Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Grim Reaper Waits For No One

When I first saw Stanley Kramer's 1959 movie, On The Beach, I was living on the East Coast and had no idea what San Francisco looked like. However, a few years ago, I decided to TiVo the film to see how well it stood the test of time.

In particular, I wanted to watch the scenes in which the submarine Sawfish surfaced in San Francisco Bay. As they look through the periscope, the crew can see the empty streets of San Francisco's financial district where there are no moving vehicles or signs of human life.

Why not? By that point, every creature in North America has succumbed to nuclear radiation. Once a thriving port city, San Francisco has become a ghost town whose hills lack their legendary hustle and bustle.

The tragic news coming from Japan has led many media outlets to speculate on worst case scenarios for the future of northern Japan. One scenario predicts that an area around Fukushima as large as several Northeastern states could become a totally uninhabitable "dead zone." Another hypothesizes what might happen if a radioactive cloud drifted north to Sapporo (population 1.9 million) or south and southwest toward:
  • Tokyo (population 13 million)
  • Yokohama (population 3.6 million)
  • Osaka (population 2.66 million)
  • Kyoto (population 1.46 million)
  • Fukuoka (population 1.46 million)
  • Hiroshima (population 1.17 million)
Further to the west lie Korea and China, with millions more. The following newsclip shows what downtown Melbourne looked like after being evacuated for a scene in On The Beach.

* * * * * * * * *
If the futility of it all starts to get you down, imagine what it's like to be an aging hooker in New York trying to compete with the brazen young tarts who have slowly been taking over your territory. In a perverse way, Paula Vogel's 1981 play, The Oldest Profession, makes it seem as if Death is amusing himself with a game of Musical Chairs (Old Prostitute Edition).

There has been no shortage of dramas written about sex workers trying to get out of "the life." In 1997, Cy Coleman's musical entitled The Life had a brief Broadway run. Thankfully, a recording was made by the original cast because this was one of Coleman's best scores. In the following clip (taken from the 1997 Tony Awards show) the cast sings "My Body."

The women in Vogel's play can't move as fast as the street hookers in Coleman's musical. Their tits have sagged, their looks have withered, and the leader of the group (who has acted as their madam for many years) is starting to show signs of Alzheimer's disease.

Although some of these women entered the life after graduating from high school in New Orleans, as they've neared and cleared their 60th birthdays, some of their long-time clients have died or moved to Florida. The remainder are either deaf, have overly possessive wives, or imagine that marrying their favorite hooker would save them money in the long run.

The cast of The Oldest Profession (Photo by: Eric Harvieux)

Set in the early 1980s, when Ed Koch was Mayor of New York and Reagonomics was taking its toll on the nation's economy, Vogel's women -- who all live in the same single resident occupancy (SRO) hotel) -- run their business from a park bench. They are:
  • Lillian (Tamar Cohn), the youngest, the sexiest and, to everyone's surprise, the first of the women to die.
  • Mae (Cecile Levinson), the oldest woman in the group. Mae might have forgotten how to get started with a client, but she still loves the feel of flesh on flesh. After her death, the women learn that she had little if any skill for managing their money.
  • Ursula (Patricia Silver), the most abrasive woman in the group. After Mae dies, Ursula positions herself as "management" and becomes everyone's worst nightmare of a micromanaging bitch. She foolishly invests the group's savings in a Ponzi scheme without asking anyone else's permission.
  • Edna (Linda Ayres-Frederick), the most successful whore in the group. Edna still knows how to deliver for her clients.
  • Vera (Lee Brady), the sweetest and simplest of the bunch. With loose dentures, and lots of nostalgia for the good times they used to share in New Orleans, Vera passes on an opportunity to marry one of her long-term clients. After all of her friends have died, Vera is left out in the cold, homeless. As winter sets in, she hungrily retrieves someone's half-eaten sandwich from the trash.
Edna (Linda Ayres-Frederick) and Vera (Lee Brady) contemplate
going on strike in The Oldest Profession (Photo by: Eric Harvieux)

In his director's statement,  Evren Odcikin writes:
"The Oldest Profession is the Paula Vogel play that has sat in the 'no-one-will-ever-produce-this-play-so-keep-on-dreaming' section of my library for a long time. You probably already know that the play is about prostitutes. In true Vogel fashion, it's about so much more. It's about family -- certainly not your typical, run-of-the-mill  family -- but a real family nevertheless. And it's a fun character study about what it means to be sexy at any age.  And of all things, it's also about Reagonomics and what the conservative economic models mean to the working class.  You know, those people that work, hard with faith in the American dream, live paycheck to paycheck, and maybe do not have the wherewithwal to make the smartest investment decisions.
Paula has a brilliant eye for authenticity; a simple, almost musical approach to language; and most importantly, a great respect for the craft and a huge theatrical imagination. She takes the most difficult topics -- abuse, terminal illness, and in our case, aging and sexuality -- and creates plays that are anything but difficult. Her ability to use humor and warmth without ever trivializing the topic at hand is still magical to me."
Patricia Silver as Ursula in The Oldest Profession (Photo by: Eric Harvieux)

Designed by Jacqui Martinez (with costumes by Michelle Mulholland), the Brava Center's production of The Oldest Profession has become a bit of a period piece. While prostitution has been around for centuries (and will continue for as long as there is life on earth), in the thirty years since Vogel's play was written electronics have completely changed the sex worker's landscape.

If one takes away the thrill of illicit sex, what remains is a play about older women who find themselves increasingly marginalized, dehumanized, and struggling against the law of diminishing returns. The strongest performances came from Tamar Cohn as Lillian and Patricia Silver as the hard-assed, domineering Ursula (often invoking memories of Bea Arthur's portrayal of Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls). Angela Dwyer provided musical accompaniment on piano.

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