Friday, May 29, 2009

Our Strange Friends From Across The Pond

The original 13 colonies that grew to become the United States of America were settled, by and large, with people from the British Isles.  However you choose to examine the ongoing cultural exchange that has spanned the three centuries since the Jamestown Settlement in West Virginia (1607), we are indeed richer for most of the cultural traditions we inherited from the British.

Gay activist Larry Kramer's recent essay on Homo Sex in Colonial America goes a long way toward showing that gay men were present during the birth pangs of the American revolution. With conservatives currently misappropriating such terms as teabagging and 2M4M to serve their political goals, some Americans have begun to question whether their history was based on the legendary Boston Tea Party or a recent and much more exclusive Boston "T" Party.

Ever since America declared its independence from England our culture has continued to use the English language, maintain some level of fascination with Britain's royal family, and embrace numerous creative talents from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Today, Great Britain is one of our strongest political allies. Ireland has become a major center for outsourcing. Aer Lingus and British Airways fly to many gateway cities in North America. 

Whether it be musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber, talk show hosts like Graham Norton, reality show judges like Nigel Lithgoe or Simon Cowell, contestants like Susan Boyle, or comics like The Daily Show's John Oliver, we are regularly entertained by our friends from "across the pond." Some of them set down roots and come to live in the United States (Scottish-born late-night TV host Craig Ferguson recently became an American citizen). Some have had a profound impact on our culture.

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The opening night of Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) brings us back in touch with one of the most flamboyant creatures ever to cross the pond: Quentin Crisp. With John Hurt (who starred as Crisp more than 30 years ago in 1975's TV movie, The Naked Civil Servant) returning to portray the gay icon in his waning years, we get another beautifully layered portrayal of a man whose individuality knew no bounds. Others in the cast of An Englishman In New York include Jonathan Tucker as Patrick Angus (a bright-eyed young artist with AIDS), an unrecognizable Cynthia Nixon as Penny Arcade, Swoosie Kurtz as Crisp's American agent, Connie Clausen, and Denis O'Hare as his friend, Phillip Steele.

Many years ago I had a roommate who liked to say that "If what I say offends you, you probably need to be offended to shake you out of your sleepwalking." What set Crisp apart from so many other gay men who strive for individuality was his willingness to say what he thought and feel no need to apologize for offending people. Initially embraced by New Yorkers for his wit and supposed wisdom, Crisp's inital reaction to a question about AIDS quickly offended gay activists. With his popularity waning, Crisp didn't make any effort to retune his message. He simply readjusted to the loneliness he had known for so many years and, despite his aging body, tried to enjoy each day while he could.

I must admit to having had a very strange reaction watching O'Hare's performance in this movie because I worked with Thomas (Phillip) Steele on Opera Monthly magazine for two years. Physically, the two men look nothing like each other, but Tom was always a very sweet, gentle and caring man. What I found equally bizarre while watching Richard Laxton's film were the scenes shot in Greenwich Village where, on numerous occasions, no one else is seen walking down the street other than Crisp and his companion du jour.

Nevertheless, An Englishman in New York offers a loving portrait of someone who made a lifelong career out of his eccentricity. Crisp was an original and his essence is beautifully captured by John Hurt in a meaty role that is at once fey, poignant, and curiously anachronistic.

Crisp is also the subject of a lovely little piece on a Frameline program of shorts entitled Calling All Nerds and Art Freaks. Crisp's great-nephew, Adrian Goycoolea's Uncle Denis? makes use of footage from numerous home movies that show Crisp attending family reunions, weddings, and other gatherings. Shots of Crisp in the company of his father (who was a man of few words) show a family which had no problem dealing with Crisp's eccentricity. What might surprise viewers who have seen John Hurt's performance, however, is how small Crisp looked in his later years. In this shot, taken from a family album, he's just another relative.

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As part of its Calling All Nerds and Art Freaks program of shorts, Frameline is also presenting Christopher Racster's mini-documentary entitled Decoding Alan Turing. This 17-minute film not only shows how Turing managed to break the code used by Nazi submarines, but also explains why he is now regarded as one of the pioneers of digital computing theory. While in London in June of 1987, I caught a performance of Hugh Whitemore's play, Breaking the Code, which starred Derek Jacobi as Alan Turing. Writing about the production in my Bay Area Reporter column that summer, I noted that:
"For Turing, whose work in breaking the Nazi Enigma code allowed him to achieve one of the greatest breakthroughs in military history, the loneliness of his work as a mathematician left few if any equally challenging heights for his brain to scale. His harassment at the hands of petty police officers becomes all the more poignant when one realizes how introverted and desperately innocent Turing must have been. "When there is no way for the brain to continue at harmony with the body, why not leave the body behind?" he muses, while biting into an apple which he has rolled in a cyanide powder.  "After all, this is merely a simple experiment to see if the mind can continue without the body."

Breaking the Code poses some several disturbing questions to its audience. Ironicailly, whether or not to commit suicide is the least disturbing of the lot.  More to the point: once you've accomplished something unique, savored the best there is, or achieved the impossible, what do you do for an encore? If, because of the very uniqueness of your situation, you can't create new challenges for yourself, do you mark time until life is over or take action to end the meaningless years of waiting to die? It's the challenge faced by every overachiever. I wish I knew the answer."
Alan Turing

At the time, I was using a Kaypro II and didn't know much about computers. I certainly had no inkling that Turing would later be hailed as the father of computer science. Long after his death Turing has become an important figure in gay history. In 2008, the Helsinki Skaala Opera offered the world premiere of Turing Machine, composed by Eeppi Ursin and Visa-Pekka Mertanen. The opera is comprised mainly of new electronic music and real-time sampling of old and new material, with a libretto based on Miko Jaakkola's 2000 drama, Turing.

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Over at the Cutting Ball Theatre I finally had a chance to sit in a theater, look at a performer, and ask myself "Is that a banana in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?" The occasion was a production of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett's famous one-act play, Krapp's Last Tape, in which the performer eats one and a half bananas before sticking the remaining half-banana in his chest pocket. Much of the play's action involves the 69-year-old Krapp fussing around in his office, unlocking desk drawers, going to another room for a drink of water and essentially acting like an old curmudgeon. As he listens to a tape he made 30 years previously, he fast forwards through the tape toward various sections in order to listen to particular passages.

Paul Gerrior in Krapp’s Last Tape (Photo by Rob Melrose)

In this economy (and with so many other kinds of entertainment available) I was both surprised and delighted to attend a performance that was nearly sold out on a Thursday night. Other than its novelty as an important contribution to the Theatre of the Absurd, what is this 45-minute-long play's continuing appeal? As the director, Rob Melrose, explains in his program notes:
"I read Krapp's Last Tape in high school and didn't connect to it at first.  I much preferred Endgame and Waiting for Godot. At the same time, it is hard to expect a high school student to connect to a play about a 69-year-old man listening to a tape he made when he was 39. For me, the most fascinating experience of Krapp's Last Tape is that of looking at a younger version of oneself and barely recognizing it at all. In Krapp's Last Tape, this is triply layered because the 69-year old Krapp listens to a tape made by a 39-year old Krapp who has just listened to a tape made by a 29-year-old Krapp. In each case, the older Krapp can't believe how stupid and deluded the younger Krapp was. How many of us have experienced this feeling? And at the same time, as dumb and naive as we were, how many of us wouldn't love to go back and experience a moment from our youth again? It is this tension, so brilliantly explored by Beckett, that makes Krapp's Last Tape such a remarkable, poignant, and utterly human play."
Poignant and human, indeed. Yet I can't think of too many moments in my own life that I would like to go back and relive. While, at this stage of life, it is easy (and humbling) to remember how sure of oneself one was many years ago, one's life experience tends to temper that surety with the often painful wisdom of age. As many a grown man has said: 
"When I was 15, my father didn't know anything. I was amazed at how much he had learned by the time I turned 30."
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Last, but by no means least, we come to Spamalot, which enjoyed a rip-roaring opening night performance at the Golden Gate Theater on Wednesday before an audience of adoring Monty Python fans. Filled with the kind of snarky humor that wallows in bad puns, cheesy sight gags, and general rowdiness, Spamalot has one quality which very few musicals can match. It is an evening of solid, bawdy fun, a romping-stomping good time for people who want to be entertained, amused, both tickled and pickled.

John O'Hurley and Jeff Dumas (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Headed by John O'Hurley as King Arthur (with Merle Dandridge giving new meaning to the use of "chest voice" as The Lady of the Lake), the touring company is obviously enjoying every single one of its ribald moments onstage. Christopher Sutton displayed great comic chops as Not Dead Fred and the prancing Prince Herbert while Matthew Greer easily won over the audience as a très-gay Sir Lancelot. Ben Davis was appropriately threatening as the Black Knight and Prince Herbert's bitter father, yet able to appear butchly dimwitted as Sir Dennis Galahad. When his character (Sir Robin) wasn't shitting his pants in terror, James Beaman brought down the house with the hilariously politically incorrect "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" (unless you have some Jews). Jeff Dumas ably kept canter and pace as Patsy with a lovely bunch of coconuts.

Merle Dandrige (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

It's hard for me to decide which was actually more fun -- reading the ridiculous mock program notes and cast bios for "Dik Od Triaanenen Fol (Finns Ain't What They Used To Be)" -- purportedly co-produced by Vlad The Impaler Wankel --  or just sitting back and letting myself be entertained by the wit and wisdom of Monty Python as brought to life in this latest incarnation. Filled with good-natured digs at some of Broadway's greatest musicals of the past, Spamalot is a deliciously disarming evening filled with the kind of silly delight so desperately needed in these troubled times. 

Bring on the cow catapult, the killer rabbit, and let's have some more arms for the poor!

1 comment:

Alice in Infoland said...

WEST Virginia is land-locked. The Jamestown Settlement is in Virginia, upriver from the Atlantic Ocean.