Patriarchy x 3: Two world premiere plays and an opera
Mercedes Manning, Jason Vande Brake, and Sage Howard in Antigone / Alana Cheuvront

LOS ANGELES—Last weekend I saw a play, an opera, then another play. Mulling over what to say about them, it struck me that they’re related—not by design but by coincidence. Yet that coincidence—the role of patriarchy in different forms—is all too ubiquitous, in life and in the theatre that reflects it. Curiously enough, I saw them in chronological order, and that’s the way we’ll look at them here:

Antigone updated: Bury the dead, not the living!

Antigone, or We Are Rebels Asking for the Storm is the classic play by Sophocles, written ca. 441 BCE, in a world premiere modern adaptation (seen May 25) at the Bootleg Theater. The text was the Kenneth Cavander translation significantly adapted by Matt Minnicino. The 100-minute production is directed by Amanda McRaven for Fugitive Kind Theater.

The headstrong Antigone (Sage Howard) and her more compliant sister Ismene (Mercedes Manning) are orphans. A civil war has just ended, and their uncle Creon (Jason Vande Brake) has ascended to the throne after the deaths of their father Oedipus and their brothers Eteocles and Polyneices. Creon, a hard-headed autocrat with an iron fist, honors Eteocles, but considers Polyneices a political rival, decreeing that he should remain unburied on the battle field, to be devoured by worms and vultures. Antigone defies Creon and buries her brother, though her willfulness means she will surely be executed. Her refusal to comply with illegitimate tyranny spawns a resistance movement, changing the lives of her fellow citizens forever.

Antigone lends itself to adaptation. The Island is a 1973 two-character play by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, which I was fortunate enough to see in Johannesburg in 2013. The apartheid-era drama, inspired by a true story, is set in an unnamed prison that is clearly South Africa’s notorious Robben Island. John, modeled on Nelson Mandela, will play Creon and his cellmate Winston will play Antigone in a condensed version of the play presented to their fellow prisoners transparently meant to attack the perversity of the law in a thoroughly corrupt system. It’s one of the most moving evenings of theatre I have ever experienced.

I am not normally given to quoting so extensively from the program notes, but this is quite a story from adapter Matt Minnicino:

“When I first approached Antigone it was spring 2016. Then, it seemed natural to me that Sophocles’ tragedy of laws and gods was not a play about America. Thebes was Turkey, or Egypt, or Iran, or North Korea, or—oh, obviously it was Russia! Yes, Russia: historically the poster child for cloak-and-dagger oppression and the roar of revolution. I immersed myself. I took wincing ice-baths in the verse of Alma Akhmatova, a Stalin-era poet who watched her friends die and her son locked away and still scribbled out the words ‘I am more iron than they.’ I discovered the extraordinary 2013 correspondence between Nadia Tolokonnikova, a Pussy Riot member then imprisoned in Siberia, and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, in which the motley pair discuss Dionysus, Heraclitus, Marx, Ernst Lubitsch, and Laurie Anderson. In one letter, Nadia writes of her activist kin: We are the rebels asking for the storm. But, through all of this, Antigone was still a play about somewhere else, somewhere far away. I thought.

“Then, in November 2016, I saw I’d been blind. Antigone, in an instant, leapt out of the past with a terrible cry and pounced on the present. It was about America. It was about America so viscerally that sometimes I felt I had to fend off the multiplying points of relevance like hydra’s heads. It was a truth I’d been afraid of, but at the same time, there was a sublime, painful beauty in it. Antigone can be, should be, must be about Now as much as it is about Then. It reaches up from its little island in time more than 2000 years ago and takes our hand, with a firm but gentle squeeze. It says, ‘Look. We lived the same lives. We fought the same fight. But here is a lesson in how to fight better than we did, and maybe to win.”

Fittingly, in this version, the setting is “Thebes, or right here.” The time is “441 [BCE], or right now.” The contemporary language, including liberal use of swear words, makes it sound as though it’s all happening in real time as we see the revolution being dramatized—and televised (Gil Scott-Heron was wrong)—before our eyes. The demonstrating Greek chorus chants, “Bury the dead, not the living!”

Other members of this cast include Emily L. Gibson as the queen Eurydice, Jim Senti as Haimon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s lover, Jeff Marras as the wise, blind bisexual prophet Tiresias, Alana Cheuvront as Creon’s conflicted intern, Petey Gibson as the reluctant soldier, and the cell-phone texting ensemble Stacey Patino, Mary Borrowman, Melvin Alas, and Rebecca Nakano. The simple but effective set design by Jeanine Ringer plops us right down in the Thebes, USA amphitheater subjected to The Donald Creon’s hortatory ranting as the crowd salutes. My only objection was the fairly constant, too loud thrumming, pounding electronic sound, meant to suggest wind, waves and storms.

This fine play, after 2459 years, remains relevant and stirring as ever. Try to see it—and if you’re reading this outside of L.A. talk to your local actors’ company about staging it. It’s a burnished gem, another memorably moving evening of theatre.

Antigone plays at the Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles 90057, Thurs., Fri., and Sat. at 7:00 pm and Sun. at 2:00 pm only through June 2! For information and ticketing please go to www.fugitivekind.org.

“What is it, then, between us?” Whitman asks

“With this resonant question at the climax of ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,’” composer/librettist/conductor Matthew Aucoin writes of his opera Crossing, “Whitman asks many things at once: what is his relationship to his contemporaries, his fellow man and women? What is his relationship to you, the reader, whoever you may be, whenever and wherever you may be reading his poem? And what is the relationship between the contradictory elements of his own self? The phrase ‘between us’ itself has a double meaning: what is the relationship between us, and what stands between us, keeping us apart?”

A military hospital during the Civil War

Crossing is loosely based on Walt Whitman’s journals that he kept for two years toward the end of the Civil War. He initially traveled down to a Washington, D.C., area hospital to tend to his wounded brother, but after the brother healed, Whitman stayed on as a volunteer, hearing the sad men’s stories with a sympathetic ear, and entertaining them with stories of his own, helping them to write letters home, sharing refreshments, and offering hope, solace and, when needed, forgiveness.

What were Whitman’s motivations for remaining as nurse and confidant to these traumatized warriors, many of them battling for their lives? He was already 44 in 1863, more than twice the age of most of these valiant soldiers. Aucoin imagines “the many forces—generosity, insecurity, longing, selflessness, bravery, unfulfilled sexual desire, a need to escape his own life, a boundless kindness—that caused a man named Walter Whitman, Jr., to forge an indelible embodiment of the American spirit in his poetry.” Whitman was clearly one of those people with a “caretaker” personality.

Was Whitman (baritone Rod Gilfry) acting as the benevolent patriarch toward these Union patriots? Did he use them and their stories as a personal challenge, a brutal two-year journey through hell for his own self-improvement and gratification, a way of shedding his relatively privileged position as dandy and poet? The crisis of the opera comes when he lets his guard down and crosses the line (thus one layer of meaning for the title) and becomes intimate with a volatile, vulnerable young soldier, John Wormley (tenor Brenton Ryan), who both loves and betrays him.

A dozen-man chorus provides a sonic choral layer of collective narrative, moaning in their sleep, responding to news of the day, singing hymns, feeling despondent, reacting to others.

The opera features two other solo roles: The escaped slave from South Carolina and now a Union soldier Freddie Stowers, sung by bass-baritone Davóne Tines, and the smaller role of the Messenger, the only female in the cast, soprano Liv Redpath providing some relief from the gloom on the distaff side. It was her happy task to announce the end of the war. The men are glad to return home, but they know they were “the cost. We are the money spent to win this war.”

Stowers is an important part that disappointingly made no further appearance in the latter half. Showing his vernacular roots in spirituals and blues, he shares with Whitman a nighttime vision he experienced of air on fire and missiles overhead sometime in the future—perhaps his afterlife, or, as I took it, a prefiguration of the even more terrible wars to come. If Stowers survived, he would have been in his seventies when World War I broke out.

The almost all-male cast inevitably recalled other such wartime operas, like Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd and Kevin Puts’s Silent Night, both of which have homosexual implications, as well as Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick and Marc Blitzstein’s male chorus Airborne Symphony, all of which Aucoin must be familiar with. Aucoin’s libretto enfolds passages from Whitman’s poetry, including “O Captain! my Captain!” which referenced Lincoln’s death, although his name was not mentioned. The score is contemporary and muscular, with a prominent use of percussion including piano, xylophone and marimba, yet lyrical and expressive too. There are few truly arioso passages, but they stand out. It did not take long to become immersed in the composer’s sound world.

Crossing was performed in English with supertitles for two nights only, May 25-26 (I saw it on the 26th). The score for hard-working chamber orchestra forces lasts 100 minutes and could be a one-act opera (as the program stated), but here it was broken into two halves with an intermission. It was a Los Angeles Opera production: Aucoin, born in 1990, is currently artist in residence with the company. The performances took place at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. The work premiered in 2015 in Boston. These two performances were its West Coast premiere.

In the pre-performance talk the casually dressed composer explained how he was drawn to this subject, and read passages from Whitman that suggest his constant yearning to connect. “What is it, then, between us?” both begins and (nearly) ends the opera. By the conclusion we have grasped and perhaps come to identify with his question.

A video about the opera can be viewed here.

Plunging into crime, resolving through empathy

Over the winter a three-way collaboration among theaters brought to L.A. the “Elliot trilogy” of plays by Quiara Alegría Hudes (two of them reviewed here and here). In a similar new venture, playwright Tom Jacobson brings his formal inventiveness and vivid imagination to The Ballad of Bimini Baths, three stand-alone but related plays all taking place at a famous bathhouse in L.A. that for half a century (1902-1951) provided spa treatments and mineral water plunge baths to generations of people ranging from maids to movie stars—but only if you were white. The hushed-up crimes in the first chronological play, Plunge (seen May 27), create ripples across the following 32 years of L.A. history.

From left, Dan Via and Gary Patent / Son of Semele

Inspired by real people and events, Jacobson centers his story on the celebrated/notorious bathhouse just off Vermont Avenue at the end of the Heliotrope streetcar line to illuminate larger themes of sexual orientation, race and ethnic identity, individual failings and communal reconciliation in the City of Angels. He dates his tale around 1913-17, with many flashbacks and flash forwards to other episodes in the men’s lives. The next two plays, Tar and Mexican Day, are soon to be reviewed in PW.

“I tried to take what our society regards as the most unforgivable sin—violation of a child—and find a role for empathy,” Jacobson says. “I grew up in a Christian tradition which placed great value on forgiveness, and empathy is a step toward forgiveness. It’s hard to forgive, requires sacrifice, struggle and contradiction, some of the most intriguing and moving components of drama. As a playwright, I always seek conflict, and as a human being I always want to resolve it, usually through empathy.”

In a taut 80 minutes with only two actors, Gary Patent as Everett C. Maxwell and Dan Via as Edward Reynolds, Plunge explores the sordid lives of two historical figures in the habit of sexually molesting underage boys, all the while they express their mutual interest in homoerotic expression in the arts. Both wind up in San Quentin, but are released when their sentences are up. Almost the entire play takes place at Bimini Baths after they have first established contact at a fancy reception to launch the still-operating Otis College of Art and Design.

Maxwell, a renowned curator at the then fairly new Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art (now known as LACMA), is also a leader at his local YMCA (pace Village People!), where he has access to young boys on field trips and excursions. Reynolds is a Roman Catholic priest who struggles with suicidal thoughts over his own peccadillos with the young churchgoers in his charge. Both are severely damaged men, whom Jacobson treats gingerly, revealing how they themselves suffered abuse, while not excusing their actions. The playwright brings in the views and practices of “alienists” (an older word for psychiatrists), and of sexual theorists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld by way of communicating the then-current understanding of such outlier behavior.

So these two men, Maxwell and Reynolds, are patriarchs too—men their charges Zenobio and Victor look up to, and of whom they take advantage. Not so different from heterosexual men who seduce and rape girls and women: It’s a question of power. Here at the baths they seek at least metaphorical purification, cleansing and purging.

Jacobson doesn’t have to say it, but in the world of the first decades of the 20th century—except in Germany, but truly not in the U.S.—there was no gay liberation movement. Homosexual men knew of the bathhouse culture where on a lucky night they might easily find willing partners, but wider, open social respectability was denied them. There’s also a class angle: In Maxwell’s case, which is well documented, LACMA leaders and admirers of his knowledgeable lectures and writings on art, come to his defense. The LACMA director wrote to the State Board of Prisons, “At the time of his trial a great many influential people interested themselves in his case, especially when the enormity of the results and punishment upon him in the community before the actual sentence of the court, became fully realized. He was a young man holding one of the highest positions in the community, with a splendid future and practically his whole life before him. By one act all this was destroyed, and the lives of his father and mother practically wrecked.”

His defense reeks of class privilege. In the Reynolds case, the priest thought nothing of trying to throw the blame for his crime on a defenseless innocent lower class man. Social class, and the Church, provided a measure of protection, if not complete. Not much has changed—well, not until recently, and we shall see how long that lasts.

The acting is magnificent, thanks in large part to Matthew McCray’s direction, the set an intricate jigsaw of utilitarian functionality with steam convincingly rising from the plunge bath. It is difficult material handled frankly, with some brief nudity. There were no advisories as to age appropriateness, so parents be forewarned.

Plunge plays at Son of Semele Ensemble, 3301 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles 90004 Performances are Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm, Sun. at 5 pm, and Tues. at 7 pm through June 17. Tickets and further information are available here. Fri., June 1 is a pay-what-you-want performance (minimum $5), with no advance sales or reservations, tickets available from 7 pm on until sold out.

For Mexican Day at Rogue Machine Theatre, which runs from now through July 9, go here for tickets and information. For tickets and information on Tar at Playwrights’ Arena, running from June 9 through July 2, see here. All three theaters are a few blocks distant from the Bimini Baths site.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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