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 Verr├╝ckt, 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.

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