Friday, February 12, 2010

Hey, Boys and Girls, Let's Put On A Show!

Every now and then someone will ask me: How in the world did that person get cast in a role? To be honest, there are times when I've asked the same question myself. Over the years, I've learned that:
  • Some people are great at auditions but flame out when performance time arrives.
  • Some people may be mediocre performers onstage, but are great fun at parties.
  • Some people may be married to or romantically involved with a high-priced performer and thus become part of a package deal.
Whatever the reason, what one sees onstage is not always what one expected to get. For the general audience member (who sees a performance and then goes home) there may be little if any awareness of what performers' lives are like during the rest of the day, week, month, or year. But the performing arts, in particular, foster a kind of extended family lifestyle that played an important role in artists' lives long before social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter debuted on the Internet.
  • In the opera world, many performers travel to multiple cities with a particular production. While the chorus and orchestra may change from city to city, a core group of principal singers may form a cohesive performing unit that, over time, develops into an artistic family.
  • In the world of comedy and pop music, some of the people who end up working together on cruises, national tours, and benefit performances establish strong personal and professional ties.
  • People who have been involved in creating a new work (opera, ballet, film, etc.) often go through such an intense artistic process that a special emotional and artistic bond is created -- a bond which is cherished and renewed as time permits.
With that in mind, it may be easier to understand how a performer could stink up the stage while being warmly embraced and celebrated by the man or woman behind the curtain. Personal relationships and/or professional needs may be getting met that the audience is not privy to.

In short, favors may be done (or repaid) that are invisible to the paying customer. Occasionally, the answer is as simple as someone getting into that old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney spirit of "Hey, everybody, let's put on a show!"

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That theory would go a long way toward explaining why comedian Keira McDonald bombed onstage at the Exit Theatre during James Judds Va Va Voom revue. Dressed in an orange jumpsuit (beneath which she wore adult diapers), most of McDonald's act was a misguided spoof of female astronaut Lisa Nowak, who made headlines on February 5, 2007 after driving cross-country and attempting to kidnap astronaut William Oefelein's girlfriend, U.S. Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman. While McDonald got some nervous laughter from acting out in diapers, she started to lose the audience as soon as she began making references to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Comedian Keira McDonald

A heavily tattooed stripper named Bunny Pistol didn't fare much better. Don't get me wrong: I like Judd's work as a writer/performer immensely. During intermission, as he regaled the audience with one of the worst camel toe stories in history (describing how, while visiting the Pyramids near Giza, his toe ended up tickling a rival dromedary's scrotum during a rocky ride aboard another camel), he was in fine form.
James Judd

Judd's friend, comedian Audrey Rapoport, fared much better with her routine as an aging, burned out, and bitter Darlene Gillespie (one of the original Mouseketeers from The Mickey Mouse Club) who understood all too well that "It was Annette's world and I was just taking up space in it." The energetic Shawn Pelofsky (who has performed with Judd on several Atlantis cruises) took the stage after a brief intermission during which Judd and his hunky husband, Eric Alvarez, raffled off six bottles of wine from the family business, J & J Cellars.

Having grown up as a lonely Jew in Oklahoma, Pelofsky took the stage with an aggressive shtick that positioned her as an old school faghag with the distinct possibility of being mistaken for a younger Barbra Streisand. Describing what it was like to be snuck onto the "Dick Deck" of an Atlantis cruise by her gay friends so she could see what the action was like in the dark, she scored strongly with an admiring audience. This brief clip of Pelofsky performing on a gay cruise will give you a taste of her comedy.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Va Va Voom's opening night was actually the audience. Seemingly comprised of overeager friends and colleagues who couldn't laugh loudly enough at jokes that often weren't even that funny (one man could barely control himself), their exuberance made me wonder if perhaps that night's moon might have been fuller than I thought.

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If you need some serious cheering up -- or are hoping to arrange a get-together for a group of friends who need a chance to kick back and act silly -- I could not recommend a worthier party enhancer than a private showing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead (which was recently screened as part of the 2010 San Francisco Indie Film Fest).

Written and directed by Jordan Galland (with a mischievous musical score by Sean Lennon), the fact that this film is a rip roaring spoof of its genre becomes obvious with the first appearance of a font. Throughout the film, the action is interrupted by titles such as Long Day's Journey Into Fright, Death of a Pale Man, The Policeman Cometh, and Breakfast Is Tiffany.

A treat for lovers of "the the-ay-ter" (as well as Shakespearean scholars, vampire fetishists, horror hounds, and lonely Goth types) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead stands out as the kind of low-budget film that its cast wanted to make for the sheer hell of it. But don't take my word for it -- listen to what actor Kris Lemche had to say about the experience:

The principle characters inhabiting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead include:
  • Julian Marsh (Jake Hoffman): a slacker who has been living in one of the rooms of his father's medical office. While Julian has no problem picking up girls, finding a job has had decidedly less appeal.
  • Vince (Kris Lemche): Julian's wingman. When they go out cruising for women, Julian and Vince like to pretend that they're both gay (knowing that their ruse usually leads to invitations to feel a woman's breasts in order to give feedback on whether or not they're real).
  • Hugo Pepper (Waris Alhuwalia): a tall, bearded hypochondriac who occasionally wears a tin-foil hat instead of a turban. Dr. Marsh's most devoted patient is one truly sick Sikh.
  • Dr. Marsh (Chip Zien): Julian's father who only wishes his son could get a life. When Dr. Marsh insists that Julian answer an ad for a stage director (preferably human) to work on a new interpretation of Hamlet, he gets a whole lot more than he bargained for.
John Ventimiglia as Theo Horace
  • Anna (Devon Aoki): Julian's current girlfriend. After Anna insists on auditioning, she gets cast in the role of Ophelia.
  • Theo Horace/Horatio (John Ventimiglia): a most eccentric and affected playwright who has written a strange new version of Hamlet that is to be performed by a cast of vampires (who will devour the audience after the final curtain).
  • Detective Wimbly (Jeremy Sisto): not exactly one of New York's finest.
  • Carlo/Rosencrantz (Carlos Velazquez): an idiot in a Shakespearean costume.
  • Mickey/Guildenstern (Mike Landry): another idiot in a larger costume.
  • Bobby Bianchi (Ralph Macchio): an Italian mobster trying to peddle a product called "Germ-o-Whack" which shoots a germicide out of a water pistol. Bobby is very sensitive about being stereotyped as a member of the Mafia.
  • Hamlet (Joey Kern): the not-so-melancholy Prince of Denmark who has been on a life-long quest for the Holy Grail.
While there are all kinds of strange references to the Rosicrucian Society and The Shakespiracy (a secret society devoted to exposing vampires and finding the Holy Grail), this movie is just a lot of grand and silly fun. I especially enjoyed the performances by Kris Lemche as Vince and John Ventimiglia as Theo. Here's the trailer:

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While we're talking about blood-sucking vampiric behavior, perhaps we should discuss a documentary about the art world that was shown at the 2010 SFIndie Film Fest and will begin screening at the Embarcadero Cinema on March 12th. Try to imagine the back story for one of the world's biggest art heists filled with the kind of pettiness, jealousy, wealth, and intrigue that would give Agatha Christie a week's worth of never-ending orgasms.

Poster for The Art of the Steal

If you saw 2006's The Rape of Europa (which detailed how Adolph Hitler looted the private collections of art that had belonged to European Jews), you probably won't be surprised to learn that its modern equivalent was carried out by the mostly Republican members of Philadelphia's high society crowd. If anything, The Art of the Steal demonstrates how (intoxicated by their money, power, and prestige) civic leaders won't hesitate to trample the law in pursuit of their own selfish interests.

The story really begins back in 1922, when Dr. Albert C. Barnes created The Barnes Foundation with proceeds from his company's sales of Argyrol. Basing the Foundation in his home on a 12-acre arboretum in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania (just five miles from downtown Philadelphia), he quietly kept adding one art treasure after another to his collection. Even though the cultural mavens of Philadelphia's art crowd quickly labeled his acquisitions as "horrible, debased art," Henri Matisse described The Barnes Foundation as "the only place in America to see art."

Fast forward several decades (past the death of Dr. Barnes in an automobile accident in 1951), and museums are drooling for a chance to be able to borrow pieces from the Barnes collection. There's just one hitch: In the legal documents which established his Foundation, Barnes specified that none of the art he collected could be sold, loaned out, or used for anything other than educational purposes.

Dr. Albert C. Barnes

By that point, Barnes had developed a distinct distaste for Philadelphia's movers and shakers. He eventually gave control of the Barnes Foundation to Lincoln University, a small, mostly African-American college. What happened following his death is a story that almost rivals Dick Cheney's lust for Iraqi oil.

Don Argott's documentary does what every smart crime detective knows: he follows the money to see how Philadelphia's elites finally managed to get their way. After all, there's nothing like telling a wealthy individual that his money isn't good enough to make him want to beg, borrow, and steal in order to get his way. Itching with the knowledge that The Barnes Foundation owned a private collection of post-Impressionist and early Modern art valued at more than $25 billion, Philadelphia's art snobs basically decided to find a way to put on a show with the art that had eluded their grasp for far too long.

The irony, of course, is that in many cases these were the same parties who sneered at the art Barnes had quietly spent years collecting. Once it had appreciated in value they saw the Barnes collection as a potential cash cow that could stimulate tourism if only the art could be moved to a new museum along Benjamin Franklin Parkway to be built close to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Those who remember the efforts of Gap founder Donald Fisher to bully San Francisco's art community into letting him build a museum in the Presidio to showcase his collection will feel their hair stand on end as they learn what happened to The Barnes Foundation. The arrogance of (and legal machinations by) individuals like Richard H. Glanton (former President of the Barnes Foundation), Ed Rendell (former Mayor of Philadelphia and Governor of Pennsylvania), and Walter Annenberg -- along with nonprofits like The Pew Charitable Trusts -- are nothing less than jaw-dropping.

By contrast, the protests of Robert and Toby Marmon (neighbors of The Barnes Foundation who found their quite little residential district suddenly overrun with tour buses), art dealer Richard L. Feigen, Julian Bond (Chairman of the Board of the NAACP who looked upon Dr. Barnes as a family friend), as well as art critics and former students -- who all spoke out against what was essentially the hostile takeover of a dead man's estate -- are at times heartbreaking, comical, frustrating, and tragically naive.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the film is showing audiences how President Nixon's friend, Walter Annenberg, tried for so many years to get his hands on the Barnes collection. But when Annenberg himself died, he willed all of his art to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art with the same instructions devised by Barnes to keep his collection safe from predators. Here's the trailer:

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