Monday, January 30, 2017

Dysfunction Junction

With rabid homophobes like Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, Ben Carson, and Betsy DeVos on the verge of attaining frightening power over the lives of LGBT Americans, it helps to reflect back on what Valerie Jarrett recently told Chris Johnson when he interviewed her for The Washington Blade.
“When President Obama talked to Robin Roberts about his evolution on marriage equality, he told a story about his daughters, who have friends whose parents are gay. His daughters couldn’t see any difference in why their friends’ parents would be treated any differently than their own parents. He didn’t have an answer to that and so, the answer is, there should be no difference. If we continue to tell those stories, it helps people put themselves in the shoes of someone else. It is through that exercise that I think we make our best progress because it’s a change in society, not just simply a change in laws.

The progress that we’ve made isn’t simply reflected in the laws that have been passed, although they are very important. What we’ve seen is a shift in public perception and feelings and culture. That is not likely to reverse and, fortunately, on issues such as marriage equality, the Supreme Court has ruled and that is unlikely to change. When society is moving in a direction with momentum, it’s very hard to turn it back, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be vigilant. You have to be vigilant.”
Valerie Jarrett and President Barack Obama in happier times

So let's look back over the past 50 years and remember that an awful lot can happen during half a century.

When one considers such sweeping cultural changes as the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the growing awareness of the need to protect trans people, the political progress has been quite remarkable. Add in the domestic and international growth of LGBT film festivals. When one remembers that San Francisco's Theatre Rhinoceros (which is approaching its 40th anniversary) has become the world's longest-functioning LGBT theatre company, the state of gay culture is healthier than we may think. If gay art could survive McCarthyism and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the Trump administration's threat to eradicate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting isn't going to prevent LGBT talent from finding and exploiting creative outlets and continuing to flourish.

As Doug Wright (who received the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play, I Am My Own Wife, and is the current President of the Dramatists Guild of America) explains:
“The arts function as a collective social conscience. Arts teach us the value of empathy (which is currently in egregiously short supply). Thanks to The Diary of Anne Frank, an African-American girl in Washington Heights can learn what it felt like to be trapped in an attic in Amsterdam during World War II. Thanks to The Laramie Project, a quarterback in Van Nuys can experience what it feels like to die alone on a fence in rural Wyoming, and feel his heart grow in its capacity to feel on behalf of others.

Artists are, by their nature, truth tellers. Across the millennia, artists have told damning truths about war, politics, and the darkest reaches of the human heart. Corrupt men have a reason to fear us, and so they'd like to see us silenced. This has nothing to do with money; the NEA is .003 of our annual budget. The military spends more on paper clips. This is all about demonizing artists and the work that we do. We mustn't forget that. The more exposure we have to the arts, the more nimble we become intellectually. If our current President actually curled up with a book, he’d improve his painfully limited vocabulary.”
Playwrights Terrence McNally and Doug Wright in 2007

For proof, all one need do is consider two opening nights that recently took place two days apart in San Francisco. One was a performance by the for-profit touring company of a highly acclaimed LGBT musical that reopened the newly-refurbished Curran Theatre. The other was a production of an impressive new dramedy headed for its Off-Broadway premiere that was staged by a nonprofit LGBT theatre company.

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The New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of Michael McKeever's dramedy, Daniel's Husband, a poignant and disturbing tale in which no one dies of AIDS, but the audience is taken on a white-knuckle ride that many had hoped to forget. During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, many gay men died without ever having made a will. As a result, there was no legal document available to protect a live-in friend or lover in the same way that, in a heterosexual marriage, a man might have been perceived as the breadwinner while his spouse was perceived as his legal beneficiary. When the breadwinner in a gay household entered the hospital or passed away, strange things often happened.
  • I remember one dying pediatrician whose mother tried to climb into his hospital bed at Mt. Zion, convinced that she could make him well. 
  • Soon after their lovers died, many unfortunate gay men came home to find the locks on their homes changed and their possessions outside on the street. Some weren't even allowed to retrieve their clothes, pets, and belongings by homophobic relatives who had just learned that the decedent was gay.
Daniel's Husband begins cheerily enough as two gay couples relax in Daniel's living room while playing a popular game of choosing which gay icon they would pick over the other. The host, Daniel Bixby (Michael Monagle), is a famous architect who has done a beautiful restoration job on his house. His lover, Mitchell Howard (Daniel Redmond), is a successful author whose string of hit novels has earned him a loyal gay following.

In the seven years that the two men have been a couple, they have drawn up the necessary legal papers to make sure that, in the event of one partner's death, all assets will automatically transfer to the survivor. However, despite the fact that the documents required for each man's medical directive and power of attorney have been drawn up by their lawyer, those papers remain in a drawer. Unsigned.

Now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land, such documents would not be necessary if the two men had chosen to wed. But, while Daniel very much wants a husband, Mitchell's political views have left him staunchly opposed to a heteronormative institution like marriage.

Daniel Redmond,  Nathan Tylukti, John Steele, Jr., and Michael 
Monagle in a scene from Daniel's Husband (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

The other couple consists of Mitchell's literary agent, Barry Dylon (Nathan Tylutki), and his latest boyfriend, Trip (John Steele Jr.), who is wearing neon-blue lipstick. At 23, Trip works as a home health aide, often taking care of patients with terminal illnesses. Although he may not be up to date on all the cultural references shared by the older men in the room, in many ways he is much more mature than Barry (whose friends often tease him about acting like a chicken hawk suffering from an acute case of arrested development).

When Trip (who deeply admires Daniel's work) asks how long Daniel and Mitchell have been married, his question opens up a can of worms which leads to one of Mitchell's impassioned lectures. To no one's surprise, Trip and Barry break up several months later. A visit from Daniel's manipulative mother, Lydia (Christine Macomber), proves as irritating as ever for her son.

Michael Monagle, Christine Macomber, and Daniel Redmond
in a scene from Daniel's Husband (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

The well-meaning but stunningly insensitive Lydia has a talent for always saying the wrong thing at exactly the right time. An expert at pushing her son's buttons, she can easily transform a short visit into hell on wheels. After Mitchell takes Lydia to the airport at the end of her stay, he and Daniel get into an rip-roaring argument about gay marriage. Suddenly, Daniel feels something very strange happening to him (the kind of neurological event that could prevent Donald Trump from ever sending another tweet) and loses control of his body.

As Act II begins, Daniel calmly relates what transpired (from a medical standpoint) and explains how he is now stuck living with locked-in syndrome. As Mitchell tries to juggle caring for his now quadriplegic lover while facing various deadlines on his next book, Lydia becomes an increasingly invasive nuisance. She resents the presence of Trip (who has been hired to help care for Daniel) and suggests to Mitchell that it might be a better idea to have Daniel moved to her large home, where she lives alone with three cats and three dogs. A crisis erupts when Lydia insists that she has "the right" to make that decision. When Daniel's mother files a lawsuit to assume custody of her son, Mitchell quickly learns that the devil lies very much in the details.

Working on a handsome unit set designed by Robert "Bo" Golden (with costumes by Michelle Mulholland and sound design by Ryan Lee Short), F. Allen Sawyer has directed McKeever's play with equal skill in handling the script's bitchily comic and intensely dramatic moments. McKeever's script is tightly written, often hilarious, and should enjoy a long string of productions.

Daniel Redmond and Michael Monagle in a scene
from Daniel's Husband (Photo by: Lois Tema)

NCTC's five-actor ensemble does a fine job with McKeever's dialogue. Michael Monagle and Nathan Tylukti exhibit the body language of two middle-aged gay men who have achieved a great deal professionally and can enjoy their financial security. As the youthful Trip, John Steele, Jr. provides an interesting and somewhat subdued foil to Daniel Redmond's performance as the impassioned (and occasionally hysterical) Mitchell.

It's always a pleasure to see Christine Macomber (who has made numerous appearances with The Lamplighters and 42nd Street Moon) in a dramatic role. She does exceptionally well at balancing Lydia's coy yet caring nature while patiently trying to remind Mitchell that there really is no villain to blame for Daniel's situation. Here's the trailer:

Performances of Daniel's Husband continue through February 26 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets).

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What many people know today as the San Francisco Bay Times began as a free weekly publication that called itself "the gay lesbian newspaper and calendar of events for the Bay Area." Coming Up! began publishing in October 1979 and, although it drew less advertising than Bob Ross’s Bay Area Reporter, it had a devoted following. One reason was that it was aimed at the Bay area’s sizable lesbian population. Another was that it featured two very popular comic strips: The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green (by Eric Orner) and Dykes To Watch Out For (by Alison Bechdel).

The characters in both of these comic strips often suffered from conflicted emotions, concerns about political correctness, and a tendency toward overthinking what their friends might have said, done, or thought. As a result, many LGBT readers embraced each character's kookiness and insecurities.

With music by Jeanine Tesori and a book by Lisa Kron, Bechdel's Fun Home (a graphic memoir published in 2006) was adapted for the stage and opened off-Broadway in September 2013. Its initial run at the Public Theatre earned the show eight Drama Desk Awards, two Obie Awards, and three of the nine Lucille Lortel Awards for which it had been nominated.

When Fun Home moved uptown to Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre, the production had to be reconfigured for performances in the round. Nevertheless, the show won five of the 12 Tony Awards for which it had been nominated (including the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical) and was nominated for the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album.

Often, when the touring version of a hit Broadway show hits the road, compromises have to be made to accommodate the various theatres in which the musical will be performed. In some cases (Newsies, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Jersey Boys, The Lion King), the level of quality control remains high. However, I still cringe at the memory of 1999's tour of Sunset Boulevard in which Petula Clark's Norma Desmond looked and acted as if she had been trapped in a bus-and-truck tour of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

I'm delighted to report that the national tour of Fun Home, which was the first tenant booked into the refurbished and renovated Curran Theatre, exceeded all expectations. With sets and costumes designed by David Zinn, choreography by Danny Mefford, lighting by Ben Stanton and sound design by Kai Harada, this deeply moving production offers a prime example of how musical theatre can touch people's lives.

Alessandra Baldacchino as 'Small Alison' in a
scene from Fun Home (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

Fun Home overcomes many hurdles which could easily have defeated another creative team. Tesori's musical score (enhanced by John Clancy's orchestrations) finds new and tender ways to capture the sensations of emotional insecurity and teenage angst as well as the exhilaration of achieving an emotional breakthrough in quirky self awareness. Fun Home accomplishes this while dealing with a middle-aged lesbian trying to make sense of her closeted gay father's conflicted life and self-inflicted death.

With Kate Shindle as 43-year-old Alison, Abby Corrigan as 19-year-old Alison, and Alessandra Baldacchino as 10-year-old Alison, Fun Home allows the audience to witness how a child can be confused by a demanding father who is so wrapped up in his own inadequacies that he expects a professional level of artistry from a 10-year-old who just wants to show him the drawing she made at school. The show also allows a middle-aged lesbian to look back on her first sexual experience and the nervous steps she took in coming out to her parents (with a clearer understanding of what else might have been happening in her dysfunctional family in those anxious days of insecurity and craving validation).

 Karen Eilbacher (Joan) and Abby Corrigan (Medium Alison)
in a scene from Fun Home (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

“At this point, I’ve staged the play three times, and each time I’ve been able to distill things down and learn more while continuing to refine the material," confesses director Sam Gold. “The really fun thing about doing the tour was that it felt like I was always making the show better. I knew everything I needed to know to make the design really work for the show. In a way, I think the tour is really the best version of the show.”

How so? “The show is very dependent on its intimacy, but it also has this kind of ambition to the storytelling in using multiple perspectives, multiple timelines, and simultaneity while also maintaining a very real sense of vulnerability and fragility. A proscenium changes adult Alison’s relationship to the show. In the round, she participates with the audience in a certain way because they’re always given these multiple perspectives. With the proscenium, I think the character experiences her memories very differently.”

While the three women portraying Alison at various stages of her life all deliver dynamic performances, one should not overlook the contributions by Robert Petkoff as Alison's father, Bruce; Susan Moniz as her mother, Helen; and especially Karen Eilbacher as Joan, the butch lesbian who awakens Alison's sexual drive. In smaller roles, Lennon Nate Hammond and Pierson Salvador appear as Alison's brothers (John and Christian) while Robert Hager makes a series of cameo appearances as some of the men her father lusted after (Roy, Mark, Pete, Bobby, and Jeremy).

Performances of Fun Home continue through February 19 at the Curran Theatre (click here for tickets).

1 comment:

Susan said...

Hi George- I'm the new Artistic Director at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette. I'd love to send you info on my shows. my email won't send to Is there a better way to send you press? - Susan E. Evans