Saturday, March 3, 2012

Heroes With Short Shelf Lives

Because we live in a society driven by celebrity worship and massive feelings of insecurity, the word "hero" gets used all the time. Military, medical, and law enforcement personnel are commonly lauded as heroes while teachers and first responders (who were once universally revered) are now demonized as the greediest of public servants.  Our culture is filled with:
For every hero who achieves immortality there are countless others whose 15 minutes of fame pass quickly, allowing them to fall back into obscurity. Despite the fierce determination with which Brunnehilde and her Valkyrie sisters carry dead heroes to their final resting place in Valhalla, perhaps Tina Turner came closest to the truth when she sang "We Don't Need Another Hero."

Just because a person imagines himself to be on some kind of heroic quest (Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich) does not mean that an intoxicating combination of megalomania, hubris, and fawning sycophants will transform them a true hero. The bottom line was best noted in a recent article by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone entitled Andrew Breitbart: Death of a Douche.

Two new productions examine brief moments in history when men who might have been heroic found themselves briefly in the spotlight. One drama is a tidy piece of fiction based on events that took place around the time of the French Revolution; the other documents a curious patch of post-Hurricane Katrina history here in the United States.

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As one watches S. Leo Chiang's new documentary entitled Mr. Cao Goes To Washington, the old adage that "no good deed goes unpunished" quickly comes to mind. In 2009 Anh "Joseph" Quang Cao became the first Vietnamese-American to serve in Congress.  As the representative for Louisiana's second congressional district, he replaced nine-term Congressman William J. Jefferson, who had been involved in a money laundering scandal, was under investigation by the FBI for bribery, and was considered by most to be a fatally flawed candidate.

Cao's brief time in Congress was marked by both an earnest belief in using the power of his office to help people and a political naivete that doomed any hopes for reelection. An extremely idealistic grass-roots political activist who had spent six years as a Jesuit seminarian, Cao had been in private practice as an attorney specializing in immigration law.

Joseph Cao campaigning for office.

The first Republican to serve Louisiana's second congressional district since 1891, Cao's campaign was an odd hybrid composed of wealthy white Republicans, Vietnamese-Americans, and working class African Americans. For Congressional Republicans, his election in a predominantly African-American district was a major triumph.

Cao was assigned spots on the Committee on Homeland Security, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He quickly developed a reputation as the most liberal Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, voting with the Obama administration nearly 65% of the time.

Joseph Cao 

In June 2010, Congressman Cao was one of only two Republicans who voted in favor of the DISCLOSE Act. In December of 2010 he was one of 15 Republicans who voted in favor of repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Although he was the only Republican who voted in favor of the draft for President Obama's Affordable Health Care for America Act, as a strict anti-abortionist he subsequently changed his mind and voted against the final version of the bill.

President Obama with Congressman Cao

When the 2010 election came around, Cao's career was doomed. He was being challenged by Cedric Richmond (a popular African-American State Representative running in a heavily African-American district), who had the political support of the White House. A bit perplexed at how President Obama could sign a photo of himself with Cao "To my friend..." and not support him for reelection, Cao learned a hard lesson about politics at about the same time that his father died from diabetic complications.

Congressman Cao at a hearing

As a filmmaker, S. Leo Chiang (whose 2009 film, A Village Called Versailles, was nominated for an Emmy Award) has chosen to take the "fly on the wall" approach to documenting the rise and fall of Congressman Cao. Because Cao comes across as a reasonable man of conscience and integrity with an endearing nervous laugh (and there is no identifiable villain in his story), Mr. Cao Goes To Washington might have benefited from a narrator whose voice might have provided some more dramatic glue to Cao's story. Here's the trailer:

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What good is kissing your sponsor's royal ass if your head falls victim to the guillotine during the subsequent Reign of Terror? Although that tiny piece of trivia is not mentioned during Mesmeric Revelation, it's the unhappy fate that befell the drama's most politically aggressive character.

Based on a story first published by Edgar Allan Poe in 1844, Aaron Henne's new play is receiving its world premiere from Central Works, which continues to impress me as the Bay area theatre company with the most consistently high levels of curiosity and intellectual heft. When I asked the show's exceptionally gifted sound designer, Gregory Scharpen, which opera he was using for the pre-show background music, he named Mozart's one-act Bastien und Bastienne (1786) before asking "Did you know it had its world premiere in Mesmer's garden in Vienna?" Hell, I didn't even know Mesmer had commissioned the work from the 12-year-old child prodigy.

Sound designer Gregory Scharpen

If there are two things that can get my juices going they are (a) an intense scientific debate, and (b) handsome male actors dressed in aristocratic costumes from the period of the French Revolution. Consider the two historical characters chosen by Henne for a royal academic showdown:
Joe Jordan as Franz Anton Mesmer (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

In truth, Mesmer was working on a form of hypnosis or spiritual healing and had plenty of patients (many whom he treated without charge). In Henne's play, he is called before Lavoisier to defend his theories before the Royal Academy of Science's representative who, in addition to being a cold and clinical theorist, is extremely well connected to the royal court.

Mesmeric Revelation is like a juicy forensic debate in which biology, chemistry, and the power of France's royal court lock horns with altered states, metaphysical mysteries, and early experiments in psychotherapy. Having been carefully directed by the playwright, much of this show is vastly entertaining. Seen at extremely close range, Tammy Berlin's period costumes seem like icing on this two-tiered (metaphysical and scientific) cake. And you know what Marie Antoinette is rumored to have said: "Let them eat cake!"

Antoine Lavoisier (Theo Black) and Franz Anton Mesmer
(Joe Jordan) in Mesmeric Revelations (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Joe Jordan and Theo Black give superb performances, with Gregory Scharpen doing some of his best sound work in recent years (Mesmeric Revelation occasionally resembles a psychiatric thriller). Performances continue at the Berkeley City Club through March 18 (click here to order tickets).

Joe Jordan as Franz Anton Mesmer in
Mesmeric Revelation (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

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