Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Overhyped and Overpriced

Make no mistake: we are drowning in an ocean of hyperbole. In recent years, the media's tendency to hype the importance of every potentially inconsequential event has led to a society in which everything is ranked as superlative, must-see, or demanding one's immediate attention.
  • Despite plenty of proof to the contrary, the media continues to hype the lie that the United States has the greatest healthcare system in the world.
  • By 2002, certain events were already being billed as the "biggest" whatever of the century.
  • Rather than deal with substantial and newsworthy issues of the day, American media can easily be distracted for hours by something as stupid as O. J. Simpson traveling in a white SUV or a shiny balloon purported to be carrying a six-year-old boy.
  • Whipped into a frenzy by corporate interests, subcultures like the Teabaggers are spoiling for a fight, even if they don't really understand what they're fighting for.
  • While Barack Obama attempts to define a strategy for dealing with the mess in Afghanistan, assholes of failure like Dick Cheney keep demanding a quick decision based on faulty, outdated intelligence.
The sad truth is that not everything can be the biggest, the best, the most expensive, or the most critical. Complex problems demand a quieter, more subtle approach. Sometimes the results work out well, sometimes they don't.

Some things (whether they be staged events or even our lives) rarely rise above the hum-drum and mediocre. An act that wows people in one culture may bore people in another. The cachet one expects as a result of financial or social standing in some circles, may not impress in others.

The bottom line? As hard as one might try, you can't always buy love.

* * * * * * * *
A recent co-production between Stephanie Weisman (Artistic/Executive Director of The Marsh), James Donlon (head of San Francisco's Flying Actor Studio), the Lit Moon World Theater Festival in Santa Barbara, and Theatre Alfredvedvore (an alternative theater company based in Prague) led to the recent presentation of an International Czech Theatre Festival that played at The Marsh. The ultimate goal of this budding new artistic alliance, named the Change & Exchange program, is to provide opportunities for artists connected with The Marsh to tour Central and Eastern Europe under the auspices of New Web (a network for independent theater projects throughout the Czech Republic and its neighbors).

I caught three of the four productions being presented in San Francisco and noticed some striking albeit unfortunate similarities:
  • Although each performance I saw ran about 60 minutes, each was about 30 minutes too long.
  • Although each performance depended on strong skills in mime, clowning, improvisation, and movement, the overall impression from the performances I saw was one of startling dullness.
  • At two of the three performances I attended, the musical accompaniment proved to be far more interesting than the drama that was supposed to hold my attention.
  • While these acts were billed as the kind of exciting, experimental new theatre that isn't seen very often in the United States, they struck me more as the kind of work that might have fascinated university theatre departments during the 1960s.

Steve Capko is Brick Circk

Billed as "classic European clowning from the heart of the rich Prague tradition," Steve Capko's Brick Circk was as lighthearted as one of the bricks he used as a prop. While clowns are not always funny, they're usually entertaining. Capko's act left me cold.

Vojta Svejda in Albert's Fear

Much more interesting was Albert's Fear, which had been directed by James Donlon. Created and performed by Vojta Svejda (with accompaniment by Jiri Mraz and Martin Zpevak on double bass, harmonica, clarinet, and percussion), this piece offers the very talented Svejda a chance to show the full range of his impressive skills as a young, timid boy who is trying to overcome his inhibitions. Whether dreaming that he is a pirate (with an obnoxious parrot on his shoulder), going down to a dark cellar to fetch some potatoes for dinner, or trying to fend off a bully at school, Svejda is an engaging performer whose charms are easily embraced by his audience.

Svejda's acting strength is obvious as his bright blue eyes beg for courage, his mouth produces sounds ranging from spoken text to childlike gibberish, and his deft use of body language shows a solid background in mime. While Albert's Fear tries to bring the audience inside a child's fears and fantasies, it seems more like a 10-minute sketch that has been overblown to fill an hour-long slot at fringe festivals.

In Polaris, Svejda was paired with Jan Beneš-McGradie as two 19th century Arctic explorers who are freezing to death. In some ways, Polaris feels like an artistic interpretation of life on the Pribilof Islands as the two artists mime the movements of adult and baby penguins, curious fish, flying geese, freezing dogs, hungry wolves, and skillfully enact a peculiar tango for walruses while dreaming about how the media will depict their heroism.

Vojta Svejda and Jan Beneš-McGradie in Polaris

As actor Jan Beneš-McGadie notes:
"Our performance style is based on subtle, precise expression which is born out of stillness and the act of waiting. We deal with the tensions between the inner movement of thought and the motionless body in surroundings which never cease to move. Both characters thus embody the surreal imaginings which are brought forth in frozen and starving conditions from their troubled heads."
From the opening moments of the play until the ice collapses beneath them and one of the explorers drowns, both actors work very hard to communicate their futile dreams of making love and coming home to glory (even as they freeze to death in a blizzard). Nominated for a "Total Theatre Award" at the 2008 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Polaris is a clear example of what can happen when the inherent power of the music chosen to accompany a small act dwarfs the actual drama. This fuzzy video clip from Edinburgh offers a good example:

* * * * * * * *
Since the 9/11 catastrophe, New York City has experienced a surge in births. While the bulk of these children will end up in New York's public school system, for an elite few the first step on a career path aimed at fame and fortune begins even before they return home from the hospital. As the offspring of wealthy professionals, these children enter a lifestyle filled with love, luxury, often unreasonable expectations, and incredible pressure to succeed.

Whereas an infant can be quite content to play with dirt, drool, or the edge of his diaper, for overachieving parents employed in highly competitive professions, the simple things in life are never enough. Nothing frustrates the wealthy quite as much as being told that their money can't buy the access they so desperately desire for their children. Or that, like everyone else in the room, they are subject to the results of a lottery.

As I watched Nursery University during the Eighth San Francisco Documentary Festival, I wasn't the only person chuckling at the sight of attorneys and investment bankers (who can easily afford the $20,000 per semester tuition for an exclusive preschool nursery program) desperately jumping through hoops in their efforts to gain admission for their children. But I have a huge chip on my shoulder. I'm a graduate of New York's public school system, I graduated from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and my father, mother, and sister all worked for the New York City school system.

Marc H. Simon's new documentary may be the first to pierce the inner circle of upscale families who are struggling to gain their children admission to such exclusive venues as Mandell School, Chelsea Day School, and Epiphany Community Nursery. If you thought the college admissions racket was ridiculous, the lack of openings available at such exclusive schools is even worse.

The limited enrollment at such schools has not transformed their staff into a gaggle of mean girls who act like snotty sorority sisters during rush season. Instead, it has fostered a mini-industry of professional consultants who can charge as much as $10,000 per child to guide parents through the nightmarish application process. Among the households profiled in Nursery University are:
  • The Pratofiorito Family: Little Juliana's parents want their daughter to have the very best in life. Although Cynthia's Venezuelan roots make her a little more down to earth, Tony's lawyerly obsessiveness with filling out each application with meticulous precision evidences an almost preening neurosis.
  • The Moon Family: Little Jackson's blonde and beautiful mother Heidi is an entrepreneur about to launch a new business. An Ivy League professional married to investment banker Roderick, Heidi finds it hard to believe that money can't buy their darling child admission to the nursery school of their choice.
  • The Slewa Family: Three days before her 57th birthday, Aleta St. James became the oldest mother in America to give birth to twins (Gian and Francesca Slewa) as a result of in vitro fertilization. A New Age energy healer, Aleta's search for the best nursery school for her children is not only complicated by the fact that they are twins, but by the growing realization that Gian may be developmentally delayed.
  • The Sprague-Kapadia Family: Layla's father, Wyatt Sprague, is a former professional rocker. Her mother Sneha is a stay-at-home mom. Having lived a relatively low-key lifestyle for many years in Greenwich Village, they are frustrated by the demands of many of the schools to which they have applied.
  • The Ashton-Ragoonath Family: Kieron's father (Kris Ragoonath) is a former boxing star who is now working as a bartender while studying to become a physical therapist. His mother (Kim Ashton) is the only one of her eight siblings to graduate from college. Although financially challenged, one of Kim's childhood friends (Roxanna Reid, founder of Smart City Kids) is a well-connected professional advisor to some of Manhattan's top private schools.

Jackson Moon plants a kiss on another child

As I watched Nursery University, I wanted to reach out, slap some of the parents and say "Now is not the time for this kind of idiocy. Aim lower." And, as the film progresses, audiences can see Aleta St. James forced to work with a different kind of consultant (one who can help her find a school that works with special needs children). The Sprague-Kapadia family checks out a local preschool nursery that is run as a co-op and is shocked to be welcomed with open arms. After enrolling their child with minimal fuss, Sneha Kapadia is delighted to take her turn as an on-duty parent one day a week.

Juliana Pratofiorito interacts with Wendy Levey
(Director of Epiphany Community Nursery)

One child gets accepted to every single one of the schools to which her parents had submitted applications; another gets rejected (to the utter shock and consternation of her mother). Despite such entreaties as "Who could say no to such a beautiful child?" reality takes a big bite out of some of these people's sense of entitlement.

Beauty, however, rests in the eye of the beholder. For more realistic types, there is much in Nursery University that may border on the obscene. But for others, Simon's documentary may well cater to a niche market seeking privileged parenting porn. Here's the trailer:


Unknown said...

Hi you might want to fact check your blog entry on Nursery University. A simple google search would have revealed that Cynthia Pratofioroto is from Argentina, not Venezuela. Her husband is not a lawyer but actually a graduate of Columbia Business School.

Ashley McKenzie said...

I wonder how many of these couples are now divorced?