Thursday, November 22, 2007

Dependency, Denial and Disillusionment

At one time or another, many of us have found ourselves trapped in destructive relationships. Paralyzed by our lack of self-esteem, we've clung to the people and emotions which continue to harm us. Ironically, even those who enjoy the trappings of success with regard to their powerful careers, impressive financial holdings and stylish physical accoutrements can find themselves unable to preserve and protect their own dignity when confronted by an abusive partner. A person they'd like to think they love.

Why do these people keep subjecting themselves to psychological torture? Perhaps it's because the fear of the unknown is infinitely more terrifying to them than forsaking the familiar results of an emotional or physical bashing. Many choose to repeat learned patterns of self-destructive behavior or keep playing the psychological tapes that will reinforce their low self image.

These people swear that they do it in the name of love and can offer all sorts of elaborate rationalizations for their behavior. But, no matter how you look at it, this is not a scenario for success. Many of them keep beating up on themselves because, as co-dependents, they're afraid to take control of their lives and alter the conditions which oppress them. If they did that, they might get what they want (if they even knew what that was). And if they achieved such an awesome goal, they could be forced to take responsibility for their future.

For some people, that's not particularly welcome news.

The whole "Beat me, whip me, tell me what a worthless piece of shit I am" syndrome gets a bit tiresome after a while, which is why I've always found it emotionally painful to watch co-dependent relationships move from despair and disillusionment toward hatred, violence and, occasionally, even death. Two recent productions followed that path with a nearly pathological vengeance. Although I could admire much of the craftsmanship behind each performance, I found myself extremely uncomfortable being forced to spend time with the tortured souls onstage. Like the feeling one experiences at a dinner party that has turned sour, I wanted out. My only solace came from knowing that once the performance ended I would be released from its hateful environment and allowed to breathe fresh air.


For the past several years, Angelina Reaux has been performing her one-woman show, I'm A Stranger Here Myself to audiences who thrive on her intense, cabaret-style evening of Kurt Weill love songs. When I caught Reaux in performance at Opera Omaha's ALIVE! Festival, she was at a distinct disadvantage. The large and forbidding surround of the Joslyn Art Museum's Witherspoon Concert Auditorium posed strong barriers to the emotional strength of her performance. Having fallen and injured her leg soon after arriving in Omaha, Miss Reaux was also forced to perform with Ace bandages on one leg.

Whether or not her physical pain augmented the intensity of the emotional anguish that dominates her one-woman show is something I'll never know. All I can say is that, while others go into ecstatic convulsions over Kurt Weill's love songs, the bulk of them leave me stone cold. I can't fault Reaux for attempting to put together an evening of love songs which could have been as dramatically powerful as Poulenc's La Voix Humaine.

It just didn't work for me.


What did push my buttons, and sometimes to a frightening degree, was watching Richard Thomas come emotionally unglued as Terrence McNally's The Lisbon Traviata careened along its catastrophic course. McNally's two protagonists, Stephen and Mendy, are not well women. Indeed, the playwright has done a frightfully good job of capturing the acid wit, vicious repartee and feral insecurity of rabid opera queens who choose to define their emotions, thoughts and lives by the ghost of Maria Callas. The intensity of their devotion (and its concurrent powers of denial) could make the staunchest Judy Garland fan seem downright anesthetized.

McNally's play deals with everything one finds in opera: love, hate, denial, jealousy, revenge, murder -- you name it. What surprises me is how many critics have complained about the change of dramatic tone from Act I's hilariously savage opera banter to Act II's macabre dance of death. Like Edward Albee's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and Mart Crowley's Boys in the Band, the character changes which occur during the intermission of The Lisbon Traviata take on a much greater significance when one notices how much alcohol has been consumed during Act I.

While Boys In The Band and Lisbon Traviata have been labeled as classic studies of a repressed homosexual subculture, they are not. Instead, they are master theses about self-hatred, low self-esteem and the toll which alcohol takes on gay men. No matter how physically attractive a man may be, it takes an awful lot of energy to carry around the kind of emotional armor which Stephen and Mendy use to protect themselves from the harsher cruelties of the real world. "Opera is the one thing that has never rejected me," asserts Mendy. And he may well be correct in his assumption. But when his friend Stephen's neatly-wrapped package falls apart and shatters into tragically tiny pieces, it's not a pretty sight.

The Lisbon Traviata offers a sober warning for any gay man suffering from lack of self-esteem. If you think of yourself as poorly as Stephen does -- and can only look to your former virility and sexual prowess for validation -- you're in deep, deep trouble.

For an actor to be able to sink his teeth into as meaty a role as McNally's Stephen or Mendy must be an absolute albeit emotionally draining joy. Under John Tillinger's direction Richard Thomas (Stephen), Nathan Lane (Mendy) and Dan Butler (Mike) delivered yeoman performances. Sean Michael O'Bryan provided a handsome foil as Mike's studly new boyfriend, Paul. However, while this ensemble's performance packed a dramatic wallop, it would be the most sinister kind of heresy to suggest that a good time was had by all.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 1, 1990.

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