Wednesday, September 29, 2010

You Take The High Road and I'll Take The Low Road

Once a play has been around for 300-400 years, reviewing it in performance is no longer a question of judging the script's artistic merits. Those are long established and accepted as a given.

Like a recipe, however, a script is a road map for creativity. A cook may add some spices and make other small changes to a basic recipe that gives the final product a personal touch. Stage directors and actors do the same, often tweaking an ancient plot line to make it more relevant to modern audiences.

Occasionally, the addition of nonspoken shtick can add wonderfully insightful touches of humanity to a production. It doesn't matter whether the play in question is considered "high" or "low" comedy. The bottom line is laughter.

The craft that sparks an audience's laughter is more precise than one may imagine. When Hello, Dolly! first became a success, Carol Channing had a friend take notes of every movement, inflection, and minute bit of detail in the production. In subsequent revivals, that notebook became her bible. “It is inviolate,” she claimed. “If you don’t do each gesture on cue, you don’t get the laugh that comes with it.”

Two classic comedies of note recently received new productions.
  • Each play is more than 300 years old.
  • Each script offers grand opportunities for a director and his cast.
  • Each production was nurtured by one of the Bay area's leading regional theatre companies.
  • Each production was directed by a major talent whose career has been nourished by Bay area audiences.
Although one play was carefully scripted, the other was not. How well did each fare with its audience?

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First staged in Paris in 1671, Moliere's farce, Les Fourberies de Scapin, embraces several stock characters (Scapino, Zerbinette) from the commedia dell'arte tradition. Because the title character is given free rein to indulge in all kinds of scandalous behavior, he can be a prick or a prankster, a clown or a curmudgeon.

With the beloved Bill Irwin in charge of casting and directing A.C.T.'s new production of Scapin (as well as taking the lead role), there was little doubt that Scapin would be an evening of low comedy delivered by a seasoned professional clown. Adapted by Bill Irwin and Mark O'Donnell, with a unit set designed by Erik Flatmo and costumes by Beaver Bauer, this new production of Scapin is light, bright, pretty to look at and, for the most part, quite enjoyable.

Act I contains a great deal of Irwin's trademark moves as a clown and sets the stage for a comedy of mistaken identities. Octave (Gregory Walker) speaks to Sylvestre (Jud Williford) of his secret marriage to Hyacinth (Ashley Wickett) and his frustrations with his overbearing father, Argante (Steven Anthony Jones). Leander (Patrick Lane) confesses his passion for the mysterious Zerbinette (Rene Augesen) despite his father Geronte's (Geoff Hoyle) desire that he marry well.

Bill Irwin and Jud Williford in Scapin. (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What soon becomes obvious is that, in the absence of their fathers, the sons have rebelled and the servants want revenge on their employers. This plot is as old as the hills (or at least Plautus) and will resurface in a few weeks when 42nd Street Moon offers a semi-staged production of Stephen Sondheim's 1962 hit musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

However, I had the strangest reaction to the performance of Scapin that I attended. It felt as if the energy in Act I was from a completely different show than what held the stage in Act II. I'm still struggling to find a way to articulate how odd this was. My guess is that Act I's excessive weightiness was caused by the need for careful exposition (combined with Irwin's injection of jokes specifically aimed at A.C.T. subscribers "who keep coming back for more").

Once the curtain rose on Act II, levity returned to the stage and the farce continued to build through to the final curtain (in spite of a fairly ridiculous chase scene). When Irwin finally got a chance to lock horns with someone of equal talent (the great Geoff Hoyle), the proceedings went to an entirely new level.

Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle in Scapin (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Randy Craig (keyboards) and Keith Terry (percussion) supplied the musical accompaniment with OmozĂ© Idehenre adding to the confusion as Nerine (Hyacinth's wet nurse). Ben Johnson and Keith Pinto did double duty as gendarmes and portersScapin continues through October 23 at the American Conservatory Theatre. You can order tickets here.

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Over at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda, the California Shakespeare Theatre scored a major hit with their final production of the season. First published in 1600, the comedy in Much Ado About Nothing is a bit more sophisticated than anything you'll find in Scapin.

Shakespeare's Beatrice (Domenique Lozano) and Benedick (Andy Murray) are the unlikeliest of lovers.
  • Each is older and wiser than their friends. 
  • Each purports to hate the other's guts. 
  • Each is perfectly suited to each other (largely due to their intellectual strength) in ways they find difficult to understand. 
Beatrice (Dominique Lozano) and Benedick (Andy Murray) in
Much Ado About Nothing (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

At the play's outset, one could easily ask either character "If you're so smart, how come you're so stupid?"

Meanwhile, Beatrice's cousin, Hero (Emily Kitchens), and Benedick's friend, Claudio (Nick Childress), have fallen in puppy love with each other. Their wedding, however, is sabotaged by "the bastard Prince" (Don John), whose brother, Don Pedro (Nicholas Pelczar), is the Prince of Aragon.

Hero (Emily Kitchens) and Claudio (Nick Childress) in
Much Ado About Nothing (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Opening night of Much Ado About Nothing was one of those blessed evenings in the theatre. The moon was full, the weather balmy, and the production (which features Daniel Ostlig's unit set and costumes designed by Christal Weatherly) easy on the eyes. Much of the credit for the show's success -- which was one of the most fulfilling performances of a Shakespearean play I have ever attended -- falls to director Jonathan Moscone. As Moscone (who is celebrating his 10-year anniversary as artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theatre) notes:
"When you make theater outdoors, you have no choice but to be present, for the outside world is your world. Nothing separates you. It is altogether bracing, for nothing can be taken for granted. And I love, love, love that about this job. It requires right brain/left brain, 24/7. It demands presence. And when I get exhausted, or I complain, my love for this job, and for this company, is in full bloom.
I make theater and I work in a business. I tell stories through language and movement, sound, light, clothes, and architecture. I do this with a lot of people and for a lot of people. Theater is what I do, plain and simple. I’ve been doing it professionally since 1993, and unprofessionally since I was two years old; and I will continue to do it until they take the baton away from me and send me to the retirement home for useless directors with no other marketable skills."
While the supporting cast included Dan Hiatt as Leonato, Andrew Hurteau as Friar Francis, and Delia MacDougall as Margaret, the true star of the evening turned out to be the irrepressible Danny Scheie

In an election year where people have thrown out brazenly untrue accusations and shown absolutely no remorse for their own blithering incompetence, Don John's use of character assassination as a form of evil sport (against a helpless and innocent victim) has an eerie timeliness. Casting Scheie in both roles was a stroke of genius. What he did with each character was a thrilling display of craftsmanship and comic timing.

Danny Scheie (Photo by: Jay Yamada)
If you have ever, in your wildest fantasies, wanted to see what it would be like to have Leslie Jordan performing Shakespeare, you simply cannot afford to miss Danny Scheie's brilliant performance as the evil Don John and the idiotic chief constable of Messina, Dogberry. It is a theatrical tour de force.

Performances of Much Ado About Nothing continue at the Bruns Amphitheatre through October 17. You can order tickets here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

It Takes A Woman

No one would ever accuse Horace Vandergelder of being a feminist. One of Thornton Wilder's most famous characters, Vandergelder proudly describes himself as "rich, friendless, and mean -- which in Yonkers is about as far as you can go."  This is how the old coot explains his philosophy shortly after coming onstage in "The Matchmaker":
"Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are fools and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion. But I wasn't always free of foolishness as I am now. I was young once, which was foolish. I fell in love, which was foolish. And I got married, which was foolish. And for a while I was poor, which was more foolish than all the other things put together. Then my wife died, which was foolish of her. I grew older, which was sensible of me. Then I became a rich man, which is as sensible as it is rare.
Since you see I'm a man of sense, I guess you were surprised to hear that I'm planning to get married again. Well, I've two reasons for it. In the first place, I like my house run with order, comfort, and economy. That's a woman's work. But even a woman can't do it well if she's merely being paid for it. In order to run a house well, a woman must have the feeling that she owns it. Marriage is a bribe to make a housekeeper think she's a householder."
I can't help but wonder how Horace Vandergelder would have reacted to some of the women I saw onstage last week!

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When one looks at the evolution of La Cage aux Folles following the premiere of the original stage version by Jean Poiret, one can't help but be impressed by the rapidity with which it morphed into other versions.
Alex Acevedo as Phaedra  (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Broadway By The Bay recently staged La Cage aux Folles using a production that featured a Hello, Dolly! style runway around the orchestra pit. Directed by Mark Jacobs and choreographed by Robyn Tribuzi, the production underscored Jerry Herman's influence in shaping La Cage as an old-fashioned musical at a time when shows written by Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber were taking audiences for musicals in a very different direction.

While Herman's score has fewer songs than his previous shows (Milk and Honey, Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Dear World and Mack and Mabel), his talent for crafting a rousing production number for the Act I curtain is unmatched. "I Am What I Am" quickly became an anthem for many people in the gay rights movement (the original production made its Broadway debut at a time when homophobia was reaching peak levels as the AIDS crisis worsened). The show's other big number, "The Best of Times" has become a popular standard although I personally prefer the poignant solo for Georges entitled "Look Over There."

Georges (Curt Denham) and Albin (Ray Mendonca) in
La Cage aux Folles (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

The strength of Broadway By The Bay's production rested primarily with its two leads (Curt Denham as Georges and  Ray Mendonca as Albin). This production also marked a rare instance in which the role of Georges was cast with an actor who has a solid set of pipes.

Others in the cast included George P. Scott as Jacob (the flamboyant black maid), Justin Basl as the gay couple's son, Elise Marie Kennedy as Jacqueline, Steve Schwartz as the conservative politician, Eduoard Didon, and Donna Cima as Mme. Dindon. Among the Cagelles, Alex Acevedo blossomed as Phaedra, Michael Escamilla doubled as Dermah and Hercule, Christo Romasanto was Lo Singh, and Justin Buchs stood out as a fiercely dominant Hanna.

Justin Buchs as Hanna (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Performances of La Cage aux Folles continue through October 3 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center. You can order tickets here.

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Nothing could be further removed from Albin's drag sensitivity and ideas about maternal love than the Crowded Fire Theatre Company's production of The Secretaries, the hilarious and bloodthirsty farce written by  The Five Lesbian Brothers. As directed by Marissa Wolf, this estrogen-infused stage farce focuses on five deeply conflicted women sharing an office in Big Bone, Oregon.

A tear-away day calendar dominates Nick A. Olivero's unit set for an office in which five women have managed to coordinate their menstrual flows to stunning effect. Fight Club may have given male office workers an outlet for their aggression, but every 28 days brings a new "kill night" for the women running Cooney's Lumber Mill. Lumberjacks with industry-appropriate names like Chip, Dusty, Woody, and Buzz all seem to disappear days before one of the secretaries shows up wearing their warm winter clothing.

Susan (Leticia Duarte) and her new Patty (Elissa Beth Stebbins)
in The Secretaries (Photo by: Timothy Faust)

Enter Patty (Elissa Beth Stebbins), the top graduate in her secretarial class and the kind of naive young woman who takes a while to catch on to office politics. Although she is awe of her powerful boss, Susan (Leticia Duarte), and eager to befriend the office brown-noser, Ashley (Khamara Pettus), Patty doesn't quite know how to handle some of her other co-workers.
  • Peaches (Eleanor Mason Reinholdt) wants Patty to slap her each time she catches Peaches eating anything other than a Slim-Fast meal.
  • Dawn (Marilee Talkington) is an aggressive lipstick lesbian who is eager to make Patty her new best friend forever.
  • Buzz (also played by Talkington) is the sweet lumberjack who has been boning Patty on their lunch breaks.

Buzz (Marilee Talkington) and Patty (Elissa Beth Stebbins) take
a break from work in The Secretaries (Photo by: Timothy Faust)

While there are lots of laughs to be found between the office pool's heavy flow days, what makes this production remarkable is the performance of Marilee Talkington, who doubles as Dawn and Buzz. Talkington's phenomenal skill as a physical comedian is made all the more remarkable by the fact that this actor is legally blind. She deserves some kind of award for her performance in this production.

The Secretaries runs through October 9 (order tickets here). In the meantime, enjoy the following trailer:

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Go ahead," he said sarcastically. "Bite the bullet!"

During the past decade, many Americans have grown to love the kind of politically-oriented sarcasm that has been perfected by people like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Lewis Black, and Margaret Cho. The writers for The Daily Show have perfected a technique of researching and then juxtaposing inane statements made by politicians with previous footage of their comments on the same subject. Consider the following brilliant piece of editing:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Postcards From the Pledge
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

On September 20,at a town hall meeting held at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Anthony Scaramucci (the founder and managing partner of hedge fund Skybridge Capital, L.L.C.) addressed the following question to President Barack Obama:
"I represent the Wall Street community. We have felt like a pinata. Maybe you don't feel like you've been whacking us with a stick, but we certainly feel like we've been whacked with a stick. When are we gonna stop whacking at the Wall Street pinata?"
Three nights later, Jon Stewart delivered the perfect reply to Scaramucci's vainglorious question::
"Um, I don't know, maybe when the fucking candy comes out! How about that? That's how pinatas work."
A little bit of lemon juice goes a long way -- especially when applied to an open sore. That's why two entries into the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival had audiences either laughing their heads off or nodding in bitter agreement with the performers.

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Billed as "L.A.'s premiere multicultural sketch comedy troupe," OPM Comedy (the OPM stands for "opening people's minds) is a frequent visitor to the San Francisco Fringe Festival. This year's entry, OPM's Green Tea Party once again delivered sharp, sophisticated satire with an appropriate Asian twist. Their first skit, Green Tea Party paid tribute to the Asian edition of the Tea Party movement which, in addition to to resenting taxes, insists that people don't wear shoes inside the house.

Photo by: Ewan Chung
The hilarious Leaders in Jeopardy mocked the popular quiz show in a segment during which Alex Trebek (Dave Wilder) faced a panel /comprised of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Ewan Chung), Kim Jong-Il (Charles Kim), and Sarah Palin (Diana Toshiko).

Oh, Arizona was a brief skit built around an Asian couple from California (Ewan Chung and Diana Toshiko) who get pulled over by the Arizona Highway Patrol following the enactment of SB 1070. OPM Comedy has also been making some brilliant videos. This "iPhone" clip (from 2009's Fists of Funny show) still packs a delightful punch:

Other skits, such as Happy Birthday, Julius Caesar, Chuy the Cholo, Dumb Professor, and K-Town 9-0-O-M'-GOD! scored strongly. But without doubt, the audience favorite was Glee: Season 2
(which took devastating aim at how the silent Asian boy on the series is treated). Another gem, was this short film (written and directed by John Lopez) entitled The Guy Who Cured Cancer.

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Directed by David Ford, Love and Sex in the Earth's Spin Cycle is Lambeth Sterling's one-woman show in which she attempts to save audience members thousands of dollars and years of grief by explaining what they won't learn in therapy about the pitfalls of dating and marriage. A true "daughter of the South" (and a certified relationship coach), Sterling carries a well-deserved chip on her shoulder as she examines the various forms of insanity underlying different methods of counseling. As Lambeth explains in her program, "Yes, these stories are true. Why else would I stand up here and tell stories like this if they weren't?"

Lambeth Sterling in her wedding gown (Photo by: Bill Patterson)
Unfortunately, at the performance I attended, the temperature in the 40-seat Exit Studio was starting to feel like a dry sauna, a condition which Sterling noted and, in spite of  its toll on the audience, bravely confronted. While her material is quite hilarious, there is a bitter tinge of disillusionment and brutal sarcasm in her delivery which often makes her advice even funnier. The following clip gives a sample of her act (try to see it in a theatre that has a decent ventilation system).


Friday, September 24, 2010

Can't Live With Them, Can't Live Without Them

Unlike many students, I did not pack up and leave home to move to a campus dorm after graduating from Midwood High School. Instead, I attended Brooklyn College, which was located right across the street from the school I had just left. I rode the same bus to school, experienced the same weather conditions, and lived in the same house where I had spent most of my adolescence and teen years.

However, during my senior year of college, my father asked me to do him a favor and leave home.My parents' marriage was undergoing severe stress as my mother went through another one of her long periods of clinical depression. My father (who was quite worried about how the bitter silence in our home might affect me) suggested that I find a furnished room near the campus that I could rent until I graduated.

Many families face a period of forced separation (or alienation) where the moment's urgency can best be summed up  with the words "This is going to hurt me a whole lot more than it's going to hurt you."  While the room I rented was no less depressing than our home, a growing sense of emotional independence made it easier for me to seize a job opportunity that came my way in the fall of 1969.

Having spent several summers working at a sailing camp in Wakefield, Rhode Island, I leapt at an opportunity to move to Rhode Island and take over a clerical position at the Greater Providence YMCA. The three years I spent in New England were, in essence, an incubatory period until I moved to San Francisco on my 25th birthday in 1972.

I was extremely lucky that, when I left New York, I moved to an area where I knew nearly 400 families from my work during the summer months. As a result, I was often invited into people's homes for holiday dinners and social gatherings. For many others, leaving their families can be a much more wrenching emotional experience, with sacrifices all around.

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Anyone who complains about the service on San Francisco's MUNI system should be forced to sit through a screening of The Last Train HomeLixin Fan's gritty documentary follows a family of Chinese migrant workers during the annual Chinese New Year migration when 130 million people leave China's factories and cities to return home to their families

Once you experience this film, you'll have a keener understanding of why China is leading other international superpowers in its race to build a network of high-speed rail lines to serve its huge population. The crowded conditions on its current trains -- as a transit system is swamped by homebound humans (who resemble hordes of lemmings or salmon in their desperation to return home) -- make MUNI Metro look like a chauffeured private limousine. As the filmmaker explains:
"The migration of the peasant work force started in the early 1980s, when the country first opened its economy. The influx of foreign investment created numerous factory towns in the southern coastal regions. A soaring demand for labor lured millions out of their farmland to work in factories. With the loosening of the country’s long-standing household registration system, people started to move around to find opportunities to better their lives. Today, even after decades of work, low wages and the lack of rights prevents them from bringing their families from the villages to the cities.
China has set a goal to urbanize half of its 1.3 billion population by 2020, and 70% by 2050. The Spring Festival problem is more related to social policies than the transportation system. The fact is, no matter how many roads you build, it’s just impossible to transport such a large amount of passengers all at once in one direction. A more rational solution is the implementation of labor law, granting the migrant workers the social care and support they deserve, and allowing their families to move to the cities." 
While The Last Train Home includes some breathtaking footage of rural Chinese landscapes, the majority of the film focuses on the stress endured by millions of Chinese migrant workers as they try to secure a train ticket, make it onto the train, and endure a round trip experience that would make America's airline passengers think twice about complaining about the quality of service they receive. There are poignant scenes between parents who almost never have a chance to see their children and rebellious teenagers who only want the latest fashions or electronic toys. Above all, there is an overwhelming feeling of helplessness as people endure a debilitating migration that brings little happiness but, for largely cultural reasons, cannot be avoided. Here's the trailer:

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By contrast, Oliver Stone's new film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, deals with a population so wealthy that it would seem as if it had the world at its fingertips. Wealthy hedge fund traders, aspiring stockbrokers, and those who consider themselves to be the modern captains of the financial services industry suffer a rude setback when the market for credit default swaps suddenly tanks and their wealth evaporates.

Beyond that, the sequel to 1987's Wall Street is one of those movies whose production notes are often more interesting than the film itself. Referring to a scene in which a charity benefit dinner is attended by New York’s high society (and designed to illustrate the height of big money on Wall Street), production designer Kristi Zea recalls that “Oliver wanted the gala to be like the party on the Titanic before it sank."

As the filmmaker himself explains:
“What shocked me was that this exponentially-growing accumulation of wealth kept going into the 1990s and 2000s. The numbers grew and grew, so the millions of dollars became billions of dollars and the greed of Gordon Gekko was swamped by the greed of the banks. By 2008, no more Gordon Gekkos were possible. That character, that kind of buccaneer, was now gone, replaced by institutions that had once formerly been regulated. In the past, a bank was a bank, and an insurance company was an insurance company. In 2008, that all changed. The firewalls between these functions were destroyed by the deregulation of the 1980s and 1990s.”
As he continued to research how things had changed in financial circles, Stone found himself greeted like a cultural hero by many Wall Street types (a welcome which gave him incredible access to an insider's view of trading). Parts of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps were filmed on trading floors at the Royal Bank of Canada at the World Financial Center in downtown Manhattan, Creditex in midtown Manhattan, and Knight Capital in Jersey City, New Jersey. The society benefit dinner was actually filmed in the Great Hall of the former Cunard Building at 25 Broadway, which Zea describes as "a classical space with towering Roman arches."

I couldn't agree more. As an adolescent who was obsessed with ocean liners, I made several pilgrimages to the Cunard Building to ogle the scale models of ocean liners in their front hallway. Those were the days when I would ride my bicycle from Brooklyn's Marine Park neighborhood over to the Narrows and take a ferry to Staten Island, where I would then connect to one of the Staten Island ferries that crossed New York Harbor to the South Ferry terminal adjacent to Battery Park.

Stone's cast and crew were surprised by what they learned. Josh Brolin (who had once worked as a day trader) recalls that:
“I went to the floor and talked to [traders], and the great thing about going to the floor was how it exists now. Because everything’s communicated digitally, it can get boring down on the floor for them. So I got to hear all the stories of how it used to be, when these guys were knee-deep in paper, and writing down all the orders and looking at the calls and the puts and options. They said you could feel the buzz.”
Shia LeBeouf discovered that, not only has technology changed the business of investing, it has made the financial world more insular as well.
“They have these private Twitter accounts and they send information around that way. For example, someone can tweet that a certain institution is going to jump two basis points that day. You just don’t get that immediacy in a newspaper. By the time you read it in the paper, the information is old news.”
And production designer Kristi Zea recalls:
"I really wanted to find the largest, biggest, most outstanding looking trading floors we could find. But the trading floors have changed dramatically since Wall Street. The technological advances that have been made are amazing in terms of the speed of the transactions and the need for quick, immediate decisions and what the computer has done to the financial world. I was amazed when I started scouting locations to see the number of people who are actually in this field, trading daily.”

Oliver Stone spends a great deal of time shooting the facades of Manhattan's glass towers as he tries to show what new money has bought. Ironically, the film has a strangely off-putting effect on the audience.

Many of the dramatic clashes set at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, on trading floors (and in scenes where people discover that their money no longer has the same buying power they have grown to expect), pale in comparison to what has befallen America's middle class. The self-indulgent games of power brokers seem as childish as the complaints recently expressed to President Obama during a town hall meeting by a hedge fund manager who felt that he -- and Wall Street in general -- were getting whacked like a pinata by the government.

The result is a film that -- for all the family drama that has been built around Gordon Gekko's release from prison, his rehabilitation in the public's eye (through a book tour), and his strained relations with his daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan) -- is surprisingly dull and hollow. A great movie, this most certainly is not.

For all the timeliness of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the film's most rewarding moments are certainly not the ones you might expect. There is unanticipated exhilaration and joy to be found in watching 94-year-old Eli Wallach and 78-year-old Sylvia Miles steal the movie away from "youngsters" like Michael DouglasSusan Sarandon, and Frank Langella and the even younger generation of talented "little pishers" like Shia LeBeouf, Josh Brolin, and Carey Mulligan.  Here's the trailer:

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Over at Fort Mason Center, the Magic Theatre presented the West Coast premiere of The Brothers Size (the second installment in Tarrell Alvin McCraney's Brother/Sister plays). Although I had been quite underwhelmed by In The Red and Brown Water when I saw the first part of McCraney's trilogy at Marin Theatre Company, director Octavio Solis scored a home run with Magic Theatre's production of The Brothers Size.

Much to my relief, the playwright's use of spoken stage directions is noticeably diminished in this play and, as such, worked to much greater effect. McCraney's writing is far more poetic, muscular, and masculine in this play and it reeks of his experience growing up in the Miami projects (according to the program notes, the first reading of the play took place in a courtyard in the projects).

Oshoosi Size (Tobie Windham) and Ogun Size (Joshua Elijah Reese)
in The Brothers Size. (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

The Brothers Size has a cast of three black men:
  • Ogun Size (Joshua Elijah Reese) is the responsible older brother who works as a car mechanic. As a young man, Ogun frequently shouldered the blame for his younger brother's bad behavior. As a grown man, he has stayed employed, never spent time in jail and, despite being abandoned by his wife (Oya), has managed to keep his life on an even keel. When push comes to shove, Ogun must decide whether or not he can be his brother's keeper.
  • Oshoosi Size (Tobie Windham) is Ogun's irresponsible kid brother who has just been released from prison. Oshoosi doesn't want to talk to his older brother about things that happened to him while he was incarcerated. At the same time, he needs some wheels so he can go out and get laid.
  • Elegba (Alex Ubokudom) is Oshoosi's close friend and the man with whom Oshoosi most likely had a "down-low" sexual relationship while the two men were in prison.
Alex Ubokudom as Elegba (Photo by:  Jennifer Reiley)

In The Brothers Size, the relationship between Ogun and Oshoosi comes to a head after Oshoosi  has an unfortunate run in with the police, who find some cocaine hidden in Elegba's gym bag when they inspect the trunk of their car. Up until then, Ogun had been trying to get Oshoosi motivated to get a job and start living a straight life.

However, with the police on Oshoosi's trail, there is precious little time for the two brothers to come to grips with what it means to be a blood brother, a spiritual brother, and (in the case of Oshoosi's relationship with Elegba) a gay brother. This is a play in which male anguish holds hands with macho bravado and in which each brother's sense of shame is brought out into the open. The necessary sacrifice that Ogun soon realizes is unavoidable is for him to encourage Oshoosi to flee to Mexico and for Ogun to deny his kid brother's very existence.

In a 2008 interview in the Sunday Times of London, McCraney stated:

"Essex Hemphill has this saying, 'Two black men loving one another is a revolutionary act.' He didn't say 'two black gay men,' he just said 'two black men.' It's something we don't see. I wanted to put it on stage -- these men, in all forms of color, trying to figure out how to love themselves and each other".
The Brothers Size offers three forceful portrayals of black men struggling to reconcile their needs with their responsibilities. It is a powerful piece of theatre, beautifully performed by a tightly-knit ensemble. Performances continue at the Magic Theatre through October 17. You can order tickets here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tepid Is As Tepid Does

Not every project delivers the anticipated results. Like many a recipe, what sounds good on paper can arrive undercooked, overcooked, tasting strange, or looking remarkably unappetizing.

It might not be the fault of the carefully-selected ingredients. Oven temperature and timing are critical elements in creating a successful dish.

Sometimes a hidden factor may sabotage an artistic project's success. It may be something very basic that lies at the core of the concept or it may be something so acutely specific and intentional that no one stopped to question its importance.

Whenever I run across one of these disappointments (or curiosities) I try to ask myself why the film or drama in question didn't work for me. It could be that I'm not reacting the way others would react. It's also possible that I might be seeing a critical flaw that others have chosen to ignore.

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In the case of Jack Goes Boating, the answer is so obvious it's almost painful. One would expect that Philip Seymour Hoffman's film adaptation of Robert Glaudini's 2007 play would be a sure thing (especially considering that Hoffman, John Ortiz, and Daphne Rubin-Vega were all part of the original cast).

What could possibly have gone wrong? Transferring the play to the large screen allowed Hoffman (in his debut as a feature film director) to take the action outside and show the grungy reality of his character's lives. Doing so robbed the property of much of its lyricism, which blossomed so beautifully in a live performance.

In particular, Hoffman's characterization of Jack as a somewhat boring shlub who wants to improve himself fails to connect with the audience. In large part, this is due to Hoffman's sensationally bovine performance. Frequent extended closeups of him staring vacantly into the camera do little to help the audience empathize with Jack.

What could possibly have gone wrong with a play that resonated so well with audiences? The answer is surprisingly simple. In adapting Glaudini's poignant dramedy for the screen, Hoffman was forced to take an extremely literal approach to the material. Doing so eliminated all of the inherent magic of the theatre that bolstered the play in live performance.

Poster art for Jack Goes Boating

One of my keenest memories of last year's production of Jack Goes Boating at the Aurora Theatre Company was how beautifully it drew the audience into the action -- especially in the scenes where Clyde is trying to teach Jack how to swim. In the theatre, the writing glowed with an aura of dramatic magic. On the screen, the play's poetic vulnerability evaporated into thin air.

The reason theatre audiences want Jack to succeed in courting Connie is because they sense his determination to impress her, to break free of his life as a limousine driver, and to actually move up in the world. That desire becomes more communicable in live performance, where the audience is willing to give of themselves because of the physical proximity to an actor and the shared sense of claustrophobia in Clyde and Lucy's apartment. By trying to spoon feed everything to the audience, the movie sadly misses its mark. Here's the trailer:

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James Franco's fans will probably scream when they see Howl. I yawned and thought back to the joys of a  short film I saw several years ago at the 2008 Frameline LGBT Film Festival entitled Allen Ginsberg Gives Great Head. In Singaporean filmmaker X'Ho's 15-minute film a rebellious and very sexy gay Asian man uses Ginsberg's poetry (combined with his own very personal act of masturbation) to make a strong political statement against oppressive governments which rob people of their identity.

By contrast, much of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's new film feels like a chapter of Law and Order (Literary Censorship Edition). Howl is ostensibly composed of two separate films. In the first, the audience listens to James Franco talking to the camera as Allen Ginsberg. In the second, the audience follows the censorship trial that erupted in San Francisco over Ginsberg's controversial poem (which, in terms of cinematic drama, can barely hold a candle to Milos Forman's 1996 film, The People Versus Larry Flynt).

Poster art for HOWL

While Franco is always an interesting actor, I doubt this gig required more than few days' work from a man who is a notorious multitasker in real life. There are some scenes in which Ginsberg snuggles with his boyfriend, Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit). The two men also take pictures of each other on the streets of Manhattan.

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in Howl
John Hamm cuts an impressive courtroom figure as Ginsberg's defense attorney, Jake Ehrlich. The film boasts nice cameos from Mary Louise Parker as Gail Potter, Jeff Daniels as Professor David Kirk, and Bob Balaban as Judge Clayton Horn. What rivets one's attention to the screen, however, is the actual footage of Ginsberg that appears at the end of the film.

In the final analysis, what struck me as the most impressive thing about Howl was its acute attention to showcasing period eyeglass frames from the 1950s. Here's the trailer:

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Of all the monologues I saw at the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival, I think the most challenging one for me to wrap my head around may well have been a one-man show by Manuel Simons. Ostensibly another coming-out story, Queer in the U.S.A. made me acutely aware of my age, the different role models for gay men of my generation, and that coming out remains a difficult process for each person grappling with his sexual identity.

The protagonist in this one-man show is Johnny, a confused New Jersey teen who worships Bruce Springsteen but has been found lying unconscious in a toilet stall at school. Because his singing voice has yet to settle into the lower registers, Johnny has been kicked out of his high school glee club and told to seek help from a voice coach in Manhattan who often works with effeminate men.

Or, as one of his teachers barks, "Face it, you're a little bit light in your shoes!"

The vocal coach Johnny meets specializes in teaching actors how to master the art of appearing and sounding straight, rather than lapsing into suspiciously feminine behavior. Following his coach's advice that a good place to let go of one's anxieties is at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, Johnny encounters a woman posing as a Hungarian immigrant/gypsy, who invites him to her store for some tea.

Manuel Simons (Photo by: Benjamin Heller)
Almost all of the items in Helga's store are cheap imitations of the original, but people still like to buy them. Her merchandise may be crap, but Helga's son, George, is the real thing: a butch, young gay man who can't wait to plant a kiss on Johnny's lips.

After George and Johnny spend a night together, Johnny becomes so excited to hear his voice dropping into the lower registers that he runs out to find his vocal coach while George is shopping for breakfast items. When Johnny returns a week later with the good news, George is pissed and no longer interested in seeing him.

Along the way, George reveals that Helga was really born in the United States but has been carrying on some kind of family legend in tribute to her late father. Meanwhile, Johnny has been having a recurring nightmare in which he meets Bruce Springsteen in an airport in the Midwest and gets to sit next to him on a plane. As thrilled as he is to meet his idol, Johnny can't find the words to articulate his intense fascination with Springsteen's crotch as the plane heads for a crash landing.

Mr. Simons has an impressive vocal instrument, which he can take from a robust baritone to a powerful falsetto. But it wasn't until several hours after seeing Queer in the U.S.A. that I realized what seemed so off balance to me.

In addition to the fact that, physically, Simons made me think of a teenaged Bruce Vilanch, many generations of budding young faggots grew up idolizing Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Diana Ross, Maria Callas, Madonna, Margaret Cho, and Kathy Griffin. Because they were so fearful of coming out, there were no male entertainers one could look to who possessed quite the same kind of diva power or the ability to inspire.

Perhaps Elton John or Paul Reubens. But Springsteen?

While there is much to admire in his performance, Manuel Simons offers a very different coming out story from what the gay media usually provides. Here's a sampler of his work (note that in his one-man show, Simons does not use most of these costumes).


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Curiouser and Curiouser

The National Enquirer  has long claimed that "Enquiring Minds Want to Know." No matter how you feel about the hugely successful supermarket tabloid, stop and think for a minute: What kind of world would we live in if no one ever bothered to ask the basic questions of "Who?" "What?" "Where?" "When?" "Why?" and "How?"

Despite any warnings that curiosity killed the cat, the bottom line is that without curiosity there would be no progress. Those who ask difficult questions, seek elusive answers, and contribute to mankind's base of knowledge are continually laying the cornerstones of civilization.

Is curiosity inbred or is it a learned behavior? I'm convinced it's a learned behavior and that a challenged mind is a healthy mind. I make this claim because my father was a high school biology teacher who never stopped asking questions. Whenever my sister and I asked a particularly challenging question, we would be told to "Go look it up!" 

Is it any wonder, then, that my sister became a librarian and friends still ask me to help them find certain bits of information? Has no one taught them how to creatively use a search engine like Google for starters?

I recently had a chance to watch three programs that all focused on the importance of curiosity in shaping a person's future. One was an animated feature, the second a one-man show, and the third a documentary that would have truly thrilled my father.

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As part of its first NY/SF International Children's Film Festival, the San Francisco Film Society will offer a screening of Eleanor's Secret on Saturday, September 25th at the Landmark Embarcadero Cinema. As directed by Dominique Monfery, this delightful full-length animation feature focuses on a family that has just inherited a decrepit old house following the death of a beloved relative.

At age 7, Nathaniel has not yet learned how to read. In past summers, his aunt Eleanor would read to him from books of fairy tales and other classics of children's literature. To his utter dismay, all she left him was her collection of books.

When a storm causes substantial damage to Eleanor's decrepit house, the family is at a loss to figure out how they will finance the necessary repairs. Since Nathaniel doesn't seem too interested in the books he has inherited, his parents decide to try selling Eleanor's book collection. But when his mother suggests that Nathaniel choose one book by which he can remember his deceased aunt, the young boy stumbles upon Eleanor's secret.

His late aunt's personal library contains the original editions of every fairy tale. In fact, the books upstairs are inhabited with the characters about whom they were written. Soon Nat is being warned by Captain Hook, Alice, Aladdin, and Pinocchio about their dire predicament. After Carabosse (the wicked fairy godmother from Sleeping Beauty) shrinks him down to the size of all the other characters, Nathaniel's rescue mission becomes even more desperate.

Nathaniel (who still has problems sounding out words) must read the magic inscription in Eleanor's library by a certain hour in order to keep all of its literary characters to remain alive. If he fails, they will vanish from the pages of literature forever.

Nathaniel's rescue mission includes all kinds of surprising challenges -- like trying to convince a hungry storybook ogre that if he eats Nathaniel, all will be lost. Surprisingly, Nat's obnoxious older sister, Angelica, helps to save the day.

There is a very special charm in the way the animators have captured classic images from children's literature and given them new life. Not only does Eleanor's Secret showcase the magic of books, it can easily serve as an inspiration for children to develop a passion for reading.With Jeanne Moreau supplying Eleanor's voice, there are some ways in which this delightful film may actually mean more to adults than it will to children. Still, it's a treat for children of all ages. Here's the trailer:

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One of the most enjoyable monologues performed during the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival was Phil The Void: The Great Brain Robbery. Created and performed by Los Angeles-based Phil van Hest (who has been performing monologues since 1999), this hour-long intellectual juggling act asked audiences to think about how much time they routinely spend on the Internet learning useless bits of trivia. Hest highlight's America's growing capacity to look things up without really learning anything.

Hest's snarky dialogue reveals a strong intellect that finds constant joy in questioning the idiocy of contemporary American culture. By the end of the festival, his act was selling out and keeping audiences in stitches. Here's a sampler:

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Whiz Kids (which opens this week at the Balboa Theatre for a limited run) is the kind of film my father would have loved. Directed by Tom Shepard, this documentary follows three 17-year-old high school science students as they try to get accepted by and compete in the annual Intel Science Talent Search, where more than 2,000 students annuially compete for a total of $1.5 million in prizes. As the filmmaker explains:
"The Science Talent Search was hugely formative for me in high school. It’s probably the reason I went to Stanford. It certainly gave me enormous confidence (in 1987 I was one of the finalists). There are fewer finalists in the Intel (formerly the Westinghouse) Science Talent Search from California over the years, and it has been dominated by East Coast high schoolers. You look more deeply and you see there are many more science magnet schools on the East Coast. There’s a whole culture now of science research in Long Island. Families move to Long Island so their kids can go to the schools that will teach them research. We needed and wanted to spend time in those science hubs.
Science is not like a tennis match. Science is not like a spelling bee. It’s much more process-oriented. At the same time we wanted drama, and we’re certainly in a culture where American Idol mania pervades, so we weren’t blind to the fact that using a competition narrative was important in terms of raising the stakes. But we were pretty clear that we didn’t want to make a competition film and that we were trying to invest the  audience in the stories of three young people for whom science has become the driving force in their lives."
The students who were chosen all demonstrated three key characteristics:
  • An insatiable curiosity.
  • A deeply felt determination to communicate their work to the public.
  • A passion to make a difference in the world.
Harmain Khan
  • The daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants, Ana Cisneros is attends Long Island's Uniondale High School (whose student body is nearly 95% Latino and African American kids). Her fascination with botany has helped Ana develop a project in which she is attempting to show how certain plants learn to train their root systems not to compete with "friendly" neighbors.
  • Born in Pakistan (and having grown up on welfare), Harmain Khan is an aspiring paleontologist from Staten Island whose project involves using carbon dating techniques on ancient crocodile teeth. Driven to succeed, Harmain is the kind of hyper-inquisitive nerd who simply cannot rest until he finds the answers to his questions.
  • Kaleydra Welcker's research into contaminated water was spurred by her family's proximity to a DuPont plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia. Not only did she discover a simple test for a specific contaminant derived from the process of manufacturing Teflon (which had been routinely dumped into the Ohio River), the closer she got to achieving a real breakthrough with her home experiments, the more it seemed like the state's regional science fairs were in jeopardy.
Kaleydra Welcker
As part of their research, the filmmaking team found some students who were already working in university and government labs (sometimes alongside Nobel Prize winning scientists). Others had fewer resources and were working in basement and garage labs. The filmmakers were particularly impressed by the way these students all wanted to use their research in the public arena to make themselves heard as agents of change.

At a time when the United States is lagging behind superpowers like China, India, and Russia in scientific achievement, a film like Whiz Kids is invaluable for many reasons.
  • Whiz Kids proves that scientific talent is hardly restricted to society's upper classes.
  • Whiz Kids shows the importance of supportive parents in a child's academic growth.
  • Whiz Kids demonstrates the critical role a supportive teacher/mentor can play in a student's development.
  • Whiz Kids reminds audiences what a highly motivated student looks like.
  • Whiz Kids clearly outlines some of the obstacles that must be overcome by high school nerds and geeks who are misunderstood (or even scorned) by their classmates.
As Shepard notes:
"The film, first and foremost, is a coming-of-age story. It’s about teenagers who are wrestling with  adolescence and are primarily using science to move through that period in their lives. But if it allows a more general audience to plug into science, or engage in science, through the eyes of these vibrant kids, then I think we’ve really helped that cause. I use my background in science all the time to evaluate good and bad public policy. I honestly think that the measure of our nation, in terms of technology and innovation, needn’t be how many (or how big) our pedigrees. Having the general public be more scientifically literate will go a long way."
Whiz Kids is a delightful documentary that captures the thrill of scientific research -- especially when it is being performed by a young mind -- and shows that there are more valuable goals than merely achieving some kind of celebrity. Here's the trailer: