Friday, July 2, 2010

Clods and Monsters

Behavior that is deemed unsavory, aberrant, or downright frightening often provokes some pretty mean-spirited name calling. Whether a person is physically deformed, mentally deficient, or socially inept, being called a misfit, demon seed, freak of nature, or the devil's spawn is bound to cause lasting psychological damage.

And yet, if we examine some of the dramas built around such unfortunate souls, we often discover classics such as Beauty and the Beast, The Phantom of the Opera, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Rigoletto, Equus, Frankenstein, and The Elephant Man. Each of these tales tries to connect audiences with the protagonist's basic humanity. Some succeed better than others.

What happens when a so-called "monster" appears within a tightly-knit community? Usually, it is confronted by society's disapproval and a profound lack of understanding. Pleas for tolerance and acceptance are vehemently rejected. Fear of "the other" reigns supreme.

But there are stories to be told -- and money to be made -- in the spinning of such tales. Whether they are spun by Hans Christian Anderson and Mary Shelley or by Christopher Moore, Augusten Burroughs, and Todd Solondz; by the Brothers Grimm and Bram Stoker or by Stephen King, M. Night Shyamalan, and John Waters; there is a growing audience for suspense, horror, and tales of family dysfunction. Consider the following examples:

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Many religious fundamentalists are intensely homophobic. Like devout Muslims, orthodox Jews are very focused on living a heterosexual lifestyle in which one's devotion to God comes first and foremost. So what happens when a kosher butcher develops a taste for the flesh of a 19-year-old homeless Yeshiva student? You get a movie like Eyes Wide Open (that was recently screened at the Frameline 34 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival).

Directed by Haim Tabakman (using a script by Merav Doster), this Israeli film wades into territory that is rarely seen as exotic, much less erotic. Israel's orthodox Jews are a tightly-knit community where any deviation from the norm presents easy fodder for gossip and potential shunning by those who would invest themselves with the powers of religious police.

Aaron Fleischmann (Zohar Strauss) is a married father of four children who, following his father's recent death, has reopened the family butcher shop in Jerusalem and is starting to rebuild the business. His wife, Rivka (Tinkerbell) wears a traditional sheitel to cover her hair when she goes outside their home.

One day, he meets Ezri (Ran Danker), a 19-year-old Yeshiva student who is homeless. Ezri's former boyfriend (Mati Atlas) won't return his calls and, when they see each other on the street, wants nothing to do with him.

Ezri (Ran Danker) and Aaron (Johar Strauss)

When Aaron offers Ezri a temporary place to stay in the room above his butcher shop (and takes Ezri to the synagogue to join him in prayer) ripples of suspicion course through the congregation. Aaron's old friend Mordechai (Isaac Sharri) -- who does not drive and often depends upon Aaron for a ride -- becomes resentful of the young man who has become an apprentice in the butcher shop and is monopolozing Aaron's attention.

Several men warn Aaron not to be seen associating with Ezri. Others start taunting Ezri and telling him that he is unwanted, that he should leave the area. Soon, posters are appearing on community bulletin boards warning locals that Aaron's meat may not be clean.

A trip to a nearby watering hole allows the two men to see each other naked. Soon, Aaron is beginning to feel alive again and consents to let Ezri (a talented sketch artist) draw him.

Ezri (Ran Danker) and Aaron (Johar Strauss)

In a related subplot, young Israel Fischer (Avi Grayinik) and his girlfriend, Sara (Eva Zrihen-Attali), have incurred the scorn of locals who are convinced that Israel will never amount to much and is hardly a suitable groom for Mordechai's daughter. As a member of the congregation, Aaron finds himself unexpectedly forced to accompany Mordechai and some others to the apartment of Israel Fischer's mother (Safrira Zakai), where her son is beaten and warned to avoid any further contact with Sara.

While all this is happening, Aaron is wrestling with emotions he's never felt before. Soon he is being threatened with ostracism by two young and very self-righteous thugs from his synagogue (Haim Zanati and Iftach Ophir). Needless to say, none of this pleases Rabbi Vaisben (Tzahi Grad).

Eyes Wide Open does an excellent job of depicting the suffocating levels of intolerance found in communities of orthodox Jews. This film is all about the repression of one's natural emotions and the organized violence that ensues when fundamentalists become sufficiently terrified of "the other" to start acting out. In the following clip, director Haim Tabakman discusses some of the challenges he faced while making Eyes Wide Open.

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Written and directed by Jerry Turner, a domestic drama entitled Surprise, Surprise feels very much like a stage play -- and with good reason. An aspiring filmmaker, Turner came across a script for a play written by Travis Michael Holder in which he had appeared when he first came to Los Angeles seeking fame and fortune. He spent half his tiny budget of $45,000 to secure the right home in which to shoot the story. The rest, as they say, is history.

While it's easy to see how Holder's play is a likely candidate for adaptation to the screen, it's equally obvious that some of the angry monologues -- which would probably play very well in a small theatre -- lose some of their steam when performed in a sprawling Hollywood Hills mansion. The drama's six characters are:
  • Den Jorgensen (Travis Michael Holder), a middle-aged television actor whose long run on a popular soap opera has recently come to an end. Closeted (and still wanting to believe that the studio doesn't know his secrets), Den's physical appearance may have grown quite blowsy, but his home is magnificent.
  • Junie Hannah (Deborah Shelton), one of Den's oldest and dearest friends. Junie was once an aspiring actress who learned how to put out for studio executives in the hopes of getting roles. The only offers she's been getting lately are for the kind of gigs that come one's way when the people who are looking for a "Sally Struthers type" can't afford the real thing.
  • Colin Alexandre (John Brotherton), Den's lover. A former dancer who toured with Madonna, Colin was severely injured in an accident and is now confined to a wheelchair. Bitter about the loss of his mobility, he has refused everyone's advice to start physical therapy and has resigned himself to a lifestyle of watching soap operas and feeling sorry for himself. He has a love/hate relationship with Junie and often tries to avoid her.
  • Winnie Blythman (Mary Jo Catlett), an old friend of Den's from the television studio. Recently retired, Winnie was the office worker who knew the dirt on everyone. She has been caring for her horribly obnoxious grandson ever since her daughter had a stroke.
  • David Jorgensen (Luke Eberl), the previously unknown love child created one drunken night by Den with Winnie's daughter. David has been shuttled back and forth between his coke-addled, abusive stepfather's home and Winnie's lodgings. Angry at the world and extremely homophobic, he is less than thrilled to discover that his biological father is gay.
  • Jason Aaron (Jesse C. Boyd), the gay male actor who played Den's son on the soap opera. Jason (who has a reputation as a major slut in gay Hollywood) has just spent the night with David.
Surprise, Surprise is better than one might expect for a first feature film made with almost no money. Most of the writing is quite strong (although one can't help but notice how many speeches would sound better in a theatrical setting). It was nice to see Mary Jo Catlett (the original Ernestina/Miss Money when Hello, Dolly! opened on Broadway on January 16, 1964) doing solid work as Winnie.

John Brotherton (Colin) and Luke Eberl (David) have the strongest scenes, with Jesse C. Boyd's Aaron offering a peek inside the mind of a male bimbo. Surprisingly, the original playwright (who plays Den) and Deborah Shelton (Junie) deliver the weakest performances.

Surprise, Surprise does, however, deal with a complex issue: the gay man who discovers that he has a child no one ever told him about. Den's clumsy attempts to act like a responsible father to a bitter, angry teenager while protecting his crippled lover from the kid's verbal attacks are touching, albeit occasionally forced.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was wondering if Surprise, Surprise wouldn't be an excellent choice (in the play's original form) for a production by New Conservatory Theatre Center. Here's the trailer:

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Over at The Marsh, Cherry Zonkowski has been performing her new monologue entitled Reading My Dad's Porn and French Kissing the Dog. A smart title guaranteed to generate results at the box office, it describes the tiniest and most innocent of Zonkowski's sexual misadventures.

Zonkowski starts off describing what her life was like as a military brat in Texas, where drinking while driving was considered the norm and her father's main reason to get in the car to purchase more booze was that he had run out of alcohol. Describing how her dad and his friends would pour beers that had heavy foam heads and then allow their children to suck off all the foam, she quickly sets the stage for a life filled with boredom and rebelliousness.
When Cherry's family gets transferred to a military installation in Norway, Zonkowski finds herself deprived of Texan traditions like Mexican food and sitcoms . She begins to realize that her father is an obnoxious drunk who likes to insult his wife and feed his boogers to the family dog. He frequently demands -- but can never get -- any respect from his rebellious daughter and underappreciated wife (a rabid grammarian and unrelenting detail Nazi who once voluntary took herself down to the police station to confess that she had exceeded the speed limit). As Zonkowski explains:
"This show had its roots in my family's conviction that we were the weirdest people around. When I look back at my early childhood, the only thing that was really strange about my family is the bone-deep conviction that we were nothing like normal people and that we should hide this at all costs. This bizarre conviction of shame eventually became its own opposite: a desire to tell people everything about myself -- no matter how small or embarrassing -- in order to bring on that strange sweet thrill of breaking the oldest childhood taboo ('Don't tell people that we're weirdos'). In consequence, I've become a self-proclaimed attention whore with no secrets.

After college in Los Angeles, I participated in bad poetry readings and formed half of a faux-Indigo Girls folk duo called Toe Jamboree. After my marriage broke up, I fell in among rogues and lunatics and my life improved drastically. I began hosting the Popcorn Anti-Theater Bus, where I called myself a 'conceptual artist whose medium is a bus full of drunks.' After I met Aaron Seeman (accordion player and friend extraordinaire, also known as Duckmandu), we began performing a rude little cabaret act with numbers like 'Dildos Are A Girl's Best Friend' and "I Enjoy Being With Girls.' Almost every song we did had dildos in the title."
Cherry Zonkowski

Whereas many women dread the day when they become their mothers, after marrying a stay-at-home Dad, Cherry hears herself turning into her father. Commuting from the East Bay (filled with Vallej-holes) to teach English composition at USF -- "true hell for the literate" -- she becomes so bored that an invitation to a suburban sex party seems like Manna from Heaven. Among the people she meets as she continues along the sex party circuit are:
Cherry Zonkowski

Cherry also learns how to cope with:
  • A punchbowl with a dildo-shaped fluid dispenser.
  • The thrills of nude wrestling while coated with a top quality veterinary lubricant.
  • The growing awareness that she is a sex freak who enjoys pain.
All of these activities are a huge improvement over the suffocating boredom of grading papers from her English composition class. Unfortunately, Zonkowski (who developed her monologue with the help of David Ford) faces several challenges with her show in its current form at the Marsh:
  • Cherry is a much better writer than performer.
  • Although she has some great material to deliver, pacing back and forth isn't the same thing as acting.
  • Zonkowski's singing is often weak and strained.
  • Her monologue is about 20 minutes too long.
  • Cherry's act is not enhanced in the least by sharing the spotlight with her accordion-playing friend, Aaron Seeman.
After watching the following video clip of Zonkowski performing in a very different type of venue, I think I know what the problem is. Cherry does better with a microphone as a prop (it gives her something to hold onto) and with a crowd that has been drinking. Performing her material in front of a sober audience may prove to be a distinct handicap. Watch the clip and you'll get a good idea of where Zonkowski's strengths lie.

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As I sat in the Golden Gate Theatre during the opening night performance for the touring production of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, there were a lot of bright lights flashing out into the auditorium. But what kept flashing in my mind was the word “amortization.”

It’s no secret that the original $16 million dollar production did not recoup its investment during the Broadway run. Judging by the gushing response from the opening night audience (which I unfortunately did not share), the show has a better chance of breaking even for its investors as long as it can keep touring.

It’s important to note that in its original version (as a black-and-white film spoofing a particular genre of Hollywood horror films) Young Frankenstein was a brilliant success. Obviously a labor of love by people who completely understood the genre they were spoofing, the film’s casting, direction, sight gags, and pacing were all pitch perfect. It was a major triumph for Mel Brooks and everyone involved.

Film, however, has certain advantages over the stage (closeups, clear diction, and the ability to let a moment register before moving on with the plot). Very little of this is apparent in Susan Stroman’s heavy-handed direction and choreography, which waste no time beating a punch line like a dead horse before you can even mutter “Frau Blucher.”

Roger Bart & Shuler Hensley (Photo by: Paul Kolnik)

It’s rare to see a cast throw so much energy into a performance of such a substandard work. While they're certainly not gladiators going to their death, for their tireless efforts I heartily salute them.

Doubling as the cartoonish Inspector Kemp and the desperately lonely Hermit, Brad Oscar turned in the strongest performance of the evening. As Frederick Frankenstein, Roger Bart proved to be a benign presence at best: affable, charming, and yet surprisingly dull.

Beth Curry vamped furiously as Elizabeth while Anne Horak tried to deliver the cheesecake quotient as Inga. Shuler Hensley's formidable talents seemed supremely wasted.

Beth Curry & Cory English (Photo by: Paul Kolnik)

While Cory English’s Igor and Joanna Glushak’s Frau Blucher were hugely energetic performances, when placed on a large stage they lost a great deal of their impact. Granted, their shtick cannot compare to the movie's closeups of Marty Feldman and Cloris Leachman. But largely due to Susan Stroman’s overzealous direction, Young Frankenstein felt more like a cold-hearted industrial show than anything else.

It's rare to encounter a musical whose second act is noticeably stronger than its first act, but Young Frankenstein can easily lay claim to that distinction. Standout musical numbers include the Hermit's "Please Send Me Someone" and, of course, Stroman's huge tap-dance number to accompany "Puttin' on the Ritz." Otherwise, the music and lyrics by Brooks are even less impressive than the songs he created for the musical version of The Producers.

Photo by: Paul Kolnik

While credit goes to Robin Wagner for his sets and William Ivey Long for costumes, the finest contribution of the evening comes from Irving Berlin, who let Brooks spoof his classic song, "Puttin' on the Ritz." Throughout the performance I found myself thinking of Fred Ebb's lyrics to one of the big production numbers in Chicago:
"Give 'em the old razzle dazzle
Razzle Dazzle 'em
Give 'em an act with lots of flash in it
And the reaction will be passionate
Give 'em the old hocus pocus
Bead and feather 'em
How can they see with sequins in their eyes?
What if your hinges all are rusting?
What if, in fact, you're just disgusting?
Razzle dazzle 'em
And they'll never catch wise!

Give 'em the old Razzle Dazzle
Razzle dazzle 'em
Give 'em a show that's so splendiferous
Row after row will grow vociferous
Give 'em the old flim flam flummox
Fool and fracture 'em
How can they hear the truth above the roar?
Throw 'em a fake and a finagle
They'll never know you're just a bagel,
Razzle dazzle 'em
And they'll beg you for more!

Give 'em the old double whammy
Daze and dizzy 'em
Back since the days of old Methuselah
Everyone loves the big bambooz-a-lah
Give 'em the old three ring circus
Stun and stagger 'em
When you're in trouble, go into your dance
Though you are stiffer than a girder
They'll let you get away with murder
Razzle dazzle 'em
And you've got a romance

Give 'em the old Razzle Dazzle
Razzle dazzle 'em
Show 'em the first rate sorcerer you are
Long as you keep 'em way off balance
How can they spot you've got no talents?
Razzle Dazzle 'em
And they'll make you a star!"
While I may have been hugely disappointed by Young Frankenstein, many in the audience could barely contain their excitement. I'm happy for them. Without meaning to sound like Queen Victoria, I was so not amused.

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