Friday, October 18, 2019

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

"...he tampers recklessly with sacred things..."

Sophocles' definition of HUBRIS in Oedipus the Tyrant line 89

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," which says: 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: fearless, 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 devil 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. Contra Auden, his mighty line "made things happen." 

If you've got an ear for poetry (Matthew 13:9), you marvel at Christopher Marlowe's stride; the heavy silk and airy iron of it, his floating gossamers, his darts of solid steel! Stamina, momentum, swinging forward on a sort of phonetic steed that banks, keeping to the curvature of the thoughts girding up the overarching story; the shifts of gears he pulls off, steering the verse, tracing the curvature of his thinking as it traversed the ready myth; Marlowe's musical hammers falling, syncopated, offset by footsteps, heartbeats; 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! [rhymes with Oh went he, went he? Heard him say not his exit.] is the rhythm of a cantering horse! But not a racing one. 

Here's one of my essays about Marlowe, in this book:

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 goes the distance with ultimate questions and is consumed by his choices in their power.

So I felt both dismay and amusement when I chanced on The Klingon Tamburlaine, a production in which some of my fellow Americans were "doing theater" in an unusually oblivious way. The school of directing in which an entirely alien "concept for this production" is fitted onto an old play like a condom on a banana---to demonstrate... something, I guess. It's irreverent, but what it disrespects is exactly what I respect the most. I'm not much interested in anybody's irreverence toward, say, Dante (or Marlowe, both of whom I revere), since irreverence toward dominant and illegitimate institutions of power and privilege is more meaningful than a snarky diss tossed at the Great (I said it) artists like Dickinson and Shakespeare who make life bearable and even blissful. 

So excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, but no: fuck smearing Star Trek all over Tamburlaine the Great. Because that actually is "cultural appropriation." Though I know the work of some of the KT production's actors from their fine performances with other theater companies' productions in which they shone--I could find nothing to appreciate in this mess. "The Klingon Tamburlaine" should never have happened. I heard about it. I wrote a sonnet about it. I saw the production. It verified my impression.

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.