The Band’s Visit

Desert Sunset

Once not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra lands in Tel Aviv to perform a concert at the Arab cultural center in the city of Petah Tikvah, but unfortunately, a bus station ticket-taker mistakes the band member’s pronunciation of Petah Tikvah for Bet Hativka, and sells him tickets to that desolate locale instead.

Stick a pin in a map of the desert.
Build a road to the middle of the desert.
Pour cement on this spot in the desert.
That’s Bet Hatikva.

The band members realize their mistake, after arriving in Bet Hatikva, but the next bus does not arrive until tomorrow. In their powder blue uniforms, the musicians look like refugees from a Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band fan convention. With no place to go and no hotel in town, the people of Bet Hatikva take in the band for the night. Over the course of one night the band and the townspeople interact, come to learn about each other and for some, fall in love. 

The Fox’s Broadway musical series is chock-a-block full of extravaganzas. With amped music that blares and flashing lights that blind, these other shows assail the senses. All of their sound and fury is meant to distract one from the tired sameness of these revivals and revues that have dominated this series’ offerings. The quiet novelty presented in The Band’s Visit runs counterpoint to this trend.

In 2017, The Band’s Visit took Broadway by storm, when after winning ten Tony Awards, it became one of only four musicals in all of Broadway history to win the unofficial “Big Six” Tony Awards, which include Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Direction. 

Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles

International Festival Mexican Dancers

Mojada is the Spanish word for the derogatory term wetback. A word used in English to denigrate undocumented immigrants from Mexico. Before this connotation was coined, the word originally meant wetting or soaking. Medea is a Greek tragedy by Euripides. In his play, Medea, wife of Jason of the Argonauts fame, helps him steal the golden fleece, the pair then steal away. She is later betrayed by him, leading her to exact revenge.

Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles is a modern retelling of the Euripides play, set in the City of Angels. Medea is a shy seamstress and Jason is an enterprising go-getter. Jason embraces his new life in America, while Medea hates it, but cannot go home. Acán, their son, follows his father’s lead towards Americanization. Medea misses her home and cannot forget the traumas of their journey north.

Jason is seduced by his boss, Armida, an LA developer, who had not gotten the #MeToo message. She first steals Jason and then Acán. She then confronts Medea, and threatens her with eviction from her house. Pleading, Medea wins a one day reprieve. She uses that day to make Armida a dress that she had once requested. It is a magical dress. A dress once worn, transforms itself into a snake that kills Armida. Then still in a rage, Medea kills her only son with a machete.

This is a grisly end for Mojada, which is often comical and light, but that’s Greek tragedy for you. You get the same result as with a Shakespearian tragedy, but in fewer acts, where everybody dies in the fifth act. Greek tragedy is a source for several of playwright Luis Alfaro’s works. Alfaro has even reworked this play, when restaging it in other cities. At ninety minutes and one act, it is a short play. Some of the dialog was in Spanish, making some plot points difficult to understand, but also adding to the play’s authenticity.

It is in this concept of authenticity that Mojada seems to have differentiated itself from another popular telling of the modern Mexican immigrant story, as told in the novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Much of the criticism of Cummins and her book originates with the fact that she is not Mexican. She is an Anglo. Charges of cultural appropriation have been leveled against her. This smacks of racism or maybe reverse racism, but it is also on a slippery slope. Where do you cross the line when telling someone else’s story? This question is especially pertinent when your retelling comes from a publishing pinnacle. There is very little room at the top. One person’s story can supplant another’s. 

The Thanksgiving Play

The Thanksgiving Play

We attended The Thanksgiving Play, written by Native American playwright Larissa FastHorse and it is a comic joy. It deliciously skewers liberal white political correctness. Four white actors flounder in their attempt to produce an unbiased retelling of Thanksgiving for the local elementary school, when they discover that their lodestone Native American actress is also white. Alicia had been playing, if unintentionally, in red face. From LA, she is good at ethnic and playin’.

Co-producers of this play-within-a-play are Logan and Caden. Director/actor Logan is hoping to overcome her past elementary school production’s failures, The Iceman Cometh and Titus Andronicus and the 300 parental petition signers that those productions spawned. Actor, partner, busker and guy not a vagrant, because he also has a day job, Caden, is well paired with Logan. In celebration for getting this gig, Caden gives Logan the perfect gift, a water-bottle, made of recycled glass, from the broken windows, of the local projects. Rounding out the cast as actor, writer and local teacher is Jaxton. He is kind of the odd man out in this production. All he wants is to hear his written words spoken by actors old enough to read three-syllable words. In this, he speaks to me as if the authoress.

This play was performed in the Rep’s basement black box Studio Theater, which has been newly dedicated to long time Rep director, Steven Wolff. We took our seats and awaited the performance, all the while a medley of Thanksgiving themed children’s songs played over the school’s PA. One of them, Five Little Turkeys, was echoed in the play, in a rap sendup, Four Little Turkeys. It should have been five, but the school’s budget could only afford four. After one, two, three, four little gunshots, four little turkeys were no more.

In the footsteps of older, more famous theatrical spoofs, such as The Producers, the comedy of The Thanksgiving Play holds up best when it has a melody to accomanpany it. The title alone of one of the previous FastHorse productions alludes to this, Teaching Disco Square Dancing to Our Elders. The best musical interlude in the play is a duet, between the two actresses. One dressed as a Native and the other as a Pilgrim. It is a medley of patriotic American standards that are only slightly tweaked for this performance, “This land is my land. This land was my land. This land is for me, not you.”

The Queen of Disco

Disco Ball Closeup – Photo by Paul Zoetemeijer on Unsplash

Last dance
Last chance, for love
Yes, it’s my last chance
For romance, tonight

Disco lives again! Anne and I attended Summer, the Donna Summer musical. This show was on regular rotation with our Fox Theater Broadway Musical Series. Donna Summer was the proported and eventually the self proclaimed Queen of Disco. This bio-musical tells her story, set to her musical sound track.

Bad girls
Talking about the sad girls
Sad girls
Talking about bad girls, yeah

Disco has earned a lot of derision, but it was also our courting music. Regularly on weekends, we would find ourselves dancing together to disco tunes in Grand Avenue nightclubs, adjacent to Michigan State University. Sweaty nights, full of glitz, glam and love. Most of the bars had no cover. The beer was cheap and the house’s only profit was derived from thirst quenching gulps, after sets of songs.

She works hard for the money
So hard for it, honey
She works hard for the money
So you better treat her right

Disco eventually died and unfortunately, so did Donna Summer, in 2012. We’re both now too old to go clubbing anymore, but we still like to dance together. Not that we are all that good at dancing. You never know when your last dance will be. That’s why you should always dance every dance as if it was your last.

Lookin’ for some hot stuff, baby this evenin’
I need some hot stuff, baby tonight
I want some hot stuff, baby this evenin’
Gotta have some hot stuff
Gotta have some love tonight

Pride & Prejudice

Pride & Prejudice

Mister Darcy. Call me, Neo. Mister Darcy, what makes you think that you are the one?

Being the one is just like being in love. No one can tell you you’re in love, you just know it. But you already know what I’m going to tell you.

I’m not the one…

Sorry, kiddo, but with such a pretentious first name like Fitzwilliam, how could it be anything else? What’s wrong with just William anyway? William is a perfectly respectable name. Why did you have to go and Fitz it all up? Well, my father was a William…

So, concludes this mini-Jane Austen recap, as I imagine the Wachowski brothers might reimagine. No happy ending. No Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy. A Shakespearian ending. A tragedy. At least no one died in Act V. There were only two acts.

As you might guess, we saw Pride & Prejudice last night at the Rep. A stage production that much more faithfully retells the story of the original Austen novel. As is typical of the Rep’s holiday productions, this play was a sumptuous affair. As I write this post and all the while she is busying herself with Saturday morning chores, as is her wont, Anne reads what I’ve wrote and is not pleased. “I would not have gone there, but it is your blog.”, she said. Everyone’s a critic. It seems that there is nothing I can do that doesn’t end up messing with her. Who moved my cheese? There is no cheese. There is no spoon.

I suppose that there is something scared in Jane Austen, to people of a particular persuasion. I sense this and respect their sensibilities. I suspect that most of these people are women. As a woman, Austen, pioneered herself as a novelist, in what was before only a man’s field. Parking forever her name in the annals of literature. It is only natural that I experience some pushback, as I toy with what is dear to others, but it is not as if I had gone out and kidnapped Brontë’s Jane Eyre, with only some vague promise of returning her by Thursday next.

PS — I know that I am a day early with the Hanukkah header, but scheduling demands dictate that it be so. Happy Hanukkah!

Wicked

Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers

When I was a child the annual telecast of the movie, The Wizard of Oz, regularly frightened me. Too many flying monkeys for my taste. The character of the wicked witch was especially disturbing. In Wicked we are given a much more sympathetic treatment for this person. First, she is given a name, Elphaba, and not just a job title, the Wicked Witch of the West. Central to this retelling is the friendship between Elphaba and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. They first meet in sorcery school, where Glinda is the popular girl and Elphaba is, well, green. “I’m sure Elphaba is very bright…” “Bright? She’s phosphorescent!” These two women are thrown together as roommates. “Oh! It seems the artichoke is steamed.” Where overcoming their differences and different backgrounds, they eventually become friends.

Cue the love interest. Enter Fiyero, the hunky if somewhat vaporous big man on campus. Setting up this story’s love triangle for the big ball. “What’s in the punch?” “Lemons and melons and pears…” “Oh, my!” An invite from the Wiz leads these women of Oz, to the Emerald City, where like Dorothy, they find the wizard a little underwhelming. Dorothy’s ruby footwear slips into the story when Elphaba creates them for her wheelchair bound sister, giving her a chance to turn her life around, at least until someone drops a house on her. “It’s dreadful, it is to have a house fall on you… but accidents will happen…” “You call this an accident?” “Well maybe not an accident…” “Well what do you call it?” “A regime change… caused by a bizarre and unexpected twister of fate…”

Wicked is a delightful musical. Its interplay with the original Frank Baum source material is always witty. Near the end, at the witch’s castle, we hear the Elphaba side of the conversation, in response to prisoner Dorothy’s crying, “Oh, for Oz’s sake, stop crying! I can’t listen to it anymore! You want to see your Aunt Em and your Uncle what’s his name again? Get those shoes off your feet, little brat! Who takes a dead woman’s shoes, must have been raised in a barn!”

In Wicked every character has a new and different backstory and the audience is always given another point of view. With its themes of abuse for the color of your skin and the wizard’s abuse of power, this show still seems as au currant as ever. There is even a witch hunt scene, complete with pitchfork wielding rabble. All of this is presented so lovingly that at least for a few hours one can forget ones troubles and what is going on in life and try Defying Gravity.

Oh yeah? But what about her emails?