Sunday, February 20, 2011

Pretty Pithy Pity Parties

In today's socioeconomic crisis, it's easy enough to feel sorry for yourself. All you have to do is look at a person's decreased purchasing power, rising food costs, and the ominous clouds gathering on the political horizon to realize that things can and probably will get worse.

Much worse.

Whether one reads George Lakoff's article on Huffington Post entitled What Conservatives Really Want, Kaili Joy Gray's article on DailyKos entitled House Republicans: Contraception OK for Horses, Not Women, or MoveOn.Org's mind-boggling list of the Top 10 Shocking Attacks From the GOP's War on Women, one can't help but be amazed at the venal viciousness of these self-righteous Republicans. Thankfully, some people are not afraid to call out schoolyard bullies and  challenge them to take ownership of their hate, hypocrisy, and cowardice. Here's Congressman Anthony Weiner rising to the moment:

One of the common traits of bullies is their ability to dish it out but start blubbering and playing victim as soon as anyone gives them a taste of their own medicine. So, just for a moment, suppose we meditate on what might happen if:
Hell's bells, I'm feeling better already! But at least I'm smart enough to know that my little experiment in spiteful thinking will offer no comfort to people who are in genuine physical, financial, and emotional pain.

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On August 1, 2007, the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge (an eight-lane steel-truss arch bridge) collapsed during rush hour in Minneapolis. The bridge, which reportedly carried 140,000 vehicles a day, was judged to have a design fault and a replacement bridge that was built soon after opened on September 18, 2008. Nevertheless, 13 people were killed and 145 injured in the catastrophe, which plays a key role in a new play by Allison Moore.

Currently onstage at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley, Collapse (which received a reading as part of Aurora's 2010 Global Age Project series) is receiving a "rolling world premiere" thanks to the participation of the National New Play Network (the Curious Theatre Company in Denver will also be staging the play). Considering the rabid zeal of conservatives as they try to dismantle any and all social safety nets, Collapse will have strong appeal to anyone who has been hit hard by the economic downfall, by personal tragedy, or is currently in some sort of 12-step recovery program. The play's four characters are:
  • David (Gabriel Marin), one of the lucky people who survived the collapse of the I35W bridge. Depressed, drinking steadily, and lacking any kind of motivation, David's post-traumatic stress disorder is not helping his marriage at all.
  • Hannah (Carrie Paff), David's wife who, shortly after the bridge collapse, suffered a miscarriage. A high-strung attorney who fears being downsized from her law firm, Hannah has been trying to get David to attend a support group for people with PTSD and think about trying to conceive another child. While the past year has been quite difficult for her emotionally, Hannah's professional lawyer/micromanaging bitch instincts prevent her from focusing on her genuine loneliness.
  • Susan (Amy Resnick), Hannah's self-absorbed sister who has just arrived unexpectedly from Los Angeles and thrives on chaos. Having lost her job and been evicted from her apartment, Susan never bothered to call ahead to see if it would be okay to crash with Hannah and David. In fact, the only way she could afford her airfare was to agree to deliver a mysterious package to someone in Minneapolis.
  • Ted (Aldo Billingslea), a 51-year-old African American who graduated from the University of Georgia (Go Bulldogs!) and is being sued for sexual harassment. Although physically impotent, Ted still attends meetings of Sex Addicts Anonymous. Has fate set him on a collision course with Hannah?
David (Gabriel Marin) and Hannah (Carrie Paff) listen to
Susan (Amy Resnick) Photo by: David Allen)

As directed by Jessica Heidt, Collapse wavers between hopelessness and helplessness, offering its audience bittersweet moments of mistaken identity and scenes of genuine pathos. While the unit set designed by Melpomene Katakalos neatly allows the emasculated David to try confronting his fears by climbing up the bridge that collapsed under him, Moore's play suffers from one key weakness. Although one can empathize with the alcohol-numbed David (who nearly drowned following the bridge's collapse), it's hard to feel anything for hard-nosed Hannah or her selfish sister Susan. While I found Aldo Billingslea's performance as Ted quite appealing, by the evening's end he became just one more pathetic and dysfunctional character lost in a world of desperately confused souls.

Ted (Aldo Billingslea) and Hannah (Carrie Paff)
Photo by: David Allen

Perhaps that's both the problem and the answer. Many people assume that when things go wrong in their lives, the situation can somehow be fixed. At the end of the play, as David and Hannah try to start over again, they do so with the growing realization that there are no guarantees for their future as a couple -- and that everything they assumed could be taken care of might not materialize in real life. Performances of Collapse continue through March 6 at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley (you can order tickets here).

* * * * * * * * * * *
Working its way around the Pacific Rim, the bus-and-truck tour of Avenue Q that recently performed in Tokyo, Anchorage, and Vancouver touched down at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre en route to Los Angeles. Buoyed by a cheerfully talented young cast eager to spread the message that "It Sucks To Be Me," the only major change in the show has been to change the line "George Bush is for now" to read "Glenn Beck is for now."

Directed by Jason Moore, Avenue Q features a delightfully sassy book by Jeff Whitty with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. As always, the puppets conceived and designed by Rick Lyon remain the stars of the show.

The cast of Avenue Q is divided between the humans and their furry monster counterparts. Brian (Tim Kornblum) is an out-of-work aspiring comedian living with Christmas Eve (Lisa Helmi Johanson), a Japanese American woman who, unable to get hired to work in a Chinese restaurant, finds her way into helping people solve their problems. The running joke of the show is the character of former child actor Gary Coleman (performed with flair by Anita Welch).

The talented puppeteers in this company include Ashley Eileen Bucknam (Kate Monster and Lucy), Michael Liscio, Jr. (Nicky, Trekkie Monster, Bear), and Kerri Brackin (Mrs. T. Bear, and others). However, it is David Colston Corris (Princeton, Rod) whose radiant charm wins over the audience and quickly has everyone eating out of his hand(s).

Daniel Colston Corris with Princeton

One of the great strengths of Avenue Q has been how successfully its creative team was able to adapt the Sesame Street format to become a springboard for mocking every aspect of our society. Whether in songs like "If You Were Gay"  or "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist," Avenue Q delivers age-appropriate messages for Sesame Street viewers who have grown pubic hair, gone to college, and been laid off from their jobs.

Songs like "The More You Ruv Someone" and "The Internet Is For Porn" leave the audience doubled over in laughter. The wild sex scene between Princeton and Kate Monster ("You Can Be As Loud as the Hell You Want When You're Makin' Love") never fails to bring down the house. Special segments used to promote the show (like the following "celebrity interview" with Trekkie Monster) hold a brilliant mirror up to the more vapid parts of our culture.

What I have always found fascinating about Avenue Q is how, in a short seven years, its characters (who are now familiar to audiences around the world) have embedded themselves firmly into popular culture. What could be greater proof of their acceptance than watching two monsters from the London production of Avenue Q perform one of the hit songs from another Broadway musical?

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