Saturday, June 25, 2011

Tests of Faith

While in college, I was fortunate enough to take a course in Indo-European myths and legends that helped explain man's use of religion as a tool for coping with events beyond his ken. In an odd way, studying primitive fertility rites helped develop an appreciation of people who claim that any tragedy --  be it a devastating earthquake, a volcanic eruption, or a bad hand in a poker game -- is a reflection of God's will. Modern culture is filled with people who claim to be following God's orders.
  • George W. Bush and Michele Bachmann claim that God told them to run for political office.  
  • Others claim that God told them to drown their children.
  • Many an athlete has claimed his winning touchdown or home run was made possible by God's guiding hand.
  • Recently, some elected officials have claimed that only God can balance their budgets or solve the droughts and floods that have plagued their region.
Literature is filled with stories of people whose faith has been tested by illness, war, murder, and natural disasters. However, considering how many people give deference to God's wisdom, compassion, and omnipotence, he sure does seem to fuck things up a lot. Could it be that (despite the claims of so many born-again Christians) God is really a big, fat, black lesbian in the sky with a grudge against mankind?

In his critique of Elements of the Philosophy of Right by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx wrote that:
"Religious distress is, at the same time, the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions."
Karl Heinrich Marx

As an avid theatergoer, I have attended many a performance in which God was written into the script. With so much being written and performed about God, how does an arts critic raised in a family of Jewish atheists approach the subject matter?

As fiction and folklore, perhaps. But never as fact.

As a result of not being "a true believer," I'm often able to react more clinically to intensely melodramatic stage offerings whose plots rely on "come-to-Jesus" moments of salvation. Not believing in God certainly made it easier for me to see televangelists like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker as cheesy self-righteous grifters rather than representatives of all that is sacred and holy.

In today's rabidly conservative culture, the easiest bullshit meter with which to assess any politician is how often s/he refers to God during campaign speeches. But what about questions of faith as they are portrayed onstage? Faced with a crisis of faith that comes framed by a proscenium arch, it helps to remember that, just like the Bible, these are works of fiction.
All of these works may provide audiences with great entertainment, but they are works of dramatic fiction, not reality. When push comes to shove, one man's faith is another's fantasy.

* * * * * * * * *
The world premiere of Tiny Alice took place on December 29, 1964 at the Billy Rose Theatre with a cast headed by John Gielgud and Irene Worth. Since then, audiences have been confused, baffled, perplexed, and occasionally entertained by Edward Albee's thriller about Catholicism, greed, faith, and con men.

I've had a strange history with some of Albee's most famous plays. I saw the original production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when I was much too young to understand what was happening onstage (the fact that I came from a family where no one drank certainly didn't help matters). It wasn't until many years later (after knowing some gay alcoholics) that I acquired a deeper understanding of how alcohol works with self-loathing to warp someone's personality.

Lawyer (Rod Gnapp) and Miss Alice (Carrie Paff) in the
Marin Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's
 Tiny Alice (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Two years later, when I saw the original production of Tiny Alice, I had no idea how ill equipped I was to follow any of the mysteries unfolding before me. Although eager to experience a great actor like Gielgud holding forth with a monstrous final monologue, the fact that I was raised in a family of Jewish atheists left me clueless about all of Albee's intricate digs at Catholicism (a deep appreciation of his script is enhanced by an intimate knowledge of the New Testament).

The Marin Theatre Company recently staged a forceful production of Tiny Alice that generated far more laughs than I remember from the first time I saw this play. I'm also older, wiser, and a lot more cynical about organized religion. However, some things struck me as particularly interesting.

When Tiny Alice first premiered, audiences knew very little about pedophilic priests and corrupt Cardinals. No one dared to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church operated like a Ponzi scheme and that the men at the top were active participants in bilking lesser Catholics out of their money. Yet Albee makes it surprisingly clear how greedy and immoral Church leaders can be as soon as money is involved.

I was also stunned to see how, as Brother Julian is desperately trying to find his true moment of faith, the Cardinal is the first character in the play to essentially "take the money and run," deserting the man it had initially recruited with a promise of spiritual fulfillment.

Brother Julian (Andrew Hurteau) with Miss Alice (Carrie Paff)
Photo by: Kevin Berne

As directed by Jasson Minadakis, MTC's production seems like a cat and mouse game in which everyone except Brother Julian (the sacrificial lamb) gets to pull the strings. There is an appropriately aggressive and slimy Lawyer (Rod Gnapp) eager to settle a score with his old classmate who has since become a corrupt Cardinal (Richard Farrell). The mysterious role of Butler was beautifully portrayed by Mark Anderson Phillips, who occasionally looked like a fish gasping for either clarification or air.

The costumes designed by Fumiko Bielefieldt for Miss Alice (Carrie Paff) help to frame her as a temptress who, when push comes to shove, is all about business. J. B. Wilson's set (especially his model of Tiny Alice's castle) delivered an appropriately eerie atmosphere for Albee's spider web as it tightened its grip on the soul of Brother Julian (Andrew Hurteau).

Some might think of Tiny Alice as a dark comedy (much like Friedrich Durrenmatt's play, The Visit) involving power plays and a subversive attack on organized religion.  Others may regard Albee's script as a test of faith the playwright delivers to audiences to see if they are willing to give more than mere lip service to the concept of what a real act of faith demands.

In this day and age it might be difficult to understand how controversial Albee's play was at its premiere back in 1964. But there can be no denying the beauty of his writing, the daring strokes with which he attacked the church's motivations, or the complex characters he created to challenge his audience.

I'm grateful to Minadakis for producing and staging Tiny Alice (which is rarely seen onstage), thus giving me a chance to understand how much of Albee's writing went right over my teenaged head when I first saw this play.  It's a fascinating script (Julian's final monologue has since been trimmed by Albee) with far more lust, humor, and greed than I recalled.

Live and learn.

* * * * * * * * *
Based on the fake memoir of Belle Poitrine (as told to Patrick Dennis, the author of Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade), Little Me opened on Broadway on November 17, 1962 with a book by Neil Simon, choreography by Bob Fosse, and music by Cy ColemanCarolyn Leigh's lyric for one of the heroine's songs, "Poor Little Hollywood Star," reads as follows:
"Once you were an ordinary average little girl from Illinois.
Once it was an ordinary average little life, and what a joy.
Sudden success caught you, I guess,
High on its glittering bough.
Blithe and merry ordinary average little girl,
Where are you now?
Carefully dressed, carefully coached,
Diamond-braceleted, emerald-broached,
Just to be loved from afar,
Poor little Hollywood star.
One of the rare, one of the great,
Everyone's idol, but nobody's mate,
Poor little fairy tale queen,
How do you fill the void
Under that celluloid sheen?
Smile for your fans, live for your art,
What if nobody gives that for your heart?
This is the very last stop,
Where can you go from the top?
So never relax, never give in,
Hold in those longings and stick out that chin.
Loved and adored as you are,
Your melancholy would
Seem just a trifle bizarre
In this jolly wood.
Poor little, shiny, secure little Hollywood star."
If there is one entertainer who, in recent years, has had her faith tested, that would be country music singer Chely Wright. A new documentary about Wright's path toward coming out as a lesbian in one of the most homophobic segments of the entertainment industry (Nashville) was recently screened at Frameline's 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.

Now nearing 40, Wright's hit songs (Shut Up and Drive and Single White Female) were only part of her success story. In 1995, she was named Top New Female Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music. In May of 2010 Wright came out of the closet in her autobiography, Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer.

Country Western singer Chely Wright

There are moments in Wish Me Away that are painful to watch, but not for the reasons one might expect. Wright has always been an extremely photogenic artist. Seeing her in several of her video diaries as a haggard, haunted woman with bags under her eyes from the sleepless nights caused by the stress of her approaching self-imposed deadline for coming out is a stark reminder of the pain gay people suffer as a result of the bigotry they encounter from those they have always trusted. As Wright recently explained:

"I like analogies; perhaps it's the songwriter in me. So if you'll indulge me, I'll offer this one. I liken the notion that we (the LGBT community) are a Godless people to a scenario on a grade school playground. Remember when you were in third grade, when it was time to choose teams for a game of kickball during recess and all of the favored, obvious players were chosen first? This left the same players to be chosen last -- or to never even get a chance to kick or take the field -- essentially giving a message to that kid: 'You're never going to get to play. You're not good enough. You don't belong.'
Remember that happening to the same kid over and over? Well, eventually that kid would stop hoping to be chosen for either team. And eventually that kid would probably develop an aversion, perhaps even a life-long, deep loathing for the game of kickball. It's a protective mechanism that humans employ to preserve the most tender parts of their psyche.
That's what it feels like for an LGBT kid in a place of worship. That kid is repeatedly given the message that he or she will never, ever, fit in and be acceptable to God or to the congregation. Why would anyone subject themselves to that kind of spiritual rejection and spiritual violence on a weekly basis? Why would that LGBT kid grow up to seek out the same type of negative messaging as an adult?"
Directed by Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf, Wish Me Away is a deeply moving film which may also break important new ground in today's celebrity gossip culture. As the recent media storm involving Anthony Weiner demonstrated, some celebrities can be their own worst enemies. Many an entertainment industry publicist has had his or her hands full just trying to keep their clients from tweeting away their careers.

What Wish Me Away demonstrates is how a celebrity who has made the decision to come out of the closet can seek out the advice of publicists and, by taking that advice to heart, control the process by which the public learns she is gay. Doing so may require much more advance planning and strategy, but it can save an artist the heartbreak of being forced to do damage control after being outed against her will. 

Chely Wright in concert

The extraordinary access given to this film's directors throughout Wright's entire coming-out process is extremely rare. However, the result is a model lesson in the risky process of rebranding an artist through a series of carefully planned media appearances that resemble nothing less than a new product roll-out.

Wright has stated on numerous occasions that she hopes her coming out will help the despondent teenager who, like she did, might put a gun in his or her mouth while contemplating suicide. Her autobiography -- and this film -- might also help define a new path for artists and celebrities who have chosen to lead an integrated rather than compartmentalized lifestyle with regard to their sexual orientation.

Since coming out, Wright has not exactly been embraced by the country music community. But with enough money in the bank, and the support of most of her family and relations, she can at least look forward to a new life in which she doesn't have to lie about herself anymore.

Wish Me Away leaves no doubt that Wright is a sensitive, intelligent, and emotionally vulnerable woman. I don't doubt that this documentary will inspire many young LGBT men and women as they struggle to reconcile their personal truths with the teachings of their religion. Here's the trailer:

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