Monday, February 12, 2018

Death and Two Maidens

Our lives may follow a straight line according to time but, for fiction writers, the shortest distance between dramatic paths is rarely the strongest way to tell a story. Novelists, playwrights, and screenwriters frequently shift scenes to show the actions and circumstances of their characters in relation to a forward-moving plot line.

One of the most favorite narrative gimmicks is a flashback. Whether used to highlight a moment from the past that might strengthen a character's motivation, explain a pivotal plot point, or disprove a red herring, traveling back in time can do wonders to build a dramatic foundation, reveal a long-forgotten moment of kindness (or villainy), and resolve a case of mistaken identity. Gilbert and Sullivan frequently included a comic or confessional aria in their operettas which explained a misassumption based on an event from the distant past.

Using a flashback in a stage presentation usually requires a fairly straightforward type of narration. In film, however, a character can narrate past events with an actor's voiceover as the audience is taken back to a time, long ago, when a critical event took place. Whether through a rose-colored memory or an inspired dream, a story can unfold with greater fluidity and, on many occasions, a clever use of magical realism.

James Cameron used flashbacks to great effect in his cinematic blockbuster, Titanic. Not only were the visuals stunning, his ability to switch back and forth between the narration by the 100-year-old Rose (Gloria Stuart) and his depiction of events as they happened on the doomed ocean liner helped to sustain the high level of suspense.

When the film premiered in 1997 there were were two surprising reactions. Despite the fact that the sinking of the RMS Titanic took place in 1912 and the maritime disaster had become legendary, many young viewers were so absorbed in the fictional romance between Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater that they were thrown for a loop when the ship sank. I remember seeing the film with a former ballet dancer who was traumatized by all the scenes in which the actors struggled to escape the rising water.

Two recent dramatic experiences (one on stage, the other on film) made heavy use of flashbacks in ways that enchanted, confused, and ultimately won over their audience.

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Born on June 12, 1890, Egon Schiele crammed a lot of living into his short life. A friend of Gustav Klimt who, in 1911, introduced the young artist to one of his former models (17-year-old Walburga "Wally" Neuzil), Schiele became known as one of the early Expressionist artists; a man who painted distorted bodies as well as nude portraits of himself. In his youth, Schiele displayed incestuous tendencies towards his younger sister, Gerti. In April of 1912 (the same month that the RMS Titanic sank) he was accused of kidnapping a 13-year-old girl, but was subsequently acquitted.

A self portrait by Egon Schiele

Although Wally modeled for some of Schiele's most famous paintings (the two lived together until Schiele abruptly married a young woman from a bourgeois family), she was not his only inspiration. Schiele convinced his younger sister to model for him, and also painted Moa Mandu, who performed around Vienna as a variety dancer. As the Austrian Film Commission's Karin Schiefer explains:
“Before World War I, Vienna had a stage form called ‘Tablo Vivo’ in which women and men stood naked on stage, but were not allowed to move. If you moved, you were immediately arrested. But standing naked while painted as white as possible was art, since you represented statues.”
Larissa Breidbach as the model, Moa Mandu, in a
scene from Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden

Dieter Berner's new film, Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden (which was screened at the 2018 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival), begins with a confusing scene in which Schiele's syphilitic father burns all of the family's stock certificates and paper money in a stove, an act which undoubtedly had a traumatic impact on the young artist. Soon afterward, the scene shifts to a desolate apartment in Vienna, where a feverish Schiele (Noah Saavedra) is lying next to his wife's dead body as his sister, Gerti (Maresi Riegner), tries to care for him. Her efforts, alas, are in vain. Three days after Edith (Marie Jung) succumbs to the Spanish flu, her husband dies from the same disease at the age of 28.

Poster art for Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden

From there, the film ricochets back and forth between the dying Schiele to scenes of his childhood and early brush with fame. In describing what drew him to the challenge of directing and co-writing a screenplay about the Austrian artist, Berner explains that:
Drawing was a kind of surrogate life for Schiele right from the start. As a boy, he was bad at school and neglected his homework because he always drew. It was his way of understanding the world, of somehow getting the world under control (his generation obviously sensed and felt the downfall of the monarchy, the downfall of the world in which they grew up). Schiele always had a sketchbook with him to capture moments of life. Like a director, he wondered what the talking gesture was, what the visually interesting moment was, and then captured it in his sketchbook.”
Noah Saavedra stars in Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden
“His pictures are well thought-out constructions and by no means thrown away. It is a process of seeing, and we wanted to tell that in our story. Schiele also took pictures which often reveal that the chosen poses were extraordinary. He developed new, expressive poses. He made the body a means of expression, trying to tell about the body. What does the body tell us about a human alone? This is very interesting for a director and we wanted to tell this process in the film. How is it that someone invents such expressive poses? In this respect, painters are the directors of their pictures.”
Noah Saavedra (Egon) and Valerie Pachner (Wally)
in a scene from Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden

Casting a biopic that takes place in a distinctly different historical period can present an odd challenge for a filmmaker. As Berner explains:
“An essential point of my concept was to show young people -- not actors who play young people, but those who are really young in front of the camera. I knew from the beginning that it would be very difficult to find someone who was young and, at the same time, had the life experience needed to play such a complicated character. That is why we started the casting process a very long time in advance."
Noah Saavedra stars in Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden
"We finally found a young man who had experience as a model and wanted to try it as a movie actor. He could not remember two sentences at first but, from the beginning, he had that energy for me (the charisma I could associate with Schiele), so I decided to take the risk and brought him to this role for over a year. As a result, he actually wanted to be an actor, attended drama school, and finally passed the entrance exam at the famous Ernst Busch School. He also spent two semesters painting and drawing at the Academy of Fine Arts in order to make the drawings that occur in the film itself.”
Noah Saavedra stars in Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden

Berner's film benefits immensely from Götz Weidner's production design, Carson Thiele's cinematography, and André Dziezuk's musical score. Although the extremely photogenic Noah Saavedra's portrayal of Schiele can be riveting to watch, I found it fascinating to see how the rounder and less animated faces of Maresi Riegner (Gerti) and Valerie Pachner (Wally) subtly stole one scene after another. Larissa Breidbach (Moa Mandu), Cornelius Obonya (Gustav Klimt), Elisabeth Umlauft (Adele Harms), and Marie Jung (Edith Harms) all shine in supporting roles. But it is Pachner's face which haunts the film.

Noah Saavedra (Egon) and Valerie Pachner (Wally)
in a scene from Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden

The irony is that, in 1915, when Schiele married Edith Harms, he expected that Wally would stay on as an integral part of his life. But after four intense years as his mistress and muse, she immediately left him, never to return. As with many films that rely on flashbacks, there are times when a viewer might prefer a more linear approach to Schiele's story. With the action bouncing back and forth between the artist's healthy years and his feverish death, it's surprising that the film leaves a much stronger image of Wally's face than Schiele's in a viewer's mind. Here's the trailer:

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San Francisco's Magic Theatre recently unveiled the world premiere of a beautiful new play written and directed by John Kolvenbach (whose previous works produced by Magic Theatre include Goldfish, Mrs. Whitney, and Sister Play). Working on a simple unit set designed by Erik Flatmo (who also designed the show's projections), with lighting by Wen-Ling Liao, the premise of Reel to Reel seems deceptively simple.

Through a series of flashbacks, the audience is exposed to the 55-year-long marriage of Maggie and Walter, a loving (if occasionally cantankerous) couple who met in 1995 at a party in New York and remained together until Maggie's death in 2050. Although the couple did not have any children, they cherished their creative outlets. Walter was an aspiring filmmaker and Maggie found a way to transform her childhood passion from a hobby into an art form.

At the age of nine, Maggie told her parents she wanted a tape recorder for Christmas. Upon receiving a Sony 5400, the first thing she recorded was the sound of her mother’s washing machine. As her fascination with curating sounds deepened, she recorded digestive noises, the sound of Walter on the phone with his mother, and obsessively re-recorded the sound of a noodle cracking some 600 times. Kolvenbach finally found the key to Maggie's character when he realized that she could be a sound professional. "The play opened up for me when I figured out that she made sound collages," he states.

Over time, Maggie became so attuned to the everyday sounds in her relationship that she could easily identify Walter’s “signature sigh” as well as the clicks made in his later years by both of his aging knees as he rose from a chair. Such sounds were duly recorded for use in some of her solo presentations (Walter was relieved to learn that she never managed to surreptitiously plant a microphone in his underwear).

Zoe Winters in a scene from Reel to Reel
(Photo by: Julie Haber)

Throughout their marriage, Maggie has always been the more adventurous and aggressive partner. When they first met, she bull-dozed Walter into his bedroom but, after a night of torrid sex, disappeared (leaving him panicked that he might never be able to find her again). As the couple has aged, Maggie can see how her husband reflects the many changes in their lifestyle. “Walter is my living mirror," she states, "and he’s getting old. What do I find attractive now? It can be anything. He remembers to pick up the mail and that’s kind of hot.” Walter, meanwhile, feels "nourished" by the way his wife snores.

Although there are only two characters appearing onstage in Kolvenbach's play, they are portrayed by two couples. Zoe Winters (Maggie 1) and Andrew Pastides (Walter 1) portray the couple at 27 and 42 years of age. Carla Spindt (Maggie 2) and Will Marchetti (Walter 2) portray them as they age into their early 80s.

Unlike many family dramas, Reel to Reel is not about marking how one ages by measuring one’s life against the growth of one’s offspring. Instead, the play is the soundscape of a marriage that pays careful attention to what two partners listen to and hear from each other. Consider it an aural (rather than oral) history of a relationship. As the playwright explains:
Reel to Reel is about the hurdles and rewards that come with sticking it out. I wanted to look at an actual relationship where all we saw were the smaller moments of what it is to be with somebody. I started to think about the most intimate things in a relationship, to think about sound and if you could make a play that was comprised of sound. Could you render a relationship in a way that was accurate and intimate?”
The cast of Reel to Reel (Photo by: Julie Haber)
“I wanted to write about marriage, relationships, intimacy, and what is the tiny space between the end of our mouth and the beginning of someone’s ear. It’s also about what it is to lose someone. In the play, all the sound (foley and music) is made live by the actors. The idea is that everything is from these two people (four actors playing two people) and everything we experience is made by them. This is a play that is both about intimacy and that is itself an intimacy (the watching of which should be an intimate experience).”
Will Marchetti in a scene from Reel to Reel
(Photo by: Julie Haber)

Walter’s inner thoughts about Maggie range from low-level lust (“You could set fire to a damp sponge in that thing” or “My wife’s calves lower my IQ”) to his simmering frustration (“I listen to her take a shower and I can hear that she’s doing it wrong,” and “It’s possible to go from sitting comfortably to being overwhelmed with homicidal rage in seven of her syllables”).

Like many long-term couples, as Walter and Maggie grow older, their dialogue can range from a simple question expressed in their personal shorthand (“Do you want to go that place by the thing?”) to a major display of passive-aggressive behavior when Maggie must catch a flight to London and, although he finds it difficult to admit, Walter would prefer that she stay at home with him.

Will Marchetti and Carla Splindt in a scene from Reel to Reel
(Photo by: Julie Haber)

With costumes by Meg Neville and foley design by Sara Huddleston, the four-actor ensemble breathes a curious kind of life into Kolvenbach's script which makes one grateful that the playwright directed his delicate drama. While Zoe Winters and Andrew Pastides give strong performances as the young and middle aged couple, I found Will Marchetti and Carla Splindt's performances as the wrinkled and withered lovers especially poignant.

By the time bits and pieces plucked from 55 years of companionship have been compressed into an 80-minute performance, the audience senses how invisibly the delicate glue holding this fragile drama together resembles the foundation of musicianship and intuition developed between members of a top-level string quartet. Even though punctuated by the accompanying sounds of washing machines, telephones, and medical equipment, the give and take between Maggie and Walter is filled with as much tenderness and wit as an exceptional piece of chamber music.

Performances of Reel to Reel continue at the Magic Theatre through February 25 (click here for tickets).

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Capitalism: The Root of All Evil

It's no secret that the past 12 months have seen a strong and steady pushback against men who harass women, belittle them, talk over them, and try to mansplain things to them. Strong women like Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Congresswomen Maxine Waters and Jackie Speier have stood firm in their attempts to call out acts of misogyny and discrimination. With more and more women naming names, sexual predators in the film and entertainment industry (as well as tech and other fields) are nervously watching their backs. Some have fallen from great heights, seen their achievements minimized, and been shocked at how quickly their sense of power evaporated into thin air.

Thankfully, one of the strongest tools available to women is satire. Ginny Hogan's recent piece entitled Advantages I've Received Simply By Being A Woman doesn't pull any punches. The star of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee has done a stunning job of mixing satire with investigative reporting.

Only a fool would think that feminine rage is limited to the United States. Two recent clips from The Mash Report on BBC Two do a solid job of stripping away any pretense of male privilege.

Here in the Bay area, two recent revivals take an interesting look at how women have fared under the influences of capitalism and patriarchy.
  • One of the earliest plays by George Bernard Shaw depicted a young woman who had been placed on a pedestal by her doting, widowed father in such a way that she would never have to worry about money. Fast forward 125 years and it's ironic how (very much like some modern day Republicans) his daughter doesn't hesitate to declare how much she hates the poor.
  • A popular play from the 1940s showed what can happen when a woman who takes pride in the fact that she is stupid learns that she doesn't have to stay that way. In no time at all, she is proudly telling her mentor that a senator's wife "is just as dumb as I am."
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First produced in 1892, George Bernard Shaw's Widowers' Houses is being revived by the Aurora Theatre Company in a handsome new production directed by Joy Carlin with costumes by Callie Floor, scenic design by Kent Dorsey, and sound by Chris Houston. Like many Shavian comedies, the focus is on the impact wealth can have on a person's socioeconomic status and how an odd twist of fate can suddenly turn the tables on those who smugly assumed that their fortunes were safe. The cast of characters includes:
Dan Hoyle (Harry) and Megan Trout (Blanche) in a
scene from Widowers' Houses (Photo by: David Allen)
  • Blanche (Megan​ ​Trout) is the object of Harry's affection. Well-dressed and carefully groomed, she is vacationing with her father when she meets Harry and thinks she has fallen in love. However, Blanche has led an extremely pampered life and is accustomed to having the kind of creature comforts that an impecunious young man might not be able to afford.
  • Mr. Sartorius (Warren​ ​David​ ​Keith​) is a self-made businessman who has grown rich by meticulously reinvesting his profits in real estate. Concerned about his future health, Sartorius is eager to find a suitor for his pretty young daughter. A stern, parsimonious man, he has built his wealth on the backs of the poor people who live in his slums.
Dan Hoyle, Michael Gene Sullivan, and Warren David Keith
in a scene from Widowers' Houses (Photo by: David Allen)
  • Waiter and Annie (Sarah Mitchell​) are the two servants who wait on Sartorius and Blanche in Remagen and back at home in London. Even though both characters are lower class, they take pride in their work and are less than impressed with Blanche's displays of haughtiness.
  • Lickcheese (Howard​ ​Swain) is a rent collector employed by Sartorius who is fired when his behavior displeases the old man. Like Pygmalion's Alfred P. Doolittle, Lickcheese lives by his wits and returns later in the play with a big surprise.
Warren David Keith (Sartorius) and Howard Swain (Lickcheese)
in a scene from Widowers' Houses (Photo by: David Allen)

The first act of Widowers' Houses lays the foundation for the economic pressures which will dominate Acts II and III.
  • Although Harry and Blanche are convinced that they are in love, when the doctor insists that they can only marry if Blanche is willing to live on his income (and his income alone), she is shocked and offended that her husband-to-be would not be willing to let her live off of her own money.
  • When Lickcheese explains to Blanche that her father's wealth derives from depriving his tenants of a decent place to live, she is horrified by his revelation (but not horrified enough to want to take a few steps down the socioeconomic ladder).
  • When Harry castigates Sartorius for the way the old man oppresses his tenants, Sartorius decides to give Harry a sobering lesson in how the real estate economy works, especially since Harry owns the mortgage that Sartorius must pay every month.
Dan Hoyle, Warren David Keith, and Megan Trout in a
scene from Widowers' Houses (Photo by: David Allen)

Shaw explained that:
"My first three plays were what people call realistic. They were dramatic pictures of middle class society from the point of view of a Socialist who regards the basis of that society as thoroughly rotten economically and morally. Their purpose was to make people thoroughly uncomfortable whilst entertaining them artistically. The notion that the people in Widowers' Houses are abnormally vicious or odious could only prevail in a community in which Sartorius is absolutely typical in his unconscious villainy."
Warren David Keith (Sartorius) and Megan Trout (Blanche)
in a scene from Widowers' Houses (Photo by: David Allen)
“Many of my critics have been completely beaten by the play simply because they are ignorant of society. What I mean is that they do not know life well enough to recognize it in the glare of the footlights. They denounce Sartorius, my house-knacking widower, as a monstrous libel on the middle and upper class because he grinds his money remorselessly out of the poor. But they do not (and cannot) answer his argument as to the impossibility of his acting otherwise under our social system... these ‘guilty creatures sitting at a play’ who, instead of being struck to the soul and presently proclaiming their malefactions, are naively astonished and revolted at the spectacle of a man on the stage acting as we are all acting perforce every day.”
Megan Trout (Blanche) and Sarah Mitchell (Annie) in a
scene from Widowers' Houses (Photo by: David Allen)

Widowers' Houses offers audiences a provocative lesson in how landlords can get rich by squeezing every cent from their tenants without offering to make improvements on their properties. In a volatile real estate market like the Bay area (where forces of gentrification and rent control are constantly at odds with each other) and a national climate of Republicans trying to strip less fortunate citizens of their hard-earned rights and benefits, Shaw's play offers plenty of food for thought about income inequality and its effect on society. When Lickcheese's fortunes suddenly take a turn for the better and he offers Sartorius a way to make things better for everyone, it seems like a breath of fresh air (even to those who have spent their lives trying to choke people they consider to be inferior).

This is an especially handsome production for Aurora Theatre Company, with Kent Dorsey's set and Callie Floor's costumes providing the kind of restrained elegance that keeps the ugliness of the real world safely at bay. The six-actor ensemble of familiar faces on Bay area stages does a splendid job with the material. Warren David Keith is a frosty Sartorius who has learned to put up with his daughter's temperamental outbursts (beautifully captured by Megan Trout). In one of his rare appearances in period costume, Dan Hoyle is bit more restrained than usual and has added a curious character tic of seeming to speak out of the side of his mouth.

Surprisingly, the strongest impressions are made by the two members of the working class. Howard Swain's Lickcheese is filled with the kind of bluster one might expect from a Savoyard actor bearing a major secret about someone's identity in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta while the delightful Sarah Mitchell scores strong comedic points as both a male and female servant.

Warren David Keith (Sartorius) and Megan Trout (Blanche)
in a scene from Widowers' Houses (Photo by: David Allen)

Performances of Widowers' Houses continue through February 25 at the Aurora Theatre Company (click here for tickets).

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In her article entitled Huge Human Inequality Study Hints Revolution is in Store for U.S. -- Every Society Has Its Tipping Point, Yasmin Tayag explains how the United States now has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world. As we look back with whatever knowledge our society has acquired over the past 70 years regarding bullying, domestic violence, and sexual harassment, it’s interesting to note that, just as World War II was coming to an end (September 2, 1945), two new plays bore a shocking commonality.

What do Carousel and Born Yesterday have in common? Each revolves around a brutish man who, at one point, physically attacks a woman he purports to love. Is it any coincidence that the San Francisco Playhouse has debuted a new production of Born Yesterday at the same time that a major revival of Carousel is preparing to open on Broadway? Or that, exactly two years after Center Rep presented Born Yesterday up in Walnut Creek, San Francisco Playhouse is staging another production for Bay area audiences?

In a recent blog post, the artistic director of San Francisco Playhouse, Bill English, was quick to remind audiences that the reason to revive classics is because “Each time we see them, we come to the story as a different person and view the plot and characters in the light of current times. Hearing stories again is a way to gauge where we have been, where we are now, and where we are headed on our path of evolution.”

That's an especially important consideration with Born Yesterday. Center Rep's production was planned and performed long before Donald Trump rode an escalator down to the basement of Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for President of the United States. Since then, the cohort of greedy millionaires in his cabinet has appalled many Americans with their complete lack of concern for the health and safety of the population they are supposed to serve. As Trump (who now wants a military parade staged in the nation's capital to feed his swollen ego) leans more toward creating an authoritarian state, English's insights merit closer attention:
“When Kanin conceived of Born Yesterday, he was writing about something no less important than the danger of a dictatorship in the United States. 1946 was also the year the House Un-American Activities Committee was formed and Joseph McCarthy started going after playwrights, screenwriters and journalists including Mr. Kanin, whose career was damaged by the attacks from the HUAC. When he wrote the play, he imagined Harry Brock as the type of person who could go after power in Washington, bribing and intimidating corruptible politicians and undermining the forces of democracy. I wish we had access to earlier drafts of the play in which these themes were more clearly laid out, but the requirements of producing on Broadway were such that the more overtly political themes ended up being submerged under the glitzy wrappings of a subversive comedy disguised as a romance.”
Michael Torres as Harry Brock in Born Yesterday
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
Born Yesterday serves as a cautionary tale today or at any time, when ignorance threatens to conquer enlightenment, when there may be those who wish to twist ideals into a platform to serve ultra-nationalistic ambitions. Citizenship requires us to nurture and educate those who may be ignorant. Only we can keep our nation’s ideals safe from corruption. Billie, our chorus girl, is not so much transformed into a more successful social self, as she is awakened to her responsibilities as a citizen. She makes that wonderful journey from ignorance to enlightenment, opening her eyes to the brilliance and the frailty of our constitution, and to the knowledge that only the citizens can keep us safe from those who would subvert our institutions for their own greedy purposes.”

Millie Brooks as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday

San Francisco Playhouse's production of Born Yesterday plays out on Jacquelyn Scott's unit set depicting a hotel suite in our nation's capitol, with costumes by Abra Berman and sound design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker. At the performance I attended, Michael Torres was obviously under the weather but soldiered on as the bellicose Brock, demonstrating that Donald Trump is merely one boor out of an army of monied Neanderthals.

Jason Kapoor (Paul Verrall) and Michael Torres (Harry Brock)
in a scene from Born Yesterday (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

With Louis Parnell as the corrupt Senator Norval Hedges and Terry Bamberger as the senator's wife, Gabriel Montoya did a fine job as Brock's kid brother, Eddie, groveling and running errands as necessary to keep an overgrown schoolyard bully content that everyone would cater to his wishes. While Harry Brock makes a lot of noise and displays the same lack of sophistication that got Molly Brown iced out of Denver society until she survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the real action takes place between journalist Paul Verrall (Jason Kapoor), who is attempting to interview the obnoxious Brock, Harry's alcoholic, obsequious, and enabling attorney, Ed Devery (Anthony Fusco), and Harry's mistress, Billie Dawn (Millie Brooks).

Louis Parnell, Anthony Fusco, Michael Torres, and Terry Bamberger
in a scene from Born Yesterday (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Shrill, stupid, but sexually shrewd, Billie is a creature who undergoes a remarkable transformation once she is given the tools of learning and sufficient encouragement to treat education as an adventure. It's charming and delightful to see her realize that she has legal power over Harry's corrupt dealings that she never bothered to understand until the day she started reading the contracts she had signed and began to ask questions. With Paul's help, she accomplishes a remarkable transfer of power from the arrogant Harry to a newly "woke" woman who knows how to use her legal rights to get what she wants.

Millie Brooks as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

There are small moments in the production when one can't help but wonder if director Susi Damilano added some touches that might have eluded male stage directors. The ever reliable Anthony Fusco cuts to the heart of Devery's moral weakness while, with the help of Jason Kapoor's Paul Verrall, Millie Brooks sails onward to greater strength and business savvy as Billie Dawn. Those with a talent for counting cards while playing gin rummy, pinochle, or bridge, will appreciate how well Billie grasps concepts and relationships that once went right over her head.

To its credit, Kanin's script retains every bit of its original bite from the play's world premiere 72 years ago. Performances of Born Yesterday continue through March 10 at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Monday, February 5, 2018

What Price Glory?

With the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics about to commence in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this is as good a time as any to talk about the monetization of athletes whose triumphs can attract richly rewarding corporate sponsorships. In his recent article in San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter entitled "Jock Talk: Putting the 'Flame' in the Olympic Flame," sports columnist Roger Brigham noted that skier Gus Kenworthy "will be bringing something else to Pyeongchang that has been rare for gay athletes: endorsements. Since coming out, Kenworthy has been signed by Visa, Toyota, Ralph Lauren, Deloitte, and 24 Hour Fitness, and has made a commercial for Head and Shoulders shampoo that features a rainbow flag."

Meanwhile, Hong Kong has won the bid to host the 2022 Gay Games (the first time the Gay Games will be held in Asia). With social media at their fingertips, prize-winning athletes no longer have to rely solely on publicists (or the Devil) to keep feeding the flames of fame for them.

One of the most successful young athletes at building a personal brand is British diving champion Tom Daley. whose victories in 10-meter platform events include the 2009 and 2017 FINA World Championships; 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016 British Championships; 2014 Commonwealth Games, 2016 European Championship, as well as the bronze medal in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. His medals for synchronized diving events include third place in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, second place in the 2016 European Championships, and first place in the 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2016 British Championships.

An openly gay athlete, Daley married Oscar-winning American screenwriter, director, producer, and activist (Big Love, Milk, J. Edgar, When We Rise) Dustin Lance Black on May 6, 2017. Both men rose to fame during the rise of social media and have worked assiduously to build and diversify Tom's brand on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. In addition to showcasing his interests in photography, videography, and cooking, Daley has written two books (2012's My Story and 2016's Tom’s Daily Plan: Over 80 Fuss-free Recipes For a Happier, Healthier You. All Day, Every Day).

Over the years, Daley has become quite adept at using his multiple social media platforms to keep fans abreast of his personal life, professional training, and travel to competitive sports events with videos that offer tips on workout techniques and nutrition.

Whether sharing his relationship with his husband or having fun in the kitchen with friends and relatives, Daley's good humor and playful, puppy-like personality have built a loyal following of more than half a million YouTube subscribers who show up for book signings and (with electronic subscriptions just a click away) happily follow Tom's adventures throughout the year.

Ironically, two Bay area cultural events have a strong tie-in to the topic of a professional athlete's marketable shelf life and what happens when athletes decide to step away from the pressures and responsibilities of hawking someone else's brand.

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Up in Walnut Creek, Center Rep is presenting the Bay area premiere of Lucas Hnath's controversial Obie Award-winning play, Red Speedo. Directed by Markus Potter on a stark unit set designed by Dipu Gupta, Hnath's play crams a lot of emotional conflict into its starkly staged 80 minutes.

The play's protagonist is Ray (Max Carpenter), a young swimmer who aspires to be chosen for the Olympic swim team. Having recently acquired an impressive full-body length dragon tattoo, Ray spends a good part of the evening quietly munching on baby carrots while struggling to assert himself against the dominant personalities of his coach (Michael J. Asberry) and his older brother, Peter (Gabriel Marin).

Max Carpenter (Ray) and Gabriel Marin (Peter) in
a scene from Red Speedo (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As the deadline approaches for Ray to qualify as an Olympic athlete, a scandal threatens to erupt when performance-enhancing drugs are discovered in the locker room refrigerator at the pool where Ray's team meets for swim practice. Not only is the coach concerned about reporting the presence of drugs to his bosses, it seems as if a swimmer named Tad is being targeted as the likely user -- until Ray confesses that the drugs are his and his alone.

Max Carpenter (Ray) and Gabriel Marin (Peter) in
a scene from Red Speedo (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Ray's revelation throws Peter into a frenzy. An aggressive, fast-talking attorney who hopes to cash in on his kid brother's potential fame, Peter has been pouring all his energy into getting an endorsement from Speedo and setting up other potentially lucrative deals. When Ray explains why he started using drugs to boost his performance, Peter is less than thrilled to learn that it was at the suggestion of Ray's ex-girlfriend, Lydia (Rosie Hallett).

Rosie Hallett (Lydia) and Max Carpenter (Ray) in
a scene from Red Speedo (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Part of the conflict in Hnath's drama is that Peter despises Lydia and went out of his way to make sure that she lost her professional license as a sports therapist. Ray, however, misses her and considers Lydia to be the one person who has ever truly been kind to him. Although his coach has always worked to mold Ray (who handsomely embodies the stereotype of a dumb jock) into a competitive swimmer and his brother has always tried to make things happen for Ray, Lydia is the only person in the swimmer's life who has not treated him as a piece of meat or the goose that might start to lay golden eggs.

Max Carpenter (Ray) and Michael J. Asberry (Coach)
in a scene from Red Speedo (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Hnath's swimmer knows he's a lunk head with no skills other than swimming. Easily manipulated by people who are smarter than him, Ray nevertheless is able to comprehend that others are desperate to cash in on his earning potential regardless of the risks that might result from their decisions. Through a curious plot twist, Ray discovers that he may not have needed the performance boosters to make it across the finish line ahead of his competitors. However, once he has proven that point to himself, he also realizes that he's tired of winning and would just as soon remain anonymous -- even if it means a lifetime of getting fired from meaningless jobs (which would sabotage all of his brother's and coach's efforts on his behalf).

Intensely directed by Markus Potter, Center Rep's production features costumes by Christina Dinkel, lighting by Kurt Landisman, and sound by Cliff Caruthers. It would be easy to think of Ray as mere eye candy, but Max Carpenter brings a poignant level of vulnerability to the carrot-chewing muscular hunk who still clenches his fists like a little boy when the adults in the room argue above and around him. While Rosie Hallett and Michael J. Asberry make strong contributions in supporting roles, Gabriel Marin delivers an astonishing bravura performance as Peter in a fully-developed tour de force which leaves the audience convinced that, even if the fast-talking Peter loses his license to practice law, he will be able to survive as a used car salesman.

Max Carpenter (Ray) in a scene from Red Speedo (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of Red Speedo continue through February 24 at the Lesher Center for the Arts (click here for tickets).

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The 1960s are known for many things (the Vietnam War, the Stonewall Riots, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert F. Kennedy, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the rise of the counterculture and the birth of two water-centric film genres: cheesy beach party movies that featured Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon and jaw-dropping documentaries about surfing. I have never surfed a wave in my life, but can still remember how thrilled I was after seeing Bruce Brown's first surfing documentary (1964's The Endless Summer), which was shot along the beaches of Australia, Hawaii, islands of the South Pacific, and the west coast of Africa.

Numerous surfing films have followed in its wake. Whether one prefers 2003's Step Into Liquid (which featured the beaches of Vietnam, Hawaii's Banzai Pipeline, and Cortes Bank off the coast of Southern California) or 2004's Blue Horizon, the sight of intrepid surfers risking their lives against the ocean's power never loses its ability to shock and awe viewers.

A scene from Between Land and Sea (Photo by: Kevin L. Smith)

What happens if a surfing documentary doesn't include a superstar surfer like Laird Hamilton or any of the sport's younger hotshots? What if the big waves are not located near some tropical island but off the forbidding west coast of Ireland near Lahinch in County Clare? Recently screened at the 2018 SFIndieFest, Ross Whitaker's new documentary, Between Land and Sea, follows a year in this tiny surfing spot in the North Atlantic where the water and weather are cold, the waves are formidable, and in order to get to the beach, one must often carry a surfboard down a steep, winding trail along the side of the imposing Cliffs of Moher.

A scene from Between Land and Sea (Photo by: Kevin L. Smith)

Unlike surfing documentaries which concentrate on young surfers who follow big waves from one popular surfing spot to another as they travel around the world, Between Land and Sea is about older surfers who have abandoned the chase after championship titles and corporate sponsorships and opted instead to build a life in which surfing is secondary to family responsibilities.
  • Fergal Smith is a farmer who acknowledges that he's getting too old to hope for celebrity endorsements. After losing his lease as a tenant farmer, he and his wife are seen building a yurt and trying to work a new patch of land so that they can build a vegetable farm which will sustain their lifestyle.
  • Another man is running a tourism-oriented business in which he rents wetsuits to tourists who come to town for surfing lessons taught by local coaches.
  • A local celebrity is a 60-year-old man who does a yearly charity swim.
  • Another man is now in his 40s and hopes to return to surfing after having raised several children and found Jesus.
A scene from Between Land and Sea (Photo by: Kevin L. Smith)

Unlike the warm and friendly waters of the Pacific Ocean, the North Atlantic produces a great deal of angry surf that breaks up on rocks, rather than sandy beaches. Whitaker's documentary follows a group of surfers over the course of a year as they enjoy the summer waves but struggle to stay afloat financially during the winter months.

What sets this film apart from so many others is a combination of the steep topography (there are frequent shots of the stone ruin of the Moher Tower, a watchtower atop Hag's Head) and the extensive of use of drone photography to capture some stunning shots of ocean swells as they head toward shore. Despite a cameo appearance by Hawaiian surfing legend Shane Dorian, the pulse of this film has a lot less to do with any kind of macho sports ethos than it does with the close relationships between surfers living in a small seaside community that depends on tourism to strengthen its economy.

A scene from Between Land and Sea (Photo by: Kevin L. Smith)

With some stunning camera work and editing by Andrew Hearne, Between Land and Sea is far from the standard surfing documentary. Although it's often hard to understand some of the thicker Irish accents in the film, Michael Fleming's subdued musical score has a unique charm. Here's the trailer:

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Who Is Your Lifeline?

As children, we often take our friendships casually. Because we see certain people on a regular basis, we assume they will always be there. After being picked up from child care, we return to the (hopefully) safe cocoon of our blood relatives. As the years fly by, we form stronger bonds with children at our school, in our congregation, at summer camp, or on our sports team. So much is happening in our lives that we rarely give much thought to how our social interaction is structured.

As the years progress, we become increasingly aware of how parts of our social circles overlap. The neighbor who went to school with us may move to another city yet, thanks to social media, can now stay in touch online without incurring expensive long distance phone bills. Not only does social media allow us to categorize our friends into niche groups (book clubs, alumni associations, volunteer organizations), we can still vicariously feel as if we play an active role in each other's lives. A new generation of entrepreneurs has even discovered ways to build a following of "friends" while tracing their genome!

Just as relatives can get married, move to another town, raise a family and eventually die, so can friends from our professional lives. The people we once saw every day and treated as members of our "work family" can take another job, lose interest in our friendship, and replace our once cherished spot in their lives with new friends, acquaintances, and lovers. As can we.

Alas, time waits for no one. Although we may frequently think of old friends with great fondness and wonder what's happening in their lives, constant waves of distraction prevent us from acting on our thoughts. While we may remember the names, quirks, and shared history with people we once held dear, years may pass before we reconnect (if indeed we ever do).

Extended families often surprise us. Soon after I joined Facebook, I heard from a woman I dated back in the 1960s when we were attending Brooklyn College. Last year, I had lunch with a close friend from elementary and junior high school. Even with such large gaps to fill in, the conversation was warm and flowed easily.

In order to build a basis for any kind of friendship, a lot of time must be spent together. In the early stages of a friendship, those shared experiences may not be counted as quality time. But as one grows and matures, they tend to ripen, aging like a good cheese or wine.

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Watching Brett Hanover's new film, Rukus, offers a peculiar challenge to any viewer. Should one keep watching this bland, pretentious, and ultimately self-defeating 86-minute-long semi-documentary to see where it is going? Or can one find a better use for their time? In his promotional material, Hanover describes his film as follows:
"A hybrid of documentary and fiction, Rukus is a fictionalized personal account of coming of age in Memphis at the turn of the century; a queer coming-of-age story set in the liminal spaces of furry conventions, southern punk houses, and virtual worlds. Rukus is a 20-year-old furry artist, living with his boyfriend, Sable, in the suburbs of Orlando, Florida.

In his sketchbooks, Rukus is constructing an imaginary universe -- a sprawling graphic novel in which painful childhood memories are restaged as an epic fantasy. He crosses paths with Brett, a 16-year-old filmmaker with OCD, who is working on a documentary about kinky subcultures in spite of his own anxiety. After an interview leads to an online friendship, their lives entwine in ways that push them into strange, unexplored territories. This feature-length video project is based on work begun in collaboration with furry artist Rukus that was left unfinished after his death in 2008."
Brett Hanover in a scene from Rukus

Hanover's film supposedly began as a high school project after he became interested in the furry subculture. It could also be that the furry convention which came to a local Holiday Inn Express was the most interesting thing to happen to a small circle of insecure teenagers lacking in passion and direction.

Participants at a local conference for furries greet
each other in a hotel corridor in a scene from Rukus

Two lonely furries stare out the window in a scene from Rukus

The one bright light in their lives seems to have been a young man nicknamed Rukus who, as a child, was fascinated by dinosaurs and grew into an adolescent whose good looks and personality easily attracted the attention of others. Other than the furries attending the convention, there is very little sense of an adult presence in the lives of Rukus and his friends who, by contrast, make slackers seem rather industrious.

Rukus was a young gay man who committed suicide in 2008.

Brett Hanover and Alanna Stewart in a scene from Rukus

What struck me most about Hanover's film was how much social media has rejiggered parts of society into tribes with shared cultural interests ranging from furries to kink, from amateur filmmaking to animation and graphic novels. However, where many extended families develop bonds based on shared experiences (in real time), most of the relationships seen in Rukus are notable for an overwhelming sense of apathy, alienation, shallowness, and lack of motivation. Whatever glue is supposedly holding them together is pretty weak stuff. Instead of Six Characters in Search of an Author, Rukus is primarily about an aspiring filmmaker in search of an idea with some focus. For what it's worth, here's the trailer.

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I grew up in a family whose social circle consisted primarily of teachers and school librarians. As a result, the importance of unions in protecting jobs and procuring employee benefits was a no-brainer. By the time my father retired, unions were starting to come under attack. It was a shock, as a freelance writer, to learn that independent contractors were cheap, disposable, had little bargaining power, and no support structure to fall back on.

Long before services like Lyft and Uber were launched, I was participating in the gig economy as a medical transcriptionist paid on a production basis by the word, line, or minute of recorded dictation. From 1999-2003, I wrote the "Transcription Trends" column in a healthcare information management trade journal entitled For The Record Magazine as the industry was experiencing the cost-cutting pain of outsourcing jobs to India and the Philippines while replacing skilled transcriptionists with speech recognition software.

That may be why certain elements of Dominique Morisseau's poignant drama, Skeleton Crew (which recently received its West Coast premiere from the Marin Theatre Company in a co-production with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley) hit home for me. I was familiar with a peculiar kind of intellectual camaraderie shared by workers with a highly specialized skill set who were constantly being undermined by managers who could not make it through a single shift transcribing dictation from muck-mouthed physicians.

On a cold October night in the early 1980s, I found myself in a guest room at the Dearborn Inn,  preparing to tour the Henry Ford Museum for a freelance assignment. As I watched the evening news, I learned that October 30th was known locally as "Devil's Night" in the Detroit area. So far there were only about 300 homes on fire.

Morriseau's play is set in Detroit during 2008's terrifying financial crisis, a time when Michigan's auto industry was on the brink of extinction, abandoned factories were being stripped by thieves, and vulture capitalists like Mitt Romney were urging politicians to pull the plug on a dying sector of the American economy. (Thanks, Obama!)

It helps to understand of how closely the rise and fall of Detroit's turbulent economy has been linked to the automobile industry. According to Laura Brueckner's timeline:
Margo Hall portrays a homeless lesbian line worker in Skeleton Crew
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While companies like Romney's Bain Capital were expert at downsizing payrolls so that their clients' employees were given the heave-ho and left to fend for themselves, many workers who had once been able to own their own homes and put their children through college suddenly found themselves saddled with debt, unable to make their mortgage payments, and on the brink of bankruptcy. Visitors to Detroit thought they had landed in the post-World War II ruins of a European city.

Working on a unit set created by Ed Haynes to resemble a broken down break room in an industrial plant, director Jade King Carroll focuses the audience's attention on four employees of a factory that, according to increasing rumors, is doomed to follow its neighbors into closure and bankruptcy.

Christian Thompson (Dez) and Margo Hall (Faye) in
a scene from Skeleton Crew (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Faye (Margo Hall) is the oldest of three line workers. Having worked for the same employer for 29 years, she needs to last until the end of the calendar year in order to retire with full benefits. A cynial chain-smoking lesbian with a gambling habit, she has watched her horizons continue to shrink. After her son got married, he and his wife joined a homophobic church which did not think a lesbian grandmother would be a good influence on their newborn child. In addition to losing her family, Faye's lover died, she lost her home because she couldn't keep up with the mortgage payments to the bank, she's secretly battling cancer, and has recently been forced to live out of her car.

Tristan Cunningham portrays the pregnant Shanita in Skeleton Crew
(Photo by Kevin Berne)

Shanita (Tristan Cunningham) is a single woman who is well into her first pregnancy. Proud of her skills and her ability to work as hard as any man on the assembly line, she is counting on her union benefits to help support her once the baby is born.

Dez (Christian Thompson) is an able-bodied young man who has been careful to compartmentalize various parts of his life. He rarely lets on about his dreams to have his own auto repair shop and secretly carries a gun in his backpack. While he tries to act tough in front of Faye and Shanita, his bark is much less than his bite. Despite constant attempts to flirt with Shanita or sass Faye, he respects both women.

Margo Hall (Faye), Lance Gardner (Reggie), and Christian Thompson
(Dez) in a scene from Skeleton Crew (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The fourth employee is Reggie (Lance Gardner), a unit manager who finds himself under increasing psychological pressure at home and at work. Constantly posting signs that warn employees of company regulations, he is trying to straddle the cultural gap between management and employees (his mother used to work on one of the assembly lines he now supervises).

As a child, Reggie never expected that he would one day be able to buy a house and raise a child. But with financial responsibilities nagging at him and the knowledge that the factory's future is grim, he is struggling to find ways to keep Faye, Shanita, and Dez (as well as the workers on other production lines) employed. Reggie's extended family poses another conflict of interest. As a child, he grew up visiting Faye and her family without understanding that his mother and Faye were secretly lovers.

Lance Gardner portrays the line supervisor, Reggie, in Skeleton Crew
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

A native of Detroit, Morriseau has written a Detroit-based trilogy (Skeleton Crew, Paradise Baby, and Detroit '67) as well as crafting the libretto for Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. While it may take audiences a while to settle into the dialect of Skeleton Crew's ensemble (I had some trouble tuning my ears to their speech), each character's conflicts, doubts, and growing fears become crystal clear as the evening progresses.

For those who have grown accustomed to their faces, it's dangerously easy to take the superb work of Tristan Cunningham and Margo Hall for granted. Both actors shine as two hard-working factory women facing physical challenges (pregnancy and menopause) that their male colleagues can't even comprehend. Christian Thompson's portrayal of Dez ranges from a simmering hothead to a stubborn young man determined to keep his secrets close to his chest. Late in the evening, Lance Gardner explodes during a confrontation with Margo Hall's Faye which shocks and humbles Reggie, leading him down a path toward resolution and redemption. It's a beautifully crafted showdown which has been impressively staged by Jade King Carroll.

Performances of Skeleton Crew continue through February 18 at the Marin Theatre Company (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer: