Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Devil Is In The Details

William Sydney Porter's name may not ring bells with most Americans, but his pen name certainly does.  O. Henry (1862-1910) became famous for his short stories whose style and compassion often paved the way to surprise endings that stunned his readers.

Often compared to Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), O. Henry's stories focused on common people whose lives were touched by irony. From The Gift of the Magi to The Ransom of Red Chief, many of his short stories involved a simple misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

Like short stories, short plays and films need an acute sense of structure to frame the beginning, middle, and end of their storytelling. The moment in which a critical truth is revealed needs to be carefully placed for maximum impact. Several shorts currently being presented by Frameline 37 and Theatre Rhinoceros show how the "reveal" may be acutely ironic and come out of left field.

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One of the best examples of this is Christopher Stollery's 9-1/2 minute film entitled "dik" in which a six-year-old Australian boy (Keilan Grace) proudly displays a drawing he has made at school to his father (Patrick Brammall). It's the kind of drawing that most parents would happily place on the door of their refrigerator.

Class, what's wrong with this picture?

Unfortunately, the words written by the little boy ("I lik ribin tims dik") have an incendiary impact on his parents. His father instantly assumes that his son is a sissy and tries to point him toward more "manly" choices.  His mother (Alexa Ashton) reads the situation as a sign that her son is experimenting with friends and teases her husband about being haunted by his own youthful experiences.

However, when the husband reveals that his first "innocent" experiment took place at the age of 18, a volcano of wounded ego and righteous indignation suddenly erupts from his spouse. Suddenly, she starts accusing him of hiding an adult same-sex attraction. It doesn't take long for Robert to turn the tables on Rachel and discover that she's been having an affair with another woman. Near the end of the film, the father realizes that the entire brouhaha may have been caused by his son's bad penmanship. Here's the teaser for Stollery's masterful short:

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Written, directed by, and starring Patrick Hancock, P.D.A. focuses on a gay couple's difference of opinion about certain types of intimacy. Bill (Patrick Hancock) is the needier partner, someone who wants to be able to hold hands with his butch boyfriend (Kevin Oestenstad) when they are out in public.

Tom, on the other hand, is unwilling to even link pinkies in public -- although he tries to assure Bill that it's not because he's afraid or ashamed to be identified as a gay couple. Tom's out and proud, but there's one very particular, personal reason he is reluctant to engage in public displays of affection.

Even though Tom may be sexually liberated, he's a germophobe.  Up to this point, Bill has kept refusing to use a hand sanitizer when they're out in public.  Ooh, look, he just happens to have an extra packet of sanitizer in his pocket...

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Now playing at the Costume Shop (through June 23), Theatre Rhinoceros is presenting a program of three short plays (two written by Caryl Churchill). Drunk Enough To Say I Love You? is an allegory with intensely homoerotic and undeniably geopolitical connotations that places America's growing hunger for military and economic dominance over other nations squarely where it belongs: in the bedroom.

Rudy Guerrero in Drunk Enough To Say I Love You?
(Photo by: Kent Taylor)

[Uncle] Sam (Rudy Guerrero) portrays the United States as an aggressive, megalomaniacal Ken Doll who is buffed, demanding, and sees himself as a highly effective and skillfully manipulative take-charge kind of guy:  real top in the bedroom. His submissive partner, [Union] Jack (Sam Cohen) is a stand-in for Great Britain: polite, well-dressed, acquiescent, and quite obviously the bottom in an increasingly militaristic romance. Written in 2006, Churchill's play allows audiences to easily imagine that its leads are George W. Bush and Tony Blair (the kind of compassionate conservatives whose only compassion is for their own self interest).

Jack (Sam Cohen) and Sam (Rudy Guerrero) are a politically
expedient male couple in Drunk Enough To Say I Love You
(Photo by: Kent Taylor)

Drunk Enough To Say I Love You? easily reinforces the theory that politics makes for strange bedfellows. While much of Churchill's dialogue is built on phrases clipped from newspapers (resulting in a bizarrely seductive style of  headline speech), the gimmick doesn't not hold up consistently well throughout the play's 45-minute duration. Thankfully, Guerrero's physical charms do a great deal to hold the audience's attention.

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The two other short plays on the program share an interesting history. Churchill's Seven Jewish Children: A Play For Gaza is a 10-minute play that was written in response to Israel's military strikes on Gaza in 2008-2009. The play covers seven decades of Jews struggling to establish a homeland for themselves, beginning with their ouster from Nazi Germany during the Holocaust up to the establishment of the state of Israel and leading to the current strife in the Middle East.

Sam Cohen and Kim Stephenson portray a Jewish couple who, against a background of Jon Wai-keung Lowe's haunting projections, argue about what to tell their children about what is happening to their family and the Jews they know.

Churchill's play came under strong criticism from some who labeled it as anti-Semitic and others who claimed it tried to paint Jews as being just as bad as Nazis.  In response to such charges, Churchill wrote:
"Throughout the play, families try to protect children. Finally, one of the parents explodes, saying, 'No, stop preventing her from knowing what’s on the TV news.' His outburst is meant, in a small way, to shock during a shocking situation. Is it worse than a picture of Israelis dancing for joy as smoke rises over Gaza? Or the text of Rabbi Shloyo Aviner’s booklet distributed to soldiers saying cruelty is sometimes a good attribute? I find it extraordinary that, because the play talks about the killing of children in Gaza, I am accused of reviving the medieval blood libel that Jews killed Christian children and consumed their blood. The character is not 'rejoicing in the murder of little children.' He sees dead children on television and feels numb and defiant in his relief that his own child is safe. He believes that what has happened is justified as self-defense."
The last play on Theatre Rhino's program was written by Deb Margolin in response to Seven Jewish Children. In Seven Palestinian Children: A Play for the Other (Continuing The Conversation with Caryl Churchill), Margolin continues the "Tell her"'"Don't tell her" format used by Churchill, but places the text in the mouths of a pair of Palestinian parents.  And something miraculous happens.

Whereas Churchill's play had an almost clinical tone to the "should" and "should not" of what to tell Jewish children, there is one key moment in Morgan's play which nails the argument to the wall.  When the husband says "Tell him that his brother is a martyr," his wife (Kim Stephenson) erupts in the kind of anguished horror that comes from a wounded animal.

Kim Stephenson in Six Palestinian Children
(Photo by: Kent Taylor)

It was that moment which made the entire evening worthwhile, delivering the kind of theatrical thrill that makes the hair on one's neck start to tingle. Beautifully directed by John Fisher, it achieved the dramatic impact that so much of Churchill's writing seemed to lack.  To read the text of Margolin's play in its entirety, click here.

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