Saturday, May 28, 2011

The FS Saw . . . The Shaggs

I saw The Shaggs Philosophy of the World at Playwrights Horizons on Wednesday (May 25, 2011), in its second preview performance.  Based on a true story, The Shaggs describes how Dot, Betty, and Helen Wiggins, sisters from Fremont, NH, were coerced into becoming a band by their mercurial, rather psychotic father, Austin, whose plan for his daughters’ musical career came to him as a vision from his dead mother.  The three young women had no musical training or interest before he pulled them out of high school, bought them two electric guitars and a drum set, and ordered them to learn to play.  The musical traces their reluctant artistry and his increasingly crazy designs on their futures.

Austin uses all the family’s money to cut an album that gets no airplay, and tries to book gigs that take them nowhere, essentially because no one but him thinks his daughters are talented.  The musical traces how each of the daughters suffers differently from the way his dreams constrain their own. 

With a story by Joy Gregory (who wrote the book and lyrics), Gunnar Madsen (also music and lyrics), and John Langs (who also directed), The Shaggs is a fascinating, affecting show.  The story would be entirely unlikely if it weren’t true.  The frame puts Austin (Peter Friedman) in conversation a bit too often with his deceased mother to deliver the requisite exposition.  But scenes among the sisters are full of nuance and heart, of hope for the potential of what they might become and sadness over what they know they really are.  The family’s interactions with the amateur and professional music world convey the awkwardness of people from a small town in the 1960s trying to achieve stardom, a goal that only Austin truly desires.

Because the girls are teenagers when Austin’s plan begins to take shape, The Shaggs also illustrates how difficult it was for them to maintain normal childhoods.  Betty (Sarah Sokolovic) tries to play up her feminine wiles but her advances are rejected by Kyle (Cory Michael Smith), the young man whose dream is to be, as he describes it, a cosmonaut.  Kyle’s affections run to Helen (Emily Walton), the youngest Wiggin daughter, who’s infatuated with him in return.

Helen can’t quite see anything distinctive in her future.  Even before her father sets them on their wrong-headed musical path, she decides she’ll distinguish herself by refusing to speak.  Dot (Jamey Hood), the oldest, is most determined to please her father and bend to his will.  Her ambivalence about his strange notions conflicts with her loyalty.  (Her one solo is called “Don’t Say Nothing Bad About My Dad.”)

That each of the sisters is so clearly different from one another provides part of the musical’s charm.  Hood, Sokolovic, and Walton do a beautiful job individually and as a trio, finding complicated allegiances and friction among the sisters while they suffer together their father’s sometimes harsh and isolating, utterly ineffectual training regimens.

In a repeated sight gag that describes how desperate Betty and Helen are to free themselves from their father's tyranny, they leave the family home through a bedroom window, throwing themselves head first over the ledge and being whooshed out into the night.  When Austin realizes their escape route and boards it up, their suffocating imprisonment is horrifying.

The Shaggs is a small show with a very consistent narrative and pop-musical tone.  It evokes the stultifying environment of small town life, with its hierarchies and affectations and its community and camaraderie.  Annie Golden is lovely as the beleaguered mother who wants to help her husband pursue his dreams, but can’t fathom his obsession with making their daughters famous.  Walton brings sweetness to Helen’s silence and makes her mute expressions full of meaning and appeal.  Smith is affecting as the earnest Kyle, who suffers his own injustices at Austin’s hands.  Kevin Cahoon and Steve Routman, who rotate through various supporting male roles, bring just the right level of affectionate caricature to each one.

As Austin, Peter Friedman stretches out of his more typical abject characters into that of a forceful patriarch whose madness drives his family over the brink of disaster.  Unfortunately, Austin's obsession and brutality make him rather one-note; the daughters' scenes are more compelling than those in which their father stokes his insanity.

Gregory, Madsen, and Langs also creatively solve the challenge of how to create a good musical about talent-poor musicians.  The audience hears The Shaggs rehearsing and understands their unfortunate limitations.  But when the girls enter the recording studio and Austin listens to them cut their demo tape, we hear them as he does, as sparkling, charismatic talents who can sing and play and even dance.

When the scene cuts to the recording engineers, listening to the band through the studio monitor, they hear them as they are—off key, uninspired, and performatively flat.  Maintaining these two spheres of their musicianship throughout The Shaggs—the fantasy and the reality—allows the story to be told through the very idiom the band couldn’t quite master.

Ironically, Lester Bangs, writing for Rolling Stone, rediscovered The Shaggs in 1980, when punk rock created a context in which their atonal, affectless music made sense and even seemed radical.  But in The Shaggs, for the Wiggins sisters, their father’s control over their lives can’t be redeemed.  Even after his early death of a heart attack, they can’t shake loose his damaging legacy and the humiliation they suffered from his misbegotten dreams.

The Feminist Spectator

The Shaggs Philosophy of the World, Playwrights Horizons and New York Theatre Workshop, at Playwrights Horizons.  Opens June 7, 2011.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Note from The Feminist Spectator

For the last nearly six years (since August 2005), I’ve mostly used the occasion of this blog to indulge in long-form essays about theatre, film, performance, television, and anything else that catches my fancy.

But lately, I’ve become aware that because I take some time to draft and craft these posts, I wind up commenting on much less than I actually see.  Time goes by and I lose the opportunity to write about many more of the things that capture my imagination or simply catch my eye.

So, in addition to my typical essay-length posts, I’m going to start trying to incorporate shorter writing in The Feminist Spectator, under these general rubrics (since I’ve always loved alliteration):

The Feminist Spectator Saw, which will let me write shorter posts about worthy productions or cultural events; The Feminist Spectator Seethes, which will offer opportunities for sounding off about things that make me angry; and The Feminist Spectator Suggests, which will let me call your attention to various events, groups, performers, writers, playwrights, and more that I haven’t been able to get to, but that seem interesting and worthy.  I often get invitations to see or write about work that time prevents me from accepting.  But there’s no reason I shouldn’t use this blog to get the word out.

Thanks, as usual, for reading.  And don’t hesitate to be directly in touch at

The Feminist Spectator

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Feminist Performance Festival, Chicago

On Friday, May 20, 2011, I moderated a panel discussion on feminist performance at Northwestern University's "Feminist Performance Festival," organized by E. Patrick Johnson, Ramon Rivera-Servera, and Ann Orloff for the Departments of Performance Studies and Gender Studies. E. Patrick asked me to discuss the history of feminist performance, and to offer contextualizing remarks prior to a conversation with Lenelle Moise, Holly Hughes, and Rhodessa Jones, all of whom also performed during the three-day festival on campus. I'm sharing my remarks here, which are followed by some of the questions I posed to the artists. Holly Hughes taped our conversation; we're hoping to make the recording or a transcript available soon.

The history of feminist performance is of course inextricably bound to the political movement in which it began. Most people point to its genesis at the beginning of second wave American feminism in the late 1960s and early 70s. As many of you know, second wave feminism developed in part from a growing awareness that women were step-children of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the moment. As it grew from intimate consciousness-raising into a broad-based social justice activist movement, feminism splintered into different ideological camps. Those “discourses of the feminisms,” as they came to be called, were roughly characterized this way:

“Liberal” feminists were intent on making change within existing social and political systems and on achieving women’s equality. “Cultural” feminists believed in the distinct and often innate, binary differences that gender makes to culture, so that men, for instance, were considered warriors and women pacifists.

“Materialist” feminists saw gender and identity markers like race, class, sexuality, and ethnicity as historical, changeable, and fluid, determined by convention rather than biology. And “third world” or “womanist” feminists emphasized the intersection of race and gender in their political and ideological interventions. (The great writer Alice Walker coined the term “womanist.”)

These categories were always much more porous, fluid, and multiple than I’ve made them sound in this broad and necessarily generalized taxonomy. But these various strands of feminism were acknowledged by 1980s academics as those most visible and prevalent in the social movement and in the growing discipline of women’s and gender studies.

Early in the history of feminist performance and its attendant criticism and scholarship, these distinctions among feminists seemed salient and important to enumerate and theorize. In the 1980s, when much of this critical work was popularized, feminism was mobile and visible enough that distinctions among its strands seemed necessary.

The goal for those of us determined to parse these differences was to prevent “feminism” writ large from becoming hegemonic. We wanted to insure that all feminist work wouldn’t be mistaken for liberal feminism, the most often white, straight, middle-class, college-educated brand that seemed to dominate the movement. Those determined to spark more profound social change considered liberal feminism too accommodationist and not nearly radical enough.

Different kinds of feminist performance at the time were also categorized by way of these distinct feminisms. Liberal feminist theatre came to describe work by women playwrights and directors determined to make their way through conventional avenues of production. They hoped to work on and off Broadway, at regional theatres, and other mainstream locales that often provided stepping stones to film and television.

Playwrights like Marsha Norman, Wendy Wasserstein, Diana Son, Lynn Nottage, and Theresa Rebeck come to mind here, as women whose plays have been produced across a spectrum of mainstream theatre and who’ve also worked frequently in other forms. Many women theatre-makers continue to strive toward visibility and success in these contexts. And why shouldn’t they? These conventional theatre venues offer one of the only ways to survive economically as a theatre person.

Cultural feminist theatre and performance was distinguished in the 1980s by its attention to a “feminine aesthetic” or to “women’s forms.” At the Foot of the Mountain Theatre in Minneapolis and the Women’s Experimental Theatre in New York distinguished themselves by creating ritual theatre. They rejected realism and conventional dramaturgy as confining and “male-oriented.” They turned instead to oral histories, rewritings of mythology, and story circles to create more collective, experience-based, sometimes confessional genres and styles.

Critics later accused this work of literally white-washing feminism by privileging commonalities among women at the expense of their differences. But these ritual forms provided a trove of cultural interventions. Cultural feminist theatre in the ‘80s was a part of a thriving “women’s culture,” which developed subcultural venues for a host of women-organized ventures. For example, it promoted women’s music, at large-scale, women-only gatherings like the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, as well as through recording companies like Olivia Records, and music distribution structures like the Ladyslipper mail-order catalogue.

The subculture supported neighborhood women’s bookstores and women’s coffeehouses and performance spaces around the country. It also promoted women’s publishing houses. And most of these projects operated on anti-capitalist business models. (Which is why many of them no longer exist!)

The arrival of French post-structuralist theory in American colleges and universities, however, meant that cultural feminism and its alternative commerce were quickly dismissed as “essentialist.” Post-structuralist theorists like Foucault and Derrida influenced feminism’s shift towards a healthy suspicion of fixed ideas and master narratives, and proposed a hearty skepticism about claims to truth. Experience, which early second wave feminism had presumed as a foundational truth, was now considered only partial, and dubious in its claims to power. Post-structuralist-inflected feminism insisted on fluidity, relativity, and the inevitability of change.

As a result, the subaltern female utopianism of women’s culture, and its commitment to changing patriarchal and white supremacist social structures, was deemed unproductively mired in binary gender commitments that replaced a male master narrative with its female counterpart. What had been the celebratory, empowering productions of women’s culture became instead the butt of jokes delivered by the dominant class and by post-structuralist-inspired feminists alike.

In addition, “post-feminism,” the “movement” of the 2000s that dismissed early feminist activism while taking full advantage of its achievements, also played a role in diminishing many of cultural feminism’s projects. The harsh critique landed with stinging condemnation. Women’s subcultures and their idealistic community-building moved farther underground when they didn’t disappear altogether.

Materialist feminist theory and practice tempered post-structuralism’s tenets with a Marxist-socialist attention to real effects and actual cultural productions. Collectives like Split Britches and playwright/performers like our very own Holly Hughes, as well as Robbie McCauley, Coco Fusco, Carmelita Tropicana, and many others, exploded old forms with new contents. They pointed to the apparatus of theatre and called attention to how they constructed their representations so that no one could mistake them for “the real."

In the process, these artists foregrounded the intersections of gender, race, class, and sexuality as historical and ideological assemblages that could be played with, their meanings changed in performance and then, hopefully, in the world.

A lot of important work was generated under the many categories of feminism. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, women’s studies programs and departments established themselves in universities and colleges. Forming these academic locations was in itself a deeply activist project, meant to build knowledge about women, gender, race, and sexuality fully into the academic curriculum. But ironically, the new visibility of the courses and research these programs produced made them ripe for the backlash that Susan Faludi described so well in her 1991 book of that name.

By the mid- to late-1990s, feminism’s momentum as a wide-spread, diverse political movement had waned considerably. It was defanged largely by its derogatory treatment in the media and by the public platform newspapers and broadcast outlets gave to anti-feminist white women like Camille Paglia, Nora Vincent, and Christina Hoff Summers. Feminism took such a beating that by the turn of the 21st century, many people had actively disaffiliated from the movement.

Few students, especially, called themselves “feminists” anymore. Thanks to the media’s stereotypes, to “be” a feminist meant claiming a radical “man-hating,” hairy-legged agenda that would—so feminism’s detractors proclaimed—end single-sex bathrooms and locker rooms as we knew them.

Of course, feminism also contributed to its own decline. The social movement’s various strands fractured and few leaders could rally large, coalitional activist communities. Without a public attention-getting feminist retort, the ridiculous media stereotypes hardened and claimed the popular imagination. Feminism began to diffuse rather than build strength from its distinctions, and to lose political power in the most visible public forums.

The debate about pornography, which began in the early 80s and continued into the 90s, also created a bitter divide among feminists. Activists such as writer Andrea Dworkin and lawyer Catherine McKinnon created legislation around the country to ban pornography, spurred on by groups like Women Against Violence Against Women. At the same time, other activist groups, like FACT, the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce, railed against what they saw as Dworkin and McKinnon’s alliance with right-wing anti-porn advocates who also agitated against abortion, LGBT rights, and racial equality.

The anti-porn debates also widened the rift between heterosexual and lesbian feminists. Anthropologist Gayle Rubin’s foundational essay “Thinking Sex” went so far as to suggest that the “sex-gender system” she had once ably theorized through feminism couldn’t completely account for sexual variation. Rubin argued that lesbians, “queers,” and those we now call “LGBT” folks needed a new explanatory paradigm that would consider sexuality as distinct from gender.

Meanwhile, in theatre and performance, by the 2000s, women working in mainstream forms and contents had reached a kind of stasis. A study sponsored by the New York State Council on the Arts in 2002 and an economics thesis by a Princeton graduate in 2009 suggested that the status of especially women playwrights was the same or worse than it had been much earlier in the 20th century.

Artists who’d attempted the liberal feminist goal of achieving parity in existing forums were stymied by entrenched power structures that tokenized them, rather than fully enfranchising their work. The number of women playwrights produced on Broadway and in other mainstream forums hovered at a woeful 17%.

Advocacy groups like the League of Professional Theatre Women and 50/50 in 2020 have recently determined to redress this imbalance once again. But frankly, the power-brokers of American culture seem unwilling to shift these intractable percentages. Women and people of color (and those who are both, and/or LGBT) remain under-represented in the most visible theatre and performance venues.

But what of the subcultural, alternative, community-based contexts where feminist theatre has continued to thrive, branching out from its cultural, materialist, and third-world feminist or womanist roots? The picture here—which Lenelle, Holly, and Rhodessa so wonderfully represent—is more hopeful, as a wealth of artistic mediations into dominant ideology continue to be made through feminist solo performance and collective and devised theatre. These forms determine to tell new stories in new ways, and to make visible people and experiences who mainstream contexts continue to erase or exoticize.

Playwright/performer Deb Margolin once said that as soon as a woman opens her mouth to speak on stage, she’s performed a radical cultural intervention. Deb is right. We still aren’t accustomed to women taking up space, to women filling our visual fields, to women holding our attention with their stories.

Solo performance is a richly evocative genre that does all of these things with clarity and power. It’s also a fast and dirty, usually cheap and expedient mode of production (and I mean that as a compliment). Solo performance typically requires one, unadorned body on stage, normally without a lot of spectacle. And its narrative style gets directly to the political heart of whose stories are being told, by whom, to whom. This, I think, is why it’s been so popular in feminist theatre.

In addition, academic feminist theories of what was once called “the male gaze” argued that women’s bodies are the ones at which theatre, performance, film, television, and other media encourage us to look. Feminists like Laura Mulvey, in 1975, suggested that the psychological pleasure derived from spectating objectified women’s bodies by centering them under the male gaze.

Performed only to-be-looked-at, they were prohibited from being the subjects of their own stories and the engines of their destinies and desires. Much politically-conscious feminist performance of the last three decades has worked against the tradition Mulvey described, to empower women as full human agents in front of audiences.

But even so: At whose bodies are we still asked to gaze on a regular basis, inside the theatre and out? Think about it. In my everyday life, the people in power are still usually male. Men—and usually white men, at that—deliver the speeches and the radio and television sound bites. White men convene the meetings, calling us to attention with their power and authority.

I’m shocked and pleased when this isn’t the case. In fact, the president of Princeton is a woman, and every time she gives a speech or runs a meeting, I pinch myself because I still can’t believe that this is who I get to pay attention. I still can’t take a woman’s power and presence for granted, at work or at the theatre.

This, then, is the pleasure of watching performers like Rhodessa and Holly and Lenelle: to see them literally take the stage, to hold our gazes, to capture our attention, to tell their stories—whether about themselves or others—to gather us as however temporary a community, and to create for us a forum in which to think and feel together in new and hopeful ways.

Although I was one of the early advocates of “the feminisms” and their distinctions, it no longer matters to me what kind of feminism these performers or others like them might espouse. We can no longer afford to parse the feminisms; we’ve lost the critical mass necessary to make fine distinctions. We can look at performance prismatically, from many feminist directions, to tease out its numerous layers of meaning. But it’s important, now, not to privilege one way over another, not to value one feminist intervention at another’s expense.

My own critical project has become admittedly more liberal, after many years of using post-structuralist theory to propose more radical solutions to the problem of women and especially lesbians in representation. Perhaps I’ve just simplified my outlook.

I don’t disparage or deny the work that I and others did on complicated questions of representation. The focus on theatre’s apparatus that drove materialist feminist theory; the questioning truth and authority that post-structuralist feminism instructed; the essentialist ideals and their critique, which cultural feminism promulgated and prompted; the equity on which liberal feminism staunchly insists; all of these continue to influence my own thinking about performance.

In fact, many of these ideas have at this point been absorbed into mainstream thought—just as many students (male and female) really do practice feminism, even if they disparage the term.

But on some basic level, I’ve returned in my critical work to the question of who’s speaking and who’s listening, of who is seen and who is seeing (which, as theatre scholar and director Herb Blau taught me 30 years ago, remain deeply theoretical inquiries). These queries now form the basis for my feminist investigations of performance, along with—the where, when, why, how, and what questions about modes of production we must continue to ask.

I recently learned of graphic novelist and cartoonist Allison Bechdel’s test for gender bias in films, which she published in 1985 in her Dykes to Watch Out for comic strip. Bechdel’s assessment poses three easy questions: Does the movie contain two or more female characters who have names? Do those characters talk to each other? And, if so, do they discuss something other than a man?

That’s a good place for a feminist critic to start, especially with mainstream films in which the answer to all three questions is often, “No.” In theatre and performance, perhaps we need a few extended questions, such as these: Does the play or performance tell a story about women equal in import to the one it tells about men? Is everybody straight, white, middle-class, and/or able-bodied here? If so, why is the story so one-sided?

Do I learn something new about how to see the world from this story? Do I learn a new way to tell a story from this performance? Do I feel myself part of an audience community based on this performer’s or performance’s invitation? Do I leave the theatre transformed in some way? And, will the performance persuade me to transform others?

In other words, the questions remain pretty much the same, regardless of which discourse of “the feminisms” they’re filtered through. But the precision with which we ask and answer them makes all the difference. We need to pay attention; we need to speak out when a play or performance doesn’t answer these questions to our satisfaction.

We need to ask, publicly and insistently and constantly, why are there no plays by women nominated for Tony Awards? Why is it so difficult to make a living as an artist unless you’re adopted into the mainstream, where even then, artists often scrape by or migrate toward film and television, which offer more lucrative paychecks? Why can’t artists make a sustainable wage in subcultural or community-based settings?

Why does the government always decrease arts funding while defense spending goes forever up? And why does federal funding mostly just go to elite mainstream arts organizations anyway?

Why are most American theatre and performance critics white men? Why do theatre producers pretend that no one wants to hear stories about women when the statistics say otherwise (although spectators do seem to prefer stories about women that are written by men, like David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People)?

I have so many questions about the way things are, and so many ideas for the way things might be. I see my relationship to theatre- and performance-makers quite differently now. I no longer consider myself an arbiter of varieties of feminist theatre and its meanings, but as an advocate for women’s work and for a feminist perspective on the arts and culture in general.

One of the historically consistent problems in feminist performance is the utter lack of informed critical perspectives in the popular press. I’ve started to proselytize among my students for high quality arts writing from alternative view points, so that we can enhance the public discourse about performance.

I’ve maintained a blog since 2005 called The Feminist Spectator, on which I write, several times a month, critical essays of various lengths on current theatre and performance, as well as film and television. My one rule of thumb is to write only about work that I like. I write about work that I feel deserves my time and critical attention, or work that’s touched a cultural nerve and hasn’t yet been addressed from a feminist perspective (for instance, the films The Black Swan and The Social Network, which I did criticize).

For these past few years, I’ve determined to use a practice of what I call “critical generosity,” very much influenced by my friend and colleague David Román. This is also based on a form called "colleague-criticism," which I developed with Jaclyn Pryor and Paul Bonin-Rodriguez when we worked together at the University of Texas at Austin. To be critically generous means to be responsible for a deeper knowledge of the work you engage; means that you take into account its production context and resources, its history and goals; and means that you consider its players and producers as people laboring to create meaning with the materials at hand.

The terms “good” and “bad” have no purchase here. Feminist criticism shouldn’t produce facile value judgments or consumer reporting; it shouldn’t adjudicate taste. It should strive to consider what theatre and performance might mean, what it might do, and how it might be used in a world that requires ever more and better conversations about how we can imagine who we are and who we might be.

This is the work that Lenelle, Holly, and Rhodessa do for American culture. I’m thrilled that we’ve gathered to hear them talk this afternoon and to see their work, as we did Lenelle’s last night, and as we will Holly’s tonight and Rhodessa’s tomorrow. Each of these women has put themselves on the line to tell new stories in new ways; to give voice to those silenced by dominant culture; and to transform how we imagine social relations between ourselves and one another. I’m delighted to share this panel with them today.

Thanks for listening.

My questions, to start us off:

1. What is your goal as an artist? That is, what do you want your work to do in the world?

2. Do you call yourself a feminist? Does that label refer to a meaningful practice for you? Do you qualify it in some way? Ie., African American feminist? Womanist? Lesbian/queer feminist?

3. Are there other words you prefer to describe your artistic practice?

4. How do you see the politics of what you do? That is, do your politics appear most in the form, content, or context in which you work?

5. How do you see your audiences? Do you “preach to the converted”? Or do you imagine people unlike you—politically, socially, etc.—in your audiences?

6. Is your goal to change people? What do you want audiences to do after your performances? How do you want them to react, emotionally and politically?

7. What stories do you think remain to be told? What do you want to see other performers do on stage and what do you want to do? With whom would you like to work? Which other artists or which communities?

8. For whom would you like to perform who you haven’t yet?

9. How do you fund your work? Where do you look for resources?

10. What gives you hope about feminist performance today?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Normal Heart

Seeing the Broadway revival of Larry Kramer’s landmark AIDS play, The Normal Heart, prompted me to think again about activist theatre and how it might effectively communicate its consciousness-changing intent in popular mainstream forums. First performed at the Public Theatre in 1985, when the AIDS crisis was just beginning, the play’s furious indictment of government and community inaction when intervention could have made a difference sounds just as relevant 25 years later.

Much has changed since Kramer first pilloried closeted gay men and indifferent government officials for their refusal to publicize the disease and early transmission theories to the community who could have most benefited. The cocktail of protease inhibitors now makes HIV, for some people, a chronic, rather than an absolutely fatal virus. Clear information about how it’s transmitted has made safe sex practices the lingua franca of most western sexual cultures since the 1990s.

But much still remains the same vis-à-vis the pandemic, which lends Kramer’s play its continued relevance. Federal government officials still short-change HIV/AIDS research; the medications that effectively forestall the virus’s progress remain prohibitively expensive; and homophobes who agitate against LGBT civil rights in the U.S. continue to spread lies about HIV/AIDS as divine retribution for a morally corrupt society.

The Normal Heart’s directors Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe have crafted a crystal clear rendering of Kramer’s play, with a talented cast whose performances are empathetic, careful, and emotionally powerful. Grey and Wolfe focus on the interactions among the characters rather than creating spectacle, suggesting locales with simple set pieces and props that specify the historical moment without distracting from the narrative’s momentum or import.

Inside the proscenium’s frame, scenic designer David Rockwell creates a slightly askew white box set, the walls of which, if you look closely, are imprinted with white-on-white dates of newspaper articles, the names of hospitals, and other locations and facts. This information ghosts the scene, grounding the production in a stark historical reality.

Grey and Wolfe adopt a documentary-style approach throughout, projecting location titles above the proscenium as the scenes shift from place to place: Ned Week’s apartment; the headquarters of what becomes the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC); the mayor’s office and other locales.

Scenes in Dr. Emma Brookner’s office, for example, are staged with one rolling gurney to represent her examination table; in the GMHC office, a white board and the flyers the men fold signal their activist labor. In Ned’s apartment, where he lives with his lover, Felix, the two men share ice cream and their thoughts sitting downstage center on large floor pillows, isolated in a pool of light that creates an intimate mood.

The schematic setting and evocative set pieces subtly suggest that the play’s themes span generations. Disco music plays as the first scene opens (Donna Summer’s 1979 hit “Bad Girls”) and the costumes (by designer Martin Pakledinaz) are cut in a generally ‘80s style. But the production feels and looks intentionally timeless, even though it details a specific historical moment.

Ned Weeks (played with power and insight by Joe Mantello) stands in for Kramer in this autobiographical story, as a gay man whose community is suddenly decimated by a disease no one can name or explain. With a writer’s desire for knowledge and redress, Weeks forms an activist collective that seeks information and widespread mobilization.

Weeks meets Dr. Brookner (beautifully played by Ellen Barkin), a physician who’s among the first to suspect how the virus is transmitted among her gay male patients. When Brookner insists that gay men should stop having sex to arrest the course of the disease, Weeks is the only one willing to act on her injunction. At a time when gay male culture celebrated the creative sexual expression of its community, being told to stop having sex was like being told to return to pre-Stonewall repression.

But Weeks persists, alienating even his fellow activists with his anti-sex screed and his confrontational style. He creates a complex political calculus in which he enjoins his community to stop the practices that in many ways define them while he inveighs against gay men in positions of power who refuse to be open about their sexual identity.

The production tautly illustrates the costs of activists’ fear and government inaction. Grey and Wolfe and the actors adopt neo-Brechtian performance strategies gilded with the emotion of psychological realism to deliver their powerfully instructive history lesson. For instance, partway through the production, the actors who aren’t performing in a scene stand or sit around the stage’s half-lit perimeter and look on as silent witnesses to the other characters and their collective history.

And in between scenes, the names of the dead are projected in a list that increases exponentially as the story continues. The names grow from 20 or so to long lines of columns that extend around the white walls of the stage and spill into the house. The device offers a moving reminder of how a disease turned into a pandemic, and serves as a metaphor for the cost of inaction and inattention from those who might have stopped its spread.

The wall of names is reminiscent of other memorial projects, including the Names Project—a traveling display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt composed of panels stitched memory of those who died of HIV/AIDS—and even Maya Lin’s Viet Nam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Like these, the production’s projections of names of the dead is a simple, powerful remembrance of the absent presence of people no longer able to represent themselves, but whose deaths must be enumerated so that they aren’t in vain.

In addition to this piercing, presentational theatrical style and its political commentary, The Normal Heart is filled with fiery anger and more subtle, desperate emotional concern and caring. The cast plays to spectators’ emotions alongside our intellect, never letting us forget that the people whose activism or inaction we’re witnessing lived and (many) died for this cause.

Joe Mantello is astonishing as Weeks, the intellectual Jewish Yale graduate who at first bemoans his inability to maintain a close relationship. When his friends start dying of a mysterious syndrome, he springs into action, forming an activist group that will become Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and presses city officials to communicate word of the disease to New York’s vulnerable gay male population.

When Ned and his friends meet with closeted administrators and politicians, Weeks’s incendiary accusations and bitter recriminations horrify his friends and alienate the people best positioned to help. But Weeks won’t back down. Mantello plays him as spitting mad, with a consuming, furious commitment to an urgent cause.

Ned also urges gay men at the Times to write about what’s happening to their community, and flies into rages when the paltry news coverage appears buried in the paper. He meets Felix Turner (John Benjamin Hickey), a closeted gay Times style journalist, with whom Ned spars as he agitates for coverage and attention, then eventually begins an intimate relationship.

Ned’s relationship with Felix is cut short when Felix contracts HIV. Ned’s crusade becomes that much more personal, as Felix is the first man with whom Weeks has been able to sustain an emotional, as well as intellectual and physical, connection.

Hickey is lovely as the quieter, more measured Felix. Mantello and Hickey’s scenes together establish the complicated stakes of being a gay man at a time when American culture was much less liberal and accepting, when private homes or public baths were the only places in which you could express a love that was still largely forbidden.

Felix meets Ned’s wealthy, straight, lawyer brother, Ben (a sober Mark Harelik), for the first time when he visits Ben to see about his will, just before Felix’s death from AIDS. Ben’s fear of handling the piece of paper Felix gives him outlining the distribution of his estate palpably reminds us that not so long ago, people’s ignorance about how the virus is transmitted made gay men public pariahs.

Kramer’s play recalls that in the mid-‘80s, gay men were still considered pathological in American society, despite nearly two decades of post-Stonewall political advocacy. Ben tries to be sympathetic, but it’s clear that he struggles to accept Ned’s gay identity. And once AIDS seeps into public consciousness, like other straight people at the time, Ben’s fear of contagion, though it embarrasses him, makes him afraid of physical contact.

As Felix deteriorates from the virus, Hickey illustrates his wasting by pulling his cheeks together into a gaunt visage, using nothing but physical transformation to convey the disease’s ravages. Emma, who’s cared for both of them, marries Ned and Felix at Felix’s hospital bed. She declares indignantly that since the hospital is “hers,” she has the power to give them this final blessing in the face of an unsparing disease that’s robbed Felix of his dignity and finally, his life. Her flouting of conservative public policy rings with meaning, now that LGBT activism has moved from HIV/AIDS to same-sex marriage as its most visible cause.

As Emma leads Ned and Felix through their marriage vows, black screens descend over the set’s otherwise white walls. Hickey and Mantello stand beside Barkin, who sits in Emma’s wheelchair. Grey and Wolfe direct the scene as though Felix is lying in his hospital bed and Ned hovers beside him, although both actors stand. After Felix says “I do” with his dying breath, Hickey’s head drops back to indicate his character’s demise. Mantello screams Ned’s “I do” into Hickey’s ear, desperate for Felix to know that he sealed their union.

The wrenching scene illustrates the defiance of those furious at gay men’s fatal disenfranchisement. Playing it vertically in a more presentational style lets spectators feel the scene’s grief and visually empowers Felix and Ned, despite the loss that floods the moment. Hickey stands with his head laid back through the rest of the scene, a physical testament to the needless death of his character and so many like him.

Barkin is remarkable as Emma, transforming herself from the sylph-like angst-ridden woman of much of her film work to a fierce, crusading physician who’s among the first to recognize the prevalence of what was then called GRID—Gay-Related Immune Deficiency—in her patients. She incites Ned to action, insisting that the only way to stop the virus is to prevent men from having sex. Barkin’s exacting compassion plays beautifully into Mantello’s fury and rage.

Emma has survived her own virus, the polio that’s left her using an electric wheelchair. Her chair is outfitted with a pouch in which she holds her charts and stethoscope. She wheels in and out of her scenes to examine her patients, then backs up to watch the others from the sidelines.

Emma becomes the female face of medical activism, never succumbing to pity but always insisting that Ned and his friends fight, even as she counts more and more of her patients among the dead. With a New York accent and a blazing countenance, Barkin makes Emma a compact, forceful presence.

Along with the medical establishment and the government, Kramer indicts his fellow activists, who chose polite, accommodationist rhetoric instead of Ned’s/Kramer’s accusatory tactics. The handsome, straight-acting Bruce Niles (Lee Pace) becomes GMHC’s president once Ben helps them incorporate as a non-profit. But Bruce refuses to adopt Ned’s confrontational style and finally supports Ned’s ouster from the board.

When Bruce reads to Ned the statement severing him from the organization Ned helped found, the searing moment is a Brechtian gestus of history, in which a more liberal political path was chosen over the more radical. Bruce’s antipathy for Weeks appears, in retrospect, as internalized homophobia. But The Normal Heart finds sympathy for Bruce and his compatriots even as Ned vilifies them. The production clarifies that the choice between a liberal practice of working from within established channels and a radical proselytizing from outside was already stark at the pandemic’s beginning.

Grey and Wolfe craft each scene with care and compassion. The clarity and simplicity of their direction leaves room for Ned’s oceanic emotion, which Mantello plays with agonizing power. His fearless, full-hearted performance communicates the frustration of looking for information in an era of fear and ignorance while it signals a contemporary understanding of the cost of inaction. Mantello’s performance is a requiem, an elegy to all those who died before knowledge could save them.

The directors also keep the scenes moving, pacing the evening so that the play’s heightened emotions don’t exhaust spectators prematurely. The production’s movement also evokes the speed with which history happens to the characters; the audience can feel their palpable shock at how fast they lose their friends and lovers.

The supporting cast forms a deeply-felt community of men whipped about by events they can neither understand nor stop. Jim Parsons (of television’s The Big Bang Theory) is lovely as Tommy Boatwright, his southern twang bringing special warmth to his expressions of support and love for friends who are mysteriously dying faster than he can fathom. Luke MacFarlane (the out actor who plays Scotty on television’s Brothers and Sisters) is wonderful as Craig Donner, one of the first of this circle of friends to die of the disease.

Patrick Breen (Next Fall) as Mickey Marcus and Lee Pace (television’s Pushing Daisies) as Bruce, are both pitch-perfect in roles that require them to demonstrate fear, resilience, and an unwillingness to be as radical as Weeks insists.

The play’s moving power comes from what we now know about HIV/AIDS and its progress, and how our knowledge lets us share Weeks’s frustration and fury over the refusal of city officials to help. Although they’re never spoken here, the ACT-UP watchwords “Silence = Death” resound through The Normal Heart. The play and the production illustrate why those words so powerfully describe the wages of inaction and the consequences of being afraid to clamor for life.

Mounting this revival in 2011, when more people are living with HIV/AIDS instead of dying from it—if they’re privileged enough to afford the medications that prolong one’s life—makes The Normal Heart that much more poignant and meaningful as a slice of recent past in which the gay male community wasn’t so lucky. For those in the audience who didn’t live through the earliest days of the pandemic, the production beautifully illuminates what it meant to be an activist when lives were literally hanging in the balance.

Mantello as Ned provides a portrait of an activist rarely seen on mainstream stages. He completely evokes the anger of those who chose not to be nice and complacent and who refused to play a political game whose rules placed the dying at a distinct disadvantage. Weeks wouldn’t play by anyone’s rules, but his ad hominem attacks and enormous fury make him a difficult hero.

It’s hard to empathize with a man who makes himself so unlikable to advance his cause. But Mantello finds the layers in Weeks. He creates a human being instead of a strident mouthpiece and embodies Ned’s humanity and vulnerability alongside his strength.

Mantello and Hickey are the cast’s elder statesmen. Both performed in iconic gay American plays of the 90s. Ned Weeks could be an early prototype for Angels in America’s Louis Ironson, the other verbal, emotionally conflicted, smart Jewish gay man Mantello played on Broadway. But 20 years later, in a play that’s more a political placard than a gay fantasia, Mantello’s performance feels more personal, more emotional, and if it’s possible, even more compelling.

When he undresses to be examined by Dr. Brookner early in the play, it’s clear that Mantello’s middle-aged body has fleshed out from the wiry exclamation point that drew Louis’s energy in Angels. The presence of the actor’s body, ghosted by its own stage history, is very moving in The Normal Heart.

Likewise, Hickey, who performed as one of the central characters in the 1995 Broadway premiere of Terrence McNally’s landmark gay drama Love! Valour! Compassion!—which Mantello directed—is older now. But the history of his own performance in a significant gay American drama haunts his presence here, too.

Playing lovers, Hickey and Mantello (who are both openly gay—although I wonder why I feel compelled to even mention that) have chemistry that adds depth and emotion to their relationship and makes Felix’s death unspeakably painful.

The play seems personal for the supporting actors, too, as they shift between performing in role and witnessing from the sidelines as the action continues. They each provide an empathetic, real, and moving presence that mirrors the audience’s involvement and that builds a sense of community that extends from the stage far into the theatre.

Kramer’s autobiographical narrative clearly reaches contemporary audiences. I saw the production with an audience predominated by those who looked like white gay men, mixed with obviously straight couples, women, people of color, and people whose ages seemed to span generations. Much of the audience sobbed openly through the play.

The Normal Heart might be mainstream political theatre—yes, Broadway tickets aren’t cheap; indeed, casting familiar television and film actors ensures audience attention; and sure, the number of Tony Award nominations the production has received (five) gives it credibility in ways that community-based political theatre struggles to achieve. (The Normal Heart is nominated for Best Revival of a Play; Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play, for Mantello; Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play, for Hickey; Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured role in a Play, for Barkin; and Best Direction of a Play, for Grey and Wolfe.)

But this production’s extensive media coverage also refocuses attention on HIV/AIDS. And Kramer’s activism outside the theatre hammers home the on-going crisis and the virus’s real effects not just on the gay male community but on those vulnerable to and suffering from the pandemic world-wide.

Continuing his storied attempt to inspire people to action and not just to feel emotion, Kramer stood outside the theatre during the production’s first performances, handing spectators a personal letter titled “Please Know.” Although Kramer wasn’t present the evening I saw the play, a young man with a stack of the letters handed them out as fast as people would take them.

Kramer’s letter reminds audiences that the play’s events actually happened. He relates that many of the actual people he wrote as characters have died of AIDS, and that many of the actors in the original production have also passed away from the virus. He reminds us that no cure exists for HIV/AIDS; that the “amount of money being spent to find a cure is still miniscule, still almost invisible”; that AIDS is a worldwide plague; and that “no country in the world . . . has ever . . . dealt with it as a plague.”

Kramer’s letter denounces pharmaceutical companies as “evil and greedy”; accuses American presidents since the 1980s of not saying or doing anything to address the pandemic; and decries the 35 million (to date) needless deaths that he attributes to political inaction and corporate avarice.

Distributing this letter after performances is savvy activism, since the powerful production inspires in spectators a desire to know more. Our emotions raw from what we’ve witnessed, our hearts (hopefully) opened to the suffering we’ve just seen, we leave the theatre sharing Kramer’s outrage.

Kramer’s letter and his play remind us of the devastation HIV/AIDS continues to wreak and urges us to protest inaction against the pandemic at all levels of political life.

The Feminist Spectator

The Normal Heart, The Golden Theatre, Broadway, May 8, 2011.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Tony Awards, 2011

The Tony Awards season confirms what anyone concerned about the status of women in the arts has long come to expect: plays by women are excluded from the nominations once again. When will entertainment power brokers realize that until work by women is produced and recognized, Americans will continue to hear only one side of the stories of our lives?

Women’s unheard stories represent a gold-mine of narrative intrigue and revelation. But of the four plays nominated as the best of Broadway this year, none are written by women and three are almost exclusively about men: Nick Stafford’s War Horse (a gloriously theatrical British import that tells a basic boy-meets-horse, boy-loses-horse, boy-finds-horse tale); Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (another British import about a character the Variety review calls a “wild man,” a “once noble animal gone to seed”); and Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat, whose macho title can’t even be fully printed in most newspapers.

Only Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People is even about a woman, the salty, working-class Margie from South Boston, played with sharp dignity and empathy by Frances McDormand. (I posted a blog on the production on 4-25-11.)

Margie’s life story as fashioned by Lindsay-Abaire in fact hasn’t been heard regularly on Broadway. How often do we see smart and insightful leading female characters struggling to make ends meet? Margie’s childhood friend Mike escapes the economic constraints of his background through a scholarship and a medical school education. He lands in the luxurious comfort of Chestnut Hill with his African American lawyer wife, far from his poor, racist past.

Margie and Mike’s sharply contrasting stories tell us something about how gender, as well as class and race, influence our aspirations and organize our fates.

But it’s not a coincidence that Margie’s story is delivered by male playwright. Lindsay-Abaire grew up in South Boston; I’m not discounting his insights into a life like Margie’s. But how would her story be told differently if it were written by, for instance, Paula Vogel, another Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose work has never been produced on Broadway?

Maureen Dowd reported this week in the Times that Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman ever to win an Academy Award for directing, is now at work on a film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Screenwriter Mark Boal, with whom she collaborated on The Hurt Locker—which nabbed Bigelow her Oscar—told Dowd that since their film suddenly has an ending, once wary financiers are approaching them eagerly.

No one I know misses the irony that Bigelow won the Oscar for directing a film exclusively about men and war. Wouldn’t the story of Bin Laden’s capture be fascinating if she and Boal focused their film on Amal Ahmed Abdel-Fatah al-Sada, Bin Laden’s 29-year-old Yemeni wife, who was so determined to be martyred beside her husband that she was shot in the leg attacking the Navy Seals who came to capture him? If Bigelow told Ahmed al-Sada’s story, and Bin Laden’s from his fifth wife’s perspective, that’s a movie I’d be eager to see.

Dowd jokes that someone is probably now pitching Bravo on “The Real Housewives of Abbottabad.” While we think we might know all about the real housewives of New Jersey, let alone the fabricated ones of Wisteria Lane, I, for one, would like to hear much more about Bin Laden’s wives. The stories of women in the Middle East aren’t often told in Hollywood movies, certainly not with Bigelow’s keen eye for dramatic tension and telling detail. What would we learn about Bin Laden if women told his story?

Instead, Bigelow will tell another male-centered military story for Hollywood while Lindsay-Abaire tells a working-class woman’s story on Broadway.

Meanwhile, Julie Taymor, one of the first women to ever win a Tony for Best Director (for The Lion King in 1997), was fired from Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark for reasons that look to me like gender trouble. Taymor’s desire to balance the comic book hero’s righteous quest with a chorus of women and a villainess based on the Arachne myth was considered tangential to the real (read “male”) story of the musical.

I’m not suggesting that only women should tell women’s stories (men have of course told men’s stories for millennia). Lindsay-Abaire’s Margie is a welcome addition to the canon of American drama. And Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is a powerful, empathetic story of men’s valor and arrogance.

But Taymor tried to tell the story of a male superhero against the backdrop of female mythology. And now, she’s out of a job.

Since 2000, of the 48 titles nominated for Best Play, only six have been written by women, and only one has won—God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza, in 2009. In other words, no American woman playwright has won Best Play since the turn of the 21st century and only 12% of those nominated have been written by women.

What stories might we hear if women playwrights and filmmakers were produced in the same numbers as men? What new things might we learn about both men and women? What possibilities might be opened for how we imagine our lives—past, present, and future—if the boy in War Horse were a girl who decides to pass as a boy so that she could fight in World War I and find her beloved horse? (History is full of women passing as men to join war efforts.) What if the wild animal gone to seed in Jerusalem were a middle-aged woman instead of the character Mark Rylance plays so well? What if the motherfucker with the hat were a woman?

Those are stories I, for one, would love to hear. They describe a world of possibility in which we learn something about ourselves we don’t already know.

The Feminist Spectator