Saturday, February 23, 2019

Friends in Need Need Friends in Deed

Animal sanctuaries are filled with tales of creatures that have been abandoned or rejected by their mothers shortly after birth. Whether the story involves a mother that refused to nurse her newborn or a baby elephant whose mother was killed by poachers intent on harvesting her ivory tusks, these sanctuaries put a tremendous amount of effort into nursing and raising orphaned animals. In 2014 a baby elephant named Jotto was brought to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust near Nairobi, Kenya, where it became close friends with an orphaned ostrich named Pea.

You Tube is filled with videos about surprising interspecies friendships (some of which involve animals that would normally be predator and prey on the food chain).

Some animals (especially if they have been raised together) have an easier time overcoming their natural instincts. From 2001 until 2016, a bear named Baloo, a lion named Leo, and a tiger named Shere Khan gained fame as the inseparable "BLT trio" at Noah's Ark Animal Sanctuary in Locust Grove, Georgia.

Most interspecies relationships are built on a foundation of curiosity, play, and trust. Between humans, some unlikely relationships are born out of loneliness and need. In many situations a great deal of emotional baggage must be conquered before a long-lasting friendship can develop.

Few people could easily forget the perfectly mismatched relationships depicted in 1969's Midnight Cowboy (starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman), 1988's Twins (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito), and 1991's Thelma and Louise (starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon). Two dramas depicting unusual friendships were recently presented to Bay area audiences. Each involves people with wounded egos who have been carrying around a great deal of emotional pain. Though one is a film and the other a musical, each tells its story with a great deal of poignancy.

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One would be hard put to find a more unlikely friendship than the one that lies at the core of Sanghoon Lee's new film, Banana Season (which was screened during the 2019 SFIndieFest).

Poster art for Banana Season

Sun (James Kyson) is a bit of a fuckup. A Korean-American divorced dad who is not much of a role model for his son, Moon (Sterling Gray), he owns a small retail business managed by his friend, Sean (Aubrey Marquez). A long-time member of Alcoholics Anonymous, Sean often acts as Sun's conscience as he tries to keep his employer from doing stupid things (like always asking for some money from the store's cash register).

A shredded athlete and mixed martial arts fighter with energy to spare, Sun's real passion is cage fighting where, rather than being responsible for inflicting pain on others, he prefers to absorb his opponent's blows and embrace the pain coming his way. Though he believes he is capable of winning a match, winning isn't everything to Sun. It's the excitement of the sport that he loves.

Panchol Moler-Pascal (Peter) and James Kysong
(Sun) in a scene from Banana Season

Peter (Pancho Moler-Pascal) is the polar opposite of Sun. A bearded dwarf who is a talented artist, he freelances in painting building exteriors and has amassed a solid reservoir of confidence about who he is and what he looks like. Peter is often seen sketching out a pair of wings like the ones he wears during the day. While most people think he is trying to model his costume on angelic images, Peter is obsessed with a radically different concept. He fantasizes that he is small enough to be able to fly like the birds he sees in the sky -- if only he can create a harness and set of wings strong enough to get him airborne.

The link between the two men is simple: they went to high school together and, years later, have crossed paths in their home town. Each is also being challenged by attractive women.
  • Sun is always being asked for child support by his ex-wife while Cynthia (Sommer Austin) hangs out near Sun's gym, ready to sell steroids to aspiring local athletes. Cynthia keeps flattering Sun by suggesting that, with just the right stuff, he could win a fight. Meanwhile, Sun has been crushing on Brianna (Brenann Stacker), a pretty woman he eyes at a bar while having a drink with Peter.
  • Peter has no problem acting as Sun's wingman at the bar because he's already caught the attention of an attractive single mother named May (Eve Rydberg), who spotted him painting a mural on a local water tower while out walking her young son, Tommy (Alec Garland). His relationship with May deepens to the point where he takes the previously unimaginable step of inviting her to meet his family.
Pancho Moler-Pascal (Peter) and Eve Rydberg
(Mae) in a scene from Banana Season

With an appealing score by Ali Helnwein, Banana Season has strong indie appeal. Thanks to Corey Lillard's cinematography, it looks fantastic while never losing sight of the plainness of the story's environment. While Sun and Peter are complex characters beautifully brought to life by James Kysong and and Pancho Moler-Pascal, writer and director Sanghoon Lee has managed to create a strange balance in characters whose bodies often speak more loudly than their words (and whose words belong to men whose weakness lies in articulating their thoughts and emotions).

Pancho Moler-Pascal (Peter) and James Kyson
(Sun) in a scene from Banana Season

I found Banana Season to be a rare treat, a small and often wistful film whose violence is confined to Sun's gym and his participation in cage matches. This is a film which takes its time letting its characters reveal themselves as it aims for a brighter future. Here's the trailer:

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Bay Area Musicals is currently presenting a thrilling production of Violet, a musical which premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1997 with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley. Lovingly directed by Dyan McBride (with choreography by Mathew McCoy and music direction by Jon Gallo), the musical focuses on a young woman who sustained a grotesque facial injury during childhood when she was hit in the face by an axe handle. Convinced that she has been scarred for life, Violet Karl has drawn hope from watching preachers "heal" people on television and saved every cent she has to travel by Greyhound bus from her father's farm in Spruce Pine, North Carolina to the fairground in Tulsa, Oklahoma where she hopes to be healed by her favorite preacher.

Miranda Long (Young Vi) with the Preacher (Clay David)
in a scene from Violet (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Based on a short story by Doris Betts entitled "The Ugliest Pilgrim," Shelley Levinson's film adaptation (also entitled Violet) won the 1982 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. Tesori's 1997 stage adaptation was nominated for seven Drama Desk Awards and won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical. In January of 2003, members of the original cast reunited for a concert performance at Playwrights Horizons and, in 2013, a revised one-act version was given a one-night concert performance produced by New York City Center's acclaimed Encores! Off-Center Series with Sutton Foster in the title role.

Poster art for Violet

The following year, New York's Roundabout Theatre Company presented a fully-staged one-act version of Violet at the American Airlines Theatre which ran for 128 performances with Sutton Foster once again in the title role (a recording of Tesori's musical with members of the 2014 cast was released that year by PS Classics). A co-production of Violet between the Charing Cross Theatre (where it is currently playing in London) and the Umeda Arts Theatre will soon expose audiences in Tokyo and Osaka to the show's charms.

Tanika Baptiste, April Deutschle, and Elizabeth Jones
in a scene from Violet (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

The action is set in the Deep South in 1964, when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum in the United States. As she travels through the South, Violet (Juliana Lustenader) meets a nosy Old Lady (Shay Oglesby-Smith) as well as two soldiers with whom she tries to pass the time by beating them at poker en route to Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Juliana Lustenader (Violet), Jon-David Randle (Flick),
and Jack O'Reilly (Monty) in a scene from Violet
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Monty (Jack O'Reilly) is a white corporal who considers himself a bit of a stud. Though he may not be that bright, he has enjoyed a fair amount of white privilege throughout his life and has a paratrooper's thirst for adventure. By contrast, Flick (Jon-David Randle), is an African American sergeant in his early thirties who is acutely aware of the chemistry that seems to be building between himself and Violet despite Monty's attempts to dominate their time together.
During an overnight stop in Memphis, the sight of Flick and Violet dancing together causes some tension at a local bar. Later, at the boarding house where the trio will spend the night, Flick has to tip the landlady, Amelta (Tanika Baptiste), in order for her to look the other way and not call the police.

The preacher (Clay David) leads a gospel chorus in
a scene from Violet (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

With the help of some flashbacks, dream sequences, and a few crushing reality checks, Violet undergoes a dramatic change in her self awareness and levels of confidence. After turning down the clueless Monty's proposal that they get married before he ships off to Vietnam, she courageously chooses to stay with Flick.

Juliana Lustenader in a scene from Violet
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

With scenic design by Matthew McCoy, costumes by Brooke Jennings, lighting by Eric Johnson, and sound design by Anton Hedman, Dyan McBride has directed Violet's energetic cast with hefty doses of humor and compassion. Juliana Lustenader gives an outstanding performance in the title role, with Jon-David Randle an increasingly powerful vocal and dramatic force. Jack O'Reilly offers a curious contrast as Monty, a fairly clueless white man who has usually gotten what he wanted, while Clay David makes the most of his moments as an evangelical con man.

Others in the cast include Miranda Long as Young Vi, Eric Nieman as Violet's father, Tucker Gold as Virgil, and Shay Oglesby-Smith (doubling as the obnoxious old lady on the bus and a hotel hooker in Memphis who is way past her prime). I'm extremely grateful to Matthew McCoy for programming Violet into his fourth season. Thanks to the 2014 recording, Tesori's delightful Obie Award-winning score can now be heard far and wide.

Performances of Violet continue through March 17 at the Alcazar Theatre (click here for tickets).

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