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.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Cries and Whispers

Her sisters and her nurse minister to Agnes

It’s been 30+ years since I’ve seen the Bergman movie on which Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam production is based, but in any case, this production’s searing theatricality provides the same story in a medium so utterly different, reference to the original seems unnecessary.  Charles Isherwood, in his New York Times’ review, called this production “clinical.”  I can't imagine what he was smoking before he saw it, if he missed the passionate and powerful emotion of this investigation into death and dying.

Perhaps his blindness to the import of gender in theatre once again mislead him, because the production analyzes in minute detail the physical and emotional costs of suffering a death, and the ways in which, much as women might desire physical and emotional connection, it remains so impossibly difficult to open ourselves to one another.

With post-modernist scenography by Jan Versweyveld, the stage is built as an environment connected by flesh and blood human beings as well as by their live video-feed images.  Agnes (Chris Nietvelt) begins the performance on a hospital bed center stage, with a close-up of her vomit-caked lips and the green-yellow spit-up coloring the pillow where she lays projected on a screen above her.  When she gets up, the rest of Agnes’s body is stained with feces and other bodily fluids.

Evidence of her body’s loss of control frequently recur in the play, making the performance very much about what feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz called the “volatile” female body, one whose leakages reject boundaries and containment in ways that offend and threaten a conventional patriarchal order.  (No wonder Isherwood couldn’t stomach the piece.)

Agnes is dying, under the ambivalent ministrations of her two sisters—Karin (Janni Goslinga) and Maria (Halina Reign)—and the more compassionate care of her nurse and the family’s maid, Anna (Karina Smulders).  While in Bergman’s film, the relationships are detailed through the intimacy of extreme close-up in a film that moves glacially through its record of primary emotions, van Hove makes of his live production a more quotidian record of the intimacies of death.

Because the play moves back and forth through time—from Agnes's death mid-way through to an earlier moment in her illness, then back to the post-funeral familial aftermath—the linear story isn’t as important as how these characters react, often in wordless scenarios of interaction that clarify the complexity of their emotions.

Performed in Dutch, the dialogue proceeds as supertitles projected on two suspended flats above the set.  Canvas walls, too, hang over the proceedings, like the art work Agnes creates and refers to throughout.  But the projected words and the actors' intonations are much less important than the physical pictures van Hove and his performers create.

While Agnes describes her unbearable pain, and reminisces in between bouts of agony about her parents and their various relationships to her and her sisters, the others observe the progress of her dying.  Maria and Karin tend to her fitfully and reluctantly, their hesitations communicated by the distance they keep from Agnes's soiled bed and from the cautious, unwilling ways they touch their sister.  Maria, the more immature and impetuous of the two, brings little toys and children’s books to the bed to entertain Agnes.  The dying woman appreciates the distractions, but surprise also registers on her face, that her sister thinks these childish objects will stand up against the profundity of her pain.

Maria with her books and toys, distracting Agnes, with Anna and Karin

Maria also flirts with the doctor (Roeland Fernhout) whose impersonal ministrations to her sister can’t begin to ease her way into death.  Maria and the doctor have had an affair, we learn in the play’s second half, when the two act out a moment in their relationship when he tries to resist her and she throws herself at him.  The scene is notable for how the Fernhout morphs halfway through from the doctor into Maria’s husband, Joachim.  As the doctor and Maria prepare to have sex, she pushes him onto the long wooden tables that have replaced Agnes’s hospital bed at the center of the set.  As she rips off his shirt and prepares to undo his pants, he flings himself up and they wrestle with a new costume, redressing him as violently as he was undressed the moment before.

As he brutally shrugs himself into a sport coat, the doctor’s brusque and violent manner is replaced by the taciturn, remote affect of Maria’s husband, who proceeds to sit back down to a meal at the table and eat over his newspaper, barely grunting in response to her entreaties.  The transformation is powerful and apt—that the same man could be the vessel for passion and lovelessness demonstrates van Hove’s point about the unpredictability and even the impossibility of real human connection.

But when Joachim leaves the table, he clutches Maria to his chest wordlessly, exiting only to return shortly after with his chest covered in blood, holding a knife before him that drips with the tacky cells of his self-immolation.  The image is shocking and effective.  Van Hove’s refusal to respect the differences between reality and fantasy make for powerful theatrical metaphors, in which actors’ bodies, the stage effects (never meant to be convincing, only allegorical), and the performances are pressed into service to communicate physically what can’t be said or expressed otherwise.  The actors’ bodies wear the play’s subtext.  That none of the other characters comment on Joachim’s gaping wound, for instance, illustrates the chilling consequences of our inability to communicate our deepest, truest emotions.

Likewise, Agnes’s death scene is a beautiful, fierce theatrical metaphor for excruciating pain and a soul’s resistance to leaving its body.  Nietvelt, as Agnes, rolls out a stage-wide piece of glossy white paper on which she centers herself.   Then she proceeds to pour blue paint over her head, after which she rolls around on the paper, body-painting in a corporeal representation of her agony.  She moves her arms back and forth as though she’s making a snow angel (an image that returns beautifully at the production’s end), and flings herself across the paper until she's covered in vibrant blue from head to toe.

Agnes's death scene

Agnes uncovers a large industrial bucket near the stage of her dying and pours from it a brown fluid that mixes with the blue blood, a searing representation of the body’s failure at death, as feces and body fluids co-mingle to overflow its borders.  Just before she dies, Anna approaches Agnes, lifting the dying woman’s arms to wrap them around her neck.  The image of the two sitting together, Agnes exhausted by her death throes, her blue face as elongated and sorrowful as a woman in a Modigliani painting, offers a moving, pieta-like portrait of the final moments of someone who’s railed against death but finally can’t escape its arrival. 

In fact, one of the production’s most mournful reminders is of the loneliness of death.  Agnes is surrounded by women who sit vigil with her, but that moment of pain on the white paper illustrates that death is a territory the dying walk alone.  And although her sisters and Anna live on, van Hove suggests that their living, too, is solitary and unobserved.  For example, when Karin and her husband have a loveless exchange that echoes Maria’s with Joachim, Karin breaks a wine glass and uses one of its shards to cut her vagina, dripping her own blood between her legs and staining her slip.  Once again, none of the other characters notice, and she continues on with her actions as though the wound is invisible.

In Cries and Whispers’ final moments, Agnes speaks to us from someplace after her death, touring us through her art work like a guide through what had been heaven before illness made her life hell.  The canvas-cubed walls of the set descend to the stage floor, so that projections of Agnes art work can light up the screens.  Close-ups of body parts waving on the snow slowly pull out to reveal winter-wear-clad people lying on the ground, making the angels that Agnes echoed at her death.

As the camera moves back farther and farther, the group of people makes a singular geometric shape in the snow, all moving different parts of the whole.  Agnes notes wryly that she used to think that she make art to understand life.  Now, she understands that art is made to stave off death.

With Cries and Whispers, van Hove does both.

The Feminist Spectator

Cries and Whispers, directed by Ivo van Hove, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2011 Next Wave Festival, October 28, 2011.