Friday, December 28, 2012

Control Freaks Gone Wild

There are many reasons why I avoid holiday productions of A Christmas Carol.  Chief among them is that if I want to be exposed to greedy, selfish, hypocritical fucktards who lack compassion, I need look no further than the United States Congress.

Are you as sick and tired as I am of all the petulant partisan political posturing and pompous pundits' teeth gnashing over the fiscal cliff crisis? Are you disgusted with Tea Party Republicans who (like spoiled, manipulative adolescents) keep threatening to eat worms and die if people don't give them what they want? Or hold their breath until they explode?

Would you like to see John Boehner fried by a super villain who owns a tanning salon (where is Lex Luthor when you really need him)? Mitch McConnell placed in stocks in front of the United States Capitol?

At this point, I don't really care whether Boehner's political impotence is self imposed or if he's merely a victim of his party's rabid dysfunctionality. I've long since passed the point of getting angry about the hypocrisy of conservatives with regard to guns, sex, drinking, or income inequality.

If President Barack Obama stands his ground, he United States may very well go over the so-called fiscal cliff on January 1st. Conservatives can play hard to get, make all kinds of unreasonable demands, and act like total douchebags if they want to (one of Eric Cantor's few talents). But at a certain point, someone is going to call their bluff. The results won't be pretty.

For all their talk about not negotiating with terrorists, it's interesting to see how politicians behave when holding others hostage. Many people wonder why Obama hasn't been more forceful in his approach toward dealing with the GOP leadership's attempts to sabotage the nation's economy. The bottom line is that there is a constitutional process which must be followed in order to get things done. Under Boehner's pathetically flaccid leadership, Congress has yet to present Obama with anything even resembling a signable bill.

Obama has threatened to blame Republicans in his upcoming inaugural speech and State of the Union address if they fail to act. I hope he points one finger at Boehner and another at McConnell and tells the nation that "These are the two motherfuckers who keep screwing each and every one of you."

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On October 23, 1967 a new musical based on the film The World of Henry Orient opened at the Palace Theatre.  The show had music and lyrics by Bob Merrill (New Girl In Town, Take Me Along, Carnival!), who had also collaborated with Jule Styne on Funny Girl, Sugar, Prettybelle, and The Red Shoes. Don Ameche starred in the role created onscreen by Peter Sellers.

Henry Sweet Henry flopped, closing after only 80 performances (others in the cast include Louise Lasser, Pia Zadora, Carole Bruce, Priscilla Lopez, and Baayork Lee). Ironically, the performer who got the most attention was a tiny little woman named Alice Playten, who had a voice like Ethel Merman. Here she is, performing "Poor Little Person" (choreographed by Michael Bennett) on The Ed Sullivan Show.

During Henry Sweet Henry's out-of-town tryout, Playten only had one song, an anthem to political viciousness and unbridled ambition entitled "Nobody Steps on Kafritz." Take a moment to savor the blood-curdling audio track (you might feel a perverse desire to start goose-stepping in rhythm to Merrill's song).

If Mitt Romney's abortive campaign for the White House reeked from a sense of entitlement, try to remember how desperately Meg Whitman wanted to become Governor of California in 2010.  Then imagine Whitman starring in a musical inspired by Greek mythology.

One of the more delightful entries in the recent San Francisco Olympians Festival was Athena! The Musical, a nifty one-acter written by Roberta D’Alois and Marilyn Harris Kriegel (who kept their script short and furiously funny, with laughs and venom flowing freely from start to finish).

As a leading figure in Greek mythology, Athena was noted for her wisdom, her courage, and her ability to inspire warriors. She could also be a jealous, conniving bitch. As the play's co-authors explain:
“We chose to write about Athena because, while neither of us are virgins, we share personal attributes that Athena is known for. Just as she sprung from Zeus fully formed, we both have been grownups since early childhood. We’ve been known to give the men in our lives headaches. Reading about these two strong and stubborn women [Athena and Arachne], we found ourselves drawn to explore the dark sides of the attributes we admire. Although our play is set in modern times, it resonates with the ancient themes of competition, jealousy, privilege, and power from the original myth.”
Emily Barber's poster art for Athena! The Musical

We've all been exposed to ruthless control freaks (Margaret Thatcher, Martha Stewart, Cruella de Vil) who will stop at nothing to accomplish their goals. In Alois and Kriegel;'s musical, Marley Nathena (Kim Saunders) is a filthy rich Silicon Valley CEO who who likes to throw her money around.

Imagine Betty Bowers as a political predator. Better still, imagine Cora Hoover Hooper laughing all the way to the bank while letting her ruthless business tactics and bottomless checkbook (at least $25 million) pave her way to landing the top spot on the Republican party’s ticket.

Two male party hacks (Richard Wenzel and Andrew Chung) are willing to do almost anything to lure Marley's money into their campaign coffers. But when they spot a naive and intensely likable small town Mayoral candidate named Rhea Weaver (Camerone Galloway) -- who they're sure will poll better than the wealthy and slick but unlikable CEO -- they have to find a way to get Marley to put her money behind Rhea.

Unfortunately, Marley don't play those games. Soon one of the men is hurt in a strange automobile accident. Then the chartered plane carrying Rhea to an important political event mysteriously falls from the sky.

Oops! Accidents happen, dont'cha know!

One of the nicest things about Athena! The Musical was its brevity. The show's creators made it only as long as it needed to be, with Rebecca Longworth's direction setting an appropriate pace for Marley's soul-crushing climb to the top of the ticket.

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What happens when you’ve got a loving husband, 3,000 daughters, and Zeus’s wife won’t stop nagging you to perform a nearly impossible favor? Meghan O’Connor’s one-act play entitled Tethys, or In The Deep examines what happens when, after the war between the Titans and Olympians has ended. Hera approaches Tethys and asks her to relocate the constellations of Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) and Ursa Minor (the Little Dipper) so that she will never have to see those pesky bears again. As O'Connor explains:
"I want to explore the power dynamics between an ancient, powerful Titan and a young, fiery Olympian. I want to explore what it is like to be replaced, even when you’re talented.  I want to explore Tethys’s marriage. She has a good husband and 3,000 daughters. But is that enough?"
Playwright Meghan O'Connor

With the precision of a rabid control freak, Hera asks her friend to do something so that the bears never be allowed to touch the waters belonging to Oceanus (who is married to Tethys). O’Connor asks her audience to judge who is more rational:
  • A loving husband who wants nothing more than to spend his retirement enjoying peace and quiet. 
  • A goddess of the deep ocean and mother of rivers (often depicted as having wings attached to her temples) who has strong nursing instincts.
  • A jealous control freak and power-hungry bitch who can’t leave well enough alone.
Poster art for Tethys by Cody A. Rishell

Annie Paladino directed the reading of O'Connor's provocative script with Juliana Egley as Tethys, Tonya Narvaez as Hera, and Tavis Kammet as Oceanus. Needless to say, Hera's meddling reminded me of some annoying people from my past (like the physician who expected my business partner to hop on a plane and fly 3,000 miles so she could argue with him about the placement of a comma).

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Acute Transformations and Life-Changing Events

Whether one fantasizes about Hugh Jackman turning into Wolverine (with stainless steel blades replacing his fingers) or The Hulk's overly-muscled green torso suddenly bursting through a nicely tailored shirt, what was once reserved for the realm of the imagination has become a commonplace form of expression known as body art. In my travels around San Francisco I routinely encounter people who have physically altered their bodies with piercings, decorative plugs, and multiple tattoos.

The wonders of rehabilitative medicine allow us to marvel at the achievements of Stephen Hawking (who suffers from a motor neuron disease similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and a multiple amputee such as Representative Tammy DuckworthSouth African sprinter Oscar Pistorius competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics with carbon fiber transtibial prostheses in place of lower limbs that were amputated when he was only 11 months old due to a congenital disorder known as fibular hemimelia.

South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius

Deformed characters appear throughout literature, from hunchbacks like Rigoletto and Le Jongleur de Notre Dame to characters like Caliban in The Tempest, whom Shakespeare describes as a  mooncalf (the abortive fetus of a cow or farm animal). One's humiliating fugliness can range from an oversized nose (Cyrano de Bergerac) to a truly hideous presence that can only be cured by love (Beauty and the Beast).

Conjoined twins have been a constant source of fascination. In 1997, Bill Russell and Henry Krieger created a musical named Side Show that was based on the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, two popular entertainers from the 1930s. In 2011, UC-Berkeley's theatre department staged Philip Kan Gotanda's play I Dream of Chang and Eng (about the famous pair of 19th-century Chinese/Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker).

Conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker

In 1979, playwright Bernard Pomerance found dramatic gold in the story of Joseph Carey Merrick, who became the focus of his play entitled The Elephant Man. Among the talented actors who have portrayed Merrick onstage without the use of any prosthetic devices are David SchofieldPhilip Anglim, Bruce Davison, Mark Hamill, Billy Crudup, and David Bowie.

A photograph of Joseph Carey Merrick from 1889

Long before I read Homer's Odyssey, I remember watching 1958's hit film, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Despite its tackiness, I was awed and mildly terrified by the film's depiction of a Cyclops.

While many physical deformities result from birth defects, others are the results of unforeseen traumatic events. A character may suffer an injury in battle or be involved in a horrible vehicular accident. In real life, such events present tremendous obstacles to stage and film adaptations. In fiction, however, anything is possible.

During the recent San Francisco Olympians Festival III, two new works focused on what can happen when Greek gods decide to experiment with gender. Whether taking a rambunctious look at reproductive rights or examining transgender issues through an ancient lens, these world premieres proved to be both fascinating and occasionally hilarious.

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Back in the 1970s, Planned Parenthood came out with a poster that shocked quite a few people. It showed a sad young man with a distended midsection wearing a striped maternity smock. The "Mr. Mother" poster bore the message "Bet You'd Be More Careful if YOU Got Pregnant." Although a framed copy of the poster is hanging in my kitchen, I could not find any images of it online to include with this article.

Playwright Barbara Jwanouskos

Fascinated by Zeus's insatiable lust and his willingness to impregnate mortals (often disguising himself as an animal in the process), playwright Barbara Jwanouskos decided to explore what might happen if what was good for the goose was good for the gander. The back story for her play goes something like this:
"Hera is the daughter of Cronus and Rhea, which also makes her a sister to Zeus. She became his wife after he took the form of a cuckoo in order to pursue her. After Hera took pity on Zeus and held him to her breast, their marriage solidified Hera as queen of Mount Olympus. Although they had four children -- Eileithyia (goddess of childbirth), Ares (god of war), Hebe (goddess of youth), and Hephaestus (god of metallurgy) -- some claim that Hera bore Hephaestus herself out of jealousy for Zeus’s birth of Athena. Hera may be the goddess of marriage and childbirth, but she has a volatile temper, is known for her jealousy towards Zeus’s many mistresses, and has a tendency to act out of anger. After centuries of dealing with her husband's infidelities, Hera quits Mount Olympus to teach Zeus a lesson by showing him just how it feels to have a mortal impregnated by your spouse."
Poster art by Emmalee Carole for Hera

In Hera, Zeus's wife has grown sick and tired of her husband's talent for rampant procreation and decides to spend a vacation in San Francisco.  Fascinated with the plethora of gourmet food trucks in Golden Gate Park (fresh crème brulée!), Hera (Claire Slattery) starts to relish her newfound freedom.

The object of her momentary affection is a clueless straight white male who is, admittedly, a stereotypical douchebag. Terry (Nick Trengove) and his high-fiving friends Chad (Ben Grubb) and Ryan (Eric Hannan) are drunkenly cruising a singles bar in the Marina District when he scores some quick action in the hallway with Hera that leads to a life-changing result.

Not only does the shocked Terry find himself pregnant, his supposedly devoted friends (who treat "bro-hood" as a sacred trust) quickly lose interest in spending time with Terry as soon as he starts suffering from morning sickness. Once Hera informs him that abortion is not an option unless he wants to lose his genitals in the process, Terry is forced to start making preparations for an unimaginable future.

Suddenly he needs the help of his next-door neighbor, Alicia (Arie Levine), a self-employed midwife and spiritual healer who has been one of Terry's occasional booty calls. Things get really complicated when Alicia (who is an animal lover) finds a stray dog bearing a name tag that identifies him as "Zeus" and brings him home. When Terry begins having contractions and Zeus wants to get in the same room with him, all hell breaks loose.

Hilariously directed by Amy Clare Tasker, Hera drew a lot of hysterical screaming from Nick Trengove's Terry. In addition to reading stage directions, Brian Martin (wearing a sock puppet on one hand) scored strongly as the jealous, growling Zeus.

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One of the more complex and interesting scripts to debut at this year's San Francisco Olympians Festival was Poseidon, or Caenis and Poseidon, by Bridgette Dutta Portman (whose appearance at the festival was delayed by a traffic jam which she attributed to the God of Highways -- "101us").

Mosaic by Molly Benson for Poseidon, or Caenis and Poseidon

Like Zeus, Poseidon (Scott Leonard) -- who was married to the sea nymph Amphitrite -- has lots of sex with women (both mortal and immortal). After raping a young mortal named Caenis (Marilet Martinez), Poseidon offers to grant her one wish for anything she desires.

Obviously smarter than Poseidon anticipated, Caenis sees Poseidon's offer as her escape ticket from an unhappy life. Betrothed to the King of the LapithsPirithous (Andrew Chung), for whom she feels absolutely no love, Caenis is finding it increasingly difficult to relate to her best friend, Hippodamia (Laura Domingo).

Thus, Caenis asks to be transformed into a powerful man so that she can never again be sexually violated. When Poseidon refuses, she points out other instances in which the gods have formed a key role in enabling transformations. After Poseidon changes her gender, Caenis became Caeneus. In order to fake her drowning, Caeneus leaves her bridal gown by the seashore and departs what was once her beloved home town. As the playwright explains:
“I was interested in the psychology of this transgendered girl: what made her wish to be a man, and how might others, including Poseidon, have felt about her transformation. In my play, I imagine Caenis as a young woman suffering from gender dysphoria. Despite her female body, she identifies and longs to be treated as male. Poseidon, for his part, embodies the very strict conception of gender roles that prevailed in ancient Greek society. He is accustomed to women accepting a subordinate station and deeply resents Caenis for her heretical transformation. I decided to base the play’s structure on classical Greek drama, including the use of a chorus and verse. I like the juxtaposition of a very classically structured play with a subject highly relevant to contemporary society: gender identity and transsexualism.”
Playwright Bridgette Dutta Portman

As directed by Katja Rivera, Poseidon, or Caenis and Poseidon proved to be an exceptionally well-crafted approach to explaining a woman's choice to become transgendered. Portman's script demonstrated the emotional consequences of her decision and how it affected those Caenis left behind (still grieving for his betrothed, Pirithous eventually married Hippodamia). Marilet Martinez brought a touching humanity to Caenis/Caeneus with Laura Domingo as her friend, Hippodamia. Jan Gilbert and Melissa Clason appeared as two meddling Nereids while Andrew Chung's Pirithous was notable for its emotional vulnerability. Sam Tillis made a brief appearance as Latreus, a centaur.

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One of the earliest game shows on television, Stump the Stars was, in many ways, similar to Charades. The show's title takes on new meaning in Rust and Bone, a new film in which an animal trainer at Marineland in Antibes, France suffers a double below-knee amputation after a killer whale bites off her lower limbs. Thanks to the miracles of CGI scripting, audiences can now witness a major film star (Marion Cotillard) participating in some seamy amputee sex in which her character's upper legs have been tattooed with the words "droite" and "gauche." Stump the star, indeed!

Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) visits one of her orcas

The man who has no compunction about screwing Stephanie in her newly crippled status is Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a tall powerful nightclub bouncer who occasionally picks up extra cash from bare-handed kickboxing fights. They meet the night Ali drives a very drunk Stephanie home from the nightclub and, with his thuggish brawn, easily intimidates her live-in boyfriend.

Proud and arrogant, Stephanie makes no bones about enjoying her ability to be a cock-teaser (she's a bit taken aback when Ali asks her why she dresses like a whore).  However, following her accident, there are very few people to whom she can reach out for help.

Thus begins a delicate dance of physical rehabilitation mixed with casual sex during which Stephanie must learn that, to Ali, she is an occasionally available piece of meat. Although a friendship builds between them (due to an odd set of circumstances, Stephanie ends up becoming Ali's fight manager), these two people -- who have spent their lives as fiercely independent types -- are forced to compromise and consider each other's feelings.

Sam (Armand Verdure) with Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts)

Complicating matters is the presence of Sam (Armand Verdure), Ali's oft-neglected five-year-old son who has been living in the care of Ali's sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero). All Sam really wants is to be loved by his father, who has little talent for showing affection or acting like a responsible parent. When Sam nearly drowns because of his father's inattentiveness, Ali finally wakes up to the fact that his child's needs must come first.

Having based their screenplay on two short stories by Craig Davidson, Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain stress that:
"From the very beginning of our adaptation, we were focused on a kind of cinematography that, for want of a better word, we called 'expressionist.' We wanted the power of stark, brutal, clashing images in order to further the melodrama. We had in mind an echo of the Great Depression. We thought of old amateur county fair films, of the dark reality in those visuals. We wanted to explore contemporary chaos and barbarism without addressing them head-on. What we were trying to do with the writing, filming, actors' performances, editing, and music, was to combine an almost naturalistic realism with its opposite -- melodrama, surreal imagery, a heightened experience.

It is that kind of aesthetic that constantly guided us as we worked on the screenplay. It's pitiless, yet it sustains a love story that is the true hero of the film. It shows the world through the eyes of a confused child. It underscores the nobleness of our characters in a world made violent by economic disaster. And it respects Ali and Stephanie's stubborn attempts to transcend their condition. What would Stephanie have become if she hadn't had that accident? She probably would have remained the somewhat arrogant princess that she was, unable to truly love someone. Thanks to her infirmity (and because Ali never looks at her with pity or compassion), she allows herself to let go and experience something she would otherwise never have known."
As directed by Audiard, Rust and Bone may be a tough movie for American audiences to swallow. Rather than the kind of morally weighted story which aims for a protagonist's redemption, Audiard's characters live in a down and dirty world where people don't always care for one another or show responsibility for their offspring.

Anyone who witnessed Cotillard's amazing performance as Edith Piaf in 2007's La Vie en Rose knows that she is capable of handling extremely intense scenes. While Ali's brute strength provides a critical foil to Stephanie's newfound limitations, all of the technical expertise in using CGI to convert Stephanie into a double amputee pales in light of Sam's essential innocence and its impact on the film. Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Hosts With The Most on the Ball

Watch some of today's sharpest talk show hosts (Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Craig Ferguson) in action and you'll notice some interesting traits in common. They started out as stand-up comedians, they read, they have an uncommon curiosity about the world around them and, when they interview people, they're able to draw on a much wider base of knowledge than political hacks and corporate shills like Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade.

Anyone who has attended concerts by comedians like Eddie Izzard, Margaret Cho, and Ricky Gervais knows that, in addition to their sharp wit and great storytelling skills, they're able to ad lib because they have a tremendous set of cultural references at their disposal (someone once suggested letting Nathan Lane host the Tony Awards without a script).

While comedians like Kathy Griffin, Joan Rivers, and Mario Cantone take delight in their own craft (and are the first to mock themselves), they can also be surprisingly candid about personal needs. When England's Graham Norton brought his stand-up act to San Francisco several years ago, he closed his show by telling the audience "It's time to go. There are cocks out there that are not going to suck themselves."

While some comedians have landed talk shows and comedy specials, there's another time of cultural host that shines when given an opportunity to work with an audience. Whether that person is a cuddly intellectual or an old-fashioned stereotype of a mincing pixie, one's storytelling ability is often what keeps audiences coming back for more.

Such artists may not be backed up by applause signs cuing their audience or a drummer who can punctuate their punchlines. Yet their delivery is smart, stylish, and based on an intellectual acuity that is deceptively sharp.

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One of the unheralded joys of this month's performances at the San Francisco Olympians III Festival has been playwright/director/entrepreneur Stuart Bousel's introduction of each new play. As the founder of the festival and someone who has harbored a life-long passion for mythology (Bousel was introduced to Bulfinch's Mythology in the fourth grade), his love for the Greek gods in all of their complicated glory is downright infectious.

Whether explaining that Oceanus and his sister, Tethys, created 3,000 children ("Just think of what it's like to start saving up for all those college funds!") or explaining where the theatre's safety exits are ("If you see a monster's foot come through the ceiling, walk around it, run down the hallway and turn right into the Tenderloin, which is undoubtedly safer.....") Bousel may be one of the very few stand-up comics to use Greek mythology for most of his source material.

Playwright/director/entrepreneur Stuart Bousel

Because his stage persona resembles a cuddly intellectual bear (one night, upon noticing that something had fallen from his pocket to the stage floor, he gasped "Imagine if that had been cocaine!") and his audience is largely comprised of actors and playwrights who are his friends from the San Francisco Theatre Pub, Bousel has the advantage of a loving, intelligent audience able to catch most of his ad libs and respond with hearty guffaws.

It's rare during any new works festival to find an artist who can get the audience primed with such a breadth and depth of cultural references. On some nights, Bousel's introductions may be better than one of the plays he is introducing!

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Leslie Jordan doesn't need any introduction. Audiences fell in love with the 57-year-old, 4'11" comedian when he appeared as Brother Boy in Sordid Lives, Beverly Leslie on Will & Grace, and Bernard Ferrion on Boston Legal. Having seen him perform on gay cruises and before largely gay audiences before, I have a soft spot in my heart for anyone who can point to a 1970s picture of three handsome young men and mischievously drawl "The one on the right had the biggest cock in Atlanta!" Here's Jordan speaking to a group of Google employees in 2006.

Jordan returned to The Rrazz Room this week with his latest collection of autobiographical tales during which he demonstrated his ability to mimic a pouty seven-year-old who is quite irritated to discover that he is no longer the center of attention. The comedian had the audience doubled over in laughter as he told the story of how "Miss Odessa" (a large black woman in a speakeasy in Tennessee) determined that the teenage Jordan should make his official drag debut dressed as Tina Turner in a white Afro wig.

Whether boasting about his ability to imitate women he met at his mother's hair salon, describing his childhood insistence on getting a bride doll for Christmas, or recalling his attempt to dye his hair blond with hydrogen peroxide (it turned orange, instead), Jordan had as much fun telling each story as the audience had hearing it.

Whether recalling his introduction to black beauties ("A truck driver could take one in San Francisco and travel to the coast of Maine in 10 minutes!") or the time he informed his stunned mother that he was not going to go to college but would instead to move to Atlanta and become a female impersonator, Jordan's delivery never fails to hit the mark. Just watching him pantomime how he used to run back and forth from one end of a park in Atlanta (where the hippies were smoking marijuana) to the other (where he was busily giving blow jobs in the bushes) is a lesson in comic timing.

Whereas Jordan's other solo shows have concentrated on his years as an alcoholic, meth addict, and minor fixture in Hollywood, Fruit Fly tries to answer the age-old question: Do gay men grow up to become their mothers? Most of Jordan's material, which concentrates on his first 25 years of life (and how the birth of his younger twin sisters robbed him of the family spotlight), is augmented with pictures of him as a toddler that are simultaneously adorable and hysterically funny.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Precious Curse of Prescience

The producers of Law and Order have developed a sterling reputation for basing many of their episodes on stories that were conveniently "ripped from the headlines." While art is often said to mirror life, what about those uncanny incidents in which a prescient artist foreshadows real-life events? What about major disasters that appear in fictional form years before shocking the world in real time?

If predictions of a major maritime disaster prior to the sinking of the Titanic sound far-fetched, consider the following, more recent evens:
  • In Tom Clancy's 1996 novel, Debt of Honor, an embittered Japanese pilot flew a Boeing 747 into the United States Capitol to avenge the deaths of his son and brother.
  • A 1996 action film entitled Executive Decision involves the hijacking of a 747 bound from Athens to Washington, D.C. The plot hinges on the terrorists' plans to detonate a bomb containing a deadly nerve agent once the plane is within U.S. airspace.
  • On September 11, 2001, hijackers flew United and American Airlines planes (Boeing 767s) that had been hijacked by members of Al Qaeda into the twin towers of the World Trade Center as well as the Pentagon.
  • On May 16, 2002, National Security Advisor  Condoleeza Rice testified that "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile. All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking."

Playwright/director/entrepreneur Stuart Bousel has built San Francisco Olympians Festival III around the theme of  Titans versus Olympians. Prior to each night's performance, Bousel takes great care to explain how SF Olympians differs from many other festivals showcasing new works by aspiring playwrights.

Whereas playwrights submit a completed script to most new works festivals, Bousel approaches SF Olympians on a commissioning basis. He asks each playwright to submit three paragraphs which answer the following questions:
  • Why me?
  • Why does this particular tale of the Gods interest me?
  • What do I plan to do with it to turn it into a play?
Poster art for San Francisco Olympians III

Once Bousel greenlights a proposal, the playwright usually has a year to develop a script. For better or worse, two of the plays presented during this year's festival boasted an uncanny timeliness (offering further proof that the gods must be crazy).

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As someone who revels in solitude and derives great pleasure from peace and quiet, I was fascinated to read Michelle Boorstein's recent article in The Washington Post entitled Silent Retreats' Rising Popularity Poses A Challenge: How To Handle The Quiet. Little did I imagine that, several hours after reading her piece, I would find myself down at the EXIT Theatre revisiting the exact same topic.

A prolific Bay area playwright, Patricia Milton's Demeter or In The Silence of Tangerine Groves examines the plight of a super-stressed female marketing executive at a fictional corporation named U.S. Smells. Win (Candace Brown) is desperately trying to pitch a new perfume to a client who is not in a buying mood.
  • Tightly wound and trying to soldier on while under far too much pressure, a panicky Win(ifred) makes the  mistake of saying exactly what she thinks during a product pitch instead of what the client wants to hear. 
  • To her horror, Win discovers that she has lost her "nose" (perhaps her greatest professional asset as a perfume tester) and is rapidly heading toward some kind of breakdown.
  • Like many of today's executives, Win relies on a constant state of connectivity in order to make it through business cycles which require her to be available to staff and clients on a 24/7 basis. 
  • To make matters worse, she's just received word that a focus group of young men testing a new musk scent has started to act out along the lines of Lord of the Flies.
Playwright Patricia Milton

When Win's electronic gadgets fail (and she loses contact with her mysteriously supportive online chat friend), the frustrated marketing executive is lucky to an all-knowing, rapid-response gay man for an executive assistant on hand who can save her from herself. As the super-efficient Max, Louel Senores nearly stole the show.

In Greek mythology, Demeter is worshipped as the goddess of the harvest. After Max drops Win off at a strange retreat which forbids electronic devices, books, and any other distractions, Win makes the acquaintance of the mysterious Miss Dee (Jan Carty Marsh), who turns out to be her online chat friend. Having been yanked from a male-dominated sales environment and plopped down into a more serene situation whose sole counselor is an Earth Mother type of figure, Win undergoes a spiritual detoxification process which allows her to finally get in touch with herself and regain her confidence (as well as her "nose").

As directed by Michaela GoldhaberDemeter or In The Silence of Tangerine Groves proved to be one of Milton's stronger pieces. Smartly written and performed with a zeal for finding a quieter source of inner strength, I can easily see it gaining popularity as a one-act attraction during Fringe Festivals or at Women's Festivals.

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Even if a play was written long before the horrible event that paralleled its plot, it's no fun discovering that your artistic instinct was right on the button.  In September of 2001, a revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1990 musical, Assassins, had to be postponed following the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. On Friday afternoon, Stuart Bousel posted the following notice on his Facebook page:
"To Everybody Who Was Planning To Come See The First Reading of TWINS on Saturday: In light of the recent events in Connecticut, I feel like I should warn you (since it isn't explicit in the play's description) that my play is about a child massacre. It's not super graphic or explicit re: the violence, but there is a lot of black humor and a handful of moments that some people might find disturbing. I am going to go through with the reading because I believe artistic response to the world we live in, including all the terrible parts, is important, but I don't want anyone going in blind and being unpleasantly surprised or unnecessarily uncomfortable. I'm looking forward to sharing this play with the world, I'm very proud of it, but I completely understand if you need to pass on it right now."
Playwright/director/impresario Stuart Bousel

While Bousel's one-hour play, Artemis and Apollo, did indeed make frequent reference to the slaying of Niobe's 14 children to punish her for her hubris, it also had the audience howling in laughter. Much of the merriment came from Allison Page's portrayal of Hera (performed with a "Minnesotan accent" that somehow managed to combine the best of Sarah Palin with Megan Mullally's nasal Karen Walker from Will and Grace) as Zeus's bitchy wife who keeps calling Apollo "Blondie" and informs Artemis that her birth mother was "Titan Trash."

The hilarious Allison Page

While Ms. Page was perfectly serious as Leto and Niobe, any opportunity for this local cosmetologist and make-up artist to use her killer comedic instincts brought down the house. Page was aided and abetted by Helen Laroche's sensitive Artemis and Dashiell Hillman's often hilarious Apollo.

Bousel, who has a broad knowledge of Greek mythology, delivered a multi-layered script which dealt with issues of marital infidelity, vengeful Gods, innocent victims, and the never-ending battle of the sexes. That he was able to pull off such a complex task with a winning combination of ribald humor and genuine pathos is a testament not only to his writing and directing skills, but also to the sharpness and flexibility of his talented cast (most of whom took on multiple roles).  Hats off to Tom Cokenias (Zeus/Asclepius/Orion), Paul Jennings (Nigel/Pan/Orpheus), Dana Goldberg (Iris/Coronis/Cassandra), Alaric Toy (Eros/Actaeon/Troilus), and Jessica Rudholm (Rhea/Selene/Marpessa).

Rest assured that, in spite of the 14 dead children, a good time was had by all!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hiding in Plain Sight

Sometimes, an odd piece of news pops up in the most amazing place. This morning, as I was reading an article in Forbes magazine entitled Bolivia Set to Banish Coca-Cola to Mark Mayan End of Capitalism, I came across these truly delicious remarks:
"David Choquehuanca, the minister in question, explained that Coca-Cola will be expelled from Bolivia on the same day that the Mayan calendar enters a new cycle: December 21. According to Choquehuanca, the date marks the end of capitalism and the start of a culture of life in community-based societies. In order to celebrate that, Bolivia’s government is already planning a series of events that will take place at the Southern Hemisphere’s Summer Solstice on La Isla del Sol, one of the largest islands in Lake Titicaca. 'The 21st of December 2012 is the end of selfishness, of division. The 21st of December has to be the end of Coca-Cola and the beginning of mocochinche (a local peach-flavored soft drink),' Choquehuanca told reporters at a political rally for Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales. 'The planets will line up after 26,000 years. It is the end of capitalism and the beginning of communitarianism,” he added.'"
Just when you think you've heard it all, the simplest truths rise up to merrily smack you in the face. With the recent election delivering victories to same-sex marriage proponents in Washington, Maryland, Maine, and Minnesota, the Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8 are constitutionally valid. Victories for the legalization of marijuana (even President Jimmy Carter supports this) have forced the mainstream media to take this issue seriously.

While some Americans assume that their religious freedom gives them the right to trample the rights of others, all too often the oppressor doesn't realize what true freedom can mean to someone. In this clip from the 1996 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Nathan Lane describes what it would be like to be "Free."

Think of legendary quotes like "To be or not to be" or "Free to be you and me" and then just imagine a world in which one never had to hide one's identity. Or listen to some bigot say  "I'm surprised you would even consider having such people as friends."

It's amazing what kind of emotional breakthroughs can occur when a person no longer fears the disapproval of complete strangers. In a hilarious scene from Act II of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," Pseudolus has to convince Hysterium to dress up as the corpse of the young virgin that had been sold to the proud warrior, Miles Gloriosus. After Hysterium protests ("You didn't tell me I'd have to be a girl"), Pseudolus calms his nerves by reminding his fellow slave that "You know you're not a virgin and I know you're not a virgin. So what do we care what HE thinks?"

The freedom to stop living up to other people's expectations offered a refreshing beacon of clarity in two recent stage productions aimed at capturing some of the season's entertainment dollars. While hardly in line with the standard holiday fare (A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, etc.), both shows lifted their audience's spirits as their protagonists achieved their long-desired release from society's disapproval. In their own way, each character was finally able to whisper "Free at last!  Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

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In July 2011, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened a restored print of William Desmond Taylor's 1920 silent film, Huckleberry Finn. While many have memories of reading Mark Twain's famous novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) in high school or college, I was fascinated to see how slavery was depicted on the silent screen.

In choosing to revive Big River -- which won seven Tony Awards (including Best Musical) in 1985 -- as the holiday offering for audiences at TheatreWorks, the company's artistic director, Robert Kelley, noted that:
"Twain's story of unexpected friendship has been an American favorite for over 125 years. First published in 1885, it has never been out of print, has survived assaults by thousands of censors, and remains on every imaginable list of the country's top ten novels. Why? For starters, it is a delightful comic saga of boyhood adventure that pits an irrepressible misfit against all the forces of restraint that society can muster. It is the journey of a neglected castoff from youth to manhood, from indifference to compassion, from prejudice to brotherhood. It is our essential cultural myth celebrating the individuality of the American character confronted by its most devastating character flaw: the embrace of slavery. These are the poles of an American conflict that once tore the country apart, and that continue to haunt it today."
Jim (James Monroe Iglehart) and Huck (Alex Goley) take shelter
from the rain in Big River (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)
"Huck and Jim, 'worlds apart' but linked forever by their mutual respect and humanity, continue to show us the right way to navigate the metaphorical Mississippi River that is America. Sharing their adventures among the righteous and the rapscallions, the flatboats and flatheads of the antebellum South, we can't help but sense their struggle for America's heart. Since the 1990s, we've seen a Chinese-American Mayor of San Francisco, a Latina Supreme Court Justice, an African-American President, even the advent of the phrase 'post-racial society.' We've obliterated 'don't ask, don't tell,' a first step on another vital journey. Like Huck, we've learned and we've grown. But we've also discovered prejudices we never knew we had. What makes Huckleberry Finn unforgettable is its recognition that on this ramshackle raft called America, we are still 'Waitin' for the light to shine.'"
Huck (Alex Goley) and Jim (James Monroe Iglehart)
relax on a river raft in Big River (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

I did not see the original Broadway production of Big River (which included John Goodman as Huck's abusive alcoholic father).  My first exposure to the show was the 2005 national tour of the revival that was co-produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company and Deaf West Theatre.  At the time I found the show to be a bit lightweight and Roger Miller's country-music score rather unremarkable.

What shone through, however, was Twain's storytelling skills and the deepening character of Huck Finn as he encounters folks in an area larger than St. Petersburg, Missouri.  While the TheatreWorks production was strongly cast, with some really nice performances from James Monroe Iglehart (Jim), Alison Ewing (doubling as Miss Watson and Susan Wilkes), Scott Reardon (Tom Sawyer), and Jackson Davis (The Duke), two performances stood out. Martin Rojas Dietrich (who impressed me so deeply as Montfleury in the San Francisco Opera's 2011 production of Cyrano de Bergerac) was wonderfully bellicose as The King. Young Alex Goley was beautifully cast as Huck Finn.

Alex Goley as Huckleberry Finn in Big River
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Performances of Big River continue at the Lucie Stern Community Theatre in Palo Alto through December 30. (click here to order tickets).

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Sometime around 1974 I answered an ad for a speed typist that introduced me to the field of medical transcription. The woman who hired and trained me had been a medical editor in New York who also liked to sing. Because our cultural backgrounds overlapped in some areas, we soon became friends.

Partying with Rosie in the mid-1970s (I'm on the right)

As months passed, I learned that Rosie also performed Tarot readings at local psychic fairs and was a practicing Wiccan. Occasionally, she would introduce me to a friend from her coven if we showed up at the same party. As a result, watching the San Francisco Playhouse's new production of  Bell, Book, and Candle brought back many memories.

In 1945, Rex Harrison starred as Charles Condomine in the screen adaptation of Noel Coward's hit comedy, Blithe Spirit. Harrison also played the male lead in John Van Druten's 1950 comedy about a lonely, modern-day witch who hungers for the kind of love she can't manipulate into becoming a reality.

In 1953, early television audiences embraced Topper, a sitcom about a stuffy old banker who purchased a home at an estate sale and discovered that the house was inhabited by the ghosts of its previous owners (as well as their pet St. Bernard, who had a fondness for martinis). By the time Bewitched made its network debut in 1964, audiences had developed a fondness for sight gags attributed to a character's extra-sensory, ghostly, or supernatural powers.

Lauren English as Gillian Holroyd in
 Bell, Book and Candle (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Gillian Holroyd has no problem conjuring up lightning storms or using her cat, Pyewacket, as a means to achieving her mischievous ends. Upon learning that Shep Henderson (the handsome publisher who is one of her neighbors) is planning to marry her college rival, Merle Kittredge, she decides to make him fall in love with her instead to placate her loneliness while getting back at Merle. As Bill English explains:
"The author of I Am A Camera (which became Cabaret), Van Druten was a gay man who, no doubt, felt a resonant kinship not only to the closeted life of witches, but with the persecutions by the House Un-American Activities Committee that were going on when the play was written in 1950. He was also ahead of his time in his understanding of power in relationships, of how we wrongly give up our power when we fall in love, and of how one lover can hold onto power over the other by withholding their own heart.  These are themes more commonly explored in the literature from the 1960s and 1970s."
Zehra Berkman and Laura English in a scene from
Bell, Book and Candle (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

While Gillian's aunt (Zehra Berkman) and brother Nicky (Scott Cox) like to use their powers to eavesdrop on telephone calls, play pranks on unsuspecting people, or attract clueless sex partners, witches are supposed to be more discreet in the use of their powers. The situation becomes complicated when Gillian, in her attempt to win Shep's favor, has the author of the best-selling Magic in Mexico suddenly appear and introduce himself to Henderson.

As luck would have it, Sidney Redlitch (Louis Parnell) has been researching a book on witches in New York. Spotting an easy opportunity for mischief, Nicky volunteers to help Redlitch with his research. Complications quickly ensue.

Gillian (Lauren English) reminds her brother (Scott Cox)
whose powers are stronger in Bell, Book and Candle
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The problem is that, at least in Van Druten's play, witches are not able to shed tears or feel the same kind of emotions that regular humans experience. As Gillian falls more deeply in love with Shep, she starts to lose her powers. Telling Shep that she is "one of them" leads to a bitter argument and breakup. By the final curtain, Gillian has lost her powers of sorcery but reclaimed her man (to no one's surprise, it seems like Gillian is a top).

Lauren English and William Connell in a scene from
Bell, Book and Candle (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

As set designer and stage director, Bill English has mounted Bell, Book and Candle with a sleekness and gentle tenderness that makes the play seem simultaneously modern yet quaint. It might well be that, six decades after its premiere (and in the wake of Harry Potter) the lovesick trials of a beautifully modern witch may seem rather tame. But Lauren English has a knack for finding a streak of emotional vulnerability in tough dames. In addition to chanting incantations, she wears Abra Berman's costumes beautifully.

While Scott Cox provides a playful foil as Nicky and William Connell does a nice job as Shepherd Henderson, the evening really belongs to Ms. English as the sorceress who, after discovering that she has a heart, gains her freedom to love. Gillian's blazing red hair and Bill English's magnificent, semicircular red couch dominate the proceedings for much of the evening. Performances of Bell, Book and Candle continue through January 19 at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer: