Registered Critic: Eric A Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, writes for People's World (peoplesworld.org). He has written for dozens of local, national, and international publications, mostly about art, music, culture, religion and politics. His undergraduate degree is from Yale and his doctorate in history is from Tulane. He was director of the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring in Southern California from 1995 to 2010. Eric is the author of "Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein," and co-author of "Ballad of an American: The Autobiography of Earl Robinson." A book he translated from Portuguese ("Waving to the Train and Other Stories," by Hadasa Cytrynowicz) appeared in 2013. In 2015 he executive produced "City of the Future," a CD of Soviet Yiddish music from the 1930s. He is the former Southern California Chapter Chair of the National Writers Union (Local 1981 UAW/AFL-CIO).
Oct

Radiant Vermin

Although set someplace in the UK, the parallels to U.S. and other Western excess need no elaboration. As the world divides ever more sharply between the haves and the have-nots, Radiant Vermin will undoubtedly become more and more relevant with each passing year, reminding us of the Faustian bargain we have agreed to when we seek our creature comfort. It's noteworthy that Ridley specifies that this is a government program because politics is ultimately at the base of such large geopolitical development decisions. Government historically has determined class privilege by virtue of tax policy, restrictive covenants, zoning, redlining, ghettoizing, tolerating homelessness, failure to build affordable housing, placement of highways, schools, parks, commercial and industrial development. The recent tax reform that the Republican Congress passed, for example, posits the further accumulation of capital in fewer and fewer hands, and the emergence of ever more “exclusive” housing for the rich. At whose expense? Any visit to America's Skid Row or to our nation's derelict schools will easily answer that question. Interestingly, Ridley also brings in a religious element, as if to implicate parts of the faith community in the contract on the poor. That aspect reminded me of Mr. and Mrs. Peachum in the Threepenny Opera, using Biblical verses to sanction their lordship over a mob of London beggars.

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Oct

The Bench, A Homeless Love Story

From the hundreds of true stories of people he has come to know through that work and in his neighborhood, he has compiled five homeless characters whose lives become entwined on and around a certain park bench that is the closest thing they have to what could be called “home.” As he delves into their stories and peels away the gruff exteriors vulnerable people often adopt as a means of self-defense, we come to appreciate his unique perspective of life on the streets. He neither beautifies nor sanctifies his characters (four men and a woman). To the contrary, they are revealed in all their rough, brutal honesty, and abundant humor as well. Several times Galinksi the writer will break out of his street roles, in a sort of reportorial Brechtian exposition, to explain how it arbitrarily came about that each one of these characters wound up on the street. For them, the safety net of family, friends, workmates, community and social services that many of us assume will always be there for us in the direst of circumstances simply failed. Any of us could be but one mistake or health crisis away from joining this underserved and still growing population.

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Sep

American Hero

Revealingly, it turns out that the MBA now down on his luck is the least resourceful in dealing with the sudden turn of events which obliges the trio of workers to self-manage in the absence of an overseer. In the end, Wohl suggests (I don't want to give away too much), the workers themselves have far greater agency with respect to what needs to be done than the impersonal, anonymous corporation that has no familiarity with the actual situation on the ground. Each of them responds heroically in their own way. Who needs the bosses anyway? The Great Recession may be over, and more Americans are working. But if you lost your union manufacturing job, you're not likely to regain another one with comparable pay and benefits. Sandwich artistry may be your future, and American Hero is a chilling microcosm of it. As Ted asks, “What kind of world is it where people just take?”

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Sep

Gloria

It's apparent that the superiors are also carrying on their own internecine competition for sizzling stories. The one that flashes across the computer screens today is the sudden overdose death of a popular singer, about whom the magazine, newly bought out by a megacorporation, intends to promote a major exploitative feature revealing her sexuality. This toney magazine is really just one or two undergraduate degrees above the salacious popular fare found at supermarket checkout aisles—and getting more market-driven all the time as print fades and digital media rises supreme. “I was writing,” the playwright says, “about a group of people whose job is to…decide what's newsworthy or not…what lives have value or not….” As the audience settles in, the sound system (by Christopher Moscatiello) enthralls us with gorgeous baroque choral music—the “Gloria” from Johann Sebastian Bach's B-minor Mass completed in 1749, the year before his death, and not heard complete in the composer's lifetime. This magnificent work is a cornerstone of Western civilization, contrasting significantly with the far less durable commercially viable pablum the ever-ravenous media machine churns out week after week. Miles sits at his desk lost in the “Gloria” on his headphones.

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Sep

The Gin Game

Weller and Fonsia are both intelligent people, but with character flaws that have turned almost every decision they ever made into a wrong move. At this stage of their lives they are desperate to hold onto some semblance of personal dignity now that they are alone, penniless, not physically well, and living in profoundly “reduced circumstances” as the Victorian novelists used to say. The card games they play recall nothing so much as the famous chess match between the medieval knight Antonius Block and Death in Ingmar Bergman's 1957 classic film The Seventh Seal, set during the black plague. The absurdist course of these innocent games will end up determining the fate of these two tragic, lonely people who seem at any moment as if they could be each other's salvation. The Gin Game is helmed by the award-winning Artistic Director of Sierra Madre Playhouse Christian Lebano, who probably didn't have to work too hard to bring out these masterful actors' perfect senses of timing and tone. There is not a false note in the show.

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Sep

SWEAT

Curiously, though, I didn't see any reference to the historic 2008 election. But if I read the play correctly, I think Nottage is trying to tell us that for large segments of white Americans fed up with the crumbling of their promised security, the stage had been set to place the anger onto “upstart” people of color whom they singled out as not true Americans—and remember, please, who carried the banner of the “birther” movement higher than anyone in those years: none other than a racist, self-promoting real estate mogul from New York City. The idiotic vision of Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the presidency might have motivated enough swing voters to either stay home or cast their vote for America's first black presidential candidate, but the seeds of know-nothingism at the highest political levels had been sown. And look where we are now.

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Sep

AIN'T TOO PROUD

One part of the story that comes across exceptionally well is the depiction of the Motown system as conceived and managed by that brilliant master entrepreneur and inventor of the industrial behemoth, Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse). He devised a tight, vertically compartmentalized business model for his Motown regime, a cultural replication of the “Fordist” model for car manufacturing. He discouraged Otis Williams from songwriting, telling him to concentrate on singing. Gordy hired the musicians, arrangers, composers—Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson) wrote most of The Temptations' first songs—choreographers, managers, and promotion machine. Step by step, as commissar of quality control, Gordy reached one milestone after another for the group—hit songs on radio, appearances on American Bandstand, at the famed Copacabana nightclub in New York City, an NBC Motown special on which they shared the spotlight with the Supremes. Race is at times an unnamed character in the story, for Gordy knew that success could in the end only be measured by the degree to which The Temptations were able to cross over to a white audience. Ever with his eye on the dollar, he kiboshed the group's inclination to participate artistically in the mass anti-war movement at the time. Gordy insisted that “to be radio Black is not to be political Black.”

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Sep

Infidel

The more fundamental question to ask is if this is even a play. Over the course of 90 minutes (no intermission) of what can only be described as torture pornography, no one, and I mean no one, takes stock of their received beliefs, questions who they are and what they're doing, tries to see the situation from another point of view. The characters we see at the beginning are the characters we see at the end. No one changes, no one is transformed, and neither are we in the audience. If you come in hating Muslims you'll go out hating them even more. If you come in hating rote fundamentalism (of any stripe) as well as war and violence and imperialism and stereotyping whole religions and peoples with one broad brush of contempt, then you'll leave, as I did, thinking, “Wow, I thought theatre was supposed to get us to interrogate ourselves a bit, unsettle us, make us a little less complacent in our views, help us to empathically understand people and cultures that are not our own.”

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Aug

Jews, Christians, and Screwing Stalin

I was drawn to see this play because of the sociopolitical context promised—and I freely acknowledge that would not have been the priority for every theatergoer—but in the end it seems the “Improv” mentality won out. Lonow was recently quoted in Broadway World, saying, “There is nothing today that can't be joked about. If you get the laugh, the topic is acceptable,” however rude, crude or lewd. The whole Communist angle is little more than a coatrack on which to hang a joke-filled tale of atonement for past misbehavior and a promising family reconciliation.

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Aug

PARADISE - A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy

“Humility is a copout,” says the preacher, echoing the behavior of multitudinous such characters parading across America's religious landscape today. A later song, “The American Way,” completely fills out our initial impression that Rev. Mountain surely cannot be a man of God in any way that feels good. Paradise might be advised for mature audiences. There's a whole lotta raunch goin' on. Chastity's number, in which she speaks of how Rev. Mountain's ministrations brought her out of her sinful past, is called “Jesus Is Deep Inside Me,” and she illustrates it graphically on the handy stripper pole. In Act 2 Cyndi sings “The Missing Link,” which to my offhand recollection may be the first song I have ever heard on the subject of lighting a bag of shit on fire—however, it's for a good cause: skewering the stuck-up kids at school who make fun of a hick farmer. There's more songs where these came from, but I can't give them all away, now, can I? Nor the playful, inventive, redemptive denouement.

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Aug

Under Milk Wood

With so many roles to inhabit, loosely distributed among the 19 players, it was inevitable that a few of the smaller roles would come across routinely, but overall Martin lavished the same attention on the town's main characters as he might in a small family drama. Many of these folk who populate this odd place display the affectionate charm, humor and flamboyant drunkenness that characterized the poet himself.

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Jul

Three Days in the Country

The larger point, and one that Turgenev surely was making, is that the economy at this underdeveloped level of productivity, multiplied by the thousands of other such estates spread over the Russian lands, was stagnant and only at best self-sustaining. Compared to the more industrialized Western Europe, Russia was truly a backward nation, the talents and potential of its people wasted on imperial excess that almost seemed to demand ignorance and backwardness amongst the broad peasant masses. For if they knew otherwise, they would surely not put up with it. Which, as we know, is exactly what happened a couple of generations later. Kolya's playful aiming of an arrow at his father can be seen as a symbolic killing off of a parasite class and generation. Anna Khaja and Corey Brill / Geoffrey Wade The urbane houseguest Rakitin (Corey Brill), whom Arkady's bored wife Natalya has invited for a visit, only to spurn his advances and declarations, is questioned as to his politics, and he is somewhat knowledgeable about current ideas. He is aware, for example, of socialist treatises, but believes that “freedom” for the serfs would be meaningless. Out of his own privileged status and his futile infatuation with Natalya, his mind is simply too muddled to concern himself with any greater cause beyond himself. He is insightful enough to conclude that amongst the characters in this play—and perhaps this is his wider understanding of the world—“Everyone is a joke they don't get.”

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Jul

Mayakovsky and Stalin

Now, about the play. There is a lot of history and background to expound upon: The characters are often in the position of illustrating the exposition narrated by the Chorus. In fact, the entire cast of nine are seated on red chairs throughout both acts, rising for their scenes as required in staged reading style. Their dialogue, rarely between more than two or three people, is recited with all due theatrical emotive effect, but there's almost no physical action. Atmospheres are filled in with projections. With only minor adaptation to indicate which character is speaking, it's ideally suited for radio. One might honestly ask, Why bother staging it at all? We learn most of what we are asked to absorb in the first act. I don't know Mednick's other plays, but in this one he seems to use language like film montage of the early Soviet era, words recapitulating themselves as if in quick successive frames in the expectation that restated, repeated, reiterated, they will acquire new depths and facets of meaning. The nonlinear approach only extenuates the length of the play without furthering our understanding. He did not require two acts to communicate what he needed to, whatever the rhetorical mode he chose to adopt.

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Jul

Arrival & Departure

So many kind of dualities are explored here. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to balance the responsibility of duty against the impulsive risks of passion. Which course is the right one to follow? With many of its scenes set in a subway station, there are implicit allusions to the doomed Anna Karenina story. Those playgoers who already know the film Brief Encounter will anticipate how this 90-minute one-act work will end, but either way, the getting there is an entrancing and uplifting ride. And such a gift to be able to enter the non-hearing world in this inviting piece of theatre. Although, you will soon realize, it's not just about deaf (or Deaf) people, but about the larger human condition to which we can all relate. People come and go in our lives, some of whom we will never forget. But in the end, as with other characteristics such as race, age, religion, language, as Russell observes to Mya, what's most important is not what you see on the outside, but who you are on the inside. Where's our ticket to that place? Maybe at the Fountain Theatre box office.

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Jul

Mexican Day

Act two centers around the several days-long sit-in in the lobby of the baths, Rustin with his guitar singing the “Ballad of Bimini Baths” in an oblique reference to the re-emergence of the folk music and topical song tradition in the 1940s. It's the kind of song that might have appeared in Sing Out! or Broadside. When the cops are called to evict the “goddam Communist” protesters, it's the Irish cop who determines that they're not doing anything wrong—recalling historic anti-Irish prejudice in the U.S. In another reference to the concerns of the era, Remedios insists that Rustin and Yamamoto cannot enter because they don't have health certificates—which he does not demand of anyone else, of course—reminding us that polio was a frightening fact of life in those pre-vaccine days. There is a touching confrontation between Maxwell and Remedios, who surprisingly re-encounter one another after 32 years. Repentant as Maxwell is, Remedios replies “My life didn't stop with you. I've seen much worse in the world. I grew up.” The meeting has a healing quality for both men.

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Jul

Cabaret

Schneider is ultimately persuaded by social pressure not to marry a Jew, even though this would seem to be a last chance at marital happiness for both of them. In this case, the visible disparity is not between Jew and Christian, but between Black and white, with the “despised” role reversed. Very clever! In her song “What Would You Do?” she admits she's simply afraid, given how fast things are moving now, to risk losing whatever modest social status she has. She is the “good German” perhaps, someone who in her heart knows better, but bends away from her conscience so as not to make trouble for herself. As foreigners, Cliff and Sally have the option to leave the coming madness and go home, which Cliff does and Sally doesn't, at least not yet (perhaps a reference to the sultry Swedish singer Zara Leander who made her career in Germany and stayed for the duration). But Schneider really doesn't have that option, and what in Germany's past could have led Herr Schultz and other Jews to foresee what eventually happened? Some Germans of conscience, and the means to do so, such as Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig, emigrated. But most people had their families, their homes, their farm, their job, and made the best of the new situation. And so it goes…. As Aditi Juneja has tweeted in a much shared post, “If you've wondered what you would've done during slavery, the Holocaust, or Civil Rights movement…you're doing it now.” Which seems to be the point of the Celebration production here and now.

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Jun

THE HUMANS

What happens when life unravels along with our expectations of it, what becomes of dreams unfulfilled, careers in retreat, the majority of us flawed human beings who don't make it to the top in our reputed meritocracy? One misstep, one patch of illness, can spell The End. Can't there be a decent place for everyone? In a more centrally planned economy, maybe Brigid could be offered work writing music for community theatre and gain some valuable experience. The system chews people up, much like the loud bone-crushing commercial compactor in the building that goes off periodically in the play. As the classic Joe Glazer song says, “Who will take care of you, how'll you get by? when you're too old to work and you're too young to die.” The late great gay politician Harvey Milk, running for office in San Francisco, used to say, “You gotta give 'em hope.” Even the most stolid of the old socialist realists agreed with that. The Humans is too sophisticated a work of art to be obviously prescriptive. Still, leaving the theatre, what are audiences supposed to think? That we humans are speeding to hell in a handbasket? Maybe just zeroing in on the problems of an inhumane society is enough to stir the conscience.

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Jun

The Women of Lockerbie

One of the issues Brevoort successfully deals with is the explanation for the tragedy. Was it fate? Was it simply meant to be? God's will? Was there a purpose in it? Or was it simply a criminal act that hopefully one day will be properly prosecuted but that no one on the plane or on the ground could possibly have done anything to prevent. Universalizing the story, Verrill says, “Everyone has a battle they are fighting and love can be the answer.” Fittingly, the anniversary, and the action of the play, takes place on the winter solstice. From this night on the light will start returning.

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Jun

Skeleton Crew

In any case, the devolution of a once significant plant is a metaphor for the larger story of deindustrialization, the capricious greed of the owner class, and the absence of planning for the future of America's precarious people. The author of Skeleton Crew joins the worthy company of Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson and other moral playwrights in making the lives of working-class Americans accessible and comprehensible to the theatergoing public.

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Jun

AS WE BABBLE ON

Each of them suffers a certain degree of mistreatment and racist discrimination, with the possible exception of Orson, whose wealth shields him. Notwithstanding the occasional outburst against the rich, the characters are willing to make such compromises as will allow them greater access to society's rewards, and I appreciated that honesty on the playwright's part. Yet that very fact begs the question, what are we buying into, and what is the price? The success model recapitulates the every-person-for-themselves ideology of dog-eats-dog individualism, with a strong dash of privilege thrown in owing to Orson's newly stirred philanthropic generosity (a tax write-off, of course). Ramos's fantasy does not account for the reality that not everyone, however many times the American ethos repeats it, is a millionaire in training. As America moves toward ever greater multi-ethnic nationality, will more democratic racial and gender representation in the halls of success do anything to alter the hardening class divide? That will be the challenge for the indebted Millennials. Given the rate of automation, the rise of the service economy, and the domination of finance in the marketplace, it will take much more than fair “representation” to make America a happy place for all its inhabitants. And that will indeed be “hard AF.”

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