wet earth

Telling the Truth

When 52% of California voters chose in 2008 to remove the rights of same-sex couples to marry, rights which had been granted the previous June in a decision by the California Supreme Court, they were passing judgment on the lives of others.  Their vote for Proposition 8 stated, in effect, that gay men and lesbians do not deserve to experience the kind of stable happiness that a legally-binding, socially-recognized marriage may provide.

Judgments are also passed in court.  Before a judge, we are exhorted to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  The point of this truth-telling is to arrive at a state of justice—a judgment based on the truth.

8, a play by Dustin Lance Black which the Western Stage is presenting in a staged reading on Friday, July 20, is another exercise in truth-telling.  It recreates, in dramatic fashion, the trial that sought to overturn the passage of Prop. 8 on the grounds that the proposition was discriminatory and unconstitutional.  8 gives voice to what one might call the community of the trial: its plaintiffs and their families, its defendants, lawyers, judges, and media.  Yet by transforming this landmark trial into a theatrical event which is currently being staged in theaters and college campuses around the country, Black has contributed a crucial element to this community, one that was missing from the original trial—an audience.

The defendents of Proposition 8 “fought hard to make sure this trial was never seen,” Black (photo at right) told me in an email interview.  “They argued all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court to have cameras banned from the court.  So this historic trial was hidden from view.  Truth was hidden from public view.”  Black recognized that a play could be written, cast and produced more speedily than a film; by using the transcripts of the trial, he was able to create a work of art that speaks in real time to a timely subject—one whose arguments the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court will, in all likelihood, soon be hearing.

8 was premiered in New York, in September, 2011, and received a second production the following March in Hollywood, directed by Rob Reiner and featuring an all-star cast, including Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Martin Sheen, Jane Lynch, Kevin Bacon and Jamie Lee Curtis.  For the production in Salinas, TWS Artistic Director Jon Selover has gathered a large cast of Western Stage alumnae, many of whom have not seen each other in years.

“It’s one of the most exciting things we’ve had come our way,” Selover says.  He describes 8 as “living theater,” a kind of art that responds to what is happening in society: its pressures, hopes, desires, needs.  Even those who are already committed to marriage equality, for instance, need art of this kind.  “It’s not preaching to the choir,” he says, “because the choir doesn’t know all the notes of the song.  A play like 8 helps.  It gets at what is really involved and what is not involved.  It is balanced, showing all the arguments as they were presented.  We can see and understand who is saying what, and then apply it to our own life experiences.”

For Black, the arts play a key role in the effort to achieve marriage equality.  Through storytelling, “the arts are a way for the minority, the outsider, the misunderstood to share his or her experience in a way that can be understood universally,” he says.  “Through the arts we find common ground, we find our common humanity and we dispel the myths and lies and stereotypes about LGBT people that have plagued us for so many generations now.  It is through the increased understanding created by our work in the arts that we change hearts and minds.”

Art has always been about transformation, whether of materials, attitudes, experiences, even transformation of the self.  This is one reason why providing access to the arts can be especially important for young people on the margins of social acceptance.  Black was a painfully shy boy who came to the theater “kicking and screaming,” he says.  It was also where he found his community, as well as the skills and tools that have served him well in his career as an Oscar-winning writer in Hollywood.  Black himself is a Western Stage alum, having appeared in a 1990 production of Peter Pan that was directed by Selover, and he will return to Salinas for this production of 8 and will participate in a post-show audience Q & A.

The Western Stage presents a staged reading of 8, by Dustin Lance Black, Friday, July 20, at 7:30 p.m.  Tickets are free, but this performance is fully booked.  For last-minute stand-by tickets, contact the Western Stage at 831-755-6816.

A Cabaret on Fisherman's Wharf

It’s an old story: a naïve young American travels to a foreign country, falls in love, and discovers the harsher side of life.  In Cabaret, in a production by the MPC Theatre Company directed by Gary Bolen, playing for one more weekend at the Bruce Ariss Wharf Theatre, the American’s sentimental education takes place in a Germany about to fall into Nazi madness, lending a sinister edge to the tale of the innocent abroad.

The intimacy of the Wharf Theatre enhances the illusion that we, the audience, are inside the Kit Kat Club, the decadent Berlin cabaret where the play opens.  Its Master of Ceremony (Peter Hoffman) is both character and ghoulish guide to the unfolding of the plot.  “Bleibe, reste, stay,” he creepily croons in the opening number, encouraging the club’s patrons, and by extension the audience of Cabaret, to forget about the world outside, no matter how menacing.

Indeed, denial is as common as schnapps for the characters who make up the small, insular world of Cabaret (music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb).  Cliff (Rob Devlin), is a struggling writer who has restlessly moved from one city to another, desperate to find the inspiration that will translate into success—that age-old American imperative.  On the train to Berlin, he meets Ernst (Erik James Morton), a young German who advises him to stay at a boardinghouse run by Fräulein Schneider (Phyllis Davis).  Later, he meets the Englishwoman Sally Bowles (Jill Miller), a talented and brassy singer, at the Kit-Kat Club.  The high-strung, impetuous Sally is delighted by his impromptu recitation of “Casey at the Bat,” and before long—she is a woman always in search of a new adventure—she convinces Cliff to let her move into his room.

Devlin is appealingly grounded as the earnest Cliff, and he and Miller exhibit a fine chemistry in their scenes.  Yet it was the play’s subplot, involving Fräulein Schneider and another of her tenants, the Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz (Mitchell Davis), that proved the more compelling romance of the production.  There is a tender scene involving the gift of a pineapple that for this viewer sums up the tragic world of Cabaret more than its flashier numbers: doom and destruction are but moments away, and still a couple growing in fondness for each other, neither of them young, can turn toward each other, and gently, hopefully, dream of the future.  Phyllis Davis and Mitchell Davis are superb in their roles, subtle and nuanced and very moving.

It’s the flashy numbers, of course, that provide the context for the play’s evocation of Germany’s slide into evil and chaos, while also entertaining the audience.  Hoffman is excellent as the Master of Ceremonies, the all-knowing, satiric conscience of the play, teetering between malevolence and mischief.  He appears in several scenes with the gaudy Kit Kat girls (Michelle Boulware, Lara Fern, Stephanie Woods and Marissa Merrill; Camila de la Llata was ill at the performance I attended), who dance and smirk and thrust with marvelous confidence.

Miller has a fine voice and gives a winning performance as Sally, belting out her big numbers (“Cabaret” and “Maybe This Time”) with aplomb.  Sally lives on the surface of things, her mind perpetually alight, uninterested in the darker currents gathering around the Kit Kat Club.  Only near the end, in an argument with Cliff, do we see a sharper edge in Miller’s portrayal, when she accuses him of living in as much of a dream as he thinks she does.

Tara Marie Lucido is the devious Fräulein Kost, one of Fräulein Schneider’s tenants; the ensemble performers Marc Layus, Nico Abiera, Clark Brown and Jesse Huston round out the strong cast.  The accomplished choreography is by Susan Cable, with musical direction by Barney Hulse.

One of the most chilling numbers in Cabaret is “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a sweetly melodic tune that takes on a darker hue when it is revealed as a Nazi anthem.  It is first sung (quite beautifully) by Isaiah Boulware, a young Brownshirt; gradually, others join in, rising to a chorus that will soon drown out the diverse voices of the Kit Kat Club and Fräulein Schneider’s boardinghouse.  I thought of this song as I exited the theatre and was plunged into the seething crowd of summer tourists on the wharf.  Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret is almost fifty years old; it was first produced in 1966, a mere twenty-one years after the liberation of the camps.  Yet its message is still fresh: how easily a crowd can be seduced, up to and past the brink of evil, into believing the old song-and-dance that someone else is to blame for our troubles, that we are better than they are, that if only we could get rid of those people, why then everything would be grand.

Cabaret, presented by the MPC Theatre Company at the Bruce Ariss Wharf Theatre in Monterey through July 15.  831-646-4213 or www.mpctheatre.com.

Summer Arts at the Movies

When I was a boy and then a teenager growing up in Southern California, seeing a summer movie usually meant escaping the sweltering heat while being totally absorbed by whatever was on the screen, generally something scary.  I recall sinking deeper and deeper into my red cushioned seat during the suspenseful opening scenes of Alien.  When the slimy creature burst out from a man’s belly, I screamed and practically leapt out of my chair with sympathetic horror, giving my brother, who was sitting next to me, a double scare.  My mom dropped my best friend Stewart and I off one afternoon in Canoga Park to see Magic, a creepy flick about an evil puppet starring Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margaret.  We were in a strange mood after the movie, and as we waited outside the theater for my mom we fantasized about getting a ride from a disturbed stranger and leaving Los Angeles to have an adventure.  Then mom arrived and we went to Farrell’s for ice cream sundaes. 

When cousin Amy visited from Missouri, she and I went on a date to see The Deep.  I was thirteen.  It was my first time at the movies alone with a girl.  I was happy to be with Amy, but I recall my internal struggle to convince myself that one day I would be like the older boys I saw there with their girlfriends, on a path that would eventually lead to marriage.  Looking at these boy-girl couples with their arms around each other in the air-conditioned theater in Sherman Oaks, the problem, as I saw it, was that I already knew I wanted to be in the arms of another boy.

A year later, I went to see The Wiz in Santa Monica with my first boy crush.  My father, unaware of our budding romance, parked and told us he would meet us back at the car in two hours.  I have no memory of the film, because just moments before entering the theater the boy and I had kissed in the parking garage elevator across the street; inside, my adolescent body was still thrumming with desire.  Surrounded by illuminated darkness, I wanted to touch him, but he was too nervous someone would see us.  I ignored the movie and kept staring at him, anxious to get out of the theater and continue what we’d started.

That was a long time ago.  It’s been years since I’ve made an effort to see what are considered “summer movies,” the special effects-driven blockbusters, the endless sequels, prequels and franchise reboots (Spiderman again?)  that fill the screen with lots of noisy action and very little character development.

Yet a new summer wind of change is blowing into the multiplex, or perhaps we should call it a modest and pleasing artistic breeze.  This July and August, at the Del Monte Cineplex in Monterey, a beguiling schedule of dance, opera and classic films offers several occasions to while away a summer evening or afternoon, enjoying the arts in the spacious comfort of the movie theater.

Here are a few highlights:

Dance performances include the Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty and La Fille Mal Gardée, and the Bolshoi’s Bright Stream and Raymonda.  I’m especially excited to see Bright Stream (photo above), featuring music by Shostakovich and choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, called “the most fascinating choreographer alive” by the New York Times.

The Metropolitan Opera will be broadcasting encore performances of its most recent season, including Les Contes d’Hoffman, Lucia di Lammermoor, and, most notably, Der Rosenkavalier, starring Renée Fleming and Susan Graham.  I saw this pair of exceptional singers in San Francisco Opera’s production of Strauss’s majestic opera several years ago, and it remains one of my most cherished musical memories.

Remember when some movie theaters showed a different movie every night?  The sense of abundance suggested by the large printed calendar of West LA’s Nu-Art Theatre, a favorite haunt of my youth, was much more rousing and enticing than the endless Netflix queues of today, because to see the movie you actually went somewhere.  The Castro Theatre, in San Francisco, still offers a wide repertory of classic and contemporary films, but this summer in Monterey we can enjoy Singing in the Rain, A Clockwork Orange, North by Northwest, and Cabaret.  For those of us who have gotten used to seeing these great films on our television screens, or worse, computer screens, the chance to experience such classics in a real movie theater on a large screen is a summer treat not to be missed.

And if you’re lucky, someone will take you out afterwards for ice cream.


Sunday, July 8, 12:00 pm, Romeo & Juliet: Royal Ballet

Sunday, July 22, 12:00 pm, The Bright Stream: Bolshoi

Sunday, July 29, 12:00 pm, Sleeping Beauty: Royal Ballet

Sunday, August 12, 12:00 pm, La Fille Mal Gardée: Royal Ballet


Wednesday, July 11, 6:30 pm, Les Contes d’Hoffman, Metropolitan Opera

Wednesday, July 18, 6:30 pm, Lucia di Lammermoor, Metropolitan Opera

Wednesday, July 25, 6:30 pm, Der Rosenkavalier, Metropolitan Opera


Wednesday, July 11, 2:00 and 7:00 pm, A Clockwork Orange

Thursday, July 12, 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm, Singing in the Rain

Wednesday, July 18, 2:00 and 7:00 pm, North by Northwest

Wednesday, July 25, 2:00 and 7:00 pm, Cabaret


For more information, visit cinemark.com.