Saturday, March 25, 2017

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Desperate times call for desperate measures, which is why so many people go looking for answers in all the wrong places. Professional athletes often credit God with having helped them score a win. During the 1970s, an extremely religious tenor making his San Francisco Opera debut told General Director Kurt Herbert Adler prior to the opening night performance that "It's all in God's hands now." Adler's curt response? "Let's hope he knows the score better than you do!"

When push comes to shove, people put their faith in all kinds of miracles, hoping that a prayer, an amulet, or some other kind of talisman will bring them luck. Whether telling a fellow cast member to "break a leg," muttering "In bocca al lupo," or spitting out the words "Toi Toi Toi!" before a performance, all kinds of backstage traditions get their due.

Communicating with real or imagined spirits is a display of faith that often finds its way into song. From the doomed Marguerite's "Anges! Anges radieux! Portez mon âme au sein des cieux!" during the finale of Gounod's Faust (1859) and Leonora's plaintive "La vergine degli angeli" in Verdi's La Forza del Destino (1862) to Aida's "Numi pieta" and Blanche's 11 o'clock number in Francis Poulenc's 1957 opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites ("Veni Creator Spiritus"), many a doomed soprano has been known to lift her voice in prayer. During a rare performance of Tancredi at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1989, a friend told me during intermission that despite her deep admiration for Rossini scholar Philip Gossett, "If that broad gets down on her knees and starts praying one more time, I'm walking up the aisle!"

It isn't just the women who seek out divine intervention. From Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls to Tevye the Dairyman in Fiddler on the Roof, from Jean Valjean in Les Misérables to Dr. Mark Bruckner in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, desperate men can be heard begging for help.

Two recent tales show desperate souls seeking desperate favors from the living as well as the dead. While one is a documentary about a circus performer, the other involves a long-dead journalist who wrote about America's celebrity circus long before bloggers and reality television became dominant forces in the entertainment industry.

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With the recent announcement that, after 146 years in business, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will shut down operations in May of 2017, a small-scale, low-key documentary entitled Mister Universo (which will be screened during the 60th annual San Francisco International Film Festival) takes on added significance.

Poster art for Mister Universo

The film's protagonist is a young lion tamer named Tairo Caroli, who finds himself in an unusual predicament. When Tairo was a child, his parents took him to a circus where Arthur Robin (the first black man to win the Mr. Universe title) was performing feats of strength. When Tairo was brought backstage after the show and introduced to the man who would soon become his hero, Robin bent a piece of steel right before the impressionable boy's eyes and gave it to him as a gift. That piece of steel became a talisman for Tairo, a good luck charm he has kissed before each and every performance.

Tairo Caroli with Cratos in a scene from Mister Universo

As the film begins, Tairo is facing a string of disappointments. One of his female lions is too old to do tricks. The male, Cratos, is acting too aggressively to perform. After discovering that someone has stolen his good luck charm from his circus trailer, Tairo feels spooked.

With ticket sales down and Cratos too dangerous to play with, Tairo sets off on a trip to visit old friends and relatives in the hope that they can help him find Arthur Robin. His goal? To ask the strongman to bend another piece of steel for him which can replace the missing talisman.

Tairo Caroli in a scene from Mister Universo

Many of the circus veterans Tairo visits have fond memories of working with the affable black bodybuilder, but are not sure where he is working -- or if he is even still alive. But eventually, Tairo tracks his hero down to an animal circus that has shut down for the winter. When the young man is reunited with his idol, Arthur is more than happy to do some bench presses before indulging Tairo's fantasy, Unfortunately, the passage of time is unavoidable. As filmmakers Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel explain:
“Arthur is a former Mr. Universe whom we met 18 years ago. In the early days, he had lots of film offers, but turned them all down because he had commitments in the circus. He took his fate into its own hands even as a young man. He only had one aim in life (to become Mr. Universe) and succeeded by means of hard work. Working on a film like ours meant leaving his protected space, so he thought about it for a long time before deciding he wanted to try it (at the age of 88). Today, he is a happy person, but it’s easier to believe that his fate is determined by other forces, such as a talisman.”
Former Mr. Universe, Arthur Robin, in a scene from Mister Universo

Meanwhile, back at the circus, Tairo's close friend, Wendy Weber, has been visiting with colleagues who can read Tarot cards to predict Tairo's luck. An aging dancer and contortionist, Wendy still appears on a regular basis although she knows that, at some point, her body's diminishing flexibility will force her to stop performing.

Wendy Weber in a scene from Mister Universo

While some viewers might find Mister Universo a bit too tame for their tastes, the filmmakers point to an underlying story about the creative process which no one really wants to talk about.
“We use a copying facility in Rome where great Italian films were created decades ago. We were shown the room where the negative cutters used to sit. There are at least 40 workplaces. All of them are empty now. It’s hard to imagine what has been lost in terms of qualification and passion. The old female chimpanzee, Lola (who worked with great directors like Fellini), really is a witness to a lost world of cinema that will never exist in that form again. Huge numbers of copying facilities all around the world have closed down over the last few years because of the digitalization of the cinema. That doesn’t just mean the jobs have been lost, but that knowledge you can only obtain by experience has been lost forever. A few analog copying facilities will survive. Maybe one or two in Italy will survive. Maybe one in Germany. And archive copies will still be created on celluloid for a long time.”
Unlike many cause-related documentaries, there is no clash of interests in Mister Universo. Nor is there any real suspense. This is simply a film about a boy who met Mr. Universe and, 15 years later, tracks him down in the hope that an aging athlete can replace the good luck charm he made for Tairo back when the future lion tamer was an impressionable child. Here's the trailer.

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The passions of youth often lead toward extreme melodrama. Whether they involve having a crush on an object of one's unwanted affection, going into full-fan mode over a popular performer, or believing that the crisis of the day requires some kind of artistic statement from your adolescent self, as one looks back at certain moments of acting out from an emotional distance of 50 years or so, it's hard not to chuckle.

For example, in October 1962, during the global tensions surrounding the Cuban missile crisis, I was old enough to go to the theatre by myself. At 15, I had no trouble navigating New York's transit system and had learned how to score cheap seats for certain shows. Determined that if the world should come to an end I wanted to die in a Broadway theatre, I purchased a standing room ticket for a Saturday matinee of Camelot in the final months of its run. The show's original stars (Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet, Roddy McDowall, and Robert Coote had all left the production by that time and the show was in the hands of William Squire (King Arthur), Kathryn Grayson (Guinevere), Robert Peterson (Lancelot du Lac), John Cullum (Mordred), and Arthur Treacher (King Pellinore).

When I emerged from the Majestic Theatre later that afternoon, the sun was still in the sky, pigeons were still afoot, and life went on. The intense emotions that had made attending a mediocre matinee of a mediocre musical feel so urgent subsided and I took the subway back to Brooklyn.

That kind of intense (and intensely misguided) passion lies at the core of Allison Page's new play, Kilgallen Jones, which recently received its world premiere production at the EXIT Theatre. Although I've admired Page's writing on many occasions, this was one instance where what ended up onstage seemed more like an idea in search of a play rather than a finished product. Part of that may be due to the structure of the drama, part of it may be due to Ellery Schaar's disappointing direction. A good part of it is due to the cast. Let me explain.

Poster art for Kilgallen Jones

The stage is basically divided into two areas of action. On the left is the kind of basement/den area found in many suburban homes (and a few television sitcoms). Its denizens are three Millennials who have been best friends for most of their lives and are now enrolled in a community college in Cleveland, Ohio.
  • Alexis Jones (Sarah Brazier) is a diehard fan of the whodunit genre. She is also a troubled 19-year-old with a strong personality who hates her mother (who has been institutionalized) and whose best friend's mother has taken her in and allowed her to live in their basement as long as she attends her classes.
  • Rae (Lauren Garcia) is Alexis's best friend, who is much more of a loyal follower than a leader.
  • Gordo (George Coker) is their nerdy male friend who has an insatiable craving for junk food.
Sarah Brazier, Lauren Garcia, and George Coker in a scene
from Kilgallen Jones (Photo by: Stephanie Renee Wozniak)  

With the deadline for an assignment looming over her head, Alexis is trying to find a murder to write about (preferably one she does not know) when the three friends stumble across the story of Dorothy Kilgallen's mysterious death on November 8, 1965. Older members of the audience will probably remember Kilgallen's heydey as a journalist with a specialty in celebrity gossip. Many will also remember her as one of the long-time panelists on What's My Line?

As a journalist, Kilgallen gained fame for her syndicated column, "The Voice of Broadway," but also wrote about politics, organized crime, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. While she made a lot of friends in show business (and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of Queen Elizabeth's coronation), she also pissed off a few famous people (most notably Frank Sinatra).

Although the autopsy attributed Kilgallen's death to an overdose caused by a fatal combination of drugs and alcohol, Kilgallen's fascinating backstory inspires Alexis to launch a podcast. Hoping to copy the style of Sarah Koenig's success with "Serial," she names her podcast "Sequential." Her clumsily articulated goals are to (a) make her podcast go viral as a means of attracting advertising, and (b) solve the mystery surrounding Kilgallen's death 52 years ago.

On the opposite side of Mary Naughton's unit set is a mockup of Kilgallen's office, in which a somewhat loopy embodiment of the long-deceased journalist makes several ghostly appearances that fan the flames of Alexis's imagination and lead the increasingly sleep-deprived and obsessive teenager to fantasize about conspiracy theories like a Millennial version of Alex Jones. Convinced that she can find the secret to Kilgallen's death by adhering to "Dorothy's Code of Conduct," Alexis plods down a frenzied path to delusional behavior until, in a moment of acute paranoia, she stabs Gordo as he enters the basement where Alexis is conducting her podcast.

Sarah Brazier as Alexis Jones in Kilgallen Jones
(Photo by: Stephanie Renee Wozniak)

In her program note, playwright Allison Page writes:
“In the early 1960s, crime writing was serious business. Nobody took it more seriously than journalist, gossip columnist, and television personality Dorothy Kilgallen. I began reading about her several years ago and was absolutely enthralled. While I am definitely a true crime fanatic, I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist. My admiration for Dorothy (her work, her ambition, her unwillingness to bow down to anyone’s idea of who or what she should be), connects me to her in a way which cannot be overshadowed by the story of her death and the notion of ‘solving’ it. I often wonder, as someone who tirelessly dug into the deaths of others -- and sought justice -- what she would make (52 years after her own death) of all the attempts to understand the end of her life. We’ll never have an answer to that, of course, but I must say, if she had seen and hated this play I’m confident she’d have written the best takedown possible. And I love that, too.”
As a critic, I didn't hate Kilgallen Jones so much as I thought it was a schizophrenic mess. While the audience (many of whom were friends and supporters from the local theatre community) howled with laughter at each eye roll and and innocuous gesture by a member of the cast, the show's basic weaknesses were pretty obvious.
  • The three young actors portraying Alexis, Rae, and Gordo all suffered from extremely poor diction which (even in such a small playing space as the EXIT Theatre) made many lines incomprehensible.
  • Ellery Schaar's stage direction seemed exceptionally weak, with little sense of pacing.
  • Three Millennials sitting on a couch and watching television does not necessarily make for great theatre.
The evening's saving grace was Marie O'Donnell's droll, gin-thirsty performance as Kilgallen. Alternately belittling, baiting, and bewildering Alexis with clues and conundrums from another time and place, O'Donnell's characterization was far more interesting than anything else happening onstage.

Marie O'Donnell as Dorothy Kilgallen in Kilgallen Jones
(Photo by: Stephanie Renee Wozniak)

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