Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Music to Undermine the Patriarchy

The past few decades have witnessed a striking phenomenon: the aggressive dismantling of myths sacred to America's origin story coupled with a renewed determination to challenge and, whenever possible, strip away certain forms of power from an abusive patriarchy.

Although, in April 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed October 12 as a new federal holiday named Columbus Day, on October 12, 1992, Berkeley became the first city in the United States to celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day instead of Columbus Day. Many cities (and an increasing number of states) have since followed in Berkeley's path.

Not only have wealthy and extremely privileged male executives and politicians been stripped of their power by the #Me Too movement, the recent midterm elections delivered a brutal blow to the National Rifle Association. With the removal of numerous statues honoring Confederate heroes, retired Army general Stan McChrystal's article on the controversy surrounding the legend of Robert E. Lee ("Good Riddance") should be required reading for one and all.

Have you had a chance to read "Here’s The Crazy Story About Thanksgiving You’ve Never Heard" by Nick Baumann? With the perspective of America's Indigenous peoples getting a more prominent place in our culture's mythology, one of our favorite holidays now bears an eerie resemblance to the words frequently bleated out by Donald Trump:
"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're sending people that have lots of problems. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
This year's top honor for religious hubris, problems with recognizing personal boundaries, and a failure to respect the rights of others to worship (or not) as they please goes to John Allen Chau, whose magnanimous stupidity and religious condescension resulted in his death in what can best be described as a clueless and futile act of evangelical terrorism.

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A popular meme about John Allen Chau's death

Staunch conservatives and religious traditionalists are painfully confused by the recent turn of events. Some wonder if their world is falling apart, others (as usual) seek to blame the LGBT community for wildfires, floods, catastrophic acts of nature, and fluctuations in the stock market. But one thing's for sure. The days of singing "Deck the halls with Pechter's challeh..." are long gone.

As performing arts organizations seek out new ways to entertain their audiences during December's holiday season, there has been a noticeable retreat from a strict diet of The Nutcracker, Handel's Messiah, and A Christmas Carol. Bay area theatregoers are currently enjoying two productions which poke sly jabs at the ill side effects of the patriarchy (one more subtly than the other). One show was powerful enough to make me wish that Mike Pence had been a captive audience for its raucous two-hour duration. The other demonstrated how a screen-to-stage remake can modify a popular story that one of the entertainment industry's most powerful corporations has held sacrosanct for more than half a century.

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If one were to think about movies that made a deep impact on them during their adolescence, I suppose The Walt Disney Company would have a death grip on the franchise. In addition to a catalog of full-length animated features, 1964's Mary Poppins stands out. With a cast headed by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, its delights include a frisky chorus of dancing penguins, a lovely cameo appearance by Ed Wynn, and a memorable score by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman.

As it nears the 55th anniversary of its theatrical release, the film has become a cultural icon (not only for its quality and the fact that it is one of the most popular movie musicals of all time), but for the countless families who consider watching Mary Poppins together a beloved tradition.

Mary Poppins (El Beh) teaches Jane (Ruth Keith) and
Michael Banks (David Rukin) a valuable lesson
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Based on a series of children's books written by P. L. Travers starting in 1934 that featured Mary Poppins as a no-nonsense, "practically perfect" British nanny whose magical powers and crisp sense of self ("I never explain anything") bring some sorely-needed discipline to an emotionally distant banker (whose two precocious little brats have terrified a steady succession of nannies), an adaptation of Mary Poppins for the stage debuted in London's West End in December 2004. The Broadway production (which opened on November 16, 2006 at the New Amsterdam Theatre and ran for 2,619 performances) received nominations for seven Tony Awards. However, set designer Bob Crowley was the only member of the creative team to win a Tony.

My first exposure to the stage version of Mary Poppins was not a particularly happy one. Five years ago, the national touring production touched down at the Orpheum Theater with a deafening thud. Crippled by severe overamplification and a sense that the cast was in a big hurry to go home after the performance, what I found most curious about the production was its complete lack of heart.

Not only does the stage version of Mary Poppins depict a family whose parents (a former actress married to an emotionally crippled banker) are too distracted to pay attention to the needs of their children, it goes to great lengths to teach Michael and Jane Banks the importance of learning to care about people other than themselves. One could say that the stage version neatly combines Mary's sense of compassionate conservatism with a tidy appetite for discipline.

Miss Andrew (Katrina Lauren McGraw) meets the Banks
family (Abby Haug, Ruth Keith, and David Rukin)
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The San Francisco Playhouse is currently staging Mary Poppins as its holiday musical. I'm happy to report that, unlike the production I saw in 2013, this one glows with a rich sense of humor and plenty of heart. In today's political environment (with its emphasis on demanding fair treatment for women in the workplace), it's refreshing to see a nanny who doesn't take orders, doesn't need to justify her decisions to her employer, and is not about to take any shit from anyone who crosses her path. As Bill English (SFP's artistic director) notes:
"The version of Mary Poppins that we present on our stage hews much closer to the original spirit of P. L. Travers’s book than to the famous Disney film. In the original book, Ms. Travers was much more interested in writing about the evils of the class structure in England. And as lovely as Julie Andrews was, the author deplored her casting, with her cut-glass accent and a voice to match. The original Mary, like Ms. Travers, an immigrant from Australia, was from the underclass of London deplorables. The product of a drunken father and suicidal mother, Travers, a life-long iconoclast, a devotee of mysticism and open bisexual, was hardly the lonely spinster portrayed in the recent Saving Mr. Banks."
Mary Poppins (El Beh) arrives at the Banks residence
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
"Travers’s roots further show in her vision of the distracted banker father’s and the self-involved actress (yes, not a suffragette) mother’s lack of interest in their children. Mr. Banks, the vision of white privilege, has a Scrooge-like bah-humbug attitude. Buried in the penurious work of accumulating wealth, the Bankses, in a clear reference to medieval Hamelin, are ripe candidates for the Pied Piper-esque appearance of Mary, a lower-class shaman who employs her dark magic to steal the children’s hearts, lead them not only to an understanding of empathy and compassion for the poor, but also engineer the kite-flying redemption of their dad. P. L. Travers was writing to try to close the gap between the haves and have-nots and we follow suit with our production of her timeless story at this holiday time -- when the world so desperately needs a large dose of empathy and compassion, and a substantial 'spoonful of sugar.'"
The Bird Woman (Katrina Lauren McGraw)
helps the Banks children learn about empathy
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Directed by Susi Damilano (with music direction by Katie Coleman and choreography by Kimberly Richards), the show's ensemble features many Bay area artists familiar to SFP's audience. Ryan Drummond appears as the children's father, Mr. Banks, with Abby Haug as his wife. Anthony Rollins-Mullens portrays the Bank Chairman with Rudy Guerrero appearing as Von Hussler. Katrina Lauren McGraw does double duty as the Bird Woman and Miss Andrew (the holy terror who was Mr. Banks's nanny). On opening night, David Rukin and Ruth Keith appeared as the two Banks children.

Bert (Wiley Naman Strasser) teaches Michael (David
Rukin) and Jane Banks (Ruth Keith) how to fly a kite
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The musical's leads were cast with artists frequently seen in supporting roles around the Bay area. Given a chance to shine, Wiley Naman Strasser's Bert was a warm and compassionate chimney sweep, an appealing song-and-dance man who seemed to intuitively understand what Michael and Jane Banks needed to fill the gap left by an emotionally distant father. Having long admired El Beh, I was delighted to see her Mary Poppins display a certain amount of coolth in the role, signaling a supreme level of confidence without any need to be overly histrionic.

Mary Poppins (El Beh) and Bert (Wiley Naman Strasser)
enjoy a stroll in the park (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

With costumes by Abra Berman, lighting by Patrick Toebe, and sound and projections designed by Theodore J. H. Hulsker, SFP's staging of Mary Poppins is a delightful experience. However, the true star of this production is set designer Nina Ball, who has triumphantly outdone her previous puzzle-like set designs for numerous Bay area theatre companies. Working with SFP's turntable, she has created a multi-purpose set which dazzles the audience with its versatility. Imagine a child's pop-up book with an extremely thick spine standing upright on a revolving stage. With its opened spine resting atop the turntable's diameter, Ball's set contains a series of folding walls that can be opened to create a variety of rooms. The set's spine also serves as a stairway to the stars for the chimney sweeps of London. Designed to be attractive to the eye and exquisitely functional, Ball's set is a "practically perfect" example of how to create a happy marriage between architecture with storytelling.

Chimney sweeps gather on the roofs of London in a
scene from Mary Poppins (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

If you seek a jolly holiday from the news, performances of Mary Poppins continue at the San Francisco Playhouse through January 12 (click here for tickets).

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Over at the Curran Theatre, Carole Shorenstein Hays is celebrating the end of 2018 by presenting Taylor Mac's Holiday Sauce, starring the one and only Taylor Mac. With Matt Ray as musical director, set and costumes by Machine Dazzle, and lighting by John Torres, the evening was designed as one of the star's Radical Faerie Realness Rituals that combine bawdy humor, political satire, genderfucking run amok, and audience participation.

Taylor Mac gets in the mood for the holidays
(Photo by: Little Fang Photography)

In some respects, this show was created as a tribute to Taylor Mac's mentor, Mother Flawless Sabrina (a pioneer for transgender people and drag queens, who died last November at the age of 78).

In his opening sequence, Mac jokingly stressed that the show had been written for a queer audience and advised any heterosexuals in the theatre who were confused or "just don't get it," to look at the people around them who were enjoying themselves. As Shorenstein Hays freely admits:
"Taylor Mac is our year-round Santa Claus: magical, mystical, a miracle bursting, burning, cosmic-electric, and a planet in its very own solar system drawing us all into orbit. This amazing pal of the Curran feels like a genuine Sugar Plum Fairy dancing in our head, reminding us of how powerful celebrating our togetherness can be.  Taylor personifies all the wide-eyed childlike images of holidays gone by, glossing them up (with Machine Dazzle's help) in tattered glamour and wrapping us all in the true sense of this time of year: community, love of family old and new, and a cheery cotton-candy twinkle."
Taylor Mac in one of Machine Dazzle's stunning
costumes (Photo by: Little Fang Photography) 

Some people are so dazzled by Taylor's personality and performance style that they overlook the superb musical arrangements by Matt Ray. While Taylor's musical research is formidable, he opens his show with a curious pairing of "The Black Angel's Death Song" with the more traditional "Carol of the Bells." The most aggressive interpretation of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" I've ever heard segues into an audience participation number where everyone sings and mimes "O Holy Night." Another highlight was Taylor Mac's eerie narration of "Christmas With Grandma."

Machine Dazzle and Taylor Mac share a festive
moment in Taylor Mac's Holiday Sauce
(Photo by: Little Fang Photography)

Locals appearing in an Elder Chorus join in for "Get What You Want," "Cathedral," and "Fairytale of New York." For those who have been naughty and have no intentions of being nice, James (Tigger!) Ferguson (a/k/a “The Godfather of Neo-Boylesque") performs a lusty pole dance and striptease to "Dazzle." Traditional holiday songs such as "Little Drummer Boy" and "Silent Night" are capped off by Taylor Mac's final number, "How Can I Keep From Singing?"

Taylor Mac gets in the mood for the solstice,
Radical Faeries, and a whole lot of mischief
(Photo by: Little Fang Photography)

In a touching program note, Andrew Sean Greer (who received the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was one of Taylor Mac’s guests onstage at the Curran in 2017) writes:
“These are terrible times, as my Divinity teacher friend told me. It seems almost impossible to expect any form of community in this country, which is not only at war in places around the globe, but at war with itself here at home, especially during the holiday season, which we are told is also at war. Cheap sentiment would seem to be the only adhesive keeping us together these days, and you won’t find much cheap sentiment tonight. But there is a reward for the painful act of stripping off that adhesive, of taking something apart -- which is to put it back together."
At the end of the evening, Taylor Mac brought Rumi Missabu (local drag legend and one of the founding members of The Cockettes) onstage. If you've never heard of Rumi, try to rent Ruminations, a film by Robert James devoted to chronicling Missabu's life and art.

Performances of Taylor Mac's Holiday Sauce continue at the Curran Theatre through December 1 (click here for tickets).

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