Mogadishu Is Here

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Mogadishu is Here

To be published in the Daily Record the week of July 21, 2019

President Trump tweeted about “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all) …” The only kernel of truth here was that Congresswoman Ilhan Omar did “originally” emigrate from Somalia as a child, and Somalia at times has been a failed nation; the other three Congresswomen Trump had in mind (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley) are native-born Americans.

Paradoxically Correct

Nonetheless, though this statement was a mass of disinformation, it was paradoxically mostly still correct. The government of the country where Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pressley “originally came from” is “a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world,” just as the President said. That country just happens to be us.

All three branches of government in the home country of Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pressley have been rendered unrepresentative and dysfunctional because of corruption. The gerrymandering of congressional districts, a deliberate effort to make them unrepresentative, is widespread; through PACs and direct contributions, big economic players routinely persuade Congress to take actions that are not in the public interest. Congress recently has shown a nihilistic devotion to donors (Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Assault Rifles, Big Everything), whose financial contributions may or may not be legal, but amount to corruption nonetheless. Nothing else accounts for the way Congress has embraced the donors’ agendas.[1]

Our Supreme Court has for a generation increasingly strayed from the one principle that most guarantees the impartial administration of justice: the rule of stare decisis, the principle that guarantees that judicial decisions do not deviate when there is a change of judges on a court, but remain principled and not result-driven. In one way or another, the Supreme Court has been overruling settled law since it selected George W. Bush as President in contravention of basic federalism principles in 2000 and since it disallowed state regulation of the corruption of our politics by corporate money in Citizens United, in direct contravention of a decision it had itself reached only twenty years earlier. It seems likely that the Court will, in one way or another, accede to most of the efforts of the current administration further to undermine our constitutional balance, including the anticipated overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision, which ought to be untouchable as settled law. This is the worst kind of judicial dysfunction imaginable.

Corrupt, Dysfunctional, and Hollow

The root of the corruption and dysfunction, for the moment, is of course the Executive, which by any rational measure has set new records of that sort. Elected with the possibly indispensable help of foreign meddling and disinformation, the current administration has distinguished itself by the extent of its financial corruption and profiteering from public office. To mention only a few examples: the way our President’s penchant for golf seems to have been paid for by taxpayers to the extent of $340 million; the ongoing way the President profiteers from the favor seekers who stay at his Washington hotel and others; the wasteful travel (and other consumption) engaged in at public expense by six current and former cabinet-level secretaries.[2] More wealth was concentrated in the first cabinet of this administration than in any previous one, and many of the officeholders have no meaningful qualifications for their jobs.

And never in the last hundred years have so many important government ministries been turned over to the interests they are supposed to regulate. We have a coal lobbyist in charge of the EPA, a former telecom general counsel chairing the FCC, aircraft manufacturers vetting the safety of new aircraft (and hence, apparently, setting the stage for the Boeing 737 Max disasters), a longtime foe of unions leading a Labor Department which has been dismantling worker safety and wage protections as fast as it can, a surgeon with no applicable work experience in charge of Housing and Urban Development, kicking people out of government-supported housing as fast as he can, former drug company advisors and lobbyists in charge of the FDA. We have climate change denialists censoring the public statements of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. We have an SEC chair, in charge of the regulation of investment banks, who spent his entire career as a legal adviser to the largest Wall Street interests.

These captures of agencies by the industries they theoretically regulate is not the normal change of policy with the change of administration; it is the overturning of policies structurally instilled in the agencies by the congress which legislated them. The only word for such extreme perversion of regulatory mission and structure is dysfunction.

At the same time, in many government offices, no one is in charge, as departments hollow out. In no other administration in modern history have there been so many Senate-confirmed positions unfilled. This comes close to what Trump deplored: having no “functioning government at all.” No vetted and confirmed senior supervision is a recipe for incompetence, negligence, and mischief.

Look No Further

Nor does dysfunction stop at the water’s edge. Internationally we are destroying national security by treating our allies as enemies and our enemies as allies. Our international trade teeters on the edge of tariff-induced chaos. We remain mired in the longest war in American history. And however one feels about immigration, there is nothing to feel good about in the way it is actually administered on our southern border.

In short, there is no need to look to look to Congresswoman Omar’s native Mogadishu; Mogadishu is pretty much here. If the chaos there is more extreme, the chaos here is more consequential because of our size and importance to the world. What President Trump said about us is true.

_______________

[1] Re the way Big Oil donations clear its way in Congress (and elsewhere), see here and here and here. See here for how Big Pharma prevails in Congress (and elsewhere). The structural corruption Big Pharma works in Congress could be seen from the fact that Big Pharma is the biggest contributor to Congress of any industry and has two lobbyists for every member of Congress, which in turn has done nothing appreciable to prevent drugs from being more expensive in the U.S. than anywhere else on earth. The success of the NRA and its allies in blocking most gun control in Congress has been legendary.

[2] Former HHS Secretary Tom Price, former VA Secretary David Shulkin, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and current Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Steel Wheels and Tires in the North Country

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Steel Wheels and Tires in the North Country

Published in the Daily Record July 11, 2019

On a recent road trip along U.S. Route 2 from Everett, Washington, to Duluth, Minnesota, I was struck not only by the spectacular scenery (I can recommend the journey to anyone), but also by the fact that almost everywhere my wife and I drove, we were close to the tracks of what is now called the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. I had a feeling, which I later confirmed to be accurate, that the tracks we kept seeing were a single train line built by one BNSF predecessor railroad, the Great Northern, and that there was a story there. It’s a story of nature, business, and law – all of which dictated us traveling along the same path as the rails.

Minnesota

Much of what I learned came from a huge academic history of the Great Northern (Ralph W. Hidy et al., 1988) that I picked up in a Duluth bookstore. It had obviously been written in light of the 1970 merger among three “transcontinental” roads, including the Great Northern, that extinguished the individual lives of these roads and gave birth to the Burlington Northern (which in turn merged with the Santa Fe in 1994). (In U.S. railroad parlance, “transcontinentals” link the Pacific to the Mississippi basin.) The life cycle of the Great Northern exhibited a lot of the phases that all the transcontinental roads seemed to pass through. They might be characterized loosely as: finance and corporate machinations, eventual actual construction, operation and then (though less relevant here) more machinations, and finally consolidation. The earlier phases present a lot of reasons why highways bind to the railroads.

In the mid-19th century, state and federal governments encouraged railroad development. In the Minnesota Territory, home to the ambitiously-named St. Paul & Pacific, the seed that grew into the Great Northern, these sovereigns chartered railroads to connect legislatively-specified points, and sweetened the deals by granting them huge swaths of land, basically ten square miles for every mile of roadbed. In effect, railroads were granted not only the ability to bring specified areas, and with them a customer base, to life, but the responsibility for doing so. Plus an incentive to do so: Selling settlers the land so granted would help finance the railroads that made it available.

But even so, to take this incentive and run with it, entrepreneurs needed lots and lots of additional capital. It was touch and go, even with a dizzying array of bonds, boardroom maneuvering, and incestuous deals among local lines to raise the additional cash. It was not until 1879 that the basic main line in Minnesota was up and running.

Pacific

The Great Northern finally did consolidate its Minnesota footprint, though, and then grew serious about the “Pacific” part of its former name. The routing of the line across North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and into Washington followed different incentives and imperatives from that in Minnesota. The land grants were not as generous and the route was up to the railroad to choose. Competition with the GN’s great rivals the Northern Pacific and Canadian Pacific had to be taken into account. Surveying teams were charged with considering distance, grade, track curvature, construction costs and climate. Their reports could dictate a difference of a hundred miles in the siting of the line. In effect the railroad was doing exactly what water does when choosing a downhill course: aiming for the path of least resistance to reach the sea. That path generally stayed close to the Canadian border and wound through the spectacular Marias Pass and Stevens Pass (which will awe you when you drive through them today).

What existed at the end of four years of the resulting construction could be looked at as a necklace, stringing together “beads” like Spokane, Williston, Minot, Grand Forks, and Duluth. Some of the towns had existed earlier, while others came into being as the result of the construction. In either case, these towns certainly were connected in a way they never had been before. Roads were inevitably going to knit them further together. Indeed, the Great Northern was a part of that process. The 1880s witnessed the birth of a “good roads movement,” soon fostered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. My history book reports that the Great Northern participated in it, “not foreseeing the devastation that railroads would eventually suffer from hard-surfaced roads…” Railroad managers at that time believed there was “a direct and measurable relationship” between road conditions and rail traffic volume.

Rail Routes Become Road Routes

And the routing of the roads connecting the beads on the Great Northern’s necklace (at least outside Minnesota) would predictably be subject to the same imperatives of distance, grade, climate, etc. as those that had faced the railroad. No surprise, therefore, that the roads would end up sited near the rail line, and viewed together as an identifiable entity. As early as 1919 most of the roads connecting Spokane and Duluth were jointly designated as parts of a unitary “Theodore Roosevelt International Highway.” And in 1925, the Route 2 designation was applied to all of the Roosevelt Highway except for the segment in Washington. That omitted segment, together with the road between Everett and Spokane (which also follows the Great Northern main line), was brought under the Route 2 shield in 1946.

In this manner, legislative policies to foster railroads, formulated by Congress before the internal combustion engine was even invented, ended up dictating the paths that highways created for cars and trucks would follow over half a century later. (You can see something similar, for example, with old Route 66 and the main line of the Santa Fe.)

That’s why today, when you make your way over the Cascades through Stevens Pass (named after the assistant to the Great Northern’s chief engineer), or when you spend the night at the Great Northern Hotel in Malta, Montana, or visit the airbase in Minot (named for a Great Northern general manager), or drive almost anywhere along Route 2 west of Duluth, you may be riding on tires, but your course was set by one railroad company’s steel wheels.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Rushmore and the Imperfections of Heroism

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Rushmore and the Imperfections of Heroism

Published in the Maryland Daily Record May 30, 2019

For years, I’ve wanted to visit Mt. Rushmore, and not long ago I finally got the chance. The Monument, busts or heads of four presidents, is a strikingly beautiful thing. And the four great men, Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln, look as determined and visionary as we would want great men to be. I took lots of pictures, and bought a souvenir for a granddaughter.

And yet there was something disquieting to me about the Monument, and it took me a while to put a name to it.

Unheroic

It’s this. I must have been in grade school in the 1950s when I first saw a photograph of the four graven faces up there on the South Dakota mountainside, and at that time I was encouraged to view these men the way the artists, Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum, apparently did: with uncomplicated hero worship. I look at them now, and I know that they may have done some great things, but they also did some unheroic ones.

George Washington made the Revolution militarily feasible and his resignation from power at the end of his term established a tradition of peaceful transition of power which is the envy of much of the world. Still, the man owned slaves, 123 of whom it was within his legal power to free. And he did – but only in his will. A completely heroic man would never have owned them to begin with, or freed them as soon as they came into his possession.

Much the same could be said of Jefferson, except that in his case the conflict between the nature of his heroism and the compromise that his slaveholding posed is starker. Jefferson is the principal theorist of the Declaration of Independence, the very document that first posits our commitment to individual dignity and freedoms, the very things slavery most negates. Jefferson deserves credit for insisting on and signing a law ending the importation of slaves. But own them he still did, 600 of them during his adult life. And then there is the moral complication of his relationship to Sally Hemings, the slave with whom it strongly appears he fathered children.

To modern eyes, Teddy Roosevelt may seem like a surprise member of the Rushmore grouping, but he had deep ties to South Dakota. He had been a patron of Gutzon Borglum’s earlier work. And Borglum reportedly admired Roosevelt’s key role in the development of the Panama Canal. Whatever the reasons for his inclusion, TR is also closely identified with the Spanish-American War. Historian H.W. Brands says that if a single person is responsible for pushing us into war with Spain, it was Theodore Roosevelt. And to be blunt, that was a war for empire, seizing the territories of a weak country because we could. The stated justifications, mostly a sympathy for the Cubans who were being badly treated by Spain, their colonizer, were transparently hypocritical. Somehow the emancipation of Cuba turned into an American takeover of Spanish possessions around the globe, an inconceivable outcome if the War had only been about Cuba. Imperialism has been one of the dark themes in American character, up there with racism – and TR was complicit with it.

And then there’s Lincoln, who freed the slaves (sort of – it’s complicated) and was assassinated for his pains. But even the martyred Lincoln created some dangerous precedents in his struggle to keep the country together, as we in Baltimore should know. Lincoln it was who imprisoned the leadership of our city at Fort McHenry without trial, and who defied related habeas orders from the courts. These precedents were spiritual godparents to the Japanese internments of World War II, to the ongoing disgrace of Guantánamo, and to the Trump administration’s incipient defiance of congressional orders and subpoenas.

Notwithstanding Their Flaws

So one way of looking at the Monument is: two slaveholders, a warmonger imperialist, and an underminer of the constitutional order. Was that really the best we had in the 1930s when the Monument was being crafted? There’s a decent argument that the answer is yes. Without Washington and Lincoln there might not be a country and without Jefferson we might lack not merely the phrase but the actuality of a national commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Roosevelt exemplified care for the environment, good government and sensible trade regulation. These imperfect presidents wrought and preserved an imperfect country, but still a wonderful one. Moreover, notwithstanding their flaws, each in his separate way aspired to be virtuous – a notable contrast with their present-day successor, who seems never to see the point of any virtue: probity in personal affairs, marital fidelity, modesty, truthfulness, loyalty or good manners, to name a few.

The godlike reign of the four images over the South Dakota hills admittedly is an affront to the modern and I think improved way of regarding leaders. We might wish we could go back to viewing them, or at least the best of them, as men for all seasons, perfect in every way. But we can’t do that and be honest with ourselves. We have to inspire ourselves and our youth with more nuanced but more realistic images and understandings of our great men and women.

Admiring Beautiful Monuments

To let go of hero-worship, even the possibility of it, is a loss. But perhaps we can console ourselves that the lesson our best leaders teach is still worth learning: that while no one gets everything right, and neither individual or national greatness can ever be fully achieved, flawed but determined humans and countries can at least approximate it.

And meanwhile, there’s nothing wrong with admiring beautiful monuments, so long as we don’t confuse what they suggest with reality.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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No Heroes, Just Circumstances in Wikileaks Struggles

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No Heroes, Just Circumstances in Wikileaks Struggles

A slightly shorter version published in The Daily Record April 19, 2019

It can be humbling to watch one’s own opinions change. Eight years ago, in this space, I posited that leakers are a necessary corrective to governmental abuse of secrecy, supplementing the functions of the press in our constitutional scheme. At that time, Wikileaks, cooperating with the mainstream media, was exposing some of the things the U.S. was doing in Afghanistan, misbehavior previously protected from public backlash by a system of classification that had kept the public from knowing about it. Because the killer drone program and other aspects of Afghanistan that Wikileaks exposed were simply wicked, in my view, I tended to applaud organizations that could publicize them.

All Leaks Handled the Same Way

Since then, though, we’ve seen the selfsame Wikileaks giving a public home to secrets the Russians stole from the Democratic National Committee, and also, because of failures to curate what it puts online, for instance repeatedly releasing private personal information like Social Security numbers and medical histories and the identities of rape victims. I’m not in favor of any of these revelations. And yes, my views have consequently changed – well, at least grown more nuanced. (As have Donald Trump’s; he went from calling Wikileaks “disgraceful” the year I complimented them to saying “I love Wikileaks” in 2016. We’re just going in opposite directions.)

I still maintain that when governments use official secrecy to evade accountability to their citizens, we need the services of leakers. But governmental coverups are one thing and (as I said eight years ago) legitimate governmental secrets another, and (as I now add) private secrets yet another. Yet at Wikileaks, they all nowadays seem to be processed in the same way. According to Associated Press reporting, at its founding (in 2006), Wikileaks professed a determination to protect properly private secrets, but the sheer volume of information leaked to and by Wikileaks made the redaction process intolerably slow to founder Julian Assange, who was quoted as concluding that “We can’t sit on material like this for three years with one person to go through the whole lot, line-by-line, to redact… We have to take the best road that we can.” Apparently the best road is one that saves Assange and his colleagues time, even if, for instance, as has happened, Wikileaks exposes the name of a gay person in Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality can be a capital offense.

There is also a difference between revealing government secrets – acceptable in my continuing view if done to prevent governments from hiding information on which they should be accountable to their citizens – and revealing the secrets of private organizations and individuals, who have no duties of public disclosure. The DNC may have a close relationship to governments and government officials, but the Democratic Party was still a private organization when Russian hackers attacked it and fed its correspondence to Wikileaks. And Sony was a private corporation at the time Wikileaks accepted and placed online a massive hack of Sony’s correspondence apparently conducted by North Korea. And obviously Wikileaks accepts the validity of corporate secrecy in principle, since it has some of the toughest non-disclosure agreements out there for its own employees, with a stipulated penalty of £12 million for breach.

A Moral Compass is Required

Now I am not suggesting that a news organization, or one like Wikileaks with some but not all of the traits of a news organization, should never publicize private information about individuals or the workings of private corporations. I can’t come up with any blanket rules for when it’s okay to publicize that information, however. To the contrary, I think it has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. But the DNC and the Sony dumps demonstrate quite clearly to me, first, that Wikileaks has abandoned case-by-case determinations, and second, that Wikileaks had no moral compass by the time it published them. When your information seems to be coming from the intelligence services of corrupt totalitarian states, it’s a pretty good bet the information, accurate or not, is morally tainted, and you probably should not be lending your aid to its dissemination.

Speaking of morally tainted, though, that is also the word for the U.S. effort to extradite Mr. Assange. The now-unsealed indictment which is the basis of the extradition request is a single count of conspiracy to obtain unauthorized access to a government computer. The indictment does not even report that this was a successful effort, though we know that Assange’s alleged co-conspirator Chelsea Manning was the source of a trove of State Department cables leaked to Wikileaks. Those cables revealed U.S. arrogance and misbehavior around the world, e.g. in aiding U.S. corporations to the detriment of public welfare elsewhere, from Boeing to McDonald’s to Monsanto, and authorizing spying on the UN Secretary General. Though Manning was sentenced to 35 years for this breach, it is significant that Barack Obama commuted her sentence to seven years, acknowledging implicitly the public-spirited nature of that breach. In other words, the U.S. may be trying to extradite Assange for one of the good things Wikileaks did, not one of the bad ones. Though it would seem to violate an explicit provision of a treaty between the U.S. and the U.K., other crimes might be charged if Assange ever reaches these shores; the indictment’s sneaky narrowness probably was simply a way to prevent the extradition request from being rejected because under that treaty, “political crimes” are non-extraditable. What recourse against further charges would the U.K. or Assange have after the extradition went through?

Full of Circumstances

As a late friend, citing his Jesuit training, would frequently say, “Circumstances alter cases always.” The evolving Wikileaks story is full of “circumstances,” new considerations which continue to alter my opinions. It’s clear we need leakers; it’s also clear Assange and Wikileaks have repeatedly behaved without integrity or moral clarity; it’s also highly likely that the U.S. wants Assange extradited for exactly the wrong reasons, namely to exact political revenge and clamp down on legitimate First Amendment activities. There are no heroes in this tale.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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HENRY IV, PART 2 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company Concludes a Tale of Fathers and Sons

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HENRY IV, PART 2 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company Concludes a Tale of Fathers and Sons

Séamus Miller, Lance Bankerd, Gregory Burgess, and Ashley Fishell-Shaffer

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com March 17, 2019

In Henry IV, Part 2, Shakespeare completes the epic tale of fathers and sons started in Henry IV, Part 1. Both have been produced within the last month by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company with the same cast, and they briefly overlap this March for a few Saturdays of repertory performances. And as I commented last month in my review of Part 1, the epic starts with two fathers or father figures (Henry IV and Sir John Falstaff), and two sons or son figures (Prince Hal and Harry Percy aka Hotspur). By the end of Part 1, one of the “sons,” Hotspur, is gone. In Part 2, both of the fathers are also eliminated, dead or as good as dead. For Prince Hal to attain his destiny, he like all sons must replace his father, and if in this case there are two fathers, it simply means that there are two to surmount, surpass and survive.

In fact, figuratively, Hal, upon becoming king, acquires a new father figure, England’s Chief Justice, who had, in Hal’s eyes, established his credentials as an upholder of the royal peace by jailing Hal himself — in Hal’s wilder days when he had struck the Chief Justice “about Bardolph.” (This one explanatory phrase is the only detail we have from Shakespeare about the supposed incident; there had evidently earlier been a now-lost play about Hal by some other playwright which had told the story, making it unnecessary for Shakespeare to repeat it.) In Hal’s own phrase as he recommissions the Chief Justice: “You shall be as a father to my youth.”

If Part 1 is Shakespeare at the top of his powers, Part 2 is not quite that. It is an oddly-shaped play because so little stage time is allocated to the two primary story lines, the two father-son relationships. Before a brief final confrontation with Falstaff, Hal only shares the stage with him for a couple of moments. Nor is Hal on stage with his father Henry until the latter is on his deathbed, effectively for one scene. The hole created by the separation among the protagonists is filled, in Falstaff’s case, by more of the ribaldry, effrontery, and deceit that so delight audiences about him, and in Henry’s case by the work of putting down the rebellions, and confronting his own age and infirmity. In Hal’s case, there is – not much. Hal has already mostly reconciled with his royal father in Part 1so there is not much more work to do on that issue. And while Hal could be depicted in Part 1 winning back his father’s favor by winning a battle for him, Shakespeare had good dramatic reason to keep him out of the wars in Part 2, because they were won not with valor, but with a dirty trick, which Shakespeare effectively dramatizes, but chalks up the score for the trick with Hal’s brother Prince John of Lancaster (DJ Batchelor) – leaving Hal out of it. (The actual historical Hal, incidentally, was quite happy to fight dirty, including massacring prisoners of war at Agincourt, and deliberately starving 12,000 war refugees trapped outside the walls at the siege of Rouen.)

One can sense Shakespeare recognizing the dramatic problem and seeking to cure it with bravura Acts Four and Five. (Of course today no one allows four intermissions in a Shakespeare play, but that was the convention in 1598.) Act Four concludes the tale of Henry and Hal, with a deathbed scene that’s a corker, commencing as a surfeit of good war news for Henry coincides with the onset of his final illness. (In real life, the good war news came in 1405, and Henry died in 1413, so the coincidence is another of Shakespeare’s dramatic contrivances.) Hal then finally arrives, meditating soberly upon the crown resting on Henry’s pillow, and he innocently wanders off with it, setting up a contretemps; Henry is offended that his son is rudely over-eager to take possession of this dangerous adornment and worried that Hal is heedless of how much of a burden it is. Hal thus receives the opportunity to explain how clearly he understands the burden, and demonstrates that understanding by showing appropriate edification by his dad’s final advice. Act Five includes the reconciliation of the Prince and the Chief Justice and the necessary but nonetheless horrific repudiation of Falstaff. These finishing fireworks do redeem the play, but do not place it at quite the level of the better-unified and dazzling Part 1.

Of course there is no shame in doing a good job with A-minus Shakespeare. And Chesapeake Shakespeare Company continues its outstanding work with the Henrys. Gerrad Alex Taylor, killed off as Hotspur in Part 1, joins Ian Gallanar in the director’s chair for this round. The continuing cast, Séamus Miller (Hal), Ron Heneghan (Henry), Gregory Burgess (Falstaff), and The Revelers: Scott Alan Small (sporting a monstrous nose as Bardolph), Lance Bankerd (Hal’s wingman Poins), Kathryne Daniels (Falstaff’s wingman Peto), Gregory Michael Atkin (brawler Pistol), Tamieka Chavis (the put-upon Mistress Quickly) and Ashly Fishell-Shaffer (trollop Doll Tearsheet), keep the enterprise engaging. Heneghan makes the transition to an old and sick Henry credible and properly pathetic. Miller and Burgess render the inevitable scene where Hal casts off Falstaff the chilling and startling thing the audience has expected, even if Shakespeare has given us enough foreshadowing so we all know it’s coming whether we’re familiar with the play or not. And I adored Fishell-Shaffer’s Doll, whose extravagantly abusive language here is matched with a gameness for tussling that provides fight choreographer Casey Kalebaanother opportunity to show off his ingenuity, so much on display in Part 1. The abuse Shakespeare writes for Doll is in its inventiveness a kind of poetry, and the tussling is convincing but also rises to a comparable sublimity of slapstick. (She is pictured above in a more placid moment with Falstaff, as Hal and Poins react in the background.)

The returning cast is joined by, among others, Nello DeBlasio (the Archbishop of York who takes up arms against Henry), Brendan Murray (the Chief Justice Hal perspicaciously affirms), and Michael Crowley (Shallow, an aptly-named justice of the peace whose hopes of profiting from an old intimacy with Falstaff end as one would expect, Falstaff being Falstaff). All are wonderful.

In 2016, the website Priceonomics published a study of the frequency with which Shakespeare’s individual plays had been performed by professionals throughout the English-speaking world since 2011, comprising about 2,000 productions. The two Henry IVs were close to the bottom of the list, cumulatively totaling perhaps 3% of all Shakespeare productions. But Part 1 did considerably better than Part 2. And Parts 1 and 2 together ranked dead last. These statistics substantiate what a rare opportunity Baltimore audiences have here, to see not only one but both under-produced plays. The opportunity should be seized.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Brandon W. Vernon.

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Dazzling and Uplifting INDECENT at Center Stage

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Dazzling and Uplifting INDECENT at Center Stage

Susan Lynskey and Emily Shackleford

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com March 8, 2019

Paula Vogel‘s 2015 play Indecent, in a production now arrived at Center Stage after stops at D.C.’s Arena Stage and the Kansas City Rep, is a staggering tour de force of playwriting prowess that is also a tour of a largely forgotten world: international Yiddish theater shortly after the turn of the last century. A play about a play about a play, it follows Sholem Asch‘s God of Vengeance on a circular path, from Lodz, Poland in 1906 to Warsaw, to various stages in Europe, through Ellis Island and various New York theaters, culminating with an abortive stay on Broadway, and thence back to Lodz once more, at the peak of the Holocaust. And then, in a sort of coda, it concludes in Connecticut with the last days of Mr. Asch. All these parts are contained within an initial framing device in which, like Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a stage manager named Lemml (Ben Cherry), introduces the players and musicians, apparently members of a turn-of-the-century Yiddish theater troupe, and identifies the kinds of parts they will play (like male and female Ingenues). Everything that follows, i.e. a play about presenting a play, is presented as a play performed by this troupe.

Almost immediately, though, Indecent immerses us in the most interior play, the Asch play itself, as certain scenes are repeatedly reenacted, to make us see and feel why the play mattered so much in the world it came into. God of Vengeance was scandalous because it acknowledged the existence of prostitution in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and depicted in a positive light the love affair of a brothel-keeper’s daughter and one of her father’s prostitutes, and because it ended with the desecration of a Torah scroll. At a time when Jewish communities reasonably worried about how they were perceived by their neighbors, the commercial and emotional truths Asch told, though scandalous, were both also astringent and liberating. This is brought home to us in the early going by the first readthrough of Asch’s play in the Warsaw salon of I.L. Peretz (Victor Raider-Wexler), where the consensus is that the author should burn his play – but Lemml, the provincial bumpkin brought to the salon by unlikely chance, is blown away by God of Vengeance, so much so that he makes a career out of stage-managing its successive productions as it premieres and begins to be produced around the world.

In his theatrical endeavors Lemml internalizes a lesson which one suspects is Vogel’s ultimate message: “A play belongs to the people who labor in it and the audience who put aside the time to be there.” By necessary implication, it does not belong to the playwright. And in the case of God of Vengeance, Asch (portrayed as a young man by Max Wolkowitz and as an old man by Raider-Wexler) does something close to abdicating his ownership, failing to fight the cuts that were made when the play came to Broadway in 1922 to render it more palatable to the less adventurous theatergoers expected in that venue, and then refusing to testify at the 1923 trial that ensued when the authorities came to shut the Broadway production down for indecency. (Vogel ascribes Asch’s disengagement to a refocusing of Asch’s literary interests on fiction and to a looming dread as the Holocaust was taking shape.)

But if Lemml is right, then God of Vengeance belonged to its players and its audiences anyway – and Indecent belongs to us, today’s audience. And what is it that belongs to us? This strange, sprawling play is hard to capture and summarize. It’s about lesbian passion, though we mainly see that passion at a remove: enacted by the performers in the troupe, not necessarily felt by them. Asch, the playwright who writes it, is a man, as is Lemml, the character the most palpably touched by it, while the most clearly lesbian character in Indecent, the actress (Susan Lynskey) who plays the prostitute Manke in God of Vengeance, seems more workmanlike than personally involved in the story of Manke’s passion. That said, a rain-soaked tableau (seen in the photo above) of Manke and the whoremaster’s daughter Rifkele (Emily Shackelford) confessing their mutual attraction is introduced early and re-enacted later, and is the emotional high point of the Indecent, as it probably was of God of Vengeance. At however many removes, the passion comes across.

Indecent is also about the pressures and anxieties of a Jewish community defensively trying to manage its image while under attack. It’s about the power of theater and the fraternity among theater people. It’s about the Holocaust. It’s about, perhaps, the need of a writer to divorce himself from earlier work and continue to develop.

Mostly, though, it’s about the power of theater to dazzle and uplift. And by showing what that power looks like, Indecent (hard as it is to describe) is itself dazzling and uplifting. In an interview with the New Yorker, Vogel discussed her favorite moments recruiting students for a playwriting course she was teaching at Brown. These happened when she would read a script and “the hair went up on the back of my neck, but I didn’t understand how they did it[.] I would call the writer and say, ‘Will you come to Brown and explain it to me?'” That is exactly what Indecent does: makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck, and we may be at a loss to explain.

A few notes:

The three-piece Klezmer band (John Miosich, Maryn Shaw, and Alexander Sovronsky) that performs the bulk of the music in the show is often propulsive, particularly when backing up the occasionally choreographed movements of the cast.

Though Vogel was the playwright, she acknowledges the important contributions of Rebecca Taichman, author of a play about the obscenity trial of God of Vengeance, and director of the original production.

There is an interesting piece on the HowlRound website by Warren Hoffman, whose book The Great White Way, about race in the American musical, I greatly admire. Hoffman scrutinizes the lesbian love story in God of Vengeance, concluding that because of the cuts to the script, the supposed immorality that got the play in legal trouble had to do more with the general sexual knowingness of the play than with its specifically and mostly missing lesbian content – and that it was the absence of specific content that ultimately got the conviction reversed on appeal (a fact Vogel’s play apparently leaves out). Hoffman also says that “lesbian” is a term and also, for the most part, a concept contemporary audiences in 1906 or 1923 would have been unfamiliar with. But the kiss would have been scandal enough.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Stanley Photography.

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Words Fail, But Humanity May Prevail in TWILIGHT, LOS ANGELES at the REP

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Words Fail, But Humanity May Prevail in TWILIGHT, LOS ANGELES at the REP

Danielle A. Drakes

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com March 6, 2019

When it comes to controversial events of public importance, there never seem to be any real smoking guns. No evidence is ever so powerful or conclusive that it will compel a complete consensus as to what happened or what it meant. Playwright and actor Anna Deveare Smith establishes a strong case-in-point in her 1993-1994 show Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, now being resurrected lovingly by actor Danielle A. Drakes and director Paige Hernandez at Columbia’s REP Stage. Twilight gathers and replays the recollections of many Angelenos surrounding the 1991 police beating of black motorist Rodney King, the acquittal of the police officers who beat him, and the ensuing uprising which left 63 dead and neighborhoods in ruins, including a well-publicized attack on Reginald Denny, a white truckdriver who blundered unawares into the heart of the unrest.

There was a videotape of the King beating. But the citizens of the African-American and Hispanic parts of LA viewed that tape quite differently from law enforcement or from the white citizens of Simi Valley who sat on the jury that criminally acquitted the officers. To the former, the beatdown was a routine exercise of racial superiority, designed to enforce the racist social structures that LA policing always enforced. To the latter, the police were complying with use of departmental use-of-force protocols when confronted with an arrest subject who had been fleeing and was at risk for being under the influence of PCP, a drug which would have predictably rendered him much harder to subdue.

The tragic lack of consensus around that tape was not just the product of different experiences among the populace, though it was that. On the evidence of the script, derived verbatim from hours of interviews by Smith, it was also the product of inadequate means of discourse and conflicting moral hierarchies.

Let’s talk about the problems with discourse first. The speakers Smith and Drakes bring to life are not as articulate as we’d like, especially when they explain or argue about matters of the rights and wrongs of the 1992 events. Smith herself acknowledges this, in the General Production Note at the head of the acting edition: “Many times a character speaks in a counterintuitive way, in which words in and of themselves do not make sense.” I’d argue that Smith’s evidence points to a deeper problem that the articulation betrays rather than masking: the underlying thought processes don’t make sense either. The characters often don’t want to look at themselves or their own motives closely, and their talk is a method of avoidance.

Thus Sergeant Charles Duke, a use-of-force expert who defended the bone-breaking batons used on King, gives a great deal of detail about why one of the police was not executing the blows well, or why batons were resorted to rather than “upper body control holds” or why the choice of batons was the police department’s way of getting back at irritating black community leaders and the politicians who had listened to them. One awaits and does not hear a word about the morality of police attacks on black bodies or that of the policing techniques which helped engender the community resentment that exploded. (Oddly, that task is mostly assigned to former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, who recounts at second hand a brief, horrifying tale of the casual racism that informed so much of the policing style in LA of that time.)

Likewise Ted Briseno, one of the officers allegedly involved in the King beating, does not talk about the beating at all, or about the rights and the wrongs of it; his talk is entirely of how he is the missing link of intergenerational regard in his family, as his father, a policeman he admired, died when Briseno was young, and as his own kids no longer admire him. Not one word about the catastrophe Briseno was alleged to have helped trigger. (He may not have felt called upon for an accounting, as he was acquitted at two trials, though unless I missed something this seems not to be explicit in this production.)

Similarly, when one listens to the talk of Keith Watson, one of the rioters who beat up Reginald Denny, it is frustrating to hear him say, referring to the verdict:

That could’ve been me out there getting’ my ass whooped!

And these four officers could a walked away for whoopin’ my ass like that?

I’m-afraid-not

I wasn’t raised to take ass whoopin’s like that and turn the other cheek

I refused!

Fine, but Keith Watson was not attacking policemen; what about the morality of getting back at the cops by “whoopin'” civilians? That issue is missing in action.

The uselessness of speech reaches its apogee in a rambling discourse by public intellectual Cornel West, who takes the relatable subject of “black sadness” and manages to make it so abstruse and abstract, so full of obscure references to Anton Chekhov, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Toni Morrison and a host of others, that it peters out like the Colorado River without touching us.

To one degree or another, most of the characters fail to use words properly to convey directly what is important. But as I have said, the underlying problem is larger. It is a mismatch of moral paradigms. The malaise of the neighborhoods that exploded was a national moral scandal that the police and their advocates failed to take adequate account of, a systemic assault on the sensibilities, rights and lives of people of color. Rodney King may have been a petty criminal, but “whoopin'” on him because of his fleeing arrest was nonetheless part of a larger pattern of oppression. Conversely, the rationale of the rioters and looters was that they were agents of karma, of cosmic payback, a payback which law and morality never allow private citizens to administer. Bookkeeper Katie Miller is evasive about whether or not she was a looter, though she comes close to acknowledging she had participated in looting in earlier 1965 riots. And she seems to think that Pep Boys, which was attacked, was attacked because “they too damn high” – presumably a reference to their pricing. And the attack on an I. Magnin store is pretty close to justified in her mind because it would upset a certain white newscaster she found insufferable.

With these mismatched paradigms, the possibility of rationally settling the underlying issues by a dialogue among the participants is hard to conceive. Yet clearly Smith has ambitions of taking steps in that direction with this show. It is not, I think, that she expects to correct anyone’s point of view (in her Note on Casting, Smith disavows wanting any character to be “sent up”), nor does she expect anyone to adopt anyone else’s paradigm. This play seems to be more about making people grasp, at a gut level, the personhood of all of the participants in this scene. The characters’ inarticulacy and their ineptness with moral paradigms is, it seems, intended to be telling proof of their humanity. And the demand at the end is not for intellectual agreement; the final speech goes to Twilight Bey, a gang truce organizer, who says the key is not “just identifying with people like me, and understanding me and mine.” Identification with people in other gangs and (in Smith’s commentary) tribes is both more important than and precedes mere agreement.

In the end, a cautious hopefulness emerges: Cornel West’s maundering notwithstanding, he does extol hope. There is the tale that ends the first act, that of Elvia Evers, Panamanian expectant mom whose encounter with the uprising ends in a kind of Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not miracle that can only bring a smile. And of course Twilight’s closing comments must be taken as a ground for hope, far beyond mere rationality.

As confirmation of the futility of mere rational argument, I think, Smith urges that productions use the videotapes of the beatings of both King and Denny (and also that of the killing of Latasha Harlins by a Korean shopkeeper, treatment of which is in the script but not in this production). Reviewing all three will drive home how inconclusive each is as evidence, how inadequate. We cannot rely on smoking guns, Smith seems to be telling us; we can only rely on our common humanity.

The trick in making recognition of that humanity possible is making the differences as well as the similarities palpable, which requires some serious acting. Smith is not doctrinaire about how many performers are required. She alone played all roles in the original production, and Drakes follows her in that, but that is a high-wire act. Convincingly conjuring up the (by my count) 24 characters in this rendering of the play – blacks, whites, Koreans, Hispanics, men and women – is not for the faint of heart. No one performer could make every embodiment perfect, and I don’t claim Drakes has done the impossible, but she’s awfully good. (She’s pictured above as the white use-of-force expert.) Between her renderings and the explanatory slides and videos (by Sarah Tunderman), one could feel one was meeting a host of interesting and sometimes intriguing individuals.

Also bringing this challenging vision to fruition was Debra Kim Sivigny’s set, a two-level wonder that Drakes wanders all over, dealing with the clutter of video screens, props and costumes, and after the uprising gets going, post-riot litter.

As may be inferred, the show is, overall, a profound experience. And it’s one that particularly resonates in view of our area’s recent trauma with the Freddie Gray riot. It is disheartening that we seem to remain stuck in the same sad place that the citizens of Los Angeles occupied 27 years ago. But perhaps the hopeful message Smith finally took away from that dark time fits us as well. And maybe that’s what we take away from it.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Katie Simmons-Barth.

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Fathers, Sons, and Dynastic Struggle: HENRY IV, PART I at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

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Fathers, Sons, and Dynastic Struggle: HENRY IV, PART I at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

Ron Heneghan and Séamus Miller

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com February 18, 2019

Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I (1597), now being revived by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, is at its heart a family story. It certainly bears the traditional characteristics of Shakespeare’s history plays, but it is, first and foremost, a story of two fathers and two sons, and only secondarily about dynastic struggles.

The literal father and son are the eponymous Henry IV (Ron Heneghan) and his son Henry (nicknamed Hal), the future Henry V (Séamus Miller) (pictured together above). Sir John Falstaff (Gregory Burgess) acts as Hal’s surrogate father, while Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur (Gerrad Alex Taylor), serves for a time as Henry IV’s surrogate son.

As things start out, in September 1402, the surrogate relationships are the stronger ones. Hotspur, in winning for the Crown the Battle of Homildon Hill against some Scottish raiders, has rendered what amounts to a filial service for King Henry, and is appreciated by Henry in terms that explicitly draw a contrast between warlike Hotspur and his wastrel son Hal, entirely to Hal’s disadvantage. Hal, in the meantime, is depicted as a habitué of the Boar’s Head Inn, Eastcheap, evidently a dive for Plantagenet-era lowlifes led by the dissolute, fat, dishonest, and drunk – but somehow still endearing – Falstaff, who functions at this point as Hal’s real father-figure. (This production amusingly sketches the sketchiness of the Boar’s Head with some introductory business not called for in the script, to wit various members of the Falstaff crew sleeping off a bender, and trollop Doll Tearsheet (Ashly Fishell-Shaffer) crawling out of someone’s bed as various bottles are surreptitiously swigged.)

If everyone were happy with the state of either surrogate father-son pairing, there would be no drama, but in fact there is trouble in both paradises. Biological relationships immediately begin to exert what will prove in the end to be irresistible pulls, and the play’s action can be seen as biology reasserting itself across the board. For each son, paternity becomes destiny.

For Hal and Falstaff, the problem is that Hal knows he is destined to be king, and that he cannot go on as he is doing. Falstaff is spinning fantasies of an England run for the rogues’ benefit once Hal is king; Hal puts him on notice that will not happen, prophesying that Falstaff will be hanged for thievery. (Later on, in Henry V, Hal will actually have his and Falstaff’s pal Bardolph (portrayed here by Scott Alan Small) hanged for that very reason – although Shakespeare’s original audience could not have known that outcome yet, as Bardolph was a purely invented character, and Henry V would not be written or performed until a year or so later.) As for himself, Hal expresses the resolution to reform and “throw off” his “loose behavior,” which implies throwing off Falstaff.

Meanwhile, there are at least two major stressors in the relationship between Henry and Hotspur. One, limned from the first line of the play onwards, is the instability and questionable legitimacy of Henry’s regime. Shakespeare’s audience would have known – and would have been reminded by the then-recent production (1595) of Richard II, which chronicled the tale – that Henry’s claim to the throne was tainted by his having overthrown Richard, an anointed king, to achieve it, after which Richard all-too-conveniently was murdered in prison. (Chesapeake Shakespeare Company audiences should likewise have been reminded by its 2014 rendering of Richard II.) Notwithstanding that Henry was anointed and crowned himself, his effort to convince the world and himself and even his God that he is more than just one momentarily successful baron in the endless Game of Thrones that English nobility was then playing, that he was permanently legitimate, in other words, is far from won. Henry speaks here of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; in Richard II the point of the pilgrimage was more explicitly described as being “to wash [Richard’s] blood from off my guilty hand.” And that Hotspur sees the same illegitimacy is made explicit; Hotspur comments to his kinsmen that they should never have engaged “in an unjust behalf .. to put down Richard, that lovely rose.”

The other stressor is the pull of faction; Hotspur is a member of the Percy clan and married into the Mortimer clan (both derived from a branch of royalty collateral to Henry’s Lancastrian dynasty), and by both of those ties is institutionally saddled with family claims on his loyalties stronger than Henry’s claims, and a tenuously-held crown claimed with questionable legitimacy will not change that.

Add to these traits that Hotspur is, as his nickname suggests, a bit of a hothead. Ultimately, Hotspur will act in favor of his own family’s interests; unfortunately for him, his family will prove less loyal to him than he does to them.

The flashpoint between Henry and Hotspur is Henry’s demand for the valuable prisoners Hotspur took at Homildon Hill; if the victory was really a victory for the Crown and Henry’s dynasty, then Henry reasons the prisoners (and the ransom money they may fetch) should have been his, though taken by proxy; if they are not yielded, Hotspur is showing his lack of loyalty to the Crown – and his unfitness to be a son-figure. It gives little away to say that the prisoners are not yielded up.

Between Falstaff and Hal, the sundering of surrogate ties is subtler. Falstaff organizes the tavern crew into a loose band of highwaymen who prey on a group of travelers at Gad’s Hill near Rochester, and Hal’s response is to victimize the victimizers covertly, restore the purloined loot to its owners, and humiliate Falstaff. In one of Shakespeare’s great comic scenes, the humiliation is carried out gently and with humor, and Falstaff responds to his unmasking with mendacious effrontery that concedes no embarrassment, but the fact remains that Falstaff’s delinquencies are now being thwarted, identified, and reproved, and by the person he loves like a son. And then war comes, and the tavern crew are pressed into military service which will require them to behave less antisocially, at least for the moment. (Fun fact: Charles Dickens later lived at the approximate spot of the fictional robbery.)

By the end of the play, Hal seems to have completed his movement back to his real father, and Henry to have completely reconciled with his real son. Hotspur and Falstaff are, or will be, the losers. How it all will work out remains to be seen in Henry IV, Part II, which will be staged by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company next month, including three days in repertory with Part I.

Meanwhile, we have this mounting of this play standing by itself. Ian Gallanar’s direction is strong and subtle. Everything is dedicated to the service of the emotional through-lines of the show, and in many places, this extends to what is not in the script, like the above-mentioned business with Doll Tearsheet. We feel the structure imposed by the great quadrangle of fathers and sons even when only one or none of them is onstage. At the same time, the characters are no mere counters or avatars, but at every moment leap to life.

I need to say a word about Hotspur in this connection; he is not normally presented the way Gallanar and Gerrad Alex Taylor give him to us. This Hotspur is in a near-constant rage. He exhibits next to no affability, even in the scene where he bids farewell to his wife Kate (Elana Michelle) as he rides off to war. This is startling, because Hotspur is usually made a foil to Hal by endowing him with a personal magnetism similar to Hal’s, and a playful mien at least around Kate. This Hotspur shouts, glares, and throws furniture around so abruptly the person in the seat next to me jumped. Yet I have to acknowledge that the words in the script give him license to be that way, leaving the nice-guy glamor to Hal. I’m not sure I’d make the same choice, but I have to acknowledge this Hotspur is a revelation. Certainly Taylor plays him with steady conviction, doing nothing, except maybe the slightest little softening at the end of his scene with his wife, to vary his imposing choler.

In any case, Miller’s Hal picks up the affability slack, constantly flashing a confident grin, never being truly mean but never giving everything away either. With a sort of sweater around his neck, he looks like a preppie prince, protected by his dad’s money and status. But you can also see on this Hal’s face full foreknowledge of the transition he must make, even though he goes on enjoying the moment.

Ron Heneghan, whose work I’ve admired before, for instance as Henry VIII in Anne of a Thousand Days at CSC, gives us a particularly sympathetic Henry IV, a sort of every-father dealing with Junior’s failure to launch, while privately wrestling with his own more grown-up issues (although most dads don’t number among such issues a guilty conscience for ousting a legitimate king and the need to put down an armed rebellion). And the relief he shows when it becomes clear to him that Hal is going to be a credit to the family after all is the kind of thing any father could identify with, lucidly enacted.

The break with Hal that Falstaff will have to face in Part II has not happened yet, and so Falstaff’s biggest moments are yet to come, but Burgess slays with the moments he’s given. The underlying text before the characters troop off to war is Falstaff’s constant and fully-justified anxiety that he may be losing his hold over Hal, but the only way he can express it is in jest, and jest he does. It’s a delight to watch his eyes twinkle as if he were in the moment coming up with comical ways of probing Hal’s constancy to him, particularly in the dialogues in which he and Hal war-game Hal’s upcoming confrontations with his real father. And afterwards, Falstaff’s cowardice followed by outlandish claims of valor, punctuated by humorous meditations on the limitations of martial honor, seem fresh and spontaneous.

The rest of the Boar’s Head revelers also deserve a mention: Bardolph, Doll Tearsheet, Poins (Lance Bankerd), Peto (Kathryne Daniels), Mistress Quickly (Tamieka Chavis), Pistol (Gregory Michael Atkin) (not actually a character in the original Part I), and a Vintner (Brianna Manente) who has but one speech in the original text but here hangs around to swell the chorus. Collectively, this team, slightly larger than the one Shakespeare called for, imbue the proceedings with a lovely festive spirit, binding them all together as Hal’s brothers and sisters in Falstaff’s quasi-family. Their liveliness understandably attracts Hal, making more striking his gradual transition to the circle of his grim and guilt-stricken father.

The family drama played out with these dynamics and forces is limned with some of Shakespeare’s finest and funniest writing. But Gallanar’s lively direction makes it frequently sizzle.

The one thing in this show that to my mind misfires is the battle scene, and let me state immediately that I’m not even confident it worked properly in Shakespeare’s time. A battle is by definition an event involving many people, and the stage cannot put that number of performers before an audience. The temptation, to which Shakespeare often succumbed, is to scale it down to a small number of individual combats, typically in the course of which the two characters who matter most come face-to-face – notwithstanding that they are nobles or royalty who would be protected as a matter of course in a real battle. By the time one of them is required to engage in individual combat, the battle would probably be lost, and the other of them would not be expected or probably allowed to fight personally.

But yet Shakespeare keeps giving us this mythical convention. Think Macbeth and Macduff, Richard III and Richmond, and here Hal and Hotspur. The unconvincingness of this device was oddly underscored here by the hyperrealistic combat staged by fight choreographer Casey Kaleba. Indeed, sitting in the first row, at what amounted to a ringside seat, I confess to having been a little nervous for myself, but even more for the actors because the hardware the two antagonists were slinging so quickly and so nearby looked and sounded convincingly lethal. So we had hyperrealism in support of a myth. I’m not sure how a director fixes this endemic Shakespearean problem, or that it has ever been fixed on any stage. In any case, it went conspicuously unfixed here. (Note: Piping in the occasional noises of a larger battle doesn’t solve the problem.)

But I wouldn’t make too much of a few misfiring minutes in the context of an overall triumph. This remains a splendid rendering of a splendid play. I am already looking forward eagerly to seeing Part II next month. And I’m in high hopes there will be a Henry V from this troupe in the not-too-distant future, continuing this cast.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: C. Stanley Photography.

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Inspired Self-Parody: CYMBELINE at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory

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Inspired Self-Parody: CYMBELINE at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory

Sienna Goering

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com February 17, 2019

Cymbeline is one of those Shakespeare plays no one ever sees. It’s understandable, because Shakespeare wrote a profusion of great ones. The few that can’t be called great – and Cymbeline, frankly, can’t – understandably don’t get produced much. All the more reason, then, that Baltimore audiences should flock to the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s current revival of Cymbeline, because, folks, I’m here to tell you: second-rate Shakespeare is still pretty wonderful, and the Shakespeare Factory has done a splendid job with what the playwright left them to work with.

And what exactly is it that the playwright (or possibly playwrights, since some scholars detect the collaboration of Jacobean journeymen Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher here) left them? Well, descriptions of the play generally start with a catalog of the ways it repeats elements of other Shakespeare plays, and I think that that approach is a propos, for reasons I’ll make clearer in a moment.

Let me give you some examples of the kind of repetition I’m talking about. The hero, Posthumus Leonatus, a first-century Briton (Adam Henrickson), is banished from the court of his father-in-law, the British King Cymbeline (Desmond Kaplan) for having had the temerity to marry Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen (Sienna Goering) without her dad’s blessing. This makes him a lot like the banished Rosalind in As You Like It. Imogen disappears to the country to pursue Posthumus, but, like Queen Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, is believed to be dead. Like both Rosalind and Orlando, she falls in with apparent rustics who turn out to be courtiers in exile. Like Juliet, she takes a potion that knocks her out for awhile, so that other characters believe her dead. Then she revives, and like Rosalind, like Portia, like Viola, like Julia, she dresses up as a man so convincingly that the people in her life, notably including her husband, fail to recognize her. Posthumus, meanwhile, is stirred to murderous designs on his wife because he is tricked into believing she has been unfaithful; the deceit reminds one of a deception in Two Gentlemen of Verona and the deception in Othello, based, as in Othello, on the misprision of a love token. There is a deserved beheading of a character no one will miss, so that there can be a strategically useful partial corpse, as in Measure for Measure. There is a prophetic dream vision, as in Richard III and Julius Caesar. A character is moved around in a large container like Sir John Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor. There are long-lost children reunited with family at the end as in The Comedy of Errorsand Twelfth Night. And so on and so on.

In effect, Shakespeare is giving us, around 1611, late in his career (in perhaps the 34th of the 38 plays generally associated with him), a reprise of his “greatest hits,” characterizations and plot twists that had worked so well for him throughout his many years on the London theater scene. And yes, there are probably too many of them, jammed together in a fantastical way that makes the revelation scene at the end (itself a Shakespeare trope), where all the confusions, secrets, and misinformation are cleared up, resemble a crowded off-ramp where cars are queued up waiting to escape a traffic crunch. (Director Tom Delise emphasizes the resemblance by keeping some of his characters literally awaiting their turn at the back of the auditorium.) I suspect it’s the longest revelation scene in all of Shakespeare. But – and this is the critical thing – it still works. It’s corny, it’s cliched, it’s laughable (a trait Delise rightly plays up by having everyone gasp theatrically at each of the many revelations), but it’s also meticulously constructed to build and build and build.

Shakespeare is an old master of this; you can see it as well in the scene in which the villainous Italian Iachimo (Elijah Moreland) cunningly unwraps, one by one, the bits of deceptive proof he has assembled that Imogen has been false to Posthumus with him.

It’s interesting that when first published (in the 1623 First Folio), Cymbeline was misclassified as a tragedy. In actuality, it may be a melodrama at times, but its strongest resemblances are to Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, and, like those comedies, it frequently evokes uncomplicated delight. And yet, what the play seems to be, most of all, is what I’ve just discussed: a retrospective of Shakespeare’s career, with a strong note of self-parody. That, I think, is why the play is, for want of a better word, overstuffed. There’s a Holinshed-inspired history play in it (the Roman wars in Britain), a tale of cunning intrigue lifted from Boccaccio, and plenty of material that, as everyone recognizes and I’ve just detailed, basically plagiarizes Shakespeare’s earlier works. Shakespeare could have crafted a leaner tale; he certainly knew how to do it. (See Macbeth.) But with a playwright as fecund as Shakespeare, a “greatest hits album” would have to be full to bursting. And so that’s what Cymbeline is: a “greatest hits” that refuses to take itself seriously, and invites us to participate in Shakespeare’s gentle laugh at himself.

Director Delise wisely keeps the pace blistering throughout most of the show. If the audience is going to have to wade through oceans of melodramatic improbability and euphuistic verse to get to the good stuff in the play, and it will need to do just that, best to keep right on. There are not many pauses in this rendering of the play, and the scene transitions are split-second. I think I detected some significant cuts as well.

The cast gamely rises to the challenges of both the play and its direction here. I especially enjoyed Warren C. Harris‘ Cloten. Seldom have I seen a braggart and fool portrayed with such appealing conviction. And he gets bonus points for doubling as a somewhat petulant Jupiter accompanied by what I assume was a deliberately half-hearted and tinny-sounding thunder-sheet. He also plays a hilarious dreadfully off-key saxophone. Sienna Goering makes Imogen (pictured above in the referenced male attire) perfectly strong and passionate and constant. Elijah Moreland couldn’t quite sell Iachimo’s change of heart at the end (I doubt anyone could), but he has no such problem with Iachimo’s earlier grinning villainy, the kind that would make you want to slap him but you’d be grinning too much yourself to do it. And a tip of the hat to Melissa Robinson, who brings off the villainous Queen and a spooky Soothsayer with equal aplomb.

Shakespeare Factory always goes in for minimalist settings, heavy doubling, and an informal ethos emphasizing, among other things, musical performances by the cast before the show and during intermissions. That might not work as well to frame some of Shakespeare’s heavier plays, but here it seems just fine. The overall effect is a delightfully entertaining evening. My advice, therefore, is the same as Lady Macbeth’s: Stand not upon the order of your going, but go. You won’t regret it.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Will Kirk Photography.

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Compulsions, Secrets, and Ecstatic Polyphony: FUN HOME at Center Stage

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Compulsions, Secrets, and Ecstatic Polyphony: FUN HOME at Center Stage

Andrea Prestinaria, Molly Lyons, and Jeffry Denman

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com January 25, 2019

From its opening moments, Fun Home, now being presented at Baltimore’s Center Stage, provides an intricately-woven tapestry, a meditation on the various but related compulsions of the memoirist, the bric-a-brac collector, the artist, and the sexually-closeted individual, and the way these compulsions affect family lives and relationships. Shortly after the opening, another theme is added: the coming to self-identification and coming-out of a young lesbian, specifically a butch one. Much has justly been made of the landmark nature of this show as the first Broadway musical to center on the life of a lesbian and the first with both a female composer and a female lyricist/book author. Yet the magic of the show resides at least as much in the study of the compulsions explored from the opening number.

Consider what happens in the first two songs. In It All Comes Back (Opening), we first see Alison, i.e. the 43-year-old cartoonist Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic memoir that inspired the show (Andrea Prestinaria), at her easel, contemplating Small Alison, a pint-sized younger version of herself (Molly Lyons), commanding her father Bruce (Jeffry Denman) to come and “play airplane,” a game where she balances on Bruce’s feet. (This moment is also the beginning of Bechdel’s graphic memoir.) Summoning one’s parents is of course also one of the crucial tasks of most autobiographies – but here it is supplemented by the payoff of the game for Small Alison, which is that, supported by Bruce’s feet (once he responds to her summons and lies down on the floor), she imagines she “can see all of Pennsylvania.” In other words, Small Alison, like the older version of herself looking on from the easel, wants to take in everything about the state and the world that surrounds her. (This moment is pictured above.) Later, Small Alison will draw a cartoon of the State of Pennsylvania in which she tries to accomplish the same panoptic feat. So in an important sense, the summoning of the father and/or his memory is the same thing as trying to see everything.

In a moment, the scene shifts, and Bruce is sorting through assorted objects he hauled out of a neighbor’s barn. After tossing the “crap,” significantly including a dead mouse that Alison, who we already know wants to see everything, does not feel compelled to discard, he comes across some Irish linen and a maybe-silver coffeepot, and waxes rhapsodical on the “luster” that may be revealed when he polishes it, the object being to bring himself closer to the truth and the history of the object. He sings:

I can’t abide romantic notions
Of some vague long ago.
I want to know what’s true,
Dig deep into who
And what
And why
And when
Until now gives way to then.

This is not a casual pursuit for Bruce; this is what drives him. And, as Alison then admits, this is her compulsion as a biographer and autobiographer too. So, by no coincidence at all, the adult Alison actually still possesses these objects, which she is using to reconstruct her history. And to confirm this, she then sings, along with her father, a reprise of the lyrics just quoted.

Shortly thereafter, the scene shifts again, and in the song Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue we are now receiving an object lesson in polishing and its subtexts. The Bechdel house, it seems, embodies Bruce’s compulsions writ large: a gorgeous, shiny structure reconstructed by Bruce, largely single-handedly, but maintained with enormous labor by a team of scurrying conscripts, aka Bruce’s family, to wit wife Helen (Michelle Dawson), Small Alison and her brothers Christian (Liam Hamilton) and John (Jon Martens), all enslaved to Bruce’s vision of the place and the appearance it creates, what “he wants, he wants, he wants!” It seems that the rest of the family’s desires don’t enter into it.

What drives Bruce’s need to present a shiny surface? The lyrics cue us: “Everything is balanced and serene.)/ Like chaos never happens if it’s never seen.” So we now know there’s unseen chaos, and if we haven’t already figured out what it is, Alison will spell it out for us at the end of the number: “My dad … was gay…” At the same time, Alison tells us how all this relates to her: “… and I was gay … and I became a lesbian cartoonist.” As we’ll soon see, he’s trying to hide his gayness, and she’s trying to name and then publicize hers, and these diverging agendas will drive the action.

The compulsions to preserve, recreate, and get to underlying truths and beauties, shared to some degree by father and daughter, are the text, then, and homosexuality is the subtext, and the way these texts play out is what makes the show what Bechdel subtitled her memoir: “A Family Tragicomic.” I have gone to this length about the first twelve minutes or so of Fun Home (which runs about an hour and three quarters without an intermission) to underscore its thematic richness, even before the lesbian story comes to the fore.

And yes, there is a gorgeous coming-of-age lesbian narrative presented here as well. We follow as Small Alison chafes at conventionally girlish attire and is gleefully thunderstruck at seeing “an old-school butch” delivery woman with short hair, dungarees, lace-up boots and a ring of keys, and as Medium Alison (Laura Darrell), a freshman at Oberlin, figures out she’s gay, joins the gay campus group, and has her first, rapturous love affair with Joan, a fellow-student (Shannon Tyo). Of course, it’s hard but doable to tell her parents, but the really hard part for her will prove to be their failure to respond directly to her revelation. Blissed out as she is by her successful emergence into sexual self-awareness, Medium Alison will fail to respond directly and in timely fashion to the tragedy gathering in her family. It will be left to the mature Alison, summoning her memories at the end, to make a full, if untimely, response to her parents’ unhappiness. And, characteristic of the intricate craftsmanship of the musical, that summons, Flying Away (Finale), is a reprise of the opening number, returning to the initial musical and lyrical themes, in an ecstatic polyphonic trio of the three Alisons, singing together for the first time. (Composer Jeanine Tesori‘s music reaches its apogee here, but is beautiful and urgent throughout.)

The hard-fought five-year creative process that lay behind this show has been chronicled in various places, and seems to be reflected in the way that the show starts and finishes. Alison at the outset refers to herself as “forty-three and stuck,” but we don’t get to see Alison herself stuck; to the contrary, she seems to be luminously able to bring all the elements of memory back together to produce Fun Home, her memoir. And the polyphonic trio at the end seems ecstatic not because of what has happened in Alison’s life (we are shown and told nothing of what befell her in all the long years after the climax of her parents’ tragedy, so there’s nothing to rejoice or mourn over) but because of the success of Alison’s effort to pull her memories together and return amidst them to the joy of playing airplane with her dad.

We can certainly empathize with the creative rejoicing at the end; what Tesori and book-and-lyricist Lisa Kron had to do with Bechdel’s book, if not quite the kind of radical reconstruction that, for instance, turned James Michener’s collection of short stories into South Pacific, is still remarkable. Focuses changed; plot points were subtly altered; Bechdel’s wry commentary was mostly erased, as were extended critical dialogues with earlier literary works. Other things were added, notably a big comic relief number for the children in the style of the Jackson Five, mordantly if exuberantly advertising the funerary services that Bruce and the home provided. The adaptations were vital, resulting in a triumphantly tight work that deserved and won five Tonys, including Best Musical.

Center Stage’s current production has done the show proud, very nearly the equivalent of the Broadway show. In its Broadway run, the musical played at the Circle in the Square, one of only two Broadway theaters with thrust stages, with the action on the floor and the spectators ranged above it, with excellent sightlines from most seats. I was wondering how the show would come off on a different kind of stage. Center Stage has staged it in flexible space of the upstairs Head Theater, with a thrust stage that places the action above much of the audience. Sure enough, some of the sightlines are no longer as good, but in other respects the staging works as well. Director Hana S. Sharif and Choreographer Jaclyn Miller seem to bring out every nuance as the show briskly progresses.

The cast, like all Center Stage casts, is uniformly excellent. It is hard to quarrel with casting choices like Molly Lyons, who has the voice of the nine-year-old she is, but the pizzazz and presence of a veteran belter, or Andrea Prestinario, whose slightly weary tones, and engaged but wary way of looking at the action going on around her are so very reminiscent of Beth Malone‘s, who originated the role of Alison. Nor can I avoid mentioning Michelle Dawson‘s awe-inspiring delivery of Helen’s big song Days and Days. Still, let me repeat a frequent observation of mine in these pages, which I would omit were there not now a new Artistic Director at the company. It would be nice if more of the players were Center Stage veterans with local roots, in this, allegedly “the State Theater of Maryland” which, owing to casting, ofttimes feels like nothing more than Off Broadway South. There is a deep pool of talent in this area which Center Stage too often ignores. Once upon a time Center Stage nurtured a stable of professionals who, while never close to the exclusive source of performers, would grace its stage repeatedly and either had or developed local ties; it would be nice to see this pattern return, even at the possible cost of the foregone utterly spot-on casting choice from time to time.

One other thought. It is good to see Center Stage doing musicals. As jazz is to music, so is the musical to the theater: the particularly American contribution to the art form. It goes without saying that Center Stage should continue its primary focus on plays, but to leave out musicals would be neglecting something important, and Center Stage’s recent forays into the genre (including Next to NormalMarley, and SOUL) have been impressive and welcome.

In sum, this is a major work of art, in a quintessentially American genre, an important representation of an under-represented group that advances understanding and dialogue, and beautifully produced. Audiences should embrace this production.

Copyright Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Bill Geenen.

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