Wednesday, December 4, 2019

‘Quichotte’ by Salman Rushdie - Making sense of Y2K’s Second Decade

While we were at the Malaprop's Bookstore/CafĂ© in Asheville I spied a signed edition of Salman Rushdie’s recently published novel, Quichotte (pronounced “key-shot”).  I vaguely remembered reviews that recommended the work.  I looked it over and the jacket copy hooked me:  “Just as Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to satirize the culture of his time, Rushdie takes the reader on a wild ride through a country on the verge of moral and spiritual collapse.”  Having never read Rushdie, I snapped up that next to last copy, although reading a signed edition has its downsides:  no marginal note taking allowed, no turned down corners of pages to mark important passages.  Plus, I knew I wouldn’t get to it for a while.

“A while” stretched well into the fall and, finally, I began it, clearly a modern day take off on Don Quixote (from which our main character derives his name), but the character Quichotte is a creation of another character, a crime fiction writer, “Brother” with a pen name of Sam Duchamp.  If you are looking for a logically organized, cohesive novel, this is not the one, but if you value a writer’s ability to capture the soul of society in a “moment” in time, then you simply must admire Rushdie’s work.

There are so many characters contributing to the overall sense of a world gone terrifyingly out of control, a sprawling novel in its allusions and conceits, a brilliant work of postmodern fiction, with metafictitious elements so you are constantly caught off guard.  There are stories within stories oftentimes with the identity of the author unclear.  There are pastiches of popular culture the sum of which point the way to the vapid disintegration of values and truth, making it a hallmark work of dystopian literature.

Perhaps it is Rushdie’s age.  He, as with Quichotte (and Brother), as well as myself, are only too aware that time is running out.  Is there enough left to put our personal lives in “order” while the societies we inhabit (in this novel, America, England, and India) are teetering on the precipice of chaos?  There are constant veiled allusions to absurdists such as Ionesco and Beckett.  The elderly Quichotte has by pure will conjured up a son, “Sancho” to accompany him on his “quest” to find his true love, Salma R., a reality TV star (magical realism and phantasmagoria abound throughout the entire novel).  “Father and son” had been sleeping under the stars but they’ve had a quarrel.  Quichotte has gone back to sleep, but Sancho, half ghost at this point, half real person, has climbed to the roof of their Chevy, listening to the crickets and looking up at the humbling wheel of the galaxy.  There was a sign if you wanted one, he thought, a gigantic starlight finger flipping the bird at the Earth, pointing out that all human aspiration was meaningless and all human achievement absurd when measured against the everything of everything.  Up there was the immensity of the immensity, the endless distance of the distance, the impossible scale, the thunderous silence of all that light, the million million million blazing suns out there where nobody could hear you scream.  And down here the human race, dirty ants crawling across a small rock circling a minor star in the outlying provinces of a lesser galaxy in the inconsequential boondocks of the universe, narcissistic ants mad with egotism, insisting in the fact of the fiery night-sky evidence to the contrary that their puny anthills stood at the heart of it all.  (Do I hear the echo of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days? )

As a picaresque novel it savagely satires the entire America of now, a society gone wild with the self indulgent consumption of popular culture, conspiracy theories, xenophobia, opioid addition, and political polarization.  Rushdie skillfully moves his characters from one story to another, sometimes intersecting, part of his metafictional technique, with such alacrity that the novel is best read not in little sips before bedtime as I did, but in a few large gulps.  Still, you’ll wonder about it all.  It is not easy to follow, but it is compelling to follow.  I found that I had to read the prior few pages before I picked it up again.

In addition to Quichotte, who used to be a pharmaceutical salesman for his relative, “Dr. Smile,” there is the good doctor’s wife, “Happy” who pushes her husband to become successful which leads to Smile’s highly addictive sub-lingual Fentanyl spray called “InSmile.”  This ultimately connects Quichotte to Salma R., the reality TV star (and InSmile addict) whose mother and grandmother were also TV stars in her place of birth, India, which not coincidently is where Quichotte was born (and, of course, Rushdie as well).

Quichotte has problems with his sister, as does “Brother” in a parallel story and as the novel progresses; these tend to run less side by side but converge.  As I said, it’s an unreal novel, hard to follow, but necessary to read.  Why necessary?

Well, for me, it so eloquently suggests answers to some questions I raised in Waiting for Someone to Explain It; The Rise of Contempt and Decline of Sense. 

When I complied that book from my political musings in this blog, its tongue in cheek title expressed the increasing questions that seem to rise as I age and with these times seemingly spinning apart.  I think Rushdie is similarly expressing a feeling of hopelessness for the human race, and in particular, our nation. I realize that this belief is nihilistic and cynical, but in fiction he presents abounding evidence. 

Dues ex machina!  In the end Quichotte and Salma R. take an “impossible journey” across an America that has devolved into a dystopian landscape to get to California to find one of Salma R’s TV guests, the Elon Muskian (mad? evil?) scientist “Evel Sent”, who claims he has invented a portal to an alternative Earth.  Seriously, he’s sent a dog though there and brought him back, although, as the dog can’t speak, we really can’t quite be sure (yes, the novel is also very funny at times).  If only Quichotte and Salma R can get to the portal, and they do!  But what happens then?  Not wanting to float a spoiler, I’ll end this paragraph here.

This will probably be my last novel for this year, this decade, but it was such an appropriate one as it will be the last entry as well in a chapter in the book I am now slowly compiling which is the antipole of Waiting for Someone to Explain It.  Our writers and playwrights, although their works are considered “fiction” now tilt the fiction / non-fiction scale the other way.  In this era of “fake” news, what is really fake?  Nowadays, I rely on real news from some of our airway’s best comics, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, and John Oliver in particular.  Interviews with elected officials can’t seem to measure up to the bar of truth that our comics transcend.

Quichotte in answering a question posed by his “son” Sancho, sums up the importance of what our novelists contribute to the enigma of our times: “I think it’s legitimate for a work of art made in the present time to say, we are being crippled by the culture we have made, by its most popular elements above all…and by stupidity and ignorance and bigotry.”

And then there is the ultimate absurdist question, does it matter at all?  This is where the process of aging and the very nature of existence converge: What vanishes when everything vanishes: not only everything, but the memory of everything. Not only can everything no longer remember itself, no longer remember how it was when it still was everything, before it became nothing, but there is nobody else to remember either, and so everything not only ceases to exist but becomes a thing that never was; it is as if everything that was, was not, and moreover there is nobody left to tell the story, not the whole grand story of everything, not even the last sad story of how everything became nothing, because there is no storyteller, no hand to write or eye to read, so that the book of how everything became nothing cannot be written, just as we cannot write the stories of our own deaths, which is our tragedy, to be stories whose endings can never be known, not even to ourselves, because we are no longer there to know them.

And, so, the second decade of the 21st century draws to its end.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Highly Anticipated ‘Ordinary Americans’ Opens this Week at Palm Beach Dramaworks

It is rare for a World Premiere play to be extended before it even opens, but the pre-opening demand for Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Ordinary Americans by Joseph McDonough has been so enthusiastic, that it has now been extended to January 5, opening on December 6.  Is it no wonder?  This new play dramatizes a time not unlike our own, written by a proven playwright, and staring one of South Florida’s most accomplished actors, Elizabeth Dimon as the indefatigable Gertrude “Tillie” Berg (AKA Molly Goldberg).

Elizabeth Dimon as Gertrude Berg
Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
Ordinary Americans has all the right stuff to make it a hit.

When television was in its infancy, few actors were as beloved as Gertrude Berg and the gentle comedy that she created, wrote, produced, and starred in, The Goldbergs.  The program began on radio in 1929, and 20 years later became one of TV’s earliest sitcoms.  For her portrayal of Molly Goldberg, the matriarch of a Jewish family living in the Bronx, Berg was the first recipient of an Emmy Award for Best Actress. 

The Goldbergs was a huge moneymaker for CBS.  And then, in June, 1950, a pamphlet, “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television,” was published by a right-wing newsletter. It listed 151 artists and broadcasters as “Red Fascists and their sympathizers.”  Proponents of civil rights and academic freedom were among the favorite targets.  Many of them, not coincidentally, were Jewish.  Among those ensnared by this very real witch hunt was Philip Loeb, who played Jake Goldberg, Molly’s TV husband.  When CBS demanded that Berg fire Loeb, she refused.  The show was taken off the air.

The aftermath of that decision, and the consequences of McCarthyism and anti-Semitism on Berg, Loeb, and the Goldberg “family,” is at the center of Joseph McDonough’s Ordinary Americans, a co-production with GableStage that was commissioned by Palm Beach Dramaworks.

There is an unusual back story about the play’s beginnings: it was suggested by Elizabeth Dimon who plays the lead.  “I came to the idea of a possible play about Gertrude Berg after reading about the ‘blacklisting’ of actors during the 1950’s ‘red scare’.  This remarkable woman not only starred in her own show, but had authored more than 12,000 radio and TV scripts during her lifetime.  She was in sharp contrast to most in the TV business, a strong, independent figure, and a woman as well. I thought to myself, I would love to play Berg and brought the idea about a play to Bill.” 

Bill Hayes, PBD Producing Artistic Director was intrigued and immediately thought of Joe McDonough as the ideal playwright.  “In addition to PBD being instrumental in developing this play, it is the timeliest play we’ve ever done.  What was going on then was so subversive; everyone just thought that justice would prevail.  Although our present times are not exactly the same, it was a similar world, just seen through a different prism. I felt a co production with GableStage was important to spread the message this play has to say.  I also think it’s important for the arts of collaborate – there is strength in numbers – so this play will open in Miami soon after it closes here.  It is our hope that it will eventually be picked up by other theatres as well.”

Joseph McDonough
The playwright, Joe McDonough said “I enjoyed writing almost an historical piece, infusing it with the natural drama of the story, and felt a tremendous obligation towards fidelity. In fact I researched the papers of Philip Loeb at the New York Public Library, which had his notes before he testified before the House on Un-American Activities. Among his notes was this plaintive statement: ‘here I am having tried to do justice in my life and now I am being made a victim of injustice.’  I’m telling a tragedy here and want to be faithful to the real people in the drama. It’s a powerful story that excites and the universality of the issues are such they almost write themselves.”

David Kwait in his PBD debut plays Philip Loeb.  Ordinary Americans is a revelation to me as The Goldbergs was before my time.  I admire my character’s sense of justice always being on the side of advocacy for actors and their working conditions.  In the play Angels in America I ironically acted the part of Roy Cohn, the polar opposite of Philip Loeb, and from the same era, but my training is to be an advocate for the character and let the audience decide.”

Tillie’s right hand gal, Fannie, is played by Margery Lowe.  “Fannie’s outright dedication to Tillie, and her ability to keep her boss under control was remarkable.  They were like sisters.  And I love playing with Beth as we’ve acted together more than a dozen times and we can communicate with just a look. And I like my secondary role as Mrs. Kramer being able to shout out “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!  The play seems eerily current as I drove down I95 today listening to the Congressional Hearings.”

Rob Donohoe and Tom Wahl play a number of roles, a testament to how PBD is able to stage the play along with Donohoe and Wahl’s versatility. 

Donohoe said “although a World Premiere, this experience was very different that the last one I played in at PBD, House on Fire, which came to us pretty much a finished piece.  Ordinary Americans was commissioned by PBD and underwent enormous changes in its development.  I play a number of characters but mainly Eli Mintz who is ‘Uncle David’ on the TV show.  He was an immigrant from Poland and his pessimism is like a Greek Chorus in the play.  I also play Cardinal Spellman who wheeled tremendous influence in the 1950s. Although he was a man of strong convictions about himself, I hope to show his humanity, his belief that he was saving souls even though he played a part in ‘the Red Scare.”  Donohoe summed it all up saying “it is frightening how similar that period of distrust and fear resembles those of today, and this new play captures that very feeling.”

Following its run at PBD, Ordinary Americans moves south to GableStage, where it can be seen from January 18 – February 16, 2020. PBD Producing Artistic Director William Hayes directs the play. Ilana Becker is the associate director (PBD debut). Set design is by Michael Amico, costume design is by Brian O’Keefe, lighting design is by Christina Watanabe (PBD debut), and sound design is by David Thomas.     

Saturday, November 23, 2019

A Riotous Production of ‘A Funny Thing…’ Erupts at the Rinker Playhouse

Something for students of Sondheim.  Something for lovers of shtick.  Something for supporters of South Florida theatre.  “Something for everyone – a comedy tonight!”  MNM theatre company knocks A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum out of the Coliseum at the Rinker Playhouse, part of the Kravis complex. 

It is thought of as Sondheim’s first musical for which he wrote both the lyrics and the music.  It is and it isn’t.  His first such attempt, Saturday Night, was written eight years earlier, but it never made it to Broadway at the time (although that was where it was headed) as the Producer suddenly died and the bankroll evaporated.  It reflected his youth of being only 22, a traditional musical, so unlike his later innovative works.  Still, the unproduced musical put him on the radar scope and he was soon sought out as a lyricist, with such shows as West Side Story and Gypsy.

Sondheim however wanted to be a composer-lyricist; thus, indeed, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum IS his first Broadway credit in both capacities.  For any Sondheim fan, it is a must see musical for that reason alone.  It clearly reflects his genius as a wordsmith, although one can also detect his unique musical gift incubating, particularly in the duets.  And it is the lyrics and “the book” by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (of M*A*S*H fame) that made, and continues to make this early Sondheim work a success. It unfolds at a hilarious frenetic pace and it immediately grabs the audience’s attention with “Comedy Tonight."

The mad cap farce involves a conniving Roman slave (Pseudolus) who wants his freedom while his master (Hero) wants the virginal girl next door (Philia), and so the slave concocts a plan to achieve his master’s desire IF he will give him his freedom.  Sounds pretty straightforward except every complication known to vaudevillian theatre is thrown in the way.

So, kudos to MNM Productions for bringing Sondheim’s vintage, formative work to the Rinker Playhouse.  MNM’s mission is to “showcase talented Florida-based actors, Equity and non-Equity alike, live musicians and a top-notch crew of designers and technicians.”  With this show, mission accomplished! It is a professional production in every way, particularly due to the talented cast whose voices soared in the ensemble musical numbers.

Johnbarry Green who we have seen perform locally at the Maltz and at Palm Beach Dramaworks, plays the iconic part of Pseudolus  (Sondheim originally thought of the fast talking Phil Silvers when he was writing it, but it was Zero Mostel who first played the part on stage and in the movie so it is he who is traditionally identified as Pseudolus).  It’s a tall order and the entire production depends on Green’s ability to successfully pull off this buffoonish role and sing and dance and basically knock himself out for 2-1/2 hours.  Within minutes he has the audience laughing so that possible hurdle is comfortably cleared.  In fact, throughout the performance Green shows his comic physicality and even had to ad lib on stage when he almost fell off a bench, turning to the audience who drew in its breath in anticipation, saying “It’s OK, don’t worry!!” not missing a beat.  Only live theatre can convey such a special moment.  
Johnbarry Green as Pseudolus and Michael Scott Ross as Hysterium
Photo credit:  Amy Pasquantonio 

Green is all over the stage throughout the production, just one of the many details of the show’s complex choreography so seamlessly arranged by Laura Plyler.  But in Johnbarry Green’s performance, “a star is born.”  He has all the acting and comic chops and a rousing voice that enhances his performance.

J Savage plays Hero the young master who is so naively induced into Pseudolus’ increasingly complicated scheme with wide eyed wonder of innocence, his heart set on having the virginal Philia who was entrancingly played by the beautiful Meg Frost.

Hero’s father and mother were skillfully performed by Troy Stanley as the lecherous Senex, clearly carrying the burden of being the henpecked husband of Domina who Aaron Bower plays up as a shrew to be feared.  The pivotal role Hysterium is truly hysterically acted by Michael Scott Ross.  He is not on the stage for a moment without a laugh. Terry Hardcastle plays the owner of the house of courtesans, Marcus Lycus, who is willing to agree to any of Pseudolus’ plans as long has he is not in jeopardy.  The character Erronius is condemned to wander around the stage most of the night looking for his children who were stolen as infants by pirates.  Paul Thompson’s portrayal of the old man received greater laughs after each turn around the 7 hills surrounding Rome. And his plight is part of the show’s resolution.

Another star in the show bursts forth near the end of the first act, the arrival of Miles Gloriosus, a Roman Captain who has a claim on Phila (part of the plot’s complication).  Miles is indeed gloriously played by Sean William Davis.  (Think of the bravado of Lancelot singing “C'est Moi" in Camelot.).  Davis just oozes Majesty and sex appeal on stage, while his voice is clear and powerful.  Yet he, too, is duped by Pseudolus.

The courtesans –  “Tintinabula, Panacea, Geminae Twins, Vibrata, and Gymnasia” – are so amusingly and seductively played as their namesakes by Meredith Pughe, Alexandra Van Hasselt. Victoria Joleen Anderson, Alexandra Dow, Lauren Cluett, and Ashley Rubin respectively, while ”The Proteans” who are called upon by the characters to play different roles to move the comedic plot along are entertainingly and sometimes acrobatically played by Stephen Eisenwasser, Frank Francisco, and Elijah Pearson-Martinez.

This classic production is under the capable directorial hand of Jonathan Van Dyke who also coordinated the costumes and a special mention should be made of the original set design by Cindi Taylor and superb wigs by Justin Lore.  Lighting Designer is Rachel Weis. Sound Engineer Vincent Bryant’s work excelled: rarely have we been at a performance where every word can be clearly heard, whether said or sung, so important in this production.  Even James Danford came out of retirement briefly to serve as Stage Manager, no small feat in this show. Paul Reekie serves as a musical director of a band of six which in the intimate Rinker Playhouse sounds like a full Broadway orchestra.

I mention all these names as they are South Florida actors and theatre technicians who deserve our support, especially as together they created a “pretty little masterpiece” (as sung by Pseudolus in the song “Pretty Little Picture”).