Monday, May 11, 2009

Looking Back In Anger

They say that hindsight is 20/20. But having your eyes opened to a truth that was conveniently hidden beneath a web of lies does little to assuage the pain and disappointment of having your dreams blown to smithereens.

Many a writer has used flashbacks as a convenient way of examining what really happened on the long road to disappointment and despair. With book and lyrics by Bob Merrill and a score by Jule StynePrettybelle was an ill-fated musical directed by Gower Champion that starred Angela Lansbury as a woman who had been abused by her deceased husband (a small town Southern sheriff).  From the safety of a mental institution (where she had been admitted as a manic-depressive alcoholic schizophrenic), a series of flashbacks allowed Prettybelle Sweet to look back on critical moments in her fall from grace to see how she first became a classic drunk (who attempted to avenge her late husband's blatant racism by sleeping with the black men in her small southern community) and eventually turned into a nymphomaniacal prostitute. Although I managed to see Prettybelle twice during its abortive February 1971 tryout, the producers closed the show in Boston. The story was not selling, the structure was not working, and despite everyone's best efforts, the show was a godawful mess.

Some writers try to structure a story in reverse time sequence so that scenes will move chronologically backward instead of forward. One of Broadway's more notorious flops was Merrily We Roll Along, a 1981 musical created by George Furth and Stephen Sondheim (and directed by Harold Prince) that was based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Although I was able to catch one of the preview performances (which included such then-unknown talents as Jason Alexander, Liz Callaway, Tonya Pinkins, and Lonny Price), this show was also a catastrophe. The original production lasted only 16 performances on Broadway. 

Revised versions of the show have been mounted by regional theater groups like Concord's Willows Theatre Company and Washington's Arena Stage.  Some people insist that Merrily We Roll Along contains Sondheim's best and certainly most commercial score. Here is Bernadette Peters singing one of the show's strongest numbers:

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Filmmaker Ivy Ho's Claustrophobia (which was recently screened at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival) moves backward over a year's time as it examines the roots of an office romance that could never develop into anything more than wishful thinking. The film stars Kar Yan Lam as Pearl (a marketing executive in her twenties) who develops a crush her boss, Tom, (Eking Cheng), a perfectly behaved, level-headed married man whose wife is pregnant with their second child. Tom, who frequently drops off several of his office staff on their way home from work, is clueless about Pearl's love for him.

As the movie starts, more layoffs are taking place at the company where they are employed. Tom is trying to refer Pearl to another company (where a friend of his might be able to hire her at a decent salary). But after being a lovestruck "good employee" for the past year, Pearl angrily tells him to just go ahead and fire her so that she can make a clean break from their situation. 

Secondary characters include Jewel (the hilarious Chucky Woo) as a thoroughly obnoxious office flirt who can neither keep a secret nor hold her liquor; John (Kwok Cheung Tsang), Jewel's angry nerd of a boyfriend; and Karl (Ying Kwon Lok), a middle management troll who gets on everyone's nerves --  especially when he warns people that "office romance is bad for productivity." Eric Tsang's performance as Pearl's long-time family doctor glows with a paternal warmth while Andy Hui delivers a lovely cameo as a taxi driver whose cab breaks down in torrential rain. 

The biggest problem with Claustrophobia is that Ho's story is told so subtly -- and the emotional tension so tidily repressed throughout the film -- that one could easily end up thinking this was a movie devoted to designated drivers who keep circling around Hong Kong in search of a plot. While Ho's film benefits tremendously from Pin Bing Lee's cinematography and Anthony Chue's original score, this is not a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat. As Ivy Ho states in her director's notes:
"Love is a virus. It incubates slowly. It strikes suddenly.  It blinds your immunity. It spreads by way of intimate contacts. Its favorite breeding ground -- small, crowded, claustrophobic spaces such as an office. In the tiny universe known as an office, two powerful forces are at play: politics and romance. Like it or not, these people are family now -- you'll spend more time with them than with your real family.  Soon enough, you'll learn whom to like, loathe, or ignore. You'll be dragged into alliances, gossip, politics and, last but not least, romance.

Told in eight scenes, Claustrophobia examines the mysterious blossoming and dying of an elusive affair. The saddest thing about this is that it is such a commonplace happening. Pearl and her five-member team work in a compact, crowded office where they spend 8-10 hours every day, 5-6 days a week. On most days, Pearl bums a ride home after work in Tom's car. She wonders: Is this love? If so, is the feeling mutual?  How and when did a normal working relationship gradually evolve into something romantic? The anxiety is becoming unbearable." 
That's assuming, of course, that you identify with Pearl. Here's the trailer:

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Last December, when I attended a reading of Zayd Dohrn's caustic comedy Sick down at the Commonwealth Club, I was deeply impressed with the complexity of the characters he created and the challenge he placed before them. As the recipient of the Sky Cooper New American Play Prize, Dohrn's Magic Forest Farm received a fully-staged world premiere production from the Marin Theatre Company.

Aspiring playwrights are often told to write about what they know. Mr. Dohrn's childhood offers plenty of material. The son of the controversial William Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn (founders of the 1960s radical organization known as The Weather Underground), Dohrn grew up in a series of communes and hideouts around the country. His new play, which could easily be subtitled "Where Have All The Hippies Gone?" examines the identity confusion felt by some of the children of the free love generation whose parents shared their ambitions, drugs, and bodies with the ardent zeal of political idealists. 

David Cramer and Julia Brothers (Photo by: Ed Smith)

"How do kids raised in the shadow of the Sixties keep the parts of that experiment that were healthy -- the idealism, the hope, the courage -- while getting rid of the narcissism and silliness that had the potential to undermine all that?" posits Dohrn. His answer might surprise you. 

As the play opens, we meet 16-year-old Allegra (Laura Morache) who, like the playwright, grew up in a commune and is now having doubts about some of her memories of the "good old days." Her parents have outgrown much of their hippie lifestyle and are now coping with the challenges of growing older in the real world. Marvin (Robert Sicular) has become a rather fussy college professor with obvious control issues. Eleanor (Julia Brothers) doesn't seem particularly happy with the way their marriage is going.

Julia Brothers and Robert Sicular (Photo by: Ed Smith)

When Allegra's repressed memories of living in a sexually-free commune raise questions about the possibility of sexually inappropriate behavior on Marvin's part, the family is thrown into turmoil. Allegra's brother Ben (who is about to enter medical school) doesn't want to hear any of it. But after Allegra hot wires her parents' car and drives from their home in La Jolla to the Magic Forest Farm commune in Northern California, the rest of the family follows in hot pursuit of their troubled teen.

Allegra is on to something, but it's not what she expects.  Ten years ago, when several members of the  commune decided to leave, it was decided that the children would go with their biological mothers. Thus, although Allegra and Ben ended up in the care of Marvin and Eleanor, Marvin's daughter with another woman remained behind -- as did Allegra's biological father. 

On her return to the commune, Allegra finds her childhood friend Swan (Anna Bullard) living a carefree, confident lifestyle which seems the polar opposite of Allegra's increasingly prudish behavior. Swan's father, Gabby (David Cramer), has become an aging hippie who is still content to live in the woods, far from the conventional lifestyle that Marvin and Eleanor have embraced.

Laura Morache and David Cramer (Photo by: Ed Smith)

In a critical flashback, the audience sees what life was like in the good old days of the Magic Forest Farm. With the noticeable exception of Marvin, the adults were too stoned and acting too silly to pay attention to the needs and safety of the commune's children. Later in the play we learn that the fictional "Ethel" -- who has been the centerpiece of the bedtime stories Marvin told to Allegra -- was not the famous spy, Ethel Rosenberg, but Swan (whose real name is Ethel and who is Marvin's biological daughter).

Deftly staged in the intimate confines of the Lieberman Theatre on a simple unit set designed by Jeff Rowlings to easily accommodate the quick transitions required by Dohrn's drama, Magic Forest Farm was beautifully directed by Ryan Rilette. The tight ensemble deftly captured the joys and frustrations felt by confused adolescents, spaced out hippies, and bitterly jaded boomers. Dohrn's surprise ending, in which Allegra takes control of her future while totally shocking her parents, offered a delightfully wry dramatic twist: 
"I always wondered how they would rebel against us, how they wound find a way to really stick it to us," Eleanor gasps in disbelief. "And now she's going give us a talk? What's next? Is she going to take away our keys to the car?"
Keep an eye out for future plays from Zayd Dohrn. His writing glows with maturity and a rare insight into the human condition.

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