Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Keeping Friends Close, Frenemies Closer

How do life events shape one's personality? Some people manage to become optimistic through thick and thin while others turn inward, becoming bitter, cranky curmudgeons. Comedian Will Rogers is famous for claiming that "I never met a person that I did not want to like." Stop and think, for a moment, how that sentiment compares to Grover Norquist's credo: "My goal is to cut government in half. I simply want to reduce it to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub."

Sometimes happy people can be irritating. More often than not, they've realized that life is infinitely more bearable if one maintains a positive attitude. Whether these sentiments come from popular songs or common wisdom, they can be stepping stones to a brighter future:
When my computer suffered a malware attack this weekend (after I had suffered through four days of sleep deprivation) I may have been extremely frustrated at not being able to get online. But thankfully, over the years, I've learned a very important lesson: When things go wrong, it always helps to look down at your feet. If you don't see a pool of blood, you might just live to see another day.

Not everyone handles adversity that way.
  • Some people keep so much anger bottled up inside of them that others steer clear of them for fear of what might set them off.
  • Some people cloak themselves in a near-impenetrable coat of emotional armor in order to avoid any perception of being vulnerable.
  • Some people obsess about all the wrongs that have been perpetrated on them.
  • Some people refuse to own the blame for their misdeeds.
A person who awakens every morning with a smile on his face is not necessarily a Pollyanna. Instead, that person may have enough self confidence to embrace life and all the opportunities that come with the dawn of a new day. As Auntie Mame used to insist, "Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death!"

The bottom line is that people are attracted to confidence. Perhaps no one expresses her self confidence better than Linda Low (Nancy Kwan) in this song from Rodgers & Hammerstein's 1958 musical, Flower Drum Song.

Getting to the point where one continues to have a positive outlook on life is not always easy. Often, one has to overcome a basic fear of change. Sometimes one has to conquer deep-seated insecurities -- as seen in two new movies that will be screened at the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival as well as in a beloved -- and very old-fashioned -- Broadway musical.

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In Reach For Me, the audience's first impression of 73-year-old Alvin (Seymour Cassel) is not a very pleasant one. A severely dysfunctional patient at a ritzy hospice facility, Alvin is a macho pig who has turned into a nasty old coot. Even with a limited window of time in front of him, he remains a bitter, self-centered prick whose abrasive personality is often made worse by his fears.

There are solid reasons for Alvin's unhappiness. The ghost of his deceased wife Nell (Charlene Blaine) frequently shows up for imaginary visits to criticize him for his selfishness. Nell, who committed suicide on their 12th wedding anniversary by swallowing a bullet, also likes to blow cigarette smoke in Alvin's face to remind him of just how unpleasant their marriage really was. Meanwhile, Alvin's hospice roommate Elliott (Larry Hankin) -- who might just be the closest thing Alvin has ever had to a friend -- has just died.

Alvin is not a happy camper.

Evelyn, the floor nurse (Alfre Woodard) has had to remind him that he's not allowed to grope the female help. Nathanial, the gay orderly (LeVar Burton), is too busy listening to music or painting his own toenails to care about Alvin's miserable personality. Other hospice residents have heard enough stories about Alvin's angry outbursts to steer clear of him.

Alvin's new roommate, 25-year-old Kevin (Johnny Whitworth), is a handsome young man with a beautiful and devoted girlfriend (Lacey Chabert) who, as a third grade teacher, knows how to use a sense of fantasy to get through tough times. Whether Sarah is teasing Kevin with sexual innuendo as she readjusts the line to his colostomy bag or insisting that Kevin smell the Italian food that is too spicy for him to eat -- so they can at least imagine themselves to be sharing a dinner from a patio overlooking the Mediterranean -- Alvin wants none of it.

Written by Michael Adams and directed by LeVar Burton, Reach For Me feels like a made-for-television movie about how newfound sex and love can help hospice patients cope with the process of dying. Once Alvin changes his tune and tries to build some memories of which he can be proud, he even starts chasing after Valerie (Adrienne Barbeau), a cancer patient who must wear a wig because of her hair loss. When Alvin gets up the courage to peek at Valerie in the shower, she turns around to defiantly show him what her body looks like after having lost her left breast to a mastectomy.

There are times when Reach For Me feels clumsy, manipulative, and a bit too contrived. However, this film is dealing with characters who are in a great deal of emotional as well as physical pain -- people who know that death is just around the corner.

The contrast between Alvin's initially bile-ridden personality and Kevin's willingness to make the best of his terminal situation offers a stark reminder of what can be accomplished with a different outlook on one's [albeit limited] future and a rich fantasy life. I especially liked Johnny Whitworth's Kevin and Lacey Chabert's Sarah. Here's the trailer:

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Written and directed by Sebastian Silva, The Maid (La Nana), deals with a different kind of introvert. For 23 years, Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) has been the family maid for Pilar (Claudia Celedon), Mundo (Alejandro Goic) and their three children: Lucas (Agustin Silva), Camila (Andrea Garcia-Huidobro), and Tomas (Darok Orellana). Although she feels herself to be a genuine part of this affluent Chilean household -- and believes that Pilar's children really do love her -- Raquel's dysfunctional behavior can sometimes cause problems.
  • Ever the dutiful maid, she has complained to Pilar and Mundo about having to clean and replace Lucas' bedsheets every day because of his obsession with masturbating.
  • Because Raquel hides the children's snacks under the bed in her "off-limits" room, Camila is convinced that Raquel hates her.
  • Mundo depends on Raquel to cover for him when he secretly heads for the golf course in mid-day.
  • Pilar's mother (Delfina Guzman) has little patience with maids who dare to display their emotions or any signs of independence.
When the strain of keeping up with her job catches up with Raquel and she faints on the stairs, Pilar decides to hire another maid who can take some of the housework off Raquel's hands. Her hope is that Raquel can feel better if she is only asked to concentrate on caring for the children.

Despite the best of intentions, a control freak like Raquel can sense a threat to her livelihood. She doesn't waste any time before starting to torture the first new applicant. Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva) continually finds herself getting locked out of the house and treated like dirt by Raquel. After Mercedes quits, Pilar's mother decides to send in her own maid, Sonia (Anita Reeves), who is almost as formidable a battle axe as her employer.

After a knock-down, drag-out fight with Sonia, Raquel's triumph is short-lived. Soon she collapses and is taken to the hospital. Pilar's newest hire is more sensitive, less ego-driven, and knows how to have a life.

Recognizing the mountain of hurt and insecurity that is eating away at Raquel, Lucy (Mariana Loyola) slowly works to break down the proud and stubborn maid's defenses. Once the two maids start to enjoy each other's company, Lucy even invites Raquel to spend Christmas with her family -- where her uncle Eric (Luis Dubo) promptly takes Raquel to bed.

An entertaining film, The Maid shows how, once coaxed from a shell of insecurity and bitterness, even a depressed and dysfunctional introvert like Raquel can blossom. Here's the trailer:

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No one would ever have called Perle Mesta an introvert. A popular Washington socialite, she served as the United States Ambassador to Luxembourg from 1949 to 1953. If a problem arose, she could probably throw a party which could thaw the ice. With a direct line to President Harry Truman, she was known to one and all in the nation's capital as "The hostess with the mostes."

Mesta had a key ingredient to making people happy: a positive attitude and a can-do personality. Lloyd Price's R&B hit perfectly describes her assets:

When songwriter Irving Berlin teamed up with Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse to create Call Me Madam as a new vehicle for the great Ethel Merman, the result was a match made in heaven. The show opened at New York's Imperial Theater on October 12, 1950 and ran for 644 performances. The national tour starred a young Elaine Stritch.

Call Me Madam is currently receiving a top-notch revival from the folks at 42nd Street Moon with Klea Blackhurst starring as Sally Adams, Rob Hatzenbeller as Cosmo Constantine, Peter Budinger as Sebastian Sebastian, Gabriel Grilli as Pemberton Maxwell and Charlie Levy as Kenneth Gibson. Under Dyan McBride's deft direction, strong cameos came from Scarlett Hepworth (doubling as Republican Congresswoman Wilkins and Lichtenberg's Grand Duchess Sophie) and Giana DeGeiso as Princess Maria.

Klea Blackhurst as Sally Adams (Photo by: David Allen)

As with many musicals that were created for Ethel Merman, the show is crafted around a performer with a strong personality. Klea Blackhurst (who actually sang selections from the show at a concert in Luxembourg two years ago) displayed a combination of comic surety and vocal confidence that has been sorely missing from the musical stage.

Rob Hatzenbeller, Giana DeGeiso, and Klea Blackhurst
(Photo by: David Allen)

As one listens to Berlin's merry score, one is struck by how fresh it sounds and how much Berlin's music makes one long for the days when a Broadway show could boast a slew of "toe-tapping" songs (it's hard to resist the lilting charm of "Dance To The Music of the Ocarina"). While Berlin's songs may not be accompanied by a heavy rock beat, they communicate so much joy, happiness, optimism, and unabashed sentimentality that their sheer exuberance has an intoxicating effect on the audience (it's interesting to note that, between his scores for 1946's Annie Get Your Gun and 1950's Call Me Madam, Berlin had 11 hit songs become national standards).

While Call Me Madam mocked Washington political circles (one female representative always introduces herself by saying "I'm the Republican!"), it was chock full of great songs such as "The Hostess With The Mostes' on the Ball," "Marrying For Love," "The Best Thing For You (Would Be Me)," It's A Lovely Day Today, and the show's biggest hit, You're Just In Love. One of the funniest (although less popular) songs from the show can be heard in this clip from the film version, with Merman explaining America's foreign aid policy to George Sanders.

The preview performance I attended was also billed as a "Luxembourg Gala." Hosted by the Honorable Georges Faber, Consul General of Luxembourg (who still has fond memories of Ambassador Mesta's visits to his country), the Consul General has mounted an impressive display about Perle Mesta in the theater's lobby. The show continues through October 18th at the Eureka Theatre. You can order tickets here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Highways To Hell

Long before Mapquest, Yahoo and Google Maps offered instant gratification for drivers trying to figure out the best way to get from one place to another, planning for a road trip often required some serious attention to a map. Men who were willing to follow directions would frequently contact their local automobile association's travel department, where their membership dues entitled them to trip planning services.

Whether my family was planning a trip to one of the National Science Foundation summer institutes my father had qualified for (try sharing the back seat of a 1949 Plymouth with your older sister and a French horn all the way from Brooklyn to Boulder, Colorado!) or merely traveling to visit relatives in Alexandria, Virginia, the arrival of a Conoco trip planner was a sure sign that we were actually going somewhere outside of New York City.

Ever since automobile travel became a mainstay of American culture, the road trip has come to symbolize an important event. For some, it may simply involve a daily commute. For others, it becomes a rite of passage. For some, it may signify the moment when a teenager leaves home to go to college. For others it might be little more than a casual weekend getaway.

Whether one travels by car, hitches rides with truck drivers, or takes one's own sweet time crossing the country on a lawnmower, the open road offers travelers a chance to think, meet new people, and get out of a rut. Among the more popular "road trip" movies are:
Two new additions to the genre will be screened next month at the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival. Each tells a compelling story and has its own quirky appeal.

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Anyone whose parents still treat him like a child (or who has difficulty communicating with his parents) will lose no time falling head over heels in love with Bomber, a brilliant new film written and directed by Paul Cotter. The cast is tiny, the anger huge, and the surprises shocking. Yet this tightly written and beautifully performed film is an astonishing achievement in bringing emotional honesty to the screen.

Bomber starts as Ross (Shane Taylor) is awakened by his alarm watch. Much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Leslie (Sara Kessel) -- who has some severe issues with codependency -- Ross has promised to see his parents off on a trip his father has planned from England to some small town in Germany. At 83, Alistair (Benjamin Whitrow) is a stubborn old coot. Ross's mother, Valerie (Eileen Nicholas), is the archetypal long-suffering wife.

As soon as his parents have gotten into their car and Ross has said goodbye, his father shifts into the wrong gear and drives the car right back into the garage. As a result, Ross (who is an unemployed artist) gets guilt-tripped into driving his parents to their destination for what should be a short, easy trip.

Then again, it's a road trip with his parents. Alistair is using a map that is at least 25 years old and refuses to spend the extra money to drive on toll roads. Instead, he is quite content to use Europe's smaller, slower "B" roads. Even though Ross's parents have carefully discussed the parameters of their trip, Valerie is needling for a stop at a rhododendron park mentioned in her guidebook and would also like to drive to Warsaw to buy a pair of shoes.

As you might have guessed, Alistair and Valerie have precious little talent for communicating with each other. It takes no time at all for their annoying habits and constant nagging (not to mention Leslie's frequent phone calls) to work every one of Ross's hypersensitive nerves.

Ross (Shane Taylor) and his father (Benjamin Whitrow)

If Ross's father would explain the reason for this trip -- which he now feels must be undertaken before he dies -- it might help to defuse the tension. But all Alistair has to guide him is an aerial photo of a small town that he took as a young pilot in the Royal Air Force who accidentally dropped his bombs on the wrong target. The fact that neither Alistair, Valerie, and Ross know little, if any German, does not help them explain their mission to the locals.

Ross (Shane Taylor) vents his frustrations

As tensions mount, and Leslie dumps Ross over the phone (claiming that she deserves better), Valerie starts to wonder if perhaps, she too, deserves better from her relationship with Alistair. Ross's attempts to get his parents to communicate with each other are equally amusing and poignant. The outcome is at once gratifying and horrific.

Bomber is a marvelously satisfying film which (through the eyes of their furious and extremely frustrated son) examines the inability of a long-married couple to be honest with each other. I can't recommend it strongly enough. Here's the trailer:

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Before Oklahoma achieved statehood, it was known as the "Land of the Red People" and described by the Choctaw phrase "Okla Humma." Written and directed by Sterlin Harjo, Barking Water centers on a road trip that involves a deeply personal race against time.

There are no bank robberies in Harjo's movie (this film is nothing like Bonnie and Clyde or Road to Perdition). Nor is anyone trying to reach the proverbial hidden treasure that led to such wild romps as Rat Race and It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Instead, Barking Water is all about the challenges faced by Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek) as she signs her old boyfriend Frankie (Richard Ray Whitman) out of the hospital against medical advice. Both know that Frankie is dying of cancer and will not last very long. The question is whether Irene can get him back to his estranged family in time for him to hold his grandchild just once before he dies.

Frankie and Irene's on-again, off-again relationship has often suffered from the effects of Frankie's drinking and insecurities. Both are proud Native Americans who are broke. Although they have not been together for quite some time, Irene feels that. at the very least, she owes Frankie the "gift" of bringing him home from the hospital to die.

Using her wits, some old Indian herbal remedies, and any contacts she has along the way who can buy them lunch or put them up for the night, Irene is fully in charge. Even in his weakened state, Frankie can still be an asshole and, at times, he can still push Irene's buttons.

But Frankie knows that Irene is in the driver's seat and will be there to hold his hand when the time comes for him to die. Irene's quiet determination offers Frankie his only hope of seeing his estranged grandchild while he still can. As they head home across the Oklahoma prairie, Frankie and Irene spend time with:
  • Mike (Ryan Red Corn) and Cvpon (Quese iMC), Irene's two idiotic nephews. Both are aspiring gangsta-rappers with no future. Neither has much understanding that Frankie is dying right in front of their eyes. Hilariously clueless, they are at least good for a free meal (even if one of them only wants a huge helping of bacon).
  • Elvis (Aaron Riggs) is a bearded farmer who threatens to shoot when he sees Irene and Frankie lying down on his land. Curious about why Irene is burning cedar chips and trying to get Frankie to inhale the fumes, Elvis suggests they smoke some dope to help mitigate Frankie's pain. As Irene gets ready to drive off, Elvis hands them a baggie filled with marijuana to ease the rest of Frankie's final journey.
  • Roger (Jon Proudstar) is Frankie's nephew who once took them to a very special place to watch a sunset. After sharing one last sunset with them, Roger lets Frankie and Irene stay the night.
Barking Water is not your typical road trip. It documents a melancholy voyage undertaken by two old souls who have seen a lot of change in their lives, weathered a lot of difficulties, and must now find a way for Frankie to die with dignity. While Frederick Schroeder's cinematography adds an especially poignant touch to the flashback sequences, much of the movie's dramatic strength lies in the weathered face and stoic determination of Casey Camp-Horinek's Irene. Her face will continue to haunt you. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Southern Women in Crisis

Can't a Southern Belle catch a break? From Florence King's hilarious Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady to television's Designing Women, from Gone With the Wind's feisty Scarlett "Tomorrow Is Another Day" O'Hara to A Streetcar Named Desire's demented Blanche "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" DuBois, Southern women are constantly struggling with unpleasant truths about life in the South.

Their men certainly don't make life any easier for them. If Congressman Joe Wilson isn't screaming "You lie!" at President Obama, Governor Mark Sanford is humiliating his wife with some cock and bull (but mostly cock) story about hiking the Appalachian Trail -- in Argentina! If playwrights like Tennessee Williams and novelists like Margaret Mitchell aren't placing their delirious damsels in distress or under extreme duress, Rachel Maddow is telling the whole world about how poorly Southern women have been treated by men who don't know nothin' about birthin' no babies.

When confronted by competition from another woman or an inconvenient truth, some Southern ladies have been known to react in wildly unpredictable ways. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn (Kathy Bates) loses her grip when a younger woman zips into the parking spot she had been aiming for. Using her car as a lethal weapon, Evelyn justifies her maniacal response by saying: "Face it, girls. I'm older and I have more insurance." One of Carol Burnett's most beloved comedy skits was this spoof of Gone With The Wind:

Two stage productions recently seen in San Francisco theaters showed how Southern women react to disturbing news. Each offered a multi-layered view of complex characters struggling with their emotions. Each begged the question of whether the South should ever be allowed to rise again.

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Directed by Mike Ward with a great deal of tenderness, Southern Railroad Company's production of Susan Jackson's Blessing Her Heart (recently seen at the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival) introduced audiences to three Southern women struggling to cope with the sad new realities in their lives. In Biss Ya! Jackson portrayed Mrs. Peallin, a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina whose cheating husband had started a second family in South Carolina ("below and beneath us") with a woman who had been able to give him sons instead of daughters. In between trying to calm her yappy little dog and a larger neighborhood mongrel, Peallin is trying to prevent a Vietnamese woman from scavenging empty bottles from her trash.

With the economy in tatters, Peallin needs the bottle refunds for herself (even though she has no idea where to find the local recycling center). Nor is she able to communicate with an Asian woman who is incapable of speaking English.

A humbling encounter with someone far needier than herself helps Peallin realize that what she needs most is some company, perhaps even a friend who can help to pull her out of her isolation. As is true in so many tales of the South, misery loves company.

Diana Brown, Adrienne Krug and Susan Jackson
Photo by: Stacy Marshall

In Blessed Ruby, Adrienne Krug offered a glowing portrait of a wheelchair-bound geriatric slipping into senility whose mind wanders back to the day when she sang on the same stage as Marian Anderson. Claiming that her hair turned naturally white while she was still in her twenties (and insisting that she is most definitely not wearing a wig), Ruby speaks to people from her past, including her now probably deceased husband.

Blessing Her Heart finds Red (Diana Brown) visiting her mother's newly-fresh grave in a local cemetery. As she "visits" with her mother's recently-departed spirit, Red apologizes for feeling relieved when her mother finally died, and discusses all the little white lies told by medical personnel who care for the terminally ill in an effort to soften the reality of the dying process for family members.

Jackson's triptych of tenderly-written character studies offers audiences a rare kind of simply staged intimacy that is refreshingly honest and genuinely touching, deriving its dramatic power from its quietest moments of soul searching as well as the strength of her script.

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No sooner had the San Francisco Fringe Festival closed than the curtain rose on the first stop of the 2009 national tour of South Pacific at the Golden Gate Theatre. There is much to celebrate in Bartlett Sher's new production of the beloved Rodgers & Hammerstein show, one of only seven musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama. But before dealing with the clarifications about race and prejudice in this new production, an important point needs to be discussed.

The media blitz for Lincoln Center Theatre's production of South Pacific (which opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre on April 3, 2008 to rave reviews) has been claiming that this is the first time the show has been seen on Broadway since the original production had its premiere on April 7, 1949 at the Majestic Theatre with a cast headed by Mary Martin as Nellie Forbush and Ezio Pinza as Emile de Becque (in that landmark production, Juanita Hall created the role of Bloody Mary while Myron McCormick appeared as the rowdy Luther Billis). Nothing could be further from the truth:
The claim that the current production of South Pacific marks the first time this musical has been seen on Broadway since the original production is little more than an entertainment lawyer's marketing wet dream based on the fact that the 2008 cast is working under standard Broadway run-of-show contracts. If anyone wants to get really pissy about this distinction, they can measure distances (Lincoln Center's New York State Theatre is physically closer to Broadway than the Vivian Beaumont Theatre).

What does make this production different has a lot more to do with which version of the show is being performed. As many opera fans are aware, how an opera is staged may depend on certain cuts made in the score by the composer, director, or producer for any number of reasons. Some coloratura sopranos have been known to substitute an alternate aria composed by Rossini when performing The Barber of Seville's "Lesson Scene" in Act II. Some performances of Gounod's Faust skip the Walpurgisnacht and ballet. I've even seen two productions of Aida that eliminated Verdi's famous Triumphal March!

In researching the original production of South Pacific, Bartlett Sher found one musical number ("My Girl Back Home") and several critical stretches of dialogue that had probably been cut from the original version prior to opening night in order to shorten the show's running time. Sher's research also revealed that, although the island in James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific on which the musical takes place had many imported Tonkinese workers, there was a very dark-skinned local population as well.

Rod Gilfry, CJ Palma and Christina Carrera
(Photo by: Peter Coombs)

That knowledge allowed Sher to make a crucial change in casting: Instead of using lighter-skinned Asian children, in this production Ngana and Jerome (Emile de Becque's children from his previous marriage to a local woman) are so dark-skinned that when Little Rock's Nellie Forbush gasps "I had no idea they'd be colored!" she is expressing the kind of gut reaction that would be expected from a true daughter of the South if her white boyfriend had proudly introduced her to a Pickaninny who was, in fact his child.

According to Sheryl Flatow's program notes "When the show toured the South in the early 1950s, several Georgia legislators, offended by the lyrics' 'justification of interracial marriage' attempted to ban works that professed 'an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.'" That kind of racial prejudice still exists in the South and is spreading like wildfire among Birthers.

Other artistic choices made by Sher include portraying Bloody Mary as a more sinister (rather than comic) figure and softening many stage entrances so that actors are no longer coming out of the wings along a rigid line parallel to the footlights. Originally designed for the Vivian Beaumont's wide, semi-thrust stage, Michael Yeargan's fluid unit set adds a genuine touch of beach-like terrain while Donald Holder's spectacular lighting goes a long way to give the production the truly exotic sunsets that frame Michener's story.

Keala Settle and Anderson Davis (Photo by: Peter Coombs)

While the national tour reaps huge benefits from Matthew Salvidar's Billis, Keala Settle's Bloody Mary, Anderson Davis's Joe Cable, and Sumie Maeda's silent, but rivetingly beautiful Liat, the core tensions driving the show's plot are the three atypical relationships: Lieutenant Joe Cable's passion for Liat, de Becque's former marriage to a Polynesian woman, and Nellie's attraction to an older man with multiracial children.

The dramatic strength of any production of South Pacific, however, rests on the shoulders of its two leads and, in the case of this national tour, the casting is nothing short of triumphant. Carmen Cusack delivered a vocally sound, delicately-layered Nellie who is at once naturally exuberant and beloved by all, yet visibly shaken by her conflicting emotions about the new love in her life. As de Becque, Rod Gilfry gave a sonorously masculine performance highlighted by a stunning rendition of "This Nearly Was Mine." There aren't too many Broadway scores that highlight a bass-baritone's assets and Gilfry (who has always been a solid dramatic performer in his operatic roles) made the most of his moments.

Carmen Cusack and Rod Gilfry (Photo by: Peter Coombs)

The famous Rodgers & Hammerstein songs remain surprisingly fresh and moving, although I have always wondered how a rural hick like Nellie would ever use an adjective like "bromidic." In a rare tribute to the beauty of Robert Russell Bennett's original orchestrations, the orchestra (under Lawrence Goldberg's baton), stood for a bow following the overture.

When was the last time you saw THAT happen at a Broadway show?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Developmentally Enabled

Back when I was in elementary and junior high school, I often spent part of the afternoon alone. There was a small playground that had a metal slide where I'd go to sit, lean back, and stare at the sky for seemingly endless stretches of time as I watched clouds pass by, birds fly overhead, and let my thoughts wander in all directions.

At the time, I had no idea that what I was doing was a simple form of enabling my mind to set its creative juices into motion. I was totally unaware that the simple act of staring at the sky and letting one's mind go blank could have any kind of artistic benefit.

Originally published in 1957, Robert Paul Smith's memoir, Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing was soon followed by his How To Do Nothing With Nobody All Alone By Yourself. According to to Wikipedia:
"Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing is a nostalgic evocation of the inner life of childhood. It advocates the value to children of privacy; the importance of unstructured time; the joys of boredom; and the virtues of freedom from adult supervision. He opens by saying 'The thing is, I don't understand what kids do with themselves any more.' He contrasts the over-structured, over-scheduled, and over-supervised suburban life of the child in the suburban 1950s with reminiscences of his own childhood. He concludes 'I guess what I am saying is that people who don't have nightmares don't have dreams. If you will excuse me, I have an appointment with myself to sit on the front steps and watch some grass growing.'"
In his book, Smith stressed how children learn the art of creative and critical thinking using a methodology long abandoned by adults. Fifty years after it was first published, his observations still hold true:
"All of us, for a long time, spent a long time picking wild flowers. Catching tadpoles. Looking for arrowheads. Getting our feet wet. Playing with mud. And sand. And water. You understand, not doing anything. What there was to do with sand was let it run through your fingers. What there was to do with mud was pat it, and thrust in it, lift it up and throw it down....We were superb actors, aided in no small measure by the total lack of an audience, other than ourselves.

You see, it never occurred to us that there was anything wrong in doing nothing, so long as we kept out of the way of grownups. We did a lot of nothing. And let’s face it, we still do it -- all of us grownups and kids. But now, for some reason, we’re ashamed of it. I’ll leave the grownups out, but take a kid these days, standing or sitting or lying down all by himself not actively engaged in any recognizable (by grownups) socially acceptable activity. We want to know what’s the matter. That’s because we don’t know how to do nothing anymore.
When we were kids, we had the sense to keep these things to ourselves. We didn't go around asking grownups about them. They obviously didn't know...I think we were right about grownups being the natural enemies of kids, because we knew that what they wanted us to do was to be like them. And that was for the birds. "Hey, mother, you know what? Ted Fenster's kid brother eats dirt." "Well, don't let me catch you doing it," said your mother. "Go-wan," a kid would say. "Eats dirt? You mean, really eats dirt? Yer full of it." "He'll do it for a penny," you said, and you went off to find Ted Fenster's kid brother, and by God, he ate dirt, lots of it, spoonfuls of it, for a penny."
From one generation to another, parents have struggled to make sure that their children were given the opportunities they never had. Whether those opportunities involved piano lessons or ballet classes, sporting events or birthday parties, many a child's adolescence was crammed full of meaningful activities. In addition to a host of advanced placement programs for bright students, my high school had a girls chorus, boys chorus, mixed chorus, student orchestra, and a marching band.

In many of today's school systems, the arts have taken a beating due to decreased funding and a rising tide of anti-intellectualism. Although parents who can afford to pay for dance classes, private tutors, and other extracurricular activities still try to cram as much information as possible into their child's brain (or support the slightest whiff of talent), rare is the child who is given the freedom to develop his own artistic process. Rare is the child who is allowed to let concepts form of his own free will. Rare is the child whose creative urges are simply allowed to breathe and develop at their own pace.

A trio of recent experiences highlighted the evolution of artistic process from childhood to a point in life where a mature performance artist is seen to be still experimenting with new ideas, still searching for new answers, still finding new meaning in her work. Examining a trajectory of artistic development offered a rare chance to see -- from an artistic standpoint -- not only that we sow what we reap, but how we must remain vigilant about avoiding a natural tendency to overwater and drown new crops.

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A provocative new documentary that will receive its world premiere at the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival, Race To Nowhere is dedicated to the memory of Devon Marvin, a bright 13-year-old girl who seemed to have everything going for her until she received a less-than-perfect grade and committed suicide on February 9, 2008. Filmmaker Vicki H. Abeles was inspired to make Race To Nowhere when she began to notice how continually rising levels of stress and depression had started to affect her three children.

As Abeles dove deeper into researching the source of her children's symptoms, she discovered that many families are obsessed with a "fast-track to success" formula that starts in preschool and never lets up.
"I came to understand that kids everywhere are under a new kind of cultural pressure to perform, the kind of pressure that impacts not only health and wellness, but interrupts healthy development, too. These pressures aren’t just cultural. They are educational pressures from a system too focused on test scores and grades arising from colleges whose endowments depend on donations, which in turn depend on the GPA and Honors status of its student body. For too many, childhood today has become a time of productivity. No longer is there time for children to play, to discover their passions, to rest, to make mistakes, to self-reflect or to build the resiliency needed for a healthy adulthood. People in business began telling me that this newest crop of employees lack critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, communication skills, and need a great deal of guidance and instruction."
Much of what Abeles discovered was genuinely unnerving:
  • Increasing levels of homework and extracurricular activities have robbed many children of their adolescence.
  • Constant pressure to succeed has taught children how to create an appearance of success that masks their doubts and fears.
  • Thanks to the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind legislation, children have learned how to cram for exams without actually learning anything.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of overweight children has tripled since 1980.
  • According to the Surgeon General, a young person commits suicide every two hours.
  • 80% of the country's best students cheated to get to the top of their class.
  • 80% of teenagers do not get the recommended amount of sleep.
In keeping with the pressure placed on children, Race To Nowhere presents an unrelenting condemnation of how parents, teachers, and school administrators have all become trapped in a spiral of competitive educational practices that frequently do more harm than good. As Abeles interviews a wide variety of parents and teachers, she makes some surprising discoveries:
  • One teacher who eliminated homework discovered that his students were actually learning more.
  • Many of America's top CEOs were "C" students who simply persisted.
  • Because today's texting technology allows children to interact electronically instead of face-to-face, many lack the social skills they will need in order to function in the workplace.
  • Because so many children have had coaches and private tutors, many expect to be similarly coddled by prospective employers.
There is, of course, one basic fault with this film: the population of sampled students comes primarily from heavily Caucasian and middle to upper middle class suburban school districts. Many of their parents are white collar professionals whose intense focus on their own successful career tracks (Abeles, who lives in Lafayette, California, has a law degree; her husband is often shown wearing a blue surgical scrub shirt) can translate into an insatiable need for attention to and achievement by their children.

After watching several documentaries this year that focused on student life in troubled inner city schools (where a child's complaint of a headache would generate much less concern), I found it curious that the most noticeable minority student to be featured in this documentary was an obese African American boy. Although their children are often under incredible pressure to achieve good grades, no Asian-American families were interviewed. Nor did there seem to be any noticeably overweight white girls, factors which might have clouded the important points Abeles is trying to make in her film. It seemed as if there was more ethnic diversity among the teachers and other education professionals who were interviewed by Abeles than the students from whom she drew her stories.

There are times when Race to Nowhere sounds like a desperate cry for help for upwardly mobile suburban families. However, if you are involved in any facet of education, are having trouble hiring qualified workers, or are simply another parent struggling to ensure that your child can survive in an overly competitive school environment, you'll definitely want to see this documentary. Here's the trailer:

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Watching professional artists play with and stretch their skills often allows audiences to understand how some parts of one's artistic process have become stronger than others, how certain talents seem to appear effortless while others require more methodology and concentration.

Not too many acts juggle origami, acrobatics, film, and letter writing. But for Bonnie Duncan and Tim Gallagher (whose Post Restante was a big hit at the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival), their medley of talents has led to a never-ending exploration of creative energy.

Tim Gallagher and Bonnie Duncan (Photo by: Androo Sokol)

Some bits worked better than others. in the following clip, you can watch them performing their "contortionist" number outdoors, accompanied by some pretty hot klezmer music from Emperor Norton's Stationary Marching Band.

This appealing duo (who met while performing with the Snappy Dance Theatre), shares a love for puppetry, found objects, and performance art. "We swing from the ceiling, fling each other across stage, and delight in both the impossibly grand and the intensely intimate."

Some parts of their act involve playing with shadows created by flashlight as silhouettes move about in shrouded mini-environments. Gallagher, who has also worked as a cinematographer, a medical assistant, and is studying to become a certified yoga instructor, loves to fly in his dreams (as evidenced in this short film that was shown during Poste Restante).

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Now in her mid-sixties, Meredith Monk has been defying categorization for decades. "I work in between the cracks," she explains, "where the voice starts dancing, where the body starts singing, where theater becomes cinema."

Soon to be screened at the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival, Babeth M. VanLoo's documentary, Meredith Monk: Inner Voice, accomplishes the rare feat of capturing a multidisciplinary artist's creative process on film as she documents Monk futzing around with sound and movement at home, in dance studios, during rehearsals, and with friends. The sequences shot at Ann Hamilton's Tower in Geyserville, California, have a near-hypnotic beauty.

The following clip, taken from Peter Greenaway's 1983 documentary about Monk, illustrates her word-free style of musical soundscapes. As VanLoo's new documentary demonstrates, Monk's artistic process has evolved to the point where her instrumental musicians must now be able to move around while playing their instruments as video offers a new set of images in the background.

Monk is an artist of multiple disciplines who seeks inspiration in everything she sees and hears, and may spend years refining a certain piece of performance art. What I particularly like about this new documentary is how it stresses the mercurial nature of her art and the inability of critics to cram Meredith Monk into any kind of disciplinary, ethnic, or national pigeonhole.

In the following clip, as Monk discusses her favorite memory of working with Charles Reinhart of the American Dance Festival, one senses the fearlessness and fluidity of an artist who is constantly heading into uncharted territory. Part of the beauty of VanLoo's documentary is that the audience is given a rare chance to witness an artist's creative growth while understanding the kind of personal growth that has fed the depth and breadth of Monk's creativity.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Glorifying The Grotesque

Art isn't always pretty. Many artists struggle to take their creativity in new directions, challenge the status quo, flex their artistic muscle and hope to achieve some kind of breakthrough. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don't.

Sometimes, turning a common perception upside down and inside out can have surprising results. Witness the artist Midori as she describes her "LoveSeat" installation at Seattle's 2009 Erotic Art Festival and how the public's interaction with her art brought some unexpected delights:

The 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival included several attractions that went out of their way to push the envelope of "tasteful theatre." Some aimed to entertain, others wanted to make the audience squirm with discomfort. Whether one likes or loathes a provocative piece of art, one should always keep in mind that:
  • The artistic is attempting to bring a concept to fruition.
  • Where there's smoke, there's fire -- in other words, an artist's circle of friends will help to build an initial audience for his work.
  • While a controversial piece of art may find a new audience, it's important for a disgruntled viewer to accept that he may not belong to the artist's target audience.
  • Sometimes a piece of art really sucks.
  • When a piece of art truly sucks, it's okay to say so. If you don't like it, maybe someone else will.
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Among the more bizarre attractions at the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival was the world premiere of The Unbearable Lightness of Raya starring Miss Trannyshack 2006, Raya Light. "Ripped from the tabloids" would be a polite way of describing this show's plot, which follows a precocious child star who, after her mother coaches her in how to give a casting agent a blow job, gets cast as "Margo From Fargo," rises to stardom and selfishness before going from sold out to selling out. The show's publicity blurb states that:
"At a very young age, Raya Light was destined to be the greatest star that ever was. Well, at least in her mind! See Raya as a precocious 10 year old girl at her very first audition, foaming at the mouth for her first morsel of fame! Marvel at her meteoric rise from Tween Queen to Oscar winner! Fasten your seat belts for a wild ride of coke lines, sex tapes, collagen lips and worst dressed lists ...Hooray for Hollywood indeed! Leave your panties at home!"
Photo by: Jose A. Guzman Colon

Whether engaging in endless sniping with rival actress Kimberly Scott Thompson (Audra Wolfmann) or waddling around the stage in a fat suit in an obvious homage to Kirstie Alley, Raya Light leaves no moan unearned. Proving that big hair, a big mouth, and big pumps can only get a girl so far, the production also features Trixxie Carr as Mama Light and news commentator Bobbie Beaver and Steven Satyricon in a variety of small roles.

Directed and choreographed by Todd Alan Pickering, The Unbearable Lightness of Raya redefines the concept of a"vanity production." For those who thrive on tabloid gossip, there are lots of cheap laughs. I suspect, however, that a drunker audience would have helped matters immensely.

Kudos to Edie Modular for wig designs that, if properly mounted, could qualify as important pieces of municipal art. If you've never had a chance to see Raya Light in action, you might enjoy this "candid" visit with her:

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Another work receiving its world premiere at this year's Fringe Festival was the Dark Porch Theatre's production of Cockroach. Written by Martin Schwartz, directed and choreographed by Margery Fairchild, the publicity blurb for Cockroach claimed that:
"The piece, inspired by Noh, Butoh, and contemporary European dance theatre, stars Nathan Tucker as a nearly-deranged homeless man ritualistically returning to the scene of trauma, as goaded by Alison Sacha Ross and a post-human, insect-like three-man ensemble of dancers in an eerily expressive contemporary sound environment realized by Derek Phillips.
What is unique in Cockroach is the combination of its European-style approach to conceptual theatre with text-based acting and tightly wrought, well-rehearsed contemporary dance,” says Fairchild. “That tension between the art forms was extremely important for Marty and me throughout the process of conceptualizing and realizing this piece.” Schwartz adds, “And beyond uncovering the tension between the media, we’ve really aimed to use sound and lighting to help create a complete environment for the audience to experience Nathan’s incredible characterization of a ‘schizophrenic street person.’ Schizophrenia runs in my family, and I’ve come to believe that schizophrenics have something vitally important to show us about how we feel.”
Nathan Tucker (Photo by: Eric Gillet)

Unfortunately, Cockroach reminded me of a style of "agony workshop theater" in which the actors try to communicate the agony they are feeling while the audience experiences its own personal agony as it waits for the piece to end. To his credit, Nathan Tucker gave an extremely powerful portrayal of a mentally deranged homeless man. His dramatic strength would be well suited to work as a Cirque du Soleil clown or being cast as Fagin. To suggest that Martin Schwartz's overblown script and Margery Fairchild's stylized movements for the three "post-human dancers" were embarrassingly pretentious couldn't begin to do justice to their work.

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According to the publicity blurb for the world premiere of Tater Stew, the show is:
"... a dark comedy following the adventures of Stewart, a young schoolboy attempting to overcome the abuses of his maniacal schoolmaster. Aiding Stewart in his quest are Seamus (a foul-smelling homeless man), and Schmaing (a repulsive lunch lady). Tater Stew is certain to keep audiences riveted as they witness a high energy display of frayed nerves, strained interactions, and raw, uncompromising language. Tater Stew is signed, sealed, and delivered by Slop Hog Productions of Missoula, Montana."
Andrew John Garfield as Stewart (Photo by: Monte Jenkins)

There is, indeed, much that is riveting about watching Tater Stew, whether it be anticipating Stewart's next humiliation or watching a demented, angry lunch lady (Ciara Griffin) lift her skirt so she can urinate into a soup ladle and then spit into the contents of her stew pot. If it's sadomasochism that whets your palate, there's always the sight of Stewart (Andrew John Garfield) being beaten with a 12-inch ruler by his hysterical schoolmaster (Monte Jenkins). Or perhaps you'd care to watch the homeless Seamus (John Budge) eat some Dinty Moore's beef stew straight from the can, grabbing chunks of meat and potatoes in his filthy fingers before cramming them into his mouth.

Stewart (Andrew John Garfield) and Seamus (John Budge)

Whatever your perversion of choice, Tater Stew has a bizarre fascination that keeps audiences in its sordid grip. A gifted clown willing to suffer a lot of physical abuse onstage, Andrew John Garfield heads the cast of four. This is theater of the lewd, crude, and rude (often staged to hilarious effect by Ciara Griffin) that has the audience rooting for Stewart to get up the courage to take matters into his own hands. If you enjoyed Swimming With Sharks, you're guaranteed to love Tater Stew. Here's the trailer: