Sunday, August 22, 2010

Animal Crackers In My Troops

No matter how one approaches it, the struggle to overcome our more lizard-like responses is an ongoing challenge. Some react to perceived threats by using physical force to intimidate and subdue their foes. Others (usually the ones who have enjoyed the benefits of a higher education) use their brains to identify patterns of thought and behavior that can be modified in order to better adapt to their surroundings.

Two stage presentations currently before Bay area audiences examine the "brains versus brawn" phenomenon in markedly different ways. In one, the ability to read and process information (initially harnessed for purposes of research) becomes a finely-tuned weapon that can shatter a person's defenses. In the other, a person's ability to read (scorned by most of her peers in a manner resembling the determination of Republicans to dumb down the American educational system) provides the key to taming a fearsome beast.

Think about that for a minute: In one instance, a girl who loves to read rejects the crude advances of  the boastful butch buffoon who wishes to marry her. In his stead, she chooses a hideous creature whose inner beauty has finally found an opportunity to shine.

In the other instance, two men -- trapped by their macho inability to be true to themselves -- are reduced to primitive forms of aggression in which nobody wins. The moral of the story? We must constantly look for ways to tame the beast within each and every one of us.

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It's not surprising to learn that a screenplay has been optioned for Bill Quigley's military drama, Don't Ask (which received its world premiere at the 2006 New York International Fringe Festival). As directed by Ben Randle, the play depicts an intense power struggle between two American soldiers in a military stockroom they have used for repeated sexual trysts.

Bobby (Adrian Anchondo) and Charles (Ryan Hough) in Don't Ask
Photo by: Lois Tema

Bobby (Adrian Anchando) may not be openly gay. But he knows who he is (a cock-hungry faggot), what he is (a manipulative, submissive brat), and what he wants (to become a cock slave to his hunky Sergeant). Extremely needy, highly literate, and with a talent for working with numbers, Bobby is a pushy bottom with an agenda.

Adrian Anchondo in Don't Ask (Photo by: Lois Tema)

By contrast, Charles (Ryan Hough) is the kind of clueless top who assumes that, once he's dropped his load in one of Bobby's hungry holes, nothing more needs to be said or done. Charles doesn't want to cuddle or have any post-coital discussions about his feelings.

A career military man with a wife and three kids waiting for him back home in Deer Falls, Ohio, Charles likes to think that he "knows" people. It soon becomes obvious that he doesn't know much more than how to stick his dick in a warm hole.

Charles has the brawn while Bobby has the brains. Two inconvenient truths exposed in Quigley's play are that:
  • Some gay men who enlist don't just do so in the hopes of being "all they can be." Some are aggressively looking for love in the form of a uniformed top who embodies everything that they (as lowly bottoms with, perhaps, a family history of abuse) would like to become.
  • After 19 years, a soldier who has has risen no higher than the level of Sergeant may have eagerly enlisted in the military as a dumb jock and, over time, evolved into the embodiment of why the term "military intelligence" is so often considered an oxymoron.
At the beginning of Don't Ask, the audience sees Bobby getting fucked by Charles. Once they have finished, Bobby feels playful, wanting even more. Charles, however, wants to know what other people on the base have heard about an incident in which an Arab prisoner died after being brutally beaten, humiliated, and possibly "violated." When Charles figures out that Bobby may not have been in the stockroom at the time of the incident, he demands to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Bobby's response is, at first, strangely evasive. It soon turns deadly serious and heads into an area former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described as "unknowable unknowables." It's easy to spot some of the cultural landmarks that have inspired the playwright:
This last piece of information is extremely important when considering that American soldiers serving in Iraq are not merely stationed in the cradle of civilization. They are also in the land where Muhammad supposedly warned his followers not to stare at alluring young men ("Do not gaze at beardless youth, for they have eyes more tempting than the houris."). According to the Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World:
"Whatever the legal strictures on sexual activity, the positive expression of male homoerotic sentiment in literature was accepted, and assiduously cultivated, from the late eighth century until modern times. First in Arabic, but later also in Persian, Turkish, and Urdu, love poetry by men about boys more than competed with that about women, it overwhelmed it. Anecdotal literature reinforces this impression of general societal acceptance of the public celebration of male-male love (which hostile Western caricatures of Islamic societies in medieval and early modern times simply exaggerate)."
Ryan Hough and Adrian Achando (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Although Ben Randle's staging was hampered by Ryan Hough's unfortunately wooden portrayal of Charles, New Conservatory Theatre Center's founding artistic director, Ed Decker insists that:
"As our advocacy to serve openly in the military continues, it is vitally important that we tell the stories born of homophobia in wartime.  Bill Quigley's Don't Ask looks at the vexing paradox of patriotism, power, violence, sexual identity, and concealment from a distinctly unique vantage point -- a gay relationship within the military.  In this highly provocative circumstance, we find a 'straight identifying' commanding officer with a penchant for gay sex. He is having clandestine liaisons with a private who clearly has something more in mind regarding their relationship. The ensuing story exposes the damaging hypocrisy of the military's policy and the price that is paid when secrets loom in an environment riddled with aggression and ferocity."
That's not how the play struck one of the elderly members of the opening night audience who, as he left the theatre, turned to me and sighed "That was nothing like what the ads promised!"


Don't Ask is by no means a great play, but I think it will have a strong appeal to members of the leather community. Performances continue through September 19 in NCTC's Walker Theatre. You can order tickets here.

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While Bobby and Charles were busy playing "hide the sausage" in Iraq, a very different kind of sausage fest was taking place on the stage of the Golden Gate Theatre. Led by Lefou (Michael Fatica), the townspeople were busily fawning over the musclebound, vainglorious Gaston (Nathaniel Hackmann) in the stage version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

Gaston (Nathaniel Hackmann) with the chorus of
Disney's Beauty and the Beast (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

In many ways, Beauty and the Beast was inspired by the French folktale, Bluebeard, which was first published in 1697 and has since undergone numerous adaptations (including a dreadfully boring movie by Catherine Breillat). The story as we now know it first appeared as a traditional fairy tale written by Gabriel-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. In 1771, an operatic version of La Belle et la Bete entitled Zémire et Azor was composed by André Grétry.

In 1991, Disney released a full-length animated adaptation of the story with a book by Linda Woolverton, music by Alan Menken, and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. In addition to earning three Golden Globe Awards, two Academy Awards, and more than $400 million in box office receipts, Disney's Beauty and the Beast became the first of the studio's full-length animated features to be adapted for the musical stage.

The Broadway version opened on April 18, 1994 at the Palace Theatre and ran for 13 years, closing after a run of 5,464 performances. While the stage adaptation of  The Lion King also achieved phenomenal success, subsequent adaptations of Disney's Tarzan and The Little Mermaid did not fare as well.

The important thing to keep in mind when attending a performance of any Disney musical production is that what you are seeing is part of a huge multi-million dollar franchise operation whose vertical integration of product lines includes film, DVD, stage presentations, animated television spin-off series, toys, comic books, and other merchandising spinoffs. Several young girls attending the opening night of the touring production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast in San Francisco were dressed in their "Disney Princess" outfits, part of a clothing line developed by Disney Consumer Products for worldwide distribution.

As a result, many in the audience have been fully indoctrinated with the details of Disney's full-length film. They arrive at the theatre eager to see their favorite moments created live onstage. If they don't always get an exact replica of the animated feature film, that's because (a) animated characters can move and undergo transformations much faster than live actors, and (b) an animated film is chock full of facial closeups whereas a stage presentation is not.

Justin Glaser and Liz Shivener in Disney's Beauty and the Beast
(Photo by: Joan Marcus)

What is always noticeable in any Disney presentation is the emphasis on quality. The actors portraying Belle (Liz Shivener), the Beast (Justin Glazer), Madame de la Grand Bouche (Jen Bechter), Mrs. Potts (Sabina Petra) and Gaston (Nathaniel Hackmann) had solidly trained and extremely healthy-sounding voices. In the comedic roles, Merritt David James shone as Lumiere, Keith Kirkwood was an appropriately fussy Cogsworth, Christopher Spencer was a delightfully daffy Maurice, and Erin Elizabeth Coors a saucy Babette.

I was especially taken with many elements of the production design, particularly Ann Hould-Ward's costumes and Basil Twist's puppets. As with any live Disney presentation, the children in the audience have a way of creating their own "special moments."  One little tyke seated close by announced in a voice as clear as a bell that "I'm feeling very hot right now."

However, my favorite moment of the evening actually came during intermission. As I headed down the long staircase to the men's room, I found myself behind a man whose young son was holding onto his father's hand as he carefully tried to point out all the important things in the first act that his father might have missed. With the kind of serious concentration that a three year old often musters, he pointed out one detail after another of the stage production that matched (or did not match) what he remembered from the movie.

Upon entering the men's room, his father brought the boy over to the wall where the adult men were lined up in front of a series of old-fashioned urinals. The boy froze, paralyzed by confusion.

As I watched from a distance, it became obvious that the boy (who was probably still being toilet trained) was used to going into a stall to urinate and had probably never seen a urinal that reached all the way down to the floor (the bottoms of modern urinals had probably been at eye level for him).

After following his father's instructions to pull down his pants (which revealed a pair of diapers that may have been decorated with Disney characters), the father coached his son through his first experience peeing at a urinal and chuckled "See? Now you're just like the rest of the guys."

The little boy pulled up his pants, looked back at the toilet stalls as if he had just left a critical part of his youth behind, and stood there quietly processing what had just happened. In its own way, that very personal learning moment was every bit as charming as what had transpired onstage during the first act of Disney's Beauty and the Beast.