Sweet ‘Life’

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Life poster

“No new horror can be more terrible than the daily torture of the commonplace.”
– HP Lovecraft, “Ex Oblivione” First published in The United Amateur, 20-4 (March 1921)

It’s true what they say: “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” The 1960s and ‘70s may have been the greatest era for horror films, particularly in the US. It was an amazing two-decade period that gave us classics from Alfred Hitchcock and the grand guinol of Herschell Gordon Lewis; it’s when Spielberg showed us the terror of shark teeth and Tobe Hooper had us running from Texas chainsaws; it was when Hollywood gave us the classics of The Exorcist and Alien whilst the indie scene introduced us to Craven, Carpenter, and Cunningham. At the risk of being nostalgic for an era that predated my own existence, the impact of New Hollywood’s horror films has yet to be matched in all the years since.

Unfortunately, people took the wrong lessons from the success of those ground-breaking films. The success of the films of that era was that major studios were indiscriminately throwing their money, resources, and blind faith at bold (and, at times, untested) talent that paid back several times over. But rather than trying to find the next new talent, Hollywood just tried to repeat itself over and over again. One could argue that the indie film-boom of the ‘90s brought great new talent to the fore, but the newly-corporate Hollywood machine was only interested in that talent to the extent of the tight leashes they could put on them. And the horror genre, one already maligned by critics and social conservatives, has never seen an abundance of talent since its ‘60s/’70s heyday.

Life is to ‘70s horror what Tenacious D was to rock music of the same era: it’s not the greatest, it’s just a tribute.

The crew of the International Space Station are already celebrities, having piloted a manned space flight farther than any other human before them. That celebrity status is further cemented when one of their probes recovers an organism definitively proving the existence of life on Mars.

As a crew of scientists, they naturally try to experiment with the organism. But like all things in nature, the creature takes on a life of its own. No sooner has the crew discovered the creature than it reveals itself to be a dangerous, difficult-to-kill predator. Now the crew are trapped on station, millions of miles from help and being hunted by the deadliest lifeform known to man.

It goes without saying that this movie owes a helluva lot to Alien. I don’t just mean the basic premise, I mean the fact that many of its narrative beats are almost note-for-note recreations of Ridley Scott’s classic. (You’d think Brian de Palma directed it or something.) Of course, Alien owes a great deal to Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, so maybe Scott’s film being so slavishly copied is somehow a full circle?

To Life’s credit, it rips off Alien in all the right ways: our heroes have no idea how to kill the creature, despite all their best efforts; the body count is done in a way to mostly keep you guessing (it still falls into the trap of making two purrty White folks the last survivors); and the on-screen gore is done in a way to where its creativity matches its gratuity. It’s a movie that will leave much more of a visual impression than a narrative one.

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Speaking of that narrative: just as the film owes a great deal to Alien, there also nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. To once again give life credit, it stays true to its premise by providing the ending many feel those classic films should have had, but didn’t. I won’t spoil it here, but don’t go into this film expecting the words “Happily Ever After” to appear in the final frames.

Director Daniel Espinosa composes beautifully-shot gore without falling into the trap of easy jump-scares. The actors are all in fine form with their stock characters. Even another Alien rip-off, 1997’s Event Horizon, knew to get a great cast in place for what was, like this, a drive-in horror flick set amongst the stars. With that in mind, I wonder if some of screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s dialogue was intentionally bad? Other than the obligatory Ryan Reynolds ad-libs, most of the words are pretty rote. Still, there are a few instances in which the characters say lines that would trip up even the most skilled thespian. Yet even those corny lines fit in the conventions of the drive-in genre, so I’m forced to question if they were done that way on purpose?

In any case, Life is a fun way to spend a Friday night. It’s a big-budget throwback to a time when even the cheapest piece of 16mm schlock could be seen alongside cinematic masterpieces. Its reminiscent of a pre-home video era when people preferred the terror on the big screen to that which they saw on their tv screens at home. Not that we ever left the latter era (except technologically). Maybe we need a movie like Life even more than we think.

GRADE:                B+

Weak ‘Wilson’

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Wilson poster

“Face it, Bick: we are the older generation.”
– Leslie, Giant (1956)

It’s as inevitable as the rising sun: we’re all going to get old. Barring some unforeseen tragedy that takes us down in our youth, we’re all going to have to face the eventuality of our hair turning gray, our skin beginning to sag, our motor skills slowing down, and our favorite pop culture treasures being regarded as ancient artifacts. It’s not exactly the most pleasant thought in the world, but it’s a road we all have to travel eventually.

The good thing is that with age comes perspective: should you choose to pass your knowledge on to your successors, you can help them determine which things (styles, outlooks, technologies) still have relevance. Everyone and everything gets old, but you can help them know the difference between a classic and something obsolete.

Wilson isn’t about that. Instead, it mistakenly believes that an old man yelling at a cloud is somehow right and everyone young is ruining this once-great world.

Wilson is old. He doesn’t understand the digital world or why the things he liked as a youth have gone out of style. He thinks his unapologetic candor is improving things around him, but it certain doesn’t improve him. Insecure about having no lasting legacy, he tracks down his estranged wife, Pippi (Laura Dern). After charming his way back into her life (and her pants), she reveals to him that the child she supposedly aborted was actually put up for adoption seventeen years ago.

With a renewed interest in life and determined to make up for lost time, Wilson drags Pippi along as they track down their long-lost daughter (Isabella Amara) and give her the parents she never wanted.

If you’re going to make a story about a loveable asshole, you have to balance those two character traits equally. Any tip in the wrong direction and your character will either come off as too off-putting (making any perceived sympathy for them seem forced) or too sentimental (which won’t explain why they’re so hate-filled). Terry Zwigoff knows how to pull off this balance. He did it masterfully with Crumb, Bad Santa, Ghost World, and Art School Confidential, the latter two of which were written by this film’s author, Daniel Clowes.

The fact that Zwigoff didn’t direct this film is the first sign that something is wrong. As a screenwriter Clowes is like Aaron Sorkin, in the sense that, as Nathan Rabin once put it, he needs a direct who will both hold him back and bring out his strengths.  “If left to his devices,” says Rabin, “[he] doesn’t lurch into self-parody; he leaps.” (It should be noted that Alexander Payne was originally slated to direct before stepping down. He remains credited as a producer.)

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As I watched Wilson, based on Clowes’ graphic novel of the same name, I started thinking of James L. Brooks’ As Good as It Gets, a film Roger Ebert once described as Brooks’ attempt to “hammer square pegs into round holes”. In Wilson, Clowes and director Craig Johnson use industrial-powered machinery to drill sentiment into the audience. All it does is leave a mess. It would be one thing if the eponymous Wilson were at least in some way relatable in his awkwardness. Instead, we’re supposed to sympathize with a man who knowingly bothers strangers in public because they’re trying to get work done on laptops, but won’t engage him in conversation. It’s not Wilson at fault for harassing these people, you see, but rather their fault for not being open to an elderly stranger who wants them to listen to him hurl off obscenities.

The film is equally misguided in its characterizations. The cast are all great actors (of particular note are Isabella Amara as Wilson and Pippi’s daughter Claire, and a wasted Judy Greer as Wilson’s dog-sitter), but the “characters” are all stereotypes masquerading as human beings. The original graphic novel began as a series of disparate strips by Zwigoff. In comic strips it makes sense to limit what you do, given the time and space allotted. Film, on the other hand, requires a bit more to make characters seem more real. Everyone here gets a name (if they’re lucky) and one character trait (husband, wife, etc.) before the majority of them are never seen again for the rest of the running time. I imagine the episodic narrative is another holdover from the strip. It fails just as much as all the others.

It’s fine to look at the fast-moving new world and wonder where you fit in, but you need to do so with perspective. If your age hasn’t given you the wherewithal to look at the bigger picture and try to see things from another perspective, then you’ve outlived your usefulness. If your only reaction to growing old is say that young people are at fault for simply being young, then you’ve officially become a fossil. As quite a few old timers have told me, lo these many years: the one thought you always know is wrong is the one where you think the world revolves around you.

GRADE:                D

‘John’ Dope

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John (ACT 2017) programme

“Now which way do we go?”
“Pardon me, this way is a very nice way.”
“Who said that?”
[..]
“It’s pleasant down that way, too.”
“That’s funny. Wasn’t he pointing the other way?”
“Of course, some people do go both ways.”

The Wizard of OZ (1939), screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf

It’s a common complaint amongst older generations about how the young’uns these days have no sense of direction; that their overabundance of choice has made them unable to make clear decisions; that having everything handed to them has made them all entitled babies who don’t know the value of real work. These older generations view each successive one, particularly Millennials, as nothing more than wannabe Lost Boys of Neverland who want to avoid adulthood (ie. responsibility) the way most people avoid malaria.

Like all stereotypes, I know that this one isn’t… entirely true. Having said that, this stereotype (like all others) has people who will gladly embody all of its worst characteristics. (Lena Dunham has made an entire career out of personifying the entitled White Millennial.) Why anyone would openly embrace the idea of being an indecisive layabout, I’m sure I don’t know, but those folks do exist.

I’d love to tell you that Annie Baker’s John is a meditation on that sort of generation gap. But I can’t tell you that. Instead, she embraces the stereotype.

In a cozy little bed ‘n breakfast in Gettysburg, PA, Millennial couple Eli and Jenny have come to get away from the hectic New York life for the weekend. As Eli is a Civil War buff, he naturally chose one of the most important locations of both the war and the United States. The place is run by septuagenarian Mertis (nicknamed “Kitty”) and her unseen husband George.

Of course, all is not well with our players. The youngsters aren’t just escaping the city life, but also the damage left behind from a major turning point in their relationship. Between Jenny’s menstrual cycle, strange occurrences in the house, and frequent visits from Kitty’s friend Genevieve, the couple’s relationship may end up more damaged than it was when they first arrived.

Annie Baker couldn’t decide what play she wanted to write, so she tried to write them all. Although the fixed setting of John makes it a chamber play, the tone swings wildly back-and-forth from bad relationship comedy to bad relationship drama to actually-pretty-decent haunted house play. Since Baker can’t decide what story she wants to tell, several threads go unresolved and a great deal of time feels wasted. After three hours (yes, really) of watching the play tread water, we’re not even given the courtesy of an ending. What I mean is the play doesn’t bother to bring the story, what little there is, to any logical conclusion. Instead, it just stops. It’s akin to a tour guide telling customers all the possible stops they could make, never taking them there, then just telling them all to go home.

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The cast try their best with what they’ve been given. Stacy Yen is natural as Jenny, but the same cannot be said for Joe Paulik as Eli. Every line delivery of his mechanical and lacking energy. Given that a crucial point in the play requires him to yell, his doing so in a subdued fashion comes off more as the actor afraid to let loose moreso than the character. Georgia Engel’s Kitty is entertaining, even though Baker has clearly written her as nothing more than an “Aunt Bea” caricature. Ann McDonough’s Genevieve is frustrating for reasons that have nothing to do with the actress playing the role. Had the play committed to the haunted house story lurking at its edges, Genevieve would have been the character you just have to keep an eye on. Here, her presence is wasted.

And that’s really John in a nutshell: it’s an exercise wasting a valuable opportunity. Baker could have taken the classic theatre format of the chamber play and used it to make an intriguing modern story. Instead, she creates the theatrical genre equivalent to a pack of mini cereal boxes. Sure, eating them all will fill you up, but you won’t be satisfied when it’s over.

GRADE:                C-

John runs until the 3rd of April at the ACT.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

Only ‘You’

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You for Me for You - programme

“Leaving North Korea is not like leaving any other country. It is more like leaving another universe. I will never truly be free of its gravity, no matter how far I journey.”
– Lee Hyeon-seo, The Girl with Seven Names

There’s a pretention in the United States that afflicts even its less well-off citizens: “No matter how bad we have it here,” they say, “it can’t be any worse than [insert third-world country].” Despite the fact that the US is currently presided over by a guy who insisted the US was thoroughly lacking in a greatness he would supposedly restore all on his own, the majority of those who voted for him would likely take issue with anyone (except him) who suggested the United States was anything less than the God-blessed Paramount of the Western world. When Elián González was brought to the US in 2000, one of the first places his relatives took him was Disney World.

Does commie-ridden Cuba have Disney World? I don’t think so!

Of course, when you see one extreme as being the only solution to another it tends to blind you to the flaws of your preferred choice. Yes, we yanks have countless tv options, taco shells made from Doritos, and the ability to pay others to pick up our dogs’ poop, but does that really give us the right to brag that we’re better than a country like China, where everyone is watched hawk-like? Say what you will about those countries – and what you said would be absolutely true – at least they have universal healthcare.

You for Me for You is about moving from one extreme to another while being expected to act as if everything were normal.

Junhee and Minhee live in North Korea. They’re sick, they’re starving, and they’re very poor. With nothing left to lose Junhee arranges for a smuggler to sneak them over the border. They make it to the edge, but Minhee is lost along the way.

Now the two sisters live radically different existences: Junhee winding up in New York and attempting to assimilate into American culture; Minhee adapting to an existence that’s both familiar and alien. If the two ever see one another again, would either recognize whom the other has become?

One of the best narrative devices in this play – play for both laughs and pathos – relates to how Junhee becomes more and more adjusted to American life over the years. Although all the dialogue is in English, the first thing she hears is a woman speaking what sounds like pure gibberish. As the play continues, the people speaking to her become less and less… “gibberish-y” until both we the audience and Junhee can understand everyone perfectly. Of course, the first “perfect” scene involves an American woman who speaks a million miles-an-hour about every trivial thought that crosses her mind, so maybe we were all better off not knowing what was said.

When watching the Minhee scenes, I found myself thinking of the movie Beetlejuice, of all things. Like that movie, this play shows an alternate reality just as hilarious and frustratingly mired in bureaucratic micro-managing as the “normal” world we know so well. Both sisters’ stories mine a great number of laughs from the simple monotony of everyday life.

But make no mistake, this story is a tragedy, fantastic though it may be. Just as playwright Mia Chung is comfortable mining touching material for laughs, she doesn’t lose sight of the fact that the land of the Kim family is an indisputable dictatorship. Even when the play begins to lose steam and overstay its welcome in the final third, it’s easy to relate to its final image of someone forever changed by events they dare not speak of again.

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And the experience is personified well by actors Kathryn Han and Grace Ng as sisters Minhee and Junhee, respectively. That the two make such good avatars for the audience, especially during the more fantastical elements of the story, should serve as proof that audience surrogates don’t always need to be blank slates with no personal history. Or White.

Incidentally, the sole White character (nay, characters), played by Elissa Beth Stebbins, personify of the play’s aforementioned running joke. They range from an Ellis Island pencil-pusher to a heartless supervisor to a motor-mouthed nurse intent on kvetching about, well, everything. The best was probably the hospital patient freaking out due to her language barrier with nurse Junhee. Stebbins gives them just enough humanity to elevate them from carictures.

Also playing multiple roles is Jomar Tagatac as a cruel North Korean doctor, a greedy border smuggler, and Minhee’s late husband, to name a few. The cast is rounded out by Julian Green as Junhee’s Black-American boyfriend from Alabama. The two men are pretty adequate in their roles, but sometimes each feels as if they’re acting in a completely different play than the one we’re seeing.

Speaking of what we see, I still don’t quite know what to make of Maya Linke’s set design? Perhaps the set pieces’ resemblance to a honeycomb is meant to reflect the North Korean view of the citizens as drones serving one master? It’s an interesting design, even if I’m not 100% sure what it means. Both set and play are well served by moody lighting cues by David Elliot and atmospheric sounds by James Ard. Even though director M. Graham Smith sometimes utilizes these resources to no useful effect (the transitions are rote and there’s one point late in the play where Minhee is simply standing in the background for no apparent reason), he wisely let his designers have fun.

You for Me for You is an interesting take on the old saying that “the grass is always greener on the other side”. In a politically-charged time as this, I wasn’t expecting a story to so directly take the two defining political ideals of the past 100 years, Communism and Capitalism, and throw their perceptions of one another into a blender. (That the US and North Korea have both made recent headlines due to the policies of their “crazy” leaders makes the story even more timely.) Although the play isn’t perfect, its strength in reminding its audience that once the ideologies are gone, there are human lives being affected by policy.

GRADE:                B

You for Me for You runs until the 1st of April at the Potrero Stage.
For tickets and information, please visit Crowded Fire Theater’s official production page here.

A Story to ‘Kil’ For

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Kilgallen - Jones programme and postcard

“I’m staring at the woman on the corner/
It’s fucked up when your mind’s playing tricks on ya”

– Geto Boys, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”, We Can’t Be Stopped (1991)

Have you ever wondered what Julie & Julia would be like if it were less about cooking and more about unsolved murder and conspiracy theories? Then this play may interest you.

Granted, that might not be the first thing on your mind as you walk into the theatre. You’ll likely be struck by the literal dichotomy of the set: one side the finely-manicured home office of an Old Hollywood author (complete with bar and writing desk); the other side a shabby basement/workplace/bedroom for a collegiate Millennial. As Sinatra tunes play over the speakers, you can’t help but look at the intricately detailed set and think “This is just gonna be the weirdest production of The Odd Couple, right?”

The differences between these two spaces are as obvious as the women who inhabit them. Over the course of the 90 minutes that follow, those lines become blurred. As do the lines of fantasy and reality, drive and obsession, and the thrill of solving a crime with fear of danger knocking at your door.

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From the 1930s to the ‘60s, Dorothy Kilgallen (pronounced “kill-GAL-en”) rubbed elbows with America’s showbiz elite. From the best of Broadway to Hollywood royalty, she spent nearly 30 years talking and writing about anyone and everyone worth having their name mentioned. When she began writing about members of organized crime, it added a new element of danger to her work. So when she was found dead in her home in 1965, it raised more questions than it answered.

In 2017, 19-year-old Alexis Jones (pronounced “Jones”) is a community college student looking for a little direction in life. A true crime buff, she’s delighted when a friend points her toward the mystery surrounding Dorothy’s death. She turns her curiosity about the case into a Serial-style podcast with the hopes of solving the mystery on her own. The show proves popular, but it isn’t long before Alexis begins receiving the wrong kind of attention for her snooping.

Going into this play knowing nothing but who wrote and directed it, I was mostly curious as to how it compared to writer Allison Page’s last full-length, 2015’s Hilarity. There are similar themes – the heroine with the “trainwreck” of a mother; the best friend/de facto mother-figure trying to set the heroine straight; self-destruction and toxic relationships – but the central character of Hilarity is considered “over the hill”. Alexis Jones has her whole life ahead of her, which leads her to do things without thinking through the consequences or heeding the advice of those closest to her. When her podcast becomes popular and genuine sense of danger is introduced, it scares her just as much as it strengthens her resolve. She’s afraid of winding up like her institutionalized mother, but shuns the affections of those who could help her prevent that very thing.

KilGallen/Jones is essentially two stories and theatrical formats mashed together: 1 – a neo-noirish thriller-comedy about falling down the rabbit hole; and 2 – a one-woman show told in the style of a classic noir from post-WWII America. The former is the more prominent of the two, but I’d be curious to see a full-length version of the latter. Maybe that’s because the solo shows I’ve seen recently have been a mixed bag and this play wisely keeps the format to small doses, but there’s also the fact that a confessional story of a forgotten showbiz veteran/investigative journalist is irresistible.

That’s she’s played so well by Marie O’Donnell doesn’t hurt either. O’Donnell (who also starred in Hilarity) plays Dorothy Kilgallen as hilariously anecdotal when she’s “on”, but touchingly vulnerable in silent moments (eg. she’s seen visibly hurt by jokes at her expense by Frank Sinatra, but easily tears him down when she speaks to us). As an investigative journalist, she’s cut from that Lois Lane/Laura Bow/Jessica Fletcher mold that makes her easy to underestimate, but no less confrontational when searching for a story.

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The younger members of the cast don’t steal the show as easily – with less stage time, O’Donnell is clearly making the most of it – but they fare well. At times they appear to be rushing through Page’s dialogue as if they were trying to catch a runaway train, but it never feels particularly forced. That’s especially true for actress Lauren Garcia, whose dialogue as “Rae” jumps from clichéd Millennial to maternal at the drop of a hat. In the wrong hands, that could have been disastrous. George Coker is much better at handling Gordo’s comedy than his moments of gravitas, but when he’s funny, everyone else on stage simply disappears.

And then, of course, there’s Sarah Brazier as Alexis Jones. A character who comes off as a shitty friend and opportunist is hardly what one would think of as sympathetic. Thankfully, the doe-eyed Brazier gives her a lot of heart. Like Garcia and Coker, she sometimes tries to sprint through the dialogue, but she never loses sight of Alexis’ core. When Jones begins her podcast, we want to see her succeed; when she becomes obsessed with Dorothy, we just want to see her out of danger. Not as easy as it sounds, but pulled off well here.

Speaking of that danger, thank God there are laughs in this thing, because the majority of this play would have you think Page and director Ellery Schaar were staging Wait Until Dark, what with all the unbearable tension they build. As artistic director of the sketch troupe Killing My Lobster, Page is no stranger to comedy. Some of the funniest lines of Kilgallen/Jones happen in the aftermath of danger. Such as when Alexis responds to hate mail by asking “Is [that] any worse than dick pix? ‘Cause everyone on Snapchat gets those.” Equally funny is her Serial-but-not-Serial podcast Sequential, the intro for which makes Alexis sound like the internet version of Elvira. And any time Gordo is allowed to say, well, anything it usually leaves you in stiches.

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The terror and comedy are well-balanced by Schaar and her crew, including sound designer Gregory Scharpen and lighting designer Beth Cockrell. I do wish transitions had been more than “EXIT: this character,” though I can see how it saved time. I also wish Alexis’ desk had been moved several times during the play, as its center-stage placement for the entire show made it often hard to make out what was happening on the sofa. Still, the atmosphere was consistent overall.

At this point it’s safe to say that everyone knows Nietzsche’s about “star[ing] into the abyss,” but few consider what it really means. Kilgallen/Jones is a story about how one woman fell in 52 years ago, and how another woman is in danger of falling in after her. It’s about the fine line that separates a hobby from an obsession, and determination from leaping without looking. It’s a dangerous spot to fall from if you don’t have anyone to pull you back.

Also, stale Cheetos are unacceptable. Always.

GRADE:                B+

Kilgallen/Jones runs until March 25 at The EXIT Theatre in San Francisco.
For tickets and information, please visit the show’s official website here.

Lost in these ‘Woods’

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Into the Woods (SHN 2017 tour) - stage & prog

Sittin’ front row and my eyes still aren’t sure what they’re seeing.

“Enchantment produces a Secondary World, into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose.”
– JRR Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (1964)

It’s funny the way anyone who takes fairy tales in a “dark” direction is chastised for supposedly “deviating from the purity of the source material”. Usually the people who say “source material” actually mean “the Disney version,” as the most popular and repeated children’s stories in the West all have some very dark origins. Like religious parables, they’re trying to scare a sense of awareness (and obedience) into the listener; that means getting dark.

But even if they weren’t spawned from such malevolent origins, fairy tales deserve deconstruction as much as any other mythology or folklore. After each story’s heyday has long-since passed, subsequent generations would be remiss if they merely revered every classic text and took it at face value. James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods clearly has a love for the childhood tales – with songs that would fit in nice in a Disney production (which they did) – but isn’t afraid to take an adult look at what happens after “Happily ever after.”

Fiasco Theater’s production seeks to deconstruct the deconstruction. The results, to say the least, are mixed.

The Witch. The beanstalk. The red hood. The slipper. The charming prince. All of these and more come together in this mash-up of classic fairy tales. In what-appears-to-be the backstage of a theatre during the Great Depression, a troupe of 10 performers stage a bare-bones show for an audience (us) that may or may not actually exist.

There was something I noticed in the lobby of the Golden Gate Theatre on opening night of this production. And no, it wasn’t the fact that we all got free ice cream from Humphry Slocombe. Well, not just that.

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It was the Into the Woods merchandise they were selling. It was what you’d expect: t-shirts; Lapine and Sondheim’s book; the original Broadway album; mugs; and fridge magnets. It also had DVDs (no Blu-Rays) of the film version. I’d imagine the brand would want to distance itself from such a lackluster adaptation, but maybe that’s why they were only selling the DVDs with little-to-no features on them.

I bring this up because this production is the polar opposite of the film in every way. I don’t just mean the obvious fact that it keeps what the film cut. No, I’m talking about the way the production regards itself. The film version took itself so damn seriously that you thought it was trying to win awards for pretention. The Fiasco Theater production doesn’t take itself seriously at all.

That works both for and against it. On the one hand, the producers have remembered what the film-makers instantly forgot: that the show, despite its serious moments, is a lot of fun (these are, after all, the stories we all grew up with). On the other hand, their insistence on abandoning the “subterfuge” of Lapine and Sondheim’s show can be a mess. The original show had actors doubling roles, but they were all specific to the multiple characters being played. This show eschews any one narrator, preferring to have the actors trade the role at any given time. An interesting concept, but it misses the point of him doubling as the Mysterious Man. Similarly, having Cinderella’s Prince double as one of the step-sisters to test himself with the slipper sounds better in concept than it looks in practice.

And then there’s the production’s attempts at being edgy. Again, both the original show and the original tales were pretty clear about the darkness and sexual commentary they were presenting. Apparently that wasn’t enough for Fiasco Theater. Sure, they hit the right note by showing the post-transformation Witch as very va-va-voomy, but they strike out in other parts. They want everyone to read the relationship between Jack and Milky White (here literally portrayed as a guy with a cowbell who screams “Moo” at the top of his lungs) as sexual. Not only sexual, but flat out gay… which means they might (emphasis on “might”) be equating homosexuality to bestiality.

Also, The Witch says “Fuck!”. Thanks for that, Fiasco.

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But one thing that can’t be taken away from the show is the amount of talent in the cast. Not only do they act, sing, and dance their roles, they also become their own on-stage “orchestra” in the form of Dust Bowl-era band. In addition to the pianist (the one performer constantly on stage, but never acting out a character), whatever actor isn’t currently acting is off to the side – but still in sight – playing the spoons, banjo, or whatever inanimate object they have that will make a sound.

As great as this showcases all of their skills, it still doesn’t explain why the show takes the form of a Depression-era acting troupe putting on a show for a (possibly) imaginary audience with almost no costuming. Is it their way of saying that a stage is less important than a willingness to perform? Is it their way of trying to see themselves in these classic stories? Is it a way of saying that the storyteller is always valuable, even when one has nothing? The synopsis on the official site tells us nothing, so we’re left to speculate.

All said, the Fiasco Theater’s production suggests that even an elaborate musical like Into the Woods can be put on with nothing more than pieces of cloth and string – something a theatre artist like myself finds comforting and encouraging. What the production seems to miss is why people like those bells and whistles in the first place. They aren’t just there to flaunt the production’s budget, Lapine and Sondheim added them so that you were 100% sure you were seeing the classic characters you knew and loved. That’s why the curveballs they throw at the characters have such resonance: it up-ends everything we thought we knew about stories we know by heart.

Kudos to the producers for getting permission to experiment. If anything, the result is a bold failure.

GRADE:                C-

Into the Woods’ 2017 tour runs until April 2 at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles.
For tickets and info about the San Francisco run, please visit the SHN site here.
For further information about the tour, visit the official site here.

‘Holding’ Out for More

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Holding the Edge postcard

“I came here today with the hope that this administration would do everything possible, make every resource available—there is no reason this disease cannot be conquered. We do not need in[-]fighting, this is not a political issue. This is a health issue. This is not a gay issue. This is a human issue. And I do not intend to be defeated by it. I came here today in the hope that my epitaph would not read that I died of red tape.”
– Roger Gail Lyon, reading a statement before Congress in 1983 regarding the growing AIDS crisis

Going to see a show at The Marsh, be it the SF or Berkeley branch, is always a roll of the dice. For every Brian Copeland creating Not a Genuine Black Man there’s are one or two pretentious exercises in bad stand-up that just make solo shows look bad. Sure, you could say that about almost anything, but solo shows aren’t exactly the most revered form of theatre (they’re considered “too easy”). For The Marsh to not only make that format the stock and trade of its two branches shows a genuine dedication to the idea that a single storyteller can do more than a wide ensemble.

When it goes wrong, you get that show linked to in the last paragraph. When it goes right, you get shows like Holding the Edge.

From the press release: “This new solo show takes audiences to January 28, 1986 to join Elaine, a hospice nurse and Cub Scout mom. She finds herself in the chaotic socio-political center of the AIDS epidemic on the day of the Challenger explosion, confronting the relative value of lives. What does an irreverent and outraged lesbian, who also happens to be in the midst of early sobriety, do? Determined to keep holding the edge, Elaine starts a riot.”

Having been born in 1981, I remember the Reagan era as clearly as I remember last week. Walking into the theatre to be greeted by the sounds of Whitney Houston’s “You give Good Love” put me in a pleasant memory of the time when radio play was a much more surprising experience. A running joke of Elaine Magree’s show is that she purposefully draws the 2017 audience’s attention to the fact that three decades have passed since the setting of her story. I’m not kidding: she’ll frequently break away from the story to directly address the audience with “I had to find the nearest payphone – because it’s the ‘80s!” As I took down notes for this review, I was glad that I stuck to the pen ‘n paper practice that I’d picked up in the pre-smartphone era.

Yes, 31 years have passed. Just as I’m no longer the precocious kid who loved MJ, nor is Magree the nurse knee-deep in dying patients at the height of the AIDS crisis. Her duty is to see her charges through their final moments, so the element of death is nothing new to her. But for an out lesbian single mom in The Castro to deal with an abundance of patients afflicted with what-was-once-known-as “Gay Cancer,” these cases hit closer to home.

The centerpiece of Magree’s play has her treating a dying member of SF’s very own Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. We meet the patient’s partner, close friends, and family. Most importantly, we meet someone whose knowledge of their own impending mortality resonates long afterward. The urge to get Reagan to acknowledge the devastation of AIDS is a driving force for the characters (the story takes place soon after the death of actor Rock Hudson and during the Challenger disaster). A dying Sister might not have been an important life to “The Gipper,” but it was a life nonetheless.

If there’s one strike against this production, it’s that Magree is a much better writer than she is an actor. She isn’t bad by any means – she makes it easy to identify each individual personality – she just doesn’t always slip into each on as easily as another, and some characterizations can be a bit too broad.

Still, Holding the Edge serves as a fine time capsule of a time when the defining disease of the late-20th century was dismissed as punishment for hedonism; a time when fewer technological options meant that a greater number of people reacted to the same events; a time when an ultra-conservative American leader disregarded the pleas of his own citizens because it didn’t fit with the narrative he was trying to create. I’d like to say things have changed, but you watch the show and tell me it doesn’t seem timely.

GRADE:                B

Holding the Edge is running until 8 April at The Marsh – San Francisco.
For tickets and information, please visit The Marsh’s official website here.

‘Get’ It!

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Get Out poster

“In this country ‘American’ means ‘white’. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
– Toni Morrison, interview with The Guardian (29 January 1992)

Amiri Baraka was a great poet. If you ever come across a collection of his poems in a bookstore, I’d advise you to read it right there, if not outright purchase it. His lyrical musings on the Black experience are, at times, right up there with the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. When going through his poems, it’s easy to see why so many Black authors who came after cite him as an influence.

I bring this up because for all his gifts as a poet, the man was a terrible playwright. His defining work, Dutchman (written in the aftermath of – and in response to – his divorce from a White woman), is a failure in terms of dialogue, character development, and dramatic structure. How and why this pulpy, B-movie-plotted trainwreck has influenced so many Black writers – including, but not limited to, superior playwright August Wilson – I’ll never know, but as a Black playwright myself, I say it’s high time we stopped praising it.

I’m willing to bet Jordan Peele has read Dutchman once or twice. Its influence is all over Peele’s debut film, Get Out. But whereas Baraka’s poor playwriting resulted in a trashy, sensationalist piece, Peele intentionally seeks to replicate the “trashy” tropes of classic horror films, like Italian giallo films and American “grindhouse” flicks of the 1970s. By doing so he’s made a statement about being Black in the United States that is both timely and timeless.

It had to happen some time: Chris, a Black photographer in his 20s, is finally going to parents of his White girlfriend, Rosie. Although the sprawling Southern home appears to be something out of Gone with the Wind – complete with Black servants – the parents themselves appear to be happy, if over-enthusiastic, with their daughter’s new beau. Still, Chris is suspicious. He tries to brush it off as the paranoia of being one of the few Black faces in the Deep South, but he can’t shake it. Whenever he does see another Black face, what looks back at him gives him ample reason to be afraid.

The opening scene of Get Out is so true-to-life for me, it could have been drawn from my own memories. It features a Black man walking through an upper-middle class White neighborhood at night. He’s on his phone talking to a friend, trying to find out how he got lost. He can feel the eyes of residents leering at him from behind windows. A car passes him on the street, then slows to a cruise. He verbally tries to reassure himself that he’ll be okay; that it’s all in his head; that he couldn’t actually be in any danger, could he? Could he?

In any other horror or action flick, this would be the innocent White couple who are stalked through the back alley. Get Out subverts this trope by showing it through the eyes of a Black man; by making the victim the very one movies and popular media would have you believe are the real danger.

Get Out was written and filmed when it was still ridiculous to think that an openly racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic failed “businessman” could stumble his way to the highest office in the land. But given that the mere election of a Black president was enough to work up racist White folks, we shouldn’t have been surprised. This film is about what it’s like to have dark skin in the era of Trump. It’s a film born out of police killings and Confederate flag defenses that just happened to be released as all of those things reached a fever pitch.

Get Out still

Daniel Kaluuya as ‘Chris’ and Allison Williams as ‘Rose’

And it is damn good at its job. By taking influence from the Italian horror films of Argento and Bava, and the ‘70s American works of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper, Peele has created a Southern Gothic piece that, on its surface, one would expect out of the Blaxploitation era. But the genuine terror is head-and-shoulders above anything as cheap as I Dismember Mama. When I saw Fences last year, the trailer for Get Out preceded it. The mostly-Black audience was into it, until the words “Written and Directed by Jordan Peele” appeared on the screen.

“That nigga from Key & Peele? Da fuck?”

Sure it looked good, but could a straight-forward horror flick from a professional comedian be taken seriously. Yes. Yes, it could. From the spot-on performances from the entire cast to the cinematography and editing (both of which have style, but still allow you to see what’s going on) to the genuine moments of comedy that give brief reprieve from the tension. All of it is top-notch.

Though Get Out may have been produced before the Trump era, it’s an incredibly vital component of it. An administration of rich White men and women who feel they don’t need to answer to the public resonates through a film about how Black people are easily exploited and forgotten. This is the sort of film made from the victims of disenfranchisement and brutality when they’re told to “just get over it”.

Anyone who says we should “just get over it” should thank their lucky stars that Peele restricted his rage to a work of art. God only knows how it would manifest itself in the real world.

GRADE:                A

It Just Keeps Piling Up

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the-marsh-daughter-of-a-garbageman-2017-postcard-and-programme

“Judge not, and ye shall not be judged.
Condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned
Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven”

– Luke 6:37, King James Version

Maureen Langan is obsessed with Kim Kardashian-West. Given that the entire world seems to be obsessed with her, Langan’s fixation shouldn’t be that surprising. Langan has often worked as an entertainment reporter, so she’s probably had to mention the world’s most famous “celebutante” numerous times as part of her job. As a stand-up comedian, Langan would almost be remiss not to give an impression or commentary on someone whose name is often mentioned in public. None of that is out of the ordinary.

What’s unique, and incredibly disturbing, about Langan’s fixation is that she fixates on Kardashian-West the way Goldie Hawn fixated on Meryl Streep in the film Death Becomes Her. I won’t go so far as to suggest that Langan has an equally malicious intent, but the fact that she uses Kardashian-West as the exemplar of all that is wrong with the world is myopic. The fact that she does it to the extent that she does is unhealthy.

If you wondering what any of this has to do with a one-woman show advertised as a reminiscence of growing up Irish-American in 1970s New Jersey, you’re not alone.

From the press release:Daughter of a Garbageman is a tale of Maureen Langan’s 1970s upbringing in New Jersey. Her Irish mother and Bronx-born father, a New York City sanitation worker, told her to work hard, get educated and life would reward her. Not true! Life is rewarding to reality stars. How do you tell a girl to read and write when Kim Kardashian gets a book deal? When making a sex tape leads to fame and fortune? When the star of The Apprentice can become president? WHO IS TO BLAME? Is it her parents’ fault? America’s fault? With humor, honesty, and insight, Maureen taps into the hearts and frustrations of hard-working people everywhere who wonder if they, too, were raised wrong.”

You may or may not have noticed a certain celebrity’s name mentioned frequently in the above four paragraphs. As the one preceding this one is from the show’s official press, I can’t take credit for it. When combined with the ones I wrote, you see the central problem with Flanagan’s show: what was supposed to be a story about her becomes an extended rant about someone famous. She spends more time talking about Kim Kardashian-West than she ever does about her titular garbage man father – and his occupation is only mentioned two or three fleeting times.

Langan, who identifies herself as a feminist during the show, spends a considerable amount of the show’s 90-min. runtime (as opposed to the advertised 60) body- and slut-shaming the reality star for, well, being a reality star. She holds up Kardashian-West’s infamous sex tape as Exhibit “A” in her case. After all, she argues, why work hard when you can get rich from oiling up “your fat ass”? (The clichéd “Kim has a big butt” jokes are par for the course here.) But the fact that said tape was released to the public by a vindictive ex-boyfriend – who frequently tries to extend his 15 minutes of non-fame by promoting his continued obsession with her – is never mentioned.

If you’re wondering if such an omission is done out of ignorance on Langan’s part or flat-out hypocrisy, perhaps the answer lies in how she brings up Vanessa L. Williams as a counter-exampl. She recounts Williams being crowned Miss America 1984, only to be forced to relinquish her crown and title when nude photos from her modelling days resurfaced. In Langan’s eyes, Williams – a model and pageant queen who extended into a prolific music and film career (ie. she literally got where she is based on her good looks) – is used as a the “Madonna” to Kardashian-West’s “whore,” which speaks to a major blind spot in Langan’s vision. (It also makes one wonder what kind of conversations Vanessa and Kim had on the set of the movie Obsession?).

The real tragedy in all of this is the fact that when Langan actually does take the time to stop indulging her fixation, she gives clues to the kind of show this could – nay, should – have been. Granted the show still has its flaws: as a stand-up, Langan does the typical “bridge ‘n tunnel” jokes about growing up in Jersey. The accents, the smells, the Irish-Catholic guilt – it’s all pretty well-worn territory. The fact that most characters are reduced to brief mentions and funny voices does them a disservice, especially her parents. Her parents’ greater problems – she says her father is an alcoholic and her mother is repressed – take a back seat to the sitcom caricatures we’re shown on stage.

Where Langan really shines is when she’s brave enough to linger on one character or life situation long enough for it to have resonance. A truly terrifying sequence takes place in Colombia Presbyterian hospital where a teenage Langan is being treated for an eating disorder. When she’s questioned by doctors, she feels as if she’s a criminal being interrogated (complete with spotlight) and forced to “rat out” her parents, whose pressures lead to the disorder. Later, she and her sister (she has five siblings, only two of whom are named and you’ll forget those names instantly) discover that their mother changed the date on her marriage certificate to cover the fact that she was three months pregnant (ie. not a virgin bride). This leads to a talk with Maureen and her mother in which Maureen that strikes the latter in a way she doesn’t expect.

These stories are funny and sad at the same time. They show that Langan can move beyond doing “a routine” with worn-out jokes to actually acting and presenting genuine pathos. They’re exaggerated, but sincere. They’re everything this show should be, but isn’t.

If I were to guess as to why not, I’d say that for all Langan’s talk that it took her a long time to be as upfront as she is in the show, she’s still holding back. She only mentions things like her father’s alcoholism long enough for them to be the punchline to a joke or an emotional scar that she’s trying to ignore. That she mentions getting parental approval before putting on the show also speaks volumes. Langan thinks she’s made a breakthrough, but any therapist worth his/her degree would tell her that her fixation on a celebrity is a deflection; that she’s avoiding the real issue so as to not confront the real problems in her past.

Langan had the opportunity to go for the emotional jugular and resonate with her audience. Instead, she shifts most of power and rage to a tabloid obsession. For someone who claims to hate a celebrity because they got rich and famous the easy way, Langan seems pretty happy taking the easy way herself. For her to proclaim herself the voice of “hard-working people” and not see how that same slogan was used the current comb-over-in-chief means she’s no better than the very reality stars she despises.

There’s a good show buried within Daughter of a Garbageman trying in vain to claw its way out. That show would be about how a Jersey-raised Irish-American woman is eager to find out where she fits in the world when everyone – from her friends to her old world mother – has their own ideas as to what she should be. It would explore in depth the failed marriage that is here truncated to one joke. It would be about how one takes all that pain and parlays it into a comedy career that wins acclaim from her idols. It would be funny, heart-breaking, and, most of all, real.

Maureen Langan either wasn’t interested in making that show or fell victim to a major mental sidetrack along the way. She undermines her own arguments and beliefs by going after low-hanging fruit and barking up the wrong tree. Rather than go into detail about how her upbringing affected her personally, she’s happy patting herself on the back for merely thinking of making that kind of revelation.

That’s a damn shame. The world needs more stories like the former rather than the latter.

GRADE:                D+

Daughter of a Garbageman is playing until March 25 at The Marsh – San Francisco.
For tickets and information, please visit The Marsh’s official website here.

No ‘Cure’ for this Stupidity

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a-cure-for-wellness-poster

“There is no sin except stupidity.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist (1891)

I usually feel sorry for Gore Verbinski, knowing he didn’t become a more renowned director. In a world where films – particular the average American film – are as interchangeable as a row of bran muffins, Verbinski’s movies actually have a visual style. Not content with the usual over-edited flat frames that get converted to horrible 3-D in post, Verbinski lets you know that he isn’t merely sleepwalking through his job as a director – he wants to hold your attention for as long possible through methods that don’t cinematically equate to dangling keys in front of a baby. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a “visionary director,” but he’s come a long way from “the director of Mouse Hunt”. Why he hasn’t achieved the recognition of the infinitely less-talented Zack Snyder, I’ll never know?

But, like Snyder, Verbinski’s skills behind the camera far outweigh his ability to pick scripts. Occasionally he’ll stumble upon one that’s fairly decent (The Weather Man, The Ring, the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie), but most of his choices have been mediocre Hollywood tripe. One hopes that one day he’ll be matched up with a screenwriter capable of supplying compelling words to go along with his striking visuals.

Not only does A Cure for Wellness lack an adequate script, but considering that said script is based on a story Verbinski co-wrote, he has only himself to blame for the film’s shortcomings.

For young Mr. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), there’s nowhere to go but up. The hotshot yuppie is coming off a winning streak when his superiors give him a rather unorthodox task: head to a remote wellness center in the Swiss Alps and retrieve a Mr. Pembroke, a senior partner who has yet to return.

Lockhart does as he’s told, but after being stonewalled by center staff and falling victim to a car accident, he suddenly finds himself counted amongst the center’s patients. At first, it appears he’ll be getting some much needed downtime from work, but he soon begins to suspect there’s something much more sinister afoot.

A Cure for Wellness is a prime example of what Roger Ebert called “the Idiot Plot”. Had the central characters exercised a modicum of common sense, there’s no way this movie would be almost 2 ½ hours long. It features people failing to ask obvious questions, “restricted” areas that are easier to get into than a Burger King wrapper, characters known to be dangerous or insecure are left on their own, and an “action” final so clichéd and predictable that I’m surprised it didn’t take place on the catwalk of an explosion factory. And that’s not even mentioning how this psychological thriller, which claims to be grounded in reality, takes such a ludicrous third act turn for the supernatural that one expects M. Night Shyamalan to jump out and shout “What a twist!”

a-cure-for-wellness-still

“Is it too late to quit and sign on for Chronicle 2?”

And the worst part is that there’s a good film buried underneath all the dreck, just dying get out. Verbinski was clearly trying to make an atmospheric gothic horror in the style of the old Hammer films. While he doesn’t fully succeed – a lot of the early “quiet” scenes come off as boring more than scary – there are moments that perfectly capture the films false sense of security and looming dread. When Lockhart wakes up after his accident, he looks out the window and DeHaan gives him the slightest smile that puts us in the audience in the same comfortable place. Moments later he finds a small bug in his drinking water, but dismisses it. An odd coincidence or the sign of something more? Scenes like these are when the film truly shines.

But then Verbinski undermines that success by having his idiot characters do something to show off the gore effects (which, to be fair, do look impressive). It’s as if Verbinski wanted to make the original Wicker Man – the one with Christopher Lee – but didn’t believe his audience was intelligent enough for that, so he decided halfway to make the Nic Cage Wicker Man (with eels in the place of bees).

And that’s the real shame of watching this movie: you can see the homages to all the films which influenced it (there’s a nod to Marathon Man – you can guess which scene), but no real attempt to aspire to their level of greatness. Gore Verbinski may still have the opportunity to become a great film-maker, but as long as his standard for scripts is this low, he has only himself to blame.

GRADE:                D+