Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Nevertheless They Persisted

Americans are currently getting a humiliating lesson in ballroom dancing. Not the graceful kind which includes tangos, sambas, waltzes, and jitterbug, but the kind found in Bizarro comic books. They're learning all about the "social justice stomp" and the "aborted cha-cha" (in which, instead of counting 1-2, 1-2-3, the dancers take two small steps forward and one giant step backward).

Steve Bannon's perverse goals of deconstructing government (combined with Donald Trump's spiteful, Neanderthal behavior) have resulted in appointing greedy and mostly incompetent people to head the governmental departments they deeply loathe. In Trump's relatively short time in office, pathetic levels of poisonous patriarchy, white supremacy, domestic terrorism, and willful ignorance have ridden into the spotlight on the cruelly conniving shoulders of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia. Witnessing such dickish deeds justified by Dickensian decrees aimed at demoralizing the public is hardly an uplifting experience.

Thanks to the Trump administration's callous and calculated plan to purge the nation of Planned Parenthood, illegal immigrants, LGBT rights, and a healthy environment (not to mention Paul Ryan's abortive attempt to cram the nightmarish American Health Care Act down Congress's throat), a nation founded on the basis of liberty, equality, and justice for all has abandoned the high moral ground from which it inspired people around the world. As Trump's sneering supporters salivate over the brutality of the sabotage they have enabled, millions more level-headed citizens are left to mourn the trampling of ideas and ideals they were raised to cherish.


So here's to the ladies who launch new initiatives, starting with a Hawaiian grandmother named Teresa Shook, the retired lawyer from Indiana who started a Facebook event page that led to America's largest single-day event and inspired similar marches in other nations. Here's to Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Patty Murray -- who continue to fight for women's rights and for the LGBT community.

And here's to all the members of America's theatre community who, rather than seeking the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting, have doubled down on their efforts to celebrate diversity and educate their audiences through consciousness-raising experiences about the phenomenon of nonbinary gender identities.

Two controversial looks at how traditional gender roles clash with natural expressions of gender identity are currently on display before Bay area audiences. One is an exceptional world premiere production of a drama that deserves to be staged by theatre companies around the world. The other revisits a play which caused quite a ruckus following its world premiere in Copenhagen on December 21, 1879 (137 years ago).

As the old saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same!"

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In George Bernard Shaw's social comedy, Pygmalion (which became the source for 1956's hit musical, My Fair Lady), Eliza Doolittle undergoes a transformation which allows her to rise above her social class by dropping her Cockney accent and learning how to speak proper English. After being taken to a high society event where she performs flawlessly, Eliza realizes that she has merely been used as a toy by Professor Higgins and cries "What about me? What's to become of me?"

Later in the play, when Higgins and Colonel Pickering visit Higgins's mother at her home, Eliza tells Colonel Pickering one of the main reasons why she left the security of a pampered life at 27-A Wimpole Street.
"You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will."
It's no secret that Shaw was deeply impressed by Henrik Ibsen's play, A Doll's House, when he first saw it performed. Although Ibsen's writing may seem rather stilted and clinical to a modern audience, the gender politics underlying Nora's decision to rebel against her husband have never lost their power. Consider this clip from a 1973 film adaptation of Ibsen's play in which Jane Fonda portrays Nora opposite David Warner's Torvald:


When Shotgun Players announced that it would be staging A Doll's House using Ingmar Bergman's pared-down script (translated by Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker), director Beth Wilmurt had a specific concept in mind.



Ibsen stressed that he did not write A Doll's House to consciously support any women's rights movement but, instead, to invite audiences to consider deeper issues of humanity in a society wherein women's roles were so totally (and patronizingly) defined by men. As the play begins, the audience sees Nora (Jessma Evans) coming home with a shopping bag full of items she has purchased. Even though her husband, Torvald (Kevin Kemp), has recently been promoted to the position of bank manager, they have been living a spartan existence for quite some time and seem to be free of any personal debts. Or are they?

Torvald has no idea of the extreme measures Nora undertook to finance a year's sabbatical in Italy for their family while her husband recuperated from an illness. Oblivious to the fact that his good friend, Dr. Rank (Michael J. Asberry), is deeply in love with Nora, Torvald is equally clueless that one of the bank's current employees, Nils Krogstad (Adam Elder), might have cause to blackmail its new manager.

Kevin Kemp (Torvald) and Jessma Evans (Nora) in a
scene from Ingmar Bergman's Nora (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Nora's carefully woven web of lies starts to unravel with the arrival of Christine Linde (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), an old friend from days gone by who, after several years spent living abroad, has returned to town as a widow. While Nora babbles on about the superficial sacrifices she must make in order to survive, Christine calmly explains the much harsher realities she faced after her husband's death left her without any income.

Christine hopes that Nora can put in a good word with Torvald (who might be able to hire Christine for a job at the bank). Although Torvald is agreeable to Nora's suggestion, he has no idea that by replacing Krogstad (a single father who already fears that he might lose his job) with Christine, he could open up an old wound between two former lovers. As relationships go, it's complicated.

The cast of Nora at Shotgun Players (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Working on Maya Linke's stark yet oddly surprising unit set (with costumes by Maggie Whitaker), Wilmurt's ensemble underplays much of the performance. As one might expect in a 19th-century male-dominated society where women are basically seen as support staff whose role it is to bear children for their husbands and not bother their pretty little minds with weighty thoughts, Nora's insatiable curiosity causes problems in her marriage.

Having acted independently of her husband when she finagled the funds to pay for their year in Italy, Nora has developed a taste for business deals and the financial rewards they can bring. With payments coming due on her promissory note, she must now find a way to come up with some cash without arousing Torvald's suspicions.

Like many a banker, Torvald is a control freak and, like many husbands, he can be incredibly condescending to "the little woman" who is his wife. When A Doll's House was first produced in theatres across Europe, it created quite a scandal. Some actresses refused to portray a character who would desert her husband and abandon their children for such selfish reasons. However, with sound design by Matt Stines that provides a steady undercurrent of suspense, Nora's determination to stand up for own needs seems strikingly modern (think credit card debt, pussy hats, and social networking).

Poster art for the Shotgun Players production of Nora

As I left the theatre on opening night, I couldn't help thinking of how Nora's angst reminded me of Charity Hope Valentine's burning question: "Where Am I Going?"


Performances of Nora continue at the Shotgun Players in Berkeley through April 16 (click here for tickets).

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In 1983, the musical adaptation of La Cage aux Folles opened on Broadway at the Palace Theatre with a cast headed by Gene Barry as Georges and George Hearn as Albin. With the AIDS epidemic rapidly spreading out of control, increased levels of homophobia could be felt throughout the country. As a result, Albin's Act I finale ("I Am What I Am") became a popular anthem for the LGBT community.

Although La Cage aux Folles returned to Broadway in 2004 and 2010, it wasn't until February 15, 2011, when Harvey Fierstein took over the role of Albin, that audiences saw the show's librettist bring his unique personality and voice to the role.


Whereas "I Am What I Am" took on special meaning for LGBT people struggling to come out of the closet (as well as those who were fighting for their lives), it's important to remember that back in 1983 there was very little attention devoted to transgender people in the gay movement. In 2007, when Democrats were trying to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Barney Frank (along with Representatives George Miller and Tammy Baldwin) realized that they would not be able to secure enough votes for the bill if gender identity (as well as sexual orientation) could be used as a qualifying factor in determining whether or not a person had been discriminated against.

The bill (minus the term "gender identity") passed in the House of Representatives, but died in the Senate (President George W. Bush had vowed to veto it if it reached his desk). Despite the support of President Obama, subsequent versions of the bill that were introduced in 2009, 2011, and 2013 with "gender identity" in the text failed to make it to the Oval Office for signing.

With the current wave of transphobia spiked by "bathroom bills" in North Carolina and other states, it seems likely that "I Am What I Am" could become an anthem for a new generation of LGBT people, with a specific emphasis on the trans community. That's only part of why the New Conservatory Theatre Center's world premiere production of Everything That's Beautiful is so timely. It also happens to be a damned good play.

William Giammona (Luke), Dana Zook (Jess), and Mattea Fountain
(Morgan) in a scene from Everything That's Beautiful
(Photo by: Lois Tema) 

The protagonist of Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's powerful drama is eight-year-old Morgan (Mattea Fountain), who was born as a boy but is determined to live as a girl. Morgan's hatred of his penis has already manifested itself in disturbing behavior, such as using a cigarette lighter to disfigure all of his GI Joe dolls.

In order to protect their child and give Morgan the best possible chance to grow up without being constantly judged by everyone, Luke (William Giammona) and Jess (Dana Zook) have made the decision to sell their home in a small town in Pennsylvania and move to New York City. While Morgan is delighted with their plans, her 15-year-old brother, Theo (Nick Moore), resents having to leave his friends behind and play second fiddle to Morgan's situation.

Theo (Nick Moore) and Morgan (Mattea Fountain) in a scene
from Everything That's Beautiful (Photo by: Lois Tema)

The transition to life in a big city proves to be a lot tougher than expected. In addition to moving from a house to a small apartment, the higher cost of living forces Jess to seek out waitress work in a cafe while Luke ends up doing maintenance work for a seaside water park that includes a Mermaid show. While Jess is eager to make contact with Dr. Miller (Tim Huls), a family counselor with a specialty in working with families who have transgender children, Luke fails to show up for their initial appointment.

An attempt to teach Morgan how to swim leads to a chance meeting between Luke and one of the mermaids who is working at the water park as a summer job. While Gaby (April Deutschle) is more than happy to work with Morgan, she also attracts the attention of the child's father. Meanwhile, a shy conservative consultant named Will (also played by Tim Huls) has been trying to strike up a friendship with Jess at the cafe while he struggles to get up the courage to ask her out on a date.

Tim Huls (Will) and Dana Zook (Jess) in a scene from
Everything That's Beautiful (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

A near-fatal accident puts the family into crisis mode, with plenty of blame to go all around. When Luke finally gets up the courage to visit Dr. Miller,  he's surprised to discover that the psychologist had a brother who was transgender. As they start to work on Luke's feelings of shame as a man and the loss of the son he will no longer have, Luke also starts to work toward bringing his family back together. Through it all, the resilience of a small child proves to be the key factor which can strengthen the family and point them down a path toward healing their emotional wounds (like many LGBT people, Morgan often seems wise beyond her years).

William Giammona (Luke) and April Deutschle (Gaby) in a scene
from Everything That's Beautiful (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Everything That’s Beautiful was developed as part of NCTC’s New Play Development Lab and directed with compelling sensitivity by the company's Artistic Director, Ed Decker. The production boasts a unique, colorful, and ingeniously designed unit set by Devin Kasper along with costumes (including a mermaid outfit) by Jorge R. Hernandez. Virginia Herbert's lighting and Sara Witsch's sound design (lots of bubbling water) go a long way toward creating a unique ambiance for Wilder's smartly written and beautifully performed drama.

Morgan (Mattea Fountain) learns how to swim like a mermaid in
a scene from Everything That's Beautiful (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

This is a stunning and extremely timely new work which should have a long life in regional theatres. There isn't a weak link in the cast of Everything That's Beautiful, which continues through April 23 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets).  I can't recommend this play strongly enough!

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