Sunday, May 27, 2018

Tales of Sensory Deprivation

When Akiro Kurosawa's landmark film, Rashomon, was released in 1950, audiences were confronted with a powerful conundrum. Four witnesses to a murder described what they had seen in such a way that none of their recollections matched up. Kurosawa's storytelling technique was so strong that the "Rashomon effect" has since been defined as "the naming of an epistemological framework (or ways of thinking, knowing, and remembering) required for understanding complex and ambiguous situations."

It's no secret that several people can look at the same thing and react very differently. When Kander and Ebb's landmark musical, Cabaret, opened on Broadway in 1966, one of its most startling musical numbers was sung by Joel Grey as the lewd and lascivious Emcee. In Bob Fosse's 1972 film adaptation, one word in the song "If You Could See Her From My Eyes" (which had been replaced with the term "meeskite" during the Broadway run) was restored to the original lyric.

It is often said that when one of our five senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, and, touch) is impaired, some of the others may be strengthened. But what if that hypothesis is applied to more than just the scientific parameters of a particular sense?
  • A person may be color blind, legally blind, or totally blind, yet many people who are fully sighted can be blinded by prejudice.
  • Some may insist that a "sixth sense" allows them to see things (spirits, ghosts) that others cannot.
  • A person like Harvey Weinstein may view a social situation through the eyes of a sexual predator (as opposed to someone who understands, acknowledges, and respects boundaries).
  • Some people come home from a night on the town claiming to be "blind drunk."
  • In many situations, what a person saw in his youth might differ quite noticeably from his recollection of the same event many years later.

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As part of PlayGround's 2018 Festival of New Works, The Best of PlayGround is a collection of six short plays created over the course of this season's playwriting workshops for the Berkeley company's incubator program for aspiring playwrights. Not surprisingly, three of the works on this year's festival program depict characters who face obvious challenges interpreting what they see.

Written by Erin Marie Panttaja and directed by Jenny McAllister, Factory Girls (which is performed to music by Philip Glass) is a piece of dance theatre perfectly timed to the #Me Too and #Time's Up movements. Three women working on a production line (Melissa Ortiz, JennyAn Nelson, and Floriana Alessandria) perform choreographed movements beginning from the moment they punch in for their shift. Their supervisor (David Stein) is the kind of sexual predator who likes to intimidate his prey by standing too close to them, making suggestive remarks about their clothing, or threatening to have them fired.

David Stein, JennyAn Nelson, Floriana Alessandria, and Melissa
Ortiz in a scene from Factory Girls (Photo by:

When one of the younger, more vulnerable women on the line looks as if she might succumb to the supervisor's crude attempt at seduction, the other two women silently step forward and put their hands on her shoulders in order to present a united front against a man who obviously has no qualms about sexually harassing his subordinates in the workplace

Written by Lauren Gorski and directed by Becca Wolff, Living Conditions begins with Claire (JennyAnn Nelson) interviewing Mike (Chris Morrell) in her living room while another man sits between them with his back to the audience. Mike is a freelancer who specializes in checking out claims by nervous owners fear that their homes may be haunted. However, unlike Noel Coward's eccentric medium in 1941's Blithe Spirit (Madame Arcati), Mike accepts payment by American Express and VISA.

The fun begins when Mike asks Claire for a candle. While Claire is out of the room, Bruce (Ed Berkeley) rises from his chair and begs Mike to help him escape from Claire's house. As soon as Claire returns, Bruce deftly blows out the candle and, when Mike isn't looking, starts to pull some other visual tricks on Claire which might easily be attributed for levitation, a burst of wind, or some ghostly activity.

Chris Morrell (Mike) and JennyAn Nelson (Claire) in a
scene from Living Conditions (Photo by:

Fully aware that Mike can see him (even if Claire cannot), Bruce returns wearing a bloody T-shirt with a meat cleaver hanging from his chest. When Mike casually asks Claire "Who's Bruce?" the tension in the room changes. After the meat cleaver noisily falls from Bruce's shirt to the floor (where it cannot be ignored), Claire slowly reaches for it as Mike asks how she would like to pay for his consultation.

On a lighter note, Nic Sommerfeld's wry comedy, A Giant Story, starts off as an Irish husband and wife argue about why she has come home from the pub at 3:00 o'clock in the morning. Danny (David Stein) doesn't buy the story Lori (Melissa Ortiz) is selling about staying late at work. As tempers flare, she drops hints about having encountered a giant and an elf. After a brief attempt at slut shaming his wife (in which Danny mentions his friend, Colin Quinn), an elaborately dressed creature proudly strides onstage. As it turns out, Quinn is quite the handsome shape shifter!

Each of these short plays has a distinct creep factor which draws the audience into the storyteller's world. Even more enticing is how obviously each one evidences its writer's craft and potential for future work.

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A Shot in the Dark is a popular title that is frequently (but not always) applied to crime stories.
Anthony Ferraro during a wrestling match

The most recent film to use the title is a documentary about a teenage wrestler from New Jersey who is legally blind. Anthony Ferraro has had to deal with some unpleasant setbacks in his youth. After being accepted to a private school (Christian Brothers Academy) by an understanding principal, his fortunes were reversed when the principal died and his replacement rescinded Ferraro's acceptance letter. A crushing experience for a young man who was battling the stigma of "not being normal," Ferraro ended up at a more supportive school (St. John Vianney in Holmdel Township).

From an early age, Anthony had idolized his older brother, Oliver, who had done well on his school's wrestling team. Legally blind since birth, Anthony suffers from congenital amaurosis, a degenerative condition of the retina which allows him to see changes in light and colors. In 2012, one of the wrestling coaches at St. John Vianney (Pat Smith) sent a Facebook message to Chris Suchorsky, a former teammate from the wrestling team at Seton Hall University, that read "Check this out." The link embedded in his message led to a two-minute "sizzle reel" posted on about a blind high school student who also happened to be Pat's star wrestler. At the bottom of the page was a message from Anthony's older brother that read:
"This is my little brother. I want to make a film about him. If you're a camera operator, producer, composer, please contact me. I don't have the resources to make the film."
Although the two men had coached rival wrestling teams after graduating from Seton Hall, Suchorsky and Smith had not spoken for nearly 12 years (during which Suchorsky begun to work in the film industry). "I emailed Oliver and asked what he was doing with the film. He wrote me back and told me that he had produced the sizzle reel a year or so earlier while he was living in New Jersey, but was now living in Los Angeles working as an editor for Hulu. I told him I was interested in the film and to give me a call when he got back in town," states Suchorsky.

Anthony Ferraro with high school wrestling coach, Pat Smith

With the steady support of his parents and coaches (Pat Smith, Tony Caravella, Rob Phillips, and Mike Malinconico), Anthony did exceptionally well on the school's wrestling team. While most of the film covers his training and wrestling matches, it also shows Ferraro practicing guitar and being a fairly typical teenager. His vulnerability becomes especially moving in moments when opposing teams intentionally play to his emotional weak spots or when he feels that he is being discriminated against because of his disability.

Although Anthony had set a goal for himself of winning a New Jersey State Championship before the end of his senior year, the numbers didn't work out in his favor. After graduating from St. John Vianney, he spent two years wrestling for The College of New Jersey, but chose to leave school and give up the sport after suffering a severe concussion. With a strong interest in music, he moved with some friends to Arcata, California in 2015 to start the next phase of his life. His older brother, Oliver (who had been struggling with substance abuse problems) died of an overdose on August 28, 2015.

Anthony Ferraro at a screening of A Shot in the Dark

At present, A Shot in the Dark (which will be screened at the 2018 SFDocFest) is making its way around the film festival circuit in hope of finding a distributor. According to Surchorsky, "If we can't find a distributor by mid 2018, we'll most likely release it independently through Vimeo On-Demand, Netflix, etc." It's fascinating, however, to compare two of the poster designs created by Size Matters for Suchorsky's documentary.

Poster art for A Shot in the Dark

Poster art for A Shot in the Dark

Although made on an extremely small budget, Suchorsky's action-packed documentary is dramatically tight and clearly demonstrates how a student with a physical disability might have a better chance at wrestling (a one-on-one competition) than he might as part of a more team-oriented sport. Here's the trailer.

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