Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pushed to the Brink

Other than shocking historic events like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the untimely deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Princess Diana, and the resignation of President Nixon, August is usually seen as a pretty slow month for news.

Many people take time off in August to head for the beach, travel abroad, attend Burning Man or, in some years, sit back and enjoy Shark Week on television. August 2017, however, seems intent on working everyone's last nerve. From the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia and the sordid spectacle of Donald Trump flushing the American presidency down the toilet, to Barbara Cook's death and the frenzy surrounding a solar eclipse, people are struggling to cope with waves of stress, sadness, serial shocks, and a growing sense of surrealism.

How do people react under such pressure? Some face bitter setbacks with a firm, almost stoic resolve while others crumble. Some erupt in anger while others resort to a twisted sense of humor to get them through the day.

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San Francisco's Left Coast Theatre Company recently premiered three short plays under the umbrella title of Twisted Hitchcock. To make sure that the audience was in on the joke, the usual pre-show announcement about cell phones and emergency exits finished with the following request spoken by an actor imitating Alfred Hitchcock). "And now please sit back and die!"

First up in this three-course meal of suspense and supreme silliness is a spoof of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) entitled Master Bates. Written by LCTC's artistic director, Richard S. Sargent, and directed by Alexia Staniotes, the action commences with the shadow of an attractive woman (Ellen Dunphy) taking a shower. As she lathers herself up, another figure approaches brandishing a kitchen knife. Each time her assailant (AJ Davenport) gets close to the target, the showering woman changes position or does something else to inhibit any rear window action. After a few tries, the attacker can no longer control herself and becomes obsessed with her target's sexy ass. Lights out on the shower scene.

Meanwhile, Norman (Tim Garcia) is a horribly conflicted young pervert who has punched two peepholes in a wall through which he can spy on the guest staying in the next room. The current occupant is a middle-aged gay investigator trying to solve the curious disappearance of one of the Bates Motel's previous guests. After noticing two eyes following him around his room, Milton (Dene Larson) knocks on Norman's door and and starts to question the nervous young man, who desperately craves a father figure.

As Norman becomes increasingly unwound, he starts channeling his hateful mother in ways that could be interpreted as schizophrenia or a twisted form of role-playing. It doesn't take long before Milton is on his hands and knees, begging Norman to really give it to him. The virginal Norman (who obviously doesn't understand how role playing can be a part of sexual foreplay) can't figure out what to do with the kitchen knife in his hand as the horny detective keeps wiggling his ass in the air, eager to be violated.

Dene Larson (Milton) and Tim Garcia (Norman) in
a scene from Master Bates (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

The second offering pays tribute to 1955's The Trouble With Harry. Renamed The Trouble With Mary, James A Martin's play been directed by Debi Durst with care to frame transgenderism in a new light. Mary (Matt Weimer) is a middle-aged man who had a sex change operation, leaving behind his young son, Arnie (Tim Garcia), and his widow, Jennifer (an angry, obnoxious woman who has been on the lam after helping to rob a bank). Sam (Ryan Engstrom) is a local blogger trying to shoot a selfie that can go viral. What better way to accomplish his goal than posing with a dead drag queen?

Ryan Engstrom (Sam), Ellen Dunphy (Jennifer), and Marc Berman
(Calvin Wiggs) in a scene from The Trouble With Mary
(Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

Whenever Mary's spirit has a chance to speak, she tries to communicate with Arnie, who is more than happy to accept his former father as a lady. Jennifer (Ellen Dunphy) may be furious when Arnie disobeys her commands, but when local policeman Calvin Wiggs (Marc Berman) attempts to get in on the action, Sam proves adept at threatening to blackmail the ex-wife and the cop. The play ends with Arnie lovingly applying makeup to Mary's face (as well as his own) while father and son renew their emotional bonds.

Tim Garcia (Arnie) and Matt Weimer (Mary) in a scene
from The Trouble With Mary (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

Birdsploitation is written by Terry Maloney Haley (a frequent contributor to LCTC). Directed by Richard Ryan, it includes a cast of avian actors called to the set for a new movie. As the director's assistant, Aryn Sparrow (Ryan Engstrom), attempts to get various scenes set up for filming, the actors all stand around discussing the problems confronting them.
  • George Seagull (Matt Weimer) is the kind of vain male lead who has no qualms about using his connections and sex appeal to get his hands on an advance copy of the film's script.
  • Cameron Crow (Chris Maltby) is an energetic busybody who is always eager to suggest a threesome with two other actors.
  • Jennifer Lovebird (Erica Andracchio) has been doing scientific research on recurrent toxic algal blooms in Monterey Bay that may trigger a chemical reaction that makes local birds gain weight and go crazy.
  • Darlene Lovebird (AJ Davenport) is Jennifer's patient, devoted, and oft-neglected lesbian lover.
Ryan Engstrom (Aryn Sparrow) and Matt Weimer (George Seagull)
in a scene from Birdsploitation (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

As the birds at hand start grousing about low pay and lousy work conditions (one even boasts of having fucked an emu), global warming emerges as the play's villain. Eventually, the birds realize that the only way they can fight back and stand up for themselves is to make Aryn's job more difficult by finding a way to cost his producer more money.

Erica Andracchio (Jennifer Lovebird), Chris Maltby
(Cameron Crow), and AJ Davenport (Darlene Lovebird)
in a scene from Birdsploitation (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

By the end of the play, they've come up with the perfect solution. When Aryn announces that the director is ready to film a scene, the birds all sit still instead of flying into action. After all, how long will it take for the producer and director to find and train new birds for their film?

All three plays deliver some wonderfully comic moments, with the best acting coming from Tim Garcia and Ryan Engstrom. Performances of Twisted Hitchcock continue through August 26 at the Shelton Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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Earlier this summer, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented a rare screening of 1917's A Man There Was (Terje Vigen) at the Castro Theatre. Directed by Victor Sjöström (who also plays the title character), the screening of a print from the Swedish Film Institute was accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble. The film is based on Henrik Ibsen's poem, Terje Vigen (first published in 1862), which relates the story of a desperate sea pilot who tried to outwit an English blockade.

A scene from 1917's A Man There Was (Terje Vigen)

In August of 1927, an article by Arnt Braathen published in Nationen entitled “In Terje Vigen’s home” described the relationship between Ibsen and Svend Hanssen Haaø. Born on Haaø Island in 1778, Hanssen Haaø is thought to have been Ibsen’s inspiration for Terje Vigen. At the most, 44 citizens (mostly pilots, fishermen, and farmers) lived on Haaø Island. In 1794, severe storms and bad weather claimed the lives of eight pilots. Braathen learned from Hanssen Haaø’s grandson (also named Svend) that, between 1807 and 1814, his grandfather had rowed to Denmark several times to smuggle food back to Grimstad for his family and friends.

In his film, Sjöström portrays a sailor living near Grimstad who risks his life after English ships form a blockade off the Southern coast of Norway. Having managed to get to Denmark in a rowboat to purchase grain and other staples, as he nears the end of his journey home his rowboat is spotted and sunk by a merciless English sea captain. The sailor is subsequently imprisoned in England.

A scene from 1917's A Man There Was (Terje Vigen)

After several years of incarceration, Terje is released in 1814 when the Napoleonic Wars come to an end. Upon returning to Grimstad, he learns that his family (and most of their neighbors) died of starvation. No one recognizes him, nor can they tell him anything about what happened while he was in prison. By that point, Vigen has become a bitter man who can only rely on the one friend he knows: the sea.

In recent years, the SFSFF has brought several silent films set in Arctic and Antarctic waters to its audience. Whether filmed as documentaries or narratives, these relics leave one in awe of the techniques used nearly a century ago to direct and act at sea or on dry land; in fog or in clear sunlight.

A scene from 1917's A Man There Was (Terje Vigen)

In his program essay, Jay Weissberg writes:
“What’s immediately striking about Terje Vigen (released in the U.S. as A Man There Was) is the power of its imagery. Stripped to its bare essence, the film is a visual encomium to the sea, or rather, to a Romantic understanding of the sea’s might as wedded to man’s emotional state. Using a book-ended structure, it tells of a sailor during the Napoleonic Wars who braved the British blockade (Denmark and Norway were allied with the French) to smuggle food to his wife and child on the island of Håøya. Caught by an 18-year-old English captain, Terje is imprisoned for five years. When he returns home he learns his wife and child died of starvation. Some years later, having aged into ‘a remarkably grizzled man,’ Terje rescues an English yacht in distress, only to discover that its owner is the self-same captain who heartlessly imprisoned him earlier.”
A scene from 1917's A Man There Was (Terje Vigen)
“Sjöström was already sensitive to how nature can be used to evoke mood, and an affinity for sea settings may be surmised from his films The Ships that Meet (Skepp som mötas) and Predators of the Sea (Havsgamar), both from 1916. Yet something revolutionary happened during the making of Terje Vigen, when the director’s skills for combining a palpable sense of realism with a refined eye for pictorial effect came together in a way that had a lasting influence on Nordic cinema. While the word “painterly” is frequently used to describe Terje Vigen, it’s painterly only in terms of composition, since its dramatic effects depend on movement, exemplified by the constantly shifting silvery glints on the sea’s choppy surface; there’s nothing static here even though the film is not noted for camera movements. No wonder it is credited with launching the Golden Age of Scandinavian Cinema.”
A scene from 1917's A Man There Was (Terje Vigen)

While watching A Man There Was, the last thing a viewer might expect is a happy ending. But with an opportunity to get a second lease on life, Vigen proves himself to be a better man than the English sea captain who deprived him of his wife and child. Barely 55 minutes long, the entire film can be seen in the following video from YouTube.

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