Saturday, April 01, 2006

Boublil/Schoenberg: Martin Guerre, and Les Miserables

Boublil, Alain; music by Claude-Michel Schoenberg; also lyrics by Stephen Clark
Martin Guerre, performed at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, 1999

Review: This musical raises again with me the question: can a tuneful show, intended for general audiences, and period piece set in a long past culture really deal with important social and political problems? To a writer this is important, because there are pressures in the literary world for writers to establish themselves first by writing what "other people want."

Indeed, the music has a rising lilt. It can be stirring sometimes, but it is not grand opera. The ending ("Live with somebody you love") dies away rather than providing the chills and fever of Les Miserables. And I do think that opera provides the opportunity for in-depth psychological probing (look at the operas by Richard Strauss, Wagner, Berg, Schonberg) that musicals lack. Arnold Schonberg once wrote (when discussing his 1909 Five Pieces for Orchestra) that music gave him the opportunity to delve into things he didn't dare talk about. One wonders what a composer like Georges Bizet would have done with this material.

But the story is important. In 16th Century France, young Martin Guerre agrees to an arranged marriage but is unable to consummate it. Is this because he is too young (so says the script), or maybe because he is attracted to men? In the meantime, he goes off to war against the Protestants with his "best friend" and buddy, and is mistakenly left for dead. His friend takes over his identity and marries his wife, later to be convicted of his deceit in a French court when it turns out that Guerre has survived.

There is a lot a stirring material in the script. There is a song about the friendship between Martin and Arnold, and it lives one wondering just how far into love a "platonic" friendship is supposed to go. There is rhetoric about the solstice of young manhood, preceding its long summer (if life isn't cut short by war or reckless behavior). Yet it must be tamed by women. It must fit religious and collective purposes. Society is hardly ready to permit creative, self-directed life. In one song, there is talk about the importance of bearing children; indeed Guerre's "impotence" is supposed to have brought on the floods from an angry God.

There is also this schizophrenic idea of switching identities, when Martin lives his friend's life. Now, I had my own platonic passions for friends at that age, but I didn't want to become them, just be more like them. What would it be like to go down the Lost Highway of another's life? But, unlike the case with Les Miserables there is no real villain, just a village idiot.

The stagecraft is impressive, including the setting of a fire on stage when the French village of Artigat burns. Cannons and blanks are fired (were they available in 1560?) I saw this at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and afterwards took a tour of the impressive seven-level facility, with its costume factory and inventory of stage hardware. It looked almost like Universal Studios.

Les Miserables (by Alain Boublil, music by Claude-Michele Schoenberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, performed at the National Theater in Washington DC Dec 2005 through Jan 2006 by Cameron Mackintosh). This famous musical has been broadcast on PBS from London with its encore of the 17 Jean Valjeans from different countries. The soaring music includes numbers like “Do You Hear the People Sing” and “One Day More,” and the rollicking “Master of the House” that returns in the “Wedding Chorale.” The novel spans 1815 to 1832, starting with Jean Valjean being released from 19 years on a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread out of filial responsibility. A saga ensues with a typical nineteenth century low tech but clever plot of mistaken identities, hidden loves and pregnancies and more legal trials, finally in the context of a rebellion in 1832 in Paris. For plot details, the visitor can go to Cliff Notes or to a high school or college literature course anthology, but what matters in the musical is the political context, the cry for personal freedom in its various contexts. It may start with love and family but this must cross class and privilege lines, and lead eventually to revolution, which has already happened in France but still continues with various post-Napoleonic outbursts. Freedom can mean revolution, sacrifice for a cause, but ultimately the aim is libertarian: the individual can best help others if he can follow his own self-defined purpose using his own special talents first. How often people are not allowed to do that because they are tethered to the needs of others, especially through blood loyalty. Ultimately, how well you can do by yourself in life matters, and you need the freedom to do this, but you still have to pay your dues. How well others do can depend on you.

The stage work is stunning, with an assemblage of carpentry and metal (a collapsed apartment) that seems like a sci-fi hermitage from “Quintet”. Jean Valjean is covered with tattoos (he reveals one when he sings “Who Am I” and rather deliberates the ethics of telling the truth), but much of the younger male cast was extremely nimble and attractive. The wedding scene near the end was sumptuous, with real reception food, and the music mentioning “queers.”

Randall Keith plays Jean Valjean; Gabriel Kalomas is the Bishop of Digne; Robert Hunt is Javert; Leslie Benstock is Cosette.

Jonathan Wilson: Kilt

Director: Vincent Worthington
Where seen: Trumpet Vine theater Company, Theater on the Run, Arlington, VA 10/2003

The play takes place in Toronto, Ontario and Glasgow, Scotland (1994), and Tobruk, Libya during the North African campaign of World War II in 1941.The story in layered in an English Patient manner, with the gradual evolution of the love story for Private Robertson and Captain Lavery during the 1941 campaign in the British Army. Okay, it’s fraternization (officer and enlisted), all right, but as the story evolves, it adds to unit cohesion. The men become close when huddled together during a bombardment, and then gradually tease each other into intimacy. Robertson’s muscular and hairy virility adds to the tension. Okay, in one scene I would have done a shirt unbuttoning.

In modern time, the younger Robertson has a tense relationship with his mother, who feels his lifestyle makes him “not part of the family.” There are enticing early scenes where Tom Robertson plays table dancer with his kilt (and no underwear). Then they travel to Scotland for the grandfather’s funeral. The grandfather had led a long healthy life after the war. Then the plot twist to glue the story together occurs, as Captain Lavery comes back into the scene to bring the family back together. He speaks of how it was for gay men back then, as “bachelors” with “pals.”

Naomi Wallace: In the Heart of America

Director: Jeff Hall-Flavin with Outward Spiral Theater Company
Loring Playhouse, Minneapolis, MN (2001)

This experimental play is all over the map on political issues involving the military. It covers Vietnam retrospectively and, mainly, the (First) Persian Gulf War in 1991. The playwright explores a number of issues such as friendly fire deaths, civilian casualties, the motives for war, the problems of Palestinians caused by Israeli settlements, and homosexuality in the military, by manipulating the characters in a non-linear fashion.

The centerpiece of the story is the buddy relationship between Remzi Saboura (David Regelmann) and Craver Perry (Nick Condon). Remzi is a Palestinian American who seems to have grown up in America and understands the Isreal-Palestinian problem from a distance. His handicapped sister, Fairous (Aamera Siddiqui) longs for a healthy sibling relationship with him and wants him to be closer to his Palestinian roots. Craver comes from the coal country in Appalachia, Eastern Kentucky, specifically. The two soldiers bond emotionally in a way typically expected in a military unit, but their emotional relationship seamlessly blends into intimacy and frank homoeroticism, without ever being explicitly sexual. This is true emotional bonding and the deepest levels, with great tenderness and affection, growing throughout the play. It just goes barely over the line of what would violate the military anti-gay policy, but, remember, in 1991 Bill Clinton had yet to be elected and “don’t ask, don’t tell” had yet to be debated and to come about. The “Old Policy” (an absolute ban) was theoretically in place, although when deployed soldiers were needed and rarely discharged (it was often difficult to get discharged for homosexuality, since the military would assume that the motive was to avoid deployment). What seems clear, though, is that this kind of deep emotional bonding is necessary for men to fight together, and it is hard to believe that either character would disrupt a deployed unit even when known to be gay.

There is also a Green Beret ghost, Boxler (Galway McCollough), who (along with Lue, played by Katie Leo) taunts the men, by bringing back the issue of the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War.

The strongest performance in the play is David Regelmann, whose wiry charisma seems eager to overcome all conflicts over ethnic identity and sexual orientation, and argue ultimately for individualism, if only he did not come to a tragic end, that constantly tugs the play forward right to the last moments. The stagecraft was straightforward, with two enclosed fames (movie proportioned) to show flashbacks and behind-the-scenes actions.

Because this play covers so much sharp-edged material in a compact script, it sounds like tempting material for independent film. How could a screenwriter unwind this material into a three-act format? Perhaps the Vietnam material is shown as an “Act 1,” with the rest the film showing the growing relationship between the two soldiers with the backdrop of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, but then one has to work in the two Vietnam-era characters. There would have to be the issue of Remzi reconciling his Palestinian heritage and visiting the West Bank. Perhaps an ending could show Craver attending the 1993 March on Washington and dealing with the debate over the military ban. This is tremendously promising material, enough to make me slurp; but drawing it together as a linear story that convinces one as a real film plot still sounds like a screenwriting challenge (as an adaptation). But it ought to be tried. Of course it would take $$$, maybe about 15 million to make (assuming on-location shoots if the areas involved could become politically stable after Gulf War II ends and Saddam and Arafat are gone)-- well, somewhere on the upper end of independent filmmaking, bordering on historical epic film. Yet it brings to mind films like The Quiet American. Maybe a company like Alliance Atlantis would find this material interesting,

Peterson Toscano: Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House:

Peterson Toscano: Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House: How I Survived the Ex-Gay Movement

Performed at the Church of the Pilgrim, 23rd and P NW, Washington DC, Jan 31, 2004

Shortly after I moved back to the DC area from Texas in 1988 (that was the first of two prodigal son back-relocations), I met a co-worker at a new job who had a roommate involved with “Love in Action.” This was a group claiming a Christian approach to treating AIDS patients and claiming to help young men “give up the gay lifestyle.” One Sunday night, in March 1990, some of us went to a special service sponsored by Love in Action at the conservative National Presbyterian Center in “far” northwest Washington. Now, the coworker and this friend lived in a “group home” in Arlington, a term that referred to a house rented to young adults in which each person had his own bedroom. There was no particular coercion. I digress for a moment to mention the employer, Lewin, in case anyone remembers me there—this was a most curious and interesting time. My own blog on health care, by the way, is at http://www.doaskdotell.com/content/health.htm

This play, like Marc Wolf’s Another American: Asking and Telling, is performed by one person, who simulated five different characters in an “ex-gay” halfway house, that is modeled a bit like a twelve-step program and is supposed to sound legitimate. That is, rehabilitation from homosexuality is supposed to be like treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction. If so, imagine what a self-introduction at a meeting would start like: “Hi…Hi…. My name is ____…. I am a ______”

Of course, the play is a delicious satire, poking fun at the whole idea. I wont’ spoil the fun with too many of the details. But a few have to be mentioned. The resident pays $950 a month for the privilege of living in the halfway house, and has 275 rules to follow. Only Christian books and music are allowed (there is even an assignment of “Christian” alternatives for Justin Timberlake and Britney Speers.) No bananas are allowed because, even though they are healthful no-fat foods, they look like phallic symbols. Of course, no unsupervised Internet access (or television). No cell phones. No “creativity,” in fact, is allowed. You are a sinner, and the good news is that Jesus Christ will save you. I recall from cable programs on this subject that typically the resident is never allowed to be alone.

Of course, what matters here is the motive for a group running such a place and trying to “reform homosexuals.” I could be cynical and say that it makes money. (At one point there is a comment that a particular Christian book company is just now part of a corporate conglomerate.) Or the next best reason is to proselytize religion. For some people, proof of faith consists of converting others to one’s views, even at the point of a gun (as with radical Islam). Or to enforce a particular point of view about morals. And this is where it gets sticky. In a competitive, increasingly individualistic society that has emerged from previously religious roots, we have a wide variety of attitudes about the “right” way to balance one’s own personal interests with the communal demands of one’s group. Some people feel powerful if they can implement their morality on others, and this does not detract from the point that they seriously believe their morality. There is an arrogance in this: “We have the power, we won, we can’t stand to let you challenge us, so we make the rules for you!” That’s one argument for libertarianism: government is not very good at resolving the subtle things, and they simply wind up with a “tyranny of the majority,” or of people who do not want unpredictable competition from those who are “different.”

What rung truest for me was, perhaps, the whole “creativity” negation. The “moral” point is dangerous indeed: It maintains that, before any male, at least, is allowed to participate in our “free” society as an equal, he must first “pay his dues” and prove that he can be a provider of “women and children first” by doing manly things, fighting for them, and perhaps peddling in an “always be closing” commercial world for the sake of his family. Sensitivity is not allowed. Then there is the idea that you make “new friends” who are supposed to be older, overweight straight males. Juvenile narcissism is out, aesthetic realism is in. Finally, the program first denies it is “converting” you to heterosexuality, it just makes you ex-gay, and this is like giving Lex Luthor on Smallville electroshock treatment.

Afterwards, we had a question-and-answer session, in which the author told his own life story, which included missionary work in Zambia and a stint in a Love in Action ex-gay program in Memphis, TN. We discussed the results of these programs, which in general, to put it bluntly, don’t seem to “work

Bill Corbett's Heckler

This play (90 minutes) is running at the Eye of the Storm Theater, Minneapolis Theater Garage (612-728-5859) Feb. 2- Mar. 4, 2001. The author is Bill Corbett and the one performer is Brian Baumgartner. The director is Casey Stangl. As with a log of soliloquy plays, this one takes on the social and wealth redistribution issues—in this case, right-wing political correctness from the point of view of a “liberal” upper midwestern demonstrator. The rallies are a composite of several, the most important being the GATT trade talks in Seattle in 1999. (Clinton, remember, was a strong “republican” supporter of free trade with both NAFTA and GATT). The political heckler chronicles his travels and expressions. Eschewing a “real job,” or any sense of professionalism based on the goals defined by others, he declares his job to be “knowing,” which is not the same as knowledge. Later he notes that political rallies and media cameos provide a “lens” for any individual to fight the system and make a name for himself. Well, you could say the same thing about the way I handle self-publishing and the Internet. Well, he disregards the advice of Minneapolis skyway standup (and very politically incorrect) comic John McDonough to “stay out of jail” and gets dragged by those pigs (the police) into something like a Hanoi Hilton while his pooch gets a leg amputated when crushed in the crowd. I’ll stick to my writing rather than be a street activist, but writers can wind up in jail, too. Just look at COPA.

Robert Cassler's Second in the Realm

Review: This play depicts the historical story of Stephen Langton, picked by Pope Innocent to become archbishop of Canterbury for King John. This sets up an inherent conflict of interest, since John is already preparing to oppose an Interdict from the Pope. Langton becomes disillusioned and eventually helps bring together the nobles to confront the King to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. The Pope becomes his enemy.

I saw a videotape of a performance by a Fairfax, Va. Theater group in 1996. Only 65 pages, the play takes two hours to perform. It might make a great film some day, a good prequel (of three hundred years) to A Man for All Seasons (1966).

There are wonderful passages about moral values, such as when Pope Innocent talks about people who make a spectacle of poverty in order to stand in judgment of others. The historical events are explained in narratives to the audience by Benedict.

Matt & Ben

The Accokeekcreek Theaterco (at the DC Arts Center at 2438 18th St Washington DC 20009 in Adams Morgan) has put on a double header play: Matt & Ben (75 min) is a parody of the “Good Will Hunting” concept. The playwrights are Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers; the director is Bob Bartlett. African-American actress Dionne Audain plays Matt Damon, and Tina Renay Fulp plas Ben Affleck. No, they aren’t portrayed as lesbians; rather they are like freshman college roommates who fight a lot. The spoof comes as the script for “Good Will Hunting” falls out of the apartment ceiling. They quarrel about the way you get onto the A-list, make big money by “adaptations” of other peoples’ work, almost as if it were a kind of plagiarism. In actual fact, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are emphatic in guarding their authorship of the screenplay (it had started as a very long novel, which is still worth publishing). Both actresses play a couple other characters, as when Dionne impersonates J. D. Salinger (maybe its his ghost), who is unwilling to release the rights to “The Catcher in the Rye,” which as to be their original adaptation. In a couple of spots Ben mentions his younger brother Casey (in Gerry). The play ends with an audio rendition of Matt and Ben accepting their academy awards.

The other half of this presentation was Xphiles Unrequited, by Bob Bartlett, who also directs (30 min), Robert Heinly plays Fox Mulder, and Adam Brandao plays Dana Scully (The 1990s series “The X Files”), as two homeless men parading in front of the White House, looking to be picked up by aliens as they take potshots at Bush and Cheney.

Chris Wells: Liberty!

Liberty! (1999); Written and Performed by: Chris Wells; Presented in Minneapolis by Eye of the Storm Theater; Directed by Bridget Carpenter; 85 Minutes, no intermission

"Where am I in America?"

Finally, a dramatic entity that presents individualism and libertarian thought first, and then makes the equal rights for gays a subset of that.

Chris Wells delivers most of the play as a monologue, somewhat in the spirit of Gertrude Stein. But there are plenty of entertaining diversions. For example, there's a slightly out-of-tune piano accompaniment, somewhat in the style of Alban Berg and the opera Wozzeck. There is a Howdy Doody style puppet show, and, most audacious of all, Chris Wells actually serves food to the audience (vanilla cake and white sugar frosting, not good for those on diets). There is also mandatory audience participation, such as the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance and singing of the round Frere Jacques (Mahler's First Symphony, anyone?)

The script, however, shows the difficulty of conveying a epic concept in a low-budget entertainment venue. The "plot device" is that of a liberated man waltzing around the country as the Statue of Liberty. It tends to be choppy, laden with lots of forced jokes. However, the ambition must be appreciated. It (like my Do Ask, Do Tell) tries to convey the sweep of how far American individualism has come, especially for but not limited to gays and lesbians. At one point, he tries to do this from prison (apparently for consensual sodomy), as he rejoices in prison perks like 3 squares a day, a weight room, library, college education.

But at least other media efforts are getting "the point."

Marc Wolf's "Another American: Asking and Telling"

I saw this play at a benefit for SLDN at the Studio Theater in Washington D.C., during the Millennium March weekend (in April 2000). (The next night I would attend HRC’s “Equality Rocks” concert at RFK stadium (the old haunt of the Senators and Redskins), and retired Petty Officer Keith Meinhold would tell me, “a stadium filled with homos, and love every minute!”) The benefit was sponsored in part by American Airlines, by http://www.gay.com, and by Pizzeria Paradisio.

I’ve seen a few other “monologue” or “soliloquy” (as from the Carousel song) plays before, such as Chris Wells’s Liberty and, in the early 1980’s, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein. But Marc Wolf’s offering, however simple the stagecraft, is obviously ambitious. It java-strings the accounts of a number of gay and lesbian servicemembers, often in the words of these particular soldiers, producing a continuous, if segmented, symphony-story like Randy Shilts’s Conduct Unbecoming (1993, St. Martins) book (or Humphrey’s anthology My Country, My Right to Serve) . Wolf (as far as I can determine, as of May 2000) hasn’t gotten this play published in book form yet, and let’s hope that he does so that we can order it from sources like amazon.com. But it is getting performed around the country and it is building an audience with the critics (it was reviewed by The Washington Post on May 2, 2000, and on CNN on May 11, 2000). Given the developments of the 1999-2000 winter, it sounds as though Broadway and Hollywood may be prepared to deal with the gays-in-the-military topic big-time, and this play could be the entry point. (I don’t know what became of the rumors that HBO would do Conduct Unbecoming, as it had done And the Band Played On. Several small films dealing with the ban are already discussed at this site, as is the 1999 Best Picture American Beauty.) However, I personally feel that it is important to show the reader, viewer or moviegoer why the issue matters to the average American. As touching as was this script, I’m not sure that it really did that. Wolf, according to the CNN report, spent three years of his life and most of his savings traveling the country to interview almost 200 former servicemembers (from which he selected just eighteen as protagonists in his play). By contrast, I interviewed a handful while keeping working, as I was preparing (in Do Ask Do Tell, a similar title) a broad argument libertarian argument about many issues with the military ban as the fulcrum.

The selection of personalities and anecdotes is balanced, and many of them come from the pre 1993-Clinton period. At least one character displays his resistance to serving with gays, maintaining that his religious convictions would be violated and that he would have to quit the service. Several characters refer to the “naming names” trick played by military investigators, so well documented in Shilts’s book. Perhaps the most important “big case” presented is that of Miriam Ben-Shalom, who during the 1980’s fought for seven years to get the Army to obey a lower federal court order to reinstate her (only to lose at the appellate level). Another galling case was that of a young gay Marine sodomized (ironically) in the brig; the claim is that he became HIV+ from the incident. Later, Wolf presents the evolution of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Charles Moskos is characterized as justifying the policy as “two cheers for hypocrisy,” as the alternative purportedly would have been “asking” and outright exclusion, possibly from associated civilian areas as well. (Moskos at one time wanted to call the policy DADT, Don’t Seek, Don’t Flaunt, the last two of which eventually became Don’t Pursue). Toward the end, he presents the horrible tragedy of Allen Schindler, whose mother tells of his body not even being left with a face after the beating, the eyeballs pushed into the position of the temples. The play seems about to end, with a train whistle that sounds a musical triad, dropping with the Doppler effect, although Wolf goes on for a coda emphasizing that gays fight in real combat, even as Green Berets (as in the 1980’s film).

Wolf presents himself as a virile, young gay man, muscular and agile, and in the early biological summer of life. Sometimes, the camp of a few characters seems out of place for the appearance. At least, however, he trounces the stereotypes, the Cold War idea of gays as sissies who would drag the whole national defense down. Instead, gays can be the super-achievers and visual reminders of masculinity

Bill's Drama Reviews; Vogler Concert; Britten's Billy Budd

This site will contain reviews of a few live concerts, musicals and especially drama about important issues.

Mar. 2006 The Vogler Quartet from Berlin, Germany plays (at the Dumbarton Methodist Church in Washington DC) the String Quartet in C, Op. 59 #3, one of the Razumovsky quartets, with its scintillating fugal finale (and a slow movement that is not slow), along with the B-flat quartet Op. 130 and Grosse Fugue Op. 133. Op. 132 opens with a curious first movement that stops and starts and converses with the listener as much as sings to him/her. They skipped the ossia finale of 132 and played the fuge as the finale, and it is more effective this way. The fugue has plenty of passages of delicious dissonance and tension. It reminds one of the finale of the Hammerklavier Sonata, and of the finale of Bruckner's Symphony #5, both of those works also in B-flat.

In his time, Beethoven conducted an intellectual revolution: that music could communicate genuine emotion by being "perfect" to the point of strangeness, and by "putting everything down" -- often in sonata fashion.

In September 2004 I saw the Britten opera Billy Budd at The Washington Opera, with Dwayne Croft as Billy Budd, Robin Leggate as Captain Vere, and Samuel Ramey as John Claggart. The libretto is by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier. That gives you a pretty good prediction of the layered meanings of the story, from concerns about mutiny (and the practice of impressments, which would lead to the War of 1812. (In one sense, the opera is a kind of compressed “Master and Commander”.) The second layer is almost like Paul Rosenfels, where Vere describes his domain in the Prologue:

“I have been a man of action…”

“Much good has been shown to me and much evil, and the good has never been perfect. There is always some flaw in it, some defect, some imperfection in the divine image, some fault in the angelic song, some stammer in the divine speech. So that the Devil has something to do with every human consignment to this planet earth.”

That of course, leads to the “obvious.” Yes, the plot hinges on Billy Budd’s “fatal flaw” – not something generic like Everwood’s Ephram (my inability to change), but simply his stammer will be his undoing. But of course the powers that be on the ship conspire against him, partly out of his threat to their power, his supposed threat to “unit cohesion” (sound familiar?) and perhaps good old jealousy in what is essentially homosexual soap opera. Billy Budd is the Joseph Steffan or Keith Meinhold of his day, the Rosa Parks who refuses to go to the back of the bus, who stands in the limelight. And he will be resented, he will be brought low. That is the tragedy.

Britten, who wrote this opera in 1951 (first in four acts) was a half-decade of his time in what would become the social issues of succeeding generations. This atmosphere of the stagecraft experience is awesome (the Washington Opera used a hinged stage), as we see an all male environment, without a hint of women (just one mention of wife and kids at home), men lying in their hammocks, but as often as not against each other in forced intimacy. He found a way to say “it” in a way that could be taught in, say, 9th Grade Honors English in public schools. He looked back to Mahler in his music. Mahler, it is said, wanted to write a requiem mass, and the War Requiem of Britten is a close guess of what Mahler might have composed. The ending of Billy Budd, with the harrowing “Down All Hands” male chorus, retreats into the linear world of the Mahler 9th, or even Das Lied von der Erde, and even the Shostakovich 4th Symphony. The audience at the opera sat stunned as the final C-major chord drum-rolled to a wispy close with Vere closing up shop.