The new movie version of Dune dropped yesterday and I managed to watch about an hour of it before it was off to the theater with Anne. What I did see was as good as I had hoped for. Vax cards in hand and masks in place we ventured out to COCA’s Catherine B. Berges Theatre (a marvelous new venue in U-City) to see the Reps new production, The Gradient—a world premier satirical look at toxic masculinity, which also manages to poke fun at tech startups and bad bosses in general. The Gradient is a new facility that promises to take men accused of sexual misconduct and rehabilitate them into responsible citizens. Born of the #MeToo movement and fueled by the likes of Donald Trump, R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein, this play is set in the not-too-distant future and portrays an organization that employs an algorithm, which mathematically and scientifically evaluates candidate men and then delivers an individualized treatment regimen to rehabilitate them. We follow new-hire Tess, as she wrestles with her often less than truly forthcoming patients and a sarcastic boss who is also too often less than helpful. In physics, a gradient is an increase or decrease in the magnitude of a property observed in passing from one point or moment to another. Here the property is toxic masculinity and much to Tess’s surprise, The Gradient doesn’t always lead to its decrease.
In other news, Anne and I went to Target to look at lawn furniture and get our Covid booster shots. Yesterday, the CDC approved mix-and-match boosters. Our original vaccination was the one-and-done J&J shot, which while it was the first one available to us, it also now seems to be the least effective of the three brands that have been approved. At Anne’s behest, I shopped around for Moderna shots, which she has determined to now be the best of the three. I got us appointments for this afternoon with CVS, at their local in-store pharmacy. Here’s to sticking it to the man and the woman—besides my microchip’s battery had died.
Since the last administration vacated the Whitehouse, there has been a seemingly endless conga line of tell-all books, written by ex-staffers. Books whose unifying theme seems to be that the former guy was really as awful in-person as he seemed to be in public, or maybe even worse. Stephanie Grisham, the former press secretary who never held a press conference, has the latest entry in this line of books. One of the interesting tidbits that has been leaked from her new book, is that in order to sooth the ex-president’s terrible rages, one of his aids would play Broadway show tunes for him, until he was quieted down again. This aid, dubbed the Music Man, would routinely play the song Memory from the musical Cats, because it was a favorite song, but not just any version of this song. It had to be the version sung by Betty Buckley, the original Broadway cast’s Grizabella, who had sung it for the opening on Broadway, some forty years ago. This infatuation with her singular performance comes as no surprise to Ms. Buckley, since a cease-and-desist order had already been filed by the song’s author, Andrew Lloyd Webber, for its unauthorized use during campaign rallies in 2020. A cease-and-desist order that was totally ignored. Still, this newly revealed wrinkle must engender some additional chagrin, this work being the music used to soothe the savage beast.
In this week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik interviewed Buckley for an article. What I found most interesting, wasn’t anything to do with the former guy’s relationship with this song, but the struggle that Buckley had rehearsing for the part. She initially was turned down for the part, because “she looked too healthy.” The part of Grizabella is a small part, a part whose main purpose is to end the first act. Grizabella is also a sick and dying cat, who is ostracized by the other cats. Buckley eventually got the Broadway role, but throughout rehearsals the director, Trevor Nunn, kept urging her to appear “More suicidal! More suicidal!” This was in the early eighties when homelessness in New York was growing into the problem that it is today. Buckley took to observing the homeless women and found in them rather than a feeling of hopeless self-pity, a threadbare sense of dignity and grace. Internalizing these feelings, she channeled them into her singing. Just two days before opening Buckley performed before a live audience. This time when she finished singing Memory, the crowd first greeted her with silence, before erupting in roaring applause.
Masked and vaxxed, we returned to Webster’s Loretto-Hilton Theater for the first time in a year-and-a-half. Our vaccination cards and IDs were both checked before entry to the building was permitted. Social distancing seating meant that the two seats to our left and right and in front and behind us were all empty. The seating for this show was considerably more congested than what we experienced last spring with the play, Mlima’s Tale, which was running at about 10% to 20% of house capacity. Still, operating at about half capacity the house was not full. It was a Thursday night after all. No refreshments were for sale. The regular paper program had been replaced with a PDF file that we scanned to our phones. The HVAC system was not running in the auditorium, causing a visible mist to form up near the ceiling. Another Covid precaution or a by product of the temperate weather? A lot has changed as the house lights dimmed and we sat, waiting to watch Dreaming Zenzile.
Zenzile is the African name for the woman known to the world as Miriam Makeba and regaled as Mama Africa. Dreaming Zenzile is the story of this South African activist-singer, told in retrospect as she performs on stage during her final concert, where she died immediately after leaving the stage. This play was originally scheduled to be performed in March of 2020 and was in technical rehearsal then, but has taken a year-and-a-half to finally reach the stage. This musical that is not a musical, doubles as a biography. Created by Somi Kakoma who also portrays Makeba on stage, Dreaming Zenzile tells the story of this woman’s life, from her childhood in apartheid South Africa, until her death on the world’s stage. Musical high notes are punctuated with the many tragic events that occurred throughout her life. Singing brought her the world’s attention, which she used to fight apartheid in her homeland and for civil rights in the US.
With this year’s Mlima’s Tale and Dreaming Zenzile, The Reps new Artistic Director Hana Sharif is definitely signaling a new direction for the Saint Louis Repertory Theater. Anne and I have been attending The Rep for much of Steven Woolf’s 33-year tutelage, who Sharif succeeded as artistic director in 2019. I was saddened to learn of Woolf’s passing this last July. Two plays are too small a sample size to form an opinion yet about Sharif’s artistic vision. I need to gather more data, which means we will continue to attend The Rep.
Wednesday night, we went to see King Lear. Performed outdoors in Shakespeare Glen, weather is always a factor. We tried to go last Saturday night, but the weather gods said no, all the while hurling hundreds of lightning bolts down. At least I think that the show was cancelled that night. The baseball game got called, so too I figure the play. Wednesday’s night weather was much nicer, if fact it was perfect, not too hot and not too cold and no rain. This year, because of Covid and like so many other places, I had to make a reservation. I actually liked this new system better than the old. I reserved a pod for up to six people. There were five of us, Anne and I, Dan and Britt, and Dan’s friend Vicki. Pat and Joanie were also at the play that night and they had their own pod on the other side of the glen. I guess that you call all of us the pod people. Lear is not one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. It is too dark and brooding for my tastes, but I can see that it is an actor’s play, especially actors of a certain age. In this production the setting was moved to Africa, think Wakanda, and the characters all played by black actors. This venue change did add some novelty to the show.
Anne, Joanie and I returned to live theater for the first time in about a year-and-a-half, with the showing of Mlima’s Tale, at The Rep. We made a night of it, with dinner and a show. There were a lot of oddities about this performance, some of them Covid induced, some from the relative novelty of the experience. The venue was not at the Rep’s usual fare in Webster. We were in U-City at COCA (Center of Creative Arts). We dined in the Loop and having already sampled our two favorite restaurants there, last weekend, we tried something new, Salt + Smoke, STL style BBQ. It was good and not too WW budget busting. After dinner, we decamped to the theater. COCA has a beautiful new facility that I had visited once before as part of a bicycle ride no less. I was on one of Trailnet’s community-art rides. These rides are where various art related venues are strung together by two wheels. We did improv on that first visit to COCA. On this night, we were all seated in the audience, which was a very lonely place, what with seating available for only 10% of capacity. Masks were required and the play ran less than ninety minutes, but at least we got our toes in the water again.
Mlima’s Tale is a play narrated by an elephant, a dead elephant at that. It tells the tale of how African ivory goes from poacher in the bush to wealthy art buyers in China. It is a searing indictment of everyone involved. This play uses a story like approach, employing the La Ronde¹-inspired device of relating its story in short episodes in which one character from the preceding scene appears in the next. There are only four actors in this play. Three performers play the multitude of characters, including the poachers, a park warden, a police chief, an African government official, a Chinese collector, a Vietnamese smuggler, a boat captain, a master ivory carver and a wealthy art buyer. It is through these characters that three of the actors rotate through. The fourth actor, plays only one character that of the elephant Mlima, who is murdered in the first scene. As a ghost or more corporally as his disembodied tusks, Mlima guides us through the rest of the play. Unwillingly, he leads us from one hand to another, in the smuggling operation that is the illegal world ivory trade. A trade that has already seen the African elephant population fall from 1.5 million to 400K, since the outlawing of ivory trading and is on course towards African elephant extinction in the next twenty year or less. There are no good guys in this play. Only one victim and a multitude of perpetrators of his murder.
La Ronde takes its name from an 1897 play of the same name.