Wednesday, June 1, 2011

School Daze

Classrooms, corridors, and cafeterias. Those were where we spent a good part of our teens. Whether participating in a school service (I was on the newspaper squad at Junior High School 278), rehearsing with the school band, or participating in sports activities, not a day went by that didn't offer potential for a new form of humiliation.
  • Some students dreaded being called into the principal's office. 
  • Others were constantly bullied by their peers. 
  • Some came to class unprepared, hoping the teacher would believe that the dog ate their homework.
  • Others got caught passing notes, necking in a corner, or cheating on exams.
My favorite anecdote involves the kid who came home from school one day only to get smacked across the face by his mother. "What was that for?" he cried. "I may not know what you did today," his mother replied, "But I'm willing to bet YOU do!"

When tensions erupt in America's schools these days, the situation at hand may be something we could not have imagined in our wildest dreams back when many of us were in high school. Back then, some of us were trying so hard to be good that we wouldn't have thought of cutting class, much less smoking a cigarette. My, how times have changed!

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The closing piece on the program at this year's Best of Playground Festival was a short play by Brady Lea that I had seen earlier this year. Directed by Jessica Heidt (with music by Christopher Winslow), Calling The Kettle begins with Ms. Keen (Holli Hornlien) en route to a meeting in the principal's office. Although the meeting concerns her daughter, PJ (Rinabeth Apostol), Ms. Keen is feeling the kind of nervous apprehension she felt back when she was a student in the same school.

As Ms. Keen heads for the principal's office she runs into Jacob (Michael Phillis), one of her daughter's closest friends. Recognizing her, Jacob opens up his backpack and hands her the purse that PJ left behind in their biology class. Grateful at first, Ms. Keen smells something familiar and is horrified to discover a stash of primo weed in her daughter's purse -- the purse which she is now carrying into the principal's office.

As it turns out, the real reason Principal Jones (Brian Herndon) called this meeting was to congratulate PJ on making the honor roll. He knows it's been a tough year for PJ (what with her parents' divorce, her grandmother's death, and her moving into a new home), so he's delighted to give PJ and her mother some good news.

Ms. Keen (Holli Hornlien) and her daughter PJ (Rinabeth Apostol) in
Calling The Kettle (Photo by: Mellopix performance)

By the time PJ enters the room Ms. Keen is a nervous wreck. When PJ sees her purse in her mother's hands, the last thing on her mind is her grade score. As each person in the room gives voice to their inner thoughts it becomes obvious that:
  • PJ is going to be let off the hook because of her good grades.
  • Principal Jones has to admit that, although PJ will turn out to be a pretty hot babe in a few years, he could really use a weekend in Tahoe with a smoking hot mama like Ms. Keen.
  • Ms. Keen's anxiety level has her simultaneously fantasizing about how Principal Jones might look naked while resenting the fact that she'll have to get rid of the marijuana she found in her daughter's purse ("I'm proud of you, honey, but please do not push it. The truth I have to face is that now I have to flush it.")
Few blackouts are ever accompanied by the sound of a flushing toilet. However, in this case, it was a most appropriate way to bring Calling The Kettle to its conclusion.

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A new film written and directed by Alan Brown that's scheduled to receive its world premiere at Frameline's 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival follows nicely in the footsteps of Tom Gustafson who, in 2008, put a gay twist on A Midsummer Night's Dream with his charming movie musical, Were The World Mine. Brown's Private Romeo offers a new interpretation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that is much less controversial than one might expect. In his director's statement, Brown writes:
"Though Romeo and Juliet is usually interpreted as a romantic tale of young love thwarted by a family feud, recent re-readings convinced me that it is actually a much more modern and relevant story about sexual identity and desire pitted against society and its institutions; about personal freedom and rights versus authority. As a gay man and an artist frustrated by the political battles and inaction over gay equality and by the heart-breaking epidemic of gay bullying, I thought Shakespeare would be the perfect vehicle for exploring these issues. As Private Romeo’s high school military cadets find themselves in the kinds of emotionally tumultuous situations -- falling in love, the loss of friendship, confronting homophobia -- that would leave any adolescent (or adult) at a loss for words, they must use Shakespeare’s language as their sole means of expression, forcing them to explore the profound drama of coming of age."

A cadet salutes an officer en route to the showers

Brown sets the action on the campus of the fictional McKinley Military Academy, where a group of eight cadets are left behind over a school break while everyone else heads out to visit friends and family. The cadets are instructed to follow their standard military routine with no deviation. But as they begin to read Shakespeare aloud in a classroom, an interesting transformation takes place. Slowly, each cadet starts to identify with one of the characters from Romeo and Juliet, taking on that character's emotions and lines long after leaving the classroom.

Whether rallying around friends, protecting one cadet from bullying, or falling in love with another cadet who plays on the opposing basketball team, the language of Shakespeare dominates the action in Brown's film. It's an interesting twist, especially considering that in Shakespeare's day all roles were played by men.  

Whether you are a Shakespeare scholar, love to watch young jocks playing basketball, or have a fetish for men in uniforms, Private Romeo offers plenty of food for thought. From sharply-angled locker room shots to darkly-lit moments of self doubt, Derek McKane's cinematography helps to frame the roiling emotions of young love, jealousy, ecstasy, and revenge

Sam Singleton/Romeo (Seth Numrich) and
Glenn Mangan/Juliet (Matt Doyle)
perform the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet

Toward the end of the play, Matt Doyle (who plays the Glenn Mangan/Juliet character) sings "You Made Me Love You" accompanied by a lone ukulele. The following video clip, taken from a nightclub appearance at Feinstein's at the Regency, offers a preview:

Brown has gathered a winning ensemble of young actors for his film. While Seth Numrich (Sam Singleton/Romeo) and Matt Doyle (Glenn Mangan/Juliet) are most effective as Shakespeare's famous star-crossed lovers, they receive strong support from Hale Appleman (Josh Neff/Mercutio), (Sean Hudock (Gus Sanchez/Benvolio), and Bobby Moreno (Carlos Moreno/Tybalt). The adult roles in Shakespeare's tragedy are taken on by Chris Bresky (Omar Madsen/The Nurse), Adam Barrie (Adam Hersch/Friar Laurence), and Charlie Barnett (Ken Lee/The Prince). Nicholas Wright's original musical score beautifully helps to underplay many dramatic moments.

The world premiere of Private Romeo will take place on Monday, June 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Castro Theatre (you can order tickets here). I suspect the film will receive a hearty standing ovation. Here's the trailer:

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Without doubt, 2011 has been a tough year for teachers. With Republicans trying to frame professional educators as greedy overpaid scumbags with cushy jobs (look in the mirror much lately?), a series of revolting union-busting campaigns have sent teachers into a state of high anxiety. But in the upscale seaside Connecticut town that is the focus of The Green, no one is questioning the importance of good teachers. Nor are unions the issue.

Written by Paul Marcarelli and directed by Steven Williford, this riveting new film examines what happens when a gay teacher (Jason Butler Harner) in a small town is falsely accused of inappropriately touching a student. The accusation is wildly off base because (a) Michael has been trying to save Jason's (Chris Bertscholarship from getting cancelled, and (b) along with another faculty member, Michael rushed to intercede when Jason was being bullied by some other students.

Jason Butler Harner as Michael

However, at the moment Michael and his colleague were trying to separate the students, the panicky Jason screamed "Get your faggot hands off me!" in front of a crowd of shocked onlookers that included his blue-collar father (Bill Sage), who is employed as the school janitor, and his mother (Karen Young), who questions her husband's judgment.

Among the other witnesses were Trish (Illeana Douglas), Michael's best friend at work who is battling a cancer diagnosis and several other members of the faculty. After the police are called and Michael is led off the school grounds in handcuffs, the news of his arrest quickly spreads through town. In no time at all, Michael is ostracized by the townspeople and even asked to leave a coffee shop. His lover, Daniel (Cheyenne Jackson), is shocked to see police enter their home and confiscate Daniel's computer along with some of Michael's possessions.

Cheyenne Jackson as Daniel

The ripple effect quickly hits Daniel's popular locavore catering service when Bethanne (Mary B. McCann),  one of the school board members, informs Daniel that she expects him to voluntarily give up his catering contract in the wake of the accusations made against Michael. 

Although Trish's husband, Philip (Boris McGiver), offers to act as Michael's attorney, he quickly realizes that he is in over his head. Philip calls in a specialist who is also a lesbian (Julia Ormond) married to another woman. Having seen Leo's performance when interviewed by the local news station, Karen quickly tries to reframe the case as a money-grubbing move on the part of Jason's financially-strapped parents.

While the town's rampant homophobia might seem to be the biggest issue, long-held secrets boil to the surface after Jason goes into hiding.
  • Michael's lawyer asks him if he's told Daniel about a previous arrest for indecent exposure.
  • Daniel (who left his life in New York City to follow Michael to Connecticut and wonders why they haven't gotten married) is furious to learn that, in all the years they've been together, Michael has never told him about this incident.
  • Michael learns that Jason's parents met in Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • The neighbor Michael always assumed was spying on him turns out to have a surprising secret.
  • When Jason finally reappears in the middle of a heavy thunderstorm, he leads Michael on a wild goose chase that leads to a shattering revelation.
As emotions erupt, Marcarelli's script touches on some key issues that are rarely discussed (such as why "accepting" someone's homosexuality is not all that comforting). He also shows how, in moments of great stress and emotional pain, friends and lovers can lash out against each other.

Williford has gotten some beautiful performances from his ensemble. Illeana Douglas shines as Trish. Michael Godere has some nice moments as the mouthy waiter who works for Daniel's catering service.

The Green will be shown on Friday, June 17 at 7:00 p.m. at the Castro Theatre in what is being billed as a "sneak preview screening" (you can order tickets here). This film packs quite a wallop. Here's the trailer:

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