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).

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