Tuesday, September 29, 2015

She's A Whack-A-Doodle Dandy!

When conservatives and strict constitutionalists start bloviating about the intentions of America's Founding Fathers, it's interesting to think about which of those men still hold a place in popular culture. The success of Lin-Manuel Miranda's new hip-hop musical, Hamilton, led me to see who else's name appears in the list of:
Howard Chandler Christy's painting depicting George Washington
presiding over the signing of the United States Constitution in 1787

A quick survey identified George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. What about other men (real and fictional) who have made their way into American folklore? Easy picks include Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Paul Revere, Abraham Lincoln, The Lone Ranger, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell.

Among the women who have become icons of Americana, one can easily point to Margaret "Molly" Brown, Annie Oakley, Clara Barton, Carrie Nation, Harriet Tubman, Rosie The Riveter, Florence Nightingale, Betsy Ross, Sacajawea, and Amelia Earhart. While all of these figures are famous for contributions that helped to build and strengthen America, one woman is notable for a much more destructive form of behavior.

Born on July 19, 1860 in Fall River, Massachusetts, Lizzie Borden gained instant notoriety for murdering her tightwad father (Andrew Jackson Borden) and her stepmother (Abigail Durfee Gray Borden) on the morning of August 4, 1892. The story had no trouble capturing the public's imagination (since 1996, the house that Lizzie drenched in blood has been run as a bed and breakfast).

Over the years, the legend of Lizzie the ax-murderer has popped up in numerous cultural formats. One of her earliest ventures into the public domain was sung to the tune of Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay (a popular song from Boston's 1891 musical vaudeville and minstrel showTuxedo). The lyric stated:
"Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother 40 whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father 41."

* * * * * * * * *
If Beeson's operatic adaptation aims to capture the high levels of anxiety infecting the Borden household, a new rock musical by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt and Tim Maner goes much, much further. With a cast of four women and a six-piece band, Lizzie is a full-on assault filled with sibling rivalry, feminine rage, and the kind of hunger for revenge that Electra felt for her mother (Clytemnestra) and stepfather (Agamemnon).

Elizabeth Curtis stars in Ray of Light Theatre's production of Lizzie
(Photo by: Nick Otto)

This show has undergone a long and interesting developmental process. Lizzie Borden: An American Musical was first created by writer/director Maner and songwriter Cheslik-DeMeyer in 1990 as a hybrid between experimental theater and rock concerts for the American Living Room Festival. Not only did the creative team love the idea of casting a musical with female rockers, after their four-woman, four-song piece finished its first performance at a former factory in SoHo, the audience was clamoring for more.

Elizabeth Curtis stars in Ray of Light Theatre's
production of Lizzie (Photo by: Erik Scanlon)

In 2010, Lizzie's songs were featured in a Songwriter Spotlight evening by the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. The final version of the show debuted in Houston, Texas during the fall of 2013 as part of a developmental production directed by Kent Nicholson for Theater Under the Stars (a studio album was also created that year).

In March 2014, Lizzie received its European premiere (sung in Danish) in Fredericia, Denmark. In May 2014, Lizzie was given a new production by the Portland Center Stage in Portland, Oregon.

The cast of Ray of Light Theatre's production of  Lizzie
(Photo by: Erik Scanlon) 

The following clips (from NAMT's 2010 Songwriter Spotlight program and a 2012 production by The Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory of Music performed at Cleveland's Playhouse Square) give a healthy dose of the musical's angry, sarcastic style.

San Francisco's adventurous Ray of Light Theatre is currently presenting the Bay Area premiere of Lizzie in a thrilling, throbbing, and thrumming production directed by Eliza Leoni that has been aggressively choreographed by Nicole Helfer. The show benefits immensely from the intensity of Teddy Hulsker's sound design and Joe D'Emilio's lighting. Add in Melissa Wortman's period costumes and a lesbian love affair between Lizzie Borden (Elizabeth Curtis) and her neighbor, Alice Russell (Taylor Jones), and you get a pretty hot show!

Taylor Jones (Alice Russell) and Elizabeth Curtis (Lizzie Borden) in
Ray of Light Theatre's production of Lizzie (Photo by: Nick Otto) 

Eliza Leoni's staging does a superb job of reshaping the legend of Lizzie Borden by telling it through the four women who were actually involved in the incident. In addition to Lizzie and her neighbor, Alice Russell, the audience meets Lizzie's older sister, Emma (Jessica Coker), who has discovered that her father has named Abigail as his beneficiary. Not only does Emma hate her stepmother with a white-hot fury, she fears that "something might happen" which could prevent Abigail from ever inheriting Mr. Borden's estate.

Jessica Coker as Emma Borden in Ray of Light Theatre's
production of Lizzie (Photo by: Erik Scanlon)

Surprisingly, it is the family's sarcastic Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan, who consistently brings down the house with hints of the explosion of female rage that is yet to come. Looking a bit like a demented and determined Kathy Griffin, Melissa Reinertson drove the bloodthirsty trio at the end of Act I ("Somebody Will Do Something") to a fever pitch.

Melissa Reinertson, Elizabeth Curtis, and Taylor Jones in a scene from
Ray of Light Theatre's production of Lizzie (Photo by: Nick Otto) 

Performances of Lizzie continue at the Victoria Theatre through October 17 (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Birds of a Feather

Unless you include Davey (the parakeet who, during his brief tenure in our home, liked to walk across my omelets), my family's fascination with bird life has more artistic and scientific than pet oriented. Long before I knew who John James Audobon was (or anything about his contributions to the study of ornithology), I recognized three of his paintings from their place on the wall behind my parents' bed.

John James Audobon's painting of a Louisiana heron

Initially unaware of the transformation happening in each other's living rooms, my sister and I began decorating our homes with artwork based on owl themes. We currently take great delight in sharing videos and pictures of owls with family and friends on our Facebook feeds.

A photo of a rare Madagascar Red Owl

Thanks to the wonder of the Internet and programs like Animal Planet, it is now possible to appreciate nature's beauty through magnificent footage and gorgeous photographs of beautiful birds from around the world.

An iridescent starling

A Major Mitchell's (pink) cockatoo

An albino peacock

A golden pheasant

A pair of blue Victoria crowned pigeons

Three Gouldian (rainbow) finches on a branch

Later in life, my parents became avid birdwatchers. Whether watching hummingbirds and sparrows visit our back-yard bird feeder through a kitchen window or taking an Elder Hostel trip devoted to "Birdwatching in Scotland," my father (a high school biology teacher) was fascinated by their colorings and identifiable chirps. Were he still alive today, he would be enchanted by such popular mobile birding apps as BirdsEye, Merlin, National Geographic Birds, The Sibley eGuide to Birds, and Audobon Guides.

Because my father died in 1992, he was never able to watch the mating behaviors of exotic birds that frequently show up on cable television.

While I'm pretty sure he had a chance to witness the murmurations of large flocks of starlings, he missed out on the beauty of Winged Migration, a 2001 documentary that took avian photography to new and breathtaking heights.

* * * * * * * * *
Winged Migration was an uplifting experience of nearly hypnotic beauty. A new documentary entitled The Messenger (which will be screened during the 2015 Mill Valley Film Festival) offers a sobering followup as it demonstrates how precipitously the population of migrating birds has diminished in recent years. In describing his annual summer trip to a family cabin in northern Idaho during this season's Western wildfires, SFGate columnist Mark Morford noted that:
"Up in Idaho, when the smoke was so thick it turned the sky a pallid urine color, I noticed something else: the birds. They stopped chirping. The air often fell dead still. No bees, no bugs, no osprey, no eagles; the smoke appeared to choke off all normal, life-affirming activity. I heard reports of herds of parched, exhausted, soot-covered elk and deer crossing local highways, seeking water and relief from the fire. That same afternoon, I noticed a huge swarms of dead flies (not the usual lake gnats, the no-see-ums and such, but large, black flies by the tens of thousands) covering the surface of lake near our cabin. I skipped my swim."
"This is what we have yet to realize: it’s not just about preparing for more severe weather. It’s far more about what’s about to happen to the experience of life itself, how we navigate our terrifically spoiled, entitled daily lives and with what newfound combination of panic and kindness -- all amplified, to a rather terrifying degree, by the realization that the more we refuse to change our gluttonous ways, the more nature is going to step in and change them."

Su Rynard's documentary uses facts and figures to document the various ways in which bird populations are dying off. Some come as no surprise to bird lovers:
In other situations, industrial noise and light pollution in urban areas can take a deadly toll on avian reproduction and migration.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by a segment produced by a group of Toronto volunteers participating in Canada's Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP).

Although technology has helped ornithologists and environmentalists to develop a better understanding of the causes of decreasing bird populations, it can't necessarily solve the problem. Dr. Martin Wikelski demonstrates how satellite technology can track individually banded birds over thousands of miles. While his data visualizations offer a glimpse into previously unknown (and unseen) movements of birds, when they are caught and measured, some birds reveal alarmingly low levels of body fat. In her director’s statement, Su Rynard writes:
"In recent years I noticed that the birds I used to see and hear were no longer around. I rationalized this thinking that I was too busy or was somehow missing the birds. Then I read Bridget Stutchbury’s book (Silence of the Songbirds) and realized that it isn’t [just] me. Songbirds are disappearing, and we are losing them faster than any other time in human history. To understand why this is happening and what can be done, we embarked on a journey." 
Cinematographer Joshua See with bird guide Ernesto Carman
filming bird life at Costa Rica's Café Christina coffee farm
"Over the course of a year, following the seasons and the birds, our team filmed on three different continents. We discovered that the causes are many, and each species has a different story to tell. Yet everywhere we went, we met people who are working for change (this is not just about the future of birds, it’s about us, too). Humans share an ageless bond with birds, their song, and their persistent presence in our lives. In the past, humans looked to the flights and songs of birds to predict the future. Today once again, the birds have something to tell us."
Rynard's documentary paints a disturbing picture of how man-made climate change is various species of birds while draining migrating populations of their numbers. As new reports continue to focus on melting glaciers, forest fires, and rising sea levels, this time the canary's warning is not coming from the proverbial coal mine. Instead, it's all around us. Here's the trailer:

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A new Asian American theatre company is inhabiting NOHspace as it presents the world premiere of J.C Lee's latest drama, Crane. Over the years Lee has proven to be a remarkably prolific writer. I first encountered his work in a 2010 reading of Pookie Goes Grenading presented by Playwrights Foundation as part of its annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival (in November 2012, Pookie received its fully-staged world premiere from the Azuka Theatre in Philadelphia).

San Francisco's Sleepwalkers Theatre produced Lee's ambitiously apocalyptic This World and After trilogy (This World Is Good, Into The Clear Blue Sky, The Nature Line) over the course of several seasons. Following a reading in February 2013 as part of the Aurora Theatre Company's annual Global Age Project, Lee's Luce was staged in New York as part of the Lincoln Center Theatre's enterprising LCT3 program.

Lee (who has received commissions from numerous Bay area theatre companies) has recently been writing for television (Girls, Looking, How to Get Away With Murder) and is currently at work on the screen adaptation of Pippin for The Weinstein Company.

One of J.C.'s strengths is his ability to combine blunt, snarky dialogue with elements of poetry and magical realism. As produced by Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company, his latest work continues down this path. Written for an ensemble of four actors, Crane attempts to update two Japanese myths (the memory of a young girl who folds 1,000 paper cranes to save herself after the Hiroshima bombing and the tale of a crane who weaves her feathers into a stunning cloth to financially save the man she loves).

Greg Ayers as Bradley in Crane (Photo by: Adam Tolbert) 

Lee's protagonist is Bradley (Greg Ayers), a young, financially insecure artist who has retreated to a cabin in the woods following tremendous acclaim for creating one great work of art. However, once the noise died down and the media spotlight faded, Bradley found himself producing work that was, at best, mediocre. The slick gallery owner (Leon Goertzen) who helped make Bradley successful makes the long trek to inform the starving artist that, unless he starts producing some great work, their business relationship will come to an end.

Geortzen's character is a materialistic, sarcastic, and pushy agent whose cold, clinical approach to the demands of the art market leaves little room for clients who can't generate major sales. With Bradley seemingly uninterested in the kind of commercial success that could bring him substantial material wealth, the gallery owner is ready to abandon one of his pet discoveries.

Monica Ho is Sadako in JC Lee's Crane (Photo by: Adam Tolbert)

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, a young woman named Sadako (Monica Ho) has decided that she can no longer stay with her mother (whose constant attention is stifling her). Whether Sadako's need to "fly from the nest" is real or a literary gimmick remains to be seen. However, after she meets Bradley in the middle of a bitter cold winter and takes shelter in his cabin, Sadako reveals a magical talent that could save Bradley's career as an artist (as long as he can keep it a secret).

Crane's more fanciful notions include flying houses, refrigerators that call you on your cell phone, and a intriguingly telekinetic form of creating art. It deals with age-old questions of art versus commerce, integrity versus greed and, as always, "What I Did For Love." Feathers keep dropping as brilliant new works of art appear until Sadako dies a mysterious death.

Monica Ho as Sadako in Crane (Photo by: Adam Tolbert)

Working on a unit set by Kuo-Hao Lo (with costumes by Keiko Shimosato Carreiro), the ensemble was directed by Mina Morita. Although Greg Ayers and Monica Ho did their best to sustain an earnest atmosphere of mysterious confusion and artistic "woo-woo" (with Lily Tung Crystal doubling as Sadako's mother and a doctor), there was no avoiding the fact that the play mostly came to life whenever Leon Goertzen's comical villain was front and center. The opening night performance was also hampered by a Bay area heat wave that made NOHspace's auditorium quite uncomfortable.

Poster art for Crane (Photo by: Adam Tolbert) 

Performances of Crane continue at NOHspace through October 11 (click here to order tickets).

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Bro Jobs

Organized religion (The Crusades), street gangs, fraternity hazing rituals, and aggressive jocks who push weaker kids into their school lockers may be responsible for a horrendous amount of violence and bullying. But when one examines the root causes of their behavior, certain personality traits are easily identified.
  • A narcissistic personality disorder.
  • Fear of rejection.
  • An alpha male's need to dominate perceived competitors and/or have the last word in any argument.
  • Fear of sexual inadequacy.
  • Refusing to take responsibility for the consequences of one's actions.
  • Parents who always made excuses for their child's bad behavior.
  • A gross assumption of privilege due to one's race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, or family wealth.

All one has to do is look at certain despicable humans who were presumably normal at birth but subsequently morphed into maladjusted monsters.
Donald Trump rescues Rosie O'Donnell in a
popular meme making its way around the Internet

Remember how Dan White's lawyer used the infamous "twinkie defense" during White's trial for the murders of San Francisco's Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk? What about Ethan Couch, the wealthy Texas teenager who was driving while intoxicated when he killed four pedestrians and injured 11 other people (but got a slap on the wrist after his attorney claimed that his client was a victim of affluenza)?

During the tech boom, San Francisco's Marina and Mission Districts have been overrun by arrogant young men with lots of disposable income who don't hesitate to leave plenty of trash in their wake, urinate in public, and act as if they own the world. Many Silicon Valley firms show a tendency to hire aging frat boys who reinforce a "bro" culture in the workplace.

In a new book entitled Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, Dr Jane Ward discusses the phenomenon of a “bro-job” (which is defined as "oral sex between two allegedly heterosexual male friends, particularly when said friends are wasted"). Should it come as any surprise that a highly successful gay male porn website is named Cocky Boys? Or that, underneath all that machismo and drunken bravado, some straight men are trembling with sexual insecurity?

Two dramas new to Bay area audiences explore the peculiar stresses that often strengthen male bonding. Both take place in the early 1980s. In one, a drug-dealing bully living on Manhattan's Upper West Side desperately tries to maintain his power over a weak and desperate friend. In the other, gay and straight men oppressed by Margaret Thatcher's administration learn that they can work together as friends during the UK miner's strike.

* * * * * * * * *
For its first production in its new location, Custom Made Theatre is presenting the West Coast premiere of Kenneth Lonergan's 1996 play, This Is Our Youth. Set in 1982 (during the early years of the Reagan administration), Lonergan's play focuses on three young adults who have been spoiled rotten by their overindulgent and highly dysfunctional Jewish parents.

Dennis (David Raymond) taunts Warren (Sam Bertken) in
a scene from This Is Our Youth (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Seemingly devoid of any sense of responsibility (or concern for anything other than their immediate needs), Lonergan's trio of losers includes:
  • Dennis Ziegler (David Raymond), the son of a famous artist who jokes that his parents pay him not to live at home with them. As the audience files into the theatre, they watch this classic bully nervously moving around his apartment. A sure sign that his restlessness may be chemically induced is his limited attention span (a straight young man who holds up a Playboy centerfold with one hand and keeps staring at it without being able to find his crotch is easily distracted).
  • Warren Straub (Sam Bertken), a 19-year-old bundle of insecurities who just got kicked out of his abusive father's apartment. On his way out the door, Warren managed to put some of his favorite collectible items (classic toys, vinyl LPs, and a vintage "limited edition" toaster) into his suitcase and "rescue" $15,000 in cash from a briefcase that was lying on his father's bed. Despondent and confused about the misery and lack of direction in his life, Warren is no match for Dennis's scathing putdowns, raging misogyny, alarming mood swings, and physical aggression.
  • Jessica Goldman (Katie Robbins), a fashion student who can't resist a good argument. When Warren attempts to use his money to lure Jessica into bed, his nervous efforts become a comedy of errors which eventually leads to a night of bliss in a suite at the Plaza Hotel. What may have seemed like the potential for a romantic relationship to Warren is quickly shattered when Jessica is grounded by her mother.
Sam Bertken (Warren) and Katie Robbins (Jessica) in a
scene from This Is Our Youth (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

Although filled with macho posturing and vicious jibes, Lonergan's script paints a picture of three young adults who have had every advantage laid at their feet but lack any sense of who they really are. Heavily subsidized by their parents (Dennis earns his spending money by dealing drugs), they have nothing of their own that they can fall back on (or that propels them forward). It often seems as if their emotional growth ceased shortly after they left middle school.

Dennis (David Raymond) threatens Warren (Sam Bertken)
in a scene from This Is Our Youth (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

Working on a unit set designed by Stewart Lyle, Brian Katz has directed This Is Our Youth with a keen eye toward pacing while nearing the surprising twists in Lonergan's play. Although Bertken and Robbins do an excellent job of capturing the body language of listless slackers who can quickly tally the insults and injuries they have suffered from their parents, David Raymond's mercurial performance anchors the evening with a feral energy that often fails to mask his underlying fears.

Performances of This Is Our Youth continue at the Custom Made Theatre through October 17 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
The New Conservatory Theatre Center inaugurated its 2015-2016 season with the U.S. premiere of Michael Kerrigan's dramedy entitled For The Love of Comrades (which received its world premiere as Pits and Perverts in October 2013 at the Derry Playhouse in Derry/Londonderry). Originally staged by Sole Purpose Productions. Kerrigan's play was inspired by the work of Mark Ashton, a young gay activist from Portrush, Northern Ireland who co-founded Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and died of AIDS in 1987.

A provocative newspaper headline labeled the connection between the gay community and the miners as "an unholy alliance of pits and perverts." Thanks in large part to Ashton's efforts, LGSM was quick to adopt the slur as a slogan, raising more than £5,650 to help the needy families of Welsh mineworkers at a controversial "Pits and Perverts Ball" headlined by Bronski Beat that was held in London's Electric Ballroom. The London branch of LGSM also established ties with the Neath, Dulais and Swansea Valley Miners Support Group in South Wales.

While audiences around the world have gained insights into 1984's strike by the National Union of Mineworkers through such films as 2000's Billy Elliott and 2014's Pride, Kerrigan's play brings the audience into a much more intimate environment, an apartment in which two gay men agree to house two straight and striking miners from South Wales. As NCTC's artistic director, Ed Decker, explains:
"It's particularly meaningful to me to kick off our line-up with this fact-based play about the often-overlooked alliance between Welsh miners and the lesbian and gay community in Thatcher-era Britain. Not only is this story about a significant moment in history; it is also a perfect early example of queer and allied unity. The NCTC mission statement champions such alliances and their often underestimated potential to advance social change. Now we have the chance to see advocacy and unity of purpose unfold on stage as a living testament to all that is possible when we work together."

NCTC's cast of For The Love of Comrades (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Directed by Jeffrey Hoffman (with Jenna May Cass serving as dialect coach), the action begins in Derry/Londonderry, where Sean (Miles Duffield) is first seen as a young man with a a passion for Beethoven's music who has a terrible stutter. Sean is being coached in how to overcome his speech impediment by speaking slowly by his best friend, Jim (Adam Odsess-Rubin), who urges Sean to be more sociable with his friends.

After Sean moves to London and comes out of the closet, he settles down with a handsome young music student from Canada named Gene (Stephen McFarland) and becomes interested in political activism. Nevertheless, he still finds himself haunted by the ghost of Jim (who was shot and killed during the Bloody Sunday protest march on January 30, 1972). Upon meeting some striking workers from South Wales at a demonstration, Sean offers to put them up while they are in London. Needless to say, their arrival at his apartment causes some tension.

The miners arrive as Gene is coaching his fellow student, Candida (Alyssa Stone), in some German lieder in anticipation of their upcoming exams. A young, married woman from Chelsea, Candida is a staunch supporter of Margaret Thatcher and believes everything she hears on the telly.
  • Rhys (Paul Rodriguez) is slightly homophobic and initially balks at the idea of sharing a fold-out bed with his fellow miner. However, over the course of a year, Rhys comes to appreciate what Sean and Gene are doing to help the miners. Thanks to Gene's coaching, Rhys even learns how to cook.
  • David (Shane Fahy), who is single and older than Rhys, becomes exposed to a world of art, music, and philosophy that he could never have imagined had he remained in South Wales.
Stephen McFarland, Miles Duffield, and Shane Fahy a scene
 from For The Love of Comrades (Photo by: Lois Tema)

As both sets of men relax and start to bond, the miners begin to feel like part of a family and open up to their hosts. When Gene is gay-bashed on his way home, David and Rhys are quick to administer first aid while Candida (who claims to be Gene's best friend) can only fret about how her accompanist's injuries may impact his performance during her upcoming recital.

Though Sean and Gene's home life may seem well settled, Gene is keenly aware that Sean never seems able to say three critical words ("I love you"). Meanwhile, Sean (who has become infatuated with a handsome activist) has fantasies of traveling to Nicaragua to help the rebels.

 Shane Fahy, Paul Rodrigues, Miles Duffield, and Stephen McFarland
appear in For The Love of Comrades (Photo by: Lois Tema)

As most people are aware, in 1992 the British government shut down hundreds of mines (pits) across Great Britain, which left close to 31,000 miners without employment. While the male ensemble in New Conservatory Theatre Center's staging of For The Love of Comrades was quite strong, a noticeable weak point in the production was Alyssa Stone's performance as Candida. While Stone has a classically-trained voice which can handle the role's singing requirements, her acting was often cringeworthy.

 Miles Duffield and Shane Fahy in For The Love of Comrades
(Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Performances of For The Love of Comrades continue at New Conservatory Theatre Center through October 11 (click here to order tickets).

Monday, September 21, 2015

Aspects of Love

At some point in your life, you've probably tried to end a phone conversation by saying "I love you" only to hear the voice on the other end of the line reply "I love you more." How people express their love for one another has become a constant source of inspiration for novelists, playwrights, songwriters, and poets. Consider the sentiments expressed in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's famous sonnet.
"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death."
For many people love begins impetuously, sparking an infatuation that deepens and grows over time. Consider these two songs: one written by George & Ira Gershwin for 1938's The Goldwyn Follies and the other written by Jerry Herman for 1964's Hello, Dolly!

For some, love is a solemn commitment based on a sense of joy and devotion "to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part." However, that doesn't mean that people can't occasionally mock the way they show their love for each other.

After Elvis Presley's screen debut in 1956's Love Me Tender, many a New Yorker took joy in warbling "Love me tender, love me fat, love me at the Automat." And who can't appreciate Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics for this feisty duet from 1943's Oklahoma!

As the years roll by and a relationship is tested, disturbing questions often come to mind.  Consider these two songs: one written by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill for 1964's Funny Girl and the other written by The Beatles in 1967 for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Romance is all well and good  as a source of artistic fodder. But the love of a father or mother for their children is presumed to be unconditional. What happens when a parent receives a stunning challenge regarding their child or delivers a startling ultimatum to their offspring? Complications quickly ensue.

* * * * * * * * *
The Marin Theatre Company opened its 2015-2016 season with the West Coast premiere of Sarah Ruhl's fascinating 2014 play entitled The Oldest Boy. Beautifully directed by Jessica Thebus, it tells the tale of an interracial couple (a white mother played by Christine Albright and a Tibetan-American father played by Kurt Uy) who are visited by a Tibetan monk (Wayne Lee) and lama (Jinn S. Kim) who arrive with a very specific agenda.

A visiting monk (Wayne Lee) takes a selfie with a lama (Jinn S. Kim)
and Tenzin in The Oldest Boy (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The mother (who has been at home doing household chores while taking care of her three-year-old son) has no knowledge of the Tibetan custom of tulku. At first she is horrified by the prospect of being separated from her child and surprised by her husband's muted reaction to the visiting lama's request.

Ruhl learned about the practice from her housekeeper, who told her of two Tibetans she knew who had closed their restaurant and moved to Tibet when informed that their son was one of the chosen few. As Ruhl became more fascinated by Tibet's cultural traditions, she struggled to figure out how she could write a play about an American mother (probably Caucasian) who was asked to give up her son so that he could be raised in a monastery on the other side of the world. As the playwright explains:
"Tibetan Buddhists believe that while all of us are reborn, high spiritual masters are reincarnated (meaning they get to choose their new life and often choose a context that will be most fruitful to them in continuing their life’s work). I was first introduced to the concept of the tulku system (by which the student searches for the reincarnation of his former teacher) in the beautiful documentary Unmistaken Child. I was so moved by the idea that a student could find a teacher again; that the student becomes the teacher and the teacher becomes the student, lifetime after lifetime. I have been very lucky in my own life to have had extraordinary teachers. I was comforted by the idea that I might have known them before and might know them again.

When considering writing a play about a child who was a reincarnated spiritual master, I wondered how I would cast that role with a three-year-old who could memorize lines, project, and evince the spiritual authority of a 70-year-old lama. This seemed an almost impossible task. Since three year olds aren’t very reliable, I decided to use a puppet. The metaphor of the puppet and the puppeteer is meant to connect the child, or body, with the older spirit that animates the child. I’ve always wanted to work with puppets and I felt that the puppet would be the most clear way to see the child and the child’s previous life at the same time."
Tenzin interacts with his father Kurt Uy() and mother (Christine
Albright) in a scene from The Oldest Boy(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Ruhl doesn't hesitate to credit puppet maker Eric Bass, whose essay entitled “The Myths of Puppet Theater” helped her to understand how to present her story onstage. As Bass explains;
“There are two myths about puppet theater that need to be exploded. The first of them is the myth that the puppeteer controls the puppet. This myth is, of course, supported by numerous catch phrases in our language and culture (He played him like a puppet. Puppet government). All suggest that the puppeteer makes the puppet do whatever he or she wants. Although some puppeteers do try to impose their will on the objects of their art, most know that this is a disservice to both the art and the object. Our job, our art, is to bring the puppet to life. To impose control over the object is, in both spirit and practice, the opposite of this.

As puppeteers it is, surprisingly, not our job to impose our intent on the puppet. It is our job to discover what the puppet can do and what it seems to want to do. It has propensities. We want to find out what they are and support them. We are, in this sense, less like tyrants and more like nurses to these objects. They seem to have destinies. We want to help them arrive at those destinies. It requires from us a generosity. If we try to dominate them, we will take from them the life we are trying to give them.”

While being educated in a monastery, Tenzin speaks with his
mother (Christine Albright) in a scene from The Oldest Boy 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The mechanics of making the three-year-old Tenzin believable to the audience are accomplished through the work of two puppeteers: Melvign Badiola and Jed Parsario (guided by Jesse Mooney-Bullock) working in conjunction with a male actor -- Tsering Dorjee (Bawa) -- who provides the puppet's voice. With the help of dialect coach Lynn Soffer, the result is an exquisite adventure in storytelling. Equally impressive is Act II's reindeer dance (performed by Jed Parsario during Tenzin's enthronement ritual).

Jed Parsario as the Deer Dancer in The Oldest Boy
(Photo by: Ed Smith)

Working on sets designed by Collette Pollard (with costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt), the bulk of the narrative falls on the shoulders of Christine Albright who, as Tenzin's mother, struggles to come to terms with why she should give her child up to be raised in a monastery (and why getting pregnant and giving birth to a girl will ensure that her next child cannot be taken away from her).

As she gropes her way to a better understanding of reincarnation (as seen through the eyes of Tibetan Buddhists), Albright travels a tremendous emotional, psychological, and spiritual distance at the same time that her husband regresses, discovering that he's not so keen on giving up his son after all.

The lama (Jinn S. Kim) comforts Tenzin's mother (Christine
Albright) in a scene from The Oldest Boy (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

As in previous plays by Ruhl that have been seen on Bay area stages (2003's Late: A Cowboy Song and Eurydice, 2004's The Clean House, 2007's Dead Man's Cell Phone, 2009's In The Next Room: or, The Vibrator Play, and 2012's Dear Elizabeth), The Oldest Boy builds to a remarkable spiritual moment which, even for Western audiences who don't believe in reincarnation, can send shivers up and down one's spine.

While the journey may follow a long and winding path, the beautiful performances by Jinn S. Kim and Christine Albright anchor Ruhl's play in a most humane fashion. I also found myself riveted while watching the intense concentration of puppeteer Jed Parsario (whose eyes often seemed to be on fire).

Performances of The Oldest Boy continue at the Marin Theatre Company through October 11 (click here to order tickets).

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One of the glories of Shakespeare's plays is their resilience. Some have proven remarkably adaptable to directorial gimmicks while managing to find new relevance for new audiences in new generations. The Pearl Theatre in New York recently staged a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream which was greeted with the following rapturous words from Ben Brantley (the chief theatre critic for The New York Times):
"Everybody’s a Bottom in Eric Tucker’s riotous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which a cast of five divides and multiplies like a troupe of stage-struck amoebas. Bottom is portrayed most zealously and multifariously by Jason O’Connell. But it seems clear that all the performers here have been infected by Bottom’s bottomless passion to take on any role that might be on offer, and to turn every thought and impulse into theatrical action. In their hands, Shakespeare’s tale of love lost and found in an enchanted forest becomes a gleeful paean to the joys of losing and finding yourself through acting."
Among the attractions at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival was Taiwanese actor Wu Hsing-kuo's one-man version of King Lear.

In August, a production of King Lear opened at the Courtyard Theatre in London that featured a cast of one man and nine sheep.

The California Shakespeare Theater is ending its 2015 season with a new production of King Lear directed by Amanda Dehnert. It's a curious production concept in which Melissa Torchia's costumes are primarily in black and white (until a character is smeared with blood). Although Joshua Horvath's excellent sound design brings Lear out onto the heath in the midst of a raging thunderstorm, I was most taken by Daniel Ostling's unit set, a brilliant mixture of chain-link fencing and smoked glass panels that comes apart very much in the style of a Japanese box puzzle).

Anthony Heald as King Lear (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

King Lear's tragedy is sparked by a vain old man's foolish request for each of his daughters to tell him how much they love him so he can decide how to divide his kingdom. After he has banished his youngest (and truest) daughter from England, his oldest daughters -- Goneril (Arwen Anderson) and Regan (El Beh) -- waste no time trivializing his importance, downgrading his  retinue, and stripping their father of his royal stature. Indeed, one of the most famous quotes from the play is the sadly disillusioned King's comment "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!"

El Beh (Regan) and Arwen Anderson (Goneril) in a scene
from Shakespeare's King Lear (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In her program note, Calshakes's resident dramaturg Philippa Kelly writes:
"Given that Lear reveals himself so early on as self-centered and violent -- not to mention badly in need of some gender-awareness training -- what is it that has continued to draw audiences, for 400-plus years, into the suffering and the psyche of such a character? I think the key lies in empathy -- what the OED defines as 'the power of projecting one's personality into, and so fully understanding, the object of contemplation.' Empathy is the quality that can open up the play as freshly today as in 1605, when it would have shocked the life out of audiences who believed utterly in the rightful predominance of God and the monarchy. Empathy, in other words, is what can make an old, entitled white king somehow a mirror for men, women, even teenagers, of many classes and races through ever-changing times and places."
Kjerstine Rose Anderson as the Fool in
Shakespeare's King Lear (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In Dehnert's production, certain standard ideas about Shakespeare's tragedy have been turned upside down and inside out. The critical character of the Fool has been transformed from a man into a woman (who, although frequently referred to as "boy" remains very much a cisgender woman). Second is the fact that the Fool is played by the same actress (Kjerstine Rose Anderson) who portrays his King's youngest (and least selfish) daughter, Cordelia.

Cordelia (Kjerstine Rose Anderson) and her father (Anthony Heald)
in a scene from Shakespeare's King Lear (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The tragedy of King Lear has never lacked for deception, disillusionment, and death. As Goneril, Arwen Anderson acted as a malevolent ice queen, intent on scheming to murder her husband, the Duke of Albany (Sam Misner) with the help of the bastard Edmund (Dan Clegg) and manipulating her servant, Oswald (Patrick Alparone) to stir up trouble. As Regan (the equally vicious middle sister), El Beh was forcefully clad in leather befitting a dominatrix (an appropriate costume for stabbing your husband to death and mercilessly ripping out an old man's eye).

Anthony Heald, Arwen Anderson, and El Beh in a scene
from Shakespeare's King Lear (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Craig Marker doubled as Regan's husband, the Duke of Cornwall, and a doctor in Cordelia's camp, with Patrick Alparone doing a stunning job as both the King of France (who marries the shamed Cordelia) and Oswald (Goneril's servant). In lesser roles, Aldo Billingslea was an extremely touching Earl of Kent, Charles Shaw Robinson a sadly misguided Gloucester, and Rafael Jordan portrayed Gloucester's legitimate son, Edgar.

Anthony Heald as King Lear (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The real question however, is how well the actor portraying Lear succeeds in capturing the  tragedy of a foolish old man. Dehnert's direction began with Lear's appearance as a doting father, merrily enjoying his power games with "Daddy's little girls" until one of them gives him an answer he furiously rejects. From that point onward, Lear descends with increasing rapidity into anger, bitterness, and madness, becoming an object worthy of pity.

While 71-year-old Anthony Heald gave a stirring and highly energetic performance as Lear, the full weight of his downfall was diminished by Dehnert's staging of the final scene (in which the play seemed to implode as the result of a poorly-conceived directorial choice in which the dead characters silently and briefly came back to life). This unfortunate gimmick sapped the dramatic strength from the play's final moments.

Anthony Heald as King Lear (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

It's too bad no production photos are available of Patrick Alparone's ridiculous Oswald or Dan Clegg's finely drawn Edmund -- whose time onstage easily outshone Lear's eldest daughters. Performances of King Lear continue through October 11 at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda (click here for tickets).