Saturday, December 22, 2012

Acute Transformations and Life-Changing Events

Whether one fantasizes about Hugh Jackman turning into Wolverine (with stainless steel blades replacing his fingers) or The Hulk's overly-muscled green torso suddenly bursting through a nicely tailored shirt, what was once reserved for the realm of the imagination has become a commonplace form of expression known as body art. In my travels around San Francisco I routinely encounter people who have physically altered their bodies with piercings, decorative plugs, and multiple tattoos.

The wonders of rehabilitative medicine allow us to marvel at the achievements of Stephen Hawking (who suffers from a motor neuron disease similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and a multiple amputee such as Representative Tammy DuckworthSouth African sprinter Oscar Pistorius competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics with carbon fiber transtibial prostheses in place of lower limbs that were amputated when he was only 11 months old due to a congenital disorder known as fibular hemimelia.

South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius

Deformed characters appear throughout literature, from hunchbacks like Rigoletto and Le Jongleur de Notre Dame to characters like Caliban in The Tempest, whom Shakespeare describes as a  mooncalf (the abortive fetus of a cow or farm animal). One's humiliating fugliness can range from an oversized nose (Cyrano de Bergerac) to a truly hideous presence that can only be cured by love (Beauty and the Beast).

Conjoined twins have been a constant source of fascination. In 1997, Bill Russell and Henry Krieger created a musical named Side Show that was based on the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, two popular entertainers from the 1930s. In 2011, UC-Berkeley's theatre department staged Philip Kan Gotanda's play I Dream of Chang and Eng (about the famous pair of 19th-century Chinese/Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker).

Conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker

In 1979, playwright Bernard Pomerance found dramatic gold in the story of Joseph Carey Merrick, who became the focus of his play entitled The Elephant Man. Among the talented actors who have portrayed Merrick onstage without the use of any prosthetic devices are David SchofieldPhilip Anglim, Bruce Davison, Mark Hamill, Billy Crudup, and David Bowie.

A photograph of Joseph Carey Merrick from 1889

Long before I read Homer's Odyssey, I remember watching 1958's hit film, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Despite its tackiness, I was awed and mildly terrified by the film's depiction of a Cyclops.

While many physical deformities result from birth defects, others are the results of unforeseen traumatic events. A character may suffer an injury in battle or be involved in a horrible vehicular accident. In real life, such events present tremendous obstacles to stage and film adaptations. In fiction, however, anything is possible.

During the recent San Francisco Olympians Festival III, two new works focused on what can happen when Greek gods decide to experiment with gender. Whether taking a rambunctious look at reproductive rights or examining transgender issues through an ancient lens, these world premieres proved to be both fascinating and occasionally hilarious.

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Back in the 1970s, Planned Parenthood came out with a poster that shocked quite a few people. It showed a sad young man with a distended midsection wearing a striped maternity smock. The "Mr. Mother" poster bore the message "Bet You'd Be More Careful if YOU Got Pregnant." Although a framed copy of the poster is hanging in my kitchen, I could not find any images of it online to include with this article.

Playwright Barbara Jwanouskos

Fascinated by Zeus's insatiable lust and his willingness to impregnate mortals (often disguising himself as an animal in the process), playwright Barbara Jwanouskos decided to explore what might happen if what was good for the goose was good for the gander. The back story for her play goes something like this:
"Hera is the daughter of Cronus and Rhea, which also makes her a sister to Zeus. She became his wife after he took the form of a cuckoo in order to pursue her. After Hera took pity on Zeus and held him to her breast, their marriage solidified Hera as queen of Mount Olympus. Although they had four children -- Eileithyia (goddess of childbirth), Ares (god of war), Hebe (goddess of youth), and Hephaestus (god of metallurgy) -- some claim that Hera bore Hephaestus herself out of jealousy for Zeus’s birth of Athena. Hera may be the goddess of marriage and childbirth, but she has a volatile temper, is known for her jealousy towards Zeus’s many mistresses, and has a tendency to act out of anger. After centuries of dealing with her husband's infidelities, Hera quits Mount Olympus to teach Zeus a lesson by showing him just how it feels to have a mortal impregnated by your spouse."
Poster art by Emmalee Carole for Hera

In Hera, Zeus's wife has grown sick and tired of her husband's talent for rampant procreation and decides to spend a vacation in San Francisco.  Fascinated with the plethora of gourmet food trucks in Golden Gate Park (fresh crème brulée!), Hera (Claire Slattery) starts to relish her newfound freedom.

The object of her momentary affection is a clueless straight white male who is, admittedly, a stereotypical douchebag. Terry (Nick Trengove) and his high-fiving friends Chad (Ben Grubb) and Ryan (Eric Hannan) are drunkenly cruising a singles bar in the Marina District when he scores some quick action in the hallway with Hera that leads to a life-changing result.

Not only does the shocked Terry find himself pregnant, his supposedly devoted friends (who treat "bro-hood" as a sacred trust) quickly lose interest in spending time with Terry as soon as he starts suffering from morning sickness. Once Hera informs him that abortion is not an option unless he wants to lose his genitals in the process, Terry is forced to start making preparations for an unimaginable future.

Suddenly he needs the help of his next-door neighbor, Alicia (Arie Levine), a self-employed midwife and spiritual healer who has been one of Terry's occasional booty calls. Things get really complicated when Alicia (who is an animal lover) finds a stray dog bearing a name tag that identifies him as "Zeus" and brings him home. When Terry begins having contractions and Zeus wants to get in the same room with him, all hell breaks loose.

Hilariously directed by Amy Clare Tasker, Hera drew a lot of hysterical screaming from Nick Trengove's Terry. In addition to reading stage directions, Brian Martin (wearing a sock puppet on one hand) scored strongly as the jealous, growling Zeus.

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One of the more complex and interesting scripts to debut at this year's San Francisco Olympians Festival was Poseidon, or Caenis and Poseidon, by Bridgette Dutta Portman (whose appearance at the festival was delayed by a traffic jam which she attributed to the God of Highways -- "101us").

Mosaic by Molly Benson for Poseidon, or Caenis and Poseidon

Like Zeus, Poseidon (Scott Leonard) -- who was married to the sea nymph Amphitrite -- has lots of sex with women (both mortal and immortal). After raping a young mortal named Caenis (Marilet Martinez), Poseidon offers to grant her one wish for anything she desires.

Obviously smarter than Poseidon anticipated, Caenis sees Poseidon's offer as her escape ticket from an unhappy life. Betrothed to the King of the LapithsPirithous (Andrew Chung), for whom she feels absolutely no love, Caenis is finding it increasingly difficult to relate to her best friend, Hippodamia (Laura Domingo).

Thus, Caenis asks to be transformed into a powerful man so that she can never again be sexually violated. When Poseidon refuses, she points out other instances in which the gods have formed a key role in enabling transformations. After Poseidon changes her gender, Caenis became Caeneus. In order to fake her drowning, Caeneus leaves her bridal gown by the seashore and departs what was once her beloved home town. As the playwright explains:
“I was interested in the psychology of this transgendered girl: what made her wish to be a man, and how might others, including Poseidon, have felt about her transformation. In my play, I imagine Caenis as a young woman suffering from gender dysphoria. Despite her female body, she identifies and longs to be treated as male. Poseidon, for his part, embodies the very strict conception of gender roles that prevailed in ancient Greek society. He is accustomed to women accepting a subordinate station and deeply resents Caenis for her heretical transformation. I decided to base the play’s structure on classical Greek drama, including the use of a chorus and verse. I like the juxtaposition of a very classically structured play with a subject highly relevant to contemporary society: gender identity and transsexualism.”
Playwright Bridgette Dutta Portman

As directed by Katja Rivera, Poseidon, or Caenis and Poseidon proved to be an exceptionally well-crafted approach to explaining a woman's choice to become transgendered. Portman's script demonstrated the emotional consequences of her decision and how it affected those Caenis left behind (still grieving for his betrothed, Pirithous eventually married Hippodamia). Marilet Martinez brought a touching humanity to Caenis/Caeneus with Laura Domingo as her friend, Hippodamia. Jan Gilbert and Melissa Clason appeared as two meddling Nereids while Andrew Chung's Pirithous was notable for its emotional vulnerability. Sam Tillis made a brief appearance as Latreus, a centaur.

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One of the earliest game shows on television, Stump the Stars was, in many ways, similar to Charades. The show's title takes on new meaning in Rust and Bone, a new film in which an animal trainer at Marineland in Antibes, France suffers a double below-knee amputation after a killer whale bites off her lower limbs. Thanks to the miracles of CGI scripting, audiences can now witness a major film star (Marion Cotillard) participating in some seamy amputee sex in which her character's upper legs have been tattooed with the words "droite" and "gauche." Stump the star, indeed!

Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) visits one of her orcas

The man who has no compunction about screwing Stephanie in her newly crippled status is Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a tall powerful nightclub bouncer who occasionally picks up extra cash from bare-handed kickboxing fights. They meet the night Ali drives a very drunk Stephanie home from the nightclub and, with his thuggish brawn, easily intimidates her live-in boyfriend.

Proud and arrogant, Stephanie makes no bones about enjoying her ability to be a cock-teaser (she's a bit taken aback when Ali asks her why she dresses like a whore).  However, following her accident, there are very few people to whom she can reach out for help.

Thus begins a delicate dance of physical rehabilitation mixed with casual sex during which Stephanie must learn that, to Ali, she is an occasionally available piece of meat. Although a friendship builds between them (due to an odd set of circumstances, Stephanie ends up becoming Ali's fight manager), these two people -- who have spent their lives as fiercely independent types -- are forced to compromise and consider each other's feelings.

Sam (Armand Verdure) with Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts)

Complicating matters is the presence of Sam (Armand Verdure), Ali's oft-neglected five-year-old son who has been living in the care of Ali's sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero). All Sam really wants is to be loved by his father, who has little talent for showing affection or acting like a responsible parent. When Sam nearly drowns because of his father's inattentiveness, Ali finally wakes up to the fact that his child's needs must come first.

Having based their screenplay on two short stories by Craig Davidson, Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain stress that:
"From the very beginning of our adaptation, we were focused on a kind of cinematography that, for want of a better word, we called 'expressionist.' We wanted the power of stark, brutal, clashing images in order to further the melodrama. We had in mind an echo of the Great Depression. We thought of old amateur county fair films, of the dark reality in those visuals. We wanted to explore contemporary chaos and barbarism without addressing them head-on. What we were trying to do with the writing, filming, actors' performances, editing, and music, was to combine an almost naturalistic realism with its opposite -- melodrama, surreal imagery, a heightened experience.

It is that kind of aesthetic that constantly guided us as we worked on the screenplay. It's pitiless, yet it sustains a love story that is the true hero of the film. It shows the world through the eyes of a confused child. It underscores the nobleness of our characters in a world made violent by economic disaster. And it respects Ali and Stephanie's stubborn attempts to transcend their condition. What would Stephanie have become if she hadn't had that accident? She probably would have remained the somewhat arrogant princess that she was, unable to truly love someone. Thanks to her infirmity (and because Ali never looks at her with pity or compassion), she allows herself to let go and experience something she would otherwise never have known."
As directed by Audiard, Rust and Bone may be a tough movie for American audiences to swallow. Rather than the kind of morally weighted story which aims for a protagonist's redemption, Audiard's characters live in a down and dirty world where people don't always care for one another or show responsibility for their offspring.

Anyone who witnessed Cotillard's amazing performance as Edith Piaf in 2007's La Vie en Rose knows that she is capable of handling extremely intense scenes. While Ali's brute strength provides a critical foil to Stephanie's newfound limitations, all of the technical expertise in using CGI to convert Stephanie into a double amputee pales in light of Sam's essential innocence and its impact on the film. Here's the trailer:

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