Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Oracle of Daisey Has Spoken

Having wrapped up its 25th anniversary season (in which the company took on the challenge of performing five plays in repertory), the Shotgun Players filled its February calendar with a new undertaking, The Blast Festival, which aimed to "explode the boundaries of storytelling with innovative performances by local and national theater artists. We think life is dynamic, changing, ephemeral, strange, and beautiful. Theater should be too."

Although this mini-festival included several dance companies (as well as artists like Rotimi Agbabiaka, Megan Hopp, Joshua Silverstein, Kyle Blaze, and the San Francisco Neo-Futurists), my main interest was the provocateur/monologist, Mike Daisey, who has increasingly become the antidote to apathy and anti-intellectualism in America.

Having attended many of Daisey's monologues -- which range from examining the lives of Nicola Tesla, P.T. Barnum, Steve Jobs, and Bertolt Brecht to analyzing Shakespeare's four great tragedies (Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet) -- I've frequently found myself thinking of him as following in the footsteps of the late, great Anna Russell (whose hilarious lectures about opera and classical music developed a loyal international following).

However, with his three latest monologues (The Trump Card, The End of Journalism, and This Is Not Normal), I've come to realize that Daisey is fast becoming the American version of Cassandra (Priam's daughter whose prophecies about the Trojan War were ignored, scorned, and scoffed at, yet tragically and frighteningly came true).

In the months prior to the 2016 Presidential election, Daisey was busy performing his eerily prescient monologue, The Trump Card, in theatres around the United States. In retrospect, that monologue has become even more chilling than it seemed when it was live-streamed from Town Hall in New York City.

That was then. This is now. Having entertained Bay area audiences in recent years at Berkeley Rep, Shotgun Players, and the California Shakespeare Theater, Daisey was one of the key attractions at the Blast Festival, where his program note stated:
"Over these two weekends I am birthing two new monologues. I have been working on the underpinnings of The End of Journalism for five years, but it was made more urgent by the election. The other was anticipated by The Trump Card, but I deeply wish it had never needed to see the light of day. Because my work doesn't use written text or rehearsals, these are the very first moments of the life of these shows."

To think or not to think. That, my friends, is Mike Daisey's question. Whether in the age of Trumpism it is wiser to follow Steve Bannon's advice (to "keep your mouth shut") or to resist the rape of democracy. As Shakespeare famously wrote:
"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
that Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation
devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there's the rub,
for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
must give us pause."
While the words Shakespeare put in Hamlet's mouth seem painfully relevant to the United States in 2017, like many monologists, Daisey often structures his performances along a path which ultimately take audiences back to the show's beginning. Listening to him is like being lulled into an extremely informative dream state, falling deeper and deeper into a web of intriguing contradictions and then slowly rising, like a deep sea diver headed back toward the ocean's surface and, hopefully, feeling safe again (if, perhaps, a bit sadder and wiser for the experience).

Daisey launches into The End of Journalism by recalling his experience visiting an old friend who was in the hospital. As he describes his friend's hospital room, his gaze is distracted by the patient's uneaten meal. A standard dish of orange Jell-O accompanied by a portion of salisbury steak with mushrooms (a dish Daisey fondly remembers from his school days and, like any chubby man, can't resist) sits untouched on a tray. As he ruminates about the medical profession's tendency to preface anything said to someone his size with a warning about the necessity of losing weight, he touches on matters of clinical insensitivity and fat shaming that may surprise some members of the audience, but are familiar territory for those like Daisey (and myself) who have been fat for most of their lives.

As he looks around his friend's hospital room, Daisey also notices that the television monitor is fixed on Fox News, although the sound has been mercifully muted. This takes him down the rabbit hole to the mid-15th century, when Johanes Gutenberg created a printing press that used movable pieces of type fashioned from an alloy consisting of lead, tin, and antimony. With the ability to publish work for mass distribution, knowledge that was once only available to the aristocracy could soon spread to the peasants of the Middle Ages, inspiring some to yearn for a better life.

Daisey's narrative twists and turns from the use of the printing press for advertising up to Roger Ailes who, in the late 1990s, decided to provide the exact opposite of what mainstream media was offering the public by creating the Fox News Channel. Along the way, Daisey describes how the American theatre grew to depend upon newspaper critics whose reviews could furnish valuable "pull quotes" that could be used as marketing tools to boost ticket sales.

After 20 years of traveling the country and doing pre-show publicity interviews, he began noticing how many newspapers had been forced to merge (or simply disappeared) in regional cities. The result was that fewer critics were writing reviews, more pull quotes were being taken out of context, and some pull quotes had been reduced to the use of a single word. Although he does not mention David Merrick (a/k/a The Abominable Showman)  and press agent Harvey Sabinson's infamous 1962 marketing stunt after Subways Are For Sleeping received mostly negative reviews, he uses the pull quote as an example of how mainstream media has continued to lose credibility with its readers.

While wondering whether a case for journalistic integrity can still be made, he points to Donald Trump's incessant whining about "fake news" and the appearance of a new term for lies ("alternative facts"). Waxing nostalgic about the days when newspapers like The New York Times contained full-page ads for automobiles and women's fashion, he wonders whether anyone still reads newspapers anymore and points to the inability to distinguish any news source as credible when they all appear to look the same through the web browser on one's computer or smartphone. Bill Maher recently added his two cents to that argument.

* * * * * * * * *
The End of Journalism almost feels like a puff piece about a disappearing piece of Americana compared to Daisey's newest, and darkest monologue. This Is Not Normal starts innocently enough with Daisey describing the peacefulness of watching the ocean's waves roll in on a beach and recede; a cycle that has continued (regardless of politics) for centuries. There is a calming serenity to the process which, in the age of Donald Trump, would seem to offer substantial emotional comfort until the audience learns that this Sea of Tranquility is on the surface of the moon. As Daisey reflects on how, throughout 2016, he tried to warn people about what might happen while performing The Trump Card, he realizes that Roy Cohn is sitting right next to him, primed for an argument.

Making no apology for the fact that Donald Trump is most likely a moron, Daisey reminds his audience how important it is to always believe whatever they are told by an autocrat. He then takes the audience on a nightmarish trip which includes getting mugged on the Spanish Steps in Rome during his honeymoon, meeting Masha Gessen while at the Russian Tea Room, witnessing the death of John Keats on February 23, 1821, in a tiny room close to the Spanish Steps, and having coffee with his ex-wife on the day after Donald Trump won the 2016 election.

Insisting that this particular monologue is not about politics, he focuses instead on the danger of normalizing a monster like Donald Trump and the temptation many people will feel (and probably succumb to) when the going gets rough. While part of This Is Not Normal is devoted to the importance of live theatre, this may well be Daisey's most deeply disturbing monologue. I certainly hope it will be live-streamed so it can reach a larger audience and be preserved on the Internet for future reference. It's a masterpiece of storytelling, much like sitting around a campfire under a starry sky while someone tries to to scare the shit out of you with a particularly effective ghost story.

There are moments in This Is Not Normal that may seem more deeply introspective than Daisey's other monologues but, at the end of his tale, Daisey finds himself back on the moon, overlooking the Sea of Tranquility, and ready to spar with Roy Cohn. However, Daisey has a trick up his sleeve, one which the smug and exquisitely evil Cohn hasn't anticipated. I won't tell you what it is (that would ruin the bittersweet surprise ending), but I'll finish this column with a little gift for the slimy closet case who aided Senator Joseph McCarthy and became a friend, fixer, and mentor to Donald Trump.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Trump Effect

There was a time, during the late 1980s, when I was close friends with a gay cop. We belonged to the same gym and, like many members, I was attracted to him because of his charisma and his skills as a storyteller. Although we came from very different worlds, there was an unexpected level of bonding. He allowed me to interview him for a gay magazine, showed me around his police department, and didn't hesitate to tell me that most cops gossip like little old ladies. He was also the first Republican conservative I had ever gotten to know as a friend.
  • AJ made no bones about the fact that he considered Ronald Reagan to be his second or "adopted" father.
  • When I took him to a performance at the San Francisco Opera, I was a bit startled to discover that he entered the War Memorial Opera House wearing his gun in his shoulder holster. When I asked him why he thought it necessary to bring a gun to the opera (I had already informed him that shots would be fired as part of the performance), he said it was in case I needed protection.
  • One day, when we were talking about our place in the world, he told me that part of his philosophy in life was that "There are all these people out there who can do things for me."
Although he is no longer a part of my life, I have no doubt that he would have voted for Donald Trump (Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton would have been anathema to him). However, with Trump now sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, it's impossible to ignore the rise in toxic levels of masculinity among many of his most loyal followers. Violent expressions of xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, and racism are on the rise as the new administration careens toward a severely incompetent and dangerously authoritarian style of governing.

Throughout the arts community, people are alarmed by hints that the Trump administration will try to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and attempt to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. As Linda Moran (President/CEO of the Songwriters Hall of Fame) explains:
“Music and arts are essential to life and our humanity and in the nurturing of our souls. Removing access to that which allows the exploration, discovery and development of one’s talents would be a travesty of epic proportions. Our future songwriters, musicians and artists must be fostered, not ignored. We are once again at a crossroads where music and arts education in our school systems are being threatened by severe cuts. Possible defunding of the NEA would not only be devastating to the arts community at large, but also to the youth of this country.”

With plenty of journalists, bloggers, and artists voicing their concern over future funding for the arts, attacks on civil rights for LGBT people and, especially, women's rights, it's fascinating to contrast articles such as Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber with Might Ivanka Trump Speak Up If Her Father Guts The Arts? What caught me completely by surprise was the intensity with which Trump's ghostly (and ghastly) relationship with the arts could affect two recent theatrical experiences.

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In 1990, when a provocative new musical by Stephen Sondheim premiered, it became a source of controversy for numerous reasons. With a book by John Weidman, Assassins reintroduced audiences to the men and women throughout our history who attempted to assassinate the President of the United States. First produced at Playwrights Horizons, it also marked the first time Sondheim had premiered a major musical off-Broadway.

I first saw the show in 1993, when the American Musical Theatre of San Jose presented the West Coast premiere of Assassins. I subsequently attended productions by San Francisco State University and Ray of Light Theatre as well as watching lots of clips from various Broadway and regional theatre productions. Each time I attend a performance of Assassins I am reminded of the painful gap between what America could do if its leaders dealt honestly with gun violence and mental illness -- and what our gutless elected representatives have failed to do as they shirk their responsibility to protect and serve their constituents.

The cast of Assassins (Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

When Matthew McCoy (the Artistic Director of Bay Area Musicals!) announced that the company's second season would include a production of the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Assassins, I'm sure he had no idea what kind of political mood the country would be in on opening night. Several days prior to the performance, I even asked a friend if he thought Sondheim would live long enough to add another song to his dark musical. After all, Sondheim's lyrics for the Balladeer's first song ("Everybody’s Got the Right") begin with:
"Hey, pal, feelin' blue?
Don't know what to do?
Hey, pal, I mean you.
Yeah. C'mere and kill a president."
Sage Georgevitch-Castellanos doubled as the Balladeer and
Lee Harvey Oswald in Assassins (Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

Later in the show, when the actor who was so entertaining as the Balladeer reappears as Lee Harvey Oswald, the mood continues to darken as the ghosts of past presidential assassins push him toward killing John F. Kennedy. The inclusion of the Zapruder footage of Kennedy's assassination in some productions of Assassins quickly changes the audience's mood. And yet, throughout the show, they've been laughing their asses off.

Kelli Schultz (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme) and Jessica Fisher
(Sara Jane Moore) in a scene from Assassins (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

Why? Because most of the people who tried to assassinate American presidents come across as delusional losers. From John Wilkes Booth (the actor who shot and killed Abraham Lincoln) to Leon Czolgosz (who assassinated President William McKinley and had a crush on Emma Goldman); from Samuel Byck (who dictated his thoughts to Leonard Bernstein while plotting to kill Richard Nixon) to John Hinckley, Jr. (who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan as a way of proving his love for actress Jodie Foster), most of these people were driven by internal demons. Of course, there was also Giuseppe Zangara (whose abdominal pain short-circuited his attempt to shoot Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and Sara Jane Moore (who was almost as clumsy as her target, Gerald Ford).

John Brown as Sam Byck in Assassins (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

My experience with Assassins has taught me that it takes sitting through several performances before a person can (a) relax and grasp how masterfully Weidman's libretto moves the action along, and (b) truly relish Sondheim's score. A lyrical duet like "Unworthy of Your Love" (sung by John Hinckley, Jr. and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme) stands in sharp contrast to the caustic folksiness of "The Ballad of Booth" just as the anger embedded in Leon Czolgosz's "Gun Song" is a far cry from Charlie Guiteau's manically ecstatic "I Am Going to the Lordy." Few things can compare to the sheer insanity of Sara Jane Moore and Lynette Fromme bonding over their love for Charles Manson and using a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken for target practice!

Eric Newman (The Proprietor) and Zac Schuman (John Hinkley)
in a scene from Assassins (Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

Directed by Daren A.C. Carollo on the unit set he designed, Sondheim's score was in the capable of hands of musical director Jon Gallo while costumes designed by Brooke Jennings and sound designed by Julie Indelicato helped to build a solid dramatic foundation for the show. John Brown scored strongly as the embittered Samuel Byck while DC Scarpelli's Czolgosz was a frustrated Polish immigrant who felt out of place in America. Others in the cast included Derrick Silva as an unctuous John Wilkes Booth, Zac Schuman as a nebbishy John Hinckley, Jr., Terence McLaughlin as the dyspeptic Giuseppe Zangara, Nicole Frydman as Emma Goldman, and Peter Budinger as the overly optimistic Charles Guiteau.

Both Eric Neiman (as the shooting gallery's Proprietor) and Sage Georgevitch-Castellanos (doing double duty as the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald) gave standout performances. Jessica Fisher as Sara Jane Moore and Kelli Schultz as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme were hilarious, with Fisher displaying solid comedic chops in addition to a strong soprano.

Jessica Fisher as Sara Jane Moore in Assassins (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

Performances of Assassins continue through March 19 at the Alcazar Theatre (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
During President Obama's administration, a great deal of attention was focused on the ways in which bullying (at school, at home, and online) hurts people. Much of that work seems to be at risk with the inauguration of a bully as the most powerful person in today's world. From the abusive language and blatant attempts to humiliate people to the pathological lying and reliance upon "alternative facts," the Trump administration (and its followers) are demonstrating the worst within us (rather than the best kinds of behavior we should strive for).

While it's easy to assume that the kind of grandiosity, dishonesty, and delusional behavior exhibited by Trump (that is enabled and abetted by a lifestyle built on male privilege) is merely a sign of our times, the sad truth is that bullies have existed throughout history. Custom Made Theatre is currently presenting the Bay area premiere of Lucas Hnath's hilarious black comedy, Isaac's Eye, in which two narcissistic and extremely stubborn 17th-century geniuses (Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke) square off against each other with the woman they think they might love (if they even know what love is) positioned as a potential trophy they could own if she opted to marry one of them.

Gabriel A. Ross as Isaac Newton in Isaac's Eye
(Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

With Adam Niemann acting as both a narrator and a poor peasant whose wife just died of the plague and is, himself, doomed to perish very soon, the action takes place on a spartan modern set by Sarah Phykitt framed by three large whiteboards and lit by overhead fluorescent lamps. As the narrator, Niemann explains to the audience that when something is said that is true, he will write it out on one of the whiteboards. However, if something is said that is false (or, as we say these days, an alternative fact), it will not receive any such validation.

Gabriel A. Ross, Adam Niemann, and Junée Simon in
a scene from Isaac's Eye (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

At 25, the ambitious Isaac Newton (Gabriel A. Ross) has the kind of obsessive personality which allows him to take his girlfriend, Catherine (Jeunée Simon), for granted. Despite her strong desire to get married and have a family, Isaac is less interested in becoming a farmer (or father) and determined to find out if light is composed of particles or waves. His hypothesis is that, as perceived by the human eye, light changes when a needle is inserted into a person's tear duct.

Catherine often fears that Isaac (whose hair turned prematurely white when he was still in his twenties) is too easily distracted by his work to be able to stand up for himself. He desperately seeks admission to the Royal Society so he can network with people who might fund his research (in real life Newton was so consumed by his theories that he once threatened to burn down his parents' house if they didn't let him continue his research).

Hooke (Robin Gabrielli), on the other hand, is a slimy opportunist who lives by his own rules and wouldn't hesitate to sabotage a competitor's work. Having already experimented on dogs by blowing air into their lungs to determine at what point a dog will explode, he takes pride in his ability to manipulate others.

In order for Hooke to grant Newton's wishes, the young man needs to test his theory. After getting inconclusive results while experimenting on the dying (and inarticulate) peasant, Isaac ends up having to stick the needle into his own eye to see what happens.

Using every lie he can muster to cover up for his inadequacies, Foote aims to eliminate Newton by destroying the younger man's research papers and stealing Catherine away from him. As Newton soon discovers, Hooke has a fondness for cocaine and has kept a sex diary annotating his lusty adventures with his underage niece. Blackmail is a likely option.

Robin Gabrielli as Robert Hooke with Adam  Niemann as the
Actor in a scene from Isaac's Eye (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

As directed by Oren Stevens, Hnath's comedy unravels with moments of vicious delight that lead up to a nifty stage trick which will leave many audience members squirming in their seats. At the end, however, Isaac's Eye takes a surprising turn when, having put up with enough macho bullshit, Catherine (the daughter of an apothecary) decides that she would do better pursuing life on her own, leaving Newton and Hooke to each die alone.

One of the strengths of Hnath's play is that it is performed in modern dress rather than period costume, on a starkly-lit contemporary set. As a result, Newton often comes across as a nerdy Millennial who routinely congratulates himself with a self-serving "Yay!" every time he wins an argument. As Catherine, Jeunée Simon is the voice of reason whose threshold for man-boys and their never-ending bullshit has its limits.

Robin Gabrielli, Adam Niemann, Jeunée Simon, and Gabriel A.
Ross in a scene from Isaac's Eye (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

In an odd way, Robin Gabrielli (as Hooke) and Adam Niemann (as the Actor) have the juicier theatrical roles. How so? Gabrielli gets to play a self-serving, villainous creep while Niemann draws continued laughs as the suffering peasant who, like Rodney Dangerfield, can't get no respect.

Hnath has an extremely sneaky talent for delivering lots of historical facts (mixed in with a large helping of lies) as he unveils each scientist's desperate power plays against a background of the darkest comedy since Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. If, like me, you have to use eye drops each day, after seeing Isaac's Eye you might find your hands shaking a bit more than usual.

Performances of Isaac's Eye continue through March 11 at the Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets).

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Cultural Imperatives

Just as a string of DNA can help to identify the various physical characteristics which define a person, a series of cultural identifiers help to describe where a person came from, how they grew up, and how they will interact with others.

One would be quick to include music, costumes, and art among such cultural identifiers. But with the increased impact of globalization, assimilating one society's cultural markers into the larger global populace can lead to a diminution in what makes one culture different from another. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the vanishing languages of indigenous peoples.
  • In 1896, English was made the language of instruction in all of Hawaii's public and private schools. Within five years, native children were being punished for speaking their native language at school. By 1997, the number of native-born Hawaiians who spoke Hawaiian had dropped to approximately 1,000 people. However, in recent decades, there has been a strong push for native-born Hawaiians to enroll their children in immersion schools which teach both English and Hawaiian.
  • During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Native American children were sent to government-run boarding schools that separated them from their families and subjected them to severe punishment for speaking their tribal language. Although Albert White Hat only spoke Lakota as a child, as an adult he became a fierce activist for preserving his tribal language and traditions. After publishing a Lakota textbook and glossary, he died in 2013.
  • On February 4, 2014, Hazel M. Sampson (the last known native speaker of the Klallam language) died in Port Angeles, Washington at the age of 103.

As is so often the case, the Internet has been a blessing and a curse when it comes to preserving fading cultures. Lauren Young recently published a fascinating article on the Atlas Obscura website entitled Remembering Nüshu, the 19th-Century Chinese Script Only Women Could Write. These two clips help explain what is necessary to keep a language alive and what happens when the last known speaker of an indigenous language dies.

Few success stories in cultural restoration can match the work of Aaron Lansky, who wrote about his efforts to preserve Yiddish literature. First published in 2004, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books ended on a note of previously unimaginable hope. A new technology (digital scanning) made it possible for Lansky and his colleagues to start republishing many Yiddish books that had been destroyed by the Nazis in the 1940s. Today, the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, is "a nonprofit organization that works to tell the whole Jewish story by rescuing, translating, and disseminating Yiddish books and presenting innovative educational programs that broaden understanding of modern Jewish identity."

In recent decades there has been a growing trend among documentary filmmakers to capture and preserve certain aspects of the arts (dance, visual art, song, opera, etc.) on film. According to Wikipedia:
"Music from around the world exerts wide cross-cultural influence as styles naturally influence one another. In recent years world music has also been marketed as a successful genre in itself. Academic study of world music (as well as the musical genres and individual artists associated with it) appears in such disciplines as anthropology, folkloristics, performance studies, and ethnomusicology. The term was popularized in the 1980s as a marketing category for non-Western traditional music. World music may incorporate distinctive non-Western scales, modes and/or musical inflections, and often features distinctive traditional ethnic instruments, such as the kora (West African harp), the steel drum, the sitar, or the didgeridoo."
This year's CAAMFest includes two music documentaries of particular interest. Both examine the impact a particular song or style of singing has had on its culture. One shows an art form struggling to stay alive while the other tells the story of how a hit song was created and rose in popularity to help a native population reclaim its place in its country's history and ethnic heritage.

* * * * * * * * *
Tearepa Kahi's delightful documentary, Poi E: The Story of Our Song, examines the career of New Zealand native Dalvanius Prime and the impact one of his songs had on restoring Māori culture to its rightful place in New Zealand's history. What makes Prime's story so interesting is that, during the early stages of his career, he displayed no particular interest in his Māori heritage.

Born on January 16, 1948, Prime (the sixth of 11 children) had a bloodline that traveled back to such Māori iwis (tribal confederations) as the Pakakohi, Ngati Tuwharetoa, Ngapuhi, Tainui, Ngai Tahu, Ngati Ruanui, and Nga Rauru. After moving to Wellington, he joined forces with the three Māori women from Porirua who comprised the singing trio known as The Shevelles (originally known as The Gaynotes).

A musician with an international R&B career, Prime performed at the October 20, 1973 opening of the Sydney Opera House and spent much of the 1970s on the Australian and South-East Asian nightclub circuit. In the early 1980s, when he returned to Patea, Taranaki, to nurse his ailing mother, Prime became acutely aware of his inadequacy in Te Reo Māori when he was unable to understand his mother’s dying words. That event is often cited as the motivating factor which pushed Prime toward wanting young Māori to learn Te Reo through music that they could relate to.

Dalvanius Prime with members of the original Patea Māori Club

In 1983, Prime formed his own production company (Maui Records) and became more deeply involved with Māori music. He co-composed Poi E with Māori language composer Ngoi Pēwhairangi and persuaded his family, the Patea Māori Club, to perform the song. In 1984, Prime recorded Poi E with the Patea Māori Club. The album sold extremely well in New Zealand (attaining platinum certification) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Ngoi Pēwhairangi with Dalvanius Prime

Not only did the group perform Poi E around in the world, in 1985 they were invited to sing it at a Royal Gala for Queen Elizabeth II. Following the 1982 closure of the meat processing factory (the employer of the majority of Māoris living in the area) in Prime's home town of Patea, Poi E was often credited with helping to boost the morale of locals facing an economic crisis.

Cover art by Maui Records for the album of Poi E

A mash-up of 1980s pop music, traditional Māori waiata, and bop dancing, Poi E was a product of its time. In 1984, the song reached first place on New Zealand’s pop music charts and remained in the lead for 34 weeks, outselling such megahits as "Thriller" and "I Just Called to Say I Love You." Not only was it the first "Number One song' written and released entirely in Te Reo Māori, in the decades since its release, Poi E has often placed in New Zealand’s Top 10 and been hailed as the nation’s unofficial national anthem. As the documentary's director, Tearepa Kahi, explains:
“This story is about a person who is going through a huge identity shift, dealing with the passing of his mother and adjusting to returning home from the bright lights overseas. And it’s these people who are suffering economically and wondering what’s the next step because the job that their families have done for the last 40 years is over. If these people had been any different, if Dalvanius had gone with another kapa haka group, this song wouldn’t be the same. If these lyrics didn’t come from Ngoi Pēwhairangi from Tokomaru Bay, this song wouldn’t be the same. So for me, it’s been getting to understand each of these places and all of the people involved that gives this song its place.”
Poster art for Poi E: The Story of Our Song
“The song Poi E is significant because it was the first pop song that used a drum machine, spacey noises, sound effects, and put Te Reo Māori to that music. It was the first time you saw modern and traditional come together. When that fusion happened, a huge feeling just leaped across the country. That song represents a really important time marker for when Māori and Pākehā started doing the bop together. This song wasn’t manufactured like a lot of today’s music is. It actually came from a real place and from real people. It’s not just a story about a chart-topper, the first Te Reo Māori song that hit number one. It’s actually a story about what happened when all those people came together to create some magic.”
A scene from Poi E: The Story of Our Song

Kahi's documentary includes lots of archival footage of Dalvanius Prime during his childhood and early career days as well as a recreation of the 1984 video that was recorded with bop dancer Joe Moana (reputedly the only man in New Zealand at the time who could do Michael Jackson's popular moonwalk). As the filmmaker recalls,
“I grew up in Papanui in Christchurch, where there wasn't a huge Māori presence. When I used to visit the whānau in Pukekohe, that's where I felt strong and confident, but in Christchurch it was a different feeling altogether. I must have been seven years old when Poi E came out. I saw this young boy dressed in his maro, standing with his whānau doing those actions and he looked so awesome! I felt like I saw myself. And then, as the video clip played on, I saw who I wanted to be: Joe Moana on top of the waka doing the bop. In this one video clip, I saw myself as I was and I saw who I wanted to be."
A scene from Poi E: The Story of Our Song

For much of the film it's difficult to cut through the thick New Zealand accent in order to understand what is actually being said. In the long run, however, that's not a major obstacle. From home movies to television footage of the excitement surrounding the song's success, the demonstrations of revived pride in Māori culture are intoxicating to watch. Here's the trailer:

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In his documentary entitled My Next Step, Cheuk Cheung digs further into his exploration of how traditional Chinese opera impacts modern society. Unlike his first documentary (My Way), which focused on male performers who portray female characters (Dan) in Cantonese opera, this new documentary looks at a different segment of male performers: the wusheng in Kunqu opera who specialize in martial characters.

Kunqu (which evolved from the Kunshan melody) is one of the oldest continuing forms of Chinese opera. Having dominated Chinese theatre from the 16th to 18th centuries, it even survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution (classic Chinese plays such as The Peony Pavilion and The Peach Blossom Fan were originally written for the Kunqu stage).

A scene from the Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre's
production of The Peony Pavilion

With singing techniques supposedly developed during the Ming Dynasty and passed down from generation to generation, Kunqu has been listed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO since 2001.

Commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, My Next Step focuses on the limited performance opportunities facing today's Kunqu performers, many of whom can't afford to stick around in the hopes of building a career or devoting their time to keeping the art form alive. Some leave for family and economic reasons; others simply give up trying.

Yang Yang's family sits down to dinner in a scene from My Next Step

The film's protagonist is Yang Yang, a wusheng performer on the verge of calling it quits and seeking more lucrative employment. Although his parents don't charge him rent (and are more than happy to feed him), he sees a limited future for himself in Kunqu.

A wusheng performer in costume for Kunqu opera

Filled with rehearsal and performance footage, the documentary offers an intimate look into the world of Kunqu and the challenges facing a young man struggling to find a place for himself in a fading art form. Even when a revered veteran Kunqu performer offers to mentor him in the lead classic roles, Yang Yang asks for time to consider the offer.

Yang Yang gets coached by his mentor in a scene from My Next Step

Rather than a traditional documentary about a rising star hoping for a big break at a vocal competition, My Next Step focuses on what happens in the long periods between performance opportunities. As Yang Yang struggles to find a way to move from being a performer who is perpetually on call to redefining himself as a creative artist who can direct his own productions and manage a theatrical company, the viewer watches Yang Yang and his colleagues rehearsing in bulky winter clothing in order to keep warm.

Yang Yang and a friend rehearse in a scene from My Next Step

As always, the costumes and makeup used in Chinese opera are fascinating to see up close. However, the opportunity to witness Yang Yang's rehearsal process on a new, modern interpretation of one of the classic plays helps viewers get a better understanding of the preparation required to succeed in Chinese opera. Many will be surprised at the sheer athleticism and stamina required by wusheng artists, as well as the nuance which must be applied to their interpretations.

Poster art for My Next Step

What I love about this documentary is the way it takes the viewer into not just performance mode, but so many other facets of backstage life. From scenes in dressing rooms and during tech rehearsals to those facing out from the stage into a near-empty auditorium as Yang Yang works on mounting his new, modern dress production, My Next Step offers a sobering view of what it takes to transform the basic tools of theatre into theatrical magic.

Yang Yang rehearses in a scene from My Next Step

If you're looking for a typical behind-the-scenes story filled with temper tantrums, professional rivalries, and emotional meltdowns, this film is not for you. It's difficult to keep pace with My Next Step's surtitles and (unless you're fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese) you'll find yourself facing a formidable language barrier. If, on the other hand, you want to learn how artists struggle with the challenges of keeping an ancient art form alive while worrying if they still have a professional career ahead of them, you'll find this film extremely poignant and consistently arresting. Theatre nerds will love it!

Poster art for My Next Step

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Crossing Over To The Dark Side

Fifty years have passed since a double bill by Peter Shaffer opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on February 12, 1967. Directed by John Dexter (with a cast that featured Michael Crawford and Lynn Redgrave in their Broadway debuts), Black Comedy/White Lies turned out to be an audience pleaser that ran for 337 performances.

Black Comedy was a droll farce that began in a young man's apartment at 9:30 on a Sunday night. Although people on both sides of the footlights were in complete darkness as the play began, the confused audience could hear the voices of Shaffer's characters carrying on a conventional conversation at a cocktail party. Once the apartment's electricity suffered a short circuit, the lights came up onstage and (as if by magic) the audience could see everything that was happening while the cast had to pretend that their characters were stumbling around in the dark. Thanks to Shaffer's gimmicky approach to what happens during an electrical blackout, much hilarity ensued.

The original Broadway production of Black Comedy starred Geraldine Page,
Michael Crawford, Lynn Redgrave, and Donald Madden

In 1979, when Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street premiered at the Uris Theatre, audiences were faced with a grisly tale of vengeance set to Stephen Sondheim's greatest score. By the end of Act I, when Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury) and Sweeney Todd (Len Cariou) launched into "A Little Priest," the audience was in on the joke and, although shocked and delighted, along for the ride.

In Act II, after Sweeney had slit several throats, a tense moment occurred as a man entered his tonsorial parlor accompanied by a small child. The audience got a huge laugh as the disappointed serial killer, realizing that a witness was present, realized he would have to give the man a shave without the perverse thrill of slitting his throat.

Sweeney Todd (George Hearn) prepares to slit a customer's throat
in a scene from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

In Pablo Greene's fetish fantasy novel, How to Kill a Superhero: World Without Daylight, after Roland has healed from his underwater struggle against the six-limbed supervillain known as the Crimson Hand, he gets a ride from a sadistic couple who think nothing of using tasers on him as they begin to mutilate his body in preparation for a decapitation.

After escaping their clutches, he walks across the Australian Outback at night. Stopping to rest one night, he falls into a deep sleep. As he awakens from a terrifying dream, he takes solace in once more staring at the stars in the sky and listening to the sound of snakes rustling in the grass. But as Roland monitors the sound of his breathing, he becomes aware of another set of lungs inhaling air very close to him.
"The moonlight shone over a face that lay just inches from mine, like a lover in bed. I had seen this face before -- his deep-set eyes, the pinpoints of white that shone without any pupils, and its mutilated black lips that hung in tatters over its sharp teeth.  'Miss me, lover?' said the Crimson Hand. I screamed again."
Artwork for How To Kill A Superhero: World Without Daylight

While Julie Andrews may have taught millions that "Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," comedy often serves as the lubricant which helps sarcasm and suspense become surprisingly palatable. In her recent article on the BBC News website entitled When Political Comedy Is a Case of Life or Death, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong stresses that:
"Comedy may get bleak, but it never dies. With clowns in the ascendant, we may find ourselves, paradoxically enough, in need of some seriously subversive humor. As the case of Muammar Gaddafi shows, only one thing can kill the instinct for political satire: the demise of a dictator." 
Two recent productions used black comedy to lighten the darkest of scenarios. In one, a brother and sister whose father had had two successive wives, battled their incestuous desires during an intense showdown in a motel room near the Mojave Desert. In the other, a demonic puppet caused enough physical and emotional damage for people to wonder if the devil had indeed made them do such horrible things.

* * * * * * * * *
If you've already had the singular joy of reading Christopher Moore's hilarious novel, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, you know that strange things can happen to people when a mysterious force invades a small and relatively clueless community. If you don't believe me, watch this delicious clip of Robert Smigel and his puppet, Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, interviewing Trump supporters at the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre is but one of 13 American theatre companies producing Hand to God (a gleefully diabolical comedy by Robert Askins) during the 2016-2017 season. Set in a Texas church whose pastor (David Kelly) is a horny hypocrite, the action revolves around Jason (Michael Doherty), a troubled teen whose mother, Margery (Laura Odeh), is trying to help the church's youth group by supervising Jason and his friends as they create and learn how to work with puppets.

Jason (Michael Doherty) and his puppet, Tyrone, in a
scene from Hand to God (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

There's just one problem. Jason is a very angry young man whose father recently died and whose mother seems to have lost interest in him. His best friend, Timothy (Michael McIntire), teases him mercilessly and has the hots for Jason's mother. His sympathetic classmate, Jessica (Carolina Sanchez), is aware of Jason's pain but is not quite sure how she can help him.

That leaves Jason's unpredictable sock puppet, Tyrone, with an opportunity to help the neglected teen vent his anger at the world around him aided by some shocking special effects. Although Askins wrote Hand To God long before the 2016 election, he doesn't hesitate to liken the foul-mouthed Tyrone to Donald Trump.

“A large portion of this country has been fucked," he states. "Even if people aren’t paying attention to it, something is happening and the dickhead is saying it. Even if the dickhead is wrong, the emotional content is not inaccurate. I see people who get what they want and they are predatory. They are evil. What if all these hypermasculine, out-of-date ideas about the masculine were put in the mouth of a puppet?”

Timothy (Michael McIntire) watches as Tyrone takes over the
conversation from Jason (Michael Doherty) in a scene
from Hand to God (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

It doesn't take long for Tyrone to turn Jason's world upside down and inside out. Brazenly insulting everyone he encounters (and forcing them to act out on their deepest, darkest secrets), Pastor Greg is easily exposed as the kind of slimy predator who would take advantage of a vulnerable congregant like Margery. Tyrone soon has Jason's mother grabbing Timothy's crotch and subjecting her son's friend to the kind of physical pain he never knew he craved.

Margery (Laura Odeh) taunts Timothy (Michael McIntire)
in a scene from Hand to God (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Ironically, it's the mousy Jessica who comes to the rescue with her own sock puppet, providing Tyrone with the kind of raunchy puppet sex that makes the puppets in Carnival! and Avenue Q seem as innocent as cherubs. The uproarious scene in which two puppets fuck their brains out on a tabletop is an example of black comedy at its finest. David Ivers, who directed the production, is quick to explain that:
“The sock puppet is probably the most universal, most innocent, most accessible way that any person, at any time, can make an alter ego (everyone’s got socks for the most part). We’re also aware the whole time that it’s being manipulated by someone. The idea that the devil can actually get inside that hand and that person and take over that puppet is petrifying because we’re all aware of the conceit."
Tyrone watches of Jason (Michael Doherty) as he sleeps
in a scene from Hand to God (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"You put the puppet on the hand of someone who is the most vulnerable, which is this kid. He’s already got some issues socially. He’s lost his father and is in a broken situation, in a basement in Cypress, Texas. And this isn’t some poor, southern town. Cypress is a suburb of a major city; there’s a high median income. The characters are hanging on so tightly to their systems of belief that every one of them gives in to the same version of evil. It’s subversive, delicious, and has a structure that is heightened and superior. It terrifies me for all the right reasons.”

There are times when an audience is having so much fun watching what's happening onstage that it's easy to forget that the actors are doing some really fine work. I tip my hat to Michael Doherty, who works his ass off (as well as his vocal cords) while voicing Jason and Tyrone. Following close behind is Laura Odeh as his frustrated mother, a woman who is shocked out of her state of hopelessness and helplessness and transformed into a raving vixen who has suddenly found an outlet for venting her anger and feeding her sexual appetite.

Michael McIntire's transformation from a darkly-dressed slacker into a horny teen who suddenly finds himself mounting the MILF of his dreams provides some great physical comedy while David Kelly just keeps getting creepier as Pastor Greg. Although Carolina Sanchez's Jessica may not seem like the most interesting character onstage, if you watch her as she works with Doherty to build up to the sexual frenzy in which her puppet gives head to Tyrone, you'll notice a combination of craft, cooperation, and comic timing that has been carefully rehearsed.

Using an impressively flexible unit set designed by Jo Winiarski (with costumes by Meg Neville), Berkeley Rep has staged Hand to God for maximum effect on an audience desperate for some comic relief from current events. The lighting design by Alexander V. Nichols and sound design by Joe Payne go a long way toward strengthening the special effects that accompany Tyrone's provocative antics. Designed by Amanda Villalobos, Tyrone begins and ends the show as the kind of friendly puppet anyone could love. Just be careful not to encourage him unless you're willing risk the consequences.

Performances of Hand To God continue through March 19 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets).

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It should come as no surprise that a young playwright from Texas like Robert Askins should have an avowed soft spot in his heart for Sam Shepard, whose tales of tormented souls laden down with emotional baggage from their acutely dysfunctional families has earned him a solid place in the literature of the American theatre. As part of its 50th anniversary season, Magic Theatre is presenting a legacy production of Fool For Love, which received its world premiere from the company on February 8, 1983.

While many screen epics have been dubbed as "sword and sandal" adventures, Fool For Love is the kind of story that falls clearly within the "loin and groin" genre of drama. Magnificently directed by Loretta Greco, this revival features stark scenery and simple costumes designed by Andrew Boyce.

Eddie (Andrew Pastides) demonstrates one of his rodeo tricks to
impress May (Jessi Campbell) in a scene from Fool For Love
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Though Fool For Love may have a running time of only 75 minutes and employ a small ensemble of four actors, it delivers emotional fireworks from start to finish. The story may seem simple, but it most definitely is not. May (Jessi Campbell) and Eddie (Andrew Pastides) have a long history of not being able to live with or without each other.

There's just one problem, a small, technical glitch most lovers never have to worry about. May and Eddie may have come from different wombs, but they were spawned by the same father. The Old Man (Rod Gnapp) had two wives and, although his offspring frequently address him (in their minds), there is no escaping the fact that part of May and Eddie's attraction to each other is not just lust, but incest.

Rod Gnapp appears as The Old Man in Fool For Love
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

After several disappointing years of living in a trailer with Eddie, May is attempting to live sober. Holed up in a motel room near the Mojave Desert, she is trying to maintain a desperate grasp on reality when the ever-impulsive Eddie shows up wearing his cowboy duds, twirling his lasso, and claiming that he's going to take May back and take good care of her.

May knows that Eddie's slick promises are bullshit, but he has that kind of lizard-like charisma and animal magnetism that makes a woman hunger for his touch while hating the honey-coated sound of his voice. Whether she finds herself on the floor, tightly wrapping her arms around Eddie's sturdy legs to prevent him from walking out the door, or pouting in a chair with her legs akimbo as she struggles to get rid of him, their genetic attraction is difficult to defuse.

Eddie believes in himself in a kind of goofy, macho way. A skilled rodeo rider who knows how to rope a steer (and doesn't hesitate to intimidate his half-sister by practicing rodeo tricks such as lassoing the bedposts in her motel room as the two of them keep arguing), he's not quite as smart as he'd like to think he is. While Eddie's mating dance includes some bowlegged strutting, his performance is like that of an engine that frequently misfires.

Eddie (Andrew Pastides) confuses and frightens Martin
(Patrick Russell) in a scene from Fool For Love
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Complicating matters is the fact that May is awaiting the arrival of Martin (Patrick Russell), the relatively spineless man with whom she has a date. Meanwhile, Eddie is fleeing a vengeful woman who is determined to destroy his truck and the trailer that contains his horses.

With so much sexual tension sparking between May and Eddie, it should come as no surprise that Martin and the Old Man bring a kind of sly comic relief to the proceedings. Jessi Campbell's May burns with a furious determination not to let her brother barge in and ruin her life again, with Patrick Russell doing some fine character work as the befuddled Martin. As Eddie, Andrew Pastides is the embodiment of what some Texans call "a tall drink of water." Though Eddie may no longer be young, he's still charmingly dumb and full of cum.

Eddie (Andrew Pastides) prepares to lasso May (Jessi Campbell)
in a scene from Fool For Love (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Much of the black comedy in Fool For Love stems from the nervousness of ex-lovers caught in an uncomfortable situation. The amount of hilarity which erupts during each performance is a testament to Greco's solid direction. This so-called "legacy" production does full justice to Shepard's work as a major American playwright and his professional history with Magic Theatre. In addition to the ensemble's fine work, this revival gets a great deal of its dramatic impact from Christopher Akerlind's superb lighting and Sara Huddleston's frighteningly effective sound design (which frequently convinces the audience that the building is being rammed by an angry female driver seeking revenge on Eddie's cheatin' heart).

Performances of Fool For Love continue through March 5 at Magic Theatre (click here for tickets).