Sunday, July 24, 2016

Who's Got A Secret?

Game shows have long been a staple of television programming. Although Spelling Bee (1938) was the very first television game show to be broadcast in the United Kingdom, in 1941 Truth or Consequences became the first American game show to be broadcast on commercially-licensed television. From The Price Is Right, Let's Make A DealWhat's My Line? and The Newlywed Game to Wheel of Fortune, Family Feud, Jeopardy! and Hollywood Squares, game shows have developed loyal audiences, proven extremely cost effective to produce, attracted steady revenue from advertisers, and rivaled soap operas for on-air longevity. The secret to their success?  These shows are easily syndicated, surprisingly popular in reruns, and in some cases have even found new audiences on YouTube.

First introduced in 1952 by CBS with Garry Moore as its host, I've Got A Secret went from black-and-white to color in 1966 and was revived in 1972 and 1976. Two more revivals found their way to cable television: in 2000-2001 on the Oxygen Channel and in 2006 (with an all-gay panel) on the Game Show Network (GSN).

Most of the secrets revealed by the show's contestants were fairly benign, showcasing an unexpected talent or revealing a curious fact from a celebrity's past. On one show, Colonel Harland Sanders confessed that he used his first Social Security check to open a restaurant that subsequently evolved into a major food empire. Another guest revealed a deeper, darker, secret.

We all have secrets of one kind or another. Some people have led closeted lives; others have helped a friend with a terminal illness to end his life with dignity. Some people are shopaholics, others may be kleptomaniacs. But for those who indulge themselves in an extra donut, or like to check the browser history on someone else's computer, their secrets are rarely matters of life and death. Such acts may be brought about by nagging doubt or a tendency toward self sabotage, but could hardly have life-changing consequences.

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The 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival opened with a restored print of William A. Wellman's 1928 hit, Beggars of Life. With the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanying this 81-minute film, the screening proved to be an unexpectedly sweet treat for the audience in the Castro Theatre.

Poster art for Beggars of Life

As the film begins, a lone man approaches an isolated farmhouse, hoping he might get something to eat. As he enters, he sees a man seated at a table, facing away from him. When Jim (Richard Arlen) stands in front of the man, he realizes that the old man is dead. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees something move at the top of the stairs. It's the killer -- a frightened young woman who killed her abusive stepfather in self defense.

Jim is desperate for food; the woman is desperate to escape. Their solution? Make a sandwich, hop a train and seek anonymity among the vagabonds who form the nation's hobo culture. They quickly realize that, in order to keep her identity a secret, it would be wise for Nancy (Louise Brooks) to disguise herself by cutting her hair and dressing like a boy.

When Wellman's thriller was first presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival back in 2007, Laura Horak's program note explained that:
"The film was loosely based on Jim Tully’s novel Beggars of Life: A Hobo Autobiography, published in 1924, which describes his hardscrabble existence on the rails during the recession years of the 1890s and 1900s. By the time the film was made, Tully had established himself across America as the 'Mighty Oak of Profane Letters' and throughout Hollywood as an enfant terrible. Born in Kansas in 1888, the scrappy red-haired eleven-year-old ran away from the orphanage his father had sent him to following his mother’s death. He held a variety of jobs before moving to Hollywood in 1921, where he held a variety of jobs including freelance journalist and, for more than a year, publicist for Charlie Chaplin. Brooks bore little affection for Tully. She described him as 'short and fat with his belly hanging over his belt, yellow teeth to match his face and hair, full of the vanity of Vanity Fair and H.L. Mencken.'"
Louise Brooks in a scene from Beggars of Life

In his books, Tully differentiated between the "Road Kid" (a man out for quick adventure) and the seasoned hobo (someone who has wanderlust). "Cops were a hobo's biggest hardship. They'd round you up and try to pin on you everything that had happened in the State of Kansas -- or Illinois or Ohio -- in the last five years. Oddly, the 'bo is at once a cynic and a dreamer. Many of them make for the libraries the minute they hit town."

Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks in a scene from Beggars of Life

Wellman (whose 1927 film, Wings, won the first Academy Award for Best Picture) shot the initial farmhouse scenes for Beggars of Life at Paramount before heading down to Jacumba (a small California town north of the Mexican border) for location shoots. Because only a few trains came through Jacumba each day, there was plenty of time for him to film scenes that took place aboard trains. Louise Brooks would later recall how the train engineers were stunned by Wellman's lack of concern for how a runaway flatcar and caboose plunged into a gorge, dragging the second camera with them and missing the second cameraman by inches.

Although two of the film's stars had previously worked together, there was little love lost between them. In describing her co-star, Richard Arlen (who had worked with Wellman on Wings), Brooks noted that "He had come on the set with his tramp clothes lovingly dirtied and an enthusiastic three days' growth of beard, but he couldn't squeeze out a single tear before the camera." She described the extras as twenty hobos selected by Wellman who enjoyed lighting newspaper fires under people sitting in canvas chairs. Wallace Beery (who had ridden the rails in his youth) told the press "You work harder as a hobo than you do earning an honest living. You've got to use your brains."

Following numerous misadventures riding the rails, Jim and Nancy eventually find themselves at a hobo encampment where they encounter such colorful characters as Oklahoma Red (Beery), The Arkansaw Snake (Bob Perry), Lame Hoppy (Roscoe Karns), and Black Mose (Blue Washington). By that time, word of the killing has hit the telegraph wires and "Wanted" posters have started appearing which offer a $1000 reward for Nancy's capture. After one of the hobos alleges that Jim's young friend is really a girl, he's forced to defend Nancy against the other men.

Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen in
a scene from 1928's Beggars of Life

After a spectacular train wreck (in which Beery's character sacrifices his life in order for Jim and Nancy to escape), the two "beggars" decide to head for Canada. Impressed by how Jim has protected her during their adventures, Nancy starts to feel the pangs of what might become love and the picture ends on a happy note. In his September 24, 1928 review of Beggars of Life in The New York Times, film critic Mordaunt Hall wrote:
“Before the release of this production the makers were quite enthusiastic over the idea of Mr. Beery singing a song that was Vitaphoned, and while one did not anticipate that Mr. Beery was a Martinelli or a Scotti, one hoped that the verbal result of his gruff intonation might be more fruitful than it is. Mr. Beery's introduction as Oklahoma Red is accomplished with an ale barrel (presumably containing some of the precious beverage), to the accompaniment of ‘Don't you hear them bells?’ and then ‘I hate them bells,’ which does not add much to the interest of the unshorn character.”
“It is rather a dull and unimaginative piece of work, which is largely confined to scenes of tramps hopping freight trains. There are some good scenes of trains, but whether they or the actions of the tramps afford entertainment is another matter. Two of the characters, who have embraced the tough art of idleness, spend most of their time shielding the girl who, virtually in self-defense, has shot a man. The hobos, after hopping on a freighter, decide to uncouple the car of which they have taken possession to stop the police sleuths who are searching for Nancy. The girl, of course, ought to be intensely grateful to this glorified aggregation of tramps, but, to the spectator, their actions are seldom convincing.”
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Down in Palo Alto, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley recently presented the world premiere of Suzanne Bradbeer's political drama entitled Confederates. Directed by Lisa Rothe, the action takes place in and around an modern, upscale hotel as a Presidential political campaign heads toward its party's convention.

Confederates has had an interesting path toward this world premiere. Soon after Bradbeer embarked on writing a political thriller, the controversy over the political symbolism of the Confederate flag erupted in full force. Bradbeer was involved in a Playwright/Director's Workshop at the Actors Studio, the LAByrinth Theater Company's summer intensive program, and a workshop at The Lark (where she started to work on the play with Rothe). Confederates was one of the plays workshopped in the 2015 New Works Festival at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and was subsequently chosen to open the company's 2016-2017 season with a fully-staged production. In his program note, the company's artistic director, Robert Kelley, explains that:
"Throughout the past year, sales of 'rebel' flags have skyrocketed throughout the country. When we decided to premiere this headline-hot play during both national political conventions, we wondered what America would be thinking at the time. Now we know: racial and cultural prejudice have become critical issues of the campaign, the press has become a political piƱata, inflammatory rhetoric has replaced civility as the national norm, and the nation seems more divided than ever before. We once celebrated the tumbling of the symbolic Berlin Wall: now many Americans champion the building of one of our own."
Will (Richard Prioleau) corners Stephanie (Tasha Lawrence)
in the women's restroom in a scene from Confederates
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"Confederates focuses on both the ethics of the press and the lingering impact of racist symbolism throughout the country. This play puts a human face on this world of symbols, acknowledging that in our current political landscape, what are negative symbols to some may be positive to others. It explores the critical ways in which the media affects the political discussion, shaping the choices we make about our leaders and our future."
Maddie (Jessica Lynn Carroll) and Will (Richard Prioleau)
try to resolve a crisis in a scene from Confederates
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With only three characters onstage, the audience's attention remains clearly focused on:
  • Will (Richard Prioleau), a young African-American journalist who, after a regrettably drunken hookup in college, was forced to put his ambition on hold after impregnating a woman with what would soon become the light of his life: his daughter, Callie. Excited about being on the campaign trail, Will is looking forward to crossing paths with a childhood friend and, hopefully, nabbing a scoop. While he's eager to gain access to a high-powered poker game (even though he has no idea how to play poker), his young and impressionable daughter wants to talk to Daddy on the phone about the imaginary dragon that has made her too scared to go to sleep.
  • Stephanie (Tasha Lawrence), Will's colleague at their news organization. Older, wiser, and way more cynical than Will, Steph talks twice as fast as anyone in the room and has no understanding of personal boundaries. What she does have, however, is a killer instinct for identifying someone else's deeply-guarded secret. Still not sure whether she should accept her employer's buyout package, she can't imagine being away from the adrenaline rush of chasing down a breaking story.
  • Maddie (Jessica Lynn Carroll), the daughter of the Presidential candidate who seems most likely to be headed for the Oval Office. Maddie met Will back when they were children whose parents had enrolled them in a summer arts camp. Like all the other girls, she had a crush on Will -- not just because he was cute and athletic, but because he was kind to the kids who were usually ignored by others.
Will (Richard Prioleau) and Maddie (Jessica Lynn Carroll) cross
paths on the campaign trail in a scene from Confederates
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Shortly after Will and Maddie run into each other in the hotel lobby, she receives a shocking text from an old boyfriend that shows a naked Maddie draped in a Confederate flag. In today's troubled times, the symbolism of that flag could easily sink her father's political campaign. While Maddie is freaked out that Luke would send it to her, she finds it even harder to convince Will that she posed for the picture as part of an art project aimed at challenging the concept of who has the political right to claim an image as a symbol. As the playwright explains:
"I love working on plays with three characters; it lends itself to such interesting, even primal dynamics. I am fascinated (and horrified) by the idea that one misstep could ruin your life. This is true if you're in the public eye, of course (unless you're Donald Trump?), but not just there. With the modern loss of privacy, I think it is a risk that we all share. You don't have to have skeletons in your closet to be vulnerable. As Matt Bai asks in his recent book about the Gary Hart debacle, should we be defined by your worst moment?"
Maddie (Jessica Lynn Carroll) reacts to a shocking text
in a scene from Confederates(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

There's plenty of political intrigue and backstabbing in the plot of Confederates. During the course of what is essentially a tense all-nighter, there were times when I wanted to reach out and strap a ball gag into the hyperaggressive Stephanie's motormouth in order to calm her down. While the three-actor ensemble in Confederates is uniformly strong (and the story is undoubtedly timely), I found myself blindslided by an extremely curious phenomenon. In a rare display of functional elegance, Pamila Z. Gray's lighting combined with Andrew Boyce's breathtaking unit set stole the show right out from under the playwright's script.

Confederates is a one-act, 90-minute play that requires multiple set changes as its characters move from hotel rooms to conference hallways, from a lobby space near an elevator bank to the hotel's business center. Using a turntable to maximum effect while adding and subtracting standard fixtures and furniture found in corporate offices and upscale chain hotels, this design team added a critical level of dramatic fluidity to the storytelling process that is rarely achieved in a world premiere production of any play about politics.

Stephanie (Tasha Lawrence) and Will ((Richard Prioleau) discuss their
strategy in a scene from Confederates (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of Confederates continue at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto through August 7 (click here for tickets).

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