Monday, January 22, 2018

Some Day His Prince Will Come

In From Drags to Riches: The Untold Story of Charles Pierce, John Wallraff references a legendary quote from the irrepressible Tallulah Bankhead. When asked at a dinner party whether or not actor Montgomery Clift was gay, the actress replied "Well, I don't know, dahling -- he never sucked my cock!"

Many gay men wish they could have had Tallulah's saucy combination of wit and balls. A woman whose behavior defied inhibition, Bankhead spoke her mind without ever mincing words. History shows us that, despite being overachievers in their professional fields, many LGBT people can be deceptively shy or defensively coy when it comes to revealing their true selves. For some, old emotional and psychological wounds find a healing outlet in their creativity. Others are haunted by paranoia and feelings of inadequacy till the day they die.

As the LGBT rights movement nears its 50th anniversary, religious zealots and homophobes within the Trump administration are brazenly attempting to cut back on hard-earned protections for LGBT Americans. As a result of their animus toward the LGBT community, waves of paranoia are starting to be felt. A timely contrast between the social options available to a closeted homosexual in mid-19th century Russia and today's global LGBT community was highlighted by two recent experiences.

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Born in the spring of 1840, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky grew to become one of Russia's greatest cultural heroes, a prolific composer whose works hold a unique position in the romantic era of classical music. Tchaikovsky's ballets, operas, symphonies, piano and violin concertos are performed around the world throughout the year. Whether one prefers the delicate precision of the Bluebird Variations from Sleeping Beauty, the meticulous ensemble work required during the Entrance of the Swans in Act II of Swan Lake, or the the explosive grandeur of the 1812 Overture (as envisioned by Ken Russell in his 1971 film, The Music Lovers), there is no doubt that the beloved Russian composer knew how to entertain people.

Had Tchaikovsky led a happier life, who knows how that might have affected his music. Although technically married to his pupil, Antonina Miliukova, he went through life as a closeted homosexual whose soul rarely found peace. In her article entitled “The Russian World of Tchaikovsky,” Katie Dai notes that, under Tsar Nicholas I, Russia had “a policy of pre-censorship, preventing writers and artists from addressing forbidden topics. Private behavior was also limited. In 1832, Nicholas outlawed muzhelozhstvo (men lying with men), punishable by a five-year exile to Siberia.”

After Tsar Nicholas died of pneumonia in 1855, he was succeeded by his son (Alexander II). By the time of Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, Alexander II had been assassinated and Alexander III was on the throne. According to Dai, during his lifetime, Tchaikovsky went from life under one harsh, conservative autocrat to living under a ruler who was more liberal and open to reform but was, in turn, followed by another conservative authoritarian.

Hershey Felder in a scene from Our Great Tchaikovsky
(Photo by: Hershey Felder Presents)

For the past two decades, polymath Hershey Felder has traveled the world while performing a series of monologues devoted to the lives of great composers (Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Irving Berlin). Following a hugely successful run of his show about Ludwig van Beethoven, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is now presenting the Bay area premiere of Our Great Tchaikovsky. Written and performed by Felder (who also designed the scenery), the production has been directed by Trevor Hay.

What sets Our Great Tchaikovsky apart from Felder's previous shows is his willingness to explore the impact Tchaikovsky's homosexuality had on the composer's life and how Russia still struggles to cope with the fact that one of its greatest legends was queer. As the show begins, Felder reads a 2013 letter to the audience (supposedly received from a Russian authority) inviting him to perform Our Great Tchaikovsky in Moscow. As he examines Tchaikovsky's life and music, Felder plants the seeds of doubt as to whether he ever could -- or would -- accept the offer.

Why would Felder ignore such a request? The answer is simple. In 2013, Russia's Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, declared that Tchaikovsky was not a homosexual and that "there was no evidence to suggest the 19th-century composer was anything other than a lonely man who failed to find a suitable woman to marry." Vladimir Putin's increasingly homophobic policies toward Russia's LGBT population (as well as toward foreign visitors who might speak favorably or distribute propaganda about of the LGBT community) could put Felder at risk if he were to perform Our Great Tchaikovsky on Russian soil.

Hershey Felder in a scene from Our Great Tchaikovsky
(Photo by: Hershey Felder Presents)

In his program note, the artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (Robert Kelley) recalls his experience after having flown down to San Diego to attend a preview of Felder's new show prior to its world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre.
“Tchaikovsky’s personal story, his angst, his loves, his struggles to conceal himself in a judgmental society, inspired the evening as much as his music; Hershey had made it a story for today, one I could feel resonating powerfully throughout the theatre. This new work was as much about now as it was about then, about these times of intolerance and division around the world. By its finale, I was in tears, cheering along with the sell-out crowd.”
Hershey Felder in a scene from Our Great Tchaikovsky
(Photo by: Hershey Felder Presents)

As with his other shows, Our Great Tchaikovsky is carefully researched, meticulously plotted, and allows Felder to showcase his skill with foreign accents as well as his musicianship. Although the stage is often darker and more foreboding than in some of his other presentations, Felder's storytelling is immeasurably enhanced by the stunning projections and lighting designed by Christopher Ash.

Some may view Felder's shows as the theatrical equivalent of music appreciation courses but, in his research, presentation, and performance, he delves much deeper into the life story and emotional makeup of each composer. Tchaikovsky may well be the most tortured soul in his gallery, a man whose closeted anguish, conflicted emotions, and orgasmic eruptions of joy are so often reflected in his music.  If Felder can face the truth about Tchaikovsky's sexual orientation, there are plenty of audiences around the world eager to hear him discuss it without threatening his artistic freedom.

Performances of Our Great Tchaikovsky continue through February 11 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here for tickets).

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As a happy, healthy, Jewish homosexual atheist with a life-long passion for ocean liners, it didn't take much to lure me into booking passage on RSVP gay cruises to the Mexican Riviera, Caribbean, and Alaska. Now run by tour operators like Atlantis Events and The Cruise, these adventures at sea charter an entire ship for a week (or two) and market the event to LGBT people online. The demographic that books passage closely mirrors those who frequent circuit parties in major cities. As nearly 3,000 LGBT passengers board a ship in the cruise's port of origin, they arrive with mixed expectations.
  • Some are hoping to find new love; others seek the kind of adventure they could never find in their home towns.
  • Some are traveling with a sizable contingent of friends; others are eager to experience what they imagine will be a gay Utopia populated with hunky men intensely focused on dancing, drinking, drugging, decadence, and debauchery.
  • Some are experienced travelers who pack lightly; others travel with enough costume changes to exhaust Cher.
A passenger arrives on deck for an afternoon tea dance.

Dream Boat (which will be screened during the upcoming Berlin and Beyond Film Festival) is Tristan Ferland Milewski's documentary about a week spent within such a glittery microcosm. Filmed during a 2016 gay cruise from Lisbon to the Canary Islands aboard the MS Sovereign (the former Sovereign of the Seas), much of the footage focuses on the various costume parties (Ladies night, Neon night, the White Party, a fetish party) and includes such events as a men's race in high heels. For a ship lover like me, some of the film's highlights were overhead drone footage of the Sovereign filmed at sea.

Like many documentaries, Dream Boat captures plenty of background footage taken during dance parties or while passengers are sunbathing and relaxing in the ship's pools. Men in drag are seen relaxing in their cabins, helping each other dress for a costume party, and greeting fellow passengers as they gather at an elevator bank (if you look closely, you'll notice at least one man performing fellatio on another during a late night dance party under the stars).

Ramzi and his partner relax on deck before a tea dance

In between all the costumes and razzle dazzle are shots of hunky gay men posing for photo shoots, talking about what they hope to experience on a gay cruise, discussing the discrimination they have faced at home, and in some cases, their HIV status. Some are terrified of growing old, others are just trying to keep pace with a younger generation of gay men who were spared the horrors of the early years of the AIDS epidemic. The handful of men followed most closely by Milewski include:
  • Dipankar, a native of India who is currently living in Dubai and came out to his family and coworkers before leaving for his cruise. Self-conscious about his physique, he worries that he will not make a big enough impression amongst a sea of muscular men for someone to notice his inner beauty. Although Dipankar discovers that some of his assumptions about what he would find on a gay cruise were the polar opposite of what he experienced, he nevertheless  has trouble explaining to a passenger from Europe why he cannot live an openly gay lifestyle in Dubai's repressive society.
  • Marek was born in Poland and grew up in a very Catholic environment. When he was 13, his father died, leaving Marek to act as "the man of the family" in order to support his mother and sister. Now living in Nottingham, England and working as a fitness trainer, he has the kind of physique many gay men crave, but is not attracted to the more superficial aspects of a gay lifestyle. Marek is more interested in finding a soulmate rather than a quick fuck.
  • Martin is a bearded Austrian photographer who is HIV+ but, thanks to PreP, is living an openly gay life with a renewed sense of sexual freedom and hedonistic joy. He's not just working as a photographer while on board, he's also "working it."
Ramzi is a Palestinian who is now living in Belgium.
  • Ramzi is a Palestinian who moved to Belgium to escape the homophobia in his home town. Although he was fairly skinny when he left home, he is now a handsome, buff gay man with a good sense of humor. Ramzi's somewhat older partner was recently told that his cancer had gone into remission and the two men are celebrating his renewed health. During one of his interviews, Ramzi describes how he told his partner that he had no intention of deserting him during his illness and that he wanted them to stay together forever.
  • Philippe is an older, wheelchair-bound Frenchman who lost sensation in his legs 20 years ago due to a meningitis infection. Although he is traveling with a friend who understands Philippe's disability, he sometimes imagines that the friend is jealous of other men who pay attention to Philippe. Whether attempting to go rock climbing with the help of a harness or carrying signs that offer "Free Hugs" or show a picture of singer Mirielle Matthieu, Philippe's outgoing personality helps him try to make the most out of life. He is keenly aware that his "gay family" offers more love and support than his blood relatives.

Instead of depending on the dance music being blasted all over the ship's decks during parties, Milewski uses a surprisingly understated piano score by My Name Is Claude to give viewers the sensation that, at key moments during his documentary, the camera is guiding them through a gay diorama. As the week at sea progresses, the filmmaker captures crew members sweeping up used condoms left on deck after a late night of partying. Nor does he shrink from passengers who are candid about how they did (or did not) find the love and/or sex they had hoped for.

By the end of Dream Boat, it becomes clear that, in addition to plenty of opportunities to ogle beautiful men, it is possible to be bored, ignored, and rejected on a gay cruise -- the same way some gay men might feel in a gay bar on land. Here's the trailer:

Friday, January 19, 2018

Tilting At Windmills

Recent statistics on the 2017 Broadway season revealed booming ticket sales setting new records as long-run hit shows kept the number of available theatres to a minimum. It's interesting to compare today's theatre industry to what existed 50 years ago.
  • Back then, there were no television ads for shows, no Internet, no online ticketing, and no smartphones with mobile apps offering discount tickets.
  • Nor were there many theatre camps, events like BroadwayCon, or musical theatre programs in middle and high schools.
  • Plays and musicals frequently tried out in several cities before opening on Broadway.
  • Many musicals would be grateful to run for 800 performances (the Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera is currently approaching the 12,500-performance mark) while straight plays were lucky to run for a single season.
  • Forced to vacate one theatre for an incoming play, some productions might perform in three theatres during one season.
  • It was almost inconceivable for a show to premiere off-Broadway and be successful enough to merit an uptown transfer to a Broadway theatre.
  • Nor was there a network of regional nonprofit theatres where producers could invest seed money in a pre-Broadway tryout with the luxury of a guaranteed subscription audience.
  • Ticket prices for a hit Broadway show barely reached $10 for prime orchestra seats.
A two-fer for Sweet Charity (starring Gwen Verdon)
shows top ticket prices for orchestra seats at $9.50

Meanwhile, a building boom was taking place. Both New York and Los Angeles were erecting major performing arts centers which would have a profound impact on the arts in America.
Lost to history is the ANTA Washington Square Theatre, which was originally designed as a prototype for Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre. With a seating capacity of 1,158 (larger than today's Ambassador, Belasco, Bernard B. Jacobs, Booth, Brooks Atkinson, Cort, Ethel Barrymore, Eugene O'Neill, Gerald Schoenfeld, Longacre, Lyceum, Music Box, and Stephen Sondheim theatres), it had been designed as a temporary steel tent and erected on land loaned by New York University. With a thrust stage (quite an innovation for New York theatregoers at the time) and a footprint approximately one third the size of Cirque du Soleil's traveling Grand Chapiteau, the theatre opened in January 1964 and was demolished in 1968.

A scene from the world premiere production of Arthur Miller's
After The Fall at the ANTA Washington Square Theatre

While the ANTA Washington Square Theatre hosted acclaimed productions of Moliere's Tartuffe and Eugene O'Neill's Marco Millions along with the world premieres of two plays by Arthur Miller (After the Fall and Incident at Vichy), its most famous tenant was a new musical by Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh that provided audiences with a stunning coup de theatre. With the audience seated on three sides of the stage, the musicians performing on opposite sides of the theatre, and powerful scenic and lighting design by Howard Bay, each performance began with an overture that sent an electric thrill coursing through the audience.

The original production of Man of La Mancha ran for 2,328 performances, won five Tony awards (including the Tony Award for Best Musical), and introduced audiences to "The Impossible Dream" (a song which became an international megahit). Originally performed without intermission, when Man of La Mancha transferred to older theatres with traditional proscenium stages (such as the 1,424-seat Al Hirshfeld Theatre, the 1,082-seat Eden Theatre, and the 1,505-seat Mark Hellinger Theatre), the show was broken into two acts. Long before performers started wearing body mics, the original cast featured actors with legitimate voices capable of handling the score's operatic ambitions.

In the five decades since its premiere, Man of La Mancha has been been revived on Broadway in 1972, 1977, 1992, and 2002; toured extensively, been staged by numerous regional theatre companies, and been performed by the Madison Opera and Townsend Opera (1992), Portland Opera (1994), Opera Cleveland (1996), Amarillo Opera (1998), Opera Omaha (2001), Spokane Opera and Opera Columbus (2002), Milwaukee's Skylight Opera Theatre (2006), Lyric Opera of San Diego (2007), and Shreveport Opera (2009). A popular vehicle for high schools around the country, it can be performed with a reduced orchestration and has been staged in theatres of every size and shape.

Anthony Aranda (Governor) and Edward Hightower
(Cervantes/Don Quixote) in a scene from Man of La Mancha
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

San Francisco's modest Custom Made Theatre is currently presenting Man of La Mancha in its intimate auditorium under the direction of Brian Katz, who focuses in on the musical's narrative strengths as a play-within-a-play. As with Stephen Sondheim's mammoth Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, downsizing Man of La Mancha for such a tiny venue is accompanied by significant risks and benefits.

Rachel Richman (Aldonza) and Edward Hightower (Cervantes)
in a scene from Man of La Mancha (Photo by: Jay Yamada)
  • Scenery: Because there is not enough room onstage to lower a foreboding staircase into a Spanish Inquisition's dungeon, set designer Daniel Bilodeau has substituted an upstage ramp which descends across the entire width of the stage. A series of movable boxes are employed as tables and platforms.
  • Props: Other than the props needed for Don Quixote, items such as the horse head masks for the muleteers and the mirrors used to reflect Quixote's image as a crazed old man have been eliminated or drastically simplified (a guitarist prancing across the stage does not achieve quite the same impact).
  • Amplification: In a 99-seat theatre, there is no need for body mics. The audience can hear the natural sound of the actors' voices without electronic enhancement.
Edward Hightower as Cervantes/Don Quixote in a scene
from Man of La Mancha (Photo by: Jay Yamada)
  • Audience Proximity: Rather than straining the willful suspension of disbelief, the closeness of Custom Made's audience to the stage puts people within spitting distance of actors who employ the tools of their trade (fake eyebrows, moustache and beard as well as frequent character changes effected with Lindsey Eifert's costumes and critical shifts in Maxx Kurzunski's lighting) to tell an intricate and deeply moving story.
  • Orchestrations: Taking a cue from Scottish stage director John Doyle, Katz has several actors performing on musical instruments during the show. Anthony Aranda's Governor handles percussion, James Grady plays Spanish guitar, and Kimberley Cohan plays flute while doubling as a prisoner. In addition to performing on a melodica, Paul Hogarth appears as a prisoner and muleteer while Emily Jeanes is a violist and prisoner (Dave Leon's robust Sancho Panza plays the euphonium). I was not impressed with the musical arrangements by Brian Allan Hobbs (in a wildly misguided moment, a member of the cast brought a child's baby blue toy piano onstage as part of the accompaniment for Sancho Panza's comedy number, "I Like Him").
Jack O'Reilly (Padre) and Jenny Matteucci (Housekeeper)
in a scene from Man of La Mancha Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Two of the more impressive voices in the ensemble belong to Jenny Matteucci (Maria/Housekeeper) and Jack O'Reilly as the Padre. Although David Leon's Sancho Panza has strong appeal, I found Rachael Richman's Aldonza surprisingly underwhelming. The production's biggest asset is its star, Edward Hightower (recently seen in 42nd Street Moon's production of The Secret Garden), who handles the double role of Cervantes and Don Quixote with impressive vocal strength and dramatic conviction.

Jack O'Reilly (Padre) and Edward Hightower (Cervantes/Don Quixote)
in a scene from Man of La Mancha (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Performances of Man of La Mancha continue through February 17 at the Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets).

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Timing Is Everything

Among the ancient Greeks, Plato is often credited with having shaped Western political philosophy. According to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“He was so self-conscious about how philosophy should be conceived, what its scope and ambitions properly are, and he so transformed the intellectual currents with which he grappled, that the subject of philosophy as it is often conceived (a rigorous and systematic examination of ethical, political, metaphysical, and epistemological issues, armed with a distinctive method) can be called his invention. Few other authors in the history of Western philosophy approximate him in depth and range.”
In Book VI of Republic, Plato expands on the metaphor of a “ship of state” by comparing the governance of a city-state to the command of a naval vessel. Essentially, he posits that “the only men fit to be captain of this ship are philosopher kings, benevolent men with absolute power who have access to the Form of the Good.”

That sounds like a pretty good description of the Obama administration. However, as we near the first anniversary of Donald Trump's ascent to the Presidency, many Americans remain traumatized by the calculated obliteration of Obama's achievements by an incompetent band of wealthy grifters whose level of statesmanship barely rises above a food fight in a school cafeteria. In Book VI of Republic, Plato offers a noteworthy metaphor for a "ship of fools."
“A fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but is a little deaf, has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering -- every one is of the opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.”
Often, as I rise from sleep, flashes of my dreams pass through my mind combined with snippets of musical theatre. On a recent morning, the music was from Andrew Lloyd Webber's score to Sunset Boulevard, ending with Norma Desmond's claim that "We taught the world new ways to dream."

However, after watching a screener of The Final Year, I was reminded of Mr. Lundie's speech in which he reveals the miracle of Brigadoon:
“Two hundred years ago the Highlands of Scotland were plagued with witches. Here in Brigadoon we had an old minister of the kirk named Mr. Forsythe. He began to wonder if there wasn’t somethin’ he could do to protect the folk of his parish not only from them but from all the evils that might come to Brigadoon from the outside world after he died. Finally, on an early Wednesday morn right after midnight, Mr. Forsythe went out to a hill beyond Brigadoon an’ made his prayer to God. There in the hush of a sleepin’ world he asked God that night to make Brigadoon an’ all the people in it vanish into the Highland mist. Vanish, but not for always. It would return jus’ as it were for one day every hundred years. An’ when we awoke the next day, it was a hundred years later.”
I fervently hope that Americans don't have to wait another century before we have an administration as free of scandal as Barack Obama's. One of my guilty pleasures during that time was watching the West Wing Week episodes that documented Obama's travels and the people he met as part of his Presidency.

Filmed over 90 days in 21 countries, Greg Barker's new documentary (which will premiere on HBO this weekend) follows Secretary of State John Kerry, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, Ben Rhodes from September 2015 (when President Obama visited the United Nations General Assembly) until the early morning hours of January 20, 2017. As Barker explains:
"This film is my sixth collaboration with my longtime producers John Battsek and Julie Goldman, and it was by far the most challenging in terms of access, storytelling, and the sheer logistics involved when filming inside what’s known as 'the POTUS bubble,' especially overseas. Editorially, John, Julie and I always recognized that this film would be controversial (the very nature of its subject matter almost guaranteed that, but my intention all along was to make a film that went beyond the politics of the moment, and helped foster a wider discussion about how America can and should relate to the wider world). We started with a simple idea: Was it possible, I wondered, to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the last year of a presidency, in the spirit of the classic campaign film The War Room, only in reverse? Senior officials inside the U.S. national security apparatus are not used to having a documentary film crew hang around for months on end. We all took a leap of faith and began filming, slowly at first to build trust and figure out the broad parameters of how and when we could be present with cameras."
Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, John Kerry, and
President Barack Obama in a scene from The Final Year
"As anyone who has worked in government knows, behind the access, the crises of the moment, and the elusive but seductive sense of power, there is simply an enormous amount of hard, usually thankless work. Witnessing that up close, and seeing how dedicated our public servants are, was truly humbling and inspiring -- honestly the greatest privilege of my professional life. It was only very late in the process that I realized what the film wanted to become. This is a story about a small group of people who came together nearly a decade ago, rallying behind a man and his cause. They set out to change the world, and against all expectations, found themselves in a position to effect that change. They believed they could redefine American foreign policy, promote diplomacy over large-scale military action, and alter how we as a nation think about questions of war and peace. They had their share of victories (the Iran deal, climate change, Cuba) and despite their own internal divisions over one of the toughest foreign policy questions of our age (Syria), at the outset of 2016 they believed they had largely succeeded, and that their legacy would define U.S. foreign policy for decades to come."

Following a year of Trump's aggressive Twitter taunts, The Final Year often seems like the last gasp of a government which relied on a group of qualified adults capable of operating with strategic intelligence rather than an administration driven by malignant narcissism that relies on bombastbellicosity, and belligerence for its tools of diplomacy. With aching clarity, the film documents the personal and professional lifestyles of self-avowed public servants devoted to helping others less fortunate than themselves and offers a stark contrast between the exhausting pace of working at the top levels of government versus Trump's persistent golfing and bloated concept of "executive time." As Barker astutely notes:
"This was the end of an era (everyone felt it) and, for me personally, the end of an epic 15-month film shoot that took me on a once-in-a-career journey inside the workings of our foreign policy machinery. In retrospect, what our cameras captured was more than just high-ranking government officials at work, as fascinating and informative as that may be. We captured a worldview, an attitude, an approach to international affairs that we now know was fleeting and unique to a particular moment."
Poster art for The Final Year

As one watches Barker's documentary, the grim determination with which Trump and his associates have gutted the Department of State (and numerous other governmental agencies) becomes a growing source of anguish made increasingly acute by one's awareness of the power-hungry, self-serving assholes now running the government. In a perverse way, The Final Year is as much a political morality tale as any of the desperate warnings about the ongoing effects of climate change. It offers a grim lesson in how hard foreign policy work can be and how quickly any social or political gains can be lost in the hands of incompetent fools.

Those who applauded Obama's achievements in regaining the trust of America's allies and resurrecting America's image as a global leader can only watch The Final Year in a state of shock and awe knowing what happened once Donald Trump moved into the White House. On a positive note, aviation fans will be thrilled by some of the footage of Air Force One. Here's the trailer:

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A note to readers of My Cultural Landscape. For the past 10 years my columns have also been appearing in the arts section of HuffPost. This morning I received notice that HuffPost has discontinued its platform for contributors (this is not surprising considering the recent acquisition by Verizon). If any friends ask why they can't find my columns on HuffPost, please let them know about this change.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Powering Through An Identity Crisis

A common trope for many people is to claim that, in a critical moment, their entire life flashed before their eyes. That sounds like a grand way to fantasize about a sudden return to the womb or, perhaps, the cue for making one's final exit from the world stage. However, sometimes the feeling that one's life is flashing before one's eyes accompanies the realization that a long-held assumption has been proven wrong and it's time to reassess one's future choices.

What could happen if, instead of assuming impending failure, people chose to embrace success? Those of us who have attempted various diets might learn that positive results can be accompanied by confounding side effects. Although our physiques may have changed for the better, our emotions basically remain the same.
  • I can still remember the parking attendant who, 50 years ago, told me that I wouldn't be so funny if I lost a lot of weight. And then, of course, there was the roommate (and supposedly close friend) who stated "I guess it's okay to be seen with you now that you're not so fat."
  • Whether one is straight, gay, male, female, out of the dating market by choice, or recently widowed, the realization that another person is checking you out can deliver a rude or extremely pleasant shock.

Two recently-visited monologues were based on the life experiences of performers whose long-held assumptions about themselves got blown to bits without any warning. One was hilariously upbeat, self-deprecating, and told with the ebullience of a young gay man who loves to push the envelope as far as he can. The other was the much more sobering tale of a middle-aged single mother whose career was sidelined and family life upended after she suffered a stroke.

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One would be hard pressed not to enjoy Ginger Nation. Written and performed by Shawn Hitchins, this vastly entertaining hour-long film (which will be screened during San Francisco's 2018 SFIndiefest) captures a performance of his monologue. As a gay redhead who can't stay out in the sun for very long, Hitchins is quick to mine punch lines from his multifaceted minority status.
"I was born in a hayfield, educated in a swamp, and still have all my own teeth. I live in constant fear that I have food in my teeth, that my handwriting makes a grocery list look like a death threat, and that every day I leave the house dressed like a member of a women’s curling team. I’ve made a career by oversharing the sordid details of my life. Almost weekly, my gender is openly questioned by some asshole stranger on the street. When not grazing the stage, winning awards, and garnering rave reviews, I’m writing works of neurotica™ and donating my semen to select lesbians. My next big life goal is to create a celebrity fragrance that combines my two favorite scents: white vinegar and the Bulk Barn."

An extremely affable performer with a keen sense of timing who obviously enjoys working a room, Hitchins debuted his one-man show entitled Survival of the Fiercest at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where he made an offhand joke about the need for redheads to have a "Ginger Pride Day." While riffing on how redheads could become an endangered species (Hitchins claims that Denmark refuses sperm donations from "Gingers" because nobody wants the ginger DNA that they already have in inventory), he was shocked to discover some Scots taking him seriously. The rest, as he explains in the following interview, is history.

Although the red-headed Canadian comic's new book (A Brief History of Oversharing: One Ginger's Anthology of Humiliation) is available online, the bulk of Ginger Nation is dedicated to Shawn's hilarious tale of how he became a sperm donor for two close lesbian friends who wanted a child. Among the horrors he encountered were having to jerk off in bathrooms whose aesthetics could challenge any gay man's gag reflex as well as the emotional trauma of being required to donate a load of sperm on command whenever his lesbian friend's hormones were surging. Shawn's surprise at realizing he is about to become a father (coupled with his mischievous delight at being able to shock his conservative parents while visiting their farm for Thanksgiving) adds greatly to the ribald joy of his storytelling.

* * * * * * * * *
The transition between the first two movements of Ottorino Resphigi's 1924 symphonic poem, The Pines of Rome, is marked by a darkly melodramatic shift in mood. As described in Wikipedia:
“The first movement portrays children playing by the pine trees in the Villa Borghese gardens, dancing the Italian equivalent of the nursery rhymeRing a Ring o' Roses’ and ‘mimicking marching soldiers and battles; twittering and shrieking like swallows.’ The Villa Borghese, a villa located within the grounds, is a monument to the Borghese family, who dominated the city in the early 17th century.”
“In the second movement, the children suddenly disappear and shadows of pine trees that overhang the entrance of a catacomb dominate. It is a majestic dirge, conjuring up the picture of a solitary chapel in the deserted Campagna; open land, with a few pine trees silhouetted against the sky. A hymn is heard (specifically the Kyrie ad libitum 1, Clemens Rector; and the Sanctus from Mass IX, Cum jubilo), the sound rising and sinking again into some sort of catacomb, the subterranean cavern in which the dead are immured. An offstage trumpet plays the Sanctus hymn. Lower orchestral instruments, plus the organ pedal at 16' and 32' pitch, suggest the subterranean nature of the catacombs, while the trombones and horns represent priests chanting.”
Directed by Rebecca Fisher and developed with the help of David Ford, a poignant monologue by Diane Barnes entitled My Stroke of Luck deals with her experience of suffering a stroke in July 2005 and subsequently being forced into a startling role reversal as she became a helpless child whose adopted sons would cook for her while she embarked on an extensive course of rehabilitation.

Having grown up in New York (and graduated from Stanford University and the Yale University School of Medicine), Barnes decided to adopt a child while in her late thirties. Although, as a single mother, she had hoped to nurture an exceptionally bright child, her son Logan began to show signs of having special needs. Her second adoptee, Takeshi (T.K.), turned out to be a gifted child.

Prior to the July 4th weekend in 2005, Barnes (who is also a sculptor and silversmith) was driving 14-year-old Logan to the Novato Horsemen Ranch while battling what felt like the worst headache of her life. As a board-certified specialist in diagnostic radiology employed at the Kaiser Hospital in San Rafael, part of her daily work included diagnosing brain hemorrhages in patients who had suffered a stroke. However, as a devoted parent, the 55-year-old physician decided to "power through" her responsibilities to her sons and take care of her headache later.

A scene from My Stroke of Luck (Photo by: Harris and Mattei)

Doctors have a reputation for being difficult patients and Barnes, whose medical training taught her that the average patient loses 1.9 million brain cells for every minute that a stroke goes untreated, didn't arrive at the hospital until 20 hours later. A CT scan revealed a hemorrhagic stroke in her brain's dominant left hemisphere. From that point on, her life was radically changed. For a long time, the word salad coming from her mouth made no sense to people around her, even though Barnes was crystal clear in her own mind about what she was trying to say. At a certain point she had to return to work on a part-time basis (a move dictated by her insurance company).

In 2010, Barnes took an early buyout from her employer and began a course in writing and performing at The Marsh. Although her initial efforts were focused on her story of a single mother who adopted two children, she came to realize that much of what she was writing also involved her experience as a stroke victim. The first time she performed a fragment of what would eventually become My Stroke of Luck was on December 13, 2013. Beginning in May of 2016, Barnes worked on performing and refining her monologue at fringe festivals.

A scene from My Stroke of Luck (Photo by: Harris and Mattei)

Now a Meisner-trained actor, Diane completed The American Conservatory Theater’s Summer Training Congress (modern and classic) and studied with Anna Deveare Smith, Ann Randolph, Keith Johnstone, and The D’ell Arte School of Physical Drama. As she describes the shock and isolation she felt as a high achiever who was suddenly deprived of movement and speech, Barnes crams a great deal of medical information into her 80-minute monologue.

My Stroke of Luck details the internal anguish and confusion Barnes endured while trying to regain control of her mind and body as she watched her two teenage sons drift away from her  emotionally when she needed to be there for them as a mother. A deeply moving part of her story details how a call to a professional colleague saved her oldest son from falling into a "thug" lifestyle. As she explains on her blog:
"My show is really about overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds -- of how love triumphs over adversity and how you can turn anything into an opportunity. Take it from a brain injury survivor: life is FAR too-o-o-o short for one-year plans! Not that I don't have vision, but I'm wedded neither to the steps, nor the outcome. As an introvert, promotion goes against my grain. But now I need to do it. I'm grateful that I learned a lot about self promotion on the Fringe circuit with My Stroke of Luck (including cultivating some of that shamelessness)."
"Last year, I decided I would count my gratitudes. For a while, I wrote them daily, and stuffed them into a clear cookie jar. If I'd started out to write an award-winning solo show of my experience of stroke, I doubt that I'd ever have done it. But by being open to the unfolding, writing what compelled me, running through open doors, and taking chances, here I am -- more successful than I'd dared to dream."
While Barnes is far from being "a stage animal" (her performance is not overly histrionic), her stage presence glows with her personal warmth and the inner strength of someone who has worked hard to recover from a brain injury. Performances of My Stroke of Luck continue through February 3 at The Marsh (click here for tickets).

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Shining Light On Long-Hidden Kernels of Truth

When TiVo machines hit the market, I became an early fan of digital video recorder (DVR) technology. However, I soon noticed that while some users couldn't wait to come home from work and discover what TiVo had chosen for them to watch, I had absolutely no interest in using its "learning" feature. Not only did I have too many films and programs I already knew I wanted to watch, I understood that there were only so many hours of viewing time available to me on any given day.

During that period I became more acutely aware of how a person's curiosity sparks emotionally-driven choices that an algorithm might miss. Whereas many online publications now deliver daily lists of hyperlinked articles to subscribers in a convenient email format, I still like to poke around certain websites in search of an oddity that will trigger my curiosity. The same thing happens when I'm browsing through the program listings for an upcoming film festival. After I've made my initial selections based on the print descriptions for each film, I'm often surprised at how quickly I will reject a potential choice because of the style of editing and use of music in the film's trailer.

What makes one person think differently from another? A recent feature on offered two valuable quotes from theatrical powerhouses. Lin-Manuel Miranda stated that:
"I really figured out who I was by being involved in high school theatre -- by finding my tribe and finding the people who were older and younger than me and consumed by the same thing: we wanted to make stuff. We didn't just want to hang out, there was plenty of that. I never understood that. You're just wasting time sitting in the stairwell. What are you making? What are you doing?"
Oskar Eustis (the Artistic Director of The Public Theatre in New York) recalled that:
"For my entire time growing up, I was too loud, I talked too much, I was way too eager, too enthusiastic. I thought too hard, I laughed too loud, and I cried too easily. As soon as I was in the theatre, I felt I found people who got me, and suddenly all of those things that were social negatives, out in the real world were social positives."

How humans organize facts and emotions in their mind is a constant source of wonder. The recent death of Ben Barres marked the end of a brilliant career which, among other things, made critical discoveries about the function and importance of glial cells (see Ed Yong's moving tribute in The Atlantic entitled The Transgender Scientist Who Changed How We See the Brain). Within the scientific community, the personal path Barres followed while transitioning from female to male made him a role model whose first-hand experience clearly demonstrated the rampant levels of sexism within the field of scientific research.

While many journalists spent December compiling lists of the 10 best and/or worst items of interest to them in 2017, others chose to publish powerful, thought-provoking pieces about how art makes us more human. Live theatre demands a unique type of commitment from artists as well as involvement from their audiences. At its simplest level, this means that everyone needs to pay attention to what's happening. If you're an artist whose mind wanders, you could flub a line, miss a cue, or suddenly find yourself "not present in the moment." If you're a member of the audience who starts nodding off, you could open your eyes to discover an actor staring you in the face.

On December 29, the recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Pakistani-American playwright Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced, The Invisible Hand, Junk), published a provocative piece in The New York Times entitled An Antidote to Digital Dehumanization? Live Theater. Two days later, Wesley Morris followed suit with The Acrobatic Artwork That Pretty Much Sums Up 2017, an article describing a performance piece by Yoann Bourgeois entitled The Mechanics of History that he witnessed at the Panthéon in Paris.

Noted Bay area acrobat/clown, Ross Travis, wrote a lovely piece on the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre's Alumni Blog entitled Because of Dell Arte ... I’m a Risk Junky that recently caught my attention. I first encountered Travis at the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival when he appeared as an emaciated fool in Naked Empire Bouffon's production of You Killed Hamlet, or Guilty Creatures Sitting At A Play. Two years ago, he launched his own company: Antic in a Drain. In his blog post, Travis wrote:
Risk is one of the tenets of Dell’Arte’s pedagogy: Effort, Risk, Momentum, Joy. During my time at the school I got to hone my appetite and aptitude for being a danger ranger. My chief interest and joy swiftly became toying, pushing, flicking, prodding, trampling and destroying that ‘sacred space’ between audience and performer -- that ubiquitous fourth wall. I also became interested in that moment where nobody in the theatre space (audience and performers alike) is sure of what’s going to happen next. When a performer makes a mistake, is caught by surprise, forgets their line, gets heckled by the audience; when something happens unexpectedly -- it’s a moment of pure reality. At Dell’Arte, I learned that another way to find this moment is by playing onstage as an athlete and to approach scenes as games. The risk of failure and how players navigate it is a main reason sports are so popular. That risk is what makes crowds sit forward, choose sides, scream and yell.”
“I used to dream of a day where theatre shows could have the same effect as a football game and take place in a stadium with the audience painting their faces, waving foam fingers and cheering and jeering the actor players. The closest modern theatrical medium I’ve found to this is the circus and that’s where I’ve ended up. I feel grateful to Dell’Arte not only for giving me one of the best years of my life but for helping to foster my addiction to physical and emotional risk which has become the cornerstone of my artistic trip. To my mind, bouffon is the riskiest theatrical territory because it requires every single tool in an actor’s toolbox (often all at the same time). Bouffons, in their pure essence, are beings that can do and be anything. They are funhouse mirror reflections of the world around them, which requires a performer to be hyper aware and empathetic, reflexively sharp, have a large performative skill set, elite physicality, fearlessness of looking stupid, commitment to portraying taboo subject matter, and an immense pleasure in seeking out risky situations like a fiend.”

The final performance on my 2017 calendar delivered a sweet surprise. Somehow, in between reading an initial notice about the play and heading to the Berkeley City Club, I had assumed that Ira Hauptman's play, Partition, was about 1947's geographic partition imposed between India and Pakistan by the British. I was sorely and happily mistaken (partly because of a curious change in my own career path).

Shortly after beginning my undergraduate years at Brooklyn College (on the misguided assumption that I could major in math), I came to the painful realization that I was hopelessly lost when it came to the concepts underlying "new math." When it became obvious that I was going to flunk one of my early courses, I realized that I had to find a new major. Since most of my passion at the time was focused on attending live performances of opera and theatre (without having the slightest idea where it might lead me), I switched over to the Department of Speech and Theatre with a concentration on theatre history. I have never regretted that decision.

Hauptman's play focuses on two brilliant mathematicians whose shared interest in prime numbers brought them together during the second decade of the 20th century.
Heren Patel as Srinivasa Ramanujan in a scene from Partition
(Photo by: John Held)

Presented by Indra's Net Theatre Company and directed by Bruce Coughran, Partition shows how brilliant minds can be affected (for better or worse) by the culture in which they develop. In a classic case of nature versus nurture, Hardy is seen as a repressed and unfeeling academic paralyzed by Ramanujan's need for some human warmth. Where Hardy puts all his focus and faith into rigorously structured mathematical proofs, Ramanujan (a strict vegetarian who credits his discoveries to a Hindu family goddess who appears to him in his dreams) is as much a source of wonderment and frustration to his mentor as Mozart might have been to Salieri.

Billed as "a fantasy based on the life of this legendary Indian clerk who came up with mathematical theorems that rivaled those of any mathematician in history," Hauptman's play makes solid use of magical realism. Not only does Ramanujan interact in his dreams with the Goddess, Namagiri of Namakkal, when his health starts to decline and the young man sinks into a state of depression, Hardy gives him a copy of Fermat's last theorem (initially posited in 1637 and finally proven after 357 years by Andrew Wiles in 1994) to study.

Audiences who fear extended discussions of mathematics need not fear attending Hauptman's play which, in many ways, probes the cultural conflicts stemming from Hardy's white privilege (combined with an academic's glaring lack of empathy) and Ramanujan's humility and gratitude to the Goddess he worships as a muse. Ramanujan's frustration with trying to prove Fermat's last theorem leads to some highly entertaining scenes in an alternate universe where the Goddess tries to pry the mathematical proof of the theorem from the spirit of Pierre de Fermat (which remains as horny in death as it might have been while Fermat was alive). In his Director’s Note, Coughran stresses that:
“In the same way painters use color, musicians use sound, and poets use words, Hardy and Ramanujan used numbers in a quest for the intrinsic, profound beauty they contained. Hardy (the atheist) and Ramanujan (the devout Hindu) were, in a sense, on the same spiritual quest. This created one of the most unusual and powerful working relationships in the history of the sciences. I think it was that quest for the ‘divine’ in mathematics that drew me to this play. In the theater, we often see ourselves as on a similar quest. Theater folk sometimes use words like ‘truth’ or ‘authenticity’ to describe it. But these words are poor substitutes for something that cannot be really named; something that we ‘know when we see it.’ People go to the theater hoping to find it, even though they may never acknowledge that is what they are doing. Certainly most (I would say almost all) theater professionals choose this as a profession because of some profoundly personal experience of ‘it’ that they had in a theater somewhere.”
Marco Aponte as Pierre de Fermat with Aparna Krishnamoorthy as
the Goddess, Namagiri of Namakkal, in a scene from Partition
(Photo by: John Feld)
“The quest for beauty might be both the deepest of human desires, and the hardest to describe. The dance of life, or of the gods, may be closer to us than we ever think. And maybe the beauty of an equation can get us closer to that as well. G.H. Hardy was famously insistent that his work was ‘pure mathematics,’ devoid of any application. He said ‘My work does not and will not have any effect on any applied problem.’ Despite his desires, some of Hardy’s work did find wide-ranging application. The Hardy-Weinberg principle became the foundation of population biology. Some of his work with Ramanujan forms the basis for describing energy levels in atoms and is widely used in quantum mechanics. So I think a play about the inspiration that comes from the search for theorems of ‘pure mathematics’ is not nearly as odd a thing as you might casually think.”
Aparna Krishnamoorthy as the Goddess, Namagiri of Namakkal,
with Marco Aponte as Pierre de Fermat in a scene from Partition
(Photo by: John Feld)

While the bulk of the evening rests on the able shoulders of Alan Coyne as Hardy and Heren Patel as Ramanujan, under Coughran's direction Aparna Krishnamoorthy scores strongly as the Goddess, with David Boyll lending support as Alfred Billington and Marco Aponte doubling as a London policeman and Fermat's spirit.

Performances of Partition continue through January 14 at the Berkeley City Club (click here for tickets).