Thursday, November 22, 2007

Tru and Consequences

Today we live in a world which, thanks to its determination to avoid bad news, has concocted the squeaky-clean "media opportunity," the invincible "formal moment" and the safely-edited "sound bite." In too many ways, our thinking is shaped by media people who espouse a no-muss, no-fuss ideology. While our society reels desperately out of control, we're told to just smile and be happy.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of fools who still rely on silly, self-destructive games as a means of avoiding reality. Although our good friend Tevye warns that "Good news will wait and bad news will refuse to leave," one of life's ongoing frustrations comes from having to deal with people who hide behind lies. These people would rather do anything than confront an unpleasant truth.

Many years ago I learned that it was easier to simply tell the truth from the start rather than try to remember which lies I had foisted on whose ears. Since then, I've concluded that a desperate grip on reality is a handy tool for survival. Two recent productions emphasize what can happen when small but all-powerful truths can no longer be ignored. In one, the teller of the truth is abandoned by those who feel he has betrayed them. The other results in nothing less than the total destruction of the universe.


Readers might wonder why I would contrast a one-man show like Tru with something as weighty as Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung. The reason is simple. Each demonstrates how painfully simple truths can paralyze powerful people who have built their success on a pack of lies. While Truman Capote's wry observations about the society people who fed off his notoriety may have been piercingly accurate, going public with his thoughts in Answered Prayers cost him many friendships.

As the lonely author tries to amuse himself and stay sober on Christmas Eve in his New York apartment, Jay Presson Allen's one-man play proceeds at a decidedly operatic pace. Although sound occasionally emanates from a tape deck and stereo system, the true music of the performance lies in the cadence of Capote's language, the brilliance of his wit and his aria-like reminiscences of yesteryear's events. One of the theater's greatest strengths is its ability to move people's hearts, force them to think and occasionally even make them squirm. Under Allen's gifted stage direction, Capote's bravery, loneliness and the terrible poignancy of his situation become so palpable that, by the time the curtain falls, much of the audience is in severe emotional discomfort.

Dominating the evening is a bravura performance by Robert Morse who, in addition to making a widely-celebrated Broadway comeback, has captured the confused heartbreak of a little boy, trapped in an older man's body, who can't believe that his friends are overreacting so severely. Especially when he has never said anything about them -- at least in his own mind -- other than the truth. Tru is an evening of sheer magic in the theater. Don't miss it.


Ring fever is about to descend on the Bay area again as the San Francisco Opera prepares to revive its 1985 production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. This year, a host of ancillary activities relating to the Ring have been planned by various organizations around the Bay. The most interesting one announced so far (and the one destined to attract Wagnerian size queens) is the session dealing with dwarfism, gigantism and related bodily deformities.

Since I will be attending the fourth and final cycle of the San Francisco Opera's Ring, I thought it might be interesting to report on a different kind of Ring-related deformity: comical mis-interpretations of the Ring. With Anna Russell now in permanent retirement, one's best chance to enjoy a few good laughs at Wagner's expense lies with the Ridiculous Theatrical Company's revival of Charles Ludlam's 1977 "masterwork," Der Ring Gott Farblonget. Ludlam's version condenses the well-known tetralogy into three hours of low camp and vaudeville shtick in which Die Walkure is renamed "The Dyke Bikers at Helgeland," Sieglinde's lust takes her topless and the illiterate Siegfried can't help but mispronounce the word "sword." Every theatrical gimmick employed with utmost seriousness by Richard Wagner (from the Forest Bird in Siegfried to Gotterdammerung's foreboding raven) is given a hilarious send-up as the RTC attempts to make the Ring accessible to readers of Mad Magazine.

For this production, Adam MacAdam has recreated his characterization of the yiddishkeit Twoton while H.M. Koutoukas delivers pure RTC shtick as Eartha and Sophie Maletsky doubles as Fasdolt and Brunnhilda. With RTC regulars Eureka (Gunther, Fricka), Everett Quinton (Alverruck, Valtrauta) and Ivory (Froh, Gerhilda and the Raven) on hand, there is enough genderbending to warp anyone's operatic consciousness. Special credit goes to hunky Jim Lamb for his wonderfully droll portrayals of the Volsung heros: Siegmund and Siegfried. Kudos also go to Therese McIntyre for her simpering Freia and the horniest Sieglinde ever to hit the stage.

Too much of a good thing can be wonderful -- providing too much of it is really there. But since Ludlam's untimely death in 1988, the RTC has been embraced by the straight press and the masses in much the same way that Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo was adopted by audiences who had no understanding of its razor-sharp balletic wit or the boldness of its cross-gender casting. RTC's new audience enters the Charles Ludlam Theater so psyched for the show that folks are now laughing their heads off when nothing funny is happening onstage. People who have paid for their tickets with the expectation that they're going to "get it," are determined to prove that they're getting a lot more than just the basics. At the performance I attended, the audience started to applaud the set and laugh hysterically before the lights had even come up on the stage!

This is what I call "the est phenomenon in the arts." And, while I'm happy to see any audience psyched up for a show (there are some very funny moments to be found in the RTC's revival of Der Ring Gott Farblonget) this work is hardly the laugh riot RTC's new audience would like to think it is.

Sad, but tru.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 24, 1990.

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