Sunday, December 21, 2008

Blind Ambition

As intense as the 2008 Presidential election may have been, it will be fondly remembered for its wealth of political buffoonery. Sadly enough, what comedy cruelly mocks is sometimes repeated in real life. As if Tina Fey's stunning impersonations on Saturday Night Live were not devastating enough, Alaska's Governor Sarah Palin was roundly roasted in videos posted all over the Internet.

After news broke on December 19th that Levi Johnston's mother had been arrested for manufacturing and possession of illegal substances, most people jumped to the conclusion that -- what with Wasilla being the methamphetamine capital of Alaska -- Bristol Palin's future mother-in-law was probably cooking up some crank.  Ironically, the Johnston matriarch's drug of choice had been eerily identified at the tail end of an hysterically funny online video (originally published on October 3, 2008) entitled Sarah Palin VLOG -- Post Debate.

One can't help but wonder: Does art imitate life? Or does life imitate art?

During her years before the public, many critics have tried to compare Hillary Clinton to Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. I've always thought they were way off base. While Hillary is indeed an extremely ambitious woman, she is also smart, has depth, and possesses a complex world view.  If anything, Sarah Palin's personality seems much more in tune with Lady Macbeth: a greedy social climber who is not particularly bright, but when someone needs to be trampled, thrown under the bus or simply gotten out of the way, can be a very effective mechanic. 

Once placed within reach of material gain, Palin knew how to chase after tangible rewards (fashionable clothes for herself, designer suits for the First Dude, underwear and luggage for her children). Unfortunately, Caribou Barbie was never sophisticated enough to look much further than her family's instant gratification.

I've often wondered if the Palins might be like the Macbeths: a nouveau riche suburban couple who, after acquiring an assortment of stylish leather items, were invited by some better-connected friends to join them for a fun night out at a place like the Power Exchange. Titillated by what they saw on their first visit (and thinking that anybody can engage in a bunch of fun power games), they remain all show and no substance, lacking any basic understanding of what true fetishists derive from a leather lifestyle -- not to mention the importance of deciding on a safe word.

Blythe Foster and Craig Marker as the Macbeths
(Photo by Jessica Palopoli)

As a result, when the Macbeths are offered an opportunity to perform a snuff scene, they quickly botch their first big kill (King Duncan). The husband is immediately beset by feelings of guilt. After temporarily taking over (because someone has to make things look right), Lady Macbeth eventually succumbs to an amateur's feelings of guilt and commits suicide.

While I've never really been able to prove my theory, a thrilling new production of the Scottish play by Berkeley's Shotgun Players went a long way toward reaffirming some of my hunches. Director Mark Jackson updated the action to modern times, with the Macbeths portrayed as self-indulgent, greedy, and childless social climbers who know how to work a party scene but are themselves perhaps a bit dull. 

Looking like an extremely butch Carson Kressley, Craig Marker's Macbeth comes across as a clumsy bottom who is constantly being manipulated and humiliated by his wife for not acting like a real man. Although Blythe Foster's hungry Lady Macbeth knows how to employ her sexual charms in the company of powerful men, she really isn't sure what the ultimate prize is supposed to be.  

Blythe Foster as Lady Macbeth (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Put yourself in Mark Jackson's shoes, though. Pretend you're a stage director who has spent the past year studiously preparing a modern-day version of Macbeth when suddenly Sarah Palin gets dumped onto the national scene. Wouldn't you feel as if you had just hit the Shakespearean jackpot? 

In his director's notes for the Shotgun Players' production, Jackson states that:
"Macbeth is about ambition, as we know, and in today's America ambition, even political ambition, is tragically caught up in fame, money, and fashions of all kinds. In the play there is a motif about clothing fitting and not fitting, and the need to put on a good public face. This connects to the fashion show iconography. There is also the motif of children and lineage, and this figured into the casting, which took into strong consideration the age range of the various characters, their relationship to their ages and to their families or lack thereof. With the Macbeths in particular we wanted to emphasize their youth: the impulsiveness and lack of forethought that comes with youth, to give a sense that these kids are in over their heads and eventually flailing, then drowning, in their bloody deeds."
Blythe Foster and Craig Marker as the Macbeths
(Photo by Jessica Palopoli)

The marketing materials for this production further note that: 
"The sex is hot, if always tinged by that faint sense that their questionable fertility leaves them ultimately unable to make a life for themselves. Their ambitions turn toward more material means of self-definition: money, fashion, fame, and power. Macbeth has never looked so good, danced so hard, or killed with such style."
In order to appreciate just how well Jackson has trimmed Shakespeare's play and effectively updated it to modern times, you need to have an idea of what traditionally staged productions of Macbeth often look like. Darkly lit and heavily costumed, they tend to be fairly formal affairs (especially during the famous banquet scene wherein Macbeth is haunted by the sight of Banquo's ghost).   In this scene from a 1972 staging of Verdi's Macbeth at England's Glyndebourne Opera Festival, no amount of acting by Kostas Paskalis (Macbeth) and Josephine Barstow (Lady Macbeth) can lighten the feel of the production design.

Working carefully with lighting designer Jon Tracy, Jackson took a scalpel to the text, his finer cuts doing wonders to speed up the pace of the play.  The three witches (weird sisters) were reduced to a single, mysteriously clairvoyant homeless woman.  Having dispensed with a traditional chorus/ensemble, Jackson staged the gory, blood-soaked appearances of Banquo's ghost so that they took on a much stronger dramatic impact (kudos to Tunuviel Quezada for his imaginative "blood work").  

Jackson was aided immensely by the flexibility of Nina Ball's unit set. In most productions of Macbeth, the chorus holds branches of leaves in front of them to mask their advance for the climactic moment "when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane." Instead, part of the set broke in half to reveal a battering mechanism made of sharpened tree trunks that could be used to break down the doors to Macbeth's castle. Strong support came from Zehra Berkman (a witch, Lady Macduff),  Daniel Duque-Estrada (Banquo), Peter Ruocco (Macduff), and Ryan Tasker (Malcolm). Special credit goes to Dave Maier for his fight choreography.  All in all, this was a thrilling production well worth seeing.  

The Shotgun Players' Macbeth continues through January 18th at the Ashby Stage.  I have a special fondness for this theater because the curving arches which frame the performance space make the audience feel as if they are sitting in the belly of a whale.  And, for those who care, the oatmeal raisin cookies from the nearby Sweet Adeline Bakeshop may well be the best in the Bay area!

* * * * * * * *

Does Kismet really exist?  If so, Berkeley playwright Aaron Loeb may be pinching himself to make sure he isn't dreaming.  A frequent participant in the Playground program, Loeb's First Person Shooter (which was inspired by the possible impact of video games on such tragic school shootings as the massacre at Columbine High School) premiered barely two weeks after the horrifying shoot-out at Virginia Tech in April 2007.  

The man's timing is uncanny.  Loeb's newest play (which was commissioned and developed by Playground at the 2007 Best of Playground Festival) focuses on rough and tumble politics in the state of Illinois. Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party began previews at the SF Playhouse on December 3.  Six days later, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested on corruption charges and became an expletive-encrusted national joke. 

As a playwright about to open a new play about Illinois politics, who could ask for anything more? To appreciate the sheer comedic gold that erupted just four days prior to the world premiere of Loeb's play, take a break to watch this expletive-laden video from our good friends at Red State Update.

Loeb's new play pulls no punches in its depiction of homophobia and corrupt politics in Illinois. Using questions about Abraham Lincoln's sexual orientation as a kickoff point, the play incorporates snarky dance references to popular Broadway musicals (Jerome Robbins' signature finger-snapping choreography for the "Sharks versus Jets" dance in West Side Story, "One" from A Chorus Line, or the infamous Springtime for Hitler number from The Producers), raises suspicions about the "East Coast media elite's" spurious interest in "the trial of the century," and skillfully contrasts them with the harsh and painful realities of being the closeted son of a megalomaniacal politician in order to make numerous salient points with the audience.  

(Photo by Zabrina Tipton)

Loeb, who is also Chief Operating Officer of Planet Moon Studios, has structured his play like a video game: the audience gets to choose the sequence of the three scenarios which examine a conflict of egos within Illinois state politics.  Using a skilled ensemble in which every person --regardless of race or gender --  gets a chance to portray Abraham Lincoln, Loeb's script is intelligent, witty, often brilliant and, in one particularly revealing monologue, horribly poignant. There's even some real American apple pie -- and the best use of traveler curtains to create a cornfield this side of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!

The catalyst which sends the play into high gear is a third grade teacher (Lorraine Olsen) who "outs" President Lincoln in her school's annual Christmas pageant.  When a homophobic Illinois Senator (Tom Kady) reneges on his promise to pave the way for an aspiring black attorney named Regina Lincoln (Velina Brown) to run for Governor, their respective political operatives (Brian Degan Scott and Sarah Mitchel) instantly start brokering favors and inside dirt.  

Meanwhile, an award-winning journalist from the New York Times (Mark Anderson Phillips) arrives on the scene armed with insider knowledge that the Senator's son (the eternally cute Michael Phillis) is not only gay, but is lying to his father (claiming he was beaten up by gay protestors in order to cover up for his secret trips to gay bars in St. Louis in his efforts to get laid).

The mechanics are simple: Viewers are given a chance to examine how the situation plays out from a standpoint of liberty, equality, or justice.  Abe Lincoln pops up at critical moments to drop a few bon mots.  Hypocrisy of every flavor is thrust in everyone's face.  This is all accomplished in a cheerfully user-friendly, character-driven format that provides a ladle full of fructose to help the socially conscious medicine make its way down the audience's throat.

Velina Brown doubles as Esmerelda (a New York fashion photographer determined to destroy the politician's closeted son's cover story about having a girlfriend named Tiffany in Canada). Lorraine Olsen doubles as the politician's clueless wife, who is dying of cancer, but still hopes to do the chicken dance at her son's wedding.  The rest of the ensemble deftly handles lightning-quick transitions between minor roles.

Michael Phillis and Mark Anderson Phillips (Photo by Zabrina Tipton)

Using Bill English's intricate puzzle of a unit set, director Chris Smith (the former artistic director of San Francisco's Magic Theater) has set a fast and furious pace for his ensemble.  Seeing the play shortly after the Rick Warren/Barack Obama brouhaha hit the national media, I was amazed at how deftly Loeb's script was able to reflect the day's controversy and effortlessly (if unintentionally) offer a study aid to help the audience reexamine current events.  Not too many plays have that kind of agility and/or ability to roll with the punches (a factor I would attribute to Mr. Loeb's creative experiences in the video gaming industry).

Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party (you'll have to see the show to understand the meaning of its title) moves so quickly and contains so much content that, like any good video game, you'll want to see it again to make sure you've covered all the angles.  In today's tightening economy, it's an easily transportable show which can be performed on college campuses as well as in regional theaters.  Its message is relevant, its tone is mischievious and its capacity to provoke serious thought about everything we hold dear is, in a word, magnificent.  Don't miss it!

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