Sunday, December 19, 2010

Different Strokes For Different Folks

There comes a time when a person outgrows the standard joys of the holiday season.

This month New York and Washington are getting holiday visits from the Kinsey Sicks who, in the following two videos , put a completely new spin on what makes Christmas special:

December is a month when one embraces shows that stand out from the usual holiday repertoire. Although two recent outings had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, they were filled with intelligence, spirituality, and proved to be highly entertaining.

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I doubt you could find a more San Franciscan celebration of diversity than the Marsh Youth Theatre's revival of its 2007 hit, Siddhartha, The Bright Path. Featuring Indian music, a Bollywood dance number as well as traditional kathak dance, the plot follows young Prince Siddhartha’s journey to becoming the Buddha.

The story alternates between ancient Nepal and modern-day San Francisco as Siddhartha turns from his family's palace filled with pleasures and goes out among the people to learn about the realities of pain, poverty, and old age. Meanwhile, a modern young girl named Chandra finds herself questioning the overly indulgent lifestyles of her family and friends after seeing homeless people struggling to survive on the streets of San Francisco (Chandra is the only one in her teenage clique who gets yearly presents celebrating the winter solstice from her relatives in Berkeley).

Siddhartha and Chandra magically meet on the banks of the Ganges River, where Siddhartha helps Chandra understamd that she can find her own way to deal with the brutal realities of modern day living. In her director's note, Emily Klion writes:
"If you visit San Francisco's Asian Art Museum and take the curator's suggested tour, you will follow the path of Buddhism from Siddhartha Gotama's miraculous birth in Lumbini, Nepal to his pervasive presence in the Far East.  This remarkable man discovered how personal enlightenment can heal the world's suffering, and challenged his followers to seek the same for themselves. The Marsh Youth Theatre's production of Siddhartha, The Bright Path was created to challenge its performers and audience to look at their own lives and find a personal pathway to change the world for the better.

Siddhartha becomes Gotama (Photo by: Doug McKechnie)

This path may look different to each individual, but the basic values of Buddha's Eight-Fold Path apply to all of us, including Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action.  We used these values to create a community that inspired and supported each performer. Coming from many different backgrounds, these amazing children joined together to create a single ensemble to tell Siddhartha's story through the common language of all cultures: acting, singing, and dancing."

Written by Klion, Lisa Quoresimo, and Danny Duncan (with music by Klion, Quoresimo and George Brooks), Siddhartha, The Bright Path has also been directed by Quoresimo. As performed in the Marsh's newly refurbished upstairs theatre, the sets by John Ramirez and choreography (by Antonia Minnecola and Russell Wright) fill the tiny space, making the performance seem much larger than its actual physical dimensions.

MYT's cast of 26 reflects the diversity of San Francisco's population. The young man appearing as Siddhartha is Jens Kwabena Asante Ibsen. A native of Accra, Ghana, Jens is the first African-born singer in the 510-year history of the Vienna Boys Choir (his father is a direct descendant of playwright Henrik Ibsen). Maddie Bartolome (of Filipino/Nicaraguan lineage) portrays Chandra.

Jens Kwabena Asasnte Ibsen as Prince Siddhartha

Others in the cast inlcuded Brendan Spohn as King Suddhohanna, Sarabeth Fonte as Queen Mahamaya, George Coker as Aista the Sage, Julian Litauer as Chandak, and Julian Cuyjet as Nanda. 

On a rainy night in San Francisco, Siddhartha, The Bright Path proved to be a breath of fresh air. Although such "holiday entertainment" might give conservative Christians like Senators Jon Kyl, Jim DeMint, and Jim Inhofe the heebie-jeebies, it isn't often one comes across a program credit for "Kathak and Ancient choreography"!

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You really can't have a more site-specific theatrical experience than seeing a play about one of America's famous architects in one of the buildings she designed. Becoming Julia Morgan neatly encapsulates the story of the first female architect to be admitted to the prestigious School of Architecture at L'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

Poster art by Helene Goldberg for Becoming Julia Morgan

Becoming Julia Morgan is, in the truest sense of the word, a lovely piece of edutainment. For many people (especially those who grew up on the East Coast), any knowledge of Morgan's work is limited to the Hearst Castle at San Simeon.  The following video clip gives a better idea of her work in the Bay area.

Focused primarily on the six years between 1931 and 1937, Belinda Taylor's well-crafted play has been beautifully directed by Barbara Oliver in the 50-seat performing space within the Berkeley City Club (which Morgan often referred to as "her little castle"). With Janis Stevens appearing as Julia Morgan, an ensemble of four actors takes on numerous roles, ranging from the Roman gods Janus and Vesta to William Randolph Hearst and Bernard Maybeck (who designed San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts), from Phoebe Hearst and Marion Davies to a young reporter named Jerry Mac and his wife (who would like to become a librarian).

Jerry Mac (Paul Baird) and Julia Morgan (Janis Stevens)
Photo by:  Lori Barnabe

While the evening is anchored by Janis Stevens's rock-solid portrayal of Julia Morgan as a force to be reckoned with, she is handsomely supported by Paul Baird (as her younger brother Avery and the reporter Jerry Mac), Sally Clauson in a variety of female roles, and Dave Garrett as numerous mentors, employers, and clients. The following brief promotional video for the Berkeley City Club offers a glimpse into Morgan's aesthetic as an architect:

Although I enjoyed the piece immensely, Becoming Julia Morgan deserves to reach a much wider audience. I hope its creative team, The Julia Morgan Project, can find a way to videotape the production or sell the film rights. Fans of architecture (as well as visitors to the Hearst Castle) should find this a fascinating addition to their video libraries. The play might also find an extended life as a summer attraction for tourists who spend the night in the seaside town of Cambria, California.

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