Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Every Inch A Queen

It's hard to believe that, in this day and age, we're still dealing with religious imbeciles who think that being gay is a lifestyle choice. Even after a horrifying string of suicides by gay youth, cretins like the Mormon church's Boyd Packer and Tony Perkins (the media whore who serves as President of the Family Research Council) are promoting the same homophobic bilge they have clung to for decades. In his latest bit of hate-filled propaganda (an op-ed piece published in The Washington Post in response to National Coming Out Day) Perkins mistakenly claims that:
"There is an abundance of evidence that homosexuals experience higher rates of mental health problems in general, including depression. ..Some homosexuals may recognize intuitively that their same-sex attractions are abnormal -- yet they have been told by the homosexual movement, and their allies in the media and the educational establishment, that they are 'born gay' and can never change. This -- and not society's disapproval -- may create a sense of despair that can lead to suicide."
Like many pathological liars, Perkins takes no responsibility for the weight of his words. He also likes to cherry pick his information. How I wish his healthcare insurance could underwrite a brain transplant to make him more intelligent than a sea slug (my apologies to sea slugs everywhere)!

Thankfully, there are smarter minds around who have actually done scientific research in the field of sexual orientation. One of the best and the brightest recently appeared at the  Jewish Community Center of San Francisco while on tour promoting his latest book: Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation.

Unlike the quacks that people like Tony Perkins turn to for documentation, Simon LeVay knows what he's talking about (as well he should). LeVay notes:
"I helped create this field in 1991 with my own much-publicized study in Science, where I reported on a difference in brain structure between gay and straight men. Since then, an entire scientific discipline has sprung up around the quest for a biological explanation of sexual orientation. In this book, I provide a clear explanation of where the science stands today, taking the reader on a whirlwind tour of laboratories that specialize in genetics, endocrinology, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, and family demographics. I describe, for instance, how researchers have manipulated the sex hormone levels of animals during development, causing them to mate preferentially with animals of their own gender. I also report on the prevalence of homosexual behavior among wild animals, ranging from Graylag geese to the Bonobo chimpanzee.
Although many details remain unresolved, the general conclusion is quite clear: A person's sexual orientation arises in large part from biological processes that are already underway before birth. A wealth of scientific evidence points to one conclusion: Sexual orientation results primarily from an interaction between genes, sex hormones, and the cells of the developing body and brain."
Among Dr. LeVay's books (and textbooks) are such titles as:
Author Simon LeVay
In addition to his clinical works, LeVay has also written a controversial novel about genetics and homosexuality. In her review of his novel in The New York Times Book Review, Martha E. Stone wrote:
"Simon LeVay, a neurobiologist best known for his theory that a region of the hypothalamus in gay men is smaller than in heterosexual men, has fictionalized his research for Albrick's Gold, a medical thriller with graphic descriptions and frequent visits to the county morgue. The novel's hero, an openly gay scientific researcher named Roger Cavendish, has been invited to speak at Levitican University in southern California, a wealthy fundamentalist institution noted for the unusually successful yet violence-prone graduates of its R.O.T.C. program and its diabolical experiments to 'cure' homosexuality in young male students, carried out by the neurologist Guy Albrick and his henchmen."
It's hard to understand what a breath of fresh air it was to experience Simon LeVay in person as he discussed the findings in his new book, effectively destroying the claims by conservatives that homosexuality is a matter of choice and not science. In the wake of the religious right's institutionalized ignorance, intransigence, and illiteracy, it's intoxicating to hear an intelligent gay scientist who knows what he's talking about discuss the real reasons why some people are gay and others are straight.

As the old saying goes, knowledge is power.

* * * * * * *
If one wanted to debate whether or not a queen is to the manner born, one need have looked no further than the intersection of Ashby and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenues on opening night of Mary Stuart. Using a new adaptation of the classic Friedrich Schiller play that was written and directed by Mark Jackson, two groups of actors from the Shotgun Players were walking the pavement on opposite sides of the intersection while brandishing picket signs that stated such things as "God Save Our Queen" and "Free Mary."

Beth Wilmurt as Queen Elizabeth (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Of course, it was the "No Death Penalty" sign that elicited the most frequent honks from passing drivers in Berkeley (who know a good protest when they see one). This protest, however, was a lot more fun than the usual. The actors had been given free license to taunt each other and, as a result, passersby were assaulted with chants of "Mary Speaks French!" and "Liz is the Shiz!"

Ten Plays, is the first publication by the newly-formed Exit Press. A prolific playwright whose adaptations of Macbeth and Faust, Part 1 have thrilled Shotgun's audiences in recent seasons, Jackson's new book includes the scripts for American $uicide, BANG!, Brave, The Death of Meyerhold, Faust Part  1, The Forest War, I Am Hamlet, little extremes, Messenger #1, and R&J (with notes by the author and a foreword written by Bay area drama critic, Rob Avila).

Schiller's play, Mary Stuart (which premiered in Weimar, Germany on June 14,1800) was the latest adaptation by Mr. Jackson, whose theatrical insight and dramatic skills eclipse many others who attempt to update the classics in an attempt to make them relevant to a modern audience. In his director's note, Jackson writes:
"I've never seen an English-language production of Mary Stuart, although Schiller's play has been done in English innumerable times.  The first German production that I saw was performed, oddly, in a kind of pseudo-Mexican street theatre style, with touches of commedia and Balinese theatre thrown in, and a single male actor portraying both queens.  It was a peculiar introduction to Schiller's play.
Nevertheless, I still remember the image of one actor playing both queens which effectively, if perhaps too obviously, highlighted their innate connection. To express their difference, the actor carried a small leather purse, on one side of which a burning heart was embroidered in rubies (Mary) and on the other side a crown in gold (Elizabeth).  The conflict between the heart and head did not only exist between two people, but within the individual. It was this conflict that struck my initial interest in Schiller's play.
Foreground: Queen Elizabeth (Beth Wilmurt),
Background: Mary. Queen of Scots (Stephanie Gularte)
Photo by: Jessica Palopoli
When I finally read the play in English, though Schiller's exquisitely structured plot got my heart racing, the fidelity with which the various English and Scottish translations whose versions I read maintained the original's Romantic-era excesses seemed to slow down what impressed me as a remarkably contemporary dramatic situation, a fast-moving, juicy political thriller that could easily take place right now in the UK, Germany, or America. So I decided to take a crack at adapting the play myself. Though I ended up cutting quite a lot, I found that indeed nothing needed to be added to make the play relevant to today. It already was.
Like Shakespeare, Schiller was not at all concerned with either historical idealism or accuracy, but rather used his source material as the spark to fan a blazing drama. In this regard, the German playwright's dramatic take on the historical British Queen Elizabeth is a particularly refreshing example.  Gone is the BBC reverence for the great icon. In Schiller's hand she is a deeply complicated human being.
I love the messy psychology Schiller granted all his characters, how they contradict themselves and do battle with their moral conundrums. I'm also fascinated by the collision of times, places, and cultures to be found in a contemporary American production of a 200-year-old German play based on 400-year-old British history.  Schiller captured something internationally and eternally human when, through Mary Stuart, he posed an important question that it seems every generation of every culture must answer: What do we do when our system of justice, our sense of morality, and our own personal desires don't meet eye to eye?"
Mary, Queen of Scots (Stephanie Gularte) with Mortimer (Ryan Trasker)
Photo by: Jessica Palopoli

Using a puzzle-like unit set designed by Nina Ball that made use of live video and surveillance cameras, Jackson kept Mary, Queen of Scots (Stephanie Gularte) center stage through much of the evening. The fictional showdown between Mary and Queen Elizabeth (Beth Wilmurt) was certainly fiercer than what one sees in the 1835 Donizetti opera, Maria Stuarda.

Jackson took full advantage of Wilmurt's height by having her get right up in the faces of the men in her court who would challenge her authority. Wilmurt also did an excellent job of depicting a Queen forced to choose between the lesser of two evil decisions. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which her Elizabeth signed the order for Mary's execution and then tried to pass the responsibility on to the young and innocent Davison (Dara Yazdani).

With Peter Ruocco as the scheming, self-serving Burleigh, Scott Coopwood as the conflicted Leicester, and  Ryan Trasker as the double-dealing Mortimer, there was plenty of treachery afoot for each Queen to deal with. John  Mercer's Shrewsbury and Jesse Caldwell's Paulet seemed to be the only adults with an ounce of integrity.

Stephanie Gularte as the doomed Mary, Queen of Scots
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
With a running length of approximately two hours, Jackson's new two-act adaptation of Mary Stuart crackles with tension, political intrigue, guilt, rage, and deceit. Performances continue at the Ashby Stage through November 7. You can order tickets here.

No comments: