Sunday, February 12, 2012

Macho Instincts Gone Wrong

Here's a frightening piece of trivia for aging baby boomers. While 2012 marks many anniversaries (including the centenary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912), it also marks 35 years since the formation of The Village People (who began recording Macho Man on Tuesday, November 29, 1977).

What seemed daringly high camp in the era of the Castro clone now looks sweet and endearing, as evidenced by this video clip of a group of male students who took first place in a recent South Lyon East High School talent show.

Alas, when all the fun evaporates many a macho man feels a need to reach for his gun. Tommy Jordan of Albemarle, North Carolina became the latest hero of American macho culture after he pumped a round of bullets into his 15-year-old daughter's laptop in the following video.

In Michael Moore's 2002 documentary entitled Bowling For Columbine and Aaron Loeb's probing 207 drama, First Person Shooter, Americans keep trying to make sense of the claim that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." But when one considers the deadly shootings on campuses from U.C. Berkeley to Virginia Tech, all of the propaganda from the National Rifle Association suddenly seems severe misguided.

In 1990, when John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim were about to unveil their new musical, Assassins, Playwrights Horizons the two men taped a video discussion in which they analyzed the play and its music. The unnamed narrator introducing the session states:
"Assassins suggests that while these individuals are, to say the least, peculiar. Taken as a group they are peculiarly American. Behind the variety of motives that they articulated for their murderous outbursts, they share a common impulse: a desperate desire to reconcile intolerable feelings of impotence with an inflamed and malignant sense of entitlement. Why do these dreadful events happen here, with such horrifying frequency and in such an appallingly similar fashion?  Assassins suggests it is because we live in a country whose most cherished national myths -- at least as currently propagated --  encourage us to believe that in America our dreams not only can come true, but should come true. And if they don't, someone or something is to blame."
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A short film being screened at the 14th San Francisco Independent Film Festival depicts yet another situation where a man's relationship problems are poorly handled poorly.  In Chris King's intense Proposal, it seems as if a Ron (Eric Wheeler) is trying to get up the courage to propose to his girlfriend. He's got the ring, he's got some doubts, and he's having one last nervous conversation with his counselor, Clint (Gary Mello).

Poster art for Proposal

Based on a true story (with a big surprise at the end), Ron seems like a very sweaty, nervous, and perhaps impotent man who is trying to get on with his life. While it seems as if he's trying to get up the guts to propose to Linda (Ruby Sketchley), the sight of a dead woman's body lying by a creek indicates something is very, very wrong.

The viewer eventually realizes that Ron is planning to hock a family heirloom (a wedding ring) in order to take out a contract on the woman who spurned his love. Proposal is beautifully acted by Eric Wheeler and will, no doubt, leave viewers shaken by its resolution. The question, of course, is whether they believed Ron was planning to get married -- or how long they found themselves still feeling any sympathy for him.

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As children, some -- but obviously not all of us -- were told by our parents that "the policemen is your friend." However, depending on how and where one was raised, one's personal experience with law enforcement could quickly change that perception.

People who watched videos of the 1991 Rodney King beatings  where horrified by what they saw. Twenty years later, the sight of Lieutenant John Pike systematically pepper spraying nonviolent student protesters at UC-Davis became a viral phenomenon on the Internet.

For the general public, constant viewing of shows like Law and Order, NYPD Blue, and America's Most Wanted may seduce people into thinking they really know what goes in a cop's mind. But once you get to socialize with a cop during his off-duty hours, you start to see things differently.

In the mid-1980s I made friends with a gay man from my gym who turned out to be a cop. This was a man who deliberately kept his three social circles (college buddies, police pals, and gay friends) separate. As our friendship grew, he owned up to the fact that when it comes to gossip, cops are like little old ladies. They can't wait to share the latest dirt.

I also saw parts of him that were cause for concern. Despite his protestations, he had a problem with alcohol, always needed to be right, and had no compunction about lying when he felt the ends justified the means.

One day, my friend held a party to which he invited people from all three groups of his friends. As the guests proceeded to have a few drinks, their inhibitions started to disappear. Among them was a gay couple from our gym (one of whom took the opportunity to go down on my friend while his lover was in another room). My friend's police captain had brought along his wife, a very obedient woman who had been forced to tolerate a lot of macho bluster.

I brought a surprise guest -- a friend who was a professional dominatrix. As she chatted with the captain's wife, the captain became more and more obnoxious, finally turning to Carole and saying "You're nothing but a whore."

My friend didn't bat an eyelash.  She looked him right in the eye and, in front of his co-workers, replied "You're not even worthy of licking my boots." Shortly after that, the captain grabbed his wife and left the party.

Such incidents may have affected my reaction to Keith Huff's beautifully written two-man play, A Steady Rain, which just received its West Coast premiere from the Marin Theatre Company. Meticulously directed by Meredith McDonough, the play shows how a catalytic event sends one cop barreling down a path of self destruction while his partner, in the laziest, coziest style of predation, moves in on his territory.

Joey and Denny have been close friends since childhood. Each has always looked out for the other. As police partners, they've covered for each other's human weaknesses --  even when doing so has caused them to be passed over for promotions.
  • Joey (Kevin Rolston) is a lonely single man who has had problems with alcoholism. An introvert by nature, he has occasionally fallen into the bottle and had to be pulled back to sobriety by Denny. Joey has recently started living in his partner's apartment as a means of helping him stay clean and sober. Unfortunately, his close proximity to Denny's family has caused Joey to fall in love with Denny's wife, Connie.
  • Denny (Khris Lewin) likes to play the role of the tough cop who is willing to accept favors from local prostitutes and drug dealers in exchange for his protection. He recently stepped over the line by showing a little too much interest in the private life of a hooker named Rhonda (who he's trying to help go back to school), As a result, one of Rhonda's boyfriends performed a drive-by shooting which sent a bullet into Denny's television set and injured his young child.
Kevin Rolston and Khris Lewin in A Steady Rain
Photo by: Ed Smith

As the play begins, the audience sees a raked stage with two chairs. Denny and Joey are trying to tell their stories about what happened on the unfortunate night of the shooting. As they speak, it becomes obvious that Denny has a talent for "going rogue" and ignoring police protocols. The shooting energized his feelings as a self-appointed avenger, dominant family man, and control freak for whom the normal rules of police work don't always apply. An extremely masculine narcissist, Denny constantly refers to his wife and child as objects (like his television set) that he owns.

Thanks to Huff's detailed storytelling, and his ability to dramatically paint a scene with words, A Steady Rain strongly resembles a piece of chamber music written for two string players. Like all cops, Joey and Denny are human beings whose private lives are far from perfect. Like many cops, their sense of entitlement and power are easily undermined when they find themselves in a situation they can't control.

The crisis which has landed them both in trouble occurred one night when they happened upon an hysterical Vietnamese man who spoke no English but clung to Denny's body in sheer terror. Because no one at the scene spoke Vietnamese, there was no way of knowing that the two cops (who turned the hysterical Vietnamese man over to his uncle) had unwittingly delivered him into the hands of a serial killer.

Huff's play is based on a similar incident on May 27, 1991, in which Milwaukee police unknowingly handed over 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone to Jeffrey Dahmer, who subsequently killed and dismembered Sinthasomphone but kept his victim's head as a souvenir.

Kevin Rolston and Khris Lewin in A Steady Rain
Photo by: Ed Smith

While it's easy to pigeonhole Huff's dramedy as a play about a good cop gone bad, or the two men who form a "good cop/bad cop" team, the playwright's intent was actually quite different. Taking his inspiration from the Theatre of the Absurd, Huff explains that:
"Samuel Beckett made the dubious proclamation that pure tragedy is no longer possible in our modern world, not in the same way it was a viable and cathartic dramatic form for the Greeks.  Just as pure tragedy is no longer a viable theatrical form for modern audiences, he argued, neither is pure comedy.  According to Beckett, the most authentic representation of the human condition a contemporary dramatist can achieve, according to Beckett, is a synthesis of tragedy and comedy, which he called the grotesque.  I thought that would be a fascinating artist challenge -- and a unique theatrical experience for the audience -- to chronicle a tragedy and a comedy simultaneously.
To do this, I drew a big X on a piece of paper: one line signifying the dramatic trajectory of Denny and the other of Joey.  Denny starts at the top of his game and hits bottom. His character arc is essentially tragic.  Joey starts at the bottom of his game and gets just about everything he wants (a comic character arc). Not only are a tragedy and a comedy chronicled simultaneously, they are also causally linked. Every move Denny makes down his trajectory is caused by an upward movement in Joey's trajectory (and vice versa).  In other words, one man's tragedy is another man's comedy."
Kevin Rolston and Khris Lewin give two tightly wound and extremely intense performances as the two testosterone-driven cops being investigated for mishandling the events that led to the young Asian boy's mysterious death. It is a testament to the two actors (as well as Meredith McDonough) that the play never loses its dramatic tension or narrative momentum.

Performances of A Steady Rain continue at Marin Theatre Company through February 26 (click here to order tickets).  If you like your cop dramas lean and mean, it's the perfect ticket. Here's the trailer.

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Earlier in this column, I mentioned the clips of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman discussing Assassins. Enjoy!

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