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Hal Gelb

Hal Gelb is a San Francisco-based writer and director. He translated and staged the world premiere of Ghazi Rhabihavi’s Stoning. His production of Yussef El
Guindi’s adaptation of Salwa Bakr’s story, What a Beautiful Voice Is
, opens August 8 (2002) at the New Langton Arts theater in San

  • Non-fiction August 1, 2002

    9/11: The Satire

    I don't know if it's some childhood image left over from Victory at Sea or from a book of pictures my uncle brought back from the service, but when I think about the war in the Pacific, I see pink cumulus clouds piled high, one upon another, on the decks of aircraft carriers. It's not the iconic image of violent battle that usually represents the war, but my imagination seems to be telling me that the iconic images aren't the whole story, that serenity and beauty coexisted alongside the bloodshed and were a large part of the day-to-day reality of the war.

    It's for similar reasons that I think the nitty-gritty details of life near Ground Zero as presented in one of the first theatrical responses to 9/11, comic monologist Reno's Rebel Without a Pause, appeal to me so. They provide relief from the media's iconic packaging, which has been beamed at us ever since the attack on the Trade Towers and the (rarely mentioned) Pentagon attack.

    With a deluge of energy, Reno, who lived near the towers from 1981, relates what it was like in lower Manhattan "that gorgeous day." She recreates the clicking sound, like the noise an old machine gun would make, that was the sound of the floors collapsing into one another. She exhibits dismay at the total absence of Conelrad and the Emergency Defense System. ("Maybe this wasn't enough of an emergency.") She tells a story about finding her ATM emptied out at 9 am and the bank refusing to open its doors so customers could get their money.

    But mostly it's the human reactions to catastrophe that are so wonderful, so wildly hilarious. The rumors that the terrorists are holed up with machetes in a macrobiotic restaurant on Prince Street; people rushing home to have their televisions validate what they'd just seen with their own eyes; and what Reno calls the "hierarchical bragging rights of pain and knowledge"--New Yorkers one-upping each other over what they knew and what they'd suffered.

    Reno's warnings about changes in constitutional protections make for a very disturbing second half of her monologue, though she herself doesn't seem to fear the new spy agency powers: She gives voice to her every political thought, no matter how out there it is. She points out how cheaply reporters have been won over by chummy Don Rumsfeld, and she contemplates Henry Kissinger being arrested for war crimes. Reno even suggests that Florida be allowed to float down to Uruguay, "where all the other fascists are."

    She also reveals some interesting facts, like ones you find in this magazine but not in the major media. For instance, Hamid Karzai, the new president of Afghanistan, used to work for Unocal. And this from Frank Lindh, who saw the show the night before I did: FBI agents treated his son kindly because even they knew "he was a hapless kid."

    After a while, I began feeling the tingle of what I hope was just my own paranoia (although as I learned the last time--when Watergate lanced the Nixonian pustule--paranoia can be a very accurate predictor of reality). Reno talks about what is being done to our civil liberties in the context of Christian fundamentalist influence on this Administration. At 342 pages, the USA Patriot Act, she suggests, wasn't written in the days after 9/11, and the Padilla case has clearly crossed the line of innocent until proven guilty. She builds a picture of how really extremist the Bush people are and how far to the right the President has taken the country. So far, in fact, that Colin Powell is the "Communist of this Administration."

    Such points may be made with laughter, but Reno brings a fierceness to her criticisms and an urgency to her concerns about the current Administration that we are only beginning to see in the big world, and then over financial wheeler-dealering and privilege, not civil liberties and constitutional guarantees.

    You will walk away from Reno with a clear sense that the changes aren't minor, and they won't fall only on bad guys and enemies. It's a real turning point: Democracy is up for grabs.

    The San Francisco Mime Troupe's free summer show, Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan, likewise treats the aftermath of 9/11. In it, Condoleezza Rice (Velina Brown) and Dick Cheney (Cheney lookalike Ed Holmes) seek to sell the Bush presidency as an Administration that cares about democracy, not profits, and so devise a plan to send 9/11 firefighter Jeff Smith (the always wonderful Michael Gene Sullivan) to oversee the first free election in the Central Asian, formerly Soviet, republic of Obscuristan. The winner of this contest is certain to be warlord and privatizer Automaht Regurgitov (Victor Toman), since he is the only candidate. That is, until the oppositionist Ralif Nadir (Amos Glick) throws his hat into the ring, arguing that "people should vote their hearts, not their fears." (Of course, had one or two percent of Florida's Nader voters forsworn that advice, the Mime Troupe wouldn't have a Bush Administration to satirize.)

    (Or would they?)

    Smith, who has been kept ignorant by outfits like SNN, the Selective News Network, believes America wants freedom for everyone. He is, however, disillusioned when it becomes clear that there is oil in Obscuristan and that the Administration's real interest is that Regurgitov win, since he will insure the atmosphere necessary for US investment. Smith then sets out to prove that the ordinary American doesn't want to screw Obscuristan over, and by the end of the day rescues Nadir, who was kidnapped and branded a terrorist. He also helps bring an SNN reporter and the US ambassador over to the side of a fair shake for Obscuristan.

    The Mime Troupe hits many of the right points: that energy sources are a major factor in our involvement in Central Asia, for instance, and that much of the weaponry in the area was originally supplied by the CIA. And they raise questions about just how free our own elections are. Given that, I was left pondering why Mr. Smith seemed so tepid and not particularly funny compared with Rebel Without a Pause. It's doubly strange given that the Mime Troupe brought in the usually very funny monologist, independent filmmaker and former Nation intern Josh Kornbluth (Red Diaper Baby and Haiku Tunnel) to help write the script.

    The difference is, I think, that Reno articulates things you hadn't thought about, or says things you may have thought a lot about, but in ways that create the old shock of recognition. As when she says, "The people of Missouri were so worried about Ashcroft making decisions, they voted for the dead guy."

    There are moments like that in Mr. Smith. Barbara Bush (Ed Holmes again, this time in a gray wig and pearls) explains the rules of the oil game to George W., and the whole facade of her Betty Crockerdom smacks right up against her tough capitalist intelligence. This is a Barbara Bush who says, "Never send a member of the working class to do an aristocrat's job." But such moments are rare. For the most part, the Mime Troupe's most incisive statements, such as "Only an American would confuse a fixed election with a real one" or "Welcome to democratic nations like Saudi Arabia who protect human rights," simply restate our perceptions or are so bitterly ironic that a lot of the laughter I heard was sniggering.

    Given that the source of the satire is Capra's populist classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I think the Mime Troupe missed a real opportunity to have us question ourselves by asking, Who is Mr. Smith and what is he about? In the mythos of Mime Troupe plays, the ordinary American is decent and fair, and in every respect there's a lot of daylight between him and the ruling class, and therefore between us and what our government does in our name. The Mime Troupe believes that like Jeff Smith, the ordinary American has been kept in ignorance by the media, and that if he only knew what was really going on, he would rise up and change things.

    That conveniently ignores the fact that ordinary Americans are of many minds, and that many of us do understand that our comfort is based on the deprivation (and worse) of people in other parts of the world. So then, you have to ask whether we feel we can't do anything about it or whether we don't want to. How much is the ordinary American willing to give up to see people elsewhere get a larger slice of the pie?

    And what is the usefulness of a mythos of unquestioned fairness and decency, and in this play, as in other Mime Troupe efforts, of a sellout who regains her soul and of a decisive victory over the people's enemies? It's positive, but does it send us out of the park feeling hopeful and intent on action? Or do we feel that a lot of what we witnessed was too simple and fantastic?

    The appeal in Mr. Smith is ultimately to idealism, to looking out for the other guy and doing the right thing. Reno, on the other hand, talks about self-interest: that we are losing our rights and that some of us were slaughtered. "The [US] government," she says, "created the mujahedeen that came to my town and killed us." That seems a much stronger motive for action.

    Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan will be performed through Labor Day in various Northern California locales (415-285-1717 or Rebel Without a Pause played a week at the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco in June and went on to an extended run at the Lion Theater on 42nd Street in New York City.

    Hal Gelb

  • Yaqui Way of Knowledge

    Although Chicano identity has been Luis Valdez's theme since all but the earliest years of El Teatro Campesino, the guerrilla theater he founded in the 1960s, getting a clear sense of his roots became doubly important to him when his parents died in the mid-1990s. Valdez, the first Latino playwright/director to reach Broadway and the creator of the bellwether Hispanic film Zoot Suit, had always been told his people were Yaquis from Sonora in northern Mexico, but he realized he knew very little about how they had come to be California Chicanos.

    So, in the late 1990s, he began to search his family's history and its secrets, and what he discovered about the myths and contradictory stories that had been handed down and about the little-known history of the Yaqui wars in Mexico led him to write Mummified Deer, in some ways his most personal play and his first new work for the theater in a decade and a half (just ending its run at El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista). It's a play that uses the mythic, presentational elements we've come to associate with Valdez's work, here present in a Yaqui deer dancer, who together with the long arm of history defines identity for the play.

    Valdez founded El Teatro Campesino as an organizing and fundraising arm of the United Farm Workers during the 1965 grape strike in Delano, where he was born. The actors then were strikers who played type characters in actos, short satirical sketches on strike issues performed at work sites and in union halls.

    But since splitting off from the union in 1967, the company has made Chicano racial identity its focus. In the late 1960s and early '70s, that specifically meant spiritual identity, with the theater reaching all the way back to La Raza's Aztec and Mayan roots and making ritual and myth, music and dance integral parts of its style.

    Valdez was criticized at the time for abandoning the theater's materialist viewpoint, and was criticized later in the decade and in the 1980s--when the entertainment industry began to understand the potential of the Hispanic market--for his unabashed attempt to move into commercial theater and filmmaking with Zoot Suit. Valdez's response was that it was time for Chicanos to assume their place in the mainstream and that separatism had been just a necessary phase that prepared them to do so without losing their sense of identity. But it was also clear that the young men in Zoot Suit had to reject that aspect of pachuquismo, that very attractive, very essential part of their identity as Chicanos, that was disruptive of society and self-destructive.

    Lack of commitment to cultural authenticity seemed confirmed--certainly to Latino actors who protested--in 1992 when Valdez attempted to cast Laura San Giacomo, an actress with something of a bankable name but also an Italian ancestry, as Frida Kahlo in the movie he was trying to make about the artist. Valdez argued that the compromise was necessary to get Hollywood to do movies with Hispanic protagonists at all and that the movie would offer a picture of Latino life that was not gang- or drug-based, i.e., nonstereotypical and presumably positive.

    Maybe it's just the difficulty of a Chicano writer/director making headway in the commercial world, but in truth, it's difficult seeing Valdez as lost leader, as someone who's abandoned his roots, in San Juan Bautista, the mission town where Mummified Deer has been playing in a theater Valdez built out of a fruit-packing shed. By no means as far off the beaten track as Glover, Vermont, where Bread and Puppet escaped city life in the 1970s, it's still a small rural town a long way from entertainment capitals and city attitudes.

    The style of Valdez's new play also points to continuity. And for the most part the inspired stylistic innovations that radical theaters excelled in--in Mummified Deer for instance, a hospital bed that's transformed into a train laden with Mexican revolutionaries--still work their magic in Valdez's hands. The sudden release of concentrated imagination thrills. But even when they don't work, when they now seem more a part of tradition than vital and expressive, their mere presence, like the continued earnest tone of his writing in our smug, cynical time, suggests that Valdez hasn't jettisoned the past.

    In any event, the story itself makes it clear that roots are not easily cut off. On a simple series of platforms, marked with what seem to be petroglyphs and hung with plastic sheets that make the set look like an ice cave--poor theater after all these years!--Mama Chu, a fierce, 84-year-old family matriarch, lies on a hospital bed, suffering from abdominal pains. When the cause of her condition is diagnosed not as cancer but as a mummified fetus that has been lodged in her womb for sixty years, her granddaughter Armida, an anthro grad student at Berkeley who's in search of the truth about her mother's life, begins to pierce the maze of myths and half-truths that have made up Chu's story and the family's history.

    Along the way, secrets are revealed about paternity, incest and migration. The ultimate source of these secrets and family myths isn't, however, as in many plays, personal pathology. The half-truths and inventions all proceed from a historic cause: the little-known Yaqui genocide at the hands of Porfirio Diaz and the Federales, which capped four centuries of little-known Yaqui resistance to European colonization.

    In the end, it turns out that none of Chu's children as they're presented in the play are hers. Her children were all taken away and murdered in the genocide. She gathered Armida's mother, aunt and uncle to her to fill the void. (The horrific description of the mass slaughter alone insures that this play is not going very far into the mainstream.)

    Powerful, serious material. And Valdez doesn't always treat it reverentially, as many lesser playwrights would. The introduction of a kind of grotesque humor makes it all the more powerful at times. As when Aunt Oralia (Rosa Escalante) wonders, "Can't you just yank that little sucka [the dead fetus] out?" or Uncle Profe explains the incest by saying simply, "We were always very close."

    To his credit, Valdez doesn't treat the Chicano family reverentially, either. He understands that they can be quite conservative even though they've been victims (or because they've been victims). He satirizes them and creates a number of characters that, like the satirical figures of the actos, are one-dimensional types. With an Oralia, that works to project a sense of how self-protective she is about the past, but this is ultimately a play of terrible family secrets, and having the weight of those secrets fall on an Armida who is little more than a plot mechanism and Berkeley-activist-type blunts the force of the drama.

    It's not simply a matter of an uneven cast, one that ranges all the way from the very adept and realistic Daniel Valdez (Uncle Profe) to Estrella Esparza (Armida), who can barely make the words her own. It's also the writing and the way Valdez as director has the characters played. As director, he also pitches a number of the performances very high. An actress like Alma Martinez, who plays Mama Chu, can obviously change gears on a dime and sketch in a reaction or attitude with the flick of a hand, but Valdez pushed her performance hard and makes it vocally very forceful, as if constantly to remind us what a powerful woman this is. The result is a lack of nuance, variety and sympathy that sent me fleeing to quieter characters like Uncle Profe and Armida's mother, Agustina (Anita Reyes).

    Then too, the revelations about the past are far too complicated, there's too much information coming at you generally, and what exactly the deer dancer represents is obscure. Also, the symbol of the mummified fetus at times feels contrived. All of which makes it difficult to take in and feel comfortable with what Valdez is apparently going for in his continuing exploration of what he understands to be a continually evolving Chicano identity. That is, the sense that Chu's finally confronting the Yaqui genocide results in her forgoing an operation and keeping the fetus, which is an incarnation of both an indio past that is dead and gone and a living Yaqui spirit that--bypassing the acquiescent and self-deluding generation of aunt and uncle--Chu passes on to her granddaughter, Armida.

    Hal Gelb

  • Theater December 7, 2000

    Long Playwright’s Journey

    You've got to understand what Sam Shepard meant to us.

    There are those who know Shepard as a movie star and those who discovered him, earlier on, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child; but for those of us who first watched his plays in tiny studio theaters above a bar or in converted churches when there was still a counterculture, he was our playwright.

    Shepard's plays were like no others--fresh, hip, antiheroic, free from the tired old psychology of Tennessee Williams and the Actors Studio. By no means political, they nevertheless made us aware of the myths that shaped our behavior as Americans. And if you knew where playwriting had been, with all those precious attempts to repoeticize the drama, and knew what was happening with psychedelics--people beginning to listen to those half-heard perceptions passing through their heads--you knew he had created an inevitably right form of drama.

    He also meant a lot to people in the Bay Area, where, in the waning days of the counterculture, he settled for the better part of a decade. That was about the same amount of time Eugene O'Neill lived here, and like O'Neill, Shepard wrote many of his best plays here. He's been quoted as saying his years as playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where he premiered Angel City, Buried Child, Fool for Love and True West, were "the most productive time of my theater life."

    But then, having given by his presence a certain validation to regional theater in the forever insecure "world class" city of San Francisco, he pulled up stakes and went to work as an actor in Hollywood movies. This at about the same time he was criticizing the hell out of the corruption of the creative process in La-La Land, in True West. And not only did he abandon our ever so artistically pure Bay Area for Hollywood, but he ended up making a long line of godawful movies, like Dash and Lilly, Purgatory and Baby Boom, pictures you wouldn't have thought a man of his literary sophistication and discrimination would touch.

    In the past decade, Shepard seems to have returned to theater, though these have largely been years of successful revivals and very mixed and often not very warm responses to his recent work. The result is a lingering fear that Shepard, once the Wunderkind of American drama, has treated his tremendous gift far too carelessly.

    Which brings us to The Late Henry Moss, the first premiere of a Shepard play by the Magic Theatre in seventeen years (at Theatre on the Square in San Francisco). The very best playwright of his generation was able to interest Nick Nolte and Sean Penn in the play--two of the very best actors in America, actors who time and time again have shown seriousness in their choice of material. That heightened expectations of the old exhilaration: a return of the real Sam Shepard, the poet, sure-footed, bringing you face to face with perceptions only half-acknowledged. And not only might Shepard be back at the top of his form, but this was an older and, one hoped, more deeply seeing Shepard, writing about the ultimate subject, death.

    Shepard had left the Bay Area saying he was "no longer young," and now here we were so much further along. (Seventeen years; is it possible?) The golden boy is 57 and has lost both his mother and the father who was the source of so much of the anger and unhappiness in his plays. As he says at the end of Cruising Paradise, his 1996 collection of tales containing versions of both those deaths, "Everything was in place."

    In The Late Henry Moss, the father's death is a mystery. One son, Ray (Sean Penn), seeks the truth about it and about his father and the family's past. The other, Earl (Nick Nolte), his opposite, seeks to hide the truth from himself and others. But from a cab driver (Woody Harrelson) and a concerned neighbor, Esteban (the delightful Cheech Marin), and in flashbacks, we discover that the father (James Gammon) went on a drunken fishing trip with a mysterious Native American woman (a very strong Sheila Tousey). Psychically tougher and more powerfully vital than any man in the play, she constantly throws it in the old man's face that he is dead in life. Ultimately she helps him really die. As she does, we discover Earl's part in that evening and his earlier act of betrayal when the family broke apart.

    As the brothers, Nolte and Penn do what they do. Nolte drags on a cigarette, the tip just emerging from his fist, knocks down a shot, passes a hand through his hair and plays ravaged, weighed-down inner suffering with great naturalness. Equally real for the most part, Penn is intense, like a cat about to spring, and is ace, as you might expect, with Shepard's insolent threats and threatening silences. Both know to goose the energy with dynamic gestures, but both can also be a little small at times, as if they're expecting a camera to magnify the drama of facial nuances.

    Unlike Woody Harrelson, who turns in a hugely inventive performance as the cab driver, finding fifty different ways to physicalize essentially the same action, what Nolte and Penn do ultimately begins to seem like more of the same. But here I think the problem is the writing, and with great disappointment I report that Shepard hasn't returned to his former powers with this play. He simply hasn't given Penn and Nolte sufficient material to work with. There's not a whole lot to the characters, and their relationship lacks the continuously rich evolution of True West. I suspect this underwriting is part of what makes the ending seem inflated and overwrought. The fact that what is revealed about the family's past isn't all that compelling doesn't help.

    There are of course many joyously perverse, off-the-wall Shepard lines like "Every death has to be reported these days--unless you kill someone" and (to bumbling funeral attendants) "That's my father you just dropped." His typically audacious choices as writer and director are also very much in evidence, as when he leaves a giant, unsettling, unfurnished empty space in the set, stage right, or when Sheila Tousey picks Marin up and swings him back and forth like a doll, or when Harrelson leaps on top of a refrigerator, a meat cleaver in hand for protection.

    Where most directors move actors about the stage to articulate relationships and tell the story of the play and create an overall mood with lights and textures, it's as though Shepard does all that and, with the help of designers Andy Stacklin (set), Anne Militello (lights) and Christine Dougherty (costumes), also creates pictures on stage that have the strange beauty of Edward Hopper's--only with a palette more like Wayne Thiebaud's. Shepard also moves into a more overt and equally beautiful surrealism, as when Tousey's head and arms appear otherwise disembodied over the edge of a bathtub.

    In fact, Shepard seems to be trying to move into new territory. If Buried Child was Shepard's Ibsen play (and Ibsen parody) and Fool for Love his Strindberg, The Late Henry Moss may be a kind of Long Day's Journey Into Night, an attempt at closure with his father and his death.

    The way he manages that attempt shows Shepard still of a countercultural bent, embracing the counterculture's characteristic antidote, inclusion of the Other. The setting is no longer a desert wasteland but the Southwest, the Latin/Native American West, New Mexico, where Shepard first moved when he left the Bay Area, and where a brooding primitivism makes you feel you've crossed into a foreign country.

    After years of delineating the underside of macho, in Henry Moss Shepard brings onto his stage a Native woman, sensuous, with a mythic dimension and definitely Other. She brings with her clear vision, reverence for the dead, ritual, dance and a nonstereotypical way of being female. And it is she who--not maternally, but with great hardness--brings Henry to his death and closure to his suffering and macho failings.

    Ultimately, however, this closure doesn't bring about a sense of reconciliation. The account of Shepard's father's funeral in Cruising Paradise is tender, full of pity and acceptance, and in it Shepard captures a very real sense of the grief that sneaks up unexpectedly (even when you harbor great anger toward the deceased). He chokes up reading the Bible over his father's grave and can't go on.

    Henry Moss is a different work, and there's no reason Shepard should re-create the same emotional landscape, but given the subject matter there's a surprising lack of those feelings. Esteban is upset by Henry's death; Ray stands mutely by the corpse for a moment. In the final analysis, though, Shepard is extremely hard on his characters, father and sons. You might say, unforgiving. The failings and betrayals are a barrier he can't seem to get past. And in the end, the play never deals with the grief and pity that must be dealt with if reconciliation is to come from an encounter with the dead.

    Hal Gelb