Saturday, June 20, 2015

Unrealistic Urban Affairs

In 1970, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth rattled fans of the traditional Broadway musical with something new and daring that sought to capture the numerous frustrations of life in a major metropolis. Not only did Sondheim's score have a new and fresh sound, Jonathan Tunick's brilliant orchestrations even included noticeable parts for a tambourine and a recording of a telephone's busy signal.

With the exception of his protagonist and an itinerant stewardess, Furth's characters were mostly married couples experiencing challenges to their relationships while insisting that their token single friend should find someone to settle down with. But in a city filled with millions of people (and hundreds more arriving each day), the permutations of chance encounters seemed endlessly tantalizing to some and emotionally exhausting to others.

A decade later Furth and Sondheim teamed up once more for Merrily We Roll Along, which focused on the changing dynamics between three friends over the course of their lives. Based on a 1934 play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, the plot was notable for the way the story evolved in reverse chronology. One of its key themes was the value of old friends in one's life.

Whether one's relationship is with a friend or a spouse, time doesn't always heal everything. Some couples break up because of a partner's extramarital affair(s); in other situations, people who consider themselves best friends forever are shocked to discover that some topics (and pieces of personal information) are strictly off-limits. Regardless of the city in which one lives, certain truths keep reasserting themselves.
  • It's possible for a married man with children to discover that he might be bisexual or gay.
  • There's a big difference between sharing a juicy bit of gossip and being a relentlessly nosy bitch.
  • Hooking up with professional colleagues can be fun, but tricky.
  • Whether closeted or paranoid, some people try to compartmentalize the way they share their affection and personal information with friends and loved ones.
  • Some people fear getting close to others if such friendships could lead to an invasion of their privacy.
  • It's easy to become paralyzed by depression.

* * * * * * * * *
One of the films screened at the Frameline 39 Film Festival was Claudio Marcone's tale of confused bisexuality entitled In The Grayscale. Set in Santiago, Chile, the story revolves around 35-year-old Bruno (Francisco Celhay), a successful, free-lance architect with an impressive portfolio, a wife, and a little boy. Bruno would seem to have it all: family, material possessions, his own business, and yet there's something about him that is still unresolved.

Poster art for In The Grayscale

Upon landing a major assignment from a real estate developer (Marcial Tagle) who wants to build a monument which will become known throughout the city, Bruno goes looking for inspiration. To help him find a concept, the developer puts Bruno in touch with 29-year-old Fer (Emilio Edwards), a history teacher with a strong cultural sense of architectural history who is openly and unapologetically gay.

Fer (Emilio Edwards) and Bruno (Francisco Celhay) relax
in Fer's apartment in a scene from In The Grayscale

Whereas Bruno is someone who keeps his feelings close to his chest (and has trouble expressing himself emotionally), Fer is a man of few, if any secrets. Fer, however, does have some strict rules about dating. He prefers to date men who self-identify as gay and are single. He does not like to date married men like Bruno (who are conflicted about their sexuality).

Fer (Emilio Edwards) and Bruno (Francisco Celhay) share
an intimate moment in a scene from In The Grayscale

Nevertheless, as Fer guides Bruno around the city (and eventually to his apartment) there is an obvious sexual attraction between the two men. The fact that Bruno's wife, Soledad (Daniela Ramirez), has been left in the dark about the reason Bruno needs time by himself -- and Bruno's son, Diego (Matias Torres), can't understand why his father doesn't want to come home at night -- keeps causing the kind of internal stress that Bruno is ill-equipped to handle.

Written by Rodrigo Antonio Norero, In The Grayscale makes no bones about the fact that Bruno enjoys gay sex. He just doesn't know how to integrate it into his life as something more than a physical release.  Fer, on the other hand, has no interest in that kind of bisexual bullshit. When Fer pulls back and breaks up with Bruno, the architect retreats to his home, his wife, and his son. Sexually curious, but emotionally a coward.

Fer (Emilio Edwards) and Bruno (Francisco Celhay) share
an intimate moment in a scene from In The Grayscale

What's refreshing about In The Grayscale is that, with the exception of his devoted and nonjudgmental grandfather (Sergio Hernandez), none of the people intimately involved with Bruno are willing to put up with much of his bisexually compartmentalized bullshit. Soledad's gentle confrontation with her husband is a prime moment of truth telling. After watching so many gay characters on screen who act like codependent housewives, it's a special delight to see the forcefulness with which Fer tells Bruno to take his moody indecisiveness and shove it. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
To inaugurate its exciting new performance space (the renovated Strand Theatre on Market Street), American Conservatory Theater is presenting the West Coast premiere of a timely play by Caryl Churchill entitled Love and Information. Due to the play's unique structure (or lack thereof), a lot of it has to do with how people go about sharing and/or withholding information from their friends, co-workers, and family.

Director Casey Stangl has worked with an ensemble of six men (Joel Bernard, Anthony Fusco, Dan Hiatt, Joe Holt, Rafael Jordan, Leo Marks) and six women (Cindy Goldfield, Christina Liang, Sharon Lockwood, Dominique Salerno, Mia Tagano, Shona Tucker) to create a living tapestry of poignant vignettes that are neatly framed by Robert Brill's beautifully efficient unit set and Lap Chi Chu's evocative lighting designs. Think of one of those mosaic tricks in which, when seen up close, a portrait of the Mona Lisa turns out to be a collection of hundreds of tiny portraits arranged to replicate the colors and patterns of Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting and you'll get a sense of the breadth and depth of the tangled web Churchill has woven.

Thanks to C. Andrew Mayer's sound design and the projections designed by the ever remarkable Micah J. Stieglitz, ACT's creative team has crafted an atmosphere of stunning theatrical fluidity. Upon entering the auditorium, the audience sees itself mirrored on a huge screen overlooking the stage. Throughout the show's 100 minutes that screen becomes one of the most flexible and dynamic elements of the production, instantly repositioning the actors from Union Square to an art gallery, from a restaurant to a BART platform (amid numerous locations in and around San Francisco).

The ensemble as a group of commuters riding mass transit in
a vignette from Love and Information (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Considering the ways in which Churchill has (and has not) structured her 57 vignettes, this mixing of easily recognizable sites with hit-and-miss personal interactions creates a series of character-driven snapshots for the audience (which can initially seem confusing until one realizes that none of these vignettes are related).
  • A character may cross the stage or make some random gestures without uttering a sound during a transition separating two vignettes.
  • Most of the vignettes (which range in length from five seconds to five minuets)  are limited to dialogue between two characters.
  • Few, if any, of the characters have names.
  • With the exception of one character (played by Sharon Lockwood) who appears in a series of one-line scenes entitled Depression, none of the characters in any particular vignette are related to any of the other characters seen during the play.
  • Although the playwright has divided the evening into seven distinct sections, she has given the artistic team the freedom to choose how they wish to structure the vignettes within each section.
  • Because Churchill's script has no stage directions or character descriptions, the people being portrayed are neither gender nor age specific. As a result, it makes perfect sense for a reunion dinner shared by two ex-lovers in a city like San Francisco to involve two gay men.
Dan Hiatt and Anthony Fusco as two ex-lovers in a vignette
from Love and Information (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As director Casey Stangl explains:
“Churchill has a keen sense of the need for humans to connect with each other and to our past, present, and future, as well as how technology threatens that. But she also sees great poignancy in humanity’s stubborn need to connect and form relationships with each other, which is hard-wired into our DNA. There is definitely a sensibility to the writing, a subtlety of things left unsaid, a humor that is underplayed. Although there is no overt sentimentality, I think that it’s in there, as well.  The more you dig into each scene, a scenario starts to automatically suggest itself.”
Shona Tucker and Sharon Lockwood in a vignette 
from Love and Information (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“There’s not one specific story we’re telling; the play has a radical form in which several individual narratives add up to something larger that reveals how we live and what it means to be a human on this planet right now. Some of the scenes are clearly comic. Some are clearly serious. There are quite a few that could be played either way, depending on how you interpret them.  We also have as much diversity as we could muster in terms of age, gender, skin color, body type, and personality so that the cast reflects a spectrum of humanity. Because there are so many different themes and ideas, the play will resonate differently with different people.”
Joe Holt and Rafael Jordan appear in a vignette
from Love and Information  (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

ACT's artistic director, Carey Perloff, has been quite outspoken about her hopes that the location of the Strand Theatre (smack in the center of the Mid Market redevelopment project that is now populated with lots of tech workers) will help to attract a new generation of theatregoers to ACT. Because of the ephemeral nature of Love and Information's storytelling style, Churchill's play is an ideal choice to entertain people who surround themselves with the latest technology and may suffer from limited spans of attention.

Cindy Goldfield and Dominique Salerno appear in a
vignette from Love and Information (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In many ways, the vignettes Churchill has created for Love and Information remind one of a writer who has obsessively written down tiny bits of overheard dialogue, observations of quirky interactions, and thoughts about love, friendship, and the importance of personal information over the years with the hope that someday, somehow, she would be able to weave that material into a collection of writings. Or perhaps a novel. Or perhaps a play about contemporary society.

Shona Tucker and Rafael Jordan in a vignette from
Love and Information (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Based on the warm reception given to her new play, Churchill has found herself a happy multimedia marriage between playwriting and technology. Performances of Love and Information continue through August 9 at the Strand Theatre (click here to order tickets).

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