Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "Mariachi to Merman" (on Dan Guerrero)

mariachi to merman
by Douglas Messerli
Dan Guerrero (writer and performer) ¡Gaytino! / East Los Angeles, East Los Angeles College, October 4, 2012

On my companion Howard’s 66th birthday, we attended a performance of ¡Gaytino! performer and producer Dan Guerrero. The performance, which recounts much of Guerrero’s life was presented in conjunction with a show at the East Los Angeles College museum of the Chicano artist, Carlos Almaraz, who, as a close childhood friend of Guerrero’s, played a large role in Guerrero’s memories.

      The two grew up together in East Los Angeles and moved, temporarily in Almaraz’s case, to New York together, sharing for a while a small flat. Guerrero was gay and Almaraz, at least later in his life, was bisexual.

     Guerrero’s entertaining and somewhat self-satirizing show is subtitled “Mariachi to Merman, Sondheim to Cesar Chavez,” and the rage of those extremes are, in part, his defining life experiences. To a mostly student audience of primarily Chicano students, Guerrero explained that he grew up without defining himself as anything but a second generation American; although his parents were of Mexican background, he did not define himself in the 1940s and 1950s as either Chicano or Latino. Yet, without him quite realizing it, he grew up at the very center of the Mexican-American culture in that his father, Lalo Guerrero, was the famed mariachi composer-singer. In a recent interview, Guerrero recounted what he also reveals on stage:

I was just a kid when Mom took me to see Dad
perform at the Million Dollar Theatre in downtown
Los Angeles, one of the great movie palaces built
back in 1918. By the early 1950’s, changing demo-
graphics kicked in and it became the cultural
center for LA’s Spanish-language community.
You got a great black and white film from the
Golden Age of Mexican cinema and a live variety
show with the biggest names from Mexico and the
biggest Mexican names from this side of the border.
Dad walked out on that stage and, when applause
broke out, I knew he was special and not just a “regular”
Dad like my friends’ dads. He belonged to a bigger
audience than just Mom and me. I knew it at that

Late in his life, Lalo, who has been described as the “Father of Chicano Music,” was awarded a

NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 1991, and was named a National Folk Treasure by the Smithsonian Institution in 1980. President Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Arts, the first Chicano to receive that award.

     Yet, for much of his life, his son tried to dissociate himself from that music and the world with which it was associated. At one of his very first Broadway performances, Ethel Merman, singing “Some People” in the music Gypsy spoke what felt was directed at him. He sings a few stanzas in his performance with great Mermanian gusto.

     In New York he took acting and dancing lessons, and tried out for dozens of roles, but as he jokes, there weren’t many roles for Latinos. Of course there was West Side Story, but, he admits he wasn’t the gang type. During these years he had to control what now describes as an “expansive” nature, resist being, what was then described as being “light in your loafers.” When Almaraz returned to Los Angeles and art school, Guerrero admits feeling utterly lonely, alone in the city he loved.

     Although he did get several acting roles in summer stock companies—groups, he jokes, so sexually charged that he even had sex with a woman—he gradually realized that his dreams of being on the Broadway stage grew fainter. Almost by accident, learning on the job, Guerrero began an actor’s agent, becoming very successful, casting numerous figures in works as different as A Chorus Line and Cats. Among his several well-known clients was a very young girl, who, however, was extremely wise as she sat in his office suggesting roles: Sarah Jessica Parker. Involved with the casting of the musical Zoot Suit, a musical about the 1940s Chicano community in Los Angeles, Guerrero’s life suddenly came full circle as he reencountered not only the music his father had created by actor friends such as Lupe Ontiveros and others he had known previously.

     That event changed reinvigorated him, encouraging him to return to Los Angeles, where he suddenly began to embrace all of the culture he had previously shunned. Working with everyone from Sondheim to Tommy Tune, Guerrero now cast mostly Chicano and Latino actors, and forged friendships with people who had known and respected his father, including the labor agitator Cesar Chavez, at whose funeral he organized the Chicano actors’ contingent. Years before Chavez had suggested to his father where to perform, based on places at which he planned to rally.

     Of course he also reforged his friendship the boy who as a child he’d know as “Charles,” the now renowned artist Carlos Almaraz, who tragically died of AIDS in 1989.

     By turns campy, vaudevillian, and historian, Guerrero tells a fantastic tale in ¡Gaytino! that results in laughter and tears.

Los Angeles, October 8, 2012






Saturday, October 6, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "The Making of Blanche DuBois" (on Tennessee Williams' The Eccentricities of a Nightingale

the making of blanche dubois
by Douglas Messerli

Tennessee Williams The Eccentricities of a Nightingale / filmed version of a production show on television on Great Performances, June 16, 1976, directed by Glenn Jordan

The other day I watched a filmed version of a production of Williams’ little known play (based on a production at either the Louisville Actor’s Theatre or the Old Globe in San Diego—both are named at different sites). The Eccentricities is a rewrite of his Summer and Smoke, but the characters behave quite differently than they do in the former play and the tone is completely different, as Williams himself noted, far less melodramatic and certainly less symbolic that Summer and Smoke, first performed a year after his great A Streetcar Named Desire.

     One recognizes immediately, in fact, this play’s close relationship with Streetcar, whose central character, Alma Winemiller (Blythe Danner), shares many similarities with Blanche Dubois, and perhaps gives us a glimpse of some of the forces behind the over-the-top figure of Williams’ earlier play (Summer and Smoke, in earlier versions, however, predated A Streetcar).

     Alma, the daughter of the Glorious Hill, Mississippi Episcopalian minister, is a fragile being, as we recognize from the very first scene where she is frightened over and over by the fireworks going off around her on the 4th of July. She has also been performing, singing, and, particularly since—as everyone observes and she herself admits—she feels the songs so strongly, she describes herself as being overwrought. Also, she perceives her next door neighbor, John Buchanan, Jr. (Frank Langella)—a young doctor who has been away to school at Johns Hopkins University—has temporarily returned home and, between long conversations with his mother and others, stares at her as she sits with her father (Tim O’Connor) and mother (Louise Latham) in the square. The mother, who we soon discover, is insane, is quickly whisked away, as she is throughout much of the play,  Buchanan coming over to speak with Alma. But he too is soon taken off by his mother (Neva Patterson), who insists that he pay a doctorly visit to a patient that his father is too tired to attend to. Thus Williams’ immediately sest up the situation: Alma is clearly aflutter in the presence of Buchanan, and Buchanan is obviously dominated and controlled by his mother.

      What is also apparent is that the still beautiful but virginal Alma is— in a word the play itself uses to describe her—almost hysterical, using any reason to swallow down the small white pills the doctor has prescribed for her (probably just placebos). Her father, in fact, attempts, to have a heart-to-heart talk with her in the very next scene, now Christmas, about her fluttering hands, her exaggerated gestures and speech, and—the most comical of accusations—her penchant for feeding birds in the town square. She is getting the reputation of an “eccentric.” Despite her father’s stern warnings, however, Alma stands up for her own behavior quite strongly, and we realize that despite the tensions of her home life, she has attempted to play role of a supporting daughter quite ably. Yet she is hurt, feels shunned by the local community, particularly when local carolers visit the Buchanan house but turn away from the Winemiller home. Alma seeks solace in a small gathering of town would-be intellectuals, odd people who mostly have inflated egos, confusing Blake with Rimbaud, and writing endlessly long verse plays. Only Alma, of the group, seems to know anything about poetry or literature.

     She invites Buchanan—who has again returned for a stay in Glorious Hill—to the gathering which ends in unpleasant bickering among the group and, once more, the young doctor’s being led off by his mother, who has a very different view of whom her beloved son will marry.

     The scene with the two of them, mother and son, in the Buchanan home is as close to love scene as the young doctor ever gets. Mrs. Buchanan clearly is the smothering type, who continues to control his life. Yet despite his mother’s interference, he has managed to make a date with Alma, whom he admires for her intelligence and the exciting flashes of change that run across her face. Her very eccentricities, he observes, is what makes her so special, so different from all the other women he has met and certainly sets her apart from any woman his might wish him to marry.

     Langella plays this scene, as well as others, with a kind of gentle passivity that almost angered me: why doesn’t he speak out, speak up for what he sees in Alma? Why can’t  he show some anger at his mother’s bourgeois visions for his future life? Instead he merely answers with quiet irong and, we later perceive, coded phrases that make him appear detached.

     Alma is fearful when evening arrives for their date that he won’t show, and when he does she is almost overwhelmed with a kind of energized force, telling him after the movie of her life-long love for him. She even suggests that they go someplace for sex, to which he demurs. Alma admits that she does not except this friendship to any further, but if she only she might have one night, a whole evening to remember… Again he demurs, but finally agrees to take her to a hotel that specializes in just such encounters. Once there, however, it becomes apparent that nothing will happen. What doesn’t get said is quite obvious: the young doctor is gay, disinterested in sex with a woman. Alma perceives the situation immediately. And in the last scene of the play, described as an epilogue, we see her seated on the same park bench where she sat early in the play. She has aged. When she encounters a young salesman, she begins a conversation, suggesting that they visit the same hotel. Apparently, she has now found regular companions for the one- night encounters she had sought out.

     This might almost be a reincarnation or glimpse of an earlier Blanche Dubois, the young woman of entitlement, given to romantic notions of the world, but also desirous of the pleasures of sex. Like Blanche, her first love turns out to be a homosexual, unable to give her what she desires. Alma has already begun on the long downward spiral where Blanche ends, in the arms of a teenage boy in a similar seedy hotel.

     Danner’s performance as Alma is splendid, and her stunning portrayal of Williams’ “eccentric nightingale” brings this play to life in a way that Summer and Smoke, with its smoldering old maid at the center, never achieves. I might even go so far, after watching this excellent TV production, as to suggest that Eccentricities of a Nightingale is one of Williams’ best works.

Los Angeles, October 6, 2012.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "Growing Horns" (on Eugène Ionesco's Rhinocéros)

growing horns
by Douglas Messerli
Eugène Ionesco Rhinocéros / performed by the Théâtre de la Ville-Paris, Royce Hall, University of California, Los Angeles / the performance I saw was on September 22, 2012

 Although I read Ionesco’s acclaimed play when it was first published in English in the early 1960s, I had never seen a theatrical production of the work (and only clips from the 1974 American film), so I jumped at the chance of attending the performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall by the Théâtre de la Ville-Paris in French (with English language subtitles).

     Yet, I left the theater, despite having finally seen one of the best plays by one of my favorite playwrights, slightly disappointed. That sometimes happens, even at brilliant productions: one is tired or slightly distracted for reasons other than the play one is observing. Here, part of the problem simply lay in the fact the distance between the translation board and the stage was vast enough that it was hard to follow the stage action and still read the English, and the constant vertical motion of the eyes often distracted me.

     More importantly, however, is that Ionesco’s play, often touted as his best, is a parable that, once it has asserted its major premise, has little place else to go. Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty quoted Kenneth Tynan: Ionesco is "a brilliant, anarchic sprinter unfitted by temperament for the steady, provident mountaineering of the three-act form." Also, having seen this production, I now wonder whether other plays such as his early short works (including the unforgettable The Chairs) and later works such as The Killer and Exit the King are not simply more profound works. At the heart of Rhinoceros is an important but quite simple warning of cultural conformity, and in the wake of World War II (the play was written, we must remember, just over a decade after the end of the war) Ionesco’s Rhinoceri—whether two horned or one—perfectly encapsulated the cultural betrayal of everyday citizens who suddenly embraced Fascism and Nazism.  

      But there are deeper problems with director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota’s production of the Ionesco play. His version is absolutely brilliant when it comes to the ensemble scenes. The second act scene in the local, small-town newspaper office, where characters react en masse to the increasing gossip about the beasts roaming the city and, soon after, despite Botard’s (Jauris Casanova) argument that there can be no such animal in France, discover that another employee, Boeuf (so his wife reports) has become a rhinoceros and is threatening to stampede their very offices. The marvelous mass movements of the characters as their desks, chairs, and bodies go spinning with the charges of the beast, are evidence of this company’s brilliant group acting.

     And there are numerous other moments of excellent performance, particularly in Bérenger’s speeches and the logician’s perfectly absurd discussion of the difference between African and Asian rhincoeri. Yet, in perhaps the most important scene of the play, as the sensitive Jean (Hugues Quester in this production)—completely opposed to the rhinoceri transformations—gradually is transformed into just a beast, the work loses focus as he is transformed behind a plastic door where we see only the outlines of his facial shifts. As I mentioned previously, I did not see Zero Mostel’s 1961 rendition of Jean, but in the movie and in descriptions of his New York performance I recognize significant differences which made this early interpretation  a true theatrical wonder. In a fascinating article in the Jewish Daily Forward by Mostel’s nephew, Raphael Mostel describes the events behind the Broadway production:

                      The scene Z is most remembered for in this play
                      is the one in which he transformed into a rhinoceros.
                      Ionesco had envisioned the transformation happening
                      behind a curtain, and the actor bursting through with
                      a rhino mask. But Z  could perform the most
                      astonishing physical feats — whether reducing
                      Johnny Carson to hysterics by placing a proffered
                      cigarette on his brow and somehow getting it to
                      roll all around his face until it fell into his mouth
                      like a pinball machine, or doing a Dada-like
                      imitation of a coffee percolator. And he wanted to
                      make the frightening transformation with
                      his face and body in full view of the audience.

As reviewer Jack Kroll wrote of that performance in Newsweek: “Something unbelievable happened. A fat comedian named Zero Mostel gave a performance that was even more astonishing than [Laurence] Olivier’s” (Olivier had performed the role in London).

       Just such an “astonishing” individual performance is what is missing in this otherwise capable French rendition. One might even suggest that few companies could have better portrayed the kind of mass hysteria which is at the heart of Ionesco’s play.  But, as Bérenger, himself ponders, it is not just the masses wherein these transformations are taking place, but in the individual hearts. Jean stood against the rhinoceros invasion at the very moment he begins to grow, in his very reasonableness, more and more lenient. Even while attacking the beasts he grows more and more sympathetic to their plight, to their odd differences. And in that very allowance of human empathy he is himself destroyed. That is perhaps a more frightening statement than the fact that some individuals have turned into beasts, the idea that one cannot ever permit the thought that there may be some good in these transformations actually allows the transformations to take place. And seeing that struggle up close and in person is crucial to the structure of the play.

      In the end Bérenger is left alone, like Miles Bennell in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with no one to tell his tale to except, perhaps, the audience. And it is we who must determine, accordingly, whether he is mad or sane.

     Demarcy-Mota’s production focused more on the chorus, all of whom allowed the transformation to occur, than upon that man set apart. But then, that is part of the problem with Ionesco’s engaging parable; it is more fun to watch a pack of charging rhinocerori than a non-capitulating loner shouting abuses at them.

Los Angeles, October 5, 2012