Thursday, 25 July 2013

Week Fourteen, The Book of Mormon

25th July 2013, The Book of Mormon at the Kennedy Center

Mark Evans as Elder Price
I had a few complaints about The Book of Mormon, but these were essentially ethical (see below). Of the key components needed for a good musical – captivating songs, delightful dance routines, a story that keeps you hooked, characters you care about – The Book of Mormon is handsomely kitted out. The songs are not quite up there with the best efforts of Rice and Webber, but then what is nowadays? The song ‘Hello’ is incredibly catchy and gets the show off to a flier, and ‘You and Me (but mostly me)’, a duet between the talented, hardworking Elder Price (Mark Evans) and the lazy, laid back lying Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) is also solid. A couple of the better ones were simply comedy copies of other musical hits; for example The Lion King’s ‘Hakuna Matata’ became ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ (‘Does it mean no worries?’ ‘No, it means F#!k You, God’), and Annie’s ‘Tomorrow’ morphed into ‘Orlando’ (one of the Mormon missionaries vision for the afterlife involves becoming the god of a new planet based on Disney World). ‘Joseph Smith American Moses’, the African villagers’ version of Mormonism as explained to them by Elder Cunningham, is a hilariously messed up mélange of Mormonism and sci-fi. And Evans is so perfectly cast as the good but soon to be disillusioned, all-American Mitt Romney lookalike that I was surprised to learn later that he’s a fellow Englishman.

But then we come to the shortcomings. I don’t especially like jokes about raping babies or the number of Africans with AIDs, but I accept that my delicate moral qualms are out of sync with our wider culture. If there were any absolute moral standards to cling to such personal discomfort might begin to engender thoughts about Western spiritual decline. But, of course, moral standards are a repressive pre-modern myth. And I’m sure the creators would be disappointed if there weren’t still a few old fuddy-duddies like me around to offend. ‘Pushing boundaries’ has become the key criterion for judging art. Inevitably this means ‘transgressing’ the rules that art should be beautiful and uplifting, and the only way to get a response is to produce something ugly and offensive. So how do you shock the audience? You get everybody chuckling by drawing attention to the incongruity of our images of Africa from The Lion King and the ‘reality’ portrayed here of prevalent AIDs, men raping babies and the mutilation of girls’ genitals. These issues do demand attention (though not necessarily through the medium of musical theatre); but I was also struck by another distasteful, but this time unintended, incongruity: here was an audience of predominantly liberal, progressive types, many having paid $250 a ticket, guffawing at jokes about disease ridden, mutilated Africans.

The overwhelming popular acceptance of The Book of Mormon does reveal something interesting about the extent of hypocrisy surrounding the values of modern progressive culture (because, of course, relativism is really only applied to debunk traditional moral standards). One doesn’t need much imagination to know that if any known conservative had depicted Africans with anything approaching this level of idiocy and depravity, they would have been mercilessly castigated as a racist reactionary. However, because The Book of Mormon’s more obvious target is religion, a perfectly acceptable progressive object of ridicule, the overt liberalism of anti-religiosity earns them a pass on any potential question of racism. The treatment of Africans here is an echo of the contrived controversy last year in America when a conservative talk-show host called a graduate student a slut. This was clearly not a very nice thing to say and it reflected badly on the man who said it (Rush Limbaugh). The storm of abuse Limbaugh received and the line taken by feminists, that the use of that word reflected Limbaugh’s misogynism and the entire Republican Party’s ‘War on Women’, was unsurprising. But that liberal response to Limbaugh would have been more convincing if an equally strong line had been taken when prominent liberal Bill Maher called Sarah Palin a c&*t. Instead, Maher’s textbook liberalism on other issues allows his sexism to be passed over in silence; just as The Book of Mormon’s more obvious send up of religion lends it the leeway to lampoon Africans as well.

But my main criticism of the musical goes beyond nauseating baby-rape jokes, the hypocrisy of politically correct progressivism and even the obvious conclusion that we’re living in the sort of degenerate era usually followed by a dark age. No, the main weakness of the musical is its lack of controversy in its key selling point. Is a satire on religion really especially daring in 2013? Jesus Christ Superstar took some liberties with the Bible and earned some controversy, but that was back in 1967. Monty Python’s Life of Brian was even more evidently a satire on religion, and was banned in a number of cinemas across the world. That was back in 1976, when church attendance and respect for religion were much higher than today. And the religion under attack was Christianity. A satirical musical on Islam would also be daring… but the Mormons? Only a tiny percentage of Americans are Mormons and they have few defenders outside their sect. Atheists and agnostics see it as a joke religion already and even mainstream Christians find them suspect. And unlike certain religions noted for their angry attitude towards perceived insults, Mormons are nice too. There were no Mormon pickets outside the theatre, and the programme actually contains friendly adverts from the Mormon Church pointing out that ‘you’ve seen the play, now read the book!’ The current head of the Mormon Church, Thomas S. Monson, may have once been voted ‘The MostPowerful Octogenarian in America,’ but he isn't in the fatwa-issuing habit, so the cast and creators probably don’t need to go into hiding just yet.

There was plenty of emphasis in the musical about Mormonism being the American religion, created in America and having a uniquely American character. This makes it fair game for attacks from leftist anti-religionists who would normally avoid attacking non-western religions because their anti-religious sentiment in those cases is cancelled out by their anti-western sentiment. We don’t have to imagine how liberals react when non-western religions are insulted because there is a good recent example to hand. In 2011 the American ambassador to Libya and his security team were attacked and killed in an attack originally (mistakenly) attributed to Muslim anger about an internet video produced in America by an Egyptian Copt named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. This low quality film depicted Mohammed in a very bad light and provoked a good deal of anti-American anger. President Obama was quick to label it a ‘crude and disgusting video’ and he ‘made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video,’ whose ‘message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.’ It was also ‘an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well.’ He went on to add that ‘the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.’ He did also point out that America believed in freedom of speech and would not ban the video; however, then Secretary of State Clinton told one of the victims’ parents that the administration would ‘get’ the perpetrators of the video. Despite the video itself breaking no American laws, Nakoula was duly investigated and found to have violated his parole for a former offence and imprisoned for a year. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Nakoula was really locked up to appease Islamic anger. Now, picture an alternate reality where a Republican president had made a similar speech attacking the creators of The Book of Mormon, where the Secretary of State had promised to ‘get’ its creators and where they had been duly ‘got’ and locked away on trumped up charges. There would be a liberal outcry. Islam cannot be attacked, Mormonism can.

There has been no real controversy over The Book of Mormon because they are a weak religion, unpopular with both Christians and atheists, with no defenders. Satire should bring the powerful down to earth. It should be a tool of the weak against the strong, but The Book of Mormon does exactly the opposite. In essence, its creators are bullies, and we, the tittering audience, are their supportive stooges. And this isn’t altered by the fact that Mormonism was such an enticing target because of the apparent wackiness of some of their beliefs (getting your own planet after death, the gold tablet that nobody was allowed to see, the 2,000 year old Jewish civilization in America that has vanished without a trace).

Despite these scruples, I still enjoyed the show. It ends on a happy, and even slightly pro-religious, note. It’s not an endorsement of religion as the truth, but it does portray the Mormons as extremely decent and blissful people (despite the occasional need to repress their un-Mormonic urges), and it does portray religion as something socially useful in backward places (and the Uganda of the musical is definitely a backward place). Essentially, the show shows us that a ‘good’ religion is one which has no regard for the truth but is instead tailored to solve the social problems of the local area. It isn’t exactly an uplifting view of religion but, with the catchy songs, a few great lines, and the joyous finale, it would be difficult for even a curmudgeon like me to leave the theatre without a spring in his step.

Next week,a silent version of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Synetic Theater

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Week Thirteen, Oscar Wilde's Salomé

21st July 2013 – Oscar Wilde’s Salomé at the Atlas Theater on H Street, DC

Salomé is not Wilde’s usual subject matter. The plot involves the step-daughter of Herod attempting to seduce John the Baptist and then encompassing his death by beheading when John rebuffs her. It was also originally in French, but the differences between Salomé and Wilde’s other plays go far beyond the original languages in which they were written and the contrasting subject matter. Whereas Wilde’s other plays are characterised by their playful, witty, lightness of touch, Salomé is much darker and, dare I say, the dialogue plods rather than frolics. Whereas plays like The Importance of Being Ernest are zany portrayals of pragmatic people, Salomé is symbolic and brooding, full of nightmarish imagery and weird, ominous repetitions. The moon is constantly alluded to and referenced in the dialogue, sometimes as a beautiful ‘silver flower’ or a virgin, but more and more ominously as the play progresses (regresses?) The moon was like a ‘mad woman searching everywhere for lovers’ (like Salomé), or as a pallid herald of death: ‘like the hand of a dead woman, covering her face with a shroud.’

Herod (Brian Hemmingsen) and Salomé (Irina Koval)
Salomé’s dance for Herod isn’t exactly erotic, and one can’t really imagine any genuinely red-blooded man going wild for it, but it is a beautiful, elegant expression of something. Maybe it’s symbolic of eroticism in the abstract. Herod (Brian Hemmingsen) is interesting too. He looks like a Sicilian thug but he talks with the subtlety of the Godfather. Only his leers toward his young step-daughter hint at the animal inside. John the Baptist (or Iokanaan as he is called here) is powerfully portrayed, but his constant shouted interruptions – no doubt symbolic of something or other - are the ultimate discordant mood-killer. The 1920s cocktail party setting makes provides a quality of Wildean sophistication in a roundabout way (well, Noel Coward-ish, which is close enough). But there is also a sort of 1980s vibe as well (and the 1920s setting contributed to that atmosphere – the 20s were big in the 80s). The stilted, symbolic language and stark staging are also in the vein of every BBC 2 arty television play of the 80s. The white face paint symbolically reflected the moon motif, but it also prompted memories of all those Pierrot pictures which were so popular amongst 1980s teenage girls (my older sister had a couple in her room).

So there were interesting aspects and some excellent performances, but I left frustrated.

This is a small theatre with a low budget and a cast of relative unknowns, so it would be easy to blame the shortcomings of this performance, and the disappointment of the viewer, upon the cast and theatre. But that would be a mistake. The strengths here - like the zesty coquettishness of Salomé, the eerie dream quality of the young Syrian - were due to the production. The main weaknesses were the work of Wilde. It is to his credit that he continued to experiment even after the seemingly effortless success of his ‘normal’ plays. But this is really not his best work.

Next week: The Book of Mormon at the Kennedy Center.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Week Twelve, Much Ado About Nothing

13th July 2013 - Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing at E Street Cinema, DC

MuchAdo.jpgI was quite prepared to be a little sneery about Joss Whedon’s new film adaptation of this Shakespeare comedy. The early 1990s version, starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, is my favourite film version of any Shakespeare play. And hearing that it was filmed in a few days in between Whedon’s more important projects, using lesser known actors from some of Whedon’s earlier TV work, implied that this wasn’t really a serious effort. And some of the earlier reviews seemed to be more excited about seeing the inside of Whedon’s home (used as the location) than about seeing a new Shakespeare adaptation (Much Ado about Whedon’s House…) But all of that is unfair on what is really a wonderfully joyous film.
Returning to the play, Beatrice is probably Shakespeare’s best female character – loyal to her friends, witty and strong. She is stranded in a man’s world that she can’t really change, and given the choice between bitter despondency and surrender (or both), she finds a third way combining cool detachment and humour (‘I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man say he loves me’). And when only a man can accomplish what she needs most (revenge for the ill-treatment of her cousin), she skilfully uses Benedick’s attraction to her to achieve it. Initially she has similarities with the pre-tamed Katherina from The Taming of the Shrew. But where Katherina is ultimately ‘tamed,’ Beatrice is never less than Benedict’s equal (and she often comes off better in their duels). She isn’t Shakespeare’s only strong woman; Portia in The Merchant of Venice is also a powerful, witty character. But Portia marries an idiot, whereas Beatrice and Benedick are matched perfectly. So their ultimate union is therefore much more satisfying. Benedict’s and Beatrice’s will they/won’t they love story might seem a little stale now, purely because it has been the basis of so many modern rom-coms, but there is so much else happening, and the characters are so much more profound than we would see in the average rom-com, that this play still has the power to move us.
So this is great material and that 1990s film adaptation is my idea of Shakespeare film perfection (except for one small drawback, which I’ll come back to). A cast of great actors; Emma Thompson was at her most alluring, Branagh was showing an early glimmer of the less annoying actor he would eventually turn into full-time, and Denzel Washington, Richard Briers, Kate Beckinsale and Brian Blessed added colour and character. The Tuscan setting is also every middle-class English person’s idea of Eden (I’m not middle-class, but I can still dream). Even the inclusion of Keanu Reeves at his most moronic barely detracted from the sheer loveliness of this film.
So Joss Whedon’s version has a lot to live up to. And early reports – filmed at Whedon’s house in only a few days, the lesser known cast - indicated that it might be an amateurish effort. But if it is amateurish, it is amateurish in the best sense in which the term was originally meant. In the Victorian period, the amateurs were the ones who did it for love and passion, whereas ‘professional’ was often a derogatory term, indicating one who put grubby money ahead of art. England’s cricket team was led by amateurs from their first test in 1877 until they appointed their first professional captain in 1952. Of course, such noble ideals didn’t always work out in reality, and the professional/amateur divide, when it is remembered today, is more often recalled as a time when talented working class professionals were demeaned in order to feed the egos of mediocre, entitled aristocrats. But in its noblest sense, in theory as opposed to employment, the cult of the amateur lauded love over money, and joy over seriousness. Which is all a long (long) way of saying that Whedon’s Ado is amateurish in the finest way possible. The acting is excellent, the Shakespearean language is really brought alive, and every twist and turn of that beautiful language is amplified and underscored, without ever being over-acted or dumbed-down. Shakespearian comedy, which, for me at least, is rarely actually very funny, here had the audience laughing throughout.
The use of actors with minor roles in Buffy and Angel was never a drawback because they all played their parts here with panache and aplomb, and their inclusion gave the audience a little bonus whenever they recognised an old favourite (‘Ah, it’s Drusilla the vampire, but with blonde hair’). Alexis Denisof as Benedick is much better without the irritating English accent he adopted in Angel, and Amy Acker (Beatrice here, Fred from Angel) is a revelation – beautiful, fragile, waspish and funny - she really needs to get some much bigger roles after this. The police were a big improvement even on the 1993 film. In Branagh and Thompson’s version, Dogberry was played by Michael Keaton in a manner more annoying than funny. Here, the police were incredibly dumb but still somehow believable, and very funny too. Finally, Whedon’s house is less impressive on the outside than I expected, but it’s very tastefully decorated inside, and the California style gave it a contemporary ‘nearly Italian’ feel that went well with the play’s setting.
This is a feel-good film that shows that ‘upbeat’ and ‘shallow’ don’t have to go together. It is also a celebration of old-fashioned love that leads to marriage. I left the cinema with a spring in my step, and my one regret at the end was that Whedon ‘wastes’ so much of his time making gigantic blockbusters like the Avengers, instead of focusing on his real vocation of making low budget Shakespeare adaptations.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Weeks Eight to Eleven, Top Seven Family Friendly Cultural Highlights in DC 2013

Ok, so nothing too highbrow during this period as my partner and our two daughters were visiting from England. When your priority is finding fun things for a 4 year old and a two year old to do, culture takes a back seat. So I haven't included excursions like the one to the Zoo but, even so, we managed to fit in a few things and here are the 'Top Seven Family Friendly Cultural Highlights in DC 2013' (in no particular order):

1) Breakfast at a Diner in Georgetown, bit of shopping, kids play in the big fountain, then a water-taxi from Georgetown to Alexandria and a visit to the Torpedo Factory Art Center.

2) Garden Fête at the French Embassy. Live bands, delicious pastries and the girls dancing away past their bedtimes...

Very hot day, so the in-door piano recital for a respite and relax was a bonus too.

3) Trip to the Kennedy Center for a free concert by Esther Biro and her Hungarian folk Klezmer band. One child fell asleep but everybody else enjoyed it, and you get good views of DC from the balcony.

4) Natural History Museum. Free entry, stacks of interactive stuff, educational and fun. It also helps if your kids have seen the Night at the Museum films.

5) Not actually in DC, but a pleasant train journey away: sightseeing in New York and an afternoon in Central Park.

6) Visit to the Library of Congress to enjoy the architecture, see where daddy works and play with the toys and books in the Children's Reading Room.

 7) Not, perhaps, that cultural: outdoor dinner at Clare and Don's Beach Shack whilst listening to the upbeat country sound of the 'DC Three.' Great food, though I suspect my deep fried Oreo and ice cream may have added a pounds...