Monday, September 22, 2014

Despicable You

There's something about religious hypocrisy that is jaw-droppingly timeless in its newsworthiness. Among the news items to hit the fan in recent months are the following:
On November 22, 2013, when Bill Maher was discussing marriage equality with Dan Savage, he mentioned that the Bishop of Honolulu, Clarence (Larry) Silva, claimed that children adopted by gay parents have a greater chance of committing suicide. Savage's reply was refreshingly blunt and brutal:
"That's total bullshit. He's comparing children with gay parents with children who are raped by Catholic priests. I am just done being lectured about children and their safety by Catholic fucking bishops, priests, cardinals... A bishop in Illinois (on the day Governor Quinn signed the gay marriage law making same sex marriage legal in Illinois), held an exorcism in his cathedral to exorcise the State of the demons of gay people having full civil equality. No exorcisms exorcising the State from the demons of kiddie-fucking Catholic priests --  they never got around to that exorcism! I hate to always go there, but they don't have moral high ground when they talk about the welfare and safety of children. They just don't. They have squandered that on the tips of their dicks."
Today's polarized media has allowed religious hypocrisy to flourish in the most hateful and absurd ways (Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association recently declared that the simple fact that Americans eat bacon is proof positive that the United States is a Christian nation). Two recent stage productions put religious hypocrisy front and center, proving that whether among poor, ignorant country folk or in highly educated and privileged urban circles, religious posturing offers a powerful cover for one's venal desires and most painful insecurities.

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Since its February 24, 1955 world premiere at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Carlisle Floyd's opera, Susannah, has become the second most performed American opera (behind Porgy and Bess). Starting in 1956, it was performed for five consecutive seasons at the New York City Opera. In 1958, Phyllis Curtin and Norman Treigle starred in the NYCO production at the Brussels World's Fair (for which Susannah been chosen to represent American music and culture).

Written during the period when McCarthyism was terrorizing Americans (and causing people to name names of purported Communists and their supposed "collaborators"), Floyd's opera tells the story of an innocent young woman whose reputation is destroyed by jealous gossip and the predatory sexual advances of the town's ass-grabbing new preacher, the Reverend Olin Blitch.


My first exposure to Susannah was at a performance given by Western Opera Theater at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts in 1977 with Elaine Olbrycht in the title role.  In 1982 (using sign-language interpreters for hearing-impaired members of the audience at certain performances), the New York City Opera staged Susannah with a cast headed by Faith Esham and Samuel Ramey.


Susannah finally reached the Metropolitan Opera in 1999 with a cast headed by Renée Fleming, Samuel Ramey, and Jerry Hadley. This month (almost 65 years since its world premiere), Susannah made its official company debut at the San Francisco Opera with a cast headed by Patricia Racette and Raymond Aceto.

Little Bat (James Kryshak) and Susannah Polk (Patricia Racette)
in a scene from Susannah (Photo by: Corey Weaver) 

Using costumes designed by Michael Yeargan for the Houston Grand Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago's co-production of Susannah, this staging of Floyd's opera was especially notable for Erhard Rom's set and the stunningly evocative projections featuring footage of the Great Smoky Mountains. This was the first time I had ever seen a production of Susannah which did such a splendid job of contrasting the purity and serenity of innocence and nature with the ugly insinuations of hatefully insecure, narrow-minded people who have been blinded by their religion. In his director's note, Michael Cavanagh explains why the opera has been reset from the 1950s to the  era of the Great Depression:
"The story takes place just as the conditions that led to the Dust Bowl take hold. All over the Central and Southern states, the unrestricted growth of mechanization in farming techniques caused terrible erosion of the topsoil and left the environment vulnerable to drought (which in turn led to the collapse of the agricultural economy). In the story of Susannah, a child of nature suffers at the hands of mankind. She's been abandoned, neglected, and abused by one father figure after another. We see the skies darken and the world dry up. It's as though her mother figure -- nature itself -- has come to exact revenge. In all of this lies an allegory for our own times and a cautionary tale. If we attempt to control and harvest nature -- or our natural selves -- only for selfish reasons, we are doomed to a life out of balance and a world teetering on the brink. Individually or as a society, pride really does go before a fall."
Raymonod Aceto as the Reverend Olin Blitch
in Susannah (Photo by: Corey Weaver)

This production of Susannah was a triumph for soprano Patricia Racette, whose bubbly enthusiasm for life and ripe sensuality was easily destroyed by the holier-than-thou town gossip, Mrs. McLean (Catherine Cook). Susannah's scared betrayal by her former friend, "Little Bat" McLean (James Kryshak) was dramatically heart-breaking (although extremely well sung). Tenor Brandon Jovanovich gave a physically powerful and vocally rich performance as Susannah's older brother, Sam.

Brandon Jovanovich as Sam in
Susannah (Photo by: Corey Weaver) 

While Karen Kamensek's conducting and Michael Cavanagh's direction firmly shaped the drama in Floyd's opera, I found myself surprisingly underwhelmed by Raymond Aceto's performance as the villainous man of God. Neither forceful nor particularly slimy, his characterization of the Reverend Olin Blitch was about as ordinary a preacher as one might find, That banality, of course, may be the true face of evil.

Nevertheless, Floyd's score contains many wondrous moments, from Susannah's Act I aria, "Ain't It A Pretty Night" to Sam's rendition of "The Jaybird Song." Here's some footage from the production.


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There are, to be sure, all kinds of bad Jews in the world. There are those who eat ham all year and then suddenly become pious around the high holy days. And then there are those who think that Abraham Foxman is rational and objective.

My first awareness that I was a bad Jew arrived one fateful day during high school when my aunt Bess called. While waiting for my mother to come to the phone, Bess asked me what I was doing to honor my roots as a Jew in observance of the upcoming Yom Kippur holiday. Not being smart enough to filter anything out of our conversation, I promptly blurted out that I was going to a Wednesday matinee of The Sound of Music so I could watch the nuns sing and dance. I could hear my aunt's queasy harrumph of disapproval from miles away.

In Joshua Harmon's new play entitled Bad Jews (which is currently receiving its regional premiere from Magic Theatre), the Jews in question are young three Millennials mourning the death of their grandfather (a Holocaust survivor who has finally kicked the bucket).

Liam (Max Rosenak) is the golden grandson who can do
no wrong in Bad Jews (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Liam (Max Rosenak) is the golden grandchild, the firstborn male who could never do any wrong. Although Liam couldn't make it to the funeral on time because he was skiing in Aspen with his girlfriend, Melody (Riley Krull) -- a genuine shiksa goddess from Delaware -- he is very much a modern, assimilated Jew with a sense of white privilege. As the oldest grandchild, he knows exactly what he wants and has done a fine job of making sure his doting mother gets it for him.

Jonah (Kenny Toll) wants no part of the upcoming battle
between Liam and Daphna in Bad Jews (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Jonah (Kenny Toll) is Liam's younger brother. A man who prefers to avoid the kind of  take-no-prisoners family confrontations which frequently erupt between passionate and argumentative members of the chosen people, Jonah has not yet told anyone that he had a tattoo carved into his arm which is the same number his grandfather was given by the Nazis. That's Jonah's way of keeping the family tradition alive and he's sticking with it.

Daphna (Rebecca Benhayon) and her cousin Jonah (Kenny Toll)
in Bad Jews  (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Daphna Feygenbaum (Rebecca Benhayon) is Liam and Jonah's cousin from the poorer side of the family (her parents both taught in public schools). With a large head of unmanageable hair that requires constant attention, it takes Daphna less than a minute to signal to the audience that she is an emotionally damaged, dangerously manipulative young woman who has probably acquired every disgustingly dysfunctional habit she picked up from her mother's toxic personality. After two minutes in Daphna's presence, it should surprise no one to find himself thinking "Funny, you don't look shrewish!"

Of the three grandchildren, Daphna obviously has the greatest need to be the center of attention -- at any cost. Attacking Liam for every advantage he has enjoyed in life is a piece of cake. Stripping away any sense of dignity that Melody might have is child's play. By the time (late in the play) when Liam tells his cousin that she has never really been in love -- and probably never will be -- it's the first time anyone has given Daphna a taste of her own truth-telling medicine.

The problem is that Daphna desperately wants to inherit her grandfather's chai (a piece of jewelry) and is damned if she will let Liam use it to propose to someone like Melody, who isn't even Jewish. In her own way, Daphna clings to my own grandmother's peculiar outlook on life: "If I'm going to be miserable the whole world can be miserable as well!".

Using Erik Flatmo's cramped unit set, Ryan Guzzo Purcell has directed Bad Jews in a way that highlights how some of today's Millennials have never really earned their place in the world but, instead, are quick to claim pieces of someone else's history as their own.

Liam (Max Rosenak) and Melody (Riley Krull) in
Bad Jews (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

I enjoyed the performances by Max Rosenak and Kenny Toll as the two brothers and got a kick out of Riley Krull's portrayal of a decent young shiksa who thought she might pursue an operatic career even though she had no talent.

With regard to Rebecca Benhayon's portrayal of Daphna, it's important to delineate between the character that has been created by the playwright and the artist inhabiting the character's skin. It's a testament to Ms. Benhayon's skill as an actress, Mr. Purcell's insight as a director, and Mr. Harmon's talent as a playwright that, by the end of Bad Jews (and even though I'm a nonviolent person), I just wanted to haul off and deck the bitch!

Dapha (Rebecca Benhayon) and her cousin Jonah (Kenny Toll)
in Bad Jews  (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Performances of Bad Jews continue at the Magic Theatre through Sunday, October 5 (click here to order tickets).

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