Sunday, March 30, 2014

Who's Really On Top?

Writers and politicians have toyed with the legendary "battle of the sexes" since men and women were first pigeonholed into hunters and gatherers. If, however, one's perspective on gender roles has automatically been predetermined by members of one gender, there's little hope for any semblance of true equality.

Sexual politics is far less about nature versus nurture than institutionalized assumptions about social structure. Whether one sees life from the perspective of medieval Europe's odious "droit du seigneur" or the contemporary Republican war on women (which has done a spectacular job of revealing how much Republican men don't know about women), if the field of vision is heavily contaminated by a male prerogative, women are getting less than equal treatment.

It's been fascinating to watch President Jimmy Carter as he makes the rounds publicizing his new book (A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power). The genial Georgian calmly and methodically lays out the facts about what's wrong with our male-dominated society to shocked interviewers and television hosts who never expected to be drawn into a conversation with him about such topics as rape on university campuses, sexual assault in the military, or why Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is a thriving gateway for the sexual slave trade in America.

Equally revealing has been how male and female pundits react to news reports which contain a clearly sexist component. Compare, if you will, the "professional tone" of Joan Walsh's article for entitled Christie’s Creepy Misogyny: Behold His Despicable “Blame Bridget” Strategy with the refreshing bluntness of The Rude Pundit's scathing assessment entitled Christie Internal Review Report: "Bitches Be Crazy."

Two new productions focus on what happens when the status quo (based on assumptions that rest on a foundation of male privilege) is undermined by women who are more intelligent, more complex, more aggressive, and better at what they do than certain men in their lives (who imagine themselves to be dealing from a position of power).
Each of these new works is what I like to refer to as an "onion play." Why? Because, as its plot unravels, layer after layer of each character's psyche is peeled away in order for the audience to reach greater depths of understanding about the play's perspective on gender roles.
What makes these productions particularly interesting to me is that each has been directed by a person whose gender is the opposite of the playwright's. Does that matter? Should it matter? In the eyes of A.C.T.'s artistic director, Carey Perloff:
"The director/actor relationship is always a complex one. In trying to sculpt an actor's performance into something matching the vision for the play, the director often resorts to a certain degree of manipulation or muscle. But in the end, the actor is the instrument that matters. The actor will always know more about a role than either the director or even the writer can even know, because that role is in her own body. Venus in Fur is about that vivid embodiment, about the ways in which an actor invites another entity into her skin and relishes the discovery and power of performing that character. It is a totally present-tense play (as all great theater must be) inviting actors to commit with ferocity to a high-stakes game of love and chance."

However, Venus in Fur's director, Casey Stangl, is quick to note that:
"As a female director, I'm used to being in rooms full of men. I'm used to dealing with power dynamics. In most cases, it' not blatant. In most cases it's extremely subtle and completely navigable. But I will say, as a woman, you bring a different set of life experiences into the room: what it's like to be discounted, what it's like to have to prove something, the idea that our sexuality and our personal eroticism can be threatening. That's a different perspective than men have -- not better, just different.

The Vanda part is huge. She's got big emotions. She's big, she's loud, she's broad, she's funny, and then becomes very much the opposite of that. She goes to extremes, and extremes are always easier to do than smaller, subtler shifts. Also, the female role is younger. The older the parts go, the shallower the talent pool gets. Theater is a tough business, and the older actors get, the more they drop out. They can't sustain themselves. So young women are the demographic you've got the most of. I think the reason Thomas was harder to cast is because he seems very intellectual and confident, but in fact has a lot of odd little insecurities and vulnerabilities that end up leaking out at different points of the play. His is a subtler journey. One of the things that's so great about the play is how the power dynamic is constantly shifting. You find yourself siding with one person and then you second-guess yourself. You don't know where your allegiances lie."
What happens when a person of one gender creates a work of art that is interpreted by an artist of the opposite gender? Does the interpretation of the piece change? Or does one person's experience with sexual politics (and/or sadomasochism) suggest insights and choices for the actors to consider which may not be clearly outlined in the script?

* * * * * * * * *
Venus in Fur is written for two actors who take on a variety of personas over the course of the evening. Set in a rented rehearsal room equipped with both fluorescent and incandescent lighting fixtures, with the exception of a period divan the furniture is standard office equipment.

Brenda Meaney and Henry Clarke in Venus in Fur
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Thomas Novachek (Henry Clarke) is a frustrated intellectual who has adapted Venus in Furs (a novel written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in 1870) for the stage. Unable to find a director who can do justice to his work, Novachek has taken it upon himself to stage his own adaptation.

As the play begins, Thomas is talking to his girlfriend, Stacy, on the phone. He's late for dinner and deeply frustrated after a long day of auditioning "idiot actresses" who have no idea what is required for the role of Wanda von Dunayev. It doesn't take long for the audience to realize that Novachek is a bit of a perfectionist, a bit of a control freak, and a bit of a dickhead.

Brenda Meaney and Henry Clarke in Venus in Fur
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Vanda (Brenda Meaney) is a late arrival, bursting into the audition room just as Novachek is getting ready to leave. Although she Initially comes across as a bit of a ditz, there is plenty of intellectual heft and street smarts hidden beneath her sexy exterior.

While Vanda freely admits that her dream role is "Hedda Gobbler," she knows how to do her homework and has arrived with several period costumes that she bought at a thrift shop, a full copy of Novachek's complete script (which no one is supposed to have), and a much deeper understanding of sexual role-playing than the academic who is auditioning her. In short, she is the embodiment of the old saying "Beware your fantasy, it might just come true."

As the evening progresses, Thomas and Vanda move back and forth from audition mode (in which they read from his script) to real life (in which the power quickly shifts between the two characters). Having been around the block a few times, Vanda has no trouble picking up on Novachek's latent desire to be groomed for submission.

Henry Clarke and Brenda Meaney in Venus in Fur
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The bottom line is simple: Vanda and Thomas each have something the other desperately wants (whether consciously or subconsciously). The hidden power of a script, a costume, erotic literature, a change in lighting, or one's knowledge of how to direct a scene keeps the power dynamic constantly shifting between the two genders.

Under Casey Stangl's direction, Brenda Meaney and Henry Clarke prove to be an impressive pair of consenting antagonists. The playwright's use of magical realism at the end provides a stunning climax for the audience (and probably as well for the -- by then -- tightly-bound Novachek).

Brenda Meaney and Henry Clarke in Venus in Fur
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Performances of Venus in Fur continue at the American Conservatory Theater through April 13 (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Working on a deceptively simple yet exquisite unit set designed by Maya Linke, Crowded Fire Theater's world premiere production of She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange takes its time finding the proper tone to pierce the anguish that accompanies the fading American dream of home ownership in the 21st century. If one takes into account Matt Taibbi's infamous description of Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money,” it becomes easier to find the bile-tinged sliver of black comedy in the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. As stated in the show's program notes:
"In 2008 the housing market imploded, wiping out approximately $22 trillion of wealth. It has been estimated that over a million Americans lost their homes as a result. During the worst years of the crisis, 465 banks failed. To this day, no top executives of U.S. financial firms have been convicted of criminal wrongdoing relating to the 2008 housing collapse."
At the top of the evening, the audience is introduced to an attractive middle-aged couple who have come to spend their Sunday afternoon in a small park close to a lake in an upscale section of Connecticut.
  • Amy (Zehra Berkman) is a hedge fund manager of keen intellect who, as she reads the newspaper, keeps telling her husband that people are losing their homes. A woman who is noticeably uncomfortable in her body, Amy is meticulous about positioning herself, her clothing, her career, and the risk she is willing to take in a field dominated by men. Having managed to survive and thrive against all odds, she is quietly trying to enjoy her new wealth and new home.
  • Henry (George Sellner) is a pediatric nurse who deals with death on a routine basis, finds small pleasures in life's simplest moments and, unlike his wife, is completely comfortable in his own skin. Easily satisfied, he's happy to snack on ice cream or paté. 
Zehra Berkman (Amy) and George Sellner (Henry) in
She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange (Photo by: Pak Han)

Amy and Henry are eventually joined by another, far more ostentatious couple.
  • Max (Kevin Clarke), until very recently, had been one of Amy's rivals at work. An intensely driven, materialistic macho fool, he sent his wife on a vacation as a way of postponing the news that he not only lost a bank but, as a result of his blustering incompetence, has simultaneously lost his job and the deed to their home. He enters the park carrying a floor lamp which he hopes he can sell to someone.
  • Sara (Marilee Talkington) first appears carrying a bunch of designer label shopping bags that contain crackers, paté, and what few belongings she still has. A former champion at conspicuous consumption, she has no idea how to cope with suddenly becoming homeless as a result of a foreclosure.
Marilee Talkington (Sara) and Kevin Clarke (Max) in
She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange (Photo by: Pak Han) 

As the two couples engage in polite chitchat (that masks all kinds of personal resentment), it becomes apparent that Max was pretty shitty to Amy at work. After his spectacular failure as a hedge fund manager, Amy has cleverly purchased Max and Sara's foreclosed home at a bargain price in a delicious act of revenge.

A great deal of the fun in Roper's play comes from M. Graham Smith's stage direction, with each actor's body language revealing far more than is written in the script. As the playwright explains:
"I like plays because two characters can say entirely contradictory things and both be right. Or the truth is somewhere in the air between the actors. Sometimes. And sometimes no one knows what the hell is going on and the play becomes about the struggle to articulate. Simplifying big ideas is something artists can do, need to do, and not because simple means stupid (simple is incredibly difficult). I love small words and the rhythm of words. I'm also interested in how limiting words can be."
George Sellner, Kevin Clarke, Marilee Talkington and Zehra Berkman
in She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange (Photo by: Pak Han)

Smith's ensemble works together with a kind of deft/daft precision reminiscent of Jeremy Aluma's monstrously hilarious Four Clowns. Amelia Roper's script, however, has the kind of acidic timeliness which can easily make some audiences wonder if this piece has arrived "too soon." As Crowded Fire Theater's artistic director, Marissa Wolf, explains:
"With a quick rhythmic cadence, and an unnerving humor that keeps us off balance, Roper's voice springs forth from the shoulders of absurdist writers such as Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee while undercutting (with breathtaking precision and boldness) cultural assumptions around gender and power. For me, this play feels like touching a bruise over and over again. I can't remember how I received the bruise, but the pungent ache every time I touch it makes the world come alive and snap into focus. Capturing the delicious, brutal world in which we live, She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange presses tenderly against our personal bruises and dares us to awaken."
Sara (Marilee Talkington) seems lost in Maya Linke's modern forest
in She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Roper's play can challenge audiences in some moments and leave them laughing hysterically in others. I was particularly impressed by the physical comedy of Kevin Clarke's Max and Marilee Talkington's dazed and confused Sara.

Performances of She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange continue through April 12 at Thick House (click here to order tickets).

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Taste of Aloha, A Pinch of Japan

Most film festivals feature a selection of documentaries (some festivals are devoted entirely to documentary film). What I have always loved about San Francisco's Asian-American International Film Festival (CAAMFest 2014) is its inclusion of documentaries that focus on Hawaiian culture.

Not every PBS station on the mainland produces documentaries about local culture.  But PBS Hawaii (in collaboration with Pacific Islanders in Communication) has become a steady source of films that explore the culture, history, and lifestyles of the Hawaiian Islands. Among PICs goals are to:
"Support, advance, and develop Pacific Island media content and talent that results in a deeper understanding of Pacific Island history, culture, and contemporary challenges. Pacific Heartbeat, now in its third season, is an anthology series that provides viewers a glimpse of the real Pacific. From revealing exposés to rousing musical performances, the series features a diverse array of programs that will draw viewers into the heart and soul of Pacific Island culture."
The following three videos give a sampling of the programs covered in the first three seasons of Pacific Heartbeat.

With major nonprofits like The New York City Opera and San Diego Opera shutting down operations, one might well ask where, in an era of diminished arts budgets, the money is coming from. With much of its funding coming from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Minority Consortia has become a valuable resource for filmmakers. As explained in its promotional materials:
"The NMC serves as an important component of American public television by nurturing the next generation of minority producers and program managers. Moreover, we create an awareness of the value of public media among communities which have historically been untapped by public television. From 1997 to 2002, the National Minority Consortia delivered over 88.5 hours of quality public television programming. Collectively, we have also funded 223 projects and 422 producers/directors. The past 25 years of work by the Minority Consortia has built a foundation for growth and contributed to the nation's appreciation of diverse cultures. Through innovative outreach campaigns, local screenings of works destined for public television, and promotion of web-based information and programming, communities of color are embraced rather than ignored. Our work in educational distribution further increases the value of public television programming by sharing our works with thousands of students.

We fund filmmakers, present works on public television and other venues, exhibit films and videos, and distribute works to schools and libraries. In addition, we facilitate production training, skills advancement, and career development through workshops, lectures, and counseling. Our collective growth is a testament to the creativity and commitment of our staff, board members, funders, and community partners across the country. As we collaborate, we provide a model for collegial support, mutual development, and growth. Together, we serve the needs of our communities by presenting thought-provoking programs that encourage dialogue, nurture respect, and promote understanding. Our high-quality programming builds new and diverse audiences, with an eye towards cultivating future stakeholders in public television."

* * * * * * * * *
One of the documentaries shown at CAAMFest 2014 is devoted to the 50th anniversary  of an event that not widely known outside the Hawaiian Islands. Hula: Merrie Monarch's Golden Celebration looks at the founding, history, preparations for, and impact of Hilo's annual hula festival.

Not only does this documentary focus on the hard work, dedication and spirit of the dancers, kumu hulas, judges, musicians, and community organizers who bring each year's Merrie Monarch Festival to fruition, it helps mainlanders understand the cultural significance of hula as a part of Hawaiian culture as well as the integral role it plays in the arts education for young Hawaiians.

The study and training of hula includes learning the Hawaiian language, learning all about the flora and mythology of the Hawaiian islands, and how to make costumes using materials found in nature. For those who are unable to attend live hula performances, hula films are a guilty pleasure that never stops giving satisfaction.  Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Also screened at this year's festival was a segment from a new cooking show on PBS Hawaii. Family Ingredients takes an interesting look at some of the favorite dishes of some of the chefs working in Hawaiian restaurants. Because the Hawaiian Islands have become a melting pot of cultures from various immigrants, family traditions play a key role in giving a dish that "special taste" that makes it feel authentic.

As the show's host, Ed Kenney explains:
"Whether we’re in Hanalei, Wahiawa, Honolulu, Hilo or Kaunakakai, we’ll find families who continue to keep the tradition alive -- recipes they continue to make that came from an ancestor. While in their kitchen or back yard, we learn about individual characters and family history. We meet the grandmother, the son, and the niece -- the person that has taken the lead of learning how to make the family recipe best -- and we delve into their family albums, listen to their stories, and learn more about who they are by following their recipe to its origin."
In the segment screened at CAAMFest 2014, chef Alan Wong traced a key ingredient used in one of his favorite family recipes from a small town in Wahiawa all the way back to his family's roots in Tokyo.

Not only does Family Ingredients stress family traditions, sustainable farming, and the use of locally sourced foods, its website has a kickass blog that is well worth your time. Here's a trailer for the show:

Monday, March 24, 2014

As Seen Through A Woman's Eyes

A loving tribute written by Gail Collins to honor political activist and feminist icon Gloria Steinem (This Is What 80 Looks Like) caused me to stop and think about some of the progress that's been made in the women's rights movement and the incredible distance that still needs to be traveled.
American Conservatory Theatre's Carey Perloff (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

If, however, one examines the leadership of the Bay area's performing arts organizations, there is no doubt that many women are in positions of artistic and/or managerial leadership.
Magic Theatre's Producing Artistic Director, Loretta Greco
On March 15, 2010, Theresa Rebeck gave a rip-roaring speech to the ART/NY Curtain Call annual conference entitled A Thousand Voices in which she described the obstacles facing female playwrights who hope to get their work produced. Perhaps because of the Bay area's diversity (as well as the number of women in local leadership positions) our stages often play host to comedies and dramas written by talented women.

If, in addition to the organizations listed above, one includes Playground's incubator program for playwrights and Stuart Bousel's annual SFOlympians Festival, the Bay area may be ahead of the curve in presenting new works by female playwrights. This month, two works by formidable female playwrights of different generations are being produced with especially curious results.

* * * * * * * * *
Ever since her triumph with 1979's Cloud Nine, British playwright Caryl Churchill has been challenging authority figures, gender roles, and other aspects of the status quo. San Francisco's Custom Made Theatre Company recently unveiled a new production of Churchill's 1982 hit, Top Girls, which had its debut at about the same time that Margaret Thatcher and the "Dress for Success" craze were peaking.

In some ways, Top Girls is nearly schizophrenic in nature. Its first act is the fantasy vision of Marlene (Cary Cronholm), a tough, handsome professional woman who has clawed her way to the top of a London employment agency and is about to host a celebratory party in a restaurant. If you've ever dreamed of having dinner with some of your favorite fictional and/or historical figures, you'll be surprised to see who is on Marlene's guest list.
  • Isabella Bird (Cat Luedtke) was a famous author and world traveler whose lack of interest in a traditional marriage gave her the freedom to explore new and often thrilling horizons. She frequently makes reference to her younger sister, Henrietta, who stayed at home and seemed to be much better suited to a domestic lifestyle.
  • Lady Nijo (Mimu Tsujimura) was a narcissistic 13th-century concubine who, at the age of 14, was forced by her father to sleep with the aged Emperor of Japan. As she describes her endless humiliations (including having her child taken away from her), Lady Nijo basks in the knowledge that, although she later became a nun, at least the Emperor seemed to like her.
  • Dull Gret (Katie Robbins) is a peasant woman dressed in soldier's garb whose main concern is the food she is about to eat. Gruff, coarse, and often monosyllabic, she is a cartoon of an emotionally shut-down male warrior.
  • Pope Joan (Monica Cappuccini) is a fictional character who started cross-dressing as a young girl, got elected Pope while disguised as a man, had numerous male lovers, and after becoming pregnant and delivering her baby during a papal procession, was stoned to death.
  • Patient Griselda (Carina Lastimosa Salazar) represents the millions of women who, after marrying and being told that above all else they must obey their spouses, end up in lives of servitude which basically relegate them to the status of a doormat.
Isabella Bird (Cat Luedtke), Marlene (Cary Cronholm), and
Lady Nijo (Mimu Tsujimura) in Top Girls (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

The second half of Churchill's play is grounded in the sad realities of life in Thatcher's Britain. Marlene's homely sister, Joyce (Cat Luedtke) has had a difficult time raising the hostile and rebellious Angie (Katie Robbins) who is, in fact, the illegitimate child Marlene gave up so that she could pursue her independence, personal dreams, and build a career. Angie's well-meaning but easily frightened friend, Kit (Megan Putnam), is a neighboring teen with few friends.

Angie (Katie Robbins) frightens Kit (Megan Putnam)
in a scene from Top Girls (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

When Angie suddenly leaves home to go visit her aunt Marlene at work, she arrives on the day that Marlene has been promoted, effectively ruining the career of a male co-worker who assumed he would inherit the position. Though fascinated by Marlene's power over others, Angie can't understand that she has arrived at an inopportune moment and is little more than an inconvenience to Marlene.

Marlene (Cary Cronholm) and her sister, Joyce (Cat Luedtke)
in a tense scene from Top Girls (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

This production of Top Girls may well have been the most lopsided evening of theatre I've experienced in years. While director Laura Lundy-Paine was clearly overwhelmed trying to stage the play's difficult first act, her work shone through in the subsequent, emotionally-charged confrontations between Angie, Kit, Marlene, and Joyce. Part of the problem was that much of the first act requires two actors to speak simultaneously.

Few playwrights put words into the mouths of their characters with the desire that they be reduced to nonsense syllables or gibbering mush. A skilled director might have tried harder to find a way to make sure that the audience could follow each character's lines. Unfortunately, Lundy-Paine's inability to bring clarity to much of Act I was a severe disappointment made worse by the fact that Mimu Tsujimura and Carina Lastimosa Salazar had such poor diction that many of their lines were almost unintelligible. Megan Putnam, however, did some beautiful work as both Kit and Shona.

* * * * * * * * *
Over the past 50 years, I've attended numerous world premieres of operas, plays, and ballets. Few, however, have been as dramatically substantial, historically important, powerfully acted, and emotionally satisfying as Lauren Gunderson's brilliant and meaty new drama entitled Bauer, which is currently receiving its world premiere from the folks at San Francisco Playhouse.

Considering that this is a one-act, 90-minute play with three characters working on a unit set, one might be inclined to ask just how and why this drama made such a deep impression on opening night. The answer has a lot to do with the mature applications of solid theatrical craft:
Rudolf Bauer (Ronald Guttman), Louise Bauer (Susi Damilano),
and Hilla Rebay (Stacy Ross) in a scene from Bauer
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

The inspiration for a play about Rudolf Bauer first came to Bill English when he watched a documentary entitled Betrayal: The Life and Art of Rudolf Bauer. Not only did it tell the story of how Bauer rose to fame in the first third of the 20th century, it described how he was eventually betrayed by his former lover (and one of Solomon R. Guggenheim's most trusted advisers), Hilla Rebay. By the time the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (which had originally been planned to showcase Bauer's art) opened in New York on October 21, 1959, a legal technicality had nearly destroyed the artist's legacy.

Poster art for Bauer

In his artistic director's note, Bill English writes:
"After seeing the documentary, I was dumbstruck by how this painter, a leader in the non-objective art movement, whose own museum had housed Kandinsky, Klee, Ernst, and many more, who defied the Nazis by painting in prison after he had been jailed for 'subversive art,' who had been the darling of Guggenheim and Frank Lloyd Wright, prominently featured in Guggenheim's first museum and proclaimed by him as 'the greatest living painter' could suddenly stop painting at the height of his powers and end up with over 200 canvases relegated to the Guggenheim basement.

How does that happen? How is the artistic process destroyed? How do painters, actors, playwrights, musicians, composers, suddenly lose the thread? How is the creative process undone? To answer these questions, we turned to Lauren Gunderson who, after reading two of her biographical plays (Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight and Silent Sky) stood out as the ideal playwright to tackle this story."
Ronald Guttman as Rudolf Bauer (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

In their 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Sunday in the Park With George, James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim did a brilliant job of trying to explain what spurs an artist's creativity and how, in order to be allowed to continue creating, an artist must respond to the pressures of the marketplace.

In recent years Bay area audiences have attended performances of Herbert Siguenza's one-man show (A Weekend With Pablo Picasso) at Center Rep as well as John Logan's play, Red (about Mark Rothko) at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Neither of these plays however, really gets into the anguish of the artistic process with the same intensity as Bauer.

Although an online archive of Rudolf Bauer's work and life history has been created by the Weinstein Gallery, it can't capture the emotions and the ripple effect of the artist's decision to stop creating on those who loved him with anywhere near the intensity of Gunderson's writing. Nor can it deliver the kind of powerhouse performance embodied in Stacy Ross's portrayal of Hilla Rebay which, with the nervous tremor of a lip, can communicate so much to an audience.

Stacy Ross as Baroness Hilla Rebay (Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli)

In many ways, Gunderson's play provides the perfect bookend to Sunday in the Park With George by demonstrating how a legal document can so enrage an artist that it will cause him to stifle the creativity which has, for so long, been his life force. It's almost like watching an angry soul trying to give his talent the silent treatment. As Bill English notes:
"Bauer faces the betrayal of a powerful mentor and the love of his life, who (perhaps unwittingly) conspired to deprive him of his purpose. In our deeply commercialized world, what does the commodification of art do to the artist? Where does patronage leave off and ownership begin? Do artists continue to produce when their inspiration departs? Yes. Should they? How does a man choose between the thing he most loves and his integrity? Art is, by nature, an act of rebellion. Can the decision to 'not paint' become an artistic statement in its own right? Once squelched by whatever force of our conformist society, can the artistic flame be rekindled?"
Performances of Bauer continue at the San Francisco Playhouse through April 19 (click here to order tickets). The San Francisco production (with the original cast) will take Gunderson's play to New York this fall, where it will run from September 2 to October 12 at the 59E59 Theaters. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Short Takes

Whether one chooses to think of them as the dramatic equivalent of dim sum, the theatrical version of tapas, or the documentary field's offering of donut holes, short plays and films have a dynamic all their own. For playwrights and filmmakers, the old axiom that "less is more" offers a curious artistic challenge. Many aim to tell their story succinctly, with little time devoted to fuss or frenzy.
  • A playwright may have anywhere from one to ten minutes to spark an audience's imagination. 
  • A filmmaker may be able to do more in five minutes with animation than he might be capable of handling if forced to devote 90 minutes of screen time to a full-length feature.
During CAAMFEST 2014, a shorts program entitled Canadi(an)imation included a provocative set of stories under the umbrella title of Crime: The Animated Series. Each told a vivid tale in a surprisingly powerful way. Here are four of the best:

* * * * * * * * *
Several small nonprofits regularly offer aspiring playwrights an opportunity to write short plays and have them staged before an audience. Incubators like Playground specialize in assigning a topic to a group of playwrights for an evening of 10-minute plays. Others may simply choose a theme and work with a group of writers to see what develops.

For the past few years, the Left Coast Theatre Company has worked to "develop and produce quality LGBT theater featuring new works by both Bay Area and national playwrights." As with any tasting menu, some items may be light as air; some may be bitter and poignant. Many are hilariously funny.

This spring's collection of Twisted Fairy Tales was notable for its two strongest themes: the meddling (for better or worse) of a fairy godmother and the ability to mine new comic material from the classic tale of Cinderella.

Written by Rodney "Rhoda" Taylor, and directed by David Rice, My Fairy Godmothers revealed what can go wrong when the performance skills of Edwina (John Terrell), a "Fairy Godmother in Training," are unexpectedly assessed by her superior, Hilda (Desiree Rogers) who has accidentally sent Edwina to the wrong address. After the two start arguing and awaken Jimmy (Kai Brothers), they are shocked to learn that Jimmy doesn't need their assistance finding true love because he's already married to another man.

Directed by Joseph Frank, Nick Brunner's Calc 101 introduces a screamingly annoying Fairy Godmother (Val Garrahan) to a math class being taught by a Professor (Chris Maltby) who is trying to keep his high school students under control. Among these are
  • Jack (David Glazer), an annoying little twit who won't stop screaming the lyrics to "There Are Giants in the Sky" despite the fact that no one has paid Stephen Sondheim for the rights to use his song.
  • Chicken Little (John Terrell), who keeps tossing miniature chocolate bars in the air and warning that "The sky is falling."
  • Rapunzel (Rodney "Rhoda" Taylor), a homely drag queen with a defiantly messy wig.
  • Captain Hook (John Terrell) and Peter Pan (David Glazer).
The real action, however, involves a tug-of-war between the closeted, nerdy Kyle (Luis Quiroz) and super mean girl Janet (Lauren LeBeouf) for the attention of dumb jock Evan (Max Hersey) who, as luck would have it, is secretly hoping for an excuse to dump Janet and find his way into Kyle's pants.

Written by James A. Martin and directed by Debi Durst, Poof introduces the audience to nine-year-old Timmy (Tye Olson), who is convinced that he's destined to be a Boy Princess. After being given a magic wand by a cross-dressing homeless man (Paul Dana), Timmy finds a way to use its powers on his obnoxious Stepsister (Val Garrahan) and disinterested Stepmother (Kim Saunders). When Timmy's father (Dene Larson) realizes how much he has ignored and underestimated his son, a brighter future beckons for the men (including an Italian bodybuilder to fulfill the erotic fantasies of the cross-dressing homeless man).

Tye Olson as Boy Princess Timmy in Poof

Written by Chris Maltby and directed by Scott Boswell, Happily Ever After examined what happens when two young men who have always taken cues from a mysterious "voice" find themselves in a brave new world where same sex couples have evolved from an immoral and impossible concept to a shining new reality. Ever the dumb member of royalty, Prince Crispin (David Glazer) has no idea how to proceed without a narrator guiding him to his future. However, the Prince's boyfriend, Garrick the Stable Boy (Tye Olson), proves to be a quick learner at the hands of The Voice (Kai Brothers) and quickly dumps the Prince for someone with more pluck who's a talented and accomplished fuck.

Directed by Margot Manburg, Matt Crowley's touching The Mice Will Play is an extremely poignant piece for two women. Francesca (Sarah Doherty) and Julia (Beebe Reisman) were two mice pulling Cinderella's coach until they were suddenly transformed into humans, capable of feeling emotions such as yearning, doubt, and love. As midnight approaches, and they start to explore their feelings for each other, the two women wonder if they'll ever have a chance to feel this way again.

If you think you know the story of Little Red Riding Hood, you need to experience Eat Me! Written by Paul Dana and directed by Joseph Frank, this farce features David Glazer as a social-media fixated young man wearing a red hoodie, Gabrielle Motarjemi as his exasperated grandmother, Richard Ryan as a hungry Wolf on parole, and John Terrell as the local Sheriff who likes young boys.

Debi Durst is Wanda in Stepmother's Manifesto

Last, but certainly not least, is Heather Meyer's Stepmother's Manifesto. Directed by Scott Boswell with Richard Ryan acting as Narrator, this piece gives the exhausted Wanda (Debi Durst) a chance to debunk the claim that she is Cinderella's "evil" stepmother.

With good reason to resent being described as evil to generations upon generations, Wanda pulls back the curtain on what life is really like in her home. Of course, there's ugly stepsister Celeste (Rodney "Rhoda" Taylor) and Cremora (Gabrielle Motarjemi), the ugly stepsister who has a wicked crush on Cinderella. But Cinderella is no pillar of virtue. Instead, the short-tempered, narcissistic young woman (Val Garrahan) gives the nervous Prince Charming (Max Hersey) plenty of reason to wonder if she's worth his time.

Cast members from Twisted Fairy Tales after a performance

A happy example of community theatre with a solid identity and clear-cut goals, The Left Coast Theatre Company's productions usually feature large casts working on a unit set. Performances of Twisted Fairy Tales continue through April 5 at the Shelton Theatre (click here to order tickets).

Saturday, March 22, 2014

When The Bubble Bursts

Few moments are as painful as when one's own true love (whether it be a romantic infatuation or the object of filial devotion) topples from their idealized status atop the pedestal of perfection and lands face-down in a puddle of reality. The sudden deflation of unreasonable expectations -- or the realization that someone might not be as perfect as one had thought -- can deal a crushing blow to a person's soul.

Whether the bad news comes in time to abort a major change of lifestyle or long after the fact of the actual incident, the emotional pain can be shocking, disillusioning, and take a long time to subside. Whether or not the injured party will ever fully heal from having his ideals shattered may take years of soul-searching and/or psychotherapy.

Two new features shown at CAAMFest 2014 examine what happens when the bubble of supposed perfection bursts and people must struggle to save face while scrambling to hide their emotional scars. Not surprisingly, in both films technology plays a key part in ruining people's innocence.

* * * * * * * * *
The early days of videochat programs like ICUII opened up the possibilities of many new friendships and romances between people all over the world. For many gay men, such software programs led to long hours of mutual masturbation in front of their webcams. It didn't take long before the world's oldest job creator (the porn industry) figured out how to monetize cam-to-cam sessions.

Soon, a new electronic version of pay-for-play took over the Internet. In her article entitled From Harvard to Webcam Girl, Anna Katzen candidly describes how "Once, I was a shy nonprofit drone. Now, I make money reading Anais Nin in the buff -- among other things."

Today, the ease of engaging in videochat sessions via Skype and other software programs has made this kind of online interaction quite mundane. Many people will now spend long hours chatting with overseas "friends." Google+ has become a popular teleconferencing tool used by the White House and The Huffington Post. Soldiers stationed overseas routinely videoconference with their spouses at home.

In some ways, Internet chats have enabled people to overcome their shyness and learn how to flirt and/or build friendships in ways they might have previously assumed to be impossible. Many platforms for sexual social media attract grifters intent on targeting vulnerable, lonely, or sympathetic souls who might be bilked for money.

Social skills onscreen are not the same as social skills in real life, as evidenced by the famous cartoon from The New Yorker magazine in which two mutts are seen sitting in front of a computer as one says "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog."

Ernesto "Jazz" Tigaldao stars in Jazz in Love

Baby Ruth Villarama's narrative/documentary entitled Jazz in Love focuses on two men in the midst of an international and intergenerational romance that has been made possible by modern technology.

Ernesto "Jazz" Tigaldao is a 22-year-old Filipino nurse who has been studying German in order to qualify for a fiancé visa, Lean, effeminate, extroverted, and occasionally melodramatic, he is eager to marry his Facebook boyfriend of 11 months (who lives in Berlin) and get the hell out of Davao City.

Ernesto "Jazz" Tigaldao stars in Jazz in Love

Theo Rutkowski is a 56-year-old military worker, an introvert who has always been single and expected to keep living a single lifestyle until his death. Although he seems to have been seduced into the fantasy of marrying Jazz, when push comes to shove Theo learns that he doesn't really enjoy letting someone else make decisions for him. Especially when that person is always "on."

Ernesto "Jazz" Tigaldao and Theo Rutkowski
are the stars of Jazz in Love

I'm always suspicious of people who can't end a phone or chat conversation without engaging in games of "You hang up first," or "No, I love you more." It's a cute and romantic conceit which can be an early sign that a relationship is doomed. When it becomes a prolonged way of ending a Facebook chat, it's no surprise to discover that, once Theo arrives in Davao, the play-acting quickly grinds to a halt.

Although the initial plan was for Theo to ask Jazz's father for the young man's hand in marriage, the father has no idea what's going on and is much more interested in getting drunk. A birthday party Jazz has planned for Theo quickly starts to lose steam. But if one looks closely, one can see the wheels turning inside Theo's head as he realizes "I don't need this" when Jazz starts acting out and becoming more possessive and defensive.

If Villarama had hoped to document the arc of an international love affair that ended up in a same-sex wedding, she ended up with a different film once reality set in. Sadly, what happens to Jazz and Theo is no different from what happens to heterosexuals who rush into relationships that are built on unreasonable expectations. From a viewer's standpoint, once the energy drops out of the relationship between the two men, Jazz in Love has nowhere to go but down.

* * * * * * * * *
A standard plot device involves a grieving family who, as they go through a decedent's possessions, stumbles upon a long-kept secret that is so shocking they can barely handle the knowledge they've been given. I tip my hat to J. P. Chan who, as the writer, producer, and director of A Picture of You, has found a new -- and distinctly 21st century twist -- for an old, old story.

In his first feature film, Chan focuses on two estranged Asian American siblings who, following the death of their mother, travel to rural Pennsylvania to pack up her home and get it ready for sale. Their mother, Judy (Jodi Long), was a beloved professor at a small college who is frequently seen in flashback, bicycling down a country road with a happy, contented look on her face. Unfortunately, her children are not so happy.
  • Kyle (Andrew Pang) is recently divorced and has spent the past six months as his mother's caretaker. Lonely, frustrated, and anxious to get on with his life, he is less than thrilled to be spending time with his narcissistic, high-maintenance sister.
  • Jen (Jo Mei) is a dragon lady in development. A bitchy control freak whose emotions can zoom from one extreme to another in no time at all, Jen is not about to make the process of closing up her mother's house easy for Kyle. Nor does she have much talent for dealing with reality.
Jo Mei is Jen in A Picture of You

As if matters weren't tense enough, as Kyle goes through the files on his mother's computer, he double clicks on an icon and is suddenly confronted with a picture of a man's hard, wet, erect penis. When Jen sees this image, she becomes convinced that someone must have taken advantage of her mother and vows to get to the bottom of the mystery. Kyle, of course, would prefer to pretend that he never saw the picture in the first place.

Unfortunately, Jen has invited two close friends up for the weekend to lend a hand and give moral support.
  • Doug (Lucas Dixon) is her nerdy hipster boyfriend who, in his eagerness to marry Jen, decides that this is as good a time as any to ask Kyle for his sister's hand in marriage.
  • Mika (Teyonah Paris) is an attractive young African American woman who is Jen's best friend and former roommate.
Tenovah Paris, Jo Mei, Lucas Dixon, and Andrww Pang
 do some computer sleuthing in A Picture of You

One of the surest ways to rattle smug young adults is to start talking about their parents' sexual practices. Reactions may range from "Ewwww!" to "Ugh, gross." But when someone can't let go of the matter, drama is bound to ensue. In his director’s statement, Chan writes:
"Anyone who's lost someone dear to them knows what a roller coaster the process of grieving can be. You're crushed with sadness even as you laugh uproariously thinking of the good times you shared. Out of nowhere, memories of the one you lost come flooding back when you least expect it, overwhelming you with feelings every bit as complex and contradictory as your loved one was in life. When I lost my mother to cancer several years ago, I found myself devastated with grief. I couldn't imagine anything worse than a child losing his mother...until I realized that my stepfather had lost his wife, that my aunts and uncles had lost their sister, and that countless others had lost a good friend.

Collectively, we had all loved and lost the same person. But individually, we'd each lost someone who was entirely unique, and we were each left with a set of memories that was ours alone. And even if we could share all these memories, we'd still never have the entire picture of her. But I realized that not knowing everything about her meant there might always be more to discover. An off-hand anecdote from an aunt, a photograph I hadn't seen, her handwriting on a scrap of paper -- all these things were out there waiting to be discovered (or not). It kept her alive in a way I could never have imagined."
Filmmaker J.P. Chan
"I wanted to make a movie that reflects these ups-and-downs. But how do you capture all those feelings in a single film? I settled on the idea of a story that abruptly shifts genres, going from drama to comedy to drama again (with a few stops at mystery and suspense along the way). The task seemed impossible but also irresistible. Most importantly, it felt like the most honest way to honor those we’d lost."
Poster art for A Picture of You

Following Doug's helpful hints about what each file's metadata can reveal, Kyle, Jen, and their friends embark on a late night mission to find out whose hard cock may have violated Jen's mother. Not so shockingly, they discover that Judy belonged to a group of local swingers -- many of whom had watched Kyle and Jen's development since they were little children.

A Picture of You is a smart, intimate, well-conceived and neatly executed low-budget film which draws the audience into an intensely sexual family secret (and the impact its discovery has on Judy's adult children). Chan adds some marijuana, sibling rivalry, moments of desperate loneliness, and ill-advised curiosity to the mix with impressive results.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Cartoons, Chaos, and Commedia, Oh My!

The mind works in mysterious ways. During the past week I've had some bizarre experiences in dreamland that covered sights and sounds quite different from past adventures.

In several of these dreams I found myself in the basement level of an old department store that was undergoing a makeover in order to appeal to a new generation of consumers. Although the floor plan (and much of the furniture) was dominated by right angles, there were no guarantees of permanence.

People might wander across my line of vision who seemed familiar from past dreams (and certainly seemed to recognize me) but they turned out to be actors dressed as Neanderthals, who had been tasked with demonstrating how consumers could buy and use a collection of lawn furniture to help camouflage a sinkhole that had developed in their back yard. At the touch of a button, the floor promptly caved in.

At other times I found myself obsessing over audiotapes I needed to return to a group of court reporters after I had finished transcribing their depositions. But it didn't seem like the lobby to their building was the way I had remembered it (had I ever really been there, anyway?). Attaché cases briefly appeared and then vanished while filled with my possessions. Entire retail displays disappeared as soon as I passed by.

I don't doubt that some of these dreams were triggered by a series of Canadian animation shorts I had watched from a program at CAAMFest 2014. However, these shorts also helped to clarify how creativity sometimes works in very messy ways.

What we often see as a final product has been carefully mapped, plotted, and refined to a point where it is monodirectional and aimed to please. Consider the following Ramen Party Music Video (created by Lillian Chan, John Poon, and Michael Mak) as an example:

Lately, I've found myself getting up several times during the night and then, after climbing back into bed, falling back into the same dream sequence I had just emerged from. Or is that what's really going on? David Nguyen's video game inspired short, Insert Credit, offers a hint of what might be bubbling somewhere in my subconscious.

Nguyen's animation is still quite linear, methodical, and destination driven. By contrast, my dreams tend to be more chaotic, taking me into situations, colors, and dimensions that I could never experience in my waking hours. Perhaps that's why I was intrigued by the Yellow Sticky Notes/Canadian Anijam curated by Jeff Chiba Stearns.

The following two clips illustrate how creativity can come in short (and often messy) spurts of imagination.

* * * * * * * * *
Sustaining chaos as an engine of stage farce is easier said than done. It requires an awful lot of imagination, determination, a seemingly supply of shtick, and a dedicated troupe of clowns with great timing.

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting a new production of Dario Fo's provocative political farce entitled Accidental Death of an Anarchist (which was first performed in December 1970). Fo's farce was inspired on the 1969 incident in which an Italian railroad worker/anarchist named Giuseppe Pinelli fell to his death (or might have been pushed) from a fourth floor window of a local police station in Milan. In describing the audience's reaction to the first performances of Accidental Death of an Anarchist (when the memory of Pinelli's death and the December 12, 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing was still raw in the public's mind), Fo noted that:
"The audience split their sides laughing at the effects produced by the comical and at the same time satirical situations. But as the performance went on; they gradually came to see that they were laughing the whole time at real events, events which were criminal and obscene in their brutality; crimes of the state. So the grins froze on their faces and, in most cases, turned into a kind of Grand Guignol scream which had nothing liberating about it, nothing to make things palatable. On the contrary, it made them impossible to swallow."

Since its 1970 premiere, Accidental Death of an Anarchist has been translated into numerous languages and performed around the world. While the play provides a dramatic map for the actors, it is essentially a framework which can support all kinds of pratfalls, sight gags, and buffoonery that has kept audiences laughing from the days of the Commedia dell'arte to vaudeville; from Plautus to The Producers. As Berkeley Rep's artistic director, Tony Taccone (who first met the playwright nearly 30 years ago) notes:
"Fo's entire career has been dedicated to the creation of subversive laughter. He has famously taken on politicians, the police, and his personal favorite: the pope.  For his efforts he's been vilified and adored, condemned as an outlaw and celebrated as champion of the people. At one point, the State Department labeled him as a dangerous criminal and, for many years, he was barred from entering the United States.

You can read his plays all you want, but they only come alive in performance. They are built around his persona as a professional Fool, a court jester whose job is to expose the hypocrisy of the state and to satirize all forms of corruption. The Fool speaks the truth when no other person dares to; he creates jokes that are based in reality and relentlessly ridicules those who have lied, cheated, or killed to attain power. In that sense, the Fool is a teacher, and the conspiratorial laughter he creates with the audience is both relieving and alarming."  
Stephen Epp stars as the Maniac in Dario Fo's political satire,
Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Adapted by Gavin Richards (from a translation by Gillian Hanna) this production has been directed by Christopher Bayes, who has spent many years studying Commedia dell'arte and teaching classes in clown technique. Together with Steven Epp (who stars as the Maniac), the creative team has done its best to pepper the evening with references to current events. Whether citing some of the lost souls who can be found wandering the streets of downtown Berkeley or referencing Senator Dianne Feinstein's recent criticism of the CIA, every effort is made to keep the audience aware that what they are witnessing onstage is only a tiny part of the corruption and injustice which perverts their daily lives.

Eugene Ma, Steven Epp, and Allen Gilmore in a scene from
Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Among the talented ensemble Bayes has assembled for this co-production with the Yale Repertory Theatre are Liam Craig as the blustering police Superintendent; Renata Friedman as the female journalist, Feletti; Allen Gilmore as the stooge, Pissani; and Jesse J. Perez as the buffoonish investigator, Bertozzo. As a pudgy constable who (when not singing falsetto) is happy to sit on the sidelines eating donuts, Eugene Ma delivers some priceless comedic moments.

How did Bayes find a way to combine the comedic traditions of Commedia dell'arte with cultural references that would resonate with a modern audience? As he explains:
"Having grown up in the 1960s and 1970s, Accidental Death of an Anarchist had the kind of sitcom feel like Barney Miller gone terribly wrong, or The Honeymooners, or I Love Lucy gone completely psycho. So we used this feeling as a kind of inspiration for the design elements. It feels very much of its time but also it is very clear that we are doing a period play in the present moment (there is a kind of acknowledgment of the theatrical conceit). Corruption and coverups never seem to stop. They just seem to get stupider because we have grown to expect them. Verbal storytelling tends to be more of a cerebral experience. If a story is told with more physicality, it becomes a more visceral experience."
Jesse J. Perez  and Renata Friedman in a scene from
Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Photo by: Jared Oates)

While Berkeley Rep's production benefits strongly from Kate Noll's unit set and the costumes by Elivia Bovenzi, there were many moments in Act I when I felt as if every possible piece of shtick was being tossed out to the audience in order to see what would stick. As the Maniac, Epp would frequently comment about how the audience was probably wondering why people thought any of this is funny.

However, any discomfort was quelled in Act II when Epp reappeared as a military inspector from another district. Suddenly, the tone of the farce shifted and I found myself watching, in amazement, what felt like a classic Sid Caesar comedy sketch. The sharpness of the satire only served to set the audience up for the sobering dose of reality with which the playwright confronts his audience at the end of the evening.

Whether one tires of the shtick or finds it hysterically funny, there is method to the playwright and director's madness. In addition to Epp's deliciously manic performance, I greatly enjoyed the work of the lanky Renata Friedman and the talented Eugene Ma. Performances of Accidental Death of an Anarchist continue through April 20 at the Roda Theatre (click here to order tickets).