Monthly Archives: January 2005

Old Bert is turning over in his grave–or howling with laughter.

In Brecht’s satire of Hitler’s initial hacks towards power, The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, Scene 4, Ui brings in a third-rate hack actor to teach him how to convey confident leadership when speaking in public. They work on the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech from Julius Caesar.

Today, in the NY Times: Republicans use Shakespeare to train CEOs to kick ass. Guess which play they use?

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bridge and tunnel, clubs and vision

Saw Sarah Jones doing her Bridge and Tunnel thing last night at the Berkeley Rep. She’s a virtuostic performer, clearly–she transforms effortlessly into different characters with a ridiculously flexible physical and vocal instrument. She has amazing control, self-possession, and her stage presence, rolling off her body with a single head-tilt or scarf-flick, rocks houses of hundreds.

Unfortunately, Bridge and Tunnel never rose to the level of Ms. Jones’ talents. And so, sadly, the production ended up not being about the immigrants whose stories Ms. Jones purports to represent and honor, but about Sarah Jones’ virtuosity, her ability to whip through 14 different nationalities’ accents at the drop of a jacket.

Part of the problem was the format. In Bridge and Tunnel, a group of immigrants, who had originally found each other over a chat room, come together for an annual poetry reading in Queens. They all come forward and read a poem, or tell a story–most of the time, quite briefly. We weren’t allowed to get to know any of the characters too well–barring a Mexican union-organizer and a Chinese mother-turned-gay-marriage-activist–the evening was not so much a revelation of the immigrant experience through a collage of rich characterizations, but instead a revue, skating over pretty well-known tropes about the immigrant experience in America. (I can’t even remember the characters’ names–it’s not surprising that people just refer to them as “the Vietnamese guy” or “the Jamaican woman.”)

The prodution never coalesced–the pieces never added up. We saw no conflict–between characters, within characters, or against anyone other than the faceless Opressor. Even though all the characters were in the same room, we saw little to no drama happening onstage.

It was a feel good show, and didn’t make us have to think too hard, or work too hard, or face ourselves, or challenge us. The Berkeley audiences ate it up, and went home feeling great about Sarah Jones, and about themselves. “Did you see how her hands shook as the old Jewish lady, while she still managed to keep talking?” Yeah, I did. I heard Surface Transit was better–but I doubt she’ll revive it. Bridge and Tunnel is going to Broadway.

The Medora Musical, Part Four

It was only two years of Theodore Roosevelt’s life. “He stopped to take a piss” joke the actors in The Medora Musical. They then quickly backpedal, reciting chapter and verse the accepted legend of TR’s transformation in Dakota, which follows as thus:

Teddy Roosevelt began his adult life a whiny, flamboyant rich boy, left sickly from a hothouse childhood battling asthma. His intelligence, however, combined with his family’s wealth to ensure a promising future. By the age of 26 he had published an authoritative naval history, and hacked his way into the New York State Senate, where he distinguished himself with his extensive connections, aggressive opinions, dandy dress, pretentious vocabulary and shrill voice.

Tragedy struck this charmed life. Teddy’s young wife Alice gave birth to their first child; and two days later, on February 14th—the fourth anniversary of their engagement—both she and Roosevelt’s mother died within hours of each other in the same house. That night, Roosevelt drew a large cross in his diary, writing beneath it: “the light has gone out of my life.”

Their deaths left Roosevelt unable to continue fighting political machinations. He returned to the last place he had been happy—the frontier town of Medora. During Alice’s pregnancy, Teddy had pursued a long-standing dream—bagging buffalo in the Dakota territories. After two weeks of mud, cold and rain, he was sufficiently enchanted to buy a ranch. This ranch would now become his home for two years.

Medora was not a glamorous place. It had one church (Catholic, built by the Marquis), but several saloons, and was rough and dirty and difficult and struggling as any other settler town.

An odd place for a man of destiny. But now, he was man of ability with nothing left in his life to lose. During the two years that followed, Teddy underwent an almost unimaginable change. The “Bully” TR of American legend was born from a man who wrote his sister, “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.” He avoided his own pain and rode fast, building a ranch house, raising cattle, hunting, beating up drunken louts in saloons, serving a stint as deputy sheriff. He helped ranchers organize the Little Missouri Stockmen’s association. He famously chased thieves through a blizzard and brought them to justice at gunpoint.

During his frequent visits back East, people began to see a new Teddy; he had physically transformed from a skinny weakling into “one hundred and fifty pounds [of] clear bone, muscle and grit,” was tanned and bright-eyed, gaining his bull neck and broad shoulders, a barrel chest and a louder, stronger voice. He performed his new persona to the hilt, and began to give this character words to match, writing a trilogy of wildly successful Western narratives that combined equal quantities of humorous encounters with quirky characters, macho celebrations of hunting and the active life, and acute descriptions of the Dakota terrain and nature.

Roosevelt’s time in North Dakota set him up for the rest of his life (and the rest of American history) in terms of his mystique, his aura. He had possessed the stubbornness and self-righteousness, but not the masculine, arrogant form—it is possibly true his statement that:

“If I had not spent time in North Dakota, I would not have become President.”

The Medora Musical, Part Three

Medora was founded in 1883 by the Marquis de Mores, a impoverished French aristocrat with rare entrepreneurial imagination, driven by the burning, if unlikely, ambition to “restore” himself to the French throne. Darkly handsome, he snared Medora von Hoffman (daughter of a New York banking scion), and whisked her and her $3 million dowry to the Dakota Badlands. In his mind, it was the perfect place to establish a personal fiefdom, to put in motion the business machines that would guarantee a big financial future. He built a 26-room ranch house and filled it with opulent furniture and rich oriental carpets. From his shiny plate glass windows he could watch the horizon vanish into the vast, unsettled terrain on the edge of Western settlement and expansion.

Ahead of his time?—a megalomaniac of absurd proportions? Who can say anymore. He was certainly major entertainment for New York society, who watched and reported as venture after venture began with fanfare and ended in failure. He envisioned raising and slaughtering the grass-fed cattle of the local ranchlands, and transporting the beef via refrigerated train cars to clamorous demand nationwide. Effectively, Medora would become the next Chicago. Chicago’s industry refused to budge—within three years, bad weather and drought killed the cattle anyway. (The 26,500 foot meatpacking plant stood empty for 30 years, until—according to legend—some boys from Chicago, emissaries of smoldering embers of resentment, burned the place down. All that remains is a single smokestack, lone and magnificent like the Washington monument, reaching up towards the sky in the middle of something that looks like it’s never been anything other than a field.)

By 1887, other settlers who had resentfully followed the Marquis and his money into Medora were bitterly glad to see him leave, fed up with his pottery out of Badlands clay, his plan for cross-country salmon shipping, his failed Cheyenne-Deadwood Stagecoach line, the temper that killed two local stockmen, the wealth that let him get away scot-free. He left the Medora venture behind him and pursued new failures in France and Indochina, ultimately meeting his end at the hands of Toureg natives in the Sahara Desert, during an unsuccessful attempt to drive the British out of North Africa. .

After the Marquis left, Medora quickly declined. The desperate winters of ’87 and ’88 killed any remaining cattle. With no cows and no nutty Frenchman throwing around his in-laws’ money, Medora should have just disappeared, blown into dust like a thousand other ghost towns begun in jerry-rigged fashion; towns never meant to last, born around brief industry, fertilized with dreams of easy money and new lives, killed by the sweat of struggling with a strange, unknowable, unconquerable land. Medora and the Marquis might have been only an entertaining and cautionary footnote in the mad history of the settling of the American West if not for its most famous, if briefest, resident: Teddy Roosevelt.

The Medora Musical, Part Two

Twenty-minutes before the show, and I’m in the women’s dressing room, interviewing the female members of the cast. I ask them to describe The Medora Musical. “Cheesy!” they all cry out. “Cheese-ical!” “Haven’t you ever heard of cheesical theater?”

Jane Sammsill, a great dizzy blonde says, “it’s fun, but we’re like this—“ and cranks her face into the most fabulously grotesque smile, a parody of happiness, eyes screwed up, mouth open, teeth bared in a rictus of joy. She sticks her index and middle fingers into the gap between her teeth like she’s pretending to blow her head off. I thought it was just a cynical gesture—a bit brutal, perhaps, but then maybe doing The Medora Musical for 30 performances in a row with no dark night does that to you. Then Natalie chimes in: “yeah, two fingers” cracks her face into a similar smile and also inserts her fingers into her mouth, making it clear that it isn’t a joke—it’s the standard by which they are rehearsed to hold a big enough smile during the show.

Their facial agility reminded me of competitive cheerleader friends who practiced face acrobatics for national competitions. They ran through expressions like a deck of cards: pre-rehearsed smiles (both open and closed mouth), contortions signifying effort, concentration and surprise. Throughout The Medora Musical, I noted the similarly engaged faces of the Burning Hills Singers, as they struck looks of sentiment, confusion, inspiration and delight without pause, even when the stage is dark.

Matthew Griffin, a big bear of a man who emcees the show as a paternal town father, explained that the performance style reflects the size of the amphitheater (it seats 2,800; people reach their seats via a seven-story long escalator ride), the expectations of the audience, and the story they’re trying to communicate.

“Even though I’m wearing a headset microphone…there’s this huge sound system…I have to be enormous physically, in terms of my body, my voice, my face, everything is exaggerated, everything is huge, no subtlety at all.”

Certainly, “subtle” and The Medora Musical don’t go together. The opening number, an explosion of kick ball changes and chasses, paralyzed my descriptive powers—my notes simply read: High energy, energetic, happy! Dancing! Singing! Boogie! The Burning Hills Singers, in little white-fringed cowboy outfits with matching boots, hats, neckerchiefs, and toothy open-mouthed smiles, confidently drum out the moves, singing “If the house is a’rocking, then don’t bother knocking—just come on in!”—kick ball change, grapevine, turn!—come on in, because there’s a party going on! Happy! Singing! Dancing! Boogie! We’re going to have fun!

The fun reached a veritable fever pitch with “2001: A Clog Odyssey.” It starts in blackout; the audience can only see glints of shiny costumes against the set, a replica of Medora’s main street. The refrain of Close Encounters of the Third Kind plays, and the performers punctuate the mournful five notes with simple clacking steps (duh dah duh-duh dah). What sounds like the opening to Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” fades in as the windows of the buildings start flashing with binary patterned colored lights; that’s when the costumes themselves start lighting up in alternating patterns. Suddenly, the stage goes bright and we’re in the middle of a clog dance number, with the Burning Hills Singers yipping and wearing thousand voltage grins and huge crinolined silver skirts, clogging their hearts out—ending with a bang, as fireworks shoot out the top of the set.

Nothing subtle about that, no, though the style remains so consistent throughout that it almost seems natural. And we’re left to wonder: how did this happen? How did it end up that you can sit in an amphitheater watching “2001: A Clog Odyssey” with 2000 other people in a barely extant ghost town, a town not a town, in the empty outer reaches of North Dakota?

The answer lies, as it so often does, in the confluence of a few men with vision.

u-x-o-r-i-a-l

I’m becoming a big fan of the Odeon Bar and all Chicken John and Dr. Hal related things things–they do great San Francisco 2004 cabaret. If you’re in the Bay Area on Wednesday night, run, don’t walk, to the Ask Dr. Hal Show.

Last night was a particular pleasure, as they held a Stoned Spelling Bee. Brilliantly entertaining.

What I like about Chicken John’s curation is that the schedule is full of all these prankish vaudevillian cabarets, its whimsitastic, and they have crazy musicians and play old movies and 1960s educational films in-between-times and have wacky sound effects, and are constantly “cracking wise.” Dr. Hal will recite large chunks of The Tempest when asked (and sometimes when not), and it’s just pleasurable and utterly live and in the moment, and it doesn’t matter when it doesn’t always work. They tickle my particular funny bone.

And yes, I did compete. A-n-t-h-r-o-p-o-m-o-r-p-h-i-c.

The Medora Musical, Part One

Medora, North Dakota: the Gateway to the West. During its illustrious history as a frontier town, Medora was called home by such famous (and infamous!) historical figures as Teddy Roosevelt, the Marquis de Mores, and North Dakota’s celebrated native son, Harold Schafer. Off the I-94, it adjoins the stunning North Dakota Badlands National Park. It is here that The Medora Musical, one of the largest, if not the largest, summer regional attractions plays to audiences of over 110,000 every summer!

Between September and May, Medora, North Dakota isn’t exactly a town. Most of the buildings stand empty. No drug store, no factory, no supermarket, no high school. No need. Billings County averages 0.8 people per square mile. One policeman. One volunteer ambulance for 736,000 acres. Fewer than 100 people call Medora home during these months, but between May and September, the population swells to a constantly transient organism 10 times larger than its annual empty existence, with, on average, 1000 new tourists passing through every night.

Medora, North Dakota is a living legend. It is “where the West kicked up its heels,” according to the blue denim shirts worn by employees and sold in the gift shops, showing a magnificently embroidered cowboy two-stepping with a fair lady in can-can skirts.

It is a brief moment in the savage expanse of the Badlands, a speck from the sky. Small, small buildings on the flat, flat land.

Medora, North Dakota is a town not a town. It is an embodied and performed set of values, a simulacra of the small, quaint, rural town we somehow all wish we came from.

I said, “It sort of makes me think that it’s like Disneyland, except real.”

Randy Hatzenbuehler, President of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, nods approvingly. “That’s a good description. That’s a really good description.”

an experiment

I’m going to start posting my article on North Dakota, piece by piece, on the blog. If you have any thoughts, please email me: my name (maya) at this domain name.

from the Mistresse

I’ve been obsessed with blogs by sex workers, and in going through the archives of the lovely, talented, and–let’s be honest–fucking brilliant Mistress Matisse, I found one of the most cogent descriptions of the difference between “acting” and “performance” I’ve ever read:



(from October 27, 2004)

I’m a good performer. But I’m not a good actress. It’s rather like the difference between Tim Robbins and Jack Nicholson. Tim Robbins has played dozens of different types of roles – he’s a great actor. Now, Jack Nicholson is great, too, but whatever role he plays – he’s always Jack. He’s a performer, not an actor.

I’m like that. I can play me really well – but I can’t make myself disappear and be someone else. The persona of “Mistress Matisse” is a facet of who I truly am – so it’s very genuine. But it’s not divorced from the rest of me, and so in my sessions, I’m also (sometimes) kind, and I’m usually engaged. I don’t play the angry bitch with my clients, that’s not my style. Doesn’t mean I’m not sometimes severe and strict, if I wish to be, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m not sadistic. I always tell people I’m the sweetest sadist you’ll ever meet.

Her succinctness should make all those self-important blathering theorists blush. (Actually, she should make them blush anyway–go read about figging.)

a turning point

I’ve realized recently that part of my struggle maintaining this blog has been making decisions about what constitutes appropriate material.

Play reviews–easy. I watch theater critically, in terms of form, craft, content and context–it’s part of my job. And even when I don’t like a play, it’s clearly (I hope clearly) nothing personal. I have a safe cushion in the berth of being the uninvolved audience member.

Philosophical / theoretical discussion of the form and apparatus–eh, medium-easy. The only problem with those posts can be unwieldiness and length. I’m still figuring out, site-wise, how to post or upload my longer writings on the topics.

With both of the above, I’m writing as myself, and for myself, but have the advantage of distance and abstraction. What I’m not so comfortable with remains:

Writing about my work. First, making the play. The process of putting on a play can bring out the best, worst, oddest, most excited and most insecure in its participants. It kaleidescopes constantly, in different order and at different rates for each individual involved.

Add this to the fact that theater artists are crazy. Yes, they’re all crazy. My friends, somehow, tend not to be other theater people (with notable exceptions, of course). So you have a bunch of insecure nutty personalities kaleidescoping and scared and exhilerated and it leads to collisions and dramas and issues.

At the end of the process, you have a great play, and the tensions and kerfuffles are forgotten and everyone’ s happy. So sometimes writing about it while it’s happening, committing the stuff to historical memory by scrivening (and publicly!) seems, well, problematic. Especially for the director, who should find a few uninvolved, discreet friends to bitch to during the weeks of rehearsal and leave it at that. I mean, my actors read this blog while I was working on CLUB*, and to subject them to my own anxieties and insecurities would have undermined exactly what I was doing with them.

Then there’s the other personal part of my work: getting work, navigating the terrain of Theater in America. And that has its own set of concerns, insofar as making the process public could easily be the equivalent of shooting myself in the foot professionally. Again, because all theater people are crazy.

So.

The point is, there has been a lot, a lot, a lot, going on in that hiatus between the summer and now. But it had to do with my work as it was happening, and I didn’t know how to write about it. I mean, I just had a positively ridiculous professional encounter which I want to write about desperately, but shouldn’t. I wish this had been an anonymous blog.

A thought: Perhaps I should only tell personal/professional stories a year or two after they occur.

Mmm.