Monday, March 25, 2019

Nineteen Eighty-Six

My daughter is pretty stylish. She dresses independently, not ignorant of current trends, but hardly obsessed with them. Funky tees, colorful belts, ripped jeans and flannel, but also Hawaiian shirts, cardigans, she picks and accepts a lot of odd pieces from her parents and some T-shirts that her younger brother has outgrown.

Lately she’s taken to wearing my middle school windbreaker, my “Bay Jacket,” sporting team colors and those three huge letters on the back, B-A-Y. A blue, white and red blazon striding down the black and gold halls of Heights High. That’s some audacious bougie chic right there.

On the shoulder the number 86, that was the magic number for me (for her it is 21.) Agent 86. Eight-six the gumbo. During my childhood, 1986 was as far as my imagination could go into the future. All years that came after that just sounded weird.

Musicologists used science to determine that 1986 was the worst year in the history of popular music, or certainly the least interesting (what is the difference?) and I find that hard to argue with. The patina of sheer sameness washed over the airwaves.

“Sweet Freedom” by Michael McDonald. “Glory of Love” by Peter Cetera. “Two of Hearts” by Suzi Q. “Who’s Johnny” by El DeBarge. “Invisible Touch” by Genesis. "When the Going Gets Tough the Tough Get Going" by Billy Ocean. Thomas Dolby’s soundtrack to the motion picture “Howard the Duck.”

I was at a club in the Flats that summer and went up to the DJ to request some INXS and he said they don’t play punk music.

But there were several important records released that year. There always will be -- so much new music, every year. Some of it has to be good, right? I mean, nothing will beat 1989, but here’s a couple gems from the year I graduated high school.

Music From the Edge of Heaven - Wham!

Okay, this album isn’t actually good. The band had broken up but they owed their American label one more record. In Britain they got away with a greatest hits compilation (The Final) but we got this. Shitty, dated remixes of the previously released "I’m Your Man" and "Wham Rap," a live track from the China tour and an almost two year old Christmas single (yes, that one.)

But it does include the seriously dirty dance confection "The Edge of Heaven," George Michael’s second single "A Different Corner" and a beautiful cover version of the Was (Not Was) track "Where Did Your Heart" go, an indication of things to come for this, the greatest of white soul singers.

License To Ill - The Beastie Boys

There’s a lot of bad things you can say about this album, and to their credit they apologized for most of them by their fourth record. What happens when you pretend to be something horrible and then realize no one gets the joke, or worse, that you’ve actually become that thing? We knew it was high comedy, and possibly wrong, but that didn’t keep us from drinking too much beer and blasting the thing on the green, playing Frisbee and hanging brain.

Crowded House - Crowded House

A tale of two brothers, the young Neil Finn had assumed the lead from his older brother Tim for the final Split Enz album, turning what had been a schizophrenic lounge act into a seriously polished pop machine. The band broke up and from it he formed this outstanding trio.

Produced by the legendary Mitchell Froom, you cannot put this record on without listening to the entire thing. Overplayed to the point of absolute madness, I still cannot hear the opening chords of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” without losing my shit. I’m right there and I can never leave.

So - Peter Gabriel

Nineteen Eighty-Six is the year Peter Gabriel released So and your argument is invalid.

Especially For You - The Smithereens

Last week the family was celebrating Calvin’s Day, making dinner together and listening to music. The wife and I took turns choosing albums, and this was one I put on. She didn’t even know it -- she knew them, she knew the single, but she hadn’t listened to the entire record.

I knew the late lead singer Pat DiNinzio was an enormous Beatles fan (they recorded not one but two albums of Beatles covers) but having not listened to this, their debut, for the better part of twenty years, I never realized how much their style was entirely inspired by the Beatles first few albums.

The first albums, the rock and roll records. That's what was unique. Countless bands have based their entire careers stealing the Beatles later, lush, over-produced stuff -- E.L.O., XTC … hell, Oasis entire catalog is variations on "I Am the Walrus." But it takes some serious hero worship to impersonate the unique and particular guitar stylings of early Harrison, Lennon and McCartney.

Skylarking - XTC

And speaking of. Lush. Brainy. Philosophical college music to fuck to. Andy Partridge and Todd Rundgren fistfight in heaven and we were left with forty-seven minutes of infectious, open the windows and let florid springtime breeze blow over the naked skin of you and whoever you're with that afternoon.

I could go on. There was good music. We listened to it.

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

“Study of 17,000 hit pop songs identifies the years to remember – and the ones best forgotten” by Adam Sherman, The Independent 5/5/2015

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Flying leaf

Eighteen years ago tonight my wife and I were in the hospital, awaiting the birth of our first child. The fact that he was dead did not make the event any less auspicious.

There were many details that Toni did not experience, as she was bed-bound with preeclampsia, and anyway she was operating on a different frequency of observation than I was. But I did have freedom of movement and saw the world just outside of her room and beyond.

One feature that I barely noticed on the first few passes was the photo of a floating leaf with a single drop on it, it was taped to the door. The room adjacent to ours also had one.

I wondered about it but did not think to ask. It was later that I learned that hospitals post this picture specifically to alert anyone entering that the woman inside has lost a child.

The was one moment when I was leaving this room as a man around my age was entering the room next to ours. We made eye contact. There was a moment of realization. We both looked away.

Our leaf picture was upside down. I think this was just carelessness on the part of whoever tacked it up. But I like to remember it that way, because it was as though it was suspended in air, flying.

Eighteen years.

Playhouse Square presents the premiere of the video adaptation of "I Hate This (A Play Without the Baby)" by David Hansen, directed by Chennelle Bryant-Harris and performed by James Alexander Rankin, in the Westfield Studio Theatre on Saturday, October 15, 2022.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Witness For the Prosecution (play)

See you now;Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth:
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out.
- Hamlet, IIi
Costume design by Esther Montgomery Haberlen
SPOILER ALERT: This post reveals solutions to Agatha Christie’s play Witness For the Prosecution and novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles ... and also my new play The Way I Danced With You.

Hey, look! I’m dressed up for a thing. In the early 1950s, when Agatha Christie wrote the play Witness For the Prosecution, it was in the immediate aftermath of her smash hit The Mousetrap (1952) and theater producers must have thought nothing of paying a dozen or so actors to sit still and say absolutely nothing in the role of jury members and assistant barristers.

In the Great Lakes Theater production, which closes this weekend, they continue the novel and exciting concept of seating audience members on stage (as they have done twice before in a modified “Globe Theatre” staging for Hamlet and Macbeth) to represent the jury. And for the assistant barristers the company has engaged enthusiastic members of their Board of Trustees. I am not a trustee, but I am a member of the education department and have made myself available to step in for several student matinee performances.

My job is to sit there, under my wig, take notes, and react a little. Not a lot. No distractions. I think I handle that very well. And the production is delightfully effective. I was present for the first student matinee and I have never heard such a strong reaction from an audience of middle and high school students, and I mean ever, at any live theater production I have ever attended. It was breathtaking.

Because I wondered how a modern, teenage audience would receive this work. It’s a courtroom drama, and haven’t we all seen those? Isn’t Law and Order still on every channel, all the time? And yet, there is a reason Dame Christie is the third most popular author in the English language, after Shakespeare and God. The last five minutes students were literally on their feet, there was no restraining their reaction. Backstage was quite a scene as well, no one had experienced anything like it!

Photo: Roger Mastroianni
(Great Lakes Theater)
Agatha Christie likes to put the culprit right in front of you, to make it painfully obvious exactly who is the guilty party, and then through doubt and confusion she will convince you your own conclusions were absolutely wrong.

In her very first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), the most unlikable characters are in cahoots, secretly lovers but feigning antipathy towards each other, working closely to create for the one accused a watertight alibi. Evidence is introduced late in the trial, absolving the suspect of all suspicion. And they would have gotten away with it, too, had it not been for the little grey cells of a certain Belgian detective.

Christie does nearly the same thing in her 1953 play Witness For the Prosecution (originally a short story, Traitor’s Hands, first published in 1925) by building an unassailable case, also apparently pitting lovers against each other. A last minute piece of evidence is contrived and in this case -- Hercule Poirot being absent -- the guilty party almost escapes all punishment.

In each of these two cases, Christie also plays upon an almost racist kind of xenophobia towards Germans that was prevalent in England at the time.

As it happens, my new work, The Way I Danced With You, currently in rehearsal for its world premiere at Ensemble Theatre, was originally intended as something of a mystery. I had written two short scenes, amounting to a short, forty-minute work. Each scene took place ten years apart, and how they related to each other was only revealed in the very final moments.

In time I created a third scene, between the two. It changed the nature of this mystery, and in a weekend of performances at Blank Canvas last year, it was more of a puzzle than a mystery. My own fear of leaving the audience confounded led to several decisions which, while still having created a compelling narrative with interesting characters, was not as daring as what I had originally intended.

At the suggestion of director Tyler Whidden, we have further revised the script, obfuscating certain elements which had previously been evident. Concealing that which is otherwise apparent and obvious and introducing the element of doubt. Will the audience solve the mystery?

Perhaps I have learned from Christie and thing or two about misdirection.

Ensemble Theatre presents the World Premiere of "The Way I Danced With You," opening March 21, 2019.

Great Lakes Theater presents "Witness For the Prosecution" at the Hanna Theatre through March 10, 2019

Agatha Christie's "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" adapted for the stage by David Hansen is available from Playscripts, Inc.

Friday, March 1, 2019

A Tale of Haina

I need an easy friend
I do, with an ear to lend
- Nirvana, "About a Girl"
Tiffany Thomas, Abdelghani Kitab, Maribeth Van Hecke
"About a Ghoul"
(Talespinner Children's Theatre)
Several years ago I received a wonderful gift from one of my in-laws, a recent publication of the First Edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Many are aware that folk tales, like those from which popular Disney “princess” films are based, do not necessarily have happy endings. They can be violent horror stories, which arguably teach a child valuable lessons. Lessons like, “do what I say or someone out there will murder you.”

What was most interesting about this book, however, was that the Brothers Grimm did not write these tales, they collected them, just as ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax collected recordings of American folk music. Documentation, not creation.

I have had the great fortune and opportunity to create and adapt tales for the stage at Talespinner Children’s Theatre. One of the things I have noticed about folk tales from around the world are their great similarity, and also their differences.

Every culture, it would seem, has a story of a young woman or girl who is either cast out or runs away, in fear for her life. This is a story found not only in tales like Snow White, but repeated in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. These two version, and others, formed the basis for my play Rosalynde & The Falcon.

The Indonesian folk tale Bawang Merah Bawang Putih is a story much like Cinderella, with a put-upon step-child eventually receiving great reward for her patience, even as her mean step-mother and step-sister get their comeuppance. This was the basis for my play Red Onion, White Garlic, though I took liberties with the story to make the sister allies rather than enemies.

Margi Herwald Zitelli & Sarah Bogomolny
"Red Onion, White Garlic"
(Talespinner Children's Theatre)
Moroccan culture also has many, many tales of young women and girls in peril,who are either punished for their bad decision making, or rewarded for their wisdom and cunning.

Like Grimm’s original tales, the Moroccan tales that I have read are a transcription of an oral tradition, and as such the tales do not necessarily have a complete, narrative arc or structure. They can go many different places, with characters and story lines being introduced and just as suddenly abandoned.

What I found most fascinating about Moroccan tales are the preponderance of ghouls. They are the bogeymen in these stories, not just as monsters, but as characters.

Talespinner artistic director Ali Garrigan introduced me to Abdelghani Kitab, a Moroccan musician and actor living in Cleveland, and we met several times over the past year over coffee to discuss Moroccan culture and folk tales. One afternoon he translated for me (from the French) a story that his grandmother used to tell him.

Here now, my simple retelling of this version of the story Haina, threads of which are found in my new play script, About a Ghoul.
Haina - or - The Girl Who Married the Ghoul

Haina was a girl with long black hair, so long and soft that at night she would roll up her hair and use it as a pillow.

She had a wealthy father, whose dying wish was that she marry her cousin. Following the marriage, Haina found it strange that her new husband would depart for seven days, every seven days. What she did not know was that every night her husband would turn into a GHOUL, and that he would stay awake for an entire week, and then sleep for another, necessitating the lie that he was always traveling.

Now this ghoul would eat anything and everything. Each morning, when her husband was in residence, Haina noticed that they would lose another horse. Soon only her favorite horse remained. The horse pleaded with Haina to free him from his chains. She told her husband that the horse was ill, and only fed him rice and milk. The next time the ghoul departed (or rather, hid in sleep) the chains fell off the now much thinner horse, and the two of them, Haina and horse, made their escape.

Upon waking, the ghoul cried, “My horse ran away with my wife!” All who heard his cry laughed and mocked his folly.

Haina disguised herself as a talib or a holy man. They came to a city where they were warmly welcomed, though the children were suspicious. That night they peered through the window of the house in which the talib was staying to see him combing his long, black hair.

The children went to their mother to tell what they had seen. Their mother thought of a test to prove whether the talib was a man with long black hair, or a woman posing as a man. The next day they offered the talib a meal of food both spicy and sweet -- as it is well-known that women prefer sweet food and men prefer spicy food! The talib passed the first test by choosing the spicy dish.

But then the mother surprised the talib by telling him that their horse died during the night, and the talib broke down in tears. Mother reassured the talib that the horse was not dead -- but also that only a woman would cry over the death of a horse, and Haina admits her deception.
Charles Hargrave, Valerie C. Kilmer & Tim Keo
"Rosalynde & The Falcon"
(Talespinner Children's Theatre)
The story continues, and for a moment it appears that things are going to end well for our heroine. The eldest of the children, a young man, thinks Haina is very beautiful and they agree to marry. But when her first husband, the ghoul, learns of her second match -- and that Haina is pregnant with twins -- he spreads an ugly rumor that she is about to give birth to two dogs.

Her new husband hears the rumor and flies into a rage. He orders Haina’s hands to be cut off and the newborn twins be put into cages. In the end all deceptions are revealed, lovers and family are reconciled and the site of Haina’s punishment becomes a shrine.

Elements of the first part of the tale of Haina forms the basis for my adaptation About a Ghoul. No one in my play is maimed (though some are shamed.) In America we have a tendency to shield children from monsters and harsh punishments in the tales we tell, and maybe this is for best, or maybe not. There are monsters in the world, and harsh punishments.

I was concerned that a title such as “The Girl Who Married a Ghoul” might scare away parents, but also that they should know that we will have ghoul characters. As you can see, our idea of what a ghoul is in the West, whatever that is, is only one example. Through the many tales I read I saw all kind of ghouls, outsiders who live by a different set of laws, several of them capable of sympathy and kindness.

Some have asked if the title About a Ghoul is a play on the title of the film About a Boy, and the answer is no. Because the title of the novel upon which the film is based, About a Boy, is inspired by the title of the song About a Girl by Nirvana, and Nirvana is never mentioned in the film About a Boy.

Talespinner Children's Theatre presents "About A Ghoul" at the Reinberger Auditorium, opening March 9, 2019.