Monday, April 23, 2018

Sheepish Non-Binary Boy Seeks Hot Gangster Love

Many years ago, while pursuing an undergraduate degree at Brooklyn College, I took two courses that had a profound impact on my life. Both were taught by Professor Anna Babey-Brooke, a charmingly eccentric woman who entertained and tantalized her students as if she were an academic Auntie Mame. The "Babbling Brooke" was the kind of person who could easily launch into a story about how well-intentioned Peace Corps volunteers (who thought they were bringing modern plumbing to remote tribes in South America) were shocked when the natives, in awe of how flush toilets worked, assumed that the porcelain devices were primitive gods who swallowed stones given to them as offerings. Thus was a plumbing system installed by the Peace Corps quickly sabotaged by the gods.

When such tales of unusual culture clashes are dropped into receptive young minds during a course about Indo-European Myths and Legends (along with passages from the Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, The Golden Bough, Tibetan Book of the Dead, Egyptian Book of the Dead, and an enchanting introduction to Hawaiian mythology), stories from the Bible seem pretty lame. Especially when compared to fantastic tales about gods of fertility and vegetation. Did you know that:
  • The popular Hindu god Ganesh has the head of an elephant, four arms, and a big belly.
  • Two incestuous gods from Japanese mythology (Izanami and Izanagi) gave birth to the Japanese islands.
  • In Norse mythology, Loki is a shape-shifting god capable of switching his gender at will. In one instance, he turns himself into a mare, is impregnated by Odin, and gives birth to Sleipnir, an eight-legged horse.
  • According to Wikipedia, "In Hesiod's Theogony, Aphrodite is born off the coast of Cythera from the foam (aphros) produced by Uranus's genitals, which his son Cronus has severed and thrown into the sea."
  • Before being identified as a Hindu goddess, Kali was described as "the black tongue of the seven flickering tongues of Agni, the Hindu god of fire." She is often depicted with four arms, black or blue skin, and occasionally wears "a skirt made out of human arms and a garland of human heads." Kali is also occasionally depicted with 10 arms, 10 feet, and 10 heads (each with a face containing three eyes).
Artwork depicting the Hindu goddess, Kali

Although the world's religions have inspired magnificent images of their gods, there is little risk in imagining Krishna with blue skin or Jesus with dark skin. But when one's attention is drawn to more earthly matters, relying on faith and magic does not always produce the desired results. Among the many challenges in culinary art are mastering the variables of heat, cooking time, if one spice might overpower another, and whether a combination of ingredients will deliver a meal that nourishes and fulfills or a dish that repulses those to whom it is served.

Too much of one thing (and not enough of another) are often identified as key factors in the development of a new play or musical that can prevent its creative team from achieving their goals. Two recent world premieres on San Francisco stages offered prime examples of how difficult it is to birth a new work with a tortured tale to tell.

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Midway through 2015, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival debuted a new musical that was a lively mashup of Sir Philip Sidney’s ribald piece of 16th-century prose entitled The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia with songs popularized by The Go-Go's during the 1980s. Since then, Head Over Heels has )undergone extensive reworking (including new sets and costumes) while acquiring a new director, librettist, choreographer, and cast. The revamped musical is now trying out in San Francisco prior to its official Broadway premiere at the newly-restored Hudson Theatre on July 26.


The musical's plot line includes many familiar elements from fairy tales and popular fiction. There is an Oracle/wizard named Pythio (Peppermint) who renders prophecy and a curse; a macho man named King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) who must go on a quest; a queen past her prime named Gynecia (Rachel York) who feels sorely neglected and in need of some loving; and trouble in Arcadia (as opposed to River City). Princess Pamela (Bonnie Milligan) is an overbearing, zaftig mean girl who is quite full of herself and quick to dismiss all potential suitors as unworthy of her questionable charms. Pamela's younger sister, Philoclea (Alexandra Socha), looks appealing by most common standards but is secretly in love with a goofy shepherd named Musidorus (Andrew Durand).

Rounding out the cast is Pamela's servant, Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), whose father, Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins), seems to have been yanked from the plot of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. In addition to enough prancing sheep to repopulate Brokeback Mountain and a chorus of dancers who can effortlessly transform themselves into mermaids, use their arms to simulate writhing snakes, and display the Go-Go's sheet music on their bulging codpieces, there is a tremendous amount of energy bursting forth from the stage (along with a script full of lewd and licentious double entendres).

Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones) leads the company in a
scene from Head Over Heels (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

“Because it’s a mashup of these different sensibilities, we don’t have to be period-specific -- I get to create something completely new with these costumes,” notes designer Arianne Phillips. “I started with a Tudor silhouette, but I’m deconstructing that in terms of the shape and the volume. I made the decision not to use any period-correct fabrics (jacquard, brocade, or anything previously embellished) because I wanted the costumes to have a very modern feel. I’m using completely flat fabric. All of it started out white and we’re dyeing, printing, or painting directly onto it. When I started thinking about embellishments, I was inspired by the techniques of trompe l’oeil and Chagall. We also got permission from The Go-Go’s to use their sheet music for “We Got the Beat” as a pattern for some ensemble costumes.”

Costume sketches by Arianne Phillips for Head Over Heels

"All the amazing percussion and the guitars in The Go-Go's music just make your body move in a certain way," stresses choreographer Spencer Liff. "Because this show mixes the Elizabethan Romance era with 1980s pop punk, I didn't feel tied to one or the other. I decided I wanted the dancing to be the most contemporary piece of the puzzle. I wanted to incorporate the dancing that's popular in the clubs right now along with more of a street style, so I tried to come up with numbers similar to things I would choreograph on So You Think You Can Dance."

Despite the use of some shadow play and the presence of one exceptionally hot dancer (Yurel Echezarreta), as I watched the opening night performance at the Curran Theatre, no amount of squealing from devoted fans of The Go-Go's could dispel the sinking feeling that the whole of Head Over Heels is decidedly less than the sum of its parts. In the same way that people are quick to say "The Simpsons did it first," it's easy to point to Shakespeare, Rossini, and others who have successfully covered this ground in one form or another.

What sets Head Over Heels apart from prior treks down this well-worn narrative path is its gender-bending consciousness and willingness to spoof contemporary cultural confusion over which pronoun should be used to describe anyone's gender ("they" seems to reign triumphant). While Pythio is performed by a popular transgender, the heavy gender-bending chores rest on the skilled comic shoulders of Andrew Durand, whose shy (and sly) shepherd is transformed into a proud Amazon wearing a metallic bullet bra that could make Madonna jealous.

“At the end of the day, the show’s about ending a kind of government that feels very similar to the one we have in this country right now, which is ideologically opposed to everything that I understand to be progressive, enlightened, feminist -- all the things I believe in. In addition to that depiction of the doggedly insane patriarchy, there’s also the identity politics of the multi-gendered world we find ourselves in,” explains director Michael Mayer. “Even though this is such a funny show, the message is absolutely there. On one hand, it’s a total romp, but it’s saying something quite profound. The fact that we have a trans woman actress in the role of a gender-nonconforming character is exciting. I don’t think that a principal role has ever been created by a trans actress before -- certainly not on Broadway.”

Peppermint appears as the Oracle in Head Over Heels
(Photo by: Spectrum News NY1)

While I can't put my finger on it, much of the humor in James Magruder's script feels like it would work better in a college revue or on a comedy sketch show like Saturday Night Live. It's likely that Kai Harada's overbearing sound design (which barely made it possible to understand a third of the song lyrics) could be a big part of the problem.

“In fiction, it’s often a delight just listening to the narrative voice. If you have a very funny narrator, they don’t have to do anything for 40 pages, they can just make you laugh. Musidorus (the shepherd who’s trying really, really hard and who does anything for love) is kind of awkward. When he’s nervous, he starts talking in this shepherd’s tongue that none of the other characters can understand. He’s not trying to be a smarty-pants, but there’s something about a writer and his ego that says ‘Look at me, and pay attention to my language.’ When you’re writing for the stage, the audience is only hearing your words once,” stresses Magruder, who is responsible for the show’s revised book. “They can’t read the sentence over, they can’t go back, they can’t stay on the page and savor a scene. So everything you write really has to hit. You can’t tread water in theater. It’s a very different skill.”

Pythio (Peppermint) puts a curse on the inhabitants
of Arcadia in Head Over Heels (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

With sets designed by Julian Crouch, lighting by Kevin Adams, and additional music by Tom Kitt, there's no doubt that Head Over Heels has plenty of visual gags to delight the audience. I was most intrigued by the performances of Rachel York (Gynecia), Alexandra Socha (Philoclea), and Taylor Iman Jones (Mopsa). While Peppermint did not make that strong an impression, I found great delight in the way Andrew Durand stole the show by underplaying much of his role's humor rather than trying to "sell it" to the audience.

Although expectations are high for this show to gain a foothold in the New York market, it might be wise to remember that Green Day's American Idiot (which started out at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and was also directed by Michael Mayer) only lasted for a year on Broadway. Performances of Head Over Heels continue through May 6 at the Curran Theatre (click here for tickets).

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In February 2016, under the direction of Loretta Greco, Magic Theatre presented the world premiere of a stage adaptation of Jessica Hagedorn's 1990 novel entitled Dogeaters. This month, the company presented the world premiere of another adaptation of a Hagedorn novel: 1996's The Gangster of Love. As Greco (who directed the production) explains:
"As a first-generation immigrant odyssey, The Gangster of Love explores the act of becoming -- both as individual and artist in America -- and more specifically: San Francisco. This was San Francisco when the Mission was an actual barrio full of open-air politicized murals -- a stunning time in the Haight, Tenderloin, and North Beach, where poets, musicians, and artists of all sorts were plentiful and their revelations were revered. This was a San Francisco wrestling with a growing drug culture, the Zodiac and Zebra killings, and an anti-eviction movement which began with first-generation immigrants, but grew to include everyone who was invested in sustaining the character, diversity, and humanity of this beloved city by the Bay. For me, The Gangster of Love is provocative both as a first-hand account of the life-altering power of truly being seen and as a portrait of the 'American Dream' in action as it pans out for Rocky, her brother Voltaire, and their magnetic mother, Milagros."
Rocky Rivera (Golda Sargento) and her brother, Voltaire (Jed Parsario)
arrive in San Francisco in a scene from The Gangster of Love
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

From the moment the three Riveras set foot in San Francisco, they are confronted by a series of cultural, financial, and familial shocks. Among the family members are:
  • Milagros (Sarah Nina Hayon), who arrives in San Francisco with delusions of grandeur like a Filipina version of Blanche DuBois. An attractive woman who knows how to hold a grudge, Milagros has honed a passive-aggressive style of flirting and sulking as a tool for manipulating men -- which she soon uses effectively on her landlord and her brother-in-law's business contact at Wells Fargo Bank. Living under a cloud of melodrama and unwilling to accept the fact that she can no longer afford the kind of luxuries she took for granted in the Philippines, Milagros is bitter about the way her ex-husband jilted her in favor of another woman. A selfish, narcissistic control freak, she expects to be spoiled by those around her.
  • Voltaire (Jed Parsario), her teenage son. Wise to his mother's vain and impulsive behavior, he tries not to get swept up in her grudges and fantasies. Unfortunately, after they settle into an apartment in the Haight, Voltaire gets caught up in the drug culture of San Francisco in the 1970s, which only exacerbates his pre-existing problem with mood swings and temper tantrums. Despite his obvious intelligence, he ends up homeless and becomes an inpatient of the Psych Ward at San Francisco General Hospital until he signs himself out of SFGH and disappears.
  • Rocky (Golda Sargento) is Voltaire's kid sister. A bookworm who develops a taste for poetry, Rocky's character takes the longest journey, moving from the Philippines to San Francisco and eventually to New York as she becomes more involved in the beat culture and community efforts to save the International Hotel in San Francisco's Manilatown.
Accompanied by her brother-in-law, Basilio (Chuck Lacson), Milagros
(Sarah Nina Hayon) turns the charm on for a Wells Fargo loan officer
(Lawrence Radecker) in a scene from The Gangster of Love
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)
  • Fely (Lisa Hori-Garcia) is  Milagros's sister who works as an ICU nurse. In anticipation of her relatives' arrival, Fely and her husband, Basilio (Chuck Lacson), have found an apartment for Milagros, Rocky and Voltaire, paid their first month's rent, and put food in the refrigerator to make sure they don't go hungry (Milagros, however, insists on being taken out to dinner at a nice restaurant on the family's first night in San Francisco).
  • Marlon (Sean San José) is Rocky and Voltaire's openly gay uncle, a retired choreographer living in Los Angeles whose sharp wit and sense of fashion may be part of the connection he shared with the younger Voltaire. Marlon has always been supportive of Rocky and Voltaire's artistic ambitions -- especially when their mother was too wrapped up in her own problems to focus on anyone else.
Act I's tense family dinner scene in The Gangster of Love
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Magic Theatre's production moves from scene to scene with great fluidity thanks to Hana S. Kim's set and projection design, Ray Oppenheimer's lighting, and Loretta Greco's stage direction. With costumes by Ulises Alcala, sound design by Sara Huddleston, and music direction by El Beh, one is struck by the effectiveness with which supporting actors surface in multiple personalities. Lisa Hori-Garcia doubles as Fely and a shy young poet, while Chuck Lacson doubles as Fely's husband, Basilio, and a man named Shig. Lawrence Radecker shines as Rick (the Wells Fargo loan officer), a writer named Declan, and a drag queen named Fatima while Patrick Alparone portrays a skinny guitarist named Elvis and another character named Orpheus.

Having found his way into San Francisco's drug culture, Voltaire
(Jed Parsario) meets all kinds of interesting people in
The Gangster of Love (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Some of the Bay area's most reliable artists are on hand for this production, with Sarah Nina Hayon creating a glowing portrayal of the deeply conflicted Milagros, Dezi Solèy appearing as Keiko (the nubile bisexual photographer who invites Rocky to stay with her in New York), and Sean San José doubling as the flamboyant Uncle Marlon and an activist poet known as The Carabao Kid. As always, Lance Gardner is a wealth of empathy as Zeke Akamine (the Hawaiian landlord who falls for the feminine charms of Milagros but, after years of unrequited love, sells the building so he can return to his family in the islands), Bugsy (the drummer who accompanies Rocky's poetry readings in New York), and the ghost of Jimi Hendrix.

Sean San José appears as a beat poet known as The Carabao Kid
in a scene from The Gangster of Love (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Unfortunately, structural problems eventually cause The Gangster of Love to implode under its own weight. Whereas Uncle Marlon, Fely, and Basilio are strong figures in Act I, they remain absent until Milagros is dying in a hospital bed. Voltaire disappears midway through Act II, leaving the audience wondering if he succumbed to AIDS or died of an overdose (in the novel, Voltaire is the first member of the Rivera family to return to the Philippines). Jed Parsario gives a blazing performance in the role, subsequently returning to the stage as a medical worker who checks the vital signs of the dying Milagros.

The main problem is that, despite the earnest efforts of Loretta Greco and Golda Sargento to breathe life into Hagedorn's young protagonist, Rocky remains a surprisingly uninteresting character. This is partially due to the challenge of reducing a 300-page novel into a workable stage drama. But the fact that Act II keeps losing steam as Rocky tries to develop and grow as a poet (adding her questionable singing talent to her performance art) strikes me as a problem primarily with Hagedorn's writing. The hospital scene in which Milagros finally dies offered more relief for the audience than sadness for the character's demise.

Performances of The Gangster of Love continue through May 6 at Magic Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer: