Monday, September 24, 2007

Doing Judy

Rufus Wainwright. Hollywood Bowl. 9/23/07.

Last night, Rufus Wainwright performed his last concert in a series that started over a year ago when he did a tribute to Judy Garland's performance at Carnegie Hall. The series began with two performances at Carnegie Hall on June 14 and 15, 2006 and ended at the Hollywood Bowl. He recreated both Garland's set list and even his gestures evoked Garland's performance style. He also performed the concert at venues in which Garland gave famous performances (the London Palladium, L'Olympia in Paris, and the Hollywood Bowl). A friend of mine commented that performing Judy's songs, re-creating her performance, is an awfully ambitious project. It's true, and it could have gone horribly wrong, but Rufus made it a beautiful tribute to an amazing performer.

The concert was quite fabulous, and fascinating to think about as an artistic tribute to Judy Garland as a performer and as a symbol of queer identification. First and foremost, it was a good show. Wainwright's voice is well-suited to Garland's music. He's the kind of singer I would gladly hear recreate standards and old favorites in his own style anytime. And this was a lovely mix of Wainwright's distintive voice and Garland's dramatic performativity. He made the songs his own, but used her arrangements. While he was by no means impersonating Garland, he used his hands and elbows in a way that suggested without mimicking Garland's expressive theatricality.

The highlight of the show for me was "The Man That Got Away," in which Wainwright captured the smokey darkness of Garland's voice and the strength and fragility of the song itself. The second half featured appearances by Lorna Luft in a fabulous bright pink gown, Rufus' mother, Kate McGarrigle, playing piano for "Over the Rainbow," and an absolutely beautiful rendition of "Stormy Weather" by Rufus' sister, Martha Wainwright. Rufus also sang one song, ("Do it Again," I think) in Garland's original key. His falsetto was strange and haunting and somewhat painful.

The closest Wainwright got to impersonation was in the encore, in which he sang "Get Happy" in an imitation of Judy's iconic outfit, a costume that was almost drag on her but certainly was on him in stockings and heels. But even then, he was performing himself, not her; he wasn't trying to pass as Judy or become her - he was citing her as an inspiration, a symbol, a patron saint, a diva, and perhaps a goddess. He was still very much Rufus under that hat, not a boy in a halloween costume or a drag queen camping for an audience.

The fascinating thing about the show was the way in which the crowd was behind it. So that it didn't matter when Rufus' voice cracked and failed toward the end of the show, or when "Putting on the Ritz" felt just a little off tempo to me. It didn't matter that while Wainwright took full possession of the big, tragic numbers, some of the smaller and quieter pieces got lost in the hugeness of the venue and the undertaking. What mattered is how much the audience wanted to love Rufus and love Judy and love them together. The fact that this was happening was more important than the exact details of how it was happening. The whole audience was caught up in the process of identification and celebration of an event that happened 45 years ago, and it was wonderful. I'm sad that the DVD of the performance at the London Palladium and the CD of the show won't be available until December - I want to take them home and relive this performance now. I've been playing the Judy Garland CD, but I'd like to have them both.

For a full accounting of the concert, read this very detailed Yahoo Music review or Harp Magazine's detailed description of the Carnegie Hall show. There's something off about the LA Times coverage of the concert - halfway through, the reviewer gets caught up in being condescending about drag rather than talking about Rufus and Judy. What the LA Times reviewer missed, and I probably won't be able to explain well, was that this both was and wasn't a camp performance. The show claims and embraces a culture that has claimed and embraced drag performances of Judy Garland as loving tribute and mocking mimickry at the same time. But this was about the music, and about a single performance that has been called "the greatest night in show business history". It was a challenge and a performance accomplishment and a tribute. It was a heartfelt embrace of Garland and queerness and the ways in which they go together.

Wainwright says "I've thought a lot about this, and I think the secret" to Garland's effect on listeners decades after her death, said Mr. Wainwright, "is that, when she sings, she is beautiful without being actually beautiful." In this TONY article, Rufus imagines Judy as an alternative to a Frank Sinatra swinging masculinity: "There’s nobody being the flip side of that, which is the hungry, lonely, desperate, crazy-person singer. So I wanted to pick up that mantle and try to be a little less cool." I think that these quotes, and his performance, demonstrate a wonderful, respectful appreciation of Garland, her music, and her life. Recreating that iconic performance and making it his own was a brilliant tribute, as well as a the ulitimate performance of gay male identity.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

computer problems

Forgive me if my posting is light for a while. My computer isn't feeling well, and has thus been sent in for service. As a result, I'm temporarily using my mother's geriatric powerbook. Apparently, the version of Safari it runs doesn't get along with blogger. As in, I can write entries but not post them. I discovered this after losing a long post on feminism and theater that I may or may not feel inspired to recreate. This means that I can only blog on Firefox, and must log out of my email to do so (GRRR! I HATE this about blogger). Blogging becomes much more of a hassle and I'm much less inclined to do it. Hopefully my real computer will be back soon.

McCarthyism Now

"We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home."

I'm in the middle of watching The McCarthy Years, footage of Edward R. Murrow's See It Now episodes relating to McCarthyism (much of which was portrayed in Good Night and Good Luck. It's amazing how contemporary so much of the footage feels.

There's a point at which McCarthy questions State Department employee Reed Harris about a book he wrote in 1932 about higher education. Apparently, in that book, Harris suggested that professors should have the right to teach that marriage "should be cast out of our civilization as antiquated and stupid religious phenomena" if that's their educated and considered opinion. This, apparently, made Harris a communist.

It's interesting that even at the height of McCarthyism, the president (Eisenhower) defended due process of law and the right of defendants to face their occusers. If we could even have that much committment to liberty and democracy now, I'd be impressed.

I was personally amazed that McCarthy accused the left wing media of unfairly persecuting him. I thought that the accusation of liberal bias in the media was a recent fallacy, but apparently happened in the 1950s.

It all feels very familiar.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Irreverent or Reactionary?

Invasion! The Musical. Hudson Backstage Theatre. 9/9/07.

Invasion! The Musical is, as one might suspect, a musical (very loosely) based on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. More than that, however, it is an evening of dirty jokes and foul language that are sometimes hilarious and sometimes completely nonsensical. As potty humor isn't exactly my style, I found myself cringing as often as laughing, but I feel that the musical is perfect for perhaps slightly immature frat boys. The production seems to have originated as a project among USC undergrads and recent graduates; most of whom are quite talented and seem to be having a lot of fun with the show, but I definitely felt too old and too queer/feminist to be the ideal audience. Variety calls the show "the latenight handiwork of a team of drunken frat boys trying to top each other's nominatiosn for Ultimate Grossout between extended bong hits" and I think that's about right. It's also the intended audience.

While the show was dirty fun, where it fell disappointingly short was as a satire. The program claims the show will be "innovative material that is going to challenge contemporary social constructs." It fails, however, to set up those terms clearly so that when it tries to claim that it's ridiculing ideological extremism of all sorts, it ends up feeling just plain reactionary. It feels like conservatives trying to be campy, which strikes a sour note for me. At all points, the writers seemed to avoid plot development, character development, satire, and logical consistency in favor of disgusting or unpleasant side notes.

The production fails to use the sci-fi genre or the 1950s setting to develop its ideas. If it employed the 1950s small town setting as a shorthand for conservative values, racism, hypocracy or sexual repression and established that at the beginning, then the ending would feel less reactionary to me, but as it is, the ending is just plain offensive and I find myself agreeing with the show when one of the characters jokes that it's not well-written. I guess I'm disappointed because the production has a lot of potential to be clever and interesting as well as just funny, and it at every point turns away from being intelligent as well as humorous.

For such an aesthetically heterosexual show, there was a good deal of queer content, including Emily Pennington as Spencer Brewster, a possibly transgender-identified 10-year-old-boy with a crush on his babysitter. Pennington as Spencer was adorable and he and his babysitter, Steve Thompson (played by Cory Bretsch) were the two characters I would have been happy to see more of in the show.

My feelings about the butch/femme lesbian couple, newscaster Gloria Parish (played by Jenny Weaver) and her girlfriend/camerawoman, Janelle (Danielle Faitelson) were much more mixed. Janelle was portrayed as "a butch dyke with no future" content to follow around (and be mildly abused by) the high-powered femme newscaster. Their relationship was loving but dysfunctional, which unfortunately can sometimes ring true for lesbians and they did get a roll in the hay at the climax of the show. Unfortunately, butch seemed to be defined by a tool belt, flannel, a bad wig and large fake eyebrows. They were distinctly out of period, which is odd since the '50s is often considered the height of butch-femme bar culture. These two have their moments, but personally I would find it more entertaining if the point of the jokes surrounding them went beyond "she's a butch dyke with no future" and perhaps implied that someone in the cast had actually met a butch lesbian rather than just heard of them.

I did, however, actually like the random side plot of two National Guardsmen (Ben Giroux and Al Rahn) who arrived randomly, and did nothing, but had a lovely moment of Don't Ask-Don't Tell discovery of their love. The lack of queer sensibilty in this relationship made sense, and even though there was absolutely no need for these characters in the plot, I rather enjoyed their appearance.

I actually enjoyed writer/director Aaron Matijasic's appearance in the play as a nerdy scientist, but I wish the character had something better to do than sing about Toxic Shock Syndrome and get the girl. Will Harris as Sherrif Brewster actually managed to amuse me while singing an offensive anti-feminist hoe-down song. And Ian Littleworth, Carl Petrillo, Al Rahn, and Gabriel Oliva made a wonderful barbershop quartet who were tragically underused.

Basically, there were some good people and good moments in a show that desperately needs to be rewritten with more attention to a humor that goes beyond gross-out jokes. The best word to describe the show is sophmoric, but there's a lot of potential for something better. At the moment, there's no point to this play at all, and its vapid attempt to be postmodern and irreverant makes it, at best, offensive and reactionary.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Perfect Night

Cohn, Rachel and David Levithan. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. New York: Random House, 2006.

This is a book about two people meeting cute, then spending a delirious night doing and saying all the wrong things. Over the course of a single evening, they learn and change and grow and fall in love in a way that's full of youth and hope and passion. It's sweet and beautiful and perfect. I loved it. I loved it so much that I immediately sent it to my gay best friend (who doesn't have time to read blogs anymore, so he won't know 'til it shows up on his doorstep). I thought about sending it to two other boys I know and love, but I'm not sure I could get past their skepticism to get either of them to read it. Anyway, it was one of those books that's so simple and evokative that I just want to hand out copies to everyone I know.

Now, I love David Levithan and I have since Boy Meets Boy made me laugh and cry and kept me from screaming while I was stuck in Vegas overnight during the most miserable travel experience of my life more than two years ago now. I love him so much that I almost think he's wasted writing straight teenage boy characters when he tells queer stories so incredibly beautifully. But if I thought that, he proved me wrong with Nick and Norah because they are fabulous, awkward, realistically confused, endearing characters.

I don't know what it's like to be a teenager reading this book, but with my cynical adult perspective the book feels bittersweet both for how honest it is with the disconnections and miscommunications and bad decisions and for how hopeful it is. Because I want, with all my heart, for Nick and Norah to be together and stay together and never break each other's hearts. Because this book is just the beginning of their story, one perfect night with the future purposefully blank so that they never have to break up, grow up, change or move away. Even as I'm applauding their bliss, though I'm also mourning an inevitable loss that is beyond the scope of the book but looming nonetheless. It's a good thing when I worry about the future of fictional characters. It means that in the few hours when I was savoring the book (and it wasn't very long - it's a quick read), they felt like real people to me. I like that.

It's also a book that made me think about the people I've spent a perfect night (or perfect afternoon with). It made me treasure all over again the nights staying up late in cars and coffee houses in the suburbs with Prophecyboy just talking, not yet understanding that my love for him wasn't attraction. Or dancing to Madonna in a dorm room with a girl to whom I didn't understand that I was attracted. Or that trip to Santa Cruz with my first girlfriend where we got lost and flirted and ended the night with that first awkward kiss that changed my life. Or the afternoon I spent running errands with a performance artist I barely knew but with whom I talk so easily. Or those coffee dates that lingered for hours all last spring. Each of these moments is perfect unto themselves, whatever the future brought. They are moments of genuine connection with people who are in one way or another kindred spirits and any book that reminds me to appreciate them is genius in its own special way. And I want to give that book to each of them, and to everyone else who matters in my life. That's the kind of book this is.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

If I lived elsewhere (or had time and money to fly)

There are two very exciting shows that I want anyone who happens to be reading this in New York or Seattle to know about. If I could afford to, I would be booking plane flights for both of these shows.

New York:
Wolves in the Walls
New Victory Theater
Oct. 5-21

This is the Improbable Theatre Company (who did Shockheaded Peter) and the National Theater of Scotland collaborating to adapt a children's book by Neil Gaiman. The story is verys simple, but I suspect the theatrical adaptation will be fabulous.

Becoming a Man in 127 Easy Steps
Capitol Hill Arts Center
Oct. 26-27

The Pat Graney Company and the National Performance Network present the world premier of Scott Turner Schofield's Becoming a Man in 127 EASY Steps. This piece is going to be amazing. Turner is my favorite transgender performance artist. He's a delightful human being, a true gentleman, and a fabulous storyteller. I've had the extreme privilege of reading an early text for this show and I'm super excited about it. Excited to the point that I've cleared my schedule just in case I can find a last minute cheap ticket to Seattle to go see it. If you happen to be in the area, you must go and report back to me. I insist.

So, if anyone out there feels like flying me all over the country to see shows (and review them, stage manage them, whatever), these are two that I'm dying to see. If they happen to be local for you, there's really no excuse to miss them.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Go to ...Hell

Zorro in Hell. Ricardo Montalbán Theatre. 9/6/07.

Culture Clash's Zorro in Hell is part folklore, part history lesson, part political rant, and part stand-up comedy, but it's all extremely entertaining. It draws on traditions of Chicano agit-prop theater (I particularly enjoyed the reference to The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa) in order to dissect pop culture iconography. Plus, it was a love song to old California with its checkered history of exploitation, oppression, and revolution. While not every line was perfect, the fast-paced wit ensured that I laughed so much my face was sore.

Zorro in Hell is the story of a writer (Richard Montoya) who finds himself in a hotel that serves as a museum of old California with a proprietress (Sharon Lockwood) who claims to have seduced and inspired historical and liteary greats from Joaquin Murrieta to Jack Keroac. She and a cast of very queer characters seek to teach the writer the story of Zorro, taking him from a cynical aspiring screenwirter to a revolutionary in the Zorro mold.

Of course, this plot is only an occasional accessory to witty one-liners and a postmodern exploration of California histoy and Zorro mythology. Culture Clash places Zorro in a geneology of tricksters, thieves, and freedom fighters. While they assert that he's directly descended from the Scarlet Pimpernel and an inspiration for Batman, they also implicitly or explicitly link him to Robin Hood, Joaquin Murrieta, and Hannibal Lecter, and perhaps even Br'er Rabbit. The play explores the character's inauthenticity from pulp fiction roots through children's memorobilia. Zorro represents a long history of white and nonwhite children alike nostalgic for a California history that never really existed, but Zorro in Hell comes to the conclusion that Zorro is a character worth emulating despite his problematic history, because first and foremost, he stands up for the people against an exploitative and authoritarian Gobernador. He's a graffiti artist and a one-man rebellion, a terrorist in the most necessary way. Refreshingly, this play embraced the bi-cultural, the alliance between white, Native American, and Mexican as the basis for chicanismo and as the source of potentially revolutionary alliance. It wasn't a piece about how Zorro wasn't authentic enough but rather about how authenticity becomes irrelevant in the face of oppression.

The play is wonderful and I love it and highly recommend it, but no review of mine would be complete without an analysis of gender issues, and this production had some weird ones. First there was the 200-Year-Old-Woman, who was kind of awesome, really. This weird muse/succubus figure isn't exactly a representation of the female experience (she's more symbol than character), but she was a lusty and fiesty old woman (with an occasional inexplicable Irish accent) and as such was kind of fabulous. Of course, she only had one bit, so it got old by the second act, but that's OK really. The real issue wasn't Culture Clash's problems depicting women (for once) but with homosexuality as the foil to masculinity. Our writer-hero was, until he became Zorro, constantly in danger of being sexually victimized. He was kissed by a gay cowboy (and boy can those Culture Clash guys REALLY not do gay right) and raped by Kyle, his bear therapist (the big furry kind, no the big furry kind that lives in the woods). I know that part of this was a humorous take on the tradition of Zorro (and the Scarlet Pimpernel) masquerading as an effete rich boy to hide his secret identity and a performed resistance to the demasculinization and infintalization of any non-white men, but it was also a disturbing depiction of homophobia as the source of all humor. In this world, only Zorro is really a man and everyone else is lesser, as demonstrated by potential homosexuality.

With that being said, the play is overall much stronger than its homophobia and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It just got extended until September 30th and it is very much worth a trip out to Hollywood to see this wonderful exploration of California mythology lovingly and irreverently exploded on stage. Director Tony Taccone and Culture Clashers Richard Montoya, Herbert Sigüenza, and Ric Salinas have a lot to be proud of in this one, and they're working hard up there on stage. The lease you can do is go see it.

P.S. The show also had the best intermission and post-show soundtracks I ever heard. Seriously. I laughed. I sung along. They were all wonderfully appropriate to the show.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Lesbian Theater and Queer Performance Art

I recently read a myspace bulletin from Curve Magazine in which they asked for lesbian theater critics or actresses involved in lesbian theater. If you happen to be either, please respond to them.

But the posting made me consider whether I would call myself a lesbian theater critic or not. It's a loaded question, regardless of the identity issues. I write about queer performance art, and as a result, I see quite a bit of performance by lesbians and other queer women, but it's been a long time since I've seen anything that could strictly be called be called lesbian theater. I tend to know things about lesbian performance art, music, spoken word, film, and sometimes even burlesque, but what exactly qualifies as a lesbian play? And have I been ignoring them in favor of other forms of performance?

Is there lesbian theater here in LA that I'm missing? I tend to skip a lot of the performances at the Celebration Theater and the LA Gay and Lesbian Center as too expensive and usually gay male focused. Theatre Out is a newish gay theater in Orange County that I have yet to check out and Rude Guerilla also in Orange County often has interesting gay [male] programming while not strictly a gay theater. The LA Women's Shakespeare Company is a theater company that may be of interest to lesbians, but isn't strictly lesbian theater as far as I know.

And that made me think about gay and lesbian theaters elsewhere. I'm certainly familiar with Theatre Rhinoceros and Brava! Theater Center in San Francisco and the WOW Cafe in New York (Shakespeare in the Nude on Sept. 8 sounds awesome!) as likely places to find lesbian theater, but I can't say I've spent much time at any of these. Are ther other lesbian or gay and lesbian theaters I don't know about? What makes lesbian theater?

For those in NY

For any New Yorkers among my readers, I highly recommend that you check out Mastering Sex and Tortillas by Adelina Anthony. It's a hilarious piece in which Anthony performs butch and femme gender roles, discussing lesbian sexuality in a rowdy, irreverant solo performance. The intended audience is clearly Chicana lesbians, but the piece is delightfully entertaining all around.

Sept. 5th-29th (Wed-Sat @ 8 pm)
Teatro LA TEA
Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center
107 Suffolk Street, 2nd floor
(between Delancy & Rivington Streets)
Tickets: $15