Sunday, September 30, 2012

Music, Musings, and Monologues

There I was, trying to find a hook that could unite my thoughts about curious solo turns (whether they be musical, theatrical, or confessional) when I came across headline on The Huffington Post that screamed out:  "Watch: Justin Bieber Pukes Onstage." As I sat back and let out a contented sigh of relief, I thought of the biblical proverb that says "Ask and ye shall receive."

Bottom line: Who knew that news of the baby-faced boychick blowing chunks could save the day?

Operatic arias and solo musical numbers are often structured to deliver a lot of information to the audience. Stephen Sondheim refers to this particular phenomenon as a "list song." One of the greatest examples of this genre can be found in Act I of Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 comic opera, The Mikado.

Over the years, Ko-Ko's solo, "I've Got A Little List," has frequently been updated with topical and local references. Sometimes, terms that have fallen out of favor have had to be replaced (In the 1940s, the term "nigger serenader" was changed to "banjo serenader"). In the first clip, taken from a 1966 film made by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, the great John Reed (who performed with the company from 1951-1979) appears as Ko-Ko with most of W.S. Gilbert's original lyrics intact.

In the second clip, (taken from Jonathan Miller's 1987 production at the English National Opera which placed the action during the 1920s at an English seaside resort) Eric Idle portrays Ko-Ko as an extremely unctuous politician.

In the third clip (taken from Welsh National Opera's 1992 production), Richard Stuart has a lot of fun with a great costume trick and some snarky new lyrics.

In the fourth clip (taken from Opera Australia's 2011 revival of The Mikado), Mitchell Butel adds numerous references to life in the digital age.

* * * * * * * * *
During the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival I sat through quite a few monologues (some better than others). One act which stood in a class by itself was entitled The Movies of My Mind. Performed by Michael Belitsos (a former advertising executive who now entertains Bay area audiences as a magician and storyteller), this hour-long show combines great moments from classical movies matched by great moments from favorite film scores. And then, of course, there is the magical element of the show.

If you've ever attended a magic show and wondered how the person onstage performed a certain trick, it's even more fascinating to watch in disbelief when you're only seated five feet away from him. The great appeal of watching Belitsos perform is that he's crafted a unique way of showcasing his magic tricks with a distinctly underplayed delivery. Blessed with strong writing skills, the following two clips offer a taste of his delightful style.

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Over at the Shelton Theatre on Sutter Street, the Left Coast Theatre Company is currently offering of program of seven short gay plays under the titular umbrella of Family Programming in which Aaron Tworek performs a monologue entitled What Would Scott B. Do?

Aaron Tworek performing What Would Scott B Do?

Instead of seeking guidance from Jesus, Tworek (who co-wrote the piece with Joseph Frank) describes how any time he has been forced to make a tough decision, he's tried to imagine what Scott Bakula (who appeared on Quantum Leap) would do in his shoes.

Under Rooben Morgan's direction, Tworek does a nice job of showing the various shades of devotion (from childhood idolatry to adult fetishization) that one man can feel for a television actor. The piece is brief, nicely shaped, and delivered with great flair.

* * * * * * * * *
A recent viewing of Opera Australia's production of another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Patience (which satirizes Oscar Wilde and aestheticism), sent me poking around on YouTube looking for clips of interest. Two stood out far above the rest.  Why?
  • Both clips demonstrate the brilliance of W.S. Gilbert's lyrics and skills at characterization.
  • Both clips demonstrate Arthur Sullivan's talent at infusing his music with a sense of satire.
  • Both clips are sung by British artists whose crisp diction is an absolute joy to hear.
In the first clip, the late Anne Collins is seen performing as Lady Jane with the Carl Rosa Opera Company at the gala re-opening of the historic Nomansfield Theatre (a private Victorian theatre that was originally built in 1877) in Teddington. Don't let the scratchy sounds coming from Lady Jane's cello stop you from watching this hilarious clip from start to finish -- there aren't many videos on YouTube that show a booming contralto in such fine form.

Last, but not least, here is Michael Ball's ebullient rendition of Reginald Bunthorne's solo, "Am I Alone and Unobserved?" performed with gusto during a BBC Proms the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

When Virgins Decide

Decision-making is an acquired skill. While it's fairly easy to learn the difference between up and down, left and right, soft or loud, hot or cold, as one gains intelligence decisions become more complex. With solid parenting, children learn to distinguish between right and wrong. Unfortunately, their impulses often short circuit any acquired knowledge, causing them to take bigger risks than they might be ready to handle.
  • An athlete may try to achieve a goal that is not yet within his reach.
  • A rank opportunist may bite off more than he can chew.
  • Someone who failed to study for an examination may trust his results to chance.
  • An insecure person who is hungry for acceptance may ingest a toxic substance without realizing the harm it could do to his body.
The one catalyst which is almost guaranteed to screw things up is infatuation. An intoxicating and delusional high that is almost always irresistible, infatuation causes people to ignore the standard warning signs and go for broke. In the following clip, Kellie Johnson gives an impassioned rendition of Josephine's aria, "The Hour Creeps on Apace," from Gilbert and Sullivan's 1878 operetta, H.M.S. Pinafore.

Alas, virgins don't always make the best choices. Lacking solid experience with pathological liars, they can be easily dazzled by a man's sexual allure and believe his well-practiced pick-up lines. In the following two clips from the film adaptation of Jerry Herman's 1966 hit musical, Mame, Jane Connell repeats her bravura performance as one of the greatest virgins in theatrical history: Agnes Gooch.

* * * * * * * * *
If not infatuation, how else can one explain the blazing naiveté of Verdi's Gilda (who, other than Siegfried, may well be the operatic literature's dumbest virgin)? Consider the odds against her:
  • She's a new girl in town.
  • Her father is a hunchback who keeps her locked up at home.
  • The only time Gilda is allowed to step outside is when she goes to church (where she keeps getting ogled by a curious, handsome young man).
  • Her housekeeper, Giovanna, has been accepting bribes to let a mysterious man enter their home while Gilda's father is away.
  • After Gilda is abducted by her father's enemies and raped by the Duke of Mantua (who turns out to be the very object of her infatuation), she can't help lovin' dat man o' slime.
  • Rather than face the fact that the Duke has already moved on in pursuit of other women, Gilda is willing to sacrifice her own life to protect his.
All this for a legitimate rape? What a dumb broad!

The San Francisco Opera is reviving its 1997 production of Rigoletto (which debuted exactly 15 years ago on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House). Featuring Michael Yeargan's handsome sets (inspired by Giorgio de Chirico) and Constance Hoffman's impressive period costumes, the opera has been double cast to gain maximum stage time.  In describing its tone, Yeargan stresses that:
"In the most simplistic terms, Rigoletto is about a father's curse that fulfills itself.  De Chirico's paintings have a surreal quality that suggests a world of impending doom -- that unsettling, airless feeling one gets before a huge storm is about to unleash itself. When this production was first conceived, we unapologetically used elements from those paintings to satisfy the specific needs of the libretto while, at the same time, preserving that feeling of an impending storm -- when the father's curse is fulfilled."
Francesco Muro as the philandering Duke of Mantua
in Rigoletto (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

With conductor Giuseppe Finzi on the podium, I got a happy mix from both casts. The Duke of Mantua was sung by tenor Francesco Demuro, an appealing tenor with a healthy voice and a solid stage presence. Aleksandra Kurzak displayed a warm lyric coloratura as Gilda (both artists were making their San Francisco Opera debuts). Harry Silverstein's stage direction was clean and efficient.

Francesco Demuro (The Duke of Mantua) and Aleksandra
Kurzak (Gilda) in Rigoletto (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

In smaller roles, Robert Pomakov bellowed loudly as the disgraced Count Monterone, Andrea Silvestrelli produced some rather raspy sounds as the hired killer with a keen eye for the bottom line (Sparafucile), and Kendall Gladen shone as his seductive sister, Maddalena.

While many opera fans regard Rigoletto through the unique lens of how well a soprano navigates the coloratura passages in Gilda's Act II aria, "Caro nome," the opera is based on an 1832 story by Victor Hugo (Le roi s'amuse) whose plot is dark and foreboding. The protagonist is like a 16th-century version of Don Rickles, the stand-up comedian whose job is to insult everyone in his employer's presence.

The irony, of course, is that while Rigoletto is fearless when attacking others, he is terrified that anyone might inflict harm on his one true love (his daughter, Gilda). When the Duke's courtiers discover that Rigoletto might have a mistress, they are amazed that someone with such a caustic personality could harbor any tenderness or that such a physically deformed man could attract a woman.

Marco Vratogna as Rigoletto (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

As a result, the character displays the dual personality of a classic closet case -- someone who shows no hesitation about tearing others to shreds but who is far more vulnerable than anyone suspects. When push comes to shove, any production of Rigoletto rests on the shoulders of the man singing the title role.

While opera impresarios have spent years worrying about the difficulties faced in casting some of the more traditional Verdi operas, Italian baritone Marco Vratogna has been aiming toward a major career as a Verdi baritone. Having previously appeared with the San Francisco Opera as Iago and Amonasro, this fall he is tackling Rigoletto.

Obviously, the role lies comfortably within his range and Vratogna is a natural choice for it. However, at the performance I attended, I got the uncanny feeling that he needs some time to grow into the role before he can gain the kind of musical momentum and dramatic fury that are often seen in performances by baritones who have sung Rigooletto many times. Here's a brief sample of his performance:

* * * * * * * * *
What does Rigoletto have to do with Joy Nash's one-woman show at the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival entitled My Mobster?  Known for her online video series (Fat Rant), the Los Angeles-based Nash is a skilled actress who has brought multiple identities to the small screen as part of her work as a "fat acceptance activist."

Her new monologue (which she hopes to bring to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) describes how, on a vacation from a British boarding school, she found herself in Venice being ogled by a tall, handsome man who was obviously drawn to big women. Not only did he give Joy her first romantic kiss, he didn't hesitate to flatter a young woman whose ego desperately needed some stroking.

What Nash has done that is so interesting is to tell her story from the perspective of a fat girl who realizes that the man she describes as "my mobster" might be the romantic opportunity she's been waiting for all along. Throwing caution to the wind, she takes the bait (willing to take the kind of risks that would easily terrify her schoolmates and peers).
  • Does Joy allow herself to have a romantic fling in Paris?  Yes.
  • Does Joy feel wonderful being an object of desire? You bet!
  • Does Joy have to hide certain parts of her life from her prying mother (who is a super devout Christian and just mildly racist)? Bet your life!
  • Does Joy finally lose her virginity?  At long last, yes!
  • Does Joy get pregnant? Alas, she does.
  • Does Joy's story have a happy ending? Absolutely!
As directed by Louise Hung, Nash's monologue is engaging, charming, deeply emotional, and filled with laughs. Even when the going gets rough, the audience can't stop rooting for her to succeed.

A talented writer who is facile with voices and accents, I thoroughly enjoyed Joy's show (as well as chatting with Ms. Nash during the Fringe festival). I wish her every bit of success with My Mobster. As should you!

Joy Nash performing My Mobster

Friday, September 28, 2012

Who's Crazy Now?

Are people driven to madness (as we see in so many bel canto operas) or do some of them take public transportation to reach their destination? Is madness the end product of "nature versus nurture" or can it be the sorry result of psychological trauma, aggravated mental illness, or emotional manipulation by forces of evil?

While some refer to the "bird in a gilded cage" syndrome, others find that social isolation and psychological restraint can conspire to send them careening over insanity's cliff. In the following clip from 1992's Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall, soprano Harolyn Blackwell warbles "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" from Stephen Sondheim's score for Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In two recent Bay area productions, the question of why the caged bird sings could easily be traced to family pressures:
  • In one play, a confused virgin was being pulled in opposite directions by the machinations of her greedy, ass-kissing father and the oddly mercurial and often frightening mood swings of her unstable royal boyfriend.
  • In the other, the caged bird kept calling collect from a federal penitentiary.
Which messenger from an alternate universe would you prefer to hear from? A ghost who walks at midnight or a suburban nut job who tried to assassinate the President of the United States?

* * * * * * * * *
On December 31, 2007, 77-year-old Sara Jane Moore was released on parole after serving 32 years of a life sentence for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford outside the St. Francis Hotel on September 22, 1976 in San Francisco. In their controversial 1990 musical, Assassins, Sondheim and his librettist, John Weidman, mocked Moore as one of the most inept spies in history. The following two clips contain some of the dialogue from Moore's hilariously imagined encounter with Lynnette "Squeaky" Fromme.

Two decades after the premiere of Assassins, Sara Jane Moore is back onstage. Well, sort of. Not only is the 1990 musical being staged by the Shotgun Players in Berkeley next month,  Ady Abbot (who gives Segway tours of San Francisco during the day) recently performed her hilarious monologue entitled Whatever Happened to Sara Jane? at the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival

Abbot's family has a curious history with Sara Jane Moore, which she explains in the following clip (taken when she was trying out her material at The Marsh).  Abbot's performance is carefully shaped and smoothly delivered, which makes the news that she is working to transform it into a full-length presentation early next year quite enticing. Here's an appetizer of Abbot describing her dysfunctional family and her grandmother Barbara's relationship with that notorious caged bird, Sara Jane Moore.

* * * * * * * * *
First published in 1603, Hamlet has long ranked as one of the greatest tragedies to come from William Shakespeare. Frequently performed (and subject to all kinds of updating and interpretation by stage directors), it is a fascinating tale of murder, skullduggery, and skull diggery.

Notable for its use of magical realism (appearances by the ghost of Denmark's recently deceased king), the play revolves around a protagonist whose manic behavior while attempting to revenge his father's murder borders on schizophrenia and leads his easily confused girlfriend to go mad and drown herself in a nearby stream.

Whereas Ophelia's mad scene has included all kinds of sung verses, my favorite version comes from Ambroise Thomas's 1868 operatic adaptation of Hamlet. In the following clip from a 2003 performance in Barcelona, soprano Natalie Dessay delivers a heartbreaking rendition of "A vos jeux, mes amis, permettez-moi de grâce de prendre part!"

Using a bizarre but highly effective unit set by Clint Ramos (which seems to set half the play's action in a swimming pool and, at one point, even has Ophelia appearing to be stuck and possibly suffocating in a fish tank), the California Shakespeare Theater has unveiled a new staging of Hamlet which gives the melancholy Dane (LeRoy McClain) one hell of a workout.

Director Liesl Tommy has updated Shakespeare's tragedy to a contemporary setting n which an extremely bloody ghost of Hamlet's father (Adrian Roberts) makes his way through the audience, Rosencrantz is portrayed by a woman (Jessica Kitchens), Horatio (Nick Gabriel) seems to be guiding spectators through a memory play, the crucial epilogue by Fortinbras (the Crown Prince of Norway) has been eliminated, and all kinds of trash strewn about the stage (including a pair of plastic pink flamingos) make it clear that something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark.

A scene from California Shakespeare Theater's new production
of William Shakespeare's Hamlet (Photo by; Kevin Berne)

Jake Rodriguez's sound design goes a long way toward giving this production a sense of the supernatural. While Nicholas Pelczar (Laertes) and Adrian Roberts (Claudius) provide plenty of macho bluster and guilty ego, it is Julie Eccles (Gertrude) who nearly steals the show in her bedroom confrontation with her angry son. This intensely physical (and wildly) thrilling wrestling match could not have been possible had the play been staged in traditional costumes instead of modern dress.

Queen Gertrude (Julia Eccles) looks down on her son,
Hamlet (LeRoy McClain) (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The great strength of Ms. Tommy's production lies in her ability to streamline some of Shakespeare's text and clarify the motivations and emotional deterioration of key characters. Through a particularly vacuous style of body language, Polonius (Dan Hiatt) is revealed to be as much an ass-kissing, shallow courtier as an empty-headed fool who would pimp out his own daughter for political favor. The Player King (Danny Scheie) and Player Queen (Mia Tagano) perform Hamlet's accusatory play before a Prince of Denmark who is excitedly rocking back and forth on his childhood hobby horse.

Mia Tagano, Danny Scheie and LeRoy McClain in Hamlet
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As Ophelia, Zainab Jah gave a richly layered portrayal of a dutiful young daughter of a court noble who can't possibly imagine that her father (Polonius) or her fiancé  (Hamlet) would deceive or jeopardize her. Her brilliant use of Ophelia as a dramatic foil to Hamlet during his famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy changes the usual dynamic of the scene and delivers huge theatrical dividends later in the evening.

Ophelia's growing confusion, increasing horror, and [now] predictable mental breakdown were beautifully staged by Ms. Thomas in a manner whose context and movement in relation to Hamlet's bizarre behavior helped to clarify Ophelia's inability to grasp how her life could could crumble to pieces before her. Ms. Jah's desperate struggle in an elevated fish tank was a sight to behold!

Zainab Jah as Ophelia (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The production's Hamlet, LeRoy McClain, gave an athletic and often electrifying performance in the title role. Lean, seemingly mean, and determined to glean proof of his uncle's guilt in the murder of his father, McClain was all over the stage and auditorium, displaying a powerful presence and remarkable stamina.

Though Ms. Tommy's invigorating staging runs about 3-1/4 hours, it zips by with a speed and urgency that is quite remarkable. Thankfully, this challenging and riveting production of Hamlet by the California Shakespeare Theater has just been extended. Performances continue at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda until October 21 (click here to order tickets).

"Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well."
LeRoy McClain as Hamlet (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Way We Were

Life is filled with bitter ironies. For decades, brides and grooms were expected to be virginal on their wedding night. And yet, in some of America's most righteous pockets of conservatism, young women who swore oaths of chastity to their devoutly religious fathers still find themselves knocked up and without a ring on their fourth finger.

The past few months have witnessed shocking demonstrations of sexual ignorance by powerful politicians and rich male donors who believe in such ridiculous notions as "legitimate rape" or that holding an aspirin between one's knees is a practical way for a woman to avoid pregnancy. As much as sex columnists like Dan Savage try to spread practical wisdom to their readers while answering questions that would have given Ann Landers (and her twin sister, Abigail van Buren) the vapors, fools romp freely among us.

Meredith Willson wrote a brilliant lyric for 1957's hit musical, The Music Man, in which a jaded traveling salesman expressed his preference for an experienced woman instead of a romantic prig. In the following clip, Seth MacFarlane sings "The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl."

With more than 40 years having passed since the women's rights and gay rights movements started to gain momentum, it's interesting to look back and take stock of how far we've come. Recent productions, such as the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's premiere of Eve Ensler's dramatically charged Emotional Creature or the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival's presentation of Glen Callender's highly educational lecture on foreskin awareness (The Revolution Will Not Be Circumcised), remind audiences how much we still have to learn about human sexuality.

Three recent documentaries about the AIDS crisis (We Were Here, How To Survive A Plague, and United in Anger: The History of ACT-UP) have helped to focus attention on the raging epidemic that should never have happened -- a plague that has now claimed more than 35 million lives around the world. Two recent stage productions shine a light on how radically our levels of awareness have changed over recent decades.

Could we have achieved this hard-earned wisdom without so many heart-rending losses? Consider Paul McCartney's achingly simple lyric for the 1965 song that The Beatles transformed into a classic:
“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they're here to stay
Oh, I believe in yesterday.

Suddenly I'm not half the man I used to be
There's a shadow hanging over me
Oh, yesterday came suddenly.

Why she had to go
I don't know, she wouldn't say
I said something wrong
Now I long for yesterday.

Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play
Now I need a place to hide away
Oh, I believe in yesterday.”
* * * * * * * * *
Some 30 years after the onset of the AIDS crisis, one wonders at some of the statements that were once commonly heard in gay bars and bathhouses:
  • "Oh man, I'll bet that stud has the dick of death!"
  • "With a body like this, how could I possibly get sick?"
  • "I'd eat a mile of that man's shit just to see where it came from."
The times, how they've been a-changing! Upon re-rereading Larry Kramer's incendiary article entitled 1,112 and Counting, it is astonishing to see how prescient and justifiably angry he was back when his piece was first published in March 1983 in the New York Native.
  • Those were the days when it was still easy for closeted gay men to lead rigidly compartmentalized lifestyles which they thought could protect them from being found out.
  • Those were the days when many gay people defined themselves in terms of their sexual activity, rather than their personalities, passions, or other parts of their lives.
  • Those were the days when many people couldn't comprehend the difference between making love and treating other men as "numbers."
  • Those were the days when many people were still reluctant to follow Harvey Milk's advice to "Come out, come out, wherever you are."
  • Those were the days before so many of our friends started dropping like flies.
Mickey Marcus (Michael Berresse) and Craig Donner (Tom Berklund)
sit in a busy physician's waiting room in The Normal Heart.
(Photo by: Scott Suchman)

The national tour of the recent Tony Award-winning production of Kramer's controversial 1985 drama, The Normal Heart, arrived last week at the American Conservatory Theater following its successful launch at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. To say that it brought back memories would be a severe understatement.

I saw the original production of The Normal Heart at New York's Public Theater with my father. Needless to say, it was the kind of father-son experience that generated lots of discussion. In my review in the Bay Area Reporter, I wrote:
"Unlike the clean-cut Hollywood romanticism lavished upon NBC's recent TV docudrama, An Early Frost, Kramer's AIDS play is a highly effective, confrontational, and occasionally ugly piece of agitprop theatre which does little to preserve the sanctity of those gays who either hide behind closet doors or refuse to deal with anything that could possibly untidy their lives.  Without ever apologizing for many of our community's touchy conceits ("Of course I'm out of the closet, but that doesn't mean I want my mailman to know I'm gay," groans one character), Kramer skillfully savages most of the petty delusions with which a large number of closeted and successful gays have avoided confronting the highly political aspects of the current AIDS epidemic."
Patrick Breen as Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart
Photo by:  Scott Suchman

During the play's opening night in San Francisco, certain moments stood out with the kind of searing clarity that comes from having had too many friends' lives cut short due to public apathy and governmental negligence.
  • It's been a long time since I saw anyone with a Kaposi's sarcoma lesion on his face. But in the first few minutes of Kramer's play, as one of the characters (Patrick Alparone) turns to face the audience, he reveals a bright red scar on his cheek; a sure sign that he is soon to die.
  • It's astonishing to realize how smoothly and tightly Kramer wove so much exposition into Act I, especially considering how intensely he needed to educate his audience about facts which had been brutally ignored by the mass media.
  • As a heated discussion focuses about the paltry $9,600 New York's Mayor Ed Koch might make available to the Gay Men's Health Crisis, a simple statement that probably never gets a response in other cities  ("San Francisco's Mayor just gave $4 million!") got a deeply appreciative wave of applause from the audience.
  • Long before marriage equality had become a driving issue in the LGBT rights movement, Kramer's plea for gay people to love themselves as people (rather than merely treating each other as sex objects) climaxed in a scene in which the play's AIDS physician, Dr. Emma Brookner (Jordan Baker) presided over a wedding ceremony between the protagonist, Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen), and his dying lover, Felix Turner (Matt McGrath).
Jordan Baker as Dr. Emma Brookner in The Normal Heart
Photo by: Kevin Berne

The passage of time has proven that Kramer was absolutely justified to be screaming at the top of his lungs. At the time he wrote 1,112 and Counting, the number of people diagnosed with AIDS was in the earliest stages of a geometric progression. Today, more than 71 million people are living with the disease.

It's impossible to watch a performance of Kramer's play without being deeply moved. Using the handsome unit set designed by David Rockwell, this production has been directed by George C. Wolfe with a remarkably sustained level of anger and sense of accelerating doom. It's a particularly important experience for young gay men who came out after anti-retrovirals were introduced as a treatment protocol, allowing people to "live with AIDS" (as opposed to living with a clinical death sentence).

Patrick Breen (who played Mickey Marcus on Broadway) has made the role of Ned his own with a portrayal filled with sound and fury, signifying more than some can even bear to comprehend. Bruce Altman provides a nice foil as Ned's older brother, Bruce Weeks, with Nick Mennell's portrait of Bruce Niles (the closeted former Green Beret who became President of GMHC) reminding audiences of how closely physical beauty can be accompanied by political cowardice.

Jon Levenson gives a disturbing performance as Hiram Keebler (Mayor Koch's villainous closeted liaison to the gay community) with Michael Berresse offering a poignant characterization of Mickey Marcus (Dr. Lawrence Mass in real life). Balancing Breen's vitriolic tour-de-force as Ned are two beautifully written and rendered performances by Sean Dugan as hospital administrator Tommy Boatwright ("I'm also a Southern bitch!") and Matt McGrath as Felix Turner, the fashion writer for The New York Times who falls in love with Ned Weeks. Tom Berklund appeared in smaller, supporting roles.

Patrick Breen and Matt McGrath in The Normal Heart
Photo by: Kevin Berne

The Normal Heart continues at A.C.T. through October 7 (click here to order tickets). While the play has many moments in which your heart my feel like it's stuck in your throat, you may also find yourself worrying about how Patrick Breen manages to protect his vocal cords while giving such a full-throttle, no holds-barred performance. Kramer's play is a riveting evening of theatre which, 25 years after its premiere, can be applauded for its solid writing as well as its political conscience.

* * * * * * * * *
It's not often that one encounters an 80-year-old monologist at a Fringe festival. I tip my hat to Gene Gore, whose Cheesecake and Demerol gave her audience keen insights into the challenges faced by women  half a century ago when they tried to stand up for their rights. Having grown up with a mother who was an alcoholic and a father who was a physician (with a practice based in Washington, D.C.), Gene quickly discovered that she was not interested in becoming a Stepford wife.

Whether describing what it was like to have her physician husband refuse to give his consent to her request for a tubal ligation, or be given $300 and sent to New York on her own to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy, she uses her personal history to remind people what life was like back in the days when words like "cancer" and "abortion" were simply not spoken in polite company.

Retired nurse Gene Gore performing Cheesecake and Demerol

Gore's life story took her through a divorce from an uncaring husband to a fulfilling second life which included working with AIDS patients at San Francisco General Hospital. Carefully paced, her 90-minute one-woman show (which was nicely directed by Wayne Harris) scored its dramatic points cleanly and effectively with the wisdom and sense of irony that can only come from being a survivor.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Mind The Gaps

Years ago, my aunt Joan and uncle Irving were visiting my parents when Joan (who was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease) said "I used to have a brain." The onset of adult dementia is often an insidious process that happens in such small steps that it's easy to overlook.

A decade later, when my mother (who loved to read) started showing early signs of Alzheimer's, one of the most painful symptoms for her was the realization that she could no longer read the newspaper because she could not connect many printed words to their meaning. When adult-onset dementia starts happening to someone you live with (or are close to), their initial symptoms of forgetfulness can easily be mistaken for what's been happening to lots of friends in their peer group.
  • Sometimes the person whose mind is showing early signs of deterioration has been remarkably adept at finding ways to compensate or "cover" for periodic lapses in memory.
  • Others, not wanting to face reality, resort to blanket denials that dementia may be a growing factor in their lives (in his book, My Father at 100, Ron Reagan suggested that President Reagan was showing early signs of Alzheimer's disease while in the White House).
Although a growing literature of film and staged dramas depict families torn apart by the effects of Alzheimer's disease, this particular form of mental illness has been remarkably egalitarian in its choice of victims.  Like AIDS, Alzheimer's crosses every boundary of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Nor does it discriminate between people of average intelligence and those who have been leaders in their field.

* * * * * * * * *
While scientists involved in the field of artificial intelligence have been working toward AI applications that can help an aging population, the Japanese seems to have made the most progress with caretaker robotsJake Schreier's mischievous geriatric romp, Robot & Frank, offers a heady mixture of comedy and pathos as an aging cat burglar (Frank Langella) realizes he can train a robot to do the nimble dirty work which his aging mind and body can no longer handle with the speed and reliability required to pull off a heist.

Frank's ongoing problems with boredom, lonelinesskleptomania, and the insidious onset of dementia have become a growing source of concern for his children. His son, Hunter (James Marsden), is a successful attorney who doesn't always have time to check up on his father. Having just returned from a trip to Turkmenistan, Frank's guilty daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), arrives needing more attention than she is capable of giving.

Frank Langella and Liv Tyler in Robot & Frank

Meanwhile, curious changes are happening in town. The local library is undergoing major renovations which will transform it into a tech center.  Led by an obnoxious yuppie named Jake (Jeremy Strong), a generation of nouveau riche has taken over the town's social life. The sexy librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), is about to lose her job.

Old habits die hard. When Jennifer invites Frank to a benefit for the library, he's insulted by Jake's condescending attitude but instantly aroused by the jewelry on display.  While Jake's house may not hold a candle to the Topkapi Museum, Frank quickly grasps a new application for the annoying caretaker robot that his son has delivered.

Frank Langella stars in Robot & Frank

In an op-ed piece published in The New York Times entitled The Flight From ConversationSherry Turkle wrote:
"I am a partisan for conversation. Face-to-face conversation unravels slowly. It requires patience. In conversation we tend to one another. We can attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another’s point of view. But in today’s workplace, young people who have grown up fearing conversation show up on the job wearing earphones. A 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, 'Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.'

I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod. For decades, I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked. Not too long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand, and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices. Why would we want to talk about love and loss with a machine that has no experience of the arc of human life? Have we so lost confidence that we will be there for one another? 
One of the most haunting experiences during my research came when I brought one of these robots, designed in the shape of a baby seal, to an elder care facility.  An older woman began to talk to it about the loss of her child. The robot seemed to be looking into her eyes. It seemed to be following the conversation. And the woman was comforted."
The inability to be physically present in the life of a loved one cannot always be solved by the presence of a caretaker robot. As Robot & Frank makes abundantly clear, the ability to delegate work to a robot can easily be abused by a lonely curmudgeon with a criminal mind.

Christopher D. Ford's script for Robot & Frank contains some delicious snarls and twists as well as painful truths about a parent's growing inability to take care of himself. Although Ana Gasteyer, and Jeremy Sisto have some nice cameos, the real action takes place within Frank’s mind. Here's the trailer:

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Needless to say, control freaks have an especially difficult time with dementia. The more competitive and tightly wound they are, the more prone they may be to outbursts of aggressive behavior and paranoid ideation. The protagonist of Sharr White's achingly poignant drama, The Other Place, certainly fits the bill.

A research neurologist who has devoted the past 10 years toward developing a drug that can attack a rare form of dementia, Juliana Smithton (Henny Russell) is one tough cookie. As she prepares to address a group of doctors on a medical retreat in St. Thomas that is being underwritten by her pharmaceutical company, she knows all the tricks necessary to make the male physicians in attendance realize that she's the smartest person in the room.

Henny Russell in The Other Place (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

But then something happens that rattles Juliana and throws her off her game. She sees a young woman in a yellow bikini who seems to be paying close attention to her lecture. The woman's silent presence sparks Juliana's aggressive need to dominate a situation as well as her supercilious attitude toward someone who is younger, prettier, and could never be as smart as Juliana.

Accustomed to wrestling with her own ego, Juliana confesses early on that there have been "early glimmers" and, in a rather bizarre phone call to her estranged daughter, admits that she's had some kind of an "episode" and may even have brain cancer. As they say in many 12-step programs: "The first step is acknowledging that you have a problem."

Henny Russell in The Other Place
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Juliana's years of battling the male medical establishment make her a tough adversary for her oncologist husband, Ian (Donald Sage Mackay), whom she is sure must be seeking a divorce. Convinced that Ian's female colleague (Carrie Paff), a doctor attempting to perform an intake interview with Juliana, is the younger woman who is sleeping with her husband, Juliana doesn't hesitate to toy with the examiner over the minutiae needed to complete a simple form.

Donald Sage Mackay and Henny Russell in The Other Place
(Photo by:  Jennifer Reiley)

If the audience has been paying careful attention, they've noticed the changes in Juliana's voice from moment to moment. Through some careful sound engineering by Brandon Wolcott, Juliana can seem to be speaking in her normal voice, in a subtly enhanced voice (while lecturing other doctors), or having phone conversations with her daughter (who seems to be located far, far away).

Magic Theatre is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of The Other Place in a production that has been beautifully directed by Loretta Greco. As the playwright and director guide the audience through a sea of red herrings toward the terrifying moment when Juliana "bottoms out" and starts to grasp the severity of her problem, the multiple meanings of the play's title start to come into focus. As the playwright explains:
"It is human nature to most vehemently deny the truths we feel can harm us the most. Very few statements of hubris (or hard lines draw in the sand) go unpunished if you wait long enough. In this story, it seemed fitting to find the smartest woman in the world and slowly let her realize that nothing she knows is true. At its heart, this play is all about hubris punished; about a great person brought to her exact opposite position."
Carrie Paff and Henny Russell in The Other Place
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

While Henny Russell and David Sage Mackay give searing portrayals of two brilliant scientists rendered helpless by the ravages of mental illness, Carrie Paff gets to shine in a variety of supporting roles as "The Woman." Patrick Russell lends equally sturdy dramatic support as "The Man." As always, Loretta Greco's dramatic acuity allows her actors to breathe life (with all its imperfections) into their characters without ever overwhelming the script.

Audiences who enjoy the kind of psychological mysteries that get solved by pulling back one layer at a time will find plenty of clues to track in Sharr White's heart-rending drama. Those who have dealt with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia in their private lives will probably be able to anticipate what lies ahead.  Performances of The Other Place continue at the Magic Theatre through October 7 (click here to order tickets).

Friday, September 21, 2012

Cantankerous Old Coots

During the 2008 Presidential election, Senator John McCain came to represent the key demographic that watches the Fox News Channel: angry old white men prone to shouting "You rotten kids get off my lawn." Recently, Senator Lindsay Graham confessed that "The demographics race, we're losing badly.  We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term."

While there is no shortage of grumpy old men around, it's interesting to note how actors depict these types onscreen.
Retirement often brings out the strangest passions in men. While some may join the Tea Party movement and use its activities as a vehicle for venting their frustrations, others take to volunteer work or seek out mentoring opportunities.

Many end up puttering around in their garages, fixing gadgets and producing strange creations. Matt Lenski's short, The Meaning of Robots, showcases the work of the eccentric but determined Mike Sullivan (who has spent more than 10 years shooting a robot porn stop motion film in his apartment).

As you can see from the above clip, the mind is a terrible thing to waste. What happens to the minds of men who lived through the Great Depression? World War II? Often, as these men grow older, they start to act on fantasies involving adventure or revenge, determined to show "young whippersnappers" who's still in charge. Two films screened at the 2012 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival examined extreme reactions of elderly men to conflicts with members of a younger generation.

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Written and directed by Sameh ZoabiMan Without A Cell Phone is a classic case of a curmudgeon who demands to be heard -- especially when he feels that others are encroaching upon his territory. Just like Rodney Dangerfield, Salem (Basem Loulou) feels that he "can't get no respect."

Salem is a cranky old farmer living in an Arab village near Nazareth who resents the way Palestinian-Israelis are treated as second class citizens by the Israeli government. When an Israeli telecom company erects a cell phone tower in his village, he tries to organize a grassroots protest with the slogan "Yes to Olives. No to Radiation!"

Basem Loulou as Salem in Man Without a Cellphone

While several of Salem's cronies are more than happy to interfere with the efforts of the Israeli telecom service, the younger generation has other things on its mind:
  • Salem's son, Jawdat (Razi Shawahdeh), is a hopeless romantic who is thrilled that the improved reception on his cell phone can help him juggle his attempts at wooing several attractive young women.
  • Jawdat's cousin, Muhammed (Louay Noufi), is a loyal friend who is hoping to get married so that he can finally have a sex life.
  • Rana (Maysa Abd Elhadi) is a beautiful student leader who keeps urging Jawdat to concentrate on his studies as a means of getting ahead in life.
Razi Shawahdeh as Jawdat in Man Without a Cellphone

In his director's statement, Zoabi explains the peculiar circumstances which accompanied his film shoot:
"The inspiration for this story is grounded from personal experiences growing up as a Palestinian-Israeli; an experience that unconsciously births engaging and dramatic material. Twenty percent of Israel's citizens are Palestinians who live in segregated villages and towns throughout the country. Growing up, our own communities and schools are not integrated into the larger Israeli society. After high school, many young people flock to universities and the workplace where they must interact with the larger Jewish-Israeli population for the first time. Leaving home is a major transition and time of self discovery for young adults across all cultures, but it is particularly unique to Palestinian-Israelis who come to realize their status as second class citizens with full force. In the media, the struggle for equal rights is overshadowed by the larger political milieu of the region and is lacking in personal stories of everyday people.

The first time a film had been shot in my hometown, Iksal, people had not seen a movie crew this close before. With the support of all of my family and friends, the experience was, unquestionably, an emotional one. In a stranger-than-fiction moment that proves film is a reflection of reality, many of the people in the town did believe that the radiation from cell phone towers does cause cancer. So when we built a cell phone tower close to the village for the purpose of using it as part of the film set, the next morning we came to the set to find it fully destroyed. People left signs saying “No more radiation and cancer.” It turned out that some people thought it was a real cell phone tower… so we had to announce during Friday’s prayer
(through the Mosque’s speakers in the village) that it was a part of the film set and it was not real. We were lucky that it happened during the pre-production phase and not during shooting. In a way, it proved how accomplished our production team was in that our tower was constructed out of cardboard but looked that real.

As a filmmaker I feel the urge to tell stories about my own community and share these narratives with the world. While the political realities are, invariably, present in the film, the story ultimately reveals an upbeat and positive tone. Man Without a Cell Phone explores all of the hopeful, frustrating, and hilarious moments that my community’s post-adolescent experience entails."
Salem's initial attempt to destroy the cell phone tower provokes a surprising reaction. Not only is the tower repaired, soon there are armed guards stationed in front of it. While the guards have been trained to stand their ground against any and all threats, they're not prepared to fight an angry farmer who knows how to use sprinklers as a weapon. Here's a clip from Man Without a Cellphone:

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Written and directed by Leo KhasinKaddish For a Friend is the kind of film that can really tear at a viewer's heart. Set in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin, it focuses on the strange story of Alexander (Ryszard Ronczewski), an old Russian Jew who survived World War II, and Ali Messalem (Neil Belakhdar), a 14-year-old Arab whose family recently arrived in town from Lebanon in an effort to escape the ongoing violence between Arabs and Israelis.

As Ali's family moves into their new apartment, they notice water dripping through the ceiling. When the teenager goes upstairs to see what the problem is, he discovers that their upstairs neighbor's washing machine has malfunctioned. After helping the old man fix the problem, he heads downstairs to tell his parents some shocking news.

Ali's father, Wadir (Neil Malik Abdullah), is horrified to learn that his family is now living beneath their worst enemy, a Jew. Determined to build a new life in Germany, he discourages his son from drawing and sketching and insists that Ali concentrate only on school and work.

It's difficult his social worker to get any cooperation from Alexander. The old man adamantly resists transfer to a nursing home and, although he presents himself to strangers as a gruff, intolerant old coot, Alexander is a former teacher who used to coach boxing. A World War II veteran, he carries the wounds of his lost loves deep inside his heart. Alexander's wife is dead.  His only son (an Israeli soldier) was killed while on duty in Lebanon.

Poster art for Kaddish For a Friend

When Ali starts to hang out with his cousin Bilal's (Cemal Subasi) gang, he quickly becomes a target for abuse as the new kid in town. In order to prove himself, he accepts a challenge from the gang's leader, Younes (Younes Hussein Ramadan), to trash the apartment of "that old Jew." Returning home from visiting his cluster of elderly friends (who have just honored him for his years of service to their community), Alexander enters his home to find his apartment ransacked and the words "Juden=Nazi" written on the wall.

Knowing full well who destroyed his most cherished belongings, the furious man heads downstairs to confront Ali's parents. Later, when the boy's mother (Sanam Afrashteh) rings his doorbell with a peace offering and begs Alexander to show mercy on her son, he refuses her entreaties. Instead, Alexander offers a strict ultimatum: The only way he will resist reporting Ali to the police is if the boy comes upstairs and returns his apartment to its previous condition.

With his imposing physique, Alexander knows how to intimidate a scrawny young kid like Ali. But soon they find a way to communicate with each other. When Ali shows the old man a drawing he has made that reproduces the scene in one of the old photos he damaged, Alexander realizes that the boy has artistic talent.

Acting on the instincts of a retired teacher, he encourages Ali to keep sketching. As his apartment gets restored, a bond starts to grow between the bitter old Jew and an insecure young Arab. However, a problem still remains: Now that Ali has been noticed by the police, he can be deported if Alexander testifies against him.

The old man's friends insist that he do so as a means of retaliating against their enemies. But Alexander, who understands that Ali made an unfortunate mistake, believes there might be a stronger lesson to be learned from forgiveness.

Ryszard Ronczewski in Kaddish For a Friend

In his director’s statement, Khasin (a former dentist) explains that:
“My patients were a colorful bunch from every part of the world, including sentimental Russians stranded in Berlin and loud Arabs. But as much as I thought about them, I couldn’t bring them together until, one day, a very scared young Lebanese boy was given a nod of encouragement by an old Russian Jew. It was the birth of my heroes, two dissimilar friends who are destined to overcome the gulf between cultures.”
Blessed by Ronczewski's stellar performance, Kaddish For a Friend, packs a deep emotional punch. Khasin's tenderly-crafted drama offers audiences an unexpected and deeply moving of tale of friendship, forgiveness, and redemption. Neil Belakhdar delivers an impressive performance as Ali, with touching cameos by Heinz W. Krukeberg as Alexander's closest friend and Anna Bottcher as his social worker. Here's the trailer: