More reasons I’ll miss the Homo

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by Matthew A. Everett | 6/25/09 • iHo for short, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” for… not so short

“Even my therapist thinks I had it coming.”

Why, by the end of this week, will I have seen the same play six times in the space of a month (something that pretty much never happens)?

single white fringe geek is the blog of matthew a. everett. in addition to being one of six bloggers covering the minnesota fringe festival for the daily planet, he blogs throughout the year about theater and culture.

“You f*cked my brother! What are we, hillbillies?”

It’s the world premiere of a new play by Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning writer Tony Kushner, an artist whose work has greatly influenced me both as a playwright and a human being.

“Well, if I don’t actually have to believe in anything, I wanna be a theologian.”

It’s some of the best ensemble acting work I’ve seen in years.

“How funny, of all my children, you turned out to be the wild, fearless one.”

It’s funny. It’s smart. It’s scary. It’s romantic. It’s heart-breaking. It’s enormously moving on a great many levels.

“You’ve all always been someplace I can’t go.”

The language, my God, the language. These characters talk as foreplay. They talk as an expression of love, of yearning, of anger. The words, and more importantly the ideas trammeled up in those words, just come cascading out of the mouths of these fascinating characters. It’s high-brow, it’s low-brow, but it’s always language shot through with an intense vitality that can sometimes leave you breathless.

“The truth taken from poverty, Paul, is that the absolute sancrosanctity of life? It’s bullsh*t, it’s just what people say nowadays to startle the stupid and inflame cretins.”

These people say wonderful, awful things to each other. They dig their hooks into each other, they shove each other away. They can never be anything less than connected, but they push each other’s buttons with a ferocity at times that borders on cruelty.

“Am I the kind of nuisance who shows up at the home of a family in crisis and makes everything about *me, me, me*, I *hate* those people.”

The set-up is important, but in many ways it’s an excuse to get all these people under the same roof talking to one another again, for better or worse, like an Arthur Miller family drama turned on its head – recognizable, familiar, and yet unlike anything you’ve heard before.

“Look at that. Alzheimer’s cleared right up.”

Gus (Michael Cristofer – yes, the Michael Cristofer who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-wining play “The Shadow Box” – that Michael Cristofer…

Gus has announced his intention to commit suicide, a little over a year since the last time he attempted to kill himself. He’s not depressed, he’s not lonely, he’s just… done. His sister Benny (short for Benedicta) (Kathleen Chalfant, of the original Broadway run of Kushner’s “Angels In America”) calls Gus’ adult children home to the family brownstone in New York to confront Gus’ decision. Daughter Empty (for M.T., Maria Teresa) (Linda Emond, of Kushner’s “Homebody/Kabul”), and sons Pill (for Pier Luigi) (Stephen Spinella, also of “Angels In America”) and Vito (Ron Menzel) reluctantly answer the call. The reluctance is born more of fear and distraction than lack of caring. Empty’s ex-husband Adam (Mark Benninghofen) still lives in the basement of the family home, and Empty’s current spouse Maeve (Charity Jones) is enormously pregnant with their first child, sired with a sperm donation from Vito. Vito and his wife Sooze (Sun Mee Chomet) never strayed far from the old neighborhood. But Pill and his husband Paul (Michael Potts, of TV’s “The Wire”) have to fly all the way in from (gasp) Minneapolis. Their sudden self-imposed exile to the midwest was prompted by the need to break the hold of Pill’s addictive relationship with a young hustler named Eli (Michael Esper, “Loggerheads“). Add in the third act appearance of Michelle O’Neill as the nervous courier of a do-it-yourself suicide kit, and you have one amazing roster of performers, in one complicated but compelling story of a family coming to grips with the meaning of life, purpose, love and death.

“My great-grandmother. She was, in her nineties… Damn. Bones and bridge cables wrapped in leather wrapped in black. Maria Teresa Marcantonio. Very smart, and not… nice.”

One of the many giddy pleasures about watching this group of actors working together is that the production has found a great mix of both local and visiting artists. While it’s wonderful to see all the tremendously talented people coming in from out of town onto the Guthrie stage, it’s also a lot of fun to see Twin Cities regulars working seamlessly alongside them. Charity Jones has gotten so adept at playing annoying characters that I have to remember not to hold it against her personally. Mark Benninghofen is great as a guy desperately trying to shore up his tenuous place in the extended family. Sun Mee Chomet doesn’t even appear until late in Act 2, but with just a line or two, a gesture or laugh, she turns the volume up high on the comedy in unexpected ways. Michelle O’Neill’s one scene is the kind of thing an actor needs to nail just right or the tension of the play might unravel, and nail it she does. Ron Menzel is so good as Vito I almost don’t know where to begin. As the “baby” of the family, he is alternately volcanic in his anger, and destitute in his need for love, approval, and the truth. He’s hilarious, and scary, and pitiable. Just great. With heavy-hitters like Cristofer, Chalfant, Emond, and Spinella portraying the members of his immediate family, Menzel could bring nothing less than his absolute best, and he delivers it, as the rest of them do, scene after scene after scene. It’s pretty breathtaking to watch. As the two men who love the conflicted Pill against their better judgment and self-preservation instincts, Potts and Esper successfully keep the sympathies in this love triangle tugging hard in both directions. Like a character once said in “Angels In America,” “We all get to break our hearts on this one.”

“I think all the time. And when I think, I think about you. All the time.”

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” can be just as sprawling in its scope as the title suggests, but all those elements are grounded firmly in the individual personalities of the extended family with Gus and the brownstone at its center.

“When we won, we took hold of the logic of time and money that enriches men like them and devours men like us, and we broke its f*cking back.”

That brownstone (from set designer Mark Wendland) is a marvel – two stories tall onstage with a number of moving parts allowing it to advance and recede, rise and fall. The front door, and the view of the rest of Brooklyn just outside or in the distance, moves up or down, depending on whether the play is taking the audience to the basement or the roof. A vast staircase off to the left remains in place, no matter where folks are climbing to or descending. The level of detail in every corner of each location is staggering, but never overdone. It’s a joy to always be able to find something new, depending on your angle of sight. The family home seems well and truly lived in, a character with its own sense of history.

“Oh whoops sorry, I like stepped in the part of the pool reserved for you know the Holy Family.”

There’s something welcome in getting to watch the gears grind a little between each scene, not be plunged into darkness but watch the actors and crew transition through the shadows into the next spot of brightness which reveals the story. On a larger level, the production is never trying to pretend it isn’t an artificial reality. The notion of reality, of consciousness, of life, is part of what the script is dealing with – it never wants the audience to stop thinking, to forget that they’re seeing a story.

“Sorrow and loss are unavoidable, and here, in this house, they’re imminent.”

The shadows and brightness come from Kevin Adams’ lighting design, which is gorgeous. Full of uncomplicated illumination when it needs to be, but frequently casting evocative colors and shading across intimate moments when the characters get one another alone. Also aiding the transitions are the music of Michael Friedman and the sound design of Ken Travis, adding another layer of reality and hints of the outside world.

“Gus, I sincerely hope you don’t kill yourself. You’re not half bad.”

I nearly forgot to comment about Clint Ramos’ costume design because the clothes all do what the best costumes do – not seem like costumes at all. They’re more like each character’s second skin, making their personalities something tangible. Pill’s button down shirt and jeans, Empty’s various layers – either tight around her or hanging loose, Gus’ cardigans, Vito’s work shirts. The way Eli’s unconscious nervousness causes him to adjust his sleeveless shirts to expose even more of his arms and shoulders, until he feels the sting of rejection and pulls up his hoody like a turtle retracting into its protective shell.

“Two years from now this house, this city will be worth garbage, five years from now in the whole world there won’t be a safe corner anyplace.”

Another nod should be given to the crew, because it must be hard to get a thing this size moving, and then keep it moving, without getting run over. It’s good to be reminded now and then of the number of hands that keep that suspension of disbelief airborne, our partners in the illusion.

“You’re a funny kind of lesbian.”

Much has been said elsewhere about the state of the script – is it “done?” There’s a quote, attributed to various people, regarding the notion that “a work of art is never finished, it simply stops in interesting places.” For now, this script has stopped in a most interesting, and satisfying, place. Kushner is of course capable of improving on what’s in front of audiences now, but I’d be hard pressed to offer suggestions on what to change. It’s already been tightened and tweaked a great deal since the earliest performance I saw. The biggest change was taking a scene previously just between two people, and folding it into a scene that overlapped with other family activity. This literally and metaphorically reinforced the notion that these two characters and their relationship were part of the family in a way that the previous scene with them isolated did not. What evolution there’s been all seems to be headed in the right direction. Who knows where it’ll end up, but this stop on the journey is mesmerizing.

“You were a lot less scary when you were threatening to beat me up.”

Is the play as a whole long? Yup. 3-1/2 hours. But the two intermissions give the play, and the audience, room to breathe. It never feels as long as it is. In fact, often it seems to be blazing by at high speed. And the buzz it can leave you with, though you know it’s late when you’re released from the theater, you want to stand and talk about it, parse over it with other people who shared the same experience. I have a tendency to drift if for any reason the production is less than compelling. I often worried, can I make it through 3-1/2 hours, particularly on the repeat visits? No worry necessary. I was riveted to the action on stage, every time. The script itself is so rich, and the performances so well-formed, there’s always something new to take away from it. If you sit back, you can drink in the spectacle and size of the thing. If you sit close, you have the pleasure of watching the emotions play across the actors’ faces, behind their eyes, the things they’re not saying in words alone. It might be the simplest of thrills, but it’s thrilling nonetheless.

“Look at you, clinging to that phone like it was your hope for eternal salvation. but it isn’t, Pill, it’s just a carcinogenic little microwave bundled with silicon and arsenic and tantalite from the Congo the mining rights for which millions upon millions of innocents have been slaughtered, that’s the devil in your hand, you heartless evil wicked faggot.”

That simple thrill extends to the structure of the piece. Like “Angels In America,” though the canvas is large and densely populated, much of the play takes place in scenes between just two (occasionally three) people. These are offset by a handful of scenes in which the whole family gathers onstage at once, often talking over each other in competing conversations. At that point, the cacophony becomes like a piece of music. If you try to just hang onto one thread of conversation, you lose the rest of the voices. But if you just let it wash over you, like music, the important moments pop up above the rest and take focus as needed. The script, and the performances, so finely calibrated by director Michael Greif, take the audience where they need to go. You never miss what’s important. You are never left behind. It’s hard to say which is more dazzling, those acrobatic multi-character free-for-alls, or the tremendous power of those two person scenes, where the characters, for better or worse, strip one another bare – always emotionally, every now and again physically as well.

“Congratulations on rolling back fifteen hundred years of sanity.”

A friend commented that “it needs a third act,” but I respectfully disagree. It has a third act, and it’s a doozy. It may not be pitched at the same level as the mind-boggling complexity of the end of the second act, but the third act isn’t about maintaining that. It’s about the aftermath, and managing the fallout. The scenes between Gus, his sister, and each of his three children, are the kind of conversations we all should be having, before it’s too late. Is the man saying his goodbyes, or is he moving to another level of understanding with those he loves most? Hope and dread battle it out as you watch, and wonder. When the lights rise on the final scene, someone, somewhere in the audience always gasps. Two characters we never expected to share a scene together are alone with each other onstage. And you get that excitement you sometimes get when you realize you have no idea what’s going to happen next, but you know you’re in good hands, so you just surrender to the story and the storytellers.

“I don’t know *her* excuse but… Everybody’s got one, right?”

In many ways, it’s a play about a group of people who love each other too fiercely to avoid hurting each other. The first two acts each end with a declaration of yearning.

Act I – “Only if you’ll stay.”

Act II – “I love you!”

The play used to end with a character asking another “What do you want?”

Now Act III concludes with the other character answering, “I’m thinking.”

Thinking and feeling, two things these people do in abundance, often at the same time, often with conflicting results despite the best of intentions.

“She died giving birth, anyway, not on his birthday. I mean, you make it sound like she, you know, baked a cake and then toppled over into it.”

Each act is a chunk of a different day. Three acts, three days. So much life is crammed into those three days. So much has happened before, so much will happen after. But this snapshot of those three days allows you to see inside these people, and their family, and their relationships. Tucked inside all that are the politics and theology which make them who they are, and put them in opposition with one another. History, knowledge, absence, and time are just a few of the momumental forces boiling away in their blood and their brains, threatening to crush them. The only way to survive is to reach out a hand and hope someone takes it. Some reach out, some don’t. Some help, some don’t. Chekhov (*good* Chekhov) is sometimes really, really funny. And sometimes really, really sad. And sometimes it’s really, really funny, and really, really sad – at the same time. That’s what this play is like. It hums with the kind of raw humanity that reminds you why acting is so all-consuming. These performers just leave it all out there on the stage. They deserve every standing ovation they get.

“Because if you have no community you mean nothing, you achieve nothing, you *are* nothing. He believes that. My father. It’s paramount. For my sister, too. Somehow, for me, belonging to anything that deeply hasn’t been possible. Betrayal’s always been my only safety, my only… breathable air.”

If you haven’t seen “iHo” yet, or want to see it again, the rush line is still a pretty good bet. Haven’t had to turn anyone away yet, unfortunately. But it’s closing weekend and so that might make things a little tighter. Call ahead to check on availability and when you might want to get there to save a space in line – 612-377-2224. Cash or check only in the rush line, and you don’t get to choose your seats, but they want the best seats filled. So you could get a good ticket for not a lot of money going that route. Whatever tickets don’t go at full price, will go to the rush line, 15-30 minutes before show time. $20 Sunday through Thursday evenings and matinees, $25 Friday and Saturday

“You love him. You moved out of your cool Upper West Side like ten-room rent-controlled prewar apartment and went to this place where like it was in January something like 23 below in broad daylight for a week. You don’t love me that way.”

The Guthrie’s world premiere production of Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” runs through June 28, 2009 on the McGuire Proscenium stage at the Guthrie Theater (818 South Second Street in Minneapolis).

“I can, alone, but. If you kept watch. You. I’d be less afraid.”

Matthew A. Everett is a local playwright and three-time recipient of grant support from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Information on Matthew and his plays can be found at matthewaeverett.com.

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