Saturday, February 27, 2016

Thinking Outside Reality's Box

Released in 1940, Pinocchio (Walt Disney's second animated feature film) includes some sequences that could easily terrify small children (little boys being transformed into donkeys on Pleasure Island, the escape from the belly of Monstro the Whale).

Of course, many sequences of Disney animation are more benign. Consider the following musical number from 1951's Alice in Wonderland:

Animation allows fantasies to vividly come to life in a manner similar to many of our dreams. Besotted with artistic depictions of magical realism, they include behaviors that defy common sense accompanied by visions that defy basic science. As someone who has always been a heavy dreamer, my nighttime reveries range all over the place, mirroring the wild theatricality and imaginative freedom to be found in such fantasy films as 1969's Fellini Satyricon and 2009's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Just last week, I found myself stranded on a sand bar populated by giant crocodiles. The only way for me to survive was to jab a pole into a pregnant female crocodile's vagina (duh, I know they lay eggs, but this is Dreamland), extract its young, and feed the baby reptile to another hungry crocodile. Thankfully, I made it to shore before awakening.
  • Such freewheeling adventures are easier to create in film than on stage. Happily, there are occasions when one can experience storytelling in a manner that allows the impossible to seem commonplace. Sometimes, there are opportunities for nuance in the midst of chaos. 
  • At other times (like this super-ripped Korean statue of Jesus), nuance seems unnecessary.
Jesus on steroids (a new form of magical realism)

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Don't let the lukewarm reaction to the new film by the Coen brothers deter you from spending a delightful 90 minutes on the back lots of old Hollywood. While Hail, Caesar! lifts the curtain that hides a lot of the behind-the-scenes mischief in various sound studios, the script is filled with delicious moments and the kind of magical thinking that can make life funnier than art.

The film also includes some wonderful cameos from gifted actors like Wayne Knight and Frances McDormand as well as a stunning comedic performance from Alden Ehrenreich. While old pros like Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Dolph Lundgren, and Ralph Fiennes are on hand, their work is matched with wicked glee by the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Jonah Hill, and Robert Picardo (as a sarcastic Hollywood rabbi). The film's greatest scene stealer is Tilda Swinton, portraying identical twin sisters who are rival gossip columnists.

While a great deal of attention has been focused on Channing Tatum's hilarious musical number (filled with sexual innuendo and the funniest climax ever designed for a troupe of tap dancing sailors), Hail, Caesar! contains numerous sly jabs at the entertainment industry that range from laugh-out-loud moments to those best appreciated with a knowing smirk. This is a film to be slowly savored rather than swallowed in one greedy gulp.

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From narrative fiction to costume design, from composing music to writing code, one of the most powerful tools at a creative person's disposal is a simple question: "What if?" Not only does it lead one to think in new directions, once a possibility looms on the horizon, it doesn't take long before it starts developing permutations on a theme.

With an understanding of the mathematics behind permutations, think about how a kaleidoscope uses a combination of objects to create a never-ending supply of visual patterns.

With so many options at a person's disposal, the trick is to boil down the possibilities to a few essentials and examine a limited number of permutations. That's exactly what Dipika Guha has done in her stunning new play, Mechanics of Love, which recently received its world premiere from Crowded Fire Theater. Directed with a wonderful sensitivity and comic insight by Jessa Brie Moreno, Guha's four characters are:

Francesca (Luisa Frasconi), a ballerina who forgets nothing but, because she has suffered a strange disease, now has an artificial spine which prevents her from performing.

Luisa Frasconi (Francesca) and Carl Holvick (Glen) in
a scene from Mechanics of Love (Photo by: Pak Han)

Glen (Carl Holvick), a man she meets and falls in love with. Like one of Gary Larson's ditzy Irish setters, Glen has as remarkable capacity to forget everything once he goes to sleep. In fact, he becomes so excited about meeting Francesca that he impulsively marries her. There's just one problem.

Faizi (Lauren Spencer), Glen's compulsively busy wife who has tried to cope with his eccentricities but is reaching her limit. However, upon meeting the very attractive Francesca, Faizi realizes that things might not be so bad after all. Perhaps this could lead to a throuple!

Luisa Frasconi (Francesca) and Lauren Spencer (Faizi)
in a scene from Mechanics of Love (Photo by: Pak Han)

Georg (Damien Seperi), the mechanic who has been fixing Faizi's car. Georg likes to work with his hands. Georg likes Faizi. Georg likes to put his hands to work on Faizi. Until he meets Francesca.

Lauren Spencer (Faizi) and Damien Spencer (Georg) in
a scene from Mechanics of Love (Photo by: Pak Han)

In her program note, Crowded Fire’s new artistic director, Mina Morita, writes:
"I am thrilled to introduce Dipika Guha‘s incredibly imaginative work to our audience. Written with a finely tuned and absurd lilt, wry poetry, and unnerving humor, her plays break open character stereotypes piece by piece to reveal the shared and vulnerable underbelly of our humanity. She creates worlds that exist beyond the traditional psychological realism of most American theatre, and employs the poetry of unexpected pairings and motives to capture a more truthful human experience.

Love is that intangible force that has assured the growth of humankind and our survival, driven the creation of entire industries, and caused artists to go mad trying to capture its essence. In Mechanics of Love, Guha unveils ‘a mythical European city, pressed up against a communist state’ that has recently fallen. The citizens are suddenly awakened to the possibility of being anyone, or falling in love with anyone... and everyone! It is a moment when cultural norms are being rewritten."
Georg (Damien Seperi) and Franesca (Luisa Frasconi) share a
sudden attraction in Mechanics of Love (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Working on a clever unit set designed by Deanna L. Zibello (with costumes by Keiko Shimosato), the four-actor ensemble achieves something that is extremely difficult to pull off in contemporary theatre. By letting Guha's script breathe at a natural pace as her characters amiably switch neuroses, parenting responsibilities, and living arrangements, the audience is drawn into an intimate (and quite hilarious) comedy firmly rooted in the Theatre of the Absurd.

And yet, as Guha examines the various romantic permutations possible with a combination of four characters, standard patterns of infatuation, jealousy, recrimination, and casual sex lose their contemporary baggage. Possessiveness and territoriality are replaced with once unthinkable possibilities which are as appealing as what one might see in a kaleidoscope.

Carl Holvick (Glen) and Damien Seperi (Georg) in a
scene from Mechanics of Love (Photo by: Pak Han)

Crowded Fire Theater's production benefits immensely from Beth Hersh's lighting design and the sound design by Cliff Caruthers. What I found utterly amazing about Mechanics of Love was its total lack of pretentiousness and the fact that Guha's writing allows her characters to explore themselves and their desires with a remarkable amount of grace.

By the end of this charming one-act comedy, the audience genuinely cares about the potential happiness of each character (a rare achievement in an absurdist play). Performances of Mechanics of Love continue through March 12 at Thick House (click here to order tickets).

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