Sunday, January 31, 2010

Classics Illustrated

Tina Turner (who recently celebrated her 70th birthday) may have once insisted that We Don't Need Another Hero, but there are certain folk heroes who will always remain dear to our hearts.
What these characters all share in common is that their deeds (real or imagined) have inspired others. Some have ended up in literary works, others have had movies made about their exploits. Some have appeared onstage, in history textbooks, and in opera. Others have gained their popularity through comic books and radio.

For those who have appeared in multiple media, a persona has often been developed which has then been inhabited by a succession of actors. Opera audiences are more familiar with this process, having grown accustomed to generations of artists who have interpreted their favorite roles. One could easily rattle off the names of a dozen sopranos who were noted for their portrayals of Floria Tosca, Lucia di Lammermoor, or Violetta Valery on the operatic stage.

Similarly, one could point to a string of great actors who have played Cyrano de Bergerac, King Lear, or Othello. Why have so many actors (including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Stacy Keach, Ralph Fiennes, Sam Waterston, David Warner, Christopher Walken, Nicol Williamson, Kenneth Branagh, Edwin Booth, Maurice Evans, John Barrymore, Leslie Howard, Jude Law, and even Sarah Bernhardt) aspired to portray William Shakespeare's tortured and melancholy Dane? Because the greatness of the role of Hamlet withstands the test of time.

Shortly after Beverly Sills retired from the stage in 1980, I was interviewing her about her new role as General Director of the New York City Opera when I asked her how it felt to see younger singers wearing the costumes originally designed for her in what many operagoers had started to call "Beverly's" Manon. Sills stressed that the role is actually Massenet's Manon, and that generations of singers have interpreted -- and will continue to interpret the music composed by Jules Massenet. If she ever felt that she "owned" the role, it was only in those moments when she was performing it onstage and "living the character."

Two legendary folk heroes are currently entertaining Bay area audiences in very different formats. Because each has undergone a long history of artistic revisions, it's fascinating to look at some of the changes in how these two characters have been portrayed over the years.

* * * * * * * * * * *
J.M. Barrie's symbol of eternal youth, Peter Pan (who will be arriving in San Francisco in late April as part of a new multimedia extravaganza) may have been an inspiration to children of all ages, but Peter never wanted to grow up. While Peter could fly back and forth from London to Never Never Land, time always stood still for him.

Superman, on the other hand, was rarely without a crisis. Whether leaping over tall buildings in one jump, battling evil, or changing clothes in a telephone booth (can't you just hear Elaine Stritch croaking "Does anyone still use a telephone booth?") Superman has been a folk hero of uncommon appeal.

In his earliest years, Superman embodied a kind of wholesome optimism about doing good, coming to the rescue of people trapped in desperate situations, and never boasting about his superpowers. When disguised as the bumbling Clark Kent, Superman could provide a romantic ideal for young women, a subcultural secret for closeted gay men, or a role model for aspiring athletes.

Over the years, audiences have seen Superman embodied by George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, and Brandon Routh (as well as Tom Welling's portrayal of Superboy in the television series, Smallville). Bob Holiday appeared as Superman in the 1966 Broadway musical entitled It's A Bird.. It's A Plane... It's Superman (a 1975 television version starred David Wilson opposite Lesley Anne Warren's feisty Lois Lane).

Soon to be screened at the 2010 San Francisco Indie Film Fest is a very sweet and nostalgic documentary by Brad Ricca which tells the real story about how the character of Superman was created. Rather than the tale of the boy whose father put him into a space ship as the planet Krypton was exploding, Last Son describes the personal events which inspired two young Jewish kids living in Cleveland in 1932: a young writer named Jerry Siegel who wrote for the Glenville High School weekly newspaper and his friend, artist Joe Shuster.

Writer/director Brad Ricca (Photo by: Chris Walters)

A Cleveland native who lives five minutes from where Superman was created, Ricca describes himself as "a teacher by day and an awkward filmmaker by night." As he states in his press kit:
"Though we all know the origin of Superman (planet explodes, mild-mannered disguise, cape and all that), we take it at face value instead of really asking ourselves: who is this strange visitor who landed face first into American pop culture and never left? In other words, it's time to grow up and look at the big guy in the cape not as kids (okay, maybe a little) but as adults. This is the goal of Last Son, the first unauthorized film documentary about Jerry and Joe and the creation of Superman. Using never before seen artifacts, evidence, and footage, Last Son will let us finally see past the flimsy glasses and ill-fitting suit -- so we can know who Superman really is."
As it turns out, Superman is very much a child of the Great Depression. It took years for him to find a publisher and, in many ways, his biggest publicity roll out began at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

Last Son is filled with all kinds of wonderful trivia that explains everything from how Superman got his trademark spit curl to his cape and chest emblem. With the devotion of a true comic book fanatic, Ricca explains numerous artistic influences that, in today's world, we might take for granted.

The archival footage from the 1939 World's Fair is a delight to watch as Ricca explains how Superman became the most popular role model in the land. Opera fans will especially enjoy listening to a soundtrack that includes jazz and player piano interpretations of the score from Giuseppe Verdi's opera, La Traviata!

Last Son's 65 minutes are packed with nostalgia for the musclebound superhero, the two high school kids who created him, and the way he inspired millions of Americans. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Over at the Golden Gate Theatre, the latest touring company of Fiddler on the Roof, starring Harvey Fierstein as Tevye, is in town for a limited run. The character of Tevye the dairyman first became popular through stories published in Yiddish by Sholem Aleichem beginning in 1894. Seventy years after the character first appeared in print, the creative team of Harold Prince, Jerome Robbins, Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Boris Aronson unveiled a musicalized version of Tevye and His Daughters.

Since its opening night on Broadway on September 22, 1964, Fiddler on the Roof has become a landmark of American musical theatre. I first saw the show several months after its Broadway premiere and have been lucky enough to see the role of Tevye performed by Zero Mostel, Luther Adler, Paul Lipson, Harry Goz, Herschel Bernardi, Chaim Topol, and Theodore Bikel. Others who have proudly appeared as Tevye include Jan Peerce, Jerry Jarrett, Alfred Molina, and Fyvush Finkel.

Harvey Fierstein leads the men in "Tradition"
(Photo by: Carol Rosegg)

Over the years, Fiddler on the Roof has been performed all over the world. The cast recording of the original Israeli production included the wedding music that had been omitted from the original Broadway cast album. This rare video clip shows a Japanese cast rehearsing the opening number ("Tradition") using the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.

In many ways, Fiddler on the Roof is a show that you appreciate more and more as you grow older, sadder, and wiser. Its Broadway premiere occurred barely two decades after the Holocaust. Today, there is a far greater understanding of what happened to Jews in Nazi Germany under Hitler, during the pogroms in the Russian Empire under the Tsar, and in modern times as anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head.

Certain bits of dialogue (particularly Perchik's desire to speak with Hodel about an important political issue -- marriage) have taken on new meaning in today's world, especially with the initial phase of the Perry v. Schwarzenegger trial concluding just blocks away from the Golden Gate Theatre.

As I sat watching Fiddler on the Roof for the first time in ten years, I was struck by some changes in the scenic design. Steve Gilliam's new show curtain (a forest of birch trees in winter) creates a wonderful atmosphere to draw audiences into the story. The sets (which, in 2000, appeared quite battered after a long tour) look much sturdier. Some of the lighting designs seem richer and more lush. I did not remember seeing so much foliage in the 2000 production.

Show curtain designed by Steve Gilliam

Thanks to the Internet, I was able to Google the set designer's name and send him an email with some questions I had about the current production. This was his response:
"Actually, there are significant differences between the two designs. This production is totally automated, the last one used stagehands to push the house around, etc. The trees are more in scale with the scenery. The house has a driver inside. The house spins all the way around. It is really very different. We have changed the inn, the barn, etc. This time, under the same director, we wanted to make the set look as though it was in a working farm, and functioning inn, a real tailor’s. If you are interested, log onto my website. It is the process of the design from the beginning of our conversations to the finished product, including construction photos and the like. At the bottom of the site are plans from the 2000 design."
The scenery wasn't the only element of the production that had changed. The last time Fiddler on the Roof played at the Golden Gate Theatre (with Theodore Bickel heading the cast), the production's sound design was so execrable that it was often impossible to distinguish who was speaking. This time around, voices were easily identifiable and, for the most part, clearly heard.

The one exception was Harvey Fierstein whose voice (like those of Carol Channing and Ethel Merman) is a force of nature that defies categorization. When speaking (or singing in the upper part of his vocal range), Fierstein's voice has that raspy sound theatergoers have become accustomed to over the years. But when singing notes in the lowest registers of his voice, he becomes a true basso. The result is that some sounds are not captured as easily as others by his microphone (or, perhaps, may be overpowered by the orchestra).

Harvey Fierstein as Tevye (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Otherwise, Fierstein's Tevye is a most compassionate portrayal in which the actor uses his hands, eyes, voice, and a keen sense of dramatic inflection to convey the twists and turns of Yiddish joy, heartbreak, and sarcasm. With original cast member Sammy Dallas Bayes directing (and recreating the choreography created by Jerome Robbins) Fierstein has added a comic bit during Tevye's nightmare in which he keeps telling Golde "Don't get up" as he crosses the stage to address the ghost of Fruma Sarah.

There are some other changes that proved interesting. In past productions Fruma Sarah has been sung by a woman. Sean Patrick Doyle (who will soon leave to appear as Chantal in the new production of La Cage Aux Folles starring Kelsey Grammer) is the first male to appear in the role in a major production. His powerful falsetto gives a new strength to the character. In addition, David W. Gilleo (the dancer playing the bottom half of Fruma Sarah) is now performing high kicks throughout the number -- a choreographic change that makes Tevye's nightmare even more bizarre.

Sean Patrick Doyle as Fruma Sarah

When Fiddler on the Roof was revived on Broadway in February of 2004 in a new production directed by David Leveaux and designed by Tom Pye, one of the musical numbers in the second act (The Rumor) was replaced with a song called "Topsy-Turvy" (that can be heard on the "new" Broadway cast recording). "Topsy-Turvy" was supposed to explain how -- as young men and young women began to choose their own spouses -- shtetl life was changing and the role of the matchmaker beginning to diminish.

Neither number was used in the current production.

On the one hand, eliminating "The Rumor" tightens the dramatic pace in Act II, speeding up the transition from the news of Perchik's arrest to Hodel's departure from Anatevka to join him in Siberia. On the other hand (as Tevye might argue), the number served an important purpose, showing how news traveled by gossip within the shtetl.

"The Rumor" is, in many ways, a gimmick song, which demonstrates how a message can be corrupted as it passes from one person to another (much like the old parlor game of Telephone). Here are Sheldon Harnick's original lyrics to the song:
"Yente: Rifka, I have such news for you.
Remember Perchik, that crazy student?
Remember at the wedding
When Tzeitel married Motel
And Perchik started dancing
With Tevye's daughter Hodel?
Well, I just heard
That Perchik's been arrested, in Kiev.

Others: No!
Yente: Yes!

Woman: Shandel, Shandel... Wait till I tell you...
Remember Perchik, that crazy student?
Remember at the wedding
He danced with Tevye's Hodel.
Well, I just heard
That Hodel's been arrested, in Kiev.

Others: No, terrible, terrible.

Woman: Mirala...
Do you remember Perchik
That student from Kiev?
Remember how he acted
When Tzeitel married Motel?
Well, I just heard
That Motel's been arrested
For dancing at the wedding.

Others: No!
Woman: In Kiev!

Mendel: Rabbi... Rabbi...
Remember Perchik, with all his strange ideas?
Remember Tzeitel's wedding,
Where Tevye danced with Golde?
Well, I just heard
That Tevye's been arrested
And Golde's gone to Kiev!

Others: No!
Mendel: God forbid.
Others: She didn't.
Mendel: She did.

Avram: Terrible news... Terrible...
Remember Perchik
Who started all the trouble?
Well, I just heard from someone who should know
That Golde's been arrested
And Hodel's gone to Kiev.
Motel studies dancing
And Tevye's acting strange.
Shprintze has the measles
And Bielke has the mumps.

Yente: And that's what comes from men and women dancing!"
In the original Broadway production, Bea Arthur's icy baritone nailed the number's final line. The current cast features Mary Stout as Yente, Susan Cella as Golde, Rena Strober as Tzeitel, Jamie Davis as Hodel, Deborah Grausman as Chava, and Hanna Delmonte doubling as Grandma Tzeitel and Bielke. Male members of the supporting cast include Erik Liberman as Motel, Colby Foytik as Perchik, David Brummel as Lazar Wolf, and Eric van Tielen as Fyedka.

Matthew Rossoff, Matthew Kilgore, Robbie Roby, and
Rick Pessagno perform the famous Bottle Dance
(Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Back in 2005, when he replaced Alfred Molina as Tevye in the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, Harvey Fierstein taped a special video for Passover. Although Pesach doesn't start this year until March 30th, it's worth listening to a message which has lost none of its relevance in 2010.

Fiddler on the Roof continues at the Golden Gate Theatre through February 21st. You can order tickets here.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Teens In Turmoil

The terrible teens may be one of the most frustrating decades of a person's life. It's a period filled with screaming contradictions, raging hormones, and uncontrollable mood swings.
  • A teen's newfound rebelliousness can go a long way toward undermining family stability.
  • As puberty takes effect, a teen's physical and emotional insecurities can tear the soul to shreds.
  • While a teen may exude an air of bravado, it is often covering up for increased feelings of paranoia that no one understands him and everyone hates him.
  • A teen's sudden surges of anger often make it difficult to communicate with mentors, teachers, parents, and other people who would like to help -- if the teen would only let them.
  • With sudden spurts of growth in one's body, feelings of invincibility can often lead to incidents in which teens take dangerous risks as they test physical, emotional, behavioral, sexual, and psychological boundaries.
  • When a teenager starts to sulk, nothing an adult says can help to ease the child's emotional pain.
Many a teenager has grown up to understand that things might have been easier if he had let certain people guide him through the rabid rapids of alienation and discontent. Some have written about what it felt like to learn that their parents didn't have all the answers. Some have even been put on the receiving end of a teenager's sullen hostility when their own children start to ripen on the vine.

Several dramas about troubled teens are making their way to Bay area stages and movie screens. In each situation, the teen is cursed with a near-total lack of family support. What eventually separates the winner from the losers is the question of basic intelligence. Whether it is the result of genetics or nurturing, some pull through in better shape than others simply because their survival skills rest on a stronger foundation that includes their intellectual acuity.

* * * * * * * * * *
In Penance (a short film by Ryan Gould that will be screened as part of the 2009 San Francisco Indie Film Fest), the audience meets a bitter middle-aged man who owns a small landscaping business. Caleb (Michael Cullen) has just landed himself in a heap of trouble.

After spending time in jail for an incident that may have been related to his son's untimely death, Caleb has struggled to win back a place in the community. When an autistic youth named Dennis (Raymond McAnally) answers Caleb's want ad for someone with experience mowing lawns, Caleb must cope with the signs and symptoms of Asperger's syndrome that can quickly overpower the young man.

Caught between his own high levels of testosterone and Dennis's autistic behavior, Caleb tries to force Dennis to live up to his responsibilities. But it's not easy going for Caleb, who quickly loses his other assistant (Charles Socarides) and gets grief from a neighborhood woman (Margarite Hardy) whom Dennis has crudely insulted. When Jimmy (Khan Bakyal) -- a young man whom Caleb suspects is a bad influence on Dennis -- continues to push the older man's buttons, all hell breaks loose.

Penance offers Cullen and McAnally some prime acting opportunities, even if it never clarifies which is the bigger problem: the young man's autism or the older man's inability to manage his anger. The dramatic tension is immeasurably enhanced by Malcolm Kirby, Jr.'s original score. Here's a sampling of scenes:

* * * * * * * *
Also being screened at San Francisco Indie Film Fest is a short film named Life on Earth. Set in Los Angeles, the film stars Trinicea Moore-Pernell as Lea, an 18-year-old girl who is about to age out of the foster care system. Sullen, directionless, and filled with moments of self-doubt and anger, Lea's rebelliousness continually puts her on the wrong side of adult group home counselors like Tamika (Sonya Maddox) and Miriam (Lisa Goodman), who are trying to prepare teenage foster children for independent living.

Leah has no desire to follow rules and doesn't want to conform to the choices offered by her legal guardians. After sneaking out of the group home, she travels to the Los Angeles Botanical Gardens, where a kindly and much older volunteer (Joan Roberts) tells Lea about the potential of planting tomatoes.

When Lea gets kicked out of the group home, she ends up in a shelter where she must fend for herself. As the film ends, we see her tending to the tomato plants that are starting to grow from some soil she has put inside an abandoned rubber tire.

Life on Earth's Trinicea Moore-Pernell as Lea

Jeffrey A. Keith's drama (written by Kip Pastor and Courtney Stephens) captures the frustrations shared by Lea and the other girls about to age out of the system. Although intended to finish on an optimistic note, Lea's chances of surviving on the outside (as opposed to ending up in jail or dead) seem pretty bleak.

* * * * * * * * *
While many critics have been gushing over Andrea Arnold's new movie, Fish Tank, the film suffers horribly from its excessive length. At 123 minutes it's way too long to tell a story that can barely fill 80 minutes.

Katie Jarvis stars as Mia, an angry 15-year-old girl living in a decaying housing project in the county of Essex, whose life is going nowhere fast. Mia's single mother (Kierston Wareing) is about as mature as her teenaged daughter. Joanne's latest boyfriend, the devilishly handsome Connor (Michael Fassbender), has some problems of his own.

Connor may have a steady job working at a warehouse that resembles Home Depot, but there's a lot more to his back story. While Connor seems to have a natural ease with Mia and her younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), he hasn't bothered to tell Joanne that he also has a wife and daughter on the other side of town.

When Joanne is too tired to have sex with Connor, her 15-year-old daughter starts to look like a pretty good alternative. As the old saying goes, a stiff dick knows no conscience.

Mia (Katie Jarvis) and Collin (Michael Fassbender)

Mia has also been focusing some of her attention on Billy (Harry Treadaway), a young man who lives in a nearby trailer on a lot where Mia has been drawn to the plight of an old horse that can't run free. While the horse embodies the sentiment that "The old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be," part of the problem with Arnold's film is its lack of forward propulsion and its reliance on nonactors. As the filmmaker explains:
“Katie had never done any acting or dancing before. She didn’t dance at all in fact, didn’t even like dancing. The first time I asked her to dance she was too shy and so we left the room and left the camera on so she could dance alone. When I watched the tape back I saw that even though she was not a dancer in any way, she was totally herself when she was dancing. There was no mask, no show. She was able to be herself totally, even though she didn’t like doing it. I thought I would take the risk. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work. Katie had never done any acting, but whatever happened I knew she would be herself and I wanted that the most.”
Mia (Katie Jarvis) tries to dance

It's surprisingly easy to admire Arnold's willingness to bet the bulk of her movie on nonactors while not really liking much of Fish Tank. Although Mia's anger is genuine and Collin is, indeed, an attractive lout, the film itself has long stretches that are intolerably boring.

There are times when a filmmaker's attempt to create a slice of life work of art falls short of its goal simply because the protagonist's life (though filled with trauma, doubt, anger, sex, and revenge) may not be particularly interesting. Especially when it gets dragged out past the two-hour mark. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
After the poverty of mind, social class, and soul on display in Fish Tank, Rajiv Joseph's new comedy, Animals Out of Paper, seems like a breath of fresh air. Currently receiving its West Coast premiere from the folks at SFPlayhouse (in a production directed by Amy Glazer), Joseph's drama focuses on three characters whose lives have all been touched by the Japanese art of origami:
  • Ilana (Lorri Holt) is an expert origamist who has written the second best-selling book on the subject. Despite her professional success, she is painfully aware that the book was heavily edited by her former boyfriend. Now severely depressed, she has been uninterested in folding paper following their breakup.
  • Andy (David Deblinger) is the treasurer and jack-of-all-trades behind an organization called American Origami. Keenly aware of his own lack of talent, he is nevertheless a compassionate high school teacher who, throughout his life, has made a habit of recording his many blessings in a pocket-sized diary.
  • Suresh (Aly Mawji) is one of Andy's troubled students. Before his mother was killed by a hit-and-run driver six months ago, Suresh was the pride and joy of the school's calculus club and one of the most gifted students Andy had ever met. A prodigious folder who fearlessly tackles complex polyhedrons without even planning his folds, Suresh's talent has been receding as the young man copes with feelings of abandonment, grief, and the added responsibility of running the family home.
Aly Mawji as Suresh (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

As the play opens, Andy has managed to track down Ilana. Even though he idolizes Ilana and, in some ways has a gigantic crush on her, he knows he has little to offer her.
    Once Ilana gets over her initial shock and rage (thinking that Andy was trying to intimidate her into renewing her dues), she learns that Andy's real goal is to get Ilana to mentor his student. As soon as Suresh appears on Ilana's threshold, it's apparent that there is going to be a generational conflict.

    Whereas Ilana thrives on clutter, and insists that origami must be pursued in a carefully ordered and logical series of steps, Suresh thrives on order and folds paper according to the rhythms that inspire him while he is listening to hip hop and rap.

    Aly Mawji and Lorri Holt (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

    It's always exciting to encounter a talented young playwright. Watch this video of a young actor auditioning for the role of Suresh -- it contains some of Joseph's best writing in Animals Out Of Paper:

    When Andy accidentally leaves his diary at Ilana's apartment, the depressed woman starts to read it -- working her way through the thousands of blessings Andy has recorded. Able to see his emotional pain more clearly than her own, she starts to feel compassion for him. The two adults begin dating.

    Whereas Ilana has been hired as a consultant who can develop an origami pattern that can meet the needs of a medical device manufacturer, Suresh has a greater natural talent for folding than Ilana could ever hope to possess. So when Ilana is invited to an origami conference in Nagasaki and informed that she can bring a guest, she chooses to invite Suresh instead of Andy.

    Lorri Holt and David Dehlinger (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

    While in Japan, two life-changing moments take place. At a ceremony in Nagasaki, where most of the origamists are creating doves out of white paper, Suresh folds two crows and manages to capture the essence of their hunger in his art. Onlookers are deeply moved by his work and, when Ilana tries to explain to Suresh what an impact he had on the people who watched him, he dismisses it as "being nothing" and "having no meaning."

    However, later that night, when Suresh begins to kiss Ilana (in what may be a romantic or a maternal attraction) and takes their friendship to a new level of intimacy that rocks his world. Upon returning to New York, Ilana has to explain to the teenager -- using the very same words he had previously spoken to her -- that the intimacy they shared meant nothing.

    Aly Mawji and Lorri Holt (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

    It is a beautifully crafted scene, played out before the confused Andy (who accuses his girlfriend of molesting his student while feeling betrayed by both Ilana and Suresh). Although Holt and Dehlinger shine as the two adults, I found Mawji's performance -- particularly a carefully choreographed segment in which he cleans up the mess in Ilana's apartment while listening to hip hop music -- particularly impressive.

    One might enter the theatre expecting a play about the art of origami. But one exits SFPlayhouse with a deeper understanding of how art inspires those who have lesser or no talent and how those who possess a natural talent (or freely bestow a gift of love) are often unaware of the impact of their generosity.

    Animals Out of Paper continues at SFPlayhouse through February 27. You can order tickets here.

    Thursday, January 28, 2010

    That's An Impressive Bulge In Your Shorts!

    There's nothing quite like a sensuous curve to set the imagination on fire. While Sarah Hepola's fashion essay, Swan Thong, offers a humorous take on Cosmo magazine's declaration that the thong is and should be relegated to the dustbin of history, curves are curves.

    Sometimes the curves which titillate us the most are not the ones most people expect. With the advertising world so insanely focused on women's breasts and hips (let us not forget fashion photographer Anthony Citrano's charge that a photo of Demi Moore's hip had been digitally retouched) and paparazzi battling for the best cleavage shots during award season, equal time should be given to the luscious and titillating curves of the male physique.

    Whether one fantasizes about Buns of Steel, "pecs to die for" -- or hums that age-old refrain: "A tisket, a tasket, Good God, you've got a big basket" -- male pulchritude can stoke the imaginations of both men and women. With the 2010 San Francisco Indie Film Fest about to begin, here are some of the more interesting shorts that will be shown at the Roxie in the next few weeks.

    * * * * * * * * * *
    Lara Everly's charming Me, You, A Bag and Bamboo introduces viewers to two shy and depressed youngsters. Clifford (Kirby Heybourne) has limited social skills. Even though he loves pandas and carries some bamboo with him, he is depressed and imagines a zoo bereft of pandas. Chun Li (Ceciley Jenkins) carries around an inflated Ziploc bag filled with her sadness and dreams about her dysfunctional father (Allan Havey) gift wrapping her head with a map of Wisconsin.

    As the two sit on a park bench, trying to figure out how to connect, they watch a Robot Dad (Josh Jacques) and his Robot Boy (Thomas Minkowski) playing on the grass in front of them. Once they realize that two heads are better than one, a realm of happier possibilities opens up for them.

    Me, You, A Bag and Bamboo offers a quirky mix of animation and beautiful cinematography as a little girl's voice describes how these two emotionally crippled, melancholy strangers finally work up the courage to say hello to each other. The film has a great deal of charm and originality.

    * * * * * * * * * * * *
    Kevan Funk's Weight does not refer to a person's physical weight, but rather the plight of someone who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. Wesley Salter stars as a birthday clown caught on a difficult cell phone call with his wife or significant other. It's hard to tell whether the options they are discussing ("Innocence, "Serenity") refer to a choice of paint colors (he keeps referring to something in the back seat of the car) or perhaps the interior lining of a coffin. "Everyone's just going to think it's blue," sighs the clown as he tries to load some equipment into the back of his station wagon.

    Wesley Salter in Kevan Funk's Weight

    Filmed in one long shot that slowly pulls back from Salter's face, Weight ends as a collection of colored balloons breaks free from its anchor and the balloons silently drift toward the sky. One can feel the clown's frustration and disappointment with his life evaporating, if only for a brief respite. Beautifully written, directed, and acted, Weight unfolds like a tone poem about an overburdened man whose job is to deliver happiness to others while he struggles to cope with the most banal details of a meaningless and sorely disappointing life.

    * * * * * * * * * * * *
    If black comedy is your thing, you're guaranteed to love True Beauty This Night, a sweet short by Peter Besson about the stupidest purse snatcher in the world. As the film opens, we see Rhett Somers (Dustin Seavey) nervously fondling a business card as he stands in front of a pay phone, trying to get up the courage to make a call. Also eager to use the phone is a very impatient black man (Joey Wells) who finally grabs the business card out of Rhett's hand, dials the number, and tells the person on the other end of the line that someone has something very important to say to her but only has five minutes in which to do it -- so she'd better pay attention.

    As Rhett beats around the bush, trying to explain that he has the purse the woman left with him the previous night, it becomes obvious that he is either shy and tongue-tied or totally inept at dating. He finally convinces Elise (Meegan Michel) to meet him at the same place they "shared a moment" so that he can return her purse.

    Alas, Rhett is not the sweet young man we would like to believe him to be. As we watch him shower up and get dressed in his loser's apartment, something just doesn't seem right. The camera follows him into a convenience store where the action takes an unexpected turn. After selecting a bunch of roses, a nice greeting card, and some other trifles with which to impress his date, Rhett suddenly dons a ski mask, reaches into Elise's purse, pulls out a gun, and proceeds to rob the cashier (Angel Nafaratti) at gunpoint.

    We then see Elise standing under the marquee of a movie theatre, nervously waiting for Rhett to appear. Without his ski mask, she has no idea who he is until she recognizes her purse. After the cops who have been waiting to nab Rhett subdue and handcuff him, he can't stop grinning as he is taken off to jail.

    As Rhett keeps staring out of the patrol car window at Elise (all the time smiling like a lovesick fool), she nervously signals him to call her. Later, as he is being booked and photographed at the police station, the photographer can't get Rhett to stop grinning like the happiest man in the world.

    True Beauty This Night is a delight from start to finish. Beautifully written, acted, and captured on film, this is one of the most entertaining and original shorts I've seen in years.

    * * * * * * * * * * *
    In New American Soldier, filmmakers Emma Cott and Anna Belle Peevey follow the stories of three immigrant soldiers who have chosen to join the U.S. military in order to become United States citizens.
    • Seth Donkor is a native of Ghana who won an immigration lottery. Having grown up on Rambo-style movies, he has always dreamed of becoming an American soldier. That dream is now coming true.
    • Clarissa Calderon is a Peruvian immigrant whose biggest dream was to become a doctor. The only reason she joined the Army was because she heard it would pay for her tuition to medical school.
    • Victor Toledo Pulido came from a Mexican family of illegal immigrants. One of the reasons he joined the United States Army was to become a legal citizen. Although he had enlisted as a way of getting out of California's farm economy, a year and a half after joining the Army he was killed in Iraq. Because his family did not understand the regulations, the period of time in which he could have posthumously been granted citizenship has expired.
    Seth Donkor from Ghana

    There are many moments when New American Soldier seems more like a military recruitment film as it shows how foreign nationals can legally become American citizens by joining the Army. However, as a gay man watching this film, one can't ignore the fact that these people will automatically be granted full citizenship by the Army and have every obstacle removed from their path while LGBT members of America's armed forces have been cast out in shame because of the military's misguided Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.

    Second class citizenship for people who were born and raised in the United States sticks in the craw when foreign nationals can waltz right in and be welcomed with open arms and full benefits. Thus, what should come across as a "feel good" documentary takes on a really rancid taste for some viewers.

    To be sure, it's no fault of the filmmakers. Just Army regulations.

    * * * * * * * * * * *
    Unbelievable 4, by Pyo Hong and Sukwon Shin, is a snarky piece of animation that depicts a team of superheros who alternate between performing as members of a rock band and being the kind of action figures who can save the world. When the Unbelievable 4 receive an urgent message that the earth is under attack, they spring into action.

    Condoleeza Rice in Unbelievable 4

    There's just one problem. The Unbelievable 4 are a quartet of total fuckups named George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleeza Rice. When they eventually lift off from earth in a space ship that looks surprisingly like a golden penis, they are shocked to look back and to discover that they've destroyed the planet they had sworn to protect. You can watch the trailer here.

    * * * * * * * * *
    The teaser for Entering The Mind Through The Mouth, a surprisingly vivid animation short by the very talented Jensung Choi, explains that:
    "This is the story about a cat with a boy's mind and a mouse with a girl's mind. They try to escape from a wicked tamer of a circus. A mouse takes a risk to save a cat."
    It's almost impossible to describe how the story unfolds in this captivating short whose brilliant visuals and Manga style help to create a a splendid alternate universe that has been conceived and rendered with great artistry. The superior soundtrack makes Entering The Mind Through The Mouth stand head and shoulders above many other animated shorts. Here's the trailer:

    Monday, January 25, 2010

    Men of Mystery vs. The Mystery of Men

    It's a conundrum as old as the hills. Men struggle to understand what a woman is looking for in a partner, while women struggle to understand men. Back in 2000, when filmmaker Nancy Meyers premiered What Women Want (starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt), she tried to imagine what would happen if a man could actually understand what women were thinking.

    Women already had far too many reminders of what men were thinking. Consider this lyric from 1962's No Strings (the only show for which Richard Rodgers wrote both the music and lyrics).

    "What are the poor girls getting?
    To whom do they raise a voice?
    What are the poor girls netting?
    They just have Hobson's choice.
    They crane their delicate necks
    But there's just one opposite sex.

    How sad to be a woman.
    Women are stuck with men.
    A lady's life must be dreary.
    Without a lady to call "dearie."
    A woman's cheek is for caressing.
    A man's? His trouble,
    It's mostly stubble.

    It's sad. It's so depressing.
    Ladies, I ask again?
    How can a woman
    Be like a woman?
    What do they see in men?

    A woman's hand is tiny,
    A man has just a paw.
    A woman's mouth is soft and sweet.
    A man has just a jaw.

    Beneath her chin lies heaven.
    A man has only hair.
    In fact, she's entirely heaven.
    It's blissful to be there.

    How can they make such a fuss?
    Over ugly, simple, predatory bums like us!

    It's sad. It's so depressing.
    Ladies, I ask again?
    How can a woman
    Be like a woman?
    What do they see in men?"
    If that isn't enough to make a feminist's blood boil, consider this scene from My Fair Lady (adapted from George Bernard Shaw's 1913 comedy, Pygmalion), in which Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) wonders why a woman can 't be more like a man:

    The truth, of course, is that despite more than a century of women being able to vote -- and close to a half century of the feminist movement -- men and women often remain at a loss when it comes to understanding what the other person wants. Although romantic comedy is saturated with plenty of heavy-handed treatments that forsake charm for belly laughs, three new additions to the genre surprised me with their wit, sophistication, moments of tenderness, and genuine charm.

    * * * * * * * * * * *
    Last weekend, Theatreworks presented the official world premiere of a new musical entitled Daddy Long Legs. With music and lyrics by Paul Gordon and book by John Caird (who also directed the production), the opening night performance scored a solid hit with the Mountain View audience, which rose to its feet in a standing ovation that (unlike so many others) was entirely spontaneous, genuine, and well deserved.

    Over the years, I've attended the world premieres of many opera/music theatre pieces. I can't recall a single one that demonstrated such craft and intelligence (or resonated so thoroughly and immediately) with the audience at its premiere.

    With much of its score through composed, there is very little spoken dialogue in Daddy Long Legs. Based on the 1912 novel by Jean Webster, this two-character show struck me as one of the most charming -- and organically cohesive -- romantic musicals to hit the stage since 1963's She Loves Me.

    Jerusha Abbott (Megan McGinnis) and Jervis Pendleton
    (Robert Adelman Hancock). Photo by: Tracy Martin

    Daddy Long Legs is a co-production between three regional theatre companies: the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, California, Theatreworks in Mountain View, and the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. An incredibly economical show to produce, Daddy Long Legs requires only one set, two actors, six musicians, and a handful of easily rentable costumes. As its director, John Caird, wisely notes:
    "Musicals can get endlessly stalled waiting to get to Broadway. It would be better for all concerned to be less greedy. Other theatres have expressed interest and I'd rather have a hundred successful regional productions than one successful one on Broadway. I want lots of people to see it."
    As well they should. Inspired by a novel comprised solely of a young woman's letters to the mysterious philanthropist who found her in an orphanage and underwrote her college education, the musical's creative team broadened the scope of the drama to show how charity affects not just the recipient, but also the donor.

    Instead of a one-way dramatic thread as young Jerusha writes to the mysterious man whom she imagines to be old, bald, and grey, the audience also witnesses the awakening of Jervis Pendleton's soul as he starts to fall in love with Jerusha through the power of her letters. In an age when texting has become the primary form of written communication for young girls, it's refreshing to see how much a person can express and reveal about herself through old-fashioned correspondence.

    The following video (in which various members of the cast and creative team talk about their contributions to Daddy Long Legs) was recorded during the fully-staged tryout at the Rubicon Theatre Company last fall. It is well worth 10 minutes of your time.

    What I found most interesting about Daddy Long Legs was the obvious level of craft surrounding the project. This is a lean, keen show from which audiences can glean a great deal of emotional satisfaction. With Megan McGinnis as the spirited Jerusha Abbott and Robert Adelman Hancock as the handsome, occasionally stuffy Jervis Pendleton, the construction of many scenes is astonishing in its fluidity, forward propulsion, and the depth of emotion each character is allowed to probe.

    Jervis Pendleton (Robert Adelman Hancock) and
    Jerusha Abbott (Megan McGinnis). Photo by: Mark Kitaoka

    By the time Jerusha's letters have started to provoke her benefactor's curiosity, she has completely won over the audience. John Caird's stage direction avoids the kind of slam-bang climaxes often seen in musicals (pay extra attention to the show's subtle lighting changes). Special mention should be made of David Farley's ingenious unit set.

    Moments of joy, confusion, heartbreak, and bewilderment are clearly communicated to the audience through Paul Gordon's accessible and remarkably sensitive music and lyrics. While songs such as "The Secret of Happiness," "What Does She Mean By Love?" and "I Couldn't Know Someone Less" are beautifully constructed, it is Jervis's surprisingly introspective Act II solo, "Charity," that is the highlight -- and in many respects, the turning point -- of the evening.

    The following video clip (also taken from the tryout at Rubicon Theatre Company) gives a nice sampling of Gordon's songs. An original cast album has already been recorded and will soon be available here.

    If Stephen Schwartz's cash cow, Wicked, has become the standard-bearer for musicals that empower young women, just wait until they experience Daddy Long Legs. Whereas 2003's Wicked may have been the most successful musical of the first decade of the 21st century, I'd be willing to bet that, in this century's second decade, Daddy Long Legs will become a musical that is much more deeply adored and cherished by women of all ages. Over the course of its lifetime, this mini-musical may actually deliver a stronger return on investment for each dollar shared by its co-producers than Wicked, which is an incredibly expensive show to mount.

    Daddy Long Legs continues through February 14 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. If you're smart, you'll order tickets before the run is completely sold out.

    * * * * * * * * * * * *
    It's not uncommon these days to find a film that has been written and directed by the same person. But a film that was written and directed by the same person and in which the filmmaker also appears as the villain? That's progress!

    Tony Herbert's romantic comedy, Speed Dating, is an Irish indie film with an exceptional plot twist. At the beginning of the film we meet James Van Der Bexton (Hugh O'Conor), a handsome young man who also happens to be the heir to a huge fortune. Ever since his girlfriend Jennifer (Flora Montgomery) dumped him three years ago, James has been languishing in the office of Dr. Birmingham (David Hayman), his pot-smoking shrink. Like many counseling professionals, Birmingham is tired of listening to James wallow in self-pity.

    James Van Der Bexton (Hugh O'Conor) visits his shrink

    Still moping about, James has been trying his luck with a variety of speed dating experiences. In his attempt to recover from being dumped, he has inflated his professional and amorous credentials to a ridiculous degree.

    Whether claiming to have been an astronaut, a tree surgeon, or a microbiologist, James has developed a reputation among event planners as someone who "scares the girls." As the film opens, we witness him making his way through an evening of speed dating and listening to a variety of women who are equally scary (and who don't hesitate to reveal their sizable emotional baggage).

    Although James has two drinking buddies at a local pub who are both worthless fools, dinners with his family are even more bizarre than his speed dating experiences. His father (Gerry O'Brien) is a stuffy, clueless aristocrat. His mother (Charlotte Brady) is a hopeless alcoholic. His sister (Nora-Jane Noone) is an obnoxious, rebellious punk whose latest boyfriend is a rock musician named Jupiter (Liam Carney). Jupiter's claim to fame is that his band, Elephant Sack, sounds like a cross between death metal and gospel.

    When James notices a very attractive woman who enters his favorite pub, he asks the bartender (Merrina Milsap) what she knows about her. After being told that "women like mystery," James decides to go into full surveillance mode, justifying his use of binoculars (and his spying on the woman from a nearby rooftop) with the reassuring statement that "It's not stalking, it's research." However, when Victoria (Olga Wehrly) looks up and stares out the window during a phone call, she clearly sees James and points to him as she continues talking.

    Desperately fleeing the scene, James gets hit by a car and bounced onto a pile of garbage. Once he is brought to the hospital, he is diagnosed with a case of temporary amnesia.

    The two detectives assigned to his case are more than eager for James to regain his memory, especially after the mystery woman (who had been arrested on charges of drug trafficking) is found murdered inside their police station. As it turns out, someone else is watching James as well.

    Simon Elliott (Tony Herbert) eyes James (Hugh O'Conor)

    Despite annoying visits to his hospital room by his sister, her boyfriend, and his two drinking pals, the only person who seems willing to listen to James is an attractive young nurse who hangs out in gay bars (where she knows she won't be bothered by obnoxious straight men). Using her nurse's intuition, Susan (Emma Choy) decides to help James regain his memory. After an uncomfortable dinner with his family, she accompanies him to a speed dating event.

    James (Hugh O'Conor) and Susan King (Emma Choy)

    Shot in Dublin and Bray, the film benefits from the inane performance by Don Wycherley as the overzealous Detective Long and Tim Dillard's cameo as Coco, a campy gay bartender. O'Conor and Choy are quite appealing as the romantic leads. As for Herbert's brief role as the villain (a corrupt cop named Simon Elliott), the filmmaker notes that:
    “My background is in acting, so I was always going to play a role. I believe that comedy and tragedy are very closely related and inherent in everything. So in that respect I would see Speed Dating as a black comedy.”
    All told, Speed Dating is a surprisingly satisfying independent film that I would easily recommend as a rental. Here's the trailer:

    * * * * * * * *
    A great deal of excitement has been generated in the local press by the world premiere of a new play by Jane Prowse based on Jane Juska's popular novel, A Round-Heeled Woman. Presented by ZSpace in its new home at Theatre Artaud, the dramatization is the result of a driving effort by actress Sharon Gless (Cagney and Lacey, Queer as Folk), who loved the book and was quick to recognize the possibility of creating a wonderful starring role for aging actresses.

    Sharon Gless (Photo by: Matthew Mitchell)

    In her novel, Juska describes the who, what, where, when, and why she placed a personal ad in the New York Review of Books which read "Before I turn 67 -- next March -- I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me." Juska (who followed the success of A Round-Heeled Woman with Unaccompanied Women: Late-Life Adventures in Love, Sex, and Real Estate) writes in her program bio that:
    "In 1999, I put my ad in the New York Review of Books and it worked. I found men to play with, some to blame, some to drive me nuts, to make me laugh, and sometimes cry. My life no longer lacked drama.

    When people asked me why I waited until I was 67 to venture into such a world, I gave all sorts of answers: 30 years of celibacy, a successful psychoanalysis, and I missed the classroom. I knew I was too worn out to handle it any longer, so I made a new one.

    Everybody nodded an understanding yes to the first two answers. But when I tried to explain the classroom in all its variety and its intensity, interest waned. So I wrote a book. It's called The Way It Used To Be: Tales Out of School. It is waiting for a publisher.

    So then I wrote another book, a follow-up to A Round-Heeled Woman, called Unaccompanied Women, available at your local bookstore. And then I wrote a novel -- why not? It is called The Ladies and is about three women who get rid of an odious neighbor. It, too, awaits a publisher.

    My latest is a collection of essays, most of them having something (but not all) to do with aging. Some have appeared in Vogue, Self, Madison, and in anthologies Single Woman of a Certain Age, Mommy Wars, and Behind the Bedroom Door. It, too, rests with my agent. Wish us luck."
    While Juska has since become an inspiration for postmenopausal women, Prowse's adaptation is remarkable for its dramatic strength, the lean, fast-paced direction by Chris Smith, and the fluidity with which John Mayne's set design allows Jane to rapidly shift between visits with her Berkeley-based friends Celia and Nathalie, her shrink, Dr. V, her mother's nagging ghost, and sisterly chats with the fictional Margaret MacKenzie (the heroine of Anthony Trollope's 1865 novel, Miss Mackenzie). We also see Jane struggle to interact with some of the men in New York who have answered her ad, witness how she behaves in solo moments during which she tries her skills at phone sex, and are privy to scenes of aching guilt as Jane confronts her painful estrangement from her rebellious son, Andy.

    Sharon Gless as Jane Juska (Photo by: Cheryl Mazak)

    Among the men who respond to Jane's ad in the New York Review of Books are:
    • Jonah: a selfish man whose dentures may be loose, Jonah crudely rejects Jane when they finally meet and tells her that she doesn't interest him sexually.
    • Sidney: a sweet 82-year-old who loves museums, musical theatre, and turns into a good friend. Sidney stresses that he never lied about his age.
    • Graham: a 33-year-old with a passion for older women. Graham is confident enough to be able to joke about relishing Harold and Maude relationships, and yet sensitive enough to cater to Jane's literary tastes with a surprisingly tender gesture. Although she initially tells him that she simply cannot deal with their age difference, Jane eventually mellows and invites Graham to come spend a week with her in a rented cabin near Lake Tahoe.
    • Danny: a vain man who tells Jane upfront that he already has a lover with whom he sleeps every night. Danny's mood swings -- and his insistence that Jane go out and spend time by herself or with other men (after she flew cross country to meet him) -- prove to be quite distressing.
    • Robert: Jane's phone sex buddy.
    • John: seemingly a perfect match. John is intelligent, tender, and a sensuous lover. He also has terminal cancer.
    Ray Reinhardt, Ian Scott McGregor, Sharon Gless,
    and Steven Macht (Photo by Mark Leialoha)

    While A Round-Heeled Woman provides a thrilling star vehicle for Gless's talents, it also offers her supporting cast a variety of strongly-etched character roles. Bay area veteran Ray Reinhardt shines as Jonah, Sidney and a cranky library clerk, while Steven Macht demonstrates his versatility as Danny, Robert, and John.

    I was especially impressed by Ian Scott McGregor's portrayals of Juska's son (Andy) as well as the impatient salsa instructor and the sensitive Graham. Ann Darragh embodied various voices of worry and reason (Celia, Jane's mother, Dr. V.) while Stacy Ross doubled as Jane's friend Nathalie and the fictional Margaret MacKenzie.

    Clockwise from center: Sharon Gless, Stacy Ross,
    Ray Reinhardt, Ian Scott McGregor, Stephen Macht,
    Anne Darragh. (Photo by Mark Leialoha)

    While A Round-Heeled Woman is very much inspired by, written for, and about an older woman's adventures in the modern sexual playground, the play resonated strongly with my own experiences as a gay man. I spent many years "untouched by human hands" while others managed to enjoy highly athletic fuckathons. As I approach my 63rd birthday, I find myself in the enviable position of having not one, but two very loving boyfriends with whom I can share a great deal of intimacy, sensuality, and affection.

    I met these men -- one 12 years younger than me, the other my junior by 22 years -- by responding to their ads on and Craigslist. Little did I expect that at this age (when so many people are confronting crushing issues of loneliness), my life would be blessed with such warmth and tenderness.

    Maybe I should start referring to myself a round-heeled gay man!