Saturday, April 17, 2010

Superficial Tragilicious Extracultural Doses

With the April 15th tax deadline and efforts at financial reform filling last week's headlines, the economy has been front and center in the minds of many people. Yet one cannot ignore the fact that, for many Americans, spending power has actually decreased in the past three years.
  • As more and more Americans have joined the ranks of the unemployed, fewer people can go shopping with quite the same irrational exuberance they enjoyed in better times.
  • Those whose stock portfolios were severely deflated by the recent crisis on Wall Street can no longer indulge their thirst for conspicuous consumption with quite the zeal they once felt.
  • With more homes being foreclosed, the dream of owning a McMansion has evaporated from many people's futures.
  • As incomes have decreased, many have been forced to cut back on charitable donations to their favorite causes.
  • Some people who never worried about frivolous spending are now being forced to examine which luxuries might not be quite so necessary.
  • Even the most piss-elegant A-Gays (who once clung to the belief that "He who has the most toys when he dies wins") have been reordering their priorities.
Of course, not everyone has joined Reverend Billy's infamous Church of Stop Shopping. Lisa Taddeo's revealing piece in New York Magazine (Rachel Uchitel Is Not A Madam) recently examined the phenomenon of bottle girls who earn sizable incomes by catering to the needs of bankers and celebrities. Despite conservatives' fears that President Obama is trying to redistribute America's wealth, there will always be a tiny subset of people for whom money is never really an issue.

For the people at the top of the financial pyramid, money exists to produce greater wealth. Often, these folks can't spend their money fast enough. The fact that Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous offered titillating fantasies of lavish living to millions who could never attain that level of wealth didn't stop the masses from wanting all of the accessories and trappings of a gilded lifestyle.

Two recent black comedies offer interesting perspectives on America's addiction to high-end consumerism. Each has a significantly dark back story that serves as a warning for shopaholics who bite off more than they can chew.

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Think of the most obvious multi-level marketing schemes -- Mary Kay, Tupperware, Avon Products -- and you'll notice something in common. Sales are largely dependent on small numbers of items that must be sold to large numbers of individuals. Even sales campaigns designed as fundraising tools (Girl Scout cookies) require a tremendous effort to turn over product where the profit margin on each item might be surprisingly small.

Written, produced, and directed by Derrick Borte, The Joneses puts a new spin on product placement. The seemingly picture perfect family that moves into an upscale community is actually a killer sales team paid to model new products, create a buzz, and drive sales. They haven't a care in the world (or so it would seem) and their house is to die for.

The Joneses are the living embodiment of all those fantasies created by soft porn consumer vehicles like Vogue, GQ, and Architectural Digest. By exuding confidence and success (without ever really having to do anything that resembles earning a living), they create an aura that makes people want to emulate them.

Ben Hollingsworth, Amber Heard, Demi Moore, and David Duchovny

Steve (David Duchovny) is a former golf pro who, although still learning how to move product, knows how to impress the guys on the golf course. His would-be wife, Kate (Demi Moore), is a gym-toned ice queen who looks fabulous and can push any product effortlessly. Their "daughter," Jeann (Amber Heard), is an aggressive young slut who likes older men and has a great future as a potential "bad girl on campus." And their "son," Mick (Ben Hollingsworth), is handsome, athletic and wears clothes beautifully even if he's hiding a big secret. The Joneses' district manager, KC (Lauren Hutton), is a tough-as-nails executive who knows the value of rewarding good numbers.

The Joneses' specialty is a form of undercover marketing that basically tells people "I am what I wear." In gated communities and other subcultures where competitive spending is a popular sport, a family unit like the Joneses that can infiltrate through social networking helps introduce new product lines that have higher profit margins.

In an age of RFID sales tags and data-driven web coupons, it's not only easier to track sales and manage inventory, vendors can instantly monitor a particular salesperson's progress. Using a less labor-intensive approach to selling a high-priced set of golf clubs or a sports car is guaranteed to produce a better return than moving a few cartons of Girl Scout cookies or burpable food containers. What's more, it's easy to keep creating incentives which will make people want to keep trading up. Unless, of course, the human element gets in the way.

When the Joneses arrive in their new community, they are welcomed by next-door neighbors Larry (Gary Cole) and Summer (Glenne Headly). Summer was probably once a beauty but, as she has aged and lost her luster, she has tried to build a multi-level marketing business. She's absolutely no match for KC's lethal, computer-driven sales force.

Larry, on the other hand, is the good-hearted guy who just wants to keep up with the proverbial Joneses. Now that they've become his new best friends, he's powerless to stop himself from spending beyond his means.

The Joneses took me by surprise with its soft sell, intelligence, and willingness to question the ethics of certain types of stealth marketing (such as test marketing a popular type of packaging to introduce liquor to minors). There's a gay subplot that is handled remarkably well in addition to the growing problem of real emotions developing between Steve and Kate.

As the final credits roll, and the audience starts to see pictures of model family "units" strategically placed around the world (ranging from upscale Indians in Mumbai to two power lesbians in Albuquerque), it becomes obvious how easily this type of sales approach can be tailored to niche markets with today's technology. The Joneses is surprisingly educational and well worth your time. Here's the trailer:


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Written and directed by D'Arcy Drollinger, the Brava Center's world premiere production of Scalpel! -- A Killer Rock Comedy proved to be one of the biggest and happiest theatrical surprises I've had in years. It's been a long time since I went to a brand new musical and had myself such a whopping good time.

Imagine a plot that includes elements of The Stepford Wives, The Manchurian Candidate, Nip/Tuck, and the kind of family secret you'd expect to find in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. Mix that in with a delightful rock score, a strong drag sensitivity, deliciously vicious spoofs of contemporary culture, and an artistic vision that captures the spirit of Charles Ludlam's legendary productions at the Ridiculous Theatrical Company and you'll get a whiff of what makes Scalpel! so much goddamn fun. Among its main characters are:
  • Jacquelyn Blithers (Cindy Goldfield), a wealthy upper East Side socialite who gets dumped when her husband leaves her for a younger woman. Desperate to look younger and retain her social standing, Jacquelyn embarks on a harrowing voyage of self discovery in a frighteningly unsympathetic, backstabbing world of Botox-fueled villainy.
  • Pepper Van Allen (Arturo Galster), one of "Jac's" high society cohorts who decides to run for political office. After all, how hard could it be?
  • Fritzy Fitzgerald (Emily McGowan), Jack's other close cohort, who practically lives at Bergdorf Goodman. Not only does Fritzy have a classic case of body dysmorphic disorder which she attempts to control with her dangerous addiction to plastic surgery ("I had my tear ducts done last week. Should I have my larynx removed?") she's a great comic foil with a dead-on Barbara Walters accent.
Emily McGowan, Cindy Goldfield
& Arturo Galster (Photo by: Kent Taylor)
  • Martha (Leanne Borghesi), Jac's Puerto Rican housemaid. A lot tougher than Rosario (Shelley Morrison) on Will and Grace -- and with a powerful set of vocal chops -- Martha is determined to save her employer from the evil grip of Park Avenue's competitive plastic surgery upgrades.
  • Jeffrey (David Bicha) is the equivalent of a Gilbert & Sullivan patter role. A devoted manservant, butler, chauffeur, hacker, and amateur surgeon, Jeffrey's ode to the "Lady of the House" leaves no doubt about where he wants to apply himself.
  • Dr. Bulgari (Mike Finn) is a power-hungry plastic surgeon who has implanted microchips in his patients which can transform them into lethal killers. His weapon of choice? 5000 milligrams of Botox injected into uncooperative politicians and anyone else who would stop his goal of beautifying America's eyeways and thighways.
  • Angelica (Marilynn Fowler), Dr. Bulgari's evil and quite fabulous looking partner in crime.
  • Molly Goodnature (Laurie Bushman), the unfortunate love child of Bulgari and Angelica, whose theme song is "Ugly Is The New Black."
  • Kitty Kelly Brown (D'Arcy Drollinger), a gushingly ignorant cable news personality who seems to experience an orgasm every time she shouts out the name of her news program: Hardballs.
  • Senator Cockburn (Jordan L. Moore) a most unfortunate politician whose fatal mistake was to oppose Proposition 1000 (a bill that would require the U.S. government to allocate $1 trillion to cover the costs of mandated plastic surgery on anyone deemed unattractive).
Cindy Goldfield & Arturo Galster
"Mortal Combat in High Heels" (Photo by: Kent Taylor)

Drollinger's script is hilariously funny (he's worked with RuPaul and directs Scalpel! with an intoxicating sense of malicious glee). Abra Berman's costume designs contain some neat surprises and Matt McAdon's simple unit set is a constant source of unexpected laughter. While Leanne Borghesi and Cindy Goldfield's strong voices had no problems belting out key musical numbers, the show kept getting stolen by Emily McGowan's brilliantly ridiculous portrayal of Fritzy Fitzwater and Drolllinger's over the top performance as Kitty Kelley Brown.

Scalpel! is the kind of show in which one can never have enough wretched excess. It's cutting, it's edgy -- it's a cuttingly edgy kind of musical. The audience reacted appropriately, with constant hooting and hollering.

Scalpel! is also that rare show designed to let audiences sit back and have themselves a grand night of fun at the theatre. In her recent New York Times article about shows that have had their world premieres in the Bay Area (Where Musicals Can Dare To Be Different), Chloe Veltman listed Scalpel! along with Passing Strange, American Idiot, Girlfriend, Daddy Long Legs, Tinyard Hill, and Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage as quirky new musicals that have been nurtured by regional Bay area theatre companies.

I'll go one step further and suggest that, with some additional funding, Scalpel! could join the ranks of such long-run alternative musicals as Altar Boyz, Avenue Q, and Urinetown. Drollinger's show needs a more solid set and some better sound engineering (at present it's difficult to hear a lot of lyrics clearly), but there is no doubt that Scalpel! could enjoy an extended run off Broadway (if that comes to fruition, I certainly hope that Brava Center benefits as a co-producer). Here's the trailer:


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In 1925, Charlie Chaplin made history with the release of The Gold Rush, a silent film in which Chaplin's character, The Little Tramp, endured endless humiliation after joining thousands of others in search of fortune in Alaska. Although Chaplin's masterpiece has been screened countless times on television and at silent film festivals around the world, last week it got a very special presentation at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall.

In addition to being a great physical clown, Chaplin was also a fairly accomplished singer and instrumentalist. He wrote a score for The Gold Rush (as well as several of his other films) that, because of his innate sensitivity as a musician, helped to shape certain scenes according to his unique artistic vision.

The San Francisco Symphony decided to present The Gold Rush much the way Chaplin heard it in his head, with a live symphony orchestra (under the baton of Donato Cabrera) playing the score Chaplin had composed. The effect was often revelatory --- not only because of the increased resonance of the instruments in Davies Hall, but because listeners got a a deeper insight into Chaplin's musical awareness. There were segments of music from Tchaikovsky's ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, as well as a hint of Richard Wagner's gold leitmotif from Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Here's a piece of comic gold from the film that shows Chaplin at his finest: