Saturday, March 31, 2018

Proceed At Your Own Peril

Some people believe that revenge is a dish best served cold. Others like to think that karma is a real bitch. Underlying both these sentiments is the fact that schadenfreude warms the heart and nourishes the soul. However, for the families of unwitting victims of tragic circumstances, such popular corporate euphemisms as risk management and collateral damage bring little comfort.

On August 7, 2016, ten-year-old Caleb Schwab (the son of Kansas State Representative, Scott Schwab) was decapitated while riding the Verrückt, a 17-story tall water slide at the Schlitterbahn Kansas City Water Park. The ride's creator, Jeff Henry, was recently charged with murder after investigators discovered horrific levels of negligence (including covering up injuries and pressuring construction crews) so that he could attract the attention of producers for the Travel Channel’s popular Xtreme Waterparks program.

The Washington Post's hair-raising recent article about the story documents a pattern of skipping normal design and safety tests in Henry's effort to rush his product to market in pursuit of fame and fortune. Although the Scott family received settlement payments of approximately $20 million, no amount of money will bring their son, Caleb, back to life.

On March 18, Elaine Herzberg was killed in Tempe, Arizona when she was run over by an autonomous car being tested by Uber. Although Uber has since negotiated a settlement with Herzberg's family and will not renew its California permit to test autonomous vehicles until the appropriate investigations have been completed, there is nothing the company can do to bring Ms. Herzberg back to life.

The combination of abject greed and toxic masculinity that allows people like Jeff Henry and corporations like Uber to push the envelope as hard and far as they can at the risk of peoples' lives has been a growing source of concern. Its disastrous potential has only been magnified by the #MeToo movement and the recent March For Our Lives.

Two recent Bay area premieres offer intriguing examples of how victims of circumstance are often women who did nothing to merit such suffering. Normal levels of transparency and accountability might not have been able to prevent the tragic turns in their lives. None of these women dressed suggestively. They certainly weren't "asking for it." Nor would they have an opportunity for revenge and retribution. They just had the severe misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Curiously, these stories unraveled in vastly different circumstances. One was awash in magical realism; the other was set against the spartan background of a medical research clinic.

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It doesn't require any stretch of the imagination to understand that politicians can easily be corrupted. But what about doctors and medical researchers? What if the quest to develop a medication that could achieve a breakthrough in treatment of a particular condition was compromised by doctored research or tampering with the protocol for a clinical trial? San Francisco Playhouse is currently presenting the Bay area premiere of a disturbing play by Britain's Lucy Prebble. As its director, Bill English, notes:
"The inspiration for The Effect came when an actual drug trial conducted by the American pharmaceutical company PAREXEL, held at Northwick Park Hospital in London, went terribly wrong. Some of the volunteers suffered horrific side effects including organ failure and lost fingers and toes. The scandal played across all the London tabloids. Lucy Prebble, the playwright, was mortified, but also fascinated by the dramatic potential of a drug trial."
Susi Damilano (Lorna) and Robert Parsons (Tobey) in
a scene from The Effect (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
"Ms. Prebble has created a powerful theatrical metaphor that brings us home to one of the contradictions of human life. Our feelings are so unpredictable, so fleeting, and so mercurial. How do we know which ones to trust, which instincts we should act on, and which ones we should acknowledge with a smile and move on? The two women in The Effect are clearly the protagonists: one haunted by a crazy love, one tormented by depression. For women particularly, as Ms. Prebble puts it, 'We are used to the physical and the emotional being utterly intertwined from a very early age. We are very aware how much biology affects our every moment.'”
In The Effect, Dr. Tobey Sealey (Robert Parsons) never wanted to be a surgeon. Instead, he found himself more intrigued with psychology and the mysteries of the brain. As the play begins, he is running a clinical trial on a new medication whose potential as a super-antidepressant could have a profound effect on clinical care (simultaneously creating a revenue stream akin to Viagra's windfall). Two volunteers are waiting for their final screening before being enrolled in the trial, which requires them to live onsite under clinical supervision as the medication's dosage is slowly increased.

Tristan Frey (Joseph Estlack) comes across like a fairly macho "bro." Casual and cocky, he's willing to be a medical guinea pig if doing so will earn enough money to underwrite his next adventure. He's participated in similar trials before, knows the routine, and has a pretty good idea of how to stretch the limits of clinical protocol (although it's not clear to the audience exactly how and where Tristan hid his cell phone).

Joseph Estlack (Tristan) and Susi Damilano (Lorna) in
a scene from The Effect (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Connie Hall (Ayelet Firstenberg) is a single woman at a turning point in her life who is questioning her relationship with a man, her living conditions, and what the future has in store for her. A stickler for detail, she doesn't hesitate to push back at the clinician asking her questions. Her main reason for entering the trial is because she needs money to help pay off her recently deceased father's medical bills.

Joseph Estlack (Tristan) and Ayelet Firstenberg (Tobey)
in a scene from The Effect (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The clinician supervising the trial is Dr. Lorna James (Susi Damilano), who met Tobey years ago at a medical conference where they had a brief fling that helped to bring her out of a depression. On the flight home, Lorna started chatting with a woman who warned her that Tobey had a reputation for playing the field at medical conferences and suggested that Lorna be careful not to get too deeply involved with him.

Working on Nina Ball's elegant unit set (beautifully lit by Kurt Landisman with projections and sound designed by Theodore J. H. Hulsker), Prebble's drama starts off without much tension. However, as the medication dosages increase, some of the predicted side effects (paranoia, loneliness, increased libido, the anticipated placebo effect) start to emerge. Soon enough, Tristan (who has grown bored and horny) has managed to find Connie and seduce her, effectively compromising the study with a spontaneous act of unprotected sex.

Ayelet Firstenberg (Tobey) and Joseph Estlack (Tristan)
in a scene from The Effect (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Meanwhile, Lorna has grown increasingly worried about how the medication is impacting Tristan's mental health. As the experiment heats up, the intense emotions felt by Tristan and Connie are oddly matched by Lorna's agitation. When the clinical trial goes horribly wrong, a part of Tristan's medical history (which he failed to reveal to the research team) coupled with a stunningly unethical decision on Tobey's part trigger a pair of medical crises which might force two people into years of therapy.

When Prebble's biting satire entitled Enron premiered in London in 2009, she explained that her aim was:
"... to show the theatricality of business and the illusions on which it thrives. For Enron, business became a form of show business. I learned that Jeffrey Skilling used to wake up at 4:00 a.m. thinking of all the pressure on him. I found it easy to relate to that since I used to do exactly the same when I was younger, thinking of all the lies I'd told and fantasies I'd created. Enron's president had a messianic zeal and believed he could change the world by creating a virtual economy."
When I saw a production of Enron 2012 at the EXIT Theatre, I was impressed by the fearlessness with which Prebble satirized the self-identified "masters of the universe" behind one of the biggest financial disasters in recent history. Her skill as a playwright remains razor-sharp in The Effect, where her ability to dramatize a professional betrayal is magnified by her ability to combine a heinous act with an acutely personal betrayal.

San Francisco Playhouse's four-actor ensemble does a splendid job of building suspense from the play's casual beginning, through its accelerating course of hypersexuality and increased paranoia, up to the tragic moments when the shit hits the fan. While Ayelet Firstenberg and Robert Parsons give strong performances as Connie and Tobey, the characters who travel the greatest emotional distance are Tristan and Lorna (in deeply moving portrayals by Joseph Estlack and Susi Damilano).

The Effect challenges an audience's willingness to balance the shining potential of medical research against the greed it inspires while taking note of how manipulative men go about getting what they want, regardless of the cost to others. Performances continue through April 28 at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:
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Every now and then an evening at the theatre sweeps you off your feet with the creative team's ability to meld music, craft, folklore, and storytelling into a truly exquisite experience. Billed as "a contemporary folk opera that re-imagines Eastern European fairy tales as radical stories for our time," Iron Shoes is a joint effort between Shotgun Players and the Kitka Women's Vocal Ensemble. Composer/lyricist Janet Kutulas first wrote an a capella score about women overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles back in 2013. As the playwright, Michelle Carter, explains:
“By the end of a two-week workshop at Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor, we’d made our way to the crisis point in each of our stories, the moments where each of our three maidens had hit rock bottom. After the workshop was over, it turned out that none of us were interested in just continuing each story where it left off. The challenge of how to make use of that moment felt really interesting. Why would a narrator abandon the telling of each story when her characters are at their lowest moments? It was that question that drove the exploration of the narrator -- what she wants, what she fears, what she needs to experience in order to find her place in the world. Building the narrator’s arc gave us a new way into each of the three maidens’ stories.”
Angel Adedokun (Second Girl), Sharon Shao (First Girl), and
Caitlin Tabancay Austin (Third Girl) in a scene from Iron Shoes
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Finist the Falcon is a Russian fairy tale which starts off bearing a strange resemblance to Cinderella. A merchant asks his three daughters what they would like him to bring them from his trip to the fair. Like Cinderella's ugly stepsisters, the two older daughters are focused on material goods. However, the merchant's third daughter asks him to bring her a feather from Finist the Falcon. When the older sisters became jealous, they put knives in the window, which severely injure the falcon (who was actually a Prince in disguise). The Prince tells his newly beloved that, in order to find him, she must search for him until she wears out a pair of iron shoes.

Angel Adedokun (Second Girl) and Shira Cion (Ensemble)
in a scene from Iron Shoes (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

The Enchanted Pig is a Roumanian folk tale about a king who also has three daughters. Soon after he heads off to war, they disobey his strict orders and enter a room where they discover a book that predicts their fate. The oldest daughter will marry a prince from the East; the middle daughter will marry a prince from the West, and the youngest daughter will marry a pig from the North.

After marrying the pig and going to live with him, she is surprised to learn that he turns into a man at night. His kindness wins her love and devotion until she is tricked by an old woman into tying a thread to his foot in order to free him. When he awakes, she learns that the old woman was the witch who had originally transformed him into a pig. By tying the thread to his foot on the night before the spell was supposed to expire, she has doomed her husband to remain a pig forever. She, too, is forced into a pair of iron shoes and embarks on an arduous trek that will take her to the houses of the Moon and the Sun.

Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as the Pig King in a scene
from Iron Shoes (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

The Armless Maiden is a Russian fairy tale in which two orphaned children (a brother and sister) move away from their home. When the brother marries, his new wife is hostile and cruel to her sister-in-law. When the wife gives birth, she cuts off the baby's head and blames the infant's death on her husband's sister. In his grief, the husband cuts off his sister's arms. The young woman eventually settles in a village where she meets a merchant, falls in love, and gives birth to a child. Although the baby is often tied to her breast, when she bends down to drink from a well one day, her baby falls into the water.

That's as good a time as any for an intermission. But, instead of the traditional endings to these fairy tales, the evening changes course as the characters turn on the detached and supercilious Narrator, demanding accountability for how she has chosen to tell each story.

The cast of Iron Shoes confronts the narrator
(Beth Wilmurt) (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

In the second act, the Narrator is fitted with her own pair of iron shoes, dressed as the young woman from The Enchanted Pig, and forced to learn what it feels like to "walk a mile in someone else's shoes." Her trek requires her to use her wits (along with some magical chicken bones that can be employed to form a ladder which allows her to enter the castle where her husband is sleeping), even if it means losing a finger. Upon awakening, her husband informs her that the spell has finally been broken and explains how, as a young prince, he had once slain a dragon. To exact her revenge, the dragon's mother (a witch) had turned him into a pig.

As a creative team, composer/lyricist and music director Janet Kutulas, playwright Michelle Carter, and director/choreographer Erika Chong Shuch have found an exciting way to breathe new life into a trio of old fairy tales while laying an exhausting path for the enlightenment of the aloof and dispassionate Narrator. Although Sean Riley's set design for Iron Shoes may appear deceptively simple, without the enhancements provided by Gregory Kuhn's sound design, Devon Labelle's props, Allen Willner's lighting, Alina Bokovikova's costumes, and the participation of the Kitka Women's Vocal Ensemble, Iron Shoes would lose a great deal of its theatrical magic.

Special kudos go to Sharon Shao (First Girl), Rowena Richie (the Falcon), Angel Adedokun (Second Girl), Caitlin Tabancay Austin (Third Girl), Shira Cion (Old Woman), Beth Wilmurt (the Narrator), and Erolina Kamburova (her apprentice). Others in the ensemble include Kelly Atkins, Kristine Barrett, Briget Boyle, Melanie Elms, Juliana Graffagna, and Michele Simon. In Act II, Travis Santell Rowland nearly steals the show as the mothers of the Moon and the Sun.

Beth Wilmurt (Narrator) and Travis Santell Rowland (Ensemble)
in a scene from Iron Shoes (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Because the Bay area is a seething cauldron of theatrical creativity, critics attend a surprising number of world premieres over the span of a calendar year. Throughout its five-year gestation, Iron Shoes has been nurtured by three East Bay nonprofit arts organizations (the Kitka Women's Vocal Ensemble, Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Ground Floor for New Works, and Shotgun Players). The final result is a thrilling demonstration of how multiple art forms can be woven into a brilliant (and nearly seamless) narrative tapestry -- a world premiere not to be missed.

Performances of Iron Shoes continue through May 6 at Shotgun Players (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

There's Something About Maturity

At the conclusion of Thornton Wilder's play, The Matchmaker, Dolly Levi suggests that the youngest character should explain the moral of the story. Barnaby Tucker nervously proceeds to describe how, all too often, a person might find himself sitting at home, wishing he were having an adventure but then, when he is actually caught up in the middle of an adventure, might find himself wishing he could be safe at home. While there is no doubt in Barnaby's mind that we all need a certain amount of adventure in our lives, there is also a keen awareness that if nothing is ventured, nothing can be gained.

The Parkland students who survived the horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14 demonstrated their resolve with the massive "March For Our Lives" demonstrations held in cities around the world on March 24. There is no doubt that plenty of adrenaline was pumping as more than 800,000 people packed Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation's capital. The students organizing the event pulled off a minor miracle with a meticulously staged and strategically planned coup de theatre that should leave Marco Rubio worrying whether, at some point in the near future, he'll even be able get a job at Jack in the Box.

Many journalists and television pundits have wondered if the level of energy behind the March For Our Lives event can be sustained throughout the months leading up to 2018's midterm elections. My hunch is that students (who have already spooked politicians enslaved by the National Rifle Association) will keep up their attack with the determination of sharks that can sense blood in the water. It will be interesting to see how easily the practitioners of political graft can be defeated by a younger generation learning how to hone their own political craft.

In his recent piece in The New York Times entitled "The Agony and Ecstasy of Writing Negative Reviews," Jesse Green took a moment to react to some irate responses to his review of the new Broadway musical, Escape To Margaritaville, by explaining part of what a critic's job entails.
"Criticism is a form of journalism, which is, in theory, a form of truth. A critic reports honestly on his own thoughts and feelings, as if they were a war or a trial. They often are both. Arts criticism is in some ways a paradox, like Marianne Moore’simaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Critics try to make objective judgments based on responses they know to be subjective. So when readers are stung (or just annoyed) by my pans, I remind them that fighting about theater is often the best part of the show."
In the poem cited by Green, Moore wrote "One must make a distinction however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry." Her words haunted me as I tried to articulate my feelings about two recent Bay area premieres.
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If, as they say, opposites attract, then it would be hard to imagine a more unlikely pairing than the two characters in Heisenberg (which premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club on June 3, 2015 and is now being staged by the American Conservatory Theater).

Alex Priest (James Carpenter) is a 75-year-old butcher who likes to take long walks around London, listen to all kinds of music, and is quite obviously an introvert. Although he enjoys cuddling more than the mechanics of sex, he has not been with a woman for quite some time. Alex has never married, never traveled outside of London, and never taken a vacation. And yet, after so many years working alone in his butcher shop, he still loves his work because of "the animals" and finds peace in solitude. As the playwright notes: “Alex is a man whose soul has been atrophied by a broken heart. It is only when listening to music that his soul can explore itself, that he feels as though he is not alone.”

Sarah Grace Wilson (Georgie) and James Carpenter (Alex)
in a scene from Heisenberg (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Georgie Burns (Sarah Grace Wilson) is a frantically conflicted 42-year-old bundle of nerves. A motor mouth who curses like a sailor and immediately apologizes for her vocabulary, she works as a school receptionist. Just as Charles Schulz's Pig-Pen character always walked around in a cloud of dirt, Georgie's desperation is impossible to ignore. She takes great pride in her ability to pigeonhole the people she meets and is quite obnoxious about assigning the worst stereotypes to them. The fact that she is almost always wrong doesn't stop her from prejudging anyone and everyone (which makes it easy to understand why her son returned to America two years ago to "reconnect with his Midwestern roots" and has since refused to have any contact with his annoying mother).

As the play begins, Georgie is apologizing for having snuck up behind Alex (who was seated on a park bench) and impulsively kissed him on the neck, mistakenly thinking that he was her recently deceased husband. From their initial counter it's hard to tell if Georgie is a stalker, a grifter, someone with no sense of boundaries, or some crazy bitch roaming a public park (at one point she tells Alex that she's an assassin). On the other hand, it's the quiet types like Alex -- who work with knives -- that sometimes turn out to be serial killers.

James Carpenter (Alex) and Sarah Grace Wilson (Georgie)
in a scene from Heisenberg (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The Heisenberg theory (from which the play derives its title) claims that an observed particle can never be predicted and a particle whose projection is observed has not been fully seen. As the director, Hal Brooks, explains:
Heisenberg asks us to be outside of ourselves, to be fully enmeshed and immersed in a relationship of people whom we like but don’t entirely trust or know. What we’re ready for is investing in them and in the possibility that they’ll work things out. That’s the trickiest part about Georgie: making sure that we like her enough that we want these two people to end up with each other. Similarly, it’s important that we invest in Alex, that we see him and appreciate him as far more than merely a butcher and a forgotten man, that we invest in the unlikeliness of these two people together. It doesn’t matter if they find Georgie’s son at the end. What matters is that they stay together. That’s exactly why Alex not only makes the offer to give Georgie money but also offers to travel with her because in the end, as unlikely as it is, sometimes we just have to wake up in the morning and be very personal with the person that we’re with. It takes a layer of faith for one person to be with another person in this very intimate way. And I suppose it always does in real life.”
James Carpenter (Alex) and Sarah Grace Wilson (Georgie)
in a scene from Heisenberg (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In an hour and a half, Heisenberg's two characters perform an odd mating dance inspired by need, greed, emotional insecurity, and acceptance which puts a surprising twist on intergenerational relationships. Whether Alex and/or Georgie worry that their time is running out is not the issue so much as what they can do to change the direction of their lives. Just as Alex's steadiness has a calming effect on Georgie's irrationality, her weird form of spontaneous combustion inspires him to make a drastic break from his established routines as a butcher, a bank customer, and a loner. How they get from a park bench in London to an airport hotel in Newark, New Jersey is part of the play's mystery and charm. As the marketing folks at Cunard used to say, "Getting there is half the fun."

Sarah Grace Wilson (Georgie) and James Carpenter (Alex)
in a scene from Heisenberg (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Beautifully crafted by Simon Stephens, Heisenberg takes wing when two actors breathe life into its text. Bay area veteran James Carpenter delivers an exquisite portrayal of the stalwart butcher, which offers the perfect counterpart to Sarah Grace Wilson's characterization of the manic Georgie. As the two actors inhabit their characters, the audience senses that they are witnessing a beautifully layered exercise in trust and teamwork. An added thrill comes from Georgie's unstoppable flow of profanity.

“I have always been, and remain, astonished by the remarkable, sad, frightening, beautiful things human beings can do to each other," confesses the playwright. "I tried to tell a story that dramatized the way that paradox played out in humanity. I think that the wealth and depth of swearing is emblematic of the English language’s vitality, energy, and capacity for imagination. Unlike other European languages, it is in constant flux and a constant state of reinvention. Nowhere is this reinvention more energized than in swearing. I just love swearing. I would never trust a writer who didn’t cherish the word 'fuck.' It can serve as so many different types of speech: a verb, a noun, a guttural, a conjunction, an adverb, an adjective, an instruction, an exclamation. 'Fuck that fucker! He’s fucking fucked himself and now his whole fucking life is fucked.'"

James Carpenter (Alex) and Sarah Grace Wilson (Georgie)
in a scene from Heisenberg (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

A special note of appreciation goes to scenic and lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols, whose handsome unit set (which resembles a giant puzzle with an inlaid wooden floor) contains numerous traps and lifts that bring chairs and benches to the sparse playing field. Performances of Heisenberg continue through April 8 at the American Conservatory Theater (click here for tickets).

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I wish I could be more enthusiastic about The Wolves (which is receiving its Bay Area premiere from the Marin Theatre Company), but I was severely underwhelmed by the entire experience. What started out as a series of warm-up exercises turned out to be an exercise in futility.

Members of The Wolves warm up for a game (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Sarah DeLappe's play is designed to take audiences behind the scenes of an all-girls indoor soccer team. The nine women in training represent a cross-section of adolescent problems:
  • One girl is a bleeding heart liberal; another is bleeding profusely from her period.
  • One girl has abandoned her youthful ponytail in favor of a self-inflicted buzz cut; another has recently had an abortion.
  • One girl has to deal with two parents who are therapists; another girl's mother is a famous travel writer.
  • One girl's sinuses are clogged from allergies; another frequently runs off the playing field to vomit.
  • One girl's exceptional skills at playing soccer are due to having lived in cities around the world; another girl gets hit by a car early one morning while jogging.
  • After one girl gets asked if she is getting enough protein, she replies that just about all her family eats is peanut butter and cheese (which led me to wonder if she is on welfare, receiving government surplus foods, bulimic, or diabetic). Following a photo shoot in which each team member poses with an orange slice in her mouth, she devours the unused slices as soon as her teammates have left the playing field.

The Wolves takes place during a series of warm-up sessions prior to a string of competitive games. As DeLappe explains:
“I was attracted to the idea of a stage where we are watching young women whose bodies are active throughout. I was inspired to think of these characters as a pack preparing for battle. The writing was like cooking: a bit of parsley here, a sprig of rosemary there. My desk was littered with charts which tracked action and character traits. I also thought of the writing as music, an orchestration for nine voices, each representing one of the girls.”
Members of The Wolves warm up for a game (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While director Morgan Green keeps the girls stretching, running, and passing soccer balls to each other throughout much of the evening, there are certain structural elements of DeLappe's play which are simply counterproductive.
  • In her attempt to create "an orchestration for nine voices," DeLappe's characters frequently talk over each other, carry on multiple conversations at once, and occasionally must face upstage while speaking. The overall effect makes it extremely difficult to hear them or figure out who is saying what. After about 20 minutes of this, I lost interest and gave up trying to follow the conversation.
  • Because the girls are only identified by the numbers on their shirts, it becomes extremely difficult to remember who is who. Primarily due to their physicality, certain actors stand out from the crowd, notably Betsy Norton (#00) as the goalie who keeps throwing up, Portland Thomas (#11) as the girl whose parents are therapists, and Sango Tajima (#25) as the team's gung-ho captain. The rest quickly fade from memory.
Members of The Wolves warm up for a game (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Late in the play (after one teammate has died), a mother who has always brought orange slices to the team's warm-ups makes a nervous appearance. Liz Sklar delivers a beautiful soliloquy in which she tries to maintain her composure until her emotions get the best of her. This scene would have been much more effective if the audience clearly understood which girl had died and if a solid foundation had been laid for the mother's appearance. Instead, it felt as if the adult's soliloquy had been written as an assignment which was then cut and pasted into the script.

The Wolves has been staged on Kristen Robinson's stark unit set with costumes by Katherine Nowacki, lighting by Masha Tsimring, and sound design by Madeleine Oldham. Other members of the female ensemble include Nicole Apostol Bruno (#13), Jannely Calmell (#14), Carolyn Faye Kramer (#8), Isabel Langen (#2), Neiry Rojo (#46), and Emma Roos (#7).

Members of The Wolves warm up for a game (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

One of the basic challenges for drama critics is whether or not they care about the characters that appear before them on a stage. Sadly, after spending two hours watching the Wolves exercise, I couldn't have cared less about any of them. In the case of DeLappe's play, that's a really big problem which is a feature rather than a bug.

Performances of The Wolves continue through April 8 at Marin Theatre Company (click here for tickets). Here's the teaser:

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Follow The Money

Years ago, when I was working as a medical transcriptionist, one of the more conservative women I met looked me in the eye and warned me that the Internet was a place of evil. I was a bit startled by her assertiveness since the Internet was created by mankind and, therefore, was a reflection of mankind. As digital word processing became more pervasive (and doctors were forced to use computers instead of making illegible scribbles in a patient's medical record), the rush to monetize medical data picked up momentum.

A profession that had been built on a solid foundation of protecting patient confidentiality and maintaining a safety net for doctors who couldn't dictate their way out of a paper bag was easily subverted by new technological advances.
With increased pressure to reduce administrative costs by converting paper-based medical records to searchable electronic health records (EHRs), the predictable outcome was that greed triumphed over integrity.
  • Transcriptionists who had spent years tuning their ears to the quirks of doctors with foreign accents (or American physicians who could not make a coherent sentence) found themselves unable to compete with transcription farms in India, Ireland, and the Philippines which severely undercut their incomes.
  • Physicians who resented having to pay professional rates for transcription were delighted to have their expenses drastically reduced by firms that outsourced their dictation overseas.
  • Physician groups banded together to market their data mining potential to anyone willing to pay a decent price.
  • As older transcriptionists retired or were forced to find another source of income, the safety net which had protected so many patients from critical mistakes routinely made by tired physicians as they dictated medical reports vanished into thin air.
It took a while before people in the healthcare information management (HIM) field realized they were facing a new set of problems.
  • When lawsuits were filed against surgeons who had operated on the wrong arm or leg, some medical transcriptionists were quick to suggest that the problem might have been due to a surgeon's mistake while dictating reports (hospitals now employ strict pre-surgery protocols to make sure a patient knows which part of the body should undergo surgery).
  • Despite the insistence that medical data that had been outsourced overseas could not be compromised because of how the software was designed, there was no guarantee that a rogue agent in India or some other country could not download reports and sell patient-identified information on the black market.
  • In 2011, a data breach at Tricare jeopardized the confidentiality of personally-identifiable and supposedly protected healthcare information (including Social Security numbers) of 4.9 million military patients.
Fast forward to 2018. Shocked Americans are now learning about the methodologies used by Cambridge Analytica to harvest information from millions of Facebook users without their knowledge and then weaponize that data to subvert the Brexit vote and the 2016 Presidential election in the United States.

To get a better understanding of what's been done and what's at stake, I recommend three recent articles:
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Think back, if you will, to a sunnier era of computer threats as depicted in such hack-tastic movies as War Games (1983), Sneakers (1992), and the venal slickness of Gordon Gekko in 1987's Wall Street, a vulture capitalist whose credo was that "Greed is good." Then rewind the clock to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, when so many investors and homeowners suddenly found themselves up shit's creek without a paddle as their investments seemed to evaporate into thin air.

Try to remember the financial pain inflicted by the Enron scandal when the company's house of cards collapsed, triggering panic among millions of Americans who had been pawns in the energy industry's equivalent of a Ponzi scheme. While homes across America were being foreclosed, there were still people playing the stock market who actively sought alternatives for high-return investments in global markets.

Oddly enough, China seemed to have great potential for rapid growth, giving it the aura of a 21st century gold rush opportunity. With a grifter like Donald Trump in the White House, Americans are now witnessing an intense effort to deregulate financial restrictions put into place during the Obama administration as the nation struggled to pull itself back from the brink of a terrifying economic crisis.

Poster art for The China Hu$tle

Jed Rothstein's stunning new documentary entitled The China Hu$tle offers a textbook lesson in how to exploit a legal loophole in order to drive a creative redistribution of wealth. The film's protagonist, Dan David, looks straight into the camera and warns the viewer that "there are no good guys in this film." But Dan has a story to tell and Rothstein does a bang-up job of explaining the intricacies of how a lot of American money that has been invested in China might disappear in the wink of an eye.

Some parts of Mr. David's story require an understanding of global finance, others require an appreciation for the differing ways that culture affects how business is conducted in the United States and China. The key issue is that Americans are prohibited by law from directly investing in Chinese markets. The legal loophole at the crux of the film is a form of reverse merger which has allowed more than 300 Chinese businesses to take over dormant American companies (that were once active on a stock exchange) and change their names in order to attract new investors with publicly-traded stock offerings.

Dan David tries to lobby Congress in The China Hu$tle

When some of Dan David's clients suddenly started losing their investments in such companies, he became determined to make sure they regained their money. Together with some friends in the investment industry, he started investigating the types of transactions that could lead to a firm's sudden collapse. What he discovered was a massive pattern of fraud involving falsified balance sheets, nonexistent inventories, and dubious profits (all made possible by this legal loophole).

When Mr. David hired a lobbyist to help him warn members of Congress what was happening, they got a polite brush-off. In the long run, he and his colleagues managed to get their clients' money back by betting that certain companies will fail, rather than succeed. With the help of some carefully targeted short sells, they found ways to sink the stock value of fraudulent Chinese companies.

Part financial thriller, part horror story, The China Hu$tle unfolds like a cross between a spy novel and one of Rachel Maddow's cause-and-effect analyses of the backstory to a breaking political scoop. With an understanding that the greed Gordon Gekko worshipped is not just good (it's also insatiable), Rothstein gives viewers a clearer understanding of why capitalism needs to be held accountable for its crimes and why transparency is one of the best weapons against financial fraud.

While Rothstein's documentary contains plenty of input from journalists and talking heads from the finance industry, the most nervous and revealing on-camera behavior comes from retired General Wesley Clark, a former director of an online gambling company known as The Stars Group (which had done business with the Appleby law firm named in 2017 in The Paradise Papers). People intensely focused on trying to determine what (or how much) Donald Trump owes to Russian oligarchs may want to pay equally careful attention to the Chinese business community's attempts to pull off one of the biggest heists in history. Here's the trailer:

Friday, March 16, 2018

Everything Old Is New Again

In 1998 a Finnish company named Radiolinja began selling ring tones for mobile phones and distributing media content through people's cell phones. In other words, 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of when cell phones began annoying actors and audiences in theatres around the world. Can two decades have passed so quickly since the first announcement asking ticket buyers to please turn off their cell phones before the show starts?

One simple way to note the omnipresence of such announcements is that people now ignore them the same way they ignore the safety instructions delivered by flight attendants prior to takeoff. Another is to pay attention to how various theatre artists have tried to seize control of an annoying situation by hijacking the obligatory announcement.

For years, the Kinsey Sicks have included a warning in their pre-show announcement that "If we hear your cell phone go off during the performance, a member of the Kinsey Sicks will come out into the audience and shove it up your ass!" On January 10, 2009, Patti LuPone made headlines when she stopped a performance of Gypsy at the St. James Theatre after realizing that an audience member was taking pictures of her on a cell phone.

Six years later, in June of 2015, LuPone skillfully palmed someone's cellphone as she made her exit from the stage during a performance of Shows For Days.

In addition to incorporating mobile phones into their scripts, many playwrights have gotten creative with pre-show announcements in order to ensure that audiences pay careful attention. Two new American plays receiving their regional premieres from theatre companies in San Francisco offer stellar examples of how this is accomplished.
  • At the Strand Theatre on Market Street, an actor takes center stage before the performance begins and introduces himself to the audience as the playwright. After reminding people to turn off their phones, he explains that the peculiar way in which he has written his script requires them to pay careful attention. Because Vietgone is a play about Vietnamese refugees struggling to find a new identity in America, the Vietnamese characters onstage will speak contemporary American English, saying things like “Yo, what’s up, white people?” while the American characters will speak in broken English comprised of stereotypical American language such as “Yee-haw! Get’er done. Cheeseburger. Waffle fries. Cholesterol!”
  • Over at the Custom Made Theatre on Sutter Street, an African American actor in a police uniform takes center stage as one of his hands keeps itching to reach for his wooden baton. Sternly informing the audience that they are free to leave their cell phones on, he then points to the two "Laugh" signs hanging from the ceiling (like the signs one might except to see in a television studio). Carefully, but emphatically, he explains that when those signs are lit, it is appropriate to laugh. However, anyone who laughs at an inappropriate moment will be dealt with accordingly.
* * * * * * * * *
Written by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies is being presented by Custom Made Theatre as part of a producing partnership with Playwrights Foundation (which presented a reading of the play during the 2015 Bay Area Playwrights Festival). The action begins in a holding cell at a Baltimore police station where two 14-year-old African Americans are awaiting their release after being charged with trespassing in a cemetery.
  • Tru (Tre’Vonne Bell) is a child of Baltimore's inner city. Streetwise, attuned to Black culture, and sharp as a tack, he rarely gets to see his mother (who works two jobs) although he knows that she loves him because she always stops in his bedroom doorway before leaving the house. Tru loves waking up to the smell of his mother's perfume and proudly wears a pair of ruby red, glitter-encrusted sneakers.
  • Marquis (Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn) is a child of privilege. Adopted by a wealthy white couple and raised in an atmosphere of physical comfort and financial security, he lives in a gated community named Achievement Heights, has a fiercely protective mother who is not afraid to stare down the police over her son's legal rights, and attends a squeaky clean prep school where most of the students are lily white.
Tre’Vonne Bell (Tru) and Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn (Marquis)
in a scene from Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Whereas Marquis looks to such classical heroes as Apollo, Dionysus, and Nietzsche for inspiration, Tru's oracle is the late Tupac Shakur. As they wait in the holding cell, Tru is lying face down on the floor with his arms splayed in front of him. When Marquis asks him what he's doing, Tru replies "I'm Trayvoning." It's that kind of show.

When Marquis's ultra-liberal, adoptive mother, Debra (Jessica Risco), arrives at the police station to claim her son, she demands to know why Tru was picked up. In no time at all, she has intimidated the police, claimed responsibility for Tru, announced that she is now the boy's attorney, brought him back to Achievement Heights so that Marquis can have "a cultural friend," and suggested that Tru stay with them for a while so that the two boys can help each other study. Bottom line: Don't fuck with Deb.

Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn (Marquis), Jessica Risco
(Deb), and Tre’Vonne Bell (Tru) in a scene from
Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Along the way, Tru and Marquis must deal with such superficial school friends as two very white 14-year-old jocks named Hunter (Peter Alexander) and Fielder (Max Seijas), and a trio of selfie-addicted cheerleaders named Prairie (Delaney Corbitt), Clementine (Rebecca Hodges), and Meadow (Ari Lagomarsino).

Rebecca Hodges (Clementine), Ari Lagomarsino (Meadow)
and Jessica Risco (Debra) pose for a selfie in a scene from
Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Tru quickly realizes that the book-learned Marquis is completely unschooled in the ways of black youth and drafts a 114-page manual which, among other things, explains the necessity of ending any important statement with the word "bitch," grabbing your crotch for further emphasis, and making any conversation with a woman all about your dick.

Tre’Vonne Bell (Tru), Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn (Marquis)
and Rebecca Hodges (Clementine) in a scene from
Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Unfortunately, when Tru's textbook -- “Being Black for Dummies” -- falls into the hands of the impressionable Hunter, clueless cultural appropriation leads to tragedy. Meanwhile, Tru's tutoring of Marquis in how to dress and walk like a black man paves the way for a string of surprises.

Max Seijas (Fielder), Tre’Vonne Bell (Tru), Peter Alexander (Hunter)
and Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn (Marquis) in a scene from
Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

One surprise is Clementine's growing perception of Marquis as some kind of "Magical Negro." When she eagerly accepts his invitation to go out on a date, the shy and somewhat bookish prep schooler is stunned at how easily she said "Yes."

Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn (Marquis) and
Rebecca Hodges (Clementine) in a scene from
Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

When news of Hunter's death spreads and the school's dean calls Marquis in for questioning about the book found in Hunter's possession, the simple fact that Marquis is wearing a hoodie makes him suspect. Despite his protestations of innocence, the school administrator (also played by Peter Alexander) expels Marquis from the prep school that has been his social world.

Peter Alexander (Dean), Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn (Marquis),
and B.E. Rivers (Officer Borzoi) in a scene from
Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Chisholm's play received its world premiere at the Mosaic Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. in January 2017. Since then, it has started to be produced by some small regional theatres. Working on a unit set designed by Celeste Martore with costumes by Maggie Whitaker, projections by Sarah Phykitt, lighting by Maxx Kurzunski, and sound by Chris Sauceda, director Lisa Marie Rollins has staged Hooded with an acute sensitivity to its street humor and timeliness.

While Jesse Brisco shines as the aggressive Deb, she quickly disappears from the stage, leaving the bulk of the show in the hands of Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn as the polite and somewhat nerdy Marquis and Tre’Vonne Bell, whose charismatic Tru makes it almost impossible to look away from him.

It wasn’t until I arrived home from the opening night performance that I realized the strong parallels Chisholm’s play has to Mark Twain’s first historical novel: The Prince and the Pauper (1881). While poking around the web, I came across this interesting quote from the playwright as he described part of his childhood to an interviewer:
"I used to read this book of fairy tales and Mother Goose rhymes in secret because the book was part of a set that my grandmother kept in the off-limits sitting room and the books were for decorative purposes only."
Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn (Marquis)
and B.E. Rivers (Dionysus) in a scene from
Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Performances of Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies continue through April 7 at Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Before I discuss Qui Nguyen's impressive new play, Vietgone (which received its world premiere from South Coast Repertory in October 2015), let me take a moment to extol the restorative powers of live theatre. As someone who occasionally has trouble getting a good night's sleep, I often worry about attending a performance when I'm feeling under the weather. With the exception of battling jet lag, I've often found that the sheer ritual of attending a live performance (combined with the audience's involvement in what is happening onstage) has done more to pull my wits together than any pre-emptive pill.

On the opening night of Vietgone, I entered the Strand's lobby feeling as if I'd had the wind knocked out of my sails and yet, 20 minutes into the show, I was caught up in the intricacies of Nguyen's script, the brisk stage direction by Jaime Castañeda, and the sheer utility of Brian Sidney Bembridge's unit set which (enhanced by Chris Lundahl's projections) features a skeletal bridge that allows actors to traverse the revolving stage beneath them.

James Seol (Quang) and Stephen Hu (Nhan) in
a scene from Vietgone (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Whether using the bridge to mimic a helicopter leaving Saigon in late April of 1975 or watching the turntable zip around to move the action into the barracks and mess hall of a refugee camp in Arkansas, Bembridge's design allows a complicated story to unravel with remarkable fluidity. The audience can easily enjoy following two men as they motorcycle from Arkansas to California (with roadside stops in Oklahoma City, Amarillo, New Mexico and Arizona) as well as watching a crotchety middle-aged Asian woman (who had been flirting with a handsome young stud in the hope that he would help her return to Saigon) walk in on her daughter having sex atop a bunk bed with the very same man.

Cindy Im (Huong), James Seol (Quang), and Jenelle Chu
(Tong) in a scene from Vietgone (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Vietgone centers around the misadventures of Quang (James Seol), a Vietnamese helicopter pilot who spent a year training in the United States, went back to Saigon, and narrowly escaped during the critical moments when American forces were pulling out of Vietnam. Together with his friend Nhan (Stephen Hu), he managed to land on the deck of the U.S.S. Midway. Before he could return home to save his wife, Thu, and their two children, the aircraft carrier's crew had to push his helicopter into the ocean in order to make way for American planes to land.

What becomes painfully evident is that, for the Vietnamese refugees who had their lives turned upside down, there is little chance of ever returning home. That leaves them with a tough choice: try to adapt to a new life in a new country or grow bitter and insist on living in the past.

Cindy Im (Thu) and James Seol (Quang) in a
scene from Vietgone (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Vietgone poses some stiff challenges for its audience. The talented cast of five Asian-American actors takes on numerous roles that cross nationalities and generations. Although the two romantic leads remain easily recognizable, the constant use of flashbacks set in Saigon and a refugee camp at Fort Chaffee can easily become confusing.
  • Quang is on a hopeless quest to return to Saigon and be reunited with his family, even though doing so would most likely lead to being slaughtered by the Viet Cong. He deeply resents the hippie he meets who apologizes for America's entry into the war but cannot possibly know what it was like to live in South Vietnam overwhelmed by the fear that any day could be your last.
  • Tong (who professes not to believe in love and applies for placement in a foster family program), hopes to find a new life for herself that might offer better opportunities than she could ever hope to find in Vietnam. Despite the obvious sexual heat she generates with Quang, she wants nothing to do with a long-term relationship. Part of the reason for her reluctance to get emotionally involved with anyone may be because her mother has never told Tong that she loves her.
Cindy Im (Huong) and Jenelle Chu (Tong) in a
scene from Vietgone (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
  • Huong (Tong's mother) never wanted to leave her son, Khue, behind in Saigon and had to be convinced that she should accompany Tong to America. While in Fort Chaffee, she complains bitterly about everything, but lights up after meeting Quang and sharing the losses of family members they were forced to leave behind as they fled Vietnam.
  • Nhan has absolutely no desire to return to Saigon, especially after savoring the joys of free love, marijuana, and burritos.
Music plays a strong role in Nguyen's Vietgone, whether it be the sounds of Saigon or soundtrack clips from such popular romantic movies as Dirty Dancing. While the raps written by Qui Nguyen didn't strike me as particularly strong, I was surprised by the comments of the popular DJ/producer who composed new music for American Conservatory Theater's production. As Shammy Dee explains:
“When hip-hop culture was birthed back in the day, it was a subculture of primarily Black and Latino people in New York. It wasn’t on a mass stage. It was something akin to punk when it came around; it was very underground. Hip-hop contained this raw energy that the mainstream culture didn’t understand. People initially thought it was a fad, that it would pass. They didn’t think it could be something bigger. But if you lived the culture, you knew and felt the energy behind it. There’s something about outcasts (being an outcast and having this music and culture you can relate to) that gives you this sense of belonging. There’s a palpable feeling that comes with loving this music and knowing that there are others who vibe with it, too. Hip-hop gives Vietgone an energy that you wouldn’t get if it was a traditional play.“
Jenelle Chu (Tong) and James Seol (Quang) in a
scene from Vietgone (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“With hip-hop theater, songs can either create additional context or expand a moment. You can dig deeper into an emotion with a song, rather than saying ‘I'm upset.' Music can create that feeling, just like a movie score does. These songs in Vietgone pull you in because, just like with Hamilton and other hip-hop theater pieces, you're experiencing storytelling in a different way. The play definitely stands on its own (the writing is that strong) but music has a sneaky way of connecting people who wouldn't connect otherwise. In these raps, it's almost like you're hearing the inner dialogue, reasoning, and thought processes of these characters, speaking about things that we can all connect to: the sadness of loss, the frustration of mistakes, and the excitement of love.”
In recent years, many baby boomers have been amused (and occasionally annoyed) by the way hipster culture has laid claim to certain artistic expressions as springing from their own inspiration without any awareness of how these same techniques were used by previous generations.
  • Now 420 years old, Western opera got its start as an art form in Italy in 1598. 
  • Musical theatre got its start in America more than 150 years ago, with 1866's production of The Black Crook
  • Both art forms make frequent use of song as a way of expressing one's emotions and communicating one's inner thoughts to an audience. Whether one thinks of Tosca's famous aria, "Vissi d'arte" or the "Twin Soliloquies" from 1949's South Pacific, the skill with which these numbers express their characters' emotions demonstrates a remarkable use of musical and dramatic craft.
My own reaction to Shammy Dee's wonder at the power of music to express a character's internal thoughts is to point out that, in each generation of songwriters, certain talents stand far above the others. Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi were giants of 19th-century opera. The genius of Stephen Sondheim has been hailed far and wide as if he were the Mozart of the 20th century. Although more and more hip hop artists are now writing for the stage, few of them share the encyclopedic knowledge of musical theatre enjoyed by their idol, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Jomar Tagatac (Bobby) and Jenelle Chu (Tong) in
a scene from Vietgone (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With costumes by Jessie Amoroso, lighting by Wen-Ling Liao, and some excellent sound design by Jake Rodriguez, Vietgone showcases the versatility of Jomar Tagatac (who portrays the playwright, Giai, and Bobby), Stephen Hu (who appears as Nhan and Khue), and Cindy Im, who doubles as Quang's wife, Thu, and his future mother-in-law, Huong). James Seol (Quang) and Jenelle Chu (Tong) shine as the two romantic leads. The final scene, in which the playwright (Jomar Tagatac) tries to interview his elderly father (James Seol) is a beautiful piece of writing that is well worth the price of admission.

Performances of Vietgone continue through April 22 at the Strand Theatre (click here for tickets).