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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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