Thursday, February 17, 2011

Turn Left At Crazy And Just Keep Going

In the landmark 1959 hit musical, Gypsy: A Musical Fable, Rose Hovick's daughters sing a refrain meant to reassure the audience that all is well:
"Let me entertain you
Let me make you smile
Let me do a few tricks
Some old and some new tricks
I'm very versatile.
And if you're real good
I'll make you feel good
I want your spirits to climb.
So let me entertain you
And we'll have a real good time, yes sir!
We'll have a real good time."
Sometimes, while watching a film or stage production that seems like it's about to careen out of control, I find myself faced with a curious choice. I could continue to view what's unfolding in front of me from a traditional, linear perspective or let go and see where the director is going. I could get all caught up obsessing over problems with continuity and meaning, or I could simply choose to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

With certain movies (The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, Tropical Malady, Mulholland Drive) I was at a loss to see what so many other people loved about the film. With others (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Across The Universe, Fig Trees) I discovered that, by letting go, I was able to transcend any reservations and soar on the wings of a radical directorial concept.

Art that refuses to play by the rules (whatever one may think those rules are) is meant to stimulate the audience and challenge them to take risks. A director who can cajole an audience out of its comfort zone and take it far beyond the status quo is a force to be reckoned with.

Two new dramedies test the audience's limits in dramatic and delightful ways. In each case, the viewer leaves the theatre far richer for the experience than if he had chosen not to follow the director down the path less traveled.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
In Gregg Araki's new sex farce/thriller entitled KaboomThomas Dekker plays Smith, a hunky young college hipster who has a crush on his very straight roommate. Thor (Chris Zylka), who occasionally haunts Smith's sexual fantasies,  is an extremely hunky and very horny blond surfer dude determined to master the art of autofellatio.

Thor (Chris Zylka)  obviously needs some sexual relief

In his waking hours, Smith is best friends with Stella (Haley Bennett), a wise-cracking lesbian art student who is having problems breaking up with the creepily obsessive/possessive Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida). After he meets an enticing young sex kitten named London (Juno Temple) at a campus party and eats the hallucinogenic cookie she has given him, Smith begins to have haunting visions of a mysterious red-haired girl (Nicole LaLiberte) who is being chased by a gang of men wearing animal masks.

Smith has recently been haunted by a recurring nightmare which is somehow related to the fact that he's about to celebrate his 19th birthday. To make matters even more complicated, he has starting to receive strange text messages about being "the chosen son." 

Smith (Thomas Dekker) is having a very strange 19th birthday

It's a bizarre way to celebrate your birthday, especially when your mother (Kelly Lynch) is an endangered narcissist  who refuses to divulge a very dark family secret and your father may be planning to blow up the planet as part of an international conspiracy that would freeze Glenn Beck's blood. Even if the muscular Thor tends to disappear at the oddest moments, a lot of people are suddenly taking a strange interest in Smith's well-being. Among them are:
  • Rex (Andy Fischer-Price), the bisexual stud whom London delivers as Smith's 19th birthday present during a bondage scene.
  • Hunter (Jason Olive) the hot and hunky married man who seduces Smith at a nude beach.
  • The Messiah (James Duval), Smith's weird, drugged out dorm assistant.
In his director's statement, Araki writes:
"At a film festival a few years ago, John Waters presented me with an award for Mysterious Skin. While chatting backstage, he looked me in the eye and said 'Y’know, Mysterious Skin is great and all but I really want to see you make another old school Gregg Araki movie.' I kind of laughed in response. But in truth, I was flattered that a bona fide icon like him would even care about what kind of movies I was making. As it turns out, I actually had been working on a script that was more of a cult type movie like The Doom Generation and Nowhere -- two old films of mine that fans I meet at festivals and on the street are always naming as their favorites. Not that this is meant in any way to distance myself from the last two movies I made (Mysterious Skin and Smiley Face).
Although I didn’t write their original stories, I love those movies dearly and am incredibly proud of both of them. My films really are like my children and I don’t consider those two any less mine than anything I’ve ever done. There is, however, something intrinsically more personal and 'me' about the movies that originated in my head -- in particular that batch of small, very 'free' and unhinged movies I made in the mid-90s, the Teen Apocalypse Trilogy of Totallly F***ed Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere
Not wanting to go back and repeat myself or certainly to regress artistically in any way, I was nonetheless excited about doing something as unbridled and crazy as those earlier movies made when I was more naive and perhaps more idealistic about cinema and life in general. My starting point for Kaboom was a kind of nostalgia for those carefree days of blind youth and absolute uncertainty -- when you’re a freshman in college, you don’t know who you are or what you’re going to be, your future’s totally unwritten and everything in life is a question mark. The world feels so overwhelming and every choice you make, every relationship you have seems impossible and somehow doomed for catastrophe. It’s a time of change, chaos, big adventures, and even bigger emotions. Oftentimes, you feel like you might not even survive it. But in retrospect, you look back and realize those were some of the best days of your life."

"Beyond this idea percolating in my head, I knew that I’d always wanted to make an enigmatic and sprawling mystery like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. I was a very impressionable college student when that series turned American TV upside down. It truly rocked my world, impacting not only my work but my overall sensibility and entire life. As has been well-documented, I have always been very heavily influenced by postpunk, alternative music culture and there was something very punk rock about Twin Peaks and its profound challenging of the mainstream culture. It was fearlessly and unequivocally its own thing; it didn’t care about what was expected or acceptable or even on some level, comprehensible. There was a brazen purity to it that was thrilling and new and incredibly inspiring. While I know there’s no way to create anything that can touch or compare to something so important and groundbreaking, Kaboom aspires to that show’s free spirit -- unfettered by the restraints and demands of the commercial marketplace. It just wants to be its own thing, exist on its own terms, and vibrate at its own anomalous frequency."
Kaboom gives viewers a rocket adventure through an ambisexual college student's daily life, with the basic message being that if the world is going to end tomorrow, you might as well fuck your brains out in the meantime. Araki's free-wheeling script has a rag-tag feel to it, but the action is backed by solid filmmaking technique. What's more, Smith enjoys a sexual freedom that would be the envy of James Bond.

Kaboom is a whole lot of sloppy, crazy fun. Half science fiction, half college sex romp, Araki's film is guaranteed to entertain. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Lewis Carroll's famous nonsense poem, Jabberwocky, reads as follows:
"`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe."
Like it or not, even nonsense has its place in literature. I tip my hat to young Aaron Henne, who recently wrote and directed an adaptation of Franz Kafka's novel, The Castle (first published in 1926). According to Wikipedia:
"The Castle is a novel by Franz Kafka. In it a protagonist, known only as K., struggles to gain access to the mysterious authorities of a castle who govern the village for unknown reasons. Kafka died before finishing the work, but suggested it would end with the Land Surveyor dying in the village; the castle notifying him on his death bed that his 'legal claim to live in the village was not valid, yet, taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, he was permitted to live and work there.' Dark and at times surreal, The Castle is about alienation, bureaucracy, the seemingly endless frustrations of man's attempts to stand against the system, and the futile and hopeless pursuit of an unobtainable goal."

Marissa Keltie, Theo Black, and Sylvia Kratins
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Known for its organic process of developing a play over a period of about four months, Central Works recently staged the world premiere of Henne's "A Man's Home...." as part of its New Play Program, 2010-2012. While chatting with Mr. Henne after the performance and asking how the hell he was able to adapt The Castle for a dramatic presentation, he gleefully pointed out that Kafka's novel ends in mid sentence.

Watching "A Man's Home..." unravel in the tiny confines of the Berkeley City Club, I was struck by:
  • Henne's staggering directorial talent.
  • The total commitment of his four-actor ensemble.
  • The brilliant debut of young Theo Black as Kafka's confused land surveyor.
  • Gregory Scharpen's extraordinary sound design.
  • The stunning acuity of the show's lighting as designed by Gary Graves.
Joe Jordan (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

I then reminded myself that this is the norm for Central Works, a teeny-tiny Bay area nonprofit theatre company whose artistic standards are so much higher than those of most larger arts organizations. While I have often sung the company's praises, the experience of watching a new play unfold that is at times almost unintelligible -- and yet not caring a whit about the story's continuity or plot twists -- is a sign that the Central Works creative team has genuinely earned the trust of its audience.

Mr. Black's performance was, quite simply, breathtaking. Joe Jordan (who had impressed me when he appeared with the Sacred Fools Theater Company at a recent San Francisco Fringe Festival) offered the perfect foil to Mr. Black's youthful land surveyor. Appearing in numerous supporting roles were Sylvia Kratins and Marissa Keltie.

Theo Black and Marissa Keltie (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

As with so many Central Works productions I've written about, "A Man's Home..."  is the kind of production that you simply cannot afford to miss if you consider yourself a serious theatregoer. You might not understand an ounce of what Kafka is saying, but the performances are so riveting that the actors will have you on the edge of your seat for 90 minutes. Performances continue through March 13 at the Berkeley City Club (you can order tickets here). Meanwhile, keep an eye out for Mr. Henne's work in the future. He's a truly remarkable talent.

Playwright/director Aaron Henne

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