Monday, March 14, 2011

Who Could Ask For Anything More?

People like to believe that money is the root of all evil. The sad truth is that greed is not so much a sin of excess as a pathological pattern of behavior.

The highly stylized 1990 film adaptation of Dick Tracy that starred Warren Beatty also featured Madonna as as a cabaret entertainer named Breathless Mahoney. In her big production number, Madonna got to sing "More" (a song written for the movie by Stephen Sondheim), whose main lyric reads as follows:
"Got my diamonds, got my yacht, got a guy I adore
I'm so happy with what I got, I want more!

Count your blessings, one, two, three
I just hate keeping score
Any number is fine with me
As long as it's more
As long as it's more!

I'm no mathematician, all I know is addition
I find counting a bore
Keep the number mounting, your accountant does the counting
More! More!

I got rhythm, music too, just as much as before
Got my guy and my sky of blue
Now, however, I own the view
More is better than nothing, true
But nothing's better than more, more, more
Nothing's better than more

One is fun, why not two?
And if you like two, you might as well have four
And if you like four, why not a few
Why not a slew
More! More!

If you've got a little, why not a lot?
Add a bit and it'll get to be an oodle
Every jot and tittle adds to the pot
Soon you've got the kit as well as the caboodle
More! More!

Never say when, never stop at plenty
If it's gonna rain, let it pour
Happy with ten, happier with twenty
If you like a penny, wouldn't you like many much more?

Or does that sound too greedy?
That's not greed, no, indeedy
That's just stocking the store
Gotta fill your cupboard, remember Mother Hubbard
More! More!

Each possession you possess
Helps your spirits to soar
That's what's soothing about excess
Never settle for something less
Something's better than nothing, yes!
But nothing's better than more, more, more
(Except all, all, all)
Except all, all, all
Except once you have it all (have it all)
You may find all else above (find all else above)
That though things are bliss
There's one thing you miss, and that's
More! More!
More! More! More! More!
More! More! More!"

San Francisco's Exit Theatre is currently hosting the world premiere of a brilliant new play by Bennett Fisher.  Presented by No Nude Men Productions and forcefully directed by Tore Ingersoll-Thorp, Hermes does an astonishing job of explaining the similarities between believing in god and believing in debt.

The play's premise is simple: Soon after a god returns to earth, the world comes to an end. Fisher stresses that:
"While researching the role Goldman Sachs and other American financial institutions played in the most recent financial collapse, I found it very difficult to get a straight answer. I did not intend for this play to be a reenactment of the Greek financial meltdown; I wanted to use the meltdown  -- along with the gods Hestia and Hermes, along with the sort of fraud perpetrated by companies like Enron -- as a lens to examine opportunism, indifference, greed, possibility, power, and humanity. In my mind, it is less a play about history, mythology, politics, or economics than it is about people."

Gil (Carl Lucania), Anne (Juliana Egley), Jack (Geoff Nolan),
and Brian (Brian Markley) make their sales pitch in Hermes.
Photo by: Claire Rice

The humans in Fisher's play are a quartet of hard-drinking, greedy Wall Street gamblers  who (while stuck in Europe because of mass flight cancellations following the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallaj√∂kull volcano) see an opportunity to manipulate the financial crisis in Greece to their advantage. Debating which sales technique will work best (the Big Bird, Chicken Little, or Jenny Craig approach), they cling to the basic truism that, even in the worst of circumstances, "business finds a way."  However, a noticeable chill enters the room when the youngest among them comes up with a brilliant idea and Jack has the gall to suggest that the others may be "too old" to grasp his concept.

Geoff Nolan as Jack (Photo by: Claire Rice)

However, Jack's idea has not gone unnoticed.  Usually seen as a messenger in Greek mythology, Hermes also acts as the god of commerce and thieves. Slimier and far more aggressive than Bernie Madoff or Gordon Gekko, Hermes has been crafted by Fisher to act as the physical manifestation of fraud. Clad in a pair of winged golden sneakers, he takes great delight in punching financial cowards in the balls. In his writer's statement, Fisher stresses that:
"Hermes is frequently cast in the role of a trickster, a mythological archetype present in many traditions other than the Greeks. But, more than this, he is the god of surrogates and substitutes. Language and mathematics allow us to order the natural world, separating that indistinct jumble of atomic particles that is existence into individual and identifiable parcels.  Commerce and trade operate under the principle that a value can stand in for an object. If the truth is undesirable, a lie can be used instead."

2011-03-13-bryanhermes.jpgBrian Trybom as Hermes (Photo by: Claire Rice)

"In my opinion, Hermes' dominion -- inventiveness and expressiveness -- represents the highest form of human thought.  Hermes allows us to think of something greater than ourselves. Poseidon and Demeter have sway over distinct skills like sea travel and agriculture. Gods like Dionysus, Athena, and Apollo correspond to even more abstract concepts like justice and art.  But it is Hermes' areas of influence that facilitate each of these. Slippery logic and artful language are more fearsome than thunderbolts. Greed and poverty level more houses than war. Hermes alone allows man to transcend what is tangible, to devise and articulate concepts that have only a tenuous connection to the physical world. Hermes allows us to be human."
With his rough-and-tumble script about corporate greed and the illegal manipulation of global financial markets, Fisher's daring and extremely intelligent play offers a solid dramatic counterpoint to some of Matt Taibbi's investigative journalism about the current financial crisis in Rolling Stone. His ability to dramatize man's talent for making a profit off of something that is truly worthless delivers a breathtaking experience in relevant, contemporary theatre.

Hermes (Brian Trybom) and Jack (Geoff Nolan)
Photo by: Claire Rice

The tightly-knit ensemble features Brian Trybom and Lauren Spencer (as the gods Hermes and Hestia) with Juliana Egley, Geoff Nolan, Carl Lucania, and Brian Markley as the quartet of slick Wall Street "suits." Although Hermes may be Fisher's first full-length play to be produced onstage, there can be no doubt that it deserves to reach a much larger audience. Performances continue at San Francisco's  Exit Stage Left through March 26. You can -- and should -- order tickets here.

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