Friday, April 29, 2016

Something's Rotten in the State of Denmark

In 2012, the World Shakespeare Festival did a stunning job of introducing new audiences to Shakespeare and helping mature audiences gain new insights into the Bard's plays.

As the world celebrates the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death (April 23, 1616), lots of people seem intent on getting a piece of the action. From video game makers to Prince Charles, folks can't resist the idea that "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players."

One of Shakespeare's most famous works has been subject to numerous interpretations. For some reason, the melancholy Dane seems to have a perverse attraction for perverse filmmakers. I, for one, loved 2009's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead.

In 2011, the San Francisco Fringe Festival hosted performances of a grand piece of silliness entitled Hamlet vs. Zombies: Something Is Rotting in the State of Denmark. Filled with moments of zaniness, Hamlet vs. Zombies takes the following liberties with the original text of Shakespeare's tragedy:
  • Claudius is a corporate weasel who has been experimenting with a zombie virus. Having convinced himself that no enemy could kill an army that's already dead, he's the only one who holds the virus's antidote (which he carries around in a test tube).
  • Hamlet's friend, Horatio, is the hysterical right-hand man who must always do the Prince's dirty work.
  • The word "dude" creeps into numerous scenes.
  • With his mother, Gertrude, crouching before him in fear, Hamlet finds himself in the perfect position "to give service to my Queen."
  • The script includes such lines as "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not dead -- they're UNDEAD!"
  • All of the Danes have trouble identifying the zombies because they tend to walk, talk, and act like Norwegians.
  • The authors even poke fun at Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta, The Mikado, by describing the zombified ghost of Hamlet's father as "a king of shreds and patches."
Poster art for Hamlet vs Zombies

While some theatre companies choose to update Hamlet or bring in a famous actor who can drive box office sales, few can match the approach of actor David Carl, who has been touring in "Gary Busey's One-Man Hamlet" (an 80-minute vehicle featuring songs, paper puppets, and interactive video) in which he delivers a theatrical experience that has been described as both "psychotic" and "stupid fun."

One almost wishes Oprah Winfrey was still producing her famous daytime television talk show just for the thrill of hearing her bellow "YOU get to play to Hamlet! YOU get to play Hamlet! YOU get to play Hamlet! EVERYONE gets to play Hamlet!"

* * * * * * * * *
That's pretty much the gimmick that inspired Mark Jackson's ambitious, provocative, and remarkably fulfilling production of Hamlet which was recently introduced by the Shotgun Players. As the audience enters the theatre, they encounter a deceptively simple set designed by Nina Ball which creates several playing areas on different vertical levels. A pair of red curtains becomes a powerful tool for entrances, exits, and separating scenes. Lined up in a row downstage are a set of prompt books with the names of the characters to be played by whichever actor is chosen at that performance.

Poster art for the Shotgun Players production of Hamlet

Billed as a game of "Hamlet roulette," Jackson uses a skull filled with scrolls of paper to determine the cast list for each performance. A member of the audience is asked to pick one scroll out of Yorick's skull (so much tidier than using real bullets in a game of Russian roulette). Once the cast list has been announced to the audience, the actors hustle backstage to prepare for the show.

Jackson's gimmick allows for 5,040 casting permutations. Not only does that go a long way toward proving the universality of Hamlet's dramatic potential, it means that no two performances will be alike. The only critical character who fails to make the cut in this version (as is often the case) is Fortinbras, the King of Norway whose speech traditionally ends the play.

The ensemble for the Shotgun Players production of Hamlet
(Photo by: Pak Han)

The cast includes seven performers who are familiar faces to Bay area audiences (El Beh, Kevin Clarke, Nick Medina, Cathleen Riddley, Megan Trout, David Sinaiko, and Beth Wilmurt). Thus, on any given night, Hamlet might be young, old, male, female, Caucasian, African American, queer, or come from a mixed-race family.

The cast for the Shotgun Players production of Hamlet
(Photo by: Pak Han)

As Jackson notes, "During our October 2015 workshop for this production, actor Kevin Clarke nutshelled something about the cast's task that also captured the underlying spirit of the production: We're not here to play any one role. We're here to do the play." In the following video clip, Jackson explains the concept in greater detail.

To suggest that Jackson's approach to Hamlet is ambitious would be a YUGE understatement when one considers that:
  • To celebrate its 25th season, Shotgun Players will be performing five plays in a rotating repertory format.
  • During last October's workshop, the cast worked as a team on editing the script and coordinating how roles would be doubled. Basic blocking for the production was ironed out so that the cast could rehearse with each person assigned a role. 
  • Many of the rehearsals followed a "round robin" format so that, after running a scene once, each cast member would switch to another role. The scene would be then repeated a total of seven times, thus allowing each artist to rehearse all of the parts in the edited script.
Cathleen Riddley (Horatio) shown with El Beh (Hamlet)
(Photo by: Pak Han)
David Sinaiko (Gertrude) with Beth Wilmurt (Hamlet)
(Photo by: Pak Han)

What I found fascinating about this production was how smoothly problems had been anticipated (whenever a character is not needed onstage, one or more actors will be seated along the theatre walls with a prompt book in hand, ready to respond to a performer's call for assistance with a line). Christine Crook's costume design is simple, but remarkably effective. In addition to Heather Basarab's lighting design, special praise should be given to the talented sound designer (Matt Stines) who transforms the extended swordplay in Act II (fought with imaginary swords) into a brilliant and thrilling duel.

Beth Wilmurt (Gertrude), Nick Medina (Claudius),
Cathleen Riddley (Ophelia), and Megan Trout (Laertes) in the
Shotgun Players production of Hamlet (Photo by: Pak Han)

At the performance I attended, Beth Wilmurt (whose work I have long admired) was chosen to play Hamlet. She delivered an athletic and deeply impressive portrayal of the melancholy Dane. Nick Medina was cast as Laertes, with the multitalented El Beh tackling the roles of Horatio and Ophelia (a particularly fascinating interpretation). Kevin Clarke appeared as Claudius and Rosencrantz, with David Sinaiko portraying Gertrude and Guildenstern. Cathleen Riddley doubled as the Ghost of Hamlet's father and a Gravedigger, while Megan Trout appeared as Polonius and a Priest.

Jackson's direction ensures that one's attention does not remain focused only on the "star" playing the lead role. With meticulous cuts that get rid of several minor characters (and minus any attempt at expensive period sets and costumes), this staging of Shakespeare's tragedy allows both the ensemble and the audience to bring something of their own to the story so that the play really is the thing. It's a fascinating experiment that I hope to revisit later this year to see how a different configuration of the cast might alter this production's interpretation of one of history's most famous plays.

Beth Wilmurt as Gertrude and Nick Medina as Claudius in the
Shotgun Players production of Hamlet (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Performances of Hamlet continue through May 15 and later in the calendar year in rotating repertory at the Shotgun Players (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
While Shakespeare's melancholy Dane ponders existential questions like "To be or not to be," a small population of contemporary Danes is dealing with a more insidious dilemma which might be paraphrased as follows:
"To eat, or not to eat -- that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep --
No more -- and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished....

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action."
A scene from The Islands and the Whales

Mike Day's deeply disturbing new documentary, The Islands and the Whales (which was screened at the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival), focuses on a cultural crisis challenging residents of the Faroe Islands who, for years, have filled their stomachs with the meat and blubber of the pilot whales they hunt and kill. Although their physical isolation may have worked to their advantage for many years, the current environmental crisis has brought a new hazard to their dinner tables.

The pilot whales they slaughter have been found to contain high levels of PCBs and mercury, a toxic element which can cause severe damage to a person's neurological system (especially when consumed at a young age). Dr. Pal Weihe (a local toxicologist) reports that after spending 30 years studying thousands of the islands' children, eating the contaminated whale meat may be linked to the high rate of Parkinson's disease in the Faroe Islands. The meat could also cause permanent cognitive impairment to children exposed to its contaminants while in the womb.

At a time when health professionals are warning about the dangers of consuming whale meat (and local species of seabirds are in catastrophic decline), the residents find themselves facing unexpected challenges.
A scene from The Islands and the Whales

For filmmaker Mike Daly, this documentary project held than the usual steep challenges.
"I wanted to make a film about how we live with the natural world in all its brutality and vulnerability. This faraway archipelago had that in spades. We were the first outsiders to descend the cliffs at night on the island of Mikines to film the gannet hunters. We had a thick rope tied around our waists with ten men holding onto it. We rappelled backwards off a 300-foot cliff into the darkness and were still on the narrow ledges at dawn when the light revealed the waves smashing on the rocks 200 feet below. We were covered in bird shit and feathers (which wasn’t the best part). Then the camera malfunctioned (also not good), the monitor turned into rainbow fuzz, and the viewfinder gave me a slight electric shock in my eyeball. I had to film the rest of the day without seeing much of what I was filming and not knowing if the camera was even recording."

A scene from The Islands and the Whales
"Gaining access to a sensitive subject and filming it with depth and intimacy takes a lot of time and patience. Cameras and sound kit are getting smaller, cheaper, less intimidating to subjects, and easier to hike with up hills. These new tools put us at a very exciting point of cinema history. The Bay Area has played a huge part of bringing this film to the screen. Based in San Francisco, The Filmmaker Fund supported the film at a crucial time in production. That support also allowed us to push new technology in post-production. We recorded the whole film in ambisonic sound (which allows us to remodel in post-production with not only a 360º sound field but also the vertical axis). This should be the first Dolby Atmos documentary and ambisonic sourced feature."
A scene from The Islands and the Whales

The Islands and the Whales is not a film for the faint of heart. Despite some magnificent cinematography, watching Danes wade into the shallow waters of a cove to participate in a cetacean bloodbath may be too much for some audiences to watch. Witnessing the process by which residents of the Faroe Islands routinely catch, pluck, and harvest seabirds may be distressing for some viewers. However, the horror of a pregnant woman worrying whether her child will be born with brain damage as a result of mercury poisoning is far more unsettling.

A scene from The Islands and the Whales

An isolated population which has grown up looking to the sea for a very specific food source (and which takes great pride in its whaling culture) has been forced to re-examine its lifestyle choices for the sake of its future generations. The choice is obviously tearing at the heart of many people in the Faroe Islands.

In 1826, a French physician named Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (who some credit with the concept of today's popular Paleo diet) wrote "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." Fast forward 190 years to 2016 and the whaling families of the Faroe Islands are struggling with a frightening new interpretation of "You are what you eat."

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Old Goats and New Tricks

One of the surest ways to break through writer's block is to start making lists. They can be lists of words that rhyme or words that contain a similar sound. If you've got a talent for alliteration, consider what Sir William S. Gilbert accomplished in this verse from 1885's The Mikado:

Each idea for a list is a stepping stone to forming concepts and ideas. One might create lists of favorite foods, classic ocean liners from the first half of the 20th century, bel canto operas, or whatever sounds interesting. Sometimes, some of the items in a list can be organized into a sequence that has a certain rhythm. That's how lyricists come up with phrases like:
  • "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!"  
  • "Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I."
  • "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!"
  • "One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go!"
Don't believe me? Then let's play a game. Suppose we try pairing up song titles to see if we can create an interesting combination:

What happens if you link "You've Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two" from 1960's Oliver! with "If I Were A Rich Man" from 1964's Fiddler on the Roof? You might just stumble upon a delicious scheme to get rich quick.

* * * * * * * * *
If ever there was a film whose foundation rests on the idea that "People, people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world," it would be John Goldschmidt's new release entitled Dough. The double entendre refers to both the rising of yeast in baked goods as well as the rising revenue from organically enhanced baked goods. As the film begins, the audience meets two men who have absolutely nothing in common.

Nat Dayan (Jonathan Pryce) is the owner of a kosher bakery in London's East End who is still mourning the loss of his wife. Although he has been in business for many years, Nat's clientele has been steadily eroding as older customers die or move away. To make matters worse, a greedy real estate developer (Philip Davis) is determined to get his hands on the building that houses Nat's bakery. Why? Because he can make more money by leveling all the properties on the block and replacing them with a multi-level parking garage. The developer has also lured away Nat's assistant by offering him a job supervising the production of kosher baked goods in a local supermarket.

Jonathan Pryce stars as Nat Dayan in Dough

Nat's son, Stephen (Daniel Caltigirone), is a successful lawyer who has no interest in maintaining the family business. As if he didn't have enough problems, Nat's newly-widowed landlady, Joanna (Pauline Collins), is desperate for companionship and thinking about selling the building and moving to Florida.

Ayyash (Jerome Holder) is a dark-skinned teenager whose activities have attracted the attention of the police. A refugee from Darfur, Ayyash is a religious Muslim and a successful drug dealer (mostly marijuana). He and his mother (Natasha Gordon) live in a cruddy apartment whose landlord has no intention of making any repairs. Although his mother keeps telling her son that his father will one day join them in London, Ayyash understands that his father never had a chance of escaping from war-torn Darfur.

Jerome Holder co-stars as Ayyash in Dough

With the sudden loss of a key employee, Nat finds himself short-handed and desperate. His part-time worker is Ayyash's mother, who needs to help her son get a job that will teach him some discipline. When she begs Nat to consider Ayyash for the position, an unlikely match is made.

Soon, Ayyash is surreptitiously dealing dope out of Nat's bakery. When he accidentally drops some marijuana into the dough-mixing machine, Nat's challah starts flying off the shelves. Not only does it bring something special to shabbos, it even becomes a hit at a suburban women's bridge party. As director Goldschmidt explains:
"Some of the most innovative and successful independent films have been comedies with contemporary social themes. I was looking for such a story when I met the screenwriter Jez Freedman. He pitched Dough, a story about the unlikely friendship of an old Jewish baker and a young Muslim cannabis dealer. What I liked was the 'buddy movie' concept. Two guys as different as can be, divided by race, religion, and age. Both prejudiced about the other, but needing each other to survive. This is a universal story, which will be understood everywhere. Tensions between Muslims and Jews are increasing worldwide and the best way to challenge prejudice is through comedy."
Poster art for Dough
"The story is set in a multicultural part of London and is a film of contrasts. From the ethnic high street shops to the corporate environment of a big supermarket chain. From middle-class suburbia to a grotty housing estate. From the staid adult community to the vibrant youth culture. But it's the humanity of the film that connects with people everywhere. The characters touch and move the audience and the casting of the leading roles was paramount. Legendary theatre actor Jonathan Pryce as the old Jewish baker became a real father figure to first time black actor Jerome Holder (who played the Muslim cannabis dealer). I like to think that everyone, young and old, will leave the cinema with a smile on their face and the word will spread about their enjoyment of Dough."

Goldschmidt's film is filled with clever twists that develop from the unlikely pairing of Nat and Ayyash. Although several members of Nat's congregation question his judgment in hiring a Muslim, Nat's granddaughter, Olivia (Melanie Freeman), has no such prejudices. As the relationship between the two men deepens, Ayyash becomes a surrogate son to Nat who, in turn, becomes a surrogate father to the young refugee. Toward the end, the script involves the two men in a delightfully desperate caper which allows them to fight back against the real estate developer and save Ayyash from the drug king (Ian Hart) who has been threatening him over lost income.

A simple mistake by Ayyash (Jerome Holder) breathes new life
into a business owned by Nat Dayan (Jonathan Pryce) in Dough

It's interesting to see the chemistry between a veteran actor like Pryce and a young man making his feature film debut (Holder apparently learned his Darfurian accent by listening to clips on YouTube). Dough is one of those quiet gems which holds a mirror up to the prejudices of the righteous and finds a meeting ground for people. People who need people. It's a most fulfilling indie film. Here's the trailer.

* * * * * * * * *
Although Dough may be a story about people in need, The Heir Apparent is very much about people consumed by greed. The Aurora Theatre Company recently presented audiences with a new version of Jean-Francois Regnard's rowdy farce in a "translaptation" by David Ives (who coined the word to describe literary works that he both translates and adapts). In recent years, Ives has "translapted" such classic comedies as The Liar (written by Pierre Corneille and premiered in 1644), The Misanthrope (written by Molière and premiered on June 4, 1666), and A Flea In Her Ear (written by Georges Feydeau and premiered in 1907).

Katie Rubin, Julian Lopez-Morillas, and Kenny Toll in a 
scene from The Heir Apparent (Photo by: David Allen)

In describing his version of The Heir Apparent (which premiered at the at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2011, Ives stresses that:
"The play at hand (from 1708) titled Le Legataire universel is worldly, utterly honest, satirical without being condemnatory, often bawdy, sometimes scatalogical, now and then macabre, and it craves jokes as a drunkard craves his liquor. Like a drunkard, the play will do anything to find the liquor as Regnard goes off on knockabout detours hunting for laughs (not out of desperation but out of brio). Granted, some of Heir is a shameless rip-off of Molière's Imaginary Invalid. But is there anything in Le Malade imaginaire to match the servant Crispin's inspired impersonations? Because Regnard was writing as French classical theatre was heading into a century of much different character, the verse dialogue is more conversational than Moliere's, the concerns more bourgeois, while the farce is turned up (as they say in Spinal Tap) all the way to eleven."
Julian Lopez-Morillas, Kenny Toll, and Patrick Kelly Jones
in a scene from The Heir Apparent (Photo by: David Allen)

One should not come to a production of Ives's play in search of subtlety. His verse is filled with the kind of bad puns that would make shtick artists and vaudevillians groan. While Callie Floor's costumes, Chris Houston's sound design, and Eric Sinkkonen's unit set frame the action quite nicely, this production is all about director Josh Costello's frenetic pacing (the greedier the character, the more energetic the actor's performance).

Patrick Kelly Jones, Katie Rubin, and Kenny Toll in a
scene from The Heir Apparent (Photo by: David Allen)

As they struggle to rob the aged and ailing Geronte (Julian López-Morillas) of his estate, his maidservant, Lisette (Katie Rubin); his nephew, Eraste (Kenny Toll); and Eraste's manservant, Crispin (Patrick Kelly Jones) work feverishly to keep the audience entertained. Elizabeth Carter scores strongly as Madame Argonte with Khalia Davis appearing as her daughter, Isabelle (whom Eraste wishes to marry). In truth, Mme. Argonte doesn't care whether her daughter marries the stingy old Geronte or the handsome young Eraste -- as long as she gets her fair share of her daughter's dowry.

Kenny Toll, Patrick Kelly Jones, and Katie Rubin in a
scene from The Heir Apparent (Photo by: David Allen)

One of the Bay area's most versatile performers, Patrick Kelly Jones has a field day as Crispin, milking comic moments for all they're worth while Kenny Toll's Eraste is a whirlwind of love and desperation. In a triumph of costuming, Lawrence Radecker draws continued laughter as the cheap, two-foot-tall lawyer (Scruple) who is constantly insulted with casual references to his size.

If I have one criticism of Ives's play it would be that his rhyming couplets can become surprisingly labored. But, as the playwright is quick to explain:
“When Michael Kahn sent me Le Légataire universel to look at for possible adaptation for D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, I had never heard of Regnard. Yet, just as when Michael had sent me Corneille’s Le Menteur two years previously (which became The Liar, which became Michael’s priceless production, which turned out to be the most fun I ever had working on any play), I needed only a single reading to know that I had to take on the piece. The off-color jokes made me howl even while I marveled at Regnard’s facility at rendering them in graceful yet conversational couplets. One can draw a straight line from Légataire to Feydeau’s middle-class nightmares, and straight from there, or should I say down from there, to TV sitcoms. And what could be more up-to-date than his characters’ almost feral obsession with money?”
Geronte (Julian Lopez-Morillas) meets three women after his fortune
in a scene from The Heir Apparent (Photo by: David Allen) 

At the performance I attended, there was no doubt that the audience was having a jolly good time. The Heir Apparent continues at the Aurora Theatre Company through May 15 (click here to order tickets).

Monday, April 25, 2016

A Queen of Many Faces

Historical dramas have an intense appeal for many audiences. To some, there is the vicarious thrill of witnessing history come alive. For others, such dramas offer an opportunity to apply their creative skills to the design of period-specific costumes and scenery. While famous women such as Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Sacajawea, and Harriet Tubman have been portrayed on stage and screen, the three Tudor queens (Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Anne Boleyn) hold a special place in the arts.

Elizabeth I may be the most famous, having been portrayed by such artists as Bette Davis, Leyla GencerBeverly Sills, and Mariella Devia. Mary, Queen of Scots has gotten her fair share of attention thanks to Friedrich Schiller's play, Mary Stuart (1800), and Gaetano Donizetti's opera, Maria Stuarda (1836). But what about Anne Boleyn?

On December 26, 1830, Donizetti's opera, Anna Bolena, had its world premiere at Teatro Carcano in Milan. Late in her career, Joan Sutherland (shown here with Judith Forst) toured extensively in a production that premiered at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto.

In the following clip, Sondra Radvanovsky (who is repeating Sills's feat of singing all three Donizetti queens in one season) performs Anna's final aria during a dress rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera.

On March 5, 1883, a new work by Camille Saint-Saëns premiered at the Paris Opera entitled Henry VIII. The following clip from a 2009 production at the Théâtre impérial de Compiègne features Philippe Rouillon as Henry VIII, Lucile Vignon as Anne Boleyn, and Michèle Command as Catherine of Aragon.

In 1957 Maria Callas starred as Anna Bolena at La Scala
Violet Vanbrugh and Arthur Bourchier in a scene
from the 1911 British silent film Henry VIII

* * * * * * * * *
The Marin Theatre Company recently presented the West Coast premiere of Howard Brenton's play, Anne Boleyn. The company's artistic director, Jasson Minadakis, explains that:
"I love history plays. Maybe it's the long association I have with Shakespeare and his incredible skill with dramatizing historical material. My particular interest in history plays centers around contemporary writers exploring an important moment in time and finding a new wrinkle. Until I read Anne Boleyn I don't think I realized how many of the contemporary history plays I am so fond of focus on the historical record as told by men. For our history is, without question, written by men. When one reads the chronicles of human existence (in one form or another) it's sometimes hard to imagine there is more than one sex on this small rock of ours. It is nothing short of shocking at how little women are written to have had any hand in or influence on events."
Liz Sklar stars in Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"Brenton has taken a completely different approach. When commissioned by London's Globe Theatre to write a play celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, he looked to the beginning of the Church of England and imagined a new history for his country's church that placed Anne Boleyn, the harlot queen, at its very center. Could it be possible that a woman who history remembers as a scheming plotter and seductress could have had revolution, reformation, and perhaps salvation for her country on her mind? Brenton invokes many of the major players in the creation of the Church of England into his history: King Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Martin Luther, Dean Lancelot Andrewes, Doctor John Reynolds, William Tyndale, King James I. But he also asks us to consider how the women of Tudor England were playing a deadly game by altering the course of history, all so that what they desired for the spiritual and political future of their kingdom might possibly become a reality."
Henry VIII (Craig Marker) and Liz Sklar (Anne Boleyn) in a scene
from Howard Brenton's historical play (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Brenton's play received its world premiere on July 24, 2010 and subsequently toured the United Kingdom and Scotland. Anne Boleyn received its American premiere in 2013 at the GAMM Theatre in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 2013.

The playwright took a daring, almost heretical approach to reshaping the story of Anne Boleyn. Brenton follows the action along two dramatic tracks.
  • The primary track takes place in the court of King Henry VIII (1527-1538) and follows the well-known history of Henry's quest to produce an heir to the throne. In order to do so (and with the help of Thomas Cromwell), he finds a curious legal way to maneuver around both the Pope and Cardinal Wolsey. After Henry's efforts lead to the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, he is free to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he can marry the younger (and more fertile) Anne Boleyn.
  • The secondary track takes place in the court of King James I (1603-1604), some 70 years following Anne's beheading, After King James I acquires long-lost copies of two previously banned books by William Tyndale that belonged to Anne prior to her death. he embarks on a ghost hunt to learn about Anne's motivations (which eventually leads to the King's decision to settle England's nagging "religious question" with the creation of the King James Version of the Bible).
King Henry VIII (Craig Marker) is overjoyed to see
Anne Boleyn (Liz Sklar) (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The play begins with Anne's ghost teasing the audience with the contents of a bag she carries. Is it her severed head? Or is the book which got her in so much trouble? Liz Sklar maintains a firm grip on Anne's ambition, sexuality, lust, and eventual demise. At the end of the play, her ghost teases the audience with an implied "Told you so!"

I tip my hat to dialogue coach Lynne Soffer for her work with Craig Marker to delineate the accents of the English king (Henry VIII) and the Scottish king (James I). Brenton's script also has lots of fun demonstrating that James (who was rumored to have had George Villiers, the First Duke of Buckingham as a male lover) had sufficient randiness and queer sensitivity to have enjoyed trying on one of Anne Boleyn's dresses. In 1617, when speaking to the Privy Council, he stated:
"You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else, and more than you who are here assembled. I wish to speak in my own behalf and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had John, and I have George."
George Villiers (David Ari) and King James I (Craig Marker)
in a scene from Anne Boleyn (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Appearing in supporting roles were Arwen Anderson as Lady Jane Rochford, Lauren Spencer as Lady Jane Seymour, Carrie Lyn Brandon as Lady Celia, and Howard Swain as Dean Lancelot Andrewes. Dan Hiatt doubled as William Tyndale and Doctor Jon Reynolds; Charles Shaw Robinson portrayed Lord Robert Cecil and Cardinal Wolsey. David Ari was appropriately mischievous as George Villiers and manipulative as Thomas Cromwell while Ryan Tasker took on multiple roles, including Parrot, Simpkin, and Henry Barrow

Simpkin (Ryan Tasker) and Lady Rochford (Arwen Anderson)
in a scene from Anne Boleyn (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

A quick word about the physical production. While Ashley Holvick's costumes put Craig Marker and most of the men) in period dress as both Kings, most of the women were clothed in semi-modern dress. The forced perspective of Nina Ball's unit set made clever use of optical tricks and was handsomely lit by Kurt Landisman. As always, Theodore J. Hulsker's sound design was excellent.

Performances of Anne Boleyn continue through May 15 at the Marin Theatre Company (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

Saturday, April 23, 2016

With Faith In Their Lord

Whether or not one embraces his politics, Karl Marx certainly had a way with words. Among his more memorable statements are the following:
  • "The rich will do anything for the poor but get off their backs."
  • "Medicine heals doubts as well as diseases."
  • "The only antidote to mental suffering is physical pain."
  • "Anyone who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without feminine upheaval. Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex, the ugly ones included."
  • "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."
Karl Marx (not to be confused with Groucho)
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Marx's views on one particular subject, however, have endeared him to atheists more than any other demographic.
  • "The first requisite for the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion."
  • "Religion is the impotence of the human mind to deal with occurrences it cannot understand."
  • "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."
As a happy, healthy, Jewish homosexual atheist, Marx's views frequently haunt my observations about the politicians I hear as well as the plays and movies I review. In most situations, religion (especially Christianity) is treated as a given or accepted as a default. While nonbelievers often find religion to be patently ludicrous (and religious extremists inherently dangerous), some of us take religion quite seriously.

A sign of the times

What atheists do not do, however, is use religion as a crutch. I doubt you'll ever hear an atheist say "God told me to drown my babies," or something as revolting as "AIDS is God's way of telling homosexuals that they deserve to die."

How does a critic approach dramas in which faith plays a critical role in the lives of its characters ? The same way one accepts the Bible as a book written by men, not God. Or religion as a literary template, rather than fact.

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One of the more curious documentaries screened at the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival is Moby Longinotto's look at an all-American family living in a trailer park in Pearl, Mississippi. Although Pearl (population 26,000) sits across the river from poverty-stricken Mississippi's capitol (Jackson), the area is deep in the heart of the Bible Belt.

While many of today's news stories about transgender people focus on the young, the film's protagonist, Jheri Rae Jones, is such a bundle of contradictions that her story could make anyone's head spin. Over the years she has supported herself and her family by working in multiple professions (hairdresser, schoolteacher, cosmetologist, accountant). At 74, she readily admits that stripping may be the only thing she hasn't done. "I'm not real good about swinging around poles," she confesses.

Snapshot of Jerry Jones as a young man

Jheri started out as Jerry Jones, a shy young man who married a woman he met while working in a beauty salon and raised four sons with her. Their oldest child (Brad) was diagnosed with brain damage resulting from a difficult breech birth. Stanley runs a small mobile locksmith company for which Jheri handles the accounting chores. Trevor was still a virgin at the age of 34. His fraternal twin, Trent, is schizophrenic, autistic and lives in a nursing home.

Jheri Rae Jones is the transgender protagonist of The Joneses

Jerry got a divorce in his thirties, was estranged from his children for nearly eight years, and began preoperative treatments in Brussels in order to transition to a woman. After his wife (a Jehovah's Witness) died and no one was available to take care of Brad and Trevor, Jheri suggested that her two grown sons come to live with her in her trailer.

Two of Jheri's sons, Trevor (left) and Brad (right)
now live with her in a trailer park in Pearl, Mississippi

It took time for her boys to get used to calling their father "Jheri" or "Mom" (instead of "Daddy"), but many of the family's old wounds seem to have healed. Trevor (whose hyper-religious mother had always told him that homosexuality was a sin) finally got up the courage to check out some gay dating apps and find a boyfriend, who was soon welcomed into the family.

One segment of the film shows Jheri, Brad, and Trevor attending services at Jackson's Safe Harbor Family Church, where they are welcomed into the congregation by Pastor Amber Kirkendoll. A devout churchgoer who has always relied on her faith to get her through hard times, Jheri also enjoys going to the gym, taking ballroom dancing classes, and cooking for her boys. On many days, her two grandchildren take the school bus to Jheri's trailer park, where they do their homework while waiting for their father to get off from work.

In a strange sort of way, Jheri's reconstituted family is almost as fascinating as that of Big "Edie" Beale and her daughter, Little "Edie" (who were immortalized by the Maysles brothers in their documentary, Grey Gardens and its award-winning adaptation for the musical stage). The big difference is that the Joneses have a grip on reality and are functioning within their surroundings.

Jheri Jones at home in Pearl, Mississippi

A stylish dresser who likes to dance by herself while listening to music, Jheri long agonized about the possibility that she might be rejected by her grandchildren (Nick and Trinity) once they learned about her past. However, Nick came up with a remarkably open-minded approach to the news, boasting that instead of just having a grandma like all the other kids at school, he was lucky to have a "grandma-pa."

Jheri posing for a photo in her trailer

In a recent interview on the San Francisco Film Society's blog, filmmaker Moby Longinotto discussed how his work was helped by an award from the SFFS Documentary Film Fund.
"New platforms to raise funding have made the filmmaking process much easier than just a few years ago. When the recession hit in ’08, suddenly it became a really difficult time for low-budget filmmakers to get projects off the ground. While crowd source sites such as Kickstarter have made many films possible in the past few years (including helping us continue production for The Joneses), new grants have started popping up as well -- like the SFFS Documentary Fund."
Documentary filmmaker Moby Longinotto
"SFFS has been the guiding light for our film. Like lots of low-budget filmmakers out there, right before we got the call that we received the grant, we had sort of reached that low point where it was like 'Hey, how are we actually gonna finish this thing?' We had raised some money on Kickstarter, a bit of private funding, and received another grant, but we felt that there was still so much left to do. Being selected for the grant was a real boost to our morale to keep going and know that our vision was being supported. The day before the call, my producer’s apartment had flooded and her ceiling had caved in, so it was real pandemonium."
Trevor, Jheri, and Brad pose for a family portrait
while enjoying a cruise on Carnival's Elation

As one watches The Joneses, it's fascinating to see Jheri as a benevolent matriarch who hopes that her grandson will carry on the family name. If she could afford to get Trent out of the nursing home, she would love to look after him in her trailer. Whether accompanying Trevor and his boyfriend to an event at a nearby church with a gay-friendly congregation or supervising her sons as they do their household chores, she is a devoted mother of four boys (who was once their father).

Jheri Jones redefines matriarchy in Mississippi

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Following its world premiere at New York's Playwrights Horizons, San Francisco's Magic Theatre is presenting the West Coast premiere of Mfoniso Udofia's drama, Sojourners, the first installment in a nine-play cycle about the fictional Nigerian Ufot family. The play begins in 1978 with an extremely pregnant Abasiama Ekpeyoung (Katherine Renee Turner) waddling around her Houston apartment in obvious pain as her baby keeps kicking, eager to exit the womb. Dressed in traditional Nigerian garb, she is studying biology at Texas Southern University while on a student visa.

A quiet woman who is exhausted from the heat, humidity, and last stages of pregnancy, Abasiama is waiting for the return of her husband, Ukpong Ekpeyoung (Jarrod Smith), to whom she was wed in an arranged marriage before they traveled together to America. While softly singing to her unborn child in an attempt to calm the kicking fetus, she tries to eat some soup and make a traditional cassava paste using Bisquick.

Abasiama (Katherine Renee Turner) and Ukpong (Jarrod Smith)
in a scene from Sojourners (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

When her husband finally returns, it's obvious that he is eager to assimilate into American culture. Although Ukpong claims to be studying economics, he's spent most of his time in America goofing off, listening to pop music, drinking beer, and even attending a political rally (something which would be inconceivable in Nigeria). Dressed like an American, Ukpong has been using his spare money to buy vinyl recordings by artists like Smokey Robinson. He is much more in love with the sounds of Motown than those coming from his sullen, homesick wife who wishes she could return to her family and the compound where they live in Nigeria.

Even though she is due to give birth soon, Abasiama still shows up for her job every night at a gas station kiosk. On one occasion, she has a run-in with Moxie Willis (Jamella Cross), an illiterate teenage hooker who has the scars to prove that she needs to find a new line of work. During a subsequent encounter, when Abasiama learns that Moxie is homeless and exhausted, she gives the hungry young woman some candy and lets her sleep on the kiosk's floor. As their friendship grows, she encourages Moxie to apply for a job and offers to help her fill out the application form.

Abasiama (Katherine Renee Turner) is surprised by Moxie
(Jamella Cross) during the graveyard shift at Fiesta in a
scene from Sojourners (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

After quarreling with her husband and watching him leave their apartment "to go for a walk," Abasiama heads out to work one night. When she goes into labor at the gas station, Moxie tries to help in a moment of desperate comedy and scared ineptitude. Suddenly, a stranger appears carrying an empty gas can. It is Disciple Ufot (Rotimi Agbabiaka), a fellow immigrant studying in the United States who has been struggling to write his doctoral thesis: “Nigerian Immigration: Reconceptualizing a Country.”

Thrilled to meet a woman from Nigeria (and convinced that this is a sign from God), Ufot quickly tries to become the dominant force in Abasiama's life. Despite the fact that she already has an absentee husband of questionable worth, a lonely, scared teenager looking to her for friendship and guidance, and a baby who will soon need her undivided attention, Ufot is determined to make the woman his and his alone.

Moxie (Jamella Cross) and Disciple (Rotimi Agbabiaka) meet for the
first time in a scene from Sojourners (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Moxie is not so keen on Ufot's macho moves and tells him so in no uncertain turns. While they continue to visit Abasiama in the hospital, the new mother is trying to figure out what to do when she brings her baby home to her husband. Ufot has already spooked Moxie with his mystical insistence on "carving" a space for her job application to succeed. Despite Ufot's fervid protestations of love, Abasiama is not sure whether or not she even wants him around. Why not? For the first time in her life, she is realizing that she can make choices for herself. A taste of freedom can be intoxicating.

With scenery designed by Erik Flatmo, costumes by Karina Chavarin, sound design by David Molina, and lighting by York Kennedy, director Ryan Guzzo Purcell has done a masterful job of transforming the loneliness and despair shared by Udofia's characters into a radiant theatrical experience. With help from dialect coach Jessica Berman, the three African-American actors are perfectly at ease speaking in Ibibio (even if it is difficult for the audience to understand what they are saying). As Magic Theatre's artistic director, Loretta Greco, explains:
"Sojourners is an original odyssey which paints the stark isolation of what it is to be other in our fine country in the year 1978. It is also a love story whose painfully winning humanity is authentic, specific, and steadfast. Although many of you will be hearing Ibibio and Ibibio accents perhaps for the first time, I feel certain because of this authenticity that you will feel the universal pull within this buoyant first chapter of Mfoniso's cycle -- and lean in. I am truly over the moon with the power, insight, and raw theatricality of this emerging voice as she asks some of the more essential questions of what it is to be human within her thrillingly distinct work. She is a bright, bright light for our field."
Moxie (Jamella Cross)  visits  Abasiama (Katherine Renee Turner) in
the hospital in a scene from Sojourners (Photo Credit Jennifer Reiley)

Perhaps the most urgent reason to catch a performance of Sojourners is to witness Rotimi Agbabiaka's searing performance as Disciple Ufot. I first saw this exceptionally gifted actor performing his one-man show ("Homeless") during the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival. Each time I have seen him perform since then, I have been bowled over by his versatility, his fierce dramatic commitment, the complexity of his craft, and the white-hot fire he brings to any theatrical venture. This is a man who gives 150% of what he's got to an audience. It is breathtaking to watch him take a stage and own it.

Disciple (Rotimi Agbabiaka) continues his thesis struggle
in a scene from Sojourners (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Performances of Sojourners continue through May 8 at the Magic Theatre (click here to order tickets).