Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Devil May Care

Living in a culture dominated by a hunger for instant gratification, we sometimes forget the kinds of compromises and convenient lies we have grown accustomed to taking for granted.
And yet people still think they're securely behind the driver's wheel! Merely saying "I want it -- and I want it now!" doesn't seem the slightest bit overreaching to an egotist like Meg Whitman (who is running for Governer of California despite the fact that she didn't vote for 28 years). Or to demon sheep-woman Carly Fiorina, who holds the record as one of the worst executives in the history of Silicon Valley.

All one has to do is read Tim Dickinson's The Spill, The Scandal, and the President in the current issue of Rolling Stone to see how an accumulation of political corruption, inept managers, wanton neglect, and corporate indifference led to the tragic situation in the Gulf of Mexico. But, as the old saying goes: "The devil is in the details."

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The CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, isn't only person who wants his life back. Greed, envy, and unrealistic expectations lie at the heart of many a tragedy. In her article, The Danger of Desire, dramaturg Laura Brueckner writes that:
"The warning tale of the 'magical debt' is the type of story whose shadowy outlines haunt the landscape of Forever Never Comes. There are a thousand different variants on this tale in almost every culture (which shows that we know there is something very dangerous about wanting). The protagonists in these tales want something so badly, so urgently, that they become willing to give anything in exchange. And usually, right about that time, someone arrives and makes them an offer.

Someone very powerful. And inhuman. And implacable.

Once the hero agrees to the bargain, the merciless mechanism of the story is set in motion. Beauty's father promises his child to the Beast. Faustus signs his soul away in Marlowe's lurid Elizabethan fetishizing of the written contract. A girl from South Boston, Virginia, wishes for forgiveness to ease her heartbroken guilt. These protagonists soon find they must use all of their strength, courage, and wiles to escape a terrifying fate.

Some are successful. Some, like the original Little Mermaid, pay the ultimate price for their desire. Be careful what you wish for."
Crowded Fire Theatre Company recently presented the world premiere production of a complex and challenging new drama by Enrique Urueta entitled Forever Never Comes (A Psycho-Southern Queer Country Dance Tragedy). As directed by Mary Guzman, the plot focuses on two families in a small Southern town whose fates become horribly intertwined:
  • Ricardo (Shoresh Alaudini) is a young gay man who moved to San Francisco, but subsequently hanged himself. Just before committing suicide, he tried to call his sister, Sandra, who wasn't in the mood to pick up her cell phone at the moment when doing so might have saved her brother's life.
  • Lucrecia (Carla Pantoja) is Ricardo and Sandra's immigrant mother who was still mourning the death of her husband when she received the news that her son had taken his own life.
  • Sandra (Marilet Martinez) is Ricardo's selfish sister who, since his suicide, has been consumed with guilt over not having answered her phone. Sandra had previously been in love with a local girl named Debra (who has since changed her name to Dylan and started taking testosterone). Now Sandra isn't sure what she wants.
  • Dylan (Kathryn Zdan) is Sandra's ex-girlfriend who has always felt trapped in a woman's body. Determined to move to San Francisco (where she can finish her FTM transition), Dylan is thrilled that, after being stopped for speeding, the highway patrolman told her to "Take it easy, son." She is eager to act like a man -- and actually become a man.
  • Donna (Michele Leavy) is Dylan's mother, a high-strung hospital worker preparing to celebrate her 25th anniversary when she receives word that her husband has succumbed to a heart attack. Stubbornly refusing to accept the implications of Dylan's transition, she wants her little girl Debra back.
  • Beth Ann (Marissa Keltie) is Donna's very pregnant daughter (and Dylan's sister) who surprises everyone by delivering a black baby.
  • Hunter (Daniel Petzold) is Beth Ann's abusive, white trash husband who knows how to drink beer. Although very macho, he's not particularly bright.
  • The Fox Confessor (Lawrence Radecker) is a shape shifter with demonic instincts who offers Sandra a bargain she can't resist. He will get rid of her all her pain and guilt over Ricardo's suicide but, when the appropriate time comes, he will return to claim her body and soul.
Dylan (Kathryn Zdan) and The Fox Confessor (Lawrence Radecker)
(Photo by: Dave Nowakowski)

Forever Never Comes places a new cast of characters at the mercy of a manipulative demon. As the audience watches Sandra stall for time and try to outwit the Fox Confessor, Urueta's script delivers many hilarious moments as well as emotionally charged family conflicts. These include:
  • Donna's amusing efforts to buy more steaks at the local supermarket when the clearly-stated sale limit is 10 per customer,
  • What should have been a joyful moment in the delivery room,
  • A desperate encounter between a babysitting Dylan and a dangerously drunk Hunter, and
  • Sandra and Dylan's frenzied, blood-stained attempt to flee to San Francisco.
Dylan (Kathryn Zdan) and Sandra (Marilet Martinez)
(Photo by: Dave Nowakowski)

In such moments the audience remains in the grip of a skilled storyteller for whom flashbacks are not a problem. Just when it looks like everyone is doomed, Urueta delivers a simple yet startling revelation that takes the play in a new direction.

Guzman's deft direction helps to showcase each character's quiet moments as well as their tense conflicts with family and lovers. Listen for the subtle changes in tone and rhythm contained within a litany of tips about San Francisco that is first recited by Sandra (who has never been there) and later spoken by the spirit of her dead brother in a more genuine, knowing, and less frenetic voice. Or the fevered pitch of Michele Leavy's opening monologue as Donna.

Michele Leavy as Donna (Photo by: Dave Nowakowski)

Colin Trevor's sound design helps to frame the changing moods of the play, particularly with regard to a serious of ominous thunderstorms. I tip my hat to Emily Greene, who has achieved a minor miracle in set design.

Though deceptively simple on first sight, Greene's unit set (which looks like someone built a rectangular redwood structure around a potential pool or sandbox) creates a wealth of playing opportunities. Enhanced by Heather Basarab's lighting design, Greene achieves something quite remarkable by making it rain on all four sides of the playing area within the tiny Boxcar Theatre!

Urueta's drama is a gripping piece of theatre whose immediacy and relevancy will score strongly with LGBT audiences during Gay Pride Month. Forever Never Comes continues through June 26 at the Boxcar Theatre (you can purchase tickets here).

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Friday night's performance of Faust at the War Memorial Opera House brought back some memories that surprised me. The first was my participation in the Midwood High School Mixed Chorus as its leader, Bella Tillis, tried to get a classroom full of horny students to sing the Act I chorus. Having since attended several hundred professional opera performances, I cringe at the excruciating memory of how we collectively murdered Charles Gounod's music.

The second memory was of attending my first professional production of Faust on November 17, 1968, when the New York City Opera unveiled a new production starring Michele Molese in the title role, Beverly Sills as Marguerite, and the great Norman Treigle as Méphistophélès. A remarkable bass-baritone (who also portrayed the title role in Boito's only opera, Mefistofele, to great acclaim), Treigle had a particular quality which has rarely been captured by his successors. He knew how to make the character sinister and forbidding in ways that could send a chill up the audience's collective spine.

My third memory, and quite a vague one at that, was of seeing a performance of Faust at the Metropolitan Opera that included the famous Walpurgisnacht ballet (which has since been dropped from most productions). A curious piece of trivia: Although it was Gounod's Faust that marked the debut of the Metropolitan Opera on October 22, 1883, the company only performed the complete opera (including the Walpurgisnacht and ballet) between 1965 and 1977 in the Jean-Louis Barrault production that opened the final season in the old Metropolitan Opera House prior to the company's relocation to Lincoln Center.

The San Francisco Opera's new production of Faust (with sets and costumes borrowed from the Lyric Opera of Chicago) offers a solid dramatic presentation of the work. As Faust, Stefano Secco brings a sweet voice to the proceedings which gains strength when necessary. His singing, tenderly supported by conductor Maurizio Benini, demonstrates how beautifully Gounod orchestrated his score to support a tenor's vocal line.

Faust (Stefano Secco) and Marguerite (Patricia Racette)
(Photo by: Terrence McCarthy)

The lyrical strength of Secco's singing is nicely countered by Brian Mulligan's macho portrayal of Marguerite's brother and his sonorous delivery of Valentin's music. Supporting roles were taken by Daniela Mack as the young Siebel, San Francisco Opera veteran Catherine Cook as the newly widowed Marthe, and Adler fellow Austin Kness as Wagner.

Méphistophélès (John Relyea) and Wagner (Austin Kness)
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

While John Relyea's performance as Méphistophélès was authoritatively acted and powerfully sung, it never got anywhere near sinister. As directed by Jose Maria Condemi, this devil is a far more functional figure who goes about his work day by day, soul by soul, dragging more humans down to hell. While he enjoys playing with his food before devouring it, this devil has a taste for careful planning.

Patricia Racette as Marguerite (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

As Marguerite, former San Francisco Adler fellow Patricia Racette rose to the role's vocal and dramatic demands quite admirably. Although it is always a challenge to block the horrific recording of the opera's famous trio by Florence Foster Jenkins from one's mind, the final scene of Gounod's opera remains a masterpiece of musical drama.

Beverly Sills used to joke that Jules Massenet's opera, Manon, was long enough to make a soprano feel like she was singing the French Gotterdammerung. Gounod's Faust (whose performances have sometimes lasted as long as five hours) requires a soprano who, by the end of a very long evening, still has enough stamina left for the final scene.

Special credit goes to the production's designer, Robert Perdziola, whose unit set proved flexible enough to provide a lush garden scene for Marguerite's seduction, and a magnificent setting for her salvation. Enhanced by Duane Schuler's lighting, the opera's final moments had a stunning impact.

Patricia Racette as Marguerite (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

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Men of ill repute and questionable judgment can be found throughout literature. A new character lies at the center of a curious film starring Michael Douglas. The protagonist of Solitary Man knows he's a sleazeball but, because he thrives on taking risks, can't stop himself from acting impulsively (especially after his physician notices some irregularities in his heart rhythm).

A former king of regional car salesmen, Ben Kalmen loved living high on the hog. After being indicted (but escaping prison by paying a large fine), he is now divorced from his wife, Nancy (Susan Sarandon), and involved with a rich bitch (Mary Louise Parker) who insists that he accompany her daughter Alyson (Imogen Poots) to her college interview in Boston.

While there, Ben makes the acquaintance of an idealistic young student who is shy with women (Jesse Eisenberg) and ends up sleeping with Alyson. Needless to say, there are ugly and painful repercussions.

With a supporting cast that features Danny DeVito. Jenna Fischer, Richard Schiff, and Ben Shenkman, Solitary Man is a well written drama that allows Douglas to create another one of his great American sleazeballs. Written and directed by Brian Koppelman, the film is definitely worth renting when it comes out on DVD. Here's the trailer:

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