I’m Uncomfortable

Gabbing about the importance of facing the awkward, the awful, the upending and the just plain weird in the theater with special guest Paul Potenza, artistic associate with Jobsite Theater.

This week Caught in the Act caught up with Paul Potenza, 30-plus-year stage veteran in the Tampa Bay area and artistic associate with our resident theater company, Jobsite Theater, to address a delicate issue: a trend in audiences finding subject matter “objectionable” that didn’t used to bother folks. What’s going on? The conversation led to the bigger topic of theater’s role in provoking audiences towards some greater understanding, some bigger revelation, and why being uncomfortable can be very beneficial despite living in a world dominated by traumatic and uncomfortable content on social media.

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Paul J. Potenza in Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, the first play ever performed in the Off-Center Theater (now the Shimberg Playhouse). Circa 1994. (Photo: Steve Widoff)

PAUL POTENZA: I have this vivid memory of working with my friend and director at the time, Jeff Norton … I was battling with a scene, and, at a certain point in the rehearsal I said, “I’m not really comfortable with how this is going.” Jeff simply replied, “I’m not overly concerned with how comfortable you are right now.” It was fantastic! We worked our way through it, and we moved the play forward. There was progress. It’s important to me to be challenged, whether it be onstage or as an audience member. It’s how we can grow, how we can get better. Better at listening, better at learning and simply sitting next to one another.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: This title of this blog is “I’m Uncomfortable.” The topic came up after a national conversation about certain theater customers complaining, asking for money back, boycotting shows or writing nasty grams on social media because they didn’t “want to pay good money for [that kind of language], [that political view], [those kinds of characters],” etc. Jobsite typically goes for a least a few of these types of shows on their season, with 1984 being next in line. Will you share your thoughts about why socially and politically challenging theater upsets people so much and why you think it’s necessary (or not) as a part of Jobsite’s mission?

PP: I suppose, historically, arts patrons have, at times, had their way or their “$ay” with what is being done artistically, based on their comfort level, at their venue of choice. People not showing up for shows because of content … well, that’s also been going on since the beginning of time as has being part of something “you just must see”—something trendy and fashionable. If you’re uncomfortable, truly uncomfortable, then I respect that as an individual, but to make it corporate policy? Not so much. I love hands on, open palms, open ears and eyes, face to face. “Those kinds of characters” the anti-heroes, are at the nucleus of the greatest stories ever told onstage. Jobsite, the company, has obligations to its mission statement. Jobsite shares and surveys so many plays among its associates – it’s amazing and exhausting. We’re trying to find great plays. Period. As much of a fan I am about holding hands and happy endings, there is a whole lot more to do onstage. Theater that challenges and upsets might just move you to think, to feel something or see a person or situation or idea in another way. It’s absolutely necessary.

CITA: Over your span of time with Jobsite, what would you rank as the Top 5 “most uncomfortable” works—works that pushed the envelope for audiences’ social, political, and moral assumptions? What value did these pieces have for Tampa audiences and the company itself? Where does 1984 fit compared to these?

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PP: So, the play Blackbird by David Harrower immediately comes to mind. It’s the story of a shocking visit between 27-year-old Una and 55-year-old Ray at his workplace. Fifteen years earlier, he sexually abused her when she was twelve. They had unsuccessfully attempted to run off together. Ray was arrested, found guilty and jailed for three years for statutory rape. After serving his time, he tries to establish a new life for himself with a new career and a new name. Una discovers his whereabouts and tracks him down at this workplace in the break room. And this is where we find the two characters at the top of the play. Very uncomfortable. Why the hell would anyone want to do this play or see this play? It would be much easier to stay at home and watch comfort programing on Netflix. But where is the payoff? The conflict, the energy, the insight into these two people “involved” seems like an insurmountable situation. There’s a door in the room—but why doesn’t either just leave? Because that isn’t what this story is about. It is very easy to simply decide that one person here is the guilty one (and he is), but what would make this now young woman come back to confront him, to experience … god knows what?

Does he deserve a chance at a new life? He served his time. Why does she seek him out now? What is she searching for? Redemption? Revenge? A relationship? We don’t know. The characters don’t even know. The theater, this play, gives you an opportunity to be in that room. It creates a dialogue, and it is UNCOMFORTABLE.

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Topdog/Underdog by Suzi-Lori Parks is a play about two African American brothers struggling to make ends meet. Abandoned by their parents when they were teenagers, Lincoln and Booth, now in their thirties, were forced to learn to survive relying on themselves. Poverty, family relationships and responsibilities, honesty, dishonesty—are just some of the themes in this uncomfortable play. To say that the play does not have a happy ending is an understatement. Life and the cards you’re dealt are sometimes inescapable. You are not going to get the whole story in a 60 second news segment. You don’t get the whole story in a 90-minute play. We do gain some perspective as audience members. We can and do learn in the theater.

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Annapurna by Sharr White is the story of a man and woman who were married twenty years ago and haven’t seen each other since the man, in an alcoholic state, was responsible for a terrible accident with their five-year-old son. Now living alone, off the grid, his ex-wife comes to find him sober and terminally ill. Her mission is to prepare him for a visit from his son. Why? Uncomfortable. As the audience, we have to know: after all this history, did love survive? My god—theater is so beautiful to give us the chance to see and feel inside the hearts of those who hurt, of those who hurt us.

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The Guys by Anne Nelson is based on the true story about a fire captain faced with the responsibility of writing the eulogies for eight of his lost brothers, post 9/11. Uncomfortable. The beauty of this play is the humanity shared with a writer to help the captain capture the truth and personalities of these “regular” guys. A tough swallow, a hard sell … but grace and beauty beyond belief. Uncomfortable on the surface—try telling someone to go see a play about dead firemen. Then, go talk to audience members post-show, and you’ll see people at their best. The play creates so much appreciation for the men, for the shared experience of dealing with 9/11 and for the actors who carry the story.

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Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire is the story of a young husband and wife who tragically and accidentally lost their son while he was innocently chasing the family dog. To witness the near impossible task of how a couple, a family, can or cannot come back from what many would consider the worst loss any human could experience, the loss of a child … that’s uncomfortable.

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In George Orwell’s 1984, the character of Winston Smith is determined to remain human under rather inhuman circumstances. Although I’m drawing up the plot rather simply, there are many parallels to the other plays I’ve mentioned. A human spirit, a well-meaning human spirit, may not always fare well or best in a human world but the difficulties, the divide and the incongruities of them make for great theater and many valuable lessons no matter where you live.

CITA: The play version of 1984 opens April 25. It will hardly be a jolly night at the theater as the audience watches an average citizen interrogated for Thoughtcrimes in a dystopian (read: alarmingly familiar) society. We’re inundated with traumatic stories on an hourly basis, day after day, year after year, thanks to social media, so why continue to use theater as a space to provoke us in ways that social media now does? Why not have each play be a happy escapist fantasy vs. an artistic rendering of a dystopian reality? Tangentially, where do we find hope in 1984? Where do we find hope in being uncomfortable in the theater?

PP: Yes! 1984 opens April 25th, and it will be a jolly night in the theater—if you are open to it. First and foremost, we are absolutely privileged to be in that intimate space. The Shimberg Playhouse is getting better and better technically and aesthetically. Thank you, Straz Center. So, I know that’s not your question but that’s how I feel there … It’s been my theatrical home since the day it opened. I did the first play in that space, then called The Off Center Theater. Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll by Eric Bogosian. Again, I digress. Of course I see all the traumatic stories we are inundated with hour by hour, and it’s easy to say “No way I’m going to go see that play.” I see that horror every day on my phone—yeah, I said phone. You ask why continue to use theater as a space to provoke us in ways that social media now does. Because the theater has a heartbeat, it breathes. At its best, it brings people together to share small magnificent stories. In 1984, the hope is the fact that Winston believes that the human mind must be free. He believed this before he was tortured and forced to let go of that belief, that truth. Don’t let go of live theater—I trust you’ll find truth and perhaps comfort there.

See Winston Smith fight for humanity in Jobsite’s production of 1984, playing April 25-May 20 in The Shimberg Playhouse.

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If I Can Make It There, I Can Make It Anywhere

Musicians and actors who make the leap to Broadway

Kill Bill super-assassin Uma Thurman skillfully executed a Broadway debut in The Parisian Woman in November 2017, as did rock ‘n’ roll superstar Bruce Springsteen in September, when he broke box office records and added Boss of Broadway to his long list of artistic credentials with his show Springsteen on Broadway. Michael Moore, political provocateur and filmmaker, took to Broadway in August with The Terms of My Surrender, his one-man limited engagement.

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Fania Borach, known professionally as Fanny Brice, circa 1920. (Photo: George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress)

Local lore has it that the American crossover star phenomenon started around 1910 with Fanny Brice (the “Funny Girl” later played by Barbra Streisand), who made it on Broadway then took to Hollywood and radio. Brice set many precedents in her career, and this notion that performing artists launched a career in one field and conquered the next challenge as they gained success laid the foundation for stars to take the Broadway Challenge: they might be good singers or actors, but can they handle the greatest test of all, the demands of performing live at the epicenter of theater?

Take, for example, multi-platinum crooner Josh Groban, who debuted in the 2017 surprise hit Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 and walked away with a Tony nomination for Best Lead Actor in a Musical. Carly “Call Me Maybe” Rae Jepsen donned the glass slippers for Cinderella, and teeny-bopper heartthrob Nick Jonas took over for Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) as the lead in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Probably one of the best musical vehicles for pop singers is Chicago, and that cast has welcomed Ashlee Simpson, Sofia Vergara, Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson and R&B superstars Brandy and Usher, among others.

In March, Deborah Cox, the Grammy-winning and multi-platinum recording artist, takes on the role of Rachel Marron in the musical adaptation of the Whitney Houston from diva-to-screen-siren crossover Hollywood hit The Bodyguard. Cox, who made her Broadway debut in Aida, started her career as a backup singer for Celine Dion and eventually made a place for herself on Broadway. She also starred in Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway and at The Straz in 2013.

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Deborah Cox as Rachel Marron, with Jaquez André Sims, Brendon Chan, Willie Dee and Benjamin Rivera in The Bodyguard. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Cox, who proved her versatility on screen, stage and in the recording studio, continues to join the rising ranks of performers blurring the lines between “what kind” of star they want to be. With Springsteen’s success on Broadway in basically a troubadour stint and Kinky Boots inking Panic at the Disco! frontman Brandon Urie and Scissor Sisters rocker Jake Shears to rack up ticket sales, there’s certainly a safe bet for a box office draw of known names and faces in new territory. For Cox, of course, there’s the added pressure of stepping into some mighty big Whitney Houston-sized shoes. “I want to make sure that [Houston is] represented right. I know what the expectations are. …That’s pretty much what I’m going in there to do – give it my all, really make this show a huge success because the show deserves it. She deserves it. Her legacy deserves it,” Cox said in a 2016 interview with app.com.

To catch Cox* as Rachel Marron, get tickets for The Bodyguard playing in Morsani Hall March 20-25 here.

*Deborah Cox is not scheduled to perform at the Saturday matinee or Sunday evening performances.

The Family Play

Author Alison Bechdel reveals what it was like to see her very personal graphic memoir Fun Home transformed into a Tony®-winning Broadway musical. An exclusive from the Straz Center’s INSIDE magazine.

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Photo: Elena Seibert

In 2015, an innovative, poignant and bold little musical swept the Tony Awards®, netting Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book and Best Direction. Something of a dark horse, Fun Home unfurled no epic celebrity life story, no sweeping revival or rollicking adaptation of a hit movie.

It was, however, an impressive musical adaptation of an acclaimed graphic memoir by an underground lesbian icon, Alison Bechdel. The book, which she laboriously constructed from memories, photos and a painstaking illustration process, lays bare (often to pitch-perfect notes of dry humor) the Bechdel family secret – Dad’s unexplained rage and obsessions had a source, one that was very closely tied to Alison’s own sense of identity.

You would think that a story built around a father’s suicide, a funeral home (the “fun home” of the title), the social torture of being gay in a straight world and a woman’s examination of these family dynamics may be a bit dark and heavy. In the case of the musical Fun Home, you’d be wrong. It’s a sweet story of an earnest person’s role in a complicated family, the misfirings of familial love and the awkward stumbling toward an understanding of our true selves. And, there’s a winning homage to “Partridge Family”-style gumption in the face of life’s often overwhelming realities (“Raincoat of Love”).

The Straz Center’s magazine caught up with Alison by phone at her Vermont farm to talk about her creation of Fun Home and then being the observer to Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s adaptation of the book into the award-winning musical.

INSIDE MAGAZINE: Let’s talk a little about you and your cultural thumbprint. It started with your underground hit comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and continued with “The Bechdel Test” about how to spot gender equality in films that came from the comic. Now, these huge works of literary cartooning, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?. How did you get here, to icon status?

ALISON BECHDEL [laughs]: I often ask myself that question! I don’t know. I guess … a strange thing happened in the world of comics. When I graduated in the ‘80s, cartooning was not about a career path. It was kind of a sketchy thing to be doing with your life. I loved writing cartoons about lesbians, this very marginal culture, but I wasn’t thinking about being a success or making money. I was caught up in being a part of this community – especially as someone who had had a traumatic loss in my family [her closeted father’s suicide], and writing comics for this community became a mission for me. I was doing the comic for fun, then a job came out of it, and things happened from there. The big shift happened when people realized that comics weren’t just for kids, that comics could tell really powerful and complicated stories for adults. Attitudes changed with [Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about his father, a Holocaust survivor] Maus. I was able to continue to work and draw because of this shift.

IM: Do you think you’ve come out of the underground with the success of Fun Home the musical? Do you consider yourself mainstream?

AB: No, I don’t consider myself mainstream. Superman is mainstream, so I’m not mainstream in that sense at all. I’m more mainstream than I was though. Yeah, I was a subcultural phenomenon for a long time, writing this soap opera-like comic strip about lesbian friends. Then, when I moved to tell this story about my family and growing up with my father and his sexuality … for whatever reason, that touched a bigger audience than the comic strip.

IM: There are a lot of children who loved fathers who had major unresolved issues and emotional secrets. Perhaps that’s the universal appeal of Fun Home, that it’s a family story that touches on that confusion. In the time between publishing the book and the book’s success, did you suspect the family relationships would be so relatable?

AB: No! I had no idea that was going to happen! It felt like such a particular, idiosyncratic, unique, weird story. I couldn’t imagine who was going to relate to it. I was trying to envision my audience as you’re supposed to when you’re a writer, and I was thinking about the audience for my comic strip. But, they wouldn’t like it because it was too weird … it was asking something else of my reader. So, I decided to write the book for myself. I was my audience. For whatever reason, that thinking paved the road for other people to relate.

IM: In the graphic memoir, you tackle so many deep philosophical questions – who am I?, what does it mean to be me?, what is the true self and what does that have to do with the people who were my mother and father?. In reading the book, we didn’t know so much was going to be demanded of us intellectually. Do you still consider yourself a cartoonist? You seem like so much more than that.

AB: I’d argue that’s what cartoonists do, what cartoons can do. I feel excited and committed to this process of taking these complex internal experiences and rendering them in comics in words and pictures. I want my work to be accessible, and it’s from an inaccessible place, I acknowledge that. But, it’s a good challenge.

IM: With the success of Fun Home and the book about your relationship with your mother, Are You My Mother?, you’ve done it as the artistic, sensitive child. You fulfilled the impossible emotional needs of your parents: you got your dad out of the closet and we all accept him for who he is, and you got your mom on Broadway [she was an actress in Pennsylvania]. How are you feeling about that? Is it a triumph?

AB [laughs]: I never thought of it that way, that’s so funny! I do feel good about it. But, I think if you went back to Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, and asked that same question, you might run across some objections. I’ve talked with many of my parents’ friends, and mostly they’re supportive, even in spite of the personal tolls the works may have taken. I feel really good about the whole project.

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First appeared in New York Magazine – April 6-19, 2015.

IM: So, your very dense, very literary, very enjoyable and gut-wrenching personal story became a hit Broadway musical. That must have been a surreal experience.

AB: I saw it evolving slowly. It wasn’t a Broadway thing at first. It was happening at The Public Theater downtown. After years of development … I hadn’t seen any of it, and my first experience of it was that Lisa and Jeanine sent me a CD of a workshop and a script. So, it was me in my office listening to the CD and reading a script. I hadn’t known what to expect, but it was so moving to have my family brought to life like that. It was a year after that, I saw a workshop of the play. It was really powerful.

IM: When you saw the actors performing you and your family members, how was that experience for you as the real Alison Bechdel?

AB: In a way, I felt like I was getting a taste of my own medicine. [laughs] I’d written about my family all these years, and here I was being turned into a character. Maybe because I am a writer and that transmutation of life into art is something I understand well, I adjusted pretty quickly to it. It wasn’t exactly me, it wasn’t exactly my family … but, it was, in a strange way. These characters captured the essence of who my family was.

IM: The songs in the musical are fantastic. We love “Ring of Keys” and “Changing My Major.” Do you listen to the cast recording as you work, or do you consider the musical version something that belongs to Lisa and Jeanine and you leave it alone?

AB: I feel both of those things. Clearly, the musical is their creation; it belongs to them. I didn’t have anything to do with making it beyond writing the book. But I do love the musical, the soundtrack. I temporarily can’t listen to it … you know, you reach a certain point [and you just have to step away.]

IM: You’ve reached your super-saturation point?

AB: Yeah, but I listened to it like a million times before I reached that saturation point. And, I listened to so many versions of the songs. There were so many beautiful songs that got cut along the way.

IM: I heard Lisa and Jeanine scrapped song after song. We would have wanted to quit after writing so many songs that didn’t get used. They didn’t seem daunted, though.

AB: I know. I cannot imagine working the way they do, that sort of collaborating with so many different people, so many moving parts. It seems impossible to me. The key is to be ready to scrap your stuff and start over. They could do that over and over again.

IM: Lisa and Janine seem to be as powerful in their milieus as you are in yours. They seem to be the exact right team to have turned your memoir into a musical. One of the great successes of the show is that homosexuality is treated as just a place you come from, like the Midwest. No morality, no agenda. It just is. What do you make of Lisa and Jeanine’s achievement with your text?

AB: We’re all the same basic age, the same generation. Lisa and I grew up as part of that movement that was making that change [regarding homosexuality] happen. So, part of it is that’s where we all came from. I also feel like what made their adaptation so spot on was that they were willing to approach the whole project fresh. They completely made it their own by going through a lot of the same processes I had to go through to tell the story in the first place. To be open to the material, to not make a foregone conclusion as to how it’s supposed to be. They could hold it but not impose a shape on it. That’s part of what took so long developing the musical.

IM: It’s an incredible adaptation. You can’t try to adapt a graphic memoir as a graphic memoir to the stage because musicals require a different set of skills. What you were able to accomplish with images and words, they could do with music and lyrics. The same tension was created.

AB: That’s really good insight. There’s a way comics and the musical form are similar. It’s so rare there’s a good movie adaptation of a book … to have a great movie made from a great book is rare because the needs of a novel and a movie are opposed. Lisa and Jeanine found a way to put the story on to great effect.

IM: We can’t wait for the show to get here. We’re really excited for our community to see it. Is there anything that you would like to say to an audience member who may not be familiar with you or with your work but who likes musicals and is going to be in the audience?

AB: One thing I would say is … I don’t want to step on anyone’s experience of the play before they see it. But, I do want to assure people that this play is about a funeral home, a family that is, in some ways, unhappy, and even though there’s a suicide in it … somehow, it manages to be a very uplifting and often very funny play.

Fun Home plays in Morsani Hall Nov. 28 – Dec. 3.

 

The Thief and His Thief-Taker General

The unbelievable true crime story behind the swinging jazz standard “Mack the Knife.”

Once upon a time, there was a five-foot-four London folk hero who inspired John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which inspired Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, which contained the song “Mack the Knife,” which became a snappy lounge tune for jazz bopper Bobby Darin.

This is the true tale of Jack Sheppard, born into poverty in 1702 in Spitalfields, England. Sent to work at six years old after his father died, Sheppard lived with a new master, Jonathan Kneebone, who eventually apprenticed Jack to a carpenter when Jack became a teenager, and life was good. For a time.

As fate would have it, Sheppard fell in with a charismatic, strapping yet morally suspect woman, Elizabeth Lyon, who was known about the neighborhood as Edgworth Bess for her propensity to liberate objects from their owners, including money for carnal knowledge that she possessed.

She introduced Sheppard, a young man of 21, to the vices of the London underbelly at the Black Lion, a local tavern. Quickly, Sheppard discovered he liked the Black Lion and Elizabeth more than carpentry, and in 1724, he made a life-changing (and, as you will discover, dear reader, a life-ending) decision to forego his upstanding path as a carpenter for a life as a petty thief and an escapologist of remarkable talent.

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Sketch of Jack Sheppard in Newgate Prison shortly before his execution, attributed to Sir James Thornhill.

Elizabeth introduced Jack to Joseph “Blueskin” Blake, a well-known thief. With his new associates, Jack began pilfering, earning a reputation as one of the city’s notable housebreakers.

After stealing spoons from Charing Cross, Jack landed in prison in February 1724. Tying strips of his bedsheets together, Jack escaped after breaking a hole in the roof and lowering himself to freedom. This stunt garnered public attention and admiration after people learned that Sheppard got away scot-free by standing amongst them, pointing at a rooftop and shouting “Look! There he is!”

A few months passed, yet Jack was caught pickpocketing in May 1724 and was thrown into a more substantial prison. Elizabeth visited him, was arrested herself and locked in the cell with Jack. As man-and-wife, they were moved to a new prison. Friends sneaked in a few small tools, allowing Jack to saw through the manacles. With a 25-foot drop to the ground, Jack needed more than his bedsheets, so Elizabeth gave her petticoat to the cause. Unfortunately, the 25-foot drop was into another prison yard. Jack drove spikes into the wall, the two climbed over and fled into the city.

If Jack’s exploits sound like make-believe, wait until you read about the next escapes.

A bigger problem for Jack arrived in the form of the self-appointed “Thief-Taker General,” Jonathan Wild. Wild was an utterly contemptible criminal who’d fashioned himself as a champion of the people by configuring an elaborate robbery scheme whereby he magically “found” people’s stolen property and scooped up all of the reward money. He could find all of their goods because his gang of thieves stole them in the first place. Wild ran the London thieves’ underground from the police station, and he pretty much ran the police department. He had the press wrapped around his finger. No one could rat him out or he’d cry “thief” and have the person hanged without trial. It was a good gig for Wild until he decided that nabbing Jack Sheppard would be his coup de grace. But he had to find Jack first.

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A book illustration of Jonathan Wild by Charles Knight.

Wild found Elizabeth, made nice and got her drunk, wherein she divulged Jack’s whereabouts. Wild’s goons apprehended Jack, threw him in Newgate Prison, and the court sentenced him to hang.

By now, everyone knew Jack Sheppard. Public opinion of the law and the upper class turned sour, especially as the disparities in treatment between the rich and poor became glaringly obvious. Jack was low-born, clever, unstoppable, heroically in love and handsome. No one actually wanted him to pay for his crimes. They wanted him to outfox the authorities forever. Suddenly, Jack was the champion of the people, not the smug Thief-Taker General.

Elizabeth, smarting from her betrayal, gathered another one of Jack’s paramours, Poll Maggot, and the two conspired to help Jack from his latest predicament. They smuggled him a nightgown. After loosening a bar on his cell window, Jack squeezed through the bars into a hallway, donned the nightgown, walked unrecognized across the reception area and out the main door. He escaped Newgate Prison with Elizabeth and Poll only hours before his gallows bell tolled. News of this flagrant escape spread like fire. People cheered him as the Hero of London.

Wild hated it. He managed to capture Jack again, this time chaining him to the floor with handcuffs. In October 1724, Sheppard somehow unshackled himself, broke open the padlocks on six separate prison doors and shimmied up the chimney to the rooftop. Once there, he realized he forgot his trademark sheet. So, he returned to his cell, grabbed his sheet, shimmied back to the roof through the chimney, then lowered himself to a neighboring house before spiriting into the night.

Just the day before, in a confounding turn of events, Joseph “Blueskin” Blake found himself against Jonathan Wild in court. Wild, still considered the law, gave damning testimony about Blake, who was sentenced to hang. Enraged, Blake drew a blade, slashing Wild’s throat. Chaos ensued, authorities rushed Wild to the hospital.

Jack burgled a final time and was apprehended, drunk, in a tavern wearing the clothes he’d purloined. Carted to the maximum-security room in Newgate Prison, Jack was chained to the floor under 300 pounds of irons. Prison guards charged four shillings for a glimpse of the great Jack Sheppard, raking in mountains of money.

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“The Last Scene” engraved by George Cruikshank in 1839 to illustrate William Harrison Ainsworth’s serialised novel, Jack Sheppard.

In November, Blueskin Blake hanged, and five days later, the gallows cart trundled to Tyburn Hill for the execution of Jack Sheppard. Reports say 200,000 people followed Jack to his hanging, with women throwing flowers and men fighting for the chance to shake his hand. Jack Sheppard died, well-admired, on November 16, 1724, nine months after the start of his life of crime.

And Wild? Well, he recovered physically, but his reputation was never the same. Despised, Wild fell from favor, his gang of thieves turning evidence on him one by one. Tried, convicted and sentenced to death, Wild met the gallows at Tyburn Hill six months after Jack Sheppard. There was also a large crowd that day, but no one clamored to shake Wild’s hand.

The courts banished Elizabeth Lyon to America, a fitting place for prostitutes and moral degenerates, though her story is lost after she arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, shortly after Jack’s death.

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Portrayal of Macheath and Peachum in Jobsite Theater’s upcoming version of The Threepenny Opera.

The impassioned tale of Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Elizabeth Lyon captured the public’s imagination. Only four years after Jack hanged, John Gay composed The Beggar’s Opera, with the main characters of Macheath and Peachum inspired by Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild respectively.

In 1928, Brecht and Weill remade Gay’s work into the ribald THE THREEPENNY OPERA, adding, at the very last minute, an intro number for Macheath called “Mack the Knife.”

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Original poster for The Threepenny Opera from Berlin, 1928.

Though Macheath is a psychopathic interpretation of the Jack Sheppard legend, “Mack the Knife,” took on a life of its own, becoming a hit for Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and most memorably in its lounge-worthy Bobby Darin rendition.

If you want to hear “Mack the Knife” and see what Macheath and Peachum are up to, catch up with Jobsite Theater as they perform The Threepenny Opera, Oct. 18 – Nov. 12, in the Jaeb Theater.

 

Come Sit By Me

September is Women’s Friendship Month. So, how does that play out on Broadway? Let’s take a look.

The Sisterhood is real.

So is Women’s Friendship Month, which happens to be September.

In honor of the totally rad relationships women create, maintain and sustain, we decided to take a look at the way women’s friendships are portrayed in three blockbuster Broadway hits.

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I. The Color Purple
The unbreakable bond between sisters, women’s intimacy, loyalty against abusive men and the encouragement to rise up in the face of dangerous odds, the dynamics between the women in this story represent many facets of women’s friendships. The Color Purple, in its examination of the connection between sisters Celie and Nettie and the arrival of dynamos Shug and Sofia, circles around and through the nuances of the critical nature of women loving and standing up for each other. The musical tracks how each woman influences Celie, the star of the show, who struggles to come into her own identity as an African-American woman in the early 1900s. Based on Alice Walker’s award-winning novel, this story specifically reclaims the most righteous awesomeness of women looking each other square in the eye and saying, “I’m with you, sister.”

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II. Waitress
Thematically, it’s like The Color Purple but with pies. This story follows Jenna, a supremely talented pie-maker, as she relies on her waitress buddies to inspire the inner strength that propels her to an independent life doing what she loves. Based on Adrienne Shelley’s film—which she wrote in just two weeks while pregnant with her daughter—this story looks at the necessity of a network of female friends, no matter how small, to be both the safety net and the springboard for a woman with the ambition to see where her talent can take her. In an interesting real-life side note, the creative team behind Waitress the musical is all women, including hit maker Sara Bareilles who wrote all the songs and lyrics.

Of course, one of the most notorious female friendships in the Broadway canon belongs to Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, which brings us to

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III. Chicago
We dunno how much this show reflects women’s friendships as much as it illuminates humanity’s tendency to make advantageous alliances for self-preservation. However, one thing is certain: Velma and Roxie (and the rest of “Mama”’s incarcerated crew of insanely attractive murderers) make a great team for an epic battle of frenemies vying for the limelight. Chicago, which is based on reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins’s play (which was inspired by her work covering women on trial for murder in Chicago), disrupts the “sugar and spice and everything nice” notion about women and women’s relationships. In this story of literal femme fatales, women get a delightful romp in the predatory role where an uneasy truce is the closest anyone is going to get to a real relationship. Though Velma and Roxie bury the hatchet to become business partners by the end of the show, Chicago purposefully challenges gender stereotypes and assumptions about why women need each other.

However, like The Color Purple and Waitress, Chicago ultimately proves that life is so much better when you’ve got a pack of like-minded women with whom to take over the world.

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Celluloid Dreams

An in-depth convo with Straz Center Senior Director of Marketing, Summer Bohnenkamp, who directs her fifth production with Jobsite Theater – this season’s opener, The Flick.

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Summer Bohnenkamp directs Jobsite Theater’s season opener, The Flick. (Photo by Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

Jobsite Theater, almost 19 years into its illustrious reputation as one of the strongest regional theater companies in Florida and beginning their 13th as resident theater company of the Straz Center, earned their reputation by putting up challenging, edgy, sometimes cerebral, often hysterical, intermittently campy theater works designed to be politically and socially relevant. The company keeps the definitions of “political” and “social” loose on purpose: Jobsite prides itself on its blue-collar work ethic while keeping a watchful eye on the systems of power and relationships, always ready to mount the kind of winning assessment of both that good theater dramatizes.

This season opens with Annie Baker’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Flick, a play that captures quintessential Jobsite at its best: a simple set, a small cast of exquisitely drawn workaday characters, and a tiny little premise that symbolizes the entire degradation of moral authenticity that has become our modern life. It’s a play about people cleaning an old movie house.

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A peek at the set for The Flick during tech rehearsal.

“The story is about three people who are lost,” says The Flick’s director, Summer Bohnenkamp. “They work in the last indie movie house in Massachusetts that plays real film, not digital. It has a projector you have to load and everything. All the action takes place either before or after a film, and there they are in the theater talking, cleaning the theater, figuring out who they are. In a way, it reminds me of [the movie] Empire Records. It’s the same kind of idea.”

Bohnenkamp herself started similarly, selling tickets in the ticket office at The Straz, then working her way to senior management in marketing. By day, she handles the massive needs of overseeing the marketing of hundreds of performances – everything from networking and buying media to writing institutional marketing plans and providing voice-overs for television ads. Her abiding love of theater keeps her with one foot in the show, one foot in the business as she balances her life between the corporate pressures of arts marketing and the creative outlet of bringing excellent scripts to life as an actor and a director.

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Actor Georgia Mallory Guy, who plays the projectionist Rose in The Flick, posing with the projector used in the play.

“It’s cool to make something,” she says. “When I direct or act, I get to make something, and I don’t really ‘make’ other things. I don’t cook well; I’m not crafty. But, theater is something I can make that is good. It’s lasting. Hopefully, the audience and actors get something out of it, too. There are elements of trust and family that get created through the process of making a play that are very rewarding. Theater is a living, breathing thing that is never the same twice. It’s better than any therapy or exercise I can think of.”

Bohnenkamp’s other directorial achievements with Jobsite most recently includes their award-winning production of Time Stands Still. Prior to that she co-directed Annapurna and served as an associate director for reasons to be pretty and All New People. With The Flick, Bohnenkamp returns to her favorite style of script, a stripped-down, dialogue-driven, naturalistic look at people and motivations in situations we can all recognize.

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These reel cases used in the show were lent to us by Tampa Theatre.

“I like plays that are real people talking. We’ve heard these people, we’ve eavesdropped on people just like the characters in this play. We know them. All the shows I’ve done have been about regular, recognizable people, and it’s interesting to delve into that level of realness when, in actuality, you’re creating something totally false. The three characters in The Flick have some very interesting quirks,” she says. “The dialogue reveals all the major surprises. These people who seem obvious have secrets and important stories. It’s very funny.”

From auditions, Bohnenkamp pulled three actors who can capture the subtle depth of the characters and deliver the complexity of the subtext in Baker’s script. “Brian Shea plays ‘Sam,’ the manager, and he killed it right off the page. He does neuroses so well, which is required for Sam. ‘Rose,’ the projectionist, is played by Georgia Mallory Guy, who can do anything. She came into the audition and gave off exactly what I was envisioning for Rose. We have Thomas Morgan playing ‘Avery,’ the young one of the bunch and the central character. Thomas knows who Avery is, and he had a well-defined character even in the auditions. It’s a good room,” she says, referring to a well-known theater term for having a cast that is positive and hard-working. “This is going to be a fantastic show.”

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Actor Georgia Mallory Guy pictured with director Summer Bohnenkamp (top left), stage manager Vivian Rodriguez (top right), actor Thomas Morgan (bottom left), and actor Brian Shea (bottom right).

The Flick runs in the Shimberg Playhouse from Aug. 30 until Sept. 24. Get your tickets at strazcenter.org.

Honor Thy Father? It’s Complicated.

Many of us observed Father’s Day last Sunday, which prompted us to take a broad sweep through some canonical plays to see how fathers and fatherhood fare. The answer: not good. In fact, it’s so bad it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. So, let’s take a look at some of the Great Theater Works centered around father characters. Then we have a suggestion.

I. Greek and Roman

Well, there’s Oedipus, a play that sets the bar pretty low for father-son relationships. In this play, Sophocles, the famed dramatist, writes a queasy tale that starts with a father, Laius. According to a prophesy, Laius is going to be killed by his son, who will then marry Laius’ wife, the boy’s mother. Why would anyone believe this information? But, he does. So, when Laius’ son Oedipus is born, he orders a servant to kill the child. The servant can’t, Oedipus is raised in secrecy, and when he becomes a man, Oedipus is accosted by a rude traveler on a road, whom, in an altercation, he kills. That rude traveler is Laius, his dad, but Oedipus doesn’t know that. He marches on to Thebes and marries the queen, his mom, but he doesn’t know that, either. In fact, the only people who know what’s going on and witness this slow-motion train wreck are the audience. That’s what kind of sicko Sophocles was—we have to sit there with the Big Secret and watch this grody love triangle unfold. Woe is us. And you know what? None of this would have happened if Laius, the father, had made one or two other, more intelligent choices.

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Feast of Thyestés and Átreus (Václav Jindřich Nosecký, Michael Václav Halbax)

So, flubbing an attempt to kill your child and getting killed instead is pretty bad. But what about a father who unknowingly eats his two sons at a festival banquet? Yep, that happened. In Roman playwright Seneca’s gorefest Thyestes, two dads, who happen to be twin brothers, get tangled up in a father-son nightmare that makes Oedipus look about as dramatic as a public service announcement. Atreus, who is super evil and wants revenge on his twin brother, orders his sons to lure that brother, Thyestes, to Atreus’ house under false pretenses of reconciliation. There is to be a feast. Atreus then kills Thyestes’ sons, chops them up and serves them in a stew, which a drunken Thyestes noms on until the next dish is the two boys’ heads on a platter and the awful Atreus reveals the origin of the mystery meat. (Makes Quentin Tarantino look tame, right?)

Understandably, Atreus’ sons develop somewhat loose moral compasses and end up with their own tragic plays. One of those sons, Agamemnon, sacrifices (read: murders) his daughter for the gods and exacts an overall dismal attempt at setting a good example for his remaining alive children. However, they do love Agamemnon enough to avenge his death after he’s murdered (notably, by his wife and her lover), which we think proves the child’s bond to the father, however questionable he may be in his own decision-making abilities.

Which brings us to

II. Shakespeare

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Cordelia in the Court of King Lear (1873) by Sir John Gilbert.

Where to start, where to start. Look in any of the folios with dramas involving families, and you will find Shakespeare’s consistent typecasting of dads as either prideful punks or ghosts. Either way, these characters tend to care most about their honor and legacy, and the kids (and sometimes the wife) are plagued with ill-fitting assignments in duty fulfillment often involving murder. To save time, we’re looking only at King Lear and Romeo and Juliet, but you can have your own fun with Hamlet, the King Henry plays and The Tempest.

In Lear, the titular king decides to retire, divvying his kingdom among his three daughters. The catch? The spoils go to whoever displays the most love for him. Oh, the narcissism. Anyway, the one who won’t play along with his enormous ego game (naturally, his favorite daughter) gets disowned while the two remaining treacherous daughters conspire to murder Lear, who eventually dies of grief after his faithful but disowned daughter is hanged. In this play, the prideful punk becomes a ghost by the end, and we have another dad whose self-serving decisions ended up creating a chain of events that killed his children.

Ergo, Romeo and Juliet. The crux of the play rests in the bad blood between the patriarchal lines of Montague and Capulet. You know this story, so you can go with us to the quick summary of “more prideful dads, more dead kids.”

We are starting to feel like a broken record, so we’re happy to jump to

III. 20th Century America

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Burl Ives as Big Daddy and Paul Newman as Brick in the 1958 film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Two major father characters emerged in plays that continue to get lively productions years after year: Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. These figures stand on either end of the dad spectrum, with cotton-magnate Big Daddy filling the overbearing paterfamilias role and traveling salesman Willy carrying the torch of fathers portrayed as ineffectual leaders psychologically desperate for success—theirs and for their children. Both fathers share an idealism built around a man’s success and the promise of what he can build and become, often to the detriment of other family members (so that much stayed the same from the Greco-Roman template).

The same goes for the repressed and oppressed character of Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences, as his two sons struggle for his approval and love—which he can not give, thanks to his own painful back story involving murder, prison and the social captivity of black men. Troy also dies at the end, like Willy Loman, with a passel of unresolved family issues and a plague of emotional consequences from key bad decisions.

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Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson, reprising his role from the 2010 Broadway revival, in the film adaptation of Fences.

In all three of these dramas, sons seek an acknowledgement of love from their fathers who cannot or will not give it. Frankly, it’s a sad and infuriating commentary on emotional ineptitude that paints a rather depressing picture. Eugene O’Neill somewhat breaks from tradition in Long Day’s Journey into Night with the father James Tyrone, who is an unpretentious former actor with seemingly typical father-son power struggles amid a family stricken with an opioid-addicted mother and a weakness for whiskey. In fairness, the bad parent in that play is the mom, and we could certainly do a replay of this blog after Mother’s Day looking at mother figures in drama, who enact their fair share of emotional dishonesty and murder to ruin their kids’ lives.

The standout play, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, has no father in the dramatis personae. He dies before the play starts, and it is his life insurance check that brings the financial windfall that can change the life of the Younger family. All of the events that unfold sprout from his last gift to them, and, although circumstances prevented him from giving them what they wanted in life, he may be able to help them achieve their dreams in death. Although that interpretation may sound positive, that’s kind of a tall order for one man. So, even though he’s never in the play, it is, to some degree, a play about a father’s responsibility to his family—questioning the impossible expectations placed on men in a competition-based patriarchal culture.

But what about dads outside of the heteronormative patriarchal culture of toxic masculinity, you ask? Well, that brings us to

IV. Fun Home

We can’t say too much here because Fun Home runs this season at The Straz as part of our Broadway series, but it reached such massive acclaim because it is a compelling story about a daughter’s unique interpretation of her life with her dad. We don’t want to spoil the ending, but if you’ve been paying attention to patterns in this blog on father characters, you can probably guess how this musical unfolds.

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From Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, from which the musical was adapted.

However, we can say this musical—based on illustrator Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name—examines a daughter’s relationship with her closeted father who runs a funeral home. This story depicts gay characters struggling in similar themes from the above list, which forces us to see what is universal in a writer’s struggle to understand herself/himself in the family context. It’s also really, really open in discussions about the daughter’s exploration of her own sexual identity and how that is reflected in her father’s struggle with his own sexual truths. So, that facet of the father is new and refreshing though it seems to circle the same drain of a dad’s inability to express himself emotionally.

V. Final Analysis and Suggestion (Said with Love)

So what is up with all this shade thrown at dads in drama? Are fathers really unbending tyrants of their own universe? Or, failing that, destined to chase the illusion of power and condemn their families to suffer their own shortcomings? Seems a rough assessment, though our cruise through these major works casts fathers in a rather unflattering light. (Daddy Warbucks somewhat excluded.)

As they say, the winners write the history books. Perhaps, in this case, the children write the manuscripts. What struck us in this broad review was how much the dramatic canon needs Good Dad, Solid Dad, Emotionally Grown Up Dad, and Dad with Admirable Character—all the multiple facets of fatherhood everyday dads represent. We were a little shocked and sad about the two-note roles recurring throughout our short sample for this blog though we can see, especially in the 20th century work, the resounding agreement of how important fathers’ words and deeds are to the development of a child’s identity. Let’s get some fresh interpretations on this important figure, shall we?

Admittedly, we passed over the comedies, mostly because it’s hard to find a famous stage comedy about a father, though we would be happy to hear if you know of one we overlooked. Got a thought about fathers in drama or an insight into a play or musical not mentioned in this blog? We want to hear about it. Leave us a comment below.