Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Hey Jude" (on Taylor Mac's play Hir)


hey jude
by Douglas Messerli

Taylor Mac Hir / Los Angeles, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble / Howard Fox and I attended the matinee performance on Sunday, January 27, 2019

Don't carry the world upon your shoulder

For well you know that it's a fool

Who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder
Na na na naa-naa

The noted playwright and performance artist Taylor Mac—who last year appeared in Los Angeles at the Ace Theatre in his delirious A 24-Decade History of Popular Music and more recently in a performance at UCLA--has now brought his play (previously performed at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre and in New York) to Los Angeles’ excellent Odyssey Theatre for the occasion of their 50th anniversary.
Mac (who prefers the sexual signification of judy) does not herself appear in this production, but clearly represents the playwright/performer’s sensibility. Yet, in this play, as director Bart DeLorenzo argues, begins in a small home kitchen that might almost be in Death of a Salesman or A Raisin in the Sun. Frankly, I disagree. This is neither a home set in New York area or in the Chicago black projects. Mac grew up in Stockton, and his set is quite precisely a suburban tract-houses of California, which truly does make a vast difference. And the play, about a returning dishonorably charged veteran, Isaac Connor (Zack Gearing), for doing cocaine, has little to do with the disenchanted children of either of those earlier plays. Isaac's job, one of worst one can possibly imagine, was piecing together body parts of blown-up soldiers in Afghanistan. Is it any wonder that he is not quite ready to come home into a world that has blown up all gender differences and created a total havoc of family life that he never before experienced?
       His formerly toxic masculine father Arnold (Ron Bottitta), while he has been away, has suffered a serious stroke, which has allowed his formerly abused wife, Paige (Cynthia Kania)—who has previously had to deal with her husband’s sexual philandering, particularly with her own hairdresser cutting away the wife’s hair to make her look as unappealing as she might, and with spousal rape—now aided by the fact that her previous daughter, Maxine, is now transitioning to the role of a male, Max (played by transgender actor Puppett).
This world is not of the modernist conception but is closer to a strange mash-up of Frank Gilroy’s 1964 tearful drama, The Subject Was Roses and Sam Shepard’s Buried Child—both plays about soldiers returning home to broken families—along with a heavy dash of British playwright Enda Walsh. No, Dorothy, we are no longer in mid-century modernist kitchen dramas.
       The kitchen, including the entire house, has been totally thrown into chaos by Paige, who now refuses to do normal housework and who suddenly has been completely freed from any responsibility of housewifery duties. She, finally, has been able to humiliate her half-dead husband in the way he previously dominated her, forcing him to wear a frilly dress and clown-makeup, while she and Max take in cultivating trips of imagination to Europe and the world of museums, which she hopes, now that he has returned, in Isaac might join her and Max, as if traveling through a kind of new world of adventures like a sort of mix between the nanny worlds of Peter Pan and Mary Poppkins.
       What she can’t comprehend is that her soldier boy has not transitioned into her new world, but still desires the normative patterns of the past, the clean piles of clothes she formerly spent years washing and ironing, the disinfected counter and table tops, a father who might even be able to demand his rights, despite his abuse of all.
       Mac joyfully and quite humorously opposes the old world with the “new,” mocking both. The audience, mostly orderly West Side Angelenos surely appreciate the orderliness he recreates in his mother and “brother’s” absence after the first act, but also cannot help but celebrate the redemptive chaos Paige has now created as represented in Act I.
       Yet, we also know that she and Max are truly headed for doom, having sold the house on a kind reverse mortgage (based on the death of the father) they will surely soon be totally homeless, living out their crazy dreams of total freedom on the streets.
       In this play, however, it is the returning soldier Isaac who is sent out to live on the streets after he angrily and violently lashes out against what he perceives as the totally absurd actions of his mother and his clearly selfish new brother, who can talk only about “his” transition and his masturbatory love of men.
Each of these family members, as Mac has hinted, is a kind of Trumpian figure, who cannot allow anyone else to define what they believe to be the truth. In a world of hurt and pain there can be no subjective and agreed-upon reality. These family figures live each in a world of their own definitions. No one even has time, in this presentation of the family unit, to even clear up the piss fallen to the floor from the diapered father, who no longer can comprehend his family role or his previous sins.
      There is no “right” here, all are trapped in worlds of their own making, without any way to rejoin what was previously, at least, a failed family unit. Present/past, order/chaos are terms of war against which any shared empathy has no chance in Hir (prounounced "here"), one of the pronouns that Max has chosen for “ze” self. Love has clearly lost in the process and each of these family members attempt to transition into a world they have not yet quite imagined might allow all of them to coexist.
      If this play is often very funny, it’s also quite terrifying to me, after just seeing the 1945 drama An Inspector Calls, for just how similar the family breakdown in this contemporary drama is to that of the figures who led us to both World Wars. There is no right “hir,” only a terribly loneliness that will lead them all into a corner from which they may never escape.

Los Angeles, January 29, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2019).

Monday, January 28, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "The Circle of Time" (on An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley)


the circle of time
by Douglas Messerli

J. B. Priestley An Inspector Calls / directed by Stephen Daldry for The National Theatre of Great Britain’s Landmark / the production I saw was with Howard Fox at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Bram Goldsmith Theater on January 26, 2019

J. B. Priestley’s 1945 “thriller,” An Inspector Calls—at least as represented by director Stephen Daldry in The National Theatre of Great Britain’s Landmark production—begins with a young street boy moving quickly down the aisle of the theater onto the apron of the stage, trying to make his entry into this play. Given the heavy, seemingly velvet red curtains of the old style of British theaters, however, he cannot enter. He is excluded from the reality of the world the socialist Priestley represents as surely as all the other figures of the day, the young men spinning off into World War I—the time of the play is just prior to the First World War, and by extension the soldiers of World War II, during which this play was first performed in the USSR before it finally reached the stages of war-time England. By the time it reached the American stage in October 1947, the war had ended—the year I was born, but still with some significant resonance. The play was selected as one of the 10 best works of that year by the renowned Burns-Mantle historical annuals of plays of the American stage.
       
      When the curtains do, rather dottily, rise, the young boy is immediately shooed off by the maid for the Birling family, who in a rather elegant corner-place house, are celebrating an elegant dinner, announcing the marriage between the Berling’s daughter, Sheila (Lianne Harvey) and the son of the competitor of the father of the Berling clan, Arthur (Andrew Maclin). Arthur is particularly delighted by the new alliance, as is his wife, Sybil (Christine Kavanagh), who together perceive the new relationship will surely help Arthur to achieve knighthood, possibly providing even greater wealth to their already well-endowed lives.
       Performed in a narrow, cornered doll-house in a rather frightful and claustrophobic conception of an elegant British townhouse, these characters, we can even perceive through the windows, are convinced of their entitlement, even though when they come to the balcony to look out over the world they believe they control, they must crouch down in order to move out—the perfect metaphor that Daldry’s brilliant set designer, Ian MacNeil, created to help us perceive their ridiculous pretensions. Despite their industrial power, they are as removed from the real world as the young boy and other fleeting street figures are from theirs.
 
     Quite stunningly, Priestley has recreated a world so close to the just-post-World War I world of masterwork of George Bernard Shaw’s 1920 play Heartbreak House, that it almost convinces you that it might be as witty. Indeed, Harvey had previously played, in England, in a production that great play.
      Unfortunately, An Inspector Calls is not as truly a clever play except in its sort of well-made-play conceits. Enter Inspecter Goole (Liam Brennan), a Scottish version of Hercule Poirot, who seems always to know more about the figures he is interlocuting than they know about themselves. Reminding each member of the family of Eva Smith, late Daisy Renton, by showing them photographs of the young girl, who, he claims, has just committed suicide by swallowing an entire bottle of disinfectant—one imagines the only way she might have been able to cleanse herself of this family’s behavior to her—he spins an incredible tale wherein the patron the family first fired her from her job in his factory when she, along with other union members, argued for slightly higher wages; followed by the sterling young Sheila, who demanded she be fired from a local dress shop “on a whim,” since the beautiful woman seemed to smile when the wealthy girl suddenly perceived herself as not looking good in a dress.
      It appears that even her fiancé, Croft, had an affair with her, a young woman he felt sorry for when he encountered her in a bar. Mrs. Berling, the head of a local charity denied any money for Daisy Renton, now impregnated with their son, Eric’s child (Hamish Riddle). If there were ever a better case for the idea of a family circle squaring off against the working-class world, whether or not Eva/Daisy represents many or simply one woman, I cannot imagine it.
      So, we perceive, this family, the Burlings are truly representative of the evils of social strata which helped create World War I—and by implication World War II as well. Case closed.
     
     But Priestley’s play, oddly enough, has yet more on its mind, which truly does make this work a much darker condemnation of the social order of things. Despite the total destruction of their household—literally played out in the crash of the entire contents of the house upon the stage with their supposedly precious dinnerware spilled across the stage—they suddenly regain a strange sense of possibility when Croft returns to say that, in fact, there is no Inspector Goole. He has checked it out, and he is not on the force. What’s more, after a phone call, they discover, no suicide has been reported for weeks. No one has died. The entire “inspection” has been a fraud.
      Croft and the elders celebrate their redemption, yet Eric and his sister, the youth of this play cannot embrace this shift in sensibility. They truly embrace their guilt, recognizing their own involvement in a world of horror their elders have created. It is a horrible moment, a recognition, as in our own time, that the only hope of true redemption can come from our youth.
      As the elders nearly dance in joy to what they perceive as a celebration of their righteousness, the phone rings again, this time reporting that indeed a young girl has just been found dead after swallowing an entire bottle of disinfectant; the inspector is on his way.
      Like J. W. Dunne, by whom he was influenced, Priestley believed in a sense of precognitive time, suggesting that time was in fact “serial,” and that what we often saw might happen, in dreams and perceptions, before it occurred. Investigating dreams of many of the English population both Priestley and Dunne were convinced that we often perceived things before they might happen. If nothing else, however, we might perceive that Inspector Goole in this play, a “ghoul” or a “ghost”—who also keeps disappearing off stage at moments in the production of the play—is a figure who is both reminding the family of their sins and warning them of their fates as in a Greek drama.
      The War (I and II) was there already, and their doll-house of reality had been destroyed, just as the German’s strafe of the wealthy, lit-up mansion of the family in Heartbreak House. And just as in the Shaw play, if they are saved for the moment, they will be faced soon after for the failures of their lives. Fate may be circular after all.

Los Angeles, January 28, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2019).

Friday, January 25, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "The Smell of the Rose" (on Sebastian Hernandez's Hypanthium)


the smell of the rose
by Douglas Messerli

Sebastian Hernandez Hypanthium / the performance I saw was at REDCAT (the Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater) on January 24th with Pablo Capra

Choreographer Sebastian Hernandez’s work Hypanthium (the word refers the heart of the rose which contains the nectar) primarily represents a kind of sexual ménage à trois between three individuals whom she describes as “gender non-conforming people, femmes, trans people and women who continue to express who they truly are regardless of patriarchy’s prevalence and constant policing of our bodies.” And, in this sense, sexuality becomes fluidity in this dance as the three major figures (Hernandez and dancers Angel Acuña and Autumn Randolph circle around one another, at times appearing almost in the kind of arm to arm, head to head patterns of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.)
      
     This work does not embrace the standard rituals—although there are quite funny rifts of those rituals, including early on an invocation to the local god of music/performative reviewers from the Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed—these dancers are all transgressors of normative behavior, interlinking in deep sexual swoons, breaking apart and returning to one another again and again in a series sexual interlinkings, diving in and out and between their kisses, their crotches, and constant embraces with often quite acrobatic somersaults and rather impassioned headstands.
      The enthusiastic audience who filled the theater at REDCAT at the opening night performance openly cheered on their various voguing-like positions and their constant cross-overs of relationship.
      Inevitably, there are temporary breakups, a movement away of each from the other with a sense of consumerism signified by their purses. Yet, it’s all in good humor, as we soon discover that, like the water filled chandelier (designed by Hernandez) that hangs over their heads, their purses (by Maria Maea are not filled with dollars but with water itself, later leaking down from hook from they hang them. The outlandish rocking chairs (designed by Rafa Esparza) may temporarily separate them, but their pouting movements upon the wooden artifacts soon betray their dissatisfaction with the positions, as they quickly move them aside to position their bodies into far more intimate interactions on the stage floor with green-and-yellow lit environments which weave them back into their intentional transference from a single or doublings into a kind of unholy trinity which, despite all of the cultural difficulties of their world, cannot be contained.
     The entire dances of Hypanthium are about fluidity, as the three dancers, dressed in red, black, and white, move in and out of, not only one another, but of identity. If you need to ask about the sexual identities of these figures—and I must admit, at moments, I did—then you are missing the point. These three are one, a large expression of simple sexuality that doesn’t fit into normative systems. Even the psychological injections of the lack of personal recognition do not work in this world. No scolding needed. These three are one. A rose, behind it Bette Midler’s rendition in her performance of Janis Joplin of “The Rose,” from whence the nectar, “hypanthium” comes:

Some say love, it is a river
That drowns the tender reed
Some say love, it is a razor
That leaves your soul to bleed
Some say love, it is a hunger
An endless aching need
I say love, it is a flower
And you, its only seed
It's the heart, afraid of breaking
That never learns to dance
It's the dream, afraid of waking
That never takes the chance.

If Midler’s song in perhaps to sentimental for the hard-edge songs to which these dancers perform, it is, ultimately, a viewpoint that resonates with Hernandez’s vision.
     At the end of the performance, my guest for the evening, Pablo Capra, suggested that he felt nervous about several of Hernandez’s moves, particularly in the early film sequence, where the dancer struts down in deep drag tresses and in high heels in the midst of traffic on one of the major bridges that lead to East Los Angles, even reclining momentarily on the parapet looking over the railroad tracks. Later in the performance, on the slick REDCAT stage, the dancer again takes to his high heels, slinking across the stage in what appears like clear danger.
     The fact is that Hernandez and his small company take so many chances in their dancing, you cannot, as the enthusiastic audience reinforced, but adore their commitment to love, of whatever kind it may be.

Los Angeles, January 25, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2019).

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Simple Songs and Wild Variations" (on Vicki Ray's and Carole Kim's Rivers of Time performance)


simple songs and wild variations
by Douglas Messerli

Rivers of Time, Vicki Ray (piano) and Carole Kim (visuals) / Los Angeles, Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) / the performance was on Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Last night’s piano concert by Vicki Ray, quite simply, was one of the best concerts of contemporary piano music I have ever attended.
     Ray, whose performances I have always admired, was at her very best, particularly in the first piece of the evening, “Sometimes I Feel Like My Time Ain’t Long” by Los Angeles composer Ben Phelps. The composer begins his work with a song sung with piano accompaniment from a wax cylinder recording that is part of the Library of Congress’ Alan Lomax Collection, a song recorded by Lomax in a Clemson, South Carolina house sung by Brady Walker, William Grant, Mary Lee, Thomas Trimmer, and Phil Butler. The simple gospel piece crackles and wavers in its tones on the recording, and Phelps uses those elements in his eight variations on that original tune to create an outstanding exploration of tonal variation.
     
     Gradually, as the work moves forward, the very complexities of this seemingly simple tune grow into more and more complex arpeggios, as we begin to realize through the piano’s variations of pitch that time is both limited and complex: what seems like the momentary becomes suspended in space, and the long musical intervals appear to be far-too-brief passages. It is a work that forces one to consider even the nature of music itself, as you settle in to the various variations of the tune. I could almost have listened to this dialogue between the original 1939 recording and the experimental “takes” on it for an entire evening. And I think the audience was stunned into silence when the work finally came to a close, since it might have almost spun out into an entire symphony for piano only. For me it was truly awe-inspiring, and I could not imagine how the concert might even continue after the intermission.
       During the break I turned to my seated neighbors, who with my questions, reported that they’d traveled through the rainy night the long way from Ventura, having even become lost on their trip. Fred and Carolyn (I never got their last name) were friends, evidently, of the second composer, Daniel Lentz, who now lives in Santa Barbara, and to whom the couple introduced me after the performance.
      Lentz’s work, “River of 1,000 Streams,” which presumably involved electronic intervention, was a bit like a contemporary version of the cascading refrains of Smetana’s The Moldau, but without that earlier work’s sentimentality. Here the repeating refrains were overlaid by the layers of electronic tremolos in a way that did not so much imitate the water’s flow as it moved through the countryside, but, through Ray’s virtuosic playing resonated throughout the Redcat theater, almost matching the rare Los Angeles downpour outside.
     If the earlier piece was a kind of echo and variation, this work, although I might argue it is somewhat similar in structure, builds its chords from the bass to the high soprano keys of the piano, roiling up another kind of “stream” from the bowels of the instrument into its final piercingly high screams. Once again, Ray was a significant on-stage force, someone from whom hardly anyone might wish to remove their eyes.
     Of less interest, accordingly, were Carole Kim’s visual contributions—a screen behind the piano and a kind of multi-colored wall to the left of the piano, at the right side of the stage to the audience. Kim’s black-and-white and sometimes colored prism-like images combining crystalline-like structures with undulating amoebic-like figures were quite often fascinating, but seemed, at least to me, to have little relationship to the compositions.
      Spotting Ray’s companion, Tom Frick, in the lobby, I greeted him and was delighted to be introduced to the pianist’s justifiably proud mother.


Los Angeles, January 17, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2019).