June 6 – Extreme Kushner in Minneapolis. For months I’ve been getting press releases about it, and now the time has arrived to see the world premiere of a new Tony Kushner play, commissioned and produced by the Guthrie Theater. To make the most of the occasion, the Guthrie mounted a gigantic Kushner festival, filling all three theaters with his work – besides the new play, the Minneapolis premiere of Caroline or Change and a program of short one-acts called Tiny Kushner – and inundating the audience with pre- and post-show discussions, panels, guest speakers, and massive online study guides for University of Minnesota students and anyone else who wanted to join the Kushner scholarship.
Since I’d had a big experience seeing the very first production of Angels in America at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco in the summer of 1991, I decided I had to travel out to the Guthrie to see the new play, partly lured by the extravagant, extremely Kushnerian title: The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, with a Key to the Scriptures. Plus, it was directed by Michael Greif, with a cast headed by stellar Kushner veterans Stephen Spinella, Kathleen Chalfant, and Linda Emond. Well, as with Angels in America, the play wasn’t quite done. Apparently it was pretty hair-raising for the actors, who didn’t have a third act two weeks into a six-week rehearsal period and who were still getting rewrites during tech rehearsals. By the time I saw it, the show was nominally complete, but even at three and a half hours it was a big, hairy mess in various stages of being really done. 

Clearly, Kushner wrote the title before he wrote a word of the play. He knew he wanted to intertwine sexuality, politics, and religion, thus the nods to Shaw, Mary Baker Eddy, and, well, himself (cf. the subtitle to Angels in America: “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”). It turns out to be an elaborate American family drama set in Brooklyn in the three-story brownstone of retired longshoreman Gus Marcantonio (played by Michael Cristofer), the 75-y-o paterfamilias who thinks he’s coming down with Alzheimer’s and whose threats to repeat an earlier suicide attempt convince his sister Bennie (Chalfant) to summon his three children to talk him out of it. All three of them are fucked-up or conflicted to some degree and show up with their various spouse-equivalents: schoolteacher Pill (Spinella) and his longtime companion Paul (Michael Potts), a theologian who’s had to put up with Pill’s sex addiction and his attachment to a young hustler named Eli (Michael Esper); labor attorney Empty (Emond), her former husband Adam (Mark Benninghofen), also a lawyer who lives with and looks after Gus, and her pregnant partner Maeve (Charity Jones), also a theologian and former student of Paul’s; and contractor Vito (Ron Menzel) and his wife Sooze (Sun Mee Chomet). This being a Tony Kushner play, they get together and talk, and talk, and talk, with occasional bursts of fucking. The family inevitably stands as a metaphor for American society, declining, crazy, addicted to pleasure and excess, ambivalent about money, spiritually lost. Picture a commie/homo August: Osage County. 

Michael Esper and Stephen Spinella

Kushner has stuffed a lot into the play. A committed gay Jewish socialist, he uses this family saga to examine the closest thing to an American experiment in socialism, the labor union movement, while at the same time critiquing it (a true Marxist, he makes sure that nothing and no one is presented positively without being confronted with some dialectic opposite or alternative or shadow side). Kushner hangs all his influences and role models out on the line for everyone to see – he name-checks Shaw’s Major Barbara at the top of act one, introduces act two with opera to set up a string of high-pitched overlapping passionate family arguments, and wraps things up with a conscious homage to The Cherry Orchard. It’s all interesting, sometimes funny, not emotionally engaging, and not fully digested. There’s a lot of history and a lot of thought but it hangs uneasily on these characters and this plot. 

Immediately afterwards I was most aware of all my reservations – what was wrong and what was undercooked about the play. The character of Paul is excruciatingly one-note: he’s the play’s only black character and he’s a relentless scold, Angels in America’s Belize as Johnny One Note. (Though I appreciated the joke that, as a theological scholar, his specialty is dispensationalism – grace as commodity?) And Bennie is so thin a character, with little to do except represent a moral exemplar, that Kushner at least has someone else say to her, “Drop the Yoda routine already.” And tons of arcane references to Marxist theorists and labor-movement heroes fly by faster than anyone could possibly take them in, which smacks not just of hasty writing but smarty-pants pretentiousness. (Quick, tell me: who’s Chantal Mouffe? Paul Marlor Sweezy? Harry Braverman? Ellen Melksins Wood? Edward Palmer Thompson?)

Valeri Mudek and Kate Eifrig in Flip Flop Fly (Tiny Kushner)

That was the matinee performance, and Saturday night I saw Tiny Kushner, in the smallest of the Guthrie’s three spaces, a highly adaptable black box. I’d read the script and formed an impression of the plays as trifles, scraps from Kushner’s notebooks. The production, though, was pretty impressive – staged by Tony Taccone, who’d co-directed (with Oskar Eustis) the pre-Broadway Los Angeles production of Angels (and is currently artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre) with excellent performances by a cast of four local actors (Jim Lichtscheidl, Valeri Mudek, Kate Eifrig, and J.T. Cutler). All of the plays are fantasias leaping off of something in the news, whether celebrating (ambivalently) the lives of recently departed obscure dignitaries (the deposed former queen of Albania, Richard Nixon’s psychiatrist Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker) or dramatizing (somewhat tediously) a scheme by New York City police officers to avoid paying taxes by claiming an absurd number of exemptions. The most notorious of the short plays, and one that has been trotted out for any number of benefit performances, is Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, in which Laura Bush reads The Brothers Karamazov aloud to a group of dead Iraqi children. 

While thinking about these plays overnight and over breakfast, I was also reading Michelle Mercer’s book Will You Take Me As I Am – Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period, in which the author discusses in detail the process through which Joni Mitchell wrote the songs that really established her stature as an original singer-songwriter. Extremely smart, extremely ambitious, extremely sexual, she mined her famously plentiful romantic relationships (many of them with other famous musicians) for every ounce of emotional/psychological/poetic insight. Whenever she had any perception about herself or the emotional whirl of relationships, she basically withdrew and sequestered herself to write a song about it, taking each episode very very seriously as a subject for art, with a kind of visionary super-sensitivity we might associate with Virginia Woolf crossed with the dedication to craft of Stephen Sondheim (cf. “Finishing the Hat”). It occurred to me that while Joni Mitchell embraced the personal subjective realm of romantic relationships as her artistic identity, Tony Kushner does something similar in his chosen role of public intellectual. He makes his writing a repository for his thinking on all the subjects that obsess him – money, sex, death, politics, religion, and especially the intersection of some or all of those. 

After getting a tour of the impressive new Guthrie building from Lee Henderson, one of the company’s friendly knowledgeable publicists, I saw the Sunday matinee of Caroline or Change, which was kind of a revelation. I’d seen the original George C. Wolfe production in New York three times (twice at the Public, once on Broadway) and admired it very much. But here, seeing it at the end of an Extreme Kushner weekend (organized so that out-of-towners like me could see all three shows), Caroline stood as a polished jewel, a marvel of craft and accomplishment, yet it also benefited from the rich intellectual and historical and theatrical groundwork that the gigantic messy new play and the crazy-quilt compendium laid. A close collaboration with Wolfe and with composer Jeanine Tesori, Caroline combines autobiography (it’s a portrait of Kushner’s own upbringing in a Jewish household in Lake Charles, Louisiana, tended by a black maid) and political drama in a beautifully sharp, specific, original, and emotionally affecting way. 
Greta Oglesby and T. Michael Rambo

The production, staged by Marcela Lorca, was in some ways very similar to the original, in some ways different, but for the most part very good. Greta Oglesby was fantastic in the title role – a better singer than Tonya Pinkins, an equally strong (and mean-looking) actress. I saw Ryan McDowell Poehler as Noah, and he was a good lumpy devilish kid. Julie Reiber was especially good as Rose, Noah’s well-meaning and infuriating stepmother, and Nikkie Renee Daniels was very good as Emmie Thibodeaux. Two moments caught me by surprise and moved me unexpectedly to tears. One was the Hanukkah party in act two, when Noah’s father Stewart is standing out on the porch by himself, playing his lonely clarinet, and Noah is sitting at his grandparents’ feet – nothing is spoken at all, but you get that they’re all missing Noah’s dead mother with a heartbreaking intensity. The other was the moment when Caroline lines her three kids up in a row, makes them close their eyes and stick out their hands, into which she places a quarter – such a small thing, but I love that Kushner makes a crucial dramatic moment out of the first time that poor children get money of their own.

Both Caroline and the new play are, in a certain way, fixated on money – what it can buy, what it can’t, what it means, how it helps, how it hurts – in a way that we recognize from our daily lives but that hardly ever shows up so nakedly in the theater. There are a couple of scenes in Intelligent Homo when Michael Esper’s Eli spends a ridiculously long amount of time holding in his hand and waving around a wad of bills, the $600 he charges Pill for spending two hours in his company. As with the obsessive accounting of every nickel and quarter and the crucial $20 bill in Caroline, the money is right up front and center.

In the final scene of Intelligent Homo, Eli is alone with Gus, who questions him with a combination of Marxist frankness and hetero prurience – “They pay you for sex? What does $300 buy?” (A speech by Pill earlier in act 3 has already spelled out for us one layer of Eli’s symbolic representation: “Appetite plus abstracted value equals capitalism.”) The exchange between these two guys ends the play on a perfectly Kushnerian note:

ELI: What do you want? (long pause) What are you thinking?
GUS: I’m thinking.

June 10 – David Zinn and I went to the gay film festival’s one screening of Fig Trees, the latest film by Canadian queer filmmaker-essayist-provocateur John Greyson. It’s a gorgeous, crazy opera about two AIDS activists (Canadian Tim McCaskill and South African Zachie Achmat) delivered as a kind of homage/spoof/critique of sainthood as presented in Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts. And the film is narrated by St. Martin of Tours, represented by a variety of white squirrels, some of them puppets, one of them a boy with a fuzzy hoodie-and-tail (see below). Plus a lot of footage of African wildlife. With mini-music videos joking about AIDS activism and political villains, such as one jeering at Bill Clinton’s AIDS policies, “The ARV Blues,” to the tune of “Wedding Bell Blues.” And lots of palindromes. Wayne Koestenbaum makes a guest appearance discoursing knowledgeably and tres queerly on the sexual implications of “Pigeons on the grass, alas.” Dazzling and dense. 

June 12 – I went to see Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem because my friend Andy was singing in the chorus, but I was also glad to have the opportunity to hear the piece live, having previously encountered it only in Derek Jarman’s film version (which Andy and I watched in preparation). Lorin Maazel conducted the New York Philharmonic, augmented for this occasion with a chamber orchestra, chorus (The Dessoff Symphony Choir), a children’s choir, and three soloists. I was moved by Britten’s exquisite choral writing and the setting of Wilfrid Owen’s bitter poems from the trenches of World War I (especially the variation on the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac in which the father decides to go ahead and kill his son anyway). I was impressed with the soprano, Nancy Gustafson, and admired by soulful gravity of the baritone Ian Greenlaw, not so crazy about the tenor Vale Rideout’s abrasive attack, though the duets between the men reached a glorious fusion by the end of the concert. I was a little surprised to read the very snarky review in the Times the next day, but David Zinn and Michael Eliasen agreed that the performance was a disaster in that Maazel’s conducting was completely passionless and a missed opportunity. 
June 13 – I trekked down to Philadelphia as a hard-core Robert Lepage groupie to check out The Andersen Project, a one-man performance commissioned by the Kingdom of Denmark for the centennial of Hans Christian Andersen. Ostensibly an adaptation of two of his fairy tales, The Dryad and The Shadow, it was a characteristically imaginative and theatrically inventive telling of a relatively mundane story. A Canadian pop songwriter is hired by a Parisian opera house to write the libretto for a children’s opera based on fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen. He pines for the girlfriend who broke up with him back home because he didn’t want to have kids; he walks the dog of the friend he’s swapped apartments with; he takes meetings with the loquacious, distracted opera company manager; he delivers quirky bits of Andersen biography, including his closeted homosexuality and his obsessive guilty masturbation. All the roles are played by one actor – originally Lepage, now on tour it’s Yves Jacques (above, who also toured with Lepage’s previous solo, The Far Side of the Moon). The themes are familiar – perhaps overfamiliar -- from Lepage’s previous work: Canadian colonial inferiority complex, the interconnectedness of all beings. Maybe the coolest thing about the production was the use of video projection on a large white screen, which kept surprising the audience trying to figure out what was real and what was digitized.

My friend Jeff and I had drinks with David and Mikael before the performance. Afterwards, we stopped into a potluck gathering-in-progress populated by the Philadelphia tribe of radical faeries and attendees of the nearby Trans Health conference, including a cute, young, impenetrably gendered couple from Northampton, Massachusetts, named Erika and Connor. Jeff insisted on checking out Tavern, a local pub with a claustrophobic dance-floor upstairs and a piano bar downstairs full of chubby tanked-up white queens trilling “All That Jazz” – not my scene at all, but Erika and Connor were absolutely in heaven, so the expedition was not completely in vain. 

see previous entry here