Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Asian Persuasians

Western culture isn't always what it's cracked up to be. Comparative studies of Judeo-Christian versus Eastern religions and philosophies reveals much greater depth and breadth in some areas of Shintoism, Taoism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Not only do most of these religions predate Christianity, Eastern cultures show much greater flexibility with regard to individualism, human sexuality, loyalty, and ethics.

Those who have read translations of Hindu epics such as the the Ramayana and Mahabharata have been exposed to Hanuman the monkey god, Ganesha the elephant god, and  Kali, the fierce, vengeful, multi-armed, blue-skinned goddess of time, change, and destruction.

The Hindu goddess Kali

In her delightful 2008 animated feature entitled Sita Sings The Blues, filmmaker Nina Paley demonstrated that gods with multiple arms, multiple heads, and animal bodies are only a tiny part of Indian culture that can be mined for laughs.

Crowded Fire Theater recently offered the Bay area premiere of Aditi Brennan Kapil's one-act play, Brahman/I, in which an Indian intersex stand-up comic from Athens, Georgia tries really, really hard to prove that s/he's got the talent and material to become the next Eddie Izzard. Sadly, this is not the case.

Directed by Erin Merritt with Mackenzie Drae as the comic's "straight man" and back-up bass guitar player, Brahmin/I mightily disproves Mae West's claim that "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful." In her artist's statement, Kapil writes:
"When I first conceived the Displaced Hindu Gods Trilogy (three plays riffing on the three deities of the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva), I was looking for my way into the Indian part of my heritage as a woman, as a person of mixed race, as an immigrant twice over, and as a person who lives amidst an amazing diaspora that flies in the face of any attempt at stereotyping. I believe that all immigrants engage in an act of re-mythologizing: We need stories to understand ourselves (both individually and in the context of society). So my Displaced Hindu Gods are a creative departure from traditional depictions. In The Chronicles of Kalki, the final avatar of Vishnu (traditionally male) is a bad-ass girl facing down the demons of high school and puberty. The Shiva character in Shiv is a woman caught between past and present and the necessary act of destruction that leads to rebirth."
Imran Sheikh stars in Brahman/I: A One Hijra
Stand-Up Comedy Show
 (Photo by: Pak Han)
"In taking on Brahma the Creator, I was drawn to the overarching principle of Brahman, the cosmic spirit, genderless, omnipotent, omniscient, described as neti neti which translates roughly as 'not this, not this.' Some of the most powerful Hindu deities are depicted as being of both genders. Why wouldn't god be both male and female? Neti neti.'Our society habitually categorizes by religion, by nationality, by color and, in our first few seconds of life, by gender. More and more, these categories and assumptions grow obsolete but our brains resist. Sorting and grouping is how we understand the world."
Imran Sheikh stars in Brahman/I: A One Hijra
Stand-Up Comedy Show
  Photo by: Pak Han)
"For me, a lifetime of resisting categorization as an Indian/Bulgarian/Swedish-American speaking multiple languages, code switching from country to country, being of ambiguous color and cultural background, emigrating, immigrating, experimenting and becoming, led to the creation of Brahman/I in Brahman/I, a One Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show -- a person who doesn't and won't fit into any single category. Ever. Someone who owns that space and power, that spotlight and that microphone. This play is by/about/for people who never fit in, who no longer care, and the power that comes with that moment of self-creation."
Imran Sheikh and Mackenzie Drae in Brahman/I: A One
Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show
 (Photo by: Pak Han)

Despite a determined performance by Imran Sheikh (in male and female garb), the painful truth about Kapil's horribly overwritten play is that it needs a tremendous amount of pruning. Currently running at 1-3/4 hours in length, what begins as a somewhat nervous stand-up act covers plenty of interesting ground (being bullied in high school, the challenges of living life as an intersex person, and the problems of coping with relatives who are completely lacking in subtlety).

Sheikh has a neat costume change which allows him to go from a male in Indian ethnic garb to a hijra in female garb for the second segment of the show. Alas, midway through the evening, Kapil's script starts to run out of steam (one almost wishes a vaudevillian could reach out from the wings with a hook to help Sheikh make a timely exit).

Bottom line? While there are lots of laughs, if Brahmin/I lost an hour's worth of material I'm pretty sure it would emerge as a stronger comedic vehicle. If downsized to a length of 45 to 60 minutes, it could easily leave audiences at fringe festivals hungry for more instead of deteriorating into a long, hard slog.

In its current format, Kapil's audience continues to withdraw each time Brahman/I's meddling auntie reappears to demonstrate her questionable problem-solving skills.  Here's the trailer:

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Over at the American Conservatory Theater, Carey Perloff has directed the American premiere of a new production of The Orphan of Zhao using James Fenton's new adaptation (which was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company for its 2012 production. As Fenton notes:
"The whole point of doing this was to give us a feel for classical Chinese theater. The play isn't written in verse. But it's written in a poetic style that suggests the feudal psychology of early China." 
Paolo Montalban as the Emperor in
The Orphan of Zhao (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Based on events that occurred during the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 BCE), the original play was written sometime late in the 13th century by Ji Junxiang (a playwright who may have lived near present-day Beijing). Filled with political intrigue, revenge, brutal acts of torture and sadism as well as genuine moments of heartbreak, the cast of characters includes:
  • A heartless Emperor who likes to shoot arrows into the crowd of peasants outside his palace just to see how they will react.
  • His pregnant daughter, who is married to the head of a feudal clan.
  • His ethical son-in-law, who would dare to question the Emperor's judgment.
  • A vicious and power-hungry royal advisor (who could make Karl Rove look cuddly and docile) determined to eliminate the entire clan headed by the Emperor's son-in-law.
  • A simple country doctor asked to perform a dangerous rescue mission which will cost him dearly.
Cheng Ying (B.D. Wong) consoles the pregnant Princess (Marie-
France Arcilla) in The Orphan of Zhao (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Fenton's adaptation makes some interesting changes to the original (in which the notion of an ethical style of sacrifice is accepted as an absolute necessity in the story).
  • In Fenton's version, the Princess lives to see her son (Cheng Bo) who, following their meeting, learns his true identity.
  • In the final scene, the ghost of Cheng Ying's murdered son (Philip Estrera) is allowed to confront his father and ask why his sacrifice was necessary.
Cheng Bo (Daisuke Tsuji) confronts the villainousTu'an Gu
(Stan Egi) in The Orphan of Zhao (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

ACT's production plays out on Daniel Ostling's unit set (comprised of bamboo scaffolding) using costumes designed by Linda Cho with an eye toward achieving a practical fluidity for the acting ensemble. As Cho explains:
"I'm free to take from the research what works for our movement, bodies, storytelling, and imagination. That also allows us to use a more familiar contemporary vocabulary (like color and materials) to convey character ideas. We wanted clothes to have the visual abstraction and ease of a contemporary dance piece. Very simple gestures like a hat or an apron are added to create different characters. We are using color and fabric quality to indicate socioeconomic status. The upper classes have brighter, finer, shinier fabrics. The working classes have more earth tones and rougher-textured fabric."
Cheng Bo (Daisuke Tsuji) prepares to avenge his father's
death in The Orphan of Zhao (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"Most of the performers play multiple roles. Not only do they have the physical demands of their characters' movement, they also need to move from character to character with ease and fluidity. The basic unisex look allows for a full range of movement (even the footwear and dance boots were chosen with fluid movement in mind). Because the notion of age is very important in Chinese culture, older characters have a stylized, Chinese opera-esque makeup treatment."
Sab Shimono portrays the venerable Gongson Chujiu
in The Orphan of Zhao (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With original music by Byron Au Yong (aided by Jake Rodriguez's sound design), Perloff's leads deliver powerful performances. Kudos to Stan Egi's villainous portrayal of Tu'an Gu (who, for some perverse reason, kept reminding me of Eric Cantor); Paolo Montalban (who doubled as a ballad singer and the Emperor); Nick Gabriel as Zhao Dun, and Orville Mendoza as Wei Jang. I particularly enjoyed the work of Sab Shimono as the elderly Gongson Chujiu, Julyana Soleistyo as Cheng Ying's Wife, and Brian Rivera as a demon mastiff.

Brian Rivera a a demon mastiff in
The Orphan of Zhao (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Perloff draws impressive performances from Marie-France Arcilla as the pregnant Princess, and Daisuke Tsuji as Cheng Bo (the real orphan of Zhao). As the innocent country doctor Cheng Ying who is forced to make an unconscionable decision, B.D. Wong tackles a role which requires him to be a "fixer" with compassion and determination (his character has neither the time nor the rank to indulge in histrionics).

It can take a while to fall under the dramatic spell of The Orphan of Zhao (simply because one is trying so hard to stay on top of the plot leading up to the orphan's rescue by Cheng Ding. While Act I is a bit heavy with exposition, Act II gains momentum nicely, climaxing with a rich theatrical payoff.

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