Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ogre and Out

In 1953, Frank Sinatra recorded a song by Johnny Richards that became such a huge hit that, not only was an untitled movie Sinatra was filming with Doris Day given the song's name, the song was used during the film's opening and closing credits. Nearly 50 years later, Carolyn Leigh's lyrics for Young At Heart remain as fresh and charming as ever:
"Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you
If you're young at heart.
For it's hard, you will find, to be narrow of mind
If you're young at heart.
You can go to extremes with impossible schemes
You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams
And life gets more exciting with each passing day
And love is either in your heart or on it's way
Don't you know that it's worth every treasure on earth
To be young at heart.
For as rich as you are it's much better by far
To be young at heart.
And if you should survive to 105
Look at all you'll derive out of being alive.
Then here is the best part, you have a head start
If you are among the very young at heart."
It's all too convenient, once we become adults, to forget how easily we believed in fairy tales and took their lessons to heart. In 1987, when the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Into The Woods opened on Broadway, it asked audiences to consider what might have happened to the characters in their favorite fairy tales after the narrator said "happily ever after." In the following video clip, Bernadette Peters sings one of the key songs from Into The Woods.

The message that "Children Will Listen" lies at the core of Bellwether, Steve Yockey's suspense drama which recently had its world premiere at the Marin Theatre Company. A cross between an adult fairy tale and a chapter from The Twilight Zone, Bellwether is set in a supposedly ideal gated community. However, a quick look beneath the surface reveals that Bellwether (like the gated communities in such popular television series as Weeds and Desperate Housewives) is far from perfect.

In the play's opening moments a chorus of suburban parents informs the audience that they they live in a wonderful neighborhood that's safe. It's the kind of community where people know their neighbors and nothing bad ever happens. When someone asks what the ominous crash they just heard might have been, a neighbor cheerfully replies "Oh, probably just one of those typical suburban sounds." The minute I heard that crash I thought of another song from Into The Woods.

Although we never see him, the ogre that attacks the Bellwether families is not a giant. Nor does he live in the sky. He's a mysterious man in a dark raincoat who wears a wide-brimmed hat that hides his face. Unbeknownst to her parents, a young girl named Amy Draft has been repeatedly drawing his picture with her crayons.

Amy's family recently left their apartment in the city to move to suburbia on the assumption that they could have a nicer home and a happier future. Ever since then, Alan (Gabriel Marin) has been working long hours at the office and spending so much more time commuting to and from work that some of his promises to Amy have been forgotten. Left alone to care for their daughter, Jackie (Arwen Anderson) has become bored, depressed, and found a new friend in the family's wine cabinet.

Gabriel Marin and Arwen Anderson in Bellwether
(Photo by: David Allen)

As the playwright explains:
"When I started Bellwether, there were a lot of stories in the news about missing children. I remember thinking how strange it was, this mob mentality, the way an entire community will turn on people based purely on supposition or circumstance. It’s always the same pattern: a child disappears, it becomes a media frenzy and, after a certain amount of time, if the child isn’t found, suspicion (whether it’s warranted or not) turns on the parents.  We see the horrible thing that happened and we know that efforts are being made to rectify the situation, whether it’s an investigation or recovery from a storm that hit, but we rarely see the followup on it.  I’m fascinated by the idea that we don’t see completion to news stories. We only see the awful thing.
But we can’t look to the news to tell us how much of any one thing is actually happening because what we see is selected. It’s all chosen for us and presented as 'news.'  The news -- and I put 'news' in quotation marks -- generally seems to be getting more and more salacious. When there is a competitive market for news and for audience, the more frightening it can be, the more intense it can be, the more likely you are to have viewership. And so, by default, as we move further along our growth as a culture, the news focuses more and more on the negative. Fear sells."

Fear continues to mount after Amy mysteriously disappears. Maddy (Rachel Harker), the lead gossip in the community, is quick to spread rumors that Jackie has a drinking problem and might have wanted to get rid of her daughter, anyway. But after a group of other children disappears (including Maddy's son), panic grips the residents of Bellwether and Maddy is soon leading the modern day equivalent of a witch hunt.

Then Jackie disappears.

In the second act, Jackie finds herself in a bizarre environment where a mechanical doll (Kathryn Zdan) facilitates a meeting with her daughter, Amy (Jessica Lynn Carroll). Not only does Amy have a big shock in store for her mother, she forces Jackie to wonder  "Am I my neighbor's keeper?"

Jackie (Arwen Anderson) and The Doll (Kathryn Zdan
in Bellwether (Photo by: David Allen)

Under Ryan Rillette's meticulous direction, the suspense keeps building as Bellwether's script takes one unexpected turn after another.  Considering all the abuse the Drafts have suffered from having their gossipy neighbors and prying news reporters camped out in front of their home, the last thing Jackie expects is to have her daughter deliver a horrifying "Sophie's Choice" type of ultimatum. As Yockey stresses, "Your choices about something might not be the best thing for your neighbor, and what your neighbor chooses might not be the best thing for you."

Gabriel Marin and Arwen Anderson give powerful performances as the young couple whose child has been taken away from them. But the evening's top honors go to Rachel Harker, whose Maddy disintegrates from the coolest, most collected, smug suburban mother into a raging bansheeMarissa KeltieMollie Stickney, and Liz Sklar double as competitive television reporters and gossiping neighbors. Danny Wolohan and Patrick Jones do double duty as Bellwether's husbands and two local detectives playing a game of good cop/bad cop with the confused and exhausted Alan Draft.

MTC's production has been handsomely designed by Giulio Cesare Perrone (sets) and Fumiko Bielefeldt (costumes) with outstanding sound design work by composer Chris Houston. Bellwether offers Bay area audiences an intense (and often comical) evening of high-quality suspense. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Pedro Almodovar's new movie, The Skin I Live In, is much more than the latest and strongest creation from a gifted film director. It is a true masterpiece of cinematic suspense.

Based on Thierry Jonquet's 1995 crime novel, Mygale, the film's plot is so carefully tangled, outrageously conceived, and masterfully realized that critics are tying themselves in knots trying not go give away its most crucial details. The Skin I Live In presented some tough challenges for Almodovar as a filmmaker.
"For some months I thought seriously about making a silent film, in black and white, with captions which showed descriptions and dialogue. And paying tribute to Fritz Lang and Murnau. After doubting for months, I decided to go my own way and let myself be carried along by intuition, after all, it’s what I’ve always done, without the shadow of the maestros of the genre (among other reasons because I don’t know to what genre this film belongs) and renouncing my own cinematic memory. I only knew that I had to impose an austere narrative, free of visual rhetoric and not at all gory, even though a lot of blood has been spilled in the ellipses that we don’t see. It isn’t the first time I’ve started from this premise before shooting, but I think that The Skin I Live In is the film where I have got closest to it."

Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya in The Skin I Live In

Among the film's main characters are:
Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya in The Skin I Live In

Among the film's mysterious contradictions are:
Elena Anaya and Zeca Roberto Alamo in The Skin I Live In

For a suspense thriller, The Skin I Live In has everything an audience could want:
Each shot is so beautifully set up and so lushly filmed that there are moments during The Skin I Live In when, as a member of the audience, you'll wish you could detach yourself from the suspense in order to take more time to admire Almodovar's craft. The filmmaker, however, is quick to share the credit with his cast and crew:
"I’ve been accompanied on this journey by José Luis Alcaine, the director of photography, to whom I didn’t explain what I wanted but rather what I didn’t want, and he knew how to give the photography the density, the glow, and the darkness that suited it best. The musician Alberto Iglesias, the only artist I know without an ego, tireless, versatile, patient, capable of looking in one direction and then looking in the opposite direction if I wasn’t satisfied, always subject to the dictates of the story and my way of feeling it."
For a special treat, go to the film's website and download the press kit (which contains Almodovar's notes on the film). Unlike many Hollywood trailers (which include some of a film's best moments), the trailer for The Skin I Live In doesn't even begin to do justice to the masterwork Almodovar has delivered. See his film with an open mind but expect to have your world severely shaken.

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