Friday, February 27, 2015

"Good People"

-winter 2015
I'd been in Florida over a year, and was comfortably ensconced in my little beach home, happy to be a semi-hermit writer. I thought it might be nice to do a play - partly to invigorate my social life, and partly to make a lovely memory for my mom and aunt before i moved on. They had known me for most of my life as an actor...even though they occasionally appreciated my writing, i knew they'd love something more familiar (and less challenging). Given my emotional weariness, i wanted something fun...a great part in a comedy. A chance to be in gurney's "Sylvia" came my way, at the Pirate/Wood (now Strauss) Theater. How sweetly perfect it would be to act on that stage again. But the part was so-so, and Act II was weak. Then bill taylor at the Theatre Conspiracy asked me to audition for "Good People", by david lindsay-abaire. It was one of the few Lee County stages on which i'd never acted. I'd always liked bill socially, and admired the plays they did. This one was not light...a powerhouse that dealt with classism and racism. The director, mike breen, wanted me to be mikey dillon, a doctor who had escaped his impoverished South Boston roots. Thirty years later, he reunites with margie, a teenage love still living in Southie poverty, along with a mentally retarded adult daughter. I'd perhaps never read any play that so deftly showed how we hold on to our vain self-images, and need so much for the world to affirm who we think we are. Dr. mikey has a young, black wife. My being romantically connected to two characters meant a fair chance that offstage romance might arise (a non-artistic motivation, to be sure...but i'd had no romance in almost two years). Upon meeting the actress playing margie, i felt a rush of openness and confidence. And i felt an instant connection with the actress playing kate, the wife. But the heaviness of the play scared me...knowing how low my emotional walls were, it would be hard living such brutal emotions over and over. I asked mike how much faith he had in his second choice for the part. If he'd replied with affirmation, i'd have told him to give the part to that actor. But he didn't. I liked mike's energy, and embracing my belief that we're here to help others, i agreed to do it. I also knew that stephanie davis, the demi to my tom in "A Few Good Men", would be in the play, and that made it easier to say yes. I hadn't seen her in many years, and was delighted at the thought of becoming better friends. The actors were unpaid, and it felt right to officially call an end to the decade-plus period in which i'd acted only for money. Even though my reasons had been about respect rather than greed, my philosophies about materialism and sharing had since evolved to the point that my earlier vow seemed wrong-headed. The only time i had any financial grumble during the run was when a theater charging $25 a seat asked me to pay $16 for a haircut. Initially, i had some romantic fantasies about the actress playing kate, despite the fact that she was a christian fundamentalist (once backstage, i asked whether anyone had ever been mean to her - she replied "satan"). I wasn't deterred, and had she shown any personal interest in me, i'd have explored it. But she never opened up emotionally. I was worried that this would stunt our onstage potential, and it probably did...but ultimately she showed genuine talent, and we were comfortable onstage. I went out of my way to try to make her feel part of the group...knowing theater people, i knew that religiosity might cause division. Indeed, margie said she almost quit the show, upon learning of kate's fundamentalism. At first, rehearsals were lovely, thanks to mike's relaxed hand. And soon, my romantic fantasies transferred to margie. I loved the fact that i was attracted despite her being overweight - i grew enamored of every extra curve (perhaps the first time in my life i could absolutely say such a thing). And romance or no, i was encouraged by our artistic, platonic potential. Early on, she asked me to do an extra line rehearsal, and we spent more time just chatting than i'd expected. I was surprised and honored. But that was our high point, and would that i could have seen the coming darkness. I gave her encouragement and affirmation, and tried to lead the way by displaying emotional openness with both of them. I became aware in the last couple weeks before opening, however, that our communication lines were diminishing, not growing. I attributed it to the weight of the part she was playing...there were only a few minutes she wasn't onstage. But my growing unease burst into unhappy reality on opening weekend. Acting against the emotional wall she had around her, was awful. It wasn't just indifference - onstage and off, i could feel dark emotions directed at me. Was she one of those ultra-method actors who don't differentiate between actor and character? I didn't think so. The only person i'd told about my little crush was steph. Did it get back to margie, and trigger some loathing? The next few weeks were the most relentless, stressful misery i'd ever lived. It was torturous because of the schizophrenic quality - in three of our eighteen total scenes, she was open and supportive. In twelve, she was closed off. In the remaining three, her dislike of me felt palpable. Had i been a disappointment to her artistically? I'd given her cause to feel that way, perhaps. Most of the cast had adopted Southie accents, and in the last couple weeks of rehearsal i made a radical shift, switching from full accent to slight - i decided my character had spent his life trying cover up his past, and that the accent only really came out when he was drunk or upset (in other words, much of Act II). It was a subtle challenge, and i sucked for a while. And margie was relentless in pushing us to pick up lines...something i feel generally comfy with, as i've long told actors that lines usually begin before the other character stops talking, not after. But once during rehearsal, she yelled at me, and was right on that boundary between good-natured and disgusted. I felt that if kate or i waited one millisecond longer than margie liked, she was content to bulldoze past our lines (something she did during performances, too). Was i ever a little slow? Sure. But during one rehearsal, mike sided with me when i said i thought there should be a pause before one of my lines. It all added up to a non-supportive environment, in which actors don't feel safe and free to explore...and that was even before the negative personal energy. The words of andre previn resonated in me, to the effect of "great music can't be made by people who don't like each other". One night, my old college friend greg longenhagen came to rehearsal, as a dialect coach. I was delighted...yet somehow almost ashamed. The first non-paying gig i'd accepted in over a decade, and a college peer has to show up? To say nothing of my accent being a mess? I can laugh at my insecurity. We're all so out 999 demons of vanity, and that thousandth one will worm its way in. Eventually i felt okay with my work, but i knew that the poisoned environment meant our show would never achieve its potential. Looking back, it's easy to second-guess myself for not bringing my concerns to mike...i had too much faith in my ability to make things right. And he pretty much disappeared after opening. For a brief time, i thought her strange energy might have been because she was attracted to me (wishful...). By the time i knew it was darker than that, i felt that confronting her might only make things worse. So i sucked it up, and night after night did my best to convince the audience that nothing was wrong. Had there been an understudy, i would so gratefully have relinquished the part. As it was, by the third week the stress was destroying me...aches, insomnia, and worst of all the stomach sickness i had left New York to heal, was back with a vengeance. Had the show run four or five weeks, i genuinely believe i might have ended up in a hospital (i'm not given to hyperbole, i promise). I grasped for an explanation. Under such conditions, persecution and paranoia fuck with you. I thought of times when i'd opened myself to being misunderstood or vilified, and people i'd rubbed the wrong way...was some past demon haunting me? Had i been too frank with her, in speculating on the sexual history of our characters? The infrequent moments that she momentarily treated me like a human almost made things worse. The way she said goodbye on closing night (terse and from ten feet away), were the final spit of salt on the wound. Kate's goodbye was about the same, minus the though a rehearsal had ended, not a run. And what of the rest of the cast? Unprecedentedly, i shared no stage time with four of the seven. And very little rehearsal time. Was i even in a play with them? It was bizarre and disjointed. I didn't share my problems with steph, as i didn't want to risk spreading the negativity, and she seemed a bit cold to me. I shared a dressing room with the one actor in the cast who seemed close to margie. For a brief time, i thought he didn't like me either. Perhaps that was just paranoia, because during the run he was kind. He's the only person i partially opened up to, taking him aside to ask for advice. He replied with nothing concrete. I sent a note after the show asking whether he'd known more than he'd let on, but he didn't reply. A post-show note to steph explaining my low energy also went unanswered. I felt some affinity and closeness with the remaining cast member, but our energy was precarious, as i think she was attracted. I almost pursued it, but had a feeling she'd realize i wasn't her type, and indeed there was a shift in her energy the final week, when she seemed to no longer find me charming. Happily, there was one angel in the cast - our uncredited seventh actor, ken johnson, with whom i'd shared such wonderful memories in "Twain by the Tale" on Sanibel. He was the assistant stage manager, and offstage voice of the priest. I was floored when i discovered he was joining us, and more than a little relieved. When i say his presence saved my life, i hope i'm exaggerating. I also had a lovely connection with the stage manager angie. She was perhaps more patient with semi-idiotic actor questions than any SM i'd known. And the audience? So sweet...occasionally i could almost feel the joy of that connection. There was more laughter than we'd expected, and they got so agitated over the unresolved question of whether mikey was the father. Mom came three times. Even though the audience disappeared more quickly than with any theater i'd known, those who remained gave some humbling feedback. One said that my accent had been the most authentic. Another, who may have seen every show in the Conspiracy's 10-20 year history, said that we might have been the best show they'd ever done.

(for a follow-up, see

Saturday, February 21, 2015

the virgin and the slut

(or, twisted attraction)

Well, that's not a fun subtitle, is it?
Don't be sad...or at least not prematurely so. My point is that humans have so degraded and maimed sex, that there is virtually no attraction untwisted.
Okay, now be sad.
Or better-stated, there's no culturally-sanctioned response to attraction that isn't twisted. Except perhaps in people who are moderately sedated - we tend to give them a bit of a free pass. Hence drive-through liquor stores.
Humans are born to fuck, and we ignore that to our cataclysmic peril.
My own response to this has evolved to the point that there seems to be only two types of woman who attract me. The virgin (but not exactly) and, not whore. Although the whore (or more precisely, slut) is one of the few humans who earn my automatic respect. Except most sluts are only so because of the aforementioned alcohol...which cancels that admiration society right quick.
No, the virgin and the...our male-centric language doesn't even have a word for it! "Goddess" is vague. Empowered bitch? That's not it, because of the callous connotation, but it's close. A woman living on her own terms and claiming her sexuality, heedless of the minders of morality.
Nor is "virgin" accurate in any literal sense, as anyone who esteems virginity reveals a conspicuous level of intellectual and moral retardation. Spiritual virgin, then? One who believes in the life-changing potential of love and carnal healing, and is utterly emotionally open to it? Well okay, no woman (or man) is utterly emotionally open to anything, in this fear-founded world of weeping insecurity. But you get the idea.
I had crystal examples of both attractions this week.
I got in line at a local breakfast cafe, and a woman simultaneously fell into place next to me. I was nearly paralyzed by her breasts. I steeled myself over the next few minutes, trying to not look ("trying" being the operative word). Don't judge me harshly...this was a woman obviously accustomed to being the most attractive woman in most rooms, and she had NO problem with that, as her boobie-revealing attire attested. She seemed so self-assured, i've dreamt that she was smart enough to see through the idiocy of our sexual landscape. I've dreamt of offering to be one of her co-husbands, raising her children with other loving men, in non-possessive bliss. In the days since we met, i've fantasized the following playful dialogue:
ME: Thank you.
HER: For what?
ME: For being the only woman in the room not staring at me, or trying to take me home. In appreciation of that, here's my number. Don't, DON'T get too excited...i'm not saying i'll return any calls. But you deserve at least a chance.
The reason i didn't say those (or any) words to her, was because i didn't want to be "that guy"...treating her as some prize in the game of life. Even though she was probably eminently comfortable being hit upon, it still would have felt tawdry. Shallow. Perhaps i'm not giving myself enough credit? Perhaps the fact that i was attracted meant that i intuited some spark of real intelligence? Perhaps's hard to trust intuition when confronted with mind-melting breasts, and you haven't had sex this year. But that's the problem with women who are attractive enough to have some semblance of a positive self-image - an almost inevitably inflated sense of entitlement. How hard is it to NOT believe you're worth more than other women, when the world assures you you are? How hard is it to believe that you DON'T deserve men fawning over you, when they seem all too happy to do so? Was she a bright, caring human? I can't say i felt that with any degree of certainty.
And i certainly didn't want to be just one more male ignoring other women for her sake.
In this world, less attractive women with superior intellects are great...and all too often crippled in self-worth. And yes, "attractive" has a significant degree of cultural relativity...but not an absolute relativity. Physical attractiveness is objectively, measurably real, as cross-cultural studies reveal. Do i wish that weren't so? Absolutely. But i'm tired of crucifying myself for not being able to desire all women equally.
My second attraction was to a young woman who looks even much that i refused to allow any lustful thoughts until i was told her actual age. But even her real age is considered "inappropriate" for me by the moral watchdogs. Yet i felt magnetically pulled. And when we finally spoke, i was struck by her maturity. She had an instant liking for me too. The only pitfall in my now-unleashed fantasies, is our experience gap...even with her relative maturity, she's not likely to have yet risen beyond all the cinderella crap this society dumps on its female young. But knowing that, i shape my fantasies around it...dreaming of offering her all the monogamous exclusivity she might want, for as long as she might need. Her youthful openness stirs in me most beautiful dreams, of showing her what actual non-selfish loving can (and should) be. Of doing so, before this world crushes and embitters her spirit.
But it's hard to imagine being open with her about this, at least not until we know more about our compatibility. Suppose there are holes in that compatibility? Given her youth and my singularity, that's more than a little likely. Yet the very premise underlying that kind of compatibility is flawed...the idea of the lover who perfectly matches or complements us. Finding that "special one", and then...forsaking all others, is i believe the phrase?
In the meantime, two people who could have so much to offer each other (but mightn't measure up to a dysfunctional Disney dream), keep each other at arm's length. Not even holding each other, which should be the very least love their mutual affinity merits.
I got it bad, and that ain't good...

Monday, February 9, 2015

mj's vision

A review of the video anthology MICHAEL JACKSON'S VISION...omitting the redundant or obvious. If any of this seems harsh, it's because there's no shortage of well-deserved adulation out there. Nor have i forgotten michael's lyrical plea - "before you judge me, try hard to love me". I do...and it wasn't hard at all.
Can we all admit that our cultural reaction to post-THRILLER michael was immutably shaped by the awesomeness of the aforementioned? And "awe" is the correct in so overwhelmed that one is not thinking clearly. Michael was still michael, and would go on to create much that was worthy of his seminal album. But certain songs became hits not because they were great, but because we wanted them to be. BAD is a great album...but the title track is an embarrassment to anyone with a grain of awareness or integrity. The lyrics and video images are the kind of trite braggadocio that should be kept far from any impressionable mind. Preening, posturing, and adulation of the most brutal stereotypes of male behavior. The words "compensation" and "napoleon complex" are probably applicable - after THRILLER, it seems pretty clear that he all too often had no one willing to speak truth to power, and ask him hard questions. Do i overreact? Ask yourself this - have you ever heard anyone sing this #1 hit in any way other than ironic?
A fantastic song, with a video that should be troubling to anyone paying attention. All the more so because the premise involves an aged sage telling michael to stop aping thugs, and just be himself. But michael grew up in a world in which the depths of male brutality were so misunderstood and normative, that "being himself" amounts to little more than stylized sexual harassment and stalking. At one point, the object of his affection has to wonder whether she's about to be gang raped.
Another song in the "Bad" mode...released by any other artist, this would barely have scratched the charts. A rehashing of the theme "physical intimidation and brute force are neat-o", plus a little "might makes right", or "two wrongs make a right"...take your pick. Did michael succeed in making us care whether annie is okay? No. But that touches upon a recurring flaw in his videos - creating a motion picture with a tenuous (or non-existent) connection to the song's subject. This is song about drug addiction with a video about...nothing, really.
The legitimate protestations of "Leave Me Alone", "Scream", and "Speed Demon" would ring a bit truer without this vomitous bit of celebrity worship. In what may be the most noxious spew of tourette's name-dropping in pop culture history, the action consists entirely of michael's famous friends waiting on set for him to show up. This one gets the nod as "worst mj video of all time", as the audio track is almost entirely subsumed by banal chit-chat. Hello? Can anyone hear one of michael's more beautiful ballads under this dreck?
A brilliant song, with a video that occasionally leaves "childlike" for "childish". I'm speaking of the non-musical or extended parts...sticking solely to the elements of the original song, this is one of mj's best videos. And it pains me to come down on the side of prigs, prudes, or "morals police", even a little. So for the record, i have NO problem with the crotch-grabbing. Humanity needs to start grabbing our own (and our neighbor's) crotch a whole lot more, if we're to return to specieal sanity. But the violence...and okay, i can almost understand how a violent response is appropriate to living in a society this repressed...but these images cross the line into violence-glorification.
Worth it, of course, if for nothing else than magic johnson's hysterically bad acting.
The only time michael employed violent images that feel measured and appropriate?
The spoken recitation unique to the video is one of mj's more moving moments...and it's hard to think that it wasn't sourced from the growing backlash against, and suspicion of, his life.
One of the more moving artistic responses to persecution ever...and one that feels painfully, absolutely true. Michael's most naked song, emotionally. Which brings us to...
One of michael's best videos, and by far his bravest. To conjecture that he was as beset by body-image issues as any of us (and probably a whole lot more) is no stretch. He had to be acutely aware that, even though he was in great shape, his slight build was the subject of mockery. To swallow that and come back with this video, which openly celebrated his physical nakedness more than anything he ever did, shows humbling courage and artistic integrity.
A chant song with a video that falls flat. Something missing, some chemistry absent...until you see the prison version. Infinitely superior (although one is tantalized by the thought of how much more socially powerful it might have been had he applied not his regular white makeup, but returned to his natural brown instead).
A brilliant effort, michael's last big-budget blowout, that falls flat in the shortened version. Is the full version just a bit too long? Perhaps...but the slash job presented in VISION runs too far the other way. Michael's possible overfascination with horror, is sharp and artistically beautiful here.
The first mj video that feels viscerally, unintentionally disturbing, simply because of his appearance. He's flown past unique, into inhuman. And i've got no shortage of a painful way, he manifested physically the scars and mutilations inside each of us. The fact that this wasn't a conscious artistic choice, makes it all the more poignant. And forget the self-inflicted facial mutilations. In his reaction to the skin disease vitiligo, he had an opportunity to make the correct artistic response - openness and lack of shame. Instead he slapped makeup all over himself and ran to the arms of self-loathing and vanity. Just as it took me a few listenings of INVINCIBLE to appreciate the loveliness of some of the music, it takes a few viewings of this to get past the startle factor, and appreciate the playfulness. Plus more childish violence...
This perhaps should have been the template for all mj videos once he could no longer resist cutting and covering up himself. A beautiful song with amazing vocals, moving visuals...and no sign of the man himself. Harsh? I'm just thinking about the message being delivered to the children - as i've gotta believe michael would have wanted me to. Or maybe that's the wrong answer. By hiding the truth from the children, we ill-prepare them for the horrors of the grownup world. But at what point were michael's artistic messages consumed by the turmoil of his personal life? And most of those messages, were ones the world needed very dearly.
Okay, enough critiquing. Now go cue up "Thriller", "Billie Jean", "Say Say Say", "Man in the Mirror", "Leave Me Alone", "Black or White", "In the Closet", "Scream", "Earth Song", "They Don't Care About Us (prison version)", and "Ghosts". You'll be happy you this brilliant man would have very much wanted.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

dear svetlana

Dear svetlana,
It's so easy to dream of your beautiful gentleness.
It's so easy to dream of loving you.
I'm writing now because a strange thing happened, and we might not be able to meet tonight.
I got a little sick last night when i got home. And it's funny, because i realize now that i was starting to feel it when we were in the Orpheus parking lot. A little light-headed. By the time i had irene safely in her apartment and was in my own downstairs, my head felt funny and i was so tired. I ate a little, but it was hard to get down. I took my script to bed and never opened it, as all i could do was close my eyes.
There has been a nasty virus going around my theater cast the past few weeks. I may have it...although i often get less sick than others. Already this morning, i feel much more human. Fortunately, i only have to bike a few miles to rehearsal today, not the usual 24 (or 60 km).
But back to you!
Understand, when i talk about loving you, i don't mean it the same way others do. When people in this world talk about love, there's always an underlying negotiation...if you treat someone a certain way, they're expected to treat you a certain way in return. But that's not love, that's just using people.
So when i say i awoke this morning dreaming of loving you, don't think i want or expect any particular response. Just be natural, and know that my instinct is to love you in any way you might need. If i ever seem too polite or shy in person, it's only because people in this world get confused or upset when someone says exactly what they think or feel.
Your beautiful, sad energy feels so far off the ground. It's like you're floating in the air, disconnected from the world. I want to jump up, grab your foot, pull you to Earth, and love you.
I may be back to the beach at 10, or much earlier. I was going to go to a family party after rehearsal, but now i may skip it.