Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Precious Curse of Prescience

The producers of Law and Order have developed a sterling reputation for basing many of their episodes on stories that were conveniently "ripped from the headlines." While art is often said to mirror life, what about those uncanny incidents in which a prescient artist foreshadows real-life events? What about major disasters that appear in fictional form years before shocking the world in real time?

If predictions of a major maritime disaster prior to the sinking of the Titanic sound far-fetched, consider the following, more recent evens:
  • In Tom Clancy's 1996 novel, Debt of Honor, an embittered Japanese pilot flew a Boeing 747 into the United States Capitol to avenge the deaths of his son and brother.
  • A 1996 action film entitled Executive Decision involves the hijacking of a 747 bound from Athens to Washington, D.C. The plot hinges on the terrorists' plans to detonate a bomb containing a deadly nerve agent once the plane is within U.S. airspace.
  • On September 11, 2001, hijackers flew United and American Airlines planes (Boeing 767s) that had been hijacked by members of Al Qaeda into the twin towers of the World Trade Center as well as the Pentagon.
  • On May 16, 2002, National Security Advisor  Condoleeza Rice testified that "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile. All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking."

Playwright/director/entrepreneur Stuart Bousel has built San Francisco Olympians Festival III around the theme of  Titans versus Olympians. Prior to each night's performance, Bousel takes great care to explain how SF Olympians differs from many other festivals showcasing new works by aspiring playwrights.

Whereas playwrights submit a completed script to most new works festivals, Bousel approaches SF Olympians on a commissioning basis. He asks each playwright to submit three paragraphs which answer the following questions:
  • Why me?
  • Why does this particular tale of the Gods interest me?
  • What do I plan to do with it to turn it into a play?
Poster art for San Francisco Olympians III

Once Bousel greenlights a proposal, the playwright usually has a year to develop a script. For better or worse, two of the plays presented during this year's festival boasted an uncanny timeliness (offering further proof that the gods must be crazy).

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As someone who revels in solitude and derives great pleasure from peace and quiet, I was fascinated to read Michelle Boorstein's recent article in The Washington Post entitled Silent Retreats' Rising Popularity Poses A Challenge: How To Handle The Quiet. Little did I imagine that, several hours after reading her piece, I would find myself down at the EXIT Theatre revisiting the exact same topic.

A prolific Bay area playwright, Patricia Milton's Demeter or In The Silence of Tangerine Groves examines the plight of a super-stressed female marketing executive at a fictional corporation named U.S. Smells. Win (Candace Brown) is desperately trying to pitch a new perfume to a client who is not in a buying mood.
  • Tightly wound and trying to soldier on while under far too much pressure, a panicky Win(ifred) makes the  mistake of saying exactly what she thinks during a product pitch instead of what the client wants to hear. 
  • To her horror, Win discovers that she has lost her "nose" (perhaps her greatest professional asset as a perfume tester) and is rapidly heading toward some kind of breakdown.
  • Like many of today's executives, Win relies on a constant state of connectivity in order to make it through business cycles which require her to be available to staff and clients on a 24/7 basis. 
  • To make matters worse, she's just received word that a focus group of young men testing a new musk scent has started to act out along the lines of Lord of the Flies.
Playwright Patricia Milton

When Win's electronic gadgets fail (and she loses contact with her mysteriously supportive online chat friend), the frustrated marketing executive is lucky to an all-knowing, rapid-response gay man for an executive assistant on hand who can save her from herself. As the super-efficient Max, Louel Senores nearly stole the show.

In Greek mythology, Demeter is worshipped as the goddess of the harvest. After Max drops Win off at a strange retreat which forbids electronic devices, books, and any other distractions, Win makes the acquaintance of the mysterious Miss Dee (Jan Carty Marsh), who turns out to be her online chat friend. Having been yanked from a male-dominated sales environment and plopped down into a more serene situation whose sole counselor is an Earth Mother type of figure, Win undergoes a spiritual detoxification process which allows her to finally get in touch with herself and regain her confidence (as well as her "nose").

As directed by Michaela GoldhaberDemeter or In The Silence of Tangerine Groves proved to be one of Milton's stronger pieces. Smartly written and performed with a zeal for finding a quieter source of inner strength, I can easily see it gaining popularity as a one-act attraction during Fringe Festivals or at Women's Festivals.

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Even if a play was written long before the horrible event that paralleled its plot, it's no fun discovering that your artistic instinct was right on the button.  In September of 2001, a revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1990 musical, Assassins, had to be postponed following the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. On Friday afternoon, Stuart Bousel posted the following notice on his Facebook page:
"To Everybody Who Was Planning To Come See The First Reading of TWINS on Saturday: In light of the recent events in Connecticut, I feel like I should warn you (since it isn't explicit in the play's description) that my play is about a child massacre. It's not super graphic or explicit re: the violence, but there is a lot of black humor and a handful of moments that some people might find disturbing. I am going to go through with the reading because I believe artistic response to the world we live in, including all the terrible parts, is important, but I don't want anyone going in blind and being unpleasantly surprised or unnecessarily uncomfortable. I'm looking forward to sharing this play with the world, I'm very proud of it, but I completely understand if you need to pass on it right now."
Playwright/director/impresario Stuart Bousel

While Bousel's one-hour play, Artemis and Apollo, did indeed make frequent reference to the slaying of Niobe's 14 children to punish her for her hubris, it also had the audience howling in laughter. Much of the merriment came from Allison Page's portrayal of Hera (performed with a "Minnesotan accent" that somehow managed to combine the best of Sarah Palin with Megan Mullally's nasal Karen Walker from Will and Grace) as Zeus's bitchy wife who keeps calling Apollo "Blondie" and informs Artemis that her birth mother was "Titan Trash."

The hilarious Allison Page

While Ms. Page was perfectly serious as Leto and Niobe, any opportunity for this local cosmetologist and make-up artist to use her killer comedic instincts brought down the house. Page was aided and abetted by Helen Laroche's sensitive Artemis and Dashiell Hillman's often hilarious Apollo.

Bousel, who has a broad knowledge of Greek mythology, delivered a multi-layered script which dealt with issues of marital infidelity, vengeful Gods, innocent victims, and the never-ending battle of the sexes. That he was able to pull off such a complex task with a winning combination of ribald humor and genuine pathos is a testament not only to his writing and directing skills, but also to the sharpness and flexibility of his talented cast (most of whom took on multiple roles).  Hats off to Tom Cokenias (Zeus/Asclepius/Orion), Paul Jennings (Nigel/Pan/Orpheus), Dana Goldberg (Iris/Coronis/Cassandra), Alaric Toy (Eros/Actaeon/Troilus), and Jessica Rudholm (Rhea/Selene/Marpessa).

Rest assured that, in spite of the 14 dead children, a good time was had by all!

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