Thursday, June 23, 2011

My Post on Guernica's Blog

I am very honored to be published on Guernica Magazine's blog today, discussing the current war on women and how keeping poor women down is literally medieval:

Guernica / Sarah-Jane Stratford: The Taming of the Screw

Comments at Guernica most appreciated. Thank you!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

'Spider-Man' Is (Not) the Stuff of Legend

It's back. Although it never really went away.

'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' officially opened on Broadway last night, after a record 180-odd previews (some well-reviewed new plays don't run as long), several serious injuries, and a critical bludgeoning on what was meant to have been one of its opening nights, back in February.

At that time, New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote, "“Spider-Man” is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway; it may also rank among the worst." After the much-discussed sacking of the show's director, Julie Taymor, and an extensive rewrite, Brantley acknowledges that the show has improved: "this singing comic book is no longer the ungodly, indecipherable mess it was in February. It’s just a bore."

'Spider-Man' is one of those shows that's becoming all too common on Broadway – the show that gets produced because it seems like a sure thing. It comes outfitted with its own brand. Tourists know what they're getting without needing a précis, and so long as they are given a spectacle, they will walk away happy. And it's critic-proof.

Which this mostly is. Even prior to the re-work, 'Spider-Man' was one of the few shows regularly playing to full capacity. Whether that was because of the above reasons for why it was produced, or because its troubles became legendary enough that people had to see it just to enjoy a train wreck, hardly matters. It's bringing people in, and may continue to do so.

But no matter how much redemption it might be said to earn in the form of box office receipts, the stories of its troubles will always cling like stubborn cobwebs. Putting aside those audiences, it might be Broadway's 'Heaven's Gate.'

(for those who thought that honor goes to the notorious 'Moose Murders,' which Frank Rich reviewed so memorably in the Times, the difference is that 'Moose Murders' was a comparatively inexpensive production.)

The similarities between 'Spider-Man' and 'Heaven's Gate' are striking. Director Michael Cimino, fresh off his Oscar win for 'The Deer Hunter,' was touted as a visionary (although without question, Ms. Taymor is far more deserving of that accolade). He was given a lot of money and free rein to make his film, which almost immediately ran over budget and schedule. The executives at United Artists were tempted to fire him, but the dailies were beautiful and, after all, the man was an Academy-certified visionary. He finally gave them a film that was five hours and twenty-five minutes long. They forced him to cut it to four hours and the result was famously described by Times critic Vincent Canby as an "unqualified disaster" and similar to a "forced four-hour tour of one's own living room."

'Heaven's Gate' was promptly yanked from theatres and edited down to 140 minutes – this time, without the director's participation. It was then re-released. Roger Ebert was one of many critics who still could find nothing good to say about it. He noted that "If the film was formless at four hours, it was insipid at 140 minutes…It is the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I've seen 'Paint Your Wagon.'"

David Ansen observed in his 'Newsweek' review that “An epic vision isn’t worth much if you can’t tell a story," but Cimino, who wrote the script, wasn't interested in creating a comprehensible narrative. He once said: "I don’t believe in words and dialogue. They are quickly useless. One only gets near people when taking the time to live with them." Which sounds like someone trying to say something "important," but forgetting that dialogue can be a key function in a film.

Julie Taymor does care about story, and would never say anything so asinine. But when she said that “tying this story back to mythology…is something I really wanted to do. It’s something you can do in the theater — go into this absolutely dreamlike mythic place, out of time, between reality and dream world,” it suggested that the story for 'Spider-Man' might be going places that would be hard to follow.

It was not, perhaps, Ms. Taymor's artistic hubris that made 'Spider-Man' such a spectacular mess. She has made films that failed, but her inventiveness and attentiveness have never been called into question. Ironically, she may have suffered from the same problem that helped fell 'Heaven's Gate' – too much money. With so much cash at hand, the show could be turned into an extravaganza of special flying effects, elaborate costumes, and set pieces. A complicated Greek myth plot thread allowed for yet more spectacle. But in the end, all that's created is what Steven Bach, one of the United Artists executives who oversaw 'Heaven's Gate,' described as "the perfection that money can buy, the caring it can't."

This is, after all, why theatre still matters. It has the power to make us care, to create connections in its own fully unique, millennia-old medium. Done simply, but with care for its story – as was the short-lived 'Scottsboro Boys,' 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,' and 'Passing Strange,' just to cite a few – theatre can truly connect and transport us. As the late, great book writer Arthur Laurents said, "That was all and it was enough for me: fantasies are better left fantasies."

-- Oh, and here's a 'Spider-Man' that has serious street cred:

Friday, June 10, 2011

Truth Can Hurt, Even When Tap-Dancing

Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon in 'The Scottsboro Boys
Broadway's Tony Awards will be held this Sunday, honoring the plays and musicals of the 2010-11 season. Although nominations usually include some surprises – to the delight of journalists and theatergoers alike, most of whom hate being bored – this time the surprise was a juicy one. The long-closed Kander and Ebb musical 'The Scottsboro Boys' was nominated for 12 awards, second only to the likely winner, 'The Book of Mormon.'

Despite its pedigree – Kander and Ebb also created the legendary shows 'Cabaret' and 'Chicago' – 'Scottsboro' was not a Broadway success. There was plenty of speculation as to why, mostly centering on the show's subject: the horrible true story of nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931 Alabama. While they escaped the death penalty, they were jailed for years and most of their lives utterly ruined. The case did much to galvanize those who would begin organizing the Civil Rights Movement, ultimately bringing about the end of Jim Crow. Without knowing that 'The Scottsboro Boys' was a dazzling marvel, as vigorously entertaining as it was vigorously unsettling, Broadway audiences shrank from it.

Not that other shows dealing with complex, uncomfortable history have failed to draw audiences. 'Cabaret,' for one. But when it comes to dealing with American history, and particularly race, people get squeamish. It didn't help that 'Scottsboro' was not only about a ghastly episode of history, but used a ghastly musical format – the minstrel show – in which to tell the story. Minstrelry has the dubious distinction of being the first truly American theatrical style. Wildly popular in the 19th century, minstrel shows consisted of white people in blackface lampooning (and insulting) African-Americans. By the time the shows were passing out of fashion during World War I, they were already creating discomfort. As such, the format works well for 'The Scottsboro Boys,' a show that seeks to inform and unsettle, even as it entertains.

It's the "inform" aspect that also raised some objections. Some people complained that the show overused its artistic license, particularly in its depiction of the central defendant, Haywood Patterson (played by the highly deserving Tony nominee Joshua Henry). The show suggests that he died in prison in Alabama, rather than tell a lie that might have set him free; whereas in reality he successfully escaped the Alabama prison, only to be reincarcerated years later in a Michigan prison on a charge of manslaughter, and this was the prison in which he died. The show might have avoided going into these details so as to maintain the character's nobility – or maybe because it's a bit convoluted for a coda.

Whenever you're compressing several years of history into a two-hour show (the Scottsboro trials went on through 1938), things need to be cut and altered. It's the old saying, "God writes lousy drama" – sure, truth is often stranger than fiction, but if it's going to work in an artistic medium, it needs some massaging.

Arguably, it wasn't what the show didn't include that really bothered people. It was what it DID include. There's a difference between taking a true story and making it wildly inaccurate to serve modern taste or a creator's prejudice, versus streamlining in order to more deeply explore the characters and events. It might be best to term 'The Scottsboro Boys' as springboard history. Yes, it's not exact, else it wouldn't be good drama, but it might propel audiences to study the real events of the case if they don't know them, or revisit them if they do.

Good drama makes hard choices. Some people shuddered at 'Scottsboro's' use of the minstrel format, particularly because the brilliant writing, directing, and acting made it so entertaining, which added to the discomfort, which heightened the thrill. This should have brought audiences in by the boatload – it's the rare show that includes electrifying numbers about electrocution, for a start.

'The Scottsboro Boys' is not a show that wants you to sit back and relax for two hours. It wants to touch you, to make you see real people and the pain inflicted upon them. It wants to make you think, and ask questions. Above all, it wants to make you angry. Anger, real anger, is what changes the world. When someone stands up – or, in the case of Rosa Parks, sits down – and says "No," it's like lobbing a grenade into the social psyche. The more people realize that, the more they might take that knowledge gleaned from history and apply it to modern injustice.

Which is exactly what also made 'The Scottsboro Boys' relevant to our times. In the space of only 80 years, what was accepted then has long been abhorrent. But modern America is also the sweet land of birtherism, Prop 8, and HR3. Clearly, a lot more "No" is necessary.

Just think about all the great theatre it'll make someday.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

C'est N'est Pas Magnifique

As more French women feel emboldened to come forward about sexual assaults committed by Dominique Strauss-Kahn and other politicians, there are some in France who are desperately trying to insist that turning private behavior into a subject for the public discourse is purely American. The fact that there are political consequences is pronounced even more ridiculous. After all, it was the French who rolled their eyes and could not comprehend the ire when Bill Clinton was being publicly raked over the coals for being a rake.

The difference is, back then, the French had a point. While the president was not going to win any awards for being a good husband, and given the political atmosphere should have been more circumspect, one still needs to draw a distinction between consensual acts among compos mentis adults, and highly unwelcome coercion.

Both Maureen Dowd and Katrin Beinhold have written cogently about the ongoing story and the wider discussion regarding gender disparity. Kelli Goff made the further point that poor women come in for extra scrutiny. Plus ça change – women are no sooner done fending off attacks than they must defend themselves in the public eye. It must be blissful for the conservative cranks who want to turn back the clock to the 1950s. It was the rare woman then who, if she was assaulted, wasn't accused of having asked for it.

The larger problem, as both Dowd and Beinhold point out, is that men take up a disproportionate amount of political and journalistic space, meaning men still get to set the gender agenda, along with the political discourse. However the women conduct or present themselves, the contempt the men have for them is abundantly clear. In the 1950s – and earlier, and later - girls were told that they had to be chaste and modest or else boys wouldn't respect them. Guess what? Boys don't respect them anyway!

Australia recently elected a female prime minister, but that doesn't equal equality. When Finance Minister Penny Wong was interrupted in a meeting and firmly requested to be allowed to finish, MP David Bushby MIAOWED at her. She told him exactly what she thought of his schoolyard behavior, and he eventually apologized, but will it change anything? Some of the world's more repressive regimes justify their lack of women in the public sphere on the grounds that they are protecting the women from this sort of harassment.

Wittgenstein said "The world is everything that is the case," but increasingly, women are saying that it had better not be. They've been considered as having to be responsible for their own behavior and that of men for centuries. Decades ago, when Israeli ministers suggested a curfew for women to avoid possible rape, Prime Minister Golda Meir responded: "But it is the men who are attacking the women. If there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home."

She won that round, but the battles continue. In the States, it's the far-right that proves itself inherently misogynistic again and again in both behavior and policy – it's hardly shocking that so many proposed laws are directed at women, attempting to keep them "in their place." When Anita Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, she was discredited as a bitter woman trying to bring a good man down.

Thomas prevailed, but plenty of men on the far-right have been brought down by sex scandals of their own creation. But cheating on a spouse, while reprehensible, shouldn't destroy a career. No, the problem is that these are the men who have extolled themselves as moral exemplars, so much so that they freely legislate how others live and love. They seek to punish women for putative promiscuity by taking away access to affordable contraception and safe abortions, but clearly hold themselves above their own moral law.

In France, they congratulate themselves for not being so hypocritically puritanical. Maybe not, but neither have they progressed. Liberté and égalité are very much just for the fraternité. A fraternité that might do well not to rally so enthusiastically around DSK and assorted atavistic attitudes about women. Assault is a crime, pure and simple. As Richard Nixon might have had it, there's a difference between being a dick, and being a crook.