Friday, September 10, 2010

Best Friends, Dear Friends

In recent years our lives have changed dramatically due to technological breakthroughs and increased applications of artificial intelligence. When viewed through the eyes of people whose work has already been affected by AI, there are good sides and bad sides to the technology's potential. The following video offers an  idyllic picture of how new technology might enhance our lifestyles in the very near future.

Not everyone, however, is buying all of the industry hype:
Some things can never be replaced by artificial intelligence because they lie at the core of human emotion. Physical sensations like giving birth, explosive diarrhea, orgasm, and projectile vomiting can't really be transmitted into the kind of data that can be universally shared through computers. Emotions like terror, joy, and yearning are equally hard to capture in a digital format. In 1937, Ira Gershwin neatly summed it all up in this lyric from Shall We Dance:
"There are many many crazy things
That will keep me loving you.
And, with your permission, may I list a few?

The way you wear your hat
The way you sip your tea
The memory of all that
No, no, they can't take that away from me.

The way your smile just beams
The way you sing off key
The way you haunt my dreams
No, no, they can't take that away from me.

We may never, never meet again
On that bumpy road to love.
But I'll always, always keep the memory of...

The way you hold your knife
The way we danced till three
The way you changed my life.
No, no, they can't take that away from me!"
The search for a soulmate can take a long, long time. Even after you've found that person -- and perhaps spent a half a lifetime together -- unexpected changes can test a relationship in ways neither party ever imagined. Consider the following examples:

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For some people, making the first step toward connecting with another human being can be absolutely terrifying. On opening night of the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival, a 40-minute piece by George Pfirrmann entitled Arousal tackled this age-old dramatic situation from a new and erotically charged perspective.

Albena (Sally Dana) is an immigrant from the Ukraine who has settled into a studio apartment in San Francisco's Richmond District (which has a large Russian-speaking population). She rarely goes out, preferring to order in meals that can be delivered. Albena manages her life very carefully with her computer and cell phone.

A modern, tech-savvy prostitute (who has been learning English by playing Scrabble online in between visits from clients), Albena has built an emotional fortress around her in order to protect herself from being hurt. There is obviously some emotional baggage left over from her parents in the Ukraine. As a result, she's more than willing to offer her clients a hand job, blowjob, or simple fuck. Kissing, however, is strictly off limits.

Albena also has a curious tendency to categorize any questionable word uttered by a client as good or bad depending on how many points it will score in Scrabble: "Lonely? Is very bad word! All single point letters except for the Y!"

Clifford (Danny Krueger) is a 24-year-old man with Asperger's syndrome who was homeschooled by his devoted single mother. But over the years, Clifford had found himself struggling to make conversation with people. All too often, he would say something that alienated or offended them. Largely due to his Asperger's, he was unable to understand what he had said or done that caused them to flee.

Even though Clifford is a grown man, he has never had any kind of sexual contact with a woman. However, when his mother died one month ago, he suddenly found himself without any friends. Clifford is desperate for affection, tenderness, and someone with whom he can feel comfortable. Trying to find an escape from his crushing loneliness, while browsing through the personal ads on Craigslist, where he came across one from a woman who offered to be "a special friend."

Clifford and Albena in Arousal (Photo by: Ralph Wilson)
Arousal is all about how Clifford and Albena work through their communications issues to overcome their  common problem: intense loneliness. Pfirrmann's other career as a licensed clinical social worker has obviously helped him in shaping two textured characters with surprising emotional depth.

Joe Weatherby has directed this beautiful and wise one-act play with equal attention to its moments of tenderness and bawdy humor. Sally Dana and Danny Krueger give two finely-tuned performances in a poignant piece whose combination of comedy and pathos make it a wonderful (and exceptionally cost-effective) curtain raiser for any double bill.

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Like many gay men, Ben (Ronnie Kerr) wants a monogamous relationship. The protagonist of a gay romantic comedy entitled Shut Up and Kiss Me, Ben's straight friends all want him to be happy.  At least they say they do.
  • Ben's straight business partner, Vinnie (Joey Russo), is a stereotypical male pig straight out of Jersey Shore. Although they run a fitness club together, Vinnie -- who has never known a moment of subtlety -- doesn't hesitate to accuse Ben of being afraid of commitment.
  • Ben's closest female friend, Callie (Kindall Kolins), and her husband, Brad (Nate Scholz), are busily trying to make a baby.
  • Sara (Jennifer Ruth Jones) and James (Isaac Brantner) get a little too enthusiastic while trying to help Ben market his assets online.
Most attempts by Ben's friends to set him up on a date (or help him write a personal ad)  have been disastrous. And the men he's met have all been losers.

Part of the problem is that, although Ben doesn't consider himself to be naive, he's a little too wholesome for what awaits him on the dating scene. There is this one handsome guy in the neighborhood, however, who jogs by his house every day. If only Ben could get up the courage to say hello to him.

Ben (Ronnie Kerr) and Grey (Scott Gabelein)
in Shut Up and Kiss Me
One afternoon, as Grey (Scott Gabelein) jogs down the sidewalk, Ben "accidentally on purpose" sprays him with a water hose. The "meet cute" part of the scenario gets very coy and gushy, but problems arise when Grey admits to being HIV positive and demonstrates a tendency for having casual sex outside of his budding relationship with Ben.

As directed by Devin Hamilton, Shut Up and Kiss Me is very much aimed at suburban gays who would like to have a monogamous lover, a dog, and a house with a picket fence. Written by Ronnie Kerr (a fitness trainer who also stars as Ben), the script is pure afternoon soap opera. In an effective, and yet supremely annoying way, most of the closeups and the musical that accompanies them are all modeled on the sudsiest styles.

If, as a gay man, you've led an urban lifestyle, you might find some of Ben's wounded puppy crying jags quite annoying. However, if you're the kind of gay man whose romantic hopes have never been realized, you might feel like you're watching your own life play out on the screen.

There isn't a whole of subtlety in Shut Up and Kiss Me, which includes a series of outtakes in which Ben defines certain pieces of gay slang for the viewer. There is, however, some decent nudity as the Ben and Grey make out on top of a bed whose sheets never get ruffled. Here's the trailer:

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Center Rep opened its season in Walnut Creek with a production of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's  beloved 1963 musical, She Loves Me! Based on the film The Shop Around the Corner (1940) -- which also provided the plot for In The Good Old Summertime ((1949) and You've Got Mail (1998) --  She Loves Me! focuses on the budding romance between two pen pals who don't know that they both work in the same parfumerie. All they know is that, as they pour their hearts out to each other in their letters, they are learning about the "true" person who is their "Dear Friend." At work, they despise each other.

I was fortunate enough to see two performances of the original production, which was directed by Harold Prince and featured a cast headed by Barbara Cook, Daniel Massey, Jack Cassidy, Nathaniel Frey, and Barbara Baxley in supporting roles. Although the original production was a financial, She Loves Me! went on to achieve cult status as one of the great Broadway musicals and has become quite popular in regional and community theatre circles.

The version used by Center Rep eliminates Georg's "Tango Tragique." Yet She Loves Me! still stands as a rare example of brilliantly integrated writing for the musical stage. Songs and dialogue are so deftly interwoven that the plot moves forward effortlessly. Even though the score was performed with a reduced orchestration (only two violins), the emotional clarity and glowing charm of the score continues to delight listeners nearly 40 years after the show's Broadway premiere.

Ryan Drummond as Georg (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

To make things even better, She Loves Me! was performed in the 297-seat Margaret Lesher Theatre, the perfect environment for such an intimate show. Ryan Drummond's terse, almost nerdy performance as Georg Novak often made me think of Two and a Half Men's co-star, Jon CryerJason Hite (who shone in Berkeley Rep's recent world premiere of Girlfriend) was delightful as Arpad. Noel Anthony displayed solid vocal chops as the incorrigible roué, Steven Kodaly

Kodaly (Noel Anthony) and Ilona (Brittany Ogle)
in She Loves Me (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Richard Farrell was charming as Mr. Maraczek. Jackson Davis a fine Ladislav Sipos. During the scene at the Cafe Imperiale, Evan Boomer had a nice cameo as the waiter while Dane Paul Andres alternated between balletic grace and comedic clumsiness as the wide-eyed busboy.

The two main female roles were taken by Kelsey Venter (was charming as Amalia Balash) and Brittany Ogle (had a firm handle on Ilona, the "sadder but wiser girl" who gets dumped by Kodaly but meets a sweet optometrist on her trip to the library).

Kelsey Venter as Amalia Balash (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Center Rep's production of She Loves Me! was pertly directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming. Despite some occasional pitch problems (onstage as well as in the orchestra), the opening night performance had the audience laughing heartily and obviously enjoying the show from start to finish.

She Loves Me! remains a remarkably solid piece of musical theatre whose expert craftsmanship continues to amaze viewers after nearly four decades (the sheer economy used to mark the transition from one season to another is a master stroke of theatre). In an age of sexting, texting, and wireless communications, it has not lost an ounce of its romantic charm.

With a smartly designed unit set by Annie Smart and costumes by Victoria Livingston-Hall, She Loves Me! continues through October 10 at the Lesher Center for the Arts. If you've never seen the show (or are a devoted fan of She Loves Me!) you won't want to miss this delightful production.

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Written and performed by Sharon Mathis, He/She and Me: A Love Story scored a poignant success on the opening night of the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival.  This one-woman show details the struggles of Pat to come to terms with her husband Sam's choice to undergo gender reassignment surgery (the character of Pat is based on interviews conducted by Dr. Virginia Erhardt with wives who have stayed in relationships with men who were crossdressers and/or transsexuals).

It hasn't always easy for Pat, who first received word that her husband had decided he was really a woman when he was 55. Granted, Sam was often away on business for long stretches, but when you've been in a long-term relationship you would think you knew your spouse pretty well.

He/She and Me is all about the pitfalls of assuming you can expect the unexpected. As Sam makes the surgical transition to becoming Sheila, Pat has very few guidelines for how to adjust. There are lots of things she can do for Sheila, but what about things that can be done for Pat?

Because they don't have any children, telling their family and friends becomes a little more straightforward (the nieces and nephews don't seem to care very much). But sometimes people's reactions are far from the usual. When Sheila goes out drinking with some friends from work and an obnoxious drunk calls her a "stupid cunt," Pat is shocked to discover that Sheila actually thought it was quite funny.

Sharon Mathis in He/She and Me (Photo by: Janet Wilson)
As Pat tries to find a new hobby (tap dancing, Buddhism, running, a makeover), she discovers that the love between herself and Sam/Sheila is here to stay and continues through thick and thin (including the death of Pat's mother from cancer). Sam isn't the only one who has rediscovered his true self. As the show's director, Robert Drake, notes:
"The transgendered experience is uncommon.  Roughly one in 3,000 people are born with genders that don't match their sex. Sharon's play has let us use an unusual experience to address universal questions: What is a soul mate? Where is the soul? How does love actually work? Are our physical, visceral, and intellectual connections eternally braided? Or can we choose only certain strands?"
The pacing of this one-woman show occasionally feels slow and a little too deliberate.  However, this may actually be an appropriate choice for the story of a woman who is trying to make sense out of such a dramatic change in her life. The following sampler video offers some key moments from the show:

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