Saturday, September 28, 2013

Let Them Entertain You

Communication lies at the core of any live performance. The famous bond that develops between performers and their audience is often palpable. Yet, as much as they might love to be onstage, many a performer has made it clear that the reason they pursue an active private life is because "you can't take an audience home with you after the show."

In 1950, Bette Davis scored a major hit with her portrayal of Margo Channing in All About Eve. The film won six Academy Awards, including the award for Best Picture of the Year.

In 1970, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Lee Adams, and Charles Strouse adapted All About Eve for the musical stage.  The result was Applause, with Lauren Bacall taking on the role of Margo Channing and Penny Fuller stepping into Eve Harrington's ambitious shoes. However, the show's title song, led by Bonnie Franklin, was an anthem to Broadway's "gypsies" who make so many sacrifices for the sake of their careers. Here's Franklin leading the original Broadway cast in "Applause" at the 1970 Tony Awards.

Earlier this year, Lady Gaga released a music video which was also entitled "Applause" but featured a totally different song. Her bizarre costumes and makeup were ripe for parody, as the following video amply demonstrates.

Whether a performer lusts for adoration or will accept nothing less than hardcore adulation, it takes guts to get up onstage and demand an audience's undivided attention. Many an aspiring performer who failed to achieve their dreams has spent years tending to a wounded ego. No better summation of this phenomenon has ever been created than "Rose's Turn" (from 1959's Gypsy: A Musical Fable). In the following two clips, Patti LuPone and Bette Midler have at it:

Among Stephen Sondheim's great lyrics for Gypsy was Rose's claim that "Some people got it and make it pay, some people can't even give it away!  You either have it -- or you've had it!" By an odd coincidence two men appeared on San Francisco stages this month that were separated by two city blocks, tons of money, and decades of performing experience. One was a veteran song and dance man who had just realized that he was celebrating 55 years in show business. The other was a neophyte with a questionable future as an entertainer.

* * * * * * * * *
Down at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, Jeff England was attempting to entertain audiences in the EXIT Theatre with his one-man show entitled Tale Me Another. England became interested in improvisational work in 2004 and decided to use his skills as a writer, guitar player, singer, and beat box artist to help bring a smile to people's faces. Sometimes his work hits its mark, often it does not.

While teaching English to Chinese schoolchildren in Taipei, Jeff learned the hard way that certain symbols can have different meanings in different cultures (a simple gesture which might mean one thing in America translates into "that person is dead" in Taiwan). His description of what it felt like to learn that, on his first day at work, many of the children's parents were watching on closed circuit television from another room at the school is as amusing as his explanation of finding a way to keep the class's attention with an extremely morbid "Puppy Song."

Eventually, Jeff started getting more and more private gigs as the children's parents booked him for parties. However, the basic problem with Tale Me Another is that although Mr. English has a certain kind of nebbishy appeal, he rarely generates the kind of electricity that crosses over the footlights. Whether he lacks confidence as a performer or is too focused on his sound equipment, finding enough material to fill 60 minutes proved to be a real challenge for him.

* * * * * * * * *
Closer to Union Square, Tommy Tune brought his amiable "Taps, Tunes, and Tall Tales" nightclub act to Feinstein's at the Nikko with his musical director of 37 years, Michael Biagi, at the piano and Carol Channing in the opening night audience.

At 74, the native of Wichita Falls, Texas, has achieved what most performers can only dream about: a career marked by its versatility and longevity. Working as a singer, dancer, stage director, and choreographer, Tune has won nine Tony Awards as well as the National Medal of Arts. I first saw him perform in 1965's Baker Street. followed by his appearances in 1967's How Now, Dow Jones and 1983's My One and Only.

In addition to appearing with John Raitt in 1966's A Joyful Noise and Michelle Lee in 1973's Seesaw, Tune diversified his artistic portfolio by choreographing and/or directing The Club (1976), Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1978), A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine (1980), Cloud Nine (1981), Nine (1982), Stepping Out (1987), Grand Hotel (1989), The Will Rogers Follies (1991), The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public (1994), Busker Alley (1994), Dr. Doolittle (2006), and Turn of the Century (2008).

Guest appearances on The Dean Martin Show, The Golddiggers, and Arrested Development add to his film credits for Hello, Dolly! (1969) and The Boy Friend (1971). Tune has toured with Ann Reinking in Bye Bye Birdie and starred in EFX at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. His memoir, Footnotes, could probably give some stiff competition to Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

During his show at Feinstein's, Tune did a superb job of using the lyrics of familiar songs ("I’m Leavin’ Texas," "You Gotta Have Heart," "September Song," "Ev’rytime We Say Goodbye") to highlight key moments in his career. Describing the pain of ending a long-term relationship with another man, he gave new meaning to "I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face."

Whether reminiscing about touring with Ann Reinking ("Rosie"), or performing with the great Charles "Honi" Coles in My One and Only ("Very Soft Shoes"), Tune's delight in sharing his talent with the audience was as disarming as his renditions of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head," "Up on the Roof," and "Won't You Charleston With Me?" A Gershwin medley included "They All Laughed," "They Cant Take That Away From Me," "I Got Rhythm," and "I'll Build A Stairway to Paradise."

With a long and impressive career behind him, Tune described what it was like to rise above the loss of so many treasured mementos after Hurricane Sandy flooded his storage cellar in 2012.  In the following video, he gives sound advice to the 2011 graduating class of The Boston Conservatory.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Americana In Revival

Did you see what I saw? Did you hear what I heard? Did you feel what I felt? And if not, why not?

Questions like these can nag at a critic's mind during a performance when something seems severely out of whack. Are technical problems compromising the overall experience for the audience? Is a performer having a bad night?
There are times, however, when a show that premiered to great acclaim does not hold up as well as one might expect. Companies like 42nd Street Moon and City Center's Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert offer audiences a chance to revisit old musicals that have faded from the spotlight.

Bay area audiences currently have an opportunity to experience revivals of two celebrated works which, several decades after their world premieres, seem to have lost some of their appeal. Though handsomely produced and featuring some highly theatrical performances, something is missing at the core of each show.

What if it's something that was never really there?  Is anybody there? Does anybody care?

* * * * * * * * *
Context can explain a lot. When 1776 had its Broadway premiere on March 16, 1969, the country was deeply divided over America's involvement in the Vietnam War.
Unfortunately, Broadway's 1968-1969 season was filled with a string of disappointing musicals ranging from such big ticket items as Coco, Dear World, and Zorba to lesser ventures like The Fig Leaves Are Falling, Maggie Flynn, Her First Roman, Celebration, Come Summer, Billy, and Canterbury Tales.

In a season whose musicals included scores by Burt Bacharach, André Previn, Jerry Herman, Kander & Ebb, Albert HagueHarvey Schmidt & Tom Jones, and Ervin Drake, how did the Tony Award for Best Musical go to the show that lacked a single hit song and whose songwriter (Sherman Edwards) was primarily known for "See You In September," "Dungaree Doll," and "Wonderful Wonderful"?

My memory of the original production (which some claimed was written with the skill of Gilbert & Sullivan) was that 1776 was much more a "play with music" than a traditional Broadway musical. Perhaps because I was spending more evenings at the opera during that period, I found 1776  to be rather slight and its score (which lacked even the slightest hint of through composition) not particularly impressive.

Part of the reason for 1776's initial success (the original production ran for 1,217 performances) may be that it was a true labor of love. However, its historical context may have been equally important at a moment when people were questioning the integrity of their own government. There can be no doubt that Edward Rutledge's Act II aria, "Molasses To Rum To Slaves" touched a nerve in audiences that were living through an intense decade of the Civil Rights movement.

In an essay by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards that originally appeared in Penguin Books, the creators of 1776 pointed out that:
"Certain elements that are historically true have been left out of or removed from the play for one of three separate reasons. The first of these was the embarrassment of riches: there are just too any choice bits of information to include in one, two, or even a dozen plays. The fact that Franklin often entered the congressional chamber in a sedan chair carried by convicts, for instance. Or that, on several occasions, Indians in full regalia would appear before the Congress, petitioning for one thing or another, and accompanied by their interpreter (a full-blooded Indian who spoke with a flawless Oxford accent). What we cannot answer is how such a question ['Is it true?'] could possibly be asked so often by Americans. What they want to know is whether or not the story of their political origin, the telling of their national legend, is correct as presented. Don't they know? Haven't they ever heard it before? And if not, why not?"
Edward Rutledge (Jarrod Zimmerman) sings the provocative
"Molasses To Rum To Slaves" in 1776 (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"The authors of 1776 are both products of the American public school system (one from the West Coast, the other from the East).  Both were better than average students with a deeper-than-average curiosity about American history.  But neither of them was given any more than a perfunctory review of the major events, a roster of a few cardboard characters, and a certain number of jingoistic conclusions. It is presumptuous of us to assume that 1776 will be able to fill even a portion of this lamentable void (though doubtless no small portion of its success is due to the 'new' information it offers); the crime is that it should even have to. The United States owes its citizens, at the very least, an educational system that describes, defines, and explains our own existence."
John Adams (John Hickok) and his wife Abigail (Abby Mueller)
communicate by letter in 1776 (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

American Conservatory Theatre is currently presenting a production of 1776 that was originally directed by Frank Galati for the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida. As Galati notes:
"The story of the creation of the Declaration of Independence may be risky to tell, because it's a story we think we know. But the surprise of 1776 the musical is its scholarship, its wit and efficiency, its dramaturgical confidence and velocity. Not many musicals have been fashioned from the raw materials of history. The authors of the musical depended mostly on primary source material: letters, diaries, and journals. Onstage, 1776 is not a history lesson, but a musical play that, against all odds, became a Broadway smash hit and won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Musical, beating out both Hair and Promises, Promises."
Originally performed on Broadway in one act, the ACT/Asolo production has chosen to give its audiences the two-act version of 1776. Doing so offers audiences an opportunity to discuss the history being witnessed onstage and compare the dysfunctionality of the Second Continental Congress with that of our current representatives in Washington (some things never change).

Benjamin Franklin (Andrew Boyer) enlists the help of
Virginia's Richard Henry Lee  (Ryan Drummond)
in a scene from 1776 (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While Russell Metheny's unit set, Mara Blumenfeld's period costumes, and Kevin Kennedy's sound design do their best to make 1776 a compelling show, I still find 1776 to be an underwhelming dramatic experience. There's lots of fun character shtick (I particularly liked Ryan Drummond's work in "The Lees of Old Virginia") and "Momma, Look Sharp" still tugs at an audience's heartstrings.

Certainly, the performances by John Hickok (John Adams), Andrew Boyer (Benjamin Franklin), Jarrod Zimmerman (Edward Rutledge), Jeff Parker (John Dickinson), Abby Mueller (Abigail Adams) and Andrea Prestinario (Martha Jefferson) had strong appeal. Among the rest of the ensemble, I enjoyed the work done by Alex Shafer (Colonel Thomas McKean), Zach Kenney (the Courier), and Steve Hendrickson (Andrew McNair).

ACT's in-house publication, Words On Plays, always offers fascinating dramaturgical material related to their productions. It's worth purchasing the volume for 1776 just to read all about Richard Nixon's attempts to meddle with the show's script when 1776 was performed at the White House and during the preparation for its 1972 screen adaptation. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
What if you wrote a play whose closely-guarded secret was that a child born of incest had been buried in a farmer's back yard? To give the matter a unique twist, instead of having the father impregnate his teenage daughter, you had one of the family's sons impregnate his mother.  Sounds nifty, huh? Oedipus in Illinois!

But what if your carefully planned shocker flew right over the audience's head? What if, in the simplest terms, your script became so confusing that it suffered a failure to communicate?

That seems to be the problem I had when attending a recent performance of  Sam Shepard's play, Buried Child (which received its world premiere on June 27, 1978 from San Francisco's Magic Theatre, won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and is currently being revived as part of the company's ambitious five-year"Sheparding America" cycle). Although Loretta Greco's stage direction is almost always dramatically sound (with a rare level of emotional acuity), this was one instance where large parts of the evening didn't (or simply couldn't) fall into place for this viewer.

An extremely supportive director whose work I have long admired, I was shocked to see Greco's interpretation of Shepard's script make one character seem as if she were performing in another play (which unwittingly made the actor in question seem barely competent). But consider the emotional territory of this Midwestern family nightmare.

Buried Child is not a play about nice people. Filled with fertility symbols (from heavy rains to carrots and corn that magically start growing in fields that have long laid fallow), the action takes place on a decrepit farm that reeks of decay, desperation, and denial.
  • Corn has not been planted in its fields for at least 35 years.
  • Fuzzy memories are occasionally assigned to the wrong characters.
  • The family patriarch asks his offstage wife "Halie? Are we still in the land of the living?"
Dodge (Rod Gnapp), the family patriarch, has one foot in the grave.
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Shepard's play focuses on a severely dysfunctional family whose souls and landscape are rapidly deteriorating. Imagine Edward Albee's antagonistic George and Martha 25 years older and so exhausted from their battle-scarred marriage that all they can do is shout past each other instead of making any honest attempts at communication.
  • Dodge (Rod Gnapp) is a dying 70-year-old alcoholic clinging to whatever shreds of reality are left on his farm.
  • Halie (Denise Balthrop Cassidy) is his cheating wife who puts on airs of being a good Christian woman while lusting after the local preacher man. Halie may well be living in a dream world.
  • Tilden (James Wagner) is their eldest son, who spent some time in New Mexico but got into trouble and has returned to the family farm as a near-zombie who can barely communicate with his parents.
  • Bradley (Patrick Kelly Jones) is their middle son, an angry amputee who loves to inflict his misery on anyone who crosses his path. One of Bradley's favorite activities is sneaking up on his father and shaving Dodge's head while he's asleep.
  • Vince (Patrick Alparone) is Tilden's son, who returns to the family homestead en route to visit his father in New Mexico only to discover that neither his his father, his uncles or his grandparents can remember him.
  • Shelly (Elaina Garrity) is Vince's girlfriend who, because she is not a blood relative, is completely ignored by Vince's family.
  • Father Dewis (Lawrence Radecker) is the local do-gooder who likes to flirt with Halie but, when the shit hits the fan, quickly admits that he was never trained to deal with a litter of sick puppies like this particular family.
Denise Balthrop Cassidy, Lawrence Radecker, and Rod
Gnapp in a scene from Buried Child (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

And then there is the mysterious Ansel, the son who never makes an appearance but whose confusing legend haunts the evening much like George and Martha's invisible son (a football hero who never came in contact with pigskin). Of all her children, Ansel is the golden memory, the local basketball star whom everyone loved and in whose honor Halie is trying to get a statue built in town. The bitter truth may well be that Ansel is the slaughtered child of incest whose adult life could only have been imagined by a delusional mother.

With so many ghosts, red herrings, emotional potholes, a long history of aberrant behavior, and traces of magical realism all around, this family is a far cry from My Three Sons. In his preface to the revised edition of Buried Child, Shepard writes:
"In 1978, when we first produced Buried Child at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, I had an uneasy feeling about it. Although I was more than satisfied with the production, the actors, the set, etc., aspects of the writing still seemed awkward and unfinished. The Pulitzer Prize did not change my opinion in this regard, but by that time, I was already on to other work and had no inclination to double back. When Gary Sinise started work on the Steppenwolf production in Chicago in 1995, enough time had elapsed for me to clearly see the holes in the play. This insight was also heightened by Gary's instinct to push the characters and situation into an almost burlesque territory, which seemed suddenly right.

It became clear, for instance, that Halie's offstage voice in the opening scene went on too long and that Lois Smith (playing the part) was bringing a sharp irony and wit to it that deserved special attention. The sexual innuendos between Dodge (James Gammon) and Shelly (Kellie Overbey) needed to be more overt and less coy. But, most important, the character of Vince seemed to be hanging in the wind, without real purpose. Even though a core truth of this character is his aimlessness and passivity, there seemed to be no point in allowing him to be completely outside the play, almost in the predicament of a narrator. So I began to try to find ways to bring him around, to 'see the light' as it were, without turning him into some kind of hero or even Sherlock Holmes. Finally, the language began to settle in and take hold.  There were fewer gaps between the actors, the characters, and the words. I'm very grateful for having had the opportunity to do this work. It's now a better play."
Vince (Patrick Alparone) stands over his dying grandfather
(Rod Gnapp) in Buried Child (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Although Greco's staging of Buried Child can at times be frustrating, the production benefits from two powerful performances by Bay area stalwarts Rod Gnapp and Patrick Alparone. Performances continue through October 13 (click here to order tickets). Here's a teaser:

Monday, September 23, 2013

Trying To Put A Ring On It

For many young girls, the Disney princess phenomenon is a governing factor in their lives. A huge industry based on the fantasy of becoming (and being forever adored) as a princess has led to sizable profits for toy and clothing manufacturers. However, the foundational belief supporting these fantasies is that the Princess always gets her Prince and everyone lives happily ever after.

Carol Burnett had a huge success in 1959's hit musical, Once Upon A Mattress (which was based on the popular fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen entitled The Princess and the Pea). In the following clip, she appears as the lonely Princess Winifred, bemoaning the difficulties of progressing to the point where she can finally live "Happily Ever After."

In 1986, when Into The Woods was trying out at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics for "Agony" proved that even fairy tale princes are forced to navigate bizarre obstacles in order to win their true love.

Following this year's United States Supreme Court decision that 1996's Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, many barriers to same-sex marriage have been crumbling into dust. As more states have voted to legalize same-sex marriage, the Federal government has taken some amazing steps toward ensuring that all Federal employees enjoy the full blessings of marriage equality. In his article entitled One Great Leap Forward: Defense Department Offering Full Benefits to Same-Sex Spouses, Brian Stone wrote:
"It's almost impossible to imagine: The Department of Defense has announced that no later than September 3, 2013, same-sex spouses of military personnel will receive all the spousal benefits that different-sex military spouses receive, in addition to special leave to travel to a state where they can be legally married if the state in which they are stationed does not have marriage equality."
The Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Windsor put the final nail in the coffin of the movement to delegitimize same-sex relationships. While there should never have been any need to apologize for the marriage between Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, the love that once dared not speak its name has finally reached a point where it cannot be denied, cannot be swept under table, and cannot be trivialized. I heartily recommend Alan Shayne's moving essay, A Charmed Life, to show how this phenomenon plays out in real life.

Just as the AIDS epidemic created a new genre of literature focused on those battling a horrible disease, the increasing momentum of the marriage equality movement is paving the way for new works about gay relationships. In November, 2011, Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays, made its off-Broadway debut in the skilled hands of Craig Bierko, Mark Consuelos, Polly Draper, Harriet Harris, Beth Leavel and Richard Thomas.

* * * * * * * * *
Several months ago, Wily West Productions staged a "collage" of short plays down at the EXIT Theatre under the umbrella title of Lawfully Wedded.  Written by three San Francisco playwrights (Morgan Ludlow, Kirk Shimano & Alina Trowbridge), these plays initially seemed like a string of blackout sketches.

After Bill (Philip Goleman) and Jason (Wesley Cayabyab) decide to get married, they're forced to navigate a series of familial challenges. How can they plan a wedding when one partner has a devout Mormon mother, the couple has to cross a state line to get legally married, the proxy serving as their witness has severe identity problems depending on which state he's standing in, and one groom's younger, and extremely impulsive brother is a hopeless stoner who insists on making all the decorations himself?

Philip Coleman (Bill) and Wesley Cayabyab (Jason) in
a scene from Lawfully Wedded (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

As the evening progressed, it became obvious that these vignettes were all linked together by a curious emotional thread. As Ludlow explains:
"As I started working on the sketches, I realized that this story is not only my story (as a gay man), but the story of the ever-evolving American family. Right now we are a society fiercely divided. There’s a lot of fear and bewilderment going on and a lot of anger and resentment. But there is also a lot of bravery, fortitude, and pluck. Marriage seems to be a litmus test for our culture right now. Our opinions on marriage quickly reveal our deepest held values. And the big issue of our time is whether or not to legalize gay relationships and how that might affect families, communities, and the American culture at large." 

Farah Sanders and Heidi Wolff in a scene from
 Lawfully Wedded (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

In another branch of the family, Rosa (Fara Sanders) may be in love with Lee (Heidi Wolff), but Lee's father is a staunch traditionalist who plans to leave all of the family's assets to his other, heterosexual child (who is involved in a heteronormative marriage). When a fatal motorcycle accident and some unresolved insurance issues complicate matters, his family is forced to face up to who had the stronger relationship -- the straight couple who shared a shared drug addiction or the interracial relationship between two loving lesbians.

As directed by Wesley Cayabyab (who is also a compelling actor), Lawfully Wedded's ensemble included Philip Goleman, Jason Jeremy, Kat Kneisel, Jeffrey Orth, Scott Ragle, Farah Sanders, Brian Martin, Janice Wright, & Heidi Wolff. Since all three plot lines eventually reach the critical point of examining what it means to be lawfully wedded "in sickness and in health, till death do us part," the evening takes some surprising turns. As Ludlow notes:
"We need to acknowledge that gay people (should they decide to marry) will face the same challenges as our straight brothers and sisters (maybe more) and while marriage has a universal truth, it is also an individual journey. This has been a long, difficult path. What hit me as I was madly trying to finish these sketches is the courage it takes not only LGBT people to step up and demand their equal rights but also the courage of our families, friends, and neighbors to stand up with us and demand change. I didn’t want people to stand around and pontificate about their feelings on marriage equality, or worse, subject an audience to a sermon about acceptance. I wanted someone to throw grandma’s wig in the dog bowl! I wanted people to chase each other around the room passionately with gerbils and vacuum cleaners! I wanted you to see people so in love with each other they wanted to part one another like water."

* * * * * * * * *
One of the gay films screened at this summer's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival presented a hair-raising depiction of the obstacles faced by two gay men who quickly fall in love despite the fact that they are surrounded by the kind of tribal hatred as old as the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues.

The initial set-up for Out In The Dark is simple. Two men meet in a gay bar in Tel Aviv and quickly realize that they are attracted to each other. But there are problems. Major problems:
  • Roy Schaefer (Michael Aloni) is an Israeli lawyer who is out to his parents and is trying to decide on a new career direction. Among his clients are some gangsters who have told Roy that if he ever needs a favor -- any favor -- he can always rely on them.
  • Nimr Mashrawi (Nicholas Jacob) is a Palestinian student with a promising future who dreams of studying abroad where he could escape his family's (and nation's) blatant homophobia and anti-Semitism. Because he is illegally in Tel Aviv and a Palestinian Arab staying with a Jew from a prominent Israeli family, Nimr is under surveillance by the Israeli authorities and subject to blackmail. Meanwhile, Nimr's brother, Nabil (Jameel Khouri), has been secretly running guns for an underground group of Palestinian extremists. 

Director/producer/co-writer Michael Mayer's first feature film is a tense political and romantic thriller in which two gay men struggle to protect their love from the violence and paranoia that infects their daily lives. While Nicholas Jacob and Michael Aloni are two sympathetic leads, this is the kind of love story in which even the final ray of hope is shrouded in gloom.

Poster art for Out in the Dark

In his director’s statement, Mayer writes:
"Out In The Dark, for me, is about love and about a man facing insurmountable odds on his journey to experience it. Nimr‘s relationship with Roy and with his family are the heart and soul of Out In The Dark. My ultimate goal was to push Nimr’s relationship with Roy and with his family to the foreground and to allow us to experience it in the raw. When it came time to rehearse we spent weeks with the actors, working on building character and performance, but also (and just as important) establishing a natural closeness and affinity between the actors that brings real honesty to their portrayals. We should never feel like we are watching Nimr and Roy from afar, studying them, or worse, judging them, but rather we should be immersed in their drama and their touching story.

Together with my DP, Ran Aviad, we decided to keep the camera fluid and place it as close to the actors as possible, thus creating a sense of intimacy and immediacy and avoiding a more detached style of a static and distant camera so often associated with current world cinema. We chose to keep the framing tight, not only to serve intimacy but also to create a growing sense of claustrophobia and keep our geography vague (merging Ramallah and Tel Aviv into one continuous thematic location)."
There are many moments in Out In The Dark when a viewer might find himself wishing that both men, knowing what their tiny, hate-filled world has in store for them, would simply quit while they're ahead. But, as Shakespeare wrote: "The course of true love never did run smooth."

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Service With A Snarl

It's hard to avoid the tender and occasionally tasty tentacles of the service industry. For anyone who likes to dne in restaurants, stops to have a drink at a bar, or hangs out at a cafe, service with a smile (which was once considered the norm) has increasingly become a perk.

Some people hunger for new experiences at the trendiest dining spots; others find themselves craving comfort food served to them by comforting comrades. Cheers (the popular television series that ran for 11 years) boasted a tagline that identified it as the place "where everybody knows your name." Frank Bruni's charming article in The New York Times entitled Familiarity Breeds Content captured the essence of developing an ongoing relationship with a favorite restaurant's menu and staff.

But for those who pour the drinks, deliver food to the table, and have to deal with a wide spectrum of dysfunctional behavior from people whose generosity and good will directly affect their incomes, customers are often pegged by the number of the table at which they've been seated seated or the percentage of the bill they leave behind in the form of a tip. Sometimes, as in the opening scene of 1956's hit musical, The Most Happy Fella, a simple gesture can pave the lyrical road to a complex romance.

Each September, as I attend performances at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, I'll spot a series of attractions that share an unintentional common bond. This year's theme was unmistakable: intelligent women struggling to maintain their dignity while working for tips in the service industry.

What made this year's trio of monologues so interesting was that one took place in a bar, one took place in a restaurant that was attached to a bar, and one took place in a restaurant without a bar. Each service situation offered up a variety of wounded egos, abusive working conditions, and thick-skinned damsels who were ready and able to dish out as much distress as they received from their customers.

* * * * * * * * *
Let's start with the basics: a female bartender who has kicked a nasty cocaine habit and is now trying to serve and mollify a motley group of manipulative men with various alcohol-related behavioral problems.
  • One man is an effete snob who thinks that a free round of drinks can solve everyone's problems.
  • One man is a former pugilist who's been cut off from being served alcohol at the insistence of the bar's owner, but who can't afford to lose face among his friends.
  • One man is an obnoxious Italian tourist who can't understand why a female bartender would insist on seeing a piece of identification that proves he's of legal drinking age.
  • One man is always trying to prove his machismo while telling the bartender how much he "respects" her.
  • Finally, there is the smarmy bar owner who won't hesitate to sabotage his bartender's authority as long as he can remind everyone that he owns the place and considers himself a local hero.
Jill Vice in The Tipped and the Tipsy

In her monologue, The Tipped and the Tipsy (which was honored as one of the best attractions at the 2013 San Francisco Fringe Festival), Jill Vice takes on the physical and vocal characteristics of her clientele at Happy's Bar in an impressive array of body language and vocal talent. Without using any props, she describes the never-ending power plays from customers, the pressures to keep them happy, and shares the challenge of trying to rescue the alcoholic boxer who helped her break a nasty coke habit when he, himself, can't risk having another drink.

Jill Vice in The Tipped and the Tipsy

Vice's performance is robust, her material well written, and her characters quite memorable. She earns the audience's sympathy as a tough broad trying to protect an alcoholic senior from his own worst enemy: himself.

* * * * * * * * *
Alexa Fitzpatrick, whose monologue is entitled Serving Bait to Rich People, describes what it was like to come to the sad realization that, although she had a solid background in endocrinology, she could earn more money tending bar. An avowed ski bum, she ended up in Aspen where celebrities and other wealthy tourists flocked to the expensive sushi restaurant where she tended bar.

Alexa Fitzpatrick in Serving Bait To Rich People

Aspen, however, is a small town that relies on the service industry. While some celebrities are nice to her and prove to be decent tippers, others can be astonishingly rude and cheap.

Fitzpatrick's performance style is much more like stand-up comedy. While she gets plenty of laughs, many of them come at her own expense as she describes how one's expectations are quickly diminished with more exposure to the local dating scene. She also delivers a scathing analysis of the various pick-up lines men use when trying to hit on a bartender (often to no avail).

* * * * * * * * *
There were multiplel reasons why I found Parly Girl to be the most compelling of the Fringe Festival's three monologues about women in the service industry. First and foremost was the fact that, at the performance I attended, there were barely six people in the audience (an actor's nightmare).

But Sandra Brunell Neace had quite a tale to tell. What set her monologue apart from the other two?
  • Whereas Jill Vice and Alexa Fitzpatrick are attractive women who can easily be categorized as an "actress/model/waitress," Neace's bulky frame, pouty face, and chip-on-the-shoulder attitude place her at a distinct disadvantage when serving the public.
  • Whereas Vice and Fitzpatrick's efforts were primarily focused on dealing with male customers, most of Neace's clientele were women (some with kids in strollers, some with dietary restrictions, but almost all of them with "first world" issues).
  • Whereas, because of their looks and charisma, Vice and Fitzpatrick rarely had to worry about trying to survive on minimum wage, the plainness of Neace's presentation and the pathetic cheapness of her customers proved to be a distinct disadvantage.
  • Whereas Vice and Fitzpatrick did not necessarily see their bartending work as a career obstacle, Neace had moved to New York with high hopes of becoming an actress.
  • Whereas Vice and Fitzpatrick were experienced at fending off men's sexual advances, Neace's naiveté played a critical role in her failing to understand that her boss's attempt to get her to make a porn film with him was actually his way of covering for a complete lack of social skills.

Neace helps to put a pained face on the lives of many people in the service industry who are barely scraping by while having to keep their mouths shut while trying to please wealthier people who can't stop moaning and bitching about the hardships and injustices of their daily lives. As a result, her narrative finds its dramatic strength in a much deeper level of financial despair and a growing inability to tolerate fools while keeping a smile frozen on her face.

Sandra Brunell Neace in Parly Girl

Just when Parly Girl begins to feel like a sad sack's tale of utter hopelessness and helplessness, Neace's solid writing explains how her personal vulnerability helped her to take charge of a transformative moment that rekindled her soul, reframed her ambitions, and allowed her to find a moment of grace by picking up the tab for two women who had just lost their father. It's a beautiful transition, which this talented writer/actor handles with the wisdom of a woman who has experienced far too much misery and emotional pain of her own to trivialize the aching heart of another.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Caught Off Guard

It doesn't happen often, but on those rare and blessed occasions when it does, oddball works of art give a person multiple reasons to be grateful. These are situations in which one's expectations (large or small) are completely upended. What one experiences is vastly different (and so much more inspiring) than whatever one had anticipated.
  • Sometimes someone enters a theatre with minimal expectations and is rewarded with a cornucopia of delights.
  • Sometimes one starts to watch a film and, instead of being taken on a linear narrative, is slowly seduced by an intoxicating mixture of art and realism.
  • Sometimes one is swept away by a sudden turn of dramatic events.
  • And on equally rare occasions, an oddball headline (Creative Costumes of Still-Practiced Pagan Rituals of Europe) leads to a dizzying display of visual riches beyond one's wildest imagination. In the process, one discovers the work of a fascinating photographer like Charles Frégere.
Portrait of an elephant and mahout by Charles Frégere

People often ask me questions like "What's your favorite opera?" or "What's the best show you've ever seen?" I've always found these questions to be a bit ridiculous, since they assume that all art can be measured on a scale of 1 to 100.

My reaction to any piece of art is entirely subjective.  It can be affected by all kinds of pressures ranging from weather, mood, fatigue, and stimulants to the company one keeps. However, the following two experiences are among those that I genuinely cherished this year.

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It was a hot and stuffy night. I was tired and wishing I could be lying horizontal at home instead of heading into another performance at the San Francisco Fringe Festival.  But I'm a sucker for a title like Movin' Melvin Brown: A Man, A Magic, A Music. And then it happened.

Brown is the kind of man the AARP should hire as the poster model for an ad that says "68 Years Young." A native of Cincinnati, he's an old-fashioned song and dance man who follows in a long, proud line of supertalented African American entertainers like the Nicholas Brothers, Bill "Bojangles" RobinsonSammy Davis, Jr., and Gregory Hines. A gifted impressionist who can mimic famous singers, he also has a low-voiced, three-syllable laugh that completely disarms his audiences.

Much of Brown's show has him taking the audience on a tour of the music that shaped his life from the time he started crawling out his bedroom window at age seven and sneaking into music clubs. Whether impersonating artists like Louis Armstrong or James Brown, he'll sing snatches of their songs before fading into the background so he can continue his narration.

What he enjoys even more is showing people what fun it is to dance. From tap dancing to clogging, from moonwalking to stripping down to a thong to demonstrate a pair of powerfully-trained glutes, his 90-minutes onstage delivers the kind of physical workout that would exhaust younger performers.

One could easily wonder why Brown is still touring at his age, playing any venue from a small theatre at the San Francisco Fringe Festival to some of the larger arenas seen in the above video clips. The answer is simple: It helps raise money and awareness for his foundation, the Change The World Project in Austin, Texas, which helps homeless children and elderly people. The goals of his foundation are every bit as inspiring as the performer himself.

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In 2010, I had an almost unearthly experience at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I attended a screening of an incredibly beautiful Iranian film by Mohammad Rasoulof entitled The White Meadows. In my review, I wrote:
"Rasoulof's 92-minute film grips the audience in his artistic vision from its opening moments. Even in the film's slowest passages, the audience never loses interest. This is a film of such lush visual beauty, such intense theatricality, and such powerful imagery that one exits the theater deeply moved and yet unable to articulate why. Rasoulof's ability to combine the rituals and hardships of an alien landscape with the drama of souls tortured by the inanity of their culture is an astounding achievement in cinematic art. While it would be easy to try to look for political messages in the film, one would be better served by just sitting back and enjoying a cinematic gem so dramatically captivating and visually entrancing that the experience leaves one struggling to think of another film quite like The White Meadows."

Although far less dramatic than The White Meadows, I have been equally haunted by Jem Cohen's new feature, Museum Hours, which I saw earlier this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It contains no political message, no car chases, explosions or violence. Instead, this is the kind of film that slowly and gently seduces its audience without ever pointing in the direction it is headed.

Bobby Sommer as Johann in Museum Hours

The film's two main characters start off as total strangers. Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara) has flown to Vienna from Canada to visit a dying cousin who is lying in a coma. While wandering the city, she stops into its famous Kunsthistorisches Museum where she meets Johann (Bobby Sommer), an elderly gay man who spends his days as a museum guard, observing the art as well as the building's visitors. During Anne's repeated visits to the museum, they strike up a conversation which leads to a casual friendship in which they share several meals and Johann offers to act as an interpreter between Anne and the hospital's medical staff.

Following her cousin's death, Anne returns to Canada.  As he walks down a city street toward an apartment complex, Johann muses about the power of art to mirror and alter our lives. In his director's statement, Jem Cohen writes:
"The film got its start in the Bruegel room of Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. Looking at certain paintings there, all from the 16th Century, I was particularly struck by the fact that the central focus, even the primary subject, was hard to pin down. This was clearly intentional, oddly modern (even radical), and for me, deeply resonant. One such painting (ostensibly depicting the conversion of St. Paul) has a little boy in it, standing beneath a tree. I became somewhat obsessed with him. He has little or nothing to do with the religious subject at hand but, instead of being peripheral, one's eye goes to him as much as to the saint. He's as important as anything else in the frame.

I recognized a connected sensibility I'd felt when shooting documentary street footage, which I've done for many years. On the street, if there even is such a thing as foreground and background, they're constantly changing places. Anything can rise to prominence or suddenly disappear: light, the shape of a building, a couple arguing, a rainstorm, the sound of coughing, sparrows … (And it isn't limited to the physical. The street is also made up of history, folklore, politics, economics, and a thousand fragmented narratives). In life, all of these elements are free to interweave, connect, and then go their separate ways. Films however, especially features, generally walk a much narrower, more predictable path."
"How, then, to make movies that don't tell us just where to look and what to feel? How to make films that encourage viewers to make their own connections, to think strange thoughts, to be unsure of what happens next or even 'what kind of movie this is'? How to focus equally on small details and big ideas, and to combine some of the immediacy and openness of documentary with characters and invented stories? These are the things I wanted to tangle with, using the museum as a kind of fulcrum. In making movies, I'm at least as inspired by paintings (and sculpture and books and music) as I am by cinema. Maybe this project would bring all of that together for me, a kind of culmination.

There were other important things found in museums that guided me. In the older ones that are so beautifully lit, the visitors begin to look like artworks -- each becomes the other. This transference undoes a false sense of historical remove; we stand in front of a depiction 400 or 3000 years old, and there is a mirroring that works in both directions.(This is one of the things that makes old museums sexy, an inherent eroticism which runs counter to the unfortunate, perhaps prevalent notion that they are archaic, staid and somewhat irrelevant.) The phenomenon underscores for me the way that artworks of any time speak to us of our own conditions. The walls separating the big old art museum in Vienna from the street and the lives outside are thick. We had hopes to make them porous."

Through some remarkable editing, Cohen has created a quiet masterpiece in which silence is golden, patience is rewarded with death, and a stranger's friendship becomes a blessed and welcome gift. Just as the faces in Breughel's paintings mask untold backstories, so do the faces of contemporary Viennese as they move about the city, pass through the museum, visit a flea market, or gather in a tavern. As the filmmaker explains:
"Years later, with limited resources but a small, open-minded crew and access to the museum and city in place, I began to trace a simple story. The figure best positioned to watch it all unfold (and with time on his hands to mull things over) would be a museum guard. He would preferably be played by a non-actor with a calm voice who understood odd jobs. I found him in Bobby Sommer. Almost 25 years ago, I saw Mary Margaret O'Hara perform, and I've wanted to film her ever since. She is equally sublime and funny and knows a thing or two about not being bound by formulas. She would surely channel things through unusual perspectives, especially if dropped into a city she'd never known and given room to move. Making this movie could not come from finalizing a script and shooting to fill it in. Instead, it came out of creating a set of circumstances, some carefully guided, others entirely unpredictable. It meant not using sets (much less locking them off); it meant inviting the world in … "
Bobby Sommer as Johann in Museum Hours

Five months after watching Museum Hours (which is now enjoying its theatrical release), Cohen's film still haunts me. I can't think of another film that so casually articulates the way great art brings solace to the souls of people trapped in a state of limbo or how the most mundane contemporary architecture (when viewed through an artistic lens) can frame a moment that captures the beauty of a wintry day whose skies are a gloomy gray.

Museum Hours is the kind of masterpiece that lies far below the cacophony of the entertainment industry's infernal publicity machine. It's a quiet gem, perhaps best appreciated by quiet people. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Fine and Fragile Art of Storytelling

People often make the mistake of thinking that storytelling is something that comes naturally to everyone. Why? Because, as children, we listened to our parents read to us or tell us stories as a means of lulling us to sleep.

My father told my sister and I stories about a little boy named Pinky (who was only as big as one's little finger). In many primitive societies, oral histories help to preserve a cultural heritage which has been passed down from one generation to another (check out Hawaiian mythology for some grand stories explaining how the Hawaiian gods interacted with nature).

As one matures, the stories one heard as a child may seem too simplistic to satisfy an increasingly sophisticated palate. Great performers like Leonie Rysanek have been praised with the words "I'd pay money to hear that woman recite the phone book!" If one is lucky, one basks in the glow of such practiced professional storytellers as Charlie Varon, Dan Hoyle, and Martin Dockery.

Monologists never have to worry about giving up control or sharing the spotlight with others. But when a small theatrical troupe sets out to tell a story, it's possible that too many cooks will spoil the broth.

When good storytelling takes place, the results can be magical. When the craft of telling a story is weighed down with bad production values, bad acting, poor editing, and incompetent stage direction, the venture is doomed to implode under its own weight. Needless to say, Mike Daisey has a few theories about how this can happen.

Two small theatre troupes  recently attempted to enchant audiences at the San Francisco Fringe Festival. I found it fascinating to observe the contrast between a well-disciplined group of actors creating an ethereal experience that left the audience floating on air and a horribly misconceived, sadly overproduced mess.

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Live theatre could not exist without people who suffer from delusions of grandeur. While necessity has often been called the mother of invention, few people like to talk about her evil twin, the woman who never knows when enough is enough.

If anyone were to ask me for a prime example of how not to tell a story onstage I would immediately point them to Philia The Musical. Written by Evangeline Crittenden (with music and lyrics by Nick Rattray), this sad excuse for a musical made 60 minutes feel like a lifetime spent in storyland hell with a prince, a princess, a frog, a witch, a beast and some of their very bestest friends! Here's the Kickstarter video for the show:

The basic story is the stuff of which fairy tales are made. While the power of transformation lies in the magic kisses of Helena (Derricka Smith), her willingness to share them freely has a curious effect on others.
  • A shy high school bassoonist becomes an obnoxious jock.
  • A beast turns into a man.
  • A frog turns into a prince.
Most men kissed by Helena instantly ask her to marry them and are a bit confused when she turns them down. However, in the eyes of her peers, Helena's free kisses have turned her into a slut. Crittenden (who appears in her play as a manipulative witch) writes in her program note:
"When Traci Chee approached me about creating a performance based on her short story, Philematophilia, I imagined a small-scale performance, a staged reading of sorts, and maybe a discussion afterwards. Then I read the story. It just begged to become a musical.  The themes of love, transformation, ostracism, and soul searching leapt off the page and into the realm of song. One of the things I find most delightful about her writing is the ornate intricacies of her words, the long winding sentences that twist and double back on themselves and end somewhere you never could have predicted.  But these long sentences, when spoken out loud, sometimes get lost and tangled in one's ear.

Translating Traci's work into a completely different media was a lot more difficult than I imagined. I was loathe to cut or change any of Traci's words. 'I don't want to kill your darlings!' I told her at one point. 'Kill 'em,' she said. 'This is yours now.'"
Evangeline Crittenden as The Witch in Philia The Musical

Did you notice what happened there? The work's original creator was willing to let someone else be ruthless with her art while the adapter was already suffering an acute attack of preciousness.

But, as Barack Obama famously said to Mitt Romney during a fateful debate, "Please proceed." As the play's Associate Director and Co-Producer, Wesley Newfarmer, notes:
"As the process progressed and we discussed themes of high school adolescence, slut-shaming, and the nature of personal decision-making, we realized the show was bigger than Alice in Wonderland or Calvin and Hobbes. With the wonderful cast and inspiring music, we've created a true piece of art. I've pompously likened it to Salvador Dali -- it may not resonate with everyone. Some folks may not find humor in the exact same moments we do, but it will encourage thought and hopefully move you."
Philia The Musical moved me in the wrong direction thanks to its inept script, incompetent direction, and unnecessarily fussy production values (imagine how this show  might have improved if all the time and money spent on creating and positioning props had, instead, been focused on eliminating bad ideas). Among the supporting players were Marlena Zahm, Cole Medeiros, Tim Silva, and Caitlin T. Austin. Let it be noted that the cast's abundance of enthusiasm was every bit as remarkable as their lack of craft. Here's the trailer:

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Whereas Philia suffered from a severe case of juvenile overreaching, Nightingale proved to be that rare and thrilling surprise: an exciting piece of musical theatre that is willing and able to let the work speak for itself. Written by Gia Battista (who co-directed the work with Rob Salas and also narrated the performance), Nightingale was presented by the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble. Ironically, this show deals with some of the same themes as Philia.  As Battista explains:
"This piece is heavily inspired by the main story line of Philomela in Ovid's Metamorphoses and Laustic, a poem by Marie de France. This is the third iteration of Nightingale. The show is introduced as an adventure (as it has been produced twice prior to its presentation here at the Fringe; it has gone on quite an adventure itself).  Theme: female empowerment. Find humor in the horrors of life. Invest in moments of solace. Self love is key. Maintain sovereignty."
Poster art for Nightingale

Although Nightingale is described as "a piece that draws on classical texts that feature the nightingale (from Ovid to Keats) in order to tell a story that addresses modern-day oppression of the female voice," it is a remarkably straightforward tale of a woman who had always been a kind and generous person. Although Marie was quick to come to the aid of others without ever asking anything in return for herself, she married a man who hated noise (especially the sounds made by the nightingale who lived near his home).

After her husband killed the nightingale that had cheered Marie, she returned home to beg for help from her sister (who hatches quite a magnificent payback scheme to avenge the man who had cut out Marie's tongue). With Richard Chowenhill on guitar and Adam Smith on percussion, the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble provided a surprisingly sophisticated soundscape for Nightingale, with sopranos Gabby Battista, April Fritz, and Tracy Hazas providing vocals while portraying various roles.

Although the performances of Nightingale at the San Francisco Fringe Festival lacked the lighting and scenic elements seen in the above photos from previous productions, the show was a delight from start to finish -- demonstrating solid musical theatre work that had been masterfully conceived and executed with great skill. Kudos to all involved!