Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Lovers Behaving Badly

Once upon a time (and not so very long ago), one's relationship status was simply described and easy to understand. The basic choices were:
  • Single
  • Married
  • Divorced
  • Widowed
However, with the rise of social media -- and the increasing recognition of cohabitation, open relationships, thruples, and other lifestyles by which people define their social and sexual couplings -- a new term has entered the vernacular: "It's complicated."

Deviations from previously-perceived norms can lead to increased passion, kinkiness, and excitement (as well as confusion about roles and responsibilities that were once strictly defined by gender). Such relationships also open up the door for writers to have a field day with mistaken identities and increased levels of dramatic tension.

* * * * * * * * *
Wily West Productions recently presented the world premiere of Stuart Bousel's one-act romp entitled Everybody Here Says Hello! down at the EXIT Theatre. Bousel began working on the script nearly 15 years ago when he was living in Tucson, Arizona. Since then he's had a lot of time to mature, gain deeper insight into the randy behavior of his characters, and do a meticulous job of crafting layer upon layer of relationship madness into the script.

Dan Kurtz is Byron in Everybody Here Says Hello!
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)

His play starts off as several dudes are playing an informal game of baseball in a local park.
Bryon (Dan Kurtz) is in a relationship with Patrick (Nick Trengove)
in Everybody Here Says Hello! (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

And what about the women in Bousel's play?

Byron (Dan Kurtz) and his sister, Cara June (Kat Bushnell) in a
scene from Everybody Here Says Hello! (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Cara June (Kat Bushnell) is Byron's under-achieving sister who has never really shown any ambition. Quick to note that she might just as well slaughter a goat on her front lawn, grill the meat, and feed it to some kids in day care, Cara June surmises that she might even be able to get some grant money which would allow her to call it performance art (if, as her brother notes, she could only be bothered to "fill out the fucking paperwork").

Patrick (Nick Trengove) and Rebecca (Mikka Bonel) become
attracted to one another in Everybody Here Says Hello!
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)
  • Rebecca (Mikka Bonel), a young woman who stops by the baseball game, takes a curious liking to Patrick but is crippled by some emotional baggage involving her older sister.
  • Esther (Kat Bushnell) is Rebecca's over-achieving sister who could have gone into medicine or law, but recently decided to pursue a career as a cabaret singer. Without any previous knowledge of Patrick's professional life as a drag queen, she asks him if he could help her with a problem she's having with her dress (of course, he could!) Not only is she taking Patrick's attention off Byron, she's also distracting him from Rebecca's amorous advances.
Patrick (Nick Trengrove) and Esther (Kat Bushnell) in a scene
from Everybody Here Says Hello! (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Here's where casting actors in multiple roles makes things extremely complicated:
  • In addition to portraying Bryon's baseball friend Neil, Wesley Cayabyab supplies the telephone voice for Bryon's editor, Hammish.
  • In addition to portraying the super straight Toro, Tony Cirimele makes two appearances in drag: first, as a book agent named Sylvia (whom Neil's wife, Maria, has convinced to take a look at Bryon's manuscript) and second as Agnes (an older Jewish woman attending a wedding where Esther has been hired as a singer).
  • Sylvia Hathaway portrays Neil's wife (Maria) and another woman named Olivia.
  • And then there is Sam Tillis, who doubles as Bryon's former boyfriend, Luke (who would kind of like to get together again) and as Rebecca's ex, Doug (who would also like to get together again but has just gotten Esther pregnant -- which can only fan the flames of Rebecca's sibling resentment).  Like Shakespeare's Cassius, Mr. Tillis has "a lean and hungry look."
Dan Kurtz, Nick Trengove, and Mikka Bonel are featured
in Everybody Here Says Hello! (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

While Bousel's writing supplies plenty of petulant putdowns and snarky one-liners for his characters, Everybody Here Says Hello! benefits immensely from the rapid-fire direction of Rik Lopes, who manages to keep the cast moving at a furious pace that makes one wonder if they used a metronome during rehearsals.

Everybody Here Says Hello! is a delightful contemporary comedy which could have a long life in university drama departments as well as community theatres. It contains some of Bousel's smartest writing and is performed by a talented, finely-tuned ensemble. If you've ever wanted to see a furiously fast-paced, fierce Feydeau farce without any slamming doors, Bousel's play definitely hits the spot! Performances continue through August 15 at the EXIT Theatre (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Clara Bow was famously known as "The It Girl." Believe it or not, there are many men who, despite living in an era of preening narcissism, are so uninterested in their looks that they can remain oblivious to the impact their presence has on the men and women in their daily lives. Such a man is 25-year-old Boaz (played by male model Yoav Reuveni), the protagonist of Yariv Mozer's new film, Snails in the Rain.

Poster art for Snails in the Rain

Boaz has a lot going for him. Having served his time in the Israeli army -- where he showed no interest in circle jerks or the sexual advances of his friend Nir (Yehuda Nahari) -- his lean, muscular physique and natural, unaffected masculinity leaves his admirers with weak knees. But as a linguistics student at Tel Aviv University in 1989 who is waiting to learn whether or not he will receive a scholarship from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Boaz divides most of his energy between his linguistics class, his school's swimming pool, and making love to his girlfriend, Noa (Moran Rosenblatt).

Boaz (Yoav Reuveni) and Noa (Moran Rosenblatt)
in their apartment in Tel Aviv in Snails in the Rain

Sometimes Boaz and Noa will spend time with his friend Ori (Ori Yaniv) and Ori's girlfriend, Michal (Adi Douiev). But when Ori suddenly packs his bags and heads off to Thailand without any explanation, his departure becomes just one more mystery in Boaz's life.

Yoav Reuveni stars as Boaz in Snails in the Rain

That's because, while Boaz has been checking his mailbox, hoping for an acceptance letter from Hebrew University, he's started to receive a series of anonymous, typed letters from a closeted gay man who has a painful crush on him. The letters become more and more revealing, including intimate details about Boaz's day-to-day life.

Boaz (Yoav Reuveni) reads a letter from his secret admirer

The letters soon start to get on Boaz's nerves and he starts wondering who could be sending them to him. Although Boaz starts to question the looks he gets from men who cruise him at the gym and on the street, he remains relatively clueless.

Could it be the auto mechanic (Eyal Cohen) who is fixing Boaz's car? The overly solicitous library clerk (Ron Paran)? What about that hunk in the locker room (Eyal Kentov) who keeps trying to offer him a cigarette? Boaz can never really be sure whether someone is flirting with him or just trying to be nice.

Yoav Reuveni stars as Boaz in Snails in the Rain

When Noa finds the stash of letters written to Boaz by his secret admirer, it doesn't take much for her to guess that they've been sent by his linguistics professor (whom she noticed hungrily staring at Boaz one afternoon as they passed by him on a bus). After reading a letter which delivers an ultimatum to Boaz, Noa takes it upon herself to confront Professor Richlin in his office.

Writer/director Yariv Mozer portrays Boaz's
closeted linguistics professor in Snails in the Rain

In many ways, Snails in the Rain (which was screened at the 2014 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) feels like an old-fashioned stalker film as the closeted letter writer starts to plant doubts in Boaz's mind about his sexuality. However, even when Boaz goes to a notorious cruising area and gets blown by a young man, he has an abrupt and negative reaction to the encounter.

With the exception of one scene in which a frustrated, edgy Boaz grabs Noa, pins her to the kitchen table and roughly fucks her from behind, Boaz seems to be a model of outward serenity.  Written and directed by Yariv Mozer (who also portrays the closeted Professor Richlin), Snails in the Rain does a superb job of capturing the frenetic lust of a closeted gay man with a crush on an unobtainable straight hunk. As Boaz's meddling mother, Hava Ortman lends a deadpan presence to the proceedings that would make Buster Keaton proud.

In addition to a tightly-plotted script, Snails in the Rain benefits immensely from Wouter van Bemmel's excellent musical score. Here's the trailer:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Closing The Empathy Gap

As technology allows us to erect more and more electronic barriers around us, the value of removing one's earbuds and looking up from one's smartphone becomes increasingly important. Some people understand how to use new technology while others remain decidedly unclear on the concept.

Cultural references play a huge role in shaping how one generation views another. In his article entitled The Truth about Our Wi-fi Society: What the Quest for Constant Connection Really Means for, Andrew Leonard waxes nostalgic about how binge watching episodes of The Rockford Files after the news of actor James Garner's death made him acutely aware of how much people relied on pay phones during the 1970s.
"I couldn’t stop fixating on just how often everything stopped in its tracks so that Jim Rockford could put a dime in a payphone: multiple times an episode. Without those payphones, the plot wasn’t going anywhere. No one is as isolated today as Rockford was in his Plymouth Firebird on an L.A. freeway. It was hard for me to avoid the sinking feeling that Jim Rockford with an iPhone would no longer be Jim Rockford. Always-on Wi-Fi would accelerate his genial slouch. The languid ocean outside his trailer would end up a trivialized mote in his Instagram feed. The string of dames in distress wouldn’t appear unannounced at his door; they’d find him on Tinder first.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes uses a smartphone just as you would expect a genius detective to, with the entire Internet at his disposal to assist in the deductive process. It’s clever, but it always seemed like cheating. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock didn’t need no stinkin’ smartphone! A few puffs on his pipe was all that was necessary!"
Poster art for a 1900 stage production of Sherlock Holmes
(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In her eye-opening article entitled Grandmas Rise Up Against Millenials' "Grandma" Lifestyle in The New Yorker, Cathy Lew describes how many grandmothers scoff at the self-indulgent ways in which some Millennials posture as senior citizens. However, instead of mimicking the elderly, there is much more to be learned from them.

Throughout my life I've been extremely fortunate to have friends from multiple age groups. When I first started attending opera, I learned a great deal from standees who ranged from impassioned teenage music students to 80-year-old women who were scalping tickets to supplement their income. When I moved to Rhode Island, I was fortunate to build friendships with middle-aged men and women who treated me as an adult (even though I was just emerging from my teens).

In recent years, both the Frameline Film Festival and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival have developed intergenerational filmmaking projects which facilitate mentoring while recording oral histories from senior citizens. Throughout the process, both generations have learned a great deal from each other about empathy. Two films that were screened at the 2014 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival framed that learning process from unique perspectives.

* * * * * * * * *
Gay men who lived through the worst years of the AIDS epidemic got used to hundreds of their close friends and acquaintances dying while in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Many of us can still remember friends from the gym who boasted "With a body like this, how could I be sick?" Two weeks later, they were dead.

Today, when a person dies in their 70s, 80s, or 90s, we celebrate the fact that they were able to live a long life. But in a culture that remains obsessed with youth and glorifies rampant narcissism, it's often difficult for people to deal rationally with death. A stunning new documentary which received its West Coast premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival follows seniors at the Harley School in Rochester, New York who have signed up for an elective course in hospice care.

Jamir Avery (a non-Catholic) prays with a dying Catholic nun

Inspired by the work of his long-time friend, English teacher Bob Kane, David Marshall's poignant film entitled Beginning With The End was, quite obviously, a labor of love for all involved. In his director's statement, Marshall explains that:
"As Bob often remarks, 'The kids got it.' It was the parents, administrators and the general community that often didn’t understand why kids would or should be helping people as they die. I imagine that in all likelihood I would have been one of those kids who didn’t get it. I had never experienced death up close and unfiltered. The closest I came was in the 1980s AIDS crisis. During those tortuous years, I got to know many young men who died alone, with nobody holding their hand or even being present in the room. I often wonder if some of my interest in doing this film might stem from my inability to help back then. But at that time (like so many others) I was too afraid. Too afraid of death. Too afraid of the idea of mortality. Whatever brought me to this moment, I can safely say Bob’s class was a catalyst for change in me.

I began this film with a definite position and a set of expectations. I thought I would be following an experience that some would embrace and others would not, expecting that the nature of the topic (death) would select out some students to fail. What I found out is that none of the students fail. No matter how the students stratify themselves in high school (the Ins, the Outs, the jocks, the intellectuals, the nerds, the wallflowers) how they were in the comfort care homes was never defined by those same strictures. In the end, they helped the most vulnerable people move on with an assurance and kindness infrequently asked of contemporary teens. If you have ever wondered how wisdom moves from one generation to another, I can say, one way is by caring for someone who has nothing to offer in return but gratitude and a whispered part of their story."
Leandra Caprini-Rosica and Ada Rosenstreter watch the snow fall

Kane, who has been supervising the Hospice Care course for 10 years, makes no bones about the challenges students will face. But he finds that in the initial discussions of their past experiences with death (as well as their fears and insecurities about it), as soon as one or two students open up about how death has impacted their young lives, it opens up the rest of the group to a remarkable level of candor and emotional honesty.

Students learn how to help wash patients, turn them over in bed, feed them, and sometimes just sit with them silently. One male teenager jokes about how part of the time he spent with a patient involved sitting with her in the garage and keeping her company as she smoked cigarettes. Whenever he came home smelling like an ashtray, he explained that he was helping a patient who liked to smoke. His mother's reaction was simply to tell him to take a shower.

One of the most moving scenes in Marshall's documentary occurs when two adults (whose parents were tended to by the students in the Hospice Program) visit the classroom after their respective parents have passed on. They get a chance to thank the teenagers not just for the help they gave in caring for their dying parents, but also for the way their presence allowed the adults to get some relief from the duties of caregiving and simply be a family's children again as their parents faded and died. Marshall makes no bones about what he learned while working on Beginning With The End.
"I have come to believe that if the right circumstances are presented, it is innate to us to be compassionate. Empathy is in our DNA, as it were, but like any innate attribute it must be nurtured if it is going to grow. The class and the homes provide such an environment. What still strikes me are the students -- their desire to return to hospice class each day as if this place, this class, was a kind port in life’s storm. In this safe harbor, they learned how to help someone without expecting anything in return, no reward beyond just being there quietly and knowing that their presence is enough."

Josh Shechter helps a patient who keeps slipping off her socks

Whether sharing a piece of lemon meringue pie with an elderly woman, listening to a group of male friends who have known each other for years, or sharing a woman's insights about her realization that, after receiving her cancer diagnosis, she was still the same person she was before she heard the news, the students listen, learn, and become more comfortable with making friends with people who will soon die. When one of the students discovers at Thanksgiving that her own grandmother has a terminal illness and will need hospice care, her connections with a comfort care facility ease the transition for everyone in her family.

Beginning With The End is not a sad movie, but one which captures the humor of old age, the willingness of teenagers to look beyond their own needs, and the reality of death. Marshall's touching documentary treats them all with respect. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
One of the more poignant pieces of Holocast art to survive was Brundibár (a children's opera written by Czech composer Hans Krása and librettist Adolf Hoffmeister). According to Wikipedia:
"Krása and Hoffmeister wrote the opera in 1938 for a government competition, but the competition was later cancelled due to political developments. Rehearsals started in 1941 at the Jewish orphanage in Prague, which served as a temporary educational facility for children separated from their parents by the war. In the winter of 1942 the opera was first performed at the orphanage (by this time, composer Krása and set designer František Zelenka had already been transported to Theresienstadt). By July 1943, nearly all of the children of the original chorus and the orphanage staff had also been transported to Theresienstadt. Only the librettist Hoffmeister was able to escape Prague in time."
Czech composer Hans Krása
"Reunited with the cast in Theresienstadt, Krása reconstructed the full score of the opera, based on memory and the partial piano score that remained in his hands, adapting it to suit the musical instruments available in the camp: flute, clarinet, guitar, accordion, piano, percussion, four violins, a cello and a double bass. A set was once again designed by František Zelenka, formerly a stage manager at the Czech National Theatre: several flats were painted as a background...On 23 September 1943, Brundibár premiered in Theresienstadt. The production was directed by Zelenka and choreographed by Camilla Rosenbaum, and was shown 55 times in the following year. A special performance of Brundibár was staged in 1944 for representatives of the Red Cross who came to inspect living conditions in the camp. What the Red Cross did not know at the time was that much of what they saw during their visit was a show, and that one of the reasons the Theresienstadt camp seemed comfortable was that many of the residents had been deported to Auschwitz in order to reduce crowding during their visit."

Although Krasa died in Auschwitz (along with most of the children who performed his opera), Brundibár received its American professional premiere from the Washington Opera in 1995. In 2003, playwright Tony Kushner and artist Maurice Sendak collaborated on a picture book version of the opera.

That same year, Chicago Opera Theatre presented Brundibár with a new libretto written by Kushner (the production was designed and directed by Sendak). In 2005, the revised opera was given a new production by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

The 2014 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival presented the world premiere of Douglas Wolfsperger's new documentary about a group of students in Berlin's Schaubühne Theater who rehearse and perform Brundibár under the leadership of the theater's youth educator, Uta Plate.

What makes Wolfsperger's documentary so touching is Plate's decision to have her young cast travel to Terezin along with octogenarian Israeli Greta Klingberg who, when she was 13 years old, played the lead role of Aninka in Theresienstadt before she was deported to Auschwitz.

Greta Klingberg with the young woman performing the role of
Aninka in the Schaubühne Theater's production of Brundibár 

There are many touching moments in the film as the teenagers in the cast pepper Klingberg with questions about what it was like to perform Brundibár under such extreme conditions 70 years ago. While Klingberg demonstrates an almost childlike delight in being able to sing along with the youthful cast, she also asks them if they understand the meaning of the term "Potemkin village" and its relationship to the opera as a propaganda tool for the Nazis.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Expect The Unexpected

Like many people, I look forward to certain consistencies in life. Since moving to San Francisco in 1972, certain culinary treats became such personal favorites that I inevitably ordered them whenever I visited the restaurant where they were served.

As Sarah Palin would say, "You bet'cha!"

Some of my favorite restaurants disappeared years ago, leaving me to relish the memory of their beloved specialties while searching out new delights. The same rule pretty much applies to my experience in the arts. One can always anticipate and enjoy returning to a beloved opera like Lohengrin or Madama Butterfly while relishing the opportunity to attend a provocative new production or find something radically different to delight one's palate.

Some people expect that arts reviewers will only want to see certain works performed the same way they've always been done -- or that certain types of stories will adhere to traditional, formulaic structures. Such an artistic diet can be as frustrating as the dilemma faced by the Duke in Gilbert & Sullivan's 1881 comic opera, Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride. The following clip includes a radically updated set of lyrics for "If You Want A Receipt For That Popular Mystery Known To The World as a Heavy Dragoon" followed by (at the 4:10 mark) the Duke's poignant observations about toffee.

Four shorts screened during the 2014 Frameline Film Festival deftly deviated from cinematic standards. Each offered a new twist on a cinematic cliché, occasionally delivering a punch in the gut to viewers.

* * * * * * * * *
In the Spring of 1968, when I was summoned to Fort Hamilton for my draft physical, I remember worrying what would happen during the process. This was at a time when the mere thought of showing up for one's draft physical filled many a young man with the fear that he could soon find himself being shipped off to Vietnam.

At one point that morning, about 50 of us were seated in a classroom as a very macho Sergeant briefed us on how to fill out a questionnaire. He obviously relished the opportunity to strike terror into the hearts of impressionable young men. As he explained:
"I'm sure there are one or two of you who've given some thought to checking off the box that indicates homosexual tendencies. If you do, you'll be taken to a room where a psychiatrist will interview you to determine whether or not you're really a queer. It'll just be the two of you -- alone in that room -- and that psychiatrist is a really nice man (if you know what I mean). But at the end of the interview, he's going to whip it out and put it on the edge of his desk. If you go down on it, you are -- and if you don't, you ain't."
I was dying to ask the man if what he was describing qualified as soliciting on Army grounds but decided to keep my mouth shut. To my utter surprise, the psychiatrist turned out to be a little old lady with white hair  who was not much taller than Dr. Ruth Westheimer. I left Fort Hamilton a free man, confident that I had tickets to a performance of Handel's Giulio Cesare at the New York City Opera that night.

Firat Erol gets interrogated by Czech military
personnel in a scene from Das Phallometer

Interrogation scenes are a key plot point in many war films and episodes of police procedurals like Law & Order. Written and directed by Tor Iben, Das Phallometer was inspired by a true story. For many years, refugees who claimed they were persecuted in their homeland for being homosexual and sought asylum in the Czech Republic were subjected to a bizarre entrance exam.

In Das Phallometer, Firat Erol plays an Iranian refugee who has been on the run. When he is captured by military guards near the Czech border, he is taken to an interrogation room where he must prove his sexual orientation. The Czechs apply electrodes to his genitals and start to screen gay porn in front of him. His reliably turgid response is met with nods and sounds of approval from his interrogators.

* * * * * * * * *
Written and directed by Dennis Shinners, Barrio Boy is set in a barber shop in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. When a handsome hipster named Kevin (Dan Leonard) enters the shop looking for a haircut, he immediately gets the once-over from Cuz (Peter Olivera) and Rafa (Andrew Flores), two unemployed macho Latino men who hang out there.

Cuz and Rafa are completely unaware of the thoughts racing through the head of their friendly barber, Quique (Dennis Garcia), who is still in the closet. Quique's good looks and attentive scissor work are nothing compared to the erotic thoughts he's having about what he'd like to do to Kevin, thoughts that make his voice-over sound like it's being performed at a poetry slam.

While Cuz and Rafa don't hesitate to telegraph their scorn for the white boy, the fact that Kevin has accidentally left his hat in the barber shop leaves hope springing eternal -- and in Quique's pants -- that the two men might meet again. Here's the teaser.

* * * * * * * * *
It's easy to watch the following trailer for Mexican filmmaker Julián Hernández's short, Wandering Clouds, and think it was all about underwater ballet. But so much more happens in the full version.

Ignacio Pereda, Alan Ramirez, and Mauricio Rico portray three athletes practicing their dives and swimming routines in a campus pool.
  • One is a bully.
  • One is the target of his homophobic taunts.
  • The third shows up suddenly and takes sides (but not in a way the bully ever anticipated).
Hernández (who also directed I Am Happiness On Earth) finds just the right touch with which to take the bully down and surprise his audience with a delicious turn of events that adds power to the youthful eye candy in his short film.

* * * * * * * * *
Based on what happened to director Carl Byrd on his 41st birthday, one of the bitchiest shorts to come along in several years features a winning cast with vocals by Klea Blackhurst and a guest appearance by none other than Lady Bunny. Writer Peter Macklin (who also appears as The Waiter) serves up some choice one-liners.

Chuck (Sean Dugan) and Cody (Rich Ceraulo) try
to  celebrate Chuck's 40th birthday in Dinner at 40

Chuck (Sean Dugan) is the nervous birthday boy whose lover, Cody (Rich Ceraulo), has obviously grown accustomed to weathering Chuck's frequent meltdowns. Abby (Joanna P. Adler) is a close friend (and fag hag) while another friend, Nick (Craig Baldwin), has shown up with his newest flame, a young gym bunny named Duane (Marcus Callender).

To add insult to injury, Flynn (Wilson Cruz) appears at a neighboring table bearing lots of emotional baggage.  How so? Flynn was formerly Cody's boyfriend and Chuck's best friend.

Poster art for Dinner at 40

What should have been an intimate birthday party where two gay men had hoped to propose to each other is quickly derailed by added guests, unexpected faces from the past, and the kind of gay panic attack that rapidly spins out of control. Carl Byrd and Peter Macklin are obviously on familiar ground as they showcase the crushing insecurity of a handsome gay man who has a god job, a lover, and loving friends but is nevertheless terrified at the prospect of turning 40.

Lady Bunny provides some questionable entertainment
for Chuck's birthday party in Dinner at 40

Despite Chuck's severely wounded ego, a ruined birthday party, and a drag queen performing a mock abortion with a plastic doll, it's refreshing to note that this gay nightmare has a happy ending. Here's the teaser:

* * * * * * * * *
Shakespeare's works often bear the brunt of a director's need to mark his territory (like a wild cat spraying the perimeter of its turf). The Onion recently published a delightfully snarky piece entitled Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended.

Because every attempt to update, reinterpret, or bastardize one of Shakespeare's plays does not necessarily score a hit, it's foolish to insist that All's Well That Ends Well. Some productions are monstrously misconceived, others are filled with numerous ideas that don't always succeed but deserve credit for their creative insights.

Bay area audiences who have followed Jon Tracy's rising star as a writer and stage director have grown to trust the man's ability to mine his abundant imagination in order to create an evening of engaging (if not always perfect) theatre. Working over a wide range of repertoire, Tracy has shown a remarkable ability to inspire and free up actors to take risks while contributing to the creative process.

Ben Euphrat as Orsino n Twelfth Night (Photo by: Pak Han)

Last year, Tracy was scheduled to work on a new production of Twelfth Night when he and his actors were stopped dead in their tracks. They decided to attempt an Indiegogo crowdsourcing appeal which laid out the goals of Shakedown 12th Night in no uncertain terms:
"Our developmental production of a musical Twelfth Night has lost its home and needs your help to find a new one! We are an ensemble of eleven theatre artists who want to revive a cancelled dream project: a musical production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Our collective skill set contains (but is certainly not limited to) juggling, acrobatics, hand springs, hand-balancing, guitar, mandolin, violin, banjo, bouzouki, didgeridoo, ukulele, drums, tambourine, percussion, piano, accordion, and vocals that’ll make your mama cry. Also, we’re pretty into the language of Shakespeare. Which is a musical instrument in and of itself. BAM.  
As artists, we are always trying to envision the best way to tell a story, but how do you tell one of the best stories ever? Jon has looked towards ritual as inspiration. From that kernel came a landscape of musical narrative, powerful physical storytelling and a heightened realism; a dark, turbulent world which blurs the line between the figurative and the literal."
Jon Tracy (Photo by: Nina Ball)
"In Shakedown, the events of the classic story have already passed but every year the people that lived through it commemorate their shared experience with a ritualized retelling. Each character relives their story, but also serves as the audience, the chorus, and the band for the others; each a part of this community bound together by the events of the play. Our best shot is getting a proper workshop, culminating in a showcase to woo interested theatre companies.
Not everyone can throw cash monies at us and our Shakedown dream, but fear not! Your love is powerful stuff. Sharing this post on your Facebook page or Twitter feed (or just good old-fashioned telling someone about it) will help bring our campaign to more folks' attention. Even dropping us a line or giving us a call to convey your support would be downright awesome. If you're especially swamped, telepathy is totally cool, too..i'faith, we can feel it now...To put on said workshop we need $3,000. Give us a hand, won’t you?"

Shakedown's fundraising appeal netted 17% more than their goal and succeeded in attracting the interest of Berkeley's Shotgun Players (which, over the years, has collaborated with Tracy and many of the artists in Shakedown's ensemble). Working on a unit set that was intelligently and most economically designed by Nina Ball, the Shotgun Players production offered a fascinating case study in how a community of artists can use crowdsourcing  and social media to help their dreams come true. As Tracy notes:
"This production has been alive in workshops, showcases, and Hail Mary passes for some time. The way you tell the story can also be the story itself. At this juncture, looking ahead and behind, it has become a story of perseverance. Twelfth Night's other title (What You Will) has a different meaning to us here than intended. It has become a sort of mantra about what can be accomplished with collective strength. Play on."
Although Tracy's approach to Twelfth Night may not be the stuff of which a traditionalist's dreams are made, it scores strongly on many fronts (partly because there may be a greater sense of ownership for the actors who participated in the development of this production). With Ben Euphrat doubling as music director and Orsino, there were times when the number of actors playing guitars, ukuleles, and banjo onstage made me wonder why no one had insisted on including a balalaika (certain moments in the show also make one wonder if this could be the Shakespearean answer to the recent musical adaptation of Once).

Viola (Rebecca Pingree) and Feste (Jeremy Vik) in
a scene from Twelfth Night (Photo by: Pak Han) 

As with any of Tracy's theatrical adventures, the energy level is extremely high with especially hyper performances coming from Nick Medina as Aguecheek, Rebecca Pingree as Viola, Billy Raphael as Sir Toby Belch, and Jeremy Vik as Feste. One of the strongest performances came from Sarah Mitchell (a superb actor whose fine work is often underappreciated).

Sebastian (Will Hand) and Linda Antonio (Sarah Mitchell)
in a scene from Twelfth NIght (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Will Hand's appealing Sebastian indulged in some carefully disguised (and fully appropriate) moments of nudity onstage ("Off, off, damned sheet!") while the heavily tattooed Cory Sands brought a level of hipster chic to the production.

Malvolio (Terry Rucker) while  Aguecheek (Nick Medina) hides
beneath a set of couch cushions in Twelfth Night (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Twelfth Night's first act often tends to get dragged down in exposition, with the second act generating more physical comedy to entertain an audience. If there is one weak point in this production, it centers around Terry Rucker's characterization of Malvolio. Still, that's a small price to pay for such an enthusiastic evening of theatre which, for the most part, is literally bursting with creativity.

The cast of the Shotgun Players production of Twelfth Night
(Photo by: Pak Han) 

Performances of Twelfth Night continue at the Ashby Stage through August 10 (click here to order tickets).

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When Chaos Theory Becomes All Too Real

Although he was the lyricist for many  musicals (Fiorello!, Tenderloin, She Loves Me, The Apple Tree, The Rothschilds, Rex, and the stage adaptation of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg),  Sheldon Harnick is probably best known for his contribution to Fiddler on the Roof. That, and his "Merry Minuet" (which was made popular by The Kingston Trio.

In 1962, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his musical revue, Pins and Needles, songwriter Harold Rome recorded a studio album of the score with a relatively unknown 20-year-old singer named Barbra Streisand as part of the cast. In the following clip, Streisand leads the cast in a hearty rendition of "Status Quo."

Are you the kind of person who questions authority? Who likes to challenge the status quo or disrupt established business models? If so, you'll probably be amused by some of the mini-dramas included in Wily West Productions' Superheroes, a collection of 11 short plays in which anything goes.

Poster art for Superheroes

Two of the most interesting plays were written by Bridgette Dutta Portman, a talented Bay areal playwright whose work I first encountered during the San Francisco Olympians Festival. To say that Portman has a vivid imagination would be quite an understatement.

Playwright Bridgette Dutta Portman

In Marvin's Last Wish, the audience witnesses a bizarre encounter between Mrs. Meadows (Karen Offereins) and Sam (Dan Wilson), a man who works for a nonprofit agency similar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. With the steely determination of a monstrous stage mother, Mrs. Meadows wants to know why Sam's foundation won't grant her little Marvin his wish. "After all," she notes, "that Batman kid got his wish fulfilled and he wasn't even dying!"

As Sam politely tries to explain, there are some legal and technical problems with Marvin's request which, had Mrs. Meadows taken the time to read her child's letter, she might understand a little better. Not only does Marvin want to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge, he wants to take a bunch of people hostage and torture one of them by manually extracting the man's liver through his anus.

Karen Offereins in a scene from Superheroes (Photo by: Morgan Ludlow)

As directed by Alicia Coombes, Offereins did a superb job portraying a woman who has been so determined to focus on positive things that all she can react to the marvel of her son's creativity.

* * * * * * * * *
Later in the evening, Coombes directed Portman's brief farce entitled The Infiltrators in which Jenna May Cass portrays a steel-willed receptionist guarding some top secret data. Three hacker supervillains -- Tentackler (Dan Wilson), Gigabite (Brian Flegel) and Psycho Sis (Karen Offereins) attempt to gain access to the facility only to be rebuffed by its stern receptionist.

Barrett Courtney 

Then Marvin (Barrett Courtney) shows up dressed as an adorable little schoolboy who has been separated from his mother. As he starts to cry, Marvin melts the receptionist's usual demeanor and, to the shock of his competitors, is allowed to enter the computer room. Complications quickly ensue.

* * * * * * * * *
Offereins also appeared in Jennifer Lynne Robert's play entitled Mars One Project as Antonia, a woman who is quite comfortable with the thought of leaving her family behind in order to be sent on a space mission from which she will never return.

Brian Flegel (Mr. Rollins) and Karen Offereins (Antonia)
in Mars One Project (Photo by: Morgan Ludlow)

As she is interviewed by Mr. Rollins (Brian Flegel), it becomes obvious that, no matter how well qualified Antonia may be for the job -- and even though Mr. Rollins is willing to sign off on her application -- the position will be given to a man. Why? Because that's what men do. Not women.

* * * * * * * * *
As someone who has (a) been managing partner of a small medical transcription service for more than two decades, (b) spent several years writing about medical transcription for a health information management industry magazine, and (c) is the author of an online text entitled Dictation Therapy For Doctors, I watched the following video clip with a combination of shock, cynicism, and disgust.

Unfortunately, crap like this happen all the time in real life. Perhaps the most unsettling play in Superheroes was Anonymous Me (written by Laylah Muran and directed by Chelsey Little).

A monologue for a most unthreatening computer programmer named Justine (Shelley Lynn Johnson), Anonymous Me describes the career of a perfectly average middle manager who did everything that was asked of her until the day she realized the kind of harm that her work would inflict on people like her estranged daughter (whose mortgage and financial health had been severely impacted by the economic downturn).

Shelley Lynn Johnson in Anonymous Me (Photo by: (Morgan Ludlow)

Flanked by two men dressed in black (who stand y silently with their hands behind their backs as Justine tells her story), the play ends as all three people hold up the "Anonymous" masks which have recently become a part of today's popular culture.

* * * * * * * * *
Two films screened at the 2014 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival reminded me of the old saying which claims that "When man plans, God laughs." Written by Nick Green and directed by Jez Freedman, The Funeral stars Paul Kaye as Arnold Cowan, a middle-aged Jew whose mother (Rosalind Knight) is sharing a hospital room with the dyspeptic and incredibly disagreeable Mrs. Lewis (Merelina Kendall).

A hospital administrator (John Voce) gets the two old women mixed up while doing some paperwork, which results in a bizarre case of mistaken identity. When Arnold gets a call from the hospital informing him that his mother has died, he and his wife, Susan (Tracy Ann Oberman), make the appropriate arrangements for a funeral.

Arnold Cowan's family at the cemetery in The Funeral

Later, as the family sits shiva. their son Mikey (Felix Rubens), who has been studying for his bar mitzvah, answers the phone and hears his grandmother demanding to know why no one has come to visit her in the hospital .

As it turns out, rather than Arnold's mother, it was Mrs. Lewis who died. When Mikey insists that he and Arnold inform the Lewis family of the mixup, David Lewis (Ben Caplan) seems incredulous about by their statements that his mother, at least, got a proper Jewish funeral.

Why?  Mrs. Lewis had been a lifelong atheist who wanted absolutely nothing to do with religion. However, as Arnold's mother explains, while she was in the hospital Mrs. Lewis changed her mind and decided to have a religious service for her funeral. Unfortunately, she died before being able to notify her son, David. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
One need not be a silent film enthusiast to be utterly fascinated by Natan, a stunning new documentary by David Cairns and Paul Duane about the incredible life and unfortunate death of Bernard Natan (1886-1942). Although Natan entered the new-fangled field of cinema as a projectionist, he soon began designing titles for silent films and working as a chemist in a film lab.

Bernard Natan

As his career grew, Natan broadened his repertoire, becoming an actor, director, cinematographer, producer, and entrepreneur. Many hailed him as one of the fathers of French cinema. Long before anyone grasped the importance of vertical integration in dominating the media, Natan was working to diversify his assets (he is often credited with bringing sound to French cinema).
  • In 1929, he acquired Pathé and merged with his own studio (Rapid Film). 
  • Between 1930 and 1935, Pathé released more than 60 feature films.
  • Natan subsequently bought the Fornier chain of motion picture theatres and built two sound stages.
  • Natan helped to fund the development of the anamorphic lens which led to the kind of wide-screen film techniques that made CinemaScope famous.
  • Natan established France's first television company and built a radio empire.
French medial mogul Bernard Natan

Natan's downfall was equally spectacular.
  • When Pathé went bankrupt in 1935, Natan was accused of fraud.
  • As Hitler rose to power, Natan increasingly became a target of anti-Semitism.
  • His fall from grace was accelerated by rumors that, during his early days, he had been involved in making pornographic films.
  • After being imprisoned in 1939, he was transferred to the Nazi transfer camp at Drancy in September 1942, from which he was deported to Auschwitz.

An extremely powerful documentary destined to shock and enlighten cinephiles, Natan includes commentary from Serge Bromberg and Gisèle Casadesus (who joined the Comédie-Française in 1934 and appeared in 1934's L'Aventurier for Pathé-Natan). It's an eye-opening piece of work. Here's the trailer:

Friday, July 18, 2014

Keeping A Firm Grip On Their Audience

For some performers, the toughest challenge is to keep an audience eating out of their hands. Others may be more acutely focused on retaining their market share of a tiny piece of bandwidth within the entertainment industry. But for the risk takers, it's all about pushing the envelope in search of an adrenaline rush.

For the performer working in front of a live audience it's very much a question of staying in the moment, being able to know when the audience is with you or if you're losing them (and understanding how you might be able to win them back). For those working in front of a camera, the challenge might involve maintaining a semblance of stability in the wake of devastating news.

Lifeguards are taught how to rescue a drowning swimmer, but few places offer a stand-up comedian a safe venue in which he can learn what it's like to sink or swim. Written and directed by David Schlussel, Setup, Punch stars Elijah Wood as Reuben Stein, an aspiring stand-up comedian who is trying to get ahead. Reuben has devised an interesting trick he wants to test on his audience -- a gag that will genuinely challenge his comedic chops.

Elijah Wood is Reuben Stein in Setup, Punch

As he tells the audience about falling in love with Dottie Kaufman (Alia Shawkat) and asks her to join him onstage, we can see her becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Once seated in full view, she watches as Reuben teases the audience but tenses up when he gets down on his knee, pulls out a ring, and asks her to marry him.

"I didn't sign up for this" says the flustered young woman as she bolts from the stage and exits the comedy club, leaving Reuben emotionally shattered and with the wind clearly knocked out of his sails. Or is that what's really happening?

Reuben manages to pull himself together, finish his set, and exit to a round of supportive applause. Someone in the audience even hands him a small box containing some joints as a sympathy gift. Then Reuben gets on his bicycle and heads over to another comedy club where Dottie is about to go onstage with her own act.  "Did you get them back?" she asks him, with a warm and supportive smile.

* * * * * * * * *
Down in Palo Alto, TheatreWorks opened its 45th season (and 2014 New Works Festival) with the world premiere production of David West Read's achingly funny yet bittersweet new play, The Great Pretender. Shows with puppets (Avenue Q, Carnival!) rarely have trouble finding an audience and I don't doubt that this economical four-character, one-act dramedy will enjoy a long life in regional and community theatres.

The plot revolves around the career crisis faced by Roy Felt (Steve Brady), the amiable host of a beloved children's television show which has been on hiatus for the past year while he mourns the death of his wife and artistic partner. During their many years working and living together, Marilyn had been the lead puppeteer on the The Mr. Felt Show. For the show and its host, Marilyn was everything. Since her death, Roy has been pretty much directionless.

Mr. Felt (Steve Brady) chats with Carol and Fran on his children's
television show in The Great Pretender (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Marilyn's death has also had a profound impact on Tom (Michael Storm), the show's director, as well as on its second puppeteer, Carol (Suzanne Grodner). Why? When Marilyn was helping to steer and manage The Mr. Felt Show, everyone involved in the enterprise knew what to do and felt safe and secure in their responsibilities. With Marilyn gone, they've been confused, frightened, and desperately in need of a "mother figure."

With too much spare time on his hands, Tom became needy enough to get dumped by his younger lover, Adam. Carol (whose husband keeps a separate apartment as a personal retreat) has been riddled with insecurities while drowning her sorrows in alcohol.

In many ways, Mr. Felt is (like Fred Rogers) that kind, patient, and understanding father figure that children felt they could trust as they sat in front of their television sets. But in a world of fast-paced animated cartoons, someone like Mr. Felt has almost become an anachronism. As the playwright (who grew up in Toronto watching Mr. Dressup and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood) explains:
"The type of show that featured a middle-aged man in a sweater with his puppet friends doesn't really exist anymore. We used to have a gentler, slower, more relaxed pace to these shows, which I think was comforting in some ways. There was the feeling that you were going to be welcomed into a kind person's home. Mr. Dressup was all about using your imagination." 
Mr. Dressup with Casey and Finnegan
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Enter Jodi (Sarah Moser), an enthusiastic young puppeteer who grew up watching The Mr. Felt Show and has worshiped Roy since she was a child. Discovered by Tom (who was looking for someone who could take over Marilyn's puppet, Fran), Jodi is at first nervous, intimidated, and unsure of herself. Although Roy is gentle and encouraging, Carol quickly turns into a fire-breathing dragon lady whose territory is threatened by a younger, fresher talent.

Steve Brady, Sarah Moser, Michael Storm, and  Suzanne Grodner
in a scene from The Great Pretender (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Carol had always assumed that she would move up to lead puppeteer and take over the Fran puppet if Marilyn ever left the show. But it's hard for Roy to believe that anyone could really replace Marilyn in that capacity. Nevertheless, Roy is willing to spend a weekend with Jodi to help her relax and find her rhythm as a puppeteer so that she become better at improvising dialogue.

Mr. Felt (Steve Brady) shows Jodi (Sarah Moser) how to work with
Fran and Carol in The Great Pretender  (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Roy's generosity of spirit is easily misinterpreted by Carol. Although Jodi was showing signs of improvement and increased confidence, she soon realizes that what she thought was the opportunity of a lifetime would be much more like an emotional minefield littered with Carol's IED's.

After much soul-searching, Roy finally realizes that children have to be told about a death in the family. If one of their most trusted friends can't explain it to them directly, perhaps he can explain it to a puppet while they watch, listen, and learn. As directed by Stephen Brackett, The Great Pretender tackles some delicate topics that most people desperately try to avoid:
  • What happens to two professionals who are married to each other and spend all their energy in a joint creative process? Do they miss out on a more balanced life because, at the end of the day, they're simply too exhausted to spend time with other people?
  • When an "artistic family" is shattered by the death of a key member, can it pass through the standard stages of grief and regroup in order to keep working together?
  • When a struggling and insecure artist is offered a golden opportunity that could potentially "make" her career, can she afford to turn it down?
  • Once the formula for a successful theatrical franchise is shattered, can new ideas and new characters bring a renewed energy to the product that will allow its producers to hold onto their market share?
  • Can children (and puppets) be taught how to cope with the day-to-day realities that accompany the death of a loved one?
Mr. Felt (Steve Brady) tries to explain a friend's death to
Carol the Pony in The Great Pretender (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

I'll admit to being utterly captivated by the skill with which Read balances a shitload of caustic jokes with the genuine pain of suffering a double-edged loss that leaves Mr. Felt mourning his personal and professional partner while worrying about the potential demise of his show business career. Although Mr. Felt is the reassuring quiet type -- much like Fred Rogers or Fran Allison (who starred on Kukla, Fran, and Ollie) -- he has a beautiful monologue late in The Great Pretender that reveals the pain and loneliness that comes with being too deeply in love with one's art.

Sarah Moser scores points as Jodi while Michael Storm lends sturdy support as the show's gay director who, without a job and a lover, is left very much at sea. Both characters, however, are sitting ducks for the acerbic wit of Carol, whose acid tongue knows no boundaries.

Performances of The Great Pretender continue through August 3 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto (click here to order tickets). This is a touching yet wildly funny show that will endear itself to audiences for years to come.