Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Object of Their Affection

There are times when an arranged marriage can solve a lot of problems. Dating is ritualized (and sometimes even supervised), fidelity is taken for granted, and a potential spouse's opinions about their suitor don't really count for much. After all, what's love got to do with it?

Even worse is the fact that, throughout history, most people who were sexually attracted to one another had little understanding of how their genitourinary systems functioned. Whether they believed that masturbation led to blindness or that a stork would magically deliver a bundle of joy that contained a baby, scientific illiteracy reigned supreme.

Unexpected factors (like too many variables) can easily spoil a potential match.
  • What if one woman has multiple suitors?
  • What if multiple women lust after the same man?
  • What if one suitor is richer, more handsome, or more aggressive than another?
  • What if one women has much clearer ideas than her rivals about how to tame the man who seeks to conquer and dominate her?

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Earlier this year, when San Francisco's Crowded Fire Theater Company presented the world premiere of Mechanics of Love, the company's artistic director, Mina Morita, wrote:
"I am thrilled to introduce Dipika Guha‘s incredibly imaginative work to our audience. Written with a finely tuned and absurd lilt, wry poetry, and unnerving humor, her plays break open character stereotypes piece by piece to reveal the shared and vulnerable underbelly of our humanity. She creates worlds that exist beyond the traditional psychological realism of most American theatre, and employs the poetry of unexpected pairings and motives to capture a more truthful human experience."
Ana (Sarah Moser) and Valmont (Johnny Moreno)
in a scene from The Rules (Photo by: Ken Levin)

As part of its Sandbox Series for new works, the San Francisco Playhouse recently staged the world premiere of another Guha play, The Rules, in which she examines the emotional bonds three women formed in college from the perspective of three sadder but only slightly wiser women two decades later. As the play begins, the audience sees 32-year-old Ana (Sarah Moser) meeting the appropriately-named Valmont (Johnny Moreno) for drinks. While their rendezvous may start off as yet another blind date for a single woman who teaches music, Ana can easily see through each and every one of Valmont's come-ons and disarming tactics.

Despite the fact that she is physically attracted to him, her confidence throws Valmont off his usual game. Ana's intelligence threatens his practiced repartee while her seeming availability triggers his lust for another sexual conquest. Though Valmont's personality perfectly matches the profile of a smarmy real estate developer, he's obviously outclassed and easily outmaneuvered by this woman.

Sarah Moser as Ana in The Rules (Photo by: Ken Levin)

Much as she might like to, Ana cannot hook up with Valmont that afternoon because she has a previous commitment to spend time with her friend Julia (Karen Offereins), a 36-year-old unmarried psychiatrist whose difficulty balancing her professional and personal lives has forced her to resort to the strict calendering of every hour in which she is awake. Nothing threatens the intimacy, honesty, and trust of close friends quite as easily as the appearance of an irresistible (and eternally unmarried) bachelor like Valmont, who exudes a bad boy's serpentine kind of charm and lives in an apartment building whose street address just happens to be "666."

Karen Offereins as the overworked Julia in a
scene from The Rules (Photo by: Ken Levin)

Meanwhile, having been set up for a blind date by her close friend, Mehr (Amy Lizardo) who works at one of Valmont's businesses, Julia is easily rattled when Valmont arrives at her office. Having been carefully vetted as a potential date, it's not clear which part of his oily personality disturbs her more: his self-possession or the fact that he instantly senses her weaknesses and moves to exploit them with reptilian accuracy. Feeling professionally threatened by Valmont's aggressiveness (yet physically attracted to the man), Julia tries to throw him out of her office.

The audience soon sees Mehr struggling to cope with the challenges of an apartment she has inherited from a dead relative. At 34, Mehr has always been passed over by her female friends (as well as by potential boyfriends) because she is not as pretty as some other women and can't bring herself to play by "the rules." When Valmont (who is also her landlord) drops in on her, she confesses that she's looking for some cheap labor to help fix up the apartment. "Did you say free labor? Valmont asks as he starts to unbutton his shirt. Suddenly Mehr has options she never imagined to be within her reach.

Valmont (Johnny Moreno) offers some free labor to the frustrated
Mehr (Amy Lizardo) in a scene from The Rules (Photo by: Ken Levin)

Although audiences are used to seeing plays in which three tightly-bonded women try to support each other's dreams -- Anton Chekhov's 1901 classic, Three Sisters; Jack Heifner's 1976 dramedy, Vanities; Eric Overmyer's 1985 adventure, On the Verge; and Wendy Wasserstein's 1992 play, The Sisters Rosenzweig quickly come to mind -- The Rules focuses on three women who were soul sisters in college, but now find themselves yearning for the same sleazy predator. As Valmont continues to practice his studly patter, the three women find themselves in competition with each other. In his program note, the company's artistic director, Bill English, writes:
“While we have good reason to be positive about the progress of women in our time, our society’s multi-generational conditioning that women are somehow inferior to men can still have a powerful effect on women today. This effect can afflict even well-educated women who otherwise know the fallacy of such subversive sexism. These conditionings are often unconscious and can manifest in small invisible ways, such as the unwritten rules of how women should behave, the rules of courtship, and the rules of relating to other women. Like many of the ways racism expresses itself subtly, women can often find it difficult to counter the programming that has been passed down from their mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. We often can’t feel the impact of this deep conditioning until a moment of crisis. Then the cultivated virtues of ‘niceness’ are pushed aside and a more ancient archetypal wildness can emerge. Best-selling author and psychologist Dr. Clarissa Estes describes this wildness as a ‘savage creativity,’ or the instinctual ability to know what tool to use and when to use it. Without it, she argues, women are spiritually and often physically dead.”

Karen Offereins (Julia), Sarah Moser (Ana), and Amy Lizardo
(Mehr) in a scene from The Rules (Photo by: Ken Levin)
"In order to spark an intense debate on these and other compelling issues of our time, Guha throws three friends into the petri dish with the seemingly perfect man.  He appears to be exactly what each of them respectively wants from their ideal mate. How will these three friends be impacted by their simultaneous romance with the same man? What rules will govern the courtships and the friends’ reactions? Will we see ourselves reflected in the characters on the stage? Can we observe how the ‘rules’ of engagement still trap women and men into ancient games of inequality and misogyny? In what ways does our complicity with the existing power structure intertwine with our resistance to it? What will it take to move forward as the curtain closes on this world and we leave the theatre to return to ours?”
Johnny Moreno as Valmont in The Rules (Photo by: Ken Levin)

Inspired by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider's 1995 dating guide (The Rules: The Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right), Guha's play is a coming-of-age story for three lonely women whose hunger for love -- crippled by their psychological blindness and a learned belief in happy endings -- reveals the cracks in the presumed solidity of their friendship. As the playwright explains:
"My plays are worlds of dissolving oppositions. Characters are at once old and young, male and female, alive and dead. Dichotomies collapse in favor of a world rife with the possibility of multiple truths where lives turn suddenly and are inexplicably transformed. I love mixing genres and am most drawn to tragicomedies. The existence of pathos in the midst of hilarity, surprise and horror amidst what is most brutal and brilliant in the world appeals to me. My play worlds are sustained by paradox and passion so immense that it dissolves boundaries."
Mehr (Amy Lizardo), Julia (Karen Offereins), and Ana
(Sarah Moser) in a scene from The Rules (Photo by: Ken Levin)

Beautifully directed by Susannah Martin to allow for awkward silences and embarrassed confessions, the world premiere production of The Rules benefits immensely from a simple unit set designed by Angrette McCloskey and Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky's intriguing lighting design. The four-actor ensemble is dramatically impressive, most notably Karen Offereins as Julia and Johnny Moreno as the lupine Valmont. Sarah Moser (as the woman who eventually gets her man) and Amy Lizardo (as the close friend who must once again struggle with reality) deliver rock-solid performances.

Valmont (Johnny Moreno) and Ana (Sarah Moser)
in a scene from The Rules (Photo by: Ken Levin) 

Performances of The Rules continue through July 16 at the Children's Creativity Museum Theatre (click here for tickets).

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Although personality traits like shyness and timidity may be excruciatingly painful in real life, they are a reliable comedic asset on stage and screen. The bashful lover and bumbling genius are easily recognizable stereotypes. Add in an element of sweet lyricism (as Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh did in the song "Real Live Girl" from 1962's Little Me) and it becomes much easier to win over an audience.

Based on an 1860 comedy by Eugène Marin Labiche, one of the unexpected joys of the 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival was the screening of a newly-restored print of René Clair’s delicious farce, Les Deux Timides (1928). Pierre Batcheff stars as Fremissin, a nervous young lawyer initially seen trying his first case in court. His task is to defend an obnoxious bully named Garadoux (Jim Gérald) who has been accused of beating his wife.

As the film begins, the viewer sees Garadoux acting out two opposing scenarios in what turn out to be Fremissin's increasingly confused closing argument. In one, Garadoux appears as a loutish husband who abuses his wife; in the other he is an angelic spouse who takes delight in doing his wife's ironing and performing other chores.

A split-screen moment from Les Deux Timides

Due to his lawyer's incompetence, Garadoux gets sent to jail for three months, after which Fremissin moves to a more bucolic environment. Two years later, he starts wooing a young woman named Cécile Thibaudier (Véra Flory). Unfortunately, Cecile has another suitor, Fremissin's first client who, following his wife's death, is in no mood for competition -- especially when his romantic rival turns out to be the idiot attorney whose professional clumsiness was responsible for sending him to jail. The one thing in Garadoux's favor? He has been able to browbeat Cécile's timid father (Maurice de Féraudy) into believing that a convicted wife beater could be an ideal son-in-law.

Filled with wonderful sight gags (that begin with a mouse running up a judge's leg, thus causing a panic in the courtroom), Clair's film is like a master class in how to set up great moments of physical comedy without ever letting a romantic farce lose its airy momentum. The filmmaker's biographer (Celia McGerr) has described this comic masterpiece as “one of the most visually ambitious -- and successful -- films of the silent era.”

Poster art for 1928's Les Deux Timides

With live musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Les Deux Timides was an instant hit with the audience in the Castro Theatre (which had screened René Clair’s masterpiece, The Italian Straw Hat, the previous evening ). In her program essay, Monica Nolan explains that:
"Many of the cast of Les Deux Timides were Clair regulars. Jim Gérald, who plays Labiche’s self-centered suitor as a Bluto-like blusterer, was making his fourth film with Clair (he’d most recently played the cuckolded husband in The Italian Straw Hat). Newcomer Véra Flory plays the ingénue Cécile and Théâtre-Français actor Maurice de Féraudy -- who had originally been hired for Clair’s crime film -- is Cécile’s retiring father. In the lead role as timid lawyer Frémissin (fremissement means “a shiver”) was rising star Pierre Batcheff, who, like Clair, had strong ties with the Paris avant-garde. Batcheff followed Deux Timides with Buñuel’s surrealist Un Chien Andalou the following year."
The final split-screen segment from Les Deux Timides

Much of the fun of watching Les Deux Timides involves Fremissin's struggle to get up enough courage to ask Cécile’s father for permission to marry Cécile. Each attempt to approach Cécile's home is met with another hilarious obstacle; a series of crises that build in merriment with the precision and force of a Rossini crescendo.

Pierre Batcheff's easily intimidated character brings to mind many of Buster Keaton's shy Romeos while Clair's use of a split-screen technique was the filmmaker's personal joke (meant as a tribute to the triptychs employed by Abel Gance in 1927's Napoléon). While it's easy for an audience to laugh at a large, intimidating bully like Garadoux, the sweetness of the romantic moments shared between Batcheff and Flory are a joy to behold.

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