Archive for March, 2013

Performance diary: THE FLICK, KINKY BOOTS, THE MOUND BUILDERS, and Liza Minnelli & Alan Cumming

March 21, 2013

3.2.13 – THE FLICK. In the last five years, Annie Baker has distinguished herself among young playwrights by zeroing in on the minute particulars of mundane lives and mining them for drama with a richness that bears comparison to Beckett (with whom she shares a reverence for silence) and Chekhov (whose Uncle Vanya she adapted for a production at Soho Rep that was one of last year’s best). The settings are unpromising. Circle Mirror Transformation took place entirely within the confines of a small-town community drama workshop in Vermont. The Aliens happened on the back porch employees’ smoking deck of a restaurant in the same town, next to the dumpster. Baker’s latest, The Flick (at Playwrights Horizons through April 7), depicts a decrepit, barely populated movie theater in Bumfuck, Connecticut, one of the last in the country to project celluloid rather than digital films. Two of the three main characters – black teenage movie nerd Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten) and head usher Sam (the mesmerizing Matthew Maher) — spend the better part of three hours sweeping popcorn off the floor (the set designed by David Zinn immaculately recreates, let’s stay, one of the dingy theaters at the Quad) and pining for the projectionist, a girl in her twenties named Rose with long hair dyed washed-out green (Louisa Krause). Beautifully staged by Baker’s frequent collaborator Sam Gold, the production takes its perverse, pokey time telling this story, and plenty of people bailed at intermission, but I was riveted the whole time and by the end felt like I had witnessed these characters’ entire lives. There were one or two moments I didn’t quite buy, but they didn’t take away from my respect and enjoyment of the endless movie gab, Zinn’s dowdy costumes, and Jane Cox’s lighting, which tells its own story.

the flick

 Incidentally, the Playwrights Horizons website offers a bunch of cool additional info on the play: an interview with the playwright, an interview with Matt Maher, and a fascinating video about the set and props for the show, revealing how they keep the debris that the usher sweep up looking like “first-run trash” and how they avoid attracting mice (shellack the popcorn). If you “follow” Playwrights Horizons on SoundCloud, you can listen to podcasts of interviews with a whole slew of playwrights and other artists who’ve worked at the theater in the last five years — very cool.

3.8.13 – KINKY BOOTS. Based on the 2005 British movie about a family shoe factory saved from bankruptcy by reinventing itself as manufacturer of fetishy footwear for fierce drag queens, the musical Kinky Boots marks Cyndi Lauper’s debut as a Broadway composer, with book by Harvey Fierstein, directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. With that creative team, it should be the most fun show on Broadway this season, right? I’m bummed to announce that it is not. The first act held my interest, even though the only song that really stood out was “The History of Wrong Guys,” the first trace of certified Cyndi Lauper-ism in the score, sung by the delightful Annaleigh Ashford. At intermission, Andy admitted that he had a headache from trying to love the show and failing. The second act fell apart – the creators didn’t trust the story on its own terms so ladled on a lot of sentimental preaching about what makes a man a man and accepting people for who they are. Two back-to-back Big Numbers stop the show dead in its tracks – super-earnest “The Soul of a Man,” sung by Stark Sands (a good actor but surprisingly bland as the factory owner), and what shockingly was staged to look like this show’s version of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” as performed by a drag queen at a nursing home, at the end of which said drag queen makes a bathetic speech to the audience, confessing abjectly “I am…a man.” Except for that mawkish scene, Billy Porter as Lola had the audience eating out of his hand – he’s a great performer and it’s nice to see him polishing up his Broadway star. We saw the show about halfway through previews. Undoubtedly there will be changes. Enough to make the show really fly? Much as I admire Jerry Mitchell as a fun pop choreographer who came up the ranks as a dancer himself, as a director he’s no Tommy Tune or Michael Bennett, or not yet anyway. I suspect a stronger directorial hand was needed to help shape this material.

3.10.13 – THE MOUND BUILDERS is one of Lanford Wilson’s rarely performed plays. I’d never seen it, and I’m grateful to Signature Theater for programming it. Wilson was a master at creating complicated group narratives, partly the legacy of his intimate collaboration with the exceptional acting ensemble of Circle Repertory Company. Intelligent, energetic, highly skilled naturalistic actors like Tanya Berezin, Jonathan Hogan, Trish Hawkins, Joyce Reehling, Amy Wright, and William Hurt gave Wilson state-of-the art tools to work with in dramatizing the light and shadows of human beings. The Mound Builders won him an Obie Award when it premiered in 1975, and when I interviewed him for Rolling Stone he told me it was his favorite among all his plays. The story revolves around a group of hotshot archaeologists unearthing a Native American burial ground in southern Illinois on a site whose prospects for commercial development have the local residents dreaming of life-changing windfalls. Characters who are academics and writers give Wilson license to unleash the dense, smart dialogue he does best, and each of them has a distinct world-view and a personality strong enough so that the audience is constantly being thrown off-guard and having to reconsider where the story is going. Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard unmistakably lurks in the background but Wilson gives the theme of class conflict a particularly American spin, with plenty of ambisexual juice below and above the surface. I thought Jo Bonney did a fine job staging The Mound Builders for Signature and coaxing good performances especially from Danielle Skraastad, Will Rogers, and Zachary Booth, whom I didn’t even recognize as one of the stars of Ira Sachs’ film Keep the Lights On until Tom pointed it out to me at intermission.

mound builders

3.13.13 – LIZA MINNELLI & ALAN CUMMING at Town Hall. Daniel Nardicio, a nightlife entrepreneur who specializes in underwear parties, produced a concert on Fire Island last summer pairing Liza Minnelli and Alan Cummings that was a big hit, so he booked Town Hall for a two-night return engagement. ‘Twas quite a scene. There were one or two homosexuals in the audience. As for the show: he was absolutely charming, and she was a wreck, hobbling around with an injured ankle and gasping for breath, none of which staunched the tidal wave of Liza Love pouring from the audience. After they did a medley from Chicago (“Nowadays” and “Class”), she toddled offstage and he did his act, the high points of which included: Adele’s “Someone Like You” (mashed up with Lady Gaga’s “On the Edge of Glory” and Katy Perry’s “Fireworks”), “Falling Slowly” from Once, an Elvis Costello song mashed up with Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind,” and a medley from Hedwig and the Angry Inch (“Wicked Little Town/Wig in a Box”). He’s handsome and sexy and graceful and utterly endearing. As a storyteller, he’s the world’s best talk-show guest, dishy and revealing and funny. Recalling their triumph last summer, he said, “Liza Minnelli in Cherry Grove…it was like a papal visit. If you can imagine the Catholic Church filled with homosexuals…Don’t cry for me, Argentina!” Without pause for intermission, Liza came out and sang her greatest hits, one after another: “New York, New York,” “Maybe This Time,” “The World Goes Round,” even “Liza with a Z,” which ought to be retired by now. Her voice is shot; she doesn’t bother to even reach for the big notes. I found it hard to watch her, with her strange twitchy body habitus. But I’ll never forget how great she was on film in Cabaret and New York, New York.

Quote of the day: MANTRA

March 20, 2013


Done is better than perfect.

— Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In


FOOD FOR THE JOYBODY: Margaret Talbot on transgender teens in the New Yorker

March 19, 2013

In the March 18, 2013, issue of The New Yorker, staff writer Margaret Talbot takes a careful look at the phenomenon of transgender teenagers – ambivalently gendered individuals choosing hormone treatments and surgical interventions at ever-earlier ages. In the late seventies, drugs were developed to forestall puberty, aimed at children who suffered from extremely precocious puberty. Then, starting in 2000, doctors began administering puberty blockers to kids struggling with gender identity. The advantage for those who go on to transition is that these drugs prevent the development of breasts and menstrual periods for FTMs and facial hair, Adam’s apples, and masculine facial structures for MTFs: “Puberty suppression and early surgery made for more convincing-looking men and women.” Because of exposure in the media, more kids with gender-identity issues identify themselves earlier.


As a longtime feminist, I’m happy to observe how the emergence of transgender identity has liberated people of all ages to embrace the gender expression that feels intuitively right for them. Gay identity has morphed from lesbian and gay to LGBTQ, and in more sophisticated circles (the West Coast, especially the Bay Area, and in certain college enclaves), the stream of gender rebellion has acquired many tributaries and gender-queer sobriquets. The farther you deviate from recognizable social norms, though, the more courage it takes to walk your own path – much easier said than done. Schoolkids are notoriously cruel when confronted with difference; many pockets of adulthood are no less welcoming to non-conformist gender behavior.

One sensitive area that Talbot tackles carefully yet directly is the overlap between transgender individuals and those who simply decline to conform to heteronormative expectations.

There are people who are sympathetic to families with kids like Jazz [who was born a boy and socially transitioned while still a toddler and appeared on “20/20” at age 6] but worry about the rush to adopt the trans identity. They point out that long-term studies of young children with gender dysphoria have found that only about fifteen per cent continue to have this feeling as adolescents and adults. (And these studies, which relied on data from Dutch and Canadian research teams, looked only at children who were referred to a clinic for gender issues – presumably, many more kids experience gender dysphoria in some measure.) The long-term studies have also found that, when such kids grow up, they are significantly more likely to be gay or bisexual. In other words, many young kids claiming to be stuck in the wrong body may simply be trying to process their emerging homosexual desires.

Walter Myers, a child psychiatrist and pediatric endocrinologist in Galveston, Texas, has prescribed puberty blockers and considers them worthwhile as a way to buy time for some kids. But, in an editorial that ran in Pediatrics last March, Meyer urged families not to jump to the conclusion that their fierce little tomboy of a daughter, or doll-loving son, must be transgender. “Many of the presentations in the public media…give the impression that a child with cross-gender behavior needs to change to the new gender or at least should be evaluated for such a change,” he wrote. “Very little information in the public domain talks about the normality of gender questioning and gender role exploration, and the rarity of an actual change.” When I called Meyer, he said, “What if people learn from the media and think, Hey, I have a five-year-old boy who wants to play with dolls, and I saw this program on TV last night. Now I see: my boy wants to be a girl! So I wanted to say in that article that, with kids, gender variance is an important issue, but it’s also a common issue. I’m saying to parents, ‘It may be hard to live with the ambiguity, but just watch and wait. Most of the time, they’re not going to want to change their gender.’”

Eli Coleman, a psychologist who heads the human-sexuality program at the University of Minnesota Medical School, chaired the committee that, in November, 2011, drafted the latest guidelines of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, the leading organization of doctors and other health-care workers who assist trans patients. The committee endorsed the use of puberty blockers for some children, but Coleman told me that caution was warranted. “We still don’t know the subtle or potential long-term effects on brain function or bone development. Many people recognize it’s not a benign treatment.”

Alice Dreger, the bioethicist, said, of cross-gender hormones and surgery, “These are not trivial medical interventions. You’re taking away fertility, in most cases. And how do you really know who you are before you’re sexual? No child, with gender dysphoria or not, should have to decide who they are that early in life.” She continued, “I don’t mean to offend people who are truly transgender, but maybe a kid expresses a sense of being the opposite gender because cultural signals say girls don’t shoot arrows, or play rough, or wear boxers, or whatever. I’m concerned that we’re creating feedback loops in an attempt to be sympathetic. There was a child at my son’s preschool who, at the age of three, believed he was a train. Not that he liked trains – he was a train. None of us said, ‘Yes, you’re a train.’ We’d play along, but it was clear we were humoring him. After a couple of years, he decided that what he wanted to be was an engineer.”

I was grateful to Talbot for laying out these factual and ethical considerations because I’ve wrestled with them a lot, trying to understand them myself. In my teens and twenties, I spent a lot of time and energy and study investigating my own masculinity and femininity and forging a healthy gay identity at odds with the mainstream world and the family that I grew up in. Much as I support the right to do with your own body what you will, I’ve worried sometimes that the practice of surgically altering your body so that you look like “the boy/girl that you feel like inside” might wind up reinforcing the rigid gender-role stereotypes that oppress everyone. Who says what a man or a woman is supposed to look or feel like? Why can’t a butch girl be a butch girl or a femme-y boy be a femme-y boy? When Cher’s lesbian daughter Chastity transitioned to become Chaz Bono, to me it felt like a defeat in some way, as if Chastity couldn’t tolerate being publicly gay. My wise boyfriend pointed out to me, “She went from an identity you understand to one you don’t understand.”

Mostly, I’m aware that whatever advances we’ve made in terms of freedom of choice in sexual practice and gender expression, the pressure to conform to traditional gender-role expectations continues to wound and scar people. In my practice I hear these stories every day. The gay 28-year-old South Asian student for whom completing his graduate degree means he must go home and get married or risk losing his family. The thirtysomething Italian professional emotionally traumatized by his father’s saying to him, “Are you a fag? Because if you’re a fag, I’m going to get a gun and I’m going to kill you first and then myself.” The 70-year-old bisexual executive still at the mercy of childhood religious teaching that the only permissible way to ejaculate is during intercourse with your wife. It takes a huge amount of courage, support, and self-compassion to work through these issues one step at a time.

The full text of Talbot’s article is available online only for subscribers to The New Yorker but her blog post accompanying the article includes links to a number of videos in which transgender adolescents share their individualized journeys on the road to personal freedom.

Quote of the day: MYSTERY

March 19, 2013


Mystery is not about traveling to new places but about looking with new eyes.

— Marcel Proust


Playlist: iPod shuffle, 3/19/13

March 19, 2013

“Y,” iamamiwhoami
“The Book and the Canal,” Calexico
“The Shrine/An Argument,” Fleet Foxes
“If I Had My Wish Tonight,” David Lasley
“It Happens All the Time,” Megan Hilty
“Lie Alone,” Adam Cohen
“Trap Doors,” Broken Bells
“One Step Over the Borderline,” Peter Allen

“I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” Kristin Chenoweth
I’ve come to believe this is one of the best Broadway lyrics ever — precise, witty and singable: thank you, Ogden Nash!
“Shady Love (Seamus Haji Remix),” Scissor Sisters
“Love,” Turkish Delight
“Shadow of Doubt,” Norbert Leo Butz
“Winter Prayers,” Iron & Wine
“Zombie,” Fela Kuti
“Nobody,” Emmylou Harris
“Back Broke,” the Swell Season
“Around the Way,” Of Montreal
“Tres Avisos,” Calexico
“Step Up,” Hercules & Love Affair
“Girl I Love You,” Massive Attack
“Aha!” Imogen Heap

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