Sunday, June 19, 2011

Guns and Poses

The only times I've ever held a gun were at YMCA summer camps, where I learned how to shoot a rifle. I have never worshipped guns, wanted a gun, or fallen for the bullshit which tries to convince people that only "real Americans" carry guns.

Still, there can be no denying that a huge mythology has been built around firearms and their ability to solve nasty conflicts.  The problem, of course, is that when guns are placed in the hands of the wrong people dysfunctionality, death, and disillusionment almost inevitably wind up on a collision course.

Currently, two productions being performed for Bay area audiences place guns in the hands of their actors. While the weapons may shoot blanks, their playwrights do not.

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Over the years, John Fisher (the multi-talented artistic director of Theatre Rhinoceros) has staged some highly energetic productions of his plays. Some have been quite impressive; others fell victim to a tendency toward wretched excess. But when Fisher gets something right, his writing and stage direction are so tersely intertwined that one can't help but admire how much information he delivers to an audience in the process of keeping them roundly entertained.

William J. Brown III as General Hector "Fighting Mac" MacDonald
Photo by: Kent Taylor

Fisher's latest offering, Fighting Mac!, is currently enjoying its world premiere production over at Thick House on Potrero Hill. It is a highly relevant and often revelatory script performed by an extremely talented cast (some of whom are currently matriculated in UC Berkeley's Department of Theatre). As Fisher explains:
“Since Alexander the Great, gays have served with distinction. When I started writing this play over a year ago, it was about the great 19th-century queer general, Hector MacDonald. Over the last decade I have explored the subject of gays in the military in a series of plays including Combat! (1996, 1998), Amnesia (2003),and Special Forces (2007).
Now that we may serve openly, this play celebrates that advancement. Fighting Mac! finally portrays a military free of legally sanctioned prejudice -- a prejudice which has tarnished it for so long. I feel the recent destruction of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” necessitates a splitting of focus in this play to include the contemporary scene.
This play tells the story of Jesse, a young gay man who is inspired by the heroics of Hector MacDonald to enroll in West Point and pursue a career in the army. His choice takes him to Afghanistan to fight in the war on terror. I see this play as my continuing dialogue with the gays in the military debacle."
The dual plot lines of Fighting Mac! bear witness to the perverse ways in which gay men learn to lie about themselves through the influence of Mormonism and an oxymoronic belief in military intelligence. Among Fisher's main characters are:
  • General Hector "Mac" MacDonald (William J. Brown III), a Scottish military hero who served in the Second Afghan War and was eventually named Commander in Chief of the British troops in Ceylon. In 1903 he committed suicide in the wake of allegations that he had had sex with two teenage boys in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). His suicide provoked further scandal for the English when it was revealed that he had a wife and son that no one had ever known about.
  • Lord Kitchener (John Fisher), the British commander who had enjoyed an ongoing relationship with MacDonald and warned him that if he ever got in trouble, Mac's social class (rather than his homosexuality) would be his downfall.
  • Christina MacDonald (Ann Lawler), the 15-year-old girl that MacDonald married and got pregnant. They only saw each other four times over the next 19 years.
  • Jesse (Joshua Lomeli), a high school student in Marin County who has idolized Hector MacDonald for years and been inspired by him to join the Army as an openly gay man.
  • Daniel (Erik Johnson), Jesse's best friend in high school whose devout Mormonism, in later years, leaves him in complete denial about his sexual orientation.
  • Tom (Elijah Guo), Jesse's lover at West Point who stays at home after Jesse is shipped off to Afghanistan. Originally proud to self-identify as a gay man, Tom becomes increasingly closeted as he climbs the military ladder and is eventually transformed into a power-hungry military careerist.
Daniel (Erik Johnson) and Jesse (Joshua Lomeli) as teenagers 
who intend to remain best friends forever (Photo by: Kent Taylor)

Using a simple unit set designed and lit by Jon Wai-keung Lowe, Fisher does an impressive job of moving back and forth between civilian and military life (I especially liked the hidden marionettes that dropped down for a crucial scene). Nathan Lively's sound design is especially effective during the wartime scenes in Afghanistan.

While there are moments in Fighting Mac! when it may be difficult to follow Fisher's dramatic path (especially when two generations try to talk to each other over a gap of more than 100 years). However, when one considers the acuity of how he dissects gay Mormons in denial and military officers who feel the necessary to deny their sexual orientation, Fisher's new play takes on a strange likeness to Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America.

Jesse (Joshua Lomeli) and Tom (Eric Guo)
Photo by: Kent Taylor

Fisher has pulled together a remarkably strong cast for this world premiere production, with powerful performances coming from young Joshua Lomeli as Jesse, Erik Johnson as Daniel, and Eric Guo as Tom. William J. Brown III gives a very masculine performance in the title role with Fisher doubling as Lord Kitchener and a military instructor at West Point. Smaller roles are performed by Evan Bartz, Ann Lawler, and Alex Lee.

The good news is that Fighting Mac! has been extended through July 3 (you can order tickets here). I highly recommend it!

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It's so easy to imagine police using guns against criminals, thugs using guns against innocent victims, and armies using assault rifles against their enemies, that watching a deranged housewife try to shoot a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken is a stern reminder that, as Willy Loman's wife says, "Attention must be paid."

Written by John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim, Assassins had its world premiere in 1990 off-Broadway at a time when cable news was still in its infancy. The Roundabout Theatre Company's revival at Studio 54 (which starred Neil Patrick Harris, Mark Kudisch, Michael Cerveris, Mario Cantone) was originally scheduled to open on November 29, 2001 at the Music Box Theatre but had to be postponed due to the tragic events of 9/11. When the Roundabout production (directed by Joe Mantello) was finally staged in 2004, it was the first to project  footage from the famous Zapruder film of President John F. Kennedy's assassination onto Lee Harvey Oswald's T-shirt.

Poster art for Ray of Light Theatre's production of Assassins

To date, I have seen three Bay area productions of Assassins. The first was presented by the now-defunct American Musical Theatre of San Jose at the 2,600-seat Center for the Performing Arts.  The second was a student production mounted in the 701-seat McKenna Theatre at San Francisco State University. There is no doubt in my mind that the best of the lot is Ray of Light Theatre's current production at the 199-seat Eureka Theatre.

Set in a carnival's shooting gallery, Assassins invites the audience to get to know a strange group of figures from American history: nine misguided men and women who have attempted to assassinate the President of the United States. It's a motley group, ranging from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, Jr. and Lee Harvey Oswald, from total losers like Sarah Jane Moore and Lynnette "Squeaky" Fromme to nutjobs like Charles Guiteau and  Samuel Byck.

Charles Guiteau (Greg Sottolano), Sarah Jane Moore
(Lisa-Marie Newton),Leon Czolgosz (Joel Roster)
and Samuel Byck (Danny Cozart) are four of the
Presidential assassins depicted in Sondheim's musical.
Photo by: Jeff McClure

Despite their own misguided ideas, the opening number sets the stage by telling the audience that, in these United States, "Everybody's Got The Right." From then on, it's a fun-house spectacle inspired by the kind of deranged thinking that could make Sarah Palin seem like a Rhodes scholar.

Directed by Jason Hoover (with some wonderful choreography by Robert Bryce for Gregory Sottolano's big number, "The Ballad of Guiteau"), this production doesn't have a single weak moment. Whether watching Joel Roster's performance of "The Gun Song" or Danny Cozart's frantic portrayal of Samuel Byck (I love his homage to Leonard Bernstein), the musical and dramatic preparation was rock solid. Charles Woodson-Parker offered a tender rendition of John Hinckley, Jr.'s "Unworthy of Your Love" while Alex Rodriguez was deliciously intense as Giuseppe Zangara in "How I Saved Roosevelt."

Giuseppe Zingara (Alex Rodriguez) gets his moment of glory in an
electric chair in Assassins.  (Photo by:  Maggie Whitaker)

Kudos to Derrick Silva (John Wilkes Booth), Michael Scott Wells (The Balladeer), Lisa-Marie Newton (Sara Jane Moore), and Eliza Leoni (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme) for their solid work. Appearing in smaller roles were Anna Smith (Emma Goldman), Brendan Nolan (President Gerald Ford, and Deucalion Martin (Billy Moore).

One point which deserves mention: Ray of Light Theatre and 42nd Street Moon are collaborating on a Summer Youth Theatre Workshop in 2011. While both companies are currently using the Eureka Theatre, I was astonished to notice an approximately 25-year drop in the average age of the audience on the night I attended a performance of Assassins.  There's a marketing lesson to be learned here.

Ray of Light Theatre's cast of Assassins (Photo by: Maggie Whitaker)

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