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:

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