Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Dearly Beloved

It's easy to take the many people and things we love for granted. Whether we interact with them on a daily basis or look upon them with inordinate amounts of sentimentality, the brutal truth is that we never fully comprehend how valuable their presence has been until they're gone.

Whether taken from us by force, discarded after being broken, or falling victim to planned obsolescence, inanimate objects disappear from our daily lives for all kinds of reasons. Friends, pets, relatives, and other objects of our affection may move to another city, enter into a relationship which does not include us, or succumb to disease, depression, or old age. They, too, are gone.

At first, such losses can be as staggering as a blow to the solar plexus. Over time, however, people adapt to new realities they may have anticipated or which are the result of tragic circumstances. Two recent experiences dealt with (a) the shock of suddenly losing a beloved relative, and (b) the threat of extinction. Each loss can take its toll in startling ways.

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Who doesn't love giraffes? The tallest living land animals, these long-necked herbivores are favorite attractions in nature films, on wildlife safaris, and in urban zoos. The recent media tease about a certain resident of the  Animal Adventure Park in Harpursville, New York named April who, for the past few months, has been due to give birth at any moment, has only highlighted the curiosity people have about giraffes and the affection these creatures inspire in children of all ages. What is the secret of their appeal? According to Wikipedia:
A cooperative giraffe poses for a publicity shot
  • A 2016 study concluded that living giraffes consist of multiple species, with researchers suggesting the existence of four species that have not exchanged genetic information between each other for somewhere between one million to two million years.
  • If fans of the species think that a giraffe's ossicones make it look weird, they should know that, following a duel it is common for two male giraffes to caress and court each other. Such interactions between males have been found to be more frequent than heterosexual coupling. In one study, up to 94% of observed mounting incidents took place between males (although the proportion of same-sex activities varied from 30%–75% between males, only one percent of same-sex mounting incidents occurred between female giraffes).

The 2017 San Francisco Green Film Festival is offering a screening of Ashley Scott Davison's poignant documentary entitled Last of the Longnecks. Filled with surprising factoids about giraffes that are bound to touch the heart of any conservationist, this film has been blessed with Matthew Chase's magnificent cinematography that lends a magical aura to many African vistas.

Unlike Africa’s Big Five targets for game hunters (elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, lion, and leopard), giraffes are not in demand as exotic trophies. Although revenue from the legal hunting of giraffes is limited, they are nevertheless vulnerable to poachers who trap the animals with wire snares and then kill them for their meat. Surprisingly, with an estimated 90,000 giraffes in the wild (and a gestation period lasting 400-460 days), certain species of giraffe have become more vulnerable to extinction than elephants and rhinos.

The Oakland Zoo's Balthazar gets a tasty snack

In February 2014, the Copenhagen Zoo caused an uproar when it killed a healthy two-year-old giraffe who was determined to be unsuitable for breeding. Many Danes were horrified that the zoo would allow visitors to watch zookeepers dissect their beloved Marius before feeding his meat to the zoo's lions.

While publicizing the plight of the giraffe population, Davison's film also does a great deal to educate viewers about the giraffe's contribution to maintaining a healthy environment with its talent for aiding in pollination. Unfortunately, with much of its natural habitat falling victim to urbanization, the future of several species of giraffe has become increasingly imperiled. Here's the trailer:

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As part of its 50th anniversary season, San Francisco's famed Magic Theatre is presenting a "legacy revival" of The Baltimore Waltz, an intense play written by Paula Vogel as she struggled to cope with the death of her brother, Carl, from AIDS on January 9, 1988. Structured as a series of bizarre vignettes, the frenzied dramedy received its world premiere from the Circle Repertory Company in New York in January 1992 with a cast headed by Cherry Jones, Richard Thompson, and Joe Mantello and received the 1992 Obie Award for Best New American Play.

Working on a simple unit set designed by Nina Ball (that consists primarily of oversized hospital curtains) with impressive lighting design by Heather Gilbert, the production has been directed by Jonathan Moscone with the kind of pulsing fluidity appropriate for fever dreams, nightmares, and other types of surreal adventures. The protagonist is Anna (Lauren English), an elementary school teacher in Baltimore who has never traveled abroad due to her fear of foreign languages.

Anna has recently been diagnosed with a suspicious (and fictitious) ailment called Acquired Toilet Disease (ATD), which a physician informs her is deemed to be "the fourth major cause of death for single schoolteachers, ages 24 to 40, behind school buses, lockjaw, and playground accidents." With her future uncertain and the medical community completely clueless about how to help her, Anna decides to fuck her brains out in whatever time she has left to live. At one point she asks "Do you think if I let Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross sit on my face I'll get well?"

Lauren English as Anna in The Baltimore Waltz
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

As the play begins, Anna's brother, Carl (Patrick Alparone), has just been terminated from his job as head librarian of literature and languages at the San Francisco Public Library. Fluent in six languages, one of Carl's professional joys is his "Reading Hour With Uncle Carl," which he shares with children at neighborhood library facilities around the city. Carl is a well-educated, culture-hungry gay man who (unlike his sister) packs an extremely neat suitcase. When an airport security guard uses a metallic wand to search Carl's body for any suspicious items, his cock ring and pierced nipples instantly set the device ringing.

On his last day at work, Carl is explaining what a pink slip is to his young audience and instructing them in how to make pink triangles. Later, as his sister's mysterious disease worsens, he declares:
"If Sandra Day O'Connor sat on just one infected potty, the media would be clamoring to do articles on ATD. If just one grandchild of George Bush caught this thing during toilet training, that would be the last we'd hear about the space program. Why isn't someone doing something?"

Patrick Alparone as Carl in The Baltimore Waltz
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

The Third Man (Greg Jackson) is a shape shifter who plays multiple roles. Whether appearing as a medical professional, a concierge, a drug dealer, or a 50-year-old version of the little Dutch boy who stuck his thumb in a dike, he almost always wears latex gloves.

As Anna and Carl traipse around Europe in search of an eccentric urologist who likes to drink the urine samples he gets from his patients, their search for a potential cure will remind many in the audience of the futile trips to Canada and Mexico undertaken by people who tried to get their hands on AZT and other medications for their friends in the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic. Late in the play, when Carl appears with a series of purple splotches on his skin, it was interesting to see which parts of the audience immediately recognized the Kaposi's sarcoma lesions and which people were too young to know what they were looking at.

Patrick Alparone, Lauren English, and Greg Jackson in a 
scene from The Baltimore Waltz (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

With costumes by Meg Neville and sound design by Theodore J. Hulsker, Magic Theatre's production packs a powerful punch as it causes the audience to revisit the confusion, fear, lack of medical knowledge, and desperation shared by so many gay men who died of AIDS. Vogel's surprise is that, by telling everyone that it is Anna who is suffering from Acquired Toilet Disease, the eventual realization that it is actually Carl who is dying (and that their trip to Europe must have been a figment of Anna's imagination) is all the more poignant. In the following clip, the playwright discusses her inspiration and her process for writing The Baltimore Waltz.

Lauren English and Patrick Alparone give magnificent performances as the siblings battling an unknowable disease while clinging to a mysterious stuffed rabbit doll as their lucky charm. Thanks to Jonathan Moscone's superb direction, The Baltimore Waltz has lost none of its bite 25 years following the play's world premiere.

Patrick Alparone and Lauren English in a scene from
The Baltimore Waltz (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Performances of The Baltimore Waltz continue at the Magic Theatre through April 16 (click here for tickets).

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