Welcome, everyone, to this, the veritable morning after our national Theater Prom: the Tony Awards. Apparently, they happened this weekend, and my only warning of that (aside from an article I wrote about the nominations a few weeks ago, which I now only hazily recall) was a sudden deluge of pushed internet ads from entertainment magazines wanting me to get really excited about who might wear what to the big ball. Facebook and Google have figured out that I do theater, but their algorithms still have a lot of fine-tuning left to go. This is encouraging. Based on this feedback, I know for sure that the robot uprising will not be happening any time soon; their AI is still far too clueless.
My personal Tony-watching tradition consists of not actually watching the award ceremony, but still watching what people are posting about it on Facebook while it's going on. I have no idea what actually happened on that stage, but I'm sure many of my friends' comments were hilarious in context (there are so many things about Bette Midler that I will never understand). Out of context, it's kind of like watching a bunch of British soccer hooligans telling a joke about Manchester United to a football coach in Texas, which is still funny, but in an entirely different way.
This year, in a shocking turn of events, a bunch of people won Tony Awards. The biggest winner of the night was Dear Evan Hansen, the breakout hit of the year that has the bad luck of being known as "the year after Hamilton", which explains why the ratings for this year's ceremony dropped off a cliff compared to last year. (Bette Midler and her revival of Hello, Dolly! cleaned up most of the rest of the leavings.) For the uninitiated, Dear Evan Hansen is a new musical, whose writer admits is "a terrible idea for a musical", about an immoral, lying creep who you would probably hate if he weren't the main character, because he uses the suicide of a classmate as a means to manipulate himself into brief internet stardom.
Sure, that sounds bad to the uninitiated, but Dear Evan Hansen is accomplishing its own version of what Hamilton did last year: getting young people interested in theater. It's probably the first big musical to actually understand modern teens and their ties to the internet, and it's fast becoming the one show that parents and their teenage kids can enjoy at the same time and can have a meaningful discussion about afterward.
Sure, I'm disappointed that Lynn Nottage's Sweat lost the Best Play award to Oslo, but it's comforting to see another year where the biggest award of the night went to a new, original musical that is actively contributing to increasing the number of young folks who want to step inside a theater. That's not just rewarding quality; it's rewarding sustainability.
Oh, and one more bright note: Miss Saigon didn't win a damn thing. Hallelujah!
So, here it is folks: for the third year in a row, my dislike for the Tony Awards has slipped down a notch. I think I'm at the level of "Grudging Tolerance" now. If they can instate a few of the New Yorker's suggestions for new award categories next year, I may actually watch this thing for once. Or, more reasonably, they find a way to honor the backstage folks that keep this whole shaky enterprise running.
Beware the Ides of Dumb
Last week's edition of News and Notes was all about stupid controversy, so why should this week be any different? Ladies and gentlemen, I welcome you back to the crossroads where art and politics meet, a place where all thought and nuance are smothered under the fierce screeching of partisan hacks. So, let's dive into the muck and see what dumb thing comes up.
This week, the stupid is brought to you courtesy of Oskar Eustis and the Public Theater in New York. Wait, whaaaaa?! I thought Eustis and company were supposed to be the future of theater? Maybe they are, friends, maybe they are, but you know the old saying: "The candle that burns twice as bright attracts, like, a million bugs. It's really gross."
For its mega-popular Shakespeare in the Park series, the Public is currently running Julius Caesar, the go-to classic play for companies trying to make a classy statement about politics. Under the direction of Eustis, this production cast Caesar as a preening narcissist with a long red tie and a bad haircut, Caesar's wife as a Slavic fashion model, and Caesar's adopted nephew Octavius as an incompetent pretty boy in a dorky cardigan/flak jacket combo. These choices aren't just on-the-nose; they have forcibly colonized the nose, subjugated the nose people, and erected defensive parapets near the nostrils to ensure that they can never be dislodged from the nose again in the future. I guess I expected Eustis to be a little more subtle than that; but, hey, that's the entire history of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: whomever is in charge of the country at the moment can expect to be cast in Caesar's image and then brutally stabbed on the steps of the Senate. Any leader should take it as an honor of sorts. It's kind of like back in the day when a band knew that they had really made it when Weird Al Yankovic made a parody version of their hit song.
Except, this time, Fox News found out about it, which never bodes well (We should never tell them about anything cool; they're like a weird home-schooled kid that only shows up to parties to tell couples who are making out that they're going to hell.) Like normal, the house that Ailes built willfully failed to understand what Julius Caesar is about. The resultant reporting about the play and their hyperbolic rhetoric about it somehow encouraging people to assassinate the president sent the conservative media bubble into another frothing frenzy, which resulted in major sponsors of Shakespeare in the Park, like Delta Airlines and Bank of America, pulling their funding for the show. Even the National Endowment of the Arts, no doubt pissing themselves over the thought that Trump's minions would use this as an excuse to ax their newly-won funding, distanced themselves from the production (By the way, it received zero dollars from the NEA).
Oh my god, I don't even know where to start pulling apart this idiotic web. I would have thought that a four-centuries-old play would be well understood at this point, but I guess we have to sit down for Theater History 101 once again. The entire point of Julius Caesar is that the assassination of Caesar, however well-intentioned by the conspirators, is the very thing that doomed the virtuous Roman Republic to become the corrupt Roman Empire. In no way does the play endorse the murder of Caesar, regardless of whatever world leader has been chosen to stand in for him in the moment. As Oskar Eustis himself wrote about the show: “Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means. To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.” In our current context, it's actually a warning to the Left: don't get so caught up in your own violent, paranoid fantasies that you damage your own cause (*cough* Kathy Griffin *cough*).
So, you're right, New Yorker magazine, to defend this Trumpian take on Caesar. And, you, too, are right, Slate magazine: it's completely outrageous to claim that this show glamorizes the assassination of the president. You are also right, City Pages: the Guthrie did put Barack Obama in the role of Caesar in their 2012 production, and not a single Twitterbating pundit (conservative or liberal) raised a ruckus about it. (That production, by the way, was also sponsored by Delta Airlines, who are remarkably consistent in their concern about assassinating the president). And, yes, Atlantic magazine, you are right to say that all this outrage is completely misplaced. And, my god, Washington Post, if I haven't made it apparent already, I totally agree with you when you say that this whole thing just makes us angrier and dumber.
But, the real problem is that every single one of those media organizations has been branded by Trump supporters as part of the evil, lying liberal media elite that wants nothing more than to destroy America and hate our freedom, because blah, blah, blah, something, something AMERICA! You're all correct, but you're talking to a bunch of people who already agree with you, using language that the other side will never understand.
Instead, I want to point you to the one conservative writer I could find who actually has a functional understanding of theater history and the proper amount of respect for the office of the president (which is not all that much, actually). But, to do that, my traditionally left-leading audience, I have to send you to a site that proudly publishes articles like "Confederate History is American History" and "Trump Is Winning on Trade". Bear with me, friends, and check out Noah Millman's article at The American Conservative, which makes the actually conservative argument in defense of the Public's production of Julius Caesar:
"The president is not a king, and he does not deserve the dignities of royalty, most especially the fatuous fantasy of invulnerability that, because it is so fragile, must be preserved by treating the depiction of its violation a blasphemy. Caesar was killed by men who feared he would arrogate those dignities to himself, and feared a populace that they believed were all too ready to give him the crown. Those calling for Oskar Eustis’s head are providing excellent evidence that a portion of our populace sufficient to make the hands of the CEOs of Delta Airlines and Bank of America shake as though palsied is all too ready to do the same."
Talkin' 'bout stuff
Despite what prominent dickbag David Mamet thinks, discussion is actually pretty key to learning anything from art. As hard as it is, artists should be willing to listen to feedback that doesn't just blow sunshine up their asses all the time. That's why I was pretty disheartened after seeing that Laura vanZandt's review of The Moving Company's Refugia received such a knee-jerk reaction from The Moving Company's co-Artistic Director, Dominique Serrand, who took to Facebook to immediately dismiss all of vanZandt's points about the show. (I guess receiving glowing praise from the traditional newspapers just isn't enough; the bloggers, too, must fall in line).
Over here at Minnesota Playlist, Kory Pullam forcefully reiterated most of vanZandt's criticism, which triggered another round of heated debate. The Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (of which, Laura vanZandt is a part) approached the Guthrie to have a discussion about the points raised in these reviews. The biggest question was that of representation: how could a show that is ostensibly about refugees, properly represent their stories if the artists involved didn't actually talk to any refugees?
The Guthrie agreed to hold a "community conversation" that the Star Tribune described as "tense and awkward" (with at least one instance of Serrand interrupting someone trying to ask a question). I wasn't able to attend this discussion, but I was intensely curious about how it would go down. Unfortunately, as City Pages pointed out in their coverage of the discussion, it was not recorded "in the interest of creating a safe space", which means that if you weren't in the room, you couldn't actually be a part of the discussion.
That's very discouraging, actually, because these are vital discussions to be having right now, and we can't afford to be precious about them. When earnest, meaningful conversation is purposely locked away from the public, you eventually get the kind of ill-informed, hyperventilating "coverage" that the conservative media sphere gave to Oskar Eustis' production of Julius Caesar. For a contrast and a lesson in transparency, let's look to the Alliance of Latinx Minnesota Artists. After all the hubbub about the Ordway's production of West Side Story and some badly-worded press that made it sound like the Ordway had to magically grow latino talent from bare soil, ALMA called for a very public community discussion. They had it back on June 5 (sorry I didn't promote it better; I was working on something else at the time), and they went the extra step of recording the whole conversation and sharing it with the world. So many people wanted to be a part of that discussion (but couldn't be there physically) that they overwhelmed ALMA's hosting service. Never fear! You can still be part of that discussion. It's now hosted here.
As for Refugia, we can only guess at what was discussed, based on scant information received via reporters hurriedly scribbling notes. Despite the fact that we live in a magical future where information is supposed to be free and open, this conversation has been effectively shut down. There's a better way to do this. I hope they can figure that out.