Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Prepare To Be Challenged

How perverse is your imagination? Would you dare to share the wild visions experienced in your dreams with friends and total strangers? What would make you feel compelled to transform such ideas into art (knowing full well that what might be applauded in one market could be severely censored in another)?

While the fevered imaginations of artists like Rod Serling and Federico Fellini fascinated millions, the ability to incorporate computer generated images (CGI) into their work has allowed filmmakers like Terry Gilliam to supercharge their creative output. Compare the filmscapes seen in the trailers for 1988's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and 2009's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus for visual proof!

What if, whether by preference or necessity, your work can't rely on CGI effects and you have to do things the old-fashioned way? Without a toolbox of electronic gimmicks at your fingertips, what if you have to create suspense through your writing? Or by using old-school techniques to leave your audiences in a state of shock and awe. It's a lot trickier than most people imagine!

In the chapter about the St. James Theatre in Jennifer Ashley Tepper’s delightful book, "The Untold Stories of Broadway, Volume 3," director-choreographer Susan Stroman discusses a particularly strange moment:
“I remember one evening during previews of The Producers there was an older gentleman in the front row really enjoying the show. He loved the dancing girls and the jokes. Then, Hitler sat on the edge of the stage. When Gary Beach, dressed as Hitler, sat near him and started singing, the man got very upset. It was clear that he wasn’t listening to the plot of the show and the story. He got up and started running up the aisle screaming, “This is terrible! I was in the war! This shouldn’t be happening! How dare you!”

"There, in the back row, sitting on the aisle, was Mel Brooks. The older man saw Mel and went after him. I thought that, for sure, Mel would say something to calm him and take him outside. Instead, the man came up to him yelling, ‘How dare you do this! I was in World War II!’ and Mel Brooks stood up and yelled ‘I was in World War II, too, and I didn’t see you there!’”
According to Tepper, producer Tom Viertel also witnessed the scene and described how the show’s general manager, Laura Green, managed to push the man out of the exit door into the lobby. “When Laura came back in, I asked why he was still there in the lobby and she said, ‘Because his wife’s in the front row and she’s having a ball!’”

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In April of 2013, an ambitious new play by Eli Wirtschafter entitled American Shakespeare Riot received its world premiere from the UC-Berkeley Department of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies in a black box theatre below Zellerbach Hall. A research fellowship allowed the playwright (who credited David Henkin's class on Antebellum America as deeply helpful) to spend a year researching the events and the period which shaped his rowdy dramedy (billed as "a fictional play drawn from history"). In his program note, Wirtschafter explained the inspiration for his drama:
"In 1849, two rival actors played Macbeth on the same fateful night in New York. William Macready (the eminent English tragedian) and Edwin Forrest, the first American stage star. Ten thousand people gathered outside the Astor Place Opera House, demanding their 'right to hiss' Macready. The militia, summoned to protect the theatre, fired on the mob and killed at least 20."
Fast forward from the 1859 premiere of Dion Boucicault's popular play, The Octoroon, to the subplot involving miscegenation in Edna Ferber's 1926 novel, Show Boat. From there, hop, skip, and jump to Carol Burnett's infamous sendup of 1939's Gone With The Wind.

Keep going until you can envision an adaptation of Boucicault's play in which Br'er Rabbit sits at an upright piano playing snatches of popular American folk songs like "Oh Shenandoah" (as well as music from Puccini's La Bohème) and the protagonist is a contemporary black playwright who sits in his underwear in front of an audience while applying whiteface because white actors won't audition for the roles he writes.

Lance Gardner applies his whiteface in a scene from An Octoroon
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

At a time when some Americans are freaking out over acts of racism and cultural appropriation, it might help to think about this recent timeline:
Before you head to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre to catch a performance of the stunningly theatrical and politically caustic adaptation of Boucicault's 158-year-old "mellerdrama" by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, take a few moments to read Michael Harriot's article entitled Trinity College Suspends Professor After He Is Forced to Flee The State for Scaring the Whites. Pay careful attention to Harriot's warning that:
"There are only two rules by which every American must abide: Don’t fry bacon in the nude and don’t scare the whites. If you ever want to be marginalized, ridiculed or exiled into obscurity, all you have to do is incite the whites. From Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to Black Lives Matter and Tupac, in the history of America, poking at the whites with a stick never ends well."
Afi Bijou (Minnie) and Jasmine Bracey (Dido) in
a scene from An Octoroon (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

This exciting new work may be the exception thanks, in large part, to the playwright's ability to mix the performance style of 19th-century melodrama with the razor-sharp cynicism of contemporary slang.

While I don't want to give away any spoilers, let it be said that set designer Arnulfo Maldonado pulls off a brilliant coup de theatre. His work is further enhanced by Jiyoun Chang's lighting design, Jake Rodriguez's excellent sound design, and Montana Blanco's costumes.

Among the supporting players, Afi Bijou (Minnie), Jasmine Bracey (Dido), Afua Busia (Grace) and Sydney Morton (Zoe) do some stellar work alternating between slave girls and contemporary black women. Their efforts are matched with a perverse kind of glee by Jennifer Regan as a ditsy southern Belle named Dora; Amir Talai, who doubles as Pete and Paul (appearing in blackface through much of the show) and Ray Porter, who does triple duty as a playwright, a slave-trading auctioneer named La Fouche, and a Native American named Wahnotee (which Porter performs in redface).

Jasmine Bracey (Dido) and Afi Bijou (Minnie) in a
scene from An Octoroon (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

It's possible that curious racists who attend a performance of An Octoroon might require some trigger warnings (or a pacifier to suck on) lest their inner snowflake experience convulsions. But, as director Eric Ting asserts:
“What is different and completely vital to the conceit of the production is the whiteface, because that is not something you would have found in that period (I’m not even talking about the production of The Octoroon as much as I am the conventions of performance in that period). The idea of whiteface? That’s really Branden’s invention of the play. It seems to suggest that an artist of color working in a predominantly white field often feels like they have to be white to succeed in that field. I think that’s a complicated truth.”
Lance Gardner as the evil M'Closky in a scene
from An Octoroon (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“I love that Branden uses the darker periods of this country’s past to confront who we are today. He is one of the nicest people in the world but there is anger in his work, anger that is released in a way that’s so completely ridiculous it’s funny. He creates situations that are discomforting and simultaneously wildly funny so that you, as an audience member, are asked to make a choice: How do you engage with that information? I think he’s interested in that space where those two meet: Is it funny, or is it completely racist?”
Jennifer Regan as Dora and Lance Gardner as George in a scene
from An Octoroon (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

This production of An Octoroon is, without doubt, an artistic triumph for its playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and director, Eric Ting. Another cause for celebration is that Bay area audiences finally get a chance to see Lance Gardner take center stage while juggling three roles with panache (the contemporary black playwright named "BJJ," the white heir to the plantation who is in love with the title character, and the villainous M'Closky). It's a long-overdue opportunity for Gardner to show his versatility as an artist while challenging audiences to bend their minds. For its athletic as well as dramatic prowess, Gardner's bravura performance should not be missed!

Sydney Morton as Zoe in a scene from An Octoroon (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of An Octoroon continue through July 23 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets).

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Seen during the 2017 San Francisco International Film Festival, The Ornithologist starts off in blissful serenity as a man paddles a kayak down a river while looking at birds through his high-powered binoculars. Slowly, but surely, the tone of the film changes. After his kayak starts heading for whitewater rapids, the story takes so many bizarre twists and turns that, like an intensely visual nightmare, it becomes impossible to turn away from the screen as the suspense continues to build.
  • Why has Fernando (Paul Hamy) been trussed up and hung from a tree by two superstitious and sadistic Chinese women (Han Wen and Chan Suan) who are hiking through a forest in Portugal?
  • Why is he trying to make cell phone contact with a friend to tell him that he has lost his medications?
  • Who are the bizarre tribesman performing a primitive ritual around a campfire?
  • Who's the mysterious female hunter on horseback (Juliane Elting) and why is she riding around a creepy forest filled with ghosts and spirits?
  • How do you feel about a deaf-mute Jesus (Xelo Cagiao) enjoying man-on-man sex on the beach while his goats are watching?
Paul Hamy as Fernando in a scene from The Ornithologist

Written and directed by João Pedro Rodrigues (who also appears in the film as Anthony), The Ornithologist benefits immensely from Séverine Ballon's musical score and the lush cinematography of Rui Poças. Nevertheless, much of the film will leave viewers wondering what the hell is going on.

This is the kind of dramatic experience which makes some of the most complex filmmakers seem quaint. The religious symbolism is often cryptic, confusing, and at times overwhelming. The protagonist's transformation from a man of science into something quite different can strain the viewer's imagination. And yet, The Ornithologist teases the viewer with its strange tale of transfiguration.

A scene from The Ornithologist

As the filmmaker explains:
“One of the salient features of the Antonian cult is that the religious and pagan slopes are harmoniously mixed to the point that it is difficult to distinguish what remains of each one. The film is a transgressive and readily blasphemous reappropriation of the life of Saint Antoine. It is a spirit, a trajectory that infuses the film and leads Fernando to his new identity. My narrative erases all notion of time, epoch, realism, and adopts the form of a legend. Here we find (in a way comparable to the life of the Saint) symbolic death, resurrection or the martyr chain. The forest, like a collective unconscious, is that imaginary elsewhere which brews Catholicism, superstitions, and traditions (close enough in this to the spiritual contradictions in which we all live to varying degrees). As in legend, the Saint speaks to fish. But my most talkative freedom is that here, it has a privileged relationship with the birds. If I wanted my Fernando to be linked to the birds it is because ornithology, observation, excursions, are things that I know very well. I studied biology (and more precisely birds) long before studying cinema.”
A scene of pagan ritual from The Ornithologist
The Ornithologist explores two aspects in the form of the initiatory quest, the discovery. A main relationship emerges as Fernando sinks into the unknown. It is the one with the young shepherd, Jesus, who died and was reincarnated in Tomé (the apocryphal Gospels say that the apostle Tomé/Thomas was the twin brother of Jesus/Jesus). Their carnal relationship is as unexpected as the murder of one by the other. Fernando murders his desire to find it later, under this new form of Tomé. The two characters are moulting, leaving their identity to reach a second. They are either the same or the twin brother but, in the end, it is an atypical couple that is formed, a bond of master and disciple, lovers, travelers. The film could then also be read as the different symbolic steps of their love story. The homosexual sex linked to the sacred, the bliss; humorous and necessary blasphemy in the image of this tragic and unlikely existence, which inspires and stirs me. Let them love each other!”
Paul Hamy and Xelo Cagiao in a scene from The Ornithologist

While there is much in The Ornithologist that is difficult to fathom, it never loosens its grip on the viewer. Like the end of a dream, the film finishes on a note of faith, disbelief, and magical realism. This is definitely not Walt Disney's idea of a Jungle Cruise! Here's the trailer:

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