Monday, May 27, 2019

A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes

As an aspirational statement, "Dare To Dream" is short and sweet. And yet, whether taken as a command or sentimental whimsy, it completely misses the point. Dreaming is a spontaneous activity over which the dreamer has precious little control. Anyone who is fortunate enough to experience vivid dreams and be able to remember fragments of their content knows that transitions from one scene to another take place rapidly, colors often appear to be much more intense than in real life and, while not necessarily crossing into a fourth dimension, the dreamer can experience things they could not imagine in real life.

Having floated over New York harbor while pointing my fingers at ships that capsized on command; found myself lying naked in an empty parking spot while a slimy green blob approached me from behind, entered me, and engulfed me; or enjoyed frequent visits with dead and/or distant friends while sound asleep, many of my dreams have taken me on bizarre adventures. Though water often plays a role in some dreams (a strong suggestion that it's time to wake up and go to the bathroom), I've seen brilliant azure waters flood San Francisco Bay and watched the floor of an office building dissolve beneath my feet to reveal strange creatures doing even stranger things.

Some of our dreams may contain premonitions about a medical condition that needs attention or warnings about situations that are about to darken.

Jules Verne was hardly the first author to dabble in science fiction. But, as one considers the titles of his most famous works (1864's Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1870's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and 1873's Around The World in Eighty Days) it becomes clear that in the 155 years since his characters first descended into an Icelandic volcano on an expedition that included an encounter with dinosaurs, technology has caught up with many of Verne's fantasies. In his famous 1902 silent film entitled A Trip To The Moon (which was partially inspired by two of Verne's lesser-known novels -- 1865's From The Earth To The Moon and 1870's sequel, Around The Moon), Georges Méliès created a vision of space exploration that could just as easily have been sparked by a child's imagination.

While A Trip To The Moon is filled with logistical loopholes, such details are of no importance to a child's mind, as evidenced in Ali Solomon's delicious piece of satire entitled "Rules of Improv While Playing With Toddlers.

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Playground's 2019 Festival of New Works includes the world premiere of Ruben Grijalva's play, Anna Considers Mars. The piece begins with Renata Aguirre (Wilma Bonet) using her smartphone to record one of her precocious young daughter's precious rants about moving to Mars and taking all the doggies and kitties with her (in the hope of creating a viral video). By the time Anna (Melissa Ortiz) has become an adult, earthlings have walked on the surface of the red planet and Renata has been diagnosed with lung cancer. As the result of an unsolved climate crisis, living conditions on Earth have continued to diminish. Rising oceans have caused island nations to disappear underwater (an even more exclusive version of San Francisco is now surrounded by a seawall) and the mass extinction of species is rapidly accelerating.

Wilma Bonet (Renata Aguirre) and her daughter, Anna
(Melissa Ortiz) in a scene from Anna Considers Mars
(Photo by:

The adult Anna is working for a nonprofit animal rights organization that specializes in saving decidedly non-charismatic species (such as the Pacific marsh mantis and Western giant marsh slug) -- animals that are nowhere near as cuddly and photogenic as pandas and koala bears. As a result, finding financial sponsors is an extremely difficult (and often humiliating) challenge. Like the Sackler family that owns Purdue Pharma (which makes Oxycontin), corporations are looking for images that can help whitewash their image in the media. River slugs and bottom feeders don't seem quite so appealing to the general public.

Melissa Ortiz, Aaron Wilton, and Chrisian Haines
in a scene from Anna Considers Mars
(Photo by:

But for Anna, who has always dreamed about living on Mars, there may be a way to kill two dreams with one signature. After a meet-up with a haughty foundation director (Katie Rubin) and her associate, Malcolm Phillips (Christian Haines), a potential donor looks promising. Unfortunately, with her grant proposal being rejected and Renata's continued vaping threatening the insurance coverage for her home cancer treatments, Anna's future seems to be crumbling before her very eyes.

Surprisingly, her lifelong dream may yet come to fruition. Having been named as a semi-finalist for a hugely ambitious project to build a human colony on Mars, Anna and Malcolm (already a finalist) embark on a training program in Peru with no guarantee of being able to bear children or survive the amorous attention of a talking bonobo who self-identifies as a Martian and has struck up an inflight romance with a self-effacing female Jesus freak from Minnesota.

In the time spent witnessing Grijalva's script bounce back and forth from Renata's vaping problems and virtual bingo games to Anna's environmental concerns and hope for experiencing an extraterrestrial lifestyle, theatregoers become familiar with such new-age technologies as Anna's on-call virtual valet, Carson (Soren Oliver), and a much advanced version of Google's Glass Enterprise Edition. Problems caused by artificial intelligence's most invasive, up-to-date form of target marketing as well as new legal loopholes in medical ethics remain surprisingly similar to the cruelty of today's healthcare industry.

Katie Rubin appears as an Emirates hostess as
Melissa Ortiz (Anna) and Christian Haines (Malcolm)
fly first class in a scene from Anna Considers Mars
(Photo by:

Whatever its source, money still makes the world go around and, when one wants large amounts of money to support a noble cause, one is forced to make certain kinds of compromises. Although the luxuries of flying Emirates are slyly mocked by Katie Rubin's airline hostess and Aaron Wilton appears as a variety of less-than-photogenic creatures (including Anna's former boyfriend, Darryl), Anna must decide which is the more ethically pure decision for her: to save millions of slimy slugs or her medically noncompliant and frustratingly guilt-tripping mother. Should she take the foundation's money or abandon the chance of a lifetime to realize her childhood dream in order to comfort her dying parent?

Aaron Wilton appears as a talking bonobo aboard an
Emirates flight in a scene from Anna Considers Mars
(Photo by:

With costumes by Brooke Jennings, lighting by Brittany Mellerson, and sound design by Ian Walker, director Susi Damilano has had a strong hand in shaping Anna's personal conflicts with her mother, Darryl, and Malcolm. The larger problem lies with Grijalva's script, which could benefit from a generous amount of cutting. The playwright's biting wit, keen imagination, and obvious skill at crafting dialogue is unquestionable. However, in its current form, much of Anna Considers Mars feels like a string of mildly successfully SNL skits that lack sufficient theatrical glue to hold this two-hour play together.

Wilma Bonet (Renata) and Darryl (Aaron Wilton) wonder
how things are going in outer space for Anna (Melissa Ortiz)
and Malcolm (Christian Phillips) in a scene from
Anna Considers Mars (Photo by:

Because of the way Anna Considers Mars evolves, the roles for women are far richer than those Grijalva has created for the two men in the cast. The ever-reliable Wilma Bonet does a fine job as Anna's mother although, in one scene, I could swear she looked like Roseanne Barr and started to sound like Estelle Getty. Melissa Ortiz carries the heaviest dramatic burden as Anna, with Katie Rubin stealing much of her thunder in a series of tart cameos.

Performances of Anna Considers Mars continue through June 16 at the Potrero Stage (click here for tickets).

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One of the longest and most famous dream sequences in cinema history involves the innocent young Dorothy Gale, who finds herself transported to the wonderful land of Oz where she asks a strangely-dressed woman "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?" While the rest of us struggle with the horrifying realization that surviving the Trump administration is like being trapped in a never-ending nightmare, Shotgun Players is currently presenting the Bay area premiere of Kings, a tightly-written political thriller by Sarah Burgess.

Although it's easy to imagine that the most important characters in Kings are long-time Texas Senator John McDowell (Don Wood) and newly-arrived Dallas Congresswoman Sydney Millsap (Sam Jackson), the real action takes place behind the scenes as the audience witnesses the cutthroat behavior of two female lobbyists who will undoubtedly force audiences to wonder: "Are you a good bitch or a bad bitch?"

Elissa Beth Stebbins (Kate) and Sarah Mitchell (Lauren)
in a scene from Kings (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Kate (Elissa Beth Stebbins) is a jaded political operative whose clients include an association of podiatrists. Well-versed in the euphemisms employed by Congress critters to make it seem like they're legislating (as opposed to obfuscating), she hasn't been completely blinded by the perks of the trade. Translation? Kate may still possess an ounce of humanity. That's hardly the case for her professional colleague, Lauren (Sarah Mitchell), a hard-driving lesbian who seems to have been genetically programmed to display the personality traits of Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. As the playwright explains:
“I’m from the suburbs of D.C. My parents were in the military and also worked at different points in the public relations sector. At one point, my dad briefly worked for a congressman, so I always felt a connection to D.C. and the people there. I tried to write about The Pentagon for a while, but that proved to be a little difficult. About two years ago, I read something about these fundraising retreats that lawmakers do (there are a lot of firms that take lawmakers out of D.C. to Napa or golf courses in South Carolina). Something about these prominent and successful people having to gather together to do these activities under the pretense of fundraising just seemed very funny to me. I think that’s what put me on to writing about Washington.”
Sarah Mitchell (Lauren) and Don Wood (John McDowell)
in a scene from Kings (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

As the play begins, Kate and Lauren cross paths at a yearly retreat in Vail, Colorado, where Kate's new client, Congresswoman Millsap, seems to be hiding out in her hotel room. A Gold Star widow who ran as a Washington outsider critical of political corruption, Millsap arrived in Congress as a pragmatist willing to take money from people, but not necessarily do their bidding. Though she dutifully makes the daily fundraising phone calls that come with the territory, Millsap is not afraid to shut down sales pitches that do not interest her or walk away from lobbyists suggesting highly lucrative but ethically questionable alliances.

Sam Jackson (Sydney Millsap) and Sarah Mitchell (Lauren)
in a scene from Kings (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Her fellow Texan, on the other hand, has spent many years in office and knows the political turf well. Proud of his son (a Harvard graduate) he is occasionally forced to defend his choice to become a poet. When Millsap's idealism proves counterproductive to getting re-elected, she opts to run against McDowell for his Senate seat. The Congresswoman's unexpected political pivot turns up the competitive heat in Lauren and Kate's friendship.

Burgess's writing crackles with the kind of intelligence, insider knowledge, and attention to detail that made Aaron Sorkin's contributions to The West Wing so powerful. In addition to showcasing the condescending elitism of those operating within Washington's bubble, Burgess doesn't hesitate to poke fun at the rivalry between fajita-based restaurant chains in Dallas (Chili's) and Houston (Ninfa's), or the sheer pettiness of many political maneuvers.

Working on Angrette McCloskey's handsome unit set (with lighting by Chris Lundahl, video by Erin Gilley, sound design by James Ard, and costumes by Miyuki Bierlein), Shotgun's Development Director & resident dramaturg, Joanie McBrien, has directed this production with the kind of theatrical acuity that makes audiences feel as if they are flies on the wall watching the ego-driven political equivalent of making sausage. As she explains in her program note:
“With the 2018 midterm elections, over 100 women were elected to Congress. There are women who defeated long-time incumbents (women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is willing to take a stand against inequities in the political system even if members of her party advise against it). As a newly-elected member of Congress, Sydney Millsap is appalled at the toxic relationship between money and politics. Rather than accept the unrelenting fundraising as a necessary part of her job, she exposes the backroom deals and the compromises that benefit those with wealth. Kings addresses a central question in our society: should we accept the current system or dismantle it? What are the consequences?”
Years ago, someone described actress Sylvia Miles as being so desperate for publicity that she would show up for the opening of an envelope. While many members of Congress are eager to claim the spotlight, Burgess's play shows where the real power in Washington lies. As you might expect, it ain't a pretty sight. Sam Jackson and Don Wood do an excellent job of feigning humility and genuine care for their constituents, but the production's top acting honors are shared by Sarah Mitchell and Elissa Beth Stebbins (two exceptional actresses).

Sarah Mitchell (Lauren) and Elissa Beth Stebbins (Kate)
in a scene from Kings (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Performances of Kings continue through June 16 at the Ashby Stage (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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