Saturday, May 26, 2018

Memorial Day and Gun Violence

I conflate the two now.
In the past, I’ve written about Memorial Day and our soldiers who have died defending our country, although lamenting about how we’ve turned it into a sales “holiday” for mattresses and cars. 

That should be the worst of it.  Now we should also remember our teachers and students who have “fallen in battle” thanks to the NRA and our so called leadership acting as a facilitator.

The most recent shooting at a Santa Fe, TX school was not with an automatic weapon but an equally deadly hand gun and shotgun. 

These guns were taken from the shooter’s father.

It brings up the obvious question of responsibility.  Should the father be held liable?  Or society?  Both of course.

Just so I get statistics right, I turn to Fact Check: In general, the overall number of people (31) and the number of students (26) killed in school shootings through 18 May 2018 was greater than the number of military personnel killed in combat zones (13). If all military deaths (including accidental training deaths) are counted, then that number (42) exceeds the total number of school shooting deaths (31).

But the precise numbers are irrelevant.  Gun violence, now prevalent in our schools, is intolerable in a civilized society.  Any society. All these weapons were "born to kill."

I’ve now written dozens of times about gun control and in particular the need to outlaw military type weapons, institute stringent background checks, age limits, etc., all the usual ideas and have seen the usual push backs to the same. 

I’ve also (not uniquely) suggested that firearms be regulated in the same way automobiles are, requiring registration and tracking when one is sold.

I go back to this argument as it is more of a total solution than any others. 

There are of course persuasive arguments against the bureaucracy of establishing a Federal or State system of a “Bureau of Firearms Control.”  Expensive.  Loss of freedom, Big brother watching, etc. etc.  But we tolerate those for automobiles, which also includes testing, insurance, inspection, etc.  We do so for the greater good of society.  We establish laws governing their use and prosecute when those laws are broken, even by generally “law abiding citizens.”  Gun ownership advocates make virtual talking robot arguments that gun laws only hurt the “good” people while “evil” ones ignore them and thus, we should have fewer gun laws.  Talk about circular logic.

We take off our shoes at airports because someone tried to blow up a plane with a shoe. My constitutional rights allow me to wear shoes!

Annual gun deaths are now approaching those caused by motor vehicle incidents (the latter declining and the former steadily increasing).

Getting to the difficult part, implementation.

First, indeed institute stringent background checks, age limit laws, and ban the use of military style weapons.

Secondly, as Congress now sees fit to increase our national debt, go further and institute a Federal program for buying back weapons voluntarily surrendered, with higher premiums for military style weapons.  Pay fair price.  Return them no questions asked for a specified grace period.

Those choosing to keep their weapons, and those buying new ones, must register them with renewals required.  If the registered weapon is given or sold to another, forms have to be completed, the item identified, with the new owner’s name and address.  Then the new owner has 30 days to register them.  Registration fees will support the process.

Gradually a data base will be developed and ones who have a collection of weapons, an arsenal, would be identified and flagged as dealers, subject to another level of scrutiny and regulatory control.

This is complicated stuff and the devil is in the details.

Indeed, some (especially the “bad guys”) will ignore all of this, but they will be subject to prosecution if found with unregistered weapons, or if someone is found with an unregistered weapon purchased or given by them.  It will take time, maybe decades, to work through this group.  It has to start sometime.

And while more regulatory control and knowledge of our lives is abhorrent to me, something has to be started NOW and a more comprehensive solution needs to be sought by our lawmakers.  No more Sandy Hooks, Parklands, Santa Fes.  Now.  Please.

We don’t even hear much anymore about thoughts and prayers regarding the latest incident.  It’s as if we’ve all become inured to them.  That strategy never did work.  We have heard enhanced rhetoric about turning our schools into heavily armed prisons.  Is that really preferable to a “Bureau of Firearms Control?”

Yes, we must always remember those who died to defend our nation on Memorial Day, but think of our teachers and students who now face a war zone in schools.  We need to defend them from NRA’s agenda, cloaked in the sacred shroud of the 2nd amendment.  None of this takes away one’s right to bear arms, only military style weapons and makes other weapons subject to registration in the same way we regulate motor vehicles. 

And here is a letter from the 4th grade Grandson of a friend of ours which he wrote to President Trump crying out for humane leadership.  Is there any better message this Memorial Day?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Goodbye, Philip Roth

I feel as if I have lost a good friend, similar to the way I felt when John Updike died now more than nine years ago.  I grieved then and I grieve now.  These are the two towering writers of my lifetime and no one, for me at least, will even begin to approach them.  They were not only the most prolific writers of our era, but were the most perceptive observers of our cultural scene, now turning into a cultural wasteland.   And they spoke personally to me in ways other writers often have as well, but never with such fecundity.

Roth was ten years older than I am (and Updike was about the same number of years older than I was when he died), a coincidence which does not fail to strike a looming chord in me.  I’ve read everything by Updike and most by Roth, noting a couple of his novels still on my “to read” shelf. 

One of my earliest entries in this blog cited the importance of both Updike and Roth to me.  Here’s just a part of what I said about Roth, still relevant today:

Where Updike awakens the Calvinist background of my early years and the suburban existence of my later life, Roth explores the “Jewishness” of my New York City years. I’ve long felt his American Pastoral is one of the great novels of the 20th century,

The novel made me relive those Vietnam years of the 60’s and the social upheavals of the times. It is a novel in the negative universe of Updike’s Rabbit, in that the main character is also a former high school star athlete, but from the inner city, one who in his attempt to create the “perfect life” of the American dream, an American pastoral, finds his daughter caught up in Weather Underground violence as he also helplessly witnesses the destruction of his once beloved inner-city Newark in the 1970s. An American Dream turned American Nightmare, capturing exactly the way I felt at the time.

Several years ago Roth declared that he would not be writing any more fiction; believing that he had given all he had (and he did), recognizing that his creative and physical powers were declining.  Consequently I decided to reread his first major work, Goodbye, Columbus . It had been “merely” 50 years since I first read it.  This is some of what I said after the second reading:

It was a very different experience reading the book as a septuagenarian.  I see Roth as a young colt writing this novella, exploring themes that would develop over the next fifty plus years, with clear signs of the literary thoroughbred he would become.  Certainly the work foreshadows my favorite Roth work, American Pastoral.  Nonetheless, it was somewhat painful reading his youthful work, bringing up issues of my own formative years that were submerged long ago, ones I was hardly conscious of when I first read the book, crazy families’ impact on their children, the first real romantic love, and youth’s obliviousness that old age would one day arrive.  And true to Roth, it is a very funny work as well.

The title symbolizes the soon-to-be-lost youth of Brenda's brother, as he is about to be married (like me, at an early age), but still a boy, dreaming of his basketball days at Ohio State, listening to an old radio broadcast of the big game which begins: "The place, the banks of the Oentangy."  My friend Bruce and I spent part of the summer at Ohio State University in Columbus as representatives to the National Student Association from our university.  It was a different world from New York, indeed, but we, like the youth of Roth’s first major work, were ready to be swept along into the stream of life as if it was endless.

Coincidentally that same entry covers another book I read at the same time, Tom Wolfe’s journalistic masterpiece, The Right Stuff.  I had read most of Wolfe’s fiction.  We mourned the death of Tom Wolfe only a week before Roth’s.

A few years after Roth decided to stop writing fiction he gave an interview, one of his few in his later years, where he commented on that decision:  It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death. 

Indeed, the few slender novels he produced towards the end of his writing life are ruminations about death.  They are hard to read and yet mesmerizing, a phase of life for which we are all preparing. I quoted parts of that interview in this entry. Now a great voice has been silenced, but what he had to say will live into the future of American fiction and thought.

There is another coincidence to his death yesterday.  The day before my wife, Ann, met someone who revealed he was a childhood friend of Philip Roth.  How the conversation turned to Philip Roth was preternatural.  She told him how much I (and she) admire Roth.  He suggested we talk and provided his email contact.  I wrote him a long, chatty email suggesting we meet, maybe over lunch, as I’d love to hear about him as he was then.  That was yesterday, the day Roth died.  I grieve for his childhood friend and for us all.  There will never be another like him.

Fortunately Blake Bailey who wrote two superb literary biographies, one on John Cheever and the other on Richard Yates, has been working with Philip Roth on his life's story, with unfettered access to Roth’s papers, friends, and relatives.  This authorized biography will be the final chapter of a remarkable literary life.

Post Script:
Among the tributes published in the New York Times on Roth was one which quoted a paragraph from American Pastoral.  I remember reading this exact paragraph out loud to my wife when I first read it.  Great literature captures universality.  My father was not Jewish but this could mostly apply to him, as it could to almost anyone “for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between” and whose “most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything.”  Here’s what Roth wrote:
Mr. Levov was one of those slum-reared Jewish fathers whose rough-hewn, undereducated perspective goaded a whole generation of striving, college-educated Jewish sons: a father for whom everything is an unshakable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn’t as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them.

And as readers it is our job to love Philip Roth and remember him always.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Equus Soars, Stuns, and Unsettles at Palm Beach Dramaworks

Palm Beach Dramaworks has produced Peter Shaffer’s great late 20th century play, Equus.  It is one of the best productions of any PBD season, and that’s a superlative I hesitate to use given what has preceded it.  In every respect it is comparable to the outstanding productions of the play which have been performed on Broadway or the West End.  Director J. Barry Lewis has taken a metaphoric jig saw puzzle and put it together in a flowing, mesmerizing, gut-wrenching production with actors at the very top of their games, particularly the two leads, the skilled, seasoned Peter Simon Hilton as Martin Dysart, a child psychiatrist, and an upcoming actor whose brilliant performance portends an extraordinary acting future, Steven Maier as his patient, 17 year old Alan Strang.

Passion vs. the cerebral, paganism vs. Christianity, normal vs. abnormal, regret and hope: these are just a few of the layers of Equus.  The abhorrent act of blinding five horses with a metal spike brings all these discordant themes together in an incomparable thought-provoking and passionate production.

It is a long play, sometimes difficult to watch as there is such self loathing on the part of the two major characters and as they reveal more, they change the other, but for better or for worse?  The sparse Greek staging strips the story down to its bare essentials while the acting makes this so deeply affecting.

The play was written in the 1970s at a time when an anti-psychiatry movement was underway.  In fact, Shaffer himself amusingly recalled that “in London Equus caused a sensation because it displayed cruelty to horses; in New York, because it allegedly displayed cruelty to psychiatrists.”  Nonetheless, Shaffer’s ability to incorporate all the major themes in the play into a psychological “why he did it,” has been dealt  with by the vision of the production’s director, the astute J. Barry Lewis, a combination that makes this great theatre.  Some have even called the play dated, but Lewis’ direction shapes the play so the ideas are still as relevant in today’s world as it was nearly fifty years ago.

Lewis is widely known as a collaborative director, believing in his creative staff and encouraging the actors to make their own unique contributions to the story the playwright has to tell, while remaining true to the text.  It shows in this production, bringing out the best of the playwright, and the actors, the technical staff facilitating its implementation.  The direction and the staging are like a skillfully solved Rubik's Cube.  This is A Master Class in every respect.

Alan Strang is a disturbed inaccessible boy, the product of a stern atheistic father who also leads a secret life and his very piously religious wife who has fervently read passages from the Bible to her son all his life.  Are they to blame for Alan’s aberrant behavior of savagely blinding those horses at the stable where he worked?

The incident leads to Alan being admitted to a psychiatric hospital in southern England and into the care of its head psychiatrist Martin Dysart.  Dysart at first objects to taking on still another patient but his friend, Hesther Salomon, a sympathetic magistrate who believes Alan would be better off in his care than in a prison, urges him on.  Increasingly, for reasons Shaffer steadily feeds to the audience, the case fascinates Dysart.  In fact, he becomes obsessively involved as his unhappy personal life is revealed and he begins to doubt the consequences of his life’s work, “curing” people of their aberrations (passions?).

Alan Strang is grippingly played by Steven Maier.  This is not only his PBD debut but, remarkably, his Regional Theatre debut.  He is an amazingly gifted actor who portrays this tormented boy with complete abandon.  Alan’s repressed sexuality merges into a conflation of the agony of Christ with those of horses, their having to endure bridles, reins, and stirrups.  And yet, Alan is moved by “the way they give themselves to us.”  He replaces a portrait of Christ in his room, one of him in chains on the Road to Calvary, with a picture of a horse looking straight on, it’s enormous eyes the most salient feature: “behold I give you Equus, my only begotten son.”  Maier goes places you rarely see on a stage, a place where inner demons dominate.

At first he can only chant advertising jingoes as he enters therapy but as Dysart brings him closer in touch with the heinous act he has committed, Maier’s performance builds and builds to an insistent crescendo.  It’s exhausting and exhilarating at the same time, Alan literally climaxing while on his favorite horse, Nugget (Equus), to which he is erotically attracted, the two becoming centauresque at that moment.

Peter Simon Hilton plays Dysart as a stern ringmaster, orchestrating, pressing, questioning, and controlling what happens in the present and making Alan play out what happened in the past.  Frequently the past and the present are happening concurrently, actors talking across one another.  As more is revealed in the abreaction process, Hilton effectively shows Dysart’s jealousy of his patient and his increasing doubt in his own life’s work.  Hilton holds the audience in his grip delivering Shaffer’s simply brilliant analytical monologues which conclude with such introspection.  He comments on his concern about taking away Alan’s “worship” of horses to Hesther:

“I only know it’s the core of his life. What else has he got? Think about him. He can hardly read. He knows no physics or engineering to make the world real for him. No paintings to show him how others have enjoyed it. No music except television jingles. No history except tales from a desperate mother. No friends. Not one kid to give him a joke, or make him know himself more moderately. He’s a modern citizen for whom society doesn’t exist. He lives one hour every three weeks -- howling in a mist. And after the service kneels to a slave who stands over him obviously and unthrowably his master. With my body I thee worship! …Many men have less vital with their wives.” 

Indeed, such as Dysart’s non-existent relationship with his off stage wife.  More and more of Dysart’s thoughts go to his own deferred passion, Greek mythology, particularly the dichotomy of Apollo and Dionysus, and thoughts of retiring to Greece (but with whom, not with a wife who fails to appreciate the mythology, or him).  Frequently Dysart addresses the audience directly, Hilton staring into our faces, drawing us yet further into the heart of the play.

Dysart is one of the most conflicted cerebral characters in a 20th century play which Peter Simon Hilton conveys effortlessly, leaving us all to wonder, have we done what our hearts dictated or has society merely set us “on a metal scooter and sen[t]…puttering off into the concrete world?”  Have we made a difference?  Are we condemned too to wear a metaphoric horse’s bit?

The major supporting roles are all played by experienced PBD actors.  Julie Rowe as Dora Strang, Alan’s semi-hysterical mother, candidly displays the emotions of a loving parent, but is understandably bewildered and horrified by her son’s act, particularly because of her belief in the religious education she provided.  Her husband, Frank, is played by John Leonard Thompson, darkly, uncomfortably --  being such a private person now thrown into the light of the courts and the institutional process of treating his son, their only child, of whom he’s been critical all his life, (“son of a printer and you never open a book!”).  His work ethic collides with his urge to visit adult films.  Thompson shows a man racked by guilt and self defensiveness.

Dysart’s friend, and magistrate, Hesther Salomon, is compassionately played by Anne-Marie Cusson, she being the only sounding board for Dysart other than the audience itself.  Cusson is stalwart in bolstering him up at those very difficult times when he is expressing his greatest doubts, both as a man and a doctor. Her sensitive portrayal is deeply touching, especially when she expresses the constant reminder to him and us that “children before adults” must be humanity's mantra if we are to remain a civilized world.

Alan ends up working with the horses at a local stable thanks to a job offer from Jill Mason, skillfully played with a sexual free spirit and sangfroid by Mallory Newbrough, characteristics of the “new age” of the early 1970’s.  Her playful and persistent interest in Alan ultimately leads to an unsatisfactory sexual incident in the stables, which causes Alan’s destructive anguish to surface, melding his shame and fear and derangement into an unfathomable crime.

Harry Dalton, the owner of the stable, is played by the accomplished Steve Carroll and the nurse who works for Dysart is professionally played by Meredith Bartmon. 

Not enough accolades can be directed to the actors playing the horses.  Sounds silly, I know, yet led by head horse, “Nugget” majestically as well as muscularly played by Domenic Servidio (he also plays “The Horseman,” a man who takes Alan for a ride on a horse at a beach as a youngster), are the others skillfully and mesmerizingly played by Austin Carroll, Nicholas Lovalvo, Robert Richards, Jr., and Frank Vomero.

Talk about method acting, each of the horsemen, as well as Maier (Alan) spent time at a local stable – in fact Servidio went to a dude ranch for a long weekend – to have a better understanding of a horse’s movement, particularly in a stable.  They discovered horses’ ticks, with their hoofs, their reactionary movements, their ubiquitous eyes.  I truly believe this enhanced the performance, not to mention certain choreographed moments when the horses provide a ghoulish background for some of the action “in the ring.”

And, indeed, the scenic design by PBD veteran Anne Mundell borrows both from the prize fighting ring and the Greek theatre.  The play involves constant confrontation, between characters and with the inner self, so the stripped down representation of a boxing ring is a visual source for these pugilistic encounters.  And as in Greek theatre of classical times, it’s a simple space to tell a story, with minimal props, most of which are pantomimed, except for the horses’ heads which are in keeping with the masks worn in Greek theatre.  It’s up to the audience to visualize the scenes from those outlines.

And as in Greek theatre, both the horses and the actors who are not engaged in a particular scene play the role of a Greek chorus.  The actors sit on seats slightly off stage, watching all the action, as Dysart urges Alan on into the depths of his soul, waiting for their turn to engage in the “fight” in the ring.

The lighting by Kirk Bookman enhances this sense of a pugilistic ring, a bright spotlight on the action from directly overhead, while other lighting is used to demark other settings, such as Alan’s room at home, the stable which is Alan’s sacred temple, or a scene at a beach.  The lighting is particularly effective in the breathless scene when Alan mounts Nugget, PBD’s turntable stage whirling counter-clockwise while the surrounding prism-like lighting turning clockwise outside to create a dizzying sense of movement.

Costumes of the 1970s by Franne Lee are the real deal, often having been “borrowed” straight out of her own time capsule closet, particularly for Jill in her bellbottoms and boots.  Every character seems to have a warm or cool aspect to their clothing, but the boy has been clothed for comfort and simplicity since he is often falling or flailing or clutching at his well worn pullover.  The horses, on the other hand, are dark forbidding masculine beasts all in skin tight black, either wearing or carrying their grotesque but compelling horse head masks, while mesmerizingly stamping the ground with their ingenious booted hoofs.

One cannot overstate the importance of the work by the sound designer, Steve Shapiro.  It is an “otherworldly” sound, not the mood music associated with most theatrical productions.  Think of electronically reproduced fragments of "Also sprach Zarathustra."  Everything becomes electronically magnified by Shapiro, including the horses’ “hum” when dramatic action is rising.  There is some dissonant electronic music when necessary, especially when taking the audience into Alan’s mind, making us all feel deeply unsettled. 

With a large cast and such an abstract production, the importance of the stage manager’s work is evident.  Kudos to the very experienced PBD veteran James Danford who oversees this seamless production.

Much has been made of the nudity in the play but it only serves as a metaphor for underscoring that when things are stripped down to the bare essence, there is no place to hide. And as Alan plaintively says,” a horse is the most naked thing you ever saw.”  It is not gratuitous nudity but totally befitting the play’s honesty.

Palm Beach Dramaworks production of Equus is not only theatre to think about, but theatre which will haunt your thoughts, electrifying in every way live theatre can be, brilliantly written, conceived and sharply executed.

Photo Credits

1.Meredith Bartmon, Austin Carroll, Robert Richards, Jr., Domenic Servidio, Steven Maier, Frank Vomero, Nicholas Lovalvo, John Leonard Thompson; Photo by Alicia Donelan

2.Meredith Bartmon, Peter Simon Hilton, Steven Maier; Photo by Alicia Donelan

3.Steven Maier, Domenic Servidio Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

4.John Leonard Thompson, Steven Maier; Photo by Alicia Donelan

5.Peter Simon Hilton, Steven Maier, Mallory Newbrough; Photo by Alicia Donelan

6.The Horses of Equus, Steven Maier; Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

7.Equus Palm Beach Dramaworks Stage; Photo by Bob Hagelstein