Saturday, March 17, 2012

Finishing The Spat

On October 3, 1995 the jury delivered a verdict of "not guilty" in the criminal trial of The People of the State of California versus Orenthal James Simpson. The shock waves that coursed through the media during the highly sensationalized trial of former football hero O.J. Simpson revealed that racism was a much bigger issue than most Americans had assumed, and that blacks and whites had extremely different perceptions of Simpson's guilt.

On March 15, 2012, a New Jersey jury delivered a verdict that found Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi "guilty" on 15 charges of hate crimes -- including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, lying to investigators, tampering with evidence, and trying to influence a witness -- that led to the suicide of Tyler Clementi (who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge on September 22, 2010). The verdict made it abundantly clear that cyberbullying has consequences.
What kind of closure (if any) does this bring to the Clementi family? It certainly won't bring their son back to life. But as Joe Clementi explained in his post-verdict statement, the results of the trial can become a source for positive change in our society.

Two new (fictional) dramas deal with attempts to achieve closure from difficult situations. One is horrifying, violent, and based on a real incident. The other is theoretical, implausible and, in the long run, offers no satisfaction to any of the involved parties.

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The San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival recently presented the world premiere of an eight-minute horror short directed by Ray Arthur Wang entitled Down Under. The tag line reads:
"A cute young girl desperately tries to escape the senseless brutality of a faceless torturer, but things are not what they seem on one hellish day in the Land Down Under."
Horror is not my favorite film genre, but when someone starts meticulously chopping off his victim's fingers with an office-style paper cutter and then stuffing one of the severed pieces up a nostril, I'll give him points for imagination.

The multi-talented Ray Arthur Wang

The most interesting part of the film, however, comes during the final credits when it is revealed that the film is based on a true incident involving a woman named Nicola Radford (played by Leah Bateman) who, after brutally maiming the child she was babysitting, was given a taste of her own medicine.

Although Deep Under has obviously been crafted with a thoroughly professional approach to filmmaking, the irony is that its creator may, in fact, be more interesting than his short film.  Wang began studying classical piano at the age of five while growing up in Livermore and performed in concerts and piano competitions until he was 17. In addition to studying guitar and violin, he attended UC-Berkeley, where he earned a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences with a minor in music. At Stanford University he earned an M.S. and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering.

In addition to his 20-year career as a concert pianist (he now represents four professional pianists) he is a self-taught filmmaker who performs in a band called The Front Porch. The following video clip includes a few brief moments from Down Under as well as snippets of the score Wang composed for his film.

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There's an ambitious new theatre company in the Bay area which, instead of making its debut with just one production, decided to launch with a month-long festival at Thick House timed to coincide with Women's History Month. Simply stated, the goal of 3Girls Theatre Company is "to put women's work onstage where it belongs." As they explain in their mission statement:
"At 3Girls Theatre, our mission is to produce the work of women playwrights who write fresh, compelling, and entertaining plays, and to promote the involvement of women and girls in American theater. We aim to support female voices of all ages and viewpoints. No feminist agenda, no political fish to fry, no multicultural mission, although we’re happy to include plays that are motivated by those issues. Basically we are just three (not so girlish) girls who have lots of things to say -- and who want to promote other women who have things to say. We’re thrilled to be working with some of the Bay Area’s hottest and finest theatre professionals. We’re also looking forward to partnering with like-minded artists, writers, and theatre companies to make our mission a reality."
Lee Brady, Suze Allen, and AJ Baker of 3Girls Theatre
Photo by: Michael Bellino

Upon entering the theatre for the world premiere of AJ Baker's The Right Thing, I was immediately impressed by Krista Kamman Lowe's stylish, multi-platformed unit set. But as Baker's plot continued to unravel at a snail's pace, I found myself haunted by the nagging suspicion that this procedural drama was probably written by an attorney with dramatic aspirations. Sure enough, the playwright (a partner with the San Francisco firm of Levine & Baker LLP) has spent many hours as a mediator involved in issues of executive employment law.

Baker's play focuses on the legal predicament of Dr. Zell Gardner (Catherine Castellanos), a hard-driving, hard-drinking CEO who knows how to swim with the sharks and party with the boys. Zell's goddaughter, Samantha (Karina Wolfe), is a horny young lesbian who, after initiating a kiss when Zell was quite drunk, has misinterpreted the older woman's brief reciprocation of her affection.

"Sam" is easy prey for the manipulative Dr. David Heller (Lol Levy), who covets Zell's job and will go to any lengths to get it (a friend of mine who was heavily into S&M often stressed that lawyers make the very best bottoms because they'll do absolutely anything). As a result, Heller has been able to convince the impressionable young woman to file a charge of sexual harassment against Zell so that the company can dump the female CEO they hired to save it from financial ruin. Zell claims she is owed a $3 million earned bonus by her former employer. Heller is offering an insulting payout of $50,000.

Catherine Castellanos and Louis Parnell in The Right Thing
Photo by: Andy Berry

The Right Thing takes place in the San Francisco offices of Dispute Resolution Mediation Service (DRAMS), where the retired judge, Hon. Leigh Mansfield (Helen Shumaker), is attempting to iron out a settlement between the opposing parties. Zell's sense of closure eventually comes from rebuffing her goddaughter's sexual advances and considering the possibility of her own rehabilitation from alcohol.

Helen Shumaker, Catherine Castellanos and Lol Levy in
The Right Thing (Photo by: Andy Berry)

There are several obvious problems with Baker's play, not the least of which is the fact that writing about what you know isn't guaranteed to make it stageworthy. Nor did Suze Allen's lethargic pacing help matters at all. Among the play's glaring problems are the fact that:
  • The character of Zell does not generate any sympathy from the audience. Unfortunately, when none of the characters onstage elicit any sympathy or empathy, a playwright needs to have an exceptionally compelling story to tell.  Baker does not.
  • The terms of Zell's contract (as stated in the play) seem fairly obvious to the audience. However, even if Zell deserves to be terminated for sexual harassment, there is no mention of any morals clause in her contract which would negate paying out the bonus she earned.
  • Impetuous young lesbians need to be able to carry their own dramatic weight if they are to be believable (the character of Sam is not).
  • If the actress portraying a judge/mediator doesn't project any sense of authority, why should anyone care about her input?
The cast of The Right Thing (Photo by: Andy Berry)

Time waits for no woman and no late-night scene in a mediation room is capable of saving this play. At one point Zell states that "If I were a man, none of this would be a problem." She may very well be correct, but her financial payout and the charges of sexual harassment that have been leveled against her are not the real problem here.

I tip my hat to Catherine Castellanos (who can stomp around a stage with a greater sense of doom and foreboding than any other actress in the Bay area). She did the best she could with the role of a formidable female CEO but did not have much meat to work with. Others in the cast included Manny Diamond as Zell's attorney and John Flanagan as her married colleague and weak-willed part-time lover.

I wish someone would explain to playwrights the danger of projecting the chronological time throughout the course of a play. If an audience understands that the action in a play is spread over seven days of the week, it can easily anticipate the plot's development. Unfortunately, members of  the audience can also find themselves praying for the week to come to an early end.

The Right Thing featured a digital display meant to indicate each scene's time of day. But once the time display moved past the end of normal business hours (for a mediation session that was hardly a matter of life or death), the production began to feel like a terminal patient nearing death who is stuck on a ventilator that cannot be unplugged.

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