I was interested in a couple of plays that Thick House Theater was doing this season, but I ended up subscribing to the whole series, mostly because their managing director, Hilary Cohen, was so incredibly prompt and detailed (note to arts groups everywhere – efficiency is appreciated!) in answering my e-mail asking where exactly the theater is located and how a non-driver would get there. It turns out to be quite easy – you just get out at the 16th Street BART station and take the 22 Fillmore to the corner of 18th and Connecticut, and then you walk down a hill. Frankly I was expecting a black-painted basement in a dicey neighborhood, but it’s a pleasant, fairly recently gentrified area of Portrero Hill, and the small theater is comfortable and even elegant in an understated way. I enjoyed walking around the area before the rain showers drove me into the theater lobby.
There were two bonus plays added to the four-play season (six plays for $40 – that’s a bargain!). I subscribed just in time to miss the first one (five plays for $40 – still a bargain!), but I did get to David Greenspan’s Dead Mother, or, Shirley Not All in Vain at the Traveling Jewish Theater, which is actually trickier to find than Thick House, until I realized it’s just a ten-minute walk down from the 16th Street Station. I’m not quite sure why anyone would suggest the bus rather than walking; the sidewalks didn’t seem any more filled with annoyances than the 22 Fillmore, and you have to wait around until the bus shows up. I was glad to have the preliminary expedition, since Cutting Ball’s production of Endgame was also at the Traveling Jewish Theater before they make the Exit Theater their new home.
Dead Mother is the story of Harold and his family; Harold’s brother Daniel persuades him to impersonate their dead mother Shirley so that s/he can reassure Maxine, Daniel’s fiancée, that she approves the marriage. Harold’s wife Sylvia, Maxine’s Uncle Saul, and the widower Melvin are also involved; this is more Theater of the Absurd than Charley’s Aunt, though that reference may be part of the whirlwind of literary and dramatic references flying by in an ultimately distracting way: every minute your mind is annotating each scene and speech – there goes Twelfth Night, there’s Godot, Aristophanes, Dante, Don Juan in Hell from Man and Superman, Gertrude Stein, back to Dante, back to dozens that I noticed at the time but have now forgotten. . . .
I felt the constant annotation ended up emotionally distancing me from the action, which frankly is a little thin to start with; the assumption of Shirley’s persona frees Harold to speak the sort of forbidden truths that date quickly; shock has a very short shelf-life. Most of these terrible truths have to do with Harold’s troubled marriage and his attraction to other men, and to the racial prejudices of his middle-class Jewish father. After realizing what the painful family secrets amounted to, I suspected that this was not a new play; sure enough, it’s from 1991. It’s to Greenspan’s credit that the play avoids the cheap logic of therapy-think, where the family would be healed merely because someone dared to speak The Truth, or whatever cliché passes for it, but despite the excellent acting all around (particularly from Liam Vincent as Harold/Shirley) it was a somewhat unsatisfying evening.
A fluid presentation of truth is the strong point of Blade to the Heat, which is set in “the world of boxing” in 1959, shortly before boxing started to recede as a major sport and therefore metaphor in American life. Before that, boxing shows up in all kinds of surprising places, like silent comedies; there’s an extended sequence in City Lights, and it’s the focus of the entire plot in Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler, another of his brilliant, emotionally tortured comedies about a slight and effete man who goes up against a massive, physically confident and somewhat brutish opponent; the film ends with a surprisingly fierce and realistic boxing match. Ironically, the wiry and gracefully athletic Keaton is closer to our masculine physical ideal than his large but doughy opponents. Before I go back to Blade to the Heat, I’ll also recommend WC Heinz’s superb novel The Professional, which is like the novel Hemingway would have written if he’d been able to overcome his horrible boys’ school snobbishness enough to write a good novel.
Blade to the Heat gets described as “the gay boxing play” but it really is more about masculinity in general, a subject it examines with greater depth than just the usual panicked jokes (much like Fight Club, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both involve one-on-one fights). Anyone listening to the posturing tough talk that passes for our political discourse, or the swaggering attempts to justify our criminally insane and disastrous adventures in Iraq, must have noted our society’s need for such a discussion. It’s a psychological cliché to talk about “compensation”, but sometimes things become clichés because there’s a basic truth there: it’s difficult not to see America as the classic bully who swaggers and punches carefully selected weaker victims to cover his own weakness and fear. The iconic image of masculine panic from the last few years is of course our War-Criminal-in-Chief, who carefully avoided even his National Guard service during the Vietnam War, wearing a flight suit on the deck of a destroyer to declare our mission in Iraq accomplished. A (female) journalist at the Wall Street Journal, in one of the most truly embarrassing articles I have ever read, went on and on about how Our Leader “looked, well, hot” and how her tired middle-aged husband lying in his Barcalounger just couldn’t compete. My skin was crawling, but I read on in horrified fascination. It reminded me of a movie I saw years ago, called I think Paris Is Burning, about drag queens in Harlem. I only really remember one segment of the film, because it was so unbearably poignant: part of their traditional drag shows involved the guys dressing up and parading in the suits and ties that were standard business wear back then; here were men so alienated from any sense of normative masculinity that for them the standard male uniform was as exotic as their girly sequins and feather boas. And that’s why when I think of George W Bush, who loves to play dress up (I'm a cowboy! I'm a fighter pilot!), in the back of my mind I see black drag queens. The crisis in confidence is the same. (I should probably make it clear that I don’t have any sympathy with those who “blame” the feminist movement for the confused state of masculinity – obviously if you change the roles for one gender you affect the other, but it’s ridiculous to think that women should be held down because the manly men are threatened by them. Both genders have more than enough need to control and regulate others and more than enough delusion and self-destruction to go around. It probably all comes down to economics as much as anything else.)
Back to Blade to the Heat, which seems to be loosely based on the fight in which Emile Griffith accidentally killed an opponent who allegedly was taunting him for being homosexual, but so thoroughly is the incident thought through that it wasn’t until the end of the play that the connection occurred to me (unlike my experience with Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, about a gay baseball player and filled with incidents obviously based on baseball’s recent past, such as John Rocker’s racist outburst; I kept thinking, No, that’s not quite how people really did react to that action. . . .). It’s a beautifully constructed play, conveying with complete naturalness a wide range of complicated emotional interactions and personified masculinities that come across not as markers across a theoretical range but as actual human beings, with a fluidity of identity that Virginia Woolf would have recognized and appreciated (a fluidity captured so much more effectively in this play than in Berkeley Rep’s ridiculous recent adaption of To the Lighthouse). Every time you think you have a character pegged, sexually, ethnically, or emotionally, he or she shifts a bit and shows you a different side, and it’s all handled in an amazingly rich and economical 90 minutes.
I know it’s obligatory to praise boxing dramas as “a knockout punch!” and suchlike, and I’d like to resist, but this really was a pretty outstanding evening of theater: sets, music, costumes, acting, and script all came together in a way that’s supposed to be standard but really isn’t. The boxing matches were not only convincing and exciting, which is pretty tough to do in a very small theater where you’re only about three feet away from the action, but they flowed seamlessly into the rest of the action instead of being obviously choreographed and practiced much more than the rest of the show, so here’s a big salute to Johnny Moreno as Pedro Quinn (the “gay boxer”) and L. Peter Callender as his rival, Mantequilla Decima, both of whom managed to maintain character even while throwing realistic punches.
I trekked out to Traveling Jewish Theater one more time that week for Cutting Ball’s Endgame, and director Rob Melrose really outdid himself with this one. I’ve been going to Cutting Ball for years now, and this was one of their best productions and a welcome return to form after the somewhat disappointing Taming of the Shrew last summer. And lots of credit should also go to Avery Monsen and David Sinaiko as Clov and Hamm, reunited after their summer foray as respectively Grumio and Petruchio. I didn’t much like Sinaiko’s Petruchio or his Doctor in Wozzeck; I felt he relied too much on a manic energy that seemed more like shtick than anything the characters would actually do, and he seemed to be giving the identical performance with each character. But as Hamm he gave the best performance I’ve seen from him in many years of attending Cutting Ball shows – a modulated, subtle portrait, with his be-ringed fingers and insinuating air of authority, of the dandy at the end of days. Avery Monsen is a really exciting actor: I thought he stole Shrew with his high-energy commedia; here, it was his quiet and inward air of exhaustion and suppressed exasperation that made him compelling. At one point, Hamm starts off on an anecdote, and Monsen just silently closed his eyes for half a second at the beginning of the recital, and you knew immediately how many, many times he’s heard this same story, told this same way, and how patiently and inexplicably he puts up with Hamm.
I meant to write about Blade to the Heat and Endgame weeks ago, but events intervened and I couldn’t until now; the productions are over and their moments of insight and beauty gone; I can’t go back and re-view (or review) them the way I would a movie; they take place purely and poignantly in my memory now, along with a lot of my life; for me going to the theater is like the ancient Japanese samurai going to view the fleeting cherry blossoms, an aesthetic lesson in appreciating the essential quality of life.