Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Zen and the art of improv

Alan Watts poses a problem: A man has a fight with a bear. The bear is a mind reader. The man can only win if he does something absolutely spontaneous. It's the same thing with a zen master. He can see through anything phony. He sees through you. The more you try to be natural and spontaneous, the phonier you get. The game is rigged; you can't win. When you finally get it, the mind gives up. Badabing. You're enlightened. Then the zen master hits you with a stick and makes you sweep up.

Improv uses the same trick. It's engineered spontaneity designed to trick the bear of self-consciousness.

The cats and kittens of Lazy Fairy — Sarasota's latest upstart improv troupe — know this trick very well. (Christine Alexander, Tim Beasley, Catey Brannan, Chris Friday, Angel Parker and Zan with no last name.) Faster than you can say "Grizzly Man," they've got you laughing your ass off — as happened to me at their debut peformance at the Players. Describing what they do would be about as funny as dissecting Tinkerbell, so I threw some zen philosophy at you instead. Trust me: they're funny, even enlightening.

Christ. Here comes the bear again.

Lazy Fairy
July 24
Players Theatre
838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Friday, July 25, 2008

Love and tombstones

Kathleen Clark’s Southern Comforts is one of those odd couple romances. Gus Klingman is a stone mason with a New Jersey accent that could cut granite. Amanda Cross is a Southern belle with a honeyed twang that could drown bees. She's talky; he's taciturn; she's a people person; he likes his own company. Differences aside, they've got one big thing in common. They're both old.

Funny thing. It's not a big point. This is a comedy. Love makes people do silly things. The gag is as old as Shakespeare.

It's a two-part joke, as the Bard knew.

The basic set-up: Lovers act silly because they're pretending to be somebody else. They fall in love, wearing masks.

The punch line: Lovers get together and the masks come off. Then the baggage comes in. Comedy ensues.

The gag is the same for couples of all ages.

--Do you love me?
--Then, love my stuff. Love me; love my cat. Love me; love my books. Love me; love my family. Love me; love my history. Or tip-toe around my history: the elephantine ex-wife in the living room. Just pretend she isn’t there.

Director Robert J. Farley and actors Susan Greenhill and Richard Bourg do an excellent job without falling into cliche. There are plenty of tender moments. But plenty of bickering, too.

Ah, well. Mergers are never easy.

In this case, one of the points of negotiation is who gets the nice grave. I guess that is pretty much an old person thing.

Aside from that, Gus and Amanda could be any couple.

The clock is ticking for lovers everywhere.

‘Southern Comforts'
Through Aug. 17
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Runner-up stupid award goes to ...

The idjit head readers who didn't grasp that the July 21 New Yorker cover was satire. Various clowns have said: Oh my God, they put him in a turban, he's burning the American flag, his wife is an urban guerilla, oh how awful. Or words to that effect.

Listen up, clowns. Put down the pie, step away from the seltzer, get out of the clown car and listen:

It's satire.

The cartoonist swept all the right wing slurs about Obama into one image to show how ridiculous they are. The equivalent cartoon bashing far left assumptions would show Bush, Cheney and friends sitting around a table while Osama bin Laden flew a tiny model plane at a tiny model of the World Trade Center to work out the details of the evil conspiracy. Get it?

Humor lives on the edge. Every cartoonist who pitches an edgy idea has to deal with some editor saying "People are stupid, they won't get it."

The fact that so many people don't get it makes me want to find the nearest edge and leap off.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight kicks ass

The Dark Knight sticks a bat hook in the problem of evil. Then it pulls. Meaty question rip out: What is the nature of evil? To fight evil, do you have to become evil? Not bad for a comic book movie. I guess that makes it a philosophical comic book movie.

It gets off to a slow start. Act I has some clunky dialog and force-fed exposition. Or maybe it just seemed that way. The trailer may have distorted my perception. The good guys are winning — then the Joker shows up. Surprise! But I knew the little creep was coming.

Not to spoil the surprise, but the movie kicks into overdrive and takes you on a hellish ride into dark psychological territory. The Joker’s territory. Then it keeps getting darker.

Heath Ledger’s Joker makes Jack Nicholson’s Joker look like Mr. Rogers. He is one mean mofo, the king of cinema's insane clown posse and very, very smart.

As are the co-screenwriters: Christopher Nolan (also the director) and Joseph Nolan, his brother.

The character details are spot-on. This Joker doesn’t have bleached skin. He wears pancake makeup over his scarred face. The Nolans dispensed with the vat of acid backstory. The Joker's mouth has been knifed wider into a permanent smile, like that poor bastard in The Crays. Why? The Joker’s story keeps changing. His father did it. He did it to himself. Exactly what a crazy clown would say.

The Joker starts out wanting to get rid of Batman. Then he changes his mind.
He takes a ton of money, makes a pyramid of it, puts a witness on top of it, and
sets it on fire. He’s a nihilist. He's not in it for the money. Like Alex before him, he hurts people because he likes it.

Clowns just want to have fun.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The wild, wild west

Sam Shephard is the playwright. True West is the play. The Banyan Theater Company recently staged it, but let's get back to that.

As to the playwright ...

Sam Shephard is a madman.True West violates every basic understanding I have regarding structure, character, dialog and premise. The damn thing shouldn't work. But it works. No, Albert. Gravity can't bend light, you silly man. Take the rest of the day off. The patent office can live without you. But there it is.

Starlight curves around the sun. True West works.

To summarize the damn thing?

There's these two brothers, see. Austin is a bigtime Hollywood screenwriter. Lee is a burglar and a bum. Austin has just nailed down a major script deal when Lee shows up and impresses Austin's producer with his Wild West authenticity. The shady brother plays golf with Austin's producer, and comes back from the country club with a deal of his own for a movie based on a bullshit story about two dudes racing horses across the Texas panhandle on account of they's in love with the same woman. Austin's former producer sidelines Austin's project and gives Lee a bigass advance for this glorious tale. Well, sir. Lee discovers that writing a script is freaking hard. Austin gloats. Lee begs for help. Austin refuses to adapt his illiterate brother's story. After stealing a buncha toasters to prove his manhood, Austin changes his mind. Austin'll write the script, if'n Lee will teach him to live like a bum in the desert so's he can escape the Hollywood bullshit. Lee agrees, but has second thoughts. At the end of the play, Austin tries to strangle his brother with a telephone cord. But Lee survives. They square off for a shoot-out or some such.

The plot is preposterous. It shouldn't work, damn it.

The play doesn't start off that crazy. Shephard opens with a bizarre but realistic premise: Two brothers pitch their movie ideas. One's a bum, the other's a screenwriter. The bum wins. Hey, it could happen.

Shephard procedes to paint himself into a corner. Then he blows up the corner. Then he sets the house on fire. The Three Stooges has more logic. But it works.

Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.

I don't know how Shephard does it, folks. Mr. Knowitall is beyond his paygrade.

It's a dream of freedom, nailed to the cross of everyday bullshit.

It's an elegy for the brothers' missing, absent, toothless father.

It's a turd on Hollywood Boulevard.

Something like that. True West shouldn't work, but it does and I really don't know why. Seriously. I don't know this particular magic trick, the card up Shephard's sleeve. But I want to.

Magic aside, you're probably wondering about the Banyan production itself. Yeah, well. Since you ask: It's one of the best plays I've seen in the last ten years. Hey, I'm as shocked as you are. R. Ward Duffy (Lee) and Eric Hissom (Austin) hit it out of the park as the borderline psychotic Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Props also to J. Bloomrosen (the brothers' clueless producer) and Nina Hughes (their poor mom) and director Chris Dolman for poking Shepard's needles in my brain.

True West
A Banyan Theater Company production
Through Aug. 3
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Wall-E and the babies in space

Welcome to the future: the earth is a big pile of garbage. If Al Gore makes this dire warning, whining like Mr. Timbertoes turned into a real boy, your eyes glaze over with boredom. This film doesn't tell you. It shows you. No preaching, no elbowing you in the ribs with a message. Just visuals. Here's the earth, folks, 700 years in the future. We've consumed ourselves to death. Your eyes, whether you like it or not, fill with tears.

The hot bot plot: an evil corporation called Buy N Large (as opposed to say, Engulf and Devour) has filled the earth with the crap that comes out of the sphincter end of the production cycle. Mankind leaves the planet on a giant starliner for a five-year cruise. Trash-compactor bots ("WALL-E" units, natch) stay behind to clean up the planet. Humanity doesn't return. 700 years later, one Wall-E unit remains, still cleaning up. He's been doing the job so long that he's developed self-consciousness and a sense of artistry — making giant arcology sculpture out of his trash-compacted cubes.

Humanity periodically sends probes to earth to see if anything’s growing, in which case, us naked apes return. In 2710, a probe arrives, an EVE unit, pregnant with symbolism. She’s all curvy and white like an iPod. Wall-E is boxy. Fembot and guybot find each other. Then Eve finds something growing in Wall-E’s refrigerator. And, faster than you can say "break into ACT II," the excitement begins.

Back up in space, humanity (its every need met by bots) has turned into big babies floating on anti-gravity barcaloungers. Eve and Wall-E return to the mamma ship. They immediately smash a hole in the starliner and watch as the helpless screaming blobs of protoplasm are sucked into …

Well, no. Even a toaster can guess where the story goes, but that’s not the point. Ulysses goes home. Papillion escapes from jail. Romeo and Juliet kiss and die. That’s not the damn point.

Director Andrew Staunton tells the story with silent movie rhythms, riffs ripped off from Keaton, Chaplin and the rest. The first third has no dialogue, the rest has little. Chuck Jones used to bitch that most animation was “illustrated radio” — nothing but talk, talk, talk accompanied by redundant visuals. Close your eyes and you still get everything — but not with WALL-E. Illustrated radio it ain’t.

The pictures tell the story. Who needs words?

The section on the ruined earth is haunting and poignant. Not a Blade Runner vibe—more like the awesome banality of Idiocracy, minus the idiots.

The sections in the starship kick into start-and-stop action comedy.

The starliner has the look-and-feel of Star Trek and 2001 filtered through a PlaySkool toymaker’s sensibility and the design vocabulary of McDonald’s and Kwik-E-Mart. Curvy, sterile white walls accented by screaming primary colors; hologram signs full of happy faces and blobby letters, endlessly selling you shit.
The banality of evil? That’s been done.

The evil of banality?

“Wall-E” nails it.

Beautifully and hilariously.