Sunday, September 2, 2012

Professional Thrill Seekers

Many of us get our thrills vicariously. We watch athletes compete, opera singers reach for high notes, acrobats perform breathtaking stunts, and porn stars have sex. When we watch an action-adventure movie, green-screen technology, animation, and CGI scripting take us through impossibly dangerous scenarios involving multiple explosions, car chases, hallucinatory sequences, and science fiction fantasies that we never could, would, or should attempt on our own.

In 1939, James Thurber published one of his most famous short stories, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in The New Yorker magazine. Since then, people have routinely inflated their resumés, claimed credit for military service they never performed, and imagined themselves as real-life heroes and job creators when nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth, after all, is very messy and being "in the moment" of capturing the truth often involves taking extraordinary risks. The actors, athletes, and stunt performers who carry off thrilling feats of derring-do with a convincing amount of truthiness take clearly calculated risks based on reasonable assumptions of success.

While most people have no problem accepting their role as armchair adventurers in spectator sports, for the select few who choose to embrace danger (while dancing with the risk of instant annihilation), their work is intensely focused on scoring the rush of adrenaline that makes it all feel worthwhile. Shaping and capturing that moment for others may bring them a huge financial payoff, but the reward related to the performance of their craft will always be deeply personal.

Two new Bay area productions focus on what such momentary thrills mean to people at the center of the action. How they were lured into the game -- and whether or not they can ever bring themselves to leave -- are challenges they must confront each and every time they enter into the arena of risk. Further into adulthood, the difficulty of balancing one's passion with one's job requires some tricky navigation skills.

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Down in Mountain View, Theatreworks is presenting the Northern California premiere of Time Stands Still, a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies in a production that has been beautifully directed by Leslie Martinson. Set in a loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the cast of four characters includes:
  • Sarah (Rebecca Dines), a fearless war photographer with the clinical detachment of a neurosurgeon. Wounded by a roadside bomb, Sarah was kept in a medically-induced coma while her body healed from shrapnel wounds. She is, like many professional war photographers, addicted to the excitement of being on the front line (even if her daily life is filled with blood, gore, bombings, and peril).
  • James (Mark Anderson Phillips), a freelance writer who whose stories about events in areas like Rwanda and Sudan (though painfully honest) tend to bum out editors who want “happy news” for special magazine editions built around fashion, film, and other aspects of popular culture. Although James and Sarah have been lovers for the past nine years, her recent medical crisis has caused him to give serious thought to what might happen if they stayed at home and tried to live like normal people.
  • Richard (Rolf Saxon), Sarah’s editor and former boyfriend who has snagged himself a perky young blonde. Under normal circumstances, his doting behavior would be described as a midlife crisis but, in all truth, this looks like a match made in heaven.
  • Mandy (Sarah Moser), Richard's superidealistic new girlfriend whose naive optimism and hunger for a father figure feeds her boyfriend's lust and strokes his ego.
Rebecca Dines in Time Stands Still
Photo by: Tracy Martin

All four of these multi-layered characters go through complex dramatic changes as both couples marry and Mandy becomes pregnant. However, jealousy and insecurity are never far from home.
  • Having seen many of Sarah's unpublished war pictures, Richard has hooked his friends into a publishing contract for a coffee table book that will include Sarah's photographs and Jamie's text.
  • Having succeeded in convincing Sarah to marry him (partly because of medical issues that arose while she was hospitalized and he was legally blocked from making any decisions for her), Jamie has never really been able to overcome his suspicion that Sarah was romantically involved with her interpreter and guide, Tariq (who was killed by the roadside bomb that landed Sarah in the hospital).
  • Like many a new mother, Mandy has decided not to return to her job as an event planner but to let her entire life revolve around the needs of her infant.
  • Although her leg has finally healed and she has married James, Sarah has begun to feel trapped, restless and craves the adrenaline of taking pictures in a war zone.
Mark Anderson Phillips and Rebecca Dines
in Time Stands Still (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Unlike many contemporary dramas, the characters in Time Stands Still all travel a significant emotional distance (Mandy's growth reaching surprising new depths). Mark Anderson Phillips gives a magnificent performance as the emotionally torn Jamie while Rebecca Dines shows strength, resolve, and a bit of self-delusion as the war photographer who insists that she is “just doing her job.”

Sarah Moser wins the audience's sympathy as she moves from air-headed naiveté to the self-satisfaction of being a new mother. Rolf Saxon's Richard provides a nice foil for the intense emotionality of Sarah and Jamie. Although he is never visible onstage, the spirit of the dead Tariq hovers eerily over the disintegrating relationship between the two war correspondents.

Margulies has crafted a highly intelligent and deeply sensitive play about how a couple's love for their professional work can eventually destroy their romantic relationship. Performances of Time Stands Still continue at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through September 16 (click here to order tickets).

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Long before Hulk Hogan"Macho Man" Randy Savage, André the Giant and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson achieved celebrity in the ring, I was among millions of young boys fascinated by professional wrestlers like Killer KowalskiGorgeous GeorgeBruno SammartinoHaystacks Calhoun, and Happy Humphrey. I can even remember getting one of the first hints that I might be gay while sitting with my sister one Saturday night and watching an extremely handsome bodybuilder get the shit kicked out of him by one of wrestling's more merciless thugs.

The 800-pound  Happy Humphrey (William Joseph Cobb) wrestles
with the  600-pound Haystacks Calhoun (William Dee Calhoun)

Of course, that was back in the day when wrestling was less driven by flashy costumes, pre-show media stunts, and corporate branding. Many an evening was spiced up with a tag team midget wrestling match or two women engaging in what was ridiculously labeled "ladies wrestling."

Midget wrestlers posing for the camera

Although today's cable wrestling shows draw a bloodthirsty pay-per-view audience for many events, much of the magic seemed to have evaporated from the experience the last time I watched professional wrestling on television. Happily, the Aurora Theatre Company's production of The Elaborate Entrance of Chance Deity brings back the  fake hero worship, the rigged matches, and the ridiculously childish expectations which help keep professional wrestling alive in the hearts of young boys who, like Peter Pan, never really grow up. As playwright Kristoffer Diaz explains:
"My first artistic love just happens to have been professional wrestling. I remember watching the original WrestleMania on closed circuit television (and crying about how the U.S. Express was cheated out of their tag team titles). In college, a friend of mine said 'You’re a smart guy. How can you watch that crap?' From there, this play was born. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity attempts to experiment with form and content, mixing monologue, spectacle, and traditional narrative to explore what I think is a truly unique and often under-utilized American art form."
Vigneshwar Padura (Nasser Khan) and
Macedonio "The Mace" Guerra (Tony Sancho) team up in
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (Photo by: David Allen)

Diaz was also inspired by what happened to professional wrestler Muhammad Hassan (Mark Copani), whose wrestling match from July 4, 2005 had been scheduled to air just hours after the London terrorist bombings took place. Political pressure from UPN subsequently knocked Copani off WWE's Smackdown! roster of professional wrestlers.

It's easy to see why Diaz's two-act play was a contender for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. In addition to representing a distinct part of American culture and providing his audience with an exciting evening of [very] live theatre, Diaz's script for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity contains some magnificent writing. Starting with the rhythmic use of the phrase "my brother and my brother" by Macedonio "The Mace" Guerra (Tony Sancho) -- the Puerto Rican wrestler who serves as narrator -- through to showing how terms like "Fundamentalist," "Mexican," "sleeper cell," and "Terrorist" are used to provoke an easily manipulated crowd to root against the bad guy, Diaz's writing shines in oddly youthful moments of poetry, blazing irony, and breathtakingly cynical showmanship.

Mace begins the evening explaining what it was like to grow up in a poor family in The Bronx, eating a makeshift version of Frosted Flakes ("without no Tony the Tiger") as he and his brothers sat transfixed in front of the television set while watching professional wrestling. He describes the crucial differences a child can perceive in one brand of action figure toys versus another, and how the wrestling figures from a minor league gave him so much more joy, satisfaction, and the power to act out fight scenarios with his dolls.

Power, after all, is the engine of professional wrestling. Whether one is looking at the power exerted and telegraphed to audiences by the current champion, Chad Deity (Beethoven Oden), or the box office power being planned and manipulated bu THE Wrestling's promoter, Everett K. [EKO] Olson (Rod Gnapp), it is a power driven by greed, guts, and a much more physically aggressive form of show business than vaudeville.

Promoter Everett K. [EKO] Olson explains how the wrestling
business works to newcomer Vigneshwar Paduar (Nasser Khan) in
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (Photo by: David Allen)

Newcomers may be welcomed, exploited, or beaten to a pulp. Old-timers may deliver a grandiose lecture to an aspiring wrestler on the symbolic importance of raisin bread. As directed by Jon Tracy on Nina Ball's nifty unit set), much of the action takes place in the audience's lap.

In addition to warming up the audience prior to the performance (and coaching them on how to react to each wrestler's signature moves), Dave Maier portrays wrestlers Billy Heartland, Old Glory, and "The Bad Guy." Nasser Khan shows plenty of spunk as Indian-American Vigneshwar "VP" Paduar while Rod Gnapp adds Everett K. [EKO] Olson to his long list of charismatic villains.

With sound design by Cliff Caruthers, costumes by Maggie Whitaker, and some hilarious video sequences by Jim Gross (during which Chad Deity shows up alongside everyone from Elvis Presley to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.), Tracy's production keeps theatergoers constantly involved. However, it is Tony Sancho's exquisite performance as Mace that captures the audience's heart as they watch his life progress from awe-struck little boy to professional wrestler, fall guy, and pseudovillain, Che Chavez Castro.

Mace (Tony Sancho) watches as Chad Deity (Beethoven Oden)
plays to the fans in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
(Photo by: David Allen)

Performance of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity continue through September 30 at the Aurora Theatre Company (click here to order tickets).

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