Queenfest is an annual International Women's Day Variety Show on March 7th at Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles. They are accepting submissions for female artists! Dance groups, acapella singers, Trumpet players, etc!
Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://infoqueenfest.wixsite.com/queenfestla to submit!
Going into the new year of 2018, has there ever been a more confusing and troubling time in our 21st Century lifetimes?
Sure there have been, you say. Remember the Bush years? The 9/11 attack? The Iraq attack, ostensibly to find WMDs that never in fact existed? The financial meltdown in 2008?
These were far and away more terrifying events than anything we're dealing with now, when the stock market keeps breaking records and the economy seems to be in better shape than any time since 9/11. Yet for many of us this has only underscored the wealth gap in this country that seems to be getting wider all the time.
But hey, let's face it, the problem starts and stops in one place - with the sleazebag-in chief, who is remaking the country in his own toxic image, repealing Obama's protections, stuffing the courts with radical conservatives, blundering through the world making horrific foreign policy mistakes and generally poisoning our daily discourse.
And what can we do about it?
Just sit around and dream about Robert Mueller's investigation undoing the wrongs done by the outmoded electoral college system.
At such times, it helps to think of reasons to feel good about living right now.
Think of ice cream - so much better now than it used to be! So many more excellent flavors than in the bad old days, such wonderful texture, with ingredients not even imagined in the '70s!
Think of cars - so much more streamlined and efficient now than the gas-guzzling, fume-spewing models of the 1970s and '80s!
Think of sexual abuse allegations - sexual abuse allegations? Yes. The country is much better-informed now, the difficulty of coming forward is so much better understood, and the accuser is so much more likely to be believed, and not vilified and shamed as before.
Photo by Matt Baron/BEI/Shutterstock (5622538dr) Rose McGowan
I should know, as I certainly experienced the consequences of our previous ignorance.
It was the year 1970, I was a Junior at Horace Mann high school in NYC, and while on a 5 day school trip to Washington DC, the supervising teacher had snuck up on me in my hotel room, spun me around and stuck his tongue down my throat, then threw me down on the bed. When I scrambled away, the teacher claimed that he was only doing what I had wanted him to do. I walked out of the room and nothing more had been said about what happened. But I was in a state of shock and didn't know what to do.
When I came back to school, I felt like I had to tell someone, but who? The headmaster was an old man who I didn't feel any affinity towards. I went instead to the assistant headmaster, who was younger, a gruff practical man who I found more approachable. "Sit down," he said, doubtless expecting me to talk about some course that was giving me trouble. Instead I told him that the teacher had touched me in a sexual way. "Sexual? How?" he asked, sitting up, paying closer attention. I described what had happened as unemotionally as I could. It was surreal, the words coming out of my mouth reluctantly, as if embarrassed to be associated with such a tawdry event.
"What evidence do you have?" the assistant headmaster asked. "Like what?" I asked. "Any witnesses?" "No," I told him.
He informed me that, in the absence of compelling evidence, the school's policy was to side with the teacher. And that if I made my accusation public, that the school would advise the teacher to sue me for defamatory comments. "And he would win," the assistant headmaster told me, "and your parents would have to pay him a lot of money."
This prospect was terrifying to me on so many levels. Still, I tried one more time, talking to the school guidance counselor. He was even more emphatic, telling me to drop any thought of going public or "you will only tarnish yourself and destroy any chance you have of getting into an Ivy League college."
And so I did. I dropped it. And I did get into an Ivy League college. And then I dropped out. Not telling anyone what had happened almost destroyed me, causing me to lose my sense of confidence, my sense of purpose, my sense of self.
So yes, I am overjoyed that there is more understanding of how difficult it is for victims of abuse to come forward, and a greater willingness to accept the victim's story as truthful without judging the victim.
Now if we could only give the women who were sexually abused by our president a chance to be heard - and the kind of understanding and empathy that we've extended to other victims - well, that would really be something to celebrate, wouldn't it?
Hey, I was up writing Part 2 of this series until 6:30 AM, and, before getting to Part 3, I want to elaborate on something I wrote there: "This so-called populist champion [Trump] is actually there to roll back all of Obama's social reforms and consolidate a ruling class among the wealthy elite." In true Trumpian fashion, I want to double-down on that statement. The fact that Trump is now supporting child predator Roy Moore just reveals how devoid of moral values he really is, and how focused he is on one Priority.
So, at the risk of sounding like Tom Steyer's little brother, I want to state the obvious: that nothing else matters to Trump and his cohorts except their money. It is the only thing they have that makes them special, it is the substance of their selves, their identities - take that away, and they are just a bunch of old farts who couldn't get laid by their own wives. Proof? Every single thing that Trump has done since siezing power. Just look at the cabinet that he put together, comprised entirely of wealthy people, most of whom have zero expertise in their respective fields. Just look at the rollback of all Obama's protections of individual rights. Just look at the new Tax Bill, a blank check for millionaires and corporations.
This is NOT politics as usual. Forget that I've been a voter in 12 Presidential elections, and before that I was active in protesting the unlawful War in Vietnam, getting tear-gassed in the March on Washington in 1969, getting locked up at Fort Knox for trying to help soldiers find out about their rights. I come from a political household, my mom was co-chair of the Liberal wing of the NYC Democratic party, I grew up with Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch and that entire cast of characters in my living room. What's happening now is something else completely. If you view our current situation as a play, then the instigating event was the near collapse of the world economy in 2008.
I believe that this was a wake-up call for a certain class of multi-millionaires, who looked in the mirror, saw their big paunches and small dicks, and realized that something had to be done to safeguard their power. When Trump was actually able to bamboozle the underclass into making him their champion - like something out of Brecht's Threepenny Opera - then the power imbalance already happening here was expedited into full-scale class warfare. All of this may sound very melodramatic - after all, how much has really changed in our daily lives since Trump's election? Well, you see what's happened to the Dreamers, Mexican illegals and now the Haitian immigrants. It's not a big jump from that to you and me. The only recourse we have are upcoming elections. The majority of white men are a lost cause - they will sit in their Lazy-boys, stroking their guns and watching NASCAR until Hell has frozen over. My hope is that enough of the 53% of white women who voted for the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief will have their own wake-up call and save us at the 11th Hour. If Trump-Pence gets re-elected, they will have no incentive to play by Constitutional rules, and this will become a dictatorship - all undoubtedly in the name of protecting the Constitution.
This time it's Charlie Rose, morning TV anchor and talk show host for the smart set. Several women who worked for him have come forward to report what was apparently another "open secret" - that this "toxic bachelor" liked to employ young women as his assistants and then would try to seduce them after blurring their boundaries between work and life. That is, serving the needs of the show would eventually mean serving the needs of Charlie. But now there is no show - no morning show, no talk show, nothing. And the bloom is definitely off this rose.
(There goes another dream - being interviewed around that circular table! Though honestly I gave up that one 10 years ago, when he interrupted the dying Harold Pinter one too many times, and I swore I'd never watch him again. And I didn't.)
Scrolling down the various articles about this latest downfall, I read the comments that readers left. "It's a witch hunt, a goddamn witch hunt!" was a frequently repeated refrain, especially by men of a certain age. Women tended to be either angry or sad about how many "liberal" men turn out to have abused their female employees. Though honestly, the majority of comments seem to have been left by lonely men of various ages, with a somewhat bitter edge to many of their comments.
Many of them ask the question: where is all this going?
A better question might be: how the hell did we get here?
Anita Hill and Kerry Washington. While "Confirmation" is an entertaining movie, it doesn't come close to capturing the shock of the real thing.
The hearings were already a strangely public display of partisan conflict - definitely foreshadowing the current dilemma we find ourselves in - when Professor Anita Hill was introduced as a witness against Clarence Thomas. She had worked for Thomas at the US Department of Education and then at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and she testified that he had sexually harassed her on numerous occasions, often using bizarrely pornographic images in his harrangues, including the immortal sentence quoted above in all caps. The televised spectacle pitting an attractive and educated black woman against an educated and nominated black man whose white church-going wife was clutching her rosary beads just a few seats away was almost more than the psyche of the country could handle. It sent out bolts of crazily repressed sexual angst into the atmosphere that came to an equally crazy fruition three years later with the arrest of O.J. Simpson for killing his white wife and the Jewish waiter returning her sunglasses. A different case, yes, but once again with the racial and sexual component, with the violent imagery of the Thomas-Hill conflict now blooming into actual violence.
But to get back to the main question. David Mamet's play Oleanna - written in response to the hearings - took that issue of male/female conflict and sexual harassment/abuse, and he dramatized its complexities in such a way that the play itself became a lightning rod for discussing the issue. (The next play to have such a massive public impact, capturing that lightning in a well-made bottle, was Tony Kushner's Angels in America a few years later. I don't believe there's been a single play of such magnitude since, unless one includes the entirety of August Wilson's 10-play cycle.)
Certainly the issue itself of male/female power plays had existed for centuries - the Trojan War itself could be seen in those terms, with the Greeks' abduction of Helen of Troy, she being "the face that launched a thousand ships." Shakespeare had written a great play of sexual abuse of power, Measure for Measure, in the 17th Century, and August Strindberg had dramatized the psychic war for dominance between men and women 300 years later in such plays as The Father and Miss Julie. But I believe that it wasn't until Mamet's play in 1992 - his last good play, by the way - that the issues of workplace harassment and sexual abuse of power were really brought together and crystalized for the American public. (And oh what a great time Mamet had talking about it on the Charlie Rose Show - not that he could get many words in between Charlie's sycophantic paeans of praise.)
"I DID NOT HAVE SEXUAL RELATIONS WITH THAT WOMAN"
It was only five years later that these two issues of workplace harassment and sexual abuse of power exploded into public consciousness again with President Clinton's sex scandal with intern Monica Lewinsky while wife Hillary was just a few rooms away in the White House. Again, no matter how well any movie or TV series might dramatize these events, the shock of these revelations from the highest seat of power could never really be captured. It was the tawdriness of this melodrama that boggled the mind, as captured in pedantic and smelly detail by The Starr Report. And again, the issue of sexual harassment was all over the news, seemingly discussed everywhere, with a particular concentration on the corporate environment and the frequency with which powerful men used their positions to force women who worked for them into sexual subjugation. Attention started being paid to the fact of "the glass ceiling," and how few women were being given the chance to lead. But Hillary Clinton stood by her man, Bill survived (barely) the impeachment proceedings against him, and then George W. Bush was elected, signalling a return to a shaky status quo.
The Obama years looked like they were going to be about revolutionizing the system from within, which included reevaluating gender stereotypes and the inequities of workplace politics. And some of that did go on. More women than ever were appointed to positions of consequence within the administration, and the passage of health care reform was a major step in establishing the equality between the sexes - as well as between the classes and the races. That is, if everyone's health was of equal value under the law, then, to some extent, so was everyone's importance as human beings.
"CAN'T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?"
Of course, Obama was primarily elected to save the country's financial system, which was brought to the brink of collapse in 2008 by the machinations of the banking industry and the white men who ran it. And he did that - largely by bailing out the failing institutions, who then went right back to doing what they had done before, without a single investment banker being arrested for almost destroying the world. As the patchwork solutions held up in the short term, the Obama years became about Acceptance. Accepting people in their differences, in their quirks, in their excesses. The prevailing ethos of the Obama years had been voiced many years before, in 1992 - that year again! - by another black man, Rodney King, with the words that supply the heading for this section. And we did get along, and nothing fundamentally changed, and that was not necessarily a good thing. It's possible that if this society had completely hit rock bottom that we might have had to make some major changes in how we viewed each other, how we depended on each other. Or it could have been much worse, who knows? As it is, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer and the improving technology enabled the greedy element of this society to globalize their assets while creating a permanent underclass largely consisting of the people who built this country in the first place. An underclass who, ironically, did the bidding of the super-rich by electing Donald J. Trump as president. This so-called populist champion is actually there to roll back all of Obama's social reforms and consolidate a ruling class among the wealthy elite.
"YOU CAN DO ANYTHING YOU WANT. YOU CAN GRAB THEM BY THE PUSSY."
I certainly see this recent spate of sexual harassment and abuse allegations - as well as the @ME TOO movement - deriving directly from the now-infamous Trump Access Hollywood tape, in which he uttered the immortal words quoted above. That tape aired only 11 days before the election, and its impact was muted shortly thereafter by the specious claim by FBI Director Comey that he was re-opening the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. But its impact was and is huge - huuuuuuuge - spurring women everywhere into taking forceful action against such abusers, often with the help of men who were also outraged by the election of a man who boasted about being an abuser himself.
The scales had actually started to tip in Obama's second term, when the revelation of systemic abuse of students at elite prep schools brought a renewed understanding of the prevelance of such crimes at even the most sacred American institutions.
That is, if it could happen at Choate and Andover and Horace Mann - where I was among the victims who came forward into the public spotlight - then it could happen anywhere. And anyone could be the perpetrator, even the most beloved TV dad of all time, Bill Cosby, Dr Cliff Huxtable. These public recognitions of the validity of sexual abuse claims by victims who were too traumatized and powerless to speak their pain in the past were key events in clearing the way for other victims to come forward now.
Does this mean that all claims of sexual abuse are necessarily true?
And is there any acceptable definition of what constitutes sexual abuse - or is it simply anything that makes the "victim" feel uncomfortable or disrespected?
Well, I could tell you, but we've come to this lovely full circle from Clarence Thomas to Cosby, and you wouldn't want me to mess that up, would you?
Accusations of sexual abuse or sexual misconduct are all the rage right now, with new revelations coming at us faster than we're able to absorb and consider them.
But why now? And what does it all really mean? And what are we supposed to think - or do - about it?
I mean, all these offenders, and then all the confessions/accusations of The Me-Too posters - where is this taking us?
King of the Douchebags
On the one hand, of course, are the hardcore predators and repeat offenders - Bill Cosby, Bill O'Reilly, Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey. (Many would like to add Donald Trump's name to that list; I'll discuss that later on.) These are men who clearly took advantage of their positions to violate the rights of the less powerful by using them sexually and abusing their individual rights, perhaps in ways that constitute serious crimes. There's no doubt that the downfall of these men is a positive thing, both for the inviduals involved and for society in general. They represent the most noxious element of celebrity culture, the way certain men have been able to insulate themselves with their power from taking responsibility for their actions. The rumors about all these men abounded for years, but still they paid no price. Now they finally have. I certainly welcome more disclosures of this type that would rid politics, the entertainment industry and every other aspect of American life of these vultures who prey on the vulnerability of others.
Brett Ratner and James Toback hanging out
James Toback and Brett Ratner? Sure, that's probably right. Toback is a 300 pound filmmaker/douchebag whose manipulations stink of old school misogyny. I remember hearing all the stories of him hanging out in supermarkets on New York's upper West Side, waving his scripts around in the air and promising roles to any lady who would blow him; very classy, dude. How could any woman resist that? Alec Baldwin has been his recent enabler, for reasons I don't pretend to understand. Brett Ratner is also out of step with the times and, it seems, fatally drawn to that misogynistic storyline. But I believe he has genuine talent and still has real passion for moviemaking. I found him engaging when I saw him speak at a festival. Maybe it was all bullshit, who knows, but I wouldn't count him out yet.
Agent Adam Venit of WME, as accused by actor Terry Crews? Absolutely. I think this is really important, because it spotlights something that happens so much, 85% of the time to young women, the rest to young men - it happened frequently to me when I was a young actor, something I will talk about in Part 2 - but almost never to a 6'3" 240 pound black man like Terry Crews. The fact that it did this time - and the fact that Adam Venit is certainly one of the stupidest people on earth, because he put his hands on a man who played pro football and who could have literally done to Venit what Venit was already figuratively doing - that is, put Venit's head up his ass - well, thank God this is something that is finally being talked about! We've all seen it happen, at pretty much every big party we've been to where drinks are being served. As the party goes on, men's hands slip down from touching the shoulder, then the middle of the back, then the small of the back, and then the butt. Almost always accompanied by that shit-eating smile, in which the man is saying, there's more where that came from. Except the young person being touched never asked for it, was never interested, and now the party is ruined for them as they're filled with confusion and trepidation about how to react and what to say. Well, Terry Crews is standing up for all of you, and I applaud him with all my heart for doing so. If only we could clone him and have him stand guard at these parties, then maybe these young people - our daughters and sons - could enjoy themselves without constantly being molested.
Louis CK? See, here's where we start entering a gray area for me. Here's a comedian whose act is comprised in large part of a catalogue of his darkly-comic misdeeds and angst. So a comedian who jokes in the bluntest ways possible about masturbation - his constant need to do it, and the great pleasure he derives from it - is outed by female comics for having masturbated in front of them. This is bad, it's wrong, not just the act but his evasiveness over the years about whether it happened, and his lack of empathy for the women upon whom he inflicted this violation. But it's just not surprising. I can understand and even share the anger that these women felt in this famous comedian forcing them to watch him pleasure himself - he was indeed taking advantage of his fame to do something that these women in no way asked for or wanted to see. But he didn't touch them or continue to try humiliating them after that. So personally I believe he deserves censure, but I don't understand why his career has to be over. Why he's so toxic that he can't be given another chance at some point. He's not a friend, and he's not my favorite comic, but I think there's more to him than just his fucked-up behavior. Witness the Sarah Baker-starring episode in Louie about the Fat Girl comic who kept asking Louie out. And a really impressive body of work, most of which works against putting himself on any celebrity pedestal. If anything, he comes across in his work as pathetic. Which is a pretty accurate description of anyone who would compel women who are his friends to watch him jerk off.
Then we have been given this really bizarre political tandem of Roy Moore and Al Franken - two men who couldn't be more different than each other, who literally have nothing in common except that suddenly the latter man becomes the name shouted out when the former is accused. But this is simply a "false equivalency," as both Bill Maher and Alan Blumenfeld (my friend and unofficial rabbi) have called it. What after all did Franken do? While he was on a USO tour as a comedian, not a senator, he had a silly photo taken of himself about to grope his fellow USO traveler, model Leeann Tweeden. The optics may not be great, but it's just the kind of juvenile thing that performers do to while away the long and tedious hours of travel between stops. Her claims that the photo and an overly-aggressive kiss that Franken gave her in rehearsal have been haunting her for the last 10 years are hard to take on face value, since Leeann Tweeden has put herself in many other situations that would seem more likely to haunt her. By which I mean all the nude and semi-nude modeling that she did, and all the other ways she chose to make a living from her body. Now I'm not trying to shame how she made her money, and I understand that she feels like she had control over those situations, while an aggressive kiss during a rehearsal of a written sketch comedy scene is just soooo horrifying.
A Democratic Congresswoman holds up a photo of 4 of Moore's accusers
But even at the worst possible interpretation, it still doesn't compare in any way with dating girls under 17 when you are a 30-something District Attorney in a small town in Alabama. It just doesn't, no way, no how. (The idea that any senator should even consider resigning for such an inconsequential reason is deeply offensive.) Al Franken had no power over Leeann Tweeden, obviously, she certainly had no reason to be in awe of him, nor could he have done anything for her career. According to the women who have come forward, Roy Moore used his stature as a district attorney to "dazzle" them when they were young girls, then used it to intimidate them into silence after their encounter. Still and all, if Moore had simply apologized for his misdeeds of 35 years ago, saying that he made mistakes as a young man, then I'm not sure these acts would have all that much relevance. The fact that he keeps doubling down in his denials makes it evident that he is unqualified to run for high office. While Al Franken's sincere contrition shows the opposite.
There have been many strange allegations and finger-pointing, but I think the strangest have to be events surrounding the actor Richard Dreyfuss, star of such '70s classic films as Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. First Dreyfuss sends out a proud tweet, standing behind his son Harry's claim that Kevin Spacey traumatized him by groping his genitals - and, basically, daring him to tell anyone, which at first Harry didn't have the nerve to do. And then, the very next day, Richard Dreyfuss himself was accused of sexual abuse by Jessica Teich, a writer he had worked with 30 years earlier. Honestly, both accusations sound highly credible, which sort of sums up how complicated this web of conflicting stories and revolving truths has become. Dreyfuss's immediate response was to say, "At the height of my fame in the late 1970s, I became an asshole," but he refused to admit that her specific charges were true. Nevertheless, Dreyfuss contributed what may be the best characterization of our current phase.
"There is a sea-change happening right now, which we can look upon as a problem or an opportunity... I hope this is the beginning of a larger conversation we can have as a culture."
BREAKING NEWS: The Sacred Fools production of MR BURNS: A Post-Electric Play has been extended to DEC. 9th!!!
New York City. London. Los Angeles.
All great cities, right?
Two of the three are known as great theater (or theatre) cities. Which ones are they?
"Duh," you say. London has the West End, New York has Broadway, LA has... the Ahmanson, the Geffen and a lot of 99 seat theaters that require street parking.
But hey, not so fast. There's more to the story than that.
15 months ago, a play I c0-wrote was produced at a Fringe theatre in London. It was exciting to have a play in London, but the truth is that 99-seat theatre there is not all that different from 99-seat theater here. The big difference is how much theatre mattered there, how seriously people took the art form. There were ads in the Underground for literary fiction and experimental plays! No one in the tube looked at his or her phone; instead they read actual newspapers and books! The run of our play was sold out, and audiences seemed to take the subject matter very much to heart. I was delighted to find how both professional people (doctors, lawyers, academics) and regular folk (shopkeepers, salespeople) made going to theatre a part of their daily routine. I found this to be true of the older generation in New York City too. In Los Angeles, not so much.
On the other hand, the critical establishment in London seems to be a carry-over from the 19th century. Literally. The Irish playwright Conor McPherson has written a brilliant one-man play, St. Nicholas, in which a powerful theatre critic falls in with a group of vampires. I always took this as fiction, but maybe there's more to it, as there are SO MANY critics, and several write as if they still live down the street from Dickens and must protect the King's English from the incursions of the modern world.
An art supply store not far from Picadilly Square
The truth is, the British theatre is in terrible trouble because of the terrible British economy (Brexit, remember?). I sincerely hope they find their way out of their present dilemma... and are able to whip up a new batch of critics. Maybe some women for a change? And some men with a modicum of humility and a sense of humor about what they do. Regardless, the spirit of creativity lives on in London, and I look forward to having another play there someday soon. But the idea that the British have some kind of superior knowledge of how to make theatre... no. The one play I was able to afford to see there was LABYRINTH by Beth Steel at the Hampstead Theatre, a dark comedy-thriller depicting a Wall Street banking firm in the 1970s hoping to make a killing by buying up Latin-American debt. The staging was dazzling, the energy was unflagging, and it worked well on the level of spectacle. But it was difficult to care much about any of the bankers or the journalists who covered them, as both were equally corrupt. I thought the playwright made a mistake in portraying some of the bankers as literal devils, seducing the innocents into their own cozy version of hell. It made judging them all too easy.
The Company of Junk. Photo by T. Charles Erickson
In his play JUNK- which started at the La Jolla Playhouse and recently opened on the Lincoln Center mainstage in NYC - Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar was able to avoid allowing the audience to make any such easy or simplistic moral judgments as he moves the story forward a decade to the mid-1980s, dramatizing the rise and fall of Junk Bonds in the character of Robert Merkin (reportedly based on the trader Michael Milkin). Merkin is young and brilliant and eager to elbow his way to the top of the investment world. He has discovered how to do so using the weapon of "debt" instead of net worth. The production, again, works best on the level of spectacle, as director Doug Hughes makes brilliant use of the huge theater space at the Vivian Beaumont. But the people in this drama, while not reduced to stereotypes of good and evil, are still playing out a story that becomes more familiar and predictable as it goes along. That is, it succeeds as a thesis about how the values of capitalism have been undercut by the manipulators of Debt to the point that money itself has lost its meaning, its purpose. But it hasn't made this feel particularly interesting or original. This is an important story, but I'd honestly rather read about it in a book. While Akhtar certainly knows how to communicate the dramatic issues using the banker's lingo, I'm not sure he's telling us anything we haven't heard said more memorably in Caryl Churchill's Serious Moneyor in Jerry Sterner's Other People's Money.
Scott Golden as "Homer"
While Los Angeles may not have the artistic heritage of London or the Wall Street-inspired sense of theater as big business that New York City can boast, it does provide an excellent environment for a company of actors to create the kind of instant sense of community that Off-Off-Broadway used to specialize in (for example, The Open Theater's production of Jean-Claude van Itallie's The Serpent) before it priced itself out of such experiences. But witness the Sacred Fools production of Annie Washburn's brilliant, MR BURNS - A Post-Electric Playfor a 2017 update of such an experience. Director Jaime Robledo starts out by putting us, the audience, in the center of a post-apocalyptic tragedy along with the actors, and his inventiveness never relents as he and his actors bring this key work of our time to vivid life.
Tracey A. Leigh and Emily Clark
This play originated at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington DC and then went to Playwrights Horizons in NYC, which is where I first saw it. The play received an ecstatic review in the New York Times, so there was a great clamor for tickets. But the Playwrights Horizons stage is a proscenium, which proved far from ideal. Also, the play is written in three very distinct sections, which had to be presented there with two lengthy intermissions, so that set changes could be made. I recall having an argument about the play with a well-known actress (who shall go unnamed) who was sitting next to me and couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. "This is boring as crap," she kept murmuring. She stayed through the first intermission but then headed for the hills (or Joe Allen's bar) at the second intermission. Which was a true shame, since the last section is among the most remarkable writing I've seen from any play in the last decade.
Eric Curtis Johnson and Tracey A Leigh
One of the great things about the Sacred Fools production is that their theater has 3 separate spaces, and they are able to make use of a different one for each Act. This is absolutely ideal for Ms Washburn's play, and I can honestly say that the Sacred Fools production was superior in every way to the one I saw in New York. More than that, I understood the play this time in a way that I hadn't before. That is, I saw how Ms. Washburn assembles the pieces of a broken civilization in Act I and gradually starts putting them back together again in what amounts to an heroic effort of mankind to recover our soul. It documents a great triumph of the imagination. Which is, quite simply, what this production is as well. A triumph for Sacred Fools, for director Jaime Robledo, and for the pitch-perfect company of actors, as well as for the production team under the leadership of Brian W. Wallis, with assistance from Alison Sulock and many others. It's unfair for me to single out any performances in what is truly a group effort, but I'm going to anyway. Tracey A. Leigh as "Bart" and Eric Curtis Johnson as "Mr Burns" just kept topping themselves in the final section in ways that I didn't think possible. All that I can say in return is "brava!" and "bravo!" You completely blew my mind.
The production has just been EXTENDED to Dec. 9! Hurray! I cannot even begin to describe the pleasures that await you in (click here) this production. And unlike all those bankers, I wouldn't give you a raw deal. (And even if I did, tickets are only $15 - less than a movie!)
Enjoy this interview about “Culture Clash: An American Odyssey” By Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza, directed by Robert Beltran (Commander Chakotay in a recurring role on the TV series Star Trek: Voyager) at The Los Angeles Theatre Center, running until Nov 17th. You can listen to this YouTube interview while commuting, while waiting in line at the grocery store or at an audition, backstage and even front of the stage. For tickets and more info Click here.
As usual, there's so much going on in the SoCal area this weekend, including a dangerous fire (try to avoid that). For those who want a memorable experience at the theater, here are 3 options - all have some humor in them, though only one is a laugh out-loud comedy.
George Wyner and Richard Fancy are brothers in "Daytona". Photo: John Perrin Flynn
There are so many great older actors in Los Angeles, and far too few plays that really give them anything to perform. But Daytona at Roguemachine has three terrific roles, which are inhabited to the hilt by George Wyner and Sharron Shayne as a long-married couple and Richard Fancy as Mr Wyner's long-absent brother, under the pitch-perfect direction of Elina de Santos. The play takes place in Brooklyn in 1986, where Joe and Elli are preparing for their dance competition the next evening, a hobby they've cultivated for the past 15 years. Then Elli goes out to pick up her dress from her sister, where she will also spend the night. Suddenly the downstairs buzzer sounds. Joe is shocked to hear the voice of his brother Billy, who he hasn't heard from for the past 30 years, and whose entrance will shake up the easy-going world of Joe and Elli. I completely agree with Kathleen Foley's review in the LA Times that the play has some major problems, most of which crop up in the Second Act, when the writing begins to waver and drift. But, as Ms. Foley asserts, the actors couldn't be better, and their moment-to-moment character work is thrilling to watch. Certainly Richard Fancy - who I've seen in numerous shows at Pacific Resident Theatre and elsewhere around town - has never seemed more focused and relaxed, having the time of his life. This is a play and a production that will likely stay in your mind long after the houselights have come up.
UPDATE: DAYTONA has to close earlier than expected, on Monday October 16, but Roguemachine is looking to move and reopen it, so your support is essential.
Karen Finley in the The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery (Photo: Carolina Restrepo)
Karen Finley, the author and performer of the one woman show at the Redcat in DTLA for this weekend only, is herself something of a unicorn on the American performance art scene, part stand-up comic, part Oracle at Delphi. She came to public prominence in the early 1980s as one of the NEA 4 - 4 performance artists of highly political and controversial works who had received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, much to the disgust of conservative senator Jesse Helms. She has continued to develop her work far out of the mainstream (by choice), using sexual imagery in unexpected ways (just google "Finley yams" and "Finley chocolate" for more detailed accounts) to bring attention to the glorification of rape and other acts of misogyny in the central nervous system of American life. Pretty much alone among her peers, she has managed to maintain her integrity and develop her metaphors in a series of performance art pieces and books and recordings. That alone would provide a good reason to catch her new show at Redcat, if you can still score a ticket. But this is something different than I've seen from Ms. Finley before. (I caught both her yam and her chocolate performances.) There is no nudity this time - that's a first, at least in my limited experience. There are three sections to her performance, and the first two are funnier than anything I've seen from her. These satirize American consumerism and American politics, respectively. In the political section, she takes on Hillary Clinton, Trump and their campaigns, to devestating effect. The third (and most powerful) section is Karen Finley being Karen Finley - dispensing with the clown costumes and the wigs and assuming the role of Cassandra the Seer, peering poetically into the darkness of the American soul. What she sees is dark indeed - a hollowness which has to be filled up with things, a death-wish that yearns for mass destruction. Her performance is so dense with references and layers of meaning that it is difficult to take in in one sitting. On the other hand, who knows when you'll get another chance?
Jimmy Fowlie as Mia Dolan at the Celebration Theatre
The title of this meta-comedy will be immediately recognizable to any avid fan of Damien Chazelle's film LA LA LAND. In the film, Mia Dolan, an aspiring actress played by Emma Stone (who won an Academy Award for her performance), writes herself a one-woman show called "So Long Boulder City" in a desperate attempt to boost her faltering career. Only 9 people show up - none of whom is her boyfriend Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling. However, her ploy works out better than she ever expected, since one of the attendees is a high-powered casting agent. All of this is such far-fetched nonsense - as I wrote about in one of my first columns for this website - that it seems to be crying out for lampooning, and this show by Jimmy Fowlie and Jordan Black more than fills the bill. While not everything works, the parts that are funny are howlingly so - as in one bit that features Abraham Lincoln's niece. Personally, I could see anothere way to go with this parody, that would hone closer to the character of Mia Dolan and evoke Ms Stone's performance more acutely. But this broadly farcical approach works too, and Mr Fowlie is a hoot as an untalented LA actress who is too in love with herself and her "dreams" to even notice how terrible an actress she really is. I highly recommend this if you want to laugh your ass off at one-person shows in general and at the LA entertainment industry scene in particular. But it's better if you know the source material well - or can go with someone who does.
Paul Simon wrote that there are 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, and that sounds about right. But it's much harder to change the world around you when things are going wrong. Even harder perhaps to change oneself.
Because when the world breaks down and things aren't working out as we hoped, then we need someone to blame. It has to be someone's fault. Your husband, your wife, the Arabs, the Jews, the Aristocrats. But if it's yourself? Then how do you deal with that?
YEAR BY THE SEA, a movie written and directed by Alexander Janko, adapted from Joan Anderson's memoir - In the opening scene of this movie, Joan (Karen Allen) is at her older son's wedding reception when she finds out from her realtor that her husband Robin (Michael Cristofer) has put their home on the market without even bothering to tell her. Her son the groom gives a toast without even mentioning her. Her other son doesn't even ask her to dance. She has somehow become a non-person even to her nearest and dearest. The only friend she seems to have is her publisher (S. Epatha Merkerson), who keeps asking Joan when she's going to write her next book - which is curious, since we never even see Joan open a book, much less make any attempt to write one. In any case, Joan finds a coupon ad for a rental cottage in Cape Cod, and she impulsively calls and rents it rather than go off to Wichita, Kansas with her husband for his new job (whatever that may be - we never find out).
The good news about this movie is that Karen Allen's smile is still an elixir for whatever ails you, lighing up the screen with her inner glow. The camera still loves her, and her likeability quotient is as high as ever too. You want to like her character, just as you want to like this movie, a true independent with lovely shots of seals playing on the beach and small town eccentrics doing eccentric things. But this is where the bad news comes in, because writer-director Alexander Janko has no clue how to write a screenplay. Even more, he's clueless about his cluelessness, saying at the Q&A after the screening that "the creative aspect of this movie was never a problem" - ha! It's a huge problem when your main character says "my sons are going to hate me" for leaving their father, and then there is no follow-up phone call or scene addressing this. When she tells her husband, "We had a successful marriage, we did a great job raising our kids," but the one time she tries to reach her sons (at her husband's prompting), they don't even pick up the phone and apparently never call back. And then what's really the state of this marriage? Did these people ever love each other? Michael Cristofer does an admirable job trying to invest his character with some sense of reality when in fact there isn't any - he's just a type, not a human being. And every time there's a scene between him and his wife, it is interrupted by the wife of psychologist extraordinaire Erik Erikson (how specific is that?), who wants to go dancing on the beach, scarves flying like some Cape Cod protege of Isadora Duncan. Instead of genuine emotional discovery, we get self-help slogans and New Age psychobabble. And still, Joan never even makes a notation in her journal until suddenly in the Third Act she turns out a memoir at the same time that Mrs. Erickson is writing hers (pre-sold, of course). Because it's just that easy!
It's understandable that Mr Janko has discoveries of his own to make about screenwriting and directing, since he has made his living up until now as a movie composer. What is less understandable is how terrible the score for this movie is. There are so many songs, and every single one so on the nose. I mean, it's just cheesy to use a song about feeling depressed when you're feeling depressed. Isn't that in Movie Scoring 101? Against all odds, I still think this movie is worth catching - first for the seals, and then for the luminous, inventive performances of Karen Allen and Michael Cristofer. Just imagine how great they could have been if they'd actually been given something to act!
Alan Blumenfeld and Kevin Hudnell, 2 Venetian Jews
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by William Shakespeare, directed by Ellen Geer- There are only 3 more performances of this remarkable production at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga - on 9/17 at 7:30, 9/23 at 3:30 and 10/1 at 3:30. I urge to catch this show before it closes. The cast is excellent, none more so than Los Angeles theater stalwart Alan Blumenfeld. His Shylock is a proud Jewish man in a city that hates Jews, and that does not allow a Jew to hold any job that a Christian can do. He is a legal alien, and he has become a money-lender because this is the only way he can provide for his family. He has in fact become the most successful Jewish money-lender precisely because of his pride - he is determined to succeed in spite of all the obstacles that the Christians have put in his way. The object of his deepest affection is his daughter Jessica, but early in the play we see she has fallen in love with a cavalier young Christian man, and she elopes with him, taking a huge portion of her father's wealth with her. So when rabid anti-Semite Antonio comes to him for a loan of 3,000 Ducats for his friend Bassanio, Shylock draws up a contract demanding a pound of flesh if Antonio defaults on his loan. Director Ellen Geer and her artistic associates have edited the play a bit to emphasize the cruelty at the core of it. When Portia - played wonderfully by Willow Geer - recites her "The quality of mercy is not strained" speech, it seems deeply hypocritical, as she delights in Shylock's destruction, just as she has earlier delighted in the defeat of the Prince of Morocco, wishing that "no more of his hue come to court me." Far from seeing the play as a triumph of "mercy," the Botanicum production shows us a narcissistic, self-satisfied society with no problem demonizing the Jew as "the other." Far from diminishing the play, it has never seemed so gloriously cogent to me before.
Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz
A TALE OF TWO CITIES, adapted by Mike Poulton from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott at a Noise Within- "It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times" is the famous opening of Charles Dickens's novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Regarding Mike Poulton's adaptation, I would call it "the best of adaptations and the worst of adaptations" - well, maybe not the worst, but definitely lacking. What it does best is to create the terrifying reality of the French Revolution, that began as a blow for populist justice and morphed into a frenzy of bloodlust and revenge. The staging at A Noise Within is very inventive in creating tableaux that bring this national nightmare to blazing life. This is embodied in the character of Madame Defarge, brought vividly to life by Abby Craden. Madame Defarge's need for justice is entirely understandable, but her thirst for revenge has become insatiable, and Ms Craden forces us to experience the erotic urge that this has come to represent for her.
Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz
Where Mr Poulton's adaptation is lacking, however, is in developing characters of any depth that we can understand and care about. There is simply so much plot - so much story, so many twists and turns - that it's hard to get beneath the glossy surface of the scenes from the French Revolution and feel anything for those who are trapped there. This is not an easy problem for any adapter - Dickens's novel is bursting with storylines, and it has dual heroes - Charles Darnay (Tavis Doucette), who is at first accused in British court of being a French spy, only to end up a prisoner in the Bastille; and Sydney Carton (Frederick Stuart), a lawyer's associate who is responsible for Darnay's London acquittal. But who is Darnay? It's hard to get a grasp on his character in the midst of his continuing peril. And who is Sydney Carton? Well, that comes through more clearly, thanks in large part to Mr Stuart's memorably persuasive portrayal. Carton is intriguing but quite an enigma. I could have used more scenes deepening his motives, especially with Lucie, the central female figure, to make his actions at the conclusion feel more inevitable.
I did love the theatricality of this production, as well as its ambitiousness. At the very end, a young actress gives a speech in the shadow of the gallows which was genuinely heart-wrenching. It demonstrated what happens when the human family gives way to self-destruction. I just wish this production had more of that.
Love is hard to explain. Sometimes even to oneself.
Well, not all love. Everyone understands loving babies. And parents' love for their children in general.
And love for dogs and cats. And other pets. And food. (But please, not pets as food.)
But loving theater? It's different in LA and NYC. Yes, that's a generalization, but I've generally found it to be true.
Illustration: when I first came out here, I was looking for a writing agent. I met with a guy at William Morris (before Endeavor was even a word that required a capital E). I asked him if he represented stage scripts as well as film and TV. He gave me a long look, as if translating my sentence into his language, then said, "No, but we respect it."
A lot of people out here are like that. They're like, "Oh yes, I really wish I could see more plays, they are so much more substantial and Human than movies and TV, but I just don't have the time." That's respect. But respect is not love. No explanation is required in NYC when singing the praises of a show you've seen. Before you've reached your noun, your friend has his or her phone out, checking on ticket availability.
Love is unreasoning and compulsive, love feeds on itself. It's not necessarily good for you - in fact it usually isn't - but it's a surefire reason to get up in the morning and to go out at night.
So for those who are afflicted with theater-love - for those who love the avant-garde and for those who love Stephen Sondheim - here are two upcoming events. Both are only for a few performances and could be easily missed. My job as the Twisted Hipster is to make sure you are well informed.
One of Stephen Sondheim's most beloved shows, with a book by the always-masterful Hugh Wheeler, the Broadway production received Six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. This concert production will be directed by Laura Stribling, with musical direction by Jennifer Lin. The cast includes Liza Baron, Angela Baumgardner, Carly Bracco, Marc Ginsburg, Erica Hanrahan-Ball, Michelle Holmes, Taj Jageraj, Jennifer Kumiyama, Stanton Morales, Joey Nisivoccia, Sara St Pierre, Cloie Wyatt Taylor, Peyton Thomas Tucker, Alison Whitney and Robert Yacko. I saw Ginsburg and Morales perform in their recent Fringe production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, and they were both in fine voice, outstanding. If the rest of the cast is up to their level, it should be a must-see for Sondheim-lovers and afficionados of musicals. Click here for ticket info.
September 28-30: REDCAT SEASON BEGINS WITH CONGOLESE DANCE-THEATRE-MASTER FAUSTIN LINYEKULA'S NEW WORK
This is a poetic, political fairy tale. ... Through exquisite movement and text, Linyekula and his exceptional performers delve into the wrenching history of the Congo and their own childhood stories, as they mourn the loss of a friend. In the process, they are hoping to fashion a new kind of myth that is a truer reflection of their lives."
LOS ANGELES (Aug. 16, 2017) — On the heels of Charlottesville, 24th Street Theatre has announced it will donate half of all opening day ticket sales from its upcoming production, La Razón Blindada (“Armored Reason”) by Argentine playwright Arístides Vargas, to the Southern Poverty Law Center to help track hate groups in America.
“La Razón Blindada is about political oppression and standing up to hate, and it kicks off our ‘Speaking Up/Standing Up' 20th anniversary season,” says 24th Street executive director Jay McAdams. “This just feels like the right thing to do. It reflects our entire mission as an organization.”
Sublimely witty and provocative, La Razón Blindada was triply inspired by the classic novel “El Quixote” by Cervantes, “The Truth About Sancho Panza” by Franz Kafka, and testimonies from Chicho Vargas and other political prisoners held in Rawson Prison during Argentina's “Dirty War” of the 1970s. Jesus Castaños Chima and Tony Durán reprise their roles as political prisoners who are allowed to interact with one another for one hour a week — but must remain in their chairs and never stand. As they entertain each other with stories of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, we witness the power of theater to transport them, and us, into the realm of the imagination, despite repressive conditions and even as we remain bound to our seats.
La Razón Blindada is scheduled to open on Sept. 9 with two performances, one in the afternoon at 3 p.m. and one in the evening at 7:30 p.m. First produced by 24th Street in 2010, La Razón Blindada was a Los Angeles Times “Critic's Choice” and the recipient of the LA Weekly “Production of the Year” award. Since then, it has toured around the U.S. as well as to Mexico City, Culiacan, Baja Mexico, San Salvador, Colombia and Ecuador.
La Razón Blindada is performed in Spanish with English supertitles.
For more information and to purchase tickets, call (213) 745-6516 or www.24thstreet.org
Let's face it, we all want to be heroes. From an early age, we daydream about performing heroically under pressure - saving the drowning man, pulling the woman to safety before she's engulfed by fire, catching the child who falls out a window - and then being celebrated by society for what we have done. And in truth, many of us are upstanding people who would put ourselves on the line - not just for friends and family, but also for strangers in trouble. But what would we do - what would YOU do - if you had to live with constant danger, with constant threat of incarceration or death? Would you be able to rise to the challenge - or would you look for some place to hide?
Six shows I've seen recently here confront these questions in dramatically interesting ways.
This play tells the story of Christopher, an autistic adolescent in a London suburb, who happens upon his neighbor's dead dog - an event that begins Christopher on a journey of many perils, in which he discovers that his life has been shrouded in lies. Directed by Marianne Elliott, it is one of the few truly "immersive" productions, as we experience events entirely through Christopher's eyes, with the help of a computerized cube within which the story unfolds. It is a technological marvel that fills me with misgivings, mostly because of the hypnotizing effect this has on an audience, and the nefarious uses to which such technology can be put by those with the kind of money necessary to construct such a cube. Nevertheless, I highly recommend seeing it before it closes Sept. 10, if at all possible. Christopher's journey on the train to London is simply one of the great coup de theatres of all time. I saw the Broadway production two years ago, and that seemed crisper and more of a jolt than this did, but then that may simply be because I wasn't seeing it for the first time. There were moments this time when the play seemed overly cute and pleased with itself. But its power is undeniable, and I found myself being even more blown away than before by the heroicism of Christopher, who overcomes so many obstacles in his pursuit of a dangerous truth.
When I was a teenager, I saw Janis Joplin headline a concert at Madison Square Garden. (I bought the tickets with cash at the box office - probably $20 or so - only businessmen had credit cards back then, and of course there was no internet.) There must have been 20,000 other screaming fans there who experienced this astonishing voice - so full of hurt, fury, yearning, love and anguish. Torment. Joy. So vulnerable it hurt, like a naked child in a tornado. Talk about "immersive"! I remember it as the only time when a performer truly made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. As the years go by, there are fewer and fewer people left on the planet who had this in-person experience, though Janis as a rock goddess and avatar of human suffering looms larger than ever. At first glance, Arianna Veronesi seems an odd choice to conjure that spirit. Yes, there's a physical resemblance of sorts, but Arianna has a pronounced Italian accent and she doesn't sing or make any attempt to move around as Janis did. Her 30 minute monologue imagines a small slice of Janis's life, as she attempts to make a comeback (at 26) from years of drinking and drug use. What Arianna captures is that enormous vulnerability, that naked child in a tornado, as she battles against both her demons and the huge expectations of her fans, desperately trying to hold onto life even as she's aware of it slipping away. It's very moving, and I hope she continues developing it. Right now it's not clear to me why this phone call marks a crucial turning point in her life. That is,, it works as a one act character study, but not as a one act play. I look forward to seeing where she goes with it.
MARLENE by Willard Manus
Marlene Dietrich was many things - sex symbol, chanteuse, entertainer, movie star - but "hero" would not seem to be one of them. However, as Willard Manus's play tells us, she did in fact act heroically during WWII, being among the first A-List stars to entertain the troops on the front lines, while also helping to get people out of Germany, finding housing for refugees and sponsoring them for citizenship. There was a price to pay after the war for her actions, as her own people viewed her as a traitor and issuing death threats when she returned to perform in Germany - to the point where Marlene in her dressing room grabs a revolver from a drawer every time someone knocks. Cindy Marinangel does everything she can with the role of Marlene, making her a very real woman whose sex appeal is linked interestingly with her independence and dignity. She doesn't especially resemble Marlene, but this was a plus for me in some ways. There were suggestions of Marlene as a forerunner of Madonna, something I hadn't really thought about before. But there's the bi-sexuality, the fashion sense, the political awareness -- the glamour. That said, the play itself is weak and in need of a major rewrite. Right now Ms. Marinagel has to act two roles - both Marlene and the reporter she's pouring out her heart to in her dressing room. It might work better if this was a two-hander, in the manner of John Logan's RED, about Mark Rothko and his studio assistant. I hope that Mr Manus figures out a way to improve it, because Ms Marinangel deserves a better "Marlene."
I'm so sad that this show has already closed, and I hope that it reappears somewhere in the near future. This is not only because Hershey Felder does a great job of bringing historically-significant composers back to life, but because in this case there is an unexpected relevance to current events - well, unexpected to me anyway. Felder does a great job in setting up the big choice of Tchaikovsky's life. Tchaikovsky was homosexual at a time when it was life-threatening to come out of the closet. He had managed to get a degree in the civil service and secure an appointment that would have afforded him a good living. But when pianist/composer Anton Rubinstein opened a music conservatory in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky chose to quit his secure job and dedicate his life to music, in the process opening his private life to scrutiny and potential danger. Felder posits that the composer's death was basically an act of state-sponsored murder for Tchaikovsky's "crime" of being gay. He is further able to complete the circle by showing how little has actually changed in Russia, where men are still rounded up and tossed from rooftops simply for sexual orientation. This is much more than just another biopic or museum piece, and I hope it returns.
Jade Beauvoir was born into an All-American Texan family, the youngest child of five children. His name was Trent then, and he was expected to excel at football and uphold Christian values, like his big brothers. But Trent was only interested in playing with his sisters' Barbies and wearing his mother's clothing. His "gender dysphoria" was incomprehensible to family and community, and Jade paints a vivid picture of the terrible consequenes of internalizing their rejection. He lets us into this world, relating with humor and intelligence and grace how he was forced down a blind alley, which could only lead to his death. (In many ways, much like Tchaikovsky.) The fact that he was able to survive and construct a self that is still thriving and growing is miraculous in its own way, a testament to the will to live and love that cannot be destroyed, even by those who celebrate their ignorance. This show is an act of bravery and transparency by a person who has nothing left to hide.
In the interests of transparency - that word again - let me confide that I am a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA, who are also the producers of Alex Alpharoah's one man show, WET. That said, please know that has nothing to do with my imploring you to go see Mr. Alpharoah's show. It is simply a great piece of theater - deeply wrenching and compulsively interesting - that also has more to say than anything else I've seen about the situation in this country with regard to people who come here from other countries "yearning to breathe free." We often toss around words like "the immigrant crisis" and "illegals," which just become ways to distance us from the human tragedy that these words purport to describe. Alex Alpharoah is the human face of that tragedy, while also being the best example I know of someone who has managed to triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles by making art out of it, by converting his anxiety and suffering into beautiful word-music.
His story is truly unimaginable in any time except our own, under any administration except the misbegotten one that currently makes our policy. I won't give you any specifics because one of the pleasures of this very substantial performance is to hear Mr. Alpharaoh tell it. This is not a civics lesson - this is not theater that is good for you like medicine (though it is) - this is a modern-day Odysseus creating a new mythology of human endurance. The show runs until August 27th - go. Buy a ticket. Don't miss it. You will understand what it's like to walk in Alex Alpharoah's shoes, and you will become a better person because of it.
I am going to talk about the National Theatre Live screening of Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA with Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield, and two new plays at CTG theaters, HEISENBERG and KING OF THE YEES. But, to be completely honest, I'm having trouble moving on from the death of Sam Shepard. Silly, I know. I mean, I already wrote about my one extended encounter with him, so what more is there to say? Sam had a great run - 44 plays written, all the honors in the world (10 OBIE awards!), 68 film and TV roles, 27 screenplay credits, 32 credits for "himself" - that is, for playing Sam Shepard. Remarkable.
when he arrived in NYC at 21
Of course, to be honest, Sam hadn't written anything great since A LIE OF THE MIND and PARIS, TEXAS, both in 1984-85. His 20 years of amazing creativity began in 1964 with Cowboy and The Rock Garden, and it included such gems (which you should definitely check out, if you don't know them) as The Geography of a Horse Dreamer, The Unseen Hand, and Seduced- his odd but ingenious play about Howard Hughes, whose effectiveness depends on who's playing Hughes. I was lucky enough to see Rip Torn, and I'll never forget it.
The thing with Sam is, he never sold out. Some of his acting roles aren't great - his dad afflicted with periodic spells of blindess in 1994's Safe Passage is definitely not going in the time capsule - but even there, he never embarrassed himself, and he rarely if ever seemed to do anything just for the money.
in 1983, when he had the world by the short hairs
He was flat-out great as both Chuck Yeagar in The Right Stuffand as Major-General "Bill" Garrison in Black Hawk Down. He was the best thing in the film of August Osage County, though his role should have been larger. But if you really want to see a mind-blowing performance, check out Sam in 2012's Mudas a fat, balding retired U.S. military sniper. It's not just that he's unrecognizable, but his character is very real, and so different from anything else he's ever done.
It's hard to be as gifted as Sam was, and to become as famous as Sam did, and still hold on to your honor, your humility and your soul. So here's to Sam: you put up a battle with your demons that we can all be proud of. Sleep well, my friend.
In my 2004 theater memoir, Best Revenge, I wrote, "As tremendous as Tony Kushner's achievement was [in Angels in America], its "universality" may have been largely a product of being in the right place at the right time. It will endure as dramatic literature, not drama." Wrong. So wrong. After viewing the eight hours of Angels on successive Thursdays in the National Theatre Live production, I can only say "Wow. What a writer. And what an epic! How universal!" It really is one of the great American plays, which does things and goes places that no other writer has done or gone. It has the largeness of spirit of Walt Whitman (the main character is "Prior Walter") with the analytic genius of George Orwell and the sheer theatricality of Brecht at his greatest and, well, Tony Kushner at his greatest too. What a vision! This production is directed by Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) and features Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter, Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, Denise Gough as Harper Pitt, Russell Tovey as Joseph Pitt, Susan Brown as Hannah Pitt, James McArdle as Louis, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize and Amanda Lawrence as the Angel. All excellent actors, worthy of mention. The major curiosity, of course, surrounds the two best-known actors, Garfield and Lane. How were they?
Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter. Photo by Helen Maybanks
Now I saw both the original Broadway cast and their replacement cast, as well as the Mike Nichols film, so I have some basis of comparison. Andrew Garfield is very good, but I'll still take Stephen Spinella, who originated Prior Walter on Broadway. Garfield has more charisma and style than Spinella, but Spinella had more gravitas, a more matter-of-fact sense of hurt. Spinella anchored the show in the reality of his gayness, the richness of his emotional pain. Garfield just doesn't have that. As for Nathan Lane -- sorry, but no. He's a great actor, one of our greatest, but he's not right for this role; in fact he couldn't be more wrong. Physically, he suggests J. Edgar Hoover, not Cohn. Lane's great gift is to humanize his characters, to show us the clown crying on the inside, and that doesn't work here. Giving Roy Cohn a soul - wrong! That's not how Kushner wrote him. Ron Liebman was the greatest Cohn I've seen, seething with rage at the injustice of his fate. But Pacino was also great. Neither of them gave Roy Cohn the gooey center that Nathan Lane does, and it simply doesn't work. For me, this production was stolen by McArdle and Tovey, who are both endlessly fascinating as Louis the temp and as Joe Pitt, the Mormon lawyer he works for. Both are much better than the other actors I've seen take on those roles. Stewart-Jarrett comes alive in Perestroika, the second half of the show, but he can't hold a candle to Jeffrey Wright in the original Broadway cast. (I doubt anyone ever will.) Gough is fine as Harper, the pill-popping wife of the gay lawyer, but both Marcia Gay Harden on Broadway and Mary Louise Parker in the Nichols' film were better. I loved Susan Brown's work as Hannah, the gay lawyer's mother, she's gruff at first, but then reveals her inner sexiness in a way I don't recall seeing before. Still, better than Meryl Streep or Kathleen Chalfant? Not really possible. On the whole, the production didn't shake up the world the way that Wolfe's did. But the real star is and always will be Kushner, who has written an American masterpiece about the way we dream. My only caveate - and I have to say it - is that ending, in which Prior Walter becomes Tony Kushner and "blesses" the audience as "fabulous." Sorry but that feels patronizing. Just stay inside your character, Tony, and let him speak for himself. No need to pat yourself on the back when everyone else already wants to. That said, go and see an encore showing of this video version - essential viewing for anyone with a brain.
Lauren Yee's play The King of the Yees is about Lauren Yee and her family's 150 year old trade association, to which only male Yees can be admitted. This is actually a great idea for a play, with a great central metaphor: the red double doors to the family association, doors which Lauren as a female has never been able to open. And I'm convinced that there's a very good - even possibly great - 90 minute play hidden in the 125 minutes of the current version about how Lauren finally gains admission to the secret history of her ancestors. If I was a dramaturg - a position I held for 5 years at an Off-Broadway theater - and I was assigned to this play, I would say: I know that this play is based on your life and that many events related here actually happened, but that doesn't mean that they necessarily belong in your play. Because right now the First Act is 10-15 minutes of good theater and 30 minutes of pseudo-theater, in which you're playing silly games and stalling for time, so you can slip in two minutes of a cliffhanger before intermission. A third of your audience left, and I would have too if I wasn't contracted to stay. Then you have 40 good minutes in your Second Act and another 15 minutes of bullshit. Let's find a way to take this apart and put it back together into 90 strong minutes. As Scott Carter (Bill Maher's producer) once told me, "If you do five minutes of standup, and there are two good and three bad minutes, the audience is not going to love you for the two good minutes; they're gonna hate you for wasting their time with the three bad minutes."
This is an enigmatic little play which belongs in a small theater not as large a space as the Mark Taper. The Taper seems to realize this, and they seat audience on both sides of a skinny slice of stage space, trying to create as intimate a playing area as they can. Personally I was sitting in the 5th row, and the magic didn't quite touch me. (A friend of mine told me she sat in the third row, and she was swept away, so maybe that's the key.) I admired the eccentricity of Mary Louise Parker's performance as a 40 year old woman who begins the play by kissing the back of the neck of a 77 year old stranger in a bus station, an event that in real life might instigate many things, but significant dialogue is not one of them. I was deeply aware throughout of the unlikelihood of this scenario, this sequence of events, though that seemed to be what the playwright, Simon Stephens (The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime, Punk Rock), is going for. "How far can I push these highly unlikely events? How long can I sustain this highly ridiculous premise?" The actors, Mary Louise Parker and Dennis Arndt, are both deeply focused and committed, though I kept wondering why Parker didn't have a British accent? In the play she speaks again and again about how she comes from Islington in London, but Parker makes no attempt to change the speaking voice that we are so accustomed to from Weeds and so many other shows; and Arndt's character never mentions this, so I simply don't get it. Nevertheless, there is something engaging, even moving, in the way that Stephens stretches out his slight and unlikely premise into a full-length play. The play after all is titled Heisenberg, the scientist who is known for giving us The Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Physics. Simon Stephens captures here both the uncertainty of the human condition and the uncertainty of ever really connecting with another human being. It's only around until August 6th, so go this weekend if you can. Just sit in the first 3 rows, okay?