Saturday, November 22, 2014

Inquiring Minds Want To Know

What happens when a person's world is suddenly, irrevocably, turned upside down? Whether due to the unexpected hungry stare of a handsome stranger or a piece of hot shrapnel piercing one's body, things can never be quite the same.

If all is fair in love and war, can the wounds of a broken heart be any worse than those of an amputated limb? Can the threat of letting someone reveal your secrets be worse for the person who is a notorious dictator than it is for the macho man who always assumed his sexual identity was that of a predatory top?

The introduction of new and dangerous thoughts can go a long way toward undermining someone's sense of security. For some people it can involve little more than fun and games. But for others, probing a person's subconscious might just mean that the sun won't come out tomorrow. Two Bay area productions set in different parts of Africa toyed with the delicate footwork necessary for maintaining one's integrity and credibility -- against all odds.

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Joe Calarco's fiercely economic adaptation of Romeo and Juliet places four actors on a unit set with minimal furniture. Their goal is to portray four young men at an upscale male boarding school whose administration has forbidden any reading of Shakespeare's famous tragedy about two star-crossed lovers in Verona. Having purloined a copy of Romeo and Juliet, the boys set about reading it and enacting passages from the play in secret sessions.

Under the best of circumstances, the students in Calarco's play (which employs a great deal of Shakespeare's original text) learn about such emotionally loaded issues as lust, love, betrayal, and death at the height of their hormonally-intensified adolescence while audiences derive new insights into Shakespeare's text. Under less than ideal conditions, there is a lot of noisy grappling by four immature jocks who (when they are not making lewd gestures,  dry humping each other, or performing mincing impersonations of older women such as Lady Capulet and Juliet's nurse) are essentially playing a game of Hot Potato with a forbidden book.

Adam Odsess-Rubin as Romeo in Shakespeare's R&J
(Photo by: Lois Tema) 

The latter proved to be the unfortunate case with New Conservatory Theatre Center's revival of Shakespeare's R&J. A confusing production in which the most outstanding work seemed to come from lighting designer Christian Mejia, NCTC's cast featured Adam Odsess-Rubin as a somewhat closeted Romeo, Taj Campbell as a hotblooded Juliet, Mike Sagun as Juliet's tired old nurse, and James Arthur M. (taking on a variety of characters such as Tybalt, Friar Laurence, and Prince Escalus).

The gimmick chosen for this production was to set the tale in modern-day Egypt (an excerpt from Bel Trew's June 2014 article for The Daily Beast entitled Al-Sisi's Egypt Is Worse For Gays Than The Muslim Brotherhood is reprinted in the program). Recent news stories have revealed how the GPS features of social media apps like Grindr can jeopardize the safety of gay men in the Middle East. Those unfamiliar with such homophobic attacks should read Saudi Arabia Jails Gay Man for 1 year, $26k Fine, For Cruising Gay Social Networks on Cell Phone by John Aravosis.

James Arthur M., Adam Odsess-Rubin, Mike Sagun, and Taj Campbell
in Shakespeare's R&J (Photo by: Lois Tema)

As one enters the theatre, one quickly notices that Yusuke Soi's unit set features a blackboard with two lines of text written in Arabic. Throughout the production, two kefiyehs (one red and white, the other black and white) are used to indicate whether a character belongs to the Capulets or the Montagues. However, in NCTC's production, there is little indication that these Catholic prep school boys have any awareness of their minority status as Coptic Christians or latent queers. In his program note, NCTC's artistic director, Ed Decker, writes:
"R&J is a play about far more than gender or sexual identity. It is also about individuality, friendship, status, geography, violence, politics, core values, and finding love even when surrounded by conflict of revolutionary proportions. When NCTC Artistic Associate and Resident Director Ben Randle and I were pondering a revival of Shakespeare's R&J by Joe Calarco, we wanted to do something bold, fresh, and relevant. Hence the decision to revisit the story of four repressed students in a parochial school for boys who discover in Romeo and Juliet a forbidden text that becomes far more dangerous when set against the backdrop of post-Arab Spring Cairo. Adolescence is a difficult time at best. Just imagine the added challenges should you happen to live in a country that makes sport of entrapment and then persecutes you even before you may have figured out your own true nature. Such is the reality in many countries around the globe including Egypt. Though homosexuality itself is not illegal in Egypt, public homosexual acts are and gay citizens have been convicted for breaching laws of public decency."
 Adam Odsess-Rubin (Romeo) and  Taj Campbell (Juliet)
in Shakespeare's R&J (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

My own suspicion is that this interpretation of Romeo and Juliet has a lot more to do with the age of the boys in Shakespeare's R&J (early high school) than with the age of the actors and the audience. According to most sources, Shakespeare's Juliet was two weeks short of her 14th birthday at the time of her death; Romeo was about 15 or 16 years old.
  • From 13-16, a teenager acts impulsively and may be more driven by titillation.
  • From 16-19, a teenager is refining his/her powers of manipulation and may be more keenly interested in sexual experimentation ("If it feels good, do it").
  • From 20-30, most people are developing an appreciation for their sexual powers and emotional strengths while undergoing a process of maturation.
  • By the time they've turned 30, actors and audiences alike have a more profound admiration for Shakespeare's work.
Adam Odsess-Rubin as Romeo in Shakespeare's R&J (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

For the most part, Randle's production did a better job of conveying how well his four students were able to recite Shakespeare's text than gain any insights from it. Toward the end of the evening, the use of several key lines from A Midsummer Night's Dream (as well as the sound design by Stephen Abts which included some popular music sung in French) tended to dilute the evening's intent to comment on gay life in Egypt.

As stated above, I left the theatre feeling far more impressed by Christian Mejia's lighting than Calarco's play. Taj Campbell's work as Student #2 (Juliet) stood a few notches above the other members of the cast. However, it's interesting to note that in Private Romeo (Alan Brown's excellent film that was inspired by Calarco's play) the students are more developed -- both physically and psychologically -- which allows there to be a huge difference in their burgeoning awareness of how Shakespeare's text relates to certain unexplored parts of their psyches.

For those wishing deeper insights into the adaptability of Shakespeare's tragedy beyond the mass appeal of West Side Story, let me recommend viewing Private Romeo and Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish. Here are their respective trailers:

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Like Calarco's play, Breakfast With Mugabe (a fictional tug of war between the aging black President of Zimbabwe and the white psychiatrist his second wife has recruited to explore her husband's increasing bouts of paranoia and depression) takes place on a unit set and requires only four actors. Their characters, however, are far more complex than those in Shakespeare's R&J.

Since his rise to power, Robert Mugabe has been hailed by some as the founding father of Zimbabwe and compared by others to such ruthless Shakespearean villains as Macbeth. In a recent article for The New York Times entitled In Zimbabwe’s Succession Battle, Mugabe Pulls the Strings, Alan Cowell examined the craziness that dominates Zimbabwean politics as well as the political power wielded by Mugabe and his second wife, Grace. In a recent editorial for Nehanda Radio, pro-democracy advocate Moses Chamboko (the Interim Secretary General for ZUNDE) writes:
"The seeds of hatred, mistrust, suspicion and betrayal have been planted. It is just a matter of time before ZANU PF starts harvesting bitter fruit. If a whole Vice President were to lose her job because somebody somewhere dislikes the colour or size of her skirts, it would take a person like William Shakespeare to write a meaningful script on this episode."
The Aurora Theatre Company recently offered the West Coast premiere of Fraser Grace's tense battle of wits and egos in a production handsomely designed by Nina Ball and artfully directed by Jon Tracy with costumes designed by Callie Floor. Aurora's ensemble deals with much more complex personalities who are struggling with the kind of political and psychological pressures that could easily sabotage their futures.

Grace Mugabe (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) confronts Andrew Peric
(Dan Hiatt) in Breakfast With Mugabe  (Photo by: David Allen) 

The action takes place in October 2001 (in the month preceding Zimbabwe's 2002 Presidential elections) and is set in a room in the State House in the capital of Harare. With help from video designer Micah J. Stieglitz, the production offers two characters based on real people and two based on imaginary figures.  For starters, there are:
  • Robert Mugabe (L. Peter Callender), the justifiably feared President of Zimbabwe who was born in Southern Rhodesia in 1924 and married his second wife when he was 72 and she was 31. Under Mugabe's rule, Zimbabweans have had to cope with severe food shortages, terror camps, a culture of corruption, and a one-party political system. On the same day that Nelson Mandela celebrated his 90th birthday, Mugabe was stripped of the knighthood bestowed upon him by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994. 
  • Grace Mugabe (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), Mugabe's second wife (who is referred to by many critics as "The First Shopper" and "Gucci Grace"). A shrewd operator, she is a fierce guardian of her husband's power but worries that he might be losing his grip on reality. Grace is especially concerned about her husband's insistence that he is being haunted by by the malevolent spirit (called a ngozi in the Xshoa language) of a former political rival.
Leontyne Mbele-Mbong and Dan Hiatt in the opening scene of
Breakfast with Mugabe (Photo by: David Allen)

Then there are the imagined characters:
  • Gabriel (Adrian Roberts), Mugabe's right-hand man whose thuggish behavior can easily intimidate anyone who manages to get past Grace Mugabe.
  • Andrew Peric (Dan Hiatt), a white psychiatrist who works at the hospital close to the State House. Descended from a family of white Rhodesian farmers, Peric is married to a black woman.
Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, Adrian Roberts, and Dan Hiatt
in Breakfast with Mugabe (Photo by: David Allen) 
Breakfast With Mugabe pits a politically naive psychiatrist against the megalomaniacal egos of Robert and Grace Mugabe (which makes it nearly impossible for Peric to treat the Zimbabwean tyrant as he would any other patient, yet ensures his near destruction the moment he displeases the Mugabes). Peter L. Callender offers a forceful portrayal of Mugabe as a highly educated and experienced power player with Leontyne Mbele-Mbong running interference as his concerned wife. Dan Hiatt delivers another beautifully layered performance as Peric, with Adrian Roberts bringing the muscle as Gabriel.

L. Peter Callender and Dan Hiatt lock horns in
Breakfast with Mugabe (Photo by: David Allen) 

There are times when Jon Tracy's tightly-paced production makes one wonder if Fraser Grace's play should have been subtitled "Africa's Lord and Lady Macbeth in Swimming With Crocodiles." Performances of Breakfast With Mugabe continue at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley through December 14 (click here to order tickets).

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