Sunday, August 9, 2020

Fosse, Verdon, and all that jazz.

Ben Vereen (left)
Several years ago, we had the opportunity to hear Ben Vereen speak as part of an arts education event sponsored by Cleveland State. Following his address, I met him and had a picture. I told Mr. Vereen that when I was a child, one of my favorite movies was All That Jazz and he gave me the most peculiar look.

All That Jazz is an autobiographical film, directed by Bob Fosse, ostensibly a version of his own life and career -- from his own point of view, of course.

My brother’s copy of the soundtrack album was in constant rotation in our house, all through the year 1980. That was my gateway to the movie, through the music, which I knew by heart well before knowing anything about the content of the film. Snatches of dialogue included on the record, like “It’s showtime, folks!” “Pretty pictures,” and “You can applaud if you want to,” became catchphrases, dropped into conversation among the many young people who frequented our home.

It premiered on cable in the summer of 1981, just as I had turned thirteen, and it was an event screening. A crowd was invited to our place to watch. Here my troubles began.

Roy Scheider & Ben Vereen
(All That Jazz, 1979)
The story, in brief: Broadway director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) has been courting Death (personified by Jessica Lange) his entire life. He’s overworked, strung out on pills, cigarettes and alcohol, oppressed by his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend, producers, rival directors, and the critics. Through it all, however, he maintains a sense of humor, style, and above all, he is cool.

One very bad lesson this impressionable adolescent took away from the film, aware even then that it was based on the life experiences of the filmmaker, is that your personal life is fair game in the creation of your work.

And not by half -- Ann Reinking, aforementioned ex-girlfriend, plays a version of herself in the movie. How much more permission do you need to use facts from your own deeply personal or intimate moments in your stories, comic strips, plays? You don’t even need to ask permission.

Of course, that makes you a terrible person. But even that’s okay, because you are surrounded by terrible people. But you alone are cool.

Ann Reinking, center
(All That Jazz, 1979)
Last summer, All That Jazz was playing on the big screen at the Palace, and I brought my daughter to see it. She was sixteen. I didn’t think the subject matter was more adult than anything she regularly watched on her screen.

Driving home, however, she said, “I don’t know why you wanted me to see that.” I knew what she meant. It doesn’t hold up. I mean, I think it’s hilarious. But in 2019, with my engaged and empowered teenager next to me, I was aware of how toxic the character of Joe Gideon is. How entitled, how arrogant, how terrible he is, to everyone. Unapologetic and manipulative.

It is just another Great Man story, where time and again Gideon (i.e. Fosse) is shown to take bad writing, bad performance, bad situations, and turn them into art. All by himself.

And then there is his long, drawn-out, graphic death. And we have all had enough death in this family.

Since the start of the pandemic, the wife and I have been making our way through TV series. Watched High Fidelity in March or April, very disappointed it won’t continue.

The past two weeks we consumed Fosse/Verdon, a high-profile event from last year, produced by the creative team from Hamilton, with a mission to set the record straight on Bob Fosse (played by Sam Rockwell), to incorporate the story of Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), his muse, collaborative equal and partner, ex-wife, and mother of his only child, into his creative legacy, a place where she by all accounts rightfully belongs.

Sam Rockwell & Norbert Leo Butz
(Fosse/Verdon, 2019)
The eight-part program also passes judgment on All That Jazz, revealing it to be the flawed, solipsistic, and disingenuous thing that it truly is, Palme D’Or notwithstanding.

In the final episode, which focuses largely on the production of that movie, Fosse’s best friend, writer Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz) provides strongly worded and helpful criticism on the script, prior to production.
“The problem with your movie, Bob, is very simple. Your character doesn’t change. Your hero doesn’t change … none of your characters ever change, which is why your endings are always shit, I say this as a friend.”
This helpful piece of advice, “Storytelling 101,” says Chayefsky, is not heeded. Gideon dies at the end (a full eight years before Fosse himself actually did, in 1987) with everything a mess, his movie, his musical, his relationships, and everyone feels sorry for him. But death is not redemption. It’s just sad, for a moment. Then Merman starts singing, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” over the credits. Death is a joke. The ending really is shit.

Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Roy Scheider

(Fosse/Verdon, 2019)
The final moments of Fosse/Verdon, which portrays Fosse’s actual death, is just sad. A sixty year-old man has a fatal heart attack on the sidewalk, while his creative and life partner watches, helpless. Sad. That’s the problem with life histories, they always end in death. But the hero still hasn’t changed.

However, let’s back up a bit. In setting the record straight, Fosse is stripped of the cool with which he bestowed upon Gideon. Just-Bob is revealed to be terribly insecure, racked with doubt, and in constant need of emotional and artistic assistance from Verdon, a woman who is driven, determined, and very smart, who herself needs to appeal to the men who hold power -- most notably Bob Fosse -- to achieve her dreams.

She’s not a perfect mother, but Fosse is a horrible father (unlike Joe Gideon, of course) they are each negligent “Ice Storm” generation parents, it’s eleven o’clock and they have no fucking idea where their children are.

Here’s the thing, I really enjoyed Fosse/Verdon. I mean, I would watch both Rockwell and Williams in anything, anyway. It's gorgeous, it's dramatic, it's witty. But in the end, the series felt like a long, drawn out, somewhat depressing version of All That Jazz. Only now we have reasons for toxic behavior.

Sam Rockwell & Michelle Williams
(Fosse/Verdon, 2019)
The behavior itself is not excused, but providing reasons, backstory, we do lean into forgiveness. And I am not sure that is warranted.

People without number have been molested as children, emotionally abused by their parents, had difficulty bearing offspring, but who are not themselves reprehensible in their behavior. Some of them are even great artists.

And while this may be the right time to reassess the life and artistic contribution of Gwen Verdon, once again she does the heavy lifting in a program which still feels like its mission is to rehabilitate the reputation of its more dominant, "Great Man" protagonist.

I say this as a friend.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Mirror and the Light (book)

Pengo’s 2020 Summer Book Club
Alexander, rumors only grow.
And we both know what we know.
On this date, four hundred and eighty years ago, July 28, 1540, Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, Order of the Garter, Viceregent and Lord Privy Seal, was beheaded at the Tower of London by order of King Henry VIII for crimes of treason and heresy.

Spoiler alert.

Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels on the life of Thomas Cromwell each conclude with a decapitation. Wolf Hall (2009) with that of Thomas More, Bring Up the Bodies (2012) with Anne Boleyn, and with the subject himself in The Mirror and the Light, which was released March 5 of this year.

My wife gifted me with the hardcover just as we all went into quarantine. It took four months to read half of it, and the past week to read the rest. I thought several times of putting it aside, but I have developed an attachment to the character of Cromwell, not only as Mantel has painted him but also in the performance by Mark Rylance in the six-part BBC adaptation of the first two novels.

Thomas Cromwell
(Hans Holbein, 1532-33)
Novelists who set a specific number of books to complete an epic story often find themselves trying to cram too much into the last one (Deathly Hallows comes to mind -- Half-Blood Prince, too, for that matter, maybe I'm just thinking of Harry Potter) and Mirror is the longest of this set, but for most of the first half I felt we were spending far too much time on tangential relationships and all the weird dishes that English men of wealth used to have for dinner.

Also, I have poor reading habits. I can take in maybe a page or two before bed and then I am spent. Summer vacation affords me the opportunity to sit and read, for hours. This past week I avoided work, both in my employment and my art. I set it aside. I vacationed. I went fishing with my son and I read this book. Once I could spend all of my time living in it, it came alive for me.

And it hurt. I knew how it was going to end, but I avoided delving into history to learn how or why beforehand. I even entertained the idea that he outlived the king and was put to death in the chaotic years that followed, but I was pretty sure there was no way that was how it actually happened. Henry VIII used people up, again and again, and it was Cromwell’s complicity in these acts which made it all but certain that he would eventually no longer be seen as useful to this monstrous monarch.

Rylance as Cromwell
(Wolf Hall, 2015)
It makes sense that the primary reason for Cromwell’s fall from grace was that, having successfully played the role of pimp for a monarch who was increasingly desperate for a male heir, he contracted a fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, whom history has regarded as the king did himself: fugly.

To the author’s credit, however, she creates an alternative scenario inspired by true events. The ever-playful Tudor decides to surprise his betrothed before their appointed first meeting. This was a habit of his, as illustrated in Shakespeare’s All Is True, putting on disguises to the delight of the ladies long past the age when such behavior was deemed appropriate.

In Mantel’s version of events, unprepared for the arrival, it was the German Anna whose first reaction to the middle-aged, somewhat lame and already overweight Henry was a reflection of his own physical state that no one had yet shown him.

The best way to read.
Again, I am put in mind of the BBC adaptation, in which Damian Lewis portrays a hot king Henry, and wonder, if they are to create three more episodes to bring the tale to its conclusion, whether or not they would use the Billions star and if it is even possible to make this actor unattractive.

Cromwell’s downfall as depicted is remarkable, he never loses his wit (nor Mantel hers, the author’s sense of humor is a particular delight) and his death handled in a manner in keeping with my own recent philosophical imaginings on the subject. It broke my heart.

What should I read next?

Monday, July 20, 2020

The Short Play Project: Acting With Myself Series

The world has moved on. I have not received a short play project video submission for some time. People have focused on other porjects, and so have I.

The novelty of creating drama at a distance has cooled somewhat. We're still doing it, of course. But now it is summer, and we have expanded our ideas of what that means. Perhaps as cool weather sets in this will change. But don't talk to me about the future.

When I first put out a call for artists to create short videos from my play scripts, the monologues went pretty fast. Not everyone was shelrting in place with another actor, or with anyone at all.

Several entries created a some kind of work around, and here are three examples of those. Lynna Metrisin chose the high school Thespian "Forensics" route, performing both roles on her own at the same time. Patrick Gladish used editing to play twin disaffected hipsters.

Eric Fancher employed a very subtle split screen and headsets to play against himself in what appears to be a single take. Check them out.

Performed by Lynna Metrisin
Videography by Jim Metrisin

Performed by Patrick Gladish

Performed by Eric Fancher

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Savory Taṇhā in Performance (Saturday)

Cardinal Hotel, Winston-Salem
Room #207
Three performances of Savory Taṇhā, three very different performances. Or were they? All five performers brought their own unique interpretation to each character.

It was challenging deciding who would play which role on which night. I didn’t want anyone to have too many performances in a single evening, or too few. I also didn’t want any actor to be in any more than three scenes in a row. And that was more challenging than I thought.

Having made that work, the evening’s each had a different dynamic, depending on who played what. An audience member felt Thursday's show had a large number of empowered women characters, and on Thursday there were.

My wife noticed that Hillary and Zyrece were the center of several romantic entanglements on Friday, whereas tonight Brian and Zach were engaged in a few scenes with sexual overtones.

The legendary Harvey Pekar said, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” Folks in the post-show tonight were fond of those dramatic moments that come out of everyday experience, and how we captured those. More than one person has asked if any of these characters were meant to carry from one scene to the next, but if they did that was the actor’s work, and not mine.

The pitfalls of online performance have been bemoaned at length by others (and myself) so I was particularly gratified for the comments our production received in that regard. That folks were able to suspend their disbelief and we drawn into the possibility that our actors shared the same space. During our rehearsals we worked on creating similar backgrounds and lighting as best we could, and it paid off.

Finally, I remember a comment from Thursday night. One was pleased with the variety of ages, the span of generations represented. And that was intentional. Because the origin of these stories are very personal. Ten months of constant writing, digging up these deep parts of me, the thoughts that trouble me, and those that give me peace, represented in a spectrum of moments, moment which for three nights were played out in real time for a life audience.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Savory Taṇhā in Performance (Friday)

Brian & Zach
During tonight’s performance I said “shit” under my breath over a live mic. Errors were made.

And yet, another great crowd, and another great performance.

Yes, people are tired of Zoom. DID YOU KNOW ..? Zoom stock was mired around $68/share at the beginning of 2020? It is currently at $275. But as one audience member said tonight, they are “all zoomed out.”

This audience member also said tonight’s performance “filled my cup with creativity,” which was delightful praise. Another added, “I felt closer to live theater than I have in months.”

There was a great deal of commentary about the camera work, our actors looking directly into the camera, closing the distance between audience and performer. My friend Luke said the eye contact made him feel like he was actually looking through the eyes of the person who was being spoken to.

My wife watched tonight, she was also taken by the faces, and the close-up expression in each of the actors’ eyes.

Our final word was on the final monologue, Monument, asking whether it was meant to comment on all that came before; this collector of the memories that have been discarded, or forgotten.

This weekend there is an estate sale at my mother’s home. You might call it a coincidence … but it’s really not.

Cleveland Public Theatre presents "Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble)" featuring Anne McEvoy Zyrece Montgomery,  Zach Palumbo, Brian Pedaci & Hillary Wheelock with one remaining performance on Saturday July 11, 2020 at 8:00 PM.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Savory Taṇhā in Performance (Thursday)

Brian & Zyrece
Yesterday the New York Times published an essay with the unfortunate headline, Digital Theater Isn’t Theater. It’s a Way to Mourn Its Absence by Laura Collins-Hughes. Journalists and columnists don’t usually get to choose their headlines, there are people who specialize in that -- and a good thing, too, try writing one.

Unfortunately, while the mourning may be real, the phrase “digital theater isn’t theater” is a statement I have to take issue with. And why wouldn’t it be? I am currently the writer/director of a piece of live, if digital, theater.

Collins-Hughes accurately describes the thrill of live theater so; “Bodily immersed in an experience, sharing a single space, we emerge at the finish of those performances imprinted with sense memories.” Yes, we do. It’s why some of us chose this path, as opposed that of movies or television. It’s why I have spent the better part of two decades working on behalf of students to bring live performance right into their classrooms, another mission which has been suspended for the duration.

“Immersed.” That word makes me shudder. Remember immersive theater? An entire popular genre rendered suddenly extinct. They may try to open Broadway, but Sleep No More isn’t rousing any time soon.

And yes, we have enjoyed the recorded dramas that has been made available to us, especially the highly-anticipated Hamilton movie. But they really are just movies, aren’t they?

Hillary & Zach
“Even the Hamilton movie,” Collins-Hughes remarks, “a thrilling and democratizing testament to the power of stage performance, can’t capture the soul of theater, because that soul lives in the room.”

We saw it, we may even have watched it at the same time as LMM and the entire company the evening it debuted, joining in on a nation-wide Twitter commentary, a virtual lobby in which we could compare notes and share our thoughts and feelings.

But even in spite of this opportunity to commune over a piece of theater, even one as professionally executed as that, it was still only the document of a live performance, and not the thing itself.

Which brings me to Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble), produced by Cleveland Public Theatre to be performed via Zoom, and enjoyed by a live audience of viewers. Not to be archived, not to be seen again. To heighten that sense of immediacy, each night different members of the five person ensemble will be performing different roles from the same sixteen scripts.

We had our first performance tonight, and it went very well. We had a wonderful audience, somewhere between thirty and forty people. They get to see and greet each other before the performance, and also after. It is true, audience mics and cameras are turned off for the performance, so we miss out on any possible laughs or other audience reactions, a necessary sacrifice.

The post-show discussion, however, was very nice, and a warm validation of what I was hoping to accomplish. They commented on the connection between actors, and the great intimacy. In rehearsal I emphasized how, in spite of its many limitations, this medium provides an opportunity for intimacy and closeness that a live performance in front of a hundred audience members cannot, and that we should take advantage of that.

One commented on how though each character has a unique voice, they are still people that you know personally. And that some of them are you.

Finally, it was so great to see colleagues and friends I have made who I have never met in person, but with whom we have shared work, audience members watching from Virginia, Los Angeles and elsewhere, and having the opportunity to share this work with them. Oddly enough, I am currently in North Carolina.

And I challenge you to tell me what we're doing isn’t theater.

Cleveland Public Theatre presents "Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble)" featuring Anne McEvoy Zyrece Montgomery,  Zach Palumbo, Brian Pedaci & Hillary Wheelock with remaining performances Friday, July 10 & Saturday July 11, 2020 at 8:00 PM.

Source: Digital Theater Isn’t Theater. It’s a Way to Mourn Its Absence (The industry’s show-must-go-on smile masks a harder truth: that there is no substitute for the live interaction between performer and audience) by Laura Collins-Hughes, The New York Times (7/8/2020)

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Nickel Boys (book)

Pengo's 2020 Summer Book Club

On Monday, the New York Times published an editorial in which Lucian K. Truscott IV, a journalist and (white) direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson proposed the third president’s memorial in Washington D.C. be demolished and replaced with one to Harriet Tubman.

My first reaction was, oh. But I like that one. My next was, who cares what I think? As Truscott points out, Monticello is monument enough. Even Jefferson himself did not think serving as President warranted mention on his own tombstone, who are we to argue?

Statues are coming down across America, and about time, too. We are supposed to be a nation established on ideals, and not individuals. Laws survive, and serve the people. Writing survives, the history remains. It's the hero worship that is being swept away.

It is at this moment, during a period of pandemic and social upheaval, that I read The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. I’ve read two novels in this one vacation week, both released in 2019. The first grappled with the ripples of American Imperialism, the second with our nation’s as-yet unresolved sins of systemic racism. This one got the Pulitzer.

Inspired by the 2012 discovery of a secret cemetery on the grounds of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, Whitehead has done what he does so amazingly well, created a fictional story grounded solidly in undeniable (and accurate) truth.

It is a breathtaking tale, and by that I mean, I lost my breath. Halfway through the book I cried with something like, but not exactly like relief, and had to set the book down. And then, as with the Eggers book I read on Monday, I was whipsawed near the end and had to stop and regain my senses, to rethink everything that had come before.

“If everyone looked the other way, then everybody was in on it.” So believes the protagonist Elwood Curtis, and it is a belief he tries to hang onto. Taking a stand for justice even in the face of overwhelming and absolute injustice, a young African-American in the early 60s caught the wrong ride and ended up in a reform school where silence and complicity were necessary for survival.

Much like the nation we are living in. Exactly like the nation we are living in, in fact. It’s not for me to defend the hagiography of the Founding Fathers, those who owned human souls and those who didn’t but looked the other way. We have all always known where the bodies are buried, and now they are being revealed.

Summer's not over. What shoud I read next?

I’m a Direct Descendant of Thomas Jefferson. Take Down His Memorial by Lucian K. Truscott IV, The New York Times (7/6/2020)
Florida's Dozier School For Boys: A True Horror Story, National Public Radio, "All Things Considered" (10/15/2012)