Saturday, August 30, 2014

Searching For The Missing Link

If only every problem had a simple solution! Just think:
  • Wars would not need to be fought.
  • Diseases could be cured overnight.
  • New technologies could instantly develop dazzling solutions to seemingly impossible challenges.
  • Everyone could just forget all their troubles and and live happily ever after.

Those who live in a reality-based world understand that life's challenges tend to be more complex in nature. As people mature and learn new skill sets, their problem-solving techniques broaden, expand, and help them to understand more complex issues. Alexander Miller's article entitled 'Shock And Kill' Approach Cures Mice Of HIV In World First points to the complex interrelationships inherent in developing a vaccine which can cure AIDS.

During the 2014 SFDoc Fest, a curious, low-key documentary entitled Wicker Kittens focused on a group of people who form teams to compete in jigsaw puzzle-solving competitions. While they share a friendly sense of competition, the film makes it pretty obvious that most contestants are there for the camaraderie and the sheer joy of working on jigsaw puzzles. However, Mike Scholtz (the film's producer and co-editor) notes that because good puzzles can cost as much as $30 apiece, "the revelation that there is a used jigsaw puzzle store [Duluth's Second Look Books] was like a nuclear bomb in the jigsaw-puzzling community."

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Down in Mountain View, TheatreWorks recently presented the regional premiere of Water By The Spoonful, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Quiara Alegria Hudes. The action takes place in 2009 (six years after Elliot left for Iraq) and bounces around between locations in Philadelphia, San Diego, Japan, Puerto Rico, and most importantly, Cyberspace. As Hudes notes:
"Unlike the first play in this trilogy (Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue) which is very micro and very finely crafted, Water By The Spoonful is big and sprawling. It doesn't have neat edges and there's a lot of overlap. It's not an easy play to produce, nor is it an easy play to understand on first read or on first viewing. It's a challenging play -- a big work that has a wide lens." 
Yazmin (Sabina Zuniga Varela) and Elliot (Miles Gaston Villaneuva)
in a scene from Water By The Spoonful (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As directed by Leslie Martinson, Water By The Spoonful deals with two sets of overlapping families in which one woman plays a pivotal role. In the reality-based world, the audience meets the following characters:
  • Elliot (Miles Gaston Villaneuva), a Puerto Rican veteran of the Iraq War who, having returned home to Philadelphia, is attending Swarthmore College while working in a Subway sandwich shop. An aspiring actor with a leg wound, Elliot has one commercial to his credit (in which he uses his dazzling smile to great effect).
  • Yazmin (Sabina Zuniga Varela), Elliot's cousin who is an adjunct professor of music at Swarthmore.
  • Odessa (Zilah Mendoza) a recovering addict who is Elliot's biological mother. When Elliot was a child, his younger sister (Mary Lou) died as a result of Odessa's neglect. As a result, Elliot was raised by his aunt Ginny (Yazmin's mother) who was the anchor personality for their family as well as for most of the people in her neighborhood.
Odessa (Zilah Mendoza), Fountainhead (Patrick Kelly Jones), Yazmin
(Sabrina Zuniga Varela), and Elliot (Miles Gaston Villaneuva) meet up in
a Philadelphia coffee shop in a scene from Water By The Spoonful
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Meanwhile, in a chat room in Cyberspace, Odessa is the maternal figure (Haikumom) in an extended family of recovering crack users who are trying to stay clean. Among the people in her support group are:
  • Orangutan (Anna Ishida), an impulsive and frequently angry young woman who has been teaching English in Japan while obsessing about visiting her birthplace to see if she can connect with her birth mother.
  • Chutes&Ladders (Anthony J. Haney), an African American government worker in his fifties who is based in San Diego and tries to avoid any kind of risk that could cause a relapse. Chutes&Ladders.and is quick to call out other members of the group for their weaknesses, imperfections, and hypocrisy.
  • Fountainhead (Patrick Kelly Jones), a new addition to the chat room who, like Haikumom, lives in Philadelphia. A successful married computer programmer who has managed to hide his crack use from his wife, Fountainhead is newly unemployed and still not ready to accept the fact that he's a crackhead.
Anna Ishida (Orangutan) and Anthony J. Haney (Chutes&Ladders)
in a scene from Water By The Spoonful (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Ginny's death after a long illness provides the trigger which impacts Odessa's real and online families. Elliot and Yazmin show up as Odessa is trying to counsel Fountainhead in a local coffee shop. When they pressure Odessa to chip in for the flowers for Ginny's funeral, she loses her grip and overdoses on crack cocaine. The only contact number the emergency medics can find on Odessa belongs to Fountainhead, who rushes to the hospital and suddenly finds himself forced to care for a woman he hardly even knows.

Fountainhead (Patrick Kelly Jones) takes on the care of Odessa
(Zilah Mendoza) in Water By The Spoonful (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Erik Flatmo's multi-level unit set provides numerous playing areas for the drama's emotionally damaged characters (I kept wondering how the bathtub hidden under one platform was going to be used). However, what gives the production the fluidity it needs for storytelling purposes is the work of Erik Scanlon, whose powerful video projections allow locations to shift in the blink of an eye. As Scanlon explains:
"Projections are very integral to the story of Water by the Spoonful because of the plot element of technology (or, more specifically, the characters in the story living in various locations around the world and using the Internet as a way to connect with each other). Projections are also needed to differentiate the two vastly different worlds shown throughout the play: the 'real' world to the online 'cyber chat room' world, which will be represented (when the characters are online) as motion graphics of profile pictures with their screen names projected onto the set in a cyber universe. For Water by the Spoonful, every projection design element was pretty much mapped out and discussed weeks prior to starting tech. We discussed Leslie Martinson's vision of the show and what aesthetic every projection element should have (whether it be a literal translation of a location or a more artistic interpretation of a scene)."
Erik Flatmo's set for Water By The Spoonful show the center
panel being used  to project the Internet avatars for its characters
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"I assisted on projections for the revival of Brigadoon at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago earlier this year and instead of just painting a stagnant Scottish forest onto a set, we used projections to not only show a forest but an animated forest that we could move through for transitions, with the help of motion graphics. On the same set dressing, we could then change to a field of heather or a 1940s New York ballroom with the push of a button. Projection design really made an older show like Brigadoon not only more alive and exciting but practical as well. Erik Flatmo, the scenic designer, has given us a beautiful two-story set that ultimately serves as a blank canvas to project the various locations onto. In the show, projections will help represent everywhere from a Subway sandwich shop to a college campus, a church to a Japanese train station."
Erik Flatmo's unit set is transformed into a lush Puerto Rican
rainforest  by Eric Scanlon's projections in Water By The Spoonful
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Scanlon's projections become especially appealing when Elliot and Yazmin travel to Puerto Rico to scatter Ginny's ashes by a waterfall in a tropical forest. With Elliot deciding to head for Los Angeles so he can try his luck at becoming an actor -- and Yazmin temporarily standing in for Odessa as the chat room's moderator, one looks forward to seeing the final part of the Elliot trilogy (The Happiest Song Plays Last).

TheatreWorks has put together an exceptionally strong ensemble with powerful performances coming from the always impressive Anna Ishida as well as Zilah Mendoza, and Sabina Zuniga Varela. As Fountainhead, Patrick Kelly Jones continues to impress with his deep emotional commitment and stunning versatility. Miles Gaston Villaneuva delivers an impassioned, muscular performance as Elliot while giving new meaning to the phrase "arms and the man."

Hudes (who wrote the book for Lin-Manuel Mirand's hit musical, In The Heights) is very much reflected in the character of Elliot's cousin, Yazmin. She was also deeply influenced by jazz in her structuring of Water By The Spoonful. In the following clip, she explains how John Coltrane became a powerful force in her creative process.

Performances of Water By The Spoonful continue at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through September 14 (click here to order tickets).

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Attention: Sports Fans!

I've never been much of a sports fan. Over the years, however, I've noticed that in films and plays about athletes, the dramatic conflict usually falls into one of three categories:
  • The first is the most logical: competition. Whether the story involves one athlete competing against another, one team competing against another, or an athlete competing against himself i(n order to break his previous record), there's a definable goal that is visible to all. The story's outcome usually relies on who develops a competitive advantage.
  • The second type of story involves a lesson in good (or poor) sportsmanship. Is someone only out to win at all costs or is he aware that participation in a particular sport is aimed at bringing out the best in everyone.
  • The third (and often most incendiary) type of story involves a sudden upset to the status quo or expected result. Whether this is due to the use of anabolic steroids or bribery, the idea that a professional athlete could be juiced up or willing to throw a game for the right amount of money tarnishes the sport and can disappoint and disillusion many fans.
In 1955, George Abbott, Richard Adler, Jerry Ross, Bob Fosse, and Douglass Wallop (who wrote The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant), joined forces to update the Faust legend and set it against a background of major league baseball. With a little help from the Devil, the heroic Joe Hardy suddenly appeared out of nowhere to re-energize the dispirited Washington Senators.

Any form of corruption can taint a sport whose integrity is held sacrosanct in the eyes of its biggest fans. Two recent Bay area productions helped to shine a light on how difficult it can be to win simply on the basis of one's merit.

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Directed by Marcia Jarmel and Ken SchneiderHavana Curveball offers a fascinating coming-of-age story about a young man whose driving passion is baseball. As he prepares for his bar mitzvah, 13-year-old Mica Jarmel-Schneider comes up with the idea for a unique service project which will allow him to show his thanks to Cuba (where, as a child fleeing the Holocaust, his grandfather had spent two years during World War II) by raising money to send bats, balls, and gloves to young Cubans who share his love of baseball.

With a soundtrack that's heavy on klezmer music, Havana Curveball (which received its world premiere on August 3 at the 2014 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) shows how an innocently conceived project can run into one political obstacle after another --- obstacles that make no sense to a teenager who is just trying to do some good. As Mica's parents note:
"It can be daunting to point the camera at your own family. But when we first pressed 'record,' we thought we were making a little film about our son’s bar mitzvah service project. We owe a debt of gratitude to him and his grandfather for letting us observe and share their story. As the project grew in scope and complication, it became clear that a dramatic and entertaining story was unfolding in front of our lens. We couldn’t help but keep filming. Our unusual daily access made it possible to capture small details -- Mica’s first shave, intimate moments with his grandfather, the frustrations and small triumphs of his journey. He was gracious enough to tolerate our filming. We hope it will inspire and provoke."

While Havana Curveball allows viewers to follow Mica's misadventures in dealing with the U.S. Customs Services and the challenges presented by the embargo against Cuba, it shows a young man's growing awareness that his idealism may not be shared by the people he loves the most. Although Mica's grandfather is deeply grateful for the shelter Cuba provided during the Holocaust, he has no desire to anger U.S. government authorities by going back to Havana.

When Mica and his family finally arrive in Cuba (and learn that the athletic supplies he had shipped from Canada actually did reach their destination), Mica still has some lessons to learn. Perhaps the most poignant is that, in thinking of himself as a benevolent figure doing a good deed by bringing baseball supplies to Cuban youths, Mica is quite reminded of the contrast between his lifestyle in San Francisco and the hard reality faced by so many Cuban teenagers. As he recalls:
"I feared giving the equipment directly to kids. I feared facing the poverty, and recognizing my own privilege. Yet on my last day in Cuba, swept up in the moment, I offered my remaining gear to a group of kids playing street ball. They swarmed over me, grabbing and claiming the gear. In that moment, I understood that my 'huge' project was just a drop in their bucket. I felt both discouraged and vindicated. I had addressed the need (wasn’t that an admirable endeavor?) and yet I had helped only a sliver of the needy with a sliver of donations. My first reaction was to question the meaning of my 'positive work.' I understand its value, but much remains unanswered. Regardless, I seek the fulfillment that this work provides. I board the train to seek deeper truths, not knowing where I will end up."
After delivering 300 pounds of baseball gear, playing baseball with the young men on a Cuban team, and visiting the apartment where his grandfather stayed during World War II, Mica heads back to San Francisco a bit older, wiser, and more aware that the best of intentions can't always deliver the desired results. Here's the trailer:

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The Marin Theatre Company recently presented the West Coast premiere of Will Power's dramedy entitled Fetch Clay, Make Man in a co-production with the Round House Theatre of Maryland. With a unit set designed by Courtney O'Neill, lighting by Colin Bills, and video design by Caite Hevner Kemp, the action takes place in the days leading up to the infamous rematch between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali that took place on May 25, 1965 in Lewiston, Maine (an event which holds the dubious distinction of being the least attended heavyweight championship fight in history).

Power's play focuses on a unique chapter in American boxing wherein Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali sought out the advice of actor Lincoln Perry (who had once been friends with Jack Johnson -- the first African-American athlete to become world heavyweight boxing champion). Ali was hungry to learn the secret behind Jack Johnson's famous "anchor punch," which he describes in the following clip.

As directed by Derrick Sanders, Power's play is a curious drama in which each character (with the exception of the white Hollywood producer, William Fox) is trying to forge a new identity.
  • Muhammad Ali (Eddie Ray Jackson) is remaking his image from the brash, vain, and loudmouthed Cassius Clay into a more serious Muslim brother following his entry into the Nation of Islam. After the assassination of his former friend, Malcolm X, Ali wants to be taken seriously by the press.
  • Sonji Roi Clay (Katherine Renee Turner) is Ali's first wife, a former cocktail waitress who has tried to toe the line as a respectable Muslim wife but is rapidly losing patience with the intense levels of macho bullshit coursing through her husband's dressing room.
Eddie Ray Jackson and Katherine Renee Turner in a scene
from Fetch Clay, Make Man (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 
  • Brother Rashid (Jefferson A. Russell) is a former street thug and pimp who has undergone a radical religious conversion and is acting as Ali's chief bodyguard. Having become quite a bit "holier than thou," he looks down on Sonji because of her promiscuous past and has nothing but contempt for Stepin Fetchit.
  • Stepin Fetchit (Roscoe Orman) is, in fact, the famous African-American character actor Lincoln Perry, who was nobody's fool. A lifelong Catholic who resists Brother Rashid and Ali's efforts to convert him to Islam, Perry was the first black actor to become a millionaire. While Perry longed to branch out into other types of roles in film, his career was crippled by typecasting (his popular characterization of the lazy, shuffling Stepin Fetchit earned him the scorn of many African Americans who saw him as an Uncle Tom figure). The following clip from 1934's Judge Priest shows Stepin Fetchit appearing as Jeff Poindexter, Hattie McDaniel as Aunt Dilsey, Berton Churchill as Senator Horace Maydew, and Will Rogers as Judge Priest.

In the following set of clips from an interview prior to the McCarter Theatre's production of Fetch Clay, Make Man, the playwright describes what drew him to examine the backstory of the curious friendship between these two iconic African-American figures.

For all the testosterone filling the stage, it's curious to note that the most dramatic transformation (and most poignant performance) comes from Katherine Renee Turner as Ali's first wife. Robert Sicular appears as William Fox with Jefferson A. Russell portraying the self-righteous, combative Brother Rashid.

Eddie Ray Jackson continues to impress Bay area audiences with his fast-footed yet clearly serious characterization of Muhammad Ali while Roscoe Orman's portrayal of Stepin Fetchit seems more like the straight man who must absorb everyone else's anger and satisfy their needs. When his character finally explains the power behind Jack Johnson's knockout punch, one wonders if perhaps it should have been called the "anger punch" instead of the "anchor punch."  Here's the trailer:

Monday, August 25, 2014

Shaping A Show One Pixel At A Time

The use of creative lighting techniques as an integral part of stagecraft has progressed by leaps and bounds since the day when the introduction of a single-lens slide projector was considered a revolutionary step forward in multimedia. I was completely captivated by the San Francisco Opera's use of projection mapping in two recent productions designed by Jun Kaneko (2012's staging of The Magic Flute and 2014's presentation of Madama Butterfly). The following video explores some of the challenges faced by an artist working in a new medium to create enough video for a performance lasting nearly three hours.

In January 2014, Theatre Communications Group published a fascinating article by Mike Lawler entitled Stage Technology Has Changed The Way Theatre Is Made. So Who's Training The New Makers? In analyzing what lies in store for the integration of projection mapping into live stage productions, Lawler quoted three industry experts as follows:
  • “We increasingly experience the world around us in our day-to-day lives through moving and interactive images. I think it is not only familiar to our audiences as a platform for communication, but an essential aspect of modern life for artists to explore and unpack. From a practical standpoint, the reasons we have seen such a rapid increase in new media in the arts in recent years include the affordability and availability of creative tools and a greater general facility with those tools at a younger age." (Peter Flaherty,  who has taught Directing for New Media at the Yale School of Drama and is head of the Video for Performance Department at the California Institute of the Arts).
  • “The profound technological change in live performance has been the use of digital code as a sort of universal translator between different technical elements of a show. Tools for the creation of digital content and the pervasiveness and ease of use of these tools have made the manipulation of image, sound, and physical devices much easier and more affordable than before. These capture-and-edit tools are available in native form on most digital devices, so younger artists -- many literally born with a laptop in front of them -- incorporate moving image and other media into their work as readily as they use it in their daily lives.” (Kevin Cunnnigham, Executive Artistic Director of New York's 3-Legged Dog).
  • “We can pretty much do anything on a stage these days, but I would argue that we are limited -- especially in the theatre -- only by our creative imaginations. For the majority of theatre that I come across, the directors don’t seem to understand how to use modern technology to tell the story.” (John Huntington, Professor of Entertainment Technology at New York City College of Technology).

In September 2013, The Creators Project uploaded s short film to YouTube entitled Box. In describing their sensational use of 3D projection mapping, the creative team stated that:
"Box explores the synthesis of real and digital space through projection-mapping on moving surfaces. The short film documents a live performance, captured entirely in camera.  It is the culmination of multiple technologies, including large scale robotics, projection mapping, and software engineering. Bot & Dolly produced this work to serve as both an artistic statement and technical demonstration. We believe this methodology has tremendous potential to radically transform theatrical presentations, and define new genres of expression.”

When the national touring company of Motown: The Musical took over the Orpheum Theatre last week, I found myself in awe of the production's ability to combine archival footage with projection mapping. The basic structure of the show's large pieces of scenery is similar to what one saw in the 2010 touring company of Dreamgirls -- a series of vertical and horizontal bars and panels which can be moved to create a wide variety of configurations. Whereas the panels in the touring Dreamgirls production were filled with programmable LEDs, Motown: The Musical's scenery relies on projection mapping to such a large extent that, early in the show, I felt like I was watching the first jukebox musical designed for an audience with ADHD.

However, when considering how well the use of projection mapping enhanced the production (and could be fully integrated with the music), the technological triumphs of the design team became more exciting for me than the show itself. My perspective on this phenomenon is, of course, colored by several personal factors which I should explain.

I grew up listening to a steady diet of opera, classical music, and Broadway show tunes (unlike many of my contemporaries, my hero back in elementary school was Johann Sebastian Bach). Because I lived without a television for nearly 25 years, my musical tastes were not shaped by popular variety shows, television specials, or MTV. Nor was I constantly listening to the latest hits by Motown's artists on the radio.

The result is that, unlike many people in the audience at the show's opening night in San Francisco, songs made famous by such groups as The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, The Supremes, and The Jackson 5 were not the musical totems that dotted my cultural landscape. Nor was I emotionally invested in hit songs by such popular solo artists as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson.

As a result, it's hard for me to ignore comparisons between 1981's Dreamgirls and 2013's Motown: The Musical (both of which follow the career paths of a similar set of artists).
  • While Dreamgirls follows the adventures of Deena Jones and the Dreams, it's no secret that the show's story was modeled on the real-life experiences of Diana Ross and the Supremes.
  • Whereas the narrative for Dreamgirls is shaped and driven by the personal passions of its women, the narrative for Motown: The Musical (whose book was written by Berry Gordy) is essentially driven by a relentlessly entrepreneurial style shaped by a dominant and manipulative masculine personality.
Clifton Oliver and Allison Semmes as Berry Gordy and Diana Ross
in a scene from Motown: The Musical (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 
  • While Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen created musical numbers for Dreamgirls that were specifically written to advance the show's plot, the score for Motown: The Musical offers a rapid parade of nearly 60 hit songs produced by Berry Gordy that might just as well have been entitled "All My [Musical] Children."
  • Although Dreamgirls found its strength in focusing on the personal relationships between its female leads, Motown: The Musical attempts to balance Berry Gordy's personal and professional successes against the background of the civil rights movement during the turbulent 1960s.
  • Whereas the villainous elements in Dreamgirls revolved around the influence of payola in the music industry and a series of personal and professional betrayals, the villainous elements in Motown: The Musical have a lot more to do with corporations outbidding Berry Gordy for the talent he nurtured and the late 20th-century power shift in the music industry from Detroit to Los Angeles.

While Motown: The Musical never fails to entertain, it often has the mechanical feel of an industrial show determined to subdue the audience with the strength of its product. Powerfully directed by Charles Randolph-White, Motown: The Musical benefits immensely from the work of co-choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams. Special kudos go to its superb design team: David Korins (scenic design), Esosa (costume design), Natasha Katz (lighting design), Peter Hylenski (sound design), and Daniel Brodie (projection design).

The Jackson 5 performing during Motown: The Musical
(Photo by: BrodieGraphics)

Although the national touring company's cast includes such talented men as Clifton Olver (Berry Gordy), Nicholas Christopher (Smokey Robinson), Jarran Muse (Marvin Gaye), and Reed L. Shannon as a young Michael Jackson -- with Allison Semmes delivering a nicely-layered characterization of Diana Ross -- the voice that made me spring to attention belonged to Martina Sykes, whose full-throated portrayal of Mary Wells raised the roof of the Orpheum Theatre.

A photo showing the projection mapping used in Motown: The Musical
(Photo by: BrodieGraphics)

As a musical sampling of the sounds that emerged from Motown, one can't do better than starting with "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Bye Bye Baby," "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," and moving on through the catalog to "I'll Be There," "What's Going On," and "You Are The Sunshine of My Life." Unfortunately, many songs are performed in a severely abridged format.

Nevertheless, one can't help but come away from this show in awe of the dancing, singing, and incredibly high energy levels of its ensemble. Performances of Motown: The Musical continue at the Orpheum Theatre through September 28 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Are You Talkin' To Me?

One of the skills many actors develop is the ability to impersonate popular personalities (proving the old adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery). Whether mimicking famous celebrities or cartoon characters, a talent for voices demonstrates the added value of an actor's sharp ear combined with an uncanny ability to improvise on a moment's notice.

The late Robin Williams was a master of vocal shapeshifting, capable of popping in and out of various personas with split-second timing. Others have performed such tricks with equally remarkable skill. Consider the eerie talents of Kevin Spacey and Seth MacFarlane.

Two productions new to the Bay area rely on actors impersonating other celebrities. One features two famous British actors who are well-known for their impressions of other stars. The other offers a beloved performer (on stage and screen) impersonating an actor who is himself impersonating "the greatest star" -- but with an exquisitely specific and fascinating qualifier.

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Let's start with the Brits. In 2010, Michael Winterbottom directed a comedy series for the BBC that starred Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in which each actor played a somewhat idealized version of himself. Many of their conversations throughout the series featured the two men trying to amuse themselves (and occasionally each other) with impersonations of such renowned actors as Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Al Pacino, Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman, and Anthony Hopkins,

The BBC series was so successful that much of the material was repurposed for a full-length feature film entitled The Trip (which I had the pleasure of watching during the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival). In my review, I noted that:
"This is not the kind of road trip where conversation dies off quickly. Both men are skilled and highly competitive actors with lots of trivia and tricks to keep their minds busy (not to mention an encyclopedic knowledge of film). It is filled with moments in which its two stars dig into their professional tool boxes of gags, twitches, impersonations, vocal tricks, and improvisational skills to help pass the time as they travel around Northern England. In between all of the bickering and vocal impressions, Winterbottom keeps the foodies in the audience roundly entertained with his footage of food preparation, presentation, and the combination of high art and pretentiousness that can accompany fine dining. The Trip is a deceptively shrewd film that captures a rare kind of intellectual intimacy as well as the aching loneliness of an insecure actor. It's one of the few films that I've wanted to see again as soon as the final credits started to roll."

Rarely is one's wish granted with such grace, wit, and generous accommodation. The BBC did so well with its first series that a  sequel was filmed entitled The Trip to Italy. As with the first series, the sequel was edited down to a full-length feature film of the same name. Filled with many of the same actor's tricks and crammed into a smaller car, Coogan and Brydon hit the road again albeit a little older and more self-conscious about their mortality.

In both series, Winterbottom has devised the structural elements of the narrative (where the actors go, who they meet, at what restaurants they dine, etc). For The Trip to Italy, he decided that his comedic duo should try to follow in the footsteps of two of England's greatest Romantic poets (Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley). As Rob Brydon explains:
"Michael is very much the author of the piece. He takes it away and he molds it. It’s as if he has all this raw material, then he goes off with it and he makes something. The Trip is essentially two middle-aged men bickering, which is kind of universal. It's also concerned with aging and the passing of time (which are universal themes). For me, because we’re improvising, it’s a wonderfully, purely creative experience -- making stuff up on the hoof on location. It’s a very interesting way to work because you’re using yourself. Sometimes it’s completely me and then, at other times it will be a perversion, an exaggeration, a warping just to serve the comedic or dramatic dynamic. You don’t get to do that very often.

We’ll have a scene in which we’ll sit at the table and the script document will say 'Rob and Steve talk about aging' and we’ll just go off and start improvising. Sometimes great stuff comes quickly; sometimes it doesn’t. You’ll often remember things working wonderfully well on the day and then sometimes, you watch them back, and they weren’t as good as you remember. The opposite is true, too. There will be stuff that you thought was pretty pedestrian but, in fact, it flies."

Because of Winterbottom's superb editing, the final product is the kind of guilty pleasure one rarely finds these days: a road trip film filled with witty banter between two men of above-average intelligence, a sense of their diminishing sexual appeal, and a growing awareness that a younger, more energetic generation will soon eclipse them in both their professional and personal lives. The Trip to Italy is the kind of experience where the smartest thing a viewer can do is just sit back, enjoy the ride, and be grateful for a chance to take his mind off the weightier crises plaguing our world. Here's the trailer:

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It's a rare evening indeed when I leave a theatre torn between my admiration for the work I've just witnessed by a gifted playwright, a meticulously insightful stage director, and a performer whose mercurial personality and chameleonic acting skills allow him to create comic dialogues between headstrong personalities with laser-like accuracy.

Taking to heart Muhammad Ali's advice to "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee," Jonathan Tolins was inspired to write Buyer and Cellar by the 2010 publication of Barbra Streisand's coffee table book entitled My Passion For Design (for which the legendary entertainer also acted as photographer). His challenge was to find a structure which would allow audiences -- who frequently refer to Streisand with such pet names as "Babs" or "Miss Marmelstein" -- to get a true sense of what becomes a legend most.

Michael Urie in Buyer and Cellar (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

Tolins starts off his play by having an actor enter from the wings with a copy of Streisand's book in his hands. As he sits on the stage floor and introduces himself to the audience as Alex More (an aspiring actor who thinks he might be a very distant relative of England's Sir Thomas More), he takes great care to remind the audience that the only thing they will see onstage that is real is his copy of Streisand's book.
  • All of the dialogue they will hear is imaginary and scripted.
  • With so many male and female entertainers performing imitations of Streisand, he will not "do" her.
  • While the audience may assume anything they want (many fans have acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Streisand), the disclaimer is necessary because a certain someone has developed a reputation as one of the most litigious entertainers in history.
Ken Fallin's drawing of Michael Urie in Buyer and Cellar

With that particular piece of business out of the way, Alex starts to describe his misadventures in Disneyland (or "Mauschwitz"), his problems with his boyfriend Barry, and how he ended up working in the basement of Streisand's Malibu estate, where she had built a miniature shopping mall to house her treasure trove of antique dolls, costumes, and other items acquired over decades of shopping and collecting (with a healthy bit of haggling thrown in to keep in touch with her Brooklyn roots).

The writing -- in which Tolins captures the isolation and continued insecurities of a woman who has acquired international fame, exceptional wealth, and a life filled with notoriety (including an impressive string of high-profile lovers) -- also reveals fragile memories of the happiness Streisand once got from a doll made out of a hot water bottle. When Alex's fan mentality starts feeding the legend's fantasies with talk of doing Gypsy on Broadway despite the fact that Streisand would be seen as a 70-year-old mother with a five-year-old child, he is quickly brought down to earth with the star's observation that eight shows a week would be too much to handle for someone with stage fright who is very wary of crowds ("I can barely stand to get close to the 405 [freeway]!").

Michael Urie in Buyer and Cellar (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

This is where the work of a gifted stage director comes into play. Faced with the challenge of not having his actor imitate Streisand's voice, Stephen Brackett (who did such beautifully sensitive work in the recent world premiere production of The Great Pretender at TheatreWorks) has chosen to use just a few trademark gestures from Streisand's many affectations. These instantly register with the audience while, for the rest of the evening, Alex makes hay by mimicking the body language of a manipulative old Jewish woman who still has a few tricks up her sleeve (including a most impressive coupon).

The result is astonishingly effective in allowing the audience to add their own knowledge of Streisand trivia to the impact of Michael Urie's high spirited, deliciously incredulous, and acutely vulnerable characterization of Alex (for which he received the Drama Desk Award, the Clarence Derwent Award, the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show, and nominations for the Drama League and Outer Critics Circle Awards). I have always admired Urie's work in film and television but, after seeing him perform onstage as a master storyteller (sharing nearly 100 minutes of fabulous material with his audience), my admiration for this talented artist continues to grow.

How well a one-man show like Buyer and Cellar will fare in theatres of different sizes is always a curious question for me. The show premiered off Broadway at the 104-seat Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre and transferred to the 199-seat Barrow Street Theatre. Urie is currently on tour with the show, performing in such venues as Chicago's 549-seat Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, the 739-seat Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, San Francisco's 1,667-seat Curran Theatre, the 750-seat Dallas City Performance Hall, and Toronto's 700-seat Panasonic Theatre.

One can only hope that at some point in Urie's impressive run of performances as Alex More, his performance has been digitally captured for posterity. The following promotional footage from Buyer and Cellar offers a mere hint of the play's comic riches.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

In Love For The Long Haul

As children, many of us learned the tale of The Tortoise and The Hare, thinking it was just a nice story about two cute animals. However, as we grew up, we began to develop deeper understandings of such morals as "Slow and steady wins the race," "Nice guys finish last," and "Stop to smell the roses."

To this day, the tales of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Ugly Duckling, and Ferdinand the Bull give children hope for a future in which they won't be bullied, succumb to the ravages of an incurable disease, or be gunned down in the street by police who were supposed to be their friends and protectors.

For survivors, of course, longevity can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is wonderful to live through so many changes in civilization, scientific progress, and take pride in one's accomplishments and offspring. On the other hand, old age can be a brutal experience filled with pain, poverty, depression, and dementia.

A string of recent celebrity deaths made many people stop and think about how they want to live the rest of their lives. In happiness and health? In disgrace and despair? In isolation and indifference? Or with a concentrated effort toward building a sustainable future.

In an interview with Lindsay Abrams of, acclaimed marine biologist (and explorer-in-residence for National GeographicSylvia Earle  described what it has been like over the course of the past 60 years to witness the destruction of the world's oceans as a result of acidification and industrialized fishing.

There are times when outlasting the competition (or the negative impact of forces beyond one's control) requires a tremendous amount of patience, goodwill, and accepting the challenge to avoid becoming one's own worst enemy. For those who are lucky enough to gain wisdom as they mature, the memories of friends, family, and colleagues who have died offers little solace.

Those of us who survived the AIDS epidemic learned a simple yet brutal truth. When people die (no matter how long they might have lived), one's feelings for them do not evaporate. Depending on the depth of one's love and affection, that person may reside in one's memory bank for years to come.

Two films recently screened for Bay area audiences gave new meaning to the old saying that "He who laughs last, laughs best." While one is based on a piece of Scandinavian fiction, the other is a documentary about a beloved actor and political activist who has led -- and continues to lead -- a most remarkable life.

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In recent years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been building a solid relationship with the Swedish Consulate. The happy result has been a steady stream of Swedish silent films as well as the impressive musical talents of the Matti Bye Ensemble. This year's treasure was 1920's The Parson's Widow, a black comedy written and directed by Carl-Theodor Dreyer that becomes surprisingly touching at the end.

Poster art for The Parson's Widow

Based on an 1879 short story by Norwegian author Kristofer Janson, the film's roots lie in the tale of a mid-17th century parson's wife who outlived three vicars. The plot revolves around the fact that a handsome young seminary graduate named Sofren (Einar Röd) and his fiancée, Mari (Greta Almroth), are very much in love. However, until Sofren lands a full-time church job, Mari's father refuses to give his permission for his daughter to marry.

Sofren (Einar Röd) and Mari (Greta Almroth) are
eager to get married in The Parson's Widow

When Sofren and Mari arrive at a small Norwegian village whose church needs a new pastor, he discovers that two older men from Copenhagen (one skinny, one fat) have also applied for the job. Each applicant has been asked to audition for the job with a trial sermon. The first man's sermon quickly puts the church's congregation to sleep. The second man chooses a controversial piece of Biblical text for the subject of his sermon.

When Sofren is called upon to address the congregation, the handsome young student opts for a fire-and-brimstone approach to speaking which should, at the very least, keep everyone awake. As he tells the congregation:
"Two learned applicants have appeared here before me. One of them took us to Eden, and that is as far back as we can go. Let him stay there! The other one chose the text: 'Am I Not An Ass?' But what has an ass to do on the pulpit? My friends, I will not take you to Eden -- you are too clever. But I will take you to the bowels of the earth, deep in the roaring jaws of Hell!"
The fact that the women in the congregation are instantly smitten with the young theologian does not go unnoticed. However, there is one tiny detail which Sofren must cope with. Whoever is hired as the church's new pastor must marry Dame Margarete Pedersdotter (Hildur Carlberg), the old widow who still lives in the parsonage.

After wining and dining Sofren in her home, Margarete informs him that their marriage is a formality which will allow them to have separate sleeping quarters and lead separate lives.

When Margarete asks him if he has a fiancée, Sofren (who has taken note of the fine furniture, handsome clothing, and healthy food that come with the job) lies to her, claiming that Mari is merely his sister. As the film progresses, Sofren and Mari find themselves waiting for an old woman who is nearly three times Sofren's age to kick the bucket. But Margarete is full of surprises.

Hildur Carlberg as Dame Margarete in The Parson's Widow

After Mari is injured in a fall, Margarete nurses the young woman back to health and reveals a long-kept secret about her first marriage. Her confession wins the respect, sympathy, and love of Sofren and Mari such that, by the time Margarete dies, their relationship has been immeasurably strengthened.

Though The Parson's Bride is nearly 95 years old, it contains some solid laughs and moments of deep poignancy. If the acting occasionally seems a bit wooden and the print rather grainy, it still delivers a surprisingly satisfying story. Thankfully, a complete print is available on YouTube.  Enjoy!

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Many actors are so busy dealing with the here and now of building and maintaining a career that it's hard for them to concentrate on the distant future. Will they end up doing character roles in their later years? Will health and family problems keep them out of the public eye?

Few could imagine such a rousing (and rowdy) second act as the one George Takei is currently enjoying. The man who portrayed Hikaru Sulu on television's original Star Trek series would, under normal circumstances, be happily retired. But at the age of 77, Takei shows no signs of slowing down. A former runner who met his husband (Brad Altman) through Los Angeles Frontrunners (a gay running club), Takei has found a new career as an Internet presence, a political activist, and continues to find work as an actor.

A man whose deep and frequent laughter has proven to be a solid asset in his golden years, Takei speaks bluntly and with good humor about the challenges he has faced in life -- from spending his childhood in Japanese-American internment camps to the terror of living a closeted gay life for so many years while working in Hollywood.

Brad and George Takei

At present, Takei has more than five million fans following him on Facebook and Twitter, frequently speaks out for marriage equality and LGBT civil rights, and is often heard as a guest announcer on Howard Stern's radio show. When conservative Tennessee legislator Stacey Campfield tried to prevent students from using the word "gay," the popular actor launched a counteroffensive campaign, encouraging people to say "It's Okay To Be Takei."

Often descrribed as Takei's legacy project is a new musical by Jay Kuo and Mark Acito about life in a Japanese-American interment camp. Following its tryout at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego (with a cast that included Lea Salonga and Telly Leung), Allegiance is still trying to raise enough funding to land on Broadway. In the following TED talk, Takei explains to a Kyoto audience what allows him to be an out and proud gay American after his childhood experiences.

Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot, To Be Takei is remarkable for its subject's candor, good humor, and his ability to wallow in the joy of finding a second career (as well as a deep abiding love with his husband) late in life. The filmmaker (who describes Takei as "like Barack Obama meets Mr. Rogers meets John Walters") was impressed with Takei's skills as a listener whenever he meets strangers. Among the delightful piece of trivia included in the press kit for Kroot's documentary are:
Whether discussing the challenges of being forced into an internment camp, his family's post-war poverty, his political activism,or the difficulties of working with William Shatner, Takei's resilience and cheerful personality never fail to shine through.

However, what may surprise some of George Takei's most ardent fans is to learn about how his family survived in the 1940s and to see what an elderly married same-sex couple -- who are still very much in love with each other -- look like in their day-to-day activities. Signing autographs at at San Diego's Comic-Con International convention is one thing. But going for an afternoon walk together and sharing long drives is a lot closer to real life for America's golden agers. Here's the trailer:

Friday, August 15, 2014

In and Out of Africa

During the past 75 years, the world has witnessed the transformation of Asian nations like Japan and China into modern-day superpowers. The recent United States-African Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. marked a distinct turn in Africa's importance as an emerging global market.

While Africa has long been viewed as a continent from which oil, diamonds, and historical artifacts can be taken, in today's post-Colonialism and post-Apartheid era, it is rapidly becoming an economic force to be reckoned with. The primitive adventures of Henry Morton Stanley and Dr. David Livingstone (as well as the perception of Africa as the Heart of Darkness) belong to the distant past.

In recent years, some of the products imported from Africa have come under increasing government scrutiny. From blood diamonds to ivory, increased public awareness of the cost of extracting precious gems and/or poaching animals that belong to an endangered species has led to divestiture of certain stocks and increased celebrity participation in cause-related media projects. Basketball superstar Yao Ming will soon be seen in a documentary entitled The End of the Wild.

Ironically, two films recently been shown in San Francisco offer such radically different perspectives on Africa that their juxtaposition is worth noting. One was decidedly old school; the other a fascinating documentary about one of Africa's most controversial musicians.

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The 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered a rare screening of F. Harmon Weight's 1928 potoiler entitled Midnight Madness (one of the last films to be produced by DeMille Studios). Although long believed to be lost, in 2010 a copy of Midnight Madness was discovered at the New Zealand Film Archive.

Based on The Lion Trap (a play by Daniel Nathan Rubin which had not yet been produced onstage), Midnight Madness revolves around a wealthy white South African diamond miner named Michael Bream (Clive Brook), who is in New York on a business trip. Bream (who has always been extremely secretive about the location of his diamond mines), has been working with a diamond merchant named Childers (Walter McGrail), who is about as sleazy as they come.

Even though Childers is not "the marrying kind," his secretary, Norma Forbes (Jacqueline Logan), has had a crush on him for a long time. Her biggest hope has been that Childers would marry her and take her away from living with her alcoholic father in their tiny, squalid apartment located behind a carnival's shooting gallery.

The conniving Childers, however, has an idea which could put Norma's feminine wiles to much better use. If he could get her to marry Bream, she might be able to pry loose the location of Bream's diamond mines. By passing that information back to Childers, he could jump the claim and cash in on Bream's diamond mine.

Jacqueline Logan and Clive Brook in Midnight Madness

When Bream starts to show a romantic interest in Norma, she suddenly agrees to marry him (no doubt imagining that her nuptials will open the gate to a life of luxury). But when Bream overhears her telling a friend that she only plans to marry him for his money, he lays an elaborate trap for his scheming fiancée.

After their wedding, Bream informs Norma that they're booked on a long ocean voyage to Africa. But instead of traveling first class, she discovers that they will be crossing the Atlantic in steerage. While pretending to be in dire financial straits, Bream lets Norma savor the full impact of life in the jungle (their honeymoon takes place in a remote area of Africa known for its ferocious lions).

Finding herself left high and dry (and with little to protect her but mosquito netting) completely demoralizes Norma. After she wires Childers, begging him to come to Africa and rescue her from her horrible new husband, Norma gets a chance to surprise everyone with one of the valuable skills she learned while living behind a shooting gallery.

Clive Brook and Jacqueline Logan in Midnight Madness

Teetering between romantic comedy and jungle melodrama, Midnight Madness was accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, and accordion. Needless to say, the lions were delightful!

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Back in the 1960s, when I was beginning to get bitten by the culture bug, there was precious little awareness of African music other than the kind of jungle drumming one might hear in a Tarzan film. Things began to change in the 1960s, when Miriam Makeba's recording and concert career took off.

In 1966, a South African revue entitled Wait A Minim! enjoyed a healthy run at the John Golden Theatre, where its small ensemble did a fine job of entertaining Broadway audiences.

At the time I had absolutely no awareness of the music or political importance of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a Nigerian composer, performer, and human rights activist who became known for his Afrobeat performance style.

Born in Abeokuta, Nigeria in 1938, Fela became an international star whose combination of traditional Yoruba, highlife, and jazz gave rise to a potent new sound which he took to stages around the world. Prior to his death on August 2, 1997, Fela had produced over 70 albums.

In 2008, dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones joined forces with the Afrobeat band Antibalas to create a new musical that would celebrate Fela's music while educating audiences of the political climate in which he functioned as an artist and political activist. The show's success off-Broadway eventually led to its transfer uptown to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre (among its producers were Will Smith and Jay-Z). In 2010, Fela! was nominate for 11 Tony Awards.

Five years after the show's debut on Broadway, a new documentary directed by Alex Gibney offers audiences a more comprehensive education about Fela's music and politics. When I attended the opening night performance of the national tour's San Francisco engagement of Fela! I remember feeling overwhelmed by brilliance of Bill T. Jones's staging, the cast's unbelievably high energy levels, and the physical production. In my review, I wrote:
"Thanks to an electrifying performance by the athletic Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti, opening night kept the Curran Theatre rocking like a house on fire. As I sat watching Fela! unfold, I was struck by how much closer this show came to representing the spirit of today's Occupy Wall Street movement than the recent revival of Hair (1968's hit counter-culture protest musical). A rip-roaring piece of total theatre built on the concept of "recreating" one of Fela Anikulapo Kuti's 1977 concerts at the Afrikan Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, the show's breathtaking energy level keeps audiences enthralled for more than two hours."
Gibney's documentary skillfully weaves archival news footage of Fela's life with interviews with people who worked with him, one of his American girlfriends, and his grown children. The ability to create a media tapestry that provides an historical context in which to frame Fela's life with the difficulties of bringing Fela! to life onstage gives Finding Fela a rare storytelling strength which is bolstered by the ability to jump back and forth between Fela in real life and how he is depicted onstage.

The music and magnetism is all there, as well as the ego, controversy, overt sexuality, and provocative political stances. What Finding Fela does so beautifully is allow viewers to fill in the blank spots that could not possibly have been examined while trying to keep pace with the stage musical. The moments late in the film when a touring production of Fela! gets to perform in Lagos brings Fela's story full circle, Here's the trailer: