Friday, May 23, 2014

Coping With Undesirables

Looking back on history often allows people to get a clearer picture of what's wrong with the world. For example, not everyone is as wealthy as Mitt Romney.

Following her infamous statement during the 2012 Presidential election that "We've given all you people need to know and understand about our financial situation and how we life our life," several clever actors seized upon the opportunity to make videos mocking Ann Romney's slick expressions of elitism under attack.

The sad truth is that income inequality income in America is not just a case of distinguishing between the haves and have nots. Many people (the poor, the protesters, the disabled, veterans in need of healthcare) are kept out of sight by today's media because the sheer act of acknowledging their struggles would be "inconvenient" for those whose privilege isolates them from such lower-class woes.

In recent years, the cult of victimization has taken on a perverse new face. Suddenly, those sitting at the top of the power pyramid have begun to insist that they are the true victims. Whether they suffer from affluenza, reverse racism, or willful ignorance caused by organized religion, the rising levels of stupidity that threaten us have become nearly as dangerous as climate change. (I especially enjoyed reading about the software programmer who is suing a stripper to get his Harry Potter DVDs returned to him).

Some people get marginalized from society because of medical reasons; others are subject to political persecution. Such people have often been shamelessly stripped of their credibility, their dignity, their souls, and their health by those in power.  Why? Genuine victims are painful reminders to those in positions of authority that inconvenient truths must be swept under the rug.

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During the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival, I was deeply moved by Bill Morrison's 18-minute short entitled Re: Awakenings. Backed by Andrew Sterman's poignant saxophone solo (composed by Philip Glass), the film contains archival footage of patients at the Beth Abraham Hospital in The Bronx who spent years in a near comatose state as a result of an early 20th century epidemic of encephalitis lethargica.

When Oliver Sacks began to treat them with L-DOPA, many of the patients achieved much higher levels of functioning than the medical staff had ever imagined possible for them. You can see the difference in these two clips from Morrison's film.

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Political persecution never seems to go out of fashion. With 2014 marking the 25th anniversary of 1989's protests in Tiananmen Square, it's not surprising to encounter articles which look back to that fateful time and compare it to China's new role as a global superpower. CentralWorks is currently presenting the world premiere of Sally Dawidoff's play, The Crazed (which is based on Ha Jin's novel about people caught in the political turmoil of a country undergoing radical socioeconomic, cultural, and political change).

As the play begins, the audience sees a terrified Professor Yang (Randall Nakano) wearing a large dunce cap and attempting to recant his cultural crime of translating poetry. While abroad for a speaking engagement (at which he arrived too late to perform), Yang also spent money on an unconscionable luxury for his family: a refrigerator.

Suddenly, a briskly marching group of young soldiers from the Red Guards enters the performance space, sending a thrill of excitement through the room. As I sat watching The Crazed begin to unfold, I thought "This could be the start of something big."

Randall Nakano as the disgraced Professor Yang
in The Crazed (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

But I was wrong. Oh, so very, very wrong. While Dawidoff may be an accomplished poet, her skills as a playwright need greater development. Her lengthy first act (which was heavily weighted down with exposition) proved to be a crashing bore.

One must, however, consider the characters involved in The Crazed. In addition to a conniving, power-hungry female bureaucrat named Ying Pen (Jeannie Barroga) who lusts after a promotion, there are three students trying to find themselves as they lurch toward adulthood.
  • Banping (Perry Aliado) is a classic, ass-kissing teacher's pet whose lack of social skills, empathy, and general awareness of the world around him easily transforms the character into a clueless villain (imagine a Communist Chinese version of Bud Frump). Portrayed as a young nerd with a fetish for his new sneakers, Banping is, almost by necessity, a walking cartoon.
  • Mantao (Wes Gabrillo) is the trio's intellectual, the serious thinker who is radicalized by the political environment and feels compelled to join the student protesters in Tiananmen Square (where he meets an untimely death).
  • Jian Wan (Will Dao) is Professor Yang's dutiful disciple whose plans for a future with his fiancée, Meimei (Carina Lastimosa Salazar), are sabotaged when Yang suffers a stroke and his healthcare falls under the pernicious purview of the scheming and manipulative Ying Pen. After she assigns Jian Wan to watch over Professor Yang (instead of preparing for his final exams), the young man's personal conflict leaves little doubt that spending time in a re-education camp is in his future.
Will Dao as Jian Wan in The Crazed
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)

I'm not sure why the performances by Randall Nakano and Jeannie Barrogga seemed so unconvincing. Perhaps it was Nakano's bizarre style of vocal delivery (which had nothing to do with the side-effects of his character having suffered a stroke) or that Ms. Barrogga looked like an incompetent 50-year-old Meg Griffin stuck in a a position of academic authority (what many teachers refer to as a "school stupidintendent").

Directed by Gary Graves (with sound by Gregory Scharpen), The Crazed improved somewhat in the second act. Will Dao gave a compelling performance as Jian Wan with Louel Senores making brief but impressive appearances in a series of cameo roles.

Jian Wan (Will Dao) encounters Hao (Louel Señores)
in The Crazed (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

In an article published in The New York Times on May 30, 2009, Ha Jin explained that:
"I was in the People's Liberation Army in the 1970s, and we soldiers had always been instructed that our principal task was to serve and protect the people. So when the Chinese military turned on the students in Tiananmen Square, it shocked me so much that for weeks I was in a daze. At the time, I was in the United States, finishing a dissertation in American literature. My plan was to go back to China once it was done. I had a teaching job waiting for me at Shandong University. After the crackdown, some friends assured me that the Communist Party would admit its mistake within a year. I couldn't see why they were so optimistic. I also thought it would be foolish to wait passively for historical change. I had to find my own existence, separate from the state power in China.
Author Ha Jin
That was when I started to think about staying in America and writing exclusively in English (even if China was my only subject, even if Chinese was my native tongue). The Chinese language had been so polluted by revolutionary movements and political jargon that there was great room for improvement. Yet, if I wrote in Chinese, my audience would be in China and I would therefore have to publish there and be at the mercy of its censorship. To preserve the integrity of my work, I had no choice but to write in English. To some Chinese, my choice of English is a kind of betrayal, but loyalty is a two-way street. I feel I have been betrayed by China, which has suppressed its people and made artistic freedom unavailable. I have tried to write mostly about China and preserve its real history. As a result, most of my work cannot be published in China."

Jian Wan (Will Dao) argues with his estranged fiancée, Meimei
Carina Lastimosa Salazar in The Crazed( (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

Although I did not read Ha Jin's novel, I have a theory about why The Crazed imploded onstage. Despite trying to cover the impact of so many personal and political events in the protagonist's life, the heart of the story got lost in translation. I can't say how much of that took place because Ha Jin was writing in English instead of Chinese but I'm willing to bet that some of it happened when an American poet attempted to take on a Chinese expatriate's deep personal grief and political anguish and make it her own.

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Americans love a scapegoat. From Communists to slaves, from LGBT people to those suspected of witchcraft, the venom with which some Americans have shamed and persecuted innocent people is quite beyond the pale.

With the rabid ignorance of professional morons like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Allen West, Virginia Foxx, and Louie Gohmert in full bloom, anyone who thinks things have gotten better might want to note that, in her bio for the Custom Made Theatre's production of The Crucible, actress Melissa Clason dedicates this production to the strength and courage of her ninth-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Periment Clawson "who also in 1692 was accused, tortured, tried, and exonerated of witchcraft in Stamford, Connecticut."

When Arthur Miller's drama about the Salem witch trials opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on January 22, 1953, the playwright stressed that "The Crucible is taken from history. No character is in the play who did not take a similar role in Salem, 1692." After winning the 1953 Tony Award for Best PlayThe Crucible went on to become an American classic.

Poster art for Custom Made Theatre's production of The Crucible

Composer Robert Ward adapted Miller's play for the operatic stage. Following its world premiere at the New York City Opera on October 26, 1961, The Crucible received the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

In a June 17, 2000 article about his play written for The Guardian/The Observer, Miller noted that:
"It would probably never have occurred to me to write a play about the Salem witch trials of 1692 had I not seen some astonishing correspondences with that calamity in the America of the late 1940s and early 1950s. My basic need was to respond to a phenomenon which, with only small exaggeration, one could say paralyzed a whole generation. In 1956, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoenaed me. I was cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to identify writers I had met at one of the two communist writers' meetings I had attended many years before.

In today's terms, the country had been delivered into the hands of the radical right, a ministry of free-floating apprehension toward anything that never happens in the middle of Missouri. It is always with us (this anxiety), sometimes directed towards foreigners, Jews, Catholics, fluoridated water, aliens in space, masturbation, homosexuality, or the Internal Revenue Department. And if this seems crazy now, it seemed just as crazy then. But openly doubting it could cost you. Salem village, that pious, devout settlement at the edge of white civilization, had displayed what can only be called a built-in pestilence in the human mind, a fatality forever awaiting the right condition for its always unique, unprecedented outbreak of distrust, alarm, suspicion, and murder. It is all very strange. But the Devil is known to lure people into forgetting what it is vital for them to remember. How else could his endless reappearances always come as such a marvelous surprise?"
Abigail Williams (Juliana Lustenader) and her friends disrupt
a court hearing in The Crucible (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Arthur Miller died on February 10, 2005 at a time when the Bush administration's fear-driven control of the media was escalating to unimaginable heights. Guided by Karl Rove, smear campaigns like the Swift Boating of John Kerry allowed Republican talking points to reverberate throughout conservative media during each 24-hour news cycle to keep the populace feeling frightened and insecure. I've often wondered what would happen if a major news anchor looked right into the camera and said "Of course, we have no proof that Karl Rove is a child molester, but....."

Abigail Williams (Juliana Lustenader) and Reverend Parris (Andrew
Calabrese) in a scene from The Crucible (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Custom Made Theatre's new production of The Crucible begins in darkness as (thanks to Liz Ryder's excellent sound design) the audience hears a chorus of girlish/ghoulish shrieks coming from the darkened woods surrounding Salem village. Once the lights come up on Stewart Lyle's set, the production takes on the rapidly accelerating pace of a community gripped by fear and living on the brink of hysteria.

Faced with a posse of late 17th century mean girls who have been dancing naked in the woods and acting out their fantasies with little regard for the well-being of others, wild accusations quickly course through the community. Egged on by the prejudices of the blazingly manipulative Reverend Parris (Andrew Calabrese) -- whose daughter, Betty (Kitty Torres), is lying in a stupor close to death -- malicious gossip spreads like wildfire.

Reverend John Hale (Nicholas Trengove) tries to comfort Betty
Parris (Kitty Torres) in The Crucible) (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Although villagers are beginning to suspect the Parris family's black servant, Tituba (Jeunee Simon), of witchcraft, the real troublemaker is Abigail Williams (Juliana Lustenader), who lusts after John Procter (Peter Townley) and intends -- by whatever means possible -- to get rid of his wife, Elizabeth (Megan Briggs) so that she can replace her by Procter's side.

Tautly directed by Stuart Bousel, this production benefits from Custom Made's tiny performance space, which only heightens the overall sense of paranoia, magnifies the delusional behavior, and exposes the instances of religious persecution. Paul Jennings (as Deputy Governor Danforth), and Alisha Ehrlich (as Mary Warren) deliver powerful performances in supporting roles.

John Procter (Peter Townley) brings Mary Warren (Alisha Ehrlich)
to a hearing in The Crucible (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

As Miller's play details the remarkable number of residents who have been jailed and unjustly hanged as a result of their friends and neighbors bearing false witness, John Procter's determination to hold onto his name -- as the last thing he can rightly call his own -- becomes heartbreaking in the face of Danforth's legal bullying. Others in the cast included Ron Talbot as Giles Corey and Charles Lewis III as Marshal Herrick.

Elizabeth (Megan Briggs) and  John Proctor (Peter Townley)
in a scene from The Crucible  (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Performances of The Crucible continue at Custom Made Theatre through June 15 (click here to order tickets). This is a production of worthy of any serious theatregoer's attention.

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