Friday, November 15, 2019

I Thought You Did It For Me

Many a parent has welcomed an infant into the world with ambitious dreams for their child's future. Whether immediately beginning to save for the kid's college education, hoping their child is cute enough to develop a baby modeling career, or trying to decide which musical instrument the child should master, some parents see their children as vessels that can be used to fulfill their own unrealized goals.

Whether that means a great deal of time and money spent on children's beauty pageants, music lessons, or athletic training and competitions, a parent's fantasies don't always keep pace with their children's growth. Puberty can derail the best laid plans of doting dads and manipulative mothers. A child's realization that s/he may not have the necessary talent, drive, or interest to satisfy an adult's goals (as well as the discovery that it's easier to get instant gratification from sex, drugs, and social media) can leave the road to fame and fortune covered in weeds.

Oftentimes, a younger generation's perspective on "how things should be" doesn't mesh with the expectations of the so-called adults in the room. One of my roommates in the 1970s (a doctor doing her residency at Kaiser Hospital) explained that the reason she chose to specialize in dermatology was because "No one calls you at 4:00 a.m. to pop a zit."

For Greta Thunberg and millions of other youth, the increasing dismissal of an older generation's criticisms with the catchphrase "OK Boomer" is a terse acknowledgment that the financial, social, and employment opportunities with which baby boomers grew up no longer exist. For Millennials and subsequent generations, those cultural landscapes have become increasingly irrelevant.

McSweeney's Internet Tendency has been running a delightful series of cartoons by Julie ReneƩ Benda entitled Beaver of Fine Arts in which "a creatively unfulfilled beaver named Frank navigates the limitations of pond life and branches out into the arts community."
(Courtesy of McSweeney's Internet Tendency)
For parents who worked their asses off trying to mold their children into doctors, lawyers, dentists, and realtors, the thought of their child becoming a professional card shark, YouTube influencer, poet, or porn star/entrepreneur building their brand on greatly diminishes the sense of satisfaction they anticipated enjoying as well as any bragging rights they might have assumed would follow in good time. Though the stereotype of a ferocious stage mother may have been born during the vaudeville era, fathers (from Leopold Mozart and Joe Jackson to Matthew Knowles and Lavar Ball) have also made huge emotional investments in their children's future. An impressive new drama recently put a flawed father front and center as he struggled to cope with his own failures as well as his son's frustrating loss of motivation.

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Theatre Rhinoceros recently presented the world premiere of a new drama by Boni Alvarez. Staged within the intimate confines of the Spark Arts Gallery and directed by Ely Sonny Orquiza, Driven may only have three characters, but each carries a shitload of emotional baggage.

Danny (Earl Alfred Paus) has been struggling to make it as an actor in Los Angeles with precious little to show for his efforts. Despite having scored several bit roles as an extra, his professional efforts have mostly involved pointless auditions that turned out to be dead ends. After his small role got written out of a soap opera called The Race For Life, he has essentially given up on an acting career.

Earl Alfred Paus stars as Danny in Driven
(Photo by Anthony Bongco)

Now in his mid-30s, emotionally and spiritually exhausted, Danny has come home to Palo Alto to help take care of his father who, it's fair to say, is "a real piece of work." Danny's disillusionment with the acting scene and any prospects of building a meaningful career in Los Angeles have caused him to question his love for acting, leaving him with no idea of what he can do with his future.

Arnel (Alan Quismorio) is an aging, hot-tempered Filipino-American male who was recently cited for driving while under the influence of alcohol. As part of his punishment, Arnel must attend meetings at Alcoholics Anonymous and try to develop some skills for anger management. For someone who always has to be right (and is quick to criticize everyone else for doing things wrong), Arnel is a ticking time bomb.

Alan Quismorio (Arnel) and Earl Alfred Paus (Danny)
in a scene from Driven (Photo by: Anthony Bongco)

After years of laboring in the fields picking asparagus in order to support his family, Arnel still refuses to acknowledge that his temper and gambling addiction might have caused his wife to leave him. His daughter refuses to talk to him, and now his son is ready to give up on what Arnel always believed would be Danny's chance to become a big movie star. Add in the fact that Arnel's car is falling apart (the steering wheel shakes violently) and his insistence that Danny pay $1,500 a month in rent to stay with his father, and it's easy to see how Arnel's toxic masculinity springs from a deep well of paranoia and a severely wounded ego. As the Artistic Director of Theatre Rhinoceros, John Fisher, notes:
"This is a gay play, but not only about being gay. It is just a good solid story about fathers and sons. As the son of a father who was very different from me but still loved and supported me, I can relate to every scene, every interaction, every moment of this magical text. It is both personal and universal."
Qulie (Hector Ramon Zavala) is the third person in this strangely intimate triangle. Danny's best friend from high school, Qulie is now a single father trying to raise his daughter in a safe environment in the Bay Area. In an effort to cheer up his friend, he coaxes Danny into visiting his daughter's class to explain what an actor does. Meanwhile, Qulie keeps dropping hints yet firmly denying his physical attraction to Danny. When he witnesses the cruelty with which Arnel lashes out as his son, Qulie rises to Danny's defense, piercing Arnel's bluster with a painful bit of truth telling.

Alan Quismorio (Arnel), Hector Ramon Zavala (Qulie)
and Earl Alfred Paus (Danny) in a scene from Driven
(Photo by: Anthony Bongco)

After several weeks, Danny moves in with Qulie (where he can pay less rent and be less susceptible to his father's outbursts). Qulie's suggestion that his friend go back to working in live theatre (which Danny always loved when they were in high school) eventually leads to a teaching job at a local children's theatre. While Driven does not necessarily have a "happily ever after" ending, it does hint at improvements in Danny's relationships with his father, his friend, and his first love: acting. In his Director’s Note, Ely Sonny Orquiza writes:
“To no one’s surprise, it is rare in the Bay area to see plays featuring a story unique to the Filipino American experience while exploring the themes of the diaspora, family, and queerness. Everyone involved in this world premiere production rallied to tell this particular narrative. Our three-person production crew juggled multiple responsibilities. Each of us, in spite of our titles as stage manager or technical designer, director or light/sound designer, became all-purpose creatives to build the metaphorical vehicle that will take you on this story’s journey. Our stellar cast provided depth, cultural knowledge, and artistic excellence in their characterizations to serve the story. It’s our story, after all: a story of love, of triumph, and of representation.”
Earl Alfred Paus (Danny) and Hector Ramon Zavala (Qulie)
in a scene from Driven (Photo by Anthony Bongco)

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Anyone familiar with the 1959 musical Gypsy (book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) understands full well why a sign appears late in the show that says "The mother of Gypsy Rose Lee is not allowed backstage at this theatre." Rose Thompson Hovick lives on in musical theatre history as the archetypal stage mother, a woman so obsessed with turning her daughters into stars that she refuses to let any obstacle (or glaring lack of talent) stand in her way.

Bay Area Musicals is currently celebrating its fifth season with a production of Gypsy at the Alcazar Theatre that has been directed, choreographed, and had sets designed by the company's Artistic Director, Matthew McCoy, with Jon Gallo as Musical Director and Anton Hedman handling sound design.

Emma Bergman (Baby June), Chloe Fong (Baby Louise) and
Ariela Morgenstern (Rose) in a scene from Gypsy
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

With costumes by Brooke Jennings and projections designed by Richard Fong and DC Scarpelli, the production stars Ariela Morgenstern as Rose, that indomitable woman who doesn't hesitate to tell a secretary "How dare you talk on the phone while I'm yelling at you!" I've been lucky enough to see several great artists (Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Heather Orth, Patti LuPone) tackle this role, which has appropriately been dubbed "the King Lear of musical comedy." And although I wish I had been lucky enough to see Ethel Merman and Linda Lavin as Rose, one of the great rewards of seeing Gypsy performed live (regardless of the size or lustre of the production) is to experience a show that has been so solidly constructed that it seems indestructible.

Jade Shojaee (Louise) and Tia Konsur (June) wonder what
life could be like "If Momma Was Married" in Gypsy
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

One thing that sets BAM's production apart from many others is the casting of Rose's two daughters (in their "baby"/"dainty" years and as young adults). In an interesting twist, neither child appears underfed. If anything, they seem to retain vestiges of their baby fat through years of touring in vaudeville as well as following the onset of puberty. Not only does this add to June's resentment at Rose's constantly referring to her as "the baby" (and the shock of June eloping with Tulsa), it gives the adult Louise a greater voluptuousness, which makes the moment when she sees herself in a mirror and gasps "I'm a pretty girl, Momma. I'm a pretty girl!" even more poignant.

Jade Shojaee (Louise) is transformed into Gypsy Rose Lee
in Gypsy (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

As the three strippers who reassure Louise that having no talent is no obstacle to stripping, Elaine Jennings (Tessie Tura) is the only one whose gaunt features befit a has-been. Both Olivia Cabera (Mazeppa) and Glenna Murillo (Electra) pay homage to the burlesque era during which the plump physique of a "fully-formed" woman symbolized a juicy creature overflowing with sensuality who was guaranteed to have "more bounce to the ounce and more jiggle to the wiggle."

Glenna Murrilo (Electra), Olivia Cabera (Mazeppa), and Elaine Jennings
(Tessie Tura) in a scene from Gypsy (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

While Morgenstern's Rose boasts a powerful voice coupled with the character's bull-in-a-china-shop stamina, Jade Shojaee's portrayal of the adult Louise captures the young woman's awkwardness acting as one half of a cow, her naive, loyal, and gawky belief in her sister's talent, and the repressed anger that finally erupts when Louise gets up the courage to confront her overbearing mother.

Jean-Paul Jones as Tulsa in Gypsy (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Emma Berman shines as a somewhat pudgy Baby June with Chloe Fong as Baby Louise while, as the adult June, Tia Konsur shows a great deal more exasperation in the duet "If Momma Was Married." As the two most important men in the girls' lives, Jean-Paul Jones is an ingratiating Tulsa while DC Scarpelli brings greater depth of character to Herbie than one usually witnesses.

Ariela Morgenstern (Rose) and Jade Shojaee (Louise) in the
final moments of Gypsy (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

The only regret I have about BAM's production is that Jon Gallo could not be given a larger ensemble of musicians to do justice to one of the greatest scores in the literature of musical comedy. Performances of Gypsy continue through December 8 at the Alcazar Theatre (click here for tickets).