Thursday, June 28, 2018

Putting Some Skin in the Game

The past year has witnessed a heightened concern about male fragility and white privilege. As conservatives clutch their pearls about a supposed "loss of civility" toward their ilk (many people have lost patience with straight white men who treat their workplace as a playing field where sexual harassment is a norm), an old saying keeps coming to mind. "Try walking a mile in my shoes!" Actress Evangeline Lilly didn't mince words about the situation during a recent interview.

Sometimes "acting it out" is the best way to demonstrate the ridiculous behavior on display when otherwise privileged characters feel a need to "act out." One of the more amusing shorts seen during the recent Frameline Film Festival was a 22-minute sex farce entitled Men Don't Whisper in which two gay men attend a motivational sales session whose speaker, Dr. Jocelyn Verdoon (Cheri Oteri), insists that the reason men achieve better results with regard to moving product is because they've been socialized to just take what they want.

That leaves two gay men at the presentation, Reese (Charles Rogers) and Peyton (Jordan Firstman), worrying if they're masculine enough. Written by Rogers and Firstman (who directed), this short film also features Clare McNulty as Dominique and Bridey Elliott as Beth.

Men Don't Whisper offers a refreshing twist on how unreasonable expectations handed down by traditional gender roles can cause unnecessary hurt and confusion. See for yourself!
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If recent political developments have left you down in the dumps, let me recommend a sure-fire tonic. Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company (in association with Intersection for the Arts) is presenting the world premiere of Two Mile Hollow, Leah Nanako Winkler's robust farce which introduces a new "worst dysfunctional family" to the theatrical canon, but with a curious twist. As the playwright (who received the 2018 Yale Drama Series Prize) explains:
“Once, on a Youngblood writers retreat, a few of us noticed that a certain NYC theater’s new season consisted solely of what we deemed ‘white people by the water’ plays. I remember laughing about it at the time, but then I started to wonder how deeply these overblown narratives were ingrained in my brain...Why does this one dominant perspective keep getting produced over and over? How do these narratives affect representation on the stage? How does representation affect culture, hopes and dreams?”
Winkler's solution was simple, yet highly effective. With the same biting satire that filmmakers have applied to "mockumentaries," she used the template for a "white people by the water" play (a genre inspired by Chekhov's 1895 success with The Seagull) to craft her own script. The Donnelly family may not be the equivalent of the Barrymores, but they carry enough wounded ego, petty selfishness, and emotional baggage to suck up all the attention within 30 miles of wherever they step foot. Winkler's gimmick is that, while each member of the Donnelly family is defined as being white, they are all portrayed by Asian-American actors.

Sean Fenton (Christopher), Karen Offereins (Mary), Michelle
Talgarow (Blythe), and Greg Ayers (Joshua) in a scene from
Two Mile Hollow (Photo by: Annie Wang)

Christopher (Sean Fenton) is a preening television actor who has flown in from Los Angeles following his famous father's death. Accompanied by his personal assistant and fuck buddy, Charlotte (Rinabeth Apostol), the spoiled scion of the Donnelly family can do no wrong in his mother's eyes. After all, Christopher learned how to manipulate people from a master and knows how to wring every kind of favor (sexual and otherwise) out of Charlotte without having to marry her.

Joshua (Greg Ayers) is Christopher's needy stepbrother whose outrageous narcissism, diminished attention span, justifiable feelings of inadequacy, and desperation to be loved are matched  by his cluelessness and incompetence. Having graduated from Yale, he imagines that he can solve any problem by launching into a verse from his alma mater's famous football song, "Boola Boola." Joshua may be cute, but he's an idiot who will always remain in his brother's shadow (think Eric Trump).

Sean Fenton (Christopher) and Greg Ayers (Joshua) in a
scene from Two Mile Hollow (Photo by: Annie Wang)

Mary (Karen Offereins) has obvious problems with personal boundaries, having always harbored a deep-seated crush on her famous brother. Prone to bouts of manic depressive behavior, she occasionally communicates with her mother in a bizarre vocal contest to see who can caw like a crow the loudest.

Greg Ayers (Joshua), Sean Fenton (Christopher), and Karen Offereins
(Mary) in a scene from Two Mile Hollow (Photo by: Annie Wang)

Blythe (Michelle Talgarow) is the family matriarch who has no qualms about pretending to suffer from a mysterious form of cancer as a way of remaining the center of attention. Not only does Blythe know how to make an entrance and mourn the loss of her film-star husband, Derrick, she also knows how to make an exit by backing out of the room like a melodramatic octopus disappearing into a thick cloud of black ink. She rules her tasteful home in The Hamptons with a morbid sense of authority.

Sean Fenton (Christopher), Karen Offereins (Mary), Michelle
Talgarow (Blythe), and Greg Ayers (Joshua) in a scene from
Two Mile Hollow (Photo by: Annie Wang)

Working on Randy Wong-Westrooke's tasteful unit set, with costumes by Kahleen Qiu and lighting designed by Kevin August Landesman, Two Mile Hollow has been directed with a great sense of comic timing by the Founding Artistic Director of Ferocious Lotus, Lily Tung Crystal, who explains what drew her to the play's curious charms:
"While curating our fHERocious New Play Readings in 2016, a play came across our desks that made us stop in our tracks. Like Winkler, we at Ferocious Lotus, are working to subvert that 'one dominant perspective.' We loved its irreverence, its boldness, and how we saw all the ways in which we, as people of color, were often viewed in American society. And it was funny. We chose to present a reading of Leah Nanako Winkler’s Two Mile Hollow in November of that year (the same week as another big event you might recall), and it was an audience favorite. Not only did people love it for its fierce comedy, but audiences also saw Winkler’s deep comment on race, class, and privilege in America. It was the perfect parody during that national moment, when our identity as Americans was being questioned more than ever before."
Greg Ayers (Joshua) and Rinabeth Apostol (Charlotte)
in a scene from Two Mile Hollow (Photo by: Annie Wang)
"We have a shared history as Americans and yet each of our stories is as disparate and unique as the history from which we come. What narratives are thrust upon us? Which narratives can we claim as our own? We ask you to question the assumptions we all make about each other based on race, gender, and class. How do those assumptions affect the 'other'? Whose stories get told…or not told, as the case may be? What is the true American story? The answer is dichotomous. As Americans, we continue to grapple with this tension. As artists we continue to write our own stories and that of the nation’s to be richer, more inclusive, more empathetic."
The five-actor ensemble features a group of talented Asian-American artists who frequently appear on Bay area stages. Each does a superb job of rising to the challenges of their character's outsized faults and making the most of Winkler's script (including a delicious swipe at Neil LaBute). Top honors go to Greg Ayers, who combines Joshua's over-the-top levels of idiocy with a gift for physical comedy that leaves the audience in stitches (a performance well worth the price of admission).

A recent article by Helena Andrews-Dyer in The Washington Post (Fans Love It. Critics Don’t. After Tyler Perry, Can Urban Theater Cross Over?) fascinated me with its description of urban theatre as the modern day "chitlin circuit." The article quotes Vy Higginsen (whose 1983 play, "Mama, I Want To Sing!" ran for eight years in Harlem and toured for an additional two and a half years) as saying that “People didn’t think black folks were coming out to see theater, but the heart and soul of any community is in their art."

Poster art for Two Mile Hollow

Unlike many new plays, which now get a string of productions as part of the National New Play Network's program for rolling world premieres, Ferocious Lotus joined forces with Artists at Play in Los Angeles, First Floor Theater in Chicago, and Theatre Mu/Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis to produce a "simultaneous world premiere" through an agreement negotiated by the playwright and her agent. It would be nice if similar arrangements could help bring more works by Asian-American playwrights to Asian-American audiences while creating increased opportunities for Asian-American artists. One need only examine the number of LGBT plays and the growth of LGBT audiences over the past 50 years to realize that the formula has a proven track record.

Performances of Two Mile Hollow continue at the Potrero Stage through July 15 (click here for tickets).

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