Thursday, November 7, 2019

Singular Sensations

Like many creative people, I broke out in smiles upon reading a meme currently floating around Facebook which states "Glitter is just sand that majored in musical theatre." Think, for a minute, of all the repressed and constipated people you have encountered who seem to have no outlet for their emotions. People who let rage and resentment fester in their souls until they become increasingly negative and bitter. People whose only way to survive seems to be by dragging others down. People whose first response to anything is the word "No!"

Then look at the opposite: actors, singers, writers, and clowns who not only get to do something they love as part of their professional life but also take on the voices and emotions of fictional characters. The ones who, in preparing their work, have to imagine walking in someone else's footsteps. In their groundbreaking 1927 musical, Show Boat, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II memorialized a magnificent tool for living a life filled with challenges and rewards.

In 1983, Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein put a new twist on how to triumph over a bad day.

During the 2013 Governors Awards celebration at the Hollywood and Highland Center, Emma Thompson paid tribute to a legendary actress whose lengthy career on stage and screen has thrilled and entertained millions.

Though we may live in a culture that worships celebrity, there are many dramas and films in which the whole becomes so much greater than the sum of its parts. Often, this can be attributed to the high level of craft that has gone into the creative process. Whether watching a historical drama unfold in a remote civilization or a series of short stories come to life in a theatrical spookhouse, the ability of art to transcend time is a truly multicultural phenomenon. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart noted when asked to define his threshold test for obscenity in the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio: "I know it when I see it."

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Children of the Sun (which will be screened during the 3rd i Film Festival) is the kind of film whose primitive beauty takes its audience by surprise (largely thanks to some exquisite work by cinematographer Rajeev Ravi). Written and directed by Prasanna Vithanage, this period drama is set in 1814 in Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as British colonial influences try to engineer a regime change in their efforts to absorb Ceylon into the British Empire. According to local folklore and historical events, the final phase of the Kandyan kingdom includes a 30-year civil war during which hundreds of thousands of natives perished following the failed rebellion by Sinhala nobles against their South Indian (Tamil) ruler. The politics are complex and not easily understood merely by watching Vithanage's film. Thankfully, Wikipedia offers a helpful perspective:
"In 1814, the king ordered Ehelepola Adigar, Dissava of Sabaragamuwa, to Kandy. Ehelepola, suspecting a trap, refused. In revenge, the king had his wife and three children executed. Such was the cruelty of the execution that the Kandyan populace, not unused to sights of public execution, now turned en masse against the king. The king was also hugely unpopular amongst the clergy for his sudden and brutal seizures of their land and valuables."
Sajitha Anuththara stars as Vijaya in Children of the Sun
"In November 1814, ten British subjects were captured and mutilated in Kandyan territory. Governor Robert Brownrigg ordered several British forces moved inland from their coastal strongholds in January 1815, accompanied by native forces under Ehelepola. Molligoda (Ehelepola's successor in Sabaragamuwa and Dissava of the Four Korales) defected to the British in February. Kandy was seized on February 14, and Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe himself captured on February 18 by Ehelepola's men. The king was subsequently exiled to India, where he died in 1832."
Dinara Punchihewa co-stars as Tikiri in Children of the Sun
Vithanage’s film takes a strange turn after the rebellion fails and the wives and daughters of the defeated Buddhist noblemen are given a chilling ultimatum. They must choose between saving face by committing suicide (which some of them do by stoically stepping off of a wooden pier while holding large weights in their hands) or being forced to marry a member of Ceylon’s lowest caste. At the last minute, one of the youngest daughters, Tikiri (Dinara Punchihewa), panics and refuses to commit suicide. Upon receiving the signal to advance, a band of scruffy, dark-skinned men swims across the stream in a frenzy. The fastest and seemingly wildest rushes onto the pier to grab Tikiri’s arm and claim her as his prize.

One of the British noblemen in Children of the Sun

Having chosen to marry a Rodiya (untouchable), Tikiri cannot return to the comfort of Kandy’s upper class. After being shunned by their community, she has no choice but to follow Vijaya (Sajitha Anuththara) into the mountains and learn what a life without privilege entails. Her lifestyle suddenly has no protection other than a strange man with whom she can barely communicate. Mourning the loss of her family and privilege, Tikiri becomes rebellious to the point of refusing to associate with members of Vijaya’s tribe. For Vijaya (who earns his living by capturing water buffalo and bringing them to the village for sale), this is a huge embarrassment.

Sajitha Anuththara stars as Vijaya in Children of the Sun

What might have merely been a struggle for Tikiri to retain her sense of dignity is soon transformed into a fight for survival as the young couple is forced to seek safety deep within the local forest. Though Vithanage’s visually rich storytelling technique may seem a bit odd at times, the forest soundscape coupled with the natural beauty of Sri Lanka's scenery make this film an engrossing experience.

Sajitha Anuththara stars as Vijaya in Children of the Sun

Although Children of the Sun is far from a typical coming-of-age story, viewers will find it hard to look away from the screen as innocent people are sacrificed for the sake of colonialism and a desire to eradicate indigenous peoples.

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TheatreFIRST is undergoing a major transition as a result of being forced to vacate its home base while the City of Berkeley renovates the Live Oak Theatre. As the company focuses on a future that will transform it into an incubator and developer of new works with the help of its artistic facilitator, Jon Tracy, it has taken up temporary residence in the intimate confines of the Waterfront Playhouse and Conservatory.

The original plan for the company's 2019-2020 season was to schedule their season opener, From The Ground Up: An Anthology of Ghost Stories Made New, as a timely attraction for Halloween. Minor delays ended up with the world premiere taking place on October 31st, which meant that, by the following weekend, people had probably had enough of Halloween to last them until next year.

That's why some of the Bay area's most devoted theatregoers could miss out on a uniquely cohesive anthology of vignettes that have been meticulously crafted into a 90-minute excursion into ghoulish territory. The result is a unique entertainment whose dramatic strength rests on an eerie foundation of charm in a deceptively claustrophobic environment.

Dameion Brown on the set of From The Ground Up
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

With the audience scattered around a curio shop bursting at the seems with vintage photographs, frayed memorabilia, worn out furniture, and spooky lighting, the drama gets under way as a hunched over crone (Tierra Allen) shuffles around the room, wheezing and gurgling like an asthmatic audio-animatron that can't remember where it left its memories. Watching this talented actor slowly, almost painfully move through the performance space in a costume that could have sprung from Maurice Sendak's imagination, the audience is easily seduced into suspending its disbelief in favor of an extremely intimate exercise in fantasy and mystery.

Maurice Sendak's drawing of Clara in The Nutcracker

With sound design by Kristoffer Barrera, costumes and props by Grace Beneprice, lighting and set design by Jon Tracy, Christian Cagigal, and Rebecca Pingree, the end product is an unusually fine piece of performance art.

Jeremy Marquis on the trick bed in From The Ground Up
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

The eight vignettes woven into TheatreFIRST's bizarre tapestry benefit from sleight of hand, a trick bed, flickering lights, and sounds that go bump in the night. They include:
Yohana Ansari-Thomas on the set of From The Ground Up
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)
Rob Dario in From The Ground Up (Photo by: Jay Yamada)
  • Rock, Scissors, Paper (written by Arisa White, directed by Elizabeth Carter, and performed by Eliza Boivin, Dameion Brown, Jeremy Marquis, and LaMont Ridgell).
  • Zara's Box (written by Dan Wolf, directed by Lauren Spencer, and performed by Tierra Allen and Rebecca Pingree).
  • Moaning Bones (written by Cleavon Smith, directed by Cheri Miller, and performed by Cheri Miller and Rebecca Pingree).
Eliza Boivin on the set of From The Ground Up
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Because these vignettes flower, flow, and fade with dream-like fluidity, it's difficult to identify particular moments that stand out (other than when Tierra Allen's eccentric shopkeeper pops up out of the dark, stares into your face, and addresses you by your name). However, two vignettes made an especially strong impression. Though broken into small segments (which divert the audience's attention during minor scenery and costume changes), Pock Mark Su tells a fairly traditional ghost story about a person who, having made the terrible mistake of wasting precious grains of rice, was cursed with a horrible skin condition. The other is Brutal, in which one gay man answers another's classified ad for a partner in a rough sex scene without grasping the serious intent with which the ad was written.

Performances of From The Ground Up continue through November 17 at the Waterfront Playhouse and Conservatory (click here for tickets).

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