Sunday, February 7, 2010

When Blood Runs Thicker Than Water

Some people faint at the sight of blood. Some sharks can smell blood at a concentration as tiny as one part blood to a million parts of salt water.

Blood pudding is a type of sausage that uses dried or cooked blood as a congealing agent. But pity the poor vampire who awakens from a deep sleep to discover "Blood, blood, everywhere, and not a drop to drink!"

Images of blood are easily found throughout history and the arts:
Last week I witnessed three dramas in which the importance of blood played a major role. In one world premiere, fate toyed with the impact of what it means to be a blood relative. In another, a woman's menstrual blood became symbolic of the life force. In a powerful new Austrian film, blood was methodically drained from hanging carcasses in a nasty little thriller.

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The Magic Theatre's opening night performance of Luis Alfaro's new play, Oedipus El Rey, is a memory I will treasure in years to come. Not only did Alfaro bring one of the earliest Greek tragedies to life in a brilliant adaptation that updates the tale of Oedipus The King (written by Sophocles and first performed in Greece in 429 B.C.) to a modern-day California State Prison with a heavy Chicano population, he was able to reset the tale of a dynamic young leader against a background of urban crime in Los Angeles.
Playwright Luis Alfaro

Using four inmates as the equivalent of a traditional Greek chorus, Alfaro (working with Magic Theatre's artistic director, Loretta Greco) has given movement, music, and a new vitality to a tale some might expect to have become static after almost 2,500 years in the dramatic repertoire. As Alfaro explains in an interview with dramaturg Jane Ann Crum:
"We have a choral tradition in the Chicano culture named 'Coro,' where you tell stories and it's very intricate work -- many different voices overlapping and finishing each other's sentences. It's musical and it shares a history with folkloric dancing. In the 1970s, lots of teatros did Coro work and you'd go see it because it was sort of like watching ballet -- beautiful, highly technical, and hard to do.

The four Coros: (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Ten years ago, I was in Arizona on a residency. I went into a bookstore and the Greeks were on sale. They were selling ten plays for ten dollars. I though: 'OMG, a Greek play a dollar!' Ever since the Greeks entered my life, finding the connections between the Greeks and now has become something of an obsession with me.

Generally, I write an adaptation followed by an original play. That's what I've been doing for the last five or six years. The things about the Greeks is that they're so brilliantly written. In 90 minutes such extraordinary things happen -- the whole cycle of life and death. I use the adaptation as a way of trying to become a better writer."
Joshua Torrez as Oedipus (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

The use of a choral ensemble to act out a drama is certainly not new to the stage.
Oedipus El Rey is not only notable for the linguistic beauty of Alfaro's adaptation, it has also provided a stunning Bay area debut for Joshua Torrez. Young, athletic, and covered with prison tattoos, Torrez (who recently graduated from The Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago) had no trouble knocking out one-armed pushups, rapping with the Coros, or performing an intense nude scene with the woman Oedipus thinks is his friend, but who is actually his mother.

There were times when, as a young man trying to assert himself in his new community life in Los Angeles, Torrez's Oedipus began to take on some of the vocal patterns of Barack Obama. Although probably unintentional, this added an extra layer of relevance to the tragedy of a natural leader filled with self confidence who has no way of knowing what fate the Gods have in store for him. In her director's statement, Greco notes that:
"Old stories need new storytellers. When Luis re-imagines the classics, he takes full ownership: breathing new life, building a truly new play. Through the Coro we are given contemporary guides to approach ancient questions:

How do we face the gods?

Can we change our fate?

What is the unbreakable connection between fathers and sons?

Mothers and sons?

And the deepest question at the base of the human condition (both ancient and modern): Are we doomed by our desire to know in a world that is unknowable.

To have such a major voice in American theatre making his debut here and now is a perfect statement of Magic's continued commitment to developing playwrights and plays that resonate beyond our walls, reaching into the community and across the country.

In tackling the Greeks, Luis takes us back to our primal connection to theatre. These are the first plays. They emerged from our ingrained need to understand the world, tell stories, and build myths. These myths shaped our culture profoundly; there's a reason they've lasted thousands of years."
Jocasta (Romi Dias) and Oedipus (Joshua Torrez)
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Doubling as Jocasta and a Sphinx, Romi Dias brought a powerful feminine presence to the production. Lending solid support throughout the evening were the four Coros (Carlos Aguirre, Eric Aviles, Marc David Pinate, and Armando Rodriguez), who also took on the roles of Jocasta's brother Creon, Laius (the biological father of Oedipus), and the blind prophet, Tiresias.

The evening was very much a personal triumph for the playwright and for Torrez, a young man whose impassioned and surprisingly mature portrayal of Oedipus is a performance to be treasured. Oedipus El Rey continues at the Magic Theatre through February 28th. Order tickets here while they're still available.

Joshua Torrez as Oedipus (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

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Taking a cue from Eve Ensler's groundbreaking 1996 play, The Vagina Monologues, San Francisco's Boxcar Theatre decided to honor the playwright's legacy -- and add some local flavor culled from Bay area vaginas -- by staging the world premiere of Project V. This new play (which combines some of Ensler's writing with new material) takes place on a grandly angular painted set in which the actors emerge from a black curtain hung where one would expect to see a giant, hairy vagina. As Project V's creative director, Sarah Savage, notes:
"In the course of this project, I was asked many times, by many different people: 'What are you working on right now?' It never ceased to amaze and amuse me to see the looks on people's faces when I would say something like, 'Well, I'm curating a project based on The Vagina Monologues. We have female artists from a variety of genres creating new works about vaginas.'

Women around the world are subjected to the atrocities of abuse, rape, and domestic violence every day. Somehow, this avoidance of the vagina conversation makes these things easier to ignore. So the simple act of saying it aloud, in some small way, helps to stop the violence.

I found out that the easiest way to make a supposedly open-minded liberal adult blush is to say the word 'vagina' several times in casual conversation. Seriously, try it sometime. The vagina allows us to give birth. This to me is miraculous. It is the most important thing in all of humanity. So why are we not worshiping vaginas instead of degrading them? If we can't talk about vaginas, how will they be able to be respected and revered as they should be?"
Erin Coté, Elinor Bell, and Michelle Ianiro (Photo by: Peter Liu)

As I sat in Boxcar's tiny basement theatre watching Elinor Bell, Michelle Ianiro, and Erin Coté perform some of Ensler's monologues, I had one of those little brain spasms that comes from too much trivia. I couldn't help wondering if, for all the complaining about how people are terrified to utter the word "vagina," Ensler had forgotten that a popular slang (and Hispanic pronunciation) of the word (vaheena) is quite similar to the word for woman (wahine) in the Maori and Hawaiian languages.

New material performed by an aging transgender woman named Morgan (who, in her previous life as a male iron worker, fell two stories while working on a construction project), as well as monologues performed by Katie Compa and Marilee Talkington alternated between the comic and provocative. However, the highlight of the evening was a performance by Joyce Lee, a fierce black poet whose writing and acting could ignite any theatrical space.

Watch Ms. Lee perform three of her poems during Bay area poetry slams in the following video clips and you'll understand why I was so blown away by her talent:

While Project V may not be an earth-shaking triumph, it is actually one of the better efforts put forth by Boxcar Theatre in recent months. In her program notes, director Claire Zawa wrote:
"I wish that every girl could grow up with the freedom to make her own decisions about who she is and what she wants to be. And that the male-controlled world would not bombard our youth with unrealistic standards of 'beauty.'

I wish that all boys could grow into men who love women as we're made, and not be chasing after some air-brushed, shaved, plumped-eyelashed, tummy-tucked, breast-enhanced, butt-rounded, stiletto-wearing, skeleton stand-in for a woman.

But that is not the world we live in. Boyfriends, husbands, parents, businesses, politicians, religious leaders, and other women set out to determine each woman's fate. Women are bombarded every day with what is 'feminine' and 'right' and 'good' and 'beautiful.'
Sad, but true. Project V continues at Boxcar Theatre through February 14. You can order tickets here.

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Did you love the woodchipper scene in Fargo? Or the tense moment in Fried Green Tomatoes in which Big George served up some heaping portions of barbecue (made from Frank's body) to the Georgia Police?

Was Eating Raoul one of your favorite black comedies? Is Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street one of your favorite musicals? If so, then you won't want to miss a truly twisted Austrian thriller scheduled to be shown later this month during the one-day-only German Gems film festival at the Castro Theatre.

Joseph Hader as Brenner

Based on the 1997 novel, Der Knochenmann, by popular Austrian crime writer Wolf Haas, the opening credits for The Bone Man flash by as the audience watches some blurry shots of meat and bones being pushed through a grinder. Two men are then seen arguing about how they should dilute some antifreeze in order to get a car started.

Shortly after they hear a woman's screams, a body falls out of a second story window. This will be the first of several unfortunate victims. The film's main characters include:
  • Berti (Simon Schwarz), a businessman who specializes in repossessing leased cars whose drivers have fallen behind on their payments. Always on his cell phone, he is intensely driven by deadlines.
  • Brenner (Joseph Hader) is a former police detective, who has been working as a repo man for Berti. Jaded, cynical, and tired of being at Berti's beck and call, he agrees to take on one last repo assignment which will send him out into the countryside to pick up a car belonging to a Mr. Horvath.
  • Herr Alexandra Horvath (Pia Hierzegger) is the mysterious bartender at a popular inn named Loschenkohl, which is noted for its fried chicken. She has a big surprise in store for Brenner.
  • Loschenkohl (Josef Bierbichler) is the landlord for the inn. A strange man who is very protective of Horvath, he has a weak heart for prostitutes and is a skilled butcher. He soon learns that a fully-equipped kitchen with an industrial grinder can be useful for more than chicken.
  • Porsche Pauli (Christoph Luser) is Loschenkohl's obnoxious son-in-law, whose ineptitude as a spouse and businessman is only made worse by the fact that he is convinced his father-in-law is embezzling money from the inn.
Christoph Luser as Porsche Pauli
  • Birgit (Birgit Minichmayr) is Loschenkohl's daughter, who has the supreme misfortune of being married to Porsche Pauli while working as the cook for the Loschenkohl Inn. Each week, after thousands of chickens have been fried and served to the inn's patrons, Birgit pushes the discarded chicken bones through a grinder and takes them to the chicken farm, where they are fed to subsequent generations of fowl.
  • Evgenjev (Stipe Erceg) is a thug who has been blackmailing Loschenkohl after the older man killed one of the visitors to Evgenjev's brothel.
  • Igor (Ivan Shvedoff) is one of Evgenjev's sidekicks. Not particularly bright (and with his leg in a cast), he is currently stuck in a wheelchair.
Beautifully directed by Wolfgang Mumberger The Bone Man is filled with bizarre twists and turns, unexpected comic moments, and a spine-tingling battle of wits in Loschenkohl's basement meat kitchen while the villagers are enjoying a masquerade party in the restaurant above. With a razor-sharp sense of irony, an unexpected finger, a mysterious preoperative transsexual, and a bitter old man who knows how to serve up some tasty goulash, this black comedy will have you in its grip from start to finish.

The screenplay (adapted by Haas from his novel) is thrilling, intelligent, witty, and fast moving. The cast is uniformly excellent. The Bone Man will be shown at the Castro Theatre on Sunday, February 28th (you can order tickets here). In the meantime, enjoy the trailer:


Anonymous said...


epsychic said...

Gosh that last video was troubling. :x