Wednesday, March 30, 2011

There'll Be Some Changes Made

It's an old, old story.  A country bumpkin leaves the farm to seek out a more exciting life in the big city. It's been done upside down and inside out -- which is why audiences are always surprised to see the same old story play out in a new and astonishing way.

First published in 1921 (with lyrics by Billy Higgins), There'll Be Some Changes Made contains this memorable verse as its chorus:
"For there's a change in the weather
There's a change in the sea
So from now on there'll be a change in me
My walk will be different, my talk and my name
Nothin' about me is goin' to be the same,
I'm goin' to change my way of livin' if that ain't enough,
Then I'll change the way that I strut my stuff,
'Cause nobody wants you when you're old and gray
There'll be some change made today.
There'll be some changes made."

Imagine my delight upon viewing the historic archival footage contained in the following clip!  The video accompanies a recording of the 1921 song classic by Wack-A-Doo (a St. Louis-based band that specializes in performing “American Musette,” which it defines as a high-powered mix of toe-tapping vintage swing, folksy Americana, and speakeasy-style syncopation).

How are you going to keep them down on the farm once the concept of bright lights in the big city has taken over their imagination? Don't even try. Resistance is futile.

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Saigon Electric begins with a male Vietnamese break dancer practicing his moves in a rather large puddle. Later in the film, he tries to choreograph a routine to music from the soundtrack of Fiddler on the Roof. Directed by Stephane Gauger (The Owl and the Sparrow), this new Vietnamese hip hop movie is determined to claim some new turf in the B-boy movie genre.

Fresh off the farm, Mai (Van Trang) arrives in a Saigon in which graffiti is rampant and the never-ending Western craving for the latest trend is rapidly taking over Vietnam's youth culture. Although Saigon's youth may be gravitating to dance clubs where hip hop music is all the rage, Mai is hoping to audition for the National Dance Academy.

Van Trang as Mai

Unfortunately, she has no formal training in ballet and, other than her experience as a traditional ribbon dancer, gets easily flustered when asked to perform before the school's auditioning faculty. Her encounter with a young woman named Kim (Quynh Hoa)who is part of the Saigon Fresh dance crew, leads Mai into a whole new world -- much to the disapproval of her elderly landlord, the Professor (Phan Tan Thi).

The male leads include Do-Boy (Zen 04), the leader of the Saigon Fresh crew, and Hai (Khuong Ngoc), a handsome, spoiled rich kid who seduces Kim but is forced to confess that he will soon be leaving Saigon to attend school in England.

Khuong Ngoc as Hai

Meanwhile, Do-Boy (who teaches break dancing to homeless kids at a local community center) encourages Mai to hang out with his crew and teach ribbon dancing to some of the girls at the center. As in so many dance movies, Do-Boy explains to Mai that members of the North Killaz dance because they're paid to dance whereas his crew dances "because we have to."

When confronted with the harsh news that the community center is to be torn down to make way for a new hotel, the young dancers struggle to find a financial backer. Is the hotel's architect Kai's father? Will the eccentric Professor come through with a valuable political connection from his mysterious past?

Gauger's film alternates between the gritty poverty of homeless youth and the plush surroundings and serenity of Hai's upper class family. The manic traffic patterns in downtown Saigon are far more threatening than any of the attitude-heavy moves thrown down by the North Killaz in a series of highly energized dance scenes.

Do-Boy (Zen 04) and his break dancing crew

Needless to say, Do-Boy and Saigon Fresh triumph over the North Killaz (who have been funded for the past three years by a corporate sponsor) and find a way to keep teaching homeless youth how to dance at their community center. Even better, Mai gets a second chance to audition for the National Dance Academy. Here's the trailer:

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Over in BerkeleyShotgun Players has launched its 20th anniversary season -- in which each play is a new commission -- with the world premiere of Beardo (whose early poster art proclaimed "He's a weirdo with a Beardo!"). For such a small company to pull off such a major achievement is a stern reminder that, while great theatre takes place all over the Bay area, Shotgun Players is one of our region's most consistently challenging and fascinating producers of new work.

Directed by Patrick Dooley (with music by Dave Malloy) Beardo was inspired by one of the most bizarre characters in Russian history. As Jason Craig (who wrote the book and lyrics) explains:
"Rasputin, the real life huckster upon whom Beardo is loosely based, serves as a fine example of how 'man' can be transformed into 'superman.' He certainly was a rascally man who did his fair share of manipulation and conjuring, but his mysticism was magnified, his prowess inflated by the stir of gossip and the imagination of the mass. Rasputin lived during a time of confusion and fear. You might say he was in the right place at the right time. None of what you see tonight is true; except for the ridiculous parts. Who could possibly have made that up?"
Ashkon Davaran as Beardo (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Beardo begins with its protagonist lying in a field with his arm stuck into a hole in the ground. After being taken to shelter by a Shack Man (Josh Pollock) and his sex-starved wife (Sarah Mitchell), Beardo begins to sense the magnetic power he can exert over others. Soon, he's off to the big city where he quickly ingratiates himself with Russia's aristocracy.

After helping to improve the health of the royal family's hemophilic Delicate Child Boy (Juliet Heller), Beardo is soon training the Tsar (Kevin Clarke) to beg like a dog for raspberry-flavored chocolates. Blessed with an insatiable libido, he's also screwing the Tsarista (Anna Ishida) and lots of the other women at court. 

Beardo (Ashkon Daravan) and the Tsar (Kevin Clarke )
Photo by: Pak Han

Even as Beardo dances around with a mammoth, glittery phallus dangling from his underwear, Yusapoof (Dave Garrett) and other aristocrats are plotting his death while dressed in red tights and white tutus. Just when you think the production can't get any more bizarre, one of the murderers holds up Beardo's engorged and bloody penis (having severed it from his victim to keep as a souvenir!)

Yusapoof (Dave Garrett) with Sarah Mitchell and J.P. Gonzalez
as two Russian aristocrats (Photo by: Pak Han)

Beardo's score is written for a string quintet (Jessica Ling, Jo Gray, Charles Montague, Gael Alcock, Olive Mitra) whose style imitates everything from the music of Borodin, Xenakis, and Prokofiev to Patsy Cline, George Crumb, and Tuvan cowboy music. For the act I finale, a chorus of nearly 40 Russian peasants emerges from backstage to deliver a magnificent a capella rendition of "Troika" in an arrangement of the Russian gypsy song transcribed from a performance by Marusia Georgevskaya.

With an evocative unit set designed by Lisa Clark and some superb costume design work by Christine Crook, Patrick Dooley has staged Beardo as an iconoclastic romp through a period of Russian decadence in which nothing was held sacred by the play's protagonist and everyone was there for him to use and abuse as he saw fit for the sake of his own entertainment.

The Tsarista (Anna Ishida) sings the blues at a court banquet in Beardo.
(Photo by: Pak Han)

Each time I enter the theatre at the Ashby Stage, I'm amazed at what Shotgun Players have done to alter the physical environment. Beardo was certainly no exception.

Whether the show's musical accompaniment comes from a ukulele, a string quintet, or a recording of Russian bells, Beardo is guaranteed to rock your world. So much creativity is on display in this thrilling new piece of music theatre that, if you're smart, you'll put Beardo on your must-see list (you can order tickets here). Performances continue at the Ashby Stage through April 24th. Don't miss it!

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