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On the Bodies of Women: 1. “The Vagina Monologues”

In recent weeks, I’ve witnessed — no, participated in, from the seats — two stage productions focused on the bodies of women. Here’s my attempt to thread my way through these engaging, disturbing experiences.

THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES

In the 18 years since it debuted on a small New York stage, this set of monologues and choral episodes has become a phenomenon. Drawn from Eve Ensler’s interviews with women and girls, it gets countless productions worldwide each year during V-Day (now a three-month season), and the film still runs on HBO.
I’ve always found its expression of women’s diverse experiences of their sexuality intensely moving — drawing laughter, winces of pain, and tears. I’ve also kept participating because I believe it’s a salutary work, one we need to keep living in. Before visiting the Whitefire Theatre in March, I’d worked backstage in three productions, and been in the audience for two others.

VAG ASL

But this was my first time.
This time, it happened in Deaf World.
Of the nine women (all seasoned theatre professionals) seven were either Deaf, or hearing American Sign Language interpreters.  (Two, amazingly, knew no ASL before taking part — yet in performance, it was impossible to discern.)  Together, they were telling stories I’d heard often, yet they took me somewhere I’d never been.
ASL, you see, is visual — a language of gesture and movement, not speech. As such, it is beautifully at home on the stage.
Sign language is always moving, flowing through the human face and body and into space, like mime or dance. But unlike mime or dance, it also has a fixed lexicon of meanings, and a complex grammar.
So each story got told twice, in ASL and English simultaneously. Each choral episode rippled around the stage in two languages at once.

The result?
First, a Vagina Monologues accessible to Deaf theatregoers.
That, of course, was the goal — along with raising funds for DeafHope, a project to end sexual violence against deaf women and girls.  Both were impressively achieved.
Second, this production gave “hearings” — English speakers who don’t know ASL — a unique opportunity.  Like other audiences, they heard each segment spoken, with emotion and wit and wonder.  But they also saw and felt it moving, sometimes gracefully, sometimes painfully, through the body and face and hands of a sign language performer.

Finally, several in the audience were “third culture” people, with some fluency in both languages.
I can’t speak for the others; but for me, this was a surprisingly powerful experience.  At times, it was overwhelming.
The stories and choral pieces ranged, as always, from humorous to heart-wrenching.  But this time, they landed on me in stereo — and cut through my unconscious defenses.
Taking in spoken words seemed to hold the attention of whatever part of my mind seeks meaning through thinking.
At the same time, I was seeing and feeling the same story told in sign — embodied, moving physically through another human being, toward me.  I was caught.  I wasn’t just told about this woman’s experience, I was flooded by it.

The monologue “My Vagina Was My Village” is a heart breaker. In a mixture of simple poetic language and harsh factual description, it represents the sufferings of women held in “rape camps” during the Bosnian War of the early ’90s.
I know this piece well.  I have seen it done by a woman who survived such a camp.  I have wept openly at hearing it, seeing it.
This time, as a Deaf actor performed it — and another Deaf actor spoke it, it flowed into me on a much deeper level than mere understanding.  I was overpowered. Tears poured out of me — struggling not to bother my neighbors, I was sobbing so hard I could barely keep from throwing up.

In hearing theatre, we always expect (or at least hope) to be moved.  We assume that what we hear, together with what the actors do and undergo physically before us, will reach out and touch us, in our understanding mind and also more deeply.
But the words — the text, the language — are usually so primary, so dominant, that the visceral experience can remain secondary.  I think we are even able to mute it, hide from it, by focusing on the words and the thoughts.
I suspect that’s why Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty” and Brecht’s confrontational realism arose in the last century.  To break through not only the “fourth wall,” but the defenses our “language brain” unconsciously erects against our visceral connection to the people presenting the story.
These people —  whom we call not “speakers” but “actors” — act in their mock world onstage, true.  But more important, they also act  directly upon us, we fellow humans in the flesh who are sitting near enough to feel them.

Re-awakening our sense of ourselves as live, enfleshed beings is what The Vagina Monologues is all about.  That’s why it exists.  Our need to know our embodied selves — trapped as we are in the verbal fences and intellectual fantasies of “civilization” and its discontents, its cruelties — is why this play has endured and grown, as unstoppable as kudzu.
I still feel strongly that The Vagina Monologues is a necessary work, a major achievement of modern theatre.  And experiencing it in Deaf World is like drinking whiskey neat.  You’ll never feel it more sharply, nor ever forget it.

___

NOTES
(1)  The Vagina Monologues at the Whitefire Theatre was produced and directed by Alek Lev (a master ASL interpreter and longtime theatre professional).  Of its profits, 10% went to the global V-Day effort, and 90% went to DeafHope.
The actors were:  Hillary Baack, Cherie Broussard, Jules Dameron (ASL master), Emily Eiden, Catherine Kresge, Zendrea Mitchell, Jonica Patella, Alexandra Wailes, and Amber Zion.

(2) In this text, “Deaf” (capitalized) denotes people whose primary language is ASL and who identify themselves as part of Deaf culture.  The word “deaf” (uncapitalized) includes anyone who has partial or no hearing, whichever language or culture they identify with.

 

 

 

“Hair” to “bare” — Peering beneath the surface

Forty-five years ago, I took a class of college students to Hollywood to see Hair.  Billed as “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” — with a multi-racial cast, drugs, sex, nudity, draft-card burning and live chickens —  it had just opened here, early in its first Broadway year.  Soon it was “premiering” simultaneously in nine US cities, the only theatrical production ever to do so.

Hair became a catalyst and anthem in the change movements sweeping across 1960’s America — youth  culture, sexual liberation, psychedelics, civil rights and the Vietnam War protests among them.  My wide-eyed science majors were shocked, exhilarated and changed by their first taste of live theatre.  They’re now in their 60s,  their careers and families winding down, but I doubt any of them has forgotten it.

bare

Last weekend, I watched bare: a pop opera.  This musical drama about students at a Catholic prep school also focuses on the crucial but hidden issues in adolescent life — identity, love, sex, drugs, bullying, homosexuality, suicide.  It’s a strong piece of theatre, a necklace of well-written songs strung on a well-woven story.

In 2001, bare — created and premiered here in LA — swept awards from LA Weekly, Backstage and the LA Drama Critics Circle.  But it seems to have been seldom produced since then.

Under Fred Helsel’s direction at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, bare returned to life (briefly — alas, it’s already closed) on a striking set by Seth Kamenow, expressively lit by Jackson Miller.  The production deftly evoked the enclosed world of St. Cecilia’s boarding school.  The actors (local professionals, most not far out of their teens) created clear characters who struggle — while they  rehearse Romeo and Juliet — to find roles beyond those offered by their parents, their peers, or their drama teacher.

As an opera, bare doesn’t dare the musical heights of, say, Puccini.  Nor did I go home humming any of the tunes.  But from introspective arias (“Quiet Night at Home,” “Warning,” “Portrait of a Girl”) to duets (“Are You There?” “Touch My Soul”) to rousing choruses (“Birthday Bitch,” “911! Emergency!”), the songs comfortably inhabit the idioms of pop/soft rock, delivering their story moments with vocal and emotional accuracy.  Sound designer Chris Grote held the band and singers in balance– and wrung near-perfect clarity from the head mics, a rare but  crucial coup.

Musical theatre needs triple-threat players, and all 18 cast members brought the skills.  Julia Williams (“Plain Jane Fat Ass” Nadia) and Brittney S. Wheeler (drama coach Sister Chantelle and the Virgin Mary) can take over any stage — but wisely didn’t when it wasn’t their turn.  Hunter Larsen (“popular” girl Ivy) contained her complex character and her bell-like voice in a stereotype, then let them emerge gradually.  And Julian Comeau (Peter) held our empathy as he found his character’s sexuality and then his strength.

Culminating in a pregnancy and a suicide, bare embraces the tragic thorns of adolescent life.  It doesn’t back away, and doesn’t offer solutions.  It pleads instead for empathy, and wisdom.

Perhaps that’s why bare hasn’t taken the country by storm the way Hair did.  On the surface, it’s  enclosed in the school and church, while Hair dances in the streets.  And in the 21st century,  the Catholic Church makes a poor, straw-filled substitute for “The Man” — giving bare an antagonist whose power nobody believes in.

Yet bare portrays a more complex world, where difference still is not celebrated as readily as it is attacked or ignored.  Where drugs have become an industry, turning classmates into cynical dealers and endangered dupes.  Where coming out isn’t as easy as tearing off your shirt, and where the girl still gets stuck doing pregnancy solo.

Hair was a song and dance of optimism.  It saw the world beyond the “tribe” entirely from their point of view, as the street kids mimed and mocked adult figures.  It came at a moment when so much was starting to change so fast that it was possible to hope, even in the face of violence.

A generation later, bare peers into the teen world from outside.  It also peers beneath stereotypes, seeking the inner reality of each character, adults as well as teens.  And it comes as the world is changing even faster, often in directions too dark for easy hope.

Hair, like the Rolling Stones, is an aging cultural icon with great  songs.  (Plus nudity and live chickens.)  At 13, bare is less imposing. But it’s more moving, because it reveals people beneath their skins.  And it offers something we need for negotiating the difficult future that we — like teenagers — all must face.

Playing in Space & Time, part 2: “50 Hour Drive-By”

This past weekend, I took part as two theatre companies invited us to play with them in ways that stretched — or shrank — space and time.   Each deserves its own review, but I think they shed light on each other.

50 HOUR DRIVE-BY at Zombie Joe’s Underground

ZJU is the quintessential black box.  In the back half of a narrow North Hollywood storefront, 40 seats (in an “L”) surround  a stage of perhaps 300 square feet.  Space is shrunk as far as can be.

drive-by writers

Writers ready their pens at the 13th annual “Drive-By”

Once a year, Zombie Joe invites a handful of writers and directors, and a passel of actors, to a mad challenge.   Given (by lot) three or four actors and a few random props, each writer has 25 hours to weave a new play.  Then the directors each get 25 hours to bring their play (chosen by lot) to stage.  Time is shrunk as far as can be.

At this year’s “Drive-By,” the five offerings are (as usual) a rapid, ragged romp, wildly varied in subject, but not so dispersed in style.

The black box and L-shaped audience space impose a discipline.  They nudge actors to play “full out” to the L’s apex — not facing each other, discreetly “cheating” toward folks behind the fourth wall.

The abbreviated time likewise urges a certain style.  Things can’t develop slowly, with foreshadowing.   They’re more likely to pop, flick past quickly, and be replaced.  What develops slowly may be the audience’s understanding.

Take this year’s opener, “Doodlebug’s Lament” (Jim Eshom,  dir. Jana Wimer).  Amid a flurry of instant, near-identical scenes, I have an “Aha.”   This demented dentist (Daniel Camacho) will keep torturing his hapless patient (Ronnel Ricardo Parham) at the whim of this mad woman (Anne Wescott) who consults her floppy dog doll.  But why? Suddenly, the characters try to break out, and I see it’s a love thing, and maybe … then it ends.

An addled troubador (Leif LaDuke) starts to capture it all in a song, but wanders offstage too soon.

Then “Fran’s Home Version” (Jeri Batzdorff,  dir. Vanessa Cate) erupts.  Thoroughly modern Fran (Corey Zicari) invites her two unwitting suitors to a face-off,  dueling for her favors in quizzes, a thumb-wrestle, a duet (crooning “our song”) and mano-a-mano slapstick.  The boys (Willy Romano-Pugh and Matt DeNoto) evoke Laurel and Hardy as their daft competition drifts into camaraderie.

Then the troubador returns, knowing more than he tells.

“Tartine” (Kerr Lordygan,  dir. Sebastian Munoz) develops another triangle, as dependent Gelle (Caitlin Carleton) wavers between her passion for the wise, aloof Yeulah (Ellen Runkle) and her possessive TweedleDee of a brother (Steven Alloway).  Ah, it seems they’re fighting over Mom … or is this an internal trialogue … or …

On the swift heels of death, the singer stumbles in.  Then out.

Jennifer (Eunice Viggers) and Samantha (Mary Rachel Gardner) are marooned, faintly recall an accident … A zaftig bubbe (Ann Hurd) says she’s St. Peter and they’re at “The Pearly Gates” (Denise Devin, dir. Denise Devin).  Gifts from their late mother revive their memory of being loved, their desire to love and try again …

The guitar man enters, strums, hums, and leaves.

Leaping on last comes “My Lady” (Adam Neubauer, dir. Jim Eshom), on the shoulders of three energetic young men in tighty whiteys (Tyler Koster, Billy Minogue and David Wyn Harris).  Each vows his prowess and devotion to the unseen Lady.  Enter her aged husband (Roger K. Weiss), wielding a ball-cutter that cowers them all.  But his revelation that Lady is 94 years old doesn’t cool their jets …

Curtain.

When you condense time and space so radically, the devil whispers, “Make it simple, easy, clear.”  The ZJU crowd pays that fool no mind.  For them, compression works as in nuclear physics — it begets explosive energy, with possible meanings whirling off at light speed.  And gasps and groans and laughter in the seats.  As it should be.

A final note about time:  By its nature, the “50 Hour Drive-By” has a short half-life.  It’s performed three times, then closes.  Drop by next year …

 

 

Playing in Space & Time, part 1: “Elephant Man”

This past weekend, I took part as two theatre companies invited us to play with them in ways that stretched — or shrank — space and time.   Each deserves its own review, but I think they shed light on each other.

THE ELEPHANT MAN at St. John’s Cathedral

This is not a theatre.  It is the absolute opposite of a black box — a gigantic oblong carton, six or seven stories high and a city block long, empty save rows of long wooden pews clinging to the stone floor.  Halfway down its immense length, a flat wooden stage.

Merrick church

Cathedral model built by Merrick

Far above the stage’s lights, in the vast penumbra that fills this void, a figure two or three times the size of a man hangs on a flat cross.   This, and the gilded altar a half-block farther on, remind us of the building’s purpose — to tell a much older story than the one we will witness tonight.

Tonight, the actors tell of a young man, John Merrick, whose life was shaped by  a disease — and people’s reactions.  The illness twisted his bones and grew the tissues of his head, torso and arm at a cancerous rate.  Shunned, he survived by being “the Elephant Man” in Victorian freak shows.  When his agent robbed and abandoned him, a London doctor took him in.   At the hospital he had a home and education, friends and an art (model building) for four years, until he died.

Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 play (and David Lynch’s 1980 film) took   this story to the world.  But that was a generation ago, when half the people now alive were not born.  Director Patricia McKee’s staging is thus timely.

And her choice of venue pushes the subtext forward, making it larger than the play itself.

We feel Merrick (Mark McClain Wilson) suffer piercing indignities and unthinkable pain, while the massive Crucifix hovers above.  We hear character after character confess — they use Merrick as a mirror into their own souls, though few peer deeply.   And we dare not breathe as Mrs. Kendal (Maria Olsen) boldly touches Merrick’s isolated life with love.  Surrounding this small naked moment, embracing it, are acres of silent stone and stained glass, gold leaf and velvet drapes — all shaped to draw attention to Christendom’s central act, the communion of one body given to and for another.

Like the actors’ voices echoing into the vast stone chamber (a challenge not always fully met), the story’s heart resounds in this sacramental space.

This makes the play’s last scenes,  an earnest critique of patriarchy, a genuine anticlimax.  As his awareness emerges, Dr. Treves breaks apart (though William Kidd’s physicality peaked early).  The bishop (Paul Anderson) and hospital administrator (JimTaylor) remain obtuse and self-admiring, as unaware as the feckless Lord John (Michael McConnell).  The world is little changed.

McKee has chosen boldly.  The cathedral’s reverberant meanings are worth the struggle with its physical echoes.  Her wisely spare stage (a table, a desk, a bed, three chairs) is simply lit by Sergio Crego, who uses blackouts to good effect.  And it’s a fine touch to reveal some  characters early, at the candlelit altar, and let them traverse the long aisle down to the stage before entering.

Daring to throw this play into acres of space, McKee allows it to connect across millennia of time.  Yet she keeps its onstage body small and simple.   This lets us stay attached to the players and the tale, while feeling the deeper levels of our shared experience.

A further note about time:  This play was afforded a very short run — eight performances — and has closed.  But McKee is hopeful …

The Battle of the Ghosts

Saturday night, in a black box in NoHo,  the Ghost of Theatre Past attacked the spirits of theatre present and future.   Some of us didn’t survive.

ghost furniture

As 40 eager people filled the seats, a band of actors and their crew mounted a comedy by a living master.   Or they they tried to.

But when the lights rose, the air grew thick.  It got hard to breathe.

Floor-to-ceiling flats had crept onstage and loomed ominously.  Heavy pieces of furniture were eating up the floor space, swelling like malevolent balloons.   Dozens of props and tchotchkes burgeoned into what little air was left.

Two actors bravely fought for room to deliver their lines.  A man fended off pesky playing cards, cigarettes and matches while discovering his wife’s infidelity.  She was so busy struggling free  of costume items — and then trapping wayward bags, bottles and glasses — that her husband’s questions slipped by her.

The scene ended.  The lights dimmed, and work lights came on. Then the monsters began to move.

Two flats wheeled slowly about, and one came downstage.  Tottering toward us, groaning, it revealed yet another massive blob of furniture stuck to its back.  A bloated couch nudged forward.

A pair of courageous stagehands tried to contain the attack.  For two minutes, they wrestled flats and hassocks, suitcases and pillows, but in vain.  Finally, the director leaped up, threw open the lobby door and rushed to the light booth.  A blackout ensued — or would have, but the flood of lobby light held the soulless creatures at bay.

Spared for the moment,  we took a deep breath and focused.  Another scene began.

For nearly three hours, this battle continued.  Some of us, alas, were casualties, carried out quietly during  intermission.  The survivors applauded at the end, deeply touched by the actors’  heroic attempt.

They had stood up for the human right to explore art and love, in the face of an overwhelming onslaught.  But when they left, the boards belonged to the aliens, who slumped and squatted, grinning inhumanly.  They had won.

The play was well written, witty and wrenching by turns.  The actors’ work ranged from solid to scintillating.   But they were all defeated — by mountains of material goods,  the 45 minutes it took to shift them about, and the 25-minute interval.

The Ghost of Theatre Past.

Twice in the last month, I’ve seen it choke plays to death.

Once it was alive — before radio and film, TV and the Internet, before Las Vegas and Disneyland and the Super Bowl.   Back then, it  provided  everything — story and spectacle, news and context, drama and all the details.  But, as the bird says, nevermore.

Today the Ghost stalks the night, looking for undefended stages.  Trying to do what film and other media do better, it crushes and dismembers plays.   Theatre lovers must watch, helpless, as each torn scene is lifted up and almost brought to life — then flung aside and forgotten.

We don’t need flats and furniture.  We have imaginations.

Theatre is about our imaginations — and using them.   We gather, actors and crew and audience, to imagine a  story.   We don’t need realistic details in every corner.  We don’t want them.

And we don’t want the interruption of shuffling them around.  We want the story.  Give us a couple of risers or boxes, tell us they’re an apartment or a throne room, and we’ll do the rest.  That’s what we came for.

It’s time to lay this murderous old Ghost to rest.  At least in the intimacy of our small theatres, where spectacle is out of place and steals our time.

 

 

Hello world!

Welcome to Theatre Ghost!

ghost

I’m a lifelong theatre artist, and I’ve been haunting LA’s small theatres for decades.

Besides acting in plays, and writing and directing them, I attend them … 50 or more each year.

That exhausts my pocketbook.  But it hardly touches the more than 400 productions staged each year in our city’s black boxes and storefronts.

(Equity calls us the “Under 50s,” looking gently down its nose at the maximum number of seats we’re allowed, and the most we’ve ever paid an actor.)

We’re small and poor, but I think we’re where theatre really lives.

Big budgets beget big headaches — and draw big egos hungry for money or power or fame.  Such worries we don’t need.  They clog the arteries and stifle the art.

Small spaces and budgets challenge creativity.  And our inability to mount a spectacular illusion keeps us focused on story, on people.

The magic of theatre — the thing film, TV and the Internet can’t do — is human contact.  The way bodies in a room affect each other.  You feel, viscerally, what an actor is feeling a few feet from you.  The actor feels your reaction.  And that makes a shared story.

You can’t get that from a screen, not even 60 feet wide with 3D and DoubleDeafDolby.

You can’t avoid it in an Under 50 theatre.  So that’s where I’ll be writing from.

(Well, “writing about.”  I’m actually writing from a tiny room above a wooded canyon, the morning after.)