About The Bacchae

The Public Theater's "The Bacchae" - Photo by Damon Winter, for the New York Times

The Public Theater's "The Bacchae" -Photo by Damon Winter, for the NYT

I know it’s been a while since I threw down a bona-fide review around these parts. So I’m breaking silence with some thoughts on The Bacchae, which wraps up its run The Public Theater’s Shakespeare In The Park this week. (Warning: this may fall more under “rant”.)

It’s also been a while since I had been to one of the Delacorte shows. Getting older leaves you less zest for pulling an all-nighter at The Works (now closed (sad face)) and stumbling over to be one of the first people in line on Central Park West at 3am, just to get tickets to see Meryl Streep in “The Seagull”; although, it was totally worth it just to see her do a cartwheel on stage.

At any rate, this year’s Virtual Line made it easy for the old folks (hit “send” when the Mac strikes midnight) to get in, so I drug myself up to Central Park to check out what a friend of mine said he “wished I had seen”. He later clarified that he was just curious about my opinion, and wasn’t really recommending that I see it. Hmm…

Well, I suppose I would categorize this show under the old-artists-got-picked-to-do-a-big-gig-together-and-no-one-pushed-them-to-do-better-work category (I’ve still got my eye on you, Trish). The wafts of arrogance this production exudes is troubling. Not blatant arrogance—although, there is plenty of that in Jonathan Groff’s petulant Dionysus—but the “we’re great artists and don’t we know it, and the public won’t know any better” kind of arrogance; casual; comfortable; like a nice pair of orthopedic shoes.

But when we go to the theater, we don’t want orthopedic shoes. We want riveting ideas, and risk-taking gestures. We want to be pushed (although, not necessarily physically pushed, Ms. Young). We want to know that the artists are pushing us, and themselves, to the level beyond where we are. We want the art to be in front of us, so, by going to it, we are taken to a new place. This production fell far back and behind what we know about theater and what we know about ourselves. It eschewed the central subject of the play with demure stereotyping and philosophical meandering. (In case you’re wondering, the central subject of the play is Dionysus: The god of drinking and fucking.) And along the way, presented us with several examples of exactly how not to use drag and homosexuality in the service of constructing a heterodoxic narrative.

What director JoAnne Akalaitis was thinking when she conceived this piece is beyond me (I’ll get to details when I get to them). For help, I looked to the program notes. Sometimes, you just have to.

In the notes, Nicholas Rudall, who made the translation for this production, is quoted as saying, “The Bacchae is a play rich in themes, and one of its most disturbing is the inadequacy of rational human government in the face of the ecstatic irrationality of Dionysus…The Bacchae is, in the end, a document of human folly. Dionysus lacks mercy. And to assume that human wisdom and human rationality are forces that can resist him is a monumental mistake.”

Umm, wrong. Continue reading


It Is Written

As some of you may know, I have been hard at work on a new opera over the last few months. It is now finished and had its world premiere this past weekend at the Mt. Tremper Arts summer festival in the Catskills.

With my ensemble, Collective Opera Company, we created SCARLET FEVER, an evening-length operatic adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s iconic novel, The Scarlet Letter, which is a book that everyone thinks they know or remember, but in reality, no one knows or remembers much or any of it.

At any rate, while the work (I believe) is strong, and each performance was met with a wonderful audience and some amazing feedback, I was discouraged (I am only human, after all) not to have received really any listings from the NYC classical music and opera media (although we did get this amazing preview in “The Times” – The WOODSTOCK Times, that is…).

This frustration, I’m sure, is no stranger to those who pursue careers as artists. I’m sure the party line is not to give a relationship with the media too much power over you. I agree that this is probably a healthy point of view. But forcing oneself to “not” feel this way does not alleviate all the angst and frustration one may feel for feeling overlooked by the press.

I also don’t believe—for the most part—in invoking mind over matter, when matter has a very real effect on our lives. In this specific case, press coverage (and I’m not even talking about reviews here, but simply getting cultural event listings) effects the number of opportunities people have to find out about your work, which effects how many people will actually come see your work, which effects the opportunity for people to talk about your work, which also promotes your work. Press coverage is real (in this way), and really can have a significant effect on things like ticket sales, and the general awareness of the arts community to your work.

So, yes, I felt snubbed, and annoyed that the NYC classical music media complex ignored (whether intentionally or not) what I believe to be an important event in the larger conversation of opera, classical music and theater.

I’ve since done a little research, and was happy to find out that in at least one instance, that the neglect was basically bureaucratic.

But this is also part of a larger and very personal relationship with one’s work and the media. What is that moment of throwing something out into the canyon of the world, then straining your ear out to  hear the echo? It is natural to want this. It is natural to feel let down when the echo does not bounce back. Some might say it is an immature, arresting neediness (or narcissism) on the part of the artist. But there may be no way to eradicate these feelings, and personally, I’d rather spend my energy working around, over and through it, than razing it.

I also feel that if this sort of principal is having an unfairly and excessively negative effect on emerging artists (since press coverage does tend to favor the established venues/organizations), then we should be addressing it head-on, and not just wish it away through self-help.

That said, a few months ago, after I finally bought a Macbook (and subsequently coined the phrase “There is no Art. Only Mac.”), I wrote a little ditty about this desire to be noticed by the New York music critics, and the sadness I feel (well, not the “someone died” kind of sadness, but sadness nonetheless) when the papers turn their cold, silent shoulders to my work.

I’ve inserted the track above (with a fierce new music sharing service, soundcloud, which should allow listeners to actually make comments on the track) and you can read the lyrics through the comment clouds.

Call it art as criticism; art as protest.

Call it a song.

BTW, John Hughes: “Yes, you’re a total fag”

Anthony Michael HallSorry to hate—once again—on a recently deceased beloved creator of popular entertainment, but I have to. Not just to be contrarian (as a darling friend accused me of being, just yesterday!), but to voice a legitimate criticism of John Hughes’ work that I have held in recent years.

I should say that, if I die, I would want people to look at my work clearly, for what it is, and not to confuse their judgments about my work with their feelings of appreciation for me as a person. Can’t we hold these two things separate?

To get to my gripe, John Hughes’ work will never, to me, be considered truly great work because of the string of casual homophobia that runs through all of his teen movies. All of our favorites. All of those movies we now, collectively share and reminisce over. All of these seem to have characters that reinforce the pressurized teenage use of homosexual pejoratives.

One of my favorite Hughes movies—a film I will share in communion with my sister in perpetuity—Sixteen Candles, is the culprit from which I derive the subtitle of this article. The self-empowering  use of the word “fag” by Molly Ringwald’s “Samantha” toward the nerd-geek “Farmer Ted” (played by a scrawny, if tenacious Anthony Michael Hall), is just one example (and notable because it is uttered by a female character) of how Hughes teens understand and wield the power of institutional homophobia. I don’t have the research to list just how many times a gay slur punctuates these iconic scenes of teenage turmoil, but I encourage everyone, as they review the canon of Hughes films (as we all will now) to take notice of the numerous ways this form of homophobic game play crops up.

Now, the ways in which these slurs are used are always casual (if I recall correctly), and are never more than a simple fact of the socio-political rules that define teen relationships. They are often (again, if I recall correctly) not targeted at identified homosexual characters, but, rather, are employed in their more pervasive usage, whereby the slur is used to belittle a male heterosexual character; to challenge his power; to intimidate him; to ridicule him. While not as outwardly destructive as the kind of bigotry directed at suspected or openly homosexual characters, it is no less damaging, particularly in how it sustains the illusion of the assumed heterosexuality of the person who uses the pejorative while putting the recipient of the pejorative on the defensive of his own compulsory heterosexuality.

If you don’t think these moments send loud and clear messages to young  people who lap up these films for all the other wonderful, smart things Hughes movies offer, you’re wrong. There is no shortage of homophobic reinforcement in our culture, and in the 1980s, homophobic discourse had not yet reached the roadblock of political correctness that, for better or worse, has squeezed out much of the room that slurs like “fag,” “faggot,” “queer,” and “homo” used to have.

But taking into account the era in which these films were made does not excuse Hughes’ recurrent use of these homophobic slurs. Did it accurately capture teen life in the 80s? Perhaps. But wouldn’t that still be the case today? I can’t imagine that youngsters have stopped ridiculing each other via these homophobic tropes (in fact, just the other day, my boyfriend and I were walking past some pre-teenage kids, one of whom had pulled his shirt off and was sort of gyrating and dancing as we passed; a friend of his was quick to point at him but say to us, “He’s gay! He’s gay!” It was cute, and funny, although by bf made a good point, “In a few years they’ll be pointing at us”). But today, these slurs would more likely be used in film to critique the homophobia inherent in the experience of youth (much like Brüno targeted homophobia as it actively sought to elicit it). In important contrast, Hughes’ homophobia is always used in a way that affirms the empowerment of homophobia via the positive, clique-inclusive currency of the slur; i.e. the user is always elevated above the receiver, who is laughed at. Let’s also keep in mind that these films are not documentaries, but are scripted, pre-meditated, and edited compositional works of film art.

I’m not saying we can’t enjoy these films. I don’t even need to articulate how many great things we can take away from them. But we should keep in mind that as we enjoyed these movies, we also absorbed the dark ethos of teenage homophobia. And that, no matter who you were, or how much you did or did not understand sexuality and issues of sexual orientation, when Samantha called Ted a “fag,” you knew you didn’t want to be one.