Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Youth At Risk

How easily can questioning young minds get into trouble? In how many ways can curious children flirt with danger? If you start with Stewie GriffinDennis the Menace, and the next angelic-looking toddler to cross your path and work your way past Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and The Hardy Boys, you could probably title your search "The Never Ending Story."

Children of different ages get into different kinds of trouble.  While it's true that Everyone Poops, not everyone brags about it in public. A toddler eager to use his crayons on the living room wall may not yet have developed a finely-honed sense of right or wrong. 

As children grow and mature they learn to appreciate the thrills of such games as Truth or Dare. By the time puberty hits and they're in full-blown rebellion, they're at the jackpot stage where they're willing to try anything once.

A young person's curiosity, bravado, and false sense of security in feeling that nothing could possibly go wrong can get him into deep trouble. An irrational sense of invincibility can cause someone to take risks that could easily have been avoided. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic far too many beautifully buffed young men asked "With a body like this, do you really think I could die from having sex?"

Where have all the gymbots gone?  Long time passing.

Three recent dramatic offerings demonstrated (for better or worse) what can happen when temptation places youth at risk. Each showed what can ensue from a clear failure to understand boundaries or lines that should not be crossed. In each case, a consenting adult's poor judgment contributed to the unfortunate results.

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One of the more perplexing films I saw at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival was Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard, which suffered from severe structural problems. Breillat tried to splice together two favorite albeit separate story lines. In the first, two little girls are sitting in a dusty attic amusing themselves when one picks up a favorite book and starts reading the famous tale of King Bluebeard
"When I was little, I loved Bluebeard.  However many times I read it, I was terrified each time. The fact that I knew the story perfectly didn't change anything. It even increased the excitement through the pleasure of fear by anticipation.  But above all, the tale of Bluebeard turned out to be the benchmark by which I measured my supremacy over my sister.  I was five or six, she was a year older. I used to read Bluebeard out loud to her, terrified in advance myself, but invigorated by the fact that I knew (and hoped) that she, the older one, would break down and beg me in tears to stop. That invariably gave me the courage to resist beyond my own strength and prolong the breathless terror to the very end -- up to the moment when she (me, the young reader), opens the door of the forbidden chamber."
As the girl reads the story, we see the gruesome fairy tale of King Bluebeard reenacted. A newly-widowed woman grieves about how she will survive without her husband, how she will feed her two daughters, and what the future holds in store. One child, however, is fascinated by the mysterious castle of King Bluebeard and decides to enter a local contest to see who will become Bluebeard's next wife. He's had quite a few of them and they all seem to disappear most mysteriously. The child is convinced that, even though she might be marrying a serial killer, she can avoid such a fate.

When Bluebeard gives her the key to a secret room of his castle and warns her never to use it while he is away on a trip, she succumbs to temptation and finds the bodies of his previous wives hung like rotting slabs of meat above a pool of their blood. Upon her husband's return (and the discovery that his latest wife has disobeyed him), she manages to outwit the older man and escape the horrid fate of her predecessors.  Her final triumph? Bluebeard's head on a silver platter. 

The elder of the two children playing in the attic is so shocked by the story that she steps backward and falls to her death through a gaping hole in the attic. The younger child seems almost pleased.

Win some, lose some.   

Is this a cry for greater parental supervision? Not at all. In her director's notes, Breillat writes:
"Fiction acts as exorcism and the imagination doesn't diminish this, far from it. The greater the exorcism, the more it acts as a counterweight for our own impulses. Scaring oneself through a story, the fictional quality of which one conceals deep down in spite of everything, means absolving oneself of all the fears of real life. I wanted to start the the film in an attic, the ideal place for dreaming and for playing hide and seek with one's childhood fears.  In this attic, a secret hideaway, two little sisters seek refuge for a reading tinged with fear and interdiction. It's not the story of the tale that is important here, but its relationship with us as children. Why? Because Bluebeard is the man who kills women -- all the other women except the youngest one (in other words, me, the child who is reading). And isn't this the fundamental selfish and cynical relationship of childhood with life? Knowing that we are powerless, that we depend on adults for everything, and yet drawing on our strength and the knowledge of our temporary immortality in relation to grownups? Knowing that we will live on after they disappear? Life always gets the upper hand. For children, nothing is really that frightening because everything is frightening and they have faith in their lucky star."
Even as a film enthusiast, I found Breillat's Bluebeard to be an extremely tedious and frustrating experience. Although beautifully filmed, the movie's structure (which cuts back and forth between the two girls in the attic and the actual enactment of the tale of Bluebeard), became boring very early on. Curiously, Breillat's sole use of music occurred either when period instruments were being played at a reception outside King Bluebeard's castle or when a character touched the keys of a harpsichord. 

The film offers a magnificent opportunity to see (close-up and in sharp focus) the craftsmanship that went into costumes of the period -- as well as a gorgeous wooden harpsichord. Lola Creton does double duty as Marie and Catherine, while Daphne Baiwir plays her sister. Dominique Thomas delivers an appropriately brooding portrayal of King Bluebeard.

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As I left the Boxcar Theater following the Crowded Fire Theatre Company's world premiere of Wreckage, a new play by Caridad Svich, I had a difficult time sorting out my reactions to the performance. This is an ambitious multimedia attempt to break new ground in an archetypal drama of good versus evil, age versus youth, bitterness versus innocence. Although it contains scenes of seduction, self-doubt, tentative same-sex kissing, and anal rape (both heterosexual and homosexual), Wreckage is largely defined by the actions of predatory adults who use their world-weary intelligence to shape and manipulate young boys with minds like empty slates. The promotional materials describe the play as follows:
"Two boys emerge from the sea and become engulfed in a world of savage longing. In this landscape of blurred roles, a mother may be a lover, a boy may be a girl, and power and sex are one. Wreckage weaves together moments of disconcerting beauty and pain as the boys search for a home amidst a culture of brutality."
Detroit Dunwood and Eric Kerr (Photo by Tom Toro)

Director Erin Gilley has tried to shape Svich's psycholinguistic fantasy into a sexual identity nightmare that all too often comes wrapped in some rather precious prose. Eric Kerr and Detroit Dunwood portray the two confused and naive young men who appear on a beach, not knowing who they are or how they know each other and essentially relying on strangers to help educate and define them. Along the way they encounter an aggressive married cougar of a woman (Laura Jane Coles), her selfish and often brutal husband (David Sinaiko), and a male nurse (Lawrence Radecker) who fancies himself to be some kind of catalytic agent/angel for confused young men.

Try imagining a Wendy Malick lookalike wielding a lethal conch shell against a ditzed out black tranny in a sandbox who is wearing blue mascara, a leather skirt and a tightly-tied bodice and then ask yourself: What have we got here?  

A new kind of shell game? 

A big old bitch on the beach?

The Siren of the Lambs?

Laura Jane Coles and Eric Kerr (Photo by: Bryan Wolf)

In her dramaturg's notes, Sonia Fernandez writes that:
"Wreckage looks at the idea of performance itself and the boundaries inherent in placing bodies on display.  Throughout the play, characters observe and are observed by each other. It is through this process that identity is constructed. Svich shines a light on the invisible boundary between observer and observed. The watching breeds affection, disgust, desire, jealousy and violence. Througout the play, characters watch each other commit acts of violence and intimacy, sometimes within the same scene. In watching there is a certain responsibility or complicity of the observer in what he or she witnesses. Wreckage explores the way we perform for each other when we're aware of being watched and the way we're exposed and vulnerable in moments when we're unaware that someone is observing. As an audience, watching the watching, we are conscious of our own passivity (like the surveillance camera in the play) as observers and voyeurs. This is particularly relevant to today's YouTube and cell phone society where the line between public and private has collapsed. The play asks you to look at it, to not avert your gaze from the beauty nor the brutality. Svich presents a cruel and brutal world of grit and glamour but views her characters with compassion. Thus, beneath the poetic language, vicious deeds and wrecked emotional terrain, lies a beating heart."
Although Svich's play is never boring, her inflated, highly-stylized use of language often wears thin, occasionally undermining the success of the production. My guess is that the cast has been so busy learning the script that they have not really had sufficient time to play with the rhythms of her writing in front of an audience in order to discover where the hidden meter lies, how strategic silences could strengthen their performances and, in effect, how to let her poetry breathe more freely. Don't be surprised if the trailer strikes you as a bit precocious and confusing. So is the play.

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