THE DANGERS OF LIVING - One Play, Five One-Person Shows

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.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Simon Stephens, adapted from the novel by Mark Haddon

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.

MY JANIS by Arianna Veronesi

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."

OUR GREAT TCHAIKOVSKY by Hershey Felder

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.

TRANSMISSION by Jade Beauvoir

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.

WET: A DACAmented Journey by Alex Alpharoah

 

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.

 

 


A Very Candid Alexandra Billings Wants Only Screams of Laughter

Transparent star Alexandra Billings' latest autobiographical performance piece S/HE & ME: A THEATRICAL CABARET will be playing at The Renberg Theatre opening this Thursday June 1, 2017. Acting since 1968, Alexandra can legitimately claim that she's the first transgender actress to perform practically every role she's taken on.

Alexandra took a moment from her busy rehearsal week to answer a few questions.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Alexandra.

You will be performing your show S/HE & ME: A THEATRICAL CABARET at The Renberg Theatre. What can audiences expect to experience?

The show is about my personal journey into my own humanness.  It's a musical autobiography that centers around my wife Chrisanne, and my marriage, and my parents' marriage.  We all met and married around the same age, as well as, the relationship between myself and my younger male self. 

You've worked with, and at, The Los Angeles LGBT Center's Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center's Renberg Theatre before. What elements of this place keeps bringing you back?

The history of it.  There is great LGBT history that lives in the walls of these buildings, and so we get to continue that by telling various queer stories. 

You've written stage shows, and have a PBS documentary on your fabulous life. Would it be safe to say your life's an open book?

No.  It's not.  I know it seems that way, but it's not.  There's a lot of stuff I keep to myself. 

Your website has admissions from yourself that's very candid. (i.e., You once spent an entire day showing your vagina to Joseph Fiennes.) Is there nothing you refuse to cop to?

No, there isn't.  I'll cop to it all.  As long as I did it. 

Who has your role model growing up? Was there a celebrity that you looked up to?

A celebrity?  There's people I admired.  I admire Judy Garland, but I certainly don't want her life. But looking back, I did lead her life; though I just moved through it a little better than she did.

Alexandra Billings performs during the 27th Annual LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards held at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre on January 17, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

Your father Robert Billings was the musical director for the L.A. Civic Light Opera House for almost 20 years. Growing up surrounded by music and musicians, did you ever want to be anything other than in show biz?

Yes, I wanted to be a teacher, because that's what both my parents were.  And now I am. 

You earned your MFA from Cal State Long Beach. Was that in Theatre?

Well, yes, Theater Arts, but also, pedagogy.  

Did you have a 'practical' fall-back occupation?

I could say teaching, but teaching was never steady.  Prostitution... that was steady. 

When did Scott Billings become Alexandra Billings?

That's a loaded question.  There's no delineation.  There's no line.  Transitioning is not like shoe shopping.  You don't go out looking for flats one day and end up with a pair of heels. 

You started your drag career as Shanté at the now defunct Club Victoria in Chicago. What was the Drag Scene like in Chicago (your other childhood home) in the early 1980s?

It was magical and sparkly and beautiful.  And then suddenly, it wasn't. 

What were the circumstances in which you first met another transgender person? Before you started doing drag?

I stumbled into a club in Chicago called Club Victoria.  They were having a talent night, which I assumed meant "Talent," like singing and dancing.  It didn't mean that at all.  So I decided to strip. I showed up in the dressing room with ten of what I assumed were Las Vegas showgirls.  Until they started talking, and then I knew I was home.

Please excuse me if this next question is stupid or offensive - Would you say that identifying one's self as a drag queen would be a baby step for a questioning transgender boy?

It's actually kind of a great question.  I would say that it's less about whether it's a step forward or not, and more about a lack of education.  If a trans boy identified himself as a drag queen, that denotes behavior, and not spiritual movement.  So let's just be careful about how we talk about the younger trans generation.  Let's be clear.  

Would you share an experience you had that you just had to laugh, or you would start crying?

My whole life is ironic and makes me laugh. 

Was, and is it, a heavy mantle to shoulder as the first transgender female to be cast in a transgender female television role (2003's ABC-TV Movie: Romy and Michelle - A New Beginning)?

Alexandra Billings performs during the 27th Annual LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards held at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre on January 17, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

We found out that's not true.  The real first trans person made herself aware to me when she read that I was claiming that.  She was in, like a Battlestar Galactica episode, or something like that.  I'll have to find out. 

You can currently on staff at your alma mater Cal State Long Beach as an associate professor of theatre. Do you teach Viewpoints as well there?

Yes.  That's all I teach.  And I was recently hired at USC. 

Can you describe for the uninitiated in three sentences or less, what Viewpoints principles are?

Viewpoints is the matrix of human behavior. Period. 

As an activist for transgender rights, what do you see as the next important step in achieving complete transgender rights?

What do you mean by "complete"?  In order for us to live in full equality, we're going to have to deal with each other on a much deeper level.  The trans community is going to have to be more visible, and our allies are going to have to be more vocal.  And that's true of every marginalized community.  I think.

Humor must be a major element in your daily life. Would you agree that a funny delivery gets a serious message across much easier than a serious lecturing one?

I think a truthful delivery gets the message across. You're not funny if you're trying to be funny. 

Besides the already renewed season four of Transparent, what projects does Alexandra Billings have in the immediate future?

S/HE & ME opening this weekend at The Renberg Theater.  And I start teaching at USC this Fall. 

What would be the most satisfying audience reaction to S/HE & ME: A THEATRICAL CABARET for you be?

That they don't walk out screaming.  That would be satisfying. 

Thank you again, Alexandra! I look forward to experiencing your THEATRICAL CABARET!

For ticket availability and show schedule through June 11, 2017, log onto

www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre