Friday, May 18, 2012

The Approach of Karmageddon

Mitt Romney likes to stress that corporations are people. But if that were so, corporations (like people) would be subject to the effects of karma. Their actions could be seen as inevitably delivering good or bad results either in this life or, perhaps, following a post-bankruptcy corporate restructuring. Recent headlines have started to reflect a curious trend in this direction.
Should these people be considered innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent? Recent headlines trumpeted the finding that key members of the Bush administration had been declared war criminals by a tribunal in Malaysia. According to Justin Rosario's article on
"In the first verdict of its kind since former President George W. Bush left office, he and several members of his administration have been successfully convicted in absentia of war crimes in Malaysia. A five panel tribunal delivered a unanimous guilty verdict after a week long trial that, unsurprisingly, was not covered by American media. The witnesses included several ex-Guantanamo detainees that gave testimony on the conditions and human rights violations that were systematically carried out under orders of the Bush administration. Former President Bush, Former Vice-President Dick Cheney, Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and legal advisers Alberto Gonzales, David Addington, William Haynes, Jay Bybee, and John Yoo who crafted the legal ‘justification’ for torture that basically said, ‘We can if we want to even if it’s illegal’ were the defendants. None were present, of course, but international war crime trials do not require the presence of the accused. 
The trial was run according to the standards set by the Nuremberg Trials to convict war criminals after World War II. The hope is that other countries will hold trials of their own and the guilty verdicts will mount up. This is not that outlandish an idea as Bush and Cheney have not only brazenly admitted they authorized torture in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention, but bragged about it (nothing more helpful than having a criminal do all the heavy lifting for the prosecution). If enough of these verdicts are passed on to the international courts, they will have no choice but to hold a trial of their own. While Bush won’t be arrested on American soil, he’ll have a very difficult time leaving the country. Already he’s canceled a trip to Switzerland due to possible charges of war crimes. The best possible outcome is that the world court delivers a guilty verdict that sends a clear message to President Obama and his successors that the United States is not above the law, American Exceptionalism be damned. It’s a lesson we’ve forgotten and need to relearn."
Guilt and karma played a major role in three recent productions. Although there were plenty of laughs to be had, the subject matter was deadly serious.

* * * * * * * * *
A new documentary by Jennifer Baichwal (Manufactured Landscapes) examines the cultural costs of committing a crime.  Inspired by a series of 2008 lectures given by Margaret Atwood (based on her book entitled Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth), this film offers viewers plenty of food for thought. Among the conflicts examined are:
Poster art for Payback

While certain parts of Payback look magnificent -- and can easily appeal to a viewer's emotions -- much of the documentary has a strange emotional flatness. More than likely, this problem probably lies with the peculiar challenge faced by the filmmaker. As Baichwal explains:
"I had never adapted a book or lecture into a documentary. The fact that this one was by Margaret Atwood made the prospect particularly intimidating. She is brilliant, of course, and the book, like the lectures, is dense, rich, chatty, funny, and profound -- all at the same time. It is a singular voice, fully hers. The first thing I learned, which was a great relief, is that the book isn’t about money. What it is about is the idea of debt -- a fantastic, complex riff on all the ways we are governed by owing and being owed in human society and beyond." 
In addition to Atwood, powerful insights come from interviews with Raj Patel, Louise Arbour, Karen Armstrong, Casi Callaway, and William Rees. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Directed by Sara Staley (and with help from the folks at San Francisco Theater Pub), the Bay One Acts Festival recently staged Stuart Bousel's Brainkill, a rowdy farce that deals with a never-ending source of drama: get-rich quick schemes. At the beginning of the play, Alex (Theresa Miller) tells her friend Bobby (Dave Levine) that's she's come up with a brilliant plan to get rich quick: Genocide.

"It's simple," she explains. "We kill a lot of people and take their stuff."

While Alex sees any damage done to Darcy (Kate Jones), Carmen (Giovanna Arieta), or Elliott (Travis Howse) as an annoying collateral cost, Bobby has a softer heart and a touch of conscience. As the playwright explains:
"I once briefly dated a somewhat prominent politician whom I occasionally refer to as 'Richard III.' Sleeping with a genuinely evil person will basically make you suspicious of everything for the rest of your life. For me, the primary difference is that friends are accountable for their actions while society is fundamentally unaccountable (society only exists as a concept that does not allow for individual accountability). Ironically, this makes society easy to blame for a myriad of choices that we, as individuals, make."
Dave Levine as Bobby in Brainkill (Photo by: Chris Alongi)

What began as a jaw-droppingly greedy romp went on a little bit too long as Bousel got caught up in matters of conscience and a few too many plot complications. After pushing Bobby to kill Darby in order to prove his loyalty to her cause, Alex was struck down in a bizarre moment of karma as Darby accidentally turned at just the right moment to let a bullet pass her.

Having determined that his characters could be portrayed by actors of either gender, it was interesting to see Theresa Miller's Alex go into a bar and pick up Darcy with the kind of domineering aggressiveness that so many bottoms crave. Travis Howse's Elliott embodied a good-natured, honest person with a conscience, which left Bobby hungry for love and more confused than ever.

* * * * * * * * *
The final installment in Sam Leichter's "Donna DeSantos" trilogy, In Bed was directed by PianoFight's Rob Ready. The play starts on a fairly giddy high as Jenny (Rachel Ferensowicz) and Max (Brian Trybom) meet in a bar and head back to Max's apartment for a drunken roll in the hay. As soon as they get in the door, their hands are all over each other. It seems as if they can't get each other's clothes off quickly enough.

Jenny awakens the next morning to an empty bed but is soon joined by Max (who was making coffee). The usual morning-after nervous fumbling to see whether they should spend more time together is interrupted by someone pounding on the apartment door. Enter Cassidy (Geoffrey Nolan), a local crime detective who, at that particular moment, is the last person in the world Max wants to see.

It soon becomes obvious that Max is a registered sex offender and that, with the news that a local woman has been murdered, his name is at the top of a list of suspects Cassidy needs to check on as soon as possible. Cassidy's fury at Max's potential guilt, Jenny's shock at this unhappy revelation, and Max's desperation to prove to her that he is innocent and deserves a rare chance at happiness cause a sudden spike in the dramatic tension.

Rachel Ferensowicz, Brian Trybom, and Geoffrey Nolan in
Sam Leichter's drama, In Bed (Photo by: Chris Alongi)

In Bed puts a new twist on questions most people ask after enjoying some moments of casual sex and intimacy:
  • Can I really trust someone? 
  • How quickly should I form romantic attachments to new sex partners? 
  • When is it safe to let someone into my life?
As in his prior two plays at Bay One Acts (Philadelphia, The Pond), the skill with which Leichter (who is also the Education Manager for the Marin Shakespeare Company) builds suspense and puts his characters at risk reveals a major dramatic talent. As he explained in a recent interview:
"I’m an actor who writes. When I direct, I’m an actor who directs. And when I teach, I’m an actor who teaches. Everything I put down on paper comes from my experience as an actor. The way it has influenced me the most, I would say, is that I always, always, always strive to write characters that actors will want to play. I never want an actor to feel like they are being taken for granted or that they don’t have something juicy to sink their teeth into. I may not always succeed in this, but I always try."
Playwright Sam Leichter
"In my writing, I’m always looking for potential explosions. While none of my plays have ever contained actual violence, the potential for violence is always critical. The men in my plays really scare the shit out of me. They are men that I’ve met in Philadelphia who have a certain harshness, a hypermasculinity that is a perfect powder keg for the kind of intense stories I’m interested in telling. The city of Philadelphia is amazing, enormous, and I’m proud to call it my home. It’s also a city that, in many ways, can never seem to get out from behind the eight ball. The characters in my plays are often the same."
Brian Trybom is a tall and extremely physical actor with a special knack for sudden eruptions of physical violence. Ferensowicz and Nolan provided sturdy dramatic support as Trybom's Max literally ran up against a brick wall.

If any theatre company's artistic director is looking to produce an evening of white-knuckle drama with a small cast, I can't recommend Sam Leichter's trilogy of short plays strongly enough. His writing is exquisite, his plotting meticulous, and his characters are unforgettable. This playwright is a major dramatic talent who deserves professional nurturing in theatres across America.


Marissa Skudlarek said...

Hi George, this is Marissa Skudlarek, dramaturg for the Bay One Acts Festival 2012. Thank you so much for coming to see the plays and for blogging about them in such detail. I also appreciated seeing that you read and quoted from the interviews that I conducted with the BOA playwrights and posted on the BOA website. However, I am wondering why you did not provide a credit or a link to the original interviews when you quoted from them. Some of your readers may be intrigued by these excerpts but you have not given any indication of where the quotes come from or that there are extended conversations with these writers on the BOA site! You are usually very thorough about providing links to additional information for the benefit of your readers, so I am wondering why you did not do so in this case. Or, at least, why you did not write "As Bousel explains, in an interview on the BOA website" instead of just "As Bousel explains."

Once again, thank you for supporting the Bay One Acts Festival.

Rashed Khan said...

Hi – It’s good to read such interesting stuff on the Internet as I have been able to discover here. I agree with much of what is written here and I’ll be coming back to this website again. Thanks again for posting such great reading material!!