Friday, October 18, 2019

Review: "Klingon Tamburlaine" at the Complex Theater in Hollywood

"....or if he tampers recklessly with sacred things..."
---Sophocles' definition of HUBRIS, in Oedipus the Tyrant line 891.

Behold the Klingon Tamburlaine. I first heard of it this summer, when it played as part of the Hollywood Fringe Theater Festival. The instant I saw the phrase, I had strong feelings. 

You see, Tamburlaine is a play by Christopher Marlowe, the man who invented blank verse. Since Marlowe's murder in 1593, no human being---except for his friend and exact contemporary, William Shakespeare---has equaled him in sheer mastery of the mother tongue we share. "Marlowe's mighty line" has been a catchphrase among those passionate about poetry in English through four centuries. The phrase comes from Ben Johnson's great elegy "To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare": far thou didst our Lyly outshine, 
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe's mighty line
And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek, 
From thence to honour thee, I would not seek 
For names; but call forth thund'ring Aeschylus, 
Euripides and Sophocles to us...

Marlowe was a brash atheist, and a proudly hedonistic homosexual, at a time when both were capital crimes. He survived by serving as a spy for the English Crown. The title of Harry Levin's excellent 1964 study The Overreacher is the most apt term for what Marlowe was, this utterly fearless author of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. That play's about a genius whose unbounded hubris ultimately damns him for eternity. Faustus plainly is Marlowe in important ways, a man whose deal with the Devil granted him immunity for the fiercely transgressive behaviors and traits that defined him. Note the contempt for danger in Marlowe's use of words: he will say anything, no matter how hubristic, in the service of his truth, "good or bad." For example, Doctor Faustus includes actual Latin incantations to conjure up the Devil, and records show Elizabethan  audiences were terrified. One legend holds that during one night's unique performance, there appeared a "super-numerary devil," one more than usual, though all the actors were present, in make-up, and accounted for. Apocryphal or not, the legend's meaning is loud and clear: the impact of Marlowe's art was shockingly strong. It made things happen. 

If you've got a suitable ear, you marvel at his poetry's stride; its swinging momentum; the subtle shifts of gears he pulls off as he steers forward with the verse, tracing the curvature of his thought; the gorgeous musical hammers falling, syncopated, offset by footsteps, heartbeats, and come to think of it, hoofbeats. Faustus quotes Ovid as the final hours of his life slip away and Damnation is imminent: O lente, lente, curite noctis equii! "Slowly, slowly run, O horses of the Night!" The faster the horses drive the Night ("nightmare" is a very interesting word to research), the sooner Damnation will torment Faustus forever. And notice the onomatopoeia in Ovid's Latin line that Marlowe quotes with such terrible new pathos. It's one of the best examples of that literary trope ever written: the meter of O lente, lente, curite noctis equii! is the rhythm of a cantering horse! But not a racing one. 

I have little interest in artistic transgression for its own sake, which often proves to be little more than a stunt meant to build a brand. That's not what Marlowe is doing; he's coming forward about the side of the human spirit that terrifies the rest of the community: the manic side, the fearless, unprincipled, grandiose and dangerous side of each person. That universality is inseparable from its opposite, when a unique individual is go
Examples of Marlowe's verbal fearlessness

Saturday, June 29, 2019

In Flint, Michigan., there’s so much lead in children’s blood that a state of emergency is declared

This country needs a government. 

We let Corporations buy the U.S. gov’t and they destroyed it, so they could use us as (customers for their stuff, and) toilets for their waste. This is ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM. Not prejudice. Racism. It’s also VIOLENCE against our people—American people. Exxon, Enbridge, Shell, Chevron, and the republicans and centrist clintonian fake democrats are committing the slow murder of a generation of Black, Latinx, and post-European kids.

Flint officials and the State of Michigan are going to be paying for this crime for years to come, but it will never amount to one lost moment of joy or insight that a lead/mercury poisoned brain will never have. I hang my head in powerless rage when I see what the women and men and kids of this country are made to endure, a century after W.E.B. DuBois, as if he had never written; as if the Progressive Era (1900-1918) and the New Deal (1933-1940) had never happened; as if those shitty little bigots in grey had won the Civil War instead of getting their sanctimonious, slaveholding, fake-Xtian assess handed to them. And then these 3 words: President donald trump. It’s a question, whose correct answer is, “F*ck you, Ameri*a.” Who says that? Someone who loves what President John F. Kennedy, and his also-murdered fellow genuine Democrat Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) routinely called "The United States":

Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Porters of Hellsgate present The Taming of the Shrew by William SHAKESPEARE

Io era tra color che son sospesi,
e donna mi chiamò beata e bella,
tal che di comandare io la richiesi.

I was among those, in Limbo, in suspense, 
and a lady called to me, she so beautiful, so blessed, 
that I begged her to command me.
                                    —Dante, Inferno II, 52-54.

GO see The Porters of Hellsgate do The Taming of the Shrew. It's a terrific production, and an odd one, in lots of ways. For instance, costumes are always important, but it's rare for the Costume Designer to be quite so pivotal as Jessica Pasternak is here. The genders are reversed in the casting, but everyone is in male clothing. This is brilliant. It takes the focus away from femme drag (which the Porters recently did brilliantly, in the person of Thomas Bigley as the cruel Queen in Cymbeline), which has so much to do with spectacle, and instead concentrates our attention on the power dynamics Shakespeare is actually talking about.

Lauren Jean Lee is a slick, amoral, yet heartfelt Petruchio, and you can't take your eyes off of her. Directors Rose Fliegel and Alicia Patterson have paired Lee with the intensely defensive Kate of Sean Faye, and the result is electric. I've only seen the Taming live twice before; once in Santa Cruz, and once at the Odyssey theater with Jack Stehlin in the role. Both were excellent productions; Stehlin, of course, is in a class by himself. Lauren Jean Lee is a young actor, stepping into a challenging role, supported by a strong, spirited cast with no weak links and a wagon-load of timely ethical passions about domination and consent and gender. Lee’s Petruchio is tall, and his beauty is dark; from where I sat, the eyes seemed black and deep, like, watch-out-for-hypnosis eyes. Her Petruchio’s steely intelligence slithers around Katherine in silky coils.

Sean Faye’s extraordinary work in the role of Katherine is the other pillar of the production. First off, his Kate is very physical---as is typical enough (among theater history’s “household Kates"), except that there's usually plenty of flailing around, with feline psychomotor hysteria, antics and so on. Some of that is necessary, but Faye innovates in keeping it down to that minimum, and instead letting the rest of the physicality flow into his demeanor, posture, nonverbal unconscious social cuing, and intense presence on the stage. Why is this so moving to watch? 

Well, I’m not sure, but I think it’s along these lines. Faye is a masculine guy, with an adult male Ashkenasi Jewish nose, 5 o’clock shadow, and a pair of shoulders on him. Not an obviously tough guy (see what I did there?), but I would not mess with him in an alley. In the first half of the show, Faye is emotionally activated as hell; he is Katherine getting bounced around and insulted by each and every one of her attachment figures (until Petruchio comes along—a whole new ordeal). I seemed to feel much of the testosterone I was looking at, as the male biochemistry of the actor colored the presence of the character in her predicament. Female gendered clothing would perhaps have obscured this, and I felt pleased for Faye that he did not have to contend with any. 

Kate is abused, Kate is brainwashed, she's programmed, her boundaries commandeered by a cynical opportunist who is himself motivated half by financial greed, and half by a post-traumatic form of love that mid-20th century psychoanalysts called sadomasochism, a “perversion.” Petruchio’s transformation of Kate is a traumatic one, involving sleep deprivation, withholding of food, using hunger as a conditioning tool for behavior modification; utterly egregious gaslighting; and the programmer’s theft of the victim’s control over the precise form of her own name. Yet if the production is a good one, Petruchio loves Kate, and Kate loves Petruchio. The Porters of Hellsgate have achieved this, and it’s hot a.f. to watch.

The audience is pulled into the question. Appalled as we may be by his methods, their effect upon his target seems incredibly therapeutic. Before Petruchio, Katherine's misery is just as huge as her aggression. He takes away her power as the price for taking away her misery as well; when she realizes that submission somehow lightens her burden and feels paradoxically liberating, she seems to flip an internal switch and drop into subspace. Tellingly, Shakespeare sends no abusive language from Petruchio to his lady; insults would only block her access to the submission that he wants for her, and that she comes to need / turns out to need. 

Power gets asserted in various ways, all of them familiarly Shakespearean. When Petruchio shows up late to his own wedding, dressed as a kind of clown, I think of Henry V wooing his Katherine, telling her “We are the makers of manners, Kate…” Evan Isaac Lipkin is a delightful Bianca, a pretty, petulant Ken-doll swish. While this might be too much in doses any larger than these, it works. The war between her and her older sister reminds me of the moment in Much Ado about Nothing when Hero says of her older sister Beatrice, “Why, she would mock me into air!”

Jono Eiland plays an acoustic guitar and does some singing; he does both well. As in his previous work with the Porters, Eiland somehow lends stability to the whole stage when he stands on it. There’s a gravitas there, but he’s funny, too; it’s the… stability. He reads as stable. I think it’s his combination of calm and large. Michael Bigley shines as a gifted comic in the roles of Biondello and the Widow. The jokes keep on coming, like you’re being pummeled on the ropes. Bigley is f*cking hilarious in this thing. Kate Faye, brings some big laughs, artfully playing a hapless douche who strives in vain to rope a heifer. Her timing and flustered dignity are disarmingly endearing—and that’s where the comedy waves get through, blasting my own stuck-up dignity with a beam of pure satire till I suddenly realize my laughing is making too much noise.

The role of Tranio is played by Lauren Zbylski, to the Lucentio of Julie Lanctot. It’s a fun rapport to watch, as master and man interact on new terrain (Padua), in the new project of getting Lucentio a wife. Like Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places, they swap identities and clothing, turning 180° the rusty wheel of social class. Turn the gender wheel the same way and you have the dramaturgy of this excellent production.

The program’s “Note from the Directors” ends with this quotation from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” You’re in good hands, here. 

Bravo, Porters.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Happytime Murders (dir. Brian Henson) Is Brilliant, Hilarious, and Deep.

The Happytime Murders was written by Todd Berger (as well as Dee Austin Robertson). The writing is superb. Over and over I heard things I wasn't expecting, instead of the cliches I've come to expect from movies. I laughed out loud--cackled and howled with laughter--many times. But the funny scenes were only one part of this film's achievement.

There's also the social politics dimension of a movie in which being a Puppet in a majority "meat -sack" world is like being Black in America. It's easy to dismiss this metaphor as heavy-handed in the film, but that would be to overlook the richness of what Todd Berger shows us about marginalization, prejudice, and systemic oppression, as the people with skin and flesh abuse the people with felt and fluff.

The Happytime Murders was directed by Brian Henson----whose parents were THE Jim Henson and Jane Henson, the puppeteering couple who invented the Muppets during their careers at Sesame Street. Jim Henson was at the heart of Sesame Street's unique feel, its visual idiom; it gave us the experience of seeing puppets behave as if they have souls. A great work of art.

And then... as the years went by, what began as a TV show for kids remained a TV show for kids, onto which there was soon built a mighty brand, with vast merchandising and global reach. To be clear: Sesame Workshop is a wonderful institution, whose work has expanded to include creating Muppets and storylines tuned specifically to the psychological needs of children with various kinds of traumas, losses, and stressors. But that's not the point.

The point is, Brian Henson's whole life has been lived in an environment saturated with the ethos of Sesame Street. I suppose a lot of his life is always already  coated with his father's genius. Sesame St. is a children's show; its ethos always is, and always must be, wholesome, innocent, and enchanted. The bowl of cereal Brian Henson ate as a kid was paid for by his dad's art, the Muppets, within Sesame Street. What would it be like to grow up inside that? And to see, as you grow, the franchise/company/brand grow too, outpacing you as it brings in millions of dollars year after year. How cloying it must be, how fraught, and how frustrating: to be forever surrounded by the culture of children's TV, especially in the form of the celebrated artistic work-product of one's own Oedipal rival. Making this film, The Happytime Murders, did for Brian Henson something like what making Wild Strawberries did for Ingmar Bergman: a working-through of the film-maker's relationship to his own father. In making this dirty film---it is trashy, violent (though bloodless!), hardscrabble-noir---with its depictions of puppet semen and coroners cleaning up puppets' murders, Brian Henson cleanses himself of the ethos of Jim Henson's invented world. That ethos is great for kids. But for a person trying to grow into being his own man (an individuated adult of 20 or 30 or 40, etc. ), the sweet-sweetness-world of Sesame Street must feel like an endless overdose of sugar. In The Happytime Murders, sugar is evil, a debilitating drug, like heroin.

Freud taught that there are only two mature defenses available to the psyche: humor, and sublimation. This film has lots of hilarious lines and scenes. But the main course is the massive sublimation of envy, competition, Oedipal aggression and resentment, filial love and admiration for his father, and who knows what else. It gets transmuted into an artwork that uses the father's unique kind of puppetry to tell a completely different kind of story, diametrically opposed to the sunshine-and-rainbows world of kids' TV. That world must meet children where they are, by providing an innocent little world, one with sorrows and misfortunes, but without evil or death or sex. So here is The Happytime Murders, full of sex and death and the evil of (prejudice against puppets, yes, and) the villainess, who turns out to have been motivated by unprocessed trauma, not just some arbitrary badness that comes with being the bad guy in the story. I love this movie.

Note: All the psychological interpretations and claims I make in this movie review are purely speculative. Not only have I never had any contact with Mr. Henson, I haven't read a single interview with him, nor any reviews of The Happytime Murders

Monday, August 21, 2017

Why Children Love The Guinness Book of World Records

Children love the Guinness Book of World Records because it helps them to orient themselves in this world which is still relatively new to them. What better way to get a handle on things, than to learn the extremes between which all other cases occur? So, how tall is the tallest man? I will have to contend with no taller man than he. How short is the shortest man? I need to know. Fastest vehicle? Heaviest meteorite? If I can slake my curiosity with information on the fastest, the heaviest, the biggest, the smallest, and all the other superlatives that come to mind, then I’ll have a better idea of the parameters of just what I can anticipate out there. And if I want to distinguish myself by setting a record of my own, what are the numbers I need to beat? This, too, the GBOWR can answer.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Aristotle on Happiness

“Happiness is not amusement; it is good activity.” 
---Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (a book he wrote for his son, Nichomacheos)

At first sight this may seem difficult to reconcile with the two familiar psychoanalytic insights that the best adult work has a quality of serious play (Winnicott), and children’s play has the quality of serious work (Klein). But Aristotle’s category of “amusement” pertains precisely to that non-creative type of play which does not achieve a work-like seriousness. A particular type of existentially hazardous naïveté sponsors the defensive attempt to become a happy person on the basis of mere amusement. It may be that some cultures make us more vulnerable to this class of error than others; as a manic defense, it is unlikely to arise in a milieu that has achieved the depressive position: a tragic sense of life, accepting as inevitable some degree of mental pain and circumstantial difficulty. Such acceptance would require a degree of humility before the fates, as it were; a non-omnipotent understanding and acknowledgment of the reality principle (that we are never in complete control of our own affairs). Disneyland, “the happiest place on earth” exemplifies the misery of standardized utopian amusement, a monument to the “pursuit of happiness” untrammeled by the tasks of generativity (Aristotle’s “good activity”). This is consistent with a manic defense (Altman) that secures the benefits of the paranoid-schizoid position, protecting the patient from the grave reparative work of the depressive position. It also fits Freud’s general view of American culture as chronically trapped within the pleasure principle (Freud), and the qualified pessimism with which he shaped the disciplinary culture of psychoanalysis to its limited therapeutic ambition: “to turn neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness” (Freud).