compulsion

We don’t go to the theater much since our friend Arthur moved south, but Robin loves Mandy Patinkin, so tonight we went to see him in Compulsion at the Berkeley Rep. They got the star worship out of the way quickly … Patinkin just walked onstage to begin the play, giving everyone a chance to cheer Inigo Montoya, after which we all settled in. Patinkin buried himself in his part (a semi-fictional recreation of Meyer Levin, who wrote a novel, play and movie based on Leopold and Loeb called Compulsion and who had a long, complicated relationship to Anne Frank’s diary), but to my eye, it was his interaction with the two other actors that wiped away the “look, it’s a big star” feeling … soon enough, we were watching three fine actors instead of a star and two fine actors.

The most interesting part of the play was the use of marionettes. I don’t know much about them, and haven’t seen them live more than once or twice, so it was fascinating me to see the remarkable way they were manipulated to not only appear as Anne Frank and others, but to be acting.

Patinkin’s character, called Sid Silver in the play, gradually goes over the top with his compulsive desire to get Anne Frank’s story told the “right” way. By “right,” he means to emphasize the Jewishness of Frank, and to connect her story as a Jew to the larger story of Jews during the Holocaust and forward into the creation of Israel. His criticism of the play based on the book, which is taken out of his hands and given to others (it won Tonys and a Pulitzer as a play, and three Oscars as a film), is directed to what he sees as the burying of Frank-as-Jew in favor of a more “universal” message. The play Compulsion insists, as well, on its identity within Jewish culture … it doesn’t make many efforts towards the universal, assuming, like Sid Silver, that the universal should come to the specific Jewish culture, rather than the culture giving way to the universal. But Silver’s obsession results in an unhappy man with an unhappy wife, beating his head against the wall unsuccessfully. If The Diary of Anne Frank is taken as oddly uplifting, Compulsion is the opposite, even as it ends by lifting the diary’s famous line, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”


40 years ago today: steven rubio IS winston smith

My primary extracurricular activity in junior high and high school was theater. I’m talking about officially sanctioned stuff, of course … my real primary activities were music, drugs, and chasing girls. I played a lot of parts over those six years … the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, a faux-William Jennings Bryan in Inherit the Wind, a faux-Boris Karloff in Arsenic and Old Lace, a faux-Harpo Marx in The Man Who Came to Dinner. In between all of these classics, I managed to meet my future wife … she was, in fact, my makeup girl for one play, and we ended up making out at the cast party, leading to the fine fellow you see before you today.

The last play I wassteven in makeup 1984 in was also the only time I was the lead, expected to carry much of the show. It was a version of 1984, with me as Winston Smith. Others will have to say if I’m right about this, but I suspect there was a bit of typecasting involved, as if I was already a faux-Winston Smith before I put on my makeup (or, as the photo shows, before someone else put on my makeup, in this case, not my future wife, although this person is still a friend): a rebellious sort who got squashed by The Man (no matter that I squashed myself far more than any Man ever did). I don’t know if I was any good, since I obviously never watched myself. I know that it was the only part I ever played where I was an inward sort of character, faceless, morose. I can remember one scene where my interrogator, O’Brien, is standing behind me and he smacks me on the ear … I was too lame to get the timing down right, I kept flinching before the hand got close to me, so I just said fuck it and took a big swat on the face each night, since I couldn’t figure out how to fake it realistically.

The other thing I remember was the end. The director, also the head of the drama department and a man who passed away not that long ago, decided on something different for the big penultimate scene where Smith, threatened with his greatest fear (rats), betrays his lover, shouting out “Do it to Julia!” Our director decided an implosion would be more effective … the play was in the round, the audience was close. So I started out screaming in fright, but when the moment of betrayal came, I went limp, barely muttered “Do it to Julia,” and crawled inside myself.

I suppose it worked. But it played havoc with my insides. Each night, I’d work myself up to a frenzy, and then, before I could release the tension, I’d shut down. Where, if memory serves (and it rarely does), I’d stay for hours afterwards.

It’s only a coincidence that my own attempt at something resembling “method acting” was also the last time I appeared on a stage. I was about to graduate from high school, I wasn’t going to be continuing in the theater in college (in fact, I wasn’t going to college), and, let’s face it, I was high pretty much every day of those last few months of high school, and wasn’t much good for anything else. But the feeling of being full of emotions that had nowhere to go? I can still remember that now, February 14 2010, which happens to be the 40th anniversary of my final performance as Winston Smith.


acting!

We miss our friend Arthur, whose acting exploits in the Bay Area were a regular feature on this blog for a few years. Arthur has moved to Los Angeles, where he is in the USC MFA in Acting program. He has begun blogging again after a long absence, and it’s good to read his voice as he describes what it’s like in the program. His life is full enough that I don’t suppose we can count on him being as obsessive with his blog posts as I am with mine, but while they are there, I recommend them: Artfan’s Lair. Here’s a sample:

[I]n the last few months I've experienced moments when I've acted in a way that I've never acted before in my life. In those moments I felt I wasn't standing there saying the words, I was needing to say the words, there was something I was desperate to say and I was saying it. And that something was my text. It was thrilling, bewildering, and exhausting. And watching the ten other people in my class go through the same process? It was the most engaging theatre I've ever been a part of.

(Since I am far more starstruck than Arthur will ever be, I’ll just add that the “Andy” he refers to later in the above post is Andrew Robinson, who is the current director of the program. I’ve been told that for many people, Robinson is best-known for his continuing role in Deep Space Nine, but for people like me, he’ll always be the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry.)


pump boys and dinettes

Pump Boys and Dinettes was an off-Broadway musical from 1982. It is the only play I've ever seen in New York. A country-rock revue without much of a plot, it was pretty good, spawning a soundtrack album and a failed pilot for a TV series. To the best of my knowledge, it remains a favorite for small theater companies to perform.

My favorite song from the musical is "No Holds Barred." It's catchy and you can sing along. It also has a special, sadder, meaning to me. One day, probably in 1992, we were driving to visit family and "No Holds Barred" came on the mixtape I'd made for the trip. At the time, the Giants were very close to moving to Florida. When the song started, I sang along with everyone else in the car. But then came the chorus: "No holds barred, baby, I'm goin' to Florida, won't you come along with me?" It just snuck up on me, and the next thing I knew, I was sobbing hysterically.

Here is a video from the Tony awards in '82. The sound doesn't do the music justice, but it's the best I can find. There are three songs ... "No Holds Barred" is the second. For trivia fans, note the female singer with the shorter blond hair. The actress is Debra Monk ... later she played Andy Sipowicz's ex-wife on NYPD Blue, a factoid that never fails to amaze Robin and I.


mr. marmalade

Tonight we went to see our friend Arthur in the play Mr. Marmalade. It’s his last play before he heads south to study acting at USC, so we didn’t want to miss it. As is often the case, he showed versatility, playing four different roles, and managing to suggest the differences in each, although I’m not sure the playwright gave him much to work with in that regard. But it is entirely possible I just missed the point … I found myself clueless about the intentions of the play, but on the ride home, Robin laid it down quite coherently, and I wondered why I hadn’t seen what she had seen, since her take was clearly on target. Mr. Marmalade is about a four-year-old girl with imaginary friends and a home life that sucks. The girl, like her five-year-old friend, is played by an adult, and I didn’t think either of them dove into their little-kidness they way Lily Tomlin or Gilda Radner, or even Paul Reubens, might. But Robin contended that the girl had a truly fucked-up life, that led to her very adult fantasies, and that there was no way a girl with that life would have acted like just another four-year-old. Makes sense to me, but even then, I don’t think the playwright pulled it off.

Still, it was intriguing, and the performances were as good as the material allowed. A couple of the actors were quite impressive, and Arthur was his usual fine self. It’s no surprise that he has been accepted into a top program in Los Angeles, and while I know there is lot of luck involved in the process, over the years that we have had the pleasure of watching him perform, it has become clear that he has the talent to succeed. We wish him luck, and are proud to have seen him and been exposed to everything from Shakespeare to Mr. Marmalade.


woooooo!

Inspired by Tomás, I thought I'd offer up a remembrance of a night at the Oakland Coliseum ... I can't believe I've never written of it here, but a quick search says no, so I'll go for it.

Back in 1991, Ric Flair moved to what was then still called the WWF. Flair, probably the greatest pro rassler of all time (despite the fact that he only had about four moves), was the top choice of the wrestling cult fans, while Hulk Hogan, the WWF champ at the time, was the #1 guy with the more casual fans ... in those days, as is still true, most people knew who Hulk Hogan was, he was a national pop culture hero. Flair, who like most rasslers switched back and forth during his career between good guy and bad guy, was always better as a heel, and he didn't really need good-guy ("face") status, because his fans rooted for him whether or not he was "good." His coming to the WWF was a very big deal in the wrestling world, even though Flair was already in his 40s.

Obviously, Flair vs. Hogan was going to get a big marketing push, and their first-ever match came in Oakland at a "house show" (i.e. one that wasn't televised). Flair had been the champ in his previous federation, WCW, when he came to the WWF, and there was a dispute over the championship belt, which Flair kept even after he left WCW. Meanwhile, Hogan was the WWF champ at the time and the Oakland match (as, I'm sure, all of their matches during that tour) was billed as a battle of champions, as well as an actual WWF championship matchup. The match's plot was simple: after some extended brawling that had both men in front, Flair cheated his way to a victory, in the process winning the WWF championship. Since wrestling championships very rarely change hands in a non-TV bout, you expected something would happen, and indeed it did, as a WWF official came out, explained to the ref that Flair had cheated, and declared Hogan the winner. If you feel like watching 15 minutes or so of early-90s WWF action, here's a match from later in 1991, after Hogan had lost his title to the Undertaker, which follows the same basic plot:

What made this all worthy of a blog post was the crowd. I have no idea what it was like in other parts of the country, although I suspect that Flair played well in the South where he'd been centered for so long, while Hogan was the man everywhere else. But in the Bay Area, Ric Flair and WCW had a hardcore fan base, and so the crowd at the Coliseum that night was split pretty much 50/50 between families with little Hulkamaniacs in tow, and Ric Flair fans ready to root on their favorite. It's worth noting that, at least to my eye, there was a fairly substantial racial breakdown to this split, with Flair having most of the African-American fans on his side. They all had their old Ric Flair posters and stuff, and they kept waving four fingers in the air (Flair being part of the Four Horsemen in his WCW days). Oh, and they all went "WOOOOOO!" on a regular basis, that being the Nature Boy's most popular catchphrase.

The result, in our section if nowhere else, was funny and ugly at the same time. You had these kids shouting WOOOOOO and waving the fingers and getting in people's faces ... in a fun sort of way, it must be added, that's what you do at rassling shows ... and then you had these Hulkamaniac tykes and their parents, none of whom seemed to know who Ric Flair was. The best/worst was this guy, I don't know, he was in his 40s I guess, who loved Hogan, hated Flair, and hated Flair's followers as well. He was a truly vile man ... he'd shout out "FUCK RIC FLAIR!" and "RIC FLAIR'S A FAGGOT!", and at one point I said hey man, there's kids here, which isn't something I'd usually worry about, but this guy was too much even for me. He made this terrible face and gave me another "FUCK RIC FLAIR!" Meanwhile, the Flair fans were laughing at him and holding up four fingers in his face.

Ah, the memories. You can imagine how bat-shit crazy the Flair supporters went when he "won" the title (yes, that includes me). Then we had to put up with the payback from the Hulkster's crowd once the decision was overturned. Didn't matter ... like cult fans in every endeavor, we knew our guy was the best, no matter who was more popular or owned the title.

Years later, after Flair had returned to WCW, Vince McMahon bought the company, leading to this, Flair's final promo for WCW:


pee-wee

Twenty-five years ago today, a bunch of us went to a small club to see a new comedian named Pee-wee Herman. Paul Reubens had been playing the Pee-wee character for a couple of years by that point. There was an HBO special in 1981 that was a recording of the stage show (called The Pee-wee Herman Show). To be honest, I don't remember if there were other cast members when we saw him ... the HBO special had plenty of them, including Phil Hartman and John Paragon as Jambi (I don't think Lawrence Fishburne had joined the cast yet), but my memories of our show are that it was just Pee-wee (someone will read this who was at the show and will correct me on this). The HBO special got a lot of attention, after which Reubens made several popular appearances on David Letterman, leading to a national tour, which is when we saw him.

The show was about as you'd expect, full of dopey boy humor and lots of kid fantasies. It had more overt sex stuff than the later Pee-wee's Playhouse, although by "overt" I mean "what a ten-year-old boy would find amusing." Here's a clip from the HBO special:

And one of his appearances on Letterman:


ching chong chinaman

I'm not sure I really thought about how the title of the play we saw last night comes across, until I used it as the title of this blog post. So, to get the obvious stuff out of the way, Ching Chong Chinaman is the name of the play we saw last night. I didn't choose the name, and the truth is, it's the perfect title for what ensues onstage.

This was the latest in our Arthur Keng Fan Club tour of local theater productions, and I'd say it was one of the best. There's always something I can pick at when talking about these plays, but about the only complaint I have about Ching Chong Chinaman is that it ran a bit longer than necessary (not that I could point to anything particular that should be cut). It's a comedy about identity politics as seen through the eyes of a fully assimilated Chinese-American family where no one speaks Chinese or even knows how to use chopsticks. The barbs were pointed, the comedy was funny, and the Don't Let People Leave Without a Lesson Learned ending wasn't nearly as bad as I feared.

The cast was uniformly terrific. Oftentimes in tiny productions like these, you'll get an actor or two that exhibits more heart than talent, but this was a very talented bunch. And, of course, our friend Arthur was right on target as a teenager with a serious World of Warcraft addiction (hearing his speeches about how the game impinges on your life felt very close to home, considering that I'd only just begun playing my first-ever MMOG earlier that same day). It's always fun to see someone you know onstage ... it's even better when they're good, and Arthur is good. Plus, he's not playing the same character in every play ... in fact, I don't think he's been anywhere near the same in any of the shows we've seen him in. It's also nice to say hi after the performance ... brushing with fame, and all of that.

The play was performed in the basement of a pizza parlor, and the budget looked to be about four cents, but really, once the play began, you didn't notice. It's a real pleasure to watch Arthur show his stuff, and the whole cast was wonderful.

As usual, we went to one of the last performances ... not sure why this happens, but it always seems to. What few are left are already sold out, so I fear this isn't going to work as an advertisement. But we had a great time. Thanks, Arthur!