Friday, December 8, 2017

Guerillas In Our Midst

We hear a lot about the banality of evil. Indeed, one of the most famous quotes about evil comes from Edmund Burke, who stated that "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." However, in a culture where, increasingly, no good deed seems to go unpunished, one of the questions being asked is what it will take for people to actively resist evil.

As part of TheaterFIRST's world premiere production of Participants, the artists helping to shape the evening survey the audience to learn who sees themselves as "patriots" and who considers themselves to be "activists." Part of the evening includes some informal polling as to whether audience members have donated to activists, have a family member who is an activist, or have ever had sex with an activist (and whether the knowledge that their partner was an activist enhanced the activity).

For many years, Cleve Jones has been recognized as an activist in the LGBT community as well as for his work on behalf of unions. When I interviewed him many years ago, Cleve made an important distinction which bears repeating. Although at the time he was addressing the progress of the movement for LGBT rights, his message can be applied to any political movement. The base can usually be divided into two factions: those who may not have a lot of money but are physically active (marching, leafleting, attending demonstrations, getting out the vote) and those who, for whatever reasons, find it easier to donate money from the comfort (and safe distance) of their checkbooks. Cleve also warned people with astonishing bluntness that one day the pendulum could swing the other way and whatever rights they had gained could be quickly taken away from them.

I recently experienced two dramas which focus on situations in which seemingly ordinary men are forced to perform extraordinary feats of courage. Though 20 years elapsed between their respective premieres, each examines what happens when a normally placid situation is invaded by evil, creating a traumatic situation which radically changes the lives of the people who rise to confront it.
  • One story takes place on an impoverished section of West Virginia; the other in a wealthy family's mansion in Washington, D.C.
  • One story forces a naive and desperate teenager to take matters into his own hands; the other forces a married political operative with three children to take a risk that could cost him his life.
  • One story shows how easily the law can silently aid and abet the forces of evil by doing nothing; the other demonstrates why some laws are made to be broken.
One thing is for sure: By the end of each drama, the innocence and happiness of a family will have been irreparably shattered.

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A critical and commercial success when it premiered in 1921, Tol'able David was chosen in 2007 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Having been preserved by The Museum of Modern Art (with support from The National Film Preservation Foundation and The Film Foundation), it was, without doubt, the highlight of the time I spent at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's recent "Day of Silents" at the Castro Theatre.

Poster art for 1921's Tol'able David

Henry King's powerful coming-of-age story is based on a short story written by Joseph Hergesheimer in 1917 that was adapted for the screen by Edmund Goulding. It focuses on a poor family of tenant farmers that falls victim to a horrific string of tragedies in one day.

Richard Barthelmess (David) and Gladys Hulette (Esther)
in a scene from 1921's silent film, Tol'able David

The Kinemon family would seem to embody the essence of wholesomeness and traditional family values. During dinner, the women stand behind the men, waving whisks (made with strips of newspaper) over the table to keep the flies away from their food. The family prays together before each meal and kneels in prayer each night before going to bed.
  • The father, Hunter Kinemon (Edmund Gurney), is a hard worker who keeps pushing himself to work even harder despite recurring kidney pains.
  • His wife (Marion Abbott) is a simple woman who believes wholeheartedly in the members of their family.
  • Their oldest son, Allen (Warner Richmond), has recently become a father and takes pride in driving the mail hack between local towns.
  • His wife, Rose (Patterson Dial), radiates good health as a new mother.
Richard Barthelmess (David) and Patterson Dial (Rose)
in a scene from 1921's silent film, Tol'able David

The youngest member of the Kinemon family is David (Richard Barthelmess), a robust teenager who, despite his youth, yearns to be treated as an adult male. He is constantly reminded that, at his age, he is "tol'able" if not yet fully matured. Despite the attentions of the pretty Esther Hatburn (Gladys Hulett), who lives with her grandfather (Forrest Robinson) on a nearby farm, David basks in the unconditional love of his feisty dog, Rocket (who delights in absconding with David's pants at the local swimming hole).

Richard Barthelmess stars in 1921's silent film, Tol'able David

Trouble arrives in the form of Grandpa Hatburn's distant relatives who, in order to escape the law, come to his farm expecting to be housed and fed until it is safe for them to leave. Led by their outlaw father, Iscah Hatburn (Walter P. Lewis), sons Luke (Ernest Torrence) and Saul (Ralph Yearsley) are barely civilized. Saul (a/k/a "Little Buzzard") is quick to reach for a gun when his fingers get itchy. Luke is the kind of sadistic psychopath who foreshadows such contemporary villains as Donald Trump.

In the course of one day, the Hatburn brothers kill Rocket and injure Allen, leaving David's older brother crippled for life, The stress of losing his firstborn (the family's main source of income) causes Hunter to succumb to a sudden heart attack. Soon David, his mother, Rose, and the baby are evicted and forced to find smaller living quarters in town. Although David still yearns to drive the hack for the United States Postal Service, its owner, Sen. John Gault (Laurence Eddinger), is only willing to hire the teenager to perform chores in the town's general store.

Richard Barthelmess stars in 1921's silent film, Tol'able David

The action comes to a head on the day David is suddenly recruited to drive the hack because the current driver is too drunk to do his job. Thrilled to be treated like a man at last, David eagerly takes the reins but, on his way back to town, accidentally lets the mailbag drop from his hack. It is soon discovered by Luke, who brings it back to the Hatburns' cabin. When David retraces his path to where he might have dropped the mailbag, he stops and enters the Hatburns' home, where he sees it lying on the floor.

Richard Barthelmess stars in 1921's silent film, Tol'able David

True to his responsibility for delivering the mail, David has no intention of letting anything prevent him from retrieving the bag. Luke, however, is not about to let a little pip-squeak gain the slightest advantage. An epic fight (the Appalachian equivalent of the Biblical battle between David and Goliath) erupts during which Esther runs to town and mistakenly tells people that David has been killed.

The truth, however, is quite different. Despite being wounded, David manages to pull himself and the mailbag up onto the front seat of the hack and let the horse carry him back to town. With the local doctor on hand to administer first aid, he saves the day (and the mail). In the tearful eyes of his grateful mother and the rest of the townsfolk, he has truly become a man.

Henry King's riveting film is notable for two standout performances. Richard Barthelmess is nothing less than terrific in the title role. Of special interest is the fact that Ernest Torrence (who portrays the loathsome Luke), went to a music conservatory, earned a scholarship to London's Royal Academy of Music where he studied voice and piano, toured with the famous D'Oyly Carte Opera Company as a baritone, and appeared as Professor Moriarty in the 1932 film version of Sherlock Holmes!

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival's screening of Tol'able David was accompanied with gusto by Frederick Hodges, a pianist new to SFSFF's audience and a welcome addition to the festival's roster of musicians. Tol'able David can be viewed in its entirety in the following YouTube clip. It's one helluva movie.

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In anticipation of 2016's presidential election, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre staged a new adaptation of 1936's It Can't Happen Here (based on the frighteningly prescient novel by Sinclair Lewis). This fall, The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis joined forces with Berkeley Rep to co-produce a revival of 1941's Watch on the Rhine. As the company’s artistic director, Tony Taccone, states:
“Written in 1940 by the intrepid Lillian Hellman, the play feels both prescient and relatable; not simply because it describes a world caught up in the growing appeal of fascism, but because it captures the fragile nature of civility and the triumph of base, human impulses. Watch on the Rhine describes a moment in the life of a family when normalcy is shattered. Hellman is a master of unveiling complex behaviors, and it is her ability to fold dastardly deeds into the fabric of mundane life that marks her melodramatic genius. Her characters are utterly believable, taking extreme actions under the guise of quiet self-interest.”
Fanny's daughter, Sara (Sarah Agnew), arrives with her husband, Kurt
(Elijah Alexander) and their three children in a scene from
Watch on the Rhine (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“The fact that this play holds up almost 80 years after it was written is a testament to Hellman’s nuanced grasp of psychology and her understanding of American politics. The simple fact is that a new level of anxiety has embedded itself into our DNA. It hides in the lining of our intestinal walls, crouches behind the hairs on the back of our necks, and unfolds itself neatly into the creases of our brains. And there it waits, biding its time, looking for the right moment to explode into our everyday reality and destroy any illusion of normalcy. It’s hard to stay calm.”
Sarah Agnew (Sara), Caitlin O'Connell (Fanny), and Elijah Alexander
(Kurt) in a scene from Watch on the Rhine (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Hellman's play begins early one morning as Fanny Farrelly nervously awaits the arrival of her daughter and grandchildren inside her mansion in the nation's capitol. A wealthy widow who, in addition to being a control freak, relishes gossip and loves to be the center of attention, Fanny is used to getting her way. Despite the gentle efforts of her son, David (Hugh Kennedy), her butler, Joseph (James Detmar), and her housekeeper, Anise (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), to keep Fanny from acting like an insufferable diva, this is a women who is easily agitated if anyone sleeps late, wants to eat their breakfast when she is not at the table, or callously reminds her that no amount of worrying will make the clock move any faster.

Caitlin O'Connell (Fanny) and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong (Anise)
in a scene from Watch on the Rhine (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Not having seen his sister in twenty years, David is also nervous about her impending return to Washington. But soon after Sara (Sarah Agnew) shows up with her husband and three children, it becomes obvious that their lifestyles are radically different from that of the pampered Fanny. The simple fact that they have arrived at her house without fanfare several hours before they were scheduled to debark from a train at Union Station ruins Fanny's plan to stage a grand welcome. Although her grandchildren are tidy and obedient (and in awe of the bathroom amenities in their grandmother's house), they seem strangely grateful for any food offered to them.

The oldest child, Joshua (Silas Sellnow), is clearly devoted to his father and careful to keep his siblings in line while the youngest, Bodo (Jonah Horowitz), is at that precious age where his observations are vocalized without any filter. Fanny may be impressed by Joshua and his sister, Babette (Emma Curtin), but is not quite sure how to cope with Bodo's unnerving frankness.

Jonathan Walker as the villainous Teck De Brancovis in a
scene from Watch on the Rhine (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

An obviously unhappy married couple has been staying with Fanny for several months. Marte (Kate Guentzel) is the daughter of one of her hostess's closest friends when Fanny and her husband lived in Europe. Marte's husband, Teck De Brancovis (Jonathan Walker), married her for financial reasons while Marte got a royal title out of the wedding. Although they try to maintain an air of civility, a mounting pile of bills makes it obvious that these so-called "royals" are broke.

Kate Guentzel (Marte) and Hugh Kennedy (David) in a
scene from Watch on the Rhine (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As Watch on the Rhine gathers momentum under Lisa Peterson's sensitive direction, Hellman's subplots start to emerge:
  • Kurt and Teck are each hiding the kind of political secrets which can transform them into desperate men.
  • A curiously intimate friendship has developed between Marte and David.
  • There are dark reasons why Sara and her family have frequently been out of touch with Fanny.
  • The time has come for Fanny to check her privilege and accept the fact that there is more to life than idle gossip.
As Peterson explains:
“So much of the play is about privileged Americans who are educated and progressive but, in the world of the play, have not yet invested very much in finding out what is happening in Europe. In this play, the good guy is imperfect and the bad guy is complicated. Although there are clear moralities, it’s not black and white -- nobody is sure what to do. Watch on the Rhine is absolutely a play about waking up from your own bubble and looking out beyond yourself to see what’s happening in the world. This play is about that moment right before America decided to get involved.”
The play's action takes place within a stately living room designed in subdued colors by Neil Patel (with lighting by Alexander V. Nichols, costumes by Raquel Barreto, and sound design by Paul James Prendergast). While much of it is a showcase for Caitlin O'Connell (Fanny), there are some powerful moments for Elijah Alexander, who portrays her anti-fascist son-in-law, Luke. Jonah Horowitz (Bodo) and Sara Agnew (Sarah) score strongly with the audience, with Kate Guenzel drawing sympathy as a woman forced into an arranged marriage with a loveless creep.

The true star of the evening, however, is the playwright. Known for her razor-sharp wit and dramatic strengths, Hellman's timely political thriller reminds audiences what great writing can accomplish. Since contemporary audiences rarely get to experience an old-fashioned three-act drama, this production offers a welcome opportunity to bask in the craft of a classically well-made play with the same kind of admiration one might feel for a beautifully restored vintage automobile. Performances of Watch on the Rhine continue through January 14 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets).

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