Thursday, October 27, 2016

44 Plays For 44 Presidents

Photo: Steve Wagner
The Hall of Presidents

In 1995 my (then) girlfriend and I took a drive across the upper Midwest and we stopped in to the Neofuturarium to see Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, (TML) an attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. They had recently unveiled their Hall of Presidents, which was at that time forty-two large modernist paintings which present not just the man, but the idea of each man who was once President of the United States.

The Hall of Presidents exhibit was originally conceived by Greg Kotis (Urinetown) and Ayun Halliday (No Touch Monkey) with each portrait executed by a different artist in a variety of media. Witnessing the Cleveland Public Theater production of 44 Plays For 44 Presidents, I was reminded of these paintings, and the way in which each of us views the distant past, our personal past, and the very, very recent past.

The Neo-Futurists cleave to the premise if not the fascist politics of the Italian Futurists and the aesthetic of TML can be neatly summed up by F.T. Marinelli’s Futurist Synthetic Theatre manifesto of 1915, to wit; It's stupid to write one hundred pages where one would do. TML consists of extremely brief plays about absolutely anything, making their point quickly and elegantly, and then moving on to the next.

Taking inspiration from their Hall of Presidents, five members of the company, Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloe Johnston and Karen Weinberg, set out to compose one brief play for each of the (at that time) forty-three men who had held that position.

Actually forty-two because we count Cleveland twice. It’s confusing.

Triple-A Plowed Under (1936)
Living Newspaper

I read the original script for 43 Plays For 43 Presidents over ten years ago, and there was an obvious resemblance to TML, very brief plays varying from the absurd to the sublime, only in this case not presented at random, and focused on a common theme.

In performance I felt the production much less like TML, and much more like a Living Newspaper, one of those offered by the Federal Theater Project in the 1930s. These plays, with titles like Power, Injunction Granted and Triple-A Plowed Under, relied heavily on research to present facts to an audience, often with a specific social agenda.

Like 44 Presidents, Living Newspaper plays were also meant to entertain, commenting - sometimes heavily - on the issues presented, and utilizing a wide and creative variety of performance styles, dance, music and technology to make their point.

Cleveland Public Theatre
Remember The Ladies

We brought the kids, age 11 and 13. I knew they would be entertained, but they were also educated and that’s nice, too. My kids do not normally have anything to say about a play immediately after a performance. We'll ask and they just kind of shrug.

We hadn’t even left the theater Monday night when my daughter said quite emphatically, “That was really good.” And I was hoping she’d say that, because there is one particular component of the Cleveland Public Theatre production which is unique among all those that have been produced in the past fourteen years.

In Cleveland all the performers are women.

I have commented recently about so-called “non-traditional” casting. Choosing actors of color for roles historically played by white actors, or even actual persons from history of European descent. It’s not actually new, Shakespeare’s women were played by boys, the Moor of Venice almost certainly by an English actor in blackface. Somehow going the other way has put people of privilege in a tizzy.

Watching a talented ensemble of seven women portray all of the American Presidents what impression did that leave on my teenage daughter? She hasn't expanded on that yet, only that it’s "really good."

1994 - President Clinton
by Jean Chernoff
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

The two acts differ considerably, and much of this is due not only to the writing, and decisions made by this production team, but also the considerable revisions the script has received since it first premiered. The entire play wears its political views proudly on its sleeve, but the events of the nineteenth century are handled with less gravity than those of the twentieth.

For example, in As Karma Sees Fit, William Henry Harrison’s life prior to his inauguration is summed up by his personal responsibility for the wholesale slaughter of native peoples. It is implied that his death thirty-two days after his having been sworn into office is some kind of “indian” curse. We laugh at the irony.

However, in The Not-So-Fair-Deal, Truman describes “the moon, the stars, and the planets” having fallen upon him by FDR’s demise (his words) then drops a symbolic heavenly body onto a war flag of Japan, and there is nothing funny about it. Which president was responsible for more death? Why is one darkly amusing and the other simply awful? Will time + tragedy ever = comedy in this case?

In fact, it is around FDR’s play that the production, as written and performed, veers into the hagiographic. The original version of FDR (simply titled FDR parts 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5) are much more poetic. The fourth part imagines a twelve-year old who had never known another President, and they ask, “what if the sun never shifted … and you could always find it just where you left it.” But then they ask;
When night fell
Would you know it was night?
Or would you think
The sun is gone?
The Honorable George Herbert Walker Bush, III
by Gregg Reynolds
In its present version (Character Above All) it is a candlelit vigil, and a straightforward recitation of his many actions, virtuous and those much less so. This is all well and good but the second half of the twentieth century goes on like that, the guilty condemned, the virtuous exalted. It does not always follow party lines.

George H.W. Bush has received the most significant reconsideration in the past fourteen years. In 2002 he was a moderate whose universally praised war victory couldn’t save him from the criticism he received domestically. In this version, The Bargain: Prelude To The Great Divide, he is pilloried as a decent man who sold his soul to the devil (personified in the character of Lee Atwater) to achieve high office and is here accused of single-handedly ushering in the modern era of conservative dog whistles, fear-mongering and race-baiting.

Surprisingly the most recent play that did not receive reconsideration was that for Bill Clinton. He was the sitting President when the Hall of Presidents was created, and received a fine, attractive portrait, suitable perhaps for the White House itself, and in that way much unlike the others.

Consider, for example, his predecessor, whose own portrait is actually a large poster of Saddam Hussein, with a small, George H.W. Bush action figure in box sitting in his lap.

By 2002, however, the writers of this play were able to consider Clinton's entire administration, and found him wanting. In How The Left Was Lost, Bill Clinton is manipulatively charming and all too willing to sell out progressive ideals.

What's In The Box

The evening concludes appropriately enough with an election. The audience gets to choose which play they would like to see last, either the one for him or the one for her. The company makes it clear they do not judge; we were asked to select by a show of applause which play we want to see, not who we actually want for president.

Word has it they have, in fact, performed the Trump play twice already, but the evening we were there the vote was clear, we were with Hillary. And really, after watching a company of women lay bare the magnificent excesses of all our previous, exclusively male heads of state, it only seemed appropriate.

The rap, What's In The Box, describes the frustration you might imagine a woman might feel when everyone knows everything about them, and makes up even stories about them, and yet everyone says this is the most secretive and deceitful woman who ever lived.

The company received this script during the rehearsal period, before the debates began, before grab her by the pussy and such a nasty woman. 

My thirteen year-old girl has watched and listened while the first female candidate for President of a major political party has calmly endured the most hateful and anti-woman rhetoric. My daughter is paying attention.

She has also bought an HRC T-shirt with her own money.

In early September, Hillary's "box" of secrets may have been interpreted only tangentially by its sexual connotation. In late October, it is a metaphor for all of the private and public violations women have to endure every single day, and not only from the dumpster fire at the top of Republican ticket.

Closing argument; You get my public image bitches, but this is mine.

44 Plays For 44 Presidents continues at Cleveland Public Theatre through Saturday, October 29, 2016.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Sparrow (book)

Driving to work I saw a woman at the bus stop wearing a sweatshirt reading, “Bad Choices Make Good Stories.” Mary Doria Russell’s acclaimed novel, The Sparrow (1996) tells the story of a man with the best of intentions who paves his own road to hell.


When radio signals are found to be emanating from the Alpha Centauri system, the Society of Jesuits send a team to explore this “new world.” As always happens when civilizations meet, mistakes are made.

Our protagonist is Emilio Sandoz, a priest and the expedition linguist. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Sandoz had a rough upbringing and through the intervention of the Church was one of the few in his family to escape a cycle of destitution and crime.

When the expedition reaches the source of the transmissions, the planet Rakhat, the once skeptical Sandoz comes to believe that God has indeed chosen him to first meet the natives of this planet and to unite His children.

Tragic misunderstandings follow and Sandoz eventually returns to earth; tortured, maimed, near death and in despair. He is torn between the belief that either there is no God, or that God exists and and that He is (as Jeb Bartlet would put it) a feckless thug.


The Sparrow was Russell’s first novel. The year 1992 was the quadricentennial of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. An anthropologist, she was unconvinced by all those who speculated that if the early settlers from Europe had only not been so ignorant, the Western experiment may have gone much less tragically -- that is was a mistake we would never make again.

The book was summer reading for me in 2001. My wife and I were taking a vacation in Britain. The trip was last-minute, we hadn’t intended to travel anywhere that summer. We intended to have a newborn child. Deus vult.

That fall I saw Russell speak at Wooster College. She said one of her inspirations was the tale of one who lost his wife in a traffic accident. He’d fallen asleep at the wheel and the passenger side of his car was sheared off by a truck. His wife was killed, he was barely touched.

It was entirely the man’s fault, you see. His wife had asked perhaps twenty minutes before the accident if he was tired, and suggested they stop, but he wanted to press on. After the tragedy he said he was grateful to be an atheist because while he could comprehend the senselessness and grief of this horrifying loss, he couldn’t imagine believing in a God who would have any reason for this to have happened.

At that time I was still reeling from our stillbirth, and I took comfort myself in that thought. Many had told us that God loved our son so much He needed him in heaven. Its is a sentiment I still find heartless and repellent.


John Carroll University
A twentieth anniversary edition of The Sparrow was released this year. The story moves back and forth between two timelines; the events as they occur and also as they are recounted decades later. Though we receive some biographic background on Sandoz, the action truly begins as he and another character meet for the first time in a coffee shop near the campus of John Carroll University in 2016.

Russell's tale begins twenty years into her own future.

She also set this important opening bit in University Heights, which is totally awesome because all great and terrible journeys begin in the Cleveland area. (Ms. Russell lives in Lyndhurst.)

Reading fiction set in the not-too-distant future can be challenging as certain technologies have or have not developed or come to pass. Fortunately this was composed just as the Internet was gaining prominence, an element which must be the most significant detail absent from most twentieth century works of science fiction.

We can’t all be Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game, 1985) or E.M. Forster (The Machine Stops, 1909) to name two authors who predicted the “world wide web” but Russell was keen enough to note that most if not all information and media was soon to be transferred through what is here commonly referred to as "the nets.”

Most prescient are the existence and everyday use of ROM-tablets which you and I today would actually refer to as simply a tablet.


The book has been optioned for a film on two previous occasions. Universal wanted Antonio Banderas to play Emilio Sandoz, and though I personally would have found him a bit too Hollywood handsome for a character I see as a slightly diminutive scrapper (he is described many times as being less than average height) theirs was a much better choice than the man Warners Brothers tapped -- Brad Pitt.

Pitt was looking for good projects for his new production company, and while I admire his work in practically everything I’ve ever seen him in, simply put he’s not a Latino. Ten years ago, and basically since the film industry began, this wasn’t an issue. Today it is, and thankfully so. People of color and their allies have made great inroads, pressuring film corporations who adapt novels and comic books to cast popular characters with actors who represent their ethnic heritage.

Just this week Disney announced they are scrapping a treatment of their live-action adaptation of Mulan which was told from the point of view of a white European sailor. Word is they are now looking specifically for an Asian director.

Russell’s description of Sandoz’s difficult childhood in La Perla is rich and significant, and deeply important to his character. The decisions he made, not the largest of boys or men, that he survived his childhood and stayed out of prison with his remarkable intellect and toughness. That this man joined the priesthood and his ability with languages took him around the world, and then across space. She created a proud Puerto Rican to be the hero of her story. Not Brad Pitt.


Javier Muñoz
Reading the book again in 2016, I had a very clear picture of Emilio Sandoz, of what he looks like. I cannot remember who I pictured fifteen years ago, but now I couldn’t think of anyone else. It was Javier Muñoz, who we had seen play the title role in Hamilton on Broadway last August.

Once the designated alternate for Lin-Manuel Miranda, Muñoz is now the star of the biggest show on Broadway. He has been praised for bringing a “cutting carnal edge” to the role and has gained the nickname Sexy Hamilton.

His comfortable sexuality combined with a fierce determination now drives the show in a way Miranda did not. Don’t get me wrong, Miranda’s ambition in the role is undeniable, but so is his inherent childlike sweetness which is even more apparent now that he has cut his hair after leaving the role. Did you see SNL last week? The guy looks like he’s 25 again. Sigh.

The defined line of his cheek gives Muñoz the look of hungry yearning and he has a wide smile that is both inviting and challenging. Sandoz has a habit of putting his hands to his head and pulling his fingers back through his hair, and Muñoz has that hair. In my imagination, Javier Muñoz became the face of Emilio Sandoz.

He and Miranda worked together on In The Heights, and Muñoz first took over the lead role in that show on Broadway from Miranda as well. It is my fantasy that Miranda would secure the rights for The Sparrow to adapt into a musical, but that he create the lead specifically from Muñoz to play.

Currently, however, the rights are held by AMC which may or may not eventually produce a series.


I remember the night I finished the book, lying in bed at my brother’s home in Battersea. I lie awake for maybe an hour in the dark, staring up into the starless sky through wide open window at the head of our bed, contemplating Sandoz’s loss, his feelings of abandonment, the destruction of his hope and his complete and utter sadness. I did not revel in the feeling, but it did provide a certain perspective. As the story draws to a conclusion we do believe there is the possibility of hope. There must always be hope.

The title comes from the New Testament, Matthew 10:29. The King James Version reminds us, "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father."

The Annunciation Triptych, Rogier van der Weyden (1434)
Hamlet also refers to this passage in Act V, scene 2, when he warns Horatio against acting to alter fate. "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow," he says. His audience would have known the verse.

Some say the same man composed both lines, but well.

The message is, nothing happens without God being aware of it. Without His knowledge. Without His knowledge and His implied consent.

To wit; “That baby was never meant to live.”

In I Hate This I recount a moment my brother and I had before "The Annunciation Triptych" at The Cloisters (in the Heights!) The vision of the Holy Ghost, tiny and white like a fetal baby Jesus, sailing down towards the unknowing Mary, the baby clutching a cross, heading into the womb “equipped with the means of his own death.” In this image I understood the verse in its Biblical context, with Jesus as the sparrow, in this painting falling to earth.

Why did Jesus need to die? Why does anyone?

Deus vult. God wills it.

In Hamilton Javier Munoz Puts A Different Spin On The Title Role, Ben Brantley, The New York Times 11/30/2015
'Mulan' Mania: Disney, Sony Hunt for Asian Directors to Helm Rival Action Pics, Rebecca Ford, The Hollywood Reporter, 10/12/2016

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Last Five Years (musical)

Photo: Kathy Sandham
“No one will understand.”

My friend Tim is a member of a quartet featuring strings and piano performing the music for the Lakeland Civic Theatre production of The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown, and last Saturday I attended a performance. So glad I did.

The piece is a very popular one to produce and one of the most basic reasons is because it is a brief show, only 80 minutes, and has a small cast, only two people.

Tim and his fellow musicians were situated onstage, directly upstage, in full view, only partially obscured by large memory boxes. I had brought my son to see the show, specifically to watch Tim, who plays the bass, as the boy has recently picked up the bass. He was delighted to be able to watch Tim play during the entire performance, and so was I.

The show describes the five-year relationship between one man and one woman in the their twenties. What makes the show unique is that her songs describes the relationship in reverse chronological order, while his move forward in time. Their only duet is their Central Park wedding in the middle of the show.

Several years ago one of my colleagues gave me a copy of the original cast recording, they were sure I would entirely love it. This was after my workshop production of Centennial, which also runs in reverse chronological order. Or perhaps it was because they know I am a melancholy romantic. The sense of emotional doom that pervades this piece begins with the very first song, "I’m Still Hurting" where she discovers the note the man has written announcing he has gone, and I have to admit I really responded to that on Saturday night.

However, I had never actually listened to any of the score until I got obsessed with Hamilton and began researching all the many references Miranda makes to other songs throughout the work. The L.L. Cool J inspired slow jam of adultery in Act II, "Say No To This," quotes the penultimate song of The Last Five Years, "Nobody Needs To Know." Desperate to hear that, I was happy to discover the song was already on my iTunes.

Taking place the morning after the man first (presumably) cheats on his wife, this song is a devastatingly honest and accurate expression of guilt, shame, recrimination and self-justification.

To wit; Our relationship is falling apart … that is why I slept with someone else. My wife won’t let me exist as an individual … that is why I slept with someone else. I have very big feelings … that is why I slept with someone else.

This is familiar terrain. My own early-to-mid twenties are defined by a five-year relationship, and there was plenty of guilt, shame, recrimination and self-justification. And sadness. Listening "Nobody Needs To Know" for the first time last winter I felt great empathy for the character.

Unfortunately, witnessing the production as a whole, I was left with the impression that the rest of the work was an attempt to live up to or justify that one song. I would go so far as to suggest that Brown wrote that one song to justify his infidelity, and then an entire play to further justify his justification.

Brown has claimed that The Last Five Years is not autobiographical. After all, his male protagonist, named Jamie, is not a playwright. He is an author. An author whose very first novel becomes an acclaimed, national bestseller at the age of 25 in much the same way Brown won the Tony Award for Best Score for his musical Parade when he was 25.

Jamie’s female opposite, Kathy is an actor. Brown’s ex-wife is an actor. So there are similarities. But who cares, really? The best playwrights in America, in human history, have incorporated elements of their personal life into their creative work.

Having said that, I was stunned to learn that part of their divorce agreement states that he is not permitted to incorporate elements of their relationship into his creative work.

What, I mean what? Boy howdy, I want her legal team. Either she had some major dirt on him or he was desperate to get out of that relationship because what writer could possibly agree to that?

In any event, what was the very first thing he produced next? The Last Five Years. When the production debuted in a workshop production Brown’s ex-wife filed suit, the result of which was in changing only one song. Instead of pining specifically for any girl who is Irish (his ex-wife is Irish) Jamie now expresses a general interest in any girl who is not Jewish.

The ironic punchline of the song "Nobody Needs To Know" is that the plea inherent in the title is blatantly violated by its very existence. This most intimate moment, these most private thoughts ... had the sweat even cooled before his mind turned from shame, fear and guilt, to that pathological, artistic desire that absolutely everybody needs to know?

It is an impulse with which I am very familiar. Indeed, perhaps this is why I find the song so affecting, the lyrics are so specific, so particular, the reflection of a real relationship, honest feelings, and it is that honesty which is universal.
"Put on my armor, I'm off to Ohio
Back into battle till I don't know when."
I could have written that, exactly that, he could have said Nevada, it would have been the same. A desperate weekend in New York, twenty-two years ago, joy, helplessness and sorrow doled in equal amounts. When autumn falls, every year, that hook in my heart. Those moments which stand out most vividly against the backdrop of constantly accumulated days, which you return to without thinking and rest there a moment, savoring the pain if only to remind you why you are grateful that today things are merely wonderfully okay.

The rest of the The Last Five Years lacks that punch, however, as though the playwright who felt the need to tell the the story of this relationship so soon after it reached its conclusion really was afraid to write anything too specific about anything else so he could have deniability. Most of the songs include the kind of generic lament you are accustomed to hearing from actors and writers. They could be about anybody, and so they feel like they are about nobody.

What is the balance, then, between impersonal and way, way too personal?

No, really. Someone tell me. Because I haven't figured that out yet.

The Last Five Years continues at Lakeland Civic Theatre through October 2, 2016.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

On Exclusivity

Source: Laff In The Dark

Two summers ago my daughter was terrified of the Big Wheel at Cedar Point. The sun was setting and we were making our way out of the park, and wouldn’t it be nice to get a relaxing view from 136’ above the park after dark?

She hated it.

It scared her the way a human should be scared when perched in a gently rocking open canopy, 136’ in the air.

In the time since that first visit to Cedar Point two years ago she has returned to that park several times and has developed a great love of roller coasters. Earlier this month we visited Coney Island and we rode the Cyclone -- which is awesome -- but still I was surprised when she not only expressed interest in taking the Wonder Wheel (which is not only 150’ high, but also features cars which periodically lurch and swing on a track) but that she actually thought it was fun!

Wonder Wheel is right next to a classic “dark ride” called Spook-a-Rama and when she saw that she asked if I wouldn’t ride with her, and I said sure. Why not?

She hated it.

Legend has it the original Spook-a-Rama was a much longer ride, but it currently clocks at about a ninety seconds. It’s one of those deals where you sit in an open car for two that travels on a single track through a darkened room that takes you past creepy animatronic displays of ghouls and witches and monsters that hydraulically lunge and shake and also gibber and scream and moan.

There are no physical interactions, no real people in costume or actors to introduce variety, nothing comes into contact with you. Each ride is mechanically exactly the same.

I was trying to get into it, to laugh and gasp and shout a bit but she was entirely quiet. After, she said she had her eyes shut the entire time, though in the weeks since she admits she was squinting, watching a little.

I'm reminded of the first time we went on the Corkscrew together, her first inverted roller coaster. She didn't know what to expect. She hated it. She has since been on it a bazillion times.

Sleep No More

Recently I checked the Yelp reviews for Sleep No More. Originally announced as a two-month run, I attended after it has been playing for two years and they have since celebrated their fifth anniversary in the Meatpacking District.

People still rave, but I was drawn to the one-star reviews. You know what they say haters gonna do, and they gonna do it on Yelp, but I did find one significant, often repeated complaint among them.

Sure, folks whine because they got separated from their date, others because of the masks. Did they do any research, did they have the slightest clue of what they were getting into? Were they even surprised there would be naked people?

No, the thing that struck me were the comments from those repeat attendants who were disgusted by the sheer number of participants and by their behavior.
“Too many audience members. Looks like they increased the audience number limit.”
- Roslynn

“SO CROWDED! I really am sad that they let so many people in. It takes away from the beautiful show when people are pushing and shoving.”
- Leslie

“... did i mention about being pushed by rude and manner-less tourists ?”
- Alex
My attractive companions at "Sleep No More" (2013)
Alex is from Huntington Beach, so he should know from tourists. But, anyway, you get the point. Can’t imagine the overhead on a production like this, but even three years ago they were engaged in the hard sell, hawking the program and pushing cocktails you never have the time to consume.

We attended on a Friday night, but I wouldn’t call it “crowded” at least not in any way that was remarkable. Maybe the bar, but not the show. However, there have been so many write-ups, many describing where and when to be in just the right place to see all the “good stuff” I can imagine there would be quite a bottleneck in certain rooms and stairwells.

But what if this were your first time? Your first time experiencing everything, all of it. As though this thing had never happened before and would never happen again. But we are sentient beings and we know this is not the case, and can be extremely aware that this is a performance which has been created and rehearsed and performed numerous times.

Then again, it is a live performance, and that is what makes every performance unique, that it is live, that these performers will be performing 1) this one time 2) this one way 3) just for you.

Is the event more or less special if there are only twenty-five people in the room, as opposed to one hundred. Does it feel different? Do you feel different?

I had a one-to-one performance that evening, when I was brought into the witch’s hut. My friends did not. The experience is burned into my memory, I remember that moment with greater clarity than anything else that happened that night. I know exactly who the performer was, too, I looked her up, I know her name even if she does not know mine. Doesn’t matter. We had a moment.

Ha ha, I’m just playing with you, of course we didn’t. She and numerous others in that role have performed the same combination almost the exact same way, night after night, for five years. It’s documented, others have described the exact same actions and words. It was a private performance, but not unique.

Love In Pieces (2014)
Actually, she didn’t even ask if I wanted sugar. But maybe she already knew.

But to my friends with whom I attended the performance, to those who watched as I was taking by the hand (by the hand) and ushered into that intimate space, I had been chosen, chosen receive an experience to which they had been denied.

When we produced Love In Pieces in 2014 our guest list was limited to those who would fit into any of the rooms, settling on between sixteen and twenty attendants an evening, for three performances. They were chosen, too.


What does the Spook-a-Rama and Sleep No More have to do with each other, apart from the fact that they are only fifteen miles from each other? Well, some have referred to Sleep No More as a “haunted house” and not a theatrical event. You wander around for a scare or a thrill, but there’s no story there, nothing to be gleaned.

But that’s not true, or at any rate, does not being meaningful disqualify a play from actually being a play? When I attend the theater, I desire for a unique, emotionally affecting experience, whether I am sitting in row with an audience, witnessing in stillness, or wandering the halls of a fabricated, period hotel, seeking out the performance on foot.

Then there’s the sense of exclusivity, and by that I mean those limits imposed upon the experience for an exclusive audience. My daughter and I as the only two in our barrel car, the animatronic horror show presented at that moment solely for the two of us. Being led into the witch’s hut to be an audience of one.

Or even the entirely absurd sense of exclusivity felt by those of us who have seen Hamilton on Broadway. How did you get tickets! Well, I guess we paid a lot of money for them? But you can’t get them! Well, uhm, you really can? You are so lucky! And you begin to feel you are lucky. After all, you are a member of an exclusive club consisting of over thirteen hundred people a night, every night, eight times a week, every week, since July, 2015.

Source: The Great Fredini's Cabinet of Curiosities

The wife and I discovered a mutual admiration for roadside attractions and honky-tonk during our first road trip in 1995. Truth is, my family never went in for that. My older siblings never even wanted to go to Disney -- openly disdained it, actually -- so my parents assumed I didn’t want to either.

In the past twenty or so years the wife and I have slept in a cement tipi, seen the “world’s largest” carousel, we have saw the mummies.

I miss the dark rides of Cedar Point, the disturbing Fun House, the racist Earthquake, the mostly harmless Pirate Ride. Unlike the girl, I wasn’t into roller coasters until I was in high school, and so taking rides through bizarre landscapes was my personal jam.

Four years ago this October, Spook-a-Rama was submerged in six feet of water during Hurricane Sandy. Built in 1955, it had already been through many renovations over more than half century, and persevered as those attractions which we never built to last generally do, limping along and continuing to make a buck. But this "super storm" left the ride virtually unsalvageable. Little of the original mechanics were still functional.

Yet, the owners decided to rebuild and have created a functioning dark ride where it would no doubt have been much easier to raze the whole thing and install another traditional ride, arcade, snack bar or souvenir shack.

Maybe the girl hated it, or maybe she was acting cool because it was spooky and she needed time to deal. Maybe she will always remember the time she asked her dad to go on the Spook-a-Rama at Coney Island the day before the night she got to see Hamilton.

Maybe some once-in-a-lifetime, emotionally affecting events are more important than others.

Yelp: Sleep No More
Laff In The Dark
The Great Fredini's Cabinet of Curiosities

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

How I Spent My Summer (2016)

The Cleveland Summer 2016™. This year the wife decided not to over-program the kids. For years it was necessary to book the kids into as many camps as possible.

When I was a boy my mother’s work was the home, and so she was there and so was I and with the exception of a trip to Maine and maybe a couple weeks at day camp, I was mostly left to my own devices, watching TV or playing behind the railroad tracks in the city dump.

We each used to work year round, so our small children had to go somewhere. Sport Camp, Art Camp, Science Camp, Zoo Camp (they hated that one) or even our Theater Camp, Camp Theater!

Now that the wife is a high school teacher, and acclimated to her position, she declared that there would be few if any camps, spontaneity would be the call of the season, and that she planned to “bite the ass of this summer.” (That’s a reference to the movie Big Night, which by the way was released twenty years ago. Twenty years. Jesus.)

And bite the ass of summer we did, with plenty of swimming at the pool and sleeping in. No, I did not get to North Carolina as they did, but it was a fair trade. I went to Valdez, Alaska for the Last Frontier Theater Conference. Not so much like summer camp, more like a very full week at school. After it was all through I made an absurd number of “friend requests” in a single day. For every one I thought, I didn’t talk to you enough. I am glad to at least stay in touch in this way.

While I was away, I watched the Cavs return from a 3-1 deficit, or rather I received real time messages from the wife on their progress during the day and caught bits of it at the Best Western as it was rebroadcast in the Alaska Time Zone.

If it hadn’t gone to Game Seven (go ahead, watch that last minute again) I would not have been able to watch “The Final” with my family in Cleveland. And I cried. God help me, I wept over a sporting event. Not for me, not really, because I’d never been that invested in winning a game or a championship. But I was overwhelmed with happiness for all those who I call my neighbors across the region who feel pathetic or depressed because we have lost so much, so many times, and take it personally, that we as a city have internalized and even accepted this sense that disappointment is just what happens to us.

I was happy for them, for all of them. I am sorry Dad missed it.

The wife and I went downtown that Wednesday for the parade, not without a little trepidation but now we can say we were there, two among a reported 1.3 million. Can’t say I expect to experience anything like that again.

While they were in Topsail Beach, I labored every day to stain the deck and in the evenings rehearsed Twelfth Night (As Told By Malvolio). Trucking our mini-tour from east side to west, the set (one school desk) all packed up in my tiny car in celebration of a very old booking sitting in the main public library downtown. We were just concluding our final performance right there in that library, in the center of town, as the maelstrom that was the Republican National Convention and a whole lot of kooks moved into our city.

In spite of weeks of dread and concern that there would be violence in our streets the likes which have not been seen since Chicago ‘68, the police and activists and media kept it cool. There were an non-traditional number of essays of congratulations in the paper and websites across the nation, thanking Cleveland for being so darn polite, remarkably hip, and a great place to visit.

And as Sunday is to the weekend, August is to the summer, beginning lethargic and slow, excitement peaking early and then just kind of stretching on interminably until it’s time to go to bed.

(Yes, Douglas Adams put it much better, but we have no American equivalent for “tea time.”)

In brief, we left town. Visiting Maine for the first time without father surprised me in many ways, in fact I surprised myself by become overwhelmed by emotion heading out by car before we had even left Cleveland Heights.

Schlepping our bags into Barnstable that first night in, the sun already set followed by a heavy rain, his absence was larger. Everywhere I looked in this most familiar of places, he was not.

But my brother was and his family, and later cousins and more friends and our time was full and active. We returned by way of Lexington, MA and some friends who used to live in the Heights, and then to see Harris and Liz in Westport, CT.

We took a day trip with their family to Coney Island, and the following day just the four us us went into the city, for shopping on Fifth Avenue, a trip to the Met, Pokemon Go everywhere, and to see Hamilton.

Yes. We made it happen. Months ago the wife and I decided to just bite it and get tickets, and for a time when we knew we would be in the area, anyway, with friends to provide housing and no additional transportation costs.

We also knew that by August most of the cast would probably have moved on, and so they have, but the new company members are remarkable and have become new favorites of the girl, who follows them all obsessively on Snapchat.

Some day I am sure I will have more to say about the performance, but I am myself dealing with the disconnect that comes with looking forward to something for an extended period of time, experiencing it … then having it pass. And it shouldn’t be like that, because it’s a play and the play continues and the album remains and who knows, perhaps we will see it in Chicago next year, or Cleveland.

And here I am sounding like one of those lunatics who catch Les Miz every time they have the opportunity, I mean, what is wrong with those people?

That night, a storm struck Cleveland Heights, what they called a microburst, downing numerous large trees and bringing down power lines with them. Fortunately our tree was not affected, though we did need to pitch everything in the fridge … which was an excellent opportunity to clean the fridge. See? Lemonade.

Returning home meant returning to work and to school, and to soccer games and music lessons and normalcy. And here we are.

Going back over my notebook, one which has taken most of the year to fill, one observation I made on the puddle-jumper to Anchorage, reflecting upon my week:
“Just realized I’m from the big city.”

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Time of Marvel

My Great-Grandfather Johnson first brought his family to Flood’s Cove in Friendship, Maine in the early 20th Century, sometime around 1910. My mother vacationed here as a girl. My children are the fifth generation to summer here.

The cabin in which we stay is named Barnstable. It was, once upon a time, an actual barn. Timbers bear gnaw marks from livestock that were housed here more than a century ago. Around 1900 when the land changed hands it was converted from a farm into this summer destination.

Until I was almost seventeen I visited every year with my family. The cabin is still quite rustic, though not nearly as much as it was when I was a child. The plumbing was updated around 1990, prior to that you needed to fill jugs at the spring for drinking water, the shower was also installed about that time. Before that you needed to sponge bath with the help of an electric kettle.

Plus ça change. I take my son in the motorboat to fish for mackerel, so my Grandfather Baker did for me. We sit on the porch and look out at the cover through a trio of birch trees my Grandfather Henrik painted some decades ago, a painting which hangs in my parents home in Lakewood.

Twenty years ago the woman I would marry and start a family with, we made our first journey here together and she just fell in love with the place. Since then we would visit every couple of years, and once the kids were a certain age made it an annual thing. Spending a week or two in Flood’s Cove with members on my side of the family has become their annual tradition, too.

My relationship with this place is a bit complicated, however. In spite of the simplicity, the calm, the quiet, my associations, my memories are tied up a great deal in the interior of my thoughts as a pre-adolescent, and early teenager. I cannot walk these paths or roam these unpainted rooms without being struck by strong reminders of pop culture from the late 70s and early 80s.

A great part of the inner world I created here had to do with the fact that I was often alone. My brothers are older than me, by several years. One stopped visiting entirely when he began high school, beginning in 1978. My eldest brother began visiting with his college-age friends, and I was not invited to be part of their events. Who could blame them.

There were other kids here, to be sure, and we played our games from time to time. But I never felt as though I fit into the special, summer cliques which formed here. I could go into the details, suffice to say I usually found myself creating my own, private play. This included creating artwork out of seashells, or using carbon paper to create a daily newspaper to distribute to each of the cabins.

Summer 1980, I was searching for a new comic book. Two years earlier my brother had gotten me interested in comics, but I only had the change for and interest in one single title, Howard the Duck. This is because even at the age of ten I was already a complete smart ass. However, HTD was discontinued in 1979, and so I needed a new storyline to follow.

That summer I collected every Marvel comic I could get my hands on. I did try reading DC comics, the kids in the Bungalow (an adjacent cabin) had a number of Batman and Superman comics, but those were terrible at that time, everyone knows that.

Funny, even my memory of DC comics is associated with this place, and not from home.

There was a newsstand in Waldoboro that was well-stocked in comics, and in my search for a regular thing I purchased plenty of them, auditioning the Marvel universe.

While several titles piqued my interest, like most kids at that time I became obsessed by X-Men. It helped that Marvel was currently peddling a series of reprints, so I was able to read the title from its origins in 1964.

One single issue, however, one story held me and haunted me and is one I remember to this day. Marvel Two-In-One #69: The Thing Battles the Guardians of the Galaxy was a story about a hero from the 30th Century who returns to our present to persuade his younger self not to become an astronaut and endure the living hell of being trapped in stasis for one thousand years, unable to move but mentally awake. Today a storyline like that one would no doubt be spread out over at least a half dozen issues.

Space Panic
Then there was my quest for video games. My son plays Pokemon Go right here in the cove, I had no such release. Every day-trip to Camden, Rockland or Damariscotta I would seek out those venues which would most likely feature Space Panic, Moon Cresta, or best of all, Crazy Climber.

The next year I turned thirteen. I had met girls. I had a Walkman. For hours I would sit in a hammock at the Birchview (yet another cabin) listening to cassettes. When we would drive I would commandeer the radio. Fortunately my father was totally cool with that, also in his mid-forties, he was at that time the most interested in popular music as he ever would be.

What was popular at that exact moment in time? Jessie’s Girl, Everlasting Love, and Sukiyaki, a cover version of a Japanese love song from 1961 that made my father wistful his time in the service. It was a time of interesting transition for popular music, just then beginning to swing away from introspective Baby Boomer brooding (Games People Play) to teenage Gen X angst and weirdness (Bette Davis Eyes).

I was shocked and surprised to receive a letter - an actual, physical letter - from a girl who I had been flirting with during Bay Days. She was not subtle, she was really looking forward to my returning to Ohio. I can’t remember if I had written her first or if she had gotten the address to this resort pace from my brother. For the first time I desperately wanted to not be here, suddenly going away from home seemed a punishment and not an adventure.

My daughter is the same age this year as I was in 1981 (actually a half-year older) and upon arriving was distressed to realize that she wouldn’t be able to text message her friends from the cove, though she can still Snapchat. I was like, I dunno … like some astronaut trapped in stasis for one thousand years, unable to move but mentally awake.

My daughter has another thing I never had, for many years now she has had a friend here. They are almost the same age, they don’t communicate throughout the year (we have taken to negotiating with the girl’s parents to make sure we are in the cove at the same time) but spend all their time together when they’re in this place.

Nineteen eighty-two is lost to me. I can’t remember anything except feeling entirely alone. This is where my troubles began. My big birthday gift was an Apple II+ so that was cool, but it was also when I began to become peevish about having to visit.

Last year, when my son was ten, he taught the eight year-old staying here how to play a first-person sniper assassination video game. That’s nothing. When I was fourteen I taught a five year-old I was babysitting how to turn a can of bug spray into a flamethrower.

Can you see the bird?
The following year, 1983, was the end of the innocence and wonder. Only fifteen but my mind was older, I had a girlfriend in Cleveland to get back toand a desperate need to watch absolutely anything they broadcast on MTV. Making matters worse, there was an entire team of young adults here that summer, my eldest brother and visitors from Europe (former exchange program “family” members) and others from Bay Village who were just that much older than me to make my life miserable.

True, I was a complete dick that summer. But I was no longer the least bit interested in the bucolic setting, the sea, the trees, the quiet. I wanted music and dancing and fooling around. My solace was in trips to the towns where I could shop for records - records I wouldn’t even be able to play until I got home - and to immerse myself in cabinet video games.

Even then I accompanied my family to Maine for two more summers before graduating high school and breaking with tradition. Returning after a five-year break in 1990, I recall heading out to the great rock which faces Muscongus Bay. Even then I wasn’t ready to take in the landscape as it exists. I was wearing headphones and listening to Michael Penn.

My daughter loves it here. I have always wondered how long that would last, when the pull of home, of teenage interests would overwhelm the simple wonders of this corner of the world. My wife reminds me that she's not me.

The girl may have technological tethers to her life at home, devices which were not available to me, and a friend to look forward to seeing here. But she also finds beautiful places to sit and read, she loves to play the violin out-of-doors, to sit on a rock and sketch.

Tonight, our second-to-last night in the cove for the year, we had an extended social evening her at Barnstable. Wine hour with friends in the cove, a long dinner with family, a dozen sitting around the table, four generations represented (the youngest at ten months, the eldest eighty-one) my wife and I took a walk into the darkness, each step away from the light of the cabin the sky grew starker, the sky turning black, the most visible stars soon subsumed by an array of billions, the Milky Way evident and elegant, streaming across the heavens.

'S wonderful. 'S marvelous.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

How Did I Get Here? (book)

Same as it ever was.
The past several years my time on vacation has been somewhat compromised by writing or business related to writing. Last year I was researching the years just after the Great War and writing The Secret Adversary. The year before that I was constructing The Great Globe Itself, and in 2013 spent an inordinate amount of time online promoting Double Heart for the NY Fringe.

Granted, there are fewer places I would rather be writing than sitting on the porch of Barnstable, doing my thinking while peering through the triple birch tree and into the cove beyond. But tethered as I was to my books, notepads and (ugh) the internet, I strained my own credulity in denying or deferring offers to walk in the woods, swim in the sea or take the motor out to trawl for mackerel.

Each of these writing responsibilities were for my job, commissions for the outreach tour, so even as they fed my creative desires they were constrained by deadlines and the need to follow strict parameters. Don’t get me wrong, strict parameters are to me rich compost, but it goes without saying that when I am writing A, I am not writing B, and the opportunities to stretch and explore are hampered.

Not so this summer, having just come off an additional outreach mini-tour -- Twelfth Night (As Told By Malvolio) -- and all the business surrounding the RNC, the plan was to read what I chose to read and to participate in whatever it is anyone else suggested I do. And I have! We have gone on kayak tours, watched fireworks from a lobster boat in the harbor, taken several brief fishing trips, gone on seal spotting expeditions and hiked up the side of a mountain.

And I have been reading How Did I Get Here? (Making Peace With The Road Not Taken) a memoir by novelist Jesse Browner. Inspired by his own feelings of middle-age remorse, the author decided to write this book upon turning the age of fifty in an effort to explain and justify his own feelings of inadequacy.

Put more specifically, as an author in the middle of his life, Browner is filled with deep regret for not being the person he believes he had the potential to be, a feeling which is familiar to untold creative peoples, including this one. The decisions we have made have added up to the people we have become, and if we are not entirely satisfied with who we are we must have made a mistake somewhere, perhaps many mistakes, decisions which, had they gone differently, would have led to our becoming the best of ourselves.

Last Tuesday was my forty-eighth birthday. I have two years to correct every single mistake I have ever made. Just kidding, that is not the point of this book. It is also not merely to come to terms with settling. It also doesn’t simply encourage happiness for its own sake.

Employing a number of examples of brilliant artists who were utterly miserable (most famously writer Franz Kafka and musician Elliott Smith) the author paints a picture of the life as a whole, illustrating not only how genius or talent or work does not necessarily add up to happiness, but that it is the unavoidable fact of not knowing keeps a human from being able to appreciate what is more than what might have been.

When I examine the facts of my own life (I do that a lot, you know) I can become bogged down by missed opportunities, opportunities which were passed upon because I am lazy or fearful or because I thought I was making the right decision but later regretted, decisions made in my own self interest (which are selfish) or in someone else’s interest (which are never duly appreciated) or for one of several other reasons.

I can also become obsessed and resentful for my upbringing, and for never having been adequately instructed or trained, merely told to stop making noise and get on with it, my act of seeking being treated as pestering until I no longer wished to bother anyone for guidance and assistance.

I think we're all bozos on this bus.
Taken together, the most satisfying conclusion I can make is that though I am not as great as I could be, I am most certainly greater than I should be.
“We want what we already have but fail to recognize it as the thing we want.” - Browner, p. 212
The book’s subtitle is a reference to that road not taken from Frost’s poem, a metaphor which he argues is not, as many believe, a paean to regret. If only I had ... whatever.

However, I long ago I realized (decided?) that my life was neatly cleaved between that which occurred prior to March 19, 2001 and everything had has happened after. The death of our first expected child was something happened to me, not an action I chose. However, it was a cause which had a profound effect, a life-altering effect.

The fifteen years since have been an ongoing, chaotic tumble as to what happens next, but there is no question that this road is utterly other than the one I was headed towards, and what I have chosen to do with it has led me to be much more accepting of life in general.

However, prior to that moment I would have said some other point was the dividing line in my life’s history. Marrying my wife, divorcing my ex-wife, starting Guerrilla, leaving L.A., changing my major, taking Accutane, and on and on and on.

This is my beautiful wife.
But it won’t be tomorrow, and it won’t be the day after that. The man says, “You’re fifty-two [or forty-eight] years-old. Do you think anything could help you change at this point?” (p. 164) but that’s not the point of his book. It is rather to see and accept all that is around you as the world that you made, and to continue to choose to make it work in the way that you do.

When I was approaching the age of forty, I had what I thought was my mid-life crisis, which manifest itself somewhat successfully in my solo performance And Then You Die (How I Ran a Marathon in 26.2 Years). However, it is a work I have often thought of coming back to, and with my recent happiness in revisiting I Hate This perhaps I will soon create the time to do so.

The play is only superficially about running, though there is an awful lot of that. It is as Browner states so directly in his book, my piece is also about choosing to "kill off your obsolete, petrified self-image, and fully embrace the happiness that is your due." (p. 260)