Women’s Work(s)

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Women’s Work(s)

Published in the Hopkins Review, New Series 9.4, Fall 2016

Broadway appears to be focusing more on women these days: female authors, directors, composers and subjects. And as I’m hardly the first to comment, female protagonists, particularly ones for whom a happy ending is untethered to a love plot and hence a man, are definitely receiving a heightened emphasis.

Female Protagonist, Female Creators

In a recent swoop down to the vicinity of Times Square to sample this trend, I had plenty to choose from. My criterion of selection on this visit was that the productions be musicals focused on a female protagonist, adapted in whole or in part by women from women’s works. I chose musicals, because if there are broad tendencies in the larger society and in the theatrical ecosystem, they will surface strongly there. And sure enough, despite differences in tone and in subgenre, my choices turned out to be remarkably similar to each other and significantly dissimilar to what might have been commonplace even a decade ago.

To mention the most obvious commonalities, in each the female protagonist is supposed to be of interest to the audience for her art, be it cartoons or pastry or songs, and her love life is incidental or an actual hindrance to her pursuit of that art. Not one of the heroines ends up with a romantic partner in sight. Triumph for each of these characters may be personal as well as professional, but it does not consist of what is traditionally meant by having it all.

Consider Fun Home, the winner of the 2015 Tony for Best Musical. Fun Home adapts to the stage cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same title. In the book and in the show, Bechdel confronts and tries to make sense of the strangeness of her family of origin, led by a father (portrayed by Michael Cerveris) who is a) a high school English teacher; b) a funeral director; c) a passionate restorer of old homes; d) very uncomfortably in the closet; and e) an incipient suicide. Her mother Helen (Judy Kuhn) takes refuge from the difficulties of being married to such a man by looking the other way from Bruce’s increasingly impossible life and burying herself in her three children and her music, wasting the “days and days and days” of her own life in the process. Alison and her two sibs must try to thrive in this not-terribly-promising environment. In her adult phase (portrayed by Beth Malone) as “a lesbian cartoonist,” Alison attempts to make sense of what befell her, and to determine what if any role her emergence into homosexuality at the beginning of her college years may have played in the death that brings the drama to its close.

That said, depending on the source, describing Alison’s father Bruce as an incipient suicide may be overstating it. His intent to kill himself is a definite fact only in the musical. In the book, though it seems likely Bruce deliberately stepped backwards into the path of a truck, Bechdel acknowledges the possibility that her father’s death could have been an accident, albeit if so, one perhaps contributed to by anxiety over the very issues that could also have led him to a more conscious choice to take his own life.

One of These Things Is/Is Not Like the Other

This is not by any means the only respect in which Lisa Kron, author of the book and lyrics, has sculpted the original material. Another example: to the Alison of the book, it is powerful evidence in favor of Bruce having deliberately killed himself that Helen had just told him she wanted a divorce. That development is missing from the show, and leaves Alison’s coming out as potentially the biggest new stressor on Bruce, sharpening the question for Alison whether that announcement (followed by Bruce’s fumbling failure to communicate adequately with Alison about it) was what drove him over the edge. What renders the question even sharper for her, both on the page and on the stage, was the feeling that her father never really looked at her or considered her  – with the almost equally frightening consequence that her coming out might have had no impact upon his decision (if it was a decision) to end his life.

The show’s simplification and omission of such detail certainly has the effect of making the story more accessible, maybe a bit too much so. Bechdel’s book is intentionally tangled and obscure and recursive, not to mention literarily recondite. That is a strength. By contrast, even when the show admits ambiguity, it usually resolves it. Take for example the adult Alison’s signature remark that: “My dad and I were exactly alike. My dad and I were nothing alike.” It is spelled out exactly how both statements are true.

Right at the beginning of the show, the most important way in which they were alike is stated; rummaging through a box of odds and ends donated by a friend, Bruce happens upon an antique silver teapot bearing the craftsman’s hallmark. This is a clue that will help Bruce learn the piece’s provenance and history, which he is determined to do. He sings to Alison: “I can’t abide romantic notions/ of some vague long ago./ I must know what’s true,/ dig into who/ and what/ and why/ and when/ until now gives way to then.” That of course sums up Alison’s compulsion as well, only the object of that compulsion in Alison’s case is Bruce himself and his wife and their family.

Conversely, Bruce has started with the same fundamental datum of personality that Alison must work from, homosexuality. By failing to acknowledge it, he has taken his whole family on a long trip of lies and at least intermittent misery. Alison by contrast has embraced and been open about her orientation as it has become clear to her, and the truth seems to have set her free. To be fair, we learn next to nothing about her life after her coming out and her father’s suicide. Still, it can be safely concluded that she has emerged whole, and (q.e.d.) wholly different from her father.

Perhaps it is a little pat. But then the truth is not always subtle.

All Hail Tesori

In any case it would be wrong to dismiss what Lisa Kron and her colleague, composer Jeanine Tesori, have achieved as a mere filing-down and diminution of the original text to meet the practical necessities of a commercial entertainment medium. Not only is the book’s grand arc of character and causation sufficiently honored, but some of the best new stuff is conjured up from tiny hints in the book. For instance, there is Come to the Fun Home, a hilarious Jackson 5 pastiche performed by the three children in the form of an imaginary television commercial for the family funeral home, during which they cavort manically around a coffin and show off the funerary accouterments. This bit of macabre hilarity, useful to dispel the heaviness of the subject for awhile, seems to have been inspired by little observations in the book illustrating how casually the real Bechdel children came to take death’s accoutrements. The change in tone is more than a matter of pacing; it also exemplifies the prevailing uncertain mood Bechdel refers to again and again in trying to explain how confusing it was to grow up with such parents.

Tesori’s score contains far more than pastiche, of course. This is a close to a chamber musical in scale, staged in one of Broadway’s more intimate spaces, the Circle in the Square, and the seven-piece orchestra (no horns, one reed, heavy emphasis on cello) has an intimate sound. Song after song emits a lushly brooding tone that elegantly fits the subject matter. Most impressive is some startlingly good polyphonic voice writing, which is surprisingly rare in musicals. But in the finale Flying Away, the three Alisons (Ms. Malone, plus the junior version, currently portrayed by Gabriella Pizzolo plus the college-age Alison, Emily Skeggs) sing contrapuntally, swapping each other’s lines and melodies from earlier in the show, as their personalities gradually merge, leaving only the 43-year-old Alison there, remembering “a rare moment of perfect balance,” the very moment at the beginning of the show (and book), when her father held her up by his feet so she could “play airplane.” It is the music that makes that fadeout so devastatingly lovely. The bittersweet satisfaction of the moment, on the other hand, owes nothing to a union of two hearts; there is no girlfriend in the picture as Alison stands alone.

Polyphonic Perfection, Altered Casting

Ending polyphonically is great. Beginning polyphonically isn’t so bad either. Waitress, which might have had a legitimate shot at this year’s Best Musical Tony were it not for Hamilton, starts out with that unusual musical treat, as star Jessie Mueller, with various voices from the ensemble chipping in little bits of counterpoint, sings What’s Inside, which amounts to a hymn to the main ingredients of pie: sugar, butter, and flour. I can state with considerable confidence that no one has ever before limned these humble staples in such a winsome way. This brief tour de force segues into a showpiece of a different sort, a big, intricately choreographed production number designed introducing most of the cast Opening Up the diner in which the eponymous waitress Jenna (Ms. Mueller) works. It gives the chorus the opportunity to hit some unearthly chords we’ve probably never heard before. By the time these two songs are done, there will be no doubt that composer Sara Bareilles, whom many of us knew only as a pop singer-songwriter, is a serious artist, capable of serving up the most original harmonies. She may not sustain that high level at every turn, but too much of it would overwhelm the audience, so it’s just as well.

Waitress, like Fun Home, is not only presented by a female creative team (in addition to Bareilles, there’s a book by Jessie Nelson and direction by Diane Paulus), but is based on a work by a female artist, the movie of the same name written and directed and co-starred in by the late Adrienne Shelly. It is uncanny how the musical is both like and unlike the much-beloved movie. Most of the plot points are identical, and the characters have the same names. But the casting makes it feel different.

Jenna may not end up with a man, but she certainly ends up with a sisterhood, and the casting of the sisterhood lends a very different feel to the piece. In these days of unconventional casting the ethnicity of actors is supposed to be ignored. Sometimes that is a realistic expectation, sometimes not. In the movie, the unbreakable sorority of three waitresses was portrayed by three white women: Keri Russell as protagonist Jenna, Cheryl Hines as Becky, and Shelly as Dawn. Some of the humor of the original was based on the deep Southern rural setting, accents, sociology, and attitudes, poking fun, in other words, at a definitely and solidly white milieu.

Here Keala Settle (one parent is Maori) and Kimiko Glenn (one parent is Japanese) discharge the duties of Becky and Dawn. The different faces of these performers, and also those of much of the ensemble, are at odds with the feel of the movie. I theorize that the awareness that this cast is not convincingly rural Southern may be the actual explanation for designer Scott Pask’s choice to display on the backdrop of the set, glimpsed through the diner windows, U.S. route shield signs which seem to place the locus of the action at a busy junction around Richmond, Indiana. If my theory is right, and the notion was to make the setting slightly more cosmopolitan, the execution has failed. From my research (since I cannot recall ever having been there, though I grew up one state over) the accents should be Great Lakes-y. From the way the characters talk, however, they all sound as if they’d been transplanted from much further south. So which is it: regional humor or not? (Fun fact: the movie was shot in California.)

I should hasten to add that, accents aside, one quickly grows comfortable with the reimaged and hence reimagined Becky and Dawn. Glenn’s version of Dawn makes her believably nerdy in a way that Shelly, visibly brainy and outgoing, wrote the character but couldn’t quite pull off. And Settle, a big woman, milks the Becky role for physical humor that the slim Hines could never have tried.

Feminist or Not?

Another potential problem area with the show concerns its feminist bona fides. In May, the New York Times published a discussion between two female drama critics, Laura Collins-Hughes and Alexis Soloski, on how much cheer to draw from this apparent year of the woman on the New York stage. Collins-Hughes was outraged that Jenna becomes so sunnily maternal after giving birth near the end, when what had made her interesting and different up to that point had been how little Jenna had wanted the child. Yet this development looked to be in no way inconsistent with the movie; Collins-Hughes’ quarrel seems to lie more with Shelly’s conception than with that of Shelly’s adapters.

My own take is that the baby-bliss that Collins-Hughes objects to works; it is a venerable plot device appropriate to happy endings. It’s realistic; I don’t know many parents of either sex who aren’t transformed, many for the better and the happier, and many to their own surprise, by the arrival of progeny. And here, both in movie and musical, the childbirth is almost immediately followed by Jenna’s declaration of independence from the abusive husband, surely an act of self-liberation. These developments must be viewed together.

Soloski had what a somewhat more valid point. “I don’t read [Waitress] as empowering. It condemns abusive behavior from Jenna’s husband and then rewards it from a nerdy suitor of [Dawn] and the crotchety diner owner who bankrolls Jenna’s liberation,” she said.

I take issue with part of this. I don’t consider the initial nastiness of Joe, the diner owner (Andy Griffith in the movie, Dakin Matthews on the stage), to be demonstrably specifically sexist. Although we see him being crabby only with female employees, we also see him in conversation only with female employees. And his generous side is more fully fleshed out in his dance song with Jenna, Take It From an Old Man. Crotchety? Yes. But if there is any real evidence he is truly sexist or abusive, it went right over my head.

The character of Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald), however, really is in some respects almost everything we are supposed to dislike about Jenna’s grasping husband Earl (creepily portrayed by Nick Cordero). Dawn has gone out on a short date with Ogie, and decided she wants no more of him; Ogie responds to the brushoff with what could almost be a stalker’s theme song, Never Ever Getting Rid of Me, which features lyrics like: “I’m not going. If it seems like I did/ I’m probably waiting outside.” Now I admit that this is roughly like Mama Rose in one of her more endearing moments: “Just try/ And you’re gonna see/ How you’re gonna not at all/ Get away from me.” But Rose is a woman, and like it or not, that makes for a different impression than when a man sings such things.

The only reason audiences accept Ogie’s persistence, to the extent they do, is that Ogie is against all odds correct that he is a good match for Dawn. For instance, the show endows him and Dawn with a shared passion for Revolutionary War lore not found in the movie. And while singing about his devotion, he can simultaneously do a step like a Cotton Eye Joe, which ought to cover a multitude of sins. That said, surely you can’t be entirely feminist if you abandon the rule that no means no?

I’d agree that the feminism in Waitress is not doctrinaire, and lacks a hard edge. The production design is in baby colors, pink and light blue, and in keeping therewith the baby is seen as a burden but also a liberation and fulfillment; the art Jenna practices, the invention of and baking of fabulous pies, is a domestic art; and the sisterhood she achieves is of waitresses, which is to say people whose professional role is servitorial. But feminism must be for moms, for the practitioners of domestic arts, and for the professionally servitorial too, and not just for auteurs and CEOs. Nor is it fair to ignore the fact that in pursuit of integrity and happiness Jenna has rejected not only a monster in her husband Earl but also a terrific if flawed guy, her gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), whom she sends back to the wife he has cheated on with her, a rejection that is at once emotionally costly, honorable, and smart. Then too, Jenna’s plight is very explicitly drawn as a consequence of her limited financial resources; maybe Joe is a deus ex machina, but it seems a bit captious to demand of the weak that they fight their way out of a hole without a bit of aid from the strong.

Spare Us the Biopic Conventions

A heroine who might perhaps be more to Soloski’s liking would be Carole King, around whom Beautiful: The Carole King Musical revolves. Beautiful accurately depicts singer/songwriter Carole King’s rise to stardom as a songwriter and performer as springing strictly from her talent. And yet from my perspective, there is a big problem with this show. The many falsehoods in its recounting of the history of King and her circle during the 1960s ultimately sap its success presenting either a feminist tale or showcasing the music.

Why should inaccuracies be of concern? A musical is to some degree a work of fiction, after all. But “biopic” jukebox musicals are in a special category when it comes to historicity, as I have written before in these pages. When you show where the songs came from, you should try to get it right, because the audience cares about the details.

Jukebox musicals are about songs that resonate with us because they were part of the soundtracks of our lives (or for some of us, the lives of our parents, though I was ruefully struck by how the audience at Beautiful was mostly of my vintage). Those of us in the parent generation have participated in the music of the early rock era, whether as creators, concertgoers, or just listeners who first experienced those songs coming out of a cheap monaural AM car radio. We made love to those songs, used them to pattern our longings, our triumphs, and our losses. We are in consequence left with a palpable need to build bridges between our lives and (at least when the jukebox musical is of the biopic subgenre) the lives from which the songs sprang.

We’re not fools; we know performers put on masks. But the masks by themselves are of very little interest to those who attend a biopic musical. Simply recreating a concert, allowing the audience to experience the way the artists presented themselves (think Rain, a faux-Beatles concert), may be an interesting exercise, but it really is not a musical. We care about the lives behind the masks. That care is what’s driven us to follow the gossip about the stars, to stitch together all the fragmentary information about them that has come our way over the years through the media. We want to link our truths to the stars’ truths.

For the audiences of musicals about real musicians, then, a conventional biopic storyline is just another mask that we don’t care about.

That’s what’s wrong with Beautiful. It’s a beautifully-constructed tale which makes heavy use of elements of Carole King’s story and her contemporaries. But it does not actually essay to tell those stories, not really. Putting it bluntly, Beautiful frequently makes a hash of the events in the lives of Ms. King, her former husband and continuing creative partner Gerry Goffin, their close friends and rival songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, publisher/producer Don Kirshner, and the people around them.

It would take too much space here to play fanboy and go over the details (all apparent when one reads King’s autobiography A Natural Woman), but suffice it to say that the departures from the historical record: a) continuously make Ms. King seem weaker as a human being and less technically masterful as a musician; b) underplay the extent to which Goffin’s problematic sanity, as opposed to his moral failings, contributed to the Goffin-King marital breakup; c) fashion Weil and Mann’s relationship into a marriage-plot to contrast with King and Goffin’s divorce-plot, no matter the harm to the real chronology of events; d) badly misstate the circumstances under which Tapestry, King’s all-time monster album, came to be, thereby making of it more the culmination of a personal journey than what it actually was, another stop along the way of a commercially-savvy journeywoman’s deservedly triumphant career. Etc., etc., etc. What comes out of this meat-grinder is “biopic sausage,” the story of a talented performer who had to overcome emotional naivete and betrayal by a loved one, and because of that experience was able to reach new creative heights. Yes, you have seen this story before. We all have. It’s only a shame we weren’t trusted enough with the messier realities which would have brought us to the same upbeat ending.

That may be so, book author Douglas McGrath might respond, and yet the show’s popularity has led to a respectable longevity. (It happened that the performance I attended was its thousandth, attended by none other than Ms. King herself.) Given all that positive audience response, the show can’t be doing everything wrong, right? To which the answer is of course it’s doing some things, many things, right.

To start with the obvious, even a plot that is standard-issue production line merchandise works, however manipulated we may feel as we respond to it. To the biopic sausage is added a cleverly-wrought evocation of the Brill Building era, when mostly Jewish songsmiths teamed up with mostly black performers to galvanize an industry. And when all else fails, as it does from time to time, there is the music, by King, various collaborators, and Weil and Mann, classics like (among many others) Take Good Care of My Baby, Up on the Roof, On Broadway, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, frequently presented as though by the original recording artists. The combination of elements is irresistible. And as a bonus, Chilina Kennedy, tasked with channeling Carole King when I saw the show, looks and sounds even more like King than did Jessie Mueller, currently the Waitress, but three years ago the performer who originated Carole.

So yes, there’s a lot to be said for this show. But there could have been a lot more.

Artists First and Foremost

In summary, what generalizations emerge from this sample of woman-centered and -created musicals? First, as noted, all of the primary heroines in these pieces have love lives that are significant to the plot, but it is their roles as artists, not lovers, that we principally respond to. None of them ends up the show with a mate, or in need of one. And it matters to their art that they are female.

In the case of Alison, her first effort at cartooning is a gendered act; an early drawing is critiqued and “improved” almost to death by her father, whose persistent mansplaining would turn it into a conventionally correct work that would fail entirely to express what she wants it to. What she wants is important, as she knows from the first, and we watch her art develop into a unique combination of memory and graphic art synthesized. Jenna’s pies are an artistic medium that might not command much critical esteem in a world where domestic (read female) artistry is disregarded, including by her doltish husband, who recalls “I had my six-string,/ and you had your own thing,/ but I don’t remember what it is.” The music and the dialogue each leave no doubt, however, we are discussing something difficult, inspired, and sublime. Both the historical and the theatrical Carole King’s gender have mattered less to the quality of her art than to the quality of her art/life balance, and that balance too is a particularly, though of course not exclusively, female concern. King was blessed with talent in two separate musical disciplines: composition and performance. Beautiful chronicles the half-reluctant emergence of the second kind of practitioner from the first, always with an eye on that elusive balance.

Each of these shows reinforces, then, the regard specifically female art and artists deserve. It might seem elementary and unnecessary (even patronizing) for these points to be made at this late date, but if they are being stated with such repetition on Broadway right now, it tells us something about contemporary audiences. Particularly when the points are being made by largely or exclusively female creative teams who may be pardoned a bit of an agenda, it would seem that a marker is being laid down. Parity of esteem is being freshly claimed. These works demonstrate that we will all be better off as the claim is more consistently honored.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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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

a-christmas-story-2

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

anne

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

moonlight-serenade

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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