Yearly Archives: 2011

Hung

With Nurse Jackie and The Big C on hiatus for now, I’ve returned to Hung on HBO, which is enjoying its third season of social observation through the foibles of a male prostitute and his female pimp.  I’ve also been watching Homeland on Showtime, to see how it unravels its post-9/11 tale of paranoid intrigue.  My viewing is selective, but it does seem that subscription television offers more nuanced women characters than many of those in mainstream films (Bridesmaids aside).  The women in these two series actually grow and change over time, taking advantage of the more capacious narrative potential of episodic TV (see my next post for a discussion of Homeland).

Hung continues to follow the unlikely pairing of Tanya Skagle (Jane Adams) and Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane), a pimp and her prostitute, who use his impressive physical prowess to make a common living.  Although I missed much of Hung’s second season, which is now out on DVD, I’m reminded what fun it is to watch Adam’s hapless but deeply feminist Tanya make her way through the illegal and sexual thickets of pimping out her man to middle-class, middle-aged, and (unfortunately) white women (except for current guest star Ana Ortiz).

Tanya has established a Wellness Center for women where she instructs her acolytes in the fine art of reclaiming their sexuality.  Tanya calls herself a “happiness consultant.”  Rehearsing the “our bodies, ourselves” mantras of 1970s feminist self-help, Tanya invites her students to “know your vulva,” encouraging them toward embracing the power of their sexual identities.

Much of the show’s humor comes from its admixture of feminist sexual activism with capitalist entrepreneurship.  After all, Tanya’s goal is to make a living for herself and Ray, and she’s the first to admit that she’s often out of her league.  But she’s ambitious enough to seek advice from a middle-aged African American male pimp who also becomes her lover.

Hung’s pedigree includes executive producers Alexander Payne (the writer/director of Sideways and the just-released film The Descendants) and Angela Robinson (director alum of The L Word and of the terrific lesbian spy spoof, D.E.B.S.), who help secure its insights into middle-aged men and middle-aged, feminism-informed women.  Created by Dmitry Lipkin and Collette Burson, the show engages the economic dilemmas of middle-class and marginalized people desperate to make ends meet and creative enough to brook convention and taboo.

The show is set in Detroit, although it’s obviously white, suburban Detroit, not the economically devastated, racially diverse, struggling inner city.  But the working class history of the area allows its producers to contemplate the shrinking professional horizons of ordinary people who nonetheless boast a sharp analysis about their right to reap the promised rewards of lauded American enterprise.

Tanya, for example, has an MFA in poetry, and Ray is a high school basketball coach.  That Tanya is also the businesswoman who takes advantage of Ray’s extraordinarily large penis lends the show its feminist angle and much of its humor.  Her face shiny with sweat and anxiety, her hair floating in frantic frizz around her face, Tanya is a smart if inchoate bundle of determination.  In recent episodes, she and Ray face competition from Lenore (Rebecca Creskoff), Tanya’s former would-be business partner, who’s found her own well-endowed stud, Jason (Stephen Amell), and intends to intrude on Tanya’s territory.

And Ray is burdened by the role-playing expectations of Lydia, one of his johns (or would it be janes?), a woman who insists on meeting him in unlikely situations in which she plays cop to his robber.  When it turns out Lydia (Ortiz, late of Ugly Betty) really is a police officer, Tanya and Ray’s business is threatened.  In the last episode I watched, the comedy was acute, but the explanation for Lydia’s outsized desires felt too psychologically lame for a show that’s best when it’s parodic.

Who cares that Lydia’s police officer husband is a brute who regularly frequents his own stable of prostitutes?  Instead of leveling the gendered playing field by suggesting women can be as physically desirous and emotionally detached about sex as men, the episode attributed Lydia’s appetites to a bad relationship.  And Ray freed himself and Tanya from potential arrest by offering Lydia an emotionally sustaining freebie.

But most of the time, Hung keeps its balance and doesn’t fall into sentimentality.  For example, Ray’s ex-wife, Jessica (Anne Heche), has divorced her second husband.  Though she has no apparent work skills, she desperately needs a job, and finds one working for a pompous, self-important doctor with whom she and Ray used to socialize.

When the doctor seduces her, their sex scene shows him moving way too slowly on top of her while crooning lyrics from musical theatre.  Heche’s pitch-perfect reactions to her sexual and emotional boredom fill the screen.  When the doctor unexpectedly visits her at home to reassure her that their liaison won’t jeopardize her job, Heche’s incredulity registers how even men who are sexually and romantically inept still maintain more social and professional power than the women they lord it over.

Likewise, Lenore pressures Jason into working for her and tries to thwart his engagement, which she assumes will be an obstacle.  But when she confronts his fiancée, she’s far from shocked by her future husband’s sexual adventures.  Instead, the young woman bargains with Lenore for the spoils from his extra-curricular work.

Sex, Hung points out, can be a negotiable, even exploitable business relationship instead of a prize kept on the rarefied pedestal of marriage or romance.  This is a plank straight out of feminist sex workers’ platforms; see, for only one example, the activist ideologies of COYOTE, a sex workers’ rights group founded in 1973 by the prostitute Margo St. James.

The small moments that upend stereotypical expectations about sex and sexuality make Hung a series worth watching.  It’s full of smart and funny social observations about the economic and political, as well as the emotional, tolls of gendered sexual interactions.  The casts’ rich performances and the producers’ excellent writing keep it consistently engaging.

Although it’s Ray’s anatomy that keeps their business going, it’s Tanya’s understanding of women’s desires that sells their product.  And the women who buy Ray’s services are somehow always proactive, powerfully in charge of their encounters.  Ray is a good guy in Hung, but he’s objectified in ways that limit his masculine privilege to the power of his member.  He spends much of the series befuddled and bossed around; happily, though he might be a stud, he’s not a patriarch.

Hung tries to do new things with old gender roles.  Take a look.

The Feminist Spectator

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Chinglish

David Henry Hwang has long chronicled the complications of Asian and western cultures clashing with mostly deleterious effects.  His play M. Butterfly, which premiered on Broadway in 1988, famously narrated the story of a western diplomat who lived in China and fell in love with a communist spy he thought was a woman.  With deft comedy and captivating theatricality, Hwang illustrated the Orientalism endemic to the west, as white people persistently project their fantasies of the “Other” onto those unlike themselves.  The production made a star of B.D. Wong, who played Song Liling and marked one of the stage highlights of Jon Lithgow’s long and distinguished career.

In his latest play, Chinglish, in a very funny, smart Broadway production directed by Leigh Silverman after a successful run at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last summer, Hwang once again addresses mismatched cultures from the perspective of a white businessman, this time from Cleveland, who’s taken himself to China to stir up business for his family’s failing signage company.  Daniel (Gary Wilmes) hires Peter (Stephen Pucci), an Englishman who’s lived in China for nearly 20 years, as a local “consultant” to help him translate not just the Chinese language, but also the complicated mores of the local culture, on which successful business deals depend.  But as the Chinese officials with whom Daniel would do business bring along their own native translator, differences of meaning and failures of communication abound.

With most of the Chinese characters speaking Mandarin, the English translation is projected for the theatre audience as supertitles and most of the humor lodges in our syncopated reading of the translations as they’re posed against their intended meanings.  The very problem Daniel offers to solve—the poorly translated signs in newly built cultural institutions meant to impress western audiences (a handicapped bathroom sign reads “Deformed Man Toilet”)—hobbles his business dealings, as the Chinese translator sitting in on his first meeting with local bureaucrats ineptly delivers his proposal.

Peter isn’t much better at greasing the wheels of business, caught up as he is in the “backstage” dealings that seed capitalist relationships in the communist state. The Englishman plans to succeed by relying on an exchange of favors that promptly backfires, stranding him and his American friend without a deal prospect.

But from behind the scenes comes Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim), the Chinese second-in-command who sits mostly silent and stern at the initial meeting, while her bumbling male boss performs the obsequious fawning that’s meant to flatter the American while not providing Daniel any true satisfaction. When Xi Yan offers to meet with Daniel over a meal, she dismisses Peter and proceeds to reveal the “backstage” story in halting English that brings its own set of hilarious misunderstandings.

But unlike her superior, Xi Yan is no fool. She’s a sharp businesswoman who understands the complex equation of Chinese business acumen with an ethical system of checks and balances that requires compromise to protect private honor. When she and Daniel begin an affair, her same unsentimental, sophisticated analysis of global power dynamics infuses her tryst. Silverman directs Lim to literally let down her hair in her bedroom scenes with Daniel, but instead of a typical transformation into a simpering sex kitten (the stereotype that underlies the stern business woman or worse, “librarian” figure), Xi Yan retains her agency. She’s after pleasure, not a relationship, and soundly rejects Daniel’s belief that sex leads to love and then to marriage.

The gender politics of the play are as interesting here as they were in M. Butterfly, though these many years later, Hwang allows an actual woman to deliver the critique of American Orientalism. Enjoying their passionate affair, Daniel begins to get carried away with romance, suggesting that he and Xi Yan leave their respective marriages to be together, as people in love are supposed to do, according to his American fantasies.

But Xi Yan is horrified by this idea, protesting that if he leaves his wife, he’ll threaten her own marriage, which is built not on some western notion of eternal sentimental love, but on a much more pragmatic understanding of partnership and mutual public benefit. In fact, Xi Yan’s business machinations with Daniel increase the political standing of her husband, Xu Geming (Johnny Wu), a judge who is subsequently promoted to mayor. That Xi Yan can keep squarely separate public politics from private pleasure makes her the more powerful of the couple. At the end, Daniel can only ruefully go on with his life and enjoy the successful business contract his relationship with Xi Yan enabled.

The play is full of wry and pointed observations about gender, as well as nationality and race. Played by Wilmes with hapless magnetism and bemused patience, Daniel is a sweet nebbish of a guy, desperate to succeed in an environment about which he knows virtually nothing. He’s middle-aged, handsome in a regular sort of way, and not particularly sexy, though the more elegant and sophisticated Xi Yan thinks him compatible. Lim performs Xi Yan with precise comic control, never sacrificing the character’s dignity to get a laugh, and infusing her sexuality with the perfect balance of desire and agency. Hers is a terrific performance of a role that could easily sink into cardboard stereotype.

Daniel finds his erotic and corporate quotient surprisingly elevated when he admits that he worked for Enron; he becomes a minor celebrity in a Chinese context in which crooks like Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling are seen as heroes. The Chinese make grand assumptions about Daniel’s proximity to the company’s power structure, which establishes more credibility than he has or probably deserves.

But with such a counter-misunderstanding, Hwang this time around evens the playing field. In M. Butterfly, the playwright’s excoriating critique showed up western men’s projections of otherness and eroticism onto Asian women, seeing them as wounded butterflies in need of white male protection. That Song Liling turned out to be quite a virile young man instead of a helpless woman only underlined Hwang’s critique of the west’s insistent feminization of eastern cultures.

In Chinglish, the cultural misapprehensions are mutual, allowing Hwang to portray an international scene in which both countries share responsibility for perpetuating their own miscommunications. At the same time, Hwang clarifies that the fledgling capitalism in China needs western-style business and vice versa, that their transactions are a matter of mutual survival.

The cast is uniformly terrific. Many play multiple roles, from Party apparatchiks to local officials. Silverman keeps the tone even and light throughout, allowing the play’s humor to sound without sacrificing Hwang’s more serious underlying intent. The evening moves smoothly—the set (beautifully designed by David Korins) folds into and out of itself into various locations, from the lobby of a swanky hotel to one of its rooms, to the bureaucrats’ office and back again, using the actors to help punctuate and enliven the frequent transitions.

Chinglish ultimately isn’t as transformational a play as M. Butterfly¸ whose intense theatricality alone made it memorable. Chinglish remains realist throughout, and banks on the humor of its mistranslations to strike home its points. But the evening succeeds in making amused spectators think about national and cultural differences and how we traverse them, along with the social complications of navigating global capitalism in an increasingly interconnected world.

The Feminist Spectator

Chinglish, by David Henry Hwang, directed by Leigh Silverman, Longacre Theatre, October 29, 2011.

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Cries and Whispers

It’s been 30+ years since I’ve seen the Bergman movie on which Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam production is based, but in any case, this production’s searing theatricality provides the same story in a medium so utterly different, reference to the original seems unnecessary. Charles Isherwood, in his New York Times’ review, called this production “clinical.” I can’t imagine what he was smoking before he saw it, if he missed the passionate and powerful emotion of this investigation into death and dying.

Perhaps his blindness to the import of gender in theatre once again mislead him, because the production analyzes in minute detail the physical and emotional costs of suffering a death, and the ways in which, much as women might desire physical and emotional connection, it remains so impossibly difficult to open ourselves to one another.

With post-modernist scenography by Jan Versweyveld, the stage is built as an environment connected by flesh and blood human beings as well as by their live video-feed images. Agnes (Chris Nietvelt) begins the performance on a hospital bed center stage, with a close-up of her vomit-caked lips and the green-yellow spit-up coloring the pillow where she lays projected on a screen above her. When she gets up, the rest of Agnes’s body is stained with feces and other bodily fluids.

Evidence of her body’s loss of control frequently recur in the play, making the performance very much about what feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz called the “volatile” female body, one whose leakages reject boundaries and containment in ways that offend and threaten a conventional patriarchal order. (No wonder Isherwood couldn’t stomach the piece.)

Agnes is dying, under the ambivalent ministrations of her two sisters—Karin (Janni Goslinga) and Maria (Halina Reign)—and the more compassionate care of her nurse and the family’s maid, Anna (Karina Smulders). While in Bergman’s film, the relationships are detailed through the intimacy of extreme close-up in a film that moves glacially through its record of primary emotions, van Hove makes of his live production a more quotidian record of the intimacies of death.

Because the play moves back and forth through time—from Agnes’s death mid-way through to an earlier moment in her illness, then back to the post-funeral familial aftermath—the linear story isn’t as important as how these characters react, often in wordless scenarios of interaction that clarify the complexity of their emotions.

Performed in Dutch, the dialogue proceeds as supertitles projected on two suspended flats above the set. Canvas walls, too, hang over the proceedings, like the art work Agnes creates and refers to throughout. But the projected words and the actors’ intonations are much less important than the physical pictures van Hove and his performers create.

While Agnes describes her unbearable pain, and reminisces in between bouts of agony about her parents and their various relationships to her and her sisters, the others observe the progress of her dying. Maria and Karin tend to her fitfully and reluctantly, their hesitations communicated by the distance they keep from Agnes’s soiled bed and from the cautious, unwilling ways they touch their sister. Maria, the more immature and impetuous of the two, brings little toys and children’s books to the bed to entertain Agnes. The dying woman appreciates the distractions, but surprise also registers on her face, that her sister thinks these childish objects will stand up against the profundity of her pain.

Maria also flirts with the doctor (Roeland Fernhout) whose impersonal ministrations to her sister can’t begin to ease her way into death. Maria and the doctor have had an affair, we learn in the play’s second half, when the two act out a moment in their relationship when he tries to resist her and she throws herself at him. The scene is notable for how the Fernhout morphs halfway through from the doctor into Maria’s husband, Joachim. As the doctor and Maria prepare to have sex, she pushes him onto the long wooden tables that have replaced Agnes’s hospital bed at the center of the set. As she rips off his shirt and prepares to undo his pants, he flings himself up and they wrestle with a new costume, redressing him as violently as he was undressed the moment before.

As he brutally shrugs himself into a sport coat, the doctor’s brusque and violent manner is replaced by the taciturn, remote affect of Maria’s husband, who proceeds to sit back down to a meal at the table and eat over his newspaper, barely grunting in response to her entreaties. The transformation is powerful and apt—that the same man could be the vessel for passion and lovelessness demonstrates van Hove’s point about the unpredictability and even the impossibility of real human connection.

But when Joachim leaves the table, he clutches Maria to his chest wordlessly, exiting only to return shortly after with his chest covered in blood, holding a knife before him that drips with the tacky cells of his self-immolation. The image is shocking and effective. Van Hove’s refusal to respect the differences between reality and fantasy make for powerful theatrical metaphors, in which actors’ bodies, the stage effects (never meant to be convincing, only allegorical), and the performances are pressed into service to communicate physically what can’t be said or expressed otherwise. The actors’ bodies wear the play’s subtext. That none of the other characters comment on Joachim’s gaping wound, for instance, illustrates the chilling consequences of our inability to communicate our deepest, truest emotions.

Likewise, Agnes’s death scene is a beautiful, fierce theatrical metaphor for excruciating pain and a soul’s resistance to leaving its body. Nietvelt, as Agnes, rolls out a stage-wide piece of glossy white paper on which she centers herself. Then she proceeds to pour blue paint over her head, after which she rolls around on the paper, body-painting in a corporeal representation of her agony. She moves her arms back and forth as though she’s making a snow angel (an image that returns beautifully at the production’s end), and flings herself across the paper until she’s covered in vibrant blue from head to toe.

Agnes uncovers a large industrial bucket near the stage of her dying and pours from it a brown fluid that mixes with the blue blood, a searing representation of the body’s failure at death, as feces and body fluids co-mingle to overflow its borders. Just before she dies, Anna approaches Agnes, lifting the dying woman’s arms to wrap them around her neck. The image of the two sitting together, Agnes exhausted by her death throes, her blue face as elongated and sorrowful as a woman in a Modigliani painting, offers a moving, pieta-like portrait of the final moments of someone who’s railed against death but finally can’t escape its arrival.

In fact, one of the production’s most mournful reminders is of the loneliness of death. Agnes is surrounded by women who sit vigil with her, but that moment of pain on the white paper illustrates that death is a territory the dying walk alone. And although her sisters and Anna live on, van Hove suggests that their living, too, is solitary and unobserved. For example, when Karin and her husband have a loveless exchange that echoes Maria’s with Joachim, Karin breaks a wine glass and uses one of its shards to cut her vagina, dripping her own blood between her legs and staining her slip. Once again, none of the other characters notice, and she continues on with her actions as though the wound is invisible.

In Cries and Whispers’ final moments, Agnes speaks to us from someplace after her death, touring us through her art work like a guide through what had been heaven before illness made her life hell. The canvas-cubed walls of the set descend to the stage floor, so that projections of Agnes art work can light up the screens. Close-ups of body parts waving on the snow slowly pull out to reveal winter-wear-clad people lying on the ground, making the angels that Agnes echoed at her death.

As the camera moves back farther and farther, the group of people makes a singular geometric shape in the snow, all moving different parts of the whole. Agnes notes wryly that she used to think that she make art to understand life. Now, she understands that art is made to stave off death.

With Cries and Whispers, van Hove does both.

The Feminist Spectator

Cries and Whispers, directed by Ivo van Hove, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2011 Next Wave Festival, October 28, 2011.

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Completeness and Sweet and Sad

Seeing these two plays back to back made me think a lot about content and style in realist dramas. Both Itamar Moses’s Completeness and Richard Nelson’s Sweet and Sad concern relationships, in more or less domestic settings.  Completeness is about young people, just starting out in their lives;Sweet and Sad is about a middle-aged family whose lives have been rocked in different ways by loss.  Both dramas are structured around story-telling and long monologues to which other characters listen carefully; neither are plot-driven or full of action or even conflict.  And yet Sweet and Sad ends by being about so much more than it appears to be, while Completeness, though in its own way sweet and sad, winds up being about so much less.

The Moses play, at Playwrights Horizons, fits nicely into the theatre’s menu of beautifully presented, consistently satisfying work by “new” (usually young) playwrights.  With simple but elegant productions, lovely, subtle direction, and top-notch acting, I’m rarely disappointed by what I see at Playwrights.  But Completeness made me think a bit harder about what exactly this bill of fare delivers.

The four-hander concerns graduate students in computer science and molecular biology making their way into new thought in their respective fields.  Elliot (the baggy-eyed, appealing Karl Miller) is working hard on an algorithm that will break a long-vexed problem of predictive data management in computer science, but in his spare time, he’s breaking up with his girlfriend, a colleague in his department, to pursue a new attraction to Molly (Aubrey Dollar), a graduate student working on yeast cultures and cell division in molecular biology.  Elliot and Molly’s various former partners and co-workers move in and out of their lives, as the couple dance around one another, too entangled in their own emotional histories to really make a commitment.

Thanks to Miller and Dollar (lovely and intelligent as Molly) and to director Pam MacKinnon’s unobtrusive but sensitive guidance, Completeness makes a compelling case for its characters.  They speak often about their work, in long paragraphs that delve into some detail about their various hypotheses and experiments.  That these speeches remain interesting, despite the often technical jargon of their fields, is a credit to Miller and Dollar, who makes us see their ideas as living, breathing problems that they’re eager to address and solve.  The actors make Elliot and Molly dreamy with ambition, so that their overlapping investigations and their collaboration in science and math become as sexy and poetic as their romantic moments.  In fact, their intellectual exchanges sometimes make for more compelling conversation, since Moses delivers through metaphor the emotional challenges they face as a couple.  Molly insists she needs to do more “screens” to prove her ideas; Elliot keeps hitting walls because the choices his algorithm addresses increase exponentially with each new addition.

That they’re really talking about their emotional lives is both elegant writing and somehow a slightly disappointing bait and switch.  I enjoy listening to smart characters on stage (especially women, who are still too rarely given the dignity of real work to address as part of their action). Elliot and Molly think together in ways that become as attractive to spectators as it does to them. But once their relationship starts, after a fast sexual encounter that they mutually manipulate into happening, Completeness too quickly devolves into a play that’s about the callow emotions of twenty-somethings, instead of about the excitement of the science at which they work.

Moses carefully structures their revelations.  After they grudgingly admit that their relationship might have a future, both Elliot and Molly feel compelled to confess their flaws.  Elliot tends to run from his feelings, once the initial excitement of the chase has ended.  His speech about wanting to preserve the wonder and mystery of that first flush of love for his new object of affection is beautifully crafted and clear.  Likewise, Molly meets his acknowledgement with one of her own, relating obliquely that she broke another man’s heart and in the process, broke her own, in a failed partnership that continues to haunt her.  She bemoans her inability to be a “clean slate.”

But why should this be Molly’s hubris and not everyone’s?  Who is a clean slate, once they’ve reached their mid-twenties?  Those two lynchpin speeches, then, provide an unfortunately misguided emotional turning point for Elliot and Molly.  While Completeness is notable for the emotional openness and eloquence of its male as well as its female characters, these speeches retreat back into typical gendered norms:  Elliot prefers the chase and Molly has baggage.  Even the play’s rather oblique ending, which offers Elliot the chance to act against masculine type, remains tentative, leaving us with the sense that while there’s hope, neither character has enough real gumption to break their already established emotional patterns.

So what’s it all about, then?  Molly says their whole generation is damaged, unable to complete the pass of real relationships.  The stakes seem too high, yet at the same time, in the play’s story, they’re also too amorphous.  What do either Elliot or Molly really have to lose?  They’re both well situated, with funding for their research, despite Molly’s earlier sexual relationship with her advisor, who proceeds to try to blackmail her professionally.  (Happily, Moses lets Molly stand up to this creep; she’s clearly a woman with professional courage and clarity.)

These aren’t characters in danger.  Elliot works with an undergraduate woman (Meredith Forlenza, excellent and distinct in each of her three subsidiary roles) who’d be happy to start a relationship with him, and Molly’s fellow grad student, Franklin (Brian Avers, also energetic and amusing in his multiple roles), doesn’t hesitate to kiss her as they work together, after offering what he admits is too much information about his own emotional traumas.  (Moses’s men are supposed to be as vulnerable as his women.)  Elliot and Molly will be fine; the play shows us that at every turn.  Why, then, should we care about whether or not they choose to be fine together?

Sweet and Sad, on the other hand, concerns a middle-aged family of brothers and sisters, their partners, and an elderly uncle trying to live within their long-standing emotional entanglements against the backdrop of the national cataclysm that was 9/11.  Nelson is specific about when and where the family’s conversations unfold; the program notes that the play “takes place between approximately 2pm and 4pm on the afternoon of Sunday, September 11, 2011” in the “dining room in Barbara and Marian Apple’s house on Center Street” in Rhinebeck, New York.  Through this specificity comes a grounded sense of place and time, in which the characters spin out not just their familial and emotional ties, but their private sense of how their own traumas and histories fit into the memory and present of the more public trauma of 9/11.

Nelson directed his own script for this Public Theatre PublicLab production, a sequel to That Hopey Changey Thing, which opened on election night, November 2, 2010.  I didn’t see the first installment in what Nelson promises is a series, which I regret, having found Sweet and Sad a lovely, important example of how theatre can participate in public dialogue.  Although it might be called intense realism, conducted as it is through quotidian conversations, in one set, against the backdrop of a family meal in preparation for an evening out, Sweet and Sad speaks so resonantly into a notable public moment (the 10th anniversary of 9/11) that it seems almost Brechtian in its appeal to a thinking spectator caught in the inevitable changes wrought by history.

Nelson addresses private and public loss.  Marian (Laila Robins) has moved back into the family home with her sister, Barbara (Maryann Plunkett).  Both are public school teachers.  But Marian’s daughter has recently committed suicide, for reasons Nelson doesn’t clarify.  The motivation for the young woman’s death isn’t as important as the effects of her loss on Barbara and the rest of the family.  Barbara tries to soldier on in her life, but her spirit is broken.  When she disappears from the family dining table, overcome by grief, her family whispers about how they might help her.  Her mourning is a problem, in a Brechtian lehrstuck sort of way—how might we address socially what seems only private?

Analogous to Barbara’s mourning is the national grief recalled by the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Around these two parallel griefs, the family talks about their lives and their choices.  Richard (the compassionate, articulate Jay O. Sanders, whose acting makes subtle nuances in a character who could be boorish and unlikable) is a wealthy Manhattan lawyer; his third sister, Jane (J. Smith-Cameron, lovely in the role of a woman who’s arch and competitive but continues to grapple with her own personal and public sensitivities), is a journalist who’s seeing an actor, reviving a long-standing but fallow relationship after she divorces her husband.

The Apple family, that is, are adults—successful (for the most part), white, middle-class adults, which makes them representative of only a small part of New York society.  But nonetheless, Nelson makes of their conversation a smart and compelling meditation on how we lead our lives and how we make our choices, the consequences of personal gestures in the context of a public still roiled by a sense of its own vulnerability and connection to world forces much, much larger than the very tiny units of family and work in which our lives play out.

Completeness, by Itamar Moses, directed by Pam MacKinnon, Playwrights Horizons, September 24, 2011.  Closed.

Sweet and Sad, written and directed by Richard Nelson, PublicLab, September 24, 2011.  Closed.

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Spiderman and Sister Act

After all the press brouhaha about Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark for these many years, and the vituperative reviews from most of the mainstream critics, I was surprised to find the show so benign when I finally saw it.  Thanks to Jenny Slattery, who’s a stalwart assistant stage manager onSpiderman, I wrangled house seats and a backstage tour on which Jenny generously took me and FS2 after a recent Sunday matinee.  We had seats on the aisle, which meant that Spidy landed by us on one of his several second act flying feats, and sat close enough to be able to watch the actors work while still taking in the scenery, which is perhaps the show’s most breathtaking accomplishment.

But watching Spiderman and, a few weeks later, a Wednesday matinee of the musical adaptationSister Act prompted me to think again about the differences between film and theatre, since both shows adapt their stories from cinematic (and, of course, for Spiderman, comic book) source material.  Spiderman goes to great lengths and historic expense to recreate the CGI magic of the movies for a theatre audience.  But inevitably, all the cash spent on all those effects only manages to provide a few moments of theatrical exhilaration.

The flying sequences offer a joyous kind of fun, especially in the climactic battle between Spiderman and the Green Goblin, who fly above and beneath and around one another in a fast, dizzying, carefully choreographed scene of high-flying almost-interaction.  Jenny told us that in addition to the physical prowess required to pull off the moments, the performer playing the flying Spiderman had to demonstrate that he’s having fun in the air.  And it shows.  In an otherwise earthbound production, the flying scenes literally soar, and meet the promise of all the advanced hype.

What exactly is it that’s so much fun about those scenes?  Without green-screen technology to erase the fly lines, what we’re watching is a too human man hooked to a complicated harness.  The apparatus propels him above the audience and lets him land up on the balcony and then fly back to the stage, where he perches on platforms that lead him off into the wings.  Hiding the fly lines is impossible; in fact, it’s what the audience has come to see.

We’re not enticed by the magic of pretending—although in a way, I suppose we are.  We’re more attracted, I think, to the notion that no matter how fleshy our bodies, imagination and stage technology can still make them seem to fly.  Perhaps we’re there to practice the sometimes archaic suspension of disbelief that movies have made too easy for us.  Perhaps we’re there to see something as old-fashioned as an actor flying through an actual theatre to remind ourselves that live performance still relies on a delightfully quotidian sleight of hand to make its claims on our joy.

The rest of Spiderman, however, is mired in an unimaginative, predictable story about power gone awry and the young innocent whose ethics are sullied in his quest to right wrongs.  Since the audience is given little to think about—the dialogue is wooden and the songs, as reported, unmemorable—we just watch instead.  The inventive costumes and the cinematically styled set provide enough eye candy to entertain for the show’s short while.

But until those flying sequences, underneath all that comic book armature, it’s difficult for the actors to engage enough to project any charisma or spark.  Even the inventive, compelling masks designed by Julie Taymor (the show’s original director) don’t integrate into the story well enough to give their wearers anything to act.

That’s what makes the flying so much fun.  The actor might be tethered to those wires, but he looks so free, it’s impossible not to be breathless with pleasure while we watch him.  The flying sequences tease out the limits of theatre while putting them to the test.  After all, we’re not watching Spiderman chase the Green Goblin against a Gotham night sky, but against the backdrop of the Foxwoods Theatre in Manhattan.  And however it’s been retrofitted to seat as many people as possible, and to provide the scaffolding for those acrobatics, it’s still a mundane Broadway theatre.

As we turned our heads to watch Spiderman fly, we could also see our fellow spectators registering their delight.  In our 360 degree views, what we mostly saw was one another, faces lit with expectation and pleasure and a little frisson of fear, half expecting the stunts to stop in mid-stream or mid-air, as they’ve been reported to do so frequently on Spiderman.  At our matinee, the flying worked without a problem.

But the comparison of those few moments with the rest of the show seemed almost sad, as though compared to all that soaring about in the house, what actually happened on stage could only seem clunky and even faker than it already admits to being.  In such a context, even the wig-tape hugging the hair and microphones to the actors’ foreheads seemed quaint and kind of melancholic, the modern-day greasepaint that reminds everyone that the wizard really is just a man, and that some stories are best told in the form in which we’ve grown up loving them.

Likewise, in Sister Act, the only thing flying is the occasional musical note, not because the songs are inspiring, but because the performances sometimes rise above their melodies.  The cast of this movie-cum-musical is terrific, making much ado about nothing, really, except a pale, three-dimensional but rickety adaptation of an already dated 1992 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle.  In fact, Sister Act takes great care with its lead, Patina Miller (who won a 2011 Tony Award for her performance), to steer her physically and emotionally away from Goldberg’s down-to-earth, rather hapless if happily sarcastic impersonation of the nightclub singer, Deloris Van Cartier.

Miller is everything Goldberg isn’t in the original movie.  She’s tall and willowy, and possibly beautiful, although it’s hard to tell underneath the 1970s-style Afro wigs and the impossibly long fake eye lashes that made her look vaguely cross-eyed from where I was sitting.  This production, like Spiderman, seems all about the wig-tape, which for those in the orchestra proves a constant and distracting reminder that the 70s were then and the 2010s are now.

All of which begs the question—why adapt this film to the stage?  And why, as the famed theatre historian Oscar Brockett always asked of any production, why now?  And why set it in the 1970s, except, perhaps to lend credence to its barely nascent sense of race rights?

Sister Act admits to its own anachronisms, with its disco balls and its short skirts and purple suede lace-up boots and gaudy chunky jewelry.  But despite a visual motif that wants to keep the show locked in a comfortable historical remove, the performances—particularly by Miller and Victoria Clark as the world-weary Mother Superior (in the film’s droll Maggie Smith role)—bring a pleasant but jarring up-to-the-momentness to the production.  And that knowingness about the strange historical simultaneity of the project cuts the production down at the knees, as especially Clark seems to be winking at its patented absurdity.

The production begins promisingly, with a cast of mostly African American gangsters and cabaret singers gathering in a local mob-controlled dive bar for Deloris Van Cartier (like the jewelry, as she reminds everyone to whom she’s introduced by wiggling her fingers and her wrist) to sing her audition for her boyfriend/cabaret owner Curtis.  But Curtis refuses to hire her, and belittles her by re-gifting to her one of his wife’s old fur coats.  When she storms into the bar to confront him, Deloris inadvertently witnesses Curtis kill someone.  She goes to the police, where a sweet if sweaty young Black cop named Eddie Souther protects her by housing her in a near-by convent in an economically failing church.  And so begins the plot that’s been a popular culture staple since time immemorial—the fish out of water who makes the locals swim like she does and enjoy it.

In this case, though, there’s something unsettling about watching Deloris leave what seemed an African American community to go underground in a resolutely white nun’s enclave. Although eventually, two of the “choir nuns” are performed by the African American actors who first served as Deloris’s back-up singers, the convent’s whiteness is stark and Deloris’s racial difference not at all funny.

The audience at our Wednesday matinee was mostly women, probably half of them African American. I couldn’t help but wonder what they must be thinking, seeing Deloris become the butt of the joke for the white nuns. Because even though their sad, off-tune, uninspired singing and their innocence in the ways of the world is supposed to provide fodder for Deloris’s worldly ambitions and know-how, the power of dominance twists the image so that Deloris’s exceptionalism becomes uncomfortably tokenized and disempowered.

Whoopi Goldberg, in Sister Act and much of her film work, became a master at a kind of subtly resistant racial commentary, usurping whatever interpretation might have been meant by her casting and using it to her own advantage to call out how her body and face were singular in the scenes in which she appeared. But although Miller’s voice is powerful, her face is surprisingly immobile on stage, which makes the trademark Goldberg double-takes and wry asides, which delivered her resistance, fall flat in Miller’s performance.

Instead, Clark, as Mother Superior, gets all the best facial expressions, and uses them well to raise herself slightly above the proceedings at hand. She conveys fatigue at the ways of the world as well as the ways of her church in “Haven’t Got a Prayer.” And she rolls her eyes not just at Deloris and her un-worshipful behavior, but at the absurdity of the whole shebang. And in the process, she nearly steals the show.

Deloris of course transforms the choir from a bunch of dullards into a glitter-clad, disco-balled, A Chorus Line-inspired bunch of Village People, which brightens the production and makes it irresistibly fun. And the speed with which this adaptation moves means that it takes Deloris very little time to improve the nuns’ performance and to transmute them into a crowd-pleasing, money-raising spectacle.

Sister Act’s jokes are predictable but still amusing, as is the nuns’ newly invigorated singing. Peppered throughout are amusing gay and Jewish jokes (Yiddish, one of the nuns explains to another, is the language of performers; and the couple trying to buy the church are two gay men who decide to save the order when they fall in love with the singing).  Sister Act is a lot like Shrek (the film and the production); it works on two levels at once, offering a different set of laughs for the queer and Jewish cognoscenti (and we knew who we were by who was heard hooting when).

The show’s penultimate number is a female duet to “Sister Act,” sung by Deloris and Mother Superior, which makes it seem slightly queer.  Ultimately, they’re the couple who reconciles by the musical’s end, instead of the straight opposites whom musicals more typically bring together (as Stacy Wolf—FS2—argues so persuasively in Changed for Good:  A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical).

Likewise, Sister Act’s representations of masculinity are savvier than the tired plot and retread film story would lead you to expect.  As Eddie Souther, Chester Gregory plays the self-effacing, aw-shucks Daniel Breaker role (Gregory even looks a bit like Breaker).  Souther, who knew Deloris in high school, always broke out into a sweat around her (hence his “Sweaty Eddie” moniker). Gregory gets some laughs from drenched arm pit sight gags, but his performance is sweet as he both comes to Deloris’s rescue and manages to be rather hapless about his own authority.

Even the erstwhile villain, Curtis (Kingsley Leggs), is defanged by Deloris’s proud resistance to his intimidation.  Only Demond Green, as TJ, does a weird, rather retrograde turn as Curtis’s stupid-but-good-hearted nephew.  Green plays the character as a Tracy Morgan knock-off; given Morgan’s recent homophobic remarks, the performance seems less benign than it’s meant to be.

Sister Act aims to be a crowd-pleaser, and that it did.  Everyone around us was delighted as they stood for the curtain call.  (“I haven’t seen anything this good since Jersey Boys,” one woman told us happily.)  But still, like SpidermanSister Act on stage can only point to its own lumbering liveness.  The triumphal song and dance numbers are great fun, but the production is filled with furniture and things that move on and off with the revolve center stage.  They only serve to remind the audience of how time-inefficient and laden with stuff theatre like this can be.

On the other hand, in one of the show’s best moments, Eddie, in his number “I Could be That Guy,” imagines himself transformed from the schleppy police officer he is into an African American John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, replete with white suit, high pointed finger, and cocky canted leg.  Walking through a sort of Skid Row, Eddie is surrounded by “bums” who, at the appropriate moment, rip off his police uniform to reveal a version of Tony Manaro’s dancing outfit.  And then as the dream ends, the bums rip off that layer to reveal his old police getup underneath.  His transformations happen so deftly, they really do look like magic.

The exhilarating, old-fashioned kind of stage magic, that is.  The kind that’s the best.

The Feminist Spectator

Link to orignal post on Blogspot.