Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Searching For Inner Peace

Some people don't have much interest in introspection. A malignant narcissist and raging extrovert like Donald Trump will instinctively find ways to deflect criticism of his weaknesses and shift the blame for his misdeeds to others. Conversely, an introvert -- or someone with low self-esteem -- will avoid being the center of attention and work on analyzing (or overanalyzing) the situation. In her recent article entitled 12 Things Introverts Absolutely Need To Be Happy, Jenn Granneman explains that:
“Introverts don’t chase the same things as extroverts. They’re not always on the lookout for the next party. Nor do they constantly need other people to entertain them. Many nights, they’re content to hang out at home, reading a book, watching a movie, or just puttering around on their own terms. Loud bars, crowded parties, and busy schedules quickly wear them out. Sadly, introverts may feel like they can’t say what they need. Sometimes they just don’t have the words; the thoughts tumble around in their heads but don’t come out the way they intended. Or, they may feel like they have to hide their needs from others.”

One might have to squint to see the internal struggles captured in two dramas that, to the normal eye, would seem to be worlds apart from each other. Both focus on people who are trying to decipher the mysteries of their lives by looking within for answers. The filmmaker of one has a well-documented video library at his disposal that can be used as a reference tool. The characters created by a playwright must let go of the emotional baggage they've been carrying around to protect their feelings before they can search for greater understanding.

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One of the documentaries being screened at San Francisco's 2017 3rd i International South Asian Film Festival is Abu, a film by Arshad Khan which, thanks to his family's long-term fascination with home movies, has preserved many moments of innocence as well as family tension on video. Combined with several key animation sequences, Abu (which means "father" in Arabic) depicts the Khan family's history from happier times to the present. Although the film's timeline might seem normal, on closer examination, one can see the fracture lines slowly starting to deepen.
  • Khan's father began life as an orphan living in pre-partition India before being forced to leave in 1947 and start his life anew in Pakistan.
  • As a college student obsessed with movies and movie-making, Abu was very interested in the arts. Not only was the Khan family one of the first families in Islamabad to own a handheld VHS recorder, young Arshad quickly took to directing home movies in his childhood.
  • After retiring from Pakistan's military, Abu built a highly successful business distributing bottled water.
  • Close to his older sister (who he describes as "an unapologetic artist"), Arshad was disappointed when she got married and left the Khan family's home.
  • After Abu's water distribution business succumbed to competition in the early 1990s, the family decided to move to Canada, forcing the 15-year-old Arshad to leave behind all of his childhood friends and build a new life in Missassaugua (a suburb of Toronto).
  • Arshad is convinced that the effects of migration, assimilation (an older brother married a white Canadian), and separation (Arshad spending time away from his family and making friends with more and more LGBT people) are what triggered his parents’ shift to becoming conservative Muslims. The events of 9/11 opened Arshad’s eyes politically, making him feel as if there was "a war on brown bodies." Although previously apolitical, he found it unacceptable to have the word “terrorist” attributed to his people. After dropping out of his final year at architecture school, he purchased the cheapest mini-DVD camera he could buy and began to document more of his life.
Poster art for Abu

In contrast to his parents' deeper involvement with a fundamentalist form of Islam, Arshad's story follows a path of self-discovery that leads to his coming out as a gay man and activist as well as his involvement in a long-term relationship with another man and his work as a flight attendant for Air Canada (which affords his family great travel benefits).

The filmmaker's life takes a dramatic turn one night when Arshad has an oddly prophetic dream in which, like Ebeneezer Scrooge, he is presented with three visions. One seems to indicate that he will meet some kind of monster dressed in a button-down pale blue shirt; another predicts that he will return to Pakistan to visit his childhood home in Islamabad. The third predicts that his father will die at 3:00 a.m.

Three prophets visit Arshad in a dream

Late in Abu's life, Arshad and his father manage to heal any rifts caused by the cultural differences in his living an openly gay lifestyle and his father's religious conservatism. While visiting Islamabad, an older and wiser Arshad recalls some childhood events that, as an adult gay man, he realizes involve his being raped by a male cousin.

As documentaries go, Abu delivers a surprisingly intimate view of a family defined by migration, by progress, and by suddenly being seen as "the other." Despite the fact that a wealth of his father’s photographs and letters were lost in a flood during the 1960s, many home movies were still available for Arshad to use in his first feature film. As he explains:
“I’m using my family’s archives, so it’s very personal; it’s the shared history of our family. I had to do it justice but, at the same time, I had to make a sincere film. Because I’m dealing with some very serious subject matter when it comes to shame, secrets, and lies, I wanted to make a film that generations of my family will watch and be proud of rather than ashamed of -- a film that is sincere and honest and really brutal, but which also does justice to my father’s legacy and my family’s legacy."

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How easily can extroverts resist the temptation to hog the spotlight? Cynics and comedians are quick to mock meditation and, without doubt, it's easy for them to find a receptive audience.

Introverts, however, often seek out situations where they can embrace silence and solitude. While some people would be surprised to learn that meditation is a valuable tool for anger management and impulse control, one need only look at the changes seen in students at San Francisco's Visitacion Valley Middle School since a meditation program named Quiet Time was instituted 10 years ago.
Six characters in search of inner peace arrive at a silent retreat
in a scene from Small Mouth Sounds (Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)

The American Conservatory Theater is currently hosting the national tour of Small Mouth Sounds at the Strand Theater. Bess Wohl's poignant comedy examines what happens when six city dwellers gather for a silent weekend retreat in the woods. As the playwright notes, "Most people who come to a retreat have a very strong need connected with wanting a reprieve from the most painful aspects of being alive. Part of my interest in working with silence was to see how audiences fill in the gaps with their own ideas and assumptions."

Cherene Snow appears as Judy in Small Mouth Sounds
(Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)

Working on a handsome unit set designed by Laura Jellinek (with costumes by Tilly Grimes, lighting by Mike Inwood, and projections by Andrew Schneider), Ars Nova's production begins with sound designer Stowe Nelson's increasingly loud, almost symphonic, sounds of a forest downpour. “I’m drawn to anything that asks me to make something that I’ve never lived in before, that requires me to learn how to do something, or create a different culture," states director Rachel Chavkin. "That’s not only how I think about design, but also how I think about performance style, the world of the play, or the culture that I’m forging onstage. With a new play, my specific responsibility as a director is to honor the playwright’s intention. When there’s no dialogue, that’s very hard to do because the staging becomes the intention.”

Ned (Ben Beckley) and Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn) get acquainted
in a scene from Small Mouth Sounds (Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)

With Orville Mendoza's offstage voice guiding the program as the retreat's leader, the paying participants include Judy (Cherene Snow), a middle-aged African American woman who frequently suffers from acute spasms of pain and whose cynical nature is evidenced by silent, fierce, eye rolls. Judy is accompanied by her companion, Joan (Socorro Santiago), a woman with worry written all over her face who perks up at the sight of a man she recognizes from his yoga videos. Although their body language evidences a close and loving relationship, it soon becomes obvious that the responsibilities of caring for Judy have been wearing Joan down spiritually while limiting her opportunities to socialize with others.

Socorro Santiago appears as Joan in Small Mouth Sounds
(Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)

Two of the men attending the retreat have arrived bearing much more emotional than physical baggage. Jan (Connor Barrett) doesn't speak English and, whenever outside, is constantly swatting at mosquitoes. He carries a framed picture of a young child with him wherever he goes. Ned (Ben Beckley), is the kind of nervous man who, when asked for a one-word answer, can't stop talking. In recent years, he has suffered one personal disaster after another and wears a skull cap to cover his scalp wounds from multiple brain surgeries. Nerdy, awkward, and drowning in self doubt, Ned tries to follow the leader's rules for the duration of the retreat but constantly ends up making a fool of himself.

Ben Beckley appears as Ned in Small Mouth Sounds
(Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)

No one in the audience should be surprised that opposites attract. The participant who is most comfortable in his own skin is obviously Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn), a tall handsome Asian who practices yoga and includes meditation as an integral part of his daily routine. An early arrival who is quick to doff his clothes and go for a naked swim, Rodney isn't the least bit self-conscious about bending over to pick up a towel while exposing his ass crack to the audience. By contrast, Alicia (Brenna Palughi) arrives late, frazzled, and has difficulty letting go of her junk food and smartphone. Emotionally distraught over a recent breakup, she spends the first few days furiously taking notes of everything the leader says, and frequently breaks down in tears. Her tense affect offers a marked contrast to Rodney's practiced serenity.

Alicia (Brenna Palughi) has trouble disconnecting from her smartphone
in Small Mouth Sounds (Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)

There are some people who might be wary about attending a show that revolves around silence, but Chavkin has no doubts about the appeal of Small Mouth Sounds. As she explains:
“The reason I love the play, the fundamental reason I signed on for it, is because it raises a deep question about the pursuit of happiness and whether we should be happy. Is it possible for us to be mindful and happy in a world with so much suffering? Those questions are really at the heart of California, which is such a pioneer in not only mindfulness, but also libertarianism.”
Judy (Cherene Snow) and Jan (Connor Barrett) get stoned in a
scene from Small Mouth Sounds (Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)
“Happily, hopefully, in California we won’t have to work quite as hard to make people understand why you should do a silent retreat in the first place. I’m truly aware that San Francisco is a place where silent retreats are alive and well and unquestioned. It’s very important for the functioning of the play that you believe that the Teacher is valuable. Depending on how cynical the audience is (or how laughable an audience might find that New Age ideology) we could have an uphill battle landing this story of why these six souls are at this retreat.”
Small Mouth Sounds arrives in San Francisco just in time for the holiday season, when family reunions, relationship stress, and the pressure to enjoy Thanksgiving or Christmas can work a person's nerves raw. Thanks to the fine work of Chavkin's gifted ensemble, this Ars Nova production allows audiences to laugh freely as they recognize the way some people's repressed emotions can be subtly triggered and rise to the surface with a most poignant honesty. The characters Wohl has created are easily recognizable humans whose true beauty lies in their imperfections (if and when they can see it).

Performances of Small Mouth Sounds continue through December 10 at the Strand Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Oppressed, Bothered, and Bewildered

Many a song has been cut from a musical during its pre-Broadway tryout or its journey from stage to screen. Some songs failed to find their place in history because a show closed without making an original cast recording. Nonetheless, some musical numbers have found new life in cabaret acts and anthology recordings (such as Lost in Boston, Unsung Sondheim, Broadway Bound, and Unsung Musicals) as well as staged revivals and concert performances aimed at restoring a show's musical score to its original format. A classic example would be Jerome Kern's "Misry's Comin' Aroun," which was cut from 1927's Show Boat during its out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C. According to Wikipedia:
"Kern was reportedly so incensed by the deletion of "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun" that he made it the principal motif of Show Boat's original overture and asked orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett to work sections of it into the background music as well, where it is now played by the orchestra during some of the dialogue scenes involving the mixed race actress Julie La Verne. The song, which runs about five minutes, is an African-American lament of foreboding and impending doom sung by Queenie, the cook, and the African-American chorus, and, in the show, drives Julie, who has been passing as white, to near hysteria. It is supposed to be sung at the beginning of the rehearsal scene, which contains the sequence in which Julie and her white husband are revealed to be guilty of miscegenation by the local sheriff, who tries to arrest them. The complete song was not restored to the show's score until EMI's exhaustive 1988 3-CD recording of the show's score with its original lyrics, orchestrations and vocal arrangements, and performed onstage complete for the first time since the Washington D.C. tryout of Show Boat when producer Harold Prince included it in the 1994 Broadway revival."

Like Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun, the following three songs communicate the depths of depression and oppression suffered by people caught in the grip of an unjust society and/or economy.

There's little doubt that, over the course of the past decade, our nation has backed away from the progress made on multiple sociopolitical fronts. Today, racism, misogyny, homophobia, income inequality, and fear of the "other" are increasingly divisive forces in our culture. From those who are disrespected and disenfranchised by institutional biases to those who are dishonored and dehumanized by the President of the United States, prejudice is eating away at basic human rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution to its citizens. TheatreFIRST's revival of The Farm (as well as last year's staging of It Can't Happen Here at Berkeley Repertory Theatre) help to remind audiences of John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton's warning that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Two new dramas produced by small, politically progressive theater companies in Berkeley focus the audience's attention on disavowed and dehumanized people who struggle for their rights, struggle to survive, and may subsequently struggle to live with their survivor's guilt.

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Written by Susan Sobeloff and directed by Jan Zvaifler, Strange Ladies takes the audience back to the early 20th century, when women suffragists were struggling to secure the right to vote. Originally commissioned by Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco, this play is receiving its world premiere production from Central Works, with musical direction by Milissa Carey, costumes by Tammy Berlin, lighting by Gary Graves, and sound design by Gregory Scharpen.

Milissa Carey, Renee Rogoff, and Gwen Loeb, portray some early
20th century suffragists in Strange Ladies (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Because this year marks the 100th anniversary of the imprisonment of the Silent Sentinels (a group of women who were arrested in June and July of 1917 and sent to Occoquan Workhouse Prison after picketing the White House and demanding the right to vote), their story occupies a bittersweet place in today's America as Republicans escalate their pursuit of the hateful agenda of their War on Women. As Sobeloff explains:
"Strange Ladies is a work of historical fiction that tells the story of a courageous group of women fighting for the right to vote. Their brutal treatment and subsequent hunger strike earned them the epithet of the “Strange Ladies” and forced the issue of Woman Suffrage into the national consciousness. In researching the Suffrage movement, I found myself in awe of these women's commitment to gaining the right to vote. I realized I mistakenly believed that American women were given (or simply suddenly "won") the vote. I came to understand how hard and unceasingly American women fought to be included in the nation's political life and how the Suffragists' political strategies still inform contemporary social justice movements."
Nicol Foster, Regina Morones, Gwen Loeb, and Radhika Rao in the
hunger strike scene from Strange Ladies (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

The six women who form the Central Works ensemble for Strange Ladies start off on an optimistic note, resolved that following the tragedy of 1911's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and their continued inability to get any action out of President Woodrow Wilson, it's time for them to take an stronger stand for voting rights. Unfortunately, their plans are sabotaged by self-doubt, deaths in their families, and the entry of the United States into World War I following the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.
  • Alice (Renée Rogoff) is the group's strong-willed strategist who finds it difficult to accept the commonplace human needs and family responsibilities of her sisters in feminism.
  • Lucy (Regina Morones) is forced to leave the group temporarily when her sister dies, leaving behind an infant who must be cared for.
  • Harriet (Milissa Carey) is still very much caught up in worrying about the group's need to be perceived as "proper ladies" rather than rabble-rousers.
  • Rose (Gwen Loeb) is a feisty activist with a thick New York accent.
  • Vida/Phyllis (both played by Radhika Rao) are two sisters (one of whom dies, leaving the other to pick up her feminist torch).
  • Mary (Nicol Foster) is an African American woman who has experienced plenty of discrimination based on her race and whose daughter fears for her physical safety.
Mary (Nicol Foster) is an African American suffragist who faces
a violent mob while picketing outside the White House in a
scene from Strange Ladies (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

While this six-woman ensemble fights nobly against an uncaring patriarchy until they are arrested (and determine that a hunger strike is the only remaining option that can draw attention to their cause), these women are battling two issues which, despite the show's short running time, seem very much beyond their control.

Because the audience must always imagine the obstacles placed in their path by uncaring men, these women seem stuck fighting an enemy who, like some diseases, is essentially invisible. Without the increasing level of suspense inherent in crime fiction, maintaining high levels of idealism and earnestness (against all odds) can be exhausting. While there is no question that the threats leveled against these ladies are real and take a physical toll on them -- or that the women's demands to secure the vote are fully justified -- as their situation worsens, their hunger strike saps them (as well as the drama) of the strength needed to continue the battle.

Vida (Radhika Rao) and Rose (Gwen Loeb) take a break from the
picket line in a scene from Strange Ladies (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

The other issue is a physical one that comes with the performance space in which Strange Ladies is being presented. The seating in the Berkeley City Club is a three-quarter-round setup which, in most Central Works productions, allows for smooth scenic transitions. However, in Strange Ladies, the blackouts between scenes (which allow the cast to regroup and make some quick costume changes) cause the play to badly lose momentum.

What this show needs is a stronger timeline. Prior to his death from AIDS on May 13, 1993, my friend Scott Heumann was employed as the dramaturg for Houston Grand Opera. The company's March 1984 staging of Simon Boccanegra offered a prime example of the difference an alert dramaturg can make. Before opera companies adopted the use of Supertitles, Verdi's opera could be extremely confusing for audiences that had not read the plot synopsis (or had forgotten what it said). With the new technology at his disposal, Scott decided to flash a title above the proscenium during the brief scene change between the opera's Prologue and Act I. Although the title consisted of only three words ("25 Years Later..."), it made an astonishing change in the audience's understanding of Francesco Maria Piave's complicated libretto.

A similar solution applied to Strange Ladies would be to flash a series of chronological messages on the empty wall above the fireplace during each blackout. Doing so would (a) tighten the action, (b) give more propulsion to the story, (c) strengthen continuity, and (d) distract the audience from the actors for just long enough to keep the show's momentum going. It's a simple technique (used to great effect in many productions of Gypsy) that works like a charm.

Performances of Strange Ladies continue at the Berkeley City Club through November 12 (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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Presented as a co-production of The Mitzvah Project and PlayGround, Roger Grunwald is starring in the world premiere of a new one-man show at the Potrero Stage. The Obligation introduces its audience to characters who experienced the tragedy of World War II through the time they spent in Nazi concentration camps.

From innocent Jewish schoolchildren living in the ghetto of Bialystok, Poland to an exhausted Jewish man on a death march from Auschwitz who welcomed death as a release from unimaginable misery, Grunwald paints his characters with a variety of accents and innocence. After being liberated from Nazi death camps, some Jews finally make it to America where they are miraculously given an opportunity to start their lives over. One man, however, cannot handle the memories and the guilt of surviving. Feeling that he died back in Auschwitz, he jumps to his death in front of a subway train in New York in 1965.

Roger Grunwald stars in The Obligation (Photo by: Leonardo Correa)

Shifting body language and accents with ease, Grunwald proves that no matter how many stories one has read about the Shoah (or seen in documentaries and historical fiction films at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) there is always another tale of human misery, defiance, defeat, and remembrance waiting to be unveiled before new audiences. As the actor/author explains:
“In the beginning of The Obligation, a character by the name of Schmuel Berkowicz, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, is speaking to a room full of students. Both my mom and dad were German Jews. Like Schmuel and many others, my mom, a survivor of Auschwitz (now deceased), regularly spoke to young people. My dad, unlike my mother, never experienced a concentration camp. He fled Germany in 1933 and made his way to the Philippines which, at the time, was one of a handful of places in the world that admitted Jewish refugees. He remained in the Philippines until shortly after the war.”
Roger Grunwald stars in The Obligation (Photo by: Leonardo Correa)
“About 10 years ago, after restarting my acting career, I visited my mother’s sister in Los Angeles and spent several days interviewing her, learning about her life and wartime experience. Aunt Annie (who turned 103 in April) is a survivor of Bergen-Belsen. At one point during my interview, she gave me a book: Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military by Bryan Mark Rigg. Although I considered myself fairly well read on the period, I had no inkling about this aspect of the German-Jewish experience. Even before I was finished reading Rigg’s book, I started to write and a character began to emerge -- a German half-Jew who was a First Lieutenant in Hitler’s army. I named him Christoph.”
Roger Grunwald stars in The Obligation (Photo by: Leonardo Correa)

Lovingly directed by Nancy Carlin, The Obligation includes an American comedian who sounds just like Groucho Marx as well as a deeply conflicted SS officer named Christoph Rosenberg, a "mischling" who was allowed to serve in Hitler's army despite the fact that he was descended from one or two Jewish grandparents.

The material covered in The Obligation remains astonishingly relevant to the social tensions and growing anti-Semitism in the United States today. “The theater is a way you can touch people emotionally (something you can’t do in the same way with a talk). That’s one of the skills I have; one of the things I’ve learned about the power of performance. The Obligation is s not just about stopping Nazis. We have to stop making a demon, a devil, out of the other," stresses Grunwald. "As the son of a survivor the question I put to myself is, with my mom’s generation dying out, who’s going to continue the teaching of the Holocaust and how? The Obligation represents a promise to my mom and my aunt to keep in focus the history that humanity must never forget."

Performances of The Obligation continue through November 5 at the Potrero Stage (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Ye Gods!

Saturday Night Live's beloved yenta, Linda Richman (Mike Myers), was famous for concocting curious bits of mishegass for her guests to ponder following her command to "Tawk amongst yourselves." To honor the memory of a character who no longer appears on SNL, let me offer the following brain teaser. According to Wikipedia:
  • Judaism was the first religion to conceive the notion of a personal monotheistic God within a monist context. The concept of ethical monotheism (which holds that morality stems from God alone and that its laws are unchanging) first occurred in Judaism, but is now a core tenet of most modern monotheistic religions, including Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, and the Bahá'í Faith.
  • The classical Greeks valued the power of the spoken word; it was their main method of communication and storytelling. Greek tragedy as we know it was created in Athens around the time of 532 BC, when Thespis was the earliest recorded actor. Until the Hellenistic period, all tragedies were unique pieces written in honor of Dionysus and played only once, so that today we primarily have the pieces that were still remembered well enough to have been repeated when the repetition of old tragedies became fashionable.
While many of us express our failure to understand something by muttering "It's all Greek to me" or "The gods must be crazy," Ancient Greeks frequently looked to their gods for help in understanding the world around them. In many cases, the explanations they developed became the stuff from which legends were made. So, if Jews are monotheistic but Ancient Greeks invented the plot device known as the deus ex machina, how did so many Jews become avid theatregoers?

As Linda Richman would say: "Tawk amongst yourselves!"

In his book entitled Tip of the Tongue: Reflections on Language and Meaning, Peter Brook wrote:
"At a moment when social and political themes are what should -- what must -- concern us directly, how can we escape the banality of the obvious, the glibness of the outrage, the naivety of protest? At a time when everyone has been numbed for so long by horrors, can one horrify? When every screen and so many street corners are drenched in blood, can tomato ketchup have any effect? More than 60 years ago, London audiences at Titus Andronicus fainted nightly and St John Ambulance was in attendance. A tiny torture scene by Jean-Paul Sartre made audiences scream. Once, even the word 'bloody' had its effect."
"If we recognize that we’ve become numbed by shock tactics, that no scandal is scandalous, then we must face the fact that theatre (especially for its writers and directors) is suddenly losing its most reliable weapon. When doing a play on conflict and violence, how often have I had to answer the same idiotic question: 'Do you think you can change the world?' Today, I would like to say, 'Yes, we can change the world,' but not in the old way that politicians, ideologists or militants try to make us believe. Their business is to tell lies. Theatre is, occasionally, capable of moments of truth."

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In 2010, Stuart Bousel commissioned 11 new plays for the first San Francisco Olympians Festival. A huge fan of Greek mythology, Bousel aimed to develop a festival of new works focused on one of his major passions. The submission form for each year's festival asks playwrights to answer three questions about the god they have chosen to write about:
  1. Why you?
  2. Why this figure?
  3. What is your idea?
Playwright Stuart Bousel addressing the audience at the 2017
San Francisco Olympians Festival (Photo by: Cody A. Rishell)

This year's festival gave 30 local writers the opportunity to have 36 plays of varying lengths receive readings from a total of 86 actors. For those who have attended performances at the San Francisco Olympians Festival, one of the great joys is watching Bousel introduce a new play by sharing his love for mythology in what amounts to a scholarly version of stand-up comedy. The closing performance of the 2017 festival was devoted to a play Bousel had written 10 years ago and extensively rewritten for new audiences. What follows is the print version of his introduction for Adonis.
"Adonis was a Greek hunter who became the center of multiple mystery cults spanning many different cultures. He was a handsome hunter, a prince in some versions, who was the beloved of the goddess of love, Aphrodite. His mother was turned into the myrrh tree, from which he was born nine months later, and he was adopted by the childless queen of the underworld, Persephone. When Aphrodite fell in love with him, Persephone grew despondent, terrified he would leave her. Zeus ruled that Adonis would spend one third of every year with his adopted mother, one third of every year with his lover, and one third of his year as he pleased."
Poster art by Cody A. Rishell for Adonis
"One day, while hunting on his own, he was killed by a wild boar. Aphrodite rushed to his side but could not save him, and as he bled out on the grass his blood turned into flowers. Trapped forever between Heaven and Earth, he became a spirit of nature and the god of resurrection, specifically the Earth’s ability to renew itself again and again. His name would go on to become synonymous with handsome young men everywhere, but under other names he was worshiped by the Etruscans, the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, and the Babylonians. His cult eventually spread to Jerusalem where his name became fused with the Hebrew word 'Adonai' (for 'Lord" or 'God') and he is considered by many religion scholars to be the first pan-Mediterranean deity. The offering of myrrh at the birth of Christ is often said to be an allusion to Adonis, who was an early precursor to the King of Jews."
Directed by Juliana Lustenader, Bousel's play introduced the audience to six contemporary characters wrestling with a most curious set of circumstances.
  • Mathew (Ittai Geiger) is an enigmatic gay man in his thirties who is seemingly trapped between life and death. Just like Adonis (and maybe someone else whose name is on everyone's lips), he was quite healthy until he became ill and suddenly died. Miraculously, three days after his death, Mathew came back to life looking pretty much the same, although more than a little bit confused about what happened to him. Quiet and withdrawn, he was nevertheless willing to seek help from a nontraditional source.
  • Simon (Dylan O’Connor) is Mathew's lover. From the moment they met, these two men knew they wanted to spend their lives together. However, although their sex life as a couple continues to flourish, ever since Mathew's return from the dead, Simon hasn't been sure how to love him.
  • Brian (Karl Weiser) is Mathew's distant father, a Christian minister who has never shown much skill at communicating with his openly gay son.
The cast of actors who performed a reading of Adonis during the
2017 San Francisco Olympians Festival (Photo by: Cody A. Rishell)
  • Judith (Erika Bakse) is a writer who has been interviewing people who have undergone near-death experiences. She is the first woman Mathew opens up to as he seeks help in understanding his experience and the cryptic message an angel whispered to him while he was dead.
  • Claire (Lora Oliver) is a physician who has been assigned to monitor Mathew's health. A woman who has devoted her life to science, she is at a loss to explain how Mathew's abdominal wounds from an earlier appendectomy have disappeared since he rejoined the living. Willing to admit that (a) shit happens, and (b) science does not have all the answers, Claire finds herself seeking input from Mathew's hostile and hyper-religious aunt Ruth.
  • Ruth (Simone Alexander) is a rigid thinker who can be extremely condescending. A thoroughly disagreeable woman who wears her prejudices with pride, Ruth's conservative beliefs place her at odds with her brother as well as her nephew, Mathew, and his openly gay lifestyle. Quick to judge others, she does not take well to criticism of herself.  Ruth does not deal well with change or anything that can't be easily explained by her religious beliefs. A haughty control freak, she is the kind of self-righteous Christian who professes to hate the sin but love the sinner. 
Poster art for the 2017 San Francisco Olympians Festival by Cody A. Rishell

The final scene takes place on Thanksgiving Day. Mathew and Simon have invited Brian, Ruth, Judith, and Claire to celebrate the holiday at their house. Each person arrives bearing a casserole with a traditional dish (deviled eggs, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, etc.) However, once they divulge the contents of their respective dishes, they don't know what to say or do. Although Mathew and Simon wave to them from the coziness of their home, it's going to take some time before this less than fearsome foursome can get up the courage to cross significant thresholds of faith and science.

Despite Bousel's extensive rewriting, Adonis remains a problematic play. The script's weaknesses, however, are surprisingly obvious. One reason it takes so long for Adonis to gain momentum is that its confused and often tongue-tied protagonist is nowhere as interesting as what happened to him. Like many men, Mathew's father and lover have obvious trouble expressing themselves and are easily upstaged by the play's female characters (who dominate the story).

Bousel has written a beautiful monologue for Judith, given Claire a deep personal conflict which she is unable to resolve, and created a terse and unyielding villain in Ruth. As always, his script includes many bon mots which have the audience in stitches, but these cannot fill the hole at the center of his play. The playwright informs me that:
"Adonis is the title for the festival. Mathew 33:6 is intended for performances outside the festival. The second title is a reference to a Biblical verse that does not exist... yet. The implication is that one day there could be or will be (depending on how you read the play) a new book and verse to the Bible -- The Book of Mathew."
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A powerful force in American theatre, Mary Zimmerman was a recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1998. In 2002, she won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for her adaptation of Ovid's classic poem, Metamorphoses. Her productions have been staged frequently at Berkeley Repertory Theatre as well as such prestigious arts organizations as the Goodman Theatre, the Lookingglass Theatre Company, and the Shakespeare Theatre Company. She has staged four radically different productions for the Metropolitan Opera (Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Bellini's La Sonnambula, Dvorak's Rusalka, and Rossini's Armida). In between her artistic forays outside of Chicago, she is a revered faculty member at Northwestern University, where she occupies the Jaharis Family Foundation Chair in Performance Studies.

Drunken Silenus (Ivan A. Oyarzabal) regales King Midas
(Alexander Espinosa Pieb) with a tale of immortality in a scene 
from Metamorphoses (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Ceyx (Tri Le) makes a sea voyage, leaving behind his queen Alcyone
in a scene from Metamorphoses (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Although her stagings have been hailed far and wide, as she explains in the following interview about her artistic process, Zimmerman feels no need to direct every production of the works she has adapted from ancient texts.

Not surprisingly, Zimmerman's Metamorphoses has been extremely popular with university theatre departments. It offers some unique challenges for costume and scenic designers which, in turn, create opportunities for students majoring in theatre to learn their craft. The University of California-Berkeley's Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies recently staged Metamorphoses at the Zellerbach Playhouse with costumes designed by Wendy Sparks, lighting by Jack Carpenter, and sound design by Ian D. Thomas.

Orpheus (Zac Nachbar-Seckel) grieves the death of
his new bride Eurydice in a scene from Metamorphoses
(Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Phaeton (Yohana Ansari-Thomas) ponders his relationship
with his absent father, Apollo, in a scene from Metamorphoses
(Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

While Zimmerman's adaptation includes several well-known characters from Greek mythology (Narcissus, Poseidon, Apollo, Eros, Psyche, Orpheus and Eurydice), it also brings to life some of the lesser-known names as it depicts the relationship between King Midas and Bacchus, the story of King Ceyx and his wife Alcyone, the pursuit of Pomona by Vertumnus, as well as the stories about Baucis, and Philemon, Myrrha, Phaethon, and Erysichthon.

Alcyone (Peyton Victoria) searches for her lost love, Ceyx, in
a scene from Metamorphoses (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Poseidon’s attack on Ceyx’s (Tri Le) ship proves fatal in a
scene from Metamorphoses (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Working with director Chris Herold, Nina Ball (one of the Bay area's most imaginative and versatile scenic designers) got a rare chance to create a watery set. In the following clip, Ball, Herold, and other members of the creative team discuss the process of bringing such a complex and challenging work to the stage.

Under Herold's direction, UCB's ensemble of 15 actors included Yohana Ansari-Thomas, Joe Ayers, Theodore Foley, Samira Mariama Hamid, Stephanie Jeane, Narges Khaloghli, Farryl Christina Lawson, Tri Le, Zac Nachbar Seckel, Ivan A. Oyarzabal, Claire Pearson, Alexander Espinosa Pieb, Verity Pinter, Shauna Satnick, and Peyton Victoria. The easy adaptability of the Zellerbach Playhouse (which sometimes functions as a large-scale black box theatre) and the cast's relative youth brought a welcome vitality to the performance.

The cast of Metamorphoses (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Visited By The Ghosts of Stories Past

How does one explain the timelessness of art to people who insist that school arts programs are nothing more than a waste of taxpayer dollars and should be removed from education budgets?
  • One might point to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's slogan, "True Art Transcends Time," as a means of demonstrating how, year after year, decade after decade, and generation after generation, art continues to inspire people and broaden their horizons.
  • One could remind them of popular tales from the Bible, indigenous cultures, Greek mythology, and such beloved fabulists as the Brothers Grimm, Aesop, and Jules Verne that have easily withstood the test of time.
  • One might ask them to listen to a variety of singers interpreting a single operatic aria, folk song, or jazz standard.
  • Or introduce doubters to people whose lives have been impacted by "unforgettable" live performances.
  • One might ask them to think about the numerous ways music has fed the passions of their friends and family members for dance, singing, and making love.
  • Or show them how Hans Christian Anderson's 1844 fairy tale, The Snow Queen, has frequently been adapted for stage and screen as well as inspiring operas, ballets, films, and full-length animation features such as Disney's 2013 hit, Frozen (which has been adapted into a stage musical that will open on Broadway on March 22, 2018).

Not only is there plenty of food for thought, the above scenarios also point to the malleability of certain works of art that can be updated, reinterpreted, or rediscovered by new generations. Two textbook examples of this phenomenon are currently being performed on Bay area stages with fascinating results.

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When compiling a playlist (or what was once known as a mixtape), few people think of themselves as curators. Most just want to share the music they love with people they love (or with people who might love them a little more for loving the same music that they love). San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon opened its 2017-2018 season with a new production of Ain't Misbehavin' -- the delightful musical revue that took New York by storm nearly 40 years ago. As described in Wikipedia:
"The musical is a tribute to the black musicians of the 1920s and 1930s who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of growing creativity, cultural awareness, and ethnic pride, and takes its title from the 1929 [Fats] Waller song Ain't Misbehavin'. It was a time when Manhattan nightclubs like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom were the playgrounds of high society and Lenox Avenue dives were filled with piano players banging out the new beat known as swing. Five performers present an evening of rowdy, raunchy, and humorous songs that encapsulate the various moods of the era and reflect Waller's view of life as a journey meant for pleasure and play."
Arís-Allen Roberson, Ashley D. Gallo, and Branden Noel Thomas
in a scene from Ain't Misbehavin' (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studios)

Working on a unit set designed by Brian Watson (with costumes by Bethany Deal and lighting by Maxx Kurzunski), 42nd Street Moon takes full advantage of the intimacy of the Gateway Theatre to squeeze maximum pleasure out of this evening of American music conceived by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr. Ain't Misbehavin' contains a wealth of old standards ranging from Keepin' Out of Mischief Now and I Can't Give You Anything But Love to lesser-known gems such as Two Sleepy People and I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.

Katrina Lauren McGraw in a scene from Ain't Misbehavin'
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studios)

However, the evening reaches exquisite heights with such rarely-heard songs as Lounging at the Waldorf and Fat and Greasy.

Arís-Allen Roberson and Branden Noel Thomas in a scene
from Ain't Misbehavin' (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studios)

With music director Dave Dobrusky on piano, Nick DiScala on reeds, Amanda Wu on bass, and Tim Vaughan on drums, Jeffrey Polk has directed and choreographed this revival of Ain't Misbehavin' with gusto while letting songs such as Honeysuckle Rose, Mean to Me, and Black and Blue be sung in a surprisingly subdued voice. Ashley D. Gallo (who is also credited as the show's dance captain) shines in numbers like Ladies Who Sing With the Band and the Jitterbug Waltz. Aris-Allen Roberson scores strongly with his sensual rendition of The Viper's Drag while Branden Noel Thomas milks Your Feet's Too Big for every ounce of comedy.

Erica Richardson in a scene from Ain't Misbehavin'
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studios)

Perhaps because I've enjoyed the work of so many large Wagnerian sopranos (as well as the ample-bodied contraltos often cast in operettas written by Gilbert and Sullivan), I harbor a particular fondness for large women with equally large voices. Katrina Lauren McGraw (who recently appeared as the Sour Kangaroo in the Bay Area Musicals production of Seussical) and Erica Richardson (who evokes memories of the brassy timbre of Nell Carter's voice) deliver songs like Find Out What They Like, When the Nylons Bloom Again, and Squeeze Me with a ribald zest and zeal.

Erica Richardson and Katrina Lauren McGraw in a scene
from Ain't Misbehavin' (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studios)

Performances of Ain't Misbehavin' continue through October 29 at the newly renamed Gateway Theatre (click here for tickets). While the venue may be small, that joint is really jumpin'!

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Stranger things have happened, but I never expected a musical adaptation of The Book of Exodus to reveal that a stubborn, stupid, spoiled, and hotheaded young jock named Ramses might have been a Biblical precursor to Eric Trump! There are, of course, other guilty pleasures to be found in The Prince of Egypt, a new musical (with book by Philip LaZebnik and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz) that has been directed by the songwriter's son, Scott Schwartz.

Katherine Dela Cruz and Christina Sajous in a scene
from The Prince of Egypt (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While the truly religious turn to the Bible for the original source material, some of us look instead to Cecil B. DeMille's two screen versions of The Ten Commandments (the 1923 silent film and the 1956 Vistavision spectacle that starred Charlton Heston as Moses). Indeed, one of my favorite scenes in the 1956 version occurs when Moses returns from his encounter with the burning bush, looking radically changed by his experience, and Joshua (John Derek) gasps "Moses! Your hair!"

This new musical (which received its world premiere from TheatreWorks Silicon Valley as part of a co-production with the Fredericia Teater in Denmark) is essentially a screen-to-stage adaptation of  1998's full-length feature from Dreamworks Animation which included songs by Stephen Schwartz in addition to the film score by Hans Zimmer. The biggest challenge is how to condense a fast-moving animated film (or even a Cecil B. DeMille spectacle) into a lively stage show in which dance and special effects are key ingredients in moving the story forward.

Jason Gotay (Ramses) and Diluckshan Jeyaratnam (Moses)
in a scene from The Prince of Egypt (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Much of this has been accomplished with a unit set designed by Kevin Depinet (who uses styrofoam blocks as an Ancient Egyptian version of Legos) with handsome projections designed by Shawn Sagady, costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, and lighting designed by Mike Billings. Thanks to the sound design by Cliff Caruthers and musical direction by William Liberatore -- as well as August Eriksmoen's impressive orchestrations -- Sean Cheesman's athletic choreography goes a long way toward keeping up a lively pace for the proceedings.

Moses (Diluckshan Jeyaratnam) and Ramses (Jason Gotay) race their
chariots in a scene from The Prince of Egypt (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Schwartz's song list has more than doubled for this stage adaptation, which now features such manly duets as "Faster" and "The Secret Room," even though Tzipporah's "Dance to the Day" and a quest song for Moses entitled "Footprints in the Sand" have much more dramatic impact. Unfortunately, the creative team's attempt to cram so much exposition into one big musical sausage that the audience can wrap its lips around leads to some unintentionally funny and surprisingly cheesy moments.
Moses (Diluckshan Jeyaratnam) lifts his rod in anticipation of another
plague in a scene from The Prince of Egypt (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In moments like these, I think back to my reaction to a performance of another Stephen Schwartz musical at San Francisco's Curran Theatre (I exited an out-of-town tryout performance of Wicked whistling the lighting cues). These days, when the ridiculous upstages the sublime, I try to concentrate on whatever physical assets a new show has that deserve attention. Whenever the styrofoam building blocks meant to signify the architectural wonder of Ancient Egypt's pyramids failed to impress, the sculptured torsos of two outstanding dancers (Ramone Owens and Joshua Keith) offered plenty of visual compensation for the suffering of Jewish slaves.

Brennyn Lark (Tzipporah) and Diluckshan Jeyaratnam (Moses)
in a scene from The Prince of Egypt (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Despite the competent casting of Diluckshan Jeyaratnam as Moses and Jason Gotay as Ramses, the portrayals of the high priest, Hotep, by William Mann and Pharaoh Seti by Tom Nelis left a lot to be desired. Among the Midianites, Paul-Jordan Jansen's characterization of Jethro and David Crane's Aaron were reduced to stock characters.

The production's strongest assets lay in some of its female voices, most notably Julia Motyka's Miriam, Jamila Sabares-Klemm's Nefertari, Brennyn Lark's fiercely sung and danced Tzipporah, and the rich, lush mezzo-soprano of Christina Sajous as Queen Tuya. Performances of The Prince of Egypt continue through November 5 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer.