Saturday, May 5, 2018

Weapons of Mass Seduction

First performed in 411 B.C., Lysistrata offers one of the earliest depictions of how to weaponize sex. In his anti-war comedy about the battle between the sexes, Aristophanes has his outspoken and strategically-inspired heroine convince the women of ancient Greece to withhold all sexual activity from men until they bring an end to the Peloponnesian War. A simple synopsis of the plot can be viewed in the following video clip.

Whereas, throughout history, the penis has been worshipped as a symbol of dominance and fertility (which, in days of yore, led to much raping and pillaging), the mere mention of the ferocious vagina dentata of folklore (which could easily tear a man's penis to shreds) can still provoke fear and squirming in heterosexual men.

However, gay men often view the penis [up close] and through a very different lens. In the good old days when one-handed fiction was proudly featured in such beefcake publications as Stallion, Manscape, Drummer, Friction, Inches, and Honcho, their purple prose often contained endearingly laughable metaphors. Many an orgasm included the assertion that a man had spontaneously "come in buckets" while the generously endowed studs drawn by Tom of Finland caused admirers to wish they could spend some time with "the dick of death."

When GRID progressed to HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s, "the dick of death" tooik on a new symbolism which stripped the fun out of using that term in sexual fantasies. Two stories with strong sexual content demonstrate how frequent use of sexual language can have a provocative impact on hot-topic issues. As Dan Rather wrote in a recent Facebook post:
"We have seen the power of artists in the past to channel societal currents into meaningful statements and expressions -- ones that change hearts, minds, and history. It is the genius of artistic expression that can convey understanding within an economy of time or space. When I crave deeper truths beyond a compendium of facts, I long for the power of art -- a play, a song, a painting, a film."
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One of the more entertaining documentaries being screened during CAAMFest 2018 is entitled Come and Take It. Ellen Spiro and PJ Raval's feisty 24-minute short focuses on what has proudly come to be known as "The Great Texas Dildo Revolt." The filmmakers chose their title wisely. According to Wikipedia:
"Come and Take It" is a historic slogan, first used in 480 BC in the Battle of Thermopylae as "Molon labe" by Spartan King Leonidas I as a defiant answer and last stand to the surrender demanded by the Persian Army, and later in 1778 at Fort Morris in the Province of Georgia during the American revolution, and in 1835 at the Battle of Gonzales during the Texas Revolution."
Poster art for Come and Take It

The film's protagonist is Jessica Jin, an Asian-American woman who graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and decided to use a ridiculous double standard in Texas law as a way to fight for gun control. Jin's story is a perfect example of how a sense of humor, fierce determination, and a social media presence can combine to spark a powerful exercise in consciousness raising.

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman (who later became known as the "Texas Tower Sniper") shot and killed 11 people and wounded 31 others from his perch on the 28th floor observation deck of the university's tower before being shot and killed by police. Students at UT-Austin had good reason to be concerned when, 50 years later, Texas legislators passed 2016's "Campus Carry" law allowing loaded handguns on the campuses of public universities.

A proud #CocksNotGlocks protester

Well aware of the absurdity in allowing people in Texas to carry loaded handguns while outlawing sales of sex toys, Jin's casual comment posted online led to the hashtag #CocksNotGlocks. As Wikipedia notes:
"In 1973, the Texas Legislature passed Section 43.21 of the Texas Penal Code, which, in part, prohibited the sale or promotion of 'obscene devices,' being defined as 'a device including a dildo or artificial vagina, designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.' The legislation was last updated in 2003, and Section 43.23 currently states 'A person commits an offense if, knowing its content and character, he wholesale promotes or possesses with intent to wholesale promote any obscene material or obscene device.'"
Jennifer Jin carries a giant phallus during a #CocksNotClocks protest

Jin and her friends decided to fight fire with fire. If people could openly carry handguns on campus, there was no reason why protesters couldn't openly carry dildos with an equal level of political conviction. With more than 5,000 dildos donated to a planned demonstration on campus, UT students rallied to the cause (Jin even strapped a dildo to her backpack while shopping at Home Depot).

While Come and Take It effectively mixes humor and art with politics, it also offers an eerie hint at how the students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida would use their media savvy to fight for a cause they had good reason to care about.

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With revivals of Angels in America and The Boys in the Band currently playing on Broadway, 2018 is making news as a celebration of two pivotal works of gay theatre. Although 50 years have passed since the original production of The Boys in the Band opened off-Broadway and 25 years since the second half of Angels in America (Perestroika) opened on Broadway, it's important to recall the highly-politicized times in which they were written.
Randy Harrison (Prior Walter) and Caldwell Tidicue (Belize) in a scene from
Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In his program note for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's new production of Angels in America, playwright Tony Kushner draws a painful parallel between the political tensions when he was writing his prize-winning play and today's political climate.
“What was clear, not just to me, but a lot of people in the early ‘80s, was that Reagan was a huge shift in norms. Reagan and Bush started out by committing treason. They negotiated with the Shah to hang on to the American hostages until the day of the inauguration so they could stage this thing. They negotiated as private citizens with a foreign power. Sound familiar? That was the very first thing that they did. You could go back to the Miami Conventions in 1960 and see how Republicans were beginning to talk about a radical rejection of one’s loyalty to anything but oneself which, of course, is going to include country. It’s the end of the thing that Lincoln kept saying: you must have some kind of secular religion, a belief in the union, in the Constitution. Nothing holds us together except our decision to be held together.”
“I saw the National Theatre’s first rehearsal in London right after Trump’s inauguration. The Angel was screaming about ‘Don’t migrate’ and, of course, that had a very different meaning. The idea’s always been that, while the Angels are not Republicans (they’re not stupid, thought-disordered, corrupt, proto-fascist assholes like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan), the Angels are reactionaries in the sense that they’re reacting to a problem and wishing that the world would spin backwards. That we could retreat from what we are doing, from the forward fluxes of time, and go back to something. Which is an impossibility. Which is always destructive. Going forward is also destructive. But going backwards produces monstrosities. That’s why my model for the Angel is always the Politburo circa 1980s. These people who are trying to make something run that has completely run out of gas. The people who were left in charge of it before Gorbachev arrived had no vision at all. They were literally fabulous and dull all at once. Bureaucrats.”

One of the bitter ironies of the HIV virus is that semen, a bodily fluid prized for its role in creating new life and fetishized by men and women around the world, suddenly became a serial killer. Many people refused to practice safe sex; some were even charged with murder for having deliberately transmitted the human immunodeficiency virus. As thousands upon thousands of people succumbed to AIDS, every ounce of a person's moral fiber was tested. Some went to work building organizations and infrastructure to help those with the disease; others found ways to profit from a seemingly uncontrollable illness. Some refused to treat or provide services to people with AIDS; others took advantage of a healthcare crisis to demonize people with AIDS for political purposes.

Carmen Roman (Ethel Rosenberg) and Stephen Spinella (Roy Cohn)
in Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

All these factors (and so much more) have been woven together by Kushner in an epic framing of how an epidemic challenged everything we knew about healthcare, identity, politics, volunteerism, and the world around us. That Kushner's writing so magnificently veers from sarcastic humor to gloriously poetic moments is a testament to his artistic vision as well as his skill as a writer.

Berkeley Rep's production is a remarkable achievement for many reasons, some of which could not have been imagined when Angels in America was going through its birth pangs at San Francisco's Eureka Theatre back in 1991.

The Angel (Francesca Faridany) appears before Prior Walter (Randy Harrison)
in a scene from Angels in America, Part One: Mllenium Approaches
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In the years since the San Francisco premiere of Angels in America, Kushner has performed numerous rewrites to his script. In its present form, the first half is a seamless piece of work that leaves one in awe of his sheer craft. Even after HBO's 2003 miniseries and the operatic adaptation of Angels in America by composer Péter Eötvös (which premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on November 23, 2004), Kushner kept working on revisions to Perestroika which helped to tighten the script and clarify the role of the Angels.

The Angel (Francesca Faridany) transforms Hannah Pitt
(Carmen Roman) in a scene from Angels in America,
Part Two: Perestroika
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Whereas production costs for the original staging of Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches overwhelmed the Eureka Theatre, Kushner's status as one of America's greatest living playwrights (combined with the fundraising appeal of this landmark work for nonprofit theatres that have a healthy subscription base) makes it much easier to program such a challenging undertaking. Although it's easy to take the sheer physical beauty of Berkeley Rep's new production for granted (hats off to the scenic design by Takeshi Kata, costumes by Montana Blanco, lighting by Jennifer Schriever, projection design by Alexander v. Nichols, and special effects by Jeremy Chernick), it's important to understand that much of this production's fluidity and visual appeal would have been impossible without so many of the technological advances in stagecraft over the past 25 years.

Bethany Jillard as Harper Amity Pitt in a scene from
Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Having worked closely with Tony Kushner since commissioning Angels in America, Tony Taccone has directed this production with an acute attention to detail, compassion, the power of epic storytelling, and the shock of speaking truth to power. With so many characters appearing in naturalistic moments -- as well as scenes that are awash in magical realism -- it's hard to believe that the entire seven-hour experience is being performed by an ensemble of only eight actors.

Chief among these is Randy Harrison, whose impassioned portrayal of Prior Walter in sickness as well as in drag, in disbelief as well as in moments of pragmatism, offers a powerful statement about how much we have yet to learn about, well, everything. Watching Stephen Spinella's spine-chilling characterization of Roy Cohn is like getting a master class in closeted greed mixed with toxic villainy (not unlike watching Donald Trump on television).

Others in the cast include Danny Binstock as the closeted Mormon attorney, Joseph Porter Pitt (Binstock also appears as Prior 1, an Eskimo, and a father figure); Bethany Jillard doubling as Joe's pill-popping wife (Harper Amaty Pitt) and Roy Cohn's ultra-conservative colleague, Martin Heller; and Caldwell Tidicue as Prior Walter's friend and Roy Cohn's nurse, Belize, and the mysterious Mr. Lies (one of Harper Pitt's imaginary friends).

Louis Ironson (Benjamin T. Ismail) confronts Joe Pitt (Danny Binstock)
about his relationship with Roy Cohn in a scene from
Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While Benjamin T. Ismail has the luxury of only tackling one role (the selfish and more than mildly neurotic Louis Ironson), two women show their versatility in portraying multiple characters. The talented Carmen Roman appears as the comical Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, Ethel Rosenberg, comrade Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Perlapsariano, and Joe Pitt's confused Mormon mother, Hannah. At the performance I attended, Francesca Faridany did impressive work as the Angel, a nurse named Emily, Sister Ella Chapter, a homeless woman, and a Mormon mother.

There is so much to admire in this production that, for those who managed to live through the worst years of the AIDS epidemic, revisiting Angels in America comes with a twinge of bittersweet luxury (so many friends never had that option). As Randy Harrison notes:
“I’m astounded at how quickly people forget about things. This community was shaped by this disease. I’ve talked to gay guys who haven’t heard of this play. That’s the privilege of where we are now, as far as managing the disease. People don’t understand the cost that an entire generation of people went through. It’s shocking to me. Even myself, in doing the research, realizing ‘Oh yeah, this was a time where if you had Kaposi’s sarcoma, you were going to be lucky to live two more months before you’re dead.’ It’s important that we not forget about this.”
The Angel (Francesca Faridany) lifts Prior Walter (Randy Harrison)
to the sky in a scene from Angels in America,
Part Two: Perestroika
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With incidental music composed by André Pluess, sound designed by Jake Rodriguez and Bray Poor, and Flying by Foy, performances of Angels in America continue through July 22 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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