Thursday, September 28, 2017

Everything's Up To Date in Cannabis City

In 1998, Tom Brokaw published a book entitled The Greatest Generation. His subject was the subset of Americans who lived through The Great Depression and, even if they did not fight in World War II, contributed to the manufacturing effort which helped create a wave of productivity while American soldiers and sailors were defending their country overseas.

Whether they were women who resembled Rosie the Riveter as they helped to build ships or men who landed on the beaches of Normandy, these were people who, as they lived through harsh economic times, learned how to stretch a dollar as far as possible. After World War II ended, it was difficult for many of them to wrap their minds around the concept of planned obsolescence.

In the past 50 years, the growth of computer technology has had an astonishing impact on objects and practices that were once part of our daily lives.

Changes in our society have also affected the way some writers approach their work. As smartphones became more common, an increasing number of playwrights began to incorporate texting into their scripts (with simulated texts being projected on screens behind the actors). Changing attitudes toward casting have started to open up more roles to women, transgender, and other minority artists. I was fascinated to note how two recent revivals reflected huge changes in our society's attitudes toward "the way we were."

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For teenagers eager to acquire a driver's license, the thrill of getting their learner's permit is almost as intoxicating as puberty. Learning how to drive, however, depends as much on the teenager's motor skills as it does on the relationship between the student and driving instructor.

My earliest attempts to learn how to drive were guided by my father (a high school biology teacher) who was patient, but flummoxed by my obvious case of nerves. After driving around various parking lots in Brooklyn and practicing parallel parking near Floyd Bennett Field, he suggested that I try driving the family's Volkswagen Beetle home (which necessitated a trip across the Marine Parkway Bridge).

A vintage postcard for the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Bridge

Moments after starting across the bridge I began shaking with anxiety -- the first indication I ever had of a being afraid of heights. By the time we were halfway across the bridge, I had informed my father that I wasn't going to bother using the clutch. As soon as were back on firm ground, we both agreed that it would be better for me to take driving lessons from a certified instructor.

For many years, the concept of self-driving cars was very much a science fiction fantasy. However, today's auto manufacturers are working with software engineers to deliver autonomous cars and trucks that can take a load off families, taxi drivers, and long-haul truckers while helping to make our roads and highways safer.

Whether or not those dreams will soon be realized, the urgency of having "wheels" has diminished for those living in large urban and suburban areas. With car services like Uber and Lyft gaining popularity, many are choosing to forego the expenses of gasoline, automobile insurance, and parking tickets on the assumption that the financial investment in a car may no longer be worthwhile.

Amanda Farbstein stars as L'il Bit in How I Learned to Drive
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

On March 16, 1997, when the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, How I Learned to Drive, premiered at the Vineyard Theatre with Mary-Louise Parker starring as Li'l Bit, autonomous cars were the last thing on the playwright's mind. Paula Vogel's memory play consists of a series of flashback scenes in which L'il Bit recollects how the process of learning how to drive was far more traumatic than it should ever have been. Most of the scenes take place in rural Maryland in a highly dysfunctional family headed by an acutely misogynistic grandfather, a strangely submissive grandmother, and a maternal aunt who ranges between being downright ditsy and in a deep state of denial.

Valerie Fachman, Amanda Farbstein, and Gianna DiGregorio Rivera
in a scene from How I Learned to Drive (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

The male members of her family can't imagine why Li'l Bit would want to go to college or need an education when her only goal in life should be getting married and pumping out children. But Li'l Bit's curiosity to learn about Shakespeare and other worldly topics seems unquenchable, until things start to go wrong.

Slowly but surely, she realizes that she may not be interested in getting married and might even prefer to explore relationships with women. Her questions about her own sexuality, however, are dwarfed by the challenges posed by her alcoholic Uncle Peck, a pedophile with no sense of boundaries. Peck is a weak man whose incestuous lust for his developing teenage niece cannot be overcome despite the fact that he is still married to her aunt. He means well, but has no understanding of why his actions are so misguided.

Amanda Farbstein and Eric Reid in a scene from
How I Learned to Drive (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Most of Vogel's play is about how Li'l Bit comes to understand that she was molested as a child and manages to regain control of her life after years of being manipulated by her uncle. In the two decades since Vogel's play had its world premiere, audiences have become increasingly sensitized to misogyny, chronic alcoholism, and the ways in which the sexual abuse of children is often handed down within families from one generation to the next. While that knowledge makes it easier for audiences to recognize the pattern of predation taking place during Li'l Bit's adolescence, Vogel's drama makes the combination of alcohol and child abuse creepier than ever.

Amanda Farbstein, Valerie Fachman, and Eric Reid in a scene
from How I Learned to Drive (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Amanda Farbstein gives a winning performance as Li'l Bit, with Eric Reid rising to the challenge of being a sympathetic yet slimy authority figure as Uncle Peck. Vogel makes use of an interesting dramatic conceit, having one person (David Schiller) portray all the men in Li'l Bit's life as the "Male Greek Chorus" while Valerie Fachman takes on various roles as the "Female Greek Chorus" and Gianna DiGregorio Rivera appears as Li'l Bit's grandmother as well as various people enacted by the "Teenage Greek Chorus."

Amanda Farbstein, Gianna DiGregorio Rivera, and Valerie Fachman
in a scene from How I Learned to Drive (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Working on Tom O'Brien's unit set (with costumes by Kathleen Qiu, lighting by Maxx Kurzunski, and sound design by Ryan Lee Short), Katja Rivera has done an admirable job in directing a drama built upon a foundation of shame, old wives' tales, statutory rape, and driving lessons. But it is Farbstein's portrayal of the confused but resilient Li'l Bit that really holds the show together.

Amanda Farbstein stars as L'il Bit in
How I Learned to Drive (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Performances of How I Learned to Drive continue through October 7 at the Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets).

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San Francisco's Ray of Light Theatre recently unveiled a new production of Reefer Madness, the 1998 musical by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney which premiered in Los Angeles but whose Off-Broadway production had the misfortune to open on September 15, 2001 (just four days after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan). Although the Off-Broadway production quickly shuttered, a film adaptation debuted in 2005. In October of 2008, Ghostlight Records released a two-disc CD set containing the soundtracks for both the original 1998 cast and the 2005 movie musical.

Most nonprofit theatre companies make use of their programs to recognize those who help support the organization with their donations. ROLT went the extra distance by adding a "No Thanks" column that referenced Jeff Sessions, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, D.A.R.E., Harry Anslinger," and "Your Republican Uncle at Thanksgiving." Stage director Jenn Bevard added some important context in her program note:
"The early 20th century saw the rise of anti-immigrant fearmongering fueled by economic anxiety that was the result of the Great Depression. Marijuana, a formerly unregulated substance, was outlawed across several states. The argument was linked to the Spanish name of the drug and its perceived Latin-American origin (although, at the time, marijuana was grown throughout the United States in states like Michigan and Wisconsin). A government-funded propaganda campaign, published in the newspapers of Hearst and others, offered headlines like 'Murder Weed Found Up and Down Coast' and 'Deadly Marijuana Dope Plant Ready for Harvest that Means the Enslavement of California Children.'"
"In 2017, free to smoke legal pot but with the propaganda still churning (anti-immigrant, trans, people of color, women, worker, science -- our heads are spinning), we thought we'd dive into the propaganda of 1936, through satire, to find out how enslaved we might be to the kind of messaging that entertains, distracts, exploits our darkest fears, and demands proof of our patriotism. We found madness is just below the surface."
Adam Niemann (Ralph) leads a chorus of zombies in a
scene from Reefer Madness (Photo by: Zac Wollons)

President Ronald Reagan is famous for claiming that "I now have absolute proof that even one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast!" While Donald Trump's pathetically misguided attorney general has long held that "Good people don't smoke marijuana," Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is fighting a losing battle. In recent years, the states of Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and Alaska have all legalized recreational marijuana. Although California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., have also legalized its recreational use, retail sales of marijuana have not yet begun in those states. Nevertheless, the data coming in is most impressive (these numbers don't lie). According to an article in U.S. News & World Report:
  • In 2016, the state of Washington generated $256 million in pot tax revenue; Oregon produced $60 million.
  • According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, the state reported $1.3 billion in marijuana sales in 2016 (of which nearly $200 million was collected in tax revenues).
  • Between 2014 and May 31, 2017, cumulative cannabis sales generated $506 million in tax revenue for Colorado. About 51 percent of the accumulated tax revenue went to K-12 education, with $117.9 million used to fund school construction projects. Another 25% of the revenue was split between regulation substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.
Brigitte Losey (Mary Lane) and Phil Wong (Jimmy Harper)
in a scene from Reefer Madness (Photo by: Zac Wollons)

News out of San Antonio, Texas is that Bexar County will soon implement a program that treats certain misdemeanor crimes -- including Class A and Class B possession of marijuana (less than four ounces) -- similarly to traffic offenses, thus diverting offenders from jail. Under the new policy, "Offenders will be given a summons and the opportunity to attend a class, pay a fine, and do community service instead of being charged with a crime and jailed."

Phil Wong as Jimmy Harper in a scene from
Reefer Madness (Photo by: Zac Wollons)

Working on a unit set designed by Devon LaBelle with costumes by Maggie Whitaker, lighting by Keenan Molner, and sound design by Theodore Hulsker, ROLT put on one helluva performance. Aided by musical director Daniel Feyer, choreographer Alex Rodriguez put his dancers through an impressive workout.

The male dancers from Reefer Madness (Photo by: Zac Wollons)

What may have seemed even remotely plausible in Louis J. Gasnier's 1936 film designed to scare teenagers away from marijuana has evolved into hilariously campy fun eight decades later. The show begins with a lecturer (Leah Shesky) warning audiences about the dangers of smoking the Demon Weed and quickly segues to a scene in which the naive Jimmy Harper (Phil Wong) and Mary Lane (Brigitte Losey) nervously confess their attraction to each other as they study Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

With Mary Kalita's Placard Girl doing old-fashioned stage crossovers, the Lecturer then introduces the audience to the denizens of a local reefer den, starting with its hostess, Mae (Ashley Garlick) who is involved in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend/pusher, Jack (Matt Hammons, who doubles as Jack and Jesus Christ). It doesn't take long for Jack to lure Jimmy out of the five and dime store and bring him back to the reefer den, where he gets to smoke his first joint.

Leah Shesky (Lecturer) and Matt Hammons (Jesus) in a
scene from Reefer Madness (Photo by: Zac Wollons)

Jimmy's thoughts quickly turn from Shakespeare to the way he feels when high and he soon falls in with Ralph (Adam Niemann) -- a psychotic college dropout addicted to marijuana -- and Sally (Christen Sottolano), who supports her illegitimate child by selling her body to pay for a steady stream of dope. Soon, Johnny (who can't figure out why he's always hungry and has started to gain weight) is introducing Mary Lane to the joys of "Mary Jane," only to discover that his pure little girlfriend has one hell of a sadistic streak in her.

Ashley Garlick (Mae) in a scene from
Reefer Madness (Photo by: Zac Wollons)

The score to Reefer Madness includes such winning musical numbers as "The Stuff," "Lonely Pew," "Down at the Ol' Five and Dime," "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy," "The Brownie Song," and "Little Mary Sunshine." Many of the lyrics are sassy and sharp.

But what really makes this show rock is Phil Wong's hilarious portrayal of Jimmy Harper. A gifted performer who gives the audience much more than 100% during Reefer Madness -- as he did earlier this year in Word for Word's world premiere production of Smut: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson) and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's world premiere of Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga -- Wong displays the kind of physical agility, superb timing, and total commitment that allows a natural clown to shine in physical comedy. His performance alone is reason to attend this production.

Phil Wong (Jimmy Harper) and Christen Sottolano (Sally)
in a scene from Reefer Madness (Photo by: Zac Wollons)

Reefer Madness continues through October 7 at the Victoria Theatre (click here for tickets).

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