Sunday, March 31, 2013

Pay No Attention To The Folks Behind the Curtain

Last summer, as I was riding home on BART from a performance at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, an aspiring young playwright from Los Angeles who had noticed the press kit in my hands started to chat me up. After inquiring what play I had seen that night, he got right down to business.

Citing numerous problems he perceived with the theatre scene in Los Angeles, he was curious to learn how and where he might get his plays produced in the Bay area. After I mentioned several local theatre companies that offer readings of new works (Playwrights Foundation, Aurora Theatre Company's Global Age Project, TheatreWorks' New Works Festival, Magic Theatre's Virgin Play Series) as well as suggesting that he consider submitting his work to various Fringe festivals, he told me that what he really liked to write were historical plays that required fairly sizable casts.

Like many young playwrights, he believed that theatre companies would be eager to stage ambitious, large-scale plays by unknown playwrights. Needless to say, he was shocked when I suggested that he turn to websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to help raise money so that he could stage his plays in the city where he lived. "You mean self-produce?" he gasped.

I urge any and all playwrights with stars in their eyes to strap themselves in for a harsh reality check and read three of the most brutally honest articles written this year about the landscape of contemporary theatre:
After the blood in your veins has thawed and you can once again feel a pulse, think about the famous Pyramid of Philanthropy which has served as a model for the efforts of numerous performing arts organizations as they try to expand their audiences.
  • On the bottom layer are single ticket buyers, casual attendees who may choose to attend an opera, symphony, or theatrical performance several times a year.
  • One layer above them are the subscribers who form the core of an organization's loyal audience.
  • One layer above the regular subscribers is an elite level of subscribers who make regular contributions to the producing arts organization.
  • One layer above them are subscribers who not only donate, but volunteer their time to help with tasks ranging from envelope stuffing to opening their homes to visiting artists.
  • At the very top of the pyramid are those who serve on the company's board of directors. Not only are they required to raise substantial amounts of money for the company and recruit new board members, they act as the organization's top level of missionaries in the local community.
The following graphic shows the Pyramid of Philanthropy as it has been applied to fundraising efforts for the National Park Service:

As Ellen Cushing explains in The Bacon Wrapped Economy, this model seems to be increasingly irrelevant to a new generation of people who have acquired sudden wealth from their work or investments in technology. With social media helping to attract audiences to readings and other new projects, I'd suggest that aspiring playwrights look to circuit parties and raves as new models for attracting attention to their work.

Unlike traditional theatre companies, circuit parties and raves can move from one location to another with ease. Instead of relying on the financial security of traditional subscription marketing (as articulated by Danny Newman in his book, Subscribe Now!), producers and playwrights must force themselves to ask if they are willing to be satisfied with a one-night stand.

For most staged or semi-staged readings that's the best a contemporary playwright can expect. If you're eager to get your new play performed before a live audience (with or without scenery), why not?

The more bitter and sarcastic souls may echo the words of Mart Crowley's swishy Emory in The Boys in the Band, who took one look at the men assembled in his friend's apartment and asked "Who do you have to fuck around here to get a drink?" The more idealistic souls will probably look to Mickey Rooney for their inspiration:

If anyone has a handle on this concept, it's 35-year-old Stuart Bousel, the founding artistic director of the SFOlympians FestivalNo Nude Men Productions, and San Francisco Theatre Pub who estimates that, since moving to San Francisco in 2002 he has helped nearly 100 new plays get exposure in the form of readings, semi-staged, and fully-staged productions. His latest project? A three-play minifestival entitled Behind The Curtain.

Stuart Bousel (Photo by: Cody Rishell)

As Bousel explains, one day he casually mentioned to his friend, Meghan O'Connor, that he was writing a backstage comedy named Pastorella. O'Connor (who used to be the Literary Manager for Cutting Ball Theatre) replied that she had written a backstage play called In The Wings for her thesis. They soon discovered that a mutual friend, Marissa Skudlarek, had written a backstage play entitled The Rose of Youth.

"We've each written a backstage play," observed Bousel (who describes himself as an eternal optimist who can be horribly bitter). "And I've got a theatre -- so let's have a festival!"

After renting the EXIT Theatre for three nights, Bousel got started issuing press releases and publicizing the event through social media and his friends at San Francisco Theatre Pub. By opening night, he had built a devoted audience of theatre geeks with day jobs eager to attend the premiere of O'Connor's play.

Playwrights Stuart Bousel, Meghan O'Connor and Marissa Skudlarek
on  opening night of  the Behind The Curtain Festival

Rather than have a traditional post-performance talkback with the playwright, Bousel and Skudlarek conducted a laid-back interview with their playwright friend before the performance. As a result, the audience of friends and fans was nicely primed for the event.

* * * * * * * * *
O’Connor's sharp wit has been on display in Satellites and All’s Fair (Inkblot Ensemble). Tethys, or In The Deep (2012's San Francisco Olympians Festival) and performances with her improv friends at Chinese Ballroom. Like many playwrights who write about backstage life, one of characters she created for In The Wings is semi-autobiographical. The blurb for her play reads as follows:
"In The Wings brings you backstage of a theater that was bold and bored enough to put on an obscure, deceased man’s only play. This play is a two-for-one: you enjoy all the gripping drama on the stage, and all the shenanigans that go on in the wings. And there is an alien invasion to boot!" 
Playwright Meghan O'Connor

The "actual" play resembles a 19th century comedy of manners staged with the actors (Vince Faso and Allison Page) facing upstage less than six feet from the brick wall at the rear of the theatre. Seated on stools on either side of the action are a stage manager who might have to go on in case one of the actors doesn't show up, a props manager (Sunil Patel) who has to cope with overeager actors who misplace things before the show, and a female intern (Tonya Narvaez) who has a romantic crush on the play's narcissistic male lead (Kenny Bourquin).

Add to the mix a terrified novice (Sam Bertken) who's busily puking backstage (played by the same actor who portrays the butler in the 19th century play) and the female intern's husband (who has shown up in the caped costume he wears for his part-time job as an action hero) and there is plenty of potential for comic relief.

The comcally gifted Allison Page

In true theatrical tradition, on opening night the actor who had been cast as the stage manager had to cancel and was replaced by Claire Rice. Notorious scene stealer Allison Page brought down the house with her impersonation of a masculine caped crusader who speaks with a thick New Jersey accent. Most remarkable was the loud and enthusiastic audience response, which frequently resembled an old-fashioned operatic claque. A good time was had by all.

* * * * * * * * *
Due to a previous commitment, I was unable to attend the performance of Marissa Skudlarek's The Rose of Youth (which requires a cast of 13 actors). But I was able to return to the EXIT Theatre on Saturday night for Bousel's Pastorella, which the playwright describes as his most autobiographical play to date and readily admits that it features "more in-jokes and theater/film/television references per page than any play I've ever written!"

Like many backstage scripts that spring from a deeply emotional source, Bousel's three-act play is overwritten and suffers from trying to cram too much of everything into one drama-heavy vehicle. The action surrounds a small theatre company's performance of Tom Stoppard's 1993 play, Arcadia. As directed by Anthony R. Miller,  the cast of characters includes:
  • Gwen Howard (Annika Bergman) a naive young actress (and presumptive fag hag) fresh out of college who has been cast as Chloe in Arcadia.
  • Warren Alving (John Caldon), Gwen's close gay friend, an intense theatre geek who, in addition to directing the production shares many of the personal characteristics which define Stuart Bousel.
  • Josh Baker (Peter Townley), Warren's handsome boyfriend. Although they met and fell in love while Josh was playing Hamlet and Warren was playing Laertes, the two men have been bickering ever since. Warren clings to impossibly high theatrical ideals while Josh is much more concerned about getting his theatrical career on track. Josh has not yet told Warren that he's leaving the production of Arcadia a week before its opening night because he got offered the lead role of Zack in a touring musical adaptation of FernGully: The Last Rainforest.

The show's producers (portrayed by Allene Hebert and Jeremy Cole) are a married couple who used to act but have since settled down and embraced that rarest of theatrical phenomena: emotional stability. Their basic maturity is a far cry from the behavior of either
  • Roy Wang (Andrew Chung), the Asian-American actor playing the butler, Jellaby, in Stoppard's play who used to sing in an opera chorus but prefers to talk to everybody in gangsta style. Roy insists on addressing his close friend Cliff (the African American stage manager) with such terms of endearment as "Negro" and "my nigger."
  • Cliff Samuel(Charles Lewis III), the stage manager who is doubling as the gardener, Richard Noakes, in Stoppard's play. Cliff once had sex with Josh during the early stages of Josh's courtship with Warren.
Rounding out the dramatis personae is a most unlikely trio:
  • Bettina Snell (Carole Swann) is a narcissistic stage mother with delusions of grandeur. A former actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Bettina has become an insufferable snob who would have others believe that her decision to quit acting and have a child was as important to mankind as the second coming of Christ. Bettina is very much a legend in her own mind.
  • Electra Snell (Kate Jones) is Bettina's unhappy teenage daughter who, to date, has enjoyed a fairly successful career doing commercials. The only problem is that, whenever Electra auditions for a theatrical role, it's always in a script where her character gets raped or someone is thinking about raping her. Cast as Lady Croom in Stoppard's play, Electra suffers from cultural illiteracy. Not only does she have no idea who Shakespeare's Mercutio is, she's never even read Romeo and Juliet!
  • Toby Kent (Anthony Pinggera) is an extremely enthusiastic and easily excitable newbie playing Lady Croom's brother, Captain Brice. Egged on by Cliff and Roy (who keep telling the clueless Toby that Electra might make herself sexually available to him if he's willing to do it "English style"), Toby is in way over his head. Thankfully, Bettina is on hand to explain that under no circumstances will he be enjoying anal sex with her daughter, who is not even 18 years old!
The heart of Bousel's play lies in the confrontation between the departing Josh and the drunk, self-pitying Warren. However, because of the expository demands of Pastorella's story, several characters act primarily as sounding boards (with little reason for the audience to care about them as people).

While Pastorella obviously needs some cutting to tighten it up, the solution might be a lot simpler than one would imagine. My hunch is that, by eliminating the characters of Gwen and the company director's wife, the rest of Bousel's backstage play would snap together with surprising tightness.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Memories of Wartime

For many baby boomers, the first images of war they remember did not come from the news. Instead, they were from an extremely popular documentary television series that aired on NBC in 1952 and 1953 and was subsequently made into a feature film.

Some children watched Victory at Sea in the company of a family member who had served in the United States Navy during World War II. I suppose the reason I got to watch it so frequently was because of my growing interest in ocean liners.

Those who did watch Victory at Sea were profoundly moved by its musical score, most particularly the theme music by Richard Rodgers. As children, we had no way of knowing that Rodgers (together with his lyricist partner, Oscar Hammerstein II), had been part of the creative team behind 1949's hit musical, South Pacific.

By March 19, 1958, when the film version of South Pacific was released in first-run theatres with Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi taking over the lead roles from Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, Rodgers and Hammerstein had added to their legacy with The King and I (1951), a television version of Cinderella (1957) starring Julie Andrews, and were preparing Flower Drum Song for its Broadway premiere on December 1, 1958. The following year witnessed the premiere of what would be their last musical, The Sound of Music (also starring Mary Martin).

Following Hammerstein's death on August 23, 1960, Rodgers wrote both the music and lyrics for two songs that were added to the film version ("I Have Confidence" and "Something Good"). According to Wikipedia, the popular "Edelweiss" (which many imagine to be a traditional Austrian song) was written for the musical.

Since the film's debut, this song (originally unknown in Austria) has become a powerful marketing tool for Austrian tourism (especially for the city of Salzburg). The popular gay dragapella quartet, The Kinsey Sicks, frequently invites audiences to join them in a sing-along of their snarky parody.
"Anal warts, anal warts
Every morning you greet me
Soft and pink, God you stink!
You look happy to meet me.

Blossom of cauliflower bloom and grow
Bloom and grow, forever.
Anal warts, anal warts
Bless my bottom forever."
* * * * * * * * *
Contra Costa Musical Theatre recently premiered a delightful production of The Sound of Music which incorporates the two songs written for the film and drops the Act II duet ("An Ordinary Couple") sung by Maria and Captain von Trapp after he breaks up with Baroness Schraeder and realizes the true object of his affection.

Kelly Britt as Maria, with the rest of the von Trapp family
in The Sound of Music (Photo by: Source Photography)

With director/choreographer Michael Ryken at the helm, the staging of this beloved show was tightly paced, handsomely executed, and solidly sung. Using sets from the Fullerton Civic Light Opera and costumes by Sharon Bell, the production looked solid and, under the musical direction of Karl Pister, boasted some beautiful a cappella work from the chorus of nuns at Nonnberg Abbey.

Dan LeGate was an appropriately stiff Captain von Trapp with Melinda Meeng appearing as Elsa Schraeder (Meeng performed this role last fall in the Berkeley Playhouse production). Derek Leo Miller’s portrayal of the romantic young Nazi, Rolf Gruber, offered an interesting foil to Tomas Theriot’s expansive characterization of Max Detweiler. While Pamela Hicks brought vocal heft to the role of the Mother Abbess, the evening’s true star was Kelly Britt (a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music), whose Maria be one of the best sung I’ve ever heard.

Kelly Britt starred as Maria in The Sound of Music
(Photo by: Source Photography)

Performances of The Sound of Music continue at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek through April 21. This production is well worth a visit (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
On February 19, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco offered a fascinating program as authors Deborah Strobin and her brother, Ilie Wacs, promoted their new book, An Uncommon Journey. The children of a Jewish tailor living in Vienna, their family fled to Shanghai prior to the Anschluss. Strobin told the audience at the JCCSF that, as a child who had never seen any Asian people in her life, to step off the boat in Shanghai and see millions of them was terrifying.

Forced to flee from their upper middle class lifestyle in Austria, the family settled into the Shanghai Ghetto where there was little food and even less privacy. There was, however, plenty of depression. It was during this period that Wacs began to develop as a sketch artist (a talent that would lead to a career in fashion design).

Drawing of the Shanghai Ghetto by Ilie Wacs

With San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik acting as moderator, Strobin (who lives in San Francisco) and her brother shared their experience with an attentive audience. For me, the biggest surprise of the evening came during the Q&A segment of the presentation, as members of the audience who had also lived in the Shanghai Ghetto took to the microphone to share their experiences.

* * * * * * * * *
Back in the 1950s, little was understood about post-traumatic stress disorder. This story, which was recently published on the BBC's website, reveals how a child learned a shocking secret about his father's experience in World War II.

Many children's fathers never made it home from the war. While some may view the new animated feature, From Up On Poppy Hill, as a coming-of-age story for a young Japanese girl, I saw it more as the story of a child finally being granted closure with regard to the father who could never come home.

Poster art for From Up On Poppy Hill

Set in Yokohama in 1963 (when Tokyo was preparing to host the 1964 Summer Olympics), the film may at first seem to center on the possible romance between two innocent high school students: Umi and Shun. Umi (whose father drowned when his supply ship hit a mine) has been living with her grandmother and cousins while her own mother is studying in the United States. From their home on Poppy Hill, she has always run maritime signal flags up the flagpole in the front yard in the hope that her father might one day see them from one of the ships in Yokohama's harbor.

Shun, whose father works on a tugboat, is one of the students working on the school newspaper. Together with the members of various student academic clubs, he hopes to save their Meiji-era club house from being demolished.

Poster art for From Up On Poppy HIll

Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son, Goro, From Up On Poppy Hill lacks the kind of magical realism that made other animated features from Japan's popular Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Ponyo) such triumphs of imagination.

From Up on Poppy Hill marks the first feature film collaboration between father and son. While the story involves a message of student empowerment that might be taken for granted today, the movie's real source of empowerment arrives when the historical mystery linking Umi and Shun's families is finally explained to them by a kind, old sea captain. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

City Mouse, Country Mouse

"I'd rather gnaw a bean than be gnawed by continual fear." That quote is attributed to Odo of Cheriton, a 13th century preacher who explained the moral of Aesop's popular fable, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. Even though Aesop is believed to have been a Greek slave who lived between 620 and 560 BCE, his fables have been handed down from generation to generation as parents tried to teach their children right from wrong.

It's easy to imagine that Aesop's Fables have little applicability in the digital age, but to do so would be a horrible mistake. Two documentaries screened during the 2013 CAAMFest did a surprisingly thorough job of showing how, despite its rapid urbanization, China is filled with people whose challenges are embodied by the age old tale of the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.

After rural peasants have been introduced to the wonders of the Internet and the sudden wealth brought about by a global economy, it's easy to wonder "How are you gonna keep them down on the farm?" But reality has a strange way of sabotaging some people's upward mobility. When that happens, the security of a simpler and quieter life is often irresistible.

* * * * * * * * *
Political junkies and people who remain in awe of the cultural changes wrought by the blogosphere won’t want to miss a new documentary by Stephen T. Maing about two Chinese bloggers attempting to spread the word about local injustices. The younger one, Zhou Shuguang (whose screen name is Zola) decided to stop selling vegetables in a rural area of China's Hunan Province and use his electronic gadgets to launch a career in political muckraking.

An extremely media conscious 20-something who is eager to achieve fame, Zola is frequently warned by his fans whenever the Chinese government is preparing to arrest him. At one point, he is denied boarding for a flight to attend a conference of international bloggers being held in Europe.

Zola leaps into the air for a publicity shot taken on
the Great Wall of China in High Tech, Low Life

Zola’s counterpart, Zhang Shihe (who is old enough to remember what life was like under Mao Tse-tung), has become famous while blogging under the name of his pet cat, Tiger Temple. Both men relish the challenge of becoming citizen journalists --  even if it means facing censorship and government intimidation. In his director's statement, Maing explains that:
"In January of 2007, there were 137 million Internet users in China and the first phase of China’s censorship barrier commonly referred to as 'The Great Firewall' had been in place for just one year. The following year, this number jumped to nearly 250 million users and rumors of young resourceful Chinese netizens circumventing the government’s censorship restrictions began circulating on the Internet. I wanted to make a film that explored youth, activism and technology but, after getting to know Zola and Tiger Temple over the course of four years of filming, I realized their personal stories revealed a much deeper narrative about a startling new China that was still reconciling its painful Maoist past.

After meeting the older and more lo-fi Tiger Temple, I was struck by his dramatically different style and background. Tiger Temple was a wandering writer and self-professed romantic that regularly biked across the mainland, profoundly haunted by the persecution he and his family endured during the Cultural Revolution. Despite a significant generational gap, what struck me was their mutual curiosity about the world, shared commitment to advancing freedom of speech in China, and at times very different approaches to these common goals."
Poster art for High Tech, Low Life
"I’m interested in character-driven stories that unfold slowly and reveal larger systemic and cultural complexities. Part of the film’s central question was how to tell an intimate story that presented the reality of censorship and perils of political dissidence in China through experiential observations, not expert interviews. Another challenge was how to intimately represent people that represent other people as well as themselves in their own work.

Since completing the film in April of 2012, the number of Internet users has skyrocketed to over 513 million, roughly 300 million of them using some form of social media. Among the numerous new policies and regulations to control online content, the government has formed the State Internet Information Office to organize these efforts and more effectively control online activity. As new China hurtles into a rapidly changing future, the government and online netizens will surely continue to try and outsmart each other as people like Zola and Tiger Temple emerge as the forefathers of a brave new civil society."
Tiger Temple travels around China on
his bicycle in High Tech, Low Life

While Zola eventually marries a woman from Taiwan and manages to escape from mainland China, Tiger Temple keeps pedaling around China on his bicycle, helping local citizens protest about sewage leaks and other injustices. High Tech, Low Life offers fascinating insights into how electronics have become a democratizing force in citizen journalism which is forcing China’s culture to become more transparent. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
The Mosuo Sisters is a fascinating documentary about two sisters from rural China who moved to Beijing to seek their fortunes working as lounge entertainers. When the impact of the global economic crisis cost them their jobs, Juma and Latso were forced to return to their home town (located in the foothills of the Himalayas) in one of the world’s last remaining matriarchal societies.

Latso and Juma in happier times

The close relationship between the two sisters comes under intense pressure after Juma returns to Beijing with hopes that she can earn enough money for Latso to continue her accounting education. But Latso soon gets pregnant and is forced to stay home on the farm.

Juma doing farm work

Directed by Marlo Poras, the film’s depiction of the Mosuo's matriarchal society (where married women live with their mothers instead of their husbands) is fascinating. After their home town was hit by an earthquake, harvested dry goods were ruined by a storm and their rice harvest similarly destroyed, Juma and Latso’s family was forced to live in tents. Their future is now much less promising than at the start of the film. Here's the trailer:

Monday, March 25, 2013

Share and Share Alike

From a very early age, children are encouraged to share their food, their toys, and their lives with others. That may be one reason why adults find social media so rewarding.
  • One's ease in sharing photographs, articles, and videos with friends is infectious. 
  • One's sense of humor gets tickled on a regular basis.
  • One's ability to learn from people with differing viewpoints is empowering.
  • One's curiosity is constantly nurtured.
Every now and then, a wild and campy gem pops up, like this video that was posted by James Jorden on his Facebook page:

Sharing requires a certain degree of intimacy. Whether that intimacy is physical, emotional, or intellectual, it can easily be challenged by forces beyond one's control. Consider the following short, which was screened during the recent CAAMFest.

* * * * * * * * *
Some people's work allows them to nurture a rich fantasy life. For writers, artists, and other creative types, the ability to have imaginary friends may fan the flames of surprisingly deeper emotions than those felt by their co-workers. With a wonderfully imaginative script written by Maki Arai, Nobuyuki Miyake's 23-minute short stars Akinori Doi as Ryosuke, a young dental specialist who works on sculpting replacement teeth for people who have suffered major facial injuries.

While his comrades at work tease him for being so devoted to his craft, there's a lot more going on in Ryosuke's mind than they could ever imagine. As the promotional blurb for No Longer There explains:
"Visible both when our bodies are alive and dead, teeth transcend the show-and-tell of time. A young women (Ann Nakamura) suddenly falls victim to an accident and loses her front teeth. The man tasked with making her artificial dentures grows close to this woman he has never meet as he envisions her style and voice in an intimate imaginary world of his own creation. Their time together was only supposed to last until her dentures were complete. But what happens when this man and woman meet in the real world?"

This exquisite short shows a remarkably mature talent at work. I don't know which was more effective: the scene in which Ryosuke sits in a restaurant, recognizes the woman whose dentures he created, and watches as she gets cruelly dumped by her boyfriend or the scene by a beach, where an elderly woman urges the shy denture sculptor to make contact with Sonomi as the young woman passes by.

* * * * * * * * *
In 1956, when Around The World In 80 Days was released in Todd-AO, Bing Crosby scored a major hit with his recording of the film's title song. I'm especially partial to the slide show that accompanies this recording by The Chordettes.

Patti LuPone recently brought her Far Away Places show to Live at the Rrazz's new digs in the old Don Lee Cadillac Building on Van Ness Avenue. Although the room is still undergoing some physical alterations, it's an extremely attractive venue that can hold a substantially larger crowd than the old Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko. Here's a clip from her show when she performed Far Away Places at New York's new cabaret venue, 54 Below.

LuPone's show revolves around an international theme. Whether ladling a thick Sicilian accent onto "I Wanna Be Around" or going full Cockney for Stephen Sondheim's "By The Sea" (from 1979's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), LuPone took great pride in her Juilliard training, noting that  "I do all kinds of accents -- just like Meryl."

Thus it came as no surprise to hear LuPone spoof Edith Piaf's famous "Non, je ne regrette rien" with Bill Burnett's "I Regret Everything" before launching into the beloved French torch singer's "Hymn to Love." Nor was it difficult for her to travel the stylistic distance between Cole Porter's "Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking" and Clay Boland and Moe Jaffe's "The Gypsy In My Soul." With her trademark dramatic intensity, LuPone performed David Yazbek's "Invisible" (which she sang in 2010's musical adaptation of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown).

Her skill as an actress allows LuPone to bring a lonely wistfulness to songs like "I Cover The Waterfront" and "Travelin' Light" and yet, accompanied only by Chris Fenwick on piano, to flex her dramatic muscles on Kurt Weill's "Pirate Jenny" (from 1928's The Threepenny Opera) and "September Song" (from 1938's Knickerbocker Holiday).

What I love about cabaret acts like LuPone's Far Away Places is how they give singers a chance to introduce contemporary audiences to long-lost novelty songs. Consider "Nagasaki" (a jazz song written in 1928 by Harry Warren and Mort Dixon (which is sung in the following clip by Adolph Robinson in a scene from a 1935 Major Bowes "Harmony Broadcast" that was distributed to movie theatres).  After the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, that song quickly lost its popularity.

LuPone scored strongly with Cole Porter's "I Love Paris" (from 1953's Can-Can) and her encore of "Istanbul (not Constantinople," a delightful tongue twister that could easily hold its own against any patter song written by Gilbert and Sullivan.

With a devoted crowd of loyal fans packing the room, LuPone's Far Away Places program, though barely 75 minutes long, was filled with some wonderful singing by an artist who gets a visceral thrill from making music. Here's a delightful clip of Patti LuPone performing with the one and only Seth Rudetsky.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


March 22, 1962 is remembered by many musical theatre fans as the night Barbra Streisand took Broadway by storm as Miss Marmelstein during the opening night performance of I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Based on Jerome Weidman's novel, many of Harold Rome's lyrics dripped with a unique brand of bitter irony and blunt sarcasm.

While the star of the show was a young Elliott Gould (who married Streisand in 1963), none of the show's songs gained a toehold in the pop music of the day. More than a half century after I Can Get It For You Wholesale opened on Broadway, it's interesting to examine Rome's lyric for the ingenue, Ruthie Rivken (Marilyn Cooper) who gets dumped by the show's anti-hero, Harry Bogen.
"A funny thing happened on my way to love.
I lost the young fellow I've been dreaming of.
He changed while I waited and hoped for his call,
To someone who's no fun at all.
Well, I've stopped forgetting, what else can I do?
And much thanks for letting me practice on you.
It's farewell my lovely, excuse, please, my dust.
Unravel and travel I must.

No tears, no hurt surprise,
It's with a pleasant glow I realize.
If I have that much love so deep, true and strong.
All ready to hand you, my dear Mr. Wrong.
Then think of the treasures, the joy and delight,
I'll give to my own Mr. Right.
My own Mr. Right.

So hasta la vista, ta-ta, toodle-oo,
The world will keep turning, but not around you.
There's someone else waiting that's more than a friend.
Best wishes and dishes I'll send.
And so, so-long, I'm on my way.
Thanks for the buggy-ride and may I say...

If I have that much love so deep true and strong.
Already to hand you, my dear Mr. Wrong.
Then think of the treasures, the joy and delight,
I'll give, as long as I live, at night,
To my own Mr. Right."
With so many people excited at the prospect of the United States Supreme Court hearing arguments on California's Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, let me recommend a brutal reality check by Jesse Green that was recently published in New York Magazine. His article predicts how marriage equality will pave a path for same-sex couples to achieve divorce equality as well. From 'I Do' to 'I'm Done' may not contain the news same-sex couples want to hear, but it's a sobering wake-up call about what happens after love dies (spoiler alert: I'm not talking about an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical).

The recent CAAMFest included some fascinating shorts which reveal what happens as age and experience burst the bubble of a young man's happiness and naivete.

* * * * * * * * *
At first, Robert Joe's nine-minute short, Bubble, might seem like little more than a conversation between two South Korean business executives. As the film begins, they enter an upscale bar to celebrate what has obviously been a successful day for their office. It doesn't matter whether their success is due to acquiring a new account, an impressive monthly sales report, or a promotion. It's been a good day.

As they drink, the older man asks his younger colleague about his marriage plans and is surprised to discover that the young man wants to wait at least a year to be sure he can afford a new apartment and that this marriage will work. Amused by his junior colleague's serious approach to matrimony, the senior executive explains that the reason he has such a happy and successful marriage is because he's not in love with his wife.

* * * * * * * * *
In Maxim Dashkin's Broken Maiden, the filmmaker focuses on Felix Chong (Kay Tong Lim), a gambling addict who can't stop betting on horses at a race track in Singapore. One sees the hungry excitement in Felix's eyes as his horse comes around the bend, followed by the familiar look of disappointment when another horse wins the race.

Things change, however, when Felix visits his son Michael (Timothy Nga), who is now running the business Felix started in his younger days. Michael's hostility toward his father becomes understandable as the viewer learns that Felix has gambled away all of the family's money and may even have cost Michael his marriage.

Soon, however, Felix is back at the race track with that intoxicated look of excitement in his Michael discovers that the cash register in his business has been jacked open with a screwdriver.

* * * * * * * * *
A poignant nine-minute film by Etienne Sievers, Dilli Dreams is set in the crowded bazaars of Old Delhi as a tired old man (Ram Bihari) has his wallet stolen by a young boy. After chasing after the boy but failing to regain his money, the aging mazdoor (manual laborer) shoulders another heavy bag of rice to carry from one location to another.

The vivid colors of Old Delhi contrast sharply with the old man's black-and-white memories of life in the country as a young boy (Mohammed Faisal) before he left his family to try to earn a living in the big city. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
A talented actor, writer, and director, Randall Park has become a familiar face as an Asian-American character actor. He's also been hilariously funny in performances by Opening People's Minds (OPM), a comedy sketch group based in Los Angeles. Here he is with Ewan Chung and Dave Wilder in this clip from Funny or Die.

Park's irreverent wit is on display in a 22-minute film originally produced as a TV pilot.  At Your Convenience stars Park and Dwayne Perkins as two goofballs running a convenience store. Though they may be best buddies for life, they could easily lead people to believe that conservative Congress critters Louie Gohmert, Michele Bachmann, and Virginia Foxx were charter members of Mensa International.

Co-written with  Randall C. Lai, At Your Convenience has an appealing hybrid format which you can see in the following sample clip. If this show doesn't get picked up by a cable television network, it's surefire material for a series of webisodes.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Harvey Milk famously told people “I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you...And you...And you...Gotta give em hope.” Although Milk was assassinated on November 27, 1978 (before the onset of the AIDS crisis), I think he would be extremely proud to see how the LGBT community has evolved and marvel at the international progress of the marriage equality movement.

On July 16, 1992, Bill Clinton (who was born in Hope, Arkansas) ended his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention with the words "I still believe in a place called Hope." Even though he signed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and 1996's loathsome Defense of Marriage Act into law, Clinton has done a 180-degree reversal and now supports same-sex marriage.

Hope, as they say, springs eternal. This week, during his visit to Israel, President Barack Obama helped to broker a thaw in the tense relations between Israel and Turkey during which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized over the phone to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for Israel's May 31, 2010 commando raid on a Turkish ship near Gaza.

Whether an act of kindness is random or politically calculated, it's still an act of kindness. Although many Americans have grown familiar with the cadence of President Obama's political speeches, this week's address to the Israeli people was aimed squarely at those who can foster the greatest amount of change: the young. On Thursday night, I spent an hour watching Obama's speech to approximately 1,000 students about how security, peace, and prosperity can guide Israelis down a path to a better life for all who live in the Middle East.

The following morning, this poignant video from the Anti-Defamation League appeared on Americablog.

Four short films recently screened during the 2013 CAAMFest demonstrate how random acts of kindness can have a deep and lasting impact on people's lives. Each is quite remarkable for its dramatic context,  universality, and the imagination of its filmmaker.

* * * * * * * * *
Written and directed by Varun Chawla, For Hire is a 24-minute film set in Mumbai. Munna (Ganshyam Lalsa) is a taxi driver who is having trouble making ends meet. His boss offers him a chance to pick up some extra money by driving a prostitute to and from her high-end clients.

As he watches Maya (Rajashri Deshpande) in his rearview mirror, he observes how she manages to stay in character for her customers. But after seeing how Maya is treated by an abusive client, Munna realizes that he doesn't have the stomach to witness such behavior again.

What made Chawla's film so interesting to me was his use of the Yiddish song, Papirosen, as a leitmotif for a battered prostitute who must depend on the kindness of strangers. Gay audiences have grown accustomed to hearing Irwin Keller perform this song with The Kinsey Sicks. The following video was created in memory of Polish Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

* * * * * * * * *
Written by Owen Andrade, Michael Shu's Unmentionables is a sweet and sobering fantasy set in a laundromat. Sammy (Luca Rodrigues) is a young man with asthma whose sense of injustice (combined with the ability to jump into a large clothes dryer and travel back through time) allows him to intervene on behalf of Joy (Alice Wen), a single woman who is being harassed by the laundromat's obnoxious owner (Edward Rowley).

A mere five minutes in length, Unmentionables is beautifully edited, boasts a rich musical score, and showcases a promising young talent. Here's the teaser:

* * * * * * * * *
There are times when opening your heart to the possibility of a new love means letting go of an old one (especially one that keeps haunting you). In Six From Certain, Jonathan Moy and Lawrence Gan do a lovely job of helping their hero, Sean (Rane Jameson), get over his doubts about embarking on a new relationship. With strong supporting performances from Bryony Grace, Amanda Mendoza, and Jason Peter Kennedy,  Six From Certain has a rare grace and simplicity. You can watch this short in its entirety in the following clip:

* * * * * * * * *
Finally, there is Two For Departure, one of my favorite short films from this year's festival. Written by Kevin Chatupompitak and directed by Hyun-Jae Lee, the film begins as a female tourist  (Ferya Miraki) heads for the famous bridge over the Khwae Yai River, determined to jump to her death. As she starts to climb up on the rail, she notices something in her peripheral vision and is shocked to see a Thai man (Nattapol Nillapoom) who is also about to commit suicide by jumping from the bridge. The shock of being caught (coupled with the shame of trying to commit suicide) cause both of them to abandon their plan to jump from the bridge.

Over the next few days, each time the woman tries to commit suicide using a different technique (hanging, using a plastic bag for self-asphyxiation, etc.) she discovers the man trying to do the exact same thing. Finally, they reach out to each other and embrace life, instead.

Ferya Miraki in Two For Departure

It's not easy to mock suicidal impulses, but Two For Departure rises to the occasion with an odd combination of wit and compassion. Believe me, that's easier said than done!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Family Ties

The bonds of family are extremely strong in most Asian-American households. So it should be no surprise that many short films screened during CAAMFest offer unique perspectives on family relations.  Three shorts stand out among this year's crop.

Many people can point to an aunt or uncle who was always a bit odd, or danced to a different drummer. But for filmmaker Samantha Chan, the mystery of her 100-year-old great aunt's extensive film career was a mystery that needed to be solved.

Jane Chung dressed as an extra on the set of Hello, Dolly!

Many people may have noticed Jane Chung's cameo appearances in When Harry Met Sally, Chinatown, and The Birds. But as Chan documents in More Than a Face in the Crowd, her great aunt's screen career (which began at a time when acting was often equated with prostitution) led to roles in more than 50 films and several television series.

Jane and Walter Chung in the 1940s with
their two children, Sue Fawn and Joaquin

At a time when many Asian-Americans faced discrimination in the film industry, Jane Chung managed to keep getting bit roles and opportunities to appear as an extra in crowd scenes. Although a great deal of her work is uncredited, her face appears in episodes of M*A*S*H and I Love Lucy. In the following picture, taken in 2002, Jane posed for an ad for Ricoh.

Jane Chung posing for a photographer

Samantha Chan's loving video portrait of her great aunt is a touching tribute to a woman who loved to act, even toward the end of her life as she began to suffer from dementia. Chan's short is a rare treat.

* * * * * * * * *
Jocelyn Saddi-Lenhardt's short entitled Mother and Child depicts a young Filipina woman living in Los Angeles who must suddenly prepare for the return of her traditional husband. While the film tries to show the emotional facades that the woman and her son rely on to get them through their daily lives, it also hints at the mystery of the husband who is always expected to return (but probably never will).

Short and tight, Mother and Child often feels like a ghost story. In the following clip, the filmmaker discusses what led to the creation of her poignant short film:

* * * * * * * * *
Last, but by no means least, is a beautifully animated short by Michelle Ikemoto that was inspired by her grandmother's experience in one of the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. Ikemoto's well-plotted story speaks for itself.

The story takes place in the winter of 1943, after martial law had been imposed on the residents of the Tule Lake Camp. The following black-and-white animatic allows you to hear Jong Kim's beautiful original score:

The following trailer allows you to see how gorgeous the final rendering looks in color:

Monday, March 18, 2013

No Good Dead Goes Unpunished

It's no secret that some people respond to power as they would to an aphrodisiac. Whether they prefer to wield power over others or submit to it on command, power can have an intoxicating effect on a person's libido.

The same could be said for celebrity. Whether one actively seeks to be in the company of fame and fortune or hopes to bask in its reflected glory, there is an inherent understanding that one either possesses more or less ├ęclat than another person. Things are rarely on an equal footing.

Some people operate under the mistaken belief that, by being near someone who is rich and famous, a star's magical powers of wealth and celebrity will rub off on them. Unfortunately, the only time anything rubs off on them is during masturbatory sessions that involve the eruption of bodily fluids onto an eager sycophant (I tip my hat to Louis Virtel who recently coined the drag name Olympia Bukkakes).

In his 1979 masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Stephen Sondheim gave his vengeful barber the following lyrics:
"There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it
And its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit
And it goes by the name of London.
At the top of the hole sit the privileged few
Making mock of the vermin in the lower zoo
Turning beauty to filth and greed I, too,
Have sailed the world and seen its wonders,
For the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru
But there's no place like London!"
Such bitter words could easily be used to describe the audition process or such reality television programs as Survivor, Fear Factor, and The Apprentice. After a while, some people simply accept as a given the necessity of rudeness as a means of getting what they want, making others do what they want, or polishing their expertise at instilling highly unprofessional levels of toxicity into the lives of their victims.

Is it surprising that programs like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or the political platform of the Republican Party approach life from a position of white privilege? I think not. Three recent dramas helped to confirm my feelings.

* * * * * * * * *
Early in one of Joyce Wu's short films at the 2013 CAAMFest, there is a scene in which a film director is trying to coach a group of women who supposedly work in a massage parlor.  To make their acting seem more realistic, he encourages them to "try screaming in Asian."

Later, Wu's protagonist, Sophie, enters an audition room and extends her hand toward one of the casting agents as a gesture of goodwill. "I don't shake hands," replies the woman. In the following clip, Wu explains some of the reasons she hopes to transform Screaming in Asian from a bitter comedy short into a full-length feature.

* * * * * * * * *
Gregory Bonsignore and John Petaja try to demonstrate the challenges facing three brown men (played by Parvesh Cheena, Rizwan Manji, and Guru Singh) who try to sell their funny creative ideas to a video producer in their dark and sarcastic short entitled ".....Or Die."  Most of the comedy takes place in a conference room as they try to pitch story ideas to a white producer who can only envision a script in which they are portraying taxi drivers or terrorists.

Bryan Callen is a clueless producer in "...Or Die."

It's no surprise that this 14-minute short is based on true experiences. However, I was delighted to see the talented Bryan Callen (who many remember for his role on MADtv in Cabana Chat with Dixie Wetsworth) as the producer of a YouTube video series desperate for a multicultural comedy hit that could go viral. Here are some favorite clips of Callen as an idiotic pool boy.

* * * * * * * * *
Backstage dramas are usually filled with gossip and backstabbing. During the 1990s, two of my guilty pleasures were a cable show called Beggars and Choosers (which took place in the executive offices of a fictional television network) and 1994's  Swimming With Sharks, which stars Kevin Spacey as a supremely arrogant Hollywood executive and Frank Whaley as the executive assistant who exacts a terrifying revenge for Buddy Ackerman's sadistic behavior.

After being employed for several years by The Weinstein Company, Leslye Headland wrote a bitter, angry one-act play about the executive assistants and glorified go-fers whose stressed-out lives are dominated by insufferable bosses like Harvey Weinstein.  As she recalls, "When I saw The Devil Wears Prada, I was still an assistant. Everyone in the theater was laughing while I was having a panic attack."

While not specific to the entertainment industry, Headland's [never seen onstage] demon is modeled after such notoriously selfish and demanding bosses as Donald Trump and Anna Wintour.

First produced off-Broadway in 2008, Assistance is currently being developed for NBC as a pilot. OpenTab's shrill and highly stressful production introduces audiences to six executive assistants whose souls are being shredded and lives destroyed as they try to cater to the irrational whims and mercurial demands of the boss from hell.  As directed by Ben Euphrat, Daniel's subordinates/slaves include
  • Vince (Daniel Bakken), the lucky man who, at the beginning of the play, is leaving Daniel's sphere of influence and being promoted to a job across the hall.
  • Nick (Tristan Rholl), an ass-kissing office worker with low self esteem who has become quite skilled at manipulating people to meet his boss's needs.
  • Nora (Melissa Keith), a young woman who has idolized Daniel for years and dreamed of working for him. After starting off in a state of shock and awe, she is transformed into the kind of emotional monster for whom everything is a matter of life or death.
  • Heather (Tiffany Heggebo), a young woman who took a job working for Daniel in part because she thought it would make her parents happy.
  • Jenny (Michelle Drexler), a young British woman for whom doing Daniel's bidding is nothing more than a job.
  • Justin (Nathan Tucker), the pathetic intern who got a promotion, is prone to hysterics, suffered an injury when Daniel slammed a car door on his foot, and has evolved into an evil control freak.
Throughout Headland's 90-minute play, phones keep ringing at an ear-shattering volume, the actors keep screaming while talking over each other's voices into their headsets, and Euphrat builds the kind of war-room atmosphere that would appeal to people who like the sound of chalk scratching on a blackboard, enjoy suffering through the pain of an infected root canal, and loved Jeremy Piven's angry meltdowns on Entourage. As Headland sees things:
"Daniel [the boss] wasn't always Daniel. He must have assisted somebody, learned that behavior from someone, or been put in some sort of situation that developed that idea. There's a reason there's a line in the beginning where Vince says, "I hate girls, they're so stressful." What I meant by that joke, and what I also mean by showing Nora's collapse under the stress of the job, is that sometimes women are just so much more emotionally in tune to what's going on."
I can't for the life of me understand why someone would have brought two 10-year-olds to the performance I attended (the kids sat in front of me and didn't seem to mind the nonstop screaming and cursing). And I tip my hat to the actors for not losing their concentration when, during an exceptionally tense moment, a woman rose from the audience and crossed the stage en route to the ladies' room.

Assistance asks audiences to not just think about why people are willing to compromise their sanity in order to be near someone the public perceives to be wildly successful but why such people keep coming back for more and more abuse. Perhaps their behavior is best summed up by Hysterium, the beloved slave of slaves in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum who boasts that "I live to grovel."

The following clip offers a glimpse into some of Daniel's battered assistants before the going gets tough and the shit hits the fan: