Thursday, May 22, 2014

Lysistrata (2000)

Shannon McNamara, Arthur Grothe
Photo by Anthony Gray
"The version of Lysistrata you are about to witness comes at a time of particular economic strength in this country. The United States is not at war. People are making a lot of money, and nobody's losing his life on foreign soil. So, can Lysistrata only be performed when things are good? Is its original daringness never to be experienced by theater audiences again? Where is the radicalness of this play? What makes it worth seeing now, under these conditions?"
- David Bell, Lysistrata, Then and Now (Bad Epitaph production program)
In 1996, I picked up a copy of Aristophanes' Lysistrata at ABCDEFG Books in Camden, Maine. This edition was translated into verse in 1924 by the noted Australian Jack Lindsay, with illustrations by his father Norman Lindsay. One of the original hardcovers, this was exactly the kind of smutty book that would have been found indecent and its transmission through the U.S. Post illegal under the Comstock Act of 1873.

And this wasn't even the original. While Lindsay père created line drawings that are delightful and racy, featuring a collections of male and female characters naked or mostly naked, all actual genitalia are either (in the case of males) cast in dark shadows or (in the case of females) erased. You may interpret such censorship as you will.

The text of Lindsay fils, however, goes through an even more bizarre transformation. Reading it, I wasn't immediately compelled, for example, to produce it for the stage. It wasn't very funny, and though the sexual humor was apparent, it was so tame as to be virtually uninteresting. Later I found a paperback of Lindsay's translation that was published in the 1960s, and learned he had bowdlerized his own work! His original text, as published without fear of censorship, still includes innuendo and puns rather than outright obscenity ... but they're better.

The last major notable production of Lysistrata in Cleveland was the legendarily pilloried production at the Cleveland Play House in late 1970. That production was actually produced at a time America was at war, but as Tony Mastroianni reported in the Cleveland Press, "This is an anti-war play, basically, but it is difficult to find the message under all the sniggering and archness."

Cleveland Play House, 1970
Photo by Tom Prusha

Both he and Plain Dealer critic Peter Bellamy delivered the production a one-two punch the day after it opened (Bellamy called the production, "perverted" and "obscene") and reservations didn't merely dry up, people were calling the Play House to cancel. In what may have been the shortest run of any professional production in Cleveland, Lysistrata at the Play House had three performances and suspended the run.

Our new company, Bad Epitaph, was maintaining a streak of strongly-received productions. I had an idea at that time that we would produce a classic in the Spring and something contemporary in the fall, as far as we could take that. Having produced a Shakespeare as our inaugural production (Hamlet) I didn't want to return to the Bard again for as long as possible.

I found Lindsay's verse translation to be clever and funny, but possibly a little inaccessible to a modern audience. However, reading other, more recent translations, I realized that this was its strength. For example, the translation the Play House used thirty years earlier was by Douglass Parker, written in 1964, and that should tell you right there what went wrong. A jazz aficionado, Professor Parker strains to be hep and obvious with his sex jokes, and the entire script reads like an extended comedy sketch from Playboy After Dark.

But what is Lysistrata, anyway? Is it an anti-war argument, the purpose for which Aristophanes wrote it in 411 BCE? Is it one big sex comedy? Is it an Ur-feminist text, championing the strength and power of women? Or is it exactly the opposite of that -- as Mastroianni pointed out in his review, "What the Play House production misses in emphasizing the obvious is the underlying story of women desiring to resume normal domestic relations."

Lysistrata can be seen as a conservative piece of work; the women are refusing to have sex with their husbands until they abandon unending war and return home.

Also, at this point in history, I was only recently married, and my wife and I were making plans to have children. So my interest in staging a happy celebration of marriage, sex and procreation was also very personal.

Shannon McNamara, Alison Garrigan, Elaine Feagler
Photo by Anthony Gray
Director's Note:

There is no private domain of a person's life that is not political, and there is no political issue that is not ultimately personal.

- Charlotte Bunch

The Greeks invented Democracy, built the Acropolis, and then called it a day.
- David Sedaris
Bad Epitaph's production of Lysistrata opened on May 19, 2000, and it was very successful. The Plain Dealer called our production, Helter-skelter and often hilarious, the Free Times a high-spirited and campy romp, and Scene Magazine christened it that summer's first joyous work.

By closing night we were sold out - oversold, actually, adding more and more seats. That fall Bad Epitaph received a nomination for a Northern Ohio Live Magazine Award of Achievement, based largely on the success of Lysistrata. But that is the end of the story, not the beginning. 

I recently read over my notes from the rehearsal period, and learned some very important lessons that I had forgotten.

Christopher Bohan, Jennifer Wiech
Photo by Anthony Gray
My apprehension over producing a sex comedy were great. As a rule, sex just isn't funny, it's embarrassing. Case in point, the movie Exit To Eden, based on one of Anne Rice's soft porn novels. Director Garry Marshall wanted to make a gentle comedy that adults could enjoy together, but when it appeared the movie he was making wasn't going to appeal to anyone, he threw in a caper subplot (entirely unrelated to Rice's work) and cast Rosie O'Donnell and Dan Aykroyd as detectives. What was merely cheesy swiftly became crass.

One of the few exceptions to this rule is The Tall Guy featuring Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson in the funniest sex scene every committed to film. And I've seen The Room.

I must have been inspired also by my recent experience performing in The Compleat Wks of Wllm Skhspr (abridged) at Beck Center. When Roger Truesdell cast two of the funniest men in Cleveland, Allen Branstein and Nick Koesters and then chose me to round out the trio, I thought he was insane because I am not funny. The experience was a crash course in what funny is or can be, and I took a (un)healthy dose of the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink ethos of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and thought I would try it with this 2,400 year old Greek comedy.

The production company was solid, Don McBride build to order an Acropolis that doubled as the set from Laugh-In, with balconies and shuttered windows that open and close. Ali Garrigan - our Lysistrata - designed contemporary costumes, and Brian Pedaci the numerous ridiculous props, some of which he procured from places like Chain Link Addiction.

I had invaluable assistance from my dramaturg David Bell (who provided all sources below) who provided not only a bottomless well of theater history, but was also my confidant during the darkest parts of the rehearsal process and was very insightful as to what was not working and reminding me what was.

And, of course ... it was a musical! As we assume, the ancient Greeks used song to convey strong messages, and so did we. Following my suggestion that this story plays itself out everywhere, all the time, our composer Dennis Yurich shaped Linday's verse into the lyrics for eight songs that were Goth, rock, ska, country, even a nod to the Andrews Sisters.



Of course, what everyone really remembers is the nudity. I know artists who have strong, negative opinions about nudity onstage, that it breaks down suspension of disbelief in a way that nudity on screen does not. Frankly, I think the opposite - that film celebrates unhealthy body types and calculated audience response in a way that a live naked human performing in a play does not.

That doesn't mean I wasn't eeked out by casting a play where I was asking actors how much they would or would not disrobe onstage. I knew from experience in other productions that it was best to be very specific up front, and to set a date when we would commence "show conditions".

Clyde Simon, Alison Garrigan
Photo by Anthony Gray
My rehearsal journals remind me how horribly self-conscious and unfunny everything was proceeding through the month of April. I was positive I was going to drop a large turd onto the stage of Cleveland Public Theatre (the company which we had made a healthy arrangement to perform) until the first of May. 

May Day we played the scenes where the men and women stripped to fight ... and suddenly the show was ridiculous! Not dirty, just happy, funny stupid, which is pretty much how we rode through the rest of the experience.

In addition to his praise, Tony Brown also called the show "sloppy", and it was literally sloppy, with buckets of actual water dumped onto Nick, Chris and Rob as they scurried around in jackstraps fitted with brightly-colored erections. Our Lysistrata came onstage for the interval with a mop. Opening night, one other writer for the Plain Dealer sniffed, "Well, it's not Aristophanes." There were also more than the usual backstage pranks throughout the run, some which during any other production would have been brought up with Human Resources.

By and large, it was a festive, funny and inoffensive anti-war play. Just before we really needed one.

Sources:
Revival Ruins Greek Play by Tony Mastroianni, Cleveland Press, Dec. 5, 1970
'Lysistrata' at Play House Plumbs Depths of Vulgarity by Peter Bellamy, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dec. 5, 1970
Photo of Ronald Greene and Myriam Lipari as Kinesias and Myrrhina, Cleveland Press, 1970 (date unknown)
Revelry Abounds In Bad Epitaph's Version of 'Lysistrata' by Tony Brown, Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 22, 2000
Rowdy Romps by Amy Bracken Sparks, The Free Times, May 24, 2000
Greeks Bearing Gifts by Keith Joseph, Scene Magazine, June 1, 2000

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Lorain County Community College Playwriting Contest

Excited student playwright encourages excited acting troupe to take goofy selfie.
The evening we concluded the Love In Pieces project, I was floating, delighted with work well-done, executed with joy, talent and energy by an ensemble of colleagues and friends, both old and new. Most of all I was relieved and overcome by the satisfaction and praise of she whose opinion I was most concerned about - the playwright.

Desiring to share my happiness, I posted the following status update before attempting to actually go to bed:


However, not five minutes later, this response was posted:


What? Oh, yes! Not the playwright I was thinking of at that moment, but of course! People come and go so quickly here ... it wasn't barely more than twenty-four hours earlier I and a number of the same artists employed in Love In Pieces were participating in the annual Lorain County Community College Playwriting Contest, produced in collaboration with Great Lakes Theater.

Spontaneous Tom by Emily Buttita
Last year was my first curating this event, which another part of GLT's annual free, Surround programming. The outreach tour (e.g.: Seven Ages, Double Heart) is another. Truth be told, most of the hard work is done by our LCCC contact professor and their students, working for a semester on an original script. For some students this is their first experience writing a script, this year there were more than one teenagers who had advanced past high school and were already beginning their college experience at LCCC.

For our part, Great Lakes holds a competition in early April, a panel of judges evaluate the work and choose winners who receive a cash prize, and traditionally the first place winner gets a staged reading performed by actors from our residency program.

This year we had a new partner in Daniel Cleary, who did an awesome job in bringing out good work from his student writers. There were several readings in class and revisions before the competition, and our judges were impressed by the work. As the assignment was to create ten minute lays (or something close to it) we decided to stage the first and second place winners, for an evening which was still something less than an hour, even following a post-performance talkback with the awarded playwrights.

The Cracks In Our Foundations by Krista Price
Our acting company of five rehearsed for two hours prior to the performance, one hour per each fifteen-minute performance. You might think that is a lot of time, but it really isn't. What is required is to make what theater people like to call big choices, and by that I do not mean something like overacting, but starting out with something preconceived, and just going for it.

Walking through each piece, I would just stop the actors, give an opinion on what I thought was really happened, we'd go back a line or two and continue. Or I'd just say something that reinforced what was already going on, but make it more obvious. We had little set, few props, it was all about the words the students had written.

You walk into an empty space and hope that the process, that the afternoon and evening will be enjoyable. And the work moves smoothly, we had a record audience of over fifty - friends, family, fellow students - and each of these pieces were received very enthusiastically by the audience. They were each funny, but also affecting. They played even better than they read.

It is at times like this that I am (again) truly grateful for the professional company I keep. Young, enthusiastic, entirely "game" actors with little ego and a lot of focus. And on this night I also learned there are few things so joyful as learning a playwright - or two - is happy with the way you interpreted their work.

Complete information on the 2014 Lorain County Community College Playwriting Contest

Friday, May 9, 2014

Nine Inch Nails @ The Agora

Trent Reznor
Twenty years ago today Nine Inch Nails played the Agora.

This was a dam-bursting moment. Maybe six people in Cleveland noticed when Pretty Hate Machine was released in 1989. In the months and years that followed, as the record gained recognition and momentum, the people of Cleveland began to claim Trent Reznor as one of their own (he's actually from Pennsylvania.)

The radio station The End trumpeted the impending release of Broken in 1992, but then never played anything from it because, as DJ Maria Farina told me, it wasn’t “radio-friendly”. However, no one could ignore The Downward Spiral, and it was universally lauded when it was released March 8, 1994.

Except in Cleveland, where Scene Magazine queried, “how many times can you rhyme ‘hole’ with ‘soul’, after all?”
“All this nihilistic, self-loathing, misanthropic, suicidal posturing is getting to be a bit much, Mr. Self-Desruct. Either jump or come in off the ledge.”
- John Soeder, Scene Magazine
Rolling Stone would eventually rate the album as the 32nd best of the 1990s, between Dylan's Time Out of Mind and The Slim Shady LP. But, you know. Opinions.

The day tickets went on sale for NIN’s first concert in Cleveland since they broke nationally, due in large part to their performance in the original Lollapalooza in 1991. The Agora sold out in less than ten minutes. I didn’t have a job and so was on the phone (because that’s how we used to order tickets) and bought two moments after the lines opened, unaware of my great fortune.

Opening acts include an entirely forgettable warm-up who I remember had some kind of non-lesbian, girl-on-girl thing, followed by a terrifying, horse-faced clown in a tall, pointed witches' hat who began his set by reciting the Wondrous Boat Ride poem from Willy Wonka. That would be the first time I had seen or even heard of Marilyn Manson.

Diana and I had arrived early enough to get great seats in front, you could see the band perfectly over the crowd on the floor. The place was completely packed by the time the headliner began their set, and what little moshing had started during the opening acts got crazy.

I think I stayed in my seat until they played Closer, and then I couldn’t handle it anymore, I wanted to be down there, not sitting. I gave Diana a little apology, handed her my glasses and shoved my way onto the floor.

 Set List 5/9/94
Pinion
Terrible Lie
Sin
March of the Pigs
Something I Can Never Have
Closer
Reptile
Wish
Suck (Pigface)
The Only Time
Get Down, Make Love (Queen)
Down in It
Big Man With a Gun
Head Like a Hole

Encore:
Dead Souls (Joy Division)
Help Me I Am in Hell
Happiness in Slavery
Once upon a time (because I cannot speak for today) being in a mosh pit was not actually dangerous. Maybe I’m kidding myself. But pushing and jumping and picking people up and moving them around is a very exciting way to enjoy a loud, fast concert.

First time I did what your father used to refer to as “slam dancing” was seeing The Replacements at Mem Aud in 1987. At one point I was body surfing and suddenly they were all gone and I landed flat on my back. About a half a dozen hands reached down and helped me right back up - wind knocked out, suddenly upright. Dizzying. Transcended. Stupid.

[tangent]

The Agora show was my penultimate mosh pit. My last would be exactly eight months later, when against my own better judgement I attended NIN's return to Cleveland at the behemoth CSU Convocation Center on January 9. I ran into Diana and her co-workers, and that was awkward. She had moved out a few days earlier. Previously, I was a svelte, 25 year-old member of an underground theater troupe. Now I was 26 and gaining weight, waiting tables in a chain pizza restaurant, and getting divorced.

Exiting the pit that January in 1995, I had a bad feeling in my abdomen. Two months later I would have a hernia operation. Limping out, I stopped an old lady, incongruous in the surroundings, but recognized her, and assumed she must be a friend of my mother's.

"Oh, hi!" I shouted. "Good to see you!" She blinked her eyes at me, blankly. I had made an error. That was Jane Scott.
[/tangent]

At the Agora show, Reznor did not say much, if anything, between numbers. At one point he asked, "Anybody like Scene Magazine?" The audience response was comically uproarious. Then he added, "Yeah. I like to wipe my ass with it."

Scene's Pete Chakerian reviewed the show as the success it was, however.  Reznor "seized the crowd" and "stalked the stage with reckless abandonment."
"You could just smell the sweat in the air ... the rest of the evening kept the same breakneck pace ... Spectacular ... Reznor started tearing up the joint."
- Pete Chakerian, Scene Magazine
If the editors were embarrassed by the gushing of their critic, they tried to make up for it with a photo in the gossip column featuring a fluffy-haired Reznor with his former 80s synth-pop trio Exotic Birds with the caption, PRETTY Hate Machine.

After just a few songs I was back, seated with Diana … the first song in the encore left me shocked and confounded, because I knew every word of the song and couldn’t for the life of me know from where. NIN had recorded Dead Souls for The Crow soundtrack and like a lot of other folks my age we had “discovered” Joy Division in 1988 when they released a singles collection (more nerdy shit: This is why it makes sense that they are playing Love Will Tear Us Apart in the party scene in Donnie Darko.)

What lingers is the memory of a girl in the mosh pit who was near me for just a moment. She shouted, OH FUCK because she’d dropped her cigarettes, I saw them on the floor about to be dashed to bits when I threw out an arm and shoved this big guy to one side, she didn’t miss a moment but swooped her hand down and caught her smokes.

She threw an arm around me, kissed my face and intimately screamed, “I LOVE you for that!”

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Song of Spider-Man (book)


The first thing you notice, opening the book Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical In Broadway History, is a black and white photograph of several famous people. Bono, the Edge, Julie Taymor (if you are the kind of person who knows who she is) and then ... who the hell is that guy? Tall, awkward, bespectacled, in a frumpy suit jacket and jeans, totally out of place with these arbiters of cool.

That would be Glen Berger, the playwright. Or in musical parlance, the bookwriter, or because when this picture was taken, the show still belonged to Taymor, he was to co-bookwriter. He is also the author of the book, and stumbles his way through through six years of Broadway history, a sympathetic enough character, except he left me wondering where beneath spineless dithering lay the cunning professional who managed to surf the corpses to this production's eventual conclusion.

I never cared about Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark one way or another. One CLE theater colleague and Facebook friend (you know who you are, Moritz) was obsessed by this production, recounting every misstep which for a time seemed to be daily. I do believe his concern was for the health and well-being of his fellow Equity performers ... but there was a lot of internet glee had at the show's expense. Whatever. Lots of Broadway shows are terrible, I didn't feel the price-tag could necessarily have made it any worse.

During FringeNYC last summer our stage manager Diana went to see Turn Off The Dark with her family, and said it was the greatest theatrical experience she had ever seen. No exaggeration, that's what she said, she was over the moon about that show. I had my doubts, but I didn't see it, did I? It is like Ishtar, most people who mock it haven't seen that, either.

But I did rip through this book pretty fast. Maybe that is because Berger writes for a lot of PBS children's programming. There is a major plot hole, however, about a quarter of the way through, where what seems like an ordinary, large-scale Broadway production goes from an exciting project, entirely on-track, to suddenly a media-hounded piece of garbage, hæmorrhaging cash. Like, somewhere between the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, this just happens. This is long before the injuries start.

For a lark, I checked out the soundtrack from the library. I was curious. And most of it is really good -- which is even more surprising when you know I find U2 to be kind of irritating. But the song Rise Above actually got me a little choked up. Boy Falls From the Sky was also quite affecting. And Pull The Trigger is kind of ... fun-kay.

I wish I had gone to see this show.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Love In Pieces (execution)

Orpheus & Eurydice
The proposal that I made was simple. Present Sarah Morton's Love In Pieces in an actual house. An intimate setting, for a small, select number of people.

In late fall, I had opened the proposal up to those actor-teachers who were available and interested. They all were. We held meetings at the house to discuss, somewhat by consensus, exactly what shape this production would take.

The size of the audience was dictated by the smallest room - the bathroom - where four, perhaps five people could comfortably stand and watch the scene.

The play is made of four scenes. I knew from the 1998 production (which, yes, I have on VHS) that the scenes might range from ten to twelve minutes in duration. We could lead audiences of four from one room to another, with each scene performed simultaneously, four times, once for each party.

Who would lead them? We would require "guides" ... and lo, we had guides. We should have a Host, to receive "guests" but also to act as front of house, for the duration of the performance.

Serving drinks, this was a no-brainer. Guests would be asked to check their cellphones, to avoid interruptions or distractions. Inspired by Sleep No More, each guest would be provided a domino mask, and be instructed no to speak during the performance.

Finally, we would require some way of allowing each scene to start at the same time. The shorter scenes would require a post-scene "event" at some "staging area" in the house. One which would contribute to the mood, not distract from it. Not break any boundaries. Not just seem like time filler.

There would be dancing, chocolate and alcohol. Guests would be encouraged to write secret messages. They would get their feet wet (literally).

Also, Andrew suggested some friends he had at Oberlin, musicians who might be interested in playing before and after the performance. A live duo, piano and bass. Incredible.

The company met, and grew, with new members added as we discovered we needed them. Including the musicians, that came to sixteen. We came together just a few times at the end of last year, and in January, with a plan to begin rehearsal in March. Everyone was made responsible for their own scene. I had made my desire for this event clear, and they understood.

I am at a place in my life where it feels like I am constantly surrounded by competent, talented and motivated artists that I can trust. It is a heart-bursting feeling.

Cupid & Psyche
We sent email invitations, inviting a select audience to a "private house party". With a company of sixteen, we could each only invite a handful of guests, and put together a list that seemed appropriate. Someone would inevitably be left off, but there were no arguments among the company. We never argued about anything.

How best to describe how it all came off? People were delighted. There were amazed. They were surprised. We did receive a few notes the first night (there were only three performances) that we immediately incorporated into the next.

We the performers were also surprised. We haven't really sat down to debrief yet (we really should do that) but we did have the chance prior to the performances to perform each of our scenes for each other. I was so happy to see each of them in these realistic settings.

I had cast myself as Antony again, this time hopefully with the middle-aged "presence" I had been lacking in my late-20s. My acting partner and I had the chance to perform the same ten-minute scene four times in a row in quick succession, to entirely different audiences of five or six. Each time we became bolder and the scene grew, and grew. It was such a rewarding experience.

What we, the actors missed, and would never receive, was a sense of what our guests experienced. Each party would track the play differently, maybe starting in the bathroom and ending in our bedroom - which meant moving from horror to hilarity. Or starting in the attic and ending in the basement - from commitment to disillusion.

After Orpheus and Eurydice have their moment in the Underworld (the basement, with sick red and green lights) the guests were led to a kitchen. Suddenly Orpheus/Andrew begins to sing a haunting love song, that warbled up the steps - between each scene we could hear him, beneath the floorboards - and guests might dance. Is that Eurydice further off singing harmony? Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn't.

Andrew had written the song just for this production. As with Hades and Persephone, all were moved.

Guests responded:
"Heartbreaking, heart-warming and hilarious." - L.

"A theater girl of many years ... last night felt like the first time." - S.

"A crazy mixture of voyeurism and live action game of CLUE." - J.

"I dreamt of teeth, sheets with words on them, wings, camels, elephants and the river Styx while Miles played trumpet on a cloud." - D.

"I cried in a kitchen dancing with strangers." - S.
We even received a review on TPOGraphy, Kevin Joseph Kelly's theater blog. Like most men who attended, he wore a very fine suit and tie -- all guests were informed the dress would be "cocktail formal" which might have been setting the bar a bit high, but we were all delighted how festive everyone looked. It did seem appropriate. Kevin wrote:
"There is something wonderful about mystery, especially when it comes in the form of a random email inviting you to be a guest at a random destination for an immersive play experience. And what wondrous rewards await the immersed as your consciousness is transformed by being surrounded by a virtual and artistic environment that is literally inches away from you." (more)
And so we concluded, opened and closed within a fortnight, all on our own dime with no expectation of return but the response of those invited. I felt I had been most rewarded, receiving this opportunity to indulge in the fantasy of getting a second-chance to interpret a much-beloved script on your own terms, to redeem a concept you held privately in your own mind and then to discover that the picture you had was right, that it could actually be like that, and that others could also be touched by it.

Only, and I dearly hoped this would be the case, so too might be the playwright. I am a great fan of Sarah's work, and have been grateful to act in or direct several of her plays. When I asked permission last fall to present Love In Pieces, she said yes, but that didn't mean I wasn't nervous about her response to the final product, especially one as experimental as this. So she gets the last word:
Sarah Morton: "The entire experience - the live music, the beautiful acting, the creaky stairwells, the enchanting silent interludes - made me feel like I was walking through a fever dream, which is exactly how it should be."