Monday, November 24, 2008

Inishmore Tangent

For some reason, I keep thinking of a Christian comedian named Ken Davis.

My mom used to be a youth minister in suburban Maryland.  This job forced her to sprout antennae tuned to that narrow wavelength of culture that was somehow both Christian and Cool.  Anything to keep the kids attention.  For instance, when M.C. Hammer released his single "Pray" in the early 90s, my mom bought the cassette and displayed it in her office.  I do not know if she has graduated to Kanye West, but I doubt it.

What makes self-identified Christian rock so awful is the clumsy studio grafting of scripture over the devil's music.  The resulting mash-up somehow manages to blaspheme both Jesus and satan.  Christians know they're stooping to contemporary motif and the rest of us resent (nay damn) the co-opted genre.  And yet, as bad as Christian Rap, Christian Ska, and Christian House music may be, you can always redeem yourself by listening to something else.  Wash your heart in the blood of Hendrix, Dylan, or Talib Kweli and be born anew -- the grace of good music is indeed infinite.  

But Christian Comedy ... that coats the soul with a permanent residue of liquid cringe.  There are many ways to get a bad song out of your head.  So how does one un-learn the Antijoke?

Ken Davis comes back to my memory as I try to parse the experience of playing Padraic in The Lieutenant of Inishmore.  But I can't quite articulate why; I just know this thread would be distracting in the longer term paper blog post I'm putting together.  Was it the pasty Lutheran complexion?  The floppy glut beneath the jawbone?  He reminded me of every chaperone we ever had for church group trips -- trying to be the cool one by making a covert detour from the caravan to buy a sheaf of donuts.  Ours would be the deliciously deviant mini-van!  There was something sickly about his humor (and his humour) that made each laugh sound like an penance, or each joke an occasion for pity.  

Not that the jokes were especially bad, just that they were told with a kind of strangled mirth.  I'm not a good enough writer to describe this sensation, but I can try to transcribe what it says to me.  

It's okay.  It's finally okay.  We're allowed to laugh!  This show has been approved before the fact and you will encounter nothing in your laugh to challenge what is most sacred.  We confess up front that what follows is not only TV-G, but in direct service to the humorless authority of our jealous god.  How wonderful that even He allows us to laugh under certain circumstances.  We will bat down other smirking curiosities with redoubled force because tonight we see that it's physically possible to genuflect and guffaw at the same time.  And if you feel guilty, just think ahead to tomorrow's work -- repurposing laughter to mock the damned.

Well, that's as much as I can remember without consulting YouTube.  Here's Ken in his own words now.  Okay, they're not all his Words.  He's borrowing a few from Cosby, I think.  Maybe they came with the sweater ...

But seriously, folks.  

What does Ken Davis have in common with Martin McDonagh?  If I had to wager a mean mini-thesis, I'd say that they both ask us to make a sick moral concession which permits not just laughter, but a creepy righteous laughter on top of it.  For both men, laughter is not really a source of liberation or intuition or existential discovery (the way it is with St. Bill Hicks, for example).  No, the Catholic Laugh can only liberate those who are already saved.  It can only intuit a Law that was already imposed from the outside.  And it can only discover new ways to weaponize this singular joy of living for deployment against the unenlightened.


If I recall, there isn't a single joke in the Bible.  God is only funny if you take him at his Word.  Or if you accept that the joke is always on us.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Inishmore Journal

Hey kids.   We closed The Lieutenant of Inishmore this past Sunday.  For the past month, I've been borrowing a book of essays on Martin McDonagh from co-star John Lescault ...

... and I promised I'd return it soon.  So this is a hold-over post while I finish a longer one about the play and our production.

Doesn't Marty look bad-ass on the cover?  Here's a playwright who has the BALLS to depict Aran Islanders as the shoe-polish-eating bumblefucks they are.  You see, it takes great courage to mock rednecks onstage for theater audiences paying $70+ a ticket.  That'll show 'em.  Also, did you know that terrorists are assholes?  Well, McDonagh is brave enough to say it.  Terrorists are dumb-ass jerk-face dick-heads!  

I have no affection for backwater zealotry or the god that provokes it, but I'm still pretty sure McDonagh's first goal here was to make people laugh.  Nothing more.  That's my bold thesis on L of I anyway.  He uses blood as the base material for farce the way The Underpants uses lust.  If you care to dig any deeper, you're only going to be disappointed.

So why am I taking forever to compose my own line-by-line analysis?  Because there's something suspicious about the canonization of McDonagh and I confess it's interfered with my ability to approach this play as either jolly farce or serious character study.  It's neither.  Contrary to every synopsis written about the play, the title character Padraic is not a psychopath.  And contrary to Catherine Rees, this play does not force the audience to "confront their own approaches to the sentimentality of the Irish political movement and to interrogate the causes of Padraic's dislocation and isolation in a world which no longer remembers the history it is fighting for."  

I have a feeling some critics and thinkers are working overtime to justify their own violent laughter.  And that's what I'm trying to unpack at the moment.  In the meantime, here's our chart for the number of walk-outs per week:

That doesn't include the last two weeks.  Two Fridays ago, we had a record-high one-night walkout tally of 17 -- of which 10 left during my nipple-slicing moment in the second scene.  I guess they were just closeted terrorists who couldn't bear to see their own dark urges exposed onstage, right?  Well, that's the prevailing logic for Rees and a whole slew of critics who think McDonagh's doing something radical with this play.  Here are some of the reactions we could hear from the stage:

I don't know if you can read that last one, but it says "Well, if you put the Irish together, that's what you get."  And here's a picture of "a complex metaphor for violent sectarianism" ...

Now, I know you can't spell "Catholic" or "fanatic" without "c-a-t."  But does that really count as post-Syngian intertextuality?  

More soon ...

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

For Jason Stiles


Four years ago, I was working on a production of Accidental Death of an Anarchist with Rorschach Theatre.  We retrofitted Fo's farce for the War on Terror, pouring years of frantic discontent into the play.  We didn't really rehearse the play, as I remember.  Instead, we spent our evenings doing freestyle op-ed monologues, hoping to shoehorn every last outrage into the script.  I can't remember what I was hoping the night Bush won 62 million votes over John Kerry's record-high 59 million.  But I remember sharing the anger and despair with my most lovably cynical friends Jason Stiles, Marybeth Fritzsky, Melissa Schwartz, Grady Weatherford, Daniel Ladmerault and others.  Last night we gathered again, in person and by phone, to watch, shout, cry ... and sleep easy for the first time in years.

Bush's 2004 victory looked conclusive, but only against the flat gestalt of the 2000 fustercluck.  I remember W braying the next day that he'd "earned political capital" and that he intended to spend it.  First stop?  A privatization of Social Security that never materialized.  Next?  Diagnosing Terry Shiavo from the Senate chamber.  Third: Hurricane Katrina, in which 1800 Americans perished.  The glossy, shrink-wrapped Homeland Security apparatus revealed itself as a haven for despicable cronyism better suited for spreading insecurity abroad than security on the homeland.  And suddenly people realized that without some oppositional reflecting surface, W had no identity whatsoever.  He needed homophobia to keep his own people inspired in 2004.  He needed a political opponent to denounce or destroy.  The Apophatic Presidency.  
Who's the one to blame for this strain in my vocal chords?
Who can pen a hateful threat but can't hold a sword?
It's the same who complain about the global war
But can't overthrow the local joker that they voted for.
Through no effort of ours, Bush will be gone.  President Barack Obama (say it out loud one more time) will face a similar challenge in defining himself.  Will he lead a party of protest or a party of governance?  Like most of my election-night party chums, I retain a pessimistic reflex in the midst of this unmistakably liberal mandate.  I can already see the 2012 challenger standing at a podium, slowly unfolding an old, then-forgotten sign ...

For me, Obama's triumph is a rebuke to cronyism, anti-intellectualism, the culture wars, and disaster capitalism.  What will he put in its place?  I still think he's The Virgin President, but will his (INSERT MANLY EUPHEMISM) advance American hegemony or heal the planet?  Will he lead us away form an Ownership Society and towards ... I don't know what to call it ... a Creative Nation that rewards productivity over paperwork?  Will the Bill of Rights be, at least, 25% stronger now?  I seem to remember that being part of the oath ...

I'm not being cynical, I promise.  Let's not forget that Obama's triumph also includes the repudiation of Clintonite triangulation -- the very cynicism that assumed, as a matter of fact, that Obama was "not fundamentally American in his thinking and his values."  These morning-after questions are really just bullets on my wish-list.  But for the first time I feel free to wish.  President Barack Obama ... say it again, people ... has either delivered hope or capitalized on hope.  That's enough gas to drive to January 21.  Here's hoping for new energy past that.