Graham Cracker

Poised to launch into a scene from his autobiographical choreoplay Dream Analysis, Mark Dendy has his legs wrapped around a wooden chair at Dance Theater Workshop’s rehearsal studio in Chelsea. The piece weaves the story of a budding female impersonator haunted by his mother, the two halves of Nijinsky’s personality, Judy Garland, and two Martha Grahams. With his face at rest, Dendy, short of stature and hair, resembles a cherub, albeit one contemplating his first sin. Suddenly, the scene begins. Dendy juts out his chin and exposes his lower teeth, as if possessed. His eyes narrow. Martha Graham speaks through him. “I’ve styled my hair tonight as the high priestess of myth overseeing the iconographic matriarchal sacrifice,” purrs the Tennessee-bred Dendy. “But then there comes that moment when you glimpse at yourself in the mirror and it dawns on you that she is looking at you and recognizing you as herself.” Then, with a flare of his eyelids, he rises, turns upstage, and strides elegantly away.

This hilarious bit of scenery-chewing actually loses something in performance. When it’s fully staged, during Dream Analysis‘s three-week run at DTW opening Thursday, Dendy and Richard Move will play the monologue dressed in identical gold-lamé-and-black gowns, mimicking each other’s gestures from either side of a fake mirror. But Richard isn’t here today. Dendy’s theonly Martha, though to the eye he’s just a half-naked, tattooed, and bearded gay guy, with only his vocal technique and his downright creepy ability to switch rapidly between a Martha Graham impression and his own larger-than-life stage presence to support this particular illusion. But that’s plenty. When Dream Analysis played the Joyce in January as part of the 1998 Altogether Different festival, it garnered raves from The New York Times, surrogate brain of the bourgeoisie, which called the company “brilliant.” Dendy was less than satisfied. “I thought it was terribly flawed, but I didn’t let on once everybody else loved it. So now I’m going back to try to fix it.”

Like Martha, the 37-year-old actor-writer-choreographer considers himself a perfectionist. “I was so influenced by Graham,” he gushes. “She was the first drag queen I was ever exposed to. She knocked me off my feet! She took herself so seriously, but she also knew it was an act.” Of course, though he may idolize the mother of modern dance, there comes “that moment.” Dendy might just as easily describe himself that way–without even switching the pronouns. Indeed, Dendy’s life and work seems to organize itself around a zillion seeming opposites, whipping them into a confused froth until they form sweet stiff peaks: innocence and depravity, high and low culture, spirituality and evil, masculinity and femininity, glamour and sleaze. “There’s something queer about him,” says David Drake, who plays the psychoanalyzed young Dendy stand-in, Eric Henley. “Specifically queer–not ‘gay,’ because it’s all twisted up in there.”

Try this twisted-up identity on for size: gay fundamentalist, born in Weaverville, North Carolina, where his grandfather was the town’s Presbyterian minister and his grandmother a converted Jew. Dendy’s grandparents were fire-and-brimstone Christians, but they and his parents sorta knew he was gay. His parents knew well enough that after moving to Nashville, they didn’t discourage his artistic leanings. Dendy attended a magnet school where after 1 p.m. every day he took classes in theater and dance, and then began rehearsals at 7. “In my second semester, the modern teacher put on some Harry Belafonte and told us to improvise,” he remembers. “I totally went off. The spirit came into me and I just went off to this music like I’d never done before. Afterward, the teacher said, ‘I need to speak to you.’ She told me I had a gift for movement and encouraged me to keep taking classes. So that was it, I was bitten.” Dance had found him, naturally, by way of a neoreligious epiphany, with undertones of a scene from Beetlejuice.

His father found him in other compromising positions, but according to Dendy, he chose to look the other way. “When I was 16, my Dad walked in on me a couple of times while I was having sex with a guy. Once we acted like we were sleeping. We just froze. The other time we acted like we were wrestling. He told us, ‘Put some clothes on, come on out here, and watch TV!'” In typical Southern fashion, however, the love dared not speak its name until the lover turned 30. “I always knew that my mother knew the deeper truth, that [her religious fervor] was bullshit, that it was an act. It was her role and she had taken this part and she couldn’t get out of it so she had to act it.”

But again, there comes that moment. Dendy would later juxtapose two seemingly irreconcilable parts of his background in the same persona, and distill a character from his mother’s mask: Sandy Sheets. His drag alter ego, styled by Andre Shoals (a/k/a Afrodite) while the two were on tour with fellow Southern choreographer Jane Comfort, clipped Dendy’s evangelical roots to his homo activism. She was a walking contradiction, a “televangelist transvestite” who “did homophobic exorcisms” and “took homophobic demons out of people.” She quoted from the Bible, Dendy recalls, teaching “the true message of Jesus, which is unconditional love for your–snap!–fellow man.” She burned a replica of the Branch Davidian compound onstage at P.S. 122. At Mona Foot’s Star Search, Crowbar’s long-running drag competition, Sandy Sheets upset the unstoppable Girlina, who had enjoyed a months-long, Jeopardy-type championship. She was audacious, extreme, and above all, hilarious.

Though it both satirizes and deifies his influences, Dendy insists that Dream Analysis is his story. “Everything else was a study that led up to this,” he says. “I did that book The Artist’s Way, where you write three pages a day and make all those collages and everything. This work came out of that book… as Martha Graham would say, ‘the handling of the material of the self.'”Dream Analysis‘s protagonist, the starry-eyed Henley, who explains the complicated network of influences crashing through his psyche to a psychiatrist played by a drag queen, seems miles away from his no-nonsense, done-it-all-twice creator. “The boy is absolutely totally me,” Dendy insists. “There is an innocent naïve idealistic hopeful inner child in me.”

Yet 10 years ago, when it was just an enfant terrible, Dendy’s inner child seemed to have been kidnapped. “Throughout the whole ’80s, I drank heavily and did a whole lot of drugs. I’d get back from Europe, blow everything I made, charge money on my agent’s credit card, hit the West Side Pier and hustle for three days, and then go on another binge. I was a mess! Then everything fell in on me at once. Spiritually, mentally, physically, emotionally, and financially. I moved into Hotel 17 for two weeks. It’s a hustler hotel with roaches. It’s nasty and skanky. And it’s gross.”

As much as its theatrical component tells a story of the redemption and reconciliation of opposites, Dendy’s choreography illustrates those themes with a brash clarity and humor that often proves more viscerally affecting and inventive than the text. Particularly exquisite is the final sequence, in which the two Nijinskys, accompanied by Claude Debussy’s “L’Apres-midi d’un Faune,” perform a sensuous and virtuosic duet, practically in unison. At first running in place beside one another, occasionally breaking the pattern with a flourish of the arms, they begin to trade focus. Dendy blends his classical training with athletic cartwheels, quirky jerks, and strange spins. They stand on each other’s calves. Twice it seems as if one Nijinsky has kicked the other. The Nijinskys use their hands for guides, elaborations, and punctuation. They slide over one another’s backs, entwining limbs. At one point, they kiss in a way that does not seem labored, sentimental, or political. Their lips just happen to be in the same place at the same time, so they come together. Here, it seems, “that moment” takes on a greater meaning. No longer is it the matriarchal Martha, Mother, psychiatrist, or Judy Garland recognizing the seeker through the mirror; it’s Dendy, recognizing himself as himself.


Telling Actions

Things you’d never guess if you didn’t already know them: Uta Hagen’s turning 80, and Collected Stories isn’t being presented for the first time. Barring her white hair and an occasional flicker of age-related frailty, Hagen onstage looks a feisty 63 at most. And when she and her colleague Lorca Simons attack Donald Margulies’s script, it’s not only hard to imagine there were any previous productions–at certain moments it’s an effort to remember they’re not making the lines up as they go.

A very creditable production of Collected Stories was seen at Manhattan Theatre Club roughly a year ago, directed by Lisa Peterson, with Maria Tucci and Deborah Messing in the roles now being played by Hagen and Simons. But after the two latter ladies, under William Carden’s direction, have stormed their way through the emotionally fraught final scene, “creditable” no longer seems a term of praise in theater criticism; every creditable thing about the prior production has been kicked aside by the sheer force of the newer one’s theatricality. Margulies’s play, interestingly, comes out looking considerably stronger as well as fresher. The naturalistic dressing of doubts and fidgets and props with which Peterson’s cast wove such elaborate arabesques turns out to have been only an elaborate cover for a Shavian dialectic on art and morals in a money-centered society.

The two women whom Margulies imagines fighting out the phases of this debate are Ruth (Hagen), an aging, crustily eminent short-story writer, and Lisa (Simons), an aspirant in flight from a barren suburban childhood, who begins as a nervously defensive student, working her way up to indispensable aide and then to trusted confidante–until she commits what Ruth sees as an unforgivable act. Searching for a way to top the debut volume of short stories that has made reviewers hail her as the voice of a new generation, Lisa appropriates Ruth’s recollections of her own start in the Greenwich Village literary scene of the ’50s, including a woeful love affair with the booze-decayed Delmore Schwartz. As he has from the beginning, Margulies carefully layers the acrimony that flares up between the two women with dense stacks of motive. Partly simple outrage at the violation of her privacy, Ruth’s fury also contains envy of Lisa’s youth and her media success, as well as a more refined artist’s disgust with a work aimed at a market where tell-all sex and vulgarity have become the principal determinants.

Lisa, similarly, is both wounded by Ruth’s reaction to what she has conceived as a loving tribute to her mentor, and guiltily aware of baser motives, including the need to free her work from Ruth’s rigorously principled supervision. In addition, her more contemporary notions of feminist rightness have made her impatient with Ruth’s endless scruples and moral speculations. In one dazzling scene, a sort of storm-warning prelude to the explosion over Lisa’s novel, Ruth exasperates Lisa by finding justifications for Woody Allen’s behavior in the Soon-Yi affair, finally explaining that the function of celebrities is to keep the public supplied with gossip.

As that suggests, Margulies has loaded virtually every seeming digression and every quotidian detail with a meaningful gunpowder that will add its explosive weight to the final argument. In addition, his subtle mind can’t resist playing on the idea of storytelling itself, some variant of which occurs in nearly every scene, and the forms it can take as action. Surely not by coincidence, the script’s most moving section is one in which the two women unconsciously duplicate for us onstage a new story that we piece together from their discussion of it–a story about two women who bake birthday cakes together, which Ruth has written as a way of conveying to Lisa that she has a terminal illness. This, too, prepares us for the final bout, since it pits the delicate dignity that keeps Ruth from spelling out the situation against Lisa’s seemingly opaque incomprehension, which turns out to be a sensitive soul’s resistance to news too painful to bear.

Or does it? From the very start, when Lisa can’t fathom Ruth’s shouted explanations about throwing down the key, there are aspects to each woman that the other doesn’t “get”: generational, cultural, ethical, or, inevitably–this is a Margulies play–ethnic. The free and easy Village writer’s life that is Ruth’s touchstone and the core myth of Lisa’s novel has vanished, just as the magazines that sustained it have sunk into glossy celebrity-chasing. (The show’s biggest laugh is a dismissive line about The New Yorker.) Many of the great figures who dominated that long-gone life were, like Delmore Schwartz, assimilated Jews, and it’s more an inevitable blow than a shock when Ruth tells Lisa that, being gentile, she can’t write about them–an argument as unanswerable as it is untenable.

These ambiguities give Collected Stories its tensile strength; as always, they amount to Margulies’s ongoing moral scrutiny of his own work, as if he shared his desk with an ever-questioning second self. What limitations, if any, are there on an artist’s right to use the lives of others as material? What rights, if any, does identity have over creativity? Does the quality of the work, or of the time for which it’s created, change the rules? Reaching up to the tight-lipped heights of the Stephen Spender­David Leavitt controversy, the play’s questions equally swoop down to brush against the media circuses that surround an O. J. Simpson or a Monica Lewinsky. While it’s easy to equate Lisa with everything loathsome about the crass, exploitative culture we live in, Ruth’s integrity can just as easily seem small-scale and hemmed in, its tiny truth a rather feeble beacon to those searching for a pathway through the all-engulfing swill. At least Lisa’s been brave enough to tackle a novel; Ruth’s work is all collected stories.

Not that Ruth’s truth, or anything else about her, seems tiny as played by Hagen. What’s astonishing is how she makes the woman’s largeness of spirit, even her ferocity, with such economy of means. Her Melanie Klein was a dynamo of nervous energy, every jumpy gesture a piece of psychoanalytic evidence; no actress has ever torn up envelopes more rivetingly. Ruth, in contrast, is a watcher and waiter, glaring balefully over gorgon spectacles. Movement and physical business–like the brewing of the tea the two women never drink–is kept to a pro forma minimum. Tucci, creating the role, painted the character in ceaseless strokes of feathery detail; Hagen just is. Instead of looking for gestures that tell you Ruth is Jewish, she simply puts on the glasses and glares, and Hannah Arendt is speaking. Sweeping the needless details out of the way, she gives more weight to the significant ones with which the text is mined–and which give her a steadier approach to the big moments, at which “towering” becomes the only appropriate word. If you’re staging Don Giovanni, and want to know what it’s like to have a stone statue suddenly show up for dinner, watch the first-act moment in which Ruth discovers that Lisa has tidied up the piles of papers on her desk–the granite gives off flames.

The second act, with Ruth increasingly nettled by Lisa’s mushrooming success, is a wildfire of such flames. And just as Hagen’s triumphant fury burns the text into clarity, it brings out the blazing best in her acting partner: Simons is revealed as an actress with an incisiveness and a fury of her own. Where Deborah Messing, playing opposite Tucci, seemed to wrap herself nervously in the character’s guilts and inner conflicts, Simons fights back. Only tiny facial tremors, in the aftermath of the punched-out lines, hint at her uncertainty, at the dark consequences this traumatic confrontation is bound to have. The ending, colder and more final than in the earlier production, reverberates far more disturbingly. As with Mrs. Klein, the hallmark of Carden’s direction is his good sense in leaving well enough alone. Letting his two actresses go for the jugular and toss aside the clutter, he opens the way for what must be the ultimate compliment: As you leave, you hear the audience carrying on the characters’ debate–Hagen’s performance is so great it makes them talk about the play instead of gushing over her.


Writ in Water

If you thought you’d missed Basil Twist’s Symphonie Fantastique, you’d be wrong; its run has been extended until the end of the year (maybe into the next millennium, jokes the euphoric press agent). If, on the other hand, you thought that watching luminous objects swim around in a 500-gallon tank to Hector Berlioz’s fevered orchestral fantasy would be akin to staring at a lava lamp for an hour, you’d be wrong there too. This innovative display of underwater puppetry–what Twist describes as “a spectacle of abstract form, materials, and movement”–has its occasional longueurs, its sticky moments, but it’s a lovely, magical show.

The Symbolist poets of fin de siècle Paris who flocked to see Loie Fuller manipulate her outsized silk costumes into visions of flames and budding flowers would have adored Twist’s work. He and his three colleagues are invisible: lights, mirrors, and motion create a little world in flux (picture a 30-by-40-inch, 3-D television screen framed in black curtains). There’s no trace of Berlioz’s echt-Romantic 1830 scenario about an artist in quest of beauty who finds corruption lurking behind appearances. All that remains is its stormy musical profile translated for the eyes (although I did find myself thinking of one recurring piece of white cloth as the “hero”–rushing through, whirl-ing in currents of confusion, lolling in ecstatic reverie). No sooner do we ascribe meaning to a floating shape than other possibilities proliferate. A swirl of red silk seems on the verge of coalescing into a Georgia O’Keeffe poppy, but darts away or drifts down to browse. During the section Berlioz titled “March to the Scaffold,” vertical tubes process shoulder to shoulder across the “stage”; four white ones in front match their rhythms to hiss staccato notes. This “army”–never as literal as even the least obvious images in Disney’s Fantasia–can also be seen simply as a sensitive visualization of the composer’s rhythms, tonal progression, and mood. And some of Twist’s most inspired creations–a school of fabric minnows with tiny lights for heads appears when bright notes dart above the “Dies Irae”‘s somber death call–make you see more deeply into the music.

When Fuller wielded her enormous skirts, when Oskar Schlemmer transformed his Bauhaus dancers of the ’20s into perambulating architecture, when performers in Alwin Nikolais’s pieces manipulated scrolls or screens, the audience was always aware of the human element. Part of our delight in watching puppetry comes from sensing–sometimes seeing–the tension between the puppeteers and the creatures they control. During Twist’s show, I rarely thought of those backstage hands, possibly because the water has such a powerful influence on how the “puppets” move, and complex, precisely controlled articulations are rare. Water draws out motion the way the composer drew out his legato phrases. Because the moving shapes are so closely wedded to the music’s liquid tumult, it’s a shock when the human handlers emerge, large and damp, to take a bow.

Mention ritual, and we think of repetition and potent little events stretching over a lot of time. Bring up the subject of traditional dances, and we may envision sacred grounds, village squares, or town halls, with spectators crowding around. In such settings, participants focus on the form of the dancing and what it feels like, instead of what it looks like to an outsider. Entrepreneurs wishing to bring folkloric and/or ritual material into a theater immediately, and perhaps with good reason, imagine wholesale dozing among the audience. One of the great experiences of my life was watching a Deer Dance repeated over the course of an afternoon in a small New Mexico pueblo. But even could such a ceremony be transplanted to a stage, it would instantly become something else–not only less true, but less interesting.

So Hanay Geiogamah, director of the American Indian Dance Theatre, and Barbara Schwei, its producer, followed the model of such companies as Les Ballets Africains. They create a virtual village onstage, fictionalizing certain rituals such as a shaman preparing a warrior for battle, abridging traditional dances and orienting them toward an audience, employing dramatic lighting techniques and dry-ice smoke. I’ve admired this company’s work and the intelligent way Geiogamah treads the fine line between authenticity and adventurousness. He has made spectators all over the world feel the beauty of those insistent rhythms–the drums beating in unison, the voices yipping and calling out counterrhythms above them, the dancers’ feet beating and rebounding from the ground. The movement vocabulary is not enormous, but you can come to comprehend it as beautiful and compelling. And, well, there are those masses of feathers, that stunning beadwork.

Now 10 years old, AIDT has ventured in a new direction, for the first time inviting a non­Native American to make a contribution to the repertory. Geiogamah made a smart choice: Laura Dean, queen of minimalism. A choreographer for whom repetition is a way of life, she began to excite audiences during the ’70s with pristine rhythmic patterns that looked like the folk dances you’d be expected to learn in a pared-down Utopia. Her finest pieces mesmerize and exalt an audience the way a whacking good ritual does. And in works made for the New York City Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, et al., she has shown that she can adapt any movement vocabulary to her lean structures.

AIDT, however, restricted Dean by commissioning a very short work that has to function within a vaguely programmatic evening-long suite called Kotuwokan! (Algonquin for “come celebrate the dance”). The scenario follows a young man (Rod Atcheynum), who goes off to the big city in search of stimulation, good fortune, an Armani suit, whatever. Once there, selling necklaces on the street, he has fleeting visions of ceremonial dances. Where does he belong? Home again, he offers his people “a new dance expression”–the expanded traditional style known as “fancy dancing” framed in unison and contrapuntal designs. In other words, this traveler is pretending to be Laura Dean, and vice versa.

Dean’s work is a quartet for Lisa Odjig-Fisher, Dawn Russell, Dmitri Seth, and Eddie Swimmer in black, modern-traditional garb shaking beribboned rattles, but Swimmer (the company’s splendid hoop dance soloist) was called away suddenly on a family emergency, so I didn’t really see the dance as the choreographer intended it. Atcheynum filled in for Swimmer in some of the unison passages, but his different costume affected our perception of the patterns.The piece is hardly major Dean (and there’s surprisingly little repetition), but she makes elegant use of intricate, twisty footwork and aerobic stamp-and-rebound–pitting soloists against a quietly stepping background chorus or sending the dancers off to salute the corners of the stage. The crispness of her designs in space ritualizes the display.

Dean’s dance is presented as a high point, but not as the evening’s finale. The format of Kotuwokan! justifies a spread of traditional and fancy dances, from opening visions to ending celebration. Unfortunately, in the interests of plot, some of the numbers–especially in the first half–are reduced to brief, not-very-telling samples; six women, walking with blue canes to suggest front legs, barely register as deer dancers before buffalo men replace them. The city-streets scene is a well-managed cliché: Wall Street types checking their watches, joggers, muggers. Are we supposed to believe this superficial episode fuels the hero’s desire to blend modern and traditional once he’s returned home? It’d be enough to make me put on all the feathered regalia I could find, and, like Jason Daniels in one fine solo, honor the birds, the animals, and whatever voices of nature we can still hear.


Bowing Out

The phone rang, and I knew it was going to be another of those phone calls: an actor / writer / director friend announcing his/her intention to give up “the business.” They’ve been coming lately at the rate of two or three a month. Computer school, law school, physiotherapy training, counseling gay high school kids, vegetarian cookery, stockbroker traineeships—the options are as varied as the departures are numerous. While the young pour out of drama schools in increasing numbers, crowding into New York and L.A., babbling nonstop of auditions, agents, new companies and new venues, the slightly less young, if their careers haven’t yet taken off, are making a beeline for the nearest available exit. We live in a youth culture, where a 32-year-old is typed as “too mature” for a young romantic lead. The notion of Sarah Bernhardt, at age 70, playing the 19-year-old Joan of Arc seems a relic of the Pleistocene past. (Not that Bernhardt, when she played Joan’s trial scene in later life, had any illusions: After the line “J’ai dix-neuf ans” [I’m 19], she used to add, under her breath, “ou pourtant soixante-quatorze” [or rather, 74].)

Why shouldn’t artists, especially actors, fly from a medium that seems at once so narrow and centerless in itself, so disregarded in the larger cultural picture? For Americans in the mass, the theater means nothing, except perhaps as a shopping mart where the producers of our two-dimensional media find young talent to suck dry through commercial exploitation. A theater with a stronger sense of itself might have the power to withstand, or even take strength from resisting, such vast external apathy, but ours, these days, is a deeply riven and confused place. There is no longer any generally accepted definition of what a play is, what acting is, what constitutes an evening in the theater. Practitioners and public alike, we know when we experience it, but we don’t carry that knowledge over from one experience to the next, much less reach back in time to catalogue it with other great experiences we’ve had or read about; in our profession, the United States of Amnesia has done its evil work with special effectiveness.

Disagreement over definitions would hardly matter if the faith within each definition were strong. Theater history now teaches us—it didn’t always—that in every era, the stage is a polymorphous place, with many different modes of art being practiced, sometimes in balance and sometimes in rivalry with one another. (One creepy outgrowth of our widened historical horizons: Minor aspects formerly ignored are now made central; the young think, for instance, that the “geek” acts which lurked in the fleapit corners of vaudeville were its principal raison d’être.) The broad range of choices didn’t prevent the theater in any earlier age from locating its creative core in one genre, one style, one form, or even one artist. Wonderful works and important clues may lurk in those overlooked corners, but who, offered the choice, would willingly trade Hamlet and King Lear for an evening of bear-baiting, or Goldsmith and Sheridan for a collection of harlequinades? One reason postmodernist theory is such b.s. is that all works may be equally “readable,” but greatness is still greatness, an unprovable fact that’s constantly reaffirmed by our theatergoing experience.

If our theater affirms greatness so rarely and so tenuously, one logical conclusion is that it isn’t often there to be affirmed. Largely for financial reasons, our system is arranged to promote an amiable mediocrity at the center, a conventionalized eccentricity (mixed with conventional postures of righteous anger) on the outer edges. Many artists of extraordinary gifts float through this anodyne atmosphere, but with precious little to inspire or challenge them; the presence of any truly remarkable figure—Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group come to mind—is a kind of ongoing astonishment. (One could expand the pleasurable list, according to taste: Karen Finley, David Greenspan, Adrienne Kennedy, Ain Gordon, John Kelly, Maria Irene Fornes, John Jesurun.) But they float, for the most part, through a limited sphere of their own; the theater as a whole has taken no more than gentle nudges from them. The innovative artist ready to charge down the art’s main highway, challenging it head-on in terms of both theme and form, is a rare creature. (“You are never surprised to find money changers in the temple,” Eric Bentley quipped in the ’50s. “The shocking sight is Christ with a whip.”)

Not that the theater is alone in its confusions, or in the absence of figures of giant stature. The two-dimensional arts, film and video, may engulf us and form the principal subject of our conversation, but it’s hard to find much greatness in them; at best we get technological ingenuity and a few bare flashes of humanity. Independent film, which began as an attempt to create an alternative to Hollywood—a cinematic Off-Off-Broadway—has become, to a dismaying extent, an audition mill for big-studio financing. Painting, poetry, fiction, music, and dance all have their bright talents, and even one or two giants apiece, but the overriding picture is that of a generalized amiable blur, with the artists too often sorted by ethnic and gender categories rather than stature. One key test of a work’s quality—that of being able to rouse admiration across disciplinary lines—is the most frequently failed. Who is the novelist every playwright reads, the choreographer to whose premieres the young painters flock, the poet whose new book all the composers dash out to get? These days, when the arts talk to each other, it tends to be through the marriage brokering of artistic administrators and grant programs, which often has an uncomfortable tinge of Yenta the Matchmaker’s mishaps. Within the theater itself, there’s something analogous in the weird pairings casting directors increasingly tend to make these days between dressy avant-garde projects and kiddies being groomed for media stardom, who find themselves lost in mazes of “intertextuality” and viewpoint study when they’d be happier, and better cast, in stock productions of Oklahoma! or Lost in Yonkers.

These mishmash marriages, like many other forms of misguidance, are tolerated for several reasons. Just as we all live at the end of modernism, and have not yet figured out what will replace it, we in the American theater have outlived the death of Broadway, a method of making plays that no longer exists, and have not yet evolved a myth to replace the one Broadway so carefully wove about itself for 70 years—a myth of glamour, speedy superefficiency, and perfect style that, like most such things, has often proved so shabby and trivial in retrospect. Many little myth-weavers in various realms, from the East Village to the nation’s grander resident theaters, would like to supply the replacement myth, but none has yet wholly succeeded in supplying the audience with a steady outlay of creative product that would justify having such a myth woven about it. As with Broadway in its heyday, the myth-weaving today is often more evident than the value of the work being mythicized. Broadway at least had the honor, even at its lowest, to give common entertainment value in return for common currency, and only got truly phony when it started to wax poetic about capital A Art; nowadays we often get the wax and the capitalization minus the entertainment value.

In this the theater is much like every other American institution: a lot of attention-getting smoke and noise, but precious little substance. No wonder the young, justifiably suspicious, cling to various kinds of dreck as being more genuinely representative of American culture: If you have nothing substantive to discuss, chattering about the arcana of William Castle movies and the late recordings of Barbra Streisand is much more fun than pretending that you believe writer X, hailed as a genius on the strength of a few half-formed efforts, is one of the world’s major artists. We have better playwrights than X, but they work on a smaller scale, and are rather self-effacing; X’s real skill is for publicity. His story shows how much we long for greatness, so that we snatch at even the faintest hint of it.

I occasionally supply commentary to a foundation that gives very large grants, meant to sustain artists of established quality; the other day they asked my opinion of a newcomer—far younger than X—who has only created two publicly performed works. I don’t know how to reply: Should I tell them that he deserves the grant because every gifted young artist does, or throw the information request back in their faces, screaming that they’re just youth-hungry celebrity fuckers like the rest of this disgusting country? Neither answer would do anyone much good, but there is no middle ground. Our society having no place for art in its values, we hardly have a sense of our established artists; the public eye sees only young victims, old vampires, and a shadow world in between of uncertain souls in transit between the two conditions.

The most uncertain souls, of course, are actors, those driven creatures flocking out of the profession at one end and being sucked into pointless two-dimensionality at the other. The art of presenting another person through the medium of yourself is uncertain by definition, and American actors are the most preposterous people—insanely arrogant and helplessly humble, astoundingly uninformed yet incredibly perceptive and alert, subtle and crude, wild and docile, proudly owning a vast range of skills and utterly willing to toss them aside or prostitute them for any paying idiocy. When scripts and direction are the least bit interesting, they shine; even when both are horrific, their presence can make an evening bearable. That our theater is less than great never seems to be their fault, but its lack of luster comes from their one major shortcoming: their willingness to accept the system as it is, to let scripts and directors drive them, instead of searching out for themselves, in groups, the plays or directors they need and want. What they lack, oddly, is a sense of their standing as artists: Masters on the stage, they are petty servants behind the scenes, bowing to agents, managers, casting directors, producers, or any Hollywood half-wit waving a 13-week contract at them, which is why Los Angeles is the Bermuda Triangle of American acting. And all this time, they should be running the theater, not letting the theater run them. Barring the classic Greek plays, about the production of which we know little, nothing of any value has ever been done in the theater except by permanent companies of actors—though, granted, they have sometimes needed a writer or director to scream at them a bit. We wouldn’t have Shakespeare’s plays, Moliere’s, Shaw’s, Pirandello’s, or O’Neill’s, without such companies; nor could such plays be kept alive without great acting troupes to blow the dust off them every so often.

Yet our actors drift from play to play, from city to city, from medium to medium, when they might, by pooling their efforts, create something to beat their exploiters hollow. No, it probably wouldn’t bring them the Park Avenue triplex with indoor heated pool that’s apparently every American artist’s dream. But it might offer a satisfaction with themselves and their profession that would run a little deeper than the residual checks from the two seconds of looped dialogue before they get their heads blown off by Bruce Willis. And it might give those who can’t get through the casting directors’ doors some second thoughts about that computer-programming course. Actors, an old saying tells us, are cattle. Brecht supplied the answer to that in Puntila: “If the cows could get together and talk things over, the slaughterhouse wouldn’t last long.”

With all this in mind, I answered the phone that was ringing back in the first paragraph. It was an actor friend who, for a change, hadn’t called to tell me he was leaving the profession. “Can I come talk to you about plays?” he said. “We’re thinking of starting a company.”

“Good,” I said. “Then there’s hope. These days, that’s something.”


Ross Wetzsteon, 1932­1998

Ross Wetzsteon, the Voice‘s longtime theater editor, died at 3:20 a.m. on Friday, February 20. He succumbed to pulmonary complications while convalescing from cardiac surgery. His friends and family are devastated: Having watched him survive two bouts with cancer, they assumed he would outlive this too, and emerge smiling, refreshed, ready to immerse himself again in the pleasures of work and family life. Soft-spoken and gentle in manner, he was a tower of quiet strength at the center of this paper.

Ross joined the Voice as a contributor in 1966. A graduate of Cornell, he had studied with Nabokov, of whose works he was a lifelong devotee. Though born in Montana, he was a New Yorker, and in particular a Greenwich Villager; it’s impossible to imagine him making as happy a life anywhere else. He became such a quintessential New Yorker that he once wrote an article on how a WASP feels about “passing” for Jewish.

Ross stayed at the Voice for 32 years, riding out the stormy changes of ownership and editorship with smiling ease. For a brief period he was editor in chief himself. He oversaw articles on everything from politics to sports and classical music, but his true objects of fascination were the theater, tennis, and our changing sexual mores. He often wrote on these subjects, lucidly and tellingly. His editing of other writers, though, never had a trace of the would-be author’s ego that mars the work of so many editors. With a blue pencil, Ross was like a great surgeon—swift, precise, understanding, patient, and unfailingly generous.

The simple truth is that Ross loved writers and the art of writing as much as he loved to edit. The number of youngsters to whom he gave their first break is beyond counting. I can think without hesitating of two dozen writers who owe their tenure at the Voice to him, and even more whose careers wouldn’t exist without the opportunities Ross gave them. In his quiet way, he was a decisive influence on the form and tone of this paper over the past three decades; without his eye for young talent, it could hardly have sustained its freshness.

That freshness was most visible, every May, in the eternal, joyous craziness of the Obie Awards. Typically, Ross always took care to point out that Jerry Tallmer, this paper’s first drama critic, had invented the Obies. True, but they would never have survived, burgeoned, exploded into an annual celebration of our theater’s life, if Ross hadn’t been there. He chaired the committee, he hosted the ceremony, he acted as liaison to the publisher, the producer, the promoter, the presenters, and the performers. He was there to beam in approval when the recipients were first mentioned, and there to hand them their certificates and steer them down the steps as they staggered from the podium.

His genius was as evident in the judges’ meetings as in his editing sessions. Guest judges were always flabbergasted by his ability to steer so calmly through the babble of contentious voices—my own not the least noisy. His gift for compromise, for knowing when to broach a controversial topic and when to table it, was a quintessence of his inherent goodness of soul. He emerged at these moments as the epitome of everything intelligent and benevolent in the literary bohemia of the Village, liberal and moderate in the best sense of those words.

He was my friend and colleague for 27 years, my editor for 17. Without him there is less to my life, to this paper’s, and to New York’s.


Home of the Moan

As President Clinton’s recent troubles have demonstrated, it’s not the economy, it’s the body, stupid. And like his alleged fondness for blowjobs, vaginas are going public.

On V-Day (formerly Valentine’s Day), a host of big muthas will perform Eve Ensler’s Obie-Award-winning The Vagina Monologues at the Hammerstein Ballroom Theater. The usual suspects—Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, Susan Sarandon, and Gloria Steinem—will join less obvious candidates like Barbara Walters, Glenn Close, and Winona Ryder in the most outrageous and important feminist event since the bra burnings at the Miss America pageant in 1968.

While Clinton has encountered the karma of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” women have learned the importance of speaking out. Homosexuals know that criminalization of consensual acts leads to fear, lying, guilt, shame, and ruin; women know that secrecy buttresses violence against us.

The brilliance of The Vagina Monologues lies in its ability to bring every woman to a common identity, like an international AA meeting for vaginas. Ensler, who is intense, likable, and very smart, interviewed more than 200 women about their genitals. Her questions were startling: If your vagina could talk, what would it say? If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear? The results were, by turns, moving, hilarious, hideous. Vaginas, it turns out, have voices; cunts might even have brains.

Part of Ensler’s originality is that she knew to ask these questions. The notion of a body-centered female intelligence has been viewed as gooey pablum about the value of intuition and emotion, but if such a specific intelligence involves the ability to integrate feeling and thought, there may be supporting evidence. In 1995 The New York Times published a piece about “the hidden brain in the gut” containing as many neural cells as the skull’s brain and manifesting, along with other bewildering capacities, the ability to produce generic Xanax and Valium. This gut brain is so tenuously connected to the analytical one—by the aptly named vagus nerve—that even Socrates, a genius of argument, explained his decision to drink the hemlock with blurry words about his inner voice. The Times, not surprisingly, suggests that this gut brain is a crude evolutionary holdover from when we were all lichen clinging to rocks, but mystics, artists, and most women know it is this brain that matters.

Here are some things vaginas would wear: leather jackets, mink, silk, pearls, emeralds, bows, leopard hats, high heels, sequins, sweatpants, and electric shock devices to keep unwanted strangers away. And they would say: Slow down. Is that you? Start again. No, over there. Stay home. More please. Remember me? Come inside. Enter at your own risk. Too hard. Where’s Brian? That’s better. Yes, there. There.

“Women secretly love to talk about their vaginas,” Ensler says, “because no one’s ever asked them before.” The monologuists include an elderly virgin, a six-year-old girl, a lesbian sex worker, a Bosnian rape victim, a woman whose husband demanded she shave her pubic hair, and Ensler’s own account of the birth of her adopted son’s daughter.

Ensler calls her work “theatrical anthropology,” but it might more accurately be described as a successful synthesis of art and organizing. Unlike Anna Deveare Smith, who constructs collage performances from verbatim interviews and relies for artistry upon her acting and dramaturgy, Ensler steals from her subjects with the freedom of a poet. Smith’s political goals are far from modest—she wants racial conflict aired and healed—but Ensler is an avowed activist: her goal is to stop all brutality against women, quick. “If every woman in the world stood up and joined hands, saying violence against us must end now, it would end.”

This kind of idealism is heartbreaking, galvanizing, and, in Ensler’s case, relentless. A well-known playwright and director in downtown theater, she developed the Monologues as a performance piece, sitting onstage and reading from cards. After a successful run at New York’s HERE theater, she took the Monologues on the road, mentally constructing a “vagina-friendly” map. Often she led audience discussions after performances, allowing anecdotes and new contacts to continue shaping the work. Meanwhile, she fought off Hyperion, who wanted her to take the word vagina out of the title in order to publish the Monologues as a book. They let her keep the advance to get rid of the project, and Ensler’s manuscript ended up with Villard Books, who will release 30,000 copies in time for V-Day.

Taking The Vagina Monologues mainstream has required street smarts, public relations dexterity, and the calm ego that Ensler attributes to years of Buddhist chanting—the same kind of chanting, she reports happily, that Tina Turner does. The V-Day Committee—”I just called all my friends”— is a fluid, efficient group whose ages range from 20 to 50. They handle everything from advertising to phone calls for tickets to policy decisions about where proceeds will be distributed (causes such as Sanctuary, Equality Now,, and The Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women).

The choice to go with star power on V-Day is deliberate, not only because the event is a fundraiser, but also because the material of the Monologues is so humbly personal. Barbara Walters reading “vagina facts”; Winona Ryder and Calista Flockhart (of Ally McBeal) giving their voices to survivors of the Bosnian rape policy in “My Vagina Was My Village”; Lily Tomlin speaking as a woman discovering her clitoris for the first time during a Betty Dodson–led masturbation workshop; Hazelle Goodman playing a homeless woman who has reclaimed her life in “The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could”; Rosie Perez chorusing her first menstruation experiences; Whoopi Goldberg dramatizing her own interview, “My Vagina Is Angry”—these are not alliances that make famous women “the other.” They are, instead, liberating fusions.

Ensler was a college student during the ’70s while feminists were still killing each other over ideology, but she’s managed for more than 20 years to keep her energy and clarity intact. As a radical feminist committed to the peace movement, she took part in demonstrations and actions all through the ’80s, when “it was pathetic to be an activist.” As part of Anonymous Women for Peace she tied herself to D’Amato’s elevator, dressed as a bomb on the steps of the Public Library and as the Statue of Liberty at Koch’s voting booth, and helped organize a “Brunch at the Plaza” for the homeless. She was arrested “somewhere between seven and nine times.”

Her work with homeless women—”we call them homeless so we can categorize them and forget them”—led to the political goal of V-Day. “I have evolved a theory that for most of these women, ‘home’ is a very scary place, a place they have fled. I have met few who were not subjected to incest as young girls or raped as young women.” Ensler herself was raped, and manages to joke that when she saw the movie Sybil, “I thought it was about me.” Through happy coincidence, Joanne Woodward, who played Sybil’s psychiatrist, became Ensler’s mentor, directing her first play in 1987. When Ensler showed Woodward a somber draft of what became The Depot, Woodward’s response was, “Listen, I’m not Jane Fonda, I’m not Vanessa Redgrave, I like it funny.” “I was 24 years old,” Ensler said. “So I asked, how do you make nuclear war funny? And that was the beginning of my real life as a writer.”

If the personal is not political, why, she asks, is it permissible to say the word penis on primetime television, but not the word vagina? And why did The New York Times find it necessary to perform a clitoridectomy on the V-Day logo in the paid advertisement for the performance, at first even resisting inclusion of the v-word? When Ensler made her case to the Times, their spokesman argued that the event was not about vaginas but about violence against women, and “when people do muggings we don’t write about skulls.” “Listen, I wrote The Vagina Monologues,” Ensler replied, “and, trust me, it’s about vaginas.”

The logo for The Vagina Monologues is a V with the word Day written inside an oval that suggests female genitals. The Times excised this part, leaving only the V, which might represent a woman with her legs open, or might just stand for victory, like Nixon’s fingers. This peculiar censorship by the Times is actually suggestive of “My Vagina Was My Village”: “a piece of my vagina came off in my hand, a part of the lip, now one side of the lip is completely gone. . . .

In a culture that tries to obliterate female genitals, from the Times to Barbie to Playboy to the theory that the clitoris is a vestigial penis, the vagina is posited not as a place but as a hole, an entryway. The beaver shots pioneered by Hustler were revolutionary and threatening because vaginas were shown to be hairy, red, purple, layered, complex; nevertheless they remained an invitation, a place to stick something into. A beaver shot with something coming out, like menstrual blood or a baby’s head or an afterbirth, is not erotic, or we’d see those images in skin magazines. Emissions of the vagina are problematic because they signal the transformation of the sexual object into the mother. That’s why motherfucker is such a charged word.

But genital erasure is not solely the responsibility of men. Acknowledgment, for women, can touch shame, as “The Flood” demonstrates. “I haven’t been down there since 1953. No, it had nothing to do with Eisenhower.” This virgin crone narrator is not a victim of violence or abuse but of her own desire. Kissing a boy in high school she experienced a sudden, overwhelming lubrication, and

It was like this force of passion, this river of life just flooded out of me, right through my panties, right onto the car seat of his new white Chevy BelAir. It wasn’t pee and it was smelly—well, frankly, I didn’t really smell anything at all, but he said Andy said . . . I was “a stinky weird girl.” . . . When I got out and closed his car door, I closed the whole store. Locked it. Never opened for business again.

If her vagina could speak it would say, Closed Due to Flooding.

The idea that women should feel humiliated by the odor of their genitals—the foundation, of course, for “feminine deodorants”—is redeemed with Ensler’s list of answers to “What does a vagina smell like?” Answers range from wet garbage to sweet ginger to the ocean to cheese to “somewhere between fish and lilacs.”

Women seem lengthily interested in discussing whether the word vagina is comfortable. Clitoris, some think, has been more or less rehabilitated; although it still can’t be said on network television, Seinfeld can rhyme “Delores” with it. Cunt has some currency, as does pussy. But vagina, Ensler says in the opening of the Monologues, “sounds like an infection at best, maybe a medical instrument. ‘Hurry, Nurse, bring me the vagina.’ ” One of the funniest segments is her catalog of words women were taught: pussycat, twat, powderbox, toadie, poopie, peepee, cooter, nappy dugout, dignity, split knish, and coochi snorcher.

The tours de force of the Monologues are an extended riff on the word cunt—Glenn Close will brave this one—and an inventory of orgasmic moans, which Ensler will perform herself: the clit moan, the vaginal moan, the elegant moan, the WASP moan, the baby moan, the doggy moan, the uninhibited militant bisexual moan, the machine-gun moan, the triple-orgasm moan.

Camille Paglia’s notorious notion that if women ran the world, we’d all be living in grass huts (which ignores the fact that a large percentage of the world live thus and aren’t ruled by women) postulates female power as clthonic, the raw maw for crude reproduction. To reduce Paglia’s logorrhea to its essence, men have minds, women have bodies. Ensler’s work is an artistic and organizational attempt to bring female sexual power to left-brain articulation.

Like most radical feminists, radical right-wingers know that the body is the economy, stupid. That’s why folks whose long-term goals might involve a master race aren’t contradicting themselves when they oppose abortion. The female body (except on The X-Files) is the primary means of production, and seizing control remains a fundamental historic issue, whether in terms of abortion, clitoridectomy, or pleasure.

When Yeats wrote, “But love has pitched his mansion in/the place of excrement,” he was speaking for men. For women, love pitches her mansion at the factory door. Pregnancy, a metaphorical experience for men, the magical result of fucking, is for women literal and vulnerable. There is no male equivalent of the vagina, so desire can be unambivalent, an augmentation of self. For women, desire can be perilous, and fraught with knowledge that feels born-in-the-bone. The Vagina Monologues explores the dangers that arise when the locus of pleasure and risk is the same.

A few weeks ago, in Baltimore, I watched Ensler rehearsing the last solo performance before V-Day. The Center Stage Theater was lit red. Ensler, a slight, relaxed figure, was dressed simply in black pants, a black tank top. “Actually, Jane,” she called to the lighting director, “I think that’s the orgasm light. Let’s check the opening one.” To the stage manager sitting about halfway back she said, “How were my moans last night? Were they too low? Were you with me?” “I was with you,” a woman’s laughing voice replied from the dark theater. “Well, I was almost with you.”

Later, over dinner, Ensler said, “I don’t do jokes. I’m not a comedian. But, you know, it’s laugh or die. The Bosnian women were the funniest women I ever met.” Then, as easily as she’d laughed, she wept. “How can people know what’s happening and not help? We knew what was happening in Bosnia. And why are women still being raped and battered right here?”

The Vagina Monologues ends with birth. “Things come out of you that are horrible to look at,” she said, recounting the impact of seeing her granddaughter’s birth. “But I see shit differently now, I see my period differently. We come out in a mess. It’s sexy, it’s hot, it’s alive, it’s undeniable.” Then from her gut brain, where metaphor is not analogy but an actual passageway, she offered this extraordinary thought: “The vagina is the heart.”

On Saturday, formerly Valentine’s Day, the performers will wear red velvet. Bright pink boas will line the half-moon stage, the same boas slitting the pale pink backdrop, and, as the stars step through this slit, V-day will be born. The event is sold out, but already plans are underway for a V-Day 2000, possibly at Madison Square Garden. The vagina, Ensler believes, is where men and women can come together, and it’s expansive enough to include us all.