The White Dress, my genre-bending gender queer coming of age play will receive a showcase in New York from November 2-5.
The work melds language, music, and movement to explore one Jonathan Howard's journey to embrace himself as a pansexual, gender non-conforming person of color. The piece is being directed and co-choreographed by Adin Walker. Amongst our mutual loves and affiliations, Adin and I are Princeton alums, aficionados of queer drama, and theatre-makers with backgrounds in dance.
What's been most interesting working with Adin has been the opportunity to think and write from an interdisciplinary place as a dramatist. Before I even re-wrote a word of the script, Adin shared with me dozens of podcasts, interviews, videos, and old-fashioned articles about gender and identity - many from the “I” perspective. Reading them, I was able to put faces and lived experiences to the ideas I was investigating through the play. In the end, reverence, patience, attention to detail, and empathy were some of the virtues reinforced in this re-write experience.
Now, The White Dress is in its final week of rehearsals. But before we fly into tech, I took some time to chat with Adin about the road to our New York debut.
Adin Walker, director and choreographer
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): What attracted you to this project?
Adin Walker (AW): I was first attracted to the project when I met you. Before I even read the script, you and I talked on the phone for a couple hours about art, our lives, queerness, our shared experience attending the same college – though our times there never overlapped – and training under some of the same teachers. I could feel your presence and warmth over the phone as if you were sitting beside me on my bed, rather than all the way on the other side of the country. Your values for theater-making and collaboration also really inspire me. In particular, your work embraces the liveness of theater, your work uplifts and spotlights the ensemble rather than a single and central figure, and you are an artist with a mission to bring people together in rooms to share, feel, and make activism-driven art.
RQM: Who are some of your inspirations for this piece - both as a director and co-choreographer?
AW: Every single person involved with this project has been an inspiration for this piece, and that has been very special. Pina Bausch, Solange Knowles, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Keone and Mari Madrid are a few of many artists who we look to for inspiration. We have also been listening to lots of the NANCY Podcast, re-reading Judith Butler, Nick Krieger, James Baldwin, and other writers and scholars.
RQM: One of the things that's excited me about writing the play is the chance to have characters vocalize their stage directions. How are you working that element of the script into your production?
AW: Each rehearsal for each scene begins with the actors reading the scene and choosing which stage directions they want to say in that moment. They might explore saying the stage direction if they feel like it pertains to their actions, if the description of an action offers an unspoken layer to an exchange with another character, or if they think the stage action described in the stage directions is witnessed from their point of view and the witnessing of the action motivates them to continue to stay in the room and engage with the other character(s.) We then rigorously go through and decide what we want to try when we move onto our feet, and then we just keep learning and playing!
RQM: I've heard there's a go go dancer and a DJ booth onstage. Please tell me more.
AW: Yes! The play is underscored by DJscapes – and I was interested in tapping into the heart beats of all the characters and how their heart beats sync, collide, and eventually move in different directions. Stanley Mathabane, who is playing Jon, is also professional DJ artist [SunSon] and it excited me to think about how Jon is intimately connected to music – that the DJscapes are grounded in his psychology and how he spins, mixes, and samples music is always coming from a place of emotional discovery and memory.
RQM: Why is it important for us to make queer theatre?
AW: I recently attended Diana Oh's brilliant [my lingerie play] at Rattlestick, and the performance begins with audience members writing on paper bags their answers to the question: “why do you create a safer and more courageous world for us all?” And I feel that that mission – to "create a safer and more courageous world for us all" – and its framing question – why are we doing this – is at the heart of making work that is unapologetically queer. “Queer” is a powerful word – its meanings are vast and represent different things to different people. The word continues to take on meanings with each new movement and generation. To me, the power of "queer" rests in its insistence on political and cultural LGBTQ+ visibility: we're here, we're queer. Queer art exposes, interrogates, and disentangles the mechanisms of our politics – the signifiers that aid the world in making sense of our bodies – to therefore distill a story, a character, a corner of a universe to our core truths. And the word itself, "queer," defies definition and parameters – everyone kinda has their own relationship to the word and what it signifies and sums up to that person. And I like to think that making queer art is about making art that cannot be defined...and in that space without the walls of definition, we can start to build that "safer and more courageous world for us all," that Diana Oh so powerfully inscribed onto our little queer hearts.
I went to the Hollywood Fringe Post-Mortem two weeks ago at Sacred Fools. 10 people there. Including Ben Hill and Matt Quinn.
Remember the crowded parties? Lots of empty seats here.
The party was still going on for a few shows, but this felt more like a wake. Which was cool. As wakes go, this one was more productive than most, with some genuine introspection from Ben and Matt and Richard Lucas (from Bono and the Edge Waiting for Godomino's) and Steven Vlasak (from Nights at the Algonquin Round Table) and a few other hardy souls. There were only 2 women present, and I think both of them were on the administrative side with Ben and Matt. Why was that, I wonder? If I was writing the scene, I would probably have had more women than men there, because I'd feel that women in general cared more and would have more passionate feelings about how the Fringe could be improved. But no. None showed up. Just shows you that life is always surprising and most assumptions are wrong.
Ben Hill at the Post-Mortem
Way back in May, when Enci and I were gearing up to cover the Fringe, I was contacted by a freelance reporter who had somehow gotten hold of some angry words I had written about Fringe 2013 at its conclusion. Something to the effect that it was just a scam, the means for a few people in power to fill their pockets, at the expense of the artists. I would say now that this can be true - and may be true for some of the participants - but in general my views have evolved. I think that Ben Hill and Matt Flynn and most of the folks running venues involved in the Fringe work very hard and do try their best to make this a good experience for the participants. But Fringe is, in fact, a game - a game that some play well, while others play poorly. The game involves crafting an irreverent and/or clever entertainment that has a powerful but easily grasped message and that can be loaded in and loaded out of a theater space with speed and economy. Those who understood how to play the game did well. Those who didn't, didn't. That simple.
Back when I was but a lad of 24, I had the great good fortune of studying with Harold Clurman at the Actors Studio in NYC.
Harold was the driving force behind the Group Theatre in the 1930s, which is still the most influential collective in shaping the American aesthetic, the homegrown American style of making theater, as opposed to the one we inherited from our British forbears. Harold also wrote my favorite book about the American theater, The Fervent Years, which is his personal history of the Group.
Harold was always fond of saying that it took hundreds of theatrical misfires to make it possible for a great play to be born. This is not to say that the shows in the Fringe were any more or less good than any of the productions at more established LA theaters - only that there were more of them, and that they were often different in kind. So while there were productions like The Motherfucker with the Hat, which in fact had had a "regular" theatrical run, most of the Fringe plays were only an hour or less in running time and would likely never be seen again after the Fringe. Or were so offbeat in their conception (something like Too Many Hitlers comes to mind) that it is hard to imagine any other forum in which they might be presented.
Which is just why Harold would have loved them. It was precisely the enormous variety which the Fringe offered that represented for Harold what a healthy and vital American theater would look like. And why I think it's a shame that so many theater professionals and artistic directors stayed away - and felt somehow proud of having done so, referring to the Fringe as a distraction and heaving a sigh of relief at its departure.
Well, folks, I caught a final wave of shows, and I do believe that they are worth taking a look at.
So, from Harold Clurman to Shiragirl - a transition that Harold would defiinitely have loved, since he was partial to blond young women and often had one on each arm. And Shira Leigh is a very sexy and attractive performer, who basically does an emotional striptease for her audience, confiding her sexual journey from naive high school girl to sex with studley young guys to a passionate lesbian relationship to a traditional hetero marriage to ... uncertainty. Looking for love and having a very hard time finding it. But it didn't feel like Shira was really searching for love - rather, she was searching for the comforting embrace of fame, that warm Kardashian glow that would give her the security of being worshipped by multitudes. This made the first part of her show seem very calculated and, well, manipulative. It's evident that Shira is also very smart, and she understands that if adoration hasn't been achieved yet, the odds were no longer with her. This lends the latter part of her show some poignancy, as she contemplates her current state of alone-ness. Hopefully she will transition into the more truthful and self-examining show that she appears to be capable of. But then again, dancing to techno music is such a crowd-pleaser, maybe she won't.
The plot of Ava Bogle's 45 minute show - and there is a plot of sorts - is that there are aliens among us, and their minds have been blown by the massively earth-shaking power and pleasure of the female orgasm. They would gladly hang around our planet for all eternity experiencing this, except that the earth is due to explode on November 8th of this year, so they have to return to their own dull but secure planet. We see Ava playing all of these aliens on tape as they meet one last time, then the video ends, and she comes out as each alien in turn to examine and dramatize their feelings about having to leave. It's not really the most dynamic idea, and I can't say that my mind was ever blown by any ability she showed to morph into different characters. No, what made her show memorable - and it is just that - is her capacity to beguile us with her innocence. There is a purity to her odes to the vulva that is really quite wonderful to behold. And, unlike Shiragirl, she never tries to bend us to her will, never demands our adoration, never seems to want anything from us except to convey her own love of and gratitude for the orgasm. She's really like a cheerleader for sexual pleasure. There's something so refreshing in that, so un-puritanical, that I can only admire the single-mindedness of her focus. I am, again, old enough to remember flower children and Woodstock and all those emblems of innocence before they became so badly tarnished. Ava Bogle somehow manages to channel these forces in the time machine of her artistry and touch on something child-like and wondrous in sexual feelings that is so difficult to express anymore. Before such guilelessness, this critic can only lay down his pen and let it wash over him.
At the opening of her excellent one woman show, Sofie Khan rightly calls herself the poster-person for Trump's anti-immigration policies. Born to a Mexican mother and a Pakistani father, she grew up to discover that she was also bi-sexual. All of this gives her a very unique and provocative angle of perception on the current immigration crisis, not just in this country but in the world. Fortunately, she's also personable and relatable performer who brings us into her world with great ease and lets us experience both the small and the large miscarriages of justice that are visited on people everyday who have been categorized as "the other." Her show is so effective because we identify so completely with Sofie and share her experiences of "other-ness" with the same outrage that she felt. She's a great ambassador for Mexicans, for Muslims and for the LGBTQ community, and I imagine that she will be very busy in the immediate future giving versions of her show at schools and community centers, as well as at comedy shows. I'm really glad to be introduced to her work, and I wish her all the luck in the world in bringing some sanity to what has become such an insane and regrettable situation in our society and beyond.
Though this was my first encounter with it, I see that this show has been around Los Angeles for a while, having first been done at the Eclectic Theatre in North Hollywood in 2014 and reappearing around Halloween since then. It tells the story of Brenda, a young Goth woman so bored by the predictability of life that she only wants one thing - to become a vampire. She only has one close friend, another Goth girl who she's grown up with, and there's a potentially interesting story about their friendship being tested by their vampiring yearnings, but this play isn't interested in telling that story. It has an interesting twist at the end which is genuinely twisted, but the journey getting there just feels like a gimmick, a sketch. It doesn't really feel substantial enough to be a successful Halloween standard, but it could be. I just don't think the playwright really wants to work that hard.
Sex trafficking is a terrible crime. Sex trafficking and all such exploitation of children everywhere should be wiped off the face of the earth. I hope that, whatever differences of opinions we may have, we can all agree on that. And the fact that most of us can and do also mutes the power of a show like Toys, which tries to shock us with the inhuman cruelty of such crimes. If I was a child or perhaps even a teenager, I would be troubled by it. But this is one case where I think film is much more effective in conveying how human beings can inflict this kind of atrocity on each other. When you get the full impact of an image in the first 10 seconds, and then the piece goes on for another 17 minutes, I just don't think it effectively rouses us to action, which is what it clearly wants to do.
THE SECOND COMING OF KLAUS KINSKI by Andrew Perez
This is a very odd show. It's odd in the way that shows are that become cult hits or attract a following, which this show very well may do. Is it good? I don't know. Andrew Perez has certainly immersed himself in the consciousness and worldview of the 20th century actor Klaus Kinski, who achieved fame in the remarkable Werner Herzog films (now classics) Aquirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Nosferatu, as well as in Herzog's documentary about him, My Best Fiend. Kinski has nothing nice to say about Herzog here, but then he eschews niceness and the niceties in general for exclamations of disgust with people and contempt for the human race. Perez does a generally good job in maintaining an insane intensity far past the point where most others could. The experience reminded me of Peter Handke's play Offending the Audiencemixed with a reading of anything by the French novelist-philosopher Louis-Ferdinand Celine. I kind of enjoyed it because it was so emphatically unpleasant and abusive, two things that Southern Californians avoid being in public at all costs. I mean, you can die of niceness here. Kinski's hideous behavior, his unrelenting horror at the misery of human existence, was kind of a tonic, shaking me out of my Jamba Juice haze, my Pinkberry daydreams and reminding me of how ugly so much of the world is. If it comes around again, I recommend giving it a try, if only to experience something completely different. But please, don't bring the kids.
On Friday July 14, I went to see the play Indecent at the Cort Theatre on Broadway. The play was "created by" Rebecca Taichman and Paula Vogel, written by Paula Vogel and directed by Rebecca Taichman. The subtitle of the play, which is projected on the back wall of the stage, is "the true story of a little Jewish play." The play lasted 90 minutes and was beautifully performed by the ensemble of seven actors (all but one playing multiple roles) and three onstage musicians. The production values were all first-rate, with the music composed by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva and the choreography by David Dorfman proving especially outstanding. At the end, the audience rose en masse and gave the actors a standing ovation. I too rose and clapped as loudly as anyone.
Yet there were things that bothered me about what I'd just seen, and that wouldn't go away, no matter how many times I shoved them aside.
I had met the director Rebecca Taichman before, and she has been a Facebook friend of mine for a while. I left her a Facebook private message, letting her know that I had seen the show, had enjoyed it, but there were a few things that I would like to speak with her about if possible. I told her that I was going to be in New York City for a few more days and could we meet for a brief discussion? I did not receive a response from Rebecca at that time, nor have I since. In the absence of any reply, I feel that I have no choice but to go public with my concerns.
At this point, I should mention that I adapted God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch in 1992 as a commission for The Jewish Repertory Theatre, who produced my adaptation at Playhouse 91 for six weeks, featuring husband-and-wife Lee Wallace and Marilyn Chris as the husband and wife who are raising their daughter Rivkele upstairs to be a fit wife for a rabbi's son, while downstairs they run a brothel of young girls, including one named Manke who Rivkele falls in love with. My version was subsequently produced several times, most notably in Atlanta in a joint production of The Jewish Theatre of the South and Seven Stages, directed by the great Joseph Chaikin, founder of the Open Theatre. I ended up writing a memoir of my experience with Asch's play - and especially with Joe Chaikin - entitled BEST REVENGE: How the Theater Saved My Life and Has Been Killing Me Ever Since (Cune Press, 2004).
It was during the tech week of Chaikin's production that I met Rebecca Taichman. In fact, I chronicled the meeting in my book: "A week before the show opened, we received a surprise visit from three members of a Boston-based theater group, one of whom had been in Joe's Directing class at Yale Drama School. They all looked to be in their mid-late 20s, two women named Rebecca and a man whose name now escapes me. (For the sake of simplicity, I will call him "Rebecca" as well.) The Three Rebeccas brought with them a nervous, gossipy energy, conspiratorially divulging rumors of power-plays at large regional theaters.... On the day [they] showed up at rehearsal, Joe had the two girls run through the scene in the rain, getting mildly drenched, and then asked our visitors: "What do you think?" There were a few moments of awkward silence. Then Joe's directing student from Yale spoke up. "I really really like it ... except I really miss not hearing the sound of the rain." Joe asked her for a suggestion. "Well," she said, "why you don't you get an offstage sound effect?"
This student from Joe's class was Rebecca Taichman. The suggestion she made was one that I had been making for the previous two weeks, only to be turned down each time by Joe. The fact that she had finally gotten him to do it was something I found endearing, and I struck up a conversation with her. "Rebecca One blushed slightly - she was a thin, pale girl with frizzy light-brown hair - and she told me that she really liked my adaptation. (Joe had given her a copy.) She also confessed to not liking Donald Margulies' version."
Just an inside-baseball note that the Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Donald Margulies had written his own adaptation of Asch's play a few years after mine, and I was no fan of it. He had transposed the play to the lower East Side, where it no longer made any sense as a critique of Jewish hypocrisy, as Asch had intended, but was now about assimilation - a subject that had nothing to do with Asch's original play. So Rebecca's distaste for the Margulies version further endeared her to me, and in the book I spun out a minor fantasy of our nuptials. "This daydream was rudely interrupted by her disclosure that she had written her own God of Vengeance. More specifically, it was a hybrid, interspersing her own adaptation of the Manke-Rivkele love scenes with courtroom scenes from the obscenity trial of the 1923 Broadway production. "It was a big hit at the Boston Gay and Lesbian Festival," she informed me, adding modestly, "though it still needs some work."
Keep in mind that the Chaikin production was in October 1998. Indecent had been commissioned by Yale Rep in 2013 and given its World Premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre in October 2015. I believe that Rebecca first presented her People vs The God of Vengeance as her Senior thesis at Yale, which was probably a few years before I met her. So all in all it was a long journey, but one that had richly paid off for her in the best of all possible ways: A Tony Award for Best Director.
Now I'm going to say something negative here, and I've been in the theater - and in the world - long enough to know that any such comment by me will immediately be ascribed to envy on my part - I freely admit that I have no Tonys and would love one someday - or, worse, that I have some need as a man to deny a woman artist's achievement. All I can to say to both of those charges is that they aren't true and don't align with my personal history. And that it honestly pains me to say anything negative about either Rebecca Taichman or, especially, Paula Vogel, whose work I've always deeply admired.
From INDECENT. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg
But to me it's incontrovertible that Rebecca Taichman took a lot from Joe Chaikin's production of God of Vengeance, both generally and with regard to specifics. In a general sense, the way that Rebecca uses dance and movement to transition from one scene to the next borrows heavily from The Open Theatre playbook, and from Joe in particular. Okay, but so what, right? We are all influenced by each other's work, and if it works for her production, then why not use it? What's a little stealing between friends? To that I say: the fiddler. The onstage klezmer fiddler was a character not in Asch's play who Joe invented to play against Asch's melodrama by adding some Chagall-like whimsy while also enabling the actors to make more fluid transitions between the upstairs and downstairs scenes. Rebecca Taichman has co-opted this fiddler, changed it from male to female and also used it very dexterously to make the transitions more fluid. Again, Rebeca was there for runthroughs, she was there for the opening, I believe, and, after the curtain went down on Indecent, I had no doubt that she had co-opted this idea from Joe Chaikin.
Which is perfectly legal, of course. Joe - who died in 2004 - did not copyright his direction, something that is rarely done. But then give the man credit. I don't recall reading any interviews in which Rebecca gives Joe the credit he deserves for the serious influence he had on her work. It certainly wasn't in her acceptance speech at the Tonys, and it should have been. Still, however much this neglect of Joe's influence may have bothered me - and it did - it pales beside the half-truths and outright falsehoods that mar the script. (And remember that Rebecca Taichman is co-creator of this.)
I know the way this is usually done is to start with the murky half-truths and end up in an apoplectic rage with the lies. But there is a lie that bothers me so much that I can't start anywhere else.
This has to do with a line that is quoted from Sholem Asch's play several times, from the scene at the end of the play, when Rivkele has been brought back to her father's house after running off with Manke. "Are you still a virgin?" he asks her. When she tells him that she doesn't know, he flies into a rage, screaming: "One thing I know about is money! It took a year of all the girls working on their backs to make the money to buy the Torah Scroll, and now you are going down there to make the money to pay me back." It's a horrifying line, very effective. The only problem is that Sholem Asch never wrote it. I know this because it was not in the literal translation from the Yiddish that I commissioned when making my adaptation, and because I consulted with Caraid O'Brien, who has translated and adapted her own version of God of Vengeance (performed in New York in 1999) and who was in the 2016 Yiddish production of the play at La Mama, and she assures me that no such line occurs in the text. Not even close. In my opinion, the playwright (Sholem Asch) would have denounced it for two reasons. First, because the brothel-keeper is the tragic hero of the play - aspiring to Godliness even as he continues to exploit young women for money - and this line does not reflect his internal pain, it makes him into a villain. And second, because it evokes the stereotype of the greedy, money-grubbing Jew, something that Sholem Asch worked very hard to avoid.
Actors portray a Berlin stage troupe in a playful moment in INDECENT
Many of the other half-truths and lies in Vogel's play have been detailed by frequent New York Times-contributor Jesse Green, in his review of Indecent for The Vulture. If you believe Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman, the 1923 Broadway production was shut down on opening night and that was it. But that is not true. As Mr Green writes, "The company, after posting bail, actually returned to the theater in time for the matinee, and the verdict against them was in any case overturned on appeal." A murkier issue is whether or not the controversial love scene between the two girls was or was not in the Broadway version. According to the show's producer (who was also a lawyer), that scene was in NEITHER the Off-Broadway version at the Provincetown Players NOR in the Broadway version. But we know this can't be true because several reviewers of the Off-Broadway production complained about this scene in their reviews, calling it "obscene." So it's very possible that this scene also was in the Broadway version - wasn't that after all the main complaint against it? But, again, it's not clear, and so it's fair game for Ms. Vogel to use.
Rebecca Taichman and Paula Vogel
A much bigger problem - and for me, this one is insurmountable - is the production's attempt to link God of Vengeance with the Holocaust. There simply is no link. None. Just like there was no Lemml - the nebishy main character who Paula Vogel invented to give the play a dramatic arc. According to Indecent, the Polish cast of the 1923 production went back to Poland, where they were put into the Lodz ghetto and performed Asch's play in secret to keep spiritually bonded to each other. Where they got this from, I don't know, but it's complete pie-in-the-sky nonsense. Rudolph Schildkraut, the star of the 1923 Broadway production, died in Hollywood in 1930 of a heart attack, not in Lodz, as depicted here. Sholem Asch expressly refused to grant permission for any performances of God of Vengeance from 1933-45 because of his fear that it would be used as anti-semitic propaganda. Does that mean it wasn't performed in the Lodz ghetto? No, it's possible, just as many other plays and songs were performed, to keep the Jewish heritage alive for those poor souls who were doomed. As Jesse Green writes, "I have a problem with plays, however well-intentioned, that hitch their wagon of importance to the Holocaust." Personally, I think this use of the Holocaust for cheap theatrics and sentimental exploitation of the audience is reprehensible. I mean, it does work, and it does ground the play in an emotionally resonant place. But it's not true. And when you subtitle your play "The true story of a little Jewish play," then that's a problem. (Also, there's no way you can call God of Vengeance "a little Jewish play." It's one of the three great Jewish plays, along with The Dybbuk and The Golem.)
Is this important? Is it even worth mentioning, especially since the play touches so many people as is?
In her program note for the production, Paula Vogel remarks on how timely this play is, when "we again are witnessing an upheaval of fear, xenophobia, homophobia, and, yes, Anti-Semitism."
Very true. But this is also the time of "Alternative Facts and Fake News," when we have a president who denies truth and factual evidence in favor of whatever serves his self-interest. In such a climate, it is more important than ever to cling to the facts when they are relevant. This is not in any way to equate Trump World - so truly indecent - with what has been done in Indecent. I both understand and respect the importance of God of Vengeance as a statement of identity and even empowerment for the LGBTQ community. But to my mind this makes it all the more important to stick to the truth when dramatizing this story and to give artistic credit where this is due.
That's how we as artists can honor the legacy of those we've been nourished by. Just as Sholem Asch, complicated and difficult man that he was, has nourished us all through his play from 111 years ago.