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:

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