Q2Q

 
These are a series of columns that I wrote with Sarah Schulman for LGNY, a local gay newspaper in New York City. We would go to the theater together and write separate reviews which were published together. (The dates indicate when I wrote the column -- the publication dates, alas, are lost to history.) After six columns and not getting paid even the measly amount we were promised, we jumped ship and took the column to New York Press. You can see those columns by clicking here. Below you will find my half of the conversation. Sarah reworked her half in a fascinating book called Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America.

1 -- “Prisoner of Love” and “One Woman Shoe”

Sarah and I inaugurated our theatergoing column by spending a Thursday evening on legendary East 4th Street. We started out at New York Theater Workshop, where we saw JoAnne Akalaitis's stage adaptation of Prisoner of Love, Jean Genet's memoir about the time he spent in Palestinian refugee camps. Sarah and I bow to few in our shared love for Genet. Our Lady of the Flowers was my introduction to queer lit as a teenager, crouching in the aisle of a public library in Colorado with a boner reading about men in prison sniffing each other's farts; Sarah had a similar history (sans boner) with Funeral Rites and dedicated her flawless novel After Delores to the memory of JG. She kept checking her watch throughout the show and basically hated it. I can't say I enjoyed it, exactly, but I admired it as a passionately intellectual essay on "the ecstasy of betrayal."

I haven't read Genet's dense 400-page text. Akalaitis's version focuses on passages in which Genet muses on writing as a betrayal of experience, thanks to the filters of unreliable memory and the inevitable inadequacy of language. It's part of Genet's perverse genius, though, that he views betrayal not with hurt or outrage but matter-of-factly, almost as a compliment. If his necessarily fragmented accounts of squatting among the Fedayeen, which get shuffled together with memories of interacting with the Black Panthers in 1970, betray the complexity of what he observed and felt, then Akalaitis betrays him by rearranging his sentences to please herself. But Akalaitis has spent her entire career contesting the notion that there is a single correct way to read a text. And in the last ten years she has specifically been looking to perverse queer geniuses (Jane Bowles and Tennessee Williams in addition to Genet) for inspiration to make theater pieces that are unconventional and personal in the extreme.

Her Prisoner immediately establishes a critical distance from Genet by having him played by Ruth Maleczech. Akalaitis makes him out to be anything but Sartre's Saint Genet by exposing his faintly patronizing attitude toward blacks, and she underscores his support for the Palestinians as a matter not of political principle but a convergence of eros (the search for beautiful men) and aesthetics (the search for beautiful sentences). The brilliant thing about the the show is that she mounts her critique without denying Genet's gorgeous writing, his Buddha-like ability to observe the 10,000 joys (a man's voice "like an erect penis stroking a cheek") and 10,000 sorrows (a woman crucified alive with flies feeding on the blood from her severed fingertips).

I didn't understand anything Maleczech was trying to do with her physical gestures and prop-handling, nor did I understand Akalaitis's pointed use of saturated primary colors in the visual design (carried over from her bizarre Suddenly Last Summer in Hartford last fall). I do get that she's trying to work out some theatrical vocabulary that goes beyond words, and I admire the effort if not the result.

Maybe that makes me the kind of pretentious queen Amy & David Sedaris send up in One Woman Shoe at La Mama. I loved the premise of the show: this prissy social worker enforces new government regulations that, to receive any public benefits, white women have to mount a solo performance piece. (Women of color, we are told, are ordered to groom border collies.) Tons of cleverness went into this show, zestfully performed by five fearless comic actors, but you know what? It wore me out. It was 15 minutes of hilarity jam-packed into 90 minutes of Mad Lib non sequiturs delivered at screwball velocity. And the promise of social satire about workfare and hatred of the poor evaporated instantly. The script flayed performance artists (the safest target in all of hip comedy) and left Newt Gingrich's Contract Against America untouched.

(6.10.95)

2 -- “All About Steve: Musings of an Ebony Queer” and “Party”

I spent Memorial Day weekend at a gay male nudist gathering in Maryland. Do you remember how cold and rainy that weekend was? There we were, Sunday night, fully dressed, huddled together for warmth in a barn watching the "talent show." One guy sat at the piano and played "Blue Moon" while the curtain parted just enough to reveal two wagging rear ends. An extremely intense and deadly earnest Vietnam veteran sang "My Way" to backing tracks, karaoke-style. The climax of the evening came when a hunchbacked elder climbed onstage butt-naked and performed 20 minutes of filthy limericks, accompanied by accordion.

This spectacle cured me forever of the illusion that all queers are creative.

This God-driven truth returned to me in full force after Sarah and I spent a marathon evening attending bad gay theater in the West Village.

I'm usually pretty self-protective about attending amateur theatricals. I know better than to waste a minute of my time going to see things like 30,000 Pigs Roamed the City or Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack, and they certainly don't need me bringing my formidable critical intelligence to bear on their contributions to Homo Culture. Unfortunately, I have what Ralph Waldo Emerson termed "a weak curiosity" when it comes to new experiences. So when Sarah announced we were going to the Lesbian Theater Project's Spring Festival of One Act Plays (one of which was hers), I was game. I'd never seen four lesbian plays in one night. Sarah started apologizing even before we got in the door at the Westbeth Theater Center; by the end of the show, her indebtedness had escalated to include her first-born child. Far from a ground-breaking experiment in lesbian visibility, it was essentially student work, not ready for prime-time.

All About Steve: Musings of an Ebony Queer, which we saw at the Grove Street Playhouse right afterwards, played a variation on the same theme. It piqued my weak curiosity because, hey, how many solo shows have I seen by out men of color? But it turned out that I have seen this kind of show -- you know, the rampantly narcissistic showcase of a personality with a hunger for approval that not even a stadium full of cheering fans could fill. Stephen Patterson has some sweet stories to tell (a father who loved him, camp counselors who blessed his queerness, a 13-year relationship going strong) in juicy language. However, he needs a director to help him cut the show in half, not swallow his words, cut out the playing-to-the-second-balcony mugging, and give vent to some of the hostility raging behind his chorus-boy smileyness.

Seeing too much bad art will make anyone tired and cranky. I don't want to go there. This marathon inspired me to remember how hard it is to make good theater and to heap praise on whatever I like. Three examples: Chay Yew's A Language of Their Own at the Public, the first play I'd ever seen about gay Asians, rewarded my weak curiosity with excellent nuanced performances by Brad Wong and Alec Mapa. Word of Mouth at the Promenade showed off James Lecesne's exquisitely precise technique at playing multiple characters. And although as dramatic literature David Dillon's Party at the John Houseman Theatre is strictly cardboard, I laughed my ass off because Dillon has directed the play brilliantly, expertly focusing attention beat-by-beat and repeatedly pulling laughs out of thin air. Of course, he's abetted by the runaway comic performance of Ted Bales, who comes off as a cross between Tommy Tune and Margaret Hamilton.

Every show I've mentioned had somebody lipsynching to trashy pop, which I thought I was a sucker for. I'm way over it now. The most winning use of a tired device, though, was Bales' mouthing Karen Carpenter's "Close to You" wearing nothing but a purple-sweater-as-nun's-habit.

(6.24.95)

3 -- “The Tempest,” “Hamlet,” and “Death Blues”

The week two gay male geniuses of the American theater took on Shakespeare for the first time taught me a thing or two about "queering the canon." Like: there's not one way to do it. I expected George C. Wolfe's Tempest in Central Park would be flashy but respectable and Robert Wilson's solo Hamlet at Serious Fun would be brainy and thrilling. Both overturned my expectations.

Wolfe pulled out all the artistic stops for his Central Park debut and mounted the single best Shakespeare I've ever seen at the Delacorte. Too bad it had to close July 19. In Wolfe's sharp, smart, radical reading, the charismatic magician Prospero (exquisitely played by Patrick Stewart, Capt. Picard to Trekkies) was not the hero of the play but a bitter, slave-owning colonizer who wielded his powers only to dominate others and who shared with his enemies the white man's tendency to treat any colored people they encounter abroad as potential sideshows rather than sovereign citizens. And rather than being a mere handservant, Ariel (Aunjanue Ellis) became his moral challenger: she refused to summon the powers at her command for destructive purposes, and she taught Prospero forgiveness and compassion not just by being good but by being fierce. Wolfe employed shrewd race-based casting (a relief from the well-meaning yet meaningless "color-blindness" Joe Papp favored), making not only Ariel and Caliban black but also Ferdinand, so when his daughter fell in love Prospero had to shuffle off at least some of his racism. But Wolfe's Tempest wasn't just some cheap PC jamboree. He kept Shakespeare's "twangling" language and dense plotting crystal-clear, without stinting the queer. He made the homo lovers Antonio and Sebastian's plot to kill the king as sexy as any Macbeth and the comic parallel plot between Trinculo and Stephano correspondingly queer (all four performances richly detailed without any cheap fag-gags, including Bill Irwin's lisping drunk). And Miranda's wedding feast climaxed with the appearance of Juno as a stilt-walking black drag queen in a white tent twirling her parasol. Plus Wolfe's own understanding of island culture, spirits, deities, and magick served both the play and the park audience's hunger for spectacle (great masks and puppets by the brilliant Barbara Pollitt).

By contrast I found Wilson's Hamlet dry and almost stultifying to watch. His work always has beauty without sensuality, intellect without passion. Later, though, I grudgingly had to admire Wilson's highly eccentric multiple-personality portrayal for two reasons. It provocatively proposed Hamlet's "madness" as not just a psychological strategy but a shamanistic communion with the other characters. (Weak ego + strong spirit = ancient queer-healer tradition.) And it fleshed out his theater aesthetic, which is about exploring the deeply personal pleasures of the decentered personality. "Being all you can be" means you're sometimes a killer, sometimes a psycho, sometimes a drunken fag at closing time ("Wretched ka-ween!"), sometimes a momma's boy, sometimes a suicidal girl, sometimes a Kabuki star. Being a consistent character can be a drag, not to mention a lie.

After I saw the original production of Ntozake Shange's dazzling, idiosyncratic "choreopoem" for colored girls..., she became the standard against which I judged all other theater poets. I want everybody to go see the 20th anniversary revival, through August 13 at the New Federal Theatre, because I want there to be more steamy, musical excursions into language-as-theater. Lord knows I Was Looking at the Ceiling and I Saw the Sky tried and failed miserably. With the exception of some lovely vocal harmonies, John Adams' music was remarkably ugly, and June Jordan's uninspired text slapped together a bunch of social-worker statistics disguised as characters. On the other hand, Dudley Saunders may well be setting a new standard in my lexicon. In Death Blues at Dixon Place, the sequel to his brilliant Birdbones, Saunders stands shaved-headed at a microphone with his guitar, singing, speaking, and spinning simple theater magic. He's creating a new kind of American balladry mixing Springsteen starkness, Joni Mitchell lyricism, country-western emotion, and queer-boy straight talk. "Snakes thudded green-blooded against the window like strange maps to twisty places" went one memorable line. Or: "Baby Boy's dying breath caught up with Jimmy on Avenue C and kissed the back of his neck." And the timeless closing lines speak from every heart, but specifically one HIV-positive heart: "I'm trying not to disappear/Who will remember I was here?"

The title Death Blues may not sound like the kind of show you want to take your date to on a Friday night. Get over it. This is the best queer theater in town at the moment.

(7/16/95)

4 -- “Deviant Craft” and “2 Boys in Bed on a Cold Winter’s Night”

Halfway through Deviant Craft at the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage, I found myself thinking, "If this play keeps spilling out language and ideas at this pace, my head is going to explode!" We'd arrived at the Anchorage and immediately, skillfully got drawn into interacting with the characters, "clients" at the Phlogiston Foundation, "a special reformatory for women who have committed violent crimes, but who have shown remarkable aptitude in science, technology and art." We learned they would be performing Shakespeare's Tempest for us, but we also learned about the ballsy and/or beautiful inmates' individual brilliance and neuroses -- and their strange enslavement to a white administrative tyrant named Mr. Snow -- before being led into the theater and directed to seats in a three-tier rough replica of Stratford's Globe Theater. We picked up pieces of the institution's lore and love affairs: aged Dottie burned down a wing of the prison, killing 30 women, including her beloved Claire, who believed Shakespeare's texts contained secret alchemical formulas; Ginny and Cookie have some kind of sex-for-drugs thing going on. Great one-liners would sometimes float out of the mix. "'You can't take it with you' is a vicious rumor started by the Home Shopping Network" and "Steroids make my stool smell like grape sherbet." The dialogue excited my critic-brain with thoughts of other plays by trippy, literary, non-mainstream playwrights like Eric Overmyer, Ron Tavel, and early-period Sam Shepard.

I tend to like plays where you really have to stay alert to make sense of them, and Deviant Craft definitely fell into that category. But as it labored on, W. David Hancock's play turned out to be a theatrical Mobius strip that kept opening up and folding back on itself, dazzling and puzzling and teasing and ultimately frustrating the audience by not going anywhere. It's encased in a spectacular environmental production directed by Melanie Joseph with good full-tilt performances by, among others, Off-Off veterans Lee Nagrin and Ching Valdes-Aran. Finally, though, it was one of those shows where your respect for its high ambitions gets tarnished by the feeling of being intellectually ripped-off.

I had more patience for it than Sarah did, which is typical for us. As we walked back over the Brooklyn Bridge to have a few drinks at the Boiler Room, she went into a tirade about Love! Valour! Compassion!, which she'd just seen with Michael Bronski and loathed, dismissing it as "TV writing." I protested that you'd never hear a gay character on TV proclaiming at a dinner party "I hate straight people." A lot of radical queers hate Terrence McNally's play and think it sells out gay men and sucks up to straights. I don't feel that way, and I suspect those objections have less to do with McNally's writing than with a dislike for the real-life bourgeois fags who suffer from sexual guilt that the play honestly portrays. Let's face it, L!V!C! wasn't written to validate the life of East Village queers. No play's going to speak to all gay experience, and maybe learning to accept that is a step toward having more compassion for the extremely different populations that coexist in the far-from-monolithic "gay community."

Uh-oh, Shewey's getting preachy. Look out, world!

Sarah was getting ready for her birthday party, so she didn't go with me to see James Edwin Parker's 2 Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter's Night, which is probably just as well. The play's less cuddly and romantic than the title might suggest; in fact, the strongest charge comes from the hostility that flares up in the middle of one-night-stand getting-to-know-you chat. The characters flicker annoyingly between generic types and specific people, and they both seem a little young to have been Studio 54 habitues. Thomas Caruso's production didn't impress me much. What did impress me were two things the play dramatized without really talking about them. It portrayed an emotional masochist, the kind of guy who lets another guy pull power trips on him all the time without asserting his own self-worth. And basically the play focuses on an interesting dilemma: gay men know that a steady diet of hot sex without emotional and spiritual connection isn't fulfilling, but our culture (at least the Chelsea white boy culture that gay media glorify) offers 10,000 sexual options and precious few emotional/spiritual ones, so how do we get there? 2 Boys doesn't offer any answers but it usefully exposes the yearning.

(7/30/95)

5 -- “Ecstasy” and Nell Carter

The discreet homosexual population that descends upon Manhattan for bursts of school-vacation theatergoing has been enjoying a bonanza of male flesh on display this season. This invaluable sector of the theater audience has virtually worn grooves in the pavement from Love! Valour! Compassion! to Indiscretions to Party. Curiously, Mike Leigh's play Ecstasy hasn't yet secured a spot on the Penises-on-Parade circuit, even though it opens with a big John Malkovich-like lug sitting bare-assed on the side of a bed, staring at the audience. Just in case you're wondering if he's wearing skimpy briefs or something, his first action is to stand up and slowly, absentmindedly wipe off his uncut dick on a crusty-looking rag. Behind him, a blond woman lies motionless on the bed. Dead? Comatose? In her own quiet state of, uh, ecstasy? "Dja wanna fag?" he says. "Yeh," says she, sitting bolt upright and pulling on her bra and panties.

Ecstasy portrays a day in the life of a north London bedsit -- classic Mike Leigh territory. The blond is Jean, a gas station attendant, and the lug is Roy, the married man she's picked up in the pub on one of the increasingly frequent escapades she keeps secret from her best friend Dawn, who's married to Mick and has two brats. The next night, when there's a knock at the door, Jean's expecting Dawn for a night out, but it's Roy again. She lets him in and parks in a chair. He sprawls on the bed and keeps emphatically asking, "Aw yew orite over theh?" which is his way of saying, "There's a man in the room, when are you going to start servicing him?" Dawn shows up, followed by Roy's wife and a lot of yelling. After hours at the pub, Jean and Dawn return to the room with Mick and an old divorced friend Len to drink, reminisce, talk about Elvis, and conduct singalongs. Len ends up spending the night, sleeping on the chair in front of the space heater, calling out to Jean tucked in bed, "Aw yew orite?"

As fans of his films (High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, Naked) know, Mike Leigh is a master at examining the unexamined, chaotic lives of working-class Brits honestly, lovingly, and hilariously. Ecstasy is of a piece with them. The first Leigh play to be produced in America, it pretty much defines gay playwriting negatively -- no play this naturalistically focused on dreary lives could have been written by a queer (imagine Joe Orton handling the same material). Scott Elliott's production for the New Group at the Judith Anderson Theatre is a triumph all round. Leigh's plays are developed from improvisations in rehearsal so they're extremely juicy for actors. Out of a fine cast, Caroline Seymour deserves special attention for the cheerful enigma she embodies as Jean. Also brilliant are the perfectly tacky costumes by Eric Becker and the set by Kevin Price and Zaniz. As Sarah said, you could practically see the toenails in the carpet.

In the video of Maria Callas's 1962 recital at Covent Garden, the stationary camera captures La Divina standing onstage during the overture to act 4 of Don Carlo. In this five-minute sequence, her eyes and face enact a Tolstoy epic's worth of emotions before she even sings a word. I thought of Callas watching Nell Carter crawl her way through a Nashville weeper called "A Cold Day in July," during her cabaret act at Rainbow & Stars. The secret smiles, the doubts, and the 17 flavors of disbelief that flickered across her face reflected a subterranean drama so much deeper than the sweet, simple breakup ballad she was singing. She's an extraordinary actress.

She's a bunch of other things, too. She's a blue-talking bawd in the Belle Barth tradition who takes a meat tenderizer to the testicles of the men at ringside and an angry black woman who doesn't hide her impatience with white people. She's a hard-swinging blues shouter who says her favorite song is Noel Coward's "If Love Were All." She displays the confusing semiotics traditionally associated with closet-dyke saloon singers: she talks about her three darling children and her three white ex-husbands to whom she pays alimony, but she also wears a red ribbon, refers to her all-women band Simply the Best (which includes her giant pianist Jo Ellen Friedkin and her tiny bassist Lynn Hiller), and does the routine about saying hello to "my girlfriend, who's in the audience tonight," who turns out to be a fictional hooker who figures in the Bessie Smith blues, "I've Got What It Takes but It Breaks My Heart to Give It Away." She's a bundle of nerves, rage, insecurity, sadness, sweetness, humility, and fierceness, emotions that the songs she sings can tap but never contain. She has the same quality of keeping you guessing that made Oscar Wilde say of a now-forgotten American actress, "She is a great artist, in my sense of the word, because all she does, all she says, in the manner of the doing and of the saying constantly evoke the imagination to supplement it. That is what I mean by art."

(8/12/95)

 

6 -- “The Food Chain” and “Troilus and Cressida”

On opening night of the Queer Theater Conference last April, Nicky Silver stole the show. Sitting on a panel of gay and lesbian playwrights dressed in impeccable preppy uniform, he sat next to the moderator and made absolute mincemeat of his overearnest academic questioning by performing a nonstop pantomime of facetious facial expressions. He periodically interjected his two-cents' worth in a high piercing voice that Cyndi Lauper could envy and improvised a kind of queer Smothers Brothers routine with Chay Yew, seated on the other side of him. Afterwards, smoking on the steps of Judson Church, he was asked if he planned to attend other panels in the conference. "Goodness no," he said without hesitation, "I have a rug to hook!"

Nicky Silver is part of a distinguished lineage of comic queer theater. A former actor and performance artist, he wrote a play called Wanking 'Tards that the gifted writer-director David Greenspan staged Off-Off-Broadway. He's since written half a dozen plays whose bright surfaces and savage humor call to mind Chris Durang, Harry Kondoleon, and their progenitor Joe Orton. Many of his plays have premiered at Washington's Wooly Mammoth Theater, where Ortonesque laugh-where-it-hurts comedies are the house brand. Despite his personality and pedigree, though, Silver hasn't yet demonstrated the stark originality of any of the writers I just mentioned.

His latest play The Food Chain may be his most conventional and least interesting. It's certainly his most derivative. I felt like one of those pedantic queens who sit in the cinema reciting along with All About Eve, but I couldn't help spotting the nightmare shrink from Beyond Therapy, the bisexual Fatal Attraction triangle from Christmas on Mars, the nonspeaking hunk from Richard Greenberg's The Maderati, and the fat-boy body-hatred patented by Albert Innaurato in his grotesque masterpiece The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie. Even the spectacle of Tom McGowan in a fatsuit talking a mile a minute has been seen before, in the short-lived Broadway weirdness La Bete. Borrowing is a fine tradition in itself when it spurs fresh thoughts, but here Silver merely seems to be shuffling familiar comic types. There's nothing as outrageous as the designer mom in Fat Men in Skirts who orders her son, the only other survivor of a plane crash, to cut off a nun's arm for dinner. But then plays like that don't usually get the kind of handsome commercial production that The Food Chain is getting at the Westide Arts Theater.

My friend Keith Hennessy, the fine San Francisco performance artist, was in town, so he went with Sarah and me to Troilus and Cressida in Central Park. Keith confessed he'd only seen a few Shakespeares onstage and found the plays impossible to read. I agreed that they're hard to read. "Why don't critics admit that?" he lamented. "The reviews always pretend that everybody knows these plays by heart." T&C, which I'd never seen nor read, is one of the toughest and most rarely produced. Now I know why.

Surely Shakespeare's most perverse play, it trots out all the major figures from the Trojan War -- Helen and Paris, Agamemnon and Cassandra, Achilles and Patroclus, to name a few -- as subsidiary characters in a bizarre, jerry-rigged, and ultimately inconsequential romance between two ordinary Trojan kids who couldn't care less about the war inspired by the abduction of their hometown supermodel. Imagine When Harry Met Sally set in Sarajevo. It's much more fascinating to ponder the Bard's perversity than to sit through the show. Mark Wing-Davey's messy take on a messy play is a chore, and it's hard to recommend it. The play does feature one of the few out gay relationships in Shakespeare; Achilles' rage at his lover's death is a turning point in the Trojan War. Here the fierce warriors of legend are presented as a pair of distasteful black fags, a coke-snorting slacker and the dreadlocked bimbo who follows him around slathering him with sunscreen.

The best reason to see this Troilus, though, is Stephen Spinella as Pandarus, who spends the whole play inexplicably playing matchmaker to the title characters. He starts off in a black wig that makes him look like a member of Ozzy Osbourne's backup group, he has to dance with a strap-on during an orgy at Helen's, and he winds up syphilitic with a crutch and a silver nose. Doesn't matter. He has such a magnificent voice and active intelligence that, on this sprawling landscape as throughout all seven hours of Angels in America, Spinella rules.

(8/25/95)

  
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