Monday, August 19, 2013

Impossible Dreams

While it's possible that those who aspire to less enjoy life more, I have no doubt that every generation of humanity has had its ass kicked by reality. Nature, of course, is one of the biggest villains (with powers that can truly shock and awe).

The irony, of course, is that the more chances one has to get an education, the more likely one is to embrace lofty ideals which can easily be transformed into impossible dreams.  Given a choice between a society ennobled by a code of chivalry or laid low by bubonic plague, which result should be the more obvious outcome?

Can hope and charity eliminate cynicism? Or is it better to heed the wise words of The Mikado, who told his luncheon guests that “I'm really very sorry for you all, but it's an unjust world and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances.”

I've always been fascinated by how composers and lyricists attempt to communicate the sounds and emotions of optimism. Two American composers (Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim) did a spectacular job of capturing the tenuous joy of hope and affirmation in their Broadway musicals. Listen carefully to these clips of "Make Our Garden Grow" from 1956's Candide and "Our Time" from 1981's Merrily We Roll Along and you'll hear what I'm talking about.

Those who have grown up in a data-driven world that includes computer modeling can look to science (rather than astrology, witchcraft, organized religion, or political ideology) for answers to complex questions. Andrew Leonard's poignant article on (Lego Robots Ate My Son) is a must-read for parents of budding, young nerds and geeks.

In 1989, Maxis released SimCity (subsequent spinoffs have included video games like SimEarthSimFarm, and SimLife). Thanks to the growth of the video game industry, computer-generated scenarios now form a large part of the training process for complex jobs in industries like aviation and microsurgery.

Two recent productions forced audiences to examine how more primitive cultures saw their dreams collapse under the weight of steady growth and unexpected permutations of their ideals. Each poignantly demonstrated how "the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray."

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One of the more interesting movies screened at the 2013 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was a documentary entitled American Commune that was produced and directed by Rena Mundo Croshere and her sister, Nadine Mundo. The two sisters were raised on The Farm, a commune established in Summertown, Tennessee that is often regarded as America's largest experiment with socialism. In their directors' statement, the filmmakers explain that:
"When we left The Farm with our mother and moved to Los Angeles, we were catapulted into another world. We had never smelled perfume, eaten meat, seen women with makeup or men without beards. We’d hardly watched TV. We were taunted for being 'hippie kids' and we responded by keeping everything about The Farm a secret, and doing everything we could to blend in. We became hip-hop listening teens who wouldn’t be caught dead in tie-dyes. The impetus for making American Commune was born out of our simple desire to understand where we came from. As we interviewed The Farm’s founders, our parents, and our childhood friends, we developed a greater respect for how hard everyone worked to realize their dream. In many ways we have become more connected to our parents’ original ideals through the process of making American Commune.

As young adults, we moved to New York City and started directing shows for MTV. Suddenly, we found ourselves in the heart of commercialism, working for the largest media empire in the world. In time, we became disenchanted with our work, our hectic city lifestyle, and started to question where we came from. We had vivid childhood memories of the commune, but no concrete knowledge about why it was started, how it worked and why it fell apart. We wanted to understand what our parents were doing in the backwoods of Tennessee and how they, along with hundreds of others, managed to create a massive alternative society out of no more than passion and an empty spot of land. After a lifetime of hiding, we are very proud and grateful that we came from The Farm. This film is our testament to that."

The Farm began with the best of intentions:
  • Led by their spiritual teacher, Stephen Gaskin, The Farm was founded in 1970 by 300 young idealists who left San Francisco to start a new life in the backwoods of Tennessee.
  • In order to help save the world from its own greed, members of the commune renounced their material possessions, took a vow of poverty, and willingly contributed their life savings to the common good.
  • Members lived in large communal households where all assets were shared, people grew their own food, delivered their babies at home, and succeeded in building a self-sufficient society. 
  • Because members of The Farm were intent on creating stable families, sleeping around and divorce were forbidden. 
  • Meat, alcohol, violence, makeup and jewelry were also forbidden. 
  • By the early 1980s, The Farm's 1,500 permanent members were living in more than 60 communal households. The Farm had its own state-certified school, farm, soy dairy, book publishing company, medical clinic and international humanitarian organization (now known as Plenty International). 
Three girls riding on a horse at The Farm

While The Farm may have provided the vision for many of today's progressive movements (organic farming, vegetarianism, natural childbirth, and solar power), its success eventually became unsustainable.
  • The Farm doubled in size, hosting up to 10,000 visitors a year.
  • Many women came to have their babies delivered for free by The Farm's midwives.
  • Intrigued by the promise of a utopian society, more and more idealists started to arrive at The Farm expecting to be taken care of (despite the fact that the commune lacked sufficient cash flow to meet everyone's basic needs).
  • The FBI (who suspected Farm members were raising marijuana) raided the commune but only found fields of ragweed and melons instead.

By 1985, The Farm had begun to buckle under the financial strain of trying to care for too many people with insufficient resources.
  • The Board of Directors ousted The Farm's spiritual leader, Stephen Gaskin, ruled that The Farm would de-collectivize, and insisted that members find paid work outside The Farm and pay dues if they wanted to remain on the commune's land. This dramatic shift in the social structure forced hundreds of families to leave The Farm in a mass exodus.
  • The Farm’s bank loans were renegotiated at a higher rate. 

Watching American Commune is a curious experience as one learns how the ideals espoused by members of The Farm were subverted by its growth and how its members struggled to assimilate into the contemporary culture they had worked so hard to avoid. Here's the trailer:

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Ever since astronauts began to orbit the earth, the one lesson they all claimed to learn from their experience is that when one views our planet from outer space, there are no political borders. According to legend, that same lesson was taught to the young King Arthur by his mentor, Merlyn the magician, who transformed the lad into a hawk so he could soar above the land and appreciate life from a bird's eye point of view.

In his magnificent photo essay in The New York Times, author/filmmaker Michael Benson uses satellite images and data gathered by NASA to show how man-made environmental pollution is taking its toll on the earth's atmosphere. It's well worth your time to read and view the videos contained in Gorgeous Glimpses of Calamity

And what about King Arthur and the fabled knights of the round table? If ever a Broadway-bound musical suffered through a torturous out-of-town tryout, 1960's Camelot provided the greatest hope on paper and the biggest mess onstage.

Following the Broadway premiere on December 3, 1960, Hart and Lerner kept making revisions to the script. By the time I saw the original production of Camelot late in its run (at an October 1962 Saturday matinee during the Cuban missile crisis with a cast headed by William Squire, Kathryn Grayson, Robert Peterson, and Arthur Treacher), I couldn't imagine why people kept singing its praises.

Oliver Smith's resplendent sets and Adrian's costumes were most impressive. Fritz Loewe's score had some magical moments. But the book remained a plodding, clumsy affair.

In Terrence McNally's 1975 comedy, The Ritz, Puerto Rican spitfire, Googie Gomez, minced no words as she informed one of the bathhouse's clients "I was in a production of Camelot once -- dat show is a piece of chit!"

And yet, because of its idealism and some of its musical numbers, Lerner & Loewe's lumbering show continues to exert a strange appeal on audiences. The San Francisco Playhouse is currently presenting Camelot in a stripped-down production with reduced orchestrations and a unique change of period.

Nina Ball's revolving set provides various perspectives of Arthur's castle while Micah J. Stieglitz's video contributions add a magical touch to the scenes in which Nimue (Julia Belanoff) exerts her magical pull on Merlyn. In an effort to make Camelot more appealing to audiences aching for some fight scenes, Bill English has attempted to ratchet up the testosterone levels of Camelot's men.

Lancelot (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) and Sir Dinadan (Rudy Guerrero)
come to blows in Camelot (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
Mordred (Paris Hunter Paul) with the knights of the round table
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

That pretty much leaves Johnny Moreno (as King Arthur) and Charles Dean (doubling as Merlyn and King Pellinore) as the only men with any intellectual prowess. Coupled with the show's reduced orchestrations (Dave Dobrusky served as music director), one became acutely aware of how much the original production of Camelot relied on its visual splendor and the score's lush orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang to charm audiences.

The key conflict in Camelot is a philosophical one: How can the pseudo-intellectual Arthur take vengeance on his wife, Guinevere (Monique Hafen) and her lover, Lancelot when they are the two people he loves the most? Whether or not Camelot's original audiences were willing or able to deal with such radical expressions of  polyamory is beside the point. It's obvious that Arthur doesn't want to inflict harm on Guinevere or Lancelot knowing that they, too, are suffering for having betrayed his love.

Monique Hafen as Guinevere (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

What struck me most about the San Francisco Playhouse's staging of Camelot was how much a stripped-down production and reduced orchestrations expose the weaknesses in the show's script. It's a very strange experience to leave any performance of a classic Broadway musical pining for the show's original orchestrations. Here's the trailer:

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