Thursday, March 25, 2010

When You Least Expect It

Long before Jay Leno hit the streets of Los Angeles to test people's cultural literacy -- and long before Ashton Kutcher started to tell people they'd been punk'd for MTV -- Allen Funt had a popular television show named Candid Camera. The lyrics to its theme song read as follows:
"When you least expect it
You're elected
You're the star today.
Smile, you're on Candid Camera.

With a hocus pocus,
You're in focus
It's your lucky day.
Smile, you're on Candid Camera."
All too often, it is the completely spontaneous, unguarded moment that captures an audience's fancy. The timing might be situational or capture a moment of human weakness. Or it could involve an animal just being, well, an animal.
  • One dark and rainy night I was standing at the MUNI stop at 18th and Church Streets, waiting for a J streetcar to take me downtown. It was raining quite heavily and yet, as I turned around and looked at the tennis courts, I saw something that made me break out into a huge smile. Running around in circles on one of the courts was one of the happiest dogs I'd ever seen -- a labrador retriever merrily splashing through puddles with the goofiest look of joy on his face.
  • The front window of my apartment is filled with owl figurines. Because my desk is close by, I can often hear parents and their children counting the owls, making hooting sounds, or taking pictures of the window. One little boy, looking wistfully at my front window as I arrived home one afternoon, was horribly disappointed to learn that I lived there (he thought it was a toy store). One morning I heard a tiny little voice say "I think that place is haunted!"
Standing in front of my owl window in 2004
  • And how could anyone resist this video clip of an adult male lion reuniting with the woman who rescued him from starvation and nursed him back to health?

Sometimes a short film like Wendy J. N. Lee's delightful Three Times Me (which was recently screened at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival) proves to be completely disarming. Don't take my word for it -- watch it yourself!

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Equally charming was an 11-minute short by Jin Hong entitled Who Killed The Goldfish? Hong's film examines the changing family dynamic in a Korean-Canadian household in Vancouver where the daughter speaks English and must answer phone calls at home because her mother can only speak Korean. With the man of the house away on business (most probably in South Korea), the family reaches an impasse when the daughter refuses to keep covering for her mother's inability to speak anything other than Korean.

Who Killed The Goldfish? also has a running joke about the word "indigestion." One of the children uses it as a handy excuse for everything. When the mother accidentally feeds the family's pet goldfish too much food, she must face up to the responsibility of having given the goldfish a terminal case of indigestion.

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In 1972, shortly after I moved to San Francisco, I started making yearly visits to Los Angeles in late November and early December to catch performances by the New York City Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on its annual westward trek to the Los Angeles Music Center. Having spent all of my winters in New York and New England (where Christmas trees were freshly cut and often accompanied by real snow), it was shocking to see fake Christmas trees in DayGlo colors being sold on many street lots in Hollywood.

If I thought those trees were tacky, they were nothing compared to Michael Magnaye's 23-minute film, White Christmas. In his film, which explores the many contradictions in how Christmas is celebrated in the Philippines, Magnaye tries to explain how, “after 400 years in a convent and 50 years under Hollywood, Philippine culture has become a spectacle of Spanish and U.S. colonial influences."

Filipinos don't just love Christmas, they embrace it with the childlike enthusiasm of a young gay man who has made his first trip to a gay bar and wants to believe that a mirrored disco ball has magical powers. With images of Walt Disney's Tinkerbell joining the three wise men for the trip to Bethlehem (and Santa Claus flying over the Virgin Mary as she rides on her donkey), White Christmas is just one or two lumpia away from explaining how man walked with dinosaurs.

After having lived in the United States for five years as an openly gay surgeon, Magnaye's understanding of Filipino Christmas rituals (where Jesus and Mary arrive with microphones in hand and fake snow is proudly displayed indoors even when it's 95 degrees outside) has become a tad more bittersweet. As he looks at the giant displays in Manila's shopping malls, and visits some of the local gay community's outrageous holiday drag performances, he confesses to feeling like a bar girl (prostitute) he once knew who always changed clothes after the night's labors so that she could make it to the first mass of the morning.

The tidal waves of mixed messages about Christmas traditions (as well as a growing awareness of what it means to live life out of the closet) help give the filmmaker a deeper appreciation for the crazy, somewhat schizophrenic culture in which he was raised.

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The shock of recognition gives Stephen Adly Guirgis's new comedy, Den of Thieves, a novel plot twist for a young man who has prepared to die at the hands of some Mafia goons. It's a moment of recognition that is probably familiar to a lot of people in San Francisco -- the moment when someone they don't know (but who is also a member of a 12-step program) reaches out to help them in a moment of need.

Now onstage at SFPlayhouse, Den of Thieves is a very sweet comedy that will make every effort to steal your heart when the characters onstage aren't busy trying to steal everything else. Whether palming wallets or shoplifting Yodels, whether shortchanging a relative by $250,000 or compulsively eating donuts as a way of masking their emotional pain, most of these people can hardly believe in themselves, much less a higher power.

Ashkon Davaran and Casey Jackson (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Among the miscreants nervously pacing Bill English's neatly designed unit set are:
  • Maggie, a young cleptomaniac trying to turn her life around.
  • Paul, her sponsor from Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous. Like many people in recovery, Paul is obsessive about knowing how many days he has gone without stealing anything, without smoking, and without indulging in any other of his old, self-destructive behavior.
  • Flaco, Maggie's ex-boyfriend, an illiterate Puerto Rican whose ego is only surpassed by his innate stupidity.
  • Boochie, Flaco's latest girlfriend, a stripper who makes Flaco seem like an intellectual.
  • Sal, the ultimate loser in a small-time Mafia family. To his credit, Sal is a decent cook.
  • Little Tuna, Sal's boss and the heir to his father's "business."
  • Big Tuna, a local gangster whose higher power would encourage killing off an idiotic parasite -- even if the parasite was a relative with a gambling problem.
Kathryn Tkel and Chad Deverman (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Anyone who has problems getting a grip on their compulsive habits, who is in recovery, or who has friends in recovery, will have a grand old time at Den of Thieves. Smartly directed by Susi Damilano, Guirgis's play scores its points by highlighting people's weaknesses (whether they range from bloodthirstiness to an obsessive need to speak up and call people on their crap).

While the most flamboyant and deliciously outsized performances come from Chad Deverman as the idiotic Flaco, Corinne Proctor as the slutty Boochie, and the always fascinating Peter Ruocco as Sal, I was particularly taken by Casey Jackson's portrayal of the obsessive Paul as a meticulous thinker, Ashkon Davaran's characterization of Little Tuna as a hood with a heart of gold, and Kathryn Tkel's sadly resigned but spirited Maggie.

The second act of Guirgi's play loses a bit of steam as the four idiots tied up in the basement of Big Tuna's nightclub try to decide who should die so the others can live. Joe Madero's Big Tuna, however, provides the perfect excuse for a surprise ending that can save the day (call this a "three thumbs up" finale). Den of Thieves continues along its merry way at SFPlayhouse through April 17. You can order tickets here.

1 comment:

Richard Stauff said...

Candid Camera Theme Song

When it's least expected - you're elected!
You're the star today!
Smile! You're on Candid Camera!

With a “hocus-pocus” - you're in focus!
It's your lucky day!
Smile! You're on Candid Camera!

It's fun to laugh at yourself!
It's a tonic, tried and true!
It's fun to look at yourself
As other people do!

How's your sense of humor? There's a rumor:
Laughter's on its way!
Smile! You're on Candid Camera!