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).

No comments: