Everyone Gets A Present Courtesy of A CHRISTMAS STORY at Hippodrome

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Everyone Gets A Present Courtesy of A CHRISTMAS STORY at Hippodrome


Posted on BroadwayWorld.com December 7, 2016

The key thing to know about A Christmas Story, The Musical, the national tour of which is now briefly commanding the boards at the Hippodrome, is that it will not offend any lover of the movie – a class comprised of pretty much the entire world. All the elements you want to see – the narration by Jean Shepherd, the Major Award, the flagpole (pictured above), the slugfest with Scut Farkas, the dogs in the kitchen, the Chinese dinner, and every repetition of “You’ll shoot your eye out!” are there, none the worse for your expecting them. The musicalization (book by Joseph Robinette, songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, choreography by Warren Carlyle) has not diminished any aspect of the movie; the new material does no damage to the original components.

What you get in addition is the kind of stuff that makes a musical a musical: songs, dances, production numbers. The starting point is our young hero Ralphie’s overactive imagination which, even in the movie, made exaggerated fantasies out of every unrealistic scenario he would conjure up in his single-minded quest for the Holy Grail Christmas present: the Red Ryder BB Gun. Since an exaggerated fantasy is just a production number waiting to happen anyway, you get a huge song-and-dance with the Major Award, duplicated many times over, kicking like a row of chorines. You get an extended Wild West number in which Ralphie, resplendent in white chaps and cowboy hat, envisions the outlaws and lowlifes he’ll straighten out when he gets his BB gun. You get a tap-dancing speakeasy number with his teacher Miss Shields in a flaming red dress slit thigh-high as Ralphie’s vision of how his teacher will love his school essay about the importance of being given a BB gun. And so on. It’s all harmless to the original conception, and much of it very good fun.

The leads are all splendid. The role of Ralphie is shared; on press night, it was Austin Molinaro, who brought the right sense of bespectacled imagination to the part. Mother (Susannah Jones) displays a pleasing warmth and wistfulness. The dad who can be a little thick and talk a little blue (if unintelligibly) as he tries to navigate the challenges of the late Depression is played with dogged doofusness by Christopher Swan. Angelica Richie is outstanding as Miss Shields, switching between the kind of propriety to which an excessive respect for margins on writing paper is second nature and the role of vamp in the aforementioned red dress. Chris Carsten does a fine job in channeling the relaxed and reminiscent Jean Shepherd.

And then there are the kids. The squadron of talented moppets is sort of a new thing. I’m not suggesting by any means that choruses of kids haven’t often been a feature of musicals; think back to The King and I and The Sound of Music. But that was all cute, designed to showcase the cuteness of kids as kids. The comic effect of kids doing adult-style dancing and singing is relatively recent. For that, I don’t think you can go back further than Bob Fosse‘s work in Annie. But there’s more of it now. Think School of Rock, where the kids not only play the instruments like rock stars, but scowl like arena rock heroes as they wield guitars conspicuously designed for larger hands and arms. Here the kids show off insanely good tap-dancing skills, and some impressive choral singing while wearing costumes (gangster suits and fedoras, for example) tailored as if for adults. Juveniles rule.

Being a piece designed for an obvious seasonal window only, A Christmas Story is a bit like the town of Brigadoon, coming to life only during that window. This is the third holiday season in which the musical has been on tour. That mayfly (all right, December fly) existence may be an asset. In a lyric from the show, “The moments come, the moments go, and just like that, the moment’s gone.” The verse is sung by Mother about the preciousness of holidays, but also about the preciousness of her boys’ fleeting childhoods, and that of the family’s moments together. Many of the best things gain their best quality from their transitory nature.

This show may also prove the point.

It must be acknowledged, on the way out, that there is perhaps a serious issue hidden by the tinsel. One could argue that the idealization of the white nuclear family in a Norman Rockwell-ish past in the American heartland privileges a sort of white innocence in a way not desirable in a multi-ethnic national present, characterized as well by many kinds of families. (To be sure, there are a sprinkling of non-white performers in this production, but that is either color-blind casting at work or revisionism, set next to the movie, which was definitely a white family’s story.) Such a criticism has in fact been leveled at a similar show, The Music Man, in Warren Hoffman’s recent book, The Great White Way. In my humble view, however, there’s room to celebrate everything and everybody, including white kids from intact nuclear families in 1940s Indiana. Unapologetically. It’s Christmas. Everyone gets a present.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photo.

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Bravura LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES at Center Stage: A Welcome Antidote to Seasonal Good Cheer

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Bravura LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES at Center Stage: A Welcome Antidote to Seasonal Good Cheer

Brent Harris and Paul Deo, Jr.

Brent Harris and Paul Deo, Jr.

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com December 6, 2016

Center Stage is starting its new season with a bravura flourish: Nothing less challenging than a presentation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos‘ scandalous epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. You have to give the company high marks for moxie. The show is both technically and dramatically demanding, and, over two centuries after the novel came out, still bound to be controversial. No resting on laurels for Center Stage, even as it begins the slow reveal of its newly-renovated home (of which more below).

Back to the show for now. The book has made six unrelated trips to the screen and has been crafted into three different plays or musicals. Despite that history, let’s be honest: does anyone really understand the plot? To follow the schemes cooked up by ancien regime decadents the Marquise de Meurteil (portrayed here by SuzzAnne Douglas) and her former lover and frenemy the Vicomte de Valmont (Brent Harris) you need a libretto and a scorecard. All the reader or theatergoer generally ends up grasping or remembering is that Valmont worms his way into various beds he has no business in, that Valmont and Meurteil have occasion to be incredibly unpleasant to the people caught up in their game and to each other, and that, for some reason, the intrigues lead to some swordplay and death towards the end.

And let us add improbability to the incomprehensibility. Without the benefit of modern psychiatry, Laclos capably nailed a type we now call the psychopath. Meurteil and Valmont both have this personality disorder: that seems clear. Yet Laclos would have it that Valmont at least, if not Meurteil, possesses some genuine appreciation of and attraction to morality, and a capacity for moral regret. Laclos (who seems not to have been a libertine like his heroes) may not have grasped that the psychopath with a true conscience is a nonesuch.

So let’s see: we have byzantine complexity and unreal psychology. Doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that would keep readers and theatergoers keep coming back. Yet somehow, almost inexplicably, this slightly pornographic extravaganza of obscurity and nastiness continues to claim our attention. Never mind why; some things just are that way.

Center Stage’s handsome production does well by the nastiness. Every rococo detail works in Michael Carnahan‘s handsome set (complete with a stunning polished floor), and in Fabio Toblini‘s exquisite gowns. The fencing, directed by Rick Sordelet, seems both lethal and elegant. The opulence of the visuals just makes the decadence gleam the brighter.

The palpable pleasure in Merteuil and Valmont take in their respective villainies is also well conveyed. Even if you can’t exactly call to mind exactly why Meurteuil and Valmont are doing whatever they’re doing to whomever they’re doing it to, you grin because of the way Douglas and Harris convey their characters’ sheer evil elan. Most of the other characters are patsies, in one way or another, but very well-performed patsies: including Cécile Volanges (Noelle Franco) a young convent graduate soon flirting hungrily with ruination, her credulous mother, who follows Merteuil’s every dangerous suggestion (Carine Montbertrand), Mme. De Tourvel (Gillian Williams), whose very nobility of spirit becomes a weapon Valmont uses against her, and Danceny (Paul Deo, Jr.), Meurteuil’s boy-toy, pictured above crossing swords with Valmont, ultimately converted in an unlikely way into Valmont’s instrument of revenge. You believe in them all.

The adaptation, by playwright Christopher Hampton, is capable, but makes questionable choices at the end. If you’ve read the book or seen the movies, you’re expecting Meurteil to receive more of a come-uppance than Hampton provides; for retribution Hampton seems to be counting on the doom awaiting the entire nobility and haute bourgeoisie in the form of the French Revolution, just around the corner at the end of the action, a little too heavily foreshadowed in the last minutes. I think that’s a questionable choice, since Merteuil and Valmont are the snakes in this garden; the society as a whole is not portrayed as a nest of vipers, and the structural injustice of pre-Revolutionary France is barely hinted at. The common disaster awaiting the good and bad ruling class characters alike is thus not a readily apparent righting of wrongs.

In the midst of endless revivals of A Christmas Carol (two of which I’ll shortly be reviewing) and other holiday fare, all overflowing with peace on earth and good will toward men, you may be craving something that sounds a more misanthropic note. If so, Center Stage has just what you need, served up with class and spirit. But hurry; this show will disappear before the eggnog does.

Let me end with two miscellaneous observations.

My one big objection first. If you look at the cast bios in the program, you will not see one single cast member who has previously trodden the boards at Center Stage. Not one. Casting has been performed by an agency out of New York, as was the case with all or most of the shows at Center Stage over the last two years. The previous managing director in an interview a couple of years ago assured me there would more emphasis on local performers. In practice, that has most often meant a) borrowing Bruce Randolph Nelson from Everyman several times and b) otherwise using local performers in ensemble roles, not featured ones. I do not count this as more emphasis on local performers. Once upon a time people who in later years gravitated to Everyman were regulars at Center Stage: Carl Schurr and Wil Love and the late Vivienne Shub and Tana Hicken. Performers who went on to national prominence like Terry O’Quinn and Christine Baranski were nurtured there. Now no one gets nurtured at Center Stage: it’s an endless churn reminiscent of W.S. Gilbert‘s lampoon of “The idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone/ All centuries but this, and every country but his own.” The performers on the conveyor belt are all talented, and I’m not knocking a one of them, but we’ve never heard of them before and never will again. Most of the bios contain no evidence the players have even played in our region before. Local actors apparently need not apply. Believe it or not, Center Stage, we Baltimore theater people do pick up on the New York disrespect.

The beginning of this season is late this year, because of the extensive work being done on the building. But so far, there is still nothing to see. The hallway from front door to the portals of the Pearlstone Theater is a sheetrock waste, without bar or café, without seating, without anything except a narrowed passage to the Pearlstone auditorium which, so far as I can tell, has not been altered. The word I heard is that the renovations will finish up in February. We in the audience are all anxiously agog, but we shall all just have to wait until the next show. My best advice during this show, however, is: Don’t come early: there’s nowhere to sit before they open the doors.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photo. Photo credit: Richard Anderson

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High School Hunger Games Played for Laughs: SCHOOLGIRL FIGURE at Cohesion

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High School Hunger Games Played for Laughs: SCHOOLGIRL FIGURE at Cohesion

Tatiana Nya Ford and Chara Bauer

Tatiana Nya Ford and Chara Bauer

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com November 21, 2016

Wendy MacLeod‘s play Schoolgirl Figure, gracing the performance space at United Evangelical Church for three weeks, is a natural choice for a fringe troupe. Its subject is sensitive and controversial, the tone is on beyond irreverent, and accordingly no company that produces it need feel bound by any sense of reverence toward the script either. But that is not to say that every approach will work equally well. The version presented by local fringe outfit Cohesion Theatre Company, directed by Jonas David Grey, reflects some of these challenges.

Set in a high school where certain girls, banded together as The Carpenters, are in an anorexia/bulimia competition, where the intermediate prize is to date the hunky The Brad (Flynn Harne) and the longer-term prize is death by malnutrition, the show follows the battle between the utterly unscrupulous uber-bitch Renee (Tatiana Nya Ford) and fierce competitor Jeanine (Emily Sucher) to succeed Monique, the late victor in these hunger games (Jane Jongeward), as The Brad’s choice. Patty (Chara Bauer) is ostensibly a competitor herself, but her real role in life is to serve as Renee’s wingwoman, and the dilemma constantly thrust upon her is whether to let her appetite (which generally wins out over her anorexic aspirations) and her sense of decency (constantly outraged by Renee’s deceptions) overrule what Renee wants her to do. Watching over and commenting upon these goings-on – in rhymed couplets – are the ghosts of Monique and (on the video) the two girls who preceded her in starvation. Along the way, various adults portrayed by Terrance Fleming and Alice Stanley are hoodwinked and coopted to participate in the fun.

Obviously, there are serious things that can be said about eating disorders and their connection to American ideals of the female body image, and some of these statements do eventually get made, more or less directly, at the end. But MacLeod is writing more a black comedy than an issues play. The total insanity of the Carpenters’ activities is handled more as a given than the point of the show. In fact, the play often seems more like a sitcom than a jeremiad.

The resulting strange tone would present problems for any director and cast, and it is hardly a grave criticism to say that the Cohesion folks sometimes seem to wobble. I think partly this is due to what is, in this context, unconventional casting. One of the actresses playing the three living contestants is just skinny enough to be convincing as an anorexic, but the other two are not, despite dialogue that describes them as underweight and flat-chested. I empathize with the director’s likely angst in casting these parts, since the actresses (Ford and Bauer) are otherwise perfect for their roles. Ford has a wonderful trick of slowing down and speaking every word by itself to lengthen the time available for her character’s fertile mind to eke out the next outrageous lie, and Bauer has the knack of conveying a girl torn between loyalty to her friend and fundamental human decency (usually the losing tendency). You want these players in these roles, even though they don’t look the part(s). But this is one of those contexts where if you don’t look the part, the inauthenticity will take some kind of toll. (I saw a production of Harvey in Minneapolis this spring with something similar: an Asian-American actress in a part that was supposed to be a gentle comic sendup of the foibles of the mid-20th Century WASP gentry. She was not believably the daughter of the woman with whom she was having WASP-y mother issues. You got past it, mostly, but the impersonation suffered, unfair though this may have been.)

And even though you applaud when the characters finally band together and speak out at the end about the pervasive body shaming that provides the setting in which eating disorders take shape, there are lines earlier like “Thank God [the media] are upholding standards,” said by a character who apparently means it when she says it. So which is the character’s real outlook? Hard to know.

Do we really need a coherent script? Probably not. Coherence can be overrated. And one of the joys of the try-anything approach of the Cohesion people over the last couple of years has been their willingness to take on projects where the chance of perfect polish is small, but the opportunity for showing you something you haven’t seen before is great. Schoolgirl Figureexemplifies “something you haven’t seen before.” Out there for two decades, it is still a show I hadn’t heard of before, and I’ll bet you, dear reader, had not heard of it either. It’s transgressive, it’s funny, and it provides (to borrow a slogan from a Las Vegas casino) just the right amount of wrong. You cannot also require it to be the kind of well-oiled dramatic machine one sees on Broadway.

So that’s that. Go see it. Your funny bone will thank you.

And let me mention on the way out: Casey Dutt’s hilarious Cinderella/Barbie pink set and the well-selected and humorously topical pop music videos (from acts like Garbage and Pink) that serve as overture, entr’acte, and exit music.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo.

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A Litigator Ponders the Election

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A Litigator Ponders the Election

Published in the Daily Record the week of November 28, 2016

Clogged funnels. The election turned on clogged funnels.

The Look

The litigator in me grasped this long before the rest of me caught up. I would see interviews with Trump voters on the subject of Hillary Clinton and I knew I’d seen those faces before … but where? After the results came in, I remembered where: certain judges and juries whom, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t convince. (Sometimes it’s the other lawyer who’s gotten the look, let me hasten to add.)

What was common to the trials where I saw such faces? It only took a moment to place it. I saw them when I had a client whose credibility was up against a fatal flaw. Every litigator has confronted this situation a few times. Your client might be sympathetic. There might be all kinds of equities in the client’s favor. But somewhere in every such client’s tale there is at least one funnel, a place the finder of fact would have to pass through to reach the conclusion for which you advocate. However beautiful and reasonable whatever lies beyond that funnel might have been, if the finder of fact won’t follow you through it, your case stops dead. And the funnel is clogged.

The clog can be as simple as an explanation of behavior or motives that might be possible but just doesn’t seem likely. Sometimes it’s starker: an inconsistency that is never explained away, or, when the issue is sanctions against your client, an acknowledgment of wrongdoing that does not seem sincere enough. In the weeks leading up to the trial or hearing, you keep expecting that the client, properly though ethically prepared, will be able to explain the contradiction better, or will not only acknowledge an undeniable misdeed but do so in a way that demonstrates contrition, insight, and a determination to do better. If you were scripting it, you might find a way to knock that explanation or that contrite speech out of the park. But there are rules against actually putting words in your client’s mouth, and anyway, the clients who could best use being scripted this manner are always the least educable; even if you tried to train them, they would still tell the story their own inadequate way.

And then judges and juries give you that expression.

The Damn E-Mails

And after the votes were in, I realized that I’d been wincing through Hillary Clinton’s utterances all campaign long for just this reason. Lots of clogged funnels.

About the e-mails, there was the endless reveal of more and more and more commingled messages, more and more carefully parsed denials that the mix contained national secrets long after it seemed obvious that some of the messages had in fact contained secrets, erasures of messages, and, through all the discussion, including Clinton’s eight-hour day of testimony, no real act of contrition. To be sure, she regretted having set up her own rogue server. But she never said in my hearing anything like: “I’m so sorry. I allowed my inclination to control information to get the better of my judgment, and I did something incredibly stupid, and I compounded the stupidity by months of not really owning up to the worst aspects of the national security risks I was running – and by deleting messages I should not have deleted. Thank goodness nothing bad came of it. And I want the American people to know I will never, never do it again. I have learned my lesson.” To make a speech like that would have showed some insight, would have expressed a real change of heart, and might have persuaded some voters on the fence that she could have been trusted. It wasn’t happening.

Regarding American deindustrialization and the trade deals linked with it, she famously slipped at one point and told the truth, for instance, that coal wasn’t coming back. Instead of charging ahead and explaining how natural gas has a structural price advantage that coal cannot foreseeably overcome, and that solar either does or shortly will have a similar advantage, she waffled on this. Likewise, her “against it after she was for it” on the Trans Pacific Partnership never convinced; her tale of being converted when she saw the details was like the client story that just doesn’t seem plausible even though it’s not provably false. And the paid speeches for Wall Street, when withheld, were bad enough. When we found out that she’d told Wall Street that she didn’t necessarily believe in the kind of economic regulation of the financial industry the progressives in her party wanted, and that she was prepared to be two-faced about it – well, that probably explained the distrust of voters to whom financial abuses were second only to deindustrialization as the key issue.

What Mattered Most

Nor do I think it helped her with these voters that she was never candid about her marriage. Evidently, she had forgiven Bill’s indiscretions. Was it a cold-eyed deal for her political advantage, or did it come from the heart? Many voters suspected the former, a scenario not helpful to her credibility. And she would not go there; she flatly ignored a direct question on that score at the final debate. We’ve never heard that story of how Hillary forgave Bill. But, as the National Enquirer used to tell us, enquiring minds want to know.

It’s not always fair, in those trials where I’ve faced that look. My client may not be the only one with the clogged funnels. I can argue that the other side’s credibility is awful. It never seems to do much good. Here Clinton found herself up against a prodigious liar, and yet the trust deficit probably doomed her and did not affect him.

Let me hazard an uneducated guess why. Through all the lies and inconsistencies, Trump was at least consistent and credible about wanting to counteract deindustrialization, the thing his voters cared most about. Clinton was at her least trustworthy on that very issue. That, I suspect, is why she got the look, and the result that came with it – and he didn’t.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Finding Good Cheer Amid Threatening and Debilitating Moments: THE PINK HULK at Charm City Fringe

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Finding Good Cheer Amid Threatening and Debilitating Moments: THE PINK HULK at Charm City Fringe

Valerie David

Valerie David

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com November 10, 2016

Many of us may at this point be needing a little inspiration, a little encouragement to help us view traumatic events that threaten our sense of safety as sources of strength and uplift, even of humor. If you happen to be one of those in need of such inspiration and can act quickly, you might just be able to address it with The Pink Hulk, a one-woman autobiographical piece written and presented by playwright and actor Valerie David as part of the Baltimore Charm City Fringe Festival.

David has the distinction of having survived two different kinds of cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma around the turn of the millennium and, more recently, breast cancer. Pink Hulk focuses primarily on the breast cancer story, starting with David in the islands celebrating fifteen years of survival, intent upon locating a hookup for some vacation fun, and in the process coming upon a lump. The course from there is somewhat predictable, but like every commonly-lived story, it benefits from retelling from the standpoint of every new witness, in the light of the details that make each person’s story different and intriguing.

With David, we go through denial, being dragged into diagnosis the day before a new job, going through chemotherapy, losing her hair, losing some friends who couldn’t cope, and undergoing radiation as the last phase of the treatment. We hear about the loneliness, the quest for “sympathy sex,” the impact of chemically-induced menopause, the loss of career opportunities and energy, the support of friends, struggles with body image, weight issues, and, perhaps most important, “the magic potion of improv,” from which this performance self-evidently grows. David has a comic’s timing, a turn for sketch artistry, and a standup comedian’s comfort with making discomforting confessions.

We know from the fact that David is standing before us that the upshot will be triumphant, and that there will be some kind of cathartic experience ushering us into that triumph (it turns out to be a five-borough bike race), and we don’t mind the predictability at all. This is a good, healthy kind of predictability, based in the truth and commonality of the experience being shared. And if there are some storytellers’ tricks employed along the way, that too is just fine. David is good company, funny, exuberant, passionate, despairing, maternal and daughterly, sometimes a bit raunchy, and always candid. Her show would be great briefing for women facing a breast cancer diagnosis, but also makes a fine evening of theater.

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

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Jen Silverman’s Alarmingly-Introduced ROOMMATE at Everyman

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Jen Silverman’s Alarmingly-Introduced ROOMMATE at Everyman

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com October 31, 2016

Beth Hylton and Deborah Hazlett

Beth Hylton and Deborah Hazlett

I can’t think of another show as hard as Jen Silverman‘s The Roommate to discuss without diving deep into spoilers. This new dramatic comedy, just in at Everyman (apparently in its fourth production, the first having been at last year’s Humana Festival) is built on surprises, both of plot and character, and talking about the plot as a reviewer ordinarily would would do serious harm to those surprises. As a matter of fact, I’m also going to omit the customary list of things at the end which would make the show inadvisable for young or sensitive playgoers. (I’ll simply say that middle school is about the cutoff for appropriate audiences – and that may be stretching it a bit.)

The setup explains much of the problem talking about the play. In its first moments, we are given to understand that we are watching two characters, one of whom we quickly know a lot about, while we know next to nothing – nothing reliable, anyway – about the other. The apparent known quantity is Sharon (Deborah Hazlett), a sort of Lake Wobegon Lutheran type, an Iowan in her fifties, her husband gone and her son living off in New York. Sharon needs a roommate in her huge house (a nicely-detailed set by Timothy Mackabee) to help ends meet and diminish her loneliness. The almost unknown at the start is the brand-new roommate, Robyn (Beth Hylton), whose work, history, sexuality, and name are all obscure to start with, and to the extent provided at all, unconvincingly so.

The play consists primarily of the process by which these two very different women become more honestly and sometimes alarmingly acquainted, an acquaintance that changes them both. Think of it as The Odd Couple meets Il Sorpasso meets Thelma and Louise. And that’s all I’m going to say about plot and character.

But I can praise the show and the production. Regular Everyman-goers know Hazlett and Hylton well. These veteran members of the Everyman repertory group have been sharing the stage for years, and display an easy rapport that new-to-this-venue director Johanna Gruenhut does nothing to disturb. For Hazlett and Hylton to elicit laughter from an audience in a funny show is truly like taking candy from a baby. And even when you can see some of the risible situations coming from a long way off, you’re going to laugh. The pathos – and there is some, amidst the laughter – will go down easier because the overall setting is so much fun.

That pathos may distinguish The Roommate from, say, the unrepentantly unserious Blithe Spirit, recently also staged at Everyman (with Hylton as Elvira), but not by very much. This is not a show about big issues; the pathos comes from the human condition, to the basic facts of which the play is usually true, even when operating as a well-tooled laughter-delivery-vehicle. If there can be said to be a moral to Silverman’s story, it is simply that it is extremely hard to become close to someone, and even harder to stay close. A good thing to be reminded of, and especially in such an amusing way.

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

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Lessons of the Levees

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Lessons of the Levees

Looking out at the encroaching Gulf, near Venice, Louisiana

Looking out over decaying islands at the encroaching Gulf, near Venice, Louisiana

To be published in The Daily Record the week of October 23, 2016

No traveler who drives down the Mississippi from end to end, as I recently did, can fail to be struck by the levees, those endless not-found-in-nature hillocks and walls that start popping up in Illinois and Iowa, become almost continuous around Cairo, Illinois, and accompany the traveler most of the rest of the way to the very end, at Venice, Louisiana, where the Mississippi River Delta[1] plays out into the Gulf of Mexico. The Army Corps of Engineers, charged with creating and maintaining most of the system, has justly compared the levee system to the Great Wall of China.

Opposite Designs

Sometimes the levees are by the water, sometimes they’re miles inland. Some are high, some are low. But south of Cairo, they’re ubiquitous, by design – specifically, the design contemplated by the Flood Control Act of 1928,[2] passed in response to the catastrophic Mississippi floods of the previous year. That Act anticipated without any rhetorical qualification “that all diversion works and outlets constructed under the provisions of this Act shall be built in a manner and of a character which will fully and amply protect the adjacent lands.”

Fully and amply protecting the adjacent lands was not Mother Nature’s design. When the current version of the Mississippi was fashioned about 12,000 years ago, the “plan” was for a watercourse with constantly fluctuating boundaries. In its natural state, the river would flood when there was an unusual amount of water on hand, scooping helpings from the generous alluvial topsoil of the surroundings, and carrying that soil downstream, even as far as the Gulf of Mexico, creating the vast network of islands we call the Delta.

The inevitable byproduct, then, of shielding midwestern farmlands and cities from variations in the river’s height was denying the downstream river, and hence the Delta, access to the upstream soil Nature was trying to send. The Delta was not built to thrive without it, however. Gulf islands compact and decay without that nourishment. So, even under normal conditions, “fully and amply protecting” the upstream lands would not end well for the downstream Delta. And these are not normal conditions; the sea is rising, and the activities of the oil and gas extraction industries are independently causing the Delta to decay. We lose a football-field-sized chunk of the Delta almost every hour. But we need the Delta.

What Katrina Showed Us

If for no other reason, we need the Delta because coastal wetlands tamp down storm surges from the hurricanes that plague the Gulf. It is unquestionable that had the Delta been larger and in better shape, the storm surge of Katrina in 2005 would have been less severe. In New Orleans, that surge backed up water through Lake Pontchartrain, the great reservoir north of the city, triggering secondary backups in canals that were supposed to empty into the lake. Those backups made the levees around those canals fail, flooding 80% of the city.

The proximate cause of that disaster, then, was the ill-built canal levees, but the depleted Delta, a direct consequence of the public policy choice to build the Mississippi River levee system, was certainly a contributing cause, through the surge the Delta could not mitigate. We don’t know to this day how many New Orleans lives were lost in consequence of the Katrina disaster, but it was many hundreds. The property damage is likewise incalculable, but an indicative statistic is that insured property losses in southeast Louisiana came to $8 billion – this in a chronically under-insured state. And the psychic wound to New Orleans has left a permanent scar.

New Orleans has since built improved canal levees and surge protections, and will almost certainly weather the next Katrina better. But the decay of the Delta goes on. And the river levees that bear such responsibility for that decay are not coming down.

Ever Thicker and Closer

Below New Orleans, these barriers become both the cause of the decay and the protection from it. As you drive down, you cannot see the River because the highway largely lies between two levees, and in that protected zone there is frequently a semblance of permanence and normality: homes and farms and businesses. But there are also signs of how fragile this “permanence” is: schools and houses built on stilts, sloughs filled with water, and blue zones of various shapes and sizes getting ever thicker and closer on the GPS map to your left and to your right as you push south. As you get beyond the last levees, there are moments where this intermixture of river and gulf gets so close you would be in the water if you wandered off the roadway as far as ten feet on either side. The erosion of the land goes on relentlessly.

New Orleans had to be rebuilt, of course. It was too important commercially, socially, and artistically, not to rebuild – and the dynamism and new blood evident in many formerly devastated areas, including the infamous Lower Ninth Ward, which I visited on my trip, demonstrate the value wrought by the commitment not to let New Orleans die. The city must thrive again, and can only do so in the zone the levees protect.

The Levee State of Mind

But in a larger sense levees are a state of mind and of being we need to question. They create safety at a heavy price, safety that will not always prove reliable, and they defer failure until catastrophic events, giving rise to a false sense of permanence before the reckoning comes.

We need to use the time they buy to address enough of the complex interrelated problems of global warming, risk management, and wetlands depletion so that the normal feeling to life inside our “levees,” our ecological and technological niches of whatever type, will prove justified over the long term.

The sea is rising. Can we keep our heads above water? Or will our very measures against drowning become the things that eventually drown us?


[1]. This term is confusingly to be distinguished from the Mississippi Delta region, a plain in the northwest corner of the state of Mississippi, notable for cotton and the blues.

[2]. 70th Congress, Sess. 1, Chapter 569.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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A Rare and Topical Revival of Anne of the Thousand Days at CSC

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A Rare and Topical Revival of ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS at CSC


Posted on BroadwayWorld.com October 24, 2016

There are so many very good dramatic treatments of the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn out there (A Man for All Seasons, Wolf Hall, and The Tudors, to name a few), it might prompt one to ask why Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has chosen to revive Maxwell Anderson‘s seldom-produced 1948 blank verse rendering of the tale. Lesley Malin, the company’s managing director, perhaps anticipating that question, told the audience on press night that she had fallen in love with the show many years ago.

And maybe love is the right answer. More than any other version of the story I’m familiar with, this is a sort of love story. That statement might raise an eyebrow or two, since it’s hard to contemplate much swooniness en route to a breakup that ends with one party having the other beheaded. Yet Anderson clearly saw it as a love story. The dramatic tipping point, for instance, is what Anne calls the one day she and Henry loved each other in the same way. But we are not in Harlequin or even bodice-ripper territory.

Instead – and this makes the play immensely topical – this tale is first and foremost about the confusing way love works when the man is immensely powerful, dishonest and fickle, in a world where men make the rules, many of them quite arbitrary. Many of us might have assumed that that kind of world had disappeared along with Don Draper and the three-martini lunch, until a certain presidential candidate’s tape and the accounts of women who claimed to have been abused by him – and/or by another presidential candidate’s husband – reminded us that that world may be a-dying, but is hardly dead.

When we first encounter Anne (a splendid Lizzi Albert), she is happily trying to forge her own romantic path with her suitor Lord Percy (Gerrad Alex Taylor), with sexual autonomy very much a part of the pursuit (she frankly acknowledging her earlier sexual experimentation at the French court). In comes Cardinal Wolsey (Gregory Burgess), with a cease-and-desist order, since King Henry has his eye on Anne and is putting dibs on her. Otherwise put, the forces of church and state are collaborating to force Anne into mistress-hood, a disadvantageous state to a woman with prospects, with a man who, being already married in Catholic Europe, cannot divorce and hence cannot marry her, and who does not even attract her.

It would seem that her autonomy is at an end, yet she fights back courageously, giving way to Henry’s advances only in exchange for huge changes in the rules and the situation: in order to achieve her, Henry must break with the Catholic Church, divorce his wife, execute some of the foremost men of the realm, including Chancellor Thomas More (E. Martin Early), and greatly alter the course of history.

We know from history, and indeed from the two monologues that form a prologue to the action, what will come of Anne’s attempt to negotiate a worthwhile surrender to Henry’s power, but Anderson manages to make the upshot shocking nonetheless. He does this in large measure by a knowing depiction of Henry, a man as heedlessly self-deluding as a certain presidential candidate, who wants to believe that his pursuit of sexual variety is what God wills and has blessed, that his quest for a legitimate male heir is the discharge of duty to his dynasty, and not mere vanity – and even that his amateur versifying and composition is first-class. Ron Heneghan does a fine job conveying the frightful blankness at the core of the man, without making a cipher of him; in fact, Heneghan makes it possible to say we always understand Henry better than he understands himself.

In essence, Anderson tells us, Henry could never be loved safely and successfully. Anne’s effort to do so is spectacularly successful, but only for a short time (and hence the title) – but even that short time, like a bronco rider’s in the saddle, should be deemed a triumph of sorts, given not only Henry’s sociopathic personality but also the strange male-ordained rules that that effort was entangled with. These rules included male primogeniture, the religious doctrines forbidding divorce, the politically-controlled annulment process, and the weird abstract theories of church and state the modification of which required the very concrete judicial slaughter of so many dissenters.

Yet at the same time Anne, like Henry, is engaged in more than just affairs of the heart. She too ends up playing (and winning, on the best terms available to her) the game of thrones. Just before her arrest, she is offered a choice, which she recognizes lies between survival and legacy. Her choice of the latter is immediate, and has long-lasting positive effects, dwarfing those made by her ostensibly more powerful husband.

Anderson’s Anne, then, is correctly seen as a feminist heroine from a time before there was even a language for such things. When we realize that, we more fully grasp why the CSC chose to revive the play. Going back to the other dramatic works that touch upon Anne’s rise (and downfall) that I cited earlier, Robert Bolt‘s play sanctified one powerful man (Anne does not appear as a character), Hilary Mantel‘s dramatized books draw us into the world of another man, and The Tudors adopts a more general focus. Anderson uniquely contemplates the situation and achievement of a woman, Anne Boleyn. She proves herself a worthy object of contemplation.

CSC’s production is also largely a women’s achievement, starting with director Kasi Campbell, whose work with The Rep company in Columbia I have admired, and continuing with what is billed as CSC’s first all-female design team. The costumes, courtesy of Kristina Lambdin, are particularly striking. (In particular, be on the lookout for the red dress in which Anne dances the tarantella.)

An evening at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s downtown theater is almost always a delight, what with The Globe Theatre-inspired architecture, the musical warmups and entre-actes, the readily-accessible bars, the up-close-and-personal sight-lines, and the nightly wine-lottery. As tremendous as William Shakespeare himself always is, it is good to see the company continuing to stretch its legs and venture a few steps away from its namesake, particularly to provide us something so unusual. It all adds up to an evening of theater that should not be missed.

[Note: A fascinating blog completely devoted to literary, dramatic, and cinematic works about Anne Boleyn, including Anne of the Thousand Days, is The Head That Launched a Thousand Books, well worth a look before heading out for the theater.]

Copyright Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Teresa Castracane.

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Still Chilled

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Still Chilled


In the Still of the Night, by Cole Porter, performed by Carly Simon (2005), encountered 2006

Buy it here | Video here | Lyrics here | Available on Spotify | Sheet music here

In the Still of the Night suffers from the overfamiliarity that plagues too many songs in the Great American Songbook. We don’t really hear it. There’s a prettiness on the surface that belies its rawness and insecurity, its desperate plea for an impossible reassurance.

No Satisfactory Answer

Think about it.

The lover asks this loaded question:

All the times without number

Darling when I say to you

Do you love me, as I love you

Are you my life to be, my dream come true

Or will this dream of mine fade out of sight

Like the moon growing dim, on the rim of the hill

In the chill still of the night?

And how could the beloved could ever make a satisfactory answer? Beloveds, no matter their devotion in this moment, can’t know the future. Humans change over time, and beloveds are only human, and hence, with the best will in the world, they cannot issue unqualified guarantees. And worse, even the beloved’s present sincerity is not totally knowable.

Not Just Constancy

Nor is the lover’s question just about the beloved’s constancy. The beloved’s survival also enters into the question. Every affair or marriage, no matter how devoted the parties, will end one day, and (barring what lawyers call a common disaster), one of the parties will have to live with the loss.

In short, the lover’s insecurity is not unreasonable. But it can easily be unreasonably extreme.

My mother felt such extreme insecurity more than anyone else I ever knew. In retrospect I recognize that I was the truest love of her life, and that my infantile adoration, while she received it, was the sweetest feeling she would ever feel. And she received it for a long time, probably longer than she had any right to expect; most boys my age seemed to move on quicker than I did. Yet, eventually I saw my parent’s limitations, and the need to adjust my previously uncritical response, as all children eventually do. To her dying day my mother could never accept this inevitable nuance. Nor could she truly accept my subsequent commitments to lovers, spouses and children, friends and work, which were all experienced as deep wounds and neglect, even at times apostasy and treason.

And this became the great tragedy of her life. My mother could neither understand nor consent to a mature love from me, and, try as I might, I could not propose to love her in any other way. Her demands grew increasingly strident, and my resistance increasingly cruel-seeming to her, and sometimes to me.

The Central Question

Yet I was not blind to what underlay her insistence: that all-too-human fear of the oblivion of love of which Cole Porter wrote.

After she died, I had occasion to ruminate bitterly on this, largely while I was on the road. I did some traveling in her wake. Though she had passed her last couple of years at a senior community in Baltimore, we had decided years earlier that her ashes would be immured next to my stepdad’s in Ann Arbor. So there was a visit home for a funeral and a memorial service. And then there were two more visits, because I wanted to write about the re-encounter with my home in the middle of my life, to use Dante’s phrase, and wanted to do some research, as well as to mourn in the place that felt most appropriate for this particular siege of grief.

On the road, I was frequently playing Carly Simon’s previous year’s album, all standard love songs, called Moonlight Serenade. One of the cuts was In the Still of the Night. And when the lyrics came around to that lover’s question, I realized it was the central question of Mother’s life, for many years and certainly towards her sad end, an end rendered heartbreakingly solitary by the dementia that had shredded continuity in most of her relationships.

Now It Was My Question

But now that question had become my question. I did not, could not, love Mother as she had loved me, but that is far from saying that I did not love her. Of course I did, difficult as she had been. And now she was not there. So what did that mean? Had she and our relationship just faded out of sight, as Porter so aptly phrases it?

Up until that very point, as I said in the preceding piece, I would have answered as my religion had taught me: that the relationship was still there, and that, even though I could no longer see her, we were still connected. That, in fact, our relationship would be fully restored one day in an afterlife.

But I could not feel it. Not this time; I’d felt it somehow when I lost my father and when I lost my stepfather. With Mother there was no sense of assurance, none of continuity. And I was feeling exactly as the lover in Porter’s song dreaded to feel: left “in the chill still of the night.”

Still Chilled

It’s hard to overstate what a shock this “still chilled” feeling was. I had always been a cheerful person, an optimistic person, no matter what difficult or sad times I might be passing through. Now, though I had hardly lost the ability to be happy, the default setting of reflexive cheerfulness had disappeared. I could not shake and – to this day over ten years later – have still not shaken the opposite reflexive sense, one of isolation and doom.

I had to conclude that, unbeknownst to me, and with all the difficulties between us, my mother had somehow been the indispensable prop of my sense of well-being, and that there was nothing to replace her. In saying this I do not slight any of the others who were close to me, my wife, children, or colleagues. I depend on them even more now. But still something essential to everyday happiness has to my astonishment departed.

And as I was quickly discovering, and will discuss in the next piece, other things had departed with it.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for album artwork

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Is Unconventional Obligatory? Freedom of Expression vs. Equal Protection Before the Footlights

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Is Unconventional Obligatory? Freedom of Expression vs. Equal Protection  Before the Footlights

Published in The Daily Record September 16, 2016

Unconventional casting, which assigns dramatic roles to performers of different race or gender or ability than the role would seem to have been conceived for, has been much in vogue recently. The celebrated musical Hamilton is perhaps most prominent instance right now, with nonwhite actors portraying our white Founding Fathers. All-female and all-male Shakespeare productions are much in vogue. I am continually exposed to this new vogue because not only do I write of law and policy (in these pages), but I also review theater regularly for BroadwayWorld.com and The Hopkins Review. But I write here as a lawyer, not a theater fan. My purpose here is not to approve or disapprove of unconventional casting, but to discuss the legal battle I sense brewing up around this practice.

Black Roles, White Actors?

The coming fight is over one particular form of unconventional casting, placing white actors in non-white roles.[1] Acceptance of non-white actors in white roles is fairly widespread. However, there is a resistance when the traffic runs the other way. It is argued that this is “appropriation” of the ability of oppressed and silenced minorities to tell their own stories and contravention of the wishes of authors, and that it unfairly curtails the already limited career opportunities of minority performers.

There was an incident last year, for instance, when Katori Hall, author of The Mountaintop, a play about Martin Luther King, Jr., learned that a white actor had been cast as King in a production at Kent State University; Hall wrote an angry denunciation and changed the standard language of her contract with companies producing the play to prevent the companies from putting white actors in either of the play’s two roles.

And this March there was a flap about the casting of Hamilton. The original cast has been moving on, and when casting notices for replacements first went out, they specified that only “NON-WHITE ACTORS” [all caps in the original] need apply for most of the roles. There was an outcry, after which the nonwhite language was brought down to lower case and a confusing additional phrase was added: “Performers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are encouraged to attend.”[2]

CNN quoted Randolph McLaughlin, a “New York human rights lawyer,” as suggesting that any racial requirement in casting would violate New York’s law against discrimination in employment. Assuming that McLaughlin is correct that New York really does forbid racially-exclusive casting, the question becomes: can the New York law stand?

A Revival of Bakke Arguments?

I know of no test cases yet, but it looks likely some disappointed white actor will bring one sometime soon, much as Allan Bakke challenged affirmative action in medical school admissions a generation ago. And when that actor’s suit is brought, I predict the right of theatrical employers to discriminate will be upheld, because the precedents supporting it are in place. But whatever happens, it’s a fascinating problem. Actually two problems.

The first problem, in a nutshell, is this. Except in community theaters, casting is an employment decision as well as an artistic one. Employers are not supposed to discriminate racially in hiring decisions, under federal and state law everywhere. There is, however, a long tradition of making exceptions for discrimination in recruitments where membership in a particular category (ability, gender, age, etc.) is a “BFOQ,” a bona fide occupational qualification. Indeed, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s regulations specifically make gender a BFOQ for casting decisions “for authenticity.” But there is no similar protection for race-based decisions. And in a world where racially unconventional casting is the norm, as any theater critic will tell you it now is, how can any racial casting decision be defended as having been made “for authenticity”? In an era where Idris Elba is being considered for the part of James Bond, audiences no longer expect or require that kind of authenticity.

First Amendment vs. Commerce Clause and Equal Protection

I therefore suspect that the “authenticity” argument would fall before racial non-discrimination laws. But a stronger argument exists. No one would dispute that a theatrical production is artistic expression, protected by the First Amendment.[3] And it would be frivolous to claim that, even in an era of public acceptance of unconventional casting, the effect of this protected expression is the same when unconventional casting occurs. Audiences will notice, and the experience and the message will be different. Hence, if antidiscrimination laws, whether federal or New York ones, are being invoked to force unconventional casting, we have a direct conflict between First Amendment principles and Commerce Clause and/or Equal Protection ones.

There has been a decided tilt in jurisprudence over the last generation to resolve such conflicts in favor of the First Amendment. Religious schools were allowed to reinforce their (First Amendment) Free Exercise Clause-based message by terminating religion teachers who violate their churches’ prohibitions against extramarital sex, even when those prohibitions facially violate Commerce Clause-authorized pregnancy discrimination laws.[4] And the state equal protection-based New Jersey public accommodations law had to yield to the First Amendment associational rights of the Boy Scouts when they ousted an advocate of LGBT freedoms from membership[5] in keeping with their since-abandoned exclusion of gays.

There certainly remains some countervailing authority. In 2002, a Texas strip club, though purveying First Amendment-protected performances, was told it could not discriminate against African American dancers.[6] An Atlanta strip club recently found it could not terminate a dancer for being pregnant.[7] In these cases, then, Commerce Clause-based antidiscrimination statutes trumped First Amendment concerns. But the theater is all about speech, whereas exotic dancing, though properly protected as a kind of speech, isn’t speech, really. Plays and musicals are much closer to core concerns the Free Speech and Assembly clauses exist to protect, and I’d look for greater protection.

While all this remains to be worked out, there will be some dramatic moments (in the generic sense of the word) before the bench. But my crystal ball says that the courts will end up allowing the exclusion of whites from certain roles in front of the footlights.


[1]. There is a shameful history, especially in Hollywood, of not considering non-whites for non-white roles, whether we’re discussing Mickey Rooney in yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), or Laurence Olivier’s excruciating blackface in Othello (1965), or the casting of most of the Thai parts in The King and I (1956). But what I am discussing here is whether whites should be considered at all for non-white parts.

[2]. As of September 3, 2016, that language is absent from the “Auditions” part of the website.

[3]. The First Amendment protection of theater was mentioned in dicta in a case concerning a high school drama teacher terminated for allowing mild swearing in shows her students staged. Webb v. Lake Mills Cmty. Sch. Dist., 344 F. Supp. 791 (N.D. Iowa 1972).

[4]. Dias v. Archdiocese of Cincinnati, No. 1:11-CV-00251, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43240 (S.D. Ohio Mar. 29, 2012). Federal laws forbidding discrimination in private employment rely on the Commerce Clause, not the Equal Protection Clause, for their constitutionality. However, it is typical that state laws forbidding employment discrimination rest on equal protection or equal protection-like clauses of state constitutions for their constitutionality. The federal Equal Protection Clause has been held not to enable Congress to legislate against discrimination by private actors.

[5]. Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640, 644 (2000).

[6]. Gordon v. JKP Enters., 2002 U.S. App. LEXIS 29270 (5th Cir. 2002).

[7]. Newby v. Great Am. Dream, Inc., No. 1:13-CV-03297-TWT-GGB, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 182342 (N.D. Ga. Dec. 18, 2014). Pregnancy, not being a matter of the “authenticity” shielded from the influence of antidiscrimination laws, thus is analytically in the same place as race, which, as noted, is not shielded by “authenticity” either. Interestingly, the Newby court mused in a footnote that the club might have been able to fire the dancer for loss of sex appeal.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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