Thursday, October 30, 2008

End of Days

Wednesday's activities included a mad dash around town trying to knock off a bunch of errands (shopping at Trader Joe's, getting a flu shot at Kaiser Permanente, hitting the A.T.M. for some cash and picking up tickets for an upcoming performance).  As I nervously kept checking the digital time readout at the front of the bus, I felt like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland:

"I'm late.  I'm late.  For a very important date.
No time to say "Hello," "Goodbye"
I'm late. I'm late. I'm late. I'm late."
Not that anyone at MUNI gave a royal fuck.  

I arrived at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco with just moments to spare before the screening of the first film in this year's series of travelogues: 10 Questions For The Dalai Lama. This beautifully-shot documentary by Rick Ray evolved under the strangest of circumstances.  Originally commissioned to make a commercial travel video for an airline, Ray tried to back out of a far from lucrative deal.  At that point he was told that the trip would include an audience with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.   

In the movie industry, that's what you call a real game changer.  

But when he arrived in India, the filmmaker discovered that no follow-up calls had been made to the Dalai Lama from the Hollywood producer's office. Essentially, he was stuck in India on his own.  

Fate and karma have a curious way of conspiring to rock people's worlds.  To Ray's utter astonishment and delight, he learned that his guide just happened to have the Dalai Lama's email address.  

What ensued provided the cinematic ingredients for a hybrid documentary that is (a) part travelogue, (b) part brief history of China's takeover of Tibet, (c) features lots of archival footage showcasing the life of the Dalai Lama, and (d) includes a hefty dose of meditation on the meaning of life.

One of the questions posed to the Dalai Lama by Mr. Ray was why, in all his travels, he has found that people who are poor are often so much happier than those who are rich.  With the usual musical lilt in his voice underlying his practical approach to life, the Dalai Lama reminded Ray that those who have accumulated "things" often feel they have more things they must "protect."  That burden can weigh heavily on one's soul and diminish one's sense of happiness.  

While much has been written both by and about the Dalai Lama, what shines through in Ray's film is the aging monk's mischievious eyes, inquisitive mind, and genuine love of life and laughter. Old King Cole may have been a merry old soul, but the Dalai Lama is obviously no slouch when it comes to enjoying a moment of hilarity at his own expense.

Little did I know how this documentary (and the Dalai Lama's comments about how he hopes to live out his final years) would be a fitting prelude for the evening's performance at the American Conservatory Theater.  Jane Anderson's remarkable new drama, The Quality of Life, proudly takes its place in a long line of plays, operas, and movies which focus on what I like to call preemptive death (the taking of one's life before natural decay rings down the curtain).  

While legions of pro-lifers are concerned with preserving the rights of a fetus, like many adults I'm more interested in finding a decent way to die with dignity when I feel the right moment has come.  I'm certainly not alone in my thoughts.  

People have chosen this path throughout history and literature for a wide variety of reasons. Star-crossed lovers like Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet could not bear the thought of living without each other.  In Nordic mythology (as well as Richard Wagner's Gotterdammerung), Brunnehilde chose self-immolation as a way to rid the ring of its fatal curse. 

In Janacek's The Makropulos Affair, after realizing that eternal youth is accompanied by endless pain and apathy, 337-year-old Emilia Marty decided to forego one more sip of a magic potion in order to die a natural death.  Never one to be upstaged, Puccini's Madama Butterfly looked to the inscription on the knife given to her father by the Mikado (as a suggestion that he commit hari-kiri), which stated that "Who cannot live with honor must die with honor."  

More contemporary dramas include such works as Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother, Brian Clark's Whose Life Is It, Anyway?, Colin Higgins' Harold and Maude, Don DeLillo's Love-Lies-Bleeding, and Thom Fitzgerald's The Event (in which gay men dying of AIDS stage farewell parties during which they say goodbye to friends and family before committing suicide).

The Quality of Life focuses on a quartet of aging baby boomers grappling with the frailty of human life.  As the curtain rises, we meet Dinah (JoBeth Williams) and Bill (Steven Culp), two Ohioans whose lives were recently shattered by their daughter's unexpected and gruesome death.  Looking like a stereotype of Midwestern apple pie morality (and dressed in clothes that could come from any mall or catalog), their loss has caused them to find solace in religion.  

Unfortunately, It seems that the good upstanding folks in in their home town in Ohio don't really like tragedy getting in the way of polite small talk at church.  So when your daughter gets raped and brutally murdered, it's kind of a downer once the novelty wears off.  Bill has not just been "born again," he has become an aggressive proselytizer for letting Jesus solve everyone's problems.  Dinah, meanwhile, has struggled to find comfort in their new church's social network. 

Steven Culp and Jobeth Williams (Photo by Kevin Berne)

When, out of loneliness, Dinah calls a distant cousin who lives in Berkeley, she discovers that not only did Jeannette (Laurie Metcalf) and Neil's home burn to the ground in a recent canyon fire, Neil (Dennis Boutsikaris) is dying of metastatic cancer.  In the hopes of reconnecting with her relative and close childhood friend, Dinah muscles her husband (who clearly doesn't want to get involved) into taking a trip to California.  

Upon arriving in Berkeley, they discover that their West Coast counterparts are essentially camping out in a yurt they have constructed in their back yard, with no plans to rebuild.  They seem bizarrely content to use an outhouse, walk across the property to shower and bathe, and eat outdoors.  When it rains, they happily go to a restaurant.  Jeannette and her husband wear clothing made of soft, loose fabrics that reflect conscious choices of earth tones in the styles of various cultures they have visited in their travels (Neil is an academic specializing in cultural anthropology).  

Just as Dinah and Bill embody the stereotype of an uptight, churchgoing couple from the Midwest, Jeannette and Neil are very much the dope-smoking, wine-drinking, peasant chic organic hippies from California. The fire which destroyed their home has freed them from their attachments to material possessions.  With the clock running out on Neil's health, they are now plotting their final exit.

As soon as Neil needs a hit of medical marijuana, Bill is consumed by his prudish self-righteousness and beats a hasty retreat to the car, where he can listen to some important sporting event on the radio. In a moment of weakness, Dinah gets high with Jeannette and Neil. 

Thinking that her cousin can handle the news (or perhaps just wanting to shock and test her), Jeannette drops a bombshell.  Not only is Neil planning to check out in two weeks, after trying to imagine the quality of life without him,  she is planning to make it a double suicide.

Laurie Metcalf and Dennis Boutsikaras (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The arrival of Bill and Dinah provokes a new chapter in America's culture wars that soon becomes fiercely intense and deeply personal. Familiar arguments about family, religion, suicide, and medical marijuana (as well as various means of coping with the harshest of realities) get examined under a dramatic microscope with surprising results.  

This is a play of raging passions, as Bill and Dinah discover that no amount of religion, ritual and mindlessly going through the motions to keep up appearances can save a marriage that has imploded from their profound lack of communication.  And, contrary to what she had assumed, it turns out that Neil does not want Jeannette to join him in death. What she considers selfless strikes her husband as a much more selfish act than he had previously let on.

Some new plays depend on a star personality to anchor the evening. However, The Quality of Life is so well written and directed that it stands above the actors in a very strange way.  The strengths of Anderson's play remind me very much of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  (built to stand the test of time).

At its world premiere in Los Angeles The Quality of Life was mounted on a thrust stage in a 115-seat auditorium.  In its new production on the Geary Theater's proscenium stage (facing a 1,000-seat, three-tiered auditorium), it has handsomely withstood a fierce challenge. The play has apparently lost none of its emotional intimacy and may even have gained some visual strength from Donald Eastman's scenery and Kent Dorsey's sensitive lighting.  

The powerful ensemble of four veteran actors handles the play's sensitive moments with grace, humor, anger, and honesty that have all been acquired through deep personal wounds and staggering private pains.  This is an evening of provocative writing and determined acting that has been  directed with great dramatic acuity to produce a very fine piece of theater.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Blue Man Dupe

Anyone who has crossed paths with a truly inspiring teacher knows that the time they were lucky enough to spend in that person's presence is a gift to be cherished for the rest of their life. When I was in my sophomore or junior year at Brooklyn College (back in the days when tuition for one semester was only $50), my sister advised me to take a course with Professor Anna Babey-Brooke, stressing that it didn't really  matter what the course was about, it would turn out to be a great learning experience.

Would it ever!  

"The Babbling Brooke" (as she was known to her students) was a pre-feminist phenomenon with an encyclopedic knowledge of mystical fertility rites from primitive cultures who never seemed to stop talking. Leaping from one obscure reference point to another -- in a meticulously detailed pattern of intellectual linkage that, some 30 years later, would become known as "web surfing" --  she charmed us with stories about Peace Corps volunteers who struggled to bring modern plumbing to remote civilizations only to see their efforts literally go down the drain as awe-struck natives kept trying to send peace offerings to their gods by magically sacrificing (flushing) rocks down the toilet.

Try to imagine a lusty, buxom academic who had just emerged from the teacher's lounge covered in a wild pattern of chalk-stained eraser marks (which made one wonder if she had been pinned against a blackboard by a fellow staff member for a quickie between classes). Then combine that image with the concept of an adventuresome, literary Auntie Mame and you'll get a tiny idea what Professor Babey-Brooke's classes were like.  

With her gray hair rapidly becoming undone, a wealth of bracelets jangling from both wrists, and a mischievious twinkle in her eye as she waltzed us through Frazer's Golden Bough (making sure that we understood the importance of being on good terms with the Earth Mother during harvest season), she introduced us to a wealth of foreign paintings and highly sexual primitive artwork.  

One day she would be rattling on about primitive taboos and sexual magic -- explaining how, by rapidly alternating one's sexual polarity, a character in mythology could easily impregnate herself without needing a man.  The following week she might treat us to her excitedly narrated slide show about the highly erotic wood sculptures created by the natives of the Sepik River District in Papua New Guinea.  To this day, a visit to the DeYoung Museum's prized collection of Oceanic Art as well as its Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art brings back fond memories of those sexually-charged lectures.

Babey-Brooke helped shape our impressionable young minds as we nervously tiptoed through passages from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the Ramayana, making the acquaintances of the vengeful goddess KaliHanuman (the famed and very mischievious monkey king), Ganesha (the elephant god), and a wealth of mythical creatures from foreign cultures.  

I was lucky enough to take two of her courses: "Comparative Religion" and "Indo-European Myths and Legends."  In her own bizarre way, she was even more stimulating than puberty.

Thus, it came as no surprise that I had myself a grand old time watching Sita Sings The Blues, the full-length animation feature by Nina Paley that opens the San Francisco Film Society's Third International Animation Festival on November 13 at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema.

Paley spent five years single-handedly animating Sita Sings The Blues on her home computer as part of a personal quest to write and produce what she has subtitled "The Greatest Break-up Story Ever Told."  Loosely adapted from the Ramayana, her film is an absolutely breathtaking piece of animation art.

What sets it apart, however, is its obvious mix of cultures and cultural icons.  The story begins in San Francisco, where a young couple with a particularly rowdy house cat finds their relationship threatened when Nina's husband receives a contract to go work in India (in 2002, Paley followed her then-husband to Trivandrum, India, where she was first exposed to the Ramayana).

As the young couple's relationship suffers increasing stress and alienation, the heroine becomes fascinated with the tales of the Ramayana, especially the tale of Sita's abduction from her beloved Lord and husband, Rama, by the demon Ravana, king of modern-day Sri Lanka. Using different styles of animation for the modern story of how Nina's husband dumped her by email and how Rama and Sita's relationship was challenged by Ravana, Paley also employs a group of characters based on Sri Lankan cut-out silhouette figures to act as a set of nosy neighbors who offer catty comments on Sita and everyone else in the plot.

In Paley's film, the ripe and curvaceous Sita looks like a cartoon combination of an Indian princess and Betty Boop.  What takes the film to an entirely new level, however, is Paley's use of a group of Jazz-era recordings by songstress Annette Hanshaw, which add great merriment to the proceedings.  Watching an increasingly pregnant Sita turn deeper shades of blue to Hanshaw's warbling of 1929's hit song "Am I Blue?" will have you laughing your head off.

The sheer beauty, wild inventiveness and feisty humor of Paley's animation (including a wildly funny two-minute "Intermission" segment) rivals anything put out by Pixar and/or Disney.  As I watched her film, I kept pinching myself to see if it was possible that I could simply be having too much fun.  Here's the trailer:

After The Election's Over

On November 5th our country will have changed.  Hopefully, for the better.  But what will you do after Election Day to replenish your soul after all that negative campaigning?  What will you do to quench your artistic thirst?  

For most people, November’s highlights include Election Day, Thanksgiving with friends and/or family and, if you’re a rabid shopper, Black Friday at the Mall.  Any thoughts about going to the movies are usually focused on end-of-year blockbusters and Oscar contenders planned for release during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

As usual, Bay area movie fans have many more options available to them.  The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco continues its film series with Memoria (November 5), Orthodox Stance (November 8), and a travelogue on Cambodia (November 19).

On Wednesday, November 12th, as part of this year's SF Green Festival, the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival will offer two special programs at the Roxie Theater as a preview of January’s festival out at Cowell Hall.

Simultaneously, the San Francisco Film Society will be presenting the Third Annual San Francisco International Animation Festival at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas. 

As soon as that finishes, SFFS will launch the 12th Annual New Italian Cinema Festival, running from November 16-23 (also at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas).

Watching documentaries, full-length animation features, indie gems, Bollywood musicals and other foreign films is a dark and dirty job. But someone’s got to do it!  

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Children Will Listen

As we close in on Election Day, it's important to stop, for a  minute, and think about the powerful role inspiration plays in our lives.  A great deal of the Obama campaign's success in recruiting volunteers and donations has been due to the simple message "Yes We Can," which has triumphantly taken root in nearly every demographic.  If you stop and wonder why those three simple words have become such a fiercely motivating force in today's political landscape, you might find yourself remembering how many times -- and in how many different ways -- all kinds of people were told "No, you can't."

How many times in your own life did someone tell you that you couldn't do something because (a) you didn't have the money to afford it, (b) you didn't have the physical strength to accomplish it, (c) you didn't have the intellect to think your way through it, (d) life wasn't fair, (e) you didn't have the skills or talent necessary to complete the task, (f) you weren't good looking enough, (g) you didn't have the right friends and connections, (h) it just wasn't going to happen for you, or, when all else failed, (i) "...because I said so and that's all there is to it!"

While dreams get trampled every day, the struggle to overcome one's circumstances rarely stops. Two monologues seen this weekend offered a testament to the power of a child's perceptions as to what he can and cannot achieve.  Each was shaped by experiences within a minority subculture. Each led to a brilliant performance by a uniquely talented artist.

Sunday's matinee was devoted to the latest show to emanate from the mind and fantasy world of Wayne Harris, a master storyteller who is currently performing May Day Parade at The Marsh.  A walking one-man band, Harris began his career as a horn player in a drum and bugle corps in St. Louis, Missouri.   

As his narrative unfolds we meet the older people shaping his view of life, ranging from his grandmother Mamabelle (noted for her biting criticism and awesome "shelf booty") to an over-the-top Baptist preacher; from the women at the local hairdresser's salon to a group of "Letter Girls" (too large to ever become cheerleaders)  who drive the crowd wild by bumping and grinding their way down the street during the parade.  
"Just the sight of them big butt girls in short skirts doing the 'Dirty Dog' down Newstead Boulevard put the crowd into a frenzy," Harris recalls with the wide-eyed wonder of an eight-year-old boy.

The 100-member Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church's Drum & Bugle Corps had a huge impact on Harris as a youth.  Like everyone, he loved a parade.  But as a young boy struggling with polio, being able to march in a parade presented a tough physical and intensely personal challenge. 

As I listened to his narrative -- and, especially, his father's aching questions about why, if the new Salk polio vaccine was supposed to be available for everyone, it was not available for his son --  I was bowled over by the carefully-crafted nuances, intensely personal speech cadences, and fine layers of depth Mr. Harris brought to his extended family and loving cast of characters.   As a trained musician, his sense of pacing combines with the colors of his voice to create indelible impressions of the people in his neighborhood whose larger-than-life personalities grew even bigger before his impressionable adolescent eyes.

In The Mayday Parade, Harris is so adept at painting pictures with words that the audience never doubts that a parade is coming down the street.  Whether Harris is using his body language to portray an old man teaching young boys the proper use of the glide step, the foul-mouthed preacher's son holding up the other end of the banner, or a prudish aunt who thinks everything happening on the street is an affront to Christ, I haven't seen anyone pull off this kind of magical, mystical one-man parade since Professor Harold Hill landed in River City to tell its citizens about the day when: 

"Seventy-six trombones led the big parade, 
With a hundred and ten cornets close at hand.  
They were followed by rows and rows 
Of the finest virtuousos 
The cream of every famous band."
It's quite an accomplishment -- and well worth paying a visit to The Marsh to share in the excitement and pathos!

* * * * * * * *

A childhood filled with gay-bashing insults had a different, if equally profound effect on the adolescent Clinton Leupp, who evolved into the infamous Miss Coco Peru. Although she can now boast of having been married in a castle in Spain -- on the Mediterranean -- Coco's first claim to fame was in a bitter drag queen's stunning monologue in the movie Trick (1999).  This moment never fails to impress:

Since scoring in Trick, Miss Coco has moved up in the world.  Having performed in bars, on gay cruises, and at numerous fundraisers (as well as for gay theater companies like San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center), Coco is now headlining in some pretty ritzy cabaret spaces -- like the Nikko Hotel's swanky Rrazz Room, where she is alternating with singer Andrea Marcovicci.

For those who remain clueless about the kinds of insults which filled Coco's childhood, she explains it in the following clip from Ugly Coco:

Having matured as both an artist and a drag queen, Coco can now look back at that confused little boy who was called a fairy in the school cafeteria with a more worldly wisdom.  She takes that wisdom wherever she goes, spreading her drag queen gospel far and wide:

No matter how many times you catch Miss Coco Peru in performance, she never fails to leave an impression -- especially when describing what it's like to share an intense personal therapy session with Liza Minelli in a helicopter flying over New York harbor at night.  There's absolutely no way to do that number justice in print.  You'll just have to go find out for yourself.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Erectile Function

One approach to the world around us is to insist that any and all objects can be reduced to one of two Freudian symbols:  a somewhat linear shape representing a penis or a circular shape resembling a vagina. 

Most architectural landmarks give credence to this theory.  

Buildings which have become easily recognizable international landmarks usually have some distinguishing features.  Whether you consider the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Coit Tower, the Transamerica Pyramid, or the Washington Monument, each has a distinct place in the history and culture of phallic imagery.

Round buildings seem to function primarily as sports arenas or theatrical venues.  Whether one looks at the Colisseum, the Houston Astrodome, an ancient Roman amphitheater,  a Mongolian yurt, or an Alaskan igloo, these structures are meant to gather people around a particular purpose -- whether it be a football game, theater under the stars, or a simple need to stay warm.

With the explosion of new wealth throughout Asia and the Middle East, the past decade has witnessed a new crop of architectural wonders rising up in cities from Dubai to Shanghai, from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.  With the 2008 Olympic Games acting as a catalyst for new signature projects, many fascinating architectural statements have redefined Beijing's landscape.

The most  instantly recognizable of these is, of course, the Beijing National Stadium, commonly referred to as the "Bird's Nest" because of its shape and web-like appearance. While sports fans around the world were thrilled by videos of the 2008 Olympics and the opening ceremonies from the National Stadium,  a new documentary by Christoph Schaub and Michael Schindhelm takes a more sober approach to examining the artistic and architectural challenges to its creation.  

Bird's Nest: Herzog & De Meuron in China explores the extremely organic approach the Swiss architectural firm takes toward designing any project (in this case looking for shapes and themes that recur throughout local Chinese culture) and watches as an artistic vision is formed which can then be translated into an architectural model.  The ultimate goal is to win the worldwide competition which will deliver the coveted contract for an easily recognizable international landmark.

Architect Pierre de Meuron

slide show from the official website for the stadium shows the various architectural elements coming together over time.  What it does not show, however, are some of the artistic, cultural and professional challenges faced by the design team.  Once Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (working with Chinese artist-architect-journalist Ai Weiwei) arrived at a design concept which could appeal to both traditionalists and modernists in China's rapidly changing society, they had to conquer numerous challenges in order to get the contract.  

However, business negotiations do not transpire in China quite the same way as in the Western world. Contracts are handled differently, with much grayer areas of understanding than the black and white of Western documents. Cultural protocols must be observed and sometimes take priority over building processes.  Indeed, the ability to enact change orders sometimes depends on whether the project has reached a point beyond which the government can no longer back out without incurring severe embarrassment on an international scale.

At the same time that Herzog and de Meuron were working on the National Stadium project, they were also designing a new district for the town of Jinhua.  With one project designed to be an international showcase, and the other aimed at meeting the practical demands of a local population, their need to rely on local architects to help move each project forward was obvious.

Architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron

Watching the creative team wrestle with design concepts (such as which shade of red paint will have the best resonance with Chinese culture), physical challenges (new shapes and construction techniques) and age-old architectural headaches (the need to cut costs by more than 10% across the entire project) offers a fascinating look behind the scenes of erecting a sensational new stadium against a crushing deadline.  The cultural needs and political expediency found in the Chinese business sector make architectural projects -- on a physical scale that is almost paralyzing in its scope -- evolve within reality-defying time frames.  Among the unexpected lessons learned is that things can happen quickly with the help of the Chinese government that would never be possible if these projects had been attempted in a democratic culture. 

There is, unfortunately, one severe problem with this documentary (which was shown locally at the SFIndie Fest's DocFest).  Whereas interviews are conducted in three languages (English, German and Mandarin), the film's subtitles are often extremely difficult to read because of the ease with which they blend into the background.  The documentary's trailer gives only the tiniest taste of the challenges faced by the Swiss architects in bringing this project to fruition:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Animal Instincts

Without any doubt, the 2008 Presidential election has broken the record for bizarre moments of political theater.  However, nothing quite compares to hearing a candidate bray "Don't say I look like I horse's ass.  I have a horse's ass!"  Of course, this statement can only ring true when the candidate speaking just happens to be a centaur.  

Much political mischief erupted on the stage of the Boxcar Theatre Thursday night when the company premiered its latest work, Animal Kingdom. Directed with gusto by Leah Gardner, this political romp and frolic examines how we react to politicians through the eyes of the legendary three bears and their sulking teenage son, Michael (who has not only become a vegan, but plans to move to Costa Rica so he can embark on a career of training dolphins and maybe even marry one).   

Michael's dad, Papa Bear, is the epitome of a stubborn male father figure who thinks he can order everyone in the family to vote according to his choice.  His mother, Mama Bear, has kind of a thing for one of the up-and-coming candidates and has been going to rallies and leafletting behind her husband's back.  She's tired of cooking porridge, is interested in new recipes for salmon and doesn't mind serving a salad with berries and roots to indulge her son's strict meat-free diet.  Their daughter has little political consciousness and only knows that she loves princesses -- especially if they have wings!

With remarkable timeliness and eerie resemblances to the policies of John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, the election to determine a new ruler for the Animal Kingdom has narrowed down to the following three choices:

The Fairy Princess strongly supports public nudity, free Heartgard for every Animal citizen, and shelters for feral cats but is adamantly opposed to wishing for three extra wishes, school dress codes, and fur coats.  The fact that she's been lying in a coma inside a casket for the past 25 years (until the mean old queen who put her under a spell died while picking poisoned apples at her new timeshare in Boca Raton), doesn't seem to bother her one bit or stop her from assuming that she deserves to rule.

Lionhearted is an extremely macho and outspokenly militaristic candidate with a nasty habit of occasionally devouring his bovine speechwriters and campaign staff.   Claiming to stand for family values (while positioning himself as the "safe candidate"), he strongly supports "No Cub Left Behind," an animal/fairy trade agreement (AFTA), and school feed trough programs for piglets.  Although he appeals to legions of proud and stubbornly uninformed older male voters, Lionhearted opposes poaching for pleasure, dragon infidel uprisings, and speed limits for cheetahs.

Last, but certainly not least, the Young Prince hopes to lead the Animal Kingdom toward a more civilized society while strongly supporting the development of dung empire and oat bags for the poor.  Wholeheartedly opposed to cannibalism, he is ardently against the domestication of people, interspecies marriage and all blood sports. The most handsome and likeable of the three candidates, the Young Prince is a firm believer in eating one's own feces.

All of these candidates are struggling to find a solution to the growing shortage of magic dust which has powered the Animal Kingdom under the reign of the mean old queen.  After they present their platforms to potential voters, not only does the audience get to vote, the results of the election are posted online within 12 hours of each performance.
Simply stated, this is a show that every political junkie (more than a few  reside in San Francisco) must see.  The writing is wonderfully droll, keenly insightful, and makes superb use of fairy tale mythology to examine the current political landscape.  

With most of the cast performing multiple roles, I was particularly impressed by Boxcar's co-artistic dirctor, Nick Olivero (Lionheart, Papa Bear) who also did the costume and sound design. Zoe Conner scored strong points with the audience as Mama Bear and the Evil Queen.  Jeremy Forbing was an obvious audience favorite as the centaur-like Young Prince and brooding teenage anarchist, Mike Bear. Kelsey Custard lent support as Baby Bear and the Fairy Princess while Sarah Korda, Stephanie Renee Maysonave and co-artistic director Peter Matthews played a wide variety of supporting and often hilarious roles including campaign cows, advisory owls, and elephant news commentators.

A decidedly good time was had by all.

If Boxcar Theatre can maintain this level of artistic vision throughout its fairy-tale-themed season (which includes Edward Albee's The American Dream, Where The Sidewalk Ends (a modernization of Shel Silverstein's children's stories), an updated version of Euripides' Ion, and Rent Boy Avenue: A "Fairy's" Tale (a modern day reworking of Hansel & Gretel) they will have one helluva successful year.

* * * * * * *

Before heading over to the Boxcar Theatre, I spent some time at Landmark's Lumiere on California Street, getting reacquainted with Callback: The Unmaking of Bloodstain.  I first had a chance to see this twisted and very funny indie gem nearly two years ago at a private screening given by the folks at Thick House because some of their actors were in the film.  Made on a shoestring budget, Callback recently got a one-week theatrical release from Landmark Theatres. Hope and pray this is a sign that the film will eventually get released on DVD because you don't want to miss it.

I don't know whether to describe it as a mockumentary, a sick joke, or just a brilliant piece of writing, but Callback is one of those guilty pleasures for indie film fans.  It basically shows how everything that could possibly go wrong does so -- to  spectacular effect -- during the making of a small-scale movie.  

Among the three leads cast in Bloodstain are Peter (a confused, broke, heterosexual actor who is trying to stay afloat by working at a gay phone sex company when not starring in Hamlet, My Homie), Carl (a small-time dimwitted thug who doesn't want to carry a gun but thinks he can act), and Tony (a manic depressive schizophrenic who has been released from a mental care facility but, in order to get an acting job, has stopped taking his antipsychotic medications).
Johnny Moreno in Callback: The Unmaking of Bloodstain

What sets Callback apart from many other indie films is the fact that there isn't an ounce of fat in the final product.  It boasts a wonderful script, some brilliant editing, and a supremely talented cast.  

Jeff Parise delivers a knockout performance as the confused, demented Tony with co-writer Michael DeGood's Carl and co-producer Johnny Moreno's sexy Peter offering solid backup. Others in the talented ensemble include Kate Orsini as Marci (the aspiring filmmaker who gets mugged by Peter and, after connecting the dots, takes vengeance on him while directing Bloodstain), Jennifer Hall as Jill (the clueless intern who gets romantically involved with the crazed Tony), Burnadeen Jones as Carl's social-climbing girlfriend Beth, and the hilarious Michelle Begley as Moana, the owner of a gay phone sex service.  Megan Schoenbachler's cinematography is a major contribution to the immaculate look of the production.

I was disappointed to see that director/co-writer Eric H. Wolfson had cut the hilarious scene in which the clueless Peter tries to show a house to a young couple acting as potential buyers (whose real goal is to score a three-way with a willing realtor in someone else's home). However, the final product is such an obvious labor of love (created by a group of actors who have been thoroughly humiliated by the Los Angeles film industry's casting process) that I can't recommend this film highly enough.  You can watch the trailer here.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Jock Jews

This fall, Stewart Wallace received lots of media attention as the composer of a new opera based on Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter.  Back in June 1989, with the help of Texas Opera Theater, the then 28-year-old Wallace launched the world premiere of the outrageous Where's Dick? (with book and lyrics by Michael Korie) at the outdoor Miller Theater in  Houston's Hermann Park.  

Following that performance, I was invited to an opening night party being held at the home of Wallace's parents.  A soprano took me aside at the party and said "Look at all this food. It's all sugar.  I'll be up the whole night!"  I tried to explain that she was obviously in a Jewish home where coffee, wine, and seven kinds of dessert were to be expected.  I pointed out that if the party had been held in a non-Jewish home there would probably  have been a lot more in the way of cold cuts, beer, and hard liquor.

I mention this because one of the hidden gems of San Francisco's cultural landscape is the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's comprehensive "Culture & Thought" series, which offers a year-long program of interviews with authors and artists, a wide variety of music and theatrical attractions and several film series ("Travel Adventure Cinema," "Italian Jews During Fascism," and "Mark Cantor's Giants of Jazz on Film").  After many events, a little "nosh" awaits the audience in the Pottruck Family Atrium where guests can enjoy some coffee and pastry while discussing the evening's presentation.

Jackie Mason always used to joke that he could spot the Jews in any audience as they left the theater.  How did he do it?  "The goyim always ask if anyone wants to go for a drink," he explained.  "The Jews always ask if anyone is hungry."

Let them eat cake!  

Here.... have a little wouldn't kill you.

This week started off with two wonderful evenings in Kanbar Hall.  On Monday evening, the JCCSF launched a new film series entitled "Let The Games Begin!" as a sort of warmup to 2009, when San Francisco will host the JCC Maccabi Games.

Following an introduction by Lenore Naxon (Director of the JCCSF's Eugene and Elinor Friend Center for the Arts), Peter Stein, the always affable Executive Director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, confessed that when trying to find a title for this new film series he originally thought of calling it "Oy, I Think I Pulled Something!" 

The First Basket actually provided a surprisingly strong opener for the series.  As quickly paced as a basketball game, it not only traced the growth of the sport in America, but showed how quickly basketball took hold among Jewish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

David Vyorst's winning 90-minute film (narrated by Peter Riegert) may well be the only sports documentary to boast a musical score heavy in klezmer and jazz music.  It follows the way basketball took root in YMCAs, YMHAs, and New York's Settlement Houses.  

As the film follows the growth of the sport's popularity with Jewish athletes at CCNY (then known as "the Harvard of New York") up through the formation of the National Basketball Association and on to the Olympics, audiences quickly get caught up in a tremendous amount of archival footage and the sheer guts of the game.  Just witness the following clips:

The First Basket will be given a theatrical release later this fall.  If you're a sports fan, you won't want to miss it.  Not only will you learn a lot about the early days of integrated basketball teams (with Jews and Blacks working the court), you'll have a grand time watching footage from the old Madison Square Garden.  If you're an athletic Jew, you'll be surprised how much you'll learn about your heritage.

* * * * *

The following night featured an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle's television critic, Tim Goodman (whose blog -- Tim Goodman: The Bastard Machine --  has been known to raise quite a few hackles within the industry).  An extremely cheerful raconteur with an encyclopedic knowledge of the television world, Goodman was an absolute delight.  After describing the particular strengths of some of the current hit shows on television -- with some wonderful insights into the creativity behind Mad Men -- he generously took questions from the audience and enjoyed the sparring almost as much as the audience did.

Goodman has won numerous awards for his criticism but his blog is a real gem.  He won kudos for his brilliant deconstructions of episodes of The Sopranos and may be one of the few people who can honestly and intelligently discuss both sides of the television industry:  the business of making art, and the art of making entertainment sausage.  What goes in may not always come out right, but listening to Goodman describe the creative process is a treat in and of itself. 

Besides, how many television critics are known to have made a network executive's mother cry every time they write that the creative team from a certain show (which happens to include her beautiful and talented daughter) should all be fired!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Matter of Style

In Rodgers & Hammerstein's 1949 musical, South PacificBloody Mary sings the following lyric:
"Happy talk, keeping talking happy talk.
Talk about things you like to do.
You got to have a dream.
If you don't have a dream.
How you gonna have a dream come true?"
With global economies facing financial collapse, many people's dreams are being trampled to death.  By the end of the year, numerous long-famous businesses (Mervyn's, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, Mother's Cookies) will have evaporated into thin air.  Among the long list of dubious achievements to be added to George W. Bush's execrable legacy will be his reincarnation as the Grinch who stole Christmas.

Escapism is a valuable coping mechanism for difficult times.  Many people use prayer, yoga, alcohol, exercise and drugs as a means of getting from one day to the next.  I've always looked to music and the arts for my lifelines.  This weekend was no exception.

Two years ago I had the great good fortune to attend a concert by Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester when they performed at Temple Emanu-el on Arguello Street.  The highly stylized ensemble returned to the Bay area this weekend (courtesy of the San Francisco Jazz Festival) with another meticulously paced and brilliantly realized performance.  

Appearing at that glorious palace of art deco, the Oakland Paramount Theater,  Raabe and his musicians rocked the joint with their dance band arrangements of popular songs from the 1920s and 1930s.  In addition to the main program,  two of their encores were "San Francisco" and a period spoof of the Britney Spears hit, "Ooops, I did it again."

In an era when popular musicians rely heavily on overamplification, elaborate choreography (and sometimes just  running back and forth across the stage to keep their audience's attention), the physical restraint of this ensemble is almost endearing in its old world charm. A remarkably multitalented group of artists (who play several instruments and sing along with Raabe during the course of the evening), their elegant arrangements leave audiences rocking back and forth in their seats, enraptured by the sounds of an era long gone. Whether performing music by Kurt Weill, Irving Berlin, Fritz Kreisler, Franz Lehar, or any number of popular German songs from the Weimar era, their sound is infectious in the best possible way.

The tall, Aryan-looking Raabe looks as if a mad scientist had sampled DNA from David Hyde Pierce, MacCauley Culkin and John Waters, mixed it with the sardonic wit of Victor Borge, garnished it with the ponderous spoken tones of Vincent Price and the lyrical singing voice of Fred Astaire, and then dressed it up in a black tux or white tie and tails.  

"Our next song is a German waltz.  It's not as elegant as an Austrian waltz," explains Raabe with a decidedly wicked sense of musicological mischief, "but it's louder."

His musicmaking leaves people astonishingly happy -- with many concertgoers exiting the auditorium feeling as if they are walking on air.  Watch the video on his home page where he describes the music that is being performed in his "Tonight or Never" tour.  You'll find lots of videos of Raabe and has Palast Orchester on YouTube.  You can order his CDs, DVDs, and MP3s online to gladden your heart when the New Depression gets too depressing.  

Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester offer music lovers the perfect tonic with which to chase away their 21st century blues.

* * * * * * *

Among the films being screened at the SFIndie Fest's Doc Fest is Cheryl Furjanic's Sync or Swim, which follows the course of the United States Olympic team's efforts to participate in the synchronized swimming events at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.  Like many "road to the Olympics" documentaries, Sync or Swim carefully outlines the challenges of the sport, introduces the finalists, examines some of the personal dramas that accompany their quest for recognition, follows them to the Olympics and then does a recap of what has happened to the various team members several months after they return home from their bronze medal triumph.

Early parts of the film take a look at the roots of synchronized swimming, including the Billy Rose Aquacade and the rise of Esther Williams to stardom in Hollywood musicals.  Like competitive figure skating, there is a definite artistic component to synchronized swimming.  Not all moves work well for certain teams and it is up to their coaches to create a visual routine that is stunning, yet executable (and where swimmers won't easily be penalized for being the slightest bit out of position).

Sync or Swim is not the most exciting sports documentary you will ever see, perhaps because these women are so keenly focused on perfecting their routines that they tend to indulge in far fewer histrionics than some of the more narcissistic athletes competing for top honors.  However, if you are a fan of underwater photography, you'll be highly entertained and, in a curious way, soothed by the art form.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Since the beginning of time, man has struggled to make sense out of unexpected events. Lightning, rain, fire, projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea are powerfully motivating factors to question why misfortune keeps ruining one's life.  

Primitive civilizations built most of their beliefs upon cycles of vegetation and fertility.  Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough did a stunning job of trying to link the common elements of magic and worship from one culture to another.  Whether examining a monotheistic or polytheistic society, Frazer found numerous ways in which man felt that some kind of supernatural power was determining his fate.  Whether the gods were seen as mischievious or spiteful, generous or angry, their existence at least offered some structure on which to build excuses for events that made no sense whatsoever.

As part of its MFA program, the American Conservatory Theater is currently taking a look at the impact of the gods on mere mortals in an updated version of the Oresteia entitled Good Breeding.  As the Conservatory's director, Melissa Smith, notes in the program:

"We choose each of our MFA Program productions with the particular strengths and needs of the specific third-year class in mind.  The members of the class of 2009 are especially notable for their physical freedom and visceral presence. They are a bold and raucous group of artists whose innate wildness, huge heart, and irrevent humor are perfectly suited to the demand of this text."
Moving the action from ancient Greece to a modern day equivalent of Studio 54, director Timothy Douglas and playwright Robert O'Hara have crafted a curious dramatic piece which gives young actors multiple roles in which to stretch their talent.  An underlying theme to his production is Douglas's realization that:

"Those of us who are 'believers' look to God or the gods for guidance, deliverance, and all meaningful sustenance.  We place 'blind faith' in this agreement, even though we really have no idea what we're going to get in return, or what Fate truly has in store for us.  What this play -- and history -- points out is that, if we insist on looking to some bigger and uninvestigated power without our own clear intentions in mind, we will indeed be screwed with in order to wake our asses up!  The big reveal to my question of meaningful creative purpose?  'It happens through us, not to us.'"

Originally performed in Athens in 458 B.C. Aeschylus's Oresteia (which is part of a trilogy) centers on the events which end the curse on the House of Atreus  Familiar characters such as Elektra, Klytemnestra, Orestes, Helen of Troy, Iphigenia, and Agamemnon are featured among the mortals, while the usual godly suspects (Hera, Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Aphrodite) are seen manipulating them through ritual sacrifices, vengeful murders, and enjoy watching mere mortals get caught up in the complicated heat of lustful orgies and dysfunctional emotional entanglements.

Good Breeding is an extremely "busy" production, which uses every bit of available space in the Zeum Theater (sometimes to maximum effect, sometimes less so).  The young cast went at it with great zeal, with special kudos going to Patrick Russell and Christopher S. Tocco as two horny hermaphrodites, Erin Michelle Washington as Iphigenia/Persephone, Weston Francis Wilson as Orestes, and Britannie Bond as Elektra.

* * * * * 

Across town at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, a collaboration with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is continuing the series of films about Italian Jews during Fascism which served as the anchor of the SFJFF's 2008 film festival.  First up in the series was Francesco Rosi's The Truce (La Tregua) (1997), starring John Turturro as a Jewish Italian chemist (Primo Michele Levi) who was liberated from Auschwitz at the end of World War II.  

While quick to kiss the ground as they leave the concentration camp in a state of shock, Primo and his colleagues soon realize that they have been transferred from one hell to another.   The Russian army has no idea what to do with them and, instead of being sent south to Italy, they are herded north to Krakow.  Lack of a common language means that the Poles and Russians lack any skill with Italian (or other romance languages).  Failures to communicate happen every minute of the day.

Based on Levi's book "The Reawakening,"Rosi's film is visually quite rich, contrasting the dismally oppressive black and white memories of life in Auschwitz with the opulence of a Polish church, the magnificent strength of old Russian locomotives and the verdant greens of empty pastures.  Rade Serbedzija portrays a mysterious but practical Greek who tries to show the overly intellectual Primo the street skills he needs to survive  ("When there is war, two things remember: shoes, then food, because who has shoes, finds food").

Stefano Dionisi offers a powerfully brooding and masculine portrayal of Primo's friend Daniele, who acquires pneumonia in the concentration camp.  Although Primo and Daniele differ vastly in their beliefs about the existence of God (at one point Primo sadly states that "if Auschwitz can exist, then God cannot exist"), it is Daniele who, as they head home to Italy, suggests that perhaps it was God who gave Primo the ability to write so that he could chronicle his experiences-- both  in Auschwitz and on the long misguided trek home.

Throughout The Truce, Turturro offers one of the most introspective protagonists I have ever seen in a major film.  His portrayal of Primo is one of the most internal pieces of acting work to be seen in many a year.  Beaten, but not bowed, he carefully digests everything that is happening around him and slowly processes the information as he struggles to return home to Turin.  It is a performance well worth seeing for its subtlety, its depth and its quiet humanity.

Monday, October 13, 2008

This Land Ain't YOUR Land, This Land Is MY Land

Between subprime mortgages, rampant foreclosures and a financial meltdown, this has not been a great year for real estate.  Many people have been forced from their homes; others are discovering that the mortgage they're struggling to make payments on is now worth more than the actual house.  This is hardly what Ronald Reagan once called "Morning in America."

On stage and screen, real estate deals gone sour continue to drive America's narrative.  After losing its lease on Sutter Street to the Academy of Art University's plans to build a gymnasium for its students, San Francisco's 27-year-old Lorraine Hansberry Theater -- like many foreclosed families -- is temporarily homeless.  In a curious turn of events, the Lorraine Hansberry Theater had hoped to co-presenting the West Coast premiere of August Wilson's Radio Golf with Theatreworks, but was eventually forced to drop out of the collaboration and concentrate on its search for a new home.

Two fascinating things stand out about Wilson's final play.   This is another one of those dramas whose second act is so much stronger than its first act that an audience might well wonder how the experience could become quite so schizophrenic.  Initially produced in 1997, it now seems to have grown in relevance following the bust and this year's terrifying vacillations in financial markets.   Director Harry J. Elam, Jr. has even titled his program notes "Radio Golf in the Age of Obama."

It's a valid hook, especially since the protagonist of Radio Golf (Harmond Wilks) is a young, intelligent and successful black realtor who is hoping to become the Mayor of Pittsburgh.   When challenged by one of the wizened old coots in the neighborhood as to whether he thinks the white establishment is really going to allow his campaign to succeed, he bravely and idealistically replies:
"This is 1997.  Things have changed.  This is America.  This is the land of opportunity.  I can be mayor.  I can be anything I want."
Aldo Billingslea in August Wilson's Radio Golf (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

While Wilks struggles to make his real estate dream come true (a combination residential/commercial development anchored by a Whole Foods Market, a Starbucks, and a Barnes & Noble), neighborhood forces keep conspiring against him.  As part of their plans to push the development through, Wilks and his partner, Roosevelt Hicks, have been betting on receiving a federal grant once the area is labeled as suffering from "urban blight." Unfortunately, the money end of politics (and sloppy government planning) cause the entire scheme to unravel.

It seems that when the City of Pittsburgh sold a seemingly abandoned house to Wilks' development company,  it neglected to notify the owner of its intention to sell. This technicality eventually forces a moral crisis for Wilks, making him painfully aware of his partner's willingness to ignore the rule of law for the sake of expediency.

Sticking to one's morals can cost a politician dearly and, in this case, Wilks ends up compromising his relationships with his partner, his wife, his business, and his soul -- all under the watchful eyes of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who stares down at him from a poster on the wall of his office.  As the moral conflict develops strength in Act II, Wilks must also decide what kind of man he wants to be:  A proud black man who acknowledges and honors his past? Or a self-loathing Negro who will endure any kind of humiliation in order to get a bigger piece of the pie and be assimilated into the power structure owned and operated by his former oppressors.

As Harmond, Aldo Billingslea cuts a fiercely masculine and athletic figure onstage, which makes for a nice transition in the consciousness raising he subsequently experiences.  Anthony J. Haney works hard as Roosevelt Hicks, noticeably contemptuous of "lesser niggers" like the Elder Joseph Barlow (Charles Branklyn) and Sterling Johnson (L. Peter Callendar as an uneducated black man who has become a jack-of-all-trades, thus managing to survive and keep working without a resume or any kind of professional certification).

As Mame Wilks, C. Kelly Wright clearly delineates the yearning to advance her own political career separate and apart from that of her husband.  At the center of the drama, however, is the role of urban renewal in dividing communities and stripping them of their identity for the sake of the future and the pursuit of greater greed.  As one character notes:
"Some people say you got to tear it down to fix it. Some people say you got to build it up to fix it.  Some people say they don't know how to fix it. Some people say they don't want to be bothered with fixing it.  You mix them all in a pot and stir it up and you got America.  That's what makes this country great."
Apply those sentiments to the financial crisis rocking America's economy this month and Wilson's words seem remarkably prescient. The big difference is that Barack Obama has a very clear picture of who he is.  Harmond Wilks is a confused Buppie who is just starting to wake up to reality.

* * * * * * * *

Real estate deals gone bad are part of the mess that is Bunnyland, which will be screened as part of SFIndie's DocFest later this month. Centered in and around Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (home to Dollywood), Brett Hanover's uneven documentary shows what can go wrong when business deals are decided on a handshake or a smile.  So what if a senile old coot promises to sell you "that mountain over there" and shake on it.  So what if a business partner changes the terms of your agreement because he gets greedy?  

As a small business owner, I've always stuck to the principle that "A contract is like a condom -- it's there to protect both parties." Unfortunately, some of the local yokels don't quite understand that.

Bunnyland features an interesting cast of characters.  At the center of the movie is Johnny Tesar, who claims to be the last Indian left on the "Trail of Tears."  Johnny is one of those narcissists who has spent most of his life believing the fables he relates about himself with ever-growing certitude.  

Given half a chance, he'll gladly show you the crystals he has collected which he claims show evidence that an ancient civilization once existed near Pigeon Forge in which elephants roamed freely and prehistoric men worshiped bears.  The only problem is that some of Johnny's tales don't hold a lot of water.  Even when confronted with hard truths, he is quick to dismiss them as someone else's fantasy.

Two conflicts have dominated Johnny's life in recent years:  One involves the mysterious slaughter of nearly 75 rabbits after Johnny severed ties with the owner of Bunnyland and moved to another town. Then there is the fatal blaze which not only destroyed a log cabin Johnny had built (using questionable construction techniques), but the woman who was sleeping inside it as well.

As you'll note in the trailer below, intelligence seems to be a rare commodity in Pigeon Forge (maybe Dolly Parton took it all with her when she left town).  While Mr. Tesar has some extremely loyal friends -- who will swear they have witnessed  the "orbs" that Johnny claims are dead spirits who like to sit on the couch and watch television with him --  many of this man's claims strain the audience's belief system to the breaking point.

In an urban environment, Johnny might be consigned to a mental ward on a 5150 as an eccentric who is a danger to himself and to others.  In Pigeon Forge, well, hey, he's got his horse, his shotgun, and his devoted orbs to keep him warm.