Saturday, November 9, 2013

What Fools These Mortals Be!

Every time I hear a self-righteous Christian take aim at marriage equality, the Patient Protection and Affordable Healthcare Act, women's reproductive rights, or bray about the War on Christmas (and complain about how atheists are persecuting Christians and trying to put them into concentration camps), I want to slap one of these people upside the head and ask: "If your God created man in his image, what does it say that you're such an intolerant fool?  Are you suggesting that your God is little more than a ignorant asshole whose thought processes have been corrupted by corporate lobbyists??

Consider the case of Mia Maria Pope, a devout Christian who attended Punahou School at about the same time as President Barack Obama and has absolutely no qualms about bearing false witness against him. According to Pope, Obama used cocaine, was having sex with older white men, and was "insufficiently grateful" when others gave him cigarettes.

One of the joys of reverting to standard time is that it often signals the reemergence of the SFOlympians Festival (which is currently taking place at the EXIT Theatre). If you've never had a chance to go, it's worth attending a performance just to listen to founder and artistic director Stuart Bousel riff on the weaknesses and dysfunctional behavior of the gods of Greek mythology. From Zeus on down, these were some selfish, preening motherfuckers who could have been labeled as the ultimate "takers."

So when Christians talk about divine intervention and try to act as if their God is better than someone else's God (and definitely wants them to win a particular football game), it might be wise to remind them that they're basing their arguments on the wildest kind of delusional fiction and magical realism. If you don't believe me, spend 10 minutes listening to Bousel holding center stage. His standup act is much more fun than Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.

Stuart Bousel, founder of the SFOlympians Festival

From ancient Greek drama's use of the deus ex machina to Tony Kushner's epic, Angels in America; from Touched by an Angel to Angels in the Outfield, audiences have become accustomed to the intervention of heavenly messengers who can disrupt a narrative at a critical moment.  Two recent productions grappled with characters whose physical, emotional, and spiritual makeup was so far out of the conventional wisdom that audiences were forced to play close attention (for better or worse).

* * * * * * * * *
On May 11, 1938, when I Married An Angel opened at Broadway's Shubert Theatre, the new Rodgers and Hart musical had several oddities. Originally planned as a movie musical that would follow in the footsteps of the team's popular 1932 film (Love Me Tonight), I Married An Angel was one of the first musicals to incorporate a mischievous nonhuman into the plot.

Although the show produced three hit songs ("I Married An Angel," "I'll Tell The Man on the Street," and "Spring Is Here"), the evening's energy was concentrated much more on its supporting players than the romantic leads. The wealthy Count Willy Palaffi (Sean Thompson) is a Hungarian banker with no desire to settle down. When he makes the mistake of saying that the only woman he could possibly marry would have to be angel, someone "up there" (Kari Yancy) hears him and quickly descends to earth to get the job done.

Count Palaffi's bank is teetering on the edge of disaster while his sister, the Countess Palaffi (Allison F. Rich), is trying to set up a match between her brother and an American girl who is as pure as Mae West's proverbial "driven slush."

The Countess Palaffi (Allison F. Rich) teaches Angel (Kari Yancy)
how to talk to humans in a scene from I Married An Angel
(Photo by: David Allen)

While the angel goes about telling all of Count Palaffi's clients the truths they are so desperately trying to avoid, some quick tutoring in the ways of love ("A Twinkle In Your Eye") from the sadder-but-wiser Countess Palaffi helps to save the day. Meanwhile, young Anna (Halsey Varady) and Count Palaffi's assistant, Peter Mueller (Nathaniel Rothrock) turn out to be a high-spirited tap-dancing match.

Peter Mueller (Nathaniel Rothrock) and Anna Murphy (Halsey Varady)
play the tap-dancing comedians in I Married An Angel
(Photo by: Annette Lai)

Although, under Greg MacKellan's stage direction,  42nd Street Moon's ensemble worked hard to get the show airborne, the real magic came from the two young tap dancers (performing Zack Thomas Wilde's choreography) and Allison F. Rich, who looked and mugged like the love child of Carol Burnett and Clinton Leupp (Miss Coco Peru). I especially liked the show's Act II production number, "At The Roxy Music Hall" and may have been the only one in the opening night audience who caught a quick reference to Jo Mielziner (the Broadway scenic designer who worked on the original production).

In 1942, I Married An Angel was finally made into an MGM movie musical starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. The following trailer offers snippets of the show's best songs.

* * * * * * * * *
Have you ever wondered what happens when a writer leaves a character hanging?  I'm not talking metaphorically hanging. I'm talking about a playwright whose character climbs to the top of a wagon, throws a rope over a convenient rafter, places a noose around his neck and jumps -- remaining suspended several feet above the stage floor for the next 10 minutes -- a potential victim of neurotic asphyxiation.

If that's the kind of stagecraft that turns your crank, then I would urge you to buy a ticket to see Sidewinders, a new adventure in Theatre of the Absurd that recently received its world premiere from the Cutting Ball Theater. If not, I'd advise you to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction, as if being pursued by a back of rabid wolves.

Dakota (Sara Moore), Bailey (DavEnd), and Sandy (Donald Currie)
in a scene from Sidewinders (Photo by: Laura Mason).

Directed by M. Graham Smith, Basil Kreimendahl's play was developed as part of the 2013 edition of RISK IS THIS… (Cutting Ball's New Experimental Plays Festival). As a play with an extremely timely subject (transgender identity issues), it was lucky enough to receive the 2013 Rella Lossy Playwright Award from The San Francisco Foundation.

Unfortunately, Kriemendahl's play is a whopping mess. Cutting Ball's scenic production (designed by Michael Locher with costumes by Heidi Hanson) may look real purty, but the writing is simply appalling.

Dakota (Sara Moore) and Bailey (DavEnd) in a
scene from Sidewinders (Photo by: Laura Mason)

Try to imagine what would happen if you dropped The Three Stooges into a production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot on a fanciful set that looked like the Painted Desert diorama from the Disneyland Railroad. Minus the soundtrack from Ferde Grofé's hokey Grand Canyon Suite, one is treated to the endless trumpeting of Larry, Curly, and Moe as they try to describe their genitalia with a series of strangulated sounds that take dramatic renditions of "hoo-hah" to a new musical dimension.

In his dramaturgical program note, Rem Myers explains that:
In the Old West, the gender binary was the hard and fast law. But unlike today, greater emphasis was placed on dress and behavior rather than biology. A person who wears pants, swears, drinks, and chews must be a man. A person who wears dresses, sews, and sings soprano must be a woman. Because of these strong notions, it was surprisingly simple for people to live and be seen as the gender of their choice. The stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst lived his life and was accepted as a man. Even after his death (at which time he was found to possess female genitalia) his friends continued to think of him as one of the boys. Meanwhile, in another part of the West, Bertha Martin (a/k/a Bert Martin) was arrested in Oklahoma City for impersonating a woman. Martin was later arrested in Colorado for impersonating a man. Martin was most likely intersex, and it is unclear which gender Martin saw themselves as…. not that their opinion was worth two cents in the public’s eye; a court case was held to make that decision for them.

Basil’s play is a reflection of our current obsession with the gender binary, and the hope for a multi-dimensional future. Just as the Sidewinders team easily fell back into two-gendered thought, Dakota and Bailey consume their time and energy with finding out what the hell is in their trousers. Just as we are now reading about, befriending, or are people who don’t fit the two-gendered system, Bailey and Dakota explore the world beyond the end of the train tracks, and learn that it offers more than just two options. A world so full of possibilities that it transcends the importance of any labeled gendered system at all."

For those of us who were fortunate enough to witness the work of Charles Ludlam and Everett Quinton in the heyday of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, the queering of gender onstage is hardly new. The difference is that artists like Ludlam, Quinton, and Taylor Mac are geniuses at what they do. Although DavEnd (Bailey), Sara Moore (Dakota), and Donald Currie (Sandy) expend a great deal of energy onstage, the creative team of Sidewinders is not. For me, the most interesting performance actually came from Norman Muñoz as Sam.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should explain that a previous commitment prevented me from attending the press night for this production. This happens periodically in the life of many critics and can occasionally  be a blessing in disguise.

In the opera world, a disappointing opening night is often what should have been the final dress rehearsal. In the theatre community, many small companies have been priming their opening night audiences with free wine or champagne (which helps keep the buzz going for friends of the cast, donors, etc.)

If, however, one attends a later performance of a show, one often gets a truer sense of how well the script and production stand up to examination. With a theatre that was barely half full, Sidewinders proved to be a hopelessly confused and dramatically overstuffed transgender turkey. As long as we're talking about identity issues, I sure as hell wouldn't serve this up for Thanksgivukkah!

No comments: