Sunday, November 30, 2014

Saturday Night Fevers

While planning my schedule for November 2014, I was perusing the website for the San Francisco Olympians Festival when I noticed something that made me catch my breath.
  • The festival's theme was "Monster Ball." 
  • Each night was built around a specific theme. 
  • Saturday, November 22 (the closing night of the festival) was entitled "Vagina Dentata."
The first thought that sprung to mind was: Will this make Eve Ensler (author of The Vagina Monologues) jealous? The next step, of course, was to wonder whether they would be serving vagina dentata cupcakes at intermission.

A vagina dentata cupcake

I needn't have worried. The evening was devoted to three plays (all directed by Melinda Marks) about Greek mythology's fiercest female monsters. Anyone who read Homer's epic poem entitled Odyssey would have no trouble recalling that Scylla and Charybdis were fearsome creatures with a talent for killing heroes. However, when asked about the half-woman, half-snake Echidna, anyone who had ever seen a baby echidna would immediately think "Funny, you don't look shrewish!"

A baby echidna

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Christian Simonsen's one-act play, Scylla or Death by the Half-Dozen, re-examined the feeding techniques of one of the more grotesque female monsters in Greek mythology.  As Wikipedia explains:
"According to John Tzetzes and Servius' commentary on the Aeneid, Scylla was a beautiful naiad who was claimed by Poseidon, but the jealous Amphitrite turned her into a monster by poisoning the water of the spring where Scylla would bathe. A similar story is found in Hyginus, according to whom Scylla was the daughter of the river god Crataeis and was loved by Glaucus, but Glaucus himself was also loved by the sorceress Circe. While Scylla was bathing in the sea, the jealous Circe poured a potion into the sea water which caused Scylla to transform into a monster with four eyes and six long necks equipped with grisly heads, each of which contained three rows of sharp teeth. Her body consisted of 12 tentacle-like legs and a cat's tail, while four to six dog heads ringed her waist. In this form, she attacked the ships of passing sailors, seizing one of the crew with each of her heads."

Poster art by Lacey Hill Hawkins for
Scylla or Death By The Half-Dozen

Simonsen's play takes place on the fateful day when Odysseus must carefully steer his ship between the cliff where Scylla is waiting to devour six of his sailors and the whirlpool created by Charybdis that could easily send his entire crew to the bottom of the narrow strait between the two monsters (which was supposedly close enough that an archer could shoot an arrow from one shore to the other).

A clever strategist, Odysseus must choose between sacrificing his entire crew to death by drowning or letting the man-hungry Scylla (who apparently likes her beef extremely rare) pick off six of his best men. What none of them expect is that, instead of revealing herself in her most frightening form, Scylla will make use of her powers of telepathy and approach each victim as a familiar face.

Appearing before the homesick warriors as their mother, wife, or "a vision of the one person in his life that inflicted (or received) the most pain," Scylla sysematically devours most of the crew. The only ones left standing are Odysseus and one other sailor (who must frantically row the ship way out of the channel to safety).

Playwright Christian Simonsen onstage
at the San Francisco Olympians Festival

Adam Magill appeared as Odysseus with Tonya Narvaez taking on the multiple roles of  Circe and Scylla's various disguises. Of the seven sailors (Charles Lewis III, Andrew Chung, Nicky Weinbach, Abhi Kris, Dan Kurtz, and Ben Grubb), only Will Leschber survived to accompany Odysseus back to his homeland.

Although the legend of Scylla and Charybdis has often been cited as one of the earliest examples of a moral lesson in which one learns to choose the lesser of two evils, Simonsen's play drew plenty of laughs from the audience (partly because of Allison Page's reading of the script directions and partly because of the actors' responses to each of Scylla's disguises).

An unknown artist's depiction of Odysseus attempting
to steer his ship between Scylla and Charybdis

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Whereas Scylla was an extremely aggressive predator who could attack her victims from above, Charybdis had a stranger way of consuming whatever fresh meat passed over her gaping maw. According to Wikipedia:
"The sea monster Charybdis was believed to live under a small rock on one side of a narrow channel. Three times a day, Charybdis swallowed a huge amount of water, before belching it back out again, creating large whirlpools capable of dragging a ship underwater. A later myth makes Charybdis the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia and living as a loyal servant to Poseidon. She aided him in his feud with Zeus, and as such, helped him engulf lands and islands in water. Zeus, angry for the land she stole from him, cursed her into a hideous bladder of a monster, with flippers for arms and legs, and an uncontrollable thirst for the sea. As such, she drank the water from the sea three times a day to quench it, which created whirlpools."

An artist's "vagina dentata"-like rendition of Charybdis, 
The Beast From Below rising to the surface for her morning drink

In her short play entitled Charybdis, Ashley Cowan updated the concept of a female monster with an insatiable appetite to modern times. As she writes in her description of the play:
"It was hard to resist wanting to be in an evening called Vagina Dentata. But when I started researching Charybdis, I was struck by the idea of someone being punished for their appetite. A female someone. I could lie and say I’ve never battled with body issues of my own but that would be a boring bold-faced lie. So my hope is to channel some of that vulnerability that comes from battling insecurities and fighting food demons of my own."
Allison Page, Adam McGill, and Tonya Narvaez during the reading
of Ashley Cowan's Charybdis (Photo by: Paul Anderson)
"Charybdis represents that old morality tale where a gal gets hungry, eats too much, and then is transformed into a monster. And not even Ursula the sea witch would be her friend. Disney aside, Charybdis is mainly known as a either a dangerous and destructive whirlpool who could overtake a ship or as a sea monster. My story will center around a woman struggling through her first Overeaters Anonymous meeting on the night before Thanksgiving. Apparently her appetite has become a 'problem' in her circle. To her horror, she’ll be forced to talk to people from her past who are anything but anonymous (without the promise of a single snack to hide under). Unfortunately, things aren’t that anonymous when you’re starving and you run into your old high school classmates. So grab a snack and learn the tale of the lady who turned a sea monster for having an appetite."
Another artist's interpretation of the whirlpool-like
Charybdis as a fearsome vagina dentata nightmare

Cowan's three characters are Marjorie (a fairly clueless and insensitive woman whose struggles with her appetite seemed fairly trivial compared to the other members of the Overeaters Anonymous group). Charlene (who remembers Marjorie from high school, where there was no love lost between the two women), and Scott (a fairly clueless jock who peaked shortly after graduation). With Allison Page, Adam McGill, and Tony Narvaez inhabiting Cowan's characters, there were plenty of laughs to be had.

Playwrights Ashley Cowan and Neil Higgins onstage at the
San Francisco Olympians Festival (Photo by: Paul Anderson)

For me, the highlight of the the evening was Echidna, written by the grandly gifted and often hilarious Neil Higgins. As the playwright explains:
"Echidna was the 'Mother of All Monsters; in classical Greece. She had the torso and head of a beautiful woman and the body of a giant snake. She was, according to some sources, an immortal nymph. Her parentage is disputed among classical writers, but all insist that her parents are primordial beings, most of them associated with deepness and danger. She married Typhon, who was a giant man-serpent with a hundred dragon heads. The two of them attacked the Olympians and were defeated and subsequently punished by being separated and buried deep underground. Echidna and her sizable brood of children were buried deep in a cave and allowed to live to act as challenges for future heroes. Depending on the sources, her children include: Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of Hades; the Lernaean Hydra; the Sphinx, whose riddle was solved by Oedipus; The Colchian Dragon, which guarded the Golden Fleece; the Chimera; the Caucasian Eagle, which ate Prometheus’ liver every day; the Gorgons; Scylla, the sea monster Odysseus had to escape; the Nemean Lion, which was one of Heracles’ twelve labors; Ladon, the dragon that guarded the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides; Orthrus, a giant, two-headed dog; the Crommyonian Sow; and the Teumessian fox. Apollodorus states that she was eventually killed by the hundred-eyed giant Argus Panoptes."
Poster art by Lacey Hill Hawkins for Echidna

In the world according to Higgins, San Franciscans are at the mercy of a serial killer. However, if you thought the Ferguson, Missouri police department was a mess, it's nothing compared to the cast if characters Higgins has placed on the staff of the San Francisco Police Department.
  • Commander Harris (Charles Lewis III) is the frustrated police captain who wishes Argus and Tasso would stick to the assignment he gave them to find the serial killer instead of following so many seemingly tangential leads.
  • Dr. Prashad (Trinity Nay) is the seemingly ditzy pathologist at the City Morgue who has a few shady tricks up her sleeve.
  • Inspector Argus (Ben Grubb) is the kind of deadbeat detective who has appeared in many a film noir murder mystery: handsome, vain, and more than a little bit misogynistic. Smug and cocky, Argus sees no need to play by the rules and has been coasting on his laurels for far too long.
  • Inspector Diana Tasso (Audrey Hannah) is new to the force. Having written her graduate thesis about the infamous Inspector Argus, she is thrilled to be given a chance to work beside him -- until he opens his mouth and reveals himself to be a male chauvinist creep. For some reason, she doesn't cotton to being called "sweetlips" or "sugar tits."
  • Inspector Lopez (Andrew Chung) is the skirt-chasing detective who won't stop coming on to Inspector Tasso. Lopez is incapable of understanding that the main reason Tasso keeps resisting his unwanted advances is because she's a lesbian. In fact, she's a lesbian with some very pretty powerful connections in San Francisco's LGBT community.
Andrew Chung, Ben Grubb, Audrey Hannah, and Charles Lewis III
during the reading of Echidna (Photo by: Paul Anderson)

Higgins wastes no time unveiling some gruesome murders which send Argus and Tasso in search of the monster who could be committing such heinous crimes. Along the way they encounter a Chinese gangster named Johnny Lau (Abni Kris) who takes frequent (and suspicious) trips to Hong Kong, a money-laundering scheme that involves smuggling illegal aliens into California aboard container ships from Asia, and a curious trio of Italian-Americans named Salvatore Gabrioni (Dan Kurtz), Maria Gabrioni (Alaska Yamada), and Tony Dimonato (William Leschber).

A major subplot involves two gay realtors who used to be a couple but are now "just friends." One of whom (a major donor to LGBT causes) has just been murdered by his former lover who was jealous of all the attention his ex kept bestowing on their sales office's new receptionist, a flirtatious wise-cracking queen (Abni Kris).

I was very impressed by the complexity of his characters and the tightly layered plot in Higgins' play, Iapetus, which premiered at the 2013 San Francisco Olympians Festival. In Echidna, his skills at writing comedy (as well as cooking up some fascinating plot twists) continue to shine.

At the core of Echidna lies a formidable monster who, rather than try to create change as a citizen journalist, has come up with a much more efficient role for achieving justice: citizen executioner. This talented young playwright's ability to paint winning portraits of corrupt politicians, social activists, bartenders with too much knowledge, incompetent police, and vain celebrities leads the audience on a murderous romp and frolic through contemporary San Francisco. Higgins is definitely a talent worth following.

Friday, November 28, 2014

I Like My [Operatic] Meat Well Done

If one searched for the polymaths who made the greatest contributions to opera during the second half of the 20th century, two names would instantly come to mind. Both were talented stage directors, set designers and costume designers who also filmed some of the operas they had mounted on stages around the world.

Known for his cinematic achievements as well as his stage spectacles, Franco Zeffirelli created landmark productions of La Bohème, Tosca, Turandot, Don Giovanni, Antony and Cleopatra, Carmen, Cavelleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, Falstaff, Otello, and La Traviata for the Metropolitan Opera. Zeffirelli also directed film versions (and/or television broadcasts) of La Bohème, Carmen, Otello, Don Carlos, Don Giovanni, Turandot, Aida, Madama Butterfly, and La Traviata.

Franco Zeffirelli

Equally talented, but perhaps less well-known because he died at age 56, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's productions of  La Clemenza di Tito, The Flying Dutchman, Idomeneo, L'Italiana in Algeri, Manon, and Le Nozze di Figaro graced the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House while the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco also played host to his productions of Carmina Burana, Die Kluge, Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Cosi Fan Tutte, Otello, Tosca, Rigoletto, Gianni Schicchi, Pagliacci, Idomeneo, La Boheme, Cavalleria Rusticana, Falstaff, Carmen, Lear, and L'Italiana in Algeri, YouTube hosts his film versions of Carmina BuranaRigolettoTristan und Isolde, Le Nozze di Figaro, L'Orfeo, L'incoronazione di Poppea, and Madama Butterfly. Other film adaptations directed by Ponnelle include Mitridate, La Clemenza di Tito, The Magic Flute, The Barber of Seville, Manon, L'Italiana in Algeri, Carmen, Il ritorno d´Ulisse in Patria, and Falstaff.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle with Kurt Herbert Adler (Photo by: Robert Messick)

Like the awe inspired by a solar eclipse, sometimes a 400-year-old art form can pull itself together to stunning effect. Without doubt, it's cause for celebration when all of the diverse creative elements unite to deliver a thrilling performance of an opera that, to many, has become an old chestnut with a reliable track record at the box office. When the same thing happens simultaneously with a less familiar work written in a completely different style, even the most cynical opera queen should be impressed.

Act I of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's landmark 1977 production of
Turandot at the San Francisco Opera (Photo by: Ron Scherl) 

The San Francisco Opera's Fall 2014 season has been remarkable for the consistency of its high artistic standards as well as the fact that, out of seven productions (ranging from operas by George Frideric Handel and Carlisle Floyd to works by Vincenzo Bellini and Giuseppe Verdi), not one was a disappointment. To have two of the strongest presentations be the final entries in the season's lineup shows a major international arts organization that is on fire rather than burning out; a company that is really cooking rather than coasting on its laurels. What was particularly striking was that neither production had a box office star. In total, both shows boasted eight singers who were either Adler Fellows or graduates of the Merola Opera Program.

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While watching the San Francisco Opera's revival of Ponnelle's 1969 production of La Cenerentola, it was difficult to believe that the production was 45 years old. In 1981, Ponnelle filmed the production with a cast headed by Frederica von Stade (Angelina), Francisco Araiza (Don Ramiro), Paolo Montarsolo (Don Magnifico), Claudio Desderi (Dandini), Paul Plishka (Alidoro), and the orchestra and chorus from Teatro alla Scala in Milan. In the process of adapting his stage production for the screen, Ponnelle decided to employ some shadow play for the Act II ensemble "Questo è un nodo avviluppato."

Ponnelle's sets and costumes have retained every ounce of their original charm, and, as directed by Gregory Fortner, the staging has lost none of its comic punch. Based on the legend of Cinderella, Gioachino Rossini's delightful comic opera seemed as fresh as a lemon soufflé and, under the baton of Jesus Lopez Cobos, almost as light and airy.

Zanda Švēde (Thisbe), Maria Valdes (Clorinda in
Rossini's La Cenerentola (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Veteran buffo Carlos Chausson delivered a stunningly sung and hilariously acted Don Magnifico with Maria Valdes (Clorinda) and Zanda Svede (Thisbe) providing comic support as Cinderella's two ugly stepsisters. Christian Van Horn's Alidoro was a towering delight with the men's chorus doing fine work under the guidance of Ian Robertson.

Efraín Solís (Dandini) and René Barbera (Don Ramiro) in
Rossini's La Cenerentola (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

René Barbera brought his bright and focused tenor to bear on Don Ramiro's music. Replacing Fabio Capitanucci in the key role of Don Ramiro's servant, Dandini, Adler Fellow Efrain Solis scored a major triumph in a role filled with lots of coloratura and comedic bits.

Karine Deshayes (Angelina) and the San Francisco Opera Chorus
 in Rossini's La Cenerentola (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

The big surprise of the evening, however, was mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes (who has sung the role of Angelina all over France). A seasoned performer who had no trouble bringing her rich voice to bear on the role's fioritura (she delivered a sparkling rendition of "Nacqui all'affanno... Non più mesta" to top off the evening), one could clearly see her working very hard but had difficulty hearing Deshayes during the Act I finale ("Signora è pronto in tavola").

Whatever caused that momentary problem, it failed to make a dent in the evening's merriment. With its bubbly score, La Cenerentola has always been one of my favorite operas. I can assure you that a good time was had by all. Here's some footage from the production:

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Cleverly and economically designed by David Farley, I like to think of the San Francisco Opera's new production of La Bohème as one of the rare instances in which the sky's the limit. Why? As seasoned operagoers will instantly notice, the set for Rodolfo and Marcello's famous garret overlooking Paris has no ceiling.

Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo) and Alexey Markov (Marcello) on
David Farley's Act I set for La Bohème (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

When I first started attending opera back in the 1960s, La Bohème was routinely presented in four short acts separated by three intermissions. Each act was followed by a string of curtain calls as stagehands began to dismantle or reconstruct the living quarters for Puccini's male leads. Those three intermissions added nearly an hour's running time to each performance.

Things have changed. One rarely sees principal artists taking bows after each act anymore and, with a keen eye on the clock and union demands, today's operatic impresarios are constantly looking for ways to cut production costs. Farley's easily loadable and eminently rentable solution (a co-production between the Houston Grand Opera, Canadian Opera Company, and San Francisco Opera) uses an array of hanging drops, paintings, and canvases combined with two rotating wagons to speed up set changes in a way that keeps the dramatic action wonderfully fluid.

Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo) and Alexia Voulgaridou (Mimi)
in Act I of Puccini's La Bohème (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

Add to that John Caird's acutely sensitive stage direction (in which the principals actually keep looking at and reacting to one another instead of merely facing out toward the audience) and you get a production in which Puccini's lovers became more human than usual. This is aided immensely by the use of Supertitles and the work of conductor Giuseppe Finzi. In his program note entitled "La Bohème and the Comédie Humaine," Caird writes:
“The lives of so many artists start out in desperation, poverty, and disappointment before they realize their full potential. Their intimate friends and muses, if they survive, can bear witness to the reality of their early struggles. For this production, we have chosen to imagine that the characters of the opera may act as our interpreters. If Schaunard, the composer, is represented in the pit by Puccini himself, the scenic world that the students inhabit is as if painted by Marcello. Every surface of the set is a canvas drawn from the same rich and chaotic pictorial world as that of Toulouse-Lautrec -- a contemporary of Puccini and an artist who was also obsessed with Paris’s bohemian underworld.

The essential tone of La Bohème is comedic. Although dirt poor and struggling artistically, these students take life in its stride. They are witty, ironic, mocking and irreverent, dismissive of authority, and caustic about middle class values. Were it not for the intensity with which they suffer emotionally, Bohème would be an outright comedy with a sad ending. But this is comedy with a distinctly French ingredient, the same essential mixture of emotions that Balzac achieved in his Comèdie Humaine: genuine laughter, sometimes angry, sometimes joyous, but always mixed with tears. Just beyond every sad thought, a joke is waiting to assault us; just behind every joyful experience lurks a bitter regret. Herein lies the true genius of Puccini’s achievement. He has managed to find a musical language that perfectly reflects [Henri] Murger’s comedic world. Puccini has given every one of Murger’s characters a musical specificity that allows them to move from laughter to tears and back again with effortless ease. And the orchestral background is full of the most lovingly crafted detail in support of their emotional journeys.”
Hadleigh Adams (Schaunard), Christian Van Horn (Colline), Alexey
Markov (Marcello) and Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo) in Act I of
Puccini's La Bohème (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

It's so refreshing to attend a performance of Puccini's classic in which the audience's focus is on the characters rather than a superstar tenor or soprano. With an impassioned radiance befitting young lovers and the eagerness of four young, impoverished male students, the cast for 2014's revival proved to be exceptional. Tenor Michael Fabiano, who has been attracting increased attention in operatic circles (as well as winning both the 2014 Richard Tucker Award and 2014 Beverly Sills Artist Award) proved to be a tender and attentive Rodolfo. As Marcello, Alexey Markov delivered a solid performance (both vocally and dramatically). As Colline, Christian Van Horn excelled in his Act IV "coat" aria.

Nadine Sierra as Musetta in Puccini's La Bohème
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

It was gratifying to see three graduates of the Merola Opera Program in key roles. Soprano Nadine Sierra was a spitfire Musetta with veteran Dale Travis providing comic relief as both Benoit and Alcindoro. However, it was the fluid and touchingly attentive performance by Hadleigh Adams as Schaunard which completely captivated me (it's rare to encounter a Schaunard who can demonstrate so much genuine charisma and communicate so much compassion).

Greek soprano Alexia Voulgaridou contributed a tender and vulnerable portrayal of Mimi. If Puccini's young lovers and their friends did not always seem hungry for love, there was never any doubt that they were all starving for an as-yet unrealized future. Here's some footage from the production:

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

OMG, That's SO Gay!

The late Joan Rivers was famous for pushing the envelope as hard and as far as possible. One of her signature lines, "Can we talk?" may disappear from the vernacular in years to come.

In recent years, the phrase "That's so gay!" has come under fire for its pejorative use by younger generations. But for those who lived through the Stonewall riots, the Castro clone subculture, and the darkest days of the AIDS crisis, "That's so gay!" often had quite another meaning. Whether used to describe performance art or fashion, "That's so gay!" indicated recognition and approval of someone's effort to stand out from the crowd.
  • Do you remember those hunky gay men at discos and dance clubs who (long after Sally Rand's career in burlesque had ended) reinvented the fan dance?
  • What about that float in a gay pride parade that featured a group of men dressed in widow's weeds and veils holding a sign that said "Gays Against Brunch"?
  • Or those Halloween nights when a gay man impersonating Bette Davis (and dressed in her costume from All About Eve) could be seen, cigarette in hand, directing traffic at a busy intersection?
From Stewie Griffin to Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple In All The World; from The Ambiguously Gay Duo to Queer Duck, some characters and popular entertainers are so flamboyantly gay that there is simply no point in arguing about it.

The Bay area's oldest and largest gay theatre companies scored strongly this month with shows that were custom made for gay audiences. One had previously been presented in 2012 at DIVAFest; the other was a raucous world premiere that made the most of a limited budget and a fertile imagination.

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Although I'm allergic to cats and have absolutely no appetite for cunnilingus, I fell head over heels in love with Pussy. Maura Halloran's insightful and often hilarious monologue allows her to do a tidy bit of shapeshifting as she transforms herself from the feline mistress of her owner's apartment into the following three women:
  • Leslie: a conservative Vancouver-based lesbian who is developing an interest in women's softball. Although Leslie hasn't always self-identified as gay, by the end of Halloran's monologue she has lost all interest in her church's women's auxiliary after learning that her lover has slept with all of its members. "They're all sluts," sighs Leslie.
  • Jo: Leslie's extremely narcissistic, manipulative, perpetually unemployed, and unfaithful girlfriend. A libidinous lesbian from London who found Leslie on the Internet, Jo has had a jealous hissy fit, hopped a plane to a gay-friendly resort in Ibiza, and is vengefully charging her trip, hotel meals, and drinks to Leslie's credit card without knowing that the card was cancelled.
  • Ana: The widowed and slightly homophobic Russian landlady who lives downstairs from Leslie, disapproves of Jo, and is feeling strangely curious about the nice lady upstairs. Ana also has some reservations about women who use strap-on penises.

Halloran's idea for building a monologue around pussy came from real life:
"Originally inspired by a lesbian couple I knew in Vancouver whose insane indoor cat loved one woman and hunted the other as prey, this piece grew to explore 'outsider' identities in queer community, mixing my own narratives of faith, divorce, and abusive relationships and generous interviews with queer friends and artists.Very loosely based on true events, this piece is a tribute to the tribulations of trying to find your groove when you don't like the music. It’s a tale of love, sex, love-sex, hate-sex, vampires, unicorns, softball, faith, and three outsiders whose fates triangulate around one spectacular cat. "
Maura Halloran in Pussy (Photo by: Claire Rice)

Beautifully directed by Claire Rice, Halloran's 60-minute performance piece is an absolute delight. Whether slithering around her owner's apartment, stalking and destroying household objects on a whim, or portraying the three conflicted women whose interests in each other are more than merely sexual, Halloran delivers a mischievous performance filled with feline feistiness, a dictionary listing of the various types of dykes, direct challenges to Jesus, and some bitchy moments of betrayal.

Maura Halloran in Pussy (Photo by: George Rand)

Cat lovers will love Pussy. Lesbians will love Pussy. If you're a fan of the Simon's Cat series of animated shorts on YouTube and have yearned to see how a jealous cat might undermine a lesbian relationship, then you're in dire need of some Pussy. Ordinary theatregoers will find themselves laughing at more pussy jokes than they remember hearing from Mrs. Slocombe on Are You Being Served?

Last, but not least, Halloran's writing is exceptional. As Leslie calmly explains to her priest: "It is not clear in the Bible what Jesus thinks about lesbians, but it is pretty clear that he is okay with prostitutes." Performances of Halloran's delicious theatrical kitty treat continue at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through November 30 (click here to order tickets).

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Over the years, John Fisher has developed a reputation for being able to create a spectacle on an extremely tight budget. The artistic director of Theatre Rhinoceros recently wrote, premiered, and performed in the world premiere of The Battle of Midway! Live! Onstage! at A.C.T.'s Costume Shop (a black box theater on Market Street). With music by Don Seaver (who accompanied the show on piano), this is one of the most delightfully tacky musicals to come down the pike in a long, long time.

If you've ever clapped your hands to show Tinker Bell that you believe in fairies, Fisher's latest opus could be just your kind of thing. As he explains in his production note:
"The Battle of Midway! Live! Onstage! is a work of fiction based on fact. It is also a musical comedy. As history, it therefore should be taken with a bucket of salt. For the facts, the best books on the subject are Dan Van der Vat's The Pacific Campaign, Walter Lord's Incredible Victory: The Battle of Midway, and Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully's Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. And then there are the movies with Charlton Heston and John Wayne. I grew up loving all those loud war movies and ended up a pacificist, so what I'm left with is a love for all the campy posturing of the old flicks. This is my tribute to that genre. And I do think war is bad."
Poster art for The Battle of Midway: Live! Onstage!

The show begins as Donald Currie totters out before the audience clad in a bathrobe and clutching a tiny American flag in one hand as he leans on his walker. Reminding the audience that, back in the good old days, people fought in a different kind of war -- the kind where you had respect for your enemy -- he barks: "Pay attention, you young whippersnappers."

Currie later appears in drag as Martha -- the wife of Admiral Fletch (John Fisher) -- and dressed in a hilariously cheap costume as Midway Island.

John Fisher (Admiral Fletch) and Donald Currie (Martha) sing
"We're Fifty" in The Battle of Midway! Live! Onstage!
(Photo by David Wilson.)

In between his constant admonishments warning the stuttering Admiral Fletch not to fuck things up, Currie's Admiral Nim (short for Nimitz) continually locks horns with the sexy and successful young Admiral Bull (Justin Lucas) who has a tendency to rip off his shirt and start dancing or performing one-armed push-ups.

Admiral Bull (Justin Lucas) and Admiral Nim (Donald Currie) disagree
in The Battle of Midway! Live! Onstage! (Photo by: David Wilson) 

When he's not flying a Navy bomber or impersonating a board member of a gay nonprofit theatre, Lucas also appears in drag as Michiko (a Japanese girl in love with one of Emperor Hirohito's brave pilots). At various points in the evening, he also appears with Katina Letheule as two snotty arts patrons.  Yes, Virginia, it's that kind of a show!

Kirsten Peacock (Hiro) and Justin Lucas (Michiko) sing "Young Love"
in The Battle of Midway! Live! Onstage! (Photo by David Wilson).

In between tossing barbs at foundations who are stingy with arts grants, the "other" gay theatre company down the street, and mocking his own reputation within San Francisco's arts community as a character named "Jack," Fisher is performing energetically as a incompetent Navy admiral. He is aided immensely by JD Scalzo in a variety of supporting roles. Special kudos go to props designer Gilbert Johnson, whose inventiveness has given the company a way to sink cardboard cutouts of ships using pencils to represent torpedoes.

Lacking an official choreographer, Fisher's low-budget 2-1/2 hour mini-extravaganza wages air-and-sea battles that reflect the fevered imagination of a nine-year-old boy who sat in front of his family's television watching Victory at Sea a few too many times. So let's be brutally honest: When a musical comedy features a song entitled "Rosie The Riveter Was A Big Dyke," an audience is fully justified in saying "OMG, That's SO Gay!"

Naomi Evans (Rosie) and Kirsten Peacock (Posie) in
The Battle of Midway! Live! Onstage! (Photo by David Wilson)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Inquiring Minds Want To Know

What happens when a person's world is suddenly, irrevocably, turned upside down? Whether due to the unexpected hungry stare of a handsome stranger or a piece of hot shrapnel piercing one's body, things can never be quite the same.

If all is fair in love and war, can the wounds of a broken heart be any worse than those of an amputated limb? Can the threat of letting someone reveal your secrets be worse for the person who is a notorious dictator than it is for the macho man who always assumed his sexual identity was that of a predatory top?

The introduction of new and dangerous thoughts can go a long way toward undermining someone's sense of security. For some people it can involve little more than fun and games. But for others, probing a person's subconscious might just mean that the sun won't come out tomorrow. Two Bay area productions set in different parts of Africa toyed with the delicate footwork necessary for maintaining one's integrity and credibility -- against all odds.

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Joe Calarco's fiercely economic adaptation of Romeo and Juliet places four actors on a unit set with minimal furniture. Their goal is to portray four young men at an upscale male boarding school whose administration has forbidden any reading of Shakespeare's famous tragedy about two star-crossed lovers in Verona. Having purloined a copy of Romeo and Juliet, the boys set about reading it and enacting passages from the play in secret sessions.

Under the best of circumstances, the students in Calarco's play (which employs a great deal of Shakespeare's original text) learn about such emotionally loaded issues as lust, love, betrayal, and death at the height of their hormonally-intensified adolescence while audiences derive new insights into Shakespeare's text. Under less than ideal conditions, there is a lot of noisy grappling by four immature jocks who (when they are not making lewd gestures,  dry humping each other, or performing mincing impersonations of older women such as Lady Capulet and Juliet's nurse) are essentially playing a game of Hot Potato with a forbidden book.

Adam Odsess-Rubin as Romeo in Shakespeare's R&J
(Photo by: Lois Tema) 

The latter proved to be the unfortunate case with New Conservatory Theatre Center's revival of Shakespeare's R&J. A confusing production in which the most outstanding work seemed to come from lighting designer Christian Mejia, NCTC's cast featured Adam Odsess-Rubin as a somewhat closeted Romeo, Taj Campbell as a hotblooded Juliet, Mike Sagun as Juliet's tired old nurse, and James Arthur M. (taking on a variety of characters such as Tybalt, Friar Laurence, and Prince Escalus).

The gimmick chosen for this production was to set the tale in modern-day Egypt (an excerpt from Bel Trew's June 2014 article for The Daily Beast entitled Al-Sisi's Egypt Is Worse For Gays Than The Muslim Brotherhood is reprinted in the program). Recent news stories have revealed how the GPS features of social media apps like Grindr can jeopardize the safety of gay men in the Middle East. Those unfamiliar with such homophobic attacks should read Saudi Arabia Jails Gay Man for 1 year, $26k Fine, For Cruising Gay Social Networks on Cell Phone by John Aravosis.

James Arthur M., Adam Odsess-Rubin, Mike Sagun, and Taj Campbell
in Shakespeare's R&J (Photo by: Lois Tema)

As one enters the theatre, one quickly notices that Yusuke Soi's unit set features a blackboard with two lines of text written in Arabic. Throughout the production, two kefiyehs (one red and white, the other black and white) are used to indicate whether a character belongs to the Capulets or the Montagues. However, in NCTC's production, there is little indication that these Catholic prep school boys have any awareness of their minority status as Coptic Christians or latent queers. In his program note, NCTC's artistic director, Ed Decker, writes:
"R&J is a play about far more than gender or sexual identity. It is also about individuality, friendship, status, geography, violence, politics, core values, and finding love even when surrounded by conflict of revolutionary proportions. When NCTC Artistic Associate and Resident Director Ben Randle and I were pondering a revival of Shakespeare's R&J by Joe Calarco, we wanted to do something bold, fresh, and relevant. Hence the decision to revisit the story of four repressed students in a parochial school for boys who discover in Romeo and Juliet a forbidden text that becomes far more dangerous when set against the backdrop of post-Arab Spring Cairo. Adolescence is a difficult time at best. Just imagine the added challenges should you happen to live in a country that makes sport of entrapment and then persecutes you even before you may have figured out your own true nature. Such is the reality in many countries around the globe including Egypt. Though homosexuality itself is not illegal in Egypt, public homosexual acts are and gay citizens have been convicted for breaching laws of public decency."
 Adam Odsess-Rubin (Romeo) and  Taj Campbell (Juliet)
in Shakespeare's R&J (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

My own suspicion is that this interpretation of Romeo and Juliet has a lot more to do with the age of the boys in Shakespeare's R&J (early high school) than with the age of the actors and the audience. According to most sources, Shakespeare's Juliet was two weeks short of her 14th birthday at the time of her death; Romeo was about 15 or 16 years old.
  • From 13-16, a teenager acts impulsively and may be more driven by titillation.
  • From 16-19, a teenager is refining his/her powers of manipulation and may be more keenly interested in sexual experimentation ("If it feels good, do it").
  • From 20-30, most people are developing an appreciation for their sexual powers and emotional strengths while undergoing a process of maturation.
  • By the time they've turned 30, actors and audiences alike have a more profound admiration for Shakespeare's work.
Adam Odsess-Rubin as Romeo in Shakespeare's R&J (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

For the most part, Randle's production did a better job of conveying how well his four students were able to recite Shakespeare's text than gain any insights from it. Toward the end of the evening, the use of several key lines from A Midsummer Night's Dream (as well as the sound design by Stephen Abts which included some popular music sung in French) tended to dilute the evening's intent to comment on gay life in Egypt.

As stated above, I left the theatre feeling far more impressed by Christian Mejia's lighting than Calarco's play. Taj Campbell's work as Student #2 (Juliet) stood a few notches above the other members of the cast. However, it's interesting to note that in Private Romeo (Alan Brown's excellent film that was inspired by Calarco's play) the students are more developed -- both physically and psychologically -- which allows there to be a huge difference in their burgeoning awareness of how Shakespeare's text relates to certain unexplored parts of their psyches.

For those wishing deeper insights into the adaptability of Shakespeare's tragedy beyond the mass appeal of West Side Story, let me recommend viewing Private Romeo and Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish. Here are their respective trailers:

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Like Calarco's play, Breakfast With Mugabe (a fictional tug of war between the aging black President of Zimbabwe and the white psychiatrist his second wife has recruited to explore her husband's increasing bouts of paranoia and depression) takes place on a unit set and requires only four actors. Their characters, however, are far more complex than those in Shakespeare's R&J.

Since his rise to power, Robert Mugabe has been hailed by some as the founding father of Zimbabwe and compared by others to such ruthless Shakespearean villains as Macbeth. In a recent article for The New York Times entitled In Zimbabwe’s Succession Battle, Mugabe Pulls the Strings, Alan Cowell examined the craziness that dominates Zimbabwean politics as well as the political power wielded by Mugabe and his second wife, Grace. In a recent editorial for Nehanda Radio, pro-democracy advocate Moses Chamboko (the Interim Secretary General for ZUNDE) writes:
"The seeds of hatred, mistrust, suspicion and betrayal have been planted. It is just a matter of time before ZANU PF starts harvesting bitter fruit. If a whole Vice President were to lose her job because somebody somewhere dislikes the colour or size of her skirts, it would take a person like William Shakespeare to write a meaningful script on this episode."
The Aurora Theatre Company recently offered the West Coast premiere of Fraser Grace's tense battle of wits and egos in a production handsomely designed by Nina Ball and artfully directed by Jon Tracy with costumes designed by Callie Floor. Aurora's ensemble deals with much more complex personalities who are struggling with the kind of political and psychological pressures that could easily sabotage their futures.

Grace Mugabe (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) confronts Andrew Peric
(Dan Hiatt) in Breakfast With Mugabe  (Photo by: David Allen) 

The action takes place in October 2001 (in the month preceding Zimbabwe's 2002 Presidential elections) and is set in a room in the State House in the capital of Harare. With help from video designer Micah J. Stieglitz, the production offers two characters based on real people and two based on imaginary figures.  For starters, there are:
  • Robert Mugabe (L. Peter Callender), the justifiably feared President of Zimbabwe who was born in Southern Rhodesia in 1924 and married his second wife when he was 72 and she was 31. Under Mugabe's rule, Zimbabweans have had to cope with severe food shortages, terror camps, a culture of corruption, and a one-party political system. On the same day that Nelson Mandela celebrated his 90th birthday, Mugabe was stripped of the knighthood bestowed upon him by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994. 
  • Grace Mugabe (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), Mugabe's second wife (who is referred to by many critics as "The First Shopper" and "Gucci Grace"). A shrewd operator, she is a fierce guardian of her husband's power but worries that he might be losing his grip on reality. Grace is especially concerned about her husband's insistence that he is being haunted by by the malevolent spirit (called a ngozi in the Xshoa language) of a former political rival.
Leontyne Mbele-Mbong and Dan Hiatt in the opening scene of
Breakfast with Mugabe (Photo by: David Allen)

Then there are the imagined characters:
  • Gabriel (Adrian Roberts), Mugabe's right-hand man whose thuggish behavior can easily intimidate anyone who manages to get past Grace Mugabe.
  • Andrew Peric (Dan Hiatt), a white psychiatrist who works at the hospital close to the State House. Descended from a family of white Rhodesian farmers, Peric is married to a black woman.
Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, Adrian Roberts, and Dan Hiatt
in Breakfast with Mugabe (Photo by: David Allen) 
Breakfast With Mugabe pits a politically naive psychiatrist against the megalomaniacal egos of Robert and Grace Mugabe (which makes it nearly impossible for Peric to treat the Zimbabwean tyrant as he would any other patient, yet ensures his near destruction the moment he displeases the Mugabes). Peter L. Callender offers a forceful portrayal of Mugabe as a highly educated and experienced power player with Leontyne Mbele-Mbong running interference as his concerned wife. Dan Hiatt delivers another beautifully layered performance as Peric, with Adrian Roberts bringing the muscle as Gabriel.

L. Peter Callender and Dan Hiatt lock horns in
Breakfast with Mugabe (Photo by: David Allen) 

There are times when Jon Tracy's tightly-paced production makes one wonder if Fraser Grace's play should have been subtitled "Africa's Lord and Lady Macbeth in Swimming With Crocodiles." Performances of Breakfast With Mugabe continue at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley through December 14 (click here to order tickets).