NEW YORK PRESS columns Part 2

"Gay Paree, Bottom to Tops": Salome and Victor/Victoria

When Oscar Wilde's *Salome* first appeared onstage in 1986, at the Theatre de l'Oeuvre in Paris, the author was imprisoned at Reading Gaol, serving a sentence of two years' hard labor for the crime of "committing indecent acts." His conviction was obtained partly on a Savoy Hotel chambermaid's testimony that she had spied fecal stains on Wilde's bedsheets; notoriously squeamish about buttsex, Wilde took the fall to protect his slutty boyfriend, Lord Alfred Douglas. The man who the same year had written one of the finest comedies in the English language, *The Importance of Being Earnest*, spent his first month in prison walking an uphill treadmill for six hours a day and lost 22 pounds from starvation and diarrhea. The day he was arrested, 600 bachelors took the boat from Dover to Calais, lest they share the same fate.

Written in French years earlier, *Salome* nonetheless dramatizes the most famous line from "The Ballad of Reading Gaol": "Each man kills the thing he loves." The petulant princess has her heart set on kissing the holy man, John the Baptist (Wilde calls him Jokanaan), on the mouth, and her lecherous stepfather, King Herod, is so hot to watch her do her hoochie-koochie dance that he agrees to give her anything she wants. You know how the story turns out. In his production of *Salome*, which was at the BAM Next Wave Festival for six performances October 17-21, the powerhouse writer-director- performer Steve Berkoff displayed all his theatrical trademarks. Highly stylized staging. Stark design, gorgeous, lots of hard surfaces. Supercilious choruses speaking in unison and advancing in ominous slo-mo. It's a perfect style for such an ornate vehicle as *Salome*. The problem with such severe stylization, though, is that it's like a wind-up toy that does the same thing over and over until it stops. There's no possibility of magic or surprise. As with Robert Wilson, you admire the cleverness of Berkoff's work in retrospect while in the midst of the show you get so impatient that your hand twitches for the fast-forward button. 

No such challenge to the attention span in *Victor/Victoria.* It's big, bright, and fun without being stoopid. Color me surprised. I was ready for a retread of *La Cage aux Folles*, another stodgy gloss of sentimental Broadway bromides with a heartwarming gay-pride message guaranteed not to rock anyone's boat. Uh uh. Think *Jelly's Last Jam* -- *Victor/Victoria* has that kind of energy and sparkle. Director Blake Edwards, finally crashing Broadway after a career in movies, knows from stage magic, whether it's classic physical shtick, tart repartee, or cuing a scene change with the swirl of a cape. I suspect he's had a lot of help from choreographer Rob Marshall, whose hot dance numbers play up the show's theme of sexual ambiguity any chance they get. After the opening scene in a gay cabaret, the segue to a backstage rehearsal features a line of cuties, and you're so primed to see drag queens that it takes a good long minute to get the joke that these are real girls.

Adapting to the stage his screenplay about a penniless English soprano named Victoria Grant (played by Julie somebody, I didn't catch the name) who becomes a star posing as a Polish female impersonator, Edwards seems to have consulted Vito Russo's *The Celluloid Closet* and taken his criticisms to heart. He's certainly made the story gayer. Tony Roberts as Toddy, the friendly queen who concocts the whole faux-drag scheme, is barely two lines into his opening number before he's cruising a guy on the street. Michael Nouri as King, the gangster who falls reluctantly in love with what he thinks is a drag queen, definitely kisses Victoria *before* she fesses up. And when Toddy hooks up with King's bodyguard Squash (the adorable Gregory Jbara), we don't exactly get to see them staining the sheets, but they're not the asexual sissies we saw in the movie, either. 

Not that the show has any kind of progressive politics. We're actually supposed to pity King's homophobia. "The poor dear, of course he can't tell the guys on the golf course he's a cocksucker!" And by the end of the show Victoria's given up that nonsense about wanting to be a man -- she's gotten tendonitis from opening doors for herself and she's ready to relax into a little patriarchy. Still, the climax of the show is Mary Poppins coming down front with a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down: living in the shadows, she sings, you'll never find out who you are. And I found myself really moved when the newly out Squash says "I feel like it's my birthday" and Toddy, toasting him with champagne, says "In a way it is." Miss Manners couldn't have devised better etiquette for celebrating someone's coming out.

November 1, 1995


"Haunted by Their Pasts": The Model Apartment, Tallahassee, and Picasso at the Lapin Agile


If you go to the theater a lot, you're bound to see plenty of bad shows, but if you're lucky even the lamest turkey can turn you on to a wonderful actor you've never seen before. Sarah and I attended a musical called *Tallahassee* (now closed) at the Workhouse Theater in Tribeca a few weeks ago, and she hated it so bad that at intermission she declared she'd rather spend the next hour sitting in the back of a pickup truck on White Street than watch the second act. I knew what she meant, but I couldn't tear myself away. There's no way to describe this show without making it sound more interesting than it actually was. Two playwrights with a taste for whimsy and lowlife-as-a-metaphor-for-America, Len Jenkin and Mac Wellman, adapted Ovid's *Metamorphoses* into a shaggy-dog story about the poet Ovid getting banished from the Imperial Capital of Tallahassee for writing dirty books; exiled to Alligator Alley, where he's forced to teach Latin and metal shop at the junior college there, he encounters a couple of yahoos going the opposite direction and they compare notes on muffins, pumpkins, and wax paper.

I've admired Jenkin's loose, episodic, noirish plays in the past. He likes to create lists of imaginary objects; the reading list for a night school course in "Orgiastic Mysteries of the Old Ones" includes A True History of the Devil in Florida, Bruised Lips, and Shuck & Jive: Dugong Erotica. I've never especially resonated with Wellman's aggressively absurdist wordplay, and his deadpan kitsch seems to dominate *Tallahassee*: his take on metamorphosis is a cowboy named Bob turning into a woman who then turns into a rumor. (I guess you had to be there when the joint was passed.) This jokey text jostled with a score of songs by Elise Morris and Jim Ragland arranged and performed by wonderful singers with all the intense earnestness of the glee club at a Christian women's college in Nashville. Resourcefully staged by Damien Gray and stylished designed by Richard Dennis, the production nonetheless struck me as inane and not a little racist. But I'm glad I saw it, if only to encounter an actress new to me named Catherine Curtin. Subbing for a sick actress, she played Bob-as-a-woman with shy cheerfulness and zero condescension; later she crawled on her belly in a fishnet body stocking as a politician's floozy turned into Swamp Thing, a role to which she brought a pathos and honesty otherwise missing from the show.

Sarah refused to see any part of Steve Martin's *Picasso at the Lapin Agile* at the Promenade Theatre with me, and her instincts proved to be wise. It's a sentimental comedy that turns geniuses into mediocre jokers who toss around the phony banter rich people in Hollywood spew when they think they're talking about art. Still, I was happy to see an actor named Mark Nelson gainfully employed, even if he has to play a wan caricature of Albert Einstein who has lines like "How can I meet girls? I know! I'll develop a unified field theory." Nelson's the kind of actor who steals scenes by underacting. His comic substance is a quiet intelligence, and on a stage full of people trying desperately to be wacky, it's the only thing you feel like watching.

Of course, the best situation of all is good actors in a good show, and in that regard no show currently running beats Donald Margulies's *The Model Apartment*, stunningly well-directed by Lisa Peterson at Primary Stages (through November 12). This long one-act composed of short scenes and blackouts takes many turns. A retired Jewish couple arrives in Florida to discover their condo's not ready yet and they have to camp out in some version of a realtor's showroom. In the middle of the night, the schizophrenic daughter they thought they'd left behind in a Brooklyn halfway house -- a garrulous, overweight nightmare modeled (if I'm not mistaken) on Sylvia Frumkin, profiled by Susan Sheehan in *The New Yorker* -- shows up, trailed by her young black boyfriend. Plausible realism shifts to surreal drama, funny but with an undertow. Margulies is writing about inescapable pasts and stories that outlive the people in them. The excellent actors turn on a dime, and the director guides them expertly, keeping the temperature cool (David Van Tieghem's neutral between-scenes music and Paul Clay's clean lighting help a lot) and the hairpin emotions surprising. 

Veteran actress Lynn Cohen gives the performance of her career as the mother. First she's complaining to her husband about the tacky digs, then without transition she's consoling him while he rails -- a perfect picture of how couples catch and manage each other's emotions. At first dismayed and horrified when monstrous Debby (Roberta Wallach) shows up, within minutes Cohen is tucking a bib into her neckline and feeding her cereal from a bowl. What's a mother to do? Wallach herself is extraordinary as the mercurial Debby, the appalling product of her parents' Holocaust memories and survival strategies, American junk culture, and a diseased brain. I wouldn't make any claims for the play's greatness, but it's unsettling, and it inspired feisty conversations on the sidewalk afterwards. But my strongest memory of the play is of glancing over in the middle of the show at Sarah, who I think of as this tough cookie, and her face was in her hands, dissolved in tears.

November 8, 1995


"Now Itís in a Teapot": The Tempest


Sarah was on a seven-city tour last week to promote her new novel, *Rat Bohemia*, so I went to see George C. Wolfe's production of *The Tempest* on Broadway without her. We'd seen it together in Central Park last summer and were both dazzled, and I was really looking forward to seeing it again. Afterwards I walked away unable to avoid the conclusion that no one wants to hear: "You should have seen it in the Park."

Wolfe, who's the artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival, pulled out all the stops for his Central Park debut and mounted the single best Shakespeare I've ever seen at the Delacorte -- one of the best I've seen anywhere, for that matter. It's also the first *Tempest* I've experienced by a director of color. In his sharp, smart, radical reading, the charismatic magician Prospero (exquisitely played by Patrick Stewart) was not exactly 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 instead of 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 (Kamar de los Reyes), so when his daughter Miranda fell in love Prospero had to shuffle off at least some of his racism. 

But the show wasn't just some cheap PC jamboree. Wolfe 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, which was richly fed by the brilliant Barbara Pollitt's panoply of masks and puppets.

It wasn't until the production moved indoors to the Broadhurst Theatre that I realized just how much the outdoor setting contributed to its power in the Park. The stage design cooked up by Riccardo Hernandez -- a huge sand circle with any extra set pieces danced on and off by stiltwalkers and puppeteers -- not only solved the problem of cumbersome set changes, it also took advantage of the Delacorte's exposure to the elements the way few Shakespeare in the Park shows bother to do. The view of the lake, the sky, and the wind in the trees underscored the play's evocation of the unseen forces that take part in our lives, much as we try to ignore them. And the wide, semicircular Delacorte stage with its generous embrace of the audience made a connection between the closed-circuit architecture of the Globe Theater, where Shakespeare's plays were first mounted, and ancient Greek amphitheaters, which were built specifically to emphasize the continuum from spectators to performers to the cosmos. What's my point? Only to say that seeing *The Tempest* in the park was a Big Experience, an expansive glimpse of the Great Soul. At the Broadhurst the show has a lid on it, literally and figuratively. It's on a proscenium stage so it's flattened out. And the audience, by convention, sits in the dark, its focus directed exclusively to the actors and away from fellow communicants. A whole layer of the production's moral force has been stripped away. By contrast, you feel like you're watching rats in a cage.

But Wolfe has also filed down the edges of the production in other ways, partly through restaging and partly through recasting. Gone is the black drag queen at the wedding banquet; gender-appropriate casting has been restored for the goddesses. Gone is Kamar de los Reyes; Ferdinand is now safely white. Gone is Bill Irwin (he's doing his own show with David Shiner, *Fool Moon*); in place of him and the fetching John Pankow, now there's Ross Lehman, who's okay, and Mario Cantone, who trots out the same abrasive squalling-queen shtick here that he did replacing Nathan Lane in *Love! Valor! Compassion!* Wolfe has toned down Stewart's crusty island-tyrant demeanor so now he's playing the conventional interpretation of a wise beleaguered leader seeking restoration of his rightful throne. Oddly, he also seems to spend an inordinate amount of time sighing and beaming over the budding romance of Miranda and Ferdinand, as if he were Yenta the Matchmaker.

One key scene marks a major shift in the way Wolfe stages the relationship between Prospero and Ariel. Midway through the second act, the director has Prospero raise his stick in anger to strike Ariel, who's been dutifully working her wonders in return for a much-delayed emancipation proclamation. When he pulls back from violence and drops his arm, it signals a shift in his attitude toward the world, particularly the conspirators who exiled him to this island. Rather than continue the cycle of bitterness and revenge, fighting for power-over-others, he chooses to shift his consciousness and work for power-with-others (to use Riane Eisler's language from *The Chalice and the Blade*). In Central Park, when Stewart's Prospero threatened to hit her, Ellis's Ariel stood up to him, straightforward and defiant, as if to say: "You can kill me, but you can't kill the wind and the sea and the spirits that rule this domain, so just get over it, white man." On Broadway, Ellis crumples up into a ball, lying on her side mewing like a kitten, in a classic victim pose. Within this tableau, Prospero's refusal to play the bully with a helpless creature only reinforces his domination. Theatrically, it's a less interesting and less electric confrontation. On the other hand, as a picture of the world, it's probably more honest. Let's face it, when have white men ever surrendered their power out of the goodness of their hearts?

Directing shows at the Public Theater, George Wolfe is no stranger to taking risks and making bold choices. On Broadway, he tends to make nice. His production of *Angels in America* made Tony Kushner's sprawling gay-political epic acceptable to a mainstream audience specifically by glossing over the anger and subversiveness that courses through the play. Likewise, all the things that made *The Tempest* in Central Park a provocative personal essay on Shakespeare's play have all but disappeared inside the machinery of a big Broadway show that's a comfortable vehicle for a popular star. 
Of course, Wolfe is no slouch at staging Broadway entertainment, either. His carnival concept for staging *The Tempest* if anything works even more delightfully inside the Broadhurst, where the stiltwalkers and shadow puppets seem much larger and more vivid when they don't have to compete with the summer sky. The two major eruptions of Hope Clarke's festive choreography in the second act truly turn Tempestland into an island of joy. I got a big kick out of watching a puppeteer named David Costabile operating a Bunraku puppet and executing a wild Latin dance with a look on his face of demented ecstasy. Perhaps Wolfe gives us the key to this production right from the start. While a formation of sailors battles the storm at sea, a figure stands off to stage left rattling a theatrical thundersheet while holding up a book that says "The Tempest" and miming the words along with the actors -- paying lip service, as it were, to Shakespeare.

November 15, 1995

"Two Real Production Numbers": The Monogamist and Splendora


In a conversation about Susan Faludi's *New Yorker* piece about straight male porn stars, my ex mentioned that he'd gotten a promo copy of *John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut*, so of course I had to borrow it and watch it. It's the usual lame and far-fetched stroke-job, full of horny nurses and inexplicable three-ways, impressive only for its aggressive determination to provide photographic evidence that the severed member can still get hard and squirt. But even speeding through it on fast-forward, I fell into that unmistakable porno trance, where it suddenly seemed like a really good idea to spend all day doing nothing but watch videos, inhale carburetor cleanser, and pleasure myself. In his production of Barry Kyle's *The Monogamist* at Playwrights Horizons, director Scott Elliott skillfully conjures that salacious media mist and shows us how it surrounds and poisons the lives of the play's characters. 

Before the play begins, the audience witnesses some simulated channel-surfing on a bank of monitors: Beavis and Butthead sniggering all the way to the sperm bank, Madonna sighing "Justify My Love," phone-sex models announcing their specialties. Between scenes we're treated to video highlights of the play's time period (listed in the program as "The Bush Administration"), including Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill as well as Roseanne screeching the national anthem. Meanwhile, the soundtrack blasts with grunge remakes of '70s hits by Led Zeppelin and the Carpenters. Drenched in the media's slick tape-loop of pansexual pandemonium, no wonder the title character, 40-ish poet Dennis Jensen (Arliss Howard), feels ashamed to admit his 15-year commitment to his wife Susan (Lisa Emery) and his anger at her frivolous infidelity with one of her students (Timothy Olyphant); no wonder he's obsessed with recreating perfect moments rather than living in the present. Intimidated by the commercialized romanticism about '60s pop culture, no wonder the play's college-age characters feel like their lives are pale carbon copies of some past heyday to which their tie-dyed t-shirts represent a wistful homage. 

I'm a complete sucker for shows that flood the theater with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Losing My Religion" even, I admit, when it makes geriatric subscribers squirm in their seats. *The Monogamist* is a visceral kick, and the show is definitely worth seeing. It's so good it takes a while for you to realize that the play inside it leaves something to be desired. Elliott and his crack design team (set by Derek McLane, sound by Raymond D. Schilke, video by Mark McKenna) create such a specific cultural context for the play that it takes time to recognize how generic his characters are. Sky, the ditzy coed Dennis takes up with, is defined by lines like "I asked for a Miyata for graduation and all I got was some bogus Volvo with an airbag!" Susan, supposedly a smart feminist, praises Sky's inept efforts at abortion counseling. Poets and intellectuals are uniformly presented as poseurs. I finally figured out that the playwright is basically satirizing all the characters, except for Dennis, whose midlife crisis he sentimentalizes. Luckily for him, he's landed a director and a cast who don't settle for cliches and turn the characters into real people. Howard in particular does a phenomenal job of playing the tentativeness of a man whose soul is being scraped raw. And Caroline Seymour, who played the lead in Elliott's production of Mike Leigh's *Ecstasy*, turns in another demonically brilliant comic performance as a cable-access talkshow host.

A devoted cult has sprung up around Edward Swift's 1978 novel *Splendora*, about a guy run out of his hometown in West Texas for being queer who comes back in drag and gets hired as the town librarian. It's always seemed like a great story to stage or film. The biggest challenge, of course, would be to find a performer who could dazzle a bunch of crackers as the fashionable, French-speaking Miss Jessie Gatewood without giving away too soon the revenge-bound love-starved Timothy John Coldridge inside her eyelet dresses and lace-up boots. The musical version of *Splendora*, mounted last summer at Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theatre and brought into town for a brief run at the American Place Theatre, shies away from this challenge by casting an actress as Miss Jessie and an actor as Timothy John. It's not exactly a safe choice -- it sets up some theatrical intrigue when the preacher Brother Leggett goes to kiss Miss Jessie and Timothy John steps in -- but it makes things easy and rather schematic without ever being, well, fun. The score is a workmanlike approximation of sweet old-fashioned musicals like *The Grass Harp* and *House of Flowers*, wonderfully sung by a good cast (including a terrific up-and-coming leading man named Ken Krugman as Brother Leggett) but lacking memorable songs or much flavor. 

Likewise, in Peter Webb's book there's not enough distinction between the hilarious trashiness of the gossipy townspeople and the lofty cultured apparition who appears in their midst. In fact, the tone of the whole show is too tame and tasteful to capture what Swift, in his sly and forgiving way, was getting at in *Splendora*. Growing up behind a mask, as most gay people do, cultivates a resourcefulness and a see-both-sides perspective that straight society adores and counts on, as well as something it fears and tries to ignore: an implacable, hard-to-quench rage.

November 22, 1995

"David Hareís Brain": Racing Demon

"All those who have grown out of going to school have to do their learning virtually in secret, for anyone who admits that he still has something to learn devalues himself as a man whose knowledge is inadequate," Bertolt Brecht once wrote. Brecht himself was a big champion of theater as a forum for instruction. To him instruction meant not telling people *what* to think -- although as a Marxist woolyhead he definitely had his own values to promote -- but challenging audiences to figure out *how* to think. His fantasy was that critical thinking -- that is, imagining how things could be different than they are now -- acquired through theatergoing could spur critical thinking on political and social issues. He believed critical thinking could best be fostered by putting the incidents of a play through a process of alienation, "the alienation that is necessary to all understanding. When something seems 'the most obvious thing in the world' it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up." Critical thinking means being alive and alert at the theater rather than dozing through a pleasant entertainment.

At a typical play, according to Brecht, most people say to themselves: "Yes, I have felt like that too -- Just like me -- It's only natural -- It'll never change -- The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are inescapable -- That's great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world -- I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh." He wanted spectators at his theater to say: "I'd never have thought it -- That's not the way -- That's extraordinary, hardly believable -- It's got to stop -- The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary -- That's great art: nothing obvious in it -- I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh."

Brecht inevitably comes to mind while watching a David Hare play, and *Racing Demon* at Lincoln Center Theater is no exception. Hare is the kind of writer who works through opposition. Rather than baldly state something he wants the audience to accept as true, he'll have a character say just the opposite, leaving you to splutter, "That's not right!" The logical next step is "If that's not right, what do I think *is* right?" The story of *Racing Demon* has to do with the Church of England. The leading character is the Rev. Lionel Espy (Josef Sommer), the priest in a mixed-class, mixed-race parish who's suffering a crisis of faith because he feels the Church is irrelevant to his economically troubled community. The conservative Bishop of Southwark (George N. Martin) has been getting complaints about Espy and wants to replace him with Tony Ferris (Michael Cumpsty), a fiery young born-again fundamentalist who believes all social problems will be solved if people just embrace the gospel according to Jesus Christ. "Will Espy keep his job?" is the plot, and there are subplots concerning a gay priest being hounded by a sleazy journalist wanting to out him, Tony's tortured affair with a female social worker, and a Jamaican parishioner who reluctantly has an abortion to escape her husband's wrath but gets battered by him anyway.

If the plot were all, *Racing Demon* would be a big yawn. Why would a New York audience care about the inner workings of the Church of England? It'd be like those Athol Fugard plays that allow Americans to cluck over the evils of apartheid over there without referencing race conflicts in our own backyard. But *Racing Demon* is also about power and authority. The only way to make the play halfway interesting in New York right now is to see it as a reflection of what's going on in Washington. The no-nonsense bishop stands in for Newt Gingrich; he runs the church by the two cardinal rules of big business, which are "Rich people are always right" and "Fuck you, I've got mine." Tony Ferris represents all the Gingrich epigones driving around in their BMWs imprinting their feeble brains with Newt's weekly pep talks about "Conservative Opportunity Society" and "Liberal Welfare State." Espy is, who else, Bill Clinton. He agonizes over the poor and speaks piously about "the people," but watching him ignore his suffering wife and respond to the Jamaican's tearful moral struggle with a pathetic prefab prayer, you think, This guy is running on empty -- what makes him think he has anything to offer? All these characters talk past one another, and none of them can get beyond self-interest to speak anything like common sense. Truth or fiction?

Hare's best when he's asking questions. Why can't people enjoy what they have? How do you fight without hate? Why betray a friend when you don't need to? Good questions without easy answers. The playwright's not so good at concealing his schematic thinking. The characters are arguments, not people; in *Angels in America*, fellow Marxist Tony Kushner more skillfully dramatized the connection between power and sentimentality, and how people in caretaking positions can operate behind the back of power. Hare's actors try hard to fill in their roles, with mixed results. Michael Cumpsty, who's never less than riveting onstage, makes Tony both charismatic and completely insane. Paul Giamatti, George Martin, and Brian Murray also stay lively. But Josef Sommer has a hard time making his boring character anything but boring. Richard Eyre's cool and elegant production suits Hare's Brechtian aspirations, but both the play and the production leave out one crucial aspect that Brecht considered essential to theater. It's an element that comes easier to American playwrights influenced by Brecht, like David Mamet and Wally Shawn, than to British writers: even when a play is instructive, even when it's political, it's got to be fun.

November 29, 1995

 
See other NYP columns: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-27

  
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