Monday, February 26, 2018

When In The Course of Human Events

The group of men frequently referred to as America's Founding Fathers were also the framers of the United States Constitution. In their wisdom, they laid the groundwork for a nation that could respond to change through legislative as well as socioeconomic processes. Recent events in the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida have demonstrated that (as always) the passion and determination of youth can summon the strength to reframe their culture's perspectives on the conditions under which they must grow up.

The media-savvy students of MSD (some of whom met through their school's drama club) are not "faking it until they make it." Nor are they paid "crisis actors." What they're doing is taking bold action during a crisis in which supposedly responsible adults, crippled by corruption, incompetence, and fear, have failed them in their moment of need.

In a surprisingly brief period of time, students have huddled together to analyze, organize, vocalize, and dramatize a new political movement. In addition to launching a nationwide student organization entitled Never Again MSD (known by the hashtag #NeverAgain) conceived to fight for tighter gun control, they have focused the power of shame like a laser and are starting to produce impressive results through carefully targeted messaging (e.g. "Call AR-15s Marco Rubios because they are both easy to buy"). Contrary to what conservative pundits and NRA shills would have the public believe, this new movement is being created of the students, by the students, and for the students.

Not only have they begun planning a march on the nation's capital, the students have humiliated skanky NRA whores like Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch on national television. In a stunning act of old-school shunning, they have warned politicians and corporations used to comfortably sitting on their status quo that "You're either with us or against us." In less than two weeks these students have pulled off the equivalent of informing Americans that any business still aligned with the NRA has "cooties."

Within 10 days of the Valentine's Day massacre, the students inspired companies like First National Bank of Omaha, TrueCar, Symantec, North American Van Lines, Allied Van Lines, and Simplisafe -- along with hotel chains (Best Western, Wyndham Worldwide, Days Inn, Super 8, and Ramada), airlines (United, Delta), insurance companies (Chubb Limited, MetLife), and car rental agencies (Hertz, Avis, Budget, Alamo, Enterprise, and National) -- to sever their marketing ties with the National Rifle Association. As advice columnist Dan Savage so aptly noted:
"The students at Stoneman Douglas have called for a March on Washington on March 24 and, along with the new group, intend to make taking money from the NRA as politically toxic as accepting campaign contributions from NAMBLA. An unfair comparison? One group supports child rape, the other supports child sacrifice. Both oppose reasonable age limits. I’d say it’s a fair comparison. Also: one actually exists and wields tremendous political power. The other is powerless and these days only exists in the fevered imaginations of anti-gay social conservatives."

Oprah Winfrey's remarks about the importance of young people knowing how to shape and frame their message took on added meaning on February 18, when TheatreFIRST presented the world premiere of Between Us at the Live Oak Theatre. As part of the company's educational outreach program, artistic facilitator Jon Tracy recently tried an experiment with students from Berkeley High School. When he first approached the school's administration about getting students interested in writing their own monologues as an exercise in "finding their voices," he was expecting to get buy-in from about 6-10 students at most. Instead, 90 teenagers showed interest in the program. The results were more than Tracy could have hoped for (he was especially impressed by one student who exclaimed that he had never before thought of himself as a revolutionary).

As the audience waited for Between Us to begin, Tracy came onstage and told TheatreFIRST's supporters about his recent experience. He then invited five of the Berkeley High students (Leia Figueroa, Zoe Creane, and Kavi Moohkerjee at the matinee; Jasmine Miller and Makeda Tucker at the evening performance) to perform their brief monologues. As I listened to their surprisingly well-crafted pieces, I couldn't help wondering how powerful such a program might become if we could replace the "school to prison pipeline" with a "school to playwrighting pipeline."

Others have noted the strong link between the students in MSD's drama club and how easily their theatrical discipline helped transform them into highly-effective activists. I strongly recommend the following three articles:

With the accelerating churn rate among leadership positions currently taking place throughout the nation's theatre community, more and more people are watching to see if regional boards of directors and their search committees will seek out qualified women and people of color instead of merely reinforcing a pattern of filling such positions with white men. Created by Rebecca Novick, Lia Kozatch, and Evren Odcikin, a spreadsheet tracking American Theatre Leadership Change is hoping to track parity and accountability in job searches. The bottom line will also give insight into which new leaders have a compelling artistic vision. To quote a character from 1967's Tony Award winner for Best Musical (Hallelujah, Baby!) "Storm's a comin' baby. Pull in your sails!"

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It's easy to think of Between Us as an extremely downsized response to such legendary two-part productions as Angels in America, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, and the upcoming Harry Potter and the Cursed Child -- Parts I and II. However, contrary to what those productions have with regard to cast size, special effects, and dramatic sweep, Between Us consists of seven 30-minute monologues (four in Part A, three in Part B) that form an American tapestry with tales of forgotten and ignored, yet powerfully motivated people who each have a compelling story to tell.

Just as a song cycle paints portraits of people and dramatic moments with music, each monologue in Between Us depicts a character's internal struggle. Each has been crafted by a different team of actors and directors focused on women and people of color whose stories are largely unknown to contemporary theatregoers. With a goal of making theatre "a place where social justice happens by breaking down perceived barriers so that we might all explore an equitable world," Between Us allows these people to speak truth to power with a sense of irony, commitment, and justifiably righteous indignation as they introduce audiences to their unique places in history.

Part A begins with Brit Frazier's Laveau, which stars Dezi Soley giving a wry and impassioned performance as the infamous Creole woman who became known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Beautifully directed by Margo Hall, Soley's Laveau stresses that she is part of a long line of dark-skinned women named Marie as she explains how her knowledge of herbs and spices allows her to take a black man under threat of execution, put him into a coma-like trance and, after impressing white folks with his death-like appearance, have him secretly transported to safety in another state.

Dezi Soley as Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of
New Orleans (Photo by: Randy Wong-Westbrooke)

Laveau's methodology was radically different from that of Harriet Tubman and her now-famous Underground Railroad. However, as noted on her Wikipedia page:
"Although some references to Marie Laveau in popular culture refer to her as a witch, she is properly described as a Voodoo queen. There is little that can be substantiated of Laveau's magical career, including whether or not she had a snake she named Zombi after an African god, whether the occult part of her magic mixed Roman Catholic saints with African spirits, or whether her divinations were supported by a network of informants she developed while working as a hairdresser in prominent white households and in a brothel she ran. She appeared to excel at obtaining inside information on her wealthy patrons by instilling fear in their servants whom she either paid or cured of mysterious ailments."
One might think it would be hard to top Soley's performance, but Mike Sagun's portrayal of Filipino-American activist Larry Itliong takes the stage with a fierce determination to secure better working conditions for migrant farm workers. Written and directed by Jeffrey Lo, Seven Fingers presents the outspoken labor organizer as a charismatic character with a clear vision of the need for minority workers to support each other in their struggles if they are ever going to break the economic grip of white businessmen which has kept them mired in poverty.

Mike Sagun appears as Filipino-American activist Larry Itliong
in Seven Fingers (Photo by: Randy Wong-Westbrooke)

A militant figure in the Delano Grape Strike of 1965-1970, Itliong convinced Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to have Filipino-Americans and Mexican farm workers unite in their struggle for better wages. Sagun's bravura performance reveals the wily personality behind an easily forgotten struggle for West Coast farm workers.

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After a brief intermission, Jennie Brick takes the stage as Sharon, a recently-divorced woman who has left her hard-line conservative husband in Idaho and moved to Berkeley to start a new life. A quiet, almost submissive soul, she got used to listening to her husband's rants and then making her own decisions in the privacy of the voting booth. However, as someone who lived in one of the so-called flyover states, Sharon found that her champion knitting skills came in handy after hearing Donald Trump refer to Hillary Clinton as a "nasty woman."

Jennie Brick appears as Sharon in Pussy Hat
(Photo by: Randy Wong-Westbrooke)

Written by Katie May and tenderly directed by Phoebe Moyer, Pussy Hat depicts a shy woman who, for most of her life, has been told that whatever she has been doing, she's been doing it wrong. After years of being put down by her husband, she has decided to attend her first protest as part of the renewed fight for women's rights. But Sharon is confused, hungry for guidance, and doesn't know quite how to take the next step. Sitting in a beaten-up armchair, Jennie Brick gives a touching performance as a woman struggling to find her voice late in life so she can join the parade instead of merely sitting on the sidelines and quietly watching it pass her by.

Cleavon Smith's monologue, Just One Day, focuses on a young black woman struggling to get up the courage to take off from work for the first observation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Directed by Elizabeth Carter, Sam Jackson's Esther is torn between conflicting loyalties.
  • First and foremost is her desire to honor the memory of Dr. King, one of the few African American heroes her generation can look up to.
  • Second is the strict warning from her employer that anyone who takes the day off to honor Dr. King can expect to be out of a job.
  • Third are the black garment workers at her factory who have already caved to their employer out of fear and financial necessity.
  • Fourth, and perhaps most formidable, is the impending arrival of her conservative mother, a woman who represents an older generation, is dressed for Sunday church, and may not be as supportive as Esther would like.
Sam Jackson appears as Esther in Just One Day
(Photo by: Randy Wong-Westbrooke)

The three short plays in Part B of Between Us need some work and will probably become a lot tighter during the show's run. Written and directed by Noelle Viñas, La Profesora: The Story of Nibia Sabalsagaray depicts a Uruguayan woman who is fighting her government to get justice for her sister, who was "disappeared" and presumably murdered. As Tachi attempts to lecture a class of American students, Virginia Blanco's connection with the audience is handicapped by a thick accent which, despite her obvious passion, frequently makes it difficult for her to be understood.

La Profesora, the Story of Nibia Sabalsagaray
stars Virginia Blanco as Tachi (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Written by the Tracy brothers (James and Jon) and directed by Robert Parsons, The Racket gives Aaron Murphy a chance to shine as Smedley Darlington Butler, a major general in the United States Marine Corps who, when he died on June 21, 1940 following a military career that spanned 34 years, had the honor of being the most decorated man in the history of the Marine Corps. In 1933, Butler warned a congressional committee about a military coup being planned by wealthy businessmen to remove President Franklin D. Roosevelt from office and tilt the United States in the direction of fascism.

Aaron Murphy appears as Major General Smedley Darlington Butler
in The Racket (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Butler's 1935 book entitled War Is A Racket lays the groundwork for President Dwight D. Eisenhower's stern warning about the rise of a military-industrial complex (the book's five chapters are entitled "War Is A Racket," "Who Makes the Profits?" "Who Pays the Bills?" "How to Smash This Racket!" and "To Hell With War!). With Parsons directing, Aaron Murphy delivers a high-voltage performance that raises the dramatic stakes to the level of an operatic mad scene. Would his tour-de-force performance be less frightening if Americans were not subject to the increasingly fascistic tendencies of the Trump administration? That may be hard for some to say, although I'm sure that plenty of people will have no trouble jumping to such conclusions.

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My favorite monologue from Program B was Turning the Page: The Story of Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. Written by Jeanne Sakata and directed by Jeffrey Lo, this piece is dedicated to one of the women who led the redress movement for more than 100,000 Japanese Americans who were shipped off to internment camps during World War II. Sakata's monologue explores the curious coincidence by which Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga discovered proof that military brass had attempted to destroy a  document entitled "Final Report on Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast." Why? Published in 1943, the report clearly stated that, following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans posed no threat to the security of the United States.

Having grown up in the company of teachers and librarians, I found Sakata's gentle yet powerful monologue to be a bittersweet reminder that fake news has been around for a long, long time. Ironically, Turning the Page received its world premiere at the same time that a new museum exhibit about the Japanese Internment Camps debuted in Los Angeles (see Years After Controversial Sale, Artworks from Japanese Internment Camps Go on View). Heidi Kobara's restrained performance as Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga speaks volumes as she describes the shock of learning that her family (and so many other Japanese Americans) had been sent to concentration camps scattered around the United States simply because military personnel got swept up in a wave of xenophobia, acted rashly and without justification, and could not admit to its tragic error and underlying lack of faith in the people it was supposed to protect.

Turning the Page: The Story of Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga
stars Heidi Kobara (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

All seven monologues benefit immensely from Stephanie Anne Johnson's lighting, Kristoffer Barrera's sound design and the combined work of Barrera, Ben Euphrat, and Brendan West in curating a series of video collages. Nikki Anderson-Joy's costumes and Randy Wong Westbrooke's scenic elements add to the production's impact. Performances of Between Us continue at the Live Oak Theatre through March 10 (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Rooting For The Underdog

Was 2018 the year that saw fewer people making fools of themselves on Valentine's Day? Have Americans become so numbed by school shootings, polar vortexes, Twitterbots, and the evildoing of the Trump administration that romance has flown out the window? Or has the #MeToo movement sent millions of men scurrying back into the safety of solitary masturbation?

Perhaps, with the advent of dating apps like Tinder and Grindr, it's become so much easier to get laid that no one wants to jump through a lot of hoops in the hope of hooking up. If one examines the plight of hopeless romantics from the silent film era, the kinds of obstacles they overcame for the slim chance that a woman would give them a simple peck on the cheek are simply astonishing.

Today, of course, things are different. Within certain minority subcultures, men can face unique challenges in their pursuit of romance. Consider the plight of K-von Moezzi, who bills himself as "the most famous half-Persian comedian in the world."

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Bay Area Musicals is currently presenting The Wedding Singer, the 2006 screen-to-stage musical adaptation of Tim Herlihy's 1998 film that starred Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. This perky show, with a book by Chad Beguelin and Herlihy and music by Matthew Sklar, had a disappointing run of 284 performances following its Broadway premiere with Stephen Lynch and Laura Benanti as its romantic leads. Nevertheless, The Wedding Singer has since been produced in Great Britain, Australia, Germany, Japan, Mexico, and Abu Dhabi (where audiences might be more easily enticed by the exotic charms of suburban New Jersey).

For those who don't know, the story's protagonist is a young rock 'n roller who has been singing at weddings and occasionally writing some songs of his own. The action takes place in 1985, when Robbie (Zac Schuman) has already spent several years playing in a band with his friends, Sammy (Max Thorne) and George (Matt Ono). George is an openly gay man modeled on the famous British rocker, Boy George. Sammy is a bit of a doofus whose girlfriend, Holly (Alissa Sanchez), loves him but feels like he might be holding her back.

Max Thorne (Sammy) and Alissa Sanchez (Holly) in a scene
from The Wedding Singer (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Up until this point, Robbie has been living with his grandmother (Donna Turner) in Ridgefield, New Jersey, but looking forward to marrying his fiancée, Linda (Kaylyn Dowd). As the show begins, his band ("Simply Wed") is performing at a wedding where Robbie meets an attractive member of the catering staff named Julia (Jenny Angell). While the two seem to be extremely compatible, Robbie explains that he's getting married the next day. Julia is languishing on hold, waiting for her frequently distracted boyfriend, Glen Guglia (Depoy Ramos), to propose. Glen, however, is a Wall Street investment banker "bro" with little interest in monogamy.

Zac Schuman (Robbie) and Jenny Angell (Julia) in a scene
from The Wedding Singer (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Unfortunately, Linda pulls a no-show on her wedding day, leaving the mortified wedding singer alone at the altar. Deeply depressed, Robbie does a splendid job of ruining another couple's nuptials by viciously lashing out at their wedding party and guests. After the groom and some friends beat up the angry, inebriated Robbie and leave him in a dumpster, it would seem that nothing could make the night worse...until Julia finds him and explains that it might be wise for Robbie to stop performing at weddings and appear at bar mitzvahs, instead.

Many misunderstandings later, Robbie finds himself racing to Las Vegas to interrupt Julia's wedding to Glen (who gets beaten up by a bunch of celebrity impersonators working as Ronald Reagan, Tina Turner, Cindy Lauper, and Billy Idol). The desperate plot twists which lead to a happy ending bear a startling resemblance to some of the challenges Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd encountered as they sought true love in their silent films. With the obnoxious Glen out of the way, Robbie and Julia are finally reunited and cleared to marry.

A scene from The Wedding Singer (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Although the original Broadway production of The Wedding Singer was nominated for five Tony Awards and eight Drama Desk Awards, it received none and seems destined for obscurity. Some of that is because, overshadowed by the raging success of 2003's screen-to-stage musical adaptation of Hairspray, it was also competing against Jersey Boys, The Color Purple, and The Drowsy Chaperone. In some ways, The Wedding Singer also seems like a weaker send-up of the 1980s than Hairspray, with a script that includes timely references to everything from New Coke and bad hair to expensive coffee and giant cell phones.

Nevertheless, The Wedding Singer is a good-natured and highly entertaining show which is a perfect fit for high school drama departments and community theatre companies. Energetically directed by Matthew McCoy and buoyed by Leslie Waggoner's athletic choreography, this is the kind of second-tier musical (like The Unsinkable Molly Brown, George M! and 70, Girls, 70) that does a swell job of making audiences happy without aspiring to a whole lot of depth.

Working on McCoy's unit set (with costumes by Brooke Jennings and lighting by Eric Johnson), the only problem I had was with Anton Hedman's sound design, which made it impossible to understand Chad Beguelin's lyrics. Looking like a bit of a sad sack, Zac Schuman carried the bulk of the show on his shoulders while offering a stark contrast to the slickly reptilian portrayal of Glen by Jepoy Ramos. Jenny Angell's Julia, Alissa Sanchez's Holly, Kaylyn Dowd's Linda, and Donna Turner's Grandma Rosie all score strongly, with Max Thorne and Matt Ono turning in appealing performances as Robbie's back-up players. One member of the ensemble (Carlos Guerrero) gave off enough energy to power a national tour.

Alissa Sanchez performs a specialty number during
The Wedding Singer (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Performances of The Wedding Singer continue through March 17 at the Victoria Theatre (click here for tickets).

Monday, February 19, 2018

Game On!

With the world caught up in the excitement of the 2018 Winter Olympics, perhaps this is a good time to look at what the Olympics stand for and the lessons they teach people. Inspired by the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece, the International Olympic Committee was formed in 1894 to draw up a charter that would define its authority while outlining the structure of future Olympic Games. In the 124 years that followed, international events have brought some stunning changes to the Olympic Games.
The most successful athlete at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin,
African-American athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals

Whether one considers sports such as football and gymnastics or board games like Monopoly and Scrabble, the rules and point systems for these activities have been carefully codified in order to standardize competition. Over time, rules can merge with tradition and nostalgia to form a unique culture with regard to a particular game -- a culture that inspires fans and impacts the way contestants strive for victory. Occasionally, the people who call the shots (team managers, coaches, referees) become so passionate about their game's culture that they risk losing objectivity and falling into a pattern of denial.

The game-related trivia that people have memorized with fetishistic glee can turn out to have surprisingly less importance than true believers imagine. In his 2003 book entitled Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Michael Lewis described how the Oakland Athletics, under the leadership of general manager Billy Beane, took a giant risk by reassessing cultural norms that professional baseball teams (and their fans) had taken as gospel for many years and putting their faith in statistics. Bennett Miller's 2011 film adaptation of Lewis's book helped audiences to view baseball through a new set of lenses.

If we look at businesses like Amazon (1994), Craigslist (1995), Google (1998), HuffPost (2005), Airbnb (2008), Uber (2009), and Bitcoin (2009), we see a pattern of disruptive innovation ventures launched by brash entrepreneurs eager to rewrite the business models for long-established industries. Their success could not have been possible without rapid advances in computer technology. However, a desire to upset the apple cart by trying something new requires much more than a mere whim or gut instinct. As the following video clip shows, solid data and a winning strategy are key ingredients to success.

While some people insist that the rules must be strictly followed in any type of game, more adventurous souls are willing to bet that some rules were made to be broken. Judging by two recent game-related dramas, it would seem that instead of ancient Greek gods looking down at the playing field, the gods of comedy and tragedy have been calling the shots.

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Recently screened at the 2018 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival, Streaker (Flitzer) gives its gimmick away in the movie's title. That doesn't prevent it from being a hugely entertaining film filled with delicious plot twists.

Poster art for Streaker (Flitzer)

Directed by Peter Luisi, Streaker's antihero is 53-year-old Balz Naef (Beat Schlatter). A single father who has been struggling for years to raise sufficient funds to build a museum in honor of the 19th century Swiss poet, Gottfried Keller, Naef is a somewhat lackluster German teacher at a high school in Baden.

Although the school principal (Dominic Deville) promised Naef that funding for his dream was available, at the last minute he put Naef's idea to a vote and the issue was solidly defeated in favor of directing that money toward the school's sports program. Naef's despondence is magnified by the fact that his teenage daughter, Elisa (Luna Wedler), attends the same school where he teaches, is mortified by his presence, and works hard to conceal their relationship from her fellow students. To make matters worse, one of Elisa's classes is taught by her father.

Kushtrim (Bendrit Bajra) and Naef (Beat Schlatter)
hit on a winning idea in a scene from Streaker

While getting a haircut from Kushtrim (Bendrit Bajra), Naef learns that his barber has a thriving side business as a bookie. Deciding to go for broke, the schoolteacher (who keeps the financial records of the school's funds) bets the money that was supposed to go toward his museum project on a soccer game, but loses it all when a streaker runs across the field, instantly ruining the winning team's momentum. The crowd, understandably, goes wild with excitement. Eager to learn the streaker's motivation and techniques, Naef tracks him down and pumps him for information.

With a schoolteacher's analytical skills, Naef comes up with a brilliant idea. If he can find a way to get a streaker onto the field at various soccer games, he might be able to generate a way of betting on the odds. With Kushtrim's help, he determines that if he can get gamblers to bet on how long the streaker can last between the time he takes off his clothes and is tackled and escorted off the field, he might be able to earn enough money to pay off the school funds he lost.

Schoolteacher Naef (Beat Schlatter) finds himself under
increasing pressure to pay off a loan in a scene from Streaker

In order to recruit potential streakers, Naef places a notice on a website similar to Craigslist, advertising classes for people who are looking to build their self confidence. As an experienced teacher, he has no trouble interviewing applicants, scouting out a training location (a quiet barn), and devising a syllabus for training his enrollees. The people who show up for his program range from an extremely shy woman to a huge and heavily muscled bodybuilder; from a zealous exhibitionist to an aging call girl.

Naef (Beat Schlatter) demands that an aspiring
streaker prove his talent in a scene from Streaker

It doesn't take long for complications to arise. The biggest brown-noser in one of Naef's classes is a pretty young teen named Annina Strebel (Una Rusca) who raises her hand to answer every question and whose mother, Sandra (Doro Müggler), is one of the leading detectives on Baden's police force. In order to keep Sandra at bay, Naef starts to woo her as a way of distracting the detective. But as the love-hungry Sandra starts to become more romantically aggressive, Naef finds himself caught in between a rock and a hard place -- a situation complicated by the fact that Sandra has chained him to her bed. Things don't improve the following morning, when Sandra heads off to work and Annina finds Naef heading for the kitchen in his underwear.

Schoolteacher Naef (Ben Schlatter) woos an unlikely romantic
prospect (Doro Müggler) in a scene from Streaker

All bets are off as Streaker nears its hilarious climax. Schlatter gives a wonderful performance as the sad sack teacher whose aspiring mentees end up thrilling crowds at Swiss soccer matches. Bendrit Bajra is refreshing as Naef's sidekick, with Doro Müggler adding to the fun as a horny female detective. If you need a healthy dose of silliness to brighten your day, Streaker wastes no time answering Clara Peller's classic question: "Where's The Beef?" Here's the trailer.

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Five years ago, when an independent video game developer named Zoë Quinn released a new online game, she became the surprising target of hostility from some easily-threatened men in 4chan and other parts of the online gaming community. That summer, Quinn's former boyfriend (Eron Gjoni) published a nearly 10,000-word screed which quoted extensively from prior online correspondence with Quinn (chat sessions, texts, emails). Feeling betrayed because Quinn had moved on to another relationship, he suggested that her new boyfriend was responsible for a favorable review that her video game (Depression Quest) received on Gawker Media's Kotaku website.

Gjoni's post provoked extensive doxing of his former girlfriend (including threats of rape and death) from members of the male gamer community as well as the hacking of several of Quinn's online accounts. It revealed a festering anti-feminist subculture driven by rage, bile, and misogyny yet notably lacking in impulse control. An article in The New Yorker Magazine quoted one threat which declared "Next time she shows up at a conference we... give her a crippling injury that's never going to fully heal... a good solid injury to the knees. I'd say a brain damage, but we don't want to make it so she ends up too retarded to fear us."

No one ever suggested that gamers don't have feelings. Or that, in an age of rampant sexism within the tech community, excitable nerds with wounded egos who think of themselves as mighty keyboard warriors aren't capable of holding a grudge.

Following a year in which charges of sexual harassment have obliterated the careers of numerous politicians as well as industry titans such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and James Levine, as part of its Sandbox Series for New Works the San Francisco Playhouse is presenting the world premiere of a chilling new dramedy entitled Non-Player Character.

With the rampant sexism within the tech and entertainment industries (and pushback from the #MeToo movement) front and center in today's media, Walt McGough's two-act play features a cast of six that moves back and forth between the real and virtual worlds of contemporary life. Inspired by 2013's #Gamergate controversy, it does more than merely put human faces on characters who hide behind their keyboards. It reveals the pathetic insecurity of men who can't handle rejection; virtually-empowered snowflakes whose emasculated war cry in real life boils down to a simpering sob of "It's not fair!"

Emily Radosevich as Katja in a scene from
Non-Player Character (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Non-Player Character begins in the middle of an online session of Spearlight as teammates Katja (Emily Radosevich) and Trent (Devin O'Brien) alternate between slaying fantasy villains and discussing the recent changes in their offline lives. Now living in Seattle, Katja has been experimenting with an idea for a new game which has no competition and no guns, but rewards its players on the basis of their creativity. Trent, who has lost his job and been forced to move back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania (where he is living in his parents' basement), has been depressed and aimless since they broke up.

The fantasy characters of Non-Player Character
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

When, through the tortured logic that results from a toxic combination of limited social skills and male fragility, Trent suggests moving out to Seattle so he can reunite with Katja and "help her" with her project, he is stunned by her rejection of his poorly-conceived idea. Act I ends as Trent is seen talking to his online friends in an effort to disavow their overreactions to his action cry that "It's not fair." But the audience understands that, having unleashed the repressed feral instincts of grown men who think with their dicks instead of their brains, matters have already begun to spin out of control. In a not-at-all subtle moment of symbolism, a growing mob of male gamers juiced up on their own version of toxic masculinity, have found the key to Pandora's box.

Act II finds Katja working part time at a Starbucks in Seattle. Having been forced to leave her home due to an ongoing barrage of threats from misogynistic gamers, she has been offered shelter by her manager, Naomi (Charisse Loriaux), as she struggles with her emotions and justifiably increased paranoia. When Katja finally gets up the courage to file a police report, she is informed by a precinct clerk (Annemaria Rajala) that there's nothing the police can do to follow up on her situation unless she is actually attacked. While the clerk confesses that she worries about her own child's intense interest in video games, she obviously doesn't understand the kind of harassment Katja has been experiencing.

Emily Radosevich as Katja in a scene from
Non-Player Character (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Several days later, Naomi encourages Katja to fill in on the morning shift for a worker who is sick. The two women are surprised when a mild-mannered man enters the cafe and recognizes Katja. Explaining that, even though he was not an active participant in the doxing that targeted her, he feels horrible about what happened and wants to apologize. Grant (Dean Koya) also reveals his online identity as the Spearlight player whose avatar, Morwyn (Annemaria Rajala), is a fierce but rather dumb blonde glamazon.

Tyler McKenna (Feldrick) and Annemaria Rajala (Morwyn) in a
scene from Non-Player Character (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The fact that the clueless Grant has been searching various Starbucks locations in the hope of finding Katja sends her over the brink as she erupts in a Category 5 rant that eventually sends the terrified gamer running up the street toward safety. The play ends as Katja shows Naomi how her new game works and the two women, entranced by their newly-found capacity to create a tree, watch it grow and transform over the course of nature's seasons.

Emily Radosevich (Katja) and Charisse Loriaux (Naomi) in a
scene from Non-Player Character (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

With scenic design by Jacqueline Scott, costumes by Leandra Watson, and lighting by Wolfgang Wachalovsky, Non-Player Character has been righteously directed by Lauren English, whose staging of Katja's scathing meltdown is a red-hot moment of theatrical brilliance. Special credit goes to Theodore J. H. Hulsker, who designed the production's sound and projections.

While Charisse Loriaux, Devon O'Brien, Annemaria Rajala, Tyler McKenna, and Dean Koya shine in supporting roles, Non-Player Character's protagonist offers a compelling opportunity for Emily Radosevich, who erupts with volcanic rage in the second act. Writing on the San Francisco Playhouse's blog, the company's artistic director, Bill English, notes that:
"Based on the Gamergate scandal, in which coder Zoe Quinn was systematically harassed by male counterparts intent on driving her from the business, Walt McGough’s Non-Player Character lands squarely on the moment in which we live, as we try to come to grips with the avalanche of sexual harassment cases in entertainment, politics, and the world of non-profits. The vast majority of these appalling examples of sexual harassment coming to light in recent months have resulted in forced resignations, prosecutions, and career-ending firings for the perpetrators. But how does that work in virtual worlds where no actual crime has been committed but where toxicity seems to multiply exponentially, where perpetrators become capable of levels of cruelty that would not be possible in real life. How is it that on-line male personas get permission from their human alter egos to magnify hostility and rage towards women? What can be done about it? Can sexual harassment performed on-line be a crime? How can these sexual predators be called to account?"
Rather than settling for speculation, witness Anita Sarkeesian's account of the gender-based hostility she encountered from Internet trolls.

Performances of Non-Player Character continue through March 4 at the Children's Creativity Museum Theatre. (click here for tickets).

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).