Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Gonif With The Wind

The classics are constantly up for reinterpretation. At the recent Best of PlayGround Festival, Raelle Myrick-Hodges directed Garret Jon Groenveld's short play, Childless, in a way that offered new insights into exactly why Medea (Cathleen Riddley) chose to kill her two sons.

Cathleen Riddley as Medea in Childless
Michael J. Asberry portrayed Jason as an archetypal male chauvinist pig who insisted that the reason he could bring Creusa Glace (Roselyn Hallett) home as a trophy wife was because he was, after all, Medea's king. A few tacky insults from Creusa Glace was all it took to strengthen Medea's resolve. The following clip gives a brief glimpse of a royal marriage on the rocks.

* * * * * * * * *
Shakespeare's plays are always fair game for interpretation. Several months ago, Ralph Fiennes unveiled his brilliant cinematic updating of Coriolanus. At last summer's Frameline LGBT Film Festival I was deeply impressed with Alan Brown's provocative approach to Romeo and Juliet. In his director's statement, Brown wrote:
"Though Romeo and Juliet is usually interpreted as a romantic tale of young love thwarted by a family feud, recent re-readings convinced me that it is actually a much more modern and relevant story about sexual identity and desire pitted against society and its institutions; about personal freedom and rights versus authority. As a gay man and an artist frustrated by the political battles and inaction over gay equality and by the heart-breaking epidemic of gay bullying, I thought Shakespeare would be the perfect vehicle for exploring these issues. As Private Romeo’s high school military cadets find themselves in the kinds of emotionally tumultuous situations -- falling in love, the loss of friendship, confronting homophobia -- that would leave any adolescent (or adult) at a loss for words -- they must use Shakespeare’s language as their sole means of expression, forcing them to explore the profound drama of coming of age."

Brown sets the action on the campus of the fictional McKinley Military Academy, where a group of eight cadets are left behind over a school break while everyone else heads out to visit friends and family. The cadets are instructed to follow their standard military routine with no deviation. But as they begin to read Shakespeare aloud in a classroom, an interesting transformation takes place. Slowly, each cadet starts to identify with one of the characters from Romeo and Juliet, taking on that character's emotions and lines long after leaving the classroom.

Whether rallying around friends, protecting one cadet from bullying, or falling in love with another cadet who plays on the opposing basketball team, the language of Shakespeare dominates the action in Brown's film. It's an interesting twist, especially considering that in Shakespeare's day all roles were played by men.

Whether you are a Shakespeare scholar, love to watch young jocks playing basketball, or have a fetish for men in uniforms, Private Romeo offers plenty of food for thought. From sharply-angled locker room shots to darkly-lit moments of self doubt, Derek McKane's cinematography helps to frame the roiling emotions of young love, jealousy, ecstasy, and revenge.

If you have not yet seen Private Romeo, you should definitely rent it from Netflix or purchase the DVD. What I love about this film is how it takes one of the world's most famous love stories and transfers it from very publicly recognizable segments of society to a more stifling and insular subculture. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
It's hard to find a more stifling and insular culture in America than that of Hasidic Jews, which is why Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is such an interesting project. The history of the Yiddish theatre is filled with productions that "improved" upon the original (including Shakespeare). Eve Annenberg's film takes some wonderful leaps of fancy while staying remarkably close to the original play.

Annenberg was as surprised as anyone else by her inspiration for the film:
"For Jews living in New York, we have only to look around us, even on the subway, to be faced with a culture which is ours, yet not ours. The divide between Ultra Orthodox and Secular Jews is so wide that we differ on the definition of what it is to be a Jew. This has become a huge issue not just in Israel but also here, on the streets of Manhattan and the neighborhoods of Brooklyn where we pass each other, but do not talk.
As a super secular person I used to have a lot of issues with the Ultra Orthodox (if I even thought about them). Loathed their politics, their effect on Israel, their general aloofness, even their style. I think it's Woody Allen who said 'Every Jew thinks that any Jew who is more religious than he crazy.'

Then, in 2006, I stumbled upon a floating weekly party of Ultra Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox 'leavers' who came together weekly to chat, eat, sing, and interact with secular people and non-Jews. They listened to impromptu lectures (one regularly given on philosophy by a friend to the group, a Palestinian philosopher en route to China to teach English). I was hooked by the singing, that a cappella wail in a minor key which reminded me of my childhood, and the transporting, disorienting presence of a dozen people, age 18 to 23, who were speaking Yiddish as a first language. I felt like I had stepped back in time, like I was in a bunker in Europe in the 1940s, like I'd landed in a Yiddish Oz.
It was a visual feast, from the fashionably unkempt young, integrating traditional talismans, from peyos to the tape measure, to the fantastically put together Satmar visions of ...what? Dutch Jews circa 1600? The first time I perceived a 21 year old in white knee socks, black layers and peyos as a romantic vision, I knew that something had shifted for me and that perhaps I could share my new perception and the thrill I got (when hearing speedy young Yiddish babbling around me) with my own world."

Lazer Weiss as Romeo

Because I grew up in a home where Yiddish was the second language for my parents and the first language for my grandparents, I found it fascinating to watch this film and hear the musicality of the Yiddish language on screen. Many have claimed that one of the great strengths of Yiddish is that one word, spoken in a variety of inflections, can redefine an insult in many ways.

I'm not really sure if the use of "street-smart Yiddish" equates to labeling the film as "Yiddish mumblecore." After all, what little Yiddish vocabulary most Americans know comes from Jewish comedians. However:
  • In any language, Tybalt would still be a putz.
  • It's interesting to hear Romeo and his cousin, Benvolio, teasing each other with the word "nudnik."
  • Faigie is a disgruntled Orthodox Jewish teenager whose Juliet is a beautiful, intelligent young woman trying to avoid a matchmaker's "shidduch."
  • In the film, the Capulet feast has been transformed into a Purim party.
  • As in West Side Story, the balcony scene takes place with Juliet standing on the fire escape of an apartment building.
  • Juliet's tomb is an Orthodox "tahara schtiebel."
  • A subtitle that reads “Oy vay, thy lips are still warm!” might indicate that Juliet is, indeed, quite verklempt, but makes perfect sense when translating conversational Yiddish.
Bubbles Yoeli Weiss as Mercutio

As Annenberg explains:
"Only one shy scholar in the crowd knew the play and that there was a translation at YIVO. A year later, having cut down the English and located the Yiddish in the Goldberg translation of 1936, it proved unusable as Yiddish has evolved from that era, and the vernacular of the translation was too academic and stilted for the young actors I had chosen.

My actors (whom I made producers) had left the intense cocoon of their Orthodoxy in their mid teens and still struggled with secular life, English, earning a living, etc. I had so many differences and yet, at the core, shared humor, spirituality, creativity, and chutzpah. So much chutzpah!

I remember my jaw dropping to find out that the 'People of the Book' didn't read Shakespeare in high school. But also being astounded to discover that the poorest of my actors, young, sick, virtually homeless, kept a sock full of tzedaka that he pulled out and gave away for 'charity emergencies.' I was a bridge to 'America' for some of them while, for me, they were a dozen little brothers I adored. They might come 'by me' for a meal or a couch to sleep on. Exquisite features of young people I tease as being 'inbred to perfection.'"
Josef Yossi Friedman (Tybalt), Lazer Weiss (Romeo) and
Bubbles Yoeli Weiss (Mercutio) take a break while filming
 Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish

In her film, Annenberg portrays Ava, a secular Jew who is a middle-aged emergency room nurse working on her Master’s degree. Given the task of translating Romeo and Juliet from old Yiddish to new Yiddish, Ava turns for help to the EMT/rabbi (Isaac Schoenfeld) who often accompanies Orthodox Jewish patients who have overdosed to her hospital's emergency room. He, in turn, introduces her to Lazer (Lazer Weiss) and Mendy -- a team of Ultra Orthodox gonifs who have never read any Shakespeare or, for that matter, even heard the story of Romeo and Juliet (it's quite possible they've never heard of West Side Story, either).

Filmmaker Eve Annenberg as Juliet's nurse

Though Lazer (who has a drug habit) and Mendy may be ultra Orthodox, they know how to score weed (by the end of the movie, they've managed to run up a $20,000 bill on Ava's credit card). A big fan of Entourage, Mendy has been captivated by the concept of romantic love (which does not exist in Orthodox Yiddishkeit). While Mendy claims to be “waiting for a call,” Lazer teases him by pointing out that “Love is a fiction, like Kashrut and the Resurrection.”

When another young Orthodox Jew named Zalman (David Germano) claims to be suffering from "Kabbalitis" and suggests he may be leaking magic from having studied the Kabbalah too hard, Ava offers to let him crash at her place. Zalman’s magic soon starts to infect Mendy (Mendy Zafir) and Lazer, who have been translating the Shakespearean text in Ava's apartment.

As they work on translating Shakespeare, they start to fantasize about a parallel universe  in which the Montagues are Satmar Jews and the Capulets are Chabadnicks living in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. True to form, Ava becomes Juliet’s nurse and the rabbi becomes the Yiddish equivalent of Friar Lawrence. When a young man cuts off his peyos, his father banishes him from the community.

Poster art for Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish

Romeo and Juliet In Yiddish moves its cast from Coney Island to lower Manhattan, from Williamsburg to fantasy sequences greatly removed from the realities of Hasidic life. Perhaps the most telling moment comes at a party when one of the young men follows Ava out the door and asks her for a date. Her reply is blunt: "I don't hate you, I hate your culture."

Romeo (Lazer Weiss) and Juliet (Melissa Weisz)
in a scene from Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish

If there is one drawback to Annenberg's film it's that viewers may be torn between trying to read the rapidly changing subtitles while listening to people speaking conversational Yiddish onscreen for the first time in decades. Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is visually so rich that it's difficult to take everything in with one viewing.

Bubbles Yoeli Weiss makes a strong impression as Mercutio, as does the radiant Melissa Weisz (Juliet). Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is one of those Indie films that, while hardly perfect, shows so much imagination and promise that movie lovers should go the distance to find it and experience Shakespeare from a radically new, provocative, and often startling perspective. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Real Americans Are Mental Pygmies

Tea Party activists like to puff out their chests and boast about being "real Americans." But rarely are they willing to own up their blatant stupidity.  From people who carry signs which state "Keep government out of Medicade" and "Don't steal from Medicare to support socialized medicine" to Sarah Palin's ridiculous claim that she could see Russia from her back yard, there is no shortage of fools to be found.

Media wart hog Donald Trump boasts that "I've been known as being a very smart guy for a long time." Need further proof of the dumbing down of America's "edjumication" system?  Consider the following three video clips:

The bottom line is that where there's a fool, there's usually a way to squeeze some entertainment value from his foolish ideas. And the fools who inhabit great works of art are not limited to King Lear's sidekick.

* * * * * * * * *
Directed by Susi Damilano, SFPlayhouse is currently presenting the regional premiere of Martin McDonagh’s black comedy, A Behanding in Spokane. A bizarre hostage comedy set in a small town hotel room, the missing part of McDonagh's puzzle is not revealed until the very end. And trust me, it's a doozy.

As the play begins, the audience sees a middle-aged man seated on the bed in a hotel room. Brooding. Upstage, two feet can be seen sticking out from the floor of the closet. The man gets up, moves to the closet, and after a few muffled screams from his hostage, pumps a round of bullets from his gun.

The feet go limp.

McDonagh's protagonist, Carmichael, is a disillusioned soul who, as a teenager, suffered the agony of having his left hand severed by a bunch of punks. As Carmichael likes to tell it, they held his hand down on a railroad track while a train crushed his wrist.  As his attackers left him writhing in agony, they held up his severed hand and mockingly used it to wave goodbye.

Carmichael (Rod Gnapp) is not a happy camper in
A Behanding in Spokane (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

If you give even a moment's thought to the mechanics of this sordid scenario, you have to wonder how bitterly Carmichael has embroidered the incident during his long years of despair, mourning, and self pity. He wants his hand back and he won't rest until he finds it.

Carmichael may seem batshit crazy, but he is resolute in pursuing his goal. Unfortunately, he has to deal with a young black drug dealer named Toby (Daveed Diggs) and his white girlfriend Marilyn (Melissa Quine), two local idiots who think they can scam Carmichael by trying to sell him a hand that obviously came from a dead black man.

Meanwhile, the young man Carmichael is holding as a hostage turns out to be far more than a sardonic hotel receptionist with a death wish. Several months ago, when Mervyn (Alex Hurt) was trying to score some weed, Toby cheated him and took his money. Now, the handcuffed, terrified Toby is at the mercy of both Mervyn and Carmichael.

Toby (Daveed Diggs) and Marilyn (Melissa Quine) try to
break free from their handcuffs in A Behanding in Spokane
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

McDonagh’s writing and plotting are hysterically funny, filled with sexist and racist zingers that land on their marks with acid-tinged accuracy. As the company's artistic director, Bill English, remarks in his program notes:
"A Behanding in Spokane leads us into the heart of darkness to find common ground. Into a damaged and bitter soul to find pain we understand. Martin McDonagh's play asks great questions: How do we cope with loss, especially catastrophic loss? How does great loss early in life forever alter our path?  How can we cling to bitterness? Because it is so familiar and we don't know who we'd be without it? How do we yearn for the one thing we must have and then find we've had it all along?"

Rod Gnapp stars as the bitter Carmichael in
A Behanding in Spokane (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

As the amateur scammers, Daveed Diggs and Melissa Quine prove beyond a shadow of any doubt that (regardless of one's ethnicity) a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Alex Hurt scores strongly as the young receptionist who might just be a whole lot smarter than he appears.

Mervyn (Alex Hurt) and Carmichael (Rod Gnapp) ponder
their next move in A Behanding in Spokane
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

But it is Rod Gnapp who anchors the show with the kind of morbid irony that allows Carmichael to keep a gun pointed at his hostages while he tries to negotiate a phone call with his geriatric mother who has fallen out of a tree. Gnapp adds another complex, layered portrayal of a grandly dysfunctional character to his impressive rogues gallery of emotionally crippled characters.

The real beauty of the evening, however, lies in the comedic malevolence of McDonagh's writing, which would lead audiences to wonder if bondage and sadism could ever be more entertaining. A Behanding in Spokane continues at SFPlayhouse through June 30 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
If only every opening night could be as ecstatic and hilarious an experience as Center Rep’s raucous production of Xanadu (Douglas Carter Beane’s snarky stage adaptation of the 1980 film that starred Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly). Gleefully directed by Jeff Collister (with skating and choreography by Jennifer Perry), this production stars Brittany Danielle as Clio/Kira with Tim Homsley as the deliciously air-headed sidewalk chalk artist, Sonny Malone.

Tim Homsley co-stars as Sonny Malone in Xanadu
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While Douglas Carter Beane's book is filled with delightful potshots at disco culture, the pretentiousness of artists and the 1980s, Jeff Lynne's music and John Farrar's lyrics (some of their songs were originally written more than 30 years ago for the British rock group Electric Light Orchestra) are guaranteed audience pleasers.

Xanadu's hyperenergetic cast had the audience screaming in delight at daffy bits of stage business as well as at Danielle’s fake Australian accent and rollerskating tricks. Anyone who underestimates the impact of television shows like Glee and Smash on today's youth should meet the three male Gleeks who sat beside me, hooting and hollering with enthusiasm throughout the performance as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert.

From a physical standpoint, Center Rep's production is a triumph from top to bottom, with a great unit set by Kelly Tighe, hilarious costumes by Victoria Livingston-Hall, and solid lighting work by Kurt Landisman. I was especially impressed with the superb sound design by Jeff Mockus.

Calliope (Maureen McVerry) and Melpemone (Dyan McBride) are
two jealous, scheming muses in Xanadu (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Special kudos to Dyan McBride and Maureen McVerry as the scheming muses who brought down the house singing 'Evil Woman." Bay area song-and-dance man Tom Reardon did a fine job as Danny the real estate speculator (the role created by Gene Kelly in the film). Supporting muses included Sharon Rietkirk, Catherine Gloria, Mark Farrell and the hilariously lanky Evan Boomer. It would be a severe understatement to say that a good time was had by all!

Brittany Danielle leads the energetic cast of Xanadu 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of Xanadu continue through June 23rd at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek (click here to order tickets).

Monday, May 28, 2012

Mad About The Boys

The other day I was riding the bus when a Hispanic man boarded the vehicle with twin boys who were about four years old. Although the children were dressed identically and had relatively angelic faces, it was obvious that the boys had very different personalities.

One was shy, withdrawn, and quick to climb up on his father's knee to find his comfort zone.  His brother happily knelt in the seat next to them, facing toward the rear of the bus so he could check out the passengers riding behind him. Every now and then he would turn to look out the side of the bus and, with a slow and studied method, bang his head against the window to see how it felt.

There is a peculiar, irrepressible magic in the minds and eyes of little boys who have absolutely no fear or inhibitions. Not only do they assume that everything is possible, they're convinced that every experiment will have the best outcome imaginable. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

As adults, many of us yearn for that long-lost combination of idealism, excitement, and bravado. Sometimes we think back to a time in our lives when getting covered in dirt or bruised from roller skating into the side of a parked car was the least of our worries. At other times, we think of one face in particular. Here's the great Sylvia Syms singing that Noel Coward classic, Mad About The Boy.

* * * * * * * * *
Many people have private obsessions which, when allowed to flourish, can drive them to distraction. Mine involves transportation routes. For years, I obsessed about airline hub and spoke systems as I tried to figure out how to maximize my frequent flyer mileage through bizarre flight plans.

These days, I often find myself examining various permutations that will allow me to run errands on MUNI in the most efficient manner. In my mind I can imagine a wealth of scenarios that will take me closer and closer to each destination while giving me the best connections possible (I can run "what-if?" exercises in my mind for hours -- or even days -- before embarking on the first step of a journey).

It's a harmless diversion born of a love for puzzles, but at least I know how it began. Fifty years ago, after the Soviets had launched Sputnik and the Cold War was focused on a race to land a man on the moon, a ride on the New York City subway system cost only 15 cents. My best friend and I had been enrolled by our parents in a Saturday morning astronomy course at the Hayden Planetarium which necessitated early morning treks from Brooklyn's Marine Park neighborhood to mid-Manhattan and back.

Knowing that our parents trusted us not to get in any kind of trouble (we were allowed to spend as much time as we wanted exploring the American Museum of Natural History) and delighted to be riding the subways without adult supervision, we came up with a brilliant scheme which, though it might be ridiculed by adults, was sure to capture the imagination of any boy our age. Using our subway maps, we spent hours and hours fantasizing about how we could ride the entire New York subway system for only 15 cents!
  • Of course, we had absolutely no concept of how long it would take to visit 468 stations along 209 miles of subway routes.
  • Nor did we think about when, where, or how we would go to the bathroom (what's a pay toilet?).
  • We certainly hadn't given any thought to sleeping, bathing, or eating.
  • But we were full of enthusiasm for our nifty little adventure.
Our grandiose dream crashed and burned the moment we learned that the ride from Howard Beach to Far Rockaway required an extra fare. The whole idea had been to ride the entire subway system for 15 cents and now our plan was completely ruined!

I thought about that plan while watching I Wish during the recent San Francisco International Film FestivalKore-Eda Hirokazu’s charming film tells the story of two young Japanese boys whose parents have separated and are living in cities that will soon be connected by a new Shinkansen bullet train service.

Koki and Ohshiro Maeda in a scene from I Wish

The initial premise of the film was based on the kind of idea that sounds like an urban legend. Some people believed that if, on the opening day of Shinkansen service, they were present at the exact moment that the Tsubame (heading south from Hakata) and the Sakura (heading north from Kagoshima) passed at 160 miles an hour, an immense amount of energy would be created that could make a person's wish come true.

Inspired by a shot of four boys standing on a railroad track in Rob Reiner's 1986 film, Stand By Me, the plot of I Wish had to be substantially revised once it became evident that many of the tracks for the new Kyushu Shinkansen line were high off the ground and could only be viewed from a significant distance or from a spot high above the rails.

Ryu and Koichi stand by the railroad tracks

Koichi (Koki Maeda) is a very serious sixth grader living with his mother (Nene Ohtsuka) and grandparents in Kagoshima, where volcanic ash routinely falls from the sky. While Koichi's mother looks for work, his grandmother (Kirin Kiki) practices hula in the living room, and his grandfather (Isao Hashizume) tries to decide whether or not to open a sweets shop near the train station.

The introverted Koichi worries what will happen if the nearby Sakurajima volcano erupts and ruins everyone's life.  His closest friends include Tasku (Ryoga Hayashi), who has a crush on one of their teachers, Miss Saachi, and Makoto (Seinosuke Nagayoshi), who loves his dog Marble and dreams of becoming a baseball superstar like Ichiro Suzuki.

Koichi (Koki Maeda) sits on a train

Koichi's rambunctious younger brother, Ryunosoke (Ohshiro Maeda), is living nearly 140 miles to the north with his rock musician father (Joe Odagiri) in Hakata. Ryu is still at the magical age where everyone he meets is a wonderful new friend and the world is filled with fun and excitement (perhaps he was a Golden Retriever in a previous life). As the filmmaker notes: "He’s naturally goofy, very photogenic, and has a charm that allows him to become friends with girls quite easily.”

Ryu is a bundle of hope and energy

When a new bullet train service is announced that will connect their two cities, Koichi and Ryu dream up the perfect adventure: They'll cut school for the day in the hope that their wish to have their parents reunite will come true as they watch the bullet trains pass each other.

After meticulous planning (with their grandfather jumping his cue), Koichi and his friends catch their trains and arrive at Kawajiri Station in Kumamoto. All their plans are suddenly changed when:
  • Makato arrives carrying his dead dog, Marble, in his backpack.
  • Ryu shows up with three girls (girls!) in tow. 
  • As the boys and girls rush to find a place on high ground where they can watch the trains, they suddenly enter the lives of an elderly, childless couple who have longed to enjoy the company of children.
Ryu and Koichi are brothers whose parents have separated

As Hirokazu explains:
"Filming children in movies like Nobody Knows and I Wish really makes me think. I like how they are incomplete and their presence is unbalanced. I begin to see society through their eyes and through their existence (I think this is because I am a father now, but all the adults in I Wish are adults I want to be like). The presence of grandparents is a refuge within a family and I wanted to give the children a place where they could relax and feel safe. I want to be the kind of adult who casually waits for his children to come back from their adventures. At one point in the editing process, our composer from Quruli (Shigeru Kishida) said that the time spent with the children on screen was being manipulated and edited too much by the hands of adults. I was rushing forward to tell the story and his opinion pulled me back to look at the bigger picture. He loved this movie and he made a really good point that I agreed with, so I changed the composition back to how it originally was."

There's much to enjoy in I Wish. Ohshiro Maeda’s exuberance is such a tonic that you’ll never realize two hours have flown by (I love the scene where this precocious fourth grader lectures his father about what is expected of him). Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Instead of a big, fat Greek wedding, Reza Mirkarimi’s new film, A Cube of Sugar, focuses on a weekend-long engagement party for a large Iranian family's youngest daughter. Despite the giddy elation of one young boy who, upon entering the family estate, immediately disobeys his mother by running and jumping into the pool, there are serious stresses in many of the adult relationships.

A young bride-to-be (Negar Javaherian) enjoys
a quiet moment alone in the family's garden

You'll find it hard to keep your eye off the boy, however, due to his unbridled enthusiasm (just watch his joy as he triumphantly jumps over the food that has been so carefully laid out on a rug for a dinner buffet). At the moment when tragedy strikes, his eyes register a flash of confusion as he wonders why the room has suddenly become quiet and what could possibly have interrupted his fun. At that moment, you know that his world has changed.

Poster art for A Cube of Sugar

The youngest of five daughters, Pasandide (Negar Javaherian) becomes more and more wrapped up in the preparations for her engagement party as her sisters gather in the kitchen to gossip and dish. In such a large, multigenerational family, there are lots of secrets that must be kept hidden (while the women are busy in the kitchen, one of their husbands learns that he has cancer).

Pasandide (Negar Javaherian) and her sisters

Despite occasional electrical blackouts, modernity keeps encroaching upon tradition. The gift of an iPhone offers a stark contrast to the family's aging patriarch who likes to listen to the news on his battered old radio.

A touching slice-of-life film, A Cube of Sugar slowly seduces the viewer into feeling like he is part of a large and boisterous family (this is a good chance to brush up on your Persian). Mohammad Reza Aligholi's musical score offers a beautiful enhancement to the charms of an Iranian family gathering that Westerners are not likely to experience very often.  Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Don't Be Absurd

Some things just don't compute. When someone finally introduced me to artichokes, I quickly discerned that he was getting much more satisfaction from the noise he was making showing everyone at the table how much he loved nibbling at each leaf than I was getting from their actual taste. What's more, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the flavor I was tasting came primarily from the melted butter or the dip (and that I could eat those without the time and effort necessary to deconstruct an artichoke).

As I started attending opera, I began to realize that the works everyone touted as the perfect introductory repertoire for newbies (Mozart's The Magic Flute and Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier) were far less comedic and far too long to be pushed as gateway operas. To everyone's surprise, I had no trouble wrapping my mind around Strauss's Elektra, Die Frau Ohne Schatten, and Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes.

To this day, the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Dmitri Kabalevsky, and Hans Werner Henze leaves me absolutely cold. Being asked to listen to works by  atonal composers feels like being told to eat my vegetables. If I never attend another performance of certain operas, my life would not suffer in the least. These include:
I often find myself having the same reaction to certain plays from the Theater of the Absurd that many people love with a deep and unflinching passion. They leave me cold. Some people have studied these works quite intensely (either for professional purposes or while in college). Some know every line of the script; others are drawn to the inherent symbolism and nuances in stagings they have seen.

To my mind, some of these plays are shown off to their best advantage in small theatres. Regardless of how well respected they may be, I find some of them to be intolerable bores. Perhaps they're too esoteric for me to appreciate (I tend to side with the sentiments expressed in the title song for Cole Porter's 1936 musical, Red, Hot and Blue).

* * * * * * * * *
A perfect case in point is the American Conservatory Theater's recent double bill of two absurdist plays by Samuel Beckett. In Play, Beckett has three people (supposedly trapped in urns) who are commenting on their intimate relationships. On one side of the man is his wife; on the other side his mistress. Beckett's stage directions contain very specific demands for the play's lighting (as each person speaks, a spotlight is trained on their face).

Perhaps due to the fact that I've had three surgeries on my left eye, watching Play started to become physically painful. For much of its length I simply found it easier to close my eyes and concentrate on listening to Beckett's script.

I did not miss much. Under Carey Perloff's direction, Annie Purcell, Anthony Fusco, and René Augesen were trapped in what looked like giant beehives, dutifully reciting their lines with admirable devotion. Like Queen Victoria, I was not amused.

Annie Purcell, Anthony Fusco, and Rene Augesen in
Samuel Beckett's Play (Photo by:  Kevin Berne)

The main draw for the evening was the casting of Bill Irwin in Beckett's Endgame. A beloved clown who is hailed far and wide as one of the world's great physical actors, Irwin points to Hamm's opening line ("Can there be misery loftier than mine?") as the key to the play's absurdity.

Blind, and confined to an elaborate wheelchair (with his usually expressive eyes hidden behind sunglasses), Irwin uses every tool in his artistic bag of tricks to portray the selfish Hamm who, convinced that he is dying and aware that no more painkillers are available, appears to believe that when he dies, his whole world will die with him.

Bill Irwin and Nick Gabriel in Endgame (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The great irony of the evening was that Irwin was confined to a chair while one of A.C.T.'s most brilliant young actors, Nick Gabriel, was cast as Hamm's servant, Clov. With his slow, pigeon-toed walk and hangdog face, there were moments when Gabriel reminded me of a loyal, aging basset hound walking on its hind legs, eager to obey his master's commands yet barely having enough strength to do so.

Giles Havergal and Barbara Oliver in Endgame
Photo by: Kevin Berne

Although Giles Havergal and Barbara Oliver made periodic comic appearances from nearby trashcans, Endgame struck me as the kind of absurdist play which, although revered by academic minds, is hardly an audience pleaser (several people walked out during the performance I attended).

If those who worship at the shrine of the Theatre of the Absurd want a real challenge, let me recommend Something Different, the only play Carl Reiner ever wrote for Broadway. It's a real doozy that will keep the audience in stitches

* * * * * * * * *
Last year, when the Bay One Acts Festival presented Megan Cohen's absurdist romp entitled The Three Little Dumplings Adventure, the dumplings turned out to be three obnoxious, hyperactive young girls eager to work their parents' nerves to the bone. At the time I noted:
"The problem with Cohen's play is that, while it is filled with moments of hilarity and absurdity, it doesn't really know where it's going. As a result, it staggers around the stage -- most rambunctiously -- in search of an ending.  This play obviously needs some trimming, but where does one start to make cuts when nothing makes sense?"  
Cohen returned to the Bay One Acts Festival this spring with Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas, directed (as before) by Jessica Holt. In trying to describe her creative process, the playwright  (who admits to being heavily influenced by television) states "I write like I'm screaming one last message out before being hit by a truck."

Sarah Moser as the First Dumpling in
Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas
Photo by: Chris Alongi

I found both Dumplings adventures exhaustingly energetic, screamingly irritating, and way too long. However, if you're so inclined, you can watch the first installment and download Cohen's e-book containing both scripts at this URL.

* * * * * * * * *
All this could make it seem as if I'm allergic to absurdist pieces of theatre, but I'm not. Sometimes I run across a play that skips and dances across the footlights. In the case of Ignacio Zulueta's Meet The Breeders, a 10-minute mini-musical included in the Best of PlayGround Festival, there was plenty of easily digestible absurdity to be savored.

Alex (Anthony Williams) and Beatrice (Roselyn Hallett) are a young couple who have not yet had children. They are about to be visited by Alex's sister, Carla (Lisa Morse) and brother-in-law Don (Gabriel Grilli), two perfectly obnoxious breeders who have recently had their first child.

Carla and Don are the type of young parents that need to be slapped silly. They can't stop speaking in baby talk and are eager for everyone around them to get impregnated as soon as possible in order to share their joy (Carla and Don probably look up to the Duggar Family the way many people idolize Martha Stewart).

Hilariously directed by Tracy Ward (with music by Don Seaver), Meet The Breeders is a tidy little package of lunacy that has been brilliantly conceived and executed to a fare-thee-well. Here's the trailer:

Monday, May 21, 2012

Backstage Follies

There's a special place in my heart for backstage stories. Whether presented in the form of a large musical (Kiss Me, Kate, Dreamgirls, Follies, Gypsy: A Musical Fable) a straight narrative (The Dresser, Zero Hour), or a rowdy comedy (Enter Laughing, Noises Off, Anton in Show Business), these tales of triumph and trauma rely on the magic of live theatre to capture the hearts of their audience.

Watching a character make the transition from a nervous moment backstage to appearing in front of an audience is, for me, as exciting as seeing an actor switch back and forth between "conversational mode" and "acting mode" with a solid display of craft and dexterity. Films ranging from Singin' in the Rain, All About Eve, and Sunset Boulevard to The Artist, For The Boys, and Me and Orson Welles have done a splendid job of capturing the onstage and offstage lives of performers.

One of my all-time favorites is a series created for Canadian television several years ago named Slings and Arrows (available on Netflix), which chronicled the never-ending crises faced by the artists and employees of the nonprofit New Burbage Festival. Modeled on Canada's famous Stratford Festival, Slings and Arrows took Shakespeare to new and unimaginable heights during three seasons of sheer brilliance.

Two recent productions gave audiences a special look at the highs and lows of life in the theatre. One was a homegrown project which had a fascinating evolution.

* * * * * * * * *
Based in Berkeley, PlayGround has been a powerful incubator for aspiring Bay area playwrights. Launched in 1994, its program specializes in developing and staging 10-minute plays inspired by a topic or code word. To date, more than 135 playwrights have written more than 400 short plays (some of which have gone on to be included in the annual "Best of PlayGround" festival).

In addition to its original format (in which professional actors are cast in its staged readings), PlayGround now commissions seven new full-length works per year, awards $25,000 from its New Play Production Fund to Bay area theatres producing new works by local playwrights, and has started working with local high schools to help young playwrights sharpen their skills.

Playground's logo

This month marked the debut of the Best of PlayGround Film Festival, for which five of PlayGround's playwrights were given an opportunity to turn their 10-minute play into a short film. Faced with the tasks of fundraising, filming, and post-production, the process proved to be a huge learning experience.

Perhaps the most fascinating of the films shown during this festival was Jonathan Luskin's poignant backstage drama, Ecce Homo (which was part of the 2011 Best of PlayGround Festival).  Ecce Homo captures a poignant moment in the lives of two vaudevillians who finally get to play the legendary Palace  Theatre in 1932, just as talking pictures are delivering a fatal blow to vaudeville. In 2011, Luskin received a PlayGround Fellowship to expand Ecce Homo into a full-length play.

A popular Bay area playwright, Luskin (who is also co-founder of Flying Moose Pictures) was able to use film as a way of setting Gus and Fanny's career crisis exactly where it belongs by renting Oakland's famous Paramount Theatre (the art deco architectural wet dream designed by Timothy L. Pflueger which is one of the nation's last great movie palaces) for his shoot. Because of his tight shooting schedule, the play's dressing room scenes were shot at the Bayview Opera House, a much cheaper location to rent.

Interior shot of the Oakland Paramount

Luskin's ability to use the art deco fixtures in the lobby of the Oakland Paramount allowed him to capture the feeling of the grandeur that movie palaces offered the American public throughout the Great Depression. While shots of performers auditioning onstage, roosters strutting their stuff in front of the footlights, and a singing duck helped evoke the talent seen on vaudeville stages throughout America, in a wonderfully romantic way the theatre itself became a character in Ecce Homo.

Art deco forms in the lobby of the Oakland Paramount

My hope is that, at some point, viewers can watch Ecce Homo on YouTube -- as much for the joy of Luskin's play as for the way in which he has used the grandeur of the Paramount in service of his story.

* * * * * * * * *
Down in the South Bay, San Jose Rep is delighting audiences with Theresa Rebeck's backstage comedy, The Understudy. Although many an actor has earned good money working as an understudy, precious few have become famous in their own right.

If one goes to the Internet Broadway Database and checks the "replacement and/or transfer information" on long-running shows, one often comes across some jaw-dropping surprises:
The understudy in Rebeck's play has little to no chance of becoming a glamorous replacement. In fact, Harry (Gabriel Marin) is a bit of a shlub, a down-and-out actor whose cynicism and disgust with the film industry's casting choices are confessed directly to the audience. The actor Harry is understudying, Jake (Craig Marker), was recently transformed into an action figure hunk in a small role where he got to utter such brilliant lines as "Get in the truck!" For $2 million!

Craig Marker and Gabriel Marin in The Understudy
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As it turns out, Jake is understudying Ben, a Hollywood superstar with a multi-million dollar price tag who is trying to gain some legitimate theatre credits by acting in a supposedly "undiscovered masterpiece" written by Franz Kafka. What should be a simple, low-voltage understudy rehearsal is transformed by some unexpected developments:
  • The stage manager for the production, Roxanne (Jessica Wortham), is a former actor and control freak who was once engaged to Harry. Unfortunately, Harry disappeared two weeks before they were to be married. It would be a severe understatement to say that Roxanne "has issues."
  • While Jake may be getting a decent quote for minor roles in Hollywood -- and is eagerly waiting to hear from his agent about a potential new contract -- he's increasingly aware that he lacks Harry's talent and craft.
  • The pothead working the control booth keeps screwing up the lighting, sound, and turntable cues for the rehearsal.
  • The theatre's loudspeaker system is still on, which means that even when Roxanne, Harry, and Jake think they are only speaking to the person in front of them, their words are being broadcast to the dressing rooms and backstage toilets.
Gabriel Marin and Jessica Wortham in a tense moment
from The Understudy (Photo by:  Kevin Berne)

Rebeck, who is a well-established writer for stage, film, and television, obviously knows all kinds of back-stabbing dirt commonly heard in the theatre and doesn't hesitate to spice the evening with everything from misplaced cues to a sly dig at Jeremy Piven's infamous case of mercury poisoning in 2008. Annie Smart's rotating unit set becomes an unexpected and uncontrollable character as it moves back and forth with a life of its own.

As directed by Amy Glazer, The Understudy is a theatergoer's delight, filled with lots of inside jokes about actors, and plenty of digs at the injustices of the acting profession. It also contains extremely juicy roles for Bay area regulars Gabriel Marin and Craig Marker, who handle the testosterone-driven side of the equation with great comic skill. Julia Wortham's seething portrayal of Roxanne becomes increasingly manic and hysterically funny in a performance that blazes with managerial anger and jilted frustration.

Jessica Wortham, Craig Marker and Gabriel Marin
in The Understudy (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The final moments of the show have a Kafka-esque beauty that could only happen in a live performance. The Understudy continues through June 3 at San Jose Rep (click here to order tickets). If you can't make it down to San Jose, you might enjoy renting 1980's The Stunt Man, a sorely neglected film starring Peter O'Toole as a mercurial, and often unnerving, film director.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Rating Patient Satisfaction

If one could identify some of the cosmic shifts in the field of medicine over the past 25 years, at the top of the list would be computer technology and patient satisfaction. HMOs, in particular, want to be sure their medical providers are getting good ratings from patients and are eager to improve the experience a patient has in person, on the phone, or by email with doctors, nurses, and other support staff.

As a member of Kaiser Permanente's HMO, I routinely receive these marketing questionnaires. But Kaiser's approach to their patients is quite different from the attitudes portrayed in Oren Brimer's "Doctor" series of shorts from Front Page Films. Matt McCarthy and Pete Holmes star in the following videos recently shown during the San Francisco International Film Festival.

In February 2009, Berkeley Rep presented the world premiere of Sarah Ruhl's comedy, In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play). With the recent opening of the Good Vibrations Antique Vibrator Museum, perhaps this as good a time as any to examine an area of medicine in which doctors completely misdiagnosed a patient's symptoms for centuries.

According to production notes for Tanya Wexler's new film, the idea that a “wandering uterus” (literally, female hysteria) could cause symptoms ranging from amnesia to sleepwalking and madness was first mentioned in 4th century BCE by ancient Greeks in the Hippocratic Corpus. For the next 4,000 years, unexplained behavior was directly linked to women's sexual organs (a 16th century French physician suggested sending women riding through the woods on horseback in order to cure their hysteria).

Today's women know a lot more about their bodies and bodily responses to erotic stimuli. So, for that matter, does today's medical community. Wexler's Hysteria focuses on a key moment in Victorian England which allowed women to take matters into their own hands.

As Joe Biden would say: "Literally!"  Filmmaker Tanya Wexler explains that:
“I’m a huge fan of British costume dramas, but I also love sophisticated modern comedies.We knew that we’d have to find a unique tone because, while it might be a 19th-century story, it’s a subject that still makes us blush in 2011. The fun was in creating a kind of lush, Merchant Ivory reality on the surface with a hilarious, unbridled comedy running underneath it."
Set in London in 1880, Hysteria takes place following the Industrial Revolution, during a period when when inventions include the home sewing machine, public flushing toilets, the pasteurization of food, the underground railway, the typewriter, the telephone, the phonograph, the gas-powered motorcar, and the electric light bulb. While young physicians like Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) were interested in the germ theory and sanitation, their older colleagues were much more inclined to rely on leeches and amputation.

Having been fired from several jobs, Granville ends up being hired by Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), London's leading specialist in women's medicine who boasts a large clientele of women suffering from “weeping, nymphomania, frigidity, melancholia, and anxiety.”  Dr. Dalrymple has discovered that manual stimulation of a women's genitalia can lead to a physical and emotional release which seems to relieve most women of their symptoms.

Once Dalrymple's sex-starved patients encounter the handsome young Granville -- and look deep into his eyes as he reaches under their skirts to bring them relief -- word quickly spreads through London society. At first, Granville is unaware of the effect he is having on Dalrymple's patients. The older doctor has hinted that Granville might be the perfect person to take over his practice and marry his daughter Emily (Felicity Jones), who has been in training to become a proper young lady.

Emily Dalrymple (Felicity Jones), Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce)
and Dr. Granville (Hugh Dancy) sit down to dinner in Hysteria

Dalrymple's other daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is a much more independent and outspoken spirit. A social reformer fighting for women's rights, Charlotte dashes around London on her bicycle trying to raise money from her father's friends while running a settlement house for poor women and children in London’s East End. She is a true Victorian-era "community organizer."

Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhall in Hysteria

When Fanny (Ashley Jensen), one of the women at Charlotte's settlement house, breaks her ankle, Dr. Granville is called into action to help splint her leg. This outrages Dr. Dalrymple, whose practice has been strictly built on paying customers.

Granville is eventually faced with some tough choices. Should he follow his heart and practice medicine to those in need or keep poking his hands between the legs of wealthy women? Should he marry the charming Emily or spend more time getting to know her feisty elder sister? Should he accept the sexual favors of Dalrymple's servant, Molly the Lolly (Sheridan Smith), or simply attend to his patients' sexual needs?

Molly the Lolly (Sheridan Smith) has a keen attraction to the
handsome, young Dr. Granville (Hugh Dancy) in Hysteria

A little too much poking and prodding leads to a severe case of repetitive stress syndrome and Granville soon finds himself without a job. But all is not lost.  His eccentric aristocratic friend, Lord Edmond St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), has a passion for new technology and has been trying to invent an electric feather duster. Edmond is so far ahead of the curve that he had a telephone installed before Buckingham Palace got one.

When Edmond asks Granville to try using his electric feather duster, its design sparks a brilliant idea. With a few adjustments, the feature duster is transformed into the world's first electric personal vibrator.

Molly the Lolly (Sheridan Smith) dusts off
 her new vibrator in a scene from Hysteria

Their challenge, of course, is to find some women who will be willing to test their new invention. The results prove to be quite sensational. Even the grumpy old opera singer, Mrs. Castellari (Kim Criswell), can be brought to orgasm quickly and efficiently.

Thanks to Edmond's foresight, it no longer matters if Dr. Granville is employed as a doctor. Why not? He'll be getting a handsome income from sales of his newly patented device, which will allow him to work with Charlotte tending to the women and children at the settlement house.

In real life, the battery-operated vibrator known as “Granville’s Hammer” was marketed for the relief of muscular aches and pains. Its use soon became referred to as a “medicinal massage of the female organs to the point of paroxysm” which, in the Victorian era, described a perfectly clinical release of nervous tension which could in no way be confused with sexual pleasure.

Not only does Hysteria look gorgeous, both male and female viewers will leave the theatre with fantasies of Hugh Dancy reaching between their legs to get them sexually aroused. Maggie Gyllenhaal is as radiant a presence as ever (a far more interesting woman than her insipid younger sister) and Rupert Everett has some deliciously comic moments as the sarcastic Edmond.

Wexler's film is great fun, from both historical and hysterical points of view. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *