Thursday, February 7, 2013

That's NOT What Friends Are For

Whether real or imagined, whether necessary or not, a friend's betrayal is astounding, confounding, and usually takes a long time and lots of tough love before there can be any hope of the friendship's rebounding. The cockblocking, backstabbing, and undermining of someone considered to be a trusted friend is all too often based on miscommunication, misunderstanding, and misplaced aggression.

Must a brotherly rivalry reap bitter rewards?  Does jealousy deliver justice? Do hot tempers and heated passions make clear thinking impossible? In Act 3, scene 2 of Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony says:
"For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel.
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar lov'd him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms,
Quite vanquish'd him: then burst his mighty heart."
John Wilkes Booth as Julius Caesar

Two new plays depict profound betrayals of a friend's trust. One focuses on male relationships, the other on female relationships.

In one play, the betrayal is calculated, hypocritical, devastating, and unconscionable. In the other, a well-intentioned act is severely misinterpreted by a paranoid control freak whose insufferable martyr complex makes it impossible for her to see past her irrational fears. Despite laughter all around, nobody wins.

* * * * * * * * *
The Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley recently presented the world premiere of a new play by Anthony Clarvoe that had been part of 2011's Global Age Project. Our Practical Heaven is built around six women of multiple generations. While each has a distinctive physical or character flaw, they remain impressively uninteresting throughout the evening.

Some may think that the glue holding these women together is their love of birding -- or the many happy weekends they've spent at the seaside home of Vera (the elderly matriarch nearing the end of her life). What these women really share is a wide range of dysfunctional behaviors coupled with a devastating inability to directly and honestly communicate with each other. Think of it as "The Big [Estrogen] Chill." Or "The Sisterhood of the Unraveling Aunts."

Sasha (Anne Darragh), Willa (Julia Brothers) and
Magz (Lauren Spencer) in a scene from Our Practical Heaven
(Photo by: David Allen)

Clarvoe's play builds to an emotional confrontation that can best be described by paraphrasing Dorothy Gale: "Are you a good bitch or a bad bitch?" As directed by Allen McKelvey (who is faced with the messy task of sidestepping the numerous dramatic potholes in Clarvoe's script), the six women are:
  • Vera (Joy Carlin), an inspiration to many people throughout her long and influential life. An ardent conservationist and birder, she and her late husband used their home as a meeting place or think thank where people could brainstorm, discuss philosophy, and often "find themselves." Emotionally secure and intellectually sound, Vera is not at all afraid of death. As someone with a profound understanding of nature and ornithology, she knows what's coming and is ready to die.   
  • Sasha (Anne Darragh) is Vera's shrewish middle-aged daughter whose strongest skills are manipulating others and feeling sorry for herself. Having lived in the shadow of her brothers (and felt sorely neglected because her parents showered attention on so many people who did not belong to their nuclear family), Sasha spends a great deal of her energy telling people what they should do without any clue as to why her daughters resent her infernal need for attention and desire to control their lives. Has Sasha's husband grown distant because he can't handle her frothing insecurities or does his lack of sexual interest in his wife only prove that she's a substandard lover? If so, why does Sasha always have to manage everyone and everything?
  • Willa (Julia Brothers) and Sasha were best friends in childhood. Unhappy with her own family, Willa took to Vera's inclusionary gestures and spiritual generosity like a duck to water. Willa has always considered Vera's home to be an emotional refuge from the harsher aspects of the real world. Vera's guiding light eventually gave Willa the strength to leave her husband and build a career in corporate property management. Although she sometimes has problems respecting other people's boundaries, whenever her daughter's medical condition demanded special treatment, Willa was happy to use her management skills and ruthless business instincts to procure the funds necessary to pay the bills.
Sasha (Anne Darragh) and Willa (Julia Brothers) in a scene from
Our Practical Heaven (Photo by: David Allen)
  • Suze (Blythe Foster) is Sasha's older daughter. An independent spirit who has been working on political campaigns in Appalachia, Suze performs a truly jaw-dropping 180-degree character turnaround late in the play, asking Aunt Willa to teach her how to be a hard-nosed business bitch in order to achieve financial success.
  • Magz (Lauren Spencer) is Willa's daughter and has been Leez's closest friend since childhood. Although suffering from a debilitating immune deficiency illness, Magz is determined to keep her emotional distance from her frustrated mother, the coldly efficient Willa.
  • Leez (Adrienne Walters) is Suze's younger sister. She's optimistic, likes to spend time with her grandmother, and is the least needy of the women Clarvoe has created.
Leez (Adrienne Walters) and Vera (Joy Carlin) in a scene from
Our Practical Heaven (Photo by: David Allen)

While the younger generation gets along quite well with each other, tensions keep building between Willa (who has been trying to come up with a financial solution that will allow Vera to remain in her house as long as possible without having to enter a nursing home) and Sasha (who, between her endless hysterics and temper tantrums, has convinced herself that Willa is trying to steal her mother's affection away from her). Although there is a growing sense of rot and decay in Magz's health (numerous unkind references are made to her unusual body odor) and the tricky relationship between Sasha and Willa, the youngest (Leez) and oldest (Vera) characters onstage seem quite content with accepting life as it is.

Vera (Joy Carlin) gets a kick out of Leez (Adrienne Walters in a
scene from Our Practical Heaven (Photo by: David Allen)

Clarvoe's script generates plenty of laughs from the audience but poses numerous problems. His two middle-aged soul sisters are distinctly unlikable women. Even though Sasha has cleared the five-year mark as a cancer survivor, it's hard to conjure up any sympathy for a woman who is such a dyspeptic, unrelenting bitch.

Like many playwrights and screenwriters, Clarvoe has chosen to incorporate text messaging into his script in a way that allows the three younger women to communicate with each other in Smartphone shorthand. While some members of the audience may find this to be an exciting theatrical gimmick, I take strong issue with it.

These days we see people texting each other everywhere we go. Unfortunately, text messaging does not make for particularly good drama. If anything, texting has become the electronic equivalent of farting in public. Whether one chooses to take the "silent but deadly" or "noisy and intrusive" approach, a little bit of texting goes a long way. The steady use of text messaging onstage ends up being an obnoxious distraction and hideously counterproductive.

Aurora's production benefits immensely from Micah J. Stieglitz's video design, Mikiko Uesugi's set design, and the sound design of the ever reliable Clifford Caruthers. But even with superb actresses like Anne Darragh, Joy Carlin, and Julia Brothers, it's hard for Clarvoe's play to generate much sympathy for a group of women who make Anton Chekhov's whiny Three Sisters look like efficiency experts.

The cast of Our Practical Heaven (Photo by: David Allen)

* * * * * * * * *
Is The Motherfucker With The Hat (which received its West Coast premiere from the San Francisco Playhouse) a better play than Our Practical Heaven because:
  • Its betrayals are motivated by sexual desire
  • The betrayer and betrayed are both men? 
  • Both genders are represented onstage? 
  • Stephen Adly Guirgus is a much more skillful writer than Anthony Clarvoe? 
  • Bill English is a more gifted stage director than Allen McKelvey?
Or is the correct answer simply "all of the above"?

Veronica (isabelle Ortega) and Jackie (Gabriel Marin) in
The Motherfucker With The Hat (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli

The complex characters Guirgus has created certainly arrive with plenty of emotional baggage.
  • Jackie (Gabriel Marin) is a small time drug dealer who was recently released from prison and has managed to get a real, paying job. Working a 12-step program as diligently as possible, Jackie is intent on staying clean and sober so he can build a new life with his high school sweetheart from Puerto Rico, whom he genuinely loves.
  • Veronica (Isabelle Ortega) is a tough cookie who, although she truly loves Jackie, also loves herself a few good lines of cocaine.
  • Cousin Julio (Rudy Guerrero) is the only single character in the play. A gay Puerto Rican hairdresser who likes to butch it up at the gym, Julio is the kind of loyal relative who will agree to hide a gun for Jackie but hungers for his respect. Julio has no illusions about Jackie's selfishness.
Jackie (Gabriel Marin) and his AA sponsor, Ralph (Carl Lumbly) in
The Motherfucker With The Hat (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
  • Ralph (Carl Lumbly) is Jackie's African-American sponsor from Alcoholics Anonymous. He's also a classic player who tries to live up to the macho bullshit version of his own publicity.
  • Victoria (Margo Hall) is Ralph's unhappy and sorely unimpressed wife. A sadder but wiser gal, Victoria made the sorry mistake of falling for Ralph when she met him at a 12-step meeting. She would now be quite content to learn that her husband had dropped dead of a heart attack. Victoria is nobody's fool.
Victoria (Margo Hall) and Jackie (Gabriel Marin) in a scene from
The Motherfucker With The Hat (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

While Clarvoe's characters seem to be dealing with complex and vaguely-defined issues (Magz's illness is never really explained), the challenges facing the characters in The Motherfucker With The Hat are extremely familiar and far more clearly defined. With the exception of Uncle Julio, each character has a history of substance abuse which has honed their talents for telling lies.

Not only are these people acutely conscious of the challenges they face, they are all struggling to survive one day at a time. Keenly aware of their skill at self-sabotage, they are constantly battling the physical and psychological weaknesses which make them want to snort, fuck, and drink (although not in any particular order).


Because the weaknesses which enslave Jackie, Ralph, Veronica, and Victoria are all too human, too recognizable, and too predictable, their capacity for betrayal is all the more venal, selfish, and hard to resist. Whether it involves a man betraying his wife, a woman betraying her lover, or a sponsor betraying his sponsee, each person's pain is real and goes deep.

The cast of The Motherfucker With The Hat
Photo by: Jessica Palopoli

The San Francisco Playhouse's ensemble is rock solid, with Gabriel Marin and Margo Hall at the top of their always formidable game. Working on Bill English's multi-level set, Carl Lumbly, and Isabelle Ortega provide perfect romantic counterpoints. Rudy Guerrero gives one of his best performances in years.

Guirgus has created a script that is intricately plotted, populated with complex characters whom the audience genuinely cares about, and is hysterically funny. Performances of The Motherfucker With The Hat continue through March 16 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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