The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Shorts for All Seasons

Six Babies in an Incubator

An evening of six short plays by local authors—limited in theory to ten minutes each—came to the stage of The Venue on 35th Street, Norfolk, for two weekends, Nov. 12-20. The overall result was as entertaining as it was diverse, with a bit of values education tossed in.

The plays were written by members of the Virginia Playwrights Forum, a homegrown entity which, after several incarnations over many years, is now in residence at The Venue. Area playwrights schedule readings of their work by experienced local actors, receive audience feedback, and, if group consensus is favorable, are invited to advance their plays through further readings which hopefully will lead to full productions.

Such was the case for six authors in Shorts for All Seasons: America Revisited, adroitly directed by Denise Dillard.

Among the plays were four by longtime Playwright Forum regulars P.A. Wray, Jean Klein, Harriet Schley, and John F.X. Delaney. Two are by relatively new contributors Shari Graber and Bonnie Cluver. Each in its own way features contemporary Americans coping with age-old challenges, threats, annoyances, and temptations. 
Jay Graber as
Alexis de Tocqueville

Actor Jay Graber served as a master-of-ceremonies of sorts, portraying Alex de Tocqueville, nineteenth-century French author of the classic Democracy in America. In a conceit that may have been unnecessary to the production’s quality, De Tocqueville, under orders from God, returns from the afterlife in 2010 to compare and contrast his original estimates of America with what we are seeing in the evening’s plays. His brief comments before and after each play, thanks to actor Graber’s personable antics, provided a desirable breathing space but did not add as much weight to the whole as you might expect from as savvy an observer as  the original De Tocqueville.

As for the plays, some make their points more artfully than others, but everyone in the audience could find something to smile about and enjoy some solid performances as well.

In fact it was the impressive quality of the acting which fulfilled the evening. Each of the eight actors played prominent roles with skill and gusto.

Doing the heaviest lifting were Elizabeth Dickerson, Matt Gilbert, and Jennifer Marshall, who turned in memorable portrayals of quite different characters in three of the plays. Percy Johnson, Brittney Harris, and Candy Dennis were prominent in two, and Bill Armstrong in one.

Dennis, stepping in during the last week to substitute for another actress sidelined by injury, carried her script with her. But, as we’ve come to expect from this long-time local star, she played her parts with full vigor. Armstrong, meanwhile, popped buttons in his comical turn in the spot light.

The most common theme the playwrights explored, in very different ways, was dysfunction in human relationships.

In Shari Graber’s “An American Tragedy” Dennis played Mame, an abused wife with an irrepressible spirit, in contrast to Jennifer Marshall as Maggie, her neighbor, depressed because her husband is indifferent to her. Indeed, Percy Johnson’s indifference as Maggie’s husband Marty was nearly somnambulistic, in contrast to Matt Gilbert’s manic Jack, Mame’s archetypal male stud caught in an extravagant syndrome of violence and forgiveness fueled by alcohol.

“An American Tragedy,” of course, is comic farce, a bit on the dark side. Well-written and often witty, it says that relations between the sexes is way over-rated, which we in the audience can see but the characters on stage cannot. It’s full of laughs but, for the most part, when you think about it—which the author urges us to do—it’s not really funny. That may or may not recommend it, depending on your taste.

Jean Klein’s “Priming the Pump” reaches a bit beyond totally unsatisfactory personal relationships to bring in the crass consciousness present in contemporary tabloid TV.

Here, Elizabeth Dickerson turned in an impressive performance as Grace, the apparently abused guest in the show “Fight for Your Life.” Unrecognizable in a wig and thick glasses, she alternately wailed and seethed over her husband’s intolerable violations on her body and soul.

Egging her on was Bill Armstrong as show host Bert Solomon, whose aim is to extract from Grace the slimiest acts of outrage imaginable, whether they really happened or not.

How it ends should be left as a surprise. It’s probably enough to say that this is an uncharacteristically dark and bitter piece from a playwright whose previous work has been more cautious. Is it an aberration? Or a preview of things to come in more extended formats?

Bonnie Culver’s “Cell” comments on the multitudes who carry on their relationships by cell phone. What sort of relationships are they?

The focus is on two sisters who haggle long-distance over selling their deceased mother’s house. Dennis played Sheila, the older, overbearing sister, and Jennifer Marshall was Lisa, the irresponsible sister more involved in pop culture than in family responsibility. Together the actresses created a hilarious, contrasting dynamic between the prim, controlling, easily agitated Sheila and the casual, bored, and resentful Lisa, who seems to live on junk food snacks.

Between the sisters’ phone conversations, supporting characters appear in a series of walk-throughs. Eddie, played by Percy Johnson, couldn’t keep the women in his phone book straight as one by one they all hung up on him, including his wife. Brittney Harris played an anonymous young woman addicted to text messaging. A nameless couple, played by Gilbert and Dickerson, strolled through arm in arm, each talking to a third party on their cells. It was all quite amusing.

Yet it’s not clear that the sisters’ bickering conversations have a whole lot to do with the rest of the ensemble activity. Playwright Culver may have two plays here, each one ripe for further and separate development.

“A Taxing Experience,” by Harriet Schley, takes up the plight of two women who might have gotten along well enough had they met at a laundromat instead of across a tax preparer’s desk on April 15.

Lu-Lu, played by Brittney Harris, needs a refund that night to avoid homelessness, but, as Helen, played by Elizabeth Dickerson, discovers, she doesn’t have all her W-2 forms. If Helen helps Lu-Lu, she could lose her job for filing false information. If she doesn’t, Lu-Lu could lose her house and have to go live with her sister. The heat is on Helen. What should she do?

The performers give the script all it asks for and more, but the argument goes on too long, which causes the action to sag a bit before it ends.

In P.A. Wray’s “A Slippery Slope,” two students in a Christian school, Beth and Davey, happen to have chosen the same subject—a species of albatross—for a research report. But their reports are very different, especially regarding albatross sexuality. Mayhem ensues, which Miss Johnson, their teacher, can’t control.

The Shorts cast soared with this play on closing night. Brittney Harris as Beth pulled out all stops in her hysterical insistence that Davey’s report could not be true. In contrast, Matt Gilbert’s Davey hardly ever raised his voice as he produced the scientific facts in a manner both modest and whiny. Elizabeth Dickerson believably fell apart as Mrs. Johnson, trying to referee the argument between scientific fact and fundamentalist dogma—her duty as a teacher versus the faith which employed her.

The play is a very funny gadfly on the butt of the religious right. Though it, too, tends to repeat some of its arguments, there is enough action to keep it moving across some very salient ground without actually digging up any bodies. The play might offend some people, but it’s likely to entertain many more.

Rounding out the evening, then, was John F.X. Delaney’s amusing morality tale, “The Lottery Winner.”

Horton Leon Bascomb, out of work and out of luck, uses his wits to escape temptation offered by a very sexy but very dangerous lady. Matt Gilbert is Horton, the lady is Jennifer Marshall, and both do a fine job landing Delaney’s arrows in the bull’s eye we can see him aiming for. In a duel between unending wealth and spiritual health, which side would you be on? Which would you choose?

Tuning into Shorts for All Season, like much that goes on at The Venue, was a bit for me like entering an incubator. I knew that some of what I was going to see would be rough-edged and maybe even amateur. But I also knew that things would be born there, sparks would be lit.

I was not disappointed.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Revisiting The China Syndrome...
and remembering Three-Mile Island

A few days ago Jala, my partner, brought home a DVD of the film The China Syndrome, which she found in a local thrift store. She thought—correctly, as it turned out—that it would be both entertaining and enlightening for us to revisit it after so many years.

For those who don’t remember, The China Syndrome is the fictional tale of a Los Angeles TV news reporter and her cameraman (Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas), who, while on assignment at a nuclear power plant for a soft news story on the wonders of a cutting-edge technology, happen to witness an accident which the plant owners, in collusion with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), then go to extreme lengths to cover up in order to protect profits rather than admit the likelihood of construction flaws which would require them to shut the plant down for a detailed (and expensive) inspection.

If not for the persistence of the news team and the heroic intervention of the plant’s control-room supervisor (Jack Lemmon), who is willing to blow the whistle, the plant’s reactor core would undoubtedly have melted down and exploded, creating a wasteland over an area, in the movie’s most famous line, “the size of Pennsylvania.”

The China Syndrome was released into theaters on March 16, 1979. On March 28, the world’s first major nuclear power-plant accident occurred in a near-meltdown of the core of one of the two reactors at Three-Mile Island in the Susquehanna River just south of Harrisburg, PA. So stunningly synchronistic with this accident was the movie’s release that some people—my uncle, a retired Episcopalian bishop, among them—believed with no little conviction that Jane Fonda (“Hanoi Jane,” the Vietnam War-era “traitor”) may have somehow engineered the accident as a publicity stunt for the movie!

In any case, Jala and I watched the movie again last night, a nightcap, so to speak, on our Fourth of July, and were struck at how relevant it remains today as a comment on another energy-industry giant whose profit-driven, hubric hindquarters are now exposed in public for all the world to see. I refer, of course, to Big Oil, represented by British Petroleum and its tragic blunder in the Gulf of Mexico—a demonic gift to the world that just keeps on giving.

Near its end The China Syndrome descends into Hollywood spectacle and melodrama. But before it does that it presents us with a long and chilling look at the cozy, interlocking embrace enjoyed among rubber-stamping government agencies and officials, corporate plutocrats, and media-executive puppets. In 1979 this was practically revolutionary material, and though it was up for many awards, including Oscars for Fonda and Lemmon, in the end The China Syndrome was too hot for universal recognition as the prophetic piece it really was.

Yet I’ve read that it grossed the 38th highest box office that year, in no small part because of the accident at TMI, with which it will be inseparably joined for as long as we preserve real history.

Now, in 2010, as the truth oozes out of every new crack in the public-relations wall corporations and government have cemented around their incestuous secrets, The China Syndrome clearly stands the test of time. I’d call it a classic—good entertainment, strong message—and urge any who can find access to it to watch it, whether for the first time or for nostalgia’s sake.

It was remastered and first released as a DVD in 2001 (our thrift-store version), but a later, higher-quality version appeared in 2005. On the website DVD Verdict ( retired Judge Steve Evans, in a highly favorable review of the 2005 version, says, “It’s still astonishing to recall that this film about a malfunctioning nuclear power plant opened less than two weeks before a major accident” at Three Mile Island. “Here is the juncture where art uncannily imitates life, as characters in The China Syndrome advocate some of the same safety procedures that federal regulators would later introduce. (...) No intelligent person can doubt the overpowering influence of greed on business decisions, whether those decisions stem from Enron, Worldcom or the owners of a fictitious nuclear plant in California.”

If he were writing that review today, Judge Evans would no doubt include BP in his short list of most-corrupt corporations.

But why is it this way? 1979 was 31 years ago, and today, in the shadow of this BP disaster, government, relying apparently on the public’s short memory span, is preparing to enable a new generation of nuclear power plants under the pretense that advances in technology since TMI assure that such a thing can never happen again.

Don’t believe it! Read Dr. Helen Caldicott’s incisive book, Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer (The New Press, 2006) or Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (Dalkey Archive Press, 2005). The only difference between the nuclear industry today and the nuclear industry in 1979—accurately reflected in The China Syndrome and witnessed by the world in the industry’s public bobbing and weaving after the TMI accident—is 31 years.

And that leaves us with oil, which is inundating our American southeastern Gulf coast in a mass wipe-out of life down to its most essential, single-celled building-blocks. How far it will spread and how many of us it will impact is an open question. But one thing seems certain. This should be big oil’s TMI. If we don’t enforce it as such, we are a hopeless lot of dunces who do not deserve to graduate from kindergarten.

The China Syndrome reminds us of where we’ve been and, unfortunately, where we would not have had to go since, if only we'd listened—dare I say it?—to our artists!

Rest in peace, Jack Lemmon! Long life to you, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas!