Sunday, July 28, 2013

Dressed For Distress

Recently, while dining together, a friend launched into a new topic with the following opener: "I was having a conversation with the voices in my head the other day...."

"You do realize that's a captive audience?" I teased. "Of course," he replied, "but at least they all agreed with me."

Those intimate, all-too-knowing kinds of conversations can get a girl in trouble. While it's easy enough to invoke the "On the one hand this, but on the other hand that...." approach to analyzing a situation, it can often lead one down the slippery slope to delusional thinking and bizarre behavior. Consider Dorothy Loudon's brilliant mashup of two songs during 1992's Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall.

Often, when we envision a damsel in distress we imagine characters like the protagonist of the 1914 silent film serial entitled The Perils of PaulineLois Lane hoping to be rescued by Superman, or the beefy Belle Rosen (Shelley Winters) demonstrating her swimming technique in 1972's The Poseidon Adventure. But as the following delightful collage demonstrates, women have been at the mercy of screen villains for nearly a century, starting with Pearl White's oft-imperiled Pauline and Gloria Swanson's portrayal of Gloria Dawn in 1917's Teddy At The Throttle.

While audiences have grown accustomed to the sight of frantic female faces enduring suspense scenes that involve grave physical danger, there are many more instances in which strong women are torn apart by deep psychological, emotional, and/or spiritual conflicts. Two new works offer spectacular examples of this phenomenon.

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Celebrities tend to bring out the strangest behavior in people. Whether they encounter starstruck fans, cynical critics, or frustrated fetishists, celebrity interactions with the public can verge from fawning adulation to ludicrous attempts at authenticity. For proof, consider this Virtual Reality Karaoke video from 1993.

I tip my hat to Morgan Ludlow, the artistic director of Wily West Productions whose beguiling new two-character play turns the celebrity interview upside down and inside out with dramatic deftness and a rare depth of perception. Starring Susan Jackson as an aging Joan Crawford and Ryan Hayes as an aspiring young journalist, Gorgeous Hussy does a spectacular job of exploring the mind game Edward Albee liked to call "Truth or Illusion."

Directed by Brady Brophy-Hilton, Ludlow's play uses film clips of Crawford in numerous screen roles as the actress endures a day at the Beverly Hills Hotel that includes a press conference, a book signing, and an extended interview that transforms both Joan and Roy in the strangest way. In his program note, the playwright explains that:
"From the beginning of the process, it was important to me that this be a two-person play (rather than just a monologue) in order to show how movie stars and celebrities are a reflection of us, our culture, our dreams, and how we see ourselves as a society. Joan Crawford wanted to be a movie star more than anything and she became one -- but at a significant personal cost. We are thrilled to take Christina's word for it and write Joan off as an abusive bitch, but the story is much more complicated than that. While much of what Joan says and does in the play is based on biographies and public record, much of it is also my own personal hallucination about Joan Crawford and what she might have been like if you got her really drunk. The play is not a photograph; it is more of an impressionist painting."

Susan Jackson as Joan Crawford in Gorgeous Hussy
(Photo by: Quinn Whitaker)

Having an interviewee turn the tables on an interviewer is an old theatrical gimmick. What makes Ludlow's use of this technique so strong is the sheer perversity of it.
  • Ludlow's Crawford is acutely aware that most of her public and professional life was scripted by studio publicists. As a result, she's never been all too sure of who she is and has always been interviewed by people whose research about her was based on multiple levels of fiction.
  • Roy's initial impression of Crawford is based on his diligent research coupled with the subversive sense of curiosity that is a natural trait of many journalists.
  • Because Crawford holds most of the power in their meeting, it's easy for her to bully Roy into submitting to her fantasy -- namely that she will dress Roy up as Joan Crawford and interview him in an attempt to gain insight into her private life and public career.
  • As she applies lipstick, makeup, and wig to the male reporter, Roy's transformation takes the interview in surprising new directions.
Joan Crawford (Susan Jackson) prepares Roy (Ryan Hayes) for
his big moment in Gorgeous Hussy (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Susan Jackson and Ryan Hayes deliver compelling portrayals of Joan Crawford (with or without her wig). But what Gorgeous Hussy really achieves is a clinical dissection of the perverse power of celebrity and the dangers of trying to live up to one's publicity.

Whether the viewer is a devoted Crawford fan or someone with minimal knowledge of Crawford's life and legend, it become obvious that while Ludlow's Joan is a lonely and intelligent woman, she's no fool. This Crawford can easily spot an alcoholic and peel away his emotional armor with the same investigative rigor he had intended to apply to her.

Susan Jackson as Joan Crawford in Gorgeous Hussy
(Photo by: Laylah Muran)

Ludlow's writing has muscle, depth, and delivers the kind of surprise ending that could only happen in Hollywood. Performances of Gorgeous Hussy continue at the EXIT Theatre through August 16 (click here to order tickets).

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Abraham Lincoln has often been quoted for his observation that "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." As I sat watching the credits roll for Woody Allen's new film, I noticed that the legendary filmmaker took care to thank many people for their contributions to Blue Jasmine. Alas, there was absolutely no mention of Tennessee Williams in either the film's credits or its press kit. According to Wikipedia:
"Plagiarism is the 'wrongful appropriation' and 'purloining and publication' of another author's 'language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions,' and the representation of them as one's own original work. The idea remains problematic with unclear definitions and unclear rules. The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral and originality as an ideal emerged in Europe only in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic movement. Plagiarism is considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics. It is subject to sanctions like expulsion. Plagiarism is not a crime per se but in academia and industry it is a serious ethical offense."
Cate Blanchett as Jasmine when the money was good.

Watching Blue Jasmine is like auditing an industry workshop or master class in which writers are taught how many (and what types of) changes they must make to an acknowledged literary masterpiece before they can legally call their work original. While Allen and his publicity team have carefully omitted any mention of either Tennessee Williams, his 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, A Streetcar Named Desire (which starred Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy), the 1951, 1984, and 1995 screen adaptations, or Andre Previn's operatic version of A Streetcar Named Desire (which received its world premiere from the San Francisco Opera on October 11, 1998), the ghost of Streetcar haunts the screen throughout this slickly-filmed ripoff.

Jasmine's sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), argues with her
boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), in Blue Jasmine

Although David Edelstein (the film critic for New York Magazine) titled his review "Grand Theft Streetcar," what audiences are actually witnessing is a gross act of artistic nonfeasance (in layman's terms: a sin of omission). I stress this because Mr. Allen (who cast himself as Blanche DuBois and Diane Keaton as Stanley Kowalski in a topsy-turvy reenactment of A Streetcar Named Desire in his 1973 film, Sleeper) should fucking well know better.

Older writers have not hesitated to cite Streetcar as a major source of material/inspiration for Blue Jasmine.  However, at the press screening I attended, several young film critics couldn't stop gushing about how brilliant and original Woody Allen's ideas were (they seemed to have no awareness that the basic characters and plot are more than 65 years old).

Set in New York and San Francisco, Blue Jasmine is bicoastal, beautifully filmed, and features a cast of solid character actors ranging from Bay area veteran Joy Carlin to comedians Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay. The film's main character, however, is a modern-day cross between the delusional Blanche DuBois and, as many have suggested, the debased, disillusioned, and demoralized Ruth Madoff.

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) makes do with cheaper booze
at her sister's apartment in San Francisco

The core of the film rests solidly on the shoulders of Cate Blanchett (whose ferociously layered performance as Jeanette/Jasmine is already being hailed as deserving an Academy Award). What makes Blanchett's performance so breathtaking is the blazing evidence that so much of her characterization was originally shaped for a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

After Blanchett and her husband, Andrew Upton, became co-directors of the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008, they invited Liv Ullmann to direct Blanchett in a production of Streetcar. In December 2009, when that production traveled to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Ben Brantley's review in The New York Times noted that:
"Most interpretations I’ve seen of Blanche, Tennessee Williams’s greatest contribution to dramatic portraiture, ride the glistening surface of the character’s poetry, turning Blanche into a lyric, fading butterfly waiting for the net to descend. What Ms. Blanchett brings to the character is life itself, a primal survival instinct that keeps her on her feet long after she has been buffeted by blows that would level a heavyweight boxer. Ms. Blanchett’s Blanche is always on the verge of falling apart, yet she keeps summoning the strength to wrestle with a world that insists on pushing her away. Blanche’s burden, in existential terms, becomes ours. And a most particular idiosyncratic creature acquires the universality that is the stuff of tragedy."

Alec Baldwin is perfectly cast as Jasmine's slickly devious shyster husband, Hal, while Sally Hawkins shows remarkable strength as Jasmine's younger, less deluded sister, Ginger. One look at Ginger's two little sons will instantly bring to mind Tennessee Williams's description of the bratty "no-neck monsters" from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Bobby Cannavale's Chili, Michael Stuhlberg's dentist, Andrew Dice Clay's Augie, and Max Casella's Eddie are all objects of Jasmine's derision for their all-too-human imperfections. Peter Sarsgaard scores strongly as a social-climbing diplomat with political aspirations who initially thinks that Jasmine could be a perfect trophy wifeAlden Ehrenreich has a beautifully tense scene with Blanchett as Jasmine's justifiably embittered son.

Oddly enough, the press kit for Blue Jasmine contains the following statement "Jasmine's flaw is that she derives her worth from the way she's perceived by others, while she herself is blind to what is going [on] around her." In some ways, those words could be applied to Woody Allen. As I left the press screening, I imagined a Jan Brewer-like crone pointing a crooked, accusatory finger in Allen's face as the filmmaker swore that he was not a plagiarist.

"But ya'are, Blanche!" shrieked the woman, who loudly stressed that she was referring to Blanche DuBois rather than Whatever Happened to Baby Jane's wheelchair-bound Blanche Hudson. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Triumph of the Will

Nobody's perfect. While many people set out in pursuit of perfection, they often find themselves attracted to someone because of that person's quirks and imperfections.

Two plays currently receiving their world premieres from Bay Area theatre companies offer audiences remarkable performances built upon stories of distraction and disability. In one case, the protagonist is a familiar Bay area artist. In the other, the protagonist first appeared before local audiences in a workshop reading as part of a new works incubator program run by an arts organization noted for its proud history of producing new works by American artists.

During each performance, audiences learn how people challenged by a particular neurosis or physical disability can overcome the short-sighted perceptions of those who may have sought to block their personal and professional paths to success. As Molly Tobin famously said, "I ain't down yet!"

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Throughout the two decades that Josh Kornbluth has been writing and performing monologues he has developed a a devoted following that admires his intellect, embraces his lovable stage persona, and simply can't get enough of his work. During the two years that he hosted an interview show for KQED, he displayed a rare gift for combining the geekiness of genuine fandom with the ability to seek out truly interesting subjects and talk shop with them.

Woody Allen seduced legions of fans with his character of the stuttering schlemiel. Kornbluth, however, chose to polish his comedic shtick in the form of a hopeless schlub, a confused and often frightened manchild whose parents were Communists.

Some of Kornbluth's monologues (Ben Franklin: Unplugged, Citizen Josh, Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?) have only been seen in live performance. Others have been filmed and are available on DVD (Haiku TunnelRed Diaper BabyThat's Calculus: The Formal Limit 1 and 2, and The Mathematics of Change). Love and Taxes is still in production.

In live performance, Kornbluth has always been a solo performer. This summer, however, audiences are being treated to the result of a challenge thrown down by his friend, Patrick Dooley (artistic director of Berkeley's Shotgun Players).  Directed by Kornbluth's long-time collaborator, David Dower, and performed on a simple but incredibly handsome unit set by Nina Ball, Kornbluth appears in Sea of Reeds with his good friend Amy Resnick (cast as Josh's personal trainer) and a chamber ensemble performing on violin, cello, piano, bass, and percussion.

Poster art for Sea of Reeds

The gimmick which launches the performance is Resnick's explanation to the audience that part of her job as Josh's motivational coach is to get him to finish certain tasks at which he has become a notorious procrastinator. Jobs like making his own reeds for his oboe and performing a piece of music from Difficult Passages for a live audience. As Kornbluth explains:
"With Sea of Reeds, I will explore how Judaism and music both address (with great beauty) the deepest conflicts within ourselves and with each other. My hope is that, in taking on difficult subjects, such as the role of Israel in the contemporary world, we can use elements of both spiritual and musical practice to bring audiences on an unexpected journey -- one that, with empathy and humor, engages with painful contradictions and opens doors, rather than slamming them shut.”
Amy Resnick and Josh Kornbluth in Sea of Reeds
(Photo by: Heather McAlister)

Prior to the performance, Kornbluth can be found stage left making reeds for his oboe. Once the performance begins, Resnick's participation engages Kornbluth in several conversations (whether pushing him to explain things to the audience, impersonating Kornbluth's friend, Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom, or re-enacting the scene in which the infant Moses was found floating in a basket by a woman with a thick New York accent).

Josh's explanation of how he got involved with learning to play the oboe is, as usual, priceless. As he describes being mugged as a child and having his oboe stolen from him, he confesses that he waited a sufficient amount of time to tell anybody about the theft because he hated practicing on the oboe, everyone in his neighborhood hated listening to him practice, and he wanted to make sure his attackers made a clean escape.  With his oboe

Josh Kornbluth with his oboe (Photo by: Heather McAlister)

Sea of Reeds can often seem like a glorified excuse to distract the audience long enough so that Kornbluth never has to play an oboe solo with a reed that he himself has made.  But, as is so often the case with his monologues, the "excuse" leads to a much deeper conversation. In this case it's about why an avowed atheist would consent to travel to Israel with a group of Berkeley Jews and get bar-mitzvahed at the age of 52.

Because he has always been such a powerful storyteller, audiences familiar with Kornbluth's work won't be the least bit surprised to hear him establish a logical connection between the Book of Exodus and an oboe (as it turns out the Red Sea was originally known as the Reed Sea). However, when Kornbluth adds in the usual helping of emotional baggage from his youth and dysfunctional family, his new show becomes irresistible.

Sea of Reeds continues through August 18 at the Ashby Stage (click here to order tickets). The following clip contains some of the material used in Kornbluth's new show.

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Last August, while attending some staged readings at the New Works Festival run by TheatreWorks down at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, one play was so vitally different and bracingly original that it stood head and shoulders above the others. Commissioned by the Philadelphia Theatre Workshop and further developed at the New York Theatre Workshop, The Loudest Man on Earth is performed in a jumble of three languages: English, American Sign Language, and Visual Vernacular.

As a result, audiences accustomed to attending performances that are heavily amplified suddenly find themselves leaning forward, acutely attentive to what's happening on stage and much more involved than usual because they don't want (and can't afford) to miss anything. As Robert Kelley (the artistic director of TheatreWorks) recalls:
"At the first reading of The Loudest Man at last summer's New Works Festival, something unique happened. Although there was no dialogue coming from the stage, the audience was hushed and breathless, completely mesmerized by a monologue from deaf actor Adrian Blue (a monologue delivered without a sound). It was a moment of exceptional, unprecedented contact between actor and audience, and I knew immediately that this remarkable play belonged on our stage. The Loudest Man on Earth changed forever my perceptions about how and why we communicate. Its underlying premise is that no single form of communication is better than another, and it proves that premise true in a funny, romantic, and deeply moving evening of theatre."
Jordan (Adrian Blue) and Haylee (Julie Fitzpatrick) move in together
in The Loudest Man on Earth (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Mr. Blue portrays Jordan, a theatre director who is deaf and not particularly interested in conducting interviews about his work. When an exasperated journalist barges in on one of his rehearsals and refuses to "reschedule" again, he and Haylee (Julie Fitzpatrick) finally meet. Although they might start off on the wrong foot, there is a spark and Jordan asks her to join him for a trip to the Museum of Modern Art.

Although Haylee has a limited command of ASL, a romance quickly starts to build. Within weeks, they have moved in together and become a couple. As Jordan and Haylee travel around New York City, communication problems continually arise. An unfortunate encounter with the police on the night they move into their new apartment becomes a violent nightmare of misunderstanding.

A dinner with one of Haylee's old college friends (and her boorish boyfriend) causes Jordan's temper to flare when he feels disrespected. And yet, during an outing to the New York Aquarium with Haylee's father and grandmother (a former marine biologist), the sweetness of Jordan's communicative skills (including his impression of a puffer fish) impresss the old woman when he helps her spot a shark that has been invisible to the others in their party.

Adrian Blue, Julie Fitzpatrick, and Mia Tagano in a scene
from The Loudest Man On Earth (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Written by Catherine Rush and performed on a unit set designed by Jason Simms that helps to keep the action fluid by shifting several skewed panels, the production has been directed by Pamela Berlin with a keen desire to draw the audience into the action. As Berlin explains in her program note:
"We who don't speak in sign language assume that it is all in the hands. But signing requires that, first and foremost, you look the other person in the eye (the hands you take in through peripheral vision).  There is also a lot of touching involved to get people's attention, to make something clear. Signing creates an extraordinary intimacy between people. And an honesty. It is a wonderfully imaginative, pictorial, sensual, humorous language. A sign references a specific image in a graphically evocative way; the tip of a cap for boy, two tips of the cap for man, hands on top of a walking stick for English, a finger expressing a solitary winding path for loner. It is a language that expresses many layers of meaning and feeling."
Haylee (Julie Fitzpatrick) and Jordan (Adrian Blue) quickly fall
in love in The Loudest Man on Earth (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

When Haylee (with the best of intentions) tries to find out why Jordan refuses to discuss his childhood, a chance meeting with his parents on the Coney Island Boardwalk opens up some old and deeply painful wounds -- which leads to utter catastrophe. After Haylee falls off a kitchen stepladder and Jordan can't hear the crash, she ends up in the hospital where, because he is not a blood relative, Jordan gets some pretty rough treatment from insensitive nurses and interpreters.

At various points in the play, Blue breaks the fourth wall to communicate directly with the audience through a series of signed monologues which demonstrate his love for Haylee as well as his fury and frustration with the day-to-day insults of being deaf in a hearing world.

Adrian Blue performing one of Jordan's monologues in
The Loudest Man on Earth (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

As Jordan, Mr. Blue delivers a powerhouse performance which will easily melt people's hearts. Julie Fitzpatrick is a perfect foil for him as her character slowly starts to understand that some of their communication problems might actually be her fault. Cassidy Brown and Mia Tagano make the most of Tanya Finkelstein's costumes as they take on a rapidly changing variety of small roles.

It's rare to encounter a new play that manages to be proud and poignant, upfront and uncompromising, while opening its audience's minds to possibilities they've never even considered. Performances of The Loudest Man on Earth continue at the Lucie Stern Theatre through August 4 (click here to order tickets). This show is well worth your time.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

She Who Laughs Last

Is your glass half empty or half full? Do you react positively or negatively to change? In Akira Kurosawa's 1950 masterpiece, Rashoman, viewers were challenged to witness a story through the eyes of several characters (each of whom offered up a different version of what happened).

South Pacific's Nellie Forbush liked to refer to herself as "a cockeyed optimist." During its Boston tryout, one of the songs cut from Jerry Herman's 1969 musical, Dear World, had been written for Angela Lansbury's entrance as the Countess Aurelia (the Madwoman of Chaillot).  "Through the Bottom of a Glass" was intended to inform the audience how much better life can seem when viewed from a more romantic perspective.

Anyone who has been fitted for new eyeglasses knows the feeling of looking through a series of lenses until the correct diopter settings can be determined. Looking at a revered musical number from a different perspective can have an equally dramatic impact on interpretation.  Consider these two performances of the Act I finale from Stephen Sondheim's beloved 1973 musical, A Little Night Music.

Whether taken from real life or works of fiction, certain phrases have a way of creeping into the vernacular.  "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape" sounds takes on a very different meaning when spoken by a woman instead of Charlton Heston (in 1968's Planet of the Apes). Uttered by Clint Eastwood in 1983's Sudden Impact, "Go ahead, make my day" has since been used as a macho calling card in numerous situations. In 1971's Dirty Harry, Eastwood uttered the following famous lines:
"I know what you're thinking. 'Did he fire six shots or only five?' Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"
Such sentiments take on a ghoulish tone when applied to the recent trial of George Zimmerman, who famously complained that "These assholes, they always get away." What happens when such sentiments are voiced by women? The following four clips show how remarkably different interpretations can be drawn from the words and lyrics to one song ("Cell Block Tango") from Kander and Ebb's 1975 hit musical, Chicago.

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In June, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (which goes into full swing this weekend) held a mini-fest of silent films by Alfred Hitchcock at the Castro Theatre that opened with a screening of 1929's Blackmail accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. First released in Britain as a talkie, then released as a silent film (which did better business at the box office), the film is a Hitchcockian delight.

The plot centers around Alice White (Anny Ondra), whose boyfriend Frank Webber (John Longden) is a detective for Scotland Yard. One night, he takes her for a date to a tea house where they get into an argument. After Frank leaves, an artist (Cyril Ritchard) invites Alice up to his studio. When Crewe forces himself on Alice and tries to rape her, she stabs him to death with a bread knife.

I've always had a fondness for Ritchard (whom I saw onstage in Friedrich Durrenmatt's 1962 play, Romulus, and Anthony Newley's 1964 musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd). Most people remember him for his performances opposite Mary Martin in Peter Pan. Known for his crisp diction, these three clips give a sampling of this beloved Australian actor's talents.

Whoops, I got distracted from the damsel in distress who killed a rapist with his own cutlery. But I'm not the only one who gets distracted in Blackmail. In this famous cameo shot, young Jacque Carter tries to distract Hitchcock from the book he's reading on a subway train in London.

Young Jacque Carter tries to distract Alfred Hitchcock from
his book while riding on a subway train in 1929's Blackmail

So far, there's a dead artist, a woman trying to cover her tracks, and a confused and angry detective. Enter Tracy (Donald Calthrop), the model who posed for Crewe's painting of a clown and saw Alice going up to the artist's studio on the night he was slain. When Tracy tries to blackmail Frank by showing him one of the gloves Alice left behind, his plan backfires.  Why? Upon inspecting the crime scene, Frank had already pocketed the other glove and knows that his wife is guilty of murder.

Fortunately for Alice, the fact that Tracy has a criminal record causes him to panic when the police arrive and he starts to run. This famous sequence follows him to his unfortunate death at the British Museum.

Alice is just about to confess to murdering Crewe when word comes to police headquarters that their suspect (Tracy) is dead. This leaves Alice free to continue her life.

As George Zimmerman would say, "They always get away."

* * * * * * * * *
You won't find any dead bodies in the world premiere production of Pitch Perfect, a new comedy by Martin Edwards being presented by Central Works. But that doesn't mean that each of the play's characters wouldn't like to break someone's neck.

Brian Trybom is Bob in Pitch Perfect (Photo by: Jim Norrena)
  • Bob (Brian Trybom) is a frustrated, angry advertising executive who has just arrived on a flight from New York for the express purpose of firing the Los Angeles office's creative director (who has done a spectacular job of fucking things up). Not only has Roger lost three major clients, he's the kind of eccentric and egomaniacal genius who, though he could drive anyone crazy, always finds a spot for his talents somewhere in the advertising world.
  • Caitlin (Maggie Mason) is what's left of the Los Angeles office's staff. Acting as receptionist, janitor, go-fer, and office slave while secretly carrying on a torrid affair with Roger, she's the only one in the company who actually studied advertising in school.
  • Roger (Timothy Redmond) is a total mess. Estranged from his wife (whom he refers to as "that dragon cunt") and sleeping in the cozy security of the couch fort he built in his office, it would appear that his head is on the company's chopping block. But Roger has a great marketing idea ("Freedom! Mobile! Everywhere!") up his sleeve and a college frat buddy (strategically positioned at Pear Computer) who could actually save the day. Roger likes to think of his latest brainstorm as a new "Pear-A-Dime" (paradigm).
  • Maggie (Deb Fink) is Roger's wife and former business partner. Still waiting for her husband to sign their divorce papers (and wise to all of his tricks), Maggie would happily kill Roger if that didn't mean losing out on a chance to snag the Pear Computer account. If anyone can prove that karma is a bitch, Maggie's the one who can rise to the occasion.
Deb Fink is Maggie in Pitch Perfect (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

In his "Note from the Writer" that appears in the program, Edwards has written "A Step By Step Guide For Getting Fired From an Ad Agency. A True Story:"
  1. Do great work. Arrive early. Stay late. Work your ass off and create a brilliant concept for BellSouth that makes the client cry with joy.
  2. Bathe in the glory. High fives in hallway. A champagne party in your honor. A writeup in Adweek.  You deserve it all.  Is it the champagne or your bulging ego that's going to your head?
  3. Reinvent your position. Suddenly, your desk feels small.  Your title insignificant.  No problem. Just make it all bigger. Yesterday you were a studio artist. Today you're an executive producer.
  4. Demand more money. You know what you're worth. Fight for it. Call your boss at home and argue for two hours over your rate. "$200 an hour?! Are you fucking kidding me?"
  5. Arrive late. Leave early. You're invaluable. You know it and you don't need to prove it.
  6. Accept dinner at a fancy restaurant (to accept your inevitable promotion). Your boss invites you to Blue Ribbon in SoHo.  A pricey bottle of Pinot. Oysters. Hand speared-halibut. You are so in. Suddenly, your boss starts to cry. "Martin, I have to let you go. You've become...impossible." Fuck!
Timothy Redmond, Brian Trybom, and Debra Fink are
advertising professionals in Pitch Perfect (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Pitch Perfect keeps its language short and tersely delivered, its action hot, and its plot full of interesting twists and turns. As the playwright explains:
"I always wanted to write something about my time in advertising.  It started as a one-dimensional take-down of the industry but grew more complex as I explored the characters' strengths, weaknesses, and relationships. Every moment in the play has roots in real events. The details have been changed around, but it's inspired by real situations I lived through and real people I worked with. There's a lot of me in Roger."

Roger (Timothy Redmond) and Maggie (Deb Fink) are a bitter
husband and wife in Pitch Perfect (Photo by: Jim Norrena)
  • Will Roger manage to wow the folks at Pear Computer?
  • Will Bob be able to catch the next plane to New York?
  • Will Maggie violate her noncompete agreement or will her impeccable timing screw Roger for once and for all?
  • Will Caitlin dump Roger and sleep her way to the top?
Do Caitlin (Maggie Mason) and Bob (Brian Trybom) have plans
for a shared future in Pitch Perfect? (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Under the mischievous direction of Gary Graves, the Central Works ensemble starts off at a fighting pace and, as each character becomes increasingly unglued, must cope with one challenge after another (don't expect to see any impoverished Russian Jews singing "If I Were A Pitch Man"). Performance of Pitch Perfect continue at the Berkeley City Club through August 18 (click here to order tickets).

Poster art for Pitch Perfect

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Damaged Goods

While popular mythology might suggest that most gay men are handsome, buff, financially secure, and enjoy active social lives, that's not always the case. Many are out of shape (both physically and financially). Others have limited social skills. And some have been deeply scarred by rejection, abandonment, gaybashing, internalized homophobia, and/or the death of a loved one.
  • Some dutifully lick their wounds until they start to heal. 
  • Some retreat into their shells and restructure their lives in order to keep themselves safe from emotional conflict
  • Some may yearn for a fresh start, but their attempts to make contact with new people can be sabotaged by all the emotional baggage they bring to the table.
"Bitter?  Party of one?"

At long last, there is an opportunity for drama queens to sing along with selections from The Irving Berlin Songbook For Tortured Egos. Is everybody ready? And-a-one, and-a-two, and......
"Anything you can ruin, I can ruin better.
I can ruin anything better than you!
No, you can't.
No, you can't.
No, you can't.
With a warped pattern of rationalization learned in childhood ("Step on a crack, break your mother's back") some gay men will cook up bizarre excuses for avoiding any chance of letting something good to happen to them..
  • If I take fewer steps, there's less chance of falling.
  • If I go straight home from work every night, I can avoid meeting strangers.
  • If I don't let this man into my life, he can't hurt me.
What happens when the more neurotic gays of our lives become involved with someone who embodies their biggest fear and their best fantasy? Repressed emotions are sure to erupt. Like a volcano, the process is often shockingly messy, overly dramatic, and occurs in waves of self-destructive behavior.

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Consider the case of Bob (Jonathan Lisecki), the protagonist of Ringo Le's new film, Big Gay Love. Bob is  a successful event planner in Los Angeles. Although frequently surrounded by "beautiful people" who constantly tell him how funny and fabulous he is, Bob is thinking of purchasing a home in a newly fashionable neighborhood filled with gay couples who have adopted children.

The house he's considering would be a perfect home for a growing family, but Bob is very much a loner who is married to his career. Chubby, pasty-skinned, and with an acute talent for self-deprecation, he's perfected the art of feeling sorry for himself.

When two of Bob's closest friends -- Aidan (Todd Stroik) and Chase (Ethan Le Phong) -- take it upon themselves to help Bob find a boyfriend, they soon discover that they're dealing with a painfully insecure gay man so acutely aware of how far he lies below the standards of gay male beauty that he's quick to beat anyone to the punchline of a fat joke.

Ethan Le Phong and Jonathan Lisecki in Big Gay Love

To make matters worse, Bob's meddling, man-hungry mother (Ann Walker) is a narcissistic nightmare, a former actress hoping to make a comeback who has absolutely no sense of personal boundaries. Imagine Mommie Dearest with a fat gay son!

Todd Stroik, Ann Walker, and Ethan Le Phong in Big Gay Love

One night, as he is about to leave a catered affair, Bob gets hit on by a handsome man who turns out to be a celebrity chef. Like Bob, Andy (Nicholas Brendon) is a hard worker who has little interest in the superficial aspects of the Los Angeles gay scene.

Like many chubby gay men, Bob can't believe that Andy could possibly be attracted to him. His warring instincts (trying to make the friendship work while trying to destroy any hope of romance) come to blows after he lets a close friend who is an editor read Andy's book manuscript. When Bob nags Andy into attending a pool party with him, things go horribly wrong. With his insecurities at fever pitch, Bob even considers undergoing plastic surgery in a desperate attempt to make himself more attractive to Andy.

In the following clip from Asians on Film, Ringo Le talks about the evolution of Big Gay Love:

How Bob and Andy fare on the rocky road to love is nicely handled in Le's script. Unlike many romantic gay films, both leads are defined by their internal rather than their external beauty. Ann Walker is frighteningly hilarious as Bob's monstrosity of a mother while Ken Takamoto has a nice supporting role as Mr. Chan (a street vendor who sells Vietnamese sandwiches). At the end of the film, there's a nicely written scene in which an obese young fan (Harvey Guillen) gushes over Andy at a book signing and receives some surprising words of encouragement.

Jonathan Lisecki (who was so wonderful in 2012's Gayby) gets a chance to show off his wide range while Nicholas Brendon glows as the warmer, deeper, and much less hysterical hunk who lights up Bob's life. Ringo Le describes his film as "a love letter for everyone who's ever wanted to be accepted for themselves regardless of their color, shape, or size."

Big Gay Love offers viewers a refreshing change from formulaic rom-com films and the usual run of vapid, twink-heavy gay sex farces. Here's the trailer:

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Richard Isen's new show, Chance - A Musical Play About Love, Risk, and Getting It Right, is all about getting a second chance in life. Inspired by some of his personal experiences at the height of the AIDS crisis and directed by Robert Kalfin, the show revolves around three archetypal figures:

Gregory (Richard Hefner) is a 55-year-old gay man living in San Francisco. An organizational psychologist with enough income to own a house and decorate it with collectibles, he is desperately lonely and more than a little bitter. Several years ago, a former boyfriend got sick with AIDS and moved back to the Midwest in order to die near his family. Since then, Gregory has evolved into an intense control freak who is much too scared to get emotionally involved with anyone. There is, however, an attractive young hustler with a monetized webcam whose handsome features keep luring Gregory back for another look at his webpage.

Gregory (Richard Hefner) and Chance (Ken Lear) in a scene from
Chance - A Musical Play About Love, Risk, and Getting It Right
 (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Chance (Ken Lear) is young, attractive, and aware that his studly looks are probably the only thing he's ever really had going for him. When Chance fled his home town, he left behind a a life of being bullied in school and at home. Once he arrived in San Francisco, however, he quickly learned that his most marketable asset was located in his crotch. Unfortunately, every month another hundred hustlers get off of the bus. Many of them have succumbed to AIDS.

Gregory (Richard Hefner) and "The Lady" (Randy Roberts) in
Chance - A Musical Play About Love, Risk, and Getting It Right
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

The Lady (Randy Roberts) could be an archetypical drag queen, a figment of Gregory's fervid imagination, or his preening alter ego. Posing like Gloria Swanson, as glamorous as Joan Crawford, as bewitching as Bette Davis, and as streetwise as Charles Pierce, she's obviously been around the block a few times. However, as a relic from an earlier era of cinema, she knows nothing about computers, chat rooms, credit cards, and social media. The Lady (who appeared out of thin air after Gregory suffered a heart attack) could be his muse, his spirit guide, or an intrusive idol. One thing's for sure: decked out in a stylish turban and lots of costume jewelry, she's one hell of an enabler.

Randy Roberts as "The Lady" in
Chance - A Musical Play About Love, Risk and Getting It Right
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

While Isen's musical has three distinct characters whose lives have become inextricably entangled, it also feels like a puzzle whose pieces don't fit together all that smoothly. Despite a clearly defined and highly dramatic first act curtain (and a finale that leaves the audience guessing about what happens to Gregory and Chance), the show suffers from some structural problems.

Is it a tense gay drama or a song cycle for a drag queen with a good voice? Isen's score includes some strongly-written, bluesy-jazzy, musical numbers that serve as a combination of torch songs and commentary for The Lady (click here to listen to samples from his score). Here's Randy Roberts singing "Something Cooked Up In Your Mind" in concert.

The New Musical Theatre of San Francisco (which is presenting Chance - The Musical at the Alcove Theatre) is:
"...dedicated to the development and production of original musical works for the stage. It is our mission to develop dynamic, challenging, and richly nuanced world premiere musical theater works and to nurture local artists to create highly artistic productions with uniquely San Francisco voices, perspectives, diversity and issues. Our vision is to present relevant theatrical experiences that deeply move our audiences, offer far-reaching insights and transform their perspectives on the human condition."
Isen has peppered his script with inspirational quotes from Oscar Wilde that can double as bon mots and palate cleansers between scenes. Spoken by accompanist Tammy Lynne Hall (who brings a nice jazz sensitivity to Isen's score), these start to lose their appeal with surprising quickness.

Randy Roberts and Tammy Lynne Hall appear in a scene from
Chance - A Musical Play About Love, Risk, and Getting It Right
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Although some members of the audience seemed quite moved by Chance - The Musical, I found myself confronted with four oddly-jarring questions:
  • A gay artist may be inspired to open up and explore old wounds, but does that necessarily mean they contain a musical?
  • Once a composer/playwright latches onto a specific structural gimmick, is he in danger of overusing it?
  • Is the timing of this premiere working against it? In 1963, one of the most beautiful musicals of all time (She Loves Me!) premiered when Broadway was heading away from waltzes and embracing rock 'n' roll. I wonder how well Isen's show will resonate with an audience that is currently embracing same-sex marriage and for which AIDS has since become a manageable disease. People may not see the miserable "good old days" as something they want to revisit.
  • Last, but not least, is the question of whether Chance - A Musical is being created for the right medium. As the show progressed, I found myself wondering if this story might unfold better in a cinematic format -- perhaps to be made available on YouTube. I think it would benefit immensely from a chance to move the action around and place more emphasis on Gregory, whose story is presently being overshadowed and constantly interrupted by The Lady's musical numbers.
Gregory (Richard Hefner) and Chance (Ken Lear) in a scene from
Chance - A Musical Play About Love, Risk, and Getting It Right
 (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

While the performances by Richard Hefner and Ken Lear were often affecting, at present the show seems tilted a little too much toward becoming a showcase for The Lady. My hunch is that Chance - The Musical might be a whole lot stronger onstage if Isen can judiciously trim about 20 minutes from his show. Here's the trailer:

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Agents of Change

In a recent post on AmericaBlog, gay activist John Aravosis made the following remarkable statement:
"Evangelicals LOVE Jews and Israel.  But not because they actually love Jews and Israel. The only reason evangelicals are such fans of Jews and Israel is because evangelicals need Jews and Israel… to die… in order for Christ to come back in the Second Coming. That’s right, Christ will return and two-thirds of the world’s Jews will go up in flames. That’s what the Bible says. And evangelicals know that if the Arabs, or whomever, are permitted to push the Jews into the proverbial sea, and if it happens too soon, then there will be no Israel left that can then be destroyed (again) in order to usher the comeback of the Lord. So, evangelicals quite literally love Jews to death."
Do you remember that bizarre moment when Michele Bachmann tried to subvert a Yiddish term for her own use?

The folks with genuine (rather than batshit crazy) chutzpah include people Bella Abzug, Lenny BruceAlan Grayson, Sue MengersHarvey Milk, Emma GoldmanHarvey Fierstein and, for better or worse, Anthony Weiner. The upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival includes two documentaries about men who have as much chutzpah as blood flowing through their veins.
  • While not an international celebrity, each is a heroic figure in his own right. 
  • Although filled with love for his fellow man, each is a stubborn, irascible figure who likes to do things "his way." 
  • While not necessarily a legend in his own mind, each could be politely described as "a real piece of work."
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Jonathan Paz's documentary, Honorable Ambassador, explores what happens when a self-created force of nature runs up against a cultural barrier he cannot overcome. Miki Arbel, Israel’s ambassador to Cameroon, is determined to improve life for the farmers in an impoverished nation in West Africa. A former farmer who knows from personal experience how simple drip irrigation technology can help crops grow in desert conditions, Arbel wants to prove to Cameroon's farmers that they can improve their crops and, as a result, their standard of living.

Israel's Ambassador to Cameroon, Miki Arbel

Filmed in Hebrew, English, French, and Cameroonian (with English subtitles and a delightfully mischievous musical score), Honorable Ambassador showcases a societal problem involving gender roles which, for a determined Israeli who firmly believes in equal rights for women, is more than a little bit baffling. Why? In Cameroon, the women do the farm work, raise the children, handle the cooking, and perform domestic chores. In many cases, the men do little more than impregnate their women.

So why aren't Cameroon's farmers adopting the drip irrigation systems? As he travels to rural villages in Cameroon, explores the jungle in suit and tie, and tries to use every diplomatic tool at his disposal while meeting with local chieftains, Arbel runs up against cultural obstacles and behaviors which aren't the slightest bit impressed with his irrigation technology or, for that matter, with Miki Arbel.

Honorable Ambassador shows what happens when cultures (and the worlds they represent) collide. If Arbel's supply of chutzpah seems inexhaustible, it is no match for the equally stubborn men who don't want any help from him.  Here's the trailer for this often hilarious and occasionally humbling documentary:

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One needs more than artistic vision to survive and thrive in the arts. One also needs a shitload of chutzpah and a willingness to take risks that stray far from the status quo.

On July 6, I listened to Jonathan Moscone (artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater) deliver an impassioned speech to the opening night audience for Romeo and Juliet in which he explained how CalShakes was embarking on an exciting new community outreach program. In a nutshell:
"The Triangle Lab is about making theater together, expanding the definitions of who participates in theater making and how they participate. We aim for theaters, artists, and community members (the three points of the triangle) to become equal partners in discovering and sharing the profound stories of our times. We expect our experiments to yield new ways of making plays, new stories, and new ways of telling them, and to engage a broad range of participants in our community. The Triangle Lab is a partnership with San Francisco-based Intersection for the Arts and its resident theater company, Campo Santo, made possible with generous support from The James Irvine Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation."
On July 10, as part of its Encores! Off-Center program, the New York City Center presented Marc Blitzstein's musical, The Cradle Will Rock. Originally directed in 1937 by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman for the Federal Theatre Project, the world premiere made history when the WPA shut the production down days before its scheduled opening night. In a notable piece of theatre history, the cast and crew marched to another theatre where, with Blitzstein seated at a piano onstage and the cast positioned throughout the auditorium, the anti-capitalism musical went on to make theatrical history.

Those of us with a passion for live theatre can easily fall into the trap of taking its existence for granted. While many have sought to label the theatrical art form as "a fabulous invalid," it's amazing how effective that invalid can be at explaining complex situations, disarming people's defenses and, in a very short time, changing people's minds.

As long as one person is capable of performing and another is capable of reacting, theatre will never die. Thankfully, a new generation of theatre artists has taken to blogging about theatrical issues, reaching a much wider audience than was ever possible prior to the Internet. Four recent articles that demand every theatregoer's attention are:
Poster art for Joe Papp in Five Acts

Needless to say, I was delighted to see a new documentary entitled Joe Papp in Five Acts in the program for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. A true theatre revolutionary, Papp had a producing record that might even have made David Merrick (The Abominable Showman) occasionally envious.

While Merrick often looked for British hits he could import to Broadway (Look Back In Anger, Romanoff and Juliet, The Entertainer, A Taste of Honey, Stop The World - I Want To Get Off, Oliver!, Luther, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Loot, Oh, What A Lovely War, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de SadeRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Ross and The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd), Papp believed in grass roots theatre that belonged to the community, reflected the people in the community, and whenever possible, was free to the community.

In other words, Papp's mission was to create theatre of the people, by the people, and for the people. Some theatrical practices that many of us now take for granted were either initiated by Papp after his founding of The Shakespeare Workshop in 1954, evolved during his tenure at The New York Shakespeare Festival, or were adapted by him as his theatrical empire continued to grow.

In some ways, Papp was like a benign yet occasionally belligerent Barnum. While willing to take theatrical risks which would intimidate many producers, he was a stubborn populist who could fight City Hall and win. Some innovations which we now take for granted can be traced to Papp's work with the New York Shakespeare Festival. These include:
  • Bringing free theatre to the neighborhoods: Early in his career, Papp started bringing free theatre to New York's neighborhoods.  A firm believer that, if libraries can bring the world's literature to people for free, theatre should be equally accessible, his efforts live on in the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Metropolitan Opera's outdoor Summer Recital Series in city parks.
  • Workshopping new pieces as a way of supporting and developing young playwrights. One of Papp's biggest payoffs came from offering Michael Bennett rehearsal space in which to conduct the workshops that led to the creation of A Chorus Line. After the show moved to Broadway, its huge success helped buoy the finances of the New York Shakespeare Festival for many years. Papp also helped bolster the careers of playwrights like Ntozake Shange, David Rabe, David Henry Hwang, and David Hare.
The cast of A Chorus Line
Joe Papp in Five Acts features input from many theatre people who worked with Papp over the years (including Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Olympia Dukakis, and Mandy Patinkin). Not only should it be required viewing for anyone working in today's American theatre, watching this documentary should be mandatory for any lawmaker who can vote on public funding for the arts.  Here's a news clip aired in 2011 as a promo for New York's annual free Shakespeare in the Park season.