Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Trump Effect

There was a time, during the late 1980s, when I was close friends with a gay cop. We belonged to the same gym and, like many members, I was attracted to him because of his charisma and his skills as a storyteller. Although we came from very different worlds, there was an unexpected level of bonding. He allowed me to interview him for a gay magazine, showed me around his police department, and didn't hesitate to tell me that most cops gossip like little old ladies. He was also the first Republican conservative I had ever gotten to know as a friend.
  • AJ made no bones about the fact that he considered Ronald Reagan to be his second or "adopted" father.
  • When I took him to a performance at the San Francisco Opera, I was a bit startled to discover that he entered the War Memorial Opera House wearing his gun in his shoulder holster. When I asked him why he thought it necessary to bring a gun to the opera (I had already informed him that shots would be fired as part of the performance), he said it was in case I needed protection.
  • One day, when we were talking about our place in the world, he told me that part of his philosophy in life was that "There are all these people out there who can do things for me."
Although he is no longer a part of my life, I have no doubt that he would have voted for Donald Trump (Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton would have been anathema to him). However, with Trump now sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, it's impossible to ignore the rise in toxic levels of masculinity among many of his most loyal followers. Violent expressions of xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, and racism are on the rise as the new administration careens toward a severely incompetent and dangerously authoritarian style of governing.

Throughout the arts community, people are alarmed by hints that the Trump administration will try to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and attempt to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. As Linda Moran (President/CEO of the Songwriters Hall of Fame) explains:
“Music and arts are essential to life and our humanity and in the nurturing of our souls. Removing access to that which allows the exploration, discovery and development of one’s talents would be a travesty of epic proportions. Our future songwriters, musicians and artists must be fostered, not ignored. We are once again at a crossroads where music and arts education in our school systems are being threatened by severe cuts. Possible defunding of the NEA would not only be devastating to the arts community at large, but also to the youth of this country.”

With plenty of journalists, bloggers, and artists voicing their concern over future funding for the arts, attacks on civil rights for LGBT people and, especially, women's rights, it's fascinating to contrast articles such as Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber with Might Ivanka Trump Speak Up If Her Father Guts The Arts? What caught me completely by surprise was the intensity with which Trump's ghostly (and ghastly) relationship with the arts could affect two recent theatrical experiences.

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In 1990, when a provocative new musical by Stephen Sondheim premiered, it became a source of controversy for numerous reasons. With a book by John Weidman, Assassins reintroduced audiences to the men and women throughout our history who attempted to assassinate the President of the United States. First produced at Playwrights Horizons, it also marked the first time Sondheim had premiered a major musical off-Broadway.

I first saw the show in 1993, when the American Musical Theatre of San Jose presented the West Coast premiere of Assassins. I subsequently attended productions by San Francisco State University and Ray of Light Theatre as well as watching lots of clips from various Broadway and regional theatre productions. Each time I attend a performance of Assassins I am reminded of the painful gap between what America could do if its leaders dealt honestly with gun violence and mental illness -- and what our gutless elected representatives have failed to do as they shirk their responsibility to protect and serve their constituents.

The cast of Assassins (Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

When Matthew McCoy (the Artistic Director of Bay Area Musicals!) announced that the company's second season would include a production of the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Assassins, I'm sure he had no idea what kind of political mood the country would be in on opening night. Several days prior to the performance, I even asked a friend if he thought Sondheim would live long enough to add another song to his dark musical. After all, Sondheim's lyrics for the Balladeer's first song ("Everybody’s Got the Right") begin with:
"Hey, pal, feelin' blue?
Don't know what to do?
Hey, pal, I mean you.
Yeah. C'mere and kill a president."
Sage Georgevitch-Castellanos doubled as the Balladeer and
Lee Harvey Oswald in Assassins (Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

Later in the show, when the actor who was so entertaining as the Balladeer reappears as Lee Harvey Oswald, the mood continues to darken as the ghosts of past presidential assassins push him toward killing John F. Kennedy. The inclusion of the Zapruder footage of Kennedy's assassination in some productions of Assassins quickly changes the audience's mood. And yet, throughout the show, they've been laughing their asses off.

Kelli Schultz (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme) and Jessica Fisher
(Sara Jane Moore) in a scene from Assassins (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

Why? Because most of the people who tried to assassinate American presidents come across as delusional losers. From John Wilkes Booth (the actor who shot and killed Abraham Lincoln) to Leon Czolgosz (who assassinated President William McKinley and had a crush on Emma Goldman); from Samuel Byck (who dictated his thoughts to Leonard Bernstein while plotting to kill Richard Nixon) to John Hinckley, Jr. (who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan as a way of proving his love for actress Jodie Foster), most of these people were driven by internal demons. Of course, there was also Giuseppe Zangara (whose abdominal pain short-circuited his attempt to shoot Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and Sara Jane Moore (who was almost as clumsy as her target, Gerald Ford).

John Brown as Sam Byck in Assassins (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

My experience with Assassins has taught me that it takes sitting through several performances before a person can (a) relax and grasp how masterfully Weidman's libretto moves the action along, and (b) truly relish Sondheim's score. A lyrical duet like "Unworthy of Your Love" (sung by John Hinckley, Jr. and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme) stands in sharp contrast to the caustic folksiness of "The Ballad of Booth" just as the anger embedded in Leon Czolgosz's "Gun Song" is a far cry from Charlie Guiteau's manically ecstatic "I Am Going to the Lordy." Few things can compare to the sheer insanity of Sara Jane Moore and Lynette Fromme bonding over their love for Charles Manson and using a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken for target practice!

Eric Newman (The Proprietor) and Zac Schuman (John Hinkley)
in a scene from Assassins (Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

Directed by Daren A.C. Carollo on the unit set he designed, Sondheim's score was in the capable of hands of musical director Jon Gallo while costumes designed by Brooke Jennings and sound designed by Julie Indelicato helped to build a solid dramatic foundation for the show. John Brown scored strongly as the embittered Samuel Byck while DC Scarpelli's Czolgosz was a frustrated Polish immigrant who felt out of place in America. Others in the cast included Derrick Silva as an unctuous John Wilkes Booth, Zac Schuman as a nebbishy John Hinckley, Jr., Terence McLaughlin as the dyspeptic Giuseppe Zangara, Nicole Frydman as Emma Goldman, and Peter Budinger as the overly optimistic Charles Guiteau.

Both Eric Neiman (as the shooting gallery's Proprietor) and Sage Georgevitch-Castellanos (doing double duty as the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald) gave standout performances. Jessica Fisher as Sara Jane Moore and Kelli Schultz as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme were hilarious, with Fisher displaying solid comedic chops in addition to a strong soprano.

Jessica Fisher as Sara Jane Moore in Assassins (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

Performances of Assassins continue through March 19 at the Alcazar Theatre (click here for tickets).

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During President Obama's administration, a great deal of attention was focused on the ways in which bullying (at school, at home, and online) hurts people. Much of that work seems to be at risk with the inauguration of a bully as the most powerful person in today's world. From the abusive language and blatant attempts to humiliate people to the pathological lying and reliance upon "alternative facts," the Trump administration (and its followers) are demonstrating the worst within us (rather than the best kinds of behavior we should strive for).

While it's easy to assume that the kind of grandiosity, dishonesty, and delusional behavior exhibited by Trump (that is enabled and abetted by a lifestyle built on male privilege) is merely a sign of our times, the sad truth is that bullies have existed throughout history. Custom Made Theatre is currently presenting the Bay area premiere of Lucas Hnath's hilarious black comedy, Isaac's Eye, in which two narcissistic and extremely stubborn 17th-century geniuses (Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke) square off against each other with the woman they think they might love (if they even know what love is) positioned as a potential trophy they could own if she opted to marry one of them.

Gabriel A. Ross as Isaac Newton in Isaac's Eye
(Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

With Adam Niemann acting as both a narrator and a poor peasant whose wife just died of the plague and is, himself, doomed to perish very soon, the action takes place on a spartan modern set by Sarah Phykitt framed by three large whiteboards and lit by overhead fluorescent lamps. As the narrator, Niemann explains to the audience that when something is said that is true, he will write it out on one of the whiteboards. However, if something is said that is false (or, as we say these days, an alternative fact), it will not receive any such validation.

Gabriel A. Ross, Adam Niemann, and Junée Simon in
a scene from Isaac's Eye (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

At 25, the ambitious Isaac Newton (Gabriel A. Ross) has the kind of obsessive personality which allows him to take his girlfriend, Catherine (Jeunée Simon), for granted. Despite her strong desire to get married and have a family, Isaac is less interested in becoming a farmer (or father) and determined to find out if light is composed of particles or waves. His hypothesis is that, as perceived by the human eye, light changes when a needle is inserted into a person's tear duct.

Catherine often fears that Isaac (whose hair turned prematurely white when he was still in his twenties) is too easily distracted by his work to be able to stand up for himself. He desperately seeks admission to the Royal Society so he can network with people who might fund his research (in real life Newton was so consumed by his theories that he once threatened to burn down his parents' house if they didn't let him continue his research).

Hooke (Robin Gabrielli), on the other hand, is a slimy opportunist who lives by his own rules and wouldn't hesitate to sabotage a competitor's work. Having already experimented on dogs by blowing air into their lungs to determine at what point a dog will explode, he takes pride in his ability to manipulate others.

In order for Hooke to grant Newton's wishes, the young man needs to test his theory. After getting inconclusive results while experimenting on the dying (and inarticulate) peasant, Isaac ends up having to stick the needle into his own eye to see what happens.

Using every lie he can muster to cover up for his inadequacies, Foote aims to eliminate Newton by destroying the younger man's research papers and stealing Catherine away from him. As Newton soon discovers, Hooke has a fondness for cocaine and has kept a sex diary annotating his lusty adventures with his underage niece. Blackmail is a likely option.

Robin Gabrielli as Robert Hooke with Adam  Niemann as the
Actor in a scene from Isaac's Eye (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

As directed by Oren Stevens, Hnath's comedy unravels with moments of vicious delight that lead up to a nifty stage trick which will leave many audience members squirming in their seats. At the end, however, Isaac's Eye takes a surprising turn when, having put up with enough macho bullshit, Catherine (the daughter of an apothecary) decides that she would do better pursuing life on her own, leaving Newton and Hooke to each die alone.

One of the strengths of Hnath's play is that it is performed in modern dress rather than period costume, on a starkly-lit contemporary set. As a result, Newton often comes across as a nerdy Millennial who routinely congratulates himself with a self-serving "Yay!" every time he wins an argument. As Catherine, Jeunée Simon is the voice of reason whose threshold for man-boys and their never-ending bullshit has its limits.

Robin Gabrielli, Adam Niemann, Jeunée Simon, and Gabriel A.
Ross in a scene from Isaac's Eye (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

In an odd way, Robin Gabrielli (as Hooke) and Adam Niemann (as the Actor) have the juicier theatrical roles. How so? Gabrielli gets to play a self-serving, villainous creep while Niemann draws continued laughs as the suffering peasant who, like Rodney Dangerfield, can't get no respect.

Hnath has an extremely sneaky talent for delivering lots of historical facts (mixed in with a large helping of lies) as he unveils each scientist's desperate power plays against a background of the darkest comedy since Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. If, like me, you have to use eye drops each day, after seeing Isaac's Eye you might find your hands shaking a bit more than usual.

Performances of Isaac's Eye continue through March 11 at the Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets).

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