Monday, February 24, 2014

Trying to Sustain a Charade

Keeping up appearances sometimes requires extraordinary effort. A lot can be overlooked when someone is young, pretty, perky, and in good health. But when tragic events darken one's days, desperate times require desperate measures.

Whether a person develops elaborate schemes to hide a secret or, stripped of his usual support system, must improvise on the spot, imagination and resilience become key factors in keeping a secret a secret.

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In a joint project between the California Shakespeare Theater and Intersection for the Arts, an all-female production of Twelfth Night is being performed in a wide variety of venues ranging from Intersection's home base in the San Francisco Chronicle Building to the Alameda County Juvenile Detention Center and the Berkeley Food and Housing Project.

With an ebullient musical score composed by Peter Vitale, this production has been directed by Michelle Hensley, who explains that::
"Shakespeare performed this play with a single-sex cast. All the roles were played by men. This must have increased the layers of confusion the characters felt when they fell in love with someone who turned to be the 'wrong' person. I wanted to find out what would happen if the cast was only women. I think the confusion is equally delightful, and highlights how each of us has a male dimension and a female dimension, no matter our gender. I love the way Twelfth Night explores how falling in love can be an escape from enormous pain. So many characters in the play find themselves 'shipwrecked,' facing enormous losses in their lives, and at a loss about just where to go or what to do next. Suddenly, someone wondrous and magnificent appears, someone whose love, if returned, could make all of your problems and pain vanish!  Who wouldn't jump onto such a life raft?"
Rami Margrom, Cindy Im, and Maria Candelaria appear
in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Working with minimal sets and costumes in a four-sided arena arrangement of chairs that accommodated 80 people, the cast was led by Maria Candelaria as the rich and regal Olivia, Catherine Castellanos as a raucous Sir Toby Belch, and Patty Gallagher as the foolish Andrew Aguecheek. Nancy Carlin did double duty as Olivia's steward, Malvolio, and the Duke's servant, Valentine, while Cindy Im doubled as the shipwrecked Viola and her twin brother, Sebastian. Rounding out the cast were Rami Margron (as Duke Orsino and Olivia's servant, Maria). Sarita Ocon appeared as both as Olivia's jester, Feste, and Sebastian's friend, Antonio.

While the performance was lively, quite charming, and often filled with laughs, in the interest of full disclosure, there were moments when I had trouble concentrating due to some unexpected somatic pains (the first time I've ever had to take a Vicodin at intermission).

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My reaction to the American Conservatory Theater's new production of Eduardo de Filippo's 1945 play, Napoli! was muted for very different reasons. Much of the play focuses on the black market activities of Donna Amalia (Seana McKenna) in 1942 (when Naples was frequently being bombed by Allied forces and simple household staples were extremely difficult to obtain). Act II takes place 14 months later, following the liberation by Allied Forces who brought hope, joy, and an economic upturn to an  exhausted population that had been battered by a brutal combination of poverty and Fascism.

With a unit set designed by Erik Flatmo, Mark Rucker has directed the play's large cast with an eye toward capturing the essential humanity underlying the financial and emotional stresses on Don Gennaro (Marco Barricelli), his family, and their neighbors.

In discussing the importance of the Neapolitan dialect to Italian audiences, the great American playwright, Thornton Wilder, described De Filippo's writing as "forever unEnglishable." Although a new translation by Beatrice Basso and Linda Alper premiered several years ago with this production's debut at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, all of the translators' intense research seems like an academic labor of love that did not produce a drama with a great deal of tension. As A.C.T.'s artistic director, Carey Perloff notes,
"The act of translation is truly a rescue mission that can bring alive a play from a distant time or culture for a new audience. De Filippo is particularly challenging to translate because his Neapolitan dialect is so pungent and particular. There is a music to his language that needs to be carried forward and re-imagined. For me, hearing this lovely new American translation is almost like hearing a new play, full of discoveries and life, but also remarkably true to its original source material."
Adelaide (Sharon Lockwood) and Donna Amalia (Seana McKenna)
 in a scene from Act I of Napoli! (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Unfortunately, De Filippo's play (which is nearly 70 years old) is showing its age. One never gets the feeling that anyone or anything could threaten Donna Amalia (who has all kinds of contingency plans up her sleeve). When a neighbor reports her to the authorities for selling black-market coffee, a well-rehearsed scam (in which her husband, Don Gennaro, pretends to be dead) is quickly set into motion moments before police officer Ciappa (Gregory Wallace) arrives on the scene.

This type of charade is as old as the commedia dell'arte. Inspired by a character mentioned in Dante's Inferno, Giacomo Puccini breathed new life into the deception with his one-act opera, Gianni Schicchi (which received its world premiere as the final act of Il Trittico at the Metropolitan Opera on December 14, 1918).

In De Filippo's play (which was originally known as The Millionaire of Napoli) there are intricately plotted relationship problems -- so carefully positioned that one can almost sit in the audience ready to give a stage manager's cues for a specific character's entrance.

Anthony Fusco, Seana McKenna, and Dion Mucciacito
in a scene from Act II of Napoli! (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Don Gennaro disappears between acts and is believed to be dead. His sudden, disillusioned, confused, and grimy return from the war raises all kinds of questions.
  • Will Donna Amalia fall for the slick charms of her business partner, Errico Settebellizze (Dion Mucciacito), who would really like to give her business?
  • Will her handsome young son, Amedeo (Nick Gabriel), get nabbed by the police for stealing tires from automobiles?
  • Will her callousness toward a local accountant named Riccardo Spasiano (Anthony Fusco) come back to haunt her when her youngest daughter is perilously ill and everyone in the area is hiding the medicine necessary to keep her alive?
  • Will her oldest daughter, Maria Rosario (Blair Busbee), who has given up her virginity to an American soldier, bear an illegitimate child?
Under normal circumstances, such questions might hold the audience in the playwright's dramatic grip. But Donna Amalia's black market business has always been something that her husband did his best to ignore and, although it has helped her to feed her family, it has not been able to prevent her from getting a taste of her won medicine by the final curtain

Although her friend Adelaide (Sharon Lockwood) is always on hand for support, and the giggly Assunta (Lisa Kitchens) provides some comic relief as a "perhaps" widow who doesn't know whether it's time to stop mourning.and get on with her life, I found myself less impressed with Don Gennaro's final attempt to heal a family which has survived on lies and deceit than I was simply underwhelmed by the entire venture.

Donna Amalia (Seana McKenna) and her husband, Gennaro
(Marco Barricelli) in a scene from Act II of Napoli!
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In situations like this, it's always valuable to ask "What did I take away from this experience?" The answer (which truly shocked me) proved that my experience was not what the playwright or director had intended. In the tiny role of Miezo Prevete, one of the Bay area's most reliable character actors (Gabriel Marin) delivered the finest impression of Art Carney's unforgettable Ed Norton (from The Honeymooners) I've ever seen.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Racing Against Time

It's not exactly a secret. Timing is everything -- and time waits for no man. Whether someone is a handsome young rock star battling an addiction or an angry alte kocker trying to provoke a fellow geezer into playing one more game of King of the Mountain, the clock keeps ticking.

Auntie Mame famously cautioned that "Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death." But what happens when a "has been" discovers that he's no longer relevant? Or a when highly functioning kidnapper/pedophile realizes that the jig is up? It kind of takes the fizz out of the game. In his lyric for "Old Friends" (from 1980's Merrily We Roll Along), Stephen Sondheim wrote:
"Most friends fade,
Or they don't make the grade
New ones are quickly made
And in a pinch, sure, they'll do."
And yet, in a perverse way, Sondheim's lyric for a song from 1964's Anyone Can Whistle does a better job of capturing a wistful sense of fleeting loss.

With all the angst about young tech workers taking over San Francisco, families and artists being forced to leave town, and the rapid gentrification of neighborhoods like the Mission District, one segment of the population is constantly being overlooked: seniors living on fixed incomes or in rent-controlled apartments.

While some protestors attempt to block the luxurious Wi-Fi equipped "Google buses" that transport tech workers down to Silicon Valley, riding San Francisco's MUNI system is always a source of free drama. Recently, I've found myself developing a new way of communicating with riders much younger than myself who are blocking the exit doors on buses and trains.

Since most of these people are wearing earbuds that allow them to block out ambient noise, asking them to step aside accomplishes nothing. Politely tapping them on their shoulder yields similar results. The most basic way to get their attention is to wave your hand in front of their face long enough for them to look up from their handheld devices.

Thankfully, I"m not like Michael Dunn, who felt that the best way to get the attention of someone who was playing loud music was to shoot him. But, having lived across the street from Dolores Park for 40 years, there are times when I wonder if I'm turning into the kind of bitter old geezer who screams "You rotten kids, get off of my lawn!" I know I am not alone.

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San Francisco's veteran storyteller, Charlie Varon, is introducing a new monologue to audiences at The Marsh entitled Feisty Old Jew. Directed by his long-time collaborator, Dave Ford, the show's protagonist is 83-year-old Bernie Schein, an ex-broker who grew up in Brooklyn but never graduated from high school. An aggressive, manipulative gantseh macher with an endless supply of chutzpah, Bernie has graduated from being a "somebody" to becoming an elderly 'nobody."

A resident at a local assisted living facility who is bored with his elderly peers, Bernie still bears a grudge against a resident he has known from childhood. Nor is he happy with the changes he sees happening to his beloved San Francisco. Why?  Because, in today's San Francisco, Bernie is insignificant.

What really has Bernie's Depends in a bunch is the painful realization that he has become irrelevant, that this self-made (and extremely self-important) man is mostly invisible to younger San Franciscans with more energy, more disposable income, more vitality, and more friends. So Bernie does what any self-respecting octogenarian Jew would do. When his taxi fails to show up, he sticks out his thumb and tries his luck at hitchhiking.

Much to Bernie's surprise, he's given a ride by three Millenials in a Tesla that has two surfboards strapped to its roof and comes equipped with a cappucino machine on its dashboard. Behind the wheel is a laid-back Caucasian, eager to catch some waves off Bolinas.

The passengers are two Indian-Americans (brother and sister) for whom money is no object. The male is a techie with the kind of expansive generosity that accompanies new wealth. His sister is an author who became a mini-celebrity after writing "This Is Your Brain on Coupons."

Charlie Varon as Bernie Schein, the protagonist
of his new monologue entitled Feisty Old Jew

Varon likes to describe Bernie as "a 20th-century man living in a 21st-century city." But Feisty Old Jew is about a lot more than the scorn of one generation for another. Varon's monologue goes to the heart of what happens when rapid change leaves people gasping in its wake for acknowledgment; when a city's sudden change in demographics threatens to destroy its soul.

Imagine an Egyptian souq whose merchants have no interest in haggling over the price of their wares and you'll understand Bernie's shock and disappointment when, after winning a $400,000 wager on whether or not he can get up on a surfboard and ride a wave, the loser (who is probably 50 years younger than Bernie) happily writes him a check for the agreed-upon amount of money. As Bernie exits the Tesla, he can't help thinking how much he would have enjoyed a good argument instead!

Feisty Old Jew does a fine job of showcasing Varon's writing, wit, and skill with accents. Although his latest monologue lasts barely an hour, it's an intoxicatingly delicious ride. Performances continue at The Marsh through March 16 (click here to order tickets).

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Before getting into a discussion of Rob Handel's play, A Maze, let me recommend a blog entry from DailyKos entitled Irrelevant Crap: At What Point Does a Work of Art Become "Tainted" By the Infamy of its Artist?  Handel's meticulously-layered play (which received its West Coast premiere last year from Just Theatre and is now being co-produced in revival with Shotgun Players) combines two overlapping subplots:
  • In one, Jessica Maple (Frannie Morrison), who was kidnapped from a grocery store as a child and escaped from her captor eight years later, is starting to make the rounds of talk shows and other media guest appearances with a slickness exceedingly rare for someone so young.
  • In the other, a rock star with a drug problem enters an upscale rehabilitation clinic where he meets and befriends a patient named Beeson Ehrwig (Clive Worsley), a self-effacing author/artist with noticeably compulsive behavioral tendencies. The rocker, Paul (Harold Pierce), has been brought to the clinic by his girlfriend, Oksana (Sarah Moser), who is also the manager of their band, Pathetic Fallacy. Beeson (whose maze-like drawings and works of fiction have developed a cult-like following) is most likely an high-functioning alcoholic.
Oksana (Sarah Moser) and Paul (Harold Pierce) are lovers who
belong to the same band in A Maze (Photo by: Pak Han)

Handel's script is the kind of mystery that cleverly unravels one layer at a time. Even though, as gifted children, Paul and Oksana's talents were indulged by well-meaning parents and teachers, as adults they find themselves struggling to cope with Paul's substance abuse problem (that is coupled with a serious case of writer's block). One of the reasons Paul is drawn to Beeson is the author's utter lack of writer's block.

Beeson, however, doesn't see himself as having any kind of artistic inspiration. As a graphic artist, he considers himself to be a mere vessel through which the maze drawings and their related stories flow at random. His fiction is all about how a king (Lasse Christiansen) built a maze to protect himself, his queen (Janis DeLucia), and their infant from the corrupting influence of outsiders with the help of a mysterious snow dog.

The Queen (Janis DeLucia) and King (Lasse Christiansen)
argue in a scene from A Maze (Photo by: Pak Han)

One of the clinic's counselors, Tom (Carl Holvick-Thomas) is obviously tasked with moving his patients up and out of rehab as they gain emotional strength and stability. But there are some problems which substance abuse clinics can't always solve.

Whether or not Beeson's king, queen, and the maze they inhabit represent deeper, darker secrets in the artist's life remains to be seen. In her director's note, Molly Aronson-Gelb writes:
"We first performed A Maze last summer at Live Oak Theatre. At that time, the horror of the Cleveland kidnappings was still fresh in our collective consciousness. As we explored the play, we began to feel our way through messy, complicated questions about the way the media treats its famous victims. What culpability do we have as consumers of news stories that are more interested in victims than in survivors?

Now, in a different season, in a different theatre, I find myself asking new questions. What are the limitations to the excuses we extend to exceptional individuals for aberrant behavior? Why do I boycott Roman Polanski's films but not Woody Allen's? Why does the drunkenness of Fitzgerald or Hemingway seem charming through the gaze of history, when the lived-in reality was devastating and awful for those around them? Why am I so quick to forgive Bill Clinton for all his personal faults when I see him bring the crowd to its feet at the 2012 convention?"
 Kim (Lauren Spencer), Beeson  (Clive Worsley), and Paul (Harold
Pierce) make a fateful appearance on a talk show in A Maze
(Photo by: Pak Han)

This production poses a different challenge for the audience, which has mostly to do with pacing. Martin Flynn's black and white set (which is filled with maze-like drawings) does a great job of communicating a sense of being trapped by circumstance. However, Handel's script calls for numerous set changes which keep sabotaging the build-up of dramatic tension so crucial to this story.

Because Handel tries to cover so much ground (drug addiction, kidnapping, pedophilia, Stockholm syndrome, graphic novels, celebrity culture, the contemporary media circus, artists of questionable integrity, and strategic media whoring), there were numerous moments when it seemed as if the playwright was attempting to clobber his audience with symbolism. The odd result was that the opening performance ran nearly 30 minutes past its projected length.

On numerous occasions, the hard working cast lost critical momentum as time was taken up with stage business, scene changes, and pregnant pauses. At one point, I found myself thinking of certain performances at the Metropolitan Opera during the late 1960s which had been led by Fausto Cleva (an Italian conductor whom standees sarcastically referred to as "Faster, Cleva!").

The production's strongest performances came from Clive Worsley as Beeson and Sarah Moser as Roksana. Janis DeLucia did triple duty as Angela, Hermione, and the Queen while Carl Hovick-Thomas did triple duty as Tom, Alexander, and Gunter (a member of Paul and Roksana's band). Lauren Spencer doubled as talk show hostess Kim and Tish, with Lasse Christiansen doubling as the king and Gareth (the record producer for Pathetic Fallacy).

Jessica Maple (Frannie Morrison) discusses her  captivity
with Kim (Lauren Spencer) in A Maze (Photo by: Pak Han) 

By the show's end, the Pathetic Fallacy team was busily twisting themselves into pretzels to find ways they could profit from Beeson's art without being tainted by the moral stench of any perceived association with the artist's criminality and pedophilia. Performances of A Maze continue through March 9 at the Ashby Stage (click here to order tickets).

Monday, February 17, 2014

Hindsight Is 20/20

In 2004, when Aaron Lansky's thrilling book was published, the final chapters of Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books heralded the dawn of a new era. Lansky described how a new technology (electronic scanning) had allowed him to republish many works by Yiddish writers that had been taken from Polish libraries and destroyed by the Nazis. Not only could he reprint many works, he was able to restore collections of Yiddish literature to those Polish libraries.

Today, many of us take the Internet (and the cloud) for granted. But there was a time -- not so very long ago -- when knowledge was much more difficult to access.
  • Some secrets were buried in local historical records that no one had looked at for years.
  • Some silent films had been left in a box in a barn or attic.
  • Some fossils that had been hidden underneath a lake for many years were exposed by drought.
Any number of fascinating facts were out of sight and out of mind, just waiting to be discovered.  But inquiring minds always want to know more.
  • More about what makes people tick.
  • More about what makes the sky blue.
  • More about what makes water wet.
  • More about what happened in the past.
One of the blessings of modern science is that it has given us better tools with which to analyze and comprehend the world in which we live.  From mapping the human genome to predicting trends in climate change, from predicting earthquakes and tsunamis to exploring the universe, we know more today thanks to science than to our previous (and primitive) reliance on religion and superstition.

Depending on the topic at hand, the results of our queries may allow us to look back and wonder or, conversely, look back in anger. Two new productions offer an excellent demonstration of how this phenomenon plays out in the arts.

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Just as one struggles to determine which came first, the chicken or the egg, art lovers often wonder which came first: inspiration or experimentation. For those who relish a forensic approach to the techniques of great artists, a new documentary entitled Tim's Vermeer demonstrates how science can inspire art (or vice versa).

Produced by Penn Gillette (of Penn & Teller) and directed by Teller, the documentary traces the work of video engineer/inventor Tim Jenison to prove his hypothesis about how Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) could have created paintings whose lighting was so realistic as to almost appear photographic in nature, even though the daguerrotype camera would not come into use until 1839.

Knowing that x-rays of Vermeer's paintings had failed to reveal any tracing marks beneath the oil, Jenison theorized that the 17th-century artist from Delft could have used a camera obscura (Vermeer might well have learned about optics from one of his neighbors, a master maker of microscopes).

Jenison's personal wealth (he invented one of the first video digitizers for computers as well as the Video Toaster) helped to bankroll his spare-no-expense approach to proving his hypothesis. Working in a warehouse in Texas, Jenison's attempt to replicate Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" took 130 days of devilishly detailed painting using a combination of a camera obscura and two mirrors.

Poster art for Tim's Vermeer

David Hockney (who appears in this documentary) is quick to point to one of the cultural differences between life in the 17th and 21st centuries. In Vermeer's time, art and science may have been more delicately intertwined than in today's world, where photography is seen as a separate and legitimate art form. Although some purists within the art world might opine that the use of a camera obscura should diminish Vermeer's artistic achievements, their argument eventually boils down to whether or not the ends justify the means.

For a painter, factors like composition, placement, color, and light are among the key ingredients that help to create a work of art. If one technique delivers better results than another, why not experiment with it?

In an intriguing and extremely well-funded way, Tim's Vermeer becomes an exploration of whether or not the artistic process and the scientific process are compatible, mutually exclusive, or occasionally overlap. Here's the trailer:

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It's no secret that the prolific poet/playwright, Marcus Gardley, has a way with words. Those who attended the Bay area premieres of This World in a Woman's Hands (2009) at Shotgun Players as well as "And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi" at Cutting Ball Theater (2010) recall Gardley's ability to fuse magical realism with music and poetry, to create provocative (and often stunning) moments of intense theatricality. What an operatic composer might accomplish with notes, Gardley creates with words and meter. He is masterful at creating dramatically solid sounds of defiance and despair for actors.

Commissioned by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, The House That Will Not Stand was nurtured at The Ground Floor (Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work). The play recently received its world premiere in a handsome co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre on a unit set (designed by Antje Ellermann) representing a wealthy home in old New Orleans. Directed by Patricia McGregor -- with some magnificent costume work by Katherine O'Neill -- Gardley's new play takes audiences back to a curious moment in American history which has long since been forgotten.

Gardley's play is set in antebellum New Orleans at a time when women of color often lived as concubines to wealthy white men of European descent who, for whatever reason, had grown tired or disinterested in their wives. Such left-handed marriages often featured a woman of African, Caribbean, or Native American descent who, under normal circumstances, would never have been considered a social equal to her white partner. In Gardley's play, the house that will not stand is home to the following residents:
  • Lazare (Ray Reinhardt), a wealthy white geezer with no interest in his wife, whose heart has  belonged to Beartrice for many years.
  • Beartrice (Lizan Mitchell) is Lazare's lover. A fierce and domineering matriarch who has given Lazare three quadroon daughters, Beartrice may not be Lazare's equal in society, but she's a whole lot smarter and shrewder than him. Her ultimate goal is to relocate her daughters to Paris, where their freedom would be guaranteed for life. But when complications arise, a taste of her deadly "sweet potato pie" swiftly leads to Lazare's demise (as it did with her first husband). If need be, Beartrice is willing to give a taste of the sweet pie between her legs to Lazare's legal widow, knowing that her death would leave Beartrice with a sizable inheritance.
Lazare (Ray Reinhardt) and Beartrice (Lizan Mitchell) in
The House That Will Not Stand (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
  • Agnès (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) is the eldest daughter of Lazare and Beartrice. Spoiled, narcissistic, and worried that time may be passing her by, Agnès rebels against her mother's insistence that she not attend the Quadroon Ball and sneaks out of the house with the assistance of her younger sister, Odette.
  • Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) is Beartrice's second child. Because her skin is darker than her older sister's -- and her personality far more appealing -- Odette's feminine charms are quicker to attract upper class white gentlemen. When the man Agnès had planned to ensnare becomes infatuated with Odette, complications quickly ensue.
  • Maude Lynn (Flor De Liz Perez) is the youngest of Gardley's three sisters. Naive and hyperreligious, she is saving herself for Jesus and is eager for her older sisters to save their souls.
Agnès (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), Odette (Joniece
Abbott-Pratt), and Maude Lynn (Flor De Liz Perez)in
The House That Will Not Stand (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
  • Marie Josephine (Petronia Paley) is Beartrice's demented sister, who remains eager to be reunited with the ghost of the man she once loved.
  • Makeda (Harriett D. Foy) is Lazare and Beartrice's wily servant, who has helped to raise their three girls. Beartrice has promised Makeda that, upon Lazare's death, she will purchase her slave's freedom for her.  Like the character of Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, that's the only thing Makeda really wants. She will do anything to get it.
Makeda (Harriett D. Foy)  and Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt)
in The House That Will Not Stand (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With choreography by Paloma McGregor, The House that Will Not Stand is the kind of magical theatrical experience that seems wonderfully old-fashioned. Combined with its generous use of sexual imagery, magical spells, French vocabulary, messages from the dead, African chants, and a mulatta version of Cinderella at the Prince's Ball, it lures the audience into the meticulous details of how to secure a lucrative placement (benefitting both mother and daughter) for a young and pretty quadroon.

Gardley's drama also allows audiences to revisit a time when social class and racism worked very differently in the United States, and colored women could become millionaires if they played their cards well. This is very much about women playing to their strengths.

Although Lizan Mitchell's Beartrice dominates the evening with a leonine ferocity reminiscent of Eartha Kitt, her scenes with La Veuve (a rival concubine, played by Petronia Paley, who tries to steal the rings from Lazare's dead body) are deliciously catty while serving as model lessons in how to wield social and economic power. Harriett D. Foy is especially moving as Makeda.

Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), Agnès (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), and
Beartrice (Lizan Mitchell) in The House That Will Not Stand
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of The House That Will Not Stand continue at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through March 16. Don't miss this rich and fascinating historical drama!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Parent's Worst Nightmare

History and literature are filled with stories about children who have been separated from their parents.

What happens to children who are separated from their parents often depends on their survival instincts, their ability to find their way home, or their quick, resourceful thinking. A delicious plot twist in Gilbert & Sullivan's 1879 comic opera, The Pirates of Penzance, revolves around the piratical vow never to harm an orphan.

It's easy for audiences to become jaded and wonder how a filmmaker could possibly come up with a new angle from which to address the world's oldest form of separation anxiety. However, two new films manage to offer unique twists on an old predicament by demanding their viewers reconsider the age-old question: Which contributes most strongly to a family's ability to remain intact: nature or nurture?

* * * * * * * * *
On the day I underwent a lithotripsy procedure (which bombards a kidney stone with sound waves in an attempt to break it into tiny pieces), I sat in one of the spacious lobbies of the new Kaiser Medical Center Hospital in Oakland and watched a mini-drama unfold before my eyes. On the other side of the lobby, an Asian-American mother was waiting with a small child in front of a bank of elevators. As an elevator door opened, the mother said something to the child and proceeded to walk into the elevator.

At that very moment, the child was distracted by something and turned around (facing away from the elevators). Before the mother could turn around and see what had happened, the doors closed between mother and son. There was a tense moment of silence before the child started crying.

It was the kind of moment that would be perfect for a kidnapping in a shopping mall or some other public setting. As two African-American employees who had watched the scene unfold passed by my chair, I head one of them ask "What kind of mother doesn't know that you need to hold onto your child's hand to prevent them from wandering away from you at that age?"

Good advice. But what happens when an older and slightly more mature child vanishes from the living room of his home while his mother is entertaining friends in that very same room? You get an absurdist thriller like Congratulations! (which is being screened as part of San Francisco's 2014 SFIndie Fest).

Poster art for Congratulations!

It takes a while before viewers might realize that Mike Brune's film is not supposed to make sense.
  • The parents of the missing child, Paul Ryan Gray, are obviously distraught and a bit surprised to find their likenesses included in the police sketches of potential suspects.
  • Mr. Gray (Robert Longstreet) seems more confused and inconvenienced than concerned, scared, or angry about his son's disappearance. Late in the investigation, he tells the police that he's really got to get back to work
  • Mrs. Gray (Rhoda Griffis) alternates between being in shock and cooperating with police requests to reenact the day her child disappeared by wandering around the neighborhood in hysterics.
  • Paul's older brother, David (Graeme McKeon), couldn't care less about his missing sibling because the little brat was a royal pain in the ass. 
  • Paul's younger brother, Jeff (Blake Jones), is thrilled that the detective has deputized him and given him a flashlight, a badge, and two handguns to use in his hunt for the missing child.
  • The Gray's home is covered with posters for the missing boy and the kind of yellow crime scene tape used in detective shows on television.
  • The Gray family is persuaded to take a vacation to Cape Canaveral, Florida, where someone else's child (who had once gone missing) mysteriously showed up flying a kite.
Mrs Gray (Rhoda Griffis) is a distraught mother
whose son has vanished in Congratulations!

Slowly, however, the viewer becomes aware that the story keeps shifting its focus from the missing child to the missing inner child of Detective Dan Skok (John Curran) of the Missing Persons Unit. At one point, using time-aging software, he examines what Paul would look like as he aged -- only to discover that by the time Paul turned 60, he would look exactly like Detective Skok.

And there's the key to understanding Brune's film. Skok is single. He has no wife, no children, and no family. He's the kind of workaholic gumshoe who has always lived for his job and, although due to retire, has nowhere else to go. After moving into the Grays' home, he sends them away and, while searching for clues, waters the lawn, does some ironing, and performs other housekeeping chores.

After several weeks, Paul is found hiding in the laundry room and effortlessly rejoins his family. There is no talk of a miracle nor the slightest explanation about how he survived for weeks on his own. Suddenly, the case is closed and Detective Skok has nowhere to go.

Detective Skok searches for clues in Congratulations!

Furtive glances between Mr. and Mrs. Gray underscore their anxiety about how to tell Skok that, although he's always welcome in their home and will always be considered a part of their family, it's time for him to get out of their lives. When his boss (Jack McGee), asks “What the fuck are you still doing here?” Skok replies “Police work.”

Congratulations! is quite obviously a labor of love by someone who adores the police procedural genre. Although extremely well crafted by Brune, it may leave audiences scratching their heads and feeling strangely unfulfilled.  Here's the trailer:

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One of the most popular literary devices involves two infants who were switched at birth. Gilbert & Sullivan employed this tactic twice, mining comic gold from the gimmick in 1878's HMS Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor and 1889's The Gondoliers; or, The King of Barataria.

What happens when the child-swapping device is used in a contemporary drama?  A new film by Japan's Hirokazu Kore-Eda examines what transpires after a six-year-old child's DNA tests (required for his school admission application) fail to match up with the genetic profiles of his parents. With DNA testing now easily available, hospital administrators soon discover that two infant boys were switched shortly after being born. But why? And by whom?

Like Father, Like Son explores the emotional trauma when two sets of parents learn that the children they have grown to love are not related to them by bloodline. Although both boys are happy and healthy, their families are quite different.

Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a highly competitive businessman who sees his son, Keita (Keita Ninomiya) as always needing to study harder and improve his learning scores. A workaholic who can never find time to spend with his family, Ryota lacks basic paternal instincts, is emotionally unavailable, and is missing the kind of active imagination that would keep a child's attention. There isn't much warmth between Ryota's parents or between Ryota and his brother.

Although Ryota's wife, Midori (Machiko Ono) initially seems subservient (in a more traditional Japanese manner), she's less than satisfied with their marriage. All little Keita wants is his father's love and approval.

Ryota Nonomyia (Masaharu Fukuyama) with his six-year-old son,
Keita (Keita Ninomiya) in Like Father, Like Son

By contrast, Yudai Saiki (Lily Franky) is a devoted father of three who runs a small appliance repair shop. His wife, Yukari (Yoko Maki), works in a fast food restaurant. Unlike the Nonomiyas, the Saikis are much more touchy-feely with their children (Yudai doesn't hesitate to share a bathtub with a young boy). Their oldest son, Ryusei (Shogen Hwang) is an average child, confident in his family's love and happy in the warmth of their home.

Each family's socioeconomic status plays a major role in Like Father, Like Son. Ryota is an upper middle class businessman who clings to certain traditions of Japanese culture (most notably that heredity is everything). Because his wife was raised in a rural environment, Midori has some insecurities about big city living but does her best to coach her son in his attempts to play the piano. Keita gets along best with his maternal grandmother, who likes to play Wii tennis with the boy.

Yudai may have less money and prestige than Ryota, but has solid fathering instincts and delights in spending time with his family. When both couples are advised by hospital staff to switch the boys back to their biological parents as soon as possible (and avoid further contact with each other), they must figure out how to stop loving one child and transfer their affection to someone new. As six year olds, Keita and Ryusei are justifiably confused and react like kids.

Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his wife (Machiko Ono) look
at a picture of their biological son in Like Father, Like Son

At first, the parents' reactions seem a bit odd. Ryota's initial reaction is a combination of horror that his biological son is living with lower class parents and that he should try to buy his child back from them so that, even with his limited interest in parenting, he can "own" both children. Yudai is carefully tracking every financial opportunity to be reimbursed by the hospital for the damage caused by its employees' neglect. As filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu explains:
"Like the protagonist in the story, I have a five-year-old child. Through making this film I wanted to think about what blood connections really mean -- an idea that is very close to me. I honestly don’t know if we can describe the changes Ryota undergoes as growth or maturity, but what I can say is that becoming a father is not something you do on your own -- your child makes a father out of you. I also wanted there to be a contrast of character between the two children. Because the boys are six years old, I wanted them to express confusion, rather than sadness, towards their situation."
Poster art for Like Father, Like Son

It takes about five minutes to completely surrender to the charms of Like Father, Like Son thanks, in large part, to the exuberant charm of the little boy playing Keita. Backed by a sensitive musical score by Shin Yasui, the film's poignancy hits every vulnerable nerve. As usual, the two wives prove to be much more flexible, cooperative, and genuinely concerned about the children than their husbands. Here's the trailer:

Monday, February 10, 2014

Boys In The Attic

Anna Russell used to say that "The thing about opera is that you can say and do absolutely anything -- as long as you sing it!" And, in all honesty, the operatic repertoire is riddled with thrillingly melodramatic depictions of suicide:
  • An infatuated young woman throws herself off a cliff in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman.
  • An impassioned teenager poisons himself after discovering the seemingly dead body of his girlfriend in a tomb in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette.
  • Having been driven mad by the erratic behavior of her intended, Ophelia drowns herself in Thomas's Hamlet.
  • A jealous and humiliated military hero stabs himself to death after strangling his wife in Verdi's Otello.
  • The cunning Queen of Ancient Egypt clasps a venomous snake to her breast in Barber's Antony and Cleopatra.
  • An outcast takes his fishing boat out to sea and sinks it in Britten's Peter Grimes.
  • A young Japanese mother who has given up her child commits hara-kiri in Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

"Let him die with honor who cannot live with honor," sings Cio-Cio-San. But when someone commits suicide in a contemporary drama, the decedent's unexpected (and often incomprehensible) death leaves an aching wound for the surviving family members. Parents keep wondering what caused their child to kill himself. Spouses and siblings lose sleep trying to think if there was anything they could have done to prevent an aggrieved woman from taking her own life.

Depression is a mental disorder which can sap a person's desire, twist his logic, and isolate him from those who might be able to help. Ann Brenoff's recent article entitled Depression, A Kitchen Knife, And Phil Hoffman offers a heart-rending example of how someone can fall down a rabbit hole and end up in the depths of despair with little hope of climbing back to the surface.

Two recent Bay area productions included characters whose lives are haunted by the suicide of their son. The ghost of one son appears onstage; the other is never seen. How the various members of each community responded to an untimely death of someone they have known and loved provides key twists to the plot of each drama. By sheer coincidence, both plays are set in suburbs of Chicago.

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In 2011, when American Conservatory Theater presented the West Coast premiere of Clybourne Park, much of the attention focused on the piece of real estate which sits at the core of Bruce Norris's dramedy. Inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 hit, A Raisin in the Sun,the play's two acts are separated by 50 years but take place in the same living room.

Directed by Michael Butler, Center Rep's new production of Clybourne Park offers Bay area audiences a second chance to examine the effects of racismgentrification, and generational shifts as depicted by the award-winning playwright.

The first act takes place in 1959, in the home of Russ (Richard Howard) and Bev (Lynda DiVito), an aggrieved middle-aged couple -- living in an all-white suburb of Chicago -- whose son hung himself in his bedroom after returning home from the Korean War. The couple has struggled to cope with the lack of support Kenneth (Timothy Redmond) received from a community in which no one would hire a veteran who confessed to having killed people during his wartime service. Nor has Russ been able to tolerate the idiotic platitudes he keeps hearing from their affable but useless priest.

Richard Howard (Russ) and Lynda DiVito (Bev) in Act I of
Clybourne Park (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Much of the drama in Act I revolves around the revelation that the couple has sold their home to the Youngers, an African American family. One of their acquaintances from the neighborhood association, Karl Lindner (Craig Marker), is a clueless racist with a deaf and very pregnant wife (Kendra Lee Oberhauser).  Karl attempts to question Bev's maid, Francine (Velina Brown) and her husband, Albert (Adrian N. Roberts) about whether they would feel out of place moving into an all-white neighborhood.

Velina Brown as Francine (Act I) and Lena (Act II) in
Clybourne Park (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

The second act takes place 50 years later, as another wave of gentrification is threatening Clybourne Park. This time, the clueless Steve (Craig Marker) and his pregnant wife Lindsey (Kendra Lee Oberhauser) want to make physical alterations to the home they've just purchased. However, Lena Younger's great granddaughter (Velina Brown) -- who has been named after the domestic worker who purchased the house in Act I -- worries about how their architectural plans will change the face of the neighborhood.

J.B. Wilson'ss set designs for Act I (bottom) and Act II (top)
of Clybourne Park (Photo by: Lyle Barrer)

I always find it fascinating to see how second or third viewings of a drama can change one's perceptions of the piece. When I first saw Clybourne Park, one of the key impressions was how much trivia people were obsessed with knowing despite the fact that it left them clueless about the larger picture ("If you're so smart, how come you're so stupid?").

Seeing the play again in Walnut Creek left a different impression, largely because of Craig Marker's powerful portrayals of two clueless, arrogant fools whose assumption of white male privilege prevents them from having the good sense to shut their stupid mouths before making a bad situation worse. With the second act set in 2009 (with cell phones being used by most of the characters), it quickly becomes obvious that not one of these people is capable or interested in listening to anyone else's issues. Gentrification has come loaded with the rampant narcissism and the bloated sense of self-importance the Gen-X and Gen-Y crowds bring to the table.

Kendra Lee Oberhauser (Lindsey) and Craig Marker (Steve)
in Act II of Clybourne Park (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

When Lena mentions that the reason that her great grandmother was able to purchase the home at less than market value might have been the circumstances surrounding Kenneth's death, Lindsey freaks out at the thought of raising a child in a house where someone committed suicide (even if the traumatic event happened 50 years ago).

While Norris's script gives audiences plenty of food for thought with regard to racism and gentrification, Kenneth's suicide claims center stage during the play's poignant final moments as a plumber (Richard Howard) forces open a foot locker containing Kenneth's belongings that Russ and Bev had buried under the crape myrtle tree in the back yard before moving to their new home.

Because Clybourne Park double casts actors as characters separated by five decades, it requires some strong ensemble work in order for both sets of characters to shine. Lynda DiVito had some strong moments as the vulnerable Bev in Act I which contrasted with her tough real estate attorney in Act II. Richard Howard delivered two widely disparate characters: the grieving Russ in Act I and the loudmouth plumber in Act II.

Richard Howard portrays the grieving Russ in 1959 and Dan the
plumber in 2009 in Clybourne Park (Photo by: Alessandra Mello).

Adrian N. Roberts had some delicious moments as Albert (Act I) and Alfred (Act II) with Velina Brown appearing as his two wives. Although Kendra Lee Oberhauser handled two different pregnancies with comic flair, Timothy Redmond was the only member of the cast to appear in three roles (as the friendly priest in 1959, as a gay member of the neighborhood association in 2009, and as the ghost of the suicidal Kenneth).

Performances of Clybourne Park continue at the Lesher Center for the Arts through March 1 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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Shortly after being suspended from school by his teacher, a young teen named Gidion commits suicide. Because the Aurora Theatre Company has asked critics not to divulge any of the personal secrets or plot twists in Gidion's Knot (an exquisitely crafted suspense drama by Johnna Adams), I'm going to tiptoe my way through this review as gingerly as possible. Let me strongly recommend, however, that you make time to read Soraya Chemaly's provocative article entitled "Why Are So Many Boys Leaving High School Thinking Rape Is Funny?" and think about how it applies -- not just to high school and college students -- but to an extremely precocious fifth grader.

The action takes place in what (up until very recently) had been Gidion's classroom as his teacher, Heather Clark (Stacy Ross), sits grading papers while waiting for a parent-teacher conference. When there is finally a knock on the classroom door, it's the last person Heather was expecting to see: Gidion's mother.

Although she hasn't slept in 72 hours, Corryn Fell (Jamie Jones) is nowhere as distraught as one might expect. While she's twitchy, defensive, and demanding answers about what led to her son's suspension, her aggressive behavior demonstrates the unconditional love this divorced mother (who teaches epic Gaelic poetry at a nearby university) has for a son who was just beginning to show some creative writing talent before he took his own life.

The question of whether Gidion's essay should be regarded as a warning sign or an indication of budding talent had special resonance for me. When I was a student at Midwood High School, I had a job manning the PBX 507B cordless switchboard in the main office during my lunch period.

A PBX 507B cordless switchboard

One of the creative writing assignments from my English teacher was to write a character study of someone in our daily lives. I dutifully drafted a less than flattering portrait of the Principal's secretary. Because my father also taught at Midwood, my English teacher showed him the essay out of concern that I might be headed for trouble (he was happy to make sure it went no further).

Back in the early 1960s, girls were supposed to be interested in things like poetry, literature, and art history. Because my father taught biology, I was being guided down a math and science track. Many years later, when I was attempting to earn a living as a freelance writer, I looked back on that incident and realized that no one ever saw that essay as an indication that I should work on developing my writing skills.

The action in Gidion's Knot takes place in a middle school classroom in which a clock is running in real time. With 20 movable desks designed for small people, Nina Ball's unit set has the kind of cozy ambiance which would encourage children to participate in group activities.

Alas, sometimes "sharing" your creativity isn't the smartest move. As tension builds under Jon Tracy's deft and meticulous direction, clues to the mysterious cause of Gidion's death slowly start to unravel.
  • Some of these clues are charming insights into character; others reveal brazen acts and horrific fantasies. 
  • Some moments reflect the limitations of two adults caught in a tense cat-and-mouse game of withholding critical information; others reveal how a mother's unconditional love can blind her to the warning signs reflected in her son's writing.
The two women facing off during the parent-teacher conference are polar opposites.
  • Heather is protective of her students and careful to respect other people's boundaries while Corryn has the subtlety of the proverbial bull in a china shop.
  • Heather is well aware of the legal ramifications of the situation while Corryn is more than willing to bully her son's teacher in order to get some solid answers.
Heather (Stacy Ross) reads Gidion's essay to the boy's mother
(Jamie Jones) in Gidion's Knot (Photo by: David Allen)

Masterfully constructed, Gidion's Knot offers a tour de force to the actor portraying Corryn. Jamie Jones rose to the occasion with a bravura performance that elicited gasps from the audience. As Heather read Gidion's essay out loud, it was puzzling to watch the lack of emotion on Jones's face until, at the end of the essay, her reaction was repulsively shocking.

Jamie Jones is Corryn and Stacy Ross is Heather in
Gidion's Knot (Photo by: David Allen)

Gidion's Knot is a 75-minute roller coaster ride featuring two riveting performances that are guaranteed to challenge any audience.The playwright is quick to stress that:
"My mind likes complexity, not simplicities. In a lot of theatres, the strongest powerhouses are women. As they age, the roles go away. I wanted to fill that gap with roles for women that were not necessarily about relationships, and with voices and situations that are a little unusual."
Performances of Gidion's Knot continue through March 2 at the Aurora Theatre Company (click here to order tickets).

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Show Them Your Assets

Being gifted is not enough. The real question is whether or not you can deliver on the promise of your talent. For some people, a creative career means constantly shaping, refining, and honing one's art. For others, it may mean finding a financially rewarding comfort zone and staying there.

In the process of adapting his 1968 comedy hit, The Producers, for the musical stage, Mel Brooks created a great number for the actress playing the part of Ulla Inga tor Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson Bloom. In the following clip, Uma Thurman sings "When You Got It, Flaunt It."

I had the strangest sensations while viewing Asphalt Watches, a full-length animation feature from Canada being screened during this month's SFIndie Film Festival. Created by Shayne Ehman and Seth Scriver (two filmmakers with a strong track record as visual artists), Asphalt Watches brings to life the storyboards they created in 2000 while hitchhiking across Canada from Vancouver to Toronto.

The film also gives the strange impression that its creators are flaunting what they can do with new technology. Although this full-length feature took eight years to complete, it was hand drawn using Flash animation. The colors are magnificent; the creativity is often staggering (Asphalt Watches received the award for the Best Canadian First Feature Film at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival). As the filmmakers explain:
"We saw Gary Panter’s Flash animation, Pink Donkey, right before leaving on our trip in 2000 and thought 'Ha ha, is this a Flash ad?' It’s easy to use without fancy computers or crazy equipment. The file sizes are small, but you can export it extra-large because it’s vector based. We use it for 2D digital animation made in a classical style with frames and layers." 

Asphalt Watches begins as its two protagonists -- Bucktooth Cloud (a floating cloud holding an umbrella) and Skeleton Hat (a grey nebbish with part of a moustache) -- find themselves in Chilliwack, British Columbia, attempting to follow the instructions written in an outdated train-hopping manual as they try to get out of town. Before they left Vancouver, Shayne Ehman had been involved in a strange battle with some neighbors across the street. As he recalls:
"I had Christmas lights up in my room and had no curtain. One day, the children from across the street came over and said that their grandpa had hit their grandma over the head with a frying pan and it was my fault because I had Christmas lights in my room which were red and my room directly faced their house. A battle of lawn decorations ensued. It was clearly a good time to leave Vancouver."

Much of the artwork in Asphalt Watches is quite impressive. However, the experience reminded me of several screenings I attended (back in the day) when Spike & Mike's Festival of Animation offered films that were considered radically subversive and hilariously funny. Although many of the folks in the enthusiastic audiences for those screenings were half baked and quite giggly, I found that viewing Asphalt Watches without the help of drugs (or an audience high on drugs) made the film seem surprisingly boring and juvenile. Here's the trailer:

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Back around 1960, Anita Gillette was starting to make a name for herself on Broadway as a reliable understudy for ingenue roles. Her Broadway debut was as one of the Hollywood Blondes in Gypsy (she understudied the role of June). David Merrick subsequently hired her to understudy Anna Maria Alberghetti in Carnival! and, late in the show's run, she took over the role of Lili.

I first saw Gillette perform as Sarah Brown in the New York City Center's 1965 revival of Guys and Dolls and in Woody Allen's 1966 comedy, Don't Drink The Water. During the 1960s, Gillette appeared in some notable flops (All American, Mr. President, Kelly, Jimmy) as well as being one of the replacements in the role of Sally Bowles in the original production of Cabaret.

Although she gained popularity for her appearances in Neil Simon's Chapter Two, They're Playing Our Song, and Brighton Beach Memoirs and as Mona in 1987's Moonstruck, in between her stage gigs there were plenty of appearances on game shows and soap operas. More recently, she was seen as Liz Lemon's mother on 30 Rock.

Last year, when The Rrazz Room scheduled an appearance by Gillette, I was eager to hear her perform. She finally made her San Francisco cabaret debut at Feinstein's at the Nikko late last month with an extraordinarily appealing act entitled "After All."

Unlike many of musical theatre's aging dames who turn to the cabaret circuit late in life, the 77-year-old Gillette's voice is still in excellent shape. On March 4th (along with Ben Vereen) she will be one of the honorees at the 29th Bistro Awards (which recognize outstanding achievement in New York's cabaret, jazz, and comedy scene).

A delightful raconteur, Gillette had the audience doubled over in laughter as she described her experiences working with Broadway legends like Joshua Logan, Ray Bolger, and Nanette Fabray as well as the time she had a few too many martinis at a White House function and ended up with President Lyndon B. Johnson's hand firmly cupping her breast. Descriptions of her long friendship with Irving Berlin (and what it was like to have Ethel Merman running interference for her when she was pregnant) were balanced with disarming arrangements of Jerome Kern's haunting "Yesterdays" (which she sang at Otto Harbach's funeral) and "Shall We Dance?"

Gillette sang some delightful novelty items which I would never have expected to hear during a cabaret act. These included Bob Merrill's poignant "Mira" (from Carnival!) and Irving Berlin's "The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous" (from Mr. President). A special treat was a song by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz that had been cut from The Gay Life during its pre-Broadway tryout ("I Lost the Love of Anatol") as well as Victor Herbert's famous "Italian Street Song" from 1910's Naughty Marietta, "Cuanto le Gusta" (originally sung by Carmen Miranda in 1948's A Date With Judy ), and "Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries" from George White's Scandals of 1931.

Gillette has always been a gifted songstress with strong interpretative chops and a solid ability to belt. Her renditions of "How Deep is the Ocean?" (Irving Berlin), "He May Be Your Man" (Joe Williams), and "Are you Havin' Any Fun?" (Sammy Fain/Jack Yellen) brought down the house. In the following clip, Anita can be seen performing at a Dancers Over 40 event.

I left Gillette's performance feeling intensely fulfilled and immensely satisfied by the work of a delightful performer who chose to take some curious risks with repertoire. The last thing I expected to hear was a snippet of "Ode to a Bridge" (written by Moose Charlap and Eddie Lawrence for 1965's big Broadway flop, Kelly)!