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).
Mar

LACKAWANNA BLUES

But for real local color, there’s nothing like poking around the underbelly of the working class—these uneducated, out-of-work misfits, maladroits and war veterans, some of them with missing limbs and others with streams of pretense or amusing malapropisms flowing from their lips—for heart-grabbing stories. The author’s powers of observation, recollection and storytelling, not to mention acting, singing and musicality, are prodigious, magical and virtuosistic. We don’t even miss these other people on the stage: They’re there, as he distinctly and believably portrays ancient survivors and young children, both men and women, even a few animals, slipping easily from one to the next through gait, voice, gesture, and vivid vernacular vocabulary. In several scenes—a conversation, a hit dance called “The Dog” or a brutal fight—he plays both parts.

Even when he pauses to recall just the nicknames of the people in the hood that he remembered, his recitation is like a sonnet of folk poetry.

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Mar

FRIENDS WITH GUNS

If it looks as though Josh and Shannon’s marriage is falling apart before our eyes, do we see this as a metaphor for the country? “You’re worried you’re losing your wife,” Leah tells him, “because she’s discovered her strength.” Will we destroy ourselves over gender relations, on top of guns, never having found a way toward resolution? Is there any hope at all?

With all these issues so powerfully laid before us in the theatre, I can safely say I have never before been to a play that so thoroughly confronted and confounded my own assumptions. And I’m not sure I even appreciate that—which is finally, at least for me, the most troubling aspect.

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Mar

The Joy Wheel

Moving in the opposite direction, against the tenderness and vulnerability that love demands, Frank has been seduced into following the doomsday fears and prognostications of his PPPPPPP “prepper” friend Stew (Maury Sterling) by building an armed underground survival bunker in the space that once was the family swimming pool. For those outside the apocalyptic prepper community, PPPPPPP—which Stew has finally been able to secure as his Illinois license plate—stands for “Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.” When the barbarians come—you know, the “globalists” and their government jackboots—the well trained preppers in this millenarian fantasy will stay on to defend civilization as we know it, and repopulate the Earth with fertile young women chosen for that purpose. McRae posits that everyone is riding the Joy Wheel, an amusement park ride where only the person holding the center of a whirling centrifugal circle will survive, the others being spun off the island. Happiness is a zero-sum commodity and few will win it.

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Mar

Native Voices at the Autry Presents Pure Native

Valerie Ramirez tells a compelling and relevant story which does not require a conclusive ending to be effective. It is quite enough to raise all the issues she has, without tipping her hand as to where her own sympathies lie. Several characters have lyrical monologues in which they look into the future, or convene with the spirits, that are real jewels of Native writing. Most of the expository dialogue, however, sounds stiff and earnest, though well acted. Her title suggests how hard, and maybe how harmful it can be, to presume to be “pure” anything. Ramirez has a gift for subtle and nuanced situations.
This is one of the best productions I have seen from Native Voices.

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Mar

Too Much Sun

I owe this insight to my Jungian psychotherapist friend Jane, who joined me seeing this play: Why Medea? Clearly Medea is what most people would call a bad mother: Driven half-mad by her lover’s desertion, leaving her with two young kids, she proceeds to take her revenge on him by murdering the children. It’s an often freely adapted Greek myth that most theatergoers are familiar with. So Audrey subconsciously is terrified by this play, acknowledging on some level that she has been an extremely poor mother to Kitty, and literally cannot get through it. The rest of the play unfolds as a still unconscious expiation of her guilt. She returns “home”—that is, to Kitty and Dennis’s home—to start the work of repair.

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Mar

Home

In L.A. she confronts type-casting, racism and rejection. Everyone asks her, “Where are you from?” and they are only interested in her if she knows martial arts and whatever else is “hot” for Asian features at the moment. “Why could living my own life make everyone else so angry?” she wonders; but we hardly ever hear of her engaging in any collaborative work with fellow actors.
Ma seems to acknowledge that “I push everyone away,” so the rejection is not a one-way street. But why she does that goes unexamined except to own that aside from her demanding parents and relatives, “I’m difficult too.”

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Mar

Canyon

With a kind of diabolical genius, Caren intertwines all these characters in a whirlwind of secrets, pretenses, self-congratulation, doubt and accusation. What seems at first to be a fairly routine negotiation of roles in relationships becomes toxic after an unpredictable construction accident while Eduardo is at the house building a new retaining wall and enlarging the deck so that the view of the canyon will not be partial but complete. Jake and Eduardo show their cross-cultural male solidarity joking that “Every man wants a bigger deck, right?”

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Mar

Hype Man

This naturally opens up the whole theme of appropriation: a Caucasian performer adopting hip-hop, a preeminently African-American form of artistic expression, but perhaps betraying its anti-establishment ethos. Wearing her “The future is female” t-shirt, Peep One reminds Verb that he himself has participated in recordings with other performers who have put down women in the ugliest of terms, so where does he get the right to demand “political correctness” of other people? Besides which, she says to her two fighting colleagues, “Without me y’all wouldn’t be able to say a damn thing.”

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Mar

Born To Win

Outrageous gay-inflected humor is the trademark of this play, but the social implications ripple out in a wide circle. Parents don’t necessarily have to submit their four-year-old girls to the rigors of beauty and talent contests to be affected by the larger culture of princesses, flouncy dresses, royal manners and imperious behavior. That culture starts very early—think blue for boys, pink for girls—and sets into place the gender roles that will be expected of them. Disney films, and their like, reinforce gender stereotypes, although in recent years there has been a movement to offer images of girls and young women who are strong, capable and independent. The Barbie dolls, with their unrealistic body proportions, have long played a part in brainwashing girls to conform, and shaming them into eating disorders and other psychological problems. Authors such as Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott have always challenged social expectations for women, while of necessity acceding to the larger masculinist narrative which seemed beyond changing. (My own childhood role model was Nancy Drew and her famous mystery solving, which is a common touchpoint for those of my generation.)

Born to Win is a winner indeed, with nary a dull moment in its 100 minutes of action. Trample over people, if you have to, to see it! If you want to read it that way, you could even start questioning whether America really needs more “winners” and “losers”—standard vocabulary for the guy who came in second in the last presidential popular vote. Maybe we need to come up with some other principles to live and govern by so that most of us get most of what we want out of life instead of always being in competition with one another. Sorry for the preaching, but I think that’s inherent in the play and, in any case, isn’t that what you want to hear from a People’s World critic?

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Feb

Witness Uganda

Griffin is forever troubled by the fear that whatever good intentions he may have held amount in the end to little more than Western neocolonialism, the idea that people from America know better than the Ugandans how to run their society and fix their lives. However, he sees how “his” orphans have been effectively left to their own devices, without schooling of any kind or healthy prospects for the future. At the same time there are other forces competing for dominance not only in Uganda but in many other countries: especially the American fundamentalist Christian communities that not only send proselytizers and money to make some brands of African Christianity so intolerant, but also seduce (read, bribe) legislators to pass laws such as one in Uganda not long back, which threatened to make homosexuality a capital crime.

The role of civic society and private philanthropy in transforming government policy is highly debatable—often welcome, but as often as not, intrusive and patronizing. Each case must be studied independently. The main factor should always be, Does the country invite such aid and how much control does the country exert once the aid starts coming in? We may never know, for instance, exactly how big a part the North American evangelical movement played in the recent failure of the Cuban Constitutional reform to include same-gender marriage; apparently there was significant opposition coming from their Cuban counterpart churches.

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Feb

Two Trains Running at Matrix

I can understand why Risa, besotted with Prophet Samuel, would remain unmoved by the call to militant action with all its male-centric language, since she avoids at great personal cost the gaze and the grope of men. On the job, as she surely realizes, Memphis treats her as little more than an abused domestic, which she bears stoically. So why, after her persistent rejection of Sterling’s advances, and even after prejudicing his odds on the numbers she herself provided him, does she eventually succumb to him? The troubled undercurrents of her past go unexplored and unexplained. Wilson was too smart a playwright to be dismissed as simply a male chauvinist basically disinterested in women’s lives, as that does not typify his other plays. The underdevelopment of this character—and the absence of even one good juicy monologue for her—remains a mystery. Maybe it’s just something Wilson intended for us to go home thinking about.

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Feb

America Adjacent

Alvarez has another agenda apart from trying to explicate the “anchor baby” phenomenon. “Filipino-Americans constitute the third largest Asian population in the U.S.,” he remarks in a program note, “just behind Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans, yet Filipino characters are virtually invisible on stages across the country.” His characters all speak with a strong Tagalog accent, and often the Tagalog words that punctuate the dialogue are left untranslated. Perhaps he is aiming to stimulate a newly energized Filipino-American audience for theatre.

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Feb

The Cripple of Inishmaan

Almost without exception, McDonagh’s characters are highly flawed—“damaged” might be the more contemporary term—given to acts and words of cruelty. Obviously Billy is not the only “cripple” in the play: His fellow residents of Inishmaan are graphically rendered psychological outsiders. In that sense, the playwright poses an astutely aggressive counter-proposition to the romanticized version of Irish life and poverty playgoers and moviegoers are often exposed to. One subject that gets mentioned more than once in rather explicit detail is priestly abuse of children, a topic not so much in the public discourse when the play was written. Perhaps the play had a role in opening up that inquiry.

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Jan

1776 THE MUSICAL

It’s left to the wise old sage Franklin to convince Adams that the slavery clause has to go if a new American nation is to arise. Right now independence from Britain is the primary issue, and elevating the slavery question to a non-negotiable status jeopardizes the one cause that can unify all the colonies and bring them to unanimity. These, of course, are the messy, wrenching compromises that history is full of, yet without which advances could not have happened. Such painful decisions are sadly in the nature of progress, which never takes place simultaneously on all fronts. There will always be the idealists and purists, of course, who want their maximal demands met now—and even demand them of history. I have rarely been so patriotically moved as by the sound of the Liberty Bell ringing out from the orchestra as the Declaration is signed.

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Nov

VALLEY OF THE HEART

The play has something of a rustic Romeo and Juliet quality insofar as the son Benjamin Montaño (Lakin Valdez) and daughter Thelma “Teruko” Yamaguchi (Melanie Arii Mah) fall in love. That relationship will become the central, driving theme of the play. This couple was modeled on an interracial couple that Valdez actually knew as a child. All might have evolved smoothly, once the family objections were overcome, were it not for an unfortunate stroke of history: Pearl Harbor. After the Yamaguchis are interned along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, new unanticipated questions arise. What allegiance do the Japanese Americans claim? What makes this one a war hero and that one a militant civil rights resister? How are Ben and Thelma to remain loyal to their families, their country and one another? This subject matter is also treated in the musical Allegiance that starred George Takei. The song “White Christmas” played on the camp radio never sounded so white until now. At the same time that life has become a living hell for the detainees, war production ironically opens up other opportunities for the Mexican Americans. The story is framed by Ben, in a wheelchair now and aging gracefully, recalling the characters and events he lived through.

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Nov

Finks

Gilford has captured the language of the period so well—the corny jokes with a political edge, the earnest urgings to get involved and take a stand, the folk music of the time (“Which Side Are You On?”), the radio commercials, the Abbott and Costello routines, the soap operas, the Yiddish words flung about in this largely Jewish community. One can hardly ignore the transparent anti-Semitism, or anti-“cosmopolitanism” to use a contemporary term, in the persecution of political heretics.

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Nov

The Little Foxes

I was particularly struck by the detailed stage set (John Iacovelli) of the Regina and Horace Giddens living room, all plush curtains, heavy fabrics, thick carpets, red, green and brown earth colors—except for the bright blue Victorian-era divan in the middle, which doesn’t match anything. I couldn’t help thinking it’s the designer’s way of establishing that this family represents the South’s nouveau riche, aping current styles but obviously lacking polish. No one is specifically credited in the program with responsibility for the music. The piano music played on stage by Birdie and Alexandra was well chosen (and apparently performed by the actors themselves), but the intro and outro music heard before and between the acts seemed inapt—European-sounding concert music of a genre that did not contribute to the portrayal of the Hubbard and Giddens families of 1900 in the Deep South. It’s easy to see how composer Marc Blitzstein saw this play and in his mind heard it infused with all kinds of American music for his opera Regina. The performance is true and on point. Especially effective are the scheming brothers Oscar (Rob Nagle) and Ben Hubbard (Mike McShane), Oscar and Birdie’s dopey, wastrel son Leo (Calvin Picou), and the dipsomaniac Birdie herself (Jocelyn Towne). The daughter Alexandra is sprightly (and spritely) played by Kristin Couture. Timothy Adam Venable plays the Chicago businessman William Marshall with debonair grace. Judy Louise Johnson makes an upstanding Black house servant Addie, and William L. Warren acts well the smaller role of manservant Cal.

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Nov

VIETGONE

In Quang’s case, he was fleeing for his life, as he was a captain in the South Vietnamese forces and feared for his life were he to be caught by the victorious Viet Cong. There’s a funny but telling scene in Act 2 when Quang, trying to return to Vietnam to be a father to the two young children he left behind, encounters a dope-smoking husband-and-wife hippie couple on the road. Hippie Dude tells him, quite earnestly, how sorry he is for what the U.S. did to Quang’s country and how he worked so hard to end the war. But that is not Quang’s perspective at all: He had earlier trained as a helicopter pilot in the U.S., and regarded the Americans as saviors from Communist murder, rape and humiliation. “Many of them died so I could be here.” If Quang is the male protagonist of the play, with Asian agency, he appears to have no clue that his diehard service in the South Vietnamese armed forces was itself in the larger service of American imperial and Cold War designs (from my Hippie Dude-sympathetic point of view, I will admit).

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Oct

SHREK THE MUSICAL

Only by wit, mutual acceptance and solidarity can the characters unite to turn back the malevolent force of the Farquaads of the world and overcome their fears. These fairy tale people—like the children in the audience—finally have the opportunity to escape the imposed societal narrative they’ve been handed, of being a failed version of who they were meant to become. The musical contains so many important themes for young people—for everyone, in fact—to think about. Try not to judge people you don’t know. Imagine yourself in the part you’d like to play in life. Don’t erect walls around you, or around others. Voice your thoughts and feelings. There are times when an apology is in order; and also times for forgiveness. The song “I Think I Got You Beat” has Shrek and Fiona trying to outdo each other’s abandonment story—a kind of “Oppression Olympics” number—and they wind up bonding over the reality that they both belch and fart like everyone else, though louder and smellier, of course, ’cuz they’re ogres. Kids can learn not to feel shame over normal bodily functions. Beauty and happiness are not always how they’re depicted in fairy tales: It’s OK to be an ogre. As Pinocchio puts it, “I’m wood, I’m good, get used to it”—a good example of how concepts can be conveyed that contain appropriate meanings for different age groups in the same audience.

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Oct

Steambath

But get past the datedness and you can easily see Friedman’s point. In Jewish theology, God knew from the start (well, starting with the apple) that his human creatures were severely flawed. Maybe he purposely made them that way just for fun, to see what would happen. It’s up to humanity to improve and perfect the troubled world to restore it to its original Edenic state. Measured against that yardstick, it’s no wonder some of these folks got to where we see them now. Meredith (Shelby Lauren Barry) appears reading a book, but mostly what she thinks about is the micro-miniskirt she was just buying at Bloomingdale’s and now who’s going to pay the bill? Not to sound too unkind, but these folks were mostly just taking up space. I mean, people have the right to take up space, but we all do know people like that, don’t we?

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