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I was wrong about Fantastic Four. That’s easy to say before you’ve seen it, but the filmmakers, like me, actually thought about what the franchise means before there was a movie to see. And they got it right-er. So much so that it’s genuinely more than a franchise, it’s a concept, like popularly-generated mass-culture was meant to be.

I was relieved when Franklin Storm was revealed to be a major character, since he supplies the daddy role so essential to the FF’s familial structure (created and cursed by father-figure Reed in the comics). I still suspected the all-twentysomething team as being too undeveloped for this Cold War-era, (literally) nuclear-family concept. But this is exactly what lets them develop. Kirby & Lee accumulated such a mythos and extended family of characters in the comics, that to present them fully formed would be overwhelming even if any filmmaker ever figures out how to do it.

Unlike in the previous two FF movies, we actually get a feel from the new flick for who there characters are, and why they’re like that. The brainy outlier Reed, the intrinsically strong and rational Sue, the loyal, hostile Ben and the impulsive, good-hearted Johnny; personalities, not powers, are what you have to get right. Though the powers look cooler than in either of the last two films. We even get the first menacing, emotionally armored Doom — always a dilemma since there’s been a perfect Dr. Doom onscreen for 38 years, and he’s called Darth Vader.

In the Cold War, the FF were created when Reed steals a rocket he’s been working on to beat the “Russkies” to the moon; it’s Victor von Doom who attempts dimensional travel to contact his beloved dead sorceress mom — and it’s a mark of America’s now-unrestrained ambitions that the experiment that goes wrong has been shifted from the villain to the “goodguys.”

This Fantastic Four plays like a claustrophobic 1950s sci-fi film, and that befits the end-times hopes and last-ditch efforts of our war-torn, freakishly warming world. In the climactic struggle Doom, who longs for Susan from inside his head, says “I imagined another future for us,” and that’s the crux: the future will decide what happens in it, and some choose a good one by navigating it — the FF are ever explorers — while some can try to seize it and break it in their hands. In this movie, the FF grow up — and the future, which I hope to see, is theirs.

As Herself

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Type What Now

A World Premiere Play at the New York International Fringe Festival
Conceived, Created, Performed and Produced by Jessie Bear
Directed by Stefan Hartmann
With Anne Flowers
Graphics by Sebastian Soler Moya
Music by Stephen Bennett
Dramaturgy by Erika Marit Iverson

August 17-29, 2015

The White Box at 440 Studios
440 Lafayette Street, 3rd Floor
New York, NY  10003

Tickets: bit.ly/TypeWhatNow

Sick-shaming is a condition I’ve observed much. When my wife got a rare breast cancer that showed up last fall and killed her nine months later at 47, everyone wanted to know if she hadn’t had a mammogram (she had, this kind doesn’t show up on it), or juiced enough, or neglected to be vegan, or paleo, or had too much estrogen in milk products, or similar effects from soy. (We were relieved at our lack of culpability when it turned out that estrogen didn’t matter, because her rare disease was also not hormonally based, and thus unresponsive to the major lifesaving medicines, yay!). At one point I noticed on hospital discharge papers that her BMI put her one point into “obese,” which I was pretty thankful for, since she hadn’t taken one bite of food in three weeks. (In college she used to agitate with ACT UP at the height of the AIDS pandemic, in the ultimate struggle to stop people from being blamed to death.)

So when Jessie Bear lives her story in front of us of developing Type 1 diabetes at 26, it’s the simultaneous story of the not-nearly-as-rare state of self-recrimination, and moralizing from most everyone else, for having brought it on herself — most people don’t manifest it that late in life, and Bear is “overweight” at the start, leading everyone to assume she’s “given herself” the disease through socially unacceptable habits and self-image.

Type What Now takes us through the story she’s been over so many times in her head. Bear is an almost one-woman show, with doctors, acquaintances, boyfriend, et al. played by a game and able Anne Flowers. The voices outside her head blur, as Bear’s initial plummet of weight-loss from the dangerous disease is misjudged by a doctor as a social benefit, and as she prays for the less manageable Type 1 since “it would mean I hadn’t done it to myself.”

Bear recites much of the story and enacts some; the barrage of information and described incident can be overpowering, but is not untrue to the encyclopedias that afflicted people and their loved ones have to digest and often spit out. There is a defense mechanism in the rush of words, but to be vulnerable is not to be pitiable, and when Bear slows down or she and Flowers act out painful, scary or comic interactions, we are let into her life and our sympathy rushes with us.

This is true theater verite, as Bear gets alerts on blood-sugar levels and signals her insulin pump to work a few times during the show. We are seeing her live for her art.

She has beaten the negative body image she grew up with too, and looks back with the right kind of shame at how she viewed herself or other “fat” people facing medical challenges. She realizes that some people who ask about her illness are not accusing; and blesses a human community of sick and well still, so far, living together; and says she’s beautiful and each of the audience is too, and makes us realize why: she is standing before us individual, not alone.

Special thanks: Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons

Hip, Irreplaceable

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After a concert by one of my top-3 self-made bands Supermajor given to celebrate guitarist and vocalist Adam Swiderski’s 40th birthday, it seemed a good occasion amidst the sundry social-security jokes to reflect on how far he has otherwise come.

Swiderski is your go-to for gallant and damaged leading males, moonlighting as an unironic and unassailable (but again not uncomplicated) pop idol.

He’s that kind of talent that is without precedent but with a long lineage of predecessors for viewers to compare him to and him to be conscious of. A hilarious post-patriarchal Petruchio in American Shakespeare Factory’s Taming of the Shrew a few years back could not have happened until about now, but Swiderski’s knowing smugness and magnetic self-approval, lovingly at home in what it lampoons, was there to be unlocked, like other dimensions have been, since the 16th century. In what may still be my favorite role of his, Swiderski looked into even a present we can’t see clearly, as a G.I. in Iraq having a supernatural experience in Jeff Lewonczyk’s Babylon Babylon. Here Swiderski gave an unvarnished, humanizing portrayal of someone whose sensitivities struggle against his disdain for the broken land he’s come to “save,” in a way that challenged most in the audience’s intellectual luxuries.

Swiderski’s compromised detective in the revival of Ian W. Hill’s World Gone Wrong/Worth Gun Willed was the quintessential noir protagonist (be they male or female), through the telephoto of Swiderski’s received sadness and wisdom — a figure of beauty who knows how to use their exterior as some burdensome shell blocking our view of the suffering soul underneath.

I watched Swiderski survive on his considerable wits and vast reserves of inner observancy on the last day of the terrible Breaking Kayfabe, a professional-wrestling melodrama by Temar Underwood in which Swiderski’s past-prime character is out of the ring and being grilled by a reporter. The latter actor, after a whole run, was still forgetting his lines every few minutes, and Swiderski never missed a beat to naturalistically fill up and move along. The underwhelming revelation of something his character did wrong was handled with a remorse, a precipice-drop between his surface and self-concept, that Swiderski reached deeper for than to anything Underwood had actually written, and with a pathos that brought me to tears where any other actor would’ve had me laughing (except, ironically, Underwood himself).

Surface need not be superficial at all if there’s no subtext to begin with, and in my own Thor spoof Norrga the Thunderer Swiderski achieved that elusive balance, the knowing portrayal of a very dumb guy — but also a guy too singlemindedly noble to know why valor and self-sacrifice should be so dumb. In casting him Hill may have had, and I certainly did have in mind, Swiderski’s role in Trav S.D.’s Manson satire Willy Nilly, in which Swiderski played the in-over-his-head and too-deep-inside-it Brian Wilson stand-in, a living one-dimensional trading card trying disastrously to deface itself with complications.

That’s a proper historical segue to Supermajor, a band of resourceful, multi-referential power pop and Wildean wordplay, with a somewhat rotating ensemble but always anchored by Sarah Malinda Engelke’s arena-baroque keys and operatics and Swiderski’s guitar antiheroics. And his presence, as the most unapologetically theatrical pop voice since David Cassidy — Bowie’s or Brian Ferry’s or Gaga’s is self-consciously theatrical; Swiderski’s, like that of the comparison you may have stopped reading at, is self-acceptingly theatrical, with a sense of what captivates people individually about intense emotion and determined uplift before they zoom back out into being part of a crowd.

I’m leaving a lot out — fight choreography, the straight sci-fi that mirrors his dayjob, etc. — but he’s got lots more left to do, and doesn’t choose his battles lightly.

The Spoiler Engine

Making History
Dysfunctional Theatre Company
Treehouse Theater, NYC, March 19—April 4, 2015

MakingHistory

Genetic manipulation and mechanical intelligence and mobility in spacetime feel like a day at the office anymore, and for the central character of Making History, the last one of those is literally his job. A scientist at a secret government-funded time-travel lab, Patrick Tyler is no world-conquering mastermind but just one of many anonymous modern professionals seeing what he might do because he can.

He goes a long way for the simple pleasures such sci-fi characters usually realize too late were all they needed — and for more of it than anyone needs, with one family each in 1987 and 2019. No hilarity ensures, as playwright Mim Granahan gets a good sense of loss out of the very essence of Patrick’s circumstance; home is where he’s going, but never coming, as Sarah Kirkland Snider would say. Director Eric Chase choreographs the double-spiral of past and future swirling around Patrick (a great fraying everyman performance by Cory Boughton) in a clever and melancholy, ghostly way, with figures from the man’s two lives and different phases of their own often sharing the same space but only seen by him.

Patrick’s one-man mission-control on each end, Freddie (a humane and conflicted Adam Files) in 2019 and Alvin (a kindly, crazy, insightfully awkward Rob Brown) in 1987, are fearful for his safety but unable to resist his discoveries. The domestic wreckage of his disappearances from one period to the other (in painfully real time) are played out with a close-focus compassion rare to pop science-fiction theatre, especially well-portrayed by Melissa Roth as his disillusioned wife in the 1980s and Erik Olson as his traumatized teen son in the 2010s.

The story comes to pivot not on the one character who shifts between two times, but on the one who survives them the way the rest of us have to, Patrick’s now grown up daughter from the ’80s, Harmony (a powerful portrait of contained hurt and incandescent intellectual curiosity by Amy Overman). The defining moment of the story, a La Jetée-esque convergence of Patrick’s two lives centered on a memory he and Harmony impossibly share, is heartbreakingly played by Boughton and Overman and best left to be discovered by viewers (the show runs through April 4).

It bookends a slightly rushed but inevitably necessary act of sacrifice by Harmony, which closes the circle on this fable of elders who see no alternative to doing the wrong thing and new generations who see, and get, no choice but to do what’s right. A moral to care for each other, because the future, unseeing, will take care of itself.

Hard Return: Skidoo

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[From time to time I’ll report my fresh impressions of a cult classic I’m the last to know about — just in case I’m the first-to-last.]

So, when he found it conspicuous by its absence from my capsule psychohistory of anchor star Jackie Gleason, my editor at HiLobrow.com set me a strict assignment to finally watch Skidoo, a bizarre transitional countercultural artifact from 1968, directed by would-be trailblazer of golden-age Hollywood Otto Preminger and featuring anarchist-for-all-seasons Groucho Marx’s last film role.

I’d been vaguely aware of the movie through a library copy of its soundtrack LP that stayed with us very briefly ’cuz my mom was a fan of Nilsson, who scored Skidoo along with motivational cartoon-fable The Point! and other background-music to my Vietnam-era childhood. A few endurance-test minutes occasionally caught on MeTV or TCM were the extent of my other exposure. But it was time to open my mind to the full experience, maaan.

The basic plot (as opposed to meta peace & love subtext) of Skidoo is that a retired mob enforcer, played by Gleason, is asked in unrefusable terms by his former boss, a kingpin known as God (Groucho), to whack a rival (Mickey Rooney) who’s in prison about to turn state’s evidence against them. Gleason breaks into prison to do the deed, but accidentally ingests the LSD stash of a draft-resisting celly and renounces violence; meanwhile, Gleason’s daughter is courting a hippie (cult action-hero John Phillip Law) and his entire nomadic community, who are invited to camp out at the family’s mafia mansion by Gleason’s wife, played by Carol Channing. That cast is less than half the story, as the presence of other pop warhorses from gangster-movie legend George Raft to beachsploitation boy-bander Frankie Avalon to three Batman villains (Frank Gorshin, Cesar Romero and Burgess Meredith) will make you think you’re hallucinating this yourself after some bad Taco Bell and too much marathon on MeTV or TCM.

In the early scenes Preminger and screenwriter Doran William Cannon spoof consumer culture in ways that illuminatingly show what Sterling Cooper was already up against, and simultaneously manage the least stereotypical reading of hippie ethics put to mainstream film at that time, even while lampooning the movement’s pronouncements in a not-unfair way (for someone involved seems to understand it from the inside). And in the earliest scenes Preminger seems to be burlesquing the Warhol Factory multiple-screen technique, and burlesquing a Hollywood that would actually let him spend money to do so.

It gets more conventional as it goes along, as Gleason’s attempts to break back out of jail descend into standard caper parody and the irritating neo-Tin Pan Alley whimsy of Nilsson takes increasing control of the narrative in a string of stoned song-and-dance show-stoppages. It’s not a gamechanging redefinition of Gleason’s crowdpleasing catalogue either; he is nothing if not, erm, game, but goes through his familiar repertoire of mugging and hysteria and threats and bathos; his ambition was wide, but his abilities pretty much in one track with high walls.

Everything but when it will end has gotten pretty predictable and tedious by the time Channing leads a flotilla of hippies to overwhelm the offshore yacht where God is hiding (loooong story), and rescues the movie as well as her daughter, who’s been kinda kidnapped there. Everyone else is teetering on a career cliff between classic entertainment and pioneering performance art (spoiler: they all fall straight down), but Channing cuts through time, indomitably unselfconscious, otherworldly, at almost-50 even then going from dayglo-Jackie O couture to seminude Rabelaisian setpiece to proto-glam carnival outfit to deliver a benedictory anthem of being yourself, standing like some Yggdrasil of pop liberation and self-aware theatricality that stretches from Mardi Gras to Weimar cabaret and midcentury gay camp to Lady Gaga and stuff we haven’t thought of yet. She, like Jimi, had her own world to live through, and getting returned to mine this way made the whole trip worth it.

Beyond Belief

Temple

The Temple or, Lebensraum
Written and directed by Nat Cassidy

February 18 through 28, 2015

The Brick Theatre
579 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211

With Matthew Trumbull, Arthur Aulisi, Tristan Colton, Zac Hoogendyk, Ridley Parson, John D Gardner, John Blaylock, Eric Gilde and Adriana Jones

 

Death is the undiscovered country, and The Temple is an expedition to map the unseeable. We’re suspended between all territory, in a sunken German U-boat toward the end of World War II. Karl Heinrich is what a later era would call our point-of-view character, though there’s no making sense of what we see through his eyes.

Escorted as a VIP by the submarine’s cynical and demoralized crew, he’s the outsider who brings fresh perspective, though there is no outside in the contracting madness of this vast, cramped tomb. That a Nazi true believer on a boatful of non-believing butchers is the figure of reason shows how irreparable the ship’s and its state’s moral compass have become.

The men (played by a remarkable ensemble as weary, weathered lost souls too dischordantly perfect to single anyone out) operate like the guts of the machine they inhabit, armored and smothered like the paranoid Third Reich, acting as one but fraying into squabbles and accusations and brawling like the gears of a clock grinding into immobility, periodically speaking in unison or sounding recurrent thematic refrains in Nat Cassidy’s intricate script, a kind of funerary chorale.

Temple congImperial transgression was a theme of the H.P. Lovecraft story that inspired the play, materialized similarly here in two mystic totems whose theft from a strange half-dead refugee of some unknown cultural origin triggers grave consequences from alien forces; Lovecraft may have been one of the inventors of this trope but he too knew it was just one of the trappings of the sufficient monstrosity within the human imagination.

The ship’s doomed mission and pointless cause are made plain, while nothing is simple about the enormity of the destruction these men are part of; the monumental and intimate atrocities of 20th century warfare and the presumptions of superiority it grew out of in the age of monarchy (and into, in our own barbaric present) defy rational analysis. And as Heinrich, Matthew Trumbull gives a performance of titanic existential dissonance, at once bemused and recriminating, as he channels but does not explain the ghastly absurdity around him.

That horror is radiating from the crew as it pushes in on them from the exterior, and occasional insights leak from Heinrich and the men like bubbles to the surface of a consuming sea, flickering shafts of light we try to hold our view of. Awareness is possible, but the odds against it are nearly incalculable.

Saundra Yaklin’s set design brilliantly enforces the claustrophobia, placing the audience around the stage area’s corridor-like space to mimic the Jonah’s-whale ship interior, seating us like juries over the action and under each other’s scrutiny. Morgan Zipf-Meister’s lighting shapes the space and paces the ordeal in a catastrophic choreography, as failing lanterns strobe manically or emergency lamps wane like breathless candles. Temple supp

Belief once meant confidence in what’s beyond understanding, not commitment to what makes no objective sense, and Heinrich repeatedly tells the men to “have faith” or that “I believe in you.” The temple of the title, the center of a lost undersea civilization from the Lovecraft story, is seen here as a phantasmal shadow of meaning, but as the play ends on a masterful note of narrative suspension you should witness for yourself, it’s clear, and inescapable, and maybe even reassuring, that there’s always a longer way down.

You, and the Dog That Bit You

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Bonedive Scrounger
The Brick 1/22-31, 2015

The churning, classic, aspiring big city, constantly memorializing and replacing itself, gives you ever more ends of the world to live through. Early in Bonedive Scrounger a longtime bar patron tells a new one that the site is built over an ancient Native burial ground, and the new guy says he thought they said it was a landfill, and the regular says, “Right.” We all end up on the scrapheap of history, and treasure is in the eye of the finder.

Set in a gentrifying early-1990s New York, the play tosses on layers of now-archaic tech (polaroids instead of phone-cameras, classified dating ads instead of OKCupid) to highlight un-throw-outable human behaviors (say, the predatory pettiness of taking involuntary selfies of your passed-out date). The wilderness flattened under Manhattan and environs is simulated in a deer-hunting videogame at the back of the bar, and the metaphorical wordplay of some patrons (navigated with mischievous brilliance by playwright Fred Backus) is like the prophetic riddles of some unknown tribe in an old explorer movie.

The explorer is the aptly cowboy-named Bronco (a contained and dimly desperate po-mo Frank Capra-film characterization by Jorge Cordova), an aspiring author who wanders into the bar where most of the action and metaphysics take place. Jimmy, a bottle-draining sage who seems to be delivering his half of an earbud conversation with annunciating angels (in an inspired, hazily antic portrayal by Bryan Enk), likens the quest for libations to some primal nomadic search for sustenance, and it’s true; by definition everyone in a bar is from somewhere else.

Bronco may be an interloper to the regular crowd, but they all have other places to be, or did. Clementina, actually the one other newcomer (a performance of intense natural dignity by the usually uproarious Rebecca Comtois), is there to meet a blind date who never does get seen; bartender Elie (imagined with masterful muted umbrage by Timothy McCown Reynolds) is of definitively indeterminate Eastern European origin; the ambiguously gifted photographer/philosopher Annie (incarnated with hilarious simmering mystique by Alyssa Simon) has walked in from every beatnik/hippie exploitation movie made between 1950 and 1975; and Bull, the brawler and official in-house voice of disapproval (a portrait of noble menace and self-declared authority from Bob Laine), comes back and forth to the bar from a deathwatch for his faithful, ailing, totemically identified dog.

In the Eugene O’Neill era, Bronco might have been the unappreciated dreamer among working-class drones, but sympathies are as shifting as the demolished and rebuilt urban landscape, and we see him and the bar denizens in very changing lights as the play progresses. The pace is real-time but revelatory, thanks to director Maggie Cino (who also had the idea the rearrange the small theater’s seating so it runs along one long wall, putting us in one big figurative booth at the side of a convincing industrial-revolution bar space).

Interrogation is a common mode of the patrons’ conversation, feeling out motives and drawing conclusions of their own. Seen perhaps through Bronco’s eyes as an off-the-boat caricature for most of the play, Elie at the end gets an eloquent speech about local Darwinism that Bronco would rather not hear, and Annie remains unknowable while posing all the questions he’d rather not put to himself. These depths within the deceptive demimonde stereotypes were there all the time, but no one asked them.

So by the end they speak for themselves, and Clementina fits in with the mismatch but Bronco not so much, and somehow, the more honest oddballs will survive the waves of imposters around them. The bar is a symbolic crossroads of course, and much popular fiction dreams of seeking out lost societies and magic realms; fewer, braver fantasies, like Bonedive Scrounger, consider what happens when Brigadoon doesn’t want you.