Monday, January 5, 2015

Another Opening, Another Show

I began my writing career in 1977 when I was given an opportunity to write an opera column for Bay Area Reporter (one of San Francisco's gay newspapers). In recent years, I've often wondered how different my path as a writer would have been had the Internet been available to me from the start.

Try to understand that, back in 1977, there was no access to word-processing software programs with instant, WYSIWYG editing. If you made three typos on a page, you were expected to retype the entire page (carbon paper was a constant source of aggravation and Liquid Paper couldn't solve every problem).

A friend recently posted a link to David Gaughran's stunning article entitled How Jessica Mitford Exposed A $48m Scam From America’s Literary Establishment (I strongly recommend taking the time to read this piece). Gaughran's article shows how many aspiring writers were conned into paying exorbitant sums of money toward mentoring scams that led them nowhere and did absolutely nothing to improve their skills.

What has helped me over the years is the simple process of continuing to think and write. Improvements in technology have made it possible to construct smoother, more fluid sentences. The ability to spell check, embed hyperlinks to other websites, and include videos in my columns has made my work infinitely better.

Not only are today's writers living in a brave new world of electronic publishing, they've come a long, long way from the era when vanity publishing was looked upon with more disdain than porn (which at least made money). Many bloggers grew up in an environment where they learned how to type at an early age, were working on computers from the start, and were encouraged by parents and teachers to express themselves,

Anyone with access to WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, Instagram, or any other online publishing tool now has the capacity to rage, vent, explain, or criticize to their heart's content. As a result, three classic sayings now hold more truth than ever before:
  • Everyone's a critic.
  • If you don't like the news you're reading, make your own.
  • Opinions are like assholes, everybody's got one.
Those who follow The Rude Pundit may have been tickled by his recent challenge for readers to create end-of-year haikus for him. As he explained on his blog:
"The Rude Pundit thanks everyone who put in the effort to compose a haiku or five for this here blog's Annual Haiku Review. If your poem didn't get chosen, well, who knows why, really? It was dependent on the day, the level of drugs and/or liquor ingested, and quirks of personality. Or it could be that yours just sucked balls. You will never find out. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, enjoy these. They may not be better, but they made the Rude Pundit tingle in special places."
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The final weeks of 2014 witnessed an explosion of online writing about the release of Disney's screen adaptation of Into The Woods (the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical that had its Broadway premiere on November 5, 1987). In the 27 years since it opened at the Martin Beck Theatre, millions have seen the show performed onstage, watched the PBS telecast of the stage version, and performed in high school, college, community, and regional theatre productions of Into The Woods.

With the Internet offering endless opportunities for people to express their opinions, the quality of insight ranged from positive reactions to angry hyperventilating; from people wondering why all the actors in the movie were Caucasian to one pompous fool who revealed that he would never go into a music store to purchase Meryl Streep's records, anyway! I honestly can't recall such impassioned debate surrounding the release of any movie musical from 1968's Funny Girl, 1969's Hello, Dolly! and 1972's Cabaret to 2002's Chicago, 2005's The Producers, and 2012's Les Misérables,

However, bloggers and social media can create quite a brouhaha over matters of cultural significance. What sounded like a deafening chorus of back-seat drivers analyzing the film for its inherent sexism, racism, and/or casting choices revealed high levels of personal umbrage combined with an inability to handle cruel but basic truths.
  • The screen adaptation was not just the work of Stephen Sondheim and/or Disney Studios, but also of James Lapine (who crafted the libretto for the 1987 stage musical).
  • Having spent nearly three decades involved with the creation and ongoing life of Into The Woods, Sondheim and Lapine have a pretty solid handle on the structure and challenges of their show.
  • For all the self-righteousness of some people's reactions to the movie, most failed to acknowledge that neither Sondheim, Lapine, nor the folks at Walt Disney Pictures (who certainly know how to make money) had made any attempt to seek out their artistic input.
  • Most important, these people do not own the intellectual property rights to the piece. Other then griping about things that didn't meet their approval (and wondering why other fairy tales hadn't been included in the script), they had little recourse other than to shut the fuck up or write their own goddamn musical and try to get that made into a major film.

That's not to say that Sondheim's work isn't an easy target for satire. Gerard Alessandrini and his talented stable of cunning linguists at Forbidden Broadway have already slaughtered that sacred cow with loving send-ups of the legendary songwriter's work:

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A prolific playwright and screenwriter, David Mamet has collected numerous awards for his creative output. In many situations, his strongest writing occurs when there is an imbalance of power between one person (who very much wants something) and another (who is not so sure he's willing to grant his adversary's request). Mamet's characters frequently interrupt each other in a way that, when not artfully directed, can sound like an unpleasant interview conducted by Chris Matthews on MSNBC.

Tamar Cohn and Velina Brown in The Anarchist
(Photo by: David Wilson) 

While Mamet's work gains strength and brute force in conflicts heavily influenced by machismo and testosterone, one of his most recent plays shows him floundering when his protagonists are women.
  • Cathy (Tamar Cohn) has been imprisoned for 35 years after murdering a police officer in a bank robbery during her rebellious phase as a political anarchist. Although raised as a Jew, while in prison Cathy has enjoyed a healthy sex life with other female prisoners and used her time to learn as much as possible about the law. Although humility has not come easily to her, having converted to Christianity, she seeks to redeem herself with good deeds. A woman who may be too intelligent for her own good, Cathy has interpreted the simple fact that she was moved to another jail cell as a sign that she was due for release (after which she hopes to enter a cloistered convent).  However, with her wealthy father dying, she is hoping that, during her last visit with the outgoing prison administrator, Ann will grant her a release.
  • Ann (Velina Brown) is the kind of bureaucrat whose intense (and somewhat obsessive) research is cemented with yellow highlighter ink and colored tabs. Although she tells Cathy that she knows nothing about the law, Ann keeps her cards held closely to her chest. Cathy's curiosity about why Ann never showed any sexual interest in her (or any of the other women in the prison) is much less important to Ann than getting Cathy to say or do something which will betray her recent shift in behavior and reveal the whereabouts of her accomplice, Althea. Like many prison administrators, it's quite possible that Ann has the kind of sadistic streak which would make her want to win one more power game before retiring from her job.
Velina Brown and Tamar Cohn in The Anarchist
(Photo by: David Wilson) 

In an article published in The New York Times prior to the 2012 Broadway premiere of The Anarchist, Mamet wrote:
"In The Anarchist a woman has been convicted of murder, for participation in a bank robbery by a self-proclaimed political organization. She has served 35 years, a big portion of her life sentence, and pleads to be released; if the crime were mere robbery-murder and not deemed political, she would, by custom, have been paroled, with good behavior. Her argument has merit.

The woman with whom she pleads has been her jailer, or parole officer, or warden for these 35 years, and the woman asks for verification, assurance or otherwise for help arriving at the conclusion that the prisoner no longer poses a threat and so may be released.

The criminal cites her spotless prison record and argues that, as per custom, she should have been released a decade past, and that her continued incarceration can only be considered a political act. She maintains that at the time of her arrest she cited her anarchist politics as defense, arguing that they freed her from the jurisdiction (if not from the penalty) of a court whose authority she did not acknowledge.

Is it not inconsistent, the convict argues, that the jailer employ the political motive -- a motive denied by the court -- to continue the punishment? "At my trial the court denounced me as a ‘mere murderer’ and found my political declarations without weight," she says. "Abide by the court’s decision and release me now."”
Although written as one 85-minute act, The Anarchist makes one wonder if Mamet's drama would be equally effective if every third word were to be deleted from the script. It meanders on, in a kind of cat-and-mouse game that quickly loses steam and starts to bore and/or alienate its audience. Perhaps that's because the concept of a philosophical debate between a prisoner and her warden seems so preposterous that Mamet's play simply lacks dramatic credibility.

This Theatre Rhinoceros production benefits immensely from the intensity of Tamar Cohn's portrayal of Cathy who, as a convert to Christianity, can't stop talking about Jesus or the power of her newly-found faith. When faced with a career bureaucrat like Ann (who is essentially interested in tying up any loose ends before leaving her job), Cathy is the living answer to the question "If you're so smart, how come you're so stupid?"

One of the biggest liabilities in this production is the casting of the radiant Velina Brown as Ann (the warden who is supposed to have been overseeing Cathy since she was imprisoned 35 years ago). Brown's youthful looks make her seem about half Cohn's age which, in turn, makes one wonder if her character is taking an extremely early retirement package or a lateral transfer. Her laughable ability to keep reaching into file cabinets to extract the precise document (containing the exact quote) she seeks is the sign of an amateur's attempt at crafting a police procedural rather than the work of an accomplished playwright.

Designer John Waik-keung Lowe has provided a serviceable unit set for this tedious jailhouse confrontation (which might have been enlivened if Divine were still alive). Unfortunately, the office furniture seen onstage in The Anarchist is about as exciting as Mamet's script.

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