Sunday, January 24, 2010

Blood Lust

Many people have been distressed by Scott Brown's recent victory in the Massachusetts special election to fill the late Senator Ted Kennedy's seat and the United States Supreme Court's appalling decision in Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission. A week filled with rain hasn't helped to lift the mood.

But for those who have been following the Perry v. Schwarzenegger trial in a San Francisco federal court, it has, at times, been morbidly fascinating to read some of the testimony. Much of the defense's case rests on proving how the dangerous side effects of allowing same sex marriage could be injurious to heterosexual families and, in particular, the delicate minds of children who might be exposed to reality instead of religious dogma. Curiously enough, Reed Cowan's new documentary, 8:The Mormon Proposition will have its premiere this week just 25 miles from the headquarters of the Church of Christ (Latter Day Saints) at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Here's the trailer:

One of the star witnesses in Perry v. Schwarzenegger has been San Francisco businessman William Tam, whose rabid religious fervor, smugly self-righteous ignorance of human sexuality, and cretinous cultural illiteracy should be an acute embarrassment to the Chinese-American community. After reading some of Tam's ludicrously ill-informed statements, one thing becomes obvious.

It's not LGBT people who threaten the institution of marriage. It's ideological fucktards like Mr. Tam. So let's cut through all the religious crap and talk about who really poses the greatest threat to the sanctity of marriage: heterosexuals behaving badly.

This week witnessed the openings of two dramas in which married heterosexuals did a superlative job of destroying their own families. The putative gay agenda had nothing whatsoever to do with the destruction of these two unfortunate families.

In one drama, a married woman (whose family lineage boasts the progeny of a stunning incident of God-driven bestiality) betrayed her husband with her incestuous lust for her stepson. In the other, a married man knocked up the identical twin sister of his wife (who was already pregnant with twins). I propose these two dramas be offered into evidence as a means of showing all those paranoid heterosexuals why, exactly, they should be quaking with fear for the sanctity of marriage.

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Considered by many to be a cornerstone of French drama, Jean Racine's legendary tragedy, Phèdre, takes the audience on a downward spiral as its heroine finally gives voice to the inappropriate thoughts of incest and lust that have been consuming her heart. As much as Phèdre (Seana McKenna) has tried to fight the fierce love for her stepson, Hippolytus, that burns within her breast, prior to the curtain's rise she has managed to keep her feelings a secret.

Phèdre (Seana McKenna) and Oenone (Roberta Maxwell)
(Photo by: Erik Tomasson)

Now close to death, she finally breaks down and articulates her most inappropriate love to her nurse and confidante, Oenone (Roberta Maxwell). From that point on, Phèdre's doom only becomes more complicated, precipitating a fall of the House of Theseus (the founder of Athens) triggered by misplaced lust, misinterpreted gestures, and a cascade of false assumptions.

A.C.T.'s co-production with Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival features a new translation and adaptation of Racine's drama by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Originally written in alexandrine verse (to be performed in five acts), A.C.T.'s adaptation condensed the play into one act running approximately 105 minutes.

While the text flows smartly from the stage, I was surprised to see the San Francisco audience reacting at numerous moments as if they were watching a sitcom. The text did not really signal cause for laughter. Nor did Carey Perloff's restrained direction.
  • Could it be that the audience's reaction was triggered by its nervous unease at dealing with a different and unfamiliar style of theatrical tragedy?
  • Or is it possible that human reactions 325 years ago were much different from those of our modern audience?
Much of the opening night audience's reaction has to do with the culture in which we currently live and the false signals that the audience may have picked up from the production's creative team. The fault lies squarely with one crucial miscalculation in the design of this production.

Hippolytus (Jonathan Goad) and Phèdre (Seana McKenna)
(Photo by: Erik Tomasson)

Racine's Phèdre is very deliberately set in a society ruled by the gods of ancient Greek mythology. Numerous references to the lineage of Phèdre's family (as well as her husband's deadly deal with Poseidon) are rooted in a society that included the gods in their daily thoughts on a most intimate basis. Costume designer Christina Poddubiuk's unfortunate decision to dress the cast in costumes appropriate to 17th century France erased some very important visual clues for the audience.
  • As a result, some may have wondered why the women were dressed in costumes so wildly inappropriate to the era.
  • Others may have been waiting for Hippolytus (Jonathan Goad) and his friend Théramène (Sean Arbuckle) to run off with The Three Musketeers.
Hippolytus (Jonathan Goad)and Théramène (Sean Arbuckle)
(Photo by: Erik Tomasson)

While one often witnesses a director or designer's attempts to update a play (or move an opera to a different political era) in order to make it accessible for modern audiences, this was a gross miscalculation that turned out to be horribly counterproductive. Nevertheless, I was grateful for a chance to see a professionally-staged production of Racine's play, which is one of the most frequently staged tragedies from the 17th century.

Giving credit where credit is due, I very much enjoyed the performances by Seana McKenna as Phèdre and Roberta Maxwell as Oenone. Lesser contributions came from Tom McCamus as Theseus, Claire Lautier as Aricie, and Jonathan Goad as Hippolytus.

In researching the history of the title character I was stunned to discover that Phèdre had met her future husband when Theseus arrived in Crete to slay her monstrous half-brother, the legendary Minotaur (who had the head of a bull and the body of a man). And you thought Cinderella had it bad with two ugly stepsisters?

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Over at the Exit Stage Left on Eddy Street, RIPE Theatre is reviving its 2003 production of an explosive play called Akin: It's In The Blood. The company's mission statement is quite similar to that of Berkeley's Central Works:
"RIPE Theatre is a collective of artists who produce original, ensemble-developed work and new plays. It is our mission to create theatre that inspires a sense of awareness and curiosity about our society. By producing new material integrated with visual and communication arts, we aim to connect with broader, more diverse audiences."
Written by the company's co-artistic directors, Noah Kelly and Sarah McKereghan (and directed by McKereghan), Akin: It's In The Blood drifts back and forth between two generations of highly dysfunctional family members. Each scene is notable for:
  • A bloody injury to a specific body part (finger, nose, lip, foot, neck, etc.)
  • Visions of other family members that fade in and out through a scrim behind the actors.
  • A statement that is easily misinterpreted because one person may hear the word "Will" when another person has said "Well."
  • Characters that are in extreme emotional turmoil
Christopher Kuckenbaker as John (Photo by: Ryan Wilkes)

And just who are these tortured souls?
  • John (Christopher Kuckenbaker) is a middle-aged husband whose wife, Mary, is pregnant with twins. Unbeknownst to her, he has been carrying on a secret affair with her identical twin sister.
  • Mary (Kimberly Lester) is not just pregnant, she is hyperemotional, subject to extreme mood swings, fixations, and would be better off if she were unable to hold a knife.
  • Adam (Jeremy Minagro) wants to be an artist, but doesn't create any art. He wants to have money, but doesn't work. A slacker with little or no ambition, he has become a very loving and cuddly parasite who is totally dependent on Karen.
  • Karen (Amanda Ortmayer) is Mary's niece. Unlike her stepsister, Alfie, Karen is subject to severe mood swings and has been fired from numerous jobs because of her tendency to "act out." Following her mother's death, she has inherited a substantial amount of money as well as her mother's home. She has decided to to dump her useless boyfriend, move to Amsterdam and live with Alfie.
  • Will (Rik Lopes) is Mary's gay son. A dentist by day and restaurant owner by night, the audience first meets Will and his twin sister as they are trying to clean out the New Mexico home of their recently deceased mother. Like any set of twins, they are very close and yet often have trouble communicating their thoughts to each other.
  • Lisa (Mikka Bonel) is Will's fraternal twin, a woman who has always wanted to be a writer, but ended up managing a large coffee business. She has plenty of money and complains that she hates her job, but is not willing to follow her very practical twin brother's advice: "Stop bitching, quit your job, and become the writer you've always wanted to be."
  • Kate (Kimberly Lester) is Mary's identical twin. After discovering that she has become pregnant as a result of screwing her sister's husband, she is more than a little surprised at John's inability to tell her whether or not he is looking forward to having a child with her.
Adam (Jeremy Minagro), Karen (Amanda Ortmayer),
Mary/Kate (Kimberly Lester), John (Christopher Kuckenbaker),
Will (Rik Lopes) and Lisa (Mikka Bonel) Photo by: Ryan Wilkes

Although Akin: It's In The Blood starts off in a highly stylized manner (choreographed body movement, muffled voices, plenty of pregnant pauses), once the drama starts to gain traction it develops into a very impressive evening of theatre. As performed in a tiny space at the Exit Theatre, the confrontations became especially intense and the emotional pain of some characters riveting. I was particularly impressed by Mikka Bonel's impassioned Lisa, Amanda Ortmayer's fiery Karen, and Jeremy Minagro's affable, lazy Adam.

If you like intensely dysfunctional and passionately performed family dramas, this one has some truly perverse plot twists. Watching this play only reinforces the concept that heterosexuals who can't control themselves may well be the biggest threat to marriage. Akin: It's In The Blood continues at the Exit Theatre through February 6. You can order tickets here.

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