Saturday, August 25, 2012

Kiss of the Spider Woman: The Musical We'd Expect from Kander and Ebb

Brent Carver and Chita Rivera, original cast, 1992
(photo from
A cast of energetic actors with fine voices fully inhabited their roles in this 1990s musical.  At the intimate King Plow Theatre, they performed on a versatile multi-level representation of a penitentiary.   The story is direct and relentless:  Valentin, a leader in an underground movement to topple the (unnamed) country's despotic regime is thrown into a small cell with a pederast Molina.  One is a man's man; the other is flamboyantly effeminate, so of course, we wonder if they will become friends, or more.  The plot ramps up a notch when the sinister warden orders Molina to extract information from his new roommate. Molina's frequent escapes into fantasies of screen idol Aurora give the audience exuberant musical numbers to enjoy between scenes of suffering, degradation, and violence.  In her role as "The Spider Woman," death personified, Aurora seduces Molina from the first song, promising "pain will cease" and "I can bring you peace."  Everything at this final preview performance was exactly right.

So why was the applause for each number merely polite, and why did my mind wander so often?   What more could we want from the show?  The material, admirably well-made, let down the actors and the audience.  How?  I kept wondering.

My friend Susan may have identified the problem right away.  She came to the performance recalling the movie starring William Hurt as Molina. (1985) .  At intermission, she asked, "Why does this story need music?"  I suspect that Kander and Ebb kind of skirted that question because they saw such a tempting opportunity to use musical numbers in the way they did in their breakthrough show CABARET, to mirror grim reality with ironically cheerful numbers.   Besides this, the story and setting gave the songwriters -- pigeon-holed as the guys who wrote snappy ironic pastiche for Cabaret and Chicago --a great reason to write full-throated ballads and anthems.   These are the outstanding numbers of the show.   In "Dear One," Molina's mother and Valentin's beloved Marta sing a tender double duet, their voices overlapping in canon like waves of constant longing. All the prisoners join in Valentin's fierce anthem of hope for the Marxist future:
Someday we'll be free
I promise you we'll be free
If not tomorrow
Then the day after that...
Or the day after that.
The late Fred Ebb's choice to build his lyric on that plodding phrase "the day after that" demonstrates his artistic integrity.   How effective would it be if rough-hewn Valentin and his uneducated cohort of "the people" sang with Ebb's trademark snap and polish?  Even so, there's a strong undercurrent of despair in the song that belies the explicitly hopeful lyrics, as the day of arrival recedes further away with every repetition of "the day after that, or the day after that...."  It's a wonderful marriage of form and content.

My own restlessness during the show may have something to do with the fact that, leafing through the lyrics printed with the original cast recording, back to front, I ran across several variations of the same sentiment in different numbers:  somehow... someday... sooner or later... there's going to be good times... so I wait to [get] over the [prison] wall...someday you'll believe the lie..."Someday you'll hear a cry."   Whenever the chorus of men geared up to dance behind "Aurora," I thought, "Well, here's another number to express what we just heard expressed, but with skin, kicks, and big high notes."

Every scene and song felt like exactly what we've come to expect from the creators Kander and Ebb, Terrence McNally and Harold Prince.  Insofar as that means efficiency, integrity, ingenuity, and an arc of story that brings characters to confront the lies they've believed (such as Valentin's prejudices against Molina), that's a great thing.  But we come to art hoping for more than we expect. 

(Reflection on KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, book by Terrence McNally, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, based on the novel by Manuel Puig.  Originally driected by Harold Prince.  Produced in Atlanta this month by Actors Express.)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Partners Across Party Lines: The Presidents Club

(reflections on The President's Club, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.  Published by Simon and Schuster, 2012.)

(Notice who set himself apart from the others!)
The Presidents Club is an informal fraternity with unwritten protocols that have been honored for over sixty years by Republicans and Democrats both.   There's even a clubhouse, though it's only a suite of "shabby" rooms near the White House reserved for ex-Presidents' use. Focusing entirely on the relationships of ex-chief executives to President-du-jour, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy reassure us in these rancourous partisan times that it's been this bad before, and that good sense and common courtesy often transcend party.

Beside the burden of life-and-death decisions, they all have in common the experience observed by a "senior advisor to three presidents."  He writes,
When you get in, you discover nothing is what you expect, or believed, or have been told, or have campaigned on.... It's much more complicated. Your first reaction is, 'I've been set up.'  Second is: 'I have to think differently.'  Third is: 'Maybe they had it right.' And it isn't long before they ask, who am I gonna talk to about this?"  (8)
Similarly, Henry Kissinger heard a warning from his aide Daniel Ellsburg, who had worked for Johnson. A new President and his advisors will be exhilarated by revelations.  This turns quickly into feeling foolish for all the things said by the ignorant candidate, and then contempt for all the mavens who criticize without knowing what the President knows (272). 

Among the surprises in the book is the emergence of Herbert Hoover as a model of unselfish service and bankable competence. Demonized by Roosevelt -- who comes across as charismatic, erratic, and ruthless in this book -- Republican Hoover was rehabilitated by the Democrat Truman's sending him to Europe to administer relief after World War II.  The two men became friends, and Truman called upon him again to head a commission to re-organize the vast array of redundant Federal agencies that had sprouted in World War I and grown during the years of New Deal and World War.  Hoover's plan won near-unanimous bi-partisan approval in Congress, and his reforms continued to earn praise and thanks on into the 1960s.

Another surprise is the portrayal of Eisenhower, superficially sunny and personally cold, petty, and vindictive. Championed unabashedly by Truman, Eisenhower turned on Truman in the campaign for Republican nomination, starting a feud that would last until Trumans and the Eisenhowers shared coffee after Kennedy's burial (159).  Over those years, Truman attempted many gestures of reconciliation and support, all received coldly or even returned with insult.Truman's correspondence with him at this time is terse, anger seething under the two men's civility. "I am extremely sorry that you have allowed a bunch of screwballs to come between us," writes Truman, "From a man who has always been your friend and who always wanted to be! / Sincerely, HST" (81). Ike denounced that note to others, but did not reply.

"No man is less loyal to his friends" than Eisenhower, Kennedy observed.  Eisenhower shafted his loyal and subservient Vice President Richard Nixon at the Republican national convention in 1959, saying this of the eventual nominee: "I am not dissatisfied with the individual that looks like he will get [the nomination]" (107). 

Partisanship was so ugly in the early 1960s that Eisenhower could believe that his Democratic successor had engineered the Cuban Missile crisis to influence the next month's midterm elections (David Eisenhower, p. 147).  The insouciant younger President referred to Ike as the "that old a------" (105), but summoned him for consultations and reassuring photographs of the two men together after JFK's Bay of Pigs fiasco.  Ike chided Kennedy for the loose organization that enabled unspokenunderstandings to be so badly misunderstood, and Kennedy learned his lesson.  He was much more careful during deliberations about the missiles in Cuba.

Ike also opposed Senator McCarthy, not so courageously as he should have done.  Truman was infuriated by Ike's failure to defend former Secretary of State George B. Marshall from McCarthy's "communist" label.  Campaigning in Wisconsin, Ike prepared a denunciation of McCarthy and "disciples of hate," and the text was made available to the press, but then Ike omitted the paragraph out of deference to McCarthy's popularity in his home state (85).  There's a comical photo of McCarthy grabbing Eisenhower's hand for a shake, while the President, looking away, tries to dissociate himself from the lout (after p 182). 

About the Presidents of my own lifetime, there were fewer surprises.  LBJ's abuse of power gave him intelligence that Nixon secretly encouraged South Vietnam's president to wreck LBJ's peace agreement in 1968 -- helping Nixon to win the election and prolonging the war six years.  LBJ couldn't reveal what he knew without accepting blame for domestic spying, and Nixon could have been accused of outright treason.  I knew all that, but not the extent of Nixon's fixation on the physical file containing that information.  He told his men to do anything -- burglary, whatever it took -- to get that file.  Thus, Watergate.

I was also amused to learn that LBJ had taken Nixon on a tour of the White House, pointing out to the incredulous newcomer how tape recorders were scattered throughout the place, even under the guests' bed in the Lincoln room.  Nixon was horrified, and had all these discarded -- until his mistrust of media led him to install a new system, to ensure accurate quotations and proof for what he would write in his memoirs.

Ford was kind to Nixon, and his decision to pardon his disgraced predecessor is now seen as a wise one -- something I agree with, but I'm surprised to hear that it's now the consensus. I love Ford's comment, "If politics isn't compatible with compassion, there's something wrong with politics" (310).

I witnessed Nixon's efforts to restore his own reputation, and had a sense of how this led to his overtures to all his successors, accompanied often by back-stabbing comments in the press.  Evidently, Clinton called on Nixon for advice many times, having the ex-President enter the White House after dark, from the back.

I knew about Ford's and Reagan's mutual disdain. 

The fact that Clinton, W., and Obama all feel fondness for George H. W. Bush is news to me.  I love the anecdote about how Bush I's shmoozing with Clinton during a visit led to W's message, "Tell 41 and 42 that 43 is hungry".

The one I haven't mentioned is Carter, and it is a surprise to me how his much-publicized missions to North Korea and Iraq reduced his successors to apoplexy.  He comes across as the one whom no one likes. It's "treason" said Bush's men, and he's a "treasonous p---k" says a Clinton aide (440).  He negotiated a nuclear treaty live on CNN news without consultations.  His efforts in Haiti worked out well, though, when he suddenly cut loose from diplomacy and screamed at the military dictator, "Resign or you and your children will die (446)!"

Overall, I found confirmation of my sense that Presidents haven't much leeway for their decisions.   The human interactions are a pleasure to read about -- these presidents being for us, at least since the days of FDR's fireside chats, almost a part of the family.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Fixing the "Fixed" Mindset

(Reflection on MINDSET: THE NEW PSYCHOLOGY OF SUCCESS by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. New York:  Ballantine Books, 2006.)

Early in the book The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, the author recalls a neighbor who was "good at" mechanical repairs.  Peck expressed admiration for that talent and told him, "I can't fix anything."  The neighbor said, "That's because you never take the time to understand."   Peck was stung, and later remembered those words when a woman couldn't start her car.   Peck crawled under the steering column and took time to examine the starting aparatus until he recognized that an important wire was disconnected.  He connected the wire, and the car started.

The story illustrates what author Carol S. Dweck would call moving to a "growth mindset"  from a "fixed" one.  Peck had thought that ability or disability was "fixed."  That's why Peck makes "growth" the centerpoint of his psychology.  He defines "love" as "seeking to encourage growth in oneself or another."  Peck's book -- and that particular anecdote especially -- had such an impact on me during my first year of teaching that I've internalized a great deal of it.  I think of those car wires nearly every week of my life when some problem arises.

So I'm on familiar ground when Carol Dweck divides the world in categories of those who believe that everyone has the capacity to grow, and those who believe that talents are "fixed" at birth.   The genesis of her book was an encounter with little children who laughed at failure and persevered.

The "fixed mindset" is something I battle in my most troublesome middle-school students.   Dweck shows how such students blame their teachers for any poor performance on their part (76), avoid challenges that threaten their self-images as "smart" or "good at sports" (176),  and derive satisfaction from seeing the failures of others (234).

Here, Dweck is preaching, not just to the choir, but to the preachers.  Still, she has us imagine some "dilemmas" that got me thinking.  Suppose Elizabeth, a nine-year-old gymnast, fails to win any ribbons at the meet.  "What would you do if you were Elizabeth's parents?" she asks.

1.  Tell Elizabeth you thought she was the best.
2.  Tell her she was robbed of a ribbon that was rightfully hers.
3.  Reassure her that gymnastics is not that important.
4.  Tell her she has the ability and will surely win next time.
5.  Tell her she didn't deserve to win.

The first four answers are familiar to me from parents' responses -- sometimes directed at me, the mean drama teacher who didn't "give" so-and-so the desired part -- but I hesitated to choose number five.  Dweck gives a more diplomatic way of saying it, that the other kids worked hard for what they got, and that she can do that, too, if this is a goal she really cares about.

She gives great examples.  John McEnroe, raised by a fixed-mindset father, admits that he never enjoyed tennis, as he blamed others for failures (189).   Music teacher Dorothy Delay breaks a teenaged former prodigy of habits that earned early praise but hindered further development (42, 190).   Author Betty Edwards gets great results in just a week by helping fearful artists to take time to notice shape and shadow instead of rushing to draw what they think they're supposed to draw (68).  Broadway composer Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers, spent much of his life avoiding situations where his musical talent might not measure up to the "genius" level (73).  Of course, there are teachers who get great results -- following great effort -- from "problem" classes.

Wondering how to break kids of their "fixed" mindsets,  I was struck by Dweck's common-sense observation to teens, that "nobody laughs at babies and says how dumb they are because they can't talk."  She explains how babies' brains "grow" with exercise, stimulation, and challenges.   She tells of the seventh grader who started crying during her presentation, saying, "You mean, I don't have to be dumb?"

I do have a bad habit of exclaiming, "You're a genius!" when someone makes a breakthrough, and that's a no-no in Dweck's book.  The child becomes fearful of failing to live up to the moniker.  Rather, I should say to young writers, "Your brainstorming paid off!  You found the solution to that problem!  You've pulled together your resources to make something exciting!"

While my colleagues all try to work from the "growth" mindset when they deal with our students, many have fixed mindsets regarding themselves and  other disciplines.  They say, "I can't draw, I'm not musical, I can't get into Shakespeare, I can't write, I can't do math."   That kind of thinking may be an obstacle to a goal that we all share, to create cross-curricular, cross-divisional collaborations.

I wonder, do major religions reflect this wisdom?   Does God treat His creatures as capable of growth, or does he condemn and reward them based on their innate qualities?  In the Hebrew Scriptures, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses chooses the oldest, or youngest, or smallest, or sneakiest to become His instruments of salvation.  The whole concept of "salvation" implies a belief that people can grow beyond their seeming weaknesses and failures.  In the Christian Scriptures, St. Paul develops the idea that God works through "weakness."  Interpreters have long ignored that aspect of Scripture to emphasize that certain ones are "chosen" or "pre-ordained."  Others focus not on growth but on forgiveness, as if growth isn't the point.

Buddhism and Hinduism both teach physical self-disciplines by which one grows through stages of life (or even stages of new lives) to reach a state of non-growth -- completeness or "oneness" with the Universe.

Dweck's book is not exactly a revelation, but thinking about these issues is certainly a good thing for a teacher to do, one week before school starts.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Treasuring Playwright Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard ca. age 60; Now 80, "more adventurous than ever"

An interview with playwright Athol Fugard, aired today on public radio's "Tell Me More,"  reminded me: this guy is my favorite playwright, bar none!   How could I have forgotten?

The easy answer is, as the world's most effective witness to the personal effects of South Africa's white supremacist apartheid laws on blacks and whites alike, Fugard receded in our consciousness when Nelson Mandela went from prison to the presidency.  I don't remember the details of what I read or saw back in the 80s -- Boesman and Lena, Statements..., My Children! My Africa!, A Lesson from Aloes -- and I can't recall when I've had an opportunity to see a play of his since the early 90s.

But the value of his best plays depends no more on events at the time of their composition than does Lincoln's rhetoric or King Lear.

In fact, it was as if I had the privilege of acting a new Shakespeare play when I first read through Fugard's two-character play Blood Knot.   It was at Duke back in 1981, and my fellow drama major Brad had asked me to learn the part of the white-skinned brother.  He said little as I read that part aloud, side-by-side with the charismatic black actor Erik who was to play the dark-skinned brother.    Never leaving the little hut they share, passing only the time it takes to perform the piece, talking only to each other, they take the audience to different places and times.   Fugard's characters role-play to make memories come alive.   The brothers recreate their boyhood fantasy of an adventure in a car early the play; the play reaches a violent climax when the white-skinned brother fantasizes of "passing" for true white, lording his power over a black beggar -- his brother.    So much art in the composition somehow felt like real life, intensified by compression.  That's poetry!

I read other scripts and his notebooks, too, to learn how he did it.  His ideal, he wrote, is to achieve a unity of meaning and action. As any good realistic playwright would do, he embeds memories in dialogue early in the play.  By the end, the characters have enacted some new, more powerful version of past events.  Memory and action reinforce each other and resonate with subtext.

I do recall two of Fugard's other plays in more detail.   First, there was the autobiographical Master Harold and the Boys, which starred Matthew Broderick on Broadway with the two original South African stars, and won Tonies all around.  He wrote it to expiate deep-seated guilt and shame, Fugard writes in a preface to the published script.  The "boys" are the grown men who worked for his mother.  The older man was like a father to him, Fugard's own father being an alcoholic, absent and ineffective much of the time.  But the white boy one day took offense and pulled racial rank on the older man, who left in anger.   (The next part is painful to recall, even for me.)  Fugard took after him on his bicycle, and, when the man turned his face towards him, a face expressing relief and forgiveness and love, the boy spat and rode on.  In the play, the incident is re-cast in a way that makes it even more painful to watch.

After a performance of The Road to Mecca by the wonderful Alabama Shakespeare Festival company, I thought that was the best of all his plays, and maybe the best play I'd ever seen.  Unfortunately, the memory has faded.  It concerned, not race, but age.  An elderly woman, living alone, showing signs of dementia, is pressured by well-meaning friends and uncharitable neighbors to leave her home and to cease and desist in filling her yard with idiosyncratic pieces of metal sculpture that she creates -- figures of her imagined "road to Mecca."  We never have to see her artwork to imagine it.   There is an incident that takes the choice out of her hands, involving an accidental fire. I've forgotten the details.  But I remember how she lit dozens of candles on wall sconces (more of her handiwork) that burned as the theatre's lights came down, and how Fugard's words made us understand that we were seeing the house as an image for her body, and the light as an image of her soul.   It worked, and it took our breath away.

Note to self:  Don't forget Fugard, and look for chances to see his work.  I hear that there's a cycle of his plays on display this month in New York at the Signature Theatre.