Thursday, November 8, 2018

Post Midterm Thoughts

So broken: our political system and our way of life.   And still another mass shooting, this one in a CA bar.  We’ve become inured to them by lack of any action, the NRA’s tentacles wrapped around Congress.  There are solutions.  It only takes the will.

Anyone who caught Trump’s news conference yesterday, his firing of Sessions and replacing him with a Yes Man, should understand the fragility of our democratic system.   Demagogues play the Press to their propagandist advantage.  Demagogues demand obedience.

I had only one wish for the Midterms: gain the House, although like most moderate progressives, I was rooting for Beto, Gillum, et al.  Still, I sleepily emailed ebullient messages to a few friends at 3.00 AM declaring “victory” with the subject heading “bring on the subpoenas.”

But I am no Pollyanna, thinking that having control of the House will ameliorate the deep dark political divide in this country.  It might exacerbate it, but as with an operation, the aftermath therapy can be more painful than the procedure. 

We focus on Trump, which is the way he wants it but there are so many systemic issues. Our Constitution is the best political document ever drafted, but it was by 18th century thinkers. 

The 2nd Amendment needs updating.  Muskets are no longer the only “arms” that we have the right to bear.

The Electoral College needs fixing or abandonment, allowing the direct popular vote to determine the outcome of Presidential elections.  Slavery and concern that the average person might not be best suited to make those decisions led to the Electoral College.  We need to question its legitimacy in today’s world where information is readily available to everyone.

Similarly, another consequence of the great Constitutional compromise was the one giving each State the same number of Senators, irrespective of population.  I quote what Alexander Hamilton had to say about that in The Federalist below.  Who could have seen what now exists, with thinly populated states such as North Dakota, about the population size of an El Paso, Texas, having the same Senate representation as the entire State of Texas itself, giving the people of ND nearly 40 times the political clout to have their say over Supreme Court Justices, etc.?  Even a greater multiple when it comes to states like NY or CA.

Another bĂȘte noir of mine, and thankfully we now have a brief reprieve, is political advertising.  Super PACs representing special interests, as well as extremist political party advertising, are a form of government approved brainwashing, appealing primarily to emotional issues.  We’ve successfully removed cigarette advertising from our airwaves.  Time has come to remove political advertising and endless robo calls (spend the $$ on our decaying infrastructure, or healthcare, etc. instead!).  Make all political discourse over the airways subject to universally recognized debate rules.  If a candidate has something to say, write an opinion piece for local and/or national publication, maintain a Web site expressing plans and opinions.  Aren’t we sick of the political advertising which portrays the opposition as being sent from hell? 

Easier said than done, I know, but we have to do something to separate the democratic process from mass persuasion dollars.  The next couple of months before our new House representatives are sworn in are going to be critical. May we survive those days to get democracy back on track.

The Federalist No. 22 by Alexander Hamilton
Every idea of proportion and every rule of fair representation conspire to condemn a principle, which gives to Rhode Island an equal weight in the scale of power with Massachusetts, or Connecticut, or New York; and to Delaware an equal voice in the national deliberations with Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or North Carolina. Its operation contradicts the fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail. Sophistry may reply, that sovereigns are equal, and that a majority of the votes of the States will be a majority of confederated America. But this kind of logical legerdemain will never counteract the plain suggestions of justice and common-sense. It may happen that this majority of States is a small minority of the people of America; and two thirds of the people of America could not long be persuaded, upon the credit of artificial distinctions and syllogistic subtleties, to submit their interests to the management and disposal of one third.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Not a Time for only Thoughts and Prayers

Las Vegas slaughtering, shootings in schools, houses of worship (let’s not forget Sutherland Springs, Texas and the Charleston, SC shootings) and now eleven people killed and six injured when a gunman attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday. We’re told (by our President) that the greatest threat to our homeland security is immigrants and foreign born terrorists.  Meanwhile, what do all these horrific events have in common?  Most are by hate-filled home-grown white nationalists, with large gun collections, frequently brandishing automatic weapons for maximum slaughtering effect.

Is it a surprise that the Pittsburgh killer blames Jews for helping migrant caravan ‘invaders’?   Who first pointed out the so called caravans had some “bad hombres and people of middle eastern descent?” 

Apparently the gunman used an assault rifle and three handguns, among his collection of 21 registered guns. But he was not a big fan of Trump as he felt the President did not go far enough and he was surrounded by Jews.  On the other hand, pipe bomber Cesar Sayoc felt that Trump’s rhetoric was just right.  Our system fails to ring a bell when one person owns 21 guns?

No matter, it’s pretty clear that the political discourse in which Trump has been engaged, particularly at his Nuremberg style rallies, foments division, violence and is intended to feed the fragile ego of a demagogue.   

Instead of building walls at the border, we need to build legislative walls around gun access.  Will it eradicate such shootings, no, but over time it is one of the building blocks of making such incidents less likely.  I’ve written dozens of times about how this can be done. I think the best summary is in this particular entry.

Win the Mid-Terms and begin to challenge the NRA.  Haven’t we had enough of this?

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Indecent by Paula Vogel Hauntingly Opens Dramaworks' Season

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust….a theatre troupe comes back from the dead to tell its story.  Let this superb Dramaworks production wash over you.  Bask in its bitter-sweet intensity and breathe in its essence of purity.  There is a tragic sadness to the production, juxtaposed to unadulterated joy, of living, of loving and of art.  Dramaworks’ production of Paula Vogel’s Indecent is faultlessly potent.

While Indecent is a play about a very good play, Sholem Asch’s 1907 God of Vengeance, it is more of an impressionistic work, capturing feelings about themes that are exposed in the actual production of God of Vengeance:  gender discrimination, lesbian love, censorship and persecution, art and freedom, anti-Semitism and immigration.  All of this is encapsulated in playwright’s Paula Vogel’s love poem to theatre itself.

God of Vengeance is dated in its melodramatic approach to the subject of Jewish filial tradition and obligation, incorporating a lesbian love affair with the powerful retribution all being played out ironically above a Jewish brothel.  As Asch’s wife, Madje, says in Indecent of her young husband’s play, My God, Sholem. It’s all in there. The roots of all evil: the money, the subjugation of women, the false piety … the terrifying violence of that father …and then, oh Sholem, the two girls in the rain scene! My God, the poetry in it—what is it about your writing that makes me hold my breath? You make me feel the desire between these two women is the purest, most chaste, most spiritual—

One of the central characters in God of Vengeance is father and husband Yekel, who lives with his family upstairs, while operating the brothel below.  He has one purpose in life: to make his “perfect, innocent” daughter, Rifkele, into a marriageable candidate for a scholar from a fine family.  He commissions the writing of a Torah which is to become part of his daughter’s dowry.  Instead, a prostitute from his brothel, Manke, and Rifkele have fallen in love which results in Yekel’s rage and violence. 
Mark Jacoby, Dani Marcus, Laura Turnbull

In Indecent Vogel chronologically takes the productions of God of Vengeance through different iterations, both real and imagined, over a swath of time to another level, focusing now on the two lovers and on the obscenity charges which were brought against it for its infamous lesbian scene (which played without incident before the Broadway production in the early 1920s). The play covers the sweep of history since Sholem Asch wrote the work, to the time he disowned it in the 1950’s.

Indecent has a musical core in this robust production.  Dramaworks’ choreography, under the direction of Lynnette Barkley, working with its klezmer musical underpinning, is stirring, unforgettable, defining the emotion of the moment through dance, mostly to evoke the Jewish Horah circle dance but also including wonderfully arranged Berlin cabaret style numbers for dramatic effect.

Three very talented musicians weave Yiddish sound throughout the play.  Glen Rovinelli is both the Musical Director and the Clarinet player.  Anna Lise Jensen is the Violinist while Spiff Wiegand is the Accordion player.  Music and dance were always important in Yiddish theatre and Paula Vogel incorporates these elements as a celebration of Jewish life and culture.

J Barry Lewis directs this Gesamtkunstwerk (“a total art work …that synthesizes the elements of music, drama, spectacle, dance, etc.) with a multimedia mix of 155 slides projected on the wall in the background which make the story clearer, and scores of scenes (characterized as “blinks in time”), some as few as three or four lines, bringing clarity to the narrative.  Plus he’s working with seven actors playing forty different roles, telling multiple stories with subplots.  It is a testament to his skill as a director to make it all seem natural and transparent.  It is indeed, a total work of art.

He has the “help” of one character in the play, Lemml, achingly played with such poignant conviction by Jay Russell, his PBD debut.  Lemml is the only character played by one actor with no other parts in the play.  He serves as the effective storyteller as does the narrator in Our Town.  

Cliff Burgess, Jay Russell

Lemml stays with the play as its stage manager in each and every one of its performances over decades, to the point where he feels ownership but is ultimately betrayed by Sholem Asch who allows the play to be deleteriously edited for Broadway and refuses to defend it in court.  All of this action is taking place while Europe’s anti-Semitism is on the rise, and we suspect the fate awaiting Lemml and the troupe as they leave America to return to Europe. 

Lemml says to Ashe: I am done being in a country that laughs at the way I speak. They say America is free? What do you know here is free? All over Europe we did this play with no Cossacks shutting us down. Berlin, Moscow, Odessa—everywhere there is theater! You don’t have the money for a ticket? Tickets over there cost less than a cup of tea. Then you dress up nice in your best coat and maybe you stand up in the second gallery, but you can say to your grandchildren: “I saw the great Rudolph Schildkraut in Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance!” I am leaving this country.

Kathleen Wise, Matthew Korinko
Otherwise, this gifted ensemble cast plays multiple characters.  When Lemml introduces the troupe, he divides them into three groups.  First the fathers, all of the mothers, the sagest of our characters, or the ones who remain fools at any age played in this production by PBD veteran Laura Turnbull and by Mark Jacoby making his PBD debut.  Both are seasoned performers who bring their long list of acting credits and accomplishments to their parts in this production.  In addition to other characters, their main role in the play within a play is that of the father and owner of the brothel, Yekel, and his wife Sarah, who was formerly a prostitute.

Lemml continues:  And our members of the troupe who are in their prime!”  In this production there are two PBD newcomers.  Making a stunning debut is Kathleen Wise who is Manke, the prostitute, among other characters.  She sings and dances and acts with a flawlessness that is mesmerizing.  Matthew Korinko makes his presence known with his rich voice, and convincing ability to play five roles, effortlessly changing from a NYC cop to the Rabbi Joseph Silverman, who brings legal action against the play.

Cliff Burgess, Dani Marcus

Finally, Lemml says, And our ingĂ©nues!...All the brides, all the grooms, the writers, the socialists. So ardent in their beliefs, so passionate in their lovemaking.  Here we have the seasoned PBD veteran Cliff Burgess who has the distinction of playing the younger Sholem Asch as well as Eugene O’Neill (briefly), not to mention three other characters.  He always brings an ardent sensibility to every part.  Finally, there is the PBD debut of multi talented Dani Marcus gorgeously playing Rifkele with six other brief roles.  With her expressive face and exquisite singing voice, she adds a strong dimension to this incredibly talented cast.

When Marcus and Wise are on stage as Rifkele and Manke, their presence and chemistry is striking. They even play the roles of “The Bagelman Sisters” singing a rousing rendition of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” which the Andrew Sisters would envy in a brief scene from Grossinger’s in 1938.  (I did mention that there were scores of scenes, didn’t I?).

Dani Marcus, Kathleen Wise

In most shows one can point to the star or co stars and evaluate their performance.  Indecent is about an acting troupe and the entire Dramaworks cast becomes that troupe, feeling their pain and joy to such an extent that the audience is viscerally brought into this production.  It must be an actor’s dream to be in this troupe and it shows singing such songs as What can you makh dis is America! Iz America, un vot ken you makh? Or What can you do? It’s America! It’s America, so what can you do?

Michael Amico’s scenic design is in keeping with the ghostly acting troupe on stage, so there is empty space, reminiscent of ruins, in which the actors can tell their story. 

Lighting design by Paul Black includes some 350 light changes, all intended to provide a sense of the location rather than the reality of the location.  The lighting is also suggestive of those dark dramatic moments with nightmarish shadows on the back wall, as well as a cabaret feeling of Berlin in the 20s.

Kathleen Wise, Dani Marcus
With so many characters being played out over decades, costume designer Brian O’Keefe scores another triumph of period piece and ethnic identity verisimilitude including quick costume changes (many right on stage).  Brad Pawlak’s sound design focuses on the musicality of the production.  Stage Manager Debi Marcucci keeps track of untold lighting cues, costume changes, suitcases, chairs and tables, all constantly shifting between many scenes.

One cannot emerge from this production after its famous love scene in the rain without a sense of wonder.  Perhaps it is also the intimacy of the PBD theatre itself. When you are so close to the action in this play, and it is in constant motion, you simply feel part of it.  You may leave with the love scene in your heart, but Paula Vogel’s imagined words of Sholem Asch which precedes that gut retching joyous scene sound a clarion warning call to the arts, immigration policy, and tolerance:  I no longer care what is done on the stages of this country. Theater companies are started by young men who have the luxury to care about where they live. Or the false belief that they will be allowed to live in the place they care about.

A blink in time.  Palm Beach Dramaworks, still theatre to think about.

Photo credits: Samantha Mighdoll except for the following cast photo by Alicia Donelan picturing Mark Jacoby, Cliff Burgess, Glen Rovinelli, Anna Lise Jensen, Jay Russell, Spiff Wiegand, Laura Turnbull, Matthew Korinko, Kathleen Wise