Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Brides Behaving Badly

Plenty of films involve the preparations for and hysterics surrounding a wedding. Julia Roberts starred in 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding and 1999's Runaway Bride. Other favorites include:
As weddings became more costly, contentious, and elaborate, the term "Bridezilla" entered the vernacular. In 2004, WE tv launched a popular reality show called Bridezillas. Unfortunately, there has been a long and very public history -- from Britney Spears to Kim Kardashian -- of desperate and dysfunctional brides.

Broadway musicals have created some wonderful numbers about brides behaving badly. Consider Marie's cry of desperation from 1959's Fiorello!  In the following video clip, Katie Karel sings "The Very Next Man"

In 1964, Barbra Streisand had audiences rolling with laughter in the aisles of the Winter Garden Theatre after a scene in which Fanny Brice begged Florenz Ziegfeld not to make her sing some ridiculous lyrics extolling her personal beauty. Here's a clip of the "His Love Makes Me Beautiful" sequence from the 1969 film adaptation of Funny Girl.

In 1966, when the Music Theatre of Lincoln Center revived 1946's Annie Get Your Gun, Irving Berlin wrote a new Act II duet for Ethel Merman and Bruce Yarnell which stopped the show cold at every performance. In the following clip, Peter Gallagher and Patti LuPone perform "An Old Fashioned Wedding" on Rosie O'Donnell's talk show.

Of course, one of the best examples of a bride behaving badly was captured by Stephen Sondheim in his 1970 musical, Company. Here's Madeline Kahn freaking out about "Getting Married Today" during 1992's Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall.

Many brides fantasize about being married on a beach or at a romantic tourist destination. In the wedding tradition of having "something old, something new" I recently spent time enjoying the wedding stories based on two tropical brides of paradise.

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In April 1999, Mamma Mia! had its world premiere in London (where it is still playing). A Canadian production premiered in Toronto in May of 2000 before moving on to Chicago. Later that year, en route to Broadway, the American production premiered at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre for a limited run before heading to Los Angeles, Boston, and finally settling down at New York's Winter Garden Theatre where it will soon celebrate its 4,300th performance.

Since its world premiere, stage productions of Mamma Mia! have grossed more than $2 billion and entertained more than 42 million theatregoers. In July of 2008, a film adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, and Amanda Seyfried gave the Mamma Mia! franchise a whole new lease on life.

As everyone now knows, the show is a jukebox musical created to showcase the songs made famous by the Swedish pop group, ABBA. Audiences around the world have been encouraged to dance in the aisles during the curtain calls. Nearly 12 years after its world premiere, Mamma Mia! continues to be a crowd pleaser wherever it is performed.

Pepper (Ethan Le Phong) has the hots for Tanya (Alison Ewing) in
Mamma Mia! (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Truth be told, when I first saw the show in 2000, I loathed it. That's mostly because, during the years when ABBA was at the height of its popularity I was living without a television and had only been listening to classical music and show tunes. Although I might have heard ABBA's songs in airports, bathhouses, bars, gyms, and on radios, I wasn't spending any time at a disco.

However, the announcement that a plot had been concocted which would serve as a vehicle for many of ABBA's popular songs caught my interest. Catherine Johnson's book placed the action on a Greek island where a young bride named Sophie (who had been raised by a single mother) decided to take a risky move. Having gotten her hands on her mother's diary, she'd invited the three most likely men who might be her father to take part in her wedding, hoping that when they arrived she'd discover the identity of her biological father.

When I first experienced Mamma Mia! Johnson's script seemed so lame that it was almost embarrassing. I was equally disappointed by the cheapness of the show's sets.

Twelve years later, I had a chance to revisit Mamma Mia! during a touring production's recent stop at the Orpheum Theatre. Much to my surprise, I had a perfectly delightful time.

Why? During the intervening years, more jukebox musicals (Jersey Boys, Movin' OutFela!The Boy From Oz, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert -- The Musical) have entertained audiences. And, in all honesty, I thoroughly enjoyed the 2008 movie starring Meryl Streep.

Watching the show through an older set of eyes reveals its strengths as both a bona fide cash cow and a solid piece of pop entertainment. With its skeletal sets and only seven musicians in the band, Mamma Mia! functions very nicely as a lean, mean, money machine.

Unlike traditional Broadway musicals whose initial success had been closely linked to their stars (Ethel Merman in Gypsy, Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!,  Barbra Streisand in Funny GirlAngela Lansbury in Mame), Mamma Mia! doesn't require a star to sell tickets at the box office. As a result, the payroll can be kept under reasonable control.

The show rests on the shoulders of Donna (Kaye Tuckerman) and her former backup singers in Donna and the Dynamos: Tanya (Alison Ewing) and Rosie (Mary Callanan). While Chloe Tucker (Sophie), Happy Mahaney (Sky), and Ethan Le Phong (Pepper) did a nice job of representing the younger generation, Sophie's three potential fathers were ably portrayed by Paul Deboy (Harry Bright), John-Michael Zeurlein (Bill Austin), and Christian Whelan (Sam Carmichael).

Kaye Tuckerman stars as Donna in Mamma Mia!
(Photo by: Joan Marcus)

I was especially impressed by Kaye Tuckerman, a wiry Australian actress with a big voice who gave an  intensely heartfelt performance as Donna.  Although there were times when the sound levels were jacked up unnecessarily high, this time around Mamma Mia! surprised and charmed me. Here's the trailer:

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Moving from one tropical paradise to another, Knots begins at an outdoor Hawaiian dinner designed for the tourist trade. The dinner show has just reaped the entertainment benefit of a handsome haole from Los Angeles who volunteered to don a grass skirt and learn how to dance the hula. Having given serious thought to this opportunity in advance, James (Henry Dittman) moves over to the table where his girlfriend Lily Kim (Kimberly-Rose Wolter) is seated, takes a jewelry box out of his pocket, drops to his knee, and asks her to marry him.

James Dittman tries his hand at the hula in Knots

Without missing a beat, Lily leans forward and vomits all over him. Needless to say, they leave Maui on separate planes, with James headed back to Los Angeles and Lily island hopping to visit her family on Oahu.

Not that Lily's family is much help. Her mother, Miriam (Illeana Douglas), has taken her experience of being married three times to build a wedding planning business with Lily's half sisters, Hoku (Janel Parrish) and Twinny (Mia Riverton).

Illeana Douglas is a wedding planner in Knots

Because Lily moved to the mainland and has shown absolutely no interest in getting married and having children, she is deeply resented by the always pregnant Twinny, whose husband, Roy (Chris Taloa), has been mysteriously "working late" on far too many evenings. To make matters even worse, Lily discovers that her ex-boyfriend Kai (Sung Kang) has started dating Hoku, who is super eager to hear him propose.

Kimberly-Rose Wolter (Lily) and Sung Kang (Kai) in Knots

In his director's statement, Michael Kang writes:
"The Hawaii you see in the film isn't the postcard version with tiki torches and umbrella drinks. It's the world in which Hawaiians actually exist. In that way, Hawaii became a character in itself in the film. Hawaii's voice is not overbearing or authoritative, it's rich and full of hope. Hawaii is wise but not verbose. Hawaii is the parent I think we all wish we had. Unlike the difficulties these women have with men in the real world, Hawaii is the perfect partner for them (both nurturing and trusting that they will all find their way). 
The film embraces both its Hawaiian-ness and its universality. By being very culturally specific it, in fact, becomes more universal. The film is not dark and gritty enough to be a film festival darling. But on the converse, we still shot this film on a shoestring indie-sized budget (in fact the lowest budget I've had to work with to date, which is only a testament to the great aloha spirit of the cast and crew for pulling off such an ambitious and beautiful film)."

Poster art for Knots

Written by Kimberly-Rose Wolter (who co-stars as Lily), Knots is an amiable and accessible, if decidedly unromantic film. It benefits immensely from the cinematography of Shawn Hiatt (especially in scenes shot inside the Waikiki Aquarium). The constant "cute" substitutes for standard expletives makes one wonder if the screenwriter and/or her wedding planners are Mormons. Here's the trailer:

Monday, February 27, 2012

Silent Nights, Lonely Nights

Silent diseases are defined as those which produce no clinically obvious signs or symptoms. From high blood pressure to chlamydia, from gluten enteropathy to periodontitis, patients can go for years without being diagnosed.

Silent diseases perform slow, steady, and insidiously erosive stealth attacks on a person's autoimmune system. Some may be linked to other diseases or their diagnosis may be masked by a similarity to some other disease's symptoms.

Like AIDS, depression knows no boundaries. It can strike people at any age, within any ethnic group, and will not be prevented by a person's wealth, gender, religion, political beliefs, or sexual orientation. When depression paralyzes an individual emotionally, it can have a toxic effect on his family.

Several years ago, when I entered the Kaiser Permanente health system, my primary physician asked me to visit a psychiatrist to see if I was having any problems with depression. This occurred midway through the Bush administration when, in addition to some logical financial concerns, I was deeply saddened by what had been happening to our country.

I knew I was not depressed and the psychiatrist agreed. In fact, we both had a bit of a chuckle when I stressed that there is a big difference between being depressed and being lazy (some of us choose sloth as a means of curbing our workaholic tendencies). However, slothfulness should not be mistaken for depression.

I witnessed depression for many years at a time when there was far less literature available on the subject and most people viewed depression as a luxury for rich people that others simply could not afford.  At the time, we had none of the knowledge about the disease that is so easily available today. But there is no escaping the fact that depression had a dramatic effect on my family.

Whenever she became severely depressed, my mother would go on the silent treatment. Sometimes it lasted a week, sometimes it lasted for months at a time (her longest stretch was nearly eight years). Although, during that period, she might sound perfectly cheerful on the phone, she would avoid talking to her family and retreat into her own personal hell.

Rose Heymont 50 years ago

On most occasions when she was going through a major bout of depression, my mother would set up camp in our basement (where she would eat and sleep as part of her pattern of rejection and avoidance). Although her depression shattered the family dynamic, in a perverse way it strengthened her children by forcing them to leave home and develop lives of their own.

My niece and nephew never knew whether they would encounter "good Grandma" or "the other Grandma." When Alzheimer's erased my mother's mind and memory, I remember thinking that there was a most unusual benefit to the disease process: she could no longer hurt anyone with her sarcasm or her silence.

There were many, many nights during high school when I would come down the stairs and see my father sitting on the living room couch, trying to read a book as tears silently streamed down his face. In The Glass Menagerie, Amanda Wingfield's son, Tom, developed a pattern of escaping to the movies. I started escaping to the theatre.

Over the years, I saw several dramas (The Subject Was Roses, Long Day's Journey Into Night) which depicted how depression might impact a family. But it wasn't until 1987, when I saw Neil Simon's play, Broadway Bound, that I finally saw onstage the deadly fog of silence that rules a home when a key member of the family is severely depressed.  I remember writing a letter to Linda Lavin to thank her for her performance as Kate and explain why her portrayal had been so vivid for me.

In a recent edition of The Borowitz Report, comedian Andy Borowitz wrote “With just one day until the key Republican contests in Michigan and Arizona, a new survey of likely voters indicates that in a match-up between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a majority would choose suicide over either candidate.”

Depression is not just a disease of silent sadness. Sometimes the silence masks a burning, unfocused rage whose destructive power terrifies the person who bears it as a curse. The strange thing about this silence is that, while it can be used to punish those closest to the person who is depressed, it can also prevent that person from striking out and doing much greater harm by saying hateful words that can never be taken back.

Silence and depression lie at the core of two new Bay area productions which will provide plenty of food for thought for those with a taste for serious drama. One exposes the history that led to a woman's depression as if peeling away the layers of an onion. The other brutally slices the onion in half and holds up its tear-inducing core for close inspection. As Bette Davis once warned, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"

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Written in 2003 by Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad, Scorched was adapted for film and released as Incendies in 2010. In a perverse way, I'm extremely glad I did not see the film prior to attending  the American Conservatory Theater's West Coast premiere of Mouawad's play.

Using the translation by Linda GaboriauCarey Perloff has directed this complex drama with an acute sensitivity to unraveling an astonishing family mystery. The beauty and power of Mouawad's writing stands so far above the repulsive elements of the story that one leaves the theatre thrilled by the meticulous crafting of the story as well as the cumulative power of its message.

The play begins as Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn) meets the twin children of Nawal, a friend and colleague who made him the executor of her will. Janine (Annie Purcell) is a mathematics professor whose outward coldness and clinical approach to life is a bit surprising for a young woman. Her brother, Simon (Babak Tafti), is an amateur boxer who is enraged to learn that, even after death, his mother has found a way to continue to make his life miserable.

Nawal had often chosen to remain silent for long periods of time, harboring a secret that she could not bring herself to tell her children while she was alive. After a stroke left her unable to speak for the last five years of her life, she left them some letters along with a pen, a worn out jacket with the number 72 on its back, and a red notebook.  In her will, she laid out precise instructions on how she was to be buried and what each child was to do with the letters and objects left behind after they had found their father and a brother they never knew they had.

Janine barely reacts while, for Simon, it's like discovering another curse. But Alphonse, who has a taste for details, forensics, and fact-checking, insists that the children follow through on their mother's wishes and offers his help in any way possible.

Janine (Annie Purcell) and Simon (Babak Tafti) are two twins
whose enigmatic, depressed mother has left very confusing instructions in her last will and testament
in Scorched (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What follows is an amazing tale of illicit love, female empowerment, terror, torture, and the culture clash between modern Canada and a Middle Eastern culture (probably Lebanon) where women are expected to remain barefoot, ignorant, and only serve to produce babies. After the young and Christian Nawal (Marian Neshat) has given birth to the son of her Arab refugee lover, Wahab (Nick Gabriel), Nawal's dying grandmother (Apollo Dukakis) begs her to leave their village and learn how to read, write, count, and speak.

During the evening, the importance of literacy for women gains focus as Nawal must use her intellectual strength to survive one crisis after another as she searches for the boy who was taken away from her and put up for adoption.

Jihane (Jacqueline Antamarian), Elhame (Omozé Idehenre),
and Nawal (Marjan Neshat), participate in a burial ceremony
in Scorched (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Scorched is one of A.C.T.'s strongest productions in recent seasons, with set design by Scott Bradley,
sound design by Jake Rodriguez, and costume design by Sandra Woodall. Working with a magnificent script, the cast and creative team guide the audience through the unraveling of an horrific family history cloaked in a Middle Eastern mystery.

The play unfolds through multiple lenses in scenes that take place in Canada and the Middle East, as well as in the present and past. What one witnesses, however, is astonishing character growth for Nawal and her two twins against a background of insane and endless war. As the play progresses, Lebel's increasing involvement in unraveling the mysteries of Nawal's will allows him to act as a father figure and guide for Janine and Simon.

Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn) and Simon (Babak Tafti)
in a scene from Scorched (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While I was particularly impressed by Babak Tafti's portrayal of Simon, Omozé Idehenre often commands the stage as a silent midwife and, later as Sawda, Nawal's traveling companion. Many in the cast take on multiple roles, with two actors playing Nawal at different stages of her life. Apollo Dukakis, Nick Gabriel, Jacqueline Antamarian, and Manoel Felciano shine in their moments onstage.

There are many reasons to see Scorched, but to reveal any of the plot's lurid details and mystifying discoveries would ruin the process of discovery. In addition to witnessing a great production that has been beautifully realized, the intricacy of Mouawad's plotting makes this play an important lesson for playwrights and storytellers.

Performances of Scorched continue through March 11 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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Ever since Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, launched the It Gets Better Project, more and more people have been talking about teen suicide and urging suicidal adolescents to contact The Trevor Project.

Long familiar to Bay area audiences from his popular book and monologue entitled Not A Genuine Black Man (the longest running solo show in the history of San Francisco theatre), Brian Copeland has returned to The Marsh with a new show which is not what anyone would call "a laugh and a half."  Sure, there are his deft characterizations of friends with weird personalities and even weirder voices (one of which sounds exactly like the Stinky Dog from Rubber Chicken Cards).

But comedy is the flip side of tragedy.  And for Copeland (a San Leandro native who has built a long and successful career as a standup comedian and television and radio talk show host), the pressures of balancing a performing career with the responsibilities of being a single father have been magnified by depressive challenges that make The Waiting Period: Laughter in the Darkness a much deeper, darker, and more desperate emotional puzzle for Brian to solve than his previous outings. There's no doubt that he has struggled to survive.

Dedicated to the memory of Colton L. Fink (a young man Copeland knew who committed suicide at the age of 15 in 2011), Copeland's show draws nervous laughter from his depiction of a single father who is so paralyzed with depression that he can't even boil spaghetti in order to serve his young children dinner. This is a man who, despite his fame as a lovable comedian, finds himself wondering what the best price might be to pay for a gun which will only ever need to fire one bullet.

Brian Copeland (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Occasionally, ordering in Chinese food can solve Copeland's catering problems. But there are other times when the brutal recognition that the people who so cheerfully ask how he is doing really don't want to know the answer to their question lead to painful, bitter eruptions of rage.

The Waiting Game takes its title from the 10-day waiting period during which any California gun dealer must run a mandatory background check on a potential buyer. The waiting period also serves as a cooling-off period for angry minds. Theoretically, having to wait 10 days to purchase a gun may allow more rational thinking to prevail over suicidal or homicidal ideation.

If, as they say, art holds a mirror up to civilization, then Copeland's new monologue accomplishes much more than merely entertaining a paying audience. The Waiting Period puts very human faces on the despairing souls whose lives have been severely affected by depression. In his show, Copeland asks the audience to stop and ask themselves if they know someone who might be dealing with depression. Or if they themselves might be in need of help.

Brian Copeland (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

To show how easy it is to miss the signs that someone is in emotional pain, Copeland shares the story of how, in the depths of a major depression, he was called upon to address a school auditorium filled with students eager to meet a celebrity. When Brian realized that the young girl who had followed him to the parking lot was struggling with depression, he tried to alert a member of the faculty that one of her students desperately needed help.  His attempt to sound an alarm almost met with failure because the teacher was the kind of perky personality who only wanted to hear good news.

One reason why so few people speak up about their own pain is that they are embarrassed to be labeled as a downer. Another problem with our culture is an overwhelming desire to tune out cries for help from those who are in genuine emotional distress.

For some people, depression continues to deliver an endless stream of disappointment and disillusionment as they get older. Their assessment of life is, perhaps, best summed up in this Paul Robeson recording of a popular spiritual:

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Demons Within

Thirty years ago, Miami was a much quieter place than it is today.
I attended that unfortunate world premiere as locals worried about a huge tropical storm coming ashore. Nothing particularly exciting was happening in the theatre where, during intermission, I heard one Florida matron mutter "Really, Estelle, who wants to go to an opera about nuclear war on their bridge night?"

Critics unanimously roasted Minutes Till Midnight, which starred the husband-and-wife team of Thomas Stewart and Evelyn Lear (who were familiar to South Florida's audiences). Lear, who had starred in the world premieres of Reuben, Reuben (a 1955 opera by Marc Blitzstein), Alkmene (a 1961 piece by Giselher Klebe), Die Verlobung in San Domingo (a 1963 opera by Werner Egk), Mourning Becomes Electra (Marvin David Levy's 1967 adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play), and The Seagull (Thomas Pasatieri's 1974 adaptation of Chekhov's classic) had lost all respect for the librettist (who thought it would be easy to sing words like "uniform-ed thugs are on the prowl").

Later that summer, when I visited Stewart and Lear at their home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Evelyn related how she had given the composer a piece of her mind following the premiere. When Ward entered her dressing room toward the end of the run and asked if she could suggest any musical cuts for future productions, Lear threw her score on the dressing room floor and told him in no uncertain terms that there weren't going to be any future productions of Minutes Till Midnight.

The final paragraph of my review of Minutes Till Midnight stated that "The result was an evening sunk by overproduction to cover a very frail story structure. Despite the huge investment of time and talent, one couldn't help but wonder if the composer had long since lost touch with modern times or if the Miami Festival itself was doomed to begin with a stillborn birth."

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That's pretty much how I felt after the lights came up following the Cutting Ball Theatre's world premiere of Tontlawald, a 65-minute long performance piece crafted by Paige Rogers, Eugenie Chen, Annie Paladino, and Laura Arrington. Heavily inspired by the work of a Polish theatre company, Paladino explains that
"Teatr ZAR’s work carries impact and meaning far beyond what one might expect based on the simple and archetypal (truly, Biblical) themes that anchor their pieces. This is because of the deep personal, cultural, and spiritual connection that exists between the performers/creators and their source material (namely, the songs) -- the performance becomes, in some ways, a kind of ritualized reproduction of years and years of culture, history, and collective memory. Even though the audience may not understand these connections and meaning explicitly, implicitly we are moved and affected by the transformations that are evident in the performers’ bodies and voices.

In our work on this piece, Paige, Laura and I have pushed ourselves and each other to explore what can be accomplished artistically and thematically with song, text, and physicality. We have striven to value each of these components as truly equal, and searched out ways in which each can be its own source of meaning (e.g., the act of singing, in and of itself, carrying the meaning of a certain moment, rather than supporting dialogue or a plot event). Following that impulse, but with our own personal and cultural histories to draw upon, our process for creating Tontlawald has consistently been about braving the unknown -- a trajectory that dovetails with Lona’s journey in the fairy tale, interestingly."

To my mind, the real stars of the evening are set designer Silvie Deutsch and music coach John Bischoff. Although Tontlawald starts strongly in darkness, it quickly implodes under the weight of its own concept and pretensions. After years of writing about opera, it's fairly easy to explain why.

Because we live in such an amplified world (in which most of the sound we hear has been electronically engineered), when audiences hear the human voice singing without any enhancement the purity of the sound comes as a genuine shock. The smaller the performance space, the bigger the shock.

Madeline H.D. Brown and Rebecca Frank appear in Tontlawald
Photo by: Annie Paladino

Tontlawald is essentially an ensemble's creative exercise in using motion, sound technique, and minimal text as a basis for improvisation. Ultimately, the show drives a wedge between "true believers" and those who (like myself) fail to come under the project's magic spell. For all of the creative team's earnest attempts to create mood, symbolism, depth, and despair, the painful truth is that there really is no there there.

Other than Deutsch's set, the most impressive part of the evening is the ensemble's a cappella singing (and passages of coordinated breathing). Unfortunately, these elements become most effective when the ensemble is harmonizing passages whose only words are "Section Three," "Section Five" and other chapter headings meant to link the barely perceivable narrative. Take away these chapter headings and it becomes painfully obvious that there is no play.

Sam Gibbs and Wiley Naman Strasser appear in Tontlawald
Photo by: Annie Paladino

Members of the ensemble included Madeline H.D. Brown, Rebecca Frank, Sam Gibbs, Cindy Im, Marilet Martinez, Wiley Naman Strasser, Meg O'Connor, and Liz Wand. The fact that the opening night audience wasn't sure when Tontlawald actually came to an end offers a sad comment on the piece's appalling lack of structure as well as its inability to keep the audience involved.

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The clarity of Modern Family (an 18-minute Korean film that will receive its North American premiere at the 30th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) is one of its obvious strengths. Although I'm not usually drawn to horror as a genre, I tip my hat to Kwang-Bin Kim. This is a talented writer/director who knows what his story is, where it has to go dramatically, and gets there with meticulous skill.

Sung-il Park stars as Hyun-soo, a male executive who keeps getting interrupted during a business meeting by phone calls from his young son. Although Hyun-Soo tries to get the boy to stop using the telephone as a toy, when his son says "It won't stop bleeding," the worried father dashes out of his meeting and races home.

Sung-il Park stars as Hyun-Soo in Modern Family

Upon arriving at their residence, Hyun-soo sees his son's arm drenched in blood as the boy stands quietly in the doorway, holding a toy. Upon entering the bedroom, he discovers that  Myung-jin (Dong-woo Yoo) has stabbed a playmate to death.  Why? After Myung-jin won a game they were playing, the other boy refused to hand over his toy. So Myung-jin killed him.

Dong-woo Yoo and Sung-il Park in Modern Family

When Hyun-soo's wife, Eun-jung (Na-Mi Yoo) returns from shopping, she discovers her husband and child covered in blood. As the couple struggle to cope with the afternoon's events, they are interrupted by the dead child's mother. As the old saying goes: "The family that slays together, stays together."

Having dismembered two bodies and stuffed them into rolling suitcases, Hyun-soo heads for the woods, with his wife and child in tow. As he digs a grave, his son quietly plays with his new toy. The true horror of the film is what Hyun-soo tells Myung-jin in the film's final moments.

Sung-il Park, Dong-woo Yoo, and Na-Mi Yoo  in Modern Family

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Learning From History

George Santayana famously stated that  "the one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again." The increasing ability of scientists to use genomics as a means of extracting data from fossil materials has led to recent discoveries that were once simply unthinkable.
A Bengal tiger (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Lucy McKeon's recent article on Salon.Com (The Coming Medical Revolution) gives a thrilling look at where the science of genomics might lead in the future. Unfortunately, Matt Taibbi's recent piece in Rolling Stone (Another March to War?) leads one to believe that there's still no fool like an old fool.

While genomics can help to unravel the many mysteries of life, sometimes there is simply no accounting for human behavior. Whether through historical reenactments or works of fiction, the search to understand some of man's most inspired and most appalling struggles continues.

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Last summer, when the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco announced the lineup for its superb Arts & Ideas series, I was intrigued to see two performances of The Rivalry listed on the schedule. First produced on February 7, 1959 at the Bijou Theatre with Richard Boone (the star of television's Have Gun -- Will Travel) starring as Abraham Lincoln opposite Martin Gabel's portrayal of Stephan A. Douglas, Norman Corwin's The Rivalry has gained popularity over the years as both a radio play and a staged presentation.

Poster art for The Rivalry

In her program notes, dramaturge Elizabeth Bennett writes:
"What most fourth-grade social studies curriculum materials don't teach about the Lincoln-Douglas debates is what followed. Lincoln and Douglas put principle above personal feeling and worked for the stability of a country they both loved. They formed an alliance to preserve the Union. In a 19th-century version of 'the handshake across the aisle,' Douglas held Lincoln's hat at his inauguration and escorted Mrs. Lincoln to the first inaugural ball.  Shortly after, Douglas worked hard to confirm for Lincoln the loyalty that Illinois citizens held to the Union.
The Rivalry is a heartbreaking reminder of what's missing from today's political scene. When L.A. Theatre Works first staged the play in the fall of 2008, a brutal presidential election campaign was taking place in the United States in which a tall, eloquent man whose political experience was questioned towered over a well-respected, sometimes blustering political veteran. But unlike the Illinois senate race of 1858, the eloquent and principled presidential candidate of 2008 was a well-educated African-American man. And this man claimed Abraham Lincoln as a hero. Unlike what happened between Lincoln and Douglas, the handshakes that extended from Barack Obama to John McCain on the night the Senate voted on the financial rescue package was rebuffed. Three years later, the Senate is split solidly along party lines, the power of the American Tea Party Movement grows as its members rally for smaller government, fewer taxes, and more individual freedoms; and the recent wrangling over the budget was one of the most contentious crises of modern politics. The legacy of Douglas's gesture to Lincoln seems to have been lost."
Last summer, the Republican debates began to resemble a political reality show. Now that the Republican primaries are actually under way, it's easier to predict the outcome by comparing the major contenders to popular cartoon characters:
Never one to doubt himself (or understand how thoroughly he is loathed by his former colleagues) Gingrich's ego is so big that (with the possible exception of his wife) it triggers gag reflexes wherever he roams. When comedians compare Gingrich to Moby Dick (the great white sperm whale in Herman Melville's 1861 seafaring novel), it only makes sense to describe Callista with the traditional whaling cry, "Thar she blows!"

On Tuesday, November 29, 2011 (based on the smugly-assumed inevitability of his being named the Republican Party's Presidential candidate), Gingrich made the following fatuous claim on a conservative radio talk show:
"The White House will be my scheduler. I will appear four hours after Obama everywhere he goes for the duration of the campaign, and I will answer each of his speeches. The negative publicity that will get him -- in the sense that he'll be constantly running away -- and the fact that it gives me the advantage of always being the guy with the answer...I suspect at some point he'll decide it's easier just to agree to debate me."
Just like Newt's vision of a moon colony applying for statehood, that ain't gonna happen. However, Gingrich's desire to have a series of debates modeled after the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, made the upcoming  LA Theatre Works production of The Rivalry (directed by Shannon Cochran) seem timelier than expected.

This simple two-act production starred Robert Parsons as Lincoln and Josh Clark as Douglas, with Diane Adair and Rebecca Mozo in supporting roles. Parsons (who is well over six feet tall) has always impressed me as an actor. I can't imagine a more perfect piece of casting. Josh Clark provided an impressive foil as the man who was far more famous than Lincoln at the time of the debate.

Even more interesting was the fact that there was a full house, with audience members of all ages. As Lenore Naxon, Director of the Eugene & Elinor Friend Center for the Arts explained, a donor had stepped forward to underwrite a block of tickets so that newcomers could be introduced to the JCC, its theatre program, and this fascinating moment in history.

A 2-CD taped performance of The Rivalry starring Paul Giamati and David Strathairn is available for purchase. Here's the trailer:

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Just as Lincoln and Douglas managed to unite forces on a matter of principle, the protagonist of a new Holocaust film directed by Agnieszka Holland is Leopold Socha (Robert Więckiewicz), a petty thief who rises above his personal greed to unexpected levels of compassion as his conscience leads him down an unfamiliar path. Based on Robert Marshall's book, In The Sewers of LvovIn Darkness tells the story of a small group of Polish Jews who managed to stay alive for 14 months while hiding in the city's sewers. Following World War II, Socha and his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis), were honored by the state of Israel as Righteous Among the Nations.

Leopold Socha (Robert Więckiewicz) and his wife,
Wanda (King Preis) are two Poles taking great risks

No matter how you feel about Holocaust films, In Darkness makes one thing crystal clear. Kate Winslett had it easy while filming Titanic for James Cameron. Why?  At least she didn't have to wade through water mixed with (make-believe) shit as rats scurried about the set.

As the film starts, the audience meets Socha, who has robbed a jewelry store run by the Chiger family. Together with his accomplice, Szczepek Wróblewski (Krzysztof Skonieczny), he is descending into Lvov's sewers to hide his stolen treasure when, much to his surprise, he encounters a group of Jews who have managed to dig through the rock beneath their home to create an escape path through the sewers in case the Jews are rounded up from the ghetto.

Paulina Chiger (Maria Schrader) races home as the
Nazi round-up of Jews begins in the ghetto of Lvov

The Nazis move in quickly and brutally, rounding up Jews who will be taken to concentration camps and killing plenty of others.  As Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup), his wife Paulina (Maria Schrader), and their two little children -- Krystyna (Milla Bańkowicz) and Pawel (Oliwer Stańczak) -- flee into the darkness, they are joined by Szlomo Landsberg (Aleksander Mincer), Mundek Margulies (Benno Fürmann), Klara Keller (Agnieszka Grochowska), Mania Keller (Maria Semotiuk), Yanek Weiss (Marcin Bosak) and his girlfriend, Chaja (Julia Kijowska).

Once they adjust to the darkness and terrifying change in their situation, they must figure out how survive. True to his word, Socha returns to guide them to a temporary safe spot in the sewers as their long ordeal begins.

The Jews find safety in the sewers under Lvov

Written by David F. Shamoon with some very impressive cinematography by Jolanta Dylewska, In Darkness has a riveting story to tell which is made all the more remarkable by the physical production. As production designer Erwin Prib relates:
"The sewer sets for this film are not only a major location with an enormous amount of screen time, but another main character, inheriting all the emotions involved in the story: hope, fear, love. They had to be a shelter and a deadly trap at the same time. We got the chance to visit several real sewer systems in Berlin, Leipzig, and Lodz. I was fascinated by this underworld. At the same time it seemed rather difficult to shoot the majority of the scenes under such harsh and even dangerous circumstances. I proposed to build the chambers and parts of the sewer tunnels in the studio.
The initial design idea of the studio sewers is the möbius strip. I wanted to create a labyrinth system on a very small space, using different tunnel sections, so that you can wander around in this rather small system for quite a long time without crossing the starting point. We created a 3D model and tested it. My art director (Niels Müller) attached a walking scheme to every scene in the film, and at the end, the floor plan looked like patterns for sewing. To design the chambers in which the refugees hide was another challenge. These had to be spaces realistic enough to represent overflow chambers or another technical space in the sewers. On the other hand, these had to be rooms you can work in with a crew and a dozen actors, rooms the refugees survived in for over a year and lived a 'normal' social life.
The core requirement for the set construction was the water resistance. We wanted to simulate different levels of water and current in these tunnels, as it is in the reality depending on the precipitation. The main system was built for a water level of one meter (roughly 3.3 feet) max. Segments of the sewers had to be completely under water, since the story climax takes place with the whole sewers fully flooded. They were built separately in containers. A bunch of talented scenic artists turned the plaster casted walls into real brick with a great patina."
Leopold Socha hoists Krystyna Chiger up to street level
so that  she can see what life is still like above the 
sewers where her family and friends are hiding

For costume designer Katarzyna Lewinska, the challenges were equally daunting:
"We had to create a master plan for all the characters of 'clothes distressing phases' based on the timeline and separate plans for every character based on individual events in the script. That created a very difficult production task: constructing enough sets of costumes for every character for the most difficult scenes requiring duplicated costumes and for the entire story to show the destruction of their world. So there were duplicates of duplicates of duplicates. It felt like mathematics." 

The Chiger family and their surviving friends celebrate
a bizarre Passover in the sewers under Lvov
"And, of course, whatever we planned and tried to foresee before the shooting started did not necessarily prepare us for the reality we faced once we entered the set on the first day. The reality of the production was far more difficult than what we had expected. The never-ending water presence was the most annoying thing.  Everything seemed constantly wet and dirty. There was never enough time to dry clothes. The shoes were constantly wet and falling apart and the distressing kept being washed off. When we went down into the real sewers in Lodz, things got surreal. The most severe cold wind, humidity and lack of light for 12 hours were something I still remember. Hundreds of tired extras, very difficult days full of arguments, accidents, and enormous fatigue. I think it was the most difficult three months in my film experience."

Mundek Margulies (Benno Fürmann) sneaks into a Polish
concentration camp in search of Klara Keller's sister, Mania

In Darkness has been so beautifully directed and achingly acted that audiences will hardly notice the film's running length of 2-1/2 hours. While viewers will remain focused on Socha and "his Jews," the powerful contributions of Michał Żurawski (Bortnik), Maria Semotiuk (Mania Keller), and Krzysztof Skonieczny (Szczepek Wróblewski) in supporting roles should not be overlooked. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Old Men And The Sea

With the centenary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic fast approaching, it's no surprise that James Cameron is releasing a 3D version of his 1997 blockbuster film, Titanic. Recent events (most notably the Costa Concordia catastrophe) have reminded us that the sea is a much more powerful force than man.

Given the frailties of human nature -- and the possibility of human error -- it should surprise no one that in an age where sailors have every possible electronic enhancement at their disposal (from shipboard computers to GPS navigation devices), one bad decision can still wreck a ship that is 952 feet long, 116 feet wide, weighs 114,137 gross tons and cost $570 million to build.

Passengers in lifeboats abandoning the Costa Concordia 
on the night of January 13, 2012

One of the moments that I treasure from Cameron's film is a simple little segment of  CGI work. It captures the moment (approximately 12:45 a.m. on April 15, 1912) when the first flare went up from the Titanic. Instead of showing it from the level of the ship's deck, the film shows the flare as just a tiny little puff of pink against a black sea and black sky. Suddenly, the audience realizes how isolated the Titanic was in the Atlantic Ocean.

Of course, that's not really true. As any Titanic historian knows, the SS Californian was only five miles away, blocked by an ice field. But because the Titanic sank in the early days of wireless communication -- and after Cyril Evans (the radio operator on the Leyland Line's 6,223-ton ship) had shut off his wireless set and retired for the night -- the crew of the Californian had no idea what had happened until the following morning. For those unfamiliar with the details of the event, Wikipedia explains that:
"At longitude 50 degrees 07 minutes west and steering a course of due west, a position to the south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, Californian encountered a large ice field. Captain Lord spotted it just in time and ordered the helm hard right and the engines full astern. The ship's head swung rapidly to the right but it was too late; she actually entered the loose margins of the ice field. He eventually stopped the ship, surrounded by loose ice and heading northeast. Lord decided to stop the ship and wait until morning to proceed further. Before going down from the bridge, he thought he saw a ship's light away to the eastward but could not be sure it was not just a rising star. He carried on down to the engineers' cabins and met with the chief, whom he told about his plans for stopping. As they were talking, they saw a ship's lights approaching. Lord went to the wireless room to find out if Evans knew of any ships in the area. Evans met him on the way and informed him he did: “Only the Titanic.” Lord instructed Evans to call Titanic and inform her that the Californian was stopped and surrounded by ice.
On deck, Third Officer C.V. Groves also saw the lights of another ship come into view on the horizon off Californian's starboard side, and less than ten miles away. To Groves, she was clearly a large liner as she had multiple decks brightly lit. Fifteen minutes after spotting the vessel, Groves went below to inform Lord. Lord suggested that the ship be contacted by Morse lamp, which was tried, but no reply was seen."
The SS Californian
"Titanic's on-duty wireless operator, Jack Phillips, was busy working off a substantial backlog of personal messages with the wireless station at Cape Race, Newfoundland, 800 miles (1,300 km) away, at the time. When Evans sent the message that they were stopped and surrounded by ice, the relative proximity made Californian's signal loud in Phillips' headphones (both radio operators were using spark gap wireless sets whose signals bled across the spectrum and were impossible to tune out). As Evans attempted to transmit his ice message, Phillips was unable to hear a separate, prior message he had been in the process of receiving from Cape Race, and an exasperated Phillips rebuked Evans with: "Shut up, Shut up, I’m working Cape Race." Evans listened for a little while longer, and at 23:30 he turned off the wireless and went to bed. Ten minutes later Titanic hit an iceberg. Ten minutes after that Titanic's lookout spotted a nearby ship. Titanic sent out her first distress call 25 minutes later."
One of Ken Marschall's famous paintings shows the Titanic sinking into
the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean on the night of April 15, 1912

Often referred to as "the ship that God himself could not sink," the Titanic disappeared under the waves at 2:20 a.m. A century later, despite our increased knowledge about how solar flares can affect satellite communication, GPS, and other wireless devices, man's overconfidence in technology remains a critical weak point.

On February 9, 2001, the submarine USS Greeneville sank the Japanese fishing boat Ehime Maru in an unfortunate collision which led to the Bush administration’s first foreign relations crisis. Writing to the editor of, retired USNR Captain John DeShazo -- an instructor of seamanship and navigation at the United States Naval Academy in the late '70s and early '80s -- asserted that:
“The USNA recruits technocrats to be midshipmen, people fascinated by electromechanical gadgets. They place more faith in electronic sensors than their own eyes. Without an appreciation for the power of human senses, no one learns to focus the attention on the environment in which a seaman's vessel actually exists. Seamanship is not given a high priority in the U.S. Navy. I have personally observed this failing many times. On dark nights, while conducting offshore sail training operations, I used to turn off all the electronics and require midshipmen to steer using the wind on their faces, the stars, and the sea. They nearly always resented this exercise. They would say it was useless and saw no purpose in being deprived of modern electronic devices. They rarely understood their instructor's intentions of honing their ability to focus on details and concentrate on learning to understand the real life existence of their vessel in its environment. Modern American naval officers perceive themselves in the abstract, as if they were controlling their ships over the Internet.”
Two fascinating new documentaries that will be screened at the 30th San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival investigate man's relationship with the Pacific Ocean. Each takes into account the legacy of an island population's tribal ancestors, who learned how to survive and thrive with the help of the ocean.

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Directed by Nā‘ālehu AnthonyPapa Mau: The Wayfinder chronicles a 30-year reawakening among Hawai'ians of an interest in the navigational techniques used by their ancestors to travel back and forth across Polynesia. During the 1970s, a small group of Hawaiians formed the Polynesian Voyaging Society with the goal of building a voyaging canoe in the ancient style. Their dream was to sail the double-hulled Hōkūleʻa using the ocean paths between Hawaiʻi and Tahiti.

The Polynesian Voyaging Society's two-hulled sailing canoe

Although such sea voyages had been described in oral traditions, the voyages had not been made for hundreds of years. As far as they knew, no Polynesian navigators still existed who could teach them an art form that had been passed down through generations of Pacific Islanders.

There was, however, a Micronesian man from the tiny Carolinian island of Satawal who had been invited to Hawai‘i in 1973 by a Peace Corps volunteer named Mike McCoy. Born in 1932, Mau Piailug began his training at an early age by wading in shallow tide pools to gain a feel for the ocean.

He learned about the stars, the winds, and the ocean's currents from his grandfather (Raangipi) and father (Orranipui) and developed an intuitive understanding and deep respect for the sea. By the time he had turned 18, Mau was recognized as a master or "Pwo" navigator in the last ceremony of its kind to take place on Satawal for the next 50 years.

Mau Piailug initiates Hawai'i's Nainoa Thompson as a Pwo
navigator during a ceremony on the Micronesian atoll of  Satawal

Acutely  aware that Western cultural attitudes were eroding Micronesia's traditional lifestyles and values, Mau agreed to teach the Hawai'ians how to navigate the ocean without using any instruments in order to pass on his legacy of navigational techniques. Although he agreed to navigate the Hōkūle‘a's maiden voyage to Tahiti, he insisted that there be no compasses, sextants, maps, or any other western-style navigational instruments on board. The journey across the Pacific would be guided simply by his knowledge of the stars and the sea.

Papa Mau: The Wayfinder documents that first voyage as well as Mau's subsequent mentoring of young navigators. It also shows how Mau proved that the ancient canoe voyages throughout Oceania were carefully navigated, and did not just rely on luck.

Mau died of complicated from diabetes on July 12, 2010. On July 24, 2010, members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society gathered at sunrise at Lānaʻi Lookout on Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi (where Mau had taken Nainoa Thompson and others to study the elements of their land). The following emotional video clip ends with a sunset at Nānākuli.

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In a few weeks the world will mark the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that leveled much of the Iwate Prefecture in Tohuko, Japan on March 11, 2011. Even for those who watched from the safety of their computer screens, the raging power of the water that rushed through the city was a horrific sight to behold.

The ocean may be a formidable opponent, but it is not always a violent one. The Titanic, Ehime Maru, and Costa Concordia were all in relatively calm waters when they met their fate. However, with climate change melting so many of the world's glaciers, rising sea levels pose a threat to island cultures which most people simply cannot imagine.

An idyllic moment on the coast of Takuu

Briar March's poignant new documentary, There Once Was An Island: Te Henua e Nnoho, looks at the tiny atoll of Takuu (also known as Mortlock), which is located off Papua New Guinea's east coast of Bougainville. At high tide, the atoll's highest point is about one meter above sea level.

Over the past 1,200 years, the natives of Takuu have built a strong and sustainable culture built around agriculture (especially giant taro) and the fish they get from the sea.

Although Takuu has approximately 400 residents, a 2006 cyclone had a devastating impact on the community which, two years later, watched helplessly as three days of high tides in December 2008 washed away kitchens, personal belongings, and destroyed numerous homes and churches.

A photograph of the Takuu atoll taken from space by NASA.

Although many inhabitants are reluctant to leave the only home they have known, the residents of Takuu have slowly realized that their only hope for survival is to let the government relocate them to Papua New Guinea's mainland (where they would live in a land-based culture as opposed to the water-based culture in which they were raised). But what can you do when there is only sporadic government assistance available and few boats stop at your atoll during the year? As Satty (a frustrated father) explains to one of his sons: "You can't climb up a coconut tree and stay there forever!"

Briar March was present in 2008, when two scientists (oceanographer John Hunter and geomorphologist Scott Smithers) visited Takuu to explain the science behind the rising sea levels. March's film contains many poignant moments -- especially the one in which two sisters must say their final farewells as one leaves to return to her home on the mainland while her sister insists on staying behind.

In her director's statement, Ms. March writes:
"We began making the film after seeing an article about Richard Moyle, an anthropologist who has worked on Takuu every other summer for the last 16 plus years. He mentioned that the atoll appeared to be suffering the first impacts of climate change including salty gardens and coastal erosion. Richard was able to give us permission to make a film about the issue on behalf of the Ariki (chief) of the atoll. This documentary is extremely topical and discusses an issue of global importance. It is also a character-driven story told in an observational cinematic style (in contrast to other more science driven, or journalistic films on the subject). 
Takuu’s plight draws attention to the situation of other people in the Pacific and in coastal areas elsewhere who will soon face similar problems. In addition to being an important record for all Pacific peoples, this film will help preserve the way of life and cultural identity of a unique Polynesian culture. The Takuu community has stressed to us that they feel they do not have a voice. We hope that, through this film, we will be able to give them one."