Monday, December 19, 2011

Once, the musical

The stars and supporting cast on the pub-style stage

When you enter New York Theatre Workshop’s space on E. 4th St. to see Once, the musical adaptation of the 2007 Irish indie film (see my 2007 blog post on the film), the well-worn theatre suddenly feels like a party hall.  The stage has been transformed into a bar, replete with distressed old mirrors and sconce lights, and a low counter that serves double-duty as a place for spectators to get a pint before the play proper starts and as a secondary acting platform for the considerable talents of this musically distinguished and emotionally empathetic cast.

In Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s faithful adaptation, the Dublin community on which the story focuses is bound by its music making.  The cast is small by musical theatre standards, since the "community here," usually represented by dozens of supernumeraries, is the close-knit one of Dublin street buskers and musicians who remain soulfully devoted to music as an expression of their pining spirits.

Steve Kazee plays “the guy,” a recently jilted, emotionally and artistically ambivalent singer/song-writer who at the show’s beginning, after a wrenching solo, has decided to abandon his battered guitar on the street as a kind of remnant of his own lost soul.

But “the girl” (like “the guy,” also nameless, an odd conceit borrowed from the film) overhears his ballad and brings him emphatically back to his music and to his life.  Played by the lovely, energetic Cristin Milioti (last seen at NYTW in Ivo Van Hove’s Little Foxes), she drags him to a music store where she borrows a piano on which to accompany him in her resonant, equally soulful style.  Through sheer will and a bit of artfully withheld romance, she encourages him to resume his music-making in America, where he can reconnect with his departed girlfriend and have a wonderful life.

As in the film, music expresses the duo's personalities and their yearnings.  The musical's loveliest and most haunting number remains the Academy Award-winning “Falling Slowly,” written and performed by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the original guy and girl who remain credited for the music and lyrics of this adaptation.  The ballad grows as a duet between the two, whose voices blend perfectly as their separate instruments play a kind of syncopated, already sad flirtation.

 Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the original "guy" and "girl"

Although the pair fall in love as soon as they begin harmonizing together, the musical keeps them apart rather than uniting this typically central heterosexual couple as more conventional musical stories are wont to do.  In fact, one of the pleasures of Once is watching it resist the stereotypical formula.  The community that typically mirrors the central couple's initial opposition—like the cowboys and the farmers who should be friends in Oklahoma—here are already united.

Walsh manufactures some humorous initial conflict between Billy (Paul Whitty), the music store owner, and the bank manager (Andy Taylor) to whom the girl and guy turn for a loan to make their album.  When the banker turns out to be a closeted musician (and a not-so-closeted gay man), he gives the couple the money and joins the band, overcoming Billy’s suspicion of capitalists to become part of the singing and playing ensemble.

In fact, that band of sympathetic brothers and sisters is one of the sweetest things about this very sweet show.  Director John Tiffany (Black Watch) keeps his instrument-playing and singing cast on stage throughout Once, John Doyle-style.  He guides them toward saloon-style chairs that line the wide proscenium stage in between numbers.  From there, they watch the action intently and provide the occasional musical punctuation or undertone.

The several acoustic guitars, an electric bass, a banjo, an accordion, a ukulele, a bass, and two violins, as well as a drum set employed in the climactic studio recording scene, compose the orchestra, all played by members of the cast.  The mournful ballads underscore the fated love story, and the musicians provide pre-show and intermission Irish pub music to persuade the audience into the Dublin world of Once.

And the audience loves it.  They approach the bar on stage willingly before the show and during the intermission, where cast and crew pull pints of Guinness and other beers.  Several spectators the night I attended danced with the musicians who sang together center stage, stomping their feet Riverdance-style and making that particularly Irish sort of merry before the central story got underway.

The pre-show party is a fun theatrical choice, shaking up, as it does, the conventional separation between performer and spectator.  The choice to create a pub-style environment that lets the show be small and intimate, signals from the start that Once is not aspiring to more typical musical spectacle that would mock the more personal commitments at the film’s heart.

 The poster for the original film

The guy lives with his father (David Patrick Kelly), a crusty old Dubliner named “Da,” above the vacuum repair shop they run together.  When the girl finds the guy losing heart on the street, she asks him to fix her Hoover, insisting that he make the machine “suck.”  Because she’s Czech—and Walsh gets a fair amount of mileage from her Eastern European seriousness—she soberly sets about the task of re-inspiring the guy toward his own talents.

He’s grudging at first, floundering on the shoals of lost love and confusion about his own ambitions.  But she’s insistent.  In the first act, in fact, she’s a bit too single-minded in her intention to repair his heart, and appears the stereotypical girl in the service of a guy’s future rather than her own.

But Walsh gives the character more nuances in the second act.  She has a child and a husband who’s on his way back to Dublin from a trial separation.  And although she’s drawn to the guy, she has a stalwart ethic that requires her to try to make her marriage work.  That the guy and the girl clearly love one another but don’t become lovers is a refreshing tactic for a musical.  Their attraction shimmers around the show, and their sad but somehow right failure to consummate their love makes Once wistful and somehow true about those complicated affairs of the heart.

Bob Crowley’s evocative set and costumes are lit beautifully by Natasha Katz, who gilds the actors with the kind of romantic, introspective warmth that seems to deepen their emotional complexity.  Many of the show’s scenes take place in squares of light that mark off the space, carving it into intimate encounters between pairs of characters--the guy and his father; the guy and the girl; Billy and his date.  Once, as a result, is an intimate, surprisingly quiet affair, in which between the numbers, the characters spend time simply talking to one another about their desires, hopes, and dreams.

The Czech background of the girl and her extended family—her mother, daughter, and cousins figure heavily into her Dublin life—is played for laughs.  The cousins, of all the musical’s characters, are cardboard stereotypes meant to elicit the national confusions and language humor that comes from immigrants navigating new worlds.

Walsh and Tiffany handle the film’s international flair with supertitles which, in a creative twist, project the English dialogue into the characters’ native tongues.  That is, the audience sees the girl’s exchanges with her family projected in Czech, and some of the Dubliner’s dialogue projected in Irish.  The actors speak in English with various degrees of Eastern European and Irish accents, none of which are pronounced enough to get in the way of comprehension.

The show’s choreography is light and unobtrusive, but occasionally inspired, as when the girl and the guy, in separate images, seem to sculpt the air with their arms, providing circles of warmth and intimacy into which one of the other performers walks.  For instance, the girl, downstage center, curves her arm out in front of her, and one of the other women moves into her embrace, leaning her back into the girl’s chest and circling her arm around her waist so that the girl can lay her chin on the other woman’s shoulder.

In another light but poignant dance moment, when the girl listens to the guy’s music on a pair of large headphones, the two other young women in the cast (both of whom play the violin) mirror her as she moves about the stage, their hands outstretched into the air with the exhilaration of listening to sounds you love.

Once is a charming production, currently selling out at NYTW and poised to move to Broadway in February.  The show’s investors premiered the production at Diana Paulus’s American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge before the move to NYTW; they apparently have always planned on a Broadway run.

When the show moves to the Bernard Jacobs Theatre, I only hope it finds a way to retain the intimacy of its appeal for a larger audience.  It would be a shame to sacrifice the pub-like atmosphere of the theatre, and the quiet simplicity of the acting and the singing, or to make the show wholly bigger for a Broadway crowd.

The appeal of Once comes from the appropriate scale of its ambitions—to tell a story through lovely ballads, sung from broken, yearning young hearts.

The Feminist Spectator

Once, New York Theatre Workshop, December 16, 2011.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Queen of the Mist

Mary Testa and the ensemble in Queen of the Mist

Queen of the Mist is a new musical by Michael John LaChiusa (Marie Christine, The Wild Party), which the Transport Group produced at the Judson Gym in the West Village last month.  Starring the fiercely charismatic Mary Testa, the musical tells the story of Anna “Annie” Edson Taylor  (1838 – 1921), the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive—and on her 63rd birthday (in 1901), at that.

The musical is significant for placing a middle-aged woman squarely at the center of its narrative.  In fact, only one other performer has a stable character part—Andrew Samonsky as Annie’s drunken, rough-hewn, opportunistic manager, Frank Russell.  The rest of the cast is a quintet of terrific actor/singers who cycle through a number of subsidiary roles, all written to support the journey of the central character.

Testa more than meets the challenges of a role that requires her to be a stalwart, pragmatic single woman in an age when women were much more often domesticated in heterosexual nuclear families.  Annie is a dreamer, a woman who insists, in one of the show’s best songs, “I have greatness in me.”  How often do we see musicals about older, single women determined to actualize their dreams?

The show’s structure, as well as its story, makes it unique.  This is not a typical “opposites attract,” heterosexual love story that resolves the relationships and the musical world’s metaphorical social divisions by the performance’s end.  Instead, Queen of the Mist keeps Annie alone throughout, and her relationship with Russell one of affection and grudging love, but not romance.  This makes Annie a remarkably original character even by present-day standards, let alone for an actual historical woman who came of age in the 19th century.

Before her idea to ride over the falls coalesces, Annie tries and fails to make economic ends meet through various schemes.  Queen of the Mist’s book cleverly introduces us to her through long monologues of cunning and manipulation meant to distract her landlords and buy her time to pay her rent.  In one scene after another, she’s evicted from her lodgings.

Annie tells stories about once having been married, though she never was.  She lies about her age, moving herself nicely (over the course of a scene or a song or two) from 47, through her 50s, to 63, her actual age when she did what she called her “deed.”

Her sister, Jane, who lived with her husband and children in Auburn, New York, provides Annie’s gender foil.  Ensemble-member Theresa McCarthy is wonderful as the pinched, submissive woman, who was happy to be a mother and wife, with no ambitions but to make her home.  Annie wanted much more than that.  Her outsized expectations chafed at her brother-in-law, who insisted Annie leave his house on the one occasion Jane rescued her sister from indigence.

Annie’s single-minded passion to distinguish herself and to make “the green” (as she calls money) keeps her from intimacy with her family or her few friends.  She carefully planned out her ride down the falls, ordering a specially constructed, scientifically designed barrel and attending to the details of the stunt’s public relations as much as to the rudimentary technology that she hoped would save her life.

Annie Edson and her specially designed barrel

Annie persuades Russell to be her manager so that he can carry out her plan for how her stunt will appear to the public.  Russell is an alcoholic accustomed to exploiting his clients, but he’s fascinated by Annie’s work ethic.  His surprising affection for this unusual woman is quite moving in Samonsky's subtle rendition.  He can’t emulate her strict morality; in fact, he steals her barrel after her successful trip down the falls, and employs an impersonator to play Annie in a seedy burlesque about her deed.

The raw space of the Judson Gym was designed for Queen of the Mist to evoke the banks of the river that runs into the rushing waters of Niagara Falls.  The divided audience sat on risers facing each other across the narrow playing space, with two smaller playing spaces at either end.  The intimacy of the stage meant that Testa could easily project Annie’s majesty into the audience.

Testa inhabited fully a role that seems to have been written for her.  Her carriage perfectly erect, her hands quiet at her sides, she used her face and her eyes and her large eloquent voice to command the stage, communicating the power and determination of a woman who had to live by her wits in an age when women had few opportunities for agency.

Queen of the Mist underlines how unseemly it was for women to seek public attention at the turn of the 20th century.  Nevertheless, Annie did go down in history as the first person to survive the plunge down Niagara Falls.

But after she accomplishes her dream, Annie becomes strangely distanced from herself and her adoring but finally impatient public.  Queen of the Mist’s second act quiets her down a bit and the show loses some of its focus and verve.

A quieter Annie after her "deed" is done

It’s not quite clear whether Annie is supposed to be disappointed about the reception to her stunt and how quickly she passes from the public eye, or if something else has suddenly drawn the wind from her considerable sails.  She also begins to lose her eyesight.  LaChiusa seems uncertain whether this is meant to be metaphorical or simply factual.

Finally, then, despite its considerable charms, Queen of the Mist seems a bit unsure what it’s about.  Is it a Floyd Collins-style indictment of the press and the way that it did or didn’t make heroes of people?   The press badgers Annie for years to share the specifics of what she felt in that barrel as she moved down the river toward the falls.  But Annie believes the fact that she did the deed should have been enough.  In the show’s 11th hour revelation scene, after much prompting and suspense, Annie finally confesses what she felt during her ride down the falls.  She bares her heart as she describes her terror and her love for all those she feared she might never see again.

But Queen of the Mist doesn’t explain why she was reluctant to share these details all along, and what her hesitancy means for the story’s larger implications.  Does the show mean to suggest that Annie should have been more emotionally available in her life?  That a kind of emotional hubris was her downfall?

Or does the show respect Annie for refusing to pander to sensationalism by describing her emotions and the terrifying sensation of plummeting over the falls, in the dark, with pounding water pummeling the thin wooden membrane between your body and your death?

Hard to say.  In a talk-back after the performance we saw, Testa and director Jack Cummings III said that Annie wanted to “own” her story, and felt that the fact of her deed was enough.  We weren’t quite sure, however, that the show itself made that clear.

Nonetheless, Queen of the Mist has wonderful potential and a terrific cast who spoke eloquently about the project.  Here’s hoping Annie Edson Taylor gets another chance at fame.

The Feminist Spectator

Queen of the Mist, Judson Gym, December 1, 2011.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

More on Hung . . .

Jane Adams and Thomas Jane as Tanya and Ray on Hung

After I posted on Hung, I watched a few more episodes, catching up with a recent story-line (Episode 27, “What’s Going on Downstairs or Don’t Eat Prince Eric“) about Ray’s encounters with Kyla (Jamie Clayton), the transgender client Lenore introduces to his services without telling Ray that Kyla, who presents as a woman, is “actually” a man.

The debate about Kyla is set in the context of Ray’s apparent aversion to having sex with men, which Tanya’s new worker, the happily omi-sexual Jason, is willing to do.  When Charlie, Tanya's erstwhile lover and fellow pimp, suggests that joining forces with Jason and his wife, Sandy, will allow Tanya and Ray to expand their services, Ray grudgingly agrees to bring the much younger man on board.

Later in the episode, the revelation that Kyla is transgendered turns the tables on Ray and forces him to examine his narrow-mindedness.

The story-line presents a rather lame, liberal excursion into transgendered experience.  Ray’s dismay when he learns that Kyla is trans seems calculated to address mainstream viewers’ presumed discomfort.

But when Ray accompanies Kyla to her high school reunion—and paid handsomely, even though he insists that sex is out of the question—he sees his date through her former classmates’ eyes and realizes his bigotry.

At the affair, Kyla aims to pass as a woman, and successfully mystifies former friends who have no idea who she is.  Then, in a double reveal, just as a table full of men recognizes Ray as a local if faded basketball hero, they also recognize Kyla as Dan, an old classmate they remember with derision and righteous ridicule for his new gender performance.

Kyla is humiliated and plans to flee, but Ray comes to her rescue, chivalrously suggesting that they dance as the others leer.  Kyla is appeased and comforted.  Ray’s voiceover suggests that he’s become too old not to let himself and others be what they are, whatever that may be, securing the liberal message of tolerance for the episode’s end.

Obviously, this isn’t the treatment transgender people deserve from a show that otherwise takes a more progressive view of women’s sexuality.  Given how much the producers seem to know about feminism, I’d expect them to present a more complicated story about the show’s first trans client.  Because the story proceeds from Ray’s perspective, his anxiety about homosex determines his reaction to Kyla, and steers the viewers’ response.

At the same time, the episode is one of the first in the series to underscore that Tanya and Ray are middle-aged.  Charlie reminds Ray that however large his dick, it won’t last forever, startling Ray with this foreshadowing of his inevitable loss of potency.

And when Tanya and Ray try to work with Jason and Sandy, they’re both chagrined that they can’t follow the younger couple’s pop culture references.  The show’s attention to their ages increased my affection for the characters.  After all, how often do explicitly middle-aged characters talk about generational issues on television?

On the next episode (#28, “I, Sandee or This Sex.  Which Is.  Not One.”), Jessica (Anne Heche) continues to find herself excited by Tanya’s instruction at the Wellness Center.  Although her presence there throws Tanya and Ray into fits of anxiety, because they continue to think they can hide Ray’s sexual activities from his former wife, Jessica is taken with the theory and the practice of embracing her own sexuality.

She enters Tanya’s office clutching a book, breathlessly trying to say the author’s name, which Tanya explains is “Irigaray.”  The book is the famous French feminist’s This Sex Which is Not One.  I think this is the first time I’ve seen French feminist theory happily referenced on television (let alone used to suggest how women might sexually empower themselves).  Jessica can’t quite follow Irigaray’s ideas, but Tanya is delighted by her enthusiasm and eagerness.  The two women bond over the book, hugging one another thankfully.

This level of insight into the post-structuralist critique of sexuality and gender should have allowed the producers to handle the trans story-line more gracefully.  But I continue to revel in Tanya’s feminist sex pedagogy and her intellectual savvy, which more than outweighs her dismal business acumen.

Argue with its lapses, but do watch Hung.

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


The ensemble plays in the water in the show's opening

Composer Stephen Schwartz and director John-Michael Tebelak conceived and wrote Godspell as Carnegie-Mellon University students in the early 1970s (almost all the lyrics are taken verbatim from the Gospels).

When it opened Off Broadway at LaMama in 1971, the Viet Nam War still raged; Charles Manson and his followers were being sentenced for the murder of Sharon Tate; Army Lieutenant William Calley was found guilty of the My Lai massacres; the New York Times had just begun publishing the Pentagon Papers; President Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs”; Gloria Steinem addressed the women of America for one of her first times; Camden, New Jersey erupted in racial strife; and Walt Disney World opened in Orlando.

In other words, the U.S. was quite a different place, even though some of the intractable social issues roiling the nation then—like racism and sexism—continue to hound us now. Given its historical moment, this simple, sincere, ensemble musical must have seemed to respond to national crises with a subtle, quiet demonstration of faith in the power of community to offer comfort and support.

Meanwhile, American experimental theatre in the 1960s and ‘70s focused on ensemble physical interactions, using transformational acting techniques inspired by Viola Spolin’s theatre games that encouraged the actors to create all the stage images and set pieces with their bodies. Story-telling, direct address to the audience, a lack of psychology, a rejection of realism, and a determination to break the "fourth wall" between performers and spectators provided the aesthetic and political ethos of the day. (Feminist Spectator 2, Stacy Wolf, has an excellent chapter on 1970s musical theatre influenced by Spolin-style theatre games in her book, Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical.)

Those theatre experiments (and, for that matter, 1971’s social cataclysms) have long been naturalized and incorporated into American political and theatre history. But here’s Godspell back on Broadway, in its first Broadway revival since it debuted there post-LaMama in 1976.

Because contemporary audiences haven’t seen much unadulterated, old-style transformational theatre on Broadway recently, the actors’ ability to create the environment with their bodies seems strangely new, even if it's embellished now with fancy tricks of stage technology and sophisticated lighting techniques.

The production retains the late-1960s earnestness that marked it originally.  But the revival gilds the show with wry, sarcastic patter and references to current events that seem at odds with the eager industriousness of the basic show, which hasn’t been significantly changed.

Godspell’s book remains structured around the parables Jesus tells his disciplines, who act them out with wit and sincerity, learning how to treat one another respectfully as they go. Played by the perky, blond, and glowing Hunter Parrish, Jesus is a beautiful and beatific white guy whose halo can practically be seen floating around his head.

By custom, John the Baptist/Judas Iscariot is played by a black man (here the terrific, specific, and sad Wallace Smith). This production conforms to a choice that maintains the typical dyad of white=good and black=bad/betrayer. In a production that tries so hard to update itself, with references to everything from the death of Steve Jobs and to Occupy Wall Street, it seems odd that director Daniel Goldstein and choreographer Christopher Gattelli would hang on to that tired racial binary.

Hunter Parrish (back) as Jesus and Wallace Smith as John/Judas.

Then again, other aspects of the production do seem refreshingly new, including a resolutely multiracial ensemble cast. Uzo Aduba, one of the show's two African American female performers, even performs with a healthy dollop of masculinity, striking poses that show off her sculpted biceps, and bringing to “By My Side,” her signature song, a lovely sense of strength and compassion. Aduba was a pleasure to watch.

Likewise, the other four women in the 10-person cast performed their bits with equal vim, vigor, and charisma. Godspell would fall absolutely flat without performers who can sell the show’s good-humored, gentle fun and romantic singing.

All the characters remain types: The slightly blowsy Latina woman (Lindsay Mendez) who's warm and earthy; the plus-size African American woman who measures her pulse rate after a particularly energetic number on little trampolines buried in the stage floor (Celisse Henderson); the rather slight white woman who nonetheless does a powerful “Turn Back O Man” (Morgan James); and the small, lithe Asian American woman (Anna Maria Perez de Tagle) who's sweet and charming.

Celisse Henderson

The men, too, are cut from familiar cloth. Telly Leung is terrific as the piano-playing Asian American male joker; Nick Blaemire is an intelligent, sweet presence as the white, Jewish-looking guy; and George Salazar fits in nicely as the burly, huggable bear of a Latino man. They’re all still physical and to a certain extent racial stereotypes, and as characters, they’re nothing but ciphers. But the ensemble works their performances to be appealing and very easy to watch.

This version of Godspell combines old, participatory 1960s-style experimental theatre tricks with the more recent trend to Blue Man Group-style theatrics and the participation ethos of reality TV. Audience members sitting close to the stage-in-the-round are hauled up to play characters (one man played Lazarus in one of the parables), or to play Pictionary (first published as a game in 1985), or to play Charades, in little vignettes that do little more than make other spectators wonder if they’ll be chosen to go up next.

The spectators who took the stage were all good-natured (and the Charade-player, at the matinee I saw, was remarkably talented). The cast, to the production’s credit, wasn’t bent on humiliating them. In fact, the actors basically whispered in each performing spectator’s ear, apparently telling them exactly what to do. Far from making anyone uncomfortable or embarrassed, the whole audience seemed buoyed by these invitations.

At another moment, spectators sitting on pillows right near the stage floor were instructed to hold up their decorated cushions for all to see. Those on one side of the house boasted images of heaven, those on the other, images of hell. Everyone seemed to think this was quite fun.

I admit I found it all a bit twee. But then, I was engrossed in my own reveries, as each song recalled for me some moment in my youth when I first heard and learned the music to Godspell. Our high school chorus (Peabody High, Pittsburgh, Class of ’75) performed a concert version of the score, in which, if I recall, I played the guitar and sang “By My Side” in a duet with another student. And I remember that an African American classmate who did “Turn Back O Man” got the vamping just right.

My own sentimentality about forty-year old memories preoccupied me throughout Godspell. But then again, I never found the musical’s book to be its most compelling aspect.

In fact, when I did find myself listening to Jesus and his parables at the Broadway revival, I was a bit concerned. Now that religion has become such a controversial touchstone in American politics, it’s hard to listen to a book and lyrics about Jesus and God and not think about evangelical Christianity and how hegemonic it’s become since the show debuted in 1971. Even though Godspell’s Jesus preaches tolerance, turning the other cheek, and loving one another, and although the ensemble warmly performs those friendly values, the show is still very much about the Judeo-Christian god in a way that made me uncomfortable.

Some of the theatre effects might have resonated more religiously than perhaps the producers intended. At the end, for example, a horizontal rod is lowered from the flies, onto which Hunter Parrish is lashed at the wrists. He crosses his ankles and tilts back his head in the iconic Jesus-on-the-crucifix pose. The rod rotates, so that the audience-in-the round can see this representation of his sacrificial pain.

At the finale , the cast releases him from the cross, lifting Parrish’s limp body in their arms and carrying him up the aisles, into the theatre lobby, which beckons with bright, heavenly light as they climb the theatre stairs. The day I saw Godspell, a few spectators along the way stood up in respect as the cast passed with their burden, in what seemed to me a cringe-worthy confusion of theatre and reality.

Perhaps no one ever really cared about Godspell’s religiosity, especially not when the music was so good and the stories were already rather bland. Godspell is carried by its songs, by its "poor theatre" theatricality, and by the stage presence of the collectively committed cast. In the original production, the show was also sold by Susan Tsu’s clown-like, playful costumes, which have set the show’s tone ever since.

The revival's ensemble and their colorful costumes.

But I do wonder what the producers were thinking when they decided to revive the show for Broadway now, when the extreme Right is forcing religion on this country as if it’s the only path to political, let alone spiritual, salvation.

I still love Godspell’s music, and the nice moments of fellow-feeling it inspires among its cast and its audiences. When Jesus hugs each of his disciplines good-bye towards the end, Parrish and the others communicate a moving measure of love and regret. The whole cast seems bonded, whether they’re performing playfully or sorrowfully.

The production uses stage technology and the tricks of theatricality to evoke its moments beautifully. At the show’s beginning, the stage floor opens onto channels of water, into which the actors jump and bathe in a proto-baptismal moment. A neat visual trick allows Jesus to appear to be walking on water, which gets an appropriate laugh.

At the end, the cast reopens those channels and, in unison, pours a powder into the water that makes it foam and steam, as though they’re sitting by the rushing rapids of a much larger river. These simple choices, of course, cost a lot of money, and are much fancier than the sawhorses and wood planks that were used to evoke locations and scenes in the original production. But still, the revival’s stagecraft produced visually and emotionally resonant images.

Feminist Spectator 2 tells me that Godspell’s score sounded like it was re-orchestrated, and that more electric music was added for this revival. Although my less formally schooled ears couldn’t quite pick up what was different, I missed the more acoustic guitar riffs.

The six-person band was spread out on small individual platforms around the house, while the conductor sat on the stage at a piano that became part of the action. Because the band was, of course, amplified, I was at times confused about where the music was coming from; it took me a moment to pick out all the musicians at their various stages (or stations? of the cross?) in the house.

I enjoyed my afternoon at Godspell, which Stacy and I saw with two of our 12-year-old nieces and with my sisters- and brother-in-law and my mother-in-law. We had fun. All of the adults indulged their many memories of earlier productions as spectators and performers. And the girls, who didn't know the show, said it was “good,” noncommittally, though they were happy to wait for cast autographs afterwards.

One of our nieces did notice that the actors were close to the audience and actually looked at us, unlike, in her example, Wicked, in which the “actors were so far away and there is a dividing line between the show and the audience.” Seems that audience participation, direct address, and theatre-in-the-round do make an impression . . .

But what does Godspell mean, now? That we should live by Jesus’s teachings? That we should love one another the way he preached? That we should be a rainbow of difference and create community among us? What kind of difference or community does this revival have in mind, exactly? I left the theatre not at all sure what the production wanted us to do, besides humming the wonderful songs, thinking about the performances, and watching the actors come out to sign programs.

I have a feeling Godspell meant a bit more than that in 1971, at LaMama, and even in 1976, when it debuted on Broadway.

I wish it meant more now.

The Feminist Spectator

Godspell,  Circle in the Square Theatre, Sunday matinee, November 14, 2011.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


 Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison

Showtime’s Homeland debuted on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.  The series stars Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a CIA operative who’s learned that an American soldier in the Middle East has been “turned” and now works for an Al Qaeda cell.  When Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is found after eight years in captivity and returns to a hero’s welcome, Carrie is certain he’s the double agent.

Since she can’t persuade her dubious CIA superiors to follow her instincts, Carrie goes rogue, setting up an illegal surveillance on Brody’s house and then engineering a personal relationship with him that lets her follow her own course.

The series plays the country’s paranoia for all it’s worth, constantly turning the plot to keep viewers and characters off guard.  The performers hold their characters’ secrets close; they’re as difficult for us to read as they are for one another to truly understand, even though viewers are given key bits of information early.

For instance, Carrie’s surveillance cameras can’t pick up the inside of Brody’s garage, where we know well before Carrie that he retreats regularly for Muslim prayers.  Hearing his chanting and seeing him perform the rituals seems chilling, but it later appears that the show’s producers have played on mainstream viewers’ stereotypes about Islam to enhance our sense of foreboding.

In a later episode, Brody explains to Carrie that he adopted Islam because he needed religion—any religion—to survive the ordeal of his captivity.  Because Lewis plays Brody so convincingly, it’s difficult not to be persuaded and even moved by his explanation.  But the most recent episode’s plot twist once again upends our understandings, playing both with and against viewers’ presumptions.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible for a series about terrorism not to trade on knee-jerk expectations of which characters will be good and which bad.  The Arabic-accented, Middle Eastern-appearing men are instantly marked as villains.  The only thing that makes Brody truly interesting is that he’s a red-haired, archetypally American soldier who might, in fact, be working for the enemy.

 Damian Lewis as Brody, after he's rescued
but before he's returned to his all-American hero image

And in a subplot that hasn’t yet been consistently developed, a young Middle Eastern professor and his blonde American wife have moved into a neighborhood that puts them within shooting range of a U.S. military landing strip.  The CIA believes the man might be Brody’s Al Qaeda contact, but it turns out that it’s his wife, Aileen (played by the always wonderful Marin Ireland), who is the mysterious operation’s architect.  Her back-story gives her ample reasons to love the Middle East and to despise the United States, but her centrality to the series’ plot has so far been tenuous.

Homeland’s producers, then, try to keep twisting the plot so that the binary of American/good, Middle Eastern/bad won’t maintain.  But its visual scenario tells a different story.   Middle Eastern male characters are constantly beaten, attacked, or killed by white military or intelligence officers.  The guard who confined Brody for all those years, whom Brody beats when he asks to visit the captured man in prison, subsequently slits his wrists with a razor blade somehow smuggled in to him.  Aileen’s husband is killed when CIA operatives catch up to him and Aileen and blast automatic rifle fire through the walls of their motel room.  (She escapes.)

Even the henchman of Abu Nazir—the archenemy who Carrie suspects is the mastermind behind a new plot to attack America—is nearly strangled when Brody breaks into his house to confront him about his presumed dead comrade, Tom Walker.  Homeland invites viewers to watch with a kind of vengeful pleasure as these brown men endure violence meted out by righteous white men.  Although the series wants to disrupt our assumptions, its images nonetheless secure conventional ideology about the Middle East as the dangerous, obvious locus of terrorist threats.

Danes plays Carrie, the smart, difficult, unruly operative who receives the intelligence that a soldier has been turned and rests her suspicions on Brody.  Danes does a wonderful job communicating the obsessions of someone high up in the CIA’s ranks who takes it as her personal responsibility not to let 9/11 happen again.  In fact, in Danes’ voiceover on the show’s credits, Carrie insists that she should have caught the clues, that she should have seen the 9/11 attacks coming and been able to prevent them.  The weight of personal guilt for a national tragedy fuels Carrie’s passion and her mania.

Homeland suggests that only enormous ego or narcissism could explain one solitary CIA agent’s single-minded pursuit of justice and her insistence that 9/11 was in some way her fault.  At the same time, the show proposes that another terrorist event might in fact be foiled by a single agent.

The show seesaws between these two different desires.  It appeases our yearning for a hero who can stop speeding bullets with his or her bare hands (like Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in 24, on which some of Homeland’s producers previously worked).  But it also underlines that national security is a complicated priority that takes way more than a village, let alone any individual.

Homeland mostly resists 24’s fantasy that one man could save us all.  In fact, Homeland’s hero is a woman.  While the show admires Carrie for her superior intelligence and her willingness to dedicate her life to her job, it also burdens her with an unnamed but determining psychological problem.  Carrie can’t tell the agency about her condition or she’d be fired from her high-level security clearance position.  She pilfers drugs from her impatient, unsympathetic pharmaceutical rep sister to self-medicate and keep herself even.

By explaining Carrie’s obsessions as at least partly the result of her illness, Homeland cuts the character off at the knees.  We’re never sure if her paranoia is justified or chemical, and none of her reactions can be trusted because we don’t know what really fuels her obsession.

Her superiors don’t know Carrie’s medical history; they find her difficult because she breaks rules and resists censure.  She is a loose cannon in a carefully regulated world.  In fact, Carrie’s vigilantism is one of the least believable aspects of an otherwise smart show.  Certainly, an agent who bugged the home of a returning war hero without authorization would be summarily fired.  And certainly, an agent who initiated a sexual relationship with that war hero would be denounced.  (But then again, indiscretions like these didn’t hamper Jack Bauer, either.)

Instead, Carrie confesses her misdeeds to Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), her father-figure mentor.  He scolds her, knits his thick eyebrows together in deep disapproval, and then absolves her, hugging her tightly in understanding parental embraces that free her to go on drawing outside the lines of agency protocol.  Saul, you see, is also emotionally haunted.  His obvious though unnamed Jewishness—inescapable in any character Patinkin plays—emphasizes his moral ambivalence.

Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson

Like Carrie, Saul’s obsession with his job compromises his emotional and domestic life.  In fact, his South Asian wife has decided to leave him after 25 years of marriage to return to her family in Delhi because he’s emotionally and physically inaccessible.  Their scenes together allow Patinkin to indulge his hang-dog, maudlin side.  The producers haven’t quite figured out how to bring more nuances to a character caught between his righteous ambitions and his sincere love for his wife.  Their costly commitments to their jobs make Saul and Carrie the show’s real soul-mates.

Damian Lewis performs Sergeant Brody as a time-bomb set to detonate, controlled by unknown forces on an unknown schedule.  Brody was isolated for eight years before being rescued by an American SWAT team.  Lewis clarifies the force of will required to survive captivity, and never shies from inhabiting Brody’s vulnerabilities.  He makes palpable the depth of Brody’s need for connection while he remained in captivity, after he was released from extended solitary confinement and torture.

After sustaining himself by making unimaginable moral choices, Brody returns to a domestic life that’s moved on without him.  Brody finds that his wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin), has been sleeping with his best friend, Mike (Diego Klattenhoff).  But after being told that Brody was presumed dead, how long was she supposed to keep her life on hold?

Likewise, Brody’s friend and fellow captive, Sergeant Tom Walker, whom Brody is lead to believe he killed with his bare hands, left behind a wife who’s since remarried.  Both couples have kids who barely know their fathers.  One of Homeland’s conversations, then, also concerns the place of biological fathers in families that survive without them.  The series implicitly asks whether men like Brody have any right to walk back into their patriarchal roles without acknowledging how their domestic spheres have closed around their absences.

 The patriarch returns

Baccarin, as Jessica, plays Brody’s conflicted wife with emotional depth and precision.  She’s given little to do—wouldn’t a soldier’s wife have to work for a living when he was presumed dead?—and she mostly reacts to Brody’s presence.  But Baccarin communicates the complicated feelings of a woman who has to pick up a marriage that was suspended and presumed ended for eight years.  Her struggle to play the dutiful, faithful wife makes Jessica more interesting in Baccarin’s performance than she is in the show’s dialogue.

Homeland’s latest twists (Episode 9) stretch the credulity of an already somewhat confusing story.  (I’ve noticed the on-line concern that the show might go the way of The Killing, last season’s atmospheric new series that finally irritated viewers with its cliff-hangers and unlikely plot turns.)  But I’ll keep watching to see how Danes continues to bring depth and complexity to one of the more interesting roles for women on series television, and to see how the writers unravel the current host of secrets and complications and set us up for more in season two.

The Feminist Spectator

Homeland, Showtime, Sundays, 10 p.m., ET/PT

Friday, November 25, 2011


HBO's advertisement for the series

With Nurse Jackie and The Big C on hiatus for now, I’ve returned to Hung on HBO, which is enjoying its third season of social observation through the foibles of a male prostitute and his female pimp.  I’ve also been watching Homeland on Showtime, to see how it unravels its post-9/11 tale of paranoid intrigue.  My viewing is selective, but it does seem that subscription television offers more nuanced women characters than many of those in mainstream films (Bridesmaids aside).  The women in these two series actually grow and change over time, taking advantage of the more capacious narrative potential of episodic TV (see my next post for a discussion of Homeland).

Hung continues to follow the unlikely pairing of Tanya Skagle (Jane Adams) and Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane), a pimp and her prostitute, who use his impressive physical prowess to make a common living.  Although I missed much of Hung’s second season, which is now out on DVD, I’m reminded what fun it is to watch Adam’s hapless but deeply feminist Tanya make her way through the illegal and sexual thickets of pimping out her man to middle-class, middle-aged, and (unfortunately) white women (except for current guest star Ana Ortiz).

Tanya has established a Wellness Center for women where she instructs her acolytes in the fine art of reclaiming their sexuality.  Tanya calls herself a “happiness consultant.”  Rehearsing the “our bodies, ourselves” mantras of 1970s feminist self-help, Tanya invites her students to “know your vulva,” encouraging them toward embracing the power of their sexual identities.

 Tanya's Wellness Center brochure

Much of the show’s humor comes from its admixture of feminist sexual activism with capitalist entrepreneurship.  After all, Tanya’s goal is to make a living for herself and Ray, and she’s the first to admit that she’s often out of her league.  But she’s ambitious enough to seek advice from a middle-aged African American male pimp who also becomes her lover.

Hung’s pedigree includes executive producers Alexander Payne (the writer/director of Sideways and the just-released film The Descendants) and Angela Robinson (director alum of The L Word and of the terrific lesbian spy spoof, D.E.B.S.), who help secure its insights into middle-aged men and middle-aged, feminism-informed women.  Created by Dmitry Lipkin and Collette Burson, the show engages the economic dilemmas of middle-class and marginalized people desperate to make ends meet and creative enough to brook convention and taboo.

The show is set in Detroit, although it’s obviously white, suburban Detroit, not the economically devastated, racially diverse, struggling inner city.  But the working class history of the area allows its producers to contemplate the shrinking professional horizons of ordinary people who nonetheless boast a sharp analysis about their right to reap the promised rewards of lauded American enterprise.

Tanya, for example, has an MFA in poetry, and Ray is a high school basketball coach.  That Tanya is also the businesswoman who takes advantage of Ray’s extraordinarily large penis lends the show its feminist angle and much of its humor.  Her face shiny with sweat and anxiety, her hair floating in frantic frizz around her face, Tanya is a smart if inchoate bundle of determination.  In recent episodes, she and Ray face competition from Lenore (Rebecca Creskoff), Tanya's former would-be business partner, who’s found her own well-endowed stud, Jason (Stephen Amell), and intends to intrude on Tanya’s territory.

And Ray is burdened by the role-playing expectations of Lydia, one of his johns (or would it be janes?), a woman who insists on meeting him in unlikely situations in which she plays cop to his robber.  When it turns out Lydia (Ortiz, late of Ugly Betty) really is a police officer, Tanya and Ray’s business is threatened.  In the last episode I watched, the comedy was acute, but the explanation for Lydia’s outsized desires felt too psychologically lame for a show that’s best when it’s parodic.

Who cares that Lydia’s police officer husband is a brute who regularly frequents his own stable of prostitutes?  Instead of leveling the gendered playing field by suggesting women can be as physically desirous and emotionally detached about sex as men, the episode attributed Lydia’s appetites to a bad relationship.  And Ray freed himself and Tanya from potential arrest by offering Lydia an emotionally sustaining freebie.

But most of the time, Hung keeps its balance and doesn’t fall into sentimentality.  For example, Ray’s ex-wife, Jessica (Anne Heche), has divorced her second husband.  Though she has no apparent work skills, she desperately needs a job, and finds one working for a pompous, self-important doctor with whom she and Ray used to socialize.

When the doctor seduces her, their sex scene shows him moving way too slowly on top of her while crooning lyrics from musical theatre.  Heche’s pitch-perfect reactions to her sexual and emotional boredom fill the screen.  When the doctor unexpectedly visits her at home to reassure her that their liaison won’t jeopardize her job, Heche’s incredulity registers how even men who are sexually and romantically inept still maintain more social and professional power than the women they lord it over.

Likewise, Lenore pressures Jason into working for her and tries to thwart his engagement, which she assumes will be an obstacle.  But when she confronts his fiancée, she’s far from shocked by her future husband’s sexual adventures.  Instead, the young woman bargains with Lenore for the spoils from his extra-curricular work.

Sex, Hung points out, can be a negotiable, even exploitable business relationship instead of a prize kept on the rarefied pedestal of marriage or romance.  This is a plank straight out of feminist sex workers’ platforms; see, for only one example, the activist ideologies of COYOTE, a sex workers’ rights group founded in 1973 by the prostitute Margo St. James.

The small moments that upend stereotypical expectations about sex and sexuality make Hung a series worth watching.  It’s full of smart and funny social observations about the economic and political, as well as the emotional, tolls of gendered sexual interactions.  The casts’ rich performances and the producers’ excellent writing keep it consistently engaging.

Although it’s Ray’s anatomy that keeps their business going, it’s Tanya’s understanding of women’s desires that sells their product.  And the women who buy Ray’s services are somehow always proactive, powerfully in charge of their encounters.  Ray is a good guy in Hung, but he’s objectified in ways that limit his masculine privilege to the power of his member.  He spends much of the series befuddled and bossed around; happily, though he might be a stud, he’s not a patriarch.

Hung tries to do new things with old gender roles.  Take a look.

The Feminist Spectator

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


Miscommunication in action in the opening scene . . .

David Henry Hwang has long chronicled the complications of Asian and western cultures clashing with mostly deleterious effects.  His play M. Butterfly, which premiered on Broadway in 1988, famously narrated the story of a western diplomat who lived in China and fell in love with a communist spy he thought was a woman.  With deft comedy and captivating theatricality, Hwang illustrated the Orientalism endemic to the west, as white people persistently project their fantasies of the “Other” onto those unlike themselves.  The production made a star of B.D. Wong, who played Song Liling and marked one of the stage highlights of Jon Lithgow’s long and distinguished career.

In his latest play, Chinglish, in a very funny, smart Broadway production directed by Leigh Silverman after a successful run at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last summer, Hwang once again addresses mismatched cultures from the perspective of a white businessman, this time from Cleveland, who’s taken himself to China to stir up business for his family’s failing signage company.  Daniel (Gary Wilmes) hires Peter (Stephen Pucci), an Englishman who’s lived in China for nearly 20 years, as a local “consultant” to help him translate not just the Chinese language, but also the complicated mores of the local culture, on which successful business deals depend.  But as the Chinese officials with whom Daniel would do business bring along their own native translator, differences of meaning and failures of communication abound.

With most of the Chinese characters speaking Mandarin, the English translation is projected for the theatre audience as supertitles and most of the humor lodges in our syncopated reading of the translations as they’re posed against their intended meanings.  The very problem Daniel offers to solve—the poorly translated signs in newly built cultural institutions meant to impress western audiences (a handicapped bathroom sign reads “Deformed Man Toilet”)—hobbles his business dealings, as the Chinese translator sitting in on his first meeting with local bureaucrats ineptly delivers his proposal.

Peter isn’t much better at greasing the wheels of business, caught up as he is in the “backstage” dealings that seed capitalist relationships in the communist state.  The Englishman plans to succeed by relying on an exchange of favors that promptly backfires, stranding him and his American friend without a deal prospect.

But from behind the scenes comes Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim), the Chinese second-in-command who sits mostly silent and stern at the initial meeting, while her bumbling male boss performs the obsequious fawning that’s meant to flatter the American while not providing Daniel any true satisfaction.  When Xi Yan offers to meet with Daniel over a meal, she dismisses Peter and proceeds to reveal the “backstage” story in halting English that brings its own set of hilarious misunderstandings.

 Jennifer Lim as Xi Yan and Gary Wilmes as Daniel

But unlike her superior, Xi Yan is no fool.  She’s a sharp businesswoman who understands the complex equation of Chinese business acumen with an ethical system of checks and balances that requires compromise to protect private honor.  When she and Daniel begin an affair, her same unsentimental, sophisticated analysis of global power dynamics infuses her tryst.  Silverman directs Lim to literally let down her hair in her bedroom scenes with Daniel, but instead of a typical transformation into a simpering sex kitten (the stereotype that underlies the stern business woman or worse, “librarian” figure), Xi Yan retains her agency.  She’s after pleasure, not a relationship, and soundly rejects Daniel’s belief that sex leads to love and then to marriage.

The gender politics of the play are as interesting here as they were in M. Butterfly, though these many years later, Hwang allows an actual woman to deliver the critique of American Orientalism.  Enjoying their passionate affair, Daniel begins to get carried away with romance, suggesting that he and Xi Yan leave their respective marriages to be together, as people in love are supposed to do, according to his American fantasies.

But Xi Yan is horrified by this idea, protesting that if he leaves his wife, he’ll threaten her own marriage, which is built not on some western notion of eternal sentimental love, but on a much more pragmatic understanding of partnership and mutual public benefit.   In fact, Xi Yan’s business machinations with Daniel increase the political standing of her husband, Xu Geming (Johnny Wu), a judge who is subsequently promoted to mayor.  That Xi Yan can keep squarely separate public politics from private pleasure makes her the more powerful of the couple.  At the end, Daniel can only ruefully go on with his life and enjoy the successful business contract his relationship with Xi Yan enabled.

The play is full of wry and pointed observations about gender, as well as nationality and race.  Played by Wilmes with hapless magnetism and bemused patience, Daniel is a sweet nebbish of a guy, desperate to succeed in an environment about which he knows virtually nothing.  He’s middle-aged, handsome in a regular sort of way, and not particularly sexy, though the more elegant and sophisticated Xi Yan thinks him compatible.  Lim performs Xi Yan with precise comic control, never sacrificing the character’s dignity to get a laugh, and infusing her sexuality with the perfect balance of desire and agency.  Hers is a terrific performance of a role that could easily sink into cardboard stereotype.

Daniel finds his erotic and corporate quotient surprisingly elevated when he admits that he worked for Enron; he becomes a minor celebrity in a Chinese context in which crooks like Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling are seen as heroes.  The Chinese make grand assumptions about Daniel’s proximity to the company’s power structure, which establishes more credibility than he has or probably deserves.

But with such a counter-misunderstanding, Hwang this time around evens the playing field.  In M. Butterfly, the playwright’s excoriating critique showed up western men’s projections of otherness and eroticism onto Asian women, seeing them as wounded butterflies in need of white male protection.  That Song Liling turned out to be quite a virile young man instead of a helpless woman only underlined Hwang’s critique of the west’s insistent feminization of eastern cultures.

In Chinglish, the cultural misapprehensions are mutual, allowing Hwang to portray an international scene in which both countries share responsibility for perpetuating their own miscommunications.  At the same time, Hwang clarifies that the fledgling capitalism in China needs western-style business and vice versa, that their transactions are a matter of mutual survival.

The cast is uniformly terrific.  Many play multiple roles, from Party apparatchiks to local officials.  Silverman keeps the tone even and light throughout, allowing the play’s humor to sound without sacrificing Hwang’s more serious underlying intent.  The evening moves smoothly—the set (beautifully designed by David Korins) folds into and out of itself into various locations, from the lobby of a swanky hotel to one of its rooms, to the bureaucrats’ office and back again, using the actors to help punctuate and enliven the frequent transitions.

Chinglish ultimately isn’t as transformational a play as M. Butterfly¸ whose intense theatricality alone made it memorable.  Chinglish remains realist throughout, and banks on the humor of its mistranslations to strike home its points.  But the evening succeeds in making amused spectators think about national and cultural differences and how we traverse them, along with the social complications of navigating global capitalism in an increasingly interconnected world.

The Feminist Spectator

Chinglish, by David Henry Hwang, directed by Leigh Silverman, Longacre Theatre, October 29, 2011.