Thursday, July 28, 2016

Not The Usual Suspects

Take a look at any piece of American currency, whether it be a coin or a dollar bill. You'll notice four words: "In God We Trust." To which god does that motto refer?
A statue of Ganesha displayed during the celebration of the Durga
Puja festival in Cologne (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
A mosaic depicting the triumph of Neptune standing on a chariot
pulled by two sea horses (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

So many gods, so much mythology (atheists might be thinking "So many Christians, so few lions"). If it's difficult to decide in which god to place your trust, why not shrink the horizon and think about how many people you can count on when the going gets tough? Friends? Family? Colleagues at work?
  • Who will care for you when you are ill?
  • Who will betray you for a quick chance to get ahead?
  • Who can you confide in when you are terrified?
  • Who will badmouth you to your peers?

In a recent article entitled You’re Not Alone In Feeling Alone: Why It’s So Hard For Adults To Make Friends, Sarah Sweeney writes:
"I spoke with a dozen people between the ages of 27 and 90 throughout the United States and was astounded to learn that they all felt similarly: it’s difficult as hell to make true friendships as an adult. 'Over the years, I seem to have collected a Rolodex of acquaintances, but no one I particularly trust,' one responded. A post-graduate lamented, 'Since college I’ve lost most of my close friends to job relocations, marriages, and surely soon enough children.' And a guy in his late 30s replied, 'Working from home has its perks, but it’s isolating. No beers after work with office people, so my social life is mostly my family.' What counts as a true friendship as you get older? For me, it’s feeling comfortable enough to be myself. And if you’re like me, it’s also trust. Not just keeping the odd secret, but trusting that my life choices aren’t your conversational fodder elsewhere.”
Two recent comedies based their plots on outrageous acts of betrayal. One framed its narrative by using a flashback to show how everything went horribly wrong; the other tried to make use of a variety of political conflicts to develop a tightly-staged farce. Although both stories made their point, one's method of storytelling succeeded by peeling away layers of details to get at the truth. The other heaped conflict after conflict upon its characters, resulting in a soggy mess.

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In recent years, those with even a passing interest in the environment have been alarmed by the catastrophic developments in Southeast Asia, where deforestation caused by the production of palm oil has threatened the natural habitats of (and possibly doomed to extinction) such species as the Sumatran tiger and the orangutan. Last year's tropical forest fires in Indonesia caused an estimated 500,000 people to suffer from respiratory tract infections (19 of them died). Indonesia's government anticipates economic losses of at least $47 billion and more than 100,000 premature deaths.

While corporations forecast substantial profits from harvesting palm oil as a source for biofuels, scientists stress that letting palm plantations -- which often sit atop peat bogs -- continue to act as natural carbon sinks (which take carbon out of the air and convert it to oxygen through the process of photosynthesis) would be much less detrimental to the environment.

This diagram of the fast carbon cycle shows the movement of carbon
between land, atmosphere, and oceans in billions of tons of carbon per
year. Yellow numbers are natural fluxes, red are human contributions
in billions of tons of carbon per year. White numbers indicate
stored carbon. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Directed by Gary Graves, Hearts of Palm is Patricia Milton's new play about the ravaging effects of corporate colonialism in Southeast Asia once profit-driven bean counters become infatuated with the allure of cheap foreign labor, relaxed safety standards, and a complete lack of environmental regulations in an isolated island society. In her program note explaining how she was inspired to craft a comedy on this subject, Milton writes:
“A few years ago, two 12-year-old Girl Scout activists launched a campaign urging Kellogg’s to remove conflict palm oil from Girl Scout Cookies. Intrigued, I looked into palm oil industry practices. These companies routinely use slash-and-burn clearing that destroys animal habitat and warms the climate. Companies deliberately hide the sometimes devastating effects the things we buy have on people and places across the world. They grab land, enslave people, and abuse human rights. All of this looks a lot like the behavior of old-school colonial powers.”
Frieda de Lackner as Viola Wells in Hearts of Palm
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)
“In this play, the central character tries to remain oblivious to the serious problems right in front of her -- until finally, she can’t. I hope that Vi’s journey out of denial is the same one all of us consumers make. Great resources about issues discussed in the play can be found at Rainforest Action Network, Friends of the Earth, and Survival International. If you’d like to know what you can do about corporate colonialism, I recommend the book Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe by Erik Loomis. For expert negotiating advice, read Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts by Dan Shapiro.”
Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as Brittany in Hearts of Palm (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Milton's play takes place on the fictional island of Marititu, in the great room of the 1880s plantation house owned by Empire Holdings. With three women determined to mesh their employers' political agendas with their personal feminist goals and a male buffoon who thinks he's a white savior (and would be perfectly at home as the comedic foil in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta), there is intrigue, jealousy, professional territorialism, and stupidity to spare.

John Patrick Moore portrays the bumbling Strap
in Hearts of Palm (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

As Hearts of Palm begins, two women are arguing over who is better equipped to deal with the natives and resolve any potential unrest on Marititu.
  • Brittany Matal (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) is a seasoned representative of Empire Holdings with a decent grip on reality who knows the territory and the political stakes involved. After she goes rogue and joins the Marititu Rebel Militia, one of the company's Jeeps is torched (a clear sign that the natives are restless and more trouble is on the way).
  • Viola Wells (Frieda de Lackner) is a well-intentioned project manager and deeply conflicted negotiator working for Empire Holdings who is so painfully out-of-touch with the volatility of the situation on her hands that it would be hysterically funny were the potential side effects of her decisions not so devastating. To her credit, Vi has a conscience. Unfortunately, Marititu is the job challenge she has been working toward throughout her career. With a chance to overcome her employer's gender bias finally within reach, which comes first? The corporation or the id?
Michelle Talgarow as Ni-Bethu in Hearts of Palm (Photo by: Jim Norrena)
  • Ni Bethu (Michelle Talgarow) is a local government official who is much more knowledgeable about the value of certain land parcels than Empire's visiting white people might suspect.
  • Strap (John Patrick Moore) is the vain and idiotic white man who thinks he has arrived in Marititu just in time to rescue the situation from the feeble efforts of a ditsy woman with whom he had a one-night stand some time ago. If you wrap white privilege in a cotton candy cloud of macho cluelessness and tie it all together with a fake moustache, you soon realize that the only thing (aside from a brain) that Strap is missing is a pith helmet to contain his oversized ego and abject stupidity.
  • Add to this formidable mixture an aggressive CIA operative named Helen (Jan Zvaifler) who has a chip on her shoulder, an itchy trigger finger, and an endless supply of hubris coursing through her veins.
Jan Zvaifler as Helen (a butch CIA operative) in
Hearts of Palm (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

With costumes by Tammy Berlin and sound design by Gregory Scharpen, Hearts of Palm draws plenty of laughs from the audience with some well-targeted zingers. The problem with this world premiere from CentralWorks is that (as in some of Patricia Milton's other comedies), it attempts to address too many political issues through one crisis. While clusterfucks can be fun, clutter can weigh down a farce.

Sometimes less could be more -- with one major exception. Jan Zvaifler's portrayal of the furiously macho Helen is so clearly defined (and well acted) that it makes one hope she tackles additional villains in the future. Performances of Hearts of Palm continue through August 14 at the Berkeley City Club (click here to order tickets).


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If you like solving mysteries that don't involve the usual suspects, let me recommend an Argentinian treat that was recently screened at the 2016 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Gabriel Lichtman's deliciously quirky How To Win Enemies begins as its handsome protagonist, Lucas Abadi (Martin Slipak), is about to give a speech at the wedding of his brother Max (Javier Drolas) to Paula (Eugenia Capizzano), two lawyers who both work at the same firm where Lucas has become known for his research skills and impressive attention to detail.

Brothers and partners in their family's law firm, Max (Javier Drolas)
and Lucas (Martin Slipak) are very different personalities

As the viewer soon learns through an extended flashback, the past few days have been quite a challenge for Lucas, the kind of handsome, cuddly nerd who doesn't know how to be slick or deceitful. Lucas has been a devoted colleague and valuable resource for the law firm's stressed-out receptionist, Antonella (Paula Rodriguez), his brother's wedding planner (Charo Lopez), and an odd-looking "fixer" known as The Pelican (Sagrado Sebakis).

The Pelican (Sagrado Sebakis) and Lucas (Martin Slipak)
discuss potential suspects in How To Win Enemies

One day, while running errands around Buenos Aires, Lucas crosses paths with a stunning blonde (Ines Palombo) who introduces herself as Barbara Parades. Despite Max's insistence that Lucas honor the family tradition by immediately making Barbara his next sexual conquest, Lucas wants to get to know the woman better.

Barbara (Ines Palombo) and Lucas (Martin Slipak)
meet cute in a scene from How To Win Enemies

To his surprise and delight, Barbara shares his love of Agatha Christie's detective stories and his favorite book, a crime novel entitled The American Friend. Lucas (whose dog is named Sherlock) is easily smitten and invites Barbara back to his home for the night. When he awakens the next morning, Barbara has disappeared -- along with the €50,000 Lucas had just withdrawn from the bank to purchase a new apartment.

As Lucas tries to figure out how his money disappeared, he becomes increasingly suspicious that its theft must have been an inside job and that Barbara might be in cahoots with someone who knows an awful lot about him. With the help of an attractive young librarian (Carla Quevedo), he decides to track down all the clues to the crime the same way one of Agatha Christie's super sleuths would have done.


There are no violent deaths in How To Win Enemies, no guns, and no car chases. While some might think of it as a more cerebral comedy, it's rare for such a heinous act of betrayal to lead to an uproariously comic resolution of a crime. However, the resourceful Lucas manages to track down the perp, her accomplice, and the true source of his misery in time to give Max the tribute he so richly deserves as their entire family and circle of friends are gathered to witness Max's wedding to Paula. Martin Slipak's portrayal of Lucas is a joy to watch; Carla Quevedo's librarian is an added delight. Here's the trailer:

2 comments:

Art Maddox said...

Wonderful blog as usual, George. Re god & gods, IMO we already had the correct identification many milennia ago: the Sun, without which Mother Earth & us'ns wouldn't exist. Then came the realization that gods can be useful puppets for authority, so the essential mystery got embroidered in lotsa ways...some pretty entertaining, some awful.

And I remember in 1954 when those 2 words, "under God", were inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance (at the urging of the Knights of Columbus, oddly enough). I was just 14, but old enough even then to detect...I don't know...a certain Danish fishiness. ;o)

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