Monday, March 30, 2009

Talking The Talk

We all know people who lie. Some people are just better at it than others.

Some simply can't stop doing it. Some (Ann Coulterand Nancy Pfotenhauer quickly come to mind) have even made a profession of it. When Al Franken wrote Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair And Balanced Look At The Right, his goal was to unmask some of the right-wing political operatives whose lies have had such a negative impact on American culture.

But what about the lies we tell in order to make things happen in our daily lives? What about the people who punch up their resumes? What about those who claim to have a "swimmer's body" when they're built much more like a dugong or manatee? What about those who claim to be a top?

Small lies can have larger consequences when the individual's performance comes up for review. Here's the problem: Sometimes we repeat the lies we tell so many times that we start believing them ourselves. Sometimes we don't even bother to tell the lie to others; we simply tell it to ourselves and accept it as an inner truth. Unless, of course, we have a specific need to rewrite history.

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In 1998, reporter Stephen Glass was fired by The New Republic after it was discovered that he had fabricated sources, events, and quotations used in his articles. In May of 2003, Jayson Blair resigned from The New York Times for similar misdeeds of "creative" writing.

Recent years have seen best-selling memoirs unmasked as fiction and professional journalists criticized for their willingness to forego some necessary fact-checking to avoid alienating their precious "sources." Judith Miller eventually "retired" from her job at The New York Times in November 2005 after her cheerleading for the Bush administration's rush to war cost the newspaper some valuable credibility. In January of 2006, The Smoking Gun published an article entitled A Million Little Lies: Exposing James Frey's Fiction Addiction. When Oprah Winfrey discovered that Frey's memoir (entitled A Million Little Pieces), which she had recommended to Oprah's Book Club was a fraud, there was hell to pay.

You don't fuck with Oprah.

It's hard to believe that more than a quarter century has passed since a female black journalist for The Washington Post first published an article about a young heroin addict which received the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Two days after the announcement of the prize, the publisher of The Washington Post revealed that "Jimmy's World" was a fraud. Its author, Janet Cooke, ended up returning her Pulitzer and leaving the newspaper. The Cooke episode served as the inspiration for Tracey Scott Wilson's drama, The Story, which is currently being co-produced by the Lorraine Hansberry Theater and SF Playhouse. Writing in The New Yorker Magazine, theater critic Hilton Als noted at the time of the New York production that:
"Wilson’s doggedness is due perhaps to her background: growing up in a middle-class black family in Newark, New Jersey, Wilson said in a recent Times interview, she “understood the need not to fail,” adding, “You had to be the best.” Being “the best” also meant, of course, being fettered by a number of expectations, the most insidious of which was the pressure not to upset the black status quo by becoming something other than a doctor or a lawyer—acceptable roles, modeled on white images of “success.” In Wilson’s social milieu, if you had to become a writer (the most errant-minded occupation of all), you were expected at least to become a university writer-in-residence or a reporter on the staff of a respected newspaper—institutions that would legitimatize the need to speak. This push toward professional conformity in black American culture is an interesting and sad conundrum, one as old as Booker T. Washington. While trying to represent the world of her imagination, Wilson had to contend with the voices of respectability in her head. It’s a tension that is rarely represented on the page, let alone on the stage. To speak of it is, in a way, a criticism of the tribe, of one’s own flesh and blood."
The Story centers around an aspiring black journalist named Yvonne Robinson, who gets hired by the same employer served by her boyfriend Jeff (Craig Marker), a white trust-fund baby editing the Metro section of a daily newspaper. All too aware of the glass ceiling which has prevented female journalists from advancing in the newsroom -- and fully cognizant that her race may be an obstacle to her professional goals -- Yvonne wants to fast-track her career.

Ryan Peters and Craig Marker
(Photo by Rebecca Martinez)

Yvonne is more than willing to bypass old-timers like Pat (the "section" editor who has been trying to shine a light on positive news stories about people and events in the black community in order to counteract the media's constant emphasis on crime). However, whether due to professional jealousy or their inherent cynicism, both Pat (Halili Knox) and her investigative reporter, Neil (Dwight Huntsman), are quick to smell a rat. 

Something about Yvonne just doesn't ring true.

The problem is that Yvonne is an extremely talented liar -- the kind of person who is more than willing to "play" anyone who either crosses her path (or who can help her to achieve her goals). Just imagine Budd Schulberg's back-stabbing Sammy Glick (What Makes Sammy Run?) as an ambitious black woman at a big city newspaper, add in a dash of Eve Harrington, and you have a pretty good idea of what's coming down the pike.

When a white schoolteacher who has been working in a ghetto school is killed on his way to a local restaurant, Yvonne (Ryan Peters) wants to treat the situation as the crime story that it is, instead of being forced to write an endless stream of puff pieces about local community centers. When Pat and Neil keep blocking her efforts, she "discovers" a story about an intelligent, highly-educated young black girl who claims to have shot the schoolteacher. To make matters even more controversial (and deserving of media attention), the young girl claims to be part of an all-girl street gang called the AOBs -- Any Other Brothers -- who masquerade as men when they commit their crimes.

Halili Knox and Dwight Huntsman (Photo by: Zabrina Tipton)

While Wilson's play is timely and forces the audience to confront the ambitious, manipulative techniques employed by someone who has convinced herself that "the end justifies the means," things did not go all that smoothly at the performance of The Story I attended. I should also note that an odd mishap (an actor who came onstage without realizing that his fly was still open) made my antenna go up, looking for other holes in Wilson's plot.

Back when I was writing about opera, some friends used to joke that Renata Scotto's alarming vibrato had grown so wide that you could probably drive a bus through it. Holes quickly start to appear in Yvonne's story which make Pat and Neil question her past. When some simple fact checking reveals that Yvonne is, indeed, a fraud, they are confronted with another, more personal challenge: Do they reveal what they know --  and destroy the career of another aspiring black journalist -- or do they keep the facts to themselves and let Yvonne self destruct?

Upon discovering that Yvonne has lied to him, Jeff doesn't hide his revulsion. When Yvonne claims that she gave him the one thing he couldn't buy, he is quick to reply that he could have bought "that," too.

Although the play starts off with a murder, the crime story eventually takes second place to one of newsroom intrigue, professional ethics, and the struggles of minority journalists to break through the glass ceiling. I was a little underwhelmed by the quality of Wilson's writing. Under Margo Hall's direction, a particular literary device which requires rival characters to utter the same words at the same time (albeit with different meaning), did not come off as well as it should have. Nor did Yvonne's cold and calculating character allow Ryan Peters to elicit much sympathy from the audience. 

Craig Marker's Jeff, Rebecca Schweitzer's Jessica, Halili Knox's Pat, and Kathryn Tkel's Latisha delivered strong portrayals of people on the periphery of Yvonne's ego who were there, in her mind, to be used or abused.

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A much stronger play, cast, and production can be found over at the Ashby Stage, where the Shotgun Players have just unveiled their staging of David Hare's 1995 drama, Skylight. Once again, we encounter people who are hiding from the painful and inconvenient truths of their existence, feeding themselves and others a multitude of lies as a way to avoid taking responsibility for their more unsavory choices in life. There is, however, a major difference.

David Hare has written a magnificent play that is often breathtaking in the way its characters take turns peeling away the untruths to which their opponents have clung so ferociously. Under Patrick Dooley's deft direction, the action starts slowly and accelerates into the "go for the jugular" style familiar to audiences from Edward Albee's landmark Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In his director's notes, Dooley writes:
"This isn't the kind of play that requires research or dramaturgy or historical timelines or a family tree to follow. We've surrounded the stage with seating not just because we want to get you as close as possible to the action -- but also because there is something reminiscent of a sporting event in this story. Don't be surprised if you find yourself rooting for one character or the other or both. I'll also say that I believe the playing field is emblazoned with that most heavenly-- and often painfully elusive -- four-letter word: love."
As the play opens, we meet Kyra (Emily Jordan), a young schoolteacher living in a run-down flat. For six years she had been a married man's mistress, living with his family, helping to raise his children, and working as an employee in one of his businesses. Still, she had often told Tom (John Mercer) that if his wife, Alice, ever found out about their affair, she would be forced to leave. The fact that Alice was the person who had given her a break by hiring her when she first arrived in London has caused Kyra great pain. She is now trying to rebuild her life -- even if it means a long commute to work at a job which is emotionally draining.

On a cold winter night, Kyra gets an unexpected visit from Tom's son Edward (who has never understood why she left). He's been worried about his father's behavior ever since Alice died of cancer and, at 18, is fairly clumsy at expressing himself. Before he leaves, he does get Kyra to tell him the one thing that she misses from when they were all living together.

Soon after Edward departs, his father arrives. Tom is used to wielding his authority in any argument and is the kind of person who always has to be right. Having told himself some extremely macho lies throughout his life, he is unwilling and fairly unable to hear any of the truths with which Kyra  confronts him. As far as Tom is concerned, with Alice dead, there should be no reason why Kyra shouldn't want to move back in with him.

Unfortunately, whenever Tom doesn't get his way, his caustic tongue and need to triumph over any perceived adversary get the best of him. What follows is a rip-roaring night of cooking a spaghetti dinner onstage while tossing accusations back and forth. There is a bit of make-up sex, followed by the final unmasking of pretenses and stripping of Tom and Kyra's delusions of grandeur. A surprise ending after a long, hard, and cold night brings a ray of hope into Kyra's otherwise depressing future.

I don't think one could ask for a better pair of actors than Emily Jordan and John Mercer as Kyra and Tom. Watching the intensity of their work -- the beauty and detail of their characterizations -- offered the kind of theatrical reward one constantly seeks but doesn't always find. Carl-Hovick Thomas scored strongly as Tom's son, Edward.

Skylight is a stunning evening of intense, magnificently crafted personal drama (just be sure not to enter the theater on an empty stomach or else you may end up chewing the scenery). You can order tickets here.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Odd Couplet

My mind occasionally plays nasty tricks on me.  The other day, as I was exiting from the Montgomery Street BART/MUNI station, I noticed a series of posters advertising Emirates Air. Something short circuited in my brain and, instead of reading the words Nonstop Excitement, I thought Nonstop Excrement. Last Wednesday night, at the opening performance of Grease, I know I wasn't the only person in the audience who swore he heard the cast singing Born To Hand Job instead of Born To Hand Jive.

Sometimes fusion cuisine works (pecan pie with lime sherbert, pork chops with haroset, roast chicken stuffed with kasha) and sometimes it fails miserably (peanut butter and braised tongue sandwiches). The only way to see if two items will blend well is to do a little bit of brave experimentation. A group of Welsh farmers recently teamed up with some border collies and an LED engineer to form a group called The Baaa-Studs. Their music video Extreme Shepherding, was posted on Ewe Tube, and instantly achieved viral success.

One of YouTube's earlier viral sensations involved a pair of Chinese college students who began lipsynching to popular songs and commercials in front of a webcam in their dorm room. After uploading their videos to the Internet, they became national -- and then international stars. Originally known as Two Chinese Boys, they morphed into Back Dorm Boys, started making television appearances, and and began recording commercials for companies like Motorola. Here they are in a sentimental vein.

Thanks to the power of the Internet, this talented comic duo have become international mini-celebrities. They have since renamed their act Housheboy and have a blog on which they have periodically taken requests from their fans.  Here they are in one of their wilder moments, lip-synching to music from the Beijing opera in their college dorm room:

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Although I was unable to attend the opening night of the Bay area's 24th annual Jewish Music Festival -- which featured Joshua Nelson ("The Prince of Kosher Gospel") performing with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir -- I was extremely grateful when someone put up a video clip taken during the event.

On the festival's closing night in San Francisco, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (in association with the Jewish Music Festival) presented two jazz bands: Toronto's Sisters of Sheynville and San Francisco's Gaucho in what proved to be a highly entertaining performance.  The men of Gaucho (a gypsy jazz sextet that performs on Wednesday nights at Amnesia on Valencia Street) have a winning sound.  With Michael Groh and Dave Ricketts on guitar, Rob Reich on accordian, and Ari Munkres on stand-up bass, the group has been performing together since 2002.

"While we base much of our repertoire in the music of Django Reinhardt and the gypsy jazz of 1930's Europe, we also find inspiration in the rhythmic drive and collective improvisation of New Orleans swing music and the gut bucket sound."
Some of Gaucho's musicians perform on multiple (and rather unusual) instruments. Percussionist Pete Devine also performs on the jug, washboard, and can produce amazing sounds on what he calls his "Cheek-o-Phone." Ralph Carney's collection of horns and woodwinds ranges from piccolo and flute to a variety of saxophones. In the following clip you can see him performing in a duet for flubberphone and slide clarinet.

After intermission, The Sisters of Sheynville took over the stage, stressing that they like to combine "the Yid with the Yang."  Songs like Johnny Mercer's classic "I'm An Old Cowhand" got the Sheynville female vegan treatment with references to Old-Cow Yentas. 

Having recently been named Vocal Group of the Year at the 2008 Canadian Folk Music Awards, the group performed a variety of blues, jazz and klezmer selections with Kinneret Sagee doing some splendid work on the clarinet.  Lenka Lichtenberg and Isabel Fryszberg are the band's primary vocalists. Fern Lindzon also performs on piano with Lorie Wolf on  drums and Rachel Melas on double bass. 

You can listen to clips of The Sisters of Sheynville on their MySpace page. Or, if you prefer, you can download MP3 files from (each one costs 99 cents)  for Yidl Mitn Fidl, Di Grine KuzineChiribim, Oooh, Mama! and other selections.

At the end of the evening the men of Gaucho joined with the Sisters of Sheynville for an impromptu jam session during which the "blues" were replaced by the "oys." Rest assured that a good time was had by all.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Growing Up In America

My high school days are long gone. Yet, whenever I see a movie or stage production which paints high school as one of the coolest, most wonderful times of our lives, I have to sit back and wonder if I grew up in an alternate universe.

While high school was a period of tremendous growth, it was also filled with tremendous anxiety. In October of 1962 (during the Cuban Missile Crisis) tensions were so high that I bought a standing room ticket for a Saturday matinee of Camelot with a cast headed by William Squire, Kathryn Grayson, and Arthur Treacher. With the melodramatic sense of impending doom befitting an aspiring theater queen, I was determined to die in a Broadway theater if missiles rained down on New York. Years later, in Terrence McNally's farce The Ritz, Googie Gomez pretty well summed up my experience that afternoon.  

"Camelot?  Dat show was a piece of chit!"

High school required all kinds of face-saving maneuvers, some made worse by the fact that my father taught at the same school I was attending.  When I first applied for a student job at the school's switchboard, the secretary took one look at me and squealed "Little Georgie Heymont -- I've known you since you were knee high to a grasshopper!" When my English teacher asked us to write a profile of someone, I wrote a pretty scathing portrayal of the principal's secretary. I quickly learned that there could be a downside to one's creative writing skills.

When, under the leadership of Albert Shanker, New York's schoolteachers went on strike, I was too naive to understand why my father insisted that I go to school even as he walked a picket line for the United Federation of Teachers. I remember being at the school's switchboard on November 22, 1963, when word came that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

Mixed messages fueled by homoerotic desires led to other embarrassing moments. Once, when a girl in my class turned me down for a date, I asked if her mother (who worked at the school and wore as much makeup as a drag queen) might like to go out with me instead. Constantly staring with gape-jawed envy at the basketball team's blondest, most handsome star as he doffed his jock while standing next to my locker turned out not to be such a great idea. And then, of course, there was the constant embarrassment of being frighteningly square at a time when all the supposedly cool kids were smoking cigarettes, experimenting with marijuana, and attending S.D.S. rallies.

Unlike the lean and muscled athletes who could easily shimmy up the ropes during gym class, I huddled with a roving pack of pudgy Jewish honor students who kept moving around the perimeter of the gym (trying to look busy after the teacher had taken attendance). Like most kids, my high school years were filled with moments of painful naivete, searing confusion, misplaced enthusiasm, and personal humiliation. I did not have the social skills that allowed others to sail through those years on a cloud of popularity.  Nor did I possess the amazing dexterity demonstrated by The Ross Sisters (Aggie, Maggie & Elmira) in this astonishing clip from 1944's Broadway Rhythm:

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Those tortured teenage high school years have been the source material for stage and movie musicals ranging from Hairspray to Cry-Baby, from Bye Bye Birdie to Disney's High School Musical franchise. But high school isn't always a barrel of laughs. The experience can vary dramatically depending on your parents' income, the condition of your school, the stability of your home life, and whether you live in the suburbs or an inner city.

One of the more sobering documentaries to be shown at this month's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival focuses on the efforts of a first-year Chinese-American high school principal heading up the creation of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics. The South Bronx is arguably one of the toughest neighborhoods in the United States, surrounded by poverty and violence. 

Following a successful career in retail as an executive for Saks Fifth Avenue, Edward Tom realized that his work was not giving him much fulfillment and that the material goals he had set for himself seemed quite ridiculous. After gaining his accreditation and being assigned to a school with only 107 students (who were "born into hardship but rising to excellence"), Tom found a challenge he could really sink his teeth into.

One of the youngest principals in the New York City public school system, he now stands outside the school each morning to greet his students by name as they arrive for classes. The Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics (BCSM) is part of the New York City school system's ongoing experiment with the small schools movement, which allows minority and low-income students to get the personal encouragement, teaching support and tough love they need in order to enter college.

Making his debut as a director/producer, Christopher Wong has crafted a powerful documentary about the struggles to encourage disadvantaged youth to want to succeed. With major funding from the Sundance Institute and San Francisco's Center for Asian American Media,  Whatever It Takes gets up close and personal with sullen teens who think they can get a semester's worth of failing grades and still go on to college, families with histories of drug abuse and domestic violence, as well as exhausted teachers who welcomed a tough professional challenge but finally succumbed to the realization that the commute was killing them.  In his director's statement, Wong notes that:
"When this documentary project first came to my attention in August of 2005, I immediately focused upon the school's principal (Edward Tom), knowing that his larger-than-life persona and visionary leadership style would not only make a huge impression upon his students, but would also come across well on film.

Since Edward Tom and I had been friends for almost 10 years, the production was given complete access to the entire school -- every meeting, conversation, and classroom was open to our camera crew.  Most importantly, the principal assured me that neither he nor anyone else would try to influence the outcome or tone of the film. In addition, our crew was also granted permission to bring our cameras into many of the students' homes, which made a tremendous difference in our understanding of who these kids were and what they were up against.

One hears so many negative stories about the South Bronx, but it's hard to know the extent of the problems until you actually witness them up close.  At the same time, seeing all the challenges in person makes us realize the incredible resilience and strength inherent in each of the characters in our film.

Thus, the question of whether a dedicated team of administrators, teachers, and students can prevail against the harsh realities of the South Bronx has become the central tension of my documentary.  Ultimately, I see this film as a miracle captured on tape -- a compelling mixture of dynamic individuals, life-changing events, and the passage of time, resulting in new dreams where none existed before."
You won't find a soft, sentimental core at the heart of Wong's powerful documentary. Instead, Whatever It Takes focuses on a small group of education professionals battling years of dysfunctional family life and the dynamics of a burned-out ghetto in their effort to give local children an opportunity to succeed. Here's the trailer:

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As one heads out to suburbia, the demographics and lifestyle take on a much different look. Traveling back in time to the summer of 1987, Greg Mottola's Adventureland (which opens in theaters on April 3rd) centers on the cheesy summer life of teenagers working in an amusement park where kids puke on a regular basis, girlfriends who swear to keep a secret for you promptly turn around and betray your confidence, and a best friend's idea of a great laugh is to punch you in the balls.

Shooting a film based on life in a summer amusement park is easier said than done. Corporate entities like Six Flags are probably not going to want to insure such a project.  Most amusement parks have undergone extensive modernization (with the addition of new attractions and videogame arcades). Too many wooden rollercoasters have been replaced with computerized thrill rides. So where does one go to find vintage rides in an authentic, if sadder-but-wiser kind of amusement park environment? The outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, home to Kennywood.

The plot of Adventureland can be summed up in two words: shit happens. James Brennan was planning to spend his summer vacation traveling through Europe on the money his parents had promised him for his graduation present. But after his alcoholic father (Jack Gilpin) got downsized from a lucrative executive position, the kid's last summer vacation before entering college suddenly started to look a whole lot bleaker. When young Brennan's earnest job applications forced him to acknowledge that he had no marketable job skills, there was only one place left to get a summer job.

Adventureland will not change your life, nor will it provide you with any deep insights into a young man's teenaged angst. The movie is filled with suburban potheads, teenage stupidity, sexual infidelity, horny adolescents, too much booze, and the sorry results of what happens to people who eat a rancid corn dog before boarding the Tilt-A-Whirl. There's a great score, with more than 40 songs from the 1980s to provide "ambience."

While Ryan Reynolds glides through the film as an oily suburban mechanic/wannabe lothario, the movie really belongs to young Jesse Eisenberg, who stars as James Brennan. Eisenberg scored strongly in The Squid and the Whale and was recently signed to play poet Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings. He is a talented young actor whose laid-back style convincingly conveys an intense naievete combined with surprising emotional depth. 

Supporting roles feature Wendy Malick as his mother, Matt Bush as the ball-busting Frigo, Kristen Stewart as Em, Margarita Levieva as the park's notorious cockteaser, and Martin Starr as the intellectually stifled Joel. Other adults in key roles include Mary Birdsong as Em's stepmother and Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the ridiculous husband and wife owner/operators of Adventureland.

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Finally, we come to Grease, the 1972 musical whose latest national tour recently arrived at the Golden Gate Theater. Set in 1959, as students return to Rydell High School, Grease conjures up the cartoonlike visions of suburbia at the tail end of the Eisenhower era that have become familiar to us from films like Edward Scissorhands, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Pleasantville.  Written and composed by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, the show's original Broadway run lasted for 3,388 performances. The 1978 film starred John Travolta as Danny Zuko and Olivia Newton-John as Sandy Olsen (the character's name is Sandy Dumbrowski in the stage version). The list of famous actors who, at point or another, have performed in a cast of Grease, is jaw-dropping.

Whether from the stage or film version, many of Grease's songs ("Summer Nights," "Freddy My Love," "Beauty School Dropout," "You're The One That I Want," and "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee") have become popular classics. The show has a reputation as an energetic crowd pleaser, whether the audience is filled with teenagers or aging boomers filled with nostalgia.

Photo by: Joan Marcus

This new production, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, certainly doesn't lack for energy. With a cast practically jumping out of Martin Pakledinaz's costumes as they romp all around Derek McLane's sets, the performance is loud, proud, intensely aerobic and astonishingly vapid. As appealing as Eric Schneider may be as Danny Zuko, Dominic Fortuna's Vince Fontaine (who warmed up the opening night audience before the show) actually made a bigger impression. Emily Padgett was appealing as Sandy Dumbrowski while American Idol winner Taylor Hicks made the most of his cameo appearance as the Teen Angel.

Emily Padgett and Eric Schneider (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Nevertheless, I had the strangest sensation while watching this production of Grease. While numbers like Greased Lightenin', Mooning, and We Go Together were performed with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, the overall effect was oddly mechanical -- as if one were watching an industrial show that none of the cast members really believed in. Although there were some nice bits of staging, few members of the cast were relating to each other onstage. The strongest contribution to the evening actually came from Kenneth Posner, the production's lighting director.

Photo by: Joan Marcus

As we were leaving the Golden Gate Theatre and walking toward MUNI, my theater-going companion made a particularly astute observation. Whereas most large theatrical productions are greeted with standing ovations at their final curtain, no one stood up at the end of the opening night performance of Grease

It wasn't because they were all waiting to see if Taylor Hicks would perform a solo from his new album (he did). And it wasn't because the audience was so different from the usual Shorenstein subscribers. No one felt compelled to rise to their feet and reward the performers with an ovation -- not even on the show's opening night!  As a result, I couldn't help but wonder if this production might have been a whole lot more fun in rehearsal than when the show was finally frozen.

Scientific Selections

February 12, 2009 marked the 200th birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. After the intellectual dishonesty of the Bush administration (especially its attempts to rewrite science in order to suit its ideology), I was particularly grateful to hear these comments from President Obama.

The educational environment in which I grew up celebrated math, science, and the scientific technique. Thus, when I finally got around to watching a PBS documentary I had recorded several months ago, I was startled to hear the narrator's voice solemnly state that "This documentary was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities -- because democracy demands wisdom." 

That's a pretty heady thought. 

Famed Darwin scholar Richard Milner was in town this week for two appearances at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. His first offering, Charles Darwin's Top Ten Choices, proved to be a delightful retelling of the strange course of Darwin's life. Not only was Darwin forced to drop out of medical school (he couldn't stand the sight of blood), he was a sailor who suffered horribly from seasickness and a theologian who was actually a creationist long before he came up with his theories about the origin of the species. 

Darwin's acute powers of observations led him to predict the discovery of a moth with a 12-inch tongue capable of drinking the nectar from a Comet orchid. Although he did not live to see the discovery of the Xanthopan morgani praedicta, the creature was, indeed, found on the island of Madagascar.

Darwin also spent several years studying barnacles (which, for those who care, have the largest ratio of penis size to total body size in nature). Perhaps his accursed seasickness (combined with his fascination for barnacles) had something to do with Barnacle Bill The Sailor

In any event, Milner's second program (which I was unable to attend) was his one-man songfest: Charles Darwin, Live and in Concert. Here he is, explaining his life-long fascination with Darwin:

As you can probably tell from this video clip, Milner is very much the lovable grandpa bear who delights in telling great stories to an audience. His keen interest in a few of the children who attended the lecture was remarkable, not only for his patience, but for his advice to them. He urged them to get out into nature and look at the original, live beings rather than just reading about them or learning from someone else's third opinion. He explained how he became fascinated with research as a lifelong path of discovery -- and how he learned that the Declaration of Independence was written by very ordinary people whose mistakes can be seen scribbled in the margins of the original drafts of the document. 

Milner's latest book (Darwin's Universe: Evolution From A To Z) is being published this spring by the University of California Press.   Thus, it was especially fascinating to hear him describe why someone interested in learning about Darwin should read Darwin's first book, The Voyage of the Beagle (so that they can hear the excitement and enthusiasm of a young naturalist and explorer) instead of The Origin of Species which is, by necessity, a boring catalogue of life forms. One of the best stories Milner shared with the audience at the JCCSF is a historic gem:
"In a legendary confrontation at the public 1860 Oxford evolution debate during a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce, though not opposed to transmutation of species, argued against Darwin's explanation. In the ensuing debate Joseph Hooker argued strongly for Darwin, and Thomas Huxley established himself as “Darwin’s bulldog”. Both sides came away feeling victorious, with Huxley claiming that on being asked by Wilberforce whether he was descended from monkeys on his grandfather’s side or his grandmother’s side, Huxley muttered: “The Lord has delivered him into my hands” and replied that he “would rather be descended from an ape than from a cultivated man who used his gifts of culture and eloquence in the service of prejudice and falsehood”
Happily, Milner didn't end the story there. He continued on to explain that, after Wilberforce died as a result of being thrown from a horse on July 19, 1873, Huxley wrote to Darwin explaining that Wilberforce's brains had finally come into contact with reality -- and that the result had been fatal!

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As President Obama gears up to do battle for healthcare reform, Lorie Conway's beautiful documentary entitled Forgotten Ellis Island offers some stunning insights into the earliest days of public healthcare in America. When massive waves of immigrants started heading for the New World at the beginning of the 20th century, the hospital built on Ellis Island to screen immigrants for possible diseases often had to cope with 5,000 new arrivals per day.

This was at a time when nearly every disease imaginable passed through the hospital facilities at Ellis Island, at a time when there were no antibiotics, no painkillers, and if anything like an amputation had to be performed it was done without anesthesia. The hospital at Ellis Island became a huge medical teaching facility, the forerunner of many state and county hospitals which are now aligned with medical schools.

While many families successfully made the transition from the ship which carried them across the Atlantic Ocean to solid ground on the island of Manhattan, others were torn apart by the failing health of a relative, or the news that a child, parent, or relative would not be allowed into the country and would end up being deported. The documentary also shows how some fields of medicine which we now take for granted (genetics, psychiatry, and mental health) were in their infancy.

As Americans grapple with the issue of whether healthcare is a right or a privilege, a glance back at the beginnings of New York's public healthcare system nearly a century ago is quite an eye opener. Whether you read Conway's book or order the DVD from PBS, this amazing piece of American medical history is well worth your attention.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Nowhere To Go But Up

As the economic downturn continues to impact our society, many people who thought they had it made are discovering what happens when the floor gets pulled out from underneath them. First recorded in 1923 and made famous by the great blues singer, Bessie Smith, Jimmie Cox's Nobody Loves You When You're Down And Out offers a stark perspective on how quickly a big somebody can become a big nobody.

With people losing their fortunes, their pensions, their college tuition funds and every other form of nest egg you can imagine, this might be a good time to savor Alberta Hunter's rendition of Cox's classic.

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The importance of saving face runs deep within many Asian cultures, but shame never strikes at an opportune moment.  During this month's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, special tribute was paid to Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa (whose latest piece, Tokyo Sonata, opens in theaters this week).

In Kurosawa's new film, Teruyuki Kagawa stars as Ryuhei Sasaki, a Japanese salaryman who loses his middle management job after his company outsources work to China. Unwilling to admit to his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) that he is unemployed --  and unable to communicate with his children -- Ryuhei continues to dress and go to work on his usual schedule, clinging to a lifestyle in which conformity is the rule.

As he begins the humiliating ritual of waiting in unemployment lines and accepting free meals, he encounters his old friend Kuruso (Kanji Tsuda), a similarly unemployed former executive who has programmed his cell phone to ring six times an hour so he can angrily pretend that he is being interrupted with important business calls. One day, unbeknownst to Ryuhei, Megumi spots him waiting on line for a free meal. Although she realizes he is unemployed, as a dutiful wife she says nothing.

When Kuroso invites Ryuhei to his home for dinner, he uses the opportunity to humiliate Ruyhei by pretending that Ryuhei is an incompetent subordinate. While this may help Kuroso save face in front of his wife, it does little for Ryuhei's self esteem. Nor does Ryuhei's total inability to describe any marketable skills he might possess to an employment counselor.

Meanwhile, Ryuhei's older son, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) has decided to enlist in the American military and go fight in Iraq against his parents wishes.  His younger son Kenji (Inowaki Kai), who has developed a curious knack for humiliating his teacher, has expressed a sudden, unexpected desire to take piano lessons.

When Ryuhei refuses to pay for piano lessons, the enterprising Kenji finds a discarded electronic keyboard in a junk pile and brings it home. Although the keyboard fails to produce any sound when he hooks it up to his home computer, Kenji is content to practice "playing piano." After he notices a sign advertising piano lessons given by an attractive young woman, Kenji diverts the funds he is given each month for school lunch money to study piano surreptitiously with Kaneko-San (Haruka Igawa), who discovers that the boy might just be a child prodigy.

As Ryuhei's self-image continues to deteriorate, he takes a job doing menial work in a shopping mall.  At the critical moment when Megumi crosses his path -- and sees her husband dressed in a bright orange janitorial uniform -- Ryuhei's world falls apart. What he does not know is that just three hours prior, Megumi's serenity at home had been shattered when a burglar broke into their house and forced her, at knifepoint, to drive his getaway car (a stolen vehicle). 

As a dutiful wife who has brought shame on her marriage by cooperating with the criminal Dorobo (Koji Yakusho), Megumi is unable to imagine any kind of future with her husband. A long night ensues as a demoralized Ryuhei stumbles around the city in a daze of shame, Megumi gives up any pretense of respectability and has sex with Dorobo in a beachfront shack, and Kenji (who has gotten into trouble with the law)  returns to a curiously empty home after spending a night in jail.

While the mortified father, contrite mother, and chastened son go through the motions of trying to eat a meal together, they must also deal with the news that the disillusioned Takashi has decided to stay in Iraq to fight on behalf of that country's natives. Finding it difficult to believe there is any way at all for them to start their miserable lives over, the parents come to the painful realization that, with nowhere to go but up, any hope of restoring the family's pride rests in Kenji's surprisingly talented hands. 

Several months later, at a local piano competition, Kenji's shocked parents hear their son perform for the very first time as he plays Debussy's Clair de Lune.  The sudden blossoming of lyricism ends the film on an oddly humbled, yet hopeful note.

Tokyo Sonata does an excellent job of capturing the crushing burden of nonconformity in Japanese culture. Whether it affects an unemployed husband, an unfaithful wife, a disillusioned soldier, a failed criminal, or a child whose artistic gift has gone unrecognized, the psychic toll inflicted on Japanese who fail to live up to society's expectations is visible in the eyes of each actor. Kagawa's doleful face conceals a walking time bomb whose rage finds few outlets. Kai's performance as Kenji has an innocent appeal. Here's the trailer:

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Kurosawa's 1998 film, License to Live, focuses on the plight of a young man who awakens at the age of 24 after spending 10 years in a coma. Although his body has matured into that of healthy young man, Yutaka (Hidetashi Nikijima) still thinks like an adolescent. When visited by Murota (Ren Osugi) -- the man responsible for the car accident which put Yutaka into a coma-- he discovers that the angry Murota can forgive neither himself nor his victim.

A lot of strange things happened while Yutaka was in a coma. The Berlin Wall came down, the Russian empire collapsed, his parents split up, and his sister, Chizuru (Kumiko Aso) went to live in the United States for a while. 

Upon his release from the hospital, he ends up in the custody of his father's old friend, Fujimori (Koji Yashuko), who runs a combination fish farm and junk yard on the land abandoned by Yutaka's dad. Confused and naive, he shows little appreciation for the hand job Fujimori has arranged for him to receive from a local prostitute. When asked to do something against his wishes, Yutaka squats like a cranky child and literally has to be dragged around.

Yutaka's attempts to reconnect with life as he knew it don't meet with great success. His friends from school have moved on. His father (Shun Sugata) is living abroad on some kind of permanent vacation and feels no responsibility to take care of his son. Yutaka's mother, Sachiko (Lily), barely recognizes her son after ten years. Not even his dream of acquiring a horse and opening up a combination milk bar and dude ranch pans out.

Yutaka's struggles to catch up with his biological clock and overcome his self-destructive behavior almost reach a happy ending when Fujimori returns after a long absence and suggests that Yutaka join him on a road trip. They even decide to bring the horse along with them. But, just as Yutaka is struggling to move some of the junk Fujimori has brought back from his latest trip, a refrigerator topples onto the young man. Despite Fujimori's efforts to rescue him, Yutaka starts to lose consciousness, wondering if it hasn't all been a dream. Fujimori assures him that his life was indeed real.

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Last week the performing arts suffered a terrible loss with the untimely death of Natasha Richardson. A beloved performer who was part of Great Britain's Redgrave theatrical dynasty, she was an accomplished actress who triumphed on stage and screen. In January, Richardson and her mother (Vanessa Redgrave) appeared together in a benefit performance of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music for the Roundabout Theatre Company. Here is a radiant clip of her performance in the 1998 revival of Cabaret as Sally Bowles.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Going Mental

There are two types of artificial intelligence. The first, which has great potential, involves computer-driven machines which can learn a series of movements, a pattern of behaviors, and start to react to recognized stimuli. Japan has been developing robotic dogs, cats and office helpers. The robotic fish pictured below is being used by British scientists to monitor pollution in the coastal waters off northern Spain.

Based in Eagle, Idaho, the designers and engineers of UGOBE have captured the imagination of consumers with their Pleo. According to their website:
"UGOBE™'s multidisciplinary team has blended engineering, life sciences, philosophy, and artistic design and developed a unique set of core technologies. The company's unique products, known as Life Forms, intend to blur the line between technology and life. By integrating three disciplines -- organic articulation with sensory response and autonomous behaviors -- UGOBE aims to revolutionize robotics and transform inanimate objects into lifelike creatures. Inspired by its dream, the group coined the word 'UGOBE', which translates to: "You! Go and be!" a creative reworking of Descarte's "Cogito ergo sum"-"I think, therefore I am."

The company's vision is to inspire mystery and awe in people, provide extended novelty and entertainment, and ride the edge between popular culture and science fiction. In a private R&D facility, UGOBE works to re-create known species, engineer beneficial hybrids, and transform previously inanimate objects into lifelike creatures using its Life OS platform. UGOBE is in the business of developing unique propriety and patent-pending technologies. UGOBE innovations are leading to real world applications and are related to work being done at MIT, CMU and a host of other universities, as well as technical and biological science companies around the world.

The following clip shows what happened when a visitor to Sea World placed his toy Pleo (which is modeled after a camarasaurus) alongside the viewing panels of several of the aquatic park's water tanks.

Extrasensory perception and interspecies telepathy have a solid niche in the entertainment industry. Whether one prefers to watch Uri Geller demonstrate his skill at bending spoons or be entertained by Johnny Carson in a skit featuring Carnac the Magnificent, there can be no denying their audience appeal.

Psychics have often tried to help police detectives find where a body is buried. In Noel Coward's classic Blithe Spirit, Madame Arcati makes contact with the deceased first wife of Charles Condomine. In the movie Ghost, Whoopi Goldberg performed a similar role as a would-be clairvoyant whose powers proved stronger than she knew.

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Mentalism takes center stage in The Great Buck Howard as John Malkovich portrays an aging mentalist trying to make a comeback. The problem is Buck Howard, who may have made 61 appearances with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, has become a relic of an entertainment industry that used to be. “I was a magician when I was three years old, but I evolved out of that," he explains. "Not that I have anything against magicians -- as long as they’re dead.”

Watching Buck Howard greet his hosts in one small town after another is like watching a silent screen star who made the mistake of speaking, a vaudevillian who is no longer in demand, or Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. The crowds are no longer there.

When young Troy Gabel (Colin Hanks) drops out of law school and signs on to become Buck Howard's gofer, he has no idea what he's getting himself into. All he knows is that he doesn't want to follow the career path his father (played by the actor's real-life father, Tom Hanks) would prefer. As Buck and Troy continue to work small-town venues with dwindling audiences, they are hosted by one set after another of starstruck provincials.  

Determined to breathe new life into his act, Buck has been promising to unveil a special new trick which, he feels, is guaranteed to resurrect his career. Unfortunately, when he arrives in Cincnnati, the New York publicist he hired has sent an underling named Valerie to handle the details. There is no national press at hand and, to make matters worse, Buck Howard has fallen into the starstruck clutches of a well-meaning brother and sister team played with great relish by Debra Monk and Steve Zahn. The woman (Monk) has decided to skip Howard's standard introduction and seize the opportunity to sing before a captive audience. Her brother (Zahn), is driving the hired limousine without paying too much attention to the road.

Colin Hanks and Steve Zahn

Just as Buck Howard is about to put nearly 800 people to sleep, the local news teams receive frantic calls on their cell phones and pack up and leave when word arrives that Jerry Springer (the former Mayor of Cincnnati) has been in an accident. After the media has left, Troy and Valerie (Emily Blunt) are stunned to realize that Buck's trick actually worked.

Furious at being upstaged by someone in a car accident, Howard has a prima donna meltdown, lashes out at Troy and Valerie (who have obviously been paying more attention to each other than to their star), awakens the sleeping crowd and then has a heart attack.

Colin Hanks, John Malkovich, and Ricky Jay

When Troy visits Buck in the hospital, they are both shocked to discover the local media talking about Buck's tour de force as a mentalist. Subsequent appearances on late night talk shows lead to a new act in Las Vegas but, alas, Vegas isn't the town it once was. The new producer's attempts to add some glitz to Buck's act backfire. Whereas Howard's greatest trick had always been to let the audience hide the cash payment of his fee (promising that if he couldn't find it when he returned to the auditorium, the local presenter could keep the money), for the first time in his career Buck fails to locate the money.

While Sean McGinly's film is crafted with great skill, the foundation upon which it rests is a very sentimental love affair with the mystique of the entertainment industry.  In many ways, the character of Buck Howard is modeled on The Amazing Kreskin. Malkovich has himself a field day with the role while Hanks and Blunt offer strong support (with a great comic turn by Steve Zahn).

Whether personified by Ricky Jay (as Buck's long-time manager, who looks as if they pried him away from his table at the Friars' Club), or the numerous cameos from celebrities like Martha Stewart, Gary Coleman, Tom Arnold, George Takei, Conan O'Brien, and Jon Stewart, it's obvious that everyone -- especially the great Buck Howard -- is head over heels in love with the magic that is show business. Here's the trailer:

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Unfortunately, there is another kind of artificial intelligence which has absolutely nothing to do with computers, machines, or mentalism. It is the subpar intelligence of people whose desperate narcissism and self-destructive instincts allow them to ignore their fundamental lack of talent and think they are blessed with superior brains. Having convinced themselves that they're smarter than everyone else, these are the people who believe they can talk a good game (even though they can barely fart on cue).

Imagine a play which opens with a young film director named Ethan (Chris Yule) masturbating while watching Friday Night Lights in the hope that if he watches it, he will cum. He's even thinking of proposing to his girlfriend, Gabby (Erin Carter) as a way of rewarding her for her attempt to get a Hollywood producer to buy his film, Barking Spiders (you can watch its hilarious trailer here.)

Now imagine Ethan's idiot brother Tex (Justin Lamb), an egotistical moron whose artistic goal is to make a film named Fisting Spielberg. Their living room is dominated by the poster for Where Rats Go To Die, a film made by a Quentin Tarantino-like Hollywood hotshot named Julian Quintara (Calum Grant).

Chris Yule and Justin Lamb

Imagine what would happen if you combined the most horrific elements of Ruthless People and The King of Comedy with the amorality of Eating Raoul and Sweeney Todd. Add to the mix a healthy amount of blood, vomit, Viagra, and crack cocaine and you end up with Matt Pelfrey's stunning new drama about a desperate  trio of Hollywood low-lifes which recently had its world premiere at the Exit Theater. 

As directed with great skill by Laley Lippard, Killing My Lobster's production of Pure Shock Value makes Speed-The-Plow look like the work of a rank amateur. Scathingly amoral, viciously selfish, and leaving no pill unswallowed, Pelfrey's fetid imagination makes David Mamet look like a total pussy.

Whether you prefer fratricide, necrophilia, or a young woman's horrified realization that, by blowing a teenaged intern who was still enrolled at Hollywood High she committed an act of pedophilia, this play lives up to its title: Pure Shock Value. It also contains the best running sight gag ever seen onstage involving an erection that simply won't quit. 

Just when it looks like their lives couldn't get any worse, these three losers find a barely conscious homeless man in their back yard. Upon dragging his body into their living room (which strangely enough does look like a place where rats would go to die), they discover that he is none other than their hero, filmmaker Julian Quintara.

Erin Carter and Justin Lamb

What follows is comic madness, utter depravity, and a horrific pattern of things going from bad to worse. After these losers finally manage to rouse Quintara, tie him up, and show him the only existing print of Barking Spiders, they keep pushing him for praise until he utters the worst possible compliment.  Quintara tells them that they obviously have a "huge talent" (Hollywood code words for utter failure). Desperate souls will stop at nothing. Let me assure you that -- as much as you want to see this play -- the demented finale to Pure Shock Value will probably never be seen on the stage of a Shubert Theater.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Out Of Africa

For many years it was known as The Dark Continent. Perhaps that was because so much of the early history of Africa was centered around the northern, sand-based regions of the Sahara and Egypt. Whether one looked to biblical epics such as The Ten Commandments, ancient dramas such as The Egyptian, desert adventures such as Lawrence of Arabia or comedies such as Ishtar, the action remained in Northern Africa. The same could be said for Hollywood extravaganzas like Cleopatra (starring Elizabeth Taylor), Verdi's Aida, and the recent Sahara. 

But so much more has been inspired by the mysteries of Africa. There are screen classics ranging from the silent version of The Sheik (starring Rudolph Valentino), Casablanca, and The African Queen to Death on the Nile.   There are adventure romances  like The Snows of KilimanjaroMogambo, and 1956's Safari (a film starring Victor Mature and Janet Leigh that was marketed with such winning slogans as "Murderous Mau-Mau! Maddened Beasts! Mighty Jungle Love!").

There are "quest for riches" and hunting films like King Solomon's Mines and Hatari. There are movies that deal with genocide and political uprisings, like Hotel RwandaThe Last King of Scotland, and Zulu. There are the animated features like Disney's Tarzan and The Lion King.
Not only are there animal-oriented films like Born Free and Gorillas In The Mist, who could possibly forget the "great ape" spectacles like Mighty Joe Young and King Kong?  What about an entire literature of films about ape-men (nearly 90 movies have been based on the Tarzan character) including Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. A staged version of the Disney animation feature even made it to Broadway and Germany as a musical!

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The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco recently offered two programs which focused on events in modern Africa. Making a quick stop in San Francisco as part of a fundraising/book tour was Asher Naim, a former Israeli Ambassador who is now Chairperson of the Scholarship Fund For Ethiopian Jews.

The author of Saving the Lost Tribe: The Rescue and Redemption of the Ethiopian Jews, Naim was one of the key people working on the airlift of 14,500 Ethiopian Jews during a 36-hour period in May of 1991. The rescue/refugee operation -- code-named Operation Solomon -- went off with only one small hitch. The passenger count upon landing in Israel was larger than when people took off from Addis Ababa due to several births en route.

Before describing some of the intricacies of negotiating with the Ethiopian government, Ambassador Naim showed a short documentary about the airlift. A small portion of the footage can be seen in this clip:

At the time of the airlift, these Ethiopians were living in a hilltop region where the only form of transportation was walking. Among the more amazing facts is that what made the Ethiopians willing to leave their homes in the mountains was an ancient prophecy that eagles would come to fly them on their wings to Jerusalem. Not only was the evacuation a stunning strategic success, many of the Ethiopian youth (who could not read and had little exposure to the modern world) are now graduating from Israeli universities and becoming doctors, nurses, engineers and other professionals.

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The JCC's presentation of Dean Cameron's Nigerian Spam Scam Scam was a much more lighthearted affair. Having received numerous "spam" emails from Nigerians requesting financial assistance, writer/actor Dean Cameron decided there was plenty of comic gold to be mined from the experience. He spent about a year corresponding with one spammer and conducting conference calls with his attorney, "Perry Mason," assisting on the call. As the contacts continued, Cameron decided to throw as much linguistic garbage back at the Nigerians as he was receiving in their emails.

Scamming the scammers proved to be great fun -- and included such pranks as getting them to say hello to his cat, Mr. Snickers, on the phone. Using American slang mixed with utter gibberish, he did his best to confuse the Nigerians. One of the greater ironies of the experience is that, after he posted all of the emails on a website, the spammer found the site, realized he had been punk'd, but continued to try to get money from Cameron.

Directed by Paul Provenza, Cameron and his cohort, Victor Isaac, enact the email exchanges and conference calls in a 90-minute presentation filled with laughs. Although the sound and video in this clip are hardly top quality, anyone who has received one of these emails will recognize the mangled language from the Nigerian scammer and appreciate the gobbledygook thrown right back at him by Mr. Cameron.