Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Cultural Revisionism: To See Or Not To See?

In recent years there can be little doubt that publicists have triumphed over fact checkers in American media. By repeating a lie multiple times with a sense of great authority, untruths can be made to solidify into perceived truths. Distortions morph into accepted proportions as the hard line of truth slowly but surely disappears into media quicksand. Whether political or corporate in origin, propaganda is often mistaken for conventional wisdom. According to Wikipedia, the basic techniques of spin include:
  • Selectively presenting facts and quotes that support one's position (cherry picking).
  • Non-denial denial.
  • Phrasing in a way that assumes unproven truths.
  • Euphemisms to disguise or promote one's agenda.
  • Burying bad news (announcing one popular thing at the same time as several unpopular things, hoping that the media will focus on the popular one).
One's advancing years can often play tricks on one's memory, as evidenced in this charming musical number (performed by Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold) from Vincent Minnelli's 1958 film, Gigi:

While messing with the facts is a necessary skill for publicists and spin doctors, historians and writers can never stop asking "What if?"
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One of the most frequent interview questions (and party games) involves asking someone to disclose what famous person, dead or alive, they wish they could have dinner with. Answers may range from Cleopatra to Beethoven or Atahualpa, from Marco Polo to Lizzie Borden or Bobby Kennedy.

Recently seen at the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival, Kristin Stone's audience-participation show, Inside Private Lives, offered a fascinating twist on cultural revisionism. At first, when the audience was informed that they would have a chance to interact with celebrities from the past century, I started thinking about who might be chosen from the 1800s. Thus, it came as a bit of a shock to realize that the past century was not so very long ago.

Stone and her actors usually offer the audience the opportunity to interact withfour historic figures during each show, ranging from charismatics like David Koresh and Aimee Semple McPherson to icons of pop culture like Bettie Paige and Timothy Leary. One caveat with regard to an actor's choice of character is to remember that you can't libel the dead. As Stone explains:
"The actors spend several weeks researching prior to writing their piece. However, the research doesn’t end on opening night. It’s ongoing. The material is initially written by the actors following an outline I create, but the end result is a collaborative effort. The actors find a lot of the resources, but the director and I also contribute materials. It’s important that the actor participate in the research and writing as it will be the foundation for their piece and provide them with all kinds of additional rich information for the improvisational portion."
Kristin Stone as Christine Jorgensen

During their time onstage, each character must want something from the audience. Often reluctant to give the characters exactly what they are asking for, members of the audience are encouraged to yell out questions to the performers (who may choose to remain onstage or mingle with the audience). At the performance I attended, the four dead celebrities momentarily brought back to life were:
  • Christine Jorgensen (portrayed by Kristin Stone), the first person to become a celebrity on the basis of having undergone male-to-female gender reassignment surgery. Jorgensen wanted members of the audience to use their connections to Hugh Hefner to help her become a cover girl for Playboy magazine. Working her way around the room while exuding a 1950s style of femininity, there wasn't a bald head she wouldn't kiss to get what she wanted.
  • Leona Helmsley (portrayed by Silvie Zamora), the billionaire hotelier and real estate magnate who became known as "The Queen of Mean." Helmsley wanted her employees to perform the community service work assigned to her by her parole officer. Full of piss, vinegar, and bile, Helmsley honestly could not fathom why her employees seemed so resistant to her "very reasonable" demands.
  • Glenn Gould (portrayed by Rick Steadman), one of the 20th century's most celebrated classical pianists was also known for his eccentric behavior. Gould couldn't understand why the Board of Directors of Lincoln Center would refuse his offer to donate a new opera designed to be performed by a cast of animals.
  • Brownie Wise (portrayed by Eileen O'Connell), the record-breaking saleswoman who developed Tupperware's multilevel marketing concept of selling product at home parties. Brownie wanted women to stay at home and resist the urge to seek a bigger piece of the cake by pursuing executive positions at Tupperware. She deplored feminism and thought it was okay for lesbians to sell Tupperware to each other, but preferred that men remain the true breadwinners in American households (with the exception of herself, of course).
Eileen O'Connell as Tupperware's Brownie Wise
Photo by: David Beall

Inside Private Lives is lots of fun. If my schedule allowed, I would be tempted to go back for another show with a different cast of characters. I'd be especially curious about the group's portrayals of bank robber John Dillinger, Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, Wallis Simpson (the woman who caused the King of England to abdicate his thrown for "the woman I love") and Ann Landers.

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Not all attempts to rob dead celebrities of their identity succeed. One need look no further than the Boxcar Theatre's struggle to rewrite Shakespeare's classic Romeo & Juliet by transforming it into Romeo & Julien to understand why. Co-artistic director Nick A. Olivero (who attempted to condense Shakespeare's tragedy into a one-act, 75-minute play) was guided by the initial concept that:
"Shakespeare's ill-fated tale of two star-crossed lovers takes a new spin with a transgendered young man as the female ingenue. With the bitter passing of Proposition 8, this adaptation couldn't be more timely and expressive, portraying an enduring love story maligned by Fate. You may think you know this classic tragic story about forbidden love, but you've never seen it like this before."
As directed by Peter Matthews and Wolfgang Wachalovsky, the production suffered from some unexpected setbacks. On fairly short notice, Matthews stepped in to replace the original Romeo (Detroit Dunwood), which may have altered the cast's dynamic. With Diana Grogg using little more than a hoodie to signify whether she was acting as Friar Tuck or Juliet's nurse -- and a very weak performance coming from Michael Moerman as Lord Capulet -- chinks in the basic concept led one to open sores.

Even when severely trimmed down, Shakespeare's text must be audible and spoken with diction, passion, and clarity in order to have an impact on the audience. Due to the poor acoustics of the Boxcar Theatre's performance space, this proved to be an ongoing problem. The strongest dramatic contributions came from Justin Liszanckie's lean and lusty Mercutio and Adam Simpson's brooding, tightly-wound Tybalt.

Adam Simpson as Tybalt (Photo by: Peter Liu)

Jean Franco worked hard as a transgendered Julien, but could gain little dramatic traction in scenes played opposite Capulet, Friar Tuck or the Nurse. Even in the scenes opposite Peter Matthews' Romeo, one sensed that the actors were struggling to stay on top of the sheer volume of text. These were two lovers whose chemistry may have existed on paper, but did not show up in performance.

Capulet (Michael Moerman) and Julien (Jean Franco
Photo by Peter Liu

Shakespeare may have claimed that "All's well that ends well," but in some cases it's best to leave well enough alone.

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