Wednesday, March 30, 2011

There'll Be Some Changes Made

It's an old, old story.  A country bumpkin leaves the farm to seek out a more exciting life in the big city. It's been done upside down and inside out -- which is why audiences are always surprised to see the same old story play out in a new and astonishing way.

First published in 1921 (with lyrics by Billy Higgins), There'll Be Some Changes Made contains this memorable verse as its chorus:
"For there's a change in the weather
There's a change in the sea
So from now on there'll be a change in me
My walk will be different, my talk and my name
Nothin' about me is goin' to be the same,
I'm goin' to change my way of livin' if that ain't enough,
Then I'll change the way that I strut my stuff,
'Cause nobody wants you when you're old and gray
There'll be some change made today.
There'll be some changes made."

Imagine my delight upon viewing the historic archival footage contained in the following clip!  The video accompanies a recording of the 1921 song classic by Wack-A-Doo (a St. Louis-based band that specializes in performing “American Musette,” which it defines as a high-powered mix of toe-tapping vintage swing, folksy Americana, and speakeasy-style syncopation).

How are you going to keep them down on the farm once the concept of bright lights in the big city has taken over their imagination? Don't even try. Resistance is futile.

* * * * * * * * *
Saigon Electric begins with a male Vietnamese break dancer practicing his moves in a rather large puddle. Later in the film, he tries to choreograph a routine to music from the soundtrack of Fiddler on the Roof. Directed by Stephane Gauger (The Owl and the Sparrow), this new Vietnamese hip hop movie is determined to claim some new turf in the B-boy movie genre.

Fresh off the farm, Mai (Van Trang) arrives in a Saigon in which graffiti is rampant and the never-ending Western craving for the latest trend is rapidly taking over Vietnam's youth culture. Although Saigon's youth may be gravitating to dance clubs where hip hop music is all the rage, Mai is hoping to audition for the National Dance Academy.

Van Trang as Mai

Unfortunately, she has no formal training in ballet and, other than her experience as a traditional ribbon dancer, gets easily flustered when asked to perform before the school's auditioning faculty. Her encounter with a young woman named Kim (Quynh Hoa)who is part of the Saigon Fresh dance crew, leads Mai into a whole new world -- much to the disapproval of her elderly landlord, the Professor (Phan Tan Thi).

The male leads include Do-Boy (Zen 04), the leader of the Saigon Fresh crew, and Hai (Khuong Ngoc), a handsome, spoiled rich kid who seduces Kim but is forced to confess that he will soon be leaving Saigon to attend school in England.

Khuong Ngoc as Hai

Meanwhile, Do-Boy (who teaches break dancing to homeless kids at a local community center) encourages Mai to hang out with his crew and teach ribbon dancing to some of the girls at the center. As in so many dance movies, Do-Boy explains to Mai that members of the North Killaz dance because they're paid to dance whereas his crew dances "because we have to."

When confronted with the harsh news that the community center is to be torn down to make way for a new hotel, the young dancers struggle to find a financial backer. Is the hotel's architect Kai's father? Will the eccentric Professor come through with a valuable political connection from his mysterious past?

Gauger's film alternates between the gritty poverty of homeless youth and the plush surroundings and serenity of Hai's upper class family. The manic traffic patterns in downtown Saigon are far more threatening than any of the attitude-heavy moves thrown down by the North Killaz in a series of highly energized dance scenes.

Do-Boy (Zen 04) and his break dancing crew

Needless to say, Do-Boy and Saigon Fresh triumph over the North Killaz (who have been funded for the past three years by a corporate sponsor) and find a way to keep teaching homeless youth how to dance at their community center. Even better, Mai gets a second chance to audition for the National Dance Academy. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Over in BerkeleyShotgun Players has launched its 20th anniversary season -- in which each play is a new commission -- with the world premiere of Beardo (whose early poster art proclaimed "He's a weirdo with a Beardo!"). For such a small company to pull off such a major achievement is a stern reminder that, while great theatre takes place all over the Bay area, Shotgun Players is one of our region's most consistently challenging and fascinating producers of new work.

Directed by Patrick Dooley (with music by Dave Malloy) Beardo was inspired by one of the most bizarre characters in Russian history. As Jason Craig (who wrote the book and lyrics) explains:
"Rasputin, the real life huckster upon whom Beardo is loosely based, serves as a fine example of how 'man' can be transformed into 'superman.' He certainly was a rascally man who did his fair share of manipulation and conjuring, but his mysticism was magnified, his prowess inflated by the stir of gossip and the imagination of the mass. Rasputin lived during a time of confusion and fear. You might say he was in the right place at the right time. None of what you see tonight is true; except for the ridiculous parts. Who could possibly have made that up?"
Ashkon Davaran as Beardo (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Beardo begins with its protagonist lying in a field with his arm stuck into a hole in the ground. After being taken to shelter by a Shack Man (Josh Pollock) and his sex-starved wife (Sarah Mitchell), Beardo begins to sense the magnetic power he can exert over others. Soon, he's off to the big city where he quickly ingratiates himself with Russia's aristocracy.

After helping to improve the health of the royal family's hemophilic Delicate Child Boy (Juliet Heller), Beardo is soon training the Tsar (Kevin Clarke) to beg like a dog for raspberry-flavored chocolates. Blessed with an insatiable libido, he's also screwing the Tsarista (Anna Ishida) and lots of the other women at court. 

Beardo (Ashkon Daravan) and the Tsar (Kevin Clarke )
Photo by: Pak Han

Even as Beardo dances around with a mammoth, glittery phallus dangling from his underwear, Yusapoof (Dave Garrett) and other aristocrats are plotting his death while dressed in red tights and white tutus. Just when you think the production can't get any more bizarre, one of the murderers holds up Beardo's engorged and bloody penis (having severed it from his victim to keep as a souvenir!)

Yusapoof (Dave Garrett) with Sarah Mitchell and J.P. Gonzalez
as two Russian aristocrats (Photo by: Pak Han)

Beardo's score is written for a string quintet (Jessica Ling, Jo Gray, Charles Montague, Gael Alcock, Olive Mitra) whose style imitates everything from the music of Borodin, Xenakis, and Prokofiev to Patsy Cline, George Crumb, and Tuvan cowboy music. For the act I finale, a chorus of nearly 40 Russian peasants emerges from backstage to deliver a magnificent a capella rendition of "Troika" in an arrangement of the Russian gypsy song transcribed from a performance by Marusia Georgevskaya.

With an evocative unit set designed by Lisa Clark and some superb costume design work by Christine Crook, Patrick Dooley has staged Beardo as an iconoclastic romp through a period of Russian decadence in which nothing was held sacred by the play's protagonist and everyone was there for him to use and abuse as he saw fit for the sake of his own entertainment.

The Tsarista (Anna Ishida) sings the blues at a court banquet in Beardo.
(Photo by: Pak Han)

Each time I enter the theatre at the Ashby Stage, I'm amazed at what Shotgun Players have done to alter the physical environment. Beardo was certainly no exception.

Whether the show's musical accompaniment comes from a ukulele, a string quintet, or a recording of Russian bells, Beardo is guaranteed to rock your world. So much creativity is on display in this thrilling new piece of music theatre that, if you're smart, you'll put Beardo on your must-see list (you can order tickets here). Performances continue at the Ashby Stage through April 24th. Don't miss it!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In Matters of Pride and Prejudice

Gone are the days when old-fashioned epithets like "schwarzer," "spic," and "kike" were enough to get you thrown out of polite company. Now you really have to think about who -- or how many different factions -- you'll piss off as soon as you open your big fat mouth.

A few weeks ago a friend and I were discussing some of the despicable political maneuvers by newly-elected Republican governors like Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Rick Snyder (Michigan), and Rick Scott (Florida). Aghast at their naked power grabs, he gasped "I just don't understand how people can even think like that!" Without hesitating, I told him I could provide the answer in one simple word.


But you know what they say: Put two Jews in a room and then try to get them to agree on something!  Consider the following clip from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and you'll see what I mean:

The other day I watched a deliciously goofy video of an excited teenager singing the song he had written about the thing he loved most in this world. As much as I enjoyed his energy and enthusiasm, I found myself wondering: Does the fact that I'm having a good time watching him have a good time make me racist?  You be the judge:

Then of course, we come to the recent case of UCLA student Alexandra Wallace, the dumb blonde whose unfortunate video drew this sharp response from Korean-American comedian David So:

Not to mention this rant from noted Thai-American playwright, Prince Gomolvilas:

The bottom line is that racism is a learned behavior and that words have more power than we often give them credit for. If we don't understand their meaning -- and how our latent (or blatant) racism impacts the people around us -- we haven't gotten very far beyond dragging our knuckles on the ground.

Learning to acknowledge and confront the racism in our daily lives lies at the core of Young Jean Lee's bristling and sarcastic comedy, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (which recently received its Bay area premiere as a co-production by Crowded Fire Theater and the Asian American Theater Company).  The following trailer offers a mere taste of Lee's writing (which ranges from hysterically funny to furiously sad).

Directed by Marissa Wolf and starring Cindy Im as the disgruntled Korean American at the center of the play, Lee's script can be difficult to follow at times:
  • The opening audio/video sequence shows the playwright making a video in which she is repeatedly slapped in the face.
  • Lee's writing for the scene in which a young white woman tells her boyfriend that they need to break up because, among other things, she can't stand the sight of his nose, can take your breath away.
  • There are many moments in the play when the women playing Koreans 1, 2, and 3 (who speak in their native Asian languages) do an excessive amount of screaming as they run around the stage.
  • Some scenes (such as the one in which a dying Korean woman asks her favorite granddaughter to embrace Jesus) feel as if they were written as comedy skits for another play.
  • Other moments, in which a heterosexual couple describe how cool it is to be white, hit home with a bitter irony.

A Korean American woman (Cindy Im, at right) makes fun of
a more traditional Korean (Katie Chan, left) in Young Jean Lee's
Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (Photo by: Dave Nowakowski)

AATC's artistic director, Duy Nguyen, states that:
“I have to thank Mina Morita of Berkeley Rep (and an AATC company director as well) for introducing us to this very funny, very shocking, very stylish play. What Young Jean Lee is doing with her work, and specifically with Songs, instantly transcends the usual race talk and shines an incisive light on the Asian American female."
In the following video clip (recorded in New York in 2006), one gets a sense of how skillfully Lee wields her words for both comedic and dramatic effect:

I was especially impressed by Stephanie Buchner's lighting and the surprising beauty of Emily Greene's all-pressboard unit set. Cindy Im, Alexis Papedo, and Josh Schell shone in the lead roles (with Mimu Tsujimura, Lily Tung Crystal, and Katie Chan as three Korean woman determined to prove that Korean Christians can be much more evil than white Christians). I continue to be amazed at Marissa Wolf's skill at helping her actors use their body language to make the kinds of dramatic statements that words alone cannot.

Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven offers theatergoers a mixed experience during which it's interesting to see just who in the audience is laughing at what (not everyone reacts the same way to certain bits). Lee's play will certainly pushes the audience;s buttons and makes people think a lot more seriously about the racist stereotypes racing around their minds.  Her approach is far more challenging and confrontational than the following number from Avenue Q:

Monday, March 28, 2011

Trial By Fire

There's an old saying that "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." But what do we consider as "tough" these days?  Being deprived of a luxury? Or having the wind knocked out of our sails?
  • Missing a train or bus by a matter of seconds is nothing compared to standing on a hillside in Japan and watching your town get washed away by a tsunami.
  • Being stuck in rush-hour traffic is nowhere as unpleasant as being homeless.
  • Discovering a pimple on your face hardly compares to coping with debilitating levels of pain from cancer.
Surprising as it may seem, changing course can sometimes yield astonishing results. Whether one joins a 12-step support group or decides that certain friends are not worth having any longer, people constantly make changes in their lives. Adaptability, after all, is the key to survival.

* * * * * * * * *
One of the more surprising delights at the 10th anniversary Bay One Acts Festival was Test Preparation.  In this brief but intensely challenging drama by M.R. Fall, the playwright asks the audience to decide whether "standardized testing is Hell or Hell is standardized testing."

Produced by No Nude Men Productions and directed by Julia Heitner, Test Preparation starred Nick Dickson as Mister Francis, a frustrated teacher trying to get his hapless pupils up to par for the SAT test. It's a situation the playwright knows all too well.
"We’re all trapped in the same system until these various arbitrary totems -- the SAT score, the high school diploma, the eternal GPA, the bachelor’s degree -- have been collected, and then, suddenly, the system has no use for us anymore. The SAT might get you into college, but it’s not going to tell you what to do once you get out. Test Preparation wasn’t planned or premeditated; it just came out. Like most plays that arrive in such a fashion, it didn’t take me very long to write -- probably about two days altogether." 
Hoenig (Nick Trengove), Mister Francis (Nick Dickson),
Wondercrock (Megan Cohen) and Spotsalot (Leigh Shaw)
in Test Preparation (Photo by: Clay Robeson)

Although there would seem to be little hope for Hoenig (Nick Trengove), Wondercrock (Megan Cohen) or Spotsalot (Leigh Shaw), M.R. Fall's script boasts the kind of delicious surprise ending that would be tickle  readers of O. Henry's short stories. Test Preparation was anchored by Nick Dickson's memorable performance as Mister Francis (in addition to his training at the Clown Conservatory at the San Francisco Circus Center, it seems that Dickson has some pretty solid acting chops).

Nick Dickson as Mister Francis (Photo by: Clay Robeson)

* * * * * * * * *
Reality bites down hard in the first few moments of One Kine Day as a teenage girl leans over in bed and informs her 19-year-old slacker boyfriend that she's pregnant. Written and directed by Chuck Mitsui, the film focuses on life outside of Hawaii's tourist industry (the movie was made by "Haolewood Productions" and "cre808film").

Mitsui's characters live on "the other side" of the island, which might as well be the other side of the world from Waikiki. Ralsto (Ryan Greer) is still living with his mother (Julia Nickson), trying to hold down a job in a skateboard shop, and hanging out in skateboarding parks with his friends. His girlfriend, Alea (Christa B. Allen) has already had one abortion and is living with Ralsto because her mother (Jolene Blalock) is a lying, drunken tramp whose early partying days made her a teenage mother.

Christa B. Allen as Alea

Soon after discovering that he might become a father, Ralsto (who seems allergic to responsibility) loses his job and finds his life heading straight for the crapper.  Although Sam and Barry (his older, somewhat dimwitted party friends) try to  look out for him, their primary skills revolve around getting stoned and repairing cars.

Meanwhile, Nalu (Nalu Boersma) -- a fast-talking friend who knows his way around the local drug dealers and cockfight promoters -- gets Ralsto into trouble with a shady character nicknamed Vegas Mike (Keram Malicki-Sanchez) after they steal some marijuana from Mike's house. At a party that night, Mike tries to put the make on Alea, whose friend Leilani (Janel Parrish) keeps telling her that it's all right to drink and do drugs when you're pregnant.

Ryan Greer as Ralsto

Although handsomely filmed, One Kine Day isn't particularly interesting. There are two parallel plot lines that do a lot to explain why children shouldn't have children.
  • Alea discovers she's knocked up, agonizes over her future, spends time visiting her friend Leilani (whose child is primarily being cared for by its grandmother), and ends up having a miscarriage while on the toilet at her mother's house after a night of partying. 
  • Ralsto begins his day refusing his worried mother's pleas to apply for a job at the post office where she works and, after a rough day spent at the school of hard knocks, ends up filling out the job application form.
A former skate shop entrepreneur, Mitsui has tried to show what he knows as "the real Hawaii" (as seen from a local's perspective) in his film. In addition to placing his story in a multi-ethnic working class community, he's given One Kine Day  (which was recently screened at the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival) a "Jawaiian" soundtrack that Mitsui describes as "a blend of Jamaican reggae by way of Hawaiian hip-hop that's everywhere on the island but rarely head outside of it." Here's the trailer:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Stacking The Deck

In just a few weeks marine historians will observe the 99th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  Dubbed as "the ship that God himself could not sink," the Titanic found itself broken in half and resting on the ocean floor on April 15, 1912 thanks to the use of lesser-grade steel in its construction and the folly of man.

When the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant started to make news, some people referred to the tragedy as another instance of "the Titanic syndrome." Despite assurances that adequate protections were in place, things went disastrously wrong following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan earlier this month.

Conservatives like to boast that the business community can police itself. And that the invisible hand of the free market can resolve any problems. They often choose to ignore the fact that their favorite hand is attached to the hearts, minds, and souls of ruthlessly greedy people who will stop at nothing to obtain an unfair advantage that can lead to larger profits.

While many people know the refrain from "The Money Song" that was written by John Kander and Fred Ebb for their 1966 hit musical, Cabaret, few remember this part of the song's lyric:
"If you happen to be rich,
And you feel like a
Night's entertainment
You can pay for a
Gay escapade.

If you happen to be rich,
And alone, and you
Need a companion
You can ring-ting-a-ling
for the maid.

If you happen to be rich
And you find you are
Left by your lover,
Though you moan and you groan
Quite a lot,
You can take it on the chin,
Call a cab and begin
To recover
On your fourteen-carat yacht."
* * * * * * * * * * *
Having recently enjoyed the world premiere of Hermes (his dazzling two-act play about dysfunctional behavior let loose on the world's global financial markets), Bennett Fisher's contribution to the tenth annual Bay One Acts Festival proved to be equally controversial.

n the past 25 years, computer applications have transformed financial transactions so that they now happen at lightning speed with far-reaching consequences. Inspired by a story that he heard on NPR, Pure Baltic Avenue lets the audience in on a vicious real estate scam similar to what took place in Arizona.

One thing's for sure: When people learn how to brazenly game the system, altruistic intent is the first thing to fly out the window. Instead of the invisible hand of the free market, what the audience sees in Pure Baltic Avenue is the invisible hand of the free market on drugs.

Fisher's play revolves around a get rich quick scheme in which three real estate speculators and a merrily enabling appraiser keep flipping a residential property between themselves so that its value quickly increases. With each sale, one of the participants calls the bank and asks for a mortgage loan (which is automatically granted). The paperwork is instantly signed, stamped, and notarized and the property trades hands in a ritual celebrating the group's power, chicanery, and bravado.

Breckenridge (Cooper Carlson), Irving (Nick Allen), Conway (Chris Quintos)
and DeWitt (Samuel Richie) in Bennett Fisher's Pure Baltic Avenue
(Photo by: Clay Robeson)

Whether you choose to call it a round-robin scheme in trading mortgages, a financial game of "Tag, You're It!" or a real estate focused Ponzi scheme, the last person to sign the papers comes out with a property that has been assessed at a ridiculously inflated value. So it's easy to understand why, when a bank officer shows up wanting to know how three mortgages got sold for the same property within an hour, the participants cagily trick the bank officer into signing the next set of papers and becoming the new owner of a severely overvalued property.

Produced by Threshold and directed by Alex Curtis, Pure Baltic Avenue's energy is reminiscent of how people who are high on the effects of power, drugs, money, or poppers like to take increasingly bold risks. I especially liked the performances of Samuel Richie as DeWitt and Marie O'Donnell as Parker (the bank's shocked representative).

* * * * * * * * *
In December of 2010 I attended a reading of a controversial new play about artificial intelligence co-written by Matthew Benjamin and Logan Brown. At the time, Wirehead seemed pretty tight and ready for production. SFPlayhouse is currently offering the regional premiere of the Benjamin/Brown play. I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in technology check it out.

The premise is easy enough to understand. A Chinese company has been manufacturing brain implants that are so expensive that only very wealthy people can afford them. The ability to have a nanocomputer inside one's head allows people to do extreme calculations, invent cures for diseases, and grasp difficult concepts with a complexity and rapidity previously unknown to man.

Some people desperately want to get Symtel's implants. Others are a bit more wary of what the company's new technology might do to life as we know it.  But in one office, a crisis is already evolving.

Adams (Craig Marker) and Destry (Gabriel Marin) are two young executives who learn  that their flunky, a trust fund baby named Hamilton(Cole Alexander Smith), has purchased one of the brain implants. With his new brain power, Hammy (who could barely tie his shoelaces before) has been able to steal their most lucrative account. Something has to be done -- and done fast.

Adams (Craig Marker), Hamilton (Cole Alexander Smith) and
Destry (Gabriel Marin) in Wirehead. (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

But when Adams reaches over and accidentally pulls the implant out of Hammy's head (along with some of the young man's brain tissue), what started as an argument turns into a homicide. What should the two flustered executives do next?

It doesn't help that their girlfriends are eager to tie the knot. Laura (Lauren Grace) comes from a wealthy family who are all getting the implants and is sure that Adams will qualify for one, too (she's more than willing to have Daddy check into his test results). Destry's girlfriend, Monyca (Madeline H.D. Brown) is an artist who has her doubts about the new technology. In his program note, SFPlayhouse's artistic director, Bill English, writes:
"We live in a time of exponentially advancing progress.  As the recent 'Jeopardy!' incident demonstrated, computers are rapidly approaching the capacity of the human brain to process information. It is inevitable that they will soon surpass us. Technology is altering the way our consciousness perceives reality so rapidly that we can barely cope with the flood of new information, let alone comprehend its significance to our quality of life. Medical science has devised hundreds of ways for technology to interface directly with the brain. Soon there will be many more.
  • Will fear hold us back?  
  • Are technological advances all good for us?  
  • Are these changes inevitable? 
  • Will irresponsible research destroy us?
  • Is it possible to roll back the force of progress?  
  • Where is the balance between caution and paranoia, between the hope for a better life and the grasping for an advantage?
  • Should there be laws governing the power of technology to affect our consciousness?
Many feel the need for humanity to evolve. Others cling to our flawed but familiar forms. Wirehead is a wakeup call for all of us as we plunge headlong into uncharted waters."    

A doctor (Cole Alexander Smith) injects some nanochips into
Adams (Craig Marker) in Wirehead.  (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Without wanting to give away any surprises, let me just say that the fully-staged production of Wirehead plays out much better than I anticipated from the reading I attended last December. Always a clever set designer when challenged by small spaces, Bill English has created a wonderful unit set that allows a radio shock jock named RIP (Scott Coopwood) to comment on technology's relentless march forward from the safety of his control booth. Meanwhile, Adams and Destry try to solve their personal and professional crises.

Susi Damilano has done a beautiful job of directing this nightmare of technology run amok. At the performance I attended, there was a post-performance talkback with Michael Anissimov, the Media Director for Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. While Mr. Anissimov very deftly spouted the appropriate (if not necessarily accurate) talking points, it quickly became obvious that the people questioning him -- most of whom were easily twice his age -- not only had much more life experience and wisdom beneath their belts, they also knew their facts a whole lot better than he did.

One of the more provocative pieces of theatre you'll see this year, Wirehead will have especially strong appeal to anyone who uses a computer on a daily basis. Performances continues at SFPlayhouse through April 23 (you can order tickets here).  In the meantime, here's the trailer:

Friday, March 25, 2011

Stressed Out On The Home Front

You know what it feels like: You turn the key in the lock, open the door, and you can already sense the tension in the air. Something's wrong. Really wrong. And it's going to stay that way, whether you like it or not.

From the anguished to the absurd, from the hysterical to the hypothetical, change is the only way out of a losing situation. The only questions are: Who will survive?  And how?

Tim Bauer's short play, Hot Spot (which was recently featured as part of the 10th annual Bay One Acts Festival), offers an interesting gimmick for its audience's consideration. Dale (Eric Reid) has been working as a pool installer in the Midwest, somewhere around St. Louis. His girlfriend, Michelle (Megan Briggs), has been working at a supermarket. They've each gotten stuck in a personal and professional rut.

Dale (Eric Reid) and Michelle (Megan Briggs) in Hot Spot
Photo by: Clay Robeson

Michelle wants to move to Southern California where, in addition to plenty of supermarkets, there might be more opportunities for Dale. He, however, is having problems with commitment and is reluctant to leave his home town.

Suddenly, a circle of light with magical powers graces their apartment. Whenever one of them steps into the circle, s/he is compelled to deliver a monologue revealing latent fears. One has hidden anxieties about lasagna, the other is worried about bikinis.

Michelle (Megan Briggs) and Dale (Eric Reid) in Hot Spot
Photo by: Clay Robeson

Directed by Rob Ready and produced by PianoFight, Hot Spot proved to be an interesting curtain raiser for the festival's second program of one-act plays. Credit Tim Bauer with an original idea and knowing how to work it and bring his play to a clean ending (which is often easier said than done).

* * * * * * * * * * * *
There was nothing clean or tidy about A Three Little Dumplings Adventure. An absurdist romp written by Megan Cohen that was produced by Three Wise Monkeys Theatre Company and directed by Jessica Holt, this play obviously needs some trimming. But where does one start to make cuts when nothing makes sense?

Unlike the well-disciplined children seen in plays like I Remember Mama and The Sound of Music, A Three Little Dumplings Adventure takes place in total chaos. Daddy (Ryan Hebert) wants to watch his favorite television show in peace and quiet. Mommy (Siobhan Doherty) is desperate to leave home and receives constant encouragement from a talking suitcase (Cooper Carlson).

A tense family moment from A Three Little Dumpings Adventure
Photo by: Clay Robeson

And then there are the children: three obnoxious, hyperactive young girls eager to work their parents' nerves to the bone. Unlike children that may be called precious little dumplings, these brats are actually three little pot stickers (Chinese dumplings) that fell out of Mommy's vagina in the delivery room.  The First Dumpling (Sarah Moser) arrived steamed. The Second Dumpling (Molly Holcomb) was boiled. The Third Dumpling (Megan Trout) is fried in more ways than you really want to know.

Sarah Moser, Molly Holcomb, and Megan Trout as the
three little potstickers from hell (Photo by: Clay Robeson)

And that's the problem with Cohen's play. While it is filled with moments of hilarity and absurdity, it doesn't really know where it's going. As a result, it staggers around the stage -- most rambunctiously --  in search of an ending.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
Ever since colony collapse disorder started making headlines several years ago, a great deal of press has been generated about the crucial role that honey bees play in pollinating our crops of fruits and vegetables. Several documentarians have produced feature films about the phenomenon (including Colony and Vanishing of the Bees). The latest entry into the field is the most entertaining of the lot.

Poster art for Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?

Although bees were highly revered by the Egyptians, Mayans, and Greeks, what was once recognized as a sacred partnership between bees and humans has devolved into a profit-driven industry. While other bee films focus exclusively on commercial beekeepers,Queen of the Sun: What Are The Bees Telling Us?  emphasizes the biodynamic and organic communities whose opinions are often overlooked by the media despite their profound insights into long-term issues (such as monoculture) that have brought about the recent collapse of the honey bee population. As the film's director, Taggart Siegel, explains:
"Queen of the Sun is for me, a deeply important, crucial and timely film. I first had the idea to make a film on the honey bee crisis, when I read a quote attributed to Albert Einstein (now in dispute) who said 'If bees disappear from the earth, then man will only have four years of life left.' This quote appeared on the back of every major publication about the bee crisis in early 2006. It profoundly affected my view of the future, for both myself, but more importantly, for my daughter."
Taggart's documentary features input from the required group of talking heads (authors Raj Patel and  Michael Pollan, physicist Vandana Shiva, botanist Hugh Wilson, entomologist May Berenbaum, and biologist Scott Black). These experts all help to explain the challenges bees face from malnutrition, pesticides, genetically modified crops, pathogens, and lack of genetic diversity from over queen breeding.

A bee working to collect pollen

However, it is the interviews with "biodynamic beekeepers" that will really grab the audience's attention. If one listens carefully to folks like David Heaf, Yvon Achard, Michael Thiele, Gunther Friedmann, and Gunther Hauk, one gets a less clinical and more devoted perspective on the importance of bees to the food chain.

Queen of the Sun has its fair share of eccentric beekeepers. Some are more than happy to explain the factors leading to colony collapse disorder. Others take a more mystical and/or New Age approach toward bees and their importance throughout history (the film has a certain "woo-woo" factor).

Most people are unaware that:
  • Artificially bred bees are malnourished on a diet of high-fructose corn-syrup.
  • Many are confined in plastic hives and transported thousands of miles (as they are bombarded by exhaust fumes) only to be forced to work in crops soaked in pesticides. 
  • Because of these conditions, exhausted and weakened pollinators become easy prey for mites, climate change, environmental radiation, viruses, air and water pollution, and the challenging effects of genetically modified crops.
  • In order for urban beekeepers to thrive, certain antiquated laws need to be changed.
Although Queen of the Sun has some great archival footage and animation sequences, what really shines is Siegel's spectacular nature photography and his glorious cinematography.  Here's the trailer.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bad Things Happen To Good People

Every hour of every day someone, somewhere, suffers a life-changing loss of innocence. Whether it occurs while watching the news or at gunpoint, whether it involves being corrupted by a small bribe or deflowered by a priest, the moment forever alters the way a person sees himself and the world around him.

Needless to say, the loss of innocence is a powerful plot device that has inspired many novels, plays, movies and television dramas. But what sometimes gets lost in all the trauma and angst is the scope of the loss. It may involve one person's life (or soul) or a much larger piece of the general population. It may mark an important turning point in someone's personal or political history. Whether the loss of innocence involves being banished from the Garden of Eden or accidentally causing another person's death, there is no turning the clock back to happier times.

Three new dramas explore the loss of innocence from unique perspectives. In each case, the tragedy is shocking and borders on the surreal.

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At last year's Bay Area One Acts Festival I was deeply impressed by The Philadelphians, a tense and sometimes violent drama by Sam Leichter (who manages the Marin Shakespeare Company's educational outreach program). In a very brief time, Mr. Leichter was able to create a dense narrative in which two men revealed complex wounds and long-simmering resentments. The Philadelphians was an exceptionally intense piece of theatre.

Mr. Leichter's contribution to the 2011 Bay Area One Acts Festival is another two-character drama,  directed by Paul Cello and produced by Instrumental Theatre. It looks as if his skills as a storyteller may be heading off into Stephen King territory.

In The Pond, Bella (Arianne Owens) is a very pregnant nurse waiting at home in rural Maine for her husband to return from a business trip. He was recently painted as a hero on the news after diving into a river to rescue two children trapped in a sinking car.

As Bella attempts to decorate her Christmas tree she hears a loud crash outside. Soon, a stranger is knocking on her door on a dark and snowy night.

Although Bella tries to stall until her husband returns home, when it becomes obvious that the stranger has been hurt in an accident and needs medical help, her nursing instinct takes over and she lets Decker (Derek Fischer) enter her home. As their initial chitchat starts to deepen, Bella discovers that Decker has known Bella's husband since childhood and is none too happy about his recent successes.

Bella (Arianne Owens) and Decker (Derek Fischer) in The Pond
Photo by: Clay Robeson

What follows is a gripping scene in which Decker's voice lowers in pitch and his demeanor becomes more threatening. Slowly, Decker relates a tragic story about Bella's husband and the death of one of his closest friends.

It seems that, many years ago, Decker, Bella's husband, and their best friend got rip-roaring drunk and then went for a swim across the pond. Although they had frequently swam the same distance, their friend (who had recently come out and told them he was gay) never completed the journey.

Beautifully written, the monologue starts with an ominous sense of foreboding but, instead of the scene turning violent, it offers Decker a poignant catharsis for his long-tortured soul and allows him to go back to his car in a state of grace.

The Pond is a magnificent piece of dramatic writing, made all the more powerful by Derek Fischer's riveting performance and Arianne Owens' subtle reactions as she listens to his tale of woe. Based on what I've seen so far in The Philadelphians and The Pond, Leichter is far ahead of most young playwrights when it comes to "peeling the onion" to heighten dramatic tension.  He notes that:
"Last year, I wrote a play. It was the first time my work had been seen by other people. It was an amazing experience. In general, I find that my experiences as an actor are helpful in writing plays, and have been a solid foundation for me as I worked to develop The Pond. As a playwright, this is the first time I've had a play developed. I've met with Paul and the actors several times to read the newest version of the play, allowing me to hear it out loud and make revisions.  The process has been incredibly helpful. Paul has been instrumental in the formation of the play.
I love ghost stories! By that, I mean both stories that are literally about supernatural forces, and those about memories and experiences that haunt us -- the metaphorical ghosts in our lives. I tend to write about the latter. Most of my plays so far have been about people who have pasts that they cannot escape. The Pond isn’t scary in the “BOO!” sense, but rather it will (hopefully) creep under the audience's skin, making them reflect on the skeletons they have in their own closets, the secrets they’ve buried and never speak of… and what might happen if, one day, someone came into their home and dug them up.  I have a few short pieces -- 10, 20. and 30 minutes long -- that I’ve thought about combining into a night of short plays. They’re similar in tone and would fit together nicely. Maybe I’ll do that next."
I hope to hell he does. Mr. Leichter is definitely a talent to watch.

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Presented as a way of exploring the memory of Hiroshima's destruction after an atomic bomb was dropped on the city on August 6, 1945, 11th Hour Ensemble's entry at the Bay Area One Acts Festival was much more of a dance-theatre piece than any kind of spoken drama. Conceived by Ryo Harada and co-directed by Allison Combs, Harada's inspiration for Cloud Flower is a recurring dream that has haunted him each year as he approaches the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

Ryo Harada in Cloud Flower (Photo by: Clay Robeson)

Originally developed for a class in lyric theatre out at San Francisco State University, Cloud Flower has evolved into a piece of intense physical movement theatre in which an old woman dying of cancer looks back on her life and how it was impacted by the nuclear bomb.Needless to say, Cloud Flower took on an  unexpected timeliness in light of the recent crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in northern Japan.

Ryo Harada in Cloud Flower
 (Photo by: Clay Robeson)

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I suppose it's possible to get jaded at the thought of yet another film about Nazis terrorizing innocent Europeans. But Winter in Wartime has something very special -- an adolescent protagonist who, under better circumstances, would be the Dutch equivalent of one of the Hardy Boys. Based on Jan Terlouw's 1972 semi-autobiographical novel, Oorlogswinter, this film offers a deeply moving coming-of-age story.

Terlouw spent five years under German occupation during World War II. His father, the local vicar, was arrested twice and threatened with execution. In the film, Terlouw is portrayed as a 13-year-old Dutch boy named Michiel (played by young Martijn Lakemeier) who, as he looks out his bedroom window on a cold, snowy night, sees a fighter plane crash in flames in the nearby forest.

Martijn Lakemeier as young Michiel

Michiel is soon drawn into a web of political intrigue by a close friend who was active in the Dutch resistance and the discovery of a wounded RAF pilot hiding out in the woods. What begins as an adventure for Michiel and his friend Theo (Jesse van Driel) soon darkens as Michiel's father (the mayor of his town) is executed and Michiel discovers that his favorite uncle is actually doing undercover work for the Nazis.

Written and directed by Martin Koolhoven (who always wanted to shoot a feature film in snow), Winter in Wartime does a solid job of capturing what Terlouw recalls as the peculiar reality of 1944's winter of hunger. On witnessing the film as it was being shot on location in Lithuania, Terlouw remarked:
"It was amazing to confront the past that way. When I turned 13, school was shut down. I was completely preoccupied with the war; gathering food for people who were hungry, on the run for airplanes, helping people in hiding. Not heroic, but those were the things I encountered. It was a special time, in which I matured rapidly. But after the liberation, it was back to school, be home on time at nine o‘clock, do homework. I had to become a child again, with all its limits. I didn‘t like being a child.

Soldiers restrain Michiel as he watches his father
die before a firing squad

The first day I was on location, the suspenseful scene at the bridge was being shot. When I arrived, I saw Martijn (playing Michiel) wearing a jacket that was exactly like what I wore during those times. It was just as if I saw myself again. I was completely back in wartime, also because of all those extras walking over the bridge in old clothes. Later, I saw Martijn riding a horse, just like me riding bareback to the blacksmith. On my second visit, the liberation scene was being shot. It was true to life and very emotional."

Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) and Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower)
try to escape from the Nazis

There is much to admire in Koolhoven's film, especially the cinematography by Guido von Gennep and a smashing debut by young Martijn Lakemeier as Michiel. Jamie Campbell Bower scores strongly as the wounded British pilot who is helped by Martijn and his sister, Erica (Monica Klaver). Raymond Thiry and Anneke Blok portray Michiel's parents with supporting roles filled by Yoreck van Wageningen as the two-faced uncle Ben, Mees Peijnenburg as Dirk, and Dan van Husen as Auer (the local Nazi officer).

Winter in Wartime is most effective in showing how growing up and becoming a man is cruelly accelerated when -- because of the responsibilities he has suddenly inherited -- Michiel is forced to make a series of brutal life-altering decisions. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Brevity and Wit -- A Winning Combination

When viewed on the printed page (or on a computer screen), a playwright's words are flat and two dimensional. Only when actors speak those words -- or someone reading the script imagines how they might sound -- does a play come to life.

During that process a director may work with the actors to find appropriate rhythms in the text and any significant pauses that could enhance the dramatic experience. Just as a pianist must look for rests, fermatas, and pedal points in a composer's score, it is up to the actors and director to figure out exactly what  might be the best way to bring the playwright's words to life.

When blessed with good writing, a script can soar like a balloon floating just out of reach or ricochet around a stage like a volleyball intent on defying gravity. Words can hit home with the force of a fastball or hover in the air like the disillusioned sigh of an underwhelmed mother-in-law.

Writing comes to life when it is shaped by sound, punctuation, and the physicality of actors on a stage. Several short plays recently demonstrated what can happen when top quality dramatic ingredients reach a critical temperature under the knowing guidance of a sensitive stage director.

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The Bay Area One Acts Festival is currently celebrating its tenth anniversary with two programs of short plays co-produced by small theatre companies scattered around the Bay area. Written by Crish Barth, directed by Colin Johnson, and produced by Round Belly Theatre Company, The Fall scored a major triumph in transforming one of the most banal experiences into a rollicking keyboard comedy.

Barth's play was inspired by an online chat group which started to discuss Natasha Richardson's skiing accident in March of 2009 but, as so often happens in chat rooms, quickly veered off course.  The five participants who are furiously tapping away at their computer keyboards are:
Because none of the characters are facing each other, the audience is allowed to savor their incredulous -- and sometimes angry -- reactions to whatever gets posted in the chat room. This can range from Joy's smug sense of superiority to Dave's astonishment at what is happening to the discussion he's trying to moderate and keep civil.

Joy (Maura Halloran), Dave (Brian Quakenbush) and Steve (Lucas Buckman)
at their keyboards in The Fall (Photo by: Clay Robeson)

The audience also gets to witness snarky bits of dialogue like the following:
(Steve) "There is no God.  Steve."
(Maria) "There is no Steve. God."
Considering how boring some chat room dialogue can easily become, Barth and Johnson deserve kudos for being able to mine comic gold from a discussion sparked by a tragic accident. I especially enjoyed Maura Halloran's tightly-wound performance as Joy.

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Capturing a sense of goofiness with words is easier said than done. That's why I was so impressed by Twice As Bright, a short two-character play by Daniel Heath that was produced by The Playwrights' Center of San Francisco and beautifully directed by Sara Staley.

Oscar (Ray Hobbs) is a soon-to-be divorced microbiologist who studies pathogens and claims to be "clean in ways that most people couldn't even imagine." Jen (Nicole Hammsersla) is a family doctor employed by Kaiser Permanente whose limited social skills may only work in an examining room.

Ray Hobbs as Oscar (Photo by:Clay Robeson)

When they meet in the Reno bus station, Jen has set herself a goal of falling in love with the next man she meets and then breaking up with him before getting on her bus (which is due to leave in 10 minutes). Her near-farcical attempts to seduce Oscar are shaped by the woman's desperate loneliness, social ineptitude, and rigidly linear patterns of thought. Oscar, on the other hand, is open to more possibilities. At first he may come across like a loser, but as a scientist he knows how to take an idea and run with it.

Nicole Hammersla as Jen (Photo by:Clay Robeson)

Daniel Heath's script was bright, insightful, and wonderfully wacky.  I thought Ray Hobbs and Nicole Hammersla did a splendid job of capturing the nervous energy required for this bizarre and hilariously dysfunctional encounter (cruising a bus station hasn't been this much fun in years).

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Over at the Exit on Taylor, Cutting Ball Theater is presenting the Bay area premieres of a trio of short plays by Will Eno. Directed with a great sense of timing by the company's artistic director, Rob Melrose, two of the plays are so beautifully crafted that they almost take one's breath away. As Melrose explains in his program note:
"Both Beckett's and Eno's plays are filled with a wicked sense of humor.What separates both authors from their contemporaries, however,  is their profound depth.  Their work burrows down into the most intimate vulnerabilities of the human soul.  With both writers, at one moment I am laughing myself to the floor and the next I feel as though I am having an epiphany. What makes Eno 'a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation' is that he is so much of our time. Just as Beckett exploited the forms of slapstick comedy, vaudeville, and silent movies, Eno puts his profound ideas in the forms of stand-up comedy and the 24-hour news cycle.  The fact that he is able to tackle such weighty themes in these forms is exactly what makes his work so surprising and catches us off guard. He is one of the most exciting playwrights alive today and having him in residence at Cutting Ball this March is an extraordinary treat."
The first two plays were an absolute delight.  In Lady Gray (in ever lower light), Danielle O'Hare performs a monologue that is achingly funny.  Stream-of-consciousness writing is not easy to bring to life onstage unless it is carefully crafted and punctuated in such a way as to win over the audience.

Ms. O'Hare's brilliantly underplayed performance  -- in which she recalls a painful memory about a "show and tell" experience in grade school --  was a triumph of timing, inflection, and wry contradictions. The actress describes Eno's script as follows:
"He's very precise, very funny, and a little bit more on the literate side of things. He plays with language in a clever way. He's brilliant with punctuation.  The difference between a pause versus a period can make a world of difference in how a line is interpreted."
Danielle O'Hare as Lady Gray (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

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Intermission is a beautifully constructed one-act play for four actors who sit in theatre chairs facing the audience. They have just finished watching the first act of a ridiculously pretentious play about the mayor of a small town. When the house lights come up at intermission, their struggle to make polite conversation is not helped one bit by the age difference between the two couples.

David Sinaiko, Gwyneth Richards, Galen Murphy-Hoffman, and
Danielle O'Hare in Will Eno's Intermission. (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

Jack (Galen Murphy-Hoffman) and Jill (Danielle O'Hare) may be heading up the hill of their marital relationship but there's no question that Mr. (David Sinaiko) and Mrs. Smith (Gwyneth Richards) are tumbling down the other side after too many years in each other's company. Mrs. Smith (a role perfectly tailored to an actress like Estelle Harris) is also quite adept at letting everyone know her husband's shortcomings. Great, great fun!

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Alas, I was unable to enjoy the final piece, Mr. Theatre Comes Home Different, because the young Asian woman sitting next to me (who had only arrived at intermission) stood up midway through David Sinaiko's monologue/death scene, put her two wine glasses down on her seat, and proceeded to step over several people in order to make an early exit.

To say that she ruined the moment for the people around her would be a gross understatement. But that's part of the thrill of live theatre!