Thursday, February 20, 2014

Racing Against Time

It's not exactly a secret. Timing is everything -- and time waits for no man. Whether someone is a handsome young rock star battling an addiction or an angry alte kocker trying to provoke a fellow geezer into playing one more game of King of the Mountain, the clock keeps ticking.

Auntie Mame famously cautioned that "Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death." But what happens when a "has been" discovers that he's no longer relevant? Or a when highly functioning kidnapper/pedophile realizes that the jig is up? It kind of takes the fizz out of the game. In his lyric for "Old Friends" (from 1980's Merrily We Roll Along), Stephen Sondheim wrote:
"Most friends fade,
Or they don't make the grade
New ones are quickly made
And in a pinch, sure, they'll do."
And yet, in a perverse way, Sondheim's lyric for a song from 1964's Anyone Can Whistle does a better job of capturing a wistful sense of fleeting loss.


With all the angst about young tech workers taking over San Francisco, families and artists being forced to leave town, and the rapid gentrification of neighborhoods like the Mission District, one segment of the population is constantly being overlooked: seniors living on fixed incomes or in rent-controlled apartments.

While some protestors attempt to block the luxurious Wi-Fi equipped "Google buses" that transport tech workers down to Silicon Valley, riding San Francisco's MUNI system is always a source of free drama. Recently, I've found myself developing a new way of communicating with riders much younger than myself who are blocking the exit doors on buses and trains.

Since most of these people are wearing earbuds that allow them to block out ambient noise, asking them to step aside accomplishes nothing. Politely tapping them on their shoulder yields similar results. The most basic way to get their attention is to wave your hand in front of their face long enough for them to look up from their handheld devices.

Thankfully, I"m not like Michael Dunn, who felt that the best way to get the attention of someone who was playing loud music was to shoot him. But, having lived across the street from Dolores Park for 40 years, there are times when I wonder if I'm turning into the kind of bitter old geezer who screams "You rotten kids, get off of my lawn!" I know I am not alone.

* * * * * * * * *
San Francisco's veteran storyteller, Charlie Varon, is introducing a new monologue to audiences at The Marsh entitled Feisty Old Jew. Directed by his long-time collaborator, Dave Ford, the show's protagonist is 83-year-old Bernie Schein, an ex-broker who grew up in Brooklyn but never graduated from high school. An aggressive, manipulative gantseh macher with an endless supply of chutzpah, Bernie has graduated from being a "somebody" to becoming an elderly 'nobody."

A resident at a local assisted living facility who is bored with his elderly peers, Bernie still bears a grudge against a resident he has known from childhood. Nor is he happy with the changes he sees happening to his beloved San Francisco. Why?  Because, in today's San Francisco, Bernie is insignificant.


What really has Bernie's Depends in a bunch is the painful realization that he has become irrelevant, that this self-made (and extremely self-important) man is mostly invisible to younger San Franciscans with more energy, more disposable income, more vitality, and more friends. So Bernie does what any self-respecting octogenarian Jew would do. When his taxi fails to show up, he sticks out his thumb and tries his luck at hitchhiking.

Much to Bernie's surprise, he's given a ride by three Millenials in a Tesla that has two surfboards strapped to its roof and comes equipped with a cappucino machine on its dashboard. Behind the wheel is a laid-back Caucasian, eager to catch some waves off Bolinas.

The passengers are two Indian-Americans (brother and sister) for whom money is no object. The male is a techie with the kind of expansive generosity that accompanies new wealth. His sister is an author who became a mini-celebrity after writing "This Is Your Brain on Coupons."

Charlie Varon as Bernie Schein, the protagonist
of his new monologue entitled Feisty Old Jew

Varon likes to describe Bernie as "a 20th-century man living in a 21st-century city." But Feisty Old Jew is about a lot more than the scorn of one generation for another. Varon's monologue goes to the heart of what happens when rapid change leaves people gasping in its wake for acknowledgment; when a city's sudden change in demographics threatens to destroy its soul.

Imagine an Egyptian souq whose merchants have no interest in haggling over the price of their wares and you'll understand Bernie's shock and disappointment when, after winning a $400,000 wager on whether or not he can get up on a surfboard and ride a wave, the loser (who is probably 50 years younger than Bernie) happily writes him a check for the agreed-upon amount of money. As Bernie exits the Tesla, he can't help thinking how much he would have enjoyed a good argument instead!

Feisty Old Jew does a fine job of showcasing Varon's writing, wit, and skill with accents. Although his latest monologue lasts barely an hour, it's an intoxicatingly delicious ride. Performances continue at The Marsh through March 16 (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Before getting into a discussion of Rob Handel's play, A Maze, let me recommend a blog entry from DailyKos entitled Irrelevant Crap: At What Point Does a Work of Art Become "Tainted" By the Infamy of its Artist?  Handel's meticulously-layered play (which received its West Coast premiere last year from Just Theatre and is now being co-produced in revival with Shotgun Players) combines two overlapping subplots:
  • In one, Jessica Maple (Frannie Morrison), who was kidnapped from a grocery store as a child and escaped from her captor eight years later, is starting to make the rounds of talk shows and other media guest appearances with a slickness exceedingly rare for someone so young.
  • In the other, a rock star with a drug problem enters an upscale rehabilitation clinic where he meets and befriends a patient named Beeson Ehrwig (Clive Worsley), a self-effacing author/artist with noticeably compulsive behavioral tendencies. The rocker, Paul (Harold Pierce), has been brought to the clinic by his girlfriend, Oksana (Sarah Moser), who is also the manager of their band, Pathetic Fallacy. Beeson (whose maze-like drawings and works of fiction have developed a cult-like following) is most likely an high-functioning alcoholic.
Oksana (Sarah Moser) and Paul (Harold Pierce) are lovers who
belong to the same band in A Maze (Photo by: Pak Han)

Handel's script is the kind of mystery that cleverly unravels one layer at a time. Even though, as gifted children, Paul and Oksana's talents were indulged by well-meaning parents and teachers, as adults they find themselves struggling to cope with Paul's substance abuse problem (that is coupled with a serious case of writer's block). One of the reasons Paul is drawn to Beeson is the author's utter lack of writer's block.

Beeson, however, doesn't see himself as having any kind of artistic inspiration. As a graphic artist, he considers himself to be a mere vessel through which the maze drawings and their related stories flow at random. His fiction is all about how a king (Lasse Christiansen) built a maze to protect himself, his queen (Janis DeLucia), and their infant from the corrupting influence of outsiders with the help of a mysterious snow dog.

The Queen (Janis DeLucia) and King (Lasse Christiansen)
argue in a scene from A Maze (Photo by: Pak Han)

One of the clinic's counselors, Tom (Carl Holvick-Thomas) is obviously tasked with moving his patients up and out of rehab as they gain emotional strength and stability. But there are some problems which substance abuse clinics can't always solve.

Whether or not Beeson's king, queen, and the maze they inhabit represent deeper, darker secrets in the artist's life remains to be seen. In her director's note, Molly Aronson-Gelb writes:
"We first performed A Maze last summer at Live Oak Theatre. At that time, the horror of the Cleveland kidnappings was still fresh in our collective consciousness. As we explored the play, we began to feel our way through messy, complicated questions about the way the media treats its famous victims. What culpability do we have as consumers of news stories that are more interested in victims than in survivors?

Now, in a different season, in a different theatre, I find myself asking new questions. What are the limitations to the excuses we extend to exceptional individuals for aberrant behavior? Why do I boycott Roman Polanski's films but not Woody Allen's? Why does the drunkenness of Fitzgerald or Hemingway seem charming through the gaze of history, when the lived-in reality was devastating and awful for those around them? Why am I so quick to forgive Bill Clinton for all his personal faults when I see him bring the crowd to its feet at the 2012 convention?"
 Kim (Lauren Spencer), Beeson  (Clive Worsley), and Paul (Harold
Pierce) make a fateful appearance on a talk show in A Maze
(Photo by: Pak Han)

This production poses a different challenge for the audience, which has mostly to do with pacing. Martin Flynn's black and white set (which is filled with maze-like drawings) does a great job of communicating a sense of being trapped by circumstance. However, Handel's script calls for numerous set changes which keep sabotaging the build-up of dramatic tension so crucial to this story.

Because Handel tries to cover so much ground (drug addiction, kidnapping, pedophilia, Stockholm syndrome, graphic novels, celebrity culture, the contemporary media circus, artists of questionable integrity, and strategic media whoring), there were numerous moments when it seemed as if the playwright was attempting to clobber his audience with symbolism. The odd result was that the opening performance ran nearly 30 minutes past its projected length.

On numerous occasions, the hard working cast lost critical momentum as time was taken up with stage business, scene changes, and pregnant pauses. At one point, I found myself thinking of certain performances at the Metropolitan Opera during the late 1960s which had been led by Fausto Cleva (an Italian conductor whom standees sarcastically referred to as "Faster, Cleva!").

The production's strongest performances came from Clive Worsley as Beeson and Sarah Moser as Roksana. Janis DeLucia did triple duty as Angela, Hermione, and the Queen while Carl Hovick-Thomas did triple duty as Tom, Alexander, and Gunter (a member of Paul and Roksana's band). Lauren Spencer doubled as talk show hostess Kim and Tish, with Lasse Christiansen doubling as the king and Gareth (the record producer for Pathetic Fallacy).

Jessica Maple (Frannie Morrison) discusses her  captivity
with Kim (Lauren Spencer) in A Maze (Photo by: Pak Han) 

By the show's end, the Pathetic Fallacy team was busily twisting themselves into pretzels to find ways they could profit from Beeson's art without being tainted by the moral stench of any perceived association with the artist's criminality and pedophilia. Performances of A Maze continue through March 9 at the Ashby Stage (click here to order tickets).

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