Monday, March 23, 2020

In Search Of Authenticity and Accountability

Many people first became aware of "gaslighting" when they watched a 1944 film directed by George Cukor that starred Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten and a promising teenager named Angela Lansbury. A psychological thriller of the first order, Gaslight told the story of a husband who slyly kept manipulating his wife in an attempt to drive her crazy. A more laughable version of gaslighting can be seen in this scene from 1933's Duck Soup that features Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, and Margaret Dumont.

When people become so confused that it cannot determine who is telling the truth -- or what the truth actually is -- they find themselves in very dangerous territory. They could be dealing with a set of gay twins (as in Identical by Jason Collins) or being duped by their government in George Orwell's classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Unfortunately, as our world struggles to gain control of a growing pandemic, Americans have lost critical time and resources at the hands of a pathological malignant narcissist who has managed to intimidate legislators and undermine the media's credibility. In the midst of wading through conflicting reports about the global public health crisis, I heartily recommend reading the following three articles:
As big business demands government bailouts, most families and small businesses feel as if they are being left high and dry by a petrified, putrescent President who only cares about his ratings, his re-election, and his reputation. Where does that leave the rest of us? The answers can be found in two songs from 1965's The Roar of the Greasepaint-The Smell of the Crowd.

Prior to performances being cancelled in the Bay area, I attended two productions which were clearly focused on questions of transparency and authenticity. One took place within a strictly heterosexual milieu. The other followed the growth and development of a young tomboy who evolved into a butch black transman. Yet each story dealt with people wrestling with how to define themselves on their own terms. Surprisingly, the path to acceptance may have led to greater peace of mind for the person who had felt like a misfit for a long, long time.

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Earlier this month I had a chance to savor the kind of theatrical experience one dreams about -- a riveting encounter with a gifted artist who has a unique story to tell. TheatreFIRST was presenting two such monologues as part of its series entitled "History Keeps Me Awake: Queer Voices in Rep." Although I was unable to attend a performance of Elaine Magree's PussyGrabbingREVENGE, A One Man Show written and performed by Skyler Cooper (with dramaturgy by Lisa Evans) delivered a solid 70 minutes of deeply personal and theatrical magic.

Skyler Cooper in A One Man Show

An intense and mercurial performer, Skyler grew up as the daughter of a Baptist minister. Afraid to tell her parents that she didn't believe in God (or that she was attracted to girls), she desperately wished to become a man. The untimely death of Cooper's mother provided an unusual catalyst for the kind of introspection and inquisitiveness that propelled the budding artist down a unique path toward self-realization.
“My artistic endeavors have inspired an incredible course of self-awareness, self-love, and ongoing self-discovery. My life experience has sharpened my gift to relate to many different people as an actor, producer, director, and human. I’ve been gender neutral for most of my life and much of my work as an actor. The foundation of this show was built on four walls (faith, sexuality, gender, and race) that I determined had to be torn down in order for me to thrive. I’ve accepted both ‘He’ and ‘She’ pronouns in the world for a very long time. It is time for me to make all of me (mind, body, and spirit) congruent with my world.”
Artist-activist Skyler Cooper
“Being transgender is a reflective journey for me. I know that, as a black American transgender veteran, my quality of life is at stake. Any marginalized group (such as people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, or non-Christians) will share in these concerns. As I launch my website as a transgender person, I identify as ‘He’ and with masculine pronouns. It is not possible to separate my work in the past as an actor from my current work as a writer, director, and producer: I proudly build on it. I am ready to take the stage, the screen, and the world as the next gender-ation filmmaker. Our humanity is very important to me and I will fight for it as long as I live.”
Artist-activist Skyler Cooper

As Cooper proceeded to describe his evolution from a young girl to a proud member of the military and a dedicated bodybuilder, I was fascinated to watch how he was able to capture the wide-eyed enthusiasm of an adolescent in the throes of self-discovery as well as the growing comfort and confidence of understanding a powerful new identity as a "Black Butch" who was fully at home in his own body. A special shout-out goes to Domenique Lozano, whose sensitive and intelligent stage direction was a role model for what can be done to showcase a remarkable artist whose unique talents know no bounds. If and when a chance to see Cooper perform onstage or in film comes your way, grab it!

Artist-activist Skyler Cooper

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Over in Mill Valley, the Marin Theatre Company recently presented the world premiere of Love, a new drama by Kate Cortesi set in New York City between 2013 and 2018. Directed by Mike Donahue (with lighting by Scott Zielinski, costumes by Katherine Nowacki, and sound design by Madeleine Oldham), Cortesi's drama arrives at a curious moment in the #MeToo movement.

Clea Alsip (Penelope) stars in Love (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

With Harvey Weinstein having recently been sentenced to 23 years in prison and diagnosed with coronavirus following his brief spa retreat on Rikers Island (see "Covid-19 Claims Harvey Weinstein Consented To Infection"), one might think that the case was finally closed against an abusive sexual predator who still claims to have been woefully misunderstood. Cortesi, however, wanted to take a different approach to writing a play about the #MeToo movement. As she explains:
“My leads are generally big, messy, and bold female characters who take up space. The experiences I kept mulling over in the wake of the 2017 revelations did not involve the most obvious violations. I kept thinking about relationships (romantic and not) that lived in a grayer area of power, consent, inappropriateness, and attraction. Within one relationship I might feel powerful one minute and disposable the next. Inappropriateness could feel wonderful and then turn unsettling, and wrong. Moral confusion makes for great theatre, no?”
R. Ward Duffy (Otis) and Clea Alsip (Penelope) in a
moment from Love that could easily be taken out of context
 (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)
“This play [Love] began as a rant of mine to a friend at a bar. I was complaining about the lack of nuance in #MeToo stories onstage. I wanted to see a story about a man who abused his power but who we also love (because it’s not just ‘bad men’ we’re going through this with). My girlfriends and I marveled at how reflexively we played along with certain behavioral dynamics but we had to acknowledge what had appealed to us about it all, too. We did a lot of collective soul searching that went far beyond identifying monsters. It was confusing and unflattering at times, but very rich. Love is an expression of that soul searching. We have to go through these reckonings with good men, wonderful men.”
R. Ward Duffy (Otis) and Clea Alsip (Penelope) in
a scene from Love (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Cortesi's protagonist is a surgeon named Penelope (Clea Alsip) who, prior to entering medical school, opted to spend take a year away from academia by working at a job free from the intense stressors she expected to encounter during her professional training. The man who hired her, Otis (R. Ward Duffy), turned out to be an extremely likable boss whose laid back personality made him seem like a New-Age empath. The play begins as Ron (Robert Sicular), a reporter at The New York Times, is trying to persuade Penelope to join with several other women who worked for Otis and, though they slept with him and liked him a lot, now feel that he abused his power over them as an employer.

Clea Alsip (Penelope) and Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari (Jaime)
in a scene from Love (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Penelope's initial reaction is to say "Thanks, but no thanks." She considers Otis to be a good friend and, now that she is happily married to Jaime (Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari) and the mother of two children, does not feel compelled to revisit the time she spent as Otis's executive assistant and lover. Before leaving Ron's office, Penelope tells the reporter "Without me, you don't have a story."

Robert Sicular (Ken) and Clea Alsip (Penelope) in
a scene from Love (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

By the end of the evening I was convinced that, without such a severely compromised female protagonist, Cortesi wouldn't have a play. Here's why:
  • Cortesi's script bounces back and forth over five years using a narrative technique that aims to fragment and then slowly peel away the layers of doubt in Penelope's mind about the nature of her relationship with Otis. However, if Love were to be staged with its scenes in chronological order, I'm pretty sure the audience's sympathies would lie with Otis rather than Penelope.
  • Stephanie Osin Cohen's scenic design keeps the stage action in a rather claustrophobic framework dominated by a huge black screen (almost as tall as the playing area) upon which Teddy Hulsker's projections of dates and locations for each scene appear. It doesn't take long for this gimmick to wear thin and begin to test the audience's patience.
  • At no point does Cortesi portray Otis as a violent or coercive man. Nor does he display any signs of grooming or predatory behavior. The sexual relationships he shares with Penelope and women who subsequently become his executive assistant appear to have been totally consensual. If, as a businessman, Otis is guilty of making bad decisions, they seem to be centered on hiring women who -- particularly in the cases of Vanessa (Rebecca Schweitzer) and Whitney (Mari Vial-Golden) -- are cartoonishly immature and unfit for the job.
Clea Alsip (Penelope) and Mari Vial-Golden (Whitney)
in a scene from Love (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Part of Penelope's problem is that, when she confesses to her husband that she slept with Otis two nights before their wedding, she seems disappointed that Jaime doesn't fly into a rage or have any desire to punish her. He absorbs her revelation quietly, takes time to process what it means, and moves on. Since the couple now has two children (and Otis has married and grown devoted to his young son), Jaime seems more than willing to leave his wife's transgressions in the past. Nor does he show any anger when he encounters Otis in a bar (in fact, the two men easily start to bond).

Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari (Jaime) and R. Ward Duffy (Otis)
in a scene from Love (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

As the drama progresses, the audience learns that Penelope lied to get her job as Otis's executive assistant and, several years later, again slept with Otis when she decided to tell him that she had cooperated with the reporter from The New York Times. After shocking her friend by accusing Otis of sexual harassment, she demands that when the article is published, Otis explain to his young son that what he did to women is the reason his career has been destroyed. By the end of her confrontation, Penelope seems more furious that Otis's apology didn't contain the precise words and thoughts she had either hoped for or expected to hear. If anything, Cortesi paints Otis as a casual, well-intentioned lover while Penelope comes across as a naive prosecutor with a very weak case.

Though Cortesi's drama is clearly a work of fiction, it reminded me of the news story about comedian Aziz Ansari, whose date with a young woman did not go well after they returned to his apartment. When the story first broke, it seemed as if Ansari's date was writing the kind of Yelp review posted by a dissatisfied consumer. In a recent article entitled "Those Who Rightfully Celebrate Weinstein’s Conviction Should Not Ignore #MeToo’s Troubling Episodes," Cathy Young wrote:
"No doubt, achieving more accountability for high-status sexual predators and empowering women to speak out about abuse is a #MeToo gain. But those who rightfully celebrate Weinstein’s punishment should not ignore evidence that #MeToo has also brought forth more troubling episodes -- ones in which those accused of wrongdoing have had to contend with seemingly insurmountable presumptions of guilt and vague, subjective definitions of sexual misconduct. Although Weinstein is the emblematic #MeToo perpetrator (a man who coerced unwilling women through intimidation, manipulation, and sometimes force), other men have taken a fall over far more ambiguous allegations."
Rebecca Schweitzer (Vanessa), Clea Alsip (Penelope), and
Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari (Jaime) in a scene from Love
(Photo by: Alessandra Mello)
"Very quickly after #MeToo emerged, the movement’s focus expanded from abuse of power in the workplace to a wider terrain of male misbehavior. But what does 'misbehavior' mean? Human interaction, intimate or professional, is often a tangled web. People routinely revise their memories, especially when a romance or friendship sours -- and when the personal becomes political. In a cultural moment that urges the reexamination of male-female dynamics through the lens of patriarchal oppression, a messy relationship can easily be reframed as one-sidedly abusive, and a reciprocal flirtation with a colleague can be recast as reluctantly tolerated sexual harassment. Disturbingly, even some accused men who are exonerated can remain in #MeToo’s shadow."
It took me a while to organize my thoughts about the giant red herring that keeps swimming through Cortesi's script. The bottom line is that, while sexual objectification can be an easy road to intimate moments of pleasure, it can also lead to inconvenient truths about meaningless and/or embarrassing moments from one's past. Following the sexual revolution of the 1960s, recreational sex became much more commonplace. Whether in swingers' clubs, pickup bars, or on dating apps like Tinder, straight men approached promiscuity as a sport based on hunting, seducing, and scoring points for each sexual conquest.

Gay men who grew up in a subculture where they, too, were often treated as "numbers" (or disposable sexual objects) by other men, found plenty of opportunities for casual sex in parks, orgy rooms, glory hole clubs, bathhouses, nude beaches, and back alleys. With social media having made it just as easy to order in a sexual partner as it is to order a pizza delivery, "seeing" the person inside a casual lover wasn't necessarily a consideration if neither party was looking for a heavy commitment.

From feisty females frequenting the bar scene to voracious cougars like Sex and the City's seemingly insatiable Samantha Jones, many women became as adept as men at playing the game of "Find them, feel them, fuck them, and forget them." So by the time Cortesi got around to Love's big reveal, I had no sympathy left for Penelope's history of clumsy judgments, guilty confessions, and delayed accusations.

Why not? In a key scene when Penelope attempts to train her replacement at Otis's company in what her job duties entail, Whitney is so obsessed with the chat messages on her smartphone (to which she reacts with the immaturity of a teenager) that it's obvious this woman is not cut out for the job. While the scene has some comic moments (especially when Otis arrives in Penelope's office with Whitney's father), any executive assistant in a gatekeeper position for a CEO would have told her boss not to hire an incompetent bimbo just because she might be entertaining.

But isn't that how we got Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States?