Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Delicate Balancing Acts

Try as we might, it isn't that easy to keep our lives in balance. In between the yin and the yang, we get hit with all kinds of interruptions while searching for a moment of equilibrium. From the quest for inner calm and the ability to maintain a balanced diet to the challenge of getting enough sleep and the need to minimize stress, our lives are a constant balancing act. Some (like this performer in Cirque du Soleil's show, La Nouba) are better at balancing things than others:

More often than not, the challenge we face is how to get our life back in balance after a major emotional upset. The jolt to our system can be an intoxicating brush with love or a serious bout of depression. It can revolve around a personal tragedy or a tragedy of unimaginable proportions (like the one currently ravaging Japan).

What happens after someone -- or something -- turns your world upside down? The true test of one's sense of balance occurs when a person is challenged to right what feels like a capsized life and bring it back to something approaching normality.\

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I recently took some time to browse through's new Broadway@Home Video Database and found a whole bunch of titles to add to my Netflix queue. The first one I watched was a 1982
American Playhouse adaptation of a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. about two painfully shy people who break out of their shells while performing for a community theatre group.

Helene Shaw (Susan Sarandon) and Harry Nash (Christopher Walken) 

Directed by Jonathan DemmeWho Am I This Time? stars Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon (when they were in their mid thirties). The chance to see Walken hamming it up in the title role of Cyrano de Bergerac -- or as Stanley Kowalski in the North Crawford Wig and Mask Company's production of A Streetcar Named Desire -- is reason enough to rent this 53-minute video. Sarandon's transformation from a mousy telephone company clerk into the sultry Stella Kowalski is icing on the cake.

Susan Sarandon as Helene Shaw playing Stella Kowalski

Not only is Who Am I This Time? a wonderfully taut and beautifully directed film about the joys of community theatre, Vonnegut's story does a superb job of showing the difficulty some people face in finding a sense of balance between their everyday lives and the electrifying moments when they come alive onstage. Highly recommended as a rental. It's a real gem.

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I wish I could be as enthusiastic about I Will Follow, a new drama written and directed by Ava DuVernay. Despite its meticulous attention to detail in providing appropriate "mood music" for many of the film's moments of introspection, this is the kind of "chick flick" that will have even its most devoted female viewers squirming with impatience.

I Will Follow revolves around Maye (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), a top Hollywood makeup artist who has taken a year off from her husband and her career to care for her dying aunt Amanda (Beverly Todd). Now that Amanda has finally succumbed to breast cancer, Maye is trying to pack up her aunt's home in Topanga Canyon so she can get on with her life.

Easier said than done. Amanda had quite a colorful career as a recording studio drummer for popular rock groups. And, because Amanda represented everything Maye hoped to be, Maye is now juggling more emotional baggage than she could ever fit in a U-Haul. Not only is Maye physically exhausted, her nerves are frayed and her future is unclear. Among the friends and relatives haunting her on her last day in Amanda's house are:
  • Fran (Michole Briana White), Amanda's selfish daughter who could never find time to spend with her dying mother. Now that Amanda is dead, Fran wants all of her best "stuff." Fran is none too happy that Amanda donated a lot of her possessions to a museum in Seattle. And she's furious that her cousin Maye was unable (or unwilling) to talk Amanda into undergoing chemotherapy. 
  • Raven (Dijon Talton), Fran's cellphone-obsessed son. Raven actually turns out to be a good kid once he  starts to pay attention to what his aunt Maye is going through.
  • Christine (Phalana Tiller), the young and attractive breast cancer survivor who works for the local cable company.
  • Troy (Omari Hardwick), the hunk with whom Maye had a brief fling, but who has since gotten involved with another woman.
  • Maye's husband (Blair Underwood), the man Maye suddenly left behind when she went to take care of Amanda.

While I Will Follow is supposed to take place in one day, there are so many pregnant pauses that viewers might find themselves anxious for Maye to leave town just so the movie can end. DuVernay's indulgent script and direction make one feel as if each new character who arrives to interact with Maye has been slotted into Maye's last day in Topanga Canyon with the clinical precision of an air traffic controller trying to safely land all of the planes on his shift before heading home.

Will Maye's life return to normal? Hard to say. There's obviously no love lost between Maye and her cousin, Fran. Nor does Maye's husband seem to be of much help.

While Maye mourns, berates the moving people, fights with her cousin, and has a fairly horrible day, her radiant memories of Amanda allow Beverly Todd to walk off with the movie. The following trailer introduces viewers to the key players in I Will Follow. Whether or not potential viewers will want to follow up is entirely another story.

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By the time Rajiv Joseph's thrilling new play begins, the students at Sheffield High have already experienced a tragic suicide by one of the female students. But it's the Friday afternoon just before spring break and, as they head home, no one could care less.  Except, perhaps, the school's Vice Principal, Dr. Danielson (Remi Sandri), who is intent on finding out why the girl killed herself.

The audience, however, won't discover this until much later in the play. Instead, they witness what seems like an innocent enough situation as a minority student arrives in the Vice Principal's office and waits to find out why he has been summoned to appear when everyone else is heading out on holiday.

Adam Poss as Khadim Asmaan in The North Pool
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Theatreworks is currently presenting the world premiere production of The North Pool, a play that was workshopped during the company's 2009 New Works Initiative. Meticulously directed by Giovanna Sardelli on Erik Flatmo's unit set, Joseph's play offers audiences an increasingly tense standoff between two men who knew and deeply cared about the confused young girl who took her own life.
  • Dr. Danielson (who has spent most of his career teaching at the high school from which he graduated) was tremendously impressed by the girl's sweetness and musical talent.
  • Khadim Asmaan (Adam Poss) was the girl's wealthy best friend who had just bought her a new flute.
While Danielson is quick to impress upon Khadim that his interrogation technique is similar to peeling away the layers of an onion, what's fascinating to witness is how the balance of power shifts between the two -- especially with regard to language. Early in the play, Danielson is slow and methodical, carefully trapping Khadim in a series of lies as the teenager slouches in a chair and, determined to offer as little information as possible, answers most of the Vice Principal's questions monosyllabically.

Vice Principal Danielson might like to think he's got the upper hand, but the students at Sheffield High have apparently shared plenty of juicy gossip about him. Like many teenagers, Khadim knows how to remain evasive and seem unimpressed when being grilled by a nosy adult. However, once the young man spots an opportunity to launch a counterattack, he strikes with surgical precision and a breathtaking intensity.  In her director's note, Giovanna Sardelli writes:
"What I am drawn to in Rajiv's writing is how carefully and aptly he draws imperfect human beings. His characters are recognizable to me because their flaws illustrate their humanity. His characters are often broken in some way -- birds with broken wings that continue to flap in hope of flight. There is something noble in that. Something achingly human in our desire to fly though we are creatures of the ground. What I find so engaging in Rajiv's writing is that, even in the moments when I cringe because I fear a crash landing looms -- and even knowing flight is impossible, there are still moments when I believe it will happen. And moments when it actually does.
On one level, The North Pool deals with perception -- with our desire to assess another human being instantly based upon only the most superficial information. We see this in the racial profiling that runs rampant in our society. How we use these perceptions to assign responsibility or guilt. How we use these perceptions to distance ourselves from each other. And what do we do when perceptions are stripped away? Are we able to see the person before us anew or do we cling to what we thought was true because of our need for it to be so?"

Dr. Danielson (Remi Sendri) and Khadim Asmaan (Adam Poss)
face off in The North Pool (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Joseph's play is especially strong in the way it balances an older authoritarian figure who has built his life within a very small circle of influence against a spoiled young Middle Eastern student whose strong entrepreneurial spirit has gotten him kicked out of a ritzy private school. Khadim is obviously more worldly  than Danielson (the harshest discipline doled out by Khadim's parents was not allowing their son to go skiing in Switzerland one year).

I was very impressed with Joseph's writing when SFPlayhouse produced the West Coast premiere of Animals Out Of Paper in early 2010. Not only do the secrets revealed by (and about) each character in The North Pool continually take the audience by surprise, the playwright's insights into the human mind help to shape a tautly written and intricately designed puzzle which will keep audiences on the edge of their seats. As Joseph explains:
"I've always been interested in human nature and codes of behavior, how we come to make choices -- moral ones, ones about love or family -- and how primal forces like longing or desire or a hunger for faith can take us to wild places."

Playwright Rajiv Joseph

The North Pool is an exceptionally satisfying evening of theatre from a young and promising playwright (Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo opens later this month on Broadway with Robin Williams in the lead role). The production is blessed with two riveting performances (especially that of young Adam Poss as Khadim). Performances continue at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto through April 3 (you can order tickets here).

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