Thursday, May 29, 2014

Coming To America

They traveled across oceans to reach the fabled land of opportunity, where the streets were supposedly paved with gold. From the Chinese laborers who helped build the transcontinental railroad to Cuban refugees; from Vietnamese boat people to spoiled Eurotrash, people from all over the world have looked to America as the place where they could find a better life. In her 1883 sonnet entitled The New Colossus, poet Emma Lazarus famously wrote:
 "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Those words (describing the Statue of Liberty) meant a great deal to Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine as well as Russian Jews fleeing the Tsar's pogroms. Few, however, were as happy to see the Statue of Liberty as the survivors of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, who arrived in New York aboard the RMS Carpathia on April 18, 1912.

Today, few if any immigrants pass by the Statue of Liberty on their way to Ellis Island. Instead, Indian programmers possessing H-1B visas and foreign real estate speculators fly into America's gateway airports driven by all kinds of business goals. Others may head to the United States in search of political refuge, adventure, excitement, and/or love.

New York has always been a major point of entry to the United States, for business as well as pleasure seekers.  From "The Sidewalks of New York" and "42nd Street" to "Harlem On My Mind" and "45 Minutes From Broadway," the Big Apple has been a favorite topic for songwriters. Not only is New York, New York "a helluva town (The Bronx is up and the Battery's down," one of Lou Reed's biggest hits was "Walk on the Wild Side."

According to Kander and Ebb, "If I can make it there, I'd make it anywhere." Perhaps more than anything else, that sentiment lies at the core of two new films seen at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival. In one, a Frenchman who has been abandoned by his wife (but doesn't want to lose contact with his children) follows her to New York in a desperate attempt to salvage his marriage. In the other, a team of aspiring Chinese businessmen who have struggled to bring their educational product to Western markets finally succeeds in taking the New York Stock Exchange by storm.

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Do any of the following images look familiar?  If so, you were probably given one of these Chinese puzzles to keep you busy as a child. The goal was to pull out the one piece which would instantly make the puzzle collapse and then figure out how to put it back together again.

The following video explains how these classic Chinese puzzles are created and solved.

With that knowledge, it becomes much easier to understand the complex elements of the plot for Cédric Klapisch’s endearing new film, Chinese Puzzle. Although this is the final installment in a trilogy that began with 2002's L'Auberge Espagnole and 2005's Russian Dolls that focused on the life of Xavier (Romain Duris), I found it possible to enjoy Chinese Puzzle without having seen the first two films.

In Chinese Puzzle, Xavier is living in Paris with his wife, Wendy (Kelly Reilly) and their two children, Jacob (Pablo Mugnier) and Mia (Margaux Mansart). As a successful novelist specializing in pulp fiction, he leads a laid-back, independent lifestyle which allows him to spend lots of time with his kids. Xavier's life falls apart, however, when Wendy announces that she has met another man. Not only is she moving to New York to live with John (Peter Hermann), she's taking both kids with her.

Horrified at not being able to watch his kids grow up, Xavier flies to New York and tells his editor (Dominique Besnehard) that he must live there in order to do research on his latest novel. Initially, he stays with long-time old lesbian friend, Isabelle (Cécile de France), who is pregnant (thanks to the sperm Xavier donated) and involved in a relationship with Ju (Sandrine Holt).

Martine Audrey Tatou) and Xavier (Romain Duris) in Chinese Puzzle

Ju sets Xavier up in her old apartment in Chinatown and, before long, his life has become a classic New York mess. His first love, Martine (Audrey Tautou), suddenly arrives in town with her children and temporarily moves in with Xavier (which complicates his visiting days with Jacob and Mia). Shortly after Isabelle gives birth, she starts an affair with her babysitter (Flore Bonaventura), who is also named Isabelle.

Nancy (Li Jun Li) and Xavier (Romain Duris) in Chinese Puzzle

Meanwhile, in order to deal with immigration authorities, Xavier enters into an arranged marriage with Nancy (Li Jun Li), the daughter of a Chinese taxi driver he rescued from a road rage attack. Whether dealing with an aggressive immigration official (Peter McRobbie), the cheapest lawyer he can afford (Jason Kravits), or Wendy and John's high-priced attorney (Byron Jennings), Xavier's life keeps getting more and more complicated (much like the kind of Chinese puzzle that drives a person crazy). As Klapisch notes:
"I had an irrepressible desire to shoot in New York. That was the motivation for the third film. These three films describe a generation of people who grew up in parallel with the construction of Europe and the notion of globalization. So my choice of New York as the global capital of migrators is justified. It’s the idea of New York as a hub that is so inspiring. New York is the biggest cultural melting pot in the world. Every continent is in New York, every race, and every religion -- much more so than in London, Shanghai, or Beijing (which are also very cosmopolitan cities).

I also had a complicated approach to color and framing that was inspired by the photographer, Alex Webb, from the Magnum agency. He is one of the greats of photojournalism, a colorist who provided me with visual codes for using colors, light, framing, and conveying chaos through complex images. To me, Webb is the absolute master of the art of describing life as complete mayhem while composing his images in extremely sophisticated ways. I wanted to use that visually because, to me, New York is about the struggle between order and chaos, which strangely resembles Xavier’s life."
Isabelle (Cécile de France), Xavier (Romain Duris), Wendy
(Kelly Reilly),  and Martine (Audrey Tatou) in Chinese Puzzle

Due to its reliance on cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices, Klapisch's film could not take place in any other time than the 21st century. Looking a lot more scruffy than he did in 2012's Populaire, Duris is infinitely charming as Xavier. Without speaking a word, the city of New York becomes a major character in the plot of Chinese Puzzle.

I found Chinese Puzzle to be an intriguing and utterly delicious farce whose quirky family values are most refreshing. Here's the trailer:

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Much of Peter Chan's film, American Dreams in China, whizzes by so quickly that it's easy to miss important snippets of dialogue and moments of cultural context. Nevertheless, the overall arc of the plot is unmistakable and supposedly based on a true story.

Poster art for American Dreams in China

Chan tracks the coming of age of his three protagonists against the transformation of Chinese culture as their homeland moves from Maoism to China's new role as a global superpower. Although these three college friends dream of studying and working in America, their dreams don't always turn out the way they had wished.
  • Cheng Dongqing (Huang Xiaoming) is the best student of the three, partly because of his uncanny ability to memorize large amounts of text as he reads them. Shy and quiet by nature, he eventually blossoms into an effective teacher with the help of his students.
  • Wang Yang (Tong Dawei) is the most romantic of the trio who, in his college days is primarily concerned with poetry, girls, and his hair. By the time he is married and rich, he is warning people never to start a business with their best friends.
  • Meng Xiaojun (Deng Chao) is the most ambitious of the team (and the only one who nabs a visa that will allow him to study in America). Unfortunately, after studying hard and working in a medical laboratory, he is passed over for a promotion and quits his job in frustration. Following a stint working as a busboy in a restaurant, Meng returns to China with a big chip on his shoulder.
Wang Yang (Tong Dawei), Cheng Dongqing (Huang Xiaoming),
and Meng Xiaojun (Deng Chao) in American Dreams in China

When Meng returns home, he discovers that Cheng's side business of tutoring students in English has developed a loyal following. Using the business experience he learned while in the United States, he helps Cheng and Wang transform an abandoned factory into the headquarters of an English-language school called New Dream.

By the time the principals of New Dream come under investigation by an American company named Educational Testing System (ETS) -- and are accused of illegally using the educational materials published by ETS without paying for them -- a huge change has taken place in mainland China. Although Cheng has steadfastly refused Meng's advice to take New Dream public, after a showdown with the paternalistic leaders of ETS, he realizes that the time is finally right to take action.

Chan's movie does a nice job of framing the trio's rise against a backdrop of China's growing fascination with America, American racism, and each man's personal goals and frustrations. As the pace of the film continues to accelerate (and the characters age and mature), one can't help but be impressed with their struggles, their tenacity, and the path they have traveled.

For a briskly paced, contemporary rags-to-riches story, I can't recommend American Dreams in China strongly enough. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

American Families in Crisis

If one were to draw up a quick list of important American plays that deal with families in crisis, I'm pretty sure the following 10 dramas would rank near the top.
While each of these dramas deals with weighty issues, it's no surprise to hear the audience frequently laughing during the performance. Is it because one man's tragedy is another man's comedy? Or because human beings, in their most fallible moments, are a constant source of wonder and entertainment?

Following her trip to the magical land of Oz, Dorothy Gale learned that there's no place like home. But in some dramas, a threat to a family's real estate (whether or not the actual residence has been a warm and loving home) can provide the catalyst that launches a painful family conflict. In 2010, Bruce Norris brought new meaning to that theory with Clybourne Park, a play set in the home purchased by Chicago's Lena Younger in Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959).

In Clybourne Park, audiences first see the home in 1959, as its previous owners are preparing to make way for the Younger family to move in and then, again, in 2009 after the neighborhood has gone through several waves of gentrification. Like most dramas that involve a conflict of interests, you can learn a lot by following the money.

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The California Shakespeare Theater opened its 40th season with a deeply moving production of A Raisin in the Sun. At the time of its world premiere, Lorraine Hansberry was the first African American (and African American female) playwright to have a play produced on Broadway. In the two years following its opening, Hansberry's drama was translated into 35 languages.

Lorraine Hansberry

Much of the play's tension comes from her experience as an eight-year-old girl, watching what happened when her father, Carl Hansberry (a real estate agent), purchased a home in an all-white neighborhood at a discounted price. In her posthumously published book entitled To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, Hansberry wrote:
"25 years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’srestrictive covenants’ in one of this nation's ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house… My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed, and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. I also remember my desperate and courageous mother patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court."

Ruth (Ryan Nicole Peters) feeds her son Travis (Zion Richardson)
his breakfast in A Raisin in the Sun (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In Hansberry's play, the child is a boy whose father desperately wants to become a role model for his innocent, young son. Despite facing huge obstacles caused by racial segregation, the Younger household is nevertheless bursting with ambition.
  • Walter Lee (Marcus Henderson) is a hot-headed fool employed as a white man's chauffeur who has dreams of investing in a liquor store. Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against him.
  • Walter's son, Travis (Zion Richardson), wants to become a bus driver when he grows up. 
  • Walter's sister, Beneatha (Nemuna Ceesay), wants to go to medical school but has trouble resisting the attention of an exchange student named Joseph Asagai (Rotimi Agbabiaka), who paints a very different vision of what her life could be like as a proud black woman in his home country of Nigeria
  • Walter's wife, Ruth (Ryan Nicole Peters), wants to escape from the dilapidated, rat-infested tenement in which the Younger family has been living.
  • Walter's mother, Lena (Margo Hall), wants to make the best possible use of the $10,000 insurance check she is about to receive following her husband's untimely death. Her goal is to provide for the future of her children and maybe even have a little money left over for small garden of her own.
Ruth (Ryan Nicole Peters) and her mother-in-law, Lena (Margo Hall)
 in a scene from A Raisin in The Sun (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Written in 1957, A Raisin in the Sun deals with many of the issues faced by families around the world: an unexpected pregnancy, the desire to move to a better location, the hope that one's children can receive a better education than their parents did, the need to retain one's sense of personal dignity, and the fact that a fool and his money are soon parted. What Hansberry's play accomplished, however, was to let mainstream audiences see how the same, familiar drama played out within a contemporary African-American household.

A Raisin in the Sun was nominated for four Tony Awards and won the the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play of 1959. Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil starred in the stage and film versions of the play.

In 1973, the musical adaptation of Hansberry's play (Raisin) won the Tony Award for Best Musical.

During the decade following the Broadway premiere of A Raisin in the Sun, while America struggled with the growing tensions of the Civil Rights movement -- as well as the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- Broadway audiences got quite an education about racism and anti-Semitism:

  • On November 12, 1967, Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway took Broadway by storm with an all-black cast of Hello, Dolly! (I was lucky enough to be in the St. James Theatre that night). Many theatregoers had never seen so many talented African-American performers on one stage.
  • In 1968, when Hair moved uptown and settled into the Biltmore Theatre for a long run, Broadway audiences saw black and white actors performing (and disrobing) together.
Sadly, Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1963. Her only other play to be produced during her lifetime was The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, which closed after 101 performances on January 24, 1965 (the night Hansberry died at the age of 34). Had she lived, Hansberry would have been astonished to watch America elect an African-American President in 2008 and see the Obamas attend this year's revival of her play (starring Denzel Washington) in New York.

Directed by Patricia McGregor, the California Shakespeare Theater's production of A Raisin in the Sun helps Bay area audiences return to the source and experience Hansberry's drama anew. While racism is still very much a problem in America -- and the clumsy attempt by Karl Lindner (Liam Vincent) to buy off the Younger family in order to prevent them from moving into Clybourne Park is still shocking -- most theatregoers are a lot more enlightened than audiences might have been in 1959.

Ruth (Ryan Nicole Peters) argues with her husband, Walter Lee
(Marcus Henderson) in a scene from A Raisin in the Sun
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

McGregor has a top-notch ensemble at her fingertips and the results of their work are quite admirable. Marcus Henderson gives a powerhouse performance as Walter Lee while Ryan Nicole Peters (Ruth) and Nemuna Ceesay (Beneatha) bring depth and dignity to their characters. Rotimi Agbabiaka does some beautiful work as Joseph Asagai. York Walker does double duty as Beneatha's date, George Murchison, and Walter Lee's hapless friend, Bobo.

Lena (Margo Hall) and Walter Lee Younger (Marcus Henderson)
 in a scene from A Raisin in the Sun (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

While many people think of A Raisin in the Sun as a star vehicle for the man who portrays Walter Lee Younger, the play gets its real dramatic strength from the actress portraying his mother, Lena. As expected, Margo Hall delivered the goods with a performance of deep inner strength, unconditional love for the son she suspects to be a fool, and the iron will to inspire him to stand up for his family and not "sell out to the man." Her portrayal of Lena is one in a long line of memorable performances by one of the Bay area's most gifted actors.

Performances of A Raisin in the Sun continue at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda through June 15 (click here to order tickets).

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Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting the West coast premiere of Tony Kushner's intense family drama entitled The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (iHo). Directed by Tony Taccone, it is a mammoth achievement which puts a massively dysfunctional Italian-American family on display, warts and all.

Clocking in at nearly four hours in length (with two intermissions), iHo is the kind of play one could love or hate. But this much is certain: With so much emotional baggage fighting for the spotlight, you'll never be bored.

If I have one reservation, it's that Kushner sets up numerous passages in which rival conversations/arguments take place simultaneously, making it nearly impossible to understand anything being said. After several of these schizophrenic scherzi (which resemble the shape-shifting and frenetic buzzing of swarms of bees), one gets used to the fact that this is a family where everyone talks but no one really listens. Having accepted that baseline of dysfunctionality, one develops a much better understanding of the family dynamic.

When push comes to shove, how can you not love a play whose first act builds to a breathtaking climax with the precision of an operatic Rossini ensemble and whose conclusion could rival that of Frank R. Stockton's 1882 short story, The Lady, or the Tiger?

The protagonist in Kushner's play is Gus Marcantonio (Mark Margolis), a retired dockworker who enjoyed a second career as a union organizer. A life-long Communist, Gus is now in his early 70s and convinced that he is developing Alzheimer's. In order to maximize the estate he can leave to his children, he has decided to sell the family home in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn to an undisclosed buyer.

Gus is also determined to commit suicide and has contacted an old friend, Shelle O'Neill (Robynn Rodriguez), whose husband suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease). Gus knows that Shelle can help him with the details of how to kill himself.

Empty (Dierdre Lovejoy), Shelle (Robynn Rodriguez), and Gus
(Mark Margolis) discuss the properly methodology for committing
suicide in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and 
Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Kushner's play takes place in June of 2007, at the height of the real estate bubble, when cashing out makes sense to Gus. Although he loves his children dearly, they often drive him crazy. In fact, Gus often feels as if their narcissism and emotional neediness are what's killing him.

Pill (Lou Liberatore) thinks he is in love with Eli (Jordan Geiger) in
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism 
with a Key to the Scriptures  (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Pill (Lou Liberatore) is a deeply conflicted gay man who, despite being in a long-term relationship with a theologian (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), has spent $30,000 of his sister's savings on Eli Wolcott (Jordan Geiger), a male hustler whose vulnerability touches him. The sad truth is that Pill enjoys sex much more when he has to pay for it, a fact which does not sit well with his partner at all.

When Pill suggests that he and Paul move Eli out to their home in Minneapolis and welcome him into a thruple arrangement, his devoted partner erupts, delivers a scathing takedown followed by an ultimatum, and gets ready to head back to the Midwest -- with or without Pill (short for Pier Luigi) by his side.

Paul (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) lays into his lover,
Pill (Lou Liberatore) in a scene from The Intelligent Homosexual’s 
Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Empty (Deirdre Lovejoy) has always been Gus's little girl. He coached her in Communist theory, labor relations, and watched as his daughter evolved into a nurse and then switched career tracks to become a talented labor lawyer. Empty (a nickname for Maria Theresa) used to be married to Adam Butler (Anthony Fusco), who now lives in Gus's basement apartment.

Since coming out as a lesbian, she has gotten into a relationship with Maeve Ludens (Liz Wisan), who is now nine months pregnant and about to go into labor. Curiously, Empty shows little concern for Maeve (also a theologian) and is more intensely focused on pleasing her father.

Maeve (Liz Wisan), Empty (Deirdre Lovejoy), and Adam
(Anthony Fusco) get into an argument in a scene from The 
Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism
with a Key to the Scriptures
 (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Vito (Joseph J. Parks) is Gus's youngest child. Mechanically gifted but dangerously short-tempered, he is married to Sooze (Tina Chillip), an attractive young Asian-American who has mastered the art of communicating her displeasure with a royal stink eye.  When, in a burst of anger, Vito shoves a bust of Garibaldi through a wall and discovers an old attaché case, Sooze can't wait to learn what is hidden inside.

Gus (Mark Margolis), Sooze (Tina Chillip), and Vito (Joseph J. Parks)
in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism
with a Key to the Scriptures
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Watching Gus's emotionally needy children and their spouses from a jaundiced, "seen-it-all" point of view is Gus's sister, Clio (Randy Danson). After a colorful past that included several years as a nun, Clio has finally learned how to let go of things she can't control. Despite her brother's determination to commit suicide, she knows it is time for her to move on.

Working on Christopher Barecca's jigsaw puzzle of a set, Tony Taccone has done quite an impressive job of staging a complex work about politics, passion, prostitution, and priorities in which the most lucid character turns out to be a well-educated hustler (the whore who speaks the truth). Above all, Berkeley Rep's production of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism 
with a Key to the Scriptures offers Bay area audiences a chance to marvel at the craft of a master playwright and how his characters have been brought to life by a gifted ensemble.

Performances of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures continue at Berkeley Rep through June 29 (click here to order tickets).

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Other Side of American Exceptionalism

Conformity isn't for everyone. Some kids are quickly tagged with the label "Does not play well with other children." Others grow up to become introverts, recluses, or people who see no need to keep up with the Joneses.

If any character in literature lives up to the description of a true eccentric, it is the sad and lonely woman created by Charles Dickens who, on her wedding day, was jilted by her fiancé. Humiliated beyond any hope of repairing her reputation, from that day forward she remained in her mansion, clad in her wedding dress and wearing only one shoe.

In 1977, composer Dominick Argento was commissioned by the New York City Opera to write a new opera for Beverly Sills. By the time Miss Havisham's Fire received its world premiere on March 22, 1979, Sills was close to retirement and about to become the General Director of the New York City Opera. As a result, the younger Miss Havisham was sung by Gianna Rolandi and the older Miss Havisham by Rita Shane.

As part of its effort to promote a new, made-for-television version of Great Expectations, publicists for the BBC dressed up five fashion models as Miss Havisham and sent them roaming around London's Underground.

Photo by:  Drama/Tim Anderson

Though they are easily misunderstood, eccentrics are not necessarily tragic figures. While some may eventually be diagnosed with varying degrees of autism, others may be savants or have a spectrum of rare gifts. Those who are incapable of recognizing their potential at an early age might describe such children as:
  • The runt of the litter.
  • Marching to their own drummer.
  • A horse of another color.
  • Not playing with a full deck of cards.
  • Someone who must have fallen off the turnip truck, or
  • "Oy, a fagelah!"
If a gifted child is lucky enough to blossom into adulthood, identify his artistic strengths, and pursue them throughout the course of his life, he may end up with a successful career in the arts. If a professional career was never his goal, he may come to be looked upon as someone with a nice hobby (or a really kooky personality).

Two remarkable films being screened at the 2014 SFDocFest focus on remarkable men who, at the very least, would be called eccentric. One re-engineered his youth and worked to forge his artistic destiny from a very early age; the other epitomizes what it means to be a late bloomer.

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I have enjoyed few documentaries as much as When My Sorrow Died: The Legend of Armen Ra & the Theremin, a feature film dedicated to the antics and artistic vision of a Persian-Armenian free spirit who has garnered as much attention for his wild outfits as for his performance art as a theremin soloist.

Theremin virtuoso Armen Ra

Born in Tehran to a father who worked for Iran Air, a mother who was a concert pianist (and with an aunt who was an opera singer), Armen was lucky enough to travel the world on frequent vacations when he was a child. A precocious little boy , he delighted in sewing the costumes for his puppet shows and displayed a florid imagination which, as he grew, was applied to crafting his exotic persona.

Armen Ra

When political unrest in Iran caused his family to relocate to America, Armen was frequently bullied at school. He quickly decided that he had nothing in common with his classmates and soon found his way to New York City, where he began a new chapter of his life as a somewhat androgynous club kid, drag queen, drug addict, and alcoholic.

In 2001, Armen began to study the theremin, subsequently making his professional debut with Antony & The Johnsons. Released by Bowl & Fork Records in 2010, his debut solo CD (“Plays The Theremin”) showcases classical Armenian laments and folk songs (his earliest musical influences).

Poster art for When My Sorrow Died

What makes  Robert Nazar Arjoyan's film so entertaining is that its subject loves the camera almost as much as the camera loves Armen Ra. Whether preening at home like a 1940s femme fatale or performing live in concert, Armen is very much his own creation. If he occasionally needs to take a temporary job in a Los Angeles department store, that comes with the burden of having transformed himself into a fantastic creature who, at the very least, is a legend in his own mind.

Don't believe me? Check out the following trailer. This film is a real piece of work!

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A resident of Saco, Maine, Al Carbee was a World War II x-ray technician who spent many years as a commercial photographer and portrait painter. Few, if any locals knew about his work as a collage artist with a fetish for Barbie dolls. As the artist notes: "Every Barbie is different. Every Barbie has a theme. I photograph her so that every situation she's in, she feels comfortable."

In 1997, when Jeremy Workman was vacationing in Maine, he spoke to a friend who was a reporter for the Biddeford-Saco -OOB Courier. It was then that Aaron Smith insisted Workman to take an extra day to visit Carbee before returning to New York.  "Ask him about his art," urged Smith.

That fateful phone call led to a decade-long friendship between Carbee, Workman, and the filmmaker's girlfriend (Astrid von Ussarwhich). Following Carbee's death in 2005 at the age of 89, Workman finally completed his documentary entitled Magical Universe.

Artist Al Carbee with some of his Barbie dolls

In his film, Workman details the growth of his friendship with Carbee (who also raised and sold guppies to locals) and his ongoing fascination with Carbee's immense collection of the man's strange works of art. Because of his New England accent, there are times when Carbee sounds like the Bizarro-world's counterpart to the beloved fashion photographer for The New York Times, Bill Cunningham.

One of Al Carbee's Barbie collages.

Although there are moments when the quality of film could be better, Workman has done a splendid job of capturing Carbee's childlike wonder about the process of creativity, his identity as an artist, and the joy he derives from his art. The story of how Carbee's work ended up being exhibited at the Saco Museum in honor of their "local artist" has a rare charm that would never be found in a big-city museum installation. Here's the trailer:

Friday, May 23, 2014

Coping With Undesirables

Looking back on history often allows people to get a clearer picture of what's wrong with the world. For example, not everyone is as wealthy as Mitt Romney.

Following her infamous statement during the 2012 Presidential election that "We've given all you people need to know and understand about our financial situation and how we life our life," several clever actors seized upon the opportunity to make videos mocking Ann Romney's slick expressions of elitism under attack.

The sad truth is that income inequality income in America is not just a case of distinguishing between the haves and have nots. Many people (the poor, the protesters, the disabled, veterans in need of healthcare) are kept out of sight by today's media because the sheer act of acknowledging their struggles would be "inconvenient" for those whose privilege isolates them from such lower-class woes.

In recent years, the cult of victimization has taken on a perverse new face. Suddenly, those sitting at the top of the power pyramid have begun to insist that they are the true victims. Whether they suffer from affluenza, reverse racism, or willful ignorance caused by organized religion, the rising levels of stupidity that threaten us have become nearly as dangerous as climate change. (I especially enjoyed reading about the software programmer who is suing a stripper to get his Harry Potter DVDs returned to him).

Some people get marginalized from society because of medical reasons; others are subject to political persecution. Such people have often been shamelessly stripped of their credibility, their dignity, their souls, and their health by those in power.  Why? Genuine victims are painful reminders to those in positions of authority that inconvenient truths must be swept under the rug.

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During the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival, I was deeply moved by Bill Morrison's 18-minute short entitled Re: Awakenings. Backed by Andrew Sterman's poignant saxophone solo (composed by Philip Glass), the film contains archival footage of patients at the Beth Abraham Hospital in The Bronx who spent years in a near comatose state as a result of an early 20th century epidemic of encephalitis lethargica.

When Oliver Sacks began to treat them with L-DOPA, many of the patients achieved much higher levels of functioning than the medical staff had ever imagined possible for them. You can see the difference in these two clips from Morrison's film.

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Political persecution never seems to go out of fashion. With 2014 marking the 25th anniversary of 1989's protests in Tiananmen Square, it's not surprising to encounter articles which look back to that fateful time and compare it to China's new role as a global superpower. CentralWorks is currently presenting the world premiere of Sally Dawidoff's play, The Crazed (which is based on Ha Jin's novel about people caught in the political turmoil of a country undergoing radical socioeconomic, cultural, and political change).

As the play begins, the audience sees a terrified Professor Yang (Randall Nakano) wearing a large dunce cap and attempting to recant his cultural crime of translating poetry. While abroad for a speaking engagement (at which he arrived too late to perform), Yang also spent money on an unconscionable luxury for his family: a refrigerator.

Suddenly, a briskly marching group of young soldiers from the Red Guards enters the performance space, sending a thrill of excitement through the room. As I sat watching The Crazed begin to unfold, I thought "This could be the start of something big."

Randall Nakano as the disgraced Professor Yang
in The Crazed (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

But I was wrong. Oh, so very, very wrong. While Dawidoff may be an accomplished poet, her skills as a playwright need greater development. Her lengthy first act (which was heavily weighted down with exposition) proved to be a crashing bore.

One must, however, consider the characters involved in The Crazed. In addition to a conniving, power-hungry female bureaucrat named Ying Pen (Jeannie Barroga) who lusts after a promotion, there are three students trying to find themselves as they lurch toward adulthood.
  • Banping (Perry Aliado) is a classic, ass-kissing teacher's pet whose lack of social skills, empathy, and general awareness of the world around him easily transforms the character into a clueless villain (imagine a Communist Chinese version of Bud Frump). Portrayed as a young nerd with a fetish for his new sneakers, Banping is, almost by necessity, a walking cartoon.
  • Mantao (Wes Gabrillo) is the trio's intellectual, the serious thinker who is radicalized by the political environment and feels compelled to join the student protesters in Tiananmen Square (where he meets an untimely death).
  • Jian Wan (Will Dao) is Professor Yang's dutiful disciple whose plans for a future with his fiancée, Meimei (Carina Lastimosa Salazar), are sabotaged when Yang suffers a stroke and his healthcare falls under the pernicious purview of the scheming and manipulative Ying Pen. After she assigns Jian Wan to watch over Professor Yang (instead of preparing for his final exams), the young man's personal conflict leaves little doubt that spending time in a re-education camp is in his future.
Will Dao as Jian Wan in The Crazed
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)

I'm not sure why the performances by Randall Nakano and Jeannie Barrogga seemed so unconvincing. Perhaps it was Nakano's bizarre style of vocal delivery (which had nothing to do with the side-effects of his character having suffered a stroke) or that Ms. Barrogga looked like an incompetent 50-year-old Meg Griffin stuck in a a position of academic authority (what many teachers refer to as a "school stupidintendent").

Directed by Gary Graves (with sound by Gregory Scharpen), The Crazed improved somewhat in the second act. Will Dao gave a compelling performance as Jian Wan with Louel Senores making brief but impressive appearances in a series of cameo roles.

Jian Wan (Will Dao) encounters Hao (Louel Señores)
in The Crazed (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

In an article published in The New York Times on May 30, 2009, Ha Jin explained that:
"I was in the People's Liberation Army in the 1970s, and we soldiers had always been instructed that our principal task was to serve and protect the people. So when the Chinese military turned on the students in Tiananmen Square, it shocked me so much that for weeks I was in a daze. At the time, I was in the United States, finishing a dissertation in American literature. My plan was to go back to China once it was done. I had a teaching job waiting for me at Shandong University. After the crackdown, some friends assured me that the Communist Party would admit its mistake within a year. I couldn't see why they were so optimistic. I also thought it would be foolish to wait passively for historical change. I had to find my own existence, separate from the state power in China.
Author Ha Jin
That was when I started to think about staying in America and writing exclusively in English (even if China was my only subject, even if Chinese was my native tongue). The Chinese language had been so polluted by revolutionary movements and political jargon that there was great room for improvement. Yet, if I wrote in Chinese, my audience would be in China and I would therefore have to publish there and be at the mercy of its censorship. To preserve the integrity of my work, I had no choice but to write in English. To some Chinese, my choice of English is a kind of betrayal, but loyalty is a two-way street. I feel I have been betrayed by China, which has suppressed its people and made artistic freedom unavailable. I have tried to write mostly about China and preserve its real history. As a result, most of my work cannot be published in China."

Jian Wan (Will Dao) argues with his estranged fiancée, Meimei
Carina Lastimosa Salazar in The Crazed( (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

Although I did not read Ha Jin's novel, I have a theory about why The Crazed imploded onstage. Despite trying to cover the impact of so many personal and political events in the protagonist's life, the heart of the story got lost in translation. I can't say how much of that took place because Ha Jin was writing in English instead of Chinese but I'm willing to bet that some of it happened when an American poet attempted to take on a Chinese expatriate's deep personal grief and political anguish and make it her own.

* * * * * * * * *
Americans love a scapegoat. From Communists to slaves, from LGBT people to those suspected of witchcraft, the venom with which some Americans have shamed and persecuted innocent people is quite beyond the pale.

With the rabid ignorance of professional morons like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Allen West, Virginia Foxx, and Louie Gohmert in full bloom, anyone who thinks things have gotten better might want to note that, in her bio for the Custom Made Theatre's production of The Crucible, actress Melissa Clason dedicates this production to the strength and courage of her ninth-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Periment Clawson "who also in 1692 was accused, tortured, tried, and exonerated of witchcraft in Stamford, Connecticut."

When Arthur Miller's drama about the Salem witch trials opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on January 22, 1953, the playwright stressed that "The Crucible is taken from history. No character is in the play who did not take a similar role in Salem, 1692." After winning the 1953 Tony Award for Best PlayThe Crucible went on to become an American classic.

Poster art for Custom Made Theatre's production of The Crucible

Composer Robert Ward adapted Miller's play for the operatic stage. Following its world premiere at the New York City Opera on October 26, 1961, The Crucible received the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

In a June 17, 2000 article about his play written for The Guardian/The Observer, Miller noted that:
"It would probably never have occurred to me to write a play about the Salem witch trials of 1692 had I not seen some astonishing correspondences with that calamity in the America of the late 1940s and early 1950s. My basic need was to respond to a phenomenon which, with only small exaggeration, one could say paralyzed a whole generation. In 1956, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoenaed me. I was cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to identify writers I had met at one of the two communist writers' meetings I had attended many years before.

In today's terms, the country had been delivered into the hands of the radical right, a ministry of free-floating apprehension toward anything that never happens in the middle of Missouri. It is always with us (this anxiety), sometimes directed towards foreigners, Jews, Catholics, fluoridated water, aliens in space, masturbation, homosexuality, or the Internal Revenue Department. And if this seems crazy now, it seemed just as crazy then. But openly doubting it could cost you. Salem village, that pious, devout settlement at the edge of white civilization, had displayed what can only be called a built-in pestilence in the human mind, a fatality forever awaiting the right condition for its always unique, unprecedented outbreak of distrust, alarm, suspicion, and murder. It is all very strange. But the Devil is known to lure people into forgetting what it is vital for them to remember. How else could his endless reappearances always come as such a marvelous surprise?"
Abigail Williams (Juliana Lustenader) and her friends disrupt
a court hearing in The Crucible (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Arthur Miller died on February 10, 2005 at a time when the Bush administration's fear-driven control of the media was escalating to unimaginable heights. Guided by Karl Rove, smear campaigns like the Swift Boating of John Kerry allowed Republican talking points to reverberate throughout conservative media during each 24-hour news cycle to keep the populace feeling frightened and insecure. I've often wondered what would happen if a major news anchor looked right into the camera and said "Of course, we have no proof that Karl Rove is a child molester, but....."

Abigail Williams (Juliana Lustenader) and Reverend Parris (Andrew
Calabrese) in a scene from The Crucible (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Custom Made Theatre's new production of The Crucible begins in darkness as (thanks to Liz Ryder's excellent sound design) the audience hears a chorus of girlish/ghoulish shrieks coming from the darkened woods surrounding Salem village. Once the lights come up on Stewart Lyle's set, the production takes on the rapidly accelerating pace of a community gripped by fear and living on the brink of hysteria.

Faced with a posse of late 17th century mean girls who have been dancing naked in the woods and acting out their fantasies with little regard for the well-being of others, wild accusations quickly course through the community. Egged on by the prejudices of the blazingly manipulative Reverend Parris (Andrew Calabrese) -- whose daughter, Betty (Kitty Torres), is lying in a stupor close to death -- malicious gossip spreads like wildfire.

Reverend John Hale (Nicholas Trengove) tries to comfort Betty
Parris (Kitty Torres) in The Crucible) (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Although villagers are beginning to suspect the Parris family's black servant, Tituba (Jeunee Simon), of witchcraft, the real troublemaker is Abigail Williams (Juliana Lustenader), who lusts after John Procter (Peter Townley) and intends -- by whatever means possible -- to get rid of his wife, Elizabeth (Megan Briggs) so that she can replace her by Procter's side.

Tautly directed by Stuart Bousel, this production benefits from Custom Made's tiny performance space, which only heightens the overall sense of paranoia, magnifies the delusional behavior, and exposes the instances of religious persecution. Paul Jennings (as Deputy Governor Danforth), and Alisha Ehrlich (as Mary Warren) deliver powerful performances in supporting roles.

John Procter (Peter Townley) brings Mary Warren (Alisha Ehrlich)
to a hearing in The Crucible (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

As Miller's play details the remarkable number of residents who have been jailed and unjustly hanged as a result of their friends and neighbors bearing false witness, John Procter's determination to hold onto his name -- as the last thing he can rightly call his own -- becomes heartbreaking in the face of Danforth's legal bullying. Others in the cast included Ron Talbot as Giles Corey and Charles Lewis III as Marshal Herrick.

Elizabeth (Megan Briggs) and  John Proctor (Peter Townley)
in a scene from The Crucible  (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Performances of The Crucible continue at Custom Made Theatre through June 15 (click here to order tickets). This is a production of worthy of any serious theatregoer's attention.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Returning Power To The People

Over the years I've learned to savor my journeys through improbable dreamscapes -- visions that make no dramatic sense, lack any kind of physical restraints, and have no respect for boundaries of any kind. Shortly after awakening, the flagrant real-life barriers to duplicating anything that happened in my dream become painfully obvious.

Let me give you an example (and I'm not talking about the time Whoopi Goldberg and I went bicycling down a steep hill to see who could cross a highway and enter Safeway's parking lot first without getting creamed by an approaching car).

The other night I dreamed that I was in an office in mid-Manhattan when someone came into the room and announced that the conductor for that evening's performance of La Traviata was indisposed. Could I step in and take over?

Having no experience leading an orchestra in real life, the idea is downright laughable. Decades have passed since I studied piano or was able to sight read music. And yet, there I was, alone in a studio, running through Verdi's score by heart on a grand piano.

Renee Fleming as Violetta in Act I of La Traviata

In my mind, the dynamics of Violetta's Act I party scene were totally accurate. A neighbor who is a major opera fan even stopped by to agree with the tempi I had chosen. As I waited to make my entrance into the orchestra pit at City Center, I thought back to the time (in my dreams) when I had conducted a performance of Lohengrin in my underwear following an urgent request from Kurt Herbert Adler.

And then I woke up.

In the hazy aftermath of that dream, some ideas which had been eluding a solution finally coalesced into a workable format that I could use in an upcoming column. As the wild creativity of my dream life faded into the background, I quickly saw how what was possible in my sleep was impossible in reality.

For many artists, the ability to see what others don't -- or can't see -- is what adds an element of humanity or depth to their work. For most people, 2 + 2 may equal 4. But for an artist, the result may be 4 plus a pink rhinoceros. Or a cupcake with day-glo icing. I can't explain the process; that's simply how it happens.

Those off-balance observations and perspectives are what frequently make one person's art stand out from another's. Consider two short plays that were part of the Best of Playground 18 Festival.

In The Broken-Tooth Comb, by William Bivins, a young Chinese math whiz gets an opportunity to leave China and study in America. As the years progress (and he is separated from his beloved Yaling Sun (Rinabeth Apostol), he struggles to find a relationship between two prime numbers -- P (Howard Swain) and Q (Teddy Spencer). As directed by Katia Rivera, Jomar Tagatac gave a poignant portrayal of a mathematics professor chasing after the seemingly undecipherable answer to his theory until, late in life, he finds the solution he has always sought.

Tagatac also appeared as a Kevin, the delivery boy, in Ruben Grijalva's political farce entitled Mr. Wong’s Goes to Washington (which was crisply directed by M. Graham Smith). The setup is simple: Denise (Stacy Ross) is a White House aide locking horns during a meeting with a wingnut conservative member of Congress (Howard Swain).

When Kevin arrives with the food that was ordered by Ben (Adam Roy) and approved by Kim (Rinabeth Apostol) and Denise, Mick's two congressional aides are hungry for lunch. Kim is starving and ready to kill anyone who gets between her and the food. Ben is the very model of a research assistant, ready to quote statistics that will allow the Congressman to pay for and eat the food Kevin has delivered.

Mick, however, is having none of it. Not only does he resent the fact that someone ordered Chinese food when there is a good American delicatessen just down the street, he refuses to spend taxpayer money on a decision in which he was not involved. When Kevin (whose arms are getting tired from holding all the food) insists that someone is going to pay for their order, it only serves to further aggravate the belligerent Congressman who is, above all else, in love with the sound of his own voice.

Grijalva's tidy little farce did a surprisingly effect job of underscoring the sheer lunacy of the ideological extremes which have led to so much gridlock in Washington. But when it comes to dissecting sociological and ideological extremes, there is really only one person whose combination of forensic insight and artistic acuity is up to the task. That man is Mike Daisey.

* * * * * * * * *
Daisey returned to the Bay area for the first time in three years for a two-night engagement at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where he performed his stunning monologue entitled American Utopias. It requires an extremely skilled artist to take three seemingly disparate and uniquely American microcosms and tie them together using the complex common bond of how American culture can use (and abuse) the concept of an ongoing, carefully defined niche partnership between the public and private sectors.

Poster art for American Utopias
The three objects of Daisey's fascination are:
  • Burning Man: Daisey and his wife, Jean-Michele Gregory, had never been to the annual gathering in Black Rock Desert. As they drove down from Seattle, they were terrified by thoughts of the unknown. Watching Daisey describe what it's like for a marginally defensive New Yorker to be hugged by strange men wearing little, if any clothing, is a moment of priceless hilarity built on the shattering of assumed physical boundaries. While his critical eye takes in the art cars and other sculptures to be found on the Playa, Daisey's acute sensitivity to money and how it affects cultural systems is blindsided when he encounter Burning Man's gifting economy. His discovery that the ritual of "burning the man" at the end of each year's festivities has less to do with the actual conflagration than with the way it impacts those in attendance is one of many presumptions about Burning Man that, quite literally, went up in smoke.
  • Walt Disney World: For years, Daisey had resisted going to Orlando's theme parks. However, his relatives in New Jersey regard a trip to Walt Disney World the same way that many Muslims regard the Hajj. While Daisey's description of his painful misadventures in "the happiest place on earth" will have some people doubled over in laughter, there is also a childlike moment of awe as he first glimpses Sleeping Beauty's Castle and feels the same thrill he felt as a child watching television. His expectation of spending many hours waiting on lines for various attractions is undermined by a cousin's paramilitary approach to efficiently touring the Magic Kingdom. Perhaps the biggest irony of his family's Disney obsession comes when his cousin, Chris, asks Daisey what he liked the most about the whole experience and Mike confesses that, even more than the trip to Orlando, he really enjoyed attending one of his family's annual picnics in which they created their own Disney-inspired theme park experience.
  • Zuccotti Park: Feeling guilty that he was not on hand for the Occupy Wall Street event when it took over Zuccotti Park, Daisey describes his experience on the day that he finally made a trip to Wall Street to see what the park (another public-private partnership) was like. Astounded by the intense police presence, after leaving the area and heading toward the subway, he asked a lone policeman how he felt about the whole phenomenon. The man replied "Well, you know, we've got to keep this place safe for the right people."
Monologist Mike Daisey

Those who attended some of Daisey's previous performances might have been surprised by the different tone of American Utopias. For one thing, Daisey seemed more emotionally vulnerable in his descriptions of feeling like an outsider at Burning Man and Walt Disney World. His ability to weave three separate narratives into a cultural tapestry hit a critical turning point at which the audience suddenly became much quieter and settled in for less comedy and more social criticism about the dominant influence of corporatism in our lives.

In American Utopias, Daisey seemed less combative and more willing to take his time as a master storyteller (had he been a camp counselor telling ghost stories, you can be sure every one of his camper's sleeping bags would have been soaked in urine by the time the sun came up). Not too many people can hold an audience in rapt attention for more than 2-1/2 hours before asking the stage manager to bring up the house lights so he can see the audience.

At that point, Daisey did something quite remarkable. He thanked the audience for letting him see them, explaining that at most performances he's usually speaking into a darkened space. Then, to make his point about why theatre is really about the exchange of energy between the audience and the performers, he invited everyone to join him outside the Novellus Theatre for the final segment of his performance. Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Daisey then left the stage, walked through the auditorium and was followed outdoors by hundreds of loyal fans.

As I noted above, American Utopias presents a mellower and more personal side of Mike Daisey than audiences might be used to. For those who have never seen Daisey performing at full throttle, the following clip was recorded on December 2, 2011, in the plaza at Broadway and West 50th Street (directly across the street from the Winter Garden Theatre) as part of an Occupy Broadway event. As Benjamin Shepard, co-author of The Beach Beneath the Streets explained:
"The city created privately owned public spaces for the people, in exchange for bonus height and bulk in these spaces. In recent weeks, there has been a push to tramp on our rights to public assembly, public space and, by extension, democracy itself. In response, Occupy Broadway joins a global struggle using occupation as a form of creative resistance. Occupations are spreading around the world and around New York City, even uptown.

Bloomberg beware: As State Judge Stallman made clear last week, the people have a right to be in these spaces 24 hours a day. You take our park, now Liberty Park is everywhere! In a time when downtown theaters are rapidly losing their spaces, being turned into high-end fashion stores, Occupy Broadway is a symbolic attempt to regain the space of theatre as an accessible, popular art form, bringing it back to where it all started -- in a public space, for the common citizen."
Watch Mike Daisey address the crowd in a highly impassioned, uniquely confrontational speech. His action is a fine example of artists working to bring power back to the people.