Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Burn This (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Los Angeles' Mark Taper forum makes a lovely venue for a play.  A thrust stage (i.e. the audience on three sides) surrounded by a semi-circle of seats, so everyone can see the actors faces and hear pretty much every word.  Last night, I had the great good fortune to see a production of Lanford Wilson's Burn This.

As it happens, I'd seen this show on Broadway a quarter century ago.  Whether that makes my reaction clearer or distorted remains an excellent question.

The play follows four characters as they react to the death of a fifth, Robbie.  Anna, his roommate and sometimes dance partner, we meet first--taking her first cigarette since college.  Soon after her sometimes-lover Burton shows up, a successful screenwriter.  Next comes Larry, Anna's other roommate, a archly witty gay man who works in advertising.  Then--enter Pale.  Robbie's death may have have lit a match, but Pale's arrival puts that flame to a fuse.  Lives proceed to explode from the moment he enters, drunk and far too early in the morning, still working out his grief over not only his brother's pointless death but his own seemingly-pointless life.

Pale talks like he's unwinding half-drunk at a bar following a sixteen-hour work day, amidst plenty of personal issues bubbling to the surface.  He shatters personal defenses, almost by reflex.  He startles with his areas of knowledge and taste--including his love of the ocean, the way he enjoys watching large fires, the time he stayed on a pier during a hurricane (which evidently ruined roller coasters for him forever).  But more than that, he wears on his sleeve exactly what Anna herself feels down to the marrow but denies.  She, like Pale, is in pain.  She feels unattached to others, a failure at her art, in little or no control over anything in her life.

She describes having to stay overnight at Robbie's parents' house, sleeping in a nephew's room where he'd pinned butterflies collected earlier that day.  Awakening in the middle of the night, she realizes the butterflies aren't dead yet!

Perfect metaphor for Anna as well as Pale--meant to fly but pinned alive to a wall.  Little wonder they feel a connection so soon.  Even less wonder that connection frightens, upsets, bewilders them both.  Numbness has its attractions, not least the muting of pain.  But no pain means no ecstasy.  To be numb is to be barely alive, to survive and nothing else.  Yet the flood of new feelings will hurt as well as exhilerate.  Like all supremely valuable things, actual living (as opposed to mere survival) costs.

The Mark Taper production (still playing, and I do recommend it) itself feels like an LA version of NYC rather than the real thing.  Granted that cannot help but be subtle, and if I hadn't lived in New York it might never have registered.  Brooks Ashmanskas as Larry does an admirable job--a kind of not-too-acid-tongued Greek Chorus who finds himself part of the drama (or comedy--this is a funny play, that bears repeating).  In this at least I can say his casting was actually better than on Broadway, simply because he's a little older and so his actions more realistic, his situation more in tune with what others say (and certainly makes a certain zinger in the last scene hit home).  Ken Barnett as Burton frankly seemed miscast--too young to be such a successful screenwriter, not numb enough nor sufficiently cynical.  To be sure he has probably the single hardest role in the play.  But his physicality proved a strange choice, including a tendency to "act with his hands" instead of simply talking (this popped up now and then with the rest of the cast as well).  Very little physical or vocal precision, alas, in this production.

Zabryna Guevara and Adam Rothemberg play the leads, upon whom most of the play depends.  If we don't believe in them, the story won't work.  We do.  The former falls a little short of the deep energy Anna demands, but that comes down to her not managing to be a great actress.  She is quite good in the role, but doesn't quite match the energy of her Pale.  He gives the best performance out of four quite good ones, showing us the swirl of fascinating contradictions that are Pale--enough to fascinate.  These are two difficult roles, both communicating in very affected (but different) ways.  If they only barely manage to nail Anna and Pale, let us not forget they do manage it--a feat only genuinely good actors could accomplish.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The War Between The States

Strong opinions ahead.

It is very American for it The Civil War, as if no one else had ever had one--or at least none of any importance.  Today marks the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the official first shots of that terrible yet weirdly glorious conflict.  Actually other skirmishes happened before then, just as battles continued after Appomattox.  We like to simplify things like that.  Not just Americans--all of us.  Still, when cannons fired on Fort Sumpter everyone knew it had come to war.  So in a way the popular idea was right.

Curiously (I am far from the first to point this out)  we as a nation focus much more on our Civil War than upon the Revolution that created us.  Pundits talk a lot about the Founding Fathers, but for the most part Thomas Jefferson is not as well-known as Robert E. Lee, nor Alexander Hamilton as familiar as Nathan Bedford Forrest, any more than Josiah Bartlet is more famous than General "Spoons" Butler.  Some reasons remain obvious, at least if you enjoy history.  Washington, Adams, Franklin etc. lived in an age wildly different from our own, before the Victorian middle class shaped our culture into the template we now know.  The battles of the earlier conflict look messier, less clear-cut than Antitem, Gettysburg, Richmond or New Orleans (quick quiz--Why do we have a aircraft carrier named Saratoga?)

Maybe a more vivid reason lies in the issues, though.  Fundamentally, what led our ancestors into a five-year bloodbath of brother against brother remains unresolved.  Nothing shows this more than the efforts of Confederate Apologists.  Listening to these folks, one would think the wrong side won.  That maybe slavery wasn't even a major institution in the Southern states, and even if it was nobody really cared that much about it--not even the slaves.  State's rights, their argument goes, led to the war.  The sovereignty of the states crushed by invading armies of a swollen Federal government.  Usually this argument comes with hints or outright claims that Washington DC continues its nefarious efforts to squash the freedom embodied by the gray uniform and the famous battle flag of the Army of North Virginia (the "stars and bars").

Every word of this remains nonsense.

At least the Confederate states themselves didn't engage in such deceit.  They came out and said they were fighting for the right to own slaves--that was the "State Right" they longed to defend with bullet and bayonet.  In the CSA Constitution the right to own slaves was made even more secure than the right to free speech or trial by jury.  More than one state in their equivalent of the Declaration of Independence outright proclaimed the superiority of the white race and defense of slavery as their reasons to take up arms.  Indeed, the only reason a Confederate Army could be organized so quickly was because in the wake of John Brown's raid private militia sprung up all over the south, specifically to shed blood should anyone ever again try and free their human property--property they tortured and raped with impunity.

We might recall that Jefferson Davis decried the Emancipation Proclamation as one of the most evil acts in the sinful history of mankind.  True, he lived and died long before the Holocaust, but consider--he knew all about the Spanish Inquisition, about the burning of witches and massacres with which our history is strewn.  Yet he put ending the purchase and sale of human beings in the same category.

Southern Apologists don't like to think their ancestors were the bad guys.  The well-recorded heroism and ofttimes gallantry of Confederate soldiers lets them weave a comfortable dream of the Lost Cause, allowing them the illusion that cause was a just one.  It was not.  The Confederacy existed to protect slavery.  Its leadership knew that.  Among their dreams were those of empire, of conquering Mexico and maybe extending their territories as far as Brazil--all in the efforts to acquire power and more slaves with which to fuel those dreams.  Many Southerners showed themselves honorable as well as brave, not only able in combat but very ethical in conduct.  Likewise it would be foolish to call every Union soldier an idealized crusader for personal liberty.  But when we think of reasons for the fight, the actual and legal causes for which those armies marched and all that blood splashed across so many battlefields, then a clear truth comes out.

In the American Civil War, the good guys won and the bad guys lost.  Had the Confederacy survived, that would have been an atrocity.  Efforts for over a century following to preserve the heart of that idea--made so vividly clear in the KKK, in Jim Crow laws, in lynchings as public spectacle and in using Robert E. Lee's battle flag as an icon for racism (grossly unfair, but then Hilter appropriated the swastika)--show how vital that victory.

A century and a half after the South went to war (they fired the first shot) to keep black men and women in chains, a black man sits in the Oval Office.  Methinks even Frederick Douglas would be shocked and pleased.  But a loud minority still react to his skin color first and foremost.  Many who do don't realize it, but at the same time they hold him to a different standard.  The ridiculous "Birther" conspiracies are a case in point.  So too the belief that Congress was setting up indoctrination centers a la the Hitler Youth, that Obama would use the Swine Flu scare and the Copenhagen Accords to negate the Constitution and create some bizarre Muslim Communist regime hauling off gun owners to FEMA detention camps.  Look up all this gibberish.  It is still there.  On YouTube one guy was recommending what ammo to use to kill UN troops a year and a half ago when "they" come to take your guns.  In this guy's comments section he indignantly denied he was encouraging violence.

Therein lies some of the weird doublethink at the heart of our nation's darkness.  Such minds still see the Civil War as a conflict in which the virtuous (i.e. white chistian males enslaving blacks) were treacherously defeated.  Like Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan, in their heart of hearts they still think the bad guys won World War Two as well.

But on this, the anniversary of the War Between the States, let us not forget the other side.  We as a people fought and bled and died to break the chains of slaves.  Many resisted, some furiously, and even the best of us failed to succeed at the highest goals.  Yet, we acted.  Likewise, in the century and more that followed we as a nation strove to banish our own worst impulses.  So much has changed!  When I was a child, marriage between Black and White was a crime.  Today, the child of a mixed marriage was elected President.  Black men and women continue to be hailed as celebrities, even as among the most beautiful individuals on Earth.

We should be proud of that.  But if we accept and honor what is glorious in our history (which is much) then honest behooves us to accept the ignoble, the shame-worthy, the crimes.  Many Americans donned a uniform and wielded a gun, marching into harm's way to free the slave.  And many others did the same to defend those chains, that whip, the sacred notion that some people are the equivalent of farm animals.

Honor one.  Accept and atone for the other.  That's what I think we should do on this, the anniversary of our Civil War.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Notes on Future Project

Tentatively titled Winterisle, I'm assembling notes for a vampire novel set in 1836.  It has to be 1836 because that year Walpurgis fell on a full moon.  Will be awhile.  For one thing I have another novel to complete first!  But meanwhile some research is afoot!

You see, readers of the novel will find bread crumbs of other literary works scattered through the chapters.  Two ships visit the island of the title, for example.  One is the Grace of God, which plays a crucial part in the Wilkie Collins novel Amadale.  Second will be HMS Wessex, named for the semi-fictional county where Thomas Hardy set so many of his stories.  Likewise one character will mention a desire to go to Milton, Elizabeth Gaskell's version of Manchester in her work North and South.  Two of the main characters are children of Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.  Others include relatives of persons mentioned in short stories by H.P.Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, a reference to a school from Jane Eyre, the son of a two minor characters from another Austen novel, a name mentioned by Arthur Conan Doyle in one of Sherlock Holmes' unchronicled adventures...and so on.

Not quite sure what to call this kind of story, although some antecedents come to mind.  One of these is Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  Another is Kim Newman's Anno Dracula.  Yet another is Evil at Pemberly House by Philip Jose Farmer and Win Scott Eckert (Doc Savage's daughter inherits the estate where Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet lived--with relatives of Tarzan present).

Mind you, I'm also delving into some material that is not in the public domain, hence given the form of hints and/or tributes.  One such is the title.  Another is one of the three major characters, whose name and appearance give evidence of a link to an extremely popular series of contemporary novels that have been (and are now being) made into hugely successful films.  Plus a nod to some favorite television programs.

Fair amount of research yet to do, which so far has proven both fun as well as helpful.  Details lead to other details.  Specifics offer new ideas.  Just like cooking--one ingredient suggests another, all of which need to simmer in my imagination.

(And yes, I've included references to Dickens.)