Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Fair State

I always wondered how Iowa became the preferred codename for "hicksville." True, the Iowa caucuses are a nauseating combination of Tammany Hall and the State Fair: deep-fried democracy on a stick with a long line to the port-a-john. But why must the national news networks bleach the state to a Klan white so that Obama's hairsplitting triumph there sounds revolutionary? That probably owes more to Obamania than any built-in bias for the Hawkeye State, but still ...

Des Moines sits at the intersection of Interstates 80 and 35 -- two highways that evenly quarter the land and position the capital city halfway between Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis and Kansas City. This makes it more than a drive-thru state; it's a keystone state for the Midwest. Iowa was brought into the Union to balance the slave state of Texas. It was one of the lone Dukakis States twenty years ago. I lived there for eight of my formative years and all I remember is a progressive, culturally-minded place with all the fresh air, pork chops, sweet corn, and soy products you could want.

So why do people like David Cote slam "poverty-line hicks from Iowa" for spending money on religion instead of live theatre? I don't know. Maybe he visited my dad's old parish in Martinsdale, that monument to Lutheran opulence. No matter. Who could have anticipated the exciting, ingenious designs of Zach Mannheimer?

Except, of course, Scott Walters! The title "Anywhere but New York" pretty much sums it up. Click on Scott's name to catch an e-mail update from Zach himself. Click on the picture above to be electronically linked all the way out to Iowa itself! Did I mention I used to be a paperboy for the Des Moines Register? Allow me to lob another one at your doorstep.


Everything about Zach's project fits with the principles of decentralization that Scott explores on his blog. Insofar as we are concerned about the health and integrity of "American Theatre," we must explore our own nation. I don't see this as a mere corrective to the self-defeating NY-centric model that currently dominates. And I'm not just gushing because it happens to involve my boyhood home -- Zach chronicles a tour through the country that leaves open the possibility for similar developments in Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Omaha, and Missoula.

I haven't read his entire blog yet (it's as much a drinking tour of the heartland as a cultural survey), but here's what I admire most about the whole enterprise. We compare theatre to religion. We compare it to music. We compare it to a gallery. A gymnasium. A hospital. I believe that the raw ingredients of theatre are time, space, and people. Any project that takes the time to enter new spaces and connect with different people is good for theatre. So while we theatre folk often feel a kindred calling with priests, musicians, painters, athletes and doctors ... it must be said that we are also, at heart, a brotherhood of explorers.

Here's to hoping New York finds more sister cities in her own country ...

Bill Hamlin

Jane Horwitz gives a nice tribute to Bill Hamlin in her Backstage column at the Washington Post. I met Bill in 2004 when we were both cast in The Seagull at Rep Stage. He played Sorin, the doddering, wistful old man and I played Kostya, the tortured, implosive young man.

At that time, I was going through a tortured implosion of my own, so backstage and centerstage life was oddly congruent. I remember coveting Bill for not being anything like his character. He would gently step into this fretting shell of a man onstage and then bounce offstage to become his vibrant, generous self again.

He possessed that rare brand of unforced gallantry that never has a twitch of Duty or Habit to it. Sometimes his mahogany Radio Voice would boom in to denote a brief dip into self-deprecation. I remember sitting backstage as he talked about his years as a top-40 DJ and thinking the whole time: if I could end up half as satisfied with life as he is ... Then we'd go onstage and he'd transform back into Sorin -- a man whose life tumbled out into a permanent past-tense, whose vitality vanished like a used section of the newspaper. Could there be anyone more unlike Bill?

He was the first person to tell me that great anecdote about Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier: when the former collapsed from the exhaustion of Method work for The Marathon Man and the latter pertly suggested: "Why don't you try acting, my boy?" Night after night, as I flagellated myself into Kostya territory, Bill's anchored, playful turn as Sorin said much the same thing to me: chill the fuck out, enjoy this, the audience isn't here to see you, they're here to see the story. So let's tell it, shall we?

Monday, February 25, 2008


It’s no accident that Obama backlash coincided with Juno backlash …

What the fuck am I saying? Of course it’s an accident. At least, I hope so. But if consensus changes with the undulation of Facebook memes, then maybe I’m onto something here. I like Obama. I like Ellen Page. They’re both really talented. I doubt the former has the experience or moral authority to be President. And I don’t think the latter should win an Academy Award just yet (lets spare this one ember of talent from the Oscar Kiss of Obsolescence, please). But I can’t wait to see what each of them does next.

So if Washington is a "Hollywood for ugly people" and Hollywood is a "Washington for stupid people," what do you do with a photogenic candidate like Obama? How do you talk about an Oscars race in an election year? If you think my tagline here sounds superficial, check out the absurd pop-mashup analysis provided by Dana Stevens at Slate:

Hansard and Irglová's lovely of performance of "Falling Slowly," their halting DIY ballad, compared to Kristin Chenoweth's studiously proficient belting of that big Enchanted number as an Obama rally compares to a McCain event. It was a glimpse of a possibility that the old (71-year-old party warhorses and chirpy blondes borne on the shoulders of male dancers)—may be giving way to the new (Kenyan-Hawaiian-Illinoisan activists and Czech/Irish songwriting teams). And for the first time since 1964, all four acting awards went to non-Americans. Are we seeing an opening up of the Oscars' borders?

Yeah. Does this mean that the Cohen Bros' triumph is like Goldwater's sweep of ... no, wait, I got one! If Chenoweth is Pat Nixon and ... no, hold on! I never knew a movie that had been shot and edited, reviewed, distributed, etc. could gain momentum the way a Presidential candidate does. And while 1964 might have been a watershed year for Oscar demographics, it was also the end of Camelot and the beginning of the second act of the Vietnam War. That's not to say that there isn't already a vivid confluence of art and politics. For that kind of criticism, check out Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader and Walter "Mac" Davis.

We see Barack Obama as the antidote ethos to the Bush years. Just say “change” and “hope” for every time we heard “terror” and “freedom” and the ghosts of 89,000 Iraqi civilians will leave us alone. Yes, we can … extract the carnivorous fangs of “W” and replace them with a slack-jawed exclamation of transcendence: “O.” Yes, it is entirely within our capability to chant in fealty to the Symbolic Order with the same pitch of icon-worship that brought the Son of Bush to preside over a displaced apocalypse at the Millennium. Yes, I can manufacture a thousand mash-ups of feeble historicity when these are the terms of the debate. If we accept that Rove has permanently converted the political stage into a Skinner Box, Obama may yet top the Bush legacy by instituting his own Hope Alert Level after inauguration day.


Hey, the guy’s great. With a speech and some practice, he’s dynamite. In debate, he has a hard time finishing sentences. Not that he has Bush’s syntactic paralysis; he has a cheering crowd that drowns him out four words in. Both phenomena short-change the electorate and short-circuit the debate.

You wanna know how he can get my vote? Right here and now, no turning back? When someone at the debate finally asks what he plans on doing about that old pledge with John McCain to accept public funding, he could say:

Yes. I believe this campaign should be about ideas, not money. I believe, along with the good Senator McCain, that money is not speech. As of today, I am urging all of my contributors to put down the checkbook for a moment, go outside, and talk to a neighbor, a friend, a relative, about why they feel compelled to give to this campaign. Let's make that our instrument of change and have a level playing field with a worthy opponent this fall.
Sign me up.