Friday, July 28, 2017

Searching For Their Own True Selves

Common knowledge tells us that zebras and tigers cannot change their stripes any more than dalmatians and leopards can change their spots. However, for other species, their remarkable skills at adaptability have become a clever means of survival on land as well as in the ocean. The following videos of shape-shifting, color-changing octopi (as well as land-based chameleons) display wonders of nature that few of us have an opportunity to witness at close range.

Although octopi and cuttlefish are noted for their intelligence, it's still not clear whether their ability to change colors is a conscious choice or a basic reflex responding to external stimuli. For people whose lives have been severely challenged by gender dysphoria, it takes a lot of courage, hard work, and money to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

In the midst of Donald Trump's loathsome attempts to prevent transgender men and women from serving their country (and the Department of Justice's misinformed theory, under Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not protect LGBT people from employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation) it's interesting to see how the arts rise to the challenge of helping people understand the breadth and depth of human nature.
In a recent post on the San Francisco Playhouse’s blog, artistic director Bill English wrote:
“Actors get to express emotions and get it out of their system. Acting can be very healthy, cathartic, and instructive, but the director and critic have no such outlet. And so the empathetic experience can collect in our systems. I have had to battle the impulse to shut down in the face of too much feeling (that can be lethal for the director who must be ever aware and awake and open to what her actors are expressing). Shutting down is a sure way to kill a production. If you’re not feeling and responding to the work, your instincts for making choices and subtle adjustments, the essential tools that help us shape the raw work of actors into a finished product can get shut down as well.”
San Francisco Playhouse's artistic director, Bill English
“I imagine that if a critic gets OD’d on the sheer weight of human emotion, show after show after show, they too run the risk of shutting down and not being genuinely open to and affected by the work. Since the essential element of theatre is feeling, we directors and critics must find ways to clear out our empathetic overload, to come refreshed and renewed to face the onslaught of the rich emotional life our actors bring to the stage. We must get to the forest, or the beach, walk, get away from the theatre so we can return renewed and open. I suppose this is true of all people these days as we face the onslaught of the Information Age, the steady parade of bad news, the fears of where our planet’s political turmoils are leading us. We all run the risk of shutting down, sticking our head in the sand, and consequently becoming useless.”
Thankfully, there are brave souls whose artistic vision compels them to challenge society's norms.

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During the past decade, Dan Hoyle has grown tremendously as an artist. His ability to research a topic by interviewing ordinary people -- combined with his journalistic skills as a writer -- has provided plenty of material for a man with an insatiable curiosity about what makes people tick. His one-man shows (Tings Dey Happen, The Real Americans) have evolved into remarkable showcases for Hoyle's talents as a mimic and shape shifter. His ability to capture the spoken rhythms of the people he meets throughout his travels and craft them into compelling vignettes is often astonishing. His ear for foreign accents, regional dialects, intonation, and tempo is uncanny.

Over the years, Hoyle has a developed an extremely loyal following. Photos of him dressed in the simplest of street clothes fail to convey the energy and fluidity of his acting, the laid-back grace of his storytelling, the depth of his characterizations, or the kind of relaxed charisma which makes audiences fall hopelessly in love with him. His seemingly effortless ability to morph from one character into another makes him an Everyman for the 21st century.

In June of 2014, Hoyle premiered his current show, Each and Every Thing (which he developed with the help of Charlie Varon and Maureen Towey). In this monologue, he examines how people have become so distracted by their smartphones that they've basically lost the art of conversation. For some, their attention span has been so severely crippled that it is difficult for them to make eye contact when another person is talking to them.

Three years after the premiere of Each and Every Thing, Hoyle has returned to The Marsh for a string of performances scheduled to run through late August. Part of what inspired him to add some new material to his monologue were the conversations he heard following the 2016 Presidential election. He was also eager to reconnect with some of the people (Coco, SeeKnow) depicted in his show, which clocks in at a tightly-written 75 minutes.

Dan Hoyle in performance

Whether imitating a much younger version of himself learning how to watch television or mimicking a black street hustler with a wicked sense of humor, Hoyle's work is always literate, hilarious, fluid, and filled with pathos. Whether rapping about the phone zombies he sees wherever he goes, describing his interactions with patrons of a Calcutta coffee shop highly recommended to him by his perpetually stoned friend, Pratim, or impersonating some of the people he met during a Digital Detox retreat in Northern California, his characterizations are easily recognizable and can quickly veer from achingly funny to touching and poignant.

If one were to ask what has changed the most in Each and Every Thing since its 2014 premiere, my answer would be Hoyle's level of comfort as a shapeshifter. His seamless transitions from one character to another have become so thoroughly coordinated between his eye movements, voice, and a rubbery body that dances without seeming to have any bones, that Hoyle's transformative skills have become as varied, natural, and reflexive as those of a chameleon.

As a performance artist, Hoyle has come a long way from the moment he graduated from college with no marketable skills. He now has a job description which suits him just fine: a mesmerizing monologist with "magic to do." Performances of Each and Every Thing continue through August 26 at The Marsh (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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Written and directed by Ori Sivan (whose grandmother was first harpist in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), Harmonia is a Biblical allegory set in modern times that is based on the story of Abraham and Sarah in the Book of Genesis. In case there are any doubts, Sivan includes quotations from Genesis at the beginning of pivotal sequences in his film. Its story, however, challenges audiences to add a touch of Sondheim ("Children Will Listen") into their understanding of how rebellious children struggle to find their own true selves.

Abraham (Alon Aboutboul) conducts the Jerusalem Philharmonic
in a scene from Harmonia

In the Bible, Abraham is an Islamic prophet; in Harmonia, Abraham (Alon Aboutboul) is the beloved conductor of the Jerusalem Philharmonic. Deeply in love with his radiantly beautiful wife, Sarah (Tali Sharon), who is the orchestra's first harpist, the couple has already survived several miscarriages, leaving them childless.

Abraham's wife, Sarah (Tali Sharon), is the harpist
for the Jerusalem Philharmonic in Harmonia

In the Bible, Hagar is an Egyptian handmaiden whom the barren Sarah gives to Abraham as a second wife. When Abraham is 86 years old, Hagar gives birth to a son named Ishmail, who follows in his father's footsteps as a prophet. In the film, Hagar (Yana Yossef) is a young French horn player who auditions for the Jerusalem Philharmonic but doesn't play loudly enough to satisfy its maestro. Nevertheless, the two women quickly bond and Hagar is present when Sarah suffers another miscarriage.

Although she lives in East Jerusalem and speaks to her father in Arabic, Hagar volunteers to be a surrogate for Sarah and have a baby that will be fathered by Abraham. Soon after the child's birth, Hagar leaves the orchestra so that Sarah and Abraham can raise their child. While Abraham keenly desires his son to become a violinist, by the time he turns twelve, Ben (Itai Shcherback) has become a brooding and rebellious child who excels as a pianist. Though he has no trouble learning how to play other instruments, Ben prefers to listen to rock music on his headphones as he rollerblades around the city and through the backstage and underground regions of the concert hall.

A rebellious 12-year-old Ben (Itai Shcherback) goes rollerblading
in the bowels of a concert hall in a scene from Harmonia

Just as God promised the 99-year-old Abraham that Sarah would miraculously give him a second son, the film version of Sarah finds herself pregnant in her late forties. After she gives birth to a young boy who gets named Isaac, Ben doesn't adjust well to the presence of another child. One night, his negligence threatens Isaac's life.

Abraham (Alon Aboutboul), Sarah (Tali Sharon), and Hagar
(Yana Yossef) celebrate Isaac's third birthday in Harmonia

At about the time of Isaac's third birthday, Abraham needs to replace a horn player who has left the orchestra and approaches Hagar's father, Daod (Ali Suliman), for his help. Hagar is fascinated to see how Ben has turned out and a friendship soon develops between them. Unfortunately, Ben's parents have never told him about Hagar's role in his birth. One day, on their way home from a rehearsal, Hagar takes Ben to her father's restaurant in East Jerusalem, where they give the boy a trumpet that has been a family heirloom. Eventually, Ben tells his parents that he doesn't want to be their son anymore and leaves their home to go live with Hagar.

Time passes and Abraham's second son is about to enter a competition for young violinists. Although his father keeps trying to mold him into a true classical musician, Isaac (Tamir Tavor) lacks one key trait necessary to compete as a classical musician: enthusiasm. As he stares at photos posted on the orchestra's backstage bulletin board, he notices one that has been covered up and realizes that it is his older brother, Ben. From that moment, Abraham and Sarah lose all control of their sons, leading to the film's surprise ending.

Isaac (Tamir Tavor) finds happiness playing the violin while wearing
a picture of his estranged brother Ben (Itai Shcherback) in Harmonia

“I stay close to the Biblical story. I even tried to write it in the way the Bible tells stories. The style is pure and short and without subtext; it’s straightforward and simple, but the story is dramatic, there is conflict,” explains the filmmaker. “In a way, the story is about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Ismail used to be metaphorically the father of the Arab Muslims and Isaac (the other son of Abraham) is kind of the father of the Jews, in a metaphorical way. I tried to give it a very, very slight touch. I tried to say, in a way, we’re all brothers.”

While Alon Aboutboul (Abraham) and Ali Suliman (Daod) make major contributions as the adult men in the two overlapping families, much of the film's dramatic tension comes from young Itai Shcherback (Ben) and Tamir Tavor (Isaac) as Abraham's two sons struggle to make sense of their lives. With extremely sensitive performances from Tali Sharon as Sarah and Yana Yossef as Hagar, Harmonia delivers a major surprise with the appearance of Liron Amram near the film's end.

Alon Aboutboul (Abraham), Tali Sharon (Sarah),
and Yana Yossef (Hagar) in a scene from Harmonia

The music of Rimsky-Korsakov’s exotic Scheherazade and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake get quite a workout throughout this film. In one key sequence, Ben climbs the stairs to the organ atop the Jerusalem International YMCA and angrily blasts a theme from Swan Lake to the citizens of the holy city. As Sivan recalls:
“I had so much fun listening to classical music, choosing the pieces, working with the orchestra, and working with the actors because people don’t live their lives alone. They live in co-operation with other people (which is also the essence of classical music, giving life to a symphony). There are 100 people doing something together that has no meaning when they are alone and has no meaning without the conductor.”

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

All Dolled Up and Nowhere To Go

Dolls have been an integral part of civilization throughout history. From simple dolls used in primitive rites aimed at bolstering fertility, crops, and hunting to highly sophisticated robots (designed to provide companionship and/or sex to their owners), children of all ages have lavished their affection and imagination on all kinds of dolls

From Barbie and Ken to voodoo dolls; from the dolls used by psychotherapists who work with abused children to teddy bears and nesting Matryoshka dolls, these toys (some handmade, others mass manufactured) have helped many a child to practice the art of conversation with a close friend and articulate surprisingly intimate thoughts.

Born on January 24, 1776, Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann's use of dolls with seemingly magical powers has inspired composers, librettists, and choreographers. On May 25, 1870, with a score by Leo Delibes, the ballet Coppélia premiered at the Théâtre Impérial l'Opéra. The story was based on two short stories by Hoffmann (1816's Der Sandmann and Die Puppe).

Based on three stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Jacques Offenbach's opera, Les Contes d'Hoffmann, premiered at the Opéra-Comique on February 10, 1881. The libretto portrays Hoffmann as a drunken poet chasing his muse as he pursues her through a series of misadventures. One of them involves a mechanical doll named Olympia.

With a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and a plot based on Hoffmann's short story entitled The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the two-act ballet known far and wide as The Nutcracker received its world premiere at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1892.

In each of these works some form of mental magic (a dream, a pair of special eyeglasses, or youthful infatuation) causes someone to pursue a fantasy whereby a doll comes to life.
  • In Coppélia, a doll made by an eccentric inventor named Dr. Coppelius has so entranced young Franz that his girlfriend (Swanhilda) puts the doll in a closet and substitutes for her in order to play a joke on her boyfriend.
  • In Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Dr. Coppelius proudly shows off his doll (Olympia) to an admiring crowd but, because of the magical eyeglasses Hoffmann is wearing, the poet thinks the doll is real.
  • In The Nutcracker, Herr Drosselmeyer gives his goddaughter a nutcracker doll as a Christmas present. After she goes to sleep, Clara has a dream in which the nutcracker battles a frightening mouse king. Upon winning the battle, the nutcracker takes off his mask and is transformed into the handsome prince who escorts Clara to the Land of Sweets.
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One of the unexpected delights of the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival was a screening of 1919's Die Puppe (The Doll). Directed with a grand sense of mischief by the 27-year-old Ernst Lubitsch (and screened with live musical accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius), the film focuses on young Lancelot (Hermann Thimig), a painfully shy young man who is terrified of marriage. Lancelot's uncle, the Baron of Chanterelle (Max Kronert), has insisted that in order for his nephew to inherit a fortune, Lancelot must find a bride and marry her. To help matters along, the Baron invites all of the women in the village to gather so that Lancelot can make a choice. Frightened to death by the mere thought of marriage, Lancelot jumps out of a window and tries to run away.

Hermann Thimig stars as Lancelot in 1919's The Doll

Surprisingly, he finds shelter in a local monastery filled with a group of extremely well-fed monks who like to live high off the church's wealth. Their clever Abbot (Jakob Tiedtke) comes up with a brilliant plan. If the monks can convince Lancelot to marry a doll made by the eccentric Hilarius (Victor Janson), the Baron's dowry will keep them dining on their beloved pig knuckles for years to come. And how does Hilarius market himself? As a maker of lifelike mechanical dolls who offers his services “to bachelors, widowers, and misogynists.”

Ossi Oswalda (Ossi) and Gerhard Ritterband
(the apprentice) in a scene from 1919's The Doll

Enter Ossi (Ossi Oswalda), the dollmaker's daughter, and his mischievous apprentice (Gerhard Ritterbrand). From that point on, Lubitsch's film becomes a merry sex farce featuring an all-too-human doll, lots of sight gags, and a gaggle of greedy and gluttonous monks whose appetites and ethics could make the Trump administration seem like rank amateurs.

Poster art for 1919's The Doll

In her program essay, Farran Smith Nehme writes:
“Deliciously weird for 1919 or any other year, Ernst Lubitsch’s Die Puppe (The Doll) declares its intent to please from the first shot. An appealing 27-year-old Lubitsch himself is the first person to appear, as he refuses to look his own camera in the eye. Instead, from a toy box he busily assembles a cute little diorama composed of a felt lawn and an S-curved driveway, a series of cutout trees on pencil-size trunks, and a house with one door, one window, and a removable roof. He opens the house, places two dolls inside, and presto: the story begins. The film unfolds like a mad picture-book come to life. The backdrops are mostly forced perspective, full of slanted picture frames and out-of-scale doorways. One character’s kitchen has the hanging pots and pans painted straight onto the flats. A carriage arrives pulled by two horses that are actually four men in vaudeville-style horse costumes. When one of the string tails falls off, the coachman casually sticks it right back where it belongs. The sun and moon are embodied by paper cutouts with faces (the movie often looks as though it were designed by a precocious seven-year-old). Our director is the doll-maker’s doll-maker, E.T.A. Hoffman with a camera, manipulating the characters for all they are worth. ”
“Written by Lubitsch and frequent collaborator Hanns Kräly (from the same Hoffmann story that gave us the ballet Coppélia), this fairy tale has even less truck with dreary reality than the all-dancing version. The jokes, however, are not necessarily for children. The Doll is essentially a sex comedy, about an effete young man who tries to marry a mechanical doll, only to discover that she’s flesh and blood, and more fun that way. The bizarrely suggestive intertitles pile up: “Familiarize yourself with the mechanism,” “Always dust her well,” and “Don’t forget to oil her every two weeks.””
Gerhard Ritterband (the apprentice) and Victor Janson
(Hilarius) in a scene from 1919's The Doll

“Here the film takes flight," explains Smith Nehme.
"We meet Ossi (played by Ossi Oswalda), daughter to Hilarius, model for his latest creation, and soon-to-be human substitute for a broken doll. Petite, charming Oswalda was sometimes called 'the German Mary Pickford' although she had a far more unruly mane of blonde hair and more of a hint of sex. Oswalda’s joyous energy is, quite deliberately, the most natural element of the film. Jokes and emotions dash across Oswalda’s big-eyed face like Mack Sennett actors. Her goofy allure has ensnared her father’s adolescent apprentice (Gerhard Ritterband), who necessitates the whole deception by trying to dance with Ossi’s mechanical replica and breaking the thing’s arm in the process. When her temporary masquerade as the doll turns into an elopement, her alarm lasts only a few minutes. By the time she’s in the carriage headed for the wedding, Ossi is back to finding the situation irresistibly funny and amuses herself by falling against her reluctant groom a few times.”
Hermann Thimig (Lancelot) and Ossi Oswalda
(Ossi) in a scene from 1919's The Doll

The screening of Die Puppe at the Castro Theatre kept the audience in stitches (the scenes at the monastery are hilariously corrupt). Although the two romantic leads (Hermann Thimig and Ossi Oswalda) are great clowns, Gerhard Ritterbrand steals the show whenever he is onscreen. Thankfully, you can watch the Lubitsch's hour-long farce in its entirety in the following clip.

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It's hard to believe that next year will mark the 35th anniversary of the Broadway premiere of La Cage aux Folles. With music by Jerry Herman and book by Harvey Fierstein, the show is a musical adaptation of Jean Poiret's 1973 play, whose 1978 screen adaptation had audiences roaring with laughter at Albin's shenanigans as the co-owner of a French nightclub that specialized in drag revues in which he starred as the legendary Zaza.

Ryan Drummond (Georges) and John Treacy Egan (Albin) in a
scene from La Cage aux Folles (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

When I saw the original Broadway production it was by no means love at first sight, for very specific reasons.
  • Although a heterosexual couple I knew who had seen the show during its Boston tryout raved about La Cage aux Folles, by 1984 many gay people were dying of AIDS/HIV.
  • Politically, the LGBT community had just spent 15 years celebrating their right to lead an openly gay lifestyle that was radically different from the traditional nuclear family.
  • Many gay men (who were stilled closeted with respect to their families and employers) were rebuffed by family members as they lay dying, too sick to explain how they had contracted the disease when they weren't even Haitian.
  • I did not think that Jerry Herman's score represented his best work.
  • With my own parents' marriage collapsing, I was in no mood to be overly sentimental about the sacrosanct institution of marriage.
Since the recent turn of the century, however, a great deal of social change has made La Cage aux Folles a much more interesting show.
The San Francisco Playhouse recently unveiled a new production of La Cage aux Folles which took me completely by surprise. Suddenly, I realized that one of the main reasons I had not enjoyed previous productions of this extremely popular musical was because I had seen the show performed in large theatres where audiences responded to the glitzy costumes more than they did to the musical's inherent drama.

Nikita Burshteyn (Jean-Michel) and Ryan Drummond (Georges)
in a scene from La Cage aux Folles (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

When seen in a 199-seat theatre (where the scenic design includes a runway that facilitates entrances and exits through the auditorium's center aisle) La Cage aux Folles takes on a much greater sense of intimacy and urgency. From the moment Albin started singing about how "a little more mascara" helps to soothe his nerves, the size of this venue made it possible for audiences to appreciate more nuanced interactions between the characters and feel as if they were part of Georges and Albin's extended family.

Ryan Drummond, Nikita Burshteyn, John Treacy Egan, and
Brian Yates Sharber in a scene from La Cage aux Folles
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The moment that genuinely shocked me came in Act II, when Albin makes a desperate attempt to dress as a man in order not to embarrass his son when the Dindons come to visit. As I watched John Treacy Egan squirming and sweating in a tailored suit (with his hair combed forward over his brow), I was struck by how much he looked like Oliver Hardy in his most vulnerable comic moments. Bill English (who directed this production) writes in his program note that:
La Cage Aux Folles hits a triple bullseye on our mission at San Francisco Playhouse. To uplift our spirits, there is no better recipe than La Cage, with the catchy tunes of Jerry Herman and the wicked book of Harvey Fierstein, to install a permanent grin on our faces. But La Cage digs deeper than the smile on our faces. It challenges us to fulfill part two of our mission, to deepen self-awareness. Watching rehearsal after rehearsal of La Cage, I find myself unable to avoid all the ways in which I don’t always live up to the song, “I Am What I Am.” Life is a perpetual struggle to live by the heart’s yearning. We know deep inside of us who we are capable of being, but we look the other way as we struggle for survival, power, wealth, and fame while our heart urges us to look inside to what our truth speaks and begs us to have the courage to live up to our convictions.”
Ryan Drummond, Samantha Rose Cardenas, Chris Reber, and Adrienne
Herro in a scene from La Cage aux Folles (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
“We are challenged by these ‘birds of a feather’ who ‘will’ be themselves, despite persecution and marginalization. This summer (perhaps more than many summers before), our American culture is challenged to protect our constitutional guarantees against rampant racism and prejudice against those with differing sexual and gender identities. All around us are those who would roll back progress and impose restrictions on who may immigrate, who may adopt, who may use which bathroom. The number of hate crimes has exploded, creating a nightmarish vision of horrors past. Now more than ever, to nurture compassionate community, we need to honor all humans’ rights to sing, ‘We are what we are’ and ‘I am what I am’ with pride.”
The Cagelles perform in La Cage aux Folles
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

With music direction by Dave Dobrusky, choreography by Kimberly Richards, scenery by Jacquelyn Scott, and costumes designed by Abra Berman, the San Francisco Playhouse's production works like a charm. The Cagelles -- Brian Conway as Chantal, Morgan Dayley as Angelique, John Paul Gonzalez as Hanna, Alex Hsu as Bitelle, and Nicholas Yenson as Phaedra -- are dressed more simply than in many other productions, yet bring a welcome element of grittiness to the show. Chris Reber and Adrienne Herro double as the Renauds (the couple who run a nearby bakery) and the Dindons (the conservative politician and his repressed wife).

John Treacy Egan, Adrienne Herro, Chris Reber, and Ryan Drummond
in a scene from La Cage aux Folles (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Nikita Burshteyn brings his strong tenor and dramatic skill to the role of the young Jean-Michel, who is head-over-heels in love with Anne Dindon (Samantha Rose Cardenas). Brian Yates Sharber draws lots of laughs as the black maid, Jacob, while Lee Ann Payne shines as the catty restaurant owner, Jacqueline. But the true heroes of the show are Ryan Drummond's sauve Georges and John Treacy Egan's magnificently comical yet deeply poignant portrayal of Albin.

Samantha Rose Cardenas, Nikita Burshteyn, and John Treacy Egan
in a scene from La Cage aux Folles (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Performances of La Cage aux Folles continue through September 16 at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here for tickets).

Monday, July 24, 2017

Staunch Women

For all their bullying, bloviating, and bravado, many men are surprisingly weak. In the past, they would boast about their brawn without making much effort to develop their brains. Today we have the "bro" culture, which tends to feed the puffed-up egos of man-boy jocks and nerds whose worldview takes pride in "locker room talk" and often reeks of misogyny.

The pompous and patronizing attitudes that scorned females as hysterical and wives as "the little woman" were memorialized in these songs taken from 1956's My Fair Lady, 1964's Hello, Dolly, 1935's Jumbo, and 1954's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

When one examines the constant malfunctioning of the Trump administration (as well as the sheer dickishness of such comic book villains as Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and Steve Bannon), it becomes obvious that powerful men addicted to privilege are often enabled by sycophants desperately trying to protect the fragile egos of vainglorious snowflakes who can easily become rattled in the presence of strong women (Jeff Sessions got all flustered and had a "Mercy me!" meltdown when former prosecutor turned Senator Kamala Harris started to grill him during a Congressional hearing).

Women who are not afraid to speak their minds (Elizabeth Warren, Ana Navarro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Patti LuPone) are not easily subdued. Many in the media took special delight in pointing out that it was three female Republican senators (Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, Maine's Susan Collins, and West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito) who neatly sabotaged McConnell's recent attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

While many men seem to think that brute strength and the ability to blow things up proves they are stronger than women, the hard truth is that women are often better at thinking on their feet, strategizing for the long term, and making difficult decisions in times of crisis. Don't believe me? Ask any female nurse who has had to rescue a patient from a male physician's poor choices and lack of attention.

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Hailed throughout her life as one of cinema's great beauties, Hedy Lamarr is famous for claiming that “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” Her early years on screen were dominated by the controversy over her nude scene in 1933's Ecstasy (filmed when she was only 19 years old).

Hedy Lamarr in a scene from 1939's Lady of the Tropics

Hedy Lamarr in a scene from 1941's Ziegfeld Girl

Whether portraying a tropical temptress in 1942's White Cargo or appearing as an ethereal vision in 1944's The Heavenly Body, Lamarr was often seen as a sex symbol.

Hedy Lamarr in costume for 1942's White Cargo

Hedy Lamarr in a scene from 1944's The Heavenly Body

In 1949, when Lamarr costarred opposite Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah, Edith Head's lavish costumes framed Hedy's body in a way that clearly communicated the seductive powers for which her character had become famous.

Hedy Lamarr co-starred in 1949's Samson and Delilah

Hedy Lamarr co-starred in 1949's Samson and Delilah

In 1957, when the actress appeared as a mystery guest on What's My Line? (a popular panel show), once her identity was revealed, the celebrities on the panel serenaded her with the popular Rodgers & Hart song, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." But there was so much more to Hedy Lamarr's life. To be sure, there was plenty of tabloid coverage related to her affairs, marriages, and difficulty on the set. But Lamarr had a secondary career which many people knew nothing about.
In honor of Hedy Lamarr's 101st birthday, Google published a Google Doodle which celebrated her onscreen achievements as well as her work as an inventor.

The 2017 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival features a new documentary written and directed by Alexandra Dean entitled Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story which follows the life of this ravishingly beautiful, formidably intelligent, and highly motivated woman. With Susan Sarandon as its Executive Producer, the film includes interviews with Lamarr's children as well as some fascinating insights from Mel Brooks, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Osborne, and Michael Tilson Thomas. Here's the trailer:

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Benjamin Franklin is famous for claiming that "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Since tax season is over, let's talk about death.
  • For some people death comes early; for others it comes late in life.
  • For some people, death results from a sudden and unexpected event (an automobile accident, heart attack, murder, drug overdose) while, for others, it may mark the sad resolution to a lingering terminal illness.
  • Although some people will do anything to hold on so they can live for "just one more day," others are tired of living and more than willing to quit the planet. They have their reasons.
Religious dogma (wherein suicide is regarded as a sin) often dominates discussions about whether or not people have the right to take their own lives. In most cases, the law is not on their side.
There's just one hitch. In an era when more and more elderly patients struggle with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia in a society that refuses to deal rationally with mental illness, it's much harder for patients who understand that their mental powers are diminishing to take action than it is for people with easily visible physical symptoms.

As part of a National New Play Network rolling world premiere, CentralWorks is presenting the Bay area premiere of Winter, a sobering drama about a family that wants to hold on "just a little bit longer" while they continue to ignore the inconvenient truth about what is happening to the woman who has cared for them throughout much of their lives. Inspired by bioethicist Margaret Pabst Battin’s short story (Robeck) in Ending Life: Ethics & the Way We Die, Julie Jensen's one-act play takes place shortly before Thanksgiving as a family gathers to celebrate and cope with their aging parents.

Annis (Phoebe Moyer) and Robeck (Randall Nakano) are extremely intelligent golden agers who have spent much of their professional lives performing research in academia. Although they long ago agreed on a plan to die together when one of them became unable to lead a fulfilling life, Robeck keeps trivializing his wife's concerns. Annis understands all too well that she is having problems with memory and is terrified by what may lie ahead for her. Unfortunately, her husband is like an absent-minded professor determined to complete his research against all odds.

Randall Nakano (Robeck) and Phoebe Moyer (Annis)
in a scene from Winter (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Having given the matter plenty of thought, Annis is determined to rise to the occasion while she can. After mapping out a game plan and amassing a reasonable stash of pills, she must recruit someone who will drive her to her final destination so that she can die in peace.
  • Her eldest son, Roddy (John Patrick Moore), has traveled the furthest and, in a rather authoritative way, committed himself to using the Thanksgiving weekend to pack up and ship his parents off to some kind of assisted living facility where they can adjust to a downsized lifestyle.
  • Her youngest son, Evan (Steve Budd), is more concerned with listening to his parents and trying to respect their wishes.
  • Her granddaughter, LD (Julie Kuwabara), may be less mature than Roddy and Evan but is obviously more malleable than the men in the family.
Steve Budd (Evan) and Julie Kuwabara (LD) in
a scene from Winter (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

As the playwright explains:
“When I was ten, my uncle killed himself with a gun. On purpose. He had kids. Dirt poor. I couldn’t help but think his kids were probably better off, because my uncle could not stop drinking. But I had a more complicated response to the whole subject of suicide and a bigger sense of one’s obligation to others. Then I saw Marsha Norman’s play, ‘night, Mother, and thought there had never been a better play about a better subject. I loved Jessie’s matter-of-fact manner. I loved her reasons being her reasons, and there needn’t be more. Personal freedom triumphant, and beautifully written! Now I’ve written Winter and, for me, the two arguments come together. Annis insists on her right to choose and acts on a profound sense of obligation to her family. She wants to leave before she loses her dignity. Wouldn’t we all want that?”
Phoebe Moyer (Annis) and Julie Kurabawa (LD) in a scene from Winter
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)
“Since I first started working on this play, a cousin of mine lived for five years without her memory, her talents, her humor, her words. Her time was as empty as her look. Although her children were caring and diligent, what was left of my cousin’s life defined burden. Can I say she would not have wanted that? Of course I can. She was not allowed to leave before she lost her dignity. This is a very important subject. I wondered about it when my mother was deep into dementia, and I wonder still as I watch the struggles of others. At what point do we lose dignity or become a burden? And most important of all, how do we know when it’s the right time? As Annis says, ‘We must leave before the last possible minute, or else we lose the capacity to make it happen.’”
John Patrick Moore (Roddy) and Steve Budd (Evan)
in a scene from Winter (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

With sound design by Gregory Scharpen, Winter has been directed and lit with loving care by Gary Graves. While Randall Nakano, John Patrick Moore, Steve Budd, and Julie Kuwabara do commendable work in supporting roles, the bulk of the play rests on the shoulders of Phoebe Moyer, a veteran Bay area artist who does an excellent job communicating Annis's vulnerability, practicality, sense of urgency, and determination to take control of her demise. For anyone getting on in years (or who knows someone struggling with a form of mental illness), Jensen's play will trigger plenty of thoughts about the future. Having just turned 70 (and with a history of Alzheimer's in my family), it certainly did for me.

Phoebe Moyer stars as Annis in Winter (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Performances of Winter continue through August 13 at the Berkeley City Club (click here for tickets).

Friday, July 21, 2017

There Won't Be Strumpets

Where do new musicals come from? Some are inspired by historical events (Titanic, Pacific Overtures, 1776, Triangle, Assassins, Newsies) while others (Rent, Miss Saigon, Aida) are adaptations of popular operas. Some are tested in dramatic incubators (such as the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre's annual Festival of New Musicals, and the New Works Festival run by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley) while others (A Chorus Line) evolved from people sharing their work experiences.

From Les Misérables, The King and I, and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to The Pajama Game, Cabaret, and My Fair Lady, some have been inspired by popular books and plays. Others (Cinderella, Into the Woods, Striking 12) have found their source material in short stories and fairy tales.

Some musicals are built around historical figures and outsized personalities (War Paint, Call Me Madam, The Scottsboro Boys, Barnum, Ben Franklin in Paris, Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson, Hamilton, Martin Guerre, Gypsy, and Fiorello!) while others are built around beloved characters from popular literature (Mame, Fiddler on the Roof, Little Me, I Remember Mama).

For many years, composers, choreographers, and stage directors were inspired by movies they loved. Their unwavering passion led to stage adaptations of films ranging from The Producers, The Phantom of the Opera, Billy Elliot, and Sunset Boulevard to 42nd Street, Hairspray, Grey Gardens, and The Full Monty.

Mostly due to the economical power of the Disney empire, full-length animated features from The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid to Tarzan, Toy Story, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame have developed new lives as musical theatre cash cows. Upcoming projects for screen-to-stage transformations include The Jungle Book, Hercules, Pinocchio, and Frozen.

Despite the vast popularity of comic strips, graphic novels, and children's books, such forms of literature have had far less success leaping from the page to the stage. From Li'l Abner, Annie, It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman, and Doonesbury to The Addams Family, You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, and Snoopy! The Musical, cartoons seem to create a unique set of challenges.

In 2016, a new musical by Andrew Lippa and Jules Feiffer entitled The Man in the Ceiling was workshopped at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (a fully-staged production received its world premiere last month from the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor). Even a great artist like Maurice Sendak (who designed sets and costumes for numerous opera and ballet productions) had mixed success bringing his books into other formats. Sendak's most popular children's book, Where The Wild Things Are, has been transformed into a one-act opera (with a score by Oliver Knussen) and a full-length feature film directed by Spike Jonze. His 1980 musical entitled Really Rosie (with music by Carole King) will be revived by Encores! Off-Center in early August.

I recently had a chance to attend performances of two musicals inspired by the artwork of exceptional cartoonists. One was based on the work of a little-known Japanese-American manga artist; the other was a mash-up tribute to some of the fantastic characters created by one of America's most beloved children's book authors.

* * * * * * * * *
Many new parents are keen to incorporate memories from their childhood of favorite interactions they had with their parents into the care and feeding of their own newborns. If one were to identify their two main sources of children's entertainment, the results would undoubtedly be Walt Disney Studios and Dr. Seuss. Born on March 2, 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Theodor Seuss Geisl had a prolific career as a cartoonist and author of children's books. Not only did he live until the ripe old age of 87, his books were translated into more than 20 languages, resulting in sales of more than 600 million copies worldwide.

Vinh Nguyen as The Cat in the Hat in Seussical the Musical
(Photo by: Ben Krantz)

While Dr. Seuss's characters have done well in animated television shows and spin-off products, their path to successful stage musicals has been a rather limited one. In November of 1994, Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical received its world premiere from the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Since then, the show has been a resounding seasonal hit at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego as well as other regional theatre companies. Although seasonal tours have delighted audiences in numerous cities, the show is rarely performed during the first ten months of the year.

Daniel Barrington Rubio as Horton the Elephant
in Seussical the Musical (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

In 2000, a new musical crafted by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty attempted to combine 1940's Horton Hatches the Egg and 1954's Horton Hears A Who! with 1958's Miss Gertrude McFuzz while incorporating the title character from 1957's The Cat in the Hat into the script. Originally directed by Frank Galati (with choreography by Kathleen Marshall), Seussical the Musical received mixed reviews upon its Broadway opening. Despite the efforts of Rosie O'Donnell, the show closed after 198 performances. Two factors which may have contributed to the show's relatively short run could have been its ticket prices, its inability to fill the Richard Rodgers Theatre's 1,319 seats on weeknights, and its narrative structure.

Jenny Angell and Jesse Cortez as the Mayor of Whoville and his wife
in a scene from Seussical The Musical (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

Bay Area Musicals recently unveiled an ambitious new production of Seussical the Musical directed by Rachel Robinson and choreographed by Matthew McCoy with scenery designed by Stewart Lyle and costumes by Ellen Howes. Despite a committed cast led by Vinh Nguyen as the Cat in the Hat and Daniel Barrington Rubio as Horton the Elephant, the energetic performance suffered from what some might call a wealth of riches but what the Yiddish word ongepotchket translates as "too much of everything all at the same time."

Ariela Morgenstern as Mayzie LaBird in
Seussical the Musical (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

Others in the cast included Andrea Dennison-Laufer as Gertrude McFuzz, Jesse Cortez as the Mayor of Whoville, Jenny Angell as the Mayor's wife, and Kennedy Williams as Jojo. Under David Aaron Brown's musical direction, the strongest vocal contributions came from Ariela Morgenstern as the vain and brassy Mayzie LaBird as well as Katrina McGraw as a Sour Kangaroo with a fierce vocal belt.

Katrina McGraw as the Sour Kangaroo in Seussical the Musical
(Photo by: Ben Krantz)

I must admit to being taken aback during intermission when I overheard two critics wondering whether anyone still reads Dr. Seuss's books. To my mind, the saddest thing about Seussical the Musical is that, with a score packed solid with 28 songs, this show was obviously a labor of love for the songwriting team of Ahrens & Flaherty (whose stage musicals include Lucky Stiff, Once On This Island, Ragtime, and Anastasia as well as such notable failures as My Favorite Year, A Man of No Importance, Dessa Rose, and Rocky).

Kennedy Williams as Jojo in Seussical the Musical (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

I'll say this for the cast and crew of BAM's production: They certainly gave their all for this show. Performances of Seussical the Musical continue through August 5 at the Alcazar Theatre (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
When one thinks about 1964's Fiddler on the Roof, 1986's Rags, and 1998's Ragtime, it's clear that these shows depict the immigrant experience as they shine a light on the migration of Jews from the Old World (Russia and eastern Europe) to the shores of the New World (where streets are purported to be paved with gold). Each show's opening number -- "Tradition," "I Remember," and "Ragtime" -- signifies an impending cultural shift for an ethnic minority whose travels and travails became a familiar part of 20th-century American history.

Cover art for the CD of Rags

But what happens when everything gets turned upside down and, instead of making an Atlantic crossing, characters journey across the Pacific Ocean? What if questions about their health send them to Angel Island instead of Ellis Island? What if, instead of Jews fleeing poverty and pogroms, the protagonists are single Japanese men seeking exciting opportunities in the New World? That's a whole different story with unfamiliar cultural markers.

Phil Wong (Frank), James Seol (Henry), Hansel Tan (Charlie), and
Sean Fenton (Fred) in a scene from The Four Immigrants
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Instead of being inspired by his family's history, in 2012 Min Kahng was browsing through a used bookstore in downtown Berkeley when he discovered Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama's appealing cartoons in a book named Manga Yonin Shosei (whose title was translated by Frederik L. Schodt) as The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco 1904-1924). As Kahng explains:
“The spine of the book caught my attention. When I pulled it out, I saw that the book was from the early 20th century and was written by a Japanese artist, but the drawings didn’t have stereotypical Asian portrayals of their characters (no slanted eyes, no buck teeth) which would have been the norm for a cartoon artist of that day. Because this was a Japanese artist, he wasn’t using those stereotypes. Plus, the story took place in the Bay area. The Japanese title is actually closer to The Four Students than The Four Immigrants because Kiyama was referring to someone in the schoolboy situation (a house servant who takes classes in the evening). ”
A cartoon by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama shows a young Japanese man
pursuing a woman near the Palace of Fine Arts during the 1915
Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco
“It’s important to note that usually, when we think of the immigrant story, we think of how hard their lives must have been in these other countries. But the emphasis here is on four immigrants who were coming to America as pioneers. They weren’t fleeing a war of any kind or grave situation. They were coming to learn English, to study, and to learn Western commerce. They were coming with ambition, with hope. We start with four bright-eyed, hopeful, cartoonish young men who, by the end of the show are much more fleshed out as real human beings with real perspectives on America. I was searching for an analogous theatrical style to the comic strip style, in other words, early 20th century cartoonish. Immediately, vaudeville popped into my mind. Although vaudeville is very broad, you think of highly stylized acting, songs that are catchy and crowd pleasing, and jokes that depend on bantering back and forth. The women are a source of a lot of humor in the show.”

Cover art for Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama's Manga Yonin Shosei

The happy result is Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga, which recently received a joyous world premiere produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. With musical styles that reflect the era of vaudeville and ragtime, its infectious spirit is outlined in a song appropriately entitled "Optimism." Gleefully directed by Leslie Martinson, the opening night performance was a delicious experience that was greeted by a cheering and well-deserved standing ovation from the audience.

Hansel Tan, Phil Wong, James Seol, Sean Fenton
and Kerry Keiko Carnahan in a scene from
The Four Immigrants (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The action focuses on four young Japanese men eager to seek their fortunes in America. When they find themselves in desperate need of cash, an elder at the Young Men's Buddhist Association (Bukkyo Seinekai) steers them toward temporary work in schoolboy positions.
  • Fred (Sean Fenton) is a practical young man whose sole ambition is to buy some land and become a farmer. He is far and away the most focused and fortunate of the group.
  • Henry (James Seol) is an aspiring artist with dreams of doing great work who ends up making a living by painting portraits. In his spare moments he is constantly sketching cartoons which depict his friends struggling to gain a foothold in their new country.
  • Charlie (Hansel Tan) is an idealist and philosopher who struggles to reconcile his new identity and political dreams with the brutal realities of life.
  • Frank (Phil Wong) is the quartet's lovable doofus who hopes to build a business selling shoes.
Phil Wong (Frank), Hansel Tan (Charlie), and Sean Fenton (Fred)
in a scene from The Four Immigrants (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What strikes one immediately about this exciting new musical is its buoyant spirit and charm. Even when confronted with the fear of bringing shame to their families back home in Japan, rejection by members of the Anti-Asiatic League (as well as potential girlfriends), financial insecurity, attacks by white vigilantes, the California Alien Land Law of 1913 and the 1917 Immigration Act, these four young men find strength in the brotherhood formed during their difficult voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

Phil Wong (Frank), James Seol (Henry), Sean Fenton (Fred), and
Hansel Tan (Charlie) in a scene from The Four Immigrants
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

With musical direction by William Liberatore, choreography by Dottie Lester-White, projections by Katherine Freer, and cartoon-like scenic elements designed by Andrew Boyce, Min Kahng's book, music, and lyrics keep the pace moving at a lively gallop from start to finish. This is very much a quick-change ensemble show, with Hansel Tan, Sean Fenton, and James Seol as the three most ambitious men and Phil Wong constantly winning laughs as the sad sack, stooge, and straight man in many gags. Rinabeth Apostol, Catherine Gloria, and Lindsay Hirata take on numerous roles while Kerry Keiko Carnahan garners the most laughs with her portrayals of eccentric matrons and Fred's domineering mail-order bride.

Kerry Keiko Carnahan and James Seol in a scene
from The Four Immigrants (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Among the musical numbers in Kahng's ebullient score, I especially enjoyed "Go Home," "Money Ain't So Bad," "Remarkable," "Honolulu Hula," and the poignant "Furusato." For Robert Kelley (the founder and artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley who recently announced his plans to retire after 50 years at the company’s helm) the show’s appeal was obvious from his first encounter with Min Kahng.
“Reflecting the vast waves of immigration that reached American shores in the late 19th and early 20th century, The Four immigrants is a West Coast companion piece to Rags, our recent saga of immigration to the East Coast from Eastern Europe. Though set in the same era, each offers a different perspective on the immigration experience: while European immigrants were often marginalized because of their poverty, religion, or country of origin, immigrants from Asia were discriminated against because of their race. Despite such obstacles, both sides of the country offered newcomers a compelling enticement: a chance to realize the American dream of freedom, security, and success in a brand new world.”
Catherine Gloria, Lindsay Hirata, Rinabeth Apostol, and
Kerry Keiko Carnahan appear as four mail-order brides in a
scene from The Four Immigrants (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“This show embodied every core value that has guided the company for 47 years: embracing diversity, fostering innovation, advocating new work, exploring the confluence of music and drama, and celebrating the human spirit. The musical was both humorous and profound, structurally unique yet entirely engaging. And it was about us. Set primarily in San Francisco, it explored the potential and the prejudice that faced immigrants in our own community a century ago; perhaps more importantly, it asked us to consider all that has and hasn’t changed for immigrants since then.”

While there is much to admire in Min Kahng's new musical, I tip my hat to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley for nurturing a new musical which requires a cast of eight Asian-American actors. This show offers an excellent vehicle for introducing audiences to an often ignored chapter in American history and will, no doubt, introduce them to numerous talented performers in years to come. The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga continues at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto through August 6 (click here for tickets).