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).

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Write What You Know

No matter whether they are crafting a short story, novel, drama, or screenplay, one of the strongest pieces of advice given to writers is to "write what you know." Reaching back to mine narrative gold from one's past experiences is part of what sets one person's artistic vision apart from another's. It has certainly worked well for monologists like Dan Hoyle, Margaret Cho, Martin Dockery, Ann Randolph, and John Leguizamo.

It's an old joke that the biggest risk one takes in befriending a writer is that you might end up in one of their stories. And, when interviewed about their new novel, screenplay, or theatre piece, many writers are asked "How much of this is autobiographical?" Consider, for a moment, the facts that inspired some of America's great playwrights:

* * * * * * * * *
In the Spring of 1965 I took advantage of what sounded like a great bargain. The producers of a new play directed by Michael Cacoyannis were offering tickets priced at one dollar for a drama starring Eileen Heckart that had opened to execrable reviews. Although And Things That Go Bump in the Night was one of my earliest "WTF!" experiences in theatregoing (followed by 1967's Gorilla Queen, 1968's Her First Roman, and 1971's Prettybelle), the price was right.

From what I saw on the stage of the Royale Theatre (as well as 1968's short sexual farce entitled Noon, in which Charlotte Rae appeared dressed as a dominatrix), I could never have predicted that the show's 27-year-old playwright would go on to write The Ritz (1975), Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1982), The Lisbon Traviata (1989), Love! Valour! Compassion (1994), Master Class (1995), Mothers and Sons (2014), as well as the librettos for such musicals as The Rink (1984), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), Ragtime (1996), The Full Monty (2000), Anastasia (2016), and three operas composed by Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking (2000), Three Decembers (2008), and Great Scott (2015). Thanks to artistic director Ed Decker, in recent years San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center has enjoyed a close working relationship with Terrence McNally. The company has staged Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class, The Ritz, Mothers and Sons, A Perfect Ganesh (1993), Corpus Christi (1998), and Some Men (2006) as well as 2005's world premiere of Crucifixion.

NCTC is currently presenting It's Only A Play, which was first produced off-Broadway in 1982 and updated for its star-studded 2014 Broadway revival. With a few more updates for topical relevance, NCTC's production may not be the kind of backstage farce that is driven by physical comedy (like Noises Off!, both plays had their world premieres in 1982). However, it does a splendid job of showing how the pressures of a Broadway opening night at the historic Ethel Barrymore Theatre (which has never hosted a McNally play) can work the nerves of the playwright, producer, director, and female lead as well a cynical critic and a wide-eyed coat check boy attending the evening's post-performance party.

P.A. Cooley, Michaela Greeley, Chris Morrell, and Kevin Singer
in a scene from It's Only A Play (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Directed by Arturo Catricala on Kuo Hao Lo's handsome unit set (with costumes by Keri Fitch and sound design by James Ard), It's Only A Play gives a fair sampling of the kind of material a lifetime spent working in film, theatre, and opera can provide to a playwright with a scathing sense of humor. Expansive in its theatrical exposition, bursting with bitchiness, nattered with neuroses, and half-cocked with hysteria, McNally's script nevertheless makes room for a newcomer to the New York theatre scene to remain blissfully innocent in the company of six war-weary theatre professionals and an equally vicious dog. Those directly involved with the production of The Golden Egg include:
  • Peter Austin (Chris Morrell), a playwright of questionable talent who is finally making his Broadway debut with a play destined to land on the Barrymore's historic stage like a lead balloon. Filled with an undying passion for the theatre, he is blessed (or cursed) with a coterie of friends who cannot bring themselves to tell him how truly awful his writing is.
  • Julia Budder (Melissa Keith), a ditzy socialite with lots of money who is making her debut as a producer. A contemporary hybrid of Mrs. Malaprop, Florence Foster Jenkins, and Betsy DeVos, she is so culturally illiterate that she does not know that the Shubert brothers have been dead for half a century and the Barrymore is owned by The Shubert Organization (Broadway's biggest power broker). Julia's constant mangling of famous quotes ("Irving Berlin said it best with 'There's no business like the one we're in") makes it clear that, were it not for her vast wealth, she would not be on Broadway in any capacity other than as a ticket buyer.
  • Frank Finger (Kevin Singer), a British stage director whose college productions included an Art Deco version of Electra and a gay version of Waiting for Godot. A kleptomaniac with a curious habit of taking his pants off whenever he feels pressured, Finger is desperately craving a flop in order to break the curse of having been labeled Britain's new theatrical genius.
  • Virginia Noyes (Michaela Greeley), an aging actress whose Hollywood career hit the skids after she won an Oscar for her portrayal of an autistic social worker in Bed/Stuy Sunset. A raging narcissist who hides her cocaine in a lipstick case, Virginia recently left the West Coast after a somewhat scandalous incident and is hoping to resuscitate her career on Broadway despite the fact that she must wear a court-ordered ankle monitor at all times.
Geoffrey Colton (Peter Austin), Melissa Keith (Julie) Budder, and
P.A. Cooley (James Wicker) have a lot riding on an opening night
in It's Only A Play (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Others present for the opening night party in Julia's upscale digs include:
  • James Wicker (P.A. Cooley), the playwright's oldest friend who has taken a red eye from Los Angeles to New York in order to attend the play's premiere. An actor who has been paid handsomely for his work during nine seasons of a television soap opera, Jimmy's caustic wit (combined with an eternally wounded ego) is the engine that drives much of the play. This is a man with no qualms about calling Liza Minnelli "a cunt," referring to Ben Brantley, the powerful chief theatre critic for The New York Times, as "Benito" (a subtle reference to Mussolini), or imagining that there will soon be a production of Chekhov's classic play, Three Sisters, cast with the Kardashians. During the opening night's intermission break, he apparently had Bernadette Peters doubled over in laughter as he flapped his arms to indicate that the play was a real "turkey."
  • Ira Drew (Geoffrey Colton), known as the most vicious drama critic in New York. Despite any perceived conflict of interest or utter lack of professionalism, Drew is attending the opening night party because of his long-held quest to find someone who will produce a play he has written.
  • Gus P. Head (Nicholas Decker), a young man from the Midwest who is handling the coat check chores at the opening night party. Touchingly naive and thrilled to have met so many famous people, he hopes to audition that night for Julia with his rendition of "Defying Gravity" from Wicked. Gus has a habit of ending every sentence by exclaiming "Wow!" and, when asked if he is "in the business," studiously replies "I'm an interdisciplinary theatre artist. I'm an actor slash singer slash dancer slash comedian slash performance artist slash mime. I have a black belt in karate and can operate heavy farm equipment. Other skills on request."
Chris Morrell, P.A. Cooley, and Geoffrey Colton in
a scene from It's Only A Play (Photo by: Lois Tema)

An obvious love letter to the extremes of narcissism, self-pity, substance abuse, and freedom from logic that permeate the theatre world, It's Only A Play builds momentum on waves of acid-laced repartee that crash across the stage floor in wonderfully silly bits of physical comedy (watch for the gaudy pile of garments from the cast of Aladdin). One can easily distinguish the people clinging to optimism (the playwright, producer, and coat check boy) from those ready to slice, dice, chew, and spit out anything -- and anyone -- that comes to mind (the actress, director, critic, best friend, and dog). It's the kind of "fly-on-the-wall" experience every theatre geek craves.

While NCTC's ensemble will, no doubt, sharpen its timing over the course of the run, P.A. Cooley, Kevin Singer, Melissa Keith, and Michaela Greeley are already lobbing McNally's zingers to the audience with the exuberance of Sea World animal trainers feeding treats to the participants in their dolphin shows.

Performances of It's Only A Play continue through April 1 at New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Friday, March 9, 2018

Rewriting the Rules of Engagement

When frustrated by computer technology, one of the hardest lessons to learn when is that, when push comes to shove, it's okay to reboot the computer without taking the prescribed steps to "power down." If need be, one can even pull the plug to disconnect the computer from its electrical source. Similarly, when playing a video game, pressing the reset button will not bring about the end of the world as we know it.

So what's the big deal? Some view such frenzied moves as last-ditch attempts to rescue a tense situation from disaster. Others label such desperate actions with curious nicknames like a "Hail, Mary pass," "the last resort," or "moving the goalposts." For some people, the act of disruption (threatening the status quo) is difficult to comprehend. Many are hesitant to defy long-established rules of order for a game, a government, or a society. However, when desperate measures must be taken, disruption can deliver surprising results.

By refusing to follow the standard script, the brave students who survived the Valentine's Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida have pre-emptively used language to seize control of the gun control debate. In her article entitled “They Were Trained for This Moment,” legal columnist Dahlia Lithwick stresses that:
“Despite the gradual erosion of the arts and physical education in America’s public schools, the students of Stoneman Douglas have been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America and that is being dismantled with great deliberation as funding for things like the arts, civics, and enrichment are zeroed out. In no small part because the school is more affluent than its counterparts across the country, these kids have managed to score the kind of extracurricular education we’ve been eviscerating for decades in the United States.”
“Part of the reason the Stoneman Douglas students have become stars in recent weeks is in no small part due to the fact that they are in a school system that boasts, for example, of a ‘system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age.’ Unless you’re drinking the strongest form of Kool-Aid, there is simply no way to construct a conspiracy theory around the fact that students who were being painstakingly taught about drama, media, free speech, political activism, and forensics became the epicenter of the school-violence crisis and handled it creditably. The more likely explanation is that extracurricular education (that focuses on skills beyond standardized testing and rankings) creates passionate citizens who are spring-loaded for citizenship.”
Scott Maxwell's OpEd piece in the Orlando Sentinel entitled "Parkland Shooting Has Changed Politics-As-Usual in Florida" points to three other factors that had a strong effect on legislators in Tallahassee:
  • The shooting occurred during a legislative session.
  • The shooting occurred during an election year in which Florida's Governor Rick Scott is launching a campaign for the United States Senate.
  • The murdered students looked an awful lot like the teenage children of many politicians.
Perhaps it would help to view the power of vocabulary through the satirical lens of Filipe Dimas in his piece entitled "Most Popular Kink Among Millennials is Role-Playing as a Couple That Owns a House" (recently published in The Beaverton). Or Alexandra Petri's snort-a-licious piece in The Washington Post entitled "I Thought International Women’s Day Was Meaningless Until I Saw a Pink Hat on the Washington Monument." Or listening to this vocabulary-driven novelty song from 1964's Bajour.

* * * * * * * * *
Several weeks ago I found myself at a surprising loss for words. Or rather, at a loss for an extremely particular word. As I started to write a review of Bamboozled (Patricia Milton's new comedy in which four scheming women continually try to outmaneuver each other), I wondered what word could be used as the female equivalent of cockblocking during such tense times as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. The obvious solution would have been to substitute a widely-known pejorative term for the female anatomy in place of the first syllable. But, as Sir John Falstaff once warned, "Discretion is the better part of valor."

Thankfully, Crowded Fire Theatre came to the rescue by presenting the Bay area premiere of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. Alice Birch's scorching 2013 play starts off gently teasing its audience by showing how (a) men don't really listen to the women in their lives, (b) one of the biggest problems we face in relationships is a consistent failure to communicate, and (c) the only way to assert one's power in a charged situation is to keep asserting it. Just as resistance breeds persistence, so does persistence breed resistance.

In today's highly charged media (thanks to Donald Trump's toxic masculinity and "transactional" approach to life), words are easily weaponized. Assuming that the world is basically "a boy's club," "a man's world," or that men are entitled to a wide variety of privileges purely on the basis of their gender, many men believe that what they want is all that matters.

Alas, that kind of thinking isn't working quite as well as it used to. In her program note, dramaturg Maddie Gaw writes:
“The power that language has to shape our perceptions makes it incredibly difficult to even imagine, let alone to convey, how to operate outside of the patriarchy. Using gendered language subtly shapes who people imagine taking on certain roles (I’ve worked at theatres that described a project as a ‘two-man job’). The language Birch uses is highly specific, but who gets to use that language is highly flexible. Almost no dialogue is prescribed to a character and there is no set casting. Our creative team was given the freedom to imagine what it was like if anyone could say anything."
"In making this discovery about Birch’s writing, we realized we needed to approach the script like devised theater. This meant that the final product was essentially ‘co-written’ by everyone from the actors to the designers in a democratic fashion. Birch’s ferocious manifesto about how the world is set up to beat down women in every aspect of life offers one ingenious solution to that problem. While it was exhilarating to work with the freedom that she provided us, it was not as if the play’s language was suddenly free from its societal context. My job as the dramaturg has been to carefully consider this language and how we are using it. I pushed the whole team to consider who was getting what lines, and what stories our choices were telling.”
In the first three scenes of Birch's play, she starts to strip away basic assumptions of privilege and entitlement that many men take for granted with regard to foreplay, relationships, and corporate life. What becomes painfully obvious is that many men simply don't know how to listen. In their cluelessness, they seem hard-wired to only think about what they want to say next.

The first scene shows a man (Soren Santos) and woman (Elissa Beth Stebbins) teasing each other prior to having sex. The more the man tries to fall back on romantic clichés ("I brought you flowers") and assumptions about who will dominate the action, the more the woman decides to take matters into her own hands. Defiantly reversing the power structure that many men assume will trigger a successful seduction that culminates in a "happy ending," the woman announces that her vagina is taking charge and "I need you take your hand out of my body so I can put my fist in yours!" In a demonstration of what can happen during carpe diem sex, the man ends up being increasingly confused and flustered by his sudden loss of power.

Soren Santos and Elissa Beth Stebbins discover that words gain new
power when spoken by someone of the opposite gender in a scene
from Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

The second scene shows a man (Soren Santos) struggling to propose to a woman (Leigh Rondon-Davis) who is less than excited by the thought of marrying him. With his canned protestations of how much she means to him and each recollection about what he's told her in the past, the woman (who is apparently a much better listener) calmly replies "That's not what you said." As the man becomes increasingly flabbergasted that things are not going his way, he nervously blurts out that he wants to marry the woman so that he'll have the security of knowing that she will always be there for him.

In the third scene, a female executive (Karla Acosta) tells her boss (Gabriel Christian) that she wants to stop working on Mondays because she's tired and would prefer to spend that time walking her two pit bulls in the potato fields near the house she just inherited. Whether or not she is working at a startup company, her boss is clearly unable to grasp what she has said in words that a four-year-old child could understand.

Karla Acosta wants Mondays off while Gabriel Christian wants to
install office vending machines for chocolate in a scene from
Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Each time the woman refuses to budge from her position, the man keeps trying to come up with additional perks and benefits he thinks might appeal to a female. As he gets increasingly excited about each idea (extra classes! wine! vending machines with chocolate!) he bounces with greater vigor on his exercise ball like an excited toddler. As hilarious as this scene may be, it reinforces the old adage that, if you want power, you can't wait for the powers that be to give it to you. Sometimes you have to seize it on your own terms.

As each scene transitions to the next, an imposing wall of patriarchal assumptions (created by Justine Law with large blocks of styrofoam) starts to come apart. First one block moves out of alignment. Then another gets pushed out of the wall, leaving a gaping hole in its place. Eventually, angry women start tearing the wall down and throwing the styrofoam blocks (as well as some pieces of watermelon) at the men below.

In one scene, Cat Luedtke portrays a woman who doesn't recognize her estranged daughter (Elissa Beth Stebbins) or her granddaughter (Karla Acosta). The daughter keeps trying to explain that she understands that her mother was raped and horribly abused by the man who is her biological father. However, the reason for her visit is because she needs her sick child to know that there is good in the world. Luedtke's character is not the least bit interested in solving someone else's problem.

Cat Luedtke takes a cigarette break in a scene from
Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

In another scene, Stebbins keeps tap dancing as fast as she can while the men onstage aren't required to make any effort to get what they want. A subsequent scene depicts male straphangers on buses and trains who think that their supposedly unconscious "trespassing" of a woman's space is merely an innocent game. As a group of rebellious, "nasty women" fight to claim power over their own lives, they eventually embrace a shocking manifesto which declares that "We have to kill all the men. We may feel sad about it. We may not. But that's what needs to be done if we will ever be able to redefine the world in which we live."

Cat Luedtke, Elissa Beth Stebbins, Leigh Rondon-Davis, and
Karla Acosta in a scene from Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.
(Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

With costumes by Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, lighting by Dylan Feldman, and sound design by Cliff Caruthers, Birch's play has been forcefully directed by Crowded Fire Theatre's founding artistic director, Rebecca Novick, who does a fine job of shaping the dark humor and seething anger that has always driven the battle of the sexes. The six-actor ensemble (Karla Acosta, Gabriel Christian, Cat Luedtke, Leigh Rondon-Davis, Soren Santos, and Elissa Beth Stebbins) does a splendid job of explaining why such movements as #MeToo and #NeverthelessShePersisted will refuse to "go gently into the night."

Performances of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. continue through March 24 at the Potrero Stage (click here for tickets).

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If, after more than a year of having to cope with the unending cruelty and mendacity of the Trump administration, you feel an aching need to step away from social media and enjoy some peace and quiet, let me offer two suggestions. One is to read technology columnist Farhad Manjoo's recent article entitled "For Two Months, I Got My News From Print Newspapers. Here’s What I Learned." The other would be to set aside 90 minutes to watch the visually rich new documentary directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer entitled Leaning Into The Wind.

Composer Fred Frith and Riedelsheimer worked together on 2001's Rivers and Tides, a documentary about the British environmentalist and site-specific artist, Andy Goldsworthy, who finds most of his inspiration in nature and uses the materials he finds in forests and on beaches for his art. The two men have teamed up again to examine where Goldsworthy stands today as an older man, a father, and an artist who is not obsessed with making sure that his work leaves a mark on the world.

As the camera follows Goldsworthy through a forest, many parts of the film are wordless, buoyed solely by Frith's gentle, seductive score (a mellow combination of jazz with the sounds of gurgling brooks, bird calls, and the wind rushing through trees and bushes). There are also segments which show the artist working with huge pieces of machinery to bring his vision to life for an installation at San Francisco's Presidio. In a world filled with far too much noise, Leaning Into The Wind is a refreshingly gentle film which often feels like a private meditation on art, life, form, light, and impermanence. As Riedelsheimer explains:
"In 2011, during a shoot in Scotland, I met Andy Goldsworthy again. It had been ten years since we released Rivers and Tides and we had not seen each other in the interim. From the very first moment I felt like no time has passed at all; it felt as though we had just waved farewell a few days before. It felt intimate immediately and I became aware of my never-ending interest in this man and his work. People who know Rivers and Tides think they know Andy Goldsworthy, and so we both felt that adding a new perspective to him and his work would be fascinating. It has been a great time, an unforgettable experience. Leaning Into The Wind offers viewers a different angle, a different perspective, another perception on many levels. It is not only an expansion of the former film but stands by itself. Another moment in time, of Andy´s life -- and of my life."

Monday, March 5, 2018

It's A Gay, Gay, Gay, Gay World

Whenever conservatives start pushing for a nostalgic return to the wholesomeness of the 1950s, they rarely refer to that mythical decade's sense of humor. In the early days of television, stars of vaudeville and radio were getting their toes wet in a new medium via The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Garry Moore Show, and The Jack Benny Program. With Milton Berle hosting the Texaco Star Theatre and Sid Caesar anchoring Your Show of Shows, sketch comedy became a favorite new form of entertainment.

Meanwhile, popular sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners were cementing their place in American culture as wholesome programs (Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver) paved the way for a whole new genre of "family-friendly" entertainment. Starting with Crusader Rabbit, animators were gleefully developing an entirely new cast of characters from the usual suspects found in the Disney and Looney Tunes franchises. Programs like The Huckleberry Hound Show and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends broke ground for television legends like The FlintstonesThe Simpsons, and South Park while edgy and "dangerous" stand-up comedians like Lenny Bruce began to incorporate profanity into their acts.

In 1963, United Artists released It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Directed by Stanley Kramer (and featuring a boatload of beloved stars racing to find buried treasure), the movie was an instant hit. Not surprisingly, many of the people in the cast would be totally unrecognizable to Millennials.

While comic talents have come and gone during the past half century, crafting comedy has not gotten any easier. Some important changes, however, are obvious.
  • Improvisation has gained a major foothold in the field of comedy.
  • More and more female comics are now doing stand-up, starring in comedy series, and working in the writers' room.
  • With an increasing number of minority performers appearing in comedies, audiences are becoming more accustomed to hearing about subjects that would previously have never made it to the stage (or before a camera). In other words, "feminist humor" is no longer an oxymoron.

Many humor sites can now be found on the Internet (as well as humorous videos which have gained strong followings on YouTube). Although some humor websites reek from heavy-handed "bro" culture and Millennial whining, others continue to entertain while delivering a never-ending supply of sophisticated sarcasm. One of my favorites has become, which delights with such pieces as:
Bay area audiences were recently treated to the world premieres of two timely new comedies by popular local playwrights that reflect current events while offering fresh perspectives on previously-mined material.

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Over in Berkeley, CentralWorks recently debuted its 58th world premiere. Written by Patricia Milton and directed by Gary Graves, Bamboozled benefits immensely from being the product of the CentralWorks method for creating new works which includes input the actors as part of a play's gestational process.

I first encountered Milton's writing when New Conservatory Theatre Center produced the world premiere of "It's Murder, Mary! (which she co-wrote with Andrew Black in 2008). Since then, I've enjoyed Reduction in Force (2011), Believers (2012), Demeter or In The Silence of Tangerine Groves (2012), ENEMIES: Foreign and Domestic (2015), and Hearts of Palm (2016). Milton recently received a commission from New Conservatory Theatre Center for Unavoidable Admissions, which she describes as being about "celebrity, infidelity, identity, and gay Republicans (although not necessarily in that order)." In describing her inspiration for Bamboozled, Milton states that:
“I write a lot about markets and economics. What we value tells us a lot about ourselves. The journey to this play began years ago, when I came across the true story of an Antiques Roadshow appraiser who defrauded the descendant of a Confederate General out of a million dollars’ worth of Civil War heirlooms. But the facts of the story weren’t what intrigued me. Instead, my attention turned to these questions: Why do some people cherish Confederate memorabilia, monuments, and that flag? How does this connect to my own granddaddy (“The Colonel”) from Tennessee? What can we discover and what will be owed if we examine the artifacts in America’s attic?”
Playwright Patricia Milton (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

With costumes designed by Tammy Berlin, lighting by Gary Graves, and sound by Gregory Scharpen, Bamboozled takes place in February 2017 in the law offices of Bright & Ashworth in Collierville, Shelby County (a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee). The plot follows a pattern frequently seen in plays by Milton that feature (a) inept, entitled men, (b) intelligent, frustrated women, (c) lots of research, and (d) surprising subplots rooted in scientific technicalities. Lest anyone complain that nobody writes good roles for middle-aged women anymore, Milton has delivered a juicy tale that focuses on the wounded egos and vicious backstabbing of four calculating and strong-willed women.

Jeunée Simon is Abby in Bamboozled (Photo by: Jim Norrena)
  • Abby Howard (Jeunée Simon) is a young African American woman from Los Angeles who is touring the South with a show called Antiques Roadtrip. Having briefly dated Caleb (a young white man of questionable integrity), she has stopped in Shelby County, Tennessee on a genealogical quest to find documented proof that she is a descendant of General Andrew Hatchett, a notorious local figure who raped her third great grandmother (who was a house servant on his plantation in the early 1860s).
  • Rochelle Ashworth (Stacy Ross) is a small-town attorney struggling to remain in practice. Her male partner, Porter Bright, is an alcoholic who has gone off on a bender, blacked out, and vomited into her briefcase. Meanwhile, Rochelle's sarcastic personality, insatiable hunger for publicity, and talent for making enemies has prevented her from joining the Downtown Business Women's Association.
Savannah (Chelsea Bearce) is a sharp-tongued legal professional
with precious little tolerance for fools (Photo by: Jim Norrena)
  • Savannah Hill (Chelsea Bearce) is Rochelle's legal sidekick. Due to a recent fracas at a bar (and Rochelle's humiliating betrayal), Savannah's license to practice law as an attorney has been temporarily suspended and her lesbian lover, Delia (a former grade-school teacher), has become unemployable. While Rochelle can be quite aggressive in court, Savannah is the real brains of the operation. A preacher's daughter, Savannah has a low threshold for bullshit, especially from Rochelle. As she tells Abby: "Don't count on Lady Justice being blindfolded by your moist panties."
  • Opal Anne Hatchett (Susan Jackson) is Rochelle's arch-enemy -- a condescending Daughter of the Confederacy who may be blonde, dress well, and wallow in the kind of nostalgia that denies the South's loss in the "War of Northern Aggression." However, beneath her prim and proper demeanor can be found the empathy-free prejudices of a Yankee-hating viper. Although Opal Anne comes across as a privileged matriarch who has had life handed to her on a silver platter (and enjoys hosting Civil War re-enactments on her estate), she ultimately lacks the kind of intelligence shared by Rochelle and Savannah. Her Shakespearean flaw (other than the fact that she's a bible-bashing hypocrite)? She would never sue anyone who was kin. The very model of a Southern racist "country club Republican" and Trump voter, she is also Caleb's aunt. Opal Anne lovingly describes her nephew (whom she claims was raised out west in "the Land of Fruits and Nuts") as being "three pickles shy of a jar."
Susan Jackson as Opal Anne in Bamboozled (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

As the play begins, Abby has been accused of stealing the family heirlooms that Caleb showed her. Upon arriving for her first meeting with legal counsel, she discovers that Rochelle has taken over her case from the indisposed Porter, Savannah (who is not allowed to give any legal advice) is giving her the stink-eye, and Opal Anne is suing her for a million dollars for stealing her family Bible. As the playwright explains:
"As a nation, we still haven't really dealt with the Civil War and the trauma of slavery. Justice has never been served. Instead, our past remains present in our racist socioeconomic and justice systems. It's something people want to move on from, but I don't know if we can without examining that legacy more than we have so far. One of the things the play tries to do is poke some fun at people eagerly stereotyping others.
In Bamboozled, past and present are deeply connected. What you think is going on at the beginning might turn out to be quite different. Four women, hailing from North, mid-South, and West, have different notions of 'justice' and what a happy ending would look like for them. The resentment and suffering of the Civil War still smolders in people’s hearts, and the deep and painful trauma of four million enslaved people lingers."
Stacy Ross (Rochelle) and Chelsea Bearce (Savannah)
in a scene from Bamboozled (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

While Milton's characters are well-matched, there is no shortage of race-based plot twists, bitchy insults, cunning linguistics, and reasons for retribution. The four actors form a tight ensemble with top honors going to Chelsea Bearce for her impassioned portrayal of Savannah and Susan Jackson for her beautifully layered characterization of a powerful blonde businesswoman who, preferring to put her faith in fashion and Jesus, opts to act in pro se despite her limited understanding of the law.

There are plenty of good laughs to be found in Bamboozled, which strikes me as one of Milton's best plays to date. Performances continue through March 18 at the Berkeley City Club (click here for tickets).

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No stranger to writing comedies, John Fisher's latest opus has just received its world premiere from Theatre Rhinoceros. Billed as "a story about gender and sexuality in the world of geopolitics that stars a drag queen, a Russian President, and an American President," Transitions plays out on a skeletal unit set which can become anything from a gay bar to the White House while framing a tense moment as Melania Trump tries to coax her panicking husband out of the bathroom to a scene in which Lyudmila Putin convinces her husband that the best way to come out victorious in a cultural exchange is to insist that an American drag queen join him in singing Russia's most famous romantic song: "Dark Eyes." As they say in relationship surveys: "It's complicated."

John Fisher (Vladimir Putin) and Charles Peoples III (Ruby)
in a scene from Transitions (Photo by: David Wilson)

This being a Fisher play, it should surprise no one that Transitions is filled with complications, contradictions, and conspiracies. In fact, the only thing missing are some contrails. But hark, isn't that a nuclear missile headed for San Francisco? And what's all the kerfuffle about Trump's son with "special needs" (Barron with two "r's" to his name) being kidnapped by a mysterious villain and the world coming within a hair's breadth of global thermonuclear warfare?

The way to stage a half-thriller, half-farce in which rival world leaders (who are total dickheads) try to win a planetary pissing contest is to manipulate the audience to the point where they will eagerly embrace a total suspension of disbelief (Fisher's forte). As the playwright explains:
“I wrote this play in 2017. In January of 2018, when I was in Hawaii, I received a push notification telling me of an incoming ballistic missile attack. For 40 minutes I was convinced that my husband, myself, and the world were going to end. Then it was over and we were all told to ‘go ahead with our previously planned holiday weekend. Aloha.’ The scariest thing about it was that it all made sense: North Korea, Hawaii as a target, our President. My whole life, I've been afraid of this very thing and now I’ve lived through it -- 40 terrifying minutes waiting for the missiles to strike.”
Katie Rubin (Melania) and John Fisher (Donald Trump discuss
the news in a scene from Transitions (Photo by: David Wilson)
“It worse than sucked. It was a feeling in my flesh, in my bones, in my spine like none I’ve ever felt. It was not only the end of me, but the end of my species (of that I was convinced). I have not altered the play greatly since then. For once in my playwright life I’ve been prescient (you’ll see what I’ve added since the big event). The scare only confirmed my belief that we live in a lousy time for world peace. We all know that, but what are we doing about it? I offer this as my own wake-up call. There are things greater to fear than fear itself.”
Charles Peoples III as Ruby in Transitions (Photo by: David Wilson)

Transitions begins as the Trumps are about to leave for Donald's inauguration as the 45th President of the United States. As anxious as he may be to seize the day and become the most powerful man in the world, Trump is still hoping that he'll "get lucky" with Melania. However, his wife has other ideas (once a model, always a model). Between tossing her hair, repeatedly checking herself out in a mirror, and carefully applying moisturizer to her skin as the Secret Service keeps banging on their bedroom door, Melania knows how to work every last nerve in her husband's body, warning Donald that each time he touches her skin she'll have to start all over again with the moisturizer.

John Fisher (Donald Trump) and Katie Rubin (Melania)
in a scene from Transitions (Photo by: David Wilson)

Following the inauguration, Melania struggles to cope with a closeted young Republican who got a job in the White House because his father is a big donor to the Republican party. When tasked with finding someone (or something) that the United States can send to Russia on a cultural exchange program, Ezekial (Morgan Lange) gets drunk and falls in love with a drag queen named Ruby (Charles Peoples III). Other than being rich and reasonably good-looking, Ezekial is such an incompetent boob that he makes Jared Kushner seem like an efficiency expert.

On the other side of the world, Vladimir Putin is having a hissy fit because, after all the money he poured into getting Trump elected, the new President of the United States has chosen to go off script and improvise (as if he were still on his reality television show). During a rare meeting with her estranged husband, Lyudmila zeroes in on all of Vlad's insecurities, chastising him for never being able to act spontaneously and prodding him to do something that will take the Americans completely by surprise.

Katie Rubin as Lyudmila Putin in a scene from Transitions
(Photo by: David Wilson)

When things start to go wrong (and how could they not?), an international crisis of epic proportions starts to develop. Because the two Presidents are not the kind of men to back down from a confrontation, it looks as if their macho stupidity will make the Doomsday Clock reach its final goal. Until -- as always -- a drag queen saves the day.

Charles Peoples III (Ruby) and Morgan Lange (Ezekial)
in a scene from Transitions (Photo by: David Wilson)

With costumes by David Draper, lighting by Sean Keehan, and scenic design by Gilbert Johnson, Fisher has directed Transitions as a barking mad thriller sprinkled with easy laughs. Having shaved his head to look more like Putin, he doubles as Trump (with the help of a tacky orange hairpiece and prosthetic jowls). While Charles Peoples III and Morgan Lange score strongly as Ruby and Ezekial, Fisher's play ends up being surprisingly sympathetic to Melania Trump and Lyudmila Putin (who are both portrayed with gusto by Katie Rubin). Gabriel A. Ross doubles as Toray and Boris (the  men who carry the nuclear launch codes for each President), while Kathryn L. Wood appears as the mysterious DaLanka.

Performances of Transitions continue through March 17 at the Gateway Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer: