Thursday, October 31, 2013

God Save This Queen

The bottom line is simple: Coming out of the closet is not only good for anyone who is gay, it helps the people in his life secure a desperate grasp on reality. Once a person lets his friends, family, and the general public know how he defines himself with regard to his sexual orientation, there need be no more guessing, no more denial and, perhaps most important, no more diversionary games.

That means no more time spent waxing eloquent about a fictional girlfriend who lives in a far away city, bringing a "beard" to social functions, lying to parents who want to know when they can expect grandchildren, or putting up with pressure from married friends who wish that the single person in their lives would finally tie the knot so that everyone in their social circle could be safely and smugly coupled.

Many of us can still recall the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when a gay man's family learned that their son was a homosexual at the same time they discovered that he was dying. With 1996's heinous Defense of Marriage Act finally declared unconstitutional, the standard wedding vow --  "To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part" -- has eliminated any doubts about which relatives are legally allowed into a hospital room or have the right to make crucial decisions with regard to a dying man's wishes.

As more people have come to understand -- and reject -- the abject cruelty of the closeted life, a growing awareness of what the love that previously dared not speak its name truly entails has led to greater audience awareness of the challenges faced by LGBT characters who have attempted to remain in the closet. Two recent productions examined this situation through surprising and often challenging perspectives.

* * * * * * * * *
An extremely poignant film from South Korea entitled Two Weddings and a Funeral (which was screened at the 2013 Frameline LGBT Film Festival) offers a stiff reminder of what gay life can be like for LGBT people living in more repressive societies than, say, San Francisco. Openly gay director Gwan-soo Kimjho's protagonists deftly make their way through a complex romantic farce (complete with slamming doors and mistaken identities).

Min-soo (Kim Dong-yun) is a closeted OBGYN doctor who has a tightly-knit group of gay male friends. In order to protect the secret of his sexual orientation, he's chosen the perfect medical specialty (delivering babies) as a professional cover and hatched a brilliant plan for his personal life.

By marrying a lesbian OBGYN doctor (who is on staff at the same hospital), the two LGBT physicians can go through with the charade of a fake honeymoon in Thailand. Upon their return home, they can carry on their professional lives free from any snooping while pursuing their separate love interests. The shy Min-soo soon falls in love with an attractive young man named Suk (Song Yong Jin) who he meets at a gay bar.

Meanwhile, Hyo-Jin (Ryoo Hyoun-Kyoung) and her lover (whose apartment is next to the one occupied by Min-Soo and Hyo-Jin) now have the perfect cover to allow them to adopt a baby. Although, legally, the child will be adopted by Min-Soo and Hyo-Jin, in reality, it will be raised by Hyo-Jin and her lover, Seo-Young (Jung Ae-Youn).

As expected the adoption interview provides for some expected laughs when Min-Soo and Hyo-Jin pretend to be a heterosexual couple. However, complications arise when Min-Soo's parents arrive unexpectedly while their son is in bed with his boyfriend.

To make matters worse, one of the hospital staff's biggest gossips spots Min-Soo kissing Suk in a parking lot and quickly spreads the word at work, thus bringing an unintended load of shame down upon the shoulders of Hyo-Jin, who is forced into the role of  the dumb wife who didn't know her husband was gay. Hyo-Jin's real concerns, however, are whether she will be forced to quit her job and whether this revelation will threaten the family she hopes to build with Seo-Young and their adopted child.

Seo-Young (Jung Ae-Youn) and Hyo-Jin (Ryoo Hyoun-Kyoung)
are lovers in Two Weddings and a Funeral

When the pressure gets to be too much for Min-Soo, he visits one of his gay friends and ends up spending the night at the man's apartment. Unlike Min-Soo, this man grew up in a rural area where there were no gay people that he knew of. To be able to live in a big city, have a circle of gay friends, and occasionally perform in drag has meant the world to him. He can't imagine his life getting any better.

When Min-Soo asks if any of his friend's family members know that he is gay, the young man simply states that there is one person to whom he has told every little detail of his life. That person, the one who loves him unconditionally, is his dog. In its own way, his astonishing confession encapsulates the loneliness of growing up gay in hostile surroundings. Unfortunately, this loving friend's sudden, unexpected death soon leads to the funeral mentioned in the film's title and Min-Soo's political awakening.

Min-soo (Kim Dong-yun) thinks of his deceased friend
on his wedding day in Two Weddings and a Funeral

When all of the professional and familial hassles have been ironed out for the two OBGYN doctors -- and a double wedding can be held for Min-Soo and Suk (as well as for Hyo-Jin and Seo-Young) -- Min-Soo dedicates the memory of the day's happiness to his deceased friend and to the importance of living one's life honestly. You'll have to see the entire movie to understand the full dramatic impact of this moment (you'd never guess it from the film's trailer).

* * * * * * * * *
Elizabeth Gilbert may have hit the jackpot with her popular memoir, Eat, Pray, Love but, in Next Fall, playwright Geoffrey Nauffts has taken a different approach to happiness which could be described as "Suck, Swallow, Pray." Although Next Fall deals with the death of an otherwise healthy gay man in the prime of life, this is not a play about AIDS. It is, instead, a play about how a gay couple negotiates the terms of their relationship when one is an atheist and the other is an Evangelical Christian.

Luke (Adam Shonkwiler) and Adam (Danny Scheie)
are lovers in Next Fall (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In an article published earlier this year in the Chicago Sun-Times, Nauffts wrote:
"I met the love of my life not long after I turned 40. He was a Christian, and as someone who’s pretty much had an aversion to religion my whole life, this was the last thing I ever expected. We struggled to find some common ground, but in the end, it was that inexplicable thing called 'love' that kept us together. Eleven years later, we’re still going strong, and he’s still very much a mystery to me. Sensing there was something universal in the journey we’ve shared, I wrote a play about two men -- a believer and a nonbeliever -- who, five years into their relationship, are faced with a life-threatening accident that forces them (and those around them) to grapple with some of the more significant issues we face today.

One of those issues is same-sex marriage. I’m not really a 'political' person, but I vote and pay taxes. I do jury duty. I even volunteer from time to time. I eat and drink in moderation, don’t live beyond my means and I’ve never filed for bankruptcy. I’d say I’m about as close to being a model citizen as you can get. Why, then, am I not afforded the same unalienable rights my fellow citizens enjoy (some of whom are less law-abiding than I am)? Why does the religion of some in this country subject so many others to bigotry and discrimination? Isn’t that one of the basic tenets our country was founded on: the freedom to believe (or not believe) as we see fit, and to not be persecuted for doing so?

I wrote Next Fall as sort of a wake-up call in response to these questions. I wanted my partner (who was not out to his evangelical family at the time) to imagine what it would look like if we were ever in a situation where he was laying in a coma and I had no access, no rights, no voice. Well, he heard the call. Not only does his family know about me now, I’ve spent holidays with them. And, like so many of our gay couples across the country, we’re hoping to get married soon and perhaps raise children. But, no matter how far we’ve come, we’re still waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. This was again proven just recently when Roger Gorley, a gay man from Missouri, was hauled off in handcuffs after refusing to leave the bedside of his partner of five years."
Luke (Adam Shonkwiler) and Adam (Danny Scheie)
are lovers in Next Fall (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Next Fall is told in a series of flashbacks as, following an automobile accident, friends and family of Luke (Adam Shonkwiler) nervously gather at the hospital while awaiting news of his medical condition. An aspiring actor and former cater-waiter who has been working in a candle shop, Luke is the kind of lovably handsome gay man whose optimism is unshakable. Devoutly religious, he prays before every meal and after having sex. One gets the suspicion that, though Luke may be in his thirties, he probably waits up on Christmas Eve, still hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus.
  • Holly (Lindsey Gates) is Luke's close friend and employer at the candle shop, the first to arrive at the hospital.
  • Brandon (Ryan Tasker) is one of Luke's closest Christian friends. A successful realtor who admits to being fiercely (and solely) attracted to black men, Brandon's religiosity has -- and always will prevent him from acting on his sexual desires. The fact that Luke has entered into a loving relationship with another man has caused an irrevocable rift in their friendship.
  • Adam (Danny Scheie) is Luke's lover, whose insecurities about his body, about growing old, and about being loved by a younger man are coupled with the sharp cynicism of a life-long atheist.
  • Arlene (Rachel Harker) is Luke's biological mother, who separated from his father when Luke was very young. She has never known that her son is gay.
  • Butch (James Carpenter) is Luke's deeply devout father who, though he may once have worked for a famous gay man, has never understood that his theatrically-inclined son might be a homosexual.
Butch (James Carpenter) and his first wife, Arlene, (Rachel Harker)
are Luke's parents in Next Fall (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Nauffts goes to great lengths to portray Luke as a young man whose life has been enhanced by his faith rather than as a homosexual who has been demonized and ostracized by his faith. Directed by Kirsten Brandt, San Jose Repertory Theatre's production of Next Fall does a solid job of investigating the conflicts faced by gay couples when dealing with homophobic family members. As Nauffts explains:
"I didn't have any organized religion in my life growing up. I didn't have any kind of faith, yet I always had a certain fascination with it. I don't know why that is. But I feel that I've suffered because of that. In many ways I'm grateful not to have had any of those constraints growing up. No one telling me, "You can't do this, you can't do that, because it's not 'right.'" No one except myself. But also, by the same token, I feel that there have definitely been times in my life when I've been envious of that comfort, that peace that I experience in people who've been in my life throughout the years. At the risk of sounding corny, I’ve always believed in man’s innate goodness -- that underneath our differences, the desire to love and be loved connects us all. I think that was the starting point for me, wanting to explore that. This is what my play is about. If an atheist and a Christian can work it out, why can’t the rest of the nation?"
Luke's homophobic father, Butch (James Carpenter) chats with
his son's lover, Adam (Danny Scheie), in a scene from Next Fall
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

One of the reasons it's so hard to work these things out can be found in San Jose Rep's study guide (which goes to great length to address issues like Christianity's treatment of LGBT people, hospital visitation rights for same sex couples, as well as family issues and end-of-life issues for LGBT people). Although several pages are devoted to discussing Christianity, the Rapture, and how religion impacts the lives of LGBT people, there is absolutely no space devoted to a discussion of what atheism involves, how and why gay people abandon religion and gravitate to atheism, or why atheism is one of the fastest growing movements in a society whose Evangelicals never stop insisting that the Founding Fathers wanted the United States to be a Christian nation (they did not).

As a gay Jew in his sixties who comes from a family of life-long atheists, this strikes me as a remarkable lack of insight. Or, since we're dealing with questions of faith, perhaps we should call it a "sin of omission." Perhaps this indicates that it is now easier (and more politically acceptable) for a theatre's educational outreach program to teach students about same-sex marriage than it is to educate them about atheism.

One of the key points of Next Fall involves Adam's willingness to wait for Luke to wise up to reality. But just before Luke ends up dying in a hospital, Adam becomes convinced that their relationship can't work -- that much as he loves and cherishes Luke, he can no longer stifle the intellectual scorn he feels for Luke's religious brainwashing which has increasingly become an obstacle to their future happiness. As Adam tells Luke "I wish you loved me more than you love "him.'"

Adam (Danny Scheie) and Luke (Adam Shonkwiler)
are lovers in Next Fall (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Danny Scheie and Adam Shonkwiler give strong performances as Adam and Luke with Rachel Harker and James Carpenter delivering powerful dramatic turns as Luke's parents. Lindsay Gates and Ryan Tasker lend sturdy support as two of Luke's closest friends. I was particularly impressed with the flexibility and fluidity of Annie Smart's set design.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Those Damned Exasperating Women!

Prior to Louis Armstrong releasing his hit recording of a troubled new musical's big song, the working title for Hello, Dolly! was a bit longer. During a period when musicals were experimenting with extra-long names that could fill up any marquee (such as 1961's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying or 1962's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), the working title for Jerry Herman's new show was Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman.

Carol Channing as Dolly Gallagher Levi

Not every woman makes a career out of coming down a staircase in a bejeweled red gown, dancing with a restaurant's wait staff, and eating fake potato dumplings (made from spun sugar) as a means of getting laughs while snaring herself a wealthy second husband.

Nevertheless, history and literature are filled with stories of women whose determination to do things their own way knew no bounds. From Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Harriet Tubman, and Florence Foster Jenkins to Bella Abzug, Molly Ivins, Eve Ensler, and Elizabeth Warren; from Rosa Parks, Cindy Sheehan, Martha Mitchell, and Hillary Clinton to Golda Meir, Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi, and Wendy Davis, many a woman has bucked male authority figures, set out to conquer immense personal obstacles, and managed to take control of her life.

Two small Berkeley theatre companies are currently presenting riveting dramas whose protagonists are fiercely determined women with clearly defined goals. Each of these companies can lay claim to more than two decades of bringing gripping theatrical challenges to their audiences. No true Bay area theatre buff can afford to miss out on either one of these productions.

* * * * * * * * *
Linda McLean's searing drama, strangers, babies, leaves little doubt that something is off-kilter about its protagonist, a seemingly healthy woman named May (Danielle Levin) who, at first glance, is having trouble reining in her maternal instincts over an injured bird. As her husband, Dan (Cole Alexander Smith), tries to relax and read the newspaper on their patio, May remains utterly fixated on whether or not the bird requires veterinary help and how she might be able to nurse it back to health.

As McLean's play progresses, the audience witnesses May interact with a series of men whose approval (or disgust) she craves but is unlikely to receive. While visiting her elderly father (a dying, abusive man lying in a hospital bed who has no interest in being cheered up by his daughter), she is confronted with a bitter old man who has never forgiven May for a childhood transgression that left their family -- and especially Duncan (Richard Louis James) -- living under a cloud of lifelong humiliation.

May (Danielle Levin) visits her dying father, Duncan (Richard Louis
James) in a scene from strangers, babies  (Photo by: Pak Han)

A brief tryst with a stranger with whom she discussed violent sex in a chat room finds May trying to manipulate Roy (Tim Redmond) into hurting her. Whether May is interested in experiencing an orgasm by way of submissionerotic asphyxiation, or just needs someone to mercilessly inflict pain on her, the vignette of their encounter in a hotel room leaves the audience in an edgy state of trepidation.

May (Danielle Levin) tries to get Roy (Tim Redmond) to hurt
her in a scene from strangers, babies (Photo by: Pak Han)

When they were children, May and her brother, Denis (Joe Estlack), were involved in an unmentionable act of cruelty in a local playground which caused them to swear to each other that neither of them could never be entrusted to become a parent. By the time May meets up with her brother to inform him that she's pregnant, the audience knows that something is dangerously wrong.

(Photo by: Pak Han)

In the play's final scene, when May and her sleeping infant get an unexpected visit from a social worker (Tim Kniffin), her desperation to delay Abel's inspection of her child raises the audience's worst suspicions about whether May is prone to child abuse (whether it be sexual, violent, or both).

Abel (Tim Kniffin) and May (Danielle Levin) argue over the condition
of her child in strangers, babies (Photo by: Greggory LeBlanc)

Director Jon Tracy, who staged McLean's Any Given Day for Magic Theatre in 2012, keeps the audience at Shotgun Players on the edge of their seats throughout this one-act psychodrama (which leaves people guessing whether May has overcome her childhood demons and can embrace her maternal instincts or if she will turn out to be a natural born killer). In essence, strangers, babies is a ghost story without a readily identifiable ghost; a way of frightening an audience into going home and worrying if (once they've turned out the lights) a contemporary monster is still lurking underneath the bed.

Tracy is aided immensely by Nina Ball's set design, a minimalist jigsaw puzzle which (with the help of Kurt Landisman's lighting) keeps the focus squarely on the actors and McLean's writing. In his director's note, Tracy writes:
"I've found myself significantly changed by my time working with Linda. Her work seems to be the product of a finely-tuned ear listening intently but patiently to the characters that speak through her. She allows her plays no theatrics, no easy escapes through shoehorned exposition, or reductive imagery. What is left is the very essence of each character in the most present of moments, each incredibly familiar to us not only because of what we hear, but very much because of what is left unsaid. There's a certain dark matter that the plays tap into as we are forced to question the properties of what really holds any of us together.

I"m pretty certain that the next person to experience her work will have unique answers and perhaps even more unique questions. That is the gift that Linda ultimately gave me; stories that did not hand me answers but asked me for questions. Stories that do not aim to teach but instead inspire a greater capacity to learn. Personally, I have learned more from this sense of accountability and responsibility for my own opinions than in a lifetime of playmaking and watching. That is why I return to strangers, babies. To keep asking questions. To hope that the path you are led down is understood, ultimately, as your own."
The men of strangers, babies (Photo by: Pak Han) 

The result of the McLean/Tracy collaboration is the kind of chilling, deeply disturbing evening of theatre that leaves one marveling at the work of certain actors while being spooked by their characterizations of deeply dysfunctional souls. As intense and mystifying as Danielle Levin's May might seem, the searing performance of Richard Louis James as May's caustic, selfish, and hostile father is destined to haunt those who see this production. Similarly, Joe Estlack's emotionally locked down portrait of May's brother will send shivers up the spines of onlookers who try to guess what May and Denis could have done in their youth.

Performances of McLean's nail-biter continue at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley through November 17 (click here to order tickets). Halloween may allow people to play at being creepy, but strangers, babies is a genuinely creepy play.

* * * * * * * * *
Over at the Berkeley City Club, Central Works is presenting its 40th world premiere: a musical epic that dramatizes the turbulent events of the Paris Commune (the 1871 socialist uprising that was also known as the "Fourth French Revolution") and compresses the action into a two-hour romp through French history. Of note: Several decades later, Karl Marx would refer to the slaughter of 20,000 Communards following their brief rise to power as the dress rehearsal for the Russian Revolution.

France's Louise Michel (Born May 29, 1830, died January 9, 1905)

Written by Gary Graves, Red Virgin tells the tale through the eyes of Louise Michel (Anna Ishida), a "damned exasperating woman" who became known as "The Red Virgin of Montmartre." A passionate teacher who encouraged her students to sing La Marseillaise (even if Napoleon has forbidden them from doing so), Louise Michel was a feminist soldier, an inspired anarchist, an enthusiastic revolutionary, and a genuine pain in the ass. As she wrote, “Yes, barbarian that I was, I loved the cannon, the smell of gunpowder and grapeshot in the air. But above all, I was in love with the revolution!”

Graves first learned about Louise Michel (later dubbed "The French Grande Dame of Anarchy") while visiting Paris in 2000. As he searched for a way to create a play with a huge cast of characters, he realized that Louise Michel was the key to solving the puzzle. As he explains:
"Red Virgin takes place in the 19th century, when singing in public was very common, so it was natural to include songs that were actually sung at the time. We enlisted the help of Allison Lovejoy (who has a background in French cabaret, and who composed an original theme for the play) as musical director. We eventually got it down to six people -- five actors and one musician, Diana Strong -- though all of the performers play various instruments (piano, guitar, accordion, and percussion) in addition to singing. Clemence Enjolras was a really interesting character to write. She stands in for the audience as an observer of the Commune. We get to ask whether Louise has recklessly endangered her charge, or if she was the rarest of mentors.”
Anna Ishida and Diana Strong perform in the world
premiere of Red Virgin  (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Having worked as a team on numerous Central Works productions, Gary Graves (playwright and lighting designer) and Gregory Scharpen (sound design) know how to play this performance space like a Stradivarius. Their skill at making the audience believe they are witnessing major social upheaval as Paris goes up in flames before their very eyes is nothing less than astonishing.

With Juliana Lustenader as Louise's student, Clemence Enjolras; Galen Murphy-Hoffman as Theophile Ferré, Kenny Toll as Raoul Rigault, and Josh Pollock as the Marquis de Gallifet, a sextet of actors does a miraculous job of staging a civil war within the confines of a glorified living room under the skilled direction of John Patrick Moore.

The cast of Red Virgin (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

With Scharpen's constant bombardment of gunshots, cannon, and other sounds of war, one leaves the theatre feeling dazed and giddy that so much spectacle has been created with so little money; that the audience's imagination has been so masterfully manipulated that two hours fly by in a flash.

Try to imagine John Doyle staging a minimalist production of Les Misérables in which all the actors play musical instruments without losing an ounce of excitement. Anchoring the evening is a bravura performance by Anna Ishida, whose Louise Michel doesn't hesitate (as a woman with brains) to go where the men in charge of the uprising don't (or simply can't) dare to think.

Anna Ishida as Louise Michel (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

In 2012, Central Works scored a tremendous success when Graves wrote a trilogy based on the story of Richard the Lionheart. His skill at creating historical dramas with an epic sweep provides a sturdy foundation for Red Virgin, which often shows surprising relevance to today's political landscape in America (there is even a snarky reference to one character being a "Republican in name only").

Although the play begins and ends with Louise Michel and Clemence Enjolras at sea, bound for exile in New Caledonia, it seems only fitting that the cast of a play about a socialist uprising staged by a Berkeley theatre company that uses an "organic" approach to playwrighting would end up singing The Internationale as part of the show (Central Works was granted the rights to use Billy Bragg's new verse).

One rarely gets a chance to experience epic theatre on such an intimate scale. Performances of Red Virgin continue at the Berkeley City Club through November 24 (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
One of the surprising gems screened during this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was a documentary entitled Esther Broner: A Weave of Women. A loving tribute to a feminist author whose intellect and passion helped to shape a unique type of social change (in 1975 she co-authored The Women's Haggadah with Naomi Nimrod), it is an absolute delight to watch.

What makes this film so appealing is the way it shows a group of intelligent Jewish women redefining a part of Jewish culture and spirituality which has always exclusively been the territory of Jewish men. In her director's statement, filmmaker Lilly Rivlin writes:
"As a Jewish woman, born in Palestine I have always reflected on my origins in my work. My films are part of my family, my children in a way. Yet when I finished Esther Broner: A Weave of Women, I felt that this had been the most difficult baby to birth. Because I didn’t want it to be a traditional biopic, I came up with a structure that interwove two narratives, one about E.M. Broner’s life, and the other about the evolution of the Feminist Seder which she had led for 36 years. The two narratives are connected by the metaphor of her most popular novel, A Weave of Women, that was described by The New York Times critic John Leonard as 'an astonishment' and 'a recapitulation of the rhythms of female consciousness.' The weave metaphor worked for me.

There would never be a comprehensive interview with Esther. Without the wealth of anecdotes and personal stories one would have from the subject, I feared the project would be a difficult one. Fortunately, there was Esther’s daughter, Nahama, her granddaughter, Alexandra (who had absorbed so much of Esther’s life history), and the friends and colleagues with whom she had such a special bond, spiritually and intellectually, and who loved sharing a laugh. I persuaded a friend to shoot Esther’s 'Last Seder' in 2010. It was powerful material and I thought it could be the foundation for a film. In her New York Times obituary of E.M. Broner (as Esther was known professionally), Margalit Fox captured the essence of this artist/activist describing her as a writer who explored the double marginalization of being Jewish and female, producing a body of fiction and nonfiction that placed her in the vanguard of Jewish feminist letters. Ms. Broner was intensely concerned with Jewish spirituality and with carving out a place for women in a faith tradition that had long seemed not to want them.'"

If you've ever wanted to witness the likes of Esther Broner, Gloria Steinem, and Bella Abzug bonding with other women at a Feminist Seder, Rivlin's documentary is a real treat. Here's the trailer:

Monday, October 21, 2013

Cry Me A Liver

For nearly two-thirds of the 20th century, the Cunard Steamship Company was the dominant brand in transatlantic travel. Long before Cunard Line became a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation, the company's advertising campaigns were based on the simple slogan: "Getting There Is Half The Fun!"

The R.M.S. Mauretania depicted leaving New York harbor

That slogan is equally applicable to the fine art of storytelling. Whether a writer starts out with some characters in mind and lets them come to life as he writes -- or devises an ending from which he works backward to lead his characters toward the story's climax -- he needs to keep his audience interested in the plot line and concerned about the people in his story.

Bottom line? You can weave a tale about a notorious celebrity or devise a devilish denouement for your story. But if no one cares about the characters you've asked them to follow, you're up shit's creek without a paddle. It doesn't matter how long or how short your play is, you've lost your audience.

I mention this phenomenon because the contrasts in characterizations and the basic construction of three world premiere productions seen this week was shocking.
  • One play, despite the loftiest intentions, was a stillborn affair.
  • One play, based on a solid foundation of magical realism, built to a magnificent finale of grand stageworthiness but took a bit longer than necessary to get there.
  • One play offered a cast of horribly dysfunctional characters, whose lives had been devastated by a perverse political situation. Despite glimmers of hope in a life-or-death situation, there was no way to effect a happy ending.
* * * * * * * * *
I'm certainly not the only person who has watched the promotional trailer for an upcoming movie and discovered that the trailer was better than the full-length film. Take a moment to watch the following trailer for Evelyn Jean Pine's new play, First, and pay careful attention.

One of PlayGround's resident playwrights (as well as being a 2013 participant in the Djerassi Artists Residency Program in Woodside, California), Pine has served as Executive Director of the Community Memory Project, Managing Director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Director of HandsNet's Working Families Online Roundtables, and Founding Director of the Tides Foundation's Community Clinic Voice. She is a proud co-owner of The WELL, (one of the oldest virtual communities and social networking sites on the Internet) who knows the worlds of computer programming, Cyberculture, and has written numerous (and highly effective) short plays as part of her work with the PlayGround program.

Unfortunately, First (which runs nearly two hours) is a sorry mess. Although Pine's play may have been inspired by the testosterone-driven crowd of hobbyists, entrepreneurs, hackers, and salespeople who attended the first personal computer conference on March 26, 1976 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the playwright's attempt to depict Bill Gates as a smug and cocky 20-year-old computer nerd with mommy issues hit the floor at Stage Werx with a resounding thud and imploded with a whimper befitting Microsoft's legendary "blue screen of death."

Jeremy Kahn as Bill Gates in First (Photo by: Art Siegel)

It's no secret that the young Bill Gates lacked social skills and patience (or that the computer industry has been dominated by men). But that's no excuse for such weak writing, incompetent stage direction, and amateurish acting. In her program note, the playwright states that:
"Media maven David Bunnell convened and created the First World Altair Computer Conference to celebrate and sell the computer that many anoint as the 'First Personal Computer.' The intimacy of both theatre and software couple in First, this fantastical, fictional retelling of a remarkable moment that launches us into the 21st century and beyond. The story of Bill Gates' 'Letter to Hobbyists' and the controversy it spawned has been told and retold. (Glory in Steve Levy's "Hackers," delight in the Altair exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, hear it described in the History of Microsoft videos on YouTube.). I love moments like this. They feel exhilarating, charismatic, rich in possibility."
Unfortunately, First fails to bring any of that excitement to the stage. Although well cast as Bill Gates, not even the talented Jeremy Kahn (an actor I admire) could breathe life into this leaden affair (I've read FAQ files that were infinitely more entertaining). First struck me as an ill-crafted script desperately trying to live up to its own publicity.

* * * * * * * * *
Quite the opposite could be said of Lauren Gunderson's newest play, I and You, which received its first production  from the Marin Theatre Company as part of the National New Play Network's Rolling World Premiere program. Gunderson's play has only two characters (both teenagers) who meet under strange circumstances which can only be understood in the play's final, revelatory moments.
  • Caroline (Jessica Lynn Carroll) is a high school senior stuck at home in her "girl cave" due to an unspecified autoimmune disease. Quickwitted, fiercely intelligent, and lonelier than she might like to admit, she has become quite adept at manipulating her mother via text messages (which has proven to be a great way of ordering up room service without getting emotionally involved). As one listens to Caroline, it's easy to believe that one is hearing the voice of a teenage Karen Walker (from Will and Grace) before she was released from suburban hell and could start drinking with the grownups.
  • Anthony (Devion McArthur) is one of her classmates, an easygoing young African American student who loves poetry, jazz, and basketball. He's arrived at Caroline's home insisting that their English teacher assigned him to work with Caroline on a poetry project which involves analyzing Walt Whitman's use of pronouns in Song of Myself.

In the past year, Gunderson has shown great skill in writing zingers for her characters to toss over the footlights like bits of food being thrown into a pool full of hungry koi carp. With a defensive, often obnoxious teenager like Caroline, she's found the perfect delivery system -- a smartass teenage girl with great aim who can keep the one-liners coming (whether they emanate from an emotional place that is sullen and furious or fast and funny).

But Caroline is about a whole lot more than merely teasing boys and treating her mother like a servant. She's been wrestling with some serious issues that require her to live one day at a time (which is not all that easy for an adolescent with a limited span of attention).

Devion McArthur (Anthony) and Jessica Lynn Carroll (Caroline)
in the world premiere of I and You (Photo by: Ed Smith)

It's extremely easy for audiences to get restless about two thirds of the way through Gunderson's 85-minute play as they wonder where the playwright is heading. But about seven minutes after the impatience starts to creep in, Gunderson pulls off a magnificent coup de theatre that makes the evening totally worthwhile.

Caroline (Jessica Lynn Carroll) and Anthony (Devion McArthur)
get to know each other in I and You (Photo by: Ed Smith)

Whether or not audiences will be deeply moved by Gunderson's play depends on how much they grew to care about Caroline and Anthony in the first place. With a low likability factor, Caroline is a hard sell.

Though his love for John Coltrane's music and Walt Whitman's poetry make him seem far more interesting, Anthony is the kind of catalytic character whose presence resembles an extra-long lit fuse attached to a bomb that's waiting to go off. Their interactions often reminded me of this famous moment from the 2008 Presidential campaign.

Thanks to Michael Locher's set design, Wen-Ling Liao's lighting, and Will McCandless's contributions as the show's sound designer and composer, the explosion brings a long-overdue understanding of Caroline's predicament. Under Sarah Rasmussen's direction, this transformative storytelling moment is handled with great (and grave) poignancy. Performances of I and You continue at Marin Theatre Company through November 3 (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
From the moment the lights come up on a young woman lying comatose in a hospital bed, it's obvious that
Torange Yeghiazarian's new family drama, 444 Days, involves a medical crisis. The sounds of a medical ventilator haunt many scenes as the playwright probes what happens when a patient's needs are dwarfed by the scarred political past and emotional baggage of her biological parents.

Directed by Bella Warda and presented by Golden Thread Productions, 444 Days arrives with a variety of political bombshells just waiting to explode like the IEDs that pepper the Middle East:
  • Hadyeh (Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt) is a 25-year-old woman lying in a coma at Stanford Hospital, her last ray of hope after a series of hospitalizations in the Middle East and Germany. Desperately in need of a bone marrow transplant, she has little time to live unless a matchable donor steps forward. Meanwhile, angry protesters are gathered in front of the hospital, furious that the child of one of the students who occupied the American Embassy in Tehran and held 52 people hostage for 444 days is receiving care in an American healthcare facility.
  • Olivia (Sheila Collins) is the African-American nurse tending to Hadyeh and giving her sponge baths as her personal history starts to unfold. Because Olivia's main source of news has been television, she has a rather idealized concept of America's history in the Middle East and wishes people were more grateful for the generosity of Americans. Like many nurses who witness a patient's family battling over old wounds and territorial issues, Olivia understands that her primary professional responsibility is to care for and protect Hadyeh.
  • Laleh (Jeri Lynn Cohen) is Hadyeh's mother, a former Iranian revolutionary and translator who subsequently became an Iranian minister. An extremely intelligent woman whose husband waits silently in a nearby hospital lounge, Laleh has worked every possible angle she can to get her daughter the medical attention Hadyeh so desperately needs.
  • Harry (Michael Shipley) is a former diplomatic aide who was held hostage by Laleh and her fellow students. During the 444 days that they were together in the American Embassy, he worked with Laleh to translate certain documents. They also became lovers and produced a child (Hadyeh). Although Amin may have been the father who raised Hadyeh, Harry is the carrier of the gene which has caused her illness. His son, Michael, might be the perfect donor for a bone marrow transplant but there are complications (with major personal and political repercussions) in addition to the obvious tension between Harry and Laleh, who are meeting in Hadyeh's hospital room for the first time in 25 years.
Jeri Lynn Cohen, Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt, and Michael Shipley
in a scene from 444 Days ([Photo by: David Allen)

In describing her inspiration for 444 Days, Yeghiazarian notes that:
"The basic story I had in mind was about two characters bound together by a child, representing a moment of passion between them which they forever deny because of political conflict and nationalist concerns. To me, the current political situation in Iran is like a wound that has gangrened. I wanted a medical condition that would undeniably expose the two characters’ past. A love affair is a great way of personalizing the impact of war and political stalemate. The obstacles individuals must overcome to connect as human beings are hugely amplified when they are political enemies. I love focusing on the ways global situations actually impact our individual daily life.

In 2010 I lived in Tehran for six months. During this time, I was really struck by the defiance of Iranian women -- their accomplishments, their presence in all social arenas, and the strength they show in the face of significant daily challenges. The character of Laleh is very much informed by the experience of those six months. Her impassiveness is rooted in a survival strategy practiced daily in the streets of Tehran."
Michael Shipley and Jeri Lynn Cohen in 444 Days
(Photo by: David Allen)

A simple manipulation of Jim Cave's lighting helps director Bella Warda engineer smooth transitions between the period, 25 years ago, when Laleh and Harry fell in love, and their current crisis in Hadyeh's hospital room. Jeri Lynn Cohen does a formidable job of communicating the frustration and desperation Laleh feels as she tries to keep her daughter alive while juggling the tensions of her political situation, the personal stressors of an ex-lover who still wishes to marry her, and the most painful decision a mother can make.

Michael Shipley's portrayal of Harry is appealing (even if his character seems oddly impotent). As Olivia, Sheila Collins provides a strong foil to her patient's severely conflicted parents. In a rare moment of comic relief, Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt charms the audience when everyone else leaves her hospital room and she can momentarily awake from her coma to speak directly to the audience.

Sheila Collins, Michael Shipley, Jeri Lynn Cohen and Olivia
Rosaldo-Pratt are the cast of 444 Days (Photo by: David Allen)

Torange Yeghiazarian's script offers a fascinating mix of political and medical drama delivered by a tightly-knit ensemble. Performances continue through November 3 at Z Below (click here to order tickets).

Friday, October 18, 2013

Thrust Into An Alternate Reality

Speculation never ceases about what happens to us after we die. Primitive cultures and organized religions devised elaborate explanations of what to expect in the afterlife. Many of these theories were originally created to explain the cycles of animal fertility and crop cycles. From the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead to Rapture fantasies, all kinds of theories exist about reincarnation.

Some people have become so convinced by these theories that they occasionally lose touch with reality. Michele Bachmann's religious paranoia seems to have pushed her way past the Soylent Green stage. Oprah Winfrey recently took some flack after she told long distance swimmer Diana Nyad that, without faith, "atheists can't experience awe or wonder."

Both science and science fiction are capable of inspiring far more awe and wonder than any Creationist museum which tries to convince visitors that man walked with dinosaurs. The final segments of Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, left audiences in a shocked state of awe and wonder that had absolutely nothing to do with the existence of the Christian interpretation of God.

Similarly, Jodie Foster's out-of-body, out-of-mind experience in 1997's Contact opened up a world of questions about life beyond those parameters familiar to mankind.

Unfortunately, there are lots of stupid people in this world (Louie Gohmert, Steve Doocy, and Virginia Foxx stand proudly near the top of the list). Often, when one locks horns with someone whose power of rational thought is, at best, questionable, it's tempting to stop a heated argument by asking "What planet are you living on?" Whether their visions are enhanced by drugs, dreams, or delusions, that planet often turns out to be our own.

One of the unfortunate kinks in the equation is that so many people expect that, once they cross over the line, everything will become all peaches and cream.  Like the "born again" crowd that truly believes all their sins are forgiven, many assume that transitioning into an alternate reality will be a vast improvement over the lives they have led. What they soon learn is that, whether one covets a solid gold toilet seat or a pair of ruby slippers, the greed and hatred one experiences in one's daily life merely takes on new forms of fear and loathing in one's dream life (or afterlife).

* * * * * * * * *
Many a parent has reassured a grief-stricken child that the dead goldfish they just carefully flushed down the toilet will soon be swimming with his friends in a watery version of the Elysian Fields. Some even like to believe that All Dogs Go To Heaven. But what about tigers?  More specifically, what about tigers who are atheists?  What happens to them?

What about topiary animals? What happens to them?

The San Francisco Playhouse is currently presenting Rajiv Joseph's metaphysical dramedy entitled Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. My first encounter with this work took place nearly seven years ago when A.C.T. hosted a reading at the Zeum Theatre. At the time it was very difficult to imagine how Joseph's play could end up in a fully-staged production (much of it failed to make sense). The reading also took place when the Iraq War was front and center in people's minds. At the time, the idea of a dead tiger leading a philosophical debate on the meaning of life and death seemed a bit too artsy (even those who are themselves hopelessly artsy and metaphysically inclined). Nor had hipsters seized upon irony as their defining aesthetic.

Directed by Bill English (on the evocative unit set he designed), the San Francisco Playhouse production goes a long way toward clarifying the confusion I encountered in that early reading. It could also be that the chronological distance from the early years of the Neocon-inspired invasion of Iraq (and the horrors it caused) now gives audiences a safer margin to look back and accept the playwright's delicate dance between the living and the ghosts of their friends; between reality and something that's not quite reality but is happening in the same physical location.

In his program note, English writes:
"Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo fearlessly attacks the biggest questions of mankind: 'Why am I here? What is my purpose? Is there a God?' This is the kind of theatre that provides a dead bulls eye for our mission at San Francisco Playhouse: gripping storytelling with a startlingly unique perspective that digs deep into the contradictory nature of humanity. Each of the characters occupies a unique position on the spectrum of spirituality. We feel with them as they stumble to find their way.

To be sure, the play focuses our attention on the young men (little more than children) who are plunged, unprepared, into the chaos of battle in a totally foreign culture. For many of them, there is little chance they will succeed or survive. But, as Mr. Joseph has said, Bengal Tiger is more of a ghost story than a war story in which we are haunted by our struggle to define guilt and responsibility, to define ourselves in relation to the universe, and to find a moral compass to guide us. This is an epic Shakespearean tale of war and ghosts in a Garden of Eden filled with topiary animals, the severed head of a fallen despot, and a golden toilet seat. It's a very big play."
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo has several quirks you won't find in many plays. There are scenes in which the ghost of Uday Hussein haunts Musa (the Iranian gardener who has created a beautiful flock of topiary beasts that guard the entrance to the Baghdad Zoo) and a shiny prosthetic hand which becomes an object of fascinating appeal. Not to mention a key role for a leper.

Tom (Gabriel Marin) clutches his golden toilet seat while a leper
(Sarita Ocon) looks on in a scene from
Benghal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Those who remember Three Kings (1999's satirical film about the Iraq War) will find that Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo offers a fascinating counterpoint by letting several unfortunate souls trapped in Baghdad's war zone transition into an afterlife. Tom (Gabriel Marin) and Kev (Craig Marker) are two American grunts who each suffer bizarre deaths. But are their deaths really any more meaningless than that of the Tiger (Will Marchetti) slain by Kev in a moment of exceptional American stupidity?

Familiar faces to Bay area audiences, Marin and Marker do a powerful job of portraying frightened, confused American soldiers who, while attempting to prove how macho they are, may be more concerned with whether they will ever get a blowjob in Iraq.  Others in the cast include Kuros Charney as Musa, Pomme Koch (as Uday Hussein and an Iraqi Man), Livia Demarchi doubling as Musa's sister, Hadia, and a prostitute; and Sarita Ocon doubling as an Iraqi woman and a leper.

Working with Michael L. Stieglitz's projections, Tatjana Genser's costumes, props, and blood design for the death scenes, and some excellent sound design by Steven Klems, this production helps capture the strangeness and isolation of a war zone in alien territory where the lions are stupid enough to run free at the first chance of escaping the zoo and two pathetic American soldiers are not much brighter.

Performances of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo continue through November 16 at  the San Francisco Playhouse (click here to order tickets).  Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
As I headed into the Orpheum Theatre to experience a new stage version of The Wizard of Oz, I wondered if this production (timed to the 75th anniversary of MGM's release of The Wizard of Oz) would be haunted by the ghosts of Hollywood past.

Let's face facts: In times like these there are strong economic pressures to rework a screen classic that may not need any help from artistic meddlers.

I'm happy to report that the new stage adaptation (which premiered in London, splashed down in Toronto, and is now touring North America with a Canadian cast) is a delight from start to finish. In fact, only two ghosts made their presence known on opening night.

Adapted by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams, this stage version contains most of the iconic songs from the 1939 movie that were crafted by Harold Arlen and E. Y. "Yip" Harburg. New songs with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice include:
  • "Nobody Understands Me," an expository piece which helps to explain Dorothy's basic unhappiness with life in Kansas.
  • "The Wonders of the World," a song in which Professor Marvel can feed Dorothy's fantasies about running away from life on the farm.
  • "Bring Me The Broomstick," the Act I finale in which The Wizard gives Dorothy and her friends instructions on the task they must perform before he can help make their wishes come true.
  • "Red Shoes Blues," a rousing Act II opener for the Wicked Witch of the West.
  • "Farewell to Oz," a quick musical number which gets the Wizard into his hot air balloon and clears the stage for Dorothy and Toto's return to Kansas.
  • "Already Home," a lovely new duet for Glinda (Robin Evan Willis) and Dorothy.

What I found particularly interesting about this production was how smoothly film and stage techniques were integrated to support an artistic vision that did justice to the 1939 film while using standard stagecraft. Jon Driscoll's impressive video and projection designs allowed him to bring visions of characters to life on the face of the Wizard's clock (and several other pieces of scenery) with a remarkably cinematic touch. Even the way the initial show curtain dissolved into an ominous Kansas plain with brooding clouds gave the show a remarkable sense of fluidity that helped to move the story along.

While most of the new songs by Webber and Rice seemed to have been written for expository purposes, the final duet ("Already Home") offered audiences a moving musical pivot for Dorothy's return to Kansas. Special credit goes to Hugh Vanstone for his lighting design and Mick Potter for his sound design (possibly the best acoustical balance to hit the Orpheum Theatre in many a moon).

Dorothy (Danielle Wade), the Tin Man (Mike Jackson), and the
Scarecrow (Jamie McKnight) in The Wizard of Oz
(Photo by: Cylla von Tiedemann)

The costumes and sets by Robert Jones include everything from the fearsome flying monkeys to a quartet of caustically comic crows. Glinda was easily redefined by a costume that put memories of Billie Burke's gown to rest while the costumes for the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Man lost none of their iconic appeal.

Dorothy Gale (Danielle Wade) with her dog, Toto in
The Wizard of Oz (Photo by: Cylla von Tiedemann)

As for the cast, Danielle Wade was utterly charming as Dorothy, effortlessly exorcising any ghosts from the past under the directorial guidance of Jeremy Sams. Cedric Smith delivered plenty of gruff charm as Professor Marvel and the Wizard of Oz.

Mike Jackson had a strong butch appeal as Hickory that neatly balanced his vulnerability as the Tin Man. Jamie McKnight scored strongly as both Hunk and the Scarecrow. Lee MacDougall won the audience over as Zeke and the Cowardly Lion (I'm a Lion in Winter!") while Charlotte Moore's Auntie Em and Larry Mannell's Uncle Henry rounded out the Kansas contingent. A cairn terrier named Nigel repeatedly stole the show as Toto. Here's the trailer: