Thursday, June 26, 2008

Chinatown Bus Live Blogging

I've already decided that my memoir will have a chapter called The Blond Years: 2005-2007. It will cover that fruitful, exciting stretch of work from columbinus to Passion Play and back to columbinus (there was a brunette Hamlet with red highlights in the middle there, but ... more on him later). Three productions in four theatres across the country in which I was contractually obligated to be blond -- my boring Aryan name now had a flashy phenotype to match. And I had a 600% increase in romantic advances from both sexes.

If I had to write a broader section heading for this memoir, it would be The Chinatown Bus Years. Anyone in my income bracket who has to skirt between DC and NYC several times a year has heard of the Chinatown Bus. It's this delightfully skeezy cartel of second-hand charter buses that run every hour down the BosWash corridor. $35 won't even fill your car's gas tank, but it will get you round-trip service from New York City to Washington, DC any day, any time. Which begs the question: what the hell does the Chinatown Bus combustion engine run on anyway? Attitude? Inertia? Compacted body odor?

The bus I'm riding RIGHT NOW doesn't have a toilet seat -- any frequent Chinatown-er knows it's better to bring your own. But this same bus happens to have a Wi-Fi connection for my laptop, which makes it two steps better than Amtrak. Sure, we were supposed to leave a half-hour ago, and there's always the outside chance this bus will be the one-in-twelve that explodes en route, but damn. If you added a rest-stop break and sold cheap wine on board, there would be no reason left to take our beloved nationalized train service. The cheapest Amtrak ticket costs five times as much and only shaves an hour off your travel time each way. Plus (and I don't have the patience to research this) I'd be willing to bet the Chinatown bus has a better safety record than Amtrak, too.

A couple years ago, I was sitting at home when a friend called to tell me that I was on the news. Apparently, some local channel was doing an expose on the perils of the Chinatown Bus and I was standing in the background of some b-roll. "Don't make the mistake these dumb-asses did! The Chinatown Bus could kill you!" I'd like to think this memoir chapter won't end with fame and fortune. If I ever strike it big, I'll happily grant my first endorsement to the Chinatown Bus. I can safely say I wouldn't be here without them.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pilgrimage for a Merry Prankster

Sometime after I threw a softball five miles to the horizon and chased it down with Jackson the dog ... after he and I fought dragons in the tall grass and swam through the brave o'erhanging firmament ... Babbs announced that he was going to "fetch a pond." This was not an auditory hallucination, I told myself, he really did say "fetch a pond." So I assumed it was some Northwestern euphemism for "take a leak."

Until he started building an actual pond:

We all started using the word "ranch" to describe the modest plot of Eugene countryside where Ken Babbs lives. There are no livestock, but Babbs does seem to be harvesting* psychedelic mirth. Every corner of the place has some gonzo twist to it:

He even had tie-dyed toilet paper, god bless him.

Toward the end of our run in Portland, we noticed a cruel trend in the weather: we had two-show days when it was bright and sunny and gray drizzle for our free time. That last Monday off with Kenny Babbs redeemed them all:

His house is a hand-made collection of rooms that seem to sprout from its center hearth with an improvisational, range-of-the-moment floorplan. Every room feels like a three-sided protrusion from the main. And every room is a story.

Don't stare at those lawn chairs for too long. They don't anchor the magic dream balloon as well as the strawberry army. Wait ... what was I supposed to be worried about today?

PJ Sosko just realized something: the word "sisyphus" sounds as silly as his quest. For a good two hours, this was the funniest thought in the universe.

That's my girl!

That's ... my girl?

Babbs and Jenna collaborated on the spaghetti sauce as we waited for his wife, Eileen, to come home. She teaches Sometimes a Great Notion every year in her A.P. English classes -- like Aaron Posner, she can recite chapter and verse. We were extremely gratified to hear that she liked everything about our show except the ticket price.


What do you bring back from a prankster pilgrimage? Not too much, or you'll spoil the joke, I think.

FOOTNOTE:

*harvest Please don't read too much into that. I mean, of course, his thoughts.

Monday, June 16, 2008

This Storm Is What We Call Progress

Just finished a suspiciously smooth 10 out of 12 hour tech rehearsal for This Storm Is What We Call Progress by this guy at this theatre.

We don't have any other production stills right now, but the set and lights and sound are shaping up nicely. I play Adam, a hapless third-rate actor who tumbles into a recording studio run by two mysterious Jewish women. And from thence ... a hilarious, chilling, magical journey into the heart of Kabbalistic darkness.

Remember that fad-ish collective of playwrights calling themselves Monsterists? Remember how I thought they were awesome? Well, Grote's play has that invigorating mix of spectacle the Monsterists were after. There's a little of everything here: dance, soliloquy, magic, sex on stage, knife fights, mask work ... even shadow play before it's all over. We're working double-time to get it ready for next Sunday's opening and there's a lot to tidy up before then. But I'm incredibly excited to be working on this play with Rorschach Theatre right now. In many ways, they're the best match for this story.

I remember workshopping Storm at this theatre with these folk back in March 2007. What struck me then -- and what survives now as my big pitch to y'all -- is the way Grote sets aside the boring non-dramatic dilemma of insanity-vs-reason and dares to build atop his magical world as an original drama in its own right. True, my character is an atheist hipster trying to mine his Jewish-Irish lineage for some kind of catchy pastiche bullshit called "American Shylock." And true, his father went mad and killed himself some years ago. But Grote quickly shakes off these concerns (which would ordinarily dominate other plays) and dares deeper into the terrain of religious and artistic ecstasy.

Eish. I don't know how to put it. Come see the show! We're out at Georgetown University's brand new theatre space this summer. So if nothing else, join us for AIR CONDITIONING and FINE DINING ... two things we didn't have at the beloved Casa del Pueblo.

Tickets here!

Friday, June 13, 2008

George F. Will = 4,721

That boy sure does like to count things. I can't find that old stock photo of him that used to run with his magazine columns -- the one where he's counting off pithy bullet-points with both hands. It would have made such a perfect intro image for this post. Alas.


As a columnist, he should be using more words than numbers, right? I'd count all his words and numbers just to be sure, but that would only stoke and waft the stench of arid, left-brain prose that makes up the average George F. Will column. In his latest, "November's Magic Numbers," he breaks down the 2008 election into safe, office pool numerology:
Obama might capture the 2004 red states New Mexico (5 electoral votes), Nevada (5) and Colorado (9) -- George W. Bush won them by a combined 127,011 votes -- giving him 270. McCain, who in his 10-year campaign for the presidency has lingered in New Hampshire long enough to vote as a resident, might turn it red, gaining 4 votes. Obama, however, has reasonable hopes of winning Iowa (7), which Al Gore won by 4,144 votes out of 1,315,563 cast in 2000. Bush won it in 2004 by 10,059 out of 1,506,908 cast. And Obama's estimated 90,000 caucus votes this year almost equaled the combined118,167 won by Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, McCain, Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani, who finished in that order.
If you could combine the rigid tedium of a Rubick's Cube with the self-fulfilling theatrics of a Ouji Board, you'd have something resembling our Electoral College system. Now pause and re-read the above passage. Will shuffles around candidates, votes, mutually exclusive primaries and caucuses, election years and whole states like so many pennies and nickels. If you took 13 of the top 15 cities in 4 of the top 7 states in which Romney beat McCain's share of single black college educated military vets, then you could reasonably bet that Obama would win 51% of Missouri, assuming there will be low humidity on election day. If you think I'm exaggerating, consider this crowning factoid in which George runs out of things to count and just starts counting the punctuation within his earlier counting:
4.That is the number of commas in the total number of possible combinations of jurisdictions that can give a candidate 270 or more electoral votes. The votes disposed by the jurisdictions range from 1 (the Maine and Nebraska congressional districts) to 3 (seven states and the District of Columbia) to California's 55, with 17 different numbers between three and 55.
So if I read that right, it looks like a Nader landslide.


Judging from his sterile, mathematical world-view, I can only assume George Will is an ardent Ron Paul supporter. Like other functioning autistics, libertarians can engage and enjoy life -- but only when it is safely quantified. All human interaction must be rendered in airtight Newtonian equations. None of that messy, irreversible heat exchange, thank you very much. That wouldn't add up on the libertarian ledger. Your right brain is just more vestigial overgrowth like the appendix or male nipples.

So when it comes time to tell the story of your life, stick to the numbers like George did when he met 107-year-old veteran Frank Buckles. This man fought in the Great War and no doubt has a rare perspective on life, death, warfare and America. But we needn't go into that subjective dickering because did you know that:
He was born in February 1901, seven months before President William McKinley was assassinated. If Buckles had been born 14 months earlier, he would have lived in three centuries. He has lived through 46% of the nation's life ...
But god-dammit, he just couldn't birth himself any sooner. Sorry kids! I was an inch away from an even greater feat of numerical novelty, but may parents didn't think to fuck like it was 1899. Imagine the possibilities!

I can't imagine what Will will write in his own memoir, apart from a repeated incremental tally of the words he has written as he is writing them. His father was a philosophy professor (who taught with David Foster Wallace's father) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. So how does a man of such cultural pedigree believe that the high water mark for playwriting begins with Henry V and proceeds without interruption to the musical Damn Yankees? I won't bother to fight for due recognition of Sam Beckett, Sarah Kane, or Tony Kushner -- but surely he's heard of Hamlet and a Streetcar Named Desire, right? How in the world did little George escape home with such vapid, incurious taste? Why does his range of inquiry rarely venture outside that which can be counted, killed, eaten, or bludgeoned with a bat?


ACCORDING TO MY FIGURES, YOU CANNOT BE OFFENDED BY THE FOLLOWING

The average American penis measures 5 to 7 inches in length, when erect. I sincerely hope that George performed a thorough vaginal excavation before he got married. Because if I've done my math right ... math is all there is to it. This compulsion to reduce everything (a life story, elections, erections) to that which can be arithmetically validated has a credible etiology. The harsh, punishing superego is the source of all rigid moral judgments. It flourishes and dominates at the simplest level of abstract thought: binary opposition. Either-Or. Good-Evil. Man-Woman. Democrat-Republican. When everything can be reduced to the binary (and through this binary code, an infinity of opportunities for self-validation), you only need to trouble your brain with the accounting and accumulation of whatever phenomena crosses your senses.

It's all in the numbers: Barack Obama will win, Frank Buckles is really old, size matters most, money equals speech. That is the founding psychosis of capitalism and therefore it should be no surprise that this unrepentant Reaganite has little else to offer his readers on any given subject. So how long before the Washington Post editorial staff takes up the George Will Method and does the cost-benefit analysis of paying a columnist salary for something any 99-cent calculator can accomplish?

Playwright and blogger Matthew Freeman probably didn't intend to satirize Mr. Will when he wrote the Cop character in When Is A Clock. But read the following monologue out loud and see if you don't hear the same dour fixation elevated -- as only an artist can -- to the realm of hilarity and insight:
COP: Crime statistics. The average person is married twice, and the average marriage contains seven steps, and the average marriage has around two children and the average child of those marriages spends an average of four hours watching two to four television programs on five nights a week. More than half of that time is spent watching violent crime, and of the twelve courtroom dramas currently dominating the networks prime time slots, they watch 276 variations of criminal actions, based on a 23 episode season. That is only counting the central act of criminality within the drama, not counting ethical lapses or more minor crimes in support of, or to dispel, the central crime in question.

(Pause)

When, when, when you expose one half of one half of all Americans to four hours of around three hundred murders, rapes, kidnappings and assaults over the course of a season of television, you’re going to create precisely, and we have this figure available on our website, around 500,000 potential major felons a night, of which exactly 45,678 will commit crimes within ten years of right now. That is the crime that is directly pulled from national data on the citizenry that watches television regularly.

(Pause)

How should we find your wife? With all this happening just because of television?

(Pause)

What about red tape and just overall numbers? Every second, 200 babies die in this county alone. 200 babies. Die. In this county alone. Three hundred people lose watches every ten minutes in 38 states. There are 20 different versions of the law that protects three different ethnicities from twelve kinds of discriminatory lending practices. Food poisoning, from nearly 600 controlled substances, just hit the digestive system of two women. As we spoke. Their names are Janet and Janet. Both of them named Janet. What are the odds? Actually, very, very good, if you consider how improbable a life-sustaining atmosphere even is. 89 times, in the course of just walking in this door, I envisioned a crime committed against me by a person that worked in an orphanage when I was only nine. Why did I see that in my mind so often? Biological signals sent from my brain, sense-memory. 91 times now. It just keeps happening. That person was never arrested, but was killed. You can’t prove how. How could you? There’s just too much to keep track of.

(Pause)

Over the course of the last month, it was discovered that people’s names were being spelled in a wantonly confusing way but a large number of ethnic minorities in order to confound governmental databases. You think it’s easy to track people by way of their social security number? Of course you’d think so? That’s because you don’t know that there are two million people in this country whose social security number is precisely the same as two million other people. How do you think that affects their records when they die? It’s not pretty. Of course it’s not pretty. In fact, despite what you may believe, according to Federal Databases, because of this Social Security glitch, more than half of those four million people are deceased. 14 million Mexicans just entered this country. 15 million. 16 million. All without social security numbers, most of them less than 5 feet 5 inches tall. How are we going to find them and bury them? Do we just toss them in the Pacific Ocean? No, no we don’t. That’s how we hope to fuel agriculture. But there are so, so many. So many.

(Pause)

Where is your wife? Tennessee?

GORDON: Pennsylvania.

COP: How, for fuck’s sake, can you be so sure?
NEXT WEEK: How to write your own Charles Krauthammer column! Get your finger paint ready!

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Virgin President


When my grandchildren ask me how George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 (and I have to believe it will be an historical query for some time), they won't hear any grudging rehash of the Florida recount, the Supreme Court decision, Ralph Nader's existence, or Al Gore's failure to win his home state. Taken together, these enduring narratives still only explain half of it -- the half that Gore lost. They do nothing to explain how a talentless dry-drunk ambled his way into a reign of perpetual catastrophe. For that answer, we need a wider-reaching (but not deeper-digging) line of inquiry.

It was the year 2000 and people were primed for change. Fundamentalist Christians yearned for an apocalypse that came too late. The Son of Man didn't appear on cue. For secular folk, the Y2K virus provided a techno-eschatology to match the techno-utopian spirit of the 90s. Like Jesus and the Four Horsemen, this fantastrophy failed to materialize. Absent the bliss of some cathartic rapture -- religious or technological -- the year 2000 lurched uphill to the next odometer crossing and the decade-long Millennial countdown party gave way to an excruciating Millennial hangover.

That hangover found its quick-fix black coffee cure in "W" -- the born-again alcoholic Son of Bush sent as stand-in for the Son of Man.


His opponent, Albert Gore, Jr. was a decent, hardworking intellectual who brought the centrist policy of Bill Clinton without Clintonian narcissism. On numerous occasions before and after the Millennium, W demonstrated that he was an indecent, lazy, stupid and belligerent spendthrift. But the Bushian electorate had deeper emotional needs to fulfill, so they turned to the man who embodied and completed the Millennial narrative of resentment, global destruction, and rebirth.

As Freud said, "in any conflict the stronger emotion wins." And since any objective calculus of mere policy agreement routinely forecasts a Kucinich landslide, we have to "dig shallower" to find out why we get the candidates and leaders we do. We can no longer claim that their ascension owes to stated intentions.

So if W came to power to fulfill an apocalyptic Imaginary, what narrative best characterizes the rise of Barack Obama?

I submit that he's the Virgin President. Much the way Elizabeth I was the Virgin Queen: a pure icon of religious extraction selected to bleach away profound divisions in the country. At present, the radical right is quite content to throw away the election (and presumably, the country) to quickly dispose of John McCain and better position the malleable Mormon figurehead Mitt Romney for a 2012 triumph. For the sins of this young century, the born-again Bush will need to be reborn a thousand times over in a repetition complex where the only succor is the sinusoidal roller-coast between two partisan epochs. Obama, like Elizabeth, presents himself as a fusion of these binary opposites. But everything about his limited record shows compromise instead of courage. Virginity not virility.


Despite his sex appeal, Obama represents purity of identity above all else. He is both prior to and beyond the tragic core that defines our country. His record is not an active reversal of Bush-Cheney, but a crooked circumvention of it. He didn't stop warrentless wiretapping, he postponed its expiration. He derives moral authority on the Iraq War only because he wasn't around to authorize it. His long-time spiritual leader and confidante sullies with clownish bombast the very promise of transcendence that Obama nevertheless embodies. But these contradictions don't matter because we only ask that he embody it. Nothing more. Concrete action in the face of an insoluble dilemma like the present world war would immediately taint the impregnable orb we desperately need him to be.

So where could he start? He could confront the homophobia in the very constituency that validates his triumph as an historic Identity Politician. He could keep his campaign finance promise to John McCain and actually risk a triumph of ideas over money. He could vow to remove that flag pin when he's ended the Iraq War -- thus condensing the entire bloated pageant of Mission Accomplished to a simple gesture he must acknowledge every morning he adjusts his lapel as Commander in Chief.

In short, he could start leading people instead of congratulating them for existing. Until he does, he will remain a hollow O, buffed so mirror-bight we'll almost be able to see the poor ghosts howling in our wake for change.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Altar Egos

Lewis Black doesn't retain an audience because he tells jokes. We just want to be there if his next phlegmatic contortion finally causes his neck to explode. Likewise, Christopher Hitchens' on-camera appeal derives in equal measure from rhetorical acrobatics as well as the prospect of seeing Bill Maher showered with vomit or Sean Hannity dick-slapped into a concussion. He has the natural gravity to accomplish both without shedding a scrap of dignity. Flush with drink, he's perfectly camouflaged any hint of shame when he says, for example ...



The Trotskyist in him knows that you can't win an argument with an ideologue. The only way to actually confront someone like Sean Hannity is to engage the frightened altar boy inside who's still trying to win mom's love. What better occasion than a biting eulogy of Jerry Falwell?



I have a longer essay on God Is Not Great, but for now I'll just say that I admire Hitchens for being the only pundit to divine an unimpeachably left-wing argument for the War in Iraq. More on that later, too. Of the many play ideas I've abandoned over the past few years, there's one I no longer feel the temptation to resuscitate. It was going to be called The Glutton and it's titular hero was a chubby man with anglo affectations (was this a money-maker or what!) whose superpower was the ability to win any argument from any side on any subject. He was a free-lance philosopher who worked on hire for thousand-word mini-commissions on truth. It was a fun part to write, but the wood-spring gag at its center couldn't sustain a whole play. It would have been, as Feingold once said of some young wit's debut comedy, "a sketch with elephantiasis." Well, Christopher Hitchens essays are rarely more than bon mots with elephantiases, but I enjoy him all the same.

Of all the supermarket aisle atheists out there, he's easily the most battle-ready for televised debate. And unlike Richard Dawkins, he understands that the problem of god isn't just a glitch in the program. He also knows that no matter how many times affectless meat-puppets like Sam Harris rock back and forth in the corner muttering "A=A," Ayn Rand will not come back to life to marshal the objectivist apocalypse. Hitchens may misread Nietzsche in his book, but he has the balls to go on the offensive as an "anti-theist," which leads me to believe he's somehow, accidentally, on the same page as the lovably combative Friedrich after all.


And while I'm on the subject of atheist theatrics, check out this theatre piece about an atheist. I'm back and forth a bunch these days so I don't know if I'll get to see it. But mention the super secret code phrase "I don't give a shibboleth" at the box office to get a ticket for only $18!!