Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Alas, Time Does Not Heal Everything

In the summer of 1974 I traveled to Los Angeles with musical theatre on my mind.  Over at the Shubert Theatre in Century City, Angela Lansbury (fresh from her triumphant run at London's Piccadilly Theatre) was starring in the first major revival of Gypsy: A Musical Fable since Ethel Merman introduced one of theatre's most ferocious stage mothers to audiences on May 21, 1959.

Over at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a new Jerry Herman musical named Mack and Mabel was in the throes of a difficult out-of-town tryout. Over the years, one of the show's songs ("Time Heals Everything") has become something like an anthem for the woman who first sang it, Bernadette Peters.

In 1995 I became friends with a man I met through The Back Door BBS, a gay bulletin board based in San Francisco. At the time, Winston was working downtown as a legal secretary. A man with a fierce intellect, a devilish sense of humor, and more emotional baggage than could fit on the decks of the Titanic, he was trying to live clean and sober. He had even named one of his cats Odaat (One Day At A Time).

Not only was Winston HIV+ and suffering from chronic back pain, he was a formidably private person with an intense cluster of neuroses. About 10 years later he met someone and, as often happens, cut himself off from many of the people he used to know. When he died last fall, we had never had a chance to say goodbye.

I mention Winston's passing because the strangest things can happen in dreams and drama. Last week, after an exceptionally bad allergy day, I fell into a deep sleep and had one of those dreams in which someone from my past stops by for a quiet, but intense visit. This time it was Winston.

When I awoke, I was shaken but aware that the dream had been profoundly healing. Winston and I were able to resolve any unanswered questions, say our goodbyes, and go our separate ways. However, not everyone gets a chance to work things out in their dreams. More often than not, some of our dreams end up becoming nightmares.

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Without doubt, the highlight of this year's Best of Playground Festival was Mandy Hodge Rizvi's Escapades. Directed by M. Graham Smith and billed as "a ballet with dialogue, or a dance through time and memory," Rizvi's one-act play was inspired by the following quote from Eugene O'Neill's drama, Long Day's Journey Into Night:
"Like a saint's vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see -- and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!"
David Cramer and Holly Hornlien  in Escapades 
Photo by: Mellopix performance

Escapades starred David Cramer in a bravura performance as Ted, a frightened and confused Alzheimer's patient who is being released from a private nursing home and sent to a state-run facility. As the play progresses, the audience becomes privy to Ted's descent into dementia and how his family missed critical signs of his mental illness.

At first there were terrifying dreams, including one nightmare in which his old Packard stalled on the railroad tracks as an approaching train bore down on him. In a string of later incidents, the local police found Ted battling invisible enemies after having climbed up onto the steep roof of his home. What got Ted booted from the nursing home after numerous attacks on male nurses and attempts to flee the premises is explained to his son (Brian Herndon) by the physician on duty (Jomar Tagatac) as follows:
"Your father is a man who has absolutely no idea what day, or month, or year it is. He can't tell you what the weather is outside or who the current president is. Doesn't remember. No idea. What he knows is that he's a retired army officer, working as a maintenance man for the local thread company. He doesn't remember how to brush his teeth, but he remembers the feel of a tool in his hand, and how to use it. And he can't remember for the life of him that he lives at Laurel Hills Nursing Home, no matter how many times we tell him, but he knows the exact number of steps to his front door -- that he has a family there -- and wife, and two kids. He doesn't remember that his wife and daughter are both dead.  He knows he needs to pick up milk, to fix the porch light, to mow the lawn.
Your father is a person to me, Mr. Leeds.  But to him, this is a prison, and I'm the warden, and he won't rest until he escapes. He broke into a maintenance closet. He used the tools he found there to remove the [monitoring] bracelet. Two male nurses out for a cigarette break saw him sprinting at full tilt across the grounds and gave chase. They had never seen a man of his years move so fast, like he was running for his life. It took them quite some time to subdue him. One of them required several stitches. You know your father no longer recognizes you. He knows you as the man that keeps him here. I'm sorry to be blunt, but to him, if I'm the warden, you're his arresting officer."

Brian Herndon, Holli Hornlien, Jomar Tagatac and David Cramer
in Escapades (Photo by: Mellopix performance)

With Holli Hornlien doing triple duty as a nurse, Ted's wife and his daughter, Escapades was one of the most gripping and poignant dramatic depictions of Alzheimer's I've seen on any stage. Especially for those whose friends and relatives have succumbed to this disease, it was an oddly uplifting and dramatically cleansing experience that packed a powerful punch. I hope more regional theatre companies get to produce this short play.

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Over in Berkeley, The Shotgun Players continued to celebrate their 20th anniversary season with the world premiere of the second of their five commissioned plays. Elizabeth Hunter Spreen's daring Care of Trees is hardly your standard heterosexual romance. True: Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, and boy gets to marry girl. But then girl turns into a tree and uses her roots to drag boy underground so that she can, once more, lie naked beside him and hold him in her arms.

Care of Trees is what I call a "fearless" play in that the script takes audiences to unimaginable places in their minds while the set designer (the talented Nina Ball) must provide some kind of landscape/mindscape that will support such a challenging emotional journey. It also requires a producer, like Patrick Dooley, who's got guts.

Make no mistake about it: the two characters at the heart of Care of Trees are by no means delicate flowers:

Georgia (Liz Sklar) and Travis (Patrick Russell)
Photo by: Pak Han 

A relationship that could easily have been sabotaged by hate at first sight is, instead, sparked by unfettered lust and overwhelming desire. Unfortunately, marriage doesn't turn out to be what these two expected it would be. In her program notes, director Susannah Martin writes:

"With its collage-like structure, where time and space are fluid, several issues are touched upon as we swirl through the memories of one couple: the environment and our responsibility to it; illness and its effect on a relationship; language and its limitations in articulating what we feel (especially when our experience becomes so big that it is beyond words); our very contemporary obsessions with cataloguing and generating artifacts (both real and virtual) of our relationships, and what happens to those memories as time passes and things change... In the midst of all of those themes, ultimately, this play asks: What happens when your partner embarks on a journey where you can't follow? And concurrently, what happens when life forces you to choose a path that may mean the loss of your relationship?  Life is about change. It's about death. It's about re-birth.  This beautiful play demonstrates that process on both the most intimate and the most magical scale."

Ms. Martin has done a stunning job of pulling two extraordinary performances from her actors. Combining naturalism with magical realism isn't the easiest thing to pull off onstage. Like Rizvi's Escapades, Care of Trees benefits immensely from the use of balletic movement in key moments of lyricism and emotionality.

Sklar and Russell are so physically and emotionally committed to their roles that, as the play progresses, one doesn't think of Georgia's transition into a tree as a metaphor but as shockingly real. Shotgun's handsome multimedia production will grab you by the throat and take you on one helluva challenging ride.

Performances of Spreen's beautifully conceived and provocative new drama continue at the Ashby Stage through June 19 (you can order tickets here). This is a very exciting and memorable new work.

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Finally, mention should be made of an exquisitely filmed and bone-chilling Finnish documentary entitled Into Eternity. Young lovers might hope that their love will be eternal, but filmmaker Michael Madsen is more concerned with what happens to radioactive waste that is expected to remain lethally dangerous for 100,000 years. In light of the tragic events at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant in Japan earlier this year, Into Eternity's relevance becomes increasingly urgent.

Filmmaker Michael Madsen

Madsen's film boasts a wonderful original musical score by Karsten Fundal and some magnificent cinematography by Heikki Färm. As Madsen takes viewers deep inside Finland's massive Onkalo project (where nuclear waste will hopefully remain safely stored and under seal for the next 100,000 years), one can't help but wonder if mankind's biggest weakness is its innate sense of hubris.

Inside the nuclear storage facility at Onkalo.

In his director's note, Madsen states that:
"I am interested in the areas of documentary filmmaking where additional reality is created. By this, I mean that I do not think reality constitutes a fixed entity which accordingly can be documented -- revealed -- in this or that respect. Instead, I suspect reality to be dependent on and susceptible to the nature of its interpretation. I am, in other words, interested in the potentials and requirements of how reality can be -- and is -- interpreted.
The Onkalo project of creating the world's first final nuclear waste facility capable of lasting at least 100 000 years transgresses both in construction and on a philosophical level all previous human endeavors. It represents something new. And as such, I suspect it to be emblematic of our time -- and in a strange way out of time, a unique vantage point for any documentary."
While Madsen's film is beautiful to watch, the story it tells becomes extremely ominous when one realizes that the Onkalo project only deals with Finland's nuclear waste (there's a lot more radioactive material out there that is not being treated with as much concern for the environment). Here's the trailer:

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