Sunday, November 30, 2014

Saturday Night Fevers

While planning my schedule for November 2014, I was perusing the website for the San Francisco Olympians Festival when I noticed something that made me catch my breath.
  • The festival's theme was "Monster Ball." 
  • Each night was built around a specific theme. 
  • Saturday, November 22 (the closing night of the festival) was entitled "Vagina Dentata."
The first thought that sprung to mind was: Will this make Eve Ensler (author of The Vagina Monologues) jealous? The next step, of course, was to wonder whether they would be serving vagina dentata cupcakes at intermission.

A vagina dentata cupcake

I needn't have worried. The evening was devoted to three plays (all directed by Melinda Marks) about Greek mythology's fiercest female monsters. Anyone who read Homer's epic poem entitled Odyssey would have no trouble recalling that Scylla and Charybdis were fearsome creatures with a talent for killing heroes. However, when asked about the half-woman, half-snake Echidna, anyone who had ever seen a baby echidna would immediately think "Funny, you don't look shrewish!"

A baby echidna

* * * * * * * * *
Christian Simonsen's one-act play, Scylla or Death by the Half-Dozen, re-examined the feeding techniques of one of the more grotesque female monsters in Greek mythology.  As Wikipedia explains:
"According to John Tzetzes and Servius' commentary on the Aeneid, Scylla was a beautiful naiad who was claimed by Poseidon, but the jealous Amphitrite turned her into a monster by poisoning the water of the spring where Scylla would bathe. A similar story is found in Hyginus, according to whom Scylla was the daughter of the river god Crataeis and was loved by Glaucus, but Glaucus himself was also loved by the sorceress Circe. While Scylla was bathing in the sea, the jealous Circe poured a potion into the sea water which caused Scylla to transform into a monster with four eyes and six long necks equipped with grisly heads, each of which contained three rows of sharp teeth. Her body consisted of 12 tentacle-like legs and a cat's tail, while four to six dog heads ringed her waist. In this form, she attacked the ships of passing sailors, seizing one of the crew with each of her heads."

Poster art by Lacey Hill Hawkins for
Scylla or Death By The Half-Dozen

Simonsen's play takes place on the fateful day when Odysseus must carefully steer his ship between the cliff where Scylla is waiting to devour six of his sailors and the whirlpool created by Charybdis that could easily send his entire crew to the bottom of the narrow strait between the two monsters (which was supposedly close enough that an archer could shoot an arrow from one shore to the other).

A clever strategist, Odysseus must choose between sacrificing his entire crew to death by drowning or letting the man-hungry Scylla (who apparently likes her beef extremely rare) pick off six of his best men. What none of them expect is that, instead of revealing herself in her most frightening form, Scylla will make use of her powers of telepathy and approach each victim as a familiar face.

Appearing before the homesick warriors as their mother, wife, or "a vision of the one person in his life that inflicted (or received) the most pain," Scylla sysematically devours most of the crew. The only ones left standing are Odysseus and one other sailor (who must frantically row the ship way out of the channel to safety).

Playwright Christian Simonsen onstage
at the San Francisco Olympians Festival

Adam Magill appeared as Odysseus with Tonya Narvaez taking on the multiple roles of  Circe and Scylla's various disguises. Of the seven sailors (Charles Lewis III, Andrew Chung, Nicky Weinbach, Abhi Kris, Dan Kurtz, and Ben Grubb), only Will Leschber survived to accompany Odysseus back to his homeland.

Although the legend of Scylla and Charybdis has often been cited as one of the earliest examples of a moral lesson in which one learns to choose the lesser of two evils, Simonsen's play drew plenty of laughs from the audience (partly because of Allison Page's reading of the script directions and partly because of the actors' responses to each of Scylla's disguises).

An unknown artist's depiction of Odysseus attempting
to steer his ship between Scylla and Charybdis

* * * * * * * * *
Whereas Scylla was an extremely aggressive predator who could attack her victims from above, Charybdis had a stranger way of consuming whatever fresh meat passed over her gaping maw. According to Wikipedia:
"The sea monster Charybdis was believed to live under a small rock on one side of a narrow channel. Three times a day, Charybdis swallowed a huge amount of water, before belching it back out again, creating large whirlpools capable of dragging a ship underwater. A later myth makes Charybdis the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia and living as a loyal servant to Poseidon. She aided him in his feud with Zeus, and as such, helped him engulf lands and islands in water. Zeus, angry for the land she stole from him, cursed her into a hideous bladder of a monster, with flippers for arms and legs, and an uncontrollable thirst for the sea. As such, she drank the water from the sea three times a day to quench it, which created whirlpools."

An artist's "vagina dentata"-like rendition of Charybdis, 
The Beast From Below rising to the surface for her morning drink

In her short play entitled Charybdis, Ashley Cowan updated the concept of a female monster with an insatiable appetite to modern times. As she writes in her description of the play:
"It was hard to resist wanting to be in an evening called Vagina Dentata. But when I started researching Charybdis, I was struck by the idea of someone being punished for their appetite. A female someone. I could lie and say I’ve never battled with body issues of my own but that would be a boring bold-faced lie. So my hope is to channel some of that vulnerability that comes from battling insecurities and fighting food demons of my own."
Allison Page, Adam McGill, and Tonya Narvaez during the reading
of Ashley Cowan's Charybdis (Photo by: Paul Anderson)
"Charybdis represents that old morality tale where a gal gets hungry, eats too much, and then is transformed into a monster. And not even Ursula the sea witch would be her friend. Disney aside, Charybdis is mainly known as a either a dangerous and destructive whirlpool who could overtake a ship or as a sea monster. My story will center around a woman struggling through her first Overeaters Anonymous meeting on the night before Thanksgiving. Apparently her appetite has become a 'problem' in her circle. To her horror, she’ll be forced to talk to people from her past who are anything but anonymous (without the promise of a single snack to hide under). Unfortunately, things aren’t that anonymous when you’re starving and you run into your old high school classmates. So grab a snack and learn the tale of the lady who turned a sea monster for having an appetite."
Another artist's interpretation of the whirlpool-like
Charybdis as a fearsome vagina dentata nightmare

Cowan's three characters are Marjorie (a fairly clueless and insensitive woman whose struggles with her appetite seemed fairly trivial compared to the other members of the Overeaters Anonymous group). Charlene (who remembers Marjorie from high school, where there was no love lost between the two women), and Scott (a fairly clueless jock who peaked shortly after graduation). With Allison Page, Adam McGill, and Tony Narvaez inhabiting Cowan's characters, there were plenty of laughs to be had.

Playwrights Ashley Cowan and Neil Higgins onstage at the
San Francisco Olympians Festival (Photo by: Paul Anderson)

For me, the highlight of the the evening was Echidna, written by the grandly gifted and often hilarious Neil Higgins. As the playwright explains:
"Echidna was the 'Mother of All Monsters; in classical Greece. She had the torso and head of a beautiful woman and the body of a giant snake. She was, according to some sources, an immortal nymph. Her parentage is disputed among classical writers, but all insist that her parents are primordial beings, most of them associated with deepness and danger. She married Typhon, who was a giant man-serpent with a hundred dragon heads. The two of them attacked the Olympians and were defeated and subsequently punished by being separated and buried deep underground. Echidna and her sizable brood of children were buried deep in a cave and allowed to live to act as challenges for future heroes. Depending on the sources, her children include: Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of Hades; the Lernaean Hydra; the Sphinx, whose riddle was solved by Oedipus; The Colchian Dragon, which guarded the Golden Fleece; the Chimera; the Caucasian Eagle, which ate Prometheus’ liver every day; the Gorgons; Scylla, the sea monster Odysseus had to escape; the Nemean Lion, which was one of Heracles’ twelve labors; Ladon, the dragon that guarded the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides; Orthrus, a giant, two-headed dog; the Crommyonian Sow; and the Teumessian fox. Apollodorus states that she was eventually killed by the hundred-eyed giant Argus Panoptes."
Poster art by Lacey Hill Hawkins for Echidna

In the world according to Higgins, San Franciscans are at the mercy of a serial killer. However, if you thought the Ferguson, Missouri police department was a mess, it's nothing compared to the cast if characters Higgins has placed on the staff of the San Francisco Police Department.
  • Commander Harris (Charles Lewis III) is the frustrated police captain who wishes Argus and Tasso would stick to the assignment he gave them to find the serial killer instead of following so many seemingly tangential leads.
  • Dr. Prashad (Trinity Nay) is the seemingly ditzy pathologist at the City Morgue who has a few shady tricks up her sleeve.
  • Inspector Argus (Ben Grubb) is the kind of deadbeat detective who has appeared in many a film noir murder mystery: handsome, vain, and more than a little bit misogynistic. Smug and cocky, Argus sees no need to play by the rules and has been coasting on his laurels for far too long.
  • Inspector Diana Tasso (Audrey Hannah) is new to the force. Having written her graduate thesis about the infamous Inspector Argus, she is thrilled to be given a chance to work beside him -- until he opens his mouth and reveals himself to be a male chauvinist creep. For some reason, she doesn't cotton to being called "sweetlips" or "sugar tits."
  • Inspector Lopez (Andrew Chung) is the skirt-chasing detective who won't stop coming on to Inspector Tasso. Lopez is incapable of understanding that the main reason Tasso keeps resisting his unwanted advances is because she's a lesbian. In fact, she's a lesbian with some very pretty powerful connections in San Francisco's LGBT community.
Andrew Chung, Ben Grubb, Audrey Hannah, and Charles Lewis III
during the reading of Echidna (Photo by: Paul Anderson)

Higgins wastes no time unveiling some gruesome murders which send Argus and Tasso in search of the monster who could be committing such heinous crimes. Along the way they encounter a Chinese gangster named Johnny Lau (Abni Kris) who takes frequent (and suspicious) trips to Hong Kong, a money-laundering scheme that involves smuggling illegal aliens into California aboard container ships from Asia, and a curious trio of Italian-Americans named Salvatore Gabrioni (Dan Kurtz), Maria Gabrioni (Alaska Yamada), and Tony Dimonato (William Leschber).

A major subplot involves two gay realtors who used to be a couple but are now "just friends." One of whom (a major donor to LGBT causes) has just been murdered by his former lover who was jealous of all the attention his ex kept bestowing on their sales office's new receptionist, a flirtatious wise-cracking queen (Abni Kris).

I was very impressed by the complexity of his characters and the tightly layered plot in Higgins' play, Iapetus, which premiered at the 2013 San Francisco Olympians Festival. In Echidna, his skills at writing comedy (as well as cooking up some fascinating plot twists) continue to shine.

At the core of Echidna lies a formidable monster who, rather than try to create change as a citizen journalist, has come up with a much more efficient role for achieving justice: citizen executioner. This talented young playwright's ability to paint winning portraits of corrupt politicians, social activists, bartenders with too much knowledge, incompetent police, and vain celebrities leads the audience on a murderous romp and frolic through contemporary San Francisco. Higgins is definitely a talent worth following.

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