Friday, January 30, 2004

Bush Sniffs Glue and Approves NEA Budget Increase

This is not a headline from The Onion. I assure you.

George Bush has proposed an increase in the NEA’s budget? Wait. Are you sure that is not the N"R"A? Well, something must have happened to Mister Bush or his wife to make them so delirious. Did anyone check the kitchen for Al Queda operatives? They may have slipped the First Couple a mickey.

This makes great headlines for Bush as he saddles up for his ride into the dangerous campaign shootout awaiting him after the current Democratic battle royale has ended. But before performance artists start cracking open jars of peanut butter with which to smear their naked bodies in celebration, please read the newspaper articles in their entirety. This double-digit increase in budget, (which is providing a double-digit increase in blood pressure to such fiscal watchdog groups as the Cato Institute,) is being earmarked for an American Masterpieces program which will, in Bush’s words, “introduce Americans to the best of their cultural and artistic heritage. This program will sponsor presentations of great American works across all art forms.”

So don’t throw out the Starbuck’s aprons, or throw off the call center headsets just yet, because the legendary individual artist gravy train of the NEA won’t be rolling in anytime soon. And we better get used to spending Ivy Day in the committee room because Frank Skeffington lost the election a long time ago, and the Ward bosses died with him. Sure, I feel a little slighted now and then, feeling like I was a generation too late. I missed the time when the Sugar Daddy version of the NEA was parceling out bling bling left and right, and now I have to struggle through the demeaning and arduous process of finding enough people to support my artistic vision because it appeals to them. However, this long overdue boost in NEA funding will at least enable people to experience already proven works of art, but I just hope that the vetting process for those works is a little better than that of the current administration’s intelligence apparatus.

The Cato Institute, a think tank purporting to be a champion for the “proper role of government,” is, of course, outraged. They quickly shot out a press release detailing all of the fiscal problems that we need to deal with, and did everything short of call the President a “drunken sailor,” with regards to his worn cashbelt zippers. However, since their sole purpose in life is to write political press releases, those at the Cato Institute have mastered the art of ridiculous double-speech and so are careful to tread that razor thin line between their outright hostility and polite compliment. Witness this paragraph;

“Because art is so powerful, because it deals with such basic human truths, we dare not entangle it with coercive government power. That means no censorship or regulation of art. It also means no tax-funded subsidies for arts and artists, for when government gets into the arts funding business, we get political conflicts.”

Play a little game now and substitute the word “healthcare” for “art.” Hey, look at that! You have just written your first Cato Institute Press Release!

In fact, the elves at Cato are so original that they recycle the old The-Great-Artists-Never-Had-Government-Subsidies argument. Cato Executive Vice President David Boaz enlightens us with this original revelation: “The kinds of things financed by federal cultural agencies were produced long before those agencies were created, and they will continue to be produced long after those agencies are privatized or defunded.” Yaaawwwnnn. Well Mr. Boaz, most of the great books of the world were produced long before those agencies too, but I would hope you are not for the gutting of programs that support the public libraries which make sure they are available to the public. Then again…I don’t know you that well.

To be fair to Cato they are outraged at Bush’s spending all over the place, even a proposed bail-out of the United States Postal Service gets slammed. Something tells me that in their attempt to attract the deaf ears of the normally skinflinty Bushies, (who don’t seem to have any problem pouring tons of tax dollars into the Enron Like Iraq project,) they decided to kick the already beaten NEA. I can visualize the editorial meeting now…

“What can we do to attract the conservatives?”

“I know, lets flog the arts.”

“Yeah, everybody hates the arts.”

Seriously, though, they should realize that Bush is being conservative with this proposal, it is fulfilling one of the more important missions of the National Endowment of the Arts which is to make sure that art is more accessible to the public. And with the way the economy is going now I think that may be important in the near future.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

This isn't your parent's "Our Town!"
When looking forward to Valentine's Day the theatre public has come to expect worldwide productions of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. In an international program to raise awareness about violence against women venues from Broadway houses, to community theatres, to colleges perform the play, which consists of a series of monologues that can be performed by a single actress or multiple performers. This year there is an unexpected addition to those venues...Amherst Regional High School students will be performing the play.

The school committee apparently approved this production, and it probably would have gone unnoticed except for the conservative idealogues who are looking for anything to fill the daily programming for their shows. And believe me, a subject that gives them legimate cause to say, "vagina," seventy times in a half hour segment and still take a conservative viewpoint must be the manna from heaven they usually only dream of as they listen clandestinely to Howard Stern. It is a little surprising, and disappointing that the major media has not done anything a little more in depth on it; Time Magazine had little more than a blurb. And as a result, we are left with only conservative columns and tabloid video barrages with which to piece it all together. Maybe people in the TheaterMirror Community might be able to share a little more insight.

My mere opinion? I actually think it is an interesting development, and I think that the Bill O'Reilly's of the world might actually have a point when they are worried that The Vagina Monologues, while a legitimate and powerful drama, is a little much for High School. Although I offer that viewpoint hesitantly because I haven't really seen much reporting on the situation, and I will confess that though I have read the play I have never seen it performed.

A fact added to most reports I have seen on the situation is that Amherst Regional High School rejected doing West Side Story because of the negative stereotype of Hispanics the musical presents.

Things I would like to know:

Is this a during-school-hours performance or something the students are putting on at night?

Did the students pick this play?

Here are some websites that offer some background and discussion

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101040126-578986,00.html

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,109089,00.html

http://www.townhall.com/news/politics/200312/CUL20031231a.shtml

Monday, January 19, 2004

My Review of The Great Fire by Shirley Hazard

Unlike other reviewers on Amazon.com, who also did not have such a pleasant time with this novel, I did manage to struggle through to the end. And though I wish I could report that there was a reward awaiting me at the book's finish, I am afraid that I don't have such great news. As I approached the endless horizon of page 278, I started to experience a sinking feeling. The feeling of having been had. All of the prose and extensive vocabulary, (get a good dictionary if you sit down to read the book,) amounted to nothing more than the aesthetic of an intricate and ornate frame being shoehorned around one of those pictures of sports stadiums they sell at kiosks in shopping malls. A book that doesn’t have a great ending can get itself off the hook as long as it provides us some pleasure getting to the end. This novel moves like a glacier, leaving vast canyons of lost time in its wake. Shirley Hazzard took a leisurely twenty years for this novel and now can say that I feel as if I spent it with her.

Ms. Hazzard’s post WWII novel is a perfect example of what Harold Bloom criticized Stephen King for when it was announced that King would be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the same ceremony where Hazzard would be receiving the National Book Award for The Great Fire. While showing considerable talent, Shirley Hazard has used that talent to produce… a second-rate romance novel. Harold Bloom, referring to the King award, asked, "Whom are we going to give the award to next? Danielle Steele?" Someone send a reply to Mr. Bloom that he should not worry himself over this question, for they basically already have.

The more interesting characters of the novel are politely pushed to the sides while we are subjected to the gossamer musings of the protagonist, Aldred Leith, an interesting, well-traveled and brave British soldier, whom we are to believe is deeply in love with a 17 year old girl. After reading Ms. Hazzard's biography on the book jacket, I can see where she would want to portray a young girl as having the competency of Helen, the book's heroine/ingenue. Hazzard, according to the bio, was engaged by British Intelligence at the age of sixteen. However, I cannot believe that the emotional maturity levels of this relationship could support the true love that we are asked to take quite seriously in this story. I mean, didn't Nabokov render the last word on these types of relationships? Didn't he show us the hilarity and the pathetic self-centerdness at the heart of these May-December male fantasies?

Helen, who is the apple and the orange of Aldred Leith's life, is the literary set answer to the Britney Spears phenomenon, only as an artistic invention she is decidedly more insidious. While the young pop-divas of today's teen hip-hop scene seduce men with their adult sexuality, they also present a one-night-and-I'm-gone type of aura. The young Aussie girl, named for the "face that launched a thousand ships," is presented not only as an intellectual equal to the extensively educated and well-read protagonist, she is also loyal and easily able to maintain a mature and dedicated relationship over great distances. What? Please, somebody tell me that I am missing some sort of sharp satire. Please tell me that I didn't struggle through the book for what I ended up getting.

Oh, and if you need any more evidence of the unnecessary glacier pace of the novel look no further than the creation of some of the supporting characters. Peter Exley, one of Aldred's war buddies, who is prosecuting war crimes in Hong Kong, and his relationship with Rita Xavier, a native of Hong Kong, are far more interesting and the book jumps to grand life whenever they are mentioned. It is a sharp contrast to the nap-inducing travails of Aldred Leith and his little baby doll. (If you think I am exagerrating, read the end of the book.) After taking decades to complete this novel, you would think that Ms. Hazzard would have been able to see the appeal of these supporting players and would have dealt with Exley and Xavier more, or at least have effectively shown them as a mature contrast to Leith and his liason with his luscious, literary girl-woman.

There are better books out there. There really are.





Wednesday, January 14, 2004

I read Far Away last year and I was immediately excited by its possibilities, but being an actor and director as well, there were things things that bothered me about it. The last scene of Caryl Churchill's brief, 50 minute play seemed to read more like a novel than drama, and the more I re-read, the more I doubted that it could actually work as the conclusion for the work on stage. I felt that on an intellectual level it made perfect sense, but it didn't quite capture the mystery of the first two sections, or the visceral impact of the coup de theatre which she sets up brilliantly.

However, the reviews from London and New York were great, so I was eagerly looking forward to Zeitgeist's production. David Miller has done a good job putting this play into the Black Box, and Loann West has done such a fantastic job of costuming that it set me to praying that critics remember her work all the way into next year's awards lists.

My frustrations with the play are not with Zeitgeist's production, but with the last scene of this play. I think I will now have to see another production, (if one ever comes around here,) to see if the scene can be effective on anything more than an intellectual level. I guess I just want it to work because I think the rest of the play is so damn good. Bravo to Caryl Churchill, who I think is in her sixties. Sophocles wrote the macabre and terrifying Women of Trachis in his sixties, and both these examples help to show that experienced playwrights are not dated, or boring, but they can in fact contribute intense "fringe" pieces to the theatrical landscape.

When I was living the Seattle area, plays in the school of Far Away were consitent appearances in a vibrant theatre scene. I would love to see smaller companies in this area take more risks and try to produce works like this. However, a passion for new storytelling and working to expand the boundaries of what theatre can be run smack up against the consumerism of most entertainment these days. A recent interview in the New York Times with Wallace Shawn, whose edgy play Aunt Dan and Lemon is being revived in New York, was very enlightening. When asked about his acting experience he said that he was fortunate because acting payed the bills. "I certainly couldn't make even a lowly bourgeois living writing play," Shawn says. "My plays have been strange from the beginning, and they never got unstrange."