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).

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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:

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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:

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