Monday, July 21, 2014

Smell This Dear...Has This Theatre Gone Bad?

Several years ago during the Tony awards Steve Martin did a bit about how to behave when going backstage to see a friend after they have appeared in a production that stinks worse than a combination of wet cat and old cheese. Despite my love for theatre and the theatre going experience the medium is capable of creating some pieces which are, to be kind, unredeemable.

This hard lesson was learned in my teens during a jaw dropingly horrible production of Shakespeare's "Richard the Third" presented by the Tony winning, highly respected American Conservatory Theatre based in San Francisco. Richard's hump was so enormous it resembled a scale model of Mt. Everest and the costumes, heavily reliant on studded black leather, appeared to have been inspired by the notorious nocturnal activities of the play's director the aptly named William Ball. In the final moments of the play our S & M fetish clad Richard runs to the front of the stage and recites the famous lines "A horse, a horse. My kingdom for a horse." Behind him appears the plays "good guy" clad in nothing but a pair of white tights, one leg bent, his powerful rippling arms curled before him in imitation of a horse reared up on it's hind legs. Inappropriate but understandable laughter filled the theatre. Later the assumption around town was that the strikingly handsome large muscleboy in the white tights, new to the acting company, was the latest addition to the director's offstage stable of studly stallions.

There are a number of other examples. After sitting through the theatrical abomination of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Blvd." I managed to stammer out, as my partner and friend gushed about it, "The set was nice."

I am not above leaving at intermission if I feel that my time is being wasted. "The Graduate" lost my interest after the infamous full frontal nudity sequence, which was dimly lit and occurs quite early, not to mention gratuitously, in the play. So to, did I leave and catch a bus home after the overlong tedious first act of the Goodman Theatres production of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean". By intermission it had run a full hour and 45 minutes. Unashamed, I threw in the towel, feeling I had given it the "old college try".

There is one particular playwright however who so far in my experience almost guarantees a grueling night in the theatre. Regina Taylor is an artistic associate at the Goodman Theatre. Having success early in her carrear as an actress, garnering a Golden Globe award and two Emmy nominations, she decided to turn her attention to playwriting. To date I have seen, at least in part, 3 of her works. First off, were she not a black woman, her plays would seem almost offensively racist, filled as they are with black stereotypes. If this is a case of Ms. Taylor writing what she knows perhaps she needs to step out of her comfort zone. The one piece I have seen in it's entirety, "Crowns", kept me in my seat only because of the gospel music infused through it. There was also no intermission, therefore no opportunity to make an inconspicuous escape. It, like Chinese food, was o.k. while it lasted but left little behind afterward. Then there were the series of 3 interconnected one acts. All three used the same set which was so well executed that the audience members were commenting on it before the house lights dimmed as there was no curtain and the set was in full view. After the first of the one acts I was unimpressed but not yet defeated. After the second I got on the train and headed home. First, you need to have 3 hours worth of things to say to expect an audience to stick with you for 3 hours. Second, she had, somewhat miraculously, managed to make the themes of rape and incest tedious and boring.

Next season one of the Goodman's productions is written and directed by Ms. Taylor. Generally speaking the words "written and directed by" are harbingers of doom, unless the names that follow are the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks or in the case of the film "Nine to Five" the late Colin Higgins. Still, ever the eternal optimist, and since I have already paid for the ticket, I shall attend and see how far I get.

Yet it was during my first experience with this playwright when life took on comic overtones almost worthy of the stage. My seat, for reasons that escape now, had been moved closer to the stage for this performance. Often this is a good thing, on this occasion, not so much. The play was a retelling of Chekhov's "The Seagull", set inexplicably among the people of the Gullah culture on the islands off of North Carolina. It was, to be kind, completely unredeemable. The rambling script and poor acting were mixed with a lame, uninspired set and costumes that made each member of the cast look as if they had gained 10 pounds between the final fitting and the opening performance. To fix the play one would have had to wipe the slate clean, then burn the slate to ash.

There is a scene in the original movie version of "The Producers" which scans the audience as they watch the musical number "Springtime for Hitler". Their faces reflect a mixture of shock, disbelief and disgust. As I looked down the row of seats next to me I beheld expressions on the faces of my fellow theatregoers which greatly resembled those of the theatregoers in the movie. One fellow had fallen asleep, I considered him fortunate.

By intermission I decided I had suffered enough and rose from my seat to leave the theatre. As I was about to exit the lobby I turned around. It looked as if someone had yelled "Fire!" People were stampeding towards the doors. Outside a block long line of cabs stood waiting. I imagined the call that had gone out. "Bomb at the Goodman. Please report to Dearborn Street at once to assist in the evacuation."

One of Chicago's major newspapers listed the play as "recommended". This led me to assume one of two things. Either the critic did not wish to be viewed as a misogynistic racist for giving a negative review to a play written by a black woman, or they had not actually seen the play they were paid to review.

Some time later while chatting with a customer at the jewelry counter where I worked at the time the subject of the play came up. When I asked her "So you saw it?" She replied, "I saw part of it." 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Right or Wrong

A city in Colorado, in recognition of Gay Pride Month, replaced the POW flag outside one of it's civic buildings with a rainbow flag. Veteran's groups were up in arms proclaiming that the removal of the POW flag violated their "rights". To quell the disturbance the POW flag was moved to another civic building where it was flown, for the month of June, directly beneath the U.S. flag. I have heard religious groups state that the legalization of same sex marriage violates their "rights" as Christians. Some speak of the "rights" of illegal immigrants. The notion that those who have broken the law to immigrate have legal rights to stay is akin to the nonsense voiced by the King, Queen and others in "Alice in Wonderland".

There are rights granted to citizens in the U.S. constitution. Among these the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", excepting, of course, the slaves owned by the founding fathers, but that is a story for another day. We are granted the "right to bear arms". What many seem to forget is that this right was given "in order to maintain a militia". Citizen militias are no longer necessary. It is time for the granting of the right to bear arms to be revisited. This "right" results in handgun deaths in the U.S. numbering in the tens of thousands. In other countries the number is counted in the dozens.

There are scores of laws and amendments granting and defining various rights. Many of these would be unnecessary if we were to focus on one simple, yet apparently hard to master concept, respect. Laws determining the right to a minimum wage would not be needed if corporations and business owners respected the work and dignity of their employees. Some complain of gays desiring "special rights". We merely ask for equal rights. We respect your right to marry who you please and not to have your home or employment threatened by an integral element of your nature. Our request is that those who oppose this for us do the same. As with the civil rights struggles of the 1950's and 60's if discrimination was not initially written or implied in the law an amendment to the law banning it would not be necessary.

With immigration the culture, civil procedure and laws of the country one wishes to move to needs to be respected. Those who break the laws fail to respect those that went through the proper channels to immigrate. While pride in ones native culture can be celebrated one also needs to respect the culture in which they have chosen to live. Were I to make the choice to move outside the U.S. I would learn the common language and not behave in a manner that would offend the place and people where I would chose to settle. I would treat my host with respect.

We will not agree, that is outside the basics of human nature. However we can respect one another. I do not request that you agree with or understand my views, opinions or lifestyle, that too goes against the sometimes headstrong nature of the human being. I do ask that my views, if they differ from yours, and do not cause harm to others, be respected, as I, if your views do not cause harm to others, will respect yours. Your "rights" do not include denying others that which you possess. We share the earth. On occasion, as some move forward within the boundaries of their self  involved bubble, they  seem to forget that.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Curse of Civic Duty

In my mail was the only thing I dread more than my post Christmas credit card bill, a jury summons. It was for a period of time when I would be visiting friends in Texas. I called and got a 3 month delay. When the new summons came it was for a courthouse whose location would require me to travel 2 plus hours EACH WAY!!!The other problem was that the courthouse is located in a dangerous, crime ridden area. It was also not outside the realm of possibility that I would be the only person of, well, shall we say Western European ancestry for miles in any direction. I called and got a change of venue. That was why, on an overcast Wednesday, when I would normally be attired in my black suit, dress shirt and tie, I was comfortably dressed in jeans, G star tennis shoes, a Christmas gift from my partner after I had to throw out an over worn favorite pair of foot gear and a fleece jacket picked up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Although the bus line from the train to the courthouse has a stop by my workplace, so I travel it regularly, I had never taken it past that stop. I was therefore going to head into what, for me, was virgin territory. It was  a nightmare of a public transit trip which proved Murphy's Law and took much longer than it should have. I passed by a bit of forest preserve I never knew existed and the headquarters of PEAPOD, the online grocery delivery service, finally arriving at the Skokie Courthouse, which, incidentally, should go down in architectural annals as one of the most non descript buildings in world history. Inside further blandness assaults the senses,, beige walls, beige floors and mud colored upholstered chairs which were surprisingly and thankfully comfortable. I would be spending a long amount of time in them that day.

A court employee, whose announcements sounded disturbingly like those of a flight attendant, welcomes us and introduces a video instructing us as to what we should expect during our jury service. A judge, whose delivery was so wooden I feared he would go up in flames any moment, is joined by a semi celebrity local newscaster to explain why the hell we are there and the procedures of a trial. We were then informed by the court employee/flight attendant that these is only one jury trial scheduled for that day. If we are not picked we will be dismissed. We sat, a morning talk show droned, I read.

One of the unpleasant parts of jury duty is the tedium. If I were to be released early I could return home, cook, clean, perhaps visit the gym, I could do SOMETHING! If I am picked to sit on the jury, although depending on the case that could become a multi day process, I would still be doing SOMETHING! We sat, a morning talk show droned, we waited. Except for the T.V. the place was not unlike the D.M.V.

In the one jury trial the defendant pleaded guilty, this state someone can ask for a jury trial even if one has not been scheduled for their case. We were told to amuse ourselves for an hour and a half then return. I pulled out my sandwich and snacks thinking that perhaps between them, writing, reading and my phone I could stay diverted for that length of time.

 As I walked down the hall past the doors of the courtrooms with their long glass windows my mind pondered what personal dramas were being enacted behind each one. Child custody cases, workers comp issues, perpetrators and victims of minor crimes confronting one another, maybe one neighbor suing another over their level of unneighborlylessness.The law, the search for a pat, written solution to the ills of the human race. Many of these ills are part of human nature. They cannot be tethered by the written word. They must be experienced, dealt with, learned from and moved past. Only one law should be necessary, look out for and be concerned for one another, essentially the Golden Rule of the Bible. But people and society seem more complicated than that. Our brains and emotions seem to crave the clutter of detail.

A father and daughter team of lawyers entered the lunchroom discussing various cases, loudly. I would have loved to seek solace in the forest preserve across the street but I could see no trail head and a busy road, sans stoplights, created a barrier between it and me. A song from the 80's stated "nobody walks in L.A.". The same could be said about the Chicago suburbs.

I walked back through the bland, beige interior. Couldn't they at least hang a painting or two? Create a high school mural competition. Allow the taggers of our subway system access to ply their craft? Anything would help!

After our break we returned to the waiting room. I had bought a book in January in anticipation of this day, "A Single Man" by Christopher Isherwood. An early openly gay author he wrote "The Berlin Stories" which was adapted for the stage into "I Am A Camera" which was the basis for the musical "Cabaret". The relative quiet of the room was a good venue for poring through Isherwood's dense, imagery filled prose.

Finally we were told that all cases on the docket that day had been settled and we were free to go. It was my good fortune to find a bus idling, waiting to depart as I left the building. Settling into my seat I reflected on the day. It wasn't a total waste, I got a good read in.