Saturday, July 30, 2016

Anchors Away

In the mid 1970s, as the Gay Liberation movement continued to blossom, one disco group gained notoriety for their costumes as well as their songs. Following the response to a casting call that required "Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance And Have A Moustache," the Village People's performers were dressed as a cowboy, leatherman, soldier, construction worker, and Native American. Two of their biggest hits were "Macho Man" and "Y.M.C.A." As noted on Wikipedia:
"In 1979, the United States Navy considered using "In the Navy" in a television and radio recruiting campaign. Henri Belolo offered them permission if the Navy would help film a music video for it. The Navy provided them access to the San Diego Navy base, where the USS Reasoner (FF-1063), several aircraft, and the crew of the ship would be used. This song was also performed on the TV series The Love Boat and in the 1995 Navy comedy movie Down Periscope."

The recent announcement that the United States Navy plans to name one of its new John Lewis-class oilers after gay activist (and former Ensign) Harvey Milk made me think about how much this man's memory has served as an emotional and psychological anchor for the LGBT community, both at home and abroad. When asked to comment, Milk's close friend, Cleve Jones, replied “If there’s a heaven, Harvey is laughing. He’s probably up there cracking jokes about oiling sailors.”

While many people think of an anchor as a device meant to keep a boat from drifting (or, in retail terms, the largest store in a shopping mall), the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary also defines an anchor as "a person or thing that provides strength and support." Sometimes an anchor's presence can be taken for granted. Whether it fails to hold a ship in position during a storm or is suddenly removed from its position in a community, an anchor's influence is often felt long after it is physically gone from the neighborhood.

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For Jews around the world, matzo plays a key role in the Passover ceremony. Although matzo brei, matzo farfel, and matzo balls (along with egg matzo and chocolate-covered matzo) are eaten throughout the year, for religious families the matzo served during Passover (which symbolizes the unleavened bread eaten by Jews as they fled Ancient Egypt) must be strictly kosher. Made from grain that has been under rabbinical supervision from its harvesting until the time it is baked (in order to guarantee that fermentation has not occurred), Shĕmura matzo is suitable for consumption on the first night of Passover.

Ever since Jews began migrating to the United States, matzo has appealed to a loyal niche market. For decades, the four largest domestic brands were Horowitz Margareten (founded in 1884), Manischewitz (founded in 1888), Streit's (founded in 1916) and Goodman's. Over the years, the two dominant brands have been reduced to Manischewitz (which began manufacturing and distributing Goodman's matzo products under a 1981 license agreement and acquired Horowitz Margareten in 1984) and Streit's.

Early delivery trucks for Streit's Matzos

One of the more poignant documentaries screened at the 2016 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream. Written and directed by Michael Levine (and timed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the company's founding), much of the film is devoted to the 90-year history of Streit's 47,000 square-foot matzo factory which, for many years, was located on Rivington Street in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

The Streit's Matzo Factory on Rivington Street

In terms of productivity, the Rivington Street facility had become a manufacturing dinosaur, struggling to remain competitive in cramped quarters formed by combining four five-story tenement buildings. Although its daily output was approximately 16,000 pounds of matzo (and as much as 30,000 pounds per day in preparation for Passover), for several years the family firm had considered relocating to a property near its distribution warehouse in Moonachie, New Jersey or building a new facility near Rockland County, New York (whose large Jewish community would welcome its presence with open arms).

In May of 2015, the Rivington Street factory was sold (and will probably be razed to make way for new condominiums in a heavily gentrified neighborhood). Streit's will soon relocate to Orangeburg, New York where it will be able to produce more matzo more efficiently.

However,  Levine's documentary tells a much more poignant story involving a closely-held, ethically-run, fifth-generation family business. In candid interviews, some of its long-time employees (who have worked for the company for 30 years or more) discuss how the neighborhood has changed and how working for Streit's has changed their lives.

As for the men who grew up in the family business and went on to become its senior management, their reluctance to leave behind the old neighborhood (where Streit's, Katz's Delicatessen, Economy Candy, and Yonah Schimmel's Knish Bakery have been anchors of the local Jewish community) and a loyal extended family of customers and employees is palpable as they sit in offices on both sides of the Hudson River and talk about the company's future.

Streit's: Matzo and the American Dream is very much a documentary about resilience and respect. The heartbreak involved in the decision to relocate a cultural icon and community anchor known for its high standards and attention to tradition is much more personal than corporate decisions about opening a new Starbucks outlet. In addition to the film's trailer, the following 30-minute clip includes a wonderful fact-filled interview with Michael Levine (conducted by Judy Gelman Myers) in which they discuss the effects of gentrification on small, family-owned businesses in a changing community as well as the filmmaker's astonishing crowdfunding success using Kickstarter to finance his documentary.

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Whether it's a steel mill or a matzo factory, when a manufacturer with a well-established community presence ceases operations (or moves to another city, county, or country), its departure can leave an aching hole in the hearts of the people who worked for it, bought its products, identified with its brand, and relied on its charity. A similar phenomenon can occur when a charismatic individual who has spearheaded a valuable nonprofit operation moves on to greener pastures.

The Shotgun Players is currently presenting Grand Concourse, in which a hardworking Bronx nun who has managed a soup kitchen for nearly 15 years finally accepts the fact that her "guests" aren't the only people who need help. Touchingly directed by Joanie McBrien (Shotgun's resident dramaturg and Director of Development), Heidi Schreck's play unfolds on Nina Ball's simple unit set, which focuses most of the action within the kitchen while allowing characters to enter from the street, a dining area, and another part of the building.

Shelley (Cathleen Riddley) prays before the microwave
oven in a scene from Grand Concourse (Photo by: Pak Han)

Determined to help others, Shelley (Cathleen Riddley) is a tough cookie who understands that many of the soup kitchen's clients have needs she cannot meet -- and that well-meaning volunteers frequently chicken out of their responsibilities when confronted with the harsher realities of life. Although she played basketball in her youth, Shelly has learned to channel her energy into chopping vegetables, fighting germs, and feeding the poor before returning to her apartment to seek solace from her beloved cat, Pumpkin.

Shelley's backup help is a young man named Oscar (Caleb Cabrera), whose chores include lifting heavy pots of soup, doing janitorial work, and scaring away the neighborhood kids whenever they start throwing things against the kitchen's walls. Although the two have a strong rapport, Oscar is very much in love with his girlfriend, Lydia, whom he hopes to marry.

Cathleen Riddley and Megan Trout in a scene
from Grand Concourse (Photo by: Pak Han)

One day, a young woman arrives at the soup kitchen asking if she could work as a volunteer. Although Emma (Megan Trout) starts off in low gear, her behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Over time, Emma's emotional neediness causes her to act out in strange ways, such as painting herself as a failure who is dying of cancer or giving Oscar a surprise blow job. When compared to the genuinely disturbed behavior of Frog (Kevin Clarke), one of the soup kitchen's mentally-challenged regulars who is battling a variety of imaginary demons, Emma almost seems normal. But she's not. As the playwright explains:
"I grew up working in soup kitchens with my parents. It was such a big part of my childhood, but I’d never written about it, and I thought it would be an interesting place to set a play. I was writing about people seeking help from one another, what our responsibilities are to offer help to each other, and also how sometimes offering help can also be a way of seeking help. I also worked for a lot of social justice organizations when I first moved to New York. I found it fascinating that the people who came to volunteer (including me) were looking for nourishment and sustenance as much as the people who were coming to receive the services. And, like in the play, they can be kind of crazy, screwed up environments. People have very complicated motives for doing good. And I wanted to explore that."
Caleb Cabrera and Megan Trout in a scene
from Grand Concourse (Photo by: Pak Han)
"The problem of forgiveness was also on my mind as the play started to take shape (or at least my problem with forgiveness). I realized that I wasn’t sure I understood it, at least not in a practical, real-life way. I respect it as a concept and have certainly been in need of giving and receiving it -- I’ve been a Mr. Hornby in certain situations -- but I wasn’t sure I actually knew how to do either, not without a certain amount of pretending. And so, the thorny relationship that forms between Shelley and Emma became my way to work that out, to test out the possibilities, and hopefully begin to navigate a kind of path toward grace."
Kevin Clarke as Frog in a scene from
Grand Concourse (Photo by: Pak Han)

Schreck's drama reminds audiences that it isn't just the impoverished, visibly unstable, and socially marginalized members of a community who are at risk of erupting. Overworked, stressed out, do-gooders can also be pushed to a breaking point from which there is no return. When Shelley is forced to travel to California (where her estranged father has entered hospice care), the strict discipline she has maintained at the soup kitchen starts to fall apart. Without the woman who has been their emotional rock and who provided people around her with a semblance of stability, their self-destructive behaviors start to blossom until, following her return, Shelley comes undone.

Shotgun's production benefits from Christine Crook's costumes, Heather Basarab's lighting design, and, as always, the excellent sound design by Matt Stines. What may be most impressive, however, is the strength of its four-actor ensemble. Veteran Kevin Clarke scores strongly as the volatile Frog while young Caleb Cabrera continues to impress Bay area audiences with his lanky portrayal of Oscar.

The cast of Grand Concourse (Photo by: Pak Han)

The bulk of Schreck's play, however, rests on the shoulders of two exceptionally strong actresses who have proven their mettle on a wide variety of Bay area stages. Cathleen Riddley and Megan Trout tackle complex characters with a range and versatility that continue to stun audiences as the play progresses. At the end of the evening, the shocked audience is left wondering if they can still believe in themselves without feeling any impulse or need to forgive people in their lives who have selfishly betrayed their trust. Here's the trailer:

Performances of Grand Concourse continue through August 14 at the Ashby Stage (click here for tickets).

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Not The Usual Suspects

Take a look at any piece of American currency, whether it be a coin or a dollar bill. You'll notice four words: "In God We Trust." To which god does that motto refer?
A statue of Ganesha displayed during the celebration of the Durga
Puja festival in Cologne (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
A mosaic depicting the triumph of Neptune standing on a chariot
pulled by two sea horses (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

So many gods, so much mythology (atheists might be thinking "So many Christians, so few lions"). If it's difficult to decide in which god to place your trust, why not shrink the horizon and think about how many people you can count on when the going gets tough? Friends? Family? Colleagues at work?
  • Who will care for you when you are ill?
  • Who will betray you for a quick chance to get ahead?
  • Who can you confide in when you are terrified?
  • Who will badmouth you to your peers?

In a recent article entitled You’re Not Alone In Feeling Alone: Why It’s So Hard For Adults To Make Friends, Sarah Sweeney writes:
"I spoke with a dozen people between the ages of 27 and 90 throughout the United States and was astounded to learn that they all felt similarly: it’s difficult as hell to make true friendships as an adult. 'Over the years, I seem to have collected a Rolodex of acquaintances, but no one I particularly trust,' one responded. A post-graduate lamented, 'Since college I’ve lost most of my close friends to job relocations, marriages, and surely soon enough children.' And a guy in his late 30s replied, 'Working from home has its perks, but it’s isolating. No beers after work with office people, so my social life is mostly my family.' What counts as a true friendship as you get older? For me, it’s feeling comfortable enough to be myself. And if you’re like me, it’s also trust. Not just keeping the odd secret, but trusting that my life choices aren’t your conversational fodder elsewhere.”
Two recent comedies based their plots on outrageous acts of betrayal. One framed its narrative by using a flashback to show how everything went horribly wrong; the other tried to make use of a variety of political conflicts to develop a tightly-staged farce. Although both stories made their point, one's method of storytelling succeeded by peeling away layers of details to get at the truth. The other heaped conflict after conflict upon its characters, resulting in a soggy mess.

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In recent years, those with even a passing interest in the environment have been alarmed by the catastrophic developments in Southeast Asia, where deforestation caused by the production of palm oil has threatened the natural habitats of (and possibly doomed to extinction) such species as the Sumatran tiger and the orangutan. Last year's tropical forest fires in Indonesia caused an estimated 500,000 people to suffer from respiratory tract infections (19 of them died). Indonesia's government anticipates economic losses of at least $47 billion and more than 100,000 premature deaths.

While corporations forecast substantial profits from harvesting palm oil as a source for biofuels, scientists stress that letting palm plantations -- which often sit atop peat bogs -- continue to act as natural carbon sinks (which take carbon out of the air and convert it to oxygen through the process of photosynthesis) would be much less detrimental to the environment.

This diagram of the fast carbon cycle shows the movement of carbon
between land, atmosphere, and oceans in billions of tons of carbon per
year. Yellow numbers are natural fluxes, red are human contributions
in billions of tons of carbon per year. White numbers indicate
stored carbon. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Directed by Gary Graves, Hearts of Palm is Patricia Milton's new play about the ravaging effects of corporate colonialism in Southeast Asia once profit-driven bean counters become infatuated with the allure of cheap foreign labor, relaxed safety standards, and a complete lack of environmental regulations in an isolated island society. In her program note explaining how she was inspired to craft a comedy on this subject, Milton writes:
“A few years ago, two 12-year-old Girl Scout activists launched a campaign urging Kellogg’s to remove conflict palm oil from Girl Scout Cookies. Intrigued, I looked into palm oil industry practices. These companies routinely use slash-and-burn clearing that destroys animal habitat and warms the climate. Companies deliberately hide the sometimes devastating effects the things we buy have on people and places across the world. They grab land, enslave people, and abuse human rights. All of this looks a lot like the behavior of old-school colonial powers.”
Frieda de Lackner as Viola Wells in Hearts of Palm
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)
“In this play, the central character tries to remain oblivious to the serious problems right in front of her -- until finally, she can’t. I hope that Vi’s journey out of denial is the same one all of us consumers make. Great resources about issues discussed in the play can be found at Rainforest Action Network, Friends of the Earth, and Survival International. If you’d like to know what you can do about corporate colonialism, I recommend the book Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe by Erik Loomis. For expert negotiating advice, read Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts by Dan Shapiro.”
Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as Brittany in Hearts of Palm (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Milton's play takes place on the fictional island of Marititu, in the great room of the 1880s plantation house owned by Empire Holdings. With three women determined to mesh their employers' political agendas with their personal feminist goals and a male buffoon who thinks he's a white savior (and would be perfectly at home as the comedic foil in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta), there is intrigue, jealousy, professional territorialism, and stupidity to spare.

John Patrick Moore portrays the bumbling Strap
in Hearts of Palm (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

As Hearts of Palm begins, two women are arguing over who is better equipped to deal with the natives and resolve any potential unrest on Marititu.
  • Brittany Matal (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) is a seasoned representative of Empire Holdings with a decent grip on reality who knows the territory and the political stakes involved. After she goes rogue and joins the Marititu Rebel Militia, one of the company's Jeeps is torched (a clear sign that the natives are restless and more trouble is on the way).
  • Viola Wells (Frieda de Lackner) is a well-intentioned project manager and deeply conflicted negotiator working for Empire Holdings who is so painfully out-of-touch with the volatility of the situation on her hands that it would be hysterically funny were the potential side effects of her decisions not so devastating. To her credit, Vi has a conscience. Unfortunately, Marititu is the job challenge she has been working toward throughout her career. With a chance to overcome her employer's gender bias finally within reach, which comes first? The corporation or the id?
Michelle Talgarow as Ni-Bethu in Hearts of Palm (Photo by: Jim Norrena)
  • Ni Bethu (Michelle Talgarow) is a local government official who is much more knowledgeable about the value of certain land parcels than Empire's visiting white people might suspect.
  • Strap (John Patrick Moore) is the vain and idiotic white man who thinks he has arrived in Marititu just in time to rescue the situation from the feeble efforts of a ditsy woman with whom he had a one-night stand some time ago. If you wrap white privilege in a cotton candy cloud of macho cluelessness and tie it all together with a fake moustache, you soon realize that the only thing (aside from a brain) that Strap is missing is a pith helmet to contain his oversized ego and abject stupidity.
  • Add to this formidable mixture an aggressive CIA operative named Helen (Jan Zvaifler) who has a chip on her shoulder, an itchy trigger finger, and an endless supply of hubris coursing through her veins.
Jan Zvaifler as Helen (a butch CIA operative) in
Hearts of Palm (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

With costumes by Tammy Berlin and sound design by Gregory Scharpen, Hearts of Palm draws plenty of laughs from the audience with some well-targeted zingers. The problem with this world premiere from CentralWorks is that (as in some of Patricia Milton's other comedies), it attempts to address too many political issues through one crisis. While clusterfucks can be fun, clutter can weigh down a farce.

Sometimes less could be more -- with one major exception. Jan Zvaifler's portrayal of the furiously macho Helen is so clearly defined (and well acted) that it makes one hope she tackles additional villains in the future. Performances of Hearts of Palm continue through August 14 at the Berkeley City Club (click here to order tickets).

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If you like solving mysteries that don't involve the usual suspects, let me recommend an Argentinian treat that was recently screened at the 2016 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Gabriel Lichtman's deliciously quirky How To Win Enemies begins as its handsome protagonist, Lucas Abadi (Martin Slipak), is about to give a speech at the wedding of his brother Max (Javier Drolas) to Paula (Eugenia Capizzano), two lawyers who both work at the same firm where Lucas has become known for his research skills and impressive attention to detail.

Brothers and partners in their family's law firm, Max (Javier Drolas)
and Lucas (Martin Slipak) are very different personalities

As the viewer soon learns through an extended flashback, the past few days have been quite a challenge for Lucas, the kind of handsome, cuddly nerd who doesn't know how to be slick or deceitful. Lucas has been a devoted colleague and valuable resource for the law firm's stressed-out receptionist, Antonella (Paula Rodriguez), his brother's wedding planner (Charo Lopez), and an odd-looking "fixer" known as The Pelican (Sagrado Sebakis).

The Pelican (Sagrado Sebakis) and Lucas (Martin Slipak)
discuss potential suspects in How To Win Enemies

One day, while running errands around Buenos Aires, Lucas crosses paths with a stunning blonde (Ines Palombo) who introduces herself as Barbara Parades. Despite Max's insistence that Lucas honor the family tradition by immediately making Barbara his next sexual conquest, Lucas wants to get to know the woman better.

Barbara (Ines Palombo) and Lucas (Martin Slipak)
meet cute in a scene from How To Win Enemies

To his surprise and delight, Barbara shares his love of Agatha Christie's detective stories and his favorite book, a crime novel entitled The American Friend. Lucas (whose dog is named Sherlock) is easily smitten and invites Barbara back to his home for the night. When he awakens the next morning, Barbara has disappeared -- along with the €50,000 Lucas had just withdrawn from the bank to purchase a new apartment.

As Lucas tries to figure out how his money disappeared, he becomes increasingly suspicious that its theft must have been an inside job and that Barbara might be in cahoots with someone who knows an awful lot about him. With the help of an attractive young librarian (Carla Quevedo), he decides to track down all the clues to the crime the same way one of Agatha Christie's super sleuths would have done.

There are no violent deaths in How To Win Enemies, no guns, and no car chases. While some might think of it as a more cerebral comedy, it's rare for such a heinous act of betrayal to lead to an uproariously comic resolution of a crime. However, the resourceful Lucas manages to track down the perp, her accomplice, and the true source of his misery in time to give Max the tribute he so richly deserves as their entire family and circle of friends are gathered to witness Max's wedding to Paula. Martin Slipak's portrayal of Lucas is a joy to watch; Carla Quevedo's librarian is an added delight. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Who's Got A Secret?

Game shows have long been a staple of television programming. Although Spelling Bee (1938) was the very first television game show to be broadcast in the United Kingdom, in 1941 Truth or Consequences became the first American game show to be broadcast on commercially-licensed television. From The Price Is Right, Let's Make A DealWhat's My Line? and The Newlywed Game to Wheel of Fortune, Family Feud, Jeopardy! and Hollywood Squares, game shows have developed loyal audiences, proven extremely cost effective to produce, attracted steady revenue from advertisers, and rivaled soap operas for on-air longevity. The secret to their success?  These shows are easily syndicated, surprisingly popular in reruns, and in some cases have even found new audiences on YouTube.

First introduced in 1952 by CBS with Garry Moore as its host, I've Got A Secret went from black-and-white to color in 1966 and was revived in 1972 and 1976. Two more revivals found their way to cable television: in 2000-2001 on the Oxygen Channel and in 2006 (with an all-gay panel) on the Game Show Network (GSN).

Most of the secrets revealed by the show's contestants were fairly benign, showcasing an unexpected talent or revealing a curious fact from a celebrity's past. On one show, Colonel Harland Sanders confessed that he used his first Social Security check to open a restaurant that subsequently evolved into a major food empire. Another guest revealed a deeper, darker, secret.

We all have secrets of one kind or another. Some people have led closeted lives; others have helped a friend with a terminal illness to end his life with dignity. Some people are shopaholics, others may be kleptomaniacs. But for those who indulge themselves in an extra donut, or like to check the browser history on someone else's computer, their secrets are rarely matters of life and death. Such acts may be brought about by nagging doubt or a tendency toward self sabotage, but could hardly have life-changing consequences.

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The 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival opened with a restored print of William A. Wellman's 1928 hit, Beggars of Life. With the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanying this 81-minute film, the screening proved to be an unexpectedly sweet treat for the audience in the Castro Theatre.

Poster art for Beggars of Life

As the film begins, a lone man approaches an isolated farmhouse, hoping he might get something to eat. As he enters, he sees a man seated at a table, facing away from him. When Jim (Richard Arlen) stands in front of the man, he realizes that the old man is dead. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees something move at the top of the stairs. It's the killer -- a frightened young woman who killed her abusive stepfather in self defense.

Jim is desperate for food; the woman is desperate to escape. Their solution? Make a sandwich, hop a train and seek anonymity among the vagabonds who form the nation's hobo culture. They quickly realize that, in order to keep her identity a secret, it would be wise for Nancy (Louise Brooks) to disguise herself by cutting her hair and dressing like a boy.

When Wellman's thriller was first presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival back in 2007, Laura Horak's program note explained that:
"The film was loosely based on Jim Tully’s novel Beggars of Life: A Hobo Autobiography, published in 1924, which describes his hardscrabble existence on the rails during the recession years of the 1890s and 1900s. By the time the film was made, Tully had established himself across America as the 'Mighty Oak of Profane Letters' and throughout Hollywood as an enfant terrible. Born in Kansas in 1888, the scrappy red-haired eleven-year-old ran away from the orphanage his father had sent him to following his mother’s death. He held a variety of jobs before moving to Hollywood in 1921, where he held a variety of jobs including freelance journalist and, for more than a year, publicist for Charlie Chaplin. Brooks bore little affection for Tully. She described him as 'short and fat with his belly hanging over his belt, yellow teeth to match his face and hair, full of the vanity of Vanity Fair and H.L. Mencken.'"
Louise Brooks in a scene from Beggars of Life

In his books, Tully differentiated between the "Road Kid" (a man out for quick adventure) and the seasoned hobo (someone who has wanderlust). "Cops were a hobo's biggest hardship. They'd round you up and try to pin on you everything that had happened in the State of Kansas -- or Illinois or Ohio -- in the last five years. Oddly, the 'bo is at once a cynic and a dreamer. Many of them make for the libraries the minute they hit town."

Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks in a scene from Beggars of Life

Wellman (whose 1927 film, Wings, won the first Academy Award for Best Picture) shot the initial farmhouse scenes for Beggars of Life at Paramount before heading down to Jacumba (a small California town north of the Mexican border) for location shoots. Because only a few trains came through Jacumba each day, there was plenty of time for him to film scenes that took place aboard trains. Louise Brooks would later recall how the train engineers were stunned by Wellman's lack of concern for how a runaway flatcar and caboose plunged into a gorge, dragging the second camera with them and missing the second cameraman by inches.

Although two of the film's stars had previously worked together, there was little love lost between them. In describing her co-star, Richard Arlen (who had worked with Wellman on Wings), Brooks noted that "He had come on the set with his tramp clothes lovingly dirtied and an enthusiastic three days' growth of beard, but he couldn't squeeze out a single tear before the camera." She described the extras as twenty hobos selected by Wellman who enjoyed lighting newspaper fires under people sitting in canvas chairs. Wallace Beery (who had ridden the rails in his youth) told the press "You work harder as a hobo than you do earning an honest living. You've got to use your brains."

Following numerous misadventures riding the rails, Jim and Nancy eventually find themselves at a hobo encampment where they encounter such colorful characters as Oklahoma Red (Beery), The Arkansaw Snake (Bob Perry), Lame Hoppy (Roscoe Karns), and Black Mose (Blue Washington). By that time, word of the killing has hit the telegraph wires and "Wanted" posters have started appearing which offer a $1000 reward for Nancy's capture. After one of the hobos alleges that Jim's young friend is really a girl, he's forced to defend Nancy against the other men.

Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen in
a scene from 1928's Beggars of Life

After a spectacular train wreck (in which Beery's character sacrifices his life in order for Jim and Nancy to escape), the two "beggars" decide to head for Canada. Impressed by how Jim has protected her during their adventures, Nancy starts to feel the pangs of what might become love and the picture ends on a happy note. In his September 24, 1928 review of Beggars of Life in The New York Times, film critic Mordaunt Hall wrote:
“Before the release of this production the makers were quite enthusiastic over the idea of Mr. Beery singing a song that was Vitaphoned, and while one did not anticipate that Mr. Beery was a Martinelli or a Scotti, one hoped that the verbal result of his gruff intonation might be more fruitful than it is. Mr. Beery's introduction as Oklahoma Red is accomplished with an ale barrel (presumably containing some of the precious beverage), to the accompaniment of ‘Don't you hear them bells?’ and then ‘I hate them bells,’ which does not add much to the interest of the unshorn character.”
“It is rather a dull and unimaginative piece of work, which is largely confined to scenes of tramps hopping freight trains. There are some good scenes of trains, but whether they or the actions of the tramps afford entertainment is another matter. Two of the characters, who have embraced the tough art of idleness, spend most of their time shielding the girl who, virtually in self-defense, has shot a man. The hobos, after hopping on a freighter, decide to uncouple the car of which they have taken possession to stop the police sleuths who are searching for Nancy. The girl, of course, ought to be intensely grateful to this glorified aggregation of tramps, but, to the spectator, their actions are seldom convincing.”
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Down in Palo Alto, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley recently presented the world premiere of Suzanne Bradbeer's political drama entitled Confederates. Directed by Lisa Rothe, the action takes place in and around an modern, upscale hotel as a Presidential political campaign heads toward its party's convention.

Confederates has had an interesting path toward this world premiere. Soon after Bradbeer embarked on writing a political thriller, the controversy over the political symbolism of the Confederate flag erupted in full force. Bradbeer was involved in a Playwright/Director's Workshop at the Actors Studio, the LAByrinth Theater Company's summer intensive program, and a workshop at The Lark (where she started to work on the play with Rothe). Confederates was one of the plays workshopped in the 2015 New Works Festival at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and was subsequently chosen to open the company's 2016-2017 season with a fully-staged production. In his program note, the company's artistic director, Robert Kelley, explains that:
"Throughout the past year, sales of 'rebel' flags have skyrocketed throughout the country. When we decided to premiere this headline-hot play during both national political conventions, we wondered what America would be thinking at the time. Now we know: racial and cultural prejudice have become critical issues of the campaign, the press has become a political piñata, inflammatory rhetoric has replaced civility as the national norm, and the nation seems more divided than ever before. We once celebrated the tumbling of the symbolic Berlin Wall: now many Americans champion the building of one of our own."
Will (Richard Prioleau) corners Stephanie (Tasha Lawrence)
in the women's restroom in a scene from Confederates
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"Confederates focuses on both the ethics of the press and the lingering impact of racist symbolism throughout the country. This play puts a human face on this world of symbols, acknowledging that in our current political landscape, what are negative symbols to some may be positive to others. It explores the critical ways in which the media affects the political discussion, shaping the choices we make about our leaders and our future."
Maddie (Jessica Lynn Carroll) and Will (Richard Prioleau)
try to resolve a crisis in a scene from Confederates
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With only three characters onstage, the audience's attention remains clearly focused on:
  • Will (Richard Prioleau), a young African-American journalist who, after a regrettably drunken hookup in college, was forced to put his ambition on hold after impregnating a woman with what would soon become the light of his life: his daughter, Callie. Excited about being on the campaign trail, Will is looking forward to crossing paths with a childhood friend and, hopefully, nabbing a scoop. While he's eager to gain access to a high-powered poker game (even though he has no idea how to play poker), his young and impressionable daughter wants to talk to Daddy on the phone about the imaginary dragon that has made her too scared to go to sleep.
  • Stephanie (Tasha Lawrence), Will's colleague at their news organization. Older, wiser, and way more cynical than Will, Steph talks twice as fast as anyone in the room and has no understanding of personal boundaries. What she does have, however, is a killer instinct for identifying someone else's deeply-guarded secret. Still not sure whether she should accept her employer's buyout package, she can't imagine being away from the adrenaline rush of chasing down a breaking story.
  • Maddie (Jessica Lynn Carroll), the daughter of the Presidential candidate who seems most likely to be headed for the Oval Office. Maddie met Will back when they were children whose parents had enrolled them in a summer arts camp. Like all the other girls, she had a crush on Will -- not just because he was cute and athletic, but because he was kind to the kids who were usually ignored by others.
Will (Richard Prioleau) and Maddie (Jessica Lynn Carroll) cross
paths on the campaign trail in a scene from Confederates
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Shortly after Will and Maddie run into each other in the hotel lobby, she receives a shocking text from an old boyfriend that shows a naked Maddie draped in a Confederate flag. In today's troubled times, the symbolism of that flag could easily sink her father's political campaign. While Maddie is freaked out that Luke would send it to her, she finds it even harder to convince Will that she posed for the picture as part of an art project aimed at challenging the concept of who has the political right to claim an image as a symbol. As the playwright explains:
"I love working on plays with three characters; it lends itself to such interesting, even primal dynamics. I am fascinated (and horrified) by the idea that one misstep could ruin your life. This is true if you're in the public eye, of course (unless you're Donald Trump?), but not just there. With the modern loss of privacy, I think it is a risk that we all share. You don't have to have skeletons in your closet to be vulnerable. As Matt Bai asks in his recent book about the Gary Hart debacle, should we be defined by your worst moment?"
Maddie (Jessica Lynn Carroll) reacts to a shocking text
in a scene from Confederates(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

There's plenty of political intrigue and backstabbing in the plot of Confederates. During the course of what is essentially a tense all-nighter, there were times when I wanted to reach out and strap a ball gag into the hyperaggressive Stephanie's motormouth in order to calm her down. While the three-actor ensemble in Confederates is uniformly strong (and the story is undoubtedly timely), I found myself blindslided by an extremely curious phenomenon. In a rare display of functional elegance, Pamila Z. Gray's lighting combined with Andrew Boyce's breathtaking unit set stole the show right out from under the playwright's script.

Confederates is a one-act, 90-minute play that requires multiple set changes as its characters move from hotel rooms to conference hallways, from a lobby space near an elevator bank to the hotel's business center. Using a turntable to maximum effect while adding and subtracting standard fixtures and furniture found in corporate offices and upscale chain hotels, this design team added a critical level of dramatic fluidity to the storytelling process that is rarely achieved in a world premiere production of any play about politics.

Stephanie (Tasha Lawrence) and Will ((Richard Prioleau) discuss their
strategy in a scene from Confederates (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of Confederates continue at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto through August 7 (click here for tickets).

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Till Death Do Us Part

Despite some people's delusions about being able to live forever, the sad truth is that, sooner or later, everyone dies. No one has ever beaten the system. No matter how many times the cast of Les Misérables sings "One Day More," everyone knows that Act I is about to end.

A recent meme bouncing around people's Facebook feeds states "Go ahead: Eat Healthy, Get Plenty of Sleep, Keep Exercising, Drink Lots of Water -- You're Still Going To Die!" For many people, the inevitably of their demise raises disturbing questions about unfinished business.
  • Some fear that they will never have a chance to reconcile with someone who is about to kick the bucket.
  • Others fear that all their years of hard work will vanish in a puff of smoke. 
In Digging Ditches in Fresno (a short play by Isaac Ontiveros that was included in the Best of Playground 20 Festival of New Works by New Writers), Maria Rosa, Sr. (Stephanie Prentice) lays dying in a hospital bed. A former nurse and nursing supervisor whose dedication to caring for others has often eclipsed other opportunities in her life, she is now being cared for by her daughter, Maria Rosa, Jr. (Rinabeth Apostol), who followed her mother into the nursing profession. Both women are physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, as can be seen in this brief video clip.

Although its running time is barely 10 minutes in length, Digging Ditches in Fresno offers a quiet nod of thanks to those who have always been so tied to their work that they could barely allow themselves time to rest and recharge themselves. It also offers audiences a tidy exercise in counting one's blessings on the way out the door (and, perhaps, granting one's children enough leeway to allow themselves the freedoms their parents never had time to enjoy).

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Recently screened at the 2016 Frameline Film Festival, a poignant short film by Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken focuses on the final days of a long-term relationship between two former athletes, Bertil (Jan Malmsjö) and Roland (Stein Winge). It's a cold February day in the Hedmark district of East Norway when the quiet 65-year-old Roland, a former champion skier who won lots of medals in his youth, bids farewell to his colleagues as he retires from the logging mill where he has worked for many years.

Roland (Stein Winge) and Bertil (Jan Malmsjö)
in a scene from Thanks for Dancing

The camera soon shifts its focus to the isolated farmhouse Roland shares with his 79-year-old lover (and former coach), who is obviously the more domestic partner in their relationship. Bertil is first seen through the kitchen window, dancing and waving a towel in the air while drying a skillet. After Roland compliments him at dinner on his pork chops, Bertil surprises him with a pair of airplane tickets to La Paz, Bolivia so that Roland can visit his granddaughter, Gabriella. There's just one problem: The doctor has warned Bertil that he is too ill to fly.

Roland (Stein Winge) and Bertil (Jan Malmsjö)
in a scene from Thanks for Dancing

Well aware that Bertil's days are limited, the two men try to pass the time quietly by snuggling on the couch and watching old videotapes of Roland's skiing triumphs. Following Bertil's death, Roland is approached during the church service by Bertil's estranged daughter, Hanna (Alma Flygel Owren), who introduces him to Bertil's granddaughter.

Alma Flygel Owren (Hanna) in a scene from Thanks for Dancing

After inviting the two women over for coffee, Roland shows Hanna the album of clippings about his skiing triumphs as she explains that Bertil had cut off all contact with his wife and daughter when Hanna was 14 (her only memory of her father was that he loved to wear purple socks). Roland tries to console her by stating that, perhaps if Bertil had had more courage, he would have enjoyed knowing her.

Roland (Stein Winge) and Bertil (Jan Malmsjö)
in a scene from Thanks for Dancing

Thanks for Dancing shows an aspect of gay life that often remains hidden in a youth and sex-obsessed culture. Although more and more films are starting to show gay seniors in loving relationships, Dahlsbakken's tender short offers a touching portrait of two elderly gay men who are still very much in love as they face the moment when "death do us part." Here's the trailer:

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Written and directed by Piotr J. LewandowskiJonathan (which was also screened at the 2016 Frameline Film Festival) easily impresses the viewer with Jeremy Rouse's gorgeous cinematography and the handsome looks of its lead actor (Jannis Niewöhner), who portrays a 24-year-old whose best friend is about to move to Berlin in order to start a new life in the big city. However, as the viewer sees Jonathan running through the rain and trying to find someone in the woods near his home, it soon becomes evident that the man he is seeking is not well. Not well at all.

The dying Burghardt (André Hennicke) and his devoted
son (Jannis Niewöhner) in a scene from Jonathan

Jonathan's emotionally distant father, Burghardt (André Hennicke), is dying of cancer and probably wishing he could take some of their family's secrets with him to the grave. Those secrets have long been eating at Jonathan's soul as he tries to understand the lack of communication within his family. Although he has learned how to take care of the animals on their farm (and works hard to prove his mettle each day), his aunt Martha (Barbara Auer) is a brusque, tight-lipped woman who prefers to soothe her emotional wounds with liquor.

When a nurse is assigned to their family to help care for Burghardt, Jonathan is fascinated by the presence of someone close to his age and soon starts to have a casual affair with Anka (Julia Koschitz). Much as he thinks he loves her, Jonathan sometimes resents the attention Anka pays to his father, as well as her ability to understand matters about which he remains clueless. Among these is the fact that Burghardt has lived a closeted life for many years.

Ron (Thomas Sarbacher) holds the dying Burghardt
(André Hennicke) in his arms in a scene from Jonathan

One day a stranger arrives at the farm, looking for Burghardt. Ron (Thomas Sarbacher) is greeted with hostility by Martha, who is shocked that he would even dare to show his face. But Ron seems intent on staying around, especially after Burghardt gets admitted to the hospital. Even after Ron explains to Jonathan that he and Burghardt were once lovers, Jonathan's youth, naiveté, ego, possessiveness, and sense of responsibility for the care of his father make him act like an angry teenager.

Although Jonathan has always understood that, after his mother was diagnosed with cancer, Burghardt took care of her throughout her terminal illness, he has trouble understanding why, as Burghardt's son, he doesn't necessarily have priority over Ron in his father's eyes. Even after the brooding young man (who has broken up with Anka) follows Ron and Burghardt to a seaside setting in northern Germany, he still can't understand why the two men want to be alone together.

As Burghardt's condition continues to deteriorate, Ron and Jonathan finally reach an understanding. Burghardt's sister even manages to overcome her bitterness in order to come to the hospital and bid her dying gay brother farewell. While some viewers may have started watching Jonathan with an expectation that this would be a rural coming out story about some hot-and-hunky young man, they find themselves wrapped up in a very different kind of family crisis in which a decidedly straight man must acknowledge and accept his dying father's homosexuality as well as the place that a former lover still holds in his father's heart.

Martha (Barbara Auer) and Ron (Thomas Sarbacher) visit the
dying Burghardt (André Hennicke) in a scene from Jonathan

It would be foolish to react to Jonathan as if one had fallen for a bait-and-switch narrative. In a cinematic genre which frequently focuses on stories of young LGBT people coming out, Lewandowski's first feature film is devoted to easing a dying man out of his guilt-ridden closet and into a coffin while there is still some time left for forgiveness, grace, and understanding. It's a deeply touching film, made especially beautiful by Rouse's cinematography and Lewandowski's sensitivity as a young writer and director to the difficult choices made by an older generation of gay men. Here's the trailer: