese, from Scottish to West Texas and the laid-back patois of pampered Bay area hipsters, Hoyle's performance is a wonder to behold. “You’re not just acting, you’re ring-leading, storytelling, audience-relating, and directing yourself," he explains. "At the same time, you have to rip it as a performer. That’s what people want to see when it’s solo performance: that one person just dancing out of his pants with energy and honesty.”

Watching the evolution of Hoyle's show also made me keenly aware of the challenges faced by his director and collaborator, Charlie Varon, who has worked with numerous monologists. Some would like to believe that their travels and personalities have automatically given them the material to create a show. But few have done their homework quite as thoroughly as Hoyle. Consider the following challenges:
  • How and where does an artist get such rich material?
  • What kind of artist possesses such intense "spongeability" combined with the ability to transform what he has absorbed into a viable piece of performance art through the power of creative writing?
  • What kind of performer can then, using his own material, be confident and pliable enough to so completely project another person’s soul to his audience?
  • What kind of artist can refine his transitions between characters to a point where they don't seem at all premeditated but, instead, appear to be the result of nature's gifts to a genuine chameleon?
Dan Hoyle (Photo by: Lyra Harris)

The answer, my friends, is not blowin' in the wind. It is an artist named Dan Hoyle.

Funded by a Fulbright scholarship, Hoyle traveled alone through the swamps of the Niger delta, where he befriended pacifist militants, media-savvy warlords and Africanized Texas oilmen as well as street prostitutes who had become anti-Chevron activists. Although attacks by militants on oil infrastructure have cut Nigeria’s petrochemical production to almost half its capacity, Nigeria remains the fifth largest supplier of crude oil to the United States.

Hoyle's strength as a journalist allows him to publish articles in the San Francisco Chronicle, on Salon.Com, write about his experiences as a ballpark vendor for, and even have a solid academic treatise like We Made It Peaceful: Oil Politics in the Niger Delta appear on His skill as a playwright, however, allows him to bring an amazing cast of characters to life. As I write this, Hoyle is in the process of bringing Tings Dey Happen to Nigerian audiences on a five-city tour to Lagos, Calabar, Abuja, Jos, and Bauchi that has been sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

Dan Hoyle (Photo by: Lyra Harris)

While it's no secret that President Barack Obama is a strong supporter of the arts, how this tour came about is a remarkable story. The State Department's Public Affairs Section had originally contacted a prominent American professor who was the author of a well-received book on corruption. The professor, however, recommended Tings Dey Happen, which he had seen in New York, as a more dynamic alternative to another lecture from a visiting academic. Both Hoyle and the State Department are hoping that the show’s humor and empathy can contribute to revitalizing a strained dialogue between the Nigerian government, its citizens, and the oil companies. According to Hoyle:
"Tings Dey Happen was created based on my year in the Niger Delta as a Fulbright scholar studying oil politics in 2005-2006. When I travel to Nigeria, I will be taking the show home, in a sense. I think it’s a great credit to the U.S. State Department that my show is the face of American public diplomacy, especially given my [infamous] impression of a former ambassador. Nice to know diplomats like to laugh, too. Though the tour was funded as part of the anti-corruption public speakers series, they are billing it simply as a show that chronicles some of the struggles of everyday Nigerians. From my conversations with them, the State Department folks are excited to put on a show, not a lecture series.

The goal is to attract a diverse audience from all levels of society, including Nigerian government officials, multinational oil company managers, civil society groups, artists and intellectuals, as well as the motorbike drivers, bus conductors, roadside preachers, market women, day laborers, aspiring entrepreneurs, youth group leaders and fisherman by whom much of Tings Dey Happen was inspired. This will continue the show’s commitment to civic dialogue that marked its long runs here at The Marsh and at The Culture Project in New York, with audiences that included large groups of Chevron employees, anti-Chevron activists, Deutsch Bank oil analysts, U.S. and Nigerian government officials, African journalists, and Nigerian expatriates.

This play is a distillation of the truths of the Niger delta as I experienced it; the characters and monologues are often a blend of several people. I honor them with this play and hope their stories stay with you after you leave the theater, as they continue to haunt and delight me."
Upon his return to the United States, Tings Dey Happen will return to the Marsh for a triumphant limited engagement from November 5-28. If you have not seen Dan Hoyle in action, you would be an utter fool to miss this opportunity (you can order tickets here). This trailer will give you a mere whiff of the delights in store for you:

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Anyone who has been the subject of a malware attack (as I was last weekend) knows that genius is not always put to good use. One reason so many reformed hackers go to work for the government is because, all too often, it takes a thief to catch a thief. Think of the nerds who rode to the rescue in movies like 1983's WarGames and 1992's Sneakers. Then try to imagine what their work would have been like without computers to help them!

Receiving its world premiere at the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival is a delicious espionage romp from the folks at Mental Slapstick. Set in 1935, as American cryptographers are struggling to break some new Japanese encryption codes, The Red Machine is a delightfully intelligent, delectably subversive and and highly entertaining film with such a meticulous sense of style that viewers might be happy to just sit back and bask in its attention to period detail.

Donal Thoms-Capello as Eddie Doyle

Co-written and co-directed by Stephanie Argy and Alec Boehm (who also acted as cinematographer) The Red Machine benefits immensely from Mel Horan's production design and Thuyen Tang's art direction. In her article entitled Crafting A Stylized Caper in the May 2009 issue of American Cinematographer, Argy explains that:
"Though we had co-written and co-directed several shorts and collaborated on others' projects, this was our first feature as co-directors. In hindsight, making The Red Machine was almost as impossible as our heroes' mission -- on a very low budget, we had to depict Washington in 1935 and, through flashbacks, Tokyo in 1928; and we had 32 actors in period costumes, 36 separate locations and a 27-day shoot.
Our goal was to create something stylized not only in the narrative and the performances, but also in the visuals and the audio. We realized from the beginning that postproduction was going to be very important, and many of the decisions we made about methods and equipment were informed by the workflow we had in mind. We were privileged to be able to really experiment with the look and push for the stylized feel we wanted.
At one point, Aaron noted that color correction is relatively easy if you're just balancing the images as they were shot, but going for a more stylized look definitely complicates things. But, he added, "So many indie movies are made today, you need to do everything to make yours stand out, and color-correction is one way to do that."
Coburn (Lee Parkins) and Doyle (Donal Thoms-Capello)

The result will delight any cinéaste. Not only has the creative team captured a true sense of period, many of their shots are filled with so much wit and style that one can't help but sit there smiling at the way the scene has been framed. Separating the main cast of characters into cryptographers (cryppies), thieves, and spies, the story revolves around:
  • Eddie Doyle (Donal Thoms-Capello), an extremely talented safe cracker who has never been caught -- until the beginning of the film.
  • Stella Snyder (Maureen Byrnes), Eddie's all-seeing, all-knowing go-to-gal -- one helluva smart dame.
  • F. Ellis Coburn (Lee Perkins), Eddie's new stone-faced, government-mandated accomplice in crime with a murky background. After achieving a triumphant espionage breakthrough in 1928, Coburn was shamed by his unprofessional behavior and forced to leave Japan.
  • Admiral Byron McAdams (David Ross Paterson), Coburn's former boss who directed the espionage caper against the Japanese in the late 1920s.
  • Agnes "Aggie" Driscoll (Meg Brogan), a sharp sassy female officer who supervises the military cryptographers working for Admiral McAdams.
  • Ichiro Shimada (Eddie Lee), the young man who Coburn plied with enough alcohol back in 1928 to get him to disclose the secret number (553) that would tell the Americans how the Japanese planned to negotiate.
  • Naomi Shimada (Madoka Kasahara). Once upon a time she was the daughter of the man McAdams was negotiating with -- as well as Coburn's girlfriend. Now she is Shimada's wife.
The mission for Coburn and Doyle is both delicate and dangerous:
  1. They must locate the Japanese code machine that has been using an unbreakable technology.
  2. To do so, they must gain entry to the residence of Ichiro Shimada (now Japan's naval attaché in Washington).
  3. They must obtain a working knowledge of Japan's "red machine" without letting the Japanese know that the machine has been altered or tampered with in any way.
Doyle (Donal Thoms-Capello) and Coburn (Lee Parkins)

In addition to its magnificent sense of style, The Red Machine has Donal Thoms-Capello (who reminds one of a young Horst Buchholz) giving a grand performance as the sexy, wise-ass crook with high artistic standards abut how one should go about breaking and entering a potential crime scene. Lee Perkins is almost comically stonefaced as Coburn while Bryan Larkin and Roger Ainslee add to the sense of mischief as Commanders Dean and Petrie.

Hardly a typical "buddy film," The Red Machine has been made with a rare level of intelligence, wit, and a gorgeous devotion to style. To divulge any more state secrets would rob you of the film's many delights. For starters, though, you might want to take note of the jazzy riff on Bizet's smuggler's theme from Carmen that accompanies this trailer:

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