Friday, April 27, 2018

Walking on Eggshells

Over the years it's been strange to witness how words once used as epithets have been transformed into terms of endearment.
  • Gay men used to dread being called "faggot" (Dan Savage's original column inserted the words "Hey, Faggot" before each letter requesting his advice). However, in today's LGBT culture, many gay men tease each other with the word "faggot" while stressing that it's okay for gay men to use the term, but not okay for straight people to use it (unless of course, they're having sex in a situation that incorporates a certain amount of humiliation as part of their erotic play).
  • For decades, African Americans had good reason to feel threatened by and resent any use of "the N-word." While people still bristle at the sound of the word "nigger," calling someone a "nigga" has taken on a vastly different connotation.
  • Back in the 1960s, the word "bitch" was considered unspeakably crude (unless you were referring to a dog that had recently spawned a litter of puppies). Once used to define a person's role in prison relationships, today's men and women are routinely referred to as "bitches."
  • For centuries, snowflakes were thought of as ice crystals that fell from the sky. However, in the past decade a new definition has evolved. "Snowflake" began as an epithet conservatives liked to hurl at soft-hearted liberals who were easily offended. However, as religious conservatives kept complaining about being persecuted and political conservatives found new value in claiming victimhood as a badge of honor, the most virulent bullies revealed their true identities (as the real snowflakes).
How strange is it that, after years of mocking political correctness, our conversation is now charged with accusations of male fragility and identity politics? Daily Kos columnist Sher Watts Spooner does a superb job of analyzing this phenomenon in her post entitled The Privilege of Whining About White Male Privilege. In the following video clip, Bill Maher and Jordan B. Peterson ponder how we got into this predicament.

For cunning linguists, it's beginning to sound as if we're living in an alternate universe. Unless, of course, one remembers the famous opening sentence penned by Charles Dickens for his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."
Nevertheless, hope springs eternal, with fresh seeds being planted in the field of children's literature. A new book by Ben Brooks entitled Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different contains 100 stories about men ranging from Bill Gates to Stormzy, from Ai Weiwei to Salvador Dalí.

Due out later this year is The Good Guys: 50 Heroes Who Changed the World with Kindness, Rob Kemp's collection of stories about men "who have proven that changing the world doesn’t require a sword or a corporate jet." Kemp's book focuses on men like Usain Bolt and James Harrison (a prolific blood plasma donor who saved millions of lives over the past 50 years). As the author explains:
“We know our children are increasingly turning to other forms of media for entertainment and information, and we know that these tie in with social media feeds and 24/7 news -- little of which is painting a very positive picture of men, especially at the moment. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have not only highlighted the poor behavior of men (and demanded that they’re rightly made culpable for it), but have shown us how the vast majority of people want to look to positive role models and be inspired by those who don’t mean to harm others, but help them instead. I hope these kinds of books reflect this and inspire young minds to follow a more positive path.”

Three stories new to Bay area audiences highlight how our carelessness with words can impact issues of health, continue to stigmatize minorities seeking employment, undermine a person's self-image, and damage relationships. Not surprisingly, each story involves a growing paranoia about treading on highly sensitive contemporary cultural issues. Instead of the old warning to "Do the right thing," people are learning the cost of failing to say the right thing.

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As part of CAAMFest 2018, audiences will get a taste of a new TV series entitled Just Doug, which stars Douglas Kim as a Korean-American who took his earnings ($2,391,520 in real life) from the 2006 World Series of Poker and, instead of using his newfound fortune to pursue a career guaranteed to get parental approval (medicine, law, dentistry), decided to try his luck in Hollywood. With emotional support from his close friend, Gary (Gilbert Galon), and agent, Francis (Kevin Brief), he has already spent six years trying to navigate a humiliating path of auditions for commercials and film roles with disappointing results.

Unlike aspiring actors whose financial desperation can force them to accept demeaning roles, Doug has the advantage of money in the bank (a critical luxury among struggling artists). One night, he goes out on a blind date with an attractive Asian woman named Carol (Cynthy Wu), who also dreams of a brighter future but is currently working in a deli. During dinner, he confesses that there's a tiny chance he might get called in the next day if the actor slotted for an audition gets sick.

Poster art for Just Doug

The next morning Doug is awakened by a call from Francis, telling him that it's his lucky day. The audition is for a role as the token Asian in a new sitcom called Basic Buddies. Approaching the opportunity like a professional, Doug gets through the first run-through without a hitch. Then, Neil (Time Winters) and Warren (Daniel Lench) ask if he could try it again with "a more ethnic verbal approach." Realizing that they're looking for a classic Hollywood stereotype that might be as ridiculous as Mickey Rooney's highly offensive portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Doug calls Francis (who encourages him to go ahead and try it, suggesting that, as Doug's agent, he's at a point where he needs to drop some actors from his roster).

Daniel Lench and Douglas Kim in a scene from Just Doug

The challenge for Doug is whether to "give people what they want" and completely lose his self-respect or leave the audition, lose his agent, and give up on acting. In a moment of anger, he chooses to give Neil and Warren exactly what they want -- but do it as an improv in which his character is an Asian stereotype on steroids. Although his second take is shocking -- and shockingly good for the sitcom's purposes -- it fills Doug with self doubt. Checking in one last time with Francis, he is advised not to make a decision for 24 hours and see what happens.

When a video of the audition leaks onto social media, Doug's online profile starts getting tagged with insults calling him a total sell-out. But then something surprising happens. A woman comes up to him in a coffee shop and raves about the scene, insisting that they take a half dozen selfies. When he encounters Carol at the deli where she works, she agrees that what he's doing is kind of racist, but reminds him that it's part of "the process." Then Doug's mother calls to congratulate him on becoming a Hollywood star, adding that all their friends loved what they saw and couldn't stop laughing.

Written by Doug Kim and Brian Shin (and directed by Dan Chen), the new series shows potential. You can watch the first episode of Just Doug on In the meantime, here are two trailers.

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San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of Bathsheba Doran's drama, The Mystery of Love and Sex. Resting on a solid foundation of the concepts that "Familiarity breeds contempt" and "You always hurt the person you love," the play's four characters have a long history of shared experiences.
  • Howard (Dave Sikula) is a straight, white, married male who is not aging gracefully. A successful writer of detective stories, he prides himself on his ability to reach a conclusion and is the kind of stubborn old coot who believes that he is always right. Although Howard means well, he can be a royal pain in the ass, pushing people in directions they have steadfastly refused to go. He has no love for his father, displays a keen racial bias and homophobic slant in his writing, and likes to think of himself as "one of the good guys."
  • Lucinda (Shay Oglesby-Smith) is Howard's wife who has given up smoking but, in order to tolerate her husband's behavior, decided that marijuana doesn't count. A true daughter of the South (her nickname is Lulabelle), when Lucinda announced that she planned to marry a New York Jew, she was ostracized from her family. She has since learned to smile and just let Howard continue to rant until she gets what she wants. Although the couple has lived together for many years, Lucinda has an independent streak which rises to the surface with surprising results.
Linda Maria Girón (Charlotte) and Shay Oglesby-Smith (Lucinda) in a
scene from The Mystery of Love and Sex (Photo by: Lois Tema)
  • Charlotte ((Linda Maria Girón) is Lucinda and Howard's daughter. Selfish and narcissistic, she is the kind of well-intentioned woman who bulldozes her way into a new passion but, in her overzealous enthusiasm, can be as socially clumsy as a bull in a china shop. Although she vows that the shy Jonny is like her soulmate (and someone she can't live without), she has an annoying need to dominate him, even suggesting that he lose her virginity to her.
  • Jonny (Kenny Scott) went to school with Charlotte and has been her best friend since they were nine years old. Whereas Charlotte is white, Jewish and spoiled rotten, Jonny is black, Baptist, and a deeply closeted virgin. As the play begins, Howard and Lucinda have arrived for dinner in Charlotte's dorm room where, although there are no chairs and the locally-sourced menu is free of meat, gluten, and butter, the atmosphere is awash in tension and cheap wine.
Kenny Scott (Jonny), Linda Maria Girón (Charlotte), and Dave Sikula
(Howard) in a scene from The Mystery of Love and Sex
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

Under Rebecca Longworth's capable direction, Doran's play follows these four characters from the time Jonny and Charlotte go to college until five years later, when Charlotte marries another woman. Along the way, there are numerous meltdowns, misunderstandings, moments of umbrage, and expressions of undying love -- all created to demonstrate that life is messy, people are imperfect, and it's hard to forgive someone (much less your own self) without facing up to some uncomfortable truths. One of those truths is that people like Howard and Charlotte are so busy thinking about what they want to say next that they are often incapable of listening to what someone else might have to say.

Working on Ting-Na Wang's handsome unit set (with costumes by Nikki-Anderson Joy, lighting by Sophia Craven, and sound design by Ryan Lee Short), NCTC's ensemble treads a delicate line between melodrama and bitter irony, between bullying and, particularly in Jonny's case, getting up the courage to get naked and make himself vulnerable to his closest friend in the world.

Linda Maria Girón (Charlotte) and Kenny Scott (Jonny) in a scene
from The Mystery of Love and Sex (Photo by: Lois Tema)

I tip my hat to Dave Sikula, who ran with the challenge of making Howard a thoroughly disagreeable, self-righteous bastard who can't help trying to run his daughter's life according to his own wishes. Linda Maria Girón's highly animated Charlotte (who doesn't hesitate to take her clothes off when she thinks that seducing her best friend without his consent is a good idea) creates a fascinating portrayal of a woman whose selfishness frequently blinds her to what the people in her life want (as opposed to what she thinks they need).

Kenny Scott (Jonny) and Linda Maria Girón (Charlotte) in a scene
from The Mystery of Love and Sex (Photo by: Lois Tema)

I was particularly taken by Kenny Scott's layered characterization of Jonny and the intriguing transformation achieved by Shay Oglesby-Smith's Lucinda late in the play. Performances of The Mystery of Love and Sex continue through May 20 at New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets).

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Over in Berkeley, the Aurora Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of Jonathan Spector's timely dramedy, Eureka Day, a product of the company's Originate + Generate program for new works. The setting is an upscale private school whose liberal steering committee encourages its members to be as politically correct as possible when voicing opinions, making decisions, and trying to call a person or thing by its most appropriate gender and/or designation. While these people are exquisitely careful about how they phrase their statements while trying to express themselves (so as not to offend anyone), the underlying message is that, while one is free to say anything they like, it would be wise to be extremely careful about what they say.

The cast of Eureka Day (Photo by: David Allen)

The committee is led by Don (Rolf Saxon), the kind of group facilitator who is so eager to create and maintain a healthy environment for discussion that it's hard to tell whether he's bouncing up and down with giddy excitement or tip-toeing around the room to make sure everyone feels sufficiently validated. The only other man in the room is Eli (Teddy Spencer) who, as Google's 12th employee, has been exceptionally generous whenever funds are needed for school improvements or program activities. Eli is a stay-at-home father whose wife, Rachel, frequently travels for business.

At the beginning of the play, there are two women on the committee. Meiko (Charisse Loriaux) is a quiet (almost sullen) young mother who keeps knitting during meetings and does not appreciate anyone trying to put words in her mouth. By contrast, Suzanne (Lisa Anne Porter) is the kind of woman whose need to be the center of attention (and dominant voice on the committee) tends to suck all the air out of the room. As much as she likes to think of herself as a paragon of political correctness, Suzanne is a self-absorbed bully. When it becomes necessary for her to apologize to someone, the way she gushes about how truly sorry she is has a creepy aura of titillation.

Lisa Anne Porter (Suzanne) and Rolf Saxon (Don) in
a scene from Eureka Day (Photo by: David Allen)

At the moment, the group is welcoming a new parent to the committee. One reason Carina (Elizabeth Carter) has enrolled her son at Eureka Day is because of its reputation as one of the best private schools in the area. Another is that her son was having trouble fitting in at his former school.

Midway through Act I, Don drops a bombshell. He's received a letter from the Department of Health revealing that at least one student at Eureka Day has been diagnosed with mumps. As a result, he must send a copy of an enclosed form letter to all parents with instructions on what they must do to protect their children from becoming infected.

The question of how and who should be quarantined at home would seem to be the most important issue at hand. However, a discussion quickly erupts over how delicately parents should be informed of the news and which children have (or have not) received the appropriate childhood vaccinations. To the shock and consternation of those who believe in medicine and science, there are several anti-vaxxers whose children attend Eureka Day. The chosen solution is for Don to host a Facebook Live session in which parents can discuss the situation in a virtual meeting.

Shortly after the Facebook Live session begins, off-topic comments start appearing on screens above the audience. Before long, the online discussion has deteriorated into a string of petty insults which has the audience laughing their heads off, but does nothing to solve Eureka Day's problem. Meanwhile, Eli and Meiko have quietly set up a play date for their children which will simultaneously allow them to enjoy some intimacy while Rachel is out of town.

Eli (Teddy Spencer) and Meiko (Charisse Loriaux) share a moment
of intimacy in a scene from Eureka Day (Photo by: David Allen)

Act II begins on a more sobering note. Although Meiko's daughter had a cold when they visited Eli, her symptoms are subsiding. However, Eli's son, Tobias, is now in the hospital. As tension builds, Suzanne starts to lose control of the discussion. In a growing sense of panic, she lashes out, condescendingly suggesting that while everyone welcomes Carina's input (especially since she's a minority), there's just so much that the school can be expected to do for children who receive some kind of subsidy. Tempers flare as members of the committee worry what might happen if the school has to shut down in order to prevent more students from becoming infected. As emotions boil over, Meiko feels increasingly guilty about the possibility that her daughter might have infected Tobias. After Suzanne reveals a closely-held secret about her son's health, she learns that (contrary to her assumption), Carina's son is a full-pay student.

Carina (Elizabeth Carter) is a concerned parent in a
scene from Eureka Day (Photo by: David Allen)

Working on Richard Olmsted's handsome unit set (with its lovely view of the Bay area) that is beautifully lit by Jeff Rowlings, Aurora's production of Eureka Day benefits immensely from Theodore J. H. Hulsker's sound and video design. While Lisa Anne Porter's increasingly agitated performance continues to hog the spotlight, it's the quiet characters (Carina and Meiko) who hold the most powerful cards in the deck.

I found it interesting to note a curious contrast between Eureka Day and The Mystery of Love and Sex. Whereas both playwrights have concentrated on creating imperfect characters struggling to cope with strained emotions and difficult circumstances, it seems as if director Josh Costello lucked out by being dealt a stronger hand with a more powerful selection of cards. As the playwright explains:
“Before the Internet, there were a lot of subjects that most people didn’t know much about and, on some level, were willing to just defer to experts on. However, you can now go online and find whatever information you are looking for. In many ways that’s great. But it’s also tricky because of how prone we are to confirmation bias. Unlike gun control, abortion, or climate change, beliefs around vaccines don’t track closely with political beliefs. There are vaccine skeptics on both the left and the right (although they get there in different ways). My work is usually heavily rooted in a sense of place and, since this was a commission for Aurora, I wanted to write something that would be a 'Berkeley' play. I’d had the experience a few times in the Bay area of talking with people who I know are super smart, highly-educated people with whom I agree on 99% of issues, and then being shocked to discover that, on this one thing, we existed in different realities. So that was interesting to me.”
Carina (Elizabeth Carter) and Suzanne (Lisa Anne Porter) are
members of a private school's steering committee in Eureka Day
(Photo by: David Allen)

Performances of Eureka Day continue through May 13 at the Aurora Theatre Company (click here for tickets).

Monday, April 23, 2018

Sheepish Non-Binary Boy Seeks Hot Gangster Love

Many years ago, while pursuing an undergraduate degree at Brooklyn College, I took two courses that had a profound impact on my life. Both were taught by Professor Anna Babey-Brooke, a charmingly eccentric woman who entertained and tantalized her students as if she were an academic Auntie Mame. The "Babbling Brooke" was the kind of person who could easily launch into a story about how well-intentioned Peace Corps volunteers (who thought they were bringing modern plumbing to remote tribes in South America) were shocked when the natives, in awe of how flush toilets worked, assumed that the porcelain devices were primitive gods who swallowed stones given to them as offerings. Thus was a plumbing system installed by the Peace Corps quickly sabotaged by the gods.

When such tales of unusual culture clashes are dropped into receptive young minds during a course about Indo-European Myths and Legends (along with passages from the Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, The Golden Bough, Tibetan Book of the Dead, Egyptian Book of the Dead, and an enchanting introduction to Hawaiian mythology), stories from the Bible seem pretty lame. Especially when compared to fantastic tales about gods of fertility and vegetation. Did you know that:
  • The popular Hindu god Ganesh has the head of an elephant, four arms, and a big belly.
  • Two incestuous gods from Japanese mythology (Izanami and Izanagi) gave birth to the Japanese islands.
  • In Norse mythology, Loki is a shape-shifting god capable of switching his gender at will. In one instance, he turns himself into a mare, is impregnated by Odin, and gives birth to Sleipnir, an eight-legged horse.
  • According to Wikipedia, "In Hesiod's Theogony, Aphrodite is born off the coast of Cythera from the foam (aphros) produced by Uranus's genitals, which his son Cronus has severed and thrown into the sea."
  • Before being identified as a Hindu goddess, Kali was described as "the black tongue of the seven flickering tongues of Agni, the Hindu god of fire." She is often depicted with four arms, black or blue skin, and occasionally wears "a skirt made out of human arms and a garland of human heads." Kali is also occasionally depicted with 10 arms, 10 feet, and 10 heads (each with a face containing three eyes).
Artwork depicting the Hindu goddess, Kali

Although the world's religions have inspired magnificent images of their gods, there is little risk in imagining Krishna with blue skin or Jesus with dark skin. But when one's attention is drawn to more earthly matters, relying on faith and magic does not always produce the desired results. Among the many challenges in culinary art are mastering the variables of heat, cooking time, if one spice might overpower another, and whether a combination of ingredients will deliver a meal that nourishes and fulfills or a dish that repulses those to whom it is served.

Too much of one thing (and not enough of another) are often identified as key factors in the development of a new play or musical that can prevent its creative team from achieving their goals. Two recent world premieres on San Francisco stages offered prime examples of how difficult it is to birth a new work with a tortured tale to tell.

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Midway through 2015, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival debuted a new musical that was a lively mashup of Sir Philip Sidney’s ribald piece of 16th-century prose entitled The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia with songs popularized by The Go-Go's during the 1980s. Since then, Head Over Heels has )undergone extensive reworking (including new sets and costumes) while acquiring a new director, librettist, choreographer, and cast. The revamped musical is now trying out in San Francisco prior to its official Broadway premiere at the newly-restored Hudson Theatre on July 26.

The musical's plot line includes many familiar elements from fairy tales and popular fiction. There is an Oracle/wizard named Pythio (Peppermint) who renders prophecy and a curse; a macho man named King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) who must go on a quest; a queen past her prime named Gynecia (Rachel York) who feels sorely neglected and in need of some loving; and trouble in Arcadia (as opposed to River City). Princess Pamela (Bonnie Milligan) is an overbearing, zaftig mean girl who is quite full of herself and quick to dismiss all potential suitors as unworthy of her questionable charms. Pamela's younger sister, Philoclea (Alexandra Socha), looks appealing by most common standards but is secretly in love with a goofy shepherd named Musidorus (Andrew Durand).

Rounding out the cast is Pamela's servant, Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), whose father, Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins), seems to have been yanked from the plot of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. In addition to enough prancing sheep to repopulate Brokeback Mountain and a chorus of dancers who can effortlessly transform themselves into mermaids, use their arms to simulate writhing snakes, and display the Go-Go's sheet music on their bulging codpieces, there is a tremendous amount of energy bursting forth from the stage (along with a script full of lewd and licentious double entendres).

Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones) leads the company in a
scene from Head Over Heels (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

“Because it’s a mashup of these different sensibilities, we don’t have to be period-specific -- I get to create something completely new with these costumes,” notes designer Arianne Phillips. “I started with a Tudor silhouette, but I’m deconstructing that in terms of the shape and the volume. I made the decision not to use any period-correct fabrics (jacquard, brocade, or anything previously embellished) because I wanted the costumes to have a very modern feel. I’m using completely flat fabric. All of it started out white and we’re dyeing, printing, or painting directly onto it. When I started thinking about embellishments, I was inspired by the techniques of trompe l’oeil and Chagall. We also got permission from The Go-Go’s to use their sheet music for “We Got the Beat” as a pattern for some ensemble costumes.”

Costume sketches by Arianne Phillips for Head Over Heels

"All the amazing percussion and the guitars in The Go-Go's music just make your body move in a certain way," stresses choreographer Spencer Liff. "Because this show mixes the Elizabethan Romance era with 1980s pop punk, I didn't feel tied to one or the other. I decided I wanted the dancing to be the most contemporary piece of the puzzle. I wanted to incorporate the dancing that's popular in the clubs right now along with more of a street style, so I tried to come up with numbers similar to things I would choreograph on So You Think You Can Dance."

Despite the use of some shadow play and the presence of one exceptionally hot dancer (Yurel Echezarreta), as I watched the opening night performance at the Curran Theatre, no amount of squealing from devoted fans of The Go-Go's could dispel the sinking feeling that the whole of Head Over Heels is decidedly less than the sum of its parts. In the same way that people are quick to say "The Simpsons did it first," it's easy to point to Shakespeare, Rossini, and others who have successfully covered this ground in one form or another.

What sets Head Over Heels apart from prior treks down this well-worn narrative path is its gender-bending consciousness and willingness to spoof contemporary cultural confusion over which pronoun should be used to describe anyone's gender ("they" seems to reign triumphant). While Pythio is performed by a popular transgender, the heavy gender-bending chores rest on the skilled comic shoulders of Andrew Durand, whose shy (and sly) shepherd is transformed into a proud Amazon wearing a metallic bullet bra that could make Madonna jealous.

“At the end of the day, the show’s about ending a kind of government that feels very similar to the one we have in this country right now, which is ideologically opposed to everything that I understand to be progressive, enlightened, feminist -- all the things I believe in. In addition to that depiction of the doggedly insane patriarchy, there’s also the identity politics of the multi-gendered world we find ourselves in,” explains director Michael Mayer. “Even though this is such a funny show, the message is absolutely there. On one hand, it’s a total romp, but it’s saying something quite profound. The fact that we have a trans woman actress in the role of a gender-nonconforming character is exciting. I don’t think that a principal role has ever been created by a trans actress before -- certainly not on Broadway.”

Peppermint appears as the Oracle in Head Over Heels
(Photo by: Spectrum News NY1)

While I can't put my finger on it, much of the humor in James Magruder's script feels like it would work better in a college revue or on a comedy sketch show like Saturday Night Live. It's likely that Kai Harada's overbearing sound design (which barely made it possible to understand a third of the song lyrics) could be a big part of the problem.

“In fiction, it’s often a delight just listening to the narrative voice. If you have a very funny narrator, they don’t have to do anything for 40 pages, they can just make you laugh. Musidorus (the shepherd who’s trying really, really hard and who does anything for love) is kind of awkward. When he’s nervous, he starts talking in this shepherd’s tongue that none of the other characters can understand. He’s not trying to be a smarty-pants, but there’s something about a writer and his ego that says ‘Look at me, and pay attention to my language.’ When you’re writing for the stage, the audience is only hearing your words once,” stresses Magruder, who is responsible for the show’s revised book. “They can’t read the sentence over, they can’t go back, they can’t stay on the page and savor a scene. So everything you write really has to hit. You can’t tread water in theater. It’s a very different skill.”

Pythio (Peppermint) puts a curse on the inhabitants
of Arcadia in Head Over Heels (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

With sets designed by Julian Crouch, lighting by Kevin Adams, and additional music by Tom Kitt, there's no doubt that Head Over Heels has plenty of visual gags to delight the audience. I was most intrigued by the performances of Rachel York (Gynecia), Alexandra Socha (Philoclea), and Taylor Iman Jones (Mopsa). While Peppermint did not make that strong an impression, I found great delight in the way Andrew Durand stole the show by underplaying much of his role's humor rather than trying to "sell it" to the audience.

Although expectations are high for this show to gain a foothold in the New York market, it might be wise to remember that Green Day's American Idiot (which started out at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and was also directed by Michael Mayer) only lasted for a year on Broadway. Performances of Head Over Heels continue through May 6 at the Curran Theatre (click here for tickets).

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In February 2016, under the direction of Loretta Greco, Magic Theatre presented the world premiere of a stage adaptation of Jessica Hagedorn's 1990 novel entitled Dogeaters. This month, the company presented the world premiere of another adaptation of a Hagedorn novel: 1996's The Gangster of Love. As Greco (who directed the production) explains:
"As a first-generation immigrant odyssey, The Gangster of Love explores the act of becoming -- both as individual and artist in America -- and more specifically: San Francisco. This was San Francisco when the Mission was an actual barrio full of open-air politicized murals -- a stunning time in the Haight, Tenderloin, and North Beach, where poets, musicians, and artists of all sorts were plentiful and their revelations were revered. This was a San Francisco wrestling with a growing drug culture, the Zodiac and Zebra killings, and an anti-eviction movement which began with first-generation immigrants, but grew to include everyone who was invested in sustaining the character, diversity, and humanity of this beloved city by the Bay. For me, The Gangster of Love is provocative both as a first-hand account of the life-altering power of truly being seen and as a portrait of the 'American Dream' in action as it pans out for Rocky, her brother Voltaire, and their magnetic mother, Milagros."
Rocky Rivera (Golda Sargento) and her brother, Voltaire (Jed Parsario)
arrive in San Francisco in a scene from The Gangster of Love
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

From the moment the three Riveras set foot in San Francisco, they are confronted by a series of cultural, financial, and familial shocks. Among the family members are:
  • Milagros (Sarah Nina Hayon), who arrives in San Francisco with delusions of grandeur like a Filipina version of Blanche DuBois. An attractive woman who knows how to hold a grudge, Milagros has honed a passive-aggressive style of flirting and sulking as a tool for manipulating men -- which she soon uses effectively on her landlord and her brother-in-law's business contact at Wells Fargo Bank. Living under a cloud of melodrama and unwilling to accept the fact that she can no longer afford the kind of luxuries she took for granted in the Philippines, Milagros is bitter about the way her ex-husband jilted her in favor of another woman. A selfish, narcissistic control freak, she expects to be spoiled by those around her.
  • Voltaire (Jed Parsario), her teenage son. Wise to his mother's vain and impulsive behavior, he tries not to get swept up in her grudges and fantasies. Unfortunately, after they settle into an apartment in the Haight, Voltaire gets caught up in the drug culture of San Francisco in the 1970s, which only exacerbates his pre-existing problem with mood swings and temper tantrums. Despite his obvious intelligence, he ends up homeless and becomes an inpatient of the Psych Ward at San Francisco General Hospital until he signs himself out of SFGH and disappears.
  • Rocky (Golda Sargento) is Voltaire's kid sister. A bookworm who develops a taste for poetry, Rocky's character takes the longest journey, moving from the Philippines to San Francisco and eventually to New York as she becomes more involved in the beat culture and community efforts to save the International Hotel in San Francisco's Manilatown.
Accompanied by her brother-in-law, Basilio (Chuck Lacson), Milagros
(Sarah Nina Hayon) turns the charm on for a Wells Fargo loan officer
(Lawrence Radecker) in a scene from The Gangster of Love
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)
  • Fely (Lisa Hori-Garcia) is  Milagros's sister who works as an ICU nurse. In anticipation of her relatives' arrival, Fely and her husband, Basilio (Chuck Lacson), have found an apartment for Milagros, Rocky and Voltaire, paid their first month's rent, and put food in the refrigerator to make sure they don't go hungry (Milagros, however, insists on being taken out to dinner at a nice restaurant on the family's first night in San Francisco).
  • Marlon (Sean San José) is Rocky and Voltaire's openly gay uncle, a retired choreographer living in Los Angeles whose sharp wit and sense of fashion may be part of the connection he shared with the younger Voltaire. Marlon has always been supportive of Rocky and Voltaire's artistic ambitions -- especially when their mother was too wrapped up in her own problems to focus on anyone else.
Act I's tense family dinner scene in The Gangster of Love
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Magic Theatre's production moves from scene to scene with great fluidity thanks to Hana S. Kim's set and projection design, Ray Oppenheimer's lighting, and Loretta Greco's stage direction. With costumes by Ulises Alcala, sound design by Sara Huddleston, and music direction by El Beh, one is struck by the effectiveness with which supporting actors surface in multiple personalities. Lisa Hori-Garcia doubles as Fely and a shy young poet, while Chuck Lacson doubles as Fely's husband, Basilio, and a man named Shig. Lawrence Radecker shines as Rick (the Wells Fargo loan officer), a writer named Declan, and a drag queen named Fatima while Patrick Alparone portrays a skinny guitarist named Elvis and another character named Orpheus.

Having found his way into San Francisco's drug culture, Voltaire
(Jed Parsario) meets all kinds of interesting people in
The Gangster of Love (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Some of the Bay area's most reliable artists are on hand for this production, with Sarah Nina Hayon creating a glowing portrayal of the deeply conflicted Milagros, Dezi Solèy appearing as Keiko (the nubile bisexual photographer who invites Rocky to stay with her in New York), and Sean San José doubling as the flamboyant Uncle Marlon and an activist poet known as The Carabao Kid. As always, Lance Gardner is a wealth of empathy as Zeke Akamine (the Hawaiian landlord who falls for the feminine charms of Milagros but, after years of unrequited love, sells the building so he can return to his family in the islands), Bugsy (the drummer who accompanies Rocky's poetry readings in New York), and the ghost of Jimi Hendrix.

Sean San José appears as a beat poet known as The Carabao Kid
in a scene from The Gangster of Love (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Unfortunately, structural problems eventually cause The Gangster of Love to implode under its own weight. Whereas Uncle Marlon, Fely, and Basilio are strong figures in Act I, they remain absent until Milagros is dying in a hospital bed. Voltaire disappears midway through Act II, leaving the audience wondering if he succumbed to AIDS or died of an overdose (in the novel, Voltaire is the first member of the Rivera family to return to the Philippines). Jed Parsario gives a blazing performance in the role, subsequently returning to the stage as a medical worker who checks the vital signs of the dying Milagros.

The main problem is that, despite the earnest efforts of Loretta Greco and Golda Sargento to breathe life into Hagedorn's young protagonist, Rocky remains a surprisingly uninteresting character. This is partially due to the challenge of reducing a 300-page novel into a workable stage drama. But the fact that Act II keeps losing steam as Rocky tries to develop and grow as a poet (adding her questionable singing talent to her performance art) strikes me as a problem primarily with Hagedorn's writing. The hospital scene in which Milagros finally dies offered more relief for the audience than sadness for the character's demise.

Performances of The Gangster of Love continue through May 6 at Magic Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Power of Art to Educate

Not every child grows up in a home where parents can afford to nourish a talent or interest in the arts. Despite the continued threat to cut funding for arts programs in the schools (as well as for the National Endowment for the Arts), many teachers strive to find ways that will keep their students interested and involved in school projects.

Some purchase classroom supplies that their school district cannot afford. Others try to create games which will help students build a link between telling stories and solving problems. With so many nonprofit arts organizations doing educational outreach work, some remarkable projects (which would have been unthinkable 50 years ago) now offer artists as well as youngsters meaningful opportunities which let the arts broaden their lives. This video clip of dancers from the New York City Ballet interacting with children with disabilities is a perfect example.

A recent article on entitled New York Subway Station Exhibit Devoted to David Bowie highlighted Spotify's coverage of a project at the Broadway-Lafayette Street/Bleecker Street subway station that was inspired by the Brooklyn Museum's "David Bowie Is" exhibit.

Part of the David Bowie exhibit at the Broadway-Lafayette train station
(Photo credit: Spotify)

The truth is that art is everywhere we look, whether one stares at a tree, a statue, or the setting sun. What's more, the arts can teach people all kinds of important life lessons. As part of their vocal training, aspiring opera singers learn that they must be fluent in the language they are singing, understand the proper usage of certain words in the libretto, and grasp how their character's behavior is affected in the context of the story. Above all, they learn that opera and acting are collaborative art forms which rely on a group dynamic. Rehearsals and performances are not about "I" but about the collective "we."

A short film being shown at CAAMFest 2018 stands out for the way it turns the standard arguments about color-blind casting, cultural appropriation, political correctness, and American exceptionalism upside down and inside out. Written and directed by Theodore A. Adams III, Othello-san focuses on Jason Brown (Theo Adams IV), a young African American actor who graduated from the Yale School of Drama and has performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C.

Far more focused on building his career than honing his craft, Jason has enrolled in Japan's most prestigious acting school with the goal of playing the title role in a Japanese language version of Shakespeare's 1603 tragedy, Othello (The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice). His assumption is that he's a natural choice for the role because he has dark skin and has already appeared as Othello on Broadway.

Research and process, however, are not Jason's strong points. At the first table reading it becomes obvious to the director, Yamada (Yuki Matsuzaki), that the young actor is not yet "off book." Nor has he learned the proper pronunciation of certain Japanese words. When asked who he thinks Othello is and why he wants to portray the Moor, Jason's answers are all about himself -- how this would be a logical stepping stone in his career that might help him get work in Japan. As the filmmaker notes:
"Othello-san challenges the audience to consider the fundamental concept of perspective. Each character brings a heavy dose of self-perspective to the story that causes a tremendous disconnect. The film demands an examination of race, gender, religion, nationality and culture. It uncovers deep-seated differences that will either bridge gaps or reinforce century-old barriers and misconceptions of two highly celebrated social groups. In the end, it may end up asking more questions than providing answers, but the ultimate goal is to start a dialogue, and from that discover a collective truth."

I was deeply impressed by Othello-san, and not just for Kunitaro Ohi's stark yet remarkably effective cinematography. The filmmaker's tightly-crafted script does a splendid job of emphasizing the distinction between approaching one's art as a business plan or treating one's relationships with professional colleagues as part of an actor's never-ending quest to learn from others. This short offers fascinating insights into what it means to learn how to build respect for one's craft, one's colleagues, and how to find and build character in one's roles as well as one's life. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
While documentary film has evolved into a powerful genre for examining stories that have been ignored, neglected, or intentionally buried (anyone for corporate and governmental obfuscation?), documentary theatre is an extremely different phenomenon. Although viewers may be able to sit back and watch a documentary film in a movie theatre, on television, or on a computer monitor, they remain safely -- and physically -- detached from the narrative unfolding in front of them. Documentary theatre makes them vulnerable to the presence of live actors and the collective responses of an engaged audience.

The Tectonic Theater Project recently announced the release of a book about the company entitled Moment Work: Tectonic Theater Project's Process of Devising Theater. Written by artistic director Moisés Kaufman and Barbara Pitts McAdams (along with members Leigh Fondakowski, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, Kelli Simpkins, Jimmy Maize, and Scott Barrow), the book offers a guide to the collaborative method the company developed during its work on such productions as Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, I Am My Own Wife, and The Laramie Project.

Matthew Shepard on a 1995 school trip to Morocco where
he was beaten and raped (Photo by Gina van Hoof)

For those who don't know, The Laramie Project is a powerful piece of verbatim theatre that was created by the Tectonic Theatre Project in the wake of the sadistic attack on Matthew Shepard (a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie) on October 6, 1998 that resulted in Shepard's death at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado on October 12. Not only did Shepard's murder give the world a grisly picture of what a homophobic hate crime looks like, on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. Shepard's mother subsequently founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which focuses on educational outreach and advocacy programs aimed at preventing violence and combating homophobia.

Poster art for The Laramie Project

First performed by the Denver Center Theatre Company in February of 2000, The Laramie Project was performed in Laramie in 2002 (the same year that HBO commissioned a film version of The Laramie Project that was also written by Moises Kaufman). To mark the 20th anniversary of Shepard's death, San Francisco's Left Coast Theatre Company recently staged a production of The Laramie Project directed by Stuart Bousel. The program contained the following explanatory statement from the playwright:
The Laramie Project was written through a unique collaboration by Tectonic Theatre Project. During the year-and-a-half development of the play, members of the company and I traveled to Laramie six times to conduct interviews with the people of the town. We transcribed and edited the interviews, then conducted several workshops in which the members of the company presented material and acted as dramaturgs in the creation of the play.”
Steve Mallers as Aaron McKinney in a scene from
The Laramie Project (Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wollins)
“As the volume of material grew with each additional trip to Laramie, a small writers’ group from within the company began to work more closely to further organize and edit the material, conduct additional research in Laramie, and collaborated in the writing of the play. This group was led by Leigh Fondakowski as head writer, with Stephen Belber and Greg Pierotti as associate writers. As we got closer to the play’s first production in Denver, the actors (including Stephen Belber and Greg Pierotti) turned their focus to performance while Leigh Fondakowski continued to work with me on drafts of the play, as did Stephen Wangh, who by then had joined us as an associate writer and ‘bench coach.’"
Terry Maloney Haley in a scene from The Laramie Project
(Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wollins)

On April 22, LCTC will stage a one-night-only reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later as a fundraiser. As noted on Wikipedia:
"Ten years after Shepard's murder, members of Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie to conduct follow-up interviews with residents featured in the play. Those interviews were turned into a companion piece, entitled The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. The play debuted as a reading at nearly 150 theatres across the United States and internationally on October 12, 2009 -- the 11th anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death, most whose opening was linked by webcam to New York City where Judy Shepard and the play's producers and writers gave an opening speech, followed by an address by Glenn Close."

Watching Left Coast Theatre Company's production of The Laramie Project in the intimate confines of the EXIT Stage Left venue proved to be a fascinating experience for reasons I had not anticipated. I had never attended a performance of the play before, which made it a refreshing night of theatre. And, because the past 20 years have witnessed a great deal of progress for LGBT rights (as well as progress in battling the HIV/AIDS epidemic), certain clouds of depression were not weighing as heavily on me as they might have at the time of the show's world premiere.

Even with a rise in homophobia aided and abetted by key figures in the Trump administration, the combined effect of Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement, teachers' strikes around the nation, and new waves of activism inspired by the Parkland students, seem to have fostered a greater sense of collective hope and determination. Having spent many hours during my career transcribing interviews I've recorded with artists and opera singers, I found myself in awe of the way Kaufman and his colleagues at Tectonic Theatre Project wove together an oral tapestry from the verbatim transcripts of their interviews as well as the transcripts of court proceedings against Shepard's murderers.

Tim Garcia as Fred Phelps in a scene from The Laramie Project
(Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wollins)

Seated beside me was a woman who had brought her teenage son with her to the performance. As we chatted during intermission, she told me what a godsend it was that her son (a senior in high school) was lucky enough to find a good program at his school for kids who are interested in theatre. When I told her how fortunate she is to be able to share her passion for theatre with a teenager (who showed no signs of the sullen behavior one often associates with kids that age), she confessed how grateful she was that she didn't have to spend three years going to football games.

Although The Laramie Project is written to be performed by anywhere from 8 to 100 actors, Bousel chose to work with an ensemble of 10 (Erica Andracchio, Megan Briggs, Andrew Calabrese, Ellen Dunphy, Tim Garcia, Terry Maloney Haley, Steve Mallers, Laylah Muran de Assereto, Alejandro Torres, and Wera von Wulfen) who tackle multiple roles during brief vignettes in which residents of Laramie (as well as the two murderers -- Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney) are questioned about their feelings and what they actually know about the tragic events that led to Shepard's death. As the show's director, Bousel kept the performance moving at a rapid clip without ever losing any of its dramatic momentum or depriving moments of the breathing space they required for maximum impact.

In case there are no theatres or community groups performing The Laramie Project where you live, HBO's film adaptation (with an amazing cast) is available for viewing on YouTube.