Friday, March 6, 2009

Sub Prime

When push comes to shove, culture vultures will confess that not everything they see is top notch. As with any other type of experience, there is a bell curve of satisfaction levels that can be charted over a specific period of time. A performance of live theater may fall flat (or its source material be weaker than expected). A film may have moments of merit surrounded by much mediocrity. It's all one big crapshoot. Some of the films and stage productions seen in recent weeks have been less than great events. Not wholly without merit, just lower down on the bell curve. Here's a quick rundown:

Up in Martinez, the Willows Theater Company mounted a production of Forever Plaid in their cabaret venue, the Campbell Theater. When the show first opened off-Broadway in 1990, it received rave reviews for its tribute to the close-harmony male crooner ensembles that were so popular in the 1950s.  In Stuart Ross's play, a quartet of squeaky clean collegiate men (modeled along the lines of The Four Aces and the Four Freshman) come back from the afterlife for one final performance as The Plaids. Their careers were cut short when their van collided with a school bus carrying a group of Catholic high school girls on their way to see The Beatles make their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show.  "We got creamed by a bus full of virgins!" sighs one of the singers. Here's the commercial that was used to promote the show's original off-Broadway production:

In order for a performance of Forever Plaid to really succeed, you need a really strong quartet of singers. Sadly, this was not the case in the Willows Theater production where, by the end of the second act, the energy was clearly sagging. Ricardo Rust's direction also tended to run out of steam on too many occasions throughout the evening. Still, the cast of four deserves credit for giving it the old (dead) college try. While Christopher Purdy (Smudge), Andrew Willis-Woodward (Frankie), and Tony Panighetti (Sparky) are all serviceable singers, I was particularly grateful for the eager farm-boy optimism and disarming smile of Robert K. Dornaus III, who sang the role of Jinx. You don't often find a tenorino voice embodied in such a tall, handsome, and extremely likeable performer.

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Meanwhile, back in the Mission District, Theatre Rhinoceros has mounted a production of Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor's lesbian wannabe drama, A Beautiful View. As directed by Cristina Alicea, this one-act play follows a neurotic friendship between two women who meet cute and then tease each other's emotions over the course of several decades. Whether they are single or married, working in a record store or camping in the wilderness, Liz (Alexandra Creighton) and Mitch (Jeanette Harrison) can't quite get up the courage to label their sexual yearnings as evidence of lesbian tendencies.

Although I admired MacIvor's play In On It, when I saw it at Thicke House several years ago, he has created a much stiffer challenge for his cast in A Beautiful View.  A great deal of stage work focuses on nervous false starts and missed opportunities as the two women struggle to communicate. Although the playwright employs a device which allows the characters to speak their thoughts to the audience quite clearly, it's obvious that they get tongue tied when trying to speak to each other.

Watching Liz and Mitch struggle with issues of friendship, love, and identity, I was reminded of a piece written by Jill Johnston (a feminist writer who was also a dance critic for the Village Voice back in the 1960s). In the early days of the women's movement, Johnston wrote a column explaining that a person can never truly love someone else until that person has learned to love his or her self. That statement, which rocked my little world close to 40 years ago, still holds true today and is the dramatic key to understanding what lies behind behind all the false starts and nervous apologies in A Beautiful View.

Alexandra Creighton and Jeanette Harrison
(Photo by Geof Teague)

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Several shorts being screened at this year's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival have a quirky appeal.  In Sanif Olek's 12-minute short from Singapore, Like Crazy, a young woman with obviously bad taste in men tries to learn how to handle a sticky situation from two male prostitutes in drag. As they discuss their ways of handling men in English and Malay, their streetwise observations go in one of her ears and out the other. She quickly succumbs to pressure from a very macho, domineering boyfriend.

In Aram Sui Wai Collier's tribute collage entitled The Others we get to see the many faces of actor Lou Diamond Phillips (who has been cast in Chinese, Filipino, and Hispanic roles) as he portrays cowboys, gangsters, thugs, high school students, and a wide variety of heroes, villains and lovers.

By a curiously adroit series of editing choices, there are moments in which alternating clips from the actor's filmography capture him in both the driver's and passenger's seats of a convertible. As Lou Diamond Phillips (in his various incarnations) flirts with another Lou Diamond Phillips in the car, the audience is treated to what may well be the slyest portrayal of an actor who is truly in love with himself.

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Thankfully, two shorts stand out for their cinematography, the strength of their writing, and their insight into the human condition. First seen last year at San Francisco's Frameline LGBT Festival, a 15-minute Korean video by Josh Kim continues to impress.  In The Postcard, two female postal workers flirt with a quiet, lonely customer who keeps mailing postcards to himself. When the more aggressive woman misinterprets the flirtatious hints written on the postcards as an invitation, she pays a surprise visit to the young man at his apartment.  

What she doesn't understand is that the messages were intended to capture the attention of the hunky mail delivery boy, who finally gets up the courage to answer the young man's invitation -- only to see his female co-worer knocking on the apartment door. Later that night, both young men head to a public bathhouse where they may (or may not) get up the courage to go home together.

Finally, there is beautiful 16-minute video from Korea entitled His Wedding. When a young woman receives a phone call from an old boyfriend, she learns that he is about to get married and hopes she will make it to his wedding. After their respective alarm clocks go off on the morning of the wedding, the camera follows Ji-young and Sung-hyun through their preparations for the bit day. 

She has mixed feelings about attending the wedding, but knows it is her duty to attend and wish him well. Although he is confident about marrying his new bride, Sung-hyun cannot dismiss his fond memories of the time he spent with Ji-young.  Beautifully filmed and meticulously edited, His Wedding leaves the viewer wondering if the lingering doubts of the two protagonists will ever be resolved. As the film's director, Il Soon Kweon, notes:
"One feeling that is shared in two different places changes after the wedding ceremony to two different feelings in one place."

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