Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Care and Nurturing of The Gifted Child

Not every child who enters this world is wanted. But for those who are, their futures are instantly called into question. Some parents are content simply knowing that their newborn is healthy. Others immediately start fantasizing about their offspring's college education and career goals.

While much has been written about the care and nurturing of a child's intellect (from listening to Mozart while in utero to being enrolled in ridiculously expensive and wildly exclusive preschool programs), it's hardly an American form of exceptionalism to assume that one's child is truly blessed and/or naturally gifted.  Some children show surprising musical ability at an early age; others start drawing long before they can articulate any cogent thoughts about art history.

All too often, a child's ability to live up to parental expectations that he will become a whiz kid or musical prodigy proves to be limited.
  • Some children are easily distracted; others have no idea what discipline is.
  • Some children naturally pass through "phases" (even if their parents have developed unrealistic expectations for their future).
  • Some children do a spectacular job of sabotaging their potential through bad behavior and/or the onset of puberty.
  • Some children manage to ignore the overbearing pressure coming from parents who assume that their child should grow up to become a doctor, lawyer (or enter the family business) to uncompromising tiger moms and bullying stage mothers.

Instead of blaming the child for failing to meet an adult's expectations, sometimes it's necessary to take a close look at how a child's environment pushes him toward goals which may actually stifle creativity or set him up for failure. From "teaching to the test" to letting a child isolate himself in rehearsal rooms which offer little social interaction with his peers, the issue of "nature versus nurture" remains a baffling mystery.

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The 2015 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival is presenting the American premiere of Erwin Wagenhofer's provocative documentary entitled Alphabet. Although beautifully filmed, viewers may become restless watching so many interviews filmed in trains and automobiles. The filmmaker's basic concept is that what adults want children to achieve and what interests children might pursue if left to their own devices are often quite different.

Wagenhofer's theory is simple: Too much of our educational system is based on an "alphabet" that steers young minds down a path designed to support capitalism rather than creativity. As their education progresses, children lose their natural gifts for spontaneity and self-expression, becoming dull automatons programmed to take tests and maximize profits with little thought to the consequences of their actions.  In his director's statement, the filmmaker writes:
"After two films  dealing with food and money (We Feed The World, Let's Make Money), I asked myself why it ever comes to such aberrations and distortions. Why do we prefer a system of closed society and fear an open, free society? Why do many of us exist in constant anxiety/fear of life although our economies have created incredible wealth? Why are we so unhappy (even though we seem to have everything)? Why is the distribution of our wealth working so badly?

History teaches us that the new is not the continuation of the old. The idea for this film was not to compare training regimes, but to invite people on a journey whose goal is to get moving. Life means movement. Democracy means as many as possible. To take responsibility for the consequences of our actions means all of us. One thing is clear: Our Western model of a so-called modern, progressive society has faltered and reached its limits. It is neither honorable nor responsible."

A child learns how to stop and smell the roses at an early age

Wagenhofer suggests that if we remove the competitive elements from a child's education, the results might be happier, more confident, and more fulfilled adults. As examples, he interviews Thomas Sattleberger who, after a long and extremely successful career in human resources, expresses his disappointment in the quality of job applicants entering the market. The filmmaker contrasts Sattleberger's assessment by introducing audiences to actor/teacher Pablo Pineda Ferrer, who was the first student in Europe with Down syndrome to obtain a university degree.

Pablo Pined Ferrer speaking at a TED talk event

While there is a great deal of input from talking heads, nothing quite matches the sad fate of young Patrick Kuhn, a security guard with no future who can barely afford to pay his expenses. For me, the most valuable segments of Wagenhofer's documentary were focused on the work of Arno Stern, who has helped children explore their artistic impulses through painting since he entered an institute for war orphans in 1946 at the age of 22. Since then, Stern's Closlieu has thrived as "a space designed to stimulate and protect the emergence of formulation."

A child begins to paint a drawing at Arno Stern's Closlieu

Perhaps even more interesting than Arno Stern is his son, André, who was given a great deal of freedom as a child and never really had a formal education. However, after asking to be allowed to serve as an apprentice to a local luthier, he has become an extremely confident man (as well as a talented musician, composer, speaker, and journalist).

Wagenhofer's willingness to focus on people like André Stern and Pablo Pineda Ferrer as exceptions to the rule easily highlights some of the failings of educational systems which have been largely designed by adults interested in serving the needs of industry rather than the needs of children. His theory that eliminating traditional forms of competition from the standard curricula might yield more well-rounded and happier students offers plenty of food for thought.

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But what about the truly gifted child? What about the adolescent who has become intoxicated with an art form to the point that he hopes to build his life around it? What happens when a child who has thrived on competition, flattery, and an inflated ego runs into a solid wall of criticism and rejection?

While a father's suggestion that a budding young pianist needs to have a back-up plan (and some friends who are not totally immersed in the world of music) comes from a place of genuine parental concern, what happens when a gifted child learns that he's nowhere as good as other youngsters who are not only more talented, but far more disciplined. What kind of return on investment can that child (and his family) anticipate?

Christopher Tocco in 2 Pianos 4 Hands
(Photo by: Jeanne Tanner, courtesy of Rubicon Theatre Company)

That's pretty much the gist of 2 Pianos, 4 Hands, which is receiving a poignant production directed by Thomas Frey down at TheatreWorks in Mountain View. Written by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, the play premiered in Toronto in April 1996 at the Tarragon Theatre and has since toured extensively (I was fortunate enough to see them perform 2 Pianos, 4 Hands when its creators brought their production to the American Conservatory Theatre in 2000).

Not only does 2 Pianos, 4 Hands do an excellent job of covering some not-so-wonderful moments in a young pianist's life, it offers keen insights into some of the frustrations felt by parents, music teachers, and budding musicians when the child's output and dedication might not reach the standards necessary to be accepted into a music conservatory or even think about a career as a concert pianist. Initially, Greenblatt was surprised by the play's success.
"Too often, everything becomes about 'making it' or being a star. We were convinced it was just going to be for music nerds or (even worse) piano nerds. But at our first workshop presentation we had a good friend who happened to be the Manitoba Junior Tennis Champion. He said 'The show's not about piano at all, it's about tennis.' The art is bigger than the individual. There are the geniuses, for sure. But just because you're not a concert pianist, does that mean you shouldn't play for your own enjoyment and allow the beauty of the music to fulfill you?"
Ted (Darren Dunstan) and Richard (Christopher Tocco) in a
scene from 2 Pianos, 4 Hands (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

2 Pianos, 4 Hands does not merely require two men who are technically strong pianists. Each must be able to morph from one role to another (student, teacher, parent, etc.) while playing a game of musical chairs as he moves from one piano to another. The writing is crisp, concise, and allows both performers to portray a wide variety of personalities through their acting and the way they attack the piano.

Sometimes the tone is extremely competitive; at other times understandably childish. Sometimes the audience cringes from the sight of a young man being stripped of his dreams; at other times one can't help but laugh at the sheer goofiness of their personalities.

Ted (Darren Dunstan) and Richard (Christopher Tocco) in a
scene from 2 Pianos, 4 Hands(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Darren Dunstan and Christopher Tocco deliver beautiful performances as Ted and Richard as they struggle to grow, mature, and face reality without ever losing their love of music. I especially liked the unit set designed by Steve Lucas.

Performances of 2 Pianos, 4 Hands continue through February 15 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here to order tickets).

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Charmed, I'm Sure!

When people with widely disparate cultural beliefs meet up in real life, several outcomes are possible.
One of the best examples of this phenomenon was depicted in Pacific Overtures (the 1976 Broadway musical created by John Weidman, Stephen Sondheim, and Harold Prince which focused on the historical moment in which Japan opened its isolated island society to Western culture). In the following two clips, Frank Rich interviews Weidman and Sondheim as the songwriter  explains the challenges of writing a musical number about "nothing" while trying to make an historically Japanese moment accessible to Western audiences.

The three men are then joined by cast members Gedde Watanabe (The Boy), James Dybas (The Old Man), Mako Iwamatsu (The Reciter), and Mark Hsu Syers (Samurai), who sing "Someone In A Tree" as they stand around Sondheim's piano.

Whether one wishes to talk about a gaps or clashes between cultures, on rare occasions such comparisons can generate unusual amounts of charm. No matter how carefully an author tries to create such an atmosphere in words, sometimes one has to wait until he can see a scene acted out before the elements of charm have a chance to exert themselves on an audience. Whether that peculiar sense of charm derives from a character's quirks, nervousness, commitment to a challenging concept, or bodily tics, the effect is often ephemeral.

Two revivals of works by two of Great Britain's greatest playwrights were on display this week. One play (written in six days shortly after the Blitz destroyed much of London), focuses on a particular element of British society while contrasting the behavior of those who either fervently do or cynically do not believe in the possibility of communicating with the dead. The other (written 20 years ago), jumps back and forth between events in Jummapur and London, as two families -- and an American academic -- struggle to understand the relationship between a young English poet and the Indian artist she met during her travels many years ago.

In each play, characters are fascinated by their experiences with members of another culture. In both works,  the ability of one particular actor to thoroughly inhabit a character brings a great deal of charm to the proceedings.

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Throughout her 70-year career on stage and screen, Angela Lansbury has earned a formidable reputation as a character actress. In his New York Times review of 1969's ill-fated Jerry Herman musical (based on Jean Giradoux's 1943 play, The Madwoman of Chaillot), Clive Barnes wrote:
"But for one minor miracle, I suspect that Dear World would never have seen the light of day. The minor miracle is Miss Lansbury and whether or not the musical itself is worth seeing -- for it is extraordinarily tenuous -- no connoisseur of musical comedy can afford to miss Miss Lansbury's performance. It is lovely. She comes on looking like a Bette Davis in silks. Her eyes are black caverns, her face all white and pink, her expression that of a yesteryear. She could be a Beardsley Salomé 40 years on, there is a wild poetry in every mincingly genteel gesture. Her dancing is exquisite, she moves like a camp version of Bernhardt, and her acting and singing perfectly express a character seen in precise musical comedy terms."
A 1969 Playbill showing Angela Lansbury as the Countess Aurelia

Those who were lucky enough to see Lansbury's portrayal of the Countess Aurelia in Dear World (or of Salome Otterbourne in 1978's Death on the Nile), are well aware of her skill at bringing batty old women and curious eccentrics to life. Shortly after returning to Broadway in February 2009 in a revival of Noel Coward's beloved comedy, Blithe Spirit (1941), Lansbury sat down for an extended interview about her performance as Coward's bicycling spiritualist, Madame Arcati, and explained how an actor's muscle memory comes into play during the course of a long career.

Following her Broadway run in Blithe Spirit, Lansbury portrayed Madame Armfeldt in a 2009 revival of A Little Night Music, Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge in a 2012 revival of The Best Man, and toured Australia with James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy. In 2014 at the age of 89, she brought her portrayal of Madame Arcati to London's West End before embarking on a North American tour to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, and Washington D.C.

Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit
(Photo by Alastair Muir)

On opening night in San Francisco, it wasn't just Lansbury's comic turns that impressed the audience. Michael Blakemore's immaculate direction, combined with Coward's witty script proved that a play written more than seven decades ago can easily hold its own against most contemporary comedies. Simon Higlett's set and costumes, coupled with Ben and Max Ringham's sound design, framed the evening's fun to spectacular effect (especially in the final scene).

Honed to perfection during years of live performances (and dressed in costumes designed by the late, great Martin Pakledinaz), Lansbury's solid technique included exaggerated eye rolls and perfectly timed putdowns in a dark, husky voice that proved to be as irresistible as ever. Whether expressing her deeply felt appreciation for an extra-dry martini, quivering with near-orgasmic delight at the mere thought of encountering with a real life ectoplasm, or dryly putting a skeptic in his place, the veteran actress had no trouble holding the audience in the palm of her hand.

Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati in
Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

That's not to suggest by any means that the production was entirely Lansbury's show. As Charles Condomine, Charles Edwards gave a deliciously stylish performance, matched in physical comedy terms by Susan Louise O'Connor's frenetic portrayal of Edith, the Condomines' maid who has a psychic secret of her own.

Jemima Rooper was a deliciously troublesome Elvira, but I was far more impressed with Charlotte Parry's characterization of Ruth (Charles's second wife). Simon Jones and Sandra Shipley offered sturdy support as Dr. and Mrs. Bradman. Here's some footage from the production.

With Dame Edna (played by 80-year-old Barry Humphries) and Dame Angela (who will turn 90 on October 16) making  their farewell stage tours and, following the success of Disney's screen adaptation of Into The Woods), talk of Meryl Streep starring in a film version of Follies, one can only hope that Lansbury remains with us long enough to be cast as Hattie Walker in a film version of Sondheim's 1971 musical. She is the epitome of (and definitely deserves to be seen belting out) a "Broadway Baby." (Note: If you start at the 2:54 mark in the following clip, you can watch Ethel Shutta, who introduced the song in the original Broadway production).

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Closer to Union Square, the American Conservatory Theatre is presenting a revival of 1995's Indian Ink directed by Carey Perloff (who directed the play's American premiere in 1999 and has had a long and close professional relationship with playwright Tom Stoppard).As Perloff explains:
"On the occasion of this production, we worked closely together to reexamine the text and had the opportunity (among other things) to reconceive the ending of the play. We wanted to focus more on the relationship between the poet (Flora Crewe) and the painter (Nirad Das) than on the overall political situation of the British Raj. The new ending opened the door to beautiful new stage pictures and enables the entire company to come together at the end of the evening. I think the ending makes an enormous difference in actually finishing the relationship between Flora and Das, which is so complicated. I also think time has caught up with this play in a good way. Today, the notion of cross-cultural love affairs (and the complexity with which colonized peoples inevitably end up taking on the characteristics of their colonizers) are things we actually know about. In the 15 years since it was done, the relationship between Flora and Das has become much more interesting and complex, because these ideas are more in the world than they were then."
Using the unit set designed by Neil Patel for the recent production of Indian Ink (also directed by Perloff) at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York,  this new staging benefits immensely from Dan Moses Schreier's sound design, Robert Wierzel's lighting, and Candice Donnelly's costumes.

English poet Flora Crewe (Brenda Meanuy) is greeted in Jummapur
by Coomaraswami (Ajay Naidu) (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Although the protagonist, Flora Crewe (Brenda Meaney), is a politically rebellious and sexually adventurous young woman who once modeled for Amedeo Modigliani, she is primarily known for her poetry and supports herself with speaking engagements.  Stoppard's play does not lose itself in the wordiness of his other works. If anything, the cultural differences between India and England in 1930 (as well as the differences in sophistication and style in the 1980s), make this a drama in which the pressures of social class (and caste) are always felt but tentatively, and sometimes dangerously, ignored.
  • Do the socioeconomic classes inhabited by local politician Coomaraswami (Ajay Naidu), the Rajah (Rajeev Varma), the servant Nazrul (Vandit Bhatt) in 1930 and Dilip (Kenneth De Abrew), a 1980s Indian helping American tourist Eldon Pike (Anthony Fusco) research Flora's time in Jammapur keep them from achieving their goals?
  • Does the oppressive heat in Jammapur serve to stifle need for long-winded Stoppardian monologues or does Flora's diagnosis of tuberculosis force her to choose her battles more carefully?
  • Does the awe in which the Indian artist, Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji) holds Flora inhibit the obvious attraction between the two or is Nirad's shyness as much a function of his color and caste when confronted with a nude white woman?
Firdous Bamji as the Indian artist, Nirad Das in
Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Stoppard (who lived in Darjeeling as a child) has used a certain kind of literary time travel in other works. He obviously enjoys taking his audience on a time traveling adventure as he ties together the strands that link Nirad Das and Flora Crewe in a moment in history that was unwritten and only hinted at.  In London in the 1980s the artist's grown son, Anish Das (Pej Vahdat), calls on the deceased Flora's sister, Eleanor Swan (Roberta Maxwell), to show her a painting he inherited from his father which may well be the missing link that can explain what transpired during Crewe's visit to Jummapur in 1930.

Anish Das (Pej Vahdat) visits Flora Crewe's younger sister,
Eleanor Swan (Roberta Maxwell) in a scene from Indian Ink 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The play's new ending (coupled with the playwright's flexibility) has had a deep impact on Perloff.
"The Indian Ink experience has made me reflect more deeply on the nature of theatrical collaboration. Stoppard is one of those rare writers who views a script as an evolving document amenable to change. He is aware of the whole context of a production, how changes in world view might affect an audience's perception of a play, and how the benefit of time can reveal better ways to tell a story. No matter how excellent or finished a script seems to be, it is ultimately a blueprint. It doesn't fully exist until it is filtered through the imaginations of other theater artists (directors, designers, choreographers, composers, actors). Thus, writing for the theater is wholly different from writing prose or poetry: it necessitates an imagination that leaves room for specifically theatrical solutions. When I think about my work with Stoppard, I recognize that he is so in command of his craft that he doesn't have to control every production or rehearsal; he knows exactly when to step back and watch, and when to rewrite or reimagine. Therefore, his work remains supple and surprising decades after its inception. That is a rare gift, and one worth learning from."
Eldon Pike (Anthony Fusco) and Dilip (Kenneth De Abrew)
research the history of English poet Flora Crewe in Indian Ink 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Although Danielle Frimer as Nell (the young Eleanor), Philip Mills as British officer David Durrance, and Dan Hiatt (as an Englishman living in India during the Raj) made strong contributions in supporting roles, I found myself mesmerized by the beautifully multi-layered performance by Firdous Bamji as Nirad Das. Mr. Bamji (who played Anish Daj in ACT's 1999 production of Indian Ink) is a gifted actor who can paint his character with a rare combination of charm, nervous self-consciousness, and grace under pressure. His work was beautifully balanced by the stalwart performance of Roberta Maxwell (who, in the strangest way, reminded me of Regina Resnik).

Performances of Indian Ink continue at the American Conservatory Theater through February 8th (click here to order tickets). This is a most fulfilling evening of intelligent and heartwarming theater.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Subversive Thrills

Have you ever felt ecstatically lucky when you found a coin or a dollar bill? When the supermarket cashier forgot to charge you for an item? Or when you treated yourself to a calorie-laden dessert and didn't gain any weight the next day? Perhaps you aced a dreaded exam or got to your car a few seconds before the meter maid showed up.

Some illicit thrills are better than others. While squeakers often feel like the best kind of triumph, they can also have an insidious effect upon people who forget that winning streaks inevitably grind to a halt. The undeniable exhilaration of getting away with something is bound to evaporate, leaving folks wondering how they ever managed to sustain their luck for so long (or whether they'll ever again experience the intoxicating thrill of briefly riding a rocket to success).

Whether in fact or fiction, a lucky streak can affect people in bizarre ways. For the neurotic, paranoid types, it can increase the sense of imminent danger, the risk of being caught and punished (as well as the enticing possibility of being humiliated in front of one's peers).  For others, it can simply stretch the desire to attempt one or two more petty crimes before calling it quits.

Whether one thinks of the chain smoker who lights up another cigarette while boasting that he can stop smoking whenever he wants to -- or the person who insists that "I'm in control of the drugs, the drugs aren't in control of me" -- pride (and often sloppiness) usually goes before a fall.

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Is there is anyone in the Bay area who can milk excessive glee from merely thinking about bad behavior like Josh Kornbluth? A master storyteller who quivers with delight at the mere thought of being caught and punished for trivial pursuits, Kornbluth's hilarious monologues have included Red Diaper Baby, The Mathematics of Change, Love and Taxes, and Andy Warhol: Good For The Jews?

Josh Kornbluth (Photo by: Tue Nam Ton)

Shortly after he moved to San Francisco in 1987, Kornbluth began performing a series of one-man shows (some of which were developed at The Marsh). To help celebrate The Marsh's 25th anniversary, its founder and artistic director, Stephanie Weisman, invited Kornbluth to perform an updated version of one of his most famous shows: Haiku Tunnel.

Although this monologue was expanded into a film in 2001 (which is available on Netflix), Kornbluth has tweaked some of its content to incorporate the challenges faced by an incompetent temp worker at the "S&M Law Firm" who is confronted with today's technology. It's not so much that Kornbluth's character (also named Josh) is incompetent -- it's that the minute Josh's status changes from that of a temp worker to a permanent employee, he can't stop finding ways to sabotage his future. Shakespeare may have suggested that music is the food of love but, in Kornbluth's case, procrastination is the phenomenon which feeds his pixie-like paranoia.

Having written numerous shows perfectly tailored to his dramatic gifts and comic persona as the kind of schlubby Jew who could make Woody Allen seem overly confident, Kornbluth's opening night at The Marsh had the audience rolling with laughter at his misadventures in the dangerous territory encountered when a self loathing schlemiel enters corporate America and thinks he's gotten "a pass." What struck me as even more delightful was the fact that Kornbluth seemed to relish his chance to once more perform Haiku Tunnel as much as Carol Channing would if she could turn back time and hit the road with one more tour of Hello, Dolly!

Josh Kornbluth in Haiku Tunnel (Photo by: Josh Kornbluth)

For those who live outside the Bay area, I heartily recommend watching the filmed version of Haiku Tunnel  and then contrasting it with this video of Kornbluth's live performance (recorded at the San Francisco Public Library on May 28th, 2013 as part of its annual Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor Exhibit). Both versions offer an intimate taste of his strengths as a writer, performer, and anxiety-ridden clown. For those who have worked in highly dysfunctional law offices, Haiku Tunnel is guaranteed to bring back plenty of memories (both good and bad). Enjoy!

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Prior to performing Haiku Tunnel, Josh Kornbluth likes to give his audience a "wink-wink" disclaimer stressing that, even though they may seem totally believable, none of the characters he describes are real. What happens when the frauds of fiction are contrasted with the fraudulent acts of a talented artist?  You get a documentary like Beltracchi -- The Art of Forgery, which is being screened as part of the 2015 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival.

Wolfgang Beltracchi at work in his studio

If the goal of a talented painter who can create forgeries of great works is to deceive the experts, credit should also go to writer/director Arne Birkenstock for the deftness and skill with which he entertains, educates, and confuses viewers as he introduces them to Wolfgang Beltracchi and his wife/accomplice, Helene.

Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi with one of his forgeries

Beltracchi's casual approach to art forgery was so laid back that even his children had no idea what he was up to (they just knew that their father liked to paint and didn't seem to work very hard at it). For nearly four decades, Beltracchi succeeded in duping the international art world with forgeries of paintings that people assumed were lost originals by early 20th-century masters.

Wolfgang Beltrcchi with one of his best forgeries

One of the greatest assets in Birkenstock's film is that his protagonist doesn't take art very seriously. Unlike Peter Greenaway's meticulous dissections of great works of art -- Nightwatching (2007) and Rembrandt's J'Accuse (2008) -- or Teller's forensic film adventure, Tim's Vermeer (2013), Beltracchi -- The Art of Forgery feels much more like a romp and frolic guided by a talented artist who has developed a unique approach to forging and marketing the [supposed] lost work of great artists.

Because the film jumps back and forth in time between archival footage of Beltracchi as a young artist (he claims to have first copied a Picasso painting at the age of 14); the period when he and his wife spent six years in prison serving an open sentence (during which Beltracchi could to go to his studio every day to paint); and the artist's second career using his own name, there are segments which [chronologically] can be as confusing as a game of Three Card Monte.

The cleverness of Beltracchi's scheme, the artist's basic affability, and the astonishing ease with which he produces forgeries strong enough to convince auctioneers, collectors, and art historians that his work must actually be paintings which were alluded to (but never found) in the catalogs of such famous artists as Max Ernest, Heinrich Campendonk, Raoul Dufy, and Auguste Herbin transforms Birkenstock's documentary into a delightful chase through the landscape of early 20th century art. Here's the trailer:

Monday, January 19, 2015

Free To Be You and Me

On December 19, 1957, a con artist posing as a traveling salesman began to worm his way into the hearts of millions of Americans. The protagonist of Meredith Willson's hit show (The Music Man), Professor Harold Hill had been running a pretty profitable scam selling musical instruments and marching band uniforms to people in small towns and then absconding with their money.

When the law finally caught up with him in River City, Iowa, Professor Hill was saved by a bunch of young boys with no musical skill who followed his advice to use "the Think method" when attempting to play their instruments. The exultant reactions of their dotng parents saved the day.

When Tom Hanks accepted his first Academy Award for Best Actor on March 21, 1994 (in recognition of his performance in the film Philadelphia), he made a point of thanking his drama coach at Oakland's Skyline High School, Raleigh Farnsworth, Two decades later, The New York Times published a moving Op-Ed piece entitled I Owe It All To Community College, in which Hanks (who had recently been inducted as a Kennedy Center honoree) described how his experiences at Chabot Community College helped point his way toward a career in the arts. The Tony Awards (in partnership with Carnegie-Mellon University) recently announced a new award category for Excellence in Theatre Education.

In January, as he prepared for his 2015 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced his plan to make the first two years of community college tuition-free. But, in an article published in the Contra Costa Times describing the Contra Costa County school board's unanimous decision to reject a proposal for a county-wide performing arts charter school, Theresa Harrington noted the suggestion by school board President Daniel Gomes that the creation of charter schools with an emphasis on teaching either environmental science or robotics might have a greater urgency than a school for the arts.
"These are programs that are vital to our society. It's well and good that performing arts are part of our society, but they're not the vital part of our society," said Gomes, who stressed that the county's trustees could be "wasting money and wasting time -- and we might be wasting lives by supporting this."
According to Harrington, one of the proposed charter school's supporters, Rob Seitelman, yelled: "That's how I want to waste my life -- supporting the arts!" Seitelman's battle cry has taken on numerous forms over the years.
  • In 1959's Gypsy, Mama Rose finally erupts, boasting that "With what I've been holding down inside of me, if I ever let it out there wouldn't be signs big enough. There wouldn't be lights bright enough! Here she is, boys. Here she is, world.  Here's Rose!"
  • In 1964's Funny Girl, Fanny Brice laments "I'm the greatest star, but no one knows it!"
  • In 1965's Kander & Ebb musical entitled Flora, The Red Menace, Flora Mezaros (a young fashion designer with big dreams) sings "All I Need Is One Good Break!"
  • In 1976's breakout hit, A Chorus Line, the desperate Cassie sings "Play me the music, give me the chance to come through. All I ever needed was the music and the mirror and the chance to dance for you."
  • In 1979, Sweeney Todd admonishes Mrs. Lovett that  "These are desperate times and desperate measures must be taken."
  • In 2001, a sexy secretary named Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson Bloom advises job applicants "When You've Got It, Flaunt It" in the musical adaptation of The Producers.
  • And, although it didn't run for very long, in 1960's Wildcat, Lucille Ball and Paula Stewart introduced an anthem for every would-be performer who desperately wants to be noticed:

Despite countless studies which show the power of arts programs to stimulate local economies, the surprising numbers of jobs generated by the arts, and the critical role of the arts in reviving neighborhoods that have been abandoned and fallen into decay, many politicians fail to understand the role the arts play as an spiritual, emotional, economic, and professional lifeline to those in need of help.

A lovely description of the power and importance of storytelling, isn't it?

Two new documentaries focus on the power of the arts to inspire people in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps." Instead, they show how the arts can give disadvantaged youth (as well as women struggling to make a place for themselves in a male-dominated profession) hope for brighter futures and more meaningful lives.

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Aided by financial backing from the San Francisco Film Society and the Berkeley Film Foundation, filmmakers David Collier and Suzanne LaFetra have crafted a poignant documentary about the impact of the arts on the lives of underprivileged youth in FREE. Set in Oakland, California, with a particular focus on the work being done at the Destiny Arts Center, their film (which will be screened at the upcoming SFIndie Fest) follows the trials and tribulations of five disadvantaged teens who struggle to remain emotionally grounded while attempting to write, design, and perform a musical program which helps them share their life experiences with others.

Poster art for FREE

The underlying motivation for the group's creative output is a chance to open up about some of the painful truths they have been concealing (whether those truths involve gang violence, sexual abuse, poverty, being diagnosed with HIV) or the daily insults and traumas of life. The five teens featured in FREE include:
  • Nee Nee, who lives with her mother, brother, and her brother's baby in a small apartment. Nee Nee shares both bedroom and bed with a mother who is battling breast cancer. She has been giving serious thought to enlisting in the U.S. Air Force as a way to get a higher education and escape a life of poverty.
  • Jamany, a fatherless child who once thought that guns, drugs, and violence offered the keys to a successful life on the street.
  • Omar, an extremely talented dancer/choreographer who passed through 11 foster homes before being adopted by a lesbian couple.
Omar temporarily dropped out of the Destiny Arts Center's
dance program after he was diagnosed with HIV.

For many teens, trust is a huge and very painful issue.
  • Alaysia is trying to keep her life together while involved in the prosecution of a cousin who raped her when she was very young. 
  • Tilly, a young lesbian, is struggling with relationship issues, self-doubt, and a habit of cutting herself.

Unlike many documentaries that examine the impact of the arts in school programs, FREE does not involve any kind of competition or elimination process. Instead, it follows students through a year's worth of coaching, nurturing, introspection, and rehearsal leading up to the group's final performance as the Destiny Arts Center's artistic director, Sarah Crowell, tries to provide a safe space for students to digest the world around them “so that they can come through adolescence shiny, and not broken.”

FREE is not about the most gifted, most adored, or most popular children getting to star in their annual school play. It's about teens who have already experienced the school of hard knocks learning how to use their creativity as a tool with which to learn about themselves, build enough confidence to embrace future opportunities and, hopefully, begin to heal from some deep emotional wounds. Here's the trailer:

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One might wonder how a Spanish-language film about female mariachi performers in Mexico City might end up on the program of a German film festival like Berlin and Beyond. The simple answer is that the filmmaker, Doris Dorrie, is German and This Lovely Shitty Life is a touching documentary. that salutes the proud Mexican women who have been crashing the macho field of mariachi music in recent decades.

Las Estrellas de Jalisco performs in a
local cemetery during Dia de los Muertes

When mariachi musicians are booked for important gigs, the joy they bring to audiences is almost palpable,  As part of its community outreach program, the Houston Grand Opera commissioned composer José “Pepe” Martínez and librettist Leonard Foglia to create Cruzar la Cara de la Luna / To Cross the Face of the Moon (the world's first mariachi opera, which had its world premiere in Houston in 2010). Following its world premiere in at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in March, the team's second mariachi opera (El Pasado Nunca Se Termina/The Past Is Never Finished) will be performed in Houston in May of 2015.

If you're new to the sounds of mariachi, you'll be fascinated by the gutsy vitality of this genre of folk music, as well as Mexico City's street musicians (who can often be seen hustling gigs in downtown's busy Plaza Garibaldi).

Maria “Windy” del Carmen performs in Mexico City's Plaza Garibaldi

The hustling isn't always lucrative for those who get paid roughly 10 cents per musician per song (a rainy day can quickly wipe out one's anticipated earnings). Whether performing for lovers, funerals, weddings, or special events like Dia de los Muertes (Day of the Dead), many of the selections are chosen by request from those willing to pay the musicians.

A display for Dia de los Muertes

Dorrie and her crew interview several female mariachi performers to learn how their artistic ambitions have impacted their family life. In some cases, a mariacha's father or uncle had been a mariachi performer and, because they loved the music, they had learned many of the popular songs early in their childhood. In other cases, mariachi has become a burning passion, a creative outlet which they simply cannot afford to ignore.

Lupita is a female violinist who performs
mariachi with Las Estrellas de Jalisco

Formed in 1958, the first women's mariachi band still performs on a regular basis. For me, the most interesting parts of Dorrie's documentary are the footage of the older members of Las Pioneras de Mexico, an all-female ensemble that has performed in and around Mexico City for several decades. While some went on temporary leave to raise their children, they always look forward to new bookings and opportunities to perform. Once they take the stage, their performances can be thrilling.

The mariachi musicians of Las Pioneras de Mexico

Bottom line? If you like mariachi music, you're going to love This Lovely, Shitty Life  Here's the trailer:

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Finding Emo

Teenagers often claim to know who they are with an absolutism that can be nightmarish. But it takes years before one can peel away layers of accumulated misinformation (and disinformation) in order to truly explore one's inner self. As youthful passion and smug self-righteousness fall to the wayside, a desperate grasp on reality can finally start to take hold.

All too often, a person is surprised at what he learns about himself. Are there cultural obstacles to discovering certain hidden truths? You'd better believe it.
  • Chubby chasers from Kuwait, Hong Kong, and Saudi Arabia came to visit me in San Francisco. The experience was very much like a second coming out. Recently, on a cold, winter night (as I apologized for wearing a comfy, bright red velour sweater to bed), an extremely affectionate Japanese friend exclaimed "But it's great -- you look just like Santa Claus!"
  • For many years, I could never understand why I was incapable of fitting in with certain groups of people or sharing the same values as many around me. It wasn't until I started learning about introverts (in large part thanks to Anneli Rufus's revelatory book, Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto) that I began to see all the pieces of the puzzle fitting into place. If that book had been available 40 years earlier, I might have had a very different life! Anna Bashkova's recent article entitled 6 Reasons Why You Should Date the Outgoing Introvert offers a  helpful set of new insights.
  • Finally, if the Internet (and word processing software) had been available in 1977 when I began to pursue writing as a creative outlet, I would have had a markedly different career in print.
A blogger-to-be waiting for the Internet to come online

In a fascinating article published on, blogger John Aravosis asks Why Did Gay Activists Never Embrace Violence? But hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. For the confused characters in two dramas I recently watched, hindsight is not even an option. In order to achieve any insight into their true selves, they must first unlearn a lot of falsehoods.

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Goofy naivete may have a great deal of charm, but it also comes loaded with liabilities. These became increasingly apparent in Sarah Ruhl's frail 2003 play entitled Late: A Cowboy Song That Knows No Gender (which is currently being performed at the Custom Made Theatre in a production directed by Ariel Craft). Working on a unit set designed by Erik LaDue, Ruhl's drama revolves around three unworldly and curiously immature Pennsylvanians who have known each other since the second grade.

Crick (Brian Martin) has grown into an idealistic slacker with no marketable job skills. His tearful sentimentality can reduce him to a state of weepy-eyed paralysis while watching reruns of 1946's It's A Wonderful Life on television. A handsome man-child who has never been exposed to much of anything outside his comfort zone, Crick has been living off the woman who was his grade school sweetheart and who (thankfully) has a job. When necessity forces Crick to get a job of his own, he interviews to become a security guard at a local museum so that he can spend time looking at the paintings in its collection. He gets fired for one of the most lame-brained reasons imaginable.

Crick (Brian Martin) and Mary (Maria Leigh) in Late: A Cowboy 
Song That Knows No Gender (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Mary (Maria Leigh) is the girl Crick fell in love with in second grade and has been obsessed with ever since. Mary has a tendency to be late for class, late for dinner, late for love, and late for ovulation. When she ends up giving birth to a hermaphroditic child, she's even late to the decision about which one set of external genitalia should be surgically removed.

Mary (Maria Leigh) and Crick (Brian Martin) in Late: A Cowboy
 Song That Knows No Gender (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Red (Lauren Preston) is a former classmate of Crick and Mary who has evolved into an extremely self-sufficient horse whisperer who lives just outside of Pittsburgh's city limits. Although Mary and Red enjoy meeting up for Chinese food, where they can savor a tasty clear broth along with the warmth of each other's company, their friendship is sporadic and informal. Happily clad in chaps and a cowboy hat, Red is very much her own woman. She self-identifies as a cowboy (rather than a cowgirl), likes to pluck out tunes on her guitar (although her singing voice is barely audible), and can easily manage without the complications of city life.

Mary (Maria Leigh) and Red (Lauren Preston) in Late: A Cowboy 
Song That Knows No Gender (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

While Ruhl's play has individual elements which show great potential, the hard truth is that there can be very little character development without some kind of dramatic tension. Whether that tension stems from an unexpected pregnancy, questions about whether to name their baby "Jack" or "Blue," or Crick's growing insecurities over not having a job (or control over his wife), the situation comes to a head when Mary comes home late and is confronted by her angry, jealous husband clutching a baseball bat just in case he needs to assert his male dominance.

Despite the earnest acting by Brian Martin, Maria Leigh, and Lauren Preston, it doesn't take long for the air to leak out of Sarah Ruhl's dramatic balloon. Late: A Cowboy Song That Knows No Gender has the feel of a whimsical kitchen experiment that failed to become an entréeThis is obviously an early effort by a playwright who has since produced (and been hailed for) much more solid work.

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One of the strangest examples of a story in which potential lovers "meet cute" is Love Steaks, a low-budget German film being screened during the 2015 SFIndie Film Festival. Written and directed by Jakob Lass, the action takes place in a luxury German seaside resort where two new employees are trying to adjust to the daily routine.

Clemens (Franz Rogowski) and Lara (Lana Cooper) are
new employees working at a health spa in Love Steaks

Lara Schmelzing (Lana Cooper) is a rowdy kitchen worker with a bawdy sense of humor, an obvious drinking problem, and a very aggressive nature. "Just one of the girls who's one of the boys," she enjoys a certain amount of violence and, given the opportunity, can be quite an effective little bully.

Lana Cooper as Lara Schmelzing in Love Steaks

By contrast, Clemens Pollozek (Franz Rogowski) is a shy, inhibited young man who has recently graduated from massage school and been hired to work in the hotel's spa. Although well schooled in chakras, auras, and holistic healing techniques, he still needs guidance in how to handle a drunken female client who tries to grope him as she lies naked on the massage table. To make matters worse, Clemens is a bit of a klutz.

Franz Rogowski is Clemens Pollozek in Love Steaks

After they meet in one of the hotel's service elevators, a strange sort of bond develops between Clemens (a sober, devout vegetarian who is sleeping on a spare mattress in the hotel's laundry room) and Lara, who tries to win him over with a juicy steak and some booze. As their playful encounters meet with continued disapproval from the spa's administrative staff, Lara takes sadistic pleasure in teasing Clemens (whom she calls "Clementina") about the fact that he has a small penis and forcing him to approach his boss and confess an overwhelming sexual attraction to him.

When Clemens approaches one of Lara's kitchen bosses to ask for some extra sensitivity with regard to her drinking problem, his noble intentions lead to her termination. Confused, disappointed, and startled by the turn of events, Clemens resigns from his job and is walking away when he encounters Lara. In a surprising turn of events, the two lovers get into a physical altercation that draws blood. Much to his surprise, the peace-loving vegetarian discovers he likes the taste of it.

Clemens (Frank Rogowski) tastes his own blood in Love Steaks

With some interesting cinematography by Timon Schaeppi, Love Steaks is a tightly-directed film which rests on the shoulders of its two protagonists. Here's the trailer:

Monday, January 5, 2015

Another Opening, Another Show

I began my writing career in 1977 when I was given an opportunity to write an opera column for Bay Area Reporter (one of San Francisco's gay newspapers). In recent years, I've often wondered how different my path as a writer would have been had the Internet been available to me from the start.

Try to understand that, back in 1977, there was no access to word-processing software programs with instant, WYSIWYG editing. If you made three typos on a page, you were expected to retype the entire page (carbon paper was a constant source of aggravation and Liquid Paper couldn't solve every problem).

A friend recently posted a link to David Gaughran's stunning article entitled How Jessica Mitford Exposed A $48m Scam From America’s Literary Establishment (I strongly recommend taking the time to read this piece). Gaughran's article shows how many aspiring writers were conned into paying exorbitant sums of money toward mentoring scams that led them nowhere and did absolutely nothing to improve their skills.

What has helped me over the years is the simple process of continuing to think and write. Improvements in technology have made it possible to construct smoother, more fluid sentences. The ability to spell check, embed hyperlinks to other websites, and include videos in my columns has made my work infinitely better.

Not only are today's writers living in a brave new world of electronic publishing, they've come a long, long way from the era when vanity publishing was looked upon with more disdain than porn (which at least made money). Many bloggers grew up in an environment where they learned how to type at an early age, were working on computers from the start, and were encouraged by parents and teachers to express themselves,

Anyone with access to WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, Instagram, or any other online publishing tool now has the capacity to rage, vent, explain, or criticize to their heart's content. As a result, three classic sayings now hold more truth than ever before:
  • Everyone's a critic.
  • If you don't like the news you're reading, make your own.
  • Opinions are like assholes, everybody's got one.
Those who follow The Rude Pundit may have been tickled by his recent challenge for readers to create end-of-year haikus for him. As he explained on his blog:
"The Rude Pundit thanks everyone who put in the effort to compose a haiku or five for this here blog's Annual Haiku Review. If your poem didn't get chosen, well, who knows why, really? It was dependent on the day, the level of drugs and/or liquor ingested, and quirks of personality. Or it could be that yours just sucked balls. You will never find out. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, enjoy these. They may not be better, but they made the Rude Pundit tingle in special places."
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The final weeks of 2014 witnessed an explosion of online writing about the release of Disney's screen adaptation of Into The Woods (the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical that had its Broadway premiere on November 5, 1987). In the 27 years since it opened at the Martin Beck Theatre, millions have seen the show performed onstage, watched the PBS telecast of the stage version, and performed in high school, college, community, and regional theatre productions of Into The Woods.

With the Internet offering endless opportunities for people to express their opinions, the quality of insight ranged from positive reactions to angry hyperventilating; from people wondering why all the actors in the movie were Caucasian to one pompous fool who revealed that he would never go into a music store to purchase Meryl Streep's records, anyway! I honestly can't recall such impassioned debate surrounding the release of any movie musical from 1968's Funny Girl, 1969's Hello, Dolly! and 1972's Cabaret to 2002's Chicago, 2005's The Producers, and 2012's Les Misérables,

However, bloggers and social media can create quite a brouhaha over matters of cultural significance. What sounded like a deafening chorus of back-seat drivers analyzing the film for its inherent sexism, racism, and/or casting choices revealed high levels of personal umbrage combined with an inability to handle cruel but basic truths.
  • The screen adaptation was not just the work of Stephen Sondheim and/or Disney Studios, but also of James Lapine (who crafted the libretto for the 1987 stage musical).
  • Having spent nearly three decades involved with the creation and ongoing life of Into The Woods, Sondheim and Lapine have a pretty solid handle on the structure and challenges of their show.
  • For all the self-righteousness of some people's reactions to the movie, most failed to acknowledge that neither Sondheim, Lapine, nor the folks at Walt Disney Pictures (who certainly know how to make money) had made any attempt to seek out their artistic input.
  • Most important, these people do not own the intellectual property rights to the piece. Other then griping about things that didn't meet their approval (and wondering why other fairy tales hadn't been included in the script), they had little recourse other than to shut the fuck up or write their own goddamn musical and try to get that made into a major film.

That's not to say that Sondheim's work isn't an easy target for satire. Gerard Alessandrini and his talented stable of cunning linguists at Forbidden Broadway have already slaughtered that sacred cow with loving send-ups of the legendary songwriter's work:

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A prolific playwright and screenwriter, David Mamet has collected numerous awards for his creative output. In many situations, his strongest writing occurs when there is an imbalance of power between one person (who very much wants something) and another (who is not so sure he's willing to grant his adversary's request). Mamet's characters frequently interrupt each other in a way that, when not artfully directed, can sound like an unpleasant interview conducted by Chris Matthews on MSNBC.

Tamar Cohn and Velina Brown in The Anarchist
(Photo by: David Wilson) 

While Mamet's work gains strength and brute force in conflicts heavily influenced by machismo and testosterone, one of his most recent plays shows him floundering when his protagonists are women.
  • Cathy (Tamar Cohn) has been imprisoned for 35 years after murdering a police officer in a bank robbery during her rebellious phase as a political anarchist. Although raised as a Jew, while in prison Cathy has enjoyed a healthy sex life with other female prisoners and used her time to learn as much as possible about the law. Although humility has not come easily to her, having converted to Christianity, she seeks to redeem herself with good deeds. A woman who may be too intelligent for her own good, Cathy has interpreted the simple fact that she was moved to another jail cell as a sign that she was due for release (after which she hopes to enter a cloistered convent).  However, with her wealthy father dying, she is hoping that, during her last visit with the outgoing prison administrator, Ann will grant her a release.
  • Ann (Velina Brown) is the kind of bureaucrat whose intense (and somewhat obsessive) research is cemented with yellow highlighter ink and colored tabs. Although she tells Cathy that she knows nothing about the law, Ann keeps her cards held closely to her chest. Cathy's curiosity about why Ann never showed any sexual interest in her (or any of the other women in the prison) is much less important to Ann than getting Cathy to say or do something which will betray her recent shift in behavior and reveal the whereabouts of her accomplice, Althea. Like many prison administrators, it's quite possible that Ann has the kind of sadistic streak which would make her want to win one more power game before retiring from her job.
Velina Brown and Tamar Cohn in The Anarchist
(Photo by: David Wilson) 

In an article published in The New York Times prior to the 2012 Broadway premiere of The Anarchist, Mamet wrote:
"In The Anarchist a woman has been convicted of murder, for participation in a bank robbery by a self-proclaimed political organization. She has served 35 years, a big portion of her life sentence, and pleads to be released; if the crime were mere robbery-murder and not deemed political, she would, by custom, have been paroled, with good behavior. Her argument has merit.

The woman with whom she pleads has been her jailer, or parole officer, or warden for these 35 years, and the woman asks for verification, assurance or otherwise for help arriving at the conclusion that the prisoner no longer poses a threat and so may be released.

The criminal cites her spotless prison record and argues that, as per custom, she should have been released a decade past, and that her continued incarceration can only be considered a political act. She maintains that at the time of her arrest she cited her anarchist politics as defense, arguing that they freed her from the jurisdiction (if not from the penalty) of a court whose authority she did not acknowledge.

Is it not inconsistent, the convict argues, that the jailer employ the political motive -- a motive denied by the court -- to continue the punishment? "At my trial the court denounced me as a ‘mere murderer’ and found my political declarations without weight," she says. "Abide by the court’s decision and release me now."”
Although written as one 85-minute act, The Anarchist makes one wonder if Mamet's drama would be equally effective if every third word were to be deleted from the script. It meanders on, in a kind of cat-and-mouse game that quickly loses steam and starts to bore and/or alienate its audience. Perhaps that's because the concept of a philosophical debate between a prisoner and her warden seems so preposterous that Mamet's play simply lacks dramatic credibility.

This Theatre Rhinoceros production benefits immensely from the intensity of Tamar Cohn's portrayal of Cathy who, as a convert to Christianity, can't stop talking about Jesus or the power of her newly-found faith. When faced with a career bureaucrat like Ann (who is essentially interested in tying up any loose ends before leaving her job), Cathy is the living answer to the question "If you're so smart, how come you're so stupid?"

One of the biggest liabilities in this production is the casting of the radiant Velina Brown as Ann (the warden who is supposed to have been overseeing Cathy since she was imprisoned 35 years ago). Brown's youthful looks make her seem about half Cohn's age which, in turn, makes one wonder if her character is taking an extremely early retirement package or a lateral transfer. Her laughable ability to keep reaching into file cabinets to extract the precise document (containing the exact quote) she seeks is the sign of an amateur's attempt at crafting a police procedural rather than the work of an accomplished playwright.

Designer John Waik-keung Lowe has provided a serviceable unit set for this tedious jailhouse confrontation (which might have been enlivened if Divine were still alive). Unfortunately, the office furniture seen onstage in The Anarchist is about as exciting as Mamet's script.