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.

* * * * * * * * *
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:

* * * * * * * * *
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.”

No comments: