Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Flipping The Narrative

Hermaphrodites have long been known to exist in nature. In certain indigenous cultures, two-spirited people are treated with great respect. Ever since 1951, when George William Christensen, Jr. traveled to Denmark to undergo sex reassignment surgery and re-emerge as Christine Jorgensen, the world has been forced to cope with the increasing reality of transsexual, transgender, and intersex people.

Some audiences first encountered gender fluidity in stories where dressing as a person of the opposite sex is necessary for reasons of survival (1959's Some Like It Hot), to achieve one's professional goals (1988's M. Butterfly, 1991's Soapdish, and 2011's Albert Nobbs), or for comic effect (the long tradition of British pantos).

For others, the first time they encountered stories in which a transsexual or transgender person played a critical role may have been in 1968's Myra Breckinridge, 1975's Dog Day Afternoon, 1978's The World According To Garp, 1990's Paris Is Burning, 1992's The Crying Game, 1994's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, 1999's Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Boys Don't Cry, 2000's The Danish Girl, 2003's I Am My Own Wife, 2005's Transamerica, 2011's Romeos, 2014's HIR, or 2015's Tangerine.

Fans of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar have encountered genderqueer characters in 1999's All About My Mother, 2004's Bad Education, and 2011's The Skin I Live In. However, it is Sally Potter's brilliant 1992 film, Orlando, which takes gender identity to "a whole 'nother level."

Two small theatre companies in San Francisco recently challenged their audiences with complex demonstrations of gender fluidity in the characters portrayed onstage. Each play confronted theatregoers with new ways of thinking about reality, fantasy, and unreasonable expectations. In doing so, each playwright helped to put a human face on the Chinese concept of yin and yang.

A Taijitu symbol representing yin and yang
(Artwork courtesy of Wikimediia Commons)

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The New Conservatory Theatre Center recently presented the world premiere of MJ Kaufman's play, Sagittarius Ponderosa. Directed by Ben Randle on a unit set designed by Christian V. Mejia, the play focuses on a family living in the forests of Eastern Oregon who must cope with unexpected change.
  • Pops (Andy Collins) is a middle-aged diabetic with a fatal attraction to candy and sweets.
  • Mom (Janis DeLucia) is his frustrated wife, a woman prone to nagging.
  • Angie (SK Kerastas) is a genderqueer 29-year-old who has returned home at year's end with no job, no boyfriend, no marketable skills, and no discernible future.
  • Grandma (Michaela Greeley) is determined to create a love potion which might save her granddaughter from spending the rest of her life alone.
Grandma (Michaela Greeley) attempts to create a love potion
in a scene from Sagittarius Ponderosa (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Unbeknownst to her family, Angie's return home is accompanied by a state of flux with regard to gender identity. Having recently begun to identify as Archer, he goes for a late night walk in the forest and falls asleep at the base of the oldest Ponderosa Pine tree in America. He awakens in the presence of a horny young man named Owen (Matthew Hannon), an intern who is in the area taking early morning sap samples for the United States Forest Service. As the two struggle to make conversation, Owen asks Archer his name. He offers Owen the choice of calling him Angie or Archer. Owen opts for Archer and one wintry fuck soon leads to another.

Meanwhile, Pops has decided on a name change of his own, proudly announcing to his family that he wants to be called "Jason" instead of "Bob." While his wife and child tentatively agree to call him "Robert Jason" or "Bob Jason," Grandma is the only member of the family to fully embrace him as "Jason." Perhaps that's because Grandma has her eye on a new man of her own, an elderly neighbor named Peterson whose daily copy of The New York Times keeps getting delivered to Grandma's apartment by accident. Though Peterson may be an old coot, his son who might be a match for Angie.

Michaela Greeley (Grandma) and Andy Collins (Peterson) in
a scene from Sagittarius Ponderosa (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

While Angie/Archer's lines reflect the tentativeness of someone wrestling with a secret, Grandma is wrestling with a different kind of confusion -- the kind that results from refusing to use her hearing aid. In a program note, playwright MJ Kaufman explains that:
"Spring 2012 was the semester my mentor, Sarah Ruhl, introduced me to what she calls Ovidean plot form. Here's how I'd describe it: A plot form in which identities are in a constant stage of change and worlds are in a constant state of change so that human beings can be multiple genders at once, or become a beast and then a tree as a result of falling in love or being heartbroken or struggling to escape from someone. Basically, all things and characters are able to morph and change throughout. The resolution of conflict does not depend on arriving at a more stable identity. As soon as she told me about that I fell in love with it. It's more true to my life than any transition story." 
Playwright MJ Kaufman
"I'd been searching everywhere for stories of trans people but all I found were 'transition stories.' Every play, film, novel, or story I encountered focused on an individual who ('born into the wrong body') took medical, legal, and social steps to have a complete transition. Done. Why were all these narratives organized around arriving at a more stable identity? I started working first to examine a landscape of gender fluidity but found the form led me to a more ecological fluidity, the way that things are constantly changing and being recycled in nature. This ultimately led me to a sort of spiritual fluidity: the way that love and souls are recycled. In my second year of grad school I was trying to decide whether or not to ask people to use different pronouns for me. I sometimes took an hour to get dressed because I couldn't decide what gender I am. I want trans narratives that focus on fluidity, highlighting the way many of us are different genders in different spaces. I want art that reflects constant change as an intrinsic part of being human."
Matthew Hannon (Owen) and SK Kerastas (Archer) in a
scene from Sagittarius Ponderosa (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Kaufman has used some interesting bits of magical realism to fine effect. The puppet designed by Dave Haaz-Boroque to represent Peterson (which is voiced and manipulated by the same actor who portrays Pops) adds a further sense of shapeshifting forest spirits with agendas of their own who like to guard over and meddle in local affairs.

Randle's ensemble works well together, with SJ Kerastas struggling to reflect Angie/Archer's mixed emotions, Matthew Hannon offering a sympathetic portrait of Owen, and Andy Collins doubling as Pops and Peterson. As always, Michaela Greeley shapes her characterization with an uncanny attention to detail.

Grandma (Michaela Greeley), Mom (Janis DeLucia), Archer
(SK Kerastas) and Peterson (Andy Collins) count their blessings
in a scene from Sagittarius Ponderosa (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Performances of Sagittarius Ponderosa continue through February 28 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets).

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Back in 2010 (when Facebook was just beginning to gain critical mass and Janet Napolitano was President Obama's new United States Secretary of Homeland Security), an extremely prescient full-length animated feature from Japan portrayed a society in which a dominant web portal provided the electronic infrastructure for all kinds of government functions as well as businesses and personal relationships. When a villain attacked its servers, all hell broke loose. The film's unlikely heroes turned out to be a group of senior citizens who still kept handwritten phone books and communicated with their friends the old fashioned way: by telephone.

Because it was a family friendly feature film, Summer Wars did not focus on cybercrimes like identity theft, malicious hacking, or terrorists trying to recruit people to their cause. But people like Napolitano were increasingly aware of the challenges they faced in Cyberspace, where laws based on outmoded geographical jurisdictions had no application.

To make matters worse, certain types of predators had no need to protect themselves with encryption. Lone wolves like Jeffrey Dahmer and Theodore Kacyznski (a/k/a The Unabomber) managed to strike without the use of a computer. Although some victims have since been lured to their deaths through adult websites and other forms of social media, garden variety child molesters tend to stay off the grid when searching for their next target.

If you haven't watched Summer Wars, I'd suggest you do so prior to attending a performance of The Nether, Jennifer Haley's provocative new sci-fi thriller which recently received its Bay area premiere from the folks at San Francisco Playhouse. Directed by Bill English on Nina Ball's breathtakingly facile unit set, The Nether probes some of the murkier depths of virtual reality (like Second Life), where people can hide behind their avatars, act out their darkest fantasies without ever really harming anyone, and not be held accountable for their actions. Think of it as an electronic playroom where no safe words are required and embracing a sexual or societal taboo means never having to say you're sorry.

In The Nether, Sims (Warren David Keith) is the owner and creator of The Hideaway, a Victorian-era virtual realm which caters to child molesters and axe murderers (among others) by making sure that all of its members remain anonymous and refrain from asking dangerous questions. To make sure that his realm is secure, Sims has used a severe degree of encryption. By locating his servers aboard a ship that is almost always resting in international waters, he has kept to an absolute minimum the odds of having them seized by spies or police.

Or so he thought.

As the play opens, Sims (whose avatar is "Papa") is being interrogated by an aggressive female detective named Morris (M. Ruibo Qian), who threatens to shut down The Hideaway and permanently ban Sims from accessing the Nether. Morris also has one of "Papa's" clients in her clutches: a rather meek college professor named Doyle (Louis Parnell), who can't imagine life without being able to access The Hideaway (see Seminary Student Sought Children Under 4 for Sexual Assault, Officials Say and Courts Affirm FBI Use of Mass-Hacking Tool to Find Child-Porn Suspects).

As Morris applies more pressure, the audience witnesses Papa interact with one of his favorite characters, a young girl named Iris (Matilda Holtz), and welcome a new member, Woodnut (Josh Schell), to The Hideaway. While The Hideaway's indoor and outdoor settings might seem idyllic, the audience soon realizes that things are not exactly what they seem. Iris is a a rather precocious avatar who can be brutally killed with an axe without her murderers suffering any consequences (she simply rises up again like a cartoon character).

Carmen Steele as Iris in The Nether (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

In his director's note, Bill English writes:
"Seven years ago at San Francisco Playhouse, Aaron Loeb's First Person Shooter explored the collision of First Amendment rights with social responsibility. The play asked 'Do violent video game makers bear responsibility for the actual violence perpetrated by their games' fans?' Today, we continue that debate with Jennifer Haley's The Nether, which eloquently poses the question: Is it better for sick minds to perpetrate their proclivities in the sheltered digital world of The Hideaway? Or does such 'practice' inevitably segue into REAL action?"
Morris (M. Ruibo Qian) is a Cybercrime detective in
The Nether (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
"Ungoverned, unregulated, our digital world is rapidly becoming a vast and lawless frontier where anything goes, where any appetite can be satiated, any perversion condoned. In a world where nothing actually happens, can there be victims? Crimes? How can we respect our treasured rights to free speech, the sanctity of the imagination, and still exert some kind of control over the Wild West of the Internet? Do we have the right to regulate the enticement of unsuspecting players into depraved domains?"
Woodnut (Josh Schell) is a new member of The Hideaway
who gets to play with Iris (Carmen Steele) in a scene from
The Nether (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Jennifer Haley's script nicely gains momentum as it builds toward some stunning (and remarkably fluid) surprises. The performances by William David Keith and Louis Parnell (as two older men with particularly dark secrets) are especially moving. While M. Ruibo Qian and Josh Schell portray two seriously conflicted characters (who don't really know what they want), the evening's perversely strong breath of fresh air comes from the actress portraying Iris (Matilda Holtz and Carmen Steele alternate in the role).

Iris (Matilda Holtz) is visited by Papa (Warren David Keith)
in a scene from The Nether (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Haley's play also offers stiff challenges to adult audiences interested in privacy, freedom of expression, the right to use their imaginations, and the right to explore their kinkiest desires ("Don't tell me you've never fucked an elf!" snarls detective Morris) without ever losing sight of today's increasing levels of alienation.

This San Francisco Playhouse production benefits immensely from the period costume designs by Brooke Jennings and the sound design by Theodore J. H. Hulsker. In a world where virtual reality has eliminated old taboos and contemporary crimes include owning a garden with a real live tree in it, the breakaway non-human star of the show is, without any doubt, Nina Ball's rotating set.

When push comes to shove, the audience is forced to ask which is the more preferable outcome: The thought police busting potential predators whose urges have been tempered by letting them act out their fantasies in virtual reality? Or the probability that, without a safe play space that can keep them placated, they will be unable to control their abnormal impulses?

Performances of The Nether continue at the San Francisco Playhouse through March 5 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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