Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Simultaneously Seeding, Scything, and Seething

According to an old axiom "As ye sow so shall ye reap." But in today's era of heightened technology, crop cycles can be artificially stimulated. Fertility clinics can help barren couples conceive children.

Whether one looks at fish farming or extremely misguided parenting (does the Duggar family really need all those kids?), the changes in how we view patterns of growth and fertility are reflected in the global economy. Two films recently screened at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival examined whether (a) farmers can afford to farm, and (b) whether surrogate women can afford to use their bodies as hotbeds of fertility.

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I must admit to having been pleasantly caught off guard by Uruphong Raksasad's documentary about the economic problems facing Thai farmers entitled Agrarian Utopia. Raksasad's film follows two families who face economic ruin. They are already saddled with debt loads they cannot pay, crippling interest rates, and global manipulation of market prices for their crops that makes it impossible for them to continue farming. To make matters worse, the land on which they have lived is being sold out from under their feet, forcing some to return to the city in search of employment.

The one holdout is an aging hippie who owns his own land and farms it for sustenance as opposed to profit. Refusing to use chemicals on his land, he is quick to joke about not needing another wife who will nag him like his first one did. He may be content to live by quietly harvesting honeycomb, mushrooms, frogs, snakes, and rice, but has no interest in getting involved in an economic game he knows he cannot win.

While he remains content on his plot of land, political unrest keeps growing in Bangkok. His offer to let his friends live on his land if they agree to farm only for their sustenance (without using any chemicals) seems very generous. His friends, however, don't think they can adhere to his strict conditions.

In his director's statement, Raksasad explains that:
"I was born a farmer's son, although my parents didn't expect me to farm for a living (they see that it's hard work and earns little). In any case, we can no longer farm for two reasons: one is that the bank has already taken almost all our lands. And second, farming won't help us pay off all our debts in this lifetime. We are not able to live the idealistic Utopian life. We can only do the best we can to get by, that's all.

Modern agriculture is facing problems on many levels, from land ownership to national policy's focus on economic growth and international competition. What are all these for ultimately? Agriculture in Thailand today, and perhaps throughout the world as well, is mostly no longer about household use. It's just another industrial business of trades, with an aim to make money for solving other problems that we caused, directly and indirectly. So farmers now need to focus on productivity by using chemicals and machines. Obviously they put less importance on food safety. With this, Thailand no longer has what it takes to claim to be the granary of the world.

Apart from filmmaking, what interests me to an equal extent is agriculture. I feel it is among mankind's most noble professions. To compare: in agriculture we get to produce food from the soil for direct consumption, while other occupations only produce us income for buying food. I wonder whether all these professions we have in the world (including filmmaking) are really necessary. How much does the world really need them?

I feel that the more we complicate things, the more it produces emptiness and unfulfillment in return, one way or another. I wonder if globalization forces today have become much more powerful than national governments. I don't know where it will take us."
Where Raksasad scores strongly is his ability to capture the beauty of nature through the eyes of the farmers who live in rural Thailand. The teeming chaos of Bangkok can't hold a candle to the glory of watching an electrical storm over long stretches of rice paddies, looking out over the countryside from the serenity of a Thai temple's balcony, or trying to get a stubborn water buffalo to pull a plow.

Sometimes the gold paint that adorns a religious statue can seem like an insult in the face of the poverty that is driving Thai farmers to ruin. And yet, listening to a child's demands for an expensive toy that his father cannot afford has a universality that is at once comical and deeply sad.

Although nearly two hours in length, there are moments in Agrarian Utopia when the magnificent landscapes and cinematography almost camouflage the economic ruin confronting the farmers Raksasad follows in his documentary. Here's the trailer:

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The demand for increased productivity from workers lies at the core of Silver Sling, one of the more unnerving short films in the Futurestates series. With corporations trying to curtail maternity leaves by their female employees, new technology has allowed surrogates to carry an embryo to term through an accelerated three-month gestation.

The economic advantage for the female employee who can't take time off from work is obvious. The disadvantage for the surrogate is that, after participating in three chemically-accelerated gestations, she will become sterile.

In Silver Sling, a Russian immigrant named Lydia (Julia Kots) is torn between wanting to have a child of her own with her devoted boyfriend and needing the money she could earn as a surrogate to bring her younger brother Pasha (Paul Frolov)to the United States from Russia. Lydia's tough emotional shell offers a marked contrast to the quiet nurse (Karen Chilton) who tries to make her rethink her decision.

You can watch Tze Chun's 11-minute film in the following clip. It may, however, make you an ardent supporter of Zero Population Growth.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Going Green

A few weeks ago I was feeling rather smug about a tiny detail. I had gotten through St. Patrick's Day without wearing or drinking anything green. Then my sweet little bubble burst.

I realized that I had started my day by swallowing four dark green Spirulina pills. I looked out the window and realized that the median all along Dolores Street was covered with green grass. While riding the 22 Fillmore bus over to a screening at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival I started thinking about a tune from Rodgers & Hammerstein's first big hit, Oklahoma! (which was based on a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs called Green Grow The Lilacs). That coupon from Burger King that I redeemed brought me a burger garnished with lettuce.

Curses! Foiled again!

In recent years, as more and more attempts to adapt sustainable energy technology have created incentives for "going green," a new consciousness has been spreading about renewable energy, plant life, and the joys to be found in nature. Three new films offer viewers a chance to reconsider the many ways in which the color and concept of green influence our daily lives.

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A little bit of pollen goes a long way. At least that's the premise of Greg Pak's 16-minute short entitled Mr. Green. One of the most intriguing films to be found on the Futurestates website, Mr. Green takes place in the not too distant future when flood waters have overrun Venice and New York City's famous Canal Street has become a canal.

Global warming has passed the tipping point. Whereas environmentalists used to bombard the White House with emails insisting that something be done about climate change, most people now realize that nothing can be done to reverse the situation.

Well, maybe not everybody.

Dr. Gloria Holtzer (Betty Gilpin), who used to work for Greenpoint Industries until her research funding was cut off by the government, has a way to save the world. To accomplish her goal, she has targeted her old classmate from graduate school, Undersecretary for the Department of Global Warming, Mason Park (Tim Kang), as the man who will deliver an environmental miracle.

Tim Kang as Mason Park

What Mason doesn't know is that Holtzer's environmental technology company has found a way to bring man back to his roots. Literally! (as Vice President Joe Biden would say). Using germ warfare technology for good instead of evil, she "seeds" Mason in what may well be one of the most erotically charged environmental films you will ever see.

There is a delicious tinge of soft porn in the way Pak's camera zooms in on Mason's face as he reconnects with the power of vegetation -- or on the facial features of the President of the United States (played by Ron Scott, an actor whose profile bears a striking resemblance to Barack Obama) as he slowly drinks a glass of water with a quiet, masculine elegance.

Tim Kang as Mason Park

Although Pak describes Mr. Green as a cinematic parable about change (both personal and political), I doubt environmental activists like Al Gore or Van Jones ever thought about framing their arguments about global warming around the look of sheer ecstasy a man can feel while reconnecting with the forces of nature. If you'd like to see a scientifically challenging, wonderfully intelligent, and subliminally erotic film about ecological heroism, you can watch Mr. Green in its entirety here.

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Known far and wide as the Emerald Isle, Ireland has long been associated with the color of green. From its lush forests to its use of the shamrock as a national symbol (the shamrock also appears on the tailfins of all the planes in the AerLingus fleet), there's plenty of green to be found in the land of leprechauns.

A delightful new full-length animation feature, The Secret of Kells, is awash in plenty of green. Among its many delights are a cat with one blue eye and one green eye and what may well be the silliest goose in the world. The enchanting musical score by Bruno Calais is a major asset.

Moore's film follows the coming of age of Brendan, a young redhead in medieval times who must repel the Viking invaders and conquer a mighty serpent in order to find the magic crystal that will complete the famed Book of Kells. Brendan comes under the tutelage of the revered illuminator, Brother Aidan, who understands and appreciates the young boy's potential far more than Brendan's humorless uncle, the overbearing Abbott Cellach.

To help complete the magical book, Brendan must overcome his deep, childhood fears by embarking on a personal quest through an enchanted, but forbidden forest that is the home to a dangerous group of mythical creatures. Aisling, a mysterious young wolf-girl, helps Brendan overcome the challenges that lie in wait for him. Upon his final return home, we see Brendan as a grown man with much more confidence.

Moore has a refreshing approach to depicting animals which, when combined with his breathtaking palette, leads to many moments of visual delight. In describing some of the distinctly Celtic artwork found in The Secret of Kells, Moore notes that:
"We do use the Celtic cross; in fact the layout of Kells is based on it. I believe the Celtic cross shows the merging of pagan worship of the Sun God Lugh and the new Christian faith. The circle that holds the arms of the cross can be seen as the overlaying of the old gods on the new faith.

The stone circle where Brendan meets Aisling is another common sight in the Irish landscape. Often called fairy forts, they are probably the remains of a pre-Christian religion. In folklore it’s often said that they are entrances to the fairy world. It seemed an appropriate place for Brendan to encounter Aisling. The stone he meets her at in the center of the fairy ring is the Turoe stone.

Before the Euro we had Book of Kells designs on our coins, our bank notes. Every Irish pub has Celtic knotwork on its walls, and the tattoos are everywhere! Irish craftspeople often incorporate knotwork and symbols from our manuscript tradition into their work as well. I remember a French artist, who came to work on the film, taking a photo of a manhole cover that had some Gaelic writing on it which was spelled in a Book of Kells style font. He was amazed how it was everywhere, and yet we hardly notice it. It’s everywhere here, almost to the point where I suspect people do not appreciate it."

The film’s simple plot and premise is based on fact: illuminated medieval manuscripts (including the Book of Kells (Dublin, Trinity College Library, ca. 800 AD) really do exist. Local legends also feature prominently in the story. According to Moore:
"In school we learnt about Pangur Ban, the cat in our film. Pangur was a cat that lived with an Irish monk who wrote a poem in tribute to Pangur on the side of one of the manuscripts he was transcribing."
Because The Secret of Kells had not had much distribution in the United States by the time of the Academy Awards ceremony earlier this month, the film may not be known by the masses. It is, however, an indie gem of rare beauty. Here's the trailer:

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It's hard to believe that, at 90 years of age, one of the founders of the modern dance movement is still performing. But what quickly becomes apparent in Ruedi Gerber's moving new documentary entitled Breath Made Visible is that, for Anna Halprin, dance is life.

As Halprin (who has created 150 full-length dance theater works that are extensively documented in photographs, books, and on film) explains:
“I have an enduring love for dance and its power to teach, inspire, heal and transform. I’ve spent a lifetime of passion and devotion probing the nature of dance and asking why it is so important as a life force. I find great excitement in sharing my deep love of dance with ordinary and diverse people. Their unique creativity inspires me to make dances that grow out of our lives. I want to integrate life and art so that as our art expands, our life deepens -- and as our life deepens, our art expands.

I continue to believe in the shining potential set forth by all of this work -- in its evolution from rebellion to expansion to community to healing and back again to the natural world. I believe if more of us could contact the natural world in a directly experiential way, this would alter the way we treat our environment, ourselves, and one another.

Anna Halprin, still going strong in her eightie

Aging is like enlightenment at gunpoint. Before I had cancer, I lived my life for my art. After I had cancer, I lived my art for my life. I've always said dance is the breath made visible. That covers about everything because once you stop breathing and the breath is no longer visible, you stop moving."
While numerous dance documentaries are available on DVD, few cast off the toe shoes and dig their feet into the soil with quite the earthiness of Gerber's new film. Stunningly candid, Breath Made Visible takes audiences into the heart and mind of a woman who has never stopped using dance as a means of communication -- or as a method of teaching people of all ages how to get in touch with their bodies.

Back in 1955, Halprin established the world-famous San Francisco Dancers Workshop, which included John Graham and A.A. Leath. The group caused a major controversy in Sweden (and a scandal in the United States) with their use of full nudity in certain performance pieces. Halprin broke down interracial barriers in the 1960s by founding the first multicultural dance company in the wake of the Watts riots in Los Angeles.

Halprin's pioneering work in using the expressive arts as a healing tool has led her to work with cancer patients, AIDS patients, and the elderly to guide them through the use of dance as a method of healing and becoming whole. Her grief over her husband's physical deterioration led to the creation of a powerful performance piece entitled Intensive Care: Reflections on Death and Dying which can be viewed in its entirety in the following video clip:

Throughout her long career, Halprin has worked hard to foster the integration of arts and education throughout life. As one watches Breath Made Visible, one becomes acutely aware of the tragic repercussions of eliminating arts programs from so many schools throughout America. As Gerber explains:
"This project is not a dance film, but a film about what is important in life and how we can cope with it. It is ultimately about our values and how we can stay authentic to ourselves and experience life in the 21st century. This film shows not only how Anna's unique story unfolds from her ground breaking performances of the 1950s and 1960s to her solo performances today, but also how her life and work illustrate the true meaning of dance, and its power to not only help us cope with our lives, but to transform them as well and remain truthful to ourselves.

Anna Halprin teaching a class on her deck in Marin

When I met Anna for the first time in 1982, she was no longer performing publicly. She was in the middle of developing dance as a healing art and inspiring new directions in the art and dance therapy world. At the time, I was working as a professional stage actor in German state theaters. I saw her as a performance artist who, through movement, was researching the intersection of theater and dance with real life.

Ruedi Gerber and Anna Halprin at the film's Swiss premiere

Although some of my friends in the 1980s labeled her as “New Age,” it struck me how she was constantly pushing the limits of theater and life and that she was way ahead of her time, constantly instigating creativity in others. Over the next twenty years, Anna and I only had sporadic contact until February 2002, when I caught her at the Joyce Theater.

I was so happy and surprised to see her in the headlines of the New York Times! I could not believe that she was in her 80s and was coming full circle and returning to the stage! As the piece developed, I noticed that many people in the audience had tears streaming down their faces. And I, too, suddenly felt myself deeply moved by this 82 year-young woman. In a world of poseurs and surface-level stylistic directions, it was a great relief to find myself in the presence of someone whom I believed to be absolutely authentic and whose message was so universal.

I wondered why more people outside the dance performance and art therapy community didn’t know about her. This show made me want to create a film that would affect an audience the way Anna’s performances do. In 2005, Anna asked me if I wanted to collaborate with her on a film called Seniors Rocking, a dance piece she choreographed to empower the elderly and to break down the stereotypes of aging. The performance included 50 participants between the ages of 65 and 100 performing in rocking chairs next to a lagoon.

An aerial shot of Seniors Rocking

Her concept for the film was to expand the performance to include the participants’ personal histories and, through these stories, explore the question: 'What is the most important thing in life?' She was searching for stories from the heart and messages that the participants might leave behind as a legacy for their children, grandchildren, and friends."
Breath Made Visible is a remarkable experience, made all the more powerful by Mario Grigorov's stunning musical score. It offers audiences a master class in how to make art personal to one's life while embracing the life process as well as the process of dying through the lens of a passionate artist. You can't watch this film without feeling inspired. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Risky Stage Business

While most people who attend a theatrical performance are primarily interested in being entertained, live theater involves serious risk-taking in order to meet specific challenges:
  • Playwrights face the challenge of breaking new ground, solving structural problems in their script, and finding someone to produce their work.
  • Adapters face the challenge of making an established piece more relevant to modern audiences, even if that means treading on sacred turf.
  • Producers face the challenge of raising and very possibly losing a shitload of money in their effort to make a play come to life.
  • Directors face the challenge of exploring a playwright's script with the cast, shaping its presentation with the design team, and communicating its core truths to the audience.
  • Actors face the challenge inherent in bringing a character to life and making that character credible to the audience.
Whereas film can be edited, colorized, and manipulated until the filmmaker is satisfied with the final product, live theater changes from night to night because so many variables are at play. Each audience is different. Each performance may have a slightly different rhythm.

At any given performance, one line may get a sudden, unexpected laugh while another seemingly guaranteed gag falls flat on its face. It's all a big crap shoot in which there is often a whole lot more crap than shoot.
  • Poorly conceived projects may be aborted after a reading highlights glaring challenges that are impossible to overcome.
  • A playwright might suffer a miserable failure because the audience rejects his artistic vision.
  • So many artistic compromises may have deprived a play of its very reason for being that, by the time the production reaches opening night, the drama is essentially dead on arrival.
  • An actor who has been miscast in a role may cause the entire project to implode.
  • An audience may vehemently reject a director (or adapter's) dramatic conceits.
Three performances recently seen in Bay area theatres took huge risks with varying degrees of success. Thankfully, only one proved to be an unmitigated, craptastic disaster.

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There's a reason why the plays of William Shakespeare have remained popular for more than 400 years. Most are brilliantly written, with a richness of language that has transcended time. Some (Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona) have survived being updated to different historical periods while being adapted for the musical stage (West Side Story, Kiss Me Kate, The Boys From Syracuse, Two Gentlemen of Verona). Some have even transformed into ballets (The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Othello).

Composers ranging from Benjamin Britten (A Midsummer Night's Dream) to Otto Nicolai (The Merry Wives of Windsor) and Giuseppe Verdi (Macbeth, Falstaff, Otello) have created operatic classics based on Shakespeare's plays.

Composers writing in vastly different styles, from Aribert Reimann (Lear) to Giaochino Rossini (Otello) and Ambrose Thomas (Hamlet); from Ralph Vaughn Williams (Sir John In Love) to Thomas Adès (The Tempest) and Hector Berlioz (Béatrice and Bénédict) have all been inspired by Shakespeare's plays. Frederick Delius (A Village Romeo and Juliet), Charles Gounod (Roméo et Juliette), Vincenzo Bellini (I Capuletti e I Montecchi), and Riccardo Zandonai (Giulietta e Romeo) have all composed operas inspired by Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers. Even Richard Wagner took a stab at the Bard's work with Das Liebesverbot!

The following video clips illustrate how four different composers, writing in vastly different styles, each capture the blush of young love in Romeo and Juliet. First up is Bellini's aria for Giulietta in I Capuletti e I Montecchi (1830), as sung by Mariella Devia in a 2008 performance at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa:

Second is Romeo's aria, Ah! Lève-toi, soleil! from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette (which premiered in Paris in 1867):

Third is the balcony scene from Sergei Prokofiev's 1938 ballet score with Carlos Acosta (Romeo) and Tamara Rojo (Juliet) dancing Kenneth MacMillan's choreography for the Royal Ballet:

And finally, the original Tony (Larry Kert) and Maria (Carol Lawrence) from 1957's West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim):

The one thing all these creative artists had in common was a deep respect for Shakespeare's work, an essential understanding of his writing that was appallingly absent from the African-American Shakespeare Company's recent (and truly ghastly) adaptation of Othello. The story of interracial love between the black Moor and the white Desdemona has been portrayed on many stages. But rarely has a performance of this great tragedy received so much inappropriate laughter from its audience.

Othello (Jeff Handy) and Desdemona (Vivian Kane)
(Photo by: David Allen)

Founded in 1994, San Francisco's African-American Shakespeare Company was designed:
"... to create an opportunity and a venue for actors of color to hone their skills and talent in mastering some of the world's greatest classical roles; and to unlock the realm of classic theatre to a diverse audience who have been alienated from discovering these time-favored works in a style that reaches, speaks, and embraces their cultural aesthetic and identity.

Drawing on our own imagination, creativity, experience, and the resources at our disposal, we strive to provide the world with the best theatrical experience that combines a rich cultural aesthetic within a world-classic production in a manner that is lively, entertaining, and rings relevant to diverse contemporary audiences.

Our vision is to change the perception and attitudes to better reflect the world's diversity and to bring opposing communities together through sharing, appreciating, and admiring the gifts and treasures that each culture and person manifests on this earth. We strive to involve and acknowledge the diverse cultural expressions represented in the country using classical stories, which speaks universally of our shared human nature, while striving to be a hallmark of artistic excellence."
The company's new production of Othello, described in its promotional materials as "an incendiary interpretation," has been supported by a special National Endowment for the Arts initiative with Arts Midwest’sShakespeare for a New Generation.” Director Sherri Young (who is also the company's Executive Director), admits that some of the sequences of events in Othello have been changed, but stresses that she has tried to maintain the language of the original Shakespeare. As she recently explained:
"In this version, Iago is an overweight African-American woman who has a love fantasy about Othello. She loses a promotion and feels even more betrayed when he marries Desdemona."
There's just one problem: That's not what Shakespeare wrote. Nor is it what he intended. Young's heinous artistic miscalculations (which reverberate throughout the evening) are as culturally tone deaf as someone who believes the best way to perform a Chopin sonata is by banging out every note at equal volume.

Othello, (Jeff Handy), (Vivian Kane) and Iago (Aimee McCrary)
Photo by: David Allen

In an interview with the San Francisco Examiner, Young was asked if there was something about her that people would find surprising. With remarkable candor, she responded:
"That I really don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t. I started this Shakespeare company, but I’m not a Shakespeare scholar. I only acted in two Shakespeare productions. I started a business, and I had no business skills."
I hold that truth to be self-evident.

The profound and abysmal misunderstanding of Shakespeare reflected in this production is on a par with the willful ignorance of Tea Party enthusiasts who insist that President Obama is not an American citizen. This production almost demands to be seen by anyone curious to watch an artistic rape in process.

Desdemona (Vivian Kane) and Othello (Jeff Handy)
Photo by: David Allen

While it would be easier to simply wag a finger and scream "Oh, no, she didn't!" there is a lesson to be learned from Young's truly execrable adaptation of Othello -- a lesson about how a mediocre talent can unwittingly mutilate a great work of art, disingenuously dismembering a masterpiece in a brutal act of artistic malpractice.
  • In what can best be attributed to a cost-cutting move, the key roles of Roderigo, Brabantio, and the Duke of Venice have been eliminated.
  • This can be a little tricky, since Shakespeare's play begins with Roderigo (a wealthy civilian who had hoped to marry Desdemona) complaining to Iago (Othello's lieutenant) about a perceived social insult from Othello. Instead of seeing Roderigo get egged on by Iago to awaken Desdemona's father, Brabantio, we now see Iago using his cell phone to awaken Brabantio instead.
  • In Shakespeare's play, Iago is a powerful military man who has been passed over for a key promotion. That wound is never clearly communicated to the audience in this production, which depicts Iago doubling as either a manipulative bartender or someone whose easy access to Othello is convenient at best, and questionable at worst.
  • In Shakespeare's play Iago seethes with hatred for Othello, in this version Iago seemed like someone who was rather bored and lacked something to do.
  • When Shakespeare's soldiers speak of their love for the Moor, it is an expression of loyalty that stems from an admiration for military prowess. It is most definitely not the love of a fat black bitch who thinks she has been spurned by a black man who is in love with a white woman.
  • Without the presence of the Duke of Venice, the audience cannot understand how Othello (a military man) defended himself to his civilian superiors.
  • Without Brabantio, the audience cannot understand how Othello has humiliated Desdemona in front of her family.
  • Whereas Iago's speech about "lying with Cassio" and hearing him talk in his sleep means one thing in the context of two male soldiers in battle, it takes on a very different significance when being spoken by a nasty, manipulative bull dyke who purports to have had a crush on her male superior.
  • Young's attempt to portray Iago and his wife, Emilia, as an interracial lesbian couple falls flat on its face with a resounding thud.
The shoddy stage direction did little to assist Jeff Handy (Othello), Vivian Kane (Desdemona), Aimee McCrary (Iago), Cassio (Sam Leichter), or Meggy Hai Trang (Emilia) or show any of these actors off to good advantage. However, this horribly misguided production did invoke the nightmarishly comic memory of having once seen a stripped-down version of Aida (minus Verdi's Triumphal March) performed on an op-art set for Mart Crowley's 1968 homodrama, The Boys in the Band.

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Some people approach a Chekhov drama with the same enthusiasm they have for eating their vegetables. But when done well, a good performance of a Chekhov play can lure carnivores toward vegetarianism.

When first produced in 1896, Anton Chekhov's dramedy, The Seagull, was a a notorious failure (the actress playing the ingenue had such a severe case of stage fright that she lost her voice). And yet, when it premiered in May of 2008 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, Emily Mann's new adaptation, A Seagull in the Hamptons, was hailed for its style and dramatic effectiveness.

In the following three clips, the playwright/director and actress Maria Tucci discuss how updating the action by 110 years and moving it from Tsarist Russia to a wealthy enclave near the southeastern tip of Long Island sacrificed none of the comedy, drama, or humanity in Chekhov's original.

It's always a pleasant shock to walk into the Ashby Stage's auditorium and see how a local set designer has made use of this remarkable space. Robert Broadfoot's elegant unit set is so brilliantly designed that I would urge serious Bay area theatregoers to buy a ticket to A Seagull in the Hamptons just to see how well it supports the drama. In the course of updating the action, Chekhov's original characters have been transformed by Emily Mann into:
  • Harold (Andy Alabran), a nebbishy schoolteacher.
  • Milly (Anna Ishida), Harold's hard-drinking, bitter, and sarcastic Goth girlfriend, who has had a life-long crush on Alex.
  • Nicholas (Richard Louis James), Alex's rich uncle, an attorney (and possible closet case) who always wanted to become a writer but married his career, instead.
  • Lorenzo (Mark Manske), Milly's father, a local who has been managing Nicholas's house.
  • Ben (John Mercer), a local physician with limited savings who fears he will never be able to retire.
  • Paula (Beth Deitchman), Lorenzo's wife, who has been having an affair with Ben.
  • Alex (Liam Callister), a depressed, moody young man who aspires to be a writer but may not have much in the way of talent. As the play begins, he and his girlfriend are about to put on a laughably pretentious show for the locals.
Liam Callister as Alex (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
  • Nina (Kelsey Venter), a local girl who yearns to be an actress. Although she and Alex are wildly in love, Nina's parents don't want her going anywhere near Alex or his family.
  • Maria (Trish Mulholland), Alex's egocentric mother. An extremely selfish and self-centered actress, Maria is rarely able to see past her own wild emotional needs to notice those of her anguished son.
  • Philip (Alex Moggridge), Maria's current lover, a writer who is surprisingly unimpressed with his own work. Every bit as selfish as Maria, Philip worries that he is observing life rather than living it.
Trish Mulholland as Maria (Photo by:
Jessica Palopoli)

Directed by Reid Davis with a deep sense of honesty, truth, and integrity, the West Coast premiere of Mann's play by the Shotgun Players is indeed cause for celebration. As always,
the Shotgun ensemble delivers a magnificently cogent, intelligent, and tightly-knit performance.

While Trish Mulholland, Alex Moggridge, Anna Ishida and Kelsey Venter score strongly in their respective roles, the impassioned performance by young Liam Callister as Alex and, most especially, the portrayal by Richard Louis James of Alex's rapidly deteriorating uncle are both inspired and inspiring. A Seagull in the Hamptons continues at the Ashby Stage until April 25. You can order tickets here.

Nicholas (Richard Louis James), Nina (Kelsey Venter) and
Maria (Trish Mulholland) (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

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Written by Marilee Talkington and Justin Quinn Pelegano, the Vanguardian Productions staging of Truce is not for people who want mindless entertainment. Although monologues by artists like Dan Hoyle, Ann Randolph, Charlie Varon, and the above mentioned Richard Louis James (who has a one-man show about Quentin Crisp) can be highly entertaining, Truce deals with a physical disability most people would rather avoid: blindness.

Slowly but steadily, Talkington has been losing her vision to a form of macular degeneration in which the cones (photoreceptor cells in the retina that function in bright light) and rods (photoreceptor cells in the retina that function in less intense light) in her eyes have stopped functioning. The result is a form of legal blindness in which there is no central vision, but some vision around the periphery.

Marilee Talkington

Talkington, who earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in Acting from American Conservatory Theatre, is one of only two legally blind actors in the country to have done so. In 2001, she self-published The Zen Handbook for Actors. Marissa Wolf (the artistic director of the Crowded Fire Theatre Company who also directed Truce) describes Talkington as follows:
"I am completely enamored with Marilee's work. One of the things I noticed years ago, when we were first working together, was that she would push and push until she got to where she felt a particular movement should be (sometimes even at the expense of her body). What I love about watching Marilee move onstage -- and I've always felt that way from our first collaboration -- is that you're watching someone who moves with such grace and agility, yet she's not there to be a dancer. There's a very muscular, human side [of her work] that involves breath. She is incredible onstage: a force of beautiful energy, engagement, and groundedness whose presence affects you.

I love working with movement -- I think that's one of the things that makes Marilee and I such a wonderful match together in the theatre. She is not only a wonderful actor, but also a wonderful movement coach. That's a language that she lives and breathes as well.

One of the things that always interested me about Marilee -- and that was revealed slowly as we were working together -- is that she goes for it fully, physically, and loves taking physical risks. She is one of those incredible actors who all directors love to work with because she says yes to everything. In fact, if you give her an idea and ask 'Why don't you try it this way?' she'll say "I'll see you one better. I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that, and then I'm going to do this on top of that!"
When I first started going to the opera back in 1966, I met a woman named Lois Kirschenbaum who was affectionately known as the Queen of the Met's Standees. Although Lois was legally blind, she rose to more challenges than many sighted people. Her stamina was simply unbelievable.

Watching Talkington perform her one-woman show reminded me of that deep well of energy and total commitment to pursuing one's passion that I saw in Lois (while at A.C.T. Talkington received the Carol Channing Trouper Award for Commitment and Leadership). She is the kind of intelligent and intensely physical performer who is willing to take big risks in order to earn the kind of artistic rewards that will quench her thirst for fulfillment.

Before opening the show at San Francisco's Noh Space, Talkington had wanted to reinvestigate the play and open it up a bit more, to dig deeper in search of the work's core truths and to see if she could communicate with audiences at an even deeper level. Wolf recalls that:
"When she first showed me the script, I was interested in something that the script starts to reveal -- something that I saw in her life -- which is a pushing away of a physical ailment. The sense of being fully capable physically is so important for her. I said yes to this project because I was really excited to be part of that process, to crack open that world that was already on the page, so rich and full, but clearly had more room for emotional resonance. I was interested in where the story was coming from: Marilee's own experience, and why she was going to tell the story now.

This is a very special piece because there's a design device in the production that aligns the audience with the way Marilee sees. There's something really powerful about this that's not only Marilee's unveiling of her life and her stories, but is actually an experience for the audience that engages their senses. I think this piece really comes to life for the audience in ways that a lot of theater doesn't."
Talkington's play warms up the audience with her childhood delight (rather than fear) at being the center of attention whenever she was taken to a medical office, but describes how her mother (who is also blind) would throw cold water on some of Marilee's happier moments in order to prepare her for reality. Marilee's consternation at attending a conference for the blind where she was taken to task for not using a cane is as startling as her discovery that some blind people attend conferences primarily for the orgies.

It is a remarkable performance, marked by great discipline, surprising athleticism, and a powerful sense that the audience is being drawn into the physical limits of Talkington's world. The actress speaks candidly about what it was like, as a blind college student, to discover that she was a very sexy woman and learn how to make the most of her assets.

"I see Truce as a kind of living memoir in which there is an uncovering of childhood experiences, Marilee's sight, and sight loss. One of the ways in which the piece functions so beautifully is how it really opens itself up in terms of accessibility so that we can all find ourselves within Marilee," notes Wolf. "But then it opens up into something else -- something very rich -- that perhaps people in the audience will never have dwelled upon or spent time thinking about."

Truce is, without doubt, a challenging experience for the artist as well as for her audience. Days after you've witnessed Talkington perform, her story will continue to haunt you. Here's the trailer:

Friday, March 26, 2010

No More Business As Usual

Every so often I receive an email that references the good old days and asks people if they can still remember when we depended on some now obsolete items. I can still remember when:
  • Back before the invention of the ATM, a person often had to spend half his lunch hour waiting on line to have a bank teller cash a check.
  • In order to open certain tin cans, a person had to peel a key away from the can and then use it to slowly unwind a strip of tinplate.
  • A Saturday afternoon spent in the grandeur of a local movie palace offered two full-length features for 25 cents.
  • In order to dial a long distance phone number, you had to call the operator to ask for her help.
  • The second most important key in a child's life was the skate key that tightened the foot clamps on his roller skates.
  • Once upon a time, long before Sesame Street, a children's book could open up a child's imagination to a world of wonder and awe.
Three and a half years old and already precocious

Those days are long gone, as are so many devices we once thought we couldn't live without. Steve Almond notes that, in an age of digital technology and easy accessibility, The Trouble With Easy Listening may well be that the mere act of listening to music is no longer a sacred experience. Film critic Roger Ebert is in the process of launching a blog that will not just review films, but examine how changes in distribution channels are reshaping the film industry.

Three short films that were recently screened at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival were unusually successful in lending a personal touch to business practices. Two marked the demise of a beloved tradition. The third marked the start of something new.

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Mr. Shanbag's Shop, a 15-minute video from India that received its world premiere at the festival, took a look at the plight of the independent bookstore. However, rather than facing competition from major retail outlets, the store depicted in Asha Ghosh's poignant short captured the essence of clutter, the joys of finding unexpected treasure, and the end of an era in used book sales.

After 35 years collecting all kinds of bizarre titles, Mr. Shanbag closed his beloved shop in Bangalore. What I loved about this film was how it captured the role a used bookstore plays in a community as well as the kinds of people who thrive on its existence. Watch the trailer to get one last glimpse of what glorious clutter looked like before the advent of ordering books online.

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What happens when a profession becomes obsolete? Or when no one wishes to carry on a tradition? Just as farm families have watched their children abandon the homestead for life in the city, a tiny community of skin divers in the Korean Strait constitutes the last generation that will earn its living underwater.

The Haenyo statue on Jeju Island

In an enchanting 19-minute short from South Korea, filmmaker Liz Chae documents the lifestyle of the Haenyos of Jeju Island. For nearly 2000 years, a tradition of diving for shellfish helped the Haenyos fend off starvation and survive wars which took away their men. Generation upon generation of mothers taught their daughters how to dive for oysters, abalone, and other food sources found on the coastal ocean floor.

Although Korea has traditionally been a male-dominated society, the location of Jeju in the Strait of Korea meant that many of its men were either killed during wars or taken captive. The Last Mermaids documents the history of the Haenyos (including one very spry 85 year old), who routinely hold their breath for three minutes as they dive to a depth of 45 feet.

Rather than use scuba gear which could increase their productivity, the women interviewed in the film would prefer that their daughters (who now have access to higher education) not spend the rest of their lives in the water.

The Last Mermaids won the gold medal at the Student Academy Awards. Because the filmmaker and her mother were constantly bickering while on Jeju Island, The Last Mermaids ran into some curious production problems (read the fascinating back story about how the Haenyos finally doused the flames of a family feud). To get a sample of Dae In Kim's beautiful underwater cinematography and Joel Douek's magical score, click here to watch the film's trailer.

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Although I'm not quite sure how a film about brewing beer in Palestine made it into the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival, Buthina Canaan Khoury's short tells the story of how her family's business was born and how her family has tried to serve their limited market while championing its cultural appeal for Palestinians. Thanks to local politics and religious taboos, the distribution challenges faced by the Khoury family may be unique.

More than a simple industrial film about the Taybeh Brewery (the only beer brewed in Palestine), Taste The Revolution shows how a beer business can blossom in a politically-scarred landscape. You can watch Khoury's film in its entirety in the following clip. Believe me when I tell you that the Walker family (from ABC's soap opera, Brothers and Sisters) never had to deal with distribution problems like these!