Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Marriage of Bette and Boo (1988)

Folks need to stop auditioning with the tuna fish monologue from Christopher Durang’s Laughing Wild (1987). It’s a go-to comedic monologue for people who need a funny and check a list of “ten best comedic monologues for women” or something, I don’t know where they get it. People born in 2001 can’t possibly have ever seen this show. Anyway, the "Child of Prague" monologue is right there and I’ve never seen anyone try that.

When I was a sophomore at the Ohio University’s School of Theater, I played the role of Father Donnally in an undergraduate production of Durang's The Marriage of Bette and Boo. I recently came across my script, upon which I had drawn a faithful self-portrait (see right) as the character Father Donnally.

For the run at the Public Theatre in 1985, the role of Father Donnally was originated by Richard B. Shull who is best-remembered by my generation for performing as the judge in Billy Joel's "Keeping the Faith" music video. The role of Paul was performed by another Ohio University School of Theater grad, J. Bill McCutcheon who played Uncle Wally on Sesame Street fame and also Dropo in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

There was much about this play that I did not understand as a nineteen year-old undergrad. Alcoholism for one, child loss for another. A thinly veiled roman a clef about his own family (the playwright played the protagonist in the original production) Bette is a woman who desperately wants lots of children, but only her first survives. Bette and her husband “Boo” have the Rh factor, which was why my own grandparents’ children all died, in utero or shortly after birth.

Self (Father Donnally) with Katurah Nelson (Bette)
"The Marriage of Bette & Boo"
Ohio University School of Theatre (1988)
We say quite simply that a couple “can’t have children” but what we’re really saying is that they tried, probably several times, with heartbreaking results. After two miscarriages and a stillbirth, my grandparents adopted my father.

Father Donnally is a figure of patriarchal uselessness. He and a doctor are supposed to be played by the same actor, the only character who is not a member of Bette and Boo's family. A different actor played the doctor in this production.  

In the play Bette and Boo, every time another child is expected the doctor arrives with a swaddled bundle, drops it on the floor and announces dispassionately, “It’s dead, the baby’s dead.” In the Forum Theatre at O.U., the doctor dropped the baby from the lighting grid over the stage. On opening night, each announcement got bigger and bigger laughs from the packed house of supportive theater students.

The second weekend of performances was Parents’ Weekend, and that Saturday night there was absolute silence or uncomfortable moans whenever we made a dead baby joke. I asked our director, Dr. Condee, why all our parents didn’t laugh. 

He said quite simply, “Maybe they don’t think stillbirth is funny.”

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Acapulco Gold (book)

Pengo's 2023 Summer Book Club

I have always been in love with marketing. As a kid, I wanted to sell things. I don’t mean I wanted to make money (I’m still no good at that) I wanted to create product for others to acquire from me.

An artist does, too, but an artist is very particular about what they create. I wanted to make and to find an audience for things people wanted. I would design cereal boxes and candy wrappers. I made greeting cards. I wanted to be a graphic designer, I guess. 

I did try taking courses in design, at Ohio University, and at Kent. But I was never very successful. Mom said I should have gotten a job at American Greetings, and she was right.

I embraced my role making posters and other promotional materials for Guerrilla and Dobama. I was happier designing the posters for Bad Epitaph than I was directing the plays.

Long before becoming engrossed in the TV program Mad Men, which is ostensibly about the business of advertising, I had read a book in high school called Acapulco Gold by Edwin Corley. Written in 1972, it’s an in-depth description of one Madison Avenue advertising executive, told with the same kind of hard-drinking, hard-playing bravado of that aforementioned 21st century TV program, though this story focuses on the account of one firm working secretly to get the jump on federal approval for the recreational use of cannabis.

"Mind Your Own Business" poster
Guerrilla Theater Company (1994)
I drew this!
How would a commercial advertising firm promote weed?

The more amusing aspects of this fable set aside (are they amusing? I cannot tell if the casual racism, sexism and homophobia exhibited by the main protagonist is meant to comment on the mores of the time, or the author’s actual sensibilities and does it make any difference) as a teenager I was largely compelled by the occupation itself – how to create a campaign for the product.

Currently, I am writing the adaptation of a book, a different book, a book for children, and it also tells the story of a product (to be sure, an entirely different product) from first idea to development to marketing and national exposure. 

This children's book is tightly focused on the mission to succeed and how, as is often the case, the effect these decisions have on the lives of those around the actors involved can get lost. Capitalism creates many orphans.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Pandemonium 23

Saturday night was my tenth experience at CPT’s Pandemonium. This does not even include the time I sent the actor-teachers to conduct the Where the Wild Things Are residency with a throng of partying adults.

I have written short plays, I have performed in plays written by others. Last year’s experience was good, and I was very happy with not only how James and Sarah performed Here’s To You, Mrs. Robinson but also how well it was received. The next day, however, I developed Covid symptoms and though it didn't time out that I contracted the illness there, it was very likely I shared it, which was upsetting to me. I decided to sit it out this year.

But then Melissa Crum contacted me about participating in a piece she was directing and I said, well, why not? And I am very glad I did.

The Heart in the Wind was conceived by Raymond Bobgan, and while I will refrain from breaking down exactly how it worked (not my tale to tell, and besides, as they say, you had to be there) a team of mechanicals focus on a single party goer, in a private space, and invent a poem specifically for them which is then shared with a larger audience.

Missy asked me to be the person who invited people into the tent, and it was I who interviewed these subjects. I understood why she asked me to play this part, because this is what I do. My experience as an actor-teacher, and in coaching actor-teachers means I have a skill at asking total strangers meaningful questions about themselves.

It was a warm, powerful, and immersive experience. One of our subjects was a self-described mother and caregiver, who was surrounded by her husband and three big, adult sons and the experience brought joyful tears and embraces.

I had my own personal, immersive experience during dress rehearsal (on the night we were too engaged in our own work to engage any other of the offerings) when I read a children’s story to a mermaid. The experience brought me to tears. I haven’t been so moved since the witches’ house at Sleep No More.

My own work has been largely cerebral, and it has been challenging for me to think outside of crafting scripts for actors to learn and speak – though there is power in that, as evidenced by Step Nine at BorderLight last month. But these opportunities, for audiences of one, they can resonate, they last, like a fondly remembered dream, and I wish I could tap into that power. For that I may need to right collaborator, and I think I know who they might be.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

How To Make Toothpaste

The subject is toothpaste. Our son went off to college a couple weeks ago, and I had one piece of fatherly advice, the most important advice I thought I had to give.

No, it’s not that. We talked about that years ago, which is more than my father ever did. But I digress.

I implored him to brush his teeth. At least twice a day, when you get up and before you go to sleep. At least. He said he was good about that, and that he hadn’t ever had any cavities. I told him I thought the same thing when I went off to school, but that after I graduated I had several.

If your teeth hurt, you can’t eat. I mean, you can, but it’s miserable. Keep your teeth clean. Everything else seems to come naturally.

There was a period in which all I used to brush my teeth was baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. I had this dentist who recommended it over store-bought toothpaste.

“What about fluoride?” I asked.

“Fluoride is rat poison,” he told me.

Uh, okay. I mean, it’s true, in large amounts fluoride will kill you, but in small amounts it strengthens the enamel in your teeth. And Americans will always choose bright, white teeth over their general health on any given day.

Anyway, I followed his advice and for a time eschewed store-bought paste for the home mixture, and though I did eventually develop a number of cavities over that period, it may have had as much to do with my less than vigilant use of a solution which tasted like salt and acid.

We brush our teeth to the most disgusting part of our body – the mouth (and by proxy the rest of our systems) – free from harmful bacteria, and to neutralize the acids and sugars which can damage our teeth.

So can you make a more sophisticated toothpaste from items which are readily available in your house? Today, I did just that. There are a lot of recipes available online, and I mashed up a few of those to see what I could accomplish without going to the store.

Fortunately, we happened to have a jar of coconut oil in the larder, because most sites I visited recommended using that. Coconut oil is a natural antibacterial agent and good for preventing cavities. (¼ Cup)

Also, that bicarbonate of soda (see: “bicarb” or “baking soda”) which is alkaline, and therefore neutralizes the acids which can rot your teeth. It’s also mildly abrasive, which helps keep scrape away things that could stain your teeth. Too much, however, can damage your enamel. (2 Tablespoons)

Sea salt is also recommended, as an additional alkaline, though that did make what I eventually came up with quite salty, as you can imagine, though not entirely unpleasant. When you are used to the sweetness of your usual tube of toothpaste, it can taste of disappointment. (1 Teaspoons)

Finally, I added arrowroot. Have you ever used arrowroot? Why do I even have arrowroot in my cupboard? What is arrowroot for? Well, now I know, at least in this case. It is a thickening agent, adding that creamy “paste” factor to my toothpaste, which otherwise might have seemed a bit oily and unpleasant. (1 Teaspoon)

And I tried it, and it was salty and it will be salty and I can deal with that, though I’m not sure I could market it. I just don’t think there would be a demand. You could add an artificial sweetener, though I do try to avoid those as most are inevitably found to be harmful. Instead, I dropped in a bit of vanilla and then almond extract, which provided an “essence” of flavor which I found to be an improvement.

At least one site suggest turmeric, which is also good for your gums and the enamel of your teeth, though I left that out. I may add it to a future batch.

Now I have a pot of homemade toothpaste that didn’t cost a dime, and I’m going to use it, to see how long it lasts before it runs out.

If you have any additional suggestions for a good homemade toothpaste, please leave them in the comments!


Saturday, August 26, 2023

Eight Impressions of a Lunatic (play)

Self with Tracey Field
as Manet and Morisot
"Eight Impressions of a Lunatic"
(Red Hen Theatre, 1998)
Photo: Anthony Gray
Last night, I had an artist date at the Cleveland Art Museum. It’s been on my list of things to do, all summer. Just … go to the art museum. If you are unfamiliar, you should go. It’s free. Just walk in, like always, now and forever. The only thing that’s changed is that apparently they recently added metal detectors. So it goes, ç'est la vie.

A quarter century ago, the year 1998, was heady and dizzying. Among other events, I had been cast to perform the role of French modernist painter Édouard Manet in Eight Impressions of a Lunatic by Sarah Morton. Auditions had been almost an entire year before the planned August production, presented by Red Hen, Cleveland’s Feminist Theatre, providing me ample time to conduct research into a historical character about whom I knew absolutely nothing.

I also stopped shaving and cutting my hair the day another Sarah Morton play I performed, Love In Pieces, closed that March at Cleveland Public Theatre. Five months to cultivate the bushy beard and shaggy mane of the great forerunner of those artists who would be known collectively as the Impressionists.

"Berthe Morisot"
by Édouard Manet
(c. 1869-1873)
Cleveland Museum of Art
Manet himself was not an “impressionist” (he did not like that term) he was that hipster guy who already had a reputation and who the new kids looked up to (my Millennial friends might relate) if the kids were named Renoir, Monet, Degas or Berthe Morisot. Morton’s Eight Impressions is centered on the person of Morisot, a play consisting of eight scenes from her life in which few characters (other than she) appear more than once.

The CMA has a few selections from these artists, works from the last couple decades of the nineteenth century. We have one panel from a triad of Water Lilies paintings by Claude Monet (the other two are in Kansas City and St. Louis) and the museum has kindly provided a bench upon which I have sat many times to immerse myself.

To see the lilies, floating on the surface, and to observe the surface. And beneath the surface, all the way down to the grasses growing on the floor of the pond. Seeing through the water, which is not water at all. Calming and fascinating, all at the same time.

Also on display is one of Manet’s many portraits of Morisot and it was interesting to me the extent to which he would ask her to sit for him. I wondered if he respected her as an artist in her own right, or just his attractive colleague.

In the one scene in which Manet appears in Morton’s play, she has a painting which she plans to submit for exhibition, he visits and hie appraising the work, he thoughtlessly begins to amend the work – to add his own touches to her painting. This is a thing which actually happened.

"Édouard Manet"
by Henri Fantin-Latour
Art Institute of Chicago
It filled me with great pride to play this role, and I thought I looked fantastic. My favorite image of Manet is the portrait by Henri Fantin-Latour, which I had the opportunity to see once at the Chicago Institute of Art. I think I managed to pull off the look very well, thanks also to the costume designer.

The person of Manet resonated with me as I learned more about his life story. He wanted his work to be respected by the tastemakers and those whose opinions matter about such things, but he was following his own artistic path, refusing to conform to the classical dictates of the time. His work Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) was not accepted into the Salon (the wildly important and official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts) and so allowed it to be shown as part of the first Salon des Refusés or “Salon of the Rejected” which was such a boss power move.

In school there was this actor who would take on the mantle of whatever role he was currently engaged in. First it was Dracula and he started wearing capes. The next year it was Sherlock and he got all tweedy. Finally, he played Percy Bysshe Shelley and things really went off the rails for him. 1998 was my Manet year (you can’t hide that beard) the year I tuned thirty, which was also the year I left Dobama’s Night Kitchen and laid down plans to direct Hamlet with an as-yet unnanounced new company. My head was full of ideas and too much time in which to realize them. Which is to say, I was unemployed.

This past Friday night, on my own, I just wandered. I tried to find galleries I hadn’t explored before, I was surprised to find there are places I’ve never seen since the major redesign took place, well over ten years ago. I also learned that the museum restaurant Provenance is once more open for dinner on Wednesdays and Fridays. It hasn’t been since before the shutdown. My wife and I plan to return sometime next week.

I would like to take more artist dates in the forseeable future, solo time in not only familiar but unusual spaces. I will make a list.

Water Lillies (Agapanthus)
Claude Monet
(c. 1915 - 1926)
Cleveland Museum of Art

Sunday, August 20, 2023

The Secret to Superhuman Strength (book)

"The Secret to Superhuman Strength" (2021)
Art & text: Alison Bechdel
Pengo's 2023 Summer Book Club

Reading Alison Bechdel’s third graphic novel, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, I was (of course) reminded of my own attempt to describe my obsession with exercise, the solo performance And Then You Die (How I Ran a Marathon in 26.2 Years).

That was very much my midlife crisis play, parts of it are a bit cringey. But I was trying to search my soul for reasons and understanding, to explain to a lay audience why running is important, even necessary, for my continued existence.

Bechdel’s experience has had a more varied relationship with activities of physical exertion, and describes them with her fascinating attention to detail, in written word and her unique, specific and elegant illustrative style. Not only how to run, bike, ski, hike, to perform karate and yoga, but also the accumulative effect these exercises have on the body, the self, the bank account, as well as interpersonal relationships and family.

"And Then You Die" (2009)
Art: Cat Kenney
By the end of calendar 2022, I was trying to accept the shape I was in, a 190 pound man. I had assembled a fine wardrobe of clothes that looked good fit me comfortably, that did not constrict or pinch; layered looks, a fuller beard. Accepting, but also concealing. Acceptance is good, if you mean it, but I wasn’t happy. 

It wasn’t all vanity, I didn’t feel good. I was uncomfortable, hile driving, sitting. Also, my breathing was not easy, walking up stairs left me winded. Sleeping I could feel my heartbeat throughout my body, sometimes hard, sometimes trembling. It wasn’t good.

And so I made the decision, starting last March First, to dry out, and to eat with more intention. Less sugar, fewer snacks, no alcohol (for that month, anyhow). More recently I made a commitment – with the encouragement of our eldest – to limit my alcohol intake to one drink a day, if that. I have kept this pledge for several week and it has made a difference.

And I resumed running, which I had nearly given up on. Since then I have taken no fewer than twenty runs each month, March, April, May, June, July, and on track for August. I thought I’d never enjoy running again, and I love it more than ever.

"The Secret to Superhuman Strength" (2021)
Art& text: Alison Bechdel
Bechdel’s own relationship with alcohol is something she shares in the book. Wine is her beverage of choice (full glasses and empty bottles rendered in loving detail) as well as her intimate relationships, and how exercise affects, or even fosters those. This was also a major part of my running play, with the pursuit of monogamy, like my recent alcohol control, arrived at as another commitment necessary for my continued happiness and existence.

The book is braided with narratives of the writers Bechdel was affected by at varying stages of her life’s journey – Kerouac, Coleridge, Fuller – and their relationship to nature and the outdoors – which are necessary partners of hiking, running, skiing, climbing, et al. – and the expression and understanding of the self.

This also comes up in my play, as I ruminate while running, over stories by Forster, Cheever, London.

"And Then You Die" (2009)
Art: Cat Kenney
But running or any exercise is one of the few opportunities we allow ourselves to think. Our bodies are occupied, with movement, so our minds are free to wander, consider, and ideally to make connections we may not allow ourselves to make when we are at rest.

Admittedly, this book, my play, these are documents of privilege. Many cannot afford to or are physically unable to spend time and money (all the money) on these physical pursuits. So I appreciate the kinship I share with this author in the ways her personal journey reflects my own* and I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to pursue them. Running has brought me great joy, and has provided a potential path to enlightenment.

The ex-wife once asked if I run the same path every day, because for the most part, I do. A mile to the park, a mile through the park, a mile home. Her question made me ask myself why I do. I doubted. Surely, I should change it up, for reasons both physical and mental. Don’t I get bored? Am I not progressing?

I have decided that, either metaphorically or literally, taking the same path each day may be a key to my enlightenment, or at least acceptance. In meditation, as in life, beginning again, from the start, is not a failure of achievement nor imagination. It just is. Every day we begin again.

It is not unintentional that the cover of The Secret to Superhuman Strength, as well as the chapter chapter pages, are evocative of ink and wash artwork. Bechdel’s relationship with Buddhism is a central theme of the book. As I set out each morning, I hope to enjoy the run itself, to be running, the action itself, not its end.

Last weekend we delivered our youngest to university, and now our house is once more a home for two. My sister-in-law congratulated me, as though it were me that had accomplished something, by successfully concluding some kind of undertaking.

But now that this stage of my life is past, I’d like to think I was more engaged with the journey than working toward the finish line.

My running blog, Daddy Runs Fast, is a chronicle of every run I have taken since 2006.  

*One thing that’s not entirely accurate about And Then You Die is what the protagonist – me – does for a vocation. I made myself a cartoonist. The remarkable Cat Kenney created all of the artwork used for the show.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

How I Spent My Summer (2023)

Heights High Graduation
We received an invitation to our friends’ annual Labor Day party and it sent me into an existential spiral. I’ve been doing all right so far, but the empty nest thing is real. We drive our son to university this week, and then, well. It will be the two of us, for the most part, from here on out.

Wow. That’s it? Twenty years, really? Okay, uh. Now what? And the idea of attending the Labor Day party, thrown by friends we only know because of our children, without our children. It kind of brought it all home to me.

Parade the Circle
We’ve been summering like hell in an overcompensation for years of sequestering ourselves, with our children, due to quarantine. Let’s get out and do all the shit. What I have failed to do is have people over very much, not since the end-of-year part of the residency program which sucks because the backyard looks awesome.

Angélique Kidjo
The summer kicked off attending commencement for our youngest, at the Wolstein Center, where I had also received my Master Degree two weeks earlier, followed by a flurry of grad parties, one for himself and more for his friends.

My wife and I have attended three Guardians games (so far) this season, with a variety of friends or on our own. I also had the chance to attend the first Parade the Circle that has been celebrated since 2019. The parade was shorter than usual, which was to be expected, I guess.

Go Guardians!
Theater camp was a big hit, I think we got that one mostly right. I was most delighted that we were able to incorporate a writing component into the camp, and I had several acolytes who were happy to join that rather than do craft.

The Tri-C Jazz Fest was another great public event, where not only did our son perform at one of the outdoor bandstands on East 14th Street, but we also saw Angélique Kidjo, Herbie Hancock and Trombone Shorty. Members of the Jazz Academy went nuts for that last show, almost bringing down the balcony of the Connor Palace.

Video: Jazz ensemble "floor3" at Larchmere PorchFest

Drinks at the Grand Pavilion
We also brought the boy to Cincinnati for orientation – this was all before the end of June.

Last summer I became enamored of the Hotel Breakers at Cedar Point. Not that the place is terribly fancy, it’s not. It’s basic and I like that, and also that it’s right there on the beach. I knew nothing about the Breakers growing up, often my folks would take us to the Point only for the twilight, discount hours. 

Young people in Maine.
When my family first visited the hotel last summer, and as my wife was checking us in, I was looking around, walked straight through the lobby and out the other side to find … the lake! The beach! It’s right there! I had no idea!

Location, location, location.

So we took the boy and his boyfriend for an overnight and while the younger pair of us went off to ride rides, we did something I had never had the chance to, namely: watch the shows. You know, all those shows, performed several times a day, every day, by college students and other young performers. And you know what? They were good!

Four votes against Issue 1
The middle of July, time seemed to slow down a little bit. I had pulled a muscle in my ribs on a ride at the park and my days were full of work business, and other theater-related matters. The last week of July we packed up for Maine, the journey I had missed last year due to retinal detachment surgery. This was also my first time back since we distributed mom’s ashes into the sea. The week was not without strong feelings.

We arrived home in time for the BorderLight Fringe Festival, and this past week the boy played his final gig as a student with School of Rock, the Super Seniors Show at the Mercury Music Lounge in Lakewood. Each of the artists got to choose a song for the ensemble to perform, and he chose Soul Coughing’s “Screenwriter’s Blues.” (see video below)

To round out this list, we attended the opening performance of Fun Home last night at Cain Park.* The production is really, really excellent. The boy said it’s the best production of a musical he’s ever seen. A poignant close to a manic summer, don't you think?

"Fun Home"
(Cain Park, 2023)
Photo: Every Angle Photography

*Did I mention we saw Rufus Wainwright at Cain Park in June? We also saw Rufus Wainwright.