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.

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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).

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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:

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