Don Shirley, Hamlet, Hamletmachine, Inhale Harmonica and Parties!
What’s to Become of Us?
By Steven Leigh Morris
Paris, and now Mali.
The challenge for preserving our values in the face of such head-on attacks to them is how to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. The battle of Agincourt. The Battle of Britain. A common purpose. A shared resolve. If, instead, we remain determined to watch out for ourselves rather for each other, we’ll be safer in a world no longer worth living in.
If we’re motivated by fear rather than a more stoic determination, what then becomes the quality of our lives? If we employ the very tactics used by terrorists, when those very tactics assail the values we hold dear, then what becomes the quality of our lives?
And this is as true culturally as it is politically. Don Shirley, in his remarks on last week’s Ovations Awards, described the calls for unity made in my own public statements, as well as those by French Stewart and Vanessa Claire Stewart at the Ovations, as a step back from prior convictions. Really? Don also equated the Pro-99 movement with a right-wing faction, in opposition to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, because the Pro-99 cause was (somewhat ironically) praised in The Wall Street Journal. Oh, Don, please . . .
To paraphrase Don, I thought he might actually come up with a cogent argument to propel his insupportable notion that eviscerating the caliber and/or existence of money-losing intimate theaters that are based largely on volunteerism, will help the often money-losing but more-expensive-to-administer mid-size and larger theaters to thrive. Have no fear, he didn’t. Don just wants those smaller theaters gone because they annoy him. He seems to think they’re a waste of his time, and ergo, everybody else’s. I have a more productive remedy: If you think a particular theater is crap, or a particular kind of theater is crap, then don’t support it. Others may have a different view and find such theaters well worth their time and investment. The society is healthier when audiences and artists have that option. Less is not always more.
Playing by Don’s logic, it could be similarly argued that he’s on the side of outside factions who enter a community wielding bricks and pipes and firebombs, in the name of improving said community. And what is Left? And what is Right? What is up, and what is down? Welcome to our world.
Thinking Big . . .
It’s the end of the calendar year, and time to Think Big about what we’ve done, and what we’re doing. When confronted by an existential crisis, Hamlet put on a play. When, in the coinage of his brain, he was confronted by the corruption in every corner of his world, public and private, “the whips and scorns of time, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the’unworthy takes,” he put on a play.
True, he was a prince and he had a budget, but had he not been a prince, and had a considerably more limited budget, still, he would have put on a play, because that’s what he had to do. Had he lived in New York, Los Angeles or even Miami or Cleveland, rather than Denmark, he would have put on a play.
And in the putting on of that play, he exposed a vicious corruption otherwise masked in the secret authority of his elders. It was for him personal, having to do with his father, his reason for being. I know, I know, it didn’t end well, except for Norway, but that had little to do with the play, or Hamlet’s motive and freedom to put on the play.
Our theater community is similarly facing a corruption staining its reason for being. (Yes, yes, the intimate theaters’ Review Committee is in secret negotiations with Actors Equity Association, which wants to end the 99-Seat Plan for Los Angeles. And it’s all very secret. Which means people are speaking, but they’re not telling.)
Our response, too, should be to put on plays, as many as we can, as well as we can, as diverse artistically and ethnically as we can, under terms that the people who are actually doing those plays find acceptable, and for the reasons that they, and only they, find acceptable. Because if they don’t wish to do those plays, they need not do them. In large theaters and small, these plays will never pay the mortgage or the rent. They almost never have. They will pay stipends. And a squabble over how large or small those stipends should be is no reason to destroy theaters large or small, or to stop putting on plays, or forbidding actors to be in them. These actors aren’t stupid. Clearly, they have their own reasons for participating or not participating in any event of their choosing. Because those plays, more than any other medium, come closest to telling us who we are, what we’ve done, and what we’re doing.
And if people don’t wish to attend those plays, they need not attend them. That’s what’s called an open society. Would we rather simply grunt under a weary life? Personally, I’d rather go to the theater, and have as many theaters as possible to go to.
To Be Or Not . . .
Hamlet shows up in City Garage’s Hamlet Machine: The Arab Spring in Santa Monica, as filtered through the cryptic lens of German playwright Heiner Muller. (This production opened the same night as the Paris bombings.) A sequence of designer Charles A. Duncombe’s video images has Nazi and Soviet rallies unfolding behind the action, in one instance blending into the 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King. The larger point is neither Left nor Right, Up nor Down, but the passion and shape of group behavior, which is paradoxical. Sometimes it opens societies. Sometimes it closes them.
Under Frederique Michel’s typically striking, arch staging, Ophelia (Megan Kim) is both suicide bomber and stripper. Hamlet is, and isn’t, or so he says. The play never existed, he remarks at one point. Like Eugene Ionesco, Muller, and to a lesser extent adaptor-playwright Duncombe, uses the power of words to assail the value of words, which I think is cheating. And which is why the power of Duncombe and Michel’s visual images, not to mention the slightly sarcastic ‘tude of the unified ensemble (Anne Bronston, David E. Frank, Jeffrey Gardner, Andrew Loviska, Alex Pike and Trace Taylor), carries the day, and the play.
New Play Development . . .
And yet another example of why professional actors should perform in intimate L.A. theaters, and support local playwrights, is the excellent cast of the now-closed world-premiere of Nathan Wellman’s Inhale Harmonica, presented by SkyPilot Theatre. Set in rural Kentucky, it’s one of those front-porch plays that delivers up family secrets, somewhat like Hamlet, but more like August, Osage County via William Inge’s Picnic.
Single-mom Reagan (Phoebe Kuhlman) wants to get out of town, but she’s trapped not only by circumstance but by her strong-willed Pa (Morry Schorr), who won’t let her leave. It’s a closed if somewhat interracial community, because Reagan’s adorable kid Zoe (Amelia Chand) is black. Her dad is/was a ne’er-do-well, in and out of prison, and his father (Arden Haywood Smalls) rolls up with an get-out-of-town offer for Reagan that could be the fulfillment of her every desire.
True, it’s a bit long-winded, and the down-home wit almost compensates for the plot’s singular trajectory, but the writing itself, the repartee, reveals a fine playwright-in-the-making. I look forward to coming back and seeing Wellman’s play after his next one, when he’s become more attuned to the rigors of structure and dramaturgy. He’ll never get there if not for companies such as SkyPilot, and their insistence of putting on new work with such good actors, who also include Nan Tepper, Kelly Goodman, David Haverty and Ian Nemser, working under Pat Towne’s atmospheric staging.
With thanks to our friends at Footlights, please join us for Stage Raw’s Symposium on diversity in arts coverage, MONDAY, NOVEMBER 23, 7:30 – 9 P.M. AT THE 24TH STREET THEATER. Margaret Gray will moderate a stellar panel, consisting of Richard Azurdia, Lovell Estell III, Michael John Garces, Jay McAdams, Rose Portillo, Jose Luis Valenzuela and Bob Verini. Places still available. RSVP here
Also, Stage Raw is pleased to announce its second annual holiday party a.k.a. FESTIVUS, 2015 with food, live music and performances (t.b.a.). MONDAY NIGHT, DECEMBER 21, 7:30 – 10 P.M. p.m. at the SKYLIGHT THEATER. R.S.V.P. here.
If you like what we do at Stage Raw, we need your help to continue programming. We have a time-pegged offer of a matching grant of $6,000, concluding December 21, 2015. All tickets to the party go towards that match. Even if you can’t come to the party, please contribute to our matching grant here.
See you at both events!