Monday, May 2, 2011

Whose Quest Is This, Anyway?

While the number of people who approach life with a set of unreasonable expectations is incalculable, these folks perform an invaluable service for writers and documentarians. Some of their stories seem so bizarre that truth often trumps fiction. Others require a bizarre imagination to take flight.

Many a hero has set out on an ill-defined quest.  From Odysseus to Orly Taitz, from Don Quixote to Christine O'Donnell, some people aim a bit too high. Whether fate conspires against them or they simply lack the basic skills to accomplish their dreams, they are nevertheless frequently aided and abetted by friends, relatives, co-conspirators, and lovesick fools.

Two new entries into the field of besotted dreams debuted before Bay area audiences this week. Each involved a marathon experience. The real marathon story crashed and burned in a tragedy of senseless violence. The flight of fancy that blew traditional morality to smithereens, however, soared far beyond most people's expectations.

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Over at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, Gemma Atwal's powerful documentary, Marathon Boy, followed the real-life story of a young boy born into poverty in one of Bhubaneswar's slums in Eastern India. Abused and beaten by his father (an alcoholic beggar), when he was only three years old Budhia Singh was sold to a street hawker by his mother. Budhia subsequently came under the care of a judo coach (Biranchi Das) who ran an orphanage for children from the slums.

One day, as a punishment for his cursing and unruly behavior, Biranchi Das instructed Budhia to run around the block. When he returned five hours later, the young boy was still running.

With a keen eye for an extraordinary talent, Biranchi Das decided to train Budhia Singh to become a marathon runner.  His ultimate goal? To enter the boy in the Olympics.  This link will take you to a 13-minute news segment that was done in the early days of Budhia's saga.

Not only do the protein supplements and training Budhia receives from his mentor help to build his stamina, by the time he is four years old Budhia has run in 48 full marathons and become an inspiration to India's poor. Meanwhile, Biranchi Das has done a remarkable job of manipulating the media to transform Budhia into an unlikely superstar.

By the time Budhia has been entered into a 42-mile run, India's Child Welfare Committee is threatening to take his newly-adopted son away from Biranchi Das. Some accuse the judo coach of cruelty to a minor and of using Budhia to further his own gain. Meanwhile, the biological mother who initially sold Budhia to a stranger is developing a new interest in the the funds supposedly donated to a foundation to help support Budhia's future. After she accuses Biranchi Das of torture, he is arrested, Budhia is kidnapped and returned to his mother to live in the slums.

What follows is a media frenzy as Biranchi Das accuses the Minister of Child Welfare of wanting control over Budhia. Although Biranchi Das is acquitted and released from jail, he is eventually murdered by a gangster in a mafia-style hit job. Although Budhia ends up as a scholarship student in a private school, on weekends he returns to his home in the slum. As director Gemma Atwal explains:
"With this type of story, ethical considerations were paramount. At the height of his fame, Budhia was only four years old, and a very small child doesn't have a sense of self, or a sense of I. Often Budhia would repeat phrases learned by rote, about how he loves to run and there's nothing more special than this. I was keen to make it understood to the viewer that he was being fed these phrases and thoughts by those around him. I couldn't help but feel enormously protective over Budhia, with whom I came to form a very close bond and who referred to me as 'didi,' meaning 'sister.' There was one point when I became quite passionately vocal against what was happening. I felt that Budhia was being pushed too hard and for the first time the anguish was clearly visible on his face. It was towards the end of his record 42-mile run. I wanted Biranchi to stop the run. I shouted to him to take a good look at his son. I ended up turning off the camera, even though as a filmmaker it felt valuable to record observationally what was occurring here. It was a personal decision. The impulse to intervene was stronger than to observe. Deep down I knew that whether I was filming there or not, Budhia would still have been running.  Such was the power of the Indian media, who were very much active players in the duo's story and directly shaped the duo's fate."
Budhia Singh
"Definitely, after so many years, you end up caring very deeply for those you film with. You become increasingly aware that you are the steward of someone else's story and you have an ethical obligation to deliver an accurate and honestly told story that reflects the full measure of an individual. What struck me very early on was the different perceptions out there regarding the boy's coach, Biranchi Das. In the West, we know him because of Budhia and he's largely painted as this two-dimensional, black and white pantomime villain, whereas on the ground in Orissa, he's the hero of the slums, the Good Samaritan, the man who rescued Budhia from the oppression and anonymity of poverty. There was rarely a time when I'd turn up at the judo hall and there wouldn't be some damsel in distress or a line of people there to solicit Biranchi's help in some dispute or with medical bills. And he would never turn anyone away, he would always help. You can't help but admire this. So my approach evolved and I began to see both Budhia and Biranchi as the main subjects of the film. In many ways, Budhia is the vehicle into the story while Biranchi is the main driving force behind it. The story becomes just as much about this poor man living in a flawed society who's trying to make a difference and do good things. It's his search for meaning in a world that seems ruthless and chaotic."

Poster art for Marathon Boy

Atwal makes excellent use of archival footage from news outlets to show the ongoing political struggles between Biranchi Das and government bureaucrats. Her film starts off as a feel-good story of a coach/benefactor rescuing a child with a specific talent from a life of poverty and then careens into the wild legal and media circus swirling around Budhia Singh. As the story progresses, however, it becomes obvious how interdependent the coach and his runner have become.

At present, no trailer is available for Marathon Boy. When one is eventually released, you'll be able to find it here. However, since HBO has provided substantial funding to the project, you can expect that it will eventually be shown on that channel and released to DVD.  Atwal's film may not be your typical sports documentary, but it tells a riveting story through an unflinching lens.

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With all the controversy surrounding the battle over marriage equality for same-sex couples, conservatives have fallen back on their usual claim that allowing gays to marry will lead to the wholesale destruction of heterosexual marriage (not to mention a dramatic increase in polygamy, incest, and bestiality). Trapped by their usual cultural blindness, none of these people ever considered the possibility of humans being married to plants.  Thankfully, Taylor Mac is here to set them straight.

A gifted playwright and performer with a powerful voice in print and song, Mac's "rolling premiere" of The Lily's Revenge opened at the Magic Theatre last week and is, without doubt, cause for celebration. Running nearly five hours in length (with three "interactive" intermissions), The Lily's Revenge is the kind of spectacular romp and frolic that brings back memories of Charles Ludlam's infamous Ridiculous Theatrical Company.

The Lily's Revenge is also what Ed Sullivan used to call "a really big show." With a cast of 36 performers trying to bring Mac's play to life under the skilled talents of six Bay area stage directors (Meredith McDonough, Marissa Wolf, Erin Gilley, Jessica Holt, Jessica Heidt, and Erika Chong Shuch), the scale of this undertaking for a small, financially struggling company like Magic Theatre is equivalent to the upcoming Ring cycle at the San Francisco Opera. It offers solid proof that thinking big (for Mr. Mac as a playwright/performer and for Loretta Greco as an Artistic Director/producer) can pay huge dividends. As Greco explains:
"This whole process embodies an act of pure faith, something Magic Theatre was founded on. This time we put our faith in the subversively genius and joyous change maker, Taylor Mac.  We offer him a safe but fearless artistic home where he can re-imagine and refine his play in this rare opportunity not only for a second production, but the next in an international rolling premiere that crosses the country and the Atlantic Ocean. Plans are already under way for his return to Magic to build additional works of community, ambition, fierce intelligence, and joy. We are believers. And none of us could be happier."
With the brash innocence of an animated Disney hero who must conquer all odds to win the heart of Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, or some other trophy princess, Taylor Mac stars as a Lily (complete with petals, pistils, and stamen) who sassily decides to save a bride from marrying the wrong person. The only hitch is that, in order to save her, he must shed his flower-like qualities and become a man. The proud recipient of an Ethyl Eichelberger Award, Mr. Mac is carrying on a wildly flamboyant tradition of pansexual pantomime entertainment with the kind of revolutionary zeal that could make the priggish Ken Cucinnelli clench his anal sphincter so tightly that Virginia's attorney general might actually implode.

Taylor Mac stars in The Lily's Revenge (Photo by: Jose Guzman Colon)

One might try to describe The Lily's Revenge as the irreverently delightful bastard child of Peter Brook's famous staging of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade and Leonard Bernstein's musical adaptation of Voltaire's novella, Candide, as performed by the Cockettes. Or, as one character so aptly states "You're a nightmare in a dream ballet." As the playwright explains:
"Lily was inspired by anti-gay marriage agendas, which use tradition and nostalgia as an argument for discrimination (“marriage has always been between a man and a woman”). It was also inspired by the ever-growing homogenization of our cities (“things aren’t the way they used to be”) and, perhaps most of all, the millions of flowers, suffocated in plastic, and thrown on the White House lawn, Buckingham Palace, and The Vatican in honor of Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Princess Diana’s funerals. 
Lily dismantles the established societal rules, traditions, myths, and tropes, which are used to keep us docile and imprisoned in the past. Then, while celebrating the pulled apart pieces, rearranges and glues them into the foundation of a new myth whose purpose is to inspire humanity in the here and now. It lives in the theater and becomes a site-specific extravaganza. It is a multidisciplinary pastiche where a community of artists is brought together to enable community building of a scale rarely seen in the theater. It gives proof to the various communities (the audience and artists) of an active and present kinship: people capable of dispatching their compartmentalized norms."
Act I (The Deity: A Princess Musical) begins as Time (Jeri Lynn Cohen) begs the audience to flee the building while they can and save themselves from enduring five hours of this dreadful mess that claims to be a significant piece of theatre. Pointing to the flower maidens strewn about the stage, she says:

"My eldest child, the malicious Great Longing Deity, God of Nostalgia, has trapped them in this cock-and-bull story with institutionalized narrative. Little by little they have turned from lively questioning individuals to cliché crones of mediocrity. Woolgathering junkies of wistfulness. Escape now or the telling of this narrative will reduce you, like these Flower Girls, to an addicted coagulation of nostalgia and hope.
When the play starts, The Great Longing will use the promise of a climax. A climax in the shape of the most banal and contemptible contrivance of all: The Wedding.  It will use a wedding to nail you to this benighted tale. Flee. I beg you. Make your escape now, in this moment, or this moment will be no more. No. Really. The exits are where you entered....."
Jeri Lynn Cohen as Time  in The Lily's Revenge.
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Soon, the hero makes his appearance (as a rather ditsy member of the audience) and formulates the goal of marrying his beloved bride. Never mind that there are inter-species issues between humans and the plant kingdom (the horror, the horror).

Taylor Mac stars in The Lily's Revenge

While part of the plot centers on the Lily's journey to a factory farm in Ecuador, behind Mac's five-act extravaganza is an effort to break down the rigidity of audience expectations.  Thus, theatregoers are told to take their belongings with them as they leave the auditorium during the breaks between acts. During each intermission, the seating arrangements are changed from Magic Theatre's usual thrust stage to theatre in the round and a variety of other seating formats. The end goal, by turning the physical theatre upside down and inside out, is to eliminate the concept of the fourth wall that has, for centuries, been symbolized by the use of a curtain (lustily portrayed here by Mollena Williams).

Mollena Williams as the Curtain (Photo by: Pak Han)

Act 2 (The Ghost Warrior: An Act in Iambic, Song, and Haiku) takes place in a mythical garden of pollinating delights. Not only does it feature a brilliant verse contest with various flowers calling each other out in botanical haikus, there is a giant queen bee, some fierce rhyming, and insects rimming plants. At the end of the act, the Lily is carried off by one of Time's daughters, the Wind (also played by Jeri Lynn Cohen) on his quest to become a man. The quest, as summarized by the Lily, is as follows:
"You want me to travel to Ecuador, free the Dirt, then lead a revolt against the Great Longing deity, consumption, and corporate greed."
Act 3 (The Love Act: A Dream Ballet) is where things may start to get rough for the more timid souls in the audience.  Upon returning from another interactive intermission (which can include anything from a trio performing in a freight elevator to an opportunity to chat with the performers), theatregoers watch Wind and the Lily as they journey South. A more sobering analysis of this extremely athletic segment (daringly choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch) demonstrates that traditional marriage is far too restrictive to be worth it.

Act 3 also takes a probing look at whether or not one should repress desires of a sexual (or any other) nature. Prudes may be shaken by the sight of dancers slithering across the floor until they can simulate acts of cunnilingus and then turning to the audience to gasp "I can't believe I just ate pussy!"

Act 3's bridal dream ballet (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Act 4 (The Living Persons Act: A Silent Film+) uses animation designed by Erin Gilley.  This soon leads to Act 5's grand finale (The Mad Demon: Divine Madness) during which the Lily, having shed its glorious colors and botanical beauty to become a socially acceptable man dressed in gray, white, and black, exhorts everyone to live the life they want, marry the person they love, and fuck the status quo.

There are many actors to applaud for their work in this production. Giving grand support to Taylor Mac are Casi Maggio (Bride Deity), Paul Baird (Groom Deity), Marilee Talkington (Master Sunflower), Julia Brothers (Susan Stewart/Evil Stepmother), Mollena Williams (The Great Longing), Jeri Lynn Cohen (Time, Stepmother, Wind), Larissa Garcia (Tick), and Ross Travis (who doubles as an audience member and an incurable disease).

There is no way one can accurately do justice in trying to describe the circus-like atmosphere of Mac's amazing show.  Taken by themselves, the costumes designed by Lindsay W. Davis and makeup by Monique Jenkinson/Fauxnique are worth the price of admission.

With its use of every dramatic gimmick from vaudeville to puppetry and poetry slams, this is one of the rowdiest and most raucous pieces of epic theatre you're ever likely to see. This brief performance of The Gluteus Ballet (which serves as one of the intermission features) will give readers a quick peek at the rude, crude, and hilariously lewd "anything goes" spirit of the show. It will also forever change the way you think of Maurice Ravel's popular Boléro!

The Lily's Revenge continues at the Magic Theatre through May 22nd (you can order tickets here). If you're the slightest bit uptight, conservative, or prudish, this is probably not the show for you. If, on the other hand, you think it's about time the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence had some serious competition, get your ticket now! Here's the trailer:

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