Sunday, January 15, 2012

Visits From The Ghosts of Politicians Past

Recently, as I watched The Social Network, I was struck by the scene in which (referring to the infamous Winklevoss twins) Mark Zuckerberg tersely insists that "I don't hate anybody. 'The "Winklevii' aren't suing me for intellectual property theft. They're suing me because, for the first time in their lives, things didn't go exactly the way they were supposed to for them."

Listening to some of the nonsensical blather emanating from the Republican primaries has made one thing clear. Not only are these candidates intoxicated with a grandiose sense of white privilege, most of them are batshit crazy. Whether claiming that God whispered in their ear and told them to run for election or basing their campaigns on policies that are either antiquated or delusional, reality doesn't seem to be their strong suit.

As politics has become more brutal in the era of cable television and Internet memes, it has also been rebranded as a form of infotainment. Many have insisted that 2011's endless Republican debates turned the quest for the party's Presidential nomination into a reality show (much like Andrew Lloyd Webber used a BBC reality show named How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? to find his leading lady for a 2006 West End revival of the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music).

What should be a fairly straightforward path to the election has abandoned linear thinking and embraced creative chaos instead. Ironically, two new dramas involving major political figures try to take a theatrical approach to their subjects instead of the nonfiction, linear path many critics claim to prefer.

Wikipedia defines magical realism as:
" aesthetic style or genre of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world. The story explains these magical elements as real occurrences, presented in a straightforward manner that places the 'real' and the 'fantastic' in the same stream of thought. It is a film, literary and visual art genre."
Ghosts, dreams, and supernatural events can be found throughout the landscape of theatre, opera, dance, literature, and film. Numerous examples quickly come to mind:
  • In Act II of Giselle, the Wilis summon the ghost of the dead peasant girl from her grave and instruct it to make Duke Albrecht of Silesia dance until he dies from exhaustion.
  • In Mozart's opera, the statue of the slain Commendatore comes to life and warns Don Giovanni that he will die before dawn.
  • In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye concocts a dream in which his wife's Grandma Tzeitel returns from the grave to give her blessing to a wedding between his oldest daughter, Tzeitel, and the tailor Motel. The ghost of Lazar Wolf's first wife, Fruma Sarah, also makes a prophetic appearance.

The playwrights of ancient Greece often invoked the Gods to push a plot along, frequently relying on a deus ex machina to help bring a play to its conclusion. Shakespeare used ghosts, fairies, sprites, and ominous visions to great effect, most especially in Macbeth (1611). The following painting by Théodore Chassériau depicts the moment when the bloodied ghost of the murdered Banquo appears at a banquet being hosted by Macbeth.

In the following clip from a 1972 production of Verdi's opera, Macbeth (1847) at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, the newly-crowned king of Scotland (Kostas Paskalis) watches in horror as the three witches conjure up a vision of eight descendants of Banquo, all of whom become future kings of Scotland. Later in the clip, Lady Macbeth (Josephine Barstow) arrives to keep her husband focused on their goals.

Strong Shakespearean influences haunt two new dramas. In each case, the ghosts of familiar political figure from the late 20th century dominate tales of chaos, confusion, and the kind of acute personal vulnerability in which thoughts come in waves and rushes rather than a measured pace. And ghosts appear in modern dress.

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On November 27, 1978, 14-year-old Jonathan Moscone stayed home from school because he was feeling ill. As he watched television, a popular sitcom was interrupted with the news that his father (San Francisco's Mayor George Moscone) and Supervisor Harvey Milk had just been assassinated in their offices in City Hall. While many San Franciscans cried bitter tears and grieved deeply for the loss of these beloved men, the young Moscone's reaction resembled that of Morales, the aspiring drama student in A Chorus Line.

Fast forward 30 years. Jonathan Moscone has become a respected stage director as well as artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater. Bursting with creativity, nervous energy, and conflicting emotions, he is also an apolitical middle-aged gay man having lousy luck with Internet dating. In the following clip, Moscone makes a rare political appearance at the service commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Moscone/Milk assassinations.

Although he rarely mentioned his father in conversations with friends, Moscone decided to drop by a 2008 location shoot for Milk, the biopic about Harvey Milk that was being directed by Gus Van Sant. As he watched his father's legacy get trivialized in the process of filming, a moment of personal insight provided the spark that led to the creation of Ghost Light.

What began as a conversation between Moscone and his long-time friend, Tony Taccone (the artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre), had its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last summer. This month, the Berkeley Rep presented the regional premiere of Ghost Light, a fascinatingly messy and mesmerizing dramedy that becomes curiously courageous and cathartic as its protagonist bounces back and forth between moments of insight and intransigence.

The Shakespearean hook that provides the key to understanding Moscone's inner conflicts is a simple one. Not only has Jon (Christopher Liam Moore) run up against a roadblock while preparing to direct a production of Hamlet, his friend Louise (Robynn Rodriguez) insists that the creative block he is experiencing with regard to the scene in which Hamlet meets the ghost of his slain father is somehow linked to an emotional issue he has long refused to tackle.

Tyler James Myers as the 14-year-old Jonathan Moscone
in Ghost Light (Photo by: Jenny Graham)

Ghost Light careens between past and present as the young Moscone (Tyler James Myers) tries to cope with his father's funeral and the presence of a mysterious spiritual guide (Peter Macon), who insists that once Jon can "hear the music" he will be able to see his father once again. Meanwhile, the adult Jon is routinely tormented by nightmares in which a sadistic prison guard (Bill Geisslinger) representing his grandfather keeps threatening to kill him.

The prison guard has also managed to enter the dreams of Loverboy (Danforth Comins), who has been sharing Jon's bed. Once Loverboy is no longer part of his life, Jon tries his luck with Internet dating but is horrified to discover that one of his online "friends" -- a financial analyst named Basil (Ted Deasy) -- has not only shared the content of their Internet chats with friends, but has gone to visit the grave of Jon's murdered father.

Basil (Ted Deasy) and Jon (Christopher Liam Moore)
meet up in a bar in Ghost Light (Photo by: Jenny Graham)

All of this takes place against a background of the 2008 election (in which Prop 8 passed in California), the making of van Sant's Oscar-winning film about Harvey Milk, and a terrifying moment during which Jon suffers a major panic attack. Meanwhile, the ghost of Hamlet's father keeps waiting for some notes from his director.

As playwright Tony Taccone explains:
"The past is never dead. The past is more alive than we can possibly bear. It only reveals itself in times of great happiness or great pain, and it's too obvious to ignore. This guy picks a scab off of a wound that he's not on top of and it releases something buried inside him. What happens in his unconscious will no longer be contained by his conscious life and it reveals itself in a panic attack -- this major panic attack. He can't control what's about to happen. His his dream life ruptures and he has to deal with that because it's a physically threatening event."
For those who lived through the tragic events of 1978 and the subsequent martyring of Harvey Milk (Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in the opening night audience), Ghost Light offers a peek into how one of George Moscone's sons evolved. The scenes in which the ghost of Mayor Moscone (also played by Bill Geisslinger) makes contact with his young son are poignantly staged with a loving swagger and rare simplicity.

The adult Jonathan Moscone (Christopher Liam Moore) kneels before
his father's grave as the ghost of his murdered father visits young
Jonathan (Tyler James Myers) in Ghost Light (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What makes Ghost Light so appealing is how two seasoned theatre professionals have been able to take an extremely challenging and deeply personal story and bring it to the stage using the full arsenal of their storytelling tools. In lesser hands, the multiple flashbacks and elements of magical realism could easily become pretentious and cynical. However, with such skilled theatrical craftsmen as Moscone and Taccone guiding the story, inventive bits of stagecraft and deftly written flashes of irony (as well as some priceless digs at American Conservatory Theatre) offer a powerful contrast to moments of brutal psychodrama.

As the adult Jon, Christopher Liam Moore gives a magnificently frenetic and layered performance that captures the stage director's intelligence, nervousness, vulnerability, and pattern of willful avoidance. As Louise, Robynn Rodriguez is Moscone's fiercest ally, a female friend with an unerring bullshit detector.

Todd Rosenthal's unit set allows the action to move quickly between spaces of intimate personal interactions (the Moscone family home, Jon's apartment, a gay bar) and the hulking edifice of San Francisco's City Hall. Peter Frechette has some nice moments as the film director, while Danforth Comins, Ted Deasy, Tyler James Myers, and Peter Macon all lend strong support.

As always, Moscone has directed with an unerring sense of drama (even as he restages events and memories from his own life). As the Mayor's wordless widow, Sarita Ocon brings a quiet dignity to Gina Moscone. Here's the trailer:

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It's been fascinating to see how critics have reacted to The Iron Lady, a new film inspired by Margaret Thatcher that has been directed by Phyllida LloydMeryl Streep stars as the former British Prime Minister in a script written by Abi Morgan.

While the women heading up the film's creative team were all crystal clear on the fact that The Iron Lady was a piece of fiction, a surprising number of people approached the movie expecting to experience a traditional biopic that would move along linear plot lines as it analyzed what made Thatcher such a powerful politician. But that's not really what the film is about.

Anyone who watches the scene in which Thatcher moves across a long a carpet strewn with dark red rose petals (as  Maria Callas sings the "Casta diva" aria from Bellini's opera, Norma) has to understand that The Iron Lady is an exercise in artistic license. As screenwriter Abi Morgan explains:
"It was always meant to be a dramatic interpretation of her life rather than a biopic. Even the speeches we hear Margaret delivering in the film are paraphrased versions of her original speeches, because the originals are owned by Thatcher herself and can’t be replicated without her approval. So you get the sense of the interpretive quality of this film.
It’s not a documentary; it’s a work of fiction. I wanted to explore the idea of what it is like to be a king and to lose your power. The idea of a king who now has to make his own breakfast, shine his own crown, was very intriguing to me. Then it opened up wider questions about the notion of power, age, so thematically the film became something richer than simply a biopic. At the film’s heart there is a love story. When I looked at the idea of Denis as a ghost I realized that he is not a literal ghost; to me, he is a manifestation of her memory of her traveling partner, one she never let go of. Although Margaret has lost Denis, that relationship has never died for her."
Jim Broadbent and Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady

Morgan makes an interesting point, with which I'm sure many widows (who still talk to their deceased husbands) would agree. And, as a woman in her eighties, the aged Thatcher is more prone to a chaotic, style of hallucinatory thinking rather than the rigidity of her previous high standards (best shown in a scene where she humiliates a male subordinate who has made a spelling mistake).

While at least one reviewer has likened Olivia Colman's performance as Carol Thatcher to a modern-day Cordelia looking after Margaret Thatcher's version of King Lear, I found a much stronger parallel in comparing Jim Broadbent's portrayal of Denis Thatcher to the spirit of Lear's Fool. Director Phyllida Lloyd is careful to note that:
"Abi Morgan’s screenplay is a really radical piece of writing. I think the beauty of it is in the detail. Because this is about memory, often the entry point to a scene is something small like a button being sewn on. When we remember things, it’s often keyed off by a sound, a smell, or something incidental that then makes us remember.
What sets this film apart from a conventional biopic is that the whole story is told from her point of view. So the audience doesn’t know whether what is depicted is true or not. This is her version of her journey. There is no other perspective on the political events. One of the things that people may find unusual is that there are no women in our depictions of the House of Commons in the film. Now, of course, we all know that there were a small number of female members of Parliament when she entered the Chamber, but from Margaret’s point of view she feels as if there are no women there. She feels entirely like a lone woman in a sea of men."
Poster art for The Iron Lady

The movie is filled with contrasts between the traditional male and female perspectives on tiny events. While many people hated Thatcher intensely in real life, in a fictionalized setting her harshness become more understandable. As Meryl Streep points out:
"When women are uncertain as to how to lead, or they’re worried about how they’re perceived or they’re worried about losing femininity, their leadership skills suffer. I’ve watched women directors struggle with trying to be the commander (and women leaders, too). We’re not quite comfortable yet with this idea. Margaret Thatcher didn’t have a problem with how to lead and so, in a way, men didn’t have so much of a problem knowing how to follow."

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady

While Alexandra Roach delivers an interesting portrait of Thatcher in her younger years (and Jim Broadbent is an eccentric delight as the older Denis Thatcher), I was especially taken by Harry Lloyd's characterization of the young Denis Thatcher. Tall and angular, with a charming goofiness that instantly brings to mind a cross between Bill Irwin and Tommy Tune, his performance is one of The Iron Lady's unexpected and largely unsung treasures.

The Iron Lady offers yet another award-winning tour de force for Meryl Streep as an actor. The scenes in which she plays Thatcher as a weakened geriatric woman are especially notable for her internal acting as she communicates layers of emotion and thought through her eyes. Here's the trailer:

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