Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven is the Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, and is the founding editor of the community-funded digital arts venture Stage Raw (www.stageraw.com). Morris chaired the Jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and served on that Jury in 2011. He received the Critic of the Year prize for his print reviews by the National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2011.

Not Laughing My Osoff: How Can Our Theater Function in Contentious Times? From Special Elections to Julius Caesar to the Hollywood Fringe

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By Steven Leigh Morris

Republican Karen Handel beat Democrat Jon Ossoff by four points in Georgia’s special election on Tuesday, in that very Red State’s 6th Congressional District (a district won by Handel’s predecessor, Tom Price, by 23 points in 2016, and won by Donald Trump in that year’s national election by a mere 1.5 points).

Despite those chastening facts, the trolls were out in force the next morning, breast-beating their victory for Trump (weirdly so, given the distance Handel kept from the President) while savaging the “loser” Democrats. They seized a small yet symbolic electoral victory as a mandate for national policies that had little to do with why or how Handel squeaked out her victory in one idiosyncratic district.

But the big loser, yet again, was civility in our national discourse, respect for each other, and for viewpoints different from our own. As a Washington Post headline blared out the morning after the election: “Ossoff chose civility. It failed. How do Democrats beat Trump?”

If, as a culture, we’re incapable of speaking without barking, what is the role of art in such an acrimonious environment?

Well, first, even on the political front, things are rarely what they seem. Despite Kellyanne Conway gloating on Twitter: “Laughing my #ossoff,” and Trump weighing in, also on Twitter: “Well, the Special Elections are over and those that want to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN are 5 and O! All the Fake News, all the money spent = 0,” and despite the other special election in South Carolina (where the Republican Ralph Norman eked out a 3-point victory over Democrat Archie Parnell), the Republican victories were mostly squeakers in traditionally deep-Red States. More to the point, the expression of our national values was not just a Reality TV show, it was a winner-take-all sporting event where even the score got bungled.

The Republican/Democrat tally in 2017 U.S. special elections is 4 and 0, not 5 and 0, as Trump claimed: The four would be Kansas, Montana, Georgia, and South Carolina – all Republican strongholds. And Democratic results in those states were much stronger than expected. If you were to walk into the 6th Congressional District in Georgia and meet a stranger, statistically there’s an even chance you’d be meeting somebody who voted for Handel or Ossoff. That’s how close it was. That’s how un-resounding the “victory” was, from the level of the streets.

This is not really about the divide between Republicans and Democrats, it’s about the divide between artifice and truth. We, in the theater, are in the business of both – using artifice to unearth the truth. How can we function in a larger culture where the aim is precisely the opposite – using artifice to dissemble?

I grew up in an era before Twitter and Facebook, before Yelp reviews, an era when newspapers curated comments from readers in a special column. This is not nostalgia. It was not more civilized then: Lynchings were a not-too-distant memory; as was racial segregation in bathrooms, at drinking faucets and in schools; and church bombings, and street protests that turned savage. But with the exception of election campaign bluster, what’s now called the mainstream conversation was more respectful, as a matter of form. Satirical wit as a pressure-valve was part of that conversation, from Oscar Wilde to Lenny Bruce to George Carlin, but the kind of goading rudeness that permeates so much of our current conversations was relegated to the fringes. In the 21st century, the fringes have moved in towards the center.

It’s true that ad hominem attacks, particularly in election campaigns, have been part of our social discourse for centuries: “A repulsive pedant,” John Adams called Thomas Jefferson during the presidential election of 1800. Twenty-eight years later, Andrew Jackson called John Quincy Adams a pimp. But these insults were not broadcast on Twitter, nor re-circulated by CNN or Breitbart News, as they did with “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco,” “Pocahontas” “Lock her up!” and “Muslim ban.” Is it mere coincidence that, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, hate crimes across the US have risen sharply since the 2016 election? These aren’t academic arguments. The tone of our conversations has real life consequences. Just ask Travis Kalanick, the former Uber CEO who was forced to resign for spearheading an abusive corporate culture. And so does the tone of our entertainments have real life consequences: Ronald Reagan emerged from the movie industry. Donald Trump emerged from Reality TV.

If you still don’t believe that the tone of our conversations has real life consequences, ask Kathy Griffin, the comedienne who made a joke out of dragging around a mockup of Donald Trump’s decapitated head, and who now has a Secret Service file on her. Ask Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s artistic director who was blindsided by predatory news outlets as he staged a Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Julius Caesar, with the title character bearing a striking resemblance to Donald Trump — the larger point being that Caesar gets assassinated.

Delta Airlines and Bank of America pulled out as funders for Shakespeare in the Park, after hearing that – hearing it from, as Eustis told the New York Times, “. . . thousands of people who are calling our corporate sponsors to complain about this — none of them have seen the show. They’re not interested in seeing the show. They haven’t read Julius Caesar. They are being manipulated by Fox & Friends and other news sources, which are deliberately, for their own gain, trying to rile people up and turn them against an imagined enemy, which we are not.”

Photo from Pulblic Theater’s controversial Julius Caesar

Eustis argues that, despite moments of parody, his production sees the assassination of Caesar as “tragic.” But to feel that tragedy, one needs to actually see the production, and on seeing the production, to absorb contradictory emotions such as parody and pathos, melodrama and tragedy. Is that even possible in 2017?

Shakespeare’s 16th century audiences were not educated. They were ribald and rude and threw oranges at actors they didn’t like. And yet, they processed the Bard’s spectrum of emotions, and could distinguish between a joke (the thespians in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), a tragic outcome (the finale in Romeo and Juliet, which Midsummer’s thespians parody), a play-within-a-play (the thespians in Hamlet), and the tragic death of a difficult leader (Julius Caesar).

What percentage of us can do the same? Is that percentage shrinking as the decibel level of acrimony keeps rising? As Eustis suggests, we now live in a world of imagined enemies and pre-emptive attacks against those presumed to disagree. We live in a world of rising, irrational fury, or, in a world where rising, irrational fury is being given unprecedented expression. How do we put on plays in such a toxic place? Isn’t art supposed to change the world?

As far as I can see, our theater is playing to its political base. Locally, on a Friday night, I caught a few shows at the Hollywood Fringe, including Rick Cipes’s Zombie Clown Trump: An Apocalyptic Musical. Let’s just say it picks up where Kathy Griffin left off. Red noses are handed to audience members pre-show. Characters are named Sean Sphincter, Kellyanne Cuntway, Barbania Trump – you get the idea. Sphincter is a hand-puppet controlled by Craig Aldrich. The puppet Sphincter asks Aldrich to remove some of the rings on his puppeteer fingers. Trump (Cipes) flies over the nation on a kind of pogo stick, blithely defecating on the land below. The musical is a string of scatological jokes that doesn’t aim to win any hearts or minds in, say, Georgia or South Carolina. Like almost everybody we meet and everything we touch, it’s gleefully rude, and part of the national divide.

Promotional art for Zombie Clown Trump, part of the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival.

I also caught a double-bill of Easy Targets, presented by Burglars of Hamm. Had to see both bills, since the sketch-comedy troupe is so funny and so smart. One bill was called “The Women’s March,” the other, “America First.” But if you think there’s a reach for empathy in all that, think again.

They don’t call it Easy Targets because they intend to be kind. Each skit generally features one performer, sometimes with a sidekick (a patronizing spouse or an accompanist). The audience is invited to purchase a bag of sock-balls before each skit, socks to be used for the specific purpose of being hurled at the performer during particularly excruciating moments of smug self-satisfaction on the part of the characters strutting their stuff, or espousing their platitudinous ruminations on life. This is a production that invites the audience to participate as Yelp reviewers, while affording them instant, physical gratification.

The measure of the show, and of the culture it reflects, is observing those moments when socks rain down on the performers like silent, gentle hailstones, in torrents.

In writer-director Matt Almos’s “The Greatest Love of All,” Carolyn Almos recites the story of how she met and romanced the love of her life, her husband Matt (whose blow-up photo takes up a large portion of the set, and which itself becomes a sock target). When she gets to a part about how he criticizes her cooking, and how she appreciates his criticism because she has so much to learn from this wonderful, sexy man, she disappears for about five seconds behind a moving wall of socks.

Or, also in “The Women’s March,” when performer Tracey Leigh, in Carolyn Almos’s “My Gift: A Nouveau Cabaret” (directed by Matt Almos), sings and dances through her character’s autobiographical song-cycle (which she does with striking style), you might be struck by her gift. If anyone else were to refer to her talent, the remark would be credible, but when she refers to it herself, in an “Yes, I’m special” tone of unfettered self-adoration, she’s pelted with socks. Perhaps it’s an assault on the kind of narcissism that’s come to define our culture. But honestly, how else are actors, facing daily rejection, supposed to keep their heads out of the psych ward without some protective layer of such conviction? Still, yes, easy target.

The performers muscle through their humiliation with stunning self-assurance and self-respect, performing as they are, in a room of gleefully hostile critics – a little performance space, in the Sacred Fools Theater complex, that embodies the smugness and the cruelty of our entire nation.

“America First” similarly thumbs its nose at its characters via their Red State logic. In Jon Beauregard’s “Keep on Truckin’” (directed by Carolyn Almos), Hugo Armstrong performs a gentle, moustached, deep-voiced trucker who loves honkin’ the horn on his rig for the kids, whom he waves at with gentle affection as they pass him on the interstate. It’s a gorgeous, loving portrayal. He fancies himself a poet of the road, reflecting on how most folk might find his drives boring, but every time he passes a vivid landscape, it seems to him just a little bit different. He sighs, in a kind of languorous satisfaction, only to be pelted with socks for having the audacity to presume that his insights, which admittedly come shrouded in threadbare romanticism, have value. This crowd would hurl socks at Jack Kerouac. The skit is ultimately a genre-flick parody, but that’s another story.

Performer Albert Dayan’s “Pride and Prejudice” (directed by Jon Beauregard) features the actor in a cotton shirt and trousers (the open zipper supplements the SNL-styled parody). Dayan plays the role of an aggrieved white male leading a support group for aggrieved white males, underscoring his points with placards such as, “You’re entitled to what you have,” and urging his followers to relish their entitlements, and to feel no guilt when accused of privilege. Invariably, he spouts off-color jokes, being only vaguely cognizant of their offensiveness. Dayan’s energy comes at you like that of a twisted serpent. His eyes blaze, his voice coated in wounded indignation, and – a common thread among most of these characters – a brand of certainty that accrues into a kind of horror at their cemented convictions, an absence of introspection or reflection. These would be snowflake virtues.

Albert Dayan in Easy Targets from The Burglars of Hamm. (Photo by Ben Rock.)

Easy Targets is relentlessly entertaining and beautifully performed. Alas, the certainty of its characters, and of its audiences, has become increasingly true in our culture. I’m not convinced that a show such as this provides any remedy to such calcification, but God only knows what would. Instead, it offers the therapy of a punching bag. Perhaps that serves some larger purpose, I’m not sure.

I only hope that, as a culture, our epitaph won’t be, “They were too certain of themselves to know each other.”

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