Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The 2007 Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville

I’d never been to the notable Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL), which staged its 31st season this year, but the roster of talented women playwrights presented under its auspices drew me to explore what I’d long heard was a hotbed of exciting new projects. Over March 24th and 25th, I saw five plays in two days and reveled in the intensity of the festival atmosphere. In between productions, actors from one show mingled in the lobbies with actors from another. Other spectators began to look familiar as we cycled our way through the productions. Performers could be spotted in the audiences for one another’s shows, watching carefully as they all plied their craft.

Last weekend was apparently the “professionals” weekend, when lots of dramaturgs and other staff from regional theatres and universities around the country descend on the festival to check out the wares. People wandered the spacious ATL facility with badges, and the air crackled with that very particular vibe of people who toil in the same field but don’t often get to spend face-time.

As an academic, I’m not considered a “professional” and enjoyed being on the festival’s fringes. For me, Humana felt like a lark, and I wasn’t disappointed by my luxurious weekend at spectator’s camp.

Here, in order of delight, is my round-up of the shows I saw.

Batch: An American Bachelor/ette Party Spectacle
conceived by Alice Tuan, Whit MacLaughlin, and New Paradise Labs

Alice Tuan’s plays stretch the proprieties of American morality. She stares in the face of all our taboos and preconceptions, and insists that we take a very close look along with her, staging a gaze so intense that everything we thought we knew begins to melt from its heat. Tuan received an MFA in playwrighting from Brown, where she studied with Paula Vogel. Vogel’s spirit of absurdity crossed with her enormity of heart and feeling also imbue Tuan’s work with verve and importance. This collaboration with Whit MacLaughlin and New Paradise Labs, a movement theatre company based in Philadelphia, sees Tuan’s words embellished by a rich physical style that literalizes the lines she crosses.

Batch was staged at The Connection, a gay bar several blocks from ATL, a sprawling two-story corner building with three different bars, video monitors of various sizes playing along the walls, a large lit dance floor graced by the ubiquitous disco ball, and of all things, a theatre in the back of the place borrowed for the occasion. I saw a 5:00 performance and wondered if later in the evening, spectators waded through crowds of dancing, drinking gay men to arrive at the theatre. Such an experience would only underline the complications of heterosexuality that Tuan and NPL viscerally engage.

But for the 5:00 show, we crossed an empty dance floor and wended our way through stale cigarette smoke and left over beer haze into the theatre, where we took seats at tables set in two tiers around a stage raised 10 feet above the floor. The square wooden empty playing space drew attention with its height and its emptiness until the first performer appeared through a square trap set upstage left. Four huge video screens hung from the theatre’s walls, surrounding the audience and the stage with visual images sometimes projected directly from cameras manipulated by actors, sometimes cut from stationary cameras around the theatre, and sometimes culled from video shot at other times, in other spaces.

Unlike some multi-media performances in which video seems a pretentious embellishment that distracts from the live performance, in Batch, video images made the truth tangible and mysterious, as spectators watched previously taped or projected simultaneous images interacting with live bodies. Sometimes, the images created a mirroring effect that extended a moment into infinite time and space; other times, the video images graced a scene with an echo of a poignant moment, or allowed us to focus on an actor’s reaction to a particular line or gesture. The projected images worked scenically, as well as thematically, to enhance the live spectacle Tuan, MacLaughlin, and the six performers created.

Batch takes on the pre-marriage rituals of bachelor and bachelorette parties, exposing the homosocial bonding that leaves actual marriage secondary to this “last chance” to play with same-sex friends. Batch revels in Dionysian rituals of abandon and celebration, in final flings of freedom. These parties, the play suggests, release something primal that (if we let it) would upend the socially sanctioned marriage pact. One of the play’s best jokes is that the “bride” and “groom” barely know one another and have neither kissed nor touched. Their estrangement presents a deft and cynical view of a contract that’s supposed to be sanctified and lasting, but the play’s poignancy lies in the rich familiarity and intimacy it finds in the pre-nup parties.

Tuan and MacLaughlin and company address the gendered dynamics of these affairs with incisive critical wit. The play is staged in two rounds—one for the “women” and one for the “men”—and finishes with a coda in which the bride and groom descend to an underworld (performed below the surface of the stage and projected out via a live video feed or, for all I know, prerecorded and projected). The first round presents the “women” in cherry red cocktail dresses of various cuts, each of whom enters from the mysterious trap door that serves, in true absurdist style, as the site of ideological manipulation and assistance throughout the play.

As each barefoot woman parades up to stage level, accompanied by a vaguely Asian-inflected cover of “The Look of Love,” it’s clear that several of them sport chest hair, beards, and tattoos. Three of the “women,” that is, are men. This cross-gender play goes without comment; the men perform femininity as sincerely (and as critically) as the women. Here on the actors’ live bodies, the constructions of gender blend as seamlessly as the projected video images, all calling into productive doubt what we consider “real.” Betsy Competitive, the “bride” (who looks like a young Meryl Streep), faints and vomits regularly throughout the bachelorette party, a running joke that somatizes her anxiety (and perhaps revulsion) about her pending wedding. None of the other people comment on her reaction; they just scoop her up and move her along.

This first scene establishes that Batch isn’t about what the characters say or even about who they are, but addresses instead something more fundamental, derived from what the performers do and how they relate to each other in the moment. I can’t recall much of the actual dialogue in Batch, but I do remember with stunning clarity visual moments of physical interaction among the performers that spoke expressively about relationships past, present, and future, and the wistfulness with which we move from one moment in our lives to another.

Batch is about liminality, about people poised on that threshold between one thing and another and the reluctance with which we step from the present into the future. The large square trap door emblematizes our constrained choices and yet provides creative ways of managing them. The single entrance to the stage means there’s only one way in or out, but how the performers get there varies with thrilling theatricality. I can’t divine the stage magic that produced these effects, but the performers variously seem to fly from the stage to the under-stage, appearing quickly to fall long distances (as their dresses and hair rise above them with a whoosh of movement); walk sedately down stairs lit from below as their faces glow and the red of their dresses deepens; and slide into what could be a deep abyss, hanging on with their fingernails as some unseen force propels them downward. Alternately, props and people appear from below at various speeds and in unusual positions. As in Slawomir Mrozek’s absurdist drama Tango (1964), the hand of the state seems to encroach on the scene—not from the wings, as in Tango, but from below—handing up props that ensnare the performers in the seductions of liquor and the detritus of the marriage ritual.

Round Two begins with video of a bachelor party in a hotel room, in which the six performers—again, male and female, but this time performing as men—drink to excess and enact the trashing, scatological, virility-boasting practices of male-bonding. When the live performers enter in blue shirts and black pants, the men’s breasts from Round One still poke noticeably through their shirts, and the female performers now wear codpieces that bulge through their slacks. All six play at masculinity, exaggerating and yet strangely humanizing the excesses of socially inscribed roles.

The “groom” is a slight man, still “en-breasted,” who suffers his friends’ intent to inebriate him out of his mind. Once the men liquor up appropriately, a parade of sexy visitors arrive to torment the drunken groom. The first, a platform shoe-wearing stripper dressed to resemble Marie Antoinette, is a tall apparition from another world. Suddenly, the stage is littered with money, bills that stick to the performers’ bare feet and hands, and that seem to stay glued wherever they land. The bills materialize the financial transactions of marriage and sex and capitalism’s deep reach into rituals of heterosexual becoming. The second sexy visitor is “Special K,” a balding man/woman dressed in a form-fitting green gown, who uses a microphone as a dildo, slithering up the groom’s prostrate body then straddling his chest to force the mike into his mouth. The scene is redolent with a homoeroticism that’s both as “natural” and as mediated as any heterosexual act.

In the third part of Batch, after the two gendered rounds, the bride and groom do finally get together and touch, as another version of “The Look of Love” plays in the background. Their interactions are surprisingly tender and moving, given the uproar of gender play and celebration that precedes their coupling. The other four performers, acting now as a chorus of satyrs, appear as non-gendered rams, half-person, half-animal creatures with furry leg-wear and boxing headgear and gloves, who usher the couple through the underworld of marriage.

Batch shifts tone for this last third, engaging more mythological, allusive references that entwine the couple in the plots of loss and longing and entrapment. They descend under the stage, where we watch them on video (whether taped or live isn’t clear, but only adds to the scene’s ethereal quality). They encounter a “Myclops,” whose all seeing, single round eye is located on her one exposed breast, crossing Homer’s race of giants with Sappho’s Amazons. They take tea, as if they’re at Alice’s party through the looking-glass.

Through the Myclop’s eye, the couple see their reflection and fall, Mulholland Drive-like, into an alternate reality in which, dressed finally in the wedding clothes that signal their union, they’re caught running up and down stairwells with locked doors, unable to escape steps that wind about like an Escher sketch. They find their way to the blank hallways of a hotel, but here, too, offers no means of escape.

Although in its last moments, Batch begins perhaps too obviously to speak its subtext, its final descent into myth and archetype is sincere, relevant, and primal. Marriage, after all, is one of western culture’s motivating mythologies, its foundation in property exchange and gendered servitude cloaked under modern veils of romance and destiny. Batch deconstructs this myth, reminding us of the primacy of friendship, the eroticism of our bonds with people we’ve often known much longer than our partners (the incidental queer moments are lovely, including a long, unexplained kiss between the bride and a girlfriend in Round One), and the lurking pitfalls of capitulating to an ideologically driven ritual that promises us adulthood but too often proves a dead end.

Tuan’s collaboration with MacLaughlin and his physical theatre troupe help punctuate her language with schematic, non-realistic yet fully embodied movement absolutely true to the play’s ideas. Each of the six performers’ commitment to their work grounds the experience in the moment and lets spectators understand them not as “characters,” and not as “types,” but as performers in the present of performance. They play out on their bodies various gender roles and variously gendered relationships. They seduce the audience with their willingness to experiment, rather than be entrapped themselves in the limitations of Western cultural dictates regarding bodies and their interactions, emotions and their effect. The performers’ physical and emotional precision, in which every gesture is indeed gestic and meaning-laden, brought Batch alive as a Brechtian experience drenched in thoughtful, heightened emotion.

When Something Wonderful Ends: A History, A One Woman, One Barbie Play
by Sherry Kramer

Kramer’s melancholy, elegiac meditation on her mother’s death and world affairs is a one-woman, 90-minute monologue in which “Sherry”—the character who represents the author onstage, played here by Lori Wilner—tours the audience through her collection of 1960s Barbie dolls, their wardrobe, and their boxes and packing cases that decorate the stage. Out of this simple premise, Kramer stages a intelligent, moving, even gripping analysis of the state of the nation as the American Dream “goes bad.” With acute political clarity (the “vivid clarity that comes after a death,” Sherry explains), Kramer argues that the last forty years of American foreign and domestic policy has revolved around safeguarding the country’s access to oil. Combining a left-oriented history lesson with an exhortation about environmentalism as one way to counter our reliance on the resource that corrupts the nation, Kramer requires the audience to listen to a progressive Jewish woman speak at the intersection of the personal and the political.

The autobiographical piece presents Sherry packing up the family home after her mother’s death. The occasion elicits Sherry’s memories, cherished and regretful, but her monologue addresses mostly her mother’s life, rather than the personal details of her own. Her musings connect world politics to the personal in ambivalent, contrary ways. Intermittently, Sherry shows an Inconvenient Truth-style slide show about the war in Iraq and more broadly about the “petrochemical regime” under which we live, moving in a Brechtian fashion between personal narrative and political analysis.

Speaking directly to the audience, she dresses and undresses her Barbie and Ken dolls, their little costumes pristine and valuable, and puts them in their original boxes and cases while she explains how and why they were manufactured and their complicity with petrochemicals (Barbie is, after all, made of plastic). Barbie’s “impossible proportions,” she relates, were meant to flatter the drape of her clothes, not to model, as the doll came to do, the inability of women’s bodies to conform to her ideal. Sherry rejects or resists what Barbie dolls stand for even while she recalls the pleasure of collecting and playing with them in the early 60s.

She makes room, in fact, for such ambivalence, also letting us know that she has no right to preach about the pervasiveness of petrochemicals, because despite her exhortation about greening ourselves away from our reliance on oil, she drives an SUV. None of us are pure, she suggests; all of us are implicated. But it’s how we come to terms with the dark side of the American Dream that matters. “When did we stop wanting a better world,” Sherry asks, surrounded by antique dolls that beckon her to a vision of gender and heterosexuality that was always constructed and idealized and as false as the righteous claims of politicians who were busy “regime-changing” in the Middle East to ensure the U.S. maintained its oil flow.

Sherry tells us that we need a consumable alternative to petroleum so that we can all get out of bed with the Saudis, but she doesn’t present pat answers. “We can count on greed to find solutions,” she says, indicting capitalism for the “river of fetish and greed that the internet made of the American Dream.” Her implicit plan is to reignite the longing for agency and for the belief that we need to honor a country that promised equality and democracy, rather than submitting to its current “deism,” the verticality of politics based in religious, rather than secular, faith.

Kramer puts Judaism front and center in Wonderful Ends, suggesting it’s an “upgrade in religion,” a kind of “God 2.0,” because with Judaism comes the end of “other worldliness” and a focus on the here and now. She describes carrying out Jewish rituals for the dead, and their loved-ones’ responsibility to honor and remember (although I must admit that I’ve never seen even reform Jews bring flowers to cemeteries as Sherry describes throughout the play. Usually, a visit to a grave is marked with a small rock or pebble, placed on top of the headstone). Religion, she says, “arranges the passage from living to dead”; this, she implies, is plenty. Religion shouldn’t also run countries. Her connection with these memorial rituals keep Sherry connected to something private (her mother) but also deeply public, which is the status of the nation she claims.

One of the ever-changing slides that provide the performance’s scenic décor reads, “I’ve been scared a long time,” again humanizing and personalizing without reducing or trivializing the impact of national policy and ideology. And yet Sherry leaves us hopeful, suggesting that “the miracle we do for our dead is save the world.”
I felt moved and stirred by this gesture of faith and idealism, and proud to hear this story told by a woman whose words and presence captivated the audience with her convincing, well-researched, politically progressive, and astute social and personal critique. She leaves enough room for ambivalence and ambiguity that the story doesn’t sound like a harangue, but a careful analysis and an exhortation to be, if anything, mindful of the contradictions and concessions we make in our own lives. The Barbies she’s collected were made to replicate the nuclear perfection of family and heterosexuality, but it’s clear that Sherry’s is not a domestically driven life. Seeing a woman command political issues, and hearing her interweave her story with personal musings and memories that aren’t about marriage and children provides a refreshing, pleasurable surprise. By the end of the performance, Sherry has neatly packed and stacked at the back the dolls and their clothes and boxes that cluttered stage, leaving our minds and our souls clear to take up Kramer’s challenge to change the world.

The Open Road Anthology, The As If Body Loop, and Strike-Slip

The other plays I saw at Humana less successfully provoked my emotions or my political or intellectual sympathies, although all were valiant attempts to say or do something new in the theatre. The Open Road Anthology was composed of short plays by a variety of playwrights and performed by ATL’s Apprentice Company. The plays linked thematically around the theme of travel and how it founds the American imagination, as well as the ways in which we find our identities by heading out toward a horizon of possibility that’s not always clearly defined. The piece is punctuated with music and songs—provided by the band GrooveLily, and often played by members of the cast—that give the performance a light, rollicking, wistful, always earnest attitude and tone.

A few of the best pieces capture the clarity of theme and character that short plays require. In Rolin Jones’s Ron Bobby had Too Big a Heart, the conventions of senior proms are upended when it’s clear that the girl wearing a blood-drenched dress has conspired to kill someone with her girlfriend. They hit the road, like Thelma and Louise, heading toward some reconfiguration of their dreams. In Ain’t Meat, by A. Rey Pamatmat, a Los Angelenos traveling across the country stops in a roadside diner for a meal, and is seduced with a series of double-entendres by his waiter. Their sweet gay encounter ends when the waiter yells at a waitress he calls “MethMom” that if she doesn’t shut up about their kissing, he’ll send her to be the only straight woman in West Hollywood so she can see how that feels.

Kia Corthron’s Trade puts two women on a New York subway, one wearing a black burka that covers her from head to toe, and the other a flighty barmaid recently arrived from LA. The LA woman chatters at the burka-wearing woman, projecting her vision of otherness and difference and a superficial understanding of politics in the Middle East. “We have lots of diversity in LA,” she says, “but everyone’s driving in their own car.” When the woman wearing the burka answers a cellphone, she’s revealed as an ordinary American who’s wearing the garment to stage a protest. At the end of the short scene, the two women trade clothes so that the woman from LA can see what it’s like to wear coverall garb.

In this very brief, funny play, Corthron crystallizes issues of identification and empathy that overshadow our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the politics of the Taliban, and the detentions at Guantanamo. The collection of short plays trades in standard American dramatic mythos and themes, but the diverse writers and performers twist the conventional into more fruitful, contemporary, and relevant insights, all with a patina of fun and sweetness.

Ken Weitzman’s As If Body Loop thematizes a similar American mythology through football metaphors, and like Wonderful Ends, centers on a Jewish family’s analysis of the politics of the moment. Aaron, Sara, and Glenn are siblings who’ve been deeply affected by traumas both personal and public, which the play unravels in two acts slightly tinted with magical realism. Aaron, the oldest, is a sportswriter with a bad stomach. Sara, the middle, is a social worker who comes down with a mysterious malady that drops her body temperature to 40 degrees and prompts her to repeat cryptic phrases about lists. Glenn, the youngest, breaks out in an unsightly rash when he leaves the house, condemning him to the company and teachings of his mother, who’s some sort of New Age healer.

Weitzman literalizes Antonio Damasio’s notion that when you see someone suffer, you suffer yourself, as a way to paint America post-9/11. Sara’s symptoms derive from her over-empathic sensitivities, which also produce unexplained earthquakes and snowfalls (not so subtle references to the World Trade Center towers crumbling on 9/11 and the ash that fell from the sky in Lower Manhattan). Only when Aaron takes on some of her felt responsibility does she begin to literally warm up and heal. The client with whom he connects is a black man who didn’t pick up his cell phone when his wife called him from the WTC that day, living out his grief through anger. Aaron uses a blocking sled—in a kind of football therapy—to help Martin get back on track.

Although the play’s ethnic politics have potential, the racial politics represent the rather tired cliché of a white man rescuing a black man. While As If is well-meant, it also suffers from tonal and generic confusion. Is this a comedy? A dramedy? A satire? Are we meant to laugh? Cry? Empathize? The characters aren’t drawn well enough to know; at this point, they remain the embodiments of symptoms, rather than fully fleshed out people whose suffering demands witnesses.

Least appealing and successful was Naomi Iizuka’s Strike-Slip, a failed attempt at a Crash-style episodic puzzle of a story of intersecting lives that feels forced and never rises above the obvious. This is surprising for a playwright whose other work—particularly the also episodic but much more theatrically interesting and insightful 36 Views—seems so sharp and sophisticated. Strike-Slip's resolutely domestic dramas center on three different families. A white couple buying an expensive house buries their disagreements and differences under the veneer of heterosexuality. But the man, a seismologist whose work lends the play its operative metaphors, is secretly gay and eventually comes out, leaving his crushed wife to adopt a baby from China by herself. A tyrannical, conservative father governs a motherless Korean family with a suffocating will, although he only wants the best for his first-generation American boy and girl. A righteous mother, who works as the real estate broker who sells the white folks their house, runs her fatherless Latina family, expecting great things from her teenaged son.

As the wheels of fate move, the Latino son has a relationship with the Korean daughter. When she gets pregnant, they marry and he leaves school to work as a mechanic. The Latina mother’s disappointment in her son’s relationship leads her to disown him, which she comes to regret, especially when she finds out she has breast cancer. The Korean son has a one-night stand with the closeted white man, who says he’ll call the kid but never does. The paranoid, trigger-happy Korean shop owning father murders a customer and winds up in jail. Incidental and yet central to all these relationships is a corrupt, undercover African American detective who winds up helping the young Latino/Korean couple to better their lives in a way that’s not exactly legal.

This deliberate, multicultural puzzle could have been interesting and relevant, but it feels forced and way too coincidental, unreal, and didactic. Playwright/director Chay Yew’s staging can’t overcome the very wide proscenium of this stage; he creates flat, uninteresting stage pictures. The unwieldy areas of domesticity and work don’t read as iconically as they should; each area is too isolated, which prevents the characters from careening into each other as they otherwise might. The direction needs more energy and focus; the pacing is deadly, the relationships only sketched. There’s no backstory to any of these characters; we don’t know why we should care about them, and we don’t. Their journeys are adumbrated and empty, and we learn nothing from the two hours we spend with them.

A “strike-slip” is geology’s term for what happens when tectonic plates move past each other. It refers to the unpredictability of earthquakes and to the existence of fault lines that no one knows are there. As such, it’s a neat dramatic metaphor, but Iizuka’s writing and the Humana production leaves the play with a prosaic surface, rather than truly plumbing the more complex potential of the depths to which the title refers.

All these plays are deeply “American,” in that they engage the rituals, conventions, and ideologies of the country and its place in the world. Some focus on individuals and their dreams and failures (As If Body Loop and Strike-Slip), others on the community and its responsibility to help us all live in the face of uncertainty (Batch, When Something Wonderful Ends, The Open Road Anthology). The “America” theatrically presented here is multi-racial and ethnic, sometimes queer, sometimes heterosexual, and offered from mixed gender perspectives in very productive ways.

Glad to have gone,
The Feminist Spectator

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The L Word’s Season Four Grand Finale

I enjoyed this—the fourth—season of The L Word more than any since the first. Producer Ilene Chaiken has returned to form, allowing a pleasing lightness back into the show, and slowing down the race to caricature and stereotype the characters. The star-billed guest artists enhanced the season, and the plot stayed on the more realistic side of outlandish than it has for the last two years. Even Sunday night’s grand finale (see clips from this and other episodes at avoided cliffhanging flourishes, ending wistfully and ambiguously with just enough mystery to keep us anticipating the start of Season Five (since the show has been renewed).

The Season Four finale left our heroines in various states of relationship distress, disorder, and for the first time in a while, pleasure. Max, our transgender hero, showed up only to load a rented van for Bette’s sign-stealing caper, but for long enough to suggest that he’s hesitating to go through with his sex surgery. Max was estranged from the rest of the L Word women this season, spinning out his gender transition mostly at work, which offered the show a chance to address gender discrimination in employment. Max is ostracized when he reveals he’s transitioning, which he does to advocate for a woman at the office who’s being sexually harassed.

Once his boss and co-workers understand Max’s identity, though, they shun him, despite his obvious talents, and the woman he outed himself to protect winds up assigned a major account in his place. When it’s clear Max has to quit, instead of blowing up or speechifying (which the writers could have chosen for his final moment on the job), Max closes his laptop and makes his way around the conference table, shaking hands, thanking people individually, and telling them how much he learned from them. While this polite trans-mentsch says his good-byes, the smug straight people sit chagrined and a little ashamed at their own ignorance and bigotry.

Shane and her new lesbian mommy girlfriend Paige come out to Paige’s son so that they can start spending nights together instead of having sex in cars and other public places (as if there's really something wrong with that). Jared reacts badly, but Shane persuades him that they’ll all be a family and that Shane’s little brother Shay (their father clearly had little imagination where names were concerned) will come live with them, too. The “promise” works and the boy’s down with the plan. I worried, though, that Shane, the champion of promiscuity and non-monogamy, seemed to be promising a nuclear family as the answer to the boy’s homophobia (“I don’t want you to be a lez, too,” he whines to his mom). And in fact, we soon find Shane brushing her teeth in Paige’s bathroom and contemplating a house in the suburbs for them and their kids.

But to her credit, Chaiken (who wrote and directed the episode) intercuts a 1950s-style fantasy sequence through their interactions, representing in tinny, monochrome reds and blues Ossie and Harriet moments of Shane in middle-class suburban male drag and Paige in Leave it to Beaver dresses, both playing at the stereotypical gender and class roles of the era. The critical irony works, and allows for the possibility that the lesbians-with-kids-in-the-suburbs fantasy might sour in Season Five.

After all, we’ve seen Shane reject this domestic scenario before with Carmen, who seemed much less intent on chaining her to a conventional coupled life than Paige and Jared. And Paige emanates a suspicious fragrance; there’s something not quite right about her wholesale embrace of Sapphistry. Or perhaps I don’t trust the character because I’ve heard rumors that the actor playing her (Kristanna Loken) has bad-mouthed The L Word cast, calling them cliquish and cold.

How Paige and Shane’s relationship resolves remains to be seen, but if their sexual encounters are any indication, it doesn't look good. At first, The L Word was the one of the only mainstream representations of lesbian sex to get it even remotely right. But after the first season, the show’s erotic quotient nosedived and hasn’t recovered. Shane and Paige literally go through the motions; there’s no performance of heat, desire, or even love in their awkwardly choreographed, forced couplings. Katherine Moennig’s desperately thin body could be partly to blame; seeing her sharp, jutting bones click through her less than suave faux butch fumblings takes all the ardor out of the scene. Or maybe it’s just that Jennifer Beals and Laurel Holloman were better at faking lesbian sex. And now that Papi’s been defanged as the chart-busting Romeo, Shane bears the burden of the show’s sex, and she buckles under the weight.

In another nice, cynical touch, Helena and her gambling dominatrix boss/lover Catherine bet on whether Shane and Paige will be together in six months. Helena says they will; if she wins, she gets a million dollars and her freedom. If sleazy, filthy rich Catherine wins, Helena signs up for another year of luxuriously indentured sex and wagering. Helena takes the bet, but as Catherine goes off to play the tables, Helena urgently empties her safe into a pillow case. Who knows what this might mean, but it’d be nice to have Helena back in control of her own life and finances. Perhaps Holland Taylor will reappear next season as her once again benevolent mother and give Helena back her inheritance. Although this season humanized Helena significantly, it’s not exactly clear what function the character serves, and watching her run about in sneakers moving boxes and jumping to do Catherine's bidding seems way out of her original aristocratic character.

The finale leaves Jenny, the newly anointed, always irritating diva, literally out to sea--or up the river without a paddle, or whatever metaphor works to describe her literal and figurative situation . At the beach-side going away party for Tasha, who’s being reposted to Iraq, Jenny drags a little yellow raft out into the waves, planning on a float with her new dog, the Pomeranian Sounder (who replaces the shelter dog she bought to be put down by her nemesis’s veterinarian lover earlier in the season).

Somehow, Sounder misses the boat, and trots up to alert Shane that Jenny’s drifted out on the ocean. But since Shane can’t yet speak dog, Jenny sits alone, artfully arranged in the small raft as the sun comes up at the end of the episode. She’s been fired from writing the movie based on her thinly veiled tell-all, Lez Girls, and she’s alienated all her friends and collaborators with her headstrong vanity. This, The L Word tells us in no uncertain terms, is what happens to girls who go bad and turn on their community—they get stuck out on the water without sunscreen.

Devastated by Tasha’s pending return to Iraq, Alice resists going to her send off party until Dana returns from the grave to talk some sense into her. How nice to see Erin Daniels back on the show, even for that brief scene, which gets Alice to the party. But the scene also made me recall how sparkling the relationship between Alice and Dana (and Leisha Haley and Daniels) was before the producers sacrificed Dana to breast cancer. The actors' witty repartee and the open affection between the characters (and the performers) was one of the highlights of the show. Alice hasn’t had a relationship with anyone as appropriate as Dana yet. But she heads off to Tasha’s party, showing up on the beach like a white apparition as Tasha and two of her friends (of color, happily) head in from a walk.

Tasha’s presence this season has lent the show some welcomed racial diversity, but her status as a closeted Army officer strains credulity. It’s doubtful that someone of Tasha’s commitments would endure the L girls' vague liberalism, or their entrenched political ignorance and apathy. The rare political conversations the writers whip up sound false and trite. Politics do better on this show when they’re incidental, references or jokes made in passing, or when they’re grounded in situations (like Max’s work environment) and relationships (like Bette’s with Jodi, who’s deaf and played by Marlee Matlin) than they are delivered in well-meant but wooden, didactic dialogue. Sending Tasha back to Iraq seems a convenient way to dispense with a character who has no future in The L Word's trajectory.

Likewise, stripped of her Casanova-esque sexual randiness, the ubiquitous Papi has lost her way, and her future on The L Word. Her attachment to Kit, the one non-lesbian in the circle (now that Tina’s back in the fold), never made sense. After indulging herself with a couple of alcoholic and sexual benders, Kit goes back to the remorseful Angus and returns to her AA meetings, determined to straighten up (in every sense of the word). Papi hangs on to Kit's group like an appendix holds on to a colon, vestigial and useless. Her other friends of color, who played such good basketball earlier this season, and who seemed a more formidable, complex presence in this mostly white show, disappeared after an episode or two, leaving Papi and Tasha as the sole representatives of another community.

Papi’s down and dirty physicality and her refusal to make a commitment longer than a couple of hours offered a refreshing balance to the other characters’ self-serious searches for mates. But with both Shane and Papi domesticated this season, no one remains to round out the representation of choices for lesbian sexual expression. And if Papi and Tasha go, two woman of color characters could bite the dust.

Cybil Sheperd, who’s done a yeoman’s job with her guest role, finally finds her match when Bette introduces her to Joyce, the divorce lawyer who arbitrated Bette's break-up with Tina, played by the impeccably campy Jane Lynch. Phyllis wants to get a divorce from her disapproving husband (and hopefully from her intolerant daughter); when she meets Joyce, it’s love at first sight. They gambol off into the butch/femme sunset of independent, happy women in their late 50s. Sheperd’s presence, while sometimes ridiculous and always sentimental, nonetheless tried to address the sexuality and desire of older lesbians. When Phyllis visited The Planet earlier in the season, the scene clarified how few places exist in which older lesbians can go to meet other women and socialize, especially when they’re just coming out. Seeing Phyllis walk off happily with Joyce redeemed her with dignity as a bona fide lesbian, even if she was never (not for one minute) believable as the Chancellor of a major university.

The finale also returned to the slapstick humor of the basketball game by sending Alice and Shane on a caper with Bette to steal a sign to give to Jodi. The large, rusted, antique piece of signage that cryptically proclaims “17 Reasons Why” looms over an abandoned warehouse, and the glamour girls press into uncharacteristic action to retrieve it. The basketball scene and this caper take great pleasure in parodying the characters' indolent passivity by throwing them into physical situations for which they're obviously ill-equipped. In this one, Bette, Alice, and Shane clip barbed wires, climb fences, throw meat to distract guard dogs, fall through windows, climb rooftops, and disassemble iron-cast signage, all without breaking a nail. In their hapless determination, they resemble Lucy and Ethel playing at Ocean's Eleven.

(jenniolson writes in her blog on the Our Chart web site that the "17 Reasons Why" sign was a real architectural and emotional landmark in San Francisco's Mission District for many years, until it was dismantled inexplicably and replaced by an illegal billboard that looms over the lesbian neighborhood to this day. She writes, "Erected in 1935, the 17 Reasons Why sign was a terrific Depression era commercial advertising structure, which originally sported neon tubing and stood as a neighborhood landmark promoting the Redlicks Furniture Store." Check out her very interesting history of the sign and its current status at The one in the show was a facsimile made by The L Word props folks.)

This season recuperated Bette back into the fold, and even let her friends tease her for the first time. Although Bette’s lost none of her sophistication, and although she still seems older and wiser than her friends, the writers let other characters poke fun at her foibles. Jennifer Beals plays great deadpan, listening to Tina and Kit and the others as they tell her that she’s controlling, that she makes mistakes when she’s scared, and as they enumerate all the ways she misfires in a relationship. Bette in fact has lost Jodi to an art commission in upstate New York. Bette evinces a kind of cluelessness that makes her well-wrought and well-played character that much more endearing. When Bette shows up in a field New York in the last scene driving a tractor towing the reassembled “17 Reasons Why” sign behind her toward the outdoor artwork Jodi's musing over, the moment is campy and sweet and does indeed win Jodi back.

This leaves Tina pining for Bette in the season’s wistful final moment. After all the vituperative recriminations of Season Three, Tina and Bette pulled together in Season Four to raise the rarely seen Angelika and to renew their friendship, if not their partnership. Sexual tension resurfaces between them, but Tina feels most caught by her resurgence of love and longing. Despite the ardor of Kate (played by the tough, sexy Annabella Sciorra), the director she’s hired to shoot the film adaptation of Jenny’s book, Tina’s stuck on Bette, feeding her lines like Cyrano so that she can win back Jodi’s affections. When Bette asks Tina for lines to deliver to Jodi, Tina tells her to say that she loves her and that she’d do anything for a second chance, which we know, as in Cyrano, is exactly what Tina wants to say to Bette. They misread each other’s cues and go off searching for their next relationship, when the woman they should be with is the one they both already lost.

Even the musical score improved this season, remanding Betty’s atrocious theme song to the opening credits and selecting popular singers with poignant lyrics to underscore the show’s moods. Toshi Reagon guest starred in the last episode, with her booming, plangent voice and affecting guitar providing the background for Tasha’s beach-side going away party. Finishing the season without the overwrought pyrotechnics of Bette driving off into the dark with her co-parented daughter in the back seat of her car was a welcome relief. The season ended as it ran, on a wistful, warm, funny, sweet, and human note.

And so it goes for the L girls of Vancouver (sorry, LA). Although I don’t think I’ll ever again feel the desperate sense of loss I experienced at the end of the first season, knowing the story wouldn’t continue for another nine months, I find myself ready to buy the fourth season DVD and to wait, distracted but eager, for the start of the fifth.

Sated, sapphically,
The Feminist Spectator

Sunday, March 18, 2007

I Think I Love My Wife

Chris Rock’s just released comedy, I Think I Love My Wife, stars Rock as Richard Cooper, an upper-middle class investment banker whose seven-year, now sex-less marriage to an elementary school teacher bores him silly. Based on French New Wave director Eric Rohmer’s Chloe in the Afternoon, Rock’s adaptation turns in a slight comedy that documents Cooper’s slide in and out of sexual temptation. Life and sex options present themselves in the lovely countenance and luscious body of “old friend” Nikki Tru, played by the inestimable Kerry Washington (who deserves much better material, although she manages to wrangle a solid and smart—not just sexy—performance from what Rock, who wrote and directed the film, hands her here).

I Think . . . offers some promising social observations about race and class, but fails dismally to think in intelligent, progressive ways about gender and sexuality. Narrated by Rock’s Richard Cooper, the film winks and nods at the audience from the start, as he introduces what looks like his perfect family (a beautiful, professional wife, played by Gina Torres, two adorable children, one girl, one boy, a crisply landscaped and stately Westchester house, and all the other accoutrements that come with the paycheck of a Wall Street drudge). But when the camera first pulls back to frame Cooper leaving his domestic habitat for the Metro North train into the city, he looks out at the audience with bemused dismay, his image captioned “bored.”

These interjections of pointed (or to be more precise, pointing) editorial comments try to raise the level of this comedy to social satire, but it remains tethered to frat boy sexual humor infused with a strangely sad poignancy about the inevitability of assuming the stifling trappings of adulthood. The film makes it obvious that Richard is unhappy in his ritzy neighborhood (he’s the only person of color waiting for the train each morning), and dissatisfied with his high-powered job (where he knows by name the other people of color who work in his firm, one of whom is a cleaning woman and the other, a janitor) for reasons that have a lot to do with the singularity of his race in these resolutely white settings. But at the same time, the narrative insists, evidence to the contrary, that Richard’s problems really stem from his wife’s refusal to have sex. What the film intimates is a social problem it too quickly lets slide into a privatized, personal problem. His wife Brenda has become more interested in draperies than in his penis, leaving Richard to fantasize about women he sees on the train and on the streets of Manhattan.

At the banking firm where he toils, primly monitored by two white middle-aged female secretaries and George, a white middle-aged male colleague/friend (played by a wry and dissolute Steve Buscemi), Richard feels like a token but molds himself to the demands of his place in the firm. He wears sleek, expensive suits with silk ties, and holds himself like he’s born to the pedigree boasted by his prominently displayed degree from Columbia. The film gives nary a hint of his backstory, until Nikki Tru reappears in his life after an eight-year hiatus to catapult Richard back into a moment before the sober responsibilities of bread-winning and fathering and domestic husbandry descended to ruin his fun.

Nikki was Richard’s friend Nelson’s girlfriend. When she left Nelson, he tried to kill himself. We meet the poor schlub later in the film, and note that the bespectacled, straight-laced guy who reeks of “mama’s boy” is still pathologically hung up on his old girlfriend. This is the power of the Tru siren song; her galvanizing sexuality and intemperate spirit of adventure makes these men feel young and powerful. She good-naturedly hounds Richard at his office, raising the eyebrows of his morals-policing secretaries and even sympathetic George, who runs his own game of sexual infidelity with office temps. But George doesn’t take it seriously and no one seems to judge him for his indiscretions, as they do Richard. George keeps Viagra in his car's glove compartment, and can have sex with an array of women then go home at night to kiss his wife without compunction. Richard, on the other hand, has “feelings,” George tells him sadly, which makes it difficult to be an adept adulterer.

Indeed, the story tugs Richard’s feelings every which way as it proceeds to its inevitable conclusion. He loves his kids, scrambling across the floor to play with his daughter, but Nikki’s attentions make him feel like a kid again. She takes him to a car show, where they sit in the front seat of a sporty Porsche and fantasize about owning it. They play driving simulators together, hysterical at their video crashes and careering turns. She shows him a neat game where they sit on the windowsill of his office and throw dollar bills out the window, watching hapless pedestrians race to scrape the cash off the sidewalk. They make race jokes together, critiquing instantly and empathically how racial differences play out in almost every interaction, from crowded elevators filled with buttoned-down white people to the scramble-for-the-money-game where obviously well-heeled white men grab the cash from homeless people of color.

Nikki and Richard share a sense of their own outsiderness, not for how it oppresses them, but for how their analysis empowers them to be aware of moving through a world in which they know race matters. Brenda, on the other hand, makes Richard spell “white” and “black” in front of their daughter, hiding from her some truth about race that Nikki, loyal to her name, stands by with a rather appealing critical knowingness. Nikki won’t assimilate; Brenda accepts it as her rightful destiny.

While this narrative thread would make a smart, perceptive indie film, I Think I Love My Wife reneges on its promise and harnesses its story to the sexual possibility Nikki dangles in front of Richard with every move. She needs him to recommend her for a hostessing job at a restaurant, and to help her break up with a homicidal boyfriend, but she also needs his attention and his desire as evidence of her own power and agency. He resists the urge to have sex with her, but his longing for the unfettered, youthful possibility she represents in his life is nearly as distracting.

Brenda suspects something’s wrong and accuses Richard of infidelities he hasn’t, technically, committed. But when he comes home late, his clothes awry, and his excuses lame, she speaks to him like a child and he shrivels under her disapproval. Brenda isn’t his wife, she’s his mother, a withholding nag who reminds him of his domestic duties without giving him the sex he thinks is his married due. She emasculates him, while Nikki pumps him up to feel virile and heroic.

Richard joins Nikki in an unexpected, disastrous (and narratively unnecessary) trip to DC to cut her ties with her ex, which gets Richard beat senseless and nearly causes him to lose his job when their return flight is delayed and he misses a meeting. Brenda is apoplectic, so his marriage, too, nearly ends. This push to the brink snaps Richard out of his infatuated fantasy. He stops taking Nikki’s calls and hurries back into the family fold in a montage of scenes shot like Kodak moments ,with his wife and his children and Santa and the Easter Bunny and various other moms and dads (all white) singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” in nursery school classrooms while sitting in circles on the floor. Although the film wants to tell us that this is his proper milieu, you can’t help feeling Rock/Richard’s helpless acquiescence to this utter superficiality.

When Nikki reappears months later, suddenly professionalized and polished, sophisticated and mature, to visit Richard at his office wearing a lovely cream linen suit instead of a silken fire engine red cocktail dress, she’s found herself her own man. She’s decided that she isn’t getting any younger and should embrace the married-with-children destiny that descends on these characters with grim inevitability. Nikki doesn’t love the man she intends to marry; she just realizes that she’s 32, not 22, and that her sex appeal is already fading (another of the film’s more unbelievable assertions).

Nikki invites Richard to her place ostensibly for one last goodbye but actually to consummate their flirtation before they settle into their boring “normal” lives. After some barely convincing indecision, he slips off his wedding ring and follows her directions to her home. But even though Nikki’s tarted up in the lacy, barely-there underwear we know Richard loves, and even though she wears skyscraping catch me/fuck me heels that she hints she’ll keep on in bed, and even though Richard approaches his mission with appropriate zeal, when push comes to shove, he can’t follow through. Stripping off his tie, he catches himself in a mirror in Nikki’s bedroom and, in one of the film’s more odious substitutions, realizes that he’s a father, not an adulterer, and stops himself from going through with the act that will, according to the film’s logic, threaten everything. While Nikki languishes nearly naked on her bed, calling out to Richard not to go, he literally runs home to his wife. They resolve years of marital discord in a matter of moments with wailing musical accompaniment and theatrical lip-syncing to lyrics meant, I presume, to underline and satirize the high drama of the moment. Richard and Brenda promise to be close to each other, to have sex with each other, and to live together happily every after.

So, of course, Richard loves his wife. But what a sad state of affairs when marriage is painted as an obligation for men and women, when men are infantilized by their wives, when women are represented as mothers or whores, when African Americans are secluded in white enclaves and call it success, when people compromise vitality for deadening conformity, when being like everyone else, regardless of your race and your gender, is more important than your own aspirations. Can’t a pretty smart comedian make a movie that commits to a social critique instead of pretending nothing’s wrong with this picture? Can’t Rock imagine instead how to buck a system that whitewashes difference and squanders our talents, our desire, and our knowledge of how corrupt it is to want what the (white) Jones’s have?

The Feminist Spectator