Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Real Deplorables

Double standards can mercilessly backfire, especially if the person claiming to hold the high moral ground turns out to be a sniveling weasel. All one has to do is look at some of August's more repulsive news stories for proof.

When seeking to identify the monsters in our midst, there's no need to waste time searching for Bigfoot, zombies, or teenage werewolves. One need only look toward the grifters, religious fanatics, and hypocrites who don't hesitate to abuse the power they hold while demonstrating a shocking lack of empathy.

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During the past two decades, Walt Disney Theatrical Productions has flexed its muscle by producing screen-to-stage versions of its popular full-length animated features. From Beauty and the Beast (1994) and The Lion King (1997) to Tarzan (2006), The Little Mermaid (2008), and Aladdin (2014), these adaptations have built loyal followings. Although the soundtrack from 1996's animated feature film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is available on CD, the show has yet to make it to Broadway. That's not for lack of trying.

Gary Giurbino (Dom Claude Frollo) and Randy O'Hara
(Quasimodo) in a scene from The Hunchback of Notre Dame
(Photo by: Mark & Tracy Photography)

A German-language version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame premiered in Berlin on June 5, 1999 and ran for three years at a new venue now known as the Theater am Potsdamer Platz. With a revised book by Peter Parnell, additional songs by Alan Menken, and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, an English-language version of the musical was staged at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego in 2014 and at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey in 2015. Ghostlight Records released a CD in January of 2016 that features members of the Paper Mill Playhouse cast.

After Disney released the performing rights to regional theatres in the United States, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was staged in Wichita and Philadelphia. This season it is being performed by two Bay area theatre companies: Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City and Bay Area Musicals in San Francisco. For some theatre buffs, attending a performance of The Hunchback of Notre Dame has become a bucket-list item. For others, it is merely a curiosity.

Amandina Altomare as Esmerelda in a scene from
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
(Photo by: Mark & Tracy Photography)

The opening night at Hillbarn quickly revealed some of the show's assets and liabilities. What started out in Germany as an expansive and expensive (45 million DM) production featuring a cast of 42 actors and lots of stage machinery has been reduced to a simple unit set by Bo Golden with an 18-voice choir that somberly crosses the stage at the opening of each act. In his program note, Hillbarn’s executive artistic director, Dan Demers, writes:
“I never know what the world will look like once a show reaches our stage or how audiences will interpret it against the backdrop of current events. This play has many dark parts. It delves deep into the question ‘What makes a monster and what makes a man?’ It will ignite emotions as it illustrates the cruelty of humans and begs for an answer to the most simple of questions: Why? As soon as that question enters one’s mind, the play will offer hope, love, beauty, and the power of redemption. We are not monsters. We are humans seeking answers to what it’s like ‘Out There.’”
Randy O'Hara as Quasimodo in a
scene from The Hunchback of Notre Dame
(Photo by: Mark & Tracy Photography)
Victor Hugo (the novelist upon whose book the show is based) loved to use events of the past as harbingers of the future. 1482, the year in which this saga takes place, represented a major turning point in history when the status quo of the Catholic Church was shaken to its core. Discussions about fate and destiny, revolution and social strife are interwoven into each character. Couple that with severe religious fanaticism, classism, and centralized state power, and this tale strikes powerful chords across time.”
Gary Giurbino as Dom Claude Frollo in a scene from
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
(Photo by: Mark & Tracy Photography)

There's no doubt that the themes of Victor Hugo's novel remain excruciatingly pertinent today. From racism and violence against Hispanics, African Americans, Jews, the LGBT community, and all "others" (personified by the gypsies in Hunchback) to fat shaming, doxxing, online bullying, and the reluctance to accommodate people with disabilities (embodied by a grotesque and unloved hunchback who has gone deaf from ringing the bells of Notre Dame's famous cathedral), man's insensitivity to man continues unabated. Add in the current controversy over sanctuary cities (framed by Hugo as the sanctuary of the church) and the forbidden cravings and venal behavior of the Catholic Church's sexually repressed authority figures and it's easy to find much in this stage version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame that can help audiences relate to current events.

Luke Hamilton as Phoebus de Martin in a
scene from The Hunchback of Notre Dame
(Photo by: Mark & Tracy Photography)

What is lacking, however, is clarity. Instead of an easily identifiable love story, Hunchback features three men who think they are in love with a gypsy woman (the forbidden fruit of a scorned minority).
Amandina Altomare as Esmerelda in a scene from
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
(Photo by: Mark & Tracy Photography)

Despite its classical bent for the choir and some energetic dance numbers, I found Alan Menken's musical score surprisingly disappointing. Randy O'Hara gave his all to Quasimodo's "Out There" and "Heaven's Light" with "Sanctuary" and "The Bells of Notre Dame" repeatedly underlining the score. As Esmerelda, Amandina Altomare did a nice job with "God Help the Outcasts" and the show's dance numbers.

As Dom Claude Frollo (Quasimodo's guardian and the story's power-hungry villain), Gary Giurbino proved a forceful presence. Brian Palac made a strong impression as Clopin Trouillefou (the leader of the gypsies), with the tall, handsome Luke Hamilton tackling the role of Phoebus de Martin, a profligate soldier whose intentions toward women are not necessarily honorable.

Luke Hamilton (Phoebus) and Amandina Altomare (Esmerelda)
in a scene from The Hunchback of Notre Dame
(Photo by: Mark & Tracy Photography)

The opening production of Hillbarn's 77th season was given an energetic staging by Riley Costello that kept a cast of gargoyles, gypsies, soldiers, Catholics, and a hunchback on the run. Special credit goes to choreographer Jeanne Batacan-Harper and choir director Joe Murphy for their work. Unfortunately, Alan Chang's sound design reduced much of the evening's dialogue and singing to an unintelligible mush, which put a tremendous damper on the production.

Performances of The Hunchback of Notre Dame continue through September 10 at the Hillbarn Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's some footage from the sitzprobe.

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At a time when some people can barely wrap their heads around the concept of transgenderism, Naoko Ogigami's tender film, Close-Knit, does a splendid job of normalizing the image of a transgender woman who yearns to be a parent by contrasting her with two heterosexual mothers whose fear and recklessness turns them into maternal monsters. Among the subtle joys of Close-Knit (which was screened during the Japan Film Festival of San Francisco) is the use of Edward MacDowell's charming "To A Wild Rose" as a leitmotif.

The film's protagonist is 11-year-old Tomo (Rinka Kakihara), whose single mother, Hiromi (Mimura), has never really outgrown the behavior of an irresponsible teenager. Hiromi likes the adventure of dating men, coming home with a hangover, and periodically disappearing with a new boyfriend while she leaves her confused young daughter to fend for herself. When Tomo shows up at the bookstore where her uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani) works and plunks three books down on the sales counter, Makio quickly grasps that his older sister has once again disappeared and Tomo will be his responsibility until Hiromi returns.

Tomo (Rinka Kakihara) rides behind her uncle
Makio (Kenta Kiritani) in a scene from Close-Knit

On the way back to his apartment, Makio explains to Tomo that his life recently changed for the better. He's been living with someone he is very much in love with, someone very special who is also a little bit different. That someone is Rinko (Toma Ikuta), a trans woman who works as a caregiver in a nursing home where Makio and Hiromi's mother, Sayuri (Lily), is a patient with dementia.

Tomo is initially cautious about interacting with Rinko, whose chest looks like a woman's but who has large hands and a voice that sounds like a man's. But Rinko's gentle nature, her delicious meals, and the little touches she adds to life (such as a beautifully arranged Bento box for Tomo's school lunch) soon make resistance futile.

Rinko (Toma Ikuta), Tomo (Rinka Kakihara), and Makio
(Kenta Kiritani) share a common hobby in Close-Knit

Not only does Rinko like to cuddle with Tomo, she is candid about how she got her breasts and how the surgeon inverted her penis to transform it into a vagina. For a young girl who has become accustomed to an irresponsible, child-like absentee mother, Rinko's calming presence and the warmth and comfort she obviously brings to Makio are the polar opposite of her life at home with Hiromi.

Makio (Kenta Kiritani), Tomo (Rinka Kakihara), and
Rinko (Toma Ikuta) share a common hobby in Close-Knit

One thing which sparks Tomo's curiosity is Rinko's constant knitting, which was taught to Rinko by her mother when, as a young boy, Rinko was struggling to understand her sexuality. In time, Tomo also meets Rinko's mother, Fumiko (Misako Tanaka), who is fiercely protective of her trans daughter yet still manages to get some sly digs in at Rinko during dinner conversations.

A subplot involves the difficult interplay between Tomo and her young classmate, Kai (Kaito Komie), an outcast at school who is probably gay. Although Kai studies violin and would love to be friends with Tomo, she is often rude to him at school, keeping her distance. One day, while Tomo is shopping at a supermarket with Rinko, Kai spots her and instantly starts moving toward his classmate. Just as he is about to talk to Tomo, Kai's mother, Naomi (Eiko Koike), forbids him from going anywhere near Rinko, whom she considers to be a freak.

Makio (Kenta Kiritani) and his niece, Tomo (Rinka Kakihara)
enjoy a picnic in a scene from Close-Knit

Time passes and one day Rinko sees Kai in the park and asks if he would like to come home and play Wii with Tomo. When Naomi sees her son, Tomo, and Rinko having a wonderful time as she accidentally glances through a window to Makio's apartment, she is horrified. Naomi contacts Children's Protective Services, and a social worker is sent to Makio's apartment to assess his living situation. Soon afterward, Kai attempts suicide. Throughout these events, Makio, Rinko, and Tomo keep bonding, with all three quietly knitting as a way to productively process their anger and frustrations. Then Hiromi shows up, wanting to pick up her daughter and take her back home.

Rinko (Toma Ikuta), Tomo (Rinka Kakihara), and Makio
(Kenta Kiritani) share a common hobby in Close-Knit

Close-Knit is far from the standard family drama, yet it goes a long way toward focusing an audience's attention on Rinko's loving nature, her yearning to be a mother, and the horrifying results of the impulsive actions taken by emotionally insecure birth mothers like Hiromi and Naomi. The film includes nice cameos by Mugi Kadowaki as Yuka (Rinko's coworker who is engaged to be married to a "bonehead") and Shuji Kashiwabara as Yuka's fiancé, Yoshio. Tōru Shinagawa has some touching scenes as Saito, an elderly patient who used to work for a pharmaceutical company, as does Noriko Eguchi as Kanai, the social worker from Children's Protective Services.

Although Naoko Ogigami (who attended film school in Los Angeles, where she had many LGBT friends) encountered some criticism about casting a cis-male actor as Rinko instead of a transgender actor, she explained that “There are some transgender TV stars like comedians and people accept them, but I couldn’t find any transgender actors in Japan. It’s still very hard for them to come out, and I couldn’t find any transgender actor as good as Toma Ikuta.”

Ikuta's poignant and beautifully layered performance has its quiet and singular charms, with Kenta Kiritani providing a handsome and respectful foil as Makio. Rinka Kakihara scores strongly as Tomo, with Kaito Komie effortlessly radiating the yearning of a lonely young gay boy. Here's the trailer:

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