Monday, October 31, 2016

Desperately Seeking Solutions

Research is a strange process that hints at great rewards but doesn't always deliver on its promise. Sometimes the research process can be a lonely quest for truth; at other times it can turn into a wild adventure in web surfing. Whether searching for dinosaur bones, undiscovered planets, or a cure for cancer, research requires intense dedication and some semblance of an idea about what one is hoping to find.

Part of the problem is that not every hypothesis bears fruit. Another factor is that not every mind approaches research with a similar mindset. As a result, many research projects collapse and fold after hitting a dead end. Thankfully, a series of recent scientific discoveries has pointed to some thrilling new medical possibilities.

Engineers and bean counters may often benefit from (or be cursed with) a strictly two-dimensional way of thinking. Artists and dreamers, however, are often able to "connect the dots" in wildly unanticipated ways. What sets these two types of researchers apart is not their adherence to a particular discipline, but the questions they ask and the ways in which their brains process the information revealed during the course of their research.

Words of wisdom

Three recent productions showed what can happen when one's determination to "get to the root of things" goes awry. While each play demonstrates ways in which logic and intuition may yield surprisingly different results, these works ask audiences to consider the uncontrollable and irrational powers of one's imagination.

* * * * * * * * *
Many marketing campaigns have failed because an advertising slogan that worked in one market did not translate well in another. As an example: Years ago, when the Ford Motor Company attempted to sell the Pinto to Brazilians, its marketing campaign failed because, when translated into Brazilian slang, "pinto" meant "tiny male genitals."

Sparked to action by a recent increase in racial tensions and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the CEO of Starbucks decided to take action in March of 2015. With the best of intentions, Howard Schultz asked his "partners" (primarily baristas) to take the initiative in starting conversations about race relations with the company's customers. Although he hoped such conversations might lead to greater empathy and understanding, things did not go as well as expected.

As part of its recent program of short plays, San Francisco's Left Coast Theatre Company staged Anne Flanagan's brief farce entitled The Conversation in which two baristas -- Muffy (Becca Ward) and Chip (Aaron Tworek) -- were seen trying to strike up meaningful conversations with people who were either in a rush to get to work or in no mood to explore the depths of their cultural sensitivity. While Muffy seemed to understand that it was best to leave well enough alone, Chip kept alienating people by playing up to each customer's ethnicity (e.g., assuming that a man who ordered an onion bagel was Jewish).

Aaron Tworek and Becca Ward in a scene from The Conversation
(Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

As directed by Debi Durst, The Conversation was good for some laughs, but arrived with the feeling of a news item that had already played out its course.

* * * * * * * * *
Up in Walnut Creek, Center Rep was presenting a new farce by Ken Ludwig entitled Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery on a unit set designed by Nina Ball with costumes by Victoria Livingston-Hall. Directed by Michael Butler (with sound design by Matt Stines and lighting by Kurt Landisman), the production was a delicious romp.

Mark Farrell as Mr. Stapleton in a scene from Ken Ludwig's
Baskerville:A Sherlock Holmes Mystery (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As he proved with Lend Me A Tenor, Shakespeare in Hollywood, and Moon Over Buffalo, Ludwig knows his way around farce. With the recent success of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder and Patrick Barlow's highly-acclaimed adaptation of The 39 Steps, a new genre of stage farce has a handful of actors appearing as dozens of characters with a sense of great urgency.

In 2007, Steve Canny and John Nicholson staged a comic adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's 1901 Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles for a small British theatrical company named Peepolykus. Although numerous productions of the work have since been staged, when I saw it performed by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in 2014 I was not all that amused. As I wrote in my review:
"What happens when the intended comedic magic fails to materialize onstage? When a fierce farce feels forced, fertile fun flees a futile fantasy. Instead of the audience feeling like they're feasting on fresh fruit, its faith flutters in fear of failure as it feeds on a fallen soufflé filled with flaccid shtick. Get it? Got it? Good!"
Mark Anderson Phillips as Sherlock Holmes in Ken Ludwig's
Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

I'm happy to report that Ludwig's adaptation offers a much more enjoyable theatrical experience, with Mark Anderson Phillips starring as Sherlock Holmes, Rolf Saxon as his trusty friend, Dr. Watson, and three actors (Jennifer Erdmann, Jeremy Kahn, and Mark Farrell) jumping in and out of a wide variety of costumes while deftly handling accents ranging from Texas to Transylvania. In the following clip, the playwright describes how he structured the play to give actors and stage directors as much artistic freedom as possible.

Whether coping with elusive butterflies, ferocious dogs, scheming relatives lusting after a sizable inheritance, or a dizzy blonde, Center Rep's plucky ensemble picked its way through lots of stage fog, rapid-fire costume changes, tacky sight gags, and comic nonsense in a way that would make Charles Ludlam proud. Even something as simple as having Holmes make an entrance in a rolling chair that had been given a very strong push from the wings had the audience chuckling with glee.

Jeremy Kahn (Sir Henry Baskerville) and Jennifer Erdmann
(Miss Stapleton) in a scene from Ken Ludwig's
Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While Mark Anderson Phillips was totally in his element as Holmes, I was quite impressed by the deft work of Jeremy Kahn and Jennifer Erdmann (two young actors with lots of spunk and energy). Mark Farrell and Rolf Saxon rounded out the ensemble with flair to spare. An age-old gag in which a portrait comes to life and steps through the picture frame proved to be as refreshing as ever.

Mark Farrell, Mark Anderson Phillips (Holmes) and Rolf Saxon
(Watson) in a scene from Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Perhaps the greatest joy of the evening was in the zeal with which Holmes would instinctively pierce Watson's plodding research simply by going with his gut. True, there are moments in a play when too much information can clog the mind. But there are also some characters who have a lot of empty space between their ears!

Rolf Saxon (Watson) and Jeremy Kahn (Sir Henry Baskerville)
in a scene from Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

* * * * * * * * *
American Conservatory Theater recently presented the regional premiere of Tom Stoppard's latest play, The Hard Problem. Known for his ability to dramatize intellectual arguments, Stoppard's new work plays out on several levels. The most pressing (and the reason for writing the play) is an existential debate about whether or not consciousness is fundamental or universal (which is framed by another question: Is there such a thing as true altruism or is altruism eternally in conflict with egotism).

Stoppard's first play in nine years derives its title from the way Australian philosopher David Chalmers defined "The Hard Problem of Consciousness" as "the unanswerable question of how a physical, objective brain can create the ineffable, subjective experience of consciousness." To better understand his thoughts on the subject, watch the TED talk Chalmers gave in 2014:

According to Stoppard:
“One idea Chalmers mentions (though not one he espouses) is that the whole notion of consciousness involves 'a kind of illusion or confusion.' All we have to do is explain the objective functions, the behaviors of the brain, and then we’ve explained everything that needs to be explained. Which is to say the functional activity of the brain doesn’t have to cause consciousness, it just is consciousness. Is this a distinction without a difference? Consciousness must be a strange kind of illusion if you have to be conscious to have it."
According to Chalmers:
"Tom really sees the central problem as the problem of value -- how can there be values in a godless physical world? Whereas, for me, the problem is really about subjective experience, rather than about value (or about God). How can there be subjective experience in an objective physical world?”
In medieval times the hottest debate focused on how many angels could stand on the head of a pin. In academia, the proper term for the Stoppard/Chalmers approach to philosophical hair-splitting is mental masturbation. Stoppard is quick to admit that "I have a habit of writing plays in which two points of view are being argued and it’s part of my job to try and give as good an argument as I can come up with for the side I don’t really agree with."

Hilary (Brenda Meaney) and Amal (Vandit Bhatt) are rivals for
the same job in The Hard Problem 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Playwrights need human characters who can voice their arguments to the audience. In The Hard Problem, Stoppard has come up with some easily recognizable types. First up are the ambitious nerds:
Spike (Dan Clegg) and Hilary (Brenda Meaney) share a sexual and
cerebral relationship in The Hard Problem (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Next up are the people with power. Needless to say, these are two men who have benefited immensely from male privilege.
  • Jerry (Mike Ryan) is the volatile CEO of a hedge fund named Krohl Capital Management. A hard-driving businessman with a quick mind for numbers, Jerry is also the founder of the Krohl Institute for Brain Studies. Although Jerry insists that he does not believe in coincidence, his adopted daughter, Cathy (Carmen Steele), is the same age as the girl Hilary once gave up for adoption. When he meets Spike at a party in Venice, it's a professional match made in the stock market's equivalent of heaven.
  • Leo (Anthony Fusco) is the head of the Psychology Department at the Krohl Institute who is interviewing applicants for a research assistant position. True to "bro culture," he conducts his interview with Amal in the men's room. Although, in theory, Amal might seem like the ideal applicant, Leo is more attracted to someone interested in probing the mysteries of consciousness. Unlike Amal's two-dimensional approach to the subject, Leo is intrigued by Hilary's statement that a computer that minds losing a game of chess would be a truly conscious computer because “We’re dealing with mind stuff that doesn’t show up in a scan -- accountability, duty, free will, language -- all the stuff that makes behavior unpredictable.” Leo is also acutely aware that, in the publish or perish world of academic research, he needs to produce an "exciting" paper.
Hilary (Brenda Meaney) and Leo (Anthony Fusco) are colleagues
at the Krohl Institute for Brain Studies in The Hard Problem
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Finally, there is the lesbian contingent at the Krohl Institute.
  • Julia (Safiya Fredericks) is a former college friend of Hilary's who now teaches Pilates in the company's private gym.
  • Ursula (Stacy Ross) is a researcher at the Institute with a droll sense of detached humor who is Julia's partner.
Amal (Vandit Bhatt) and Ursula (Stacy Ross) are two researchers
at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science in The Hard Problem
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The person who upsets the apple cart is Bo (Narea Kang), a young statistician hired by Hilary to help with with the data for her project about altruism. When Hilary's research seems to be failing, Bo offers a unique perspective which could lead to a major breakthrough. Although Bo used to work with Amal at a hedge fund (and has since become involved in a relationship with him), she has fallen in love with Hilary and adjusted the numbers in their report in order to support her mentor's hypothesis.

Hilary (Brenda Meaney) hires Bo (Narea Kang) as her assistant
in a scene from The Real Problem (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The Hard Problem marks the tenth collaboration between Tom Stoppard and director Carey Perloff since she took over the artistic leadership of American Conservatory Theater nearly 25 years ago. Working on a stylish unit set designed by Andrew Boyce (with lighting by Russell H. Champa, sound design by Brendan Aanes, and costumes by Alex Jaeger), Perloff has directed ACT's ensemble in a manner that helps explain Stoppard's hypothesis to the audience without ever losing sight of the more human elements in Stoppard's characters.

Although I especially enjoyed the work of Brenda Meaney, Dan Clegg, Anthony Fusco, and Vandit Bhatt, the much harder problem to be solved is what happens when an audience becomes more interested in the very human issues challenging the characters onstage than the philosophical arguments challenging the playwright in theory.

Performances of The Hard Problem continue through November 13 at the American Conservatory Theater (click here for tickets).

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Beware Your Fantasy -- It Might Just Come True!

Erotic dreams often take the human mind where no person can go in his conscious state. From artists like George Quaintance, James Bidgood, and Touko Valio Laaksonen (Tom of Finland) to Naoki Tatsuya, Sadao Hasegawa, and Naomichi Okutsu, the art that has come from their fertile imaginations has charmed and stimulated millions of fantasies.

A drawing by Naomichi Okutsu

I've recently been enjoying graphic novels by such gay artists as Patrick Fillion and Iceman Blue (whose hypersexualized plots feature chiseled, slightly dumb men with superhero bodies that have occasionally been morphed with other species). Whether a character is mostly man and part porpoise (with a dorsal fin on his penis); half-man and half-cat; or part human and part butterfly, their mightily endowed hero figures demonstrate what happens when science fiction merges with gay beefcake to create fantasy creatures of improbable proportions.

A drawing by Patrick Fillion

It's one thing to dream an impossible dream. What's infinitely more difficult is to realize that some dreams should be left in the realm of fantasy, where they belong. Let me offer a perfect example.

Two decades ago I belonged to a gay gym where one of the regulars was a hulking stranger whose generous endowment inspired lots of speculation from admirers who would gather to watch him take long showers. Although few people knew that this pumped up African American man was also a talented sketch artist, his inposing physique never failed to attract attention and generate gossip. His habit of standing in front of a local drugstore for hours on end so that people could ogle him struck some gymgoers as bizarre. But those who got up the courage to chat with the man discovered that he was happy to respond to their questions.

One night, when he showed up in a dream, his physique had undergone a remarkable transformation. His chest and abdomen were tighter; the muscles more ripped than ever before. His thighs and calves had grown even larger and, as he flirted with onlookers, the front of his gym shorts twitched with obvious excitement. However, as I raised my eyes toward his face, I had a shocking surprise. The part of his body above his neck had been replaced with the shaved head of a wart hog with curved tusks! "Better to leave that vision in Dreamland," I thought, "and let more talented artists supply the visuals."

A drawing by Hotcha

* * * * * * * * *
As part of the Left Coast Theatre Company's evening of short plays that had been "ripped from the headlines," Richard S. Sargent directed a new farce by Rita Long entitled Normal, Illinois. The premise was simple enough. Several years ago, two gay men adopted a baby girl whom they named Annabelle (Becca Ward). Like most female teenagers, Annabelle had become a sullen, scornful daughter who was absolutely mortified by her doting parents.

One day, Bob (Joel Canon) and Stan (Richard S. Sargent) had a brilliant idea. With same-sex marriage now the law of the land, why not adopt another child? Maybe even a boy! In no time at all, the two men were ecstatic to bring home their new bundle of joy. Annabelle? Not so much. If anything, she was now in a deep funk because the little brat had replaced her as the center of attention.

Annabelle (Becca Ward), Bob (Joel Canon), and Stan
(Richard B. Sargent) welcome a new addition to their family in
Normal, Illinois (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

One night, two aliens (played by Connor Fatch and Neil Higgins) landed in the family's back yard and abducted Bob and Stan's new baby boy. While their crisis was perfect fodder for the tabloids, what happened next shocked everyone. Not only did the aliens return the baby but, by the time he was safely back home, he had aged 50 years and memorized every song ever written for Broadway musicals.

Suddenly, Patti LuPone had stiff competition. Idina Menzel was being drowned out. Kristin Chenoweth had been replaced by a true Broadway baby who, although still in diapers, had no trouble belting out everyone's favorite show tunes. If Annabelle was pissed before, this new turn of events left her furious!

Big City Baby (Chris Maltby) is the surprise star
of Normal, Illinois (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

* * * * * * * * *
An old saying claims that "There's no fool like an old fool." While gold diggers have never gone out of fashion (and intergenerational relationships have achieved great popularity on social media platforms like Daddyhunt and Silver Daddies), there are still many older men who, with a steady supply of Viagra or Cialis at hand, are eager to find themselves a trophy wife. Some look to Donald Trump as a role model (he's had three trophy wives!) while others seek out the services of professional matchmakers or subscribe to websites like Goldigger Events and

Back in the heyday of bel canto, an older man's chances of snagging a pretty young woman as his wife were much more limited. Following in one of the traditions of the commedia dell'arte, some operatic composers had great success with opera buffa, a form of comic opera which often required singers with strong diction who could perform what would later become known as patter songs. The most popular of these works was undoubtedly composed by Gioachino Rossini in 1816: The Barber of Seville.

The San Francisco Opera recently unveiled its new production of Don Pasquale, an opera buffa composed by Gaetano Donizetti that premiered on January 3, 1843 at the Salle Ventadour in Paris. True to form, Donizetti's tuneful score includes a rapid-fire duet for its title character and his close friend, Dr. Malatesta.

Although he died at the age of 51, Donizetti composed 16 symphonies, 28 cantatas, three oratorios, 193 songs, and 75 operas (51 of which had their world premieres in Naples). While most of the productions I've seen of Don Pasquale used pretty simple sets and stuck to the 19th century, this new co-production with the Santa Fe Opera and Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona (featuring scenery designed by Chantal Thomas and costumes by Laurent Pelly) is set smack in the middle of the 20th century. As Pelly, who also directed the production, explained in his program note:
“The story of Don Pasquale is not exactly new. We can see these characters and elements of the action in the commedia dell’arte tradition going back hundreds of years. The humor in this opera is wonderful, but there is also truth in it -- truth that is a little sad. Norina and Ernesto are young and in love. Like us, they want it all: marriage and the financial security that only Ernesto’s rich uncle, Don Pasquale, can offer them. How far should we go to get what we want? How far is too far? In the end, they learn the answer. And so do we.”
Maurizio Muraro in the title role of Donizetti's Don Pasquale
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)
“For me, the period shown in Italian movies of the 1950s and ‘60s captures this complexity. They are set in an era that we think of as modern, but they are also visually simplified: the surroundings still show the shortages of World War II, and the films are black and white. That gives them a timeless, universal feeling we have tried to capture on stage in this opera. We can’t tell by looking exactly when it is taking place, but we have all seen homes like Don Pasquale’s. Perhaps it was once luxurious, with the big chandelier and the big upholstered chair he likes to sit in. But now things have gotten a bit shabby. It has not been renovated in a long time, and nothing seems quite right because the scale is off -- a little too big here, a little too small there. This puts the action into an odd perspective that makes us think.”

The production's set design also lends a greater sense of whimsy to Donizetti's opera by turning Pasquale's house upside down for the second act. Needless to say, I fell in love with Thomas's imaginative scenery and, not having seen the opera staged in nearly three decades, was delighted to rediscover how lyrical some parts of this score can be.

Lawrence Brownlee as Ernesto in a scene from Don Pasquale
(Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

Conducted by Giuseppe Finzi (with lighting design by Duane Schuler), this staging of Don Pasquale proved to be a surefire audience pleaser. The comedic bits flew over the footlights with ease, aided by the youthful appeal of tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Ernesto and soprano Heidi Stober as Norina. As the two older, more mature characters in the cast, Maurizio Muraro did a splendid job in the title role with Lucas Meacham serving as a reliable (and constantly scheming) go between for his sister, Norina, and his elderly client, Don Pasquale.

Heidi Stober as Norina in a scene from Don Pasquale
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

I first saw Don Pasquale in the 1970s, when Western Opera Theatre -- a precursor to the Adler Fellowship Program which used to tour the western United States and Alaska (where its singers sometimes traveled to remote communities via bush plane and dog sled) -- was performing Donizetti's opera at the Palace of Fine Arts. With only four principal roles, it was an easy show to tour. The San Francisco Opera last performed Don Pasquale at the War Memorial Opera House in June of 1984 (more than 30 years ago). With this delightful new production, Bay area audiences can breathe a sigh of relief and sing:
"Hello, Pasquale!
Well Hello, Pasquale!
It's so nice to have you back where you belong.
We never knew, Pasquale
Without you, Pasquale
Life was awfully flat, but more than that
Was awfully wrong."

Saturday, October 29, 2016

When Politics Becomes Personal

Without a doubt, 2016 has proven that truth is stranger than fiction. Just consider this political ad for the campaign to re-elect Travis County (Austin, Texas) Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and then compare it to a political skit starring Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Cloris Leachman, and Jimmy Kimmel. Which is crazier? You be the judge.

Say what you will about the 2016 election, but one thing is for sure. It hasn't been boring.
Terrifying? Yes.
Ridiculous? You betch'a!
Surreal? No doubt about it.
Infantile? Words fail.

In recent years, San Francisco's spunky Left Coast Theatre Company has taken to offering two evenings of anthologies that showcase short plays written by members of the LGBT community. This fall's program took its inspiration from that old standard -- "Ripped From the Headlines" -- but added a distinctly gay twist to each story. While two of the more political plays on the program reflected topical stories, when viewed in the wake of the GOP's desperate attempts to rig the system, their humor took on a decidedly more sinister tone than usual.

Poster art for Left Coast News

Written by Terry Maloney Haley & Leslie Balfour (and directed by Haley), Poster Girl took a stab at showing how a certain conservative cable network devoted to "newsertainment" seeks to create malleable female pundits who can purge their conscience on cue in order to regurgitate right-wing talking points. As the producers (Neil Higgins and Richard S. Sargent) prep a woman for her audition, it's obvious that Amanda (Terry Bamberger) is not clear on the concept.

Saner, smarter, more liberal and more level-headed than the usual blonde bimbo hired by the network, Amanda doesn't flinch when two straight actors (Connor Fatch and Joel Canon) performing their idea of what gay men must be like approach her and state that they wish to apply for a marriage license. Amanda matter-of-factly complies with their request. In each subsequent retake, the producers keep coaching Amanda to become more homophobic, increasingly vicious, and insist that gay marriage is an insult to her religious beliefs.

The cast of Poster Girl (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

After several run-throughs, the two male actors have morphed into screaming queens who are practically dry humping each other on the set. Meanwhile, Amanda has been transformed into a rabidly homophobic, paranoid Christian nut job like Kim Davis and the producers have crafted the perfect new talking head to please their demographic of bitter, old, homophobic white men.

Written by Richard S. Sargent and directed by Neil Higgins, The Distraction goes behind the scenes of a conservative strategy meeting in which an aggressive Bible-thumping political consultant named Candice (Terry Bamberger) and a beleaguered bureaucrat named Dave (Karl Schackne) are struggling to find a talking point which can distract some angry Midwesterners from a local crisis (i.e. the contaminated water supply in Flint, Michigan). As they sit in a windowless conference room with a local party official named Brenda (Sabrina De Mio) who is a devout Catholic, they run up against an unexpected flaw in their argument. As she tries to work the old Republican playbook, Candice suggests using same-sex marriage as a political football that can distract voters and scapegoat the LGBT community.

Dan Schackne, Sabrine De Mio, and Terry Bamberger
in The Distraction (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

Under normal circumstances, the mere thought of gay men participating in anal sex might have a sufficient "ick factor" to do the job. However, there's just one problem. For Brenda and her friends, butt sex is hardly a deal breaker.

* * * * * * * * *
When it comes to poetic justice and serendipitous timing, I couldn't have lucked out better than attending a performance of Nogales one night and awakening the next morning to learn that U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton had signed an order holding Arizona's notoriously xenophobic sheriff of Maricopa County in criminal contempt of court. The 84-year-old Joe Arpaio's reaction to the initial charge came as no surprise to anyone.

A co-production by Magic Theatre, Campo Santo, and the Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Arizona, Nogales was inspired by a tragic event on October 10, 2012 -- the day on which 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodriguez was shot 15 times by an agent of the U.S. Border Patrol. The fact that Rodriguez died while walking down a street in the Mexican part of the fabled border town (and the U.S. Border Patrol agent was standing on American soil) was particularly infuriating.

In October 2013, three American artists with deep roots in the Bay area's theatre community traveled to Nogales, Sonora to begin their research into José Antonio’s murder. They were:
Sheriff Joe Arpaio (Richard Montoya) meets with actor Sean
San José in a scene from Nogales (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

What was it like for the three theatre artists to perform research in Nogales? As Montoya recalls:
“We were on the corner where the boy fell when a journalist with a camera just swooped around the corner. He was on us within seconds. It was a little bit 'Who are you? And who are you? And who are you?' and year of living dangerously. But he turned out to be a real journalist and we were in the front page of the little Nogales paper the next day. ('Artists, American artists, here to investigate this murder.') There are times in my life where I've felt like 'Man, this is what I was meant to do. I’m right at the right place where I need to be as an artist and a little bit of a war correspondent, and frankly, a little bit in danger.'”
Stephen Narcho as José Antonio Elena Rodriguez in a
scene from Nogales (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

The result of the trio's efforts was a provocative play written by Montoya and directed by San José that featured video design and photography by Osato. Further enhanced by installation artist Tanya Orellana's scenic design, lighting designer Alejandro Acosta, and sound designer Juan Amador, Nogales is a grandly satirical play which examines the inherent racism and good ol' boy mentality of a corrupt xenophobe and powerful American political figure like Arpaio and contrasts the man's seductively jocular, and deceptively grandfather-like nature with the basic inhumanity of his actions.

Richard Montoya as Sheriff Joe Arpaio in a scene from Nogales
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

In 90 minutes, Nogales covers a lot of ground as Montoya's play explores the hatred and animus spiked by Arpaio's rabid racial profiling, the socioeconomic challenges of life in a Mexican-American border town, and the tragedy of an innocent Mexican teenager who was murdered while walking down a street in his home town. As Donald Trump continues to belch out his battle cry about building a border wall and making Mexico pay for it, director Sean San José points to some of the harsher truths he witnessed during his research.
"The first time I went into Nogales was maybe a decade before. You could literally walk in and walk out. Even if you were brown, you could walk in, you could walk out. The wall is a foreboding, ominous, hideous, pronounced statement to the world that we are not equal, 'You are less. You are separated. Stay the fuck out.' What’s bizarre when you go to Nogales, Sonora, is you see the arbitrary nature of this idea of 'frontera' and 'border.' The money they spend to make this statement topographically? What they have to do to do it? What a waste of fucking money, time, science, engineering, everything -- to crush humanity. It’s just astonishing the lengths they go. We stood up on a hill in the safe houses and had to ask the homie: 'Which side is U.S. and which side is Mexico?'"
Eliana López as José Antonio's grandmother in a
scene from Nogales (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

As Magic Theatre's artistic director (Loretta Greco) is quick to point out, Nogales was a perfect project for a company devoted to new works.
"Nogales bridges the hunger of three artists: Montoya, San José, and Osato. It is born of their yearning for understanding, their hunt for agency, and their desire to build a more humane and just world at this very troubling moment in time through the rich tradition of theatre of testimony. It joyfully and spiritually mixes music, dance, traditional storytelling, spoken word, video, installation, and ritual to make a piece of theater that is lovingly informed by Culture Clash’s super-sized satiric storytelling, Campo Santo’s open, ever-excavating process, and Magic’s dramaturgical expertise in sculpting and producing groundbreaking theater of relevance. Melded together, it is neither pure Clash, Campo, nor Magic. It is an experience unto itself."
Eliana López and Richard Montoya (as Sheriff Joe Arpaio)
in a scene from Nogales(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)
"We hope Nogales unearths the kind of personal politics, humanity, and playful surprises for our audience that ignite rich, heartfelt dialogue and offer a vibrant opportunity to re-examine the character of our great United States. Montoya and Clash were born from the Bay’s fertile theatre soil, yet this marks the long overdue debut of Montoya here at Magic. It has been wonderful to support his dogged journalistic instincts, his uncanny sense of timing, his deep understanding of spectacle, and his great big heart. It is also an honor to continue our relationship with Sean San José and Campo Santo and to see their work continue to thrive in bold new ways. It is no accident that we scheduled Nogales in the frenzied final months of a presidential election year. What better place to wrestle with borders than with a community of theatergoers just days away from heading to the polls?!"
Although Juan Amador, Laura Espino, Eliana Lopez, Carla Pantoja, and Stephen Narcho lend solid support in smaller roles, Nogales rests primarily on the sturdy shoulders of its actor-creators, Richard Montoya and Sean San José. Separately and as a team, they deliver powerful performances that show the audience what can happen when two master craftsmen are at work. I truly hope this play has a longer life span than its initial co-production. Montoya's script is a most impressive achievement.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Snap Went The Dragons

Some people can't suppress their burning need to dominate a situation. Whether they feel compelled to always have the last word in any argument or insist on always being "right," their behavior appears sufficiently pathological to point to a tragic flaw of near-Shakespearean proportions.

Egged on by alcohol or some other substance, they reveal their inner demons while "letting down their hair" or performing aggressive acts of "truth telling." In their agitated state, they may subconsciously be channeling Stephen Sondheim's lyrics for "Send in the Clowns."
"Isn't it bliss, don't you approve?
One who keeps tearing around,
One who can't move.
Where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.

Don't you love farce?
My fault I fear.
I thought that you'd want what I want,
Sorry my dear!
But where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Don't bother, they're here."
Two small Bay area theatre companies recently staged dramas crafted by famous gay playwrights in which, by pushing too hard, pivotal characters discover that they've reached the point of no return. One of these plays, written more than half century ago by a theatrical legend, has become a classic American drama. The other is a period piece, set in 1962 (the same year in which the other play received its highly controversial world premiere).

Knowing what we know today, does hindsight give us 20/20 vision? Or, is it possible that, as audience members age, they become more capable of understanding the complex forces which cause people to sabotage their relationships? Should audiences be surprised to witness people who were always so sure of themselves being transformed into "sadder but wiser girls"? Or should they have been able to spot a potential train wreck long before the final curtain?

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San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center launched its 2016-2017 season with the regional premiere of Harvey Fierstein's poignant 2014 dramedy, Casa Valentina. Based on a true story, Fierstein discusses how he learned about the play's subject from some old photos in a book by Michael Hurst and Robert Swope entitled Casa Susanna and went about conducting his research. The following 30-minute interview with Fierstein is well worth your time.

Directed by Becca Wolff on a unit set designed by Kuo-Hao Lo, Casa Valentina introduces the audience to a group of heterosexual tranvestites who arrive at a bungalow colony in the Catskills for one of their weekend retreats (during which they dress as housewives and perform ordinary chores like cooking, cleaning, primping, and play cards). Their goal is to be able to pass as real women, to feel as if they can finally be the woman they wish they could see in the mirror.

Charlotte (Matt Weimer, seated) has some big news to share
in a scene from Casa Valentina (Photo by: Lois Tema)

The regular attendees include the group's organizer George/Valentina (Paul Rodrigues), The Judge/Amy (Tom Reilly), the eldest, Theodore/Terry (Michael Moerman), and the Southern Belle who likes to quote Oscar Wilde, Albert/Bessie (Jeffrey Hoffman). With George's understanding wife, Rita (Jennifer McGeorge), and Michael/Gloria (Tim Huls) helping out, the group is being joined by two guests.
  • Charlotte/Isadore (Matt Weimer) is a pushy executive who has flown in from Los Angeles to meet with the group. As the publisher/editor of a magazine for and about transvestites, she is the leader of a closeted national society of straight men who like to dress as women that is hoping to incorporate as a nonprofit. To suggest that Charlotte arrives with a rigid agenda would be a severe understatement.
  • Jonathan/Miranda (Max Hersey) is a tall, handsome, and recently married young man who, until this point, has only dared to dress up in women's clothes in the basement of his home while his wife is out of town.
Bessie (Jeffrey Hoffman) welcomes Jonathan/(Max Hersey)
to the club's gathering in a scene from Casa Valentina
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

From the opening scenes, one might expect Casa Valentina to be focused on Jonathan's learning how to feel more comfortable in women's clothing and his emotional adjustment to being in the company of similar-minded men for the first time in his life. Nervous, shy, and terrified that his secret might be revealed to his wife, he is grateful for Rita's calming presence in the face of Bessie's sassy inquisitiveness, flamboyant behavior, and intimidating use of a flash camera.

Jonathan (Max Hersey) is welcomed into the group
in a scene from Casa Valentina (Photo by: Lois Tema)

When Valentina introduces Charlotte to the group, it soon becomes obvious that their visitor from the West Coast is determined to railroad the group into signing an affidavit that would compromise their anonymity. Not only would the affidavit state that no homosexuals are allowed to join the national organization or any of its chapters but, by virtue of the organization achieving nonprofit status, the name of every person who signed the affidavit would become a matter of public record.

For men who just lived through the McCarthy era, the threat of blackmail is both terrifying and real. The Judge, who is about to retire from long years of public service, is absolutely horrified by Charlotte's stance against homosexuals. Most of the other men in the group have absolutely no desire to sacrifice their privacy for the sake of someone else's politics.

Rita (Jennifer McGeorge) questions her husband,
George/Valentina (Paul Rodrigues) in a scene from
Casa Valentina (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Having seen how closely her husband has evolved from thinking of himself primarily as a man (George) to thinking of himself as a woman (Valentina), Rita is finally forced to question what she's supposed to be getting out of their marriage when George regards wearing men's clothes as his "day job." In his program note, NCTC's artistic director, Ed Decker, writes:
"Knowledge is always power. It leads to enhancement of empathy which moves us toward greater acceptance of one another. The conversation around the spectrum of gender has advanced and many more are participating in it. In that regard, the power of theatre is undeniably transformative. Imagine the challenge of living a double life -- then or now. On one hand, bound by society's stringent often-prescriptive heterosexual norms, yet on the other, yearning deep within to set free a truer self. Gender stereotypes linger and judgment can be harsh -- even within the Queer community. As the characters in Casa Valentina exemplify, simply being who you are can undoubtedly be the hardest journey of all. Some 50 years later, we still struggle to embrace identity in its many forms."
Bessie (Jeffrey Hoffman) loves to take pictures of her friends in
drag in Harvey Fierstein'is Casa Valentina (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Soon after the play begins, some audience members may find themselves thinking "Ooh, that is such a Harvey Fierstein line!" That's because one of Casa Valentina's biggest strengths is that, although this is the first play Fierstein has written in 30 years, it has been lovingly crafted by someone who is both a playwright and performer who has lived an openly gay lifestyle. That helps immeasurably to focus on the emotional truths of each conflict and revelation (as well as the simmering rage in Genevieve Perdue's bitter portrayal of the Judge's daughter, Eleanor).

With costumes designed by Keri Fitch, NCTC's cast does a fine job of breathing life into Fierstein's tightly-knit circle of transvestites. I was particularly impressed by the work of Paul Rodrigues, Jeffrey Hoffman, Max Hersey, and Jennifer McGeorge. Although Tom Reilly drew a sympathetic bead on The Judge/Amy, Matt Weimer's portrayal of the self-righteous, bulldozing Charlotte made me want to haul off and deck the bitch. Here's the trailer.

Performances of Casa Valentina continue through November 6 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets).

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For the final production of their 2016 season, the folks at Shotgun Players decided to breathe new life into Edward Albee's 1962 masterpiece, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? How does one revivify a play which has made such an indelible impression on America's cultural landscape (especially after being brought to the screen by Mike Nichols in a film adaptation that starred Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis, and George Segal)?

Throughout his life, Albee (who died on September 16) was notoriously finicky about letting anyone mess with his writing. But that doesn't mean that changing the furniture is off limits. Working with the ever-resourceful set designer, Nina Ball, director Mark Jackson has given George and Martha's home a rather stylish makeover.
  • Their fabled living room, filled with the kind of traditional furniture one might expect to find in academia, has vanished and been replaced by bare flooring with a faux parquet pattern. Without a chair, sofa, desk, or hutch in sight, the main playing area now takes on the shape of a boxing ring without any safety ropes -- the perfect venue for a spectator sport such as watching a bitter couple have at each other.
  • Instead of wondering where anyone goes when they head for the bathroom or bedroom, the audience can now see the ghostly framework of the rooms on the second floor of George and Martha's home.
  • Although the script contains numerous references to Martha's habit of leaving half-empty bottles of booze all over the house, the room's sole decor consists of two recessed and back-lit counters on which stylish bottles of colored liquids stand nobly against the never-ending onslaught of the house's meanest drunk.
Beth Wilmurt (Martha) and David Sinaiko (George) in a scene
from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo by: Pak Han)

Taking advantage of the peculiar physical layout of the Ashby Stage, George and Martha now make their entrance from one of the hallways leading to the auditorium. The audience quickly realizes that while George (David Sinaiko) is still dressed like a frumpy academic, Martha (Beth Wilmurt) is wearing a much more stylish outfit than usual.

Nearly 55 years after its world premiere, Albee's three-act play (which is as meticulously constructed as a piece of chamber music) has lost none of its punch. If anything, the behavior on display during a long night of drinking no longer seems particularly shocking. In a society now dominated by tabloid journalism aimed at a population hungry for titillation, no one should be surprised to see a bitter, sex-starved cougar attempt to cuckold her husband by seducing a handsome young stud right on front of him. There's a reason why Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'s three acts are entitled "Fun and Games," "Walpurgisnacht," and "The Exorcism."

Beth Wilmurt, David Sinaiko, Megan Trout, and Josh Schell in a
scene from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo by: Pak Han)

With more and more people determined to live out their most outrageous fantasies, Albee's tales of an imaginary child who can be used as a bean bag in a toxic, dysfunctional relationship (or a mousy young woman who suffers an hysterical pregnancy) almost seem quaint. In the age of uber-groper Donald Trump, accusations of a drunken mother fiddling with her son's genitals -- or threats of "total psychological warfare" -- are mere appetizers for the evening's entrée: a knock-down, drag-out, no-holds barred battle of wits between a husband and wife who have stayed together for much too long.

Just as some people have wondered what keeps Bill and Hillary Clinton together through thick and thin, over the years there has been plenty of speculation about what kept George and Martha together.
  • With her father still in charge of a small New England college nestled in the fictional town of New Carthage, have the relative comforts of academic life prevented them from going their own separate ways?
  • Has Martha's standing as a big fish in a small pond dulled the ambition necessary to test her venom on larger prey?
  • Have the couple developed a kind of intellectual intimacy which is more durable than whatever emotional and physical attractions initially brought them together?
  • Or has George's tenure simply provided them with the financial security to keep the couple supplied with enough booze to float from one disappointing day to the next?
Nick (Josh Schell) and George (David Sinaiko) share some "man talk"
in a scene from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo by: Pak Han)
  • Are one night's games of Humiliate the Host, Hump the Hostess, Get the Guest, and Bringing Up Baby enough to keep their fangs sharp or is Martha constantly lying in wait (like a moray eel) for an ambitious, social-climbing young professor to join the faculty with hopes of advancing his career by plowing a few pertinent faculty wives? 
  • Has George's "bogginess" left him so resigned to Martha's attacks that it's simply easier to pour himself another drink to dull the pain of his failed marriage?
David Sinaiko (George) and Josh Schell (Nick) in a scene
from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo by: Pak Han)

And what about Nick (Josh Schell) and Honey (Megan Trout), the nice young couple from the Midwest that Martha drags home in the middle of the night because "Daddy said we should be nice to them"?
  • With his voice getting louder and his diction more slurred as he ingests more alcohol, is Nick really as hot as he looks? Or does his inability to get an erection and satisfy Martha's sexual needs reduce him to the mere rank of a houseboy who is "all hat and no cattle"?
  • Is Honey just a naive twit who likes to peel the labels off bottles and lusts for violence? Or a pathetic young woman with a sizable inheritance but precious little self awareness?
Megan Trout as the drunken Honey in a scene from
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo by: Pak Han)

The combination of Nina Ball's set, Heather Basarab's lighting, and Sara Witsch's sound design help to reframe George and Martha's living room as an performance arena. At numerous points in the play one or two characters will sit on the edge of the stage or watch from the sidelines as two bitter and vocabulary-heavy gladiators have a go at each other. Blink closely and you might even think that the following moment looks like a scene from a prize fight in which Nick (as a coach or referee) is trying to restrain Martha and pull the two combatants apart.

Josh Schell, Beth Wilmurt, and David Sinaiko in a scene
from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo by: Pak Han)

While there is much to admire in Mark Jackson's staging, this is one production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where the casting was unusually off balance. Although David Sinaiko, Josh Schell, and Megan Trout gave magnificently complex and layered performances (certainly, the best I've seen for Honey and Nick), Beth Wilmurt's portrayal of Martha was oddly lacking in "oomph" and often seemed to miss the mark.

Many theatregoers expect Martha to be a more full-bodied woman; someone who, in addition to constantly being reminded that she is six years older than her husband, is visibly starting to show signs of corpulence that reflect her spiritual, psychological, and physiological decay. Strangely  enough, as I watched Wilmurt's performance, I found myself thinking "Funny, you don't look shrewish!"

David Sinaiko, Josh Schell, Megan Trout, and Beth Wilmurt in a
scene from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo by: Pak Han)

Performances of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continue through November 20 (and later in repertory) at the Ashby Stage (click here for tickets).