Saturday, September 29, 2018

Bread & Puppet Theater presents "Grasshopper Rebellion Circus"

"Grasshopper Rebellion Circus"
Bread & Puppet Theater, 2018
Once We Were Young and Activist

Growing up during the late 1970s in suburbia, the hippie days were long past, as if they ever even were. A subject of mockery and disdain, moving into the Reagan era the very idea of public protest, of activism, just was not cool, man.

My brother, however, was very interested in current events. It was he, not my father, who wanted the national news switched on at 6:30 PM, every single night. Among other artifacts, he had a few Doonesbury anthologies lying around. These I read, and they soon became an obsession for me.

Gary Trudeau's comic strip Doonesbury documented (among other things) the student’s-eye-view of the college scene during the tail end of the Vietnam War. To understand the jokes I needed to understand the time, and so I began to read books and watch films to bring me up to speed, and slowly developed what you might call a bleeding heart liberal’s worldview.

In the year 1980 I was surely the only twelve year-old in Bay Village to have watched the motion picture Woodstock.

Interestingly enough, I still registered as a Republican when I turned eighteen. I thought that I was Republican the same way I understood myself to be Caucasian or Presbyterian. The first time I voted in a Presidential election I noticed I had voted for all the Democratic candidates and soon after officially changed my party affiliation.

"Grasshopper Rebellion Circus"
Bread & Puppet Theater, 2018
But though I leaned left, I was not what you might call radical. At Ohio U., I had an interest in social justice, but I still looked down my nose at those modern, Gen X hippies. The guys from Rocky River who cut the soles off their shoes who have never left Athens. The guys from Athens who eventually moved to Brooklyn. They would stage street protests about … whatever, and I just thought it was embarrassing. Surely there are better ways to get your point across than playing acoustic instruments and wave hand-painted signs and bleating cringe-worthy phrases ad nauseam.

We write letters to the editor. We produce plays for the people who desire to see them. And if we are truly serious about social change, we run for public office. But standing on a street corner screaming is just, well it’s gauche, isn’t it?

The tipping point for me was the Persian Gulf War of 1991. I was still at college and the outrage on campus in Athens, Ohio rivaled anything I’d ever personally experienced. I did feel there were those in the crowd who seemed excited at the possibility of Vietnam redux, complete with old-timey protest songs and tie-dye, sit-ins and peace signs. But I was against the war, too, I was opposed to the proposed New World Order that was being shaped so soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And so I participated in my first outdoor performance protest on January 16, 2001 (see: Desert Scream.)

That was before the 30-day war, before the parades, before Whitney Houston’s "Star Spangled Banner" topped the pop charts. America’s bright, shiny victory left me feeling hollow and dispirited and helpless. That was when I decided that I liked street protest. Because I saw the bravery and strength in shouting at the top of your lungs on a street corner in the face of seeming adversity. Maybe it wouldn’t accomplish anything. But it’s the only thing that could.

"Grasshopper Rebellion Circus"
Bread & Puppet Theater, 2018
Bread and Puppet Theater

Last week the circus came to town, the Grasshopper Rebellion Circus. The show was produced by Bread & Puppet Theater, a world-renown political activist street theater collective, founded fifty-five years ago. They set up camp on Wade Oval in University Circle, and I changed a physical therapy appointment to make the date.

It had rained for several days prior to the event, but this was a perfect early-fall evening, just a little cool. Jacket weather.

They used no electrical anything for their performance, which began at 5:30 pm. Natural light, no amplification. They performed live music, and used large hand-painted signs. Their voices, when they used them, were big, and they carried well. They had trained to speak in odd voices, as to best catch the ear. To be concise, rehearsed and clear.

The event was episodic, ideal for street theater. Our crowd had gathered here to settle in for the performance, we had chairs and blankets, but it could easily have taken place in Public Square or Times Square. If you were walking by you could stop for one or two scenes or plays, then move along.

The company was multi-racial. The musicians were almost all men, the actors predominantly women. There were child performers, too.

The crowd, while diverse in age, was mostly white. There were some old school, east side Baby Boomer liberals seated down in front, putting their wizened fists in the air. The Millennium age companion standing next to me in the back sniffed that he didn’t really like it, which surprised me. At the very least you could appreciate the music, the movement, the puppets. It was rough but entirely professional.

There were a few brief speeches about the current atrocities in Gaza, Yemen, at home, on the Supreme Court. There was plenty to see, laugh about, get angry at, question, delight in.

One scene stuck with me as familiar: A giant puppet of James Madison arrived and handed the citizenry the Second Amendment. With it emerged a multitude of AK-47s and the citizens stalked the stage, bearing their arms, until one by one they were shot and killed.

"The History of Western Civilization"
Guerrilla Theater Company, 1994
Photo: Mike Cantwell
One of Guerrilla Theater Company’s few entirely wordless performances was “The History of Civilization” which included with a struggle over a handgun which concluded with everyone dead and the sole survivor, witnessing the carnage he had created, on the apparent verge of suicide.

We didn’t produce a lot of purely physical pieces in GTC, we didn’t have a live band (we did have a DJ) but I was always proud when we did. I know I found it very challenging to compose something visual without having to conclude with dialogue.

The B&P performance was a touching reminder of the work we did in Guerrilla, the manner in which we, too, made political point. Obvious, broad, uncomfortable political points. And I noticed I missed political theater for its own sake, that this gathering of “Hippies With Dolls” (their words) was a rare treat, in our own yard.

It was also a reminder that you don’t have to be young to do this. You just have to care.

They traditionally conclude the performance by handing out bread and aïoli to any who choose partake, and walking up to receive some with the wife and the boy, I was reminded of last year, when we attended the Neo-Futurists and received some of those small pieces of pizza he was so looking forward to.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Plays of Regret

"Screen Play" at Pandemonium
Brian Pedaci & Toni K. Thayer
re·gret (rəˈɡret)

verb 1. feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over (something that has happened or been done, especially a loss or missed opportunity).

noun 1. a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened or been done.

Groundhog Day

Why does the movie Groundhog Day work? I mean, the premise is facile, but inspired. One person wakes up on the same day, day after day, seemingly for eternity.

It could easily be a horror film, like an episode of the Twilight Zone, a "No Exit" situation, in which our protagonist is driven to madness. When he is finally released and it is finally February 3rd, he’s a gibbering, quivering mess, or unleashes unspeakable violence on the citizens of Punxsutawney before being carted away in a loony wagon.

Instead it's a somewhat broad romantic comedy that includes one unfortunately dated homophobic gag.

Bill Murray plays the main character, and he's a complete jerk. But he’s not the only jerk, there's a lot of jerks in this movie. I couldn't help but imagine that piano teacher and her decision, every single time, to accept a sizable amount of money to kick her adolescent student out of the house. Man, that girl looks really sad and confused.

Also, Chris Elliott. That’s all, just, Chris Elliott.

Watching the film for only the second time the other night ("don't @ me") I was impressed by the structure. The different phases our man goes through, confused, manic, suicidal, resigned, driven. But I was not only amused by but disturbed by Murray’s performance. I’m not sure he changes as much as people want to believe he has.

He fails when he takes an easy route into into Andie MacDowell’s pants, by discovering and memorizing her favorite things, and then repeating them back to her. But aren’t his long-term efforts at becoming a full-actualized human being the same thing, only more sophisticated? Does he learn languages and philosophy and boogie-woogie piano because he wants to, or because that is what it will take to attain the acceptance of the only person in town he apparently can't bamboozle?

Nailed it.
He accumulates several lifetimes of experience and practice, an autodidact’s liberal education, but he’s still kind of a jerk. He bathes in his own cleverness. I mean, Bill Murray always does. However, I believe that fact is the film’s redeeming quality, that he does not become an entirely different person. He changes, yet he does not. The best that can be said is that he does not seem to hate himself anymore. It's not even about her. Do we not all hope for that kind of radical change?
“How old I will be by the time I learn to really play the piano/act/paint/write a decent play?" The same age you will be if you don’t.
- Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
Groundhog Day was released when I was twenty-five. Half my life ago, with so much in front of me, I wasn’t particularly touched by his dilemma. At the age of fifty, which of us would not -- barring the opportunity to actually go back in time and change things -- take the opportunity afforded from one single day, repeated over and over, to make up for lost time? Reliving, reliving, and recreating. The young man finds it amusing. The older man just sees his own life and thinks, what have I been doing with my many varied days?

Make no mistake, Groundhog Day is ultimately a movie about regret. Because there are no do-overs, we cannot relive a moment to get it right. It is a fantasy of longing for the one who got away.

Plays of Regret

Several of my plays have been inspired by brief, passing encounters, expanded upon and brought to their ultimate, extreme conclusion.

Twenty years ago, in 1998, four playwrights (David Bell, Suzanne Miller, Toni K. Thayer and myself) collaborated to create a new work for Dobama’s Night Kitchen titled Cole Cuts. Set in a trendy, late 90s cocktail bar, each fifteen minute piece was to include a lesser-known song by Cole Porter, performed live by the company, piano by the incomparable Michael Seevers.

"Cole Cuts: The Imaginary Date" directed by Dan Kilbane
Featuring Adam Hoffman, Elaine Feagler, David Thonnings & Alison Garrigan
Piano: Michael Seevers
(Dobama's Night Kitchen, 1998)

In my scene, “The Imaginary Date,” a young man (Simon) is pressed into service, pretending to hit on a friend of his (Missy) to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. By the end of the short scene the gambit has worked -- the ex stomps off in a huff -- but Simon is left wounded by the connection he allowed himself to believe has been made with Missy on their “imaginary” date.

The convention of the complete, one-hour play (set in a bar called The Porterhouse) gave this scene additional impact, as Simon returns to the bar, continues to drink through two other scenes, and sadly staggers out near the end of the final piece.

Emotional role play is also a major plot point in The Way I Danced With You, in which a young couple attempt to rekindle a flagging relationship. This piece, which received a weekend of performances at Blank Canvas last March will have a complete, three-weekend run this season at Ensemble Theatre.

A few weeks ago, my ten-minute piece Screen Play premiered at Pandemonium, Cleveland Public Theatre’s annual gala. Two years ago I tried it out at CPT’s monthly public workshop, The Dark Room with Brian Pedaci reading the male character. This summer he asked if I wouldn’t pitch it for the party. I was surprised he remembered it. I was surprised they chose it. It’s a little kitchen sinky, but between he and my wife, Toni K. Thayer as she, it was taut, compelling, and we got some lovely responses from party goers.

"The Way I Danced With You" at Ensemble Theatre
Sarah Blubaugh & Cody Kilpatrick Steele
Unlike those other two pieces, featuring youthful protagonists in the very midst of romantic decision-making, here we have two Gen Xers in their middle years, a quiet evening at home, on their screens. He googles a one-night stand from college, and his attempt at re-connection (an ill-thought impulse) is met with a less-than-positive response. The ensuing conversation with his spouse leads to several uneasy conclusions.

Dan Savage said, “every relationship you are in will fail, until one doesn't.” Is the success of an entire relationship defined by whether or not it ends? How many relationships hinge on a single word? Have you ever felt the regret that comes with doubting the choices you have made, and the possibility that one choice, one moment, one word -- stay -- may have created for you an entirely different life, a different world, a different you?

If you had it to do all over again, would you?

And would you regret that also?

Ensemble Theatre presents the World Premiere of "The Way I Danced With You," through April 7, 2019.

This post was updated on 3/22/2019

Saturday, September 15, 2018

On the Dark Side of Twilight

Self as John W. Polidori
Ohio University, 1988
Thirty years ago this fall, I played John Polidori in the Ohio University School of Theatre production of Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry, directed by Alana Byington

The plot centers on the whirling personal and professional relationships of George Gordon Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, with particular focus on that unusually cold summer of 1816 they spent together at the Villa Diodati. It was there, one evening, after reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem "Cristabel" that this trio, Byron’s personal physician -- Polidori -- and Byron’s lover Claire Clairmont, challenged each other to write a ghost story.

Brenton’s work goes on to describe the crippling effects these artists’ attempts to love freely and fight against contemporary social norms of propriety and restraint had on their lives and work. The play also has a lot to say about men who dare to live life on the edge and the women who must deal with the consequences.

John William Polidori
F.G. Gainsford, circa 1816
What is only obliquely referred to in this work are the stories created the evening of that fateful writing exercise. Most famously, this was the night Mary Shelley would later claim she arrived at the idea for her novel Frankenstein. Like Bloody Poetry, her classic tale investigates themes of great risk and fantastic achievement, but also issues of abandonment and personal responsibility.

Less well-known is the ingenious idea Byron had arrived at that night; a modern re-imagining of the “vampyre.” Folk tales describe this monster as an outsider, living on the outskirts of society, feeding off blood and human flesh like a ghoul. Byron wondered what it might be like if such a demon could pass as human, even enter society? But he grew tied with his own fragment of a story and set the work aside before it was brought to any conclusion.

His doctor, who fancied himself a writer, had arrived at a story about a skull-headed lady “peeping through a keyhole” (we have Mary Shelley’s word for this) which everyone agreed was dreadful. A few short years later, Polidori chose to appropriate Byron’s idea of a gentleman vampire, producing The Vampyre: A Tale in 1819. The good doctor attempted to exact some artistic revenge on the lord who famously made a habit of crushing him with withering verbal abuse, by creating the rakish Lord Ruthven, a thinly-disguised parody of Byron himself.

The Vampyres: A Play
Dobama's Night Kitchen, 1997

Brian Pedaci (right) as  John Polidori
The joke was on Polidori, however, as when The Vampyre was first published, it was mistakenly attributed to Byron, a fact which each man found galling.

Then a twenty-year-old student, I researched the person of John Polidori for the performance, surprised to learn I was playing a man my own age. I was taken by not only his own brief unhappy life (he died by suicide at the age of 25) but also the legend of the vampire. Many abortive works I created that school year -- comics, short stories, scripts -- included immature and unfortunate ruminations on suicide. One idea was for a daily comic strip about a modern Polidori who, following a romantic humiliation and contemplating his own demise, is seduced by vampire.

If the idea of a vampire preying upon the despair and near-suicide of a young man sounds familiar, it is because I had started reading Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles.” The comparison to Louis and Lestat was purely intentional. In the following years I would read a few more vampire novels, but not an overwhelming number of them. I was more interested in the vampire as a metaphor than as a romance. More After Dark than Lost Boys. I prefer Throat Sprockets to anything by Poppy Z. Brite.

With director Andrew May
On the Dark Side of Twilight, 2010
My infatuation came to a head a few years later after the disillusion of both my first theater company and my first marriage, resulting in the script The Vampyres: A Play. Borrowing directly from Polidori’s tale, and using the name’s of all those at the Villa Diodati, a young doctor (John) enters a goth-themed coffee house, meeting an old crush (Mary) and two preening rockers (George and Percy) who may or may not be actual vampires. There is also a teenage barista named Claire, who is actually my favorite character in the play.

My first full-length work, I threw everything into it and it is one big angry mess. The original songs by Queue Up, however, are killer.

Anyway, ten or so years later, then-Director of Education Daniel Hahn was looking for a touring script to compliment Great Lakes Theater’s mainstage production of Bat Boy: The Musical. I made a mad proposal. The character of Bat Boy is some kind of mutant creature half-boy, half-bat. Its origins may be from the Weekly World News, but the story has much in common with B-level monster movies from the mid-20th century.

What if we created a brief history of the vampire in Western literature in four short plays, each describing a pivotal moment in vampire history? The greatest challenge, as I saw it, was how we could successfully incorporate that most recent trend in vampirism; sparkling. Yes, we would have to acknowledge the most controversial of vampire sagas, Twilight.

My working title was Evolution of the Vampire. Daniel suggested something more evocative. In the first chapter of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Jonathan Harker begins his diary entry, "It was on the dark side of twilight when we got to Bistritz ..." It is a much, much better title.

The four scenes or “arcs” of On the Dark Side of Twilight play out like this:

Arc One represents Polidori’s The Vampyre. Set in 1810, we meet Lord Darvell (Byron’s vampire) and the callow Aubrey Porlock; his Christian name taken straight from the good doctor’s short story, his last a combination of Polidori and Orlock, the main character in F.W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu.

(It's is also a nod to the author of "Christabel," who ostensibly made all of this possible. A “person from Porlock” interrupted Coleridge as he was feverishly writing "Kubla Khan.")

Aubrey Porlock and Lord Darvell
(Dusten Welch & self)
As they travel the Continent together, Aubrey is set upon by a monster while trying to complete an assignation in the woods with a local girl named Xanthe, and neither he nor Darvell are ever heard from again.

Arc Two is an homage to Dracula, the text which set so many rules of vampirism (death by sunlight, aversion to garlic and mirrors, etc.) Here, at the turn of the twentieth century, a young society couple entertains a strange eastern lord who turns out to be Porlock, now a vampire himself, returning to London after nearly a century.

This scene includes a silent coda, a tribute to Murnau’s film, in which the “count” is tricked by his prey into feeding until sunrise.

Arc Three, set in the mid-1980s, is inspired by the work of Anne Rice. With her works, a vampire is now someone to be understood, one to be sympathized with. He is our hero. A fledgling vampire named Edwin is interviewed in New Orleans and we learn that his master is none other than Porlock, who has survived and immigrated to the Americas.

Arc Four, present day. Edwin passes as a teenager in an Alaskan high school. A romance develops between he and a fellow student named Lucy. Their time together is cut short by the arrival of Porlock, who receives his final rest at the hands of an old (very old) companion.

Edwin and Lucy
(Dusten Welch & Emily Czarnota)
The entire package includes a narrator who guides the audience through this two-hundred year journey by sharing found materials in the manner that Dracula is composed entirely of diaries, letters, newspaper articles, and other contemporary accounts.

Written to be performed by a company of three (though it could also accommodate a company of up to twelve or more) the premiere production was directed by Andrew May. I performed the older male roles, Dusten Welch the younger, and all of the female roles by Emily Pucell Czarnota.

Working with Emily for the first time with this production was a life-changing experience, and over the next several years she originated performances in several of my works, including The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the short play The Schoolboy (part of the Seven Ages anthology.) Most meaningful to me, I wrote for her the part of Beatrice in Double Heart, her wit and delivery foremost in my mind when composing verse lines for this younger iteration of Shakespeare’s great romantic heroine.

Emily as Xanthe
On the Dark Side of Twilight, 2010
In performance, On the Dark Side of Twilight is chilling, creepy, knowing, and also very funny. Plain Dealer theater critic Tony Brown found it "hysterical, campy fun." But is has a deeper relevance, as vampire tales have always been allegories, reflections of the fears and taboos of the time.

Polidori's short story portrays the struggle between propriety and the evils of Byronism. Stoker's is a thinly-veiled examination and reflection of sexual repression and xenophobia. Anne Rice created a homoerotic romance at the dawning of the AIDS crisis. And Stephenie Meyer brought the story full-circle, creating a novel aimed directly at teenage girls to promote and champion morality, chastity, self-delusion, and male dominance through emotional and sexual abuse.

On the Dark Side of Twilight tackles all of these issues, while remaining brisk and compelling, a compact and humorous horror story that would make an excellent high school, college or community theater production.

Read the play script for "On the Dark Side of Twilight" at New Play Exchange.

"Vampire play 'On the Dark Side of Twilight,' performed by Great Lakes Theater Festival, is campy fun" by Tony Brown, The Plain Dealer 2/19/2010