Arts Spotlight: 629

Freedom – A Tribute to George Michael
Friday, July 19
Fireside Theatre at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, 501 W. 78th St., Chanhassen
952-934-1525
www.chanhassendt.com

In 1991, Julius Collins moved to the Twin Cities from Atlanta to be a part of Black Julius, a Funk and Roll band with Michael Bland managed by Prince. He was also the lead singer for Greazy Meal and remains a featured vocalist for Dr. Mambo’s Combos. Collins also has a vibrant reputation in Twin Cities musical theater scene, having given terrific performances in Blues in the Night and Rebels! On Broadway at the Ordway Center, Always and Forever at Illusion Theater with T. Mychael Rambo, and When a Man Loves a Diva at the Lab with Dane Stauffer and Ben Ballentine/Bakken. He co-owns Collins Live Mpls.

Collins has been delving into the extraordinary realm of George Michael (1963-2016). He says he was “anti-pop” during the initial part of Michael’s Wham days, but adds, “I liked his Faith record a lot. But it was his Freedom 90 album that changed me. Powerful stuff! It was who was behind that image that had been so carefully crafted for him by his record label. It took courage for him to step out and be who he actually was. And you can feel that honesty when you listen to Freedom 90. George Michael is real. His soulfulness is still underrated. And his catalog is loaded with gems.”

Collins states, “There will be no impersonations—just a show of appreciation. I will have an amazing band that will help me to bring the music to life on July 19. We will do just that.” Indeed, there is much to be appreciated about George Michael. He opened the door to discussion of the fluidity of sexuality and eventually came out as gay. He was also very active in HIV/AIDS charity fundraising.

 

Jeeves Takes A Bow. Photo by Ron Ravensborg

Jeeves Takes a Bow
Through July 28
Theatre in the Round, 245 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis
612-333-3010
www.theatreintheround.org

Most of P.G. Wodehouse’s stories featuring Jeeves the Butler take place in his native England. But this one happens in Manhattan, 1932. John Adler returns to the role in Jeeves Takes A Bow for Theatre in the Round Players having played him there a year ago in Jeeves in Bloom. It’s a great opportunity to see how Wodehouse refined the English butler archetype and shrewdly commented on the pitfalls and ironies of class divisions. It also reminds us that just because you’re of a lower station, doesn’t mean you cannot refine yourself. Adaptation playwright Margaret Raether has a vivid sense of this.

Director Dann Peterson is a long-time sure hand at staging plays written with Victorian sensibilities, even when they’re set in post-Victorian times. Playwriting and screenwriting reflecting such sensibilities never seems to wane and audiences never seem to tire of it. That’s because it hits at some core truth we can’t seem to get away from. We also see this in television series like Downton Abbey and various films by David Lean.

Lawrence of Arabia. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

Lawrence of Arabia
Sun., July 28 at 1 p.m.
Heights Theater, 3951 Central Ave., Columbia Heights
www.heightstheater.com

There’s a smug tendency in today’s activism to pooh-pooh representations of homosexuality in vintage films, even when they nonetheless make the top spots in countless lists of the “Best Movies Ever”. A case in point is David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, which deservedly won the 1962 Best Picture Oscar. The apprehension of title character T.E. Lawrence, indelibly portrayed by Peter O’Toole, is right there on the screen. His performance falls prey to those who gripe about the fact that he was so darned good looking at the time the film was shot and that he stood over a half a foot taller than the actual T.E. Lawrence. However, actors channel the essence of person, not a carbon copy. It has reached the point among many critics that if you don’t have the exact shade of complexion of an historical figure you should be expelled from playing the role.

Lean’s legendarily epic sense of Man v. Nature and Man v. Man is stunningly realized in Lawrence of Arabia. The restrictive character of two homophobic forces—stratified British imperialism and the raw earthy masculinity of Arabian tribalism—suspend O’Toole’s Lawrence’s sense of self, and he gives us a man whose queerness in both presentation and in homoerotic desire exudes from between the lines. Lean and O’Toole understood something that wonky activist definitions of the ephemeral don’t. Human beings are to some degree, elusive, no matter how you intersectionalize us. And in a time when homosexuality could not even be discussed or even recognized, it would have often emerged elliptically. You didn’t proclaim it then. This is why even as late as the 1980s, when many gay men died of AIDS, so many people were genuinely shocked that such and such gay man was actually homosexual! I recall in 1986 overhearing in an Atlanta restaurant a southern woman saying incredulously that “the country is having a nervous breakdown” over the death of Rock Hudson, which had happened the year before. And this was a full six decades after the death of T. E. Lawrence. (It was until the Sexual Offences Act, 1967 decriminalized adult homosexuality.)

Lawrence, living in the dark afterglow of the downfall of Oscar Wilde, would not have been able to “be himself” in the way we feel we can nowadays. One must look at the man himself and his time, as well as the man interpreting the story. In this case, not just O’Tool, but David Lean. Lean had been a close artistic collaborator with Noel Coward, a man whose gayness was an open secret. To get by in society and even in show business, you had to play it cool. It’s impossible to not consider that this was somewhere in the master director’s thoughts as he directed O’Toole. It brings to mind a contemporary counterpoint—Donald Trump’s close relationship with controversial Jewish gay blade, Roy Cohn, reflexively scorned by progressivists. But it’s difficult, when you know about their platonic and fond relationship to consider how one mentally nurtured the other. And that in and of itself is not a crime and never should be considered so. Nor is it an indication of latency or closetry. To go that route, is to say gay and straight men can never be friends. Not a good thing.

As for O’Toole’s blond good looks, the actual T.E. Lawrence was also quite handsome. In his youth he would surely have triggered latent homoerotic feelings in any number of unconscious men, whether they were were from western or middle-eastern cultures. Good looking well built men have a way of eliciting this. Always have. Always will.

In closing, don’t look at any theatrical film as a definitive, accurate historical statement. Use it as a springboard for your own inquiry into a person or time. Relish films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Longest Day, and Nicholas and Alexandra. Or the historical plays of Shakespeare and others. They are treasures that wonky activism frankly does not understand and should never have the last word over.

Leaves of Grass—Illuminated. Photo by Mark Sauer

Leaves of Grass – Illuminated
July 12-14
Dowling Studio at Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis
612-377-2224
www.guthrietheater.org

Patrick Scully’s magnificent stage meditation on the heart, mind and life of the gay man who is regarded as the seminal figure of queer culture is back. Walt Whitman (1819-1892) looms also as an American who stands as a giant of world literature and his Leaves of Grass collection is a poetic masterwork. Scully has been selected to reprise his acclaimed piece at the Level 9 Series at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio.

Scully shares, “Just as Walt Whitman continued to work and rework Leaves of Grass after its initial publication, I have developed and refined my Whitman show since its debut. The first performance of Leaves of Grass – Uncut was in July of 2014 in the Fresh Ink Series at Illusion Theater. As befits that series, the show was a work in progress, a delightful, sprawling concoction with 18 male dancers and two actors. Now, five years later, at the Guthrie, Leaves of Grass – Illuminated, this show will be recognizable, and yet quite different.”

Over the past five years Leaves of Grass – Illuminated has played widely, including The Big Apple and was named Best Dramatic Actor of 2014 in Lavender Spotlight. Therefore it cannot helped but to have evolved. As for what one can expect will reflect that, Scully points out, “Editing and some rewrites so that the show is shorter, tighter—more a gourmet meal, less a Thanksgiving feast. Whitman might say, less an opera and more a chamber work. The script is tighter, having had the benefit of input from several colleagues and collaborators, including Djola Branner, Joe Chvala, and Ben Kreilkamp.”

He also says, “On a very practical level, there will be fewer dancers, only six this time (all from the original cast). And only one actor, me as Whitman.”

As for what’s new: “Video projections of the original dances will be layered into the new show, along with live dances, adding a poetic mystery to the dances and show. This was part of my original intention, to mount the big show at Illusion, while recording rehearsals and performances, to later reweave the recorded dances back into a live show. Videographer Nancy Mason Hauser was instrumental in this, as were projection artists Clemens Kowalski and Oscar Loeser.”

“Perhaps most importantly, I have had the opportunity to perform this show nearly four score times over the last five years. I imagine I become a bit more Whitmanesque with each show. The title change, from Uncut to Illuminated, is an attempt to clarify the goal of the show, to illuminate. (Though Walt and I both miss the double entendre of the old name).”

Be warned: when you see Leaves of Grass – Illuminated, you can’t help but be struck at how Scully becomes amazingly close to the pure essence of Walt Whitman in corporeal form. It’s uncanny!

Vikings Begin. Photo courtesy of American Swedish Institute

The Vikings Begin 
Through Oct. 27
American Swedish Institute, 2600 Park Ave., Minneapolis
612-871-4907
www.ASImn.org

There is a generalized view of the Vikings of Scandinavia as primitive marauders, torturers, and rapists. This one-sided view surely suits various agendas nowadays in our time of Male Derangement Syndrome. But of course, history is more layered and complex. The American Swedish Institute is countering such stereotypes with a riveting exhibition from the oldest university in all the Nordic countries, Sweden’s Uppsala University and its museum, Gustavianum. From warfare to maritime trade to the honoring of the dead, this exhibit plunges the visitor into the early currents of Scandinavian streams of Western Civilization. “Plunge” is apropos because as you enter the exhibit, where the lights are low, you see a replica of a boat which served as a grave.

The Vikings Begin contains vessels and artifacts unearthed near Uppsala shortly after World War I. However, the turbulent time of the period between the world wars, World War II itself, and the reconstruction after that, prevented focus on coming to terms with just what was found. Therefore, these finds did not receive proper examination until recently. Moreover, these discoveries spirit forth from a time and cultural space where there are no written records.

It’s the objects themselves that speak to us. They reveal a culture of craftspersons, traders, navigators, and iron workers active from the mid-500s to the late 700s A.D. It is widely thought that this struggling culture of what’s known as the Vendel Period, was born out of environmental necessity. Its people were compelled to reach out beyond Scandinavia because of volcanoes that obscured the sun in the sixth century causing crop failures. As with any culture trying to survive, there was a mix of harsh militarization (which can be debated at length on moral grounds v. survival) and civilized interactions within and with outside cultures beyond, such as those on the Baltic Sea. Both trade and pillage strengthened a tiered class hierarchy from within that, like it or not, created stability.

Projections of boat burial imagery, actual battle helmets and swords for intended for practical use, as well as for elitist affect, add to the exhibit’s haunting atmosphere. However, the smaller items are what give The Vikings Begin a special characteristic: actual fasteners found in the boats, bracelets from beads found in a grave,  a compact weight scale that was used to determine value of not only gems but of coins that could be broken down in smaller pieces as a form of payment.

North Americans may also be struck by how The Vikings Begin focuses on trade routes that push into the Baltic area rather than the North Atlantic image that seems to permeate what we generally receive in our neck of the woods. Americans often thinks of Vikings in relation to the medieval British Isles, Ireland, and the east North American coast visited by Norse explorer Leif Erikson who hailed from Iceland a few centuries after the Vendel era. But they went south from their environs, not just west. Remember, that the major Icelandic sagas, such as the Icelandic milestone in world literature, Njal’s Saga, came from the early part of the second millennium A.D. So The Vikings Begin predates that. We stand on the shoulders of these “primitive” people whether we like to admit it to ourselves or not. The American Swedish Institute now offers us a thrilling exhibit to extend our own historical understanding of their vital contribution to the development of civilization. It is likely to linger in your mind long after you’ve experienced it.

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