Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Raging Against The Machine

People often claim that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. However, they rarely discuss how those two issues affect the survivors whose lives revolved around the decedent. Two recent articles approached the process of death and dying from wildly opposite angles.
I always find it interesting how many references to nature appear in the way people talk about death. Some describe a person's final moments as "walking into the light" or "ascending to the heavens." Others describe the finality of death with references to "a flame being extinguished" or "a spirit that vanished into the night." Whether a person confesses to feeling "drained of all energy," "being swept up in a wave of emotion," or reminisces about the deceased's mercurial personality as something akin to "lightning in a bottle," a person's death is guaranteed to leave a vacuum in the lives of those left behind.

Some fight to keep the dead person's memory alive; others are suddenly charged with taking care of a surviving relative. Unfortunately, such responsibilities can be as frustrating as attempting to herd a group of cats; as exhausting as swimming against an undertow. As a result, one of the strangest priorities in the wake of a loved one's death is to avoid a double drowning.

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Based on a novel by Marie-Aude Murail, My Brother Simple starts off with a group of men standing on a raft as Ben (Frederick Lau) and John (David Berton) doff their shirts and have their chests greased up for an icy swim in the harbor. Their challenge is to retrieve a buoy that has been tossed into the water. The winner is Ben, who promptly uses his reward to purchase medicine for his pale, almost ashen mother (Anneke Kim Sarnau).

Although grateful for her son's devotion, Julia soon dies, leaving Ben distraught and seemingly saddled with the responsibility of caring for his younger brother, Barnabas (David Kross). The reason Barnabas is called Simple is because he is a hulking, strong 22-year-old autistic man with the mind of a three-year-old child, whose stuffed toy (a/k/a Mr. Rabbity Rabbit) serves as his security blanket.

Frederick Lau (Ben) and David Kross (Simple)
in a scene from My Brother Simple

The two brothers have always been extremely close, especially since they have not seen their absentee father, David (Devid Striesow), for 15 years. Ben still reads Simple's favorite children's book to his brother at bedtime and carries Simple on his back when ordinary activities (like boarding a bus) trigger a hysterical, fear-based tantrum.

Frederick Lau (Ben) and David Kross (Simple)
in a scene from My Brother Simple

Because David is listed as Simple's legal guardian, when informed of Julia's death, he doesn't hesitate to sign a document authorizing the police to place Simple in a group home with other developmentally disabled patients -- a move which would break the two brothers apart, but at least give Ben a chance to have a life of his own. When the police attempt to separate the two men, Simple starts to panic. Ben runs after the police van, rescues his brother, and the two men embark on a severely misguided adventure, hoping to fulfill a life-long dream of sailing around the world. Ben's secret goal is to find their estranged father in Hamburg so that they can live with David.

Frederick Lau (Ben) and David Kross (Simple)
in a scene from My Brother Simple

While their adventures may invoke memories of intensely dramatic road trip films like Rain Man or Thelma and Louise, My Brother Simple is never far from one of Simple's emotional meltdowns. Along the way, the brothers encounter:
  • Franciczek (Maxim Kovalevski), a sympathetic truck driver who overhears Simple arguing with Mr. Rabbity Rabbit in a Porta-Potty at a truck stop. He leaves the door to his truck's cab open for the two brothers and, once on the road, makes it clear to Ben that his son is also mentally challenged.
  • Enzo (Axel Stein) and Aria (Emilia Schüle), two emergency medical personnel who, having been on duty at a local event, give the two hitchhikers a ride to Hamburg.
  • A young girl with Down syndrome who lives in a group home and is celebrating her birthday with friends in a local park. When she offers Simple a piece of birthday cake, he happily joins her and falls in love.
  • Chantal (Annette Frier), a friendly prostitute who meets Simple at a bus stop where he is waiting for Ben. When an agitated Ben returns and gives Chantal some money to look after his brother for a while, Chantal takes Simple back to the brothel where she works. Not only does Simple get along fine with the other women, he has a great time as they dress him up to look like a street hooker.
David Kross (Simple) and Frederick Lau (Ben)
in a scene from My Brother Simple

Soon after their arrival in Hamburg, Aria allows the two brothers to stay at her apartment for a night. When Ben leaves his brother alone, Simple gets into all kinds of trouble which eventually leads Ben, Aria, and Enzo on a wild chase around the city. What Simple doesn't know is that Ben has finally made contact with David, who has been selling luxury automobiles in an upscale showroom and has apparently remarried and fathered two daughters.

Axel Stein (Enzo) and Emilia Schüle (Aria) perform surgery
on Mr. Rabbity Rabbit in a scene from My Brother Simple

With a screenplay by Dirk Ahner and Markus Goller, My Brother Simple (which will be screened at the upcoming Berlin and Beyond Film Festival) has been directed by Goller with impressive levels of irony, compassion, and dramatic tension. While Axel Stein, Emilia Schüle, Annette Frier, Maxim Kovalevski, Anneke Kim Sarnau, and Devid Striesow give strong performances in supporting roles, the brunt of the film rests on the shoulders of the two actors portraying the Kleeman brothers. Frederick Lau's Ben is a caring and determined older brother, desperately trying to hold things together as his life is held hostage by one crisis situation after another. The film is dominated by the brave and daring David Kross, whose whirlwind portrayal of Simple is a tour de force that should not be missed. Here's the trailer:

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San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center recently presented the world premiere of a new dramedy by Tim Pinckney. Tightly directed by Dennis Lichteig (with costumes by Jorge R. Hernandez, sound by Theodore J.H. Hulsker, and lighting by Maxx Kurzunski), the protagonist of Still At Risk is a gay man whose emotional wounds have never healed, leaving him perpetually angry at the world. Not only do people keep telling Kevin (Scott Cox) that he's become so irascible that he makes Larry Kramer seem sweet and docile, Kevin's tendency to vent his anger at old friends who might be able to help him leaves him in the unenviable position of being his own worst enemy.

Kevin's anger stems from events that happened in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when friends were dying all around him and his lover, Eric, dumped him for Christopher (Matt Weimer), a naive young Southern man who had just arrived in town and was much more enthusiastic and receptive to bottoming. While Eric was a passionate protester and strategist who did wonders to keep the Manhattan AIDS Project focused on its mission, he was (like Kramer) an obnoxious, confrontational soul whose talent with words burned a lot of bridges behind him. Eventually, the Board of Directors of the Manhattan AIDS Project cut its ties with Eric, who subsequently died of AIDS.

The cast of Still At Risk (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

As the play begins, the audience sees Marcus (William Giammona) having a phone conversation with a recent trick while someone keeps buzzing his doorbell. When he finally responds, he learns that Kevin is downstairs, in crisis mode, and needs to see Marcus immediately. While on his way to an audition, Kevin tripped, fell into a mud puddle, and desperately needs to borrow some clothing. After he showers and tries on some of the clothes belonging to Marcus's boyfriend, Luke, Kevin's rage takes over and he explains how angry he is at some news he has just heard via the gay grapevine.

J. Conrad Frank (Byron) and Scott Cox (Kevin) in
a scene from Still At Risk (Photo by: Lois Tema)

It turns out that the Manhattan AIDS Project is planning a gala fundraising event. Although the evening's theme honors MAP's founders, Eric's name is nowhere to be found in their plans or promotional literature. Incensed at the insult to Eric's memory, Kevin sets up a meeting with Byron (J. Conrad Frank), the organization's new Director of Development. A young, well-connected, and highly successful fundraiser who has left Hollywood for New York so he can "give back" by taking a high-paying job at a nonprofit, one of Byron's talents is massaging wounded egos. As Kevin waits for his face time with Byron, he encounters his old friend, Susan (Desiree Rogers), a lesbian who has since married a man, had a child, and is working as a freelance writer.

William Giammona (Marcus) and Desiree Rogers (Susan)
in a scene from Still At Risk (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Susan and Kevin both want something from Byron: She has an assignment to interview him for a puff piece in Pride magazine; he wants to convince Byron to include Eric's name as one of the evening's honorees. The difference is that, while Susan has learned how to be professional, tactful, and "attract more flies with honey," Kevin is still stuck in an emotional rut where the flies he attracts are more intrigued with his shit. As the playwright explains:
"I was working as an actor (and a waiter) when I found out that my best friend, David, had become HIV positive. This was when there was no hope and very few treatment options. I stopped auditioning because I didn’t want to go out of town and leave my friend -- we did not have a lot of time left. After David died, I lost eight more friends within two weeks. It was everywhere. Like so many others, I was furious, scared, and heartbroken. I stopped acting and went to work with new clients at Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The agency, at that time, was primarily made up of people like me who had quit their regular jobs and joined the fight. We became activists and caretakers. We became soldiers in this war."
J. Conrad Frank (Byron) and Matt Weimer (Christopher)
in a scene from Still At Risk (Photo by: Lois Tema)
"This hateful plague swept in and changed our lives in unimaginable ways. It was horrifying to see your circle of friends, lovers, and colleagues get smaller on a sometimes daily basis. But as we fought, we banded together, using our voices and our anger to bring about change. We cried and laughed together and created strong, compassionate families. Those relationships kept us going. They are the ones that continue to keep me going. The families we created are the true heart of this play. Still At Risk is the story of one person who went to war, survived, but lost his way. It is an incredibly personal story although Kevin’s journey is very different from mine. There are thousands upon thousands of survival stories from this plague. This is just one."
The cast of Still At Risk (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Ed Decker has assembled a uniformly strong ensemble, even if Scott Cox gets to handle most of the histrionics. Desiree Rogers is a tart-tongued Susan, who displays great skill at teasing Kevin with names weighty with gay trivia. J. Conrad Frank shines as the young Byron, who knows how to stay focused on raising money despite all sorts of petty annoyances. William Giammona's Marcus and Matt Weimer's Christopher bring a sense of maturity to the table as gay men who have survived the worst of the AIDS epidemic and managed to move on with their lives. I was especially impressed with Devin Kasper's simple, yet highly effective scenic elements. Dennis Lichteig's direction was spot on.

Part of what makes Pinckney's play so interesting is that a great deal of the humor is delivered by an acerbic lesbian (Susan) while Kevin continues to rage around the stage like the theatre's resident cyclone (it's not easy to write for a character whose relentless anger threatens to exhaust the audience). Performances of Still At Risk continue through February 25 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Struggling To Reach Out and Touch Someone

We see signs of alienation all around us. From people crossing busy intersections while looking down at their smartphones to the lonely teen who, during an interview, confesses that some day he'd like to learn how to have a conversation with another person in real time. From the people who keep swiping through profiles on Tinder and Grindr while muttering "Oh, yeah, I'd tap that!" to the increasing number of classes being offered in "adulting."

No amount of trending hashtags (#MeToo, #NotAll Men), texted acronyms (LMAO, TFW, IANAL), and cute emojis can hide the fact that huge numbers of people, like, can't get through a simple conversation, like, without inserting the word "like" every, like, third or fourth word. What happens after people have grown up behind the electronic barriers created by blocking incoming texts, emails, and phone calls in order to avoid telemarketers and uncomfortable personal conversations? Or when the only way to enjoy dinner with friends is to place all their smartphones in a basket in another room? One's communication skills become severely diminished.

For some people, that means spontaneity can be terrifying and listening becomes a lost art. For others, it ensures that opportunities which, in the past, would have instantly been recognized had a person been paying attention, now go unnoticed and are easily forgotten. Gone are the days when so much could be telegraphed in a glance, a smile, a wink, and a nod.

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For more than 30 years symphony orchestras have been collaborating with vocalists to bring the orchestra's full strength to bear on popular songs from Broadway musicals. Evenings of "highlights" have been especially successful with summer "Pops" programs as well as concert fundraisers or one-night-only tributes to composers like Richard Rodgers, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Stephen Sondheim.

Many theatre fans grew up listening to LP albums of popular musicals without any awareness that, when original cast recordings are made, the show's pit orchestra is often bolstered by pick-up musicians performing on strings and brass instruments. With so many musicals now being performed using reduced orchestrations (or accompanied by smaller ensembles aided by synthesizers), many audiences get a modified version of the composer's original intention. Add in the fact that, in a fully-staged production of a musical, the musicians are usually located in an orchestra pit between the audience and the performers whereas, in a concert performances, singers are usually positioned downstage, between the audience and the orchestra (which can allow for a very different dynamic).

Derrick Silva co-starred as Emile de Becque in South Pacific

The word "lush" is not just used to describe a chronic drunk. It can also be applied to the power of an orchestra to lend its strength to key moments of romantic expression such as "If I Loved You" from 1945's Carousel, "It Might As Well Be Spring" from 1945's State Fair, "We Kiss in a Shadow" from 1951's The King and I, "Ten Minutes Ago" from 1958's Cinderella, "You Are Beautiful" from 1958's Flower Drum Song, and "Climb Every Mountain" from 1959's The Sound of Music.

Last year, 42nd Street Moon's new management team began to lay a foundation for partnering with local orchestras on concert performances of Broadway musicals. In June of 2017, the company celebrated its 25th anniversary with two performances of Kismet (Robert Wright and George Forrest's 1953 adaptation of music from Alexander Borodin's 1890 opera, Prince Igor) with a 23-piece orchestra. The company began 2018 by joining forces with the Peninsula Symphony for two performances of South Pacific under the baton of Mitchell Sardou Klein (one at the Flint Center in Cupertino and the other at Capuchino High School in San Bruno).

Marisa Cozart co-starred as Ensign Nellie Forbush in South Pacific

Blessed with a score that contains such overtly dramatic musical numbers as "Twin Soliloquies," "Some Enchanted Evening," "Younger Than Springtime," and "This Nearly Was Mine," South Pacific is an ideal show for a concert-style performance. Not only do the symphonic orchestrations enhance the score, the audience gets a refreshing chance to listen to the lyrics of "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" and understand the societal taboos and inherent racism that causes characters like Ensign Nellie Forbush and Lieutenant Joseph Cable to recoil from the thought of marrying someone who is either Tonkinese or a white widower who has fathered two children with a Polynesian woman.

With stage direction by Daren A.C. Carollo and choreography by Kelly Krauss Cooper, the audience easily warmed to Jackie De Muro's Bloody Mary, John Brown's Luther Billis, Rio Martinez's Stewpot, and Vida Mae Fernandez's Liat. The romantic leads were ably sung by Derrick Silva as Emile de Becque and Marisa Cozart as Nellie Forbush, with Nikita Burshteyn delivering a beautifully layered portrayal of the young Lieutenant Joseph Cable. As Emile de Becque's two mixed-race children, Panita Serizawa's Ngana and Thomas Hija's Jerome instantly won the audience's hearts.

Nikita Burshteyn appeared as the young
Lieutenant Joseph Cable in South Pacific

Based on the success of their venture with the Peninsula Symphony, there might be fertile ground for 42nd Street Moon's management to approach the Oakland Symphony, Berkeley Symphony, Marin Symphony, and Symphony Silicon Valley with similar collaborations in mind. A quick look at musicals which would easily lend themselves to this treatment includes 110 in the Shade, Brigadoon, Carnival! Carousel, Cinderella, Fiorello! Flower Drum Song, Milk and Honey, The Pajama Game, Sweeney Todd, The Most Happy Fella, Titanic, and She Loves Me. I really don't think the folks at 42nd Street Moon need to worry about potential ticket buyers having seen any of its shows in recent years to embark on a fully-orchestrated concert performance of the same show with a local symphony orchestra. Whatever duplication may exist between the two audiences is likely to spur greater cross-pollination in ticket sales.

The curtain call for the Peninsula Symphony/42nd Street Moon
concert production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific

* * * * * * * * *
While the characters in South Pacific are stuck on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, hungry for love and frustrated by their long-held prejudices, the characters in The California No (a new film being screened during the 2018 SFIndie Film Festival) have the opposite predicament. As the film begins, a man and woman are seen during a couples counseling session that is not going particularly well. Comfortably secure in the thought that their relationship is monogamous, Elliott (Noah Segan) is completely blindsided when his wife, Allison (Ursula Mills), states that she's assumed for quite a while they have an open relationship. Their ride home (with Allison at the wheel) is an extremely uncomfortable one.

Noah Segan (Elliott) and Ursula Mills (Allison)
in a scene from The California No

The film's title refers to the extremely common yet highly dysfunctional practice of not being able to be honest with someone close to you. In his director's statement, Ned Ehrbar writes:
"I didn’t invent the phrase 'the California No' (the distinctly Angeleno method of rejecting someone by saying nothing at all, by ignoring emails, not returning calls, and simply waiting until the other person gets fed up or embarrassed enough to just leave it alone), but I fell in love with it as soon as I heard it. Simply put, its guiding principle is conflict avoidance, something I’ve encountered plenty of in Los Angeles. So I created a story where the conflict is created by characters trying way too hard to avoid conflict. It’s also a tongue-in-cheek indictment of straight white male entitlement. We’re following a hapless, nearly useless beta male as he makes terrible decision after terrible decision, testing the patience of the diverse group of fully actualized adults around him. He expects a lot from the world with no good reason to."
Noah Segan (Elliott) in a scene from The California No

Among Elliott's various quirks is his suspicion that local birds are mimicking the sound of car alarms as a warning of something bad coming his way. In the past, he has survived on a steady stream of freelance writing assignments based on celebrity interviews with movie stars doing press junkets for upcoming film releases. Just as the actors are only willing to offer up canned quotes, Elliott is a completely dull and predictable interviewer -- until one afternoon, while distracted by the thought of breaking up with Allison, he has a meltdown during an interview and comes to blows with a male film star. The incident leads to Elliott being dropped from the press rosters of loyal publicists who have been his primary source of income.

In a beautifully crafted scene, Elliott is visited by his tall and hunky gay friend, Jocko (Paul Telfer), who seems much better at letting emotional conflicts roll off his back. While Elliott keeps looking down at his smartphone at his outstanding bills and diminishing bank balance, Jocko is swiping through his messages on Grindr, obviously pleased by his prospects.

Paul Telfer is Elliott's hunky gay friend, Jocko, in The California No

With his manipulative wife, Allison, either ignoring him or heading off to England to attend her father's funeral, it doesn't take much for Elliott to ruin what few prospects cross his path. While out with Jocko one night at a gay club, he meets Kaley (Jordan Hinson), an intriguing blonde who is willing to fuck him on their first date in order to get their sexual tension out of the way, but won't have sex on their second date. It doesn't take long before Kaley has to explain to Elliott that they're not dating, they're fucking, and that she doesn't want him using his wife to "fuck up her shit."

Jordan Hinson as Kaley in The California No

When Elliott hooks up with a Hollywood publicist named Samantha (Tracie Thoms), he grabs hold of her smartphone while she is in the kitchen getting some more wine and copies the contact information for Colton Jane (Jesse Bradford), a fallen actor whose career has stalled and needs help making a comeback.

Tracie Thoms as Samantha in The California No

After many hours spent hanging out with the egomaniacal Colton on the false assumption that Elliott can get the actor a career-changing profile, he publishes a puff piece on a friend's blog instead of a feature article in Vanity Fair. When Elliott tries to hit Colton up for enough money to pay for his divorce from Allison, the furious actor (who has just learned that Samantha never tried to put the two men together) hauls off and decks him.

Noah Segan (Elliott) and Jessie Bradford (Colton)
in a scene from The California No

Elliott's problem is that he is not just a clueless, privileged white male. He's mentally lazy, socially inept, and a hopeless loser. Although Ned Ehrbar's film is beautifully shot and quite well made, its basic problem is that its pathetic protagonist (who comes across as a bit of a blivit) is the least interesting person in it. Here's a clip from the film.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Over The Top And Into The Woods

How many times have you heard a person described as "one of a kind" or "someone who marches to a different drummer"? Does that mean the person is a bona fide eccentric? Someone who hears voices no one else can hear? Or does it make the person someone who lives by their own rules instead of those laid down by society? Someone who might best be described by the saying "They broke the mold after that one came out of the womb!"

Whether one considers historical figures like Joan of Arc, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Grigori Rasputin or fictional characters like Fagin, Medea, and The Wicked Witch of the West, one thing is certain: these people may vex you, but they will never bore you. Radical Faeries, nasty women, and professional clowns may offend you with their outrageous behavior, threaten your insecurities, and confound you with their logic (or seeming lack thereof), but trust me: they sure as hell won't bore you.

When such characters spring to life from a writer's imagination, their behavior can be polished, shaped, and edited to suit a dramatic purpose. Whether brought to life in a reader's mind or through an actor's performance, the permutations of how the character may be perceived are innumerable.

When one encounters a person in real life whose spirit is so distinctive, spontaneous, and unconventional that the experience leaves one in awe, then attention must be paid. Consider, if you will, the many faces of Rumi Missabu.

Rumi Missabu as Maxine in Elevator Girls in Bondage

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One of the documentaries being screened during the 2018 SFIndie Film Festival is Ruminations, a film by Robert James devoted to chronicling Missabu's life and art. Perhaps best described with three key worlds from A Chorus Line ("One Singular Sensation"), Rumi -- born James Bartlett -- began his career in Los Angeles, where he shared an apartment with Cindy Williams. After moving to San Francisco, he became one of the founding members of the infamous Cockettes, performing in such off-the-wall productions as Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma, Journey to the Center of Uranus, and Elevator Girls in Bondage.

In the fall of 1971, nearly 50 bearded drag queens boarded a flight to New York. Following the debut of the Cockettes on the stage of the Anderson Theatre, Gore Vidal famously proclaimed that "Having no talent is not enough." Although bad reviews rarely discourage artists living in a fantasy world, the Cockettes disbanded the following year. As Rumi explains:
"All of us started out on LSD (including during performances). That was the drug of choice. Our audience came to our shows just as stoned as we were. There were no walls between the stage and the audience. You could just jump on or you could be someone’s trick, and just be recruited for the next show and be a Cockette forevermore. The Cockettes weren’t about rehearsing; we were about anarchy. We resented direction."

After 1972, Rumi pretty much disappeared, living off the grid while working under the table as a housekeeper and prep cook. For the next 30 years, the only piece of identification he had was his San Francisco Public Library card. Ruminations catches up with the 70-year-old Missabu as he struggles with emphysema and lung cancer. Throughout a series of interviews, Rumi's free spirit and sense of humor still sparkle as he reminisces about the past, describes a string of famous dance parties he produced in New York, discusses what it means to mentor a new generation of gay performance artists, and discloses what it feels like to have a devoted boyfriend (Sebastian Cheron) who is barely half Rumi's age.

After receiving a request from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to donate his papers, Missabu became involved in identifying and sorting photographs and memorabilia from his past. James's documentary includes input from Missabu's old friends (Billy Bowers, Dan Nicoletta, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Donna Persona, Puppy Love, and Vinc LeVinc). One friend wryly mentions Rumi's "perfect penis memory." Ruminations ends with a loving testimonial from Taylor Mac, who stresses that "Without Rumi, we wouldn't be here doing this."

Ruminations has its world premiere at the Roxie Theatre on February 4. Here's the trailer:

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American Conservatory Theater welcomed the new year with two big reasons for celebration. First, the announcement that Pam MacKinnon had been chosen as the company's next Artistic Director. Second, that Carey Perloff was directing a new production of Harold Pinter's 1957 comedy-thriller, The Birthday Party. One of the English playwright's most frequently performed works, The Birthday Party is set in boarding house by the sea that is run by a British couple in their sixties.

A quiet man, Petey (Dan Hiatt) rents out deck chairs to people spending a day near the ocean's edge. A bit more of a chatterbox, Meg (Judith Ivey) looks after their boarding house which, although it only has one guest, she considers to be something of a national treasure. Why? Because it is listed in a tourist guide of recommended accommodations.

Working on a tidy unit set designed by Nina Ball (with costumes designed by Candice Donnelly, lighting by Robert Hand, and sound designed by Darron L West), Pinter's play begins as an absurdist farce with Meg fretting over whether or not Stanley (Firdous Bamji) has come downstairs for his breakfast while she pesters Petey to read any interesting stories in the newspaper to her. It's never clear to the audience whether this is an old routine the couple has settled into, whether Meg has forgotten how to read, or whether she is functionally illiterate.

While Meg can easily seem like a ditz who has settled into a routine conversation with her husband, there is no doubt that she harbors a crush on their guest, Stanley. The structure of Pinter's play takes a sudden turn from seemingly mindless absurdity to a tense hostage situation when Meg goes out to the supermarket to pick up some supplies and, during her absence, two menacing characters arrive to fetch Stanley.

Goldberg (Scott Wentworth) is a masterful manipulator while the hulking McCann (Marco Barricelli) is a thug with a curious habit of gently and meticulously tearing apart a newspaper page, one column at a time. Once they have Stanley in their sights, the two men become like lions stalking and playing with their prey as they warm up for the kill. If that image doesn't do the job for you, imagine if you had a loving aunt and uncle whose home was suddenly invaded by Donald Trump's creepy policy adviser, Stephen Miller.

Judith Ivey (Meg) and Firdous Bamji (Stanley) in a
scene from The Birthday Party (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

"The Birthday Party is about the resistance to being boxed in (the visceral experience of being hunted)," states Perloff, "but it’s also about coercive political and religious groups. Those themes really announce themselves more now because of the world we live in: the individual against the state. Pinter always said that this was his first political play. He grew up during World War II and knew that the knock at the door was not good news. The fact that he was a Jewish kid living in London during the Blitz at a time of enormous anti-Semitism is highly relevant to Pinter’s sense of the world.”

Marco Barricelli (McCann) and Scott Wentworth (Goldberg) terrorize
Stanley (Firdous Bamji) in a scene from The Birthday Party
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

“In Pinter’s work, you have to look at where people are vulnerable and where they attack. For Pinter, there are two kinds of language: language that is predatory and language that masks the terror of silence," stresses Perloff. "Silence is what Pinter’s characters are most frightened of: that vulnerable place where people really live. So they talk around that in order to protect themselves.”

The harsh contrast between farce, a bizarre game of blind man's buff, and the brutal way in which Goldberg and McCann interrogate Stanley can be extremely unsettling for an audience. However, Barricelli (who portrays the thug, McCann) finds great pleasure in the challenge of performing onstage in a drama like The Birthday Party.
“The script of a Pinter play is like sheet music: there are dashes, ellipses, pauses, and silences. If you follow these notations in the script, then you can play it. In my experience with Pinter, I’ve found that the way to rehearse it is to honor those notations (even if you’re not yet sure what they mean) and, by the simple fact of repeating those rhythms and silences, you will see what the moment is about. You have to play the moment purely for what it is. It’s essential that the actors and the director resist the impulse to explain it.”
Firdous Bamji (Stanley) and Marco Barricelli (McCann) in
a scene from The Birthday Party (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In a month when women have been forcefully pushing back against men with the #MeToo movement, and marching nationwide to celebrate the anniversary of their astonishing protest against Trump's inauguration in January of 2017, I found it fascinating to watch the two characters Pinter created for women in a production of The Birthday Party directed by a woman. Each seems a bit cartoon-like until one realizes that, while Meg may be seriously off her rocker, her neighbor, Lulu (Julie Adamo), is not only younger and sexier, but has also acquired some valuable street smarts. As Perloff (who staged The Birthday Party in 1988 at the Classic Stage Company in New York) explains:
“Meg is the heartbeat of the play. She’s a poor British housewife, an innocent who believes in Stanley’s goodness, but also has some bizarre sexual relationship with him. She knows he is psychologically fragile, but she’s there to protect him. The end of the play is heartbreaking, because he is taken from her into this terrifying male world, represented by the unseen Monty and the big black car. Meg is going to have to survive without him."
Judith Ivey as Meg in The Birthday Party (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"Lulu, by contrast, is a figure who comes out of British comedy: a sexy, working-class wit who is totally taken advantage of by Goldberg. She comes downstairs the next morning and throws a fit. It’s a really hard scene to play. She’s not stupid. She’s ignorant. She’s a small-town girl who never left the seaside, but she looks evil in the face, knows what she’s looking at, and she escapes.”
Firdous Bamji (Stanley), Julie Adamo (Lulu), and Scott Wentworth
(Goldberg) in a scene from The Birthday Party (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While Pinter's play delivers much hilarity and peril, the evening's most stunning achievement is Judith Ivey's priceless characterization of Meg. Half clueless old lady and half lower class clown, it is an experience to treasure. Performances of The Birthday Party continue through February 4 at the American Conservatory Theater (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Monday, January 22, 2018

Some Day His Prince Will Come

In From Drags to Riches: The Untold Story of Charles Pierce, John Wallraff references a legendary quote from the irrepressible Tallulah Bankhead. When asked at a dinner party whether or not actor Montgomery Clift was gay, the actress replied "Well, I don't know, dahling -- he never sucked my cock!"

Many gay men wish they could have had Tallulah's saucy combination of wit and balls. A woman whose behavior defied inhibition, Bankhead spoke her mind without ever mincing words. History shows us that, despite being overachievers in their professional fields, many LGBT people can be deceptively shy or defensively coy when it comes to revealing their true selves. For some, old emotional and psychological wounds find a healing outlet in their creativity. Others are haunted by paranoia and feelings of inadequacy till the day they die.

As the LGBT rights movement nears its 50th anniversary, religious zealots and homophobes within the Trump administration are brazenly attempting to cut back on hard-earned protections for LGBT Americans. As a result of their animus toward the LGBT community, waves of paranoia are starting to be felt. A timely contrast between the social options available to a closeted homosexual in mid-19th century Russia and today's global LGBT community was highlighted by two recent experiences.

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Born in the spring of 1840, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky grew to become one of Russia's greatest cultural heroes, a prolific composer whose works hold a unique position in the romantic era of classical music. Tchaikovsky's ballets, operas, symphonies, piano and violin concertos are performed around the world throughout the year. Whether one prefers the delicate precision of the Bluebird Variations from Sleeping Beauty, the meticulous ensemble work required during the Entrance of the Swans in Act II of Swan Lake, or the the explosive grandeur of the 1812 Overture (as envisioned by Ken Russell in his 1971 film, The Music Lovers), there is no doubt that the beloved Russian composer knew how to entertain people.

Had Tchaikovsky led a happier life, who knows how that might have affected his music. Although technically married to his pupil, Antonina Miliukova, he went through life as a closeted homosexual whose soul rarely found peace. In her article entitled “The Russian World of Tchaikovsky,” Katie Dai notes that, under Tsar Nicholas I, Russia had “a policy of pre-censorship, preventing writers and artists from addressing forbidden topics. Private behavior was also limited. In 1832, Nicholas outlawed muzhelozhstvo (men lying with men), punishable by a five-year exile to Siberia.”

After Tsar Nicholas died of pneumonia in 1855, he was succeeded by his son (Alexander II). By the time of Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, Alexander II had been assassinated and Alexander III was on the throne. According to Dai, during his lifetime, Tchaikovsky went from life under one harsh, conservative autocrat to living under a ruler who was more liberal and open to reform but was, in turn, followed by another conservative authoritarian.

Hershey Felder in a scene from Our Great Tchaikovsky
(Photo by: Hershey Felder Presents)

For the past two decades, polymath Hershey Felder has traveled the world while performing a series of monologues devoted to the lives of great composers (Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Irving Berlin). Following a hugely successful run of his show about Ludwig van Beethoven, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is now presenting the Bay area premiere of Our Great Tchaikovsky. Written and performed by Felder (who also designed the scenery), the production has been directed by Trevor Hay.

What sets Our Great Tchaikovsky apart from Felder's previous shows is his willingness to explore the impact Tchaikovsky's homosexuality had on the composer's life and how Russia still struggles to cope with the fact that one of its greatest legends was queer. As the show begins, Felder reads a 2013 letter to the audience (supposedly received from a Russian authority) inviting him to perform Our Great Tchaikovsky in Moscow. As he examines Tchaikovsky's life and music, Felder plants the seeds of doubt as to whether he ever could -- or would -- accept the offer.

Why would Felder ignore such a request? The answer is simple. In 2013, Russia's Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, declared that Tchaikovsky was not a homosexual and that "there was no evidence to suggest the 19th-century composer was anything other than a lonely man who failed to find a suitable woman to marry." Vladimir Putin's increasingly homophobic policies toward Russia's LGBT population (as well as toward foreign visitors who might speak favorably or distribute propaganda about of the LGBT community) could put Felder at risk if he were to perform Our Great Tchaikovsky on Russian soil.

Hershey Felder in a scene from Our Great Tchaikovsky
(Photo by: Hershey Felder Presents)

In his program note, the artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (Robert Kelley) recalls his experience after having flown down to San Diego to attend a preview of Felder's new show prior to its world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre.
“Tchaikovsky’s personal story, his angst, his loves, his struggles to conceal himself in a judgmental society, inspired the evening as much as his music; Hershey had made it a story for today, one I could feel resonating powerfully throughout the theatre. This new work was as much about now as it was about then, about these times of intolerance and division around the world. By its finale, I was in tears, cheering along with the sell-out crowd.”
Hershey Felder in a scene from Our Great Tchaikovsky
(Photo by: Hershey Felder Presents)

As with his other shows, Our Great Tchaikovsky is carefully researched, meticulously plotted, and allows Felder to showcase his skill with foreign accents as well as his musicianship. Although the stage is often darker and more foreboding than in some of his other presentations, Felder's storytelling is immeasurably enhanced by the stunning projections and lighting designed by Christopher Ash.

Some may view Felder's shows as the theatrical equivalent of music appreciation courses but, in his research, presentation, and performance, he delves much deeper into the life story and emotional makeup of each composer. Tchaikovsky may well be the most tortured soul in his gallery, a man whose closeted anguish, conflicted emotions, and orgasmic eruptions of joy are so often reflected in his music.  If Felder can face the truth about Tchaikovsky's sexual orientation, there are plenty of audiences around the world eager to hear him discuss it without threatening his artistic freedom.

Performances of Our Great Tchaikovsky continue through February 11 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here for tickets).

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As a happy, healthy, Jewish homosexual atheist with a life-long passion for ocean liners, it didn't take much to lure me into booking passage on RSVP gay cruises to the Mexican Riviera, Caribbean, and Alaska. Now run by tour operators like Atlantis Events and The Cruise, these adventures at sea charter an entire ship for a week (or two) and market the event to LGBT people online. The demographic that books passage closely mirrors those who frequent circuit parties in major cities. As nearly 3,000 LGBT passengers board a ship in the cruise's port of origin, they arrive with mixed expectations.
  • Some are hoping to find new love; others seek the kind of adventure they could never find in their home towns.
  • Some are traveling with a sizable contingent of friends; others are eager to experience what they imagine will be a gay Utopia populated with hunky men intensely focused on dancing, drinking, drugging, decadence, and debauchery.
  • Some are experienced travelers who pack lightly; others travel with enough costume changes to exhaust Cher.
A passenger arrives on deck for an afternoon tea dance.

Dream Boat (which will be screened during the upcoming Berlin and Beyond Film Festival) is Tristan Ferland Milewski's documentary about a week spent within such a glittery microcosm. Filmed during a 2016 gay cruise from Lisbon to the Canary Islands aboard the MS Sovereign (the former Sovereign of the Seas), much of the footage focuses on the various costume parties (Ladies night, Neon night, the White Party, a fetish party) and includes such events as a men's race in high heels. For a ship lover like me, some of the film's highlights were overhead drone footage of the Sovereign filmed at sea.

Like many documentaries, Dream Boat captures plenty of background footage taken during dance parties or while passengers are sunbathing and relaxing in the ship's pools. Men in drag are seen relaxing in their cabins, helping each other dress for a costume party, and greeting fellow passengers as they gather at an elevator bank (if you look closely, you'll notice at least one man performing fellatio on another during a late night dance party under the stars).

Ramzi and his partner relax on deck before a tea dance

In between all the costumes and razzle dazzle are shots of hunky gay men posing for photo shoots, talking about what they hope to experience on a gay cruise, discussing the discrimination they have faced at home, and in some cases, their HIV status. Some are terrified of growing old, others are just trying to keep pace with a younger generation of gay men who were spared the horrors of the early years of the AIDS epidemic. The handful of men followed most closely by Milewski include:
  • Dipankar, a native of India who is currently living in Dubai and came out to his family and coworkers before leaving for his cruise. Self-conscious about his physique, he worries that he will not make a big enough impression amongst a sea of muscular men for someone to notice his inner beauty. Although Dipankar discovers that some of his assumptions about what he would find on a gay cruise were the polar opposite of what he experienced, he nevertheless  has trouble explaining to a passenger from Europe why he cannot live an openly gay lifestyle in Dubai's repressive society.
  • Marek was born in Poland and grew up in a very Catholic environment. When he was 13, his father died, leaving Marek to act as "the man of the family" in order to support his mother and sister. Now living in Nottingham, England and working as a fitness trainer, he has the kind of physique many gay men crave, but is not attracted to the more superficial aspects of a gay lifestyle. Marek is more interested in finding a soulmate rather than a quick fuck.
  • Martin is a bearded Austrian photographer who is HIV+ but, thanks to PreP, is living an openly gay life with a renewed sense of sexual freedom and hedonistic joy. He's not just working as a photographer while on board, he's also "working it."
Ramzi is a Palestinian who is now living in Belgium.
  • Ramzi is a Palestinian who moved to Belgium to escape the homophobia in his home town. Although he was fairly skinny when he left home, he is now a handsome, buff gay man with a good sense of humor. Ramzi's somewhat older partner was recently told that his cancer had gone into remission and the two men are celebrating his renewed health. During one of his interviews, Ramzi describes how he told his partner that he had no intention of deserting him during his illness and that he wanted them to stay together forever.
  • Philippe is an older, wheelchair-bound Frenchman who lost sensation in his legs 20 years ago due to a meningitis infection. Although he is traveling with a friend who understands Philippe's disability, he sometimes imagines that the friend is jealous of other men who pay attention to Philippe. Whether attempting to go rock climbing with the help of a harness or carrying signs that offer "Free Hugs" or show a picture of singer Mirielle Matthieu, Philippe's outgoing personality helps him try to make the most out of life. He is keenly aware that his "gay family" offers more love and support than his blood relatives.

Instead of depending on the dance music being blasted all over the ship's decks during parties, Milewski uses a surprisingly understated piano score by My Name Is Claude to give viewers the sensation that, at key moments during his documentary, the camera is guiding them through a gay diorama. As the week at sea progresses, the filmmaker captures crew members sweeping up used condoms left on deck after a late night of partying. Nor does he shrink from passengers who are candid about how they did (or did not) find the love and/or sex they had hoped for.

By the end of Dream Boat, it becomes clear that, in addition to plenty of opportunities to ogle beautiful men, it is possible to be bored, ignored, and rejected on a gay cruise -- the same way some gay men might feel in a gay bar on land. Here's the trailer: