Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Deep in the Tarts of Texas

Many filmmakers see their labors of love debut before audiences on the festival circuit. If the premiere of a film by a new talent is a success, programmers at that film festival will usually welcome the filmmaker back in subsequent years.

Frameline's 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival is presenting the premieres of two new films which are, coincidentally, set in Texas. Each is the work of a filmmaker who has been warmly welcomed by Frameline's audience at previous festivals. Each shows the filmmaker stretching his artistic muscles and growing in new directions. In its own way, each film delivers a barrel full of laughs by mocking certain Texan stereotypes.

For many of us, the Presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson was our first exposure to the outsized personalities that populate the Lone Star State. In July of 1969 I saw a production of Hello, Sucker (a new musical starring Martha Raye as Texas Guinan) at the Warwick Musical Theatre in Rhode Island.

If the truth be told, many a Texan loves to spin tall tales that inflate both his ego and his résumé (some like to claim that everything's bigger in Texas).  Prior to their deaths, I greatly admired the wit and wisdom of Molly Ivins and Ann Richards. The fierce intelligence of those two women easily outshone the dull-witted smallmindedness of Texas governors George W. Bush  and Rick Perry who, as the saying goes, are "all hat and no cattle."

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While the producers of Mangus! are promoting their new film as a cross between Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine, I think it's a lot closer to what one might get by crossing Glee with Lust in the Dust. Written and directed by Ash Christian (who made a smashing debut with Fat Girls in 2006), Mangus! features Leslie Jordan as a frustrated high school drama teacher, Jennifer Coolidge as a trailer park floozie named Cookie Richardson, Heather Matarazzo as Cookie's 23-year-old daughter named Jessica Simpson, and John Waters in a delightful cameo appearance as Jesus Christ.

The story is all about Mangus Spedgewick (Ryan Boggus), a wide-eyed, bushy-haired and overly optimistic high school student who wants nothing more than to carry on the family tradition of portraying Jesus in his school's production of Jesus Christ Spectacular (the poor man's answer to Jesus Christ Superstar). After all, both his daddy, Mangus, Sr. (Charles Solomon, Jr.) and his granddaddy have played Jesus.

Now it's his turn.

Ever since he was four months old, Mangus has been preparing to hit the stage as the son of God. When his daddy gives Mangus his beloved Jesus robe to wear to an audition, Mangus's stepmother (Deborah Theaker) congratulates him by halfheartedly noting that, with his long hair, he looks "just like a Yiddish carpenter."

Mangus (Ryan Boggus) and his best friends head to school

There is, however, some stiff competition for the lead role -- most notably, Mayor Williamson's flaming son, Farrell (John D. Montoya), who has been practicing his Jesus voguing routine with a fiendish frenzy that would put Glee's Kurt Hummel to shame.

Although Mangus does get cast as Jesus, his triumph is short-lived. An unspeakably horrible accident leaves him crippled (and you can bet your life no school board in Texas wants to see Jesus appearing onstage in a wheelchair).

Mangus quickly learns how fickle Lady Luck can be:
  • His father soon reenlists in the military and heads back to Iraq
  • His stepmother throws Mangus out of the house and sends him back to the trailer park from whence he came. 
  • His biological mother -- whose new boyfriend, Buddy (Peter S. Williams), is not much older than Mangus -- can't deal with having a cripple in her trailer. 
  • His dimwitted lesbian sister purchases bus tickets to Hollywood, Florida instead of Hollywood, California.

Ryan Boggus gets to play Jesus in Mangus!

There are moments of great hilarity in Mangus! I especially liked the confrontation with a Greyhound ticket agent (Samantha Yonack) and Farrell's grotesque mishap while dancing on a glass-topped coffee table. Peter S. Williams is deliciously sleazy as Buddy.

Jennifer Coolidge can do no wrong in my book. Leslie Jordan, Deborah Theaker, and John Waters all shine in their supporting roles. Ryan Boggus may have the lead role, but John D. Montoya nearly walks off with the film.

Mangus! receives its West Coast premiere on Saturday night, June 25 at the Castro Theatre. It's a perfect way to start off Pink Saturday on a note of pure silliness (you can order tickets here). Here's the trailer:

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In recent years, writer/director David Lewis has gained a loyal audience with his series of "coming out" narrative features.
  • In 2002, his script for Under One Roof told the story of Daniel Chang, a closeted young Chinese-American man (Jay Wong) still living in his family's San Francisco home who falls in love with the hunky young Caucasian tenant (James Marks) who moves into their downstairs apartment.
  • In 2007, Lewis premiered the first film that he wrote and directed at that year's Frameline festival. Although the plot of Rock Haven dealt with the gay awakening of an emotionally constipated young Christian, the film was rapturously received by an opening night audience packed with gay Christians. As an atheist who has been out of the closet for more than four decades, I found Rock Haven extremely mawkish and almost comically naive. While Sean Hoaglund and Owen Alabado provided plenty of very intense eye candy, there was no doubt in my mind that Christian Bruno's spectacular cinematography was the film's strongest asset.
  • In June of 2009, Frameline offered the world premiere of Redwoods, a film which explored what happens when a long-term relationship grows stagnant. Brendan Bradley starred as Everett, the kind of lover who has done all the right things and whose world is suddenly shaken up by the arrival of a handsome young stranger (Matthew Montgomery). Once again, Lewis's script was overly sentimental.

Poster art for Longhorns

Thankfully, Lewis is heading in a new direction. With the world premiere of Longhorns at this year's Frameline festival, the filmmaker has thrown sentimentality out the window. Aided by co-producers H.P. Mendoza (Colma: The MusicalOption 3,  Fruit Fly) and Lewis Tice (BearCity), Lewis has cast this comedy with an eye toward the bottom line: sex sells. His small cast of characters includes:
  • Camille (Sophia Revelli), a big-chested cheerleader who likes to give her boyfriend all she's got.
  • Kevin (Jacob Newton), Camille's boyfriend who thinks he's straight but fantasizes about a cowboy riding his dick.
  • Steve (Dylan Vox), Kevin's best friend. Steve fits the stereotype of a Texas good old boy whose morals fly out the window after one or two beers.
  • Brenda (Katrina Sherwood), Steve's girlfriend.
  • Daniel (Stephen Matzke), Kevin and Steve's nerdy friend from high school.
  • Cèsar (Derek Efrain Villaneuva), the new face on campus. Openly gay, Cèsar earns extra money by tutoring other students in English.
  • Justin (Kevin Held), the epitome of a straight, white, macho asshole whose biggest talent may be tossing a football. Justin is the kind of obnoxious frat boy who figures that dropping his drawers to give Cèsar a peek at his body should be worth at least two pages of the English paper he's too dumb to be able to write on his own.

Kevin Held as Justin in Longhorns

Things may not be all that politically correct in Kevin and Steve's dorm (where Justin quickly informs Cèsar that he's sitting in "a fag-free zone"), but as the old saying goes, with a little bit of beer, some lube, and some porn, "a stiff dick knows no conscience." Even though Kevin may not be the brightest bulb on campus, he knows when he's hurt someone's feelings and tries to make amends.

Cèsar (Daniel Efrain Villaneuva) and Kevin (Jacob Newton)

The promotional blurb for Longhorns reads as follows:
"Beers, steers...and a couple of queers. The Eighties come roaring back in this risqué and sexy comedy involving a group of Texas frat boys, a remote cabin in the Hill Country and lots of beers, that will give 'ride 'em cowboy' a whole new meaning!"
For once, here is a film that can claim truth in advertising. After Kevin, Steve, and Daniel travel up to the Hill Country for a weekend of booze and broads, they learn that rains have washed out the roads in much of Texas and, as a result, their girlfriends won't be able to join them. What's interesting about Longhorns is that it takes place in a world with no concerns about HIV and where Texas good old boys just want to get their rocks off. 

While the four male leads waste no time taking off their clothes, there are no erections to be seen, only comic moments filled with hard young bodies simulating some overly eager acts of sex. Longhorns is all about good-natured fun among horny college students. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Specialty Acts

Long before the concept of branding took over the field of entertainment, many performers were known as "specialty acts." Neil Simon's 1972 comedy, The Sunshine Boys, dealt with a pair of aging vaudevillians who, over the course of many years, had grown to hate each other. With CBS trying to lure them back together for one final appearance in a show celebrating the history of comedy, the two men struggle to achieve a moment of detente. A similar plot twist appeared in 1991's For The Boys (which starred Bette Midler and James Caan).

Over the years, specialty acts have ranged from classically trained musical comedians like Victor Borge and Anna Russell to escape artists like Harry Houdini and Doug Henning; from mimes like Marcel Marceau to comedians like Harpo Marx. In each case, the performer's personality and/or notoriety was directly linked to the skills he performed in public. Here is former vaudevillian Eddie Cantor performing two songs in 1923:

In the following clip, the vaudeville team of Hite, Lowe and Stanley perform one of their specialty numbers. The gimmick, of course, is that Henry Hite (who was billed as "the tallest man in the world") stood 7 feet, 6-3/4 inches high. Lowe was a midget and Stanley a man of average height. Watch them in action:

Created by Burr Tillstrom during the early days of television, the Kukla, Fran, and Ollie show was beloved far and wide. With subsidiary characters such as Madame Oglepuss (a retired opera singer), Beulah Witch, and Fletcher Rabbit, the improvised puppet show became notorious for its ad-libbing. The following clip (in which  Kukla tries to sell his lemonade to a wider market) offers a prime example of what made this act adored by millions:

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With the onset of talking pictures, several silent film stars saw their careers come to a crashing halt. Carol Channing became known far and wide for her comedy skit entitled "The Inside Story."

Jonathan Luskin's short play, Ecce Homo, brought some laughs and tenderness to the recent Best of PlayGround Festival. Gus (Brian Herndon) and Fanny (Holli Hornlien) portrayed a team of vaudevillians about to perform their act for the very last time. Although they've finally made it to the Palace Theatre in Times Square, it's 1932 and the Great Depression dominates the headlines.

Not only has the famous team of Lund and Lund arrived in New York City just in time to see live entertainment get replaced by moving pictures, they're also flat broke. To make matters worse, their placement in the program means that they're following a child entertainer who sings and dances with his pet duck!

Gus (Brian Herndon) and Fanny (Holli Hornlien) in  Ecce Homo
Photo by: Mellopix performance

Resistant to change, Gus is determined to get Fanny to improve the sneeze that signals her entrance. Fanny, however, has already signed a contract with a movie producer to record their act on film for posterity. While Fanny is ready, willing, and eager to embrace the future, Gus clings to the past.

As directed by Molly Noble, Ecce Homo had a tender sense of futility that deftly contrasted Gus's perfectionism with Fanny's practicality. Scheduled midway through the evening's program, it served as an dramatically effective and sweetly entertaining palate cleanser.

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I did not know that ventriloquism got its start as an ancient religious practice. Nor did I know that people thought early "belly talkers" could channel the disembodied voices of dead spirits. Although several generations of ventriloquists were indeed condemned for practicing witchcraft, ventriloquism began to evolve into an art form in the early 20th century as more and more performers found a home on the vaudeville circuit. 

Ventriloquism is an art form with a hidden asset. Once a person becomes an established performer, he can continue to work as long as he can get bookings and remain healthy. And let's be honest: In today's economic climate, there's something to be said for getting paid to entertain people with your hand stuck up a puppet's ass.

If there is one class of performer that qualifies as a specialty act, it is the professional ventriloquist. Folks who grew up watching Edgar Bergen perform with his dummies (Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd) -- or Shari Lewis work with her famous sock puppet (Lamb Chop) -- took those characters to heart. The following clip from one of Shari Lewis's appearances on Sesame Street easily demonstrates the appeal of a talented ventriloquist:

Mark Goffman's new documentary, Dumbstruck, goes behind the scenes to examine the challenges facing aspiring ventriloquists as well as established performers whose work may keep them at sea for months at a time as they entertain audiences aboard cruise ships. Goffman follows five of the "vents" he met at the Vent Haven Convention in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky (an annual event that draws nearly 500 ventriloquists).  His subjects were:
  • Terry Fator: A native of Coriscana, Texas, Terry spent 22 years struggling to make it as a professional ventriloquist. After winning "America's Got Talent," he signed a $100 million contract with the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. Wherever he travels, his shows sell out. His show business dream has come true.
  • Dan Horn: A long-time professional, Dan has been entertaining audiences for nearly three decades. Because much of his work involved entertaining audiences aboard cruise ships, after 25 years of struggling to maintain a long-distance marriage his wife finally asked him for a divorce.
  • Kim Yeager: A native of Mansfield, Ohio, Kim has spent most of her career entertaining children with her dummies. Her mother continues to wonder when Kim will get married and give up "her puppet children." After an attempt to get a cruise ship booking falls through, Kim eventually throws in the towel and gets married.
  • Dylan Burdette:  A shy teenager from rural Kentucky, Dylan has wanted to be a professional ventriloquist since he was five years old. His father can't understand why Dylan has chosen to create a character that is a black pimp for his dummy and worries about Dylan's height and lack of interest in more traditional father-son activities, like tossing around a football.
  • Wilma Swartz: A 6'5" tall woman who learned ventriloquism after her jaws had to be wired shut while she recovered from an automobile accident, Wilma is eccentric and, at one point, about to lose her home to foreclosure. Shunned by all but one of her blood relatives, she turns to the online Vent community for financial help. To celebrate her return to financial stability, Wilma performs a wedding between two of her puppets at the Vent Haven convention.

Wilma Swartz working the aisles at Wal-Mart with one of her puppets

Goffman (who has had a great deal of experience working in television) is keenly aware that he found some wonderful subjects at the Vent Haven convention. “I think we captured the most unusual year in a very unusual art form. Every character that we followed had some kind of incredible life changing experience while we were shooting.”

A workshop for Japanese ventriloquists

Dumbstruck includes fascinating footage of Dan Horn conducting a workshop with Japanese ventriloquists as well as Kim's naive attempt to get a cruise director to insert her act into a carefully pre-programmed show. The program notes indicate that Goffman ran into some unexpected hurdles while trying to film Kim's adventures at sea. According to the press kit:
"Shooting on the cruise ships proved quite a challenge. While their video cameras were  allowed on board, their plans to shoot a documentary on the ship were not well received. The Goffmans discovered that pornographers often take advantage of cruise ships for low-budget shoots. At the time the Goffmans were trying to film a ventriloquist act onboard a cruise ship, there was rumored to be a guerrilla porn filmmaker on board shooting in one of the cabins. Kim, an aspiring cruise ship entertainer, is a former Miss Ohio runner-up and very attractive, and her voluptuous dummy Bertha, weren’t helping the Goffmans’ case. The cruise director threatened to leave the entire crew in The Bahamas if they didn’t turn off their cameras. From that point on, filming on the ship became truly run and gun."
It would be easy to approach Dumbstruck as a documentary about the larger human freak show. But what one finds in Goffman's film is a heartwarming group of performers who have found their voice in one of the oddest performing styles. Dumbstruck gives new meaning to the old phrase "Reach out and touch someone." Here's the trailer:

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As I headed down the aisle for the opening night performance of Blue Man Group at the Golden Gate Theatre, I noticed that the orchestra pit had been raised so that it was level with the main floor and outfitted with an extra two rows of seats. Most of the people in those rows were donning see-through plastic hooded raincoats that covered everything but their faces.

My first thought was: "Oh my god, they could make so much money if they advertised this as a special bukkake seating section!" Before the show started, digital signboards were used to help warm up the audience as a phantom voice asked theatregoers not to send text messages during the show because "it intimidates older people."

But as the performance progressed, I became equally fascinated with the production's heavy use of technology as by the raucous entertainment unraveling onstage and around me. What may have initially seemed like a trio of Buster Keaton-like magician/musicians clad in shiny blue greasepaint over latex skull caps has evolved into a mass-marketable phenomenon for the LED generation.

Blue Man Group (Photo by: Ken Howard)

Since 1991 (when their original show opened in New York), Blue Man Group has evolved into a powerhouse worldwide entertainment franchise (like Cirque du Soleil) with long-running anchor shows in Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, Tokyo, and Berlin. Blue Man Group has appeared in numerous advertising campaigns. One of their stage productions currently entertains passengers at sea aboard the Norwegian Epic.

Whether tossing Day-Glo colored marshmallows into each other's mouths, pouring phosphorescent paint onto drums in order to produce special "eruptive" effects (which are sometimes captured on a framed piece of canvas), or bringing a member of the audience onstage for an extended act of good-natured humiliation, Blue Man Group knows how to keep its audience wildly entertained.

Videography plays a key role in the show, whether a camera is being aimed at the audience or down a theatregoer's open throat (I loved how deftly the audience was tricked into viewing video from a standard esophagogastroduodenoscopy).

In the following video, Blue Man Group appears as guest artists performing their "Etude for PVC (PVC IV)" with a Japanese orchestra.

Whether interacting with giant iPad mockups or asking audiences to pay careful attention to the basic rules from their "Rock Concert Instruction Manual," Blue Man Group offers a solid 100 minutes of high-tech family entertainment. Working with Hostess Twinkies, vacuum cleaners, PVC pipe, and taiko drums, the three entertainers prove that nothing -- not even Andrew Wyeth's famous painting of Christina's World -- is sacred. The show builds to a happy climax during which huge inflated balloons equipped with programmable LEDs are pushed out from the stage into the auditorium with the audience being encouraged to get up and dance, bounce the balls around the theatre, and enjoy a grand moment of communal silliness.

Performances of Blue Man Group continue at the Golden Gate Theatre through June 19 (you can order tickets here). Here's the trailer:

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wallowing In Nostalgia

In 1982 (a year prior to his death), Lanfranco Rasponi published The Last Prima Donnas, a collection of interviews with female opera singers from the first half of the 20th century. Rasponi made his feelings about the modern crop of opera singers quite clear: None of them could ever measure up to the voices from the golden age of opera.

A popular theory at the time was that the introduction of transatlantic jet travel had shortened the careers of many singers by putting them on an accelerated career track that did not allow for the proper kind of vocal rest enjoyed by singers who had traveled exclusively by steamship and rail. Even though American singers were being hailed far and wide for the quality of their education and training, a higher rate of professional burnout was becoming noticeable.

In the years that I wrote about opera (for my column in San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter as well as freelancing to numerous magazines), I tried to profile rising young American artists. In discussing the tendency of Opera News magazine to focus on voices from the past (often referred to as "dead diva syndrome"), a feisty young soprano argued that "Mozart's dead! He doesn't care what you write about him. We're the people who are working now, who are making news, and who need coverage."

No one will deny that there is a time and place for nostalgia. However tempting it may be to coddle one's memories of the past, we awake every morning in the present. Some people can accept that as a simple reality. Others find it a difficult concept to embrace.

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Woody Allen's new film, Midnight in Paris, does an exquisite job of making nostalgia-heavy visions of past glory come to life. As the latest incarnation of Allen's nebbishy hero, Owen Wilson follows in the mildly neurotic footsteps of John Cusack (who starred in 1994's Bullets Over Broadway).

Wilson's Gil is an acclaimed, wealthy Hollywood scriptwriter struggling to write a novel that he hopes will allow his writing to be taken more seriously. Engaged to Inez (Rachel McAdams), Gil has accompanied his fiancée and her parents on a family business trip to Paris, a city known for the ghosts of artists and writers who once inhabited Parisian café society.

Alas, this is not a match made in heaven. Inez's mother (Mimi Kennedy) is an extremely materialistic country club Republican who fears her daughter might be marrying below her social status. Her father (Kurt Fuller) is a conservative bigot enthralled by the rowdy rhetoric of the Tea Party, who wonders if Gil isn't a card-carrying Communist.

While in Paris, Gil and his fiancée run into Inez's friend Carol (Nina Arianda) and her husband Paul (Michael Sheen). Gil's suspicion that Paul is a pseudo-intellectual blowhard is confirmed by a museum guide (Carla Bruni) at the Louvre who has a better grip on reality than Paul (who is obviously in love with the sound of his own voice).

Carla Bruni and Owen Wilson in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris

Blessed by some wonderful cinematography by Darius Khondji, the film begins with a tourist's love letter to historic Parisian landmarks. However, as the clock nears midnight, and Gil decides to go for a walk by himself, Woody Allen's old black magic starts to assert itself.

Having imbibed a substantial amount of alcohol during his dinner with Paul, Carol, and Inez, Gil knows that he is drunk. But he's not as drunk as the events that follow would suggest. When an antique car stops in front of him and some strangers merrily invite him to come for a ride, Gil embarks on the kind of time travel adventure that makes Back to the Future look like child's play.

His hosts turn out to be none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill), who whisk Gil off to a party where Cole Porter is singing his newest songs while accompanying himself at the piano. In no time at all Gil is being introduced to Ernest Hemingway (a deliciously hammy performance by  Corey Stoll), who offers to show Gil's novel to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). Rubbing elbows with such legends as Salvador Dali (an ebullient cameo by Adrien Brody), Pablo Picasso (Marcial di Fonzo Bo), and sexy bullfighter Juan Belmonte (Daniel Lundh), Gil can barely believe what's happening to him.

Whether the mystery car that picks him up each night contains Tom (T.S.) Eliot or he is taken to such legendary Parisian hangouts as Maxim's and the Folies Bergere (was that strikingly beautiful black woman Josephine Baker?), Gil finds himself basking in the presence of the artistic giants associated with the golden age -- a far cry from his future father-in-law's hateful vapidity. In a priceless scene, Gil tries to convince a doubting Luis Bunuel (Adrian de Van) that Bunuel will become famous as a great artist. "Maybe you'll make a film someday......"

Poster art for Midnight in Paris

But then Woody Allen goes one step further. Each morning, as Gil returns to the brutal reality of his impending nuptials -- and the people who will dominate his future -- he is buoyed by the memory of a mysterious beauty from his late night escapades. Adriana Marion Cotillard may be in the middle of a passionate affair with Pablo Picasso, but she is drawn to Gil and entranced by his writing. One night, when Adriana suggests that she and Gil leave a party, they end up going to a nightclub whose guests include artists from La Belle Epoque like Henri de Toulouse Lautrec and Edgar Degas.

Adriana is just as fascinated with this historical period as Gil is with The Golden Age.  When she opts to remain behind, Gil realizes that he can no longer live in the past and must confront the realities of the present. Soon after breaking off his engagement, he befriends Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux), a beautiful young Parisian who sells items of nostalgic value, including some old recordings by Cole Porter.

Woody Allen's script is filled with mischief and merriment, perhaps none so grand as a sight gag involving the unfortunate Detective Tisserant (Gad Elmaleh) that takes place in the famous Hall of Mirrors in the Palace at Versailles. A grand intellectual romp, Midnight in Paris is one of those rare films that, as soon as it ends, you'll want to see again. Here's the trailer:

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The decades Gil and Adriana worshipped were not happy times for most African American women (particularly those working in the fields). A 1989 documentary entitled Wild Women Don't Have The Blues describes how their work songs led to the development of an art form as American as jazz and the Broadway musical: the blues.

Currently onstage at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut CreekBlues in the Night is a musical revue conceived by Sheldon Epps that offers a wealth of songs written by such legends as Harold ArlenVernon DukeDuke EllingtonBessie Smith, Billy Strayhorn, Ida Cox, and Ann Ronell.

The final presentation in Center Rep's 2010-2011 season, Blues in the Night is also one of the most musically satisfying performances I've attended in a long time.  With a cast headed by  Armelia McQueen, Debbie de Coudreaux, Amanda Folena, and C.R. Lewis, the action takes place in the late 1930s in three rooms of a seedy Chicago hotel whose occupants can't stop thinking about the men who done 'em (as well as the men who done 'em wrong).

C. R. Lewis, Armelia McQueen, Amanda Folena,
and Debbie DeCoudreaux in Blues in the Night
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Lesser known numbers like "Take It Right Back," "Dirty No-Gooder's Blues,""Four Walls (and One Dirty Window) Blues," and Alberta Hunter's "Rough And Ready Man" easily hold their own against old standards like "Nobody Wants You When You're Down And Out," "I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues," "Am I Blue?" and "Wild Women Don't Have The Blues."  With the same kind of ghostly nostalgia that inhabits Midnight in Paris, Armelia McQueen seems to be channeling the great Sophie Tucker as she belts out Andy Razaf and Wesley Wilson's bawdy "Kitchen Man" and Leola and Wesley Wilson's "Take Me For A Buggy Ride."

Armelia McQueen as "The Lady From The Road" in
Blues in the Night (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The words to many blues songs are rife with double meaning, best exemplified in the lyrics for the lusty "Kitchen Man" (which was recorded by Bessie Smith in 1929):
"Madam Bucks
Was quite de-luxe;
Servants by the score,
Footmen at each door,
Butlers and maids galore!

But one day Dan,
Her kitchen man,
Gave in his notice, he's through!
She cried, "Oh Dan, don't go,
It'll grieve me if you do."

I love his cabbage, crave his hash,
Daffy about his succertash,
I can't do without my kitchen man!

Wild about his turnip tops,
Like the way he warms my chops,
I can't do without my kitchen man!

Anybody else could leave
And I would only laugh,
But he means that much to me,
And you ain't heard the half!

Oh, his jelly roll is so nice and hot,
Never fails to test the spot,
I can't do without my kitchen man!

His frankfurters are oh, so sweet,
How I like his sausage meat,
I can't do without my kitchen man!

Oh, how that boy can open clams,
No one else can catch my hams,
I can't do without my kitchen man!

When I eat his doughnut,
All I leave is the hole!
Any time he wants to,
Why, he can use my sugar bowl!

Oh, his baloney's worth a try,
Never fails to satisfy,
I can't do without my kitchen man!"

Debbie de Coudreaux as "The Woman of The World" in
Blues in the Night (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

They may not write songs like that anymore, but you can catch an evening chock full of them up in Walnut Creek.  Winningly directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming, performances of Blues in the Night continue through June 25th at the Lesher Center for the Arts (you can order tickets here). Thanks in no small part to Nathan Lively's sound design, the orchestrations and vocal arrangements used in this production enhance the songs without ever overwhelming them. With music direction by Brandon Adams, Center Rep's production of Blues in the Night is a rare treat!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Alas, Time Does Not Heal Everything

In the summer of 1974 I traveled to Los Angeles with musical theatre on my mind.  Over at the Shubert Theatre in Century City, Angela Lansbury (fresh from her triumphant run at London's Piccadilly Theatre) was starring in the first major revival of Gypsy: A Musical Fable since Ethel Merman introduced one of theatre's most ferocious stage mothers to audiences on May 21, 1959.

Over at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a new Jerry Herman musical named Mack and Mabel was in the throes of a difficult out-of-town tryout. Over the years, one of the show's songs ("Time Heals Everything") has become something like an anthem for the woman who first sang it, Bernadette Peters.

In 1995 I became friends with a man I met through The Back Door BBS, a gay bulletin board based in San Francisco. At the time, Winston was working downtown as a legal secretary. A man with a fierce intellect, a devilish sense of humor, and more emotional baggage than could fit on the decks of the Titanic, he was trying to live clean and sober. He had even named one of his cats Odaat (One Day At A Time).

Not only was Winston HIV+ and suffering from chronic back pain, he was a formidably private person with an intense cluster of neuroses. About 10 years later he met someone and, as often happens, cut himself off from many of the people he used to know. When he died last fall, we had never had a chance to say goodbye.

I mention Winston's passing because the strangest things can happen in dreams and drama. Last week, after an exceptionally bad allergy day, I fell into a deep sleep and had one of those dreams in which someone from my past stops by for a quiet, but intense visit. This time it was Winston.

When I awoke, I was shaken but aware that the dream had been profoundly healing. Winston and I were able to resolve any unanswered questions, say our goodbyes, and go our separate ways. However, not everyone gets a chance to work things out in their dreams. More often than not, some of our dreams end up becoming nightmares.

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Without doubt, the highlight of this year's Best of Playground Festival was Mandy Hodge Rizvi's Escapades. Directed by M. Graham Smith and billed as "a ballet with dialogue, or a dance through time and memory," Rizvi's one-act play was inspired by the following quote from Eugene O'Neill's drama, Long Day's Journey Into Night:
"Like a saint's vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see -- and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!"
David Cramer and Holly Hornlien  in Escapades 
Photo by: Mellopix performance

Escapades starred David Cramer in a bravura performance as Ted, a frightened and confused Alzheimer's patient who is being released from a private nursing home and sent to a state-run facility. As the play progresses, the audience becomes privy to Ted's descent into dementia and how his family missed critical signs of his mental illness.

At first there were terrifying dreams, including one nightmare in which his old Packard stalled on the railroad tracks as an approaching train bore down on him. In a string of later incidents, the local police found Ted battling invisible enemies after having climbed up onto the steep roof of his home. What got Ted booted from the nursing home after numerous attacks on male nurses and attempts to flee the premises is explained to his son (Brian Herndon) by the physician on duty (Jomar Tagatac) as follows:
"Your father is a man who has absolutely no idea what day, or month, or year it is. He can't tell you what the weather is outside or who the current president is. Doesn't remember. No idea. What he knows is that he's a retired army officer, working as a maintenance man for the local thread company. He doesn't remember how to brush his teeth, but he remembers the feel of a tool in his hand, and how to use it. And he can't remember for the life of him that he lives at Laurel Hills Nursing Home, no matter how many times we tell him, but he knows the exact number of steps to his front door -- that he has a family there -- and wife, and two kids. He doesn't remember that his wife and daughter are both dead.  He knows he needs to pick up milk, to fix the porch light, to mow the lawn.
Your father is a person to me, Mr. Leeds.  But to him, this is a prison, and I'm the warden, and he won't rest until he escapes. He broke into a maintenance closet. He used the tools he found there to remove the [monitoring] bracelet. Two male nurses out for a cigarette break saw him sprinting at full tilt across the grounds and gave chase. They had never seen a man of his years move so fast, like he was running for his life. It took them quite some time to subdue him. One of them required several stitches. You know your father no longer recognizes you. He knows you as the man that keeps him here. I'm sorry to be blunt, but to him, if I'm the warden, you're his arresting officer."

Brian Herndon, Holli Hornlien, Jomar Tagatac and David Cramer
in Escapades (Photo by: Mellopix performance)

With Holli Hornlien doing triple duty as a nurse, Ted's wife and his daughter, Escapades was one of the most gripping and poignant dramatic depictions of Alzheimer's I've seen on any stage. Especially for those whose friends and relatives have succumbed to this disease, it was an oddly uplifting and dramatically cleansing experience that packed a powerful punch. I hope more regional theatre companies get to produce this short play.

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Over in Berkeley, The Shotgun Players continued to celebrate their 20th anniversary season with the world premiere of the second of their five commissioned plays. Elizabeth Hunter Spreen's daring Care of Trees is hardly your standard heterosexual romance. True: Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, and boy gets to marry girl. But then girl turns into a tree and uses her roots to drag boy underground so that she can, once more, lie naked beside him and hold him in her arms.

Care of Trees is what I call a "fearless" play in that the script takes audiences to unimaginable places in their minds while the set designer (the talented Nina Ball) must provide some kind of landscape/mindscape that will support such a challenging emotional journey. It also requires a producer, like Patrick Dooley, who's got guts.

Make no mistake about it: the two characters at the heart of Care of Trees are by no means delicate flowers:

Georgia (Liz Sklar) and Travis (Patrick Russell)
Photo by: Pak Han 

A relationship that could easily have been sabotaged by hate at first sight is, instead, sparked by unfettered lust and overwhelming desire. Unfortunately, marriage doesn't turn out to be what these two expected it would be. In her program notes, director Susannah Martin writes:

"With its collage-like structure, where time and space are fluid, several issues are touched upon as we swirl through the memories of one couple: the environment and our responsibility to it; illness and its effect on a relationship; language and its limitations in articulating what we feel (especially when our experience becomes so big that it is beyond words); our very contemporary obsessions with cataloguing and generating artifacts (both real and virtual) of our relationships, and what happens to those memories as time passes and things change... In the midst of all of those themes, ultimately, this play asks: What happens when your partner embarks on a journey where you can't follow? And concurrently, what happens when life forces you to choose a path that may mean the loss of your relationship?  Life is about change. It's about death. It's about re-birth.  This beautiful play demonstrates that process on both the most intimate and the most magical scale."

Ms. Martin has done a stunning job of pulling two extraordinary performances from her actors. Combining naturalism with magical realism isn't the easiest thing to pull off onstage. Like Rizvi's Escapades, Care of Trees benefits immensely from the use of balletic movement in key moments of lyricism and emotionality.

Sklar and Russell are so physically and emotionally committed to their roles that, as the play progresses, one doesn't think of Georgia's transition into a tree as a metaphor but as shockingly real. Shotgun's handsome multimedia production will grab you by the throat and take you on one helluva challenging ride.

Performances of Spreen's beautifully conceived and provocative new drama continue at the Ashby Stage through June 19 (you can order tickets here). This is a very exciting and memorable new work.

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Finally, mention should be made of an exquisitely filmed and bone-chilling Finnish documentary entitled Into Eternity. Young lovers might hope that their love will be eternal, but filmmaker Michael Madsen is more concerned with what happens to radioactive waste that is expected to remain lethally dangerous for 100,000 years. In light of the tragic events at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant in Japan earlier this year, Into Eternity's relevance becomes increasingly urgent.

Filmmaker Michael Madsen

Madsen's film boasts a wonderful original musical score by Karsten Fundal and some magnificent cinematography by Heikki Färm. As Madsen takes viewers deep inside Finland's massive Onkalo project (where nuclear waste will hopefully remain safely stored and under seal for the next 100,000 years), one can't help but wonder if mankind's biggest weakness is its innate sense of hubris.

Inside the nuclear storage facility at Onkalo.

In his director's note, Madsen states that:
"I am interested in the areas of documentary filmmaking where additional reality is created. By this, I mean that I do not think reality constitutes a fixed entity which accordingly can be documented -- revealed -- in this or that respect. Instead, I suspect reality to be dependent on and susceptible to the nature of its interpretation. I am, in other words, interested in the potentials and requirements of how reality can be -- and is -- interpreted.
The Onkalo project of creating the world's first final nuclear waste facility capable of lasting at least 100 000 years transgresses both in construction and on a philosophical level all previous human endeavors. It represents something new. And as such, I suspect it to be emblematic of our time -- and in a strange way out of time, a unique vantage point for any documentary."
While Madsen's film is beautiful to watch, the story it tells becomes extremely ominous when one realizes that the Onkalo project only deals with Finland's nuclear waste (there's a lot more radioactive material out there that is not being treated with as much concern for the environment). Here's the trailer:

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cramming For Finals

Today's students are caught in a conundrum. As pressure increases on them to achieve higher grades, fewer jobs await them in a marketplace crippled by high levels of unemployment. Despite the eagerness of parents to see their children become self-sufficient, families across America are now confronting the brutal reality that, for many of today's college graduates, there's still no place like home.

One of the sad legacies of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is that it teaches children how to memorize material that will be on a standardized exam without bothering to learn much else. If students only "study to the test," how can they possibly develop the critical thinking skills they will need later in life?

Some families, aware of the need for survival skills, take extraordinary measures to ensure their child's future success. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the pressure to develop the kind of social skills which will help a youngster nail an appropriate mate. Two new plays explore what happens when someone sets unreasonably high standards for satisfaction.

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I cannot ever recall reading a script and coming across a description of the protagonist like the one written by Arisa White:

"William, male, 15 years old, white, upper middle class, suburban; introverted, lanky, attractive, sophomore in high school. Flexible enough to fit into a refrigerator."

Directed by Jon Tracy, White's raucous two-character, one-act play entitled Frigidare was recently staged as part of the Best of Playground Festival. Those who like to collect maternal monsters like Rose Hovick (Gypsy: A Musical Fable), Madame Rosepettle (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad), and Mrs. Iselin (The Manchurian Candidate), can now add Mrs. Logan to their list of dysfunctional divas.

This is a woman who, having decided that her son would probably be better off if he turned out to be gay, has remained resolutely focused on her mission.  Having had William kidnapped for three days at the age of 10 (so that he could "tell a story no one else could tell"), Mrs. Logan doesn't hesitate to remind him that "I do these things so you will have some kind of difficulty in your life -- to build your character, William. You will abandon the Lord your God and skip into Giovanni's Room!"

As Frigidare begins, the audience sees a flustered William returning home from church where, to his mother's keen satisfaction, he has just been sexually assaulted by a member of the clergy. Torn between the physical temptations and carnal delights he just experienced -- thanks in no small part to the talented, warm mouth of his priest -- William is desperately searching for a hiding place where he can calm down ("Fuckin' body has its own mind -- doesn't care who gives it pleasure!").

William )Michael Phillis) and Mrs. Logan (Holli Hornlien) in Frigidare
(Photo by: Mellopix performance)

After emptying the contents of the kitchen cabinets (when he was 12 and wearing his astronaut pajamas, William once hid in an overhead cabinet in the guest bedroom), he finally empties the refrigerator, climbs in, and desperately pulls the door shut behind him. Needless to say, his attempt to find a moment of solitude is thwarted by the arrival of his conniving mother, who has no sense of boundaries whatsoever.

White's black comedy is bizarre, brief, and breathtakingly brutal. Kudos go to Michael Phillis as the confused young William and Holli Hornlien as his misguided, but relentlessly driven mother.

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In his recent article entitled The League of Extraordinary Stereotypes, Jeff Yang pointed out that May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. As part of his analysis of how Asians have been portrayed in comic books from 1942-1986, he describes the two stereotypes of Asian women (referred to by Wikipedia as the hypersexual Dragon Lady and the China Doll) in the following manner:
"There is the Lotus Blossom: The long-suffering wife, the left-behind lover; the hostage, the victim, the betrayed and forgotten. She is patient in her doomed love and passive to her predestined fate -- which is to be abused, abased, exploited and ultimately, destroyed by the man she loves.
Where you have the Lotus, you must have her complement, the Temptress-- the exotic seductress, who uses her feminine wiles and sexual prowess to beguile and betray; the femme fatale as false of heart as she is lush of body, whose mocking laughter may well be the last thing you'll ever hear."
This month also saw the publication of Wesley Yang's essay, Paper Tigers, in New York Magazine. The article's subtitle asks:  "What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?"

Encapsulating the biggest fears and best fantasies expressed in these two articles is Philip Kan Gotanda's new play, Love in American Times, which opened this week at the San Jose Rep. I suspect, however, that the play's premiere had less to do with celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month than with ending the company's 30th anniversary season with the world premiere of a new play by a celebrated American playwright who was born in Stockton and lives in the Bay area.

Love in American Times begins with a meeting arranged by a professional matchmaker, the kind whose clientele sits at the top of the socioeconomic ladder. In the past, such matches might be made for royalty or the scion of a wealthy family. In Gotanda's play, the pre-arranged match is between two exceptionally bull-headed individuals.

Jack B. Heller (J. Michael Flynn) is a corporate titan who, at 70 years of age, is remarkably fit, frighteningly wealthy, socially clumsy, and brutally boorish. Although he and his estranged wife Abby (Rosina Reynolds) have lived apart for the past 15 years, he is now eager to get a divorce so he can marry a young trophy bride. Jack wants an extremely attractive Asian woman who will keep him sexually satisfied and put his needs above all others for the five years he expects to remain in good health.

Needless to say, Jack's son Edward (Craig Marker), who has been expecting to inherit the family's wealth, is less than thrilled with his father's plan. Jack's daughter, Sophie (Arwen Anderson), has made so many attempts to find herself through drugs, alcohol, music, and dark-skinned lovers of both genders that her innate sweetness has disappeared behind a cloud of migraines,  hangovers, and manic depressive attacks.

Jack Heller (J. Michael Flynn) and Scarlett Mori-Yang (Linda Park)
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Scarlett Mori-Yang (Linda Park) is a brilliant 33-year-old Asian beauty with a formidable intellect. Part Korean and part Japanese, she chose to enter the nonprofit world (where she could quickly rise to a position of power and dominance) rather than struggling to make her way up the corporate ladder. Scarlett -- who wants to have children from a husband who is obscenely wealthy --  has done enough fundraising to become a tough negotiator who can hold her own against the "big boys." She knows what they want and doesn't hesitate to inform Jack that she won't fuck him until he marries her.

Jack's sufficiently impressed with Scarlett to show her the coffin he built for himself as a secret place where he can go and scream until his eyes nearly pop out of his head as he tries to exorcise his demons. Scarlett has her own ghosts to contend with.

As directed by Rick Lombardo, the first act of Gotanda's play comes off like an intellectual wrestling match to see which of these two will triumph -- or if one will simply pick up his bargaining chips and go home alone. Act II takes place at Christmastime aboard Jack's yacht.

Edward and his wife, Lyonee (Zarah Mahler), are trying to enjoy themselves while Abby badgers Sophie. The standard level of familial hostility seems to have abated temporarily until a speedboat approaches and Scarlett (who was supposed to be shopping with friends in Buenos Aires) climbs aboard.

Edward Heller (Craig Marker) and his wife Lyonee (Zarah Mahler)
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

This was not supposed to happen. Part of their nuptial agreement (which was created with the cold-blooded precision of corporate attorneys) stated that Scarlett was to leave Jack alone with his family at Christmastime. But, to everyone's surprise, she's pregnant (Jack did not want any more children) and, in a way that surprises even Scarlett, in love with her husband.

With all its back-biting power plays and family intrigue, Love in American Times is never going to be a "feel-good" dramedy. Gotanda's script does a thorough job of insulting every possible ethnicity and traditional concept of marriage. Jack and his family seem like fairly loathsome country club Republicans while Scarlett comes across as a micro-managing Dragon Lady who should definitely be feared. As the caustic Abby notes, "She got points when she sent the helicopter back."

Love in American Times raises sticky questions about what one wants from a partner, what one has the right to demand prior to entering into a relationship, and how one should expect to be treated after the initial blush of love wears thin. With sets by Robin Sanford and costumes by Cathleen Edwards, Gotanda's play develops a curious momentum that keeps the audience wondering what will happen to Jack and Scarlett.

Linda Park and J. Michael Flynn give two powerful performances in the lead roles, ably supported by Craig Marker, Zarah Mahler, and Arwen Anderson. Rosina Reynolds does triple duty as Desiree (Jack's sommelier), his matchmaker (Mrs. Green), and his first wife. Gabriel Marin appears in a variety of small roles.

Rosina Reynolds as Jack's first wife, Abby (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Love in American Times is a play whose characters end up swimming with sharks on their first date and, surprisingly, in the warm Caribbean waters near the play's finale. Performances continue through June 5 at San Jose Rep (you can order tickets here).