Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Living Life in Black and White

After 7-1/2 years of Obama Derangement Syndrome, the horrific events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Dylann Roof's cold-blooded murder of nine African Americans who invited him to pray with them inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, those who had hoped for some kind of post-racial America find themselves confronted by increasing levels of racism.

Two of the most hotly-debated terms to enter popular culture in recent years are "white privilege" and "Black Lives Matter." Whether referencing incidents of police brutality against African Americans, blatant double standards in the media descriptions of terrorist attacks committed by white men versus people of color, continued attempts at voter suppression, or the growing anger of a white supremacy movement, there can be little doubt that American society has been dangerously poisoned by racial bias.

The 20th-century journalist and short story author Italo Calvino once described a classic as "a book that has never finished saying what it has to say." Recently, my Facebook feed included a link to a hair-raising article entitled The Gut-Wrenching History of Black Babies and Alligators, which should be required reading for every American. Lots more documentation about this tragic issue can be found online, including this video clip.

One need only look to the arts to witness how acute the imbalance in our society has become. After the furor that spurred the use of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, it was fascinating to see the diversity on display at this year's Tony Awards. In accepting the Humanitarian Award at the 2016 BET Awards, actor Jesse Williams made the following speech.

Bay area audiences were recently shown two dramas depicting heavily racist stories. One was a silent film from 1920; the other was a play set in South Africa in 1950, when the country was ruled by Apartheid.

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In 2015, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented a rare print of 1913's Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day. As Nsenga Burton explained in her program note:
"Shot then abandoned, the seven unedited reels of film were kept at New York’s Museum of Modern Art after being acquired in 1938 along with everything else from the Biograph vaults. According to MoMA curator Ron Magliozzi, the reels of Lime Kiln Club Field Day were untitled, unidentified, unedited, and had never been released. No script, intertitles, or production credits survive. Examining the footage frame by frame, along with a lip reader to decipher the dialogue, MoMA curators reconstructed the film’s narrative, piecing together an 'archive assembly' of the material."

This year, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened a reconstructed version of Oscar Mischeaux’s African American tragedy, Within Our Gates. Created as a rebuttal to 1915's racist epic (The Birth of a Nation), Within Our Gates focuses on a lot of issues (including Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan) that white America would prefer not to remember. With Michael Morgan conducting musicians from the Oakland East Bay Symphony and members of the Oakland Symphony Chorus, the event included the San Francisco premiere of a film score for strings and voice composed by Adolphus Hailstork.

A scene from Within Our Gates that shows the lynching of
Jasper Landry (William Stark) and his wife (Mattie Edwards)

In his program note, Scott Simmon writes:
Within Our Gates is the earliest surviving feature film by an African American, a distinction that can make it seem merely some historic curiosity. Instead, the film remains dramatically gripping and socially audacious in so many ways. Its mixed-race cast allows it to grapple with issues far beyond the scope both of later all black “race movies” and of tamer Hollywood productions: bigotry, miscegenation, the Great Migration north, racial uplift, and racial betrayal, all under the cloud of Jim Crow-era lynching. This second of Oscar Micheaux’s films (after the lost The Homesteader) centers on a young, light-skinned African American named Sylvia Landry (played by Evelyn Preer, the lead also in eight lost Micheaux silents) with a mysterious past and a mission to raise funds in the North for a struggling school for black children in the South.”
Philanthropist Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn) comforts
Sylvia Landry () in a scene from Within Our Gates 
“It’s no accident that, in the film, Sunday is the day for lynchings, when whole families can festively join in.  The most controversial characters created for the film are the race traitors who toady up to whites: the servant Ephrem, whose offscreen lynching is painfully ironic, and the minister 'Old Ned,' who at least laments his own hypocrisy. Most of its final half-hour is an astonishing backstory tracing Sylvia’s traumatic youth (including the lynching of her foster parents and an attempted rape by her white biological father).”
Armand Gridlestone (Grant Gorman) attempts to rape
Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) in a scene from Within Our Gates

Landry's story takes requires time for the viewer to perceive where Micheaux's film is headed. Her secret is finally revealed by her conniving cousin Alma Prichard (Flo Clements), whose crush on Landry's fiancé, Conrad Drebert (James D. Ruffin) brought a quick end to Sylvia's engagement. The shocking story of the Landry family's lynchings and the depiction of Sylvia's attempted rape left the audience visibly disturbed. As Simmon (who supervised the film's reconstruction by the Library of Congress) explains:
“From 1918 through 1939, with a final film in 1948, Micheaux made some 40 features, an especially astonishing achievement in light of the lack of any institutional structure for their distribution beyond a loose network of theaters and screenings for African American audiences. Micheaux went bankrupt in 1928 (near the close of the silent era) and was forced to rely on white financiers for his sound films. It’s clear that his most uncompromising works were his silents, and more’s the tragedy that so few survive. Within Our Gates was long assumed lost but, in the late 1970s, film historian Thomas Cripps located in Spain’s national film archive a Spanish print released under the title La Negra."
Poster art for 1920's Within Our Gates

While historically interesting, watching Within Our Gates became a fairly tedious experience due to its clumsy acting, disjointed storytelling, and a musical score that was less than exciting. Thankfully, you can watch the reconstructed film in the following hour-long video from You Tube.

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In March of 1982, the Yale Repertory Theatre presented the world premiere of a three-character drama by a South African playwright which had been banned from production in his own country. The first of Athol Fugard’s dramas to premiere outside of his native land, MASTER HAROLD... and the boys has been rattling audience’s nerves ever since.

Adrian Roberts, L. Peter Callender, and Andrew Humann in a scene
from MASTER HAROLD... and the boys (Photo by: David Allen)

The action takes place on a rainy afternoon in Port Elizabeth, South Africa inside the St. Georges Park Tea Room. The year is 1950. Sam (L. Peter Callender) and Willie (Adrian Roberts) are practicing ballroom dancing while discussing girlfriends, dreams, and what life holds in store for them. The two middle-aged black men have been servants to an Afrikaner family for many years. (Sam has essentially been a mentor to the family’s young son, Harold, since he was born). By the time Hally (Andrew Humann) arrives at the café on his way home from school, there are no more customers to serve. As usual, the privileged white teenager expects to spend his time chatting with the two men he has always considered to be his friends. If he can concentrate, he might get to work on his assignment, a 500-word composition.

Andrew Humann, Adrian Roberts, and L. Peter Callender in a scene
from MASTER HAROLD... and the boys (Photo by: David Allen)

There’s just one problem. Hally’s abusive alcoholic father has been in the hospital for a while and his mother may acquiesce to his demand to return home. Having had good reason to resent his father’s drinking, Hally tries to bully his mother over the phone into staying strong and refusing to let the old man leave the hospital. But his mother his weak, his father is a manipulative old drunk and, as a pampered teenager, Hally has precious little influence over his mother. As the young man's frustration with his father starts to get the best of him, he starts acting out, insisting that Sam and Willie call him "Master Harold" instead of Hally. With a fool’s sense of entitlement, the angry teen lashes out at Sam without understanding that this time he has gone too far.

L. Peter Callender, Adrian Roberts, and Andrew Humann in a scene
from MASTER HAROLD...and the boys (Photo by: David Allen)

Directed with aching tenderness by Timothy Near, the Aurora Theatre Company’s production of MASTER HAROLD... and the boys provides a welcome chance for young Andrew Humann (previously seen in Bay area productions of Dogfight, Colossal, and The Totalitarians) to sink his teeth into a much meatier role than usual. The results are most impressive, especially in moments when he is going head-to-head with veteran Peter L. Callender (the artistic director of San Francisco's African American Shakespeare Company), whose portrayal of Sam is heartbreaking. Adrian Roberts provides sturdy backup as Willie, the quieter servant in the household.

Richard Olmsted has designed a handsome unit set for the café, enhanced by Theodore J. H. Hulsker's sound design for the pouring rain. While Fugard’s play continues to pack quite a dramatic wallop, its impact is intensified by the intimacy of Aurora’s 150-seat Alafi Auditorium, with its deep thrust stage and three-quarter round seating. Performances of MASTER HAROLD...and the boys continue through June 17 at the Aurora Theatre Company in downtown Berkeley (click here to order tickets).

L. Peter Callender and Andrew Humann in a scene from
MASTER HAROLD...and the boys (Photo by: David Allen)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Who Says It Can't Happen Here?

In 1967, Ron Jones devised a classroom experiment (labeled The Third Wave) for his 15-year-old history students at Ellwood P. Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California who were studying Nazi Germany. According to Wikipedia:
"Intended as a week-long experiential project, Jones designed lesson plans which created a movement, including a salute, a slogan, and a secret police force. The experiment spiraled out of control and was ended by Jones after complaints from teachers and parents. Jones then revealed that it was a hoax intended to give students a direct experience of how easily they could be misled into behaving like fascists, drawing parallels to the rise of the National Socialist movement in Germany." 
The side effects of Jones's experiment continue to ripple through popular culture.

For decades after World War II, Americans comforted themselves with assurances that "It can't happen here." But the rise of the religious right, conservative hate groups like the Tea Party, and a white supremacy movement that wants to "take its country back" indicate otherwise.

A billboard for a white supremacist candidate for Congress

Consider this video of Zack Fisher at a recent rally for Donald Trump in Phoenix, Arizona.

When interviewed, Fisher (who insists he is only against illegal immigration), stated that:
"I’m super proud of my heritage, I’m from Germany and from Ireland. All of my parents and grandparents came here legally, the right way. That’s what I was trying to explain. We were walking by and got yelled at, saying 'You like that taco? You like that burrito in your mouth?' We just don’t want to put up with that all the time. You shouldn’t have to put up with that. I don’t get it. They’re bringing the hate to the rally. Now I have to carry my gun with a bullet in the chamber. And that’s fine, I carry a gun with me everywhere and always."
Musical theatre fans will have no trouble recognizing this clip from the 1972 film version of Cabaret (which was directed by Bob Fosse with a cast headed by Joel Grey, Liza Minnelli, and Michael York). What follows is a crudely disturbing parody inspired by this year's Presidential election.

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On November 20, 1966, when Cabaret premiered on Broadway, it was a much gentler show than the touring production which recently landed at the Golden Gate Theatre. Based on Jon Van Druten's 1951 play, I Am A Camera, which took its inspiration from Goodbye To Berlin (a semi-autobiographical novel by Christopher Isherwood that was published in 1939), the original production's musical numbers were not as hard-hitting, nor was the staging as confrontational.

Cabaret won eight of the eleven Tony Awards for which it had been nominated, ran for 1,165 performances, and was a triumphant career breakthrough for Joel Grey as the leering Master of Ceremonies. Others in the cast included:
Lotte Lenya (Fraulein Schneider) and Jack Gilford (Herr Schultz)
in the original Broadway production of Cabaret

The story (which takes place as Adolph Hitler rose to power during the last years of the Weimar Republic) may have been new to some members of the audience. But, arriving barely two decades after the end of World War II, it was uncomfortably recognizable to Jewish-American families whose relatives had died in Nazi concentration camps.

In 1993, Sam Mendes directed a new production of Cabaret in London at the Donmar Warehouse starring Jane Horrocks as Sally and Alan Cumming as a hypersexualized Master of Ceremonies who was constantly grabbing his crotch and had a swastika tattooed on his ass. Other changes included the addition of "Mein Herr" (first sung in the film) and the reinsertion of "I Don't Care Much" (a song which had been cut from the original production). The finale, in which the Master of Ceremonies was shown wearing the black and white stripes of a concentration camp prisoner with a yellow Jewish star and a pink triangle badge (identifying a homosexual) was a harsh reminder of what happened to undesirables under the Third Reich.

On March 19, 1998, the Roundabout Theatre Company presented the Donmar production on Broadway at the Henry Miller's Theatre (and later Studio 54) starring Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles, with Denis O'Hare as Ernst Ludwig, Mary Louise Wilson as Fraulein Schneider, and Ron Rifkin as Herr Schultz. Choreographed and co-directed by Rob Marshall, the production was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, won four, and ran for 2,377 performances. Cumming's Tony-award winning performance was hailed far and wide, leading to an impressive career in film, television, and cabarets.

As Cabaret celebrates the 50th anniversary of its Broadway premiere, it offers a fascinating example of how a musical can improve over the years as a result of revisions. Much of this can be seen in how the show's score has been reshaped. For instance, a song Herr Schultz sang at the party celebrating his engagement to Fraulein Schneider has disappeared from the show. Interestingly enough, it reappeared in a segment of the animated comedy television series, Phineas and Ferb.

Several of the songs written for the 1972 film adaptation have been inserted in the score for staged productions. The "Telephone Song-Telephone Dance" performed by patrons of the Kit Kat Klub has been replaced with "Mein Herr" (a cabaret number for Sally Bowles that was made famous by Liza Minnelli).

A wistful song for Cliff Bradshaw entitled "Why Should I Wake Up?" has also been cut. In the following clip, Richard Arnold as Cliff and Jessie Terrebonne as Sally can be seen performing this number in a June 2008 production of Cabaret at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre in New Orleans.

As noted in Wikipedia:
"The cabaret number 'Two Ladies' was staged with the Emcee, a cabaret girl, and a cabaret boy in drag and included a shadow play simulating various sexual positions. The score was entirely re-orchestrated, using synthesizer effects and expanding the stage band, with all the instruments now being played by the cabaret girls and boys. The brutally satiric 'Sitting Pretty,' with its mocking references to deprivation, despair and hunger, was eliminated entirely (as it had been in the film version) and where, in the 1993 revival it had been combined with 'Money' (as it had been in the 1987 London production). 'Money' was now performed on its own. "Maybe This Time" (from the film adaptation) was added to the score."

With costumes by William Ivey Long and Robert Brill's unit set, this touring production (which has been on the road for nearly six months) stars Randy Harrison as the Master of Ceremonies with Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles. Unlike the original production, where it was clear that 19-year-old Sally was a minor talent who slept her way into one job after another, Goss is a nimble performer with sufficient vocal power to aim songs like "Mein Herr" and "Maybe This Time" to the theatre's back wall. A woman who has bounced from one affair to another, her Sally oozes with desperate practicality. Whereas her new boyfriend, Cliff Bradshaw, may be a naive American from New Hope, Pennsylvania, Sally is a graduate cum laude of the School of Hard Knocks. She's much too busy trying to cope with life at street level to be interested in politics.

Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles in Cabaret (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

By contrast, the pessimistic Fraulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran)  and optimistic Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson) seem more vulnerable and sympathetic than ever. Their "pineapple" duet ("It Couldn't Please Me More") took on a new tenderness for an audience unused to seeing older adults flirting quite so demurely.

Shannon Cochran (Fraulein Schneider) and Mark Nelson (Herr
Schultz) in a scene from Cabaret (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

I was particularly impressed with the performances by Ned Noyes as the budding Nazi organizer, Ernest Ludwig; Alison Ewing as the aging prostitute, Fraulein Kost; and Lee Aaron Rosen as Cliff Bradshaw. The big question for many people was how well Randy Harrison (famous for his role as Justin Taylor in Queer as Folk) would do as the Emcee. While his characterization is less coy than Joel Grey's and hardly as salacious and malevolent as Alan Cumming's, he hits the Emcee's marks with strength and, at times, a clownishly unnerving good nature.

Randy Harrison as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret
(Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

The opening night performance had a few surprises, most notably the huge audience response to the moment when the words "Social Democrat" appear in the script. However, following numerous revisions over the past 50 years (and with BT McNicholl recreating the staging by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall), Cabaret has become a much stronger show than it was in 1966. Thanks in large part to Keith Caggiano's excellent sound design, this touring company hit its marks harder and moved with greater propulsion than ever before.

Today, perhaps even more than in 1966, Cabaret delivers a stark warning about the deadly cost of political apathy and willful denial. With Donald Trump on the warpath and the sorry results of England's recent "Brexit" referendum, the risks of a large population casting votes when they can't even understand the consequences of their actions is truly cause for alarm.

Performances of Cabaret continue through July 17 at the Golden Gate Theatre (click here for tickets).

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Walrus and Blubber and Seals, Oh My!

In recent years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has become as much about live music as it is about silent film. Certain musicians (Stephen Horne, David Sosin, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra) have become clear audience favorites. But a special relationship seems to have developed with the Matti Bye Ensemble, which often accompanies the screenings of silent films from Sweden.

With Bye at the piano, the ensemble's members (Kristian Holmgren, Henrik Olsson, and Leo Svensson) perform on glockenspiel, violin, musical saw, mellotron, and percussion, often creating eerie, unnerving soundscapes that work particularly well for films about isolation, depression, depravity, and alienation. Whether crafting the accompaniment for nightmares, illusions, or loneliness, part of Bye's artistic strength is knowing when to remain silent and let the stillness in the theatre say more than even music can.

While part of Bye's strength lies in musical improvisation, he has also composed film scores for contemporary releases. Since 1989, Bye has been the resident silent film pianist at the Swedish Film Institute. Here in San Francisco, the Matti Bye Ensemble has accompanied screenings of:

For the 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, they were tasked with accompanying two films set near the Arctic Circle. One, hailed as a pioneering landmark in the filming of nature, has achieved great name recognition since its premiere in 1922 (even if many movie fans have never seen it). The other, filmed at the tail end of the silent era, is a masterful piece of storytelling set against the bucolic farmland lining a Scandinavian fjord and the ice floes adrift in the Arctic Ocean.

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Released in 1929, The Strongest was a joint effort between cinematographer Axel Lindblom and theatre director Alf Sjöberg in which two romantic rivals for a sea captain's daughter must survive acute challenges on the drifting ice in the Arctic Ocean while hunting for polar bears under the summer's Midnight Sun. Lindblom's previous experience in the early 1920s shooting newsreels in the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean inspired him to create the screenplay

A scene from The Strongest

Originally titled Den Starkaste (The Bear Hunters), the film begins with the return of Skipper Larsen (Hjalmar Peters) and his first mate, Ole (Anders Henrikson), from a voyage on board Larsen's boat, the Viking. A gruff old sea captain, Larsen has imagined Ole to be a suitable husband for his daughter, Ingeborg (Gun Holmquist), a healthy young woman who manages their farm along with her grandmother (Maria Röhr). Nothing would please him more than to retire to the farm and let Ole take over his boat.

The view from Larsen's farm in The Strongest

Although the two women have a clear idea of what it takes to run a farm, Ingeborg has absolutely no romantic interest in Ole. One day, while riding into town, she encounters a handsome stranger named Gustaf (Bengt Djurberg). a sailor who has recently arrived in town. When he shows up at Larsen's farm asking if they have any food, Ingeborg's grandmother tells him that he'll have to do some chores first if he expects to be fed.

Strong, confident, and easy on the eyes, Gustaf gets to work. When the family's farmhand starts coming on to Ingeborg, she immediately fires him and tells him to leave at once. Gustaf (who has never been a farmer in his life) easily takes over the man's duties, happy that doing so can provide him with work, food, and a chance to be near Ingeborg. However, one day, while drinking with some sailors in town, Gustaf gets into a fight. The rifle which Larsen had given to Ole goes missing and Gustaf is accused of theft.

Ready to return to sea, he gets hired by the captain of the Maude, who turns out to be one of Larsen's rivals. As the two vessels head north toward Spitzbergen, Gustaf reveals his skills as a marksman.

A scene from The Strongest

While at sea, the men are filmed hunting polar bears, seals, and walrus on the ice floes. When Larsen's crew discovers that they are hunting in the same area as the Maude, Ole's jealousy takes over and the rivalry becomes much more serious. Although the even-tempered Gustaf argues that there are plenty of seals for everyone, Larsen's crew is intent on proving their territorial dominance. A plot device which continues through most of the film revolves around who has gained possession of the rifle which Captain Larsen had given to Ole. In scenes aboard the Maude, a young boy displays a touching kind of hero worship for Gustaf.

A scene from The Strongest

In his program essay, Sean Axmaker notes that:
"Where American and Europe filmmakers of the 1910s generally relied on locations near the studios or constructed imagined worlds on studio stages, Victor Sjöstrom, Mauritz Stiller, and others took their cameras deep into the wilderness, up into the mountains, onto the rocky coasts, and out onto the seas in order to capture majestic views and unforgiving environments unseen in other national cinemas. Lindblom’s photography enhances the differences between the gentle beauty of the farmland and the harsh environment of the Arctic, a desert of black water, white ice floes, and constant sunlight that can suddenly dissipate into a haze of fog, swallowing ships like seals disappearing under the water’s surface. The landscape wasn’t merely backdrop, it was an essential element of being Swedish and, in turn, became a character in its own right."
A scene from The Strongest

While the scenes that take place on land may seem ordinary, once the crews are battling ice floes, fog, and jealousy, life at sea becomes much more intense. Sometimes the men must jump from one floe to another; in one critical scene, they haul a small boat onto the ice and drag it to the other side of a floe. When a life-or-death crisis develops, one of Ingeborg's suitors must rescue the other, setting up the potential for a winner-takes-all scenario when Larsen's boat returns home.

A scene from The Strongest

The finale, in which both Ingeborg and Gustaf have trouble asking Larsen for his blessing, is quickly resolved when it becomes obvious that Gustaf might otherwise ship out again aboard the Maude. Rather than cede the object of his daughter's love to his rival at sea, Larsen mutters "What the hell, take them both" (referring to his boat and daughter). Grandma, of course, gives her blessing.

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Because we now live in a world where animals are systematically raised for slaughter, it's easy to forget that the hunting and killing of wildlife was primarily based on the need for sustenance. Today's technology allows us to overfish the ocean's stock with the same clinical precision that well-paid poachers, dipshit dentists, and Donald Trump's sons hunt rhinos and elephants (in addition to lions and tigers and bears). It wasn't always so. In many parts of the world people hunted wildlife because they had few other options if they wished to survive. For those living in Arctic regions, time was of the essence if they were to avoid starvation.

Subtitled A Story Of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic, 1922's Nanook of the North was a revelation to viewers who had no idea how many people could fit into a kayak or how to build an igloo.

Compared to the rapid progress brought about by the Industrial Revolution and man's newfound ability to conquer his surroundings, anything Jules Verne might have imagined was seeming closer and closer to reality.

Even after fighting World War I, few people had ever seen someone harpoon a seal and enlist his family's help in order to help pull a dead pinniped through an ice hole and haul it out of the water so it could be cut up and eaten raw. The frigid lifestyle in the upper reaches of Hudson Bay was barely imaginable to most Westerners. In his program essay, David Thomson writes:
"In 1910, Robert J. Flaherty went to the Hudson Bay area prospecting. He was making maps and seeing what was there. He was given a Bell & Howell 16mm camera, and encouraged to film the unknown. So he accumulated and then lost 30,000 feet of coverage when a cigarette he was smoking set fire to the nitrate film stock. But he was enthused by the enterprise and, in 1920–1921, he went back (funded by the Revillon Frères Fur Company) with two more sophisticated cameras. Flaherty developed his film on location and then showed it to the Inuit. He cherished water, snow, and the sight of lone figures trudging along. What did he want or expect? He didn’t know.  Explorers and imaginers seldom do know. "
"In August 1920, Flaherty was in Port Harrison in Nord-du-Quebec intending to film the life of the Inuit. As he set out, he was doing this for its own sake in a spirit of inquiry. But he could not stay open-minded. He saw the Inuit, the epic simplicity of their lives (that’s not necessarily what they felt), and the endless challenge to survive. That meant finding fish, seal, or walrus to eat, and avoiding polar bears, devastating cold, starvation, illness, and an apparent lack of what we might call introspection. It was Flaherty’s genius to combine ethnography, the travelogue, and fictional filmmaking techniques to reveal the human drama of one Inuit family’s survival in the extreme conditions of Canada’s Hudson Bay. Flaherty had a superb eye for the windswept desert of snow, for the way flurries on the surface were like music chasing away silence, and for the revelation that people lived here. Despite its arguable claim to authenticity, it is told with respect and sensitivity and remains an astonishing work."
Filming a seal killing for Nanook of the North

After Nanook and his family built an igloo for shelter,
his dogs were left outside for the night

Throughout the screening, the Matti Bye Ensemble's music supported the footage Flaherty shot in a frigid wasteland much better than previous film scores. While many have embraced the authenticity of Flaherty's documentary, Thomsen doesn't hesitate to point out some of the artistic compromises that were made.
  • Flaherty cast an Inuit named Allakariallak for the semi-scripted role of Nanook.
  • Flaherty requested that the Inuits be filmed using only harpoons, spears, and bows and arrows even though, by 1920, they had begun to use rifles when hunting.
  • In real life, the actresses who portrayed Nyla and Cunayou had been Flaherty's lovers while he was living in the region.
  • Because Flaherty couldn’t get a camera and lights inside Nanook's igloo, he built a mock ice house on a set.
  • The scenes in which Nanook was shown how a gramophone works and attempted to bite a record were staged for the camera.
For those who are absolute purists, Flaherty's artistic compromises in search of dramatic verisimilitude may seem reprehensible. However, under the circumstances, they are easily understandable. If you've never seen Nanook of the North, you can watch the film in its entirety in the following video.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Your Cheatin' Heart

Fifty years is an important milestone for many people. Among those celebrating their 50th birthday in 2016 are prizefighter Mike Tyson, news reporter Soledad O'Brien, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, British Prime Minister David Cameron, opera singer Cecilia Bartoli, and supermodel Cindy Crawford. Hollywood celebrities turning 50 include Stephen Baldwin, Janet Jackson, Halle Berry, Salma Hayek, Adam Sandler, and J. J. Abrams.

Of equal importance, 1966 witnessed the deaths of such cultural icons as Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Sophie Tucker, William Frawley, Ed Wynn, Montgomery Clift, Lenny Bruce, Gertrude Berg, Elizabeth Arden, Margaret Sanger, and Walt Disney. This year, historians have been busily celebrating the semicentennial anniversaries of important events which transpired in 1966.

Among the less famous cultural moments that year was the debut of The Newlywed Game on July 11, with Bob Eubanks as its genial host. A game show which was devised to test how well married couples know each other, The Newlywed Game became notorious for some of the hilarious gaffes made by its contestants.

In the 50 years since the launch of The Newlywed Game, its format has become a popular activity on gay cruises, shows featuring celebrity couples (both gay and straight), and parties among old friends.

Lots of people claim to know a friend's quirks and preferences upside down and in and out. After enough years, some people even develop the habit of finishing another person's sentences. When Cy Coleman's 1962 musical, Little Me, opened on Broadway, Bob Fosse staged a number for Swen Swenson (who was nominated for the Best Tony Award for Featured Actor in a Musical) that could have been put to use by the Chippendales male strippers, a franchise which debuted in 1979. In his review in The New York Times, Howard Taubman praised the number's "steel-like dance of courtship, noting that "Mr. Swenson's furiously volatile propositioning of Belle in 'I've Got Your Number' proclaims him a performer on the way up."

How one gets to know the intimate details of a person's life has changed dramatically with the recent onslaught of artificial intelligence technology. In Patricia Cotter's short play entitled I'm Really Sorry About This (which was presented as part of the annual Best of Playground Festival at Thick House), audiences get a painful reminder of how much data they give up through their use of computers and handheld electronic devices.

As directed by Tracy Ward, Cotter's play stars Morgan J. Booker as Julia, a stressed-out wife who picks up her iPhone while driving and asks Siri (Stephanie Prentice) to send a message to her husband, Robert (Douglas Giorgis). Rather than simply obey a command, Siri starts to ask probing questions about Julia's married life, which only add more stress to her day. Soon, the way Siri pronounces Julia's name becomes insinuating and hurtful, causing Julia to switch her phone settings to a male version of Siri (Nican Robinsroblem.

Cotter's play deftly demonstrates how artificial intelligence "learns" from the data it receives. Whether that information reveals when (and how often) a person dials a specific phone number or what's lurking in a web browser's history, all that data can be crunched and analyzed to form clusters of information that may seem ridiculous to the user yet can form strategic links. While Cotter's script induces plenty of laughter in the audience, it also makes people acutely aware of their potential vulnerability to electronic manipulation. Buyer beware!

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Two of my favorite songs beautifully capture the angst of those who survive the School of Hard Knocks. Written by Stephen Sondheim for 1971's Follies (and introduced by Yvonne DeCarlo), "I'm Still Here" has become an anthem for people who were able to move on with their lives.

Composed by Harold Arlen (with lyrics by Ira Gershwin), "The Man That Got Away" was made famous by Judy Garland in 1954's A Star Is Born. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, the American Film Institute honored Garland's powerful performance by declaring it to be "the 11th greatest song in American cinema history."

Whether one considers such numbers to be battle hymns of the walking wounded or torch songs inspired by broken hearts, they've had a curious legacy. Although many women have sung these songs in performance, many gay men have sung them as they licked their emotional wounds while driving through traffic or sitting alone at home. Is there a market for movies about the wounded egos of those who have been humped and dumped? You bet there is!

Billed as "an ex-love story," the first thing to be said about Tim Kirkman's new film, Lazy Eye, is that it looks gorgeous. Gabe Mayhan's cinematography captures the stark beauty of the Mojave Desert as well as the fluidity of movement as seen from the bottom of a swimming pool.

Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Dean) and Aaron Costa Ganis (Alex)
in a scene from Tim Kirkman's film, Lazy Eye

Dean (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) is a middle-aged graphic artist in Los Angeles who, as the film begins, is being examined by an ophthalmologist for amblyopia. His lazy eye syndrome has been getting worse, mostly because he never did the exercises he was supposed to perform. As a result, Dean is going to have to start wearing progressive lenses.

As a middle-aged gay man who knows how to throw himself a pity party, it doesn't take long for Dean's whining to kick into gear.  Two events, however, trigger a minor crisis.
  • One of the firm's better clients rejects his design for a film poster. While it's not unusual for a client to change its mind, or not really know what it wants, Dean's reflex is to start in on his usual sob story about how no one respects his high artistic standards and clients are never brave enough to do something that will really make an impression because they're too stupid to know when they're being given good professional advice. His boss reminds him that this steady client pays a lot of their bills and instructs him to make the requested changes.
  • In the midst of this aggravation at work, Dean receives an email from Alex Coffina (Aaron Costa Ganis), the handsome hunk with whom Dean had a torrid summer affair 15 years ago in New York. His first reaction to Alex's query "Do you remember me?" is "Of course, I remember you. You fucking broke my heart!"
Aaron Costa Ganis (Alex) and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Dean)
in a scene from Tim Kirkman's film, Lazy Eye

Curiosity, temptation, and a sense of unfinished business can do a lot to rattle a gay man's nerves. As they continue to trade emails, Dean invites Alex to spend a few days with him at his vacation house in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park. Dean makes no mention of the fact that he has a husband, who is away on a film shoot in Australia.

If Dean heads for the desert with a shitload of emotional baggage and a chip on his shoulder, Alex arrives with a very different set of life experiences. He left New York (and Dean) because he fell in love with someone else: a man who became his lover and eventually died. Alex now has enough financial security to live comfortably without having to work. One day he remembered how Dean had turned him on to NPR back when they were dating and decided to track him down.

After Alex arrives from New Orleans, their initial embrace quickly leads to a long overdue sexual reunion. But as each man's past gets hauled out for examination and explanations, questions lead to defensiveness; protestations of love lead to recriminations. With each day, there's another symbolically-heavy dead mouse floating in Dean's swimming pool.

The basic question posed by Kirkman's script is: If two narcissistic middle-aged bears who were once lovers have a series of hissy fits in the desert, should anyone really care? Perhaps, if Dean and Alex were more sympathetic characters, that might be the case. But they're not.

Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Dean) and Aaron Costa Ganis (Alex)
in a scene from Tim Kirkman's film, Lazy Eye

It's likely that this relationship began the old-fashioned way, by fucking first and asking questions later. For these two men to reunite with the wistful idea that they might get back together again is one of those gay fantasies that sounds great in theory but usually collapses under the weight of reality. Physical intimacy and lust are rarely enough to keep a relationship alive.

That's not meant in any way to fault the work of Aaron Costa Ganis and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, two extremely capable actors who do a solid job with Kirkman's script. Michaela Watkins also has some nice moments as Dean's friend, Mel. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Musical Treasures That Never Grow Old

One of the challenges of living in a disposable society with a 24-hour news cycle is the difficulty of producing art that will have a long and healthy shelf life. While paintings, sculptures, film, and visual art stand a pretty good chance of surviving the fickle tastes of live audiences, new works of opera and musical theatre must constantly struggle for longevity. Until 1972, the 10 musicals with the longest-running original productions on Broadway were:

Curiously, a memorable theatrical performance isn't the only factor that can keep a show running. Shortly after Pippin opened on Broadway on October 23, 1972, Bob Fosse directed the first television ad for a Broadway show. By the time Pippin closed on June 12, 1977, it had played for 1,944 performances. Following the success of the show's 2013 revival (which ran for 709 performances), a film adaptation is now in the works.

The success of using 30-second TV spots was amplified by advances in computer technology that could integrate marketing, reinforce branding, and attract more tourists through on-line ticketing. Since 1972, musicals whose original Broadway productions have passed the 5,000-performance mark include The Lion King, Les Misérables, A Chorus Line, Beauty and the Beast, Wicked, Rent, and Mamma Mia!
  • The original production of Chicago (which opened on Broadway on June 3, 1975) ran for 936 performances. The revival (which premiered at City Center Encores! and reopened on Broadway on November 14, 1996, has racked up more than 8,100 performances. A film version was released in 2002.
  • Cats, which opened on Broadway on September 23, 1982, ran for 7,485 performances and will soon be revived at the Neil Simon Theatre.  A film adaptation is scheduled to begin production in 2017 or 2018.
  • The Phantom of the Opera (which opened at the Majestic Theatre on January 26, 1988) has racked up more than 11,800 performances on Broadway and become an international cash cow. In 2004, a film adaptation was released in theatres.

Social media (which can be used to build fan clubs, spur audience development, sell show-related merchandise, and help promote touring productions). is one of the primary reasons that the first BroadwayCon (held in January 2016) was such a huge success. This theatrical event seems destined to become an annual tourist attraction in New York City.

Although opera may be a 400-year-old art form, it supports comedy and tragedy with a solid musical foundation. One can easily point to specific musicals that have blurred the boundaries between opera and musical theatre (Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, Street Scene, The Most Happy Fella, West Side Story, Candide, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, and Martin Guerre).

A recent opportunity to experience a classic Verdian opera (which premiered nearly 150 years ago) and a Rodgers and Hammerstein show (that changed the course of musical theatre when it opened on Broadway 73 years ago) provided plenty of food for thought.
  • Each revolved around frustrated lovers under attack by an unsympathetic villain.
  • Each had a superb score.
  • Each was beautifully produced and performed.
  • Even though I had not seen either work in several decades, each offered new insights and cause for wonder (as great works of art frequently do).
Both performances also delivered welcome moments of reassurance that I was not suffering any auditory loss. In recent years, I've had trouble hearing conversations while dining in restaurants with horrendous acoustics. At performances which were overamplified (especially in San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre), there has frequently been so much sound distortion that I could barely comprehend 25% of a musical's lyrics.

A recent audiology examination showed that, while there is some loss of high frequency hearing (which is typical for people my age), the biggest problem I've been having is with background noise. At the opera, I was able to luxuriate in the splendor of well-supported voices that were projected naturally (without any amplification). At a musical comedy whose sound design was superb, I had no problem hearing any of the show's dialogue or lyrics.

* * * * * * * * *
On March 11, 1867, a five-act opera by Giuseppe Verdi (Don Carlos) received its world premiere from the Paris Opera. Several productions sung in Italian (rather than French) and entitled Don Carlo quickly ensued...

For a new opera to receive separate productions in four cities in the year following its world premiere is quite remarkable. The fact that it was followed by the world premieres of Aida (1871), Otello (1887), and Falstaff (1983), as well as revisions to La Forza del Destino and Simon Boccanegra, is a bit mindboggling.

As an extended "work in progress," Verdi's longest opera underwent numerous cuts and revisions during its first two decades onstage.
  • A revised version debuted in Naples in November 1872 (following the opera's disastrous local premiere in 1871).
  • Another revision was unveiled at Milan's La Scala on January 10, 1884.
  • A final revision (which restored Act I's Fontainebleu scene) premiered on December 19, 1886 in Modena
Ana Maria Martinez as Elisabetta in Verdi's Don Carlo
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Based on a 1787 play by Friedrich Schiller, productions of Don Carlo (which takes place during the Spanish Inquisition) rest on a plot filled with political intrigue, economic inequality, royal backstabbing, and the repressed emotions of an heir apparent whose presumed bride was suddenly bequeathed to his uncle in order to preserve the peace following a war between France and Spain. At 4-1/2 hours in length, this opera could easily wear some audiences down were it not for Verdi’s glorious score. As San Francisco Opera’s music director, Nicola Luisotti explains:
“A night with Don Carlo (the sum of Italian romanticism) is a long evening of joy and mystic revelations. Many people cite the grandeur of the duets between Elisabetta and Carlo, for example, or the dramatic confrontation between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor. But, in truth, every page of this opera is a masterwork; every single detail is just what an opera should be. The harmonies are extraordinary, as is the orchestration. Much of the orchestration is the same that Verdi used for Aida but for a distinctive use of four bassoons (as in the Requiem) and two piston cornets and trumpets. There is also a dramatic effect with a tam-tam (a type of gong) at the end. But what is really amazing is the quality of the music itself.”
Don Carlo (Michael Fabiano) and Rodrigo (Mariusz Kwiecien)
in a scene from Verdi's Don Carlo (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
“As someone who has conducted most of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas, I can say with certainty that Don Carlo is the most important project that was undertaken by Verdi since the start of his career. One reason why it is so powerful is the long creative process that it took Verdi to complete it. The first version, which premiered in 1867, was out of deference to French grand opera with its ballet and epic scale. (The story goes that this original version of Don Carlos still had to be cut by half an hour because the last train left Paris for the suburbs at 12:25 a.m.) The Italian version we are doing, sans ballet, is called the “Modena version” for its 1886 premiere in Modena, Italy.”

Over the course of its history, the Metropolitan Opera has presented 217 performances of Don Carlo. The last time I saw the opera performed in San Francisco was in a 1986 staging of John Cox's production. This summer, as part of his farewell season as General Director, David Gockley produced Verdi's masterpiece using Zack Brown's darkly handsome sets from the company's 1998 production.

Directed by Emilio Sagi (with the help of chorus director Ian Robertson, fight director Dave Maier, and lighting designer Gary Marder), this revival provided an evening filled with magnificent singing. From the leading soloists to Nian Wang's Tebaldo; from the sonorous splendor of René Pape singing King Philip II's aria ("Ella giammai m'amò") to the ethereal grace of Toni Marie Palmertree's Celestial Voice, it was an evening to wallow in the glories of the human voice.

Michael Fabiano (Don Carlo) and Nadia Krasteva (Princess Eboli)
in a scene from Verdi's Don Carlo (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

From Princess Eboli's "O don fatale" to Rodrigo's final aria, "Io morrò, ma lieto in core," Verdi gave his principals some stunning music. From the brotherly love duet between Carlo and Rodrigo in Act I ("Dio, che nell'alma infondere") to Elisabetta's powerful Act V solo ("Tu che le vanità"), this is a score to be revisited from time to time for the sheer magnificence of Verdi's writing.

Nadia Krasteva revealed a lush, dark, mezzo=soprano as the jealous, scheming Princess Eboli while soprano Ana Maria Martinez was rock solid as the dutiful Elisabetta (I'd love to see her onstage as Aida). Andrea Silvestrelli was a blind but forceful Grand Inquisitor.

While one never wants to take a superbly musical tenor like Michael Fabiano for granted, the evening's top honors went to baritone Mariusz Kwiecien for his portrayal of Rodrigo, Marquis di Posa. His is the kind of intelligent and stylish Verdian singing (wrapped in a most appealing package) that has been absent from opera stages for far too long; the kind of music-making that causes the hair on one's arms to tingle with excitement.

Mariusz Kwiecien as Rodrigo in Don Carlo (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

I tip my hat to Maestro Luisotti and Emilio Sagi for a finely-tuned and intensely satisfying performance of Don Carlo. Here's some footage from the production.

* * * * * * * * *
Let me be the first to admit that there are key moments in opera and musical theatre when I get totally verklempt. From the orchestral lead-in to the Act I finale of Puccini's La Bohème to the final departure from Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof; from the moment when Professor Harold Hill delivers a shiny new cornet to the painfully shy Winthrop Paroo to the gut-wrenching recognition scene in Richard Strauss's operatic adaptation of Elektra; these are not mere moments of sentimentality.

They are moments when the combined craft of composers, lyricists, directors, and designers perfectly mesh to create genuine stage magic. The emotional power of these moments won't grab you when viewed on videotape or even during a live telecast. They need to be experienced sitting in a theatre, surrounded by an audience, in order to savor the frisson of feeling, the gift of grace, the passion and the poignancy, the thrills and chills that are coming over the footlights.

Sam Faustine (Curly) and Jennifer Mitchell (Laurey) in a scene
from Oklahoma! (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

Although I found great pleasure in watching the Royal National Theatre's 1998 production of Oklahoma! (which starred Hugh Jackman) on DVD, the last time I attended a live performance of the beloved Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was in the summer of 1990 (when the Los Angeles Music Center Opera staged the work with Rodney Gilfrey as Curly, Rebecca Eichenberger as Laurey, Lara Teeter as Will Parker, Jodi Benson as Ado Annie, Larry Storch as Ali Hakim, Michael Gallup as Jud Fry, and Jean Stapleton as Aunt Eller).

As most people know, Oklahoma! was the first show created by the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. When it opened on March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theatre, it broke new ground from the traditional format for musical theatre. Gone was the overture. Gone were musical numbers that had no purpose other than to titillate tired businessmen. Agnes de Mille's creation of a dream ballet (in which Laurey envisions romantic rivals Curly and Jud fighting over her) heralded a new role for dance in musical theatre.

Aunt Eller (Ali Lane ) struts her stuff at the box social dance during a
festive scene from Oklahoma! (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

When Oklahoma! first opened on Broadway, audiences had a chance to revisit a touching story set in a prairie community in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906 (on November 16, 1907, Oklahoma became the 46th state to join the Union). Long before the Jets faced off with the Sharks, there were farmers and cowmen competing for land, wealth, and women. The villain was a hired hand with limited social skills, a bitter sociopath who resented the fact that everyone around him seemed to be happy and able to find love.

Based on a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs entitled Green Grow the Lilacs (which included several old folk songs and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), Oklahoma! received some notable plot enhancements from Oscar Hammerstein II. Although Will Parker is mentioned in the Riggs play (but never appears onstage), Hammerstein fleshed out the character, gave Parker two musical numbers ("Kansas City" and "All Er Nuthin") and created a comic subplot in which the only way Will can get the blessing of Ado Annie's father is if he can prove to Andrew Carnes that he's worth $50.

Danila Burshteyn sings about the wonders of "Kansas City" in a
scene from Oklahoma! (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

Broadway by the Bay's production of Oklahoma! proved to be a richly rewarding experience. Directed by Joshua Marx (with actors occasionally making entrances and exits through the main aisles of the Fox Theatre in Redwood City), the evening was blessed by Jon Hayward's excellent sound design. Sean Kana's musical direction was lively and firm, providing solid support for Camille Edralin's choreography. The handsome production was designed by Kelly James Tighe with costumes by Valerie Emmi.

Erin Yvette as the lusty Ado Annie sings "I Cain't Say No" in a
scene from Oklahoma! (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

Casting was rock solid, with Sam Faustine's tender yet masculine Curly providing an appealing to foil to Jennifer Mitchell's constantly teasing and coquettishly insecure Laurey. Erin Yvette displayed great comic chops and feminine appeal as Ado Annie while Danila Burshteyn's Will Parker showed a loving (if slightly-dimwitted) husband to be. Ali Lane's portrayal of Aunt Eller showed concern for her stubborn niece mixed with a stern sense of justice. I was especially delighted by Mohamed Ismail's work as the Persian peddler, Ali Hakim, and Sami Pistoresi's whinnying caricature of Gertie Cummings. As the show's director, Joshua Marx, explains:
“Oklahoma, being originally promised to Native Americans as sovereign land, was being bought off piece by piece and made available to white settlers in land runs starting as early as 1889. The real Oklahoma was anything but civil. With Native American and white settlers fighting viciously over property rights (and no real law enforcement to speak of), the term ‘Wild West’ was no exaggeration. The reality of living in an unconquered land with constant subjection to the elements meant the people of the Territories had to be tough. You had to be at least 21 years old to participate in the land grab, which tells us that no one under the age of 17 in our show would have been born in the Territories by conventional legal means.” 
Mohamed Ismail (Ali Hakim), Ali Lane (Aunt Eller), Sam Faustine
(Curly), and John Melis (Jud Fry) in a tense scene from Oklahoma!
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)
“The road to Oklahoma civilization was hazardous. It could not have been completed by anyone who wasn’t severely motivated by the thirst for a new life in a new land. To continue Hammerstein’s vision and breathe further authenticity into the characters, I thought it only appropriate to give them fair motivation -– even the women. Ado Annie is a woman found living without the traditional values and restrictions of puritanical America and therefore has room to live a life more akin to her desires. Laurey and Aunt Eller are two land-owning women living without male authority. This tells us that they need to have an air of independence, of fortitude. This really influences the way Laurey interacts with male suitors Curly and Jud. A hardy Laurey isn’t the type of woman who can afford a careless relationship with a dangerous man, so our production takes a thoughtful look at this romance. We have gone out of our way to make each and every character within our Oklahoma rich, complex, and entirely three-dimensional.”
The finale of Broadway By The Bay's production of Oklahoma!
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

Over the years, I've always been a little bit unnerved by the threatening presence of Jud Fry, the farm hand who lusts after Laurey and sublimates his desire through the 1906 equivalent of porn. Act I's scene in the smokehouse with Curly and Jud (followed by Laurey's agreeing to let Jud drive her to the box social) are designed to creep out the audience. John Melis did a splendid job of showing the handsome, but warped man trapped inside the body of a societal lone wolf.

Following such an immensely satisfying performance, I rode back to San Francisco on a musical comedy high. The next morning I awoke to the horrific news of the bloody anti-LGBT massacre in Orlando, proof positive that 85 years after Lynn Riggs introduced audiences to Jeeter Fry's angry, tortured spirit, his dangerous and desperate descendants continue to stalk America.

Sam Faustine (Curly) and John Melis (Judy Fry) in a scene
from Oklahoma! (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)