Motion Picture Academy adds (gay) members

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences released its list of new members this weekend, and the gays seem to be making inroads.

Membership in the Academy is by invitation only, and it’s sometimes surprised me to learn who is not already a member — especially when you know who is. (Would it surprise you to know Dakota Fanning has been a member for several years, but David Duchovny was just invited?) It normally helps if you get a nomination, which accounts for invitations this year to actors John Hawkes and Jennifer Lawrence (both nominated last year for Winter’s Bone), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) and Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom). But what I notice in this year’s list isn’t so much the actors, but the directors. (Members are invited as parts of “branches,” meaning they get to select the nominees in that category for the Oscars each year.)

Of the eight invited directors this season, three are openly gay … and not only gay, but out-and-proud in their filmmaking.

• Lisa Cholodenko was nominated for an Oscar last year for her screenplay to The Kids Are All Right, about a lesbian couple (including Oscar nominee Annette Bening, pictured) raising their children. She was invited by writers and directors branches. Her films virtually always address gay themes, including High Art and her work on the TV series The L Word.

• Gregg Araki, the Asian-American gay filmmakers whose indie production confront serious issues of gay life, such as HIV status in The Living End. His other films include Totally Fucked Up and Mysterious Skin, his most acclaimed mainstream effort.

• John Cameron Mitchell has made only three films; his latest, Rabbit Hole, had a Hollywood star (Nicole Kidman, pictured with Mitchell) and mainstream cred. But his first two films — the transsexual rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the near-pornographic sexually frank indie Shortbus — pushed the limits of what you’d think the Academy would endorse.

Other nominees of interest include actors Gerard Butler (300) and Russell Brown, Jennifer Garner, Mila Kunis and Beyonce Knowles; director Tom Hooper (who just won an Oscar for The King’s Speech); documentarians Ami Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That) and Sebastian Junger; and writer Aaron Sorkin (Oscar winner for The Social Network).

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Opera with an edge

APP-2192
MUSICAL HOWL | Allen Ginsberg’s poetry spoke to ‘Hydrogen Jukebox’s’ out cast members Dan Kempson, back left, and Jonathan Blalock, center. (Photo courtesy Ellen Appel)

Ginsberg & Glass team up for ‘Hydrogen Jukebox,’ the latest in FWO’s out-of-the-box operas

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

What do you get when you combine the Mobius-strip music of Phillip Glass with the vulgar, passionate lyricism of gay poet Allen Ginsberg? Believe it or not, you get an opera. Or an opera of sorts, at least.

Ever since converting to a festival format four years ago, the Fort Worth Opera has established a rep for doing edgy, unusual versions of that most august of theatrical forms: Opera. Yes, they have done grand operas in the classic vein (Carmen, Don Giovanni, Turandot), but they’ve also introduced world premieres and unheralded new works with complex, modern (often gay) themes: gay composer Tom Pasatieri’s dark Frau Margot, Jorge Martin’s challenging, frank adaptation of gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas’ Before Night Falls; the reimagining of an opera based on Angels in America.

Up this time is perhaps the most unusually named opera in a while (Hydrogen Jukebox) composed by a master of minimalism and set to the granddaddy of the Beat Generation.

This is not your father’s — or your grandfather’s — idea of opera. Or, for that matter, the director’s.

“I never thought I’d direct a Philip Glass piece,” admits Lawrence Edelson, who is choreographing and directing Hydrogen Jukebox for his debut at the FWO. “They do not follow linear narrative arcs, and I personally tend to drift toward the more narrative type of opera as a director. As much as I’ve enjoyed his music, I never thought it was something I’d dive into. The conventional ideas about storytelling are put on hold.”

But Edelson was drawn to the piece, in part after meeting Glass.

“It was something quite unique — he’s an icon in American music,” Edelson says. “There’s usually not a tight relationship with the text [and his music], so what’s really fascinating about this work is, it’s Ginsberg’s poetry, and there’s a tremendous respect for the treatment of it.”

Setting the Howl author’s poems to music might seem like a foolish exercise, but actually, it’s a natural fit.

“Ginsberg really believed in the performative aspect of poetry, that poetry should live off the page,” Edelson says. And his poems, culled over 40 years for this opera, still speak to contemporary issues.

“Ginsberg’s poetry really spoke to me, and many of the issues he was struggling with in the ‘50s, ‘60 and ‘70s are among the same issues we still struggle with today,” says Darren Woods, general director of FWO.

“Ginsberg was a very out gay poet — his poems are about freedom from sexual repression and gay lib, and though this isn’t a gay piece per se, there are a couple of poems that” address those issues, Edelson says.  “As a gay man, to be able to work off of material that has personal relevance, but I am not the same sort of gay man Ginsberg was! My life is not so colorful,” Edelson says. “Hydrogen Jukebox could be gayed up; I think that would be wrong. Ginsberg was not writing just for gay America, but for everybody.”

Interpreting poetry for the stage posed an interesting dilemma for Edelson: As a director, he’s accustomed to creating a specific reaction in an audience; poetry, however, is subject to multiple interpretations, none of which are wrong.

“My job [this time] is not to impose a specific interpretation but rather to set up an environment where the audience is able to take in the poetry in a way that’s meaningful for them,” he says. “All these things will inform the way you receive it.”

For out cast members Jonathan Blalock and Dan Kempson, the work has personal significance.

“I find it interesting that the portion of the opera that deals with a gay love story [“Green Automobile,” an elegy to Neal Cassady, with whom Ginsberg has a long-term affair] is presented as just one story,” Kempson says. “It speaks to a universality of love, not just presented as ‘We’re gay! Notice us!’ It’s as normal and as painful and as lovely and as beautiful as any love story.”

“I think it’s wonderful Fort Worth Opera is brave enough to attack off-the-beaten path operas, both musically and topically,” says Blalock, who also appeared in Before Night Falls. “It can be scary for a number of reasons, including financial, but the FWO has brought their audience along with them to the 21st century.”

Blalock was in the closet when he first met Kempson four years ago, so doing this production together has brought him full-circle in more than one way: “In this show, I kiss someone, but it’s a girl. It’s OK, though,” he says, “I’m a good actor.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 20, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Passover, a time to celebrate Charlton Heston holding up his rifle and parting the Red Sea

Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea

Passover began Monday at sunset with the first of two Passover Seders — the word means order but it’s a service performed at the dinner table because it isn’t Jewish if it doesn’t include food.

Beth El Binah, Dallas’ LGBT Jewish synagogue, holds its congregational Seder tonight. It’s my favorite holiday, but you can’t do something Jewish without complaining so here goes.

The holiday, the most important festival on the Jewish calendar after the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), celebrates the Exodus from Egypt. Lots of great gay themes in Passover — the end of slavery and oppression are what the festival celebrates.

But here’s where me and Passover have a little bit of a problem.

—  David Taffet

Snowed-in out film fest viewing

With all the arctic weather turning Texas into Palinland lately, it’s easy to think we have it really bad. But if you wanna see how the cold can truly put the “crazy” in stir crazy, you might check out the 2008 horror film Scarce. Filmed during a harsh Canadian winter, it stars Dallas Voice contributor Steve Warren as one of two middle-aged cannibals who live together in a rural cabin where they torture and dine on hot young men who happen by — who, in this film, often tramp around in their undies in two feet of snow. The gay themes are more suggested than overt, but with Warren playing one of the “confirmed bachelors” who eats other men … well, you don’t need great gaydar to get the point.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

—  John Wright

Buggery nights

‘Closer to Heaven’ wallows in sex, drugs & rock; ‘33 Variations’ hits wrong note

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

BRINGING SEXY BACK  | Morgana Shaw, center, leads a menagerie of freaks in Uptown Players’ ‘Closer to Heaven.’ (Photo courtesy Mike Morgan)
BRINGING SEXY BACK | Morgana Shaw, center, leads a menagerie of freaks in Uptown Players’ ‘Closer to Heaven.’ (Photo courtesy Mike Morgan)

ON THE BOARDS
CLOSER TO HEAVEN at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through Oct. 24. UptownPlayers.org

33 VARIATIONS at Theatre Three, 2900 Routh St. in the Quadrangle. Through Oct. 31. Theatre3Dallas.com

……………………………………….

The opening 10 minutes of Closer to Heaven, the season ender from Uptown Players, is an exhausting, non-stop carnival of music and movement. If only it could sustain that energy.

This is as hardcore as a musical usually gets — edgy, dark stuff. (Andy Redmon’s set looks like the decaying remnants of a Satanic altar.) But it gets lost in a weak score and plot that turns too trite, too soon.

The program says it’s set in 1999, but the sound and story are pure 1987: Dave (Evan Fuller), a straight young Irish boy, comes to the big city to work at a club, eventually becoming an exotic dancer. On the way, he gets exposed to gay sex, drugs and electronica, becoming corrupt and losing the innocence that made him so attractive.

These were all clichés by the time Christopher Atkins shook his ass in another “heaven” set potboiler, A Night in Heaven.  The addition of gay themes makes them no fresher here.

And yet, Closer to Heaven works — on the margins, at least. As flawed as the show is, it’s still compelling. I enjoyed large swaths of it, almost against my better judgment — at least in Act 1. By Act 2, it starts to resemble an indie gay film more than a structured musical, as the plot shifts to a relationship between two men that comes almost from nowhere.

The performances surpass the material. If the androgynous Master of Ceremonies from Cabaret were a coke whore and more clearly a woman, she’d probably look and sound a lot like Morgana Shaw’s Billie Trix. In her leather fetish garb, it seems as if the director, Bruce Coleman — here and with his bondage-themed take on Equus last winter — is working through some S&M fantasies at Uptown. In Shaw, in thigh-high latex platform boots, he’s found an excellent medium.

Shaw doesn’t blink at the excesses, channeling equal parts Marlene Dietrich and Nico Icon, and she gets (by far) the best lines to have fun with. “They say my voice is ‘living in,’” Billie growls with Teutonic predation. “Your voice would be lived in if you sucked as many cocks as I have.” That’s just one of the shocking moments in the production, and the fact it’s still possible to be shocking onstage these days says something.

Coy Covington, nearly unrecognizable as a sleazy boy band entrepreneur, gets some droll moments (he seems to know it’s best not to take the script too seriously). As Covington’s toadie Flynn, Mikey Abrams steals laughs as an Eve Arden type with bits of Jack McFarland, Ethel Mertz and Rachel Berry.

Unfortunately, the Pet Shop Boys’ music doesn’t translate to stage like Elton John’s and ABBA’s do. (The Act 2 “overture,” a nasty, disorienting mess, just puzzled the opening-night audience.) Their songs are hopelessly pop-sounding, without the theatrical flourishes of a Broadway score. Numbers just drift off without conclusion, as if the next track will fade over it. The lyrics are too literal, and the final song repetitive to the point of annoyance. That’s a bad note to leave on when it kicks off so well.

Two centuries earlier, music played a big role in the lives of some other Europeans. In 1819, Ludwig van Beethoven (Bruce Elliott) took on the challenge of composing 33 variations on a “small waltz,” becoming virtually obsessed with it and startling the world with his eventual output. In the present day, musicologist

Katherine Brandt (Sharon Garrison) head to Bonn to research Beethoven’s letters, trying to parse what he saw in this trivial little ditty.

Brandt doesn’t have much time. She’s been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and is slowly losing motor coordination. She’s as obsessed with figuring out the mystery as Ludwig Van was writing it, to the exclusion and disappointment of her estranged daughter (Lydia Mackay).

33 Variations, Moises Kaufman’s 2009 Broadway hit now presented by Theatre Three, is staged by director Jac Alder with the same bombast as the “Ninth Symphony.” Where’s the deft, limber subtlety of Mozart, or even Beethoven’s own “Moonlight Sonata?” Everything about it is melodramatic and big — too big.

The cast comes at the excess from both ends. Jane Fonda played Brandt on Broadway, and it’s difficult to imagine her playing the part with the same noisy desperation as Garrison. Garrison projects her frustration too prosaically, furrowing her brow and snarling her lips in confusion. She undermines the drama. (It doesn’t help that when she’s rolled out for a CT scan, she looks like a Luann platter being slid along the counter at Luby’s.)

Gordon Fox, as Beethoven’s shrill assistant, Schindler, turns the comedy into something out of a silent film.

He’s all moon-faced surprises and overwrought gestures. He acts like Renfield to Beethoven’s Dracula. I half expected him to eat bugs. Minor parts by two young actors are performed with distracting incompetence.

Elliott is a clear exception, capturing the maestro’s bravado and his neuroses with depth and understanding, and exceeding in the comedy as well. (I’d love to see him try the Joe Sears roles in Greater Tuna.)

The costumes, especially the period clothing, are a disaster; what should be elaborately brocaded frocks look like cheap cotton hand-me-downs in need of a good pressing. Compared to the exquisite work done just a few month ago at Circle Theatre for Bach at Leipzig, they pale.

The same is true of the plays. Bach was conceived as a fugue; 33 Variations? Intentionally or not, it’s a dirge.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 8, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas