Saturday, June 8, 2013

Theatre of the Autoimmune System

Have you noticed the recent surge in the newsworthiness of pirates? Some 35 years after Pirates of the Caribbean debuted as a new ride in Disneyland, everyone loves to celebrate September 19th as International Talk Like A Pirate Day. There have been numerous revivals and touring productions of 1954's musical adaptation of Peter Pan as well as a 1991 film entitled Hook (in which Dustin Hoffman was cast as Captain Hook).

The casting of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl brought a wave of pirate costumes back into fashion. One of the most direct influences can be seen in Opera Australia's 2006 production of Gilbert & Sullivan's popular operetta, The Pirates of Penzance. Here's Anthony Warlow (currently appearing as Daddy Warbucks in the Broadway revival of Annie) explaining what it means to be a Pirate King.

While producers have been doubling down on pirate shows, investors have not always been rewarded in gold doubloons. 1995's disastrous release of Cutthroat Island (in which Geena Davis starred as a female pirate named Morgan Adams) was followed by 2007's musical fiasco, The Pirate Queen, in which Stephanie J. Block starred as 16th century Irish chieftain and folk hero, Grace O'Malley.

Of course, there are still those nasty Somali pirates to deal with.  But at least nobody's talking about scurvy anymore. Why not?  Medical research long ago discovered that scurvy was caused by a vitamin C deficiency that could easily be addressed with the routine ingestion of fresh fruit.

Diseases have often provided great plot twists for stage and screen.
It's taken years for some medical problems to be treated as clinical diseases rather than mere expressions of behavioral weakness.
Without doubt, some plays have dealt with diseases and social issues that represent once unimaginable challenges.
  • In 1978, Brian Clark's drama, Whose Life Is It Anyway? focused on a sculptor who had been paralyzed from the neck down as a result of motor vehicle accident. Although the protagonist has been portrayed as both a man and a woman, Clark's play forces audiences to confront a patient's desire to end a life that has been crippled by quadriplegia by embracing euthanasia.
  • In 1985, a new play about the AIDS crisis entitled As Is (written by William M. Hoffman) premiered off Broadway and subsequently moved uptown.
  • That same year, The Normal Heart (written by Larry Kramer) became one of the most controversial AIDS plays ever written.

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The recent revival of The Normal Heart brought back a great deal of the fear and anger that swept through the gay community as healthy men developed purple rashes from Kaposi's sarcoma, were admitted to the hospital with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, and died at an early age. Many people who were alive at the time are no longer with us; those who are left often feel like survivors of a pandemic.

Written, directed, and produced by Chris Mason Johnson, a new film set in San Francisco in 1985 follows Frankie, a young man in a contemporary dance ensemble, whose circle of friends are starting to respond to the onslaught of the new gay plague. In this video clip from the film's Kickstarter campaign, Johnson outlines his artistic vision and his reasons for making the film:

Test has multiple meanings in Johnson's narrative. It involves the search for a test for HIV (which was not yet fully understood); the test of one's discipline is sticking to safe sex practices, and the test of one's emotional fortitude in the face of an intensely personal reign of terror. The movie has obvious appeal to a variety of audiences.  
  • Gay men, in particular, will find the narrative of particular interest -- older gay men recognizing moments they might have lived through (and wished they could forget) while younger gay men get a glimpse at what gay life was like before the Internet, circuit parties, and gay marriage.
  • Those with an interest in popular culture will enjoy many of the visual cues such as personal Walkmans, San Francisco's historic trolleys, and the beauty of the city that persists to this very day.
  • Dance fans won't want to miss Sidra Bell's choreography (to original music by Ceiri Torjussen), which highlights the sensuality and masculine beauty of a dancer's physique while providing a knowing, behind-the-scenes look at what life upon the supposedly wicked stage is really like. The following clip includes some of the film's dance highlights.

Three decades after the onset of the AIDS crisis, Johnson's film challenges audiences to see whether they have achieved enough emotional distance to accept Frankie's story as a simple narrative or whether the pain still cuts too close for comfort. Test will be screened at the Castro Theatre on Saturday, June 29 at 6:00 p.m. (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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Back in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the confidentiality of clinical testing was a major source of paranoia as fear spread about people's privacy being compromised. With the current wave of paranoia following revelations about how the National Security Agency has been mining data collected from phone companies and Internet service providers, the Shotgun Players' world premiere production of Lauren Gunderson's new play, By and By, could not be a more timely event.

Michael Patrick Gaffney and Jennifer LeBlanc in
By and By (Photo by: Pak Han)

At the center of Gunderson's 70-minute dramedy is a young woman who is in perfect health. And that's exactly where the problem lies. As the play begins, 18-year-old Denise (Jennifer LeBlanc)  is justifiably angry with the single dad who raised her and made her the center of his life.  Not only is Steven (Michael Patrick Gaffney) a retired biotechnologist who once worked in a Vancouver laboratory, he's got a huge secret.

Change that. Steven HAD a huge secret until very recently. After being hit with a double whammy, Denise confronts her father with the hard-to-handle truth: "You mean I'm a clone AND I'm Canadian?" she screams.

Poster art for By and By

When faced with a furious female teenager, a scientist's attempt to act paternal and take a clinical approach to the situation can only make matters worse. Much, much worse.

Denise's biological mother was pregnant when she was killed in an automobile accident (Steven was riding in the passenger seat at the time). In his grief, Steven used his knowledge from the experiments he and his colleagues had been conducting to clone his dead wife.  Dazed and confused by his loss, he even gave the product of his experiment the same name as his recently deceased spouse.

Although Steven soon left his job and tried to disappear, word of his experiment got out. Soon, other parents who had lost children in accidents were willing to pay any price to have their dead child cloned. However, something went horribly wrong with those children, who all became ill and died by the time they were 15.

Bari Robinson and Lynne Hollander appear as parents of
cloned children who died (Photo by: Pak Han)

All except Denise, who is 18 years old and appears to be in perfectly good health.  Needless to say, inquiring minds want to know why.

As she demonstrated in Exit, Pursued By a Bear, Gunderson knows how to simultaneously mine a prickly situation for comedy and rage. Not only does the actress playing Denise get to portray an angry teenager running away from home, she also gets to portray the ghost of her mother (who, to no one's surprise, looks just like her).

Jennifer LeBlanc and Michael Patrick Gaffney in
By and By (Photo by: Heather McAlister)

Denise's sudden visit with her Aunt Amanda (Lynne Hollander) is less than helpful due to the old woman's dementia. Her poignant meeting with a cloned teenage boy (Bari Robinson) who knows that he is doomed, allows her to leave clues that will help her frantic father to track her down. As Gunderson explains:
"This play is about love -- first, second, and third. It's also about a quickly shifting society in the murky middle ground between scientific ability and public acceptance. It's about one man's accountability. And yes, it's about cloning. Cloning is coming. It's coming, it's complicated, and it's troubling. Or perhaps it's life-saving and miraculous. Or perhaps it's nothing like we expect it to be. In all cases, whatever science hands us in the coming decades, it will hand it to our hearts. It will hand it to real families and real fathers, and real friends. It will hand it to you. What breaks our hearts does not change, even as our world does. So may we be lucky enough to love who we love through it all."
Working on a beautiful unit set designed by Robert Broadfoot (with projections by Rebecca Longworth), Mina Morita has directed By and By with a superb sense of dramatic tension and comic rage. Jennifer LeBlanc gives a powerhouse performance as both the older and younger Denise, while audiences can only feel anguished for her desperate and confused father (beautifully portrayed by Michael Patrick Gaffney). Lynne Hollander and Bari Robinson appear in multiple supporting roles.

Performances of By and By continue at the Ashby Stage through June 23 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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