Thursday, October 19, 2017

Flipping The Script

One of the great temptations for LGBT fans of musical theatre is to take songs that have either faded from memory or been taken for granted and switch the gender identity of the characters who sing them. Since 2006, video clips from Broadway Backwards (which began as a grassroots concert) have been floating around YouTube to great acclaim.

Not only has this annual fundraising event been performed in a Broadway theatre since 2010, Broadway Backwards is now produced by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS to jointly benefit BC/EFA and The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York. Its artistic theme is clearly defined as a celebration “where men sing songs originally written for women and vice versa. In doing so, gay and lesbian stories are told through the great songs of musical theatre and sung by our favorite Broadway performers.”

In recent years, MCC Theater's annual Miscast gala and the Twisted Broadway events in Melbourne, Australia have joined in the gender-bending fun. Some of the most hilarious reinterpretations of classical musical comedy numbers have included "Hernando's Hideaway" (from 1954's The Pajama Game), “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” (from 1959's The Sound of Music), "At the Ballet" (from 1975's A Chorus Line), and "Cell Block Tango" (from 1975's Chicago).








Not surprisingly, the intricacy of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics reveal the linguistic skill required to do them justice when coloring each song's context in a rainbow palette. Consider what switching gender identities does to "A Boy Like That" (from 1957's West Side Story), "If Momma Was Married" (from 1959's Gypsy), "Getting Married Today" (from 1971's Company), and "Weekend in the Country" (from 1973's A Little Night Music).






The inverted gender approach to Broadway songs depicted in the above videos is a source of sophisticated entertainment for some while others struggle to move past deeply ingrained gender norms previously associated with these musical numbers. Whereas "gender reassignment" thinking is a stretch for some people, anthropomorphism is not. According to Wikipedia:
“Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology. Personification is the related attribution of human form and characteristics to abstract concepts such as nations, emotions and natural forces like seasons and the weather. Both have ancient roots as storytelling and artistic devices. Most cultures have traditional fables with anthropomorphized animals as characters. People have also routinely attributed human emotions and behavioral traits to wild as well as domestic animals.”
Thus, it has long been accepted practice to regard a ship as female ("She nearly capsized in heavy squalls") or to refer to domesticated animals as "fur babies" or "my children." However, people who actually grow up around wild animals tend to look at them from a very different perspective. In these two songs from 1955's Plain and Fancy and 1957's New Girl in Town, one encounters fanciful and cynical views of farm life as seen through the eyes of those who have actually lived on a farm.




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In the summer of 2009, Shotgun Players presented free outdoor performances of an electrifying new piece of theatre at Berkeley's 350-seat John Hinkel Park Amphitheater (a New Deal project). Using a combination of spoken word, acrobatics, and dance, writer/director Jon Tracy crafted a new stage adaptation of George Orwell's biting satire, Animal Farm. At the time of the production's premiere, some Americans were embracing the political high of having their first African American president; others were complaining that the country was going straight to hell. Tracy wrote that:
"The sense of community is on the rise but it still has to push through an old set of morals that fears our soulful revolution. We have been pushed down, taught to think less of ourselves, and that has made us feel like Animals. Now, as we look around at an Obama Nation, we start to feel our own revolution beginning and, hey, it feels good. This is the exact time we need to remember Animal Farm, for we too, thrust into a leadership position, are susceptible to that very addictive drug of power. 'But we're the good guys! We're noble and evolved,' you say? I say, 'I think I've heard that somewhere before.' This is an Animal Farm for us."
Poster art for The Farm

In real life, we're used to seeing people act like pigs. However, watching pigs act like people can be quite unnerving when their behavior holds a mirror up to contemporary society. In his reworking of Orwell's 1945 critique of Stalinism and other forms of totalitarian oppression, Tracy focused on such characters as:
  • Moses (Dezi Solèy), the crow who acts as narrator and is in fact the chronicler of the revolution.
  • Old Major (Anthony Frederick Aranda), an old boar who has been the leader of the animals on Manor Farm. Understanding that his death is imminent, Old Major urges the farm animals to revolt against humans on the third day after his demise.
  • Mollie (Laura Espino), a pretty white mare who loves being pampered by humans. She has a fondness for sugar cubes, wearing ribbons in her hair, and dreams of going to the mythical Sugarcandy Mountain.
  • Napoleon (Tierra Allen). The runt of a litter (and not the brightest pig in the sty), Napoleon knows how to bend others to his will through coercion and intimidation. A true believer that the ends justify the means, he could easily be a member of the alt-right drunk on power -- or a pig that's developed a fondness for barley mash and wants to learn more about distilled whiskey.
Tierra Allen (Napoleon) in rehearsal for
The Farm (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)
  • Squealer (Marlon Richardson) is the pig who becomes Napoleon's spin doctor. Think of a scumbag propagandist like Sarah Huckabee Sanders covered in mud. Or a megamouth skilled at messaging and media manipulation.
  • Snowball (Molly O'Brien) is the pig who is Napoleon's rival. Able to read, she tries to design social programs that will benefit the workers and even draws up plans for a windmill.
  • Benjamin (Dean Koya) is one of the other farm animals that knows how to read. An old donkey who has seen it all, Benjamin manages to outlast most of the animals that were onstage at the beginning of the play.
  • Boxer (Dameion Brown) is a strong and devoted workhorse who, when setbacks occur, believes it is his duty to work harder for the common good -- even if it kills him.
  • Clover (Anna Joham) is Boxer's female companion, an aging mare who wants her best friend to retire.
  • Bluebell (Stephanie Prentice) is a dog whose puppies are taken away by Napoleon and raised as snarling attack dogs (they don't even recognize their biological mother).
Tierra Allen (Napoleon), Dameion Brown (Boxer), and Stephanie
Prentice (Bluebell) appear in The Farm (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Tracy and his friends have revived The Farm as TheatreFIRST's season opener. This time around, the play is being directed by Michael Torres and Elena Wright with choreography by Liz Tenuto and musical arrangements by Carlos Aguirre and Stephanie Prentice. Wright stresses that the production is meant to help people think about "what could be an outcome of our current political situation.” In all truth, The Farm couldn't be more timely (we've already reached the point where "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others").
Moses (Dezi Solèy) with the other animals
on The Farm (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Working on a unit set designed by Randy Wong-Westbrooke with costumes by Miyuki Bierlein, lighting by Stephanie Anne Johnson, and sound design by Kristoffer Barrera, members of TheatreFIRST's ensemble deliver deeply moving performances. Among the most notable are Dameion Brown as Boxer, Dezi Solèy as Moses, Laura Espino as Mollie, and Stephanie Prentice as Bluebell. In smaller roles, Molly O'Brien shines as Snowball, along with Anna Joham's Clover, and Dean Koya's Benjamin.

While it might be tempting to assume that Tierra Allen's power-hungry portrayal of Napoleon resembles Steve Bannon, I saw a closer and far more odious parallel to the loathsome Stephen Miller, a rabid 32-year-old Republican policy adviser who is easily corrupted by his proximity to power without understanding the dangerously misguided nature of his emphatically self-righteous decisions.

TheatreFIRST's ensemble in a scene from
The Farm (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Performances of The Farm continue at the Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley through November 11 (click here for tickets).

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Ever since 2005, when Brokeback Mountain's director, Ang Lee, used hundreds of sheep as background props for the repressed love between Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), sheep keep showing up on the silver screen. From stop-motion animated features about Shaun the Sheep to nature documentaries such as 2009's sweetgrass, 2014's Winter Nomads, and 2015's Addicted to Sheep, the woolly creatures keep tantalizing audiences with their grass-munching adventures.

From scenes of sheep shearing to lambs being born, the latest addition to the genre is Shepherdess of the Glaciers (which will be shown during San Francisco's upcoming 3rd i International South Asian Film Festival). What sets this film apart from other documentaries about sheep is its location on a rocky mountain near the Himalayan plateaus of the Gya-Miru Valley in Ladakh, India.

A scene from Shepherdess of the Glaciers

Directed and produced by Christiane Mordelet and Stanzin Dorjai Gya, this new documentary follows a shepherdess named Tsering as she tends to her flock of 300 sheep and pashmina goats at altitudes greater than 16,000 feet. With only a small transistor radio to connect Tsering to the outside world, she must protect her animals from hungry wolves, snow leopards, and hawks while trying to keep herself warm on the area's icy slopes.

Tsering is the lonely star of Shepherdess of the Glaciers

Tsering's lifestyle (documented by her brother, Stanzin Dorjai Gya over the course of four seasons) offers an intimate look at a mountain culture that is disappearing due to increasing modernization while the area is beginning to feel the effects of climate change. What sets this film apart from similar documentaries is the stark, unforgiving terrain (long shots reduce Tsering's animals to tiny dots on a steep mountainside) and the hardships of a lifestyle in which one's only option to warm up transistor radio batteries involves the use of a campfire.

At 74 minutes, Shepherdess of the Glaciers offers viewers an intriguing armchair adventure that frames an old story in a formidable landscape. Here's the trailer: