Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Forward-Thinking Women

How would you gauge the growth of the feminist movement? Would you measure it by laws that have been enacted? By the growing presence of women in the work force? By the number of women who, thanks to birth control, have been able to choose between having a family or career? Or maybe even enjoy both?

Some might point to a woman's increasing financial security in modern society. Others might measure the growth of the women's liberation movement by a woman's increasing ability to refuse offers or demands made by men.

Is it any surprise that the lead-in to Funny Girl's Act I curtain number ("Don't Rain On My Parade") is Fanny Brice's angrily spoken "Don't tell me don't!" The rest of Bob Merrill's lyric reads as follows:
"Don't tell me not to live, just sit and putter
Life's candy and the sun's a ball of butter,
Don't bring around a cloud to rain on my parade.
Don't tell me not to fly, I simply got to.
If someone takes a spill, it's me and not you.
Who told you you're allowed to rain on my parade?

I'll march my band out, I'll beat my drum
And if I'm fanned out, your turn at bat, sir.
At least I didn't fake it. Hat, sir,
I guess I didn't make it.
But whether I'm the rose of sheer perfection,
A freckle on the nose of life's complexion
The Cinderella or the shiny apple of its eye.
I gotta fly once, I gotta try once,
Only can die once, right, sir?
Ooh, life is juicy, juicy and you see,
I gotta have my bite, sir.
Get ready for me love, 'cause I'm a 'comer'
I simply gotta march, my heart's a drummer
Don't bring around the cloud to rain on my parade.

I'm gonna live and live now!
Get what I want, I know how!
One roll for the whole shebang!
One throw, that bell will go clang!
Eye on the target and wham!
One shot, one gunshot and bam!
Hey, Mr. Arnstein, here I am ...

I'll march my band out, I will beat my drum.
And if I'm fanned out, your turn at bat, sir,
At least I didn't fake it. Hat, sir,
I guess I didn't make it.
Get ready for me love, 'cause I'm a 'comer'
I simply gotta march, my heart's a drummer
Nobody, no, nobody, is gonna rain on my parade!"
Many notable women have refused to take "no" for an answer. From Mae West, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein to Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt, and Marian Anderson -- from Carrie Nation, Amelia Earhart, and Molly Ivins to Eleanor Roosevelt, Golda Meir, and Indira Gandhi -- strong, proud, and determined women have fought for what they believed in through their writings, performances, and political careers. A flock of fierce females is currently on display in theatres around the Bay area.

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As I sat in the Bruns Amphitheatre, watching the California Shakespeare Festival's new production of Mrs. Warren's Profession, it was hard to believe that George Bernard Shaw wrote the play in 1893. Under Timothy Near's astute direction, the dialogue crackled with Shaw's ferocious wit. In an era where the spoiled children of many so-called professionals (who could easily be described as media whores, legal whores, political whores, public relations whores, and keyboard whores) demand instant gratification without ever caring about where their parents' money comes from, Mrs. Warren's Profession remains a refreshing and provocatively modern piece of theatre.

One of Near's directorial touches immediately sets the tone for the evening as the audience sees Mrs. Warren (Stacy Ross) being dressed in a tightly-corseted Victorian gown at the same time that her daughter, Vivie (Anna Bullard), gets rid of her tight-fitting garments so that she can lounge about in comfort. With that simple pantomime, Near sets the stage for an evening of sociopolitical warfare between mother and daughter.

Stacy Ross as Mrs. Warren (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While today's society may be relatively free of shame, that was hardly the case during the Victorian era. Although the word "prostitute" never appears in Shaw's script, the mere hint that Mrs. Warren managed a successful chain of brothels throughout Europe set her apart from other women of her day, who were forced to toil in workhouses under horrible conditions.

The conflict at the heart of Mrs. Warren's Profession is that Vivie (whose Cambridge education was bought and paid for by one of the oldest professions in the world) knows next to nothing about her mother. When Kitty finally explains the circumstances that led her to prostitution, Vivie can understand her mother's decision from an intellectual point of view. But upon learning that her mother is still running the business and making money by whoring out other women, Vivie decides to cut all ties to her mother.

Anna Bullard as Vivie Warren (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Shaw liked to show how easily men would become unnecessary if women gained financial and political control over their own lives. Thus, the characterization of Frank Gardner (Richard Thieriot), as the ne'er--do-well son of the Reverend Samuel Gardner (Rod Gnapp) -- and a fairly useless sponge -- is not that far removed from Freddy Eynesford-Hill, the handsome society gentleman with no marketable skills in Shaw's Pygmalion (1912).

Having discovered that she has a talent for mathematics, Vivie's hunger to make her own way by working in an office as an actuary fills her with a sense of self-worth and self-determination. Whereas inheritance laws forced most Victorian women to marry into wealth, Vivie would rather remain alone and independent than have to depend on a man's largesse.

Shaw's mischievous suggestion of a potentially incestuous relationship between Frank (whose biological mother is Kitty Warren) and Vivie is as easily dismissed by the young woman as is a marriage proposal from Kitty's business partner, Sir George Crofts (Andy Murray).

Rod Gnapp and Stacy Ross (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

I tip my hat to Timothy Near for bringing such a blast of fresh energy to Shaw's play, so that the stage, at times, seemed to be crackling with dramatic tension. While the bulk of the drama falls on the shoulders of the two women, they had sturdy support from Dan Hiatt as Mr. Praed, Rod Gnapp as an extremely hungover Reverend, Richard Thieriot as the impetuous Frank, and Andy Murray as Sir George Crofts. Erik Flatmo's floral-themed unit set and Meg Neville's costumes freed the action from any sense of heavy-handed Victorian realism, thus affording the cast a surprising amount of freedom onstage. Mrs. Warren's Profession continues at the Bruns Amphitheater through August 1 (you can order tickets here).

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Born in Brooklyn on September 11, 1911, Ruth Gruber had the kind of career most journalists dream about. An impressive new documentary entitled Ahead of Time (which will be screened during the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) offers a remarkable look at a fearless woman who refused to take "no" for an answer.
  • At the age of 20, Gruber became the youngest Ph.D. in the world.
  • In 1935, Gruber became the first journalist to enter the Soviet Arctic.
  • In 1941, as part of her work for the Roosevelt administration, she became the first civilian on the Alaska Highway.
  • In 1944, she was chosen by the Roosevelt administration to escort 1,000 Holocaust refugees from Naples to New York as part of a secret wartime mission (in order to protect her in case of capture, she was given the rank of a General).
  • In 1946, she sat in the first row during the Nuremberg trials.
  • Her photos of the refugee ship Exodus 1947 were published around the world.
Robert Richman's documentary about Gruber is blessed with a wealth of documentation (including Gruber's stories and photographs sent from the field) as well as filmed visits of the 98-year-old Gruber with Harold M. Ickes (whose father, Harold L. Ickes, was FDR's Secretary of the Interior) and Yitzhak "Ike" Aronowicz, the captain of the Exodus 1947.

Ahead of Time, which had its world premiere at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, shows Gruber -- in her late 90s -- to be an elegant, articulate woman who, as the author of 18 books, has chronicled many historic events of the 20th century. Whether visiting with an old friend from Cologne (whose family hosted her during her studies abroad) or visiting parts of Queens where she grew up, Gruber remains a riveting figure -- a living time capsule of 20th century history. You can enjoy a two-part interview with Gruber here and here (about 16 minutes total viewing time) and watch a trailer for Ahead of Time here.

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Lilly Rivlin's poignant documentary, Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, will have a similar effect upon viewers. A short, opinionated poet, writer, and activist, Paley was not one to censor her words. An ardent feminist, she was arrested numerous times during protests and liked to boast that, in the time she spent in the New York Women's House of Detention in lower Manhattan, she could at least look out the window and see her kids walking to school. As Rivlin notes:
"In 2006, I met with Grace Paley to talk about making this documentary. We shared a history in the Women’s Movement, the global Peace Movement and in our Jewish heritage. Grace Paley lived a life of Tikun Olam. Her Judaism was expressed through her commitment to a life of social justice and activism. I felt it was essential to tell her story in full as a writer, activist, teacher, friend, mother, and wife. All of these experiences informed her work and motivated her efforts to achieve the dreams she had for a better world for her grandchildren.

In an interview with a Vermont newspaper shortly before her death in 2007, she said: 'It would be a world without militarism and racism and greed and where women don’t have to fight for their place in the world.' I set about uncovering everything that would illuminate the story of this amazing woman, from her F.B.I. files to rare television appearances. I also wanted to take every opportunity to demonstrate the unique voice Paley brought to American literature and was able to include many examples of Grace reading from her work throughout the film.

The image of the Jew in America has been largely defined by the literary sons of urban Jewish immigrants. The American vision of the immigrant experience is based on the narrative of such American Jewish writers Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Henry Roth and Irving Howe. It was not until Grace Paley raised the missing voice, the other half, the female perspective that Americans saw the role of women in that history -- and therefore a different history.

Her poems and stories are told through the Yiddish-inflected voices of people in her family and the New York Jewish community in which she was raised. I made an unconventional decision to shape this film in a way that reflected Grace’s short stories. Each 'short' in the film is a chapter that covers a specific time or event in her life. Grace gave me her personal blessing to proceed with the production of this documentary. My aim, over the three years of putting this film together, was to honor her as an iconic artist while demonstrating the example she set as a good citizen. Grace Paley’s memory has lent ongoing vitality to this project, which will be an enduring tribute to her life’s work and a source of inspiration for generations to come."
What's fascinating about Rivlin's documentary is how it catches Paley at so many different parts of her life. She can be seen as a young poet, an ardent activist, and as a senior citizen who is still filled with political spunk. The story of how Paley helped women writers protest Norman Mailer's male-dominated meeting of P.E.N. (a worldwide association of writers) is a classic case of a tiny women filled with anger and chutzpah speaking truth to power.

As Paley is seen through the varying lenses of pacifist, activist, short story writer, and Jewish mother, one sees a woman with an indomitable spirit who inspired millions around the world through her writing. Here's the trailer:

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When one thinks of Broadway musicals about social activism, shows like 1937's The Cradle Will Rock, 1959's Fiorello!, 1980's Les Misérables, 1986's Rags, 1998's Ragtime, and 2001's Urinetown quickly come to mind. It's easy to overlook 2002's Hairspray (based on the 1988 film by John Waters) simply because the audience has such a good time throughout the evening.

While Hairspray (which deals with racial segregation in Baltimore during the 1960s) approaches integration through the eyes of an idealistic teenager who wishes that every day could be "Negro Day," Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's book is so tightly crafted that by the time Seaweed J. Stubbs starts to show his fellow classmates in detention the latest dance moves ("Run and Tell That"), the audience is fully onboard.

Eight years after Hairspray opened on Broadway, the show's music and lyrics (from the prolific team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) continue to demonstrate a remarkable amount of wit, clarity, and power in performance. While one can't help moving to the beat of "Good Morning, Baltimore," "Mama, I'm A Big Girl Now," "Welcome To The Sixties," and "You Can't Stop The Beat," Motormouth Maybelle's two big numbers ("Big, Blonde and Beautiful" and "I Know Where I've Been") pack a lot of dramatic power.

Erika Leigh Henningsen as Penny Pingleton and
Serena Cefalu as Tracy Turnblad (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

While the musical version of Hairspray has proved a boon to community theatres hoping to showcase local talent, Woodminster's production has been cast with an incredibly strong level of talent. As Tracy Turnblad, Serena Cefalu throws every ounce of her body into delivering a full-throated, energetic performance. Erika Leigh Henningsen's Penny Pingleton reveals a formidable comic talent with a bright future while Johnny Orenberg is appropriately slick (and ever-so-white) as Link Larkin.

Johnny Orenberg* (Link Larkin) and Serena Cefalu (Tracy)
(Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

Partly due to the excellent sound engineering by Carole Davis and the vocal strength of some performers, I found it easier to hear some lyrics and really admire Shaiman's music in Woodminster's production. As Velma Von Tussle, Teressa Byrne displayed a near operatic voice while Erica Richardson's portrayal of Motormouth Maybelle brought down the house in her two big numbers.

Greg Carlson's portrayal of Edna Turnblad allowed the audience to actually hear how the character's music should be sung while Ken Baggott's portrayal of Wilbur Turnblad evoked a delightful blend of the most lovable traits of Art Carney and Bill Irwin.

Edna (Greg Carlson) and Wilbur Turnblad (Ken Baggott)
(Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

In supporting roles, Samantha Bruce proved to be a deliciously selfish Amber Von Tussle while Ryan Drummond delivered an appropriately slick Corny Collins. Amy Nielson shone as Prudy Pingleton, the overly butch girl's gym teacher, and a comically lesbianic prison warden.

One of the joys of attending Woodminster's productions is the chance to spot some outstanding young talent. The casting of 19-year-old Dave Abrams (a student at UC-Berkeley) as Seaweed J. Stubbs gave an already super-charged production an extra jolt of electricity. A superb dancer with a powerful singing voice, Abrams could have a major performing career ahead of him. He is an intensely gifted performer.

Megan Sandoval (Lil Inez) and Dave Abrams (Seaweed J. Stubbs)
(Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

An added benefit with Woodminster's production of Hairspray is how well the show fits on the theatre's extra-wide stage. Joel Schlader's ability to move "You're Timeless To Me" (Act II's big number for Edna and Wilbur Turnblad) out onto the runway surrounding the orchestra pit made the duet even more disarming than usual.

This production of Hairspray is so exhilarating and filled with such ebullience -- thanks in no small part to Bong Dizon's choreography and Joel Schlader's stage direction -- that one would be an absolute fool to miss it. Performances continue through Sunday, July 18 (you can order tickets here).

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