Posts Tagged ‘harry kondoleon’

Culture Vulture: A TASTE OF HARRY Queer/Art salon

April 6, 2019

Last Sunday, March 31, Queer | Art presented a salon called “A Taste of Harry: Selected Readings from the Work of Harry Kondoleon” hosted by Mitchell Lichtenstein at his lovely townhouse in the West Village. Five artists from Queer | Art’s mentorship program – Moe Angelos, Jess Barbagallo, Morgan Bassichis, Mashuq Mushtaq Deen, and Everett Quinton – performed a series of excerpts from Harry’s work for an invited audience of 50 guests that included family and friends, theatrical luminaries (John Guare, David Henry Hwang), and Queer | Art supporters.

The very entertaining program comprised excerpts from plays, poems, and fictional work selected by Harry’s good friends Mitchell, Don Shewey, and Stephen Soba. Mitchell directed the reading, and Don co-facilitated a discussion afterwards with Queer | Art’s managing director Travis Chamberlain. For fans, it was fun to revisit Harry’s work; for others in the room, it was a revelatory introduction to his distinctive voice. Big gratitude to Mitchell and his partner Vincent Sanchez for hosting and providing delicious hors d’oeuvres and beverages, to Travis and his staff for shining a light on an artist who has been gone for 25 years but whose work lives on, and to Ira Sachs for conceiving the mission of Queer | Art – see the mission statement reprinted in the program (below).

R.I.P.: 25th anniversary of Harry Kondoleon’s death

March 21, 2019

Harry Kondoleon left this plane of existence 25 years ago, March 16, 1994. Like so many of our friends who were casualties of the AIDS epidemic, at the end of his life he was blind in one eye, skeletally thin, and in a lot of pain. He passed away in his bed holding his father’s hand. (portrait above by Robert Giard)

In the last year of his life, Harry published DIARY OF A LOST BOY, his surrealistic novel about living with AIDS. The book was very well published (by Alfred A. Knopf, no less!) and well-received critically. Most important, Harry performed a spectacular act of grace and self-healing by envisioning his own demise.

The book ends with a quote from Meister Eckhart: “Listen then to this wonder! How wonderful it is to be both outside and inside, to seize and to be seized, to see and at the same time to be what is seen, to hold and to be held — that is the goal where the spirit remains at rest, united with our dear eternity.”

Just before that, the final paragraph of Harry’s text reads:

“My face is down in the dirt, but make no mistake, it is a beautiful place. Even the little bowls of bread soaked in milk Kim has left near the oak tree for me only enhance the landscape which is God’s presence. Even the dead flowers must be groomed and honored, and by leaving them we leave death, and those are the attachments of this world. Fear be gone! Please do not feel sorry for me — I go to some place thrilling!”

Performance diary: Harry Kondoleon’s ZERO POSITIVE at the Public Theater’s New Work Now

September 13, 2013

9.11.13 — The Public Theater’s New Work Now series has started including a play from the past, and this year’s selection was Harry Kondoleon’s Zero Positive, which Joseph Papp originally produced in 1988. Published in M. Elizabeth Osborn’s anthology The Way We Live Now, Zero Positive was part of the second wave of plays about AIDS, a lyrical and theatrically free-wheeling step beyond informative first-line dramas such as As Is and The Normal Heart. It’s one of the strongest plays in the body of work by Kondoleon, who sadly died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 39. The original production was a troubled one in that the playwright became dissatisfied with the actor in the central role, Reed Birney, and fired him, which made the director, Mark-Linn Baker, resign in solidarity. Birney’s replacement was no slouch – David Hyde Pierce – and director Kenneth Elliott picked up the pieces, but the show didn’t make much of an impact, and the play remains one that is more admired than produced.

zero positive
Sarah Benson, artistic director of Soho Rep, assembled a fantastic cast for this one-night-only reading, which served the purpose of establishing that the play has lost none of its emotional resonance in the intervening years. Himmer lives with his father, Jacob Blank, a poet and philanderer whose estranged wife has very recently died, sending him into a grief-stricken time warp. Himmer’s BFF Samantha arrives with the news from her doctor that she and Himmer have both tested positive for HIV. Their friend Prentice, who is probably infected but is opposed to taking the test, insists, “It doesn’t mean anything.” Himmer knows different. “It’s a death sentence,” he says – a bit dramatic but not an untypical response in the dark ages before new treatment options made HIV manageable.

As a tribute to his mother, Himmer decides to put on a verse play called The Ruins of Athens he’s found among her papers and approaches his actor friend Patrick for help. Patrick is so spectacularly self-absorbed he can do little except complain about how his brilliant auditions never get him hired. He does know a woman named Debbie Fine who’s recently come into several million dollars from her family, and he enlists her to bankroll putting on the play. When Debbie Fine arrives, Jacob mistakes her for a nurse, she plays along, and they improbably fall in love. She makes a big donation to a local hospital to convert a conference room into a solarium that serves as theater for the play, in which they all perform.

I got to have a conversation after the reading with Benson, who told me she came across Harry Kondoleon’s plays when she was a young theater artist in her teens and twenties growing up in Scotland and eager to learn about American theater. We talked about what a strange play Zero Positive is – how it begins in a kind of living-room naturalism but then progressively departs from the mundane reality of clothes and food (the stage direction “It is lunchtime. It is always lunchtime” is a classic Kondoleon) until it arrives at a timeless theatrical zone. A toy train set figures heavily in act one and poetically implants a disorienting sense of scale. Each of the five scenes takes a slightly different form, almost becoming its own play. The fourth scene in particular becomes a kind of existential way station – the characters are ostensibly having an indoor picnic in the bare hospital room that will become their theater, yet they end up acting like they’re outdoors. And Kondoleon’s writing rises to exquisiteness as each character reveals something of his or her essence.

Debbie Fine describes her generic life before meeting Jacob Blank: “I had other boyfriends. We did things together, looked at movies, ran around tracks, ate unusual flavors and discussed fluctuations of all kinds.” Jacob, who seems crusty and cruelly remote until her arrival on the scene, surprisingly announces, “My childhood was only good, glorious I’d go as far as to say. I found two pearls on the open clam of my arrival: I called them my parents. They called me their prize.” Himmer reveals in one outburst his bedrock weltschmerz: “Enough of all these flowers – flowers are no more than, at their best, bright little sex organs hoodwinking insects into their sticky business and passing themselves off then hypocritically at holidays as fit subjects for centerpieces.”

Rehearsal for the original production at the Public Theater: Edward Atienza as Jacob Blank, playwright Harry Kondoleon, director Mark-Linn Baker, and Reed Birney as Himmer

Rehearsal for the original production at the Public Theater: Edward Atienza as Jacob Blank, playwright Harry Kondoleon, director Mark-Linn Baker, and Reed Birney as Himmer

Director Kenneth Elliott, David Hyde Pierce as Himmer, and Kondoleon

Director Kenneth Elliott, David Hyde Pierce as Himmer, and Kondoleon

Benson, who directed Reed Birney in a blazing award-winning production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, was aware of his unhappy history with the play and attempted to provide closure by casting him as Jacob Blank, but ultimately he wasn’t available and the great Larry Pine played the role in the reading. Himmer’s barely contained hysteria was suitably conveyed by the great Taylor Mac – the first time I’ve ever seen him not in elaborate drag (he returns to the Public Theater later this fall with a revival of Lear de Bessonet’s terrific production of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan). Two wonderful actors, B.D. Wong and Ana Reeder, played Prentice and Debbie Fine, and two young actors new to me, Gayle Rankin and Arian Moayed, played Samantha and Patrick. Moayed (who appeared on Broadway in Bengal Tiger in Baghdad Zoo) blew me away with his quick-study portrait of Patrick, a tricky role to pull off with his two crazy a capella songs and easily parodied actor-ish narcissism. Tony Shalhoub played this role originally, magnificently, but I found Moayed especially touching in scene 4, when his self-centeredness became a poignant existential cry: “I just want a big part. I just don’t want to come on with very little to say and then go off. I’ve done that. I want to make a difference. I want to know when I go off it makes sense that I came on in the first place.” Don’t we all want that? And Rankin, playing a role first performed by Frances Conroy, assumed a transcendent radiance when Samantha, as the goddess in the play-within-the-play spoke lines that connected all the dots from ancient Greece to the AIDS epidemic to the aftermath of 9/11:

I answer your call

although the city is alive in death

with screams for salvation barely audible

as the walls are torn down to

the merry whistle of the flute.

Death’s caprice is playing there;

empires dissolve in song.

Many longtime Kondoleon fans and followers attended the reading. A bunch of us went out to dinner afterwards (Stephen Soba and his partner Jonathan, Mitchell Lichtenstein, Rita Ryack and her partner Porter, Ellen and Judy Dennis) for delicious food and wine at Aroma, where we reminisced about Harry and exchanged notes on the real-life experiences that fed into the writing of Zero Positive. We were all very grateful to Jonathan Lomma, the William Morris agent who represents Harry’s work, for instigating this return visit to a beautiful play.

9-11 zero positive posse on doorstep

In Memoriam: HARRY KONDOLEON (1955-1994)

February 26, 2013

Happy birthday to Harry Kondoleon, who would have been 58 today. Sadly, he was a casualty of the AIDS epidemic who died in 1994 at the age of 39. A blazingly original writer and unforgettably eccentric character, he is best-known for such plays as ZERO POSITIVE, CHRISTMAS ON MARS, and SELF TORTURE AND STRENUOUS EXERCISE, as well as his fiction (DIARY OF A LOST BOY). Actors who appeared in premieres of his work include Frances McDormand, David Hyde Pierce, Harriet Harris, Kristine Nielsen, and Michael O’Keefe. You can download a free PDF of his play THE BRIDES here. The beautiful photo below was taken by Sebastian Li.

Li portrait websized

From the deep archives: Performance Diary 9/2/84

June 13, 2012

September 2 – Last night Stephen and I went to see Jeff Weiss at the Performing Garage. Harry Kondoleon joined us, along with Patricia Benoit and her German boyfriend Mark. I gave Harry a tape I’d just finished making for him with many songs he’d requested (Sheila E’s “The Glamorous Life,” Cyndi Lauper’s “She-Bop,” “99 ½,” etc. – he ever so casually asked for things to be in a certain order, which I always take to be firm requests, Harry knows exactly the way he wants things but is a little embarrassed by the force of his will and tries to disguise or downplay it). The running refrain on the tape is Bette Davis saying “She liked it,” from Baby Jane. I called the tape “Labor Day Request Concert.” Harry told me that once he was listening to one of my tapes are rehearsal for The Fairy Garden and John Glover grabbed the Walkman and said, “What are you listening to?” It was just then that the tape was going from the Butthole Surfers (“There’s a time to shit and a time to pray…”) to Frank Sinatra singing with children. John Glover gave it back with a look of horror – Harry was secretly glad to counter Glover’s aggressiveness with something shocking, but he realized the weirdness of him sitting in rehearsal placidly listening to these insane juxtapositions.

Andy Jackness’s set for Harry Kondoleon’s play THE FAIRY GARDEN at the Second Stage Theatre

Jeff Weiss’s show was pretty crazy, too – another version of And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid, this time acted out by a full cast (the first time we saw this, he did all the parts himself – I remember that night vividly, also at the Garage, Tom Waits was there looking autistic), including several Wooster Group people, plus a bunch of really hunky actors, including an amazingly tall (possibly seven-foot) actor named Sturgis Warner who made me dizzy just to look at him, gorgeous, muscular, handsome in a Peter Evans sort of way. The show was a sort of detective caper, with Ron Vawter as a detective tracking down the Finnish gymnast who’s been killing people – of course it’s Connie Gerhardt (Jeff Weiss) imitating a Finnish gymnast. The sick thing about the story is that everyone starts imitating Connie’s pickup lines – the detective acts them out with his teenage songs in grab-ass sessions in the garage. (More kissing, wrestling, and groping – all gay – in this show that any I can remember.) The underlying story was the pathology and tragedy of real actors, with so many personalities trapped inside them – also the personal tragedy for Jeff Weiss of aging, of having worshiped youthful physique and maintaining it unnaturally into his 50s, now crumbling and sweating out time. The most moving, chilling, also bathetic moment was a scene on a bus after a wrestling match when Connie is thinking aloud to a young wrestler (actually his own son, long ago conceived with a lesbian so they could get welfare, named Narcissus) and begging him to run away with him and love him.

Jeff Weiss and Sturgis Warner

At intermission we stood out on the street. A rather bizarre homely straight couple stood against the wall making out and playfully imitating the pickup lines from the play. Three people passing by picked their way through the crowd on the sidewalk and one guy said, “This is like theater in the live.” We chatted a little with Patrick Merla, who was in the audience. He has crossed eyes, very disconcerting to deal with, and an incredibly queeny voice but in some ways he looks very charismatic with his leonine mane and grand manner. While talking to us, he waved at someone and imperiously called, “Come over here.” It was Keith McDermott, a former boyfriend of Edmund White’s who was in the show.

Jeff Weiss reminded me a little of James Leo Herlihy, whom I finally met when Stephen and I went to dinner with him, Joe Frazier, and John Tveit (Joe’s organist friend) in San Francisco. I was surprised to find that I liked Jamie a lot – perhaps because unlike most famous people he didn’t simply grab center stage and hold forth – he was very solicitous and personable. We quickly got into a conversation about altering sex habits to avoid AIDS. He confided that what he loved doing more than anything in the world was sucking cocks, and he’d decided not to do it so often and not to swallow cum anymore. He said whenever the possibility of sex arises, he always finds an excuse to go to the bathroom or be alone for a few minutes to ask himself if this encounter is really worth it – worth the emotional effort as well as possible health risk, or is it just a meaningless impulse – and he finds himself deciding against it more often than in the past. He recently sat by and watched his mother died from cancer, and his roommate/boyfriend in LA has AIDS.

Tallulah Bankhead and James Leo Herlihy

Jamie had a little notebook which he kept taking out to jot down felicitous phrases, even though Stephen says he’s given up writing. He was very impressed (and a little envious) to hear that I’d written my Shepard biography in six weeks while recovering from hepatitis. He loves Sam Shepard, loves movie-star bios. I told him the story Bill Kleb told me about Shepard peeing in a prop toilet during class, and Jamie insisted that I put it in the book – otherwise I would be doing a disservice. “This book is in part a love letter,” he said, “telling Sam Shepard you’re fascinating, you’re talented, you’re pretty, and so on. But it’s also a mirror – you have to say ‘And then there’s this!’ Stars want you to do that.” He said it’s demeaning to be “nice” in one’s writing. He quoted Tolstoy saying “The two things a writer needs are a dirty mind and a good sense of gossip.” He was very encouraging and flirtatious without being overbearing. He described his ass as looking like “a pair of used tea bags.” His second play Crazy October, which he ended up directing, starred Tallulah Bankhead, Estelle Winwood, and Joan Blondell – how unimaginable!

Three pictures of me taken within the space of three weeks in 1984

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