Welcome To The Winter Of Our Discontent

Friday, September 22nd marked 2017's autumnal equinox. As the days grew shorter and the darkness refused to abate, the media lit up with lurid revelations about Harvey Weinstein's sexual assaults followed by accusations against Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, and other public figures. It's hard to believe that in one week President George W. Bush's infamous Axis of Evil (Iran, Iraq, and North Korea) was recently bumped from the headlines by a new Axis of Evil (Donald Trump, Charles Manson, and Roy Moore). One's mind quickly turns to Gloucester's speech about "The winter of our discontent" from Shakespeare's Richard III:

As I re-watched the January 12, 2017 ceremony during which President Barack Obama presented Vice President Joe Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I was struck by how lucky we were to have two such honorable men in the White House for eight years. A November 20, 2017 birthday tweet from Obama to Biden (see below) delivered a shocking reminder that, just one year ago, our country was led by two men of unquestionable integrity and remarkable good will.

Just when it feels as if our culture is bottoming out, how ironic is it that a ray of decency and sunshine should come from The Church of Satan, which tweeted:

"Child abuse is directly forbidden in the 11 Satanic Rules of the Earth. Christians however have been abusing children for centuries. They own this."

It would be nice to believe that men rely on their better instincts but, as we head toward the December 21st winter solstice, the daily news makes us increasingly dubious. The following three articles do a great deal to explain why.

If you still think that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice, listen to what Stuart Russell (a Professor of Computer Science at UC-Berkeley) has to say about the dangers of artificial intelligence and watch this video from autonomousweapons.org.

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While Claire Dederer writes about artists who evolve into monstrous men, in his one-man show entitled Deal With The Dragon, Kevin Rolston delves into the mystery of how and why some artists become monsters. Not only does he demonstrate how weakened souls can be lured into codependent relationships with satanic forces, he has a lot more fun with the concept than the familiar path taken by such literary legends as Faust and Dorian Gray. In a perverse way, Rolston shows great restraint by not finishing off his act with a parody of Anthony Newley's1962 hit song entitled "What Kind of Ghoul Am I?"

Working with magical realism can be lots of fun for a writer. Although Rolston originally aimed his work at "a very specific audience of middle-aged or older gay men," his tale of the eternal struggle between temptation and a person's self-destructive tendencies is designed to show that "desperation is a beast and we all strike bargains in order to survive."

Imagine if the devil in the Faust legend had been a bit more like Mart Crowley's Emory in The Boys in the Band ("Oh, Mary, it takes a fairy to make something pretty!") and then throw in some spicy special effects from 2010's How To Train Your Dragon. Let the monster's prey include two men vying for a prestigious prize from a small museum -- a prize that could dramatically transform any artist's career. Would you get a fierce dragon acting like Norma Desmond's mysterious valet, Max, as he waits for a victim to consummate his end of the bargain? Or a demon who can be temporarily pacified when allowed to lick the sugar off a donut?

Kevin Rolston in <strong><em>Deal With The Dragon</em></strong>
Kevin Rolston in Deal With The Dragon

As Rolston's monologue begins, the audience meets Brenn, a character with a thick German accent who has been providing financial and emotional support for Hunter Keegan, a neurotic artist. Hunter has reluctantly gotten used to the perks of Brenn's fire-breathing companionship (even if it means putting up with an occasional scorched smartphone and a few of Brenn's hissing hissy fits). Even though Hunter may be a tightly-wound pain in the ass who refuses to let Brenn fly his freak flag, as the deadline for submission approaches he's been acting a bit strange. Is he suffering from impostor syndrome, multiple personality disorder, or is Hunter's tendency to sabotage his own work the mark of a true diva? Is his petulant perfectionism preventing him from finishing a painting or has he figured out a way to cheat Brenn out of a Faustian bargain?

Hunter's competition is a skinny and deeply needy gay man who, after many years of debauchery, has found his way to Narcotics Anonymous and worked to gain control over his sex addiction. The son of a distant father and a mother whose professional skills as a clinical psychologist stifled any maternal instincts, Gandhi Schwartz knows all the tricks of the therapy trade and can mercilessly "read" anyone who crosses his path.

After starting to grow bored by Hunter's tiresome self-absorption, the audience is introduced to Gandhi when he is called upon to substitute for someone who was supposed to lead a group meeting at Alcoholics Anonymous. Although drinking has never really been his "fach," Schwartz certainly knows how to grab and hog a spotlight. Could a bitter, damaged soul with a scathing sense of humor who can appreciate some manipulative mischief be a more pliable partner for Brenn's oily talents? As Sarah Palin would say, "You betcha!"

Kevin Rolston in <strong><em>Deal With The Dragon</em></strong>
Kevin Rolston in Deal With The Dragon

The bottom line is that men are weak and will easily succumb to temptation. Billed as "a grown-up fairy tale laced with terror," Deal With The Dragon is meticulously written and exquisitely performed by Rolston. Aided and abetted by sound designer Sara Huddleston in key moments (such as when Brenn transforms from a pampering patron of the arts into a hissing, fire-breathing dragon), one is reminded of how, in Swan Lake, Odette suddenly changes from a pliant, submissive spirit into a fierce feathered creature as dawn arrives and a magic spell once again takes control of her.

In Tchaikovsky's famous ballet, the evil sorcerer (Baron von Rothbart) uses his sinister powers to entice and entrap Prince Siegfried by beguiling him with alternating visions of a beautiful white, swan (Odette) and her black alter ego (Odile). Therein lies the key to what makes Rolston's play so powerful. With help from director M. Graham Smith, Rolston has found a way to have a bit more fun with magical realism than most other writers. His acid-tongued Schwartz inspires as much laughter as the characters in Christopher Moore's hilarious San Francisco-based vampire trilogy (Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck, and Bite Me).

Following successful runs at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, A.C.T.'s Costume Shop, Z-Space, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's New Works Festival, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Deal With The Dragon is going through its final stage of fine tuning at the New Conservatory Theatre Center before heading to New York. Performances continue through December 3 in NCTC's Theatre 3 (click here for tickets).

Poster art for Kevin Rolston&#39;s <strong><em>Deal With The Dragon</em></strong>
Poster art for Kevin Rolston's Deal With The Dragon

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If you've ever wondered why so few American opera companies stage Carl Maria von Weber's 1821 opera, Der Freischutz, let me give you a clue. Despite its importance as an early work of German Romanticism and a plot in which Samiel (a/k/a The Black Huntsman) forges seven magic bullets, the opera is difficult to cast, tedious to sit through, and for nearly two centuries has been known primarily for its overture.

On March 30, 1990, a new musical directed by Robert Wilson based on the same German folktale about a "freeshooter" premiered in Hamburg. With its book by William S. Burroughs and music and lyrics by Tom Waits, The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets has been performed by numerous theatres, opera companies, and presented at arts festivals during the past 25 years. The Shotgun Players recently unveiled a production which features a unit set designed by Sean Riley, lighting by Allen Willner, costumes by Christine Crook, and sound design by Matt Stines. As stage director Mark Jackson explains:

"The three unique artists behind The Black Rider (William S. Burroughs, Tom Waits, and Robert Wilson) created a modern fairy tale nightmare for adults that broods on the powerful and pervasive patriarchy. Like all truly great artists, this trio made no attempt to assume answers, favoring the audience’s imaginations instead and content to let us be responsible for our own interpretations. Maybe this open quality is why The Black Rider has been revived so often since it premiered in Hamburg, Germany. Maybe this is also why the show can be as unsettling as it is entertaining. Or maybe it’s unsettling because it entertains. In that respect alone, The Black Rider is a peculiarly American take on the traditional European fairy tales that inspired it."
Rotimi Agbabiaka as Peg Leg in a scene from <strong><em>The Black Rider</em></strong>
Rotimi Agbabiaka as Peg Leg in a scene from The Black Rider
"I don’t believe The Devil has ever made anyone do anything. We are each 100% responsible for our own actions. This thing we call 'The Devil' is a metaphor for any impulses we’d rather not admit to having. That age-old myth of 'The Deal with The Devil' given form by countless artists (Bulgakov, Goethe, whoever wrote the Bible) is likewise a metaphor for the bargains we make with ourselves, participating in systems we don’t believe in, gambling away our integrity for the sake of our desire. Our country is in a very particular place at the moment with regard to its systems and assumptions. This production unsettles and entertains, but I don’t expect it to change the world, or America. That’s not the role of art, anyway."
Kevin Clarke as Old Uncle in a scene from <strong><em>The Black Rider</em></strong>
Kevin Clarke as Old Uncle in a scene from The Black Rider

I had a rather puzzling reaction to the opening night performance of The Black Rider which, in a bizarre way, mirrored my experience with Der Freischutz. Despite an abundance of smartly-deployed theatrical craft, and a gifted ensemble featuring several beloved Bay area actors, because the narrative took a back seat to the show's strong production values, the performance kept losing momentum. Serial reappearances from a mobile coffin by the intriguing Rotimi Agbabiaka (Peg Leg) began to lose their edge. Grace Ng's hilarious portrayal of the nerdy Wilhelm got bogged down when she not tethered to the dark and forbidding trees framing the stage.

Grace Ng (Wilhelm) in a scene from <strong><em>The Black Rider</em></strong>
Grace Ng (Wilhelm) in a scene from The Black Rider

Both Kevin Clarke (doubling as the Old Uncle and the Devil) and Noelle Viñas (who, as young Kätchen, is eager to marry Wilhelm) seemed to get mired in quicksand whenever they got close to the story line. Doubling as the masculine Robert and the curious George Schmid, the ever intriguing El Beh (along with Elizabeth Carter's Anne and Steve Hess's Bertram) frequently faded into the forest.

Steven Hess (Bertram) and Elizabeth Carter (Anne) in a scene from <strong><em>The Black Rider</em></strong>
Steven Hess (Bertram) and Elizabeth Carter (Anne) in a scene from The Black Rider

And yet, along with music director Dave Möschler, the band (Jacy Burroughs, Travis Kindred, Josh Pollock, and Carolyn Walter) was phenomenal. Was my problem due to having trouble hearing the show's lyrics? Or because parts of the evening tilted heavily in the direction of a musical freak show by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill? All I can say is that the audience response was a lot stronger than my own.

Steven Hess (Bertram) and El Beh (Robert) in a scene from <strong><em>The Black Rider</em></strong>
Steven Hess (Bertram) and El Beh (Robert) in a scene from The Black Rider

Performances of The Black Rider continue through December 31 at the Shotgun Players (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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