Sunday, September 28, 2008

Cowering Curmudgeons

For those of us who are "of a certain age," minding our manners doesn't always come easily. Whether one feels an uncontrollable urge to tell a bunch of little whippersnappers to get the fuck off the goddamned lawn -- or whether one suffers a general lack of social skills -- outliving a spouse, one's friends, or one's professional usefulness leaves many a person bitter, angry, and generally dyspeptic.  With too many people making excuses for such loathsome antics, far too many curmudgeons get away with murderously bad behavior.

Unlike the Grinch who stole Christmas, curmudgeons aren't quite as likeable at the box office as one might hope.  Thus, many films in which nasty old bastards take center stage end up in art houses as opposed to megaplexes.  Given a choice between Ben Stiller and the nasty old geezer who lives across the street, there isn't much of a choice.

That's why I was fascinated at how a gaggle of brittle, selfish seniors were recently depicted in two films which deal with fear of intimacy, lack of trust, cross-generational relationships, and the very genuine dread of dying.

This month, the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival is offering audiences the West Coast premiere of a curious little film called How About You, which follows the Christmas shenanigans of a group of wildly dysfunctional seniors living out their final years in an Irish boarding home.  The real plot centers around the family conflict between two sisters:  The older sister (Orla Brady) purchased the property with money she received after her husband died.  The younger sister, Ellie (Hayley Atwell), has a history of instability and shows up on her sibling's doorstep looking for a job and a place to stay so that she can save up enough money to travel around the world with some friends.

Ellie, who is much more laid back, has no qualms about baking marijuana cookies for the elderly boarders or breaking senseless rules which serve no purpose.  Her sister, who is wound pretty tight, is terrified of losing her business license if the health inspector makes one of his unexpected visits and finds things amiss.  When their mother suffers a stroke, the older sister heads off to London to be at her bedside, leaving Ellie to supervise a gaggle of aging raptors filled with resentment at the sight of her healthy, young flesh.

As it turns out, most of the other nursing facilities in the neighborhood usually send their tenants home over Christmas.  The ones that remain open have refused to take on the trouble-ridden likes of Georgia (a vain old actress who was once a much-desired chorus girl) ever again.  Add in a self-centered old judge and two bitterly unhappy and unmarried sisters, and you have the Christmas from hell brewing on the horizon.

Vanessa Redgrave and Hayley Atwell in How About You

Until, of course, the old windbags push too hard.  When Ellie lashes back (probably the first time in years that anyone has chastised them for their disgusting behavior) and throws down the gauntlet, the geezers realize that they can only survive the holiday by cooperating with each other.  As each reveals the fears and insecurities which spark their bad behavior, their Christmas dinner is almost ruined by an unexpected visit from the health inspector, who threatens to shut the place down.  Upon his return, however, he confesses that his wife just left him and for the first time in his life he has nowhere to go for Christmas dinner.

In lesser hands, How About You might become an excessively mawkish film.  But when you have such veterans as Vanessa Redgrave, Joss Ackland, Brenda Fricker and Imelda Staunton chewing the scenery, the movie takes on a more brutally poignant glow.  I especially liked Joan O'Hara's portrayal of Alice, who dies early into the film.

Based on a story by Maeve Binchy and directed with an icy touch of cynicism by Anthony Byrne, How About You will never be a feel-good Christmas movie for the family. I would happily recommend it, however, for the irritatingly irrascible incorrigibles in the crowd. Here's a holiday film for that important and underserved niche market: selfish mean old bastards!

Bah, humbug!

Of equal interest (and populated by a cast of actors with equal dramatic strength) is Isabel Coixet's Elegy.   Based on a story by Philip Roth, this intimate film stars Ben Kingsley as David Kepesh, a pompous, bitter and cynical professor of literature who walked out on his wife and child when his marriage started to resemble a prison sentence.  His son, Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), hates his father's guts. 

David, who survives beneath his impossibly thick coat of intellectual and emotional armor, has spent the past several years in a "friends with benefits" arrangement with Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson),  a self-made businesswoman who is constantly on the road.  His best friend, George (Dennis Hopper) is equally cynical.  When bonding together over coffee or on the racquetball court, the two men display a startling lack of maturity with regard to their relationships with women.

Enter Consuela (Penelope Cruz), one of David's students whose Cuban roots treat intergenerational relationships with much more openness and honesty than David can handle. Although quick to worship her magnificent, voluptuous body, he is loathe to admit to any kind of romantic entanglement.  

When Consuela finally gets David to agree to come to her graduation party -- where he will meet her parents -- he chickens out and, by doing so,  destroys their friendship.  Until, of course, that horrible moment several years later on New Year's Eve when he receives a call from Consuela, asking if she can see him.  Having recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, Consuela wants David (who is an amateur photographer) to do something special for her -- a favor she can ask of no one else she knows.

As with How About You, Elegy is the kind of film that cannot succeed without skilled actors who are secure in their work.  To her infinite credit, Coixet's direction is simple, understated, and allows the audience to focus on David's internal conflict.  Both films are also rescued by the brash honesty of the younger generation, which refuses to participate in the lies and deceptions that their selfishly delusional elders insist on using as an emotional crutch.  

Elegy is well worth your time, especially if you are involved in any kind of relationship in which there is a noticeable age difference.  As with any film in which the great Penelope Cruz appears, it is also worth seeing for the sheer physical beauty of this actress, the intelligence behind her craft, and the fire in her eyes.  Here's the trailer:

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Theater of Politics

September has been a particularly intense month for political theater.  A.C.T. offered the West Coast premiere of  Tom Stoppard's  Rock 'n' Roll while comic genius Tina Fey has continued to lay waste to Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin.  

With his alarmingly erratic behavior -- including possible signs of senile dementia -- the increasingly dysfunctional Senator John McCain seems to be staging his own version of "'Tis Pity He's A Whore." After staging a major hissy fit and declaring that he would not participate in any debates until and unless the crisis on Wall Street had been solved, McCain then pretended to suspend his Presidential campaign, royally pissed off David Letterman (who was so mad that he used the CBS internal feed to show McCain getting made up for an appearance with Katie Couric when he should have been seated on Letterman's couch), and forced his ineffectual presence into the tense negotiations in Washington over the federal bailout of America's financial system.  

McCain's pathological lying and self-serving behavior caused Oliver Willis to comment that "America needs a President, not a drama queen."  Former Presidential candidate John Kerry opined that while McCain "said he was going to interrupt his campaign to come down and save the negotiations, most people believe what he did was interrupt the negotiations to come down and save his campaign."  

What's next on McCain's schedule?  A performance as the old, feeble, and demented King Lear wandering around the Arizona desert?  

Or a front-row seat at Bristol Palin's shotgun wedding?

By a curious coincidence, I listened to the first half of the Presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain while en route to a performance at Berkeley's Ashby Stage. Without any visuals to shape my perceptions, what struck me most was the eerie sensation that I was listening to John McCain as Willy Loman in a radio dramatization of Arthur Milller's Death of a Salesman:  A pathetic fallen hero deteriorating into a boiling, contemptuous egomaniacal zero.

Thankfully, the production of Vera Wilde by the Shotgun Players that I attended had absolutely nothing to do with either John McCain or Bristol Palin.  Originally commissioned and produced by Seattle's Empty Space Theatre in 2002, the show derives its title from the first name of its Russian heroine, Vera Zasulich (a highly influential pre-Marxist revolutionary figure) and its British hero, playwright Oscar Wilde.  

Activists in their own ways, each was labeled as a "rebel," "outcast," "hero" and "convict." Each survived various political and social scandals and ended up being both celebrated and destroyed by their native societies.  The only link between them is that Oscar Wilde's first play, Vera and the Nihilists (a great name for a punk band), was inspired by Zasulich's fame and was essentially a miserable flop written by a miserable fop.

In this political and historical hodgepodge, the scenes in Vera's life move forward chronologically through time while the scenes in Oscar Wilde's life move backwards in time.  Musical numbers are supported by a surprising group of instruments:  guitar, violin, bass, banjo, mandolin, and percussion (no brass or keyboard instruments).

Alexandra Creighton as Vera Zasulich (Photo by Jessica Palapoli)

While Vera Wilde has some rough moments, I found it to be a much more interesting and dramatically satisfying piece than Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll.  Even though a great deal of political theory and history must be transmitted to the audience, Maya Gurant's energetic staging keeps the story moving as the political paths of the two protagonists whiz by on different continents and in different years.  

The musical score by Chris Jeffries felt a bit like a Victorian vaudeville, hampered only by the limited musical abilities of the two leads.  Alexandra Creighton tackled the role of Vera Zasulich as if it were Mother Courage; it took a while longer for Sean Owens to hit his stride as Oscar (although I loved his flamboyantly delivered assertion that "I'm not going to France -- I'm going to lunch!")  

Tyler Kent, Danielle Levin and Edward Brauer (who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Mel Brooks) took on numerous small roles throughout the evening.  I especially liked Lisa Clark's unit set which, with its angled panels, looked like a pen-and-ink drawing of the wreckage of the World Trade Center adapted for the Victorian era.

Tyler Kent in Vera Wilde (Photo by Jessica Palapoli)

Shotgun Players is one of the more intimate and innovative small theater companies in the Bay area.  Their specialty is making plays (new or old) relevant to today's times. True to form, many of the political issues highlighted in Vera Wilde bore an eerie relevance to the current political situation in the United States.  

In December, the company will stage a modern day version of Shakespeare's MacBeth. In January, Shotgun Players has two special events planned:  First is a one-night only benefit performance of Beowulf at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theater before the show travels to New York for an off-Broadway engagement.  Then comes a monumental undertaking: John Barton's epic Tantalus spread over three evenings.  

Tickets are limited, so place your order now.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Acting Out

One of the challenges facing any actor is to develop his instrument to the point where he can have enough confidence in his craft to become a chameleon capable of switching between characters with lightning speed, modulating his voice, or changing his body language with a deftness that defies disbelief. For those who are gifted mimics, this part of acting may be easy. But for those who try to create more carefully-layered characterizations -- or who have a more nuanced and introspective work process -- it is the challenge of a lifetime.

This week Chazz Palminteri brought his acclaimed play, A Bronx Tale, to the Golden Gate Theater (quickly and easily erasing my fears that a one-man show might get lost on its stage). Originally created in 1989 when, after being fired from his job as a nightclub bouncer, a broke Palminteri remembered his father's advice that the saddest thing in life is wasted talent, A Bronx Tale was eventually adapted for the silver screen.  

Several years ago, when I saw the film version of A Bronx Tale, I felt something odd about it. After seeing Palminteri's one-man show live onstage, I know what was bothering me.  For all the powerful moments in the film version, this show is really about the power of storytelling. Whether Palminteri is impersonating a street thug delivering advice on how to make sure a potential girlfriend can be trusted (or excitedly reliving his thoughts as an impressionable nine year old sitting on the front stoop of his building watching the neighborhood capo in action), Palminteri's dramatic strength rings true.

Although he has been working with this material for nearly 20 years, Palminteri's performance is remarkable for its freshness. A member of the Actors Studio with more than 50 movie credits to his name, the creator of A Bronx Tale is ably supported by James Noone's simple yet evocative three-piece set and guided with loving hands by director Jerry Zaks as he relives his journey from adolescence to manhood at the corner of Belmont Avenue and E. 187th Street.

Palminteri's work onstage offers a model lesson for aspiring actors in how to pace yourself through an evening when you're out there alone, with no one else to fall back on.  A Bronx Tale simultaneously  offers audiences an hour and a half with a gifted writer and a veteran actor.  

As a performance piece, Palminteri's play is a class act from start to finish.

* * * * * *

Coming up for release is a fascinating film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation) with a crackerjack cast headed by one of America's greatest actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman.  If linear thinking or an action adventure film is your cup of tea, you can stop reading right now.  Synecdoche, New York is best appreciated by people who close their eyes hoping to get some sleep and end up living through 3-4 Fellini epics before they regain consciousness.  

A film that is laugh-out-loud funny in unexpected moments and tears your heart to pieces in others, Synecodoche, New York is a rare cinematic achievement: a complex film that makes audiences question their own mortality, the choices they make in life, and whether the very moment they are experiencing is real.  Guaranteed to scare the bejusus out of any hypochondriac,  Kaufman's latest effort makes Rod Serling's Twilight Zone seem like child's play.

The bare bones of the plot are as follows:    Caden Cotard (Hoffman) is a mediocre stage director at a regional theater company in upstate New York.  As various fungal ailments start to take over his organs and nervous system, his wife takes their daughter to Germany with her, where she has a rendezvous with her lesbian lover (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who decides to tattoo the child's body as an artistic statement and feed her tall tales about her father being a homosexual who doesn't love her.

Meanwhile, Cotard wins a prestigious MacArthur "genius grant" and goes about constructing the largest ongoing theater project in history (Orson Welles and John Houseman would be green with envy).  As the people in his real life become characters in the variety of dramatic scenes being enacted in this staged project, the boundaries between truth and fiction quickly become blurred.

As he ages, Cotard tries to connect with his dying daughter in Germany, ruins most of his ongoing relationships with crazy women, and does a pretty thorough job of fucking up everything until a strangely self-assured actress named Millicent Weems (the great Diane Wiest) takes over control of his real and imagined lives, bringing closure to Kaufman's film.

The great supporting cast includes Samantha Morton as Hazal, Catherine Keener as Adele, Emily Watson as Tammy, and Michelle Williams as Claire.  I particularly liked Hope Davis as Cotard's self-serving psychologist,  Dr. Madeleine Gravis, and Tom Noonan as Sammy Barnathan (the actor who stalks and ends up portraying Caden Cotard in his theatrical parallel universe).

If you liked Barton Fink you will love Kaufman's film, which creates a hazy world of actors struggling for motivation in which no one questions why a woman's home is always on fire, why a strange woman in an apartment hallway is offering you a key, or why your stool is green.  If your dreams are filled with visits from past acquaintances who have ghostly unfinished business, want to renegotiate bad relationships, or are struggling to make something right, you will feel right at home watching Synecdoche, New York.

If you have those kinds of nightmares on a regular basis, this film is for you. Don't even bother pinching yourself to see if you're dreaming. You've vaunted way past the Twilight Zone and are now a captive of Charlie Kaufman's feverishly hyperactive imagination.  Here's the trailer:

Sunday, September 21, 2008

What Becomes A Legend Least?

Two fantasies dominate the minds of many young men.  One is to become a superhero.  The other is to have a big dick.  Surprisingly, these two fetishes dominated my weekend in ways I could never have anticipated.

One of the films scheduled for screening at the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival is a Chilean entry written and directed by Ernesto Diaz Espinoza which has a decidedly quirky appeal.  Mirageman follows the exploits of Maco, a bodyguard at a local nightclub who is obsessed with physical fitness and martial arts. Earlier in his life Maco and his family were attacked and beaten by burglars, who proceeded to kill his parents and sexually molest his younger brother.   Maco now pays frequent visits to his silent, traumatized brother who lives in a mental institution where he has become a fairly talented sketch artist.

Images of the bullies who tortured the two brothers in their youth continue to haunt their minds, with Maco constantly striving to perfect his body to a point where he will never again be vulnerable. However, after coming to the rescue of a sexy female news anchor whose apartment is being robbed, the lure of fame starts to get under Maco's skin.  

Several days later, after chasing down a purse snatcher, Maco latches on to the idea of reinventing himself as a local superhero.  Working feverishly in his basement studio apartment, he experiments with various masks and fashion statements as he tries to forge the image of a new superhero:  Mirageman.

His first attempts don't go so well.  He doesn't have a Bat signal and his first outfit gets criticized by news commentators for making him look like a girl.  Maco soon learns that it takes time to change out of his street clothing to pursue a criminal and that, while you were beating up some thugs, someone may have stolen the clothes you left behind.  

After being spotlighted on the evening news (and posting an ad on the internet advertising his desire to help people in need), Maco's life starts barreling out of control.  Street gangs start taunting him, daring him to prove he's the real thing.  A lumpy and not-too-bright wannabe keeps announcing his desire during television interviews to become Mirageman's sidekick.

When someone kidnaps the television reporter he had rescued, Maco must prove his skills at rescuing her in what turns out to be an elaborately staged reality show.  Maco's one last attempt to rescue a little girl abducted by a group called Red Pedophil leads to his untimely death.

Some of the fight scenes are truly exciting, more of them feel very carefully rehearsed by someone who wishes he could be Spiderman. Although the movie has a few clunky patches, it's worth watching just to see Marko Zaror's tensely-muscled body dripping in sweat as he works out in his studio apartment.  Maria Elena Swett costars as  the newswoman, Carol Valdivieso. 

Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne have absolutely nothing to worry about. Here's the trailer:

Now let's talk about an obsessive search for monster dick.  That would, in fact, be Moby Dick! The Musicalwhich was execrably produced and directed for Theater Rhinoceros by John Fisher. 

The company's press release describes it as "a runaway cult hit." 

So was Jonestown.

I've sat through some pretty wretched musicals in my life.  There was Something More with Arthur Hill, Peg Murray and Barbara Cook (back in the days when she could wear a bikini onstage) and Her First Roman (with Leslie Uggams as Cleopatra).  There was Winnie! (a British musical about Winston Churchill whose second act opened with the bombing of St. Paul's Cathedral) and the first tryout performance of Dear World in Boston.  I've sat through the wreckage of Georgy, Prettybelle,  and once even caught the second act of The Fig Leaves Are Falling.

But Moby Dick! The Musical is way beyond appalling.  It is a toxic black hole of radioactively misguided theatrical intentions.

The evening got off to a late start due to complications with the box office and an auditorium overflowing with friends of the young cast. That guaranteed an enthusiastic audience.  But when you fill a stage with screaming amateurs attempting to portray incompetent screaming amateurs, you're headed for trouble.  Even with Fisher sitting in the aisle just behind me --  eagerly leading the applause like a paid clacquer at La Scala -- this was a painful experience in bad theater.

The play within a play has the students of St. Godley's School For Young Ladies desperately using their newly-written musicalization of Herman Melville's Moby Dick as a last-minute fundraiser for their financially threatened school.  Headed by the archtypical headmistress, Gloria Hymen, B.S., P.M.S., who deigns to take on the taxing role of Captain Ahab, the girls basically scream and jump their way through the evening with Mike Finn ditsily doubling as Pip and Elijah.

There were plenty of jokes about chasing (Moby) dick, wanting a great big white dick, and a few limericks to boot.  Call it High School Musical: The Abomination.

Jean Franco Pilas,  Jarrod Pirtle, and Linda Wang (Photo by Kent Taylor)

Many years ago, when San Francisco's Cockettes took a grand tour to New York, Rex Reed famously wrote that "Having no talent is not enough."

"Oh, but that's the point," you say.  "This is supposed to be bad theater."

True, but there is such a thing as exceeding beyond everyone's wildest expectations. Written by Robert Longden and Hereward Kaye, Moby Dick! The Musical started out in Cambridge in the 1990s, where it was performed in an underground theater.  Although produced on London's West End by Cameron Macintosh, it was a major flop.  

It is possible that with a lot of money, a cast that can actually sing, a skilled director, and a decent band, there might be something here worth staging.  But as mounted at the Rhino,  this is a case of mutant theater undermined by wretched excess.  

I applaud Matthew Martin for his dual portrayals of Gloria Hymen and Captain Ahab.  He has a large fan base in town for his many drag portrayals and he handled himself as nobly as possible under the circumstances.  

I wish I could be more gracious in describing the evening, but Moby Dick! stank like rotting blubber.

Matthew Martin as the Headmistress (Photo by Kent Taylor)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Families in Crisis

There have always been -- and there will always continue to be -- enough dysfunctional families so that playwrights and screenwriters never lack inspiration.  Whether one is dealing with sibling rivalries (Brothers & Sisters, Ugly Betty), an unexpected pregnancy (Juno, Knocked Up), abandonment issues (Six Feet Under, Superman), or a family struggling with substance abuse (The Subject Was Roses, Leaving Las Vegas,  Long Day's Journey Into Night), plenty of scandal and misery is waiting to be exploited on the silver screen.

Although cinematic styles and techniques may vary, certain plot lines are easily identifiable. 

Someone gets kidnapped. 

Something gets stolen.  

Someone's heart gets broken.  

Nothing particularly new in that department -- until you start comparing movies about families in crisis that were made 80 years apart.

On Friday, I had a rare opportunity to catch a screening of the only existing Chinese silent martial arts film, Red Heroine (1929), which is currently touring the nation with live music by Boston's Devil Music Ensemble.  Long before the wonder of modern films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Chinese filmmakers had their heroes/heroines flying through the air.

To be honest, the evening was great, campy fun.  While Red Heroine has some really enjoyable fight scenes, one character (appropriately named "Teeth") offered the kind of dental challenge that would make Lon Chaney jealous. How can you really chase after your girlfriend when you're holding a duck in your hands and are trying to run while her blind grandmother is hanging from your neck?  And what can you say about the homeliest group of flat-chested, flat-footed concubines ever to hit the silver screen wearing costumes that look like fully-loaded Depends?

Loved the band (great percussion work)! 

Couldn't stop chuckling at all the typos and mistranslations in the film titles. 

Watch the trailer below and have yourself a good chuckle.  

A much more modern tale of family dysfunction is about to go on display when the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival offers audiences a sweet new Canadian film entitled Mommy Is At The Hairdresser's (Maman Est Chez Le Coiffeur).  Written by Isabelle Hibert and directed by Lea Pool, the film centers on a Quebecois family whose mother (Celine Bonnier) is a local news reporter and whose father (Laurent Lucas)  is a physician who would much rather spend time playing golf with his friends than pay attention to his wife.   Their oldest child, Elise (Marianne Fortier) urges her mother to listen in on one of her father's phone calls with catastrophic results.

The mother (portrayed by an actress with an uncanny resemblance to Christine Baranski) erupts in anger and asks her boss to transfer her to the London news bureau.  She leaves behind a clueless husband and three very confused and hurt children.  The middle child, Coco (Elie Dupuis) is busy trying to build a go cart with spare lawnmower parts. Their youngest son, however, is a special needs child.

Benoit (Hugo St-Onge-Paquin) is an adorable tyke who is gifted, dyslexic, has some behavioral problems and might suffer from mild mental retardation.  When his mother abandons the family, he begins to act out as chaos engulfs his previously secure and loving home life. Meanwhile, Elise finds a curious father figure in Monsieur Mouche (a deaf mute with a large port wine stain on his face), who arrives in his tiny trailer each year to camp by the river and make fishing lures.   

Over the course of the summer, Mouche teaches Elise how to fish, a prying neighbor, Madame Paradis (Paule Ducharme) is constantly scandalized,  and whenever anyone asks about Simone's whereabouts, the children reply that their mother is at the hairdresser's.  Only when the children see their mother reporting from London on the television screen does the complete failure of their family hit home.

This is not a great film, but it has a singular charm and is worth watching simply for the superb art direction by Patrice Bengle as well as Michele Hamel's period costumes.   The trailer only gives a hint of the movie's subtle appeal, which lies mostly in the questioning eyes of the angelic Benoit.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Tale of Two Playwrights

This week offered Bay area theatergoers a curious comparison:  two major regional theater companies opened their seasons with works by two extremely prolific contemporary playwrights whose work is well known to audiences. On Tuesday, the Marin Theatre Company opened its season with a production of  Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune by Terrence McNally.  The following night, A.C.T. added another link to its long working relationship with Tom Stoppard by presenting the West Coast premiere of Rock 'n' Roll.  

Both playwrights have a history of producing award-winning plays over the course of the past several decades.  Both men are master craftsmen in their own right.  So it was interesting see how effectively their words were brought to life onstage.

In recent years, McNally has written a series of not-so-great plays and a few genuine clunkers. But when he is in top form -- as he was when he wrote Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune -- he possesses an uncanny gift for making extraordinary sounds emerge from the mouths of the most ordinary people.  While his play's opening moments -- which show Frankie and Johnny fucking their brains out in her darkened studio apartment  -- may have shocked and titillated audiences back in 1987 (when the play premiered off Broadway with Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh in the lead roles),  the shock value is much less these days.  

Once they reach orgasm, the lights come up, and McNally's tense bedroom  duet for two extremely insecure, battered and unhappy souls gets under way, the evening's success depends on solid acting and strong direction.  McNally choreographs his mating dance very slowly and meticulously as Frankie and Johnny scope each other out and cagily dance around each other's black holes of neediness.   

Director Jasson Minadakis paced the action very carefully throughout the evening, with the small apartment acting like a cage in which two animals kept trying to establish their territoriality.  Terri McMahon's wounded Frankie kept struggling to keep her aggressive partner at arm's length.  Rod Gnapp's predatory Johnny used every bit of his macho bluster, hungry sinew, and frightened determination to pierce Frankie's emotional armor.  

Kat Conley's unit set offers a perfectly angled frame in which to watch these two wounded characters slowly let each other invade their personal spaces as they each let down their defenses. Allowing themselves to become vulnerable finally leads McNally's unlikely couple to embrace the possibility of a loving relationship.

Terri McMahon & Rod Gnapp (Photo by: Ed Smith)

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune toys with the old warning that "I am your biggest fear and your best fantasy."  It's not easy to make waitresses and short order cooks sound eloquent, but when given the opportunity, McNally has a knack for transforming exhausted pedestrian souls into tired albeit inspired poets. 

Enhanced by Michael Palumbo's lighting, the soliloquies written by McNally shine with the naked tenderness of yearning and defeatism. Marin Theater Company's production builds slowly and with a steady glow so that, by the end of the play - as the two lovers brush their teeth while watching the sun rise over Manhattan -- the audience has taken Frankie and Johnny to their hearts.

Such an intimate and delicate relationship with the audience was nowhere to be found in Stoppard's new play.  Known for his extremely complex and verbose scripts, much of Rock 'n' Roll's first act felt like a rather dull exercise in academic mental masturbation. The second act occasionally felt like an English countryside version of The Man Who Came To Dinner with an irascible Communist curmudgeon playing the role of Sheridan Whiteside.  

I found it curious that a play which chronicles 22 years of the history of rock 'n' roll could make a youthful passion for music seem so tepid. The great irony here, of course, is that when it comes to dealing with people who are fanatic about their record collections, it was McNally who aced it with his characterization of Mindy in The Lisbon Traviata.  

Rock 'n' Roll offers audiences a disappointingly schizophrenic evening in the theater.  There is, of course, the background of rock'n'roll music as it grows and develops.  The audience also witnesses the evolution of a supremely unhappy academic family headed by a bloviating egomaniac.  And then there is the political side of things, as an exchange student returns home to Prague to experience political turmoil in his native Czechoslovakia.  

As the play opens, we meet the pompous university professor (whose self-absorption might easily have led him to believe that he was the only thing still holding the Communist Party together), his Saphically inspired wife (who will eventually die of cancer), their hippie  teenage daughter, and Jan, the exchange student from Czechoslovakia with a passion for rock 'n' roll music.

As the action kept shifting between Cambridge and Prague, I found Act I of Stoppard's play surprisingly alienating.  Despite various debates over academic ways to interpret text and the importance of recordings by the Czech band, The Plastic People of the Universe, I was unmoved and disappointed in the first act's character development Whereas Stoppard's fierce intellectual banter usually keeps audiences on their toes as they struggle to grasp the text and connect the dots, I didn't get the sense that people were particularly interested in what was being discussed onstage.  Instead, two major cultural revolutions had been reduced to a decidedly ineffective lump of uninspired, dull stage blather.

Toward the end of the Act I, when Elinor (the professor's dying wife) warned an aggressive young female grad student to leave her husband alone or else, before she died, she would take a certain book and "shove it up your rancid cunt," I began to worry if Stoppard might be losing his legendary wit and resorting to cheap laugh lines to keep his audience's attention.

Rene Augesen & Jack Willis (Photo by Kevin Berne)

The most memorable moment of the evening came when a more mature and world weary Jan confronted his aging professor/mentor, Max, by stating "Your problem is that you've always been wrong and now you know it."  Headed by Maneol Felciano (Jan), Jack Willis (Max), Rene Augesen (Eleanor in  Act I and her grown daughter Esme in Act II),  Delia MacDougall (Lenka),  Summer Serafin (the younger Esme in Act I and her daughter Alice in Act II), Jud Williford (Ferdinand), and Anthony Fusco (Esme's estranged husband, Nigel), the large cast struggled valiantly to bring Stoppard's text to life.

Under Carey Perloff's direction, it was interesting to see how often Jan's Czech accent evaporated into thin air and how difficult it was to make Stoppard's play hold the audience's attention.  Although the playwright is often very facile at weaving complex dramatic webs for his characters to navigate, Rock 'n' Roll seemed more like a cross-cultural mishmash barely held together by the sputtering last gasps of Communism and the athletic spit of rock'n'roll musicians.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Pushing The Envelope

One of the last acts I caught at this year's San Francisco Fringe Festival was a series of quick skits performed by Opening Peoples' Minds, a group of skilled Asian-American comics based in Los Angeles.  Entitled Exotic Messages, these skits pulled no punches in mocking Asian American stereotypes in ways that could make Margaret Cho appear timid.  

Which Margaret Cho?  This Margaret Cho:

"Don’t fucking question my Christianity you fucking idiot assholes. If you continue to have a problem, then talk to God about it, not me, you fucking racist homophobic misogynist fake Christian shitheads. God thinks it is funny that I swear so much. He said I could use his name in vain or whatever. He just wants me to use it. He loves me. So fuck you. And I guess he loves you too. Even though you are fake Christian assholes. If you were truly Christians, you would let gays get married, and send them fucking presents from Bed Bath and Beyond! If you truly believed in Jesus, you would try to be like him and love us, fags and dykes and feminists all. God bless you, even you. You fucking fuckers."

Opening with "Habitat," the cast demonstrated the mating patterns of a subspecies of lizards, with the yellow dragon using his powers of camouflage to snare a mate.

In "Appa Knows Best," a widowed Korean mother is dead set against her daughter dating a Mexican.  As many times as the daughter keeps insisting that her boyfriend is Filipino, the mother only  changes her tune upon learning that the young boy (who is in the hospital following a terrible accident) is also the owner of a winning lottery ticket.

"Little Miss Inappropriate" depicted an Asian family who uses their bratty daughter as a means of gaming free goods from Asian shopkeepers.   Julia Cho brought down the house as a loud-mouthed little brat whose embarrasingly racist questions succeed in getting the family the cell phone they have craved for free.

"The Mr. Lee Show" took shots at the idiocy of amateur radio hosts.   In this skit, Mr. Lee was cast as an immigrant with the Asian habit of substituting "r" for "l" when pronouncing words.   Thus, he was quick to point out that a particular person was actually "firipino."  Mr. Kim wasted no time in proudly telling a Presidential candidate that, "Yes, you do look Barack!"

"Glengarry Glen Girl Scout" gave Julia Cho another winning turn as the most obnoxious cookie sales motivator in history.  

The final skit, "Olympics 2014" topped an hour of hilarity as members of the U.S. and Chinese Olympic teams competed for the gold medal in fucking.  The Chinese team (Wang Qinli and Hu Xiaoxian) were portrayed with mechanical precision by the eternally hunky Ewan Chung and Caroline Pho.  The American team (Justin Sider and Mia Ho) were portrayed by Dave Wilder and Julia Cho.  Charles Kim narrated as Bob Costas.

Written by Charles Kim, John Lopez, Dustin Chinn and Chase Sprague, the skits were cleverly directed by Esther K. Chae.  If OPM is ever in your neighborhood, try to catch them live.  Their work is wonderfully biting and truly hilarious.

OPM performs in Exotic Messages (Photo by Ewan Chung)

In a very strange way, the daring comedy of OPM owes a great debt to a revolutionary musical which made its Broadway debut on April 29, 1968 after an initial run at Joe Papp's Public Theater in Greenwich Village.  A new documentary which will be shown at the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival, Hair: Let The Sun Shine In, reminds viewers that it was Hair which broke down previous barriers of onstage nudity and confronted issues such as drug use, war resistance, and civil rights in ways which challenged audiences like no other show had in the past. For those who have forgotten, birth control pills were a relatively new phenomenon which helped bring about an age of sexual freedom for women.  Hair was also one of the first multiracial Broadway shows to cast blacks in leading roles.

Although this documentary may make some baby boomers feel incredibly old, it offers viewers a fascinating look back at the times and artists that created Hair.  Veterans of various Hair tribes (Keith Carradine, Melba Moore,  Ben Vereen) as well as coauthor James Rado, composer Galt McDermott, director Tom O'Horgan and producer Michael Butler offer fascinating historical insights into the cultural changes which brought the first rock musical to Broadway.  A wealth of archival footage includes fascinating clips of Presidents Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson as well as a 19-year-old Tim Curry being interviewed in French.

The occasion for this documentary is, of course, the recent production of Hair (which is now slated to move to Broadway in 2009) by the Public Theater.  Contrasting archival footage from the original production's creators and cast with the new production (some 40 years later), it's amazing to see how some things really haven't changed all that much.  The music still enthralls, the lyrics still challenge an audience and old taboos just won't die.  

Since the film is only an hour long, I'm pretty sure it will end up on television.  Here's a clip:

Monday, September 15, 2008

Some Lived

Some films complement each other in the strangest way.  Their creative processes may have taken place on different continents, in different years or decades.  And yet, when placed side by side, two films can act like laser-enhanced bookends to shine a light on a specific theme, actor, director, or historic event.

Two films scheduled to be shown at the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival accomplish that feat with remarkable acuity -- although, from looking at the festival's catalog and website, one would not necessarily expect that to happen.

Nominated for the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, Andrzej Vajda's Katyn covers a shameful episode in World War II during which Soviet forces slaughtered nearly 15,000 Polish prisoners of war.  Many were executed at point blank range in the Katyn forest during the winter of 1940.  

In 1943, when the German army discovered the mass graves, Soviet authorities denied responsibility for the genocide, instead claiming that it had been executed by the Germans back in 1941.  Russian authorities finally admitted in 1990 that the Katyn murders had been carried out by the NKVD (the leading Soviet secret police organization during Stalin's reign).  In 1992, Boris Yeltsin officially declared that the actions in the Katyn forest were a direct result of an order from Joseph Stalin.

However, until that time, the truth about the Katyn murders had been suppressed throughout post-war Poland.  Those who tried to find the truth were persecuted.  Families of victims could not even light candles at the graves of their lost ones.

An estimated three million Poles were killed by Stalin's forces.  And lest we forget, Stalin was the man who once said that "When one person dies, it's a tragedy.  When a million people die, it's a statistic."  

With that background, it's easy to understand why the making of Katyn -- which tries to put human faces on this particular genocide -- has been so important to the Polish people.  Wajda (whose father disappeared in the Katyn killings), states in his director's notes that:  

"I see my film about Katyn as the story of a family separated forever, about great illusions and the brutal truth about the Katyn crime.   In a word, a film about individual suffering, which evokes images of much greater emotional content than naked historical facts.  A film which shows the terrible truth that hurts, whose characters are not the murdered officers, but women who await their return every day, every hour, suffering inhuman uncertainty.  Loyal and unshaken, convinced that it was only enough to open the door to see the long-awaited man at it as the tragedy of Katyn concerns those who live and lived then."

Katyn is an extremely powerful war epic whose huge cast and depressing story is not going to leave you waltzing out of the theater on a happy note. I was particularly impressed with Pawel Edelman's cinematography, Wieslawa Chojkowska's set decoration and Magdalena Biedrzycka's costume design.  Kryzsztof Penderecki (one of Poland's most famous composers) supplied the haunting score for Vajda's epic.

One would think that Katyn is a tough act to follow (it will take audiences a while to recover from what they learn during Vajda's film).  However, a surprisingly appropriate companion piece can be found in a heartwarming documentary entitled Four Seasons Lodge. The title refers to a bungalow colony in the Catskills that has been inhabited for 25 summers by Holocaust survivors. Most are Polish and Austrian Jews who spent their adolescence in concentration camps like Auschwitz, where they came face to face with Nazi officers like Joseph Mengele.  Some had extended families of 300 people or more, yet were the only members of their family to survive the concentration camps.

Upon arriving in America, many of these people sought out other Holocaust survivors.  They have spent the past quarter of a century enjoying their summers in the company of people with similar backgrounds -- people who can understand the horrors of the concentration camps while vibrantly embracing a freedom they could not even imagine living long enough to experience. Minus their original extended families (who were sent to the ovens), these survivors have bonded to form an extended family of their own.

Directed by Andrew Jacobs with a cinematographic team led by Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) Four Seasons Lodge is not your typical documentary about seniors living in retirement communities.  Instead, it captures the fading paradise in upper New York State that was created by a group of Holocaust survivors determined to keep dancing, drinking  and laughing their way toward the final days of their lives.  As the camera pans over a group of seniors playing cards, many of their arms still bear the tattoos they received in concentration camps.

"This is our revenge on Hitler," claims Fran Lask, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen.

"I'm 91 years old and last night I danced," marvels one of the men.

The film follows life at the Four Seasons Lodge in what is expected to be the resort's final season, as many bungalow owners have voted to sell the resort to an outside buyer.   But as the season rolls on, seller's remorse starts to set in and some people don't want to give up their summer homes.  Watching this documentary is a lot like revisiting childhood moments in the company of grandparents who pronounced the word "bungalow" as "bungele."  It's a touching portrait of people who have made friends their family, who have stayed strong against incredible odds, and who continue to live their lives with the kind of joy and dignity that was once unimaginable to them.

Watch the trailer and see for yourself.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Telling Tales

Long before the Egyptians invented heiroglyphics -- even before Neanderthals started drawing on cave walls -- storytelling was the prime vehicle for documenting one's culture and passing the tribal history on to the next generation.  Hawaii's kumu hulas are not just responsible for choreographing dance, but for keeping traditions of the Hawaiian culture alive in modern society as well.

Not everyone has a story to tell (some people are almost incapable of telling a story without fumbling and getting lost).  But there are those gifted souls with an innate ability to keep an audience rapt with attention as they weave a web of magic with words.  Sometimes these people are inspirational.   

Sometimes they're merely drunk.

On the closing day of the San Francisco Fringe Festival I had an opportunity to catch a performance by Canadian comedian Susan Fischer, whose act offers a solid hour of dishing the dirt with Evelyn Reese (one of Toronto's more entertaining suburban drunks who has a great fondness for gift cards from liquor stores).  A sturdily besotted executive secretary who takes great pride in having found such a tiny apartment that she can never be expected to entertain company, Reese has already been through three husbands. Described by some critics as "a trailer park Judy Garland," she minces no words telling her co-workers what fools they are when they purchase  a composter as a going-away present for a retiring colleague.  

"She lives in a high-rise apartment and they're giving her a box with worms in it?" Reese sneers as she inhales more toxic fumes from a cigarette. 

Evelyn Reese (Photo by Richard Ryder)

While Fischer's characterization was lots of fun, the most striking thing about it was how exactly it echoed some of the characters created by Mo Collins on MadTV.   

Exact same voice.  
Exact same inflections.  
Exact same accent.   

It was beyond spooky.

* * * * * *

When I was very young, my father used to tell me bedtime stories about a wonderful character named Pinky, who was only as big as his little finger.  Because of his size, Pinky could go anywhere in the world and had some amazing adventures to share.  As I watched the beautiful new Jordanian film, Captain Abu Read (soon to be seen at the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival), I couldn't stop thinking about Pinky and wondering how he was doing.

In this charming film, an elderly janitor (Nadim Sawalha) working at the Amman International Airport in Jordan, rescues an airline captain's hat from the garbage and brings it home with him. Tareq (Udey Al-Qiddissi), one of the more inquisitive boys in the ghetto, begs the old man to tell him stories about his adventures as a captain.

Having recently become a widower (and having lost his son in a tragic accident),  Abu Raed succumbs to the demands of a growing audience of neighborhood children and embarks on regular story-telling sessions (filmed at the Citadel in Amman -- now known as the Temple of Heracles).  Although Abu Raed's adventures have all come from books and daydreams, the mere sight of him in a captain's hat imbues his tall tales with a worldly authority which ignites the kids' fertile imaginations.  

As written and directed by Arnin Matalga, Abu Raed becomes a father figure not only to the children, but to Nour (Rana Sultan), a female pilot for Royal Jordanian Airlines who notices his skill with languages one day at the airport.  Nour's biological father keeps trying to set her up with eligible bachelors who have absolutely no appeal to her.   She loves her work, enjoys being single, and has no desire to be grounded with children.

Abu Raed's storytelling eventually leads to meddling in the lives of his young audience.  When he spots Tareq selling candy and water to tourists, he tries to find ways to keep the boy in school. When Murad (Hussine Al-Souse) -- a neighboring boy who lives with his younger brother in an abusive household -- tries to humiliate Abu Raed by taking some kids to the airport where they can  see their revered "Captain" washing the terminal floor on his hands and knees, Abu Raed tells the boy that it's all right.  

He understands.

Eventually, the abuse from Murad's drunken father escalates.  When reporting the domestic abuse to the police proves futile, Abu Raed turns to Nour -- a plea for help across economic class lines that leads to the film's startling denouement.

Captain Abu Raed has many attractions, not the least of which are the aerial views of Amman and the magnificent score composed by Austin Wintory (a graduate of USC's film scoring graduate program). While Nadim Sawalha etches a beautiful portrait of the old man and Rana Sultan has tremendous appeal as Nour (in real life the actress is one of Jordan's leading television news personalities), it is the children who steal the show with their solid acting chops.  The fact that some of them were discovered in Jordanian refugee camps make their onscreen work even more impressive.  Here's the trailer:

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A San Francisco Love Story

These days its hard to find a romantic American film that isn't completely formulaic or created as a star vehicle.  When a refreshingly unique entry hits the screen, the audience is in for an unexpected shock of delight. That's how I felt while previewing Around June, which receives its world premiere on October 3rd at the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival.

Shock.  And awe.

Directed and co-written by James Savoca, this surprisingly tight package has a fascinating plot with complex characters buoyed by a solid artistic vision.  Narrated by Linne Ha, the story centers around a young woman living in San Francisco under less than ideal circumstances. 

When she was 12 years old, June's family was involved in an automobile accident which killed her mother and left her father partially paralyzed.   Although, over the years, Murry has regained most of his motor function, he persists in acting like a cripple in order to keep receiving the disability and insurance payments which keep his family afloat.  Living with Murry and June is Murry's mentally-challenged younger brother, Henry, who has always been blamed for the accident.

It doesn't take much to realize that June's father is a selfish, scared and manipulative prick. However, Henry, (who is dependent on his older brother) is a true romantic.  Meanwhile, June (who works as a waitress in a coffee shop near San Francisco's shipyards)  is suffocating.  

One rainy day, as June walks through the park, she locks eyes with a handsome Hispanic stranger whose questioning gaze rocks her world. For the first time in years she starts to feel alive.

Enhanced by Charlie Canfield's lyrical animation sequences, Around June begins so sweetly that one wonders if the film will devolve into a saccharine mess.  But Savoca has a much darker story to explore as June returns to the dysfunctional family home which has become her prison -- a prison based on truly horrible lies.

There are times when some of the scenes with June's family feel as if they were originally written for the stage.  No matter. What's fascinating about Around June is to watch how skillfully Savoca navigates past the numerous cliches and traps that could easily have sunk his film.   Savoca is such a sensitive director that he gets remarkable results from his tightly-knit ensemble. 

Shot primarily in San Francisco's Potrero Hill district and Land's End, this achingly small, independent movie is a quality product that looks like a million bucks.  The gorgeous cinematography by Peter Hawkins and stunning musical score by Didier Lean Rachou work wonders to anchor the film.  

Samaire Armstrong (June), Brad William Henke (Henry) and John Gries (Murry) create strong portraits of the dysfunctional family members.  Michael A. Goorjian has an effective cameo as Henry's group counselor.  But, as the homeless Mexican migrant worker who falls in love with June, it is newcomer Oscar H. Guerrero who glows with a radiant life force that fills the screen. Guerrero's wide-eyed portrayal of Juan Diego has a hauntingly romantic quality which will capture your heart whenever he is on the screen.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Lost in Bonkers

When an evening of theater is divided into three distinct acts, it's easy to compare their cumulative effect to that of a three-course meal. The first act might be fairly light, an appetizer, some fruit or perhaps a tossed salad.  The second course would no doubt be the entree: meaty, filled with protein and occasionally requiring the diner to do some solid chewing.  The last course would be a dessert: airy, fluffy, sweet and perhaps a bit sticky.

That pretty much describes how my Thursday night at the San Francisco Fringe Festival played out.  First up, was a ditzy comedy called Tenderloin Christmas Hustler, described by its authors (Jake Eastman, Demetrius Martin, and Todd Pickering) as follows:
"A mash-up parody of just about every Christmas televison, movie, or play, Tenderloin Christmas Hustler follows the adventures of one particular misfit boy on his journey to find acceptance. Set to many familiar tunes from the holiday season, TCH is a very cheeky, heartbreakingly sweet new holiday classic. It's Urinetown meets It's a Wonderful Life!"
The show got off to a righteously raucous start as the bitchy drag queen at the piano turned around and yelled "Hey, shut your fuckin' phones off!"   From there, the merrily-psyched audience began to join in the narration of T.C.'s winter tale.  

Having ruined his one chance to join his high school wrestling team when his "glitter glands" prematurely ejaculated  all over his classmates, T.C. leaves his suburban home in "Walnut Bleak" and hops on BART to explore the Castro in the hope of buying a last-minute Christmas tree at the Delancy Street lot and discovering if he could possibly be of use to someone.  

With the audience following its singing cues to a newer and grittier version of "The Little Drummer Boy," T.C. quickly encounters a modern day Santa Bear who is, in fact, pimping out (a) a transgender hooker named Holle Berry, (b) a dominant named Dominic, and (c) an appealing short little piece of beefcake named Tiny Tim.

Ho Ho Ho.

One Ho.  

Two Ho.

Or would you prefer #3 Ho?

While the audience loved Tenderloin Christmas Hustler's sentimental faux ice skating scene (wittily choreographed by Diane Karagienakos), other moments tended to sag. Some of the fun was dampened by a distinct lack of singing talent. Although one was tempted to yell "Sing out, Luis!" there was, alas, no guarantee that Michael Turner could find Tiny Tim's next note (Yes, Virginia, there are gay men with absolutely no sense of pitch). 

Raya Light made numerous heavily costumed appearances as Chrystal Miss and the Ghosts of Tricking (Past, Present and Future). Although highly spirited and extremely eager to please, Tabetha Michael von Mohn's Holle Berry didn't land on her lines or notes with much precision.

Christopher Struett and Michael Turner in Tenderloin Christmas Hustler
 (Photo by Demetrius Martin)

Even so, the audience had a rousing good time, thanks in no small part to the sweet charm of Christopher Struett as T.C. There were laughs aplenty, with much yelping coming from an audience which -- from the volume of their merriment and glee -- seemed to have freshly had their salads tossed.

The main course was more difficult to digest, reminding one of a steak that had far more gristle than marbling.  Omar Sangare's one-man show, True Theater Critic, is intended to depict a man suffering from "an exuberance of ambition."  While some people may interpret the show as being about a less-than-talented author struggling to overcome writer's block (who is intimidated by the power of the language at his fingertips), I found the artistic journey less than ennobling.

There is no doubt that Mr. Sangare is a professionally-trained actor who knows precisely how to use his voice as a musical instrument. Unfortunately, in this case the text he has created does not support Mr. Sangare's strength onstage as a performer.  Whether Mr. Sangare is babbling psychotically in English or Polish (does this make his character bipolar or just Bi-Polish?), one ends up with the uncomfortable feeling of being stuck in a prison cell with Yul Brynner as he struggles to find the words and sounds required to talk about anything other than himself.

Omar Sangare in True Theater Critic (Photo by D. Bazenore)

Every breath and movement in Mr. Sangare's play has been meticulously choreographed and yet, despite the physical intensity of this gifted performer's work, True Theater Critic failed to grab me.

I was much happier -- indeed insanely delighted -- by Paul Hutcheson's hilarious one-man showed entitled On Second Thought.  Often described as an up-and-coming cross between David Sedaris and Jim Carrey, Mr.  Hutcheson takes great delight in exploring the more gruesome moments of his past at his own expense.  

Whether portraying an adolescent athlete who has just slid into a whopping pile of dogshit, or imitating the sound of a herd of kangaroos descending on him as he walks down a dark and lonely road in rural Australia, Hutcheson is an absolute delight.  Whereas some comics might not want to "go there," Hutcheson doesn't hesitate to use his warped sensitivity to depict a group of spastic teenagers with Down syndrome as they try to decide how to rescue him from the seated power lawnmower he has so elegantly managed to capsize and land underneath.

Whether describing his sky-diving experiences, the customers who rent porn at an adult video store in the Toronto suburbs, or playing with the audience while happily making a fool of himself, Hutcheson delivers the goods in spades.

As a seductively hilarious dessert, I'd rate this brilliant comic tart as a lemon meringue, with his half baked sugary top teased to perfection.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

60 Minutes

For many people, 60 Minutes is the name of the long-running, award-winning Sunday night newsmagazine on CBS.  For others, 60 minutes is merely another way of describing the amount of time contained within an hour.  But for audiences at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, 60 minutes is the length of each act.

The good news is that with each act lasting 60 minutes, it's easy to catch three separate and wildly different styles of performance art in an evening.   When the 60-minute act is wonderful, it's hard to imagine that so much good theater could be crammed into one hour. However, when the act is decidedly substandard, waiting for the clock to hit the 60-minute mark can be an exercise in dramatic endurance.

My first night at the San Francisco Fringe Festival started off on remarkably strong footing with a performance of Joe Besecker's caustic one-act play, Loving Fathers.  What's that?  You thought Mart Crowley's The Boys In The Band was filled with vicious queens?  You thought Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was filled with self-loathing?  

Well, fasten your seatbelts, kids. You ain't seen nothing yet!

The promotional blurb for the play describes it as "a dark, surrealistic comedy about two young gay men who lust after their own fathers and are lovers themselves." That's a bit too simplistic. Let me see if I can be a little more specific.  

Chipper (who begins and ends the show) is an angry, bitter 22-year-old crackhead who, having run through all his money, has returned home from San Francisco to live with his vain, spiteful and dying mother in Pennsylvania (who has a boyfriend named Manure). Chipper is newly in love with Sean, an extremely insecure, pushy bottom whose father (Jeff) just happens to be Chipper's psychiatrist.  Sean, meanwhile, is the petulant live-in lover of Madison (whose previous lover was Sean's father, Jeff).  

While Sean has always had unfulfilled sexual fantasies about his father, Chipper lays claim to "unfinished business" with his father, Daniel, who always enjoyed Chipper's probing massages. Unfortunately, since his twin brother died, Chipper has always had a penchant for high drama and martyrdom (claiming, among other things, that he and T.S. Eliot have a close friendship back in San Francisco).

If an hour's worth of fangs, claws, venom and seduction is your favorite dish, this is the play for you.  I particularly loved the scene wherein Jeff challenged the two young men to act on their "Daddy" fantasies while disrobing and making himself available to them. Powerfully directed by Ben Randle, Loving Fathers benefitted from a tight ensemble led by Adam Simpson (Chipper), Maxine Kincora (Florence), and Michael Vega (Sean).  In a curious casting coup, Ben Fisher played all three father figures (Madison, Daniel and Jeff).

Plenty of salt was rubbed in old wounds.  
Hissy fits were thrown.  
No one went home happy.

I loved every minute of it.

* * * * * *

Next up was a  remarkable performance by John Leo (Gold Medalist in the 2007 NYC Clown Olympics for Eccentric Dance) in Number's Up! (described in the program as a neo-vaudeville ode to the glorious awkwardness of being.)

John Leo (Photo by Cindy Lopez)

An obviously gifted clown, Mr. Leo portrays the unfortunate sidekick to the global superstar, El Macho Del Norte, who has mysteriously vanished into thin air.  Even as he dodges about the stage setting up props before the show begins, there is a great deal of wit, charm, and pathos in Mr. Leo's work. His furious concentration and desperate attempts to fill in for the missing headliner kept the audience in constant fits of laughter.  

In the spirit of all great clowns, this performer exudes a sweetness and vulnerability that touches the heart.  Mr. Leo's attempt to make out with a folding chair offers moments of inspired hilarity, as does his garbled funeral oration for El Macho Del Norte and the adorable routine he performs with his trusty chihuahua.  

Whether bringing the audience onstage for a group hug or deftly improvising with strangers as he passes a musically psychic umbrella through the audience, John Leo is a sight to behold.  

* * * * *

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Jonathan Bender's one man exploration of Judaism entitled In The Belly Of The Whale. Unfortunately, Mr. Bender's feverish overuse of the stage did more to hurt his material than enhance it.   Whether miming actions which were often unintelligible to the audience, rolling on the floor, stamping his foot to emphasize a point, or fussing with stage props, Bender's production could have benefitted immensely from a "less is more" approach to the material.  

One of the hardest things for creative artists to do is cut material that they have labored over with great love.  It hurts to do so, but sometimes microscopic surgery is necessary to create a better, stronger artistic product.  I'm willing to bet that if Mr. Bender eliminated 99% of his frenetic movement and onstage fussiness, he would have a much better show.

Jonathan Bender (Photo by Marcin Mroz)

While many Jews take an interest in their rich heritage, they don't enjoy being bored to death with Jewish angst.  At numerous points in the evening I felt an urge to throw my hands up in the air and scream "Genuk.  Stop with the mishigas already!"

There is a wonderful Yiddish word -- ongepatsht --  which is often translated as "a little too much."  However, in the household in which I grew up, ongepatsht meant "too much of everything, all at once."

Ongepatsht is a fitting adjective for Mr. Bender's work.