Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book of Mormon - London - Spoilers

 I'll do something incredible that blows God's freaking mind. - Elder Price

It's just a bunch of made-up stuff, but it points to something bigger. - Elder Price to Elder Cunningham

Eternal life is super fun.  - Company


Book of Mormon is not just a musical vying for your ticket money in the West End, it's a full-blown cultural event. It opened in London last week, I caught one of the last previews and since then I can't stop talking about it. Neither can a lot of people who saw it. The two protagonists, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are young Mormon missionaries, sent to Uganda to gain converts through baptism.They succeed but the price of their success is their orthodoxy and maybe their faith. It is reverent and irreverent in the extreme. Faith is mocked and faith is admired. 

When Matt Parker and Trey Stone were working on Team America, the puppet movie, they attended Avenue Q for ideas and fell in with Robert Lopez, Avenue Q's creator. After some intense hanging out, it turns out Parker and Stone as well as Lopez were interested in creating a musical about Joseph Smith and the Mormons.  They opened in NY in 2011 and it rightfully won Tonys left and right, and with shrewd pricing, recapped the $9 million the investors had put into the show in under a year. 

Every number in that show has a huge, go-for-broke feel.  The choreography, well, thank god I can report that this choreography is big, clever and interesting. Casey Nicholaw can put together a dance that is aesthetically pleasing, impressive, feel-good, and completely post-modern. I saw Black Swann, Beyonce videos, 42nd Street, the Muppets and OK GO music videos in there. Plus serious tap dancing in an anthem to creating mental health problems called "Turn It Off". (Can anyone help me here? In our preview some of the tap dancing in that number took place in blackout - was this a mistake or intended? I think a mistake (it looked like some black out effect wasn't working) but my husband thinks it was intended. So only let me know if it was a mistake)

Here's the thing for me with the songs and this was true in Enron too. Uneven. Not like that is a bad thing. It's just that three of the songs were SO GOOD they almost transcended the musical genre. Hello!, Hasa Diga Ebowai and Turn It Off are so profound, surprising and entertaining that it was going to be impossible to maintain that standard into the wilds of Acts II and III (although I Believe and the Joseph Smith story really come close). The opening number, Hello!, is the cultural equivalent of listening to the Slash guitar solo which opens Appetite for Destruction. It is a declaration of intent, a battle cry, a staking of ground - like the young, clean-cut Mormons themselves it is ambitious and hard-working and big hearted. It is a rousing John Philip Sousa rondo with some madrigal harmonies and gospel thrown in. Then Hasa Diga Ebowai, the big Africa anthem which turns out to be, well, remember Lion King and when the puppets parade down the aisles you get chills and you are so caught up in the spectacle, and it is such an ecstatic moment? Well, this number trumps that moment by taking you down an unexpected path. And as I said, Turn It Off is a guide to suppressing unwelcome feelings, a little Chorus Line moment, when the group of Mormon missionaires share their really sad moments only to explain how they must be repressed - Turn it Off! Like a like switch. The human condition laid bare with all the insight of Shakespeare, followed by some tight tap work. What the hell else can you ask for in an evening of theatre/er?  Nothing. You can ask for nothing else. 

A Mormon family lived in our neighborhood in East Corning when I was growing up there in the 70s. Their house, or specifically their basement was famous because they kept enough food to feed the family for a Mormon-foretold apocalypse type event. So their basement had rows and rows of shelves with gallons of drinking water, cans of food and bags of flour. I remember looking at it one day - because in those days kids really did just go outside and play with other neighborhood kids and could end up in other people's houses like that - and thinking that if anything happened that seemed apocalyptic I would definitely be coming over to this house. They were just the nicest family and so clean cut. Everybody liked them. 

Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are both likeable characters. Elder Price made me nostalgic for my former faith. Sure he is conceited and vain, but he also loves virtue, and goodness and truly wants to do great things - incredible things, things that will blow God's freaking mind. We could use some people like Elder Price right about now. People with the courage of their convictions seeking to do great things.  People who really believe the creator of the universe listens to them and has their back. 

But poor Elder Price. He marches into the oppressive War Lord's camp but is brought low. His faith is not rewarded. It seems stupid as well as inspiring. 

The Telegraph was incensed by this. You cannot have a show where faith is both mocked and admired, where it is both stupid and brave. You can't have it both ways, says this reviewer. The reviewer is wrong. I think you can have it both ways. And actually, it's not just two possible ways, it's more than two. It's more like a million. Truth is complicated. 

After his disappointment, only the fear of hell stops him from throwing in the towel. The Scary Mormon Hell that scares him is populated with American serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, Genghis Kahn, Hitler and a guy who was either supposed to be Johnny Cochran or Robert Kardashian - someone on OJ Simpson's defense team. I hope it was Kardashian, because he deserves to be in hell for the tawdry consumerist distraction his children and wife became with his money. 

Elder Price sticks with his work in Uganda not because his faith is not rewarded. It is borderline delusional, and he delusionally fears a hell. To me this made the second half of the play less interesting. 

He returns to the mission to find that Elder Cunningham, who has never read the book of Mormon, has been explaining it to the Ugandans. He makes things up that he thinks may be helpful and reaches the people where they are. I personally loved a debate among the villagers about whether Salt Lake City was an actual place or just a state of mind created by godly living.

It ends with Elder Price and Elder Cunningham staying on in Uganda, even as the real Mormons reject Elder Cunningham's made-up scripture. They lead new converts, including the War Lord, in mission work. 

Note: These are the Southpark guys. There is a lot of stuff that would be considered "offensive" by whoever gets into being offended. 

I was sad that Elder Price somehow couldn't really transcend his faith, keep that love of good and light and still somehow find a way to blow God's mind. Somehow he still had to believe that the head of the Mormon church speaks directly to God who changed his mind about black people in 1978.  The Mormon doctrine seems kind of silly. As does, in my estimation, most religious doctrine. 

But what didn't seem silly to me is the love of virtue, the possibility of change, the hope, the connection to the creator force that is beyond our understanding, the huge love of working for the good of the world. Those things are not silly, they are praiseworthy. 

The bigness of Elder Price's ambitions I am sure put off the British reviewers. No one on this island can stand someone who wants to be great. And as we saw with Contact and August: Osage County, Clybourne Park - all of these - no one in Britain wants to make an American hit a hit in Britain. But here in the cold and uninviting UK, it may be that the hope, the big show, the swelling note, the outstretched hands are enough to draw the British in and warm them. I hope. Hello! 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Together - Season Finale, Season 2, Lena Dunham's Girls on HBO

I want to tell you why the season finale of the second season of Girls was an exquisite and brave half hour of television. I was so moved that I googled reviews of the episode, expecting rhapsodies of insight. Instead I read a lot of reviews that really I thought missed the point. They critiqued the show as a RomCom where the men save the women.

I don't think that was the point. The point was there on Hanna's screen, the topic sentence of the book she was about to write - that relationships between women who go to school together can be more intense and important than other relationships we have in our lives. The "Together" title of the Episode doesn't refer to Shoshana with Ray or Marnie with Charlie or Adam with Hannah. The Together of together was the women, who are lost and alone without each other, and therefore fall into what the culture has told them to want, what each has told the other is worthwhile.

Shoshana breaks up with Ray basically out of admiration for Jessa. She loves Ray, quirks and all, and would quickly admire his efforts to become a coffee house manager of some repute. She breaks up with him because she has incontrovertible evidence that he hates kittens and is grumpy all the time, and she knows this is something the other girls would not want her to countenance. Especially her sacred cousin, the enlightened and kind Jessa. Shoshana is such an interesting character but she has turned into a pile of nondescript mush. Because a lot of women when they are with a boyfriend rely on that for a lot of their identity. Not the best articulation of an enlightened human spirit, but there you go. What I see in Shoshona now is an inablity to even identify what she wants herself, rather she has imposed her friends' view of the relationship on Ray. Hence her randomly making out with some self-absorbed finance guy in the last scene. What was jarring about that last scene is that it is completely normal for a woman in her 20's to have a little fun in a bar like that, Shoshana is not normal, she aspires to greatness, and the normality of that make-out scene was almost an affront to Shoshana.

Meanwhile, Marnie. Marnie can't jettison her fledgling singing career fast enough to get back together with Charlie. His wealth and declarations of love are really exactly what she needs right now. Seduced with the quick fix that will probably last an uneasy lifetime. I feel like women collectively had really let Marnie down at that point, like she didn't have enough stories of women who didn't go Rich Husband, who lived to greatness.

And Hanna. Hanna was suffering - the boring parts, the terrible haircut, the utter self-sabotage of listlessly googling her ailments - I know people think of her as unforgivably narcissistic but I just saw someone suffering. I don't know how much the element of choice and free will came into Hanna's inability to write the book. The reviewers I read all thought she should just get down to it. And of course she should. And a person with a broken leg should bike his kids to school. He can't. She can't. That is what it is like to have bipolar or unipolar depression, to have OCD or schizophrenia or an eating disorder or anxiety or panic attacks. She can't write that book right now. In fact she is probably sitting on that bed working to fight the impulse to even greater forms of self-mutilation.

Marnie comes over to check on Hanna, yet Marnie is too intimate to help. Hanna hides behind the bed when Marnie comes to help. Our friends from college are also our competitors, and we cannot bear to be humiliated in front of them. Especially by something as demeaning and shameful as mental illness. And worse, a very bad self-inflicted haircut. (Although I have to admit to vengefully trimming my own bangs very unsuccessfully recently)

So Hanna calls Adam, her psycho ex-boyfriend, she knows full well she is at rock bottom and she is just looking for love wherever she can find it, she just needs attention. J. M. Barrie knew a thing or two when he wrote Tinkerbell's near demise, for truly some people need the clapping to survive. Hanna calls iPhone to iPhone, so the call is on face time. He sees some OCD rituals on her part and when she says she feels she is unraveling, he says he is coming to her. And like Superman, like some old shirtless Greek God, he kicks past his wooden sculpture and runs through the street to catch the subway. He excels at being the hero and she excels at needing one, just at this one completely fucked up moment in their lives. He makes it to her apartment. She won't let him in. She is hiding under the duvet and she won't get up.

He breaks down the door and then clears the detrius littering Hanna's apartment in a single bound ("leap tall buildings in a single bound"). He pulls the covers off Hanna's head. And he loves her enough to break down all the barriers she has put up against Adam, against everyone, all the barriers she has put in place to hide what is wrong with her. And he gathers her into his arms and holds her like a child. I have probably watched that scene five times in the last 24 hours. There is something about it.

I think that Adam straining to get to Hanna, his complete acceptance and love of her the way she was just then, was both a display of his dysfunctional objectification of women and a great act of love, probably the only thing that will really help Hanna. That kind of uncritical love. That kind of uncritical love that somehow people with mental illness can never quite give themselves. And you can see this on Hanna's face, how she almost can't forgive herself for him doing this, for letting the drama unfold, yet she can't quite stop herself.

Forgive me for this nutty talk but this was post-modern, right? Because as much as Adam was like Superman or Shrek in Shrek 2, as much as Marnie embodied the happy ending that people like Kim Kardashian and Arianna Huffington have lived, something came off as creepy, as not quite right, as unsettled. The tropes were subverted. They were each horribly alone in their choices, none more than Jessa, they were not in any sense Together.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Peter and Alice and The Audience

I have been looking forward to this week in March since July when I bought tickets to an unprededentedly indulgent two plays in one week: Peter and Alice and The Audience.

  Now, I am not going to poise this review as some kind of Judy Dench (Alice in Peter and Alice) versus Helen Mirren (the Queen in The Audience) smackdown, although it would totally be fun to see them in a Whatever Happened To Baby Jane situation (please can someone make that happen), but I will tell you which play had an  edge. Peter and Alice.

The Audience is incredibly amusing and sharply written - it is the story of the Queen's weekly Tuesday night at 6:30 pm meeting with the Prime Minister. From Churchill to Cameron, Queen Elizabeth has kept this up for 50 years.  It's by Peter Morgan, who wrote the screenplay for The Queen as well as the excellent play Frost/Nixon. The progression of prime ministers is non-linear, and Mirren changes wigs and dresses almost magically to play the Queen from her early 20s to her mid 80s and ages in between. A gorgeous girl plays the young princess, skulking around the castle flirting with sports equipment. Make no mistake, it is brilliantly written and remarkably entertaining.  (One of the most amazing choices is of merging Cameron into Blair into one clean shaven ball of privilege and evil). My issue with the play is this: the Queen in her conversations acts much of the time as a psychotherapist for the prime minister, asking him questions about his feelings, asking Gordon Brown about his OCD, asking John Major about his feelings of inadequacy.  We all know full well that the Queen would never. And the theatrical device somehow never lets that knowledge dissipate.

But Peter and Alice. Let me tell you about that. We went to see it on Monday, me and my stalwart expat London and Edinburgh theatre companions over the last ten years. By Thursday, they had stood in line to buy up as many tickets as possible for subsequent performances so that everyone they knew could go. (That anecdote explains why I will always in the end prefer a market economy: that can happen.)  This play is about when 30 year old real life model for Peter Pan meets 80 year old Alice, the real life model for Alice in Wonderland. The play begins with them discussing the preternatually close relationship they have with the authors, and their feelings about their characters now. This unfolds into the appearance of Barrie, the cleric who loved and created the Lost Boys and Liddell, the cleric who rewarded Alice's patient attention with a starring role (sole qualification - being curious). At the time of the meeting, Alice is on the ho stroll for money, selling manuscripts and making appearances to pay her heating bill. Peter is still much close to Peter Pan. Peter Pan and Alice appear, in their Disneyfied iconic perfection, Alice true to form not saying much, and Peter Pan showing off and spoiling for a fight. In the last act, war comes up, the war that killed two of Alice's three sons. Peter serves and is traumatized. His older brother kills himself.

I have lived in the UK for eleven years now and frequently commented on the way the British absolutely corner the market on children and children's literature: Peter Rabbit, The Gruffalo, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Narnia Chronicles, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Harry Potter, Winnie the Pooh, Mary Poppins - childhood is a fetish here, people seem to do everything to ensure that their children's is magical, even when their own lives are not that fun. I often wondered why this was the case. Peter and Alice is the richest food for thought about childhood and fiction. To be in love with Neverland or Narnia or Mary Poppins is a powerful thing, and it can weave its own magic spell of protection on the suffering that we all face in life. And that love of these fictional worlds may be one of the great things we know - one of our great loves (the novel The Magicians and the sequel The Magician King are powerful stories of this love).  But what happens? As Reverend Liddell explains to Alice, people grow up and their time is taken up with housework and business.

So when Peter and Alice face in the end death and loss and suicide, they have a prism, gleeming cleanly from the past, before the housework and business. Will this make the tragedy of their lives more or less painful?

John Logan who wrote Peter and Alice most recently wrote Skyfall. Despite this, he is a great playwright and screenwriter, and the depth of artistry he brings to Peter and Alice, the myriad of themes and insights and associations and truth, is almost overwhelming.

Make no mistake, London is magic for theatre like nowhere else I have found on earth. And theatre is like nothing else I have found for explaining life. And Peter and Alice speaks with a murky, dense, heartbreaking truth, really, the best of all.