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For the week of February 22

By Rob Brezsny

ARIES (March 21-April 19): My astrological radar suggests that there’s a space-time anomaly looming just ahead of you. Is it a fun and exotic limbo where the rules are flexible and everything’s an experiment? That might be cool. Or is it more like an alien labyrinth where nothing is as it seems, you can hear howling in the distance and you barely recognize yourself? That might be weird. What do you think? Is it worth the gamble? If so, full speed ahead. If not, I suggest a course correction.

TAURUS (April 20-May 20): Someone on Reddit.com asked readers to respond to the question, “What is the most liberating thought you’ve ever had?” Among the replies were the following six: 1. “If new evidence presents itself, it’s OK to change my beliefs.” 2. “I get to choose who’s in my life and who isn’t.” 3. “I am not my history.” 4. “You can’t change something that has already happened, so stop worrying about it.” 5. “I am not, nor will I ever be, conventionally beautiful.” 6. “I don’t have to respond to people when they say stupid s— to me.” I hope these testimonies inspire you to come up with several of your own, Taurus. It’s a perfect time to formulate liberating intentions.

GEMINI (May 21-June 20): It has been a while since I told you that I love you. So I’m doing it now. I LOVE YOU. More than you could ever imagine. And that’s why I continue to offer these horoscopes to you free of charge, with no strings attached. That’s why I work so hard to be a playful therapist and an edgy mentor for you. That’s why I am so tenacious in my efforts to serve you as a feminist father figure and a kindly devil’s advocate and a sacred cheerleader. Again, I don’t expect anything in return from you. But if you would like to express your appreciation, you could do so by offering a similar type of well-crafted care to people in your own sphere. Now would be an excellent time to give such gifts.

CANCER (June 21-July 22): “I like the word ‘bewilderment’ because it has both ‘be’ and ‘wild’ in it,” says poet Peter Gizzi. I propose that you go even further, Cancerian: Express a fondness for the actual experience of bewilderment as well as the word. In fact, be willing to not just tolerate, but actually embrace the fuzzy blessings of bewilderment. In the coming weeks, that’s your ticket to being wild in the healthiest (and wealthiest) ways. As you wander innocently through the perplexing mysteries that make themselves available, you’ll be inspired to escape formalities and needless rules that have kept you overly tame.

LEO (July 23-Aug. 22): Are you familiar with psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow? It’s the unflattering or uncomfortable part of you that you would prefer to ignore or suppress. It’s the source of behavior about which you later say, “I wasn’t acting like myself.” Jungians say that the shadow hounds you and wounds you to the degree that you refuse to deal with it. But if you negotiate with it, it leads you to beautiful surprises. It prods you to uncover riches you’ve hidden from yourself. I mention this, Leo, because any shadow work you do in the coming weeks could generate rather spectacular breakthroughs.

VIRGO (Aug. 23-Sept. 22): You could make a vow like this: “Between now and April 15, I will be relentless in getting my needs met. I will harbor a steely resolve to call on every ploy necessary to ensure that my deepest requirements are not just gratified, but satiated to the max. I will be a dogged and ferocious seeker of absolute fulfillment.” If you want to swear an oath like that, Virgo, I understand. But I hope that you will try a softer approach—more like the following: “Between now and April 15, I will be imaginative and ingenious in getting my needs met. I will have fun calling on every trick necessary to ensure that my deepest requirements are playfully addressed. I will be a sweet seeker of unpredictable fulfillment.”

LIBRA (Sept. 23-Oct. 22): How would Buddha ask for a raise or promotion? How would Jesus tinker with his career plans as he took into consideration large-scale shifts in the economy? How would Confucius try to infuse new approaches and ideas into the status quo of his work environment? Ruminate deeply on these matters, dear Libra. Your yearning to be more satisfyingly employed may soon be rewarded—especially if you infuse your ambitions with holy insight. How would Joan of Arc break through the glass ceiling? How would Harriet Tubman deal with the inefficiencies caused by excess testosterone? How would Hildegard of Bingen seek more emotional richness on the job?

SCORPIO (Oct. 23-Nov. 21): I suspect that you would benefit from acquiring a new bedroom name, my dear. But should I be the one to give it to you? I’m not sure. Maybe you could invite a practical dreamer you adore to provide you with this crazy sweet new moniker. If there is no such person to do the job (although given the current astrological omens, I bet there is), I’ll offer the following array of amorous aliases for you to choose from: Wild Face; Kiss Genius; Thrill Witch; Freaky Nectar; Boink Master; Lust Moxie; Pearly Thunder; Peach Licker; Painkiller; Silky Bliss; Slippery Diver; Swoon Craver.

SAGITTARIUS (Nov. 22-Dec. 21): Soon I’ll be off on my first vacation in 18 months. At first glance it might seem odd for an astrologer like myself to have selected two Sagittarians to be my housesitters. Members of your sign are reputed to be among the least home-nurturing people in the zodiac. But I’m confident that by the time I return, raccoons won’t be living in my kitchen, nor will my plants be dead or my snail-mail stolen or my TV broken. The current astrological omens suggest that most of you Centaurs, at least for the foreseeable future, will display an uncommon aptitude for the domestic arts.

CAPRICORN (Dec. 22-Jan. 19): The near future will be mutable, whimsical and fluky. It’ll be serendipitous, mercurial and extemporaneous. You should expect happy accidents and lucky breaks. Your ability to improvise will be quite valuable. Do you believe in lucky numbers? Even if you don’t, yours will be 333. Your sacred password will be “quirky plucky.” The cartoon characters with whom you will have most in common are Bugs Bunny and Road Runner. The place where you’re most likely to encounter a crucial teaching is a threshold or thrift shop. Your colors of destiny will be flecked and dappled. (P.S. I suspect that an as-yet-undiscovered talisman of power is crammed in a drawer full of junk.)

AQUARIUS (Jan. 20-Feb. 18): Treat your body like a sublime temple, please. And regard your imagination as a treasured sanctuary. Be very choosy about what you allow to enter into both of those holy places. This strategy is always a wise idea, of course, but it’s especially so now, when you are extra sensitive to the influences you absorb. It’s crucial that you express maximum discernment as you determine which foods, drinks, drugs, images, sounds and ideas are likely to foster your maximum well-being—and which aren’t. Be a masterful caretaker of your health and sanity.

PISCES (Feb. 19-March 20): What would your best mother do in a situation like this? Please note that I’m not asking, “What would your mother do?” I’m not suggesting that you call on the counsel of your actual mother. When I use the term “your best mother,” I’m referring to the archetype of your perfect mother. Imagine a wise older woman who understands you telepathically, loves you unconditionally and wants you to live your life according to your own inner necessity, not hers or anyone else’s. Visualize her. Call on her. Seek her blessings.

Homework: Find a new person or institution you can eagerly and earnestly respect. Report on your triumph at Freewillastrology.com.

advice goddess
Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: The 40-year-old guy I’m dating swivels his head to check out ladies everywhere. He even comments on those he finds attractive. I’ve mentioned that it bugs me. He contends that it’s my insecurities that are really the issue here. I can see how lower self-esteem might lend itself to an offended reaction, as opposed to just a shrug or an eye roll, but is this really on me?—Blamed

A: Yes, of course your insecurities are the real issue here. Because what woman wouldn’t feel great when her boyfriend’s all, “Whoa, boobs are out tonight!”?

That said, it is normal that he’s driven to look. Men evolved to have their eyeballs all up in every hot woman’s business because the features considered beautiful in a woman correlate with health and fertility. Ancestral men who passed on their genes (and mating psychology) are those who went for the fertile young hotties, not the 70-year-old ladies with a lot of personality.

Not surprisingly, brain imaging studies by evolutionary psychologist Steven Platek and his colleagues find that when men see pictures of curvalicious women, there’s “activation” in (most notably) the nucleus accumbens. This is part of the brain’s reward circuitry and “the seat of addictive behavior.” Regarding their findings, Platek told me, “We think that this is why men quite literally find it challenging to look away from a highly attractive female body.”

No, not “impossible” to look away. “Challenging.” Like it may sometimes be for you to keep from stabbing your boyfriend in the thigh with a fork when he rubbernecks at a passing pair of Wonderbreasts. However, feeling disturbed by his girl-gawking isn’t a sign that you’re emotionally defective. Psychiatrist and evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse explains that emotions have a job to do—to motivate us to “respond adaptively” to threats and opportunities.

If your insecurity is tripping you up, it’s in how you seem to be second-guessing the emotions yelling at you, “Do something! HELLO?! Are you in a coma?” The thing is, you don’t have to feel assertive to be assertive. You just have to (gulp!) stand up for yourself as an assertive person would.

Again, the problem isn’t that your boyfriend’s looking; it’s that he’s looking (and commenting) while you’re standing right there, feelings and all. Be honest with him: This doesn’t just “bug” you; it hurts your feelings. It makes you feel disrespected. And it needs to stop. Now. Because you want to feel loved, respected, and happy—either with him or with some guy you meet at his funeral, after his tragic but inevitable death from drowning in a pool of his own drool.

Q: For two years, I’ve been in the best relationship of my life, after years of really bad ones. I’m thinking that maybe the key to a happy relationship is having two people who think they aren’t good enough for each other. Not that we feel that in a pathetic way. We each just feel really grateful and lucky to be with the other person, and it makes a difference in how we treat each other. Thoughts?—Happy at Last

A: Sometimes the thing we tell ourselves is that love is really “the thing I got into because I was scared I’d die alone—surrounded by empty single-serving zinfandel bottles.”

What seems key this time around, in how happy you two are, is the gratitude you feel. Gratitude for your partner comes out of noticing the sweet, thoughtful things they do—like taking out the trash without needing to be “asked” at gunpoint.

However, what you’re grateful for isn’t so much the garbage relocation as what it shows—what social psychologist Kaska Kubacka describes as your partner’s “responsiveness to (your) needs.” This, in turn, tells you that your happiness is important to them, which tells you that they value you and the relationship. Awww.

Seeing that you’re loved and cared for like this motivates you to do sweet, loving things for your partner. Which motivates them … which motivates you … (think of it as love on the Ping-Pong model.) This helps create and maintain the kind of relationship where, when your partner blurts out, “I love you so much!” your inclination is to respond in kind—instead of turning around to see who the hell they’re talking to.

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This week in the Pacific Sun, our cover story, ‘Time of His Life,’ profiles Marin County-based actor/director George Maguire. On top of that, we’ve got a piece (and recipe) on Caribbean lentils, a story about how chickens can help in the garden, Oscars predictions, a piece on bringing August Wilson’s plays to the big screen, a review of ‘The Christians’ and an interview with singer/songwriter/guitarist Ryan McCaffrey. All that and more on stands and online today!

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Actor/director George Maguire on starting anew

Actor/director George Maguire says that although he just turned 70, he feels like he's just getting started.

By David Templeton

“I just turned 70,” says actor/producer George Maguire. “But in many ways, as an artist particularly, I feel like I’m just starting out.”

After a lifetime appearing in other people’s plays and films, and teaching others how to do the same, Maguire is finally venturing into the field of developing and producing his own projects.

“It had to happen eventually,” he says with a laugh.

Having appeared in dozens of films and television shows, and hundreds of stage plays, Maguire is perhaps best known for the small, colorful, slightly offbeat characters he’s played in such cult-hit films as David Fincher’s The Game and Fight Club, Clint Eastwood’s True Crime, Finn Taylor’s Dream With the Fishes and the upcoming Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. He moved to California from New York City in 1984, initially finding work in Southern California, where he was an actor, teacher and board member of the acclaimed Pacific Conservatory Theatre. Maguire moved to the Bay Area in 1986, and soon became a frequent figure on local stages, racking up numerous appearances with the Marin Shakespeare Company, Marin Theatre Company, Aurora Theatre Company, Magic Theatre and more. He eventually landed a gig teaching theater at Solano Community College, from which he just recently retired.

“I’d done New York and I’d done Broadway,” he says of his motivation for leaving his home state and becoming a permanent West Coaster. “I’d been onstage with Phil Silvers and Ginger Rogers, traveled around and done regional theaters. I’d done all the things an actor is supposed to do—but I was turning 40, and I wanted something new and different. Moving here turned out to be the very best thing, because I have been able to keep doing stage work, which I love, and to teach, which I love—and then, when the film work started coming, I was able to relax into that too, and my life has been endlessly wonderful ever since.”

For his stage work, Maguire has received numerous nominations from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Asked what his favorite stage role has been, he instantly names the part of Kent in a 2006 production of King Lear, staged by Marin Shakespeare Company at Forest Meadows Amphitheatre in San Rafael.

“I loved doing Kent,” he says, of playing the mad king’s resourceful but banished counselor. “I liked doing him a lot because King Lear is such a good show and Kent is such a rich and juicy character. He’s a real ‘butch part,’ a manly man, and he was a discovery every single night.”

Maguire says that his string of parts at Marin Shakespeare Company was some of the most fun he’s ever had on stage—a run that included wearing a dress as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

“The very first thing I did there was Brabantio in Othello, in 2004,” Maguire recalls. Brabantio, the father of doomed Desdemona, appears in the first act, and is not heard from again until his death is mentioned in the fifth act. “It doesn’t get better than that,” Maguire adds with a laugh.

“Brabantio is so fun because he’s fast and he’s fearless—he’s in and out of the play, and then he’s gone,” he says. “I also enjoyed playing the Emperor in Amadeus, for the same reason. It’s a small role, but he has some of the best lines in the show.”

Maguire acknowledges that many actors often want the lead part.

“They want a lot of stage time and they want the most lines,” he says. “But it’s the small roles that really test an actor. It’s easy to do a lot when you have a lot to work with. But doing a lot with very little—that’s when you really show your skill as an actor. And actors who can do that are golden in this business. Directors love actors who give their all, no matter how small a part you put them in.”

Maguire says that he considers himself “mostly” retired from stage acting, but finds the film work, especially some of the independent short films he’s been acting in over the last few years, to be the perfect kind of project for his skill set.

“I don’t have to learn so many lines,” he says, “and I get to do things on film that people never asked me to do on stage. I recently did a bedroom scene in a short film called Youth, which won the Casting Society of America’s 2017 Artios Award for short films. I’m the lead, and the first day out I meet the gorgeous Jessica Stroup, from Beverly Hills 90210, and the next day we’re shooting a bed scene together. ‘Hi, I’m George!’ ‘Hi, I’m Jessica!’ ‘Now, let’s eat mints, get naked and shoot a bedroom scene.’ I have to say, it was hilarious. And that’s the nature of the business.”

The other thing that Maguire likes about making movies, he admits, is the intensity of the process.

George Maguire as Buffalo Bill Cody.

“The thing that’s so addictive about film work,” he explains, “is that, unlike stage work, where you slowly create a character over several weeks of rehearsal, in movies you have to make very, very strong choices, right at the top. It’s scary, and it’s intense and it’s intoxicating.”

Given that, in television work especially, actors with their own wardrobes are given a bonus, Maguire has collected a number of surprisingly specific costumes.

“I play a lot of priests, and a lot of funeral directors,” he says. “I just have that kind of face. So I have my own priest outfit, my own funeral director outfit and sometimes it pays off in other ways. When I was shooting The Sweetest Thing with Cameron Diaz, I played an Irish priest, and because I wore the outfit to and from the set, I ended up getting free parking because everyone thought I was a real priest.”

Of his many film roles, Maguire counts his appearance in Fight Club—playing the morose group leader of a testicular cancer support group—as one of his all-time favorite movie-making experiences.

“That was wonderful, and it’s one of the parts I still get recognized for,” he says. “It was grand getting to work with Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter, and my old buddy Meatloaf, who I knew from back in my New York days. I never got to work with Jared Leto, unfortunately.

“But it was a blast, making that film,” he goes on. “David Fincher works very carefully and slowly, so a part that might have taken someone else a day to film, kept me on set for five days. I’d had a wonderful scene in Fincher’s The Game, working with Michael Douglas. But he’s a taskmaster, and he’s fascinating to work with. Clint Eastwood shoots one or two takes only, but David shoots take after take. And I had to be at the top of my game every single take. Artistically and intellectually, it was an amazing experience.”

Which brings Maguire to his current project, producing a short film based on his own original idea. The film, to be titled Generations, is currently in pre-production, with the budget still being raised. But Maguire says that it’s quickly become a passion project for him.

“You know, time ticks by and pretty soon you start thinking about how time is running out,” he muses, “and then you start thinking about all the things you haven’t done with your life. And the one thing I’d never done was produce a film.”

There was an idea that had been sticking in the back of his mind, a story about several generations of a single family coming to grips with a long-buried secret about their genetic heritage. The film, in which he will star, involves a man, his wife, his daughter and granddaughter, and a surgeon. Maguire declines to tell more, but says there are twists and surprises.

“The story sprang from a conversation I had with one of my brothers,” he says. “So I commissioned a script from Candice Holdorf, and it turned out beautifully. I gave the script to a brilliant young director I know named Kourash Ahari, and he loved the story. And suddenly, there I was, producing a short film. Which has been eye-opening and exhilarating—and we haven’t even started filming it yet.”

The film, which he hopes to shoot in Solano and Marin this May, will cost an estimated $40,000, about half of which has been raised through crowdsourcing sites and private fundraisers. He has high hopes that the film will play the film festival circuit, and based on the responses he’s received from the script, he believes that it will capture the attention of filmgoers all over the world.

“That’s what happens with these shorts, a lot of times,” Maguire says. “Shorts are where it’s at right now. Big stars are doing them. In Youth, the one where I do the bedroom scene, it’s actually  played all over the place. My sister saw it at a film festival in Holland. She called up and said, ‘I don’t know what was wilder, watching my brother play the lead in a sci-fi movie, or watching my brother make love to a woman half his age.’ I told her, ‘Well, pick one. They’re both funny.’”

As for Generations, Maguire says that he’s currently holding his breath, working to pull together the final funding and lock in the locations.

“We’ll be filming part of it on Mare Island, and possibly some of it outdoors at the Marin Art & Garden Center,” he says. “I’m a first-time producer, so I’ve made a few mistakes, including launching our big fundraiser at Christmas time, last year. Evidently, that’s the worst time to ask people for money! We did OK, but we have a little ways to go.”

With a laugh, Maguire adds, “And who knows? If I don’t screw up really badly, there could be more films in the future I might produce. I’m really having the time of my life!”

If you want to help fund ‘Generations,’ contact Mammoth Pictures at mammoth-pictures.com or write to George Maguire at gmaguire1204@yahoo.com.

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2017 Academy Award picks

Viola Davis has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in ‘Fences,’ an August Wilson play that was adapted for the big screen.

By Mal Karman

For the 89th time in filmmaking history, the Academy Awards sweep over us (on February 26) with the usual media blitz and the presumed importance of a presidential election. Company offices around Marin County and the city will be collecting money for the Oscar pool—a gamble that, we guess, has never paid off and has sometimes embarrassed you. That’s why we’ve spent the last several days researching the nominees to try to shine a klieg light on your entry form and give you a better shot at bringing home a little bonus.

You may have heard that La La Land scooped up 14 nominations and that Moonlight was the best-reviewed film of the year. But did you know that no one could tell us with certainty whether Moonlight was an original screenplay or an adaptation?

Based on an unproduced play, the Writers Guild of America deems it original, while the Motion Picture Academy calls it an adaptation. It goes up against Lion, Hidden Figures, Fences and Arrival.

As for the original screenplay honors, we predict that Kenneth Lonergan’s emotion-heavy Manchester by the Sea will garner the respect it deserves and overcome challenges from La La Land, The Lobster, 20th Century Women and Hell or High Water.

Quite often, logic will desert Academy voters, leaving the rest of us in a state of utter disbelief, as in 2010 when The King’s Speech won Best Picture over The Social Network, in 1998 when the fluffy Shakespeare in Love topped the very gritty Saving Private Ryan or in 1961 when The Alamo and Sons and Lovers were Best Picture nominees ahead of Spartacus.

La La Land is supposed to win everything under the Pacific sun, including best shoelaces, but one statuette that might end up elsewhere is the one for cinematography. We like Greig Fraser’s work in Lion.

Every nominee for visual effects deserves the prize this year: Deepwater Horizon for its sinking oil rig; Kubo and the Two Strings for its remarkable stop-motion animation; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story for a different kind of universe; Doctor Strange for an astral plane that is stunningly real. None of them, however, created more than 200 computer graphic animals and melded them seamlessly with live action like that seen in Disney’s The Jungle Book. If it doesn’t win, the studio ought to let the snakes out on the Academy voters.

Denzel Washington and Casey Affleck are knotted in a tight race for Best Actor, and the same can be said for Emma Stone and Isabelle Huppert for Best Actress. But Washington essentially reprised the role in Fences that he did on stage—that of garbage man Troy Maxson, former Negro League baseball star, who truly believes that the world owes him something and that it is way past due.

Affleck also portrays someone hanging on the lower rung of life. As depressed janitor Lee Chandler in Manchester by the Sea, he returns to the scene of a tragedy that still haunts him while dealing with the unexpected death of his older brother. Despite a sexual harassment settlement of a few years ago, Affleck, we think, will score a gold statuette.

Emma Stone is poised to snatch the Academy Award from the remarkable French actress Isabelle Huppert. Stone plays a dreamer on the fringes of Hollywood, singing, dancing, emoting to perfection in La La Land. In Elle, Huppert is a successful businesswoman who is raped and chooses not to report it—only to be raped again and again. It’s a chilling performance recognized by her Golden Globe for dramatic film, while her chief competition (Stone) won the Screen Actors Guild award, a BAFTA from England and a Golden Globe for a musical role.

We hate to say it, but the Academy rarely awards Best Actress Oscars to older women. Though she looks 40, Huppert is 63. If voters were to split their selection between Stone and Huppert, it’s possible that Natalie Portman could sneak in for her impressive rendering of Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie.

You can bet the house that Viola Davis will take home the Best Supporting Actress award for her work in Fences as a wife and mom who puts up with more garbage than her garbage man-husband gathers in a month. There’s a scene in which her eyes are welling, her nose is running and her body is about to collapse, that will be remembered for a long, long time. Fellow noms Nicole Kidman, Michelle Williams, Naomie Harris and Octavia Spencer will have to wait for another day.

We have a local rooting interest for Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, born in Oakland and raised in Hayward, he plays a drug dealer with a heart of silver in Moonlight, a journey through the life of a gay, black man.

Here we could make a case for each of the nominees: Jeff Bridges, who got his first nom 45 years ago in The Last Picture Show, as a sheriff on the hunt for bank robbers in Hell or High Water; Lucas Hedges as a teen dealing with the death of his dad in Manchester by the Sea; Michael Shannon as a sympathetic sheriff in Nocturnal Animals; and Dev Patel as the young man adopted by an Australian couple in Lion.

The filmmaker who the Directors Guild of America selects for Best Director usually captures the Academy Award for the same category, and that means that Damien Chazelle is about to become the youngest director to go home with an Oscar. Previously, Norman Taurog, at 32 years, 260 days, was the youngest for directing Jackie Cooper in 1931 in Skippy. If Chazelle wins, he’ll clock in at 32 years, 38 days.

It would be a shocker if La La Land didn’t land the la la prize for Best Picture. Moonlight has a shot, but it’s a long one—and 2017 doesn’t feel like a year of big upsets. Our 2016 presidential election took care of that.

2017 Pacific Sun Academy Awards Tip Sheet

BEST FILM: La La Land, Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt

DIRECTOR: Damien Chazelle, La La Land 

ACTOR: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

ACTRESS: Emma Stone, La La Land

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Viola Davis, Fences

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea  

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

DOCUMENTARY: O.J.: Made in America, Ezra Edelman

ANIMATED FILM: Zootopia, Byron Howard; Rich Moore

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: The Salesman, Iran, Asghar Farhadi                                           

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Greig Fraser, Lion

COSTUME DESIGN: Mary Zophres, La La Land

FILM EDITING: Tom Cross, La La Land

MAKEUP & HAIR: Joel Harlow; Richard Alonzo, Star Trek Beyond  

ORIGINAL SCORE: Justin Hurwitz, La La Land                                                                                                

 ORIGINAL SONG: “How Far I’ll Go,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, Moana                                                             

 PRODUCTION DESIGN: Sandy Reynolds-Wasco; David Wasco, La La Land

SOUND EDITING: Robert Mackenzie; Andy Wright, Hacksaw Ridge

SOUND MIXING: Andy Nelson; Ai-Ling Lee, La La Land                                                                              

VISUAL EFFECTS: Robert Legato; Dan Lemmon; Andrew R. Jones; Adam Valdez, The Jungle Book

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A dramatic clash of ideas in ‘The Christians’

‘The Christians,’ now at the San Francisco Playhouse, takes on the born-again-Christian evangelical movement. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

By Charles Brousse

Religion and politics have always been the most common forbidden topics at American family gatherings. Perhaps it’s a tacit recognition that when it comes to matters depending on faith rather than factual verification, there is no easy way to avoid unbridgeable controversies that are bound to offend someone.

That being the case, it’s understandable why playwrights have also avoided these subjects, with occasional exceptions like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and, more recently, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Now, along comes Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, which premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 2014 Humana Festival of New American Plays, and is currently enjoying wide circulation throughout the country. The local producer is the San Francisco Playhouse, whose artistic director, Bill English, saw it at Humana, fell in love with the script and quickly decided to include it in his “Empathy Gym” series.

The choice required some courage on English’s part. Hnath’s play doesn’t pull any punches as it takes on the born-again-Christian evangelical movement, particularly its tendency to be intolerant of any deviation from established doctrine. In the opening scene, Pastor Paul (the perfectly cast Anthony Fusco), addressing the audience as if we are his congregants, describes how the church has prospered since its humble beginnings. As they listen, the people onstage behind him—the choir, his devoted wife (Stephanie Prentice), the head Elder (Warren David Keith), who is the link to the church’s governing board, and the dynamic  associate pastor (Lance Gardner)—nod and smile at the joyous news.

Then, completely unexpectedly, Pastor Paul drops a bomb. After pausing for effect, he declares that there is a “crack” in this idyllic picture. In a powerful monologue, he relates how he had been talking with someone at a conference of evangelical missionaries who described how he witnessed a young boy try to rescue his sister from a burning building, only to lose his own life in the process. It was a heroic and unselfish act, but since the boy had not yet declared for Christ, his spirit could not be considered “saved.” He would have to pay for the oversight by being assigned to the fires of hell.

Listening to that, Pastor Paul says he underwent an epiphany. The loving God whom he worshipped and his church celebrated could not possibly be so cruel. It was hell that had to go. If God’s existence could not be questioned, the only alternative for Christians is to recognize that somewhere in history their faith took a wrong turn by adopting the Manichean view of human beings as suspended between heaven (those who have accepted Christ as their savior) and hell (those who haven’t). Following a fascinating public debate with his fundamentalist associate pastor in which the two trade biblical references like rifle fire across opposing trenches, Pastor Paul tells the congregation that he’s sure they will follow him in reimagining heaven as a place where believers, sinners and those—like the boy in the fire, who was undeclared—sit in peace at the Lord’s table.

Unfortunately, this is a doctrinal shift that goes beyond the congregation’s capacity for tolerance. Attacked on all sides—most especially by a choir member (Millie Brooks) who testifies that she cares more about dogma than about the personal needs of his flock—Paul watches helplessly as his supporters peel away until he stands alone, like Shakespeare’s King Lear, abandoned on the edge of a cliff.

All of this is fascinating dramatic material, but it loses much of its impact by being squeezed into a 90-minute, one-act play that has little room for exploring the characters, their relationships and even the clash of ideas that is at its heart. The feeling you get is that the San Francisco showing is more a workshop than a finished product. Perhaps the deficiencies can be remedied as it moves on to other venues. It will be interesting to watch.

NOW PLAYING: The Christians runs through March 11 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.

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Ryan McCaffrey crafts original music with Go By Ocean

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Ryan McCaffrey, who takes the Sweetwater stage on February 23 with his band, Go By Ocean, says that the venue has “started to feel a bit like home to us over the last couple years.” Photo courtesy of Ryan McCaffrey.

By Lily O’Brien

“I’ve just been obsessed [with music] ever since I was a kid,” confesses singer/songwriter/guitarist Ryan McCaffrey, as we chat over coffee in his woodsy Novato home. That “obsession” continues to shape his life today—he and his band, Go By Ocean, just finished recording their second album, Sun Machine, and will perform at the Sweetwater Music Hall on Thursday, February 23.

The band is tight, and plays eclectic, indie rock. McCaffrey, 36, writes all of the songs, which range from mellow grooves to percussive rock ’n’ roll rhythms. He sings with heart and sincerity in a soft and dreamy style that is distinctive, compelling and personal. “I want to have emotion in it,” McCaffrey says.

He grew up in Southern California, and started playing guitar in grade school. McCaffrey’s early musical influences included Guns N’ Roses, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Nirvana, which led to the formation of his first punk rock band. In high school, he began singing, and then discovered his true passion—songwriting. “I love songs and I love the craft of writing a song,” he says. “I’m always on the hunt for the next song.”

McCaffrey moved to the Bay Area in 2000 to attend San Francisco State University, organized a band after graduating and started gigging around with a variety of players. Having been through some dark times in his life, McCaffrey says that he’s much happier now, and “living by the light, rather than letting darkness lead the way.” He calls the band’s song “Ring Around the Sun” an “anthem” to a brighter future. “Even in your darkest hour, it’s a song that says that even at your worst, you can look down the road to better days ahead,” McCaffrey says.

Juggling a full-time “day job,” McCaffrey says that music will always be the driving force in his life. “No matter what, this is just what I’m going to be doing. I signed up to play music a long, long time ago—and my soul requires it.”

Go By Ocean, Thursday, February 23, Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley; 8pm; $12-$14; gobyocean.com.

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Lentils are a staple in the Caribbean

Lentils are a Caribbean-wide phenomenon, especially in the English-speaking countries like Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and Dominica. Photo by Ari LeVaux.

By Ari LeVaux

The tiny island nation of Dominica, population 70,000, isn’t blessed with the blinding white sand beaches of many of its Caribbean neighbors. This has spared it from the tourist hordes and deprived it of the income they would have brought in. The narrow roads are potholed and unmarked. Old men pass their evenings playing banjo on dimly lit street corners.

With its stunted tourist economy, and few exports, Dominica is a living laboratory for how a Caribbean culture might evolve with minimal outside influence. Subsistence farms dot the steep volcanic hillsides. While the supermarket shelves of neighboring islands are stocked with imports, Dominica is a place where local food isn’t a buzzword. By and large, it’s the only option, which makes it something of a locavore’s paradise.

One noteworthy exception to the local foods rule-of-thumb is the widespread use, and love, of lentils. It’s actually a Caribbean-wide phenomenon, especially in the English-speaking countries like Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and of course, Dominica. A legacy of the British and African involvement in the Caribbean, lentils have hung on, in part, because they are one of the cheapest forms of protein on Earth. Being dried and shelf-stable, they can be shipped with a minimum of expense, as there is no rush, and no refrigeration required. They could be imported by sailboat, as they once were, for a virtually carbon-free import, making them about as environmentally friendly as they would be if grown on-site. And being legumes, they require no fertilization. If farmed properly, they can leave the soil better than it was before they were planted.

Tapa, who runs an Airbnb in the tiny village of Castle Bruce, gave me a lentil recipe. He learned it from a Jamaican woman who once rented him a room in London. The recipe calls for two specialty ingredients which can be purchased online, or easily substituted for.

“When she cook,” Tapa reminisced about the Jamaican woman, “you leek ya fingas.”

Recipe:
The recipe calls for two specialty ingredients which can be purchased online, or easily substituted for: Jamaican jerk paste and adobo seasoning powder. The jerk paste is made from thyme, ginger, green onions, garlic and Scotch Bonnet (aka habanero) peppers. But all of these ingredients except the ginger and pepper are already in Tapa’s recipe, so if you don’t have jerk paste, simply add crushed ginger, and as much minced hot pepper as you wish. But note: The Scotch Bonnet pepper, in addition to having legendary heat (it was once widely considered the world’s hottest), also has exceptional and unique flavor. So it can’t properly be replaced by any other type of chile.
A homemade adobo seasoning can be fabricated from: 1/4 cup sweet paprika, 3 tablespoons ground black pepper, 2 tablespoons onion powder, 2 tablespoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican), 2 tablespoons ground cumin, 1 tablespoon chile powder and 2 tablespoon garlic powder.
Tapa’s recipe isn’t identical to that of his esteemed Jamaican mentor’s, he explained. “My cooking have a touch of Jamaican cuisine, but it’s my own initiative, what I do. I use my own discretion, adding and changing things according to how the food tastes.” You should feel free to do the same, as lentils are as forgiving a dish as they are healthy and cheap.
Tapa’s Lentils
Ingredients: 
2 pounds lentils
¼ cup olive oil
1 t adobo seasoning
10 whole cloves
5 garlic cloves, crushed
2 t jerk sauce
1 t black pepper
1 t curry
½ t paprika
4 turns ground allspice
3  drops Angustura bitters
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1  stalk celery, minced
3  green onions, chopped
5  sprigs parsley, chopped
Cover the lentils with water. Add all of the ingredients except the thyme, green onion and parsley. Bring to a simmer and keep it there for about 45 minutes with the lid on, adding water as necessary to keep the lentils covered, until they are cooked but not mushy.
“You don’t really want your lentil falling apart. You want a little body in it. As it’s cooking you can take your spoon and turn it over and see what it’s like. When it’s cook, you take all your final seasoning.”
Which is to say, add the green onion, celery and parsley, cook for another 15 minutes. Season with salt and serve.

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Author Lisa Steele on chickens in the garden

Author Lisa Steele says that ‘pampered, healthy chickens make hardworking gardeners.’ Photo courtesy of Lisa Steele.

By Annie Spiegelman, the Dirt Diva

Fifth-generation chicken keeper Lisa Steele released her latest book, Gardening with Chickens: Plans and Plants for You and Your Hens, this past November. The voice behind the wildly popular gardening blog, “Fresh Eggs Daily,” she directs her nitrogen-rich scrappy flock to gangbuster results in her New England garden.

“This is where the magic begins,” Steele says. “Combining gardening with chickens is a yin-yang practice. A happy and healthy chicken not only supports tastier eggs, but a bountiful veggie harvest as well.”

At her Maine kitchen garden, there are often leafy greens growing as big as salad plates, sunflowers that reach the second story and herbs so rich they sprout a woody stem. The nitrogen-rich fertilizer that only chickens can provide brings big results to a backyard garden. I can attest to this magic. My good friend, Sue, brings me a large bag of chicken crap from her hens, on my birthday each year. Yes, only a gardener could appreciate this gift … anyone else would de-friend her.

Are you from New York City and too chicken to have chickens, like yours truly? No problem. Steele will walk you through step-by-step. She grew up on a small farm right across the street from her grandparents’ chicken farm in central Massachusetts, where she raised chickens and rabbits.

“Chickens and gardening go hand-in-hand,” she says. “Both play an important part in being more self-sufficient and helping feed your family with what you can produce on your land. A garden can provide your chickens with lots of nutritious, inexpensive treats to supplement their regular feed, and save you money, while their activities in the yard can help it thrive.”

The book covers topics such as growing in raised beds, gardens for optimal egg production, gardening for healthy baby chicks (aww!), growing edible plants for you and your flock and creating a chicken-safe yard.

“I find sitting outside in my garden, pulling weeds, trimming herbs or gathering bouquets of flowers so much more enjoyable when my chickens are roaming,” says the author. “Pampered, healthy chickens make hardworking gardeners.”

Just what do chickens do all day? They are natural tillers and aerators. They scratch for bugs, loosen dirt, eat weeds and provide free fertilizer. Free fertilizer? Tell me more! Chickens are master compost spreaders—they love to scratch and turn soil all day long. Steele calls them her own personal team of compact mobile composters, and describes three ways in which they can help. You can integrate chickens with a compost pile, let chickens act as the go-between when it comes to food waste and the garden or help them along to create compost right inside the coop over winter. (Did I mention that you need a chicken coop and a fenced-in chicken run? Well, yes you do. Breathe deeply, New Yorkers. You can do this.)

If you choose to compost right in your chicken coop, this sounds like a win-win plan. All winter long, you barely lift a finger, and then in the spring you clean the whole coop out and have beautiful compost for your garden.The droppings decompose and create heat to keep the coop warm.

“As it decomposes, beneficial microbes grow that actually help control pathogens and keep parasite eggs from developing, making your chickens less susceptible to disease,” writes Steele.

And, for you fellow fertilizer fanatics, Steele shares her recipe for making chicken manure tea. This homemade concoction adds nutrients, enzymes, microorganisms and other good things to plants that might need a bit of a boost or for new transplants. You’ll never need to buy commercial fertilizer again.

Combining chickens and plants may sound like a lot of planning and integration, but Steele’s optimistic tone may just convince you to give it a try. “If you are just getting started with herbs and natural chicken keeping, I would suggest starting small, maybe with just a small patio planter with a few herbs planted in it that can be used for various applications in your chicken keeping.”

I agree. If you are new to gardening, herbs are the simplest way to go, especially if you have lots of sun in your growing space. In high school, I successfully grew basil and parsley on my 11th floor fire escape (adjacent to my big sister’s pot plant, which the neighbors eventually reported to our mom) before I became a California Master Gardener. Besides being the easiest plants to grow, herbs boost a chicken’s immune system, keeping them naturally healthy. Steele recommends specific herbs to boost egg production, improve the circulation or act as a stimulant or a relaxer.

Whether you dash out and get yourself a flock of chicks or not, you’ll find the coexistence of chickens and gardens detailed in this delightful book fascinating.

Learn more at lisasteeleauthor.com.

Bringing the plays of August Wilson from stage to screen

Actor/director Denzel Washington’s screen adaptation of the play ‘Fences’ is the first of 10 August Wilson productions to successfully make it to the big screen.

By David Templeton

“The 10 stage plays of August Wilson are an American treasure,” actor/director Denzel Washington has repeatedly noted over the last few months. “Now that Fences has finally been put on screen, I plan to see all nine of the others made into films, too. That’s my life’s work, now.”

As “life’s works” go, transferring Wilson’s spectacular cannon from the live theater to the movie theater is one of the best one’s a fan of plays and films could ever imagine. Commonly listed alongside Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee as one of America’s greatest playwrights, Wilson’s own life’s work was the Century Cycle, 10 plays about the African-American experience, each one set in a different decade of the 20th century. Wilson finished the last two plays in the cycle—Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, and Radio Golf, set in 1997—in the final years of his life.

Smack in the middle of the cycle, set in 1957, is Fences, the first of two August Wilson plays to win the Pulitzer Prize. The other was The Piano Lesson, set in 1936.

Washington’s screen adaptation of Fences, it turns out, is the first of the 10 to successfully make it to the big screen, in part because of Wilson’s demand that only an African-American director be allowed to helm the project. The critically acclaimed film has now been nominated for a 2017 Best Picture Oscar, along with nominations for Best Actor (Washington), Best Supporting Actress (Viola Davis) and Best Adapted Screenplay, which was written by August Wilson himself, several years before he died in 2005.  

With the Oscars taking place this weekend, Washington is the odds-on favorite to win Best Actor, and though Damien Chazelle is expected to win Best Director for La La Land, some are predicting an upset victory of Washington in that category, too.

Either way, the success of Fences is an excellent kick-off to the plan of turning all of those other plays into movies. Washington insists that he will not appear in or direct all of them, but has recently inked a deal with HBO Films to executive produce the rest of the cycle. So he will most definitely be overseeing the epic project. No announcement has been made about which of Wilson’s plays will be the next to get the big-screen treatment, but given that Washington has started in the middle, it’s unlikely that he plans to bring them out in chronological order.

Another factor that Washington has yet to remark on is that not all of the plays appear to lend themselves to a cinematic treatment. In fact, the one recurring criticism of Fences, the movie, is that its “play nature” never gives way to the more opened-up demands of cinema. Wilson did not include a lot of scene changes in his plays, and every one of them is set in a single place—a living room, a backyard, a recording studio, a restaurant, a taxi station, etc.

“Wilson’s plays aren’t always that easy to stage … on the stage,” noted Jasson Minadakis, artistic director of Marin Theatre Company (MTC), following his company’s stellar stage production of Gem of the Ocean in January of 2016. That production was directed by Daniel Alexander Jones, and has been nominated for several awards by the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, with the awards being given out on March 27.

Asked last year when Marin Theatre Company would be staging its next August Wilson play—having staged Fences in 2014 and Seven Guitars in 2011—Minadakis said, “Soon, very soon,” adding that producing a Wilson play is not something one does unless all of the right people are in place. Thus his remark about August Wilson’s plays not always being easy to present in their original stage form. So bringing all of the Century Cycle to the screen is certainly going to be a challenge, regardless of which order Washington ultimately chooses to make and release them in.

My hope for the next one to hit the screen? Gem of the Ocean. Not only will it set the stage for what’s to come, by introducing the character of Aunt Esther—a former slave who is reportedly close to 300 years old, and has the power to “wash men’s souls.” Esther only appears once, in Gem, but she is referred to in several of the plays that follow. In fact, Fences is one of the few plays in the Century Cycle that carries no references to Aunt Esther at all, or makes reference to her home at 1839 Wylie Avenue, in Pittsburgh, the focus of Wilson’s final play, Radio Golf, in which realtors debate demolishing Aunt Esther’s historic home to make way for apartments and chain stores.

So kicking off the next phase with Esther herself would make sense.

But more than that, I would argue that, for all of the challenges of putting that particular story on stage, Gem of the Ocean is the most potentially cinematic of all of Wilson’s works. Though the play is set entirely inside Esther’s home, there are constant references to action taking place outside, with stories of a man drowning under a bridge after stealing a bucket of nails from a nearby factory, a massive fire that at one point engulfs the factory, one or two hair’s-breadth escapes in a wagon and the remarkable moment when Aunt Esther takes the troubled Citizen Barlow on a trip to the City of Bones, at the bottom of the sea, where the remains of slaves tossed from ships are lain to rest.

In the play, it’s merely described. But in a movie, the right director—and I’m putting my hopes on Washington—will finally be able to bring the City of Bones to aching, shimmering, heartbreaking life. That, I have to say, is something I can’t wait to see.

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