Wednesday, August 31, 2005

LA Times hires a theater critic

Finally! It's been 4 years or so that we've been without a head theater critic in LA. Good coverage in the LA Weekly.

Yes, of course it's unfortunate and incredibly stupid that we've been without anyone in the position for so long. It implies that LA theater is more marginalized and less vibrant than it really is. The theater scene here is in many ways strange and unique, and it deserves recognition. That's not to say that there's no coverage happening - the LA Weekly has been doing a pretty great job picking up the slack, actually, but you have to wonder if there would have been more coverage of the CTG disaster if there were someone at the Times whose job it was to care.

In another conjunction of theater and news, the NY Times has a huge piece on Dead End at the Ahmanson. It's not often that LA theater rates coverage in NY newspapers, and I have to wonder if this has to do with Ritchie's East Coast connections rather than the worthiness of the production.

The most disturbing bit of the story is this paragraph:

"To make it all work, Mr. Ritchie struck a one-time agreement with Actors Equity, the theater actors' union, to allow nearly half of the cast to be nonunion and work free, or nearly. Many of those 19 cast members are students at the University of Southern California who are getting course credit for their work."

Does anyone else find that profoundly upsetting? This major professional theater is cutting costs by using unpaid college students as slave labor?!? The Ahmanson is not a teaching program and has no business exploiting its name and connections in order to get out of paying its actors, whether they enjoy the experience or not.

And the revival production isn't even a particularly new idea! Ritchie revived the show WITH THE SAME DIRECTOR at Williamstown in 1997. It's also ironic that this play that in the 1930s brought attention to class issues and the conditions in urban slums, inspiring some of FDR's housing programs, is now notable chiefly for its spectacle and the ability to use real water and 42 actors. Is that really what's important? Does the spectacle detract from the class issues? I find the whole thing a little bit gross, but I'm also curious.

Looking Around, In LA and Online

A friend of mine recently asked me what the cool upcoming queer performance was on my radar. What am I excited about? Who's the next Tim Miller or Kate Bornstein, WOW Cafe or Five Lesbian Brothers? What is worth making an effort to go see? Are there cool queer and transgendered young performance artists? People who confront gender issues head-on and coherently? And I was woefully inadequate in answering him. I can talk about the performers I've seen recently: Turner Schofield (solo performance), Katastrophe (rap), Sean Dorsey(dance), the Butchlalis(performance art), all of whom I would go out of my way to see and recommend to others.

In the not all transguys category, there are performers I've heard about and feel like I should see: Hanifah Walidah, Heather Gold, Renita Martin, Devil Bunny. I've heard that Letta Neely has the makings of a great playwright. I'm curious about what Vivan Babuts would come up with in a live show. A friend has recommended S. Bear Bergman and Kristina Wong.

And these are the things I'm seeing in the next two weeks or so:

Hyperbole:epiphany at Son of Semele. Not particularly queer, but interesting concept. The show is composed of a lot of short pieces with no dialogue and no actors' faces. There are masks and puppets and each piece is set to and inspired by music. Through this Saturday, Sept. 3

The Rocky Horror Picture Show at The Hollywood Bowl. Monday, Sept. 5.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence present Red Leather Riding Hood: an evening of fetish fairytales at Highways. Sept. 8-11.

I Am My Own Wife at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. Through Sept. 11.

Oklahomo! at Third Stage in Burbank. 10pm on Friday, Sept. 23.

But my question is what am I missing out on? Where does one find out about these things? I'm on mailing lists for several artists, the Cavern Club Theater and Highways in LA, Theatre Rhino in SF and Theater Offensive in Boston, but I want more. I want people to come here to LA so I don't spend so much time hearing about things that make me wish I wish I were in SF or NY or even Boston or Chicago or Atlanta or anywhere else. I want to see new cool queer performance artists and I want their information to come to me. I want to know where to look for these things. Perhaps it comes from talking to Prophecyboy too much, but I feel like all of these people could be doing so much better in terms of making themselves accessible to me. I know that they can only perform where people book them and will pay them, but so many of them don't even have websites. I might be a little crazy, but I'm willing and open to become a huge fan of some pretty wacky things at this point in my life; I'm looking for new experiences and artists and I want recommendations. What's going on that makes people really excited? What am I missing? Where are the cool new artists found, anyway. I know that with a band, they send demos to record labels, perform in bars, and self-promote on Myspace, but what about performance artists? Where are they and does anyone care but me? I worry that I'm only talking to myself and not finding anything cool and new.

So, if anyone's reading this, send me your recommendations. Tell me what's going on and what you like and what I should know about. Where and how do cool queer performance artists publicize themselves? How do I hear about them? Bonus points for cool artists that have a blog, or even and e-mail list, so I can find out where and when they're playing. I'll try to keep doing the same for new performers when I hear about them.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

At the Movies

Craven, Wes, dir. Red Eye.

I saw this film nearly a week ago and I've been meaning to post about it, but last week I saw 4 plays, 1 movie, and read 3 books, so I'm a little behind. Anyway, I thought it was a fabulous film and I had a lot of fun. I saw it at the Arclight at midnight, which is about the right time to see a scary movie. To my relief, it wasn't that scary, but it was fascinating. Interestingly enough, the author of one of the books I read last week saw the same film.

I liked the Scream movies even though I'm not much of a fan of the slasher flick because they were clever and funny as well as thrilling. They had just the right amount of terror that I could handle them and still enjoy the plot and appreciate Craven's brilliance. This film was very similar in many ways.

First of all, the casting was genius. Cillian Murphy was funny and clever and charming and creepy. Rachel McAdams made a fabulous female action hero. Watching them both throughout the whole movie was a pleasure, which is good, because although the supporting cast was great, in many ways the film was all them.

One of the ways the film was fascinating was its many transformations and reversals. Of course, anyone who saw any of the previews would know that Murphy was going to turn out to be the bad guy, but even so he seemed so sweet and had such beautiful eyes that when they met and flirted, I kind of went "Awwww" anyway. I think the film might have been even better if there were a way not to advertise that he was evil; that would have been a great suprise. But when they got off the plane, the reversal was even better because the film changed from a tense but static thriller to a scary guy with a knife Scream-type slasher flick, which was great. And then Rachel McAdams ended up doing most of the chasing and being quite a star. There was a real sense of gender reversal with Murphy being effeminized (and penetrated-he got stabbed) and McAdams being tough and capable and weilding knife and club. My favorite moment in the entire movie was immediately after Murphy was stabbed, at which time he tied a jaunty scarf around his wound so he could continue the chase. It was a beautiful, brilliant, hilarious moment. I really enjoyed the movie, though I'm not generally a fan of the scary thriller genre. This was well-done and intelligent, and thus fascinating.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Pop Culture and Poetry

Weiner, Jennifer. In Her Shoes. New York: Washington Square Press, 2002.

Yes, this is decidedly chick lit, which most certainly does not have the best reputation in the world. I would suggest, however, that in some ways that reputation is undeserved. Certainly the cover is a bit pinkish, and there are indeed shoes on it, but really, is that a crime? Besides, the novel itself started out as chick lit, and Jane Austen has always been one of its most successful practitioners.

Actually, in many ways this book is relatively self-affirming, complex, and literate. I certainly have respect for Jennifer Weiner's intelligence, which was evident in throughout the novel. This book does have a lot in common with Sex in the City and romance novels, but it is well aware of the fact and references both in the course of its story. These are all things that women can share, ways to bond even across generations when there aren't a lot of ways for women to connect non-competitively anymore, if there ever were. I certainly never spent my adolescence in the kitchen with my mother teaching me to cook. My mom gave me In Her Shoes, however, and she wants to pass it on to her mother as well. She watches Sex in the City and we will probably go see the film version of In Her Shoes together, and that's a good thing. Weiner is telling the story of women's lives, common everyday stories of people who are well-meaning and deeply flawed. People's lives that change in sometimes subtle and sometimes drastic ways. The kind of stories that occasionally become great literature when they are about men, but rarely so when they are about women.

What I found fascinating about this book was how it pulled all the right strings to trigger all of my materialistic impulses and my brain as well. It left me longing for a new wardrobe and also send me searching my poetry books to visit old familiar verses. The combination of pop culture and materialism and literary references dazzled me and left me wishing that I could afford to go shopping, could afford shoes like these or these. They seem like such harmless, luxurious indulgences. I found myself wandering around my bedroom trying on my most daring clothes, and it felt good, even though I know these are dangerous impulses. There's a mysterious confidence hidden somewhere in this book, and though it may be a little bit appearance-based, it's a good thing nonetheless.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Transgiving in August

Transgiving is always quite an event. Today's show was all about inclusivity. The whole evening was translated by two great sign language interpreters, Jon Wolfe Nelson and Kevin Williams, who were friendly and quite fun. They made a valiant effort to translate some very fast talking and to perform along with some wacky things, and at one point it looked like one of them was doing interpretive dance as much as translating. ryka aoki de la cruz was a friendly and graceful mistress of ceremonies sheparding in each performer and promoting those too modest to advertise the more commercial aspects of their artwork.

Eva Sweeney of Queers on Wheels talked to us (with the help of her aid, Dan) about including the queer physically disabled. She was quite engaging and wonderfully explicit about dating, her sex drive, and how to be considerate about her disability.

"f*cking all the words that will fit in my mouth"
Evan Kail (previously performing under the name Amanda Kail) came all the way from Atlanta to read his poetry and perform at this event, and I for one am glad he made the trip. He was one of the founders of Cliterati, a bi-monthly spoken word/open mic event in Atlanta, and is currently working on a series of events called Art Amok at 7 Stages theater in Atlanta, which sounds supercool. Good things are happening it Atlanta, it seems. He was great, and personally I missed the title but I liked the piece about gender and the Wicked Witch. But the crowd favorite was an adorable piece called "Ranger Debbie or Raylene," which you can read here. It's a hilarious piece about a park ranger fetish. And Evan was adorable, as well; he wore leather pants and then tried to convince us that he was all natural and granola. He also wore swimming goggles on his forehead, which I think is the ultimate in gender-ambiguous fashion accessories because anyone who wears them ends up looking like a space alien. He has a wonderful onstage personality, and I ended up buying a CD, so I'll probably have more opinions on his work in the future.

zeo scott performed three spoken word pieces that were wonderfully open and straightforward and well done. He definitely had me confused when he first appeared in a wig and a dress, not to mention shoes that added several inches to his height. Though I must say he looks good in drag.

The highlight of the evening for me was Thea Hillman. She performed several pieces I had seen her perform before, but she seemed different somehow tonight. She seemed sweet and quieter and perhaps more reflective somehow than she has when I've seen her before. She always seems friendly and approachable, but before I've also felt like she's been very strong and kickass when she's performed. There was something more vulnerable about her tonight, and for some reason I wanted to pair her off with someone in my head. I wanted her to be travelling with and working with someone as cool as she was. I wanted her to be part of an amazing queer couple like Michelle Tea and Katastrophe. The last piece she read, which I hadn't heard before, was created for Transforming Community curated by Michelle Tea in San Francisco earlier this summer. It was intense, and daring. She said a lot of things that could piss people off, and I have to wonder how people originally responded. I was very impressed; the piece was quite beautiful. Each time I see Thea read, I like her more and more both in terms of her work and in terms of identifying with her. After seeing her perform at least four times, I've finally managed to buy Thea's book, Depending on the Light, though I totally failed to have her sign it. Sigh.

After various and sundry announcements, the evening concluded with Klezmer music performed by BCC Gay Gezunt Klezmer band, from BCC, a local queer synagogue. They were quite fun and a good portion of the audience danced along. It was a great way to end an evening of some very strong performances.

The event was also accompanied by an impressive visual arts display with works by zeo scott, s.g. reichen, dandy, and Naomi Likonen.

Logistically, the show was a bit of a mess, but somehow that's OK for this event. Because it's about community as much as it's about the quality of the show, somehow, it's part of the fun that the show began half an hour late and intermission was 45 minutes long. Most people seemed to know each other and have plenty of catching up to do anyway. The whole event ended up lasting nearly four hours, despite the fact that a few artists were notably missng. There wasn't a program, which makes me worried that I will have messed up someone's bio or pronouns or have left someone out. I apologize for any inaccuracies.

Turner Schofield, who was supposed to be in LA this month and to perform tonight at Transgiving, wasn't there. We were assured that he would perform in November instead, which gives me something to look forward to, though they didn't tell us the date. I wonder what's up and whether he didn't make it out to LA at all or if he got too wrappped up in other things to come perform or what. I hope everything's alright.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Infinite Black Suitcase

Lewis, E.M. Infinite Black Suitcase. Moving Arts. LATC. 9/19/2005.

I love the title of this piece.

It was a workshop production of a new play, and I was glad to go out and see a new play, especially since I've been griping so much about the Taper's abandonment of its new play development. And by a woman no less!

It was quite entertaining, especially for a play about death. It features four interwoven storylines, which makes for a cast of 15, which seemed huge. New people, new stories, kept coming. It was so strange to be introduced to entirely new plots over halfway through the play that I felt a bit disoriented. Each storyline touched each other briefly, but I would have liked to see them come together more.

The strongest sections were the two storylines that appeared most frequently and were most strongly interwoven; I will call them Katie's story and Dan's story. Katie's story was about a woman (played by Laura Buckles) in the hospital dying of what was probably cancer. Her ex-husband, Joe (played by Ronnie Clark), and her current husband, Tony (played by Harry Du Young), were trying cope with losing her and to figure out how to share custody of Katie and Joe's children. Ronnie Clark's performance was excellent, especially in a scene in which he tried to date Mary (Daria Balling). The storyline in which Dan (Brian Wier) was dying (presumably of AIDS) and his boyfriend Stephen (Jeremy Gabriel) was trying to figure out how to go on was well-done, though the actors were quite evidently heterosexual so while their kiss was well done, their physicality with each other was generally awkward. Dan and Katie were friends in the hospital and shared their problems with each other as well, so these plotlines seemed the strength and the center of the play.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Two Men and a Piano

And not in the Trick kind of way.

"Odd Men Out" Tour. Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright. The Wiltern, Los Angeles, CA. 08/18/05.

It's an interesting tour, because I think for the most part you're either a Ben Folds fan or a Rufus Wainwright fan. Despite the fact that they're both piano-playing kinda guys and singer/songwriters, they don't seem to have much of an audience in common. Myself, I'm a Rufus fan, so the end of the evening was by far the highlight.

I arrived late and waited in a long line to use the bathroom, so I missed opening act Ben Lee, but from the last song that I did catch, the Australian group seemed pretty fun.

Ben Folds was quite pleasant, although because I wasn't familiar enough with his work, all of the songs ran together in my head in a soothing puddle. The most entertaining moment was when he covered Dr. Dre's "B*tches Ain't Sh*t," which was weird and funny.

Rufus Wainwright is a wonderful entertainer, and he played all the best songs. He has a mesmerizing voice and a delightful stage presence, and "Hallelujah," "California," and "Beautiful Child" were especially sublime. He was adorable between songs, making delightful Judy Garland references and telling us about when he dreamed of playing at the Wiltern. He wore a very nice black velvet jacket (which I coveted) and also appeared to be wearing sandals. He played the piano and rocked on the guitar and even sang a duet with Folds. Rufus clearly carried the evening and made it all worth while.

The venue, however, was miserable. While the Wiltern is a beautiful theater, it did everything in its power to ruin the evening. The ladies' room smelled terrible and had a long line, but that was just the beginning. Our seats were at the very top of the theater in the back balcony, and the heat was stifiling. I was sweating from the moment I reached my seat, and I left the theater exhausted and dehydrated. I know heat rises, but they clearly need better air conditioning to keep the balcony livable. It really detracted from the concert to be so overheated throughout. The worst thing, however, was the lighting. The lighting designer clearly had no idea what was going on. The lights were always a little behind what was happening onstage, there was often light on the stage where nothing was happening, the light reflected off Rufus' guitar was bouncing all over the walls and terribly distracting (OK, s/he might not have been able to do anything about that), the moving lights were out of sync, and the moving lights frequently bounced across the stage in ugly and distracting patterns for no good reason. All of these things made an otherwise enjoyable concert much less entertaining.

The show was fun, but it did make me nostalgic for last year around this time, when we saw Rufus perform with k.d. lang at the Hollywood Bowl. It was a beautiful summer evening under the stars, not too warm, not too cold, surrounded by good friends, pleasantly tipsy on cheap red wine, and Rufus and k.d. each sang "Hallelujah" - you don't get much better than that.

The Witty and Urbane

Castle, Terry. Noel Coward and Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Coward, Noel. Three Plays: Blithe Spirit, Hay Fever, Private Lives. Intro. Philip Hoare. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

Noel Coward is fun and witty and perfectly entertaining. Blithe Spirit, Hay Fever, and Private Lives are all domestic comedies that unsettle the traditional family and spoof monogamous couplehood. Each play centers around a couple (or in the case of Private Lives, two couples, who are already married and established. Of course, things go horribly wrong from there and no one ends up happily married at all. Each of these plays is a delightful break from the typical plot of today, in which, in the face of ridiculous circumstances, two people inevitably meet and fall in love.

Terry Castle's tiny little book is not quite as much fun as Coward's play, but it is a fun little academic exercise. At 110 pages, t's really not much more than an extended article with a lot of gorgeous pictures of Coward and Hall. Castle's thesis is a bit dubious; she argues that Coward and Hall were friends and were influenced by each other, which she uses to suggest a larger argument that gay men and lesbians often have interrelated lives. She posits that we often prefer to trace the histories of gay men and lesbians separately and fail to offer enough critical attention to the influences they have on each other. Of course, the identity politics are from the beginning problematic (one might argue for Hall's transgendered identification or even suggest the Coward could be bisexual) and the arguments a little specious. Basically, Castle relies on the claim that the character of Brockett in Hall's Well of Lonliness strongly resembled Coward and that the incident upon which Coward's Blithe Spirit is based strongly resembled an incident in Hall's life in which she and Una Troubridge held seances in which they communed with the spirit of Mabel Batten, Hall's former lover. It's a delightful and fun argument, even if I'm not sure that I buy it. It is, if nothing else, a fun little introduction to the lives of Coward and Hall and the milieu in which they lived. Though I'm not entirely sure about the specifics of her subject, I find the focus on the historical interrelationships between queer folks fascinating. And she's got quite a vocabulary! I found myself looking up words like "caliginous" and actually learning some new words! Despite the criticism, I really enjoyed this book.

Somewhere that's...Orange

Little Shop of Horrors. Orange County Performing Arts Center. Segestrom Hall.

Seeing Little Shop of Horrors in Orange County definitely underlines the urban setting and suburban dreams of this 1982 piece of 1950s B-movie nostalgia. The play takes place in a flower shop on Skid Row, where everyone wants to "get outta here" and the not-so-innocent ingenue dreams of escaping to a suburb "Somewhere that's Green" where everything is perfect because everything is the same. When the show is playing in the suburbs, that dream becomes less wistful than spooky, reminding the audience of their own cookie-cutter lifestyles and the (unfulfilled?) promises of middle class wealth in the '50s. When the humor resides in the tawdriness of this woman's dream ("a fence of real chain link" and a TV with "a big, enormous 12 inch screen"), do the wealthy audiences that will return home to their 48" plasma screens see themselves and the pathetic sameness of their suburban lives, or do they accept the success and pat themselves on the back for not living "down on Skid Row"? It's a surreal experience, seeing Little Shop of Horrors onstage in Orange County.

The production itself was quite entertaining, with the plant of course being the life of the party. Michael James Leslie was wonderful as the voice of Audrey II, and he joined puppeteers Michael Latini, Paul McGinnis, and Marc Petrosino after the show to lead a demonstration of how all the puppetry worked, which was wonderful. It's always fascinating to have some of the theatrical magic revealed, and they were generous and engaging in their demonstration, making sure the young children got to ask questions, patiently repeating themselves and providing new information when the questions were redundant, and demonstrating a lot of knowledge and pleasure for what they do and all the people who work with them. Although they did seem a little down about the future of puppetry in the face of CGI and motion capture technology. While they asserted that nothing can compare to the magic and range of expression and adaptability of live puppetry, there seemed to be a bit of discouragement about the continuing development of new jobs for puppeteers.

Jonathan Rayson as Seymour Krelbourn and Tari Kelly as Audrey were both pleasant and had wonderful voices, as did singers LaTonya Holmes (Ronnette), Amina Robinson (Crystal) and Yasmeen Sulieman (Chiffon), who do most of the storytelling work throughout the performance. James Moye played Orin the Dentist as well as almost all of the rest of the character parts in the piece, and one of the most unexpectedly amusing moments in the play was when he came onstage in a series of vignettes with rapid quickchanges in between, including an appearance in drag. Though he doesn't quite live up to Steve Martin, he was a great abusive dentist.

The one drawback of the show was its dearth of choreography; though it's not a particularly dance-driven musical, the movement in general seemed rather half-hearted and sparse. The Ronnettes especially could have used more to do in terms of movement and action to accompany their singing. Although they did their best to be both a unit and to establish individual characters, a little more coordinated movement would have helped.

Overall, though, it's a fun show and it serves a purpose; it's entertaining, and a good thing to introduce children to the theater. It also makes you think about '50s nostalgia, 'the American Dream' and how problematic any image of a squeaky clean, upwardly mobile better future can be. The cartoony, sanitized Skid Row juxtaposed with Betty Crocker Donna Reed dreams reveal both as illusions. And what does it mean that the book and music were by the creative team behind Disney musicals like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid?

Monday, August 15, 2005

How Cool is This?

It's funny how much ebay is used to raise money for charity, but I love this one!

16 famous authors, including Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Dorthy Allison, Lemony Snicket, Michael Chabon, and Dave Eggers are all auctioning off the opportunity to put your name (or anyone else's) somewhere in their novel. In a Lemony Snicket novel, you can be the random outburst by Sunny Baudelaire. In a Neil Gaiman novel, you can be a name on a tombstone. My personal favorite is the opportunity to be a Colombia University professor in a Marvel comic. The money raised goes to benefit the First Amendment Project and the bidding is staggered throughout the month of September. Check out ebay for more details.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

An evening of cars and cocks

Rocking the Macho Cockless: Community Artists Respond to Radical Masculinities.
Curated by Raquelito Gutierrez

I feel like I've seen a lot of shows like this recently: a bunch of great performers doing their own things well, but not really coming together. It's the kind of show that gives me hope that there will be a truly great show in the future, but it's not quite there yet. The energy wasn't quite right, the performers weren't exactly working together, but the show was fun nonetheless.

NOTE: I will attempt to use the pronouns the artists used for themselves in their bios. When no pronouns are given, I've opted for the masculine in deference to the theme of the evening.

Quite a few of the individual artists in this performance were incredibly talented and there were some wonderful, extremely provokative moments, but the energy between pieces didn't flow right. My first complaint is the program. It had bios for all the artists, but they appear to be in no particular order. Certainly not order of appearance, nor alphabetical order. There's no list with the names of the pieces and the order anywhere, which I feel is a major part of the concept of a program.

Of course, when my major complaint is about the program, the performances themselves must have been pretty good. And honestly, they were. These are some charming, talented, intelligent butches, bois, guys, and men. But the show itself needed more practice, more bringing it together. Even a good MC announcing the people and the pieces would have solved a great deal of it's problems. It's too bad Raquelito didn't decide to do this, since we know from DITCH that he's perfectly capable and quite talented at getting a crowd on his side. Someone to bring up the energy, get the crowd cheering, helping the pieces flow together would have added a lot to the evening. Starting the night with Leo Garcia, Highways' Artistic Director, introducing the show and remiding the audience to patronize the arts is a real energy drain, and it went straight from that to a video piece, so the whole night got off to a slow start that made the audience rather passive. It was really quite unfortunate.

The first piece, a video by JJ Chinois, was about a demolition derby. It was strange and fascinating, begging the question "Where's Skowhegan? That's not a state." And also "What's the purpose of this? Does someone win?" Well, I have learned the answer to the first question: The Skowhegan State Fair claims to be the oldest agricultural fair in the country. It takes place in Maine, and began in 1818, before Maine was even a state! It happens to be going on right now, as a matter of fact. There was a Demolition Derby yesterday, actually! Now I know. I'm still a little cloudy on the details of a demolition derby, but it does seem that there are in fact winners. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines a demolition derby as "A contest in which skilled drivers ram old cars into one another until only one car remains running." This is a phenomenon with which I am so unfamiliar that the video seemed as much a sociological demonstration as an exploration of masculinity. The first section of the video was fascinating in that it seems to be an exploration of failure. There was all the setup, preparation for the derby, loving depictions of the car in all of its pink, 1970s retro glory complete with playboy bunny symbol on the hood, and then the car wouldn't start. They couldn't even get it to the track. It was rather tragic, really. But then the video went on, and basically showed a lot of cars smashing into each other, which was strange and fascinating and amusing. It created an interesing image of masculinity. The car may be just another prosthetic cock, but this one was pink and belonged to a small Asian boy with a fabulous gold helmet. Strange and highly amusing, but starting with a video, however fun and fabulous, sets the audience up to be passive voyeurs, which is not what is needed for this kind of show.

That left the job of warming up the crowd to rigamortis (Tre Vasquez), who apparently once performed with the Sex Worker's Art Show. He did an admirable job waking the crowd up and getting them to warm up to him. I got a little uncomfortable when he began talking about spirituality, but in general he was a wonderful performer blurring the boundaries between hip hop and spoken word with some good things to say about identity, decolonization, and mestizaje. The ideas reminded me a great deal of This Bridge Called My Back and other Latina/indigena art/theory. He also performed a piece in which he appeared without binding in a thin white tank top and looked at himself in a mirror, discussing those moments in which he's alone and content with himself and his body just the way he is and doesn't have to feel like either a boy or a girl. It's an important thing to say, I think.

The next piece was (I believe; I'm not sure about the order because it's not listed in the program and thus I'm relying on my memory) a video by Chris Vargas. Another piece about a car, this short video juxtaposed driving and sexual activities. The cutting and the imagery was quite clever and very pleasurable.

Riku Matsuda presented an adorable piece about Bathroom Justice, although it had the tone of social action community education, which did feel a bit like preaching to the converted in a crowd where I suspect the vast majority of the audience has either been challenged when using the restroom or has dated someone who has. It was framed as a meeting organizing a Pee-In to address the issue of bathroom justice and included a personal story complete with hilarious visuals of Riku's restroom difficulties. He's got a great presence and energy and seemed to be having a lot of fun, and he did his best to get the audience riled up; he even lead us in a protest chant at the end of his performance.

Chris Diaz and Vivian Babuts contributed an amazing and intense video piece that seems to be called "pro-bo," though I'm not sure what this means. It was rather strange and confusing in its organization, but had brilliant and heart-wrenching moments. It was about, as far as I can tell, sex and hair. There were moments that seemed a rather saccharine glorification of a relationship, but overall it was fascinating. It began with a series of vignettes in which Diaz and Babuts performed a series of characters, each a exploration of masculinity and femininity and attraction. Their performances were fabulous and quite entertaining; when a few of the same looks came back in a more serious context at the end, the transformation from playful to tragic was striking and extremely well-done. I feel like the piece should have ended there, without the sickly tribute to their relationship. It was a fascinating video, but it could have used more focus, clarity, theme, an organizing principle. Babuts also contributed 4 life-size self portraits (naked) in the lobby, which were stunning.

Ricky "El Cholo" Garcia led a pro-sex, safe-sex, kinky dildo demonstration. The audience participation of this particular performance was quite wild and entertaining. I was totally asking myself "Was that planned?" "Does he know these people?" The bit that worked best was with someone he clearly did know; said person, a spunky little redhead, performed quite well and seemed to be having fun. Garcia's piece was hilarious, and definitely had the audience laughing out loud.

"Skip" by Felix Chang K. and Marnee Meyer was a short video piece in which well-dressed non-white transmen jumproped to demonstrate "a 21st century notion of queer beauty based on rhythm, agility, and liminality."

D'Lo, Chris Elardo, and La shawn Logan performed a scene from Ballin' with my Bois, a play by D'Lo that received a staged reading in LA, a run at the WOW Cafe in New York, and will be produced in LA in 2006. The scene was fun and funny and generally well-done. It bodes well for the play. The scene featured 3 butch/boi/ftm identified folks in a car chatting and joking around. It set the scene and established the characters for a monologue by D'Lo about the importance of communities and relationships between bois and transmen.

The Butchlalis de Panochtitlan performed the final piece in the evening, which combined video and live performance. It was entitled Cockfight! Pelea de Gallos! and featured the 4 BdPs wearing all black and half of each of their faces was painted in black and white to resemble a skull, very Día de los Muertos. They stood in a very static arrangement for the majority of the piece and each member spoke in turn, while the others turned their heads and struck various poses. The effect of this was eerie and quite impressive. All four of them spoke this time, which is, I believe, and improvement, and they had interesting things to say, even if they were sometimes rather vague and the point occasionally got lost beneath the words. They talked about friendships between butches and bois, community, desire (for femmes?)

So the sheer number of pieces that related to cars, and related cars to sex or masculinity rather disturbed me. But the other recurring ideas between pieces were fascinating. Several performers, especially rigamortis and D'Lo, brought up the concept that they weren't just masculine or feminine, that there was still aspects of both genders in them even if they feel and choose to present to the public as masculine and that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Relationships between butches, bois, and transmen, both sexual (Vargas) and friendship (butchlalis, D'Lo) were important, and sometimes difficult.

Overall, it was a wonderful night with some great performances. It needed better energy and pace; it wanted to a raucous, provokative evening full of stimulation both mental and physical and it was almost, but not quite, up there. Let me say, I did not in any way leave dissappointed, and each and every one of these guys is a fabulous performer worth going out and seeing and supporting. I can't wait for the next one!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

August Nights

Someone posted an anonymous comment today in repsonse to my post from May about a show by the Butchlalis de Panochtitlan in order to make sure I knew about the show Raquel (de los Butchlalis) is curating at Highways this weekend. I did already have plans to go to the show, and I will I'm sure comment on it here, but I love the fact that people are pointing me to things I should be seeing. The butchlalis will be performing a new piece entitled "Cockfight!/Pelea de Gallos!" and it looks like they're now selling buttons. Hot! Even if the blog comment was some sort of great internet marketing ploy, rock on. And this show is bound to be interesting and thought-provoking if nothing else; I'm glad someone reminded me to advertise it. So:

ROCKING THE MACHO COCKLESS: Community Artists Respond To Radical Masculinity. Performance · Video · Installation. Curated by Raquelito Gutierrez

What exactly boils beneath the macho exterior of our soft and hard bodies, our prosthetic cocks, and transformed corporeality? Papi duros, significant others and allies resist dominant masculinities and take on oppression in an experimental kite ride across media and zip codes. Featuring D'Lo, Ricky Garcia, Tre Vasquez, JJ Chinois, Jessica Lawless, BdP,
y mas!

Friday + Saturday 8:30 pm
Sunday 6:30 pm $15

Also coming up in a similar vein, a super-impressive lineup at Transgiving on August 20th. I've seen both Turner Schofield and Thea Hillman several times before and both are extremely talented, riveting performers. I'm certainly looking forward to it.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The NY Times on LA Theater

The NY Times has an article on Michael Ritchie and CTG. It's a great piece that is appropriately critical and really clearly asks the right questions.

Rob Kendt, who was one of the best theater reviewers in LA (he recently moved to NY), has a wonderful and succinct response. He basically says, it's about time and why does it take someone from New York to do this?

And I think he's right, as is Margo Jefferson of the NY Times. Why hasn't there been more local coverage and why hasn't it been critical? Where are the responses from those fired? Jefferson draws a lot of attention to the fact that white people are only 30% of LA's population, so why are all of the playwrights white men? And she does indeed mention the fact that they are MEN. Not a single female playwright is represented on Ritchie's inaguaral season (although there is one female lyricist) and all of the women and people of color are ghettoized into a solo performance art festival. Jefferson's article has some good quotes from Brian Freeman and I absolutely love Chay Yew's comment that "Is the theater still doing an effective job of reflecting and representing the world we live in, or is it merely reflecting a select few? If so, we deserve the dwindling, aging audiences." Harsh, but brilliant. I bet all of these people have a lot of great, interesting things to say about this; they are playwrights after all.

So thanks to the NY Times for dealing with this, and doing it quite well. Keep holding Ritchie to the standards of Gordon Davidson and Joseph Papp; he's bound to come up short.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Milk and More

Shilts, Randy. The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982.

This biograpy of Harvey Milk was intended for a popular rather than scholarly audience, and as such it lacks things like footnotes, which makes me more than a little suspicious of all the dialogue and recreated conversations in it. There's a lot of it that's rather silly and sentimental and other bits that are really hard to follow, but I definitely learned something. I now know a lot more about the city politics of San Francisco, including some reasons to be suspicious of Senator Feinstein. But in many ways, it's a fairly exhaustive and engaging biography and urban history.

I am, however, going to dwell on my complaints. My first is a very minor pet peeve. Shilts kept repeating, over and over, what type of man Harvey Milk liked. With every one of Milk's new boyfriends, Shilts lingered over the "deep sultry eyes, thick dark hair, and a compact build" (30) and especially the age (even when Milk was 48 he never started a relationship with anyone over the age of 22). Shilts emphasis made the similarities quite redundant very quickly.

The overall irritant about this book was Shilts' attempts at storytelling that left the book feeling confusing and choppy. He wove weird foreshadowing bits about Jonestown throughout the book, for example, and added glimpses at all of Harvey's ex-lovers at strange and incongrous times. I also had a lot of trouble keeping track of some of the people, especially Harvey's political allies and enemies, and Shilts' could have done a better job at reminding the reader about who each one was. Occasionally, Shiltd jumped forward and backward in time without specifiying the date, which was also rather confusing. In his attempts to make the book dramatic, occasionally Shits' editorializing went a bit over the top. The last line of the book, for example, is "Harvey Milk did live, as a metaphor for the homosexual experience in America" (348).

I did, however, learn a great deal about how politics in San Francisco work and what the town was like in the '70s, which was both fun and fascinating. While it is in many ways a dubious historical volume, it is an easy-to-read historical and biographical portrait and its 350 pages went fairly quickly. While I don't trust Shits, I did enjoy this and learn quite a bit. I kind of wish it wasn't written so closely following Milk's death; it would have been interesting to follow up with more information about Milk's political legacy, the continued careers of Harry Britt and Anne Kronenberg and future gay supervisers who followed in Milk's footsteps.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Mae West: Ahead of her Time?

Mae West. Three Plays by Mae West: Sex, The Drag, The Pleasure Man. Ed. Lillian Schlissel. New York: Routledge, 1997.

First, full disclosure: this was a suprisingly expensive book. I'm not sure why a collection of 3 plays costs this much. Especially since it's not particularly well bound and I, after a month or so of not too vigorous sporadic reading, already have pages falling out of my volume. Hmmm.

With that said, for a series of plays written in 1926, these are suprisingly entertaining, and certainly risque! Sex is about a prostitute and addressess frankly some of the concerns of a woman who has to work to make a living, although she does take the noble route in the end. Mae West originated the lead role herself. It's an amazing play in the fact that in 1926 it centered around a strong female character and her sexuality. Drag: A Homosexual Comedy in Three Acts is about gay men. Fairly explicitly so. Once again you get the stereotypical ending, but it's rather emotionally ambiguous and complex. And The Pleasure Man, which is I think my favorite, and a pretty startling (and slightly grotesque) ending, actually. It's a backstage drama that includes female impersonators, extramarital affairs, and gay men. It has quite a few characters and at times it's hard to tell them apart, but I think for the most part this would be a fascinating play even today, although it is a bit of a circus (literally). The three plays are fascinating and complex and I highly enjoyed them; I would recommend them, even if they are at moments a bit dated.

And the book itself includes fascinating (if slightly simplicistic) introductory essay and an appendix containing the legal documents surrounding the censorship of West's plays and especially The Pleasure Man. It's actually a fairly interesting academic volume disguised as a collection of plays, although I must admit that I've only skimmed the academic portions (especially the legal documents, which are pretty dry) in my curiousity to get to the plays. What I did learn, however, that West wrote several other plays, and that they're all archived at the Library of Congress, so my question is: where are the rest? Why are only these 3 published? And Schlissel claimed that Drag and The Pleasure Man were intended to be performed by a company of gay actors. But instead of details, she tells us that "the gay plays contain the only love stories Mae West would ever write" (27) which is a little too sentimental and reductive for my taste.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

It's hard to beat lesbian vampires

Gomez, Jewelle. The Gilda Stories Ann Arbor: Firebrand Books, 1991.

The Gilda Stories is indeed a story about a lesbian vampire, but it's not exactly what you'd expect from a lesbian vampire story. There's very little sex and very little violence, which is in some ways a dissappointment, but was it does offer is striking in its way. It actually has a lot in common with Specimin Days; it's a series of sporadic jumps through time from past to future, although the character is a great deal more consistant. It's the story of Gilda, an African-American woman who is made into a vampire in New Orleans in the 1850s after she escapes from slavery. Each chapter is a new location and a new decade, from San Francisco in the 1890s to off-Broadway in the 1970s and New Mexico in the 2050s as she travels, grows up, and finds her way into a community of those like herself.

One of the greatest things about this novel and other such fantasy, vampire novels, etc is the mythology it creates. Gomez's vampires are not killers, but instead give life for life. In exchange for "their share of the blood" they leave people dreams, the ability or resolution to do something in their lives; they reach into people's brains and find what they need or desire most. They are also stewards of humanity and "living history", fighting war and slavery and ecological destruction when they have the opportunity. One of the first and most important rules in these vampires' lives is to try not to kill, and if they do then to remember the faces of those they've killed.

The vampires are as much as a metaphor for queer community as anything else, a group of people who have long ago lost their biological families and in exchange make homes for each other. The book offers a beautiful sense of what it means to have friends who create a home for you even if you're not always in the same places. Similarly, there's a great deal about conversion, deciding when and how to bring someone into the life, finding the right partner.

So, while I would have liked a little more of the fabulous supernatural vampire or hot lesbian action, it was a pretty great book and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Examining the Specimin

Cunningham, Michael. Specimin Days

Specimin Days is a strikingly beautiful book with that same reflective quiet and strangeness I love from other Cunningham novels The Hours and A Home at the End of the World. The two most notable things about Specimen Days are its post-9/11 vision of New York and its strange combination of genres.

It's hard to specifically say how Specimin Days reflects on a post-9/11 world, but it does have a sensibility that evokes the strangeness and fragility of the modern city. Each of the images of New York City in the novel has a life of its own and as such is both beloved and slightly dangerous. The city is populated with images of fear and death as well as beauty and love.

The book is composed of 3 parts which are in many ways separate novellas. Each takes place in separate eras in New York's history, but 4 characters are mysteriously reincarnated and interwoven throughout the stories in interesting ways. The four characters are Luke, a strange and sensitive young boy with an overly-large round head that comes from a birth defect; Catherine, a beautiful and self-suffient older woman; Simon a stereotypically perfect, beautiful man; and Walt Whitman. Whitman is woven through the story as quotation, inspiration, and godlike-presence. He's not as much of a character as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, but really more of a religion.

The three novellas are each expirimentations in different types of genre fiction and each is focused around a different one of the three main characters. The first story is a ghost story set against the modernization of the Industrial Revolution. It takes place in New York in the 1890s and in it Whitman is an actual presence, a magical figure that Luke runs into on the street, and image of life and vitality in contrast to the machinery of the factory in which he works. The second story is a crime drama centered around Catherine in the present (about 2002) and it deals with the fear that death from terrorism can happen randomly to anyone at any time. The third is a Science Fiction story in which Catherine is a lizard woman from another planet and Simon is a (gay?) robot.

The issues I haven't quite thought through include religious imagery (why are they all named after Catholic saints?) and the drive to leave New York, the need to escape the city. Also, there wasn't really any explicitly gay content at all, which I found a little disappointing. Cunningham has dealt with issues of sexuality so beautifully in the past, but for some reason he does so within heterosexual pairings this time. Whitman, of course, is certainly queer content enough and his celebration of the city and people is a beautiful thread throughout the novel. Overall, it's a beautiful, fascinating, provokative novel and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It left me in a strange, reflective mood, but that is in no way a bad thing.