Monday, March 28, 2022

Douglas Messerli | "Cut" (on Lucas Hnath A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney)


by Douglas Messerli

Lucas Hnath A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney / directed by Peter Richards as produced by Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners at the Odyssey Theatre / the production I saw with Deborah Meadows was on March 27, 2022

Who might imagine that the seemingly gentle, fatherly-like man who weekly introduced throughout my 1950s childhood the long-running The Magical World of Disney was also a chain-smoking, gin swigging movie mogul who rarely saw his wife, used his brother Roy as both a stooge and a force in order to get want he wanted, was hated by his daughter who refused to name her third son after him, and was threatened in turn that her father would remove her name from his will?

     By now surely we should no longer be surprised that celebrities are often not what we perceive them to be. Walt himself, who projected an outward image of a shy man, uncomfortable in the public spotlight, confessed of the fa├žade to a personal friend: “I’m not Walt Disney. I do a lot of things Walt Disney would not do. Walt Disney does not smoke. I smoke. Walt Disney does not drink. I drink.” He might have added, Walt Disney lives a perfect family life of loving kindness, while I’ll throw by brother to the wolves if it protects my image, I don’t much care about my wife, and I hate my son-in-law and think he’s an idiot.

Kevin Ashworth as Walt Disney 
Photo by Jenny Graham

     And indeed, if these were the worst of his faults, given all the joys Disney gave families throughout his life (he died of lung cancer in 1966) and far beyond, lending his name not only to the two most successful family amusement parks in the world, the hundreds of cartoons and motion pictures, and perhaps the most glorious architectural and musical center in Los Angeles, he might surely be forgiven for being a flawed individual.

      Fortunately, the real issue of  playwright Lucas Hnath’s 2013 play A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney does not concern simply Walt Disney’s personal faults, using them only as tools to open up the crevices of the stone tomb in which the real man is embedded, just as the play is really not a “reading” nor a true “screenplay,” nor even a work “about Disney’s death,” although death is very much on the mind of the imaginary Disney who supposedly penned this screenwork.

     Hnath has a knack for asking his audiences to question and challenge who and things really are. Because someone tells you this is the way things happen, that this is really a reading or a screenplay, a dirge or a “biographical revelation, mightn’t we still actually question the reality of what we’re told by the individual, the work itself, or the media? As he explored in his early masterwork A Doll’s House, Part 2, just because Nora stormed out of her house in Ibsen’s play, was that really the end of the story? Or in his Hillary and Clinton, were Hillary and Bill Clinton really as terrible or as good as we might imagine them to be? Or as he asked in his play The Christians, performed at the Mark Taper Forum in 2016 (a play I saw and reviewed), can fundamentalist believers ever come to ask themselves whether their beliefs are the only viable ones on earth, that perhaps even those of other beliefs and atheists might also be saved by God’s love? What is a feminist, a president and his wife, a true believer, or, in this case, a remarkable family fantasist behind his assigned titular designation. Is that individual’s ability or inability to remain true to that role a thing for the better or the worse?

      At the heart of Hnath’s works is the question of the frailty of human desire, both from the inside of that desire’s representation and from the outside of our judgment of that being’s ability to live up to our vision of what his or her desire represents.

      First of all, obviously, we need to question the very words we have chosen to describe these notable beings. I was interested that Wikipedia chose to characterize Disney as an entrepreneur (a self-made tycoon or business magnate) which is probably closer to the truth than my definition of him as a fantasist. If it seems odd that Disney might wish to write a screenplay about himself, we need only recall that Walt knew screenplays well, and as an ex-cartoonist he knew how to create figures that attracted the human eye. We all want to be remembered for the best of what we were and are. I write. Others push their bodies to the limit on a football field, while some represent themselves best by portraying others, and still others work their entire lives just to brilliantly represent their employers. Disney knew movies.

      And should we be surprised that the screenplay, employing every second of the camera in motion, cuts continually in on its hero—unless he wants to deflect attention away from himself as he does when the hardworking animators “brilliantly representing their employer” demanded higher wages during the 1941 Animators’ Strike that lasted five weeks?

Kevin Ashworth and Thomas Piper |
Photo by Jenny Graham

      Disney not only turned the matter over entirely to his brother Roy, leaving him to finally to make a settlement, but immediately accepted an offer to make a goodwill trip to South America as part of the Office of the coordinator of Inter-American Affairs effort to represent the most popular of American industries’ interest in their neighbors. Roy was forced to make the unpopular industry decisions to raise the animators’ salaries, some of his best animators, resenting Disney’s “cut,” leaving the company for good—one of the reasons that 1941’s Dumbo is a far less visually interesting film than 1937’s Snow White.

     Cut to Disney’s desire to take his films beyond the realm of mere fantasy into the real world of nature itself. Convinced by a Scrooge McDuck comic book artist that the small Rodentia of lemmings regularly control their burgeoning population by throwing themselves off cliffs, Walt demanded his nature filmmakers, who he’d placed under the aegis of Roy’s son Roy Edward, that despite their Canadian lemmings’ refusals to readily leap off cliffs, they had to encourage them to do what “came naturally.”

     In Hnath’s metaphor they somehow manipulate the tiny rodents with turntables, flipping them off like a gramophone needle dropped upon vinyl. In reality, Disney directors dropped lemmings over the cliff from garbage trunks for his 1958 film White Wilderness, despite the fact that there was never evidence of lemming suicides and that the suddenly overly populated lemming communities had been observed only in the Scandinavian species, never among the Canadian variety. The myth is still retained by some today, and again Roy and his son took the wrath of critics and animal protectionists, not Walt, the man behind the false science. This would be funny—and is in Hnath’s telling—if it weren’t for the fact that it meaninglessly led to the killing of so many small animals and that the Disney of the company myth remained, as always, blameless, while the movie furthered the falsehood for generations.

Brittney Bertier, Kevin Ashworth, Thomas Piper and Cory Washington
Photo by Jenny Graham

      Cut to the increasing bloody handkerchiefs stored up in Walt’s pockets as his cancerous illness worsens along with growing vision of how he might survive forever through being cryogenically frozen: just his head, which might be implanted on another healthier body in some far distant future...perhaps without any of his personal flaws.

      Gradually we begin to discern how a true believer in what he defines as good—in Walt’s case comprised mostly of iconic images of home and hearth, happiness for all, a good life for those who worked hard, pleasant surroundings, etc.—becomes increasingly upset when he discovers others do not totally agree with that vision. Like so many of his time, Disney turns from FDR supporter to conservative Republican. He testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee, branding his former animators and labor union organizers Herbert Sorrell, David Hilberman, and William Pomerance as communist agitators. He tours filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl through his studio only a month after Kristallnacht. None of this appears, however, in Hnath’s play.

      The playwright focuses instead on Disney’s increasing determination to build a new city where everyone would live in peace and pleasantness, living out lives of total joy far too similar, to my way of thinking, to the world envisioned in Andrew Niccol’s and Peter Weir’s terrifying town of perfect facades of The Truman Show. Disney, it appears, was far less interested in building a new amusement center in Orlando than he was in realizing his control over the lives of the people of a visionary city, EPCOT ("Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow"). Like most fascists- in-budding, Disney begins with a grand vision of humanity; but when people get in his way or—in his imagination should citizens of that community might later disagree with the life assigned to them by the god-like creator—he goes into rages. At one point, angry with a situation, Disney even through one of his Oscars at his brother’s head. Late in his life he manipulated his “idiot” son-on-law, Ron Miller to cause chaos in the board meetings and perhaps assure that his grand empire might not survive after his death.

Kevin Ashworth as Walt Disney
Photo by Jenny Graham

      When hurt by the criticism of others, Walt lists his admirers and lovers, including Mussolini, chastising Hitler as being foolish for not liking Mickey Mouse, as if somehow that was worse of the evil tyrant’s crimes. Roy tries to explain to him that he simply cannot make such public statements, to no avail.

      But in recognizing those roots of fascism in Disney we must also look into the mirror, as the play’s set designer David Offner does, to see how our own fantasies, our visions of the “American Dream” are reflected through similar lenses. You cannot demand order and similarity of vision in a world filled with millions of differing voices from thousands of dissimilar cultures, religions, sexual desires, and plain stubborn obstructionism without destroying the country we know as the USA. Without even intending it become that, the utopian EPCOT was inevitably a fascist, racist, homophobe world organized by the US majority viewpoint, a world that would never have permitted the real USA to enter its gates.

      Walt Disney was cremated upon his death at 65 and buried in 1966 Forest Lawn Memorial Park, not sped off to a secret cryogenic center in Irvine, California as the play might lead us to believe. Roy was left to squelch his brother’s plans for a utopian city, itself becoming simply another “ride” through the tour of his talented brother’s imaginary worlds.

      Disney was not, fortunately, a god, and was never permitted to become the fascist he might have unwittingly wished to become. But in his so very appealing dreams most Americans should take a deep look at their own unstated desires and beware.

      Cut. End of play. Game over.


Los Angeles, March 28, 2022

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2022).



Sunday, March 20, 2022

Djuna Barnes | "The Songs of Synge"

by Djuna Barnes 

 I find myself in the strange position of one who must write an atmospheric article on an atmosphere. The task, did I love the cause less, would be almost insurmountable. I am not a critic; to me criticism is so often nothing more than the eye garrulously denouncing the shape of the peephole that gives access to hidden treasure.
     Neither am I one of those who knew this man whom I had set about to discuss. Never for me has the shy, quiet figure of John Millington Synge bent in an acknowledgment of recognition, for he died while I was yet in the layer below the sod of consciousness.
     Then for me what is left? I asked myself this question only after I had started the article, just as I used to write my name hastily on the back of any picture I wanted and could not afford to prevent myself from denying myself a pleasure that was both great and sad.
      Just what Synge means to you, I cannot tell. Much more widely known that most would think, till, perhaps he has remained a name and a name alone, like a title to a piece of music that we have never heard.
      How well I remember those first lines of his that, reading, I came to love so well, the lament of Deirdre of the Sorrows, over the bodies of the brothers of the man she loved and that body itself:
“It was a clean death was your share, Naisi, and it’s not I will quit your head, when it’s many a dark night among the snipe and plover that you and I are whispering together.”
     And the ultimate crescendo of resolute despair that those contemplating death give a life that cannot die:

“It is not I will go on living after Ainnle and after Ardan. After Naisi I will not have a lifetime in the world.”

     This for me was the first song that had come into my ears to stay, just as the year nineteen hundred was the first year that I remember as being anything more specific than time that passed pleasantly and time that passed in tears. Synge first touched the Irish in me as nineteen hundred touched the attaining of a long desire; mother that day had presented me with a brother. I remember the brother but hazily, the little pair of boots over the arm that held him, I remember plainly.
     One should be remembered for something, for to be forgotten is to be remembered for all that was unimportant and evil.
     What the poets of the Elizabethan age were doing for England, Synge was doing for Ireland while we were yet children stealing pies from the pantry. Nor did he make the mistake that is so often considered the gentlemanly thing to do; he went to the “hog wallow,” and not to the drawing room. Born near Dublin in 1871 of a family who had earned the name of “Sing” or Synge because of the sweetness of the voice, and perhaps also because of the sweetness of the heart and the tenderness of perception, we find him a silent, shy man, wandering about alone, or talking a little in the evening dusks in a voice both “jerky and guttural.”
     Those who knew him say that he cared little for the common conception of Bohemianism, that he nevertheless wore a celluloid collar and a long cape with the addition of the slouch hat, that was—well, if not close—careful, cooking his own eggs and tea upon a little range, and yet when a stray guinea came into his possession, marching his friends in a body out to lunch.
     He shaped his life as he shaped his plays; if the one had marginal notes and erasures, his life from day to day had also the mark of thought and of precision. This is often the case with men of his type. He did not trust to inspiration alone, he had first to observe, to take note, to study long, arduously, painfully. He was a harp on which the sorrows and the great strifes played, but they played with the tearing fingers of those in love and the hard, relentless clutch of those in pain; he was not touched softly; his music was torn from him with the pangs of travail—and of this there are always the inevitable signs—precision, almost pedantic jealousy of detail.
     His life, as a period of interest apart from what he created, is all too little known to have great value. Moore speaks of him in Hail and Farewell in a desultory manner. Yeats has written of him; Maurice Bourgeois has given us a charming and careful book upon him, perhaps half a dozen others; yet of all that I have read not one of them knew him personally well enough to fill three pages of his ordinary life, of his getting up and his going to bed, and Synge pursed this same lack of personal knowledge of himself to such a point that I feel that he did not know much more about John Millington Synge than did the four winds that played with him on his strolls through Europe till he went wandering back again to that place that had been home after all.
     It is said of him that he learned to speak French, that he knew Hebrew and German, that he read a great deal, but that always it was an undertaking of a kind, because he absorbed slowly, understood only after a great period of strained attention and determination, that he toiled as one who digs for a buried loved one, knowing that the statutory six feet of earth must come up first. He realized that it was only after the struggle that he could hope to be himself, that he could come to a conclusion worth of the best in him, and he was content and brave to delve and to anguish.
     Therefore, I feel that when he lay down with himself he was still in the great dark: that he turned the pages of his soul a thousand times before he could say suddenly, "Ah, so it is for this I smile"; that it was so with him upon awaking; that it may have been so to the day of his dying; that there were still a few pages that even he had not cut—he had gotten past the index, but had never reached the appendix.
His method of work was much like the more modern generation who have come to their composing almost entirely on the typewriter. He also used the machine, from 10 in the morning to 12, M. Bourgeois tells us. The rest of the day would be spent in rambles, at a concert in the evening or a theater, or at some cafe over a hot punch with a few friends. He never stayed later than 10, said little and listened much.
     After leaving Trinity College, Dublin, he took up the study of life and literature in France, in Germany, and in Italy. He had written a few desultory poems, he could translate a little, and he was still groping for what he felt growing up in him. When W. B. Yeats came upon him it was then that Yeats spoke, telling him to go back to his own land.
     "You will never create anything by reading Racine, and Arthur Symons will always be a better critic of French literature. Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression."
     It is for this that one could say it was Yeats who gave birth to the genius of Synge.
     Synge went home. In his earlier youth he had taken up music—he had wanted to be a musician, he could play the flute, and it is said he got more out of the penny whistle than was ever put in it. This symbolic—he played well that instrument that was the most simple and the least adapted to the hypocrisies of the conscious musician; he had tried painting, he had drawn a little—he gave them all up, saving that once in a while when he thought himself forgotten he would play the fiddle for a moment, in a mad gypsy whirl of passion.
     In Germany he had enjoyed the literature of the Germans, and the German plays—Gerhardt Hauptmann interested him as did Holz and Schalf. But it was not until he came to the stony little Aran Islands at the entrance of Galway Bay that he really breathed again.
     He had hoped to popularize Irish Literature in French, now he was content to standardize Irish in English. How well or how ill he had done it we can judge, though he died at thirty-eight and had literary birth only after much hesitation.
     If Racine, Maeterlinck and Loti had influenced him then, the keening of the women for their dead the crying of the night sea and the plover influenced him now. If at one time Petrarch's cry to Laura: "She has gone up into the heavens living and beautiful and naked and from that place she is keeping her Lordship and her rein upon me and I crying out"—meant more to him than what his own cry might mean to something he himself loved, it altered later and he was more content to stand My arms around you, and I lean Against you, while the lark Sings over us, and golden light and green Shadows are on your bark and know there was more fatality and more glad joy in his own, knowing that: There'll come a season when you'll stretch Black boards to cover me. And he realized that grim brutality and frankness and love are one, the upper lip is romance, but the under is irony, and he knew "There is no timber that has not strong roots among the clay and worms."
     It was only after the Irish Literary Theatre had been established by Mr. Yeats, Lady Gregory, A. E. and George Moore in 1899, to be dropped and founded again in the Irish Literary Theatre in 1913 with the use of the Abbey Theatre, that Synge was to meet the romance of his life in the shape of the leading lady to whom he became engaged in 1908, a year before his death.
     In his last illness in a Dublin hospital she would come and act parts of his plays until he grew too weak and tired, and, turning toward the wall, said, "It's no use to fight death longer," and died. Or did he? This is the question. Was he not building by his pen a Synge that will live always as a man who, if he was not always superlatively original—and he admits many sources—is still a beautiful rhythm—let me say an accent—perhaps it is no more—certainly it is no less? To me there is nothing in the English language that sets my whole heart to singing as his lines, "The dawn and the evening are a little while, the Winter and the Summer pass quickly, and what way would you and I, Naisi, have joy forever?" and: "It's a long time we've had, pressing the lips together, Naisi, walking with the smell of June in the tops of the grasses, and listening to the birds in the branches that are highest—it's a long time we've had, but the end had come surely" The story of Deirdre is as old as Ireland, and has been sung my many, by none as Synge has sung it—yet all he said was that he had done his best to render the rhythm of Gaelic into English. Well, he has left us six plays. Of the six, perhaps, The Playboy of the Western World is the best known, Riders of the Sea, coming second. It is an astonishing thing that such plays should be so violently resented by the Irish themselves. They called him traitor—they said he was making fun of his own people. He thought in the beginning that they would not mind being laughed at in a good-natured way for their failings; he found that they minded overmuch, even to the exclusion of the things that he found in them that were beautiful.
      But at last people know who you are speaking about if you mention his name. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the Irish people are a little more in the public eye, that there is also a great interest in Irish writers in general, that the plays of Dunsany are making a certain and definite impression. Certain it is that all ears re not deaf to this man, who came and who passed almost unspoken and almost unspeaking—who watched the world by night and wrote of it in the morning—who gave us the Well of the Saints, Tinker's Wedding, and In the Shadow of the Glen, his notebook of the Aran Islands, his Wicklow and Kerry sketches with their fine descriptive passages, and his poems and translations.
His poems show him as the brute first and the singer second; they are less and more him than anything else—they are Synge before Synge combed his hair and wore a collar: He says "When one loses their poetic feeling for ordinary life and cannot write poetry of ordinary things, their exalted poetry is likely to lose its strength of exhilaration, in the way men cease to build beautiful churches when they have lost happiness in building shops."
     Well, he went back to his shop building, and, lo! it pierced the intellectual sky with the spires of a church.
     But I cannot cease until I have quoted the passage that comes suddenly into the Aran Islands as death itself: "After mass this morning an old woman was buried. She lived in a cottage next to mine, and more than once before noon I heard a faint echo of the "keen" (weeping)...I could hear the strokes of a hammer in the yard, where, in the middle of a little crowd of idlers the next of kin labored slowly at the we moved down to the low eastern portion of the island, nearly all the man, and all the oldest women, wearing petticoats over their heads, came out and joined the procession. "White the grave was being opened the women sat down among the flat tombstones, bordered with a pale fringe of early bracken, an began the wild keen, or crying for the this cry of pain the inner consciousness of the people seems to lay itself bare for an instant." And so, looking it over, I find that, after all, I have not violated my strict intentions of remaining practically uncritical—and for this I am grimly happy. I give praise to my sour grapes, they make exceeding excellent wine. it is enough that, turning back to look on Synge, I have more courage to go forward—that I can read at least eight books without having to say that I was duped into fruitless hours of attention, or into the temporary anguish of undiscovering a discovery.
     Mary in the Well of Saints did not want to see again, preferring darkness to such tragic and illuming light as that let in on her and her Martin when the Saint touched them with the holy healing waters—so sometimes I also do not want to be awakened from the certain joyous blindness that was Synge's.

Reprinted from the New York Morning Telegraph, February 18, 1917.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Douglas Messerli | "Enchanted Man" (on John Fleck's it's alive, IT'S ALIVE!)

enchanted man

by Douglas Messerli

John Fleck (writer and performer), David Schweizer (director) it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE! / the performance I saw was at the Odyssey Theatre in Santa Monica, March 13, 2022.

The moment I stepped through the doors to one of my favorite haunts, The Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles, I suddenly realized that this was the first time I had been in a theater since early in 2020. I was relieved and almost giddy with the fact, but when I saw a group of about 30 audience members milling around, several without masks, I paused again. The box office required the now-standard proof of vaccination, so I presumed that everyone in the room had at least been rendered a bit more resistant to the killer disease, but what if....

     Indeed those issues are very central to the work by John Fleck I had come to see. it’s alive, It’s Alive! covers all the bases, so to speak. On one hand, when he and his usual collaborator David Schweizer had first conceived of and written the piece, they saw it as a perfect opportunity—planning to perform it on an open air stage in the parking lot of the theater, proving that even with the closure of most of the numerous Los Angeles-area venues, theater was still alive—to talk about the pandemic which had radically changed all of our lives and to place it within the political context of the horrifying last days of Trump, the shifts in political leadership in a time of our still radical reeling from other significant metamorphoses right and left, and contextualizing it all in the aftermath of the attacks on the US Capitol building by the Proud Boys and others.

      Unlike a few Los Angeles small theaters which did grant some companies permission to perform out-of-doors, they would not grant the Odyssey a waiver. And since the political commentary Fleck and Schweizer had planned, Russia had invaded Ukraine, Omicron and other strains of the virus had become more dominant, and our lives had been so altered that it now seemed possible that even a long-lasting theater company like Ron Sossi and the Odyssey ensemble might not survive. Even the actor had aged, becoming 70 in the time between the work’s conception and its production, an age when acting out, as Fleck generally does, numerous different characters within a matter of minutes and even seconds, singing, dancing, and general maniacal behavior makes it harder to simply endure.

      As always, there are so many shapings and shifts per-minute in this new work that it is almost impossible to describe all the beings this wonderful performance artist embodies. And this time he had two further cast members, Kyle G. Fuller and Tomoko Karina, to help in his cabaret-like crooning and add to the numbers of mutations made by the minute. The bassist John Snow—himself a sort of multiple personality who acts, sings, plays the bass, and runs a collective of equally energetic performers—and the pianist Scott Roberts added to the joyful cacophony. 

      Nonetheless, I might argue that there are only four major characters in this new Fleck-Schweizer concoction: the original Covid-19 virus, represented by a round plastic helmet with red-flower-like attachments much like we have seen in the newspaper and TV depictions of the genetic “look” of the monster; two further mutations—presumably the Indian Delta variant and the South African Omicron version—represented by similar helmets with green flowered spikes; the Q-anon activist who attacked the Capitol wearing shamanistic bison horns and a bearskin, Jake Angeli (aka  Jacob Anthony Angeli Chansley); and Fleck himself, the gay, exhausted performer channeling most of these beings through a mixture of true horror and camp.

      Once Fleck himself introduces the issues of this work, the busy COVID heads come into action, interrupted by the gun-threatening shaman, mouthing his absurd realities, seemingly unafraid of his refusal to accept the virus as anything but part of a liberal plot to destroy Amerikan freedoms and gun-lovers’ rights. Singing snatches of various songs when appropriate, the COVID germs attempt not only to attack the mad shaman just as he attacked the Capitol, but to make sense of their own existence as well as his, Fleck’s, caught in the middle of both terrible extremes, as he attempts to negotiate a kind of logic that might help us comprehend what our generation never imagined we would ever have to encounter; but with the added “revolution” of the two variants and the more recent events that could even lead us to nuclear destruction, the performer, so we are led to believe, simply doesn’t know how to handle the situation, forgetting his lines and in desperate need in the middle of his hour-long monologue to sit down and simply sip a bottle of water. 

      In between everything is satirized, from the theater world itself, the dead certainty of the liberal-believing audience members (who else would attend such a performance?), and the limitations of his and Schweizer’s own work, written before the even bigger disaster of the Russian invasion. If this play seems hectic, over-wrought, slightly mad, and even hysterical it most certainly does its best to convey that.

       The virus and its mutants finally get to some of the possible psychological explanations of, at least, Angeli’s behavior by singing the famous Nat King Cole paean to strange, special boys, Nature Boy, the 1948 hit composed by eben ahbez, the Brooklyn born, homeless by choice, California mystic and spiritual eccentric – who was also partially Jewish. The famous song, more recently featured in the 2001 film Moulin Rouge, in Fleck’s intonations, of course, becomes a gay anthem which strangely eventually calms down the shaman Q-Anon monster.

There was a boy

A very strange, enchanted boy

They say he wandered very far

Very far, over land and sea

A little shy and sad of eye

But very wise was he


And then one day

A magic day he passed my way

And while we spoke of many things

Fools and kings

This he said to me:


"The greatest thing you'll ever learn

Is just to love and be loved in return" 


     But, of course, by this time, infected with all the COVID variations the political rightist has just a few seconds to live, as time runs down and is called out by the chorus at the same moment when he pleads for the help of “Moi,” the original COVID9-19 virus, to get home from the strange Oz in which he and we have found ourselves. He clicks his ruby red slippers but alas nothing happens. It’s too late since the original virus no longer even matters. The world has become even more perverse.

      Fleck, the performer, also appears to break down attempting to even explain the “sloug” of our life—the word he uses to describe our times, a mixture perhaps of John Bunyan’s “slough of despond,” and blood-sucking creature. What if we were suddenly to be hit by a nuclear bomb, he wonders, would he want to be on some small, smelly, dark stage in West LA if death were suddenly to descend upon him?

      After a pause of several long seconds of silence, his answer his, of course, “yes, he feels at home only on the stage,” suggesting that all any of us can do, perhaps, is to love and live our lives to the fullest of the possibilities we are given.

      Just being back in a theater, let alone with a truly mad actor—in the best sense of that word, hinting at the Dionysian roots of his satyr play with the audience wearing the masks—brought tears and laughter back to my arid eyes and TV-deadened ears. There was a man, a very strange enchanted man upon that stage; and his name was John Fleck. 

Photographs by Katy Yates and Cooper Bates


Los Angeles, March 14, 2022