Tuesday, January 29, 2013

There's A Place for Us

There's an old saying that Jews are "the chosen people." But it's hard not to sympathize with Tevye the Dairyman as he looks toward the sky and asks: "Dear God, just this once, couldn't you choose someone else?"

From Russian Jews being forced from their homes during a Czarist pogrom to innocent victims of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes, the phrase "There's no place like home" takes on a bitter irony when it becomes obvious that one's home no longer exists. Although Harvey Milk liked to insist that "You gotta give them hope," sometimes hope evaporates into thin air as it becomes obvious that one's home is gone forever.

Sudden evictions are traumatic events in the lives of confused and fearful tenants. If people have been walking on eggshells -- or determined to avoid reality -- the impact of being forced out of their homes can be brutal. How well these people bounce back and reclaim their lives is the ultimate test of their resources, their resiliency, and the depth of the human spirit. After all, where should they go?
Two new dramas focus on highly emotional characters whose lives have suddenly been turned upside down and inside out by a sudden eviction. While each contains a great deal of comedy, sarcasm, and frustrated dreams, each paints a remarkable picture of how, given no choice, some people find new ways to survive.

* * * * * * * * *
When one thinks about the history of the American musical theatre, shows with one-word titles take on a peculiar significance.
The title of Matthew Lopez's poignant new dramedy, Somewhere (which received its world premiere in October 2011 from the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and has just received its regional premiere from TheatreWorks), is an acutely specific reference to a song, a show, a time, a place, and a critical moment in the history of the American musical theatre.

When composer Leonard Bernstein, director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, and librettist Arthur Laurents were working on 1957's West Side Story they fashioned a dance scene in Act II in which Tony and Maria could suddenly be transported to an imaginary world in which there was no racial tension and no gang warfare. Sung by soprano Reri Grist, the song underpinning this number contained the following lyrics written by a young Stephen Sondheim:
"There's a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us

There's a time for us,
Some day a time for us,
Time together with time to spare,
Time to learn, time to care,
Some day!
We'll find a new way of living,
We'll find a way of forgiving
Somewhere . . .

There's a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we're halfway there.
Hold my hand and I'll take you there
Some day,

Somewhere takes place in the summer of 1959 in a tenement on West 66th Street (the area that New York City's urban planner, Robert Moses, would soon condemn and demolish in order to make way for the trend-setting Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts). By that point, West Side Story had made a huge impact on the theatre world and preparations had begun for the show's film adaptation (whose choreographed prologue was to be shot on the streets of the upper West Side). As the playwright explains:
"To me, musicals are the most important thing ever in the history of the world. That should be stated first and foremost. It's part of my upbringing. It was instilled in me by my parents (who had it instilled in them by theirs) that there was no higher form of artistic expression than an 11 o'clock number. I had no idea who Madonna was. I didn't listen to 'Thriller' until high school. It was all musical theatre being played in our house."
Alejandro (Michael Rosen) dances with his mother (Priscilla Lopez) as
his brother and sister look on in Somewhere (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

As the play begins, the Candelaria family is getting ready for a quick family dinner.
  • The family matriarch (Priscilla Lopez) has just returned home from ushering for a matinee performance at a Broadway theatre. Although Inez is as infatuated with Broadway musicals as Gypsy Rose Lee's mother was with vaudeville, she had a much shorter career as a stage mother. She is now coaching her daughter on the fine points of ushering.
  • Inez's oldest son, Alejandro (Michael Rosen), is preparing dinner. Although he was one of the children in the original Broadway cast of The King and I, 'Jandro has tried to stay grounded in reality. Because he works nearly 80 hours a week at a local grocery store, he is reluctant to audition for any shows. Alejandro also has a closely guarded family secret which has been eating away at his conscience.
  • Inez's youngest son, Francisco (Eddie Gutierrez), is excitedly preparing a scene with Alejandro for his acting class.  'Cisco has dreams of becoming the next Brando and is hopelessly and happily stagestruck.
  • Inez's daughter, Rebecca (Michelle Cabinian), dreams of the day when she can move on up from being an usher to dancing in a Broadway musical.
Jamie (Leo Ash Evens) dances with Rebecca (Michelle Cabinian)
in a scene from Somewhere (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

The hopes of the effusive Candelarias are clearly focused on two goals: being cast in a musical and welcoming their father, Pepe, home from his travels. It soon becomes obvious that Pepe is not only the hero of numerous family legends, but has been gone for a long, long time. When the family is visited by Jamie MacRea  (Leo Ash Evens), who is now working as an assistant to Jerome Robbins, Alejandro's closest childhood friend quickly becomes the center of attention.

Priscilla Lopez as Inez Candelaria in Somewhere
Photo by: Tracy Martin

The family's giddiness over Jamie's visit is shattered by a letter from Robert Moses informing them that their building is scheduled for demolition and that they only have 30 days to vacate the premises. While Alejandro (who was forced to become the man of the house at a very young age) tries to think about the limited options facing the Candelarias, his mother absolutely refuses to leave their apartment. As Giovanna Sardelli explains in her director's note:
"The reason this play spoke to me and continues to move me so deeply is because the fuel that feeds its narrative fire is love. This family loves passionately and profoundly. They love each other, theatre, the movies, dancing, America. They are tantalizingly close to being able to seize the piece of the American dream that is rightfully theirs. They were born to be a part of this American landmark but poverty, and the ominous power of urban planner Robert Moses, conspire against them. Somewhere is the Puerto Rican answer to the question: What happens to a dream deferred? In a family of limited resources, who gets to fly and who must stay on the ground? Who has the right to dream? What if your dreams cost others? What if those others are people you love? To Robert Moses, those in the way of his dreams are expendable strangers. But to Alejandro Candelaria, they are family."
Alejandro (Michael Rosen) reads a letter to his
family in Somewhere (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Act I ends abruptly, with the sound of wrecking crews and dynamite leveling the neighborhood (causing a hasty evacuation by the Candelarias). In Act II, the family has relocated to a nicer apartment in the Fort Greene Housing Projects in Brooklyn and, a year later, Alejandro is working at the new Hilton Hotel where he delivers room service orders to the guests.

Jamie is now involved in the filming of West Side Story.  In fact, that very morning Inez walked right up to Jerome Robbins and invited him home for dinner. Knowing that Robbins would never show, Jamie has arrived at the Candelaria apartment, where Alejandro learns that his kid sister is going to audition for Robbins.

Throughout Lopez's play there are periodic radio announcements about current events, including the growing American involvement in Vietnam. Late in the second act, when Jamie finally convinces the increasingly depressed Alejandro to reconsider his dream of becoming a dancer, it's already too late. By the end of the play, Alejandro is in Vietnam while his worried family bravely tries to celebrate Christmas without him.

There is so much to applaud in Lopez's play that it almost hurts to point out a confusing technicality in Act II which nearly begs to be fixed. Following the scene in which Jamie begs his childhood friend to rediscover his dancing feet, there is a beautiful solo choreographed by Greg Graham for Alejandro (Rosen studied for three years at the School of American Ballet) in which the audience gets to see the potential 'Jandro had to become a professional dancer.

Michael Rosen as Alejandro (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

For draft dodgers like George W. Bush (whose family had strong political connections) and chickenhawks like Dick Cheney (who had "other priorities"), there were ways to avoid being sent off to Vietnam. Low income minority kids like Alejandro had no such options. Unfortunately, for many in today's audiences who have grown up in the era of an all-volunteer military, there is absolutely no awareness of the paralyzing fear that enveloped families whose sons had been or were likely to soon be drafted.

The result is that Somewhere ends on a bittersweet, if somewhat confused note, leaving the Candelarias (as well as the audience) without any surety about the family's future. One thing is for sure, though: This time no one feels the urge to sing any show tunes.

I found Lopez's play to be a deeply touching breath of fresh air and look forward to seeing Marin Theatre Company's production of his other play, The Whipping Man, in late March.  In the meantime, hats off to a tightly-knit ensemble (especially Michael Rosen and Eddie Gutierrez) and an extremely promising young playwright.

* * * * * * * * *
Something unusual happened as I watched a DVD screener for The Story of Luke (which will be shown at the upcoming SFIndie Film Festival). Not only did I quickly realize that this was an exquisitely crafted  independent film, I found it far superior to Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Lost in Translation, and Precious (all of which won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film). I liked The Story of Luke so much that I watched it twice.

Written and directed by Alonso Mayo, The Story of Luke is certainly not the only film to feature an autistic character. Leonardo DiCaprio (What's Eating Gilbert Grape) and Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man) delivered poignant portrayals of autistic men which were riveting pieces of work.

However, unlike many previous examples, Luke (Lou Taylor Pucci) is neither hopeless, helpless, noncommunicative, nor a savant. After his mother abandoned him, Luke was lovingly raised by his grandmother, who home schooled the boy and taught him how to cook breakfast and 23 gourmet dinner dishes. As a fairly high-functioning person with autism, Luke is precise, focused, intelligent, methodical and extremely well-mannered.

There's just one problem. The film begins shortly after his grandmother has died, which means that Luke and Grandpa Jonas (Kenneth Welsh) are going to have to move in with their relatives.

Grandpa Jonas (Kenneth Welsh) and Luke (Lou Taylor Pucci)

Bottom line: Luke's carefully constructed world and safely structured lifestyle (he watches a lot of cooking shows) have vanished into thin air. When his Uncle Paul (Cary Elwes) asks him what he wants to do, Luke's answer is not at all what one would expect.

One can see Grandma Mildred's endless patience reflected in the way Luke interacts with his increasingly senile grandfather, the soothing platitudes he employs to defuse tense situations, and his meticulous attention to detail. One can't help but notice how she trained Luke to think positively, learn from his experiences, and try to adjust to new situations in as well-mannered a way as possible. As evidenced in the following news clip, a young man  like Luke is not a fantasy figure.

In his director's statement, Mayo explains that:
"Since I was a child, I was surrounded by people with special needs, their parents and the professionals that serve them because my mother runs the Centro Ann Sullivan del Per├║ (an educational center for kids and adults with developmental delay). I started my film career by making training videos about supported employment programs and have always been particularly fascinated with autism -- especially those individuals who stand close to the line between the 'normal world' and their own. It’s a tough place to be, where society has little expectations of you, where you are categorized based on your limitations and are basically regarded as a person of lesser value. But just as I have seen many examples of discrimination and frustration, I have also seen examples of the exact opposite, of what happens when you stop looking at someone’s limitations, when you forget about what a certain person should realistically achieve, and just treat them like anybody else. That tough place suddenly becomes a place that, for anybody that cares to look, is filled with surprising achievements, with laughter. Luke will make you look. Not because he is autistic and so different than you or anybody you’ve ever met, but because he is so similar in the most basic way. Luke wants a job, a girlfriend, and to live on his own. What makes Luke so special is that he wants to live -- desperately -- and his desperation is contagious. Someone that doesn’t know him could look at Luke and see him as a disabled person that merits pity. But give him a minute of your time and you’ll see that Luke is actually a hero on a quest."

Aunt Cindy (Kristin Bauer) and Luke (Lou Taylor Pucci) have a drink
The challenge facing Luke is to master a new environment and new lifestyle. His uncle Paul and cousins Brad (Tyler Stentiford) and Megan (Mackenzie Munro) make no bones about the fact that Luke's Aunt Cindy (Kristin Bauer van Straten) is a total bitch. But when Luke sets out to get a job, meet a girl, and become a man, his determination and resourcefulness can even win over such dubious onlookers as Zack (Seth Green) and Angry Betsy (Ann Holloway).
Zack (Seth Green) tries to mentor Luke (Lou Taylor Pucci)
Along the way, Luke develops a crush on a sweet and attractive receptionist named Maria (Sabryn Rock) and has an extremely poignant encounter with his birth mother (Lisa Ryder). To give away much more of the plot would ruin some lovely surprises. Rest assured that Seth Green triumphs as another highly dysfunctional, angry young nerd. Lou Taylor Pucci's captivating portrait of Luke rests on a foundation of vocal modulation, careful phrasing, practiced body language, and the kind of simple goals that make most people around him seem horrifyingly petty and materialistic. The Story of Luke is a gem of an indie film. You won't want to miss it.
Lou Taylor Pucci stars in The Story of Luke

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Odd Couples

Many years ago a friend of mine asked me why, when attending gay film festivals, he didn't see movies about people like himself and his lover. They were a happy couple, aging gracefully, living comfortably in suburbia, and blessed with a circle of loving friends. Why, he wanted to know, was he only seeing films about gay men who were suicidal drug abusers, liars, thieves, and whores?

I tried to explain that playwrights and filmmakers look for dramatic conflict as they try to highlight differences between their characters that might provoke tension and move a story forward. Although he and his lover were perfectly delightful people, compared to what producers and filmmakers were looking for, they were kind of boring. Think for a minute about the kinds of couples we see paired up on stage and screen.
Whether these people are lovers, roommates, blood brothers, soul sisters, buddies taking a road trip, or friendly rivals, there is usually some kind of spark which adds tension to their moments together. Whether the bond between them is parasitic, comedic, sadistic, combative, or synergistic, each partner thrives in the other's presence.

It's easy to look at two friends with a close rapport -- or two lovers -- and wonder what attracts them to each other.  But sometimes opposites not only attract, but can lead to the most unexpected kind of fame. Whenever you find yourself thinking that politics makes for strange bedfellows (James Carville and Mary Matalin), think about the more bizarre relationships that can be seen on stage and on screen.

When two partners come from the same family, the results can vary widely. Conflict is easy to find in an unhappy marriage (Days of Wine and Roses,  American BeautyThe War of the Roses, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) or in sibling rivalries (TwinsThe Sisters Rosenzweig, Seven Brides for Seven BrothersMy Sister Eileen, Rain Man, Big Business). Dramatic conflict may be more difficult to manufacture in certain other situations.

* * * * * * * * *
Musical theatre fans are abuzz with reports that a new production of 1997's Side Show is in the works. A co-production between the La Jolla Playhouse and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the show will premiere in La Jolla this fall and travel to the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theatre for a limited run in June of 2014. With music by Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls, The Tap Dance Kid, Lucky Duck) and book and lyrics by Bill Russell, Side Show tells the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, two British-born conjoined twins who, after coming to America became one of the highest paid acts in vaudeville history.

Soon to be screened at the SFIndie Film Festival is a documentary about the Hilton sisters that will be of vital interest to fans of Side Show. Bound By Flesh shows how the conjoined twins were abandoned at birth by their mother (an unmarried barmaid named Kate Skinner), who sold the girls to her boss and midwife, Mary Hilton.

Hilton took the girls on tour starting when they were three years old and, for much of their youth, they were the breadwinners in the family. The twins never saw any of the money they earned and were often abused by their step-parents. For a while they lived in San Antonio, Texas

Life was not always kind to the Hilton sisters. Although each twin had several love affairs (Daisy gave birth to an illegitimate child who was put up for adoption), most of their lives were spent in carnivals, circuses, freak shows, vaudeville, and burlesque.

Bound by Flesh stresses how rare it was in the early 20th century for conjoined twins to survive for very long after birth (the Hilton sisters died at the age of 60 after Daisy came down with the Hong Kong flu). Filmmaker Leslie Zemeckis has also done a great job of documenting what life along the lost world of the carnie/vaudeville circuit was like.

Of special interest is the interview with Ward Hall, formerly known as the "King of the Sideshow." Perhaps what is most fascinating is the archival footage of Daisy and Violet as they play the saxophone, go for a swim, and crabwalk toward the camera.  Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Whereas Daisy and Violet Hilton could not get away from each other, the lead characters in 4000 Miles are, in some ways, the most unlikely of roommates.  The 70-year age gap between them is magnified by the differences in their vocabularies, philosophies, physical strength, and size.

Vera Joseph (Susan Blommaert) is a shrunken 91-year-old widow with memory problems who must rely on dentures and a hearing aid. A small, intelligent woman whose body has been twisted by old age, laundry has replaced politics and intellectual discourse as a big part of her life. Although Vera was given a computer by one of her children, no one in the family has made any effort to teach her how to use it.

Back in the day, Vera was an ardent Communist with a passion for progressive politics. One of the last surviving members of a group of octogenarians, she trades daily phone calls with an elderly neighbor across the hall in their Greenwich Village apartment building to make sure they're both still alive. Although their apartment doors are barely 10 feet apart, the two women hardly ever see each other. Ginny can be a real pain in the ass and Vera, as they say, has issues.

Susan Blommaert as Vera Joseph in 4000 Miles
Photo by: Kevin Berne

Vera's temporary roommate is her 21-year-old grandson, Leo (Reggie Gowland), who has just finished bicycling across the United States and arrived at 3:00 a.m. without any prior warning. Leo brings with him a bike, a backpack, a rather skewed sense of priorities, and a conscience of curious convenience that allows him to duck certain family and social responsibilities. Not having bathed in a while, he reeks of sweat and dirt but, being a dedicated locavore, won't accept a banana from his grandmother because it wasn't grown locally.

Leo's mother may be a real bitch, but there's a damned good reason she's worried about her son (who, after witnessing his best friend Micah get killed in a freak accident, got back on his bike the following day and continued down the highway). Like many young men Leo is directionless, quite self-centered, and not very skilled at managing his relationships with women. He also has absolutely no compunction about asking his grandmother for $50 so he can go rock climbing at a local gym. Although well intentioned, he can be a bit of a dick.

Reggie Gowland is Leo in 4000 Miles (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While many are hailing Amy Herzog's new play for its bold writing and sharp characterizations, I thought it had the dramatic tension of a terrarium. The most rewarding feature of American Conservatory Theater's production (which marks the play's West Coast premiere) is Erik Flatmo's lovely unit set, which is gently lit by Alexander V. Nichols through a dozen or so scenes which play out like a series of piano ├ętudes.

Although 4000 Miles has been tenderly directed by Mark Rucker, it's hard to escape the feeling that one is staring at a diorama about life in a rent-controlled apartment.  Leo makes up and breaks up with his girlfriend, Rebecca (Julia Lawler). On another night, he brings a Chinese art student (Camille Mana) back to Vera's apartment  While Amanda doesn't hesitate to acknowledge her basic sluttiness, she freaks out when Leo casually mentions that his grandmother used to be a Communist.

Leo (Reggie Gowland) and Vera (Susan Blommaert)
share a hug in 4000 Miles (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The opening number of Kander & Ebb's 1968 musical, Zorba, stressed that "Life is what you do while you're waiting to die."  While Leo is in no particular rush to organize his life, Ginny bites the dust before the play ends and Vera is obviously running out of time.

4000 Miles has the [almost obligatory] scene in which a rootless hipster gets high with his toothless bubbe. But overall, there's a lot less to Herzog's play than meets the ear.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Strange Interludes

With the cold weather and shorter days, I almost feel like I've been hibernating.  I've been taking more naps than usual and, when the sound of my own snoring awakens me, merely roll over and go back to sleep. That's when things get a bit dicey.

Even if I'm trying to read a book, once my eyelids get heavy and I start to snooze, a world of wild fantasy opens up.  My dreams may not be as awesome as Neil Patrick Harris's delightful "puppet dreams," but they're a bit like watching a Fellini film on hallucinogenic drugs.

Those of us who are heavy dreamers can sometimes identify moments from our dreams that were probably triggered by events of the day.  For example, a young woman recently hijacked an empty commuter train near Stockholm, Sweden and rammed it into an apartment building when the train jumped the tracks at high speed.

How does the daily noise we absorb make its presence felt in our subconscious? That night I had a dream in which a powerful computer was copying 8" floppy disks and spitting them out, one after another, wrapped in their paper sleeves. As the computer started running out of space for more floppy disks, it broke loose from hits braces, jumped off its shelf, and careened out the front door of the office.

The wonderful thing about dreams is that they let someone travel through a fantasy world where the usual physical restrictions of three dimensions are null and void. Things that could not happen in real life occur rapidly, often  in astonishing colors, and with a vitality that is nothing less than remarkable. Often, gravity doesn't exist.

Two films that will be screened at the upcoming SFIndie Film Festival have been written and filmed in a manner that captures the wild fluidity and occasionally wacky humor that we find in our dreamscapes. Although each film is quite brief, it showcases a talented filmmaker with an exciting artistic vision which is bound to bear future fruit.

* * * * * * * * *
Italian animatorAlessio Travaglini, manages to reference complex political challenges in her provocative new short entitled Silenzlosa-Mente (Silent Mind).

Although much of Silent Mind seems to have been done in shades of red, white, and black, it makes astonishing use of the kind of bizarre, nonsensical images which can pepper our dreams. The following trailer gives a glimpse into some of Travaglini's artwork. Although her film is barely five minutes long, it packs quite a wallop.

* * * * * * * * *
Have you ever longed to see a mime get stomped to death by a 50-foot tall woman wearing red sneakers (who gets abducted by aliens while trying to lift an apartment building in Paris off the ground)? Look no further than Guillaume Niquet's magnificent new short film entitled O.V.N.I.

Barely six minutes long, O.V.N.I.  focuses on a tightly-wound woman named Mariane who is overtly paranoid and convinced that she's "special." As she wanders around the streets of the city, people react strangely to her presence. If you could imagine a farcical version of The X-Files with a set of mischievous aliens trying to figure out what to do with their new toy, you'd be close to discovering the perverse joys of O.V.N.I. Here's the trailer:

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Hardest Part Is Letting Go

Whether someone severs a relationship, moves to another city, or dies, the hardest part of dealing with the breakup is often letting go. It's one thing to admit to yourself that the person was never really yours to love (or, if you're Celine Dion, believing that the memory of your love will live on and on and on).  What quickly vanishes is the day-to-day camaraderie, the teasing, the give and take in your relationship.  Even the anger and bitterness start to fade.

If you've got an fertile imagination, friends who have moved on to another plane may visit you in your dreams. Those who are still alive (but no longer play an active role in your life) may occasionally phone or send you an email as a way of touching base.

The bottom line is that most of us lead busy lives. When someone disappears from our daily routine, their place is eventually filled with another person's laughter, tenderness, and need for attention.

Two new dramas written by extremely perceptive women focus on the stress and strain of letting go when a relationship is no longer sustainable. One involves the living, the other involves the dead. Although each rests on a foundation of determined quirkiness, the emotional honesty at the core of each effort is what anchors their dramatic success.

* * * * * * * * *
As one watches Best If Used By (which will be shown at the upcoming SFIndie Film Festival), it becomes obvious that someone has died and Maggie (Aemilia Scott) is having trouble coping. But this is not your typical hospital drama. And so, when a young doctor (Joey Lesiak) arrives in the hospital room to move the corpse of Maggie's boyfriend, Max (Marty Shutter), down to the basement -- and the bereaved young woman asks if she can come along -- it's only a hop, skip, and jump past the morgue's refrigerator to the kind of black comedy one would normally expect from the British.

The doctor (Joey  Lesiak) and Maggie (Aemilia Scott)
 transport  Max's corpse to the hospital's morgue

Although she understands intellectually that Max is dead, Maggie is not yet ready to part with him emotionally. Wheeling his gurney out to the parking lot, she stuffs her dead boyfriend into the back seat of her car and tries to figure out what her next steps should be. Luckily for Maggie, she's a grocery clerk at a large supermarket that has a huge walk-in refrigerator.

Aemilia Scott as Maggie

Written and directed by Aemilia Scott (who also stars as Maggie), Best If Used By takes a breathtaking turn as Maggie's co-workers and Max's parents gather in the supermarket's walk-in for a makeshift wake as they try to help Maggie face reality. Deciding to take Max for one last trip to his favorite spot at the seashore before delivering his body to a funeral home, they transform this curious short film from a bizarre black comedy into a tender and loving sendoff to a young man who died too soon.

Max's family and friends take him for one last moment by the sea

Touching performances come from Christian Stolte as Maggie's supermarket boss, Jack Bronis as a socially inept co-worker, Peggy Roeder as Max's mother, and Joey Lesiak as the sympathetic young physician. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
As one gets into the habit of attending readings of new works in development, one occasionally has the privilege of seeing a play blossom from an idea into a fully-staged drama. Among the many talented writers who participate in Playground's incubator program for aspiring playwrights, Katie May has shown a remarkably strong command of language and new ideas. Her hilarious ten-minute play, Rapunzel's Etymology of Zero, was one of the winners included in the 2011 Best of Playground Festival and was one of the works chosen for the inaugural Best of Playground Film Festival in 2012.

During the 2012 Best of Playground Festival I had a chance to attend a staged reading of Ms. May's Manic Pixie Dream Girl, an adventurous romantic comedy which she hoped could be staged in a format with the look and feel of a graphic novel. The revised play had its world premiere this week at A.C.T.'s Costume Shop with a cast headed by Joshua Roberts as Lee Tallman, a narcissistic artist facing eviction because he has fallen behind on his rent.

Tallman (whom everyone refers to by his last name) has been in the dumps ever since his lover/muse, Jackie (who he met when she was a bitchy cocktail waitress) dumped his sorry ass, got herself a corporate job with benefits, and moved on up to a relationship with the very macho Rick the Realtor (Lucas Hatton). Unable to paint without Jackie's inspiration, the play opens as he slaps her face and then tries to explain to the audience that he's not the kind of guy who hits girls.

Tallman (Joshua Roberts) and his best friend Porter Price
(Michael Barrett Austin) meet for drinks as a bartender
(Lucas Hatton) listens in. (Photo by: Chesca Rueda)

One day Tallman meets a beautiful young woman whose pockets are full of Starburst candy wrappers but doesn't talk. She's trusting, mysterious, and comes back to his apartment. Soon, she has replaced Jackie as his muse and Tallman is starting to paint again.  But Lilly (Lyndsy Kail) belongs in a psychiatric group home. Even after learning that there is a reward for information leading to Lilly's whereabouts, Tallman's selfishness makes him reluctant to let her go.

Tallman (Joshua Roberts) and Lilly (Lyndsy Kail)
(Photo by: Chesca Rueda)

In Jackie's eyes, the problem is simple. She's grown up and embraced an adult lifestyle while Tallman is still acting like a needy child. Even Tallman's best friend, Porter Price (Michael Barrett Austin) thinks Tallman is full of shit and explains the meaning of true love in a graphic tale of what it's like to share a night of food poisoning, projective vomiting, and explosive diarrhea with the woman you love and, once you've recovered, still be able to have sex with each other.

When I first attended a reading of May's play, I was curious to see how it would develop in a fully-staged production. The highlight of the evening was the supporting character of an air-headed bartender with an extremely limited vocabulary. Under Jon Tracy's direction, the fully-realized Manic Pixie Dream Girl became a taut and often tense drama in which Tallman's selfishness eventually succumbed to Lilly's clinical need for adult supervision.

The production design included drawings by Rob Dario (click here to view his artwork) which were to be projected onto one of the large screens that was part of the set. However, on press night, a computer problem messed things up and many of Dario's images could not be seen by the audience.

Jackie (Liz Anderson) and her new boyfriend, Rick the Realtor (Lucas Hatton)
Photo by: Chesca Rueda

Under certain circumstances, this could be a devastating setback for an aspiring playwright's opening night. However, because Tracy's ensemble was so tightly focused and May's writing is so incredibly forceful (and funny), the technical snafu had only minimal impact on the evening.

Liz Anderson was a bewitching, uncompromising Jackie. Michael Barrett Austin made the most of his scatological soliloquy while Lyndsy Kail's radiant portrayal of Lilly was genuinely touching. Joshua Roberts did a beautiful job in the lead role while Lucas Hatton's portrayals of the evil Rick the Realtor, a psychiatric nurse, and a vapid bartender demonstrated impressive versatility.

Playwright Katie May

Performances of Manic Pixie Dream Girl continue at A.C.T.'s Costume shop through February 10 (click here to order tickets). Let there be no doubt that Katie May is a talent worth following.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Going For Broke

Sitting on your status quo won't get you very far. In order to make waves, you have to be willing to step outside your comfort zone and take innumerable risks. For some people, the possibility of success is even more intimidating than the possibility of failure. But as the old saying goes: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The potent combination of smartphones equipped with digital cameras and websites like YouTube and Vimeo make it possible for any aspiring artist to shorten the time it takes from being perceived as a mere wannabe to a budding professional. If a video goes viral, the person who made it can become an international celebrity.

Internet fame beckons to all who want it (from keyboard cats to Chris Crocker), In May of 2012, a group of fearless Russian teenagers in Kiev uploaded a hair-raising video documenting their hijinks atop the Moscow Bridge.

The guys at Americablog recently posted this clip of some Finnish teenagers helping a friend overcome some inhibitions which had prevented him from performing certain tricks on skis. Anyone who enjoys watching Parkour videos will be fascinated to watch these kids in action.

In 2011, when SherpasCinema released its spectacular film entitled All.I.Can, the creative team issued the following artistic statement:
"The film strives to unite global mountain culture and bind us together as the leaders of a revolution. We must be inspired to do all we can for the environment. We must learn how to take that first tiny step in the right direction. We hope an inspirational fire is sparked and [that], while we journey through the hills in the coming years, we can channel the energy borne from our passions towards green, sustainable and forward thinking."
The trailer from All.I.Can reveals it to be so much more than a film about skiing.

This clip from All.I.Can reveals some extremely clever editing coupled with a rare artistic vision..

* * * * * * * * *
With the 2013 SF Indie Fest about to commence, Bay area filmgoers will be exposed to some fresh, new talents. One who quickly caught my attention was Filipino-American Jerell Rosales, whose short film Born To Dance This Way not only demonstrates his solid skill as a rising filmmaker, but introduces a classic comedic character who has "feature film" written all over his fat little face.

In 2010, Rosales premiered We No Speak, a short film about a bland and boring woman who yearns to become a sassy, sexy, siren. The mousy Eileen turns to 22-year-old Russell ("Diva Trainer Extraordinaire") for coaching.  His self-proclaimed areas of expertise?
  • Sitting
  • Model walking/posing
  • Dancing/hair whipping

Russell Argenal's character has since evolved into Joo Si, whom Rosales describes as "a fierce, fabulous, and overweight backup dancer in Los Angeles." In the following clip, Rosales and Argenal discuss what went into the making of Born To Dance This Way.

As you can see from Argenal's dance reel, he's willing to go full throttle on any dance moves thrown at him by a choreographer (this clip contains footage from Born To Dance This Way).

Without a doubt, the character of Joo Si owes a lot to shows like Glee, America's Got Talent and So You Think You Can Dance.  His audition to become a backup dancer for a sexy female pop ensemble (The 4Play Ladies) is both riotously funny and surprisingly endearing. No matter how hard one may want to laugh at Joo Si, it's impossible to deny that, in his heart of hearts, he just knows that he's ready for his big break.  Here's the trailer:

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Please Pardon the Paws In Today's Proceedings

Lots of people who are friends and family have cats that they adore. Unfortunately, I'm allergic to cats and must keep them at a safe distance.  Sometimes that means explaining to someone that I'm not trying to hurt their pet's feelings, I simply don't feel like taking a trip to the Emergency Room.

Just because I can still remember that bright summer day when, as a teenager, I got checked out by an Emergency Room physician for an attack of conjunctivitis that had some green pus coming out of my left eye does not mean that I equate pus with Pussy Galore. Cats visit me on a regular basis all through the day -- on Facebook, on YouTube, in syndicated comic strips like Darby Conley's brilliant Get Fuzzy (Bucky Katt) and Jim Davis's lasagna-craving cat, Garfield.

All kinds of cats pepper world literature, from the Cheshire cat that would tease Alice while perched on a tree branch to Dr. Seuss's famous Cat in a Hat. Although many people have a soft spot for Felix the Cat, one of my all-time favorites is Bill the Cat, from Berkeley Breathed's brilliant Bloom County.

Bill the Cat

Ancient Egyptians worshipped cats (as do lots of gay men). Without doubt, there are plenty of cats to be found in the arts.

Cats are often depicted as evil or malicious by nature.

Cats have also been brought to life in a nonsense poem by Edward Lear and a collection of poems by T. S. Eliot entitled Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.

Sometimes, a song about a cat can become a part of the cultural landscape.

Occasionally, a long-lost gem can surface on YouTube. Here's a clip from 1971's Shinbone Alley (an animated musical based on Archy and Mehitabel) with Eddie Bracken as Archy, Carol Channing as Mehitabel, and John Carradine as Tyrone T. Tattersall.

Bottom line? There are Aristocats.......

......hedonistic, X-rated cats....

......and corrupt, power-hungry corporate fat cats.

* * * * * * * * *
There's a new cat in town and it took only a few minutes for him to find his way into my heart. While some pet owners like to say that dogs have masters and cats have staff, this cat has lots and lots of attitude.

The product of Joann Sfar's fertile imagination, The Rabbi's Cat began as a series of graphic novels in France (a two-volume set is available on Amazon.com). The full-length animated adaptation of Sfar's graphic novel is at once hilarious, educational, provocative, and disarming. With gorgeous cinematography by Jerome Brezilion and original music by Olivier Daviaud performed by the Amsterdam Klezmer Band, much of this film might be wasted on children (it doesn't hesitate to tackle such difficult issues as slavery, racism, colonialism, and antisemitism).

Set in Algiers in the 1920s, Sfar's story includes the following characters:
  • The insecure Rabbi Sfar who, in order to hold on to his position, must take a written exam in French.
  • His beautiful daughter, Zlabya, who seems to love her cat more than her father.
  • Zlabya's hairless cat who, after killing and eating the rabbi's parrot, proves to be multilingual and is able to communicate with humans in French and Russian.
Zlabya and her pet cat
  • The rabbi's cousin (Malka of the Lions),who has come to visit from another part of Africa.
  • A handsome young painter who fled his village in Russia after witnessing a pogrom (and is now in search of his fantasy version of a Jerusalem populated with black Jews).
  • A rich, crazy old Russian aristocrat who was once one of the Tsar's soldiers.
Poster art for The Rabbi's Cat

While many cats like to be pampered and stroked until they purr with contentment, the rabbi's cat has different goals.  For one thing, he wants a bar mitzvah! He's also pretty talented at debating monotheism versus polytheism, punching holes in Creationism, and waxing philosophical. Unfortunately, once he gains the power to speak to humans, he also starts having some pretty horrible dreams.

What could be more fun than a road trip with a rabbi, a sheikh, giraffes, crocodiles, Muslims, scorpions, and a group of elephants taking a bath?

In the following (often hilarious) 30-minute clip of a Q&A session at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Sfar discusses how he graduated from working as a comic book artist to making live action films (Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life) and, with the help of his friend Antoine Delesvaux, tackling his first full-length animation feature.

This hand-drawn film possesses a rare beauty which adds a layer of fantasy to Northern Africa while teasing Jews, Russians, Muslims, and pretty much the entire animal kingdom. A magnificent piece of art with a rare level of intellect and humor, it most definitely should not be missed. Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Children of Decidedly Lesser Gods

Teenage angst can be an explosive energy which caroms off parents, teachers, and friends like one of the shiny, round metal objects in a pinball machine. As it ricochets from one bumper to another, lurching around on unexpected trajectories, it sets off buzzers, lights, and other warning signs of impending trouble.

With hormones ranging through their newly fertile systems, more nervous energy than they know how to handle, and a bitter resentment of authority figures, conflicted teenagers seem ripe for dramatization.  Until reality sets in and throws a writer or filmmaker way off balance.

Asking a viewer/audience to suspend disbelief can be harder to accomplish when an onlooker loses patience with the narrative (not every teen as inspiring as Ferris Bueller, Clark Kent, or Tracy Turnblad). Nor is every story about a teenager sufficiently gripping, genuinely riveting, or worth waiting for its dramatic payoff. Some struggle for years to find a following.

It's an odd fact of writing that attempting to make a teenager sound authentic can make one's dialogue seem stilted and forced. Although trying to rein in a teenager's scattered bursts of energy can tighten a drama, it can also betray the spasticity and sloppiness of a teen's thinking processes.

While some teenagers may consider themselves to be loners or antisocial, they tend to react (sometimes quite severely) to outside influences such as parents, teachers, television, and schoolmates. As demonstrated in Newtown, Connecticut last month, the results aren't always pretty. Yet there is an impressively spontaneous and brash energy about teenagers that can't be ignored (trust me on this, I live right across the street from Mission High School).

Back when I was a confused and clumsy teenager, there were always several kids who walked a tightrope between being a loud-mouthed trombenik (someone who doesn't hesitate to blow his own horn) and a hopeless no-goodnik as they worked at polishing their spiel, their act, their public persona or, as comic book fans may say, their "story of origin."

* * * * * * * * *
The Berkeley Repertory Theatre recently presented the world premiere of a new play by Dan LeFranc.  Directed by Lila Neugebauer, Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright is a commissioned piece that was nurtured through The Ground Floor (Berkeley Rep's new Center for the Creation and Development of New Work).

Much angrier than Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, yet younger and less impulsive than Frank and Joe Hardy, Bradley Boatright (Gabriel King) is a 12-year-old Rhode Islander being raised by a single mother who has always believed that his father died in an automobile accident and, like a comic book superhero, Bradley was left behind on earth to protect his mother.

Illustration by Marc Scheff

It doesn't take long for audiences to grasp that while Bradley is still young enough to ask his mother to tie his shoelaces, he is old enough to verbally lash out at her and [unknowingly] hit his mother where it really hurts. Throughout the evening, Bradley walks a precarious tightrope between being labeled just another unmanageable, out-of-control teenager or being sent to a private boys academy (or what used to be called a reform school).

The horrible truth is that he is something much more common: a child of divorce whose father has no interest in him. As the playwright explains:
"I think it's a pretty big universe for Bradley Boatright. When I began, I thought I was just writing a story about 12-year-olds. Part of the struggle in writing this story was that I felt like I had so many characters and so many ideas that it was difficult for me to focus in on what this episode was going to be about. There are so many more stories waiting to unfold. I'd like to write a comic book series about what happens to the characters. Or a cartoon. I know that's a bit pie in the sky, but I could write these kids all day long. I want to see Bradley do the school play. I want to see Bradley join the debate team. But, as we've gone on, we've lost all of this golden material that doesn't fit in with the story we need to tell. It's very clear to me that there are a lot of possibilities with this world."  

Gabriel King as Bradley Boatright (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Therein lies a major problem. In its current state, Troublemaker is an overwritten three-act play that runs about 2-1/2 hours and could easily stand to lose 25 minutes. Between Bradley's adventures running away from home, his tormentors at school, and the strain he puts on his close friendship with Mikey Minkle (Chad Goodridge), the audience must travel a long, winding path before taking a sharp turn to get at the meat of the matter. Troublemaker's emotional payoff is beautifully crafted and certainly worth waiting for (although, by the end of Act II, a growing number of empty seats indicated that a substantial segment of the audience had lost their patience with LeFranc's play.).

Much of the problem has to do with language. Bradley and his friends tend to use the word "freakin" about as often as many teenagers use the word "like." As everyone knows, if you say the word "Fuck" once, it can have a strong dramatic impact. If you just keep saying "Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck," the word loses all meaning. When Bradley's mother breaks down and calls him an asshole to his face, he's less hurt by what she's said than he is genuinely shocked by the fact that his mother actually used a forbidden word.

Bradley (Gabriel King), Mikey (Chad Goodridge), and Loretta
(Jeanna Phillips) are three Rhode Island teens in Troublemaker,
or the Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright

(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Having lived in Rhode Island for three years (and helped run a summer camp operated by the Greater Providence YMCA for 10 summers), I'm used to a wide variety of Rhode Island dialects which allow an aspiring Henry Higgins to pinpoint whether someone comes from Federal Hill, Barrington, Chepachet, or Woonsocket. I've heard things described as "freakin' awesome" and "wicked evil." I've eaten wimpy-skimpies, gone "down cellar" and paused to drink from a bubbler.

A "wimpy skimpy" from Caserta Pizza on Federal Hill

When egged on, a close friend of mine will burst into song, crowing:
"I'm Rhode Island born and I'm Rhode Island bred
And when I die, I'll be Rhode Island dead!"
As many people know, Seth MacFarlane graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, where he obviously picked up a bunch of Rhode Island accents (the fact that Family Guy is set in the fictional town of Quahog is a joke with special meaning to Rhode Islanders). If you listen closely to Peter Griffin's character, you'll hear a  type of speech which is common to working class Rhode Islanders (and is often marked by lots of bravado and very little intellect). It's the kind of socioeconomic identifier which was beautifully captured by Joe Pesci in this scene from 1992's My Cousin Vinny.

As Dan LeFranc explains:
"It's really tricky to be playing the style game that we are playing while also wanting audiences to feel like they are on the ground with our boys. My hope is that we aren't seeing them from a distance, but that we are in it with them. Troublemaker is a hybrid between a hyper-stylized action adventure world and a naturalistic domestic drama. It's been a really thrilling challenge to see how those two things coalesce in building the rhythm of the piece -- making sure it doesn't get too naturalistic or too slow but also doesn't go too fast for too long. I think when the play is succeeding you stop noticing the language and you are able to really empathize with the characters."

Ben Mehl and Matt Bradley are the bullies behind  Jake Miller
(Robbie Tann), who constantly bullies and torments Bradley Boatright
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Neugebauer has pulled some very convincing performances from Robbie Tann as Jake Miller, Jeanna Phillips as the mouthy Loretta Baretta, and, most especially, Jennifer Regan as Bradley's emotionally exhausted and situationally overwhelmed mother (who has been hiding a bitter secret from her son). Added comic relief comes from Matt Bradley and Ben Mehl as two A-Holes as well as Thomas Jay Ryan and Danny Scheie in a variety of roles. Here's the trailer: