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David Templeton

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Safe Catch: Committed to mercury testing of each and every fish

Sausalito-based Safe Catch, an ecologically minded company, offers tuna that’s safe for athletes, kids, pregnant women—and everyone. Photo courtesy of Safe Catch.

By David Templeton

The seas are dying, or so suggest a certain number of activists, scientists and watchers-of-the-apocalypse. Some of them point to rising levels of toxins in the ocean, and an array of environmental imbalances that have put whole species of aquatic life at risk of extinction. Others quote that scary part of Revelation (Chapter 8: Verse 9) that predicts one-third of the fish in the ocean will die, along with, by the way, one-third of its ships. In the midst of all this aquatic doom-and-gloom, a small company headquartered in Sausalito is offering a much more optimistic view of the future’s oceans, along with a strong call to change our relationship with the sea, and the tasty creatures that live in it.

“I’m not sure it’s accurate to say the seas are dying, but they are definitely very seriously challenged,” says Sean Wittenberg, co-founder and president of Safe Catch, a fast-rising, ecologically minded and slightly quirky company producing canned and cooked tuna that is as healthy for its consumer as it is respectful of the oceans in which those fish are caught. “Certain parts of the ocean are more challenged than others, because of the impact of industrial pollution, and because of reckless human behavior. Industrial behavior, and consumer behavior, is definitely threatening the oceans, and all of that irresponsible behavior has caused the ocean a lot of serious harm. [The ocean] is sick, in places, and it certainly does need help.”

Wittenberg and his Safe Catch co-founder, Bryan Boches, are fully aware of the ironies and challenges of launching an environmentally friendly canned tuna company. Still, both founders see the sustainable harvesting of fish as an important effort that—assuming certain changes are implemented into the industry, and into consumer attitudes—brings a number of powerful pluses to counter its many minuses. It all comes down to the fact that healthy fish is healthy protein.

“The healthiest things on earth to put in your body still come from the ocean,” Wittenberg says. “There are plenty of healthy fish in the sea. You just have to be willing to pass on those that aren’t.”

And, of course, the healthier the oceans become, the safer the food we pull from it. Currently, Safe Catch produces a whole line of high-end, ecologically minded, health-conscious tuna products, packed in attractive cans and pouches bearing the lofty admonition, “Eat Pure. Live Pure,” and the remarkably specific promise that it’s a great choice for athletes, kids and pregnant women.

Each can—which is produced to sit on shelves upside-down, it’s removable cover on the bottom—carries a lot of printed information in the form of short statements, positive affirmations and little icons identifying that the tuna inside was caught using dolphin-safe methods, with traditional lines and poles, was hand-cut, sushi-grade fish when it was placed in the can and cooked in its own juices, and before any of that, was tested to the highest level of any canned tuna brand on the market.

“We’ve performed a million mercury tests to date,” Wittenberg says. “And that’s just the beginning.”

There was a time, of course, when tuna was among Americans’ favorite foods. But when reports of mercury levels in canned tuna became common, and doctors warned of mercury’s dangers—especially to pregnant women—American consumption of tuna plummeted.

According to Wittenberg, Safe Catch is the only brand of tuna that tests the mercury level of each and every fish before buying it, cooking it and canning it. Most companies only test one or two fish out of a larger batch. This is not effective, because two fish of the same size, caught at the same time, could have wildly varying levels of mercury.

As Wittenberg explains it, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set a mercury limit in fish of 1.0 parts per million. In other words, mercury is perfectly safe as long as it’s consumed at that level or lower—according to the government. But that’s not good enough for Wittenberg and Boches.

Safe Catch has set its own, far stricter mercury limits, which the company claims are between three and 10 times stricter than the government’s, depending on the type of fish and the specific product. Safe Catch’s Wild Albacore Tuna, for example, is held to a safety standard of .3 ppm (three times stricter), while its Safe Catch Elite Wild Tuna must meet a standard of .1 ppm (10 times stricter that the FDA).

Using those standards, the company rejects an average of one out of every three tuna it tests—leaving one to ponder the question, what happens to those other fish?

“They end up in the marketplace, probably purchased by some other company,” Wittenberg says. “If they’ve made it as far as testing, we know they’re basically good fish. They’re just not good enough for us.”

So, how exactly, in a world where video games and computers lead so many kids into careers involving programming and technology, do two young men from California grow up to become canned fish manufacturers?

The truth is, before Safe Catch was called Safe Catch, it was a technology company, one devoted to developing new forms of testing fish for mercury levels. The specific process they developed, Wittenberg says, is “a proprietary product,” details of which he cannot legally reveal in too much detail.

Apparently, it is some sort of portable testing device, with a highly exact system for screening mercury levels in seafood. More than a decade ago, Wittenberg and company set out to perfect the process, then began presenting this new technology to a number of existing seafood companies, offering to test and certify their catches in order to assure that only the highest quality of tuna made it to the public. At that point, Safe Catch was conceived as a testing company. But after a number of major big tuna companies passed, the team decided to take the knowledge they’d acquired over years of developing the system, and swim in a different direction.

In short, they decided that if no existing tuna manufacturers were willing to hold their products to a higher standard, they would start a healthy tuna brand of their own. Their goals were many-fold—to produce healthier tuna, to do it in a way that might restore populations of fish that are being unsustainably harvested by other companies, to set an example of how that could be done and, to a degree, to put tuna back into American consciousness as a healthful and relatively inexpensive staple.

“This actually all started,” Wittenberg says, “because my mom had mercury poisoning when I was a kid, and she became very sick. Before then, we ate a lot of tuna. Everyone ate a lot of tuna.”

He still recalls his mother sending him to school every morning with a paper bag lunch.

“There was always an apple or some other piece of fruit, a juice box, something sweet once in awhile, and a sandwich,” he says. “And two days a week, that sandwich was tuna fish. Then my mom got sick. Then she read an article in Prevention magazine, talking about how pregnant women and children were at risk of mercury poisoning, and that so much of our tuna had become contaminated, we simply can’t trust any of it anymore.

“I remember my mom saying, ‘Well Sean, you just lost 40 percent of your lunches,’” he continues. “She never made tuna sandwiches again.

“I didn’t know it would become my whole world,” Wittenberg says. “When we started developing the testing technology, I thought we would, you know, help the world, and then go on to the next problem. But it turned into much more than that for me. When we brought this technology to the seafood industry, in the interest of helping people get access to healthy seafood, we thought we had a sure thing. Why wouldn’t these companies want to produce safer products? But the folks we talked to in the industry wanted us to dilute our standards, and basically just use the testing technologies to rubber stamp their products.”

During their time developing his company’s testing tools, Wittenberg says he and Boches worked with fisherman in Honolulu, Chile, the Philippines and throughout the U.S. and Canada. “We established some very good relationships, gained some knowledge of the seafood supply chain,” Wittenberg says. “So, in 2013, when we decided to transform ourselves from a testing company into a product company, we had a pretty good idea who we wanted to work with, and how the industry functioned.”

Throughout 2015 and 2016, they worked out the details of how their fish would be acquired and tested, placed into cold storage, and shipped to Thailand, where the cooking and canning is done on manufacturing lines reserved solely for Safe Catch products.

“It was a pretty steep learning curve,” he acknowledges. “But we threw ourselves out there and learned how to do it. It was tough, but we’re pleased with where we’ve arrived.”

Since launching the products, the co-founders have managed to get them onto shelves at thousands of stores, from health food chains to larger grocery chains.

“When you are doing as much as we are, and you are as poor as we are, you have to communicate about your product in any and every way you can,” Wittenberg says. “The best way to do that is on the grocery store shelves.

“We just have a lot to say, a lot of information we want to get out there, so we say it on our labels. And by turning the can upside-down, we can put a label on the top, and use it to say more stuff. That’s the reason for the upside-down can.”

And perhaps, metaphorically, it’s also a symbol of Safe Catch’s desire to turn the industry upside-down as well?

“That’d be nice, but it’s going to take more than one company in California,” Wittenberg says. “But we’ve enjoyed some success, definitely. And the industry is watching. So who knows? The product is catching on, so to speak, with health and wellness customers. We might be able to bring confidence back to the shelves, and put more tuna back in kids’ lunch bags.

“Maybe other companies will start following our lead,” he concludes. “Why not? I think about this sometimes, but if there had been better testing back when I was a kid, and companies more dedicated to the health of their customers than making a product, my mom would have been fine. She’d never have gotten sick.

“And,” he says with a laugh, “I wouldn’t have lost two-fifths of my weekly sandwiches.”

Safe Catch, 85 Liberty Ship Way, Suite 203, Sausalito; 415/944-4442; safecatch.com.

Magic Mountain Play Music Festival celebrates Summer of Love’s 50th birthday

The June 10 Magic Mountain Play Music Festival, a throwback to the Summer of Love, will feature the Matt Kizer Band (blues and soul), Shelley Doty X-tet (jazz-funk), Jefferson Starship (featuring original Starship members) and ‘Hair’ in concert. Photo by Elaine Mayes (1967 Fantasy Fair).

By David Templeton

The description of Hair, in concert, sounds a bit sedate and under-ambitious, conjuring images of folks in tuxedos and gowns standing at microphones, singing calmly. “But because I’m an overachiever,” says actor/singer Jeff Wiesen, director of this weekend’s Mountain Play Association presentation, “I’m staging it as if it were a rock concert in the 1960s.”

Anything but static, the performance will be everything one would hope for from a “concert version” of the show originally billed as “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, Mountain Play is transforming Mt. Tam’s Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre—where the company is currently running a dazzling production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast—into a rock festival: The Magic Mountain Play Music Festival.

It is, to a degree, a way to honor the original Magic Mountain Music Festival that took place on the mountain 50 years ago, kicking off San Francisco’s Summer of Love. Among other performers, half a century ago, was the legendary band Jefferson Airplane, which later became Jefferson Starship. They will be headlining the festival, with original Starship members David Freiberg and Donny Baldwin in the band. Other musical acts will be featured on two different stages, along with food and drink and an array of ‘Flower Power’ activities.

The highlight, however, will be the presentation of Hair. Wiesen was part of the cast, playing the pivotal role of Berger, when the Mountain Play staged a full production of Hair 10 years ago. This time, he says, the show will be much more than just a concert.

“We will have choreography and dancing,” Wiesen says. “There is a lot of staging and action. Most of the original dialogue has been kept, and it really will be the whole story of Hair. But the actors will be using handheld mics, like a rock concert. This is as close to a full production as we can do.”

It is, he admits, a lot of work for what will be a one-time-only performance.

“That makes it all the more special,” Wiesen says. “This cast has put so much heart and soul and love and energy into this show, and they all know there will be just one time to do it, our one-and-only shot. So they will not be holding anything back. It’s going to be spectacular.

“There will be some very cool moments,” Wiesen continues, keeping the details private, “all of which arise from having just one chance to tell this story. It’s something we’re all very excited about.”

Wiesen admits that he was not alive when the original Summer of Love—or the debut of Hair—altered the consciousness of the country.

“Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, as I did, the legend of the Summer of Love, the whole peace movement, has had an effect on me, even if I wasn’t exactly there,” he says. “The thing that is most poignant to me about the Summer of Love, the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement and all of it, is that it’s a bit of a mirror, a reflection of what seems to be happening again today.”

The progressive values and commitment to civic engagement that was at the heart of the peace movement, he suggests, has been reignited by recent events.

“There are changes taking place in the country that seem to me to be moving in the wrong direction, away from the gains we’ve made in terms of freedom and equality,” he adds. “I’ve been watching this incredible surge amongst young people, reclaiming some of those ideals, now that they are seeing some of their freedoms and choices coming under threat.”

Hair, the story of a tribe of young people struggling to make a positive change in the world, could not come at a better time, Wiesen believes. Ironically, when Hair first came out, with the anthem “Age of Aquarius” declaring that a whole new world of harmony and understanding had arrived, many believed that to be true. Today’s news would seem to indicate that the Age of Aquarius never quite took hold.

“Well,” Wiesen says, “many of us in this show would rather take the position that what we’re seeing in the world today, all of this ugliness, is just the last gasp, the dying embers, of an old white male patriarchal establishment. It’s a challenging time, and we think that getting out there on the mountain, singing these songs again, remembering how far we’ve come, is exactly what we all need right now.”

Magic Mountain Play Music Festival, Saturday, June 10, Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, 801 Panoramic Hwy., Mill Valley; 11am; $25–$40; 415/383-1100; mountainplay.org.

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Nurturing the art of resistance in the era of Trump

"The Will of the People" (pink hat version), by Molly Eckler, was part of a recent show titled "Against TRUMPISM: The Art & Poetry of Resistance" at San Rafael's Museum of International Propaganda.

By David Templeton

“Art and poetry have long played a role in social and political discourse. Artists and poets help identify personal meanings and promote individual expression of diverse ideas. Moreover, art and poetry often tap into deeper and more symbolic aspects of our relationship to sociocultural and political events.

… Let the artists and poets speak their truth.”

Patrick Gannon, Adrienne Amundsen, April 20, 2017

It’s just after noon on a warm Saturday at the end of May, and the first of dozens of art pieces has already been removed and carried away by its creator. Lone wall tags—bearing the titles and artists of the absent pieces—only make the few empty spaces more noticeable. These are the final hours of “Against TRUMPISM: The Art & Poetry of Resistance,” an engaging and (occasionally) quite polarizing art show tucked into a pair of rooms at San Rafael’s Museum of International Propaganda.

With hours to go until the exhibit must be down, there are still plenty of pieces on display, bearing an array of identifiable images combined in provocative and poetic ways: American flags, the Statue of Liberty, shooting range targets, pinky pussy hats, feminine hygiene products, monsters, post-apocalyptic rubble and of course, the face of sitting President Donald J. Trump.

Scattered throughout the images are an abundance of keynote words. Frequently appearing are “Democracy,” “Bully,” “Evil,” “Fascism,” “Horror,” “Sick,” “Angry,” “Fake,” “Female,” “Pussy,” “Fight,” “Freedom,” “Immigrant,” “American,” “Christ,” “Cash” and “Heartbreak.”

On one wall is a small, dark painting, with faint, barely visible words of hopelessness and despair, with one word standing out in bright glowing pink: “Hope.” The piece, titled “(Art is) the Last Hope of a Hopeless Nation,” is by teenager Jasper Sanchez, identified on the painting’s wall tag as “a queer Jewish transgender American.”

As a small but steady stream of weekend visitors step through the door, their eyes wide with surprise that such a thing as a Museum of Propaganda exists (and in Marin County), Patrick Gannon—an artist, therapist and curator of the “Against TRUMPISM” show—warmly greets the occasional contributing artist stopping in to pick up art.

“Did you see this one?” asks Gannon, pointing to Sanchez’s piece. “The title is so full of desperation and depression. But hope is not lost. It’s still emerging from this sea of darkness.”

The piece points to one of Gannon’s primary observations about political art: That it frequently springs from a deeply personal place, from feelings as much as from thoughts. To that end, Gannon says that he’s begun working with other mental health professionals seeking to better serve their clients, and to take some kind of positive action in the wake of November’s election.

“When Trump was elected, and then leading up to the inauguration, people were getting more and more upset,” Gannon points out. “A lot of it was sheer speculation based on how we viewed him during the campaign, and how we saw that as impacting him as president. And then, during the lead-up to the inauguration—and of course, the Muslim ban he imposed shortly afterwards, [he] rapidly became a galvanizing influence that sparked different kinds of mobilization across the country.

“And a whole lot of artists got really activated all over the nation,” he continues. “All at once, they started producing political art. In my opinion, personal expression about a political issue is ‘political art,’ while propaganda is art that is designed to mobilize, to influence, to persuade and to depict issues or people in a particularly specific way.”

Some art, of course, straddles both of those definitions.

“Of course it does,” Gannon acknowledges. “Art is messy. It doesn’t follow other people’s definitions. It ignites, and it burns. And it does burn through and across simple definitions.”

That said, those definitions can still be useful. There are plenty of artists who strenuously avoid any hint of having created propaganda, steering their artistic efforts more toward honest personal expression. And there are those who clearly hope that their art will mobilize others into political action by striking a chord with like-minded individuals. But whether it falls on one side or the other, there’s no denying that political expression in art is on the rise.

“In the wake of Trump taking office, you now see all these pop-up art shows happening all over the country,” Gannon says. “There are all these resistance groups forming, and often enough, in the weeds of one area’s resistance movement, there pop-up these kinds of art shows. This is one. The “Nasty Women” show in New York was one. There was a political art show in Santa Rosa last month, too. It’s a movement that’s happening within the artistic communities of the country. Amateurs, professionals, they’re all being activated to express themselves in really powerful ways.”

This, of course—with very few exceptions—is not the kind of art that will end up hanging in a gallery. It’s not generally intended to be eternal. Much of it is, in fact, expected to flare up, burn hot, spread its flame, and then fade, burning to ashes the rage, fear and despair that first sparked it into existence. Some resistance art is created more for the benefit of the artist than for any impact it might have on others.

“I’m not really a political artist, actually,” says Cat Kaufman, whose piece titled “Democracy Machine” represents her first foray into political art. “I made this because I felt I had to do something, just to feel better after the election.”

“Democracy Machine” is, in fact, a machine, somewhat resembling a hanging lamp, with gears and mechanisms conspicuously at work. It’s actually lit from within—with an LED bulb illuminating a lengthy quote from John Adams that begins, “A Free government is a complicated piece of machinery.” Beyond the outer skin of the piece, the faint shadow of a beating heart can be seen deep inside it.

“I liked the idea of making a machine that was sort of broken and falling apart, but whose heart was still beating, down deep inside,” Kaufman says. “It’s the first piece of art I really felt I just had to do. I’ve been trying—with a little help from my wife—to get past all of the emotions I’ve been feeling. I’ve had so much anger building up in me. I built this piece in January, when I felt like I needed to somehow calm down. Honestly, the idea of making more of this, of putting more anger into my art, I just don’t want to do that. So right now, I don’t plan on making any more political art. It’s just not good for me emotionally.”

That said, Kaufman says she recognizes that the art project sometimes chooses the artist.

“I think we’ve got the greatest smoke-and-mirror president we’ve ever had,” she says, carefully beginning to

“La Fuega,” by Jay Mercado, was accompanied by a wall tag in the “Against TRUMPISM” show that read, “Migrant fieldworkers are an essential part of the California workforce and yet have never been received with open arms in this country.” Photo courtesy of Jay Mercado.

dismantle “Democracy Machine” to take back to her studio. “And I am so alarmed by him, but I can only do what I can do. I march in the marches, and I write letters and sign petitions. But sometimes I still feel so helpless. And sometimes, creating a piece of art is the only thing that helps me feel better.”

Kaufman’s revelation brings up an important question about resistance art. Is political art just a form of self-medication? Or can artistic expression actually change the course of the future—even just a little?

“Art is how I digest what’s going on around me, but as an artist who does social justice-inspired art, I do want to change the world,” says Priscilla Otani, whose piece, “She Bleeds Garnets and Rubies (A Tribute to Megyn Kelly),” is one of the most notably provocative—and stunningly beautiful—pieces of art in the show. It’s a mixed-media triptych, described on a wall tag as, “The Holy Trinity of Megyn Kelly’s menstrual blood, transformed into sacred jewels by Trump’s petulant curse, ‘You could see there was blood coming out of her … wherever.’”

“The process of creating art out of politics is something I challenge myself to do, because I think it’s important,” Otani says. “Right now I’m creating a very large piece, a handmade book called ‘The First One-Hundred Days.’ I’m building it out of Braille texts, to emphasize how blind Trump is. I have to admit, some days I feel pretty icky, working on this so deeply. But it’s such fertile ground.”

Resistance art, Otani says, is about inspiring others to go deeper into their own feelings, by provoking those feelings through seeing and reacting to a particularly strong or powerful piece of artwork.

Otani’s point leads to another major element of most resistance art. When it’s functioning effectively, people do have strong reactions to it. But it shouldn’t end there.

“Good political art should make us want to talk to each other,” says New York artist Lily White, creator of the piece titled “Winning Personality,” a striking collage built upon a shooting range target. The assemblage is one of several such pieces she’s made in a series she calls “Targets.”

“I do believe the purpose of art is to allow the artist to work through and express their own emotions and confusions and questions and uncertainties, but there’s more to it after that. It’s all well and good to have our feelings, and to make art to express those feelings, but if that’s all that happens, is it really enough? The next step is to engage with other people who have different feelings.”

That isn’t always an easy process, though, White allows.

“We’ve lost the ability to talk to each other civilly,” she says. “We used to teach debating in school, but now, no one knows how to have a conversation about issues we disagree on. They’ve forgotten how to seek out common ground. It’s all about beating down the other person like an opponent, rather than approaching them as a fellow human being, and using words to find some kind of common ground.”

Can art do that? Can it pave the way to common ground?

“I think it can, especially when we do it side-by-side, like when we all used to do art projects in class, in school,” White goes on. “When everyone is expressing themselves through art, and everyone looks at what the others are doing, I think it makes an impact. We learn about each other, and we learn to accept differences.

“I do believe that art can change the world,” she adds. “I’m a romantic that way. But I do believe. But you have to be doing more than just expressing yourself. You have to be listening to others, too. If the world is going to progress, we all have to change, and I believe that art—political art, resistance art—can be part of how we can change together.”

White’s view, compared to many political artists, reflects a remarkable degree of hope. In a time of despair and fear, when liberties and freedom actually are being rolled back, an expression of hope can seem a bold and transgressive act, which is, perhaps, part of what young Sanchez is saying with his “Hope” piece.

After Otani has removed her pieces from the gallery, and several works have also been taken down or dismantled, Sanchez’s piece still remains. In a show where images have been proven to have enormous impact, perhaps one of the most moving pieces of resistance art is the statement Sanchez makes on his own small wall tag.

“In the aftermath of the election,” he writes, “when I felt dejected and despondent about my future as a queer Jewish transgender American, I found my lifeline in words. I wrote until I didn’t feel afraid anymore. I reminded myself that there’s always hope, so long as we bear our souls along with our teeth. So let this be your reminder: Go forth; create; send up a flare in a dark and swirling world.”

Ali Afshar on underdogs and ‘American Wrestler: The Wizard’

‘American Wrestler: The Wizard’ is based on former high school wrestler Ali Afshar’s experiences growing up in Petaluma, California as an Iranian immigrant.

By David Templeton

“Wrestling is tough, but you have to commit,” says Ali Afshar, former high school wrestler and longtime competitive motorsports enthusiast. “Win or lose, you have to give it your all. There’s no one to blame if you lose. If you lose, you take that on yourself and you learn from it—so the next time, you win.”

That idea is at the heart of American Wrestler: The Wizard, the multiple-award-winning film that Afshar produced and plays a key role in. After two years on the film festival circuit, and a special one-weekend “event” screening earlier this month, American Wrestler is being released in Blu-ray and video-on-demand this week. The film, based on Afshar’s experiences growing up in Petaluma, California as an Iranian immigrant during and after the Iran Hostage Crisis, was shot on location in many of the spots where the original events took place.

“In high school, I was too small to play football, so that’s why I got into wrestling,” Afshar says. “I was good at it. I made the varsity team in my freshman year. Wrestling taught me a lot of lessons I’ve kept through life.”

Afshar has appeared as an actor in numerous films and television shows over the years. He played the character of Grease in the popular television show Saved by the Bell, and went on to appear in such films as The Siege, with Denzel Washington, and Three Kings, with George Clooney. Several years ago, Afshar founded EFX Entertainment, and began producing films—many of which he’s made in and around Petaluma.

Until now, most of the films Afshar has produced (The Dog Lover and Running Wild) have been fictional. American Wrestler—written by Brian Rudnick and directed by Alex Ranarivelo—is the most autobiographical story that he’s brought to the screen. Set in 1980, the film opens in post-revolution Iran, with a harrowing escape to America by young Ali (George Kosturos), then segues into the type of fish-out-of-water coming-of-age tale.

Petaluma, named as such in the film, was not a friendly place for Iranians in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and Afshar faces his fair share of prejudice and suspicion as the Iranian kid at East Petaluma High School. The school’s tough-as-nails principal (Jon Voight, doing what he does best) is not interested in coddling or protecting the newcomer, and the PTSD-suffering wrestling coach (William Fichtner) isn’t exactly welcoming when Afshar shows up to try out for the wrestling team.

There are twists and turns, setbacks, successes, failures and surprises. The attention to detail and sense of realism carried by the story puts American Wrestler alongside the best of the genre.

“I like taking difficult situations and putting a positive spin on them, showing how a loss can be turned into a win,” Afshar says. “That’s what American Wrestler is all about. It starts out a little tough, because that’s how it was for me and my brothers.”

That said, Afshar admits that the film—originally shot in 2015—has taken on a new level of timeliness, given the recent rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, exacerbated by the recent attempts by the current Washington administration to impose a ban on several Muslim countries, including Iran.

“It’s a good message for right now, isn’t it?” Afshar says. “People are talking about some of these same issues again, in a whole new way. The movie, though fictionalized, is a combination of all of my family members’ stories of coming to America. Anyone coming from Iran at that time would be familiar with what we show in this film.

“But ultimately,” he adds, “we wanted to put a positive spin on it. Because it wasn’t all bad. Good things came from what we all went through, eventually. All of the hardship and prejudice I experienced really did make me work harder, try harder, fight harder. There are a lot of bullies in this world, and they always find the misfits, the kids who are targeted for being small, for being foreign, for being gay, for being shy.”

“Everybody loves an underdog,” Afshar continues, “because at one time or another, all of us have felt like the underdog. It’s a universal condition, which is why movies about people struggling to succeed, and finally doing it, will always be important.”

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Brick-and-mortar medical cannabis dispensaries shot down in Marin County

When it comes to legal, walk-in medical cannabis dispensaries in Marin County, residents are out of luck.

By David Templeton

Ten applications. Ten rejections.

Marin County Administrator Matthew Hymel has, after considering all sides of the matter, soundly rejected each and every applicant vying to establish a legal medical cannabis dispensary anywhere between the Golden Gate Bridge and the southern wilds of Petaluma. Each applicant put forward their best business plan, model of operation, mission statement, and qualifications.

His answer was, “No.”

And No.

No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

And … wait! Let us think about it.

No.

For those too high to count, that was 10 ‘No’s.

Based on Hymel’s decision, one might be justified in presuming that marijuana—medicinal, recreational and otherwise—has not just been voted by a record number of poll-goers and officially made legal in the State of California. But it has. Last November, 86.8 percent of registered voters in Marin County cast ballots, and 57.13 percent of those voters said yes to Proposition 64.

Yes to legalizing marijuana for any-and-all purposes to anyone over 21 years of age.

Of course, a hefty 42.8 percent of Marin voters said no.

And a good number of them do not want cannabis dispensaries—legal or otherwise—anywhere near their houses, schools, businesses, hospitals, gas stations, farms, produce stands, outhouses, or churches.

Those opponents have been very, very vocal. And what they said—at public forums and in letters to editors—was “No.”

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

And, for the time being, apparently, Hymel has elected to say the same thing.

“After reviewing 10 vendor and site locations, the County Administrator has not approved any of the applications, and has recommended a revised approach to licensing medical cannabis dispensaries in unincorporated areas.”

On Monday, April 10, the Marin County Community Development Agency—in an announcement on the Medical Cannabis page of Marin’s official government website—employed those exact, carefully selected words to put an end to any over-optimistic, post-election expectations that medical marijuana would quickly be available in Marin, or that safe and accessible cannabis dispensaries would soon be open for business within a short driving distance of Mount Tamalpais. And so, for the 10 applicants seeking permission to open brick-and-mortar dispensaries somewhere between the Golden Gate Bridge and Santa Rosa, it’s back to the drawing board.

And for those Marin County residents—rich and poor, young and old, slightly sick and seriously ill—the ones who’ve been prescribed cannabis for chronic pain related to cancer, arthritis and glaucoma, or to reduce muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, or to reduce nausea and loss of appetite resulting from chemotherapy, or just to feel better as their bodies shut down in the final days of their life, it’s back to Sonoma County, where a number of authorized dispensaries are currently serving their clients—and simultaneously contributing to Sonoma County’s tax base through employment opportunities and other advantages.

According to the announcement, Hymel is now recommending that the Marin County Board of Supervisors consider a “revised ordinance,” one that might separate the “selection of the operator” from “that of the location,” and also that the board take a look at what he’s calling “a delivery-only dispensary model.”

If this statement gives rise to visions of cannabis ice cream trucks roaming the streets of San Rafael playing the theme song from Cheech and Chong’s movie Up in Smoke, Marin County Planner Inge Lundegaard, program manager of the county’s medical cannabis program, is quick to say that’s not at all what is being suggested.

“Matthew Hymel has made a recommendation to look at a ‘delivery only’ system,” confirms Lundegaard, “but he’s not saying it would be a true mobile delivery, where the dispensary is in a mobile unit of some sort. The model he’s suggesting is more of a mail-order delivery system. Right now, with the state regulations as they stand, ‘brick-and-mortar’ dispensaries—where clients visit to pick up their medicine—would not be the system we’d have in Marin. The only license type that would be granted here are those that serve their medical cannabis clients remotely.

“That’s the initial concept,” she says.

Asked if such businesses would still have a brick-and-mortar home base, from which the orders would be processed and mailed out, Lundegaard says various options are being considered.

“We’re going to investigate all variations of the suggested policy,” she says. “It might not necessarily be a brick-and-mortar space. Other types of sites might be available. But for right now, what we’re going to be doing is taking a look at how a conditional delivery-only dispensary might work.

“So far,” she adds, “our initial investigations suggest there are different definitions of what a workable dispensary might be. Our concerns are finding a solution that offers a reduction of community impact, in terms of traffic, and other problems people have expressed concern about. And of course, safe product is a priority for the county as well.”

Of the 10 applications denied by Hymel, four would have had customer-access sites in Mill Valley, along Shoreline Highway, one would have been located on San Pablo Avenue in San Rafael, three were planned for the Black Point area along Harbor Drive in Novato, one would have been in the San Geronimo Valley area and another in Marshall.

Despite the relatively remote locations, many residents expressed concerns about having such a business within close proximity to town. Such opinions were heard by the county at three public meetings that took place last winter, organized and overseen by the county’s Community Development Agency. The dispensaries under consideration were strictly medicinal cannabis operations. Though recreational marijuana was technically approved via last November’s Proposition 64, Marin County’s Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance in February banning recreational pot businesses in unincorporated areas of Marin.

Federal law, of course, continues to prohibit all uses of cannabis.

That said, the state of California has historically shown a certain amount of guarded tolerance for pot use as medicine. Over 20 years ago, in 1996, Proposition 215 was passed, allowing limited possession of cannabis for seriously ill patients and their caregivers, with the written recommendation of a physician.

So medical pot is nothing new to Marin.

And yet the county continues to wrestle with how to make it work in ways that balance the concerns of the population with the needs of those who use cannabis to treat their illnesses—and those who believe locally headquartered businesses would be a benefit to those clients.

“Local access would be a definite benefit to patients,” Lundegaard allows, adding that it’s a complicated issue and must be approached extremely carefully. In regards to Hymel’s new focus on separating the applications of medical cannabis providers from their brick-and-mortar plans, what Lundegaard describes is something of a two-step process.

“We are looking at decoupling the location process,” she says. “First, we will focus on the actual business plan and business model of the applicant. We would select applicants that we feel are strong. Then they would work toward establishing a site, and they would go through the licensing of that site.”

By decoupling the site from the provider, she suggests, a delivery-only model could be the first step in giving authentic patients access to the medicine they have been prescribed.

Such business models, however, could possibly require the expansion of certain zoning definitions. Of the reoriented focus on delivery-only businesses, says Lundegaard, “It will give the opportunity for all interested applicants to apply. Previously, some qualified potential applicants did not apply because they couldn’t acquire a site. This will level the playing field, because we would select them based on certain criteria, not based on whether or not their brick-and-mortar location was acceptable.”

More public workshops, predictably, will be part of the process. As to when any of this will take place, Lundegaard cannot say.

“We really have no idea when this is going to happen,” she says. “For now, we’ll primarily be looking at our next steps. We’ll definitely schedule more workshops, and be talking to the public about their thoughts and concerns. “Then we’ll see.”

Poet Prartho Sereno on kindness, humanity and ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’

‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ is the story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski, a Polish couple who hid Jews in their Warsaw Zoo during WWII.

By David Templeton

“The film has a very poetic heartbeat, perhaps because it’s based on a book written by a poet,” observes Prartho Sereno, sipping a cup of coffee this rainy Saturday, while discussing The Zookeeper’s Wife, a new film based on the bestselling book of the same name. “It’s funny, I know, but different poems kept coming to me, popping into my head, all the time I was watching the film.”

“Actually,” I suggest, silently acknowledging that Sereno herself is an award-winning poet, “that’s not really that surprising.”

An acclaimed teacher and author, Sereno is a regular participant in the California Poets-in-the-Schools program. She just completed a two-year term as Marin County Poet Laureate, and only just passed the honorary title to 2017-2018 Poet Laureate Rebecca Foust. Sereno’s books include Elephant Raga, winner of the 2014 Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry, plus Call From Paris, Everyday Miracles, Garden Sutra and Causing a Stir, the latter a series of poems exploring “the secret lives and loves” of kitchen utensils.

The Zookeeper’s Wife, the book, is, in fact, the work of a poet: Naturalist and author Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses, Jaguar of Sweet Laughter, One Hundred Names for Love). The book, and the movie version—directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider)—tells the true-life story of Warsaw zookeepers Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh), who risked their lives during WWII following the Nazi invasion of Poland, by using their zoo to secretly smuggle Jews from the ghetto to safety. Antonina’s profound empathy for animals and humans alike drives much of the action. And for a tale in which bombs drop from the sky and death comes suddenly, it’s amazing how quiet the whole enterprise is.

“There was this one line, from a Mary Oliver poem, that I kept thinking of during the movie,” says Sereno, searching her mind for the line, and quickly finding it. “‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,’” she recites. “‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’ That’s from Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese,’ a beautiful poem.”

Sereno says that she thinks the poem coming to mind had something to do with the deep primal innocence of animals. “That was particularly powerful in the scene where Warsaw is being bombed, and the animals in the zoo all respond to it in their own natural way,” she says.

“That was terrifying,” I agree. “There’s something about seeing war through the eyes of children, or in this case, of animals, that gets us to see it afresh.”

Sereno notes a tearful scene in which Antonina helps birth a baby elephant. “There was so much beauty in that moment,” Sereno says. “Her connection to all the animals was quite powerful, wasn’t it? It felt like the perfect comment on what’s going on right now in the world, all these questions we’re asking about what it means to be human, and what our responsibilities are to take care of each other. But to explore all of that through this woman’s love of animals, that was extraordinary. I think Antonina exemplifies the highest possibility of what humans are capable of, while also showing us the worst possibilities of what humans are capable of—the Nazis and the ghetto and the trains to the concentrations camps.”

“In a way, it was a very moral movie, without ever being preachy,” I suggest. “It worked on a very emotional level.”

“I heard a scientist once, this utter intellectual, who was asked what it was he thought that could save the planet from destruction,” Sereno says, “and his answer was, ‘The sensation of awe. That’s the only thing that can save us.’ I get chills just thinking about that.

“There’s so much awe in this film,” she continues. “I really do feel that it’s … in a state of connection with other beings, animals and people, children and adults, strangers and family, that we all can rise. That’s our destiny, I believe, to really become caretakers of this planet, and of each other. And we can do that, if we can allow ourselves to experience that transformative state of wonder.”

“There’s so much destruction and violence in this world, though,” I counter. “Can we ever really give that up, as a species?”

“Yes,” Sereno says. “I think the urge to destroy comes when our impulse to create and connect is frustrated. If that impulse is encouraged, rather than suppressed, then I think healing and connecting and creating is our natural tendency.”

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United Patients Group helps untangle the web of misinformation about cannabis

The cannabis industry in California is evolving, but some organizations, like Marin-based United Patients Group, are taking the lead on making information about medical cannabis more accessible to people.

By David Templeton

“Pharmacists like to meet at 6am,” says Corinne Malanca. “I don’t know why.”

Malanca, co-founder of Marin County’s United Patients Group, is calling early on a Sunday. She is at the tail end of the March 24-27 weekend American Pharmacists Association Annual Meeting & Exposition at Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. She’s been speaking, meeting with attendees and talking with the early-rising pharmacists as part of her effort to get the word out about the true medical value of cannabis and cannabis-derived products.

Six years ago, when Malanca and her husband John first founded the nonprofit educational organization—inspired by their own experiences finding credible cannabis information after Corinne’s father was diagnosed with a fatal illness—the idea that they would someday be addressing a national assembly of pharmacists was barely fathomable. In May, they’ll be in Washington, D.C. hosting a “wine day” event, where they’ll be explaining cannabis science to legislators and their staff.

“Clearly,” Malanca says, “the days when people didn’t want to hear anything about cannabis as medicine are long gone. But not entirely gone. There is still lots of work to do. But new opportunities are presenting themselves all the time.”

Case in point: Earlier this month, the Malancas conducted a day-long educational course at Sonoma State University (SSU). The workshop was titled “Medical Cannabis: a Clinical Focus,” and was led by registered nurse Eloise Theisen and Dr. Donald Land, a chemistry professor at UC Davis, and Chief Scientific Consultant at Steep Hill Labs, Inc., a cannabis science and technology company. The course is part of SSU’s commitment to educating professionals for the emerging medical cannabis workforce in California.

The workshop, heavy with medical detail and discussions of “the endocannabinoid system,” attracted nearly 100 people—primarily health care professionals, and a number of workers from a cannabis dispensary in the city of Shasta Lake. One of the day’s most interesting moments came during a Q&A session, when several of the dispensary workers expressed a need for better communication between doctors and dispensaries. Anecdotes were shared that related to clients visiting a dispensary with a vague prescription from their doctor, but no clear direction on which type of product, strain or ‘terpene”—used in the medical marijuana business to indicate different types of marijuana, with different effects and uses—they would best benefit from.

Clearly, better communication is needed between clients, doctors, nurses and those who dispense medical marijuana. This morning, as Malanca moves from one conference event to another—taking the conversation onto the elevator at one point—she answers a few questions for the Pacific Sun about that very issue.

David Templeton: According to the dispensary workers present at the SSU conference, if a prescribing doctor doesn’t know what specific strains or “terpenes” to recommend, harm could be done by a client making wild guesses and trying something with negative side-effects for their particular illness—like trying a product that increases anxiety, when cannabis has been prescribed to treat that anxiety. But [dispensaries] say that there is little they can do because they are not legally allowed to prescribe. Is this the situation as you see it?

Corinne Malanca: Well, there’s actually quite a bit that dispensaries can do. But I have to tell you—that was the first group of dispensary staff workers that has ever chosen to attend one of our conferences. We’ve been doing this for six years, and whenever we bring a workshop to a particular area, we always market our workshops to dispensaries. Because there is a lot they can do, legally, without having to prescribe anything. In six years of doing this, our medical team tends not to refer anyone to medical dispensaries, because they have been choosing not to attend our educational seminars. But there is a lot they can do, without prescribing, that will create much more safety around the communication they have with clients.

For example, if someone comes in and says, ‘I have chronic pain. What can I take for pain?’ The staffer might say, ‘Oh, well, you can take this, this, this or this.’ But if they don’t ask the client if they take opiates, or other medications, there could be a problem. That’s not prescribing, that’s educating. Knowing that cannabis magnifies opiates four-to-seven times its original magnitude, that’s very important. They need that information so they don’t spend time talking about products that aren’t really right for that client.

Templeton: That seems to be the very point those particular staffers were bringing up. Are you saying that some dispensaries are better informed about the products they provide than others?

Malanca: Well, yes. In our experience, a lot of dispensaries have chosen not to get the vital cannabis education that we offer. We’ve invited local groups over and ever, and usually, they never show up. So we were thrilled when that group from Shasta called and signed up.

If a client comes into a dispensary, and says they have cancer, well, as you heard at the seminar, cannabis is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. It depends a lot on the medical history. Dispensaries should be referring gravely ill and chronically ill people to someone like our medical team. They should not be guessing.

On the other side, a lot of times, a new patient at a dispensary gets a ‘new patient freebie’—as they call it—which is usually an edible of some sort. A cookie, a brownie, a cupcake. But does that patient have diabetes? Does that patient have cancer? Cancer patients shouldn’t be eating sugar. They should not be freely dispensing these things without having a lot of education. And it sounds like the Shasta group does have that information, or some of it, and is doing the responsible thing and getting more.

Templeton: So they can better answer a client’s questions?

Malanca: Yes. And so they can know what questions to ask, themselves. We were thrilled that that group from Shasta came.

Templeton: It was interesting that the perspective that they were representing was that it was the prescribers—the doctors writing the prescriptions for cannabis and sending them to a dispensary—that are most in need of education. That the dispensaries are the ones on the front lines, trying to take care of their clients, but doctors are undereducated on how to counsel a patient as to what kind of cannabis they should be using.

Malanca: I totally agree that better education for all health professionals, and better communication, is exactly what’s needed right now. My personal opinion is that, if a client who is gravely ill comes into a dispensary, and has come with a recommendation from a medical professional about which formula and dosing to use, there should be a specific place to go—other than a cannabis dispensary intended for the general population—where they can get very specific medical advice.

But yes, communication is key.

Templeton: In a place like Marin, where there are no brick-and-mortar dispensaries at the moment, what options are there for people who have a clear prescription from a doctor, and have been given solid advice from a medical professional?

Malanca: Well, there are reputable mail-order services within California. Organizations you join, under the right circumstances, and they provide you with the exact items, the formulation and potency and dosage that your doctor or medical professional recommends. That’s what we recommend. The medicine is sent directly to their house, so they don’t have to go anywhere.

Templeton: From hearing your story, we know you had to learn a lot, very quickly, when you were trying to determine how best to take care of your father, who was failing, unable to eat and wasting away. And no one had the information readily available.

Malanca: It was mind-boggling! On the flip-side, it was awe-inspiring, and I might even say addicting. [Laughs] Can I use that word? There was so much to discover. We became ravenous for any new information that became available. Yes, we’ve been buried in it, and working six or seven days a week ever since.

Templeton: So what do you think needs to happen now, in order to get reliable information out to the public?

Malanca: It’s got to be a grassroots thing. But it’s important—it’s a life-or-death matter, actually—that the grave and chronically ill, people who don’t have a lot of time, don’t get caught up in this tangled web of misinformation and fear that’s out there.

Unfortunately, there are still a lot of people out there who don’t WANT the information. They have an aversion to this industry, and they just don’t want to know.

And people are suffering because of it.

Learn more about United Patients Group at unitedpatientsgroup.com.

Stage director Jay Manley on the importance of ‘Beauty and the Beast’

'Beauty and the Beast' a live-action adaptation
Disney’s new ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a live-action adaptation of the Oscar-nominated 1991 animated classic.

By David Templeton

As the Sunday afternoon sun reaches into the lobby of the movie theater, a stray shaft of light briefly illuminates a massive cardboard display propped up against the wall. It vividly depicts actress Emma Watson—who briefly glows in the sunlight—posed alongside an array of gesticulating clocks, candelabras, teapots and feather dusters, plus an enormous, forlornly scowling horned monster.

“I thought it was a very successful film, overall, and quite charming,” says Berkeley-based stage director Jay Manley. “But in many ways, I still think the stage version is better.”

We’ve just caught an early matinee of the immensely popular new film, a live-action adaptation of the Oscar-nominated 1991 animated classic. That film, as Manley mentions, was turned into a much-beloved Broadway show in 1994, a show that has since become a staple of theater companies across the country.

Manley is the founder of Foothill Music Theatre, and a fairly regular director of Marin County’s annual Mountain Play extravaganza up on Mt. Tamalpais. In two months, from May 21 to June 18, Manley will be directing the Mountain Play’s own production of Beauty and the Beast, giving the show a massively-scaled production.

“We’re building a village up there on the mountain,” Manley reveals. “And a castle. It’s outrageous, but we’re doing it. I’m guessing that the popularity of this movie will increase people’s appetites to see the live version—because they really are quite different.”

That’s true. The new movie takes the best parts of the animated film, employs some expert casting, then adds a few original elements, delivering plenty of clever digital magic.

“What you can do with film today is amazing,” Manley notes, as we sit down for a cup of coffee just down the street. “In terms of scale and special effects and all of that, you can’t replicate some of this spectacle on stage. And I think this film does succeed in creating a believable world in ways that the animated version didn’t quite accomplish.”

And yet, Manley still feels that the live version has a special magic of its own.

“As wonderful as it is seeing the servants in their enchanted form, as household objects, in the film,” he says, “there’s something even better about seeing actual human beings, in costumes, half-transformed into the piece of furniture they are slowly turning into. We get a better sense of the humanity they are afraid of losing.”

Good point. Though skeptics thought it a preposterous idea when Disney first announced its Broadway adaptation, the stage show proved, in places, to be an improvement over the animated original, adding unexpected depth of character and a few marvelous new songs by Alan Menken and Tim Rice.

“Speaking of those songs , shall we talk about the big omission?” I ask Manley. “The one song from the stage show that should be in the new movie, but isn’t?”

“Oh,” he says with a nod. “You mean, ‘If I Can’t Love Her.’ Yes. What happened there?”

The moment from the film that we are referring to is a scene where the Beast (Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey), experiencing a moment of profound despondence, stands on a balcony atop his enchanted castle, and sings a mournful tune. Written for the film by Menken and Rice, it’s a dirge titled, “Forever More.” It’s awful.

“I don’t love that new song,” Manley admits. “It has some pretty terrible lyrics. ‘If I Can’t Love Her’—the song the Beast sings in the stage version—that’s a much better song.

“I liked the backstory for Belle that the movie gives us,” he continues. “It makes the whole story more poignant. Everyone knows the basic Beauty and the Beast story … the girl gradually comes to see the real person inside the beast. But the movie actually takes that a little deeper. It actually improves the original story.”

“That story,” I point out, “has, in one form or another, been told over and over for centuries. Why do you believe we keep returning to it?”

“Well, it’s an important story, I think,” Manley says. “When told properly, it’s got a very profound message.”

“Which is?” I ask.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” he says. “You can’t judge a person by their outward appearance, or by what you assume you know about them. Down deep, people can often surprise you. That’s a message that cuts across all kinds of cultures and beliefs. It never gets old, and there are times in our lives when it becomes especially important to remember.

“Clearly,” Manley continues, “based on the sort-of-unstoppable popularity of Beauty and the Beast on stage or on screen, right now is one of those times.”

Transcendence Theatre Company takes its show on the road

“You kind of have to experience it to get it,” says actor-singer Lexy Fridell of Transcendence Theatre Company’s ‘Broadway Under the Stars.’ Photo courtesy of Transcendence Theatre Company.

By David Templeton

Every summer, since 2012, the Transcendence Theatre Company takes over the gorgeous, open-air winery ruins at Glen Ellen’s Jack London State Historic Park, for a months-long series of shows succinctly and appropriately called ‘Broadway Under the Stars.’ Generally, the show features Broadway tunes (and others), performed by an energetic troupe of Broadway performers, staging effervescently inspiring and entertaining shows as the sun sinks and the stars begin to shine.

Blending dance, comedy, melody and impressive showmanship, Transcendence performances frequently pack the place, selling out night after night.

“It’s a very special experience,” says actor-singer Lexy Fridell, of Avenue Q and The Pee-Wee Herman Show. Fridell recently moved to Sausalito after years in Sonoma wine country—and a few energetic stints in Los Angeles and New York. “I’ve performed all over,” she says, “but there’s nothing quite like doing a Transcendence Theatre show.”

The giddy group of singers and dancers—under the artistic direction of Amy Miller (a veteran of Broadway’s 42nd Street revival)—is hitting the road and moving indoors, touring the North Bay with a show called ‘Best of Broadway Under the Stars.’ Featuring performers from Wicked, Mary Poppins, The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q and Mamma Mia!, the show comes to the Marin Civic Center on Saturday and Sunday, March 18 and 19.

“Transcendence is just really pumped to bring their energy to different parts of the Bay Area,” Fridell says. “People from Marin … people who maybe haven’t had a chance to come up to the park and see one of the outdoor summer shows, maybe this will be their first experience with what a Transcendence Theatre Company, ‘Broadway Under the Stars’ show is all about.

And, what is that like?

“You kind of have to experience it to get it,” Fridell says, laughing. “It’s about the energy of creativity, and the beauty of music and the inspiration of people who have a big dream, that want other people to have big dreams, too. And we share all of that through some really great, awe-inspiring songs—and some really goofy, silly stuff, too.”

As per the name, the show will be an array of the best moments from past seasons of ‘Broadway Under the Stars.’

“I don’t think I’m supposed to say what’s in the show,” Fridell says with a laugh. “I can say that I’m doing my personal favorite song, ‘Party Dress,’ from the musical Henry and Mudge, which I did in my first Transcendence show. There will be some awesome medleys, the epic 10-minute excursions through a certain type of show or style, a mash-up or two and a lot of people’s favorite songs from classic musicals, and a few newer ones.”

According to Fridell, the Transcendence team is counting on the experience being as addictive for the Marin audiences as it has proven to be for the performers themselves.

“Hopefully,” she says, “people will get excited enough to come up to Jack London, and experience one of our outdoor shows, right there under the stars, where it all started.”

‘Best of Broadway Under the Stars,’ Saturday, March 18, 7:30pm and Sunday, March 19, 2pm, Marin Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium, 10 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael; $39-$69; VIP, $129; 415/473-6800.

Reviews of the 'first four'

'Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles' is an impressive Oregon Shakespeare Festival play, presented with remarkable power and passion. Photo courtesy of Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

By David Templeton

Well, despite the stormy weather and floods and torrents, it’s spring.

The proof lies a mere six-hour drive north, in Ashland, Oregon, where the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) has just kicked off its 2017 season. Per tradition, the year begins with four new shows—out of an eventual total of 11—the majority of them playing for the next nine months. These ‘first four’ include a frisky stage adaptation of the film Shakespeare in Love, and two plays by William Shakespeare—a bloody and visceral staging of Julius Caesar and a highly entertaining take on  father-son history in Henry IV, Part One.

Taken together, they make for a strong opening salvo at OSF.

For me, the most impressive of the bunch, however, is the play Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles—playing through July 6 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre—written by the prolific Los Angeles-born writer Luis Alfaro, and presented with remarkable power and passion by director Juliette Carrillo.

Alfaro has adapted a number of classic Greek tragedies over the years, putting a Latino spin on such time-honored myths as Electra and Oedipus Rex, and now Medea. In Mojada (the Spanish word for ‘wet,’ as in ‘wetback’), Medea is an undocumented Mexican seamstress, living in L.A. with her husband Jason, her son Acan and her talkative, Greek Chorus-like storyteller Tita. They are all survivors of a brutal crossing from Mexico, which, we eventually learn, has cost Medea much more than mere money or blood.

Frail and fearful, she now confines herself to her small yard in L.A.’s Boyle Heights barrio, avoiding her neighbors and making beautiful dresses that she could never afford to buy with the meager wages she earns.

Played with ferocious fragility by a superb Sabina Zuniga Varela, Medea carries some very dark secrets—and a desperate fear of losing Jason (an excellent Lakin Valdez), a construction worker whose American dreams of money and influence have placed him in an uneasy alliance with the wealthy widow Armida (Vilma Silva, wonderful). Also an immigrant—though with a very different story of making her way to the States—Armida employs Jason as a contractor in her construction company, and may have her eye on more than just his house-building talents.

Medea’s neighbor, the over-effusive Josefina (Nancy Rodriguez), is yet another version of the immigrant story. She’s a hard-working baker who rises early to make the bread she sells from a cart on the streets. Providing some easy comic relief, Josefina’s resourceful acceptance of America’s love-hate relationship with its immigrant population is a stark reminder of what Medea might become, if she could somehow find a sense of power and strength in her life, all of which this strange new land seems to want to deny her.

Anyone familiar with the Medea story, of course, will know where all of this is headed, and the machete occasionally wielded by Tita (wonderfully played by the excellent single-named actress VIVIS) just serves as a constant reminder of what’s to come.

Alfaro does much more with this marvelous, gorgeously constructed drama than just parrot the bloody plot turns of the original Medea myth. In retelling it through the eyes of a Mexican immigrant in America—with one stunning bit of beautifully queasy magical realism—the playwright reveals what happens when any human being is denied a sense of humanity, dignity and control over their own lives.

I should add that the set by Christopher Acebo is first-rate, a little marvel of architectural beauty and poetry. Within the Bowmer, Acebo has created a protective circle of chain-link and concrete. There’s a garden, of sorts, growing in old tires and tin cans, and there’s a tiny house that appears to almost float above the yard, with vast roots angling beneath it. It seems to underscore the sense of ‘uprootedness’ and ‘in-between-ness’ that constantly threatens to define Medea, just as it does, tragically, an entire generation of disenfranchised American dreamers.

Julius Caesar, also in the Bowmer (through October 29), is directed by Shana Cooper (of Washington, D.C.’s Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company, and the Bay Area’s California Shakespeare Theater), who is widely acclaimed for her tightly stylized, occasionally off-putting, highly visual approach to classic and original plays. That style is certainly on display in her impressively visual Caesar, in which the war-and-violence themes of Shakespeare’s story are played out on a set built of actively crumbling drywall, the action scenes propelled by wildly aggressive, aerobically impressive fight choreography, all of it underscored by the rhythmic, chantlike shouts and vocalizations of the fully committed cast.

As Caesar, longtime OSF member Armando Durán is wonderful. His subtle physicality and quickly shifting emotions brilliantly suggest the kind of politician some would distrust while others would worship. Roman senator Marcus Brutus, often played as the dark, brooding opposite of the virtuous Mark Antony, here becomes the central figure of the play. Played by Danforth Comins as a man of high intellect who is caught between his love of Caesar and his suspicions of powerful people, Brutus is easily manipulated by the angry Cassius (Rodney Gardiner), who despises Caesar for what he sees as the new leader’s deeply hidden weaknesses and frailty.

Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour), usually the moral axis of the play, is portrayed as an opportunistic hothead, further placing the central ethical weight of the story on Brutus’ shoulders.

When the inevitable slaying of Caesar takes place in the Capitol—simply suggested by rows of easily upended chairs—it is effectively bloody and horrific, and credit must be given to Duran for the emotional power that this much-played scene manages to evoke, even pulling fresh power from the line, “Et tu, Brute?”

There is an appealingly stripped down, industrial-decay vibe to every detail of the show, from the deceptive simplicity of Sibyl Wickersheimer’s construction-site set, to the plastic buckets used as stools and lanterns, to the flashlights used to illuminate actors’ faces during key meetings of the conspirators, to the sheets of plastic used to wrap about corpses, to the castoff hoodies and Army-surplus grunge of Raquel Barreto’s highly effective costumes.

There is a strong “indie theater” feel to the production, which sometimes feels lifted from some underground warehouse theater, where brilliant artists do impressive work for next-to-no money.

The observation is meant as high praise.

In the program’s Director’s Note, Cooper praises “the deep physical and emotional sacrifices that this fierce ensemble of actors contribute,” and one gets a sense of it from the opening moments, as bewigged celebrants pound on the theater doors, invading the auditorium with whoops and hollers, stomping and dancing across the stage. In the play’s second act—long accepted by scholars as a bit of a confusing mess compared to the play’s lean, tight first act—the consequences of Caesar’s murder play out in an escalating series of interchangeable skirmishes and bloody deaths.

It’s here that Cooper’s vision fully reveals itself. The battles, choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch, are danced as much as they are fought, though these are no West Side Story rumbles. There is a true sense of terror and rage in these scenes, suggesting that the violence unleashed by the conspirators did not take much to set free. The easily manipulated populace—portrayed by the cast in eerie masks—commit compulsive acts of revenge every bit as savage as the murder of Caesar. Even after the final line has been spoken, the warriors’ vigorous, frightening fight-dance continues, and continues—till we in the audience ask ourselves, “When is this ever going to stop?”

And that, of course, is the whole point of Julius Caesar, and Cooper’s offbeat but stirring approach to Shakespeare’s tragedy, an examination of politics, manipulation, bloodshed and war, that ultimately demands to know, “When is this ever going to stop?”

Unlike Julius Caesar—which generally plays like a tragedy—Henry IV, Parts One and Two, have gradually lost much of the love Elizabethans felt for them. If they are performed today at all, it is for the benefit of Shakespeare completists, and because the twin plays feature the beloved character of Sir John Falstaff. Ironically, given that he first appeared in a pair of “histories,” the corpulent scoundrel is entirely fictional.

Rumor has it, by the way, that it was per Queen Elizabeth’s request that Shakespeare spun Falstaff off into the wholly invented The Merry Wives of Windsor—which OSF will be staging later this season.

Till then, in a vivid, energetic and cleverly contemporary production, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, Henry IV, Part One (running through October 28) is giving audiences a strong dose of what made people fall in love with Falstaff 400 years ago. Though only a supporting character, his mighty shadow looms large within the Thomas Theatre, reconfigured as theater-in-the-round. The play begins a year after King Henry (Jeffrey King, all steely nerves) violently usurped the throne of Richard II—then had him killed. Henry’s son, Hal (Daniel José Molina, first-rate) is a disappointment to his father, spending his time carousing at the Boar’s Head Inn, which is ruled, after a fashion, by the hard-drinking reprobate Falstaff (G. Valmont Thomas, sensational), and his cadre of thieves, rascals and fallen women.

When King Henry’s claim to the throne is suddenly challenged by a dangerous collective of foreign and outcast warriors—on their way to England and hell-bent on splitting the island up between themselves—Hal finds himself torn between his two very different father figures, one bad but lovable, the other good (sort of), but hard as nails.

Director Blain-Cruz’s vision is a bold one. The action is set on a simple set of gleaming metal poles, which flash in neon colors for the Boar’s Head scenes, underscoring the inn’s depravity with an inflatable pool full of bubbles, and scantily clad dancers with animal heads. The poles instantly represent columns, trees or tent-poles whenever the action pivots to the throne room, or to the riveting battlefield conferences of the crazy Welsh warlord Glendower (Lauren Modica, delightfully off-the-wall in a role usually played by men) and the fierce Hotspur (Alejandra Escalante, magnificent). The latter is yet another gender-switching casting choice, a decision that takes on remarkable resonance here, largely due to Escalante’s uncanny understanding of the optimistic, single-minded zeal that makes Hotspur tick.

This is the kind of Shakespeare production in which swords are frequently replaced with guns and rifles, and during the inevitable battle scenes at the end, the noise (augmented by the distant sounds of helicopters and mortar fire) is intense. Beautifully balancing bloodshed is the occasional appearance of Falstaff, whose battlefield cowardice eventually borders on a kind of heroic pragmatic, anti-war self-expression.

Though one or two favorite characters do not survive Henry IV, Part One, audiences willing to drive to Ashland again in July are guaranteed to see a bit more of Falstaff when OSF unveils Henry IV, Part Two, with the same cast continuing the story.

By then, of course, The Merry Wives of Windsor will be playing on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, so Falstaff lovers will get a triple-dose of their favorite character—with a twist. In Wives, the famous fat man will be played by OSF regular K.T. Vogt, which should be a hoot. She’s hilarious.

Ironically, OSF’s biggest hit of the spring is likely to be a show that is not by William Shakespeare, but about him. Certain to delight audiences and fill the Bowmer with movie-loving theatergoers is the extravagantly entertaining Shakespeare in Love (now through October 29), the American premiere of playwright Lee Hall’s mostly successful, if perplexingly overlong, London adaptation of the superb Oscar-winning 1998 movie. That movie, co-authored by the great Tom Stoppard, played like a witty, mirthful, somewhat Mel-Brooksian spoof of age-old theatrical conventions, joyfully disguised as an anachronistic mishmash of Elizabethan history and Shakespeare-centric fiction.

The play is relatively faithful to the movie’s plot line, though frequent liberties are taken, which seem unwise to quibble about given that the film took its own share of liberties with the life of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare (William DeMeritt, all-around excellent) is struggling with writer’s block, having promised a new play—tentatively titled Romeo and Ethyl, the Pirate’s Daughter—to Mr. Henslowe (a hilarious Brent Hinkley), owner of the struggling theater, The Rose. Alternately goaded on by and in competition with rival playwright Kit Marlowe (Ted Deasy), Shakespeare finds unexpected inspiration after auditioning the spirited Thomas Kent, who, unbeknownst to him, is really the theater-loving Viola deLesseps (a marvelous Jamie Ann Romero) in disguise, hoping for a chance as an actor despite it being illegal to put a woman on stage.

The primary deviations from the movie include Marlowe having much more to do. The script essentially turns him into Cyrano de Bergerac for the scene in which Shakespeare—smitten with Viola yet not guessing she’s also Thomas Kent—woos her beneath her balcony, with Marlowe feeding him lines from the shadows. Later, Marlow appears again as a ghost to offer Shakespeare additional wisdom and advice.

Also somewhat expanded in size is the role of young John Webster (Preston Mead, pitch-perfect), the creepy, vengeful, blood-loving actor who figures out Viola’s secret identity. What Mead does with his face, a mix of gothic leer and bug-eyed pout, is well worth the price of admission.

Well-directed by Christopher Liam Moore, who has an eye for spectacle and a knack for staging broad physical comedy, the play is a frothy delight for most of its two-hour-and-45-minute running time (with one 15-minute intermission), but seriously bogs down, pace-wise, just when it should be turning up the mph as it plummets toward the climax. The stage version layers on additional stuff during the big Romeo and Juliet performance, and on opening weekend, the actors slowed down their pace, including interminable pauses between lines. One can only hope that the pace will pick up as the cast grows more confident with the material, which is certainly not easy.

I should also add a few words about the live music, performed by a masterful trio of musicians (Michael Palzewicz on strings, Mark Eliot Jacobs on lute, hurdy-gurdy and sackbut, and Austin Comfort on vocals). On stage throughout, the musicians are as much a part of the show as the actors, and are occasionally spoken to, especially by Lord Wessex (Al Espinosa), Viola’s would-be suitor, who keeps telling the musicians to shut up.

The cast is immense, with marvelous turns throughout—Kate Mulligan’s Queen Elizabeth is also worth the price of admission—and the sprawling set (Rachel Hauck) and stunning costumes (Susan Tsu) are frequently dazzling. Slow pace or not, aided by the familiarity of the movie version, this lovingly crafted bauble is certain to have audiences falling in love with Shakespeare all over again.

For information on tickets and the full Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2017 season, visit osfashland.org.

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