Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Learning To Live Outside Your Comfort Zone

Fifty years ago I spent my summers working in a YMCA sailing camp on Point Judith Pond. Each summer brought distinct demonstrations of people being forced to live outside their comfort zone.
  • It wasn't just the youngest campers who sulked and cried because they were homesick. Often it was teenage boys who, instead of wanting to be with their parents, wanted to watch television or missed the family's dog.
  • There were always several campers who had never had a chance to go swimming in their lives and were terrified of the water. After listening to their terrified screams, two members of the waterfront staff would usually pick one of these kids up in their arms, walk him out into the shallow water, and let go. By the end of their stay at camp, you couldn't drag those kids out of the water.
  • Then, of course, there were the doting helicopter mothers who "just happened" to bake too many brownies or cook too many spare ribs and felt compelled to drive 45 miles (and navigate a dangerous dirt road) to deliver the food to their son. The staff gleefully gobbled up such contraband.
The child who learns to rise to a challenge will often embrace a new experience with open arms. Conversely, the child who is taught to fear change will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into new environments and unfamiliar situations. Some will insist on eating at McDonald's while traveling abroad. Others will choose a more determined pathway to the future.

During the initial stages of World War II's shameful internment of Japanese-Americans, GeorgeTakei’s family was taken from their middle-class home to the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, California (which had become a designated holding place for families while an internment camp was being built). Takei recalls that:
“We were housed in the horse stables. Can you imagine, for my parents to be taken from a two-bedroom home in Los Angeles, with their three children, and to sleep in this smelly horse stall? For my parents, it was degrading, dehumanizing; it was a horrible experience. But my memory is that it was fun. As a five-year-old kid, I thought ‘I get to sleep where the horsies sleep! I can even smell them!’”
How a child reacts to a stressful situation depends on what s/he learns from parents, family, friends, and teachers. Consider the way this Parisian father explained the November 15 terrorist attacks to his young son.

Children can be remarkably resilient. But what about adults who struggle to cope with the demands of their personal and professional lives? Will they happily go with the flow of new-found freedoms and technology? Or will they dig in their heels and resist change with the angry determination of a frightened adolescent?

* * * * * * * * *
The New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of The Kid Thing. Written by Sarah Gubbins and powerfully directed by Becca Wolff, the play depicts the growing tensions between two middle class lesbian couples living in Chicago.

Sarah Coykendall, Desiree Rogers, Jaq Nguyen Victor, and
Kimberly Ridgeway star in The Kid Thing (Photo by: Lois Tema)
  • Nate (Jaq Nguyen Victor) is a young, baby butch dyke who dresses like a skater boy and is eager for her partner to have a child. Nate's enthusiasm is matched by her naivete and periodic inability to hold onto a job.
  • Margo (Kimberly Ridgeway) is Nate's older, wiser, and much wealthier partner who doesn't mind being pregnant as long as she can make Nate happy by bringing a child into the world.
Kimberly Ridgeway,Jaq Nguyen Victor,  Sarah Coykendall, and
Desiree Rogers star in The Kid Thing (Photo by: Lois Tema)
  • Leigh (Sarah Coykendall) is the kind of control freak who makes the overly ambitious Tracy Flick (from 1999's Election) seem like she's on Quaaludes. Competitive, impulsive, self-involved, easily obsessed by an idea, and achingly insecure, Leigh's modus operandi is basically "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" Watching her nervously offer several flavors of gelato to her dinner guests (or a drink to her former college classmate) is a case study in frenzied overcompensation.
  • Darcy (Desiree Rogers) is Leigh's partner. When the couple first met, they had very little income. But when Darcy got a job with a high-powered public relations firm, she ended up working long hours wooing corporate clients (which often left Leigh's insecurities spinning out of control at home). While Darcy has an admirable amount of patience for some of Leigh's antics, she does not like to be railroaded into a project.
What starts out as a friendly dinner party where Darcy is handling the background music while the others are cattily dishing about Michael Jackson takes a sharp turn when Nate and Margo inform their hosts that they are expecting a baby. Leigh soon becomes determined to become pregnant using the same sperm donor that Margo used -- a former college classmate of Leigh's and Nate's named Jacob (Nick Mandracchia).

Sarah Coykendall (Leigh) and Nick Mandracchia (Jacob) 
in a scene from The Kid Thing (Photo by: Lois Tema)

By the end of Act I, two things have become painfully clear:
  • Leigh and Nate are trying to set Darcy up for a meeting with Jacob in the hope that both couples can share the same sperm donor.
  • Margo and Darcy have been having an affair behind Leigh and Nate's backs.
Kimberly Ridgeway (Margo) and Desiree Rogers (Darcy)
in a scene from The Kid Thing (Photo by: Lois Tema)

As Gubbins explains:
“I wrote The Kid Thing in response to the question all childless women in their mid-thirties face: ‘So, are you thinking about the kid thing?’ Being a gay woman, the question seemed even more complicated. But this play was also a response to the deep questioning I observed from so many women on the brink of motherhood --- educated, middle-class, career-oriented, and partnered women wrestling with whether they had the resources to be parents. This play examines how gay individuals and couples make life-altering decisions and how ideas about child-raising are often exacerbated by economic insecurities and internalized homophobia.”
The underlying conflict in The Kid Thing is how much each of these women wants to become a parent. Nate is eager and optimistic; Margo is willing and able. Leigh is determined to the point of being ruthless. Darcy however, is surprisingly reluctant to join in the fun.

The reason for Darcy's fear of commitment turns out to be much more complex than her friends could ever have imagined. In addition to being and old school and very masculine dyke, Darcy's long work hours mean that Leigh would be saddled with most of the childcare responsibilities. The Utopian visions Leigh and Nate conjure up about the two families sharing the same sperm donor and being completely transparent with each other quickly set off Darcy's bullshit alarm.

When Darcy starts doing some sarcastic "truth telling," the shit hits the fan. Deeply hurt by her behavior, Margo and Nate leave Darcy and Leigh's apartment in anger. Meanwhile, Leigh drops a bombshell on her partner, which effectively becomes the straw that breaks Darcy's back. Furious at Leigh's betrayal, Darcy leaves the apartment in a near-speechless rage. At the end of the play, Leigh is alone, possibly pregnant, and very much the unintentional victim of her manipulative tactics.

Under Becca Wolff's direction, NCTC's ensemble did a superb job of riding the ebb and flow of emotions which had little, if anything, to do with maternal instinct. They were helped by James Ard's sound design and Emily Ann Holtzclaw's costumes.

New Conservatory Theatre Center's cast for The Kid Thing
(Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Performances of The Kid Thing continue through December 13 at New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Imagine, if you will, that Sheldon Cooper (the biggest nerd among the scientists in The Big Bang Theory) was reborn as a virginal Asian American college senior who was terrified of her vagina. An ardent online gamer with fearsome battle skills, Evie Malone (Monica Ho) earns her spending money by writing love letters for people who have broken up with their lovers and are hoping to get back together as well as advising those who wish to break up with their lover on the most effective ways to achieve their goal.

On paper and in theory, Evie brilliant at what she does. But when it comes to interacting with real live human beings, she is completely lacking in basic social skills.

Evie Malone (Monica Ho) is a college senior who loves to play
video games in Madhuri Shekar's contemporary farce,
In Love and Warcraft (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Custom Made Theatre is currently presenting the Bay area premiere of Madhuri Shekar's riotously funny play, In Love and Warcraft, in a production that has been merrily directed by James Nelson. The production's opening night took place under strained circumstances because the company's lighting board had been stolen earlier that day and all of the show's lighting cues had to be reprogrammed into a borrowed lighting board. Working on Devin Kasper's unit set (with costumes by Brooke Jennings and sound design by Liz Ryder), the audience had no problem getting into the spirit of the Shekar's farce. Opening night was [almost] "all systems go" from start to finish.

Although Ryan (Drew Reitz) may be Evie's online partner in their World of Warcraft guild, in real life he's an overgrown manboy living in the basement of his parents' home. Like Evie, he assumes that World of Warcraft is more important than anything in real life. A unexpected change in Evie's life, however, suddenly changes all that.

Ryan (Drew Reitz) challenges Raul (Ed Berkeley) in a
scene from In Love and Warcraft (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Unlike her roommate, Kitty (Laura Espino), Evie has no interest in touching people, especially if it could lead to sex. But when a new client show up asking for help in getting back together with his girlfriend, he finds Evie incredibly attractive and asks her out to dinner. One thing leads to another and pretty soon, Evie and Raul (Ed Berkeley) are happily snuggling together and holding hands -- as long as there is no sex.

Raul (Ed Berkeley) and Evie (Monica Ho) embark on a platonic
relationship during In Love and Warcraft (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

In her clueless approach to sexual desire, Evie tells Raul that since their relationship is strictly platonic, she understands that he might need to look elsewhere to fulfill his sexual needs. Raul, in turn, asks Evie to stop playing World of Warcraft and try to focus on life in the real world.

Evie (Monica Ho) gets a gynecological examination from a
female physician (Amanda Farbstein) in a scene from
  In Love and Warcraft (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

One night, when Raul runs into a very drunk Kitty at a local bar and ends up driving her back to the apartment and having sex with her, Evie loses it. The only way for Kitty to win back her friend and for Raul to win back the woman he loves is to join Evie on her own turf: virtual reality. As Custom Made Theatre's artistic director, Brian Katz, explains:
“The moment I heard about this play I immediately wanted to produce it. What’s better than a rom-com that is absolutely current (set in the exploding world of online gaming), but also has its roots in classical comedy? Upon reading the script, it was easy to see Shekar is the real deal. Her dialogue sparkles, the situations she sets up are hysterical, and on top of that the play has real heart. The gaming world is just the skin in which this play is wrapped. Our director, James Nelson, has told his cast that in the end it is about intimacy, and I completely agree. I think everyone can relate to Evie’s journey because she faces one of our greatest fears and, in trying to overcome it, finds what can be our greatest joy in life.”

Evie (Monica Ho) dresses as her avatar as Kitty (Laura Espino) looks
on in a scene from In Love and Warcraft (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Custom Made has assembled a winning ensemble that, under James Nelson's direction, makes the most of Shekar's hilarious script. From the scene in which Evie undergoes a gynecological examination (because her vagina stopped working) and experiences her first orgasm to the blossoming of Raul's character into a hot and hunky leading man who's not gay, but admits to occasionally liking to dress up, each character's individual journey is filled with sight gags and snarky dialogue. Monica Ho is a total delight as Evie and, in her scene with a male hair stylist (Sal Mattos) undergoes a stunning yet highly comedic transformation.

Although Laura Espino did a fine job as the hypersexual Kitty, I was most impressed with Ed Berkeley's performance as Raul. An extremely hot and hunky actor, he is a welcome addition to the Bay area's theatre community.

Raul (Ed Berkeley) finds his inner avatar in a scene from
In Love and Warcraft (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Performances of In Love and Warcraft continue at Custom Made Theatre through December 12 (click here to order tickets). This is the perfect holiday show for gamers, geeks, cosplay enthusiasts and those who crave  a rowdier and more up-to-date form of entertainment than either A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker.

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