Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Misplaced Acts of Aggression

How often, when venting our anger and frustration, do we take aim at the wrong party? How often do we blame someone for something that may not even have been their fault?
  • What about invading Iraq (despite evidence that it had no weapons of mass destruction and that most of the 9/11 hijackers were actually Saudis)?
  • What about all those people who have been violently protesting "Obama's death panels" (even though they don't exist)?
  • What about the 45 Iraqis attending a wedding who were accidentally killed when American bombers aimed at the wrong target?
  • Remember how the the military attempted to cover up former football player Pat Tillman's cause of death when it was discovered that Tillman was a victim of friendly fire?
Sometimes "Whoops! Sorry, my bad," just isn't enough to save the day. A key element in two stage productions recently seen in the Bay area involved misplaced acts of aggression that had tragic consequences. In both plays, alcoholism and illiteracy were key factors that accelerated events down an unnecessary, ill-informed, and irretrievable path.

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In its final staged production at Potrero Hill's Thick House before the company goes on hiatus, Thick Description revived Octavio Solis's powerful border drama originally commissioned by the company in 1998. El Otro is a whopping piece of dysfunctional family drama that has only been made worse by macho stupidity and ignorant fools living near the Mexican border outside of El Paso, Texas.

Set in the 1980s, the play focuses on a stubborn, bratty 13-year-old girl named Romelia (Maria Candelaria) whose mother has remarried and sent her second husband, Ben (Johnny Moreno) to fetch her daughter from her no good ex-husband. Romy has been in the dubious care of her father (whom she adores), even though Guadalupe (Sean San José)is an alcoholic drug dealer who is still not fully convinced that Romy is really his daughter. Spoiling for a fight with the man who replaced him in the arms of his ex-wife Nina (Presciliana Esparolini), Lupe -- who is emotionally volatile, physically dangerous, and mentally unstable -- is hardly a role model.

Ben (Johnny Moreno), Romy (Maria Candelaria) and
Lupe (Sean San José). (Photo by Allan S. Manolo)

Mistakenly referred to as a Sergeant, Ben is actually a Private First Class from nearby Fort Bliss. A "by-the-book" soldier who didn't know his wife had a teenage daughter until he proposed, he is a reformed street thug who is trying to do the right thing. One of Ben's unexpected challenges is that Lupe and his maid Alma (Wilma Bonet) keep confusing Ben with the ghost of Alma's dead son, Anastacio (also played by Johnny Moreno), who was screwing Nina behind Lupe's back priot to his gruesome death and may actually have been Romy's biological father.

After a run in with a disillusioned border patrol officer (Michael Bellino) who can't believe there are people who want to leave Texas and go to Mexico, Lupe and Romy lure Ben across the Rio Grande to a mysterious ranch where dark secrets are revealed with a great deal of violence.

Ben (Johnny Moreno) and Lupe (Sean San José)
(Photo by Allan S. Manolo)

Under Tony Kelly's direction, the ensemble delivers a powerhouse performance. Sean San José's portrayal of Lupe is sufficiently delusional to scare the daylights out of any stranger. As much as I love watching Johnny Moreno onstage, I'd really like to see him perform in a few more plays where he's not getting beaten to a bloody pulp.

Others in the cast included Lawrence Radecker as Ross (Lupe's cowboy neighbor who has clobbered his girlfriend to death in a drug-addled rage), Richard Talavera as Polo (the gardener who is Alma's husband and Anastacio's father), and Rhonnie Washington as the mysterious El Charro.

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Any theater reviewer worth his salt will readily confess that his level of satisfaction over the course of one or more years is bound to resemble a traditional bell curve. Maybe 5% of the productions reviewed will be exceptional. About 10% will be truly loathsome. The 85% of performances in between those extremes will range from good/acceptable to barely mediocre.
  • Sometimes it hurts to see an important arts organization shower lots of money on a dismal project (which has been given a huge amount of rehearsal time) only to see the curtain rise on an artistically appalling train wreck.
  • Sometimes a critic can easily spot weaknesses that could be rectified in future productions.
  • Sometimes a performance is so amateurish that it is downright embarrassing to sit through.
  • And yet sometimes, as if by magic, lightning strikes with such artistic brilliance that you have to hope you don't shit your pants from the sheer excitement of what is unfolding onstage before your astonished eyes.
Bette Midler has often entertained audiences with recycled jokes from the legendary Sophie Tucker's repertoire. This one always gets a huge laugh:
"I will never forget it, you know. My girlfriend Clementine is a filthy, vulgar old broad. She loves to keep me abreast of all the latest in filthy rotten jokes and filthy rotten songs. She rang me up the other day and said to me, "Soph, listen to this one. You've never heard anything like it:

What do you get when you cross a donkey with an onion?"

I said to her,"I have no idea. What the hell do you get?"

She said, "Usually you get an onion with really long ears. But occasionally, when the stars are just right, you get a piece of ass that's so good it makes you want to cry!"
That pretty much sums up the Shotgun Players' production of The Farm, which has been playing on weekend afternoons in Berkeley's 350-seat John Hinkel Park Amphitheater (a New Deal project). There are no major names in the production and The Farm is being performed as part of Shotgun Players' annual summer outreach efforts. That such a small company, working with such a small budget, can put the overproduced efforts of so many other major theatrical organizations to shame is proof that no one theatrical venue has exclusive rights to artistic excellence.

Using a combination of beat box, spoken word, acrobatics, and dance, writer/director Jon Tracy has crafted a new stage adaptation of George Orwell's classic, Animal Farm, that is so fucking brilliant I can only hope it gets performed by companies large and small all over the world -- from local theaters with educational outreach programs to annual Shakespeare festivals (where it would fit beautifully on an indoor thrust or outdoor stage). In his director's notes, Tracy explains that:
"Shotgun Players and I have been looking to collaborate for a long time. They asked me what type of project I would be interested in spearheading. The answer was simple. Actually, the answer was in my backpack: Animal Farm.

I can remember, all those years ago, when it was first placed in my hands. I think it's the first book I read...that resonated. An allegory, yes, but perhaps for me a map. One that would help me navigate through this hazy world of hard politics and harder choices. A copy has always stayed close.

Why verse? Why spirituals? Why rap? In this day and age, living in Oakland, I live pretty comfortably in a patchwork quilt of race, sexual orientation, and religious belief. We seem to have a new sense of communication through the verbal arts that pushes boundaries while promoting heritage. No one form reigns supreme but all are made stronger by the synergy they create. It is the heartbeat of our times built on a tradition that has helped us survive in this place. It is our community's voice. This sense of community is on the rise but it still has to push through an old set of morals that fears our soulful revolution. So we have been pushed down and taught to think less of ourselves. Well, it has made us feel like Animals.

Now, as we look around at an Obama Nation, we start to feel our own revolution beginning -- and, hey -- it feels good. This is the exact time we need to remember ol' Animal Farm, for we too, thrust into a leadership position are susceptible to that very addictive drug of power. "But we're the good guys! We're noble and evolved".. you say? I say "I think I've heard that somewhere before..." This is an Animal Farm for us."
One often witnesses theater and opera companies trying to update the classics in an effort to revitalize them or make them more relevant to younger audiences. Many such efforts fail miserably. The Farm, however, is a shining example of what happens when someone (a) knows the material upside-down, inside-out, backwards and forwards, (2) has a genuine artistic vision, and (3) can make his concept come alive onstage in a way that will not merely thrill audiences, but make them want to run out and read the original text.

Ruben Oriol Rivera as Squealer (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Working on Nina Ball's rough-and-tumble jigsaw puzzle of a unit set (Ball also designed the show's heavily-tattooed and gritty costumes), Tracy has assembled a dynamic ensemble that holds nothing back from the audience. Among the major characters taken from Orwell's satirical critique of Stalinism and other forms of totalitarian oppression are:
  • Moses (Brent Rose), the crow who acts as narrator and is in fact the chronicler of the revolution.
  • Old Major (Daniel Bruno), an old boar who has been the leader of the animals on Manor Farm. Understanding that his death is imminent, Old Major urges the farm animals to revolt against humans on the third day after his demise.
  • Mollie (Mairin Lee), a pretty white mare who loves being pampered by humans. She has a fondness for sugar cubes, wearing ribbons in her hair, and dreams of going to the mythical Sugarcandy Mountain.
  • Napoleon (Chad Deverman). Not the brightest pig in the sty, Napoleon knows how to bend others to his will through coercion and intimidation. A true believer that the ends justify the means, he could easily be a Neonconservative drunk with power. Or a pig that's gotten drunk on barley mash and wants to learn more about whiskey.
  • Squealer (Ruben Oriol Rivera), is the pig who becomes Napoleon's spin doctor. Think of a scumbag propagandist like Ari Fleischer rolling in mud. A master of messaging and manipulation.
  • Snowball (Charisse Loriaux), the pig who is Napoleon's rival for power. Able to read, she tries to design programs which will benefit the workers and draws up plans for a windmill.
  • Benjamin (Kristoffer Barrera), one of the few animals that knows how to read. An old donkey who has seen it all, he outlasts most of the animals that were onstage at the beginning of the play.
  • Boxer (Brandon Simon), a strong and devoted workhorse who, when setbacks occur, believes it is his duty to work harder.
  • Clover (Stephanie Prentice), Boxer's female companion who wants him to retire.
  • Bluebell (Sarah Mitchell), a dog whose puppies are taken away from her by Napoleon and trained to be his attack dogs.
Chad Deverman as Napoleon (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Special kudos go to Ruben Oriol Rivera and Brent Rose for their predatory portrayals of Squealer and Moses. Chad Deverman's Napoleon is, quite simply, the kind of bravura performance and demonstration of theatrical craft that earns major drama awards. If you don't get to see The Farm before its final performance on September 13th, you could face a lifetime of theatrical regret (this production is a towering artistic achievement). Make reservations here.

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