Friday, January 31, 2014

Turkey Lurkey Time

What does one of the world's greatest male ballet dancers have in common with a middle-aged Latina lesbian? They both love to talk turkey (and trust me, it's not a question of who prefers white meat over dark meat).
  • One may be referring to the time he shot a big, stupid tom turkey at close range in Florida while the other fondly reminisces about how she made a butch dyke nicknamed "Turkey" cry.
  • One may be discussing turkey calls with a bunch of guys who like to go hunting while the other describes how she learned that Turkey survived her rejection and went on to become a fabulously wealthy woman.

Whether you grew up listening to Turkey in the Straw or yearn for Turkey in the raw, both tales are currently offering Bay area audiences plenty of gobble-de-gook. Rest assured, neither production should be scorned as a box office turkey.

However, as long as we're talking turkey, it should be noted that there is some dispute over the birth of the Turkey Trot. According to Wikipedia, some claim that the popular dance debuted around 1909 at the Ray Jones Café in Chicago. Others insist that the Turkey Trot was born in 1912 along the Barbary Coast in San Francisco.

The ballroom dancing team of Vernon and Irene Castle helped make the Turkey Trot famous when they performed it on Broadway in 1913's The Sunshine Girl. Can you identify which dancers are performing the Turkey Trot in the following clip?

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Marga Gomez is back at The Marsh with a new one-woman show (her 10th). Unlike previous monologues which were primarily autobiographical, Lovebirds is a beautifully written piece of fiction whose protagonist is a photographer named Polaroid Phillie.

Marga Gomez as Polaroid Phillie in Lovebirds
(Photo by: Patti Meyer)

Having snapped Polaroids of young lovers for decades (including at a popular lesbian bar named Bonnie & Clyde), Phillie is quick to stress the unique value of Polaroids over digital pictures or selfies (which can go viral in the worst way imaginable). Directed by David Schweizer, Lovebirds chronicles Polaroid Phillie's recollections of memorable characters from her personal and professional past. These include:
  • Barbara Ramirez, a budding young lesbian who decides to cut her hair short, check out her luck in a bar for gay women, and avoid any kind of heteronormative interactions with other lesbians. After joining a coven and realizing that too many lesbians are named Barbara, she changes her first name to Dahlia (only to discover that Dahlia has become the hot new name for little girls).
  • Orestes Ramirez, Barbara/Dahlia's father who may be the maitre d' of a nightclub, but whose taste in women is often questionable.
  • Gladys, an aspiring singer with little to no talent who lacks any sense of pitch but has managed to capture the heart of Orestes.
  • Professor Richard Richards, Gladys's pompous husband who suffers from such severe sleep deprivation that he can barely stay awake while lecturing. The irony is that Professor Richards has built his career on the theory that people only need 45 minutes of sleep per day.
  • Aurora, Barbara's women's studies professor at NYU, who is also active in a local coven.
Poster art for Love Birds

Working on Vola Ruben's simple set (built from storage boxes of all sizes), Gomez seduces her audience with a newfound combination of wit and warmth. Although, in past years, many of her shows have had a harder comedic edge, Lovebirds is filled with nostalgia, romance, and the kind of wistfulness that often accompanies middle age. It's also a bit unnerving to hear someone lovingly refer to "roids" and realize that they are not talking about athletes getting juiced on anabolic steroids.

Marga Gomez as Polaroid Phillie in Lovebirds
(Photo by: Patti Meyer)

The use of Polaroids as nostalgic props offers Gomez convenient jumping-off points for introducing new characters during the course of her monologue. Her newest show never outstays its welcome and leaves the audience feeling warm and cozy inside. Performances of Lovebirds continue at The Marsh through March 15 (click here to order tickets).

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I recently had an opportunity to read Howard Sherman's excellent piece entitled Who Thinks It’s OK To ‘Improve’ Playwrights’ Work? and heartily recommend it to any and all who itch to update a piece of literature which has not yet entered the public domain. In his piece, Sherman goes to great lengths to explain the difference between exercising one's artistic ideas and violating copyright law.

As artists find inspiration in works from the past, audiences are exposed to more and more "updated" productions of favorite operas. I've seen Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte set in Hawaii during the early 20th century and Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado set inside a display of Japanaiserie in Harrods department store. Surfing through YouTube's riches can offer glimpses of the Metropolitan Opera's new take on Verdi's Rigoletto (set in Las Vegas during the heyday of the Rat Pack) as well as the Bavarian State Opera's radical modern-dress approach to La Forza del Destino.

These productions don't attempt to mess with the composer's musical score. However, with more and more techniques now available to create mash-ups that become a brand new piece of art, the term sui generis has never been more applicable to certain productions.

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently hosting Big Dance Theater's production of Man in a Case, a curious work commissioned by the Hartford Stage Company as a collaboration between Arktype and Baryshnikov Productions. Inspired by two of Anton Chekhov's short stories from 1898's The Little Trilogy (Man in a Case and About Love), this performance piece -- which has been adapted and directed by Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson -- is a fascinating experience in mixed media which combines music, video, theatre, and dance with Russian literature.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Tymberly Canale in a moment
from Man in a Case (Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)

With video design by Jeff Larson and lighting by the great Jennifer Tipton, the cast is led by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tymberly Canale, Chris Giarmo, Paul Lazar, and Aaron Mattocks. Because today's technology allows for astonishing multidisciplinary artistic visions, the Chekhov stories take on new life in ways that were previously unimaginable. As Lazar explains:
"If you were just to take this story and give it to a playwright and ask them to theatrically adapt it, with stage directions, dialogue, etc., that's one way or style of telling it. I think the way we use video and sound (some of the video even has text scrolling through it) in a certain sense makes it more evocative of the experience of reading a story. Not in the sense that we speak the text verbatim -- which we also do -- but that in seeing a play you take some of the language, and the imagery related to the language (sometimes obliquely) to replicate the reading experience. It gives you the experience of imagistic resonance rather than literal representation."

In the following interview, Baryshnikov discusses his early exposures to Chekhov's writing and the genesis of the Man in a Case project.

One of the challenges of experiencing a piece like Man in a Case is that some parts of it defy description, while other parts demand that the audience sit back and let the experience wash over them. For those who primarily think of Baryshnikov from his years as one of the ballet world's greatest stars, it's intriguing to see what he brings to the stage in a speaking role. Tymberly Canale provides a strong foil as his love interest in About Love.

Tymberly Canale and Mikhail Baryshnikov in a scene
from Man in a Case (Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)

Nobody emerges happy in many of Chekhov's works. As a result, whether one sees Baryshnikov as a lonely and paranoid professor of Greek classics who lives in the kind of isolation that makes one think of The Twilight Zone -- or as a sad, unfulfilled lover trying to find a connection to the woman of his dreams -- Man in a Case is difficult to categorize.

Tymberly Canale and Mikhail Baryshnikov in a scene
from Man in a Case (Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)

On one hand, Man in a Case is an evening that pulses with paranoia and expressions of a pained platonic love. On the other hand, the depression gripping some of Chekhov's characters is frequently punctured by dance, song, intriguing video, and a remarkable sense of lyricism. As well as those turkey calls.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Questionable Role Models

In her delightfully provocative article entitled Artmaking As Irrevent Research, the Dean of Columbia University's School of the Arts, Carol Becker, makes some fascinating points:
  • Artists will use any form, any discipline, and take ideas from anyone to further their goal of answering the questions they have posed for themselves or calling attention to concerns they feel should be addressed by the society. In this sense, much of their work is inevitably interdisciplinary -- a perfect 21st century model for addressing complex problems.
  • Art schools encourage this type of useful irreverence by pursuing and legitimizing multiple types of consciousness (not just the conscious mind, but also dreams, fantasies, play, imagination, intuition, the unconscious, the metaphoric, the symbolic and visionary); the total possibilities of thought).
  • Business school deans express concern that when their students first arrive they are interesting, but, by the time they leave, many have become homogenized -- wanting the same job and motivated by the same life goals. By contrast, art school students are interesting when they arrive and typically are even more interesting and actualized when they leave, because their research comes from the inside out. The work they are encouraged to do is original to their own person.

Sometimes connecting the dots happens in strange ways. For example, I recently watched two dramas that were radically different in tone and focus:
  • One was a French film about a tragically dysfunctional family whose problems were brought to a head and, in some ways, resolved by the influence of a random stranger.
  • The other was a British dramedy about an aging Peter Pan type of male personality who holds a surprising amount of influence over a group of young men and women who are easily half his age.
There was a connection to be found between these two stories, but it kept eluding me. As I rode around San Francisco on a MUNI bus, I kept thinking about two articles I had recently read that discussed California's current water shortage in surprising ways:
As my mind wandered back to memories of living through California's 1976-1977 drought, I recalled the trepidation I felt while visiting friends that summer in Providence, Rhode Island. These were people who kept an immaculate household. Coming from a climate in which California residents lived by the mantra "If it's yellow, it's mellow; if it's brown, flush it down," I was terrified that I might forget to flush the toilet in their home.

As the bus turned a corner, my mind returned to the present. I remembered my surprise that a recent list of things Californians might do to conserve water mentioned brushing one's teeth, taking shorter showers, and being more attentive when washing dishes and clothes. Surprisingly, it said nothing about flushing toilets.

I quickly realized that, in the nearly 40 years since the drought of 1976-1977, Americans had gotten used to low-flow toilets and sensor-equipped faucets, urinals, and toilets. That's why one of the concepts in Dr. Becker's article caught my attention:
"In science, there is an expectation of risk and recognition of the inevitability of failure. 'Fail. Fail again. Fail better,' said Beckett. Those who educate artists -- who, for the most part, are other artists -- encourage them to move from one question to the next, knowing, as scientists do, that to assume outcomes or answers limits real discovery."
By now, you're probably wondering  what low-flow toilets have to do with the arts and what can they teach us about family dynamics. By realizing how the challenge of conserving water while flushing toilets has essentially been removed from our consciousness by technology, I realized what these two stories had in common.

Although it is never clearly stated in either script, both dramas are about throwaway children. Children who, instead of ending up in NeverLand, have been abandoned by parents who are ill-equipped to provide for their offspring or are too self-involved to cope with a child's needs.

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Benoit Cohen's exquisitely layered film, You'll Be A Man, is full of surprises. The opening scenes show 20-year-old Theo (Jules Sagot), a handsome slacker, applying for a job as a babysitter for 10-year-old Leo (Aurelio Cohen). With his girlfriend, Jeanne (Clara Bonnet), preparing to move away, Theo is directionless and in need of cash.

Jules Sagot as Theo in You'll Be A Man

It doesn't take long for Theo to learn that Leo belongs to an extremely unhappy family. Although, as a child, Leo had a serious accident, its physical consequences have been minor. Since then, his parents have refused to let him play outside of their home. Sullen, withdrawn, and pretty much friendless, Leo is living in an upscale farmhouse that reeks of depression. His only solace comes from reading and occasionally writing poetry.

It's obvious that Leo is suffering more on an emotional and spiritual plane than he is on a physical one. "His parents' reaction has been excessive (because of their fears and neuroses, they plan on him being disabled. I found it interesting to announce at the beginning that this child was disabled and very quickly realize that only the parents regarded him as such," explains the filmmaker. "This story of Leo's disability is used throughout the film without really knowing what type of disability his parents are talking about. I love that this is unspoken; that everything is not necessarily shown or explained."

Poster art for You'll Be A Man

Leo's father (Grégoire Monsaingeon) is a successful businessman who believes that money can solve any problem. The boy's mother (Eleonore Pourriat) has retreated to an attic bedroom where she can hide from life. In essence, the couple have outsourced the care and nurturing of their child so that they can wallow in their own depression and continue to feel guilty about their failure to protect their son.

Sensing Leo's reluctance to have any kind of supervision, the boy and man-boy agree to leave each other alone. Young and impetuous, Theo's irrepressible personality soon starts to break down the family's emotional barriers.

First, Theo finds a way into Leo's heart through the boy's imagination. Then he discovers Leo's mother and starts to breathe life back into her as well. Unfortunately, Leo's father remains emotionally unavailable to his wife, to his child, and is easily threatened by Theo's ability to engage in games of make believe.

Theo (Jules Sagot) and Leo's father (Grégoire Monsaingeon)
in a scene from You'll Be A Man

When Leo's father discovers his son making music with Theo (who is dressed in drag), it pushes the kind of buttons that threaten his masculinity. Not only does he fire Theo, he hires Jeanne to take over babysitting for his son while he and his wife travel out of town to attend a wedding.

Jules Sagot and Aurelio Cohen in You'll Be A Man

Whereas Theo has been devoted to Leo, Jeanne couldn't care about the boy. Instead, she seizes the opportunity to have her friends party at Leo's house while the boy's parents are away. Stoned, drunk, and worn out from a night of revelry, no one notices when Theo kidnaps the boy and takes him on an wild adventure in the family's Porsche.

To a certain extent, the rest of the movie becomes a guessing game about who needs to -- or can -- grow up faster: Leo? Theo? Jeanne? Leo's parents? Cohen's film is filled with delightful surprises and glows with the affectionate relationship that develops between Leo and Theo.

Add in a magnificently layered performance by Eleonore Pourriat as a grieving mother who comes to realize that her son's disability is in her head (rather than in Leo's body) and You'll Be A Man becomes a coming-of-age story of immense appeal.

Jules Sagot and Aurelio Cohen in You'll Be A Man

There are times when You'll Be A Man can easily make one think of 1971's Harold and Maude. As the filmmaker (whose son portrays Leo and whose companion portrays Leo's mother) explains:
"I wanted to show this very special time of the transition from childhood to adolescence, when a child is about to take that first step that will lead to adulthood. It is a magical moment -- a mixture of childish emotions, very tactile relations, and reactions that can sometimes resemble those of adults, but are not yet polluted by fear or doubt. I was excited by what Jules brought to the character of Theo. His duet with Aurélio not only surprised me, I found that, for someone who had never been in front of a camera, he exuded a grace and poetry that exceeded my expectations."
Theo (Jules Sagot) comforts Leo's mother (Eleonore Pourriat)

You'll Be A Man examines the coming-of-age process from a unique perspective. It's impossible to resist Sagot's charm as Theo, his genuine affection for his young charge, his physical attraction to Leo's mother, or his sense of responsibility for the boy's future. Here's the trailer.

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What if Peter Pan hadn't been able to stay young forever?  What if he had grown from an impetuous youth into a daredevil stuntman and settled into a middle-aged lifestyle as a small town drug dealer whose rag-tag band of lost boys had been reduced to a sad and directionless handful of young adults with no purpose in life other than to kick back, drop out, and get high?

Brian Dykstra as Johnny "Rooster" Byron in Jerusalem
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The protagonist in Jez Butterworth's highly acclaimed Jerusalem is the kind of over-the-hill jock who has been coasting on tales from his legendary past for far too long. Having retired to a trailer in a forest in Northern England, he is being hounded by local bureaucrats who want to evict him so they can convert the land on which he's been squatting into a suburban development.

But Johnny "Rooster" Byron has other plans. Though his decrepit body may be a shadow of its former glory (and he's abandoned his wife and child), Rooster's still got the gift of gab and knows how to use it to amuse his followers and disarm and intimidate his enemies. The funny thing about an abundance of blarney is that it can inspire people even when they know that the heroic tales being spun (such as Rooster's encounter with a giant near Stonehenge) are total bullshit.

The San Francisco Playhouse recently presented the West Coast premiere of Jerusalem in a production designed and directed by Bill English. As I watched Brian Dykstra's burly Rooster hold sway over his band of youthful followers, I was reminded of the words of so many gay men I'd chatted with on social media platforms who claimed they were attracted to older men because they wanted a "daddy" or father figure who could "tell them stories."

As one meets Butterworth's cast of characters, one realizes that the stage is being filled by a group of youngsters who have either given up on the future or whose parents long ago gave up on them. Among the free spirits of the forest are:
  • Phaedra (Julia Belanoff), an underage waif dressed as a fairy who has run away from home and is shacking up with Rooster.
  • Lee (Paris Hunter Paul), an able-bodied young man who has decided to seek out a new life in Australia.
  • Tanya Crawley (Riley Krull), a free-spirited woman who, after offering Lee a charity fuck as a farewell present, is surprised to discover that he's not interested.
  • Pea (Devon Simpson), a young girl who hangs around Rooster's trailer for the drugs and party life.
  • Davey (Joshua Schell), a young man who is content to work in a local slaughterhouse.
  • Ginger (Ian Scott McGregor), the most loyal of Rooster's pack and the one drug client who is heavily invested in their friendship.
Lee (Paris Hunter Paul), Johnny Rooster (Brian Dykstra), and
Ginger (Ian Scott McGregor) rally the tribe against the
establishment in Jerusalem (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Others in the cast include:
  • Fawcett (Courtney Welsh), a female bureaucrat who once had an affair with Rooster but is now determined to evict him.
  • Parsons (Aaron Murphy), Fawcett's co-worker who is busily documenting everything with his camera.
  • Wesley (Christopher Reber), Rooster's good-natured but spineless brother.
  • Dawn (Maggie Mason), Rooster's ex-wife.
  • Markey (Calum John), Rooster's young son.
  • Troy (Joe Estlack), Phaedra's violent father who is prone to bullying and might have a history of sexually abusing his daughter.
  • The Professor (Richard Louis James), an elderly friend of Rooster's.
The Professor (Richard Louis James) and Rooster (Brian Dykstra)
share a moment in Jerusalem (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

It's easy to understand the appeal of Jerusalem for, when Butterworth lets loose, his language soars in soliloquies that can transfix an audience and hold them in a theatrical spell. With a fairly large cast (this production required two dialect coaches) and a running time of nearly three hours, Jerusalem presents a substantial challenge to a small company. Unfortunately, Butterworth's play proves to be quite a bit less than the sum of its parts.

I was particularly impressed with the performances by Richard Louis James (The Professor), Paris Hunter Paul (Lee), and Ian Scott McGregor (Ginger). The contrast between the worn-out hulk of Brian Dykstra's Johnny Rooster and the seething violence of Joe Estlack's Troy offered two daunting portraits of mismanaged masculinity.

Performances of Jerusalem continue at the San Francisco Playhouse through March 8th (click here to order tickets).  Here's the trailer.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

In Pursuit of Magnificent Obsessions

The winding path from curiosity to passion and onward to embracing a full-blown fetish is a very strange one. Sometimes a person's enthusiasm for a certain type of object is sparked by a gift, a novel idea, or a gateway experience. Before long, what began as a passing interest starts to gain momentum until it takes the shape of a full-blown obsession. Consider the following examples:

Two new productions deal with a form of rapture -- not the kind that sends obedient Christians floating through the skies, but the kind in which a fierce infatuation grips a person's imagination and holds on tight. One is a fictional tale that plays out over several decades as China transitions from Maoism to modernism. The other focuses on a long-forgotten historical figure who, though her life was cut short by ovarian cancer, paved the way toward a scientific future measured in light years.

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One of the more curious entries being screened during February's SFIndie Fest is The Love Songs of Tiedan. Much of Hao Jie's film follows the misplaced love of Tiedan (Feng Si) who, as a six-year-old boy (Shi Weicheng), was naively infatuated with his beautiful (but older) neighbor, Sister Mei (Sabrina Yap). Sister Mei and Tiedan's father (Feng Yun) used to delight in singing Er ren tai melodies, often bellowing from the top of a cliff to an open valley. 

The movie begins in the 1950s, when Sister Mei's husband returns to Tiedan's village and takes her back to the West Side of Mongolia, leaving the naive little boy brokenhearted.

Shi Weicheng as the six-year-old Tiedan

By the mid 1960s, Tiedan's father has gone blind and traditional forms of singing have been banned as part of China's Cultural Revolution. As he matures and becomes a man, Tiedan falls in love with each of Sister Mei's three daughters. Unfortunately, his dream of marrying the eldest (Sabrina Yap) is crushed when the young woman is forced into an arranged marriage with an older man from another village (who takes her back to his home in Mongolia).

Beside himself with grief, the impassioned Tiedan follows his beloved and tries to interfere with the wedding.  After a witch is consulted (who advises Sister Mei to offer Tiedan her mute second daughter as a wife/consolation prize), a loveless marriage is consummated. Boredom quickly sets in.

Opportunity knocks with a chance visit by the Inner Mongolian Hong Teng Errentai Troupe, which is looking for a male singer. At first sight, Tiedan is unaware that the troupe's female star, Hu Hu, is actually a man performing in drag. However, after Tiedan joins the traveling ensemble, his onstage partnership with Hu Hu also blossoms in bed.

Sister Mei's third daughter, Hao Yan (Sabrina Yap) is
obsessed with her bisexual brother-in-law, Tiedan (Feng Si)

On one of Tiedan's visits to his home, his wife (GeXia) becomes pregnant. Meanwhile, Sister Mei asks Tiedan to help her third daughter, Hao Yan (Sabrina Yap), join his performing ensemble. 

As the story moves into the 1980s,  a new type of entertainment is sweeping through China that makes Er ren tai seem hopelessly out of date. With Hao Yan constantly demanding more attention than Hu Hu, Tiedan eventually decides to abandon his male lover and return home, where he finds a new role for himself as the father of a beautiful young daughter.

Shot in the Shanxi province of northern China (near the Mongolian border), the film captures the kind of rural poverty which leaves little room for fantasy. However, there is always music to feed the imagination. 

Hao Jie's film pays tribute to a vanishing art form from Inner Mongolia (Er ren tai), which is usually performed by a pair of singers accompanied on dizi (a transverse flute usually made from bamboo), sihu (a bowed instrument with four strings), and yangqin (a hammered dulcimer).

As an art form, Er ren tai has constantly adapted to developments and changes in Chinese society, politics and the economy in order to survive. Because each performance contains a clown role and a female role, Er ren tai is sometimes translated as “two people on a stage.” 

There are also regional differences in the way Er ren tai is performed. In the film, Sister Mei sings with the tones of the Shanxi Er ren tai. Tie Dan sings the Eastern Er ren tai and Hu Hu sings the Western Salaqi Er ren tai. As the filmmaker explains:
“The Chinese hammer dulcimer has been played with Er ren tai for generations.  The forms of the Er ren tai are directly embedded in the northwestern heart. The melodies from folk songs and local plays are derived from the same source as the rhythms of local geography, dialects, and even ecologies. I could hear an indistinct song being sung in the distance, although I couldn’t hear the words. What I could hear was the sound of my grandmother calling me home for dinner.” 
Sabrina Yap and Feng Si in The Love Songs of Tiedan

The Love Songs of Tiedan offers a stunning performance by Feng Si and strong work (in three roles) by Sabrina Yap. Add in some magnificent scenery, hilarious musical numbers, and there's a lot to enjoy. Here's the trailer:

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In order to appreciate the strength and science of Lauren Gunderson's poignant play, Silent Sky, let me suggest first spending 25 minutes with two giants of American culture: award-winning journalist Bill Moyers and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

TheatreWorks recently presented the regional premiere of Silent Sky down at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Although the prolific Lauren Gunderson has had a half dozen plays produced in the Bay area in recent years (Exit, Pursued By A Bear and The Taming at Crowded Fire Theater CompanyBy and By at Shotgun PlayersI and You and Rock Creek: Southern Gothic at the Marin Theatre Company; and Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight at Symmetry Theatre), it's hard to pigeonhole her strengths. Gunderson excels at:
  • Using her whip-smart sense of humor to give her characters plenty of sass and let them deliver acid-tinged zingers.
  • Developing subplots that lead to a deeper cultural understanding of feminism.
  • Building character-driven stories based on scientific fact that can rock an audience's world.
  • Capturing the extreme vulnerability and identity crises of confused outcasts, troubled teens, and awkward intellectuals.
  • Wrapping up an evening's storytelling with mind-bending dénouements.
Henrietta Leavitt (Elena Wright) with her sister, Margaret 
(Jennifer LeBlanc) in Silent Sky (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

The American astronomer, Henrietta Swan Leavitt (Elena Wright), was born on July 4, 1868 and graduated from Radcliffe College.  In 1893, she went to work as a "female human computer" in astronomy Professor Edward Charles Pickering's "harem" in the Harvard College Observatory, where she was tasked with counting images on photographic plates. Not only did her discovery of the period-luminosity relation of Cepheid variables dramatically alter the ruling theories of astronomy, it became crucial to the work of Edwin Hubble (for whom the Hubble Space Telescope was named).

Leavitt discovered more than 2,400 variable stars during her career. But because she was a woman working in a man's world (at that time women were not even allowed to operate telescopes), during her lifetime she received little recognition for her achievements. Today, asteroid 5383 Leavitt and lunar crater Leavitt are named in her honor. As Gunderson explains:
"I am continuously compelled by characters who struggle in the tidal pulls of the heart and the mind, love and truth, what we know versus what we feel. I write bold women and their friends. I write about legacy, what of us lingers after we are gone, what grander arcs we help to build with our lives. I find science and history a perfect source for examining our modern journeys and connecting to the stories before us. That amounts to a lot of stories that confront mortality, legacy, and ideas that exist beyond ourselves."
Henrietta Swan Leavitt at work in the Harvard College Conservatory
(Photo by: Wikimedia Commons)
"I found Henrietta's story by chance while perusing the stalls of used books in New York. There wasn't that much known of her, but what is known is that, in 1912, this unassuming but meticulous and curious woman gave the flagging field of astronomy the ingredient it needed to leap into the future. Without her finding a pattern in Cepheid stars, great astronomers like Shapley and Hubble wouldn't have shown us how huge and fast moving our universe is. Henrietta's key discovery takes a musical form at some point and finding that synchronicity fell to our brilliant composer, Jenny Giering."
Henrietta Leavitt (Elena Wright), Annie Cannon
(Sarah Dacey Charles) and Williamina Fleming (Lynne Soffer)
in a scene from Silent Sky (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

With four exceptionally bright women and one handsome, entitled, but relatively thick-headed man, Gunderson does a splendid job of showing how the prevailing wisdom of the early 20th century was deaf, dumb, and blind to the potential contributions of intelligent women. Although Peter Shaw (Matt Citron) attempts to "mansplain" the rules of the game to the stubborn, smart woman with whom he is falling in love, Leavitt has bigger fish to fry -- namely the kind of discoveries which routinely elude male scientists.

As directed by Meredith McDonough, the TheatreWorks production sits on a handsome unit set designed by Annie Smart with costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt and some exquisite lighting effects by Paul Toben which help the audience grasp the genesis of Leavitt's theory. The moment of breakthrough offers a stunning finale to Act I. There are times when the thrill of discovery in Gunderson's script reminded me of Eric Overmyer's 1987 play about a trio of time-traveling female explorers (On The Verge).

Jennifer LeBlanc gave an impassioned performance as Henrietta's sister, Margaret, who stays at home to raise a family while Sarah Dacey Charles was appropriately standoffish as a research assistant determined not to ruffle the status quo who subsequently was transformed into an ardent Suffragette. Lynne Soffer scored plenty of laughs as the Scottish housekeeper turned "computer" whose lusty sense of humor and wealth of common sense completely baffle Mr. Shaw.

Henrietta Leavitt (Elena Wright) with Peter Shaw 
(Matt Citron) in Silent Sky (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

The glue which holds Gunderson's play together is the intellectual passion of Henrietta Leavitt, the sacrifices she makes in pursuit of an idea that won't allow her to rest, and the legacy she leaves to the world of science. Elena Wright did a splendid job of holding her own against Peter Shaw's clueless sexism and romantic tendrils. Performances of Silent Sky continue at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through February 9th (click here to order tickets).

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Arms and the Man

The recent sturm und drang over the heavy-handed political machinations of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's thuggish administration has not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed his career. Dan Aubrey's long, detailed narrative, Defending the Arts Amid a Culture of Fear, details the kind of petty power games pursued by Christie's Lieutenant Governor, Kim Guadagno (whose modus operandi was recently brought to light by Hoboken's Mayor Dawn Zimmer). There's an old saying that "Power corrupts and absolutely power corrupts absolutely." To get a stronger grip on the ugly realities of political patronage, let me recommend two recent articles:
As we begin a new year, artists of every persuasion are struggling to find new sources of financial support to help them feed their passion and realize their dreams. Unlike Mozart's time (when a gifted composer might be lucky enough to attract a sponsor from the royal court), a wealth of statistics is now available to demonstrate how the arts work as an economic engine.

In his 2014 State of the State Address, Governor Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island (which recently became the first state to rescind a sales tax on art) expressed hope of boosting Rhode Island's financial health by building an arts economy. "When you look at what the arts can offer the economy, the community, and our quality of life, it makes a lot of sense," he stressed.

Unfortunately, the search for a benefactor often forces idealists to confront the issue of accepting "dirty money." Several years ago, some of the more outspoken politically correct members of San Francisco's gay community were incensed that the city's new LGBT Community Center would be named after Chuck Holmes (the gay porn entrepreneur who founded Falcon Studios in 1971).

The Charles M. Holmes Campus of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center

Despite their indignation, there could be no denying the fact that the one million dollar donation from Holmes's estate helped build the community center. Whereas venture capitalists are already convinced of the value of their investment, I often like to quote Dolly Levi's soliloquy to those in the arts who are in search of funding:
"Money, money, money, money, money!! It's like the sun we walk under. It can kill or cure. Horace Vandergelder never tires of saying that 99% of the people in this world are fools, and I suppose he's right. We're all fools: Himself, Irene, Cornelius, myself. We're all fools and we're all in grave danger of destroying the world in our folly. And yet the surest way to keep us safe from harm is to give us those few things in life that will make us happy. And that takes a little bit of money.

Now, the difference between a little bit of money and no money at all is enormous, and it can shatter the world. And the difference between a little bit of money and an enormous amount of money is very slight. Yet that, too, can shatter the world. It's all a question of how it's used.

As my late husband, Ephraim Levi, always used to say: 'Money -- you should pardon the expression -- is a little bit like manure. It doesn't do anyone a bit of good unless it's spread all around, encouraging young things to grow.'"
Carol Channing as Dolly Gallagher Levi

Whose money gets spread around (and just what kind of good it accomplishes) are the core issues of two family dramas in which the inheritance of a great fortune is a matter of grave concern.

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The centerpiece attraction at the 18th Annual Berlin and Beyond Film Festival was Peter Sehr's historic drama, Ludwig II, which followed the life (and purported descent into madness) of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Ludwig's father, Crown Prince Maximillian II of Bavaria, tried to instill a sense of military necessity in his son, who showed absolutely no interest in war games.

Sabin Tambrea as King Ludwig II of Bavaria

Instead, young Ludwig was obsessed with the music of Richard Wagner. Having fallen in love with Wagner's score for Lohengrin, he quickly evolved into a powerful arts patron who was fascinated by the beauty of nature. Ludwig's sexual orientation was never really in doubt (it was obvious that he preferred the arts over the attraction of women).

King Ludwig II (Sabin Tambrea) confers with
composer Richard Wagner (Edgar Selge)

While Ludwig's ministers kept pushing their King to prepare for war against Prussia's Otto von Bismarck, Ludwig dreamed of redirecting military funds to train Bavaria's children in music and dance. He yearned for them to have the confidence to develop their talents and become cultural ambassadors instead of sacrificing their lives as soldiers in battle.

Ludwig II (Sabin Tambrea) attends a performance of
Richard Wagner's opera, Tristan und Isolde

As political realities kept thwarting his dreams of becoming an arts patron, Ludwig became increasingly irrational, often insisting that "I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others." He sponsored the world premieres of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. The king's generous support of the Bayreuth Festival (which produced the world premieres of Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal) helped Wagner to become one of Germany's greatest composers.

The great irony of Ludwig's life is that the design and construction of his famed Neuschwanstein Castle, Linderhof Palace, and Herrenchiemsee Castle (a replica of the French Palace of Versailles) provided employment for thousands of Bavarian laborers. More than 125 years after Ludwig's death, the tourism revenues generated by these attractions greatly help to strengthen the economy of his beloved Bavaria.

Sebastian Schipper as the middle-aged King Ludwig II

Sabin Tambrea gives a magnificent performance as the passionate and inquisitive young Ludwig, with Sebastian Schipper taking over the title role later in the king's life. Sehr's film is a visual feast as it details the life of a rich, young and temperamental gay arts patron who, without any doubt, was way ahead of his time. Wagner fans will undoubtedly have a good time watching Ludwig II. Here's the trailer:

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See if you can spot a trend buried in the following historical events:

There are several crises to be resolved in Shaw's play:
  • Convinced that her son Stephen (Stafford Perry) and daughter Sarah (Elyse Price) will never be capable of supporting themselves, Lady Britomart Undershaft (Kandis Chappell) must convince her estranged husband Andrew (Dean Paul Gibson) to subsidize their futures.
  • In order to continue a family tradition, Andrew must find a foundling to whom he can bequeath the family business and its attendant wealth.
  • Andrew's daughter, Barbara (Gretchen Hall), has become intoxicated with the idea of saving souls through her work with The Salvation Army. However, with so little money available from donations, she is at her wit's end while searching for ways to convert the poor.
  • Adolphus Cusins (Nicholas Pelczar) is head over heels in love with Barbara, but only really joined the Salvation Army so that he could be near her.
Gretchen Hall as Major Barbara Undershaft
(Photo by: Pak Han)

With sets designed by Daniel Ostling and costumes by Alex Jaeger, this international co-production bears a curious distinction. As director Dennis Garnhum explains:
"More of George Bernard Shaw's work is in public domain in Canada than in the United States.  Shaw published an updated version of his play in 1930. Theatre Calgary can do that version for free, but A.C.T. can't. So we're doing the version that was originally published in 1906 so that you don't have to pay royalties."
Andrew Undershaft (Dean Paul Gibson) and his daughter
Barbara (Gretchen Hall) in Major Barbara (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Shaw's wit and insights into British society ring most true in Act I (at Lady Britomart Undershaft's home) and Act III (at Andrew Undershaft's munitions factory). Alas, I found it extremely difficult to concentrate during Act II (at the Salvation Army outpost where Barbara is trying to save the world). I was also a bit surprised that the most interesting character seemed to be Lady Britomart, thanks in large part to a beautiful performance by Kandis Chappell. Dan Hiatt, Tyrell Crews, and Dan Clegg were effective in supporting roles.

Joe Nocera's recent column in The New York Times (Does Brazil Have The Answer?) offers fresh food for thought about stipends for the poor. At a time when income inequality has become a crippling problem for America, Shaw's approach to philanthropy remains as provocative as it was more than a century ago. In the playwright's Preface to Major Barbara: First Aid to Critics, he wrote:
"The crying need of the nation is not for better morals, cheaper bread, temperance, liberty, culture, redemption of fallen sisters and erring brothers, nor the grace, love, and fellowship of the Trinity, but simply for enough money. The evil to be attacked is not sin, suffering, greed, priestcraft, kingcraft, demagogy, monopoly, ignorance, drink, war, pestilence, nor any other kind of the scapegoats which reformers sacrifice, but simply poverty. Undershaft is simply a man who, having grasped the fact that poverty is a crime, knows that when society offered him the alternative of poverty or a lucrative trade in death and destruction, it offered him not a choice between opulent villainy and humble virtue, but between energetic enterprise and cowardly infamy.

Thanks to our political imbecility and personal cowardice (fruits of poverty both), the best imitation of a good life now procurable is life on an independent income. All sensible people aim at securing such an income, and are, of course, careful to legalize and moralize both it and all the actions and sentiments which lead to it and support it as an institution. What else can they do? They know, of course, that they are rich because others are poor. But they cannot help that. It is for the poor to repudiate poverty when they have had enough of it!"
George Bernard Shaw (Photo by: Magazin Gracija)

As the old saying goes: "The more things change, the more they stay the same!"

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Would You Like Fries With Your Dysfunction?

Comedians love to test an audience by pushing the envelope. Push hard and, if you get a good laugh, push even harder. Keep pushing as you test the crowd to see how far you can go without completely alienating people. For someone like Scott Capurro, that's simply doing what comes naturally.

Born in Saudi Arabia to Bangladeshi parents who eventually settled in AustraliaAamer Rahman is a master of this technique. Though he graduated from college with a law degree, Rahman's comedic skills have made him internationally famous.

Getting away with murder is a prerequisite for comedy writers with an edge. In the following two clips, Gavin McInnes doesn't hesitate to use his children -- quite hilariously -- as props for his outrageously iconoclastic videos.

McInnes is the driving force behind a rude, crude, and gut-bustingly funny new film entitled How To Be A Man (which will be screened at the upcoming SFIndie Film Festival).  In this film, McInnes plays Mark McCarthy, a highly dysfunctional married man whose wife, Margot (Megan Neuringer), is expecting their first child.

Eager to be a good father (and feeling increasingly inadequate as his child's birth approaches), Mark puts an ad up on the Internet looking for someone who can film him making video messages for his future son to watch. Why? Having felt a lump in his chest, Mark is convinced that he's dying of breast cancer and hasn't got long to live.

Liam Aiken and Gavin McInnes in How To Be A Man

Enter Bryan (Liam Aiken), a young film student whose mother (Marisa Redanty) sees Mark's ad and recognizes him as an old flame from her wildly adventurous, slutty youth. Soon enough, Bryan is filming Mark as he tries to explain to his boss at an advertising agency why fart jokes move product.

As Mark sinks deeper and deeper into alcohol- and drug-induced trouble, he coaxes Bryan to join him in pursuing the carnal joys of booze, weed, coke, sex, and heroin as they continue making short films. Absolutely nothing is sacred to McInnes and, if you're the slightest bit offended by his twisted sense of humor, I'd suggest you stick to watching Disney princesses.

As Mark realizes how naive Bryan is, he tries his best to give the young videographer a crash course in how to lead a wild and crazy life. Some of the funniest scenes (which might strike some viewers as misogynistic) range from an extended solo in a bar where Mark lectures Bryan about the fine art of cunnilingus to some practical tips on the bare necessities of scoring cocaine (if need be, whip out your dick to impress the dealer).

Liam Aiken and Gavin McInnes in How To Be A Man

So many moments in How To Be A Man reminded me of 1982's My Favorite Year (in which Peter O'Toole played a wildly out-of-control mentor to a young and impressionable Mark Linn-Baker) that it didn't take long for me to fall in love with this film. As coming-of-age stories go, it's infinitely more grungy, its protagonist is far more pathetic, and its humor as black as tar and perverse as possible.

Poster art for How To Be A Man

In supporting roles, Dana Watkins tries to be the voice of reason as Mark's boss at the advertising agency while Nigel DeFriez appears as Felix (Bryan's pretentious dick of a roommate). Paulo Costanzo does superb work as Gary (a recovering addict and former drug dealer who has gotten clean and is working as a waiter when the ever-resourceful and slyly manipulative Mark tracks him down for a favor).

How To Be A Man is not the kind of film you watch for "safe" comedy (there's a glorious stunt where Mark's pregnant wife is beating him with a baseball bat as her bag of waters breaks). Here's the trailer:

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Set in the stylish home of a highly dysfunctional family preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving, Bruce Norris's energetic black comedy entitled The Pain and the Itch begins with an awful lot of screaming. There's even a revelatory moment in Act II during which the audience breathes a collective sigh of relief to learn that the stay-at-home father of a young girl is not a repressed pedophile.

Directed by Dale Albright, Custom Made Theatre Company's production of this play unfolds on a handsome unit set designed by Stewart Lyle. A highly economical piece to produce (one set, seven actors), The Pain and the Itch focuses on a family whose patriarch insists that they are not rich. As in the wise words of Fox Business Network news anchor, Tracy Byrnes: "$250,000 is not rich for a family of four sending kids to college. It actually is close to poverty."

Brothers Cash (Peter Townley) and Clay (Justin Gillman) in
The Pain and the Itch (Photo by: Jay Yamada)
  • Clay (Justin Gillman) is a modern-day househusband and control freak who, as much as he hates his older brother (a plastic surgeon), is willing to invite him over for Thanksgiving dinner in order to get a free second medical opinion and a prescription for the alarming genital rash discovered on his daughter, Kayla (Gabriella Jarvie).
  • Kelly (Karen Offereins) is Clay's wife, a high-earning attorney nursing her second child. A competent professional woman who is the obvious breadwinner in the family, Kelly (who detests President George W. Bush and his arrogant Republican followers) tends toward an upper middle class version of political correctness -- especially with regard to anything that affects her children.
  • Carol (Jean Forsman) is Clay's ditzy and forgetful mother who votes for the Socialist Workers Party and loves to watch PBS, but often lapses into baby talk when addressing her eight-year-old granddaughter. There has never been any doubt that she favored Cash (short for Cassius) over Clay throughout their lives.
Carol (Jean Forsman), Kalina (Eden Neuendorf), and Kelly
(Karen Offereins) in The Pain and the Itch (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Helping to ruin Clay's tightly-wound sense of self-importance are:
  • Cash (Peter Townley), his older brother who used to bully him. A successful plastic surgeon, Cash doesn't hesitate to call his Russian girlfriend (who has some problems with English as a second language) a nitwit. Less impassioned and more realistic than Clay, he once refused to take on a potential client who wanted a face lift but began her intake interview by describing how she was morally opposed to plastic surgery.
  • Kalina (Eden Neuendorf), Cash's immigrant girlfriend who grew up in poverty, was raped in her youth, and sees America as a land of opportunity.
  • Mr. Hadid (Dorian Lockett), a Muslim taxi driver whose wife went into a diabetic coma when police arrested her after she had taken her insulin but refused to give her any food. Although it's not quite clear why Mr. Hadid has been invited to Thanksgiving dinner, he shows a remarkable  curiosity about the financial value of Clay and Kelly's belongings.
Kalina (Eden Neuendorf) plays with young Kayla (Gabriella Jarvie) in
The Pain and the Itch (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

While the initial conflict in Clay and Kelly's home stems from the chaos created by Kalina chasing Kayla around the house, the longstanding sibling rivalry between the two brothers, Clay's fear that rodents may have invaded the premises, and the fact that whenever Carol tries to watch television with her granddaughter she finds the device tuned to a porno channel instead of PBS, there are deeper, darker secrets waiting to be revealed. In 2006, when The Pain and the Itch had its world premiere in Chicago, Steppenwolf Theatre Company's artistic director, Martha Lavey, explained that:
The Pain and the Itch provides a familiar landscape: a middle-class family (their precise socioeconomic status a matter of dispute within the play) in a single-family home in present-day New York. This is a white family, issued up as the normative American experience. In a nod to the contemporary landscape of shifting gender roles, Kelly (wife and mother) is the principal breadwinner. Her husband, Clay, is the stay-at-home childcare provider. Carol and Cash occupy a more traditional distribution of gender roles and define the patriarchal structure against which Clay has re-made himself. Clay’s is an uneasy self-invention: he is quick to claim his competency as a father and defensive about his wife’s implied (and explicit) criticism of his caretaking. It is important to Clay that parenting be recognized as a job -- a hard job -- and, finally, the most important and serious job of all. Anything that threatens the absolute seriousness and sanctity in which family is held is subject to attack.

Despite Clay and Kelly’s furious attempts to create an oasis of health, gender equity, and nonviolence (all of the politically correct ideals of the white, urban upper-middle-class milieu that they occupy -- however sheepishly), it is an anxious home. The members of its extended family are a threat, outsiders are a threat, the house alarm system is activated (by the master of the house) and cannot be disabled. Clay and Kelly, confident of their impeccable credentials and intentions as parents, immediately assume that they are under threat from outside sources. Their righteousness makes self-reflection impossible. The presence of immigrants -- Kalina, of Eastern European extraction, and Mr. Hadid, a North African -- produces another template of dissonance. Kalina and Mr. Hadid are ‘others’ who express points of view and needs that conflict with and threaten the intact circle of Clay and Kelly’s life.”
Dorian Lockett as the taxi driver, Mr. Hadid in
The Pain and the Itch (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

There's no doubt that Norris (whose 2010 play, Clybourne Park, earned him a Pulitzer Prize for Drama) is a formidable writer with an acid wit. However, two very specific structural problems hovered over the Custom Made Theatre Company's production.
  • Because The Pain and the Itch is told in a series of flashbacks, a change in lighting is often used to denote the switch from the present to the past (these flashbacks are usually triggered by questions from Mr. Hadid). This may have been more difficult for the audience to follow because, unlike a traditional stage with a proscenium, the Custom Made Theatre Company employs a 3/4-round seating style. In some ways, I felt this may have weakened the surprise ending Norris crafted for his play.
  • The way The Pain and the Itch has been scripted, the two most demanding roles (Clay and Kalina) require much stronger actors than the smaller roles. While I was particularly impressed with the performances by Justin Gillman and Eden Neuendorf, the sheer physicality of their work put the supporting cast at a clear disadvantage.
Performances of The Pain and the Itch continue through February 9 at the Custom Made Theatre Company (click here to order tickets). Bruce Norris fans may also relish the opportunity to attend Center Rep's upcoming production of Clybourne Park, which runs from January 31 to March 1 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek (click here to order tickets).