Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Too Much Too Soon

It wasn't so very long ago that most of my friends would chuckle at the sight of someone wearing a T-shirt which stated "So many men, so little time." With a wistful smile and a flirtatious wink, they'd subconsciously and sometimes physically urge their fellow revolutionaries in lust toward new heights of sexual conquest as they passed each other on the street. Although, today, such flirtatious smiles retain their once-palpable sense of intrigue, the rabid sexual consumerism which formed the basis of our carnal activity in the l970s has been severely curtailed.

Perhaps it's because monogamy is making a comeback. Perhaps it's because, merely by definition, the dick of death could be just that. Maybe it's because so many men have succumbed to AIDS in so little time that the physical rewards of being a slut no longer seem quite so appealing. One thing's for sure: In today's brave new world of safe sex and hygienic enlightenment, fewer studs are willing to "eat a mile of that man's shit to see where it came from" or leave their footprints on the ceiling. In fact, once push came to shove, the smart ones decided that nobody's dick was really worth dying for.

Many of us are now caught in a cycle of constant grieving. No sooner do we come to grips with the death of one friend than three more are diagnosed. I recently spent an emotional day in Houston where, during the afternoon I toured the Institute for Immunological Diseases (also known as Houston's AIDS Hospital) and, in the evening, attended a preview of the Alley Theatre's new production of The Normal Heart. Having seen Larry Kramer's AIDS drama a year ago in New York, some interesting observations come to mind.


When The Normal Heart first opened in New York, many people attacked Kramer for unveiling unpleasant truths about AIDS, denial, closet queens and political infighting in gay circles. Not being involved in New York's gay community -- and without any personal grudge against Mr. Kramer -- I was willing to accept his play and its arrogant protagonist as belonging to a style of agitprop theatre which is more brutal than polite; more confrontational than escapist.

The character of Ned Weeks (based on Kramer) is no pussycat. He's an obnoxious, self-serving schmuck whose anger and self-righteousness go a long way toward alienating those people who could help him the most. The problem for Weeks, like many other leftist gays, is that he is no longer willing to play the kind of coyly unspoken game whose rules are dictated by (a) vicious closet queens who wield a tremendous amount of political and economic power and (b) staunch gay conservatives who think of themselves as "straight acting and straight appearing."

One thing The Normal Heart demonstrates quite effectively is the destructive impact AIDS has had in stirring up and magnifying the internalized homophobia which, alas, remains deeply woven into the hearts and souls of many homosexuals after more than 15 years of gay liberation. Under George Anderson's direction, the Alley Presented The Normal Heart in its tiny, studio-style Arena Stage Theatre. This venue not only brought the audience closer to the action, but made Kramer's drama more intense than ever.

John Gould Rubin's self-centered performance as Ned Weeks was appropriately abrasive; Brandon Smith portrayed the butch and ever-popular Bruce Niles as a blankly rigid, scared and pathetically ineffectual conservative gay man. I particularly liked Jeff Bennett's Tommy (the Southern Bitch) and Suzy Hunt's impassioned Dr. Emma Brookner. Michael Gill's Felix, Charles Krohn's Ben, Donald Berman's Mickey and James Belcher's mayoral assistant also offered strong dramatic contributions to the production.

For those whose rage at the slowness with which the AIDS situation is being handled (and the effect it has had on their lives) is just beginning to manifest itself, a visit to The Normal Heart is a must. Perhaps after seeing Kramer's play they, too, will understand the calamitous results of selfishly satisfying one's own desires while risking the health and welfare of the community at large.


If The Normal Heart engenders anger over a disease process and the misguided priorities which have prevented people from dealing with it realistically, the Met's new Manon represents nothing less than the rape of a great opera. Manuel Rosenthal's sluggish conducting makes me understand why Beverly Sills once referred to this work as "the French Gotterdammerung." And, although I have long been an admirer of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's, his outrageously overinflated production is a classic example of what happens when the French designer/director tries to put too much onstage all at once.

In this new production, Ponnelle has cruelly removed the core of French romanticism which is so crucial to Massenet's opera and transformed Manon into a ludicrously expensive spectacle which makes little, if any sense. By trying to inflate Massenet's delicate opera to ridiculous proportions in order to show the atmosphere of greed which existed in France at the time, Ponnelle has done a grave disservice to the composer. Manon's intimate seduction of Des Grieux in the chapel at St. Sulpice is thwarted by a scenic monstrosity which makes one wonder if Ponnelle isn't trying to outdo Franco Zeffirelli's set for the first act of Tosca; the scene at Cours-La-Reine looks like Barnum & Bailey's attempt to produce French opera. Only in the gambling scene (with its strong resemblance to Act I of Ponnelle's Rigoletto production) does Ponnelle's intense theatricality merge with Massenet's opera. And by then, it is too late for France's superstar director to redeem himself.

Substituting for the indisposed Neil Shicoff, Denes Gulyas was physically and vocally attractive as the Chevalier des Grieux. Alas, David Holloway's Lescaut, David Hamilton's de Bretigny and Ferruccio Furlanetto's Count des Grieux seemed noticeably uncomfortable. While I found Harolyn Blackwell's Poussette and Diane Kesling's Rosette quite appealing, Catherine Malfitano's coldly sung and mechanically acted Manon was best summed up by the irate standee who walked past me at intermission muttering "You know what the problem is with that Malfitano girl? She's a real big nothing!"

This was one performance at which so many people left the theatre during first intermission that there could be little doubt about the audience's rejection of Ponnelle's interpretation. If anyone at the New York City Opera (where the Capobianco/Eck/Varona Manon has been ensconced for two decades) had worried losing audiences to the Met after it unveiled new Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's new production, he can sleep soundly. City Opera still has a classic production of Manon on its hands.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 16, 1987.

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