Tuesday, April 30, 2013

All Your Books Are Belong To Us

There's an old saying that "knowledge is power."  However, long before anyone had written up a job description for an "intellectual property" lawyer, people were battling over who should and should not have access to knowledge.
New technologies continue to amaze. Sometimes, they result from our ability to use software to create web-based mash-ups between various databases.

In other instances (from medical research to open source software) the learning curve has been dramatically shortened by easier access to ideas and innovative tools. A perfect example is Erin Li's brief documentary on Invisible Light (check out Yanko Design's portable window socket).

Advances in science and technology can provoke radical changes in the status quo.
Recent advances in genome sequencing, stem cell therapy, and 3D printing have opened up a huge number of possibilities. Alas, new inventions can also lead to sudden and unexpected obsolescence.

As new technology breaks down old barriers, a certain kind of corporate hubris starts to hog the spotlight.
Recently, while watching Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz's last film, Night Across the Street, at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I was struck by a sequence in which two young boys take Beethoven into a cinema so he can watch parts of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). To a child in an absurdist film, this makes perfect sense.

However, to scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs obsessed with finding a cure, achieving a breakthrough, or being first to market, there is often a convenient assumption of historic inevitability. When asked why they think they have the right to do something, they frequently respond "Because we can."

Corporate attorneys are all for protecting their client's intellectual property rights. But when it comes to trampling someone else's intellectual property rights, that loss can sometimes be regarded as collateral damage.

Ethical challenges continue to arise in the wild frontier of digital media. Although its corporate motto may warn "Don't be evil," even Google can ride roughshod on the rights of others in its quest to do good. A new documentary by Ben Lewis entitled Google and the World Brain takes its inspiration from a collection of essays written during the 1930s by H.G. Wells entitled World Brain and the monumental scale of the Google Books Library Project.

With publishers of digital media desperately seeking new ways to monetize their content on the Internet, issues of copyright infringement (whether such acts are occurring in the for-profit or non-profit arenas) are a growing field of contention. In its brief life as a peer-to-peer file sharing serviceNapster (which was launched in 1999 and shut down by the Ninth Circuit Court in 2001) ran into legal trouble over copyright infringement. An d yet there is no doubt that Napster had a profound impact on the music industry (iTunes was launched in January of 2001).

In 2002, Google signed deals with libraries at the University of Michigan, Harvard University, and Stanford University in the United States; the Bodleian Library in the United Kingdom, and the National Library of Catalonia in Spain. It then began scanning their books.

Unfortunately, Google ran into legal problems when it scanned more than six million books that were still protected by copyright law without contacting or offering compensation to their authors (one wonders how their highly-paid legal staff failed to spot any liability for the company's actions). Although Google still scans out-of-copyright books, the company's master plan was effectively stopped by legal action (the Authors Guild is suing Google for up to $2 billion in damages for scanning copyrighted books). As Lewis explains:
"For three years, I thought long and hard about how to make a film about the Internet. The Net is a unique phenomenon, unprecedented in history. It has brought us many marvelous things: instant access to all kinds of information, culture and communities. But I have also been struck by how the Internet also takes things from us without asking. For a long time, nobody has seemed to notice that. I wanted to make a film that alerted an audience to perils, as well as the paradise of the Internet. But how? The Internet is difficult to visualize (its stories revolve around emails, blogs and servers). Many of the newspaper articles that criticize it are sensationalist and written in the future tense or the subjunctive, i.e. they imagine a danger that might arise one day in the future.

Documentaries need concrete stories, with personal testimonies, as well as explanation and polemic from theorists and commentators. The 10-year story of Google Books offered me a narrative that acts as a spine for the film as well as a strong vocabulary of visual images. But Google Books was not the only story I wanted to tell. I used it as a 'washing line' on which to hang other tales of uploading vast amounts of knowledge onto the Internet (Project GutenbergWikipedia, Baidu's library, and Brewster Kahle's Internet archive) as well as a way to discuss the big themes of the Net, privacy, surveillance, monopoly, and so on.
In terms of the narrative, there is a terrific arc. Google started out scanning amidst huge enthusiasm for the idea of creating a universal digital library. Gradually, problems emerged about copyright, national cultures, and surveillance. Then there is a handful of heroes, authors and academics in America, Germany, France, China and Japan, who dared to take on the giant Google, the world's most successful corporation ever! It is like David versus Goliath. In a kind of ending, an American judge ruled that Google's scanning project was illegal in March 2011, although the creation of a universal digital library continues, largely in the hands of the libraries themselves."

The National Library of China

There is, of course, a much more personal motivation for Lewis. As he is quick to admit:
"For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to make a film about libraries. They are my favourite places to be. Serene, beautiful repositories of the best thoughts that men and women have ever had. Free to use. Far from the din of modern capitalism, libraries are the epitome of the public institution. There is simply nothing bad about a library. It is my paradise.

I have been drawn to this subject by the combination of the ancient (the library) and the new (the Internet). There is a rare combination in this film of yesterday and tomorrow. A library is a repository of the past. The Internet is the technology of the future. Two worlds collide in this story which evokes the dramatic dawn of a new technological era for mankind, but one which might have its price."
The Vasconcelos Library in Mexico City

As one watches Google and the World Brain, numerous questions come to mind about the future of copyright law and whether the entire concept of how we share knowledge is undergoing a tectonic upheaval (the United States Library of Congress runs the National Digital Library Program).  Surprisingly, the Google Books Library Project has also led to a fierce debate about whether a multinational corporation has the right to define any nation's culture.

As I watched this film with my sister and brother-in-law (who are both retired librarians), I was equally intrigued by their comments as well as the professional insights from talking heads in the film. A chorus of laughter erupted during the section of Google and the World Brain which pointed out some of the imperfections in Google's cataloging techniques (Walt Whitman's famous collection of poems, Leaves of Grass. was incorrectly identified as a book about gardening).

Viewers may also wonder if an American filmmaker would have asked the same questions posed by Lewis and his collaborators. When betting on who will win the emerging battle between context and algorithms, one need only think of the famous statement by British author Neil Gaiman: "Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Pericles, Pericles, Wherefore Art Thou?

One of the most adored icons of 20th century American literature is Auntie Mame, the glamorous free spirit who counseled that "Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death!" Following the initial success of the 1955 novel by Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame was transformed into a wildly popular stage play (1956) and movie (1958) starring Rosalind Russell.

In 1966, when the story was adapted for the musical stage, songwriter Jerry Herman (who has had a lucky streak of writing popular anthems in his shows) wrote the following lyric for Angela Lansbury to sing to her young nephew:
"Open a new window, open a new door,
Travel a new highway, that's never been tried before;
Before you find you're a dull fellow, punching the same clock,
Walking the same tightrope as everyone on the block.
The fellow you want to be is three dimensional,
Soaking up life down to your toes,
Whenever they say you're slightly unconventional,
Just put your thumb up to your nose and show them how to
Dance to a new rhythm, whistle a new song,
Toast with a new vintage (the fizz doesn't fizz too long).
There's only one way to make the bubbles stay,
Simply travel a new highway, dance to a new rhythm,
Open a new window every day!"
While many people move to San Francisco for employment purposes, a great number come here for a second chance in life. Some see San Francisco as their last hope before taking a suicidal plunge off the Golden Gate Bridge. Others see it as a place where "frightening the horses" is the last thing they'll ever have to worry about. Why? In the wise words of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly:
"You can like the life you're living
You can live the life you like
You can even marry Harry, but mess around with Ike.
And that's good, isn't it grand? Isn't it great? Isn't it swell?
Isn't it fun?"
Whether one's desire to start anew is motivated by a desperate need to get out of a rut, find a viable substitute for the witness protection program, or embark on a long day's journey into light, very few people find that the path to reinvention is the shortest distance between two points. Whether your name is Odysseus or Belle Poitrine, random encounters with multiple lovers or an errant cyclops can become major distractions. The important part of embracing change is to take that first big step toward finding a new you.

* * * * * * * * *
When I saw Kirk Shimano's hilarious short play, Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos, at the 2012 Best of Playground Festival, I was struck by the contrast between a lonely librarian's embrace of chaos theory and the cattiness of the high school students who, upon learning of her absence from school, assumed that she was dead. The fact that the high school students were being impersonated by adults added to the play's irony.  Here's a brief clip from Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos as it was performed onstage.

Shimano's play was recently adapted for the screen by filmmaker Amy Harrison who, in the following Kickstarter appeal, explains what attracted her to the story of a middle-aged woman who suddenly started to make all her decisions based on the toss of a coin.

Part of the challenge in moving from stage to film was to retain a certain sense of whimsy and adventure so that Miss Finknagle's decisions (which start with taking her shoes off and end with her meeting a woman in a bar) take on the tone of a fantasy adventure. The addition of some comic-book style drawings helps to anchor the story in the heightened sense of drama in which many teenagers live their lives.

* * * * * * * * *
Sometimes there is a compelling need to find leave town and find a new identity. Whether a person has robbed a bank, killed someone, or simply broken up with a lover, the need to start all over again is unavoidable.

If you've guessed the answer to your King's riddle (which will supposedly allow you to marry his daughter) but grasp the horrifying reality -- that the King has an incestuous relationship with the girl and will kill you if you tell anyone -- then it's best to flee under cover of darkness. Like Romeo, like Pericles.

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting Mark Wing-Davey's "reinterpretation" of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, a 404-year-old play by William Shakespeare in a production designed by Peter Ksander and Douglas Stein with costumes by Meg Neville. Conceived with the help of Jim Calder, this Pericles is not a good match for academics or purists who are unwilling to let anyone play with Shakespeare's text. As Wing-Davey explains:
"Though I never feel compelled to set a play in the modern day, I'm interested in recontextualizing. I'm not interested in Shakespeare as an historical artifact, in the viewer attempting to look through the wrong end of the telescope at a play with its coats of yellowing varnish."
Pericles (James Barrow) discovers the secret sex life of
the daughter (Rami Margron) of King Antiochus in
Pericles, Prince of  Tyre (Photo by: Mellopix.com)

In addition to streamlining the text and eliminating the character of Cleon (Governor of Tarsus), Wing-Davey has his ensemble of eight actors mingling and chatting with the audience as they enter the theatre and take their seats. Music director Marc Gwinn teaches and then leads ticket holders in a three-part round before the show starts. With the audience loosened up -- and clear on the concept that a Shakespearean play will be performed with eight people stepping in and out of a wide variety of roles -- the storytelling can begin.

The only actor to remain constant throughout is David Barlow in the title role of Pericles, who must life Tyre flat away and embark on a voyage of self discovery to Tarsus, Pentapolis, and Mytilene. Along the way, he encounters Batman, a fierce storm at sea, a Middle Eastern pimp, and the goddess Diana.

Pericles (James Barrow) and a sailor (James Patrick Nelson)
endure a brutal storm at sea in Pericles, Prince of Tyre
(Photo by: Mellopix.com)

There are times when the production gets a little too gimmicky (I found myself thinking of the opening to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, where Prologus promises the audience that "We will employ every device we know in our desire to divert you"). For those who have endured and survived some truly heinous operatic productions created by Eurotrash stage directors, the shock value wore off a long time ago. Some of Wing-Davey's gimmicks work extremely well (the storm at sea is like watching a master class in highly-effective low-tech stagecraft) while others just become tiresome.

Evan Zes, Annapurna Sriram, and and Rami Margron in a
scene from Pericles, Prince of Tyre (Photo by: Mellopix)

After two hours, when the goddess Diana appears as a deux ex machina to reunite Pericles with his wife, Thaisa (who was presumed to have died while giving birth during a raging storm and was subsequently abandoned at sea aboard a piece of wood), one can almost feel the audience sigh with relief that closure is near at hand.

Pericles (David Barrow) is reunited with his daughter,
Marina (Annapurna Sriram) in Pericles, King of Tyre
(Photo by: Mellopix.com)

David Barlow was most impressive in the title role, with Anita Carey's performance as John Gower providing key moments of narration. Jessica Kitchens, Annapurna Sriram, and Rami Margron handled  the female roles while James Carpenter, James Patrick Nelson, and Evan Zes took on numerous male characters.

Monday, April 22, 2013

If These Walls Could Talk

In 1968, Neil Simon landed a big  Broadway hit with Plaza Suite, an evening of three short comedies. Each act took place in suite 719 of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Eight years later, Simon premiered California Suite before audiences in Los Angeles. In this case, four small plays were set in suite 203-204 of the Beverly Hills Hotel.

One often hears people mutter "I wish I could have been a fly on the wall..." or "If those walls could talk, I'll bet they'd have stories to tell." This concept has great appeal to playwrights and producers who (a) are looking to keep their budget for scenery within reason, and (b) have a series of short plays they'd like to showcase over the course of an evening.

One of the shorts being shown at next month's Second Annual Playground Film Festival takes this approach by overlapping three stories in one location. In The Secret Life of a Hotel Room, Garret Jon Groenveld's short play has been brought to the screen by filmmakers Greg and Mark Runnels.

Johnny Moreno portrays Brad, a traveling businessman who is a recovering addict. Having just arrived in a strange town, he is lonely, nervous, and unsure of what comes next. He makes a cryptic phone call (to his wife? sponsor?) before changing clothes and dialing the hotel's concierge to inquire where he might find a meeting Narcotics Anonymous.

Johnny Moreno as Brad in The Secret Life of a Hotel Room

Don (Patrick Russell) and his mildly hung over wife (Erica Wright) are two newlyweds enjoying their honeymoon. Basking in the afterglow of a fantastic wedding night, Don is eager and ready for more sex. He wants to do "filthy things" to his bride in every part of their hotel room and insists that she not freshen up before their next round of sex.  Why not? Don wants to discover how his bride smells after each and every climax.

Sexual hunger is the last thing on the minds of Alan (Lawrence Radecker) and Liz (Carla Pantoja), a middle-aged couple who are taking a break from caring for an aging parent. Liz is the kind of nitpicky fussbudget who is convinced that all kinds of germs and bodily fluids remain on the bedspread and the rest of the furniture in their hotel room. Alan just wants to watch some television, get on with his life and not be bothered with her nagging phobias.

In the following clips, you can see moments from the stage version of The Secret Life of a Hotel Room and then listen to the playwright explain the "prompt" from Playground's artistic staff that served as his inspiration.

* * * * * * * * *
While Theatre Rhinoceros and New Conservatory Theatre Center are the two oldest LGBT theatre companies in the San Francisco Bay area, last year Left Coast Theatre Company emerged from the GuyWriters Playwrights and began carving a niche for itself as a community theatre group. Specializing in short plays primarily created by local writers, its aim is to produce queer-themed works

Sometimes they hit it out of the park with fresh, strong writing and hysterically funny performances.  Other times, not so much.

Their current production, I'm Not Okay, Cupid, suffers from weak writing, acting, some pretty amateurish acting, and poor direction for much of the evening. One can see the spark that inspired the playwrights whose work is being showcased, only to sigh as each play fails to find its spine. Some pieces are badly overwritten, some just don't work. Briefly, they include:

A Small Fishing Nation Wedged Between Estonia and Latvia: Andrew Black's hostage comedy (directed by ShawnJ West) features three men named Steve and a young woman named Lacy (Laura Espino). The play opens with Steve #1 (Chris Maltby) and Steve #2 (Dene Larson) tied to chairs in their living room as two young burglars prepare to make off with their valuables and several pieces of art.

Trying to outwit the burglars, the older Steves make believe that they have a piece by Roy Lichtenstein that has obviously been left off the burglars' list of acquisitions. They also point out the many ways that Lacy's young accomplice, Steve #3 (Richard Sargent), will probably fail their heterosexuality test.  If he does, Lacy has to untie the two older men and leave the younger Steve in their clutches. Sure enough, her accomplice can't resist the handcuffs and Barbie dolls.

Chris Maltby and Dene Larson are being robbed in
A Small Fishing Village Wedged Between Estonia & Latvia

Lollipops:In James A. Martin's play (directed by Hayley Saccomano), a confused middle-aged actress  (Barbara Ann Cecchetti) discovers what appears to be the dead body of her date from the previous night (Hayley Saccomano) on the floor of her living room. Frantically trying to figure out how to dispose of the body, she keeps getting interrupted by calls from her excited agent, Alex (Debi Durst), a big old dyke with a potential for road rage who has big, big news. News to die for!

Will Sandy get to Texas in time to appear in the sequel that starts shooting on Friday? The answer lies in the curative power of the lollipops (containing medical marijuana) left over from the previous night's debauchery.

Alex (Debi Durst) watches as Sandy (Barbara Ann Cecchetti)
revives Lolita (Hayley Saccomano) in Lollipops

Goodbye, Cupid: Written by Rodney "Rhoda" Taylor and directed by John Anderson Hamner, this play opens with young Kris (Dan O'Reilly) and his older lover, Adam (Chris Maltby), arguing about whether they should go out or stay in for the evening. When Brook (Matthew Thomas Ward) and Cupid (Richard Sargent) stop by on their way to a costume party, it becomes obvious that Kris and Cupid have been planning to hook up without their daddies.

Kris (Dan O'Reilly) and Cupid (Richard Sargent) have
the hots for each other in  Goodbye, Cupid

That Bitch: Written by Rich Orloff and directed by Joseph Frank, this piece proved to be one of the stronger works in the program. Mary (Laura Espino) is a young widow whose grief is eclipsed only  by her narcissism. Although her friend, Louise (Hayley Saccomano), is trying to be supportive, Mary's self-pitying antics are driving Louise crazy.

When Mary's next-door neighbor, Georgia (Danielle O'Dea), arrives to complain about Mary's dog burrowing under her fence, there is a sudden shift in the power dynamics. An self-assured, aggressive lesbian who isn't interested in any of Mary's melodrama, Georgia is more than willing to teach the new widow how to handle a gun....and a few other things. Hayley Saccomano's classic delivery of several perfectly timed wisecracks easily brought down the house.

Louise (Hayley Saccomano) listens to her self-absorbed
newly wiowed friend, Mary (Laura Espino) in That Bitch

The Parenthetical Trap: Written and directed by Joseph Frank (with Hayley Saccomano co-directing), this hyperkinetic play was bursting with energy that seemed to scatter in all directions. Chuck (Kyle Glasow) and his younger brother, Charlie (Dawson Montoya), are two underage gay twits constantly engaged in sibling rivalry. When Charlie claims to be a power bottom, Chuck is quick to remind his little brother that Charlie doesn't even know what that means). That doesn't  stop Charlie from boasting that "I ran 12 miles, swam five, and squeezed in a 30-mile bike ride today."

The boys have decorated their apartment to resemble the restaurant where their mother (Gabrielle Motarjemi) and father (Joseph Frank) first met. While they hope that their parents will reunite, there's a lot they don't know about the adults in the room.

Chuck (Kyle Glasow) and Charlie (Dawson Montoya) are
two young gay brothers in The Parenthetical Trap

Four Dry Tongues: Written by Alex Dremann and directed by ShawnJ West, this play brings together two men and two women (each of whom can't stop lusting after the wrong person). Tristan (Michael Erickson) and his fag hag friend, Ginny (Angela Chandra) are obsessed with the tall and handsome Matt (Robert Rushin). Matt has grown so inured to being fawned over by every man and woman he meets that the only person he's interested in his lesbian friend, Laura (Danielle O'Dea).

Things are going nowhere fast until an odd twist of events creates an unexpected spark between Tristan and Ginny. Suddenly, Matt starts to get interested and Laura begins to tune in and get turned on.

Matt (Robert Rushin) fascinates Tristan (Michael Erickson),
Ginny (Angela Chandra), and Laura (Danielle O'Dea).

Because Left Coast Theatre usually presents at least six plays on any program, the cast for the evening is often surprisingly large. The company made good use of the handsome unit set. The most interesting performances came from Dan O'Reilly, Kyle Glasow, Danielle O'Dea, and Dawson Montoya.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

City On Fire

Recent tragic events in Boston have forced people to ask the age-old question. Is someone's behavior shaped by nature or nurture? Some of life's tragedies are undeniably due to natural cycles. Two shorts being screened at the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival demonstrate this process with a wry sense of humor.

In Will Rose's delightful short, The Goat Herder and his Lots and Lots and Lots of Goats, a Spanish goat herder tends to a flock of hungry animals who will eat anything.

In Cicada Princess, Mauricio Baiocchi links a natural phenomenon with a beloved fairy tale, wondering if a cicada who goes to a midnight ball can die happily knowing that she went to sleep with a glass slipper beside her. The following clip from the film's Kickstarter page explains some of the detail that went into creating Cicada Princess (which is drolly narrated by Stephen Fry).

Most children receive lessons in fire safety starting at an early age. They are carefully taught the dire consequences of playing with matches. As they get older, Smokey The Bear becomes an icon associated with fire safety reminders.

Forests are very different environments from industrial, urban, and residential buildings. When one thinks of tragedies that led to increased fire safety standards, among those that quickly come to mind are:

The Texas City inferno was caused when approximately 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate stored on board the SS Grandcamp was detonated by a smaller fire on board. That disaster was back in the news this week following the April 17 explosion of approximately 240 tons of ammonium nitrate at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas.

While most of the above-mentioned fires resulted from industrial neglect, a certain number of fires are started by a type of criminal who could be categorized as an enthusiast or" fetishist of the flame." Directed with a grand sense of farce by Mark Jackson, the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley is currently presenting Max Frisch's 1953 play, The Arsonists (more popularly known as Biedermann and the Firebugs or Fire Raisers) using a new translation by Alistair Beaton.

Aurora Theatre Company's poster art for The Arsonists

A Swiss writer who often dealt with the loss of innocence, Frisch was strongly influenced by Bertolt Brecht. Although it's easy to view The Arsonists (which is billed as "A moral play without a moral") as a post-World War II reaction to the rise of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism, the playwright was adamant that his villains are apolitical. As one of the arsonists stresses at the end of the play, "We do it because we like it."

Frisch (who saw his play as a parable) often stressed that "a person who does not concern himself with politics has already made the political choice he was so anxious to spare himself: he is serving the ruling party." His protagonist, Biedermann (Dan Hiatt), is a successful businessman who epitomizes the trusting fool who, more than anything else, dreads someone else's disapproval.

Babette (Gwen Loeb) and Schmitz (Michael Ray Wisely)
in a scene from The Arsonists (Photo by: David Allen)

Appearing smug and sure that he's too smart to be hoodwinked by arsonists who are burning down his city, Biedermann nevertheless demonstrates an acute vulnerability. When introduced to Schmitz (Michael Ray Wisely), an arsonist posing as a homeless man, his double standards quickly come into play. Although he has no qualms about denying a former employee's widow the benefits due her, he will bend over to backward to avoid the appearance of being stingy to a total stranger.

As a result, Schmitz and his partner in crime, Eisenring (Tim Kniffin), are soon loading barrels of gasoline into Biedermann's attic. Not only does Biedermann help Eisenring measure the length for a fuse to the detonator, at the end of the play he hands over the matches that will allow Schmitz and Eisenring to burn his house to the ground.

Eisenring (Tim Kniffin) and Biedermann (Dan Hiatt)
in a scene from The Arsonists (Photo by: David Allen)

Before the final conflagration, Biedermann and his wife, Babette (Gwen Loeb), go out of their way to wine and dine the arsonists to the angry astonishment of their maid, Anna (Dina Percia). Throughout the play, a trio of firefighters (Michael Uy Kelly. Kevin Clarke, and Tristan Cunningham) acts as a Greek chorus.

Frisch's play asks audiences to examine why, in the face of a self-identified enemy who makes no bones about his intent to destroy someone's property, a victim would become a willing accomplice to his own destruction. Although performed as a black comedy dripping with irony, The Arsonists is a remarkably timely play.

The question raised by Frisch is a simple one: Does success breed a dangerous combination of complacency and stupidity?
Eisenring (Tim Kniffin), Biedermann (Dan Hiatt), and Schmitz
(Michael Ray Wisely) celebrate their friendship in The Arsonists
(Photo by: David Allen)

Perhaps the biggest irony I felt after the performance ended was the feeling that Frisch's play could easily have been written about today's Biedermanns: the Log Cabin Republicans. One need only recall Stephen Sondheim's lyrics from 1979's Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street:
"City on fire!
Rats in the streets
And the lunatics yelling at the moon!
It's the end of the world! Yes!
City on fire!
Hunchbacks kissing!
Stirrings in the graves
And the screaming of giant winds!
Watch out! Look!
Crawling on the chimneys,
Great black crows screeching at the
City on fire!
City on fire!
City on fire!"
The Aurora Theatre Company's production makes fine use of a multi-level set designed by Nina Ball. While Jackson's ensemble works beautifully to capture the comedic aspects of Frisch's play, I was especially impressed by the performances of Dan Hiatt, Tim Kniffin, and Gwen Loeb.

The Arsonists continues at the Aurora Theatre Company through May 12 (click here to purchase tickets). Whether you're a politically-conscious citizen, a smug bastard who thinks that bad things happen to "other people," or a latent firebug, this production will help you appreciate the fire next time.

Bidermann (Dan Hiatt) and his family are consumed by
the fire set by The Arsonists (Photo by: David Allen)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Papers, Please!

In January, the Marsh Youth Theatre in San Francisco premiered a new musical entitled In and Out of Shadows which focused on the lives of Bay area families that included documented and undocumented immigrants. While a group of Senators tackles immigration reform, many doubt their ability to produce a genuine path to citizenship.

Whether undocument immigrants crawl through a tunnel linking Mexico with the United States or pay a Chinese "snakehead" to help them stow away aboard a container ship bound for America, every day of their new life begins with the fear that they will be approached by someone who says "Papers, please!"

In a new short entitled To The Bone, director Erin Li and her co-writer, Silka Luisa, look at a family of undocumented migrant workers out in the fields. Jaime Alvarez portrays an undocumented father who is picking vegetables as his two young children attempt to help.

When eight-year-old Marcos (Carlos C. Torres) cuts his hand, his ten-year-old sister Valencia (Naomie Feliu) helps him to bandage the wound. But when a car pulls up, word quickly spreads to move to the back of the field.  A government inspector (Maria-Elena Laas) has arrived to check on the workers' conditions and see if they're receiving enough water during the day.

Poster art for To The Bone

The father quickly reminds his children not to answer any questions and stresses that if anyone asks their age, they should say they are 12 years old. But the inspector turns out to be a beautiful young woman who starts talking about the games her son likes to play on his XBox. After she's spent a few minutes chatting up the children in order to put them at ease, she asks how old they are.

When Valencia defies her father, and confesses their real ages, the jig is up. Only as they as they are walking home (after her father has lost his job) does Valencia begin to understand the unfortunate chain of events triggered by her honesty. At that point, tears begin to flow. If you click here, you can watch a free download of Li's poignant short which says more in its moments of silence than it does with dialogue.

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The American Conservatory Theatre is currently presenting the world premiere of Stuck Elevator, a new piece of musical theatre based on an incident that took place on April 1, 2005 in The Bronx when, after delivering some Chinese take-out food to an apartment in the 38-story Tracey Towers, 35-year-old Ming Kuang Chen was trapped in an elevator for 81 hours without food or water. It's a fascinating piece of performance art.

An undocumented immigrant from China's Fujian Province, Chen was struggling to pay off the $60,000 debt he still owed to the "snakehead" who had arranged his passage to America. Having sold his cell phone to another worker, he had no way of communicating with the outside world and was terrified that, if rescued by police, he could easily face deportation.

Marco (Joel Perez), Guang (Julius Ahn) and Snakehead
(Raymond J. Lee) in Stuck Elevator (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The creative team behind Stuck Elevator uses Gaung's hellish experience while trapped in an elevator as a springboard for the kind of artistic license which encompasses a wide variety of musical styles, while embracing dream sequences, hallucinatory realism, and abject paranoia as tools for bringing peripheral characters from Guang's life onto the stage.

Guang (Julius Ahn), Ming (Marie-France Arcilla) and Wang Yue
(Raymond J. Lee) in Stuck Elevator (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

During the 30-year period from 1970 to 2000, many attempts were made to demolish the wall between opera and musical theatre. In trying to describe why so few operas were being written by composers of rock 'n' roll, Ben Krywosz, OPERA America's first project director for the "Opera into the Eighties and Beyond" program, noted that:
"Curiously enough, the operatic establishment does not speak the language that most people in America do. As a result, there's something which is not quite connecting to people on a core level. And that something has a lot to do with having a different cultural point of view."
According to its composer, Byron Au Yong:
  • Stuck Elevator (which is about being trapped) is part of a trilogy about Asian men who have become the subjects of American media storms.
  • The second part of the trilogy, Trigger, is about what Americans fear. Inspired by the Virginia Tech shooter (Seung-Hui Cho) who wrote poetry and theatre as an undergraduate student but ended up shooting 32 people and killing himself, Trigger aims to discuss America's approach to mental health and violence. The work is planned as an oratorio for 32 singers whose voices "will soar in an Artaudian fantasia about belonging and isolation."
  • The third part of the trilogy, Fallout, will be about the fear of being gay. Its protagonist will be LGBT activist Dan Choi (who chained himself to the White House fence to protest the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy).

In many ways, Stuck Elevator is the politically relevant, contemporary multimedia chamber opera that Krywosz and his colleagues kept aiming for but often failed to achieve. Mixing hip hop with operatic voices and a variety of musical styles (accompanied by violin, cello, and percussion), it is a theatre piece whose musical voice is very much its own. As Au Yong explains:
"I live in Seattle, which is a 21st-century city, a high-tech city. Often, when I meet new people and I say 'composer,' they think I write for video games and the tech industry. When I was studying, there actually wasn't necessarily a connection between my music and my family. And yet, whatever I wrote, no matter what it was inspired by, it would be considered Chinese or Asian because the faculty would look at me and expect that. I don't want to sound like a victim, but as an Asian American in this country, I'm always a second-class citizen. Whatever music I am writing, whatever I am inspired by, it will be considered to have something Asian as part of it when people actually see who I am." 

At one time, Au Yong (who calls himself "a composer of songs of dislocation") and librettist Aaron Jafferis described Stuck Elevator as "a comic-rap-scrap-metal opera." The young Asian-American composer is quick to clarify that:
"Aaron is more politically active than I am.  However, being an artist, I have a lot of agency.  I do have some power and I am going to use that power to promote more equity for other people and for future generations. One of the most difficult things about Stuck Elevator is realizing that the people who are depicted onstage may not actually be in the audience. Hopefully, their children will be, though. And so, whether I"m an activist or not, I think I have to acknowledge that I live in this country and that there are certain rules by which America operates."
Joel Perez (Marco) and Julius Ahn (Guang) in
Stuck Elevator (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

ACT's artistic director, Carey Perloff, was first exposed to Stuck Elevator when she walked into a rehearsal room at the 2010 Sundance Institute Theatre Lab. She quickly embraced the project (which will not only appeal to the Bay area's large Chinese community but should help open up some valuable new sources of funding for the company). As the composer notes:
"San Francisco seemed the perfect place to launch this work because the city has been a port of entry for Chinese for generations. There are certain things that San Francisco understands as a port of entry for Asians and as a major international city. And it's also a city that has elevators!"
Julius Ahn in Stuck Elevator (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Thanks to Daniel Ostling's unit set, Kate Freer's projection designs, and Mikhail Fiksel's excellent sound design, the production has a remarkable sense of style. Much of this is due to Chay Yew's sensitive direction and Stephen Buescher's choreography.

Julius Ahn gives a magnificent performance as Guang, with strong support coming from Joel Perez, Raymond J. Lee, Joseph Anthony Foronda, and Marie-France Arcilla in a wide variety of roles. Under Dolores Duran-Cefalu's musical direction, the sounds of Au Yong's three-piece ensemble are piped in from a room backstage.

Julius Ahn in Stuck Elevator (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Stuck Elevator could be an exciting addition to New York City Opera's repertoire as well as a perfect attraction for audiences at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Kennedy Center, and venues like the Edinburgh Festival. If some kind of tour or cultural exchange can be worked out, it would be fascinating to see how this contemporary chamber opera fares with audiences in cities like Beijing, Taipei, Hong Kong, and Shanghai (San Francisco's sister city).

Performances of Stuck Elevator continue through April 28 at the American Conservatory Theatre (click here to order tickets). For opera and musical theatre enthusiasts, this is a rare artistic opportunity that should not be missed.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Children of Darkness

Not all children grow up in the care of loving parents or under happy circumstances. As the Supreme Court ponders the constitutionality of 1996's loathsome Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and considers some of the more ridiculous arguments put forth by its defenders (i.e. marriage is necessary to protect straight couples who accidentally get pregnant), one cruel fact of life keeps getting swept under the rug.

The reason so many foster children end up being adopted by gay men and lesbians is because they were created by heterosexuals who were either unwilling to use birth control, unable to provide for a newborn, or uninterested in the long-term responsibility of parenting. For many children, unexpected changes in the lives of their parents can lead to a darker future filled with doubt, fear, and misunderstanding.

* * * * * * * * *
The Best of Playground Film Festival celebrates its second season in May with a series of films based on outstanding 10-minute dramas that were created as part of this important local playwriting incubator program. Launched in collaboration with Dances With Light, the program has added a superb new feature for this year's festival. Each short is now accompanied by a brief interview in which the playwright describes the inspiration for the piece, the challenges faced in its initial creation as a stage play, and some of the adjustments that were made in order to turn the play into a short film.

A mother (Jody Gelb) and father (Rolf Saxon) wonder how
they can stop loving one of their daughters in Undone

Written by Diane Sampson and directed by Bruce Coughran, Undone focuses on a couple trying to cope with the realization that their daughter, Alison (Lyndsy Kail), might just be a psychopath. Originally written about a mathematician whose field of expertise is knot theory, the film shows both parents as they try to cope with the fact that  they can no longer trust Alison after she has physically harmed her sister Rebecca's (Heather Gilliland) infant -- who is the couple's first grandchild. While the father (Rolf Saxon) is obviously in denial, the mother (Jody Gelb) has crossed a point of no return.

For those who like suspense films, there is a genuinely cringeworthy moment as the audience watches Alison decide to pour hot coffee on the infant. A bad seed, indeed!

* * * * * * * * *
Based on a short play by Geetha Reddy, Obit leaves the audience with an unexpected shock. Henry (George Maguire) is a senile old man who is obviously suffering from memory problems.

After his wife died at an early age, Henry was forced to raise his daughter as a single father while serving in the military. His daughter managed to rise above Henry's heavily-structured military lifestyle and rigid gender expectations to become a successful doctor (not a nurse). As the film begins, the two of them are struggling to write an obituary.

Liz (Sandra Fish) shows an inordinate amount of patience with her father as she prompts him to try to remember certain details from years gone by. The camera catches Henry in two postures: one where he is lucid and in real time and the other where he is lost in his idealized memories.

George Maguire as "Ideal Henry" (Photo by: Kerry Bitner)

George Maguire as "Real Henry" (Photo by: Kerry Bitner)

With lots of false starts as Henry becomes agitated or can't remember things, the audience assumes that Liz is helping to write an obituary for her father (an Alzheimer's patient) while he can still remember any details about his life. But at the end of the film, when Henry reminds Liz that she forgot to add one very important item, the viewer may be shocked to hear him say "You forgot to write that she is survived by her father."

George Maguire gives a beautiful performance as an irascible old man dealing with advancing dementia while Sandra Fish displays a rare patience (probably brought on by years of clinical practice) in completing a difficult task that must be accomplished while time is still on her side.

* * * * * * * * *
Few archetypes are as recognizable from fairy tales as that of the evil stepmother. While the legend of Cinderella has inspired numerous variations in opera, ballet, and film, Snow White may have experienced fewer attempts at updating and reinterpretation.

In February, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened 1916's silent film version of Snow White, starring Marguerite Clark (repeating her characterization from a Broadway stage production). A new version of Snow White (complete with bullfighting!) recently arrived from Spain.

Directed by Pablo Berger, Blancanieves sets the action in Seville in a highly romanticized vision of the 1920s in which Carmen (Sofia Oria) is the daughter of the famous matador, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho).  At first, Carmen is a cherished child who is doted upon by her grandmother, Dona Concha (Angela Molina).

The young Carmen (Sofia Oria) dances
with her grandmother (Angela Molina)

But once her father remarries, the girl falls under the dark glare of her evil stepmother, the fashion conscious Encarna (Maribel Verdú), whose self-absorption could make Michele Bachmann seem like a blushing virgin.

One fine day, Carmen follows her pet rooster into the upstairs part of the house (which she has been forbidden to explore).  There she finds her paralyzed father in a wheelchair, the victim of a horrible goring injury during a bullfight.

Carmen's famous father, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho)

Carmen brings some light into her father's lonely life. In return, he coaches her in how to fight a bull. Encarna has the bird cooked and served for dinner (shades of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?) while plotting and scheming to get rid of the little brat and take over the world.

As the years roll by, Carmencita (Macarena Garcia) becomes a servant in the house. After orchestrating her husband's death, Encarna instructs her chauffeur turned lover, Gennaro (Pere Ponce), to take the child out of town and kill her. Instead of being rescued by Grumpy, Sneezy, Happy, Dopey, and the rest of the gang, she falls in with a group of dwarf bullfighters.

The dwarfs who rescue Carmencita

A curious turn of events finds Carmencita stepping into the bullring, where her beauty, bravery, and talent impress the crowd.

Macarena Garcia as Carmencita in Blancanieves
  • Carmencita's fame quickly spreads and she soon becomes the star attraction who can freshen up the dwarfs' clowning matador act.
  • The young female bullfighter quickly inflames the macho jealousy of the troupe's former lead, Jesusin (Emilio Gavira).
  • Carmencita also attracts the attention of a theatrical manager, Don Carlos (Josep Maria Pou), who signs her to a lifetime contract.
  • She easily wins the heart of Rafita (Sergio Dorado), the most handsome and romantic dwarf.
  • After the elaborate photo spread which was supposed to land her on the cover of a fashion magazine gets bumped in favor of a story about Carmencita, Encarna enters the bull ring with an apple and a syringe filled with poison.
Encarna (Maribel Verdu) brings a poison apple to the bullring

We all know what happens next. In his director's statement, Pablo Berger stresses that his film is:
The viewer must feel rather than think, and be led by a story told only through images and music. Film as ceremony and cathartic experience.

The film is a careful recreation of the unforgettable 1920s in Spain: the wardrobe, the hats, the cars…No detail has been overlooked.

The film captivates our inner child. The audience will feel like they’re sitting on my lap, being told a story full of fantasy, drama, horror and dark humor. Once upon a time…

A sincere glance can contain all the tension of the boldest action. As Norma Desmond said in Sunset Boulevard, “We did not need dialogue. We had faces.”

By the end of the 1920s the language of cinema had been completely developed and great masterpieces had been created. Blancanieves is not a copy but a reinterpretation of the films of that era for today’s audience.

The presence of Alfonso de Vilallonga’s extraordinary music, from the opening credits until the end of the film, intensifies the emotions and deepest feelings of the protagonists. The music is their voice.

The film is true to the dark spirit of the popular tale from the Brothers Grimm. I use melodrama as a way of pushing the limits of characters in extreme situations. Keep your handkerchiefs handy.

The film is a reflection about love as a school of pain and as a demystifying filter to face the ups and downs of life. Love, then you exist.

We have joined artistic and financial resources with other European countries to carry out this exciting adventure. A local film for the global market.

Upon pronouncing Blancanieves, everyone envisages a beautiful girl, a wicked stepmother and seven captivating dwarfs. Our version has all that and much more. Step right up, ladies and gentlemen…"
The evil Encarna (Maribel Verdu)

The film's cinematography by Kiko de la Rica and musical score by Alfonso de Vilallonga make Blancanieves a stunning experience in black and white photography. Although there are times when closeups start to feel as if Berger is trying to emulate The Blair Witch Project's shaky camera technique, many moments are studies in art direction, lighting, and character portraiture (Maribel Verdu is a knockout). Here's the trailer: