Connect with us

Arts & Entertainment

Four Larks creates beautiful monster in world-class ‘Frankenstein’

Published

on

Max Baumgarten in Four Larks’ ‘Frankenstein,’ onstage at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (Photo credit: Kevin Parry)

From the moment the lights come up on the Four Larks production of “Frankenstein” to reveal a genteel 19th-century sea captain, singing a period chamber song while accompanied by live acoustic musicians in front of a stark white backdrop, it’s clear you are in for something unexpected.

One might argue that the LA-based performance troupe has already made a name for itself on the basis of delivering the unexpected, through its immersive, experiential productions that exist “at the intersection of theatre, music, visual art and dance” (as their online self-description puts it), and that anyone seeing their work should therefore expect, well, the unexpected.

Even so, thanks to the cultural saturation that has made the story of Frankenstein and his misbegotten creation familiar to almost every member of modern American civilization over the age of three, an audience member walking into the Lovelace Studio Theatre at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, where Four Larks has mounted their latest effort for a now-extended run through March 7, will unavoidably be carrying their own well-encoded assumptions about the tale – and they likely won’t bear more than a passing resemblance to the 1818 novel with which Mary Shelley introduced it to the world.

Consequently, many members of the crowd probably won’t know, or won’t remember, that Shelley’s horror classic begins and ends in the frozen Arctic wasteland, with a naval officer on a mission to reach the North Pole (a situation rendered perfectly and instantaneously by the arresting opening tableau), or that the title character relates his sad history as a cautionary tale against the dangers of man’s insatiable desire to bend the universe to his own will.

Four Larks, however, has not forgotten. In this ingenious cabinet-of-curiosities-style production, troupe founders Mat Sweeney and Sebastian Peters-Lazaro, along with librettist Jesse Rasmussen, strip away the generations’ worth of cultural baggage that has been piled atop Shelley’s original, allowing it to serve as both their inspiration and their road map for a densely-packed unwinding of the narrative that takes us from its pre-Victorian setting up to the precipice of our own modern future within the space of 70 minutes.

Utilizing a breathtakingly talented ensemble of twelve performers (who rarely leave the stage), the multi-media performance reclaims the author’s voice in her name by making her a central presence onstage; it is Mary Shelley herself who speaks the words as her literary stand-in enacts the story of his own act of creation, serving as a constant reminder that this quintessential tale of terror came from the imagination of a woman – a fact that has particular resonance in a world in which the patriarchal urge to dominate and control has led us to the brink of self-destruction.

Underscoring the contemporary import of that radical motif – as well as the prescience of Shelley’s not-very-subtle warning about the dangers of unchecked technological advancement – is a near-hypnotic progression of sights, sounds, and ideas that incorporates speaking, singing, movement, sound, lights, projections, and environmental effects to connect the dots between Frankenstein’s transgressive creation – or rather, the reckless hubris it represents – and a modern world living in the ominous shadow of nuclear destruction, artificial intelligence, and climate change.

Along the way, the literal aspects of the story sometimes get lost within the conceptual flourishes – especially for those unfamiliar with the original text – but in this envisioning, which Four Larks actor Lukas Papenfusscline, calls a “collaboration” with Shelley herself, that is part of the point. Though the production has clung tightly to the novel in terms of remaining faithful to its plot, it revels in translating its ideas into a stylized, contemporary vision that clearly communicates them to an audience and allowing them to hit us in a more direct and visceral way.

Still, many of the show’s highlights are masterful renditions of segments from the book. The creature’s birth, brought to life through the acrobatic contortions of actor Max Baumgarten, is a master class of physical performance that evokes the loneliness, pain and transgression of the experience while dazzling us with an unforgettable display of sheer grace and prowess. Similarly, the lengthy episode depicting the creature’s secret spying on the life of a human family through the windows of their cabin in the woods is executed with a crystalline simplicity that both conveys its essence and illuminates its profound observations about humanity. Finally, in an electrified (and electrifying) climactic flourish, the story’s last act of creation is terrifyingly rendered in a jaw-dropping combination of performance, stagecraft and technology that unites past and present in a spectral vision conveying the all-encompassing dread of a future mankind has created in its own image.

It may all sound a bit overwhelming, and that is exactly what was intended, not just by Four Larks but by Mary Shelley herself; but although there is no effort to soften the “shock and awe,” it is countered by the precision with which this intricately choreographed theatrical exercise is executed.

As Papenfusscline put it in an interview with the Blade ahead of the show’s opening, “It’s like a Swiss watch with a million little parts, some of it is the music, design, some of it is the acting, and we’re creating this intricate work of art that as a performer is endlessly rewarding. I’ve just had a blast.”

Judging by the sleeper success this world-class production has enjoyed in its world-premiere run at the Wallis, audiences are having a blast, too.

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Photos

Photos: Pride at Pitchers

Patrons gather at the popular bar on Saturday

Published

on

(Washington Blade photo by Vanessa Pham)

Members of the LGBTQ community and allies gathered at Pitchers DC and A League of Her Own on June 12 during Pride. (Washington Blade photos by Vanessa Pham)

Patrons gathered at the popular bar on Saturday
Continue Reading

Movies

Legendary activist gets his due in ‘Hating Peter Tatchell’

‘Don’t accept the world as it is’

Published

on

Peter Tatchell being arrested in Moscow. (Image courtesy Wildbear Entertainment)

Looking at the fight for LGBTQ equality from inside the bubble of the United States, it’s easy to get the impression that the movement essentially started at Stonewall, and that most of our progress is the result of work from our own homegrown activists. That’s obviously not the case; though there have been plenty of American heroes that have done more than their fair share in the effort, the contributions of others who join the fight on the international front deserve recognition, too.  

“Hating Peter Tatchell,” available now on Netflix, is a great introduction to one of them.

It’s a documentary from director Christopher Amos that chronicles the life and work of a tireless champion for LGBTQ rights – and human rights in general – whose six decades of campaigning have made him simultaneously one of the most lauded and loathed men in the world. He has shaken up the British establishment with his radical acts of civil disobedience, aggressively pushed for change in global attitudes about homosexuality, and stood up against tyrannical world leaders – and he’s done it all from the front lines.

Amos’ brisk but informative film takes us on a tour of Tatchell’s career, bolstered by plenty of archival footage (much of which only exists because Tatchell saved the VHS tapes himself) and given perspective through evocative interviews with the likes of activist Angela Mason, actor Stephen Fry, and Tatchell himself, who also engages in an ongoing conversation with actor and fellow LGBTQ activist Ian McKellen about what motivates his lifelong fight for equality. Along the way, we get insights into Tatchell’s personal life, in particular his relationship with his deeply religious mother. The film culminates with his riskiest crusade yet, the disruption of 2018’s FIFA World Cup in Moscow to draw attention to the persecution of LGBTQ+ people in Russia and Chechnya.

Tatchell, we’re happy to say, survived that journey, and is still fighting tirelessly through the Peter Tatchell Foundation, a small London-based human rights organization that also supports democracy, LGBTQ+ and human rights movements in countries like Russia, Uganda, Iran and Pakistan. But busy as he is, he took time to join director Christopher Amos for a conversation with the Blade about the film.

BLADE: Peter, a lot of hard-working activists often struggle with burnout. How do you find a balance between your activism and your day-to-day life?

PETER TATCHELL: My life has been tough. I’ve campaigned 12+ hours a day for 54 years, been violently assaulted over 300 times and still receive masses of hate mail and death threats, mostly from homophobes and far right extremists. I’m perpetually tired. It’s made relationships difficult to sustain. But I love the human rights work that I do. What motivates and sustains me is my many successes and the positive feedback from the 20,000+ individuals and campaigners that I’ve helped over the last five decades.  

BLADE: Your activism even extends into your relationship with your mom.

TATCHELL: I’ve seen my mother’s regressive views as a challenge and never ceased engaging with her. As a result, she’s been on a journey of growing understanding and acceptance. Although homosexuality is against her Christian beliefs, she doesn’t see it as a major sin. Moreover, she mostly supports my LGBTQ+ work, says LGBTQ people should be treated with respect and has accepted my partner. It shows that patience and perseverance can change hearts and minds.

BLADE: On that subject, the movie features a lot of footage from an era when a lot of people were opposed to your confrontational methods. Some of that persists even in the contemporary interviews. Christopher, was that an intentional choice?

CHRISTOPHER AMOS: As much as I support Peter’s work, achievements, and sensibilities, I knew it was important to also present opposing opinions. It’s important, for progress, to listen to opinions that are different from our own, even when we disagree. And it’s important that we don’t hide history, we can learn from it. When I was watching the hundreds of hours of archives, I was shocked by some of the views which made it onto television talk shows at the time. Hindsight is a powerful way of highlighting just how much progress has been made.

BLADE: In this case, it certainly highlights that some of Peter’s more “radical” positions have been vindicated over the years, in spite of the naysayers. 

AMOS: Peter was ahead of his time. He has a natural instinct for what is fair and equal in society.

BLADE: Is that what drew you to him as a subject for a film?

AMOS: Peter’s activism inspires me, and perhaps identifying with the journey of an Aussie moving to London made his story especially significant to me. We first met in 2000, when I was editor of Bent magazine, and Peter regularly contributed articles. I was always surprised by how many of the LGBTQ community derided his work, despite the huge contribution he was making to advancing our rights. This struck me as an interesting premise for a story about his life, something which adds a layer to the biographical account of his life. I wanted to highlight his achievements but also explore his motivations.

BLADE: What do you want audiences to take away from his story?

AMOS: Peter’s journey over the past half-century highlights the advances in the gay liberation movement. That gives me hope for the future and I hope will give others hope too. But it can also inspire us to take action, to use our voice. I want viewers to be moved, but also feel motivated to carry on this fight for equality. Many people often ask what they can do, but Peter doesn’t wonder, he just does something.

BLADE: Peter, is there an action you’ve taken that you are particularly proud of? 

TATCHELL: I don’t spend much time relishing my successes. Once a victory has been secured, I focus my mind on the next challenge. But I’m pleased that I ambushed Mike Tyson and got him to express his opposition to homophobic discrimination, and that I staged the first LGBT+ protest in a communist country (East Germany, 1973). And also, I twice attempted a citizen’s arrest of the Zimbabwean dictator and homophobe, Robert Mugabe.

BLADE: What do you think is currently the most crucial fight or fights for the future of queer rights?

TATCHELL: In the West, the biggest battles are to ban conversion therapy, defend the trans community and support other progressive movements, like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Globally, the main challenge is to decriminalize homosexuality in the 70 countries that still outlaw it, and then to secure legislation against anti-LGBT+ discrimination and hate crimes.

BLADE: What would you say to people who want to become more involved but don’t know where or how to start?

TATCHELL: Join a LGBT+ organization. There is strength in numbers. All our gains are the result of our collective efforts. Don’t accept the world as it is. Dream of what the world could be — and then join with others to help make it happen.

Continue Reading

Movies

AFI Docs presents a hybrid in-person, virtual festival

2021 slate generous to LGBTQ, BIPOC directors

Published

on

Julie Rodgers (left) and Amanda Hite (right) in ‘Pray Away.’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

AFI DOCS 2021 kicks off Tuesday and will showcase a diverse collection of films like features on historical figures Pauli Murray and Anthony Bourdain, and shorts capturing an annual prom at an LGBTQ retirement home and the life of a Jewish, trans, South African artist. 

The annual celebration of documentary filmmaking hosted by the American Film Institute will run June 22-27, with films available to view online as well as in-person screenings at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring.  

The festival will feature more than 70 films from 23 countries, including four world premieres. In the lineup, 52% of films are directed by women, 40% by BIPOC directors and 18% by LGBTQ directors.   

“We are living in the Golden Age of documentary film,” said Sarah Harris, AFI Festivals Director of Programming, in a press release. “At AFI DOCS, we are proud to celebrate excellence in the films of 2021 – connecting audiences across the nation, engaging them in lively conversation and inspiring them with both the unprecedented challenges and the breathtaking beauty of the world around us.”

Like in previous years, AFI DOCS will feature a variety of films on LGBTQ themes and figures. “Pray Away,” directed by Kristine Stolakis, dives into the harmful past and present of the “pray away the gay movement” through interviews with ex-leaders, survivors of conversion therapy and one active participant in the practice.  

Stolakis’s uncle went through conversion therapy after coming out as trans in the ‘60s and she witnessed the “traumatic aftermath” and tremendous pain it caused him, she said.

“A lot of people think conversion therapy is a thing of the past. And that is not true,” she said in an interview. “We know conversion therapy continues on every major continent.”

“Pray Away” will be available to stream on Netflix in August. Ryan Murphy also serves as an executive producer. 

“My Name is Pauli Murray” directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West follows the life of the queer writer, human rights lawyer, priest and poet Pauli Murray. Described in the film as ahead of their time, Murray accomplished many firsts: the first African American to earn a law degree at Yale and the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest.

Murray also drafted the basis of landmark legal arguments used in overturning Plessy v. Ferguson. They also co-wrote a law review used by Ruth Bader Ginsburg to convince the Supreme Court that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause applies to women.

The Academy Award nominees Cohen and West discover Murray’s story when working on their 2018 documentary “RBG.” 

“We want people to know about Pauli Murray,” West said. “We would like people to understand the impacts that Pauli had on our world, on the Civil Rights Movement, on the women’s movement.”

West and Cohen said they wanted to highlight Murray’s struggles with gender and sexuality in the early to mid-20th century, and the film features Murray’s inability to undergo hormone therapy and their romantic relationships with women. 

“There was no understanding for what Pauli was going through,” West said. “Going to doctors and and basically being dismissed for raising the fact that Pauli felt like a man. And that was just something people couldn’t deal with. I think it’s been empowering and perhaps infuriating for the people to learn the way Pauli was treated.” 

AFI Docs, gay news, Washington Blade
Pauli Murray in ‘My Name is Pauli Murray.’ (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The short film “Coded” directed by Ryan White explores the life of gay illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, and the history of his subtle, coded advertisements in the 20th century.

Leyendecker lived a semi-out life in the roaring ‘20s but was forced to hide his identity after the Great Depression as society “moved backward,” the film outlines.

“I think there’s a beautiful character film here about this man who’s never been recognized for his art,” he said. “I also think there’s a real cautionary tale about how, no matter how much progress we’ve achieved, that that can always be dialed backward.” 

The film will open in theaters this fall. 

J.C. Leyendecker in ‘Coded.’ (Photo courtesy of CODED / Imagine Documentaries, Delirio Films, Tripod & P&G Studios)

“Scum Boy” is a short that follows the life of a South African, Jewish, transgender Gen-Z 3-D artist. Director Allison Swank met Scum Boy, Oliver Hunter Pohorille, when he was a teenager at a casting for a music video. 

“I was inspired by my friendship with Scummy,” she said. “I started realizing like every conversation I was having with him I was learning new things. I just felt like it was time for him to share his message with the world and I can help with that.”

Oliver Hunter Pohorille in ‘Scum Boy.’ (Photo courtesy of Allison Swank)

“Senior Prom,” directed by Luisa Conlon, is a short showcasing the annual “senior” prom at an LGBTQ retirement home in Los Angeles. The film also follows the story of specific LGBTQ elders and their experiences being LGBTQ in the 20th century. 

“The most important thing with this film is I think it has an opportunity to create sort of an intergenerational environment, and that’s not happening,” Conlon said. “The film is very accessible. It has this reference point for young people, which is what’s supposed to be a very classic coming-of-age experience.” 

Feature film “North By Current” directed by trans filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax follows his own family as they process the aftermath of the inconclusive death of his young niece. Minax documents the trauma, addiction and complexity in the years that follow. 

“Unforgivable (Imperdonable)” directed by Marlén Viñayo spotlights an 18th Street hitman serving time in an evangelical Salvadoran prison. He’s not only guilty of his crimes but of being gay in a conservative, religious environment. 

Geovanny in ‘Unforgivable (Imperdonable).’ (Photo courtesy of Neil Brandvold).

“No Straight Lines” directed by Vivian Kleiman dives into the colorful history of queer comic artists and “Trade Center,” a short film directed by Adam Baron, highlights the stories of gay men who cruised for sex in the World Trade Center in the ‘80s and ‘90s. 

The Charles Guggenheim Symposium is on Wednesday, June 23, and will honor celebrated filmmaker Dawn Porter. Her most recent project, “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer” will be screened. 

AFI will open on Tuesday, June 22 with the world premiere of “Naomi Osaka,” an intimate look inside the life of one of today’s most gifted athletes. The festival will close Sunday, June 22 with “Cusp,” a coming-of-age documentary about three teenage girls in a Texas small town as they come to understand adulthood, especially as young women. The centerpiece screening on Friday, June 25  is “Roadrunner,” which follows the life of chef and storyteller, Anthony Bourdain. 

The complete AFI DOCS schedule and information on festival passes and individual tickets can be found at docs.afi.com.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us @washblade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts

Popular