Saturday, June 6, 2009

Carpe Diem

In March of 1965 a new show with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim opened on Broadway to mixed reviews. The out-of-town tryout had been quite an unhappy experience for the creative team. The legendary composer was drinking heavily and lashing out at his young lyricist. The director, John Dexter, had lost interest in the production and left a great deal of its staging to his assistant/choreographer Wakefield Poole (a former member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo) who, after spending several years as a dance captain on Broadway went on to achieve far greater notoriety as a pornographic filmmaker beginning with Boys in the Sand (starring Casey Donovan) in 1971 and Bijou in 1972.

Based on a 1952 play by Arthur Laurents that had starred Shirley Booth on Broadway (The Time of the Cuckoo)  -- and in 1955 had been transformed into a popular film vehicle for Katherine Hepburn, (Summertime)  -- Do I Hear A Waltz? starred Elizabeth Allen as Leona Samish, a prudish secretary from New York who enjoys a brief romance with a Venetian shopkeeper played by Sergio Franchi. Franchi's big solo, Take The Moment, featured the following lyrics:
"Take the moment, let it happen.
Hug the moment, make it last.
Hold the feeling for the moment,
Or the moment will have passed.

All the noises buzzing in your head, warning you to wait. 
What for? Don't listen.
Take the moment, let it happen.
Make the moment many moments more,
Make for us a thousand more."
It happens when you least expect it. Someone -- or something -- stands in front of you for a finite period of time (maybe not as long as you would have preferred) and a decision has to be made. Not just any old decision, but that kind of decision. The kind of decision that involves a limited offer. The kind of decision that you know means getting on a rocket just before it blasts off without any guarantee of a safe landing -- or spending the rest of your life wondering what might have been.

I've had to make several of those decisions in my life and, for the most part, I chose wisely (thankfully, these moments involved life-changing, but not life-threatening decisions). 
  • One was to leave New York and move to Providence, Rhode Island in 1969. At the time, a friend wanted to know what I was running away from. It was hard to explain what I might be running to.
  • The second big decision was to leave Rhode Island and follow someone to California. Was it love? Not really. Was it infatuation? Not quite. But I knew that staying in Rhode Island was a dead end for me and that, once Chuck had moved to San Francisco, I was left with an aching void in my life wrapped in heavy layers of ennui. Several years after we had parted ways, when I received word that he committed suicide (Chuck was one of those gay men who had convinced himself that once you turn 30 your life is basically over), I was able to remember the better moments and be grateful that he got my ass out of Rhode Island.
  • The third big decision came when someone offered me a chance to write an opera column with no pay. Others might have flinched and insisted on a financial contract, but I was willing to take the risk because (a) it gave me a valuable soapbox, and (b) I was willing to believe that writing an opera column for a gay newspaper in San Francisco could lead to other opportunities.
These are the kinds of choices that allow a person some time to organize his thoughts and try to develop a game plan. Although they force someone to abandon previous ideas of how, when and why things should happen, they simultaneously open up a wealth of new possibilities that could dramatically enrich a person's life. This week, three dramas dealt with seizing the moment, trying to preserve or refine its memory, and moving on from what might have been. Each drama dealt with a unique situation, had its own voice, and offered plenty of food for thought.

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Back in 2007, when Frameline presented the world premiere of Rock Haven, audience reaction was quite mixed. Although there was no doubt that the first feature film to be written and directed by David Lewis looked gorgeous, people either loved or hated its overt religiosity. Parts of the drama felt forced, unnatural, comically naive, and a bit too precious for words. 

While many of the ardently gay Christians in the audience seemed close to orgasm by the end of the film, the cynics within the Castro Theater appeared to be in desperate need of some insulin. Lewis returns to San Francisco as part of Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) on Wednesday, June 24, with the world premiere of his latest feature: Redwoods. 

In this new film no one is struggling to come out of the closet or even think that he might be gay. There is no religious confusion. The protagonists are adult gay men with a fairly good idea of what they want, how they want it, and when they want it. 

Nevertheless, there are obstacles that must be overcome.

Everett (Brendan Bradley) and his lover Miles (Tad Coughenor) share a lovely home near the Russian River where they are raising their autistic son, Billy (Caleb Dorfman). Everett is a puppy-faced accountant who has spent most of his life being a homemaker and caretaker. Largely taken for granted by Miles, he has allowed himself and his relationship to become bland and boring. Excitement comes in the form of discount coupons for trash bags.

When Miles and Billy head up to Seattle for a weekend visit with Miles' parents, Everett is left behind with a list of chores that need to be done. It's obvious that the spark has gone out of his relationship and that, if not for Billy, he could be leading a very different life. Soon after Miles and Billy leave, a stranger pulls up in front of the house asking for directions.

Cue the string section.

Chase (Matthew Montgomery) is an aspiring writer trying to find the quaint little bed and breakfast where he reserved a room in hopes of finishing his novel: "Lost In Faith." The two men meet cute and, with his big puppy eyes, Everett falls head over heels in like. Is Chase all that hot and fascinating? Or has Everett become so pathetically lonely that the mere sight of fresh meat in a small town has the same effect as shoving a bottle of poppers under his nose?

As the two men spend an intoxicating weekend getting to know each other, Everett must decide if he will follow his instincts (which are severely lusting after Chase) or stay true to his tepid home life with Miles and Billy. As Chase prepares to head back to Minnesota, the two men vow to meet again in exactly five years at a specific spot in the Redwoods. Once Chase hits the road, Everett goes back to keeping house and dreaming about "the man that got away."

As in Rock Haven, Lewis's peculiarly precious style of writing and direction often ends up becoming a a bit too heavy handed. Emotional pauses that might otherwise be pregnant with meaning do not get telegraphed to the audience by Everett's deep, piercing hang-dog looks so much as they are wrapped in big, fluffy clouds of impending sentimentality. All of these deeply-felt moments of longing are framed with the treacly original score composed by Jack Curtis Dubowsky. 

The choice Everett faces is a tough one, and there are many moments when audiences might wonder if they been trapped inside the Hallmark Hall of Queer Fame. Whether you leave the theater all teary-eyed or wanting to slap the living shit out of someone will depend on your personality. Here's the trailer:

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As part of the 12th annual National Queer Arts Festival, Mama Calizo's Voice Factory recently presented the world premiere of a powerful new drama produced by Guerrilla Rep. Written by Terrence Beswick and directed by John Caldon (the same creative team behind last year's controversial hotshot), Strings focuses on two brothers using improvisational theatre games to craft a play from their experiences growing up under the stern and often unsympathetic watch of a verbally abusive father who was the concertmaster for a regional orchestra. A professional at work and a tyrant at home, the father figure in their play often overlaps with a demon who terrorizes one of the boys in his dreams.

Juan Carlos de la Rosa and Michael Rodriguez
 (Photo by: Rick Gerharter)

"Strings is both a drama about a memory of a nightmare and a comedy about a nightmare of a memory," states Caldon, who previously directed hotshot (Beswick's tragicomedy about the ravages of crystal meth addiction in San Francisco's gay community). "This play holds a mirror up to itself and, in so doing, becomes simultaneously poetic, hilarious, and haunting."

Billed as "a bromantic dramedy," Beswick's play provides an absolute tour de force for two male actors who must switch back and forth between the characters they are playing (as they tell the story of the concertmaster's two sons, Jack and George) and the warring egos of two brothers with radically different perspectives on the their adolescence. If you combined the biting intensity of Edward Albee's groundbreaking Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- and the self-loathing games led by Michael during Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band -- with outtakes from the Theater of the Absurd, you'd get some idea of the rapid mood shifts Caldon's direction brings to competing visions of a tragic childhood. Perhaps you'd prefer to mix the darkness of Harold Pinter with the comedic vaudeville turns of Gallagher and Shean. Either way, Strings is a powerful piece of theatre that that deserves to reach a much wider audience.

Juan Carlos de la Rosa and Michael Rodriguez
 (Photo by: Rick Gerharter)

I tip my hat to Beswick for his highly theatrical writing, to Caldon for his magnificently detailed and insightful, rapid-fire direction and, most of all, to Juan Carlos de la Rosa and Michael Rodriguez for their astonishingly powerful performances. While both men have been seen previously in productions at New Conservatory Theater Center, Strings really gave them a chance to stretch and grow as actors. They were immensely aided by Caldon's set design and Julien V. Elstob's lighting.

Juan Carlos de la Rosa and Michael Rodriguez
 (Photo by: Rick Gerharter)

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Finally, we come to one of the strangest opening nights I've ever attended: Christian Cagigal's new one-man show entitled Now and at the Hour: A Journey Through Time And Reflection (which received its premiere in New York as part of the 2009 FRIGID Theatre Festival). "It's for believers, skeptics, those who hate magic shows, and those who hate theatre," stresses Cagigal. "There is nothing inappropriate for children at all but this will not be a 'kids'' magic show."

I first became aware of Cagigal's strength as an actor when I saw him in H.P. Mendoza's Fruit Fly (in which he was cast as as Gaz Howard, a slimy, egomaniacal straight magician). Known to San Francisco Fringe Festival audiences for his performances as a magician/mentalist, Cagigal grew up in the Bay area in a dysfunctional family that included his father (a Vietnam war veteran who returned home with a severe emotional disability) and a grandmother who liked to read fortunes using Tarot cards. You can watch him talk about his grandmother in this video clip:

A former member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Cagigal is a founding member of Precarious Theatre who boasts of being a "super file clerk" for an insurance company when he is not appearing before an audience. His previous shows (The 13 Steps and The Pandora Experiment), have played to sold-out houses at Exit Theatre, where he has been an artist in residence. Cagigal has also worked as a consultant for American Conservatory Theatre's Master of Fine Arts programCrowded Fire, and the San Francisco Ghost Hunt Walking Tour.

His newest show uses Christian's childhood fascination with card tricks, mentalism, and magic as a way of looking at his difficult relationship with his father during his teenage years -- when it was becoming increasingly hard for him to communicate with the emotionally damaged man who returned home from serving in Vietnam. The audience can sense moments when the mentalism (although deftly performed with volunteers) is still interesting to Cagigal, but perhaps a bit less so than the catharsis he is seeking while attempting to get in touch with those lost opportunities for father-son bonding.

Cagigal's show offers levity without levitation, aces leading to places in his past which have been covered over with time and, no doubt, a great deal of personal pain. An engaging performer with a somewhat nerdy personality, Cagigal's craft is rock solid. He may ask you for help in cutting a deck of cards. You might also, unwittingly, cut to the quick.

Now and at the Hour will be playing for the next 10 weekends at the Exit Theatre (you can order tickets here).  In the meantime, here are two clips of Cagigal performing in a much lighter vein during a previous San Francisco Fringe Festival:

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