Wednesday, July 17, 2013

She Who Laughs Last

Is your glass half empty or half full? Do you react positively or negatively to change? In Akira Kurosawa's 1950 masterpiece, Rashoman, viewers were challenged to witness a story through the eyes of several characters (each of whom offered up a different version of what happened).

South Pacific's Nellie Forbush liked to refer to herself as "a cockeyed optimist." During its Boston tryout, one of the songs cut from Jerry Herman's 1969 musical, Dear World, had been written for Angela Lansbury's entrance as the Countess Aurelia (the Madwoman of Chaillot).  "Through the Bottom of a Glass" was intended to inform the audience how much better life can seem when viewed from a more romantic perspective.

Anyone who has been fitted for new eyeglasses knows the feeling of looking through a series of lenses until the correct diopter settings can be determined. Looking at a revered musical number from a different perspective can have an equally dramatic impact on interpretation.  Consider these two performances of the Act I finale from Stephen Sondheim's beloved 1973 musical, A Little Night Music.

Whether taken from real life or works of fiction, certain phrases have a way of creeping into the vernacular.  "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape" sounds takes on a very different meaning when spoken by a woman instead of Charlton Heston (in 1968's Planet of the Apes). Uttered by Clint Eastwood in 1983's Sudden Impact, "Go ahead, make my day" has since been used as a macho calling card in numerous situations. In 1971's Dirty Harry, Eastwood uttered the following famous lines:
"I know what you're thinking. 'Did he fire six shots or only five?' Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"
Such sentiments take on a ghoulish tone when applied to the recent trial of George Zimmerman, who famously complained that "These assholes, they always get away." What happens when such sentiments are voiced by women? The following four clips show how remarkably different interpretations can be drawn from the words and lyrics to one song ("Cell Block Tango") from Kander and Ebb's 1975 hit musical, Chicago.

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In June, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (which goes into full swing this weekend) held a mini-fest of silent films by Alfred Hitchcock at the Castro Theatre that opened with a screening of 1929's Blackmail accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. First released in Britain as a talkie, then released as a silent film (which did better business at the box office), the film is a Hitchcockian delight.

The plot centers around Alice White (Anny Ondra), whose boyfriend Frank Webber (John Longden) is a detective for Scotland Yard. One night, he takes her for a date to a tea house where they get into an argument. After Frank leaves, an artist (Cyril Ritchard) invites Alice up to his studio. When Crewe forces himself on Alice and tries to rape her, she stabs him to death with a bread knife.

I've always had a fondness for Ritchard (whom I saw onstage in Friedrich Durrenmatt's 1962 play, Romulus, and Anthony Newley's 1964 musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd). Most people remember him for his performances opposite Mary Martin in Peter Pan. Known for his crisp diction, these three clips give a sampling of this beloved Australian actor's talents.

Whoops, I got distracted from the damsel in distress who killed a rapist with his own cutlery. But I'm not the only one who gets distracted in Blackmail. In this famous cameo shot, young Jacque Carter tries to distract Hitchcock from the book he's reading on a subway train in London.

Young Jacque Carter tries to distract Alfred Hitchcock from
his book while riding on a subway train in 1929's Blackmail

So far, there's a dead artist, a woman trying to cover her tracks, and a confused and angry detective. Enter Tracy (Donald Calthrop), the model who posed for Crewe's painting of a clown and saw Alice going up to the artist's studio on the night he was slain. When Tracy tries to blackmail Frank by showing him one of the gloves Alice left behind, his plan backfires.  Why? Upon inspecting the crime scene, Frank had already pocketed the other glove and knows that his wife is guilty of murder.

Fortunately for Alice, the fact that Tracy has a criminal record causes him to panic when the police arrive and he starts to run. This famous sequence follows him to his unfortunate death at the British Museum.

Alice is just about to confess to murdering Crewe when word comes to police headquarters that their suspect (Tracy) is dead. This leaves Alice free to continue her life.

As George Zimmerman would say, "They always get away."

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You won't find any dead bodies in the world premiere production of Pitch Perfect, a new comedy by Martin Edwards being presented by Central Works. But that doesn't mean that each of the play's characters wouldn't like to break someone's neck.

Brian Trybom is Bob in Pitch Perfect (Photo by: Jim Norrena)
  • Bob (Brian Trybom) is a frustrated, angry advertising executive who has just arrived on a flight from New York for the express purpose of firing the Los Angeles office's creative director (who has done a spectacular job of fucking things up). Not only has Roger lost three major clients, he's the kind of eccentric and egomaniacal genius who, though he could drive anyone crazy, always finds a spot for his talents somewhere in the advertising world.
  • Caitlin (Maggie Mason) is what's left of the Los Angeles office's staff. Acting as receptionist, janitor, go-fer, and office slave while secretly carrying on a torrid affair with Roger, she's the only one in the company who actually studied advertising in school.
  • Roger (Timothy Redmond) is a total mess. Estranged from his wife (whom he refers to as "that dragon cunt") and sleeping in the cozy security of the couch fort he built in his office, it would appear that his head is on the company's chopping block. But Roger has a great marketing idea ("Freedom! Mobile! Everywhere!") up his sleeve and a college frat buddy (strategically positioned at Pear Computer) who could actually save the day. Roger likes to think of his latest brainstorm as a new "Pear-A-Dime" (paradigm).
  • Maggie (Deb Fink) is Roger's wife and former business partner. Still waiting for her husband to sign their divorce papers (and wise to all of his tricks), Maggie would happily kill Roger if that didn't mean losing out on a chance to snag the Pear Computer account. If anyone can prove that karma is a bitch, Maggie's the one who can rise to the occasion.
Deb Fink is Maggie in Pitch Perfect (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

In his "Note from the Writer" that appears in the program, Edwards has written "A Step By Step Guide For Getting Fired From an Ad Agency. A True Story:"
  1. Do great work. Arrive early. Stay late. Work your ass off and create a brilliant concept for BellSouth that makes the client cry with joy.
  2. Bathe in the glory. High fives in hallway. A champagne party in your honor. A writeup in Adweek.  You deserve it all.  Is it the champagne or your bulging ego that's going to your head?
  3. Reinvent your position. Suddenly, your desk feels small.  Your title insignificant.  No problem. Just make it all bigger. Yesterday you were a studio artist. Today you're an executive producer.
  4. Demand more money. You know what you're worth. Fight for it. Call your boss at home and argue for two hours over your rate. "$200 an hour?! Are you fucking kidding me?"
  5. Arrive late. Leave early. You're invaluable. You know it and you don't need to prove it.
  6. Accept dinner at a fancy restaurant (to accept your inevitable promotion). Your boss invites you to Blue Ribbon in SoHo.  A pricey bottle of Pinot. Oysters. Hand speared-halibut. You are so in. Suddenly, your boss starts to cry. "Martin, I have to let you go. You've become...impossible." Fuck!
Timothy Redmond, Brian Trybom, and Debra Fink are
advertising professionals in Pitch Perfect (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Pitch Perfect keeps its language short and tersely delivered, its action hot, and its plot full of interesting twists and turns. As the playwright explains:
"I always wanted to write something about my time in advertising.  It started as a one-dimensional take-down of the industry but grew more complex as I explored the characters' strengths, weaknesses, and relationships. Every moment in the play has roots in real events. The details have been changed around, but it's inspired by real situations I lived through and real people I worked with. There's a lot of me in Roger."

Roger (Timothy Redmond) and Maggie (Deb Fink) are a bitter
husband and wife in Pitch Perfect (Photo by: Jim Norrena)
  • Will Roger manage to wow the folks at Pear Computer?
  • Will Bob be able to catch the next plane to New York?
  • Will Maggie violate her noncompete agreement or will her impeccable timing screw Roger for once and for all?
  • Will Caitlin dump Roger and sleep her way to the top?
Do Caitlin (Maggie Mason) and Bob (Brian Trybom) have plans
for a shared future in Pitch Perfect? (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Under the mischievous direction of Gary Graves, the Central Works ensemble starts off at a fighting pace and, as each character becomes increasingly unglued, must cope with one challenge after another (don't expect to see any impoverished Russian Jews singing "If I Were A Pitch Man"). Performance of Pitch Perfect continue at the Berkeley City Club through August 18 (click here to order tickets).

Poster art for Pitch Perfect

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