Sunday, September 29, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Robert Hunter: Poet"

robert hunter: poet

Yesterday, for the first time I listened to three songs by The Grateful Dead, “Scarlet Begonias,” “China Cat Sunflower,” and “Truckin’,” all with lyrics of Robert Hunter, who until September 25 of this year, I had never heard about. The songs were fascinating, and Jerry Garcia’s guitar riffs approached something like that of jazz musicians. Indeed, all these long years, I had been missing music that I might very much have enjoyed. But being the literary snob I was I also missed out on Queen and Elton John (both revealed to me in recent films). O well, we can’t always relate throughout our lives to absolutely everything! I loved opera of any kind. I loved the compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage, Christian Wolff and most other “experimental” composers.

      I associated pop music, unfortunately, with the television series of my time—mostly dismissible. Luckily as I have grown older I’ve learned, more than a few times, just what I was missing. Perhaps if Howard and I had a son or daughter we might have reached out to comprehend interests outside of our basically purist approach to the arts.  
       I still believe Hunter’s lyrics were often kind of “tutti-frutti,” meaning somewhat senseless and simply clever, but I do very like his inner-rhymes, and the way he moves forward sometimes by going backwards in his ruminations. This from “Scarlet Begonias”:

As I was walkin' 'round Grosvenor Square
Not a chill to the winter but a nip to the air
From the other direction, she was calling my eye
It could be an illusion, but I might as well try, might as well try

She had rings on her fingers and bells on her shoes
And I knew without askin' she was into the blues
She wore scarlet begonias tucked into her curls
I knew right away she was not like other girls, other girls

In the thick of the evening when the dealing got rough
She was too pat to open and too cool to bluff
As I picked up my matches and was closing the door
I had one of those flashes I'd been there before, been there before

A girl walkin’ round Grosvenor Square with scarlet begonias tucked in her hair would be, given my sexual orientation, a person I might not even notice, let alone experience a kind of déjà vu experience about. But then Hunter had long been an experimenter, sometimes without his knowledge through a covert CIA research project in drugs such as LSD, psilocybin and mescaline, and evidently grew to love them.
     But he was certainly a poet in hiding in the internal off-rhyming of “matches” and “flashes” and in the novel metaphor of “calling my eye”; and anyone who can find a reason to rhyme “shoes” and “blues” or “rough” and “bluff” is all right with me. Even Sondheim with his eternally clever rhyming doesn’t quite reach there.
     The quirky lyrics of his “Truckin’” confirm a kind of pop poetic imagination:

Truckin' got my chips cashed in
Keep truckin' like the doodah man
Together, more or less in line
Just keep truckin' on

Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street
Chicago, New York, Detroit and its all the same street
Your typical city involved in a typical daydream
Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings

Dallas got a soft machine
Houston too close to New Orleans
New York got the ways and means
But just won't let you be

     I’ve never been interesting much in trucks either, but here the idea of driving a truck down the long Main Street of US cities with their “Arrows of neon and flashing marquees,” “Chicago, New York, Detroit,” and later Houston and New Orleans—becoming a kind of metaphor for the “doodah man,” the standard word for back-up singer of music groups who against all odds, in this case, keeps moving on—is a quite wonderful tale of an individual who hangs up his or her dreams to explore “typical cities involved in typical daydreams.” I don’t think you might be able to describe the American Dream any better than this. The point is to just keep moving, as our settlers did, trying to find a new paradise anywhere they might. Hunter perhaps captures the “soft machine” of US mobility (and sometimes flexibility) better than almost anyone in this song. Where are we going, nowhere, just “out-there” he seems to be arguing.
      In “Uncle John’s Band,” Hunter seems to enticing us join another “band,” a chorus of voices that might take us away from “the hardest days,” while yet warning us that whenever we think we are on “Easy Street, there is danger at your door.” In short, the poet/songwriter demands we go to a more difficult world or acoustical experience, that of “Uncle John’s Band,” a world that with his repeated cry of “Wo, oh,” suggests the call of death.
      Here, unlike almost any pop lyrics, the writer asks the listener to “to think it through with him,” and even to respond, to share his own views. What do you think about death, he seems to be asking. Are you ready to join it or deny it.Come with me, or go alone, he's come to take his children home,” almost echoes so many black spirituals of the 19th century and Peter Gabriel’s lyrics for The Righteous Brothers: "Son’, he said, ‘grab your things, I've come to take you home’."

Well the first days are the hardest days, don't you worry any more,
'Cause when life looks like Easy Street, there is danger at your door.
Think this through with me, let me know your mind,
Wo, oh, what I want to know, is are you kind?

It's a buck dancer's choice my friend; better take my advice.
You know all the rules by now and the fire from the ice.
Will you come with me? Won't you come with me?
Wo, oh, what I want to know, will you come with me?

Goddamn, well I declare, have you seen the like?
Their wall are built of cannonballs, their motto is "Don't tread on me".
Come hear Uncle John'n Band playing to the tide,
Come with me, or go alone, he's come to take his children home.

It's the same story the crow told me; it's the only one he knows.
Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go.
Ain't no time to hate, barely time to wait,
Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?

     Why, you might ask did I suddenly take interest in a poet/lyricist I had never previously heard of until his death? I must admit it became personal when I suddenly encountered an interview Steve Silberman had done with Hunter in Poetry Flash years earlier in 1992. Asked about Hunter’s evident interest in the “Language” poets, Hunter responded:

“That’s a process of vacuuming that stuff out, by having other models. One of the things that has cleaned my act up was falling in love with the Language poets.”
     Silberman asks him “How did that happen?
     Hunter answers: “It was as simple as buying Doug Messerli's The Language Poets [“Language” Poetries: An Anthology, published by New Directions in 1987]. I opened it in the store and said, "Whoo!--This is like the stuff I used to write 25 years ago at the depths of my madness." Then I got Ron Silliman's book, In the American Tree [a book I distributed] and read all the way through that. This was speaking directly to me. I got interested in the individual poets, and started building a collection, and then I invited Lyn Hejinian and Carla Harriman [Harryman] to read with me. The freedom that Language poetry opened up helped to dust away the Victorian cobwebs from my own work.”
     I was startled to read this, from an interview which I’d never encountered before. And suddenly I realized that I, not in person, but in spirit at least, met Robert Hunter before.

Los Angeles, September 29, 2019

Friday, September 27, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "D(elusive) Minds" (on BodyTraffic's performance at The Wallis in September 2019)

[d]elusive minds
by Douglas Messerli

BODYTRAFFIC, directed by Lillian Rose Barbeito and Tina Finkleman Berkett / performance at The Wallis Bram Goldsmith Theater, September 26, 2019 / I attended this performance with Diana Bing Daves McLaughlin.

In my 2018 review of the Los Angeles dance company BODYTRAFFIC, this year and next the company-in-residence at The Wallis Bram Goldsmith Theater, I promised, without recalling it, that I would be attending their next performance. Yet so I did. And what a remarkable experience that was last night.
       Their final number, “A Million Voices,” based, in fact, on the voice of a single American singer, Peggy Lee, I reviewed in my 2018 essay (see My Year 2018 and my site at USTheater, Opera, and Performance, so I will not talk about it here—although it clearly retained its charm and warmed the hearts of the theater’s nearly standing-room audience.

        What stood out in this production of 4 dances, 3 of which were west coast, US, or world premieres, was that this wonderful company headed by Lillian Rose Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett—Berkett also the lead dancer of the company—is the growing maturity of their work, their ability to take on quite seriously narrative work, and their extraordinary abilities as dancers. This company, particularly in the first work of the evening, [d]elusive minds, which is based on the true story of a mental patient suffering from a kind of schizophrenia “where the person becomes convinced that a family member has been replaced by an imposter” (think of Don Siegel’s film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, wherein nearly everyone has the mental illness described as Capgras Delusion). In this case Santiago kills the wife he deeply loves and continues to write to her from prison for 15 years, believing in his “illusion” that she was still living.
       Choreographed with a marvelously beautiful set by Fernando Hernando Magadan and almost delirious lighting by Peter Lemmens, dancers Berkett and Guzmán Rosado play out the signature movements of this company, almost body-defying shifts of body over body, with hand movements that convey so much of the intensity of the narrative. These dancers move over, around, above, and through one another in a way that seems to almost defy gravity. This dance is so beautifully intense that when the murder actually occurs we almost perceive it as blended into their love. They are not only a couple, performing an intricate pas de deux, in this performance they dance as a constantly shifting “one,” until you can almost comprehend why the mentally-disturbed male might think that the “other” is no longer the woman he loved. She has become him, and the dance conveys their impossibility to separate identities through nearly incomprehensible overlays of legs, arms, and other body parts. No matter how you might want to distance dance from sexuality, in this company’s performances the dancers make it clear, without the sexual winking of someone like the choreographer Matthew Bourne, there is no way to separate the pairs or, in the case of the delightful visit to the beach in Snap, the second of the company’s works, an entire community, from representing an intense sexual interchange. In BODYTRAFFIC, the bodies and their constant mutability is everything.

     Snap is a kind of lark, a visit to the beach but also just a dip into the waters of everyday life by the entire cast of Berkett, Joseph Davis, Haley Heckethorn, Myles Lavallee, Rosando, and Jarma White—some in beach-wear, others in festive costumes, umbrellas allowed, accompanied by the somewhat harsh sounds of Schocke, counterbalanced by the sometimes silly terpsichorean movements by choreographer Micaela Taylor that obviously just represent fun. But again this company’s “just fun” involves serious gymnastic interchanges between company members. The complexity of this was truly amazing, which my theater-going friend, Diana Daves, commented on: “How can they possibly remember all those different movements?” Well, that is one of the wonders of this company. I would be hard-pressed to imagine how any other company might recreate this dance. Let us hope they have recorded it in chorographical language.

      After an intermission, performers Davis and Rosando danced Resolve, who in Wewolf’s choreography, come together, push away, come back, and crawl gradually over and above one another in a relationship that at moments seems about to dissolve before transforming this couple into a kind acknowledged unity that cannot be denied. Isn’t this the story of any intense relationship? Surely is has been mine.
      Of course, A Million Voices, with Peggy Lee’s standards brought everyone to a standing ovation. But, in fact, I realized even by the intermission that this Los Angeles audience was far more sophisticated about dance and that just as in its orchestral and art worlds, this city is now truly quite involved in dance theater. A city with such significant film, food, dance, music, and art—who could ask for anything more, even if I am primarily a literature person? I can only commend The Wallis, the Broad Theater, and now Redcat for their embracement of dancing.

Los Angeles, September 27, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (September 2019)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Endless Circles and Interruptions" (on Al Carmines production of Gertrude Stein's In Circles)

endless circles and interruptions
by Douglas Messerli

Al Carmines (based on Gertrude Stein) In Circles / directed by David Schweizer at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, the production I saw was with Lita Barrie on September 22, 2019.

Gertrude Stein’s A Circular Play: A Play in Circles (1920) as adapted by the amazing composer/preacher Al Carmines, minister and assistant director of Judson Memorial Church’s remarkable contemporary theater and dance performances, is quite obviously about “circles,” all kinds of circles, visual, social, political, personal, communicational, and, yes, natural. This work is not literally about “turning in circles,” for as Stein writes: “It is not necessary to run around in a circle to get to write a circular play.”
      No, Stein’s circles, as in all of her works, represent clever literary puns, ridiculous maxims, and literary constructions (“Sleeping in the day is like Klim backwards. / Klim backwards is milk just like silk.” Silk backwards would be kils, a shortened version of the end of life.

     And indeed, despite the Stein-like figure in this wonderfully directed David Schweizer production, who demands of her participants a continual manifestation of circles, the poem/play continually challenges her invitationals to communal relationships with opposite notions of what circling might mean. The musical, in fact, begins with a total lack of communication wherein “Papa dozes manna blows her noses” (which can’t help but call up the crazy language play of Gene Kelly’s satire of the voice teacher in his Singing in the Rain, clearly based on Stein’s writing: “Moses supposes his toeses are roses. But Moses supposes erroneously.”).

      It is apparent that the Stein figure in this musical (Jacque Lynn Colton) is not exactly pleased with her choristers’ (the engaging Henry Arber, Shelby Corley, Ashlee Dutson, Kyle G. Fuller, Chloe Haven, Aaron Jung, and P. T. Mahoney) continual repetition of the incommunicative couple, the one dozing the other busy blowing her noses, and she quite willingly demonstrates her disapproval, attempting to move this wonderful cast of 4 young men and 3 women back into the circles she might imagine them inhabiting.

       Like Dante moving through the various circled levels of heaven, she tries to instruct them on the various levels of circles, the first simply a close relationship of words in the language: “A citroen and a citizen. / A miss and bliss” (if one thinks carefully about them, they are absolutely natural connections outside of their rhymes and off-rhyme connections).

      Yet soon after, they and her move into the “third circle,” which also challenges the very notion of what circles really mean.
      Stein, always a strange optimist, declares “We can be won to believe that the President saw through the trick,” meaning the fact that World War I was never a “circle.” But she follows it up with the truth: “Miss Mildred Aldrich is isolated. Is isolated with the President.”
      Aldrich, who became a close friend of Stein and Alice B. Toklas, moved from Paris to the Marne, in which, through collections of letters in three volumes throughout the war revealed the events in the Marne area of France from her viewpoint (a role that Stein herself would take on in World War II) that resulted in her award of the French Legion of Honor. A fourth volume of writing, When Johnny Comes Marching Home (published in 1919) recounted the grim reminder of what might happen to these World War I US soldiers upon their return home, something Stein would later attempt to recount in her brilliant post-World War II book, Brewsie and Willie.
      Stein herself declares the difficulty of wartime living:

                    We came together.
                    Then suddenly there was an army.
                    In my room.
                    We asked them to go away.

      So despite her adamant demand for circles of all kinds, there are constant reminders of other movements into “streets” and “roads,” that counter her inclusionary vision.

       Early on, Carmines creates a kind of painful tribute to her single line: “Cut wood cut wood. / I hear a sore.” in which we perceive the constant drill of the cutter against wood contradicts everything which she is promoting. It is a painful moment, and we understand in those brief, but important sequences, that her whole would is being challenged in the action of the saw, as she cries out:

                     Stop being thundering.
                     I meant wondering.
                     He meant blundering.
                     I have been mistaken.

     Stein’s delight in social (including even royalty), political, and natural circles keeps being interrupted—at least in Carmines’ brilliant take upon this work, by linear actions in life.
     “Jessie Jessie is not messy,” almost sounds like a line from the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies, for we realize in that line that Jessie with her old carriage is quite problematically “messy,” not at all willing to join the circles Stein is advocating.

     At one point the “circles” transform into various marriage ceremonies, but as blushing brides run to take on the bridal veil so too do several of the male figures; rejection is as common as acceptance. Ultimately some actors (Kyle G. Fuller) and others link up with other male performers while the most reluctant George (Arber) marries a young woman (again almost reminding of Sondheim’s Company). These clearly are not precisely the circles Stein is seeking.
     Ultimately, it is to nature to which she finally retreats, a world of melons, honeysuckle and peas, roses, the moon, and even the sun. Human relationships, as much as she admires them, do not last. Even Stein, in the end must ask, “Can a circle exist.” It is a statement without a question. Of course, for her, circles do very much exist. And the lovely dancing, singing cast have proved that, moving around and about her (with amazing choreography by Kate Coleman) as if to establish the pattern of her short play, largely expanded by the brilliant Carmines, and the set by Mark Guirguis, who turned everything on the set to a deep red, suggested I imagine by Stein’s own comments: “Crimson rambler,” or in another version of her “Circle three”

                       Red on it.
                       It is strange to distribute it to the women. They can see around it. 
                          It makes them young.

I presume this is another circle, of all women, who have had to deal with menstrual blood.

       Despite her adoration of circles, however, Stein is not absolute. As she notes: “Do not try circles exclusively.” Her vision, indeed, is more like Wittgenstein’s noted “duck-rabbit” illusion, in this case described by Stein as “A dog with a rabbit,” not with the dog necessarily capturing the rabbit, but becoming it himself. “How can you tell a treasure,” she asks. For her it is a thing a visceral reaction: “We can tell by the reaction. And after that. And after that we are pleased.”
       In short, reality is all about perception for Stein. A circle is certainly very pleasant, but “The balcony is air. You can put five persons on it.” A world that is not precisely a circle is nearly as good as one. An island that is not quite circular is close enough.
        In the end, despite her proclamation that she does not see the need to bring flowers, all of the cast members do bring her flowers.
      The performance of this spectacular play I attended had fewer people in the audience than on stage, where the performers danced, sang, and sweat out their performances. That’s sad. Critics need to learn how to describe Stein’s (and in this case Carmines’) wonderful productions (he did a great many Stein plays and pieces). This may have been the best production of drama I have seen this year in Los Angeles.
       For my review of Carmines’ amazing collaboration with Irene María Fornes’ Promenade, visit here:

Los Angeles, September 24, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (September 2019).

Monday, September 23, 2019

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Douglas Messerli| "Expanding Time: Centers of a Whirling World" | Jacob Burkhardt's video of "Andy Dances at Judson Church September 17, 2019" a memorial for dancer and choreographer Andy de Groat))

expanding time: centers of a whirling world

Jacob Burkhardt (video) Andy Dances at Judson Church September 17, 2019
by Douglas Messerli

During the night of September 20th, I dream a long dream in which I was dancing—at first making miraculous leaps in the manner of Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, but then gradually settling into amazing spins, something that I might have associated more with ice skating dance than with ballet. The spins were startlingly tight and intense, a bit like a balletic version of the Turkish whirling dervishes, but without their flowing, whirling skirts; I seemed dressed in a more traditional male ballet outfit that represented more of a continuously spinning top instead of the mesmerizing, trance-like movements of the Turkish dancers.
       I have long loved dance, and when I was young I studied briefly with the Joffrey Ballet, as I’ve written elsewhere, after being encouraged to take up dance by Paul Taylor, who I met briefly in Madison, Wisconsin in the late 1960s. In New York, I signed up with the Joffrey company as a student, and after weeks and weeks at the barre doing the traditional dance exercises, the males were called to do a pirouette, my strict dance teacher commenting that I had done it quite well, a comment that thrilled me, even if soon after I began to realize that I would be a great dancer given the structure of my body and my late-coming to the art. So, while dance continues to thrill me and I attempt to review it as often as I can, I have never since—particularly as a now quite fragile 72 year-old with a knee replacement—dreamt about me dancing so brilliantly as the images of my dream contained.
       Perhaps the dance-opera, The Want, directed by Adam Linder, which I’d seen a night earlier, stimulated something in my brain. And I was delighted, even if more than a little amused, by my sleeping terpsichorean pleasures. By early morning I was comparing them in my mind with my memories of the hero of Paul Auster’s early novel, Mr. Vertigo, wherein the character Walt learns how to fly. I have certainly had many so-called “flying dreams” throughout my life, which with simply grace and will-power I can remain vertically in the air for very long periods of time.

      Every morning after coffee and toilet, I check Facebook, first my own messages and then those of others. This morning I suddenly saw what appeared to be a short film on the choreographer and dancer Andy de Groat. I vaguely remembered his name—although I had seen Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, choreographed by Lucinda Childs and de Groat, but otherwise I knew nothing at all about him and his career. If I try to write on dance as often as I can, I admit I am no dance critic or expert about the field. Literature, film, these are my specialties and wherein my major contributions lie, along with a long history of art through my husband, art curator Howard N. Fox.
      I rarely click on such Facebook offerings, except to hear jazz and singers from the past. But something this morning called out to me. As I have long maintained synchroncicity and coincidence have been major elements of my life. But this hour and one-half tribute to de Groat, who I quickly perceived, had died on January 1 in France, at the same age I was on that date, suddenly took me down a rabbit hole that I might never before imagined.
      The first figure who appeared, I gradually recognized was my dear friend from Cedar Rapids, near my hometown of Marion, Iowa, Mel Andringa. What was he doing, directing an event for this dancer, obviously a memorial in honor of de Groat, held at Manhattan’s Judson Church on September 17th?
      I now presume it harkens back to one de Groat’s early collaborations with Wilson, Deafman Glance (1970), first presented at the University of Iowa where Andringa was then a student/artist/performer. I later brought Andringa and his companion F. John Herbert to perform at Temple University when I was an Assistant Professor there.
     I knew he had been long involved with experimental performance and theater, but now he was discussing so many figures I knew of and whose works I had seen and read—Jerome Robbins, Robert Wilson, Merce Cunningham, Christopher Knowles, Douglas Dunn, Meredith Monk (see my review of her Atlas in this volume) and Yvonne Rainer, many of whom I also met. Other figures such as dancers from the Bird Hoffman School of Birds, Sheryl Sutton (reading a comment by dance critic Deborah Jewitt), while numerous others presented dances and videos of de Groat, including his “Waiting for Godot Fan Dance,” and his famed “Rope Dance.”
       Just as importantly—and I hadn’t known this at all—de Groat, who had a romantic with Wilson, had been particularly known for his “spinning” in both his own dancing and those pieces he choreographed for Wilson and others.
      As de Groat has himself written: “I think of spinning as the base for my dance. There’s something about spinning which just seems kind of present. I can’t explain it.” Although he does go on to explain it, quite specifically, as the natural movement in dance, tracing it back to several ancient cultures.

      This celebration of de Groat’s life seemed to have been recorded particularly for me, and I was slightly horrified by the coincidence of it. I hadn’t even known much about de Groat, let alone that he had recently died. How could I have dreamt of his dancing before I’d truly comprehended it? And how had I so suddenly come upon this video the next morning? Perhaps I just totally open for the event to happen.
     The commentary, videos, and dances were stunning, and I suddenly felt I was reliving a world that I was never quite involved in previously. In a strange way, it seemed a slightly metaphysical experience. Why had I dreamt about the spinning dance, and how had this appeared to me so suddenly the next morning?
      Inexplicably, in my entire lifetime to date, I have never once experienced what is described as déjà vu, something that almost everybody has encountered in their lives. Perhaps these remarkable synchronicities are my version of that phenomena. All I can say is this series of coincidences compelled through most of that morning, and the emotional substance of them brought serious tears to my eyes.

     Finally, I should mention that in 2002, I received a substantial grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, originally set up by John Cage, Merce Cunningham and through so many of these same artists contributions that my appreciation now knows no bounds. Looking back to that year, for example, I now perceive that the composer, now one of my favorites, David Lang received a grant alongside me with Robert Ashley and so many others. I never visited the Hudson Church Dance company, but I remember how furious I was with my beloved friend David Antin when, in one of his talks, he mocked their activities to a class of students at CalArts. But then David was a talker, not a dancer.

Los Angeles, September 21, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Dance, and Performance (September 2019).

Friday, September 20, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Dying for Love" (on Adam Linder, Ethan Braun, and Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer's The Want)

Dying for Love
by Douglas Messerli

Ethan Braun, Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer (composer and librettist), Adam Linder (dance and direction) (loosely based on Bernard Marie-Koltès play In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields) The Want / the performance I saw, with Tm Gratkowski, was at Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater) on September 19, 2019)

The new work I saw last night at Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) is associatively based on Bernard Marie-Koltès' play In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields about a gay-night encounter between two men during a latenight-cruising, which I saw and reviewed in 2010 at Redcat [see My Year 2011]. As I wrote then:
Of course, one might immediately (as do I) wonder why 
a normal sexual encounter of two gays on the street should 
result in these strange metaphors of Marxist politics, 
underlined by Sadeian issues of pain and pleasure. Koltès 
clearly saw sex as a battle between forces and lived with a 
far greater sense of being an outsider than I, who joyfully 
encountered dozens of young men in my youth in just 
the manner these two do.

     But even then, I realized that Marie-Koltès, a man who died of AIDS in 1989, was not simply talking about the sexual encounter, but was questioning the issues that surround those encounters concerning what sexuality is truly about, in particular the issues of the cultural and sometimes mercantile-like interchange between one individual with the other. After all, he gave his life to just such interchanges, and many others (not I) did treat it like a financial-like “deal” between two people.
     For me, as a young man in New York and the Midwest, it was simply an open pleasure, but if you see it from the slightly Marxist lens from which the original playwright saw it, if often did involve, as this new production presents it, as a kind of transactional relationship, in which there was a mutual “offeree” and “offeror.” I guess I was always both and presumed my partners were equally seeking just such a mutual, if terribly temporary, relationship.
      Fortunately, under Adam Linder’s wonderful balletic direction, Ethan Braun’s musical creation, and Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer’s libretto, Marie-Koltès gay investigation into such sexual transactions, has been deliciously expanded to include both heterosexual and gay interconnections, combined with wonderful dance, singing, and engaging quotes from unlikely sources such Jacques Derrida and Missy Elliott, who, in this production’s mash-up of their words never sounded better.
      The real center of this work are the four major performers, Jessica Gadani, Justin F. Kennedy, Jasmine Orpilla, and Roger Sala Reyner, who move utterly fluidly between dance, brilliant operatic singing, and singspiel that makes you very much care about their numerous sexual transformations, beginning with the “Boots Are Made For Walking” introduction in which Gandani and Kennedy come together along with Orpilla and Reyner.
       Yet, just as in contemporary culture, the idea of “You will get a trade-off, the tipping of scale, a shot in dark, that I am willing to risk,” quickly does become “thicker, obscuring”; as in “Face-Off,” things alter, eventually their interrelationships gradually shift, the two woman casually coming together just as the two males subtly make their sexual connections.
       Not only are these sexual shifts beautiful and quite subtly displayed in Linder’s dance directions, particularly in the leaning of the bodies and their complex use of hand-signals, but also explored through the director’s fascination with costume, as the quartet equally transform themselves through time, from 20th-century SandM-like encounters back to late 19th-century European Jewish life (“Jewy XIV”) to, in the last scene into what I might describe as a kind of Noel Coward-like scene, where both characters, in this case a shift again of Gandani and Reyner dressed in formal home-dressing attire in which the two figures (while the other two apparently have become “ghosts”) describe what was once a passionate relationship that has now turned into an almost abstract notion of an Albee-like encounter of husband and wife:

Offeree: You want compensation for empty space between us?
Offeror: Every promise to see infers the promise to by, and there’s
      a forfeit to pay: a pound of flesh, a sum of money.
Offeree. Now you’re accomplishing your designs for me.
Offeror: If you run, I will chase; if you take the wrath of 
      my fist, I’ll be by your side, in your unconscious 
      and beyond.
Offeree: I only fear unfamiliar rules.
Offeror: Even the one language we might share, that of money,
      whilst representing and guaranteeing that which 
      exists, is only a signifier for what does not exist--
      for fantasy.
Offeree: Well then what weapon?

Even Stephen Sondheim in his Follies song “Could I Leave You” could not have said it better.
      Much of the early musical score of Braun’s work, is based on a sampling of Monterverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa played with a combination of violins, synths, pianos, saxophones, guitars—blasting through the sound systems of the small Redcat theater—along with a rather stunning use of light by Shahryat Nashat—which made many of these scenes quite breathtaking. This highly international cast, with roots in Los Angeles, Berlin, Spain, and elsewhere contributed to the feeling that the sexual transactions which we were experiencing on stage were truly global, something that our cultures have increasingly ignored in an era of increased nationalism and narrow-minded exclusiveness.
       This opera/dance represented all of us, heterosexual, lesbian, gay, and just confused. How to create a relationship in the complex needs of “wanting” is really what this work is all about. The Want of its title is what every human being seeks, and its exploration of how to find “it,” in any possible form, is what we all have to deal with in our too human lives. It represents transactions that we never truly comprehend or can explain.

Los Angeles, September 20, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Peformance (September 2019).   

Troye Sivan | "Plum" [link]

Troye Sivan "Plum" [link]

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Actually Touching" (on Erik Patterson's play Handjob)

actually touching

Erik Patterson Handjob / The Echo Theater Company, performing at Atwater Village Theater, Los Angeles / the performance I attended was on Sunday, September 8, 2019

While Erik Patterson’s new play, performed the other afternoon at the Echo Theater Company’s venue at Atwater Village Theater in Los Angeles, is not precisely a major theatrical masterwork, it is, nonetheless certainly an intriguing work, which will allow you to leave the theater with a great many questions about gay sex, sexual exploitation, sexual abusiveness, racial identity, and the white community’s inability to perceive racial concerns—as well as what writer’s do to individuals in involving them into their literary “plots.” There’s lots to chew on here, and lots of issues that simply cannot be answered by either the author or his audience.
       First of all, the play itself seeks out the limits of sexual taboos in theater. Certainly, we’ve seen nudity in theater numerous times in the past decades, and audiences have perhaps grown rather more sophisticated than the early days when this kind of theater might simply have been closed down—just as were numerous art exhibits, performance pieces, films, and other art works because of their depictions of nudity, let alone, as in this case, gay nudity. We can breathe a little bit more openly, and none of the audience members of this production, male and female, gay and family groups (no children that I could perceive) hardly blinked an eye when the major events of this production occurred, although many of the audience members certainly might have been mildly titillated, as was I.

     After all, the major premise itself is a slightly kinky one: a handsome and well modeled black man offers himself up to his basically gay clientele as a “shirtless cleaner,” a self-proclaimed heterosexual man, Eddie (Michael Rishawn) who will come and clean your house while, having whipped off his shirt, he allows his customers to simply gaze upon him. Given his well-developed torso, he is, indeed something to see, but one has to question what any of his customers get out of the encounter. Even at age 72, I might wonder what pleasure there is at observing a beautiful man without, at least, being able to touch him or at least fully communicate with him. But Patterson’s major figure, Keith (Steven Culp), a playwright—or as he describes it, a writer of dialogues—basically doesn’t seem to mind his passive state. After all, he lives surrounded by dozens of books, many of which he has not yet read, and cannot reach out, it appears, to really discover why this beautiful being is selling himself into this most strange situation. What is Eddie really doing in the act of allowing himself to be paid by the gay gaze? The problem with Keith is, that despite his fascination with the young man, he seldom asks questions, and when he does it is mostly just an interest in furthering his “studies” of such a being, without really probing the man/boy behind them.
      Of course, that is also the problem of the play, which Patterson makes clear by embedding yet another play within his own, this created by Keith based on his not terribly profound knowledge of his subject. In his “play” version (and “play” is a good term here, since it is not simply a theatrical event, but a playing with/and out of his supposed encounters with his shirtless cleaner.) In the play, another shirtless cleaner, Bradley (Ryan Nealy)—in this case a white boy—hires himself out for the same tasks, in the same set, to Kevin (Stephen Guarino), but is willing to go a bit further than Eddie, for another $40 dollars willing to drop his drawers, and for yet the same amount again to allow Kevin to give him a hand-job as long as lips don’t touch his cock.
      The scene where he undresses and lies on the bed with a full erection (from my vantage point in the audience I couldn’t quite determine whether his erect cock was an appendage or real, but given the argument of the play, we should presume that the actor actually gave us the full thing); but a bit like Eddie, the “real” was simply too much for him, particularly when the actor playing Kevin actually takes out his own penis (obviously the real thing) to masturbate as he gives pleasure to young man.
       Bradley, suddenly, mid-coitus so to speak, balks, shouting out that Kevin’s action was not in the script, and refusing, accordingly, to continue the sexual act. The director, black feminist Susan (Tamara Graham) and her assistant, Kate (Gloria Ines) immediately enter the scene to try to convince him that Kevin’s impulsive act was justified, and to remind the actor that, after all, as they had argued in rehearsals, it was important to the play to see two gay men actually “touch” one another; the playwright, Keith also appears to justify his sexual depiction of their sexual, particularly, he argues (somewhat ingeniously) given that our culture is perfectly willing to witness hundreds of scenes of gun murders without being able to accept the act of two men attempting a sexual act before the public eye.
       The recalcitrant, now dressed in a robe, Bradley continues to refuse the “hand-job,” forcing us, ultimately, as in a Wagnerian opera to experience the grand (but rather paltry) sexual act as “coitus interruptus.”
       In the last scene of the play, Keith, still hiring the “shirtless” cleaner, highly intelligent Eddie, who has now apparently seen Keith’s play, and is angrily appalled by its use of his own life story. There are several issues at work in this last scene: one, that happened earlier in the play, is that at a certain point when he was agreeably cleaning and smilingly approving of his “sexual admirer’s” gaze, Keith attempted, momentarily to grope him. When Eddie is offended, Keith immediately apologizes and withdraws. But, apparently, Eddie has not been able to forget it, and reminds Keith now of his action.
        This might be a kind of #MeToo moment, is a world wherein we finally realize that Eddie has, in fact, been working as a kind of prostitute all along, working in a “don’t touch me world” in which he is encouraging just that. How can a man whose clientele includes mostly gay men who long for his body not perceive himself as encouraging their sexual involvement? It is all a game that is not whatsoever about power and celebrity that one might accuse individuals of sexual abuse? And, indeed, there truly has been no “real” sexual abuse, but simply a response from what even the audience might perceive as a sexual come-on. What is truly happening here, when Eddie suggests he will reveal Keith’s action on Facebook and other sources as being a sexual abuser?
        In fact Eddie has not lost any sexual innocence but has been denied his own identity. Keith does not truly see him as black and has hired a white actor to play him, insisting, like so many stupid liberal whites before him that he sees Eddie not as a black man but simply as a human being. But, of course, Eddie, is most definitely black, and that the fact that Keith has used him as a character in a play, replete with many quotes that have come from his own mouth, has wiped his true existence away. Playing with the playwright, Eddie presents him with several alternatives of himself—none of them with the playwright might have imagined, and perhaps none of them true: he is a Microbiologist or a student at Julliard studying playwrighting. Does it matter that he is truly, perhaps, just a prostitute, selling his torso to gay men?
       Yes, it does matter. Both have helped to destroy each other’s lives, when if they might simply have unclothed themselves and laid down in a bed, it would have resolved everything. This, ultimately, is a play of sexual frustration, of people who can’t comprehend that there’s simply nothing wrong with loving and touching and being with one another, black or white. Keith has no power other than his checkbook, and Eddie has no sexual discord other than that which lies behind his highly defined own torso. Both may be destroyed by the sexual limitations of the society at large; but why, we must ask? Neither have any power in their worlds. But they might truly enjoy their sexual empowerment in bed.
       The hand-job should have been completed, even if it isn’t the ultimate of sexual pleasure. And yes, give the other guy a moment of pleasure as well. Why are we rejecting pleasure and embracing the guns that assure us of a Wagnerian death? We don’t need to die to experience love, do we? And are we all perverts for seeking the pleasures of human flesh?
        What is the difference between sexual interchange and abuse? What is the difference between liberal values of racial differences and the inability to perceive what being black, or any other color means in a basically all-white world? Living in Los Angeles, I don’t truly have those answers, since I do not live in an all-white world, nor did I as a young gay man in New York City. Was I an abuser in a world in which, to me, as an attractive young male, everyone seemed to be gay? No one every told me to stop! No one ever once said, you’re abusing me by hugging, kissing, and touching my cock! And certainly, I never felt once that anyone who came on to me was a sexual abuser, even the sometimes older men who loved to gaze at my youth.
   Something has shifted, it appears to me, as we have grown into an increasingly frightened world, afraid of even dealing with one another’s bodies. Perhaps in hindsight, I might have thought of myself as desecrated. I never felt that, only enjoyment for being a young man who enjoyed others and whom others seemed to enjoy me. This play brings up those questions. Maybe we are now all a little too hardeneded—and I’m not talking about the serial abusers such as Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump—to even explore our own sexualities. Poor Eddie, working as a kind of male prostitute didn’t comprehend that he had already given up his identity, or perhaps, could not even accept his own identity.
       Patterson suggests that in the play within this play, there is a brutal fight between the confused sexual being and the one seemingly accosting him. That is a terrible possibility, but perhaps a better one than the horrible outing Eddie proposes on Twitter and Facebook, the social communities we have now created to keep people from being who they might truly be. Maybe actually touching, even brutally, might be a better solution.
Los Angeles, September 10, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (September 2019).