Thursday, January 30, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Them and Us" (on Sam Shepard's short plays Killer's Head and The Unseen Hand)

them and us
by Douglas Messerli

Sam Shepard Killer’s Head and The Unseen Hand / directed by Darrell Larson at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, the production I saw was on Sunday, January 26, 2020

The other day I attended two short plays by Sam Shepard at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles. The plays, Killer’s Head and The Unseen Hand represent two of the strangest plays I have seen in a long while, reminding me somewhat of the highly incompetent filmmaker Ed Wood.
      Yet we know Shepard is everything but incompetent. It’s just that these works seem both more like amalgams of ideas thrown together in a baggy mess of plot than fully conceived dramas, while nonetheless being totally fascinating.
      The longer second play is certainly the most interesting. Camped out in a 1951 Chevrolet near a highway that leads to Azusa in California’s San Gabriel Valley, is the grizzly ex-cowboy, Blue (Carl Weintraub). That town’s population at the time this play premiered was about 20,000, and for anyone who has been there even today, one might easily describe it as Gertrude Stein did Oakland: “there is no there there.”
      Blue—surviving his brothers Cisco and Sycamore, the three of them having been the peers of the Jameses and the Daltons of the previous century—has lived in the automobile apparently for years, since he is now 120, talking to himself and imagining the villains who travel Route 66, including the dangerous hot-rodders of the modern age.
     He has been alone, apparently, for so long that when suddenly a being is beamed down from Outer Space, we cannot quickly determine whether he comes from this Methuselah’s imagination or from the Nogo land which he claims. This young figure, Willie (Matt Curtin), has, he explains, escaped his planet in order to save it, spouting words, as the critic Mel Gussow described it, “like a computer headed for the repair shop.”
     Willie explains that the people of his world have an unseen hand tattooed upon their heads, which controls their actions and destinies. Making Blue younger, and calling up his two brothers from the dead, Willie hopes to return with them to Nogo land and fulminate a revolution.
      Cisco (Jordan Morgan) soon arrives, dressed in a handsome serape, that makes him almost appear to be a 1960s hippie, followed later by the more sartorially-clad, dressed all in black, Sycamore (Chris Payne Gilbert), a former train robber who is heartily saddened to hear that there are no longer any trains—at least not near Azusa, the town that describes itself as containing everything American from “A” to “Z.”
      This now Sci-fi / Western adventure story suddenly torques into yet another dimension when a young male cheerleader suddenly arrives on the scene, his sweat pants dropped to his shoes, revealing a series of rope burns branded upon his legs by sports players from Azusa high school in manner that can only remind one of the viral homophobia that killed Matt Shepard. This new figure, simply called the Kid (Andrew Morrison), spends most of the play in his skivvies, since the gun-toting Sycamore, suspecting the Kid of evil attentions and perhaps being somewhat homophobic himself, will not permit the boy literally to “pull up his pants,” keeping the Kid in near-eternal infancy.  
     Shepard, accordingly, has brought together several figures representing the past, the present, and the future, each colliding and crashing against one another with toxic notions of masculinity in order to determine whether or not there is a way to save the universe from, as Willie proclaims, “mass suicide.”
     Can we be saved from our past errors of the domination of others that Sycamore, or, when the Kid steals away the gun of his torturer, the evident stupidity of the present as the boy (a cheerleader one must remember) humorously gushes out his love of all Azusa, the school, teachers, Lion’s Club, etc. etc.—and this coming all after just his being abused by his peers—or the horrors of the future? Perhaps there was never a time, considering Trump’s presidency and the ever-encroaching dangers of climate change, in which the playwright’s work has had greater significance.
      In Shepard’s moral fable, they all find a way to temporarily work together, Sycamore allowing the Kid to pull up his pants, and, in a slight shift of relationships, Blue walking away with his more-tamed brother Cisco and the almost brain-dead Willie, while Sycamore determines to stay behind in the 1951 antique of an auto, perhaps to fight off the devils of the highway near him who have taken away his train-robbing livelihood.
The first play of this duo, Killer’s Head, is only an eight-minute monologue in which a man (Steve Howey in the production I saw) sits strapped into an electric chair awaiting the bolts of power which will put him to death. Yet instead of imagining the terror he is about to embrace, he thinks forward to a continuation of the mundane life he has apparently led, despite his murder, so I gleaned, of his wife.
     His concerns are not the fear of death but visions of a new pickup truck, a career as a horse trainer, and other possibilities of life.
   Shepard’s juxtaposition of events clearly turn murder into an everyday event, while everyday dreams and actions become deeply meaningful relationships with life itself.
     Yet, here Shepard’s irony is just a little too cute and quick. We know the facts even before the play has begun. It is nearly impossible for any of us to truly imagine death. And living is filled with thousands of truly unimportant events that seem of value only because we imagine them to be.

Los Angeles, January 30, 2020
Reprinted from USTheatre, Opera, and Performance (January 2020).    

Monday, January 27, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "The Orange Door" (on Václav Havel's Largo desolato)

the orange door
by Douglas Messerli

Václav Havel Largo desolato (translated from the Czech by Tom Stoppard) / Frédérique Michel (director) / I saw I production with Thérèse Bachand at the City Garage, Santa Monica, California, on January 24, 2020

Václav Havel's 1984 play, Largo desolato, concerns a series of semi-autobiographical events that reminds one of numerous works regarding the paranoid world of Soviet-influenced spies and intrusive governmental officials that, in turn, takes us back to another Czech (Bohemian)-born writer, Franz Kafka. Havel’s play is absolutely haunted by Kafka’s own figures, terrified that a sudden knock on the door—in this production, a bright orange door, which might be said to even suggest the orange prison costumes worn by today’s inmates—in which they might be taken away to incarceration. In Havel’s case, it happened, and this play written after his 1984 release was soon after translated by the great British, former Czech writer, Tom Stoppard.
     Leopold Nettles (Kopřiva in the original, in this production performed by Troy Dunn, a veteran on this company’s works) is a philosopher, professor, and author of other texts, who has reason to be terrified. Not only has he recently published a rather controversial text, but he is also haunted by his several women lovers, whom—because of his increasingly insecurity and neurotic behavior—come and go with the repetitive patterns of Nettle’s own neuroses.
     This play, in fact, is structured according to the professor’s repetitive actions—a jump to the couch where he hugs its pillows, leaps to peer through the peep-hole of his orange door, and his often uneventrul, non-committal relationships with his apparently live-in companion/perhaps wife, Suzana (Emily Asher Kellis), his current lover Lucy (Angela Beyer), and a young female philosophy student, Marguerite (Marissa DuBois), all-too-ready to try to seduce him, which results in an extreme case of coitus interruptus.
      Along with these female comings and goings, are the visits of male friends and colleagues, Edward and Bertram (performed by Gifford Irvine and Trace Taylor) and the papermill workers, simply identified as “Two Sidneys” (Anthony Sannazzaro and Aaron Bray), all of whom admire what the philosopher has written. It might be remembered that in East Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, and other Communist controlled countries of the day, limiting the supplies of paper was a way to control authors and publishers from expressing their viewpoints. Without paper the free press could simply not exist, so the gift of stacks of paper they leave behind is a profound statement of their caring.
      We don’t ever quite discover what this supposedly great man has actually written, and when we do get some clues about his writings, it appears to be int the vein of the empty 1960s pap about free-living and loving. He may not be the profound thinker that even he imagines himself to be.
      When the governmental authorities actually do knock on his door, described in Stoppard’s script simply as “Two Chaps” (again performed by Sannazzaro and Bray), they do not so much outwardly threaten him with arrest as beg him to take away his name from his most recent manuscript in order to help them keep him out of imprisonment.
      What they are truly asking, obviously, is for the philosopher to give up his very identity, to deny who he really is and what he has spoken. For any true thinker it is the most devastating request that might ever be made.
      Even if my review here is not necessarily a profound statement, to deny me my own commentary would be to deny the thinking I am currently trying to accomplish. It would be to deny me the possibility to think. It would mean that as a human being I no longer was given the opportunity to explore my own mind.
       But Nettles, unlike the author of this work who was imprisoned, cannot quite show his mettle—or for that matter the nettles, the thorny improbabilities thinking entails. He simply postpones his decision to wipe his name from the slate of his life-time actions.
       By the time he finally determines that he cannot agree to the offer of the “Two Chaps,” the thugs the government has sent to correct his behavior, they can assure him that his decision no longer matters (“for the time being”) such his own fears and neuroses have now rendered him meaningless. His inabilities to immediately respond prove their presumptions that he is no longer a true threat, since is can no longer write anything.
       My theater-going companion for this performance, Thérèse Bachand, wrote me, after, that this play reminded her somewhat of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film The Lives of Others, and she is right. The Stassi investigations of the central character and his lover in that film certainly tingles the spine in the same way that Havel’s earlier play does.
       Yet, the characters in the film are basically innocent, and a single moral figure, listening into their lives, perceives it and saves, if not the drug-needy girlfriend, the playwright who has done nothing but report about the number of lives lost because of the same kind of unnecessary entry into their daily living.
       In this play, Nettles, no matter how innocent is his writing, is no moral model of his own beliefs, and in the process of his moral decay makes it unnecessary for the state to act against him. Von Donnersmarck’s figure, even at film’s end, remains a potent force that, even if unintentionally, helped to bring down the East German government.
       Havel’s frightened character, much like Kafka’s perplexed and desperate men and women, only contributes to the paranoiac world in which he is entrapped. As both Suzana and Lucy suggest, Nettles is a man of no true commitment. He seeks women and others merely as a relief from his own delusions.
       While von Donnersmarck’s film seems to call for a continuation of order, Václev Havel’s play is a call for action, a demand that one stand behind one’s own thinking and behavior, particularly if it stands opposed to governmental interference. In other words, that the thinkers transcend that orange door and enter the world in which they live.
        I truly think that today we need to make those important distinctions. Fear and trembling is no answer for a world in such terrible disorder; as Søren Kierkegaard long ago argued, the moral among us must make a “leap into faith.”

Los Angeles, January 27, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2020).

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Sailing off to Save Their Souls" (on Sting and Lorne Campbell's The Last Ship)

sailing off to save their souls
by Douglas Messerli

Lorne Campbell (libretto), Sting (music and lyrics) The Last Ship / the production I saw was at the Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, on January 22, 2020.

Watching Sting’s The Last Ship last night at the Ahmanson Theatre on Grand Avenue in Los Angeles, I tried to comprehend why this loveable and politically-charged musical was not a Broadway hit when it first appeared in New York and elsewhere in 2014.
       Sting himself, who tried to save the failing show at the Neil Simon Theater, should have been enough to bring in the crowds, and, indeed, it did buoy up the production for a short period before it finally closed.

      And, yes, the Geordie accents and language of the work’s characters in the Swan Hunter shipyards at Wallsend are sometimes a bit difficult to follow, particularly for those US citizens which don’t like to listen carefully as you have to in this work—and with me being recognized recently as having some older age hearing loss.
       Perhaps, moreover, the original plot of the libretto by John Logan and Brian Yorkey was a bit too complex, particularly when it came to the political issues in Britain during the tyrannical rule of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s—devastating not only the shipyard workers, but the country’s mine workers and other ordinary laborers—was not something US New Yorkers were very aware or even caring about, particularly given the cost of their theater tickets.
       The version I saw featured a rewritten book by Lorne Campbell, featuring a new cast who had toured the United Kingdom before settling into a fairly long run at Toronto’s Princess of Wale’s Theatre. Campbell apparently trimmed the work down, along with Sting refocusing the ending less on the male shipyard workers than upon their mothers, wives, and lovers.
        As Los Angeles Times writer Jessica Geltstaff reported: “This winsome landscape is dominated by women like the ones Sting grew up with and Campbell came to know while living and working in post-industrial Newcastle. These communities are held together and driven by their women,” Campbell says.
         But there are larger issues at work here which drive this creation into a different world than the typical Broadway musical, and which might have alienated the supposedly sophisticated New York audiences.
         First of all, with 19 original songs, and three reprises this “musical” might almost be described as an opera instead of a musical—or at least an operetta. And then there are Sting’s nearly miraculous lyrics, embracing everything from Karl Marx, a discussion of how the pugilist hero, Gideon Fletcher (a wonderful Oliver Saville), learned how to dance, to quotes from Lewis Carroll, Dylan Thomas, and various other poets—mostly uttered by the most unlikely intellect of the shipyard workers, Adrian Sanderson (Marc Akinfolarin)—discussions of the constellations (“It’s Not the Same Moon”), meditations on death (“Dead Man’s Boots”), saucy sexual numbers ("Mrs. Dee’s Rant," brilliantly performed by Orla Gormley), as well as lovely ballads such as “All This Time” (sung by Sting and Jackie Morrison).
       Almost every character in this work gets the opportunity to show their powerful musical talents—and they all perform quite brilliantly, as if we were almost encountering a cabaret show linked by short spoken episodes.
       And then there’s the music, the startling eclectic score sweeping up so many different composers such as Richard Rodgers, Marc Blitzstein, Kurt Weill, and others. A good listener simply becomes overwhelmed. Poetic meditations alternate with full cast renditions of numbers such as “Hadaway (Out of Your Tiny Minds?") sung by Davey Harrison (Matt Corner) and cast.
      In short, I believe it is because Sting’s work is stuffed with so much literary and musical heritage that it simply overwhelmed some of its earlier audiences.
      Here in Los Angeles, with a sold-out crowd, everyone seemed to love this event, even the two women who sat next to me, guessing I was an-on-aisle reviewer, almost begging during the intermission for me to love it.
      Well, I did love it and told them so. And for the first time in ages, long hating the tradition of necessary standing ovations, I too stood up and heartily applauded.
       The problem with The Last Ship is its own intelligence, its seriousness, its cleverness, the prolificacy of its composer’s sources, and the depth of feeling that he has imbued upon this work. Would that all US musical conceptions had these flaws.
       Los Angeles is fortunate to begin a new touring version of this significant work. I truly think that its later venues in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Detroit might find equally appreciative viewers—not because of their innocence or the possibility of their being rubes, but because of their contemporary sophistication.
      In the end, this work seems a perfect match with the Weimar Republic works being performed across the street at the LA Philharmonic. Sting’s compositions with The Police have always carried with them a kind a cabaret sensibility that employs a narrative of sensual love and danger at the same time. Gideon, the central hero of this work, even suggests that his has been watching his lover Meg Dawson (Frances McNamee) for the all the years they were growing up, just as she asserts she was attempting to bring him closer to her.
      Finally, Sting’s work seems almost Wagnerian, as the whole company, beyond imagination, sail off in the ship of their own creation, certainly a kind of Flying Dutchman-like ending, with the men and women of these now-vacant shipyards sailing off to seek their own souls. They recognize they may lose their souls and even die aboard the ship they have never before sailed. But they hand over their lives to their new commander, Gideon, rather than give in to the brutal new British economy. Who can blame them?

Los Angeles, January 23, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2020).   

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Celebrating the 'In-Between'" (on Contra-Tiempo's Urban Latin Dance Theater production of the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts

celebrating the “in-between”
by Douglas Messerli

Ana Maria Alvarez (and cast members) choreography, Contra-Tiempo Urban Latin Dance Theater, joyUS just US / the production I saw was on January 17, 2020 at the Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

Last evening I saw the dance performance choregraphed by Ana Maria Alvarez, along with company members, of a series of Latin dances titled joyUS just US, a company as the work’s title suggests, is about their US identity, despite the disparate backgrounds of their dancers—Isis Avalos, Charlie Dando, Jannet Galdamez, Bianca Medina, Alan Perez, Jasmine Stanley, Diana Toledo, and Dalphe Morantus—who proudly proclaim their citizenships despite our current President’s and other political leader’s abilities inability to comprehend the “in between” nature of our own cultural heritages,

     Through a mix of Salsa dancing and other Latin dance traditions, these figures, spin, twirl, twist and turn, and generally perform in a highly physical manner that, at times, is literally gravity-defying as they proclaim their cultural affinities, and their right to be here, in Los Angeles, to be performing in one of the most wealthy spaces in the larger LA community in the middle of Beverly Hills.
    Together they bring song (mostly through Toledo’s soprano renditions) music from the band Las Cafeteras, fusing Afro-Cuban and contemporary dance styles that utterly transform what we generally perceive as modern dance.
     This troupe, displaying dazzlingly colorful tapestries, perform with part of the audience onstage, divided into the two sides of the performance space, as if to include those of us in the audience in their remarkable athletics, and, at one moment encouraging the on-stage audience to participate in their actions.

    Yes, this is a political dance theater, clearly emphasizing their often statemental views about what is happening in contemporary culture; but their simple pleasure in their balletic movements, and their almost impossible-to-be-believed somersaults and sexual interactions can only make us gasp, and help to engage the audience with the sometimes wild and truly joyful actions on the stage. I think even the elderly Wallis opening night audience was truly willing, if they might have been able to, join them on the stage with memories of their rock-and-roll days.
     If this might not be described as the most elegant of dance concerts, then you wouldn’t enjoy, as I did, this exuberant company. The Contra-Tiempo group is entirely about expressing the excitement of their physical abilities and their bodies, dresses whirling like Turkish dervishes, and male asses displayed as true sexual enticements. Sex, in these dances, is nearly everything. This company does not at all hide what they have to offer, and the audience clearly enjoyed their displays of what dance, open, joyous, proffers.

     Dance, after all, is a sexual act. I once recall a kind of stodgy friend mocking his wife for attending dance concerts: “She just likes to see all those thin male crotches!” I wanted to reply, well don’t we all? The male and female bodies of dance are, in part, what it is all about. How can beautiful bodies move so effortlessly, so beautifully through space? That is the true excitement of dance, isn’t it?
     When I met the great choreographer Paul Taylor at a gay bar in Madison, Wisconsin, I expressed my interest in being a dancer, despite the fact that I had previously had no training. He looked me over, observing that I was, in those days, a cute and thin male figure.  “It’s never too late,” he pontificated. “I began very late myself. You should dance.”
     And I did, taking nightly classes at the Joffrey Ballet Company in New York. I was not a natural. But I so enjoyed those difficult hours at the barre. And, in one wonderful moment, when asked to pirouette, I accomplished it, and was praised—something that rarely happened in such daily exercises.
     The Contra-Tiempo company is a rather wild group, a sort of off-shoot of modern balletic dance; yet their beauty and energy are something that no one who loves the movement of the body might resist.

Los Angeles, January 18, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2020).