Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Nevertheless They Persisted

Americans are currently getting a humiliating lesson in ballroom dancing. Not the graceful kind which includes tangos, sambas, waltzes, and jitterbug, but the kind found in Bizarro comic books. They're learning all about the "social justice stomp" and the "aborted cha-cha" (in which, instead of counting 1-2, 1-2-3, the dancers take two small steps forward and one giant step backward).

Steve Bannon's perverse goals of deconstructing government (combined with Donald Trump's spiteful, Neanderthal behavior) have resulted in appointing greedy and mostly incompetent people to head the governmental departments they deeply loathe. In Trump's relatively short time in office, pathetic levels of poisonous patriarchy, white supremacy, domestic terrorism, and willful ignorance have ridden into the spotlight on the cruelly conniving shoulders of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia. Witnessing such dickish deeds justified by Dickensian decrees aimed at demoralizing the public is hardly an uplifting experience.

Thanks to the Trump administration's callous and calculated plan to purge the nation of Planned Parenthood, illegal immigrants, LGBT rights, and a healthy environment (not to mention Paul Ryan's abortive attempt to cram the nightmarish American Health Care Act down Congress's throat), a nation founded on the basis of liberty, equality, and justice for all has abandoned the high moral ground from which it inspired people around the world. As Trump's sneering supporters salivate over the brutality of the sabotage they have enabled, millions more level-headed citizens are left to mourn the trampling of ideas and ideals they were raised to cherish.

So here's to the ladies who launch new initiatives, starting with a Hawaiian grandmother named Teresa Shook, the retired lawyer from Indiana who started a Facebook event page that led to America's largest single-day event and inspired similar marches in other nations. Here's to Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Patty Murray -- who continue to fight for women's rights and for the LGBT community.

And here's to all the members of America's theatre community who, rather than seeking the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting, have doubled down on their efforts to celebrate diversity and educate their audiences through consciousness-raising experiences about the phenomenon of nonbinary gender identities.

Two controversial looks at how traditional gender roles clash with natural expressions of gender identity are currently on display before Bay area audiences. One is an exceptional world premiere production of a drama that deserves to be staged by theatre companies around the world. The other revisits a play which caused quite a ruckus following its world premiere in Copenhagen on December 21, 1879 (137 years ago).

As the old saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same!"

* * * * * * * * *
In George Bernard Shaw's social comedy, Pygmalion (which became the source for 1956's hit musical, My Fair Lady), Eliza Doolittle undergoes a transformation which allows her to rise above her social class by dropping her Cockney accent and learning how to speak proper English. After being taken to a high society event where she performs flawlessly, Eliza realizes that she has merely been used as a toy by Professor Higgins and cries "What about me? What's to become of me?"

Later in the play, when Higgins and Colonel Pickering visit Higgins's mother at her home, Eliza tells Colonel Pickering one of the main reasons why she left the security of a pampered life at 27-A Wimpole Street.
"You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will."
It's no secret that Shaw was deeply impressed by Henrik Ibsen's play, A Doll's House, when he first saw it performed. Although Ibsen's writing may seem rather stilted and clinical to a modern audience, the gender politics underlying Nora's decision to rebel against her husband have never lost their power. Consider this clip from a 1973 film adaptation of Ibsen's play in which Jane Fonda portrays Nora opposite David Warner's Torvald:

When Shotgun Players announced that it would be staging A Doll's House using Ingmar Bergman's pared-down script (translated by Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker), director Beth Wilmurt had a specific concept in mind.

Ibsen stressed that he did not write A Doll's House to consciously support any women's rights movement but, instead, to invite audiences to consider deeper issues of humanity in a society wherein women's roles were so totally (and patronizingly) defined by men. As the play begins, the audience sees Nora (Jessma Evans) coming home with a shopping bag full of items she has purchased. Even though her husband, Torvald (Kevin Kemp), has recently been promoted to the position of bank manager, they have been living a spartan existence for quite some time and seem to be free of any personal debts. Or are they?

Torvald has no idea of the extreme measures Nora undertook to finance a year's sabbatical in Italy for their family while her husband recuperated from an illness. Oblivious to the fact that his good friend, Dr. Rank (Michael J. Asberry), is deeply in love with Nora, Torvald is equally clueless that one of the bank's current employees, Nils Krogstad (Adam Elder), might have cause to blackmail its new manager.

Kevin Kemp (Torvald) and Jessma Evans (Nora) in a
scene from Ingmar Bergman's Nora (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Nora's carefully woven web of lies starts to unravel with the arrival of Christine Linde (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), an old friend from days gone by who, after several years spent living abroad, has returned to town as a widow. While Nora babbles on about the superficial sacrifices she must make in order to survive, Christine calmly explains the much harsher realities she faced after her husband's death left her without any income.

Christine hopes that Nora can put in a good word with Torvald (who might be able to hire Christine for a job at the bank). Although Torvald is agreeable to Nora's suggestion, he has no idea that by replacing Krogstad (a single father who already fears that he might lose his job) with Christine, he could open up an old wound between two former lovers. As relationships go, it's complicated.

The cast of Nora at Shotgun Players (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Working on Maya Linke's stark yet oddly surprising unit set (with costumes by Maggie Whitaker), Wilmurt's ensemble underplays much of the performance. As one might expect in a 19th-century male-dominated society where women are basically seen as support staff whose role it is to bear children for their husbands and not bother their pretty little minds with weighty thoughts, Nora's insatiable curiosity causes problems in her marriage.

Having acted independently of her husband when she finagled the funds to pay for their year in Italy, Nora has developed a taste for business deals and the financial rewards they can bring. With payments coming due on her promissory note, she must now find a way to come up with some cash without arousing Torvald's suspicions.

Like many a banker, Torvald is a control freak and, like many husbands, he can be incredibly condescending to "the little woman" who is his wife. When A Doll's House was first produced in theatres across Europe, it created quite a scandal. Some actresses refused to portray a character who would desert her husband and abandon their children for such selfish reasons. However, with sound design by Matt Stines that provides a steady undercurrent of suspense, Nora's determination to stand up for own needs seems strikingly modern (think credit card debt, pussy hats, and social networking).

Poster art for the Shotgun Players production of Nora

As I left the theatre on opening night, I couldn't help thinking of how Nora's angst reminded me of Charity Hope Valentine's burning question: "Where Am I Going?"

Performances of Nora continue at the Shotgun Players in Berkeley through April 16 (click here for tickets).

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In 1983, the musical adaptation of La Cage aux Folles opened on Broadway at the Palace Theatre with a cast headed by Gene Barry as Georges and George Hearn as Albin. With the AIDS epidemic rapidly spreading out of control, increased levels of homophobia could be felt throughout the country. As a result, Albin's Act I finale ("I Am What I Am") became a popular anthem for the LGBT community.

Although La Cage aux Folles returned to Broadway in 2004 and 2010, it wasn't until February 15, 2011, when Harvey Fierstein took over the role of Albin, that audiences saw the show's librettist bring his unique personality and voice to the role.

Whereas "I Am What I Am" took on special meaning for LGBT people struggling to come out of the closet (as well as those who were fighting for their lives), it's important to remember that back in 1983 there was very little attention devoted to transgender people in the gay movement. In 2007, when Democrats were trying to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Barney Frank (along with Representatives George Miller and Tammy Baldwin) realized that they would not be able to secure enough votes for the bill if gender identity (as well as sexual orientation) could be used as a qualifying factor in determining whether or not a person had been discriminated against.

The bill (minus the term "gender identity") passed in the House of Representatives, but died in the Senate (President George W. Bush had vowed to veto it if it reached his desk). Despite the support of President Obama, subsequent versions of the bill that were introduced in 2009, 2011, and 2013 with "gender identity" in the text failed to make it to the Oval Office for signing.

With the current wave of transphobia spiked by "bathroom bills" in North Carolina and other states, it seems likely that "I Am What I Am" could become an anthem for a new generation of LGBT people, with a specific emphasis on the trans community. That's only part of why the New Conservatory Theatre Center's world premiere production of Everything That's Beautiful is so timely. It also happens to be a damned good play.

William Giammona (Luke), Dana Zook (Jess), and Mattea Fountain
(Morgan) in a scene from Everything That's Beautiful
(Photo by: Lois Tema) 

The protagonist of Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's powerful drama is eight-year-old Morgan (Mattea Fountain), who was born as a boy but is determined to live as a girl. Morgan's hatred of his penis has already manifested itself in disturbing behavior, such as using a cigarette lighter to disfigure all of his GI Joe dolls.

In order to protect their child and give Morgan the best possible chance to grow up without being constantly judged by everyone, Luke (William Giammona) and Jess (Dana Zook) have made the decision to sell their home in a small town in Pennsylvania and move to New York City. While Morgan is delighted with their plans, her 15-year-old brother, Theo (Nick Moore), resents having to leave his friends behind and play second fiddle to Morgan's situation.

Theo (Nick Moore) and Morgan (Mattea Fountain) in a scene
from Everything That's Beautiful (Photo by: Lois Tema)

The transition to life in a big city proves to be a lot tougher than expected. In addition to moving from a house to a small apartment, the higher cost of living forces Jess to seek out waitress work in a cafe while Luke ends up doing maintenance work for a seaside water park that includes a Mermaid show. While Jess is eager to make contact with Dr. Miller (Tim Huls), a family counselor with a specialty in working with families who have transgender children, Luke fails to show up for their initial appointment.

An attempt to teach Morgan how to swim leads to a chance meeting between Luke and one of the mermaids who is working at the water park as a summer job. While Gaby (April Deutschle) is more than happy to work with Morgan, she also attracts the attention of the child's father. Meanwhile, a shy conservative consultant named Will (also played by Tim Huls) has been trying to strike up a friendship with Jess at the cafe while he struggles to get up the courage to ask her out on a date.

Tim Huls (Will) and Dana Zook (Jess) in a scene from
Everything That's Beautiful (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

A near-fatal accident puts the family into crisis mode, with plenty of blame to go all around. When Luke finally gets up the courage to visit Dr. Miller,  he's surprised to discover that the psychologist had a brother who was transgender. As they start to work on Luke's feelings of shame as a man and the loss of the son he will no longer have, Luke also starts to work toward bringing his family back together. Through it all, the resilience of a small child proves to be the key factor which can strengthen the family and point them down a path toward healing their emotional wounds (like many LGBT people, Morgan often seems wise beyond her years).

William Giammona (Luke) and April Deutschle (Gaby) in a scene
from Everything That's Beautiful (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Everything That’s Beautiful was developed as part of NCTC’s New Play Development Lab and directed with compelling sensitivity by the company's Artistic Director, Ed Decker. The production boasts a unique, colorful, and ingeniously designed unit set by Devin Kasper along with costumes (including a mermaid outfit) by Jorge R. Hernandez. Virginia Herbert's lighting and Sara Witsch's sound design (lots of bubbling water) go a long way toward creating a unique ambiance for Wilder's smartly written and beautifully performed drama.

Morgan (Mattea Fountain) learns how to swim like a mermaid in
a scene from Everything That's Beautiful (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

This is a stunning and extremely timely new work which should have a long life in regional theatres. There isn't a weak link in the cast of Everything That's Beautiful, which continues through April 23 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets).  I can't recommend this play strongly enough!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Desperate times call for desperate measures, which is why so many people go looking for answers in all the wrong places. Professional athletes often credit God with having helped them score a win. During the 1970s, an extremely religious tenor making his San Francisco Opera debut told General Director Kurt Herbert Adler prior to the opening night performance that "It's all in God's hands now." Adler's curt response? "Let's hope he knows the score better than you do!"

When push comes to shove, people put their faith in all kinds of miracles, hoping that a prayer, an amulet, or some other kind of talisman will bring them luck. Whether telling a fellow cast member to "break a leg," muttering "In bocca al lupo," or spitting out the words "Toi Toi Toi!" before a performance, all kinds of backstage traditions get their due.

Communicating with real or imagined spirits is a display of faith that often finds its way into song. From the doomed Marguerite's "Anges! Anges radieux! Portez mon âme au sein des cieux!" during the finale of Gounod's Faust (1859) and Leonora's plaintive "La vergine degli angeli" in Verdi's La Forza del Destino (1862) to Aida's "Numi pieta" and Blanche's 11 o'clock number in Francis Poulenc's 1957 opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites ("Veni Creator Spiritus"), many a doomed soprano has been known to lift her voice in prayer. During a rare performance of Tancredi at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1989, a friend told me during intermission that despite her deep admiration for Rossini scholar Philip Gossett, "If that broad gets down on her knees and starts praying one more time, I'm walking up the aisle!"

It isn't just the women who seek out divine intervention. From Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls to Tevye the Dairyman in Fiddler on the Roof, from Jean Valjean in Les Misérables to Dr. Mark Bruckner in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, desperate men can be heard begging for help.

Two recent tales show desperate souls seeking desperate favors from the living as well as the dead. While one is a documentary about a circus performer, the other involves a long-dead journalist who wrote about America's celebrity circus long before bloggers and reality television became dominant forces in the entertainment industry.

* * * * * * * * *
With the recent announcement that, after 146 years in business, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will shut down operations in May of 2017, a small-scale, low-key documentary entitled Mister Universo (which will be screened during the 60th annual San Francisco International Film Festival) takes on added significance.

Poster art for Mister Universo

The film's protagonist is a young lion tamer named Tairo Caroli, who finds himself in an unusual predicament. When Tairo was a child, his parents took him to a circus where Arthur Robin (the first black man to win the Mr. Universe title) was performing feats of strength. When Tairo was brought backstage after the show and introduced to the man who would soon become his hero, Robin bent a piece of steel right before the impressionable boy's eyes and gave it to him as a gift. That piece of steel became a talisman for Tairo, a good luck charm he has kissed before each and every performance.

Tairo Caroli with Cratos in a scene from Mister Universo

As the film begins, Tairo is facing a string of disappointments. One of his female lions is too old to do tricks. The male, Cratos, is acting too aggressively to perform. After discovering that someone has stolen his good luck charm from his circus trailer, Tairo feels spooked.

With ticket sales down and Cratos too dangerous to play with, Tairo sets off on a trip to visit old friends and relatives in the hope that they can help him find Arthur Robin. His goal? To ask the strongman to bend another piece of steel for him which can replace the missing talisman.

Tairo Caroli in a scene from Mister Universo

Many of the circus veterans Tairo visits have fond memories of working with the affable black bodybuilder, but are not sure where he is working -- or if he is even still alive. But eventually, Tairo tracks his hero down to an animal circus that has shut down for the winter. When the young man is reunited with his idol, Arthur is more than happy to do some bench presses before indulging Tairo's fantasy, Unfortunately, the passage of time is unavoidable. As filmmakers Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel explain:
“Arthur is a former Mr. Universe whom we met 18 years ago. In the early days, he had lots of film offers, but turned them all down because he had commitments in the circus. He took his fate into its own hands even as a young man. He only had one aim in life (to become Mr. Universe) and succeeded by means of hard work. Working on a film like ours meant leaving his protected space, so he thought about it for a long time before deciding he wanted to try it (at the age of 88). Today, he is a happy person, but it’s easier to believe that his fate is determined by other forces, such as a talisman.”
Former Mr. Universe, Arthur Robin, in a scene from Mister Universo

Meanwhile, back at the circus, Tairo's close friend, Wendy Weber, has been visiting with colleagues who can read Tarot cards to predict Tairo's luck. An aging dancer and contortionist, Wendy still appears on a regular basis although she knows that, at some point, her body's diminishing flexibility will force her to stop performing.

Wendy Weber in a scene from Mister Universo

While some viewers might find Mister Universo a bit too tame for their tastes, the filmmakers point to an underlying story about the creative process which no one really wants to talk about.
“We use a copying facility in Rome where great Italian films were created decades ago. We were shown the room where the negative cutters used to sit. There are at least 40 workplaces. All of them are empty now. It’s hard to imagine what has been lost in terms of qualification and passion. The old female chimpanzee, Lola (who worked with great directors like Fellini), really is a witness to a lost world of cinema that will never exist in that form again. Huge numbers of copying facilities all around the world have closed down over the last few years because of the digitalization of the cinema. That doesn’t just mean the jobs have been lost, but that knowledge you can only obtain by experience has been lost forever. A few analog copying facilities will survive. Maybe one or two in Italy will survive. Maybe one in Germany. And archive copies will still be created on celluloid for a long time.”
Unlike many cause-related documentaries, there is no clash of interests in Mister Universo. Nor is there any real suspense. This is simply a film about a boy who met Mr. Universe and, 15 years later, tracks him down in the hope that an aging athlete can replace the good luck charm he made for Tairo back when the future lion tamer was an impressionable child. Here's the trailer.

* * * * * * * * *
The passions of youth often lead toward extreme melodrama. Whether they involve having a crush on an object of one's unwanted affection, going into full-fan mode over a popular performer, or believing that the crisis of the day requires some kind of artistic statement from your adolescent self, as one looks back at certain moments of acting out from an emotional distance of 50 years or so, it's hard not to chuckle.

For example, in October 1962, during the global tensions surrounding the Cuban missile crisis, I was old enough to go to the theatre by myself. At 15, I had no trouble navigating New York's transit system and had learned how to score cheap seats for certain shows. Determined that if the world should come to an end I wanted to die in a Broadway theatre, I purchased a standing room ticket for a Saturday matinee of Camelot in the final months of its run. The show's original stars (Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet, Roddy McDowall, and Robert Coote had all left the production by that time and the show was in the hands of William Squire (King Arthur), Kathryn Grayson (Guinevere), Robert Peterson (Lancelot du Lac), John Cullum (Mordred), and Arthur Treacher (King Pellinore).

When I emerged from the Majestic Theatre later that afternoon, the sun was still in the sky, pigeons were still afoot, and life went on. The intense emotions that had made attending a mediocre matinee of a mediocre musical feel so urgent subsided and I took the subway back to Brooklyn.

That kind of intense (and intensely misguided) passion lies at the core of Allison Page's new play, Kilgallen Jones, which recently received its world premiere production at the EXIT Theatre. Although I've admired Page's writing on many occasions, this was one instance where what ended up onstage seemed more like an idea in search of a play rather than a finished product. Part of that may be due to the structure of the drama, part of it may be due to Ellery Schaar's disappointing direction. A good part of it is due to the cast. Let me explain.

Poster art for Kilgallen Jones

The stage is basically divided into two areas of action. On the left is the kind of basement/den area found in many suburban homes (and a few television sitcoms). Its denizens are three Millennials who have been best friends for most of their lives and are now enrolled in a community college in Cleveland, Ohio.
  • Alexis Jones (Sarah Brazier) is a diehard fan of the whodunit genre. She is also a troubled 19-year-old with a strong personality who hates her mother (who has been institutionalized) and whose best friend's mother has taken her in and allowed her to live in their basement as long as she attends her classes.
  • Rae (Lauren Garcia) is Alexis's best friend, who is much more of a loyal follower than a leader.
  • Gordo (George Coker) is their nerdy male friend who has an insatiable craving for junk food.
Sarah Brazier, Lauren Garcia, and George Coker in a scene
from Kilgallen Jones (Photo by: Stephanie Renee Wozniak)  

With the deadline for an assignment looming over her head, Alexis is trying to find a murder to write about (preferably one she does not know) when the three friends stumble across the story of Dorothy Kilgallen's mysterious death on November 8, 1965. Older members of the audience will probably remember Kilgallen's heydey as a journalist with a specialty in celebrity gossip. Many will also remember her as one of the long-time panelists on What's My Line?

As a journalist, Kilgallen gained fame for her syndicated column, "The Voice of Broadway," but also wrote about politics, organized crime, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. While she made a lot of friends in show business (and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of Queen Elizabeth's coronation), she also pissed off a few famous people (most notably Frank Sinatra).

Although the autopsy attributed Kilgallen's death to an overdose caused by a fatal combination of drugs and alcohol, Kilgallen's fascinating backstory inspires Alexis to launch a podcast. Hoping to copy the style of Sarah Koenig's success with "Serial," she names her podcast "Sequential." Her clumsily articulated goals are to (a) make her podcast go viral as a means of attracting advertising, and (b) solve the mystery surrounding Kilgallen's death 52 years ago.

On the opposite side of Mary Naughton's unit set is a mockup of Kilgallen's office, in which a somewhat loopy embodiment of the long-deceased journalist makes several ghostly appearances that fan the flames of Alexis's imagination and lead the increasingly sleep-deprived and obsessive teenager to fantasize about conspiracy theories like a Millennial version of Alex Jones. Convinced that she can find the secret to Kilgallen's death by adhering to "Dorothy's Code of Conduct," Alexis plods down a frenzied path to delusional behavior until, in a moment of acute paranoia, she stabs Gordo as he enters the basement where Alexis is conducting her podcast.

Sarah Brazier as Alexis Jones in Kilgallen Jones
(Photo by: Stephanie Renee Wozniak)

In her program note, playwright Allison Page writes:
“In the early 1960s, crime writing was serious business. Nobody took it more seriously than journalist, gossip columnist, and television personality Dorothy Kilgallen. I began reading about her several years ago and was absolutely enthralled. While I am definitely a true crime fanatic, I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist. My admiration for Dorothy (her work, her ambition, her unwillingness to bow down to anyone’s idea of who or what she should be), connects me to her in a way which cannot be overshadowed by the story of her death and the notion of ‘solving’ it. I often wonder, as someone who tirelessly dug into the deaths of others -- and sought justice -- what she would make (52 years after her own death) of all the attempts to understand the end of her life. We’ll never have an answer to that, of course, but I must say, if she had seen and hated this play I’m confident she’d have written the best takedown possible. And I love that, too.”
As a critic, I didn't hate Kilgallen Jones so much as I thought it was a schizophrenic mess. While the audience (many of whom were friends and supporters from the local theatre community) howled with laughter at each eye roll and and innocuous gesture by a member of the cast, the show's basic weaknesses were pretty obvious.
  • The three young actors portraying Alexis, Rae, and Gordo all suffered from extremely poor diction which (even in such a small playing space as the EXIT Theatre) made many lines incomprehensible.
  • Ellery Schaar's stage direction seemed exceptionally weak, with little sense of pacing.
  • Three Millennials sitting on a couch and watching television does not necessarily make for great theatre.
The evening's saving grace was Marie O'Donnell's droll, gin-thirsty performance as Kilgallen. Alternately belittling, baiting, and bewildering Alexis with clues and conundrums from another time and place, O'Donnell's characterization was far more interesting than anything else happening onstage.

Marie O'Donnell as Dorothy Kilgallen in Kilgallen Jones
(Photo by: Stephanie Renee Wozniak)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Look Back In Rancor

Ask yourself two simple questions. Have you ever said anything you've lived to regret? Have you ever wished you could travel back in time to undo a horrible mistake? If your answer to either question is "no," you're either lying or in a state of deep denial.

Some songs are written to capture a person's thoughts upon looking back at their path in life. Two of the 20th century's most famous anthems of defiance quickly come to mind:

Other songwriters have taken a more wistful, even regretful, look at past relationships. Consider two numbers written by Jerry Herman in the 1960s: "If He Walked Into My Life" (from 1966's Mame) and a sadly neglected song from 1969's Dear World entitled "And I Was Beautiful."

Two recent productions of "flashback" dramas were recently unveiled before Bay area audiences. One was a world premiere about a famous African American singer and cabaret artist; the other about a revolutionary filmmaker whose contributions to her craft were dwarfed by the politics of her colleagues.

Both of these women lived long lives and enjoyed success in multiple areas of the arts. One eventually came around to acknowledging the lover she had hurt so deeply while trying to maintain control over her career. The other showed no intention of yielding to criticism or showing any kind of grace.

* * * * * * * * *
Back in my college days, I took a course in film appreciation which, unfortunately, began early in the morning. As soon as the lights were turned off, half the class went back to sleep. On rare occasions, the film or its soundtrack were compelling enough to keep people alert and focused on what they were watching. That course was where I fell in love with Ottorino Respighi's 1924 symphonic poem, "The Pines of Rome," and was first exposed to the cinematic art of Leni Riefenstahl.

Since I was just getting in touch with my sexuality at the time, it's no surprise that Respighi's orgasmic musical climaxes and Riefenstahl's softcore masculine eye candy left an indelible impression on me. As Wikipedia notes:
"She was one of the first filmmakers to use tracking shots in a documentary, placing a camera on rails to follow the athletes' movement. The film is also noted for its slow motion shots. Riefenstahl played with the idea of slow motion, underwater diving shots, extremely high and low shooting angles, panoramic aerial shots, and tracking system shots for allowing fast action. Many of these shots were relatively unheard of at the time, but Leni’s use and augmentation of them set a standard, and is the reason why they are still used to this day. Riefenstahl's work on Olympia has been cited as a major influence in modern sports photography. Riefenstahl filmed competitors of all races, including African-American Jesse Owens in what later became famous footage."

Born on August 22, 1902, Riefenstahl excelled at gymnastics, swimming, and dancing, in her youth. While remembered primarily for her work as a filmmaker and Nazi propagandist (she appeared on a 1936 cover of Time magazine), later in life Leni published several books featuring her pictures of the Nuba tribes in Africa. She also photographed celebrities ranging from Mick and Bianca Jagger to Siegfried and Roy.

Although her first film was 1932's The Blue Light -- and Olympia premiered on April 20, 1938 (Hitler's 49th birthday) --  Riefenstahl's labor of love was based on Tiefland (Hitler's favorite opera), which received its much-delayed world premiere in Stuttgart on February 11, 1954. Film critic Pauline Kael labeled Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Olympia as "the two greatest films ever directed by a woman."

Martha Brigham in a scene from Leni (Photo by: David Allen) 

Despite her friendships with such prominent Nazis as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, throughout her life Riefenstahl (who would later become a member of Greenpeace) denied having any true knowledge of the Holocaust. Some found her stance astonishing considering how, in 1942, she cast some extras from a group of gypsies in a detention camp while filming Tiefland.

Following World War II and while working in John Ford's film unit for the Office of Strategic Services, author Budd Schulberg (who wrote What Makes Sammy Run? as well as the screenplays for On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd) was given the assignment to arrest Riefenstahl in Kitzbühel, where she was staying at her chalet. As he later recalled, "She gave me the usual song and dance. She said, 'Of course, you know, I'm really so misunderstood. I'm not political.'" And yet, in the memoir she published in 1987, Leni described being deeply impressed by Hitler's talent as a public speaker when she first heard him address a live audience at a 1932 rally.
"I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget. It seemed as if the Earth's surface were spreading out in front of me, like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth."
Stacy Ross as Helene in Leni (Photo by: David Allen) 

The Aurora Theatre Company is currently presenting Sarah Greenman's intimate one-act drama entitled Leni in its black box theatre in a compelling production magnificently directed by Jon Tracy. With a simple unit set designed by Nina Ball, costumes by Maggie Whitaker, and highly effective lighting by Kurt Landisman, the production also benefits from Teddy Hulsker's sound and video design.

Greenman's play depicts a tug-of-war between the young Leni (Martha Brigham) and the older Leni/Helene (Stacy Ross) as they attempt to shoot, reshoot, and edit scenes from Riefenstahl's past. The script does an excellent job of capturing the filmmaker's youthful zeal in seeking the funding that will allow her to fulfill her artistic vision as well as a sense of artistic responsibility that demands total control over both her creative process and the final product. Young Leni's stubbornness is counterbalanced by the older Leni's uncompromising narcissism and insistence that her work was all about art and was never meant to be used as propaganda.

Stacy Ross and Martha Brigham in a scene from Leni
(Photo by: David Allen)

Sarah Greenman came up with a wonderful theatrical device that allows her to have old Leni and young Leni argue with each other as they try to work together. The play begins with Helene reading from her obituary in The New York Times following her death on September 8, 2003 at the age of 101. The play covers a lot of historical ground, including Leni's abortive trip to the United States (she arrived in New York five days before Kristallnacht, met with Henry Ford two weeks later in Detroit, and proceeded westward to Los Angeles, where she met with Louis B. Mayer and Walt Disney).

Martha Brigham and Stacy Ross in a scene from Leni
(Photo by: David Allen) 

While Greenman's plays offers Martha Brigham a chance to shine as the young Leni and Stacy Ross an opportunity to add another indelible portrait to her gallery of female rogues, the exquisite work by director Jon Tracy is what really anchors the piece. As Greenman takes care to note, nearly 80 years after the premiere of Olympia, Riefenstahl's aesthetic can still be seen in male fashion photography, Calvin Klein's advertising campaigns, and the tsunami of beefcake flooding the Internet.

Performances of Leni continue at the Aurora Theatre Company through May 7 (click here for tickets).

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In a collaboration with San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), New Conservatory Theatre Center is presenting the world premiere production of Jewelle Gomez's new play with music about the famous African American singer/songwriter, Alberta Hunter, entitled Leaving The Blues.

Michael Gene Sullivan, Desiree Rogers, and Matt Weimer
in a scene from Leaving The Blues (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Born on April 1, 1895, Hunter was raised by a mother who worked as a maid in a brothel. She began singing in a Memphis bordello and soon moved to Chicago, where her music first charmed audiences at a local whorehouse. As she continued to get bigger and better gigs from the Theatre Owners Booking Association, her fame continued to spread. Hunter's career took her into many different areas of show business, ranging from vaudeville to performing in world-famous concert halls.

Gomez's play adds to the roster of works inspired by Hunter's life. These include a 1988 made-for-television movie entitled Alberta Hunter: My Castle's Rockin' (written by Chris Albertson and narrated by pianist Billy Taylor) and a biographical musical by Marion J. Caffey entitled Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter, which starred Ernestine Jackson.

Leaving The Blues begins as Hunter (played by Desiree Rogers) is seen in a nurse's uniform by a patient's bedside. After being forced into retirement, she is visited by the spirit of the famous vaudeville comedian, Bert Williams (Michael Gene Sullivan), whose niece (Lottie Tyler) was Hunter's lover in the years when Alberta's career was taking off.

Leontyne Mbele-Mbong and Desiree Rogers in a scene 
from Leaving The Blues (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Back in those days, Hunter was managing her own career and didn't dare give the press any excuse to malign her. As a result, she remained strictly closeted, never giving Lettie (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) the acknowledgment she craved. Instead, she fed the press a story about being pursued by a European count and worked closely with the two tap-dancing Calvino Cousins (played by Paul Collins and Anthony Rollins-Mullens), who were also gay.

Paul Collins, Jasmine Milan Williams, and Anthony Rollins-Mullens
in a scene from Leaving The Blues (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

As directed by Arturo Catricala, the curious thing about Leaving The Blues is that everyone other than Alberta Hunter gets to shine until the very end when, as Rogers puts on full makeup for her comeback at The Cookery, the lighting and costume come together to put a sparkle in Alberta's eyes that has been missing throughout much of the performance.

Desiree Rogers as Alberta Hunter in a scene
from Leaving The Blues (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Although she sings snippets of the "Darktown Strutters' Ball" and "My Handy Man," Rogers is forced to underplay Alberta through much of the evening, frequently ceding the spotlight to Michael Gene Sullivan, Paul Collins, and Anthony Rollins-Mullens. Jasmine Milan Williams and Tai Rockett shine in smaller, supporting roles.

Desiree Rogers, Tai Rockett, and Michael Gene Sullivan in 
a scene from Leaving The Blues (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Performances of Leaving the Blues continue at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through April 2 (click here for tickets).

Monday, March 20, 2017

Keep Calm and Take A Deep Breath

One of the inherent dangers of a worldview in which Trumpism is a dominating force is the tendency to think of every experience as having a binary or zero-sum outcome. If one stridently thinks of life in such terms, the results are often self-defeating. It's easy to fall back on questions like:
In a world in which choices are increasingly affected by algorithms, it's important to remember that random possibilities can create wondrous results. Multiple factors lead to the creation of an idea, which can then be interpreted, interpolated, and improved upon in any number of ways. All one has to do is look at the methods by which nature disperses seed and sperm in huge quantities compared to the number of eggs available for fertilization in order to realize that concepts spread along viral rather than linear paths. That's why, instead of merely settling for the best of both worlds, it's sometimes possible to imagine having the best of all possible worlds.

In classical music, a fugue is defined as a musical form in which a subject or theme is repeated either a fifth above or a fourth below its initial statement. While Johann Sebastian Bach was a master at creating fugues, the same technique can be applied to contemporary music. Consider Ernest Toch's famous Geographical Fugue for Spoken Chorus (which was first performed in 1930) and a fugal arrangement of Lady Gaga's 2009 hit song, "Bad Romance," as prime examples.

All kinds of rhythm, tonal inflections, and sound distortions can be used to color and bring life to the words contained in a playwright's script. One of the most thrilling and remarkable achievements in this type of composition is found in the opening scene of 1957's The Music Man. During the "Rock Island" number, Meredith Willson tailored the sounds coming from a chorus of traveling salesmen to match the rhythms of their train as it left a station in Illinois and headed toward River City, Iowa.

What happens when a playwright, director (or both working together) decide to push the pacing of the actors' speech to extremes? It's possible to create a performance filled with pregnant pauses or a situation in which actors are deliberately talking over each other and stepping on one another's lines. Both techniques are useful tools in creating and maintaining a specific kind of mood. While the results can be rewarding, they can also be extremely frustrating for audiences.

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In Jiehae Park's play, peerless, the overtalking is fast, furious, and intentionally cacophonous. Inspired by key plot points in Macbeth (as well as the bizarre history of the Gibbons twins), Park has taken solid aim at the challenges facing high school students who are under tremendous parental pressure to get into the college of their dreams. In a rabidly competitive environment where every possible asset must be ruthlessly manipulated in order to win, two sisters are determined to reach their goal at any cost. As dramaturg Laura A. Brueckner explains:
Peerless is not a direct adaptation of the Scottish play, but deftly activates its characters and themes to put a comic twist on, among other things, the spiraling cost of success in today’s America (especially for children of immigrant families). Asian-American identical twins M and L take the place of Shakespeare’s murderous married couple. The throne they seek is admission to The College, a notoriously exclusive Ivy League fantasy institution that takes one (and only one) ‘early decision’ student from their high school every year.”  
Tiffany Villarin and Rinabeth Apostol in a scene from peerless
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“To ensure that they both will be chosen, M and L move to the Midwest to appeal to admissions officers’ notions of ‘geographical diversity,’ register in different years to avoid competing against one another, and pursue academic excellence (and a superhuman schedule of outlandishly perfect extracurriculars) with the grim determination of generals taking a castle. With their goals, recommendations, stats, softs, outfits, smiles, and identities perfectly coordinated, their shot at the American Dream feels assured. When this shot is threatened, things swiftly spiral out of control.”
Rosie Hallett and Tiffany Villarin in a scene from peerless
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Whereas the characters in Macbeth are all adults, peerless is populated with precious post-pubescent problem children whose fragile egos, raging hormones, and limited attention spans turn them into walking time bombs. In an educational environment bedeviled by trigger warnings, nut allergies, raging insecurity, and a desperate hunger for approval, M and L (portrayed with grand gusto by Tiffany Villarin and Rinabeth Apostol) have no need for chemical stimulants like Red Bull (a popular, highly caffeinated energy drink) or advertising slogans like "Double your pleasure, double your fun with Doublemint, Doublemint, Doublemint gum!"

Tiffany Villarin and Rinabeth Apostol in a scene from peerless
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Because no adult authority figures ever appear onstage, one of the hidden assets of Park's play is its ability to create a kind of feral adolescent tension that, as the twins become more vicious and calculating, begins to suggest a female version of Lord of the Flies. The three other actors are:
Tiffany Villarin, Jeremy Kahn, and Rinabeth Apostol
in a scene from peerless (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Marin Theatre Company (which is presenting the West Coast premiere of peerless) has assembled a winning design team that includes costume designer Sydney Gallas, lighting designer Heather Basarab, and Kate Noll, whose unit set is more effective than one could ever anticipate upon entering the theatre. Under Margot Bordelon's aggressive direction, the five-actor ensemble deserves kudos for their comic timing, with special praise going to Rosie Hallett (who never fails to impress audiences with her versatility) and Jeremy Kahn, whose gift for broad physical comedy can steal any scene in any show, anytime, and anywhere.

Jeremy Kahn in a scene from peerless (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Because the action in peerless takes place at such a mind-blowing pace (with the twins often drowning each other out as they argue with each other), one can only sit back in awe of the fierce concentration and verbal virtuosity that allow Rinabeth Apostol and Tiffany Villarin to spit out Park's dialogue without going up on their lines or gasping for air. Their teamwork is astonishing to watch, even when their speech becomes intentionally incomprehensible.

In recent years, I've noticed a growing trend for playwrights to resort to overtalking as a theatrical device. Whether their intention is to create a heightened sense of how people no longer listen to one another during conversations or to allow each character's internal thoughts to become visible to the audience, I find the use of overtalking problematic on two levels. First, it makes it nearly impossible to ascertain who is saying what. Whether intentional or not, it also forces the audience to assume that the playwright's words are far less important than the noise being created by the actors.

Rinabeth Apostol and Tiffany Villarin in the Hoopcoming
scene from Peerless (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

To my mind, such carefully crafted moments of confusion are meant to distract from the text and focus one's attention on the competitive nature of a character's behavior, inherent rudeness, or what happens when people are so in love with the sound of their own voices that they insist on being heard above anyone else who is speaking. As a result, my reaction has often been to sit back, relax, and not even try to concentrate on what is being said.

If there are times when the sheer display of performance technique onstage (with particular emphasis on an actor's skills at memorization and rapid-fire delivery) dwarf Jiehae Park's written text, so be it. In the case of peerless, the overtalking broadens the play's entertainment level while putting a new framework around terrifying levels of teenage desperation.

Performances of peerless continue at the Marin Theatre Company through April 2 (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
No one tells a ghost story as fast as they possibly can. The idea is to build suspense by slowly making familiar objects and patterns of behavior seem eccentric and suspicious enough to make an audience believe that they might actually be dangerous. The reason that Annie Baker's play, John, requires three acts and three hours to tell its tale is the same reason that frogs don't mind being lulled to sleep in water whose temperature is slowly rising (rather than being thrown into a pot of boiling water).

A playwright wants an audience to be just comfortable enough to feel invested in his characters so that they will flinch when caught off guard and start looking for clues as to what could possibly go wrong. In her article entitled Terrifyingly Familiar, Elspeth Sweatman stresses that:
“The visual world of John is filled with eyes. There is a painting of a person named Eugenia on the wall, a picture of girls on a quilt, a doll in a rocking chair, and any number of gnomes, trolls, angel figurines, and tchotchkes on the shelves. Everywhere you look, there are eyes looking back at you. While figures with eyes can cause some uncertainty, there are also elements of the set that lead us to believe this world is populated by unseen entities that are watching. There are Christmas lights that flicker and a player piano that plays on its own. There is George (Mertis’s husband, who is always just offstage). There is the Jackson Room with its ‘temperamental’ nature and the looming presence of Gettysburg (widely considered to be one of the most haunted locations in the United States).”
Stacey Yen, Georgia Engel, and Joe Paulik
in a scene from John (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Each of the four characters that the audience meets harbors feelings of inadequacy and inconvenient truths they would rather keep hidden from strangers. They also represent two distinctly separate generations, whose histories and patterns of behavior are wildly different.

The young couple who drove down from New York to spend a weekend at a bed and breakfast near Gettysburg are easily recognizable as conflicted, but financially secure Millennials. Each makes steady use of their smartphone, wears comfortably nondescript clothing, and is frighteningly insecure.
  • Elias Schreiber-Hoffman (Joe Paulik) is a Civil War buff eager to tour the historic 19th-century battlefield and visit the Dobbin House (which features a diorama showing the crawl space used by slaves traveling the Underground Railroad). He is quick to accuse his Asian-American wife of making nasty little digs at him that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic and, like many young men, not in touch with his emotions. Elias lacks empathy, constantly worries that his wife is lying to him. and whenever he goes off of his medications, cruel and sadistic elements of his personality rise to the surface.
  • Jenny Chung (Stacey Yen) is much less interested in Civil War history and, with the onset of menstrual cramps, would prefer to stay in bed while Elias visits the local historical sites. Although she claims that the text messages she keeps receiving are from her sister (who is due to give birth soon), she also uses her phone to keep certain parts of her life to herself. As a rule, Jenny is much more conscious of (and insistent upon) maintaining personal boundaries than her husband, who turns into a pompous jackass when he's cranky. During a conversation with the two older women, she opens up about an orgasmic experience she once had that made her feel that she was in touch with the universe.
Stacey Yen and Joe Paulik in a scene from John 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The adults in the room have had much more life experience, found ways to cope with the loneliness and insults of old age, and learned how to build a lifestyle that embraces and supports their eccentricities.
  • Mertis (Georgia Engel) is the genial owner and hostess of the B&B where the Elias and Jenny have chosen to spend the weekend. Soft-spoken, eager to please, and radiating warmth, she has decorated the place with collections of plates, tchotchkes, and dolls, including the same Samantha Parkington doll (from the popular American Girl dolls) that terrorized Jenny in her youth. Mertis likes to use her powerful vocabulary to write descriptions of each day's sunset in her journal that include such words as "subfuscous." She is also fascinated by ornithology (birds scare Elias) and has recently learned all the words used to describe different groups of birds (ranging from a "deceit" of lapwings and an "exaltation" of larks to a "parliament" of owls and an "ostentation" of peacocks). Always curious to learn whether people feel they are being "watched," she describes herself as a Neo-Platonist rather than a Christian.
  • Genevieve (Ann McDonough) is Mertis's friend who claims to have lost her mind when she was 57. Blind, eccentric, and paranoid after many years of believing that her late husband was trying to control her mind from afar, Genevieve has the gift of being refreshingly blunt. About everything.
Ann McDonough, Joe Paulik, and Georgia Engel
in a scene from John (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

People who have seen lots of horror films may be tempted to draw a link between the Samantha doll and the Good Guy doll in the Child's Play franchise of "Chucky" films or to wonder if Genevieve is as innocent as Ruth Gordon's evil neighbor in 1968's hit, Rosemary's Baby. With the self-starting player piano, a Christmas tree whose lights keep flickering on and off, and Mertis's talent for resetting the time for each scene by advancing the hands on the grandfather clock that stands in the living room, it would be easy for audiences to wonder if:
  • The B&B's living room is an alternate setting for a regional production of The Nutcracker.
  • Mertis has superpowers that allow her to control time and the light streaming in through the windows as she resets the clock in her living room.
  • The place is haunted by a musical Phantom of the B&B who likes to switch on the piano player to scare the guests.
  • Mertis's husband is really ill or locked in a cage in the basement.
  • Margaret Rutherford (the original Miss Marple) might appear at any moment clutching a magnifying glass in one hand.
Joe Paulik and Stacey Yen in a scene from John
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

While more logical explanations might point to standard maintenance problems (such as a leak in the roof of the Jackson room, faulty wiring in the circuits used by the Christmas lights and player piano, or the playwright's use of simple theatrical gimmicks to spook the audience), Baker's play is much less about the hidden terrors within our minds than the accommodations older people must make to the necessities of staying alive.

With costumes by Jessie Amoroso, evocative lighting by Robert Hand, and some excellent sound design by Brendan Aanes, Ken Rus Schmoll has directed John with a great sense of dread, wit, and geriatric compassion. While the relationship between Elias and Jenny is obviously doomed, the sturdiness of the friendship between Mertis and Genevieve is reassuring and surprisingly tender. As the set designer for John's world premiere production, Marsha Ginsberg reveals that: "One thing we were not expecting during our research was how similar the Mertis character is to a lot of the innkeepers we met (they were all women)."

Georgia Engel in a scene from John (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

There is a surprisingly reassuring feel to Baker's old-fashioned play, which has received a beautiful production from American Conservatory Theater. While Joe Paulik and Stacey Yen have the most intense confrontations, Georgia Engel guides the evening with a gentle touch (including the parting and pulling of curtains). Ann McDonough steals the show with a delicious display of panache.

Performances of John continue at the Strand Theatre through April 23 (click here for tickets).