Friday, November 13, 2009

Failed Families' Values

Conservatives like to huff and puff and threaten to blown down the House of Representatives and Senate if the so-called liberals don't respect their traditional family values. But has anyone checked to see what those values have become in recent years?
Maybe it's time to take a closer look at what's really undermining the nuclear family:
While it's easy to paint an idyllic picture of how married life should be, it's much harder to try to piece together the shards of shattered marriages. Emotional wounds, physical scars, premature deaths, and wasted lives are not the images Hallmark Cards hopes to sell to its consumers. No amount of stuffed toys and self-help books can truly alleviate the pain of a toxic cigar:
In a nation filled with so much household damage, emotional devastation, and physical decay, where does a battered soul look to find redemption? Or isn't there any hope left? Three twisted narratives pose that question as they invite audiences into the tortured lives of their protagonists.

* * * * * * * * * *
As part of its recent Taiwan Film Days mini festival, the San Francisco Film Society introduced audiences to actor/filmmaker Doze Niu Chen-zer's What On Earth Have I Done Wrong? The film begins with a series of man-on-the-street interviews asking people what would make them happy. Amidst a sea of optimism, we find one man wallowing in distress, denial, and self-destruction.

As a television star (also named Doze) who is trying to raise money for a mockumentary he is convinced cannot fail, the filmmaker wastes no time creating a character whose narcissism crushes any hope of reason coming to the rescue. Doze is a classic bad boy, the kind of man who can't hold onto money, cheats on his girlfriend (Chang Chun-ning), refuses to take responsibility for his hurtful lies, and is often too drunk to understand the pain he inflicts on others. Although he and his girlfriend are in couples counseling, Doze is not doing much to help the situation.

Although his secretary has managed to secure a government grant, Doze wastes no time squandering the money on booze, prostitutes, and investing the remainder in the stock market. When an old gangster friend spots Doze riding a bicycle and renews their acquaintance, it would seem that the filmmaker's money problems might soon be a thing of the past. But while Doze and the gangster are going to strip clubs, drinking, and snorting cocaine, his mockumentary is going nowhere fast.
  • Production assistants who were supposed to steal the wig off a local politician's head on camera chickened out.
  • Following the advice of their therapist, Doze has finally confessed his infidelity to his girlfriend, Ning-Ning. But instead of forgiving him, she packed up and moved out.
  • A news report informs Doze that his gangster friend (who had promised Doze unlimited funding despite the fact that he was dying of liver cancer), had hit his head, fallen down some stairs, and died after being taken to the hospital.
There are times when this movie starts to feel like the Taiwanese equivalent of a David Mamet script in which people can't stop screaming "Fuck you!" Unfortunately, the protagonist's transformation in the last part of the film does not create any kind of believable redemption. Those who are unfamiliar with Doze's celebrity in Taiwan may find themselves easily becoming bored and impatient with What On Earth Have I Done Wrong?

* * * * * * * * *
Boredom is the last thing anyone needs to worry about with Crowded Fire's world premiere of Drip (currently playing at the Boxcar Theatre). More cinematic than some films, more poignant than many plays, Christina Anderson's drama follows two members of an African American family in Kansas City at critical moments in their lives.

Mae Roslyn (Mollena Williams) is an elderly woman who has just suffered a debilitating stroke. Although she can barely communicate in the real world, Mae's dream world -- in which she is still a sexy, young woman in a shiny, purple dress -- is packed with vivid memories of dancing with her husband Jerome (David Skillman), smelling the intoxicating aroma of his skin for the very first time, and arguing over which one of them should retain possession of a firearm.

Jerome (David Skillman) and Mae Roslyn (Mollena Williams)
(Photo by Melpomene Katakalos)

Meanwhile, Mae's grandson, Brughjefferson (Shoresh Alaudini), cannot accompany his grandmother to the hospital because an electronic anklet has kept him under house arrest following his conviction for drunk driving. The audience first meets Brughjefferson as he is getting a blow job from his friend Rai (a transgendered FTM), who may be the only person other than Mae who actually cares about Brughjefferson's future.

Brughjefferson (Shoresh Alaudini) and Rai (Skyler Cooper)
(Photo by Dave Nowakowski)

Billed as "a complicated and ardent legacy of love and scars," Anderson's play rhythmically alternates between Brughjefferson's domestic incarceration (and his struggle to get to the hospital in time to be with his dying grandmother) and the confused thoughts racing through Mae's mind. Two themes soon become evident: Although grandmother and grandson are separated by many years chronologically -- and can barely communicate in their daily lives --they care very deeply for one another. For Mae, however, the landscape of her dreams is rapidly changing from memories of good times to a desperate search for peace and meaning.

Brughjefferson (Shoresh Alaudini) and Mae (Mollena Williams)

Having basically lost her mind from her stroke, in her dream world Mae discovers a huge red scar on her body. As various female spirits embodied by a Shape Shifter (Melvina Jones) all discuss having similar scars of various sizes, Mae ends up in the care of the mysterious Fayebrown (Rami Margron), a spirit whose basic task is to help guide Mae through the transition between her stroke and death.

Melvina Jones, Mollena Williams,and Rami Margron
(Photo by Melpomene Katakalos)

A common conceit is that you never forget your first love (or, for gays, the person you came out with when you discovered you were gay). While the symbolism of the scars on the bodies of Mae and her fellow women is up for grabs, my interpretation is that the blood scar represents their first love or, perhaps, their first sexual experience.

For some people, that kind of blood scar or emotional wound diminishes in size as other lovers write over the memory of one's first love. However, for the kind of monogamous and/or obsessive woman who feeds on that primary love throughout her life, the scar's dimensions are wider, deeper, and infinitely harder to erase. Only by letting go can such an intensely emotional person die in peace.

Mollena Williams as Mae Roslyn
(Photo by Dave Nowakowski)

Director Marissa Wolf, choreographer Rami Margron, and set designer Emily Greene make exceptional use of their tiny playing space by letting the supporting actors (Melvina Jones, Rami Margron, Kele Nitoto, and David Skillman) form a Krew that can function as a kind of a miniature Greek chorus. The interactions between the confused Mae and the enigmatic Fayebrown glow with the magic of theatre.

Among the many deeply moving scenes is the moment when Brughjefferson (who, in his youth, had been sexually abused by the church deacon) lays out a series of photographs his grandmother had saved from each of his school years. As he shows them to Rai (a budding sketch artist), he struggles to understand why the smile and innocence disappeared from his face after one particular year. The unexpected appearance of Deacon Grey (Kele Nitoto) awakens long-repressed memories, with violent results.

Drip is an engrossing one-act play whose theatricality is hugely enhanced by the sound design of Cliff Caruthers. With some beautiful work from Mollena Jones, Rami Margron, Shoresh Alaudini, and Skyler Cooper, Drip will keep you in its grip long after the house lights come up.

* * * * * * * * * *
Over at the Magic Theater, playwright John Kolvenbach has directed the world premiere of his newest play, Mrs. Whitney. Although billed as a sequel to Kolvenbach's Goldfish, there is really very little one needs to remember from Goldfish in order to become fully engrossed in Mrs. Whitney.

For those who do recall, Margaret Whitney is a single mother whose daughter has just gone off to college and found a life of her own. Alone in her empty house, with little more to console her than the contents of the liquor cabinet, Margaret is climbing the walls with frustration.

Patricia Hodges as Margaret (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Her next door neighbor (Charles Dean) is a quiet attorney who has always carried a flame for Margaret, but never acted on his desires. As her loneliness careens out of control, Margaret starts to fixate on her alcoholic ex-husband who, in Goldfish, was a source of nothing but bitter memories.

Beggars, however, can't be choosers. So Margaret decides to pay her ex a visit in order to see if maybe -- just maybe -- some kind of spark is still there.

Rod Gnapp as Tom (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

If Tom was a mess when he was married to Margaret, things haven't improved now that he's in the business of ruining his fifth marriage. His current wife, Louisa (Arwen Anderson) is fed up with his latest disappearing act, not to mention the fact that several of Tom's previous wives like to drop by to share their problems with her.

Trapped in a house whose front door is never locked, Louisa is shocked to finally meet Tom's first wife (whom he refuses to talk about). After some discussion, she accepts Margaret's offer of a ride to the train station.

There is also, however, the issue of Tom's son from a previous marriage. Fin (Patrick Alparone) is an angry, confused young man desperate for some stability in his life.

With a father who gets drunk and bangs any woman who is available, Fin has had to cope with a succession of ditsy mothers as well as his father's constant disappearing act. When he arrives home from college to find Margaret alone in the house, her unexpected presence is yet another painfully unwelcome reminder of his father's emotional weakness and basic incompetence as a parent.

Patrick Alparone as Fin (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

As Fin and Margaret get to know each other, it quickly becomes apparent that Margaret (who is suffering mightily from empty nest syndrome) needs someone to care for just as much as Fin needs someone reliable in his life. Then Tom returns home to find, to his abject horror, the true love of his life in his living room. Soon after that, Louisa returns from visiting her sister.

As Margaret proposes that Tom live with her, she demolishes each and every one of his objections with the death-defying power of a surgeon holding a new laser in his hand. Later, when Tom reconsiders and proposes that he and Margaret remarry, his "Broken" soliloquy -- the kind of writing a theatergoer waits for months to hear -- is made all the more poignant by Rod Gnapp's magnificent delivery.

Kolvenbach has directed Mrs. Whitney with a strong sense of where his characters are going, even if the audience may not always be with him. The underlying problem here is that each of the characters in his play is so miserably complex -- and such a complex package of misery -- that there is no possibility of wrapping things up in a neat and tidy fashion.

As at the beginning of the play, Margaret ends the show by confessing that she is a romantic. The problem is that, after so many years of bitter disappointment, she still believes. Here's the trailer:

No comments: