Monday, May 24, 2010

What Just Happened?

Rand Paul's recent victory in the Kentucky Republican primary has been a gold mine for comedians. After his political honeymoon crashed and burned during an interview with Rachel Maddow, the zingers started to light up the sky like fireworks on the 4th of July (or the way BP is grooving to the motion of the ocean).
  • Bill Maher was quick to stress that: "The bat doesn't fall far from the shit."
  • In one of his diaries on DailyKos, Jeff Leiber postulated that "If Rand Paul and Sarah Palin got married... the 'No Gimp, Kike, Retards Served' sign could once again be proudly placed in the front windows of all the Wal-Marts in America -- just like the Founding Fathers intended."
  • Not to be left out, Andy Borowitz noted that "Paul’s surging popularity among morons is bad news for Palin, who previously had a lock on that important constituency. If Palin is going to stay competitive with Paul, she’s going to have to start dumbing down her message.”
Now that the Clown Prince of the Tea Party Movement has so clumsily reached for the spotlight, where does that leave the Queen of the Wingnuts? Will Palin go into full-blown Tonya Harding mode? Or will her rabid fans desert her for someone even dumber and in deeper denial than Caribou Barbie (be sure to read Richard Greener's brilliant essay from The Huffington Post entitled Rand Paul's Transparent Hypocrisy: He's A Doctor!).

Not only do I think Sarah Palin has jumped the shark, my guess is that she will soon start to seem as desperate for attention as corrupt Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper in Anyone Can Whistle (1964's legendary flop musical written by Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents). Just read the lyrics from one of Cora's big musical numbers and you'll understand why:
"Hi! Hey! Wait, voters!
I see flags, I hear bells
There's a parade in town.
I see crowds, I hear yells
There's a parade in town.
I hear drums in the air
I see clowns in the square
I see marchers marching,
Tossing hats at the sky.

Did you hear? Did you see?
Was a parade in town?
Were there drums without me?
Was a parade in town?
Well, they're out of step,
The flutes are squeaky,
The banners are frayed.
Any parade in town without me
Must be a second class parade!

So.... Ha!

Did you hear? Did you see?
Was a parade in town?
Were there drums without me?
Was a parade in town?
Cause I'm dressed at last,
At my best,
And my banners are high
Tell me while I was getting ready
Did a parade go by?"
Although it has received numerous revivals in concert format, Anyone Can Whistle was a bit too experimental for audiences back in 1964. Two challenging new plays with styles ranging from the Theatre of the Absurd to the "Theatre of What The Fuck?" are currently delighting Bay area audiences. Each has a fascination all its own.

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Jenny Schwartz's dazzling play, God's Ear (which just received its heady regional premiere from the Shotgun Players) gets off to an anxious start as a confused and terrified mother tries to process the fact that, following a drowning accident, there is no hope for her son to survive. Ricocheting between denial, disbelief, desperation, and exhaustion, Mel (Beth Wilmurt) and her husband Ted (Ryan O'Donnell) try to wrap their minds around an unimaginable family tragedy. That's where the fun begins.

Ryan O'Donnell and Beth Wilmurt (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Beautifully directed by choreographer Erika Chong Shuch, God's Ear takes off on a rapid-fire ride through every cliché our society has developed so that people can rely on euphemisms instead of dealing with the cold hard truth. Sometimes her riffs have a hip-hop rhythm. At other times they feel like arias of linguistic pus oozing from a freshly-lanced boil. In one of her frustrated outbursts, the confused but determined Mel insists:
"And we'll cross that bridge.
And bridge that gap.
And bear that cross.
And cross that T.
And part that sea.
And act that part.
And turn that leaf.
And turn that cheek...."
Beth Wilmurt as Mel (Photo by: Pak Han)

As Schwartz explains:
"I am always thinking about the chasm between what we are thinking and feeling, and what we are able and willing to express through words. Along these lines, I'm endlessly fascinated with our unavoidable reliance on cliché as well as our unconscious adherence to socially prescribed modes of behavior. I'm interested in the way we express ourselves using regurgitated and borrowed language, both privately and publicly. On the one hand, I find our use of cliché sad, annoying, and infuriating while. on the other hand, I see tremendous beauty and hilarity in this strange shared language that we pass on and on and on.

With God's Ear, I wanted to deal with the subjects of grief and estrangement in a way that felt honest and emotionally connected; the barrage of language that makes up the play is fueled by and grounded in the characters' emotions and intentions. Mel experiences a great deal of fury as she expresses her feelings and experiences through language and finds herself with no other vehicle than cliché.

Although the play's plot and language -- as well as some of its characters -- are absurd and not realistic, the actors have absolutely approached their characters and the text in ways that are real and connected while attending to the text's strict rhythm and musicality. While I am incredibly exacting and precise with regard to the sounds of the words, I leave the play's physical world entirely up to the director and designers."
Lisa Clark's wonderfully inventive set (which uses every part of the Ashby Stage's free space) reminds me of an attraction I used to enjoy at George C. Tilyou's famed Steeplechase Park in Coney Island. Ticketholders would climb a flight of stairs to a platform where they could make their way down a giant slide. They landed on a surface that contained a series of rotating turntables. The challenge was for them to make their way across multiple spinning surfaces to the ride's exit. Many quickly fell down. Most crawled to the exit on their hands and knees. According to Coney Island Dreams:
"Steeplechase installed a number of devices designed to give patrons the opportunity to play the fool. In addition to its various rides, Steeplechase provided 'stunts' designed to catch people off guard. Visitors entering the park from the ocean side had to pass through the 'Barrel of Fun,' a huge, slowly revolving cylinder which frequently rolled patrons off their feet and brought strangers into sudden, intimate contact.

Instead of games of competitive skill, which demanded self-control, Steeplechase emphasized games of theatricality and of vertigo, which encouraged participants to shed self-consciousness and surrender to a spirit of reckless, exuberant play. The 'Wedding Ring,' a great wooden circle suspended from a center pole, applied the principle of a playground swing to a ride that accommodated up to seventy customers at once. Similarly, the human 'Roulette Wheel,' which like a gigantic toy delighted both riders and spectators, set passengers whirling and sprawling out from its center by centrifugal force.

Equally important, Steeplechase attempted to satisfy the pleasure people derived from seeing others made foolish. Erstwhile victims were encouraged to sit in the 'Laughing Gallery' and act as spectators for those who followed. In this way, a major attraction of Steeplechase was simply the sanctioned opportunity to witness the wholesale violation of dominant social proprieties. Momentary disorientation, intimate exposure, physical contact with strangers, pratfalls, public humiliation -- conditions that in other circumstances might have been excruciating -- became richly entertaining. The laughter of participants and spectators testified to their sense of release."
Hurtling through an abyss of confusion, hurt, loss, and anxiety, Mel's thoughts collide and ricochet like bumper cars of the mind. What should she tell her daughter Lanie (Nika Ezell Pappas), who dreams of becoming Helen Keller when she is not busily perfecting a six-year-old child's annoyingly repetitive use of the word "Why"?

Meanwhile, a man-hungry barfly named Lenora (Zehra Berkman) seems to be stalking Ted in airport lounges on his business trips. When he tries to call home, Mel turns her phone receiver upside down to poor herself a drink as she struggles to find a way to communicate with her increasingly remote husband.

Schwartz's script features frequent visits from the Tooth Fairy (Melinda Meeng). In a bravura display of double casting, Keith Pinto appears as a bearded flight attendant in drag and a G.I. Joe action figure come to life who possesses exceptional beatboxing skills.

Lenora (Zehra Berkman) and Ted (Ryan O'Donnell)
(Photo by: Pak Han)

In many ways, God's Ear is like a roller coaster ride through the dark caverns of doubt and the deeper recesses of an overly stressed imagination. As soon as one realizes that it's best to simply let go of the safety bar and sit back and enjoy the ride, it becomes easier to get inside Mel's anxiety, Ted's confusion, Lanie's neediness, and the nonsensical strings of clichés spewing from the actors' mouths as the magic of Schwartz's writing takes hold.

Nika Ezell Pappas as Lanie (Photo by: Pak Han)

In her program notes, director/choreographer Erika Chong Shuch writes:
"This world we live in is crazy, irrational, and sporadic. I think that sometimes, in making theatre, we forget that we can do anything. We forget that our own human imaginations have this beautiful way of making meaning out of fragments, and that the meaning we each create for ourselves is the result of a unique life. I want to make the kind of theatre that provides enough information for you to follow along -- but not enough information to dictate a prescribed response.

Jenny Schwartz has given us a play that calls on our innate intelligence by asking us to connect disparate pieces of information within a funny and terrible journey. She has given us an opportunity to activate our own imaginations within a sturdy structure. Live theatre is a crazy and amazing thing. I hope it never dies.

This play is like a treasure box with hidden compartments, where unending jewels fall through our fingers with every encounter. Jenny gives us a densely layered world that so accurately gets at the heart of something truly unimaginable (and she doesn't do this by presenting a world that is clear or dramatic or rational). The world she opens up to us is one in which no one says what they feel and yet, through the avoidance of full, clear emotional disclosures, we get closer to the guts of what it actually feels like to be overwhelmed with grief.

When the fine folks at Shotgun introduced this play to me as a possible world to bring to life I could not have been more thrilled. I immediately felt such a strange hunger for this material -- an immediate rush of images that has not stopped since the initial reading. God's Ear feels so darn honest because it's about what we say when we're running from an unbearable weight."
Ryan O'Donnell as Ted (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

God's Ear may remind some people of rapidly shifting dreams that seem to make no sense. In an odd way, it reminded me of Eric Overmyer's brilliant play On The Verge (Or The Geography of Yearning), in which three female explorers travel through time and across "Terra Incognita." For those who enjoy language, nonsense, have a taste for the absurd, and relish a wild theatrical ride, Schwartz's play continues through June 20 at the Ashby Stage (you can order tickets here). Highly recommended!

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Theatregoers who left the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's new production of In The Wake wondering why so much of playwright Lisa Kron's tiresome polemics landed on the stage floor with a dull thud should head over to SFPlayhouse, where The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry received its world premiere Saturday night as part of the company's Sandbox Lab for New Works. Unlike the self-indulgent rants Kron fashioned for her liberal protagonist, playwright William Bivins understands how to let his would-be political hero spout just enough theory of social science to let the audience in on the joke without making them want to shut down the lecture.

Ascuncion "Assy" Boyle (played by the ever intense Chad Deverman) is a young man on a mission. Having spent many hours in the Albuquerque Public Library researching his thesis on pig farming, his dream is to buy the area's largest pig farm back from its soon to be bankrupt owner, get rid of all the fertilizer and waste products that have been seeping into the local drinking water, and transform the land into a desert park which he will then donate to the community.

Chad Deverman as Assy Boyle (Photo by: Nina Ball)

Living in near poverty, Assy has been trying to manage the Lazy Eight Motel (whose windows are sealed with duct tape to keep out the overwhelming stench of pig shit). With a banner of Lenin looking down on his office, the proud idealist is bursting with the righteousness of Communist theory and an ardent zeal to return power to the people.

Assy's first step in bringing social justice to town? Getting the banker's slutty wife Lola (Madeline H.D. Brown) to handcuff herself to the bed in one of his motel rooms so he can lure her husband into his trap. Ever the purist, Assy won't let the man-hungry Lola get any sexual gratification until she understands the social theory behind his plans.

As you might guess, Assy's got a lot of 'splainin to do.

It seems that Lola's husband, Charles Masterson (Keith Burkland), was once romantically involved with Assy's mother. As a little boy, Assy sat outside the motel room where Lola is now dripping moist and watched through the window as Charles beat his mother with a belt.

As a grown man, Assy blames Charles for his mother's death but prides himself on being a pacifist who only wants social justice. What Assy really wants is revenge.

With only three characters onstage, Bivins has constructed a remarkably sly dramedy that demonstrates how the strategic use of agronomics as a political and philosophical weapon can be enhanced by sexual politics and a man's willingness to take a bite out of an opponent's face. As directed by Bill English, The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry draws sizable laughs from an ongoing series of plot twists as the ardent Communist becomes a greedy capitalist, the cynical, dishonest banker becomes a free-spirited wanderer in touch with his feelings, and the material girl remains a material girl.

Lola (Madeline H.D. Brown) and Assy (Chad Deverman)
(Photo by: Nina Ball)

Expect a love triangle whose participants keep fighting over a gun, a half-hearted offer of some pork rinds, and a bartender who refuses to serve any kind of drunk other than his own concoction (appropriately named "The Son of a Bitch"). But whatever you do, make sure not to underestimate the intellectual prowess of a horny trailer trash blonde who can calculate return on investment faster than her studly boyfriend can regurgitate social theory.

Chad Deverman, Madeline H.D. Brown and Keith Burkland form a tight ensemble of wily desert rats who can shift political positions with astonishing ease. The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry continues through June 12th in SFPlayhouse's intimate Sandbox (which seats approximately 50 people). You can order tickets here.

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In 2003, a 16-minute short by the hugely talented and more than mildly twisted Canadian writer/director, Jamie Travis -- who might very well be the bastard love child of John Waters and Todd Solondz -- captivated audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival. Why The Anderson Children Didn't Come To Dinner was subsequently screened at more than 60 film festivals and hailed as "sumptuously visualized" and "darkly hilarious."

In 2007, a 13-minute short by Travis was included in Frameline's "Fun In Boys Shorts" program. The Saddest Boy In The World (the second installment in Travis's trilogy about innocent children at risk in dysfunctional suburbia) left the audience in the Castro Theatre shocked and awed as little Timothy Higgins clarified the numerous reasons he had decided to commit suicide on his ninth birthday. Here's one of the film's delicious mini-trailers:

The final installment in this trilogy was screened during the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival. Like its predecessors, L'Armoire is a beautifully realized piece which takes the audience to places it never expected to go. As the film moves backward in time, trying through hypnosis to discover clues to the disappearance of Aaron's best friend, Tony, the audience learns how an innocent game of Hide and Seek went horribly wrong.

And the role played by the mysterious armoire in Aaron's house.

William Cuddy as Aaron

Not only does Travis have a great flare for storytelling, his brilliant use of child-like innocence (framed by Alfredo Santa Ana's musical score) give this short a polish worthy of Tim Burton. William Cuddy (who scored strongly in Breakfast With Scot) gives a beautiful performance as Aaron, with Ricardo Hoyos making several eerie reappearances as Tony. Here's the trailer:

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