Monday, September 24, 2018
the mirror of truth
by Douglas Messerli
Matei Visniec (author, the script adapted into English by Jeremy Lawrence), Angajare de Clovn (Old Clown Wanted) / Los Angeles, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, directed by Florinel Fatulescu / the performance I attended was the matinee on September 23, 2018
The last time I remember loving clowns was as a child when my father took me and my brother to the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey circus in the 1950s in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There we saw the great Emmett Kelly and the famed circus clowns piling out of impossibly small cars and somersaulting over one another with absolute abandonment.
Since then clowns and mimes have been my least favorite of entertainers. So perhaps I was not the best critic to determine to review the play by Romanian playwright Matei Visniec’s production at Los Angeles’ Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. Yet I love Visniec’s major theatrical influences, Beckett, Ionesco, and Pinter—the playwright who now lives in France even did his own version of Beckett’s most famed play, Visniec’s titled The Last Godot—and I love film director Federico Fellini, whose movie The Clowns initiated the Romanian playwright’s Angajare de Clovn (Old Clown Wanted).
I also love the Odyssey theatre’s continual adventurousness and their strong commitment to foreign plays as well as to new American theater and revivals. Two of the actors in this play, Alan Abelew and Beth Hogan, also recently appeared in a production at the Odyssey of five short Beckett plays which I greatly enjoyed. So, I reasoned, perhaps I can simply overlook my aversion to “clowndom,” and take the play as the grand metaphor for life that it intends to be. Ignore the red noses (which are at one point were even tossed into the audience, along with candies), and just sit back and enjoy the fact that these old-timers have come to audition for what will apparently be their very last venue of their lives. Even old clowns, whose bones can hardly support an easy somersault—although the thin Abelew, playing Niccolo, does attempt a few—deserve some respect if, for nothing else, trying to endlessly convince us that they represent, in their ridiculous actions, a kind of mirror of truth.
These are poignant beings, Niccolo (who arrives to the audition door first), the heavier-set Filippo (the excellent José A. Garcia), and much later, the heavily burdened Peppino (Beth Hogan), are all old friends but now poised as competitors for the last phase of their lives, fighting and loving tooth by nail, kiss by reminiscence.
Unfortunately, in the long space of their own wait for “Godot”—the simple opening of the door by a producer who might offer one of them the opportunity of, as Beckett is fond of saying, “going on,” there isn’t much to do. And despite Visniec’s love of the great Irish-French playwright, he doesn’t have the linguistic chops to significantly explore their existential position. Their memories are thin, as they exaggerate, forget, and reenact their past lives and mutual involvements. Mostly, they compare their different circus companies and their daring dos. It’s certainly not very scintillating and at moments is rather boring—at least until Peppino shows up.
Throughout the early part, the two old males have, one by one, taken out their skimpy posters and reviews to compare their careers, as if pounding their chests to prove which of them was a better clown. But Peppino pulls out an entire theatrical flier, arguing, somewhat solipstically, that she was also an actress on the stage and, therefore, a far greater performer than a mere clown.
The issue is a fascinating one, particularly given the facts I’ve recounted above. Is acting a greater art than pratfalls and silent imitation? We never quite get the answer, since the proof of her talent lies in dying, the first time rather inexplicably but convincingly enough that the two males attempt to provide her some oxygen through Filippo’s “black box” of balloons.
When they give up, she quickly comes back to life claiming that her “silent act” is far superior to their buffoonery, since she has been more believable. When they react with slapsticks and rubber hammers, besieging her behind a slight curtain, it appears that they really have killed her, and they back off, distraught, terrified by their own violent behavior. This time, they briefly pray over and cover her body before escaping into the night—or, in this case, the afternoon.
Peppino, slowly rises, Chaplin-like cane in hand, to finally enter the suddenly open doorway to the audition studio, clearly the “winner”—if there might ever be one, of the oldest clown competition. And we perceive that her entry into that space also defines her death.
The moral, I presume, is that acting does best comic mimicry. Yet, isn’t that precisely what she has done, played dead, like the La Dame aux Camélias, surely not a sign of great talent, despite the tears it aroused in the eyes of hundreds of audience members in the late 19th-century.
In the end, this is a kind of sly play in its investigation of the differences between buffoonery, mimicry, and true acting. And along the way, there were a great many moments of simple fun. But I am not sure that I might define this as a profound theatrical event.
Los Angeles, September 24, 2018
Friday, September 21, 2018
by Douglas Messerli
Hotel Modern (theater group) Kamp / Los Angeles, REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), the performance I saw with Deborah Meadows was opening night, September 20, 2018
The Rotterdam theater troupe Hotel Modern, who over the past few years have been touring the US, have produced yet another important document about the Holocaust, and, even more importantly, tell its story in a way that appears to a younger audience who may not completely be acquainted with the horrors and the German, Polish, and other European Nazi death camps. If the audience at Redcat last night is any indication, they are reaching an audience of teens and 20-year-olds who most need to hear this story.
The three performers, two women and one male dressed in gray robes, tell the horrific story in this case not through a barrage of reportage, but silently. Having created what feels like a completely accurate miniature reaction of Auschwitz, they move trains into the set, unload hundreds of passengers, move them into detention and into the gas showers, show them at work, trying to survive on the gruel they were fed, beaten to death, and even electrocuted on the fences as one tries to escape, all my by hand-manipulating tiny figures within this landscape while filming them through a tiny camera that imposes their images in large form upon a wall that covers the entire back of the proscenium theater.
Somewhat like a silent film, we see these ghoulish figures, whose bodies are so wasted that they appear—as they truly are—as stick figures, while their faces are contorted into open holes of mouth and eyes a bit like Edvard’s Munch’s The Scream and even more reminiscent of the Expressionist German paintings before and after the great wars.
Despite the lack of dialogue, however, sound is extremely important here: a saw against wood, a Nazi billy club hitting the head and other body parts of a victim, the thin soup being poured into the prisoner’s bowls, the shovel against the poison that is tossed into the showers, the drunken songs of the German guards, the train chugging its way into camp. Only the prisoners cannot be heard, much as in real life for those of us outside the camps (it’s fascinating that the 2015 film, László Nemes’ Son of Saul gives us a vision of that same hell with endless voices of the damned).
But these figures, brought in and out in large interconnected blocks are clearly interchangeable puppets, like the toy soldiers of a children, are hefted in and out much as the Nazi’s themselves treated them, as indefinable groups rather than individualized beings. More than anything else the “puppeteers” themselves reveal how life in the camp was lived; people were subject the idea of the entire Jewish (gypsy, gay, etc) communities, unworthy of being perceived as separate from their groups. Hitler had already established categories of people which this presentation reiterates. The mechanized behavior of the prisoners is played out in this drama simply through the larger human beings, who control and set up their miniature figures, with little concern of the figurines and separate representations of being.
And in that sense, the regulation of the set becomes its own statement about the nature of the actual human beings’ lives. Lights are turned on, one by one, throughout the miniature camp, fences are set up at seemingly illogical places, masses are gathered into different spots in the prison without logical explanation—but all with a superhuman regularity, as if these “players” are gods. I have never before seen a better signification of what it actually means when boys and girls take out toy soldiers and trot them through their imaginary and often meaningless gatherings.
The wars these children play out are as arbitrary as all human wars and the sufferings those involved must endure. The representations of actuality are made to be utterly meaningless in the act of play itself.
I suppose for those of my generation, most members of whom well know of the true horrors of the destruction of millions of Jewish citizens and others, that this retelling of the tale might seem almost unnecessary or, at the very least, repetitive. We have been there in our imaginations and in our readings so very many times. But by demonstrating the complete control the Nazis—who thought of themselves as superhuman gods—had over their prisoners, or playthings, the Hotel Modern revealed the horrors to a new audience, helping them to realize that the people gassed, shot, and beaten in the camps were, as this theater troupe makes clear, just that, toys to be played with, not beings of blood and flesh.
This group has found the perfect way to entertain younger generations while simultaneously revealing the terror of the children and child-like adults of every decade of life.
After the performance, the group invited the audience to come up to their miniature Auschwitz to see it up-close and even take pictures. My guest, Deborah Meadows, and I instinctively ran off in the other direction, not so much because we were hurrying back to our homes from the hour-long performance, but because, I believe, we could not imagine ourselves as tourists to such a dark past.
Los Angeles, September 21, 2018
Monday, September 17, 2018
fear of sleeping
by Douglas Messerli
John O’Keefe All Night Long / directed (with scenic design) by Jan Munroe at Open Fist Theatre Company at the Atwater Village Theater / the performance I saw with Pablo Capra and Christina Carlos was opening night, September 14, 2018
Although I published John O’Keefe’s 1980 play, All Night Long, in the anthology From the Other Side of the Century II: A New American Drama, edited by Mac Wellman and me in 1998, I had never before seen a production of the play. Thankfully, Open Fist Theatre Company determined to present it at Atwater Village this season, and I immediately put it on my schedule.
I don’t think it’s the kind of comedy/drama that one might describe through plot for those who have never seen it. First of all, the “plot,” such as it is, keeps shifting, events happen without explanation (for example, at one moment Eddy’s [John Patrick Daly] previously-loving family turn on him, sending him out into the night for the punk rockers to get him, yet he soon after reappears through an upstairs wall; the family’s eldest daughter, Tammy [Caroline Klidonas], seems to be sleeping with her father Jack [Philip William Brock], but at other times it all just seems to be a joke or even a game; although this family stays up, so it appears, the entire night, terrified to go to bed, hours go by in minutes and occasionally slip back in illogical reversals of time).
The publicist and director refer to this play as a “surreal” work. And, indeed, it does often remind one of Thornton Wilder’s surrealist American comedy, The Skin of Our Teeth, suggested by comments by Tracey Paleo, writing in a review.
Yet I might characterize it a bit differently, as a sort of absurdist mash-up of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night with the 1950s television family-oriented The Donna Reed Show, along with elements of other such TV situation comedies as Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Costume designer Kharen Zeunert even hints at the standard pearl necklace worn by actress Barbara Billingsley with the mother Jill’s (Alina Phelan) outré necklace. Certainly Jill represents the implacableness of Donna Reed, Jane Wyatt, and Billingsley; nothing quite ever perturbs her sunny outlet of a kind ditsy housewife view of the world except when, challenged by her son, she claims all the contents of the house to be “hers,” declaring her son as not only having a voracious appetite (a bit like All in the Family’s “Meathead”)—throughout the plays he downs masses of bologna and ham, at one point even retrieved from the stage floor, a task that no actor might ever have imagined; the entire cast dines on blue jello!—and proclaiming:
You! You twerp! You don’t even have the stuffing to be a homosexual!
You pre-ejaculatory squirt! You’re the one that really fucked up my life!
I haven’t even yet mentioned the existence of yet another daughter, Terry (Cat Davis), evidently a procreation from some alien medical procedure, (a “test tube daughter” born after Jack and Jill could no longer have children), which perhaps explains her preference for hiding out in a closet wherein she undergoes several monstrous transformations before she returns, dressed in slightly metallic-like toppings over her cutesy dresses. Despite her utter strangeness, Terry obviously is a thing of the future who may long outlast these battling dinosaurs.
Born in Waterloo, Iowa in 1940 (just 7 years before I was born in that same city, perhaps at the same hospital), O’Keefe lived throughout most of World War II, a jarring time for children, mostly in state juvenile homes since his mother had basically abandoned him, showing up, as he once told me, for brief periods that only complicated matters. In those days boys in such state institutions were often sent out to work, at various times, on local farms, the experience of which he recounts in his terrifying and also funny work, Reapers, in which the young state school laborer is treated to homoerotic like “startlements” by the farmer’s son. Is it any wonder that, growing up when and how he did, that O’Keefe’s view of family life is someone distorted?
Yet, for all that, in their pared down and often frantic pronouncements, father, mother, son, and daughters do make clear their fears, their values, and sometimes even their dreams in a not-so-acclimatable world. And by play’s end, they greet the new day with a kind of Beckett-like sense of “going on,” even if they feel that that can’t, the mother serving up her own body, symbolically, as their breakfast.
As a woman behind me suggested in the intermission, this all makes so much more sense in the context of where we are now in a society having to deal with Trump. I’d agree, but perhaps we should recall that the US has always been a strange and scary place, particularly in the post-War years in which O’Keefe was simply trying to survive as a child. The very pulls of the society of 1950s, between content affirmation of family and familial roles (I’ve long argued that women, despite their having to deal with the hubristic idea of male domination, were often really the forces of power in those years) and the horrible political terrors of the “Red” threat and all that might be associated with that, are well represented in O’Keefe’s powerful play, beautifully realized by the direction and scenic design, at the Atwater Village Theater, by Jan Munroe.
The acting, in all cases, is exceptional, and the company expresses in this revival of the San Francisco Magic Theater production the freshness of this 38-year-old play. O’Keefe himself, remains, perhaps a little more grizzled than when I last saw him, a powerful and intelligent figure who seems, at the moment to be making a kind of comeback, with another play, Don’t You Ever Call Me Anything But Mother appearing this fall at Zombie Joes Underground.
Los Angeles, September 17, 2018
Wednesday, September 12, 2018
a family circus
by Douglas Messerli
Jamie Bernstein Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein (New York: HarperCollins, 2018)
If there was ever any question that Charlie Harmon’s memoir about his brief employer and mentor Leonard Bernstein might have been an overstatement, a kind of hyper-inflated vision of the kind of near mental-breakdown he suffered while working with the Maestro, you need only read Bernstein’s elder daughter’s memoir, published the same year, to perceive how extreme it all was.
If the genius creator of American music, the wonderfully erudite teacher of younger and older American audiences of how music worked, the brilliant conductor who charmed an entire generation of US and international audiences with his ability to convey the musical nuances of so many great composers throughout the centuries, he was also a truly psychological mess of desperate needs, stalking down young and older men for sexual pleasure, sloppily kissing everyone, including his daughters, with tongue-in-mouth frontal assaults, drugged-out with uppers and lowers constantly as he marched through a musical assault that charmed and, sometimes, shocked the entire cultural world. If may admirers such as Jackie Kennedy might breathlessly bow to his larger-than-life persona, others, as even Jamie Bernstein admits, played with him wildly as children in a kind of adult sand-pile, including his sister Shirley, his brother Burton (called affectionately BB throughout the book), and a pageant of famous figures that would be impossible to list—unless you wanted an index of figures longer than the index to this book—which include Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Mike Nichols, Lauren (Betty) Bacall, Lillian Hellman (who later broke with her father after her failed contributions to Candide), Richard Avedon, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Aaron Copland, Stephen Schwartz, Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, and endless other celebrities and hangers-on—whom this young girl, her brother Alexander, and her younger sister Nina had to endure, while still enjoying the circus into which they had been born.
And then there was their beautiful Chilean-born mother, actress, painter, talented wife-of-the Maestro, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, who kept, during her life, everything at even keel, overseeing their overstuffed and dramatically absurd household with her nanny, and long-time friend, Julia, who kept the family together even after Felicia’s early death. If Bernstein described himself to Harmon as Mississippi Mud, we now perceive his as a kind of strange Mississippi Merman, who sang sangfroid’s that might have been right of Wagner to absolutely everyone he might have ever met, complicating the lives of his family and, despite his deep love and need for his children, smothering them with an impossible-to-bear love-hate relationship that draws tears to one eyes even to read about it.
Fortunately, Jamie Bernstein, the author of this long, often painful admission of what it was like to “grow up Bernstein,” being forced to play your entire life in a world of anagrams, constant lectural sufferings from their so-highly educated father, and, later—in their adolescence, having to come to terms with their increasing gossip of their father’s homosexual activities—all of them survived, and Jaime tells her story in almost a comical jaunty style that balances what one might have presumed would have destroyed most children of “famous father families,” with a great deal of joy, love, and appreciation of the world in which she grew up.
Surely, as to expected, there are lots of drugs, particularly for Jaimie and Alexander, to have to be ingested, lots of meaningless sexual encounters, travels back and forth across the country, educational (all three were forced to attend Harvard, from which their father had graduated) resentments, career vagaries—for a long Bernstein’s daughter attempted to create her popular music, without success—as well as the deep pain the entire family felt with the death of their mother of complications from breast cancer when she was just 51.
Yet, in the end, the marvel of Jamie Bernstein’s story is that she is a quite brilliant and resilient writer who could finally make her own family, as all three of the children gradually turned to, like their father, educating the public about music, in this case about the works of their own powerful father.
While Charlie Harmon might have later become one of Bernstein’s stalwart musicologists, strangely enough he speaks very little about the composer’s own works, while Jaime proves a quite insightful commentator not only about her father’s compositions, revealing important perceptions about Trouble in Tahiti and the later operatic sequel, but often speaks quite intelligently about them.
Of Bernstein’s late Arias and Baracrolles, for example, she writes:
At the time, I couldn’t relate much to Arias and Baracrolles. Now, all these decades later,
it strikes me as one of my father’s most mature and nuanced pieces: wry and touching and
full of delight surprises—'Tit…come’ and Ebonics notwithstanding. [elements to which
she originally found “cringeworthy’]
But then there are all those absolutely wonderfully gossipy moments, sometimes from a child’s point of view, regarding all the figures who surrounded her difficult father. She wanted to be—what young might not want—the witty and clever Betty Comden. She might have longed to be a kind of Betty Bacall, to aspire to the acting talents of her own mother (Alexander and Nina both studied acting). But she also desired to be her father’s girl, the daughter of a near-impossibly complex figure that no one, let alone his young daughter, could ever become.
Famous parents are difficult people to grow up with, let alone helpful to leave a self with a sense of true personal legacy. As Jamie beautifully discovers through this loving memoir is that she needed to realize herself by both embracing and releasing the remarkable past in which she had participated. Truly, I’m rather amazed that she could so gracefully do so in the sometimes stumbling, occasionally obscene, puerile, but ultimately loving woman, who raised her own two children and guided them to safe harbor.
Her family, Leonard Bernstein at the helm, was perhaps much too very close, bumping into themselves, aunts, uncles, impossibly talented friends, and famous admirers. Most of us might have collapsed simply with the weight of all these endlessly gifted folks running through the halls of the Dakota apartments and the Fairfield, Connecticut house; yet Jamie Bernstein, along with her brother and sister, apparently, walked away, burdened surely, but all the stronger for it. If their childhoods were crazy, they also had love; if their father looked broadly afield for attention and love, he still brought it home for them. And they survived quite nicely, so it appears.
Los Angeles, September 12, 2018
Monday, September 3, 2018
TO THE HILLS
by Douglas Messerli
William DuBois Haiti / directed by Ellen Geer at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum (Topanga Canyon, California) / I attended the performance on Sunday, September 2, 2018 with Pablo Capra and Christina Carlos
If Wilder’s play is almost abstract in its barebones attitude, DuBois’ play hearkens back to the theater traditions of high melodrama and historical documentation that clearly lays out the moral ground of its figures. How can an audience not root for the Haitians, whose Creole citizens fought against British rule, and represented the first country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery and the first free Black nation, not side with this country’s anti-colonialist heroes, Touissant L’Ouverture (Rodrick Jean-Charles) and his General Christophe (the dashing Max Lawrence) in their strategic retreat and later battles with Napoleon’s army, who has arrived via a frigate, complete with Napoleon’s sister, to “sway” the Haitians to return to the fold of obeisance to their rule. We know through history that these leaders too betrayed their ideals, but their early values are unforgettable.
The Haitian leaders of 1804, who now occupy the last of the large colonial estates, argue between themselves on how to protect their territory and government. The sly Touissant wants his soldiers to take to the hills—such an appropriate desire, given this production in the Geer family Theatricum Botanicum lies literally in the middle of the Topanga Canyon hills—to gradually wear-down their opponents, as opposed the more radical Christophe’s insistence that they begin the fight at the port where the French are about to arrive.
Yet Touissant knows better; the French will not be able to survive their mountain fights with the Haitians nor the climate, with its malarial mosquitoes, and the lack of protection from the island’s storms (all of which, of course, now reminds us of just how resourceful the Haitians, given the storms and earthquakes, despite the lack of organized US help, during they have managed, at very many times throughout history, their almost impossible survival). Indeed, the actors themselves literally do take “to the hills” before our very eyes, as the company uses, as in so many other Theatricum productions, the craggy landscape in which the theater sits. In this case, the hills are quite actually alive with Haitian revolutionaries.
When the French peevishly arrive at the former mansion, once owned by the family of the now royal consort, Odette (Tiffany Coty), along with unhappy General Leclerc (Mark Lewis) and his nearly always complaining wife, Pauline (Lea Madda), they discover no one around except for one seemingly obeisant servant, Jacqueline (the powerful Earnestine Phillips) who hides throughout most of this work behind a kind of stereotype of the Aunt Jemima-like maid, a woman who bows to her conquerors as if she were still the slave which she once was.
In fact, Jacqueline had an affair with the owner of the estate, birthing Odette, and has determined to stay on in this ridiculous position simply to care after her daughter, or, as she puts it, “rehear her lover’s voice.”
In fact, Jacqueline had an affair with the owner of the estate, birthing Odette, and has determined to stay on in this ridiculous position simply to care after her daughter, or, as she puts it, “rehear her lover’s voice.”
Although it might have been to the eyes of the 1930s US viewers terribly controversial to have an “octoroon” heroine (DuBois evidently kept his cast of blacks and whites from touching one another), in French culture such issues of miscegenation were often easily assimilated for French colonialists in Martinique, Haiti, and even New Orleans. For the French is was not so much a matter of skin-color, but a matter of class, of the proper education, and pedigree. Dozens of famed French writers, including Balzac, recount just such women and males, easily and sometimes not so easily, enfolded into high French society.
Odette, who if nothing else, knew that this was once her father’s estate, does not know the identity of her mother, and that becomes the central theme of this complex oedipally-centered work.
Moreover, despite her marriage to the nasty Colonel Boucher (Jeff Wiesen), she is in love with the young, newly named Captain Duval (Dane Oliver) (a title awarded because Boucher has sent him into the wilds to destroy the Haitians, a journey he has incredibly survived).
Gradually, the French forces lose too many soldiers to the native resistance, while the Colonel is slowly consumed by malaria. Christophe jumps in and out of the scene, at one point revealing Odette’s true paternity to the girl, the fact of which pulls her away from her beloved young hero, Duval. Discovered to be a spy, Jacqueline insists that her daughter escape with the others, that she return to the world that she, herself, has made possible for Odette to enter.
Yet perhaps it is too late, and as she is discovered as a spy and kills herself with a deadly potion, Odette is trapped in the world into which she was born, her lover murdered by the Haitian insurgents.
But not before a series of marvelous swordfights and battles that might have made Earl Flynn jealous. Never, on stage, have I seen a more convincing sword fight, with remarkable acrobatics, grand theatrical gestures, and heart-throbbing events. The mostly West Side Los Angeles audience, but this time, fortunately, joined by a large contingent of LA’s black community, reacted with boos, pleas of salvation, and, at times, open laughter, that I might never have imagined in contemporary theater. Suddenly I realized just how much had been lost in the rise of modernism over this kind of old-fashioned melodramatic writing, a theater that didn’t mind mixing up politics, love, fate, and just plain high-jinx.
In the end you could only laugh and cry and root for your favorite heroes. If a bit like Hamlet, a lot of those figures lay dead on the stage by play’s end, their resurrection for curtain-call was as uplifting as theater gets. And at the wonderful Theatricum (despite their need to get ready for the late-night performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play with also has deep political roots, but with a kind of cold modernist objectivity that has always annoyed me), the actors all stand in front of the stage to greet and shake hands with the audience as it disperses. This is theater at its very best.
The director Ellen Geer has done something quite marvelous with her very large ensemble cast, children included, particularly given the fact that she determined to revive a play that should have never been lost.
Los Angeles, September 3, 2018