Sunday, May 31, 2009

Besieged, Bothered and Bewildered

If the 2008 Presidential election taught us anything, it is that fear of "the outsider" is still rampant in our society. Proposition 8 gave the nation's LGBT population a cruel reminder of what it means to live in the kind of society George Orwell described in Animal Farm where "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."

Discrimination against gays still exists, sometimes with violent consequences. Transgendered people like Gwen Araujo are murdered by homophobic pricks who then try to invoke a trans/gay panic defense during trial. In February of 2008, 15-year-old Lawrence King was shot to death by a 14-year-old classmate in Oxnard, California. Recent reports described how gay Iraqis have been gruesomely murdered by having their anuses sealed shut with glue and then being fed a drink which causes diarrhea.

Violence is not the only way in which gays are shunned. A recent diary on DailyKos  entitled Tonight, I Was Fired For Being Gay shows the insidious way in which job offers can suddenly be "withdrawn." In the following clip, Rachel Maddow interviews Lieutenant Dan Choi (one of the many gay soldiers who has been kicked out of the military in accordance with the infamous Don't Ask, Don't Tell law).



A program of short films entitled Global Queers that will be screened at the Castro Theater on Wednesday afternoon, June 24th by Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) shows how, while Americans may be focused on gay marriage and adoption issues, LGBT people in other parts of the world face a wider variety of challenges.

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My favorite short on  this program is Larry Tung's Welcome To My Queer Bookstore. Focusing on the 10 years in which Lai Jeng-Jer's small business, Gin Gin's Bookstore, has played a crucial role in Taipei's gay community, the film stresses its importance as a bookstore, coffee house, community center, and communications hub for LGBT people in Taipei. The film also describes the legal hassles faced by the owner of Gin Gin's when censors objected to a gay men's magazine he was importing from Hong Kong.


In an era where bookstores are vanishing as more and more people get their information online, Gin Gin's continues to thrive. Many sex toys are imported from Japan and Germany. One of the most popular sections of the store features sports bras for women. The film includes footage of recent gay pride celebrations in Taipei.


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Things are not so cozy in Bosnia, where the first gay festival to be held in the nation's capitol was forced to shut down after attacks from an enraged and mostly Muslim community. Queer Sarajevo Festival 2008 documents the violence that erupted in Sarajevo after word leaked out that the festival's dates coincided with Ramadan. Although there was a large turnout for the opening of the festival at an art gallery (nearly 400 people, including straight supporters), violence erupted within hours.


This 30-minute documentary directed by Cazim Dervisevic and Masa Hilcisin chronicles not only the violence, but how the festival's leadership (mostly gay women) handled the stress of the moment. It also raises serious questions about whether or not a democracy can fulfill its obligations to all citizens if the elected officials and police are not willing to fulfill their legal responsibilities. This clip from Reuters gives some background information on how things went down:


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Meanwhile, in Havana, a trio of rowdy lesbians is trying to carve out a place for themselves in Cuba's hip hop community. Because hip hop has largely been a male-dominated genre of music, these women have to fight homophobia as well as years of traditional machismo within Cuban society which relegates women to secondary roles in life.


While Krudas is not a particularly well-made film (the footage shot from the back of a car as it travels down Havana's bumpy streets is often difficult to watch), these women are determined to entertain people -- whether walking in a parade on stilts, running a small theater group, or performing onstage. You can watch one of the music videos created by Krudas Cubensi in the following clip:


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If Cuba's lesbians feel shut out, their troubles are minor compared to those faced by Malaysia's transgender (Mak Nyah) population. Poh Si Teng's 30-minute documentary entitled Pecah Lobang (Busted) examines how transgendered people in Kuala Lumpur and other parts of Malaysia are affected by religious censors whose Islamic culture dominates what is supposed to be a secular government. The film describes how doctors were ordered to stop performing gender reassignment surgeries because it was against religious doctrine and how difficult it is to get one's gender changed on driver's licenses and other forms of identification.


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Discrimination does not always come from homophobes. Sometimes one's self doubts cause so much internal conflict that a gay man can end up in a mental ward. Light Gradient starts off with Johann (Sebastian Schlecht ) relating the curious tale of the hare who tried to become friends with a fox. In a flashback to a weekend that went horribly wrong, we see Johann and Robin (his boyfriend of two months) setting out on their bicycles for a weekend of camping in the Brandenburg Forest. Robin has mischieviously "forgotten" to pack the tent poles and, as the movie progresses, reveals himself to be a bit of a selfish prick. 

Johann (the more introspective of the two) can never quite be sure where he stands with his new boyfriend (played by Eric Golub). Johann's hypersensitivity to being the "third man out" causes problems as their weekend continues to go downhill. First, their bikes are stolen from their campsite. Then they find what they think is an abandoned farmhouse (until a young man points a rifle at Johann's head). 

When the young man's mother Grit (Iris Minich) returns home, she welcomes the two gay men and invites them to stay for dinner. Grit and her son Henri (Denis Alevi) don't get much company, so there are moments of shared tenderness and revelry among the four characters. A subsequent fishing trip undertaken by Johann, Robin and Henri runs into trouble when Johann, having gone for a walk in the woods, peers through the brush and sees Robin getting quite friendly with Henri. Any doubts Johann might have had about his relationship with Robin are only exacerbated by the hallucinogenic effect of the red berries he picked and ate a short while before.

As written and directed by Jan Kruger, Light Gradient's greatest strength lies in the stunning cinematography by Bernadette Paaßen. You might not find yourself caring very much about any of the four main characters (or the vagueness of their situations), but your eyes will be richly rewarded. Here's the trailer:


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Fatal Attractions

Sometimes, when a loved one dies, a funeral is simply not enough. For some people, a photo album or collage helps to frame memories of their time on earth. For others, a poem, a dinner with close friends or even a festive scattering of ashes helps to ease their pain. Of course, some people go to extremes. The most famous mausoleum in the world is the beautiful Taj Mahal, built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to honor the memory of his beloved deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Others take extreme measures. In the final act of Wagner's Gotterdammerung (after Siegfried has been killed), Brunnhilde orders people to build a funeral pyre and sings the famous Immolation scene before riding her horse Grane into the flames. The following clip features soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones as Brunnhilde in a 1980 Bayreuth performance of Gotterdammerung conducted by Pierre Boulez and directed by Patrice Chéreau (with sets designed by Richard Peduzzi).


While the next few weeks find San Franciscans in full festival mode with the San Francisco Opera's summer season in full swing at the same time as Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival), both arts organizations are offering works which ask audiences to think about death and dying. One might think of stringing these particular works together under an artistic banner of "Mourning in America."

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On Friday, May 29, the San Francisco Opera opened its summer season with a special performance of the Verdi Requiem featuring soprano Heidi Melton, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, tenor Stefano Secco, and bass Andrea Silvestrelli. Following the performance, San Francisco Opera's outgoing Music Director, Donald Runnicles, received the San Francisco Opera Medal in recognition of his nearly two decades of work on the podium at the War Memorial Opera House.

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the Verdi Requiem. As I waited for the house lights to dim, the woman seated next to me (who was probably in her late 30s) tried to start a conversation by excitedly stating "They tell me this is the loudest piece of music anyone can perform!" 

As I sat there thinking about the decibel levels reached in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, Britten's powerful War Requiem, the prologue to Boito's Mefistofele, and the orgasmic final moments of Puccini's Turandot, I wondered if this woman had never heard a large choral work performed live with a full orchestra. Surely, during her life she had attended an outdoor performance or rock concert in which the amplification reached ear-shattering levels. 

To think that Verdi's Requiem (which is, in truth, a musical setting of the Roman Catholic funeral mass) would be the loudest piece of music a person would ever hear betrayed a peculiar lack of context. The Requiem was first performed on May 22, 1874, on the first anniversary of the death of Italy's famed poet/novelist, Alessandro Manzoni.

Heidi Melton and Stephanie Blythe (Photo by: Kristen Loken Anstey)

For this performance, most of the orchestra pit had been raised to stage level so that the soloists could perform "out in the house" (as opposed to singing from behind the proscenium arch). Stephanie Blythe's rich, robust mezzo-soprano was a source of wonder to me. Stepping in on extremely short notice for an ailing Patricia Racette, soprano Heidi Melton performed admirably. I was, however, far less impressed with the tenor or bass (whose voice sounded surprisingly nasal and woofy).

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What happens when a creative team is nearing the end of its professional career? Especially a trio of gay artists who have been pushing the envelope together for a quarter of a century? General Idea: Art, AIDS and the Fin de Siecle is a 48-minute documentary that traces the history of General Idea, a creative artistic collective founded in 1969 by Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal (who both died of AIDS-related causes in 1994) as well as the group's sole survivor, AA Bronson (who is a key figure in the documentary). 

Whether publishing File magazine, painting stuffed poodles blue, or modeling their controversial AIDS poster after the popular "LOVE" poster, the men of General Idea did not shirk from controversy. One of their major installations, One Year of AZT/One Day of AZT is now housed at the National Gallery of Canada. Their 1991 piece, PLA©EBO (consisting of three giant pill capsules) was another form of protest against the AIDS treatments in vogue prior to medical breakthroughs involving the use of protease inhibitors and reverse transcriptase inhibitors.

While their art may have been fascinating, the physical decline of two members of the collective is extremely sad to watch. AA Bronson describes how, with death on the horizon, special efforts were made so that his two partners could keep creating art until their dying day. Bronson goes on to explain how, as Zontal was in the terminal stages of his illness, he agreed to have pictures taken of his emaciated body which, by that time, resembled pictures he remembered of his grandfather (following his release from a German concentration camp). Both Zontal and Partz endured slow, insidious deaths from AIDS. This documentary is a poignant reminder of how many members of the international arts community were taken from us far too soon.

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Unfortunately, when gay men die, it's not always from a lingering disease. Sometimes it is as a direct result of hate-induced violence. Transgendered people are often at much greater risk of falling victim to a hate crime. In 2001, a poor 16-year-old transgendered Navajo youth named Fred Martinez, Jr., was brutally murdered in Cortez, Colorado. His shattered body lay unnoticed for nearly five days in a canyon near where he lived. Martinez was a nádleehí (someone who, according to traditional Navajo culture, possesses a balance of masculine and feminine traits). The following clip is one of many tributes created in his memory.


Two Spirits: Sexuality, Gender, and the Murder of Fred Martinez is a 60-minute documentary that will be screened on Sunday afternoon June 21st at the Victoria Theater. Directed by Lydia Nibley, the film contains numerous interviews with Native Americans as well as people like Mark Thompson (a former editor of The Advocate known for his trilogy of books about gay spirituality: Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning, Gay Soul: Finding the Heart of Gay Spirit and Nature, and Gay Body: A Journey Through Shadow to Self).

A deeply moving film that not only shows the land on which Martinez lived, but includes several interviews with his mother, Two Spirits offers a detailed history of Native American transgendered men and women. Since so little of this material is available to the general public (some of it appears each fall during the American Indian Film Institute's Film Festival in San Francisco), I would urge those interested in Native American culture (as well as transgenderism) to attend this screening.

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Finally, mention should be made of Jenni Olson's seven-minute short entitled 575 Castro St., which screens as part of the Calling All Nerds and Art Fags program of shorts. Olson, who functions as Director of e-commerce for WolfeVideo, used her access to the set for Harvey Milk's camera shop when Milk was being filmed here in San Francisco to create a deeply moving short. According to her notes:
"I have been programming, researching, collecting, and writing about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) film since 1985 (when I founded the Minneapolis/St. Paul LGBT Film Festival).  My efforts to promote LGBT film and to help the other filmmakers get their work seen have ultimately fed my own desire to make movies. Three primary interests drive my creative work and career:  LGBT issues, formal experimentation, and historical documentation. These interests come together in 575 Castro St., which presents an intimate historical portrait of Harvey Milk in his own words, while at the same time capturing for posterity a tremendously significant artifact of LGBT film history: the Castro Camera Store set of Gus Van Sant's Milk. The film was commissioned by FilmInFocus.com to be showcased online in conjunction with the theatrical release of Milk. The sensibility of 575 Castro St. harkens back to the dozens of Super 8 gay short films of the 1970s that passed through Harvey Milk's hands to be processed and developed. 

These mundane shots are almost bereft of movement and sound. So quiet, so still.  All the better to showcase the range of emotions evoked by Harvey Milk's words on the soundtrack. The audio track is an edited-down version of the 13-minute audiocassette that Harvey Milk recorded in his camera shop on the evening of Friday, November 18, 1977 (a few weeks after his election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors which made him one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States). Labeled simply "In Case," the tape was to be played "in the event of my death by assassination."
You can watch Olson's film in its entirety here. Be prepared to get all choked up.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Our Strange Friends From Across The Pond

The original 13 colonies that grew to become the United States of America were settled, by and large, with people from the British Isles.  However you choose to examine the ongoing cultural exchange that has spanned the three centuries since the Jamestown Settlement in West Virginia (1607), we are indeed richer for most of the cultural traditions we inherited from the British.

Gay activist Larry Kramer's recent essay on Homo Sex in Colonial America goes a long way toward showing that gay men were present during the birth pangs of the American revolution. With conservatives currently misappropriating such terms as teabagging and 2M4M to serve their political goals, some Americans have begun to question whether their history was based on the legendary Boston Tea Party or a recent and much more exclusive Boston "T" Party.


Ever since America declared its independence from England our culture has continued to use the English language, maintain some level of fascination with Britain's royal family, and embrace numerous creative talents from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Today, Great Britain is one of our strongest political allies. Ireland has become a major center for outsourcing. Aer Lingus and British Airways fly to many gateway cities in North America. 

Whether it be musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber, talk show hosts like Graham Norton, reality show judges like Nigel Lithgoe or Simon Cowell, contestants like Susan Boyle, or comics like The Daily Show's John Oliver, we are regularly entertained by our friends from "across the pond." Some of them set down roots and come to live in the United States (Scottish-born late-night TV host Craig Ferguson recently became an American citizen). Some have had a profound impact on our culture.

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The opening night of Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) brings us back in touch with one of the most flamboyant creatures ever to cross the pond: Quentin Crisp. With John Hurt (who starred as Crisp more than 30 years ago in 1975's TV movie, The Naked Civil Servant) returning to portray the gay icon in his waning years, we get another beautifully layered portrayal of a man whose individuality knew no bounds. Others in the cast of An Englishman In New York include Jonathan Tucker as Patrick Angus (a bright-eyed young artist with AIDS), an unrecognizable Cynthia Nixon as Penny Arcade, Swoosie Kurtz as Crisp's American agent, Connie Clausen, and Denis O'Hare as his friend, Phillip Steele.

Many years ago I had a roommate who liked to say that "If what I say offends you, you probably need to be offended to shake you out of your sleepwalking." What set Crisp apart from so many other gay men who strive for individuality was his willingness to say what he thought and feel no need to apologize for offending people. Initially embraced by New Yorkers for his wit and supposed wisdom, Crisp's inital reaction to a question about AIDS quickly offended gay activists. With his popularity waning, Crisp didn't make any effort to retune his message. He simply readjusted to the loneliness he had known for so many years and, despite his aging body, tried to enjoy each day while he could.


I must admit to having had a very strange reaction watching O'Hare's performance in this movie because I worked with Thomas (Phillip) Steele on Opera Monthly magazine for two years. Physically, the two men look nothing like each other, but Tom was always a very sweet, gentle and caring man. What I found equally bizarre while watching Richard Laxton's film were the scenes shot in Greenwich Village where, on numerous occasions, no one else is seen walking down the street other than Crisp and his companion du jour.

Nevertheless, An Englishman in New York offers a loving portrait of someone who made a lifelong career out of his eccentricity. Crisp was an original and his essence is beautifully captured by John Hurt in a meaty role that is at once fey, poignant, and curiously anachronistic.

Crisp is also the subject of a lovely little piece on a Frameline program of shorts entitled Calling All Nerds and Art Freaks. Crisp's great-nephew, Adrian Goycoolea's Uncle Denis? makes use of footage from numerous home movies that show Crisp attending family reunions, weddings, and other gatherings. Shots of Crisp in the company of his father (who was a man of few words) show a family which had no problem dealing with Crisp's eccentricity. What might surprise viewers who have seen John Hurt's performance, however, is how small Crisp looked in his later years. In this shot, taken from a family album, he's just another relative.

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As part of its Calling All Nerds and Art Freaks program of shorts, Frameline is also presenting Christopher Racster's mini-documentary entitled Decoding Alan Turing. This 17-minute film not only shows how Turing managed to break the code used by Nazi submarines, but also explains why he is now regarded as one of the pioneers of digital computing theory. While in London in June of 1987, I caught a performance of Hugh Whitemore's play, Breaking the Code, which starred Derek Jacobi as Alan Turing. Writing about the production in my Bay Area Reporter column that summer, I noted that:
"For Turing, whose work in breaking the Nazi Enigma code allowed him to achieve one of the greatest breakthroughs in military history, the loneliness of his work as a mathematician left few if any equally challenging heights for his brain to scale. His harassment at the hands of petty police officers becomes all the more poignant when one realizes how introverted and desperately innocent Turing must have been. "When there is no way for the brain to continue at harmony with the body, why not leave the body behind?" he muses, while biting into an apple which he has rolled in a cyanide powder.  "After all, this is merely a simple experiment to see if the mind can continue without the body."

Breaking the Code poses some several disturbing questions to its audience. Ironicailly, whether or not to commit suicide is the least disturbing of the lot.  More to the point: once you've accomplished something unique, savored the best there is, or achieved the impossible, what do you do for an encore? If, because of the very uniqueness of your situation, you can't create new challenges for yourself, do you mark time until life is over or take action to end the meaningless years of waiting to die? It's the challenge faced by every overachiever. I wish I knew the answer."
Alan Turing

At the time, I was using a Kaypro II and didn't know much about computers. I certainly had no inkling that Turing would later be hailed as the father of computer science. Long after his death Turing has become an important figure in gay history. In 2008, the Helsinki Skaala Opera offered the world premiere of Turing Machine, composed by Eeppi Ursin and Visa-Pekka Mertanen. The opera is comprised mainly of new electronic music and real-time sampling of old and new material, with a libretto based on Miko Jaakkola's 2000 drama, Turing.


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Over at the Cutting Ball Theatre I finally had a chance to sit in a theater, look at a performer, and ask myself "Is that a banana in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?" The occasion was a production of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett's famous one-act play, Krapp's Last Tape, in which the performer eats one and a half bananas before sticking the remaining half-banana in his chest pocket. Much of the play's action involves the 69-year-old Krapp fussing around in his office, unlocking desk drawers, going to another room for a drink of water and essentially acting like an old curmudgeon. As he listens to a tape he made 30 years previously, he fast forwards through the tape toward various sections in order to listen to particular passages.

Paul Gerrior in Krapp’s Last Tape (Photo by Rob Melrose)

In this economy (and with so many other kinds of entertainment available) I was both surprised and delighted to attend a performance that was nearly sold out on a Thursday night. Other than its novelty as an important contribution to the Theatre of the Absurd, what is this 45-minute-long play's continuing appeal? As the director, Rob Melrose, explains in his program notes:
"I read Krapp's Last Tape in high school and didn't connect to it at first.  I much preferred Endgame and Waiting for Godot. At the same time, it is hard to expect a high school student to connect to a play about a 69-year-old man listening to a tape he made when he was 39. For me, the most fascinating experience of Krapp's Last Tape is that of looking at a younger version of oneself and barely recognizing it at all. In Krapp's Last Tape, this is triply layered because the 69-year old Krapp listens to a tape made by a 39-year old Krapp who has just listened to a tape made by a 29-year-old Krapp. In each case, the older Krapp can't believe how stupid and deluded the younger Krapp was. How many of us have experienced this feeling? And at the same time, as dumb and naive as we were, how many of us wouldn't love to go back and experience a moment from our youth again? It is this tension, so brilliantly explored by Beckett, that makes Krapp's Last Tape such a remarkable, poignant, and utterly human play."
Poignant and human, indeed. Yet I can't think of too many moments in my own life that I would like to go back and relive. While, at this stage of life, it is easy (and humbling) to remember how sure of oneself one was many years ago, one's life experience tends to temper that surety with the often painful wisdom of age. As many a grown man has said: 
"When I was 15, my father didn't know anything. I was amazed at how much he had learned by the time I turned 30."
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Last, but by no means least, we come to Spamalot, which enjoyed a rip-roaring opening night performance at the Golden Gate Theater on Wednesday before an audience of adoring Monty Python fans. Filled with the kind of snarky humor that wallows in bad puns, cheesy sight gags, and general rowdiness, Spamalot has one quality which very few musicals can match. It is an evening of solid, bawdy fun, a romping-stomping good time for people who want to be entertained, amused, both tickled and pickled.

John O'Hurley and Jeff Dumas (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Headed by John O'Hurley as King Arthur (with Merle Dandridge giving new meaning to the use of "chest voice" as The Lady of the Lake), the touring company is obviously enjoying every single one of its ribald moments onstage. Christopher Sutton displayed great comic chops as Not Dead Fred and the prancing Prince Herbert while Matthew Greer easily won over the audience as a très-gay Sir Lancelot. Ben Davis was appropriately threatening as the Black Knight and Prince Herbert's bitter father, yet able to appear butchly dimwitted as Sir Dennis Galahad. When his character (Sir Robin) wasn't shitting his pants in terror, James Beaman brought down the house with the hilariously politically incorrect "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" (unless you have some Jews). Jeff Dumas ably kept canter and pace as Patsy with a lovely bunch of coconuts.

Merle Dandrige (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

It's hard for me to decide which was actually more fun -- reading the ridiculous mock program notes and cast bios for "Dik Od Triaanenen Fol (Finns Ain't What They Used To Be)" -- purportedly co-produced by Vlad The Impaler Wankel --  or just sitting back and letting myself be entertained by the wit and wisdom of Monty Python as brought to life in this latest incarnation. Filled with good-natured digs at some of Broadway's greatest musicals of the past, Spamalot is a deliciously disarming evening filled with the kind of silly delight so desperately needed in these troubled times. 

Bring on the cow catapult, the killer rabbit, and let's have some more arms for the poor!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mr. Harlot's Holiday

Whether or not most people want to admit it, prostitutes have played a huge role in their lives. They can be found in literature, onstage and online -- as well as on Santa Monica Boulevard (just ask Eddie Murphy). There are plenty of prostitutes to be found onscreen (and I'm not even talking about adult video). Some of them have found cherished places in our hearts.

Few can forget Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Melina Mercouri in Never on Sunday, Anna Magnani in Mamma Roma, or Shirley Maclaine as both Irma la Douce and Sweet Charity. In 2004, Charlize Theron received the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of Aileen Wournos (the Daytona Beach prostitute who became a serial killer) in Monster.

But male prostitutes on film? Those roles have not been celebrated quite as much in the media or embraced with quite the same zeal. Sure, there was Jon Voight's portrayal of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969), Robert La Tourneaux's "Cowboy" in The Boys in the Band (1970), Richard Gere's Julian in American Gigolo (1980), and Woody Harrelson's depiction of a Washington, D.C. escort in The Walker (2007). But few people nurture fond memories of the performances by Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991), David Arquette in Johns (1996), Rob Schneider's portrayal of Deuce Bigelow, Male Gigolo (1999), or Joseph Gordon-Levitt's impressive work in Mysterious Skin (2004).

Gay film festivals have screened the documentary 101 Rent Boys (2000) as well as a series of films about male prostitutes from the Philippines: Macho Dancer (1988), Sibak: Midnight Dancers (1994), The Masseur (2005), and Twilight Dancers (2006). In recent years, films in which a gay male prostitute is integral to the plot (Shortbus, Boy Culture) -- without being doomed to a violent death -- have achieved limited success.

This year's Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) offers two new entries to the category. One fictional, the other mostly factual). In both films, the hustler/rentboy/male prostitute figure is depicted as a fairly normal person -- an employee or entrepreneur using his body to earn a living (the same way other craftsmen use the tools of their trade). Surprisingly, what elevates these two films above so many others has nothing to do with any controversy about prostitution. Both films benefit from some top-notch cinematography.

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First, let's examine the quasidocumentary. Greek Pete follows a year in the life of a London rentboy (Peter Pittaros) who has come to the big city with clearly-defined goals of making a lot of money so that he can live in a nice flat, buy a good laptop, and enjoy an urban lifestyle which presents him with plenty of opportunities for building a devoted clientele. Another goal is to win the title in the Escort of the Year contest held in Los Angeles. Pete has no misgivings about being a prostitute -- he's making the most of his physical assets while they are in fully functioning condition.

Peter Pittaros

Pete has mastered the basic skills of building his profile on Gaydar.com, having professional-quality pictures taken, and using his sweet personality to make nervous clients feel comfortable in his presence. Whether he is hired as a dinner companion or for a good, solid fuck, he delivers on cue. Although he is a top who specializes in role-playing scenarios, Pete's oversized ears almost beg to be grabbed by his clients as they itch to pull his head toward their aching crotches.

However, in order for Pete to succeed, he's going to have to deal with some of his closest friends and their bad habits. His boyfriend Kai (Lewis Wallis) is a sweet young thing who is frequently depressed, jealous, or seeking out his next high. Kai has also been underwriting his drug habit with the money he makes from hustling. Completely self-absorbed, he often does little things that irritate the very business-like Pete -- such as flushing the toilet in their flat while Pete is trying to screw a client in the next room. 

If there is one thing Pete cares about, it is customer satisfaction.

Despite Pete's professional mentoring (and almost parental concern), Kai can't seem to develop any interest in saving money for the future. Most of their friends are immature, narcissistic, and fairly irresponsible young men. Even as they snort cocaine and respond to potential clients on their cell phones, a Christmas pot luck dinner with this giggling gaggle of gay gigolos has an almost childlike quality to it. In his director's notes, Andrew Haigh points out that:
"The life of a rentboy is often depicted as either sexy and glamorous or blighted with abuse and drugs. I wanted to try and get closer to the reality and focus on the everyday nature of things, the nuts and bolts of the job, the real personalities behind the online profiles and magazine adverts. I didn’t want to pander to what people expected from this kind of film or water it down for a more mainstream audience. I also decided early on that the project would be worthless unless I worked with people with knowledge of the sex industry. It wasn’t until after casting that a rough narrative took shape, changing and developing as the shooting progressed, but always based on real experiences. There was never a script as such, only a story framework, on which all of the scenes were improvised. The blurring of documentary and fiction came very much out of this process, using elements of each to best suit the needs of the story. I wanted the film to be truly authentic, but that did not mean that everything had to be completely real. After all, the life of an escort is filled with variations of the truth, a mixture of reality and fantasy, and I wanted to explore this in the very nature of the film’s construction."
There are moments of surprising tenderness in Greek Pete, whether they be childhood clips of Pete with his family or moments of genuine physical intimacy between Pete and Kai that have been beautifully captured by Haigh (whose cinematography is often deliciously erotic). Here's the trailer:


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Following the success of his first feature (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros), Filipino filmmaker Aureaus Solito returns to the screen with a new fantasy about young men that is simply entitled Boy. In his film the conflict is not about whether or not someone is gay. Instead, there is a poignant contrast between the lives of two young men: one who enjoys the comforts of an upper middle class lifestyle and the other a macho dancer/hustler in a gay bar. Government censors banned Solito's movie from the 22nd Singapore International Film Festival because it "normalized homosexuality" and because a prolonged and explicitly sexual scene of two men making love was filmed "in a romanticized manner."

The protagonist (Aeious Asin) has recently turned 18 and is living at home with his mother (Madeleine Nicolas). An aspiring poet, he likes to write odes in which he describes himself as being "hard for his hard-on, and other hard boys who like to get hard so they can feel their hard- ons." His hobbies include collecting comic books, action figurines, and stocking his impressive set of aquariums with tropical fish from South America.

Although the boy's father is always promising to come visit, he lives with his second family and is a constant no-show. When the boy makes his first trip to a gay bar, his breath is nearly taken away by a macho dancer with deep, soulful eyes (Aries Pena). As he asks the resident drag queen/madam about Aries, he learns how much it will cost to hire the boy for a night.

While the boy may be young, he knows how to make critical decisions. After selling his comic books, he returns to the gay bar to rent Aries for New Year's Eve. He brings the hustler home for a New Year's Eve dinner that his mother has prepared in hopes that her estranged husband might visit. In the few minutes she is left alone with Aries, the mother unintentionally humiliates him by asking him to read one of her son's poems to her (Aries is obviously illiterate). 

The three of them watch a holiday fireworks display together before the boy takes Aries to his room for the night. When the mother walks into her son's bedroom the next morning to find two naked male bodies entwined in sleep she is stunned, but does not condemn her son for his sexuality.

Soon after she goes back downstairs, Aries gets up and leaves the house. Awakening to find his bed empty, the boy quickly dresses and follows Aries, confessing that he wants to see how the other half lives. The contrast between their lifestyles couldn't be more painful and Aries is quick to warn the boy that he wouldn't survive for ten minutes in his poverty-stricken existence. However, a bond of tenderness, lust, erotic fascination and need has developed between the two young men. For however long it lasts, they have a future to explore together.

Most of the sequences in which these two young men make love are beautifully shot through fish tanks (and well worth the price of admission for those with a taste for artistic soft porn). The work of cinematographer Luis Quirino stands out here as well as when he is capturing the New Year's Eve fireworks display. In an interview for Fridae, Solito explained that:
"Like the unnamed boy in Boy, at seventeen, when I went to my first gay bar and saw a macho dancer dancing, it was a real turn-on. And when I felt this -- it's genetic! -- I finally accepted that I'm gay. For me, the erotic genre is very important for people to define their sexuality. This film is almost personal, for it captures that night when I finally accepted myself for who I am.

I wanted to make an erotica that is more sensitive and personal. The film is basically a rich boy meets poor boy film. It was almost like a documentary making this film, casting real macho dancers, female impersonators and a real poet (the lead boy played by Aeious Asin is a Creative Writing major at the University of the Philippines). Only the parents -- the mother of the boy and the father of the macho dancer -- were played by professional actors.

The script was organic, being written day by day as we got closer with the macho dancers. I wanted to know who they really were and why is it that, since the People Power revolution in 1986, things have not really changed. People are still poor and getting poorer, the rich are still getting richer And somehow when the rich boy meets the poor boy, he finds his humanity in the poorest of the poor.

In Boy, I cast a real life macho dancer, Aries Pena, who plays himself. He told me in one crucial scene that his fellow macho dancers told him while practicing his lines (which were based on how they really talked) 'Finally we are being portrayed as who we really are. And you (Aries Pena) are carrying our banner as people, dancing to survive!'"
There is much to enjoy in Solito's romance (which stands head and shoulders above most films I have seen from the Philippines). If you're attracted to Asian men, you certainly won't want to miss it. You can order tickets here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Overcoming Obstacles To Love

No one ever said love was easy. Getting two personalities who have met, sparked, and found a mutual fascination to mesh over a longer period of time than their initial infatuation is hard work. Hard work indeed.

New relationships can easily be sabotaged by one of the partner's behavioral quirks. In I Love You, Man. the bride's habit of sharing the most intimate details of her relationship with all of her girlfriends not only rattles the groom (Paul Rudd), but causes some problems when she gets a taste of her own medicine. 

Occasionally there are other people who, for dysfunctional reasons of their own, may consciously -- or unconsciously -- try to subvert a burgeoning romance. In one of her hit movies (Notting Hill), Julia Roberts played the victim of her boyfriend's roommate's thoughtlessness. In another (My Best Friend's Wedding), she was a scheming saboteur. 

In Meet The Parents an overbearing control freak of a father (Robert DeNiro) tries to intimidate his future son-in-law (Ben Stiller). In Oklahoma!, a jealous rival (Jud Fry) threatens to kill the groom. Jane Fonda squares off against Jennifer Lopez in Monster-in-Law. Even pets can present an obstacle to marriage (Must Love Dogs).

How, then does a young couple manage to protect themselves from members of their extended family who are determined to undermine their future happiness?  Two films recently screened at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival examined this predicament with young lovers caught in radically different situations. The contrasts offered plenty of food for thought as to whether young lovers should hold onto the early wave of puppy love or cut their losses before too much emotional damage can be inflicted. Each film offered plenty of moments for doubts, second thoughts, and the sentiment captured in this lovely song from 1955's hit Broadway musical, Plain and Fancy.


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There are many ways to provoke a family war, but one of the surest is to marry someone the family has never met and then present her to your parents as a fait accompli. Marrying someone famous almost makes things worse. Brushing aside presumed social responsibilities when a family's fortune is at stake never fails to get the relatives on edge. In this clip from Rodgers & Hammerstein's version of Cinderella, Bernadette Peters explains why:


In the latest treatment of Noel Coward's Easy Virtue, Jessica Biel plays Larita, a famous American race car driver who has just married the young, impressionable, and obviously immature John Whittaker (Ben Barnes). The scion of a British family whose fortunes are quickly crumbling, John is very much a mama's boy. His control freak of a mother (portrayed by the great Kristin Scott Thomas) is one of those fire-breathing matriarchs who has always been used to having her way. The fact that her son married without consulting her (and married an American, to boot) is rotting her garters big time.

As one of the only men in his village to return from the front, John's father (played by Colin Firth) is suffering from the guilt of having survived World War I. Emotionally traumatized, he has withdrawn into himself as a way of coping with his wife's tendency to act like a shrew. When his son brings home a beautiful, sexy, and accomplished young bride he's more than content to sit back and watch his wife's authority be challenged.

Noel Coward was only 25 years old when he wrote Easy Virtue (his 16th play) in 1924. A young Alfred Hitchcock produced a silent film version of Coward's play in 1928. A surprisingly keen observer of human behavior, Coward once noted that "It's discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit." 

When the play was revived in 1999 as part of the Chichester Coward Centenary Festival (with Greta Scacchi starring as Larita), one of England's theater critics noted that:
"Easy Virtue is a marvelous reminder of Coward's ability to dynamite from within the high society he is generally assumed to have been celebrating. This is a savage attack on the hypocrisy of the early 1920s and the way in which it used Victorian standards, already outdated by war, to destroy the lives of those it could not control. The result is a psychological study of sexual repression and guilt and revenge, as the old certainties crumble at the advance of the jazz age."
In preparing the movie, the producers and director faced a curious challenge: How to remake Easy Virtue without turning it into a pure period piece. As the film's co-writer, Sheridan Jobbins, notes: 
"The original stage play is a melodrama, not one of Coward's signature comedies. When we were first talking about how to find a way into the comedy without being too heavy handed, Stephan [Elliott] paraphrased Coward by saying that 'Wit is a spice, not  a sauce.' That led to the defining style for our screenplay: Never try to out-Coward Coward!"
From its opening moments (including a delightful titles sequence), the film develops a style of its own. While the dowdiness of the Whittaker estate perfectly accommodates its matriarch's starchily repressed lifestyle, Larita's car, her wardrobe -- indeed everything about her -- is distinctly modern, metallic, and more mature than her provincial hosts could ever hope to be. Larita never stoops to conquer. Instead, she dares John's fussy family to rise to her level of brilliance and grace.

"We didn't want to make a period film," insists director Stephan Elliott.  "We wanted to make a modern film for modern audiences. So we tried to give it a really contemporary voice. As part of the look, we took a really '30s style to Larita. When she is in silver and white, she looks like the classic '30s movie star: stuck on Mars in this frayed, dying old world. Any bright colour that was around here, we got rid of it. Jessica is an alien arriving from Mars in a silver spaceship. That became a very interesting thing about the color palette."
There is much to admire in this version of Easy Virtue: Martin Kenzie's cinematography, Colin Firth's deeply masculine portrayal of a shattered war veteran, Jessica Biel's performance as a sex bomb who knows how to fight fire with fire, and most of all, Kristin Scott Thomas's characterization of the icy mother-in-law. Stephan Elliott's attention to detail is thrilling, to the point where you will want to see the movie again just to catch so many things that might have swept by too quickly during your first viewing.

But above all is the intelligence of Coward's writing, which tackles everything from the fading glory of the British upper class (whose minds and hearts remain stuck in the Victorian era) to the real-life compassion of a young American who freely admits to having helped her dying, pain-ridden husband commit suicide. Talk is easy. Virtue, on the other hand......... Here's the trailer:


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Some people might be surprised by my comparing Easy Virtue to a new film by Cruz Angeles which caused a lot of buzz at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. But consider the following. In Easy Virtue, the Whittaker family (as well as the society in which it once thrived) is losing its grip on reality. Clinging to a pre-World War I morality isn't solving any of its problems. Nor will things ever be the same again.

In Don't Let Me Drown we meet two immigrant families in New York that are struggling to cope with the aftermath of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. One family's father is working in the ruins, searching for bodies among the wreckage. Another family lost its daughter in the terrorist attack -- a daughter whose life was filled with promise, but who will never come home again. As the filmmaker notes:
"Don’t Let Me Drown is first and foremost a love story about two teenagers, but it is also an intimate look into the daily lives and struggles of two ethnically different Latino families from Brooklyn. Stefanie’s family is a third generation Dominican family grappling with grief. Her parents are constantly battling over their conflicting ways of dealing with the death of their oldest daughter while emotionally neglecting Stefanie. The other family is Lalo’s, a first generation Mexican immigrant family who is here illegally and is struggling financially. Lalo is a “Mexi-Yorker,” an American-born Mexican teen with all the swagger and nuances of your typical Brooklyn urban youth. He represents the next generation of bonafide New York-bred Mexicans and it’s the first time we see one on film. But he is no different than the other mainly Latino Caribbean teens he hangs out with -- although they are always busting his chops about his Mexican descent."

Cruz has painted his portrait of young love against a background of fear, anger, bitterness, and desperation. Not quite a Romeo and Juliet for the post-9/11 world, his film does a good job of focusing in on the pressures confronting Lalo and Stefanie as they struggle to acknowledge their feelings for each other. 

Lalo is a good kid who is trying to do well in school, who worries about his family's finances, and who is concerned about his father's constant coughing each night when the old man returns home from working at Ground Zero. When Lalo is brutally attacked by Stefanie's jealous, abusive father (Ricardo Chavira) -- a macho fool who does not even know that a close friend is trying to put the moves on his underage daughter --  Lalo's wounds cannot squelch his feelings for Stefanie. Young E. J. Bonilla gives such a beautifully tender and natural performance as Lalo that one can easily envision him having a major film career.


As a young girl living in a family that has been devastated by grief, Stefanie (Gleendylis Inoa) is just trying to get through school. Each night she listens to the constant fights between her mother (Gina Torres) and her dysfunctional father, who cannot bring himself to talk about the family's loss and has an unfortunate tendency toward domestic violence. Stefanie's main goal is to finish school without getting pregnant or letting any emotional involvement sabotage her future.


How do two teenagers try to keep their love alive under such pressures? How does a filmmaker capture the tension eroding their families?
"Times were bleak when we started writing Don’t Let Me Drown. New York City was under post-traumatic stress," recalls Cruz. "The humanism that prevailed in the days after 9/11 had turned sour. People were jittery and suspicious of one another. There was fear, paranoia, sorrow, and anxiety. Media outlets were predicting potential massive anthrax attacks and people were frightened that subways would soon start blowing up indiscriminately. Then there were the insidious red alerts, plus the F-16 fighter jets and military helicopters that would frequent the skies. All this, along with the ramped-up presence of police, ambulance and fire truck sirens all over the city, created an atmosphere of hysteria. The world felt like it was falling apart.

Maria and I started writing Don’t Let Me Drown to escape this depressing and sometimes infuriating atmosphere. We wanted to create an alternative reality, to write a story where love and hope could overcome hardship. As writers, we needed to escape into a more uplifting reality. Yes, things were bad, but the folks on the street who were struggling were still trying to live their lives as the healing process paved its way. There was laughter to cope. There was hope in order to survive. And yes, there was love to feel like there was something to live for."
Don't Let Me Drown has moments of great humor, shyness, and tenderness. Its appeal creeps up on you and eventually wins you over (mostly due to Bonilla's deep brown eyes and Lalo's unrelenting sweetness). The most notable contrast between Easy Virtue and Don't Let Me Drown does not involve their physical surroundings or the emotional turmoil faced by their characters. 

One can't help but notice the huge difference in the vocabulary used by the characters in each movie. In Noel Coward's Easy Virtuethe script is witty, the delivery highly sophisticated, and the blows are delivered with surgical precision.  In Don't Let Me Drown, there is a poverty of language, a noticeable inability to express oneself, and its blows are delivered with wildly-swinging fists.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Down-sizing the Classics

As we enter an era in which communications are being redefined by who can transmit the most coherent message in a single Tweet, we must ask ourselves how new audiences will respond to theatrical classics in the age of social networking. Will they welcome chances to be kept abreast of new developments from their favorite arts organizations? Will they use text messaging as a means to enter a raffle, vote for their favorite entry at a film festival or make a donation? Can Medea kill her two sons in less than 140 characters? In his upcoming New Media Made Easy workshop, publicist David Perry will address the question of what to do when "YouTube and I Twitter."

Making the classics relevant for modern audiences often requires downsizing voluminous scripts to a reasonable running time. Morality plays that may have run for 4-5 hours in their original form must be boiled down to their bare essentials. Plays that were written in an old-world literary style (that could put a modern coffee addict to sleep) must be retooled and refocused for modern audiences. With today's span of attention getting shorter and shorter, more and more playwrights are writing cost-effective one-act dramas that try to keep an audience seated for no more than 90 minutes.

Why?  
  • Some people want to get home at a decent hour (especially on a weeknight). 
  • Some people prefer the CliffsNotes version of a classic rather than the whole shebang
  • Some people have no taste for medieval poetry. 
  • Some people are intellectually lazy. 
Whatever! Welcome to the audience of the future.

This week, three Bay area theater companies revisited classic works from the dramatic literature by condensing their texts, updating their performance styles, and trying to make age-old conflicts relevant to modern audiences. Each company was severely challenged by budgetary constraints. Each had to rely on its craft and creativity to make the audience suspend its sense of disbelief. Each company had to reinvent dramatic wheels which had been honed to perfection in another time and place.

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First up at bat was the premiere of Faust Part 1, Mark Jackson's radical reworking of Goethe's legendary Faust: Der Tragodie Erster Teil for Berkeley's ever-adventurous Shotgun Players. Jackson recently did a stunning job of updating Shakespeare's Macbeth (1611)  for this company and mounted a smashing production of August Strindberg's Miss Julie (1888) for Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company.

Mark Jackson and Peter Ruocco (Photo by: Jessica Palipoli)

Based on popular German legends, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus was first published in 1604, even though Christopher Marlowe's play had, by that time, been performed for more than a decade. First published in 1808, Goethe's version of the age-old story about a man who sells his soul to the devil was subsequently adapted by composers Hector Berlioz for La Damnation de Faust (1846), Charles Gounod for Faust (1859), Arrigo Boito for Mefistofele (1868), Ferruccio Busoni for Doktor Faust ((1925), and Sergei Prokofiev for The Fiery Angel (1927).

Playwrights ranging from Heinrich Heine to William S. Gilbert and David Mamet, from Gertrude Stein to Vaclev Havel and George Axelrod have all made use of the Faust legend. In 1957, Damn Yankees (a musical reworking of the Faust legend starring Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston) became a major Broadway hit. Randy Newman's Faust premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1995 and was subsequently produced by Chicago's Goodman Theater.

Even if he is not paid royalties, the devil always gets his due.

While the Gounod and Boito treatments of the Faust legend often become major exercises in set and costume design, Mark Jackson's approach went in the opposite direction. Using Nina Ball's simple yet highly evocative set -- and with his actors clad in modern dress -- Jackson edited more than 900 pages of Goethe's original dramatic poem down to a workable script that could be performed in less than two hours. 

To perform such an extensive hatchet job and then co-direct and star as Faust is no easy task. But Jackson rose to the challenge with astonishing craft, grace, and style. His bushy-eyebrowed Faust alternated between being a pompous, world-weary intellectual and a willful young stud -- from a revitalized soul intoxicated by physical desire to a battered fool who can barely begin to comprehend the damage he has done.

Mark Jackson and Blythe Foster (Photo by: Jessica Palipoli)
"There is something profoundly sad about the fact that we still have not learned the lessons Goethe and Aeschlyus seemed to recognize so long ago. Will the human race ever learn self-responsibility? Or to strike the balance of justice without shedding more blood?" asks Jackson. "Like humankind has done for millennia, Faust will likely continue to forget the lessons he learns -- or rather the lessons he is given the chance to learn. Mephistopheles understands this and I think this is why he is, in a sense, the most conscious and moral character in the play. He provides Faust with every opportunity to learn and do the responsible thing, and Faust fails. Similarly, Faust Part 1 provides us with the chance to imagine what we might do in similar emotional and moral circumstances.  Hopefully, we do choose to remember, even to change rather than to forget, forget, and forget."
In the scene where Gretchen keeps asking Faust if he believes in God, Jackson delivered a magnificent dramatic turn, repeating Faust's self-serving response in widely varying renditions until his performance began to resemble a Ben Stiller-like meltdown. As impressive as Jackson's performance was as Faust, he was quietly and most artfully upstaged by Peter Ruocco's subtle and remarkably understated performance as the devil.

Ruocco's Mephistopheles knows that time is on his side and that the game is rigged in his favor. These facts give him the freedom to let Faust rant and rave to his heart's content. The devil is, after all, merely an enabler of human folly. As Goethe notes: "We are never deceived, we deceive ourselves."
Mark Jackson and Peter Ruocco (Photo by: Jessica Palipoli)

Jackson and Ruocco received strong support from Blythe Foster as Gretchen, Zehra Berkman as Gretchen's mother, and Phil Lowery as Gretchen's brother, Valentin. Nina Ball's set design was simple, yet remarkably effective. Most impressive, perhaps, was the debut of Matt Stines as a sound designer whose ominous rumblings could shake the foundations of the Ashby Stage (which claims to be the nation's first 100% solar-powered theater). 

While it demands a viewer's careful attention and intelligent involvement, the Shotgun Players' production of Faust Part 1 succeeds in challenging its audience with moments of daring theatricality, complex philosophy, gore, comedy, and egomania. Not bad for a tale that has been told over and over for the past 400 years!

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By contrast, Boxcar Theatre's 35-minute reworking of Ion -- a play believed to have been written by Euripides somewhere between 412 and 414 B.C. -- provided much lighter fare (a good thing considering that Ion was being performed on consecutive weekends in San Francisco's parks with little advance fanfare). Because I live right across the street from Dolores Park, I was able to bundle myself up on a cold Saturday afternoon, grab a folding chair, and walk across the street for an earful of Euripides before heading out to Magic Theater for a look at its new production of Mauritius.

As performed by Peter Matthews, Stephanie Renée Maysonave, and Sarah Savage, Ion lacked a traditional Greek chorus.  However, the actors from Boxcar managed to speed through the ancient tale about the hero's mysterious identity without getting hung up on the moral stigma of being fathered by a god (Apollo) who would fuck anything in sight. 

Instead, this performance became an exercise for the three actors who, by taking over a prop or shred of cloth from another performer, would step in and out of their roles as if participating in a game of theatrical round robbin. Each actor (whether male or female) portrayed any number of characters (male and female). Thus, Matthews portrayed men and women; the two female actors portrayed women as well as men.


In a city where gender identity is a constant source of confusion, concern, and occasionally cause for celebration, Boxcar's performance of Ion proved to be an interesting diversion for the people wandering through Dolores Park as well as for those who had come specifically to attend the performance. Needless to say, the dogs romping in and around the performance area had weightier concerns than Euripides and the Gods.

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Over in the East Bay, Berkeley's Central Works was reviving their 2002 production of Misanthrope. Based on Moliere's classic comedy of manners, Le Misanthrope. the Central Works version offers the perfect mirror with which to examine our behavior in a new golden age of hypocrisy. According to the program notes from the director, Gary Graves:
"When we sat down at our first workshop meeting on this project, the group began by reading through Richard Wilbur's translation of Moliere's original play, The Misanthrope, written in 1666.  Before beginning workshops, Central Works decided to do a contemporary updating of the play, that it would be a comedy, and that we would reduce the action to a three-character play, two men and one woman: the Misanthrope (Alan), his best friend (Phil), and the wealthy widow (Celia), with whom the Misanthrope is deeply in love.  After assembling the collaborative team and reading the original play, as a group, we proceeded by asking what thematic issues are present in the original and how we might translate those issues into contemporary terms. 
As workshops progressed, we brainstormed about ways in which we might play out these thematic issues in the onstage interaction of just our three central characters.  In some cases, we have "distilled" certain aspects of Moliere's original scenarios; in other cases we have adapted various components and, in still other cases, we have altogether invented circumstances with a particular view toward the original.  Our play, in these diverse ways, resonates with Moliere's and, in some instances, I hope even represents a kind of "dialog" between the two.  In the end, we have retained the basic premise put forth by Moliere in the first scene of his play, which is articulated by the Misanthrope -- "If it were up to me, " says Alceste (Alan), "we would all speak from the heart or say nothing at all" -- and we have tried to follow that premise to its logical conclusion, given certain newly invented circumstances. What we have here is a new play, but one which is clearly based on, or "inspired" by, Moliere's comedy -- both of which, I think, ask what limits, if any, honesty might have in the course of human affairs -- particularly in affairs of the heart."
Darren Bridgett as Alan, the Misanthrope

Whereas most productions of Moliere's Le Misanthrope might be staged as period costume dramas, the challenge facing Central Works is quite different. Performing in an extremely intimate space at the Berkeley City Club that seats only 50 people (arranged arena style around the central playing area), the actors at Central Works have no costumes or makeup behind which they can hide. Members of the audience are, at most, six feet away from them. Performing there is a bit like doing theatre-in-the-round in your living room.

The basic setup of Misanthrope is that Alan (the Misanthrope) hates the world as it is. Though passionately in love with Celia, he despises the social pretense and petty gossip on which she seems to thrive. In all truth, each of the play's three characters is running a bit of a scam. 
  • Celia is a wealthy widow who has been brought up on charges of murdering her ex-husband. In her grief during the year since his death, she has not only run through her entire inheritance, but gone heavily into debt trying to maintain an exuberant, if overly flamboyant lifestyle. Deeply in love with Alan, she has also been having an affair with Phil.
  • Alan, a journalist who believes in telling the absolute truth, has asked Celia to marry him. Unfortunately, after his refusal to revise an article which angered his newspaper's publisher, his moral posturing has cost him his job. He will probably never work in that town again.
  • Phil, a playboy who has grown up among the rich -- and acted like them throughout his life -- is not only penniless, but heavily in debt to a mobster. Unbeknownst to Alan (his best friend), Phil has also asked Celia to marry him.
Deb Fink as Celia and Darren Bridgett as Alan

What makes productions at Central Works so thrilling is that each performance is like watching people traverse a high-wire tightrope without any safety net. When the audience knows that a character is lying (but the other character in the scene does not), there is an added tension that might not exist in a production framed by a proscenium arch. Due to the extreme intimacy of the performing space the actors have to be secure in their craft, know their lines upside down and inside out, and inhabit their characters with much more passion and integrity than mere "truthiness." 

The cast for this year's revival included two of the actors from Central Works' 2002 production of Misanthrope. Deb Fink's Celia and Darren Bridgett's Alan were beautifully layered portrayals of people who hate to tell the truth if it is going to hurt someone they love. Michael Navarra's Phil had some wonderful moments (especially during the soliloquy in which he described how he was forced to watch his brand new, phallus-like sports car be destroyed at the hands of the mobster he had failed to pay in a timely manner).

Michael Navarra as Phil

Performances of Misanthrope continue through June 21 at the Berkeley City Club.  You can order tickets here (remember that seating is limited to 50 people per performance).