Power of the pyramid

Kitchen Dog debuts ‘Ponzi,’ a financial horror story

NOUVEAU POOR | An heiress (Christina Vela, left) flirts with a man (Max Hartman) and his wife (Diane Casey-Box) in the economic meltdown play ‘Ponzi.” (Photo by Matt Mrozek)

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

PONZI
The MAC, 3120 McKinney Ave. Through June 25. $15–$25.
KitchenDogTheater.org.

…………………….

“The rich are different from you and me,” Scott Fitzgerald waxed, to which Hemingway allegedly responded, “Yes — they have more money.” But they are different. Money is never a big deal to people who have it, so they stand above it all. They don’t talk about how much they have, or how much things cost because, at some point, what difference does it make? If you don’t have to work to earn it, its value is fungible.

Then again, losing money — losing a great deal of it — is something everyone can understand. It becomes a source of ego, of pride. How would you feel if you pissed away $20 mil you didn’t deserve in the first place?

That is the situation posed to Catherine (Christina Vela), the regal heiress in Ponzi, the world premiere mainstage production at Kitchen Dog Theater’s New Works Festival. Catherine’s father was a legendary up-from-his-bootstraps self-made man who left Catherine two things: A solid fiscal philosophy and millions in cash to execute it.

She’s honored him by not being as showy and shallow as Allison (Diane Casey-Box), the quintessential nouveau riche Real Housewife, a woman with more cents than sense. Allison and hubby Bryce (Max Hartman) are enraptured by the get-rich-quick scheme of a flashy money manager, and their enthusiasm — plus Bryce’s unabashed flirtation with Catherine, driven in part by his lust for her balance sheet — leads to a series of bad mistakes.

Ponzi should frighten you more than it does, the way the Oscar winning documentary Inside Job did. There’s so much techno-talk — about the gold standard, how Social Security is a classic example of a Ponzi scheme that no one will touch, about how greed feeds pyramid schemes, about the lemming mentality that can cause sensible people to behave irrationally — that it needs to chill you. Like the financial meltdown, it’s not that some people didn’t see it coming; it’s that none of these so-called experts had any idea how reckless they were being. (The use of tarot cards to emphasize the randomness of life and fortune is a witty touch.)

Such horror is a ripe fruit that playwright Elaine Romero should have picked. Instead, she removes some of the universality of the tale by making it so specific to these characters.

That’s not entirely a bad thing. Instead of getting lost in the esoterica of money, she concentrates on the personality traits that drive people to make bad decisions. An undercurrent of sexual tension — between Catherine and Bryce, but just as electric (though more subtly expressed) between Catherine and Allison — makes the seductive power of the purse all the more visceral. Money is the new toy — and it’s a sex toy, at that.

Casey-Box plays the betrayed wife better than just about any actress in town; she’s always quick to turn on the ravenously uncensored switch in her characters’ brains, the one that makes people both pitiable and annoying. It’s delicious fun to watch. Vela is good as Catherine, but her final arc strikes a false note; it seems literary, not realistic.

Even still, the actors ply all these twists in one the KDT’s best-looking plays in years, with lush costumes from Tina Parker and a sleek set by Bryan Wofford. Amid such glam, the seduction of money begins to work on us, too. Maybe more is more, even if we hate to admit it.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 3, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Beth El Binah prepares for Purim celebration

PURIM SPIEL  |  Members of Congregation Beth El Binah dress as their favorite characters from the Book of Esther for a Purim celebration.

Gayest of Jewish holidays combines Christmas and Halloween in retelling the story of Queen Esther

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

The Jewish holiday Purim, which celebrates Queen Esther saving the Jews in Persia, is a minor holiday, but it’s still many people’s favorite. Purim is also the gayest of Jewish holidays. Cantor Sherri Allen of Congregation Beth El in Arlington said the holiday celebrates coming out. The holiday recounts the spiel — or story  — told in the biblical book of Esther:

When beautiful Queen Vashti refused to display her beauty to King Achashverus’ guests, the king banished her and decided to find a new queen. He ordered all the country’s hottest young women to be presented to him so he could choose — sort of Cinderella meets American Idol. He chose Esther as his new queen.

Haman, the king’s advisor, is the bad guy in the story. When Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman and Haman found out that Mordechai was Jewish, Haman convinced the king to kill all the Jews.

The name Purim means “lots.” The king drew “pur” to decide that 13 Adar (which falls on March 20 this year) would be the day the Jews would be killed. The Jews wore sackcloth and ashes and fasted for three days.

Here’s where the story takes its turn that teaches a lesson in coming out to the LGBT community, according to Allen; Esther, who had become Achashverus’ favorite wife, decided to come out, telling her hubby that if he killed the Jews, he’d have to kill her too, because she was Jewish and  Mordechai was her uncle.

Well this little turn of events really made Achashverus mad, and he decided to spare the Jews and hung Haman instead.  So the story follows the traditional pattern of Jewish celebrations — they tried to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat.

Lots of intrigue. Lots of pathos. A coming out story and sex — implied is that the straight king wants it badly. The holiday is celebrated with parties, gift-giving and acting out the book of Esther, usually with songs — sort of Jewish Halloween, Christmas and Broadway musical all rolled into one. And yes, traditionally, Purim is the Jewish gift-giving holiday, not Chanukah.

To celebrate, everyone dresses as a favorite Purim character, although no one dresses as Haman. That is considered as religiously distasteful as dressing as Hitler. It is perfectly appropriate, however, for lots of guys to go in drag as Esther or Vashti. Every time Haman’s name is mentioned, everyone drowns it out with noisemakers, adding in a little New Year’s Eve party as well.

The “let’s eat” part of the holiday includes several foods. Hamantaschen are pastry whose German name means Haman’s hats. Each hamantasch is triangular and looks like a three-cornered hat. The tart is filled with fruit or cream cheese.

Kreplach is another Purim food. Unlike Bette Midler’s definition (people from the small Baltic country of Kreplachia), kreplach are actually dumplings — triangular dough filled with chopped meat and boiled in a chicken soup.

Some historians believe Achashverus was King Xerxes who ruled 485–465 B.C.

The exile from Jerusalem to Babylonia that is mentioned in the book of Esther took place in 597 B.C. Mordechai is referred to as having been exiled, so he would have to be more than 100 years old when the story took place.

Because of the discrepancy, many scholars believe the story of Esther was actually a historical novella, a popular writing style at the time. Written about 300 B.C., the book may have been created to explain the celebration of the holiday.

And like other biblical stories, the book of Esther has been tackled by Hollywood, but this one wasn’t a Cecil B. deMille spectacular.

Following the gay camp theme of the holiday, the 1960 film Esther and the King starred Joan Collins as Queen Esther. Perfect.

Congregation Beth El Binah celebrates Purim on Saturday, March 19 at 7 p.m. with a potluck dinner and costume party at a private residence. Everyone welcome. Contact diane@bethelbinah.org for details.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 18, 2011.

—  John Wright

Weekly Best Bets • 03.11.11

Friday 03.11

Grown up to be cowboys
The rodeo is back in town, or close by, at least. TGRA’s A Texas Tradition Rodeo fills the weekend up with barrel racing, bull riding and breakaway roping and a whole lot more action for the LGBT cowboys and cowgirls heading out to Alvarado to compete. James Allen and Weldon Henson provide the music along the way.

DEETS: Diamond W Arena, 8901 E. Highway 67
Alvarado. Through March 13. TGRA.org.

Monday 03.14

Third time is a charm
Maybe it’s just us, but the buzz doesn’t seem as loud for this week’s return of Lady Gaga. And we’re certain the gays haven’t forgotgaga about it. She returns to Dallas after two sold-out shows last year, but this time she’s armed with a new number one hit ,“Born This Way,” and the Scissor Sisters as openers. OK, now we hear the buzz.

DEETS: American Airlines Center, 2500 Victory Ave. 8 p.m. $52–$178. Ticketmaster.com.

Thursday 03.17

Mother always knows best
In this Outtakes Dallas screening of You Should Meet My Son, a mother discovers her son is gay and then decides he needs to have a hubby and her fabulous adventures begin. Way to go, Mom!

DEETS: Magnolia Theater, 3699 McKinney Ave. 7 p.m. $10. OuttakesDallas.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 11, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

DRIVER’S SEAT: Jenny Block

JENNY ON THE BLOCK | Bisexual author Jenny Block chose the cliche of a car for her new ride: A Subaru.

Occupation: Author, freelance journalist and blogger, JennyOnThePage.com.

How might we know you? I’m the author of Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage and sex columnist for FoxNews.com. If you can believe it!

What kind of car do you have? 2011 Subaru Outback. Cyprus green.

Have you named her? I just got her the beginning of February, but I’m toying with calling her the Green Machine or maybe just Greenie. Sigh. Who am I kidding? None of my cars have ever had names.

Subaru is a cliche lesbian ride, but I’ll still ask: Why this car? You never know what we’ll be up to. In the last four years, I’ve taken up all sorts of adventures and this car will be perfect for putting up with all of it.

Good gas mileage? Yup. 29 on the highway and 22 in the city.

What are the rules of your car? No yelling. No playing “Punch Buggy.” No eating if you’re under 18. And I get to pick the music — always.

You have the most modern of modern families. How does this car help? Everyone and everything can pile in: my husband, my girlfriend, my daughter, our dog Walter, the Hula Hoops, the mountain bikes, the climbing equipment. You name it.

Fast driver or grandma? I can’t lie. Grandma. Definitely.

Who drives more — your hubby, girlfriend or you? So far I’m the only one who drives this one. But most of the time we take his car or her car. They never want me to drive when they’re with me. They say I drive too slowly. Go figure.

Best car memory: When I bought it, the guys at Subaru of Plano wanted to take a picture of me with it for some groovy promotion they’re doing where they make you a calendar with a pic of you and your new car. Anyway, we had such a blast doing it. It was during one of those hideous, freezing, snowy days we had, but I insisted they help me onto the top of the car for a picture. And they did. I look like a crazy person in the pic because I’m laughing so hard.

Funniest road trip story? Ask me in six months.

What’s in your CD/mp3 player right now? Jason Mraz, Katy Perry and Brett Dennen.

Stick shift vs. automatic: Automatic.

How do you rate this car to previous ones? I have always had Jeeps and I have always loved them. But this car is amazing. I suppose I’m going to need to give it some time. But I think it might beat out all of my previous rides.

Did any TV commercials sway you about your purchase? Maybe the one about “You never forget your first Subaru.” But, honestly, it was the gang at the Subaru dealer. I just swung by one afternoon to have a look and it was super low pressure. They wanted me to want the car. And I did!

Sexiest thing about your car? Love the moon roof. Everyone looks good in moonlight.

What’s the one new feature you already can’t live without? Heated seats. I know it’s not new in general, but it’s new to me. I didn’t have them in the Jeep. Now I do and I love them.

Where is one place you would like to drive your car? To Enchanted Rock in Fredericksburg, Texas, so we can go climbing and “camp” in the car if the tent freaks out my 11-year-old — or me.

So is this an SUV or a car or what? I think they consider it a crossover. It’s a wagon but it looks more like an SUV and it has a ton of space. Besides, I cannot say I drive a station wagon because that reminds me of the white Dodge Aspen my mom drove in the ’70s. Yick.

Are you a double space parker now that you have a new car? I so do not want to be that girl. I don’t take up two spaces. But I do park way in the back of a parking lot where there is generally less commotion.

— Rich Lopez

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 4, 2011.

—  John Wright