Thursday, April 16, 2015

We Are Family

One often hears about people who hunger for unconditional love. But the opportunity to receive unconditional love starts very early in life. A great deal of one's success depends on the type of parenting a child receives.

The Washington Post recently published a provocative article by Jennifer S. Hirsch entitled "A Scientific Look At The Damage Parents Do When They Bully Their Gay Kids." Its findings are no surprise to anyone who is gay or who has experienced adverse reactions from their family upon coming out. My mother didn't talk to me for two years after she learned that I was gay but, by then, her use of the silent treatment as a weapon was pretty much old news. Over the years, much of her love was so  specifically conditioned on her feelings about how much her children and grandchildren weighed that, as painful as the experience might have been, we learned not to seek her out as a source of affection.

In recent years, each of the Left Coast Theatre Company's writers' workshops has led to an evening in which a half dozen short plays are staged in rapid succession. According to the program notes for its latest show:
"LCTC was formed in the spring of 2012 from the successful gay men's writing group, GuyWriters Playwrights. After several successful productions of the Eat Our Shorts series of short plays, the main writers/producers decided to create our own company to focus on producing original queer-themed plays written by local and national playwrights. No longer concentrating on the works of just gay men, Left Coast aims to foster the works of all writers interested in producing the best queer-themed works possible. The company has also expanded its productions from one show a year to two anthology shows, a staged reading series, a 24-hour play festival, and a holiday show."
If the company's current offering (#WTFamily) succeeds better than some of its past efforts, I suspect it might be for two reasons.
  1. A stronger synergy evolving through LCTC's writers' workshops.
  2. Finding a topic which might be more inspirational to writers than usual.
Nearly a half century after Mart Crowley introduced audiences to a group of glib, self-hating homosexuals in 1968's The Boys in the Band, the literature of gay drama is taking a turn for the better. Instead of people dying under falling trees or being gay bashed in locations ranging from New York City to Laramie, Wyoming, playwrights and screenwriters are writing material for LGBT people who are fully out of the closet and have stopped anguishing about the fact that they're gay.

From Queer as Folk to Will & Grace, from Transparent to Modern Family, Americans have been exposed to LGBT people who know who they are, are not necessarily begging for acceptance, and no longer feel doomed. The writers whose works are featured in #WTFamily have taken that premise and applied their imaginations to it with surprisingly cogent results. Subtitled "Six plays in search of the reason families are so.... full of character," #WTFamily includes the following six shorts.

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Written and directed by Chris Maltby, Who Are These People? follows the self-inflicted trials of Josh (Richard S. Sargent), a neurotic gay man who, after several unlucky adventures in love, has finally found happiness with Michael (Chris Nguyen), a sweet and gorgeous hunk who, instead of getting caught up in Josh's whirlpools of anxiety, is just as content to look at his smartphone. With things going well in their relationship, Josh's best friend, Susie (Melanie Marshall), has to calm him down when the spectre of bringing Michael home to meet his family at Thanksgiving looms on the horizon.

Michael seems to have no problem with the idea of meeting Josh's family. Nor does Dan (Joel Canon), Josh's very butch brother, who insists on calling Michael "Mike" and asks "Mike" if he'd like to smell his new bowling ball.

Gabrielle Motarjemi and Richard S. Sargent in a scene
from Who Are These People (Photo by: Jake O'Kelly)

Just when Josh thinks things couldn't possibly gets worse, his mother, Sarah (Gabrielle Motarjemi), starts talking about the naked wine tastings that she and her husband, Bill (John Sampson), have started attending. While this is much too much information for Josh to handle, Michael seems completely unfazed by it, explaining that (just for starters) he has one elderly family member whose shotgun always has to be loaded with blanks by a family member before company arrives. No one cares that Michael is gay. Besides, he loves Josh and has no plans to look elsewhere for romantic or sexual satisfaction.

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Written by Eli Effinger-Weintraub and directed by Scott Boswell, Wingman gives new meaning to the phrase "How I Met Your Mother." Deb (Janessa Olsen) is a newly single and highly stressed lesbian who owns a bakery. For the past six weeks she has been coming to a women's bar to ogle Brenda (Dezi Soley), a sexy bartender

Janessa Olsen (Deb), Dezi Soley (Brenda), and Maya
Mahrer (Marian) in Wingman (Photo by: Jake O'Kelly)

On this particular evening, Deb's pushy mother, Marian (Maya Mahrer) has convinced Deb to make barhopping a mother-daughter night out on the town. While Deb has been in the ladies' room, Marian (who has a thick New York accent) has been handing out her daughter's business cards to anyone she thinks is single. When mother and daughter start to argue, Marian tells Deb "You should thank me. I could save you a fortune on batteries!"

Much to Deb's surprise, Brenda finds Marian absolutely adorable and informs Deb that she plans to make use of the business card she was given while Deb was out of the room.

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Monogamy is a loaded word in relationships that are just getting started. Some people want a steady supply of one person's love, others prefer to approach sex "cafeteria style." Written by Terry Mahoney Haley and directed by Tracy Martin Shearer, Falling spices up the old formula. The two people who are enjoying a moment of post-coital bliss are:
  • Tina (Melanie Marshall), a lusty young woman who was raised by two gay dads; and
  • Dylan (JD Scalzo), a handsome young man who was raised by two lesbians and who tried having sex with a few men before deciding that he was straight or, at the very least, bisexual.
Melanie Marshall and JD Scalzo in a scene from Falling 
(Photo by: Jake O'Kelly)

Their different perspectives on how to define sex and/or love show the effects of gay parenting once the children come of age. Needless to say, there are lots of nervous laughs during this short play.

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Runaway takes an impressive new twist in examining the source of tension between a straight mother and her gay son. Written by Charles Zito and directed by Debi Durst, the action focuses on Tommy (Michael Navarro), a 16-year-old who runs away to visit his gay uncle Tony (Chris Maltby) in Manhattan because Tommy's helicopter mother won't let his boyfriend spend the night with him under her roof.

Michael Navarro and Chris Maltby in a scene from Runaway
(Photo by: Jake O'Kelly)

The conflict turns out to be less about Tommy's burgeoning sexuality than about the fact that his uncle still thinks that no one in the family knows he's gay. Kim Saunders delivers a powerful performance as Tommy's hysterical mother (who is in no mood to take any crap from her gay brother).

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In Shiny Pair of Complications (written by J. Stephen Brantley and directed by Richard Sargent), a high maintenance homosexual named Kevin (JD Scalzo) is about to get married to his boyfriend. While Kevin has no trouble managing a high-pressure fashion-related reality show on television, he's much more troubled and unsure of himself in the presence of his estranged father.

John Simpson and JD Scalzo in a scene from
Shiny Pair of Complications (Photo by: Jake O'Kelly)

Although Kevin has lots of unresolved issues with Tom (John Simpson), the truth is that his father (who has never liked wearing a tie -- much less cufflinks) is just trying to understand a whole new world and find a way to tell his son that he loves him unconditionally.

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The evening's final piece is a rowdy farce written and directed by Rodney Rhoda Taylor and co-directed by Debi Durst. In Motherly Advice, James (Neil Higgins) is an extremely nervous gay man who is worried about a sex tape he and his older lover made and stored on a DVD (which, no matter how hard he searches, he cannot find). Sam (Justin O'Kelly) is a much more level-headed Daddy type who is eager to marry James.

Gabrielle Motarjemi, Justin O'Kelly, andNeil Higgins in a
scene from Motherly Advice  (Photo by: Jake O'Kelly)

Complicating matters are James's obnoxious sister, Mel (Lauren LeBeouf), whose smartphone is all too often set on "Record" and their mother, Diane (Gabrielle Motarjemi), who is a licensed sex therapist. When Diane returns home and finds her son having trouble committing to Sam, she goes into her professional therapist mode and, to her son's utter chagrin, starts bonding with Sam. Once Diane has resolved all the issues in the room, she informs her son that she really enjoyed watching that DVD his sister slipped in with the movies she watched during her weekend getaway!

Performances of #WTFamily continue through April 26 at the Shelton Theatre (click here to order tickets).

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

You Are Now Entering The Twilight Zone

It's amazing how ideas which were first expressed as works of science fiction and futuristic fantasy have become commonplace items in today's society. Among the famous works of fiction created by Jules Verne are such novels as Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863), and From the Earth to the Moon (1865). In 1902, the French silent film pioneer Georges Méliès completed his science fiction classic, A Trip to the Moon.

Designed by Norman Bel Geddes and displayed at the 1939 New York World's Fair, the Futurama exhibit floated the idea of an automated highway system. As Bel Geddes saw it:
"Futurama is a large-scale model representing almost every type of terrain in America and illustrating how a motorway system may be laid down over the entire country -- across mountains, over rivers and lakes, through cities and past towns -- never deviating from a direct course and always adhering to the four basic principles of highway design: safety, comfort, speed and economy."
Since then, such unthinkable ideas as driverless cars, underwater hotels, supersonic planes, and pocket-sized computers have all become realities. In a bizarre way, the process by which a product is accepted into and becomes a part of popular culture is best demonstrated by these three depictions of Bizarro (the supervillain created as an evil mirror image of Superman).

As a teenager, I remember watching episodes of The Twilight Zone on television because it was a new and daring program. Although I was too young to appreciation much of the science fiction behind the series, there was no doubt that some of Rod Serling's twisted stories were brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed.

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Two of the most provocative shorts screened during CAAMfest 2015 focused on how technology has changed our lives. In a nine-minute fantasy filmed at Lighthouse Waffles and Cake in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles, director Wen Ren examined  the impact of smartphones, online dating, and social media on real-life interactions between human beings. Here's how the filmmaker describes what inspired him:
"On February 14th, 2013 (Valentine's Day) I walked into a café in Rowland Heights with my girlfriend at the time and had a flash vision. A vision of what the future would look like. On Valentine's Day, I saw couples with their heads and eyes angled down at their tablets and smartphones as if they were in an exclusive relationship (not with the person across the table but with their devices). I spent  about half an hour watching everyone and noticed almost ZERO human interaction throughout the café. Was this the direction of the future? More relevantly, has the singularity already happened? I was seriously about to jump on top a table and yell at everyone to wake up and pay attention to the individual sitting in front of them (be it their lover, friend, family, etc.) but, instead of doing that, I ended up going home and writing. The next best thing. I knew I just had to make a futuristic comedy farce about how incredible yet stupid our future would look. This became my film, Cafe Glass."
Poster art for Cafe Glass

Ren's visually gorgeous film stars Devin Goodsell as Zayne (his online name) who, in real life is simply known as Steve. The film takes some vicious swipes at "Glassholes" (people who were quick to purchase Google Glass devices) as they try cruising an Internet Café in which their technology allows them to zoom in on any person and immediately check out their online profile to see whether or not that person is worthy of attention.

A scene from Cafe Glass

When the café's network goes down (and everyone suddenly loses their connectivity), people become increasingly agitated as they are forced to stop hiding behind their technology and must instead resort to the basic social skills they learned as children. Can they succeed at offline dating? Here's the trailer:

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For those who have followed the Death with Dignity movement or wished that euthenasia was legal in the United States, the style and spirit of Rod Serling will seem oddly evident in Juhee Jane So's stunning eight-minute short entitled 2050: A Room of His Own.

Four decades after Apple introduced Siri to consumers, technology has evolved to new levels in a world where little, if any, human contact is the norm. But don't take my word for it. You can watch 2050: A Room of His Own in its entirety in the following video:

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Crowded Fire Theater is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of Idris Goodwin's challenging cultural comedy entitled Blackademics (otherwise known as The Black Academic's Guide to Winning Tenure Without Losing Your Soul). The action takes place in an extremely exclusive and mysteriously minimalist restaurant (a stark unit set designed by Mikiko Uesugi that ominously features a wide variety of cutting boards on its walls) which aims to give its customers an unforgettable experience with its unique approach to "endurance cuisine."

Georgia (Michele Apriña Leavy), Rachelle (Lauren Spencer), and 
Ann (Safiya Fredericks) in a scene from Blackademics 
(Photo by: Pak Han) 

Some claim that Goodwin's play is an absurdist take on post-racial America. However, I saw it as an updated version of Hansel and Gretel in which the restaurant's strangely-mannered hostess, Georgia (Michele Apriña Leavy), is a modern-day equivalent of the witch, Rosina Daintymouth. Her dinner guests on this particular occasion are:
  • Ann (Safiya Fredericks), a college professor in her late 30s who teaches courses in popular culture and African American psychology at a liberal arts university located somewhere in the Midwest. Ann has invited her closest friend to join her in celebrating the fact that she has just been granted tenure by her employer.
  • Rachelle (Lauren Spencer), is Ann's friend, confidant and, in a sisterly way, competitor. She teaches African-American studies and rhetoric at a local community college (from which she was recently fired because, as an out lesbian who is lighter skinned than Ann, Rachelle didn't seem "black" enough).  To add insult to injury, the powers that be felt that with other minorities gaining more media attention, Rachelle's presence might no longer be needed on campus.
Lauren Spencer (Rachelle) and Safiya Fredericks (Ann)
in a scene from Blackademics (Photo by: Pak Han)

Under Mina Morita's direction, Ann and Rachelle end up airing lots of grievances, trying to one-up one another, and vying for each little tidbit (a bean, a glass of water, a salad, a chair) that Georgia is willing to bestow on one or the other. But when Georgia's murderous intentions finally become clear, the two women that she has drugged realize that their only way out of a desperate situation is to join forces to kill off the hostess with the mostest.

Rachelle (Lauren Spencer), Georgia (Michele Apriña Leavy), and Ann
(Safiya Fredericks) in a scene from Blackademics (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Initially fueled by hunger, jealousy, resentment, and pride, Ann and Rachelle struggle to regain control of their limbs after Georgia (who, earlier in the play, insisted on confiscating Ann's smartphone) has basted Ann's arms and face with coconut oil, handed Rachelle a knife and fork, and reappeared with a meat cleaver.

Goodwin has written some wonderful zingers for Ann and Rachelle although I must admit to being unfamiliar with quite a few cultural references. For much of Blackademics, Georgia gets solid laughs merely for her quirkiness. But as the two African American professors fight for their lives, it helps to remember a comment Ann made at the beginning of the play (when she recalled that the university had even picked out this restaurant for her celebratory dinner). Could that mean that the university has its own outsourced mechanism for making sure that African American professors don't get very far? You be the judge.

Although there are moments in Goodwin's play when Ann and Rachelle spout enough "academic talk" to make one's eyes glaze over, the energy level switches from friendly competition to unhinged desperation once they realize what it will cost to earn a seat at Georgia's table. Performances of Blackademics continue through May 2 at Thick House (click here to order tickets).

Monday, April 13, 2015

Finding A Place Called Hope

For those who have lived through a half century of the LGBT civil rights movement, it's sobering to look at the theatrical literature that has evolved since gays and lesbians started coming out. A quick sampling of important gay plays includes the following:

One of the most frequent quotes invoked by President Barack Obama comes from the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  Despite years of social progress for many groups that had traditionally been kept in the shadows by the media, during the Obama administration the media has become much more responsible with regard to focusing on issues that affect minorities -- from veterans and African Americans to Native Americans and the disabled.

One minority group which has enjoyed a noticeable acceleration in its political progress along the path to obtaining civil rights has been the LGBT community. From same-sex marriage to an awareness of homophobic bullying, from the end of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy to President Obama's statements about the need to end the loathsome practice of conversion therapies for gay youth, there has been a steady improvement in the recognition and understanding of LGBT issues.

While recent attempts to encode discrimination against gays in state RFRA laws have generated media storms (with some surprising results), one is constantly reminded of the famous quote from Harvey Milk "You gotta give them hope."

As a measure of how far things have progressed since Milk made his famous speech, consider the TEDx speech given last year by Thomas Lloyd, a senior at Georgetown University majoring in Science, Technology & International Affairs who coached debate students for four years at his alma mater (The Bronx High School of Science) and served as the President of GUPride (Georgetown’s LGBTQ Student group).

In 2015, it's often hard to believe that the LGBT community was once nearly invisible. For some, "the love that dare not speak its name" has become "the minority that won't shut the fuck up." But playwrights continue to mine some remarkable material in exploring the stories of people who, whether in the popular media or dramatic literature, are largely underrepresented.

Bay area audiences are currently enjoying two poignant productions which focus on a different group of underrepresented citizens: America's mountain people. From the lush beauty of the Ozarks to the hardscrabble lives of coal miners in Appalachia, these plays tear at the heart as their characters struggle with questionable futures and an overwhelming sense of emotional desperation.

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In memory of Lanford Wilson (who died on March 24, 2011), the Aurora Theatre Company is presenting two plays from Wilson's trilogy (Talley & Son, Talley's Folly, and Fifth of July) beginning with Talley's Folly, which had its world premiere on May 1, 1979 at the Circle Repertory Company with Judd Hirsch as Matt and Trish Hawkins as Sally.

As directed by Joy Carlin, Talley's Folly (which received the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) is a beautiful one-act play which offers complex, multi-layered roles for two actors. Working with a small unit set designed and lit by Jon Tracy in the Aurora Theatre's second performing space (Harry's Upstage), the cast delivers 97 minutes of pure theatrical magic. In the following clip, the playwright explains what inspired the unusual prologue he wrote for Talley's Folly.

The action takes place in the old Victorian boathouse (an architectural folly) on the Talley family's property in Lebanon, Missouri on July 4, 1944. Wilson's two scar-crossed lovers are:
  • Matt Friedman (Rolf Saxon), a middle-aged Jewish tax accountant from St. Louis who may have been born in Lithuania, but made his way to America after his family (a Prussian father, a Ukrainian mother, and a sister born in Latvia) met a horrible fate at the hands of German and French authorities during World War I. As a result of his experiences in Europe, Matt swore that he would never bring a child into this world.
  • Sally Talley (Lauren English) comes from a wealthy Protestant family in rural Missouri. An intelligent woman who graduated from a Midwestern college, she was supposed to marry her high school sweetheart, Harley Campbell, but developed a case of tuberculosis during the Great Depression which left her unable to bear children. Although she is 11 years younger than Matt, Sally's acute awareness of her diminished worth on the local marriage market has made her cynical, and wary of love -- a spinster before her time.
Rolf Saxon (Matt) and Lauren English (Sally) in a
scene from Talley's Folly (Photo by: David Allen)

While the playwright has Matt address the audience at the beginning of the drama (explaining that what they are about to witness is a waltz), one can't help but wonder if instead of Salome's famous Dance of the Seven Veils, Matt is slowly and persistently stripping away each of Sally's defense mechanisms until she finally accepts his love and agrees to marry him. It's an odd pairing of lovers who carry enough emotional baggage to sabotage any relationship. Yet Matt and Sally have each been hoping and praying for a major change in their lives.

Wilson's writing is so gorgeous, heartfelt, and simple that it elevates the tension underlying a romantic night filled with music, fireworks, and moonlight to a rare level of theatricality. In recalling his work with the playwright, Jack Viertel wrote that:
"He loved the human voice and would repeat phrases that people spoke to him as if he was turning them over in his mind for rhythm and cadence; then filed them away for future reference. And when his characters talked, it was immediately clear that his most remarkable capacity was for taking those kinds of collected phrases and turning them into the everyday poetry of the lost, the invisibly heroic, and the unheralded. He believed that everything (love, moral action, spiritual redemption) existed at the margins of life as often as at the center."
Lauren English (Sally) and Rolf Saxon (Matt) in a
scene from Talley's Folly (Photo by: David Allen) 

This touching and intimate production is blessed with two magnificent performances. Rolf Saxon is utterly charming as Matt, while, as a sadder but wiser girl, Lauren English glows with an incandescence that is remarkable in such a small performance space. Performances of Talley's Folly continue at the Aurora Theatre Company through June 7 (click here to order tickets).

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If only the people depicted in Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman's musical, Fire on the Mountain, could have a smidgen of the hope that Matt and Sally find in Talley's Folly! For some, the evening will seem like a depressing two hours of hopelessness and helplessness in the wake of ruthless corporate greed and exploitation. Others will be able to enjoy an evening of bluegrass music performed by a multi-talented ensemble consisting of Molly Andrews, Harvy Blanks, Nik Duggan, Karen Celia Heil, David M. Lutken, Tony Marcus, Robert Parsons, Marie Shell, and Harvy Yaglijian.

Molly Andrews and David M. Lutken dance together in a
scene from Fire on the Mountain (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia, Fire on the Mountain was first staged in 2004 and has since been presented by the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Florida Studio Theatre, Northlight Theatre in Chicago, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Seattle Repertory Theatre, and Denver Center Theatre Company (among others). According to the program notes:
"A celebration of Appalachian culture and the spirit of American work ethic, the text of Fire on the Mountain is composed entirely of interviews the authors conducted with coal miners and their families in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. An homage to a rarely explored aspect of American life, the show thoughtfully delves into the ongoing danger and struggle faced by modern coal miners. Featuring projected imagery, a soulful bluegrass score, and an ensemble cast of nine talented actor-musicians, Fire on the Mountain conjures a stirringly authentic portrait of Appalachian heritage."
A coal miner (Robert Parsons) tells his son (Nik Duggan)
to go back to school in s scene from Fire on the Mountain 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Directed by Randal Myler, the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production (a regional premiere) features a unit set designed by Joe Ragey, costumes by Jill Bowers, and lighting designed by Steven B. Mannshardt. Using black-and-white slides of coal-faced miners, it follows a narrative which shows poorly-educated families struggling against poverty and slowly moves on to issues like black lung disease, miner's deaths due to unsafe working conditions, why so many coal miners' wives become widows at an early age, and the eventual organization of the coal miners to fight back against their employers.

Harvy Blanks takes a stand in a scene from
Fire on the Mountain (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

As Tony Marcus explains:
"For me, the important thing about the music in Fire on the Mountain is how it reflects the lives of the miners themselves. This isn't music that's primarily written for financial gain. It's an effort to express the joy and sorrow of their lives. Bluegrass is a musical style that came into being in the 1940s. It began with professional musicians and continues to be something folks do for a living. Stylistically, it features individual soloists exhibiting virtuosic skill and fast tempos.

In contrast, what's often called old-time music is primarily an instrumental style (or combination of styles) based on fiddle and banjo, the latter often played in clawhammer style, where the notes are sounded by the back of a fingernail in a downstroke. Instrumentally, this style tends to have multiple instruments playing melodies together with less emphasis on individual improvisation than in bluegrass. With very few exceptions, old-time music is a hobby for its practitioners. We had the opportunity to perform this show about 10 years ago in southwestern Virginia, which is coal country. Every night there would be miners and miners' families in the audience. The fact that it seemed right to them was the most important validation we could possibly have."
Harry Yaglijian, David M. Lutken, and Tony Marcus as
three doomed coal miners who are trapped underground in 
Fire on the Mountain (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In the above photo, three miners prepare to die while singing "Shut Up in the Mines of Coal Creek." Although Fire on the Mountain is very much an ensemble effort, Molly Andrews scores strongly with "Single Girl," "Miner's Prayer," "That Twenty-five Cents," and "Black Lung." Harvy Blanks brings power and poignancy to "Coal Loadin' Blues," "Which Side Are You On?' and "Drill Man's Blues" while David M. Lutken shines while performing "Old Miner's Refrain," "Blind Fiddler," "Sprinkle Coal Dust On My Grave."

A scene from Fire on the Mountain (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Although Fire on the Mountain may seem like an exercise in tough love or consciousness raising for some theatregoers, I found it to be a riveting dramatic experience resting on a solid foundation of American folk music. Performances continue through April 26 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here to order tickets).

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Meanwhile, Back at the Missing Persons Bureau

It's not that easy for a person to disappear. In today's heavily connected world, it may be possible for someone to go off the grid or take an electronic sabbatical. But if an emergency arises (or someone files a missing person report), chances are pretty good he'll be found. Unless, of course, something terrible has happened.
  • Perhaps he's been kidnapped, murdered, or drowned. 
  • Perhaps the local power utility turned off his electricity and he froze to death in the middle of winter.
  • Perhaps an old lady has died in her sleep and her pet cats have been feasting on her face.
Whenever someone goes missing, there's always a backstory which can explain their disappearance. How a writer will use that event to craft a novel, a stage drama, a screenplay, or an operatic libretto remains to be seen. Of course, that's assuming that the missing person's remains will ever be seen!

Two missing person mysteries recently took center stage in San Francisco. One was a contemporary drama making its debut as part of the National New Play Network's Rolling World Premiere program (with future productions scheduled at the Cleveland Public Theatre and the Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company in San Diego).

The other was a notorious musical comedy flop that was pronounced dead on arrival after its opening night on December 8, 1991. The theatre critic for The New York Times (Frank Rich) ended his review by stating that "We can look forward to hearing a lot more from Ms. Prince. In the meantime, there is no escaping the unfortunate fact that the liveliest thing in Nick and Nora is a corpse." Potential ticket buyers quickly said "Asta la vista!"

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Directed by Giovanna Sardelli, the San Francisco Playhouse is presenting the world premiere of In A Word (a new play by Lauren Yee) as part of its Sandbox Series. As Yee explains:
"In this play, objects have a life of their own. Objects come up again whether you want them to or not. Words also come up again, and sometimes the characters realize this or not. Time is very fluid."

Jessica Bates as Fiona in a scene from In A Word (Photo by: Fei Cai) 

The action focuses on a couple marking the two-year anniversary of their young son's disappearance. Nothing seems to make sense to the mother, Fiona (Jessica Bates), who is still clutching at straws. With the case about to be closed by the local police, Fiona has even thought it could be helpful to present the detective from the missing persons bureau with a cantaloupe that might have recently had the kidnapper's fingerprints on it. Needless to say, he's more interested in eating the cantaloupe.

Fiona's husband, Guy (Cassidy Brown), is trying to get Fiona out the door so they can at least enjoy dinner at a fancy restaurant and start to rebuild their lives. But with his wife's ongoing depression, distraction, and lack of logic, dinner seems a long way off.

Jessica Bates and Cassidy Brown in a scene from In A Word
(Photo by: Fei Cai)

The third (and, by far, most interesting) actor (Greg Ayers) keeps popping up as part of a game of Whac-a-Mole that is playing out in Fiona's mind. At any given moment he might be the photographer who snapped her son's school portrait, the principal (who was also her boss), or the kidnapper who stole her son while her car was parked at a gas station. He could also be the detective working the case, her husband's best friend, or her missing seven-year-old boy, Tristan (who might have Asperger syndrome).

Jessica Bates and Greg Ayers in a scene from In A Word
(Photo by: Fei Cai)

Despite its relatively short running time (80 minutes), it takes a while for Yee's play to gain momentum as the audience tries to follow what's going on in Fiona's extremely cluttered and confused mind. As a result, a great deal of attention is siphoned off to the actor inhabiting multiple roles, whose versatility at times may seem far more interesting than Yee's script. Thankfully, Yee steers the story to a touching resolution.

Working on a unit set designed by Catalina Nino, Sardelli's three-actor ensemble did a fine job of bringing Yee's script to life. Unfortunately, I still can't figure out the symbolism of the tree which haunts Fiona and Guy's home. Performances of In A Word continue at the Tides Theatre through April 25 (click here to order tickets).

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Nearly 25 years have passed since Nick & Nora (a musical written and directed by Arthur Laurents with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.) met a sudden demise on the Great White Way. Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett for The Thin Man (and with a cast headed by Joanna Gleason, Barry Bostwick, Christine Baranski, Faith Prince, Debra Monk, Remak Ramsay, and Chris Sarandon), the show would seem to have been blessed with many tried and tested Broadway talents.

To understand what went wrong, perhaps it's best to follow the money. Nick & Nora was apparently underfunded and, in a misguided effort to save money, the producers decided against an out-of-town tryout (opting instead to run the show through 71 preview performances). Without the perverse appeal of a vehicle like Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark (which racked up 182 preview performances prior to its opening), the money needed for marketing during Christmas season ran out. Faced with fierce competition for entertainment dollars (and having exhausted advance ticket sales from theatre parties), the producers would have been hard pressed to fill the cavernous 1611-seat Marquis Theatre during the holidays. With the traditional January box office doldrums on the horizon, a mercy killing was the obvious solution.

San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon (which specializes in re-examining "lost" musicals) recently revived Nick & Nora in a production directed by Greg MacKellan, with choreography by Staci Arriaga. While the show is nowhere as bad as some of the Broadway stinkers I've seen (Something More! Maggie Flynn, Georgy, Her First Roman, I Had A Ball), it's a weak and fairly mediocre vehicle that lacks the musicality of Jennie, the sophistication of No Strings, or the sentimentality of Here's Love!  Even Bajour was more exciting.

 Nora (Brittany Danielle) and Nick (Ryan Drummond) are asked
by Tracy (Allison Rich) to investigate a murder in Nick & Nora
(Photo by: David Allen) 

With Dave Dobrusky as music director (and sets and costumes by Hector Zavala), 42nd Street Moon's cast handled the material with aplomb, enabling the crooked bookkeeper, Lorraine Bixby (Nicole Frydman), to rise from the dead (an especially nifty trick for an Easter Sunday matinee) on numerous occasions in an effort to explain why a wealthy, bitchy actress's husband had gone missing.

As the famous Nick and Nora Charles, Ryan Drummond and Britanny Danielle were a visually appealing couple (although I doubt the audience cared very much about their relationship or Nora's determination to prove herself as a female detective). Allison Rich scored strongly as the narcissistic Tracy Gardner whose Japanese butler, Yukido (Reuben Uy), proved to be the loyal villain. Megan Stetson drew laughs as Lorraine's lesbian girlfriend, Maria Valdez, who was hoping to break into motion pictures.

Justin Gillman (Spider Malloy), Brian Herndon (film director Max Bernheim), William Giammona (as a social-climbing former felon), and Michael Barrett Austin (as Lieutenant Wolfe, with an "e") provided sturdy support in smaller roles. Michael Kern Cassidy (as the missing Hollywood producer, Edward J. Connors) and Cindy Goldfield (as his overprotective wife, Lily) brought an added touch of Boston flavor to the proceedings.

Brittany Danielle (Nora Charles), Ryan Drummond (Nick Charles),
Allison Rich (Tracy Gardner), and Nicole Frydman (Lorraine Bixby)
appear in Nick & Nora (Photo by: David Allen)

42nd Street's production of Nick & Nora proves that the show is far from a total dud. It's reasonably entertaining and features some pleasant songs ("Is There Anything Better Than Dancing?" "Everybody Wants To Do A Musical," "People Get Hurt," "Men," and "Look Who's Alone Now").

One of the show's bigger problems is that the crucial relationship between Nick & Nora doesn't seem to generate much interest or sympathy (primarily serving as an excuse for the rest of the script's hijinks). Thankfully, Arthur Laurents (a veteran of Hollywood and Broadway) peppered his script with some zingers.  Performances of Nick & Nora continue at the Eureka Theatre through April 19 (click here to order tickets).

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

You've Got Me Under Your Spell

Theatrical experiences come in all shapes, sizes, and forms. From painfully intimate monologues to Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas, from giddy sex farces to searing family tragedies, live theatre offers a remarkably versatile platform for examining mankind in all its glory as well as its many frailties.

One reason why it's so difficult to label any production as the year's "best" is that there are so many parameters which may set it aside from the competition.
  • One show might be a star vehicle while another relies on the work of a tightly-knit ensemble.
  • One show might rely on extensive scenic effects and digital mapping while another may simply let the actors speak the playwright's words in a minimalist setting.
  • One show might require a lot of period costumes while another is performed in modern dress.
  • One show might have incidental music -- or a fully-sung musical score -- while another may be filled with pregnant pauses and awkward silences.
When one particular production stands head and shoulders above many others, it's a sure sign that its individual elements have created a synergy that raises the theatrical experience to another level. I often think of magical moments in theatre and opera when it feels as if the air in the auditorium has been hovering over the audience, protecting the performers from being interrupted while making it possible for those in attendance to remain acutely focused on what is happening onstage.

In 1965, I attended a riveting matinee of a 20th anniversary production of The Glass Menagerie in which Maureen Stapleton brought a rare fragility to Amanda Wingfield. Exquisitely directed by George Keathley (with  George Grizzard as Tom,  Piper Laurie as Laura, and Pat Hingle as the Gentleman Caller), the Tennessee Williams play was transformed into an unforgettable experience whose memory I have cherished for a half century.

Pat Hingle, Maureen Stapleton, George Grizzard, and
Piper Laurie in the 1965 revival of The Glass Menagerie

While I have enjoyed many such experiences over the years, the nature of live theatre is perversely ethereal (and in some ways as intensely personal as an orgasm). If everything comes together to create a moment of theatrical magic, it's a privileged artistic experience to savor. It's also the kind of experience which is extremely difficult to explain to anyone who didn't share it.

Two productions new to San Francisco had that special aura about them. One was a piece of dance theatre that attempted to retell an ancient Greek drama that was written by Sophocles in approximately 441 BC. The other was a contemporary drama which brilliantly demonstrated what happens when superb writing, directing, and acting combine to elevate a script into a deeply poignant and miraculously fulfilling theatrical event.

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The Shotgun Players recently unveiled a new adaptation of Antigone based on Anne Carson's 2012 book, Antigonick. Co-directed by Mark Jackson and Hope Mohr, Antigonick is a dance theatre piece wherein the ensemble pushes the boundaries of storytelling while working on a simple, yet highly effective unit set designed by Nina Ball and lit by Stephanie Buchner. ​Theodore J.H. Hulsker's exceptional sound design helps to create an other-worldly atmosphere which captures the searing tragedy of Antigone's predicament while showing the hopelessness of her situation.

Rami Margron as Teiresias in Antigonick (Photo by: Pak Han)

Shotgun's heavily symbolic production featured dancer Parker Murphy as Nick (as in "Nick of Time"), a silent figure who brings a ghostly presence to the proceedings.

Parker Murphy as Nick in Antigonick (Photo by: Pak Han)

In the following clip, co-directors Mark Jackson and Hope Mohr explain the evolution of their production of Antigonick and the challenges it presented to their ensemble.

In their co-directors' note, Jackson and Mohr write:
"When we say we need to give ourselves space to deal with something, often we're saying we need time. As a poet, Carson understands that a perfectly coherent narrative order simply cannot contain the chaos of the human experience. Antigonick is full of interruption, ambiguity, and collage. Exquisitely spare and energetically compact, Antigonick offers a challenge and an invitation. It's no longer possible to coast on expectation. It's no longer easy to separate heroes from villains. Carson carves out a bit of space and time for us to consider alternative possibilities."
Kenny Toll and Kevin Clark in Antigonick (Photo by: Pak Han)
"Working on Antigonick has led us to think a great deal about integrity. If we measure a person's integrity by the extent to which she puts her body on the line for her ideals, then of course Antigone wins our sympathy. But isn't Kreon also throwing himself on the fire by wearing the new title of king (a title he never wanted) and trying to create order in the wake of a chaotic war he never supported? Aren't the Antigones and Kreons of the world similar in their narrow-minded courage?  Most of us are more like Ismene, Haimon, Eruydike, or the Messenger -- teetering somewhere between the poles of Antigone and Kreon's extremes. Who is right? Who suffers more? Is it so easy to say?"
Kenny Toll and Rami Margron in Antigonick (Photo by: Pak Han)

Without doubt, Shotgun's ensemble delivered a powerful performance which challenged the audience, making full use of each actor's versatility and commitment to an artistic vision. Rami Margron doubled as Antigone and the blind prophet, Teiresias, while Kevin Clarke's Kreon closed the evening with an increasingly desperate attempt to physically climb the set's curved rear wall. Monique Jenkinson was magnificently on fire as both Ismene and Eurydike.

In supporting roles, Kenny Toll portrayed Haimon, a guard, and a messenger while David Sinaiko embodied the chorus. Parker Murphy's wordless contribution as Nick was often riveting. Performances of Antigonick continue through May 3 at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley (click here to order tickets).

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It's extremely rare to leave a theatre haunted by a new play, yet that's exactly how I felt following the opening night performance of Sister Play at the Magic Theatre.  Written and directed by John Kolvenach, the experience was right up there with some of the best performances I've seen of works by Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee -- and that ain't chopped liver, folks!

Presented as part of a rolling world premiere with the Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, Sister Play takes place in the Cape Cod home of a family's deceased father. Kolvenbach's dramedy involves the deceased writer's two daughters, one daughter's husband, and a mysterious stranger whose presence is uplifting, provocative, and brings a surprisingly spiritual component to the proceedings.

Sister Play begins as Malcolm (Anthony Fusco) enters his late father-in-law's home, talking to himself in the manner one might expect from a writer who lives in his head. As he muses on the amount of mold in both the house and his life, he is joined by his wife, Anna (Lisa Brescia), and her rebellious younger sister, Lilly (Jessi Campbell).

Lilly (Jessi Campbell), Malcolm (Anthony Fusco), and Anna
(Lisa Brescia) in a scene from Sister Play (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

To suggest that Anna is a frighteningly neurotic control freak (and overprotective monster of an older sister) might be understating the situation. At a very early stage of her life, Anna was forced to take on the responsibility of raising Lilly and protecting her younger sister from a wildly impulsive streak. Even though Lilly has had one bad experience after another with a series of men, Anna is still operating as the kind of fierce tiger mother who tells her obviously adult and sexually adventurous sister to "Go to your room!"

Anna (Lisa Brescia) and her younger sister, Lilly (Jessi Campbell)
in a scene from Sister Play (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

It doesn't take long for Anna to get on her kid sister's nerves. When Lilly (who does not have a driver's license) insists on taking the car out for a late night spin, Anna's control issues quickly begin to boil. After Lilly returns home with William Casy (Patrick Kelly Jones), a homeless hitchhiker she has picked up by the side of a road, Anna goes into a protective attack mode that borders on a psychotic episode. At one point, Anna's behavior becomes so outrageous that Lilly instructs her to "go into the kitchen and count to a million."

Patrick Kelly Jones as the mysterious and itinerant
William Casy in Sister Play (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Although the older/younger sister dynamic is well established, it's no surprise that Lilly wishes Anna would relax her talons and let Lilly live her own life. Meanwhile, in an exquisite soliloquy, Malcolm explains the surprising benefits (as opposed to the risks) of being caught in the sibling rivalry between two highly emotional women.

Kolvenbach gives each of his characters a beautiful solo in which they can speak to the audience, to themselves, or to the ghost of their dead father. By far, the most mysterious and complex character is the hitchhiker Lilly dragged home -- a well-intentioned vagrant from Texas who lacks any of the financial or emotional security shared by Anna, Malcolm, and Lilly. An actor who has given Bay area audiences numerous memories of stunning performances, Jones creates a tender, romantic, and almost other-worldly loner whose confusing presence and impressive intellect simultaneously threaten Anna, charm Malcolm, and excite Lilly.

William (Patrick Kelly Jones) and Malcolm (Anthony Fusco)
in a scene from Sister Play (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Working on Erik Flatmo's unit set (with lighting design by Jeff Rowlings and sound design by Sara Huddleston), Kolvenbach has staged his drama with an acute sensitivity to his characters' quirks and weaknesses. The bravura performances by Lisa Brescia and Patrick Kelly Jones are neatly complemented by the quieter work of Anthony Fusco (spot on, as always) and Jessi Campbell.

Patrick Kelly Jones (William), Jessi Campbell (Lilly), and Lisa Brescia
(Anna) in a scene from Sister Play (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Sister Play is a beautiful, beautiful work which will hold up well as the years pass by, enchanting and haunting audiences through each theatrical season with its freshness, mystery, and rare vitality. Performances of Kolvenbach's play continue through April 19 at the Magic Theatre (click here to order tickets).