Monday, January 30, 2012

Different Strokes For Different Folks

One of the strangest tests a drama can face is whether or not it will resonate with audiences from a foreign culture. Despite the steady flow of cultural traffic between the United States and Great Britain, many British plays have landed on Broadway stages with a resounding thud. Some Broadway musicals, after being exported to the West End, were not as well received as their producers had hoped.

While the use of subtitles in film has helped to cross many cultural borders, the appeal of certain shows may be so unique to a particular ethnic culture (or historical period) that one wonders what kinds of adjustments must be made to broaden a show's appeal. Although Lotfi Mansouri introduced the use of Supertitles to the international operatic community with the Canadian Opera Company's 1983 staging of Elektra, Broadway had attempted something very similar two decades before

Alexander H. Cohen tried to import a popular Italian musical comedy which he planned to stage in New York in its original language while projecting a running translation above the proscenium  To his great disappointment, Rugantino (which opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on February 6, 1964 and closed after 28 performances) proved to be a costly flop.

Sometimes a familiar story, a powerful brand name, and lots of theatrical spectacle can suffice.  Although Tarzan: The Musical was met with fairly hostile reviews at its 2006 New York premiere, a reworked version of the show has had strong success in the Netherlands and Germany. Here's a promotional clip from the Hamburg production (sung in German):

During the first half of the 20th century, the Yiddish theatre was notorious for "improving" plays like Hamlet. In 1968, producer David Merrick received a special Tony Award for a radical experiment with nontraditional casting.

On January 16, 1964, when Hello, Dolly! opened at the St. James Theatre, the show became the biggest musical hit since My Fair Lady. After Carol Channing finished her run with the original Broadway cast, she was replaced by Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, and Bibi Osterwald.

But with ticket sales lagging and increased competition from new shows, Merrick (who loved gimmicks) needed something to boost box office sales. In 1967, he came up with what might be the best gamble of his career, especially considering the racial tension of the 1960s.

Merrick create an all-black company of Hello, Dolly! starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway with a supporting cast that included Clifton Davis, Mabel King,and Morgan Freeman as Rudolph (the head waiter at the Harmonia Gardens). The production tried out at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. before heading to New York.

On Saturday, November 11, 1967, the mostly white cast of Hello, Dolly! played its last performance on Broadway before heading out on a national tour with the sets that had been used in Washington. They left behind the scenery and lighting which had been in use at St. James Theatre for nearly four years.

On Sunday, November 12, the black company of Hello, Dolly! moved into the St. James Theatre for a rip-roaring premiere (I had a standing room ticket for that performance). It was one of the great -- and historic -- opening nights on Broadway.

In the following video clip from the 1968 Tony Awards, Jack Benny presents a special award to Carol Channing, who then introduces Pearl Bailey and the all-black company of Hello, Dolly!

During Fiddler on the Roof's difficult out-of-town tryout in Detroit, the creative team worried that their show might have "limited appeal" and wondered how the dynamics of life in a poor Jewish shtetl would translate to other cultures. The show's huge success on Broadway (where Fiddler opened eight months after Hello, Dolly!) led to productions in multiple languages.

Much to everyone's surprise, Fiddler's universal appeal translated into box office gold in theatres around the world. The following clip shows a Japanese cast rehearsing the opening number, "Tradition," according to Jerome Robbins's original direction and choreography.

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With a book by James Lapine and music and lyrics by William Finn, Falsettoland premiered on June 28, 1990 at Playwrights Horizons in New York. March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland were subsequently merged into one piece entitled Falsettos, which opened on Broadway on April 29, 1992. In the following clip, Kevin Dozier sings "What More Can I Say" at a 2005 benefit concert in San Francisco.

When I first learned that StirFry Theatre (a newly-formed Bay area Asian-American theatre company) was planning to stage Falsettoland, my first thought was: "Oh my God, are they going to perform it in Jewface?" But then I became really curious and wanted to know:
  • How would Falsettoland play some 30 years after the onset of the AIDS crisis?
  • Would the show's dramatic core be diminished in an age when gay couples can legally marry and adopt children?
  • How would Falsettoland play to members of an older generation of gay men with AIDS who, thanks to medical breakthroughs, are still alive?
  • How would the show's impact change when performed by an Asian-American cast?
Poster art for StirFry Theatre's production of Falsettoland

Falsettoland's plot revolves around the role a bar mitzvah plays in bringing together a fractured family in which the father, Marvin (Alex Hsu) left his wife, Trina (Jennifer Oku), for a male lover named Whizzer (Romar De Claro), who eventually broke up with him. To make matters even more complicated, the wife later married the husband's psychiatrist, Dr. Mendel (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias).

To add to the confusion, Marvin's two next-door neighbors are a lesbian couple: a radiologist named Dr. Charlotte (Jean Harriet) and her slightly neurotic lover, Cordelia (Nicole A. Tung). Meanwhile, to the utter confusion of Marvin's son, Jason (Andrew Apy), his parents can't stop fighting over every aspect of planning Jason's bar mitzvah.

Jennifer Oku, Andrew Apy, and  Alex Hsu in
StirFry Theatre's production of William Finn's Falsettoland
Photo by: Diana Torres-Koss

So much has happened since Falsettoland first premiered that a new look at the once popular Finn/Lapine musical proved to be an eye-opener. The first issue -- which modern audiences could easily take for granted -- is the fact that Falsettoland premiered at the height of the AIDS crisis, when not enough was known about how to combat the disease. In its own peculiar way, the show is now a period piece.

Why? The introduction of antiretroviral drug therapies had a huge impact on patient protocols. As a result, today's youth have grown up in an environment in which the National Institutes of Health consider AIDS to be a manageable disease.

For those with access to healthcare, an AIDS diagnosis is no longer perceived an immediate death sentence. Gay plays, gay films, gay literature, and gay journalism are no longer solely focused on AIDS-related stories.

Alex Hsu, Romar de Claro, Jean Harriet, and Nicole A. Tung in
StirFry Theatre's production of William Finn's Falsettoland
Photo by: Diana Torres-Koss

Directed by StirFry Theatre's founder, Lawrence-Michael C. Arias (who also appeared as Dr. Mendel), Falsettoland has lost none of its stageworthiness. The company made excellent use of the intimate Alcove Theatre (a lovely, underutilized theatre near Union Square which deserves to host more shows).

With Doug McGrath accompanying the cast on piano, StirFry Theatre's production was notable for its solid musical preparation. Once again, I was deeply impressed by the singing of young Andrew Apy (who appeared in the recent TheatreWorks production of The Secret Garden). During their racquetball games -- as well their more tender moments -- Alex Hsu and Romar De Claro delivered especially fine performances as Marvin and Whizzer.

Romar De Claro and Alex Hsu in Falsettoland
Photo by: Diana Torres-Koss

After about 20 minutes, the novelty of watching Falsettoland being performed by an Asian-American cast evaporated into thin air and became totally irrelevant.  "Everyone Hates His Parents" has lost none of its charm.  Alex Hsu sang "What More Can I Say?" with great charm and and a simple tenderness while Romar De Claro did a bang-up job with "You Gotta Die Sometime"

StirFry Theatre's talented group of actors did a beautiful job of bringing William Finn's music back to life. Performances of Falsettoland continue at the Alcove Theatre through February 12 (click here to order tickets).

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Express Yourself

As soon as a star fades to black, the inevitable question becomes: Where will we find the next Steve Jobs? The next Birgit Nilsson? The next Merce Cunningham? Who among today's young generation will be the next John Lennon? Luciano Pavarotti? Rudolf Nureyev?

For ballet dancers and opera singers there are obvious places to look (dance studios, music conservatories, and apprentice programs for young artists run by regional opera companies). But not every person can afford to follow those paths. Indeed, some people have no idea they might possess any artistic talent until they are challenged by a friend, a teacher, or someone who hints at their potential.

One of the people who got me interested in writing was working as a receptionist for an employment agency in Providence, Rhode Island. Her boss was on the board of directors of a YMCA summer camp that I worked for and, after several discussions, she suggested that I try my hand at writing. Although I had never given any serious thought to the matter, something in the way I spoke made Ann Daly Snell think I could write.

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TheatreWorks is currently offering the West Coast premiere of The Pitmen Painters, a fascinating play by Lee Hall based on a true story that rocked Britain's art world in the first half of the 20th century. In 1934, a group of miners in Ashington, England requested that their Workers’ Educational Association pay for lessons in art history rather than evolution.

After a bumpy start with their new lecturer, Robert Lyon, they began to paint with no absolutely training in technique, perspective, or any background in art. The work produced over the next 40 years by the Ashington Group stunned Britain's art critics, who had always assumed that art was created by members of society’s upper classes, not its working stiffs.

Paul Whitworth appears as art professor Robert Lyon
in The Pitmen Painters (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

As the artistic director of TheatreWorks, Robert Kelley, notes:
"The Pitmen Painters asks many questions about art. What is it? Who's it for? What's it worth? Who has a right to make it? Playwright Lee Hall suggests that art is everywhere, in a claustrophobic mine shaft, at a country race track, in the view from a cottage window. He believes that the potential for art is built into the human spirit and into every moment of our lives as well. If exceptional talent is rare, the author of the dance-drama Billy Elliott believes it, too, can be found anywhere, from a provincial ballet class to the lamplit shafts of coal mine, if only society would allow it room to grow. In Hall's world, the constraints of poverty, class-consciousness, and elitism stand between potential and its fulfillment, and we are all the poorer for it. But in this exquisite play rising from the darkness of the mines, we discover untapped wealth shining bright with a light from within."
Marcia Pizzo, James Carpenter, and Nicholas Pelczar appear in
a scene from The Pitmen Painters (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

I'll confess to having had a problem cutting through the thick accents used by the TheatreWorks ensemble. However, there was no faulting the members of this tightly-knit cast. As George Brown, James Carpenter was a cantankerous old man who was quickly dismissive of Nicholas Pelczar's young lad (who wanted to learn about art even if he wasn't a miner). Patrick Jones shone as Oliver Kilbourn (a young man with obvious artistic talent who was suspicious of those who wanted to put a price on his work).

Others in the cast included Jackson Davis, Dan Hiatt, and Paul Whitworth, with Kathryn Zdan as Susan, the young model more than willing to take her clothes before a group of shocked and sexually repressed men. I especially liked Marcia Pizzo's portrayal of Helen Sutherland, a wealthy woman willing to give Oliver a stipend which would allow him to work as an artist instead of as a coal miner.

The Pitmen Painters raises lots of questions about how one discovers one's own artistic talents and grows to self-identify as an artist. It's interesting to note that the Ashington Group continued to meet once a week for 40 years (their works can be seen on display at the Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives.

Performances of The Pitmen Painters continue through February 12 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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Although Broadway songwriter Jerry Herman was raised in Jersey City, his parents spent their summers working in popular hotels in the Catskills and at the Stissing Lake Camp in the Berkshires. His passion for musical theatre began to develop after his parents took him to see Ethel Merman in a performance of Annie Get Your Gun.

Blessed with the ability to listen to a show's score and memorize much of its music, Herman was often able to return home from a Broadway show, sit down at the piano, and play some of its songs from memory. Although he first enrolled at Parsons The New School of Design (and continues designing apartments and homes to this day), he transferred to the University of Miami which, at the time, was noted for its theatre department.

His songwriting led to four Broadway hits (Milk and HoneyHello, Dolly!Mame, and La Cage aux Folles). Among his less successful works were such tune-filled shows as Dear WorldMack & Mabel, and The Grand Tour.

Popular reviews based on his catalog of songs have included Jerry's Girls and An Evening With Jerry Herman. Angela Lansbury (who starred on Broadway in Mame and Dear World) starred in his television musical, Mrs. Santa Claus. A studio album of his songs for a proposed Las Vegas show entitled Miss Spectacular is available on CD.

Herman was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1981 and the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1986. The newly-remodeled performance space at his alma mater is named the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre. However, few Broadway lyricists can rival Herman's unbridled sense of optimism.

While Herman has had many hit songs from his own shows, in 1964 (at the request of composer Mark Sandrich, Jr.) he contributed two songs to Ben Franklin in Paris during its difficult out-of-town tryout. His lyrics for "To Be Alone With You" (which is sung while Ben Franklin and Madame La Comtesse Diane de Vobrillac are soaring above Paris in a hot air balloon) are, to me, the essence of a Jerry Herman song:
"I'd sail the skies,
Off to the farthest little star, I'd go;
Sail the skies and watch the people disappear below.
I'd gladly give up every earthly thing I know,
To be alone with you,
To be alone with you.

I'd roam the earth and every corner of the seven seas;
I'd let the raging oceans take me where they please,
To be alone with you.

To hold your hand in mine,
With nobody there beside us;
To hold your hand in mine,
There's nothing I wouldn't do.

But if someday,
To have to share you with the world I must,
If someday I find each plan of mine has turned to dust;
Then while you're here,
All that I want in all this world is just
To be alone with you."
Kennedy Center honoree Jerry Herman

Under the artistic leadership of Greg MacKellan, 42nd Street Moon recently embarked on a series of musical salons dedicated to Broadway's great lyricists.  Having already presented programs honoring Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, John Kander, Dorothy Fields, and Ira Gershwin, the company began 2012 with a tribute to Jerry Herman featuring guest stars Jason Graae and Faith Prince (who have known each other since they were students at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music).

Both artists have worked directly with Jerry Herman. Graae (whom the composer chose as the star of  a West Coast revival of The Grand Tour) often likes to joke that "my career peaked in Burbank." But Graae also knows how to "sell" a song and gave a powerhouse rendition of "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles.

Prince gave a beautiful delivery of "Where In The World Is My Prince?" (a deliciously comic number from the Miss Spectacular album) and the two old friends joined forces to sing a personalized version of "Bosom Buddies" from Mame.

Jason Graae, Greg MacKellan, and Faith Prince

One would think it would be hard to dampen a tribute to Jerry Herman (whose song catalog provides solid evidence of a prodigious talent and a prolific songwriter). Yet several technical problems undermined the effectiveness of the evening.

Debbie de Coudreaux and Sharon Rietkerk delivered many of Herman's ballads with warmth and tenderness. However, there were obvious problems with the show's lighting and sound.

The male members of the supporting cast were surprisingly ill-prepared and ran into a curious obstacle. Unlike the scores of most Broadway shows from the 1920s through 1950s, Jerry Herman's songs are well known to the 42nd Street Moon audience (some of his biggest hits became popularized on the radio in the 1960s).

When Kelly Sanchez (an extremely likable young performer) found himself center stage trying to riff his way through a jazzed-up version of the title song from Mame while struggling to read the lyrics off a piece of paper, I couldn't help thinking "This audience deserves better."

The good news is that Jason Graae and Faith Prince will be returning to town in two months to appear in "The Prince and the Showboy"  at The Rrazz Room from March 25-27 (click here to order tickets). In the meantime, here's the video from the night Jerry Herman was inducted as a Kennedy Center honoree.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I'm In The Mood For Love

During the recent storms I was able to enjoy one of my favorite activities: lying in bed late at night, all cozy and warm, and listening to the sound of heavy rain in the darkness. To me that is one of the simple pleasures in life; something that always warms my heart and makes me feel good.

With Valentine's Day on the horizon, why not pause for a moment to think of those films whose approach to romance never fails to please. Recently nominated for 10 Academy Awards, The Artist is giving audiences an old-fashioned taste of old-fashioned romance.

Whenever I have a chance to revisit Lerner & Loewe's 1958 movie musical, Gigi, I never fail to be swept away by its many charms.

For many people, Rob Reiner's 1987 delight, The Princess Bride, is a reliable treat to chase away the blues.

Why? Because the bottom line is summed up so well in a famous song crafted by Rodgers & Hart during the Great Depression. In the following clip from 1932's Love Me Tonight, Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald sing "Isn't It Romantic?"

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Films in the romantic comedy genre vary from beautifully told stories (Sleepless in Seattle, Shakespeare in Love, Moonstruck, Notting Hill, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Four Weddings and a Funeral) to more mundane efforts that succeed at the box office but are quickly forgotten (Leap Year, The Proposal, Shallow Hal, Music and Lyrics). The rom-com machine also generates oceans of poorly-written drek that has been woefully directed.

Romantic farce, however, is a much more difficult genre in which to succeed.  Harold Lloyd was a genius at combining slapstick with the purest, most innocent expressions of love. I recently had a chance to watch Jack Benny starring in the 1941 film adaptation of Charley's Aunt. It's worth renting the DVD for a grandly comedic performance as Benny hops in and out of drag.

Due to be screened at the upcoming SFIndie Film FestivalJuko's Time Machine is the rare romantic farce that is contemporary, hilarious, and meticulously plotted. Written, directed, and edited by Kai Barry, this sweet little indie gem has a cast of six, a wealth of imagination, and a love story that is impossible to resist.

Juko (Nathan Cozzolino) and Jed (Alex Moggridge)
will go to any length to make Juko's dream come true.

Juko (Nathan Cozzolino) and Jed (Alex Moggridge) have been best friends since at least kindergarten. Where Juko is the nerdy dreamer who often comes up with crazy ideas, Jed has always been the practical enabler, the budding engineer who can design a gizmo that could make any fantasy of Juko's come true. There's just one problem.

Juko has spent the past 20 years obsessing over a girl he had a crush on in grade school. He's built weird mechanical devices that he hoped would impress Rory (Zibby Allen). He even crashed their teacher's car into a tree hoping that his daring action would make some kind of an impact.

The beautiful Rory (Zibby Allen) is the object of Juko's affection.

When Juko was supposed to kiss Rory onstage during a school play, he froze and ran out of the building. The next time she saw him, she punched him in the face.  That made an impression!

Juko even had the bad luck to be visiting Rory when Hammel (Josh Randall), the man she met in Italy, arrived to propose to her. Now they're married, Juko is still head over heels in love, tongue-tied, and getting desperate.

Because Juko is a classic nerd, he's convinced himself that the timing has always been wrong for him to propose to Rory. If he could only get to her before Hammel, he could charm Rory, ask her to marry him, and they could live happily ever after.

Jed's wife Nina (Katie Sigismund) experiences a most
unusual pregnancy in Juko's Time Machine.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Juko has been living the garage behind Jed's house. Jed's pregnant wife Nina (Katie Sigismund) is anxious to sell their house so they can get Juko out of their daily lives. But when Jed agrees to help his lovelorn friend build a time machine, unexpected complications ensue.

Imagine, just for a moment, what it might be like if Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart had been given a chance to write a segment about time travel for The Twilight Zone and you'll get some idea of the fun to be found in Juko's Time Machine.

Kai Barry's film features some animation by Virgil Mihailescu and is blessed with a delightfully mischievous score composed by Branden Kimball and Josh Johnson. The small ensemble of unknowns (including Kevin Sadlier as an easily confused neighbor) is so convincing that you'll find yourself laughing out loud at the film's inspired lunacy.

It looks like Juko's Time Machine is taking the direct to DVD distribution route, so if you're interested in purchasing the a copy of the film, click here.  In the meantime, here's the trailer:

Monday, January 23, 2012

Once More With Feeling

I once had a roommate who hadn't the slightest interest in the performing arts. "What do you mean when you keep saying 'That works'?" he asked. "I don't understand what your friends mean when they say something's "got legs.'"

Let me give you an example. George Gershwin was sitting in his publisher's office one day when Buddy DeSylva walked in and said "Let's write a hit!" The result, a song called "Do It Again," was added to the score of 1922's The French Doll at the insistence of its star, Irène Bordoni. Since then, it has become an American classic.

"Do It Again" has got legs.

During a 1952 appearance at Camp Pendleton, Marilyn Monroe's suggestive rendition of "Do It Again" nearly caused a riot. The following footage, taken from the star's 1954 USO tour to South Korea, shows Monroe singing several songs from the film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes before it ends with a snippet of her singing "Do It Again" to a crowd of sex-starved servicemen.

In 1961, the song was part of Judy Garland's legendary concert which was recorded as Judy Garland Live at Carnegie Hall. The popular singer performed "Do It Again" during one of the "Born in a Trunk" sequences in her short-lived television show two and a half years later.

In June of 2006, Rufus Wainwright performed two concerts at Carnegie Hall in which he sang all of the songs that had been recorded on the Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall album. In addition to releasing a double album entitled Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, a DVD was issued entitled Rufus! Rufus! Rufus! Does Judy! Judy! Judy! Live From the London Palladium. here he is singing "Do It Again" in the same key used by Judy Garland.

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Those three words -- "Do it again" -- have a profound significance for Lorenzo Pisoni who, after growing up in a circus troupe went on to an adult performing career ranging from a multitude of Shakespearean roles to the Ringmaster in a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas. Few actors, when asked during an audition "What else can you do?" can honestly answer "I can tap dance dressed as a gorilla."

Pisoni made his professional debut at the age of two and quickly started memorizing cues and routines from the circus show in which his father, Larry Pisoni (Lorenzo Pickle), co-starred with Bill Irwin (Willy the Clown) and Geoff Hoyle (Mr. Sniff). As Larry taught his son the tricks of clowning (how to stumble, fall down stairs, juggle, do a double take, tumble, etc.) he would keep telling Lorenzo to "Do it again" until the young boy had worked the routine into his body and learned to own it.

Lorenzo Pisoni at two years of age

The seriousness with which the elder Pisoni mentored his son helped to build a solid appreciation for craft and precision as well as the history and tradition of clowning from the early days of the commedia dell'arte to the present. As he continued to tour with the Pickle Family Circus, the younger Pisoni had a very different experience from military brats who are constantly being relocated from one base to another. As he explains:
"I don't know many kids who not only have a first-hand knowledge of what their parents do on a day-to-day basis, but also get to see their parents enjoying what they do -- see any adults enjoying what they do. Everyone in the Pickle Family Circus was having a good time."
The adult Lorenzo Pisoni stands beside a picture of himself at
two years of age in Humor Abuse (Photo by: Chris Bennion)

Pisoni recently returned to San Francisco, where he is now appearing in his one-man show at the American Conservatory Theater following a successful run at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Originally planned as a history of clowning that would be presented with his childhood friend from the PFC, Jonah HoyleHumor Abuse underwent major revisions when Hoyle developed stage fright and, after living in Alaska for several years, joined the faculty of De Anza College to teach creative writing.

Pisoni turned for help to Erica Schmidt, an old friend from his Vassar College days who was able to point out how, unlike children who run away to the circus, Lorenzo ran away from the circus. Schmidt also convinced Pisoni that, with Jonah out of the show, the narrative could be reshaped into a father-son story that would have a much broader appeal. Since 2008, Pisoni and Schmidt have been staging Humor Abuse in increasingly larger venues, before audiences ranging from 99 to 1,000 people.

When he first appears onstage, Pisoni stresses that he is not a clown. He's someone who grew up playing straight man to a clown (his father). However, as the evening progresses, Pisoni deftly demonstrates one trick after another while explaining what it was like to grow up in a circus environment surrounded by talented people who were always there to offer emotional support.

Pisoni's show is enhanced with slides that show him, at various stages of childhood, performing with his father as well as with a dummy his own size. As he performs his father's famous "sandbag" routine without flinching, Humor Abuse moves into a rare territory that combines an adult's poignant recollections of his childhood with meticulously-planned moments of stagecraft.

Throughout the evening, Pisoni's charisma, physical dexterity, and intelligence seduce the audience into learning about the tradition of clowning. In between his numerous backflips and pratfalls,  the audience gains a deeper awareness of why a good clown can not only make people laugh, but make them choke back tears as well.  Humor Abuse continues at the American Conservatory Theatre through February 5 (click here to order tickets).

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I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the San Jose Repertory Theatre's newest project, a co-production with the ACT -- A Contemporary Theatre in SeattleDavid Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright have created a new adaptation of a popular crime novel (1943's Double Indemnity) by James M. Cain which became a classic example of film noir.

Cain's novel first appeared in serial form in a popular magazine. The 1944 film version of Double Indemnity had a screenplay written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Directed by Billy Wilder, starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, it was produced by the aforementioned Buddy DeSylva and Joseph Sistrom.

Although Kate Smith begged the public not to go see the film because of its amorality, Cain didn't mince words in suggesting that "this fat girl.... probably put a million dollars on its gross." Alfred Hitchcock wrote to the film's director saying that "Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are 'Billy' and 'Wilder.'"

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, Double Indemnity received none. The public, however, embraced the film and it has been consistently hailed as a great American movie by the American Film Institute. For their stage adaptation, Frechette and Wright went back to Cain's original novel.  As director Kurt Beattie explains:
"Noir, for me, is a fantastic journey into a morally featureless universe.  In the moral definition of the world, good people and bad people, moral absolutes are hugely blurred in noir. Noir generates a tremendous amount of fear, pleasurable fear, about being waylaid in the dark, about being destroyed by people who supposedly care about you. Noir has a brilliant way of bringing forward and amplifying those emotional forces, those anxieties that people struggle with daily. I see noir fundamentally as melodrama, but with one great difference. You have all the devices of melodrama: mood heightened by music, cliffhanger situations, and suspense. If we're able to do it right, it will be both an entertaining and, dare I say it, philosophical journey for the audience."  
Carrie Paff and John Bogar in Double Indemnity
Photo by: Chris Bennion

Unfortunately, this adaptation of Double Indemnity suffered the same fate as last year's musicalization of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City by American Conservatory Theatre. A story that worked brilliantly in print (both were originally published in serial format) as well as on film felt remarkably uncomfortable in its attempt to make a successful transition to the stage.

Much of this has to do with the style of writing and direction. The sexual innuendo which works so well in print and onscreen feels clumsy and labored onstage. The characterization of Nettle, an office secretary played by Jessica Martin, seemed almost cartoonish.

Despite Thomas Lynch's fluid set (which made frequent use of its turntable) and Annie Smart's stylish period costumes, Double Indemnity never really achieved liftoff. Casting was strong, with John Bogar as a very masculine Walter Huff, Carrie Paff as a sultry, scheming Phyllis Nirlinger, and Jessica Martin as Phyllis's stepdaughter, Lola.

Carrie Paff and John Bogar in Double Indemnity
Photo by: Chris Bennion

With two strong actors playing the leads, I was surprised to see the ever-versatile Mark Anderson Phillips steal the show as Jackson (the man who almost ruins the murder coverup), Norton (the head of the insurance company), and Nino (Lola's smarmy boyfriend who starts shacking up with her stepmother). Other than economy, I'm not sure what was gained by having Richard Ziman double as the victim (Mr. Nirlinger) and the detective who solves the murder (Barton Keyes).

For a genre in which music should play a key role in building suspense, Adam Stern's score was surprisingly innocuous. Coupled with the fact that too many laps around a turntable can weaken a production, San Jose Rep's world premiere never really seemed to find its mark.

I was fortunate enough to attend the world premiere of an operatic adaptation of one of Cain's other great works (1934's The Postman Always Rings Twice) at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in June of 1982. With a great score by Stephen Paulus and a tight libretto by Colin Graham (who also directed), the work received several productions from regional opera companies.

The following footage (taken from rehearsals for a student production of The Postman Always Rings Twice at Boston University) gives a sense of the composer's skill at providing the right sound for Cain's novel. As it nears its 30th birthday, Paulus's opera deserves a revival.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Hanging On For Dear Life

No doubt you've had this experience: You read a description of an upcoming show and think "That sounds really interesting."  Or perhaps the buzz on a foreign film making the rounds of the festival circuit sounds extremely promising.

When you finally get to attend a performance or screening of the work in question you discover that it's a bit of a dud (kind of like the guy who was praised far and wide for his endowment but turned out to be a soulless bore who expected you to do all the work).

Two new tales of gender oppression come wrapped in the allure of exotic locations, feminist struggles, and subcultures which are rarely experienced by the audience at large. And yet, for all the care and loving which so obviously went into their creation, I found them to be surprisingly tedious.

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Often, when reference is made to the Two-Spirit people of Native American cultures, visions come to mind of Richard Amory's groundbreaking Song of the Loon or the male berdache who prefers cooking and domestic chores over hunting for food. The following clip from the film adaptation of Amory's erotic novel predates Brokeback Mountain by 35 years.

While a sufficient amount of one-handed fiction about hunky Indian braves getting it on in the wilderness can be found throughout gay literature (the sequels to Amory's 1966 classic inspired "Ricardo Armory" to write a parody novel which was subsequently transformed into a porn film entitled Fruit of the Loon), one rarely encounters stories about lesbian life among indigenous peoples.

Cover art for Fruit of the Loon by "Ricardo Armory"

In his essay entitled Adult Novels of Men in the Womanless World - Gay Pulp Fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, David Seubert writes:
"Greenleaf published an edition of Jean Genet's novels and many novels by prolific author and B movie director Ed Wood including Orgy of the Dead, but their most famous gay titles are perhaps Richard Amory [Richard Love]'s Loon Songs trilogy. Song of the Loon (1966), Song of Aaron (1967), and Listen, the Loon Sings... (1968) were widely read gay softcore. They were even so popular that Fruit of the Loon (1968), a fourth title by "Ricardo Armory" that parodied the series capitalized on the success of the previous three. Described by Angelo D'Arcangelo as a gay Last of the Mohicans, the series is a harmonious fantasy of love between the Native Americans and the white men, and has more literary merit than the average pulp. The big furry mountain men in these books would now be called 'bears' in the gay community and the Loon Trilogy may have had a lot to do with popularizing the 'bear lifestyle.' Again, all the characters seem to be gay, and everyone is identifiable by their membership in the supposed Native American organization, the Loon Society. Gentleness, compassion, and harmony are central to these books, flying in the face of the two stereotypes common in other books: either the 'bitchy queen' or the suicidal neurotic. They are surprisingly gentle books, and though they can get a bit syrupy at times, they show little of the terror and self-hatred of the exploitation books from ten years earlier."

The back cover from Fruit of the Loon

Cherrie Moraga's newest play, New Fire -- To Put Things Right Again, tells the story of Vero (Dena Martinez), an indigenous woman celebrating her 52nd birthday who must undergo a spiritual cleansing in order to move forward in life. Having been molested by her stepfather when she was a child, raped by a man at 17, and struggled to survive as a lesbian in a male-dominated society, Vero is haunted by a coyote (Adelina Anthony) and visited by an itinerant healer (Robert Owens-Greygrass) during a long light of tribal rituals.

Robert Owens-Greygrass and Dena Martinez in Cherrie Moraga's
New Fire -- To Put Things Right Again (Photo by: Charlie Villyard)

Much of New Fire feels like an extensively researched museum diorama rather than a staged drama. Video screens on each side of the stage are used to introduce the audience to certain key rituals and, alternatively, show gatherings of indigenous people in California. If Moraga's script had half as much dramatic power as the re-staging of indigenous rituals, New Fire might be a far more interesting evening of theatre.

As seen on opening night, New Fire's real strengths lie in the music of Stephen Luis Cervantes and the choreography by Alleluia Panis. While the show's running time is 95 minutes, the performance often feels as long as Gotterdammerung. At numerous moments during New Fire I found myself quietly wishing for more cowbell.

Vero (Dena Martinez) undergoes a spiritual cleansing ritual in Cherrie Moraga's
New Fire -- To Put Things Right Again (Photo by: Charlie Villyard)

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An intense domestic drama written, directed, and produced by Asghar Farhadi is getting lots of buzz on the festival circuit and starting to rack up awards. Frankly, I don't get it.

What makes A Separation so compelling to many people is that the film was shot in Iran, a society that is very much invisible to Western audiences. Because Iran is also a country undergoing tremendous social upheaval, the film is being seen as a breakthrough in Middle Eastern cinema. I won't say that all the fuss over A Separation is much ado about nothing -- just that this film is severely overrated.

Farhadi's film focuses on two severely stressed-out Iranian families. The first lives a fairly comfortable lifestyle and could be categorized as modern, middle class, secular professionals. The husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi), is a male chauvinist whose live-in father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Nader's wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), wants them to leave Iran so that their 14-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), can have better opportunities in life.

Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and his demented father
(Ali-Asghar Shahbazi ) go for a walk

As the film opens, Nader and Simin are appearing before a judge. Simin wants a divorce, but Nader  (who wants his daughter to stay with him) will only agree to a separation. Soon after Simin packs her belongings and leaves to live with her parents, it becomes obvious that Nader is totally unequipped to manage the care of his demented, incontinent father.

The second family is poor, extremely religious, and clings to a more traditional set of family values (that includes domestic violence).  The easily provoked Houjat (Shahab Hosseini) is so severely in debt that his creditors have sent him to prison on numerous occasions. When Houjat answers Nader's ad for domestic help, the two men act as if the situation has been completely resolved between them. But when Houjat is unable to fulfill his responsibilities, his wife (Sareh Bayat) steps in to take his place.

Razieh arrives at Nader's apartment with her young daughter, Someiyah (Kimia Hosseini), in tow and quickly starts to feel overwhelmed by the task awaiting her. When Nader's father soils the bed, she calls a religious help line to ask if she is permitted to clean him and wash his body. Meanwhile, Someiyah amuses herself with the valve on the old man's oxygen tank. The child's dark, questioning eyes take in everything happening around her.

 Someiyah (Kimia Hooseini) and her mother
Razieh (Sareh Bayat) walk down a busy street

As tempers flare, Nader accuses Razieh of stealing from him and tries to push her out of his apartment. When she returns to protest his accusations, Nader pushes harder and Razieh falls down the stairs.

Soon afterwards, Razieh suffers a miscarriage. Houjat accuses Nader of murder, Nader insists that he had no knowledge Razieh was pregnant, and a bitter chaos descends on both families.

As Nader and Simin try to figure out what the future might hold for their family, Simin (who is involved in some kind of social work), learns Razieh's deep, dark secret. Together, the two women must find a way to prevent their husbands from going to jail and/or trying to kill each other.

Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) are an
Iranian couple whose marriage is falling apart in A Separation

I did not find any of this film's acting, direction, or cinematography to be exceptional. If the same script had been filmed in a Latino culture with an equally oppressive level of macho behavior (arrogance, condescension, lying, violence, denial, stalking, stupidity, etc.) the story would hold up just as well.

The bottom line is that the children of any conflicted marriage suffer more than their self-involved parents imagine. And, in A Separation, nobody wins. Everybody loses. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Deep Down Inside

Sausage making is not now, nor has it ever been, a pretty process. And yet, the thrill of a Louisiana hot link, some sweet, hot Italian sausage, a fiery bite of linguica, or a choice piece of chorizo is undeniable. But when high-end items start to come apart at the seams, get turned inside out -- or capsize -- questions quickly arise about intent, ethics, and responsibility.

Less than a year ago, when a tsunami caused a meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Daichi nuclear reactor, anyone who was asked to describe what the physical plant looked like would not have talked about:

The sad truth is that (often for security reasons) the general public has not seen much footage of the inside workings of nuclear power plant. However, a new German documentary takes viewers inside many parts of a modern NPP while describing the fading dream of nuclear power.

Volker Sattel's new film, Under Control (which recently screened at the German Gems 2012 Film Festival), does not have any authoritative voiceovers. He simply lets his camera do all the talking.  Although viewers may hear employee conversations during quality assurance meetings at German and Austrian power stations -- or at power plants that have been decommissioned and taken offline -- scenes vary from the mundane act of employees showering for work to a surreal journey into a tunnel housing thousands of barrels containing radioactive waste.

Often, one catches the architectural beauty of the facility, whether looking up at the oddly-shaped towers or watching fuel rods being lowered into protective pools of water. Sometimes, a sense of 1950s science fiction becomes overwhelming. One early scientific projection describes a dry fog misting system designed to protect against aircraft collisions (in which the Emmental facility can completely disappear into a 300-meter high fog for a period of 10-15 minutes).

Because all of the nuclear power plants in Germany are at least 20 years old, it helps to take  a timeline of nuclear power's growth and fall from graceinto account.
Poster art for Under Control

Sattel's documentary veers between the enthusiasm of people attending a nuclear power trade show and the concern expressed by the head of the Institute for Risk Research at the University of Vienna that "although the IAEA will publish my results only with the approval of nuclear power plants, they give recommendations without binding effect. One gram of plutonium could theoretically give a million people lung cancer. A few kilograms could affect all of mankind."

Employees take a break during their shift at a nuclear facility

As the filmmaker explains:
"I grew up near the nuclear power plant at Philippsburg and started my research for the film in 2008, long before Fukushima. I noticed that there was no film on the inner world of a nuclear power plant. No documentary filmmaker had previously directed his attention to the 'caste' of nuclear personnel. We saw some downright surreal practices and rituals of everyday atomic work. We experienced teams of nuclear power plants as the sworn community of men and discovered that the world of nuclear power plants had been transformed into a world of 'Boys and Toys.' So many male staff spoke with conviction about their technique that it stood out as a little more boyish and impish."

Watching Under Control can be a bit unnerving. On one hand, the camera captures many beautiful shots of both the inner and outer architecture of nuclear power plants with a combination of clinical precision and a much more artistic perspective than one would normally see. On the other hand, Sattel's documentary reveals how closely the nuclear industry has approached the folly of nuclear disaster.  Watching and listening as alarms start ringing when no one is around to respond gives the viewer a chilling sense of irony and dread.  Here's the trailer:

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Many people remember April 14, 1994 as the day when seven tobacco industry CEOs lied to Congress under sworn testimony as they claimed to have no knowledge that nicotine is addictive. In the 15 years it took until President Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act into law, the public learned some very unpleasant facts about the tobacco industry's lust for profits.

I frequently refer people to a brilliant 2003 Canadian documentary entitled The Corporation for its ability to demonstrate how corporations can act according to the clinical definition of a psychopath. Directed by Charles Evans, Jr., a new documentary entitled Addiction Incorporated blows the lid of corporate secrecy off the tobacco industry by making the research behind nicotine addiction easily understandable for audiences through a combination of excellent animation sequences by Mette Ilene Holminis and the simple truth of one scientist's story. As Victor DeNoble explains:
"My parents nurtured in me a desire to help people. Itʼs the reason I became a scientist and the reason I teach kids science. I have dyslexia and ADHD. When I was a kid, there was no understanding of what they were. School, learning, and just paying attention were always a struggle. I was told I was stupid and that I may not graduate high school, much less go to college. I believed it and I was wrong. What motivates me today is reaching out to kids who feel they canʼt go beyond high school and showing them that they have more opportunities open to them than they think.
Scientists do research with the hope that we will have a positive impact on peopleʼs lives. I thought I would have that opportunity when I went to work at the Philip Morris Research Center. I never dreamed that our research would be suppressed for over ten years and that it would take a major federal investigation, congressional hearings, and acts of Congress before my hope would be fulfilled. This documentary isnʼt the end of a story; itʼs just the first chapter of the events that led to the changes weʼve seen to the health policy within the United States. The next chapters have begun to unfold with continued changes, not only in our nation, but also with changes in public health policy in other nations around the world."

Poster art for Addiction Incorporated

When DeNoble was tasked by Philip Morris with finding a substitute for nicotine that would not cause heart attacks, his research helped the tobacco company engineer a cigarette that was safer for smokers from a cardiologic standpoint. DeNoble's research, however, offered scientific proof that nicotine was addictive

There are times when Addiction Incorporated feels like a cross between a high school science fair and a chapter out of The X-Files. It is the story of how DeNoble became one of the most controversial corporate whistleblowers, exposing Big Tobacco's concerted efforts to use the addictive powers of nicotine to capture long-term revenue streams.

As one watches archival footage of people smoking aboard airplanes contrasted with DeNoble's appearances as a guest lecturer speaking to high school students, the courage of his convictions and their effect on public health offer a shocking foil to the greed of tobacco executives. In many ways, Addiction Incorporated struck me as one of the best "preventive medicine" films in recent years. Here's the trailer: