Friday, July 23, 2004

Glass Menagerie at the Kennedy Center

Sixty years ago, as World War Two raged abroad, a play called The Glass Menagerie established Tennessee Williams as a major voice of American theater. But it's the final entry in the Kennedy Center's series, "Tennessee Williams Explored" -- and the only one to be hailed as a success. I'm not sure precisely how Williams has been "explored" in this series: From the reviews I've read of the Center's Streetcar Named Desire (which one DC-area critic dubbed "A Streetcar Named Disaster") and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the only major difference between these productions and your average community- or college-theater production, aside from infinite budgets and technical proficiency, is that the directors have staged Williams with a light touch. The overbearing dynamics within Williams's families have been sweetened, sometimes to sitcom banality, and the oppressive settings have been transmuted to nostalgia.

This may not be a bad thing. I tend to think that Elia Kazan -- the "method director" who basically created the Williams mystique -- had much too dark a vision of these plays. Williams strikes me as essentially a comic writer: Most of his endings are fortunate, if you're willing to accept the strange premises on which they're built (the idea that Blanche might be better off in the booby hatch, for example, or that Big Daddy's undignified death may be cause for mirth rather than sorrow). His unhappy endings tend to strike me as sick jokes, with the notable exception of the Dead Black Guy in Orpheus Descending (a relic from the days when any "serious examination" of race had to feature at least one dead mockingbird). Of course, most critics and audiences haven't been willing to embrace Williams's fundamental perversity, even though his moral compass almost always seemed to point the wrong way. Still, as one gets to know the oeuvre, those grand themes and outsized Oedipal dramas shrink to something shabbier and meaner.

The Glass Menagerie is a youthful work; in the opening scenes are traces of a smugness that would ripen into outright scorn. Still, this four-character, single-set drama might be Williams's most humane work, in the sense that it's willing to treat characters as human beings rather than symbols. Not coincidentally, the play is as close as Williams ever came to outright autobiography. The male lead is named "Tom Wingfield," an obvious self-reference. The initials "T.W." could give the game away in itself, but there's more: The playwright was known to friends as "Tom," and the surname "Wingfield" suggests Williams's nickname, "The Glorious Bird." If Glass Menagerie is a drame a clef, the key lies in full view of the audience.

In the Kennedy Center production, Jason Butler Harner plays this character as if he were channeling the playwright himself. He shifts on a dime between the youthful character who exists within the action, and the cynical narrator who comments from the outside. Since Williams was fey and flamboyant in real life, Harner eschews cliches about angry young men, and delineates Tom's emerging Gay consciousness instead. This unusual but perfectly logical choice makes the play's homosexual subtext more visible, though the details remain decorously obscured: Our chief question about this character is no longer why he goes to the movies so much, but whether he goes to the movies at all. Playing Tom as clandestinely attracted to men also lends unexpected poignancy to Harner's final monologue.

Jennifer Dundas shines as Laura Wingfield, the keeper of the eponymous "glass menagerie" of ornamental animals. Laura is one of Williams's most tenderly drawn characters, male or female; Dundas is perhaps not as plain as Williams seems to have envisioned Laura, but she instantly elicits audience sympathy, making the most of every statement and reaction. She also choose to conceal her character's disfigurement, offering little more than a slight halt in her step or an occasional glimpse of leg braces for most of the play. When we see the extent of her character's limp (in Scene 4), the effect is shocking. The preternaturally tall Corey Brill is every bit her equal as the "Gentleman Caller," and the long final scene between daughter and houseguest crackles with awkwardness, anticipation and regret.

The weakest link, I'm sorry to report, is also the play's biggest draw: Oscar-winning actress Sally Field. She's terrific on a stage, and submerges herself in the role of matriarch Amanda Wingfield. But in Field's hands -- and more importantly, the hands of director Gregory Mosher -- this character comes off as a plucky farmwife instead of a Freudian nightmare. Mosher and Field have given Amanda an unexpected postfeminist twist: They see her as basically a decent woman who has fallen on hard times and wants her family to raise itself by the bootstraps. The idea is fascinating in theory (and to my mind, much nicer than what Williams indicated in his text. But in practice it throws the characters and relationships off kilter, so that we never understand what causes Tom's explosive anger or Laura's neurotic timidity. A theater critic for the Washington Post describes Field's Amanda as an "allergen" to her children: I suspect Williams would have seen her as something far more venomous.

As for other aspects of the production, Mosher fares best when he seems to do least. The blocking is precise, yet appears perfectly spontaneous; and the actors always respond well to each other. Lighting is dimmer and murkier than the text requires, but the sound design is solid. John Lee Beatty's set design obscures the fact that the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater is too large for such a tiny play. The production's most expensive detail is also its least effective: A wall portrait magically shows different images from "the past," all of which are meant to reinforce the action. It resembles "Picture Picture" from "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," and I wish the thing had remained on Fred Rogers' wall. To be fair, the idea for this shifting portrait comes from the play itself: Williams's stage directions suggest that certain images be projected on a "screen" near the stage as the play progresses. But Mosher's use of the portrait-screen distracts from the onstage action, while the images are too small (and dim) for the audience to perceive and understand. In a production full of old-fashioned theatrical virtues, this technical coup feels out of place.

This production of Glass Menagerie isn't perfect by any means, but the top-notch performances more than make up for the flaws. Glass plays the Kennedy Center through August 8. Tickets are $25-$75, though patrons in the cheap seats will probably need binoculars and hearing aids to understand what happens. For more info, check out the Kennedy Center website here.

Is the rest of America as crazy as Virginia?

First my state government took away my right to private contract, and now the federal government wants to deny me any legal recourse against its own depredations.

The "Marriage Protection Act" will prohibit courts from ruling on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act -- at least until the Supreme Court rules that it violates the Fourteenth Amendment's "equal protection" clause. This bill just passed the House yesterday. If the Senate approves, Bush will sign it into law.

Like Colorado's Amendment 2, and like Virginia's HB 751, this particular act will attempt to deny Gays and Lesbians equal access to the courts. And if it passes, this "land of the free and the home of the brave" will be neither a land nor a home for free, brave, Gay men and women. The loss will be America's, and the effects of this particular injustice could take decades to repair.

You'd think President Bush, of all people, would understand the dangers of pandering to religious extremists. After all, he's been fighting them tooth and nail for nearly three years. Yet under his watch, America may fall prey to its own mullahs and theocrats, just like the Middle Eastern nations that preoccupy our foreign policy. Citizens who feared the terrorist onslaught in 2001 are now discovering they had much more to fear from their own government.

As I've noted before, whenever statists take over a country, Gays and Lesbians are usually the first to feel the heat. That's why anyone concerned with individual liberty should watch Gay issues the way a coal miner watches a canary. For my part, I'm starting to wonder if I shouldn't find the quickest way out of the homeland I love, before things start getting really scary around here.

Perhaps France could grant some of us political asylum.

Thursday, July 22, 2004


Arnold Schwarzenegger, imitating two well-known characters from Saturday Night Live, calls Democratic legislators "girly-men."

The New York Times, opining on an Illinois Senate race with an African-American frontrunner, mentions that "it would be too bad if Mr. Obama cakewalked into Washington."

What do these two quips -- one from the Right, one from the Left -- have in common?

Why, a chorus of disapproval, of course.

Democrats and Gay activists are lining up to denounce Schwarzenegger for alleged insensitivity to Gays, Lesbians, and Transsexuals. Never mind that Schwarzenegger has publicly announced his support for same-sex marriage, something no Democratic governor in the country will do. The remark in question may be a partisan slur and a breach of official decorum. But given the context, it can't be construed as anti-Gay.

Meanwhile, conservative Republicans are attacking the New York Times for its allegedly racist use of the term "cakewalk." At the turn of the twentieth century, the cakewalk was a demeaning minstrel-show dance, often performed by Whites in blackface. (Cakewalk dancers would often compete against each other, and the winner would receive a cake as first prize -- a fact which inspired the common phrase, "That takes the cake!") Repeated use has stripped the word "cakewalk" of its original connotations, so that the word now refers, pejoratively, to any easily-accomplished feat. Few people are even aware of the term's origins today.

There is real anti-Gay bias in the GOP, and there's real race-baiting on the American Left. Focusing on a few goofs from persons of goodwill only diverts our attention from the Rick Santorums and Louis Farrakhans of the world.

Coming Attractions

I'll try to leave off politics, for a little while at least. Here are some arts-related posts in the works:

Glass Menagerie at the Kennedy Center. My theater buddy is writing a review of this Tennessee Williams masterpiece for a Washington-area newspaper. He's seen it before, of course. Since I haven't seen this play before, I'll write my review here.

Not Another Outdoor Drama: Honey in the Rock at Theatre West Virginia. You wouldn't expect to find solid American theater in the mid-sized town of Beckley, West Virginia. But Theatre West Virginia offers crowd-pleasing drama, and its professionalism is impressive. Honey in the Rock was the company's first production, and it's been playing in an amphitheater beside the New River Gorge for over forty years. The playwright, Kermit Hunter, made his debut with Unto These Hills, one of a precious few outdoor dramas that succeed both as spectacle and as literature. Honey in the Rock isn't quite up to the level of Hills, but it has more than its share of exceptional moments.

Roy Harris. For months, off and on, I've been planning an essay on this neglected American classical composer. I've always put it off because writing about music makes me nervous. So many people write about classical music, and most of them do it better than I. But I'll probably post something about Harris's music next week.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

LiveArts Summer Theater Festival 2004: Downsize This!

At the beginning of Jane Martin's Anton in Show Business, a character sententiously declares, "The American theater is in a shitload of trouble." I'm sorry, but I just don't buy it.

Right now, we're at the height of the summer theater season in Charlottesville, Virginia, with over a dozen shows in production over the next few weeks. Heritage Repertory Theater at UVA currently offers two teensy musical revues (Five Guys Named Moe and Snoopy!), a demeaning Driving Miss Daisy and a ludicrous True West. Ash Lawn Opera, meanwhile, is opening a bare-bones Barber of Seville to play beside its own summer musical Annie. Ordinarily, I'd make some silly joke about the "dog days" of summer, or how "it's a hard-knock life" for theatergoers around here. But then there's the LiveArts Summer Theater Festival, a budget-minded festival of community theater. At only eight dollars a ticket, playgoers can afford to experiment, or catch more than one show in an evening.

Usually the festival offers eight to ten dramas, in two separate theaters. This year, the festival has been downsized to only four dramas, all sharing one small theater. (The problem, I suspect, is not lack of money, but a lack of available actors and performance space: We've had a lot of theater this summer, with Ragtime and Angels in America drawing from the local acting pool.) Fortunately, LiveArts has compensated with an "indoor pleasure garden," built on the set of Angels in America. The garden offers local music, spoken-word monologues, and grapefruit margaritas strong enough to get you through even the most tedious performance art. (Let's sum up those margaritas with a simple "Whammo!") The high art's in the upstairs theater, the booze and the weird stuff in the downstairs theater. It's a loose, entertaining, anything-goes atmosphere.

So far I've seen two of the four upstairs plays: Jane Martin's Anton in Show Business (quoted above) and Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain. The two I haven't seen are Richard Dresser's Wonderful World and Cheryl West's Jar the Floor. Buzz for the Dresser has been excellent; I haven't heard anything about Jar, but the cast looks promising.

Jane Martin, I'm told, is a pseudonym -- which is fortunate, because if I were to write something like Anton in Show Business, I don't think I'd want to take credit. It is not a bad play, but not a good one either; in the end, it comes off rather like a Saturday Night Live sketch (though to its credit it overstays its welcome only slightly). The plot of Anton -- what there is of it -- attempts to skewer American regional theater even as it contemporizes Chekhov's Three Sisters. Alas, these two goals prove incompatible, so the play suffers a near-fatal collapse at the end. There are other faults as well: Martin’s satirical targets are large and lumbering, her characters little more than painfully obvious stereotypes, and her details (including her insistent claim that San Antonio, Texas, is a cultural wasteland) completely wrong. (I found myself wondering if Martin had ever been to San Antonio.) Luckily, LiveArts' cast of six young actresses give energetic, no-holds-barred performances. With the help of director Bree Luck, they manage to wring every last drop of mirth from this piece. The result may not be a thought-provoking evening, but at least it's one helluva fun ride, most of the time.

Exactly the opposite happens with Three Days of Rain, receiving its Virginia premiere at the festival. At first, Greenberg's intricate structure and erudite wit seem too clever by half, but a glorious second act makes all things clear. This tiny, three-character play can stand proudly beside the best of Tom Stoppard as unabashedly brainy theater with a heart of gold; line for line, it's one of the best-written dramas from the past decade. However, the LiveArts cast is so uneven that the play's merits are somewhat obscured. Allen Robinson is brilliant as a second-rate soap-opera actor, stealing scene after scene with apparently little effort; his riff on Greek tragedy in the first act may be the play's high water mark. Todd Fletcher ignores the Gay subtext in the first act, but comes off pretty well on the whole; he practically carries the second act all by himself. Jill Antonishek, on the other hand, nearly sinks the whole production, falling utterly flat as a lunatic Southern belle a la Blanche Dubois.

The LiveArts Summer Theater Festival plays through July 31. For out-of-towners (and especially folks in the D.C. area), it's well worth a weekend trip. Tickets are eight dollars for upstage drama, or three for the indoor garden -- either way, a terrific bargain.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

GOP InsanityWatch: If at first you don't succeed, keep on suckin' ...

The Senate killed a Constitutional amendment to prohibit Gay marriage last week. Now House Republicans, undeterred, wish to pass the "Marriage Protection Act," which is designed to bar federal judges from ruling on the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. I wonder, sometimes, if our legislators ever took high-school civics. Did these guys fall asleep when their teachers discussed "separation of powers"? How about "judicial review"?

Well, this new bit of anti-Gay legislation from the US Congress is intended to prevent Gays and Lesbians from going to state or federal courts to redress inequities or discrimination. In this respect, at least, it looks suspiciously like a federal version of Colorado's infamous "Amendment 2," which not only invalidated all anti-discrimination ordinances pertaining to Gays and Lesbians, but also prohibited Gays and Lesbians from suing to protect their legal rights.

The Supreme Court ruled this amendment unconstitutional eight years ago, in Romer v. Evans. Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that "The amendment withdraws from homosexuals, but no others, specific legal protection from the injuries caused by discrimination ...." He added that "its sheer breadth is so discontinuous with the reasons offered for it that the amendment seems inexplicable by anything but animus toward the class that it affects; it lacks a rational relationship to legitimate state interests." Sound familiar, gentle readers?

According to the Supreme Court's majority opinion, the "Equal Protection Clause" of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects individuals from arbitrary discrimination by the government, applies to Gay and Lesbian individuals, too. This conclusion seems sensible to me -- an individual is an individual, regardless of sexual orientation. But where the liberty of non-heterosexual individuals is concerned, there's precious little sense left among Congressional Republicans. Even if the Defense of Marriage Act is constitutional (a long shot at best), the "Marriage Protection Act" is pretty clearly not.

Still, if this bill passes both houses by a simple majority, we can count on President Bush to sign it into law. That's how far off the deep end our President has gone.

Kooks on the Left

From today's lead article in

"There are kooks on the left, no doubt about it, people who believe Bush is guilty of murder," [Paul] Begala says. "The difference is, journalists don't pay attention to kooks on the left, and neither do Democrats."

It's refreshing to hear that journalists and Democrats don't pay attention to people like Michael Moore (or, for that matter, Paul Begala). But the reaction to Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 among journalists and high-ranking Democrats might lead one to believe otherwise.

Also, for some inexplicable reason, Begala neglects to mention that most journalists are Democrats. Oops.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Just call me Karl Rove ...

(Caution: Bad taste and sarcasm follow.)

Until this past January, Bush fils seemed like a fairly tolerant fellow, at least as far as Gays were concerned. But over the past few months, our president has been engaged in Gay-baiting on a scale never before seen in Presidential politics -- including Clinton's flirtation with, and consummation of, the Defense of Marriage Act.

To paraphrase an old radio program, the weed of hate bears bitter fruit. Last week, the Federal Marriage Amendment was quashed in the Senate, by many of the same people who lined up to sign DoMA in 1996. Bush's evangelical base was underwhelmed, to say the least. If the President could have shepherded the Federal Marriage Amendment to an actual Senate vote, they might have been happier. But as it stands, a lot of them figure Dubya's just not trying very hard. Will those four million religious votes materialize? Don't hold your breath, gentle reader.

So what's the next step for the Bush campaign? Well, that crafty old racist Sam Francis has a nasty suggestion: Why not go after the White-nationalist vote? I wonder that some Svengali in the GOP hasn't picked up on the idea: As most far-right nutcases are aware, crosses aren't just for kissing anymore. If nothing else, I suspect this approach could be a big hit with militia movements. There must be, what, a couple thousand of these guys in rural Michigan alone, just itching for a chance to make their political clout felt in a way that doesn't involve a Ryder truck and several tons of fertilizer. A new anti-minority strategy would be as logical as the recent anti-Gay one, and it might have the same effect come November -- namely, a Kerry presidency.

Best of all, it wouldn't require a drastic (or even a discernible) change of tone. Had Bush merely substituted "our traditional way of life" for "the traditional definition of marriage" in his July 10 radio address, he could have delivered a veiled anti-integration tirade, such as Southerners often heard during the 1950s and early '60s. Granted, the following revised passage from last week's address wouldn't make Bush as vile as a Theodore Bilbo or a Fielding Wright, but it could easily put him on a par with beloved segregationists Ross Barnett and Orval Faubus. My suggested alterations to the President's words are marked in boldface:

The United States Senate this past week began an important discussion about the meaning of our traditional way of life. Senators are considering a constitutional amendment to protect the most fundamental institution of civilization, and to prevent it from being fundamentally redefined. This difficult debate was forced upon our country by a few activist judges and local officials, who have taken it on themselves to change our way of life. ... When judges insist on imposing their arbitrary will on the people, the only alternative left to the people is an amendment to the Constitution -- the only law a court cannot overturn. A constitutional amendment should never be undertaken lightly -- yet to defend our traditional way of life, our nation has no other choice.

Yes, the evangelical voters seem pretty disillusioned right now: In his attempts to turn them on, Bush may have switched them off for good. But on the bright side, a few lunatic fringes on the Far Right remain untapped. Perhaps they can provide the GOP with a few swing votes, especially in the all-important rural Midwest.

So go on, Dubya. Drink the Kool-Aid.


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