Saturday, December 30, 2017

Beyond the Fringe

Pete & Dud in Cleveland
(Spoiler for the Netflix series "The Crown" ahead.)

My mother stayed with us one evening before the holidays, and she set herself up to watch The Crown on Netflix. She’d gotten ahead of me, and was taking in the final episode of the recently released season two. I was trying not to pay attention, but something caught my eye.

“Is that Peter Cook and Dudley Moore?” I asked. She wasn’t sure, but it was apparent to me that it was, two men in suits with skinny ties, one noticeably taller - or, the other significantly shorter, anyway - performing a sketch on a stage in a theater. The short one had on a woman’s hat and was clutching a handbag. It was obviously a comedy sketch.

Anyway, I tried not to pay attention, I would get this episode eventually. I was doing housework and trying to shut down the house for the evening. But then I saw four men, and it was obvious what I was looking at, because the other two were dead ringers for Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett. I was looking at a recreation of Beyond the Fringe (circa 1963.)

Most Americans are familiar with the absurdist satire of Monty Python, and I would suggest its international success was based on its platform - television, and later film. It had wider reach and longevity. However, that team has roots in the same university cabaret traditions which were the basis for earlier comedy teams which made their fame in Great Britain through stage and radio, including Beyond the Fringe, Flanders and Swann, and one the most inspirational comedy troupes of the century, The Goons.

Patrick Warner (center) as Peter Cook in "The Crown"
In Cleveland, my family were exposed to a great deal of their work on WCLV “Saturday Night” (now Weekend Radio) a weekly show where program director Robert Conrad let his hair down to play comedy and satire from both sides of the Atlantic. Staying up late, listening to this show, hearing selections from not only the aforementioned British troupes but also everything from Nichols & May to the National Lampoon, I received a tremendous education in wit and satire before I had even reached adolescence.

Even so, I was a bit young to attend the 1975 American tour of “Good Evening” starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (post-Fringe) which played the Hanna Theatre the week of May 19th -- which also happens to be my brother Henrik’s birthday. My father took him to an evening performance, but brought the three of us to the stage door following a matinee performance to see if we could score some autographs.

Moore did not make an appearance at the stage door, but Cook did, and he was a tall man -- taller than my father at 6’2”. I was not yet seven years old, and I remember the look of complete incredulity on his face as he leaned over to take and sign my little autograph book. What bizarre American would bring a small child to this somewhat cerebral and somewhat filthy comedy revue?

Anyway. In the episode of The Crown in question (S02E10 "Mystery Man") Prime Minister Macmillan is goaded into attending a performance of that West End smash, Beyond the Fringe, by his surprisingly cruel spouse. The company generated a great deal of attention satirizing modern politics and even the royals, in a time when it was still technically illegal to do so (see: The Licensing Act of 1737.)

In case you didn't know who Peter Cook was.
Macmillan's wife intimates that he is set up for harmless ribbing. However, when he attends, the PM is not only humiliated, but in a surreal moment, the gigantic Peter Cook (Patrick Warner) actually notices him in the house, breaking the fourth wall, leaning into the house, and drawing the entire audience's attention on him for ridicule.

Prime Minister Macmillan promptly resigns.

Last year I wrote a meandering piece inspired by an episode of Mad Men in which Don and Megan attend a performance of America Hurrah!  As with that event, I am almost touched by the loving artistic detail paid to recreating a moment in theatrical history. Even more so, by the defiant protestation from the creators of television programs that live stage performance once did and could still affect the course of history.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Twenty-Eighteen

Boxing Day, a day to assess, to look, forward, to make plans, to try and figure out where it’s all going.

I need to return to the regular habit of writing by hand every morning for thirty minutes. I used to think I need to create blocks of time -- hours, say, on a Saturday, to accomplish the writing. This is not practical, however, and was only rarely successful.

When I began writing longhand a little bit, every single day, the work mounted up. It was a highly productive time. But it takes discipline, and sleep, and each have been lacking the past two calendar years.

I have always written but since I began writing in earnest -- ten years ago -- the productions have begun, the publications followed, and the opportunity to engage and collaborate with numerous companies in town.

In the past year I had my third publication (The Secret Adversary at YouthPLAYS) revamped by website (Thank you, Dreamhost Remixer) and created work presented at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage and Talespinner Children’s Theatre.

There are only a few things in the coming year that I am able to report, though I am in negotiation to revive previously produced works, and have made a few proposals for the coming season.

Chennelle Bryant-Harris and I are co-writing a new play, The Lost Diary, inspired by a notorious piece of white supremacist fiction. A fragment of this new work will be workshopped as part of Entry Point at Cleveland Public Theatre, January 18 - 20.

Also, this coming month, the Chattanooga Theatre Centre will present a three-week run of my adaptation of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, January 26 - February 11.

In addition to new writing (and there exists new writing) one thing I have wanted to do is return to old writing. It is not necessary, of course, to bring every old idea to some kind of fruition, you could go mad doing that.

But there are certain pieces which went through considerable revision and even successful workshops which were abandoned for other projects. These Are The Times was one of these, and I was very happy to return to that this past summer. There are one or two of those abandoned piece to which I would like to return.

Best wishes to you in all your endeavors in the coming year.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Top Ten Events of 2017

Washington D.C., January 21, 2017.
So, you thought 2016 was some kind of horrorshow. That was nothing.

Our national government has embraced kleptocracy, sciatica has had me entirely sidelined from running, and in spring, my father-in-law was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He passed away last Wednesday. My beautiful wife has spent several weeks out of town this fall, caring for him and for my mother-in-law, our children managing to keep their chins up through fall semester.

Twenty-seventeen has not been my favorite year, either.

And yet, it was worth it, and it is necessary to take stock, and remember those moments which make life worth living and keep me moving forward. In chronological order, my top ten events of 2017.

1. The Women’s March

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose … and "feminist" was not a word my (then) thirteen year-old daughter threw around until the evening of November 8, 2016 when she was surprised and shocked to learn she lives in a country where an admitted sexual predator could be elected by enough people in enough states to become president.

Holding down the fort Inauguration weekend while the xx contingent of our nuclear family caravanned with thousands of others to Washington D.C. for this event was the first in many salvos against the current administration -- and for something greater. My daughter's penchant to be outspoken and artistic will be tried in the months and years to come, but how much more proud could I be?

The company of Red Onion, White Garlic
2. Red Onion, White Garlic

Five American women in hijab told a simple Indonesian story of sisters and womenhood in Red Onion, White Garlic, which I wrote for Talespinner Children's Theatre. Like so many other stories of basic decency this year, it is remarkable that just their telling stands out as a protest against the status quo. What does that say about the status quo?

3. Reception

Recent events have made it necessary to put our weekly salon on hiatus. However, most Sundays this year we have opened our doors for friends to join us for two hours to share and talk. It is a simple social event which has brought people into our home in a way unique to this time and place in history.

4. Artists’ Rehabilitation Coalition

Experiencing the women of the Northeast Reintegration Center perform a one-hour adaptation of Macbeth was an inspiring evening, demonstrating the transformative power of art and language. Anyone can interpret the work of Shakespeare, tell their story through it, and own it.

5. Weddings

The father with the bride.
It had been five years since I had performed a wedding. This summer, I had the opportunity to conduct two. We also attended a third. All Millennials (and one Gen Xer) cousins and friends in their thirties (and Doug) all stylish and smart. Nick and Tara in Aurora, IL. Doug and Carrie at the 78th Street Studios. And Nick & Adrienne in Athens.

When Chris, my father-in-law, took a serious turn in August, the great, unspoken fear was that he would not be alive to attend his daughter Adrienne’s wedding on September 9. But he did. He rallied. And the father danced with the bride, which may be been the greatest moment of the entire year, or any year.

6. Road Trips

The wedding in Chicagoland invited an extended stay in the City of Big Shoulders. We also decided not only to stop in Salem on our way to Friendship, MA, but to stay for a while, and really take in the history. My wife and I have always felt intensely grateful that our children really do like to be with us and do things with us, even now as they slouch in adolescence.

Aware that these road trips, along with events unfolding in Athens, would necessitate hours upon hours in her car, the wife got a satellite radio subscription. The fact that most commercial music stations in America are now all owned by the same corporation, there is no longer any joy or interest in picking up local radio stations.

One late evening, as we were passing through Indiana on our way home from Chicago, we caught Billy Idol’s SiriusXM program Live Transmission. That evening was his tribute to women rockers and it was all about the strength of the music. It was awesome and also touching. Thanks, man.

7. Heights High

Old friends, new school.
Watching my own daughter step into the beautifully restored and expanded Cleveland Heights High School was a moment of personal and civic pride. In the days and weeks since we have had many opportunities to enter, experience and share with our community all of the amazing and outstanding work our students have to offer.

8. A walk with Julie

It was a surprise to discover how popular folks would find my blog post account of one night, walking, talking, and drinking with an former college girlfriend. Hundreds read it within the first day it was posted. Reflecting upon that evening was a sweet reminder of simple gifts in difficult times.

9. Lydia’s Graduation

My niece graduated from the University of Winchester this October. It has been a long time since I have traveled to Britain. Ten years, actually. It’s become so expensive to travel. My eighty-two year-old mother was planning to go, and we have agreed to disagree whether I invited myself along for the journey, or if I offered to escort her there, which are two very different ways of looking at it.

My brother in Minnesota also met up with us in London, before the long drive to Kent. My brother Henrik’s family now reside in Yalding, the kind of rural English town that gets sent up so much in old BBC situation comedies and the works of Alan Ayckbourn. Folks at work asked if I was going to take in any theater when I was in England and I told them I was not going to England, I was going to Yalding.

Yet, it was a marvelous time, in spite of the fact that I missed my own wife and children terribly. It was not the year to be away from them like this, but when is? I was very happy to see Lydia receive her degree in Winchester Cathedral, where Jane Austen is lain to rest, and we all had some marvelous evenings talking about every little thing.

The best part, I think was all the travel I got to do with my own mother, who really is a wonderful person, and one that I have to admit I have gotten to know a lot better since my father died.

Photo: Steve Wagner
10. The Santaland Diaries

I do not take the opportunity to perform very often. I prefer to write, but I miss being onstage sometimes and there are those who say I am good at it. When Cleveland Public Theatre asked me to take a turn as Crumpet in David Sedaris’s least favorite play (look it up) I knew would regret saying no.

As it turned out, during this time of holiday cheer and personal sorrow, walking on stage to interpret this classic American monologue -- and doing it my way -- was a great relief, distraction, and challenge. It was also fun.

Happy holidays to you and yours, however you spend them, and best wishes for a new year of great events worth sharing.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The "Santaland Diaries" Diaries

The Cleveland Public Theatre production of "The Santaland Diaries" by David Sedaris and Joe Mantello started one week ago today. The second of this two-weekend run kicks off tonight, so here are some personal reflections on the work so far. 

Photos by Steve Wagner.

Wednesday, December 6

Opening night. We had an intimate crowd, maybe twenty-five or so people plus a flock of Red Coats. I was grateful to have my mom in the audience, and a couple of friends. The laughter was extremely polite this evening.

Right of the bat I developed some serious dry mouth, which was no doubt a result of having never performed this material in front of an audience, any audience at all. Sure, I had performed the piece numerous times before my director, stage manager, and our team of designers, most of whom had heard these lines untold numbers of times. But how would an audience react?

We have festive, colorful, holiday-themed tumblers hidden behind the toy boxes and I tapped those at least four times during the show. I am self-conscious about drinking during the show. A critic once called out Curtis Proctor for “gulping water” between every scene, which was an unfair exaggeration. It was like, between every other scene.

I needed to slow down for laughs, but first I needed to learn where they would occur.

Thursday, December 7

This morning I woke up to discover I have pink eye. So, this should be an exciting weekend for everyone involved.

Tonight the house was twice as big as the night before, but the laughs were half so much. There was a weird energy that I couldn’t account for, except that maybe that people had not had enough to drink.

This show has been produced by CPT for fourteen years, isn't that amazing? Word has it that most of those in the audience for any given performance of  The Santaland Diaries love this play and attend year after year. Almost as many have never seen the show before and know nothing about it. A surprising number believe they are actually going to see David Sedaris.

Tonight, while I was changing into my elf costume a woman in the front row asked me a question. I mean, the play was in progress, and she piped right up to ask me a question, like this was a lecture or a TED Talk.

She asked if the outfit I was in the process of putting on was the actual outfit they made me wear.

I just stared at her and a million responses popped into my head, like, “You know I’m an actor, right?” and “This isn’t real,” and “Oh my God, you think this is actually my story, don’t you?”

I also wanted to say, “I don’t have any lines here, so I’m going to ignore your question,” but instead I didn't say anything at all, and just made this pathetic little gesture with my hands as if to suggest, “Nice costume?”

About ten minutes later, her friend’s cellphone went off, and I was debating whether or not to ignore it, but when she pulled the thing out to turn it off she said “sorry” in a manner that was so matter of fact I wondered if she thought she was in a staff meeting and not attending a play.

So then I did speak up. I said, “We didn’t have cellphones in 1989.” That got a laugh, so I continued, saying, “Well, we did, but they were very large and they were only owned by douchebags.”

I realize we didn’t really use the word “douchebag” in in 1989, either, but by that point I was saying, “Where was I?” and picked up from where I left off.

Remember to turn off your cellphone.

Friday, December 8

By tonight, I only had to drink water twice! I have them timed so they almost make sense, too. You’ll have to see the show to know what I mean.

The guy who directed the first Cleveland production was in the house tonight, and when I spotted him I got extremely self-conscious. I would have to say one-third of my performance is me, one-third David Sedaris, and one-third a wholesale rip-off of Curtis, who first performed the role in Cleveland in 1999.

I don’t actually feel bad about such dramatic reinterpretation, or artistic plagiarism, or whatever you want to call it. I mean, Jesus. Cleveland Public Theatre contacted me about doing this show on the 19th of October. Did you expect me to start from scratch? Durr?

Saturday, December 9

Who attends a play at 5:00 PM? During the holidays, a lot of people. I had my biggest house for the first show, bigger than even the 8:30 PM. Both houses were loud and had fun, and it was probably because they had all been drinking heavily, which is something I wasn’t able to do between performances. This is really sad because there’s nothing like being by yourself for two hours in Playhouse Square, surrounded by literally hundreds and hundreds of other people having a great time, and not being able to drink.

There’s a certain passage, if you know the show you know what I’m talking about. It includes a certain word. It’s legendary. It’s awful. People ask you not to do it. “Do you have to use that word?” Yes, I have to use that word. It’s in the script and if you don’t say it, or use a different word, and the people who manage the rights to the play find out, your theater company might receive a cease and desist order.

It falls about a third-way through the show, and it’s a real crucible. It’s a personal challenge to see if I can make the audience laugh in spite of themselves, and they always do. That makes them complicit.

Sunday, December 10

Tonight’s crowd was smaller, and sober, but they were game and we all had a good time. One woman on her way out after curtain call confided to one of the Red Coats that she “wanted to see something dirty!” By that I think she meant she was satisfied.

Changing from my street clothes into my elf costume is one of the weirder parts of the show. I understand Ray used to do a kind of a strip-tease, but that’s Ray and besides, that’s really not the personality I give off through the rest of the show. I might be one of the most uptight and uncomfortable Crumpets in history. I really have no idea.

So, I have some fun with taking my clothes off, but mostly I stare at people who make comments, which is also funny. Tonight, however … man! There were whistles and catcalls. I am a forty-nine year-old man with a spare tire. I raised an eyebrow and said, “Really?”

Monday, December 11

A night off is always nice, but I still have to go into the office. Ran into a colleague in the lobby of the Bulkley Building who saw the show over the weekend, she told me again how much she enjoyed the show. She's seen one or two guys perform Santaland in the past, but that they were all young, that I was the first older guy she's seen do the show.

She said she really liked it this way, from a guy who has been there and done that, but without any bitterness. That I'm able to look back upon this life-changing moment with humor and clarity.

I guess that's kind of what I do.

Cleveland Public Theatre presents “The Santaland Diaries” at the Outcalt Theatre in Playhouse Square through December 17, 2017

Friday, December 8, 2017

A walk with Julie

One Monday afternoon in early October I received a text from my friend Julie, to whom I was once a terrible boyfriend, which read, “Hey David! I’m in Cleveland with my mom today and tomorrow. Can you get together tomorrow evening?”

How often do old girlfriends reach out for an evening of booze and reminiscence? Far too few, to be sure. Especially those who happen to live in Anchorage. My response was a subtle, “Whoa! Yes! Yes! Yes!”

They were staying at the Drury Hotel, which is a recent venture, carved out of the former Board of Education building on East 6th Street. Twenty-five years ago we saw candidates Bill Clinton and Al Gore speak before a tremendous crowd from a platform in front of that building.

Julie suggested we have a drink in the lobby, but she hadn’t really been to Cleveland since the early 1990s. I thought we might do a little better.

I met her in the lobby, which features these two amazing, restored murals from 1931. Her mother was staying in for the evening, and she had already tied one on so I knew we were in for a good night. Instead of heading out through the main entrance, I noticed that the rear of the lobby opens onto Veterans’ Memorial Plaza. Had she ever seen the Fountain of Eternal Life? Indeed, she hadn’t. She was impressed, and so was I. I always am.

It was just after dusk, and the weather was just perfect jacket weather. The streets were alive with people, neither team was playing that night, and it was a Tuesday, but many were out enjoying the weather.

We ambled through Public Square. I felt wistful, we all, my family, my co-workers, we spent a lot of time visiting and hanging out there the summer before. Good Lord, the convention and all the rest. The kids running through the fountain. But it was like we’d never even been there this summer. We just hadn’t.

Lek
I was surprised and delighted to see the large, metal “free speech” art installations by Lek (Olalekan Jeyifous) and we made our through the square heading for our ultimate destination, which was East 4th Street.

I didn’t really know which bar we would choose, I just wanted to impress her by showing off the street. The Greenhouse Tavern (which is my favorite restaurant, anyway) had a board out touting it’s rooftop bar, and that was enough for Julie. Up we went.

We sat at the bar and we talked. We talked for a long time. We talked through one old fashioned, and then two, at an open air bar, the screen showing some basketball game (not the Cavs) with a narrow view of the slice of the roof across the promenade, the Terminal Tower, the colorful, hanging light bulbs of East 4th Street.

We remembered old friends, and boyfriends and girlfriends (yes, even one another) and what it is like to raise teenagers, in Cleveland, in Alaska, in Trump’s America.

Social media has afforded us all the opportunity to make contact with, and even continue and grow, relationships with people who in an earlier time we may never have seen or communicated with again, from childhood, high school, college. But what is the nature of that communicate, and what does it mean? That we’re still cool with each other? We mostly agree on things? We make each other smile?

Taking, grabbing the opportunity to sit and talk, for hours, with someone with whom you have a shared history. That’s what we’re missing when we think we’re staying in touch through Facebook and the like. Julie and I barely scratched the surface, but I learned things that were new to me, events I hadn’t heard about or worse, entirely misunderstood.

"The Branches of Education" by Cora Holden (1931)
Do you see Shakespeare?
I have spent a great deal of my forties digging deep and regretting certain decisions I made a very long time ago, but she made me remember why I had made those decisions and some of them actually made sense. It was a great relief.

The bartender gave us a last call, which made me believe it was very late, so instead of having one last at the Greenhouse we hit the street because I had to show her where I work. We walked to Playhouse Square, where nothing was really going on on this Tuesday night, they were in tech for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hanna Theatre, but we took a peeked through the windows, and took our chandelier selfie.

Parnell’s was still open so I checked the time and realized it was only just past nine, which was only how late the patio at the Greenhouse was staying open on a Tuesday night, silly me. Well, I had to show her my favorite bar so we went there for another and more reminiscence, sitting out on the sidewalk which is the best place to be.

Some time after ten, the server asked if we wanted another round and Julie said I have to drive eventually and should probably have a glass of water, but that she’d have another, which was perfect. And so it went.

She suggested getting a car to take her back to the Drury but I insisted on walking. How many more night’s like this would there be this season? Just when we reached 6th street it began to lightly rain and we said our goodbyes at the door. I had almost reached the sidewalk when I heard her calling for me. I ran up to the portico, out of the rain, a bit apprehensive as to why she would call me back.

It was the music system. They were playing Tom’s Diner.

“It’s always nice to see you.”

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Grand Rounds @ Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage

Margi Herwald Zitelli & Luke Brett
Strange, I am opening a show tonight -- performing in the Cleveland Public Theatre production of The Santaland Diaries in Playhouse Square -- which means I will not be present for the premiere of my new ten-minute play, No Cure For Cancer.

Last summer, Jeffery Allen, Director of Education at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, and Faye Sholiton, director of Interplay Jewish Theatre, contacted me about participating in an evening of brief plays (called collectively Grand Rounds) to be performed as part of a new exhibit at the Maltz, Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews In Medicine.

The four playwrights include Faye and myself, and Christine Howey and Anne McEvoy. We met with Jeff a few months ago to discuss the project. We would each write a short script for two actors, to be performed in the exhibit itself. We drew for each of the four spaces -- the medical library, a consultation room, the rear of an ambulance, and a pharmacy.

I drew the medical library. We also drew for character types, which we could use or not. I got the coveted “racist” card. A racist and a “suit.” A racist and a suit walk into a medical library …

Anyway, I did research on medical hoaxes (which are always racist in nature) and was led down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and madness and found myself not one step closer to a character nor an idea. That’s when my wife suggested I investigate the works of Maimonides, the 12th century philosopher, Torah scholar and physician.

Then I fell into a warren of horrible websites that malinterpret the teachings of Maimonides.

Long story short, I created a brief sketch in which two people meet, a concerned parent with an ill child (originally my “suit,” and really she still could be) and a callow, young man on a quest for knowledge.

The actors in No Cure For Cancer are Margi Herwald Zitelli and Luke Brett. Luke’s character (neither have names) is really the focus of the piece, one of your modern young white nationalists who fancy themselves intellectuals. The kind of guy who defines himself by what he’s not; he’s not a Nazi, he’s not some neckbeard, dwelling in his mother’s basement. He can talk to a woman, and often has sex with them.

Last Saturday we had the chance to rehearse in the space, and to see each other’s plays. They are all delightful, a powerful artistic endeavor and I wish I could be there to share in it. Each play will be performed simultaneously for a subset of the attendees, who will then circulate to see the other works, each play to be performed four times.

Word is the event is sold out, but you can call the museum (216-593-0575) for more information.

Grand Rounds at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage will be performed this evening, Wednesday, December 6, 2017 at 7:00 PM

Monday, December 4, 2017

Urinetown: The Musical @ Blank Canvas Theatre

Daryl Kelly as Bobby Strong (Blank Canvas, 2017)
It is a well-known fact that the ground-breaking musical Urinetown: The Musical was set to open on Thursday, September 13, 2001. As events played out that week, it is no small feat that they only need to postpone the opening for one week, and opened instead on September 20.

What is less-reported is that I already had a ticket to see it two weeks later, on Saturday, October 6. Not only a ticket to the show, but also a plane ticket for LaGuardia. The emotional trauma of witnessing the events of September 11, even just on television, endowed the idea of flying with a newly realized dread, one which continues to this day.

Earlier that summer my wife and I took a transatlantic flight, international terrorism was furthest from my mind.

I had several reasons I really wanted to attend this new production, however. I knew some people who were deeply invested in it, and I had long been a fan of Greg Kotis from when he was a member of the Neo-Futurists.

My first impression of his work was a Too Much Light play called “Documentation” from 1991. Kotis stepped out onto the empty stage with a Polaroid camera and asked, "Will all the Jews in the audience stand up, please?"

People stood, the guy I came with stood. I’m not Jewish, I didn’t stand. Kotis took a photo of the audience, looked at the photo until the image was clear. He said, "Thank you." Curtain.

Simply told, haunting and cautionary. Our imitative company in Cleveland were always trying to reach the elegant impact of plays like that one. The idea that someone whose experimental work I had seen in a rented theater in Chicago ten years earlier had written the book for a Broadway musical was inspiring and I just wanted to see it.

My wife had written a play which was produced at that year’s New York Fringe at the old resent Company space, a mere two years since Urinetown had made its mark in the same venue. The Broadway producers of that musical were about, drumming interest and selling copies of original cast album, which I purchased.

So, I knew what the show was about, and frankly I was a bit concerned how it would be received. We were still, supposedly in an era of “post-irony,” SNL producer Lorne Michaels had only the weekend before my arrival asked Mayor Giuliani on the show if it was okay to be funny again. (The mayor’s response; “Why start now?”)

John Cullum as Caldwell B. Cladwell (Broadway, 2001)
Even Urinetown’s most experienced and lauded performer, John Cullum, didn’t get the show or think it was funny. In Backstage earlier that year he said he thought the show was “strange and crude and by the end of the first act I was angry and offended.” Later, I heard Cullum in an interview admit that it was his wife who read the script, thought it was hilarious, and encouraged him to take the role.

My first night in Manhattan I met and drinks with some friends. We were well uptown, far from Ground Zero. I had already seen it, however, from the sky. We arrived at dusk, the sky was dark, but the site of the former World Trade Center was lit as bright as day, crews working around the clock, the pit still actively smoldering. Everyone in the plane was looking out the window. Many literally gasped. The guy sitting next to me had a tourist guide, he was visiting his son at college, and good for him.

I asked my friends, should I go? Should I go downtown and see it? Was that the right thing to do? The wrong thing to do? These were early days. I didn’t want to be a ghoul.

They said, yes! You must! And so I was absolved. And I went. And what I saw there is a story for another time. It is enough to say at this time that all of this was hanging in the air the night I first saw Urinetown: The Musical at the Henry Miller Theatre.

Was the audience apprehensive? Perhaps they were. Maybe it was just me. And maybe it was just me, but the company seemed apprehensive. They were totally on, the show was funny, and it music popped. And we were appreciative. But even from the beginning, I felt as though some previous audience had mistreated them, and that they weren’t sure we were going to like them. And I wasn’t sure if we were either.

It wasn’t until "Run, Freedom, Run!" -- in the middle of the second act -- that the audience was, at last, entirely on their side, and it brought down the house. We liked the show. We liked it a lot.

The following spring, I returned to NYC with my wife. It had been less than a year. Driving into the city we were struck by the absence of the Twin Towers. We met our friends, we had a beautiful weekend in New York. And I took her to see Urinetown.

By this point, it’s success was apparent. The theater was buzzing with excitement which hadn’t been present the previous fall. This guy sitting near us said this was his third time. It was a hit. And maybe it was just me, but I could see it in the cast. They were relaxed, confident, hilariously confident. John Cullum, who seemed a bit above it all my first time, was now rolling in the production. He got the joke.

Dayshawnda Ash as Little Sally (Blank Canvas, 2017)
I was thrilled when Kotis won a Tony Award for Best Book, and disappointed when the show lost out on Best Musical to the more traditional Thoroughly Modern Millie. But a play as acidic as this one had never been bestowed that honor before … though such arch material soon would be. This is what I meant by “ground-breaking.”

This weekend, the entire family went to see Urinetown at Blank Canvas Theatre. Other parents take their children to Wicked, we take them to Urinetown. They were not unfamiliar with the show, the by has heard the about the girl saw a production at Shaker Heights High last year.

And yet, even today, even following the success of arch-satiric musicals that actually won a Tony for Best Musical like Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, watching it again I was struck by how “strange and crude” the play still is, to its credit. If anything, its themes of greed, want and unsustainability are far more relevant now than they were sixteen years ago.

My daughter goes to Heights High, and she already knows who Thomas Malthus is, which is more than I could say when I first saw the show. Watching the corporate masters of the show's “Urine Good Company” raise fees on public amenities the same day our Senate passed their version of Trump’s tax plan was entirely not lost on our audience.

Or maybe that was just me.

Blank Canvas Theatre presents "Urinetown: The Musical" through December 17, 2017.

Sources:
John Cullum: A Real Pisser in "Urinetown: The Musical" by Simi Horwitz, Backstage.com (5/9/2001)
Weekend Edition, NPR (12/1/2001)

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Santaland Diaries (2017)

Photo by Steve Wagner
It happened last month in a cottage in Yalding, England, where I received an email from Beth Wood at Cleveland Public Theatre, asking if I would not like to perform the stage adaptation of The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris and Joe Mantello.

For several years now, CPT has produced this holiday favorite. The Santaland Diaries is one of the most produced plays in America, and has consistently been for over a decade, so much so that American Theatre magazine has stopped including it in their annual list of most-produced plays.

Actors who have played the role in Cleveland include Ray Caspio, Doug Kusak and (for Bad Epitaph) Curtis D. Proctor.

I was excited to have been asked. So, I have spent the past several weeks rehearsing with director Eric Schmeidl, who played the role of "Crumpet the Elf" himself for CPT three years ago. I love working with Eric, who has previously directed me in The Velocity of Autumn at Beck Center, and Night Bloomers for Dobama.

When I first announced the production and my place in it on Facebook the other day, I was delighted by the strong and happy response. I was inspired to put out a call for questions, because folks were so curious about my finally playing Crumpet the Elf. Here are my responses.

Q: Explain the juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy in this this line; "Today a child told Santa Ken that he wanted his dead father back and a complete set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Everyone wants those turtles."

A: Actually, Donald, I think the line speaks for itself. The line you should be asking about is; "I am a thirty-three year-old man applying for a job as an elf," and how exactly I am going to play that when I am certainly long past thirty-three. 

For this production, and in fact when Eric himself performed the role in 2014, there is a set piece which makes it clear this play takes place in the past -- 1989, to be exact -- and that we are treating it as a memory play.

When first produced in Cleveland at Bad Epitaph Theatre in 1999, we tried updating the line you ask about. The boy wanted Pokemon cards. When I directed the show at Beck Center in 2002 the boy wanted a "SpongeBob SquarePants BackPack. Everybody loves SpongeBob.

You have to admit, "Everybody loves SpongeBob," is a funny thing to say. But now we leave the line as is.

Q: Have you seen David Sedaris in person and what did you think?

A: Good question, David. Sedaris read at the Ohio Theatre in 2000 when he was promoting his collection of essays "Me Talk Pretty One Day." He was on a certain medication and at one point had to ask the audience if it was all right to take a much needed pee-break, and we all thought that was fine.

Q: What's your favorite emoticon?

A: đźŽ…

Q: Reflect on being a writer who creates and performs autobiographical one-person shows performing another writer's autobiographical one-person shows.

A: Insightful query, Phil. Yes, I have written and performed my own solo shows, "I Hate This" and "And Then You Die." Standing on stage and talking for an hour without interruption is not unfamiliar to me. Those who are close me are no doubt aware that sitting in bars and talking for an hour without interruption is also not unfamiliar to me. 

It is perhaps because of these stage experiences that, while I had a few concerns about whether to accept the offer, actually being able to perform the piece wasn't one of them. I have at least that much ego.

Performing someone else's story, especially one as lighthearted as this, is particularly liberating. I just need to say the words and it's funny. Sedaris is really good that way. But it is also a thrill channeling my own feelings through the words. I don't have to play a character. Just as with those other solo plays, I still get to be myself. 

Q: Compare and contrast your Crumpet with Eric Schmiedl's Crumpet. I'm assuming you have seen Eric Schmiedl's Crumpet, yes?

A: No.

Q: How did you levitate that box (see photo)?

A: Well, Carolyn, how do you know that box is not slowly floating down into my loving arms, like a drunken cherub? 

Q: Have you ever actually worked in a retail store during the holiday season?

A: Thanks for asking, Nina, though your use of the word "actually" makes me a little defensive. 

I am happy to report that almost every Christmas season since 1991, I have been employed by one theater company or another. This means my holiday contributions to society have included productions like "Stealing Christmas" (Karamu 1991), "The Wayward Angel" (Bad Epitaph 2000), "Adventures In Slumberland" (Talespinner Children's Theatre, 2013), educational programs surrounding Great Lakes Theater's annual production of "A Christmas Carol" and that Yuletide favorite, "Simpatico" by Sam Shepard (Dobama Theatre, 1995).

However, during my college years I had several holiday jobs in mail rooms, wholesale outlet stores, performing data entry, and packaging and labeling volatile chemicals. I have also had my turn as a server at several restaurants, but have never "actually" worked retail during the holiday season.  

Q: What's with the knickers?

A: Yes, Halle. The knickers are satiny and very comfortable.

Q: Where?

A: The Outcalt Theatre at Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Susan! See you there!

(Many thanks to Blayne, Bob, Carolyn, David, Donald, Halle, Nina, Phil, and Susan for all the great questions!)

Cleveland Public Theatre presents "The Santaland Diaries" at the Outcalt Theatre in Playhouse Square, December 6 - 17, 2017

Friday, November 3, 2017

My Friend Dahmer (film)

Local comics legend Derf (see: The City) composed a cartoon memoir of his high school years in the late 1970s and his association with serial murderer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer.

That book, My Friend Dahmer has gone on to international acclaim, been translated into a several languages, and on Friday a motion-picture adaptation starring Ross Lynch as Dahmer goes into general release.

Derf has been and will be accused of cashing in on a horrific tragedy, but that charge can more reasonably be made of previous made-for-TV films which capitalized on the gruesome and inhuman acts performed by Dahmer during the years of his crimes. This story has as much to do with the psychology of a would-be-but-not-yet killer as with the world which fostered his desires and compulsions, and provided the opportunity to make his fantasies come to fruition.

As one of the more self-pitying members of Generation X, I have loudly and at length whined about the disastrous effect the 1970s had on its children, when media was skewed entirely toward the interests of rising Baby Boomers. Our television programs and films churned out tales of easy sex, transient relationships, and graphic violence, while popular music dwelt on maudlin thoughts and liberal mores, and no one was looking after the kids.

From "My Friend Dahmer" the graphic novel by Derf
Two months ago I surprised the wife for her birthday by taking her to a sold-out, pre-release screening at the Cleveland Cinematheque. I am excited for Derf, and hope My Friend Dahmer, the film, receives the attention I believe it deserves.

The film captures that late 70s mood without fetishizing it, as so many contemporary films do. The suburban torpor of a nation in decline, and the effect that has on its citizens, especially the young people is on full display.

Derf has often suggested that his book is an indictment of the adults who failed in their responsibility, providing no oversight, and in this way allowing a neglected, alienated monster to come to life. Dahmer may have been destined, either through fate or natural design, to become a murderous sociopath. But why did no one see the signs?

The screenwriter and director Marc Meyers made the decision not to employ a narrator. Derf comments on the proceedings in his novel through the use of captions, and in this way he himself leads us through the narrative. We are never alone with Jeffrey Dahmer. Without narration, Dahmer's increasing isolation from humanity (portrayed hauntingly by Lynch) is ours to witness in isolation.

It is this emotional connection -- not sympathy, which is feeling, but empathy, which is understanding -- that makes the final scene of the film so chilling. I won't spoil it for you. It's enough to say that in any other film, it would be moment of triumph, and of celebration. Our main character finally knows who he is.

And he is free.

"My Friend Dahmer" makes its Cleveland premiere at the Capitol Theatre next Friday, November 10, 2017.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Assessment

It has been two years since I wrote an assessment, which has been a useful tool to reassure myself that, in spite of any sense of inertia, the work continues.

Last week there was a reading of These Are The Times which was very productive, and when I have a moment I will be able to tweak a few things and then, if you can imagine, I will finally be able to begin the submission process. And it only took eight years!

Meanwhile, I composed a piece for Grand Rounds: Four 10-Minute Plays, which will be performed on December 6th at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage as part of the exhibit Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews In Medicine.

Just yesterday I was a "Writer In the Window" at Appletree Books, brainstorming a writing collaboration with my colleague Chennelle which will make its formative debut in early 2018, and tomorrow evening rehearsals begin for a play I will be performing in, to be announced.

Basically, after months feeling a bit adrift, November is packed. Suddenly, I have no time. And you know what? That is a good thing. When I am pressed I am most productive, which is stupid but there it is.

What is not good is how I have almost entirely stopped exercising. Nerve pain has made working out this past summer less than fun, but the fact is I have not gone for a run in over a month. Seriously, October 1 was my last time out. I haven't run so little since 2011, when I was taking antidepressants.

But the kids are all right. My education work is meaningful and sustaining. What I most need is to (literally) get off my ass, and move.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (documentary)

Lonny Price, Ann Morrison and Jim Walton
(Merrily We Roll Along, 1981)
A documentary on the creation of Hamilton would, of course, be very exciting, especially if you are a fan of Hamilton.

But it wouldn't have much of a dramatic arc, would it? Acclaimed young theater artist sets out to create a musical based on the life of a little-regarded figure from American history ... and he succeeds.

Wouldn't you be more interested in the creation of Moose Murders?

Well, they haven't made that film yet. But I remember seeing Moon Over Broadway, the Pennebaker/Hegedus documentary about the creation of Ken Ludwig's farce, Moon Over Buffalo. That production, though an eventual success, was initially hampered by set-backs and interpersonal tension which makes for compelling backstage drama.

Netflix, which has apparently cornered the market on quirky, at-home theatrical events like the Disney musical Newsies and Oh Hello On Broadway, has made available Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. Directed by Lonny Price, this is a film about the original and ill-fated 1981 production of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. Mr. Price knows a great deal on the subject, as he was one of that production's starring performers.

Time has been extremely kind to Merrily We Roll Along, and several Sondheim's standards were created for it, including "Old Friends," "Our Time," and "Not a Day Goes By."

Adapted from the 1931, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart classic of the same name, the story follows the lives of a trio of friends, writers and performers, from aspirational youth to jaded success and disappointment-- only going backwards, scene by scene, from middle-age to college graduation.

Sondheim's musical follows this same reverse-chronological timeline. As if that conceit weren't challenging enough, the Broadway premiere of was cast with a team of very young performers, to play aged at the beginning of the play, and younger as they go.

When the production closed after only sixteen performances, we can lament the end of the professional team of Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince … but you know they've done just fine. What of the company, the eldest only twenty-five, and some as young as sixteen?

Joseph Dunn
(These Are The Times, 2013)
Their lives in the time since may provide meaningful solace to those given to regret of the road not traveled. The lead performers went on to good lives as actors, educators, and journalists … but even Merrily company member Jason Alexander, featured performer in the wildly successful sit-com Seinfeld, even he has regrets over the failure of this important first work in their careers.

I was describing the documentary to my twelve year-old son as I walked him to the bus stop this morning. "Huh," he said. "Sounds like the plot of the musical."

Tomorrow night I host a private reading of a newly revised version of These Are The Times, my Cleveland history play which received a workshop at Cleveland Public Theatre almost five years ago.

The first act of Times is presented as a Federal Theater Project “Living Newspaper,” presenting the events of 1936 -- and in the 2013 workshop these events also occur in reverse-chronological order, as in Kaufman & Hart’s Merrily We Roll Along, which was produced at the Cleveland Play House that year. There's even a reference to the Play House production during one scene in the act, as if explaining that show would give the conceit additional clarity.

“It’s just too complicated to tell a story backwards,” laments Hal Prince in Best Worst Thing.

In the newly revised version, my first act now proceeds in proper chronological order. Note taken, Mr. Prince. Note taken.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Shakespeare On Stage

The Dark Lady of the Sonnets
with Magdalyn Donnelly & Anne McEvoy
Great Lakes Theater
I am tired of Shakespeare.

Not tired of his work, that I am still quite fond of. I am tired of William Shakespeare, the man. A man about whom we know less than we know about any other individual about whom we have decided it is important to know things.

We know where he was born (not exactly when, though) when he died, a little bit about his family, and that he wrote thirty-eight plays. Respectable scholars are even still debating about that last bit.

For someone about whom we know nothing, there is an ever-expanding industry in making shit up about him. Each biography gets fatter than the last, containing greater amounts of conjecture, and the slightest potential new discovery turns out to be inconsequential or downright fantasy.

Someone found a painting in Canada twenty years ago of a young man, the artifact carbon-dated to the late 16th century. Bares a slight resemblance to Shakespeare, must be him.

More recently, however, is the cottage industry in stage plays, films or TV shows in which Shakespeare the man is a character. It began, more or less, with George Bernard Shaw, who wrote not one but two plays featuring the Bard in a lead role.

Oh, look. Shaw is lecturing.
Shakes vs. Shav (1949) is a ten-minute script which was written to be performed by marionette puppets in which the two famous playwrights argue over who is the better writer.

The Frogs, adapted from Aristophanes by Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove in 1974, stole the "Shakespeare-against-Shaw" debate conceit entirely, drawing it out and making it much less amusing. But I digress.

Decades earlier Shaw wrote The Dark Lady of the Sonnets (1910) which was created expressly to promote the idea of England creating a federally-funded theater, which they eventually did with the National Theatre, though Shaw never lived to see it.

Dark Lady runs about a half-hour, and presents a blocked Shakespeare creeping around the streets of London after hours, searching for his mistress (about whom he writes in the Sonnets) and stealing inspiring snatches of dialogue from passersby for use in his future works. He eventually runs into not only his “dark lady” but also a sleepwalking Queen Elizabeth I, whom he first mistakes for his love. Comedy ensues.

The last third of this short play concerns Will’s efforts to persuade the Queen to establish what he calls a “national theater.” Most of the wit, however, involves the phrases uttered by the night watchman, the “dark lady” and the Queen herself -- familiar from Shakespeare’s canon-- which the frustrated playwrights jots down in a notebook for inclusion in his plays later. So the comedy depends upon these lines being familiar to the audience.

Mr. Shakespeare
Are you familiar with the phrase, “Frailty, thy name is woman”?

Perhaps you are.

“All the perfumes of Arabia”?

Yes, no? What is it from?

How about, “a snapper up of unconsidered trifles”?

No, of course you aren’t. Even I had to look that up.

Great Lakes produced Dark Lady for the outreach tour in 2006, and I played the role of Shakespeare. This was not a stretch, I had been playing the role of “Mr. Shakespeare” as a promotional gimmick for the company for two years by that point, making public appearances at art festival and rib cook-offs. I was their “unofficial mascot” for seven years. The costume shop created for me a beautiful, velvet doublet in the company’s signature purple.

The thing I learned performing Dark Lady … it isn’t funny. I mean, it would be, if the audience were composed entirely of those well-versed in the canon. Ever see The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)? It’s not funny because of references to Shakespeare. It’s funny because there’s a stoner in a dress and they rap Othello.

Actually, Complete Works isn’t funny, either. But I digress.

But therein lies the problem with plays about Shakespeare. We know nothing about him, we feign familiarity with him through his work, and inevitably we lean on the work itself to carry the narrative the pathos, and the humor.

Yeah, I saw Something Rotten. It’s funny, if it’s funny, because of the song about musicals. But "Will Power" is really painful to sit through. I know the idea of Shakespeare as a rock star is the joke, but is it? There’s this pretentious notion, flouted by complete nerds, that the man from Stratford was some kind of celebrity in his own time. Listening to Adam Pascal (who played him at the Palace) growl through “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” like some kind of Jim Morrison or something isn’t funny, it’s embarrassing.

It’s like that SNL sketch where Lin-Manuel Miranda plays a substitute teacher at a high school, determined to turn the kids onto how cool Shakespeare is, and they’ve heard it all before.


That’s actually part of a play I wrote once for an educational outreach tour, comparing verse to rap music. It was very awful and I will never mention it again.

Which brings us to the most produced American play of the 2017-18 season (as determined by American Theater) Shakespeare In Love, adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, from the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.



As in the film, this is a purely fictionalized tale of a young William Shakespeare, like so many of us in the mid-90s (in his case, the 1590s) slacking and suffering writer’s block. He’s trying to write a new play titled Romeo & Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. A great deal of the charm and interest hangs on seeing Shakespeare as fallible, flawed, with the same passions and potential for falling short as the rest of us. Kind of the way he’s represented in The Dark Lady of the Sonnets.

He has to work at writing, it doesn’t come easy. The best stuff is taken whole cloth from someone else (kind of like in Dark Lady) in this case usually Kit Marlowe.

Rhys Ifan as Edward de Vere
Anonymous (2011)
And just as with Dark Lady, over one hundred years earlier, much humor is dependent upon the audience being well-versed in Shakespeare. When I was in an audience for the Cleveland Play House production they definitely enjoyed the dog, while somewhat familiar Shakespearean allusions  bounced awkwardly off their heads in silence.

When Will is asked for new pages of the script and he promises them “tomorrow and tomorrow” and his producer adds, “... and tomorrow?” there was a general is somewhat delayed chuckle of recognition and the woman behind me tittered, mumbling, “heh heh, ‘creeps in this petty pace…’”

I turned around and said, “oh, you got that one?”

Now, I enjoyed the film of Shakespeare In Love, too. But I also enjoyed Anonymous, which tells an alternative history based on a popular conspiracy theory that the works of Shakespeare were actually written by Edward de Vere, a nobleman about whom there is a deep and rich biography available. A man who was actually once captured by pirates.

HE WAS CAPTURED BY PIRATES.

My colleagues who abhor such theories dismiss that film out of hand, because it’s utter nonsense. One critic even pointed out that a flashback from the mid-1500s featuring the young de Vere performing a scene from “his” A Midsummer Night’s Dream was preposterous because there is no possible way Dream could have been written before the early 1590s.

Yeah, well? Shakespeare In Love is how the man from Stratford created the story to Romeo & Juliet, based on his own personal romantic experiences, when Arthur Brooke’s poem "Romeus and Juliet" had been in heavy circulation since 1562, and even that is not the original tale.

But Shakespeare In Love is a comedy, Anonymous is meant to be taken seriously.

Really. Is it?

Shakespeare In Love
Charlie Thurston as Will Shakespeare
Cleveland Play House
Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni
But what about the children, they cry. Someone might see Anonymous and think that it’s true. Yes, and I am sure there are those who believe Shakespeare In Love is true -- not in it’s every particular, but in the larger sense that the playwright and poet William Shakespeare was charming, passionate, and had lots of friends. Only he didn't.

The real reason people want to believe Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare's plays is because he is the kind of exciting character we want William Shakespeare to be. Only he wasn't.

Couldn't we at least, then, present the unfaithful horn dog in Shakespeare In Love, a man who spends far more time partying and having sex than actually writing, as the opportunistic, litigious, status-obsessed striver with the weak chin, beady-eyes and receding hairline that the available historical record makes evident?

Instead we get another fictional yet admittedly extremely handsome, roguish-yet-self-effacing charmer, like the one who played him in the CPH production, pictured here, resplendent in his beautiful, velvet doublet.

Wait. Where did you get that doublet?

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Hurricane (song)

Let us now sing the praises of the lighting designer.

The most mercurial of theatrical craftspersons, the light designer, put simply, illuminates the space. This was an element of stagecraft of which I was entirely ignorant as I entered college. I had literally never considered what if any thought went into the lighting of a stage -- and I had even directed plays in high school. Someone else took care of it for me, and I remained uneducated.

I thought you just, well. Turned on the lights.

Light design was a course I took my freshman year and I began to understand color and shape and their countless variation. I learned what a gel was, could tell the difference between a Leko and a Fresnel (and how to pronounce them.) I developed a fetish for gobos. But my appreciation for light has been slow. It is always the very last thing I think of.

Touring I Hate This the very first thing I did was get rid of the bed special, a rectangular light which would appear when my character was in the hospital, and disappear when he wasn’t. It was impractical for such a basic tour. Video I needed, and sound. But just turn the lights on, a general wash, that will be fine. Light design is a luxury.

When Double Heart went from touring to the New York Fringe, someone reminded me that the tour never employs a light designer (general wash, please) and that we would need one for the Connelly. Couldn’t we just use some other show’s plot? Seriously, I wanted to get away with that. Lucky for me I’d met Cris a few years earlier, a professional designer living in New York and he was able and amenable not only to do the work, but made us all look so much lovelier in the production.

Double Heart tech rehearsal
Light design by Cris Dopher
Watching Hamilton at the Richard Rogers last summer was a bit of a blur, not least of which because we were seated high in the galleries, but the light made me see and appreciate a trope which got by me when first listening to the score, that of the eye.

The set for the production is deceptive in its simplicity, it is a big, open room. Tables and chairs are brought in, sometimes the mere suggestions of tables - a board held by company members - and so the light has a lot to do to set mood, to isolate areas of the stage, and people. And there are those two turntables which sweep people and set pieces around the stage, sometimes quite fast. The action swirls, and light swirls with it.

In the first act, when Washington first sings history has its eyes on me, the turntable is ringed with blue, but the unlit (black) center shrinks, and you realize you are seeing a great eye, the pupil constricting.

In the second act, this effect is mirrored when Hamilton sings “Hurricane.”

This used to be my least favorite song on the recording. There’s always that song in the second act, the low-point song (and yes, I know the show goes lower) which is slow, reflective, and usually, somnabulant. Lin-Manuel Miranda has a fine voice, but speaking honestly I feel he wrote this one for someone else to sing.

Lucky for us, someone else did sing it the night we were there, the incomparable Javier Muñoz, and it was downright operatic. But if the singing raised my estimation of the song and its place in the production, the choreography - and the light - gave the words the emotional weight which was intended.

As Hamilton is struggling with his choices as he confronts a potentially career-ending scandal, he recalls his childhood in St. Croix, and the hurricane which nearly destroyed the city. “In the eye of a hurricane,” he sings, “there is quiet - for just a moment. A yellow sky.”

The eye returns, a sickly yellow, dilating, slowly rotating circle. As he describes the chaos and destruction of the disaster, a tragedy whose record he created as a young teenager, and which record created the conditions for his education in colonial America, company members hoist and hold props and furniture - tables, quills, chairs, books, paper - and people, slowly and unnaturally held in the air and swept around the circle, caught in the maelstrom. Helpless.

The hurricanes come, and we prepare for them as best we can. What follows after is the definition of how successful and competent we are as a civilization. The current administration was swift to respond to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which struck Texas and Florida, respectively. But Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria, which devastated the American territory of Puerto Rico has been shamefully slow.

When President Trump chose to rage-tweet at San Juan Mayor Carmen YulĂ­n Cruz for criticizing these efforts, Miranda - the son of native Puerto Ricans - jumped into the fray.


This was surprising, because the artist is notably polite, positive, and generous on Twitter. After the curtain speech for Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, Miranda kept his cool, telling Terry Gross:
“I don’t get engage in a tweet battle with anybody. Twitter is optional, y'all!” 
It is a fine show of character not to respond to personal insults directed at one’s self. But the president’s drawing politics into this humanitarian crisis was apparently a step too far, and Miranda’s response has made headlines.

You, too, can assist, Miranda has been promoting the Hispanic Federation, which has two funds that are going directly to on-the-ground relief in both Puerto Rico, and also in response to Mexico’s recent devastating earthquake. Donate today.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

How I Spent My Summer (2017)

Raising Cairn
Celeste Roberge, 2000
Portland Museum of Art
As summers go, this past was not as historic, nor as creatively productive. We won no basketball championships, directed no productions of Shakespeare, attended no theater festivals, nor were we present for the nomination of a tyrant.

I wrote no new plays.

But summers are important, they always have been and for different reasons. I still work, to be sure, but this is when vacations are had, and my wife and I do strive to make the most of those brief moments as we can. Once it was because our children needed attention and occupation, and now it is becoming increasingly apparent our summers with them as children are running out.

And she wonders why I am depressed this week.

Humming
Jaume Plensa, 2011
deCordova Scultpure Garden
The first major journey was to attend, and in my case, to officiate, a wedding for my wife’s cousin and his beautiful bride. Perhaps you didn’t know I am an ordained minister, but seriously, who isn’t these days? I needed to register with the state to conduct ceremonies in Ohio, in Illinois they don’t ask. Are you in good standing with your church? Well, you better be, that’s the only thing they have to say about it.

We turned this delightful event, held in Aurora, into an extended stay in the Chicagoland. Funny, I set one of my recent works in suburban Chicago, though I’d never really spent any time there. Just research. Passing through and investigating those sites I thought appropriate, I was not disappointed. I tried to imagine my characters there. They must have been happy once.

The weather in Chicago was perfect, we did the architecture tour, saw the Neo-Futurists, spent a whole day at the Museum of Science and Industry. I had my own memories of that place from when I was a kid, I was probably there more for myself them for them.

A Sunday Afternoon On
the Island of La Grande Jette

Georges Seurat, 1886
Chicago Institute of Art
In July, I bought a new car.

Our schedule fell out so that we needed to be in town by August 1 for my daughter to begin soccer practice, so we barely got Boy Camp in before it was time to leave for the east coast, this year spending several days in Salem, MA before continuing on to Friendship.

Between the Art Institute back in Chicago and the deCordova and Peabody Essex in Massachusetts, we spent much leisurely time at art museums, both indoor and out. Our time in Maine, however, was brief. Before long we were heading back, a stop in Concord to meet friends and check out the grave sites of famous authors before making our way back home.

Throughout the summer there were macaroni and cheese topped burgers at the Speedtrap Diner, deep dish at Navy Pier, drop-dead ramen at Kokeshi, and our favorite waiter at Congress Bar & Grill. Also, I developed a strange obsession with Oh Hello, On Broadway on Netflix, which I watched at least three times.

Real Estate Goldmine
Joshua Starcher, 2017
Rooms To Let
After Maine, we still had all of August, which ended up being something of a blur, driving back and forth across the state. The truth is, a cloud has been hanging over us since the very beginning of the season, on what may have been the first unofficial day of this summer. It was a Saturday in late May, the kids were on a year-end, school-related Cedar Point trip, the wife and I had the day to ourselves and witnessed Rooms to Let in Slavic Village, the first of our many art-related summer explorations. It was while waiting for the kids to return on the bus that we received the call.

It’s personal. It’s family-related. I don’t want to go into it right now. It is enough for now to say I have been looking at things more closely at things this summer, and finding them horribly beautiful.