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Monday, February 20, 2017

Beat the Press

Trump’s war with the media is a cornerstone of his strategy

“Fake News!” “Fake News!” “Fake News!” “Dishonest Media!” “Dishonest Media!” “Dishonest Media!”  These slogans are now boilerplate in President Trump’s tweets, (still) campaign rallies and press conferences. 

His attacks on the press began in earnest during the primary debates when he slammed Megyn Kelly for asking “tough” questions.  They escalated during the general election campaign when he dangerously incited his rabid supporters by pointing to the caged-in pens reserved for media at rallies and decrying that “they are the most dishonest people on earth.”

This loathsome behavior continued throughout the month after his inauguration and as recently as this past weekend tweeting that the media “is the enemy of the American people” and continuing the assault on the press at his comfort food campaign-style rally in Melbourne, Fl.

What gratitude!  #hocopolitics

In rather simplistic terms, the media, who he assails, made Trump. Because if his different style (many would say absurd) and his willingness to go beyond normal boundaries in discourse, the media took to Trump like seagulls to a pile of trash. 

They never let him out of their sight and followed him to each and every campaign event with the expectation or hope that something outlandish would be said that would make for interesting coverage especially on TV, which would boost ratings.  Rarely were they disappointed.

The upshot of this focus on Trump was that the other primary candidates were starving for similar attention, and for the self-proclaimed billionaire, Mr. Trump received oodles of free press while his opponents had to spend.

President Trump who gets his information from “the shows” eschews mainstream media except for FOX News, the unofficial media partner of the Republican Party, and also from such places as Breitbart News, Gateway Pundit, and InfoWars.

For someone who calls the mainstream media dishonest, Trump and members of his Administration hypocritically traffics in conspiracy theories and blatant lies.  From his assertion that his crowd size at the Inauguration was much larger than observed estimates to the ranking of his Electoral College victory as the greatest since Ronald Reagan, Trump cares little about facts, truth and honesty.

The media took to Trump like seagulls to a pile of trash. 

Then there are the fabricated stories he purveys, such as some unspecified horror going on in Sweden (nothing occurred), or his counselor’s mentioning the Bowling Green Massacre (no such event), or his press secretary’s description of the terrorist attack in Atlanta (he meant Orlando since the two cities are so close—400 miles apart). 

Why has he unleashed these non-stop attacks on the integrity of the press while his own statements are so frequently false? Anytime Trump’s weaknesses or worse are described in the media, even if they are totally accurate, he angrily charges “fake news” simply because he doesn’t like it or it makes him look bad.  Discrediting Trump’s image is considered a sin that requires a strong rebuke; self-preservation is his number one priority.

There is more.  Let’s go back to the primaries.  The supreme marketer was aware that if you repeat something often enough, it will stick, especially with his base.  “Lyin’” Ted, “Little” Marco, “Low Energy” Jeb were monikers that helped destroy the candidacies of Cruz, Rubio and Bush, respectively—Trump’s chief rivals.

Come the general election, “Crooked” Hillary took over, and his campaign narrative was built around that label.  Again, it worked, though many other factors were part of the mind-boggling upset.

Bring on the press. The “failing” New York Times, “Fake News” CNN,  “Dishonest Media”—repeat, rinse, spin and repeat.  It will stick, and it is vital for Trump and his presidency to discredit the media for two reasons.

One, the media fact-checks his statements and tweets and they are often false, inaccurate or exaggerated, made-up, or out-and-out lies.  He hates to be called out though it’s the press’ duty as stated in the First Amendment to keep the three branches of government accountable to the people, and the press is that vehicle. 

Second, it is my belief that if there are any serious investigations into the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russian intelligence officers prior to the election and there are findings that Trump and/or his campaign staff were in collusion with the Russians, Trump’s presidency could be in jeopardy.  

By discrediting the media ad nauseum, if and when these revelations come to light, he will have built a safety net of sorts and deny any such findings by blaming the press for the disclosures. People will discount those reports, because he is banking that the oft-repeated charge of “fake news” will resonate and the public will see him as a victim.

That may be his best strategy because much of his base will support him and blame the “dishonest media” for having an anti-Trump agenda. Will it work?  Time will tell.

In the meanwhile, the press needs to be vigilant and hold firm against these charges.  The First Amendment’s Freedom of the Press must be protected for the sake of our country.

“If you want to preserve — I’m very serious now — if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press," Senator John McCain said on Meet the Press this past weekend. “And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

Yes, that’s how dictators get started.

Friday, February 10, 2017

We Must Never Forget

The Trump threat is real for LGBT individuals

Don't be fooled.  His Administration is dangerous.
On a given night, hundreds would cram the city’s streets, some carrying a gay periodical, and patronize the dozens of gay bars, cafes, nightclubs, pornography shops, cabarets and bathhouses.  Adding to the crowd was an ample supply of hustlers that was visible along the dim, nighttime corridors. 

Inside the buildings, female impersonators, clad in lavish brightly colored garb, performed amidst a foggy, smoky cloud that enveloped the jammed rooms.  Toe-tapping songs were played to the resounding joy of the gay and straight audiences of the packed nightclubs and cabarets with the music drifting outside into the streets.  #hocopolitics 

In other establishments, men freely danced with men; women danced with women.  They openly embraced.  An anti-gay law on the books was seldom enforced.  Gay life was colorful, free and vibrant. Gay neighborhoods were established throughout the city.  It had the most active gay culture on the entire continent, and it was a sexual Mecca. 


Does this scene describe New York?  San Francisco?  Washington, D.C.?  Not hardly.

It happens to be Berlin, Germany, just prior to the Nazis’ rise to power.  Indeed, it was estimated that there were more gay establishments and periodicals in 1920 Berlin than in 1980 New York.  Not only was homosexuality tolerated, it flourished. 

But as the music played inside Berlin’s gay clubs, sweeping political and social change was about to unfold that would rock the world.  The patrons (and owners) of these establishments were oblivious to the new political reality; they continued to dance, seek out sex partners and lived in their own secluded, care-free world, unsuspecting of the emerging satanic forces and the horror of what was about to befall them. It sneaked up on them, and when they realized what was happening, it was too late.

As fast as a snap of a whip, there was the accession of Nazism and Hitler and the enforcement of the infamous Paragraph 175 that severely criminalized homosexual behavior. All gay clubs, hotels and other similar establishments were closed down.  Known homosexuals were ordered to appear at police stations and were pressured to identify other homosexuals. School children were asked to inform on teachers who were suspected of being homosexual, employers on employees, and vice-versa.

Their tragic journey had begun. Gay men in Germany were sought out and rounded up with most being shipped to concentration camps for imprisonment and extermination.  They were forced to wear a pink triangle for easy identification and lived in separate blocks apart from the other prisoners.  The prisoners wearing the pink triangles were brutally treated by the guards and by inmates from other categories.

Homosexuals and those supporting abortion were seen by the new government as a threat to the Nazis’ dream of world dominance.  It was as much about the lack of procreation as the lack of morality.  For gay men it was also about their lack of masculinity—it did not fit the Aryan paradigm.   They joined Jews, gypsies, criminals, political enemies, Communists, the disabled, epileptic and other outcasts that did not conform to the Third Reich’s master plan.  (And yes, Trump White House, accept it or not, Jews constituted the overwhelming majority of the victims during the Holocaust.)

Approximately 100,000 gay men were arrested, 50,000 sent to prison camps, and hundreds were castrated.  All told, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 homosexuals, mainly those who were deemed “incurable,” were exterminated in the death camps.  Their death rate was said to have been three to four times higher than other non-Jewish categories during the Holocaust.

As you can see, apathy can be a perilous thing, and unfortunately, it is not confined to history.

The new Trump Administration is chilling.  Though no executive order has been signed yet that would allow discrimination against LGBT people under the guise of “religious freedom,” don’t be fooled.  Virtually every cabinet appointee, every advisor, every key figure in the Administration has actively pursued an anti-LGBT agenda in his or her career.  Some of these are extreme including Steve Bannon, Tom Price, Betsy DeVos, and Jeff Sessions.

While Trump may want to play good cop, bad cop by wrapping himself in a rainbow flag for show, an anti-LGBT agenda can take hold in each of these departments and various levels within the executive branch.  Homophobic and transphobic Republicans in Congress will do nothing to stop such efforts; in fact, they have been trying for decades to foster anti-LGBT policies and stood in the way of progress. 

Moreover, the Supreme Court could very possibly tilt towards in a regressive way during Trump’s term, so there may not be relief from that branch of government.

 LGBT folks must be on the alert and forcefully express their opposition to efforts to turn back the clock.  The threat is very real. 

And we don’t need to go back too far in history to understand the effects of apathy, complacency or indifference. The mantra, “We must never forget” applies now more than ever.

Monday, February 06, 2017

A Bloody Good 'Sweeney Todd' at Olney

Photo by Stan Barouh
Britain has always been given a bad rap—fairly or unfairly—for the taste of their food.  If anyone had actually eaten Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies in 19th century London, you would see why.  The meat contained in those goodies was derived from sliced and diced humans from a killing spree by a man who was eventually called Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

The ultra-successful dark musical with the same name has come to the Main Stage of the Olney Theatre Center in all its gory, er, glory.  Propelled by the music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler that was adapted by Christopher Bond, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street captured eight Tony Awards in 1979 including Best Musical.   #hocoarts

With the production ably helmed by Olney Theatre Center’s artistic director Jason Loewith, it is easy to see why Sweeney Todd and its numerous revivals has been a hit for decades.  Aside from the wonderful music, the production at Olney is bolstered by superb atmospherics, creative staging and top-notch performances by a talented company.

Sondheim’s rich score and, at times, hilarious lyrics are magnificent and convey the story in operetta form with little spoken dialogue.  This complex score is handled expertly by Musical Director Christopher Youstra, Conductor Doug Lawler and the nine-piece orchestra.

Songs, such as “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” “Poor Thing,” “Johanna,” “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,””Pretty Women,” “Epiphany,” the comical  “A Little Priest” and “Not While I’m Around” are highlights.

The well-known tale centers on Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker) who was wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years by corrupt Judge Turpin. He returns to London seeking revenge on the Judge for ruining his life by separating him from his wife and child.

Todd runs into Mrs. Lovett, a baker, whose meat pies are lacking protein and aren’t selling.  The two see a mutually beneficial partnership: he slays the Judge in revenge as well as others from his barber chair; she uses the carnage to bake into the pies that are sold to unsuspecting customers.  

A love story also unfolds as Todd’s daughter, Johanna, has been taken in by the Judge and Todd’s sailor friend, Anthony, falls in love with her and goes to great lengths to get her. 

However, the story does not end well as far as the characters are concerned, but it was a lot of fun getting to the macabre conclusion thanks to an infusion of black comedy.

In the title role, veteran actor David Benoit triumphs with his commanding presence on stage and muscular baritone vocals. A sturdy actor through and through, Mr. Benoit conveys his despair over his plight and his desire to lash out at not only his antagonist but all of humanity.

He has solid performances in “The Barber and His Wife,” the duet with the Judge in “Pretty Women,” and a tremendous emotion-packed rendition of “Epiphany.”

For the role of the cheerful and garrulous Mrs. Lovett, E. Faye Butler excels.  While the temptation is there to ham up the part, Ms. Butler maintains enough restraint while allowing the comical lines to hit the mark.  Mrs. Lovett is smitten with Todd but fails to divulge an extremely important situation.   

Ms. Butler sings beautifully throughout.  Yet, her duet with Mr. Benoit, “A Little Priest,” the hilarious number that concludes the first act in which Mrs. Lovett suggests to Todd the idea of sharing the corpses of his victims to create the pies, is a showstopper.

As the evil Judge Turpin, Thomas Adrian Simpson turns in a solid performance.  The audience roots for his demise for sending Barker/Todd up the river on trumped-up charges, raping Barker’s wife and having designs on Barker’s daughter Johanna.  His excellent baritone is demonstrated in “Johanna,” and the duet with Mr. Benoit, “Pretty Women,” just prior to his exiting the barber chair down the chute, is well-done in a chilling sort of way.

Grace Jones as the lovely "yellow-haired" Johanna, the object of Anthony’s (as well as Judge Turpin’s) affections, puts her soprano voice to good use in “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.”

Jobari Parker-Namdar as Anthony exhibits a strong tenor voice in another “Johanna” number and with Ms. Jones in “Kiss Me.”

Frank Viveros plays Pirelli, a con artist who as a barber first loses a bet to Todd and then his life as he attempted to blackmail him.  Mr. Viveros plays the campy role adroitly and his rendition of “The Contest” is outstanding showcasing a strong dramatic tenor voice.

Michael J. Mainwaring does well as Tobias, the sidekick to Pirelli and eventual assistant to Mrs. Lovett.  His solid tenor is evident in “Not While I’m around,” a duet with Ms. Butler.

Rounding out the leads is Rachel Zampelli playing the male role of Beadle Bamford, the Judge’s accomplice.  She performs “Ladies and Their Sensitivities” well.  And Patricia Hurley does a sterling job as the Beggar Woman who everyone dismisses until her tragic end.

The 10-person ensemble performs ably especially with “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”

As noted earlier, the visuals lend reality to the time and place.  There is the industrial-themed, multi-level steel set designed by Milagros Ponce de León that provides depth and texture to the action.  Included is the notorious barber chair that is rigged so that the unsuspecting victims of Todd’s throat-slashing slide down a chute to the basement bake house.

E. Faye Butler as Mrs. Lovett & David Benoit as Sweeney Todd
Photo: Stan Barouh
Scene changes are fluid as bulky set pieces are moved in and out rapidly.  Mr. Loewith has his cast utilize the entire stage and upper levels of the set as well as the aisles in the audience for entering and exiting that expands the presentation.

Colin K. Bills’ stark lighting design contributes mightily to the atmosphere.  The stage is mostly dim with a light layer of fog to depict London as well as to represent the darkness of the plot and the ghoulish acts that are the cornerstone of Sweeney Todd.   Selective spotlights highlight key parts of the action rather than illuminating the entire stage at once.  Don’t expect lavish color here; this is not a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

Seth Gilbert’s costumes are spot-on period apparel adding to the authenticity.  Even the costumes are darkened to simulate the soot that existed in from the filthy air that Victorian-era Londoners had to endure.  Talk about paying attention to detail!  

The costumes reflect the clear demarcation of classes in London’s society that form the backdrop to the story—from the poor beggar woman’s natty rags to the well-heeled Judge’s aristocratic attire with the working class garb of Todd and other working “stiffs” in between.

In true Olney Theatre Center style, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is yet another Broadway-caliber production. Kudos to Mr. Loewith, Mr. Youstra and the enormously talented cast and crew for a splendid interpretation of this classic. 

It would be wise to purchase your tickets to this spectacle, and if nothing else, you will at least be paying more attention to what you eat.

Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through March 5 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or online .

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Gritty 'Fucking A' at Iron Crow

Jessica Bennett and Kaya Vision Photo: Rob Clatterbuck
Let’s get down to it: The title of this play is a vulgar, slang expression usually reflecting triumph or joy in response to a piece of unexpected positive news.  “I won $500 million the Power Ball drawing”…Fucking A!”  “Trump’s election was overturned…Fucking A!”  I’m not sure which is the more welcome development.  #hocoarts 

Nonetheless, there’s not much joy emanating from the plot of Fucking A, Suzan-Lori Parks’ expressionistic play being performed at the Baltimore Theatre Project as Iron Crow Theatre’s first main stage drama of the current season.  So, the title isn’t derived from any celebration.  In fact, the play, in keeping with Iron Crow’s dark play theme for the current season, is bleak with no happy ending to cheer.  

Where there is joy to behold, however, it is the stunningly performed version of the compelling play directed skillfully by Stephen Nunns.  The queerness that is a hallmark of Iron Crow productions is evidenced by the cross-gendering of several roles and is done so effectively.

The “A” is a riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th century novel The Scarlet Letter whereby the “A” was branded on those accused of adultery.  In this play, the ‘A’ denotes abortionist, which is stamped on the chest of the main character, Hester Smith (played brilliantly by Jessica Bennett).  Similar to The Scarlet Letter the main character of Fucking A is named Hester, a strong woman with an illegitimate child. 

Fucking A ambiguously takes place in “a small town in a small county in the middle of nowhere.” The set is emblematic of the dystopian view of society that Ms. Parks conveys in her work.

The story reveals a society dominated by class, power and corruption and how various members of these classes relate to the larger society. Hester, faced with a choice of going to prison or being an abortion provider, chose the latter.  Her son Boy Smith was taken at an early age to prison 20 years ago for stealing meat, which was instigated by a “rich bitch” who eventually became The First Lady of The Mayor. 

The core of the plot is Hester’s unending love for her son and her yearning to get Boy out of prison regardless of the cost, all the while she performs abortions on rich women.    Rather than divulge the twists and tragedies that transpire, I will leave it to the audience to experience. 

The play contains superbly executed dramatic scenes that are edgy and tense.  Such drama is interrupted by brief sardonic songs in which virtually all the main characters sing about themselves and provide a bit of comic relief.

One particular scene stands out. Hester believed it was Boy who had been granted a sought after and paid for furlough picnic.  The inmate taken to Hester by the guard is a character named Jailbait, played exceptionally by Kaya Vision.  Hester was ebullient over the prospect of this reunion, but that elation drops down an elevator shaft to utter despair when during the course of the picnic, she not only discovers that Jailbait isn’t actually her son, but that he admits to killing Boy (or so we think).

As Hester, who is involved in the majority of the scenes, Jessica Bennett turns in a tour-de-force performance. It gives the impression that the role was written for her in mind.

Ms. Bennett showcases her acting skills with her timing, voice inflections, facial expressions and body language.  When emotions run high, she delivers the requisite passion.  When the temperature is dialed back some, she gives the audience the needed softness in her persona.   And when called upon to sing, Ms. Bennett displays solid vocals.

Deirdre McAllister does well as Hester’s friend Canary Mary, a prostitute.  Her repartee with Ms. Bennett offers some comedic moments.

As the character Monster, an escaped convict who is being tracked down by bounty hunters, Javier Ogando’s performance is powerful and convincing.  He has a bright future in theatre if that is his path.

The three bounty hunters—Martha Robichaud, Kelly Hutchison and Caitlin Weaver (also plays Freedom Fund Lady who accepts payment from Hester so that Boy can attend Hester’s picnic)— are portrayed as males.  They do a great job as sadists on the prowl for Monster.
The Hunters Photo: Rob Clatterbuck

Another solid performance is given by Jared Swain as Butcher, a butcher no less, who takes a liking towards Hester.  The two enjoy warm moments together and Butcher, clad in a blood-stained apron, offers valuable butchering lessons to Hester (wink).

Rounding out the cast are Cricket Arrison as the First Lady, Hester’s antagonist; Jamil Johnson as The Mayor who cheats on The First Lady with Canary Mary; and Rebecca Dreyfuss playing the roles of the Guard and Scribe.

If there is any quibble, and it’s a minor one, it concerns the device of using alternate language when the women discuss sexuality and fertility.  This is part of the play, and projections onto the stage are normally used to translate the dialogue.  In this production, a voice over is used instead, but on a few occasions, the sound originating from off-stage collides with the verbiage on the stage rendering both incomprehensible.

Designed by Logan Lynch, the set is gritty and abstract in form with the main piece being a rustic wooden wall that holds lit candles with a ledge on top where as many as five cast members sit behind as if they are appellate judges.  There are also worn pieces of furniture located at different points around the stage, such as love seats, benches and a swing plus an assortment of tables and a bed that are moved around to accommodate the many scene changes.  

For the most part, the 11-member cast remains in view in separate areas of the stage throughout the play even if they are not featured in a particular scene.  The three musicians (Josh Eid-Reis, Percussion; Dave Engwall, Mandolin; and Kevin Krause, Guitar/Banjo) stay on the stage for the duration.

Iron Crow Theatre has found its niche with these edgy, queer and dark productions.  Fucking A is the latest entry in the catalogue of well-performed and directed plays and is highly recommended.

Running time. Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: Fucking A contains sexual situations, profanity and violence and is not suitable for children under age 18.

Fucking A plays weekends through February 12 (Thursday performance on February 9) at the Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit Iron Crow Theatre.