Sunday, April 3, 2011

"A" As In Apple

Back in 1977, when I started to write my opera column (Tales of Tessi Tura) for San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter, it took me about a year until I finally eased into a style of writing that fit me like a glove. Since I did not have a formal background in musicology -- and was trying to do something quite different from the traditional formats for classical music criticism -- I added some humor, offhand remarks, and outrageous photo captions to my columns. Quite by accident, I also became the first arts critic in America to write about classical music from an openly gay perspective.

As the years progressed, I discovered that combining reviews of two or three performances into one column offered an efficient model for covering more performances. It also meant that I could build up an arsenal of material that could be published when I was on the road, attending performances in regional cities.

The happy result? My column was not limited to only being published during the local opera season, but ran on a regular basis throughout the year.

Whereas most producing organizations want reviews to appear on as timely a basis as possible in order to help the box office, for opera fans in another city -- or those who were unable to travel to see  a certain production  --  being able to read about it from someone who was lucky enough to attend offered them a steady source of vicarious thrills. For the producing companies, it offered proof that someone from out of town thought their artistic product was important enough to come write about it.

Now that I'm writing about opera, theatre, and film, it's usually easier to find some object or idea with which I can link several reviews together. Occasionally, there are times when I run up against a brick wall. However, sometimes I'm completely taken by surprise as an idea doesn't just make itself known, but reaches out and slaps me in the face to get my attention.

That's exactly what happened last week, from two sources I would never even have thought about placing together in the same column. To understand how such an unexpected relationship can materialize out of thin air, simply accept the fact that the apple has been a cultural icon for thousands of years.
Thus, as I sat in two darkened theaters and watched an apple become an important plot point in two wildly different stories, there was no escaping the fact that I had just found the "missing link" that would bring this particular column to fruition. Sometimes you do, indeed, "get a sign."

* * * * * * * * *
Every now and then an Asian film (Departures, Cherry Blossoms) breaks through an emotional wall erected by Western culture and hits home with a simplicity, grace, and beauty that is astonishing. Chang-dong Lee's exquisite Poetry is such a film. Its 139 minutes unwind with such tenderness and humility that you will never be bored. Lee's protagonist is a 65 year old grandmother named Mija (Jung-hee Yun) who works as a maid while trying to care for her teenaged grandson, Wook (David Lee).

At the beginning of the film, the audience sees the body of a young girl (Su-young Han) wash up near the riverbank where a group of young boys are playing games. As the film progresses, we learn that Wook was one of a half dozen schoolboys who gang-raped Hee-jin Park, causing her to commit suicide by jumping from a nearby bridge. Alas, the horrifying news of Wook's participation in the rape is not Mija's only problem.
  • Mija, who has been having trouble remembering nouns, has just been diagnosed with early signs of Alzheimer's disease.
  • Mija's daughter now lives in another city. Although they talk on the phone every day, how can she tell her daughter that Wook has become a teenage rapist who doesn't show the slightest bit of remorse for his actions? 
  • Mija has recently been contacted by the fathers of the other boys who participated in Hee-jin Park's rape. Together, they've come up with a plan for a financial settlement that will keep the girl's rape from the press. Not only do they expect Mija to contribute her fair share of money to the settlement, they want her to use her feminine influence to get the girl's grieving mother (Myeong-Sin Park) to accept the payment.
  • Meanwhile, Mija's employer, the elderly, paralyzed Mr. Kang (Hi-ra Kim) is a stroke victim who, as Mija  bathes him, tries to get her to perform sexual favors so that he can "feel like a man" for one last time before he dies.
  • In order to do something for herself, Mija has enrolled in a poetry class at the local community cultural center. She soon discovers that expressing her feelings is much more difficult than she had anticipated.
Mija (Jung-hee Yun) looks to an apple for inspiration

Poetry won the award for best screenplay at the recent Cannes Film Festival and it's easy to see why. Midway through Lee's film, the man teaching Mija's poetry class holds up an apple and insists that, while everyone in the class recognizes the object in his hand to be an apple, never in their lives have they taken the time or made the effort to understand what an apple represents.

The teacher's attempts to get his students to consider what goes into the creative process are acutely poignant. They also provoke some moments of strange behavior from Mija. In his director's statement, Lee writes:
"These are times when poetry is dying away. Some lament such loss and others claim, 'Poetry deserves to die.' Regardless, people continue to read and write poetry. What does it mean, then, to be writing poetry when prospects of an ongoing future seem dismal? This is a question I want to pose to the public. But in fact, it is a question I pose to myself as a filmmaker: What does it mean to be making films at times when films are dying away?"
Mija (Jung-hee Yun) participates in her poetry class

It's hard to believe that Jung-hee Yun has not acted in 16 years. She delivers a performance that is astonishingly simple and deeply moving, yet leaves it to the audience to decide how the movie really ends.

The poem Mija finally creates allows her to defy the crushing shame from Wook's behavior and distance herself from living in such painful proximity to a kind of violence that she abhors.

Poetry is one of those quiet gems that you should immediately add to your Netflix queue. There is a beautiful moment (which appears in the following trailer) when Mija takes out her pen and pad of paper to write down her thoughts -- only to see raindrops blur the page in the same way that dementia is starting to blur her memory.

* * * * * * * * *
Not only does Legacy of Light start with a giant image of an apple floating in front of a cloudy sky, apples are all over the stage in Act II. The critical role played by an apple in inspiring Sir Isaac Newton takes center stage -- as does the popular adage that "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

The San Jose Repertory is currently producing the West Coast premiere of this charming dramedy by Karen Zacarias in a production designed by William Bloodgood with costumes by Brandin Baron. Zacarias got her inspiration for the play when she stumbled across a footnote referring to Emilie du Chatelet, whom Voltaire once described as follows:
"For a long time she moved in circles which did not know her worth and she paid no attention to such ignorance.  I saw her, one day, divide a nine-figure number by nine other figures, in her head, without any help, in the presence of a mathematician unable to keep up with her."
As the action in Legacy of Light bounces back and forth between  France in the 1700s and modern New Jersey, the audience gets to know the following cast of characters:
  • Emilie du Chatelet (Rachel Harker), the talented French author, mathematician, and physicist who achieved posthumous fame for her translation of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica.
  • Monsieur du Chatelet (Mike Ryan), Emilie's most accommodating husband.
  • Pauline (Kathryn Tekl), Emilie's daughter who is forced into an arranged marriage.
  • Saint-Lambert (Miles Gaston Villaneuva), Emilie's handsome young lover.
  • Voltaire (Robert Yacko), the famous writer (Candide), philosopher, and historian whose character, Pangloss, insisted that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."  One of Emilie's former lovers, Voltaire is extremely protective of her daughter, Pauline.
  • Olivia (Carrie Paff), a modern day astrophysicist and survivor of uterine cancer who may have discovered a planet being born.
  • Peter (Mike Ryan), Olivia's devoted husband, who loves his work as an elementary school teacher.
  • Millie (Kathryn Tekl), the young woman who has offered to become a surrogate mother for Olivia and Peter.
  • Lewis (Miles Gaston Villaneuva), Millie's stuffy, self-righteous brother.
Emilie du Chatelet (Rachel Harker) entertains her young lover,
Saint-Lambert (Miles Gaston Villaneuva) in San Jose Rep's production of
Legacy of Light (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Legacy of Light (which had its world premiere at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. in 2009) received the American Theatre Critics Association's Best New Play Award for 2010. Not only does Zacarias do a stellar job of showcasing the personal and professional challenges faced by intelligent women more than 250 years apart, her use of magical realism imbues the play's second act with extraordinary appeal.

As directed by Kirsten Brandt, San Jose Rep's six-member ensemble did an impressive job bringing Legacy of Light to life. I was especially impressed with Rachel Harker's portrait of Emilie du Chatelet and Kathryn Tekl's work doing double duty as Millie and Pauline. Carrie Paff's Olivia offered a compelling portrait of a female astrophysicist who goes into a panic when her surrogate mother starts having labor pains.

Olivia (Carrie Paff) is an astrophysicist who may have discovered a planet being
born in the San Jose Rep's production of Legacy of Light (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Robert Yacko's Voltaire was highly entertaining while Mike Ryan worked the comedy and pathos sides of Monsieur du Chatelet and Peter quite nicely.  The dashingly handsome Miles Gaston Villanueva scored strongly in the dual roles of Saint-Lambert and Lewis.

Legacy of Light continues at San Jose Rep through April 17 (you can order tickets here).  This is a well-directed and smartly-written play about women of great intellectual strength coping with difficult physical challenges while trying not to lose focus on their life's work.

No comments: