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.

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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, Ph├Ędre, 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.

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