Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Sheer Banality of Evil

During the past 40 years I've witnessed numerous operatic mad scenes in which some frail, often jilted soprano lost her marbles and warbled her way into insanity before dropping dead center stage. Lucia, Elvira, Ophelia, and the rest of those gals all had their problems, to be sure. But none of them were as batshit crazy as Sarah Palin, who, on the Friday before the July 4th holiday weekend, delivered her breathlessly contradictory and profoundly bizarre announcement that she would resign from her elected position as Governor of the State of Alaska. While her surprise resignation led to rampant speculation that she was gearing up for a run for the Presidency in 2012, my friends and I mulled over some grittier possibilities:
  • My first reaction, upon noticing the panicky tone of Palin's speech, was that this was a woman in total denial about a life-changing decision that was unexpectedly forced on her. The two words that instantly came to mind were "cancer diagnosis."
  • The second reaction, after hearing about possible corruption charges involving the building of Palin's home, was that her husband Todd (the First Dude), was soon to be led away in handcuffs.
  • One friend thought that Palin just couldn't bear to have the late, great Michael Jackson continue to be the unchallenged center of attention.
  • After remembering Palin's shopping spree last fall (for everything from designer outfits to underwear and luggage for her children) I thought that her trailer-trash money grubbing instincts couldn't possibly resist the temptation of a million-dollar book deal, lucrative speaking dates, a contract with FOX television or, perhaps, a chance to replace Joy Behar or Sherri Shepherd on The View.
  • One friend suggested that maybe someone had finally read Palin the riot act about not being a good enough "Christian" mother when her special needs child demanded more care.
  • Then I thought about the possibility of Palin getting a multi-million dollar contract to be a talk-radio host like Rush Limbaugh, with the option of working from her home.
  • These words from Palin stood out: "I think much of it had to do with the kids seeing their baby brother Trig mocked by some pretty mean-spirited adults recently. Um, by the way, sure wish folks could ever, ever understand that we ALL could learn so much from someone like Trig -- I know he needs me, but I need him even more... what a child can offer to set priorities RIGHT -- that time is precious... the world needs more 'Trigs,' not fewer."
  • In reading Todd S. Purdum's article in Vanity Fair entitled It Came From Wasilla, I was also struck by this paragraph:
  • "More than once in my travels in Alaska, people brought up, without prompting, the question of Palin’s extravagant self-regard. Several told me, independently of one another, that they had consulted the definition of 'narcissistic personality disorder' in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — 'a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy' — and thought it fit her perfectly. When Trig was born, Palin wrote an e-mail letter to friends and relatives, describing the belated news of her pregnancy and detailing Trig’s condition; she wrote the e-mail not in her own name but in God’s, and signed it 'Trig’s Creator, Your Heavenly Father.'"
Is Sarah Palin a new addition to Pedro Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown? After all, she seems to think that because her child has Down syndrome, the world needs more children with Down syndrome! Such outrageous narcissism makes perfect sense when one watches the following video spoof:


I smell a new operatic mad scene coming down the pike. What comes next? Footage of Palin riding a tricycle (like Eric Cartman) around Lake Lucille with Trig on her lap while barking "Respect my authority!" at the top of her voice? Curiously enough, Palin's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, has issued the following statement:
"To the extent several websites, most notably liberal Alaska blogger Shannyn Moore, are now claiming as 'fact' that Governor Palin resigned because she is 'under federal investigation' for embezzlement or other criminal wrongdoing, we will be exploring legal options this week to address such defamation. This is to provide notice to Ms. Moore, and those who re-publish the defamation, such as Huffington Post, MSNBC, the New York Times and The Washington Post, that the Palins will not allow them to propagate defamatory material without answering to this in a court of law."
Sinclair Lewis (whose novel It Can't Happen Here depicted the rise of a fascist dictator who became President of the United States) warned that: "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Responding to the threat of legal action on her radio show, Shannyn Moore warned Palin that there would be plenty of lawyers eagerly waiting to take her deposition. She then added "Suck it up, Buttercup!"

If there is one thing that Sarah Palin epitomizes it is the concept that true evil takes on the most banal forms. A curious trio of productions seen this week focused on the insidious nature of evil, how it takes control of people's lives, and what happens when its ability to bully people runs rampant.
* * * * * * *

Most power games depend upon a system of discipline and reward. Whether training a puppy, a laboratory rat, a student or a lover, good behavior can result in a treat while bad behavior can lead to deprivation of food, affection, or "privileges."

Clinical sadism wrapped in the authority of a nurse's uniform is currently holding center stage in the new production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest that has been mounted by the folks at SFPlayhouse. Based on Ken Kesey's novel (which was written in 1959, published in 1962, adapted for the stage by Dale Wasserman in 1963, and won five Academy Awards in 1975), the play is set in a mental ward where some of the patients have voluntarily chosen to become residents.

The order and balance so carefully created by the manipulative Nurse Ratched is shattered with the arrival of a "free spirit" -- one Randle McMurphy who has determined that if he can fake mental insanity, he can escape the drudgery of hard labor in a "work camp." McMurphy's boisterous personality, however, does not mesh well with Nurse Ratched's rules and policies (which are meant to keep her patients in line). Although some of her patients could be quite intimidating because of their physical size and strength, in Nurse Ratched's icy, saccharine-sweet presence they behave as timidly as mice.

Susi Damilano, Patrick Alparone, Madeline H.D. Brown,
and Hansford Prince (Photo by: Zabrina Tipton)

Long hailed as an intense drama that shows how individuals and others who refuse to conform (or who would dare challenge figures of authority) can end up being crushed into submission, the inspiration for Kesey's novel came from conversations he had with patients at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital where he was once employed as an orderly on the night shift. With little subtlety, Kesey's story also deals with the systemic emasculation of male patients as a way of maintaining control. Among the characters we meet are:
  • Randle P. McMurphy (Hansford Prince), a new and energetic entrant onto the ward who is hoping to fake insanity. A bit of a wise ass, McMurphy is allergic to authoritarian figures and does his best to get under the skin of the icy Nurse Ratched.
  • Nurse Ratched (Susi Damilano), a control freak who views lobotomy as the ultimate way to subdue a troublemaker on her ward.
  • Dale Harding (Louis Parnell), an intelligent patient who has self-committed because he fears he cannot exist in the outside world.
  • Chief Bromden (Michael Torres), a hulking Native American who does not know his own strength and considers himself "too small." For years, Bromden has faked being deaf and dumb but, after watching how McMurphy is shaking things up on the ward, he reveals to McMurphy that he can indeed hear and speak.
  • Billy Bibbit (Patrick Alparone), a young man with an acute stutter who is easily intimidated by Nurse Ratched (who is a close friend of Billy's mother). Still a virgin, Billy's problems with low self-esteem often lead to episodes of "cutting."
  • Cheswick (Yusef Lambert), a patient who always demands that others effect change because he himself is too much of a coward to do anything constructive.
  • Scanlon (Brian Raffi), a brooding, angry patient who encourages Chief Bromden to escape.
  • Martini (Gilberto Esqueda), a patient subject to auditory and visual hallucinations.
  • Ruckley (Joe Madero), a formerly violent patient who was given a frontal lobotomy and now likes to stand against the wall with his arms raised in a "Christ on the cross" position.
  • Dr. Spivey (David Sinaiko), a fairly timid physician who should be in control but is clearly under the thumb of Nurse Ratched.
  • Candy Starr (Madeline H.D. Brown), a prostitute who is a friend of McMurphy's.
  • Sandy (Marissa Keltie), another prostitute and friend of McMurphy's.
Hansford Prince and Michael Torres (Photo by: Zabrina Tipton)

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest has always been seen as a great vehicle for actors. The original Broadway staging (produced by David Merrick) starred Kirk Douglas as McMurphy, Ed Ames as Chief Bromden, Gene Wilder as Billy Bibbit, William Daniels as Dale Harding, and Arlene Golonka as Candy Starr.

Among the actors considered for the role of McMurphy in the movie (which was produced by Michael Douglas) were James Caan, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds. Six supremely talented actresses (Angela Lansbury, Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page, and Ellen Burstyn) rejected the opportunity to play the heartless Nurse Ratched. The film eventually starred Jack Nicholson as McMurphy, Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, William Redfield as Dale Harding, Brad Dourif as Billy, and Danny DeVito as Martini.

Directed by Bill English (who also designed the unit set), SFPlayhouse's production took a while to find its pace, with the second act proving to be much stronger than the first. Susi Damilano's Nurse Ratched was a bit like a rancid lollipop that started off tasting sweet but then, as her outer coolness was slowly licked away, turned decidedly sour. Hansford Prince's portrayal of McMurphy worked tirelessly to enliven a group of passive and emasculated patients too terrified to challenge the nurse's authority. I was particularly moved by the performances of Michael Torres as Chief Bromden and Patrick Alparone as the tragic, suicidal Billy Bibbit. The production continues through September 5th. You can order tickets here.

* * * * * * *

If one wanted to identify someone who might be the personification of political evil, one would need look no further than Karl Rove. In his famous article for Esquire magazine, journalist Ron Suskind wrote of his experience while waiting to interview Rove in the White House:
"Inside, Rove was talking to an aide about some political stratagem in some state that had gone awry and a political operative who had displeased him. I paid it no mind and reviewed a jotted list of questions I hoped to ask. But after a moment, it was like ignoring a tornado flinging parked cars. 'We will fuck him. Do you hear me? We will fuck him. We will ruin him. Like no one has ever fucked him!' As a reporter, you get around — curse words, anger, passionate intensity are not notable events — but the ferocity, the bellicosity, the violent imputations were, well, shocking. This went on without a break for a minute or two. Then the aide slipped out looking a bit ashen, and Rove, his face ruddy from the exertions of the past few moments, looked at me and smiled a gentle, Clarence-the-Angel smile. 'Come on in.' And I did. And we had the most amiable chat for a half hour."
A new film being released on DVD by Ariztical is a must-see for political and theatrical junkies who thrive on backstage intrigue, conspiracy theories, and general tales of paranoia. Co-written (with Julia Miranda), co-directed (with Phil Leirness), produced by, and starring Dan Butler, Karl Rove, I Love You is about as expert a depiction of delusional behavior (short of watching Sarah Palin speak) as one could ever hope to witness.

Butler is, of course, the openly gay actor famous for his characterization of Bob "Bulldog" Briscoe on Frasier. His film begins in 2004, as he is finishing a limited run of Twentieth Century for the Roundabout Theatre Company as part of a cast headed by Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche.

Like many insecure actors nearing the end of a run, Butler is convinced that he'll never find work again. But then an independent filmmaker approaches Butler and tells him that he would like to make a documentary about what it means to be a supporting actor, using Butler as the star of the film.


What follows is an in-depth portrait of an actor's wildest insecurities, including a full emotional meltdown. After losing some anticipated acting jobs, Butler finds "the role of a lifetime" while playing charades with a group of friends. No one in the room can guess the name "Karl Rove." Few people in his circle of friends even have the slightest idea who Karl Rove might be.

With his curiosity piqued, Butler determines to learn who this mysterious man (that one of his friends describes as the most evil person in the United States) could be. As he starts drowning himself in research, Butler starts to fall in love with Karl Rove. From there, he heads down the slippery path to an actor's overidentification with a character, possible insanity, and high intrigue. There is a staged intervention, a curious disappearance, and perhaps even a murder or two.

When all is said and done, the film offers great fun from a group of talented actors willing to push the boundaries of believability. Oscar-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme described the film as "an all-around, first-class ensemble act of collective imagination, brought to life in a totally original film, as 'indie', and often as funny, as it gets." If you're looking for a wonderfully creepy political thriller, Karl Rove, I Love You will surely hit the spot. Here's the trailer:


* * * * * * * * *

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the award-winning local theatrical collective whose mission is to tackle timely and controversial topics. SFMT traditionally opens its season on the 4th of July weekend with a performance in Dolores Park (right across the street from my apartment). Saturday's performance began with a special treat, as representatives from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence "married" the audience to the Mime Troupe in a ridiculously delightful ceremony that could only happen in this city.

Written by Michael Gene Sullivan, robustly directed and choreographed by Wilma Bonet, with music and lyrics by Pat Moran and some superb costume work by Emilica S. Beahm, Too Big To Fail may well be the SFMT's finest effort in several years. Minus the usual stock villains from the Bush administration, SFMT has taken aim at a more insidious type of evil: the bloodsucking villainy of the international banking industry.

In a recent issue of Rolling Stone, journalist Matt Taibbi's article, The Great American Bubble Machine, went a long way toward exposing how investment bank Goldman Sachs (and so many of its well-placed former employees) has managed to reap huge profits from every bubble-and-burst chapter in the American economy. The San Francisco Mime Troupe explains the world of high finance and debt enslavement in a much more enjoyable and theatrical way.

With a traditional African storyteller (Michae Gene Sullivan) on hand to advance the plot, SFMT explains the plight of Filije (Adiran C. Mejia), a poor African bridegroom who succumbs to the temptations of a "magic spell" cast by a mysterious old woman (BW Gonzalez). Forced to travel halfway around the world to corporate headquarters in order to get back the goat (Lisa Hori-Garcia) that was given to him as a wedding gift (and that he was required to use as collateral for a shady loan), Filije's trip across the ocean turns into a major learning experience.

The cast of Too Big To Fail (Photo by: David Allen)

While members of Filije's village succumb to the lure of instant credit (purchasing everything from high fashions to mobile phones and a dubious interest in a cyberfarm venture), Filijie's wife, Jeneeba (Velina Brown) is the only one to resist the temptation of a plutonium or titanium credit card account. Doubling as the Big Fish who rules the ocean, Ms. Brown offers a knockout performance.

Michael Gene Sullivan and Velina Brown (Photo by: David Allen)

This show has more dramatic value and bite than some of SFMT's past productions. One only wishes it could travel beyond the Bay area to audiences across the nation who are struggling with foreclosures, bankruptcies, and 21st-century forms of financial terrorism. As someone who managed to pay off $70,000 in credit card debt (accumulated while trying to build a career as an opera critic), I can easily relate to the predatory financing practices depicted in Too Big To Fail.

In such financially stressful times, Too Big To Fail does a superb job of demystifying the cycle of debt, identifying the true villains, and showing audiences how they can change their world for the better. Using Nina Ball's tightly-designed unit set, SFMT will travel to numerous parks around the Bay area during the summer (check their performance schedule to see which performance best fits in with your summer plans). In the meantime, you can help undermine unscrupulous giants like Citibank, AIG, and Bank of America (that have been deemed "too big to fail") by taking a micro-loan initiative of your own and donating money to support the San Francisco Mime Troupe's ongoing educational activities here.

Too Big To Fail is a great example of political theatre for the masses. One wishes the San Francisco Mime Troupe a very happy birthday, with many more to come!

No comments: