Monday, January 30, 2017

Dysfunction Junction

With rabid homophobes like Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, Ben Carson, and Betsy DeVos on the verge of attaining frightening power over the lives of LGBT Americans, it helps to reflect back on what Valerie Jarrett recently told Chris Johnson when he interviewed her for The Washington Blade.
“When President Obama talked to Robin Roberts about his evolution on marriage equality, he told a story about his daughters, who have friends whose parents are gay. His daughters couldn’t see any difference in why their friends’ parents would be treated any differently than their own parents. He didn’t have an answer to that and so, the answer is, there should be no difference. If we continue to tell those stories, it helps people put themselves in the shoes of someone else. It is through that exercise that I think we make our best progress because it’s a change in society, not just simply a change in laws.

The progress that we’ve made isn’t simply reflected in the laws that have been passed, although they are very important. What we’ve seen is a shift in public perception and feelings and culture. That is not likely to reverse and, fortunately, on issues such as marriage equality, the Supreme Court has ruled and that is unlikely to change. When society is moving in a direction with momentum, it’s very hard to turn it back, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be vigilant. You have to be vigilant.”
Valerie Jarrett and President Barack Obama in happier times

So let's look back over the past 50 years and remember that an awful lot can happen during half a century.

When one considers such sweeping cultural changes as the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the growing awareness of the need to protect trans people, the political progress has been quite remarkable. Add in the domestic and international growth of LGBT film festivals. When one remembers that San Francisco's Theatre Rhinoceros (which is approaching its 40th anniversary) has become the world's longest-functioning LGBT theatre company, the state of gay culture is healthier than we may think. If gay art could survive McCarthyism and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the Trump administration's threat to eradicate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting isn't going to prevent LGBT talent from finding and exploiting creative outlets and continuing to flourish.

As Doug Wright (who received the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play, I Am My Own Wife, and is the current President of the Dramatists Guild of America) explains:
“The arts function as a collective social conscience. Arts teach us the value of empathy (which is currently in egregiously short supply). Thanks to The Diary of Anne Frank, an African-American girl in Washington Heights can learn what it felt like to be trapped in an attic in Amsterdam during World War II. Thanks to The Laramie Project, a quarterback in Van Nuys can experience what it feels like to die alone on a fence in rural Wyoming, and feel his heart grow in its capacity to feel on behalf of others.

Artists are, by their nature, truth tellers. Across the millennia, artists have told damning truths about war, politics, and the darkest reaches of the human heart. Corrupt men have a reason to fear us, and so they'd like to see us silenced. This has nothing to do with money; the NEA is .003 of our annual budget. The military spends more on paper clips. This is all about demonizing artists and the work that we do. We mustn't forget that. The more exposure we have to the arts, the more nimble we become intellectually. If our current President actually curled up with a book, he’d improve his painfully limited vocabulary.”
Playwrights Terrence McNally and Doug Wright in 2007

For proof, all one need do is consider two opening nights that recently took place two days apart in San Francisco. One was a performance by the for-profit touring company of a highly acclaimed LGBT musical that reopened the newly-refurbished Curran Theatre. The other was a production of an impressive new dramedy headed for its Off-Broadway premiere that was staged by a nonprofit LGBT theatre company.

* * * * * * * * *
The New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of Michael McKeever's dramedy, Daniel's Husband, a poignant and disturbing tale in which no one dies of AIDS, but the audience is taken on a white-knuckle ride that many had hoped to forget. During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, many gay men died without ever having made a will. As a result, there was no legal document available to protect a live-in friend or lover in the same way that, in a heterosexual marriage, a man might have been perceived as the breadwinner while his spouse was perceived as his legal beneficiary. When the breadwinner in a gay household entered the hospital or passed away, strange things often happened.
  • I remember one dying pediatrician whose mother tried to climb into his hospital bed at Mt. Zion, convinced that she could make him well. 
  • Soon after their lovers died, many unfortunate gay men came home to find the locks on their homes changed and their possessions outside on the street. Some weren't even allowed to retrieve their clothes, pets, and belongings by homophobic relatives who had just learned that the decedent was gay.
Daniel's Husband begins cheerily enough as two gay couples relax in Daniel's living room while playing a popular game of choosing which gay icon they would pick over the other. The host, Daniel Bixby (Michael Monagle), is a famous architect who has done a beautiful restoration job on his house. His lover, Mitchell Howard (Daniel Redmond), is a successful author whose string of hit novels has earned him a loyal gay following.

In the seven years that the two men have been a couple, they have drawn up the necessary legal papers to make sure that, in the event of one partner's death, all assets will automatically transfer to the survivor. However, despite the fact that the documents required for each man's medical directive and power of attorney have been drawn up by their lawyer, those papers remain in a drawer. Unsigned.

Now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land, such documents would not be necessary if the two men had chosen to wed. But, while Daniel very much wants a husband, Mitchell's political views have left him staunchly opposed to a heteronormative institution like marriage.

Daniel Redmond,  Nathan Tylukti, John Steele, Jr., and Michael 
Monagle in a scene from Daniel's Husband (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

The other couple consists of Mitchell's literary agent, Barry Dylon (Nathan Tylutki), and his latest boyfriend, Trip (John Steele Jr.), who is wearing neon-blue lipstick. At 23, Trip works as a home health aide, often taking care of patients with terminal illnesses. Although he may not be up to date on all the cultural references shared by the older men in the room, in many ways he is much more mature than Barry (whose friends often tease him about acting like a chicken hawk suffering from an acute case of arrested development).

When Trip (who deeply admires Daniel's work) asks how long Daniel and Mitchell have been married, his question opens up a can of worms which leads to one of Mitchell's impassioned lectures. To no one's surprise, Trip and Barry break up several months later. A visit from Daniel's manipulative mother, Lydia (Christine Macomber), proves as irritating as ever for her son.

Michael Monagle, Christine Macomber, and Daniel Redmond
in a scene from Daniel's Husband (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

The well-meaning but stunningly insensitive Lydia has a talent for always saying the wrong thing at exactly the right time. An expert at pushing her son's buttons, she can easily transform a short visit into hell on wheels. After Mitchell takes Lydia to the airport at the end of her stay, he and Daniel get into an rip-roaring argument about gay marriage. Suddenly, Daniel feels something very strange happening to him (the kind of neurological event that could prevent Donald Trump from ever sending another tweet) and loses control of his body.

As Act II begins, Daniel calmly relates what transpired (from a medical standpoint) and explains how he is now stuck living with locked-in syndrome. As Mitchell tries to juggle caring for his now quadriplegic lover while facing various deadlines on his next book, Lydia becomes an increasingly invasive nuisance. She resents the presence of Trip (who has been hired to help care for Daniel) and suggests to Mitchell that it might be a better idea to have Daniel moved to her large home, where she lives alone with three cats and three dogs. A crisis erupts when Lydia insists that she has "the right" to make that decision. When Daniel's mother files a lawsuit to assume custody of her son, Mitchell quickly learns that the devil lies very much in the details.

Working on a handsome unit set designed by Robert "Bo" Golden (with costumes by Michelle Mulholland and sound design by Ryan Lee Short), F. Allen Sawyer has directed McKeever's play with equal skill in handling the script's bitchily comic and intensely dramatic moments. McKeever's script is tightly written, often hilarious, and should enjoy a long string of productions.

Daniel Redmond and Michael Monagle in a scene
from Daniel's Husband (Photo by: Lois Tema)

NCTC's five-actor ensemble does a fine job with McKeever's dialogue. Michael Monagle and Nathan Tylukti exhibit the body language of two middle-aged gay men who have achieved a great deal professionally and can enjoy their financial security. As the youthful Trip, John Steele, Jr. provides an interesting and somewhat subdued foil to Daniel Redmond's performance as the impassioned (and occasionally hysterical) Mitchell.

It's always a pleasure to see Christine Macomber (who has made numerous appearances with The Lamplighters and 42nd Street Moon) in a dramatic role. She does exceptionally well at balancing Lydia's coy yet caring nature while patiently trying to remind Mitchell that there really is no villain to blame for Daniel's situation. Here's the trailer:

Performances of Daniel's Husband continue through February 26 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
What many people know today as the San Francisco Bay Times began as a free weekly publication that called itself "the gay lesbian newspaper and calendar of events for the Bay Area." Coming Up! began publishing in October 1979 and, although it drew less advertising than Bob Ross’s Bay Area Reporter, it had a devoted following. One reason was that it was aimed at the Bay area’s sizable lesbian population. Another was that it featured two very popular comic strips: The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green (by Eric Orner) and Dykes To Watch Out For (by Alison Bechdel).

The characters in both of these comic strips often suffered from conflicted emotions, concerns about political correctness, and a tendency toward overthinking what their friends might have said, done, or thought. As a result, many LGBT readers embraced each character's kookiness and insecurities.

With music by Jeanine Tesori and a book by Lisa Kron, Bechdel's Fun Home (a graphic memoir published in 2006) was adapted for the stage and opened off-Broadway in September 2013. Its initial run at the Public Theatre earned the show eight Drama Desk Awards, two Obie Awards, and three of the nine Lucille Lortel Awards for which it had been nominated.

When Fun Home moved uptown to Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre, the production had to be reconfigured for performances in the round. Nevertheless, the show won five of the 12 Tony Awards for which it had been nominated (including the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical) and was nominated for the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album.

Often, when the touring version of a hit Broadway show hits the road, compromises have to be made to accommodate the various theatres in which the musical will be performed. In some cases (Newsies, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Jersey Boys, The Lion King), the level of quality control remains high. However, I still cringe at the memory of 1999's tour of Sunset Boulevard in which Petula Clark's Norma Desmond looked and acted as if she had been trapped in a bus-and-truck tour of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

I'm delighted to report that the national tour of Fun Home, which was the first tenant booked into the refurbished and renovated Curran Theatre, exceeded all expectations. With sets and costumes designed by David Zinn, choreography by Danny Mefford, lighting by Ben Stanton and sound design by Kai Harada, this deeply moving production offers a prime example of how musical theatre can touch people's lives.

Alessandra Baldacchino as 'Small Alison' in a
scene from Fun Home (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

Fun Home overcomes many hurdles which could easily have defeated another creative team. Tesori's musical score (enhanced by John Clancy's orchestrations) finds new and tender ways to capture the sensations of emotional insecurity and teenage angst as well as the exhilaration of achieving an emotional breakthrough in quirky self awareness. Fun Home accomplishes this while dealing with a middle-aged lesbian trying to make sense of her closeted gay father's conflicted life and self-inflicted death.

With Kate Shindle as 43-year-old Alison, Abby Corrigan as 19-year-old Alison, and Alessandra Baldacchino as 10-year-old Alison, Fun Home allows the audience to witness how a child can be confused by a demanding father who is so wrapped up in his own inadequacies that he expects a professional level of artistry from a 10-year-old who just wants to show him the drawing she made at school. The show also allows a middle-aged lesbian to look back on her first sexual experience and the nervous steps she took in coming out to her parents (with a clearer understanding of what else might have been happening in her dysfunctional family in those anxious days of insecurity and craving validation).

 Karen Eilbacher (Joan) and Abby Corrigan (Medium Alison)
in a scene from Fun Home (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

“At this point, I’ve staged the play three times, and each time I’ve been able to distill things down and learn more while continuing to refine the material," confesses director Sam Gold. “The really fun thing about doing the tour was that it felt like I was always making the show better. I knew everything I needed to know to make the design really work for the show. In a way, I think the tour is really the best version of the show.”

How so? “The show is very dependent on its intimacy, but it also has this kind of ambition to the storytelling in using multiple perspectives, multiple timelines, and simultaneity while also maintaining a very real sense of vulnerability and fragility. A proscenium changes adult Alison’s relationship to the show. In the round, she participates with the audience in a certain way because they’re always given these multiple perspectives. With the proscenium, I think the character experiences her memories very differently.”

While the three women portraying Alison at various stages of her life all deliver dynamic performances, one should not overlook the contributions by Robert Petkoff as Alison's father, Bruce; Susan Moniz as her mother, Helen; and especially Karen Eilbacher as Joan, the butch lesbian who awakens Alison's sexual drive. In smaller roles, Lennon Nate Hammond and Pierson Salvador appear as Alison's brothers (John and Christian) while Robert Hager makes a series of cameo appearances as some of the men her father lusted after (Roy, Mark, Pete, Bobby, and Jeremy).

Performances of Fun Home continue through February 19 at the Curran Theatre (click here for tickets).

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Tales From the American Midwest

Mistaken and switched identities are a popular writer's tool for highlighting how quickly one person's fate can be changed. For better or worse, people suddenly find themselves being treated differently.

One of the entries in 2017's SFIndieFest's shorts program entitled Adulting is a charming film by Joe Garrity entitled Twinsburg. The plot is fairly simple. Each year thousands of identical twins meet up to attend the world's largest gathering of twins in a small Midwestern town that was founded by identical twin brothers. Although the event is filled with twin-related traditions, many attendees wearing matching clothes, and numerous sets of twins who have spent their lives as local novelty acts, the annual reunion has a darker side to it. Some twins realize they want to uncouple and strike out on their own.

For the sentimental Jerry (Joe Garrity), a reunion with his brother Paul (Phil Garrity) comes with a bittersweet cost. After moving to the West Coast, Paul has lost the thrill of always being identified as a twin. Without Paul enthusiastically by his side, Jerry is somewhat dazed and confused.

January brought me in touch with two deeply poignant tales that begin and end in Chicago. Both stories revolve around young men who have been outcasts for much of their lives. Both stories examine how people handle stress, confrontation, and rejection. As we struggle to cope with the Trump administration's desire to revert to a worldview dominated by white male privilege, both stories take on surprising relevance.

* * * * * * * * *
James Choi's new film, Empty Space, focuses on the misadventures of Tom (Merrick Robison), an obese young man who describes himself as "387 pounds with the metabolism of a manatee." After years of being bullied and rejected while growing up in Chicago, he decides to seek refuge at his grandmother's farm outside the small town of Protection, Illinois.

Tom (Merrick Robison) checks himself out 
in the mirror in a scene from Empty Space

When Tom ventures out to find a job, all he can get hired for is washing dishes in the local cafe. It doesn't take long for Hank (Ryan David Heywood), the town's mean drunk, to start humiliating Tom or for Hank's emotionally abused daughter, Rebecca (Madysen Frances), to start taking advantage of the fat new arrival in town.

Tom (Merrick Robison) and Rebecca (Madysen Frances)
share a laugh in a scene from Empty Space

Tom's co-worker, Gladys (Suzanne C. Johnson), has a long history of quitting her job but eventually returning to work for the insensitive and verbally abusive Lloyd (David McLauchlin). However, when Tom stops into the local laundromat after a horrible day at work, he encounters a young blind woman folding towels at the front counter. Lilly (Elizabeth Stenholt) has just moved out of her parents' home into her own apartment and is determined to live life on her own terms.

Tom (Merrick Robison) and Lilly (Elizabeth Stenholt)
become two unlikely rural lovers in Empty Space

Even if she can't see, Lilly hears and smells everything around her and refuses to treat her blindness as a crippling condition. As a result, she's not about to take shit from anyone. With one person severely lacking in social skills and the other adamant about standing up for herself, the awkward friendship that blossoms between Tom and Lilly traverses a tough course. Each, however, is capable of and willing to learn from the other if it will make them stronger, happier, and less lonely.

Empty Space is hardly what one could call a stereotypical "meet cute" love affair. But it has a tenderness at its core that Choi uses very well to win a viewer's sympathy. The outdoor shots (in winter as well as spring) depict a nearly barren landscape where the odds of finding love are stacked high against anyone looking for it. His two romantic leads (especially Robison) do fine work as a pair of unconventional lovers who are often assumed to be losers.  Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
As one watches Empty Space, it's impossible to ignore how white its characters are and how relatively free their lives are from the crushing pressures of poverty. That's hardly the case in Native Son, a new play by Nambi Kelly which received its West Coast premiere from the Marin Theatre Company in a haunting production forcefully directed by Seret Scott on a skeletal set designed by Giulio Cesare Perrone.

The action takes place in "a labyrinth of Chicago's Black Belt and surrounding areas as it appears inside Bigger Thomas's mind during the split second when he runs from his crime, remembers, imagines, two cold and snowy winter days in December 1939 and beyond." The aforementioned protagonist, Bigger Thomas (Jerod Haynes), is a muscular black man who lands a job as a chauffeur for Chicago's white and wealthy Dalton family (whose adventurous daughter has an appetite for forbidden delights).

Jerod Haynes, Rosie Hallett, and Courtney Walsh in
a scene from Native Son (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Not only is Mary Dalton (Rosie Hallett) physically attracted to Bigger, she desperately wants to experience life outside of her family's privileged bubble. She begs Bigger to take her to a South Side restaurant where she can taste "the kind of food black people eat." Her well-intentioned boyfriend, Jan (Adam Magill), is an idealistic Communist sympathizer who prefers to call Bigger "comrade" and who insists on driving. Nor does Jan have any objection to sharing his booze with Mary and Bigger (so that the three of them can have a good time on equal footing).

Rosie Hallet, Jerod Haynes, and Adam Magill in a
scene from Native Son (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

By the time Bigger brings Mary back home, she's falling down drunk and feeling very amorous. As Bigger tries to get her under control, he hears Mrs. Dalton (who is blind) calling out to her daughter. Desperate to shush Mary and avoid being discovered, he straddles the young woman and puts a pillow over her face. When Mary's mother goes back to her room and Bigger lifts the pillow, he discovers that Mary has suffocated.

What follows is a nightmarish montage of scenes in which Bigger tries to figure out how to dispose of Mary's body, visits his family and argues with his mother (C. Kelly Wright), runs from a private investigator (Patrick Kelly Jones), and fucks his girlfriend (Ryan Nicole Austin) before killing her. The degree to which an audience will sympathize with a man who has killed two women depends on their respective levels of empathy, objectivity, and white guilt.

First published in 1940, Native Son sold 250,000 copies through the Book of the Month Club. Thanks to its popularity, its author, Richard Wright, rocketed to fame, becoming the nation's first best-selling (and wealthiest) African-American author. In 1941, Wright received the Spingarn Award from the NAACP. In 1951, a film version of Native Son was released in theatres. In 1986, another film version of Wright's novel featured Matt Dillon, Victor Love, Carroll Baker, and Oprah Winfrey.

In adapting Wright's novel for the stage, Kelly faced a peculiar challenge, which she explains in the following clip. Although her solution turned to be a structural trick, the playwright stresses that "any time you bring an audience inside the mind of a Black man, it is a revolutionary act.”

Kelley's stage adaptation of Native Son received its world premiere from Chicago’s Court Theatre on September 20, 2014. Her most radical change in transforming Wright's novel into a stage play was adding the character of The Black Rat who, as Laura A. Brueckner explains, "alternatively serves as Bigger’s survival instinct and inner truth, thus dramatizing the intense struggle between the man [Bigger] would like to be and the fearful figure that racial oppression would twist him into."

Jerod Haynes (Bigger Thomas) and William Hartfield (The Black Rat)
in a scene from Native Son (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In his note from the artistic director, MTC's Jasson Minadakis writes:
“Eight years ago, on the inauguration of President Obama, we opened a play by Athol Fugard (My Children! My Africa!), a beautiful, soaring story about hope. This inauguration season, we open a play that takes us back to 1940: a time that, for some, looks little different than our own 2017. This play, and the state of our nation, reminds us that we have not been listening to many of our sisters and brothers. This play, and our time, demands we be our own hope, demands we make the change we believe in.”
Black Rat (William Hartfield) eavesdrops on a scene with Bigger's
family in a scene from Native Son (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“Nambi first began writing Native Son because she needed to use her art to personally respond to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin killing. Her voice has fused with Richard Wright’s to create a new vision of the struggles of our children of color, of our children of poverty, of our excluded citizens. It is time for us to see the iron boxes that our young people of color and all our young people growing up in poverty are forced into when they look at the world and hear how the world views them. We are seeing intolerance resurging in our country in alarming displays of cruelty and ignorance, in the casually horrific language of people with power and platforms. We can no longer allow any of our children to live in fear for fear breeds misunderstanding, misunderstanding breeds desperation, and desperation breeds violence.”

William Hartfield (The Black Rat) and Jerod Haynes (Bigger Thomas)
in a scene from Native Son (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Under Seret Scott's taut direction, MTC's ensemble performs with admirable commitment. Rosie Hallett and Courtney Walsh make the Dalton family as sympathetic as possible while Patrick Kelly Jones and Adam Magill deliver polar portrayals of polarized white stereotypes, ranging from the sympathetic liberal (Jan) to the zealously bigoted investigator (Britten). C. Kelly Wright has some powerful moments as Bigger's mother, Hannah, along with Dane Troy as his brother, Buddy, and Ryan Nicole Austin, who is double cast as Bigger's sister (Vera) and his girlfriend (Bessie).

The show's core, however, rests on the angry and confused shoulders of Jerod Haynes as its protagonist and William Hartfield as Bigger's inner voice (The Black Rat). Separately and together, they deliver a powerhouse portrait of a man who has suddenly found himself struggling to breathe, knowing that he is doomed, and desperate to find a way out of the personal hell into which he has been thrust. These two gifted artists deliver performances that won't easily be forgotten. Here's the trailer:

Performances of Native Son continue at the Marin Theatre Company through February 12 (click here for tickets).

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

In order to prepare myself for dealing with our nation's new leadership, I've been reading a lot of gay superhero fetish fiction. From anthologies of (often hilarious) short stories like Unmasked: Erotic Tales of Gay Superheroes to Pablo Greene's hardcore "Gold" series entitled How to Kill A Superhero, many of these stories feature superheroes with very human needs fighting villains who delight in their very inhumane deeds.

Future bedtime reading includes which titles as Men, Muscle and Mayhem, The Gay Jew in the Trailer Park and, of course, Helicopter Man Pounds Dinosaur Billionaire Ass. Sometimes the lack of editing in these books offers a stark reminder of the importance of proofreading your work (the typos are often hilarious). In some short stories (Kosher Man and the Shegatz), the writing is especially droll.

Cover art for Pablo Greene's erotic BDSM thriller
How To Kill a Superhero: World Without Daylight

Many of these stories, however, help one cope with such evil cartoon characters as Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Steve Bannon, Michael T. Flynn, Betsy DeVos, and Kellyanne Conway. If you don't believe me, I urge you to read a brilliant piece of satire published by The Onion entitled You Would Do The Same Thing If An Old Witch Had Your Father’s Soul Trapped In A Lantern.

The grotesqueries found in such stories help to soften the blow when news leaks out about the Trump administration's plan to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
  • For those of us who embrace the arts as an important factor in our lives, it's no secret that every dollar spent on the arts rolls over several times in the local economy where it is first lands. 
  • Nor is it a shock to learn that, as an industry, the arts provides jobs for an army of America's talent.
  • And, lest we forget, having a creative outlet helps to keep a person from developing a toxic personality.
As Neil DeGrasse Tyson points out, "Cutting PBS support (0.012% of budget) to help balance the federal budget is like deleting text files to make room on your 500 Gigabyte hard drive." For further reading on the subject, I recommend
A spreadsheet will never offer someone like Donald Trump any insight into the importance of arts education and the impact of the arts on our daily lives.
  • Early exposure to the arts helps children develop a concept of beauty as well as critical thinking skills.
  • All the images one sees in retail, architecture, costume design, and visual art have been created by people who make their living with their creativity.
  • All of the stories you enjoy (whether on film, onstage, or in print) were created by writers whose imaginations had been nurtured and stimulated by an exposure to the arts.
  • Every article, blog, and press release you read was written by someone who took the time and effort to acquire language arts skills.
If real facts don't mesh with your choice of "alternative facts," suppose we examine how the arts appeal to people's emotions.

* * * * * * * * *
Whether you watched Mary Martin's performance as Peter Pan on television or attended a live performance of Peter Pan as a child of any age, I'm pretty sure that you clapped your hands when Peter exhorted the audience to send a signal to the dying Tinker Bell to show that you believed in fairies. Whether you cherish that memory as a moment of wistful innocence or think of it as one of the most emotionally manipulative acts you've ever witnessed in a theatre, there is no denying its power over an audience.

Ben Krieger (Peter Llewelyn Davies) and Christine Dwyer
(Sylvia Llewelyn Davies) in a scene from Finding Neverland
(Photo by: Carol Rosegg) 

In 2004, Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, and Dustin Hoffman starred in Finding Neverland, a film whose screenplay was based on Allan Knee's 1998 play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan. In his review of the off-Broadway production for The New York Times, D. J. R. Bruckner wrote:
“In The Man Who Was Peter Pan the playwright Allan Knee has performed an extraordinary act of imagination: he has removed Freud from the world, and it is an astonishingly different place for that. Joe Barrett as Barrie says little enough about that emotion, but he lets the audience feel its poignancy in a way that endows Barrie's complicated attachment to these boys with a kind of innocent wisdom. The concentration here is solely and intensely on the strange relationship between the man and the family he carefully contrived to acquire, and it is a tribute to Mr. Knee, the director and the cast that at the end one is enfolded in it, understands it and knows it is very strange indeed. Here Peter Davies, whose name Barrie took for Peter Pan, is the key.” 

Following the film's success, Finding Neverland was adapted for the musical stage and received its world premiere on September 22, 2012 at the Curve Theatre in Leicester. With music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, a revised version of the show premiered at the American Repertory Theater on July 23, 2014 before traveling from Cambridge, Massachusetts to New York. The show's official Broadway opening took place on April 15, 2015 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (where it closed after 565 performances on August 21, 2016).

Kevin Kern (JM Barrie) and Tom Hewitt (Captain Hook) in 
a scene from Finding Neverland (Photo by: Carol Rosegg) 

Although Finding Neverland opened to mixed reviews and failed to be nominated for any Tony Awards, there was no denying its appeal to audiences. What David Magee's screenplay and James Graham's book for the musical accomplish quite nicely is to give the familiar characters in Peter Pan a backstory and allow audiences to witness how J.M. Barrie's interactions with the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her boys helped him to develop various plot points and characterizations.

The original Barrie play debuted on December 27, 1904 in London. Two interesting pieces of trivia which occurred after the play's premiere:
  • While the character of impresario Charles Frohman is an important driving force in the show, there is no mention that Frohman died in the tragic sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania on May 7, 1915 (which brought the United States into World War I). 
  • Sylvia Llewelyn Davies was the aunt of the famous novelist, Daphne Du Maurier.
A key subplot in Finding Neverland shows how J.M. Barrie coaxed Peter Llewelyn Davies out of his depression over his father's death by encouraging the young boy to write. As much as some people think of Peter Pan as the story of children learning to use their imagination so they can fly and live out their fantasies (as a child, I once jumped off my parents' bed to see if I could fly and landed on the floor with a thud), it also shows the importance of mentoring a young mind with potential talent for storytelling.

Directed by Diane Paulus, the national tour of Finding Neverland recently touched down at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco (a London production is due to open later this year). As Paulus (who directed the show in Cambridge and on Broadway) is quick to note:
“I was always interested in the story behind the story of Peter Pan. That’s what hooked me about Neverland. It feels like Peter Pan has always been in our lives (as a beloved character, as a symbol of wonder and innocence – it’s even the peanut butter on our table) but it took the creative imagination of an artist to actually bring him into our lives. What Barrie did – his imagination that put clocks in crocodiles and that had characters fly – was radical at the time. That really touched me, as an artist, to know that you can take such risks.”
Choreographed by Mia Michaels with handsome period costumes by Suttirat ann Larlarb, sets designed by Scott Pask, and lighting by Kenneth Posner, some parts of the physical production may be less elaborate than the original. However, the magic created by Jo Driscoll's projections, Paul Klieve's illusions, and Daniel Wurtzel's air sculptures as well as the solid sound design by Jonathan Deans had no problem capturing the opening night audience's attention and stimulating their imaginations.

While Finding Neverland is obviously not the same thing as the musical version of Peter Pan with which most audiences are familiar, it is an extremely entertaining show filled with rich visuals, memorable characters, and a backward-forensic appeal which allows audiences to recognize words and ideas that helped Barrie write his "fairy play" entitled Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up.

Kevin Kern does double duty as J. M. Barrie and his fictional vision of Peter Pan, with Tom Hewitt doubling as the theatrical producer, Charles Frohman, and the Barrie's vision of Captain Hook. Christine Dwyer is charming as the ailing Sylvia Llewelyn Davies with Karen Murphy dripping disapproval as her mother, Mrs. Du Maurier. In supporting roles, Sarah Marie Charles appeared on opening night as Mary Barrie with Noah Plomgren as the ridiculous Lord Cannan. Matt Wolpe earned plenty of laughs as Mr. Cromer (a fat crybaby of an actor with a stunning resemblance to John Hodgeman) while Dwelvan David scored points as Mr. Henshaw, the Shakespearean actor who got assigned to the role of Nana (the St. Bernard who was the children's nanny in Peter Pan).

I was especially impressed by the performances of Thomas Miller as Charles Frohman's assistant, Elliot, and Ben Krieger as the young Peter Llewelyn Davies. Dee Tomasetta appeared as the Peter Pan in Barrie's play, showering glitter all over the carefully lit proceedings. Here's the trailer:

Performances of Finding Neverland continue through February 12 at the Orpheum Theatre (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Just as Finding Neverland frames Sylvia's death in an especially poetic light, The Red Turtle takes an artistic, yet matter of fact approach to death. This animated feature film from Studio Ghibli has no flying elephant, no jocular wart hog, no hippopotamus dancing en pointe while wearing a tutu, nor does it have a dizzy lemur who thinks he's the king of the jungle. Even without tap dancing penguins, prancing centaurs, or a mandrill acting as narrator, Michael Dudok De Wit (the man responsible for The Red Turtle’s screenplay and breathtaking design) does a bang-up job of framing the circle of life without song and dance. As he explains:
“The film tells the story in both a linear and circular manner and uses time to relate the absence of time, like music can enhance silence. This film also speaks of the reality of death. Man has a tendency to oppose death, to fear and fight against it (which is both healthy and natural). Yet we can simultaneously have a beautiful and intuitive understanding that we are pure life and that we don’t need to oppose death. I hope the film conveys that feeling. Without dialogue, the sounds of the characters breathing become naturally more expressive.”

The film begins with a man struggling to stay afloat in a raging storm at sea. After his body washes up on a desert island, it takes a while for him to regain his strength. He makes several attempts to build a raft which can take him away from the island, but each time he sets off on a raft it is destroyed by a giant red sea turtle and he is forced to return to the island.

One day, the man sees the turtle wash up on shore. After investigating the creature, he manages to overturn it, leaving the turtle lying upside down, helpless. Several days later, the man revisits the turtle and decides to pour some water over it and try to help the turtle drink. His act of kindness transforms the turtle into a beautiful young woman. While there is no explicit man-on-turtle sex in the story, the young woman gives birth to a boy and, as time passes, the boy grows into a man.

When their child is fully grown, he decides to venture off on his own. Eventually, his father grows weaker and dies. The son returns home to help his mother mourn and, with her companion gone, the woman resumes her turtle form and goes back to the sea.

End of story. Or is it?

Because this is an animated feature, its colors and artwork must fill in a lot of details as Dudok De Wit's story weaves its spell. “During the production I didn’t do any animation or scenery, only small touch-ups," he explains. "For the backgrounds, the drawings were made with charcoal on paper very freely, with broad strokes smudged with the palm of the hand. This artisanal quality was very important and gave the image a lovely, grainy texture. Only the raft and turtles were digitally animated (it would have been hell to animate them in 2D). As everything is finalized in the same graphic style, you can’t tell it’s digital.”

Equally important is the contribution of Laurent Perez Del Mar, who composed an original score for The Red Turtle. As the composer notes:
“Because animation sometimes allows you to reach a very high level of fantasy, poetry, beauty and freedom with the mise-en-scène, the music can be written in a totally free and inspired manner. It’s always tricky to work with a director who is both a musician and a cultured music lover, but it’s also extremely motivating and stretching. Michael told me he wanted a cello, a ternary rhythm and analogue textures. He already had a very precise idea and I understood straight away that he had a good knowledge of music.”
“I suggested natural percussions (bamboo), native flutes, and the quest for a melodic and harmonic simplicity, which I felt was consistent with the visual aesthetic of the film and would also serve to reach an emotional essence. I used a lot of wood and bamboo for the percussion. For example, all the ‘shaker’ sections were made using bamboo leaves I had hand picked and then recorded in my studio. I also used a wooden udu (a pot-shaped idiophone from Nigeria) to obtain an aquatic and wood-like tonality in the large percussions. I observed three imperatives for writing the score:
  1. Respect silence, and the sounds of nature.
  2. The music, sounds and natural ambiance should blend seamlessly with one another.
  3. Create a rhythm in the narrative with music.”
The Red Turtle stands apart from many full-length animated features in that there is no dialogue, little in the way of character development, and (other than a tsunami) no easily identifiable villain. And yet, there is no denying that it is a magnificent example of animation as an art form. This film can shock and awe audiences with its beauty and inspire new generations of animators. Here's the trailer:

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Fools For Love

Some have described the tragedy of Spain's Queen Juana of Castile (November 6, 1479-April 12, 1555) as the story of a 16-year-old bride so infatuated with her betrothed, Philip the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy, that she became a fool for love. Married on October 20, 1496, she bore him six children. Her husband ascended to the throne in 1506 but died the following year. Thought to be mentally ill, Juana was condemned by her son, Charles, to spend the rest of her life in the Convent of Santa Clara in Tordesillas, Castilea, where she died on Good Friday at the age of 75.

On June 3, 1979, a new opera entitled La Loca (which had been composed as a vehicle for Beverly Sills by Gian-Carlo Menotti) received its world premiere from the San Diego Opera. In 2001, Vicente Aranda's film, Juana La Loca, was nominated for 12 Goya awards, received three, and was released in the United States as Mad Love.

From Margaret Mitchell to Martha Mitchell, feisty daughters of the South have found a place in American culture. Although some of Tennessee Williams's heroines (Amanda Wingfield in 1944's The Glass Menagerie, Blanche DuBois in 1947's A Streetcar Named Desire, Alma Winemiller in 1948's Summer and Smoke, Serafina Delle Rose in 1951's The Rose Tattoo, and Maggie in 1955's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) have become landmarks of the American theatre, southern women were warmly welcomed with open arms by audiences during the 1980s.

To what did these characters owe their special appeal? As Syche Phillips explains in “The Tradition of Southern Gothic:”
Southern Gothic writing is often focused on damaged or delusional characters. They are complex and unstable, and the reader may find their morals questionable. Writers in this genre use their characters to highlight the problems with society as they see it, and to examine the ways that people can wittingly or unwittingly harm each other in everyday life. There may still be grotesque themes, and potentially even supernatural elements, but overall it’s more focused on the realistic challenge of questioning the forces within society than on doing battle with some ghostly outsider.”
* * * * * * * * *
For its first production of 2017, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley staged a revival of Crimes of the Heart on a handsome unit set designed by Andrea Bechert with costumes by Cathleen Edwards. Beth Henley's play focuses on the nervous gathering of the highly dysfunctional Magrath clan in the fall of 1974 following the scandalous news that 24-year-old Babe Magrath Botrelle (Lizzie O'Hara) has shot her abusive husband, Zackery, in the stomach.

The Magrath sisters have had their fair share of tragedy. After their father abandoned the family, their mother hung herself (and her cat) in the basement. As a result, the girls were primarily raised by their grandfather, who is now in failing health. The oldest sister, Lenny (Therese Plaehn), has devotedly been taking care of 'Old Granddaddy" while on a crash course toward spinsterhood.

Although each of the three Magrath sisters has committed a so-called "crime of the heart," Babe is the only one to have actually fired a weapon in the process. Her reason? She just didn't like the way Zackery looked at her (in true Southern fashion, after shooting him she stopped to make herself a glass of lemonade and asked her wounded husband if he wanted one, too).

Lenny's social clumsiness and self-consciousness (combined with her obsession over having a shriveled ovary) have made it difficult for her to date men. As the play begins, she is seen desperately trying to stick a candle on a cookie, light it, and make a wish in honor of her 30th birthday. Alone. Her body language betrays a massive sense of indecision and internal conflict. Lenny's day doesn't get any better when she is told that her pet horse was struck by lightning and killed during a recent storm.

Lenny's attempt to make a birthday wish is interrupted by the arrival of her social-climbing neighbor and cousin, Chick Boyle (Laura Jane Bailey), who doesn't hesitate to tell the birthday girl what she thinks about Lenny's alcoholic, scandal-ridden 27-year-old sister, Meg (Sarah Moser). Years ago, Meg had been dating Doc Porter (Timothy Redmond) when she suddenly left town without telling him where she was going. Meg's feeble attempts to become a singer in Hollywood failed miserably. After being humped and dumped by numerous men, she suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric ward.

Laura Jane Bailey (Chick Boyle) and Therese Plaehn (Lenny Magrath)
in a scene from Crimes of the Heart (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

When the corpulent, self-righteous Chick isn't struggling to squeeze her ample thighs into a "petite" sized pair of pantyhose, she is busy advising Lenny why Meg should not show her face in town during Babe's crisis. However, because Meg doesn't have a working phone number, Lenny has already sent her sister a cryptic telegram advising her to come home. Whether or not it pleases Chick, Meg will arrive shortly.

Meg's flirtatious style of narcissism soon becomes obvious, especially with regard to her drinking habits. Delighted to speak to Doc Porter when the telephone rings, she agrees to go out with him even though he's now a married man. When Babe shows up, the sisters get to spend some quality time together. As they commiserate on what it's like to have a "bad day," Babe confesses that before she shot Zackery she had enjoyed hanging out with 15-year-old Willie Jay, a black teenager she's known since he was a boy.

When Babe's lawyer -- the handsome young Barnette Lloyd (Joshua Marx) -- arrives at Old Granddaddy's house, his conflict of interest is quickly revealed. In addition to being infatuated with Babe for the past few years, Barnette is eager to get revenge upon Zackery, who brought great pain upon Barnette's family.

Joshua Marx (Barnette Lloyd) and Lizzie O'Hara (Babe Magrath)
in a scene from Crimes of the Heart (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In her program note, director Giovanna Sardelli explains why she feels so strongly about Henley's writing:
"When I was assigned Crimes of the Heart in college, it was one of the first plays I read that spoke to me in a deeply personal way. I had never before experienced a play about three sisters (Chekhov was to be read the following year) and, as I was the middle sister of three, I found something extraordinary in the way the play captured the special dynamic that comes from that particular trio. But it was more than that. It was experiencing a play written by a woman and centered on the lives and stories of women: women who were allowed to be angry, ugly, vengeful, and deeply funny without any obligation to be nice or beautiful. That was a revelation for me to behold as a young college woman toying with independence and feminism. This play, more than any other I experienced in college, led me to pursue a career in theatre."
Sarah Moser (Meg Magrath) and Lizzie O'Hara (Babe Magrath)
in a scene from Crimes of the Heart (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"In Crimes of the Heart, Henley is exploring how family and society define and confine female characters. She is challenging our assumptions and our easy definitions of good and bad. She is asking us to see that the road to understanding and forgiveness cannot be simple. She’s exploring the absurd experience that is living and, lucky for us, she has a dark but engaging sense of humor; she wants us to laugh and recognize that no one’s pain is the most precious thing about them."
Sarah Moser, Therese Plaehn, and Lizzie O'Hara in a scene 
from Crimes of the Heart (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

It's easy to understand why Babe and her sisters consider themselves to be "just as sane as anyone else walking down the streets of Hazlehurst." And, without doubt, Sarah Moser, Therese Plaehn, and Lizzie O'Hara bring that form of quirky Southern craziness to life with a sense of shared gusto.

However, the most clearly delineated characters in this production turn out to be Chick Boyle and Barnette Lloyd. It could be that, in the decades since the play's premiere, Henley's black comedy of Southern feminism (in which the three sisters become convulsed with hysterical laughter at the news that Old Granddaddy has slipped into a coma) has been repopulated with cartoon caricatures rather than complex characters. As Robert Kelley (the artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley) notes:
“Perhaps Crimes of the Heart was a turning point for women in the American Theatre. It demonstrated the passion, insight, frustration, and underlying sisterhood that were emerging from the Women’s rights movement Told boldly and honestly from a female perspective, it attracted large audiences eager to see a woman’s point of view on stage, impressing producers nationwide.”
Therese Plaehn, Lizzie O'Hara, and Sarah Moser in a scene 
from Crimes of the Heart (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Performances of Crimes of the Heart continue through February 5th at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Throughout human history, love has been able to exalt, exhilarate, and exasperate women. One need not be a Southern belle to become disoriented, disillusioned, or dishonored as a result of love's potency. From Salome to Scarlett O'Hara, from Ophelia to Lucia di Lammermoor, women have become so distraught and deranged by love as to lose all touch with reality.

An exciting new musical entitled Love Sick recently received its world premiere at the Osher Studio in downtown Berkeley. A joint project between John Gertz Productions and Berkeley's Jewish Circle Theatre, this 90-minute show is a breath of fresh air whose musicians often double as male characters while the female ensemble (Aleksandra Dubov, Bekka Fink, Regina Morones, and Deborah Del Mastro) appears as the "Ladies of Jerusalem." Written and adapted by Ofra Daniel, Love Sick features an attractive musical score composed by Ms. Daniel and Lior Ben-Hur. Ms. Daniel explains her inspiration as follows:
Love Sick is based on the poetry of the biblical Song of Songs, a collection of erotic love poems reputedly written by King Solomon some 3,000 years ago. Many of these poems are recited as part of the Friday ritual in synagogues. Their obvious eroticism has traditionally been seen as expressing the love between God and His people of Israel. The Song of Songs expresses the strongest female voice in the Bible, giving articulation to female sexual desires and longings. The poems themselves are devoid of narrative form. In fact, it is very difficult even to know where one poem ends and the next begins." 
Ofra Daniel as Tirzah in a scene from Love Sick
(Photo by: Cheshiredave Creative) 
"From this beautiful chaos, I fashioned a fictional narrative offering a new look and interpretation of the ancient Jewish text. The name of the protagonist (Tirzah) derives from the Hebrew verb meaning ‘to please.’ The name harkens to a character from the Bible who is named as the first woman, along with her sisters, to inherit her father’s estate -- radical feminine empowerment for its time. Our Tirzah sequentially tries to please by living according to society’s standards and then tries to revolt against those same mores." 
Ofra Daniel as Tirzah in a scene from Love Sick
(Photo by: Cheshiredave Creative)

The story follows the emotional unraveling of Tirzah (Ofra Daniel), a young woman in ancient Jerusalem who marries a widowed fishmonger (David Maclean) who was left with two children. At the time of her marriage, Tirzah is innocent and unquestioning. However, as the years go by, she proves unable to bear children. While at the market one day, she makes eye contact with a handsome stranger (Ali Paris). Soon she starts to receive notes, poems, and love letters which feed her fantasies about him. Though she may be bored with her husband, Tirzah can't stop obsessing about what kind of lover this mysterious man could be.

Ali Paris plays the qunan and impersonates Tirzah's fantasy
man in Love Sick (Photo by: Cheshiredave Creative) 

The women of the village start to notice Tirzah's strange behavior. When invited to a wedding, she starts to dance and gradually loses control of herself. Relishing the sensuality of the music and how her body responds to it, her movements become more suggestive. After taking off her formal clothes, she proceeds to belly dance in the equivalent of an undergarment. The women attending the wedding may be scandalized by Tirzah's behavior, but the men like what they see.

Ofra Daniel as Tirzah in a scene from Love Sick
(Photo by: Cheshiredave Creative)

The letters from her mysterious lover stop arriving and, for a month Tirzah is severely depressed until one day, a new letter arrives suggesting that the time has come for them to meet. Her fantasy lover suggests that they meet on the roof of her house at midnight. However, when she learns that the poetic lover she longed for was, in fact, only her shy husband trying to find a way to communicate with her, Tirzah loses touch with reality. She leaves her home, never to return, and descends into madness. Stripping off her nightgown, she steps out of her shoes, and walks naked from ancient Jerusalem to modern Tel-Aviv, where she becomes a homeless person known to one and all as The Meshugah, or the crazy poet of the streets.

“The play is framed by an ignorant society that cannot imagine a possible love story between a husband and his wife, and certainly cannot cope with a woman’s burgeoning and adulterous sexuality. Both the husband and his wife are blinded by and bound to the restrictions of their personalities and society, unable to express or experience love within their relationship,” stresses Ofra Daniel. “The play also deals with questions regarding the limited human ability to accept the imperfection of the subject of our love. Two people, husband and wife, cannot love what they have but instead love phantasms of each other. What happens when the fantasy shatters?”

The women of the village are shocked by Tirzah's behavior
in Love Sick (Photo by: Cheshiredave Creative)

Working on a simple set designed by Erik Flatmo (with costumes by Connie Strayer and choreography by Matt Cole), the show has been staged as a magnificent exercise in storytelling through music and dance. In his director’s note, Christopher Renshaw writes:
“The world-music score that Lior Ben-Hur and Ofra Daniel have created, which blends traditional sounds of klezmer and flamenco with a musical landscape heard throughout the modern day Middle East, is totally innovative. And it is totally original, as well as deeply moving, to showcase a story written by a woman, played by a woman, and about a woman who discovers her identity, sensuality, and sexuality in a contemporary setting through something as ancient as the biblical texts of the Song of Songs. This story could be told in a refugee camp, in the streets of Tel Aviv, or in the mind of a woman obsessed with love.”
Ofra Daniel as Tirzah in a scene from Love Sick
(Photo by: Cheshiredave Creative)

Ms. Daniel delivers an intense performance as Tirzah which is gently balanced by David Maclean's portrayal of her husband (Maclean also performs on guitar) and Ali Paris's presence as her fantasy lover. If I occasionally found Mr. Paris more interesting to watch, it was because I was fascinated by his movements while playing the qanun (a 72-string variation on a zither). Kate Boyd's lighting and the impressive sound design by Brendan Aanes enhanced the high quality of this production. Here's the trailer: