Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Who Can They Turn To?

During his presidential campaign, a man with a long history of discriminating against minorities in his real estate businesses told African-Americans to trust him. "What have you got to lose?" he asked. Now that he's in the White House, Donald Trump wants loyalty. Bully for him.

A textbook case of what happens when someone tries to live up to their own publicity, Trump has no compunction about assuming that his celebrity and newly-acquired political power can keep him above the law. However, like respect, love, and a good reputation, trust must be earned over a long period of time and can be obliterated in an instant. As Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710, "Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it."

For many people, the two factors most likely to rupture a good relationship are imbalances in power and earning potential. In some cases those inequities have been defined by traditional gender roles; in other cases by a culture of dominance and submission. While domestic partnership contracts, prenuptial agreements, chastity belts, and safe words are relationship tools that can be used to define the levels of trust between consenting adults, emotional betrayal come in all shapes, sizes, and can easily destroy the ties that bind people together.


Two San Francisco theatre companies recently hosted the world premieres of plays driven by a curious combination of micro aggressions, macro aggressions, and macho aggressions.
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On October 13, 1962, Edward Albee's controversial drama entitled Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had its Broadway premiere at the Billy Rose Theatre. While many were shocked by Martha's aggressive behavior and George's willingness to put up with her incessant humiliation, there was no doubt about the quality of Albee's writing. His drama went on to receive 1963's Tony Award for Best Play and the 1962-1963 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. Although Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was selected to become the 1963 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, some of Columbia University's more refined trustees "got the vapors" and nixed the nominating committee's selection because of the script's profanity and overt references to human sexuality. As a result, no Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded in 1963.

While some may have found Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to be shockingly vulgar, few understood that it was way ahead of its time. Back in 1962, there was no way for people to know how miserably language would deteriorate over the following half century. We are now at a point where pre-pubescents call each other "bitches," the Real Housewives formula has been replicated in numerous countries around the globe, hip hop artists include all kinds of profanity in their rap lyrics, and the President of the United States has been heard boasting about how he loves to grab women by their pussies. In 2011, a new play by Stephen Adly Guirgis entitled The Motherfucker With The Hat premiered on Broadway!

What many people overlooked was the simple fact that Albee hit on a winning formula: Put two married couples together. Let them make nice when introduced. Then place them together in the psychological equivalent of a crucible, plant the seeds of suspicion and/or resentment, and let jealousy and doubt take over. Rob these people of their most precious delusions and expose their deepest secrets, stripping them of their defenses (with one couple covering up for their inability to have a child and the other hiding a mysteriously inconvenient hysterical pregnancy, Albee hit pay dirt).

The cast of You Mean To Do Me Harm (Photo by: Ken Levin) 

As part of its Sandbox Series to promote new works, the San Francisco Playhouse recently staged the world premiere of Christopher Chen's lean, mean, and meticulously crafted drama entitled You Mean To Do Me Harm. Zoe Rosenfeld's handsome unit set is as symmetrical as a board game and bordered by tension-inducing right angles. Whenever two actors are not performing in a scene, they sit outside the set's basic square as if waiting to re-enter a wrestling ring.

Chen's characters are two interracial couples with interesting backstories. Lindsey (Lauren English) is a Caucasian woman whose success as a corporate lawyer is no doubt due to the fact that her mind is as sharp as a tack. Her Chinese-American husband, Daniel (Don Castro), works for a large tech firm based in Silicon Valley.

Don Castro (Dan) and Lauren English (Lindsey) in a scene
from You Mean To Do Me Harm (Photo by: Ken Levin)

Ben (James Asher) has recently been offered a job at the company where Dan works. After having lived in China for several years, he's found doors opening for him simply because he's a white guy who has some knowledge of Chinese culture. While Ben may be a fairly laid-back kind of guy who doesn't sweat the small stuff, his Chinese-American wife, Samantha (Charisse Loriaux), has a habit of noticing petty details about the behavior and conversation of the men she meets. When Samantha and Ben interviewed for the same job, she didn't hesitate to sabotage her husband's chances of being hired because (a) she felt that, as a Chinese-American, she was better qualified for the position and (b) she was not about to be passed over for a key opportunity because of her husband's white privilege. How did Samantha and Lindsey meet? They work at the same company.

Charisse Loriaux (Samantha) and James Asher (Ben) in a scene
from You Mean To Do Me Harm (Photo by: Ken Levin) 

The fact that Ben and Lindsey once dated years ago and that, during dinner, Ben fondly mentions a camping trip they took together, is enough of an irritant to Dan's fragile ego to generate doubt about Ben's motives and Lindsey's responses. Ben's simple throwaway remark at their dinner party causes Dan's insecurities to start spiraling out of control, making him wonder if Ben poses a sexual threat to his marriage.

Lauren English (Lindsey) and Charisse Loriaux (Samantha) in a
scene from You Mean To Do Me Harm (Photo by: Ken Levin)

As Chen's intricately-plotted 90-minute play unravels, the audience follows a series of two-character vignettes, starting with a discussion between Lindsey and Dan that transitions to a conversation between Dan and Ben. Likewise, a tense exchange between Ben and Samantha is followed by a surprisingly candid confrontation between Samantha and Lindsey.

Any assumptions an audience member may have made at the beginning of the play are shredded with clinical precision while revealing how the two women see very different things happening than their husbands do. The perspectives of those who grew up in a Chinese or Chinese-American family reveal startling insights into the privileged behavior of the Caucasians they encounter. As Chen has stressed in the past, “It’s my firm belief that the way to move through life is to constantly question and interrogate whatever so-called truths are put right before your face."

Don Castro (Dan) and Charisse Loriaux (Samantha) in a scene
from You Mean To Do Me Harm (Photo by: Ken Levin)

The four-actor ensemble does some breathtaking work as they hack away at each other's deceits, analyze false assumptions, dissect easily overlooked micro aggressions, and manipulate their spouses and friends whenever they sense an advantage. Chen has always had a strong skill for crafting dialogue, but in this play he seems to have broken through to a new level. Although his characters' words may overlap, there is an underlying musicality to his dialogue (which is crafted and delivered with the effectiveness of nanotechnology).

James Asher (Ben) and Lauren English (Lindsey) in a scene
from You Mean To Do Me Harm (Photo by: Ken Levin) 

You Mean To Do Me Harm went through a lengthy developmental process shared by the San Francisco Playhouse and the Vineyard Theatre in New York City. As its director, Bill English, carefully notes:
"Mr. Chen has given us a much-needed story about young urban professionals -- witty, brilliant, sophisticated, but still struggling to define themselves and find their place in a society lacking moral guidelines and infected by subtle and insidious forms of racism. A fateful dinner party ignites cultural misunderstandings and conflicts, embroiling two racially-mixed couples in a nightmarish series of events that spiral increasingly out of control, spinning them (and us) into a surreal landscape where we're never quite sure where reality ends and paranoia begins. Set against the backdrop of Sino-American political and business relations, You Mean To Do Me Harm focuses on the way racial misunderstandings and micro-aggressions are expressed in the microcosm of personal relationships. Mr. Chen pulls the rug out from under his characters (and us) by twisting the nature of the play's metaphysics so that we understand what it must be like to be an outsider in the white world where what one is led to believe can never quite be trusted. By throwing us into this Rashoman-like world of multiple unprovable truths, we are led to an understanding of how unmoored those from minority cultures can feel."
The cast of You Mean To Do Me Harm (Photo by: Ken Levin) 

Performances of You Mean To Do Me Harm continue at the Rueff Theatre through July 2 (click here for tickets).

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I first met playwright JC Lee during the summer of 2010, when his rowdy comedy, Pookie Goes Grenading, was being given a reading at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. Since then I've reviewed the world premieres of Lee's This World and After trilogy (Into The Clear Blue Sky, This World Is Good, and The Nature Line) at Sleepwalkers Theatre and Crane (produced by the Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company) as well as attended a reading of Luce at the Aurora Theatre Company in February 2013. In addition to his work on such television shows as HBO's Looking and Girls and ABC's How To Get Away With Murder, Lee (a fast and facile writer with a special talent for using magical realism in his plays) is working as a screenwriter on film adaptations of Pippin and The Nutcracker.

Ed Berkeley and JD Scalzo in a scene from warplay
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

Lee's warplay (which was commissioned and developed as part of New Conservatory Theatre Center's New Play Development Lab) is the company's third world premiere this season. Inspired by The Iliad, warplay offers a vastly different perspective on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus than Homer described in his epic poem. While some have called this relationship one of the oldest love stories in Western literature, it is best known as one of the earliest published tales about a same-sex relationship that may not have been merely platonic.

In warplay, two men are identified simply by their initials. The Achilles character, "A" (Ed Berkeley), has gone through life convinced that he is a hero. Butch, brave, and built like a brick shithouse, he has always been an impressive specimen of male beauty who is completely comfortable in his own skin. "A" sees himself as a natural leader who has (naturally) been  chosen for this role by the Gods. With an unshakable faith in the kind of games that must be played in order to prepare for war, he is the very model of an ancient Greek warrior.

Ed Berkeley in a scene from warplay (Photo by: Lois Tema)

"A" is not, however, perfect. As his best friend from childhood is quick to point out, "A" is at least 34% sociopathic, oozes high levels of toxic masculinity and, throughout his life, has had everything handed to him on a silver platter. In short, "A" has never been challenged to earn anyone's love.

The Patroclus figure, "P" (JD Scalzo), offers a marked contrast to "A's" many manly virtues. Skittish, analytical, capable of feeling fear, and occasionally hysterical, he is riddled with conflicting emotions. "P" is first seen refusing to stone a rabbit to death if it will mean killing an innocent animal just to demonstrate his ability to engage with an enemy. While "A" finds it difficult to believe that he is capable of having free will, "P" is a man of intense passion who is sometimes consumed with worry and, at other times, radiant with love for his best friend.

JD Scalzo in a scene from warplay (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

warplay's scenes have titles like "In The Blood, "Small Thing," "Echoes of a Ticking Clock," and "Capture the Flag." As the sounds of a nearby battle fill the theatre, A & P (who should not be confused with the former supermarket chain) argue and fight with each other because that's what their culture expects men to do. Even if they have deep feelings of affection and lust for each other's warmth, it is often difficult for them to articulate their love ("A" clearly feels a responsibility to protect "P" but has never shown much curiosity about what "P" hopes to get out of their relationship).

Compellingly directed by Ben Randle on Devin Kasper's unit set (with costumes by Miriam Lewis, and projections and sound designed by Theodore J. H. Hulsker), the two men are seen as young adults ready to go to battle as well as adolescents attempting to model themselves on the Greek version of GI Joe. While there are parts of Lee's 75-minute play that could benefit from greater cohesion, the dramatic high point occurs when "A" returns to the banks of the river Styx, sees the spirit of "P" standing on the opposite shore, and asks if "P" still remembers him.

JD Scalzo and Ed Berkeley in a scene from warplay
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

Lee has written two extremely meaty roles for the actors who portray "A" and "P." Ed Berkeley and JD Scalzo rise to the challenge with a forceful display of blood, sweat, and tears, delivering remarkable performances that gain added impact from the intimacy of the 60-seat Walker Theatre. As the playwright explains:
“Television is about economy: what’s the most efficient and interesting way to tell the story. Film is about structure: how do you we tell a story in two hours in the most commercial way possible. Theatre is about language and action: what’s the most interesting vocabulary with which to tell the story. Writing a two-person play is fucking hard. It requires deeply mining the emotional journey the two characters are on and dramatizing the nuance. I was always impressed with Andrew Haigh’s ability while filming Looking to maneuver the camera into the most intimate moments that two people share (whether they be embarrassing, sexy, or horrifying in their revelations).

What you find in theatre is that you just don’t have that tool. You can’t move the audience in. You’ve got to make the moment bigger so everyone in the theatre can experience it. That’s a really hard thing to do without compromising the truth of the emotional moment. If you just write television for a long time, you forget how to let characters talk and breathe. If you write features too long, you don’t remember that structure isn’t the paramount concern of storytelling. If all you write are plays, you wind up hewing to a very small demographic of people, which limits the scope of what you can write about.”
Performances of warplay continue at the New Conservatory Theatre through July 2 (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer: