Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Park 51

I have been thinking a lot about Park 51, the Islamic center proposed for Lower Manhattan. Not that I could get away from it, it's all over the media. It's our Jewish mayor (not our Catholic City Council President or our Catholic Governor) who is the loudest supporter of Park 51. Though I guess you have to give Paterson some credit for trying to mediate via the Archbishop. The Museum of Tolerance, I am saddened to report, only advocates tolerance for some people (see Gothamist, Museum of Tolerance Can't Tolerate Ground Zero Mosque, )
What follows is a statement from Kwame Anthony Appiah, the President of the US branch of PEN, and I think he's right.

PEN American Center Statement in Support of the Park51 Community Center

As members of the American literary community who believe in the universality of human experience and human rights,

As proud citizens and residents of a country that recognizes the free exercise of religion as a fundamental benchmark of freedom of thought and expression,

And as PEN Members pledged to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in our community and country, as in the world elsewhere,

We stand with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with religious leaders of all faiths, with political leaders of both major parties, and with all our friends and neighbors who support and celebrate the freedom to construct the Park51 Islamic Community Center on its city-approved site in lower Manhattan.

We oppose all efforts to circumscribe this freedom; we deplore the rhetoric of suspicion that seeks to deny our common humanity and shared aspirations; and we emphatically reject the tyranny of fear.

None of this is to deny the anguish of those who lost family and friends in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, nor is it to diminish the trauma we experienced and still clearly share.

Nevertheless, we are sure no lasting comfort or peace can come from abridging the rights of others or yielding to distrust and fear.

We have faith that the freedoms enumerated in our Bill of Rights are both the birthright of all and our best defense.

We invite everyone to join with us in reaffirming those freedoms and the power of civil discourse as the true vehicle for healing.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

7 Sins in 60 Minutes Hits the Road

I’ve just finished the rewrite of my Anger (a.k.a. Wrath, Ire) scene for 7 Sins in 60 Minutes in its Philadelphia Fringe Festival incarnation. Completely new scene, which culminates in completely new violence. In the midst of that, I wrote up a little essay about what anger means to me, and how it plays out in the scene itself. A version of it follows:

Anger is incredibly insidious, I think because there are so many possible different manifestations of it. Unlike envy or gluttony, there are good kinds of anger, like God’s wrath or righteous anger, or used creatively, as Rainer Maria Rilke writes in Letters to a Young Poet, “Anger, cleanly used, is clean, too.” You can tell yourself your anger is righteous, though it very well may not be. Anger can be passive-aggressiveness, impatience, self-destructive behavior, vengeance or rage. The experience of rage, the way it literally feels like it’s taking you over, makes me understand why people used to believe in demonic possession. Because that’s what rage feels like- it crowds out everything else from your mind. It’s also exhausting to live with for any length of time- either in yourself, or in your house.

What I didn’t know until the last night of 7 Sins in 60 Minutes at HERE (because that’s when fight choreographer Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum told me and pride-playwright Cheryl Davis) is that each Deadly Sin/Virtue has a demon assigned to it (by a German bishop in the 16th century). It seems that Amon (the Wrath demon) is a quite powerful one who has 40 legions of lesser devils at his beck and call. His particular talent is manipulating love and hate situations with both friends and enemies. One of Amon’s physical manifestations is “a man with dog’s teeth who is situated inside of a raven” (which I still can’t conjure up completely in my mind).

In Scene 5, anger first manifests itself as Amadea’s impatience and Dante’s passive-aggressiveness (pretending to look for the tire jack that isn’t there, continuing his pitch while Amadea rages). They each put themselves and others in danger (anger with a soupcon of pride) by trying to flag down a car. It culminates in violence, anger’s physical manifestation.


The other show that my niece and I saw was Fela!, which we absolutely loved (she was skeptical at first, but came around). And kudos to Jay-Z, and Will & Jada Pinkett Smith for producing it. I only hope they produce more theatre as good as this. I would have given Fela! Best Musical in a minute.
I'd heard an interview on Playbill with Lillias White when she was in rehearsal for the Off-Broadway incarnation of it, which sounded really intriguing. Still, even though Bill T. Jones isn't a dance-y theatre choreographer (Spring Awakening is proof of that), I'm not big on dance shows. We were fortunate enough to see Kevin Mambo (who I loved in Ruined) in the lead. What an incredible actor, and in that difficult a role, he barely had a moment's rest other than intermission. Wonderful acting, dancing (it look me back to African class in grad school), and music (with the onstage band in view most of the time), a story that's really about something: not only the biography of Fela Kuti, but the history of Nigeria and the never-ending legacy of colonialism. If you doubt me about colonialism, look at sub-Saharan Africa, India, Pakistan, the Middle East....
Marina Draghici (whose work was unknown to me) has designed a wonderful set that comes out into the house and by way of lights and projections, changes constantly. It's really fantastic. I could not recommend it more highly.

American Idiot

Two weeks ago, my eldest niece was here on her first trip to New York without her parents. She had a fantastic time. Her itinerary included seeing two musicals with me, one of which was American Idiot. She is a die-hard Green Day fan, and had already seen it several times. I liked director Michael Mayer's work in Spring Awakening a lot, so I was looking forward to it.
I understand the impulse to take existing songs and try to build them into a show. For years, a friend of mine tried to do that with Elvis Costello songs, and I was all for it. For me, the danger with that process is the show will only be as good as its weakest song. I love the title song- I think it's deeply emblematic of the late '00s (oughts? Whatever). The punkier the songs, the more I enjoyed them. But the ballads did less for me, and in the case of Extraordinary Girl, I could not wait until it was over. It was so repetitive, musically and lyrically, even the acrobatics of Christina Sajous couldn't hold my attention.
The rest of the audience didn't seem to feel that way at all. Many seemed to be big fans, singing along with the actors. Michael Mayer's staging (abetted by Steven Hoggett's choreographer) flowed beautifully, and made wonderful use of Christine Jones' set. The actors were uniformly good. I just wish they'd had better material to work with.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Post Office Girl

Shakespeare & Co. in Vienna is one of my favorite bookstores. It's not huge, but they have a wide range of books and I've never made a bad purchase there. I read Stefan Zweig's autobiography (The World of Yesterday) about fifteen years ago; since then I've read it multiple times. It is a moving description of growing up in Vienna before World War I. He wrote a few brief novels ("Letter from an Unknown Woman" among them- the book is much better than the movie), but mostly essays and biographies. Most famously, in 1935 he was Richard Strauss' librettist for The Silent Woman. When the Nazis told Strauss to take Zweig's name off the opera's program, he refused. The opera was banned after three performances.
His longest novel, The Post Office Girl, wasn't translated into English until last year. In was found among his papers when he died. Zweig and his wife committed suicide (they were refugees from the Nazis) in 1942 in Brazil. The Post Office Girl does not end in double suicides, but it certainly starts going down that road. The time is the 1920s in Austria when much of what the war didn't destroy, the ruinous inflation did. Christine works in a post office outside of St. Polten. Her aunt, who ran away to America two decades earlier, is vacationing in Switzerland. She buys Christine a train ticket, and she goes to visit an Alpine resort for eight days, where her fellow hotel guests assume that she's upper class. Christine can't get enough of the clothes, the food, the attention that young men pay to her. A series of misunderstandings result in her being sent back home, and her vacation has ruined her for her old life. She meets up with an old war buddy of her brother-in-law's, Ferdinand. His outlook on life is similar to hers (he's struggled to build any kind of existence after two years in a Siberian POW camp and an injured right hand), but is barely subsisting on whatever jobs he can eke out. In some ways the novel feels particularly poignant given the current economic crisis. And Zweig is very able to get in this provincial young girl's head.

Stefan Zweig photo via Wikipedia

Monday, August 2, 2010

This Must Be the Place

Henry Holt recently sent me a reviewer's copy of Kate Racculia's first novel, This Must Be the Place. I always want to like a new novel, not only because I'm making a commitment to finish it (this one clocks in at 350 pages). In many ways, this one shows great promise. The narrative proceeds at a steady clip and she juggles many characters seemingly effortlessly. This aspect of the novel reminded me of Richard Russo. The writing of the high school student characters seems truthful enough, though I didn't find any of them particularly engaging. The metaphor of Harry Hausen's films is certainly a fertile one.
Unfortunately, there are some choices that Racculia made that I found very off-putting. First, she invokes a wide variety of popular music, but almost never of the period she's writing in. Instead of setting us firmly in a certain year or era, she wedges it into a different one, with confusing effect.
Second, there is a preponderance of what my writer friend Vincent Brown refers to as "co-inky-dinks." There are so many coincidences, layered over one another, if Racculia had pushed it anymore this would be a post-modern, ironic comic novel (and I think all the better for it). The most egregious example of this is an art forger, the father of one of the high school boys. Astor is a security guard in a town (Ruby Falls, where most of the novel takes place) outside of Syracuse, New York. He has successfully forged works of Warhol, Basquiat, Chuck Close, Dali, Balthus, Gaugin, Magritte and Munch. At this point, my much-stretched credulity snapped. Racculia then goes on to have Astor's pal Terry pick up a suitcase full of Joseph Cornell's ephemera for creating his boxes at a yard sale. At the end of the novel, Oneida, now grown, finds the fake Cornell box that she helped to assemble in the house of her art history professor. One hopes that Racculia will profit from her over-reaching, and go on to write again.