Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Twisted Family Trees

Long before folks noticed how the swallows would return each year to San Juan Capistrano, animals had established certain patterns of migration. From monarch butterflies to Chinook salmon, from African wildebeest to the gray whales that chose San Ignacio Lagoon as a primary destination along the West Coast, animals followed established paths over air, land, and sea.

When totalitarian political regimes and drug lords started to make inconvenient people disappear (whether in Germany or Argentina, in China or in Mexico), there were no GPS devices that could track the whereabouts of a missing person. Families had no way of explaining to children why their father or mother might never be seen again.

Many playwrights and screenwriters have used the spirit of a missing person who may have been wrongfully killed to bring a sense of peace and/or closure to those left behind.
Many stories feature lost souls who try to comfort the spouses and other relatives whose lives have suffered following a devastating loss. Three new entries to this genre merit discussion.

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In 1921, Karel Capek's play R.U.R. introduced audiences to the concept of a robot. A staple of science fiction since then, robots that have been synthetically designed to resemble humans are often referred to androids. In one of the more curious short films in the Futurestates series, a PIA shows some unusually human tendencies.

Set in San Francisco in 2063, PIA begins as a young couple promises to love each other forever. The wife whispers into her husband's ear that she is pregnant. While the view from their back porch may not be much different than it is in 2010, the world around them has changed dramatically.

Androids marketed under the brand name PIA have taken over many service industries and are now working as hospital nurses, hotel workers, and holding down a wide variety of maintenance jobs. Looking like sleek and sexily-uniformed clones, these carefully regulated new machines are powered by human organs.

When Rakesh (Ajay Naidu) succumbs to a rare heart ailment, his wife, Syama (Tillotama Shome), receives the bad news from a human doctor who is accompanied by two PIA androids. At his urging, she agrees to let Rakesh's organs be harvested for technological research.

Syama (Tillotama Shome) and Rakesh (Ajay Naidu)

Two years later, a member of the San Francisco Police Department (H.P. Mendoza) discovers a truckload of unregistered black-market PIA robots in an abandoned truck. As a robot doctor examines the specimens, the cop starts teasing a PIA on a medical examination table, wondering if she might have been a cocktail waitress. As he slaps the android's face, he sets off an unexpected reaction.

Strange images start to flicker across the robot's memory. The android awakens, leaves the building, and wanders through the streets of San Francisco until it reaches Syama's apartment and uses the security code to gain entry. As it explains to the startled widow, "My body remembers things my mind doesn't: The way to this apartment. The code to the building."

Nearly 20 years after E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial tried to phone home, one of Rakesh's harvested organs has guided the unregistered PIA back to his family. Tanuj Chopra's look at human/robot romance goes way past the concept of inflatable sex dolls and Japanese sex robots to examine whether family relationships can survive and transcend the death of a loved one. You can watch PIA in its entirety here.

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The opening of moments of Yonfan's tale of romance and betrayal, Prince of Tears (which was recently shown at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival) describe Taiwan’s postwar “White Terror” under Chiang Kai-shek, a period in which the Kuomingtang arrested and executed thousands of Taiwanese citizens who were suspected of being Communists. The mood suddenly shifts from harsh black and white to a richly colored, vivid palette as the audience sees a class of young Chinese students being asked to draw by their art teacher. Their model is a copy of the head of Michelangelo's famous sculpture of David.

Their art teacher, Master Qui (Yo-Wei Lin), is a handsome young man, prone to venturing out into forbidden areas on the coast of Formosa (Taiwan) to paint landscapes. He is the first of several key people who will disappear from little Zhou's life without any explanation.

At the beginning of the film, Zhou and her older sister Li (Guangxuan Zhu) are living a happy life as they attend a special school for the children of Taiwan's air force. Their mother, Ping (Zhu Xuan), is known through the neighborhood for her dumplings. Their handsome father, Sun Han-sun (Joseph Chang), is a pilot who likes to play the accordion.

Joseph Chang as Sun Han-sun

However, their father's close friend, known as Uncle Ding (Wing Fan), is a rather strange man. Ding frequently brings his laundry to their house, walks with a limp, and has a strange purple scar surrounding his left eye from an old burn injury. Despite Sun Han-sun's encouragement, Ding hasn't played his violin in years.

The girls have been taught by their father never to judge people based on their appearances. Perhaps he should also have warned them about mysterious disappearances. Despite the idyllic look of the Yonfan's film (whose radiant palette could easily make viewers think of Pleasantville and Edward Scissorhands), the optimistic colors through which Zhou and Li view life mask the cruelty and brutality of the military witch hunt that claims their father's life.

“I grew up in Taiwan during that period," explains the film's writer and director. "This film is all the people I know and all the people I see. It is the story of my childhood, my remembrance. What I want to say the most is not about politics, but about existence.”

Midway through Yonfan's film, we learn that Ding (along with many others) had wooed Ping in his youth. He also accompanied Ping's husband on an unauthorized flight into Communist territory to rescue Li (who was Sun Han-sun's daughter by another woman) -- which is how he got his scar and limp. A quiet man, nursing bitter wounds, Ding was responsible for accusing his friend of being a Communist spy.

A subplot involves the strange relationship between Ping and the beautiful Ouyang Liu (Terri Kwan), who were best friends back in their school days. The daughter of a wealthy family in Shanghai, Ouyang Liu married an older man, General Liu (Kenneth Tsang). Although her daughter Rainbow becomes best friends with Ping's daughter Zhou, there is still an icy tension between Ping and "Auntie Liu."

Auntie Liu has a strange way of sharing her wealth. Without Ping's knowledge, she orders Driver Chang (Jack Kao) to take her and the three little girls out to the forbidden area so that Zhou and Li can see their father one more time before he is executed. When Ping (who has also been arrested as a suspected spy), is finally released, she gives Li a copy of what was once their favorite book (Prince of Tears) before she, too, mysteriously disappears.

As time passes, the girls learn that Uncle Ding was responsible for their father's death. They must also accept the fact that Ding and Ping are planning to get married. Toward the end of the film, Sun Han-sun's spirit returns to visit Ping and spend an afternoon in bed with her before vanishing into the ether.

While some parts of Yonfan's soap opera strain credulity, the film is based on a true story. Thanks to Ting-Chang Chin's gorgeous cinematography and Yat-Yiu Yu's original score, the film is visually magnificent (and often a treat for the ears). Po-hsuan Li and Pei-han Tsai are wonderful as the two little girls -- Zhou and Rainbow -- although it's impossible to tell which one is which. Here's the trailer:

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In the fall of 2009, when Shotgun Players presented the world premiere of Marcus Gardley's musical drama, This World In A Woman's Hands, it was obvious that the playwright was wrestling with a big issue: the role played by women in the Richmond shipyards during the World War II effort. Gardley's hugely ambitious new drama, ...and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi (which just opened at San Francisco's Cutting Ball Theater) is so much more than a new play being produced by a tiny regional theatre company.

Make no bones about it: ...and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi is a major American play whose depth and breadth positions Gardley right alongside such theatrical titans as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee. In his program note, Rob Melrose (the Artistic Director of Cutting Ball Theatre) writes that:
"Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone have always been heroes of mine. Their work at the Eureka Theatre Company, especially bringing Tony Kushner's Angels in America to life, proved that a small theatre in San Francisco was able to give birth to one of the most important American plays of the last 20 years. This is pretty extraordinary. I must admit, I feel like Oskar and Tony as I prepare for the opening of ...and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi. It's a gorgeous play, and like Angels in America, it is an enormous and complex vision that will benefit from a focused first production at a small, dedicated theater. I think this is going to be one of the most important plays of my generation, and I believe it will have a long life after Cutting Ball. This is all the more reason that I am proud to give Jesus its humble birth in our 70-seat theatre in the Tenderloin."
Nicole C. Julien as Miss Sippi (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

The first few moments of Gardley's play make the audience wonder if they're in for an evening that is half full-throated gospel music and half poetry slam. Gardley's use of language is so evocative, his images so provocative, that it's hard to imagine he can maintain the initial level of theatricality for a solid two hours.

Throughout the evening, he continues to outdo himself.

This beautifully crafted stage fantasy, structured like an American epic, grips its audience at the outset and never lets go. Staged with remarkable theatricality in a tiny playing area, ...and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi is a mesmerizing evening in the theatre. The play's world premiere last Friday had the opening night audience wildly cheering the cast.

The Great Tree (David Westley Skillman) and Damascus
(Aldo Billingslea) Photo by: Rob Melrose.

…and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi is, in a lot of ways, my signature play," stresses Gardley. "This play has a personal resonance to me because it is based upon a story my great-grandmother used to tell about her father, who fled the bonds of slavery and traveled the country in search of his family. It is my hope that the play opens the door for dialogue about the impact of myth, spirituality, and history on our national culture.”

The action takes place on May 22, 1863, following the Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and on May 25, 1965, in and around a plantation in Proctorville, Louisiana. With musical direction by Erica Richardson and some wonderful costume designs by Callie Floor, the story follows the trials and tribulations of a black man named Damascus (Aldo Billingslea), who is given a brief second lease on life as a woman named Demeter.

The large and extremely talented ensemble features Nicole C. Julien as Miss Sippi, David Westley Skillman (doubling as The Great Tree and Jesus), David Sinaiko as Jean Verse, and Zac Schuman (as a Union Army bugler sarcastically nicknamed Yankee Pot Roast) provide moments of comic relief as well as tension between the North and South.

Down on the plantation in Louisiana are Erika A. McCrary as Free Girl, Sarah Mitchell as Blanche Verse, Jeanette Harrison as Cadence Marie Verse, and Martin F. Grizzell, Jr. as the house Negro: Brer Bit.

Jeasus (David Westley Skillman), Free (Erika A. McCrary),
Demeter (Aldo Billingslea) and Blanche (Sarah Mitchell)
(Photo by: Rob Melrose)

Amy Mueller (the production's director), doesn't attempt to hide her love for Gardley's creation:
"This play has taken five years to create. Our first go-around with the script was in 2005 at Playwrights Foundation. From that moment on, I have been its passionate advocate, knowing the play would find its first production in San Francisco.

The play's wildly theatrical gestures and poetic language drew my aesthetic interest, but it was its story that drew my heart. It is a story long untold -- old, about us, America, from the vantage point of the black experience. The majestic Mississippi River is our narrator -- as a living entity -- and breathes resonant power and meaning into her role in the Civil War and the life blood of the South for both black and white.

To work with the embodiment of this magnetic image at the play's center is a theatrical journey of a lifetime. Loosely based on the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the play also strikes a deep chord in me as a mother (and particularly as the mother of two African-American children). Demeter of this tale defies the Gods in her search to free her daughter. And yet, for all its epic, poetic, and mythical elements, this play tells a story that is truly simple: that of two families poised on the brink of an unknown future, their fates intertwined -- a metaphor for the America we would become.

For me, the spirit of this play is a deeply poetic expression of African-American culture and that specific experience in America. The power and meaning of the Mississippi River to African-Americans, expressed so beautifully by Langston Hughes in his iconic poem, is fully explored in this play for all its resonant power -- the role of the River in the underground railroad, in the Civil War, in the life-blood of the South, and in its exceptional beauty and role in agriculture and wealth. So for me, to work with the embodiment of that image in the character of the Mississippi River is a theatrical journey of a lifetime.”
To reveal any more of the plot would deprive readers of a grand and gripping experience in theatrical storytelling. Cutting Ball's recent production of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play, The Bald Soprano, received numerous extensions. Currently scheduled to run through April 11, I can only hope that ...and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi keeps getting extended through the summer and beyond. Gardley's drama demands to be seen; his poetry cries out to be heard.

This production marks an incredible artistic triumph for Gardley, Mueller, and everyone else involved in the Cutting Ball Theatre's powerful production of a magnificent new play. You can -- and should -- order tickets here (while there are still some left).

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