Sunday, January 30, 2011

Give Their Regards To Broadway

Sometimes a quick look at your calendar can knock you for a loop. Commitments you made far in advance originally had no relationship to the other items that landed in the same week. When you least expect it, a quick check of what you're doing over the next few days takes on a new and surprising relevance.

With so much attention showered on Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Andrew Lloyd Webber in recent seasons, a curious coincidence put the history of the American musical theatre in a different light last week. I discovered that, without any intentional planning, I would be exposed to musical highlights from nearly 100 years of the history of the American musical theatre. Here's how it played out (in reverse order).

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On Saturday night, I headed over to the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco for a performance of 'S Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical.  This is essentially a fast-paced musical revue directed and conceived by Ray Roderick (who also created Irving Berlin's I Love A Piano, which played at the JCCSF last year). With choreography by  Vince Pesce (and Nathan W. Perry as pianist/music director), Roderick built a curious story line for the show. The promotional synopsis reads as follows:
"'S Wonderful starts in New York City in 1924 honoring the comedic style of silent movie stars of the 1920s. A desire for love allows a man to shatter his black and white existence and find a world of color. The journey continues in 1938 as a young Parisian café waitress and an American sailor struggle to follow their love in WWII Paris. We fast forward to 1948 Hollywood with a makeup artist who makes others beautiful. She discovers her own creative gifts and finds the beauty in herself. 'S Wonderful then introduces us to a young singer who has traveled the world, and finally finds her true love: The city of New Orleans in 1959. Finally, our journey ends in the present day. Separated by 3,000 miles, a young man uses today's technology and the songs of George and Ira Gershwin to tell his love what he can't say for himself, proving the enduring and timeless power of the Gershwin Songbook."
Poster art for 'S Wonderful

The show is framed by a curious subplot in which the spirit of a young woman wants to find a way to let her grandson enjoy the music that she loved so dearly when she was his age. Since she can't give him her vinyl recordings, she has been trying to find a way to give him the songs written by the Gershwin brothers so that  he can share them with his friends.  Needless to say, the fact that his ear buds are connected to an iPhone offers her the perfect delivery system using the latest technology.

What follows is an extremely fast-paced race through more than 40 songs written by George and Ira Gershwin between 1916 and 1937. While the performances by Tripp HamptonKevin MetzgerKatie MitchellKatie Reid, and Kimberly Thomas are as perky as one would expect from an industrial show (or a cruise ship's entertainment staff), the plot is about as subtle as Beach Blanket Babylon's many trips around the world.

Roderick's shows evidence a severe dread of letting a slow number cast a musical spell on the audience (his revues are sometimes so energetic that they leave audiences wishing for a break in the forward momentum). What makes 'S Wonderful much more interesting than his Irving Berlin revue is the use of so many snippets from Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris for musical bridges. The following promotional video gives a good sense of the show's pacing:

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On Thursday night, the Alcazar Theatre played host to the latest installment in 42nd Street Moon's musical salons dedicated to Broadway's most important composers and lyricists.  All That Jazz! A John Kander Salon starred Noah Racey and Karen Ziemba with strong support from such 42nd Street Moon stalwarts as Rob Hatzenbeller, Alexandra KaprielianAnil Margsahayam, and co-founder Stephanie Rhoads.

Composer John Kander

As always, the company's artistic director, Gregg MacKellan, narrated the evening with music director Dave Dobrusky at the piano and Nick DiScala on reeds. The only drawback to an otherwise thoroughly delightful event was the poor sound design by Carole Davis, which was often shrill and distorted the evening's vocal contributions.

Rob Hatzenbeller, Greg MacKellan, Anil Margsahayam,
Nick DiScala, Dave Dobrusky, and Noah Racey

Like the Gershwins, the music of John Kander was popularized on Broadway stages as well as in Hollywood films such as Funny LadyNew York, New York nd the film adaptations of Kander and Ebb's two biggest Broadway successes: Cabaret and Chicago. While 42nd Street Moon's salon included rarely heard songs from A Family Affair ("Harmony," "Summer Is Over"), 70, Girls, 70 ("See The Light"), The Happy Time ("The Life of the Party"), and Flora, The Red Menace ("Sing Happy), the inclusion of "Life Is" offered MacKellan the opportunity to announce that Zorba would be included in the company's upcoming season.

Alexandra Kaprielian, Stephanie Rhoads, and Karen Ziemba

Kander considers himself lucky to have had three muses to compose for: Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera, and Karen Ziemba. While the second half of the evening included selections from The Rink (1984), Woman of the Year (1981), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), Curtains (2006), and The Scottsboro Boys (2010), I have to admit a special fondness for the music from Steel Pier (1997), which I have always thought to be one of Broadway's most underappreciated scores. The evening included some snippets from two Kander and Ebb shows that never made it to Broadway: their adaptations of Thornton Wilder's comedy, The Skin of Our Teeth, and Friedrich Durrenmatt's satirical drama, The Visit (which had originally been developed as a vehicle for Angela Lansbury, who was forced to withdraw from the project when her husband became ill).

Kander and Ebb often wrote special material for Kaye Ballard, whose popularity as a singer on television variety shows often pigeonholed her talents due to her strong skills as a comedienne. Although the torch song "Maybe This Time" (which was added to the movie of Cabaret) was originally written for Ballard, television producers would not allow her to sing anything that serious. Another specialty song written for Ballard is performed by Liza Minnelli in the following clip from one of her appearances at Radio City Music Hall.

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Last Wednesday, the national touring company of Next To Normal settled into the Curran Theatre for a month-long run.  With music by Tom Kitt (and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey), the winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama is neatly framed by Mark Wendland's highly utilitarian unit set and the magnificent lighting design by Kevin Adams.

Jeremy Kushnier, Alice Ripley, and Asa Somers in Next To Normal
Photo by: Craig Schwartz

As directed by Michael Greif, Next To Normal focuses on a highly dysfunctional household whose mother has been battling bipolar disease for years. In the course of her marriage, Diane (Alice Ripley) has swallowed enough pills to fuel several large rave events. Throughout her days, she is haunted by the soul of her son that might have been, Gabe (Curt Hansen).

Gabe may have died in infancy, but had he lived he would be nearing his 18th birthday. In Diane's mind, he is very much alive and shows no signs of disappearing. Natalie, the daughter who followed several years later, is now in high school and a bundle of insecurity. Diane's husband, Dan (Asa Somers), has tried to be as accommodating and supportive as possible, but his wife's latest meltdown (after Diane flushed all her medications down the toilet) is working his very last nerve.

Whether she is dealing with a psychopharmacologist like Dr. Madden or a neurologist like Dr. Fine (both played by the likable Jeremy Kushnier), the exhausted Diane has grasped a painful truth that keeps eluding her doctors. Western medicine is not helping her get better. In fact, it may be making her worse.

Curt Hansen, Alice Ripley, and Asa Somers in Next To Normal
Photo by: Craig Schwartz

When a trial of electroconvulsive therapy nearly robs her of a part of her soul, Diane gets up the courage to tell her doctors to go fuck themselves. With increasing resolve, she leaves her husband and returns to live with her parents in an attempt to sort matters out by herself. Her departure leaves Natalie able to explore a relationship with a potential boyfriend (Preston Sadleir) and Diane's husband able to get close to, maybe even Next To Normal.

There is much to celebrate in Tom Kitt's and Brian Yorkey's riveting music, which received the 2009 Tony Award for Best Original Score. I found it especially interesting to hear a score that very much has its own voice and one in which the dominant vocal work goes to three tenors. Among the show's musical numbers, I particularly liked "Who's Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I," "Perfect For You," "I'm Alive," and "How Could I Ever Forget?"

Although Alice Ripley offers a powerful dramatic performance as Diane, there were moments when I found myself worrying about the health of her voice. I'm happy to note that her understudy is the marvelous Pearl Sun (who co-starred in Long Story Short down at TheatreWorks in late 2008).

Although far from a traditional Broadway musical, Next To Normal is a dynamic piece of brave and gripping musical theatre. Performances continue at the Curran Theatre through February 20 (you can order tickets here).  In the meantime, here's a brief trailer for the production:

Friday, January 28, 2011

Where There's A Will

In its simplest form, a will is a basic legal document that offers a guide to how the decedent wished to have his estate be distributed. The wealthier the decedent, the more complicated the will. But for most people (especially those who are poor or who have few tangible assets to distribute among their survivors), a will sometimes seems like an unnecessary burden.

Why? Drafting a will means accepting the fact that, at one point or another, you will die.
  • Some people resist this basic concept because of religious beliefs. 
  • Others do so out of sheer narcissism (insisting that since they're not going to die so there's no need to worry about drawing up a will).
  • Some people can't afford the legal fees or the software required to create a will.
  • Others are content to rely on the oral instructions they have given to their closest friends and relatives.
  • Some people are simply procrastinators who, given a chance, will wait until they are on their deathbed to draw up a will.
  • Those who bear grudges may choose to leave nothing behind, or let the remaining family (like vultures picking apart a carcass) fight to see who emerges triumphant.
Two new foreign films deal with the creation and resolution of a dying man's will. Each comes from a filmmaker with a distinct and determined artistic vision. One film arrives wrapped in the artistic cachet of an Academy Award-winning actor and highly-acclaimed director. The other was filmed by a bunch of rowdy film insurgents with a snarky attitude. Do you even need to guess which film has greater appeal?

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The opening and closing scenes of Alejandro González Iñárritu's new film, Biutiful, take place in a snowy forest. Two men exchange cryptic pieces of dialogue about one's need to get his affairs in order before he dies.

Those two scenes are beautifully filmed, share a haunting, surreal beauty, and keep the audience on edge. Unfortunately, in between those two scenes are two hours of depressing squalor and boredom, which easily makes Biutiful one of the most underwhelming films I've seen in quite some time. As the filmmaker explains:
"Having traveled the world with Babel, I thought I had sufficiently explored the multiple perspectives, fragmented structures and intersecting histories. Each of my movies was filmed in a different language in a different country, with different structures and different scales. I was so exhausted after Babel, I was amused to say that my next movie would focus on one character, would take place in one city, with a simple story, and in my own language. Biutiful is a distillation of everything I have ever made: a linear story carried by a single character.
I wanted to describe a complex life in its simplest form. In a way, Biutiful develops a new theme that has haunted me for years: fatherhood -- the fear of losing one's father to become a father, and that moment where you start to become your own father and where your children become you. It is also a film about loss -- because at the end, we are also what we lost."
Poster art for Biutiful

Most of Biutiful takes place in an area of Barcelona that, although certainly not a slum, has become home to multiple waves of immigrants. Some have fled their homelands in search of better lives, others are hoping to avoid deportation. As Iñárritu explains:
"During the 1960s, Franco brought hundreds of thousands of people from different regions of Spain in Catalonia, and prevented them from speaking Catalan to destroy this identity. At the heart of a terrible economic crisis, the Castilians -- mostly from Extremadura, Andalusia, and Murcia -- have become immigrants within their own country. They were assigned to a suburb of Barcelona, Santa Coloma, and were designated as the Charnegos (a pejorative reference to immigrants without money and their children). In the 1980s and 1990s, with the return of growth, the Charnegos began to leave Santa Coloma, which became a haven for immigrants from around the world. Although El Raval (the Chinatown) is known to be the most diverse area of Barcelona, it is with Santa Coloma de Badalona and the neighborhood that I fell in love. There, Senegalese, Chinese, Pakistanis, gypsies, Romanians, and Indonesians live together in peace, without problems, and everyone speaks their own language without the desire or the need to integrate Spain. Throughout this neighborhood on a Sunday you can see the gypsy groups singing in the streets while Muslims pray in a park or chant over the loudspeakers of a small mosque and a Catholic church is filled with Chinese. 
It's a neighborhood that has not been sanitized. It is human, it has a smell, texture, and its own contradictions. It is a true example of community that carries with it the DNA of an ideal form of the United Nations. Migration and diversity, which in the past, took almost three hundred years to make, have occurred here in only 25 years. Of course, this does not happen without pain or tragedy. Every year, hundreds of Africans drown trying to reach the Spanish coast. These images are difficult to watch. And every day we read articles about how Chinese immigrants are abused and exploited across Europe. In Britain alone, there are another million Chinese. Contrary to what happens in the United States, these people do not come to Europe to blend into the local culture. Most of them come here to survive and help those they left behind."

Javier Bardem as Uxbal in Biutiful

The film's protagonist, Uxbal, is portrayed by Javier Bardem (an actor of great skill who appears in nearly ever scene). Although there is a great deal happening in Uxbal's life, none of it is good. In between using his spiritual/psychic abilities to help the dying transition to the afterlife, he must face the harsh realities of blood in his urine, an irresponsible brother as his business partner, an unmanageable and bipolar wife who wants to go out and "enjoy life like a whore," and a seven-year-old son who is already smoking cigarettes.

Born Charnego, Uxbal is one of  the few people can speak Castilian who remained in Santa Coloma. He grew up with immigrants, works with them, and tries to help them find work (even while exploiting them as cheap labor). Although his life is complicated by the needs of so many others, and Uxbal deeply loves his two children, he is so busy that he barely has time to die, much less provide for their future. Alone and desperate, Uxbal is the kind of man whose pathetic circumstances mean that, even as he is dying of metastatic cancer, he can't afford to be depressed.

Some people may be drawn to Iñárritu's film for its gritty sense of reality, Bardem's fine acting, or simply because misery loves company. I thought it was a colossal bore. Here's the trailer:

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The only thing missing from The Drummond Will (which will be screened at the upcoming 13th San Francisco Independent Film Festival) would be some cameo appearances by the ghosts of Terry-Thomas and Margaret Rutherford. This raucously rude and deliciously irreverent farce gets more out of its stark black and white cinematography than most indie films could ever hope to enjoy.

In his director’s statement, Alan Butterworth writes:
"Making the film in black and white was never really a difficult decision. My favorite film (Dr. Strangelove) is in black and white. Kind Hearts and Coronets looks better than The Ladykillers. Manhattan looks better than Annie Hall, and Raging Bull looks better than just about anything.

I also mention Kind Hearts and Coronets as it was also a key influence on the story. I only saw it a few years ago and I was blown away by it. The concept of having a central character who was so clearly immoral in a comedy was something that really stuck with me. For our film  though, especially with Danny, a character who wasn’t exactly immoral but simply unconstrained by traditional moral values, seemed a more interesting way to go in a modern context.

This film is a deeply affectionate modern retelling of the classic comedies and murder mysteries from the Ealing era of British cinema, The Drummond Will imagines what it would be like to be stuck in a world where the strange rules of Ealing cinema apply. A world where life continues quite as normal in the face of escalating body counts, where sleepy English villages invariably harbor any number of dark secrets, and where you only really know who the murderer is when everybody else has been killed. The thoroughly modern Danny and Marcus are trapped in just such a world, and are quickly swept out of their depth. As they realize they’ll need to rely on each other if they are to survive, and modern ideas like forensics, cell phones and common sense won’t help them, it quickly becomes clear that, inevitably, nothing is what it seems."

Marcus (Mark Oosterveen) and Danny Drummond (Phillip James )

Marcus Drummond (Mark Oosterveen) is a conservative, middle-aged bureaucrat prone to suffering increasing levels of abuse. His brother, Danny (Phillip James,) is the happy-go-lucky fool who can't stop himself from making bad decisions and getting into more trouble. Soon after their return to the tiny village in which they grew up, their father's funeral sets off a chain of unlikely events bound to land the two brothers in a never-ending heap of trouble. Among the people who seem determined to make their lives miserable are:
  • The Constable (Jonathan Hansler) is a familiar stereotype of British whodunits.
  • The Vicar (Nigel Osner) thinks that, even in this day and age, his sexuality would be a secret.
  • Betty the Barmaid (Victoria Jeffrey) has a nasty way with a crossbow.
  • The Colonel (Eryl Lloyd-Parry) desperately wants something.
  • Malcolm the Bastard (Morrison Thomas) is hiding in the closet, clutching a bag of money.
  • Hobo Dave (David Manson) is as drunk as ever.
Marcus (Mark Oosterveen) tries to tidy up the kitchen

Only their loving Uncle Rufus (Keith Parry) seems happy to see the two Drummond boys. But, like everyone else in the village, Rufus has a few secrets up his sleeve.

To spill the beans wouldn't be fair to the filmmaker. Let's just say that The Drummond Will is one of the most refreshingly inventive and lovingly crafted send-ups of a beloved genre to be seen in many a moon. It's  the blackest of comedies and a joyful romp rolled into one very pleasing package. Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tough Choices

Written in 1743, Carlo Goldoni's popular Commedia dell'arte farce, The Servant of Two Masters, focuses on the lengths to which the wily Truffaldino will go to get more food in his belly. Cursed with an insatiable hunger, Truffaldino sees the opportunity to serve a second master as a chance to get more food -- no matter the trials and tribulations he might encounter on his way to achieving satisfaction.

Whether a person thirsts for knowledge, status, wealth, or power, the merest hint of another challenge may whet his appetite for more of the same. Oftentimes hunger, yearning, greed, lust, and desire come from deep-rooted emotional needs that can never be fully satisfied.

Stephen Sondheim's 1987 musical, Into The Woods, focused on the characters from a group of beloved fairy tales who all wished for something that would change their lives. As the audience soon learned, the fulfillment of those wishes was often accompanied by hidden costs that compromised each character's integrity. The double-edged sword of wish fulfillment can be seen in each of the following truisms:
  • The meek shall inherit the earth.
  • I am your biggest fear and your best fantasy.
  • Good things come to those who wait.
  • Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man how to fish and he will never go hungry.
  • The devil you know is better than the one you don't.
  • Beware your fantasy, it might just come true.
If knowledge brings power, knowledge can also bring the pain of greater awareness.  Things that once seemed black and white (and relatively easy to understand) move into greyer territories of comprehension that may contain treacherous pools of confusion, resentment, deception, and disillusionment. Without a diagnosis of schizophrenia, can one really have the best of all possible worlds?

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Coming up at the 13th San Francisco Independent Film Festival is a curious documentary named Toumast: Between Guitars and Kalishnikovs. Beautifully filmed by Dominique Margot, it offers breathtaking Saharan landscapes while telling the story of a man torn between two identities.

Born as a Tuareg, Moussa Ag Keina grew up among the nomads who roam the Sahara. Over the years, political differences between countries like Mali and Niger have taken their toll on the Tuareg population and its rapidly disappearing culture. 

Like many young Tuaregs, Moussa sought employment in Muammar al Gaddafi's armed forces in Libya in the 1980s. Wounded during his time spent with the Tuareg Liberation Front, he received medical treatment in France.

Disillusioned by the random bloodshed he witnessed in the Sahara (which is shown in the documentary) as well as the assassinations of 12 of his colleagues, Moussa has evolved from a rebel fighter into a rebel musician. As a Paris-based singer/guitarist (and leader of the musical ensemble named Toumast), he tries to make people more aware of the plight of  Africa's Tuaregs through his concert appearances and recordings.

Aminatou Goumar and Moussa Ag Keina

As Margot follows her subject across the Sahara, she witnesses the emotional loyalties that tug at his heart. On one hand, Moussa identifies strongly as a Tuareg, misses the nomadic cuisine he enjoyed as a child, and anguishes over the indignities his people have suffered as a result of drought and politics. On the other hand, the temptation to return to a lifestyle which depends on Kalishnikov assault rifles is less appealing than the freedom he enjoys creating music.

Moussa's travels take him to Saharan oases (where a guest is always greeted with free water) and to Kidal, a city in Mali where he encounters a women's music ensemble named Tilwat. (In Taureg society, women are equal to men -- as a member of Toumast explains, Tuareg music cannot be created or performed without women). 

Aminatou Goumar and Moussa Ag Keina

Toumast is quite different from most documentaries about contemporary musicians. Filmed against a background of political isolation and cultural alienation, it is filled with exotic images -- ranging from camel racing to desert sunsets. Although obviously now a French resident, more than ever before Moussa feels like a man without a country. Here's the trailer:

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If one were to examine trends in disposable income over the past four decades, two might stand out above others: conspicuous consumption and ethical consumerism. Whereas the first clings to the philosophy that "he who has the most toys when he dies wins," the second urges consumers to use their buying power to bring about social change.

Starting in the 1970s, deregulation gave rise to frequent flyer miles reward programs. Subsequently, companies like Working Assets and Whole Foods Market tried to attract consumers with their corporate philosophies. Marketing professionals developed new ways to convince shoppers that they deserved "the best that money can buy" and that "membership has its privileges." Robin Leach (the former host of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous) became famous for instilling the desire for "champagne wishes and caviar dreams" in the minds of his audience.

But consumers can be fickle. Back in the 1970s, when Anita Bryant was on a holy rampage against the LGBT community, I doubt she ever expected homosexuals to mobilize behind a boycott of Florida orange juice products.  Subsequent efforts to get Coors beer out of gay bars (due to the blatant homophobia of the conservative Coors family) had a similar corporate consciousness raising effect.

As part of the international protest against South Africa's policy of apartheid, many people "disinvested" themselves of stocks issued by South African companies. Although President Ronald Reagan vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, the Republican controlled Senate managed to override his veto, thus banning new investment by the United States in South Africa, prohibiting sales to the South African military, and restricting imports of South African goods. Following an amendment to the Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987, American  corporations doing business in South Africa were subject to double taxation.

Once it became evident that diamonds from African mines were being sold in world markets to help finance insurgencies, a campaign against the importation of "blood diamonds" became an international cause célèbre. On January 18, 2001,  in accordance with several United Nations resolutions, outgoing President Bill Clinton issued an executive order prohibiting the importation of rough diamonds from Sierra Leone.  In May of 2001, President George W. Bush issued an executive order banning important of diamonds from Liberia.

The ever-brilliant Mike Daisey is currently thrilling audiences at the Berkeley Rep with two new monologues. Five days prior to the West Coast premiere of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Daisey posted the following message on his blog:
"This is a very special show for us -- I don't think Jean-Michele and I have ever worked as hard as we have bringing this piece to light, or have poured as much of ourselves into the work as we have into this story. This monologue is the apotheosis of years of journalism, travel, research, investigation, sweat, and tears...and I believe it tells an untold and deeply necessary story for our time. 
On the one hand is the story of Steve Jobs -- his genius, his egotism, and his vision, a real life Willy Wonka whose obsessions have shaped our daily world. It explores the mysteries of the cult of Apple, the dream of a laptop so thin you can cut a sandwich with it, and the idea that if you control the metaphor through which we see the world, then in our age now, you can control the world itself."
Mike Daisey (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

"This story of technology and its pleasures is told against the landscape of southern China, where I witnessed firsthand the true human cost of creating all of our marvelous tools. This behind-the-scenes journey into the heart of the forges where iPods, iPhones, laptops, and all our technology spills forth illuminates a place where workers throw themselves to their deaths from high-rises in modern-day workhouses, where workers die on the production line of overwork, where they sleep in cement cells with dozens of women and men crammed in rooms like labor camps -- a landscape of our own making.
Today Steve Jobs announced he is stepping down from Apple for health reasons. It is almost impossible to imagine Apple without him, and there's a palpable sense of loss and change as the tech industry struggles to know what this will mean for its future. 
We stand at a crossroads, and it is my sincere belief that this story, capturing both his genius and his stubbornness, his brilliance and his ridiculousness, can help turn our attention to how the tech industry can grow up and begin to take responsibility for its decisions. Now is the best moment for us to look deeply and actually begin to see there's something more significant than the next iPhone's release, the next keynote presentation. Now is the moment to start waking up."
Mike Daisey poses in front of a monument to Deng Xiopheng
while visiting Shenzhen, China (Photo by:  Ursa Waz)

Daisey is far from alone in describing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs as the best work he and his wife have ever created. The show begins with Daisey mocking himself as a short, fat white man in a Hawaiian shirt navigating his way through the more remote recesses of the Chungking Mansions shopping complex in Kowloon as he searches for a specific type of hacker.

If artists like Daisey often seem subversive, it is because they tend to pay exquisite attention to detail while researching a role or project. Often, an artist's mental acuity will allow him to "connect the dots" in ways that elude most mainstream journalists and publicity flacks.

The audience listens in awe as Daisey describes the shrewd yet common sense methodology he used to seduce his guide into helping him pull off a preposterous business hoax. There are knowing howls of laughter as Daisey performs a withering takedown of the idiotic behavior inspired by Microsoft PowerPoint during business presentations.

Watching Daisey in performance, it becomes obvious that -- as much as he loves technology and worships Apple's products -- his recently acquired knowledge of how Apple products are assembled cause him genuine emotional pain. During his presentation Daisey is quick to point out that while so many Americans now express a desire for products that are "hand made," they have no knowledge that China's techniques of mass production (especially and most ironically in regard to electronics) rely on the cheapest form of  labor in which everything is hand made.

Caught in a tug of war between wanting the latest technology and agonizing over the human toll market demand exerts on Chinese assembly workers, Daisey aims to infect his audience with a virus of awareness, hoping that they might act to exert their power as consumers. He carefully points out how -- following a series of suicides at the manufacturing facilities of Foxconn -- the announcement that Foxconn had increased its labor costs by 30% overnight failed to make the mainstream media question what kind of conditions could allow any manufacturer to swallow a similar rise in labor costs.

Mike Daisey (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Unlike most of his performances (in which Daisey sits behind an old-fashioned wooden desk), he uses a sleek glass and metal desk for The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. This is a lecture of cutting-edge brilliance, tremendous pathos, and deep intellectual insight carefully calculated to shock audiences that demand the latest technology at the lowest prices.

With surgical precision, Daisey explains the appalling human cost of satisfying our trendy, market-driven desires and dares audiences to act like the conscientious consumers they'd like to believe they really are. Daisey's ultimate challenge to the audience is far less fearsome than what readers face at the end of Frank R. Stockton's celebrated short story, The Lady, or the Tiger? Nevertheless, he aims to provoke a crisis of conscience.

As the applause dies down and people leave the theatre, tiny tendrils of guilt begin to spread along their neural networks. Is Daisey's virus spreading? Only time will tell.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pace Makers

January may start slow, but the pace of theatrical presentations is rapidly accelerating. Many Bay area arts organizations have learned the value of sharing their resources by either co-producing events or inviting their artistic colleagues to make use of their performance spaces.

In what was once the York Theatre on 24th Street, the women running the Brava Center for the Arts have launched an artistic collaboration with choreographer Joe Goode. Thanks to Goode's curatorial guidance, they were able to present three Bay area dance companies to their growing subscription base while adding a new dimension of contemporary dance theatre to their company's artistic profile. Goode began each program as a genial host who explained the concept behind Gush and the significance of the dance pieces to be presented.

Choreographer Joe Goode

Starting off each program was one of Goode's early creations, 29 Effeminate Gestures. Taking great pleasure in the fact that he had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to "recreate a masterpiece," Goode looked out into the audience with a twinkle in his eye and smirked "So there!" As performed by Melecio Estrella, 29 Effeminate Gestures remains an accessible piece of dance theatre in which a young man's sissy-like affectations are temporarily tamed by his access to power tools. Real chairs were harmed during the performance of this work.

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Born in BurmaLedoh came to America when he was 11 years old. As an adult, in trained under Butoh master Katsura Kan in Japan and eventually founded Salt Farm as a multi-media dance theatre company. According to Ledoh:
"We live in the body which is form proceeding through time. When I am fully in the body, I experience a sense of timelessness. Movement is one avenue to experience the moment. When fully standing in the moment, the past and the future are easily accessible. I am a filter allowing energy and experience to pass through me."
Ledoh and Iu-Hui Cha performed an extended version of ColorMeAmerica, whose film components are often more compelling than its dance elements. While researching materials to include in this review, I came across the following video of a 10-minute version of ColorMeAmerica which, to be honest, strikes me as far more riveting and able to hold the audience's attention than Ledoh's longer version of the piece.

COLORMEAMERICA from Salt Farm Butoh Vérité

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I was much more impressed with two works performed by the Axis Dance Company. Choreographed by Sebastian Grubb (and performed by Grubb and Rodney Bell), The Narrowing is a duet for two men -- one free to escape the confines of his chair and the other wheelchair bound. With an original score of immense appeal by Michael Wall, it's a work of surprising poetry and athleticism, some of which can be seen in this clip from an open rehearsal.

Following a brief intermission, the company performed a work that had been created by Goode (and for which he won an Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography). Entitled "the beauty that was mine, through the middle, without stopping..." the piece was performed by a cast of five (three of whom were in wheelchairs). As with many of Goode's dance theatre pieces, this one included spoken text, a dry sense of humor, and occasional images of breathtaking beauty -- one of which can be seen in the following clip:

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Down in Mountain View, TheatreWorks began 2011 with a new production of Patrick Barlow's delightful adaptation of The 39 Steps (based on the book by John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock's classic film version from 1935).

The 39 Steps falls into a peculiar category of stage farce. It's the kind of show whose ingenuity dazzles the first time around. A repeat viewing allows someone to catch a lot of moments that may have whizzed by too quickly during the first exposure. However, subsequent viewings often leave one scrutinizing the physical execution of the performance rather than analyzing the superb craftsmanship in the writing.

This is where the experience gained over many years of attending operatic performances comes in handy for an arts writer. Certain operas fall into a category known as "the standard repertory." These include such "bread and butter" operas as Aida, La Boheme, Carmen, La Traviata, The Barber of Seville, The Magic Flute, and Madama Butterfly. Audiences get used to experiencing these operas on a fairly regular basis. Because their experiences may change depending on the cast, production, and performance venue, one's appreciation of an opera becomes enriched in much the same way that one's appreciation of a favorite dish is changed as it is prepared and served in one restaurant after another.

The result? Rather than familiarity breeding contempt, repeated viewings help to develop a broader appreciation of an opera's basic strengths while allowing audiences to learn how different singers, designers, and directors deepen and color their understanding of a composer's work.

In a piece like The 39 Steps (which depends on rapid pacing, quick costume changes, and multitudinous sight gags), the element of surprise evaporates over repeated viewings and allows one to concentrate on the work's structure as well as how the creative team's inventiveness, brevity, and economy of effort produce maximum comic results. The bottom line is that only one of the four actors stays within a role throughout the performance (the hero, Richard Hannay). The other three actors take on more than 100 characters

Rebecca Dines, Mark Anderson Phillips, Dan Hiatt, and Cassidy Brown
in The 39 Steps (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

I first saw The 39 Steps on Broadway after the original production had moved from the 740-seat American Airlines Theatre to the 1,082-seat Cort Theatre. When the touring production touched down in San Francisco's 1,667-seat Curran Theatre, the performers were playing to a substantially larger house than they had on Broadway.

Seeing The 39 Steps in the 589-seat Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts gave a slightly different feel to the production. This auditorium feels wider than either the Cort or Curran and, for this production, set designer Joe Ragey has added a slight thrust to the stage (which allows for a wonderful new sight gag involving a model train).

Rather than keep everything at the tightly-wound, frantic pace of the original production, director Robert Kelley has given his cast some extra time to breathe and add some harmless shtick to their characters (I particularly liked what Dan Hiatt did with Mr. McGarrigle). 

Dan Hiatt as Mr. McGarrigle (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

As Kelley explains in his director's notes:
"If The 39 Steps makes gentle fun of one of the world's greatest film directors, it also pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock's profound influence on the cinema and his astonishing ability to engage the psyche of his audience. For the actors, director, and designers of our TheatreWorks production, The 39 Steps is much more about theatre than film. It is an invitation to invention, an opportunity to translate the miracles of the silver screen into both the magic and the mishap of live theatre -- all with tongue firmly in cheek. Using every theatrical trick in the book, it relies heavily on the imagination of the audience and the creativity of a crackerjack cast. It's a celebration of the creative process, a feast of theatricality, and a huge artistic challenge. For the actors, it is at once a nightmare and a delight. For the director and designers, it's a fiendish Rubik's cube that is both exciting and addictive. For the sound designer contemplating some 50 Hitchcock films overflowing with mood setting music, it is a cornucopia of compelling possibilities."
Rebecca Dines and Mark Anderson Phillips in The 39 Steps
Photo by: Tracy Martin

Under Kelley's astute direction, the four-actor ensemble (Rebecca Dines, Dan Hiatt, Mark Anderson Phillips, and Cassidy Brown acquitted themselves handsomely throughout the evening. My only regret was Kelley's choice to close a set of curtains in order to facilitate several set changes (which occasionally caused the show to lose some of its rapidly  building momentum). Since that didn't matter at all to the audience (which has having itself a roaring good time), this seems like a moot point.  The 39 Steps continues through February 13th at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sisyphean Challenges

Some dramas begin with a great deal of promise but slowly lose their direction. Others implode under their own weight.

For actors and directors involved in bringing these stories to life, the challenges can be daunting, intoxicating, even terrifying. There's supposed to be a big payoff in the script, but where is it? How can they find it?

Even more important: How can they successfully communicate the story's payoff to an audience?

In Greek mythology, a crafty, greedy king named Sisyphus dared to consider himself on a par with the gods. Although charged with the role of hospitality, Sisyphus often killed his guests and wallowed in the sadistic pleasures of exerting his dominance over travelers and unsuspecting victims. A murderer and trickster who  managed to outwit even Thanatos (death) temporarily, Sisyphus was given a punishment to fit his crimes.

Forced to keep pushing a huge boulder up a hill, each time Sisyphus neared the top of the hill, the boulder would break loose, fall back to its starting position, and force Sisyphus to start all over again. Talk about a "never ending story"!

Two recent dramatic outings left me wondering about the willingness of talented and willing actors to embrace scripts containing Sisyphean challenges. As the old saying goes, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts."

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The most important thing to understand about Barney's Version is that Barney Palofsky is a total schmuck. A friendly schmuck, to be sure. And at times a cuddly, lovable schmuck. Sometimes Barney resembles a good-hearted schlemiel who honestly tries to make the world a better place.

But no matter how you look at things, Barney remains a classic, free-wheeling schmuck who thinks with his dick. He's the kind of schmuck who, in an inebriated act of self-indulgence, leaves his second bride at their wedding reception to chase after a woman he just saw across the room and impulsively decided he must have as his third wife. He's that kind of a schmuck.

Minnie Driver as the second Mrs. Palofsky in Barney'sVersion

Based on Mordechai Richler's last novel, the audience watches Barney's life unfold as he progresses through three marriages and finally ends up emotionally numbed by senile dementia. Along the way we see Barney with Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), the tough as nails beauty he knocked up and married in Rome. We see him succumb to the sexual and financial temptations of his second wife (Minnie Driver), a wealthy Jewish-Canadian princess whose obsession with shopping is matched by her family's horror at the antics of Barney's father (Dustin Hoffman), a retired police officer who gives his favorite gun to his son as a wedding present.

Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman in Barney's Version

The two most important figures in Barney's life are his third wife, Miriam (Rosamund Pike), and his former drinking buddy, Boogie (Scott Speedman), who allow the painfully average Barney to bask in the shadows of their physical and intellectual beauty. After Barney walks in on Boogie screwing Barney's second wife, a very drunken argument leads to Boogie's untimely demise. But since Barney was far too drunk to remember what happened, the mystery of Boogie's death remains unsolved until the very end of the movie (by which time no one really cares).

A great deal of Barney's Version unravels with the messiness of a chronic drunk's weaving footsteps and staggering gait. Although the film is brought to life by some wonderful character actors -- ranging from Paul Giammati's Barney to Dustin Hoffman's Izzy -- the film is as messy as Barney's life (which does not mean that it is anywhere near as entertaining or interesting as it might seem to the person who drank his way through it).

As layered and complex as Giammati's acting may be, he is left eating the crumbs left behind by Rosamund Pike, Scott Speedman, and Minnie Driver. Dustin Hoffman gets one of the funnier death scenes in recent years. But even such a grandly ironic scene cannot hold the rest of this rambling script together. Here's the trailer:

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Bone To Pick and Diadem are two one-act plays that draw their inspiration from the myth of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete and sister to the Minotaur (who, for the sake of argument, we'll call Bruce).  The ravishing young bride of Theseus, Ariadne was humped and dumped on the island of Naxos during her honeymoon. After the opening night performance of the Cutting Ball Theatre Company's double bill of monologues by playwright in residence, Eugenie Chan,  I found myself wrestling with a curious enigma: 
  • Can a monologue be too wordy? 
  • Can a monologue contain too much text and too little drama?  
  • Can a playwright load a monologue up with too much background information for an audience to digest in a short period of time?
Put more simply: Can a monologue drown under the weight of too much exposition?

Paige Rogers as Ariadne in Diadem (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

A controversial figure who also plays a key role in Richard Strauss's opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, the princess bride of Crete (who told Theseus how to defeat the Minotaur) comes turbocharged with enough back story to tempt any playwright. After all, if your father is busily sacrificing beautiful young Athenian boys and girls to the angry monster that emerged from your mother's loins, bestiality might put a whole new spin on the question "Am I my brother's keeper?" Consider these salient points from dramaturg Megan Cohen's program notes:
"We know that Ariadne's mother Pasiphae was the daughter of the sun god Helios and the nymph Perseis. We know that although Pasiphae was an adulteress who lay with a bull, she would not tolerate any infidelity from her husband Minos; she bewitched him with an herbal potion which ensured that if he lay with another woman, he would ejaculate serpents and scorpions who would slaughter his paramour from the inside out.  We know this is the woman who raised Ariadne, who set her expectations for how men and women treat each other."
Having embraced the challenge of such rich source material, the real test lies in choosing what to use and what to exclude. That, I fear, is where Ms. Chen may have bitten off more than the folks at Cutting Ball could reasonably chew.

After the initial success of Bone To Pick (at 2008's Avant GardARAMA!), Chen was commissioned to write a prequel (which could show how Ariadne ended up stranded on Naxos). The result (Diadem) is meant to form a double bill with Bone To Pick (which shows Ariadne, some 3,000 years later, stuck in what seems like a diner in the Deep South where the gods are still crazy).

Paige Rogers as Ria in Bone To Pick (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

About 15 minutes into each piece, I had the strangest reaction. Seduced by the magnificent soundscapes created by the brilliant Cliff Carruthers and appropriately awed by Heather Basarab's brilliant lighting, I found myself losing interest in Ariadne's story.
  • This was in no way the fault of Paige Rogers who, in addition to memorizing a tremendously complex text, gave her all as Ariadne in the first piece and Ria in the second. 
  • Nor was it due to any problem with Michael Locher's brilliant unit set.
  • Nor could I pinpoint any problem with Rob Melrose's direction.
Paige Rogers as Ria in Bone To Pick (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

Mae West liked to claim that "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful." Sometimes it can simply be too much.

Whereas there are some lovely moments of writing by Ms. Chen, they tend to get smothered by a huge retelling of Greek mythology that has less to do with action than it does with a recitation of blood lineage and past history. Much of the writing, though it may be clear to those working on this project, remains quite confusing for the audience.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Three Fine Docs -- See How They Run!

Shortly after he took over the leadership of the New York City Opera, Julius Rudel secured funding from the Ford Foundation which allowed him to produce three seasons devoted entirely to American operas. Over the course of its history, the New York City Opera has performed more than 60 American operas. Among its nearly 25 world premieres are:
Recognizing the financial challenges faced by documentary filmmakers, the Ford Foundation recently announced a new program entitled Just Films that will provide $50 million for documentary films focused on social issues. This program recognizes the need to support the documentary as an art form as well as help provide new distribution channels for work by documentary filmmakers.

For some documentarians, their topics may be better off framed in a short (than feature-length) film. Rather than aiming for a full 90-120 minutes, some topics are more appropriately showcased in an hour-long documentary that can fit well within the programming demands of television and educational institutions.

I recently watched very impressive three short docs. Each one deals with important subject matter, has huge social ramifications, and focuses on the weaknesses of the human spirit. Although hugely valuable as educational tools, each film tells audiences what they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear.

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The release of Pare Lorentz's documentary entitled Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today offers modern audiences a chance to witness footage that was never released in the United States but was shown throughout Germany following World War II. This documentary is also important because it commemorates the first time that film was actually used as part of the prosecution's plan to indict the Nazis with material taken from their very own film archives.

Finding incriminating footage was easier said than done (some of it was actively being destroyed by Nazi sympathizers). Budd Schulberg (who had written "What Makes Sammy Run?" in 1941) apprehended Leni Riefenstahl as a material witness at her country home in Kitzbühl, Austria. He subsequently took her to the Nuremberg editing room to help the OSS team identify the Nazi figures in her films as well as other German film material they had captured. His brother, Stuart Schulberg, who took possession of the photo archive of Heinrich Hoffmann (Hitler’s personal photographer), became the unit’s expert on still photo evidence. As Stuart Schulberg wrote:
“The greatest technical difficulty involved the use of original recorded testimony from the trial itself. It was important, if the film’s authenticity was to be convincing, that Goering and his colleagues speak their lame lines of defense in their own, well-known voices...It became necessary to secure the wax recordings of the proceedings stored in Nuremberg, to re-record the pertinent words on film and then to synchronize that sound recording with the lip movements of the respective defendants...Many weeks after the original request, the records arrived from Nuremberg. The discs were re-recorded on film in half of one day. About a month later the meticulous job of ‘dubbing’ the original voices of the defendants was completed.”

Marine Corps Sgt. Stuart Schulberg

Stuart Schulberg and Joseph Zigman's 78-minute film was first shown to an audience in Stuttgart on November 21, 1948. The reason the film was never shown in the United States may well have been because its producers could not negotiate a distribution deal with any of the Hollywood film studios.

Watching the documentary today offers a fascinating look at a critical moment in the 20th century when key Nazis were tried before an international court. Considering how easily people throw the word "Nazi" around in today's media, it's especially important for younger generations to see what the real thing looks like. It also offers some terrible but valuable insights into what some Americans did at Abu Ghraib. Here's the trailer:

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Hailed far and wide as the quintessential American sport, baseball has had its share of racial and ethnic controversies. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, Peter Miller's documentary, Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, details the many Jewish men who became major league baseball stars.  Steve Kluger's powerful novel, The Last Days of Summer, and Desmond Nakano's 2007 film, American Pastime, demonstrate how baseball played an important role in America's Japanese internment camps during World War II.

While Jackie Robinson was hailed far and wide as the first black major league baseball player, fewer people know the story of the first openly gay major league baseball player. As Ted Griggs, Vice President and General Manager of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area explains:
“As an East Bay native, I knew all about Glenn Burke’s legendary athletic feats at Berkeley High. I followed his career with the Dodgers and A’s throughout the late 1970s and watched and read with great interest when he came out on The Today Show with Bryant Gumbel and in Inside Sports Magazine. I was saddened by his tragic death and thought at the time that his was a compelling story that should be told one day. This documentary allows Glenn’s family, friends, and teammates to tell that story, and it is enhanced with the narration of Dave Morey, one of the most respected voices in Bay Area radio.”
Out: The Glenn Burke Story, is a gripping documentary that shows just how vicious America's homophobia was in our not-so-distant past. Based on Burke's autobiography, "Out At Home: The Glenn Burke Story" (which was written while he was dying of AIDS and living with his sister), it features a wealth of talking heads ranging from Burke's classmates and teammates to sports journalists and Billy Bean (a former MLB player who came out after he retired from professional baseball).

The documentary focuses on the Oakland native who, at first, seemed destined for a career in professional basketball but, instead, ended up making headlines in baseball. From 1976-1979, Burke played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics. A multi-talented player and much beloved teammate, he ran smack up against the rampant homophobia that has always been a part of the professional sports world.

While this film interviews many of Burke's former teammates, it also focuses its lens on where America was at that time of Burke's initial success. Anita Bryant was busily rampaging against the evils of the gay lifestyle. In California, the Briggs initiative was aimed at preventing LGBT from teaching in schools. By 1980, Harvey Milk had been assassinated in City Hall and word was spreading about a mysterious "gay cancer."

The first professional baseball player who was upfront about his homosexuality with his teammates, Burke died of AIDS in 1995 (long before Richard Greenberg's award-winning play, Take Me Out, explored homophobia in baseball). But Burke's career was no less dramatic.

After the management of the Dodgers tried to bribe him into an old fashioned Hollywood marriage of convenience, Burke started hanging out with the gay son of Tommy Lasorda (the team's manager). In 1991, when “Spunky” Lasorda died of AIDS, his estranged father refused to acknowledge that his son was gay.  The only major force in Burke's career who was not interviewed for this documentary, Lasorda is nevertheless quoted as saying “My son wasn’t gay. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read that a lady gave birth to a fucking monkey. That’s not the truth.”

Glenn Burke

After Burke left professional baseball, he competed in the 1982 and 1986 Gay Games and was active in San Francisco's gay softball leagues. Unfortunately, heavy partying took its toll as Burke became addicted to cocaine and eventually became homeless. He died on May 30, 1995 at the age of 42.

Out: The Story of Glenn Burke offers painful reminders of the kind of bigotry that has been rampant in professional sports as well as a glimpse into the horrors of homelessness and the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Here's the trailer:

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First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign to improve nutrition and reduce childhood obesity has received plenty of media coverage (including the recent announcement that Wal-Mart will reduce the amount of fats, sugars, and salt in the packaged foods it distributes under its own brand name). However, the challenges of purchasing healthy food can be daunting for those on a limited budget.

Many conservatives love to complain about "welfare queens who are living on food stamps" as a way of criticizing social programs designed to help the poor.  Several years ago, a few members of Congress decided to see just how difficult it was to survive on food stamps (the monthly allotment boils down to approximately one dollar per person per meal).

Considering how many Americans are currently unemployed and struggling to feed their families, Food Stamped (which will be screened at the upcoming 13th San Francisco Indie Film Festival) is very much a documentary for today's America. In this educational short, Shira Potash (a certified nutritional educator) and her filmmaker husband, Yoav,  spend a week taking "the food stamp challenge." 

Yoav and Shira Potash in the supermarket

While Food Stamped tries to frame its message in as entertaining a format as possible, there is no escaping the fact that the people who made this film are not trapped in a cycle of poverty and/or joblessness. Shiva and Yoav may be willing to give up dessert and cheese for a week in order to show just what can be accomplished through the careful use of food stamps when grocery shopping, visiting farmers' markets, searching out free food samples, and occasionally dumpster diving, but they also live in a nice, clean house, have a functioning automobile, and are in excellent health.

With that caveat, the film provides an upbeat educational tool which can help educate those who criticize the food stamp program while relieving some of the stigma and humiliation from those who are about to enter the food stamp program. Food Stamped is not meant to focus on issues like depression, humiliation, and alienation. Instead, it shows how instilling the basics of nutrition in schoolchildren at an early age can help them develop valuable coping skills for subsequent adult and family crises. Here's the trailer: