Wednesday, July 29, 2015

They're Coming For Our Jobs

Whether you rely on Siri or Microsoft Cortana as your intelligent personal assistant, you're placing a lot of faith in artificial intelligence. Not only are many software programs dependent on data that was once created and digitized by humans, there are no guarantees that any software package is free of bugs and glitches.

In 1920, Czech playwright Karel Capek published R.U.R., a science fiction drama which introduced the word robot into the English language. Within three years, R.U.R. (which stands for Rossum's Universal Robots) had been translated into 30 languages.

By April 1968, when MGM released Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, people were beginning to learn what can go wrong when computer technology gets one step ahead of the humans who designed it.

During my more than 25 years as a medical transcriptionist, I've watched new breakthroughs in technology be dangerously overhyped. By the time I wrote Dictation Therapy For Doctors I had already listened to plenty of physicians whose language skills were so pathetic that they could not dictate their way out of a paper bag.

Some had problems using English as a second language; others simply could not formulate a coherent sentence. My all-time favorite example reads "The patient is a 26-year-old mother of seven who was in the operating room for some reason but fell asleep when it was discovered that she was pregnant at another hospital."

With today's widespread adoption of speech recognition technology by many medical transcription services, the safety net once provided by human medical transcriptionists has evaporated into thin air. Missy Snider Adelson (a Facebook friend in Oregon) has taken to posting some of the better "voice wrecks" she has encountered in her work. They include (but are certainly not limited to):
  • It seems like she was sent home on his ears.
  • Diagnosis: Colon thighs.
  • Reportedly she stayed on the scalp for about 15 minutes.
  • The patient did achieve symptomatic improvement without a man.
  • Some projections of colon are appearing in the coast.
  • Shortly after he went home, he had to bring his heart.
  • Her ostomy bag is happy.
  • She suddenly felt that she could not catch her breasts.
  • He is a very troubled individual who was living in a hole with his sister.
  • Bowel sounds are intact in her throat.
  • The patient cannot describe the character of the pain. She says it feels like after eating a big male, but cannot describe it any further.
Numerous articles have recently raised concerns that robots will soon be taking over everyone's jobs. Nowhere is this more evident than in hospitals and nursing homes, where artificial intelligence and automation have led to increasing levels of productivity from robotic devices. In some cases, robots have even been able to offer a form of emotional comfort to patients while performing seemingly menial tasks.

The ease with which humans now interact with some robots can be seen in the following clip (which shows how far robotics have progressed from production lines in manufacturing plants).

In other cases, robotics have progressed to a point where the ability to schedule and automate certain tasks can lead to a reduction in employees (as well as a reduction in overtime pay and expensive employee benefits).

Of course, not all human encounters with robots are designed for clinical purposes.  Indeed, some can have wildly unanticipated results.

When it comes to future uses of artificial intelligence, one might well ask what Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, Elon Musk, and Noam Chomsky have in common. The answer is that they have all signed an open letter authored by the Future of Life Institute that demands a ban on offensive autonomous weapons (killer robots).

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When computers and robotics enter the workplace, repetitive mechanical tasks are easily performed. However, in some fields (medical transcription is a perfect example), two crucial assets quickly vanish from the scene: institutional memory and cultural literacy.

This incalculable type of loss was recently brought home at the EXIT Stage Left when Stuart Bousel directed a production of The Desk Set (produced by one of his ancillary theatrical organizations, No Nude Men Productions).

A Playbill for the original Broadway production
of The Desk Set starring Shirley Booth

William Marchant's dramedy opened on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre on October 24, 1955, where it ran for 297 performances (and was later adapted for a film starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy). The original Broadway cast included Shirley Booth, Louis Gossett, Jr.,  Doris Roberts, Joyce Van Patten, and Elizabeth Wilson.

Shirley Booth as Bunny Watson in the
original Broadway cast of The Desk Set

The action takes place in "the Reference Department of a large radio and television broadcasting company in midtown Manhattan." With a sister and brother-in-law who are retired librarians, Marchant's play had particular resonance for me.

Food for thought from Neil Gaiman

Working on a unit set designed by Jennifer Varat (with a huge, period appropriate mockup of a computer designed by I.D. Horg), The Desk Set depicts the cultural and social impact the arrival of a computer can have on a highly skilled work force. Those old enough to have worked on an IBM Communicating Mag Card "Selectric" Typewriter (which had enough memory to store 8,000 characters) -- or who can still recall the era when a keypunch operator earned decent money -- will have no trouble remembering the trepidation felt by secretaries and data entry clerks as computers made deeper and deeper inroads into office work.

In the case of The Desk Set, the skill sets being challenged are those acquired by people who enjoy doing crossword puzzles, reading extensively, keeping their fingers on the pulse of popular culture, and allowing their curiosity to pursue the kind of trivia which led to 1979's release of a board game entitled Trivial Pursuit. Such workers boasted the kind of cultural literacy that, in today's functionally illiterate society, would be referred to as "knowing stuff."

Allison Page as Bunny Watson in The Desk Set
(Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

In The Desk Set, the EMERAC computer (the "Electro-Magnetic Memory and Research Arithmetic Calculator" whose acronym was obviously inspired by 1946's introduction of the ENIAC or "Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer") arrives shortly after methods engineer-efficiency expert Richard Sumner  (Alan Coyne) has spent some time skulking around the office, measuring floor space, and trying to understand how librarians perform their jobs. Its champion is Miss Warriner (Carina Lastimosa Salazar), the kind of administrative toady who nearly reaches orgasm whenever her beloved computer spits out a fact.

Miss Warriner (Carina Lastimosa Salazar) and Richard Sumner
(Alan Coyne) are preparing to introduce a computer into the
workplace in The Desk Set  (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

Computers, alas, have little awareness of the social fabric that grows between knowledge workers. Thus, EMERAC (affectionately or fetishistically referred to as EMMY by Ms. Warriner) has no way of understanding that an office romance has been festering for seven years between the department's manager, Bunny Watson (Allison Page), and the studly, if often clueless marketing director, Abelard "Abe" Cutler (Nick Trengove).

Nick Trengove is Abelard "Abe" Cutler in
The Desk Set (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Nor could the EMERAC have any awareness of the competitive camaraderie enjoyed by Bunny and her subordinate librarians, Sadel Meyer (Jeunée Simon), Ruthie Saylor (Kitty Torres), and Peg Costello (Megan Briggs). Not only can these women reel off the names of Santa's reindeer and recite popular poems off the top of their head, they know when it's better to simply hang up on a rude caller.

The female employees at the firm are getting restless as the company prepares for its annual Christmas party. Some are suspicious of Mr. Sumner's motives, while others think he's kind of cute. Some are eager to get drunk, while others are hoping they have enough money for the rent.

Bunny Watson (Allison Page) enjoys some laughs with Peg Costello
(Megan Briggs) in The Desk Set (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Ms. Warriner, of course, is elated about the installation of her beloved new computer. But when put to the test, it seems that EMERAC can only deliver one fact at a time (depending, of course, on what has been fed into its system). When the department staff all receive pink slips along with their end-of-year paychecks, paranoia starts to take over -- especially when it's discovered that the computer has issued pink slips to everyone in the company (including its CEO).

Richard Sumner (Alan Coyne), Bunny Watson (Allison Page) and
Sadel Meyer (Jeunée Simon) try to get a straight answer out of
EMERAC in The Desk Set (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

This revival of The Desk Set turned out to be an excellent vehicle for Allison Page (one of its co-producers), whose comedic skills and sarcastic tongue proved to be an excellent match for Bunny Watson. While I especially liked Alan Coyne's work as the methods engineer and Nick Trengove's portrayal of Abe, Megan Briggs did a beautiful job with the character of Peg Costello.

In smaller roles, Lisa Drostova appeared as The Mysterious Lady, Andrew Calabrese was the Man from Legal and Alejandro Torres portrayed Kenny, the delivery boy. Abhi Kris doubled as Mr. Bennett and Mike with Marissa Skudlarek doubling as Miss Ferris and Elsa. Bousel's direction kept the cast moving at a fairly tight pace, even if the play's ending seemed a bit old-fashioned (in the way that Republicans crave a return to the 1950s world of Leave It To Beaver).

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Missions Impossible

Explorers come in all shapes and flavors. From the Vikings (Erik the Red and his son, Leif Erikson) to the Spanish conquistadors (Francisco PizarroHernán Cortés, Hernando de SotoJuan Ponce de León); from the Portuguese (Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da GamaTristão da Cunha) to the English (Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, James Cook), those with restless souls who craved adventure found it difficult to resist a challenge.

Whether one considers the explorers who attempted to reach the North and South Poles (Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton, Richard E. Byrd), or the brave astronauts who blasted off into outer space, the curiosity and determination which compel people to push the boundaries of human knowledge are best summed up in Joe Darion's lyrics from 1965's hit musical, Man of La Mancha.
"To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right, without question or pause
To be willing to march into hell for that heavenly cause

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star."
History and literature are filled with tales of travel and adventure. From Homer's epic poem (Odyssey) to Herman Melville's crazed cetaceous chase (Moby-Dick; or, The Whale); from the adventures of Marco Polo to the fantastical voyages of Sinbad the Sailor; from Jules Verne's 1873 novel (Around The World in Eighty Days) to the quirky time-traveling discoveries of three female explorers in Eric Overmyer's whimsical On the Verge; or, The Geography of Yearning, having a grand adventure is almost as important as documenting the experience.

Depending on the various types of media available, the documentation process changes dramatically over time (no one was taking selfies in Ancient Rome). However, the essence of two seemingly impossible explorations (one fiction, one nonfiction) came to the fore in two recent screen and stage productions.

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Although documentaries often lack the kind of dramatic climax associated with narrative film, they can deliver a very different sense of fulfillment to audiences. Bette Midler used to joke that, if you cross a donkey with an onion, the odds are that you'll get an onion with long ears -- but if the stars are aligned in your favor, you might just get a piece of ass that's so wonderful it makes you want to cry.

Written and directed by Steve Rivo, Carvalho's Journey (which receives its world premiere at a free screening on the afternoon of June 28th as part of the 35th Annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) is equally impressive for the peculiar moment in art history it explores as well as for the way it captures the contribution of an observant Sephardic Jew to the history of the American West. This documentary is a very rare treat.

Solomon Nunes Carvalho

Born of Spanish-Portuguese descent in Charleston, South Carolina on April 27, 1815, Solomon Nunes Carvalho grew up to become a talented portrait painter with a near-photographic memory. After Charleston's original Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue burned down (shortly before the Carvalho family moved to Philadelphia), the 23-year-old artist painted a stunning picture of the temple's beautiful interior in remarkable detail. Child With Rabbits (painted when he was 25) later appeared on the paper currencies of the United States, Canada, and traveled as far as Argentina.

Carvalho's Child With Rabbits can be seen in the lower right-hand
corner of this five dollar bill from Canada's Bank of Brantfod

Although his father was one of the founders of the first Reformed Jewish Congregation in the United States (Charleston's Reformed Society of Israelites), like many immigrants, Solomon Carvalho saw himself as an "American Jew." After learning about a French invention by Louis-Jacque-Mandé Daguerre, he opened up studios in Charleston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York where he could work as a portrait painter as well as a daguerrotypist.

In 1853, Colonel John C. Fremont, a noted American explorer known as "The Pathfinder," was about to launch his fifth expedition (with the goal of finding a path through the Rocky Mountains for the proposed construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad). After hearing about Carvalho's artistic skills, he invited the young man to join him on his expedition and document the adventure. For Carvalho, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Colonel John C. Fremont

At the time, Carvalho had no idea how to create daguerrotypes outdoors; nor did he know how to take care of a horse. Recollecting the numerous trials and tribulations he experienced  after setting out from Westport, Kansas on Fremont's Fifth Westward Expedition, Carvalho's diary (Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West with Colonel Frémont's Last Expedition) included many descriptions like the following:
"The Cheyenne village, on Big Timber, consists of about two hundred and fifty lodges, containing, probably, one thousand persons, including men, women and children. I went into the village to take daguerreotype views of their lodges, and succeeded in obtaining likenesses of an Indian princess a very aged woman, with a papoose, in a cradle or basket, and several of the chiefs, I had great difficulty in getting them to sit still, or even to submit to have themselves daguerreotyped. I made a picture, first, of their lodges, which I showed them. I then made one of the old woman and papoose. When they saw it, they thought I was a "supernatural being;" and, before I left camp, they were satisfied I was more than human."
The cover of Carvalho's published diary
"After three hours' hard toil we reached the summit and beheld a panorama of unspeakable sublimity spread out before us; continuous chains of mountains reared their snowy peaks far away in the distance, while the Grand River plunging along in awful sublimity through its rocky bed, was seen for the first time. Above us the cerulean heaven, without a single cloud to mar its beauty, was sublime in its calmness. Standing as it were in this vestibule of God's holy Temple, I forgot I was of this mundane sphere; the divine part of man elevated itself, undisturbed by the influences of the world. I looked from nature, up to nature's God, more chastened and purified than I ever felt before. Plunged up to my middle in snow, I made a panorama of the continuous ranges of mountains around us."
Narrated by Michael Stuhlbarg, Carvalho's Journey is based on the artist's book-length account of his participation in Fremont's expedition. Produced for national broadcast on PBS, the film documents a great story while offering stunning visuals as well as recreations of the daguerrotype process (which was soon replaced by photography).

A steel engraving of two "Natural Obelisks" in Utah,
based on a daguerrotype by Solomon Nunes Carvalho

Because all of the daguerrotye's from Carvalho's expedition with Colonel Fremont were lost in a warehouse fire, the narrative path of the film is lead by Robert Schlaer (the author of "Sights Once Seen: Daguerreotyping Frémont's Last Expedition Through the Rockies"), who tracked down the locations where Carvalho originally created his daguerrotypes and recreated the process for posterity. A 19th century American Jew who developed a deep affinity for the Mormons who took nursed him back to health in Parowan, Utah (when he was close to death from the hardships of Fremont's expedition), Carvalho's Journey documents the life and times of a little-known American artist who became friends with Brigham Young during his stay in Salt Lake City and painted Abraham Lincoln's portrait in 1865. The following 11-minute "teaser" should whet your appetite to see the full-length feature.

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I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Zero Hour: The Mars Experiment, which was presented by Wily West Productions down at the EXIT Theatre. As the company's artistic director, Morgan Ludlow, writes in his program note:
"This year, playwrights spent six weeks together in a virtual summer camp (Basecamp) starting with themes and ideas that blossomed into two full-blown plays. With the hard work of key writers Bridgette Dutta-Portman, Laylah Muran de Assereto, Morgan Ludlow, and head writer Jennifer Lynne Roberts, writers received prompts each week to create a foundation, and then worked out more complex challenges, eventually melding the voices of eight writers into one voice. The plays were then handed over to director Ariel Craft, whose input further sharpened the plays."
If too many cooks can spoil the broth, can too many playwrights spoil the fantasy? Zero Hour: The Mars Experiment focuses on six space travelers in crisis six months after they have left their friends, families, and jobs on Earth to travel to Mars. Needless to say, by the 68th day of their expedition (when a nasty rumor predicts that they will all die of suffocation), things are not going well.

Justin (Kyle McReddie) is starting to feel emotional about
Freya (Samantha Behr) in Zero Hour: The Mars Experiment
(Photo by: Colin Hussey)
  • Freya (Samantha Behr) is in charge of the spaceship's crew. Her goal is to start a human colony on Mars and manage the crew. However, beneath her tense exterior lurks a real woman with needs and urges.
  • Marlene (Susannah Wood) is the team's doctor who informs Freya that she is pregnant and must tell the others about the change in her physical condition.
  • Justin (Kyle McReddie) is the studly team member who may have knocked up Freya and is acting very clingy (as opposed to Klingon-y).
  • Una (Katrina Kroetch) is the team's mechanic who must must find a way to fix the spaceship's broken "oxygenator" within the next 24 hours or else the crew will perish, thus fulfilling the prophecy of doom.
  • Burrhus (Richard Wenzel) is the team's resident psychologist who has tried his best to refrain from giving advice to his fellow space travelers but has a nasty habit of calling Justin "son."
  • Cosimo (Jason Jeremy) is the team's resident nerd who is prone to panic attacks.
Marlene (Susannah Wood) tries to adjust some equipment
for the space colony in Zero Hour: The Mars Experiment
(Photo by: Colin Hussey)

One of the biggest problems with the script for Zero Hour: The Mars Experiment is the inability of the creative team to let the audience know whether this 70-minute play should be taken seriously or treated as a spoof of space exploration movies. The tiny performing space in the EXIT Studio (combined with a lot of angry screaming) didn't help matters much.

The result was a sorry mishmash of the genre's familiar tropes undermined by moments of painfully amateurish acting. A more appropriate title for this play might have been Star Drek -- The Next Generation or Six Characters In Search of An Alien.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Cultural Imperatives

For some people, time is money. For others, timing is everything. Whether one is searching for a window of opportunity, hoping to ride a groundswell of support, or participating in an established grassroots movement, the importance of seizing the moment and making the most of its potential can never be underestimated.

Some cry out "Carpe Diem" while others claim to see an omen of mystical convergence which can offer humanity some sorely-needed consciousness raising. In some cases (as in this song by Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim from 1965's Do I Hear A Waltz?), the opportunity at hand is a romantic one.

In his bestselling book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference (2000), author Malcolm Gladwell posited that "Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do. The tipping point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point." Although Sergio Franchi's lush rendition of "Take The Moment" doesn't make it seem like there's any kind of fire that needs to be extinguished, these two songs from Jerry Herman's 1969 musical, Dear World, sends a loud and clear message that time is of the essence.

Two recent productions by Berkeley-based theatre companies tried to create a sense of urgency for their audiences around a specific moment in time. One was based on the need to develop a solution to an ongoing racial crisis in America; the other addressed an ecological crisis taking place in the world's oceans. If you think such topics are nothing more than liberal fluff, I would urge you sit down and read John H. Richardson's blood-curdling article in Esquire Magazine entitled When The End of Civilization Is Your Day Job.

* * * * * * * * *
Directed by Leah C. Gardiner (with Marcus Shelby playing music he composed for double bass), the Berkeley Repertory Theatre presented the Bay area premiere of Anna Deavere Smith's latest play, Notes From The Field: Doing Time In Education - The California Chapter. With young black men being killed on a routine basis by white policemen, Smith's new theatre piece tries to examine the failed social structure which has led to many of these men being sent through a pipeline that leads straight from school to prison.

A native of Baltimore (a city which had its fair share of racial tension in 2015), Smith describes her big break in the following clip.

In addition to her work in film and television, Smith has gained fame for the detailed portrayals that she creates of ordinary Americans (based on intense research and long hours of interviewing). In works such as Fires in the Mirror (1992), Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992 (1994), House Arrest (2000), Let Me Down Easy (2008), The Arizona Project (2008), On Grace (2014), Reclaiming Grace in the Face of Adversity (2015), and Never Givin' Up (2015), she creates vignette-driven docudramas which reflect life in these United States. In the following clip, she explains the interviewing technique which allowed her to get to the heart of some of the people she has interviewed.

As Smith began her research for Notes From The Field: Doing Time In Education - The California Chapter, an unmistakable pattern quickly came to light. As she explains:
"It did not take long to have my lens open onto a much bigger picture of poverty and its consequences in the emotional, physical, and intellectual development of youths, both inside and outside of school. Privileged kids get [charged with] mischief. Poor kids get pathologized [and sent to jail]."  
Anna Deavere Smith portrays India Sledge (a student from West
Baltimore) in Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education,
The California Chapter 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 
"There are in fact many pipelines to prison. I have seen, especially in my hometown of Baltimore, how the punitive aggression young people experience lines up with a relationship to policing in their communities. This is something due to current technologies, that you the public have witnessed frequently this year, starting with events in Ferguson. We have an urgent economic, moral, and security problem in front of us as Americans: Racial and economic inequality. Tackling it requires nothing less than a robust, re-invigorated public will. The change starts with you."

Smith's new show is broken into three acts. The first and third acts feature Smith onstage, portraying some of the people she has interviewed. These include:
In the second act, the audience is broken out into discussion groups and asked to identify problems in their community which need attention and make suggestions about simple things that might be done by themselves and their friends to help improve the quality of life where they live.

Anna Deavere Smith as Kevin Moore (the videographer of the Freddie
Gray beating) in Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education,
 The California Chapter
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

On July 14, President Obama's speech before the NAACP Conference in Philadelphia focused on what Smith and so many others have described as the school-to-prison pipeline. In the following clip you can listen to the President explain how institutionalized racism adversely affects African-Americans and call for sentencing reforms in our criminal justice system.

Performances of Notes From The Field: Doing Time In Education - The California Chapter continue through August 2 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here to order tickets).

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To cap off its 25th anniversary season, CentralWorks recently presented its 48th world premiere: a "Central Works Method Musical." Written by the company's co-artistic director, Gary Graves, and directed by John Patrick Moore, the piece is entitled Project Ahab; or, Eye of the Whale. As Graves explains:
"For years I've been searching for a theatrical vehicle that would allow us to address the great ecological struggle facing us as a species. I happened to see the PBS special last year titled A Fierce Green Fire. One of four episodes in the documentary dealt with the early Greenpeace campaigns to save the whales and prevent the killing of seal pups for their fur. There was a tension in the Greenpeace organization early on about what tactics should be deployed in order to achieve the movement's ecological objectives. It was the same debate the civil rights movement struggled (and still struggles) with today. That debate is perhaps most essentially represented in the nonviolent resistance path advocated by Martin Luther King, Jr. versus the more militant approach articulated by Malcolm X in the phrase 'By any means necessary.'"
"That argument seemed like an engaging, relevant theme to me, now, as we ponder how to stop the accelerating degradation of our environment in the face of global economic forces that seem unwilling or uncaring about the ecological track the planet is heading down. But something else attracted me about the early Save The Whales campaign. They were aware of a kind of resonance their mission had with the great American masterpiece of literature, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, or The Whale. One of the earlier names for the campaign was actually Project Ahab. They recognized a sort of humorous irony in their determined quest to save the whales, much like the obsession of Melville's Ahab with the destruction of his nemesis, the Great White Whale. Furthermore, if you look at the crew of brave Warriors of the Rainbow as they called themselves, many of them were, characteristic of the era, very musically inclined. They often sang together, performed together at fundraisers (along with Country Joe McDonald on occasion), celebrated with music, and even experimented with interspecies musical communication. That seemed like all the right ingredients to me for a Central Works Method Musical: a good argument, a great narrative foundation, and a way to bring live music into the mix."
Michael Worsley as Dr. Sponge in a scene from
Project Ahab; or, Eye of the Whale (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Project Ahab; or, Eye of the Whale is an extremely ambitious project that doesn't always hit its mark. Whether that is due to the enormity of its topic, the good intentions (and naivete) of its younger characters, or the downward spiral of disillusionment that leads to its dramatic climax, one leaves the Berkeley City Club with the feeling that the creative team may have bitten off more than they could chew with this particular theatrical adventure.

Despite the excellent musical direction by Ben Euphrat (four out of the five actors perform on a variety of musical instruments) and the expert work of Gregory Scharpen (whose visual projections and sound design allow the audience to see and hear things from a whale's perspective as well as from that of humans at sea), there are moments when it feels as if the play is overwhelmed with the demands of exposition, power struggles, and the ongoing tug of war between a group of young idealists and an aging fanatic seeking vengeance against a modern Russian whaling ship.

The action takes place in 1973 as Izzy (Caitlyn Louchard) travels from New Bedford, Massachusetts (once the most important whaling port in the world) to Vancouver, B.C.. Along the way she stops at a commune where she meets Cree (Sam Jackson), a professional photographer who claims to have taken the Pulitzer Prize-winning picture of Phan Thi Kim Phuc (the terrified, nude Vietnamese girl running in pain from her village, which had been bombarded with napalm on June 8, 1972).

Caitlyn Louchard and Sam Jackson in a scene from
Project Ahab; or, Eye of the Whale (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

After dropping LSD together and sharing a night under the stars, the two women join the crew of the Rainbow Warrior II, traveling the ocean in search of a villainous Russian whaler. As their ill-fated voyage progresses, the crew's weaknesses become increasingly apparent.
  • Captain Franklin (Clive Worsley) has become a dictatorial nutjob who is obsessed with finding and sinking his nemesis (a Russian whaler) in an attempt to prevent it from killing any more cetaceans.
  • Mel (Ben Euphrat) becomes increasingly depressed, drunk, and tries to commit suicide by jumping overboard.
  • Hunter (Michael Barrett Austin) realizes that, although he had co-founded a nonprofit organization with Mel to find a nonviolent way to save the whales, the situation at sea has gotten completely out of hand.
Michael Barrett Austin (Hunter) and Clive Worsley (Captain
Franklin) in a scene from Project Ahab; or, Eye of the Whale 
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

What Graves's script does well is to show what happens when people with no idea of what they're getting into sign up for a job whose requirements far exceed their capabilities. Political correctness and the desire to join a worthy cause can be noble sentiments. However, becoming trapped in the seductive, life-endangering vortex of a colleague's manic, cult-like behavior definitely has its downside.

Ben Euphrat and Sam Jackson in a scene from
Project Ahab; or, Eye of the Whale (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

Under John Patrick Moore's direction, the five-actor ensemble gave their all (both musically and dramatically) to the production. I was particularly impressed by Reenie Charrière's scenic installation depicting a white whale that hung from the ceiling. Performances of Project Ahab; or, Eye of the Whale continue through August 23 at the Berkeley City Club (click here to order tickets).

Monday, July 20, 2015

Not Getting Married Today

Several years ago, my friend Omar (a former dancer who, after winning the Varna International Ballet Competition at the age of 17, received a scholarship to the prestigious Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet which led to a career with the Mariinsky Ballet) asked "Honey, why you no want marry me?" It was difficult to explain to this passionate Cuban man that I didn't want to marry anybody. Still don't.

Why not? I'm one of those men that Professor Henry Higgins described as "a confirmed old bachelor and likely to remain so." Small talk bores me. Nor do I enjoy being in crowds. Although I'm fortunate to have some very close and dear friends, I like to spend long hours alone,

It wasn't until I read a phenomenal book by Annelli Rufus (Party of One: The Loner's Manifesto) that I began to understand what it means to be an introvert. Suddenly a light went off in my mind as I realized "That's why I was never comfortable in those kinds of situations!"

As I've grown older, I've become increasingly aware of certain personality traits I share with other introverts.
  • Too much overstimulation can be exhausting.
  • I need time alone to recharge and enjoy a sense of peace and quiet.
  • Although I enjoy close, intimate, long-term friendships (some that have lasted for decades), I don't enjoy hanging out in bars or attending crowded social events.
  • When push comes to shove, I am my own best friend.
I recently had an opportunity to watch two dramas about single men unfold (one onstage and one onscreen). One story was new, involving a young man with substantial emotional baggage. The other was nearly 45 years old, yet still quite fresh in its portrayal of a swinging bachelor who can't bring himself to settle down. Both men were the subjects of intense peer pressure. However, while one was obviously an introvert, the other most definitely was not.

* * * * * * * * *
Written and directed by Michael J. SaulThe Surface begins with the perenially broke Evan Jones (Harry Hains) and his wealthy boyfriend, Chris Stentz (Nicholas McDonald), arguing about what kind of gift they should bring to their friend Michelle's (Samantha Bowling) party. Spotting a garage sale, Evan asks Chris to stop the car so that he can scope out the items on sale.

Harry Hains stars as Evan Jones in The Surface

While browsing through an assortment of curios and tchotchkes, Evan comes across a handheld 8-mm movie camera which the elderly seller, Harry Berg (Robert Weiner), encourages him to take home with two packages of free film. Harry even offers to help Evan edit the film that he shoots.

Orphaned since birth, Evan bounced from one foster home to another as he grew up. As a result, he has no real sense of family and feels alone, without any kind of support system. Chris, on the other hand, is a spoiled rich brat whose parents don't know that Evan has moved in with their son.

Nicholas McDonald and Harry Hains in a scene from The Surface

Following a road trip to Monterey with Chris, Michelle, and some friends (where Evan uses his new camera to film their activities on the beach), he returns home and goes to visit Harry, eager to learn how to edit and splice film. When he rings the doorbell, he is greated by Harry's 43-year-old son, Peter (Michael Redford), who informs him that Harry has passed away.

Michael Redford and Harry Hains in a scene from The Surface

As the two men get to know each other, Peter gives Evan several reels of old home movies that had been collecting dust in his father's garage. As Evan watches the footage (in which a young Peter and his closest friend were filmed by a doting father), he is fascinated by the intimate friendship shared by the two boys -- something he never experienced while living in foster care.

The fact that Evan has found a hobby (which means he's paying less attention to Chris) starts to add tension to his relationship with his wealthy boyfriend. After Peter hires Evan to clean his pool on a weekly basis and the two men start to spend more time together, Chris's insecurities start to erupt.

Evan Jones (Harry Hains) goes for a swim in The Surface

Evan's school project has focused on trying to edit the home movies Peter gave him into a short film that tells a concise story. When he invites Peter to attend the screening, the film unleashes some long-buried memories for Peter, who exits the auditorium in tears. Pissed that Evan thinks it's more important to check up on Peter than to enjoy the party he's thrown for him, Chris proceeds to get obnoxiously drunk and decides to break up with Evan.

With Jinny Chung as Amy and Kyle Patrick Darling as "Fish," Chris and his friends continue to enjoy an upscale Southern California lifestyle which does not require a sense of responsibility. However, for Evan and Peter, their emotions are not only far more intense, but evidence a much greater capacity for introspection.

What makes the performance of Harry Hains (Evan) so peculiar is his tendency to speak in a breathy near-whisper, which evokes memories of Jacqueline Kennedy's seemingly frail vulnerability. As a filmmaker, Michael J. Saul has an interesting way of playing with light, shadows, and underwater scenes. Here's the trailer:

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When I first heard that the San Francisco Playhouse would be producing Company (Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's 1970 musical), I had three deep concerns.
  • When seen by an audience that had become masters at creating electronic barriers around themselves (and are obsessed with their smartphones), would this 45-year-old musical -- which once seemed shocking and almost revolutionary -- come across as a period piece today?
  • How would Jonathan Tunick's thrilling orchestrations hold up with a reduced musical ensemble?
  • How would the show's themes of loneliness, alienation, and fear of commitment play out in a city where many are convinced that the character of Bobby is probably gay?
A Playbill for the original Broadway cast of Company

In the original Broadway production of Company, Bobby was neither an introvert nor a homosexual. Instead, he was often the third wheel in many relationships; the single man who was always a good listener and whose friends were constantly trying to set him up on dates with available women. Back in the era of swinging singles, Bobby had no trouble meeting women or graduating from one flirtation and moving on to another affair.

In October 2013, The New York Times reported on a private reading  of a revised version of Company for the Roundabout Theatre Company which featured Daniel Evans (Bobby), Michael Urie, Bobby Steggert, and Alan Cumming (tackling the role of Joanne, famously created by Elaine Stritch). Director John Tiffany (Once) had reconceived Bobby as a commitment-phobic gay man with several previous boyfriends who were more than willing to give him advice.

George Furth, Stephen Sondheim, and Harold Prince in 1981

George Furth (who wrote the original book for Company) died in 2008. Intrigued by Tiffany's approach, Sondheim (who had been rewriting some lyrics and pieces of dialogue) noted that "It’s still a musical about commitment, but marriage is seen as something very different in 2013 than it was in 1970. We don’t deal with gay marriage as such, but this version lets us explore the issues of commitment in a fresh way.”

Since that 2013 reading, there has been no news from the Roundabout Theatre Company about any production of a revised Company. With the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling on gay marriage, it's possible that the idea has either been shelved or that Sondheim's creative efforts have been diverted to a new project he's working on with David Ives (Venus In Fur) for The Public Theatre based on 1962's The Exterminating Angel and 1972's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (two films by Luis Buñuel).

Sondheim is now 85 years old, Company is 45 years old, and even though the "Tick Tock" number has been eliminated from revivals of the show, there's no question that the clock is ticking. No one doubts that Sondheim's music has stood the test of time (the two-piano reduction of Company's score used by the San Francisco Playhouse is an absolute knockout). But what about the book? And what about Bobby? Bobby, baby? Bobby, bubbie? Robert, darling?

Keith Pinto and the cast of Company (Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli) 

As directed by Susi Damilano (with musical direction by Dave Dobrusky), Company holds up surprisingly well. Keith Pinto brings a modern, almost hipster-like sensibility to the role of Bobby with Ryan Drummond offering a deeply bittersweet portrayal of his friend David during a key moment of male bonding.

Robert (Keith Pinto) and David (Ryan Drummond) discuss
 the pros and cons of marriage in a scene from Company 
(Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli)

Among the women in Bobby's life, Velina Brown does a fine job as Sarah (the wife of an alcoholic who has learned karate but lacks the discipline to stick to her diet) while Nicole Weber is a deliciously Southern Susan. Abby Sammons is delightfully naive as Jenny, with Stephanie Prentice scoring strongly as the lustful ("When are we gonna make it?") and drunk Joanne.

A trio of Bobby's girlfriends -- Morgan Dayley as April (the dumb stewardess), Michelle Drexler as Kathy (the woman who has decided to leave New York), and Teresa Attridge as Marta (the woman who can't get enough of New York's diversity) -- do a splendid job of crooning "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" even if Attridge's voice seems a bit too harsh for her subsequent solo: "Another Hundred People."

Morgan Dayley, Kathy (Michelle Drexler), and Teresa Attridge sing 
"You Could Drive A Person Crazy" in a scene from Company 
(Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli) 

I had forgotten how much the vignette with Amy and Paul centered around Amy's fascination with the fact that her fiancé is Jewish. To her credit, Monique Hafen (who has previously portrayed several ingenue leads in San Francisco Playhouse productions) nailed Sondheim's tongue-twisting patter song ("Getting Married Today") in grand style.

Amy (Monique Hafen) insists that she's not getting married
in a scene from Company (Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli) 

Bobby's male companions include Richard Frederick as Larry, Michael Scott Wells as Peter, and Chris Reber as a remarkably vulnerable Harry. As strong as Keith Pinto seems onstage as Bobby, I couldn't help noticing the haunting presence of John Paul Gonzalez (who portrays Paul in this production). If anyone ever gets licensing permission to stage a revised version of Company in which Bobby is portrayed as a gay man, Gonzalez (who understudied the role for this San Francisco Playhouse production) could be an inspired casting choice.

John Paul Gonzalez as Paul in Company  (Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli) 

Blessed with a handsome unit set designed by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott and some beautiful projections by Micah Stieglitz, the San Francisco Playhouse's production of Company continues through September 12 (click here to order tickets).  Here's the trailer:

Saturday, July 18, 2015

What Fresh Hell Is This?

It's not such a long distance from "What could possibly go wrong?" to "How could this get any worse?" Whether caught in a terrifying natural disaster, a mean and moralistic fairy tale, or a bad relationship, it's rare to hit rock bottom and be convinced that you've gone about as far as you can go.

As someone who has always experienced very intense dreams, I can usually relax during my waking cycle, secure in the knowledge that as distressing as a dream might be, I'm going to wake up. Having long ago made my peace with the transition between a dream state and the cold reality of awakening from a world filled with magical realism, I'm no longer frightened by my adventures in somnolence.

Whether frustrated by their real lives or challenged in narrative fiction, others are often less fortunate. From Herman Melville's 1851 novel entitled Moby-Dick, or, The Whale to Jules Verne's 1864 fantasy entitled Journey to the Center of the Earth; from 1939's Gone With The Wind to William Goldman's 1973 romance, The Princess Bride; from 1969's The Valley of Gwangi to 2009's full-length animated feature, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, trouble lies just around the corner. Smart audiences have learned to expect the unexpected.

Sometimes however, real life takes on nightmarish qualities. Whether imprisoned in the mountains, a classroom, or the deeper recesses of one's mind, some situations become so stifling that finding a way out of such torture requires skill, imagination, and more than a little bit of luck.

* * * * * * * * *
Using Nilo Cruz's tense and lively 100-minute adaptation, the California Shakespeare Theater recently offered Bay area audiences a rare staging of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's 1635 play entitled Life Is A Dream (La vida es sueño). According to Wikipedia:
"The story focuses on the fictional Segismundo, Prince of Poland, who has been imprisoned in a tower by his father, King Basilio, following a dire prophecy that the prince would bring disaster to the country and death to the King. Basilio briefly frees Segismundo, but when the prince goes on a rampage, the king imprisons him again, persuading him that it was all a dream."
King Basilio (Adrian Roberts) and his son, Segismundo (Sean San José)
in a scene from Life Is A Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Among those in attendance at the court of King Basilio (Adrian Roberts) are his servant, Clotaldo (Julian López-Morillas), who has been Segismundo's tutor and sole human contact; Basilio's nephew, Astolfo, Duke of Muscovy (Amir Abdullah), and the King's niece, Princess Estrella (Tristan Cunningham). While Astolfo and Estrella each aspire to the throne, it is the dangerous and unpredictable Segismundo who is Basilio's true heir.

Rosaura (Sarah Nina Hayon), Astolfo (Amir Abdullah), and
Estrella (Tristan Cunningham) in a scene from Life Is A Dream
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Matters are complicated by the arrival of a mysterious young woman named Rosaura (Sarah Nina Hayon), who is initially disguised as a man, and her jester, Clarin (Jomar Tagatac), who have stumbled across Segismundo's prison cell. When challenged by Clotaldo, Rosaura offers him her sword (which the older man instantly recognizes as proof that she is his long-lost daughter).

Clotaldo (Julian López-Morillas) and Rosaura (Sarah Nina Hayon) 
in a scene from Life Is A Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

When released from his chains, sedated, and brought to court, Segismundo's justifiable anger at his father leads to an outburst of violent behavior which would seem to fulfill the prophecy Basilio has long feared. As Segismundo continues to cause havoc, Basilio instructs Clotaldo to give the young man another dose of the potion with which he was initially drugged and return the prince to his prison cell so that, upon awakening, Segismundo will believe his misadventures were nothing but a dream. However, the young prince -- who is severely lacking in social skills -- is quickly charmed by Estrella's physical beauty -- the glory of which is not easily forgotten.

Estrella (Tristan Cunningham( and Segismundo (Sean San José)
in a scene from Life Is A Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Directed by Loretta Greco on Andrew Boyce's beautiful unit set, the Calshakes production benefitted immensely from the sound design by Cliff Caruthers, Christopher Akerlind's lighting design, and Alex Jaeger's costumes. The company's artistic director, Jonathan Moscone, writes in his program note that:
"I am thrilled to bring Calderon, a near-contemporary of Shakespeare's, to our stage for the first time in my 15-year tenure. After reading Cruz's superb adaptation, I can't help but wonder why it took me so long. While Calderon set the play in Poland, Cruz's landscape for the action is unspecified. It could be anywhere where an oppressive state imprisons individuals who are deemed threats to the ruling order. And as the play pits father against son, the politics of the nation are the politics of the family, which makes Life Is A Dream, at its heart, deeply human and deeply charged."
Sean San José as Segismundo in Life Is A Dream
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"I've read earlier translations of Calderon's play and, while they all capture the original ideas of this great writer from the Spanish Golden Age, none are as immediate, as urgent, as muscular, or as beautiful as Cruz's adaptation. What I find most striking about Cruz's language is how it is able to infuse the heady notions of fate versus self-determination, and illusion versus reality, with the palpable feelings of repressed desires for love, revenge, and freedom. A Pulitzer Prize-winner for his play Anna in the Tropics, Cruz grips the heart from the first line, only to release it into a transcendent state of clarity and peace at the final stage direction."
Sean San José as Segismundo in Life Is A Dream
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

One of the joys of being able to see certain actors appear in various productions throughout the year on Bay area stages is that one gets a chance to appreciate their versatility. I have never seen San San José on fire with the intensity he brought to his portrayal of Segismundo. Nor has Tristan Cunningham looked more radiant and exotic. Sarah Nina Hayon (Rosaura) and Julian López-Morillas (Clotaldo) deliver p;owerful portrayals in supporting roles.  

As should be expected at any Shakespearean festival, jesters, fools, and clowns has been extremely important to the 2015 Calshakes season, with Ted Deasy appearing as Feste in Twelfth NightDanny Scheie co-starring in The Mystery of Irma Vep, and an as-yet unidentified actor taking on the role of the Fool in King Lear. As Clarin, Jomar Tagatac (who continues to develop as a top-notch character actor) provided the voice of reason while deftly playing the clown.

Jomar Tagatac provides comic relief as Clarin in Life Is A Dream
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Calderon's play asks the audience to ponder whether life is a dream or a dream is real life; whether a man can overcome a cruel and unusual punishment based on a bizarre prophecy or whether his imprisonment and destiny are nothing more than reveries in the inexplicable vastness of the universe. Performances of Life Is A Dream continue through August 2 at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda (click here to order tickets).

Poster art for Life Is A Dream

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Bay area audiences have eagerly awaited the touring production of Matilda The Musical, which was first developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company as the 2010 Christmas show for Stratford-Upon-Avon and subsequently took London's West End and Broadway by storm. Directed by Matthew Warchus (with choreography by Peter Darling, book by Dennis Kelly, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, and sets and costumes designed by Rob Howell), the show is based on Roald Dahl's famous children's book, Matilda.

Quinn Mattfield is Matilda's father (Mr. Wormwood)
in Matilda The Musical (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

Dahl's protagonist is a five-year-old girl who has the misfortune of being born to the most selfish, shallow, superficial, insensitive, and incredibly stupid parents in the world. Not only must she live in the shadow of her older brother, Michael (Danny Tieger), who is a slovenly moron, Matilda (Mabel Tyler) ends up attending a school run by the horrible Agatha Trunchbull (Bryce Ryness), a bitter and sadistic schoolteacher who hates little children even more than Annie's seething Miss Hannigan (whose first name is also Agatha).

Bryce Ryness is the evil Miss Trunchbull in Matilda The Musical
(Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

What sets Matilda apart from many of her peers is her remarkable intelligence, her blazing imagination, and her willingness to speak out against blatant injustice. Whereas her parents detest books and prefer to get all their information from the television, Matilda loves to read and spends lots of time after school entertaining a doting librarian (Ora Jones) with the fantastical stories she has concocted. The young girl also attracts the attention of Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), a teacher who recognizes Matilda's genius and, against all odds, decides to become her champion.

Matilda (Mabel Tyler) and Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood) in a
scene from Matilda The Musical (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

Having taught herself how to speak Russian while reading Crime and Punishment, Matilda is able to negotiate her pathetic father's release from the grip of a Russian Mafia thug (Ian Michael Stuart) with ease. The following set of interviews with the show's creative team makes it clear that Matilda The Musical was a labor of love.

Alas, I was severely underwhelmed by Matilda The Musical, mostly because a lethal combination of poor sound design and shrieking children made it possible, at best, to make out 15-20% of the show's words. That's a critical failure in a musical that is essentially about the power of storytelling. When one actually gets a chance to read the lyrics to a clever song like "The Smell of Rebellion," the theatrical loss becomes even more disheartening.

That's not to say that the cast didn't work hard throughout the evening. In addition to Mabel Tyler's Matilda, Quinn Mattfield's Mr. Wormwood, Cassie Silva's Mrs. Wormwood, and the exquisitely evil Miss Trunchbull (as realized by Bryce Ryness), Ora Jones had some strong moments as the librarian, Mrs. Phelps.

The show's heart and soul, however, belong to Miss Honey (nicely voiced and acted by Jennifer Blood), who strikes a blow against the raging forces of anti-intellectualism and the bullying of young children (both in school and at home). Although Act II's "Telly" is a gratingly funny musical number, "When I Grow Up" (the first song written for the show) is the rare moment that captures the inherent magic of Matilda's story.

I wish I could have liked Matilda The Musical more than I did, but it struck me as a wonderful piece of satire that had been blown up way out of proportion. Perhaps this is a case of death by dramatic edema.