Friday, December 12, 2008


Sarah Kane’s play is one of the most difficult in the repertoire of contemporary theatre. This isn’t because Blasted is hard to understand—it’s in fact quite transparent about what it means. Neither is it because the play’s form is terribly unconventional. Kane’s interventions into the typical arc of narrative and her literal deconstruction of the physical space in Blasted address her preoccupations with a devolving theatrical structure apparent in much of her work.

The play’s difficulty lies in the demands it makes on actors to embody horrific actions prompted by the play’s representation of an eternal war and the cruel necessities required for social survival. Blasted’s complexity also comes from the demands it makes on spectators to witness these actions and come to terms with our own complicity in or responsibility to what they imply.

I’ve taught Blasted often, mostly in undergraduate classes where one of the first questions we raise to Kane’s play is how in the world it can be staged. The many brutal acts presented for the audience’s consideration escalate in their intensity over the course of the play from sexual assault to cannibalism. Kane’s stage directions describe each act with almost prosaic matter-of-factness and no real assistance in how to manage the theatrical sleight-of-hand necessary to make them look real. Because violence—military, social, sexual, gendered, raced—pervades the play, it requires evidence of its effects: blood running from the actors’ eyes and from between their legs; the corpse of a baby that a character consumes, leaving a gaping red wound where he’s chewed at its flesh.

By the play’s end, the excessive violence has moved into Grand Guignol territory, running so over-the-top that it only underlines how the play refuses realism and everything for which it stands. That spectators aren’t inured to brutality by Blasted’s final image might in fact be Kane’s point. In director Sarah Benson’s excellent production at Soho Rep, the violence remains ghastly even as it gets so extraordinary it can’t possibly be believed. If you’re not moved by what Kane and Benson force you to witness, I imagine you’re at least compelled to examine why you’re able to protect yourself from the production’s emotional impact.

Benson’s production of Blasted progresses physically from a scene of bourgeois propriety to one in which the world has been turned completely upside down, literally blasted off its hinges by an unnamed, escalating conflict that moves from outside to in. The audience gazes (for a bit too long, while ushers make sure every seat in the house is filled with wait-listed spectators) at the pre-set, which looks like an up-scale, corporate hotel room, with bed linens in muted taupes and ivories, and matching curtains and rich woodwork all aligned to be comfortable but anonymous.

Into this highly conventional scene comes Ian and Cate, a most unusual couple, the nature of whose relationship is difficult to distinguish for most of the play. He seems a seedy businessman of some sort, wearing a rumpled shirt and suit, until he takes off his jacket to reveal a gun hanging from a holster under his arm. If the gun persuades spectators to read him as a man with special (and state-sanctioned) authority, that presumption is disabused when he calls in a story to an editor and later admits that he’s a journalist. But the gun is his to wield when he likes, and he does, usually in the sadistic sexual play he coerces Cate to perform.

The proximity of sex and violence in Blasted is underlined in this production by the revolver’s omnipresence. The prop marks how the characters trade power back and forth (as well as representing one of the most potent semiotic signs in the history of theatre). Ian’s gun stops being dominant only when a rifle enters the scene, trumping the hand weapon in brute force.

Ian’s gun underlines his masculinity—in some ways, it is his masculinity, since before long, it’s clear that his maleness needs propping up with external help. Early in the first scene, he strips off his clothes and asks Cate to put her mouth on him; when she refuses, doubled over in laughter, he says, “No? Fine. Because I stink?” The stench of Ian’s mortality infuses the play and the production. He’s dying, in fact, before he’s killed, his lungs collapsing (even as he continues to chain-smoke) and his liver corroded by cirrhosis (even as he continues to swallow pints of gin and glasses of champagne).

Reed Birney plays Ian with such conviction that his coughing spells—which we hear when he steps offstage to the bathroom, and later see, as he spits up blood onto a pillow—are unnerving and revolting, as though he’s turning himself literally inside-out as he tries to breathe. Despite his dance with death, Ian obsesses about sex, masturbating when Cate refuses him, fornicating with her listless body when she faints from one of her frequent, inexplicable spells, and taunting the young woman about her lack of experience and attractiveness, even as his sexual demands on her grow more forceful and lewd.

The sight of Birney’s middle-aged white body forcing itself onto Cate is repulsive but poignant, as if Kane (and Benson) suggest that male power prevails despite its packaging. Part of the terror Ian provokes is his utter ordinariness; as played here by Birney, he’s neither young nor virile, muscular nor particularly good-looking. The power of his masculinity defines him even as it kills him, but it seems ordained culturally rather than biologically in this production.

The enigmatic young Cate (Marin Ireland) seems to accompany Ian to this room willingly, yet she resists all his sexual advances. She appears somehow disabled both mentally and physically; her vocabulary is simple, her speech halting, and she suffers what could be epileptic fits that send her into trembling paroxysms from which she passes out cold. And yet as the play grows ever more grisly, she alone of the three characters—and the only woman—finds her strength.

Ian rapes her; she wakes curled into a fetal ball on sheets covered in bright red blotches of blood. Although she’s clearly hurt, she’s also angry, and proceeds to exact revenge on an increasingly hapless Ian. As his physical condition deteriorates, she thrives. Cate ends up the survivor, and upends the power balance between her and Ian by becoming his protector and nurturer, reversing the roles and expectations Kane establishes at the start.

Ireland (late of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles) plays Cate with utterly convincing, strangely appealing fortitude. The role requires the character to be at once nondescript and strange enough to hold interest, a balance Ireland strikes with emotional intelligence and physical precision. We’re never invited to identify with Cate (or with either of the male characters, for that matter), but in Ireland’s grounded, meticulously modulated interpretation, she becomes increasingly admirable and always compelling.

The play progresses scene by scene, with each detailing the degradations of Cate’s and Ian’s bodies and the space in which they try but don’t succeed to relate to one another. A soldier (Louis Cancelmi) enters at the end of the second scene, when Cate has escaped Ian’s clutches through the bathroom window. The power dynamic turns instantly, as the soldier (nameless and iconic) kicks aside Ian’s gun and orders the older man around with the point of his rifle.

This soldier appears to be of color, although it’s hard to tell the shade of his skin underneath the filth and blood and muck that cake his face and arms. He speaks with accented English of indistinguishable provenance. These visual and aural choices ensure that the soldier (called in the text simply “Soldier”) appears both non-specific and ubiquitous, a representation of the “Other” with whom the West is at war now and always.

The soldier quickly trumps Ian’s masculinity and his control over the scene. Race and physical and social stature matter not at all in a world where only the size of one’s gun bestows authority and power. If the hotel room was ever private space—given that it’s only, after all, a corporate illusion of “home”—the soldier’s invasion makes the first step toward the ever blurring boundaries between outside and inside, public and private, in which this conflagration takes place. The world (nominally somewhere in the UK) at which Ian has sneered through the hotel room’s window blinds—observing what he calls a “Wogland” being destroyed by “slag”—has permeated the room. The “other” has met him on his own turf to assert hegemony.

The political turns quickly personal, as Soldier sates his hunger by wolfing down the breakfast Ian ordered for himself and Cate, and then turns his fascination to Ian’s body. Although Ian asks repeatedly if the soldier will kill him, Soldier protests that if he did, he’d destroy his only companion, and would be alone and lonely. Where earlier in the play, Ian wanted Cate to end his already shortening life, once the soldier arrives, some primal impulse for self-preservation asserts itself and Ian doesn’t want to die. Ian watches the soldier eat his food; Ian sits pinned to his chair across the room, gasping for breath.

Birney pants loudly, mechanically, almost like a dog, and with palpable, ancient anxiety. His straightforward action, made almost dispassionately yet with full conviction, says more about the moment than might a more emotive, expressive choice. Birney as Ian simply pants, and spectators can feel him dripping with fear. The sound of his terror accompanies the soldier’s messy gorging like some elemental symphony.

In the script, Kane says that the soldier “very quickly devours both breakfasts. He sighs with relief and burps.” What our eye scans in seconds on the play’s page extends over a longer period of time in production. Even though the soldier wolfs down the meal, minutes go by as we watch him eat. We see the character/actor take every bite, chew it, take another, chew it, and digest it. The temporal dimension of live performance reminds us again of mortality—the actor’s and our own. Although he arrives on the scene as a malignant force, his hunger makes him human, and his determination to survive reminds us that he, too, is mortal.

The soldier’s hands are filthy and his face and arms are covered in black tar and blackening blood. His military uniform—unmarked by nation or ethnicity—is grimy and torn, as though he’s been in the trenches forever. Cancelmi, as the soldier, eats Ian’s food with an almost spiritual hunger, using his fingers to wipe up every morsel, pushing crumbs into his mouth without swallowing, wrenching every bit of nourishment from the meal as if he hasn’t eaten in a very long time.

Cancelmi’s deeply physical performance is intuitive and sensual. He plays the soldier as if his body has become a permeable membrane, soaking up information, sustenance, and sensation. When the soldier searches the room, he knows a woman has been present because he can smell the sex. He finds Cate’s underwear, which he rubs over his face with physical hunger. When he announces that Cate is missing, he mounts the bed and urinates on the pillows, marking his territory like a dog. Just as he makes his mark, as his piss streams onto the bedding, the world tears apart.

The blast that rends the room (and the play and the set) is loud, terrifying, and wholly unexpected, startling spectators with the sudden vehemence of the cataclysm. Just as the soldier—the underclass, the person of color, the “other”—comes to power, the world as we know it (with Kane always questioning just who comprises that “we”) begins to end. Dissonant sounds accompany the abrupt black-out and echo over the long moment the audience is plunged into darkness. Metal crashes against metal, steel seems to tear into pieces, motors rev and roar, until finally, the sounds of the apocalypse fade into rain pounding on the roof.

Ian and the soldier are even more bloodied and disheveled when the lights come up. The once pristine hotel room has completely disintegrated: the pretty wood that framed the bed now hangs askew, forcing spectators to watch the remainder of the play with a kind of canted vision. The door has fallen off its hinges, opening the room to a hallway that no longer seems to exist. The flooring has torn off; Ian has been thrown into the cavern of the under-stage, amongst steel beams and debris. The lighting has grown harsh, intrusive, inescapable, and cold.

Without registering their changed circumstances, except that his hunger and thirst is slated, the soldier approaches Ian, touching him, taunting him, refusing to kill him. Instead, he turns Ian on his belly and mounts him, pulling down Ian’s trousers and his own, lying on top of Ian’s back, holding his shoulder, murmuring into his ear, penetrating him, and crying hysterically and wordlessly.

This explicit rape scene feels interminable; we see (and practically feel) every thrust and shudder of the soldier’s sex and Ian’s violation. And yet the scene’s intimacy surprises almost as much as it repulses. The soldier cries with inarticulate grief that’s never named yet profoundly felt. He holds on to Ian literally as if for dear life, clinging to a stranger he can only reach by exercising the artificial power of his rifle. Ian suffers under the soldier’s weight and his sexual violence. But both men seem pitiful here, reduced to connecting with another human being only through their mutual degradation.

At the end of the scene, the soldier pulls Ian toward him with a gesture that looks almost tender, and then eats Ian’s eyeballs out of his face. Kane’s stage directions say, “The Soldier grips Ian’s head in his hands. He puts his mouth over one of Ian’s eyes, sucks it out, bites it off, and eats it. He does the same to the other eye.” In time and space, such actions can hardly be as mundane as they sound in Kane’s description.

In this production, the Soldier eats out Ian’s eyes in a final, primal act of urgent connection, as if by ingesting these organs, he will achieve Ian’s vision, and will bond with him in some mutual if artificially ordained act of insight. He chews Ian’s eyeballs with primordial need as Ian howls in pain, and the scene crashes to black. When the lights rise a moment later, the Soldier lies curled in a ball upstage near the door, away from Ian, presumably dead. Ian is left to haunt the bombed landscape, his empty eye sockets filled with bright red blood, blind.

Cate wanders back into what’s left of the room holding a baby bundled in a dirty blanket. Its mewling cries (which, through a bit of deft stagecraft, seem to come directly from Cate’s arms) rise then peter out, as Cate soon announces that the baby is dead. She rips floorboards from center stage under which she lays the body, ripping up pieces of Ian’s coat to tie two pieces of wood into a makeshift cross. Cate prays for the baby, “just in case,” then leaves to look for food, implying that in this new economy, she can sell herself in exchange for sustenance. She leaves Ian alone with the soldier’s body.

Director Benson leads the audience through several quick-cut tableaux of Ian’s existential despair as he tries to survive on his own. He cradles the dead soldier in his arms; he masturbates ineffectively; he shits; and finally, he digs up the baby’s body and bites into its flesh, chewing cravenly. Then he rewraps the body, places it back in the hole, and climbs in after it, until only his head—his eye sockets empty, torn, and bloodied—protrudes from the floor. In the script, Kane says, “He dies with relief.”

In production, though, given that we can no longer see his eyes, and that Birney’s face is caked in dried stage blood, spectators can’t quite divine his demise. In fact, when it starts to rain on Ian, Birney can’t help but react to the water pouring directly onto his head. After his scripted death, Kane says, “It starts to rain on him, coming through the roof. Eventually.” Then Ian says, “Shit,” resurrected into a world in which he’s still blind and still trapped, still excremental and elemental.

Cate reenters what’s become the graveyard of the stage (and the world) in a virginal white shift, bearing food: a sausage (even though earlier in the play, she’s repulsed by meat), bread, and gin. She sits by Ian, remarking that he’s “sitting under a hole,” an epistemologically impossible place that Ian inhabits nonetheless. He’s become Oedipus as Winnie in Happy Days, neatly bridging tragedy and the absurd in a way only available in theatre and performance.

Cate squats beside him, wraps herself in a hotel sheet, breaks off bits of bread, and feeds several crusts into Ian’s mouth, washing them down with gin. Reduced to acting with only his mouth, Ian/Birney intones, “Thank you,” as the lights go to black.

Blasted ends with a limited but clever and able young woman sustaining a man who’d once been her oppressor, offering a glimpse of forgiveness and cleansing gratitude. The final, quiet moment in Benson’s production offers the audience the barest sense of relief and peace, after we’ve been shaken emotionally and physically. (The noise that covers the scene changes is loud enough to make the theatre’s floorboards and seats tremble and rock.) Cate feeding Ian represents Blasted’s only moment of grace, and Kane and Benson temper its effect by placing this final exchange in a post-apocalyptic world in which such connections can hardly make a difference.

Kane’s brutal, unrelentingly dark vision of social relations is wrenching, perhaps more so at a time when American culture grasps at the possibilities of hope. In Kane’s dystopia, redemption isn’t possible. But perhaps the image of Cate breaking bread with the much reduced Ian represents a shred of potential for mutual human sustenance to prevail over the voracious, cut-throat competitions of recent history.

Kane’s disturbing vision reads, to me, as profoundly feminist, since Blasted deconstructs the social building blocks of gender and power even as it lays bear colonialism, imperialism, misogyny, and racism. After writing five short, elliptical, grimly powerful and structurally innovative and intense plays, Sarah Kane committed suicide. She was 28. The Soho Rep production is Blasted’s first American premiere. It’s a rich, devastating, experience of theatre, politics, and insight, which demonstrates the potential of live theatre to literally rock our world.

Moved and provoked,

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Road Show

John Doyle and Stephen Sondheim make a dazzling theatrical couple. In Road Show, their third collaboration in nearly as many years, Doyle once again devises a theatrical milieu for Sondheim’s music and lyrics that simmers the project into an acid trace reduction, then finds physical metaphors that etch the show into the audience’s consciousness and conscience. But the stark Brechtian environment of Road Show is tempered by its strangely appealing emotionality, a new element of the Doyle/Sondheim collaboration. After the chilly bloodlust of Sweeney Todd (2005) and the icy remove of Company (2006)— Doyle-directed Sondheim revivals notable for using their actors as the shows’ musicians—Road Show encourages the audience not only to consider the story at hand but to feel our way through the tale it recounts and its contemporary resonances.

Sweeney and Company seemed to take place in a grand nowhere of Doyle’s imagination. His set design and direction roots Road Show in the palpable materiality of the late 19th and early 20th century history of American finance and real estate development. Wooden boxes and steel file cabinets, late 19th century architects’ drafting tables and drawers, cardboard suitcases and ramshackle closets compose the set. Every piece of décor serves a dual purpose. It creates a schematic environment for the action, and it offers the meticulously choreographed cast places to perch and lurk as they observe the story’s beginning and ending with the fateful moment of Addison Mizner’s death, scenes that bookend a flashback that explains his arrival at a death no one mourns.

Road Show describes the lives of Addison and his brother Wilson, charged by their idealistic dying father (the distinguished, sincere William Parry) to make their way in the world. Urged by their adoring widowed mother (Alma Cuervo, radiating warmth) to head to Alaska, Addison (Alexander Gemignani) weathers cold and misery, digging a claim until he strikes gold. Wilson (Michael Cerveris, in a tour-de-force performance of depraved greed and ethical indifference) prefers the lazy way, finding himself more comfortable cosseted by the warm corruptions of town in the company of gamblers and prostitutes.

The moral, ethical tussle between the brothers forms Road Show’s backbone. Addy attempts one bad business deal after another, each promising to make his fortune. After casting about desperately, Addy realizes that he loves architecture, and sets himself up in business with Hollis Bessemer (Claybourne Elder), a sweet, rich young man he meets on a train. Eventually, Addy’s proud artistic dreams, as well as his romantic and business partnership with Bessemer, crumble against the force of his brother’s lust for cold, hard, easy cash. Addy gives in to Willy’s schemes and joins him in a swindle to sell swampland in Florida.

Road Show’s cynical portrait of American opportunism seems prescient, given the economic news of the day. The brothers follow the money, moving through one get-rich-quick scheme after another, leaving the good and the righteous drowned in their wake. They celebrate success by throwing stacks and stacks of cash high into the air and letting it drift down to the stage floor like leaves in the fall. Before long, the stage is littered with counterfeit bills; so are the laps of spectators seated in the first few rows of the theatre. The brothers toss their bucks into the flies with arrogant exuberance that eventually morphs into hubris. They easily replenish their stock, as more fat and messy bundles always seem to be waiting in still another file cabinet drawer. The omnipresence of money not just as a prop but as the set’s key bit of gestic décor neatly delivers Sondheim and Doyle’s moral: America built its ethos on greed.

This cynicism extends into each of the show’s relationships, which seem divined only for immoral intent. As the brothers obey their father’s charge to "find their road," they leave strewn behind them the hearts of those they used and abused to make their way. There’s no such thing as love in this world, except for the brothers’ incestuous narcissism. Fuelled by cocaine and alcohol, this Cain and Abel sell themselves for cash and wind up alone together, tucked beside one another in the bed of their birth and their mutual demise.

Doyle directs with imaginative high theatricality. When the brothers first travel to Alaska, Willy overturns a bucket of white paper flakes on Addy’s head to represent the region’s frigid snow. The set’s boxes and cabinets house props that lie in wait for the characters to find as the story progresses. A liquor set-up suddenly sits on an architect’s flat drawer; a bowler hat conveniently appears from a file cabinet. Nothing comes from offstage in this production—it’s all there.

With the props ready and waiting to be disclosed and used, Doyle and Sondheim imply that the instruments of our success and our failure are always close at hand. In what appears to be a character’s sleight-of-hand, glasses, architectural elevations, liquor bottles, and hats are brought from their hiding places not unlike the gold for which the brothers first search. When the vein of metal or the props finally appear, however, Doyle and Sondheim remind us that how we use them depends on adherence to our own moral code. Willy's and Addy’s are increasingly bent and broken, as the brothers progress through their own history and remind us of ours.

Following from Doyle’s impeccably Brechtian vision, the objects that quickly appear and disappear haunt the mise-en-scene, just as each actor’s choice—of gesture, of character, of movement—is haunted by those she didn’t select. History, too, in Road Show, is a Brechtian “not-but,” reminding spectators that as actors in time, our lives, too, are haunted by choices made and not. The metaphor works gracefully in the realization of Road Show’s fable.

The set’s only moving unit is a bed on wheels, stored under the collection of boxes stage right. It rolls out to provide the platform on which the characters travel their lives’ road and to represent the bed on which all the principals finally die. The platform bed, moved by the chorus at a frenzied pace, underlines that the road that moves us through life is the same one that delivers us at death.

Doyle keeps the whole cast and chorus always present on the wide stage, sitting or standing to watch the action. Papa and Mama Mizner look on with openly emotional concern, the mother earnest, sincere, and frequently disappointed in her boys’ progress. Papa, who’s responsible for setting them on the road toward the proverbial American Dream, becomes increasingly disgusted by their willingness to compromise his ideals for the money they almost seem to manufacture, despite the success or failure of their schemes. The chorus, with its active listening and intense, impassive watching, mirrors for spectators our own intent presence and our various investments in the meanings we cull from Road Show’s rich, dense cartography.

While Sondheim’s music isn’t catchy, it’s true to the story the production tells. I find myself still thinking back to the sounds, images, and moments Sondheim, Doyle, John Weidman—who wrote the book—and the show’s wonderful designers wrought through emotion, time, and space. The memory of that money tossed high into the air like so many snowflakes, wafting down to be trampled by characters who care only for what it can buy them, remains vivid and full of import. Each time I watch a news commentator discussing the pros and cons of bailing out the US auto industry, after we’ve already saved the big banks to the tune of $2,000 per citizen in taxes, I’m reminded of Road Show’s stacks of cash, floating to the floor like so much trashy confetti.

The American Dream indeed.

The Feminist Spectator

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Pal Joey

It might not be fair to comment on a show as early into its previews as Pal Joey was at the Roundabout’s Studio 54 when I saw it on Sunday, November 16th. But given the attention the production will no doubt receive, with a prominent feature on the lead, Christian Hoff, already in the Friday Arts section of the New York Times on November 20th, it bears registering some preliminary reactions.

The Rodgers and Hart show apparently hasn’t been revived often because although the music and the choreography (here by Graciela Daniele) are memorable, the awkward book is unsuccessful. Even in playwright Richard Greenberg’s revision, the story can’t redeem its hero from his fatal, womanizing charms. Since director Joe Mantello stays faithful to the original, setting it in the demimonde of 1930s Chicago’s nightclubs and high life, he asks spectators to consider the show a museum piece.

But aside from a spectacular set and lighting that evokes the seamy underside of Chicago’s Depression-era club culture, the production doesn’t register as much more than irritating. Its sexism remains unreconstructed and, for a show about jazz-era nightclubs, people of color are peculiarly absent in Mantello’s cast. These lapses make the show anachronistic instead of historical, as the revival’s concept doesn’t offer a new way of considering the characters or their actions.

The show hinges on spectators believing that Joey’s sexual charms endear him to a revolving cast of characters who then quickly recognize the banality and emptiness in his arrogant, manufactured romancing. Martha Plimpton plays Gladys Bumps, the sleazy but dignified chanteuse who tangled with Joey long ago, but not long enough to forget that he left her alone, unrepentant and irresponsible, with an illegal abortionist. That he can’t even recall her face fuels her desire for revenge, which she eventually exacts by blackmailing him and his latest romantic mark, the wealthy enabler, Mrs. Vera Simpson.

Plimpton smokes up the stage, playing against type as the tough, slinky Gladys. She finds emotional layers in a character that could easily be tossed off. Each of her dynamic numbers showcases her surprisingly rich voice and seductive dance moves, refreshing to see in an actor not known as a musical theatre magnet. Plimpton is the only one of the leads to project any charisma.

Stockard Channing, on the other hand, given top billing as the older woman Joey’s now fleecing, isn’t miscast so much as desperately underplaying the role. While the character’s sarcastic irony comes through in her performance, Channing’s nearly immovable face can’t register any emotion. Whether she’s enjoying Joey’s bragging about his masculine prowess or recognizing his inability to be faithful or honest, Channing’s face always looks the same. Even her body assumes the same weary, sardonic posture throughout, whether she’s swanning into nightclubs with her two male pieces of arm candy along or posing post-coital, peering at Joey with bemused regret.

Channing’s vocal investment is about as energetic as her physical presence. “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” should be the show’s most poignant number, but she sings it as though she’s humming it in the shower, barely projecting the melody or enunciating the lyrics.

The rest of the cast hits their marks, with Jenny Fellner nicely executing good-girl shop clerk Linda English’s offended self-righteousness when Joey throws her over for Vera. Robert Clohessy plays a grounded, nuanced Mike, the closeted gay man who runs the club in which Joey starts out. (I’m not familiar enough with the original to know if the character was always gay, or if Greenberg added this element to his revision of the book.) When Vera buys the nightclub for Joey, Mike becomes his hounded and humiliated employee, but finally finds his come-uppance by reluctantly joining Gladys in her scheme to blackmail Joey and Vera by publicizing their secret affair. Mike’s vulnerability as a gay man in 1930s Chicago is a major plot point, but it’s given little historical depth and no contemporary twist in this production.

Mantello’s direction serves but never illuminates the show. Daniele’s sexy and exuberant choreography outshines every other aspect of the revival.

It’s difficult to imagine how a few more weeks of previews (Pal Joey officially opens December 14, 2008) will address the hole at the production’s center. Christian Hoff is woefully miscast as the charismatic Joey. Hoff won a Tony for starring in Jersey Boys, but his dancing and his singing here are only adequate. Joey requires a performer of enormous magnetism, who can make his lovers, his business partners, and the audience believe his boastful claims and allow themselves to be swayed at least temporarily by his charisma. In the preview performance I saw, Hoff’s insecurity about his blocking, his lines, and his character prohibited any such seduction. Forced to play against Hoff’s hollow center, the other actors worked valiantly (except Channing, with whom Hoff managed to generate not one iota of chemistry). Without a virtuosic performer as Joey, the production teeters on the edge of the abyss Hoff opens.

Without a solid Joey and a steamy relationship between him and the redoubtable Vera, and with only Gladys showing any gumption as his nemesis, what remains is a sexist, misanthropic tale of an irredeemable shyster who uses women and gay men to promote himself. That Linda, who’s had the sense to toss him out when she learns of his infidelity, wants him back at the end plays as ludicrous here, another example of a smart but self-abusing woman willing to blind herself to the peccadilloes of an inappropriate mate.

Who needs to sit through that story again?

The Feminist Spectator

[NOTE: Just as I was posting this entry, I read in the New York Times “Arts, Briefly” (11/25/08, C2) that Christian Hoff has “withdrawn” from the production. The short piece cites producers who say that Hoff “injured his foot during a Friday night preview performance.” Hoff’s understudy, Matthew Risch, took over the rest of the weekend’s performances, and has now been cast as Joey permanently. Maybe with a new lead and a new opening date of December 18, the production can find some of the chemistry the preview I saw sorely lacked.]

Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama Redux: I Think We Can

I spoke too soon (or didn’t research enough) before I posted my last blog about Obama. His new transition team-generated web site,, has retooled the rhetoric of his campaign in ways that make me much more hopeful, especially about LGBTQ civil rights issues.

Under “arts,” which are still listed in “additional issues,” the web site notes, “Our nation's creativity has filled the world's libraries, museums, recital halls, movie houses, and marketplaces with works of genius. The arts embody the American spirit of self-definition. As the author of two best-selling books—Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope—Barack Obama uniquely appreciates the role and value of creative expression.” The NEA/NEH Review Team includes Bill Ivey, who served as Chair of the NEA under Clinton. Ivey now directs the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University. His book, Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect have Destroyed our Cultural Rights (U of California Press, 2008), offers a pretty smart, interesting critique of how the arts have been professionalized away from direct participation by what he calls “citizen-artists.”

Better still, now includes a full section called “Support for the LGBT Community.” I’m quoting it in its entirety here, from, then commenting below:

"While we have come a long way since the Stonewall riots in 1969, we still have a lot of work to do. Too often, the issue of LGBT rights is exploited by those seeking to divide us. But at its core, this issue is about who we are as Americans. It's about whether this nation is going to live up to its founding promise of equality by treating all its citizens with dignity and respect."

-- Barack Obama, June 1, 2007

The Obama-Biden Plan

· Expand Hate Crimes Statutes: In 2004, crimes against LGBT Americans constituted the third-highest category of hate crime reported and made up more than 15 percent of such crimes. Barack Obama cosponsored legislation that would expand federal jurisdiction to include violent hate crimes perpetrated because of race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or physical disability. As a state senator, Obama passed tough legislation that made hate crimes and conspiracy to commit them against the law.

· Fight Workplace Discrimination: Barack Obama supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and believes that our anti-discrimination employment laws should be expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity. While an increasing number of employers have extended benefits to their employees' domestic partners, discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace occurs with no federal legal remedy. Obama also sponsored legislation in the Illinois State Senate that would ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

· Support Full Civil Unions and Federal Rights for LGBT Couples: Barack Obama supports full civil unions that give same-sex couples legal rights and privileges equal to those of married couples. Obama also believes we need to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and enact legislation that would ensure that the 1,100+ federal legal rights and benefits currently provided on the basis of marital status are extended to same-sex couples in civil unions and other legally-recognized unions. These rights and benefits include the right to assist a loved one in times of emergency, the right to equal health insurance and other employment benefits, and property rights.

· Oppose a Constitutional Ban on Same-Sex Marriage: Barack Obama voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2006 which would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman and prevented judicial extension of marriage-like rights to same-sex or other unmarried couples.

· Repeal Don't Ask-Don't Tell: Barack Obama agrees with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili and other military experts that we need to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The key test for military service should be patriotism, a sense of duty, and a willingness to serve. Discrimination should be prohibited. The U.S. government has spent millions of dollars replacing troops kicked out of the military because of their sexual orientation. Additionally, more than 300 language experts have been fired under this policy, including more than 50 who are fluent in Arabic. Obama will work with military leaders to repeal the current policy and ensure it helps accomplish our national defense goals.

· Expand Adoption Rights: Barack Obama believes that we must ensure adoption rights for all couples and individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation. He thinks that a child will benefit from a healthy and loving home, whether the parents are gay or not.

· Promote AIDS Prevention: In the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama will develop and begin to implement a comprehensive national HIV/AIDS strategy that includes all federal agencies. The strategy will be designed to reduce HIV infections, increase access to care and reduce HIV-related health disparities. Obama will support common sense approaches including age-appropriate sex education that includes information about contraception, combating infection within our prison population through education and contraception, and distributing contraceptives through our public health system. Obama also supports lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users. Obama has also been willing to confront the stigma -- too often tied to homophobia -- that continues to surround HIV/AIDS. He will continue to speak out on this issue as president.

· Empower Women to Prevent HIV/AIDS: In the United States, the percentage of women diagnosed with AIDS has quadrupled over the last 20 years. Today, women account for more than one quarter of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses. Barack Obama introduced the Microbicide Development Act, which will accelerate the development of products that empower women in the battle against AIDS. Microbicides are a class of products currently under development that women apply topically to prevent transmission of HIV and other infections.

A few things are notable here. First, in the first several statements, Obama includes “gender identity” under those he would protect legislatively, which is a very good sign. ENDA (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act) foundered in Congress because of disagreements about the place of gender identity in its language, and some liberal LGBT advocacy organizations have been harshly criticized for their willingness to compromise gender identity to win ENDA for sexual orientation. Obama’s language links them here, and seems to indicate no compromise will be necessary for his backing.

Second, under what might generally be called “family” or “domestic” issues, he skirts close to implying that he would indeed support same-sex marriage. While the statement above spells out his support for civil unions that mimic (supposedly) the legal rights and privileges of married couples, he also calls for a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and stands against a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. Including adoption rights for LGBTQ couples also seems to me a step forward, given the recent vote in Arkansas banning such rights at its state-level policy.

Likewise, Obama’s willingness to repeal the ludicrous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that Clinton instituted when he couldn’t fulfill his promise to allow gays into the military also seems to move him in a progressive direction. His language on HIV/AIDS, too, adopts more forward-thinking language and practices, indicating that he’ll repeal the federal ban on needle exchange and work against the homophobia that stigmatizes HIV/AIDS policy and prevention strategies. Including women in his HIV/AIDS policy also seems positive.

Thanks to reading through, I feel less ambivalent and more hopeful about the real changes an Obama administration might bring. While news commentators note that his recent appointments—especially of Tim Weithler as Treasury Secretary and even Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State—lean farther to center-right than they do left, I respect his decision to fill his cabinet with experienced leaders who can advise him well. I continue to hope that he won’t sell out his more progressive principles, including those I’ve quoted here.

It’s looking like maybe we really can . . .

The Feminist Spectator

Monday, November 17, 2008

Obama’s Arts Platform: Can We?

Since November 5, 2007, I’ve been excited and energized by Barack Obama’s election as the next President of the US. After suffering eight years of anti-arts and anti-LGBTQ Bush initiatives, I’m hopeful that the tide will turn favorably for those of us committed to the arts and progressive social change.

During the campaign, I searched out the Obama campaign’s arts policy statement (still available at Although the statement reads with the sweeping generalities typical of stump-speech rhetoric, the drift of his plan is notable for its emphasis on the arts and education. The platform trumpets Obama’s dedication to “nourish[ing] our children’s creative skills,” and quotes current NEA chair Dana Gioia, who says, “The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.”

Well, yes and no. Yes, of course, arts education attunes people to the expressive possibilities of daily life, as well as exposing us to cultural practices through which we learn about our own and our society’s potential. With luck, arts education also teaches us to critique social restrictions on equity not just of expression but of existence.

At the same time, I wonder why we shouldn’t make it a public goal to “produce more artists.” This country needs more people capable of not just reflecting a range of values and norms but of helping us reinterpret present reality for new visions of possible futures. Artists’ unique ability to use images and metaphors and to demonstrate critically, emotionally, and spiritually how human relations move through time provides much more to the nation than just “byproducts.”

In addition to its focus on arts education, Obama’s arts platform proposes the creation of an “Artists Corp” “trained to work in low-income schools and their communities.” This, too, is laudable and important (and sounds much like Clinton’s AmeriCorps program), but it makes art an instrument of the economy and education. The platform cites studies that “show that arts education raises test scores” at the K-12 level, relying on arguments about the functionality of arts education. These rationales skirt the intrinsic and even aesthetic importance of the arts, as well as the need to support a vision of artists and their work as vital for free and creative, diverse and even contradictory national expressions.

Obama’s emphasis on internationalism is heartening. He wants to reinvigorate the cultural diplomacy the State Department championed during the Cold War, this time to “help us win the war of ideas against Islamic extremism.” Clare Croft, who’s writing her dissertation on dance and Cold War cultural diplomacy at the University of Texas at Austin, points out the complications of asserting American nationalism through the arts. She describes how artists meant to stand in for the nation at the same time asserted their own agency in ways the State Department neither intended nor could ultimately control. I’m pleased by Obama’s interest in pressing the arts back into the service of the nation’s relationships abroad, but wary of the kinds of xenophobic chauvinism that might be invoked in the process.

On the other hand, the platform promises that Obama-Biden will “streamline the visa process to return America to its rightful place as the world’s top destination for artists and art students.” Those of us who’ve invited international artists to conferences and festivals in the dark years since 9/11 know how difficult it’s been to bring people across the borders. Obama’s plan to ease restrictions and increase efficiency will help significantly, and make global artistic exchange feasible again.

But on still another hand . . .

Let me interrupt myself here to note how ambivalence seeps into my ruminations about our future under Obama’s leadership. I am deeply moved by the prospect of an African American president, and love the proliferation of images of Obama and his family looking toward the White House. Yet the same night Obama changed history, Prop 8 passed in California, representing a huge step backwards for LGBTQ civil rights by revoking same-sex rights to marriage that citizens of the state already enjoyed.

Most progressive activist organizations that pushed so hard for an Obama win are now turning their attention to redressing this discriminatory insult, as well as the anti-gay marriage votes in Arizona and Florida and the prohibition against gay adoptions in Arkansas. This one-step-forward-two-steps-back trajectory of social change frustrates me and makes it difficult not to see the lead interior in the silver lining of this election.

As performance artist Tim Miller has been explaining for many years, without marriage rights, he and his Australian partner, Alistair McCartney, will have to leave the country when Alistair’s visa runs out if they want to stay together (see So while Obama might want to make it easy for international artists to visit, it will still be impossible for those who wind up in committed same-sex partnerships to settle in this country to pursue their emotional desires and needs. Gay and lesbian concerns aren’t even listed under “issues” on Obama’s web site, nor do they show up under the subsidiary inventory where the arts are housed. Under “civil rights,” Obama-Biden indicate they will “expand hate crimes protection by passing the Matthew Shepard Act.” No where else does the site even so obliquely mention LGBTQ issues. The platform includes a detailed statement on women’s issues (see, which are desperately important. But LGBTQ folks are pretty much invisible as you scroll through the site.

Once Obama takes office, he’ll have to prioritize as he moves deliberately and surely (one hopes) through the promises he made during his campaign. For “yes we can” to really gather force as the Obama administration enacts a new vision for the country, the arts and civil rights for LGBTQ people need to move to the top of his agenda.

Filled with a wary kind of hope that yes, we can,
The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Rachel Getting Married

Recovering from this film took me an entire evening. I’m still haunted and disturbed by it several days later. Leaving the theatre, I felt like I’d spent two hours strapped under the carriage of an RV of family dysfunction. The family in question in Jonathan Demme’s nearly documentary rendition of Jenny Lumet’s script suffers from an unspeakable tragedy that forever changes their relationships. But the tenor of their interactions—with all the impossible need, utter miscommunications, and badly timed interventions—
sounds like the raw, rough material of the damages all families inflict on one another without even really trying.

The acting in Rachel makes the family’s moments of cutting pain and humiliation believable and fresh. The script’s improvisatory mood, and Demme’s ability to lurk so intimately in each scene, his camera unobtrusively capturing the fleeting emotion in every facial muscle’s tick, brings the viewer close to sisters Rachel and Kym and makes it difficult to avoid empathizing.

The story resembles any number of recent films. Margot at the Wedding comes to mind, in which Nicole Kidman delivered her own wrenching version of the Anne Hathaway role in Rachel as the troubled sister returning to celebrate her sibling but who manages to pull focus and wave family history with full-flag martyrdom and unhappy misanthropy.

The particulars here make the story poignant and searing. Rosemarie Dewitt’s turn as Rachel, whose nuptials organize the plot, and especially Hathaway’s vivid portrayal of her recovering drug-addicted sister, Kym, offer two of the richest, most complex performances by women I’ve seen on screen this year. Their ambivalent bond is based in the deep camaraderie of shared personal history, tempered by their mutual grief and loss and the blame Rachel can’t help placing squarely on Kym’s shoulders. They simmer in a stew of hatred and love, recrimination and understanding from which it’s difficult to look away, even as it’s excruciating to watch.

Kym’s addiction and tragic irresponsibility undergird the family’s dysfunction, but Rachel’s success lies in its ability to spread the blame for their inability to repair their loss and move on. Kym’s self-immolating guilt makes her the unwelcome dark side of the forcefully happy wedding event. But Rachel’s voracious need for attention and her bitterness over years of parental neglect as she was overshadowed by Kym’s more obvious wounds and traumas make her wedding day an emotional minefield.

The forced gaiety barely covers Rachel's insatiable need to be the center of attention, a desire foiled when Kym arrives fresh from rehab to attend the festivities. Watching Dewitt and Hathaway push and pull at each other and cry out in their very different ways for their father’s attention, it’s easy to see how blame for the family’s dissolution distributes equally among all its members.

Their father, Paul, played beautifully by Bill Irwin in a whirling dither of desire to be happy at all costs, tries valiantly to attend to Rachel, his theoretically healthy daughter, while his always present, indelible, guilt-driven concern for Kym and her whereabouts undoes his best intentions. Their mother, Abby (played by Debra Winger, in a brief, truly virtuosic appearance), has flown the family, remarrying to a man untouched by their traumatic history. (Or by much of anything else; he’s a bland, nondescript cipher compared to Irwin’s always moving, mercurial spinning top of a man).

Abby's barely contained, long-simmering anger flares in a remarkable scene between Winger and Hathaway toward the film’s climax, when perpetual questions of blame and accusation boil over into a series of physical, as well as emotional, blows that land exactly where they do the most harm. Kym seeks out her mother at her home, a marvel of clean, contemporary lines sparely furnished, as empty and controlled as Winger’s exterior, yet roiling with the violence of suppressed recrimination. The scene's predominant décor is a large stone wall against which the two tangle, an ironic metaphorical juxtaposition with the flowers that Abby provides for Rachel’s wedding.

When Kym breaches their uneasy truce, which is based on not asking the questions that torture them both, the mother and daughter fly at each other in rage, slugging one another’s faces and drawing blood that releases nothing. The scene is both shocking and sad, as it taps the unspoken only for a moment, then locks it back up and puts it away. Still, that it insists Kym isn’t the only one to blame is one of the film’s achievements.

Rachel Getting Married also demonstrates that the families we create are often those more willing to truly listen and to forgive. Kym’s scenes at the 12-step meetings she attends while she's at home reshape the stereotype of how these groups are typically portrayed in pop culture. The testimonies are warm and wry, self-knowing and revealing, offered by people committed to their own recovery but fully aware of how often it does and doesn’t work, of how many times they can look forward to crawling on and cruelly falling off the wagon of sobriety.

The people at the meeting Kym attends are practiced at listening in ways her biological family can’t even hope to emulate, so entrapped are they in the narratives to which they mistakenly cling to help them survive. Although few of her fellow 12-steppers speak, Kym’s scenes with them work like oases of calm and care in a family desert of otherwise scorched earth emotional travel. These folks listen without judgment; Kym’s family can’t hear at all, deaf from the shouting that echoes down the years of their collective yet individually isolating pain.

Nothing really happens in Rachel Getting Married, but the subtle shifts in its colors and tone speak to family relationships that change in incremental, hopeful ways as the wedding weekend proceeds. The several days before the big event are only about the characters' preparations and concern about the weather, but they provide the palette of quotidian detail against which the bold strokes of damaged relationships play out.

For example, when Kym arrives home to find that she’s been replaced as maid of honor by Rachel’s best friend Emma (Anisa George), their contest for the bride-to-be’s affections become nearly mortal. Emma’s obvious disdain for Kym, and her blatant competition for Rachel’s affections, lashes out as she pins up Rachel’s wedding gown and prepares the wedding meal. Demme reveals the most ordinary settings to be poisoned wellsprings of old conflict and recrimination, and paints the emotional blackmailing and manipulation that happens on each side of the Rachel-Emma-Kym triangle.

Other simple moments reveal equally as much. Music plays a key role in the family’s fortunes, as the their friends all play various instruments, none of which finally provide the balm everyone seeks. Always expecting the music to soothe, the constant presence of men playing guitars and other instruments irritates more often than not. Their blithely unaware strumming becomes a metaphor for the family’s desperate attempt to distract themselves from what’s really happening around them.

The ethnic-influenced idiom of their music-making signals the film’s one off-key note. For reasons never adequately explained, Rachel and her bridesmaids wear saris and the men don Nehru jackets for her wedding ceremony; the couple’s cake is decorated with Indian-influenced colors and designs. This peculiar Orientalism stands alongside a cast that’s almost too insistently color-blind. Rachel’s betrothed, Sydney (Tunde Adebimpe), is African American, as is her father’s replacement wife, Carol (Anna Deavere Smith, in a role that doesn’t come close to using her full range of talents).

One of Demme’s most refreshing choices is to direct a multi-racial, multi-ethnic cast performing a celebration of interracial heterosexual union without commenting on difference. But it’s also just a bit suspect that race is so insistently not part of the conversation. It’s almost as if the film continues the characters’ inability to see what’s there, extending the lines of displacement and denial in which the family becomes tangled.

Part of me admires Demme for portraying race so casually and insistently. Another part of me thinks the film protests too much by not protesting at all. The wedding’s master of ceremonies, an Asian-American (Beau Sia, of Def Poetry Jam), plays the trickster, an always upbeat, ameliorative presence whose Asianness provides the “third” between the film’s black and white families. Perhaps the Indian-inflected wedding also participates in this racial triangle, allowing African Americans and white folks to meet at the site of Asianness to which Rachel and Sydney are both Other. It’s a bit embarrassing to see white women wear saris, but perhaps that subtle discomfort is Demme’s point: that everyone here is striving to be something they’re not, trying to disguise the complex fissures and estrangements between and among them with the exoticism of something other to them all.

On the film’s web site (, Demme remarks that he filled the wedding scene and much of the supporting cast with friends and family. (The kid playing the screaming electric guitar version of “The Wedding March,” for example, is his son.) Many are people borrowed from his documentary-in-progress about New Orleans post-Katrina, some of whom are jazz musicians. Other musicians in Rachel are from an ensemble of Middle Eastern people Demme met while looking for a band to play on the soundtrack of his film Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains.

Many of the film’s supernumeraries are other non-actors essentially playing “themselves,” including Demme’s cousin Rev. Robert W. Castle, who officiates at Rachel and Sydney’s wedding, and Gonzales Joseph, who plays Sydney’s cousin Joe, “the Iraq war soldier home on leave. He is indeed a Specialist in active duty, currently stationed in Fort Lee, VA” (web site). This mix of actors and non-, along with musicians imported from other Demme projects, goes partway toward explaining some of Rachel's racial diversity.

Debra Winger’s appearance as Abby halfway through the film moved me quite a lot. Winger’s been off screen as an actress, gracefully entering her middle age without performing her life’s progress publicly as do so many younger actresses. Her features have softened; the planes of her face, so sharp in her earlier work, here seem definitively blurred, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. That is, even though her jowls sag a bit, and her limbs have thickened with the tissue of a woman’s middle years, her presence remains incisive and elegant.

The supreme dignity with which Abby holds herself at a necessary remove from her voraciously needy daughters makes her brief scenes among the film’s most compelling. When Rachel asks her guests to help her and Sydney cut the cake, hands (of many colors) pile onto of each other, covering the knife. Abby can only put her hand into the collection for a moment; she removes it almost instantly, unable to maintain contact.

Abby leaves the wedding party early, unable to assert her rightful presence at her daughter’s celebration and unwilling to pick up the burden of responsibility that real engagement would entail. She’s encased in self-protective remove that only breaks for the brief moment when Kym insists she bear equally in the burden of blame for their tragedy. Abby can’t forget and can’t forgive but it’s herself whom she’s determined to punish. The performance is entirely moving; I hope we can look forward to more of Winger's intelligent, emotionally acute acting, since it’s so rare to see a middle-aged woman play and be a complex, compelling character.

Hathaway, as the damaged Kym, is as good as all the critics suggest. But what strikes me most about her performance is her strength. Kym might be an addict in the precarious early stages of recovery; she might use sex promiscuously for quick and superficial emotional connections; and she might be the dark presence that reminds her family too dearly of all they’ve lost. But played by Hathaway, Kym is also a woman strong enough to be the architect of her own redemption, not too broken to reach out with an unspoken but deeply felt hope that a new path to love is possible.

Despite the excruciating pain of their interactions, Kym gestures toward the family’s potential to remake its connections, and to embed their past in a fragile, tentative, but imminently possible future.

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

k.d. lang at the Apollo

In her first bit of patter during her Watershed concert tour’s Manhattan performance last Monday (10/27/08), k.d. lang commented that playing the Apollo at such an historic moment in American history, given the upcoming election, felt “auspicious.” Her speaking voice is as rich and sultry as her singing voice, and she phrases her sentences much as she does her lyrics, so that “auspicious” became the delicious punch line of a phrase that rolled around in her mouth like a piece of chocolate.

Her cheeks already pink from singing the first quarter of her set, lang addressed the audience as though she were speaking to each of us individually, making eye contact with people from the first row to the balcony of the old theatre. Her reference to context and to history grounded the entire evening, as lang performed samplings of her new CD release alongside those from her now 20-plus- year-old songbook, from “Miss Chatelaine” on Ingénue, to her cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on Hymns of the 49th Parallel.

Watershed marks her first outing as her own producer; the CD includes all new, original songs (see . In the tour performance, each number sounded as if she were singing it for the first time, just now encountering the hills and valleys of the notes, the hidden meanings of the lyrical phrases. To listen to lang in concert is to be entranced by the wonders of the moment; her presence is all about being present.

Dressed in a modified man’s suit with silky gray pin-striped pants, a steel-gray vest, and a checkerboard black and white shirt graced with a short silk magenta tie, lang looked stockier than in years past. She seemed to move more stiffly than she did the last time I saw her live, in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 80s. In that performance at the Barrymore Theatre, lang’s exuberance was irrepressible. She threw herself around the stage, at times landing spread-eagle on her back with over-the-top campy melodrama, especially on songs like “Black Coffee,” which I remember as a post-prandial, practically post-coital public encounter. I recall her dressed in black, dancing through her songs with performative verve and all the pleasures of coded dykedom, since she wasn’t yet out. But her butch stylings were an unmistakably recognizable pleasure for audiences, even without the benefit of a coming out announcement.

In 2008, now just before her 47th birthday, Lang’s physicality has settled into a more contemplative, more fluid and subtle relationship with her music. She performed barefoot at the Apollo the whole evening, connecting with the stage boards in easy two-step solo moves around the stage. She danced over to listen to the wonderful young pianist stage right, and then to the lanky Brazilian guitarist stage left, letting the music draw her as she wrapped herself in the long mic chord and moved its stand around as if it were her dancing partner. When she wasn’t singing, lang listened closely and happily to her band, moving gently and appreciatively.

In fact, one of the evening’s pleasures was the intimacy the singer and her musicians project. Given their palpable enjoyment of one another, it was easy for the audience to feel part of a warm collectivity of respect and fellow-feeling. When lang introduced her all-male band, she said she’s confused by how, “at my age,” she came to be surrounded by handsome young men, one of the many happy laugh lines of the evening. The men who back her underlined at once lang’s female masculinity and something maternal or sisterly about her. She’s not afraid of being upstaged by their performances of masculinity and they seem utterly comfortable with hers.

When she strapped a banjo across her chest later in the evening, lang said she learned to play the instrument because “banjoes are chick magnets,” a line that produced hoots from the audience that seemed to prove her point. Twenty years after I first saw her, her queerness is now known and assumed, allowing her to play with it in her utterly guileless flirtations with the crowd.

Even if lang isn’t as physically spry as she was 20 years ago, her voice remains vibrant and captivating, its sound even deeper and richer with age. She knows how to put over a song (as Stacy said, every song she sings takes you somewhere, providing a musical and lyrical journey with a beginning, middle, and end). The consummate shaping of each number makes them enormously satisfying; it’s easy to relax into lang’s voice and her presence, to relish each moment of sound as much as she does

The set moved fluidly, with a minimum of superfluous conversation, but just enough back and forth with the audience to make us feel recognized and as present as lang and her band. She handled over-enthusiastic spectators with panache, responding with graceful dispatch to the rather boorish people who called out to her from the house.

Perhaps lang’s Buddhism helps to make her presence so magnanimous. The bright red prayer beads encircling her left wrist seemed a declaration of belief that infused her performance. lang’s calm, connected demeanor could make you believe we have souls. She emanates a grounded, ingenuous peacefulness that’s utterly appealing and always generous, a calm that doesn’t erase her sexuality but instead heightens it, making her a most seductive butch Buddhist.

The historic Apollo Theatre was a moving venue for lang’s New York appearance. Its bright marquee lit up 125th Street, and its ramshackle auditorium seemed haunted by the ghosts of performers past and the hopes of those who’ll perform there in the future. Photographs of Apollo performers line the walls on the steep steps up to the balcony; sepia-toned portraits of Diahann Carroll, Dionne Warwick, Etta James, the Blind Men of Alabama, and other African American artists provide a benign, nostalgic presence.

That the audience for lang was predominantly white (and middle-aged) somehow didn’t seem ironic, even though the venue is known for promoting the careers of African American singers and musicians. lang paid respect to the Apollo’s history at every turn, and marveled throughout the evening at how intimate and rich the vibe felt from the stage. The Apollo is steeped in the passage of time; lang caught that current and let it carry her and her audience toward a different future, one filled with simple hope.

Referring once again to the pending elections—with her wide smile, her kind eyes, her blunt fingers, and her spiky short hair all flaming with warmth and pleasure—lang said she hopes we wake up on November 5th to find that we’ve come “home.” Spending an evening with k.d. lang feels like a step in that direction.

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Seagull and The Toxic Avenger

The Seagull

Hearing about—and scanning Ben Brantley’s review about—the wonders of the imported British production of The Seagull, I expected a transformative theatre experience. Imagine, then, my disappointment in a production (which I saw Saturday, 10/11/08) I found alternating between listlessness and hyperactivity, ringing dissonant tones without a clear sense of comment or critique.

The new translation by Christopher Hampton transports the play into some sort of Anglo netherworld. It also retains all the references to Russian culture, which seems jarring, considering the accents and the high British attitude of the staging. Although the variety of dialects and tones correlate slightly to the class status of each character, over the course of the long evening, the speech dulls out into a mish-mash within and between characters, making them strangely indistinguishable in their inarticulate misery and longing. Peter Sarsgaard, as Trigorin, loses his way through his accent rather quickly, but then, his vague portrayal of the supposedly great man blurs the edges of everything about the character.

Playing against such a non-entity, Kristin Scott Thomas as Arkadina appears manic and mannered, without the subtleties of depth or nuance that might layer her portrayal of the always already performative role. Her performance sounds shrill and desperate, not a bad choice for the character, but out of sync with the rest of the cast, whose performances ranged from the corpse-like pose of Sarsgaard to the dark, self-immolating, melodrama of the skeletal, hollowed-out Konstantin as played by Mackenzie Crook.

None of these actors sustain the appeal necessary to carry an audience through a long, static evening. With its atmosphere of decay and despair, the cold barrenness of the old country manor house is clear in the stark lighting and the set’s peeling paint, with the walls’ disrepaired framing, and rattling windows battered by the wind and storms that continue through the second act. Metaphorizing the torments of the characters’ souls, the production’s design had more to say about its intent than the actors.

Hints of an answer to the perennial question, “Why this play now?” (posed continually by my former colleague, the famed theatre historian Oscar Brockett) are provided mostly by the supporting cast, especially Christopher Patrick Nolan as Yakov. His bitterness at his station reads clearly as he sweats under the weight of luggage hauled back and forth, in and out of the manor house, at the whim of his capricious employer. His rolled eyes, his suffering posture, his eavesdropping on the ethically impure dalliances that his superiors carry on, all offer a glimmer of the class critique it seems director Ian Rickson wants to launch. Given the events of the day, The Seagull could be a sharp analysis of the excesses of emotion and expenditure that vex the upper class, and the ways in which fortunes are fickle and fleeting. But only intermittently does a strong point of view sharpen what’s otherwise a pedestrian production.

Perhaps the new American actors confused the issues for the celebrated British cast. Sarsgaard’s film-style technique fails to galvanize live on stage, but Zoe Kazan (late of the terrific Broadway production of Come Back, Little Sheba, in which she played the family’s seductive boarder) offers a focused performance of Masha, enacting her trajectory from hope to angry resignation with nuance and a nicely contradictory verve. Carey Mulligan, who’s transported from the UK original as Nina, does a good job with the deluded actress and her seesawing affections for Konstantin and Trigorin. Her Nina’s realization that she’s been used up and cast aside by the play’s end is one of the only sincere moments in a production that’s not carefully plotted enough by its director or its actors to move the audience from one point to the next in its emotional drawing.

The Toxic Avenger Musical: New Jersey’s First Superhero

Shifting tone abruptly, I saw this latest musicalization of the 1985 cult film at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, Sunday night (10/12/08). This is apparently the third musical version of the film, which garnered its fame as a late-night event at the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York (see Wikipedia calls the George Street’s the “definitive” stage version of the film; director John Rando (Urinetown) provides the high energy, high camp, highly imaginative staging that keeps the 90-minute romp fun, if slight.

The genre-mixing stew of The Toxic Avenger proceeds in the parodic vein of Urinetown and Little Shop of Horrors, cut with the pathos of being green from Wicked and the blood-thirsty, blood-spurting horror gore of Sweeney Todd (as my musicals-expert companion, Stacy Wolf, pointed out), flavored with the blind-beauty and the beast romance of the film Mask, spiced with the resurrectionist narrative of Rent (or La Boheme), and iced with the one-actor-playing-two-characters-sharing-a-scene conceit of Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep. The show purées its references to take aim at environmental pollution and government corruption, mapping the most politically incorrect routes possible to hit its targets and to make its points. Rando and book writer Joe DiPietro collaborate on fun but forgettable songs with piquant titles like “Who Will Save New Jersey?” “Thank God She’s Blind,” “Choose Me, Oprah,” “Evil is Hot,” and “Hot Toxic Love.”

The cartoon-ish story finds our hero, the nerdy, unrequited-in-love teenager Melvin Ferd the Third (Nick Cordero) beleaguered and bullied by two high school toughs, who pound on him routinely whenever they cross his path. Melvin loves Sarah (Audra Blaser), the blind blonde who cheerfully resists the same two bullies’ attempted rapes and anti-blind people cat-calls, while (badly) shelving books in her library job. (The irony of her position is intentional to the plot—she’s been planted there by the villain, who wants to make sure the evidence of the scoundrel’s malfeasance isn’t, literally, seen.) Through a cruel twist of fate, the bullies dump Melvin into one of the many vats of toxic waste that pollute the landscape of “Tromaville,” their humble city, and he mutates into a muscled, if desiccated, superhero. Thanks to Cordero’s adept physical transformation, when Melvin emerges from the muck, it almost seems like he’s played by a different actor.

With one eyeball hanging out of its socket, “flesh” hanging from his arms, and his head and torso covered with green slime, Melvin becomes “Toxie,” who goes on a one-monster crusade to avenge his mutation and the town’s environmental degradation. The dumping is linked to the “Evil is Hot” Mayor Babs Belgoody, who’s importing the waste from Manhattan to make a quick buck. Needless to say, by the end, Toxie wins both the environmental battle and the girl, and the bullies are neutralized forever.

Rando’s fast and furious blocking makes great use of a set centered on piles of rusted metal drums, which occasionally steam and smoke with fumes that practically smell as nasty as they look. The performers climb about on this pile, performing on its top, on its sides, or just in front of the mountain of waste containers. The center of the mound peels open to reveal additional settings: Melvin/Toxie’s home, where his dithering mother, Ma Ferd, worries that he won’t meet the right girl; the Mayor’s office, where pictures of other nefarious officials (G.W. Bush included) hang from the tilted walls; a beauty salon, which becomes the setting for actor Nancy Opel’s virtuoso simultaneous performance as Ma Ferd and Mayor Babs, with a little help from the rest of the cast, Ludlam-style; a scientist’s study; and the library, where Sarah drops more books than she realizes as she feels about for where to place them. The scenes move fluidly, and the production design keeps the sets campy, the costumes vampy, and the lighting as fast and bright as the music.

The four-man band plays from a visible, elevated scaffolding stage right, obviously enjoying themselves and the show. David Bryan’s music is mostly just loud; a few of Sarah’s songs are fun, punny ballads, but the rest of the music is crude rock-pop with amusing lyrics, pumped up with energetic movement and delivery. That The Toxic Avenger is a musical just seems an excuse to highlight its campy predilections, rather than to have it taken seriously in the tradition of, oh, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Schwartz, Sondheim (god forbid), or even Adam Guettel. The music lets the show move as fast as possible; ninety minutes fly by in good-spirited, messy fun.

The two men—“White Dude” (David Josefsberg) and “Black Dude” (Demond Green)—who play multiple roles as the supporting cast do a wonderful job as a vaudevillian pair who rotate through their characters. Aside from the dumb bullies, they perform as gay hairdressers fussing alternately with the Mayor and Ma Ferd; as Sarah’s back-up singers, in tight, sequined dresses with Supremes-style attitude; as two women of the street, in even higher heels and even more attitude; and as regular “Joes,” one a policeman and the other a sports fan. All their characters come out in quick succession for the curtain call, more evidence that backstage, someone has been working wonders with quick costume changes throughout the show.

Demond Green looks like Tracy Morgan, and performs with the same expressive, not-as-dumb-as-you-think-but-almost deadpan that makes Morgan amusing to watch. Green and Josefsberg fill the holes in the plot and the show with lots of funny business; just watching them appear as still more new characters keeps things looking fresh while the show tries to figure out what it wants to be.

The home team New Jersey audience greeted the references to their state with glee and applause, embracing Toxic’s lampooning of its reputation as a chemical dumping ground of sulphurous fog and chemical muck. That the show ends with a paean to the cleaner, more liberal meaning of “green” and a rock ‘n’ roll exhortation to stop global warning seems a bit too heavy handed, especially sung loud and proud by its toxically mint-tinted, leprous-like leading man. Facile delivery aside, ending with a progressive bumper sticker-style message fits the hit and run approach of the entire production.

The Toxic Avenger is itself a mucky caper, with everything and nothing to say about crooked politics and devastated environments. That said, I was smiling, if not outright laughing, throughout, even when the jokes were predictable and obvious and good-naturedly offensive (blind jokes, girl jokes, and queer jokes included). Watching a talented cast inspired by a talented director made up for the weaknesses of the script and the music. And hearing the audience enjoy itself didn’t hurt either.

The Feminist Spectator