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:

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