Saturday, February 28, 2015

Battling The First Act Blues

Last fall, as Mike Daisey was performing his new tetralogy entitled The Great Tragedies for audiences at the California Shakespeare Theater, he recounted some of his experiences as a student on scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. One of his acting teachers was a fierce martinet with a habit of interrupting her students by yelling "YOU'RE BORING ME!"

Needless to say, many students lived in fear of having to perform a monologue in front of this woman. Daisey's story, however, raises some important points about contemporary dramatists:
  • How much leeway should a playwright expect to be given when his work can barely hold an audience's attention?
  • Can a playwright's clumsy attempts to carefully lay out the necessary exposition for his narrative become counterproductive?
  • At what point does boring the audience become inexcusable?
Many a theatregoer has suffered through the "First Act Blues," in which it seems like the first 30, 60 or even 90 minutes of a play has been a total waste of the audience's time.  Whether due to pitifully pretentious and artistically lazy writing or a playwright's inability to edit his script, the "First Act Blues" have often left me wondering if certain productions might have been improved if the people sitting in the first row had simultaneously been seized with spasms of projectile vomiting.

Such a phenomenon would undoubtedly snap the audience out of its torpor. In some instances, it might even add some wit to the proceedings. On most nights, however, the situation is resolved in one of two ways:
  • If the gods of comedy and tragedy are in a benevolent mood, the playwright will be able to shift course, take the narrative in a new direction, and surprise the audience with a stronger second act which leads up to a sufficiently dramatic climax to send people home satisfied.
  • If, however, the gods of comedy and tragedy feel they are being given short shrift by a playwright possessing much less talent than most people imagine, some people may leave the theatre dazed and confused. Others might prefer to describe the play as a whopping piece of shit and qualify their opinion as merely being a clinical observation. As Dame Edna Everage would say, "...and I mean that in a kind and compassionate way."
Two of the Bay area's leading theatre companies recently presented the West Coast premieres of contemporary dramas. One managed to move past the tedium of a first act mired in exposition. The other delivered as much satisfaction as a rancid fart. Trust me when I say that I mean that in a kind and compassionate way.

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Danai Gurira's provocative play, The Convert, begins with two bare-chested African savages running through the auditorium as they desperately seek a safe haven. Tamba (JaBen Early) hopes that his aunt, Mai Tamba (Elizabeth Carter), can convince her employer, Chilford (Jabari Brisport), to take his cousin, Jekesai (Katherine Renee Turner), under his protection as a servant.

The urgency of their situation quickly sparks the audience's interest. But what follows (especially for those who have long grown weary of listening to speeches about the importance of accepting Jesus into one's life) quickly slows the pace of The Convert's first act.

Jabari Brisport, Elizabeth Carter, Katherine Renee Turner, and
JaBen Early in Act I of The Convert (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

To be sure, there's a lot of history (unfamiliar to most Americans) which must be covered in order to lay the foundation for what happens in Acts II and III. The play begins at a time when tensions arising from the 19th century invasion of Africa by white Europeans (in search of natural resources) and Christian missionaries (in hot pursuit of dark-skinned savages with souls to save) is nearing a critical temperature.

Among the hot buttons included in Gurira's play are the conflict between tribal traditions -- including spiritual practices (witch doctors, animal sacrifices) and social practices (polygamy, ancestral worship) -- versus the monogamy and Christianity preached by zealous missionaries. Add in the simmering resentment of some African natives toward their Shona and Ndebele brothers who attempt to "act white" in order to curry favor with the Europeans and the brutal behavior of whites who think nothing of murdering any "savages" who get in their way.

L. Peter Callender, JaBen Early, and Elizabeth Carter in a
scene from Act I of The Convert (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Perhaps most intriguing is the social engineering attempted by the Church, which offered all pagans who converted to Christianity (including women) opportunities to improve their lives through the power of free education. Unfortunately, there were moments during the evening's sluggish first act when I yearned for Ann Miller to burst through the door to Chilford's humble abode, jump up on his desk and start tap dancing. But, as director Jasson Minadakis explains:
"Danai's stated goal as a dramatist is to bring the varied stories of African women to the world stage.  And, as you will see with this performance of The Convert, she is telling remarkable stories. What struck me as I first read The Convert was how Danai's meticulous attention to historical detail made the play both an amazing window into a past few of us know about and a reflection on current crises around the world where women are struggling for spiritual independence and personal freedom."
Omoze Idehenre (Prudence) and Kathleen Renee Turner (Ester)
in a scene from The Convert (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The Marin Theatre Company is presenting The Convert at a time when the conflicts plaguing Mashonaland and Matabeleland at the tail end of the 19th century (sexism, racism, religious freedom) are oddly mirrored in contemporary American society. Gurira's drama -- in which Jekesai (after having received the "Christian" name of Ester) studies the Bible intensely and evolves into a fervent evangelist with a solid track record of bringing her Shona brothers and sisters to Christianity -- has strong parallels to George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play, Pygmalion. Gurira vividly contrasts the newly-enlightened Ester with the far more worldly and better educated Prudence (Omoze Idehenre), who even dares to smoke a pipe.

Kathleen Renee Turner and Jabari Brisport in a
scene from The Convert (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Idehenre's powerful portrayal of a liberated African woman is matched by L. Peter Callender's aggressive Uncle and Jefferson A. Russell's lecherous Chancellor (Prudence's philandering husband who puts the make on the prim and proper Ester).

Gurira's script is a vehicle for impassioned performances, which the radiant Katherine Renee Turner and Elizabeth Carter deliver quite beautifully. I tip my hat to the company's dialect coach,  Lynne Soffer, who did a solid job of helping the cast with Gurira's inverted sentence structures and the need to transpose L's and R's.  Years ago, a friend who is a speech pathologist explained to me that if children are not taught how to pronounce certain sounds at an early age, they are often unable to do so later in life.

Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes added a colorful sense of period to the proceedings. If I have any criticism of Nina Ball's stark unit set, it is simply that a slight angling of Chilford's home may have intensified the dramatic impact in some of the major playing areas. As it stands, the sheer boxiness of MTC's set makes the action seem as if it is unfolding within a diorama.

The Convert takes audiences on a long and methodical emotional journey with some fascinating plot twists. Performances continue at the Marin Theatre Company through March 15 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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Have you ever heard the sound of one hand clapping? Have you ever wondered if such a half-hearted response was more than appropriate? If so, perhaps you were in the audience for the West Coast premiere of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play. The American Conservatory Theater's excruciatingly tedious production of this execrable work might have gotten solid acclaim if written and produced by a group of precocious high school students at a summer drama camp. I was certainly less than impressed.

Anna Ishida, Nick Gabriel, and Jim Lichtscheidl in the first act 
of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Have you ever listened to a friend (whose memory keeps failing him) struggle to tell a story that he really wants you to hear? It's a situation which can be awkward, embarrassing, and painful to endure. Imagine a group of people seated around a campfire trying to recreate the plot of the celebrated Cape Feare episode from the fifth season of The Simpsons and you'll quickly understand why some things (like the entire first act of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play) are better left undone.

Spread over a period of 80 years, Anne Washburn's largely incoherent play tries to depict what happens as successive generations of Simpsons fans retell (and in the process reinvent) the plot of the Cape Feare episode until it has morphed into something gruesomely different from the original. Along the way, Washburn cannibalizes material from Peter Pan, Gilbert & Sullivan's comic operas, and other pieces of popular culture. However, in the wise words of Meryl Streep's frustrated Witch in the film version of Into the Woods: "Who cares?"

Ryan Williams French as Sam portraying Bart Simspon in
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Washburn's play is a form of artistic vulturism which roundly demonstrates why, if one is going to mock, adapt, or otherwise appropriate the work of previous cultural titans for one's own use, it helps to do something impressive with the source material. Merely putting pathetic drek onstage is not enough (and only proves one's talent to be far less than that of one's sources).

The cast of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The second scene of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play takes place five years after the United States has suffered a massive electrical failure which subsequently triggered meltdowns at America's nuclear power plants. As a result, survivors have been forced to permanently live off the grid. By this point, competing groups of amateur actors are performing their interpretations of the Cape Feare episode.

Eighty years after the initial meltdown -- as seen through the outline of a giant fake television set -- the latest version of the Cape Feare episode has (despite Alex Jaeger's fanciful costume designs) devolved into the kind of appalling crap which I doubt Matt Groening has ever been capable of producing.

Andrea Wollenberg as the narrator in Act II of
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play  (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

During intermission, as I wondered what in the world motivated Carey Perloff to include Washburn's play in A.C.T.'s season, I thought about people who loved The Simpsons, hated The Simpsons (and a few who confessed to me that they had never watched a single episode of The Simpsons) as I listened to a member of A.C.T.'s Development Department sitting behind me discuss how the show created some institutional nervousness about how donors and subscribers might react to such a challenging piece about popular culture.

His concern might have been merited if Washburn's play had proven to be the slightest bit provocative. Alas, I found it to be a crashing bore whose 90-minute first act (which combines the original Act I and II) could have been eliminated without causing much damage. Perhaps the greatest and saddest irony about Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play is that, although it was written to celebrate the power of storytelling, it turned out to be stultifyingly stagnant and dreadfully dull.

Forget any purported symbolism about the effects of nuclear radiation on humanity or the mutational power of storytelling to transform a tale into something radically different from its original source. Forget Mark Rucker's determined effort to breathe life into Washburn's incompetent script. This play is an unmitigated piece of theatrical crap. Nothing more, nothing less.

During the curtain call, I found myself applauding the ensemble (Nick GabrielAnna IshidaKelsey VenterRyan Williams FrenchCharity JonesJim LichtscheidlTracey A. Leigh, and Andrea Wollenberg) out of sheer pity rather than any sense of joy or excitement.

I did, however, enjoy Ralph Funicello's set designs.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tempting the Taster While Teasing The Palate

Documentaries about food can often be found in the programs of minority film festivals (CAAMFest 2015's program is certainly no exception). However, if one chooses their viewing opportunities carefully, this year's festival offers a superb chance to see how creativity exerts its influence from the earliest stages of manufacturing specialty foods to the home kitchens of aspiring restaurateurs and, finally, to the menus of star chefs working in major hotels and four-star restaurants.

Three documentaries focused on Asian-American cuisine (Bruce Seidel's new PBS series entitled Lucky Chow, Grace Lee's delightfully nomadic Off The Menu: Asian America, and Edmond Wong's high-end Supper Club) approach the subject from different angles which find a tasty synergy when food is delivered to the table. Those tables, however, vary dramatically in size, shape, and location. The smallest may be an office worker's cubicle (where an employee is snacking on some store-bought sushi). If not the biggest table, one of the biggest food operations can certainly be found at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California.

In a segment of Lucky Chow, Danielle Chang visits with the leadership of the Googleplex's vast food program, which includes everything from campus food trucks to salad bars; from employee cafeterias to sit-down restaurants. At Google, the fact that employees eat for free offers some interesting opportunities wherein the dining table often becomes the springboard for discussions that may lead to innovative projects.
  • Because Google's kitchens try to source their foods from local farms, much of what appears on a diner's plate is fresh, nutritious, and tastier than the offerings found in high school cafeterias or restaurants featuring cheap, all-you-can-eat buffets.
  • Because Google has so many Asian and Asian-American employees, some of its restaurants can serve food which will have special appeal to programmers from India who are working at Google on special visas (as well as to employees who crave the kind of foods their grandmothers made at home).
  • With the cross-pollination of workers having dinner at any one time, it's likely that Google employees may be exposed to ethnic cuisines they would otherwise not encounter in the course of their daily lives.
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Two key elements in Asian cuisine are tofu and noodles. As part of her journey around the United States, Grace Lee visits Banyan Foods, located in Houston, Texas. Owned by the Chiu family (who left Taipei to move to the United States), Banyan Foods has developed a curious specialty: vegan tamales made with tofu (instead of beef, chicken, or pork that has been fried in lard). In 2001, the company began selling egg rolls stuffed with tofu; in 2005 they introduced their tofu tamales. In fact, the packaging for their product boasts that "Santa Anna, Chiang Kai-Shek and Stephen F. Austin “are rolling over in their graves right about now.”

Poster art for Banyan Foods

The Lucky Chow team visits an artisanal tofu factory in Oakland named Hodo Soy, whose founder is  Minh Tsai. In the following video clip, the Vietnamese-American entrepreneur explains what inspired him to create Hodo Soy.

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While many college students are familiar with cheap ramen noodles (monologist Mike Daisey claims to have had nightmares about the time he was in a theatrical production where the only food the cast could afford was ramen noodles), high-quality ramen is treated with great respect in many Asian restaurants.

Danielle Chang also visits New York's Yuji Haraguchi (whose Yuji Ramen restaurant was at one point located above the Whole Foods store in Manhattan's Bowery district before its owner opened a new restaurant in Brooklyn). While at the Bowery location, part of Haraguchi's good luck was to be able to get bones every day from the butchers at the Whole Foods Market below, which he could stew in a broth made from mussels, tuna, and other seafood in a "surf-and-turf" approach to creating a rich ramen broth. His other specialty was a breakfast ramen made with torched bacon, poached egg, and kale.

In another segment, Ivan Orkin (the owner of Ivan Ramen) prepares a specialty ramen with cheese (an ingredient not often found in Asian cuisine).

During Lucky Chow's visit to The Ramen Shop in Oakland, Danielle Chang accompanies the chef to a farmer's market that provides unusual ingredients for some of his dishes. Among these are:
A spicy miso ramen dish from The Ramen Shop in Oakland

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For many people, food has a mysterious power to evoke excitement, ecstasy, and passion. Whether as an aphrodisiac, an invitation to gluttony, or a creative outlet for talented chefs, food offers an adventurous cook as wide a canvas to play with as almost any art form. Is it any wonder that Lionel Bart titled one of the songs from his 1960 hit musical, Oliver! "Food, Glorious Food"?

In the course of his prodigious career as a cook, author, and television personality, Anthony Bourdain has earned a reputation as a culinary explorer who seeks out new challenges, risky foods, innovative treatments, and decadent dining experiences. In the following clip from 2008, he visits Bo Innovation, the creation of Hong Kong's "Demon Chef," Alvin Leung (who practices his personal form of "X-Treme Chinese Cuisine" with the deference and discipline an art form truly deserves).

Edmond Wong's new series, Supper Club, follows Leung (now a media celebrity in his own right) as he visits a string of restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area. Among the chefs he meets are Michael Mina, Ken Tominaga, Corey Lee, and Adam Mali. As they discuss their approaches to finding key ingredients, honoring culinary traditions, mixing flavors from various cultures, and finding new ways to express their artistic visions, all of the participants in this series show a deep passion for their work.

As a documentary, Supper Club is tailor made to tease the palates of inquisitive foodies, yet it also delivers a highly entertaining form of culinary education that offers viewers further insight into the personalities, preferences, and passions of some of the Bay area's leading chefs.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Let It Grow

One of the reasons I always look forward to San Francisco's CAAMFest is that, with its focus on Asian Americans, there are usually several documentaries about food. Whether these films examine ethnic-regional cuisines, interesting new restaurants, agricultural traditions, or notable Asian American entrepreneurs, they offer viewers a healthy dose of edutainment. With the farm-to-table movement gaining momentum, such documentaries help teach new generations about how food reaches our tables and is prepared for consumption.

Two entries in 2015's CAAMFest are focused on Japanese-American farmers with unique stories. Normally, one might struggle to find an interesting way to tie these two tales together. However, the simple fact that one film involves a family using traditional methods of horizontal farming while the other focuses on two entrepreneurs whose business relies on a carefully calibrated approach to vertical farming makes for an interesting contrast in stories about modern agriculture.

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Unlike at previous festivals, the closing night for the 2015 CAAMFest won't take place at San Francisco's Sundance Kabuki Theatre or the Castro Theatre. Instead, it will be split over two nights at the New Parkway Theatre in Oakland. Why? So that a six-part PBS series entitled Lucky Chow (starring LuckyRice's culinary festival founder, Danielle Chang) can take viewers on an armchair adventure through the landscape of Asian food in America.

Lucky Chow's host, Danielle Chang

One of the Lucky Chow segments focuses on Ecopia Farms, a Bay area startup in Campbell, California which is applying the latest vertical farming technology toward growing fresh microgreens for local restaurants and consumers who prefer their food to be strictly non-GMO. Because so much of the traditional supermarket approach to fresh vegetables requires the use of pesticides, large amounts of water, and increased costs for transporting crops to their destination, the aim of companies like Ecopia Farms is to keep the supply route for their product as short and sweet as possible. According to their website:
"Ecopia Farms produces exquisite, fresh vegetables year-round in our proprietary, organically certified farms.  Our practices and processes set new standards of sustainability, food safety, and conservation of critical resources.  Our focus is on consistently delivering superior products and service to our clients every day. We locate our farms in urban areas to provide fresh-picked quality. We grow in living soil using only organic materials with absolutely no chemicals or sprays. We grow and distribute using far less water, land, and fossil fuel than conventional farms. We harvest produce at its peak every day of the year and then pick, pack, and deliver the same day (rather than storing for days and transporting hundreds or thousands of miles). We deliver directly to local chefs and other customers to insure the best possible quality." 
Poster art for Ecopia Farms

Although Ecopia's co-founders come from families with a long history of working in agriculture, both men went into technology. The company's CEO, Dr. Koichi (Ko) Nishimura, earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering at San Jose State University and received his doctorate in materials science and engineering from Stanford University. After 23 years working for IBM, Ko took a position as Chief Operating Officer with an electronics manufacturing services company named Solectron. By the time he retired in 2003, Ko had become the company's Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer.

After receiving his bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, Ecopia's co-founder and Chairman of the Board, Sam Araki, started as a systems engineer for Lockheed Missiles & Space in 1958 and retired in 1997 as President of Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space. In the following clip, the two men describe how their family histories (combined with their technology-based careers) laid the groundwork for a transition to a new career in state-of-the-art vertical farming.

Many business owners insist that the key to success is "location, location, location." But in the case of Ecopia Farms, timing and technology are two of the key factors that will help the company expand to other locations in the future. With traditional farmers battling California's severe drought, their ability to use 3% of the water and 4% of the usual amount of land required for farming means that their approach is highly scalable and saleable. The following video clip (from the popular California Bountiful newsmagazine) gives further insight into what makes Ecopia Farms tick.

As can be expected from the creators of Lucky Chow, Danielle Chang's visit with Ecopia's co-founders includes a few more Asian American perspectives than the above video.

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A more personality-driven story provides the foundation for Jim Choi's hour-long documentary entitled Changing Season: On the Masumoto Family Farm, which receives its world premiere at the Oakland Museum of California on March 20. Located south of Fresno in Del Rey, California, the farm produces annual crops of certified organic peaches, nectarines, and grapes (which are used for raisins).

Choi's film also provides superb insights into how diversity affects a family, a community, and a working farm.
  • The Masumoto family first immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s when the grandparents of its current owner, David Mas Masumoto, left their homes in Hiroshima and Kumamoto to seek work in California's Central Valley.
  • During World War II, the Masumoto and Sugimoto families were among many Japanese-Americans forced to leave their homes and live in the Gila River Relocation Center located in the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona.
  • In 1948, Joe Takashi Masumoto and Carole Yukino Sugimotor were wed. When Joe bought his first 40 acres of farmland, his grandmother thought he was crazy.
David Mas Masuomoto selling peaches
  • Born in 1954, their youngest son (David Mas Masumoto) left the farm to study at UC Berkeley. During a trip to Japan, he stayed in the village where his grandparents lived and worked on their rice farm before returning to Berkeley to graduate with a degree in sociology.
  • While attending graduate school at UC Davis, Mas met his future wife, Marcy Thieleke. Married in 1983, they became the proud parents of a daughter (Nikiko) and son (Korio).
  • In 1987, the Masumoto Family Farm was certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers and, by 1993, had taken on Chez Panisse as a regular client.
  • In 2008, the Masumoto Family Farm celebrated its 40th anniversary.
Marcy, Nikiko, and Mas Masumoto in their kitchen

Choi's film does a nice job of showcasing the close relationship between Mas and his daughter, Nikiko (who is openly gay). After her decision to return home to the farm after finishing college, the Masumoto family begins a steady transition of management responsibilities from one generation to the next.

Mas and Nikiko Masumoto relaxing at home

While life on the farm can be demanding, the Masumoto family also has a strong artistic bent.

Choi's documentary captures many poignant moments ranging from a surprise 60th birthday party for Mas to the farm's end-of-season celebration when visitors can pick their own peaches. Choi also captures Nikiko's mixed emotions as she and her partner move into the home once owned by her grandparents and as her brother, Korio, prepares to head off to college.

Changing Season: On The Masumoto Family Farm is a charming documentary made all the more interesting by the warmth and functionality of the Masumoto family. As they converse with their laborers in fluent Spanish, the film gives an intimate look into the realities of life on a working family farm in California's Central Valley.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Something For The Boys

Hindsight may not always be 20/20 but, in certain situations, it can be revelatory. Think back 25 years to 1990, when two major Hollywood studios (Walt Disney Pictures and 20th Century Fox) had big-budget movie musicals in development. Despite being obvious labors of love inspired by a specific historical moment, both flopped at the box office yet went on to achieve cult status.

Budgeted at $40 million (and clocking in at 138 minutes), 1991's powerful anti-war film, For The Boys, became a beloved item in Bette Midler's filmography. In 2011, Aaron Thielen's musical stage adaptation of For The Boys premiered at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Illinois. To my knowledge, there have been no subsequent productions.

By contrast, 1992's pro-union Newsies -- in which Trey Parker (the co-creator of South Park and The Book of Mormon) was cast as Kid Blink -- won the hearts of new generations. Thanks to repeated screenings of this $15 million movie musical on the Disney Channel, a powerful fan base was built through Disney's internal marketing as well as social media. The show became so popular that (primarily for branding and licensing purposes) Disney Theatrical Productions gave the green light to a stage adaptation of Newsies The Musical with music by Alan Mencken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and a revised book by Harvey Fierstein.

After opening to strong reviews at the Paper Mill Playhouse on September 25, 2011, Newsies The Musical opened on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre on March 29, 2012. The original plan was to keep the show running for 105 performances. But by the time the run ended, Newsies The Musical had racked up 1,005 performances and won Tony Awards for Best Choreography and Best Original Score. It also managed to recoup its $5 million investment in a record seven months!

The 43-week, 25-city national tour of Newsies The Musical recently arrived in San Francisco where it was rapturously greeted by an opening night audience whose vociferous appreciation was well earned. At times, I found it difficult to divide my admiration between the show's physical production and the riveting cast whose muscular performance of Christopher Gattelli's exuberant choreography is irresistible.

When adapting a movie musical for the stage, it's easy to run up against curious challenges to the cinematic sweep and speed of the film. However, I can offer nothing but praise for the way Sven Ortel's digitally mapped projections and Jeff Croiter's lighting design have been integrated into Tobin Ost's skeletal sets so that the entire stage is in a constant state of activity. I haven't seen scenery dance around a stage so thrillingly (each of the three-story towers in Newsies The Musical weighs approximately 4,500 pounds).since the original production of Dreamgirls in 1981.

In the following video clip, set designer Tobin Ost explains how the creative team for Newsies The Musical came up with the look for the show's physical production.

As directed by Jeff Calhoun, Newsies The Musical is a triumph of fluid storytelling as well as a showcase for the cast's youthful energy. Dancers run up and down stairs with the kind of energy one expects to find in a middle school. With multiple playing levels, the action quickly morphs from ground level to two flights up.

It's shocking to think that a musical about a labor strike in which young workers battled New York's media titans -- AND WON -- could have so much relevance in the year 2015, when workers in service industries are finding their tips disappearing into management's "service charges." With a cast of  27 men and five women, Newsies The Musical athletically -- and aggressively -- delivers a valuable lesson in why unskilled labor needs unions to fight for higher wages and increased benefits.

The cast of the national tour of Newsies The Musical
performs "Seize The Day" (Photo by: Deen Van Meer)

While most of the cast performs multiple roles, Steve Blanchard  has some strong moments as Joseph Pulitzer, along with Kevin Carolan as Governor Teddy Roosevelt and Angela Grovey as the soft-hearted theatre owner and bawdy entertainer, Medda Larkin. The two romantic leads were solidly embodied by Dan DeLuca  as Jack Kelly and Stephanie Styles as Katherine Plumber.

Stephanie Sykes (Katherine Plumber) and  Dan DeLuca
(Jack Kelly) in the national tour of Newsies The Musical 
(Photo by: Deen Van Meer)

While the male ensemble is thrilling to watch, much of the action happens to quickly that it's hard to identify particular dancers (I was especially impressed by the man a dark maroon shirt who had a smudge ortattoo on his right forearm). Strong performances in character roles come from Zachary Sayle  as Crutchie, Jacob Kemp as Davey, and (on opening night) Anthony Rosenthal as Davey's precocious kid brother, Les.

I have only one major criticism about the touring production of Newsies The Musical, which relates to a frequent problem with shows that are booked into the Orpheum. The sound design by Ken Travis is so overpowering (the amplification has been jacked up close to the pain threshold) that it often makes it difficult to hear Jack Feldman's lyrics or appreciate Alan Menken's score. Ratcheting down the volume by 15-20% would go a long way toward alleviating the sensation that the audience is being assaulted with a merciless bombardment of noise.

Performances of Newsie The Musical continue through March 15 at the Orpheum Theatre (click here to order tickets). Here's some footage from the national touring production:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

When Man-Boys Are Forced To Grow Up

Many men exhibit symptoms of the Peter Pan syndrome, hoping that somehow they won't ever have to grow up. If they can cling to the vision of Neverland that's in their minds, maybe they won't have to leave the video arcade, go to college, or get a job.

Some cultures treat the passage from boyhood to manhood with a specific ritual. Whether it be a bar mitzvah ("Today I am a man") or the kind of genital mutilation (adult circumcision) that proves one's bravery, after certain rituals there is no turning back.

The responsibilities which accompany adulthood, however, can be juggled with astonishing levels of skill and/or denial. In some cases, a young man's procrastination can be enabled by doting mothers who go out of their way to spoil their sons. In others, the firstborn male can do no wrong and, as a result, is often granted an extraordinary amount of behavioral leeway.

Two new films being screened at CAAMFest 2015 approach the subject from wildly different perspectives. One is a rowdy farce, written and directed by impressive young talents. The other offers a tender look at a young man who finds himself thrust into becoming the person responsible for keeping the family business afloat. Certain similarities, however, are unavoidable:
  • Both films feature protagonists who have resisted going to college.
  • In both films, a whiff of romance serves as a catalyst for changing one's goals in life.
  • Both films are remarkably well crafted from a cinematic standpoint.
* * * * * * * * *
Written by Justin Chon and Kevin WuMan-Up! quickly makes audiences wonder if they are watching a Hawaiian spinoff of Dumb and Dumber for a younger generation ("The Odder Couple"). The creative team plays a pair of 19-year-old Asian-American slackers whose lifestyle consists of going to the beach, playing video games, and shouldering as little responsibility as possible. Since most of their social skills have been learned from television (rather than their parents), their ridiculous sense of confidence (coupled with an innate ability to fuck up any situation) knows no limits.

Randall (Justin Chon) and Martin (Kevin Wu) in Man-Up

Martin (Kevin Wu) has been looking forward to a summer of kicking back and being cool. However, his idyllic existence is shattered when his very white Mormon girlfriend, Madison (Galadriel Stineman), tells him that she is pregnant. Thrown out of his home by a dragon mother who wishes she could "wash the dumb off of him," Martin moves in with his best friend, Randall (Justin Chon), whose mother (Una Wilding) has flown off to Europe with her boyfriend, leaving Randall home alone to take care of their house.

Martin (Kevin Wu) and Randall (Justin Chon) in Man-Up

Whether the two man-boys attempt to play with children at a local playground, try their luck at babysitting, or attend Lamaze classes, Man-Up! has the kind of frenetic energy and goofy hilarity that is bound to have audiences laughing out loud. It's the perfect buddy film for idiot dudes and bros.

In addition to Kevin Wu and Justin Chon, there are solid performances by Parvesh Cheena as a gay labor coach, Nichole Bloom as his attractive assistant, Kayla, and Samantha Futerman as Kevin's precocious kid sister, Regan (who has already been accepted to medical school). Dion Basco has solid moments as Randall's baby-toting neighbor, Tarike, while an uncredited actor scores some great comic hits as Martin's severely henpecked father.

The writing for Man-Up! is fast and furious, with the two leads delivering hilarious portraits of two Asian-American doofuses.  Not only does this film have "sequel" written all over it, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Man-Up! got developed into a sitcom. Here's the trailer:

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I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Love Arcadia, an earnest attempt to combine a young man's coming-of-age  story with an awkward romantic interest. Despite Theresa Chiu's well-plotted story and carefully-defined characters, her script suffers from the kind of clumsy dialogue that sounds like a long list of clich├ęs strung together with bone dry results.

Anthony Ma is Jake in Love Arcadia

The extremely appealing Anthony Ma stars as Jake, a recent high school graduate living in the small town of Arcadia, California whose best friends -- Samantha (Lana McKissack) and Louie (Arvin Lee) -- will soon head cross country to attend college in New York. Jake's family's business is a bubble tea shop at a suburban shopping mall that is being bid upon by a Taiwanese-American real estate developer whose daughter, Joanna (Michelle Farrah Huang), is a lonely ice maiden with no friends.

Anthony Ma  and Michelle Farrah Huang in Love Arcadia

Jake is the kind of easygoing teenager who loves suburbia, loves his family's business, loves the mall where it's located and (although he applied to college and was accepted) has no desire to venture outside of his Arcadian comfort zone.  By contrast, the worldly Joanna has the heart and soul of a handheld calculator and is desperately trying to be "Daddy's little girl."

Complications quickly arise when Jake discovers some old photos left behind by the owner of the Joy Lee Bakery that suddenly closed ten years ago. It turns out that Joy Lee (Joanna's mother) succumbed to cancer. Her grieving husband (Clint Jung) closed up shop and moved back to Taiwan where he became increasingly robotic and emotionally withdrawn from his young daughter. Now 18, Joanna is trying to show her father that she can handle a complicated real estate deal.

Michelle Farrah Huang and Anthony Ma in Love Arcadia

Joanna gets thrown off her game when an attractive boy shows up who simply won't leave her alone. Just when things are getting cozy between them, Jake is called to the hospital because of a family emergency. With his family's business threatened by an impending eviction, his uncle, Chef Wu (who stopped taking his medication because it made him lose his sense of taste) recuperating from a heart attack, and a hint of romance in the air, Jake has to grow up fast and try to outmaneuver the curiously predatory moves being made by Joanna's father.

Anthony Ma (Jake) and Arvin Lee (Louie) in Love Arcadia

Chiu's story line combines real estate intrigue with family stress, a clumsy romance with some fierce negotiating tricks. The subplots and their resolutions are quite impressive. Near the end of the film everyone gets cake! The only problem for me was the wooden dialogue.

While the two leads are appealing, strong support comes from Richard Ouyang as Chef Wu, Hong Lei as Stephanie, Dominic Zhai as Herman, and Lee Chen as Jake's mother. Lawrence Gan's direction is smooth and assured; Daniel Cotroneo deserves credit for his cinematography. Here's the film's Kickstarter video:

Sunday, February 8, 2015

She's All That

Some relationships get off to a bad start. Instead of meeting cute, two people may instantly detest each other. Instead of appealing to their better selves, they may become greedy, vindictive, and hurtful. And that's just for  starters.

In a formulaic romantic comedy, the path ahead is clear. Slowly but surely, two people are forced to acknowledge each other's strengths, rely on one another for help, and begrudgingly develop a liking for each other. But not every rom-com is formulaic. Nor does the final coupling end up being what the audience expects.

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If I were stuck on a long flight and had to watch a movie chosen by airline management, I can't think of a more soothing and nicer way to pass the time than watching Sean Lackey's comedy, The Yank (which is being screened at the 2015 San Francisco Indie Film Festival). By no means is The Yank a major studio film cast with Hollywood stars that is destined to sweep an awards ceremony.

And that's just fine with  me.

Instead, Lackey's movie is a smartly written, low-budget romantic comedy whose basic goofiness, honesty, and intelligence can't help but win over viewers who just want to have a good time. And let's be honest -- any movie that includes Fred Willard as the bumbling hero's father (a well-meaning Irish-American ignoramus) can't be all bad.

Written, directed by, and starring Sean Lackey, The Yank follows the misadventures of  Tom Murphy, a middle-aged sad sack from Cleveland whose girlfriend, Colleen (Nicole Forester), dumps him on their one-year anniversary and leaves him sitting, confused and crestfallen, on a famous drum set located at the entrance to the The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Tom is quickly spotted by one of the museum's security guards, Vanessa (Niki Spiridakos), who has him removed from the premises. As soon as her boss learns about the incident, he fires Vanessa on the spot.

That night, Tom and Vanessa are reunited under the strangest circumstances. Tom's best friend and drinking buddy, Marty (Allen Kellogg), has announced that he will be getting married to his girlfriend, Bernadette, in Bernie's home town in Ireland. Not only has Tom been chosen as Marty's best man, it turns out that Bernadette's Maid of Honor is none other than Vanessa.

That's pretty much all you need to know to figure out how the movie will end. But give credit to Lackey for developing some novel plot twists, refreshing comedic moments, and casting a solid ensemble of supporting actors that includes Colm Meaney as Tom's Irish cousin, Fintan McGuire; Kevin P. Farley as his drinking buddy, Fred Finnegan; Lynette Callaghan as the seductive Molly Sweeney, and Martin Maloney as her combative brother, Declan.

Shot on location in Cleveland, Dublin, and County Clare, Ireland, The Yank benefits immensely from Keith Nickoson's cinematography. Lest one make the mistake of dismissing Lackey's film due its small budget ($1.2 million), let me state that I found The Yank far more appealing -- and interesting -- than 2010's Leap Year (the rom-com that starred Amy Adams and Matthew Goode). Here's the trailer:

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Although Chad Beguelin's play, Harbor, has two male and two female characters in it, you won't find much romance in its plot. In fact, one would do better to remember that the word "harbor" can be a noun ("a place on the coast where vessels may find shelter, especially one protected from rough water by piers, jetties, and other artificial structures") as well as a verb ("give a home or shelter to").

As Harbor begins, the audience meets two women in a van. Behind the wheel is Donna (Terri Whipple), a mid-30s, questionably talented singer and determined grifter who is about to ruin the domestic tranquility of her younger brother's life in Sag Harbor, New York. The rough seas which give momentum to Beguelin's story are generated by this monstrously irresponsible and narcissistic creature whose selfishness and insensitivity to the realities of anyone else's life bring a rare level of feminine toxicity front and center. In another era, Donna would be described as a woman with no redeeming social values.

Accompanying her is 15-year-old Lottie (Jenna Herz), the self-taught, self-conscious, self-effacing, and responsibility-driven child who has spent much of her adolescence as her mother's keeper. While Donna's level of intellectual curiosity has not progressed much past tabloid television and celebrity gossip, Lottie is deeply engrossed in reading Edith Wharton's 1905 novel, The House of Mirth.

Jenna Herz and Terri Whipple in Harbor (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

In the few minutes of tranquility remaining in their lives, Donna's gay brother, Kevin (Scott Cox) is struggling to write some copy for a tourism brochure while his husband, Ted (Andrew Nance), is attempting to lend emotional support. Kevin is an aspiring writer who has been working for the past 10 years on a novel that has gotten absolutely nowhere; Ted is an architect whose firm may have lost some business recently but can still afford to pay for frequent travel, impulse shopping, and a steady supply of booze.

Having recently discovered that she is once again pregnant, Donna's ulterior motive is to convince Kevin (who always wanted to be the Mommy when they played house in a highly dysfunctional white trash family) to adopt her infant following its birth and raise it in a secure, A-gay environment. The fact that she is steadily drinking and smoking dope while pregnant doesn't seem to matter to her. Nor has Donna given any thought to the fact that Ted and Kevin basically hate kids. All she really cares about is her chance to audition for a gig as a lounge singer on a cruise ship.

Andrew Nance and Scott Cox in Harbor (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Directed by Ed Decker, the New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of Harbor in a production designed by Devin Kasper. While Beguelin's script is filled with acidic laughs, there is no escaping the loathsomeness of Donna's amoral behavior or the casual (and jealous) homophobia with which she keeps alluding to Ted and Kevin's lifestyle.

A woman who thinks nothing of referring to her daughter as "Bee-yotch" or confessing that she always thought a misogynist was a person who gave great back rubs, Donna's parenting skills and crushing ignorance are dangerous enough to make people like Jenny McCarthy and Sarah Palin seem like role models for budding intellectuals.

On one side of the equation is a scheming succubus whose teenage daughter has, for years, been held hostage to her mother's delusions of grandeur and desperation to remain in touch with pop culture. On the other are two financially stable gay men going through the motions of being in love with each other.

When the shit finally hits the fan, Beguelin does a skillful job of letting the architect tell the wannabe writer that he doesn't have any talent and then proceed to call Donna's bluff by asking exactly how much money she was expecting to receive by shaking down her brother while saddling him with the responsibility of raising her child.

Scott Cox (Kevin) and Teri Whipple (Donna)
in a scene from Harbor (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

There's an old saying that "Money talks and bullshit walks." To his credit, Beguelin has found a way to re-arrange personal loyalties so that, whether or not each character can understand what has just happened, at the end of the play everyone is better off than they were at the beginning. Translation: it's amazing what kinds of crises can be made to disappear with a substantial bribe.

What I found remarkable about the way the playwright has structured each character's growth is that the person with the ability to trigger a startling chain reaction is neither the oldest, the neediest, the best educated, or the most manipulative. Instead, it's the teenager whose keen vision spots an escape route from an intolerable future.

Lottie (Jenna Herz) comes to the rescue of Ted (Andrew Nance)
as Kevin (Scott Cox) and his sister, Donna (Terri Whipple)
hit the road in Harbor (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

If the two women suck up most of the oxygen in the play it's because Donna is eternally desperate to remain the center of attention while her daughter is loathe to share any spotlight with her monstrosity of a mother. By contrast, the lack of spine shown by the two gay men may have a lot to do with their years of trying to take care of each other or, in Kevin's case, letting someone else take care of him.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

That's Edutainment!

As a rule, people don't like to receive bad news (especially if they are waging a campaign based on misinformation, disinformation, or carefully-scripted talking points that have no basis in reality). That's why skeptics and prophets are often ignored or ridiculed -- with tragic results.

Each of these mythological figures takes on the dangerous role of a skeptic, the person whose cynicism prevents them from running with the herd. Such actions can position someone as a heretic, an enemy of the people, or a crackpot.

However, one's willingness to attack a sacred cow is not much different from the experience of modern atheists. As I sat through a recent preoperative interview, a doctor cautioned me that all the vitamin supplements I take are basically useless. But given a choice between placing my faith in vitamin supplements or organized religion, I'll choose the vitamins every time.

As someone who was raised in a family of atheists (and whose father taught high school science), I often find myself standing on the sidelines as hordes of true believers abandon all objectivity and embrace a new technology, a cherished sport, or a form of corporate mythology with true gusto.

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In 2009, a Japanese animation studio released a remarkable full-length feature entitled Summer Wars, which showed what might happen if an omnipresent and extremely powerful social media engine were taken over by an arch villain. More than a quarter century after War Games had stunned viewers with computer simulations of a game called "Global Thermonuclear War," Summer Wars was equally impressive for its artistic values as well as its prescience.

At the time the film was released Facebook was only five years old, Twitter was barely three years old and their global reach was nowhere what it is today. A probing documentary by Ben Lewis entitled Google and the World Brain would not be released until 2013 (as would Cullen Hoback's bone-chilling Terms and Conditions May Apply). In June of 2013, Edward Snowden leaked critical documents showing just how acutely everyone's digital footprints were being monitored by the National Security Agency.

With Jeff Bezos fantasizing about using drones to deliver's shipments and Uber pouring money into research aimed at developing a driver-less car service, the timing is perfect for the release of Brant Pinvidic's rowdy new documentary, Why I'm Not On Facebook (which is being screened as part of the 2015 San Francisco Indie Film Festival).

Poster art for Why I'm Not On Facebook

In a world where privacy has becoming increasingly difficult to maintain (and potential employers can easily check out a job applicant's embarrassing party photos online), Pinvidic was spurred into action when his 12-year-old son asked a simple question: "Daddy, why aren't you on Facebook?" The film's publicity blurb describes Pinvidic's filmmaking adventure as follows:
"One man's soul-searching decision on whether or not he should join Facebook sets him off on an epic journey of self-discovery as he weighs the pros and cons of becoming a member of the world's largest social networking site. Along the way he talks with family, friends, total strangers and even celebrities whose lives have all been touched in one way or another by Facebook. From the long-lost high school friend who uses it to stay in touch with classmates, to the pick-up artist who trolls the site to score with women, to the criminal who tracks your every movement to know when to rob your house, the best and the worst of Facebook is on display."

Making a documentary was a radical change of pace for Pinvidic (who is executive producer of ABC's Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition and Bar Rescue on Spike TV). While his career has mostly been in reality television, setting up a fake Facebook profile as "Steve Steel" allowed him to get in touch with the social network's huge personal rewards (especially for extroverts and narcissists) as well as its frightening potential as a tool for stalkers.

Why I'm Not On Facebook is a fast-paced piece of contemporary edutainment that will go down well with a bucket of popcorn. While Pinvidic's documentary contains plenty of laughs and examples of human folly, it also makes one wonder whether being active on Facebook should cause a person to lose sleep at night. Here's the trailer:

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Before I describe the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's electrifying world premiere of X's and O's (A Football Love Story), let me state that I am not now (nor have I ever been) a football fan. If Facebook can be addictive and opera inspires irrational displays of diva worship, American football has had the bizarre effect of inflating a brutal contact sport into a national mythology whose cult-like following not only craves violence but may be in deeper stages of denial than people who refuse to accept mankind's contribution to climate change.

Now that the 2015 Super Bowl has come and gone, we can all (including God, if he even exists), sit back and chill out while relinquishing any childish fantasies about an old man in the sky giving a rat's ass about the outcome of a game. In short, we can attempt to get back to our daily lives.  Or can we?

A recent study revealed that 1-in-4 Americans believe that God will decide the Super Bowl. So if you have any prayers for anyone sick or in immediate peril, expect substantial delays in the next 24 hours. []


Written by KJ Sanchez and Jenny Mercein and exquisitely directed by Tony Taccone, this passionate and poignant new work was developed as part of Berkeley Rep's "Ground Floor" program. With a stark but effective unit set designed by Todd Rosenthal, sound design by Jake Rodriguez, and superlative lighting and projection design by Alexander V. Nichols, X's and O's (A Football Love Story) has something for everyone. Whether a person loves or hates football, is trying to wean themselves from its grip or recover from its injuries, this provocative drama mixes narrative vignettes of fans, athletes, coaches, and physicians with documentary footage of football's past and its increasingly litigious future.

While much of the controversial material in the play can be found in works like Is There Life After Football? Surviving the NFL, putting faces on the stories of injured players -- as well as the spouses of former athletes who have developed Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, or other fatal illnesses stemming from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), helps to provide audiences with the precise spoonful of sugar needed to help reality's cruel medicine go down.

Two-time Super Bowl champion Dwight Hicks performs in
X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story) (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The show is so tightly crafted and rivetingly paced that it's hard to believe that an ensemble of six actors (jumping in and out of various roles) are the only people appearing onstage. Making thorough use of the playing areas at Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage, Taccone brings his actors out into the audience so that there is no escaping the human element which seems to matter so little to the National Football League's corporate executives and accountants.

We love football, but why is the American taxpayer showering a profitable corporation with corporate welfare?

Glendale, Arizona paid $300 million for the #Superbowl stadium. The city's debt is now 4 times the national median, 40% solely for sports complexes.  Glendale's budget crisis is so dire half of the city's teachers, firefighters, and police were threatened with layoffs--but were saved by a permanent 10% sales tax on residents. This is the Superbowl scandal you didn't hear about. Spread the word. LIKE our page US Uncut 

Source NY Times:

While former San Francisco 49er, Dwight Hicks, brings some serious professional credibility to the proceedings -- and Bill Geisslinger shines as both an aging coach and a retired player whose injuries forced him to have a leg amputated -- the strongest work comes from the always impressive Eddie Ray Jackson (who alternates between portraying an aspiring athlete and a nerdy football fan who is trying to adopt a more politically correct stance about the sport) and Marilee Talkington, whose powerful performances as a research physician and the wife of a former football star will haunt audiences long after they leave the theatre.

Eddie Ray Jackson  and Bill Geisslinger in a scene from
X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story) (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Additional support comes from Anthony Holiday and Jenny Mercein, who round out a talented ensemble that easily shifts between football fans gathered in a bar to watch a game and family and friends of players who have been chewed up and spat out by the National Football League in its quest for more power and bigger profits. The one thing missing from the script is any mention of the NFL's status as a nonprofit organization.

Whether you have little to no interest in football (like me) or can't live without football as a driving force in your life (like many others), this is a remarkably tight 85-minute docudrama which will thrill audiences. X's and O's is not just an important contribution to contemporary American theatre, this play deserves a long life on numerous stages throughout North America.

Performances of X's and O's (A Football Love Story) continue through March 1 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here to order tickets). Here's a teaser: