Sunday, January 18, 2009

Peer Pressure

Let me confess -- I often mumble. Over the years I have found that, in certain types of conversations, I speak more quietly than usual. Once, when I began to worry about whether I was having problems hearing other people speak, I asked my physician if I needed to get an audiogram. He ran some simple diagnostic tests and then asked if I had ever been to a restaurant called Piano Zinc.  

Of course I had. The place had horrible acoustics.

"I was there the other night with my boyfriend and I didn't hear everything he was saying," he continued.  Then he paused for a moment and confessed "But, then again, I wasn't listening."

Selective hearing is a much larger problem in our society than most people imagine. Because many of us only listen to those things we prefer to hear, we often miss important signs telling us something might be wrong. We hear what we want to hear, it reaffirms our beliefs, and sometimes it even makes us question why anyone would want to think differently.

Sometimes the pressure to conform is so great that we make poor choices; in some instances we may easily sacrifice our standards, our ethics, our friends and our family out of nothing more than fear. That lesson was driven home recently while watching the New Conservatory Theatre Center's delightful production of Tim Acito's musical, Zanna Don't! Set in an alternate universe where the majority is homosexual and heterosexuals are reviled, the giddy conformity of an all-gay high school is shaken to its roots when two teenagers (who thought they were happily partnered with someone of their own gender) kiss during rehearsals for a school play and discover that they might be straight.

Under F. Allen Sawyer's direction, the NCTC production of Zanna Don't! zips along very nicely, with lots of laughs as its adorable hero, Zanna (a matchmaking teen with a magic priapic wand) plays Cupid whenever and wherever possible.

Price Adam Troche, Jr.  as Zanna (Photo by Lois Tema)

Acito's musical keeps most of its consciousness-raising at a bubble-gum level of giddiness. Toward the end of the evening, however, when a prom-related crisis causes the plot to take a hideous twist, the audience can almost feel the air being sucked out of its sails. It's a powerful theatrical moment -- like awakening from a particularly satisfying daydream to be confronted by a harsh reality -- that leads to an effective resolution at the final curtain.  

NCTC's energetic ensemble works hard to please the audience. Thanks in large part to Kuo-Hao Lo's colorful and whimsical unit set, it's hard not to enjoy this production. I particularly liked young Price Adam Troche, Jr. as Zanna, Katrina McGraw as Kate, Brian J. Patterson as Tank, Cindy Im as Roberta, and Rodney Earl Jackson as Buck.  Kudos to all!

* * * * * * * *
As we welcome our new President, Barack Obama, to the White House and look forward to the beginning of an era in which people take more responsibility for their actions -- and do not always insist that the ends justify the means -- it's important to think about just how close we came to blowing our nation's future to smithereens and succumbing to mindless fascism. Throughout the Bush administration's term in office many apologists clung to the idea that "it can't happen here."  

Sadly enough, eight sorry years of a philosophy that "You're either with us or against us" proved otherwise.

In the period from early August 2008 until Election Day, many people found themselves cringing in horror as they watched the thuggish behavior of crowds at rallies held for the Republican candidates (Senator John McCain and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin). As the pressure to win the White House reached new peaks, so did the hatred spewing forth from one group of people who, in grand Orwellian style, felt they were more genuinely American than others. It was a horrifying and very dangerous demonstration of what can go wrong in politics.

I had heard about Dennis Gansel's provocative new film The Wave and, to be honest, dreaded seeing it.  However, now that the 2008 Presidential election is over, I'm happy to recommend it as a riveting political thriller.  Based on a true story that took place during the 1960s at Cubberly High School in Palo Alto, Todd Strasser's novel The Wave won the 1981 Massachusetts Book Award for Children's/Young Adult literature. Used as the basis for Gansel's screenplay for his film (which was recently shown at the 2009 Berlin & Beyond Film Festival), The Wave offers a textbook study in how easily fascism can take root.

A young teacher, when asked why ordinary Germans didn't resist Hitler's rise to power, decides to engage his students in an experiment that will demonstrate how the appeal of conformity and discipline so easily leads to corruption and a shocking abuse of power. Based on the incidents in Palo Alto, a physical education teacher (who also coaches water polo games) lands a week-long school project to teach students about autocracy.  Unaware of how easily they are falling into a trap and being manipulated by the teacher (as well as those students seeking to gain power over their peers), Herr Wenger's class starts to behave like the infamous Hitler Youth.

Gansel's film is a taut and tightly-wound thriller, aided immensely by Torsten Breuer's cinematography. Starring Jurgen Vogel as Rainer Wenger (the teacher) with a strong ensemble of young actors, it makes excellent use of today's electronic communications (computers, cell phones, etc.) to show how rapidly an idea can spread like a virus throughout a community, for better or for worse. The fact that Herr Wenger's school project is only supposed to last one week helps to accelerate the impact of the experiment.

America had a really close call with destiny under George W. Bush's failed presidency. I would urge everyone to carefully study The Wave to understand  just how easily the masses can be seduced by a desire to conform. Then watch this video clip and think about why the phrase "Never Again" is so important to America's future -- as well as the future of the world in which we live.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

Hi George,
Do you know that the teacher in The Wave is Ron Jones who has done many performances at The Marsh. It's his short story that Tod Strausser's Wave is based on. And in fact, we are going to do a musical version of The Wave, that Ron is writing for Marsh Youth Theater's Teen Ensemble early 2010.