Monday, December 26, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin

Belgian graphic designer Georges Prosper "Hergé" Remi (22 May 1907 – 3 March 1983) created the young, intrepid reporter Tintin (pronounced tan-tan, thank you) and the series of adventures which bear his name.

You know, there was a period during my childhood when my mother thought it would be a good idea to make family vacations out of my father's occasional international working excursions (he was in foreign exchange for Cleveland Trust) which brought me to England, Paris and Norway in the years 1977, 1978 and 1979. This comfy culture shock exposed me to Tintin, Rupert, Asterix and even the Smurfs years before my American contemporaries.

This explains my cosmopolitan world view, bizarre sense of humor, and my general sense of arrogance.

Did you know Inspector Thompson and Inspector Thomson are not brothers, let alone twins?
Tintin adventures stretched from 1929 to the mid-1960s though for me they always had a pre-war vibe. It makes perfect sense that Spielberg would choose to create a movie based out of this material, because the end-product is like Indiana Jones, only with a lot more reasonably acceptable slapstick. The CGI-effected performances make some of the more extreme physical violence a lot more funny and a lot less "Oh my GOD!"

What was most enjoyable for me was that the film plays like a Tintin novel, beginning with Tintin landing in the middle of a mystery, and progressing with great speed to a ship, to the middle of the ocean, to a desert to a non-specific Middle Eastern emirate ... it just goes and goes, no backstory, no Hollywood time wasted explaining who Tintin is, where he came from, even what paper he even works for. Just go-go-go.

And with the exception of an entire absence of tobacco products of any kind, its pretty damn faithful. Guns, whisky, blood ... and only one female character at all, the venerable Madame Castafiore. Tintin is a "boy's own" story, you want more girl characters, adapt something else.

For Christmas I got some of the new editions of Tintin, which are easier to hold but not to read (they are small) but include introductions to key characters which made leaping into what feels like an extended narrative much easier. Just reading half of Red Rackham's Treasure made my six year-old's idea of attending the movie much less fraught.

However, I will want to pick and choose which volumes to acquire or share with the kids, and not just because of the smoking or winking attitude towards Captain Haddock's obsession with drink. A number of them are pretty damn racist. Hergé famously had a world-view alteration from a Tchang Tchong-jen, a Chinese-born companion, which drove him to recreate most of his early work, especially the hideous Tintin in the Congo.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Winter rehearsal period, Thursday

"O happy dagger!"
Romeo and Juliet, V.iii

Maybe ten years ago, we brought Kelly Elliott on board to create new stage combat for our fight scenes. Actor-teachers fight each other as Benvolio and Tybalt, Laertes and Hamlet, Macbeth and Macduff, in classrooms, gynmasiums, school parking lots, and sometimes even on actual stages. Kelly crafted fights which do not take up a lot of space, to allow for these challenging spaces, making the fights thrilling -- but entirely safe -- for students to watch and experience.

Kelly was an actor-teacher herself from 2006-2009, and since that time has returned in the fall and winter to coach and clean up her choreography to new members of the team. While those who love her were thrilled when she was acceted into a grad program in Staunton, Virginia, Lisa and I were also understandably bitter and disappointed that she would not longer be available to us.

Lucky we! She and her husband Josh have returned to Cleveland for the holidays and she contacted us to ask if we needed her! Of course we do! Always! In addition to the aforementioned fights, women learn how to stab themselves correctly (Juliet) and men learn how to gut a student (Young Siward.) There is also careful instruction on choking.

At the moment, everyone is slapping each other.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Winter rehearsal period, Wednesday

"I found it in his closet, 'tis his will."
Julius Caesar, III.ii

"What were you doing in his closet?"

Today we read Julius Caesar. Our people indulged in all manner of bizarre "old man" voices. Apparently all of the conspirators were dribbly septuagenarians. In spite of all of the political talk, Caesar is a pretty swift read.

One cannot help make comparisons to events in the 20th and early 21st century, and through the course of the reading the entire team managed to make allusions or engage in brief discussions about the Iraq War, G.W. Bush, F.D.R., Vladimir Putin, the Arab Spring, Ai Weiwei, 9/11, Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, Bill Clinton, Grover Cleveland, John Kennedy, Barack Obama, Joseph McCarthy, Al Gore, Ross Perot, G.H.W. Bush, the Persian Gulf War, Osama bin Laden, Dwight Eisenhower and Martin van Buren.

"Come on my right hand."
Julius Caesar, I.ii

Upon completion of the text, we engaged in a discussion about our beliefs. As we ask of our students, let us not make what we discussed within these walls source for further discussion in the halls, the lunchroom, or after school. We will keep it to ourselves. But I can say I treasure the opportunity to have an open discussion about important personal matters without fear of judgement or rancor.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Winter rehearsal period, Tuesday

"To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus."
Macbeth III.i

Today, we read Macbeth. The dynamic is different. We’ve been reading for a day, and getting a little brazen. Actor-teachers enjoy different voices and exciting interpretation. And get a little goofy. People get on their feet, play out scenes while reading, engage in an impromptu swordfight, and rip their shirt off. Well, Brian did.

Macbeth is a creepy bloodbath, with apparitions, witches and demons, and blood, blood, blood. Reading this text lends a certain zaniness. Yesterday, following the reading, we had a deeply personal discussion about relationships, trust and the power of love. There’s an understand between this team that made it possible to share some very intimate thoughts. But I found expressing the foundation of our emotional desires a much easier conversation than what came today. This is as true in the classroom as it was around our table.

It is sometimes a challenge getting students to take Macbeth serious from a discussion standpoint. More than one actor-teacher has had to have a conversation with a student who will dismiss a hard question because they have no personal experience with murder. Fair enough. But what about ambition, everyone hopes to achieve, how far will they go in pursuit of their goals.

"Well … I wouldn’t kill anybody."

Of course not. I mean, I might, but I get you.

Answer me this … what is the worst thing you have ever done? Take a moment. Think about it. You don’t have to say it out loud. Why did you do it? What did you get out of it? Were you caught or punished? What does right or wrong mean when there is no human constant of right and wrong? I have no problem with eating hamburger.

But meat is murder.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Winter rehearsal period, Monday

"The two five hours traffic of our stage."
Romeo & Juliet, Prologue

Over the winter holidays schools are closed which affords members of the Great Lakes Theater School Residency Program, our actor-teachers, the opportunity to go back into rehearsal and dig deep into new lesson plans or to revisit familiar ones.

In late December, that means we read Shakespeare! All eight actor-teachers (and we, their supervisors) sit around a big table, surrounded by texts — facsimiles of the folios and quartos, lexicons, dictionaries and varies editions of the plays — and read one entire Shakespeare a day! The entire play!

Today, we read Romeo and Juliet from beginning to end, pausing after every scene to make sure everything is clear, that we all understand decisions that were made, and by whom, and that it all makes sense. Often an actor will want to take a little more time to get everyone’s feedback on a certain issue.

For example, Brian really, really wanted to understand why the duel between Mercutio and Tybalt even happened, and we broke it down, step-by-step. The general assumption is that Tybalt wants to kill Romeo, and Mercutio comes to his defense. However, that is not the whole story and it was worth taking the time to make it clear.

We know that Tybalt sent a letter to Lord Montague, challenging Romeo to a duel, presumably because Romeo crashed their party the night before. Tybalt is ignorant of what transpired between Romeo and Juliet at that party, that’s not the issue for him. Romeo never goes home that night, and never receives this challenge. His challenge ignored, Tybalt and his second hunt down Romeo, and encounter Mercutio. Mercutio is in a mood, and commences ridiculing Tybalt. However, when Romeo arrives, Tybalt entirely drops this line of conversation with Mercutio. Mercutio is not worth his time.

Now, there are various rules regarding duels, but it should be understood that the point of a duel is to fight, but not necessarily to kill. And by turning down his challenge, twice (three times, by simply ignoring the invitation) Romeo has lost his “honor,” and Tybalt may well have let it go after that, having proved his point about Romeo being dishonorable. Mercutio steps in, outraged by Romeo’s behavior, and Tybalt accepts that challenge. Tragedy ensues.

Why is it necessary to get all this straight? Because on Day 3 of the Romeo and Juliet lesson plan, which is received by high school freshman all across Northern Ohio, we teach a stage combat workshop and then coach students to read these lines, and perform this pivotal fight. If our actor-teachers do not ask themselves these kinds of questions, we may be stuck when a student asks us the same questions.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

1936 Berlin Olympics Boycott

"The Black Eagles"
The Pittsburgh Courier, July 11, 1936
by Holloway

Jesse Owens: “If there is discrimination against minorities in Germany, then we must withdraw from the Olympics.”

Jeremiah T. Mahony, President of the Amateur Athletic Union: "There is no room for discrimination on grounds of race, color, or creed in the Olympics."

Journalist Heywood Broun: "I think that one of the most useful kinds of protest that can be made against the fascist regime of Hitler lies in our staying away from the Olympic Games in Berlin."

Ernest L. Jahncke, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Navy and IOC Member: "Neither Americans nor the representatives of other countries can take part in the Games in Nazi Germany without at least acquiescing in the contempt of the Nazis for fair play and their sordid exploitation of the Games."

Judge Jeremiah T. Mahony: “The Nazi government wants more than American participation in a sporting contest. It wants to bring the American dollar into the very weakened Nazi treasury. And it wants to picture Htler with Uncle Sam standing behind him and saying ‘We are with you, Adolf!’”

The Philadelphia Tribune: “The AAU shouts against the cruelties of the other nations and the brutalities in foreign climates, but conveniently forgets the things that sit on its own doorstep.”

OSU Track Coach Larry Snyder: “Why should we oppose Germany for doing something we do right here at home?”

United States Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage: “The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race. Certain Jews must understand that they cannot use these games as a weapon in their boycott against the Nazis."

Frederick Rubien, Secretary of the U.S. Olympic Committee: "The Germans are not discriminating against Jews. The Jews were eliminated because they are not good enough athletes."

Coach Larry Snyder: “Jesse Owens is sitting on top of the world today. If he continues to participate in this activity (the boycott) he will be a forgotten man.”

Jesse Owens: “I see no reason to get into a controversy about the Olympics. The games have been awarded to Germany, all preparations have been made, and now some people want to have American withdraw just because some of the German polocies are not approved by them.”

Ernest Jahncke was expelled from the IOC for his comments. He remains the only person ever expelled from the IOC.

Triumph (Jeremy Schaap)
Nazi Games (David Clay Large)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Washington Post

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

This Is The Times!

The improv comedy troupe "The Times" circa 1955.
Clockwise from left: Barney Silver, Danny Michaels, Desmond Brown, Julia Baker.*

In January of this year I presented what was then the one act play Centennial! to the Playwrights' Unit. It is now the first act of a play tentatively called Cleveland Centennial which includes a revised and expanded version of This Is The Times as the second act.

Times began as a potential outreach tour script, one which dealt with the effect of the House Committee on Un-American Activities on ordinary citizens, with an emphasis on those in "show biz." A very early version was presented as a staged reading in late 2008. It included a great deal of verbatim text from HUAC testimony celebrities such as Peter Seeger, Judy Holliday, Paul Robeson and Arthur Miller, but what tied it together was this troupe of Cleveland-area performers.

Dropping the House Committee testimony brought the bare-boned story of The Times down to about forty minutes. Fleshing out that tale has represented my work of late, and tying the two pieces together. Begging the Unit's patience, we read the first act, which they had already heard in a similar version, and the new second act.

It came as a great relief to me that this earlier piece, The Times, was received more or less with satisfaction. GH stated flatly that he felt Times was its own complete play, which did not require the "backstory" of Centennial. That's good, and directs me to concentrate now on Centennial, to make it its own play, worthy of standing alone.

Two stand alone plays, different styles of performance, with a common thread.

I was asked the big questions, the basic questions. What is the question asked at the beginning of Centennial that must be answered? Where is the seed that is planted in the first act that grows to fruition in the second? To put it another way, where is Chekhov's gun and when does it go off? I can answer these questions. Oh yes, I can. And I will finish it before 2012.
"Whatever the idea behind the Living Newspaper in the beginning, circumstance and influence of one kind or another have modified it. A literally rough estimate of it at the moment would be: 'Combine the newspaper and the theatre and to hell with both traditions.' In the beginning we thought we would dramatize current news, it never occurring to us at the moment that the current news at hand was likely to be very weak stuff." - Morris Watson, 1936
TKT pointed out the difference in tone reader LJH took in performing the character of The Voice of the Living Newspaper. She was, as I had requested, like a big, bold, sassy headline with most of her delivery, but then there are places where she interacts with "citizens" and there is much more interesting, with character. LHJ herself suggested that the Voice might take a more active role in showing people (the audience) around, if the point is to showcase Cleveland. I feel at this point this piece is too stagey where it should have more attitude, just as it strives to be too deep where it should be handled with a lighter touch.

Who is the main character? If it is Cleveland itself, who will care? MO said the history stuff was just boring ("I don't care about the shit I can Google.") that he sat through waiting for the stuff that's about people. With the Voice as a real person, history could become character stuff.

I need to revisit the character of Avery Brundage. He's such an ass.

It came as a relief to hear BP point up that the political business does have contemporary resonance. What was surprising to me, before the reading, was how much was biting in 2010 which seems dated only one year later.

There's a lot of work, but it's not the 'drop everything and start again' kind of work. I've got it. I can see it. I will get it there.

*Actually Mark Cipra, Daniel McElhnaney, Darius Stubbs and Elizabeth Wood, in December 2008.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Hobbit (book)

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, CBE (3 January 1892 – 2 September 1973)
"By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead."

Some people like raising babies. My own wife has expressed that she misses the baby-era in our life. And I do, too, but not very much. Because we are in the Daddy Zone now. The children are old enough to "get things" and to make puns and have thoughtful conversations about absolutely everything. And then there are the books.

They are good readers, which makes me happy. And we read to them, every night. Every other book is something comforting and fantastic like Paddington or Mouse and the Motorcycle. But we are also moving into realms of fantasy and danger. During summer trips this year I read everyone the first two Harry Potter books. This fall we tackled The Hobbit (1937). At first they did not wish me to begin. Then they never wanted me to stop.

This was my second time reading The Hobbit. The first was in the late 1970s, I read it when I was a little older than the girl is now. The Rankin Bass animated TV version debuted Thanksgiving weekend during that magical year of 1977. Having only read it once, my impression of the book is much more informed by the cartoon, for better or worse. Orson Bean as Bilbo was very nice, and his voice still rings in my head every time I utter the phrase, "Bless my soul!"

Other voices are better and worse. John Huston as Gandalf? Yes, thank you. Hans Conreid as Thorin? Sorry, his work on Rocky and Bullwinkle made that a hard sell. And Smaug sounded like a thug on autotune, I am seriously looking forward to Benedict Cumberbatch tackling the role. The sounds of this one-hour Rankin Bass version is all the more impressed into my head because my parents got me the LP the same year.

But checking out clips on YouTube, it is remarkably good for a Rankin Bass endeavor, rich in detail, pretty faithful to the source material and with resonant music that stirred something deep inside when I heard it again after so many years.

Adam Gopnik wrote what was ostensibly supposed to be a review in The New Yorker for the final installment in the Eragon series, but since that did not appeal to him he instead wrote about Tolkien and how The Hobbit, while itself yet another chapter in an ancient tradition of British mythology, set the template for virtually every fantasy adventure tale written since.

We have dwarves, trolls, goblins, elves and men (men being the least interesting of them all) and then some kind of small creature who is a stand-in for all of the best qualities of simple, agrarian people. It is this last which marked Tolkien's tale as new and different, as our hopes and dreams lie not with the great king or warrior, but with the meekest of the team. (See: Star Wars, The Dark Crystal, Twilight ... and so on and on.)

Much has been written about The Lord of the Rings being inspired by the figure of Hitler and World War Two, which Tolkien flatly denied. And I believe him. Sauron is absolute evil, and as much as you can say about Hitler, he did not invent the idea of absolute evil.

However, reading The Hobbit, the author's own experience in the trench of World War One are undeniable. That is not to say that this book is a metaphor for that conflict. However, Bilbo's sense of helplessness in the run-up to The Battle of Five Armies is palpable, and earnest, and heartbreaking.

His comrades, the dwarves, for reasons beyond greed, insist in maintaining the entirety of the wealth under Lonely Mountain, in spite of the assistance granted them from the Men of Esgaroth. Arriving in arms, accompanied by the wood-elves who had imprisoned the dwarves, Bard makes a tactical error which could have been avoided.

One element I had forgotten about entirely (it wasn't in the TV show, and remember, I read this last when I was nine) is the Arkenstone, which our hero steals, knowing the worth placed upon it by the leader of this small team, Thorin Oakenshield. He betrays the dwarves, turning the stone over to the other army in the hope that it can be used to bring about a peaceful conclusion.

Bilbo Baggins betrays his friend in the name of peace. And as it was in 1914, he fails. The author knows well enough where all this is headed.

As it turns out, the goblin army arrives and men, dwarves and elves team together to fight their collective enemy. Tolkien's description of The Battle of Five Armies is not glorious, it is not majestic. It is horrible, devastating, chaotic, and ends fortunately for our heroes only because it is joined by a sixth army (the Americans -- I mean the Eagles, get it?) which entirely routs the goblins.

The bittersweet ending of this tale is merely a precursor for the next, much longer, and protracted engagement. And by that I do not mean as the events of World War One led to World War Two, rather that the events of World War One have led to absolutely everything that has happened since.

My play script "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" adapted from the novel by Agatha Christie is available at Playscripts, Inc.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bomb City, U.S.A.

Daniel J. Greene
Proud Celtic Warrior

Around the year 1976 there were 21 car bombings in the city of Cleveland.

Say what?

Car bombings. In Cleveland. Twenty-one in within a three-year period, and an additional 16 in the rest of Cuyahoga County. Thank you, Danny Boy.

The year before, Danny Greene (allegedly) settled the score with Shondor Birns. Shondor had put a $25,000 price on Danny's head. On March 29, 1975 after spending some time at a strip club, the 70 year-old mob boss was blown clear through the roof of his Lincoln Continental. His legs landed in a different part of the parking lot from his torso, and even after striking the pavement he was still alive and twitching.

Greene finally bought it on October 7, 1977. He died the way most of us imagine we will, on a visit to the dentist. A Chevy Nova parked next to his car during the appointment exploded. This was in the parking lot of the Brainard Place Medical Center, where today my whole family goes to the dentist.

One of Danny's arms was blown one hundred feet from his car. A witness said his body looked "like a wax dummy."

(Cue the whistle.)

Brainard Place Medical Center


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Styles: Photo Shoot

Spent some time at TRG Reality yesterday to begin work on the promotional image for this year's Great Lakes Theater Outreach Tour, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Previous Great Lakes Theater outreach tour images from TRG Reality:

Seeing Red (2008)

Two By Chekhov (2009)

On the Dark Side of Twilight (2010)

Twice Told Tales of the Decameron (2011)

Todd, Daniel and I batted around ideas a week or so ago. The title, Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles communicates that you can expect some kind of mystery. To give a sense of this play in particular we wanted to emphasize 1) it's a Hercule Poirot mystery and 2) that it takes place a bit earlier than most Christie novels, during World War I.

Thomas and his crew created a well-lit sitting room in their studio. Peg was on hand to create my make-up. Poirot is quite vain, and would not allow for any gray hair, so for the purposes of this shoot she made my hair black, black, black. It was quite freakish in person, especially the eyebrows, but worked extremely well for the purposes of photography. I will have a more naturalistic hair dye for the actual tour.

Most photo shoots I have been participated in for Great Lakes involve engaging my abilities as a contortionist, abilities I do not actually have. Twisting the body for this kind of closely focused picture is much more interesting and dramatic, yet it is not obvious in the final product how difficult it is. At least for me. They asked me yesterday if this was most uncomfortable position they've had me in and I said no, it wasn't. When they asked which image was I immediately answered, Mousetrap.

The Mousetrap (Opens March, 2012)

Frightfully difficult, that one put a kink in my neck for a day or so.

Styles involves a few significant props, including a broken coffee cup and a substance which may or may not be salt. These were included in the shoot. There will be a special digital effect on the cup to remove a piece the size of that puzzle piece I am holding. In addition, the plan is to change the coloring so it is suggestive of an old magazine cover. We found when looking at old magazines that most images were not black and white, but color-tinted.

Thanks to Daniel Hahn for these candid photographs, and to the fantastic people at TRG. We will meet again. (You can find the final image here.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Muppets (2011)

"Who hates their kids enough to see Alvin and the Chipmunks 3 when The Muppets is in theaters?" - Larry Collins
I am a 43 year-old man. Sesame Street debuted when I was one. Mine is the original Muppet generation.

In 1976, Jim Henson finally realized his dream of developing a prime-time television program, The Muppet Show, which lasted for five seasons. The Muppet Movie premiered in 1979 and from that point on you could count on a new Muppet movie every few years. Each were increasingly terrible.

Don't get me wrong, they had their moments. Unfortunately, following the masterful template set by songwriter Paul Williams, the songs for all Muppet movies are better bland and forgettable (with the exception of "Together Again" from Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984.) In addition, as the model from Muppet movies became "let's adapt a familiar story and put Muppets in it" there were more and more human characters eating up valuable Muppet time.

This summer we took the kids to the Palace for Cinema on the Square to see Muppet Treasure Island (1996) which is wretched -- never, never, never take your kids to see Muppet Treasure Island. I refuse to consider ever spending time on A Muppet Christmas Carol.

In spite all of all this, my wife and I are apparently the only two people in the world who loved the 1996 ABC television prime-time reboot Muppets Tonight. Purists were snitty as hell about the new Muppet creations, and everyone else said, oh yeah, Muppets. Whatever.

It was the 90s. You know. Jim Henson had died in 1990, transferring rights to the Muppets to Disney, assuming only the House of Mouse could keep his creation true. In a way, they did. And no one cared anymore.

The largest category of contemporary humor and witticisms is insult humor. Humor reassures the insecure. There are two ways to feel superior. The first is to accomplish exemplary work that achieves public acclaim. The second is to publicly criticize the accomplishment of others. This deflates their prestige and focuses attention on ourselves. - Mel Helitzer, Comedy Writing Secrets
We saw the new movie The Muppets over the holiday weekend. It is as good as they say. In fact, it's better. I can't think of a family film that has continued to roll around in my head the way this has. I keep trying to figure out why it works so well. I laughed out loud, sure, a lot (more than I can say for Muppet Treasure Island) but I did not cry the way some of my friends have claimed they have.

I did feel a sinking sensation as this movie laid out in embarrassing candor how Muppets have kind of vanished from the scene. It's the funny subject for an SNL sketch maybe to depict a sad, forgotten Fozzie Bear whoring himself in a casino, trying to maintain his dignity and failing miserably, and yet this movie goes there and yet it is absolutely perfect.

When was the last time I left a family film wanting to own the soundtrack because I want to get the songs right in my head? Probably when I bought that Peter Gabriel song from Wall-E. And it's not just me, my twenty-something companions are quoting lyrics from these songs daily.

I heard co-writer and star of the film Jason Segel on Terry Gross last week, and he was talking about how he and director James Bobin had to convince the powers-that-be of their sincerity in this endeavor, the key word being sincere. Muppets aren't mean. Muppets don't insult anyone, they want to be friends with everyone. "Live and let live," is the sentiment of the best Muppet endeavors.

We don't have cable. The girl gluts herself on the Disney Channel when she's at her grandparents, she knows she's missing out on what all of her schoolmates are talking about. And while these programs stay away from the kind of subject matter and language on network sit-coms I would rather she not be exposed to, I still find so many of them to pander to what Helitzer defines as our human weakness to feel superior, and that listening to everyone snark at each other leaves me demoralized. The Muppets presents a world where being sweet and goofy can be undervalued. Box office receipts prove that it doesn't have to be.

The kids are asking me to take them to see The Muppets again. They never ask me to go to the theater to see a movie twice.

Well? Am I supposed to take them to see Alvin and the Chipmunks 3 instead?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Kill The Irishman


Kill The Irishman is the kind of film that makes me want to kill Irishmen.

I appreciate that this 2011 movie about legendary Cleveland one-time labor leader and full-time thug Danny Greene takes its liberties with history in the effort to create a gritty, 1970s era gangster flick. However, it paints its subject in such a flattering light that I cannot honestly tell if it is not meant to be satirical.

Let's get this straight ...

Growing up in Collinwood, Greene has the crap knocked out of him a lot by the Italian kids, which entirely justifies his virulent race-hatred for all Italians.

As a longshoreman, Greene was passionate about unfair working conditions. Working in 110 degree heat didn't harm him, because Danny Greene is Irish and stronger than most men, but it killed his Irish warrior pride that he didn't have the clout to stand up to the union bosses who demeaned his fellow workers. (Cue the low Irish whistle, you know, from Titanic, symbolizing 1,000 years of Irish dignity in the face of British tyranny.)

Soon after, Danny bitch slaps the President of the Longshoreman, and takes over. I mean he actually slaps him a couple times, and that it's it. Danny Greene is the president of the local.

At roughly the same time Greene has a few drinks at a local tavern where he is hit on by the sweet, Irish barmaid (played by Italian-American actress Linda Cardellini, which is funny when you think about it) and they have sex in his car. This is not torrid because there have been no mention of women so far in the entire film and so this must be a first time for him. It's okay because he will marry her.

However, before he can orgasm, one of his old friends knocks at the window of the car, with his new girlfriend's head on the dash and feet on the ceiling. Instead of doing what any other human male would do and tell his friend to get the fuck out of here, he pulls up his pants and goes to assist his desperate pal out of a fix with the Cleveland Italian mob.

In a life-altering decision, without which a good boy like Danny Greene would never have entered a life of crime, he gets his pal off the hook by assisting the Mafia with a heist on the docks. This explains why Greene so easily entered into a system of racketeering as a union boss, and by the look of things the only blemish in his presidency. Life was good, he married the only girl he'd ever had sex with, and he was kind and generous to all members of the union. You can tell because the union office used to look like shit, and Danny made it look professional and nice and well-lit.

It is a shame the police arrested him for stealing things all the time. He lost everything and had to move back to Collinwood, where he and his pals were good guys who even drove the disgusting bikers out of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, his current work as an enforcer (i.e., a dope who beats the crap out of people who can't pay back their loan shark) for Alex "Shondor" Burns meant his wife, who you have to admit after several years had gotten kind of shrewish over everything, left him. Poor Danny.

Shondor was a notorious leader in the Cleveland Jewish mob, and they got Christopher Walken to play him which means you know he's going to be eccentric and dangerous. Danny borrows money from him to open a legitimate Irish-themed club, and when the courier gets busted by the Feds, Shondor takes out a contract on Greene. Kill the Irishman. But Danny's not afraid, he has Celtic warrior blood in him. It was war between Danny Greene and Shondor Birns. Cue the mournful Irish whistle. I swear to God, if they had the budget they'd have gotten U2 to compose one of their fecking awful tunes for the closing credits.

Danny Greene was a good man, and he was always right. When he was ordered to whack a guy who was a good friend, he refused choosing instead to blow up his car as a warning. When the guy came at him with a gun, Danny was entirely justified to shoot him. At a time in history when every white man of his age and background supported the Vietnam War, Danny was against it, comparing American Imperalism in Southeast Asia to the British occupation of Ireland (cue the whistle.) When the now-single, porn-'stached, mid-70s Danny starts hitting on an 18 year-old stock girl at the West Side Market we know its true love because he's only been with one other woman, ever, and she left him.

Side note: Vincent D'Onofrio as Danny Greene co-conspirator and Italian mobster John Nardi ("The only dago I can stand." - Danny Greene) has the distinction of actually being more attractive than the historical John Nardi, while still having the face of Vincent D'Onofrio, and making a plate of crappy diner spaghetti look really seriously delicious.

Like other great movies that take place in Cleveland (Major Leagues, Howard the Duck) this one was not filmed anywhere near Cleveland. However, I was stirred by the establishing shot of downtown circa 1975, which removed the Key and Huntington Bank buildings from the skyline.

To be continued ...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Santaland Diaries (1999)

Curtis D. Proctor as Crumpet the Elf
Photo by Anthony Gray
Following the success of Hamlet, Bad Epitaph Theater Company decided to produce some more plays. In addition to Wendy MacLeod’s Sin, it was decided to try a Christmas show -- The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, which had recently been adapted into a solo performance.

The radio version, which was simply a series of “reports” written by Sedaris for NPR’s Morning Edition about his experiences work as an elf in Macy’s Santaland in Manhattan were a huge hit in 1992 and established him as a popular humor writer. Listening to This American Life I had become a fan of his work and thought his sense of humor fit with our hip Gen-X vibe (I say that ironically, can you tell?)

Ordering a copy of the script, we found this one-hour piece was accompanied by a second act called Season’s Greetings. I’d heard that piece, too, on This American Life (performed by Julia Sweeney) and it’s, well … it’s a nasty piece of work. I couldn’t imagine following the potentially hilarious Santaland with such an ugly monologue. Don’t get me wrong, it’s funny … but it’s horrible. Take my word for it. You can listen to it here, if you are curious.

So during the summer of 1999 I sent a letter -- a real, paper letter -- to the company that holds the rights to the play version of Santaland. I asked if we couldn’t instead perform Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol, about a theater critic who is reviewing a Christmas pageant at a local elementary school. That thing is hysterical. In my imagination, we could perform that short piece first as a curtain raiser before the main event.

Dramatists Play Service got back to me in short order to point me towards Sedaris’s own publisher, as they do not have rights to his other work. Right. Should have figured that out myself. So I wrote his agent a letter -- a paper letter, through the mail -- and heard nothing.

By fall, I sent a follow-up letter (paper) and soon received a polite letter in response informing me that yes, they had gotten my letter and sent it on to Sedaris’s New York residence, but that I shouldn’t get my hopes up as he was currently residing in France. They also let me know that under no circumstances should I produce any work of their client I did not have the rights to.

Not a problem, we had moved on by that point anyway. Our plan was to present The Santaland Diaries on its own. Just a one-hour act, who cares, right? It will be fine. Besides, we had Curtis Proctor cast as “Crumpet the Elf” and he was fucking perfect.

Shortly before the holidays I got a call at home and checking the called ID I could see it was a 212. I didn’t know the number, but figured it must be Harris. Picking up the phone I heard a familiar voice.

“Hi, can I speak to David Hansen?”

“This is he.”

“This is David Sedaris.”

“Oh, hi!” I said, and immediately sat down.

He explained that he had just gotten back into New York and received my letter, and apologized for not calling sooner but wanted to respond to my kind request but that he wasn’t letting anyone, anywhere adapt any of his work ever again.

I told him I really appreciated his call, and that it wasn’t a problem, we were going to produce just The Santaland Diaries, by itself, and leave it that.

He went on to tell me the story of how he had been approached by Joe Mantello about the possibility of an Off-Broadway production starring Paul Rebuens as him.

“Great,” Sedaris told me, “All I thought was, ‘I get to smoke pot with Pee-Wee Herman.’”

What he didn’t know was that by entering into this agreement, the stage adaptation (originally starring Timothy Olyphant, and not Paul Reubens) was no longer his to control, and that anyone who wants to and pays the fee can produce it. Put mildly, this runs contrary to the kind of control he would prefer to have over his own writing.

“It’s not really a play,” he insisted, “there’s no character there, it's just a bunch of stories.”

Again, I thanked David Sedaris for his call.

“I really wish no one would ever produce The Santaland Diaries,” he said again. “Anyone. Ever.”


We produced it anyway. It was a big hit. In fact, The Santaland Diaries continues to be one of the most-produced shows in America, year after year.

Sorry, David.

See also: The Santaland Diaries (2017)