War Games

I don't usually take conservative pundit Bill Kristol seriously. After all, he has a pretty impressive track record of being wrong on most of his off-the-wall observations and political predictions. Nevertheless, I have to give him credit for his recent Tweet that stated “The speed with which we're recapitulating the decline and fall of Rome is impressive. What took Rome centuries, we're achieving in months.”

Governments rise and fall depending on their ability to keep functioning. When they fall, their collapse may result from corruption, scandal, assassination (Julius Caesar, Archduke Franz FerdinandMahatma Gandhi, Yitzhak Rabin, Benazir Bhutto), political uprising (historic revolutions in the United States, France, Russia, China, and Cuba), or war (see Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Saddam Hussein).

Although history often focuses on political leaders who fell from power, one need only look into the lives of their family and coterie (as well as those who suffered their abuse) to find human interest stories ripe for dramatization. Whether their personal lives became political or politics destroyed their personal lives, history brought many of these people to a tipping point from which there was no turning back.

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While many film festivals include programs of short films, it's rare that a 12-minute short can achieve the status of a genuine tearjerker. Set in Auckland, New Zealand, Francine Zuckerman's film recalls a brief chapter in Sol Filler's life. After World War II, Filler was one of the Jewsbeing processed at the Landsberg Displaced Persons Camp who attended a concert during which Leonard Bernstein performed George Gershwin'spopular Rhapsody in Blue.

Leonard Bernstein after his performance in Landsberg on May 10, 1948
Leonard Bernstein after his performance in Landsberg on May 10, 1948

In 1938, Deb Filler's maternal grandparents fled to New Zealand fromNazi Germany. During World War II, her father (a Polish Jew fromBrzozow) managed to survive the horrors of four Nazi concentration camps: Plascow, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Theresienstadt. In a scene set in 1964, a middle-aged Jewish man (Alon Nashman) is showing his daughter (Kira Gelineau) a book which contains picture of the famous musician while describing what an emotional moment it was that day "to witness music written by a Jew being played by a Jew."

Fast forward to 1974 when Filler's 20-year-old daughter (Rebecca Liddiard) enters a concert hall in Auckland as Bernstein (Daniel Kash) is rehearsing Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 for a concert. During a rehearsal break, when she gets an opportunity to thank the conductor on her father's behalf, Bernstein remembers the concert in Landsberg and asks if her father is still alive. Not only he is living in Auckland, he works in a bakery and, because it's Friday, is racing against the clock to finish baking challahs for shabbat. When Deb rushes to the bakery with the news that she has just met her father's idol and that Bernstein has asked her father to come back to the rehearsal with her, an obviously stressed father explains that he can't join her because he's got to finish baking.

Poster art for <strong><em>Mr. Bernstein</em></strong>
Poster art for Mr. Bernstein

Grabbing several challahs in her arms, Deb returns to the concert hall, and delivers the breads to Bernstein while explaining why her father couldn't join them. After smelling the freshly baked challah, Bernstein asks her to sit down on the piano bench. He turns to the orchestra and says "We are now going to play Rhapsody in Blue -- I assume you all know it," and sits down beside her.

As Gershwin's music dominates the soundtrack, there is a flashback to the night of May 10, 1948, when an audience of Jews (some with tears running down their cheeks) listened to Bernstein's performance in Landsberg. Mr. Bernstein is one of the short films that will be screened during the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Here's the trailer:

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During the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival audiences were treated to a rare screening of Heorhii Stabovyi's 1927 film entitled Dva Dni (Two Days) with live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne. As the first Ukrainian film to be distributed in the United States, Two Daysholds a rare place in cinematic history.

 Poster art for <strong><em>Dva Dni (Two Days)</em></strong>
Poster art for Dva Dni (Two Days)

Set during the Ukrainian War of Independence (1917-1921), Stabovyi's 60-minute film begins with the camera following a rich family's desperate efforts to get their belongings into a touring car and flee for their lives as the Bolsheviks draw near. Their loyal doorman, Anton (Ivan Zamychkovskyi), promises to take care of their mansion and their valuables (which he has helped bury in the garden) until they can return.

Anton (Ivan Zamychkovskyi) walks through his employer's abandoned mansion in a scene from 1927's <em><strong>Dva Dni (Two Day
Anton (Ivan Zamychkovskyi) walks through his employer's abandoned mansion in a scene from 1927's Dva Dni (Two Days)

Upon discovering that his young master (Valeriy Hakkebush) has been left behind, Anton hides the boy in his servant's quarters, feeding him and caring for the child as if he were his own son. When the Bolsheviks arrive, they set about transforming the vacated mansion into a barracks for their soldiers. Ironically, one of the soldiers turns out to be Anton's estranged son, Andrii (Sergey Minin), who has nothing but contempt for his father's loyalty to his landlord and employer.

Anton (Ivan Zamychkovskyi) looks down on his estranged son turned Bolshevik soldier (Sergey Minin) in a scene from <strong><e
Anton (Ivan Zamychkovskyi) looks down on his estranged son turned Bolshevik soldier (Sergey Minin) in a scene from Dva Dni (Two Days)

The following day, the boy sees Andrii and his comrades dig up the family valuables and identifies him to a counterintelligence agent. After witnessing Andrii's execution, the grieving Anton joins the returning army in burning down his employer's mansion (which has been his own home for so many years).

 Poster art for <strong><em>Two Days</em></strong>
Poster art for Two Days

In her program article, Shari Kizirian notes "the depth in the portrayal of the doorman whose struggle with loyalty, integrity, dignity, and love renders moot any political agenda."

"The actor was praised by an American reviewer, who conferred on him what could be considered the highest compliment possible at the time: 'Zamychkovskyi, playing an old servant, delivers an expressively national and impressive portrayal. He resembles Emil Jannings in his thoughtful and detailed acting.' At times he can seem indistinguishable from the downtrodden doorman in F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, but director Stabovyi is less inclined to give his actor the full frame in which to emote."
Ivan Zamychkovskyi stars as Anton in 1927's <strong><em>Dva Dni (Two Days)</em></strong>
Ivan Zamychkovskyi stars as Anton in 1927's Dva Dni (Two Days)

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How do people act in a crisis when it becomes clear that time is running out for their political regime? Some freeze, others panic and start to act out. Some think about ways to seize an opportunity and grab as much loot as possible while others worry about more practical concerns, like finding an escape route and making their way to safety.

The Aurora Theatre Company is currently presenting the Bay areapremiere of Abi Morgan's four-character exercise in layered suspense entitled Splendour (which had its premiere at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 2000 and its London premiere at the Donmar Warehouse in 2015). Set in an unnamed country, Morgan's play lets the audience speculate on where and when this might be happening (Ukraine? Poland? South Africa?) although a tantalizing red herring in this production is the lead actor's striking resemblance to Ivana Trump.

The four women of <strong><em>Splendour</em></strong>
The four women of Splendour

With costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt, lighting by Kurt Landisman, and excellent sound design by Matt Stines, the action takes place on Michael Locher's pristine unit set for a living room in an unnamed presidential palace, where gently-falling snowflakes can be seen through a window while the rest of the immediate world (accompanied by sounds of violence, gunfire, and exploding bombs) seems about to crumble. As the playwright explains:

"I'm always on the lookout for a journey that is complex, multi-faceted, and a woman's. My original idea was to place four women on a border (not only literally on the border of a revolution, but also on the point at which power shifts). It came out of observing a number of strong women who had gone through complex, tough marriages to difficult leaders: the Imelda Marcoses, Hillary Clintons of this world. And the wife of [Nicolae] Ceausescu."
Mia Tagano (Genevieve) and Lorri Holt (Micheleine) in a scene from <strong><em>Splendour</em></strong>
Mia Tagano (Genevieve) and Lorri Holt (Micheleine) in a scene from Splendour

The play's timeline is fairly simple: A British photojournalist (Denmo Ibrahim) arrives at an airport on assignment and discovers that no one has arranged for a car to bring her to the presidential palace where she is to photograph a powerful dictator (who is running suspiciously late). A tough single woman who has worked all over the world, Kathryn does not speak the local language but has developed enough of a sixth sensefrom past experiences in dangerous situations to grasp that her interpreter, Gilma (Sam Jackson), probably grew up poor, is a skilled kleptomaniac, and a clever (but sloppy) liar.

Sam Jackson (Gilma) and Denmo Ibrahim (Kathryn) in a scene from <strong><em>Splendour</em></strong>
Sam Jackson (Gilma) and Denmo Ibrahim (Kathryn) in a scene from Splendour

Upon her arrival at the presidential palace, Kathryn is greeted by the dictator's often condescending wife. Micheleine (Lorri Holt) married her husband when they were young and far from wealthy. However, having risen to a previously unimaginable level of power and wealth, she has grown to be a very privileged material girl who is being forced to cope with a string of inconveniences on the maid's day off. The three women are soon joined by Genevieve (Mia Tagano), Micheleine's widowed friend whose son was often rumored to be gay. At a key moment, an exquisite vase gets knocked over and shatters into pieces.

Using a narrative style similar to that of Rashoman (Akiro Kurosawa'sclassic 1950 film), Morgan keeps repeating this series of events so that the audience can view the action through the eyes of each woman. In each scene, the women voice their inner thoughts to the audience. Some of their bonding seems genuine; other moments are blatantly insincere. An obvious class difference separates Micheleine and Genevieve's behavior and insights from those of Kathryn and Gilma.

Lorri Holt (Micheleine) and Sam Jackson (Gilma) in a scene from <em><strong>Splendour</strong></em>
Lorri Holt (Micheleine) and Sam Jackson (Gilma) in a scene from Splendour

With political unrest drawing closer to the presidential palace, each woman tries to mask her internal concerns.

  • Is Micheleine's husband dead?
  • Has he left the country without her?
  • What about their grandchild, who lives in the area of town where the most violence is taking place?
  • Why did Genevieve suddenly show up?
  • Is she really as close to Micheleine as the dictator's wife would like to believe?
  • What about total strangers like Kathryn and Gilma? Can they be trusted? Why can't they just do what they were sent here to do and then leave?

Under Barbara Damashek's astute direction, Aurora's ensemble does an exceptional job of helping the audience read between the script's lines and catch any tics which might signal a "tell" for these characters. After all, how is a powerful and pampered woman supposed to interpret what could very well be fake news when the sand is rapidly shifting beneath her expensive designer shoes?

Splendour offers an excellent demonstration of how distinct personalities react under stress. As the pressure begins to mount, the audience starts to question which woman has the most to lose. Someone like Genevieve may try to build alliances while an underdog like Gilma might try to abscond with whatever she can hide in her fashionably voluminous coat. While Lorri Holt does a fine job with Micheleine's self-absorbed desperation and eventual meltdown, it is the more worldly Kathryn who displays the strongest survival skills (Denmo Ibrahim delivers the production's most intricately layered performance).

Mia Tagano, Sam Jackson, Denmo Ibrahim, and Lorri Holt in a scene from <strong><em>Splendour</em></strong>
Mia Tagano, Sam Jackson, Denmo Ibrahim, and Lorri Holt in a scene from Splendour

"Why does Abi Morgan take this unusual, cubist approach to her narrative?" asks the Aurora Theatre Company's artistic director, Tom Ross. "Perhaps it is to immerse the audience in a similar situation to the women onstage, an environment fraught with erratic information and untrustworthy motives in a state of mounting uncertainty. Such conditions remain common around the world today, anywhere power is shifting and people must learn to either accommodate or impede the change."

Performances of Splendour continue through July 23 at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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