Monday, April 17, 2006

STAGE: Timon of Athens

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of seeing a production of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens at Cal State Fullerton. I was excited going in, because this was one of the last two Shakespeare plays I'd never seen before (see Denny & Tom's Shakespeare Quest). We often hear the suggestion that perhaps some of Shakespeare's rarely performed works are rarely performed for a reason. But in my experience so far, I've yet to see a Shakespeare play that lacked potential for good theatre (even though particular productions may not always realize the fullest potential), and this was no exception. Timon of Athens presents an engaging, though bleak, story about a generous man's fall from wealth to poverty in both gold and friendship. It contains some good speeches, a powerful dramatic character in Timon, a good "fool" in the philosopher Apemantus, some funny bawdy scenes, and some thought-provoking plot and character turns -- in short, all the essential Shakespeare elements. The story is unusual and singularly bleak, with Timon ending up a bitter misanthrope, spurning all friendship (even when genuine), living practically as an animal, and leaving nothing good to say about humanity. As in Pericles (another fatalistic Shakespeare play), there are no just deserts in this play, but rather a wanton Fate who can treat a good man quite cruelly. Unlike Pericles, Timon has no family or real love in his life to sustain him, and Fate denies him a just resolution. I wonder what may have been going on in Shakespeare's life when he wrote this, that inspired such bleak bitterness. And I wonder what he meant for us to make of it. Unlike the more "classic" tragedies, Timon is not a clear hero undone by an identifiable tragic character flaw. He is a genuinely good man, and his only flaw is being excessively generous and credulous. But when he is ultimately disillusioned and abandoned by his fair-weather friends, he becomes excessive in his misanthropy.

Nonetheless, the tale is a fascinating one, especially if the production is good, and the CSU Fullerton production was splendid. Jamison Jones, an accomplished alumni of CSUF, was outstanding in the hefty role of Timon, embodying easy largesse at first, shifting gears to betrayed and outraged in the powerful speech outside the walls (IV:i), and finally degenerating to a near-mad misanthropy, combining natural mastery of the speech with splendid physicality. Director Donn Finn did an excellent job realizing this difficult play. His choice of mostly modern costume and atmosphere worked well: the contemporary martinis, suits, and glamorous party atmosphere was a natural fit for the feast of flatterers. His setting Timon literally waist-deep in a pit in the latter acts of the play, shoveling up dirt and the occasional parsnip, was great imagery. The scenes of the false friends denying the entreaties of Timon's servants, with their hedonistic overtones underscoring their self-centeredness, were brilliant. And the device of using "security camera footage" to fill in a lacuna in the unfinished script worked very well. The other performers (mostly students) were consistently good, notably Zack Kraus as Apemantus and Larry Peters as Flavius (the loyal steward). The quality of the production was enough to make me consider driving all the way out to Fullerton again!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

What Channel Would Jesus Watch?

In the past year, the United Church of Christ has developed a very creative series of TV ads that emphasize the openness of their church to all people, especially reaching out to those who have felt rejected or alienated from other churches. One ad shows a church with a bouncer out in front, turning a variety of people away. Another ad shows people in church pews, and then a hand is shown pressing a big red "ejector" button, as a woman with a crying baby goes flying. As the button is pushed again and again, a gay couple goes flying out of their pew, followed by a Middle Eastern looking man, and an old woman with a walker. The ads are very funny and creative, and make an important point. So many churches can make people feel excluded and judged. Doing what they believe Jesus would do, the UCC wants to reach out to just such people. Unfortunately, many broadcast and cable channels have declined to run these ads, giving various lame excuses. Even Logo, a cable channel devoted to lesbian and gay programming, just recently rejected the ads. As a leader of the UCC's program commented, "I guess the idea of gay TV doesn’t really mean it’s your community’s network. It’s just something that’s targeted at you to sell product." Indeed. Fortunately, two other gay and lesbian channels, Here! and Q Network, have both agreed to run the ad as a public service announcement. This gives us some idea of who our real friends are among the cable channels.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Welcoming Katherine Frances

After attending our third funeral in less than two months, it was joyfully refreshing to visit our dear friends Mark and Heather, and to meet their new daughter Katherine Frances, who was born on Tuesday. There are few occasions more joyful than a birth, and few things more wonderful than holding a newborn baby in your arms. She is so tiny and innocent and beautiful and precious. Seeing this beautiful baby, her loving parents, and delighted grandparents (one of them looking down from Heaven and doing a jubilant polka), aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends surrounding her, it refills the world with hope. As the poet Carl Sandberg so rightly said, "A baby is God's opinion that life should go on."

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Polygamy Is In The Air

Suddenly, polygamy is in the air. Sure, there's the continual drumbeat from Stanley Kurtz and his ilk that gay marriage is a short slide down the slippery slope to polygamy, but the new HBO series "Big Love" has really stirred the pot, and Charles Krauthammer's essay on the subject has got my most respected bloggers worked up. The good thing is that it has brought forth a plethora of intelligent responses to the traditionally unexamined slippery-slope trope. Andrew Sullivan observes that being gay is an essential part of one's identity in a way that being a polygamist is not. Jason Kuznicki notes that making marriage gender-neutral has no effect on existing marriages, while making marriage no longer limited to two people is a substantial change of rules affecting all existing marriages. Kip Esquire points to the thorny legal issues that nobody has any answers for. Jonathan Rauch argues that polygamy is a destabilizing social force, while gay marriage is a stabilizing one. And in an essay last year, I observed that same-sex marriage is consonant with gender equality, while polygamy is consonant with more traditional unequal gender "roles". (It seems there was a polygamy buzz last year around this same time. A peculiar form of "March madness"?)

These are each great arguments, and the one thing I would add is to build on Kip's legal and conceptual issues. I think it's important to start with the conceptual, because I don't think there's a clear concept of polygamy being consistently argued. (Part of the problem, of course, is that practically all of the polygamy arguments are straw men. Is anybody sincerely arguing for it?) A basic question that needs to be asked is whether we're talking about a concept of multiple pairwise marriages that are allowed to occur simultaneously (call this the "traditional polygamy"), or a concept of a single marriage that includes more than two people (the "new polygamy", a sort of intimate commune). Advocates of either concept have some serious explaining to do as to how this is supposed to operate in practice. Say Bob is married to Carol, and Ted is married to Alice, but then Bob and Alice decide they also want to be married. Does that mean we have three concurrent marriages (B-C, T-A, and B-A) or do the four of them have to agree to a new communal marriage? Suppose Bob, Carol, and Alice all want to be married, but Ted doesn't want to expand his marriage to more than Alice? Must Alice divorce Ted first, or can she maintain a pairwise marriage with Ted while forming a polyamorous commune with Bob and Carol? What is the relationship between Alice and Carol? Or Bob and Ted? What relationship remains between Alice and Carol when Bob dies? If Carol runs up outrageous credit card bills, can the creditors go after Alice? Can they go after Ted? Who makes medical decisions for Alice when she is temporarily incapacitated? Where and how do children fit into all of this?

It should be clear by now that same-sex marriage is perfectly simple, and that polygamy seriously messes up our current practice of marriage in a way that same-sex marriage does not. With due respect to Krauthammer, he may have been thinking about polygamy for 10 years, but he hasn't been thinking about it very deeply.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Hammer Nailed

I don't often go in for schadenfreude, but some people just really deserve it. I have to say that it was with great delight that I read this evening that Tom DeLay won't run for re-election, and is likely to resign soon. Few men can be credited with doing as much damage to the American political system, poisoning our government with corrosively partisan politics, as Tom DeLay. The savvy party leader was quoted as saying "Even though I thought I could win, it was a little too risky." Translation: "now that the corruption scandal prosecutors have put the squeeze on close staff members, my guilty fat's too close to the fire, and I need to bail out now." Good riddance.