Friday, November 30, 2012

Fighting Back Against the 1%

The onset of the holiday shopping season brings a surge in annual appeals for donations to nonprofit arts organizations and charities. Many newspapers feature stories meant to inspire readers during their "Season of Giving" while community food banks and clothing drives head into their most stressful time of the year.

The past few months have brutally demonstrated the income gap among Americans. Mitt Romney's infamously callous remarks about the 47% offered a stark contrast between the Republican and Democratic mindsets. His out-of-touch approach to the reality of many Americans' lives may have hit a peak when he tried to relabel a campaign event as a Hurricane Sandy relief effort (whose insincerity and misguided planning delivered little more than a clumsy photo-op while placing untimely and unnecessary pressure on Red Cross workers in Ohio).

The devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy offered a defining example of how some people confuse the words "charity" and "gift." The Yes Men published a brilliant piece in The Huffington Post entitled What Is A Gift? which should be required reading for all.

News that the Occupy Movement had launched a Rolling Jubilee campaign to purchase debt for pennies on the dollar and retire it (rather than letting collection agencies harass people in their efforts to earn predatory profits from their vulture-like investments) brought hope of a new paradigm. Paul Ford's piece in New York Magazine entitled Big Problems, Little Solutions: For the New Occupy, Size Is Everything offered a fascinating insight into how social media might redefine the concepts of charitable giving and emergency relief.

The bottom line guiding such efforts is the requirement for people to put aside their political agendas and personal greed in order to "do the right thing." It's a concept that resonates with President Obama (a former community organizer) but seems to make no sense at all to people like Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Two new productions take unique approaches to dramatizing the plight of the single man who, like David, is trying to fight the oppressive tactics of a corporate Goliath. What makes these efforts fascinating is that each is actually building upon a pre-existing work in order to make its point to new audiences.

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When I was a kid, my father (a science teacher) built a crude radio that would allow me to eavesdrop on amateur broadcasts. On some nights, I would listen to dramatizations about crooks and robbers who might lurking in our neighborhood. Although I often went to bed terrified about potential criminals entering our house, the noisiest intruders in the vicinity of our driveway were a bunch of horny, hungry cats who would occasionally manage to tip over a trash can.

My first encounter with the concept of a radio play was the 1979 Broadway production of The 1940s Radio Hour with a cast that included Dee Dee Bridgewater and Mary-Cleere Haran. Set in December 1942, the action took place in a tiny radio station (New York's WOV) that was taping a holiday musical broadcast for the troops overseas.

The score includes an appealing mix of pop songs from the period ("Blues in the Night," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "That Old Black Magic"), Christmas songs like "Jingle Bells" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as well as several sung commercials for Pepsi-ColaThe 1940s Radio Hour is a perfect holiday vehicle for regional and community theatres in need an alternative to A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker.

In 2006, director Robert Altman transformed Garrison Keillor's popular A Prairie Home Companion into a feature film with a cast that included Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Tommy Lee Jones and a young Lindsay Lohan as a woman who likes to write about suicide.

For its holiday show, Marin Theatre Company is staging Joe Landry's adaptation of Frank Capra's beloved script (It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play). When the movie was first screened in December of 1946, its premiere was scheduled to make it eligible for the upcoming Academy Awards rather than as a holiday-themed treat. Owing to some curious financial negotiations, after the copyright expired and the film entered into the public domain, television stations embraced it as a low-cost programming option for the Christmas holidays.

As a result of its familiarity to television viewers, It's A Wonderful Life ranks high on the America Film Institute's list of the 100 most inspiring movies of all time. In 1990, the United States Library of Congress selected Capra's film for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Shortly after the film's release it was adapted for radio (first premiering on the Lux Radio Theatre on March 10, 1947). Capra's script was subsequently performed on air for The Screen Guild Theatre on December 29, 1947 (which did another live broadcast on March 15, 1951).

According to Wikipedia, James Stewart and Donna Reed recreated their film roles in all three radio broadcasts. Stewart also portrayed George Bailey in a May 8, 1949 radio adaptation for the Screen Director's Playhouse.

The message contained in the film is a simple and universal one which becomes all the more timely in light of the Occupy Sandy  phenomenon.  As Margot Melcon writes in her program notes:
"Our society rarely recognizes those who are morally rich or extraordinarily kind. We are distracted by measurable achievements -- the hyperbole of best or most of anything.  We often fail even (and maybe especially) to give ourselves credit for the things we do for our families or community. The enduring message of It's A Wonderful Life is that, should you choose to see them, there are measures in life that show very clearly how each one of us is a great success.

In this story, the hero doesn't learn the truth and then go on to achieve great things. The truth of his realization is that he has already achieved great things. For the first time in his life, George recognizes his worth as an individual and sees himself clearly.  He is given the gift of knowing that, as he has showed up in the lives of others, so will they show up for him in his in a time of need."

Gabriel Marin as actor Jake Laurents portraying George Bailey in
It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (Photo by: Ed Smith)

For those who cherish the film version of It's A Wonderful Life, experiencing the story as part of a radio play may initially be quite jarring. In his script notes, Joe Landry explains how the concept of adapting Capra's work into a radio play was born:
"Bringing Frank Capra's classic film to the stage began almost 20 years ago when longtime friend and teacher, Frances Kondziela, asked me to pen an adaptation for her high school ensemble. After the premiere of this original incarnation, the piece was produced by TheatreWorks in New Milford, CT, and was then chosen for its first professional production at the legendary Westport Country Playhouse. When the budget of this (still full-scale, literally putting the film on stage) production skyrocketed and was dropped from the slate, the concept of staging the piece as a live radio play of the period was born. This radio play adaptation was originally mounted at Stamford Center for the Arts in 1996 and has been performed there since with great success. It was at Stamford that the play was fine tuned and took shape as the piece published here. Through word of mouth alone, productions have since taken place around the country, including the noted Chicago premiere at American Theatre Company."
As Freddie Fillmore, Michael Gene Sullivan offered some nice warm-up exercises for the audience to get them used to the "Applause" signs and loosen them up in advance of the broadcast. The other actors include Sarah Overman as Sally Applewhite, Carrie Paff as Lana Sherwood, Patrick Kelly Jones as Harry "Jazzbo"Heywood, and Gabriel Marin as Jake Laurents.

The real joy for the audience is watching how radio actors (especially Sullivan and Jones) must perform a multitude of roles during the course of the broadcast while providing foley (sound) effects to augment the drama.  In essence, the actors are doing double duty, triple duty, and sometimes multiple tasks in order to recreate the story for those who might be listening at home.

Michael Gene Sullivan, Patrick Kelly Jones, Carrie Paff, and
Sarah Overman in It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
(Photo by: Ed Smith)

For a modern audience used to having any kind of video at their disposal on a wide variety of wireless devices, watching this all take place in the format of a radio play might feel like a hyperactive segment of The Twilight Zone. For director Jon Tracy's ensemble, it requires a huge amount of concentration while providing the actors with a great opportunity to demonstrate their versatility.

What I found most interesting was how my perception of the evening changed after intermission. Much of Act I was overtly gimmicky (which is required by the situation) and occasionally tedious.  But I'll be damned if in Act II, as George Bailey's fortunes started to sink, I didn't feel a melodramatic lump forming in my throat and find myself touched by the humanity of It's A Wonderful Life.

While that's a testament to the strength of Joe Landry's adaptation and Jon Tracy's stage direction, more than anything else it's a tribute to the timeliness of Frank Capra's story about a decent man whose good works are almost erased by a greedy mortgage speculator (does anyone want to talk about homes that are currently underwater as a result of credit-default swaps?).

Gabriel Marin and Sarah Overman in It's A Wonderful Life:
A Live Radio Play
(Photo by: Ed Smith)

Michael Gene Sullivan and Patrick Kelly Jones had a blast doing rapid transitions between numerous characters, but the evening's true emotional anchor was Gabriel Marin's warm and endearing portrait of actor Jake Laurents portraying Capra's George Bailey. Sarah Overman shone as George's tender and dutiful wife, Mary. Things may be rotten in the state of Denmark, but thanks to MTC's holiday show, they're looking up in Bedford Falls.

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George Bailey's confrontation with the villainous Henry Potter is mere piffle when compared to the real-life harassment of Swedish documentarian Fredrik Gertten by a multinational corporation's publicists and lawyers.

In 2009, Gertten was the filmmaker and executive producer of Bananas!* (a documentary about a lawsuit filed by attorney Juan "Accidentes" Dominguez against Dole Food Company, Inc. on behalf of 12 Nicaraguan banana workers who claimed that a banned pesticide used by Dole on its crops had left them sterile). When Gertten was invited to screen Bananas!* in competition at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival, Dole unleashed a barrage of dirty tricks and intimidation tactics (including threats to sue the festival's board members) that were not only aimed at forcing Gertten to withdraw his film from competition, but to never show it to the public.

Realizing that there was a developing story to be documented, Gertten arranged to be met upon his arrival at Los Angeles International Airport by a film crew in case he was served with legal papers. What was especially galling for him was that no one from Dole had even viewed his film (you can watch Bananas!* online in its entirety here). They had only watched the trailer.

As the situation grew more offensive and ridiculous, Gertten's film crew kept recording events as they transpired. The resulting follow-up documentary (Big Boys Gone Bananas!*) is like watching an evil empire trying to trample an individual in order to deny him his freedom of speech. As Gertten explains:
"Today, independent documentary films are more important than ever. These films are the last bastions of truth telling. Traditional media outlets have less money for investigative reporting. Many are owned by corporate entities that have an influence on the news and its presentation and distribution. All of which means that documentary filmmakers have an even harder job to seek the truth and will continue to meet more opposition as we continue to tell these stories of corporations doing bad things.We need to keep making our films and telling these stories.

I have worked as a journalist and filmmaker for 25 years. Being sued by a multinational corporate giant like Dole Foods is no PR-stunt and is no fun, but it is interesting! You learn a lot and, if you survive, you certainly have a story to tell. Big Boys Gone Bananas!* was a film I needed to make. The experience of being the subject of an attack from a major corporation such as this gave me a deeper understanding of society and media. In Big Boys Gone Bananas!* I am trying to understand how Dole Foods did what they did. The questions kept coming: Why were they so successful in the U.S. in controlling the story in the media and blocking the film for almost two years?"
Filmmaker Fredrik Gertten
"The film is also about corporate scare tactics and instilling fear in the little guys. How do people react when they can feel the raw forces of money and power coming against a filmmaker? In my situation, some people moved away for us and left us alone to fight this battle. Perhaps they believed Dole had a point (or maybe it was just a battle they could not afford to take on). We were fortunate there were those who showed passion and solidarity with us. For example, each of the European broadcasters involved in showing Bananas!* decided to broadcast the film regardless of the fact that we had a lawsuit pending in the U.S. That was a good feeling. In Sweden, consumers and activists pushed the supermarkets to boycott Dole Foods (the boycott actually did not happen). Instead, the supermarkets demanded Dole withdraw the lawsuit.

There is no doubt that what we experienced in making Bananas!* and what is documented in this current film Big Boys Gone Bananas!* will not stop. I hope that Big Boys Gone Bananas!* will open up a debate on what and how the powerful corporations do and are able to do by way of controlling the media and instilling fear amongst the little people. Going through this experience always made me wonder: How free is freedom of speech and how free is freedom of the press?"
In the following interview at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Gertten describes some of his misadventures with Dole and warns about the insidious influence of the public relations industry on today's media.

Viewers of Big Boys Gone Bananas!* will have no trouble spotting the moments of payback in Gertten's documentary that could give Michael Moore an orgasm. I particularly enjoyed the lead-up to Gertten's October 9, 2009 screening of Bananas!* in a meeting room packed with members of the Swedish parliament after which Luciano Astudillo (a member of Parliament representing the City of Malmo) told reporters:
“We have repeatedly defended free speech when governments repress its citizens, but it’s equally important to react when companies try to restrict free speech through their financial muscles.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The New Abnormal

Some friendships are based on long hours spent together at work, at play, or sharing intimate secrets and thoughts. Others seem to be delivered by software bots on social networking sites.

People now have thousands of online friends who have been culled from various email address books (even if they have never met them face to face). As a result, the expectations and responsibilities of a friendship have undergone dramatic changes.
  • Whereas a friend could once be counted upon to be a confidante or help you out in a crisis, these days a friendship might be tested by a simple request to "like" something on Facebook.
  • The handful of friends who have stood by you through thick and thin might be sorely miffed to discover that they've been reduced to mere statistics in your otherwise hectic online existence.
  • Some friendships lose their potency after people stop working for the same employer, move to a different city, or stop going to the gym.
  • Some friendships simply cannot survive the radical loss of a shared activity (such as when a person enters a 12-step program and finds it necessary to leave his drinking buddies behind).
  • Often, when a person gets involved in a romantic relationship, friendships can fade into the background.
  • Friendships that have stood the test of time for decades are becoming rarer as hen's teeth.
  • Some friends never really have the potential to evolve into "friends with benefits."
Two new dramedies share some curious turf. Each focuses on a young couple where one of the partners is self-employed and works at home. Each relies on social media for certain plot twists. And in each case, a young couple comes to realize that they may be a whole lot more old-fashioned than they thought.

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Try to imagine what it would be like if a young playwright looked to Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz for inspiration and had her insecure, stressed-out protagonist get sucked into her computer and wind up trapped inside her Facebook page. That's pretty much the underlying structure for Status Update, a new play by Dorothy Fortenberry with music by Colin Wambsgans that received its world premiere from Center Rep in Walnut Creek.

Annabel (Rosie Hallett) and Brian (Ben Euphrat) are a young couple who have recently moved to Phoenix. Although Annabel has built herself some kind of weird graphic arts business for which people pay her handsomely to morph their digital images with Photoshop to match their fantasies, Ben has a day job where he interacts with real people in real time. Annabel (who has been working in her pajamas for far too long) has become so addicted to her Twitter and Facebook feeds that she's lost her basic social skills.
  • The only friends she prefers to interact with can be kept at a safe distance because they are virtual.  Between friends and clients, that's 534 people who need her attention!
  • As if matters weren't bad enough, Annabel's mother has joined Facebook and found a new way to annoy her.
  • Annabel has just found her old boyfriend online and seems more interested in chatting with him than interacting with Brian.
  • Instead of a Cheshire cat, YouTube's infamous Keyboard Cat (Joel Roster) occasionally offers Annabel questionable advice and musical diversion. 
Keyboard Cat (Joel Roster) and Annabel (Rosie Hallett)
in Status Update (Photo by: Allesandra Mello)
  • On the spur of the moment, Brian has invited Zar (Lynda DiVito), an older woman he knows from work and her husband, Niko (Darren Bridgett), over to celebrate Anabel's birthday.
  • Because Annabel's dietary habits have disintegrated as a result of working at home, the only food on hand for a birthday celebration is some peanut butter and crackers.
Zar (Lynda DiVito), Niko (Darren Bridgett),  Annabel (Rosie Hallett)
and Brian (Ben  Euphrat) in Status Update (Photo by: Alessandro Mello)

Although some members of the audience might not be as up to date on the various Internet memes that pepper the script for Status Update, they will have no trouble understanding the fear and stress that propel Annabel to dive headlong into Facebook and Brian's subsequent struggle to retrieve her. What needs no explanation are the predatory moves by Zar and Niko, who seem more interested in nursing Brian's cock than one of his cocktails.

Becca Wolff has directed her energetic ensemble with the kind of rapidly-shifting moods and energy levels that affect people with limited attention spans.  While Fortenberry's script will allow future productions to insert the latest memes floating around the Internet for topical punch, Status Update still needs some tightening. I did, however, enjoy Kerstin Larissa Hovland's animation sequences and Michael Locher's handsome unit set.

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If you're looking for an intimate indie film that captures San Francisco in all of its smug and narcissistic -- yet politically correct -- attitudes, look no further than Yes, We're Open. Written by H.P. Mendoza (who also supplied some songs) and directed by Richard Wong, the film revolves around an attractive young and overeducated Asian couple who like to think of themselves as relatively cool, even if they are not.

Luke (Parry Shen) works at home and is an amateur cook who likes to experiment with recipes for weird food (poached eggs floating in pig's blood).  His live-in girlfriend, Sylvia (Lynn Chen), works as a bookkeeper. After several years together, they've reached the stage where sex starts to lose some of its zing. In fact, they've gotten so comfortable with each other than they can afford to laugh when Luke accidentally lets out a Quiznos' flavored burp while French-kissing Sylvia.

Having forgotten his carefully-written notes, when Luke rises to deliver a toast at the wedding of friends Scott (Tasi Alabastro) and Cassy (Theresa Navarro), he ends up launching into the kind of well meant but totally misguided speech about how, thanks to Proposition 8, gay people can't get married. Without thinking, he insinuates that Brett (H.P. Mendoza) is gay and manages to offend several of the wedding guests.

On their way home in a taxi, Luke and Sylvia critique one of the wedding guests as they try to decide whether it's proper to call him an asshole or a douchebag. Slightly drunk and extremely satisfied with themselves, their air of superiority even manages to tick off their taxi driver.

While shopping for food at the Alemany Farmer's Market, Sylvia and Cassy start talking about whether or not they would cheat on their partners. An extremely handsome stranger overhears Sylvia's remark about swallowing a man's semen during oral sex and makes an odd comment about her conversation with Cassy.

Later that night, when Luke and and Sylvia arrive at Scott and Cassy's place for dinner, they're introduced to one of Cassy's old friends from Smith College, Elena (Sheetal Sheth) whose partner, Ronald (Kerry McCrohan), had overheard Sylvia's comment about the taste of men's sperm earlier that day. They've brought a rather nerdy friend with them named Gerald (Dave Boyle), who once shared a threeway with them.

After Ronald and Luke exchange contact information on their electronic devices, Luke and Sylvia head home. The next day, Ronald invites the couple over for dinner. As much as Cassy teases Sylvia about being part of "a modern couple," the truth is that Luke and Sylvia are much more modern in theory than in practice. They're great at hypotheticals, but when Ronald and Elena indicate their interest in taking matters to a sexual level, Luke starts to panic and drags Sylvia back home to the safety of his apartment.

That's not to say that Sylvia isn't interested in having sex with Ronald. Or that Elena hasn't set her sights on Luke. As much as Sylvia and Luke have wondered whether they should open their relationship, they've never been confronted with the reality of how that might happen (or the kind of head trips they might experience from having sex with other people).

Needless to say, opening up their relationship is more than either one of them was ready for. Luke (who has been pretty lukewarm in bed of late) discovers that he's fiercely ticklish in response to Elena's prying touch.  Nor does he understand how Ronald and Erica only manage to have sex with any strangers on a one-time basis. As Sylvia so coyly notes, "Just because we're modern doesn't mean we're mischievous."

Yes, We're Open is filled with many San Francisco-centric jokes that will resonate with hipster haters ("I'm going to a bacon party at an art gallery"). As Luke's hapless friend Brett, H.P. Mendoza gets to wear one the worst neckties ever seen onscreen in the history of cinema.

As a filmmaking team (Colma: The Musical, Option 3, Fruit Fly) Mendoza and Wong like to challenge themselves with little cinematic tricks and jokes. In Yes, We're Open they've included clips from a 1930s Pre-Code style black-and-white sex comedy entitled Devil in the Details (which has been directed and edited by a certain "Richard Wongstein"). The clips offer a nice way of showing how marital infidelity has progressed from the uptight old days to modern times (Yes, We're Open has quite a bit of simulated sex).

Some people may find the first half of Yes, We're Open annoyingly talky, but that's how some of San Francisco's more pretentious pseudo-intellectuals sound. The sex and bitchiness are fun and Wong's ensemble does a really nice job with this low-budget indie film.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Does It Really Have To Be A Man's World?

If the past six months proved anything about the battle between the sexes it was that many men (though they may be married to women) have absolutely no idea how women think or feel. Their calls for transvaginal ultrasounds, idiotic notions about "legitimate rape," insistence on defunding Planned Parenthood, and the ease with which cretins like Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke (or with which Mitt Romney assumed that women only voted for President Obama so they could get the "gift" of free birth control) made it clear that married men don't know much about their wives. Or, for that matter, single women.

Conservatives like Bill O'Reilly want to take the country back to the 1950s, when the perceived ideal was a family headed by Ward and June Cleaver. Unfortunately, what these men really want is to travel even further back in time to the early 1900s. In the following scene from Act I of Hello, Dolly! Horace Vandergelder explains why he's planning to get married again:

Although show business is often cited as an indicator of cultural progress, sometimes it sends mixed messages. Eve Ensler's provocative musical, Emotional Creature, just opened on Broadway to strong reviews. In the following clip, Ensler talks about why V-Day has been such an important part of her life.

And yet, for every progressive feminist like Ensler, there are traditional images reinforcing old stereotypes of women. In January, Broadway welcomes its first production of the 1957 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, Cinderella (which was originally produced as a television musical for Julie Andrews that reached more than 100 million viewers).

In 2010, when Sex and the City 2 was released (and rapidly bombed in theatres), one of the film's oddest moments was this rendition of Helen Reddy's hit song from 1971: I Am Woman.

As a gay man, I'm always amazed at the levels of ignorance about female sexuality among outspoken married men like Todd Akin, Paul Ryan, and Richard Mourdock. One of the best musical rebuttals to their self-righteous nonsense can be found in Cy Coleman's score to 1990's The Life. Here's the female ensemble performing "My Body" at the Tony Awards.

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One of the best ways to battle an oppressive situation is to deal with it from a position of power. During her recent opening night at the Rrazz Room, Betty Buckley was confronted with an unpleasant distraction. As she launched into a song, Buckley noticed a woman aiming a camera at her who was obviously trying to record her performance without the artist's permission.

Buckley stopped the show, asked her assistant to take the camera away from the woman (promising to return it later) and took the time to explain to her audience why that particular kind of unauthorized recording is so distracting and distressing to a performer. Later, when someone's cell phone went off, Buckley again stopped the music, sat down on a stool and asked "Is that for me?"

This is a form of audience education that has been sorely lacking. As far as I'm concerned, a little bit of humiliation by a professional entertainer goes a long, long way.

Buckley has always wanted to sing some of the great Broadway songs that were written for men. After seeing the film version of West Side Story, she longed to become one of the Jets. Instead of wanting to be cast as Maria or Anita, she yearned to play Riff.

Last year, Buckley put together a cabaret act entitled "Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway." It's an evening which gives a clear demonstration of the difference between a contract singer and a seasoned artist who brings her emotional depth and keen intellect to bear on a song; a woman who has not only dissected a  lyric but worked closely with a top-notch arranger to create interpretations that will challenge her audience and inspire them to think.

A perfect example would be Christian Jacob's magnificently off-kilter arrangement of "Hey, There" (from The Pajama Game). Or Eric Kornfeld's revised lyrics for "A Hymn to Him" (from My Fair Lady), which have been mischievously transformed into "A Hymn To Her."

In addition to shining new light on old classics like "I Can See It" (from The Fantasticks) and "My Defenses Are Down" (from Annie Get Your Gun), Buckley explained how she fell in love with a song by William Finn entitled "Venice" that was originally sung by Michael Rupert in Elegies. She then sang it with a kind of dramatic honesty one rarely finds in a nightclub.

With phrasing rooted in wisdom backed by the skills and artistry of a veteran performer, Buckley transformed classics like "I Won't Dance" (from Roberta), "More I Cannot Wish You" (from Guys and Dolls), and "Maria" (from West Side Story) into radically new and wondrous experiences. A medley from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street consisting of "Not While I'm Around," "Johanna," and "My Friends" was simply breathtaking.

A singer who has always had a big voice, Buckley opened wistfully and wisely, letting her voice warm up so that, by the time it was ready to go full throttle, she was able to use it for maximum impact. In February, Buckley will tackle the role of the Countess Aurelia (the Madwoman of Chaillot who saves Parisians from greedy oil executives) in a London production of Jerry Herman's poignant Dear World. It's a role that should fit her like a glove.

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Desperate women are often forced to make desperate decisions -- perhaps none more so than Puccini's impassioned Floria Tosca.  The San Francisco Opera has been presenting two casts in this beloved opera (based on Victorien Sardou's 1887 melodrama). I chose to attend a performance by the largely American cast and was quite happy with the results.

The Act I finale of Tosca (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

This 1997 production (designed by Thierry Bosquet) was inspired by the 1932 sets designed by Armando Agnini that opened San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House 80 years ago with Claudia Muzio in the title role. What made this cast particularly noteworthy is that all three principals were graduates of the Merola Opera Program and had served time with the company as Adler Fellows.

Brian Jagde and Patricia Racette in Act I of Tosca
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Not only is the stage of the War Memorial their "home turf," their ability to feel at home with the company shows clearly in performances that are solid, professional, and acutely theatrical. Some of this, no doubt, is aided by having the company's musical director, Nicola Luisotti on the podium and Jose Maria Condemi as director. But there were other dramatic touches, rarely seen in standard productions of Tosca, which showed new insights into the title character's motivation, and the urgency of specific moments.

Mark Delavan as the evil Baron Scarpia in Tosca
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

There is a moment in Act I when, after planting the seeds of jealousy in Tosca's heart, Scarpia offers her his hand. Many sopranos angrily push it away, repulsed by the boorish Chief of Police.  But Patricia Racette made the scene touchingly human. Her Tosca appeared to grow weak and vulnerable for a moment, as if about to faint into Scarpia's waiting arms, but then quickly gathered her wits and strength and gently brushed his hand aside.

In Act II, after stabbing Scarpia and placing the candles by his body, Racette's Tosca didn't just back out of the room slowly in horror.  Upon entering the upstage hallway she turned and started to run for her life (not every soprano is physically capable of doing this).

Scarpia (Mark Delavan) and Tosca (Patricia Racette)
in Act II of Tosca (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Because I hadn't attended a performance of Tosca in quite some time, the use of Supertitles made the experience fresh and new in many moments that might have been overlooked in years past. In Act III, as Cavaradossi looked up at the sky prior to singing "E lucevan le stelle," the sight of a tall, handsome, doomed romantic tenor in awe of the approaching dawn (aided by Christopher Maravich's sensitive lighting design) was startling in its honesty and emotional simplicity. Brian Jagde's robust tenor marks him as a talent to watch in the future.

Tenor Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

As Scarpia, Mark Delavan (who appeared as Wotan in the recent San Francisco Ring cycle) was brutal, boorish, and the epitome of a corrupt bureaucratic bully. Dale Travis (another Merola/Adler graduate) delivered a solid performance as the Sacristan while Joel Sorenson (Spoletta) and Christian van Horn (Angelotti) shone in supporting roles.  Other Adler Fellows in the cast included Ao Li (Sciarrone) and Joo Wan Kang (the jailer).

Patricia Racette has long been a favorite with San Francisco audiences. Her approach to the title role was appropriately feisty, mercurial, and powerfully sung. In her own way, she showed audiences that a desperate diva knows how to drive a hard bargain for her body and take control over of her destiny (even if it means jumping to her death off a parapet as dawn breaks over the eternal city of Rome).

Friday, November 23, 2012

These American Lives

Someone recently sent me a cartoon in which a dejected extrovert sarcastically moaned "Oh, great! I get to stay in on Saturday night...." while a beaming introvert chuckled "Oh, great! I get to stay in on Saturday night!" Over the years I've often found myself doing the exact opposite of everyone around me. Once again, I spent Thanksgiving Day alone and cherished every moment of solitude.

It's strange how, as a person ages, his goals and preferences change dramatically. For some people, a strong streak of resentment starts to build as they think about the crushed hopes, abandoned careers, and aborted dreams that were stifled by circumstances beyond their control. Often, as the decades pass, we react to certain songs with a sadness and wisdom that can only come with years of life experience.

Consider the following two clips from Stephen Sondheim's musical, Follies.  The first clip, taken from the original Broadway production in 1971, shows Sally Durant Plummer (Dorothy Collins) listening to Ben Stone (John McMartin) as he sings "The Road You Didn't Take."

Forty years later (in the 2011 Kennedy Center and Broadway revival), Ron Raines and Bernadette Peters portray Ben and Sally as they sing "Too Many Mornings."

Both songs offer a bittersweet look at the sad results of missed opportunities and emotions that were never shared for fear of rejection. Both encapsulate the tragedy of failing to communicate one's hopes, fears, and love.

Two new productions by leading Bay area regional companies demonstrate the devastating emotional toll  one's inability to be heard can have on family life. One spans a period in the first half of the 20th century when any emotional outburst or defiance of society's norms would have been unthinkable. In the other, the eruption of pent-up emotions within a family may be exactly what is needed to heal some sorely wounded egos.

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One of the great 20th century American playwrights, Thornton Wilder was noted for capturing the simplest moments in people's lives and imbuing them with a special kind of theatrical magic. In 1975 he told an interviewer that "in my plays I attempted to raise ordinary daily conversation between ordinary people to the level of the universal human experience."

During his long and prolific writing career, Wilder was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942).  He lived to see The Matchmaker (a 1955 reworking of his 1938 flop, The Merchant of Yonkers) transformed into the long-running Broadway musical, Hello, Dolly! and a major movie musical.

Whether having characters like the stage manager, Dolly Levi, or Barnaby Tucker speak directly to the audience -- or writing short plays that required little if any scenery -- Wilder loved to create opportunities in which actors could engage the audience in moments of theatrical intimacy. The following clip shows Carol Channing in her 1994 touring production of Hello, Dolly! delivering one of Wilder's most poignant monologues before ending Act I with "Before The Parade Passes By."

The Aurora Theatre Company is currently presenting an evening of four short plays entitled Wilder Times.  The first act consists of Infancy (1962) and Childhood (1962), two short pieces which allow the audience to view the world through the selfish innocence of children.

Patrick Russell and Brian Trybom portray two
infants in Wilder Times (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The second half of the evening carries much more dramatic weight. In The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden (1931), Stacy Ross portrays Ma Kirby, a nervous mother whose family is driving from Newark, New Jersey to visit her married daughter, Beulah (Marcia Pizzo), whose child died shortly after being born.

Stacy Ross, Patrick Russell, Heather Gordon and  Soren Oliver
portray a family driving through New Jersey in Wilder Times
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Ross's tightly-wound mother is a bundle of nerves who threatens to abandon her son (Patrick Russell) by the roadside after he takes the Lord's name in vain. Edna St. Vincent Millay, who attended the play's world premiere in Chicago, congratulated the playwright on having so successfully captured "that detestable bossy kind of mother."

Once the family arrives at Beulah's house, it becomes evident that Beulah married well and is living in a much better neighborhood than they could ever afford. Although there is some lovely work by Ross, Patrick Russell, Heather Gordon, and Soren Oliver, Marcia Pizzo's radiant performance as Beulah is what anchors the piece with a rare and beautiful dignity.

Stacy Ross and  Marcia Pizzo portray mother and daughter
in a scene from Wilder Times (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The final piece, 1931's The Long Christmas Dinner, uses a simple gimmick to depict the passage of time. In one 35-minute long act, the audience fast forwards through 90 Christmas dinners in the Bayard family's home. With each change of scene, children grow into adults, the older generation becomes more feeble, and the house starts to feel smaller and smaller. As Wilder once explained:
"The eye is the enemy of the ear in real drama. The box set play encourages the anecdote. The unencumbered stage encourages the truth operative in everyone.  The less seen, the more heard." 
The Long Christmas Dinner offers director Barbara Oliver's ensemble magnificent opportunities to age in front of the audience's eyes with a minimal use of props. An actor's posture may become less rigid, a character may don a pair of eyeglasses, someone may become surprisingly forgetful -- all gentle reminders that time waits for no one.

Poster art for Wilder Times

Performances of Wilder Times continue through December 9 at the Aurora Theatre (click here to order tickets). This is a beautiful piece of intimate ensemble work whose subtle touches demand to be seen.

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Over at the Magic Theatre, Meredith McDonough has done a beautiful job of staging the world premiere of Anna Ziegler's tense family drama, Another Way Home. The play starts as a married couple prepares to leave New York and fly up to Portland, Maine so they can visit their teenage son (who is spending the summer as a counselor-in-training at Camp Kickapoo). Because this is a memory play, when Lillian Nadelman (Kim Martin-Cotten) stopped to wonder out loud where the name Kickapoo comes from, I couldn't help laughing to myself.

Philip (Mark Pinter) and Lillian Nadelman (Kim Martin-Cotten)
are two worried parents in Another Way Home
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

The Northeast is filled with places that bear the names of famous Indians and their tribes (I spent one unhappy summer at Camp Chingachgook on Lake George). During the years that I worked at Rhode Island's YMCA Camp Fuller By-The-Sea, we were close rivals with the Boy Scouts' Camp Yawgoog. I got used to following directions that referenced Chepachet, Woonsocket, Quonochontaug Pond, Matunuck, Pawtucket, Narragansett, and rivers like the Woonasquatucket and Annaquatucket. Here's Judy Garland singing Irving Berlin's campy "I'm An Indian, Too" from Annie Get Your Gun.

When Lillian and her husband Philip (Mark Pinter) finally arrive, their son Joey (Daniel Petzold) is in no mood to put up with their bickering and meddling in his affairs. Torn by conflicting anxieties and cursed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Joey's grasp on reality is far more precarious than that of his precocious sister, Nora (Riley Krull).

For the first time in his life, Joey's starting to get along with some of the other boys and even seems to have bonded with his counselor, Mike T (Jeremy Kahn). The last thing he wants is to be embarrassed by the parents he (like most teenagers) scorns.

Perhaps rightfully so. Joey's father is a lawyer who spends far too much time at the office (perhaps as a way of avoiding his wife and children). His mother is the kind of helicopter parent who is afraid to back off and let her deeply conflicted son develop on his own. It doesn't take long for a family confrontation to erupt, after which Joey disappears and sends his parents into a state of panic.

Daniel Petzold portrays Joey in Another Way Home
()Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Powerless to do anything until they can find their son, Philip and Lillian are forced to communicate with each other in ways that are, at times, painfully candid. Mike T's surprising tenderness for Mr. & Mrs. Nadelman and his knowledge of their family life raise suspicions that lead to a shocking confrontation between Joey and Mike.

Anna Ziegler has done a remarkable job of demonstrating how Joey's anguish, anger, and alienation battle for dominance while the Nadelmans struggle to understand what has happened to their marriage. Philip, in particular, is baffled by how 30 years have flown by without his even noticing. As the Magic Theatre's artistic director, Loretta Greco, notes:
"This play reminds us that our children see and feel our quiet compromises and contradictions, our class warfare, and our buried rage far more astutely than we do. It's a play that, in the age of Facebook, Twitter, texts, and email, reminds us that it is never too late to stop and simply listen to one another."
Combined with Paul Toben's sensitive lighting design, Annie Smart's handsome unit set offers the ensemble a multitude of playing spaces. The production also benefits from Jeremy Kahn's laid-back performance as Mike T.

Lillian tries to communicate with her daughter, Nora
(Riley Krull) in Another Way Home (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Another Way Home is an intense 80-minute family drama that tries to build a bridge between generations before it becomes impossible for parents and children to even communicate. Performances continue through December 2 (click here to order tickets).

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Snakes on the Brain

Humans have often created myths and legends to help explain their history and the mysteries of nature. As various primitive tribes began to develop oral histories as a means of passing the collective wisdom of their elders down to younger generations, tales of mythical gods, monsters, and miracles began to appear in many cultures. According to Wikipedia,
"Critical perspective towards magical realism stems from the Western reader's disassociation with mythology, a root of magical realism more easily understood by non-Western cultures. Rather than explain reality using natural or physical laws as in typical Western texts, magical realist texts create a reality 'in which the relation between incidents, characters, and setting could not be based upon or justified by their status within the physical world or their normal acceptance by bourgeois mentality.'"
The following clip describes how, in Hawaiian mythology, the rivalry between Pele (goddess of fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes) and her sister, Hiʻiaka-i-ka-poli-o-Pele ("cloud bearer cradled in the bosom of Pele" and goddess of the hula) helped to create the Big island of Hawaii.

Mythology is filled with demons, monkey kings, and shape shifters (Zeus frequently disguised himself in order to have sex with mortals). What happens when traditional myths and legends get hijacked by animators? You get something like this explanation of how the beloved Hindu godGanesha, came into being.

In his essay entitled "Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki," Matthew C. Strecher describes magical realism as "what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe." It's one of the key elements of fairy tales and epics such as Homer's Odyssey or Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Christopher Moore employs magical realism to hilarious effect in many of his novels. Whether writing about whales that crave pastrami (Fluke: Or, I Know Why The Winged Whale Sings), a talking fruit bat (Island of the Sequined Love Nun), a strange yeti-like cave monster (Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal) or The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, Moore's fertile imagination provides many laugh-out loud moments for his readers.

In today's world of stage puppetry and digital animation, it's easy for gifted artists like Julie Taymor and Nina Paley to create bizarre fantasy worlds that appeal to anyone capable of suspending their disbelief.

Consider how Gilbert & Sullivan's Queen of the Fairies (Maureen Forrester) deals with her attraction to a mere mortal in Iolanthe: Or, The Peer and the Peri.

While organized religion relies on magical realism as a means of seducing and enchanting converts, magical realism also provides a handy fictional device with which to make bestiality cute and acceptable. Don't believe me? The next time some uber-Christian starts mouthing off about how gay marriage will inevitably lead to people wanting to marry their pets, show him this clip from Walt Disney's Fantasia and ask him to describe the genetic makeup of a centaur.

In a fictional world where gods can marry mortals, mermaids can lust after humans, and beauties can fall in love with beasts, why should anyone get upset if a snake marries a man and sets him up in business as a pharmacist?

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What happens when a meddling Buddhist priest feels the need to butt into an otherwise happy marriage and explain to a lovesick husband why the man's wife is occasionally prone to hi-s-s-s-s-sy fits? You get Mary Zimmerman's interpretation of Madame White Snake, a classic Chinese legend which, over the years, has developed numerous permutations.

A meddling Buddhist priest named Fa Hai (Jack Willis) advises
the  white snake's husband, Xu Xian (Christopher Livingston)
(Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

First staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last summer, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre is now welcoming one of its favorite directors back onto its stage with this delightful adaptation. In the following clip, Zimmerman explains the genesis of the project as production footage captures the beauty and playfulness of some of the her staging.

It's interesting to hear Zimmerman describe how The White Snake will appeal to teenage girls as a great "gal-pal" adventure. Many young girls have already embraced Stephen Schwartz's long-running musical, Wicked  (which portrays the intense friendship between the very white Glinda and the very green Elphaba) as a defining narrative of sisterhood.

Tanya Thai McBride  portrays the White Snake's
best friend, Greenie (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Zimmerman's production, however, is all about what happens when animal spirits start to interact with humans. In a production that has been beautifully designed by Daniel Ostling (sets), Mara Blumenfeld (costumes), and Shawn Sagaday (projections), the audience is treated to a wealth of visual riches ranging from traditional Chinese costumes to animal puppets; from simple screens to a wondrous wardrobe that rises up out of the stage floor.

The white snake meets a crane (Photo by: Jenny Graham)

Throughout the performance, the ensemble does a magnificent job of storytelling which clarifies and animates a complicated Chinese tale of feminine intrigue, interspecies love, religious intervention in people's daily lives, and the complications that can ensue from substance abuse. Christopher Livingston is an appealing Xu Xian with Jack Willis as the obnoxious Buddhist priest and Tanya Thai McBride as Greenie. Amy Kim Waschke gives a fascinating performance as the human version of White Snake.

Amy Kim Waschke as White Snake (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

With original music and sound design by Andre Pluess, this production is a delight from start to finish.  Mary Zimmerman's phenomenal imagination (spurred on by the dramatic opportunities provided to her through The White Snake's heavy use of magical realism) create a rare and rewarding theatrical experience for children of all ages.

Performances of The White Snake continue at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre through December 23 (click here to order tickets).  Here's the trailer from the world premiere production being shared by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Berkeley Repertory Theatre:

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Love and Loss Under Mediterranean Skies

Often, when we think of Italy, we think of its innumerable contributions to the arts, the passion of its people, the pungent aromas of its pizza, pasta, and pesto, and the ignorant pomposity of the Pope. But Italy also conjures up images of maritime superstars such as Christopher Columbus, Andrea Doria, and Francesco Schettino. If that last name doesn't ring a bell, maybe these pictures will help refresh your memory.

The former Captain of the Costa Concordia is currently working on a book which he claims will exonerate him from wrecking a 952-foot long cruise ship on the night of January 13, 2012. Like many Italian men who have screwed things up, at least he did it his way.

The 2012 San Francisco DocFest recently screened two Italian films which showed what life can be like away from the picture postcard moments that fill the minds of so many armchair travelers.  Coupled with a performance of a failed musical about the fruits, frustrations, and folly of love, Italian-style, these films helped to focus the mind on the land that literally "gave us the boot."

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San Franciscans live in a city that thrives on tourism. Luckily for us, tourists arrive in town throughout the year, eager to explore its many attractions. In smaller communities that rely on local weekend getaway visitors during the summer months, life gets a whole lot quieter once the tourists go home.

As someone who spent many years working in a YMCA summer camp, I remember the way the buzz of excitement evaporated into thin air as the last families picked up their children and the staff went about getting the place stowed away for the winter. A new entry in the genre of documentaries with little or no human speech. One Year’s Remainder follows the inhabitants of the island of Salina (just off Sicily) after their tourist season has ended and the pace of life becomes less frantic. Whether one follows the school bus driver or the local fishermen, watches locals enjoying a holiday feast or the smoke coming from the cone of a nearby volcano, Michele Di Salle’s charming slice-of-life film has an undeniable appeal.

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The brutal impact of Hurricane Sandy on the greater New York metropolitan area last month delivered a stern wake-up call to the dangers of climate change. However, for Venetians, storm surges and rising tides are nothing new.  One of the most romantic sites on the planet, Venice has been increasingly subject to rising salt water that floods its plazas and take a toll on daily life.

A new documentary by Nicola Pittarello and Michele Barca entitled The Challenge of Venice examines the natural phenomena which cause Venice's flooding as well as the massive engineering plan that Venetians hope will reduce further flooding of the lagoon in which their beloved city was built.

The gigantic MO.S.E. (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) engineering project that was begun in 2003 to create mobile sea barriers is scheduled for completion in 2014. The contrast between the computer-driven solution necessary to help save the city from permanently sinking and  the beauty of Venice's old buildings offer a stark contrast in architectural styles.

Viewers will also be fascinated by the changes in perspective as the Venetian lagoon is viewed from the air (in beautiful, picture postcard images), from the ground and gondola levels (which allow audiences to witness the erosion and damage caused by flooding), and from the waterline, as if a swimmer were watching boats passing back and forth on the city's busy waterways.  Less romantic views of the city show its population wading through flooded plazas while clad in thigh-high fishing boots, marine ambulance crews trying to navigate the best possible route to a hospital's dock, and interviews with reluctant restaurateurs and shop owners who must cope with business losses whenever the Adriatic Sea surges into the Venetian lagoon. Here's the trailer:

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Down at the Eureka Theatre, 42nd Street Moon recently presented the West Coast premiere of a 1979 musical which, despite its creative team's strong pedigree, only lasted through 11 previews and 17 performances on Broadway. With music by Burton Lane (Finian's Rainbow, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner (Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Camelot, and Coco), and a book by Joseph Stein (Plain and Fancy, Take Me Along, Fiddler on the Roof, Zorba, The Baker's Wife, and Rags), Carmelina had been inspired by 1968's Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, a film that starred Gina Lollabrigida as the single mother of a young woman whose gene pool was a never-ending source of mystery.

Although Carla has always told her daughter that Gia's father was an American soldier who died in the war, the truth is that she has cunningly been collecting "rent" from three Americans who might have been the girl's father.  Sound familiar? It's the same plot that launched 1999's Mamma Mia! to international fame as a jukebox musical built around ABBA's most popular songs.

While Lerner & Lane's musical starred Georgia Brown (the original Nancy in Oliver!) and former opera star Cesare Siepi (who had appeared with Michele Lee, Maria Karnilova, and Lainie Kazan in 1962's short-lived Bravo Giovanni), Carmelina never really achieved lift-off. The show's failure was easy to understand when one considered that Lane's score was quite mediocre and Lerner's lyrics were hardly his best. In the following clip, Millicent Martin sings the show's strongest number: "Why Him?"

What might have contributed to Carmelina's early demise, however, was the controversy sparked by a  show that had opened just 10 weeks earlier. Compared to the theatrical daring and spectacle of Stephen Sondheim's mammoth musical thriller, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Carmelina seemed somewhat quaint. Perhaps flaccid would be a better word to describe its charms.

Caroline Altman, Rudy Guerrero, Will Springhorn, Jr., and
Trevor Faust Marcom in Carmelina (Photo by: David Allen)

In his review of the original production, Walter Kerr astutely noted that:
"Composer Burton Lane clearly wants no part of a sound born after 1961 (possibly a bit earlier would be better) if he is going to do a musical with the heroine's name for a title... You see, the years of rock have created an enormous gap for theatre composers who wish to continue to work. Rock was never their metier (rock people weren't theatre people, they were concert people and they now seem to be slipping away more quietly than they came). Which means that a man like Mr. Lane must either struggle onward toward something like opera, as Stephen Sondheim is doing, or he must revert to the patterned pre-acid tunes he was born to."

Carmelina (Caroline Altman) and her maid, Rosa (Darlene Popovic) in
42nd Street Moon's production of Carmelina (Photo by: David Allen)

42nd Street Moon's production starred Caroline Altman as Carmelina with Bill Fahrner as Vittorio Bruni (the local café owner who pined for her love). The three potential sperm donors were played by Will Springhorn, Jr., Trevor Faust Marcom, and Rudy Guerrero. Despite the efforts of Emily Kristen Morris as Carmelina's daughter and Stewart Kramar as Roberto, the local boy who is infatuated with Gia,

While songs like "Someone in April," "It's Time For A Love Song," "One More Walk Around the Garden," and Carmelina's feisty solo, "I"m a Woman " show years of professional craft behind their creation, the overall impression of this show is that Carmelina is sadly very much less than the sum of its parts.