Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Putting Lipstick On A Pig

It's fairly common knowledge that you should never try to put teach a pig to sing. Why not? It won't work and it's likely to anger the pig. Of course, that's never stopped anyone from trying to put lipstick on a pig and send it out onstage before a national audience. Sometimes the talent can deliver in a crisis.

Alas, sometimes the "talent" just can't do the job right, don'tcha know!

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Ever since the death of Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) on March 7, 1988, there has been a painful gap in the cinematic genre known as outrageous white trailer trash farce. Some have tried to fill the gap (Mangus!) but few filmmakers have captured that extra special "je ne sais quoi" that was launched when John Waters started working with Divine and continued through to Paul Bartel's 1985 rip-roaring satire of Westerns entitled Lust in the Dust.

During last year's Frameline Film Festival, I had a chance to watch Love and Anger, the hilarious 17-minute short written by Brian Benson and Michael Phillis that starred Cousin Wonderlette and Lady Bear, two larger-than-life drag personalities who dominate the silver screen in ways previously unimaginable. This year's San Francisco Underground Short Film Festival features another 17-minute short featuring Cousin Wonderlette (whose drag mother refers to her as "chronic obesity Barbie") and her talented gang of friends: L. Ron HubbyLoretta HintzSusan MonsonBettina Devin, and "failed actress" Martha T. Lipton.

Cousin Wonderlette, "The," Luis, and Chuck "Zits" Schmitz
take an acting class with failed actor, Martha T. Lipton

In You're An Idiot! Cousin Wonderlette continues to pursue her dream of an acting career. After taking money from her mother's wallet, she heads down to Martha's Acting Academy (located in a kung fu studio) where she joins forces with Chuck "Zits" Schmitz', Luis the hunky Latino stud (Jason Topete), and an aspiring actress who goes by the name of "The." Inspired by Martha Lipton's suggestion that they all enter the 2012 Tiara Sensation Pageant, Cousin Wonderlette and her colleagues try to follow their dream. Here are some stills from Brian Benson's hilarious new short:

Brian Benson as Cousin Wonderlette

Chuck "Zits" Schmitz

Jason Topete with Cousin Wonderlette

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Artists are frequently advised to follow their dreams. Sometimes they should try to follow their own advice. Composer/lyricist Paul Gordon notes that "The Importance of Being Earnest is a perfect play. It doesn't need music and it never will."

He should have stopped right there.

When I attended a reading of Being Earnest during the 2012 TheaterWorks New Works Festival it was painfully obvious that the show needed a tremendous amount of work. The 500-pound gorilla in the room which nobody would discuss during the post-performance talkback was WHY anyone thought it was a good idea to update Oscar Wilde's 1895 classic to the 1960s.

Mindy Lym, Hayden Tee, Euan Morton, and Riley Krull in
Being Earnest (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

There was talk about the fashion revolution taking place on Carnaby Street, the cool costumes (designed by Fumiko Bielefeldt) the actors could wear, and how the music (by Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska) might reflect the sounds of the 1960s. But there was no compelling reason to update the play. As Gordon recalls:
"We felt that, with the right score, it could make a fun musical for those of us who love musicals. It already has one of the funniest books to a musical ever written.  The early 60s presented a wonderful opportunity to show just how much English society had not changed from the Victorian era of Oscar Wilde.  Also, the early 60s are fun. The colors, the music, the fashion.  It allowed us the chance to musicalize the play in a way we couldn't have if we'd stayed in the 19th century. The challenge would be to create a score that in some way could mesh with the tone of the play."
That challenge was not met. Instead, the world premiere production of Being Earnest is most notable for its anemic stage presence (one often wonders if it would be wise to check for a pulse). Despite Joe Ragey's set design (which projects plenty of clip art onto upstage screens) and Robert Kelley's direction, the show just isn't very exciting.

Cecily (Riley Krull) and Gwendolen (Mindy Lym) in Being Earnest
Photo by: Tracy Martin

The polite tedium which casts a very British pall over the audience is certainly not the fault of the cast -- Euan Morton (Algernon Moncrieff), Hayden Tee (Jack Worthing), Riley Krull (Cecily), Mindy Lym (Gwendolen), and Diana Torres Koss (Miss Prism)  -- who do their best with the material they've been given to perform. Mr. Morton, in particular, has a lovely voice and an engaging stage presence.

Most of the Gordon/Gruska score seems oddly mechanical (as if it had been programmed in a synthesizer), with "Brothers" being reprised enough times to become genuinely annoying. All I can say is thank God for Maureen McVerry, whose Lady Bracknell lights up the stage in ways that are otherwise sorely lacking.

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