Wednesday, November 11, 2009

May The Farce Be With You

Writing comedy isn't easy. Writing farce is even more difficult.

Writing a sex farce? That's been done plenty of times. Writing a sex farce that deals with controversial political issues? Not as easy as it sounds. God only knows how this one will turn out!

In order to play well on the stage, a good farce should be economical in its verbiage, situational in its comedy, rapid-fire in its delivery, and performed with the dexterity employed by a street hustler during a game of Three Card Monte. Written with blazing intelligence, directed with surgical precision, and performed by skilled actors, three simple lines can land belly laughs from an audience. Consider this quick interchange from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (a musical that benefits from the collective comic genius of Larry Gelbart, Burt Shevelove, Stephen Sondheim, and Titus Maccius Plautus) at a crucial moment in the tangled plot:
Pseudolus: A brilliant idea!
Hysterium: Yes?
Pseudolus: That's what we need -- a brilliant idea!
With a group of U.S. Catholic bishops planning to publish a major homophobic document that can only compound the Catholic Church's hatred of gays and innate stupidity, two new sex farces that deal with surprisingly sophisticated topics deserve special attention for the way in which each demonstrates how controversial issues can be explained to the general public using humor instead of fear. Each shows remarkable insight into the frailty of humans, their ability to jump to the wrong conclusions, and mankind's incredible talent for making a bad situation infinitely worse.

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Berkeley is home to several theatrical organizations with a heavy focus on creating new plays.
Knowing the territory helps to understand how a new farce came into being. In their program notes for Blastosphere!, co-playwrights Aaron Loeb (First Person Shooter, Abe Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party), and Geetha Reddy (Me Given You, Safe House) write:
"We became friends and colleagues in 2002 through PlayGround. Together with Garret Groenveld, we once created a compilation of three of our 10-minute plays. It was performed at the SF Fringe, produced and directed by Molly Aaronson-Gelb. But we'd never written together, creating a play from scratch (though we discussed it for years). When Central Works offered us a chance to do so with a group of trusted collaborators, we jumped (those offers don't come along very often). But while we were excited for the opportunity, we weren't sure what we actually wanted to create.

As we sat in the space one day staring at its tall ceiling, big windows and classical good looks, Geetha muttered darkly, 'This place makes me think of the oppression of women.' It made those around her giggle. After all, we were sitting in the Berkeley Women's City Club designed by Julia Morgan. Geetha clarified that, for her, it brought to mind convents, country homes, posh doctor's offices, and all the places where women are expected to behave like 'ladies.'

Gwen Loeb and Kendra Lee (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

From there, the idea of turning this beautiful room into a place where women don't behave beautifully was born. We decided to set the play in the waiting room of a fertility clinic. We knew we wanted the women waiting there to violate the rules -- not just the rules imposed on them from the outside (expectation, manners, etc.), but the rules they had imposed upon themselves.

Blastosphere! is the product of turning this room into a fertility clinic. It was just a little egg the day we were staring at architecture, but it's been growing and multiplying here since mid May. Tonight, our baby is born before your eyes. Please join us in smacking its ass."
Blastosphere! unravels like a game of 52 Pickup: each new card triggers a moral crisis (there are many in this play) faced by one or more of the following characters:
  • Jess (Kendra Lee Oberhauser) is a young bride, thrilled to be getting married but worried that she might be offending some feminist standards. Self-absorbed, desperate for approval, and not particularly bright, she was raised by adoptive parents who died in an unfortunate automobile accident.
  • Dedee (Gwen Loeb) is Jess's birth mother, who has recently come back into her life. A fat lesbian married to another woman, she offered Jess up for adoption at birth because she knew she couldn't handle the challenges of raising a child. With time, a somewhat stable relationship with another woman, and amazing advances in the success rate of in vitro fertilization, she is now scheming to get one of Jess's eggs so that she can carry an embryo to term and have the child she once never wanted.
  • Carol (Cathleen Riddley) is Dedee's black, butch lesbian wife who loves to play handheld video games but is quite a bit less enthusiastic about becoming a parent than Dedee. Although Carol's celebrity cousin has donated his sperm for their baby, she refuses to ask him for money to help underwrite the costs of in vitro fertilization.
  • Dedee's mother (Jan Zvaifler) is the voice of doom, the overbearing parent who is expected to pay for everything, complain about nothing, but whose innate practicality and stifling negativity could drive anyone to tears.
  • Dr. Orville Pinto (Mick Mize) is a fertility doctor with an uncanny ability to sense the potential of sperm samples simply by holding a test tube in his hand. Without any prompting, he correctly identifies Dedee & Carol's sperm sample as coming from basketball legend Michael Jordan. For a specialist in reproductive medicine, this is like holding the genetic key to the master race. However, he never works for free.
  • Dr. Kylie (Jan Zvaifler) is Dr. Pinto's colleague, a serious scientist who has no taste for feminine displays of emotion.
  • Steve (Mick Mize) is Jess's hapless groom. Although he comes from an extremely status-conscious background, he quickly starts to realize that all these women are only interested in him for only one reason: his sperm.
Mick Mize and Kendra Lee (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

During the course of the play, Loeb and Reddy confront the following challenges to traditional family values:
  • What does a child who was given up for adoption but has attained legal status as an adult owe her biological mother?
  • Should a woman who gave up a child for adoption be allowed to use in vitro fertilization in order to conceive a child of her own much later in life? What if her body can't bring a pregnancy to term?
  • Does a husband have the right to prevent his wife from acting as a surrogate for another couple? Does he have any rights?
  • Should a husband be forced to provide a sperm sample to a fertility clinic against his will?
  • Should same sex couples be allowed to marry for the sake of their potential children?
  • Should same sex couples have children as a result of artificial insemination?
  • Can the demands of one spouse to become a parent ruin an otherwise stable marriage?
  • Who should pay the cost of in vitro fertilization and surrogacy?
  • Who has the right to use another person's genetic material?
  • Just how far should feminists, pro-lifers, and fertility doctors be allowed to go to pursue their personal and/or political goals?
Although the Central Works ensemble performed with great gusto, as I watched Blastosphere! unfold, my gut reaction was that this particular play will fare better when performed on a proscenium stage with a traditional fourth wall (as opposed to Central Works' three-quarter round seating) where there is a greater distance between the audience and the performers and more potential for the use of theatrical blackouts to transition between scenes. I was, however, particularly impressed by Mick Mize's performance as both the put-upon groom and Dr. Orville Pinto.

Mick Mize (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

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Farce on film has a lot more leeway when it comes to changing scenes, clothes, moods, and motives. A rowdy and highly political sex farce that will be screened at the New Italian Cinema mini festival being presented by the San Francisco Film Society is a film called DiVerso da Chi? (Different From Whom?).

Written by Fabio Bonifacci and deliciously directed by Umberto Riccioni Carteni, the film revolves around a perverse triangle:
  • Piero (Luca Argentero) is an openly gay university professor who is politically active in his small town on the Mediterranean coast. The opening sequence, which shows Piero and his lover rowing a racing shell across the bay and then kissing after they cross the finish line is enough to send the male hunk detectors crashing through the ceiling. In formal wear, Piero (who is running for Mayor on a gay rights platform) bears a strange resemblance to Clark Kent.
  • Remo (Filippo Nigro) is Piero's lover/husband. Together for 14 years, they have a very stable home life, although Piero's occasional hookups (he claims that as long as it's less than three times with the same person it doesn't count as an affair) trigger intense fits of jealousy from Remo. A cook and food critic, Remo runs the home with a tight fist for domesticity. Although they have never really talked about it, he would love to be a father.
  • Adele (Claudia Gerini) is also running for Mayor, but as the family values candidate. Remember Portia del Rossi's tightly-wound portrayal of Nelle Porter on Ally McBeal? Picture an angrier version of Nelle whose husband left her after she couldn't bear children. Eating dinner alone is no fun, so to compensate for her shame she has decided to champion traditional family values -- even if her own family fell apart.
The action is set in a small, Italian port whose right-wing Mayor (Francesco Pannofino) has built a wall meant to deter crime. Although the wall accomplishes absolutely nothing, Mayor Galeazzo keeps inaugurating new portions of the wall as they are built in order to get his picture in the papers.

As the movie opens, local leftist politicians are looking for a stooge to run against the favored leftist candidate for Mayor, a man who has always used his smile to charm votes out of people. When Piero's friends agree to help him run (with the intent being to merely place second in the election), he immediately starts to butt heads with Adele, a female candidate who is more than mildly homophobic. As the winner of the primary starts to make his acceptance speech, he suffers a heart attack and dies at the dais.

With Piero in the #2 spot, Adele wastes no time stepping up her attacks. But it is Remo who notices that she is acting like a wounded woman. After Remo suggests that Piero take a more traditional gay approach to disarming an angry woman, Piero invites Adele to go shopping with him.

Soon she's having a grand old time in his company and invites the gay couple home to dinner. As often as the desperately lonely Adele protests that she can't have any alcohol, Remo keeps refilling her glass until Adele is sloshed and wants them all to become the best of friends.

With a political truce in place, Piero and Adele come up with a brilliant idea. He'll run for Mayor on a family values platform while she runs for Deputy Mayor on a gay rights platform. As the perfect couple, they'll completely confuse the opposition and put the conservatives off their game. But when Remo is out of town and Adele is at Piero's apartment for a planning session, an innocent glass of Campari with orange juice gets her juices flowing and she very aggressively seduces Piero.

Protesting that he's a gay man, has been married to Remo for 14 years, and has absolutely no sexual interest in Adele, Piero nevertheless surprises himself with his performance in bed. One or two more trysts lead to two candidates who have suddenly become inflamed with passion and can't keep their hands off each other. When Remo learns that Piero is having an affair -- and Adele discovers that, against unbelievable odds, she has finally become pregnant -- the farce reaches a fever pace.

The end result is something that could almost never happen in an American movie. In the following scene (which unfortunately lacks subtitles), Piero tells the voters that he has fallen in love with Adele, that Remo is his man, and that he can't stop loving either one of them. If the voters don't like him, they don't have to vote for him. But he intends to live his life honestly with his mistress, his man, and his child. The film ends in a beautiful montage accompanied, quite surprisingly, by the strains of Hernando's Hideaway (from the 1954 Broadway musical, The Pajama Game).

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