Sunday, April 15, 2012

You Can't Fix Stupid

The word "stupid" first entered the English language in 1541. Today, T-shirts proclaiming "I'm With Stupid" are proudly worn by thousands of people. According to Wikipedia:
"The modern English word 'stupid' has a broad range of application, from being slow of mind (indicating a lack of intelligence, care or reason), dullness of feeling or sensation (torpidity, senseless, insensitivity), or lacking interest or point (vexing, exasperating). It can either infer a congenital lack of capacity for reasoning, or a temporary state of daze or slow-mindedness. An idiot, dolt, or dullard is a mentally deficient person, or someone who acts in a self-defeating or significantly counterproductive way. A dunce is an idiot who is specifically incapable of learning. An idiot differs from a fool (who is unwise) and an ignoramus (who is uneducated/an ignorant), neither of which refers to someone with low intelligence.
Dr. Henry H. Goddard proposed a classification system for mental retardation based on the Binet-Simon concept of mental age. Individuals with the lowest mental age level (less than three years) were identified as idiots; imbeciles had a mental age of three to seven years, and morons had a mental age of seven to ten years. The term "idiot" was used to refer to people having an IQ below 30. IQ, or intelligence quotient, was originally determined by dividing a person's mental age, as determined by standardized tests, by their actual age. The concept of mental age has fallen into disfavor, though, and IQ is now determined on the basis of statistical distributions."
In his essay entitled The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, Carlo Maria Cippola stressed that "A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process." But in the three decades since the intentional dumbing down of America began, an astonishing transformation has taken place.

Cultural illiteracy and willful ignorance (as displayed by people like Sarah Palin and Congressman Allen West) have become points of pride rather than embarrassment. The Farrelly brothers (creators of Dumb and Dumber and their newly-released tribute to The Three Stooges) have made millions from their glorification of idiots on the silver screen. So, for that matter, has Adam Sandler.

In a recent "must-read" article entitled The "I'm Rubber, You're Glue" Gambit, Robert J. Elisberg criticized Senator Chuck Grassley for pandering to the lowest common denominator. Never one to leave a political turd unpolished and unthrown, Stephen Colbert picked up on Grassley's recent Tweets and hit them out of the ballpark in the following segment from The Colbert Report:

Words commonly used to describe people who are genuinely stupid include airheaded, birdbrained, boneheaded, brain dead, brainless, bubbleheaded, chuckleheaded, dense, dimwitted, doltish, dull, dumb, emptyheaded, half-witted, knuckleheaded, lamebrained, lunkheaded, mindless, oafish, pinheaded, simple, slow-witted, softheaded, thickheaded, vacuous, weakminded and witless. Nevertheless, in 1994, audiences were captivated by a movie whose protagonist had an IQ of only 75. Here's the trailer for Forrest Gump:

Two new productions revolve around people who are stupid in the oldest and truest sense of the word. In each case, the playwright has created characters who are warm, human, and who inhabit adult bodies. Unfortunately, their minds and personalities have never really progressed past childhood.

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One reason I was looking forward to seeing Of Mice and Men in a fully-staged production was that, prior to this year, my only experience with it had been a 1983 New York City Opera production of Carlisle Floyd's operatic treatment of John Steinbeck's novel. Lovingly directed by Robert Kelley (in a handsome production designed Tom Langguth), the folks at TheatreWorks have done a bang-up job of bringing this beloved California story to life.

Tom Langguth's set model for Of Mice and Men

The story focuses on a pair of migrant workers who have been friends since childhood. George (Jos Viramontes) is an average man who has grown used to working as a farmhand. Like many bindlestiffs, he's often dreamed of owning his own land -- a dream which is complicated by the constant misdeeds of his companion, Lennie (AJ Meijer). In an interview with The New York Times, Steinbeck confessed that:
"I was a bindlestiff (migrant worker) myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He's in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks."

George (Jos Viramontes) and Lenny (AJ Meijer) rest by the river
in Of Mice and Men (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

While George may joke that Lennie got kicked in the head by a horse when he was young, the sad truth is that Lennie has developed into a gentle giant who doesn't know his strength; a grown man with the mind of a child. Lennie likes soft furry things -- like bunnies, mice, and puppies --  but accidentally keeps killing them whenever they start to struggle in his strong hands. An unfortunate situation when they were working on a farm in Weed, California caused the two men to flee for their lives after Lennie became obsessed with the feel of a young woman's velvet skirt.

No matter how carefully George drills Lennie in what to do (and what not to say), Lennie's poor memory and unpredictable behavior keep getting him in trouble. After being provoked by Curley (Harold Pierce), the frustrated Lennie's determination not to speak gets him in even bigger trouble. Things only get worse when Curley's wife (Lena Hart) tries to strike up a conversation with him and invites Lennie to pet her soft, blonde hair.

Curley's wife (Lena Hart) tries to get friendly with Lenny (AJ Meijer)
in Of Mice and Men (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Under Kelley's direction, the TheatreWorks ensemble turned in a beautiful performance as men who knew enough to avoid the ranch owner's lonely wife. As George, Jos Veramontes was a patient and protective George; as the old farmhand Candy, Gary Martinez agreed have his mangy old dog put down. While Slim (Chad Deverman) attempted to keep peace in the bunkhouse. Michael Ray Wisely did double duty as Carlson and the Boss. Charles Branklyn was appropriately irascible as Crooks, the only black man on the premises.

Charles Branklyn and AJ Meijer in a scene from
Of Mice and Men (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Any production (legit or operatic) of Steinbeck's work rests, in large part, on the shoulders of the man portraying Lennie.  At 6'2" and 210 pounds, AJ Meijer delivered a performance of such childlike beauty and naive strength that the audience completely embraced his enthusiasm for petting a puppy, his innocent fantasy about tending to a collection of rabbits, and the fearsome volatility of his emotions. Because Meijer is tall, lean and able to be convincingly clumsy without appearing bloated or fat, his Lennie is an especially poignant performance to treasure -- a gifted portrait by a very gifted young artist.

It's interesting to note that Steinbeck wrote the stage adaptation of his novel, which he then turned over to the play's director, playwright George S. Kaufman, for editing. Of Mice and Men had its world premiere in San Francisco on May 21, 1937 before moving to New York that November. As I sat watching the TheatreWorks production, I was amazed at how easily the scene in which Curley's wife and Lennie are alone in the barn cried out for operatic treatment.

In the following clips from Opera Australia, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey discusses some of the challenges posed by the role of Lennie (and sings the duet "An' we'll live off the fat of the land" with baritone Barry Ryan):

Of Mice and Men continues at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through April 29 (click here to order tickets).

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Over at Fort MasonMagic Theatre is presenting the American premiere of Any Given Day, two short dramas by Scottish playwright Linda McLean which are linked together by one character. Billed as "a story about the moment when  everything changes," McLean's work benefits immensely from the contribution of Deborah Sussel as a dialect coach.

Like the Steinbeck piece, Any Given Day features an oversized, developmentally disabled adult. Although Sadie (Amy Kossow) knows that she's really fat, her childlike behavior often makes one wonder if she sleeps in a giant crib. Terrified by a young man who keeps throwing stones at her window, she doesn't like to answer the phone and lives in a richly detailed fantasy world.

Amy Kossow as Sadie (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

When Sadie's partner tries to explain how long he will be gone on an errand, he explains time to her as a function of how long it takes her to get from one place to another on the local city bus. When she gets fearful and starts to sulk, Bill (Christopher McHale) knows how to tease her depression away until Sadie is once more making jokes about herself and acting like a kitten distracted by a shiny object.

Although Sadie is as good-natured as an Irish setter, she worries about what will happen if Bill dies before she does and whether Bill's niece, Jackie, will still come to visit her after he's gone. The immediate issue at hand, however, is that there is no bread in their apartment and they need some in order to make toast for Jackie, who is due to arrive later that day.

Bill (Christopher McHale) and Sadie (Amy Kossow) enjoy
a cup of tea in Any Given Day (Photo by; Jennifer Reiley)

While, at first glance, it may seem as if Bill and Sadie are two clowns from the Theatre of the Absurd, it soon becomes obvious that they are two developmentally disabled adults who have been forced into an independent living situation in public housing.  Bill may be capable of functioning at a higher level than Sadie (his delight at keeping her in good spirits is almost palpable), but their horizons are severely limited by their diminished intellect.

When Bill leaves the apartment to get some bread from the grocery store, Sadie happily sits down and pretends she is riding the bus in order to gauge the passage of time. But a series of unexpected events suddenly turns her world upside down as a young thug (Patrick Alparone) gets through to her on the phone and enters the apartment with malicious intent.

After a shocking turn of events, director Jon Tracy choreographs one of the most interesting set changes I've seen in years.  As Sadie and Bill's apartment is slowly wheeled offstage, the audience listens to the pouring rain and watches as some new furniture is wheeled into position. Several stagehands enter, carrying tables and chairs into view as they set up the second scene. As light is added, a thin, middle-aged woman is seen, quietly sweeping bits and pieces from the stage floor into a dustpan.

It is a beautifully engineered dramatic transition. As the lights come up, the audience discovers that the woman  (Stacy Ross) is not a stagehand, but is actually Bill's niece, Jackie. It's a dark and stormy night on the other side of Glasgow, there are no customers left in the bar, and Dave (James Carpenter) is trying to convince Jackie to leave work early with him and allow herself to have some fun.

That's easier said than done. Jackie is a morose soul, a recovering alcoholic who is estranged from her adult son. Once, when she grew tired of listening to his pissing and moaning about what a bad day he had had, Jackie lashed out at him and told her son only to call her when he's had a good day.

She hasn't heard from him since.

Now, as Jackie nurses her wounds and describes her visits to Bill and Sadie, she is shocked when Bill informs her that her son called earlier during their shift and asked Dave to give his mother a simple message. "Just tell my Mum that today is a good day."

Dave (James Carpenter) and Jackie (Stacy Ross) in a
scene from Any Given Day (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Dave, of course, has no idea why that message should hit Jackie like a ton of bricks. But after some discussion, she finally gives in to his pleading to spend some time with him, leaves a phone message for Bill and Sadie saying that there's been a change of plans and she won't be coming to visit them that day, and agrees to go for a walk with her boss.

McLean's writing is spare and, in Act I, borders on the nonsensical. Although Act II contains a conversation about vaginas that Eve Ensler would envy, when the mood turns serious, Jackie needs few words to communicate her internal anguish.

The playwright includes very little in the script indicating stage directions, which has given Tracy and his ensemble a wonderful opportunity to deepen their characters and pace their delivery.  The contrast between Sadie and Bill's childlike playfulness and Jackie's brooding self doubt plays out beautifully in 80 minutes of deeply moving drama. A sure sign of the opening night performance's impact was that, following the curtain calls, much of the audience remained seated in stunned silence.

James Carpenter as Dave (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

There is much to admire about Magic Theatre's production, starting with the set design by Michael Locher. I was particularly taken with Amy Kossow's performance as Sadie and Stacy Ross's brooding Jackie. Although Christopher McHale and James Carpenter give touching performances, the spotlight is really on the two women. Performances of Any Given Day continue through March 22 (click here to order tickets).

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