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Review: Desire Under the Elms.

Comical and tragic plays are easy to get right, but when the play is about loneliness, how does one put it on without lulling the audience to sleep?  How about building up the drama until fate knocks all the lonesome feeling away?  After all, as Ephraim Cabot says, “God’s lonesome, ain’t he?”.  Damaso Rodriguez’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” is a slowly undulation chant to loneliness until fate as the cymbal records a loud crescendo on the sad melody.

When the rich farm-owner Ephraim Cabot (William Dennis Hunt) returns home with a new wife, Abbie Putnam (Monette Magrath), his two older sons Peter (Stephen Rockwell) and Simeon (Christopher Fairbanks) decide to leave for the greener pastures of gold digging in California.  The young one, Eben Cabot (Jason Dechert) decides to take up his birthright, the farm, and gives them his father’s gold taken from Eben’s deceased mother.  The new mother is initially hated by Eben, because she wants to claim the farm as her own after aged Ephraim’s death, but when Ephraim fails to impregnate her, she is urged on by her attraction to Eben.  When Abbie gives birth to Eben’s son, the neighbors mock the aged Ephraim, who thinks the child is his, and hence the heir to the farm.

Eben is angry that Abbie had conspired against him, and tells her he wished his son was never born.  Fate strikes as the wounded Abbie decide to kill her own new-born to prove to Eben that she loves him, but upon the baby’s death, Eben turns against her, disgusted by her act, and informs the Sheriff (Dale Sandlin), but once he realizes her love for him is real, he urges her to escape with him.  The law, however, decrees that someone must pay.

Hunt’s performance is one of the highlights of this production.  His Ephraim is old, rugged, proud, and very funny.  He can beat his son in a fight, and even when he realized he was cuckold, he gives off venom to see his wife and son brought to justice.  Perhaps he’s the only one who can be trusted to defeat lonesomeness as he is left to tend the farm on his own at the end.  His demeanour makes his complete blindness to his wife’s affair believable, and he even treats us to a celebratory dance of sorts.

Magrath and Dechert have chemistry together, especially in their conflicting moments, such as when they misconstrue each other about the existence of their child and when Eben suggests that they elope while Abbie insists on “atoning for our sins.”  Their anguish is what drives the play on.  Magrath portrays an Abbie who is not so much a victim but a spirited follower who succumbs to her own heart.

The mood of the play is dark, as almost all O’Neill plays should be, but the musical interludes, especially those involving the Fiddler (Endre Balogh), are eerie, and brings a sense of getting lost in the play.  Most importantly, the play goes into a climax after an hour and a half of slow grappling, until at long last, fates collide, and we are left with astonishment.

“Desire Under the Elms” runs at A Noise Within (http://www.anoisewithin.org) in Pasadena, California, until 18 of December.

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Top five Asian American films challenge.

While it’s almost impossible to come up with a list of five greatest Asian films, coming up with such a list for Asian-American films–in particular, films that have, interwoven within them, bits and pieces of Asian-American cultural heritage–is a considerably easier task.  By no means it is trivial though.  Films like Mira Nair’s “The Namesake,” Jessica Yu’s “Ping Pong Playa,” and Wayne Wang’s “Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart,” all get at what it means to be Asian and American, and they fall just short in this list only because of the numbers game.

What have I evaluated in formulating this list?  I’ve considered impact.  What did subsequent filmmakers and audiences take away from this film?  What themes or techniques did it introduce that were incorporated by future filmmakers in their own work?  I’ve considered longevity.  Is it a film that people watch over and over again?  Does it speak to audiences today as well as it did when it came out?  I’ve considered artistic value.  Does it have a coherent vision?  Does it defy typical Hollywood conventions?  I’ve considered cultural influence.  Does it serve to represent our uniquely Asian-American heritage?  What comes to mind when we say “Asian-American film?”

5. Joy Luck Club, dir Wayne Wang, 1993.

One of the first film that will likely come to your mind is the film based on the popular Amy Tan novel.  The character of Waverly Jong is especially memorable, both as a chess-playing prodigy who openly upset her loving mother as played by Mai Vu, and as a wife to a fiancé to a white man who is afraid of her mother criticizing her interracial marriage, as played by Tamlyn Tomita.  Who can forget the June Woo returning to China to see the lost daughters of her dead mother Suyuan?  This film is full of material directed at our “Asian-Americanness,” but perhaps one criticism may be that it’s based on a book that told most of the story.  However, Wayne Wang’s film manages to be one of the first film to address Asian-American issues, and was certainly the first big-budget Hollywood vehicle to take Asian-American culture seriously.

4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, dir Ang Lee, 2000.

Another famous film that comes immediately to mind is a primarily Taiwanese production directed by an Asian-American director.  At the time, it was one of the most popular and influential martial arts films to hit the US market, and it showed us why Chow Yun-Fat is such a star, and why Zhang Ziyi is such a rising gem.  While the story gets carried away at times, the film has certain moments of artistic greatness such as the fight between Master Li Mu Bai and Jen Yu on top of the bamboo forest.  Perhaps the most commercial film on this list, it won four Academy awards out of ten nominations, and was the film that brought the traditional Chinese martial arts genre firmly into the American consciousness.  Not to be glossed-over is that a team of Asian-Americans made this film happen, and any shortcomings can be addressed by my kid cousin’s observation: “boy that was a fun film to watch!”

3. M. Butterfly, dir David Cronenberg, 1993.

The only film directed by a non-Asian American director, this adaptation of a David Henry Hwang play addressed a theme frequently overlooked in American movies, and in particular, in Asian-American cinema: alternative sexuality.  While Jeremy Irons gives a strong performance as a French diplomat in love with an opera singer, Rene Gallimard, it is John Lone who gives a brilliant performance here.  Lone defies the convention of portraying Asian men as the Charlie Chan type, i.e. a service to society.  He plays a conflicted transvestite with a questionable sexuality and complicated emotions, much closer to the truth of what Asian-Americans are.  David Cronenberg is known for taking major risks with his films, and this one is no exception, featuring deceiving imagery, dramatic sexuality, and stark revelations, such as when Gallimard unmasks his 20 year lover with “you are nothing like my Butterfly.”  The reply was, “are you sure?”

2. A Great Wall, dir Peter Wang, 1986.

The only undoubtedly comedic film on this list is the first great American film shot entirely in mainland China.  The story cannot be any closer to what Asian-Americans were going through in the 80s and 90s.  The computer programmer Leo Fang goes home to China for the first time in 30 years to visit his relatives after quitting his job due to what he perceives as racial problems.  That’s the story.  That’s it.  But it’s the little things throughout the film that hits the chords, and tells us why the divide between East and West is such a Great Wall.  Everything from Chinese people dancing to old American songs, Fang bringing an electric blanket to the incredulous brother-in-law, Chinese mothers opening their daughter’s mail, to the father-son relationship parallels of East to West and earlier to later generations.  The son Paul is who we’d relate to most.  He grew up in America, loves sports, and hates the squatting toilets of Beijing.  The film is also about Chinese conceptions of Chinese-Americans.  The Chaos automatically think the Fangs are promiscuous, violent, and independent.  At the end, they learn as much about themselves as about each other at a Ping Pong tournament.  Wang’s film is not a Hollywood film, which would never take portraying Asian-American struggles to integrate into its native society as a priority.  He wrote the screenplay and played the main lead, an almost Orson Wellesian effort for a Chinese-American filmmaker.

1. Chan Is Missing, dir Wayne Wang, 1982.

Perhaps an even more auteur-like effort is Wayne Wang’s first feature film, which eerily parallels Orson Welles’ classic “Citizen Kane.”  The Chinatown taxi driver Jo is searching for an ex-big shot in China who was involved in a flag-waving incident and disappeared with $4000.  The Chan that he is searching for is (he thinks) the fresh-off-the-boat hardship-survivor from China who came to provide for his children.  Like in “Citizen Kane,” the detective never finds out the whole truth.  He has lifted up the veil to understanding his own heritage, but he can’t quite grasp it.  It’s as if Wang opened up the film to show us what we Asian-Americans are missing.  Contributing to the innovation of this film is how everyone misconstrues Chan.  The patriotic old man in the recreation facility thinks Chan loved his country so much he went back.  The jilted Mrs. Chan thinks his husband left for another woman.  The idealist English teacher thinks Chan shot someone as a Communist sympathizer during the flag waving incident.  Each person projects her own view of the world onto Chan.  The mix of cultures is ingrained in this film, as the Virgin Mary stands in front of a Chinatown backdrop, as Chinese pop plays over the American West landscape.  Wang’s film’s more than any other on this list, shows us what it’s like to live in a multi-cultural world juggling many diverse heritages.  The Chan that he deemed missing is found within Jo himself as the camera looks deep into the taxi driver’s face.  Wang’s first feature is a tour de force touching on issues we grapple with and fail to understand, and as Jo says, “what’s not there seems to have just as meaning as what is there.”  That, of course, is a Chinese saying.

Exploring the margins:

A new wave of Chinese in the Middle East.

Remember the time in mainland China when everyone from the pre-school toddler to the aged matriarch wanted to come to the United States to live the American dream?  While America is still a magnet for the college student and the recent graduate looking for work, other countries have become a draw by virtue of their economic and social appeals.  Some of the most popular places have surprisingly been nations of the Middle East.

But who in their right minds, as a traditional Chinese person, would go to the Islamic Middle East?

Mr. Jacky Ng, a student at Hong Kong University, is studying for his masters at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) at Thuwal, which lies just north of Mecca, a holy center of Islamic pilgrimages at the core of Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabia is a place full of opportunities,” said Ng.  “It has a lot of development projects [for which] engineers and technicians are highly in need.”

Part of a new wave of Middle Eastern investment in education, KAUST is a unique graduate university that has been a leader in energy, biotechnology, and computing research.  All classes are taught in English, and it attracts some of the best talents from around the world.

“The school provides very generous amount of scholoarship covering tuition fees, books, laptops, and living stipends,” said Ng.  “[It] also provides strong support in research funding.”

The emergence of top notch research universities in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East has caused an influx of talent into the area, spearheaded by the top students in China.  Many of Ng’s friends, such as graduate students Desmond Lee and Eric Shiu, are already deep into their graduate research careers in KAUST.

Although KAUST provides economic and intellectual advantages for students from China, it can be a challenge to live in a part of the world so wholly different from Asia.  Those who enroll in KAUST have between three and four years of life in the hot desert area of Saudi Arabia to look forward to, but this does not concern Ng as much.

“It’s [a way] to enrich personal experiences,” said Ng.  “Living in another country and experiencing another culture can promote personal growth.”

What a completely different culture it is too.  For example, people of Saudi Arabia are required to pray five times a day while facing the holy Kaaba in Mecca.  This ritual, called the salat, follows a specific set of rules referenced in the Quran, such as a sequence of bowings (rakas) repeated up to four times during each salat.

Another example involves the wearing of the hijab, a black veil, by women of Islamic faith in order to prevent unwanted advances, a practice that made Chinese women in the Middle East stand out among the crowd.

One of the rare women who walks around the streets of Dubai without a hijab is Ms. Yao Wen, a recent graduate of the Xian University of Technology who now works in Dubai, a city facing the Persian Gulf to the West that serves as the commercial center of the United Arab Emirates.

“I miss staying with family, connecting with old friends, and the comfortable life,” said Wen.  “But there are more and more people going to the Middle East, because we have a lot of competition and pressure in China, so working [in Dubai] provides more opportunities.”

When Wen graduated with a degree in power electronic engineering in 2007, her first job was working for the China State Construction Engineering Corporation as quantity surveyor.  She signed a contract that ended up shipping her to work in Dubai for 2-3 years.

“I just wanted to go abroad,” said Wen.  “[So I can] see some different cultures, … and earn more than three or four times I would make if I stayed in Beijing.”

Dubai is undergoing a construction craze that includes the underwater hotel Hydropolis, the conspicuous resort called Palm Islands, the three billion square feet theme park Dubailand, the so-called seven star fish-scale-shaped hotel Burj Al Arab, and of course, the world’s tallest building the Burj Dubai.  The craze has spurred companies like China State Construction, which has over 300 employees in Dubai.

Dubai is not short on culture either.  It hosts the Dubai International Film Festival, UAE league football, an annual shopping festival good for buying luxury goods, as well as numerous clubs and bars.  Still Wen finds it hard to adapt to life in the Middle East.

“The [hardest] thing is not having good public transport; it’s not easy to go anywhere,” said Wen.  “But our company arranges everything for us, including food– Chinese chef in mess hall, and accommodation.”

Despite the economic advantages, living in Dubai can be frustrating, and Wen would not recommend it to all of her friends.

“We rarely have conversation with local people, because may be they have too much money and [don’t need] to work anymore, and we have a language barrier,” said Wen.  “When they see some Asians and Europeans, they will stare at [them] without pretending.”

And of course, there’s Ramadan, the month every year when eating and drinking are prohibited in the Islamic world.

Thus the short term advantages of economic welfare and cultural adventure may be overwhelmed by the Chinese sense of “belonging to home” in the long run.  Recently, Wen attended the wedding of two of her friends who met in Dubai.  Her friends intend to eventual go back to China because it is hard to raise a child in the Middle East, and the weather is so hot.

“For the Chinese, they always think [about] going back,” said Wen.  “They come for the money, and Chinese culture is ‘luo ye gui gen.’”

Wen’s proverb, literally translated as falling leaf–return to the root, means “in one’s old age, one wants to return home.”  For the adventurous Chinese population seeking fortune and enlightenment in the margins of the Middle East, the road back home will be savored after such rewards and challenges.

Brain Awareness Week brings students from low-income schools to UCLA.

The dream of becoming a neurosurgeon will begin for some underprivileged kids at the UCLA campus.

The annual Brain Awareness Week is bringing over 450 students from title I schools like Crenshaw high school and Cochran middle school to UCLA to learn about neuroscience, experience brain specimens, tour scientific laboratories, and explore a career in research and medicine.

The effort is a part of an international campaign to raise public awareness about brain research led by the Society for Neuroscience.  It is spearheaded at UCLA by Project Brainstorm, a graduate student group that works with other campus organizations to educate K-12 students about neuroscience.

“The kids who are coming here are really in need of connecting with students, and seeing their faces, and asking questions, and seeing students like them who make it through the process to go to college in science fields, and putting a face with that career,” says Nanthia Suthana, a graduate student in neuroscience and one of the main organizers of Brain Awareness Week at UCLA.

The number of volunteers at UCLA has doubled from last year to over 100, partly because they recognize the need to enhance diversity in the sciences and in graduate education, said Suthana.

This year’s program includes live demos using real human and animal brains preserved by UCLA, as well as interactive activities on modules such as brain injury, learning and memory, neuronal firing, and brain lateralization.  The focus, however, will be on drug abuse and addiction, which is especially relevant to title I schools.  The demo on substance abuse will use an interactive computer program called Mouse Party that guides the students through scenarios in which an animated mouse is subject to different drugs of abuse.  The demos are staffed by Project Brainstorm and its collaborators, which include the undergraduate group Interaxon, the graduate diversity group STEM-PLEDGE, the Peer Advisory Community for Teens, and the Neuroscience Undergraduate Society.

Project Brainstorm operates under the auspices of the UCLA Brain Research Institute, which is exploring ways to bring low-income high school students in Los Angeles to research labs during the summer.

“I think it starts with the students,” said Dr. Joseph Watson, a professor in the Neuropsychiatric Institute who serves as the Brain Research Institute’s outreach program director.  “Students respond to students in a much different way than a faculty member coming in, (because) they’re all looking for a model, someone who used to be where they were, and have gone on to … go to a major university.”

Watson believes that seeing those with the same socioeconomic, ethnic, or language background go on to become scientists, engineers, and doctors is especially important for encouraging kids who grow up in poor neighborhoods with little access to quality science education.

“Students presenting (to high schoolers) always worry if they know enough about the brain, but the most important thing is not the substance; it’s the affect, it’s the enthusiasm, to see these kids’ eyes light up,” Watson said.  “It gives them a chance to speak in a less threatening situation.”

Watson recalls how neuroscience graduate students Libby O’Hare and Rafael Romero first began teaching high schoolers about the brain in 2004, an initiative that goes back to legendary UCLA educator Dr. Arnold Scheibel.  Romero and O’Hare enjoyed it so much they decided to push for the establishment of the field course Neuroscience 192, which teaches undergrads how to teach K-12 students about neuroscience.  One of those students, neuroscience major Shanna Fang, loved the course, and decided to form an undergraduate group for K-12 educational outreach called Interaxon.

Watson also remembers when Brain Awareness Week at UCLA was merely a volunteer-driven initiative led by O’Hare and Linda Maninger, and involved just a few schools over a couple of days.  Little did he know that it would turn into a week-long event involving seven underprivileged schools with $12,000 of funding from the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, Society for Neuroscience, and the UCLA Campus Program fund.  Watson attributes this expansion to the efforts of neuroscience grad students like Suthana, along with Marina Ziehn and Angela Rizk-Jackson, who began formalizing the effort to bring in specifically underrepresented title I schools.

One person who discovered the joy of teaching in Neuroscience 192 is third year neuroscience major Sharon Carmona.   Being herself from a low-income high school, Carmona can relate to kids who never had a scientific education.

“I really wished I could have partaken in a program like this,” said Carmona.  “Many (of the kids) came from families that had never gone to college, and they don’t even know it’s a possible path for them.”

During the demos, Carmona showed high schoolers a real human spinal cord as well as a model of the human vertebrae.  Because the preserved specimen is so short, Carmona had to convince the kids that it was a spinal cord from an adult, not a baby.  This was one of the myths Carmona had to dispel, along with ideas like the size of one’s brain is the size of a person’s fist, brought up by one kid.

The educational component of Brain Awareness Week is being handled by Interaxon, an undergraduate student group specializing in teaching K-12 students about the brain.  One innovative teaching strategy presented by Interaxon involves passing stickers labeled sodium, potassium, and calcium in demonstrating the ions that flow during the action potential, an event that occurs when nerve cells fire.  Another lesson involves letting students use only one hand to build a structure using marshmellows and toothpicks in order to demonstrate the way different functions are localized to each hemisphere of the brain.

“We bring a lot of enthusiasm to this program,” said Wendy Fujioka, a third year neuroscience major and the president of Interaxon.  “A lot of our members are first and second years, so they’re still trying to decide what to do; being able to work with grad students and faculty … helps them get a better feel for the university.”

One of the major themes of this year’s Brain Awareness Week is on substance abuse.  Addiction research is central to the work of Angie Morales, a neuroscience graduate student who uses functional MRI to image the brains of substance abusers.  In the demo, Morales uses the software Mouse Party to let kids interactively play around with an animated mouse that undergoes various types of drug treatment.  She also presented a poster on chemical messengers involved in substance abuse.

“This gives us an opportunity to give (high schoolers) the facts about drugs of abuse,” said Morales.  “A lot of times kids respond better this way than to lectures on the facts (alone).”

Morales hopes that the curiosity sparked in these underprivileged kids will spurt them on to further study, even if it means a hard road to success.

“It may be more difficult coming from the background they’re coming from, (unlike) private schools with lots of funding,” said Morales.  “They need to fight against the odds stacked against them.”

In turn, UCLA students learn to explain difficult scientific topics to the general community, because they are forced to make it accessible to school children, suggests Morales.

College Art Association conference: something for everyone.

The world of art and art history may be small, but when it comes to conferences, it can still strike a pose.

UCLA graduate students and professors participated and presented their most intriguing work at the premiere conference in the art world, the annual meeting of the College Art Association (CAA), which took place last weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

The conference boasted of visits to the Getty Villa, a keynote speech from the chief archaeologist at Mexico City’s Templo Mayor, a special exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, a gala reception at the Getty, and a book and trade fair featuring exhibitors from all over the world.

The prime attractions, however, are the papers and presentations given by artists and art historians grouped into themed sessions chaired by senior faculty members from highly regarded institutions.

“We are seeing in person a lot of the people we’ve read for a long time, or people who influence the way we think about our field,” says Jessa Farquhar, a graduate student in art history.  “It’s also great to see other graduate students in your field, whom you would never meet otherwise.”

Farquhar, a first year student in the Ph. D. program specializing in Southeast Asian art, is also using CAA as a way to prepare for her career.  For one thing, she was watching carefully how her friends and colleagues are presenting their work, so that she would not be completely surprised when it comes time to present her own work.

“There’s a certain amount of nerves that comes with coming to a conference like this and presenting because it’s a really big deal,” says Farquhar.  “I want to expose myself to as many of these [situations] as possible, so I can take from people how they are effective when they’re speaking.”

From a presentation on the canon of art history education given by Padma Kaimal of Colgate University, Farquhar learned about teaching methodology, such as how to frame a museum visit around course content.  These methodology questions, in both education and research, are especially intriguing to Farquhar.

“We usually take for granted what objects we choose when we teach a class, and how we go about making an argument,” says Farquhar.  “These are questions that everyone, not just me as a grad student but also senior faculty, everyone is grappling with right now.”

Farquhar is also using CAA as a model for how to run conferences.  Along with other UCLA first year graduate students, Farquhar is organizing a symposium of student research to be held at the Hammer Museum scheduled to run next October.

Organizing sessions for CAA is nothing new for UCLA art history professor Steven Nelson, who specializes in modern African art.  Although his primary research is working on a book about the art, film, and post-colonial politics of Dakar, Senegal, Nelson presented at this CAA instead on a 1989 exhibit that sought to create the genre of contemporary African art, a show called “African Remix.”

“CAA is different for different people, and different depending on where one is in one’s career,” says Nelson.  “For me, it’s [a way to] try out an article that I may not necessarily do somewhere else.”

Nelson described his article as a think piece on how curators package and reinvent contemporary African art, even when the art that is being shown runs contrary to the curator’s intent.

As one example, Nelson presented Allan deSouza’s photograph of Las Vegas called “The Goncourt Brothers Stand Between Caesar and the Thief of Baghdad.”  It was presented in the part of the show called “City and Land,” which was supposed to highlight people from urban centers who wanted to return to the country to their roots.  Instead, deSouza’s photograph is a panoramic view of the Sin City

“The curator’s desire to present people lost and wandering, looking for an Africa that doesn’t exist anymore trumped what [deSouza’s] work does in an exploration of American imperialism and American politics at the beginning of the twenty-first century,” says Nelson.  “The work got put into a space where it doesn’t fit well, where it might not behave.”

Nelson notes that the interviews at CAA for faculty and studio positions means that CAA can make someone’s career.  He recalls one person who got a faculty position at Harvard in 1999 after presenting a paper at CAA just when the university was looking for someone to teach African art.

There are also a lot of social and networking opportunities, including a reception for UCLA art history faculty and students.  Nelson sees the conference as a venue for seeing friends, colleagues, and editors he doesn’t see all year long.  The proximity to the city where he lives doesn’t hurt either.

Perhaps most importantly, CAA allows Nelson to see his students in action, showing off their work to a general audience interested in art.  This year, his student Michelle Craig presented on photographs taken during an armed attack of the Jewish quarter of Fez, Morocco.  Craig was the only student among a panel of five exploring art and the memory of revolution.

Another graduate student who presented at CAA this year is Amanda Herring, who described the Ottoman approach to archaeological excavations of classic sites at Magnesia and Lagina.

Herring responded to a call for papers in the summer by applying to the chairwoman for the session on the Classical Unconscious.  She started preparing the manuscript and presentation in the fall, and was still making changes up to the day before her presentation.

“I gave [the paper] to friends of mine and other people in the art history department,” says Herring.  “My husband has heard it a couple of times, and I even [gave] it to my dog a few times; they listen very well.”

Herring got feedback from people in the panel, as well as the general audience.  One suggestion is to examine the educational system of Germany, and how it contributed to the way German excavations of the Turkish sites were conducted.

“[UCLA] had a very strong showing,” says Herring, in regards to the art history department’s participation in CAA.  “Not only did a lot of professors and students attend, but we had a very high number of students and professors presenting; if you flip through the program UCLA pops up all over the place, so it was a nice cross representation of what our program is and who we are.”

And for those students like Farquhar who came to CAA as spectators, there’s always an exciting opportunity to present next year.

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Review: Our Town.

“Of all sad words of mouth and pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been,’” writes John Greenleaf Whittier in his homage to a friend undiscovered, “Maud Muller.”  “It might have been” is how the past residents of Grover’s Corner reminisce about life after they’ve gone to their graves in a nostalgic production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” by the Actor’s Gang of Culver City.

Director Justin Zsebe makes it immediately clear that the play is about people.  As the day begins, an imaginary cow is led to the stage by a burly Howie Newsome, as the Gibbses and the Webbs have imaginary breakfast on an imaginary table.  George Gibb even takes his imaginary backpack to school.  A rope serves as a ladder at one point, while swings replace gravestones.  The minimal props in “Our Town” serves to remind us that this town could be any town, because the people in a town are sufficient to tell all the stories; in particular, the town could be Culver City.

Although Wilder intended for the play to have an interactive element, this production of “Our Town” makes it especially relevant to us by using audience participation to dissect both the social forces of Our Town and how we could relate to it.

It all starts with the character of the Stage Manager, played by Steven M. Porter, and his inviting smile and matter-of-fact style of speaking.  At one point, he holds a question-and-answer session with the audience and the town’s newspaper editor Charles Webb.  After Mr. Webb gives some demographic data suggesting that Grover’s Corner is “86 percent Republican, 6 percent Democrats, 4 percent Socialist, and the rest indifferent,” the audience members step up to ask him about the social situation in Grover’s Corner.  A man asks if there’s any culture in the town, and a woman asks if there’s much drinking.  Editor Webb’s quaintly dismisses the questions, and tells us all that the people of Grover’s Corner have little interest in social justice.  The tone set by Charles Webb is evident throughout the first two acts of the play, in which people mill about doing their daily work, unconcerned about anything that lies beyond themselves.

The town’s treatment of the drunken church choir director Simon Stimson is typical of the attitude engendered by the characters in the play as well as the Stage Manager himself.  While no one actually goes out of her way to alienate Stimson, everyone dismisses him as a lunatic by virtue of his drunkenness.  Just as there is no movement for social justice in Grover’s Corner, there is no acceptance of, nor help for those with psychological or addiction problems.  Even as the women talk behind Stimson’s back, no one steps up to sing at Fred Hersey’s wedding when Stimson asks for help.  It’s no wonder that at the end of the play, the dead Stimson is prompted to call the happy existence of Our Town the result of “ignorance and blindness.”

A successful performance of “Our Town” relies on being able to lure the audience into a complete sense of security during the first two acts.  The Actor’s Gang production does this by playing with humor that is not specifically ordered by Wilder.  For instance, the Stage Manager ushers in Professor Willard to give a physical description of Grover’s Corner.  What comes across from the script of the play is the caricature of a academics type who doesn’t understand what the audience is after, but Scott Harris’s performance provides much more than that.  First, he enters gingerly as if on tip-toe, sweating like a nervous wreck.   When he tries to speak, he ends up muttering “er, er, anthropological data…”  Perhaps the funniest moment is when Professor Willard describes the fossils found in Silas Peckham’s cow pasture that “may be seen in the museum at the University at any time–er, er, that is, er, at any, er, reasonable time.”  When we laugh at Dr. Willard we lose that security barrier we form around plays that give a moral message.  While watching, we feel like the play really is just as advertised, the simple narration of small town life.  We don’t probe the small details that emerge as important elements later in the work, and we lose the sense of urgency that comes with death.

“Our Town,” as much as it invites us to reminisce about life, is about death and the regret that comes with death.   Perhaps the most frightening thing about death is that it can occur so quickly without us ever being aware of its possibility.  Just when everything is going well in Grover’s Corner and new families like that of Emily Webb and George Gibbs are formed, we are hit with the fact that at some point, they all died.  We learn that Emily died in child birth; Wally Webb died of an appendix burst; Simon Stimson committed suicide.   Newly dead characters enter the stage to sit on a swing, a metaphor for their stay in Purgatory.  All of a sudden, we are reminded of our own mortality.

Perhaps death wouldn’t be so bad if we never regreted.  When Emily Webb goes back in time to witness her own twelfth birthday celebration, she bursts out crying.  “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” she asks.  Perhaps a few saints and poets, suggests the Stage Manager.  Amidst all these deaths, the people of Grover’s Corners have perished without ever realizing what they could have gotten out of life.

The Stage Manager urges us to go home and sleep, causing one member of the audience to wonder what “it might have been,” both for the people of Grover’s Corners and for ourselves.

“Our Town” is playing through July 11 at the Ivy Substation in Culver City.

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Review: Doomsday Kiss.

What happens when you know you’re about to die? In the world of “Doomsday Kiss,” a new work playing until May 10 at the Bootleg theatre, it’s time to bring the drinks to the party, get the show started, and well, just make love.

REPO division’s production of the collaborative work written by Eva Anderson, Clay Hazelwood, Wesley Walker, and Sharon Yablon takes place in an indeterminate future in which survivors of apocalypse attempt to find meaning for their lack of real existence.

For one pair of newlyweds on a cruise ship, impending doom means an excuse to get liquored up, because gaining weight through beer drinking no longer matters when they get back to land, which will happen when they sink with their ship. For another pair of newlyweds, it’s a time to figure out each other. Unfortunately for the new wife, she finds out that her husband is “the worst person (she has) ever met.” It also means it’s time to find a new love partner between now and the time she dies.

Babar Peerzada gives an understated but credible performance as the cruise ship’s bartender, a hunky Nebraskan heartthrob often mistakened for a foreign citizen. Jessica Hanna and Michael Dunn, however, stand out as a couple of chubby, middle aged stereotypes of marriage who flirt around with each other constantly physically and verbally, prompting the viewer to immediately exclaim “yuck.” They seem to epitomize the “kiss” in “Doomsday Kiss.”

The situation at an office is a bit more desperate. Here, a sexual revolution may be going on. For example, one woman, who is unable to have orgasms because she is past fourty, gets a–shall we say–strategic massage from a holistic medicine type who wears a bandana and a Native American outfit. Meanwhile, a middle aged office worker tiles calendars on the floor and complains about his sex life–well, at least he doesn’t have to worry about that anymore, since his wife is now presumably dead.

Tina Van Berckelaer plays the woman, who hobbles around on one good leg, complaining about love in general. She is overshadowed a bit by Mickey Swenson, the artistic therapist turned floor sweeper who keeps talking about the lesbians he saw upstairs. He didn’t think they’d still exist after the catastrophe. His geeky but down-to-earth personality makes him identifiable as the sixties hippies type turned postmodern poet.

“Doomsday Kiss” is a collaborative effort amongst four playwrights, and some times, the collaboration is not supposed to be smooth. Each of the four plays deals with a sort of post-apocalyptic transformation, but the themes of the plays don’t always relate. In particular, the section on “The Class Room” seems out of place, as it deals with child molestation more than with love. The play-within-a-play “Who Is Randall Maxit?” is separated into four parts and interweaved within “Doomsday Kiss,” serving as a common point of reference, but it is difficult to see how the Maxit section relates to, for example, “Fun Days At Sea.”

“Doomsday Kiss” is also a multidisciplinary effort. The set consists of projections onto a block-like structure, as well as a TV that fills in the premise of the play as post-biological-chemical-catastrophe. The Bootleg theatre also has an exhibition of postmodern art in the lobby that includes Rigo Maldonado’s “Hope, 4_”x6_”x1_”,” a sculpture of two humans attached to each other by a branch that goes through the navels. The most remarkable art work on display may be Vincent Villafranca’s “Goggles Hiding Tears,” which suggests that even androids are afraid of nuclear catastrophe.

If there’s one constant amongst the play’s many diverse, unmeshed elements is the performance of Gray Palmer as Randall Maxit. Maxit, a scientist who is supposed to have been responsible for the world’s great disaster, makes muffins that contaminates a random proportion of the population. Although not terrified, the audience to shocked to find out that those muffins out in the lobby may have come from the same stock. Palmer takes his role as deranged scientist very seriously in the work, telling the audience to hurry to his brand of future.

One of the most effective scenes in “Doomsday Kiss” involves Maxit being interviewed by Mindy and Wendy in a sham show that deals with “how the cookie crumbles.” After much prodding, Maxit admits to whatever crimes he has committed, and the conversation is recorded by telephone. Who is really guilty of this ridiculous transformation of the world from sanity to madness? Maxit thinks it’s his fault, but perhaps the blame goes science. “Doomsday Kiss,” however, doesn’t really care. It just wants to have fun.

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