Thursday, November 22, 2007

Cultural Quirks

Beauty may rest in the eye of the beholder. But the beholder's vision is often colored by previous experience. If a person is extremely narrow-minded, his sight will remain as limited as the light which passes through a polarized lens. When examining another culture, that person may only be capable of seeing what he wants to see.

If, however, a person is open to new experiences, his exposure to new ways of thinking can broaden his life in the same way that a prism refracts the colors of the spectrum.

When traveling to foreign cultures, visiting bizarre attractions (like the Tupperware Museum of Historic Food Containers) or interviewing people whose personal credos are diametrically opposed to my own, I've often found it wise to put my own beliefs on a back burner in order to accommodate someone else's point of view. Apparently, I'm not alone in choosing to avoid heavy-duty rhetoric in delicate situations. "One of my ongoing frustrations with the so-called Gay left (and the left in general) is its inability to speak a language that is understood by the people it seeks to represent," Cleve Jones confided to me several years ago. "I haven't abandoned by left-wing ideology, but if you catch me making speeches about heterosexist imperialism, I hope you'll slap me!"

While I often feel a strong desire to slap people who have lost any and all touch with reality, on a recent trip through the Midwest I found my ability to suspend disbelief being severely tested. One occasion involved a daring use of theatrical traditions from another culture; the other took the most stereotypical American experience and applied it, quite perversely, to a grand religious tradition.


When Pacific Overtures was first performed in January 1976, few New Yorkers were prepared to tackle a darkly satirical musical depicting the slow but steady rape of a traditional culture that had proudly maintained its isolation from the rest of the world for more than two centuries. The boldness of the Hal Prince/Boris Aronson production combined with the strangeness of Sondheim's score confounded audiences. Indeed, it was only when Pacific Overtures was revived in smaller productions housed in more intimate theaters, that Sondheim's music and lyrics (combined with John Weidman's book) proved the show's mettle as a daringly innovative piece of musical theatre. With the current strength of Japan's economy, Skylight Opera Theater's recent production of Pacific Overtures allowed audiences to realize just how visionary this work was at its world premiere.

One of the peculiar challenges in staging Pacific Overtures is that the show requires a small cast to enact a multitude of roles. Skylight's 15th anniversary production (designed by Russ Borski and most effectively staged by Victoria Bussert) offered an impressive case for Sondheim's highly atmospheric and severely underrated Japanese adventure. Although Lee Strawn's Narrator, C. Michael Wright's Manjiro, Brian McLaughlin's Kayama and Larry Yando's Lord Abe were strongly-etched and pleasing portraits, the six-actor ensemble comprised of J. Michael Brennan, Tricia Carlisle, Kyle and Tracy Colerider-Krugh, McKinley Johnson and James Mahady artfully did the work of what seemed like a cast of thousands.

Because my seat allowed me to peer into the orchestra pit of Milwaukee's tiny Skylight Theatre, I became particularly fascinated with the inner workings of Sondheim's sparse but powerful score which (thanks to the help of a synthesizer) had been skillfully reduced to accommodate an orchestra of only four musicians. There is so much mathematics and magic to be found this man's work that one only wishes the creative team which launched Pacific Overtures in 1976 could have found an audience that could appreciate the subtlety of their show's stagecraft, the intricacy of its ironies and the complexity of its concept.


For years, I was convinced that the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas held top honors for bad taste. But, after visiting Oral Roberts University during my recent trip to Tulsa and experiencing the famed televangelist's 36-minute "Journey Into Faith," followed by the 26-minute "Journey Through The Bible" (the latter designed by Disney World's Imagineers) I think I've discovered something that could leave John Waters and Paul Bartel speechless with envy.

All too often people will say things like "You had to be there to believe it." But, in this case it's true. After witnessing a kitschy multi-media version of the Creation and tolerating some heavily misogynistic descriptions of a woman's duties in life, the real fun began. Listening to orgiastic groans which could have been taped at the old Folsom Street Barracks, I daintily tiptoed down the "Corridors of Sin" which (with their cheap styrofoam walls and red hellfire-and-brimstone backlighting) were designed to represent the centuries which elapsed between man's fall from innocence and the launching of Noah's Ark.

I still don't know which diorama seemed tackier: the Garden of Eden, with its plastic snake and eggplant-shaped red party lights (simulating the forbidden fruit) or the Biblical mudscape which was supposed to demonstrate what the earth looked like after the ark landed on Mt. Ararat. All I know is that whenever I watch Tammy Faye Bakker cry through her mascara -- or experience something as righteously grotesque as Oral Roberts' "Journey Through The Bible" -- the sheepish gullibility with which the masses embrace such low-level forms of entertainment reminds me how lucky we all are that television hit the marketplace after Adolf Hitler's demise.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 3, 1990.

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