10 October 2010

I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs / Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest – . . .

So here was how my Friday evening went:

Having hours and hours to kill after work and before curtain time, I walked from the Financial District down to the Westfield Mall for dinner. I went to the Thai place in the food court (they probably have some more upscale-sounding name for that area, since this is the mall with Bloomingdale’s, but a food court is what it is) – I think it’s called Coriander. They now offer brown rice, so I had brown rice. For my two items, still trying to be healthy, I picked the mixed vegetables and cashew chicken. The mixed vegetables (and I’ve had this before, so I don’t know if this was a server making a mistake or some new stingy policy) turned out to be three smallish stalks of broccoli – really, two and a half smallish stalks of broccoli. Speaking of really – you’re stiffing me on the broccoli and carrots? Really? It looked more like a garnish than a side order of vegetables. The cashew chicken was tasty but I think, if only for technical reasons, there should have been at least one actual cashew in it. So it was OK, but I’m not inclined to hurry back there.

Having hours still to kill, I walked over to Macy’s to check out Holiday Lane, which I have to admit I love in a childish happy way. So I find Holiday Lane for my first visit this year, walk around thoroughly inspecting all the decorated trees and Christmas paraphernalia, and . . . it’s OK. It’s all stuff I’ve seen before, and though I wasn’t disappointed, I wasn’t excited either.

So that brings me to Jerry Springer: The Opera.

The large cast is very enthusiastic and committed, and that’s not a euphemism for untalented, because there are a lot of terrific voices in the cast (all of them brutally and crudely amplified). I particularly liked Jonathan Reisfeld as the disturbed, reptilian set-up guy in the first half and Satan in the second half, though singling him out isn’t meant to take away from the others. The basic joke, which is summed up in the title, has lots of potential: what we think of as low and crass, poured into what we think of as high art (though of course opera is by its nature more mixed and sensationalistic than, say, chamber music).

But the music isn’t “operatic” enough for the contrast to work really well; it’s through-composed (though oddly Springer doesn’t sing – I could go either way on whether that's a reference to Pasha Selim in Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail as well as on whether "this is my Jerry Springer moment, and I don't want it to die" is a reference to Goethe's Faust, looking for the moment so beautiful he will beg that it never pass away) and the music is fun and effective, and there are some amusing take-offs on baroque passion music, but it pretty much has a Broadway/pop sound, and that’s just not far enough from the Springer world for the high/low joke to pack the punch it might.

There are plentiful warnings that the show is shocking and no refunds will be given to the offended, but . . . well, I’m wondering if anyone is actually offended, and if so, what they were expecting from something called Jerry Springer: The Opera.

It’s almost comical how easily shocked and offended I am in real life – for instance, I was shocked and a bit offended that Duane Kuiper’s offhand remark last spring that Giants’ baseball is “torture” has turned into a team motto; since a vast number of Americans have apparently decided, in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary, and in defiance of simple decency and the better traditions of America, that torture “works” and is OK for Americans (to give, though not to receive), it’s disturbing to see it become a marketing opportunity for a baseball team.

But as for what is shocking in the theater – well, I’ve been reading the Elizabethans/Jacobeans and the Greeks since I was ten, and there is, trust me, absolutely nothing you can put on stage that is going to shock me: incest, pedophilia, mutilation, cannibalism, rape, blasphemy, various fetishes . . . they're all really just a starting point. If you think you're delivering a shock by mentioning these things, and that they're sufficient on their own, then as I start waiting for variations on the theme that never arrive, I start feeling a bit bored.

And I’m not trying to hide shock under an attempted veneer of sophistication, in the manner of those people who say things like, “Well, honestly, profanity is such a bore, isn’t it?” What I mean is that if one character threatens to fuck another character up the ass with barbed wire, even after the first time, let alone the third or fourth, I’m thinking, Well, in the last two hours I thought something similar about four people on the train, six on the two-block walk to the theater, and at least ten right now, and I’m in a pretty good mood, for me. Is that all ya got?

Maybe I’m just a little too in touch with my simmering, festering inner rage.

But I chuckled pleasantly along, and laughed at the Ku Klux Kick-Line (executed, like all the dances, with more good spirits than precision), but then I also laughed when I saw one of those in O Brother Where Art Thou. And I used to subscribe to the Weekly World News, back when they had a print edition (how sweetly old-fashioned of me!) and though I haven’t seen that many episodes of South Park (since I don’t get the stations that show it) . . . you get the picture. Nothing here is anything new – it’s the circus sideshow. It’s the Elephant Man, though the musical doesn’t develop the characters enough to give you the strange poetic side you get in Lynch’s great film – in fact, watching this musical is pretty much like watching the actual Springer show: we’re there to laugh at the freaks, and then at the end there’s a little lesson about accepting people or being different or something. I never saw more than a few minutes of the Springer show, but it’s already feeling sort of quaint – oh, remember when that show was on? Hey, remember when people used to say “talk to the hand?”

In one of the few sermons I remember at all from childhood, the priest made the too often neglected point that sin wasn’t just about sex – that just because society has decided that divorce or living together without marriage is not a sin (yeah, I’m old enough so those were both subjects discussed in hushed tones, and old enough to remember when social justice was still something mainstream society pretended to care about), therefore there is no such thing as sin. Because there are plenty of things that still should be seen as sins, and as more serious ones – the way we turn our back on the poor and the sick, for instance. And while JS the O brings in the religious element (the whole second half is in Purgatory and Hell, where Jerry has to hold one of his shows for Satan, because Satan wants an apology from Jesus), it's all on such a basic level, as if the mere idea of Jesus on a talk show is enough (again, haven't these people ever seen South Park? and even if this musical possibly originated the idea, it's now a pop culture pervasive). The whole second half felt really padded to me, with too much time spent on setting up things that didn’t really need to be set up (like getting Springer to agree to hold the show in hell).

There’s such an embarrassment of riches right now when it comes to things Americans should be angry about and ashamed of, and there’s nothing in this show that’s going to make the audience aware of any of those things, or that will make the audience question itself. I’m fine with a fun evening of naughtiness, but if you’re going to make a big deal, as this show does, about how it’s going to “shock and challenge your perceptions” (I’m quoting the playbill), then I’m going to expect something that is, you know, if not shocking, at least challenging. Sparklers are fun, but don't tell me there's going to be a huge fireball and then just light a sparkler. And though a chorus singing “dip me in chocolate and feed me to the lesbians” might be kind of funny the first time, it doesn’t really get funnier when it’s repeated. And repeated. And repeated.

Certainly the audience didn’t seem challenged, though it certainly was entertained. There’s a raffishly fun midnight-showing-of-Rocky-Horror atmosphere about the whole thing, though at the point when the midnight audiences started being full of people who had heard about this thing and figured since they were cool, despite living in the suburbs, they should be there. Of course jerks ended up sitting right behind me, a pack of pasty-faced aging bitches of all genders (note to V: they were teachers, so you know the type I’m talking about). There’s a very long intermission (guys, about that half hour intermission which you claim is necessary because the theater has such tiny bathrooms: you’re already opening the door into the alley during intermission – put two port-a-potties in there and get things moving!) and I was more or less forced to listen to their blather (“oooh, you’ll simply love Tuscany!”) but then they started talking throughout the performance.

I wasn’t expecting hushed silence, but I also didn’t need a constant, loud commentary on the stage action, especially when it’s as stupid, obvious, and frankly inaccurate as this one was. This was not the occasional whisper, but continued talking. There was no place to move to, and besides I didn't feel that I should have to move because of their obnoxious and inconsiderate behavior. I told the worst offender to shut up. After the show, she attempted to reprimand me. I love it when rude people get indignant when they’re called on their rudeness. She actually poked me. I was furious. So I repeated my request to her to shut up, adding a number of the words we’d just been hearing a lot of, and a few we hadn’t heard enough of. And there it was – my Jerry Springer moment! I truly regret not hitting her in the face with a chair.

And I’m sure she walked away thinking there was something wrong with me, and without questioning her own rude, stupid behavior or unjustified sense of entitlement. So what was she getting out of this show, besides a little laugh at the freak show and a smug feeling that she was so adventurous for being there? I don’t want to inflate what I was expecting from this show, or to leave the impression that I’m blaming the show for not turning our eyes into our very soul, there to see such black and grained spots as will not leave their tinct, even though the people presenting it seem to think that's a possibility. It’s a perfectly pleasant evening (run-ins with stupid entitled bitches aside, though those are too common to be of much significance, and were only a fraction of the evening anyway), though it drags a bit.

If you’re in the mood to go, go. It's there for another week, but it wouldn't surprise me if it were extended. I’m giving it a hearty “meh” . . . . I’m just not inclined to be either shocked or titillated by things like bisexuality or diaper fetishes. Sorry to sound humorless, but what shocks and offends me are things like our on-going cruel and illegal wars of aggression, our heedless destruction of the environment, our lack not only of economic justice but of concern about economic justice, and . . . you can supply your own favorite American corruption. Dip that in chocolate and feed it to the lesbians!

Sorry, JM. I wanted to love it, but it was only like. I just found it less than the sum of its parts. Though I do agree with you that it’s more exciting and challenging than most of what San Francisco Opera is currently doing. But then shouldn’t we set the bar a bit higher than that?

So that was my evening. I thought it was . . . OK. The second Giants game in this round of the playoffs had let out around the same time. When the muted crowd filled the train in the last two San Francisco stops, I didn’t even need to ask if the team had won. Clearly this was not the follow-up they had hoped for to Lincecum’s brilliant first-game win. It was eleven innings of back and forth, only to end in a last-minute loss for the home team. Torture!


John Marcher said...

Oh Tiresius,

I am saddened to read you didn't enjoy it a much as I did, though your explication of the reasons why is thorough and above reproach.

True the bar is set low, but in this America, and this San Francisco, I still maintain we have to take our pleasures and provocations where we find them. I don't watch South Park, nor any of the other shows of its ilk, so perhaps that is partly why it entertained me so, and I saw it with a well-behaved audience (it was "Press" night), but still, I think it a sublime entertainment.

I can only suggest that you figure out a way to view "A Serbia Film" so that your senses may be assaulted in a way you could never have expected. Then again, what does it say about our culture to make such a recommendation?

Civic Center said...

No cashews in your cashew chicken? Nothing new at Macy's Holiday Lane? Boorish old bitches sitting behind you at an overamplified musical? You really should have gone all the way and thrown a chair at someone. No jury would have convicted you.

Totally agree with you about the misappropriation of the word "torture" for the Giants season while our government is torturing people around the world. It's rather like cheering on the Blue Angels while neglecting to notice that these same machines are dropping weapons on people halfway across the planet.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

JM: I have mixed feelings about South Park: it can be a little preachy (which is fine when I agree and irritating when I don't) and there's way too much toilet humor for me. I loved the first movie and was bored by Team America, though I have to admit later on some of the jokes stuck with me (it's a parody, but sometimes indistinguishable from the sort of movie it's parodying). I like the animation style, though. And the episode where Cartman has his Chili con Carnivale is sheer genius, and I would forgive them almost anything for that episode.

As for A Serbian Film . . . I don't know. I don't mind things where the shock is organic, if you see what I mean, but sometimes people are trying only to shock, and it just doesn't work for me that well.

thorough and above reproach . . .oh, that's me, all right!

Patrick J. Vaz said...

SFMike: You were right that I had the wrong actor's name for Jonathan/Satan, so I have corrected it; thanks for drawing my attention to that.

Remember after 9/11 when everyone was saying "nothing will ever be the same"? That didn't even last until the end of the football season, when the broadcasters went back to saying, "It's a battlefield out there!" when it was really just a football field.

And remember that Far Side cartoon showing a plane crash in the background, with ambulances rushing over, and in the foreground is a giant bird TV reporter, saying, "No word yet on how many birds were sucked into the engine." We only care if they're dropping bombs on us.