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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Smoke, the Play @ the Flea

A play by Kim Davies
Smoke, the residue, and by-product of combustion, of burning. Smoke can take
many forms. Its aroma is either pleasant or wretched. It can, depending upon its
origin, be soothing, a sign of warmth and peace as in hearth and home. Or it can be
deadly. As any Fire Marshal will tell you, it’s not the flames, but the smoke which
kills. The winds of war are full of it. Smoke can also often obscure things as in
“smoke screen.”

The Smoke of Kim Davies play for the Flea is that contentious, noxious spew
made popular by 20th century film stars from an era known as the "Golden Age of
Hollywood" who hawked America's cash crop with great charm and even greater
ignorance as they glamorized the smoking of cigarettes. Smoking in those films
was either a prelude to or a post-climatic ritual after the act of having sexual
relations. And sex plays a very vivid role in this play.

The cigarette evolved as a poor man’s answer to the rich man's cigar. The sweepers
in tobacco factories would gather the discarded detritus and cuttings from the floor.
Wrap them in paper and proceed to enjoy an elite treat. So social status is
intricately entwined with the history of smoking. When inhalation became the
norm, the deleterious effects of habitual consumption began to be apparent. Lung
cancer being chief among the killer diseases directly linked with smoking along
with a plethora of associated maladies which can diminish a person’s quality of
health began to become prevalent conditions of the post war American population.
With all the conclusive science directly citing the smoking of tobacco products
with illness and with shortening life, you could think people would avoid the
substance as if it were a carcinogen like PCB's or Asbestos. Or imbibe with more
cautious and spiritual reverence. Not so. It is still in vogue with hard core addicts
who cannot kick the habit and with young people who believe it’s rebelliously
cool. Why is this? What drives otherwise intelligent human beings to such
dangerous and self-destructive behavior?

This could conceivably be the question of the play since the characters also indulge
in dangerous behavior of the sexual kind. Ah, but it might also be that smoke
screen I spoke about.

In brief it's a play about an adventurous young woman of privilege, Julie (Madeline
Bundy), the daughter of an heiress and a successful artist, and a man, John
(Stephen Stout) who is eleven years her senior and in the employ of her father.
Despite his claim to the contrary, he is a slave to both his gender and his class.
They meet while sharing the clandestine act of sneaking a cig in the kitchen of a
loft party with a particular theme. (Read: 10,000 shades of purple). The ensuing 90
minutes, which moved at a very good pace as directed by Tom Costello, is
somewhat of an amalgam of David Ives' Venus in Fur (2010) and Nilo Cruz's Anna
in the Tropics (2002).

Anna is set in a Tampa Florida cigar factory on the verge of the industrial
revolution. Smoke, for family owners of the factory, is symbolic as a way of life
that adhered to and respected traditions. The invasion of modern machinery and
mass production threatened familiar ties to old world civility. Nilo Cruz with lyric
genius describes the significance of smoke and the leisurely, slow, celebratory
indulgence of taking ones time to enjoy a fine cigar. He makes the distinction
between that ritual and the bastardization of smoking a cigarette to justify a worker
taking a break from the assembly line.

Venus in Fur deals with Sado/Masochism in a very subtle manner. The characters
engage in a kinetic psychological thriller where physical flirtation inspires an
intellectual thrust, and retreat between a man and a woman who each believe they
know implicitly what the other wants, and needs.

Kim Davies’ Smoke turns out to be an Apache Dance with a message. The actors
work to inject a lot of charm into the piece which diffuses much of the menace.

Madeline Bundy as the overly worldly-wise Julie is delightful to watch as she slugs
a shot of Vodka or dribbles orange juice. Steven Stout as the charismatic John is
wonderful. It is a rare treat to see an actor actually blush on stage in character.
There is some very clever intellectual give and take between a dominant man and a
submissive woman. Julie, against her declared feminist sensibilities, wants
someone to hurt her. Physically.

Mind you, to this point in her 20 year old life, no one has accepted her challenge, so whatever is turning her on comes from her imagination. John is veteran of "the scene" which indubitably is a different concept determined by one’s own notions, readings or experience. His preferred instrument of erotic torture: knives. Sexual relations on stage are always problematic and seldom as erotic as one may imagine. It can often be uncomfortable, but the two actors beautifully handled their choreography (Jesse Geguziz). There is actually something quite provincial about their relationship. These two were like any couple courting, except they both just like it a little rough. Things do get ugly before the end. Not unlike an evening at a frat party filled with alcohol, flirtation, and even foreplay, there comes a point where the stop sign gets run. Everything was very considerate and sexy until the “spoiled little rich girl” pissed the edgy S&M guy off by insulting...just about everything about him. Then it was no more Mr. "is this all right? Too much? Are you ok?" nice S&M guy. After the violation, he was all: “you just had a bad reaction, you're ok, it's ok," as he packed his stuff and callously left without remorse. “See ya.” The last tableau is of her reaching for the knife left on the kitchen table.

Rape is implied to have occurred in Anna in the Tropics when Cheche, the agent of progressive mechanization, appears to force himself on the young, idealistic, and innocent Marela. The rape in Smoke is far more graphic, yet less overt. A jolt to a jaded and sophisticated audience into the realization that rape is an act of violent domination regardless of circumstances?

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the smoking ban into law in 2003 New York City, it was actually the culmination of a trend which began more than a decade before. Smoking is perhaps the most aggressive form of passive/aggressive behavior. The smoker is adamant about their right to be free to inhale their tobacco product. Yet that seemingly innocuous act has a downside. The smoker must exhale. In doing so they subject everyone around them to the by-product of their actions and make others, willing or no, participants by exposure to so called "second-hand smoke.” This almost describes very succinctly the Master/slave paradigm with the smoker assuming the dominant role. In addition, smokers will offer every justification under the sun to their right to imbibe their own poison since the environment is bombarded with a variety toxins from car exhaust to nail polish salons. Kim Davies captures the Nihilism of a generation of young cynics.

However, according to her, the impetus for the piece goes beyond the strictly philosophical. In an interview with the playwright by the Flea, Kim Davies explains her motives: “The undergraduate college I went to had a very pervasive date rape problem… I became very interested in anti-sexual assault activism, and I was involved for a while with a grassroots group based in the BDSM and queer communities… interested in ending the culture of acquaintance rape that is surprisingly endemic within the BDSM community in New York. The more I worked with people from that culture, the more I was reminded of the double-think and victim-shaming that happened at my relatively conservative undergrad. It was really fascinating to realize that a community that strongly self-identified as liberal and sex-positive and feminist was actually just as prone to rape as my predominantly white, upper-class, and heterosexual college campus had been – if not more so.”

Make no mistake; this is a theatrical interpretation of the scene. If indeed, it is a play about acquaintance rape, it is embedded deeply in a dramatization so provocative that to call the message mixed is an understatement. Yet all in all it is a very sexy production. "Great theater disturbs, inflames, transfigures.." to steal a quote from the Black Swan Theater manifesto. Consider me disturbed by watching what was essentially a rape. My belief may have been suspend, but the knowledge that what I witnessed wasn't real was of little comfort.

Smoke by Kim Davies, kitchen sink realism, Adult themes, raw, edgy, Cellar Theater at the Flea in downtown Manhattan. They smoked clove cigarettes, so that was a plus. At one point, the screen on the window slid closed on its own and the actors were really great with that. I think it’s really scary/hard to go from being strangers to having sex with knives in 90 minutes while trying to take care of a mixed audience. The Bats did just that.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Mysteries by The Flea...Rocky...Once...& When We Were Young and Unafraid...

Mom's passing did not mean that I would never sit in a theater again to experience a play. On the contrary. One of the things we loved to talk about was Broadway and Off-Broadway...and I even tried to educate her on the Off-Off Broadway scene. Mom loved her New York Daily News and was a subscriber and avid reader of that paper all her life. What ever the News covered theater wise we talked about. She became very curious about the play "Once". That might, had she lived, have been the next family outing to Broadway. I bought her the movie and the soundtrack to both the play and the film. She was also very interested in Rocky as all of us were who experienced the 1970's. The Mysteries is as ancient as western religion itself. These are a series of Bible plays generally performed by the trades-people of a town during religious festivals in the middle ages. It was difficult to tell mom about how the Flea version was a modern sensual take on stories about everything from Creation to the Passion of the Christ.

Usually I don't cover so many events in one blog, but I have also been busy lately writing a short story dedicated to my sisters, and reading the biography of Johnny Cash. That and our mini family re-union last week have been keeping me busy.

When We Were Young and Manhattan Thertre Club is a beautiful and important play about women set in 1972 by playwright Sarah Treem who may be better known for her work in cable television as the writer on "House of Cards". The play is about a safe house for women run by Agnes portrayed by the powerful Cherry Jones. This was the 4th time I've had the absolute privileged of witnessing her work. (Moon for the Misbegotten, Mrs. Warren's Profession and Glass Menagerie) She is a performer not to be missed on stage.

The battered woman she takes in is played by the young and talented (and often seen in my Cobble Hill hood) Zoe Kazan (Clive, Angles in America). Her performance is complex, layered and utterly contradictory at times, amazingly capturing the bizarre reality of  the Battered Woman Syndrome. The cast is rounded out by the charismatic Cherise Booth (Ruined) and Morgan Taylor making her Broadway debut.  This play is above and beyond my capacity or authority for review. If you go see it and are not moved, that would be proof positive that you are not human.

We went to see Rocky for and on my birthday which was completely bittersweet since mom died exactly two weeks before. The fantastic spectacle directed by Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Star Catcher) which takes place in the last 20 minuets or so is not even nearly enough to make up for all the missed opportunities at story telling proceeding the climatic fight scene. Still, as a huge fan of both boxing and the film, I was all wrapped up in every aspect of the show.

Which brings me to Once directed by one of our all time favorite directors John Tiffany (Black Watch, Glass Menagerie). I had not seen the movie before the play. I had heard the songs and knew very loosely about the story. As always, Tiffany's direction along with his long time collaborator "Movement" man Steven Hoggett (Black Watch, Rocky) created an award winning show that was a simple as it was powerful.  I have said it before and will say it over and over: I am not a huge fan of musicals. I have a few favorites, but you will never catch me humming a tune from Le Miz or Phantom. Sorry. Just how I roll. I like theater. I want to be moved, not entertained. If I want entertainment I will got to the movies or a strip club. And Once moved me.  It moved me to write the song I published in my previous post. Still working on the music.

Of all the shows I've mentioned only Once will be open for the foreseeable future I can't endorse it more highly as a fun night out. This bit of theater had more moving sentimental value because of mom. I probably would have missed it if it were not for her.

Like I would have missed my whole life.

And I miss her more and more everyday. "I love her so...wouldn't trade her for gold..."

Later for now friends.