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“Death of a Salesman” in Trump-World, at Ubuntu Theater Project, Oakland

“Death of a Salesman” in Trump-World, at Ubuntu Theater Project, Oakland

Millennial Notes

Arthur Miller LIVES in Multi-Cultural America

by Geordie Milne

Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” (1949) exposes the cruelty of the American Dream. Given the rise of Donald Trump, the Ubuntu Theater Project’s production of  Miller’s classic American tragedy “Death of a Salesman,” about the decline and fall of a big-talking, small-time salesman is timely indeed. Willie Loman (Julian Lopez-Morillas), an aging travelling salesman with a New York firm, expresses all the bluff and bluster of a Trump.  Along with his wife and sons, we witness the exaggerated bragging, the false confidence, and a heap of insults. Willie Loman’s speeches are full of bombast and overblown emptiness. He often resorts to shouting people down, especially his loved ones. He is a man obsessed with being “liked,” to the point of childishness. Willie wants, above all else, to be “well-liked.” As hyper-competitive American salesman, Willie is obsessed with being better liked than anyone else.

Mohammad Shehata and Nathaniel Andalis

Like Trump, Loman favors his own version of events over the widely agreed-upon reality. He is incapable of perceiving his son Biff’s blatant failures and continues to idolize Biff irrationally–to the verge of derangement. Willie epitomizes the worst aspects of American Individualism, obstinately resolved to go his own way, even damaging himself and others. He pridefully refuses any handouts, including his neighbor Charlie’s kind offer of a job. Willie constantly measures himself and his sons against his neighbors,with an aggressive competitiveness.

Nonetheless, we should not confuse Willie with Trump. After all, Trump was born into great wealth, “working” with his real-estate developer father, and inheriting that vast wealth.  Contrarily, Willie is a “low” man of little means. He is a man doomed to failure, due to his lack of education, connections, or family wealth. He is a low-paid salesman, exploited and cast aside–a wage-slave to mega-bucks Trump. The cruelty of the American Dream lies its promise of success for all. But the reality is that first, you have to be born into privilege and power.

Julian Lopez-Morillas and Dawn Troupe

While Willie’s the Low Man on the totem pole, we can see him as a typical Trump supporter who has nostalgic notions of the “good-old-days.” Willie fears and dreads a changing, racially diverse America. He is cast adrift when he is fired from his pitiful commission-based job, and loses his identity, his earning power, and his family. Many U.S. workers like Willie Loman are dying from drugs, alcohol, and suicide, today.

One of the ironies of this production is that Willie’s ethics explicitly oppose the mission statement of the Ubuntu Theater Project. Ubuntu is a Zulu proverb that means “I am because we are” and “I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.” Ubuntu means mutuality, co-operation, and connectedness: everything which Willie and Trump deny.

The Ubuntu Theater Project has advanced their goals through multiracial casting. In this production of Miller’s play, Willie’s wife Linda (Dawn Troupe) and their sons Biff (Nathaniel Andalis) and Happy (Mohammad Shehata) are played by diverse actors. Multicultural casting opens up theater-going to younger audiences. Moreover, showing diversity on stage shows that classic American plays, can illuminate our present predicament.

When Willie is fired by his boss Howard (Erik-Jon Gibson), we must think of Willie’s anger and confusion in both class and racial terms. We are looking at the crisis of white male identity in America in the age of Obama.

Mohammad Shehata and Nathaniel Andalis

The racially diverse Loman family gives us a vision of a new American family. Willie’s mental breakdown brings pain to all his family members. And the exploitation and suffering of workers from all ethnic groups brings pain and danger to the rest of an interconnected nation. By redefining the American family, Ubuntu highlights the deep tissues that connect us all. “I am because we are.”

 

“Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, directed by Michael Socrates Moran, at Ubuntu Theater Project, 1433 12th Avenue, Oakland, California, through Sunday, March 5, 2017. Info: ubuntutheaterproject.com

Cast: Julian Lopez-Morillas, Dawn Troupe, Nathaniel Andalis, Mohammad Shehata,   J Jha, Norman Gee, Margherita Ventura, EJ Gibson, William Oliver III, and Danie Valdivieso.

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” Shines on Women, at A.C.T., S.F.

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” Shines on Women, at A.C.T., S.F.

Millennial Notes

Sarma Adapts Aghan Novel in Spectacular Style

by Ben Sloan

American Conservatory Theater has succeeded in putting Khaled Hosseini’s best selling novel on the stage in grand fashion in a world premiere adaptation by Ursula Rani Sarma. Directed by Artistic Director Carey Perloff with epic splendor, the show recreates the story of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” with the allure of an actual voyage to the East.  The on stage story dazzles with its opulence and humanity, taking arms against a surge of Islamophobia in the U.S. Sarma brings Hosseini’s words to life, by appealing to the universal “Herstory” of women–from Kabul to California.

In contrast to the many male-centered war stories, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” brings us the female battlefront—more perilous, complex, and subtle than the male story. Hosseini has shown how women around the world encounter this battlefield every day, despite all religious or ethnic backgrounds.

On the heels of the Women’s March, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” brings us a story of abuse, subordination, and sacrifice. In Sarma and Peroloff’s vast, technical spectacle, women recognize their lives, and men open their eyes to their male privileges.

When the curtain opens on the Geary Theater’s enormous stage, we see the design of vast and translucent mountains, with two massive omniscient eyes or suns looming overhead. The gripping scene, the lush colors and long tapestries grab our attention. The hanging sculptures rivet us for the rest of the show. Thanks to Scenic Designer Ken Macdonald, these eyes in the sky look down from brilliantly colored heavens. The set constantly transforms, from mood changing blues to a massive blood spattered red, thanks to Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel. The designs cast shadows and rays of light in dramatic harmony with the action on stage.

The larger than life set is complimented by an original score, written and played live by the composer, David Coulter. Coulter stands stage right in a mini-orchestra booth, hardly separated from the audience. He makes us feel a part of more than a theatrical experience. Playing the musical saw and other unique instruments, Coulter completes the emotional immersion.

The play chronicles the life of the young and beautiful Laila (the mesmerizing Nadine Malouf) who lives in war stricken Afghanistan. Hosseini’s novel tells the story of Afghanistan, ravaged by internal strife and religious debate. In that tragic history, we experience the girl’s life in political wars with the Soviet Union and the fundamentalist Islamic regime of the Taliban.

When both of her caring, warm-hearted parents are killed by shrapnel, Laila is taken in by her neighbor Rasheed, (the skilled Haysam Kadri) who acts as surrogate father. With her own wounds tended by Rasheed’s wife, Mariam (the sensitive Hayam Kadri), she begins to recover. But she longs for her childhood friend, her first love Tariq (the bold Pomme Koch).

But Rasheed lusts after the 15 year old Laila, and clumsily starts to woo her. He decides, brutally, to cash in on the chance to betroth the wounded girl. Rasheed sees Laila as both sexually enticing, and capable of bearing him a male heir. So, he puts the long-suffering Mariam in second place. He forces Mariam to take care of “his” new young “queen,” in a painful depiction of male dominance.

When Laila bears a daughter, actually the fruit of her childhood romance, Rasheed decides to make her his victim, again. Trapped in Rasheed’s violent and angry clutches, Laila and Mariam finally become allies. Together, they try to escape the ongoing war and suppression.

Laila surpasses the typical male martyr-hero. Her journey with the inspiring Mariam is dynamic, taking us through their battles with misogyny and the continuing wartime terror, through a brutal and beautiful Afghanistan. Director Perloff examines the complexities that a mother faces after surviving an abusive marriage, boxed in from every angle. She creates an oppressive and magical Afghanistan that changes with every scene and emotion.

Told in a succession of simple, changing scenes, using moveable gates and embroidered screens, Laila lives like a prisoner. She is trapped under the close watch of the warden, Rasheed. When she tries to escape, she enters into another threatening world, run by the dangerous Taliban. She has to decide, whether to try and outlast Rasheed’s violent outbursts, or make a run for ‘freedom,’ where she will most likely be taken the Taliban—or killed, along with her child.
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” closes the gap for males who might not understand the brutish journey that these women have to face. Laila and Mariam’s paths, along with every other Woman’s story, sets many traps, full of double standards and sexual guilt. We experience her story through her verve and hope and the magnificent imagery, the hallmark of A.C.T.’s multi-layered, emotional premiere.

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma, based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini, original music written and performed by David Coulter, directed by Carey Perloff, at American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, through Sunday, February 26, 2017. Info: act-sf.org

Cast: Barzin Akhavan, Denmo Ibrahim, Haysam Kadri, Jason Kapoor, Pomme Koch, Nadine Malouf, Kate Rigg, and Nikita Tewani.

 

 

“The Lion King” Roars at SHN Orpheum in San Francisco

“The Lion King” Roars at SHN Orpheum in San Francisco

Young and Old Thrill to Sparkling African Folklore

by Sysamone Phaphon

Last weekend I went to a live theatrical musical for the first time. I attended “The Lion King” on Sunday evening with my two children. My son, Ari, age eight, had quite a bit to say about the display on stage. In particular I found one comment interesting:

“I liked it because it had a lot of African Americans performing in it.”

“The Lion King” at SHN Orpheum Theater. Photo: Joan Marcus.

I should share that he’s a bit of a thought leader even at his age. The prejudice against talented people of color in the film industry is not new news. We’ve all seen movies in which the lead character wouldbe  better as a person of color, but instead was played by a Caucasian actor in heavy makeup. Hollywood “whitewashing,” as they call it, has showcased itself in movies like the classic “Jade Tan in Dragon Seed” (1944).  In that movie, the lead character, a Japanese woman, was played by Katherine Hepburn, a Caucasian actress. More recently, Hollywood whitewashing can be seen in movies like “A Mighty Heart,” where Angelina Jolie takes the role of a person of color. There is no hiding the fact that the film industry has a racial presentation problem.

We often see moviemakers trying to create an illusion about a character’s race. My eight year old understands the prejudices against people of color and recognizes it daily. There’s no shortage of places for him to learn about prejudice, since both his parents are involved in solving and dealing with social injustices, daily.   Astounded at the amazing voices, hypnotizing costumes, colors, and brilliantly colored set displays, he mainly put his two little thumbs up for the inclusion of people of color in “The Lion King.”

Buyi Zama as Rafiki. “The Lion King” at SHN Orpheum.

Opening the show, we are welcomed by the crazy and energetic baboon, named Rafiki, played by the extraordinarily talented singer and actress, Buyi Zama. Zama’s voice hits you right in the center of your chest. Her striking, unforgettable, powerhouse voice keeps all eyes focused on her. Even her male counterparts, singing from the corner of the balconies, from a sea of people, cannot compete with her spine tingling tones. Buyi Zama’s thrilling vocals set an unforgettable note for the rest of the “The Lion King” show.

We could feel the roots of Africa vibrating through every inch of the elaborate stage sets on the Orpheum stage. The musical showcases African cultures with choreography, costumes, set design, and, of course, the music. Vibrant African inspired, richly colored textiles, and detailed weavings in each costume captivate both adults and children.

The imposing headdress-masks, anchored above Mufasa’s and Scar’s heads, maneuver smoothly up and down. Every time they transition their bodies into a fighting pose, the beautiful animal masks slide down to cover their faces. Then, their gentle body movements magically move the masks back into place above their heads. The dance of the floating masks creates a dynamic show all on its own!

“The Lion King” at SHN Orpheum. Photo: Joan Marcus.

During less dramatic scenes, African dance movements add power to their lines, making us feel in sync with every emotion and each word.   The dramatic, spirited dancing and singing of the ensemble during the livelier scenes, moves me so much that I want to move in my seat! The magnificent red, gold, green, blue set designs, the sensual dances, and the unique animal characters brought to life by giant puppets of lions, giraffes, and elephants will stick in our minds, forever.

We love the hilarious comedic performances by the dynamic duo: Timon (Meerkat played by Nick Cordileone) and Pumba (Warthog played by Ben Lipitz). Their scenes, especially the one presenting their signature ‘feel good’ song “Hakuna Matata” brings happiness and life to our oldest landscapes and culture—our African origins.

“The Lion King” at SHN Orpheum Theater.

The original Disney animated version of The Lion King movie (1994) of the landscape of Africa was designed with inspiration. But the musical magnifies the landscape, making it move and breathe and sing in our ears. Julie Taymor has created a true masterpiece of Eastern and African puppetry!

You must see this musical at least once in your lifetime. Mere description can not do justice to the genius of  “The Lion King.” Although many writers over the years have tried to capture the amazing details of the “Lion King” musical,  I highly recommend seeing it in person. The amazing power of the human in music and motion will touch your body, soul, and spirit. You, too, will soar when you see the “The Lion King” in person.

“The Lion King” at SHN Orpheum. Photo: Joan Marcus.

“The Lion King” at SHN Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco, runs through Saturday, December 31, 2016. shnsf.com

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Surprises, at Shotgun Players, Berkeley

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Surprises, at Shotgun Players, Berkeley

Millennial Notes

Albee’s Cold War Couple Turns Hot

by Benjamin K. Sloan    

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1962)—in the Shotgun Players wonderful new Repertory Season—takes us on a wild roller coaster ride. If you are an Edward Albee fan, or a virgin “Virginia Woolf” viewer, Shotgun aims to shock and surprise. And they pull the trigger. Shotgun uncovers hypocrisy and lies in the home of George and Martha, named after George and Martha Washington, our founding couple. Mark Jackson’s stark direction makes the case for a couple–and a country–at perpetual war and mutual destruction. Albee’s play analyzes both marriage and blind devotion to a cause, all in one deranged “typical” U.S. home. Jackson has made Albee’s great work relevant to America at the crossroads.

The production immediately entangles us in Albee’s jarring ironies. Albee exposes deep conflicts: husband and burnt out Associate Professor of History, George (David Sinaiko) and his wife Martha (Beth Wilmurt) resent each other with an implacable vigor. Why such hatred and animosity towards each other, and why do we even care? Their relationship serves as a metaphor for contemporary American issues: the monopoly that capitalism has on our country, and the ridiculous 50s Cold War arms race, called MAD, for Mutally Assured Destruction–still relevant in our militarized present.  

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Josh Schell, Beth Wilmurt, and David Sinaiko

The first act features George’s covert hatred and Martha’s inescapable “braying.” I got the impression that they barely know each other. Both highly talented actors in Shotgun’s superb series of plays in rotation, Sinaiko and Wilmurt deliver first-rate individual performances. In Albee’s play, however, it takes a leap of faith to see them as a couple. We have to remember that in the 50s, divorce was not so popular. They have created an historically accurate and frightening marriage, locked in a death grip, like the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

David Sinaiko plays George with an incredible sensitivity—his solid, sturdy silhouette highlights a dynamic acting style, a perfect mix for the defeated George. Beth Wilmurt plays Martha, his fierce wife, enemy, and beloved, ruling the stage with electrifying energy. Wilmurt stomps across the elegant, empty, and sterile set with authority, even when we would expect some diplomatic nuance. She makes us yearn for dull diplomacy, rather than Drumpfean narcissism.

The play takes place in one emotionally and intellectually exhausting night. Will this night be the culmination of a decade’s worth of mind games and sick manipulations between George and Martha? Or, will the couple’s Cold War escalate to many more Hot Wars? George and Martha are a microcosm of the U.S. engaged in ruthless competition, in the very era of “Mad Men.”

In fact, Martha represents the whole system! She embodies capitalist competition and the “arms race,” eating away at America. She eats, chews, and then spits out the men who have diminished her. She wants her revenge.

Beth Wilmurt and David Sinaiko

Their sadistically amusing relation escalates to fiery psychotic confusion. Because they require a 2:00 A.M. audience for their S&M encounters, they invite the young, ambitious biologist Nick (Josh Schell), and his wife Honey (Megan Trout) over for drinks. George announces the game called “Hump the Hostess,” and other treats. The eager and naïve faculty member and his ditzy wife are in for a serious indoctrination—something like the Presidential debates on steroids.

As Honey, the young wife, Megan Trout catapults the production to a new heights.  From the get-go, Trout brings a super-charged comical energy that ignites laughter, as she digs deep into Honey’s willful naiveté. At one moment, Trout will be hysterically laughing, out of place in the conversation. But before you know it, she is wailing, or becoming sick, making herself blind to the brewing sexual tango between her husband, Nick, and Martha. Trout brings comic relief to the flying  intellectual and emotional daggers.  She struggles to avoid the competition, an outlier among the beasts.

David Sinaiko, Josh Schell, Megan Trout, and Beth Wilmurt

Honey epitomizes our own fear and confusion. We have just “elected” a Trump into office as our next President, who represents corporate control, glorified greed, and icey individualism–all on display in Albee’s play. Our new leader wants our country to regress to an imagined 50s, which Director Mark Jackson has brilliantly and precisely laid bare in this production. Now, it’s “Make America Groan Again” and show the world that we are the biggest bully since Rome. Better get over to Ashby Stage and see our Brave New World on satirical and comic display, over in Berkeley, now.

Beth Wilmurt, David Sinaiko, Megan Trout, and Josh Schell

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee, directed by Mark Jackson, at Shotgun Players, Berkeley, California, in repertory, through January 17, 2017. Info: shotgunplayers.org

Cast: Josh Schell, David Sinaiko, Megan Trout, Beth Wilmurt

Shotgun Players is now performing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in addition to four other excellent productions, in rotation. Their five shows are available on a unique weekly basis. For the dates, see: repcalendar

The productions include“Caught” by Christopher Chen, “Grand Concourse” by Heidi Schreck,The Village Bike” by Penelope Skinner, and “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, running from November 25 to January 22, 2017.