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.

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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:

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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).

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