Saturday, September 26, 2009

10 Things You Did Not Know About Me Until Now

1. I was in a mime troupe. Yes, in my youth, I committed mime. I could even moonwalk. I've been haunted with guilt ever since...

2. I once had some 7,000 comic books, including Avengers #1, Fantastic Four #2, so many more. I sold them for peanuts in the 1980's to move to New York City.

3. I once had a pre-CBS Stratocaster. I sold it for peanuts in the 1980's to move to New York City.

4. I once lived in New York City. Was it worth selling everything I had for peanuts to move there? Yes. Yes.

5. The last TV show I watched regularly, not counting late night reruns of "The Honeymooners," was "All In the Family" around 1974.

6. I was a carpenter at Joseph Papp's New York Public Theatre. I was the worst carpenter in the history of the theatre since the day Thespis said, "I'm ready for my close-up."

7. In 1966 in Pomona, California, there was a garage band on our street. Lo, and he heard that Fender amp cranking out the chords to "Gloria," "Wild Thing," and "Satisfaction." And he saw the promised land. And he said, "It is good."

8. One of my odd prejudices is that I think all musicals should be musical comedies. I can't take serious musicals seriously. "A boy like that, he keel your brother." I dunno. I'll take Gershwin and Porter and Berlin any day over the modern musical. Old school? I'm paleolithic, baby.

9. My 10 favorite playwrights, starting at number one, are: Shakespeare, Ibsen, Schiller, Rostand, Sophocles, Rattigan, Shaw, Corneille, Moliere, Chekhov. In a month I might come up with a slightly different list, especially toward the bottom.

10. In my darker moments, I think America is heading toward a civil war. I suspect it is our most likely future. The New Left is totalitarian. When they shut down free speech, as they are now striving to do, there will be no recourse but violence. The libertarian, individualist right will resist. The 21st century will be ugly -- but interesting.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Jew of Malta

The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe is a highly entertaining play. Technically it is a tragedy because the central character dies in the end, but that character, the Jew Barabas, is so hilarious as he commits his crimes that it's hard to take any of it seriously. Like Shakespeare's Richard III, Barabas has so much fun being evil that the audience has fun as well. I think of the play as Hamlet meets the Joker: a revenge play with an evil clown as the central character. I would call it a savage satire.

(It makes me wonder if Shakespeare was attempting to write his own tragedy that is also savagely funny with Titus Andronicus. Face it, the scene in which Lavinia, without hands, takes a stick in her mouth to write in the sand is funny in a sick way. Shakespeare soon realized that his was a gentler muse.)

The play is antisemitic, as is The Merchant of Venice. Marlowe and Shakespeare are products of their culture and they reflect the attitudes of their time. The problem goes beyond antisemitism, as Renaissance plays are filled with medieval values we would question today. Shakespeare seems to accept the divine right of kings, and at the end of his tragedies order is always restored with the last line going to the person of highest nobility left alive onstage. A feminist woman once told me that Katherine's last speech in Taming of the Shrew should be played today as if she is lying and manipulating Petruchio in order to survive in a patriarchal society.

The thing to remember is that antisemitism is not the fundamental purpose of either Marlowe or Shakespeare's play, but is a side issue. Both Marlowe and Shakespeare were great artists, who wrote their plays on broader themes. The Jew of Malta is a play about human nature that says man is a cynical egoist. The word cynical is there to distinguish Marlowe's idea of egoism from Ayn Rand's idea of rational egoism. In the traditional, Christian morality, egoists are thought of as monsters -- Nietzche's Blond Beast -- who will climb over a mountain of dead bodies to get what they want. And mass murder is exactly what Barabas does. People talk about all the dead bodies in Hamlet; in Marlowe's play there are too many dead to count -- the antihero poisons all the nuns in a convent and burns down a house with people in it -- but most of the killing happens off stage.

If you're like me and the idea of poisoning all the nuns in a convent makes you laugh, then this play is for you. (No, I'm not being serious here. I don't really support the mass murder of Christians.)

There is a deep strain of cynicism in Jacobean drama. Webster, Marston and Middleton all wrote dark, dark plays. Even Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens is cynical. I think it all started with The Jew of Malta.

What makes this ugly play entertaining is the humor. And there is no question in my mind that Marlowe meant to be funny. For instance, at one point Barabas's daughter Abigail asks the slave Ithamore a question. He answers with the rhetorical question, "Am I Ithamore?" as in, "Is the Pope Catholic?" Abigail replies -- and I imagine the actress pausing a moment first -- "Yes." She is so slow that she answers a rhetorical question. That's funny. Isn't it?

Or take when Barabas first buys his slave Ithamore. When Ithamore learns that Barabas is evil, he worships his master. They get along so well as they commit mayhem that Barabas wishes Ithamore were his son. How else can you play that but for comedy? And the way Barabas manipulates the stupid Christians is just a scream.

And then there is Barabas's death. If you don't want it spoiled, skip to the next paragraph. Barabas dies by accidentally falling into a huge vat of boiling water that he is preparing to cook other people. Please, it's so absurd that you have to play it for comedy.

Is there any good reason to produce this play nowadays? If you want to do an edgy, politically incorrect play with some sick humor, then this is it. It's interesting that a play can still shock after four centuries. You also get a better understanding of the context of later Renaissance drama, as they all wrote in Marlowe's shadow. In Midsummer-Night's Dream, with Pyramus, Shakespeare parodies Barabas's last line, "Die, life: fly, soul; tongue, curse thy fill, and die!" Finally, the part of Barabas is a great part for a comic actor -- and we comic actors are always looking for great parts.

Best of all, Barabas poisons all the nuns in a convent. Come on, admit it: that's entertainment.

After his death Marlowe was accused of atheism. I don't know if that was true or just propaganda, but he made this atheist laugh.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Crow, Served With A Nice Creamy Sauce

In my last post, I quit acting locally. In this post I announce the creation of a local theatre company.

Does this make any sense? Am I confused?

For some time now Steven Sabel, a local director, has been asking me when I will direct. I kept putting him off because it seems like way too much work, and I thought I should concentrate on acting and writing. Then I would think of all the plays I wish I could produce and how I would do them. Maybe Steven knew something about me that I didn't know.

Recently, I thought of how much I would like to play Leontes in The Winter's Tale. As I looked through the script I got a lot of good ideas on staging it. I developed a "vision" of how it should be done. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced I could do it and make a good show of a beautiful play.

Then I thought, "Now all I have to do is find a director, explain to him the concept of the show, what happens in every scene, and give him the cut..." That's when I realized that maybe I am the director.

I still would like to find someone to help direct because I can't see myself on stage. It would be nice to have a director to run the rehearsals so I can focus on acting, especially late in the process.

I went to a local theatre that is supportive of the arts and explained my idea. I got a deal in which I can use the space for free as long as we promote the hell out of the play and they take the box office at least to the point that they cover their "nut." If we sell enough tickets to actually make a profit, then we'll even get some of the money. They help out on the technical side, too. It's a good deal for both parties. They have the space and I have the show to fill it. They don't make any money if their theatre is dark.

The name of the company is Next Renaissance Acting Troop. Or N-RAT, which sounds like something out of a Cordwainer Smith short story. (Science fiction. Never mind.) The word Renaissance looks to the past, and I do want to produce classical plays by such authors as Sophocles, Pierre Corneille, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, Carlo Goldoni, Friedrich Schiller, and Victor Hugo. I'm also interested in shows by the early modern playwrights -- Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, Schnitzler, Shaw. I considered calling the company Theatre of Lepers because we would only do shows no one else wants to touch. (Polyeucte? What is that, a molecule?) I rejected that idea because I didn't want to put the focus on the negative -- and I can just imagine getting a letter of complaint from some lepers grievance organization.

The word Next looks to the future. I believe drama is not flourishing at the moment, but then, there have been few periods in history when it did flourish. As our culture moves from the black hole of postmodernism to a more rational philosophy, things will change. Someday there will be another Renaissance. I have no delusions that this little company will help bring about cultural change, but looking to a better world keeps my purpose lofty.

I have long desired to have an artistic home where I could produce the plays I write. Being able to gather actors for just a cold reading will help me after a first draft. Nothing like hearing actors struggle with your words to reveal problems.

So now I'm busier than ever and I still have the problem of dealing with actors who are not serious about the art. We'll see if the problem proves itself to be unsolvable.

For now, I want to take on this challenge. I won't live forever. Michael Jackson was younger than I, and he's dead. (But then, I don't use an IV as an alarm clock.) I don't want to enter my old age full of regrets about projects I did not undertake because of fear. Fear is the great destroyer of aspirations. No fear. Let us move into the future with courage.