Friday, September 30, 2011

Blasts From The Past

The current quest for sustainable sources of energy comes from a critical awareness that the availability of fossil fuels is rapidly diminishing. Once used, fossil fuels have no further value. Unlike so many other things from the past, they're gone forever.

While George Santayana once claimed that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," William Clay Ford had a different take on history.
"The further and faster the human race goes, the more difficult it becomes to remember its receding and ever-expanding past. To neglect that heritage is to risk a future in which young people find themselves without a means of building on the firm and reassuring foundation of the past."
An 1896 Ford Quadricycle on display at the Henry Ford Museum

Had it not been for the zeal with which Ford's grandfather, Henry Ford, collected traces of America's Industrial Revolution, there might be little left to remind us of our not too distant history. Their pattern of display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan is vastly different from that seen in most other science museums. In Dearborn, visitors can observe minute changes in technology and design. The evolution of dictating equipment proves fascinating when compared to the technology of today's electronic office.

An indicator of the breadth of Henry Ford's collection is to note that, during the first few years of the museum's life, nearly 80% of its visitors could recognize and identify most of the objects on display from their personal experience. At best, no more than 5% of today's visitors can readily identify the same objects.

The recent news that the wreck of the SS Gairsoppa had been discovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration (which had an exclusive search-and-salvage contract with the British government) gained international attention this week for one simple reason: The British merchant ship was carrying 7 million ingots of silver (now worth approximately $210 million) when it was torpedoed and sunk on February 16, 1941.

Anyone who routinely visits garage sales, flea markets, used clothing stores, or shops on eBay knows that there is hidden treasure to be found in recycling items that have gone out of fashion. In the following audio clip, Fanny Brice sings the "Second Hand Rose," a song she introduced during the Ziegfield Follies of 1921.

Whether souvenirs of the past were victims of planned obsolescence, passing fashions, or a death in the family, many have gained new life in the loving hands of people whose taste might be classified as "vintage" or "retro." Collectors often develop an insatiable appetite for such items.

An early desk stapler

Originally written by Lionel Bart for his musical adaptation of Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger's lyrics for Act I's "Consider Yourself" take on new meaning with regard to those who have a passion for collecting things. From trinkets to tchotchkes, from the discovery of a flapper dress to the purchase of a rare comic book, one can almost hear the devout collector singing:
"Consider yourself at home
Consider yourself one of the family
We've taken to you so strong
It's clear we're going to get along!
Consider yourself well in
Consider yourself part of the furniture
There isn't a lot to spare
Who cares? Whatever we've got we share!

If it should chance to be that we should see
Some harder days, empty larder days
Why grouse?
Always a chance we'll meet somebody to foot the bill,
Then the drinks are on the house!

Consider yourself our mate
We don't want to have no fuss,
For after some consideration, we can state
Consider yourself one of us!"
In a city with so much Victorian architecture, it's no surprise that many San Franciscans have developed an acute desire to become the curators of their own lives. Some like to spend their weekends "garage sailing" for items of interest (the fruits of their shopping adventures can often be seen at special costume events like the opening night of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival). Others have transformed their homes into miniature museums that cater to a highly specialized sense of style.

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fascinating video clip about Adam Savage and Stanley Kubrick shows how the creative collector's mind can be driven by an artistic vision that others might misdiagnose as obsessive-compulsive disorder. And although budget problems forced the Philoctetes Center for The Multidisciplinary Study of Imagination to close its physical space and discontinue its programs, the organization's website and YouTube channel (which includes lengthy panel sessions devoted to "The Sensibility of the Collector" and "The Mind of the Collector") can still be accessed online.

What separates an organized hoarder from a collector with a more curatorial bent? The following video demonstrates how difficult it might be to find the answer.

No matter what a person likes to collect (wedding cake ornaments, miniature toy trains, dinosaur sculptures), anyone who has amassed a large collection of tchotchkes will instantly fall in love with a Canadian documentary entitled Unlikely Treasures. Written and directed by Tally Abecassis, this delightful indie gem (which will be screened at the upcoming 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival) should not be missed.

A woman stands before her collection of suitcases

It's hard to tell which part of this film is more fun: the collectors or their collections. Each has a story to tell which is more eccentric than the last. Some claim to have been born with "the collecting gene."

As Marilyn Gelfman-Karp explains: "I hear the call of objects all the time. They talk to me and say 'take me home!'" Marilyn is certainly no exception. Among the collectors featured in Unlikely Treasures are:

Viewers of Antiques Roadshow will especially like Abecassis's documentary, which includes a visit to a fascinating three-story home/museum in Greensboro, North Carolina that recycles collections into unique pieces of art, and the City Reliquary in Brooklyn.

At a mere 52 minutes in length, Unlikely Treasures contains more joy, curiosity, and appreciation of the past than you'll find in most films. By the time the final credits roll, many viewers will be grinning from ear to ear. Here's the trailer:

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American Conservatory Theatre just opened its season with a new production of Once in a Lifetime. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's comedy opened on Broadway on September 24, 1930, nearly a year after the great Wall Street Crash of 1929. With the economy in the toilet, and vaudeville consistently losing audience share to silent film, the advent of talking pictures sounded the death knell for the careers of many performers who had built their careers on the Keith, Orpheum, and Albee circuits.

Eight decades following its Broadway premiere (a film version was released in 1932), Once in a Lifetime now has the nostalgic gloss that applies to an era whose visual images ran the gamut from Busby Berkeley's black-and-white movie musicals to Dorothea Lange's portrait of Florence Owens Thompson entitled "Migrant Mother."

"Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange

Once in a Lifetime begins as three vaudevillians decide to abandon their search for work in Manhattan and head for Hollywood.
  • May Daniels (Julia Coffey) is obviously the brains of the operation. With talking pictures starting to take hold, May has developed a scheme to open an acting school that will teach silent film actors how to speak onscreen.
  • Jerry Hyland (John Wernke) is obviously the muscle of the operation. He's good at networking, making connections and, having sold their vaudeville act for $500, pulling in the dough.
  • George Lewis (Patrick Lane) is, well, um, it's not all that clear just what George is. He's handsome, he's simple-minded, and people like him. In Hollywood, that might be all he needs to get ahead.
Jerry Highland (John Wernke), May Daniels (Julia Coffey)
and George Lewis (Patrick Lane) in Once in a Lifetime
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As they travel cross country by rail, the trio encounters:
  • Helen Hobart (René Augesen), a Hollywood gossip columnist who knew May when they were much younger.
  • Susan Walker (Ashley Wickett), an attractive and severely untalented young woman who wants to become a movie star.
Upon arriving in Hollywood, they have to deal with:
  • Mrs. Walker (Margo Hall), Susan's clueless mother.
  • Lawrence Vail (Alexander Crowther), a frustrated playwright who may be drawing a handsome salary from a movie studio, but has no idea what he's doing in California.
  • Phyllis Fontaine (Marisa Duchowny) and Florabel Leigh (Jessica Kitchens), two silent screen actresses with a fatal combination of bad diction and even worse accents.
  • Herman Glogauer (Will LeBow), a studio mogul who made the mistake of refusing to invest in Vitaphone.
Lawrence Veil (Alexander Crowther) and May Daniels (Julia Coffey)
in Once in a Lifetime (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With his large cast playing multiple roles as they jump in and out of Alex Jaeger's stylish costumes, Mark Rucker has directed this farce with a masterful touch. Not only he is blessed with Daniel Ostling's wonderfully evocative sets, with the help of some keen video work by Alexander V. Nichols, Rucker has managed to hilariously incorporate numerous black-and-white film clips into the production.

If certain actors stand out above the others in this large cast, it is due to their superb comic timing and/or  sharp characterizations. René Augesen's gossip columnist is a deliciously overblown creation while Nick Gabriel triumphs in drag as Miss Leighton, a clueless studio receptionist.

Helen Hobart (René Augesen) and Miss Leighton (Nick Gabriel)
in Once in a Lifetime (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With enough chronological distance from the 1930s, Kaufman & Hart's farce may have lost some of its timeliness, but none of its bite. The passage of time has even made it possible for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival to offer free screenings of silent films prior to each Friday performance of Once in a Lifetime.

The show itself is a visually grand romp and frolic performed with the gusto of the Marx Brothers movie. It brings to the stage the kind of wit that is sorely missed on Broadway. Performances continue through October 16 (you can order tickets here). In the meantime, here's the trailer:

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Putting Powerful Women In Their Place

Male domination is one of the oldest games in town. I'm not talking about role-playing scenes between consenting gay men, but the power structure one sees in a heavily patriarchal civilization. In our supposedly liberated society, it's easy to forget that conservatives who want to move the clock back to the 1950s (or beyond) also want to return it to an era when:
  • Women were supposed to remain barefoot and stay in the kitchen, where they belonged.
  • The power in any relationship (business, social, or marital) was held by the male.
  • The standard belief among men confronted with an obstreperous, disobedient, or (even worse) independent woman was that "All she needs is one good fuck to straighten her out."
All this came to mind recently with the reviews of Ron Suskind's new book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, which reignited an old discussion about how the Obama administration did not give women a fair shake. For those who actually remember, early in the administration some White House personnel complained that they felt women were not being given sufficient weight in the decision-making process. Obama's senior aide, Valerie Jarrett, brought the matter to the President's attention and changes were initiated to correct the situation.

While it's easy to make the mistake of thinking that Suskind's book reflects the situation as it stands today, it's important to keep in mind that Jarrett chairs the recently-created White House Council on Women and Girls, whose executive director is Tina Tchen (Chief of Staff for First Lady Michelle Obama). President Obama has also appointed the following women to very powerful positions in his administration:
Two recent productions by major Bay area arts organizations offered audiences an opportunity to revisit classics that were written in a very different time and culture. One premiered in approximately 1594 (when wives were essentially chattel). The other, written in 1926, was set in ancient China. Taken as a pair, they offer modern audiences a reality check on how far we've come with respect to gender roles.

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Shortly after the Metropolitan Opera moved to its new home in Lincoln Center in 1966, I started attending opera on a regular basis. The two works which provoked the most visceral reactions from me where Richard Strauss's searing one-act opera, Elektra, and Giacomo Puccini's last opera, Turandot. The music for each piece was exotic, erotic, and continually fascinating. The choral climaxes in Turandot nearly provoked some adolescent climaxes of a very different nature.

This month, the San Francisco Opera revived its production of Turandot using sets designed by David Hockney with costumes by Ian Falconer. Although this production had been seen here in 1993, 1998, and 2002, this was the first time I had had an opportunity to see Hockney's sets, which fill the stage of the War Memorial Opera House with a very red and rare beauty.

Turandot's character is almost as interesting as Puccini's music. Originally based on a series of Asian tales published in 1710 by the French scholar, Francois Pétis de la Croix, the name "Turandot" was actually an adaptation of the name of Khutulun, a Mongol princess who was also the niece of Kublai Khan. To make the price of marrying Turandot more extreme than merely wagering horses, de la Croix dramatically upped the ante by insisting that any suitor answer three riddles posed by the Princess. Failure to answer correctly resulted in decapitation by a public executioner.

Iréne Theorin stars in Turandot (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

When the opera opens, the crowd in Peking has become as bloodthirsty as the audience at a Republican Presidential Primary debate. With one potential suitor after another meeting his doom, the Prince of Persia is the latest loser headed toward the chopping block. Enter  Calaf (Marco Berti), the ardent young prince of Tartary who, just as he is reunited with his deposed father, Timur (Raymond Aceto) and slave Liù (Leah Crocetto), falls under the intoxicating spell of the unobtainable princess's love.

Calaf (Marco Berti) and Liu (Leah Crocetto) in
Act I of Puccini's Turandot (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Once Turandot (Iréne Theorin) makes her entrance and describes how the spirit of her ancestor, Princess Lo-u-Ling, lives within her, it's time for a brief history lesson in male domination. Lo-u-Ling had successfully resisted male dominance until she was raped and murdered by an invading foreign prince. In  revenge for the murder of Lo-u-Ling, Turandot has vowed to never let a man possess her.

In short order, Calaf solves all three riddles.  When the shocked Turandot realizes she's been had, she instantly appeals to her father, the Emperor Altoum (Joseph Frank), for a do-over.

Most audiences focus their concentration on the singers performing the roles of Turandot, Calaf, and Liu. With Nicola Luisotti on the podium, Iréne Theorin, Marco Berti, and Leah Crocetto all delivered extremely strong performances.

As I explained to a friend who had some qualms about Marco Berti's vocal technique, tenors who get cast as Calaf are often chosen for their ability to belt out their music over a huge orchestra.  Loud high notes are their money notes (the equivalent of a porn actor's money shots) and should be taken in the proper perspective.

I was much more impressed with the staging of Act II, Scene I, in which Puccini's three ministers -- Ping (Hyung Yun), Pang (Greg Fedderly), and Pong (Daniel Montenegro) -- ruminate on the situation in Peking and long for their homes in the countryside. In many productions, this scene can become a boring tease as the audience awaits the soprano's rendition of Turandot's big aria, "In questa reggia."

However, thanks to the powerful combination of Supertitles, Hockney's beautifully painted set,  Ian Falconer's magnificent costumes, and the refreshlingly clear stage direction by Garnett Bruce, this scene became the highlight of the performance for me.

Pang (Greg Fedderly), Ping (Hyun Yun), and
Pong (Daniel Montenegro) in Act II of Turandot
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

San Francisco Opera's production of Turandot was broadcast to an audience in AT&T Park last Sunday afternoon at the same time that the Folsom Street Fair was attracting leather fetishists from around the world in one of the city's biggest annual public events. It will be interesting to see how this production of Turandot stands up when the second cast of principals arrives for performances in November.

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One doesn't usually attend a Shakespearean play expecting to see a blonde bombshell strutting across the stage in a gold lamé bathing suit wearing a banner that identifies her as"Miss Padua." Nor would one tell friends that they should really catch a performance of The Taming of the Shrew just to see Bianca's purple platform "Come fuck me" shoes.

But thanks to costume designer Katherine O'Neill and director Shana Cooper, the California Shakespeare Theater's rowdy new production of The Taming of the Shrew could well be marketed with the slogan "Go for Bianca's shoes, stay for the Shakespeare!"

As winner of the Miss Padua contest, Bianca (Alexandra Henrikson)
parades before Gremio (Danny Scheie) and Hortensio (Liam Vincent)
in The Taming of the Shrew (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Cooper has done a delicious job of breathing new life into Shakespeare's classic tale of a woman whose intelligence could prevent her from submitting to a braggart husband's commands. There's no doubt that Katherine (Erica Sullivan) is a spitfire -- a fiercely intelligent and highly disagreeable young woman.

But unless her father (Rod Gnapp) can unload Katherine on some poor bastard who's willing to put up with her, Baptista Minola's younger daughter (the dumb, spoiled, pretty princess whose pet pooch is named Troilus) can't get married. With several men in hot pursuit of Bianca, it's no wonder Katherine's rage and resentment grow stronger by the day.

Hortensio (Liam Vincent), Tranio (Dan Clegg),
Gremio (Dannie Scheie), and Lucentio (Nicholas Pelczar) in
The Taming of the Shrew (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The four men pursuing Bianca (Alexandra Henrikson) are indeed a strange lot:
  • Hortensio (Liam Vincent) is a young man hoping to woo Bianca as his bride while disguising himself as a tutor named Litio.
  • Gremio (Danny Scheie) is an aging suitor who, in this production, is portrayed as a flaming old fop.
  • Lucentio (Nicholas Pelczar) is a young student attending the University of Padua who has fallen head over heels for Bianca. To edge out his rivals, he has disguised himself as a Latin tutor named Cambio.
  • Tranio: (Dan Clegg) is Lucentio's servant who is wooing Bianca in his master's place (by doing so, Lucentio can easily gain access to Bianca in the guise of her tutor).

Enter Petruchio (Slate Holmgren) accompanied by his servant, Grumio (Dan Hiatt). An old friend of Hortensio's, Petruchio recently inherited his father's estate and "has come to wive it wealthily in Padua." The horror stories shared by Bianca's suitors about Katherine can't deter him. Petruchio's a really butch guy who likes a challenge.

Kate (Erica Sullivan) taunts Petruchio (Slate Holmgren) in
The Taming of the Shrew (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

By the time Petruchio has struck a bargain with Kate's father, the die is cast. The only question is how to tame the shrew. Petruchio's approach is simple: he'll starve her (literally) for affection and kill her with his perverse style of kindness.

Petruchio (Slate Holmgren) and Kate (Erica Sullivan)
in The Taming of the Shrew (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Working on a two-story set designed by Scott Dougan with sound design engineered by Jake Rodriguez, the energetic cast rips through Shakespeare's text with such merriment that one can't help falling in love with this overly inventive production. Cooper has added numerous twists and turns to provoke laughter, make the audience wince and, at the end of the play, prove that by marrying for money or infatuation, Lucentio and Hortensio have been saddled with the real shrews. 

Holmgren and Sullivan go at each other every ounce of fury in their athletic bodies, receiving sturdy support from Joan Mankin, Theo Black, and Dan Hiatt in a variety of cameos. While Liam Vincent and Nicholas Pelczar have nice moments as two of Bianca's suitors, the hilarious Danny Sheie owns the stage as both Gremio and a tailor. Sheie (who teaches drama at UC Santa Cruz and will appear in the Folger Shakespeare Library's production of The Taming of the Shrew in Washington, D.C. in May of 2012) is a comic genius whose sense of timing is stunning.

By the time Katherine's final solo comes due, the most vehement feminists in the audience may have unclenched their jaws just enough to hear her say:
"I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease."
Kate (Erica Sullivan) kneels before an astonished Baptista (Rod Gnapp),
Hortensio (Liam Vincent) and Gremio (Danny Scheie) as Horatio's
new wife (Joan Mankin) looks on in The Taming of the Shrew
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of The Taming of the Shrew continue at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda through October 16. It's a really great show (for which you can order tickets here).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tales of Maternal Monsters

In most species, the maternal instinct is so fierce that any threat to cubs, chicks, and other offspring can result in an intruder suffering severe injuries.  Although the following video shows two adorable brown bear cubs frolicking in Yosemite National Park, the onlookers obviously know enough not to provoke the mother, who can be seen lurking nearby.

Two productions new to the Bay area revolve around fiercely protective mothers whose maternal instincts went into overdrive long before the term "helicopter parent" was coined.

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Using a production originally designed for the Washington National Opera by John Pascoe and mounted as a vehicle for soprano Renée Fleming, the San Francisco Opera recently presented the company premiere of Lucrezia Borgia.  Composed by Gaetano Donizetti in 1833, the score is filled with music that sounds like ghostly discards from the original drafts of Vincenzo Bellini's 1835 opera, I Puritani, and Giuseppe Verdi's 1853 classic, La Traviata.

Renée Fleming as Lucrezia Borgia (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

I first fell in love with Lucrezia's two big arias ("Com'é bello" and "Era desso il figlio mio") after hearing them on a recording by Montserrat Caballé. In 1975, when the New York City Opera mounted a production of Lucrezia Borgia for Beverly Sills, I had my first chance to see the opera onstage (I later saw Faye Robinson perform the title role as well).

Two decades later, I started work on a murder mystery that took place at the Metropolitan Opera House during the controversy over whether or not the Met should embrace the use of Supertitles. Not only did I have great fun dreaming up a cast of characters and developing the plot for A Dying Art Form, I chose the opening night of a new production of Lucrezia Borgia for a pivotal scene in my novel.

Gennaro (Michael Fabiano) and Lucrezia (Renée Fleming) in
Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

The reason for my choice was simple. Donizetti's opera is rarely performed and, as such, would be unfamiliar to a large part of the Met's audience. The Met's introduction of Supertitles for this production would have created a much more intense level of audience involvement at exactly the right moment to unmask my villain.

A series of interruptions and distractions prevented me from finishing A Dying Art Form. Although I have published the completed chapters in blog form, once I began work on My Cultural Landscape I realized that I preferred writing long articles much more than struggling to complete a full-length novel. Oh well, maybe some day......

Gennaro (Michael Fabiano) and Orsini (Elizabeth Deshong) in
Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

What I learned about Lucrezia Borgia while researching A Dying Art Form is that it is, without doubt, one of Donizetti's less impressive operatic achievements. Parts of the libretto written by Felice Romani (based on a play by Victor Hugo) seem clumsy and stupid onstage. Although Orsini's famous brindisi always scores strongly with audiences, there is a great deal of music that is glorified filler.

Directed and designed by John Pascoe, the San Francisco Opera's staging was functional, but hardly inspiring. Fleming seemed perfectly suited to Lucrezia's opening aria but, as the evening wore on, almost seemed miscast in the role (how I would have loved to have experienced Leyla Gencer, Renata Scotto, Marisa Galvany, Leonie Rysanek, Marie Collier, or Maria Callas as Lucrezia).

Vitalij Kowaljow as Duke Alfonso d'Este (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Elizabeth Deshong scored strongly in one of Donizetti's better-written trouser roles while Michael Fabiano made an impressive company debut as Lucrezia's son, Gennaro. The strongest performance of the evening (and a welcome shot of adrenaline) came from Vitalij Kowaljow as Lucrezia's husband, Duke Alfonso d'Este. Although Riccardo Frizza conducted with a solid sense of bel canto style, the great takeaway from any performance of Lucrezia Borgia is that no amount of poison will quickly kill the tenor.

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The young Lucrezia Borgia was forced to give up her illegitimate child (which some believe to have been fathered by her brother, Cesare) and entrust him to the care of a fisherman. As a result, at the time the opera begins, Gennaro has never met his mother (which makes it all the more incredible that Lucrezia would recognize her sleeping son at first sight).

By contrast, Rose Hovick was the kind of overpowering and overprotective stage mother who nearly suffocated her daughters. Down in Redwood CityBroadway By the Bay recently mounted an impressive production of Gypsy: A Musical Fable that was superbly directed by the company's new artistic director, Amanda Folena

Madam Rose (Heather Orth) coaches her daughters
Louise (Lindsay Ragsdale)and June (Claire Lentz) as they
audition for a spot in vaudeville in Gypsy: A Musical Fable
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy has long been hailed as one of the greatest Broadway musicals ever written. Using a reduced orchestration, the opening night performance got off to a rocky start with some horribly messy work from the brass section (a problem that continued throughout the evening).

Onstage, however, Gypsy proved to be as rock solid as ever. With a cast headed by Heather Orth's whirlwind characterization of Mama Rose (whose cold dead fingers would have to be pried from her daughter's potential stardom), this production was blessed with Patrick Ball's sweet performance as Tulsa, a stunningly effective portrayal of Herbie by Walter Mayes, and some wonderfully intense cameos by Adam McGill.

Every now and then current events intercede with what's happening onstage in the strangest way. On opening night, I couldn't help but laugh when I noticed the resemblance of Karen DeHart (who was playing that tired old stripper, Tessie Tura) to Meg Whitman, who had just been named CEO of Hewlett Packard.

Mazeppa (Robyn Tribuzi) and Tessie Tura (Karen DeHart) sing
"You Gotta Get A Gimmick" in Gypsy: A Musical Fable
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Casting is critical to any production of Gypsy and, for a community theatre company, Broadway By the Bay hit the jackpot. Both Baby June (Claire Lentz) and the older June (Mary Kalita) were exceptionally strong performers.

Whenever I see Gypsy I tend to pick up on a line that often passes by too quickly. Thanks to Bill Carrico's excellent sound design, I was able to catch the crucial exchange in which Dainty June explains her mother's modus operandi of making up a story to meet a pressing need and then investing so much faith in her fiction that she comes to believe it as the God's honest truth.

Louise (Samantha Bruce) and June (Mary Kalita) sing
"If Momma Was Married" (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

As the older Louise (who would eventually morph into Gypsy Rose Lee), Samantha Bruce delivered a triumphant transformation from the painfully shy, ugly duckling into the legendary stripper. Staged with remarkable efficiency, it is the kind of transition that will always work best in a live performance, rather than on film.

Gypsy Rose Lee (Samantha Bruce) learns how to strip
Photo by: Mark Kitaoka

Directed by Amanda Folena and choreographed by Robyn Tribuzi (who also appears as Mazeppa), this production of Gypsy develops a momentum like an accelerating freight train. Louise's giddy delight at finally becoming a someone (rather than a nobody) lays the foundation for her big confrontation with Madam Rose.

Gypsy Rose Lee (Samantha Bruce) and her mother (Heather Orth) in
Gypsy: A Musical Fable (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Performances of Gypsy continue through October 9 at the Fox Theatre in downtown Redwood City. While Heather Orth (who often reminded me of Joan Cusack) may not have the name recognition of such legendary Madam Roses as Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, or Patti LuPone, she gives a powerhouse performance that demands an audience's attention and respect. You can order tickets here.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Shallow Of Your Smile

Trailer trash may seem like the polar opposite of life in a gated community, but once you strip away the material trappings of either lifestyle, what's left are mere mortals. Some may be streetwise but, as Auntie Mame once noted, "have the IQ of a dead flashlight battery." Others may have master's and doctoral degrees, yet be defined by the paradox that asks "If you're so smart, how come you're so stupid?"

While many people aim for a higher moral ground, they rarely lose the capacity to be greedy, vain, and exceedingly selfish.  Richard Florida (the author of The Rise of the Creative Class and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, and Everyday Life and The Great Reset: How The Post-Crash Economy Will Change The Way We Live And Work) has an interesting theory about reality television shows. Florida opines that the numerous reality shows set in suburbia (ranging from Wife Swap to The Real Housewives of Orange County, New Jersey, Beverly Hills, etc.) have not merely been  designed to entertain suburban audiences. Florida believes these shows are actually inspired by the kind of desperation, isolation, and alienation that is a natural byproduct of suburban design.

In an age when, thanks to Martha StewartIKEA, and Costco, the interior design of so many homes has become as standardized as the rooms in hotel chains and aboard cruise ships, the sheer sterility of one's surroundings can lead to a festering desire for forbidden fruit.

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Over the years, T-shirts and buttons have done a splendid job of delivering the kinds of messages that would never be found in fortune cookies. My all-time favorite is "For this I shaved my balls?" During the recent San Francisco Fringe Festival, as I sat through a performance of Neil Koenigsberg's short one-act play entitled FIT, the motto that came to mind was "You obviously come from the shallow end of the gene pool."

Playwright Neil Koenigsberg

Set in a suburb 20 miles south of Los Angeles International Airport, FIT features three dimwitted losers trying to crawl out of the neo-primordial muck of what I assume to be someplace like Torrance.
  • Walter (Simon Warner) is a married, closeted businessman who supposedly commutes between London and Los Angeles. An executive who doesn't like to beat around the bush (unless it's his own), he wastes no time using his manipulative skills to take advantage of people he encounters. His new pet project is a hunky, good-natured, but powerfully dumb masseur who could probably be coerced into giving Walter a happy ending for a little extra money.
  • Billy Butch (Dmitri Krupnov) is handsome, thinks he's straight, and knows his way around a massage table. Having had lots of practice fending off horny clients with groping hands, Billy keeps urging Walter to relax as he forcefully pushes Walter's inquisitive hands back where they belong.
  • Kimmy Rose (Theresa Ireland) is Billy Butch's truly tacky girlfriend. What little brain power she has tends toward the reptilian. A trailer trash bimbo from the bottom of the barrel, Kimmy Rose finds her validation in energy bars and time spent at the gym. She firmly believes that, simply because she and Billy Butch are young and fit, the world is theirs for the taking. Alas, Kimmy Rose is too stupid and shallow to understand that the world works in far more complex ways.
These three lost souls --  who would each like to imagine that they have a desperate grasp on reality -- don't have a clue about relationships.
  • Billy Butch likes to think of Walter as a very generous friend whose largesse has helped him and Kimmy Rose. The last thing he wants to do is lose his best customer.
  • On the one occasion when Kimmy Rose spent time alone with Walter, she used an ingenious hillbilly technique to get herself pregnant after some aggressive frottage caused the fully-dressed Walter to prematurely ejaculate in his pants.
  • Just as Kimmy Rose and Billy Butch are expecting to go out to dinner on a double date with Walter and his wife, the phone rings in Walter's hotel room. It's his wife (who was never invited to dinner). She's shown up at his hotel unannounced and insists on meeting with him.
At first, I had a difficult time understanding what was wrong with the performance I was watching. The writing -- although clumsily appropriate for its characters -- showed potential, the acting was amateurish, and the direction by Michael Paul Pulizzano barely adequate. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this piece simply does not belong on a stage. It would be much better as a made-for-television movie. While transferring FIT from stage to film might deprive it of some (but not many) laughs, I'm convinced the shallowness and venality of its characters would thrive in a different medium.

* * * * * * * * *
As part of its 20th anniversary season, the Shotgun Players commissioned five world premieres. The latest to hit the stage is an adaptation of Jean Racine's 1677 classic, Phèdre, by the talented playwright, Adam Bock. In describing his particular style of writing, Bock explains that:
"I love the landscape of language -- its murky depths, its silences and sounds and noises -- spoken language is so different from written language -- the challenge of using words on the page to prompt real language on stage is a difficult and fascinating challenge. I also love to see what happens to language as emotion is added to it -- how we talk when we are upset, how language breaks as we cry or scream or mutter."
Rose Riordan, who directed Bock's new Phaedra, notes that:
"He understands the nature of how people really speak. Most of it happens between a sound, a word and a punctuation. He creates a symphony of human nature in the most elegant and minimal way."
With a running time of one hour and 45 minutes, Bock's new Phaedra begins as the family maid, Olibia, informs the audience that the marriage between Catherine and Antonio has always been one of convenience. They met and thought getting married would be a good idea, but the passion faded and they are now stuck together in a loveless lifestyle. The house in which they live might as well be a furniture showroom.

What Bock has done to transform a tale in which Greek gods, sea monsters, war, and fate pushed the plot forward is to dial down the catalytic factors roiling within an upscale suburban home in Connecticut to the most human levels. While this may be the easiest set Nina Ball has ever been asked to design for Shotgun, her ability to make its catalogue-perfect sterility an unscripted character is enhanced by the eerie sound design work by Hannah Birch Carl.

Paulie (Patrick Alparone) confronts his father, Antonio (Keith Burkland) as his
stepmother, Catherine (Catherine Castellanos) watches in Phaedra
(Photo by: Pak Han)
  • Instead of the father figure being Theseus, an Athenian king, he has been recast as Antonio Mason (Keith Burkland), a judge with no sense of humor and no sympathy whatsoever for people less fortunate than himself. The epitome of a compassionless conservative, Antonio uses alcohol to numb the ongoing pain of his existence.
  • Olibia (Trish Mulholland) is the household maid who, like Racine's Oenone, is the nurse and confidante to the family matriarch.
  • Catherine (Catherine Castellanos), is Antonio's second wife. A control freak desperately trying to hide her unhappy secret, she broods, sulks, and fumes at the thought of her stepson returning home following his release from a rehab facility.
Olibia (Trish Mulholland) tries to comfort Catherine (Catherine Castellanos)
in Adam Bock's Phaedre (Photo by: Pak Han )
  • Having been transformed from Hippolytus to Paulie (Patrick Alparone), Catherine's stepson is a newly released addict trying not to be overwhelmed by his family's emotional baggage.
  • Racine's Aricie has been transformed into Taylor (Cindy Im), the practical young woman who befriends Paulie in rehab (Taylor's father is a labor lawyer who is despised by Antonio).
Paulie (Patrick Alparone) and Taylor (Cindy Im) in Phaedra
Photo by: Pak Han

The acting is superb throughout, with special kudos going to Patrick Alparone (who never fails to impress). Cindy Im, Trish Mulholland, and Keith Burkland provide sturdy support with well-defined characterizations.  But is the riveting performance by Catherine Castellanos (as the stepmother who secretly lusts after her husband's son) that nearly leaves burn marks on the set.

Catherine Castellanos stars in Adam Bock's Phaedra
Photo by: Pak Han 

Working with this top-notch ensemble, Bock and Riordan have pulled off a minor miracle: transforming a 334-year-old play written for an entirely different culture into a powerful modern American drama that provides a remarkable companion piece to the Aurora Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A Delicate Balance. Ironically, these two plays are being performed quite close to each other in Berkeley (both productions continue through October 23rd).
These two intense dramas about dysfunctional families are perfect examples of what makes live theatre so exciting. To see one would be a highly fulfilling experience. To be able to see and compare both plays is the kind of theatrical experience that will rock your world. Get your tickets now.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Got Milk? Raw Milk?

One of the earliest slogans associated with the American Revolution was "No Taxation Without Representation." Blithely ignoring the conditions that provoked such sentiments, today's Tea Party has decided to rewrite history so that the Founding Fathers can tell them what they want to hear ("No taxation") instead of what they need to hear (hard facts). Instead of embracing a classic like Song of the Loon, they have taken to loudly chanting their own "Song of the Loons."

In his 1960 musical adaptation of Oliver Twist, Lionel Bart wrote the following lyrics for Fagin:
"In this life, one thing counts
In the bank, large amounts
I'm afraid these don't grow on trees,
You've got to pick a pocket or two.
Why should we break our backs
Stupidly paying tax?
Better get some untaxed income
Better pick a pocket or two.
Robin Hood, what a crook!
Gave away what he took.
Charity's fine, subscribe to mine.
Get out and pick a pocket or two.
You've got to pick a pocket or two, boys.
You've got to pick a pocket or two."
The intoxicating combination of overwhelming greed and privileged bullying has given many Republicans the false assumption that entitlements belong to them and them alone (less wealthy people who dare to demand a fair share of the American dream are viewed as scurrilous gatecrashers). Like Louisiana's clueless Congressman John Fleming (who complained that, after paying all the expenses for his chain of Subway sandwich shops, he only had $400,000 left over), they have become experts at playing the victim card.

Their new status as victims has left many Republicans furiously masturbating to the fantasy that they belong to a mythical race of oppressed job creators. Chanting "class warfare" and "Let them die" as their fear-engorged members discharge a sticky, hate-filled ejaculate into their sweaty little hands, these rabid fools have not only convinced themselves that God is on their side, but that their war on taxes represents the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Add in the recent news that President Obama has proposed eliminating a form of direct subsidy payment that, regardless of need, gives $5 billion to farmers each year and the screams of class warfare will undoubtedly become louder.

Thankfully, some extremely wealthy people (as well as influential economists) have started to call Republicans on their bullshit.

If you harbor the slightest doubt about the ferocity with which the upper class is waging economic warfare against the middle class, here are two reminders from the administration of George W. Bush, when cronyism reigned supreme.
  • Once Bush secured the Presidential nomination, his campaign staff insisted that conservatives keep their mouths shut until the election was won. His refusal to tolerate any dissension within the ranks was matched by his determination to "give value to our investors."
  • After the 9/11 attack, word quickly spread throughout the business community about seminars being offered on how small businesses could cash in on the upcoming Iraq War by becoming military contractors.
* * * * * * * * *
Earlier this month, Reuters ran a story about an 18-month old Cambodian boy entitled Baby Suckles Directly From Cow For Milk. This story about going directly to the source of raw milk was far less shocking to rural residents than to those who live in urban areas.

Several years ago, Kristin Canty's child suffered from severe allergies and asthma that would not respond to standard medical care. Upon learning how raw milk had helped many patients overcome their symptoms, she started to feed it to her son with impressive results. Soon, she was purchasing raw milk on a regular basis. As she explains:
"Even though the health benefits of raw milk are largely accepted as scientifically proven, many government agencies claim that it’s too dangerous to drink. They don’t make the distinction between milk that is meant for pasteurization, (from factory farms that are not concerned with cleanliness and that feed grains, antibiotics, and steroids to their cows) and milk from grass-fed, pasture-rotated cows, that is intended to be consumed raw."

As I watched Canty's new documentary, Farmageddon, there were many moments in which I was reminded of the sheer thuggery of the Bush administration.  If you watch the film with the thought "Follow the money" in the back of your mind, you'll come away convinced that a lot of the government action has less to do with the actual quality of milk being sold than with lobbyists for large agricultural firms trying to snuff out any competition. In her director's statement, Canty writes:
"One day I heard about a raid that occurred at a food co-op in Ohio. Armed agents, by order of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, entered a private home and held eight children and their parents at gunpoint for six hours while they ransacked their house, took their personal food, food from their co-op, and their cell phones. I then learned that there were more farms and co-ops that had been raided for simply providing the foods that the members wanted to eat. The farm raids aren’t only about the milk. In the case of the Ohio Co-op, it was about control of the food retail system.
Farmageddon is in no way meant to convince anyone to drink raw milk, or eat grass-fed beef, but rather an argument to allow those that want to make those choices to do so. It is simply about freedom of food choice. The government needs to stop harassing small farmers, private food buying clubs and co- ops. Without food freedom, we are not free."

Poster art for Farmageddon

Whether  you shop at a local farmers' market, Whole Foods, try to eat a diet heavy in organic foods, and/or support the locavore movement, you'll learn a lot while watching Farmageddon. Parts of Canty's documentary will confirm your beliefs; others will make you furious over government officials who have been bought and paid for. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Old Lady and the Book

Once upon a time, park benches offered all kinds of opportunities to meet interesting people.
  • Parents sitting by a playground might make friends with others as they watched their children play. 
  • Birdwatchers might make contact with fellow birders.
  • Men cruising for sex might strike up an interesting conversation with a handsome stranger.
What happens every day in real life can easily become the basis for a play or film.
While Ernest Hemingway's novel, The Old Man and the Sea, may have focused on an aging fisherman's battle with a marlin, two new dramas focus on the links between an old woman and a book.  In each case, a younger man's interest in reading is the glue that holds the plot together.

* * * * * * * * *
Recently seen at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, Neil Koenigsberg's "On A Bench" is a poignant one-act play for two characters seated on a bench in Sheridan Square.
  • Robert (Alex Lee) is a young man from a wealthy family whose mother calls his cell phone asking Robert to remember to pick up some chocolate truffles for that evening's dessert. 
  • Anne (Barbara van Dermeer) is an older woman with a thick New York accent on her way to an appointment to have her hair styled at a local salon.
As they sit facing the Stonewall Inn, Robert ponders his future while Anne thinks about her past.  What unites them is the book in Robert's hand: Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked The Revolution, by David Carter. Why? One of the men on the cover was Anne's brother.

Cover art for Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked The Gay Revolution

Anne's concern about Robert's future is visceral as she describes the night her brother came out to their family and was banished from their home. She never saw or heard from him again. As she gets to know Robert, who has enjoyed every advantage in his young life (health, wealth, education, and accepting parents), she urges him to treasure every meal he shares with his family.

I can't quite put my finger on why the performance of "On A Bench" I attended didn't quite gel. Koenigsberg's script is solid. Michael Paul Pulizzano's direction was more than adequate. Since this was the play's third performance at the festival, it's possible that the actors never had sufficient rehearsal time to really get inside their characters.

* * * * * * * * *
One often hears a person described as a poster child for some cause or disease. A new French film starring Gérard Depardieu and 95-year-old Gisèle Casadesus stands a good chance of becoming the poster child for adult literacy programs.

My Afternoons with Margueritte is a small, intimate film. There are no car chases or special effects. Its simplicity, honesty, and poignancy form the foundation for a deeply moving cinema experience.

Depardieu plays Germain, a big hunk of a man in his mid-fifties who, for all intents and purposes, is functionally illiterate.  Far from being the village idiot, he's a good-natured man who drinks with his friends, has a beautiful younger girlfriend (Sophie Gullemin) who is a bus driver, and still lives close to his increasingly demented shrew of a mother (Claire Maurier). Often, when Germain thinks he is giving someone a compliment (or helping to explain something), his social clumsiness only makes matters worse.

Germain was the unwanted byproduct of a one-night stand that, as far as his mother is concerned, ruined her life. With her mental facilities rapidly diminishing, his mother wastes no opportunity to insult Germain (who reacts with his usual good-natured frustration).

Poster art for My Afternoons With Margueritte

A simple man, Germain loves simple things. He has even named each of the pigeons who gather each day in front of his favorite park bench.  As Depardieu explains:
"Contrary to what a lot of people might think, Germain is a real character of our time. He is extraordinarily positive and that’s what’s wonderful about him. For all that, he’s no simpleton. He could have been me. And in any case, he’s just like what I was as a youth in Châteauroux before heading off on the road at age 13. Just like him, I observed everything, I watched what was going on. So he’s somebody I know very well. He has a lot of humor and a lot of love in him.
Germain doesn’t see the bad in things. He has his complexes, but he’s hard to rile.  Even if he gets no love from his mother, he never blames her. And he is loved by that young woman played by Sophie Guillemin. When you see them together, it seems like there’s no age difference because he is pure. To me, he represents what remains of life if you run away from the society that is offered to us: The schools that teach our children and, by definition, destroy their dreams. Germain is outside of any shaping, but he clings to certain values and to life despite having taken some hard knocks from it."

Gérard Depardieu in My Afternoons With Margueritte

One day, Germain sits down on his favorite bench in the park beside a little old lady who is his polar opposite. A former doctor who has traveled the world, Margueritte is an intellectual who is nearly 40 years older than German and about 200 pounds lighter than him.

Margueritte, who lives in an assisted care facility, loves to pass the time by reading aloud. She also loves the pigeons in the park.

Because Germain can barely read, he is fascinated by Margueritte's passion for literature and the joy she gets from reading. As their afternoon meetings develop into a routine, she continues to read aloud to him and eventually gives him a dictionary as a gift. "Using a dictionary is like traveling from one word to the next," she explains. "You lose yourself as if in a labyrinth. You stop and you dream.”

Gisèle Casadesus in My Afternoons With Margueritte

Written and directed by Jean Becker, My Afternoons With Margueritte has a very gentle charm to it. As Germain learns more and more from Marguerite, he tries to impress his friends with statements like “I know about the Guide Maupassant, it’s like the Guide Michelin...”  As Depardieu recalls:
"Working with Gisèle was a great pleasure because I was a spectator during those moments. It’s astonishing and courageous to see a woman of her age learn her lines and focus to that extent. What I loved was her femininity which is still just as incredible; her flirtatiousness that I see as the result of a good life and a particular kind of love, a hope or a belief. Someone who didn’t believe in anything could never age in the same way. Gisèle believes in the birds, in beauty, in turmoil and in sadness, when so many people don’t have the courage to go through the turmoil of heartbreak. When I was acting with her, I saw all of that, all those tremors. And playing opposite her, I was free. I didn’t play around preparing Germain Chazes because he’s simply a man who looks at people and listens to them. So all I needed to do to become him was to look and listen."

Gérard Depardieu with Gisèle Casadesus 

If you're the kind of person who loves action adventure films, My Afternoons With Margueritte is not for you.  Nor is this the French answer to Harold and Maude.

My Afternoons with Margueritte is a film about intimacy, intelligence, and cross-generational friendships that floats on the foundation of Laurent Voulzy's gentle musical score. If you like to see adults learning how to read later in life, you'll embrace this film like a child who has been reunited with his grandparents. Here's the trailer: