Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Traitors In Our Midst

What happens when the moral universe in which one lives gets turned upside down and inside out? When good is perceived as evil and evil insists it is good?

What happens when cultural norms get obliterated? When freedom of the press (a cornerstone of the society in which one has lived) is demeaned and degraded to the point where a political candidate doesn't hesitate to choke, punch, and body slam a reporter who asked a question about policy? When instead of being perceived as the "fourth estate," the press is accused of manufacturing "fake news" and vilified as the "enemy of the people"?

In his article published by The Guardian entitled Right-Wing Provocateurs Say They Are Being Silenced. Cry Me A River, Christian Christensen has no fucks left to give for whining conservative snowflakes such as Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, who have taken to proclaiming their victimhood now that the free market has turned against them.

Some neo-Nazis and white supremacists are abandoning Christianity in favor of Odinism, which they claim to be "the only pure religion for white people, one that has not been 'mongrelized' by the Jewish prophet Jesus." According to Will Carless, "By worshiping Norse gods like Odin and Thor, they see themselves as warriors who stand ready to reclaim America for the white race and fight against a white genocide, driven by Jews, that has left the greatest country on Earth in tatters."

In another article in The Washington Post entitled Turns Out the Trump Era Isn’t ‘1984.’ It’s ‘King Lear,’ Ron Charles astutely observes that Donald Trump resembles a demented old man wandering naked on the heath during a storm rather than George Orwell's oppressive Big Brother in 1984.

In his recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times entitled Donald Trump: The Gateway Degenerate, columnist Charles M. Blow opines that:
"When Republicans allowed themselves to accept and support him in spite of his glaring flaws and his life lived in opposition to the values they once professed and insisted upon, they moved themselves into another moral realm in which literally nothing was beyond the pale. It is a sort of by-any-means-necessary, no-sin-is-too-grave, all-facts-are-fungible space in the moral universe where the rules of basic human decency warp. Blinded by fear and rage, thirsty for power, desperate for a reclamation and reassertion of racial power, Republicans have cast their lot with the great deceiver and all their previous deal-breakers are now negotiable. Republicans sold their souls to this devil and now are forced to defend as right what they know full well is wrong. They must defend his incessant lying, clear incompetence and dubious dealings. What was once sacrilege among Republicans is now sacrosanct."
To this we've come. And yet, if we look to literature for insights, we find a wealth of material that can add meaning to today's political woes. Some works describe the lust for power; others detail a person's fall from power. Some portray ogres and trolls in ways that could easily resemble characters like Alberich and the Rhine maidens in Richard Wagner's famed tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen. Watching news footage of Melania and Ivanka Trump, one could easily be tempted to ask "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?"

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If the current political climate has you itching for an espionage drama that includes (a) Soviet spies, (b) an American who moved to Germany at the age of 11 and became a popular radio voice spouting Nazi propaganda, (c) charges of treason and collusion, and (d) a scene in which, after being captured in Argentina and brought to Israel to stand trial for war crimes, Adolf Eichmann (Adam Niemann) asks another prisoner if it's really necessary to get a literary agent to sell one's book; then Custom Made Theatre Company has just the play for you!

Adam Neimann as Adolf Eichmann in a scene from Mother Night
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Adapted from Kurt Vonnegut's 1961 novel and directed by Brian Katz, Mother Night has swastikas, fog machines, double agents, and more twists and turns than one has a right to hope for. Vonnegut's protagonist, Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (Chris Morrell), is a spy with schizophrenia whose mental illness might actually save him from the death penalty.

Chris Morrell and David Boyll in a scene from Mother Night
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Employed by Joseph Goebbels while being recruited by Frances Wirtanen (AJ Davenport) to act as a double agent helping the U.S. War Department, Campbell ends up being harassed by Bernard B. O'Hare (David Boyll) and befriended by an artistic widower (Dave Sikula) who lives in the New York apartment below him and just happens to be a Russian spy. To make matters even more complicated, a crazed dentist named Lionel Jones, D.D.S., D.D. (Catz Forsman) -- who just happens to be a white supremacist -- tries to compromise Campbell by having another Russian spy impersonate Campbell's ex-wife, Helga Noth (Megan Briggs).

Megan Briggs and Chris Morrell in a scene from Mother Night
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Before Campbell hangs himself in his Israeli jail cell, you might find yourself wishing for a less complex protagonist (perhaps along the lines of Jared Kushner), but that would spoil all the fun. Better to stick with a cast of cold-blooded war criminals, American crazies, dead wives impersonated by spooks bearing mixed messages, and a playwright who earns his living as a Nazi propagandist.

Chris Morrell and AJ Davenport in a scene from Mother Night
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Custom Made's production benefits immensely from Daniel Bilodeau's unit set, Maxx Kurzunski's powerful lighting designs, Ryan Lee Short's sound design, and the costumes designed by Brooke Jennings. While several members of the cast tackle multiple roles, Dave Sikula does nice work as the painter/spy George Kraft, Adam Niemann shines while doubling as Adolf Eichmann and Dr. Epstein (who lives in the same apartment building as Kraft and Campbell); AJ Davenport is a force to be reckoned with as Epstein's mother (a concentration camp survivor) and the mysterious Wirtanen; and David Boyll delivers a full load of crazy to his portrayal of Bernard B. O'Hare.

Megan Briggs does a fine job doubling as Helga and her younger sister, Resi, but the bulk of the evening rests on the capable shoulders of Chris Morrell, who does a superb job as the narrator/protagonist, Howard W. Campbell, Jr.

Chris Morrell and Dave Sikula in a scene from Mother Night
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

With nearly 2-1/2 hours of political intrigue unraveling in a whirlwind of flashbacks and mistaken identities, Katz's adaptation and stage direction of Mother Night delivers an intoxicating evening of theatre that rests on a foundation of solid storytelling by a skilled master. Performances of Mother Night continue at the Custom Made Theatre through June 24 (click here for tickets).

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Up in Orinda, California Shakespeare Theater opened its 2017 season on a chilly night with a new production of As You Like It that makes splendid use of a fascinatingly fluid unit set designed by Nina Ball which transforms the Forest of Arden into a homeless encampment in a contemporary urban jungle.  As the production begins, Patrick Russell's lean and athletic Orlando is locking horns with his older brother, Oliver, before challenging Duke Frederick's favorite wrestler, Charles (Jomar Tagatac).

Orlando (Patrick Russell) meets Rosalind (Jessika D. Williams)
in a scene from As You Like It (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Although Orlando's first encounter with Duke Senior's daughter, Rosalind (Jessika D. Williams), lights a romantic spark between them, Orlando's impending exile means that Rosalind and her close friend, Celia (Maryssa Wanlass), must take drastic action if they are to strike up a friendship with the young man. Appalled by Duke Frederick's hostility toward Orlando, Rosalind decides to leave the safety of the Duke's court. Not wanting to be deprived of her best friend's company, Celia joins Rosalind, disguising themselves as "Ganymede" and "Aliena."

A strong-willed shepherdess named Phebe (Lisa Hori-Garcia) and her lovesick suitor, Silvius (William Thomas Hodgson), offer a stark contrast to the amorous adventures of a more simple-minded shepherdess named Audrey (Patty Gallagher), who impresses Duke Frederick's jester, Touchstone (Warren David Keith), who has accompanied Rosalind and Celia into the Forest of Arden.

Maryssa Wanlass (Celia) and Jessika D. Williams (Rosalind)
in a scene from As You Like It (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

When Orlando stumbles upon the campsite where Duke Senior (James Carpenter) and his friends are hanging out in the forest, his devotion to his manservant, Adam (who is weak with hunger), marks a pivotal turn of events in As You Like It. As the one character with no romantic interest in anyone, Jaques (also played by Jomar Tagatac) eventually withdraws from Duke Senior's company.

It's a genuine shame that director Desdemona Chiang's statement in the printed program ("Juxtaposing the world of the court and the world of the forest, As You Like It highlights the journeys we take as we discover not just where home is, but who our family can be") was not expanded to include her thoughts as published in the company's study guide for students who will attend performances of Shakespeare's play during its run.
“Shakespeare wrote a very binary play in terms of gender (gender and race are the lenses I look through). Traditionally, the Rosalind arc is 'I must pretend to be a boy, it’s very difficult, and what a relief it is to be a girl again.' I like the idea that dressing like a boy actually feels surprisingly right to her. It’s not about disguise, but about revelation -- that these new clothes are a liberation, rather than a restriction. The character is both Rosalind and Ganymede in that she is true to both parts of herself. The ‘male’ part of herself (signified by the male clothing) is just as authentic as any female clothing could signify about her being a woman.”
Rosalind (Jessika D. Williams) teases Orlando (Patrick Russell)
in a scene from As You Like It (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“For me, As You Like It is about perceptions of normalcy. The court is very upper class, very capable, very privileged, it’s the dominant culture. (Rosalind has been a very successful woman at court; in fact, Duke Frederick speaks about how she outshines Celia). The Forest of Arden is the counterculture, where the ‘unwanted’ people might go, perhaps if they didn’t grow up in a place that makes sense to them. I wanted to explore the question of what does it mean to have a chosen family/community that is not given to you, and is also not a chosen family/community that is perceived as normal. It feels like it’s about teenagers, finding the place that makes sense to you when your home place doesn’t seem to fit. We hope to present a sense of complexity about who you love and how you present yourself.”
Nina Ball's deceptively simple set for As You Like It is full of surprises
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Why would Chiang's notes have been so valuable to the larger audience? Because it often seemed as if certain well-intentioned bits of business (ranging from extended wordplay focusing on gender terminology to the inclusion of Meredith Willson's "Till There Was You" from 1957's hit show, The Music Man) seemed oddly gratuitous.

James Carpenter (Duke) bids farewell to Jacques (Jomar Tagatac)
in a scene from As You Like It (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What keeps this spirited production aloft is its emphasis on youth (not always evident in more traditional stagings of Shakespeare's comedy) and an awareness that, with the exception of Duke Senior, those who had either been exiled to -- or fashioned a new lifestyle in -- the Forest of Arden were very much comfortable in their own bodies. The absence of privilege (a hungry lion doesn't care about your rank at the royal court) has a way of delivering a swift reality check to a pompous, vengeful ass like Orlando's older brother, Oliver (Craig Marker).

For an impressionable young man like Orlando -- who likes to use a can of spray paint to tag surfaces with graffiti -- Ball's urban forest offers a unique opportunity to post love notes to Rosalind on every tree that captures his imagination. When he finally meets up with Ganymede (Rosalind in male drag), Orlando is more than willing to do whatever is necessary to prove his love for the woman of his dreams.

Patrick Russell as Orlando in As You Like It (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With costumes by Melissa Torchia, lighting by Masha Tsimring. and sound design by Sharath Patel, this new production has Jomar Tagatac doubling as Charles and Jaques, and veteran James Carpenter doubling as Duke Frederick and Duke Senior. While Jessika D. Williams is a forceful Rosalind, the life force of the performance lies within Patrick Russell's impassioned portrayal of Orlando as an idealistic young man whose ardor burns as truly and brightly as his conscience.

Maryssa Wanlass (Celia) and Craig Marker (Oliver) in
a scene from As You Like It (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of As You Like It continue through June 18 at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda (click here for tickets).

Saturday, May 27, 2017

New Works From Female Playwrights

Several years ago, I finally had a chance to ask Edward Albee a question when he was interviewed at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. When the event was opened up to questions from the audience I asked him about a curious performance of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that I had attended sometime around 1971.

I was living in Providence, Rhode Island when (barely two years after the Stonewall riots) a group of drama students decided to stage Albee's play at Brown University with an all-male cast without making any changes to the script. Although there has been some talk in recent years about the possibility of mounting an all-male production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? there was no doubt that the taciturn playwright was not pleased by my question.

Playwright Edward Albee

A curious brouhaha recently erupted over the Albee estate’s refusal to grant performance rights to the Complete Works Project in Portland, Oregon. The key issue involved a theatre company’s decision to cast an African-American actor in the role of Nick (who is often described as one step short of an Aryan golden boy). In a post on his Facebook page, the award-winning playwright, Stephen Adly Guirgis, stated:
"The Edward Albee Estate is not racist for respecting the wishes of Edward Albee. And Edward Albee was not racist for having retained his right to see his plays produced as he wrote them and as he saw fit. Not every playwright is as stringent as Albee was. I'm not. But I'm glad he was. Theater is the one medium where a writer can't be rewritten or his intent changed without the writer's approval. Even so, it happens all the time -- which is why I'm grateful to guys like Albee. Even among theater artists, we are taught -- literally instructed -- to disrespect the writer's words from our earliest entry into the theater, i.e. 'Cut that monologue,' 'Edit that scene,' 'We don't need this part,' etc. The not so subtle message is that the writer's words & intent are important, but not that important. Or worse -- people edit scripts or alter meanings to 'improve the play' or to imprint 'their interpretation' on it."
Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis
"In this case (with respect to director Michael Streeter), he sought to 'add depth to the play.' I get it. And I'm sympathetic. But Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an acknowledged 20th-century masterpiece. It's already pretty fucking DEEP without anybody's help. Do the play. If they won't let you do the play how you want to do it? Fuck them. Do another play. Or write your own. There are a million examples of ongoing racism daily -- in our nation & in our theater. But Edward Albee has a legal right to be Edward Albee even in death. That doesn't make him a racist. It just makes him the prickly stickler genius that he always was. No harm in trying to open things up. And no blame shifting if the answer is 'no.' It's fuckin' Albee. Fuck him if you don't like it. Fuck me if you don't like me. But for playwrights, in large part, and perhaps sadly -- we ARE our work. Albee is Albee. And he paid the cost to be boss. His rights are protected. And our rights are not more important than his."
While plenty of outrage has been expressed over the situation, I was particularly taken by Melissa Hillman’s comments on her provocative theatre blog, Bitter Gertrude. Hillman argues that:
“There’s real value in creating space within white male canonical works for marginalized voices. This is because canonical works occupy a dominant cultural position that must be interrogated from multiple angles. However, we must also be staging new works by new voices. My company staged three or four new plays for every classic we did. I like that percentage; maybe a different one will work for you. But stage new work, especially work by writers whose voices have been marginalized -- women, people of color, trans people, people with disabilities, etc.

It is wickedly hard to sell a new play (which is part of what drives companies to choose canonical work). Put your money where your mouth is. Reward companies when they program the way you like by buying tickets, spreading the word, and choosing them when/if you donate. We’re nothing without playwrights. Stage living playwrights and defend their right to protect their work. And Albee’s executors, if you’re reading this, you have some serious damage control to do if you want that money to keep rolling in. Just a thought.”
Bitter Gertrude's Melissa Hillman

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The Bay area's theatre community offers numerous opportunities for readings of new works, ranging from the Playwrights Foundation's annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival to the San Francisco Olympians Festival. The San Francisco Playhouse's adventurous Sandbox series and American Conservatory Theater's use of its Strand Theater and Costume Shop Theater provide new opportunities for aspiring playwrights.

The Aurora Theatre Company's annual New Works Initiative (recently renamed Originate & Generate) and the annual New Works Festival produced by TheatreWorks SiliconValley in August give the most deserving project a fully-staged production in their upcoming seasons. CentralWorks and TheatreFIRST have taken to nurturing new plays through their unique artistic processes while the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's in-house Ground Floor serves as an incubator for new and developing works. Both Theatre Rhinoceros and the New Conservatory Theatre Center have a proud history of staging world premieres of new works that explore LGBT themes.

So when people complain about the lack of opportunities for women, African-American, Asian-American, or LGBT playwrights, they really need to pay closer attention to what's happening in small theatre companies where money may be tight, but the freedom to experiment is impressive. Two recent examples deserve special mention.

As part of its 21st Annual Playground Festival of New Works, the company is producing the world premieres of Robin Lynn Rodriguez's play about gentrification entitled Hedge and Ignacio Zulueta's new play, Kano + Abe. Short plays written by four young women from the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (Annais Naylor Guerrero, Cicely Henderson, Chava Novogrodsky-Godt, and Camilla Dwyer) will be given "curtain raiser" readings at the Best of Playground 21 performances as part of the 2017 Young Playwrights Project.

I was lucky enough to see 15-year-old Annais Naylor Guerrero's short play, Crash, on opening night. Directed by Wendy Wisely, it featured David Chung as Matt and Louel Senores as Julio, two high school students whose car accidentally crashes into a parked vehicle while they are out joyriding. Within moments of impact, the sound of a car alarm causes the two panicking youths to confront certain painful realities:
  • The one who was driving does not have a driver's license.
  • At least one of them is an undocumented alien.
  • The boy who is obviously college material immediately starts to worry about whether or not this accident will sabotage his chances of getting into college.
  • Painfully aware of his more limited options, the less intelligent friend refuses to let his pal think about abandoning a promising future.
Aspiring playwright Annais Naylor Guerrero

In ten short minutes, Ms. Guerrero made it crystal clear that hers is a talent to be reckoned with. Not only did she create two fully fleshed-out characters, she was able to give voice to their critical thinking skills and dramatize their awareness of socioeconomic factors affecting their futures with more skill and greater clarity than many playwrights twice or three times her age.

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In a fascinating article entitled When Women Crowdfunded Radium For Marie Curie recently published on, Kat Eschner discussed a curious moment in radiation research documented by diagnostic radiologist Ann Lewicki in the medical journalRadiology. In a 1920 interview with an American reporter, Marie Curie told Marie Meloney that she didn’t have any radium with which to continue her research. Nor could she afford any. Curie’s famous husband (with whom she had shared the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics) had died in 1906, leaving his wife to support herself and their two teenage daughters on a professor’s salary. As Lewicki noted: “She who had discovered radium, who had freely shared all information about the extraction process, and who had given radium away so that cancer patients could be treated, found herself without the financial means to acquire the expensive substance.”

After a successful fundraising campaign led by American women, Curie traveled to the White House where, on May 20, 1921, she was presented with one gram of radium by President Warren Harding. “The price of radium is very high since it is found in minerals in very small quantities, and the profits of its manufacture have been great, as this substance is used to cure a number of diseases,” stated Curie. “Yet, I still believe that we have done right.”

In April, HBO aired The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a made-for-television movie directed by George C. Wolfe that stars Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, and Renée Elise Goldsberry. At the same time, TheatreFIRST was in rehearsals for its world premiere of HeLa.

Poster art for the world premiere of HeLa

With rapidly increasing numbers of women graduating from college with majors in STEM fields, it should come as no surprise that playwright Lauren Gunderson (who has done an admirable job of dramatizing the achievements of women in science and math in such plays as Silent Sky, Ada and the EngineDeepen The Mystery: Science and the South Onstage) teamed up with another Bay area playwright, Geetha Reddy, to put a new spin on the story of Henrietta Lacks, the dying African American woman whose cancer cells were able to live outside of her body. Sensitively directed by Evren Odcikin (with dramaturgy by Lisa Marie Rollins), their thrilling new play capped TheatreFIRST's inaugural season of four world premieres.

Working on a unit set designed by Bailey Hikawa with lighting by Stephanie Anne Johnson and sound by Kevin Myrick, the stage was dominated by a large sculpture made of plastic balls which, when bathed in different colors by Johnson's impressive lighting design, almost seemed to quiver with life.

Richard Pallaziol and Jeunée Simon in a scene from HeLa
(Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

In 1951, when Henrietta Lacks was undergoing treatment for cervical cancer, the medical team at Johns Hopkins harvested some of her cancer cells without the patient's consent (a standard practice at the time). Named HeLa cells (a combination of the first two letters of Henrietta's first and last names), the biopsy yielded a medical breakthrough -- the first line of immortal cells that could keep reproducing outside the human body.

Over the years, HeLa cells have proven invaluable in research aimed at finding cures for cancer, polio, AIDS, and numerous other diseases. Although their use gave rise to a billion dollar segment of the medical research industry, Henrietta's family never received any compensation (the Lacks family didn't even learn about the history of the HeLa cell line until 1975).

Khary Moye and Jeunée Simon as David and Henrietta Lacks
in a scene from HeLa (Photo by Cheshire Isaacs)

What made the HeLa cells so special? They came from a black woman (attempts to harvest similarly potent cell lines from white women routinely failed). While HBO's film will undoubtedly reach many more people than TheatreFIRST's intimate new play, I doubt that HBO would have had the poetic audacity, imagination, and wit to include a scene in which Henrietta's spirit has a conversation with Strelka (one of the Soviet Union's "space dogs") as she learns about the power of the cancerous cells which were taken from her body.

Jeunée Simon as Henrietta Lacks and Sarah Mitchell as Strelka (the
Russian space dog) in a scene from HeLa (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

As the plot of HeLa unfolds, it doesn't take long for Henrietta to succumb to cancer. But, as can only happen in live theatre, the running dialogue between her spirit and her grieving adult daughter, Deborah (Desiree Rogers), achieves a remarkable level of poignancy while delivering a huge amount of scientific information about the value of HeLa cells and the machinations of greedy researchers following Henrietta's death. All this is accomplished with a technical grace and sense of empathy that could easily have been lost had the story been placed in the hands of less talented playwrights than Gunderson and Reddy (who share a strong interest in science).

Desiree Rogers as Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, in
a scene from HeLa (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Odcikin's ensemble does some beautiful work with Jeunée Simon (Henrietta), Khary Moye (David), and Desiree Rogers (Deborah) as the key members of the Lacks family. Richard Pallaziol appears as a variety of selfish (and occasionally buffoon-like) medical researchers, with Akemi Okamura providing a sympathetic presence as the researcher who shows Deborah Lacks the living cells that contain her long-dead mother's DNA. As always, the wonderful Sarah Mitchell scores comic points with her impersonation of the cosmonaut dog, Strelka.

Having recently partnered with Margot Melcon in co-writing Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly (which received a tightly-choreographed rolling world premiere from the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, the Northlight Theatre in Chicago, and the Marin Theatre Company), Lauren Gunderson has teamed up with Geetha Reddy (who spent several seasons in Playground's playwrighting program) to create a compassionate script which is medically sound and easily accessible to contemporary audiences. It should be stressed that, while Annais Naylor Guerrero, Geetha Reddy, and Lauren Gunderson are certainly not the only women in the Bay area writing plays, their work leaves no doubt about the breadth and depth of their talent.

TheatreFIRST’s website states that the company’s goal is “to revolutionize the intersection of audience, artist, and activism by making theatre a place where social justice happens. As an all in-house development company, our staff, board, and creative teams are built to explore how best to lift and amplify marginalized stories by breaking down perceived barriers so that we might all explore an equitable world.” On opening night, HeLa was introduced to the audience by the production's lighting designer, Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson, an African-American member of TheatreFIRST's Board of Directors who, as a theatre artist and cancer survivor, was especially proud to be a part of this deeply moving world premiere.

Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson (Photo by: Steve Savage)

Performances of HeLa continue through June 17 at the Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley (click here for tickets).

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Far From The Best Of All Possible Worlds

We're living in an age of hyperbole. Where many of us once believed that we were merely drowning in superlatives, the competition for readers, eyeballs, and sales has transformed our media into a crude landscape built upon a shifting foundation of wretched excess. Between the demands of the blogosphere and cable news, the urgent need to grab a person's attention has led us into a world where some publicists are cursed with the professional version of premature ejaculation.

By 2005, marketing teams were labeling certain clients' performances as "the event of the century" with little wiggle room for what might happen during the next 95 years. Political headlines scream things like "Elizabeth Warren Eviscerates Donald Trump on the Senate Floor," thereby creating an image of the impassioned Senator from Massachusetts sticking her hand up Donald Trump's flabby ass and disemboweling the 45th President of the United States for all to watch on C-SPAN. Cable news pundits constantly talk over the people they are interviewing; certain interactions are routinely described as "destroying" an opponent. The result is that audiences expect polite discussions to play out with the vituperative force of a mixed martial arts battle or a cage match for heavyweight wrestlers.

Not every creative person is capable of hitting the artistic equivalent of a home run with every project.
  • Although athletes train intensely to keep in shape, they remain vulnerable to injuries.
  • Opera singers take care to warm up their vocal cords while understanding that allergies, stress, and any number of physical imperfections can cause their voice to crack.
  • Long hours of practicing scales may help a pianist improve keyboard dexterity but will not prevent someone from ever flubbing a note.
The arts are one of the few areas of the human experience where people can learn from being allowed to fail. Few creative talents hit their mark on their first try because, in most cases, artists are far more interested in process than product. Once they've finished a project, they're often hungry for a new challenge that will allow them to stretch their muscles and grow.

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Launched in 1994, Playground has become the Bay area's most prodigious incubator for local playwrights. Over the course of each season, certain theme nights (mathematics, musical theatre, science, etc.) challenge writers to create 10-minute plays on a specific topic. As part of its 21st Annual Playground Festival of New Works, Playground recently included six short plays in an anthology program entitled Best of Playground 21. While three selections proved to be surprisingly disappointing, it's helpful to understand a key factor that may have weakened their impact.

Written by Jerome Joseph Gentes and directed by Amy Sass, Or: Or, The Play of Light featured the following cast of characters: One (Nicole Apostol Bruno), Two (Liam Vincent), Three (Michelle Ianiro), Four (Robyn Grahn), Five (David Cramer), and Six (Morgan J. Booker). While each represented a photon boasting the properties of waves and particles, the playwright's attempt to explain the phenomenon of light with actors holding lightbulbs as they moved around a darkened stage never really took flight. As a result, a portentous (and occasionally pretentious) script couldn't hold a candle to Ian Walker's sound design. This attempt to let there be light proved surprisingly slight.

Nicole Jost's Monarchs in Space (directed by Jessa Brie Moreno) features the following characters: Elena Vela (Nicole Apostol Bruno), Monarch 1 (David Cramer), Monarch 2 (Michelle Ianiro), and Monarch 3 (Morgan J. Booker). The set-up is simple. An astronaut has been tasked with studying the effect of zero gravity on three Monarch butterflies which, during the launch phase, were mere cocoons. As they emerge and discover their striking new beauty, the butterflies implore the astronaut to tell them stories about life on Earth, which seem as magical to them as fairy tales.

Although Genevieve Jessee's I Had A Bird (directed by May Liang) is built on a solid premise and presents the audience with a genuine conflict, her characters are named One (Michelle Ianiro), Two (Robyn Grahn), and Three (Nancy French). An affecting vignette that demonstrates how children who may not be able to understand the concept of a plague attacking their community are nevertheless resilient enough to learn how to play with each other, I Had A Bird showed potential for further expansion. Although it quickly veered from a child's wide-eyed innocence to an adult's fear of "the other," and from talk about sickness to the pain of grief, something about this play just didn't seem to gel.

I'm going to go out on the limb here with my own personal theory. Photons are neither cuddly, nor would any be likely to be given names like Bruce. Butterflies may yearn to be free, but quickly lose their singularity in a swarm of thousands. Children of different races interact in communities around the globe. But as an exercise in playwriting, assigning a number to each character may deliver a same kind of result as what one achieves from painting by numbers. The boundaries and colors may be clearly defined, but the context needs a lot more work.

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Speaking of "needing more work," attention must be paid to the musical adaptation of Mira Nair's 2001 film, Monsoon Wedding, which recently received its world premiere from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. This is the kind of pre-Broadway tryout that sets off alarms to warn producers that rhinestones are not a girl's best friend and "all that glitters is not gold."

Perhaps it's best to approach this particular experience through dual lenses (as two waves of seeming inevitability approached an opening night deadline).

Jaaved Jaaferi as Lalit Verma in a scene from Monsoon Wedding
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Set in Delhi, Monsoon Wedding focuses on the various conflicts involved in the planning of an arranged wedding. On one hand, there is the upper middle-class Verma family, whose patriarch, Lalit (Jaaved Jaaferi), is facing financial troubles and whose daughter, Aditi (Kuhoo Verma), is the bride-to-be. Eager to escape from the clutches of her very traditional Punjabi Hindu family, Aditi has agreed to marry a complete stranger even though she has been carrying on a long-term affair with Vikram (Ali Momen), a married man at her place of employment.

Additional members of Lalit's household include his wife, Pimmi (Mahira Kakkar); their son Varun (Rohan Gupta), who is happily dancing his way out of the closet; their maid, Alice (Anisha Nagarajan); and their niece, Ria Verma (Sharvari Deshpande), who is as moody as Varun is gay. Other local relatives include Pimmi's sister, Shashi Chawla (Monsoon Bissell), her husband, CL (Sorab Wadia), and their 10-year-old daughter, Aliya (Emielyn D. Das).

Michael Maliakel (Hemant) and Kuhoo Verma (Aditi) are the
romantic leads in Monsoon Wedding (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The groom-to-be, Hemant Rai (Michael Maliakel), is arriving from New Jersey a few days prior to the wedding. Tired of straddling the cultural divide of being half Indian and half American, he longs for a traditional Indian wife who will help him build a family more in line with his ethnic heritage. His mother (Krystal Kiran) and father (Andrew Prashad) have contributed a substantial amount to the four-day-long wedding celebration even though they have never met anyone from the Verma family.

The two men driving important subplots are Tej Puri (Alok Tewari), Lalit's wealthy brother-in-law who lives in Texas, is attracted to underage girls and (unbeknownst to Lalit) molested Ria when she was much younger; and PK Dubey (Namit Das), the fun-loving, charismatic wedding planner hired by the Verma family who falls head-over-heels in love with their maid, Alice.

Namit Das as PK Dubey in a scene from Monsoon Wedding
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With a plot that includes (a) a nervous bride canceling her wedding after confessing to her groom that she is still seeing another man, (b) a woman who has lovingly been raised by her uncle telling him that she can't possibly attend her cousin's wedding, (c) a creepy child molester lurking within the family, (d) a simulated scene in which a lovesick man chases the woman he loves on horseback as she rides through the countryside on a train, and (d) assorted relatives bragging about the Ivy league American schools from which their children have graduated, there should be enough tension to make Monsoon Wedding an intense and lively affair.

With a book by Sabrina Dhawan (who wrote the original screenplay), choreography by Lorin Latarro, and news that the Berkeley Rep's run had been extended due to healthy ticket sales, there was an encouraging buzz in the theatre's lobby on opening night. Add an extremely attractive display of Indian-themed fashions worn by many members of the audience and it would seem as if the stage had been set for a most entertaining evening.

Anisha Nagarajan (Alice) and Namit Das (PK Dubey) in a
scene from Monsoon Wedding (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Shortly after the performance began, reality entered with a disheartening thud. Despite the glittering costumes (many in blazing colors) designed by Arjun Bhasin, Scott Lehrer's solid sound design, and Peter Nigrini's impressive projections, there was no escaping Susan Birkenhead's excruciatingly insipid lyrics. Under Mira Nair's direction, dramatic moments which should have crackled with tension didn't; set changes often revealed stagehands wearing headphones as they tried to rig scenic elements which could have been more effective had they been flown in from above.

Monsoon Wedding is one of those rare musicals whose first act is much weaker than its second. There is also an odd imbalance caused by the fact that the two brides are much less interesting than the two grooms (who are also much stronger singers).

From a musical standpoint, Vishal Bhardwaj's score is surprisingly undistinguished. Although Dubey's grandmother, Naani (Palomi Ghosh), has a moving solo entitled "Love Is Love" and Sharvari Deshpande's Ria finally gets her dramatic moment with "Be A Good Girl," Hemant's solo ("Neither Here Nor There") and his duet with Aditi ("Could You Have Loved Me?") have little, if any, traction (audiences are much more likely to leave the theatre whistling the show's costume designs).

Although most of the audience responded enthusiastically, I felt as if I had been seated at a wedding table with extremely well-dressed but fairly superficial guests who had nothing to spark a conversation other than their clothes. Bottom line? Monsoon Wedding makes Mamma Mia! seem downright Shakespearean.

There was, however, one moment which delivered an unexpected laugh on a very personal level. The groom's first name (Hemant) is pronounced the same way as my last name (Heymont). During the brief scene when Hemant arrives at the Delhi airport, I did a double take when I heard him referred to as "Mr. Heymont from New Jersey." Performances of Monsoon Wedding continue through July 2 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Monday, May 22, 2017

Old Habits Die Hard

Some habits are deceptively easy to acquire. Whether by mimicking the behavior of parents and peers or trying to push the envelope just a little bit further, there comes a moment of reckoning when having another drink or lighting another cigarette becomes second nature; when we start to justify tossing refuse like candy wrappers and cigarette butts onto the sidewalk by telling ourselves that "everyone does it."

It took me years to break the habit of answering a phone just because it was ringing. Even if I was just stepping out of the shower, if the phone started to ring, I would grab a towel and (dripping with water) race to the next room to make sure I answered the call. Having a digital answering machine made no difference. Where I grew up, it was considered rude not to answer a telephone call within the first four rings.

What helped me break that habit? Robocalls. Once I understood that my sleep was being disturbed by an automatic dialer on a computer in another city, I taught myself to roll over and go back to sleep. If Barack Obama could "evolve" with regard to same-sex marriage, I could evolve with regard to phone scams and telemarketing.

Nowadays, if caller ID shows a telephone number or originating city that doesn't jog my memory, I simply ignore the call. If the caller doesn't leave a message, too fucking bad. Not only don't I care, I'm a whole lot happier without worrying about having missed a call.

Bad habits that lead to substance abuse (involving alcohol, drugs, and/or food) can be extremely difficult to break. So, for that matter, can habits involving language that has fallen from grace.
  • For some of us, it took a conscious effort to progress from using the word "Negro" to saying "Black" or "African-American."
  • Many of us still talk about "dialing" a phone number although no one I know uses a rotary phone anymore.
  • Some people have adjusted to referring to a man's husband or a woman's wife but still have difficulty using nonbinary gender terms.
  • Words which have morphed into verbs (such as "conversate" and "Google") or been popularized by hipsters and Millennials (such as "totes" and "whatevs") tend to drive grammarians crazy.

Over at the Potrero Stage, the 21st annual Playground Festival of New Works is presenting a program of six short plays, three of which help to remind us how some of our most deeply-ingrained habits can now paint us as clueless and anachronistic trolls.

Directed by Eric Reid, Maury Zeff's Come And Knock on Our Door takes a look back at the popular sitcom, Three's Company (which ran from 1977-1984) through the lens of a more socially enlightened society. Janet Wood (Robyn Grahn) gets a phone call from her roommate, Chrissy, informing her that Chrissy's cousin is coming to visit. As they chat about what Gloria (Nancy French) is like, Janet is admonished never to refer to Gloria as a "girl."

Gloria (Nancy French), Jack (Liam Vincent), and Janet (Robyn
Grahn) in a scene from Come and Knock On Our Door
(Photo by:

Janet's roommate, Jack Tripper (Liam Vincent) -- a character originally created by John Ritter -- is now seen as a clueless straight white male whose behavior reeks of sexism. While that might seem like a minor detail, its significance becomes much more obvious when Gloria turns out to be a young Gloria Steinem and the landlord -- an African-American woman named Shirley (Michelle Ianiro) -- is actually Shirley Chisholm.

What makes this 10-minute play a winner is Liam Vincent's hilariously over-the-top characterization of Jack Tripper as a socially inept would-be Lothario who can't understand why his roaming hands are not welcomed by the ladies or why his standard pick-up lines (dripping with innuendo) are landing like lead balloons. Wearing a pair of beltless polyester pants, Vincent delivers comic gold. Here's the trailer:

Directed by Jim Kleinmann, Melissa Keith's Mission: Ambivalent spoofs another TV staple -- the secret agent who must always rush to a crime scene in order to save the day. There's just one problem. Tom (Liam Vincent) is not your typical hero. As the play starts, he's carefully shopping for grocery items which have double-value coupons in a supermarket when he is contacted by Jerry (Nicole Apostol Bruno) with news of a bomb threat.

Although Tom protests that it's not really a good time for him, the truth is that he has absolutely no talent at defusing bombs and is a bit of a klutz. Upon arriving at the scene, he has to deal with the hyperaggressive Julia (Robyn Grahn), who wants an immediate resolution of the problem, and Sam (David Cramer), an older man Tom regards as a mentor.

Robyn Grahn, Liam Vincent, Nicole Apostol Bruno, and David Cramer
in a scene from Mission: Ambivalent (Photo by:

Not only is Sam revealed to be the mad bomber, he's also a totally ineffectual villain who forgot that if his bomb explodes while he's still in the room, he will effectively be committing suicide. Mission Ambivalent offers a painful reminder of how easily incompetence can sabotage careful planning (in the White House as well as in a 10-minute play). Here's the trailer:

In Sang S. Kim's Explicit Content, Matthew (Liam Vincent) and his father, Abner (David Cramer), are about to meet with some marketing consultants whose goal is to broaden their firm's clientele. At first, Abner insists that he doesn't want to do any talking and will leave everything up to Matthew. But as soon as three liberated women enter the room, the audience can almost see the steam coming out of Abner's ears.

Abner has spent most of his life using words like "bitch" to refer to any woman who crosses his path. As much as he hates having to deal with an aggressive woman like Helen (Nancy French), he's even more shocked when she starts treating him the way he treats her. While Abner may be horrified by Helen's plans to ignore his company's loyal customer base, something much deeper is stoking his anger.

Helen (Nancy French) locks horns with Abner (David Cramer)
in a scene from Explicit Language (Photo by:

When Helen asks what he really wants to get from their meeting, Abner crumbles and admits that his son and daughter-in-law have forbidden him from having any contact with their children because of the way he talks. Family means everything to him and he's willing to do anything to get his grandchildren back in his life.

That gives Helen the ammunition she needs to help set some goals which can bring the company -- and Abner -- into the 21st century. With Morgan J. Booker appearing as Helen's assistant, Amanda, and Nicole Apostol Bruno's Louise taking notes on a computer, director Christian Haines has fun with the playwright's winning gimmick. Each time Helen or Abner uses an offensive term which Louise's word processing software does not allow, the computer noisily bleeps it out. As they discover terms which, surprisingly, pass muster with the software, their creative juices begin to flow with a vengeance. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
One could never accuse Del Shores of failing to make the most of his good luck. When a small play he wrote in 1996 had its world premiere in Los Angeles, Sordid Lives quickly became a cult phenomenon.

Although Del Shores and Leslie Jordan have each toured shows in which they talk at length about their experiences with Sordid Lives, until this month, the original play had never been performed in San Francisco. Thanks to Ed Decker (the artistic director of New Conservatory Theatre Center), that crime against local gay history has finally been rectified.

Cat Luedtke, Michaela Greeley, and Marie O'Donnell
in a scene from Sordid Lives (Photo by: Lois Tema)

NCTC recently unveiled a new production of Sordid Lives before an adoring opening night audience. The performance was of particular interest to me because my first exposure to the Sordid Lives phenomenon had been a severe letdown. I was visiting someone in Long Beach and had read that the film was being screened at a small theatre that specialized in independent films. There may have been eight customers attending the Saturday night screening and their confused lack of enthusiasm could not be ignored.

The barroom scene from Sordid Lives (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Thankfully, that was not the case at NCTC. With the film, the TV series, and his one-man show entitled Del Shores: My Sordid Life all available on DVD, what was once a cult phenomenon has become a thriving franchise. As a result, the misadventures of the highly dysfunctional denizens of Winters, Texas have become the White trash equivalent of high art, effectively pushing the residents of Greater Tuna off the map.

What quickly becomes apparent is how much Sordid Lives gains by being performed in front of a live audience that can respond to all the unscripted pieces of business. Each double take, eye roll, and pregnant pause (as one character prepares to lob a truth bomb in another character's direction) gets the appreciation it sorely deserves. Every sigh from a wounded ego and vicious insult delivered with seething hatred elicits hoots of loving laughter from the audience.

Melissa O'Keefe and Scott Cox in a scene from Sordid Lives
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

With the passage of time, references to Thelma and Louise have become juicier than ever. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that the critical role of Brother Boy (which has been as tightly linked to Leslie Jordan as Dolly Levi was to Carol Channing) stands on its own as a powerhouse opportunity for someone with strong comic skills. Scott Cox made it his own with riotous results, leaving the audience in stitches.

Sordid Lives is structured as a series of flashbacks in which each vignette is introduced by Luke Brady as Ty Williamson, a closeted gay actor working in New York City who is terrified at the thought of returning to his home town in Texas for his mother's funeral. His fears, however, are nothing compared to the shenanigans taking place in the office of Dr. Eve Bolinger (Melissa O'Keefe) as she tries to "dehomosexualize" Earl "Brother Boy" Ingram (Scott Cox).

Melissa O'Keefe, Scott Cox, and Robin Gabrielli in
a scene from Sordid Lives (Photo by: Lois Tema)

With scenic design by Kuo-Hao Lo, costumes by Wes Crain, lighting by Maxx Kurzunski, and sound design by Ryan Lee Short, Dennis Lickteig has directed his cast with appropriately raucous levels of distress, despair, and discontent. Shannon Kase is a bundle of energy as Noleta Nethercott with Gary M. Giurbino standing as strongly as possible on G.W. Nethercott's two wooden legs. Nathan Tylutki has some very funny moments as Odell Owens (who can't stop playing cat's cradle) and the Reverend who presides over the funeral of a family matriarch who came to an untimely end in a sleazy motel.

While Cat Luedtke and Marie O'Donnell fight it out as the decedent's two daughters, LaVonda and Latrelle, Michaela Greeley struggles to avoid taking sides with either woman while making a futile attempt to give up smoking. Robin Gabrielli and Amy Meyers are the more rational souls as bartender Wardell "Bubba" Owens and Bitsy Mae Harling.

The funeral scene from Sordid Lives (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Performances of Sordid Lives continue through June 24 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets). If the political landscape has got you down, this production is guaranteed to lift your spirits. Here's the trailer: