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The Devil meets his match in Geffen’s “Witch”

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Maura Tierney and Evan Jonigkeit negotiate terms in “Witch” at the Geffen Playhouse (Photo by Jeff Lorch).

When you have no hope left, and the devil wants to buy your soul, what do you ask from him in return?

That’s the question posed in “Witch,” the Jen Silverman-penned play running now in its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse. Inspired by and loosely – very loosely – adapted from “The Witch of Edmonton” (A Jacobean drama by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford), it centers on a woman named Elizabeth Sawyer, who has been shunned as a witch by the people of her 17th Century village and now lives in a hovel on the edge of town. When she is approached by a charismatic young man who claims to be the devil, offering revenge on the townspeople who have done her wrong in exchange for her soul, she refuses him; but when he persists, she agrees to consider it if he can make her a better offer. Meanwhile, some of the other townspeople have made their own deals with the devil; but as their own desires and machinations quickly prove, they are easily capable of losing their souls without any need of hellish interference.

In re-imagining a 400-year-old play through a contemporary lens, Silverman didn’t need to stray too far from its central themes; the original play is recognized by modern scholars for its astute observations about societal hypocrisy, corruption, and the evil that men do all on their own. The update comes by injecting a modern feminist viewpoint (and a lot of very snappy, razor-sharp wit delivered through deliciously anachronistic modern dialogue) that brings out the inherent misogyny of the whole traditional “good and evil” thing. Everything this handsome devil has to offer means nothing to Elizabeth, who has been so burned and battered by the world of men that she has no desire for anything within it. To avenge herself on those who have wronged her means nothing short of bringing down the patriarchy, and everything it has built along with it. That’s a tall order, even for the devil himself.

Silverman further contemporizes the arguments by exploring the effects of said patriarchy on the LGBTQ experience, with the help of a gay character named Cuddy Banks. The son of a wealthy lord, he’s set to inherit a title that comes with the highest privilege and entitlement available to a man of his time; really, all he wants to do is indulge in his passion for Morris Dancing (you can look it up if you need to), but when his father seems poised to pass him over in favor of an adopted heir – one who embodies all the revered qualities of masculinity that Cuddy lacks – he becomes obsessed with standing in the way. Cuddy is shallow, self-loathing, and spiteful, hardly the “positive representation” many of us like to see in a gay character today – but being forced to live a closeted life with no hope of ever being your authentic self without losing the little you already have has a tendency to cultivate those negative qualities.

Ruy Iskandar and Will Van Vogt share a rare non-combative moment in “Witch” at the Geffen Photo by Jeff Lorch).

 

Likewise, being marginalized for your economic standing – a prejudice bound tightly with racism, as underscored in this production by some shrewd casting – can easily lead to a do-anything-it-takes attitude in the pursuit of bettering one’s situation; Cuddy’s rival, Frank Thorney, reveals himself to be capable of almost any betrayal as he parlays his masculinity into a means of climbing the social ladder. He might come off as a narcissist and a bully, but these are the very qualities that have allowed him to get as far as he has, and if he sees no good reason to stop, now, can we really blame him?

As for the devil himself, in Silverman’s vision of the infernal scheme he may be little more than a cog in a kind of corporate machine – an independent contractor or a franchisee, perhaps – whose power and appeal both come from a culturally-approved image of desirability. That this image seems entirely defined by men is not an accident; and that this particular embodiment of its questionable charms, when confronted with Elizabeth’s complete lack of interest, finds his confidence challenged and shaken, it’s not really a surprise.

Indeed, perhaps the most hopeful note “Witch” strikes comes in the relationship between this devil and his would-be mark. He comes to bewitch her, and finds himself instead bewitched, a subversion of the old trickster myth in which Old Scratch is outsmarted at his own game by a virtuous man shrewd enough to use the rules in his favor. With Elizabeth, the game itself is “zero sum” – the rules don’t matter, and the power this gives her over him is intoxicating to him. In an era when the oppressed feel more and more irrelevant within the paradigm their oppressors keep in place, the idea that one of them might actually begin to be transformed is a comforting thought, no matter how nihilistic the context may be from which it springs.

Under the expert direction of Marti Lyons, the Geffen’s impressive production crams a lot of theatrical witchcraft into the small Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater space in which it is mounted; a sparsely dressed floor space serves as the ground for devilish dealings, while a large mechanistic playing platform thrusts itself overbearingly into the audience’s lap to provide the setting for the various complications of the accompanying domestic dramas. The result, if somewhat claustrophobic, is also successful at combining the stagecraft of the play’s archaic origins with a modern, conceptual flow, but has the unfortunate side effect of obstructing a bit of the view from the first few rows. Be aware of this when buying tickets.

As for the expert cast, it’s crucial to single out Maura Tierney’s fiercely calm performance as Elizabeth; she’s the strong pillar to which the rest of the play is tied, and she pulls it off effortlessly. As Cuddy, Will Van Vogt embraces the sissy stereotype in which the character necessarily exists and makes us see beneath it through the brave honesty of his vulnerability; Ruy Iskandar, as Frank Thorney, likewise plays hard into the cliché, every inch the pulchritudinous bourgeois bumpkin, but manages to keep himself just likable enough to regret his inevitable fate. Brian George and Vella Lovell, as Cuddy’s noble father and housemaid-with-a-secret Winnifred, are equally as adept at humanizing the social archetypes they are tasked with representing, allowing us to place our empathy in corners which may surprise us.

It’s Evan Jonigkeit, though, as the self-professed devil who stirs the pot in the first place, who might be the strongest link in the chain forged by this tight, professional cast. Equal parts smooth seducer and oozing huckster, it’s obvious from the start he is neither, and that his true nature, unknown even to himself, has a capacity for much deeper things.  It’s what keeps us interested; ultimately, his is the only character who evolves within the action of the play, and with his every scene he makes the changes visible and palpable.  His chemistry with Tierney makes their work together absorbing, and that alone is worth the price of a ticket.

On the strength of its cast and direction, “Witch” is certainly a worthwhile way to spend an evening at the theater; it’s a top-grade production, full of memorable moments that will spark your thoughts and challenge your preconceived notions.  It will also make you laugh – it never lets you quite forget that it’s a dark comedy, no matter if the “dark” sometimes overshadows the humor.  There are times, though, especially in the second half of its 95-minute runtime, that things become a little didactic; the arguments and agendas of the characters (not, necessarily, those of the playwright, who is clearly invested solely in opening the conversation around them) sometimes feel almost rote – especially when they’ve already been illustrated within the action of the play – and our interest tends to flag.

Still, despite a few dull moments here and there, “Witch” is a strong example of good theatre done right – and while that may not be worth your soul, it’s at least deserving of an hour or so of your time.

 

“Witch” runs through September 29 at the Geffen Playhouse.  For schedule and ticket information visit here.

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Notables

Former LA Blade Editor Karen Ocamb, journalist of the year awardee

The AIDS crisis was her entry into the movement for LGBTQ equality. She had worked in LGBTQ and independent media for nearly 30 years

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Karen Ocamb, journalist of the year awardee 2020 at the Los Angeles Press Club gala (Photo by Troy Masters)

LOS ANGELES – Former Los Angeles Blade editor Karen Ocamb was awarded Journalist of the Year for 2020 at the 63rd annual Los Angeles Press Club’s Southern California Journalism Awards gala, which was held Saturday evening at the Millenium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Press Club was founded in 1913 and honors journalists through its annual National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards and SoCal Journalism Awards.

The annual gala is held to celebrate the best of Southern California journalism and features and honors journalists working in all media platforms of print, radio, television or digital (online). Ocamb won in the category of ‘print’ with a circulation under 50,000. Her fellow nominees were Lina Lecaro, LA Weekly and Hayley Munguia, Long Beach Press-Telegram.

The LA Press Club judges noted in their decision bestowing the award, “Karen Ocamb’s passionate reporting of the struggles of the LGBTQ community and journalists covering LGBTQ issues during the pandemic earns her a Print Journalist of Year award.”

She was also a runner-up in two other categories securing second place in ‘Pandemic Reporting Digital’ (Online) with awardee Jon Regardie, Los Angeles Magazine, “A Month Inside the COVID-19 War Room with Mayor Eric Garcetti” securing first place. (Karen Ocamb, Los Angeles Blade, “Seeking Truth in the War on the Coronavirus”)

Ocamb also secured second place in the category of ‘Commentary: on political, social, cultural, investigative, judicial, economic or other serious subjects.’ The awardees were Ryan Lo and Chandra Bozelko, Reno Gazette Journal, “Klobuchar’s Own Central Park Five Situation” (Karen Ocamb, Los Angeles Blade, “Strong at the Broken Places”)

Ocamb, who now works in media relations for Public Justice, a national nonprofit progressive legal advocacy organization that has been fighting for civil rights, environmental protection and consumer and workers’ rights for more than 35 years, was the founding news editor of the Los Angeles Blade in 2017.

After spending the 1960s as a student against the war in Vietnam, fighting for civil rights and exploring the counter-cultural movement, Ocamb joined CBS News in New York and learned to be a journalist under the mentorship of such icons as Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Bob Schiefer. Her final job for the network was producing the 1984 Olympic coverage for CBS News affiliates at TV City in Los Angeles.

Free to pursue her social justice passions and discuss her opinions, Ocamb volunteered on the ballot campaign for West Hollywood cityhood. It was during this time that her friends started dying of AIDS. By the late 1980s, serving as a quasi-healthcare worker was not enough and Ocamb returned to journalism, this time freelancing for Frontiers News Magazine and other gay press publications.

The AIDS crisis was her entry into the movement for LGBTQ liberation and equality. She has worked in LGBTQ and independent media since then, culminating in her position as news editor and reporter for the Los Angeles Blade.

Los Angeles Blade publisher Troy Masters, CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and former LA Blade News Editor Karen Ocamb at the 63rd annual Los Angeles Press Club awards gala.
(Photo courtesy of Troy Masters)

In 2019, Ocamb won a special recognition award from LGBTQ media watchdog group GLAAD.

“After initially starting her career at CBS News and producing the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Ocamb joined the LGBTQ press in the 1980s after more than 100 friends died from AIDS,” GLAAD said in a release at the time. “She has since become a leading force and champion for LGBTQ media. She is known for her smart, fair, and professional writing style as well as her staunch dedication to shining the spotlight on underreported LGBTQ people and issues.”

The 63rd annual Los Angeles Press Club’s Southern California Journalism Awards gala held Saturday evening, October 16, 2021, at the Millenium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.
(Photo By Troy Masters)

Editor’s note links to the stories submitted and judged are here, here, here, and here.

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a&e features

Michael Kearns, the Godfather of LGBTQ+ authenticity

Michael’s work has been described as “collisions of sex and death, of eroticism and grief,” but he has truly dug to an even deeper level

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Michael Kearns by Keida Mascaro

HOLLYWOOD – The arc of LGBTQ+ history over the past 50 years has been one of constant upheaval and evolvement. From a period when it was both illegal and insane to be gay, through the achievement of being able to serve openly in the military, to marriage equality and the ability to create families to today’s fight against the tyranny against Trans people, the movement has not stopped to take a breath.

Michael Kearns, the first recognized “out” actor on the Hollywood landscape, has been a visible presence through it all. More importantly, he has always” been visible on the gay scene. In the seventies he epitomized the free love and erotic freedom that many gay men lived. He was featured in classic gay porn movies and did a PR stint as the face of the “happy hustler.”  

“That was my introduction to a lot of people,” Michael told me when we sat down for a chat on Rated LGBT Radio. “I kind of captured the zeitgeist of the times, the freewheeling seventies. We forget that there was that period of time when sexuality was joyful and exciting and thrilling.”

In the eighties he was visible in mainstream media as a gay man playing gay men characters. In 1983, Michael was cast in a minor role on the Cheers Emmy winning episode “the Boys in the Bar.”  He was instantly recognized for his gay sexual iconic status by LGBTQ audiences, even though the population at large did not know who he was. The casting director who fought for his casting was Stephen Kolzak, who would himself become a prominent AIDS activist before he died at 37 in 1990. Stephen casted Michael to make a statement. He wanted to signal to the LGBTQ community that Cheers had our backs. “He was one of the only ones that had the guts,” Michael remembers.

“There were a lot of stereotypes in television regarding gay portrayals. I was pegged and cast in some of those roles. I did play the stereotype, but rather than a straight guy playing those roles, I brought authenticity. I was real. Straight guys playing gay would always spoof the role. They were always ‘winking’ and signaling to the camera ‘I am not really that way.’  So, the performances are by in large horrible, even with some academy award winners. The actors were constantly saying that it was not who they were—if they weren’t making that clear on the talk shows, they were doing it in the performance itself.’ Michael says.

Michael soon morphed into an HIV positive man playing HIV positive characters, while off camera becoming a visible and vocal AIDS activist. “It was a new kind of cliché. They had to always make me look horrible. The ghastlier the better. They could not have an HIV character who looked normal—as I did when I arrived at the set. Finally, I had enough and refused to do that anymore.” Michael then immersed himself in theater where he found greater character honesty and truth.

 As gay men captured their identities in the 90s as husbands and fathers, Michael was there too—becoming one of the first gay men to adopt a child.  It is that role, as a father, that Michael has said is his greatest.

Today, Michael has been a driving force behind QueerWise, a multigenerational writing collective and performance group. Through QueerWise, Michael gives poetic voice to talent that would otherwise be voiceless. Its members include published poets, writers of fiction and non-fiction, playwrights, singers, musicians, social activists, dancers, actors artists and teachers. 

This weekend, on Sunday October 17th, QueerWise launches its latest work, The Ache for Home. 

“The Ache for Home is a video presentation of heartfelt stories from formerly homeless/unhoused individuals in and around West Hollywood. It was developed through a mentorship program facilitated by QueerWise members. The production represents citizens-turned-writers who share their inspirational stories from those glamorous streets and sidewalks, ranging from soaring self-acceptance to narratives of truth-telling defeats,” states Michael. The production can be seen on QueerWise’s YouTube Channel starting 5pm October 17.

The Ache for Home features a young cis male with a passion for music and art, who finds joy “when I can put a smile on someone’s face and give back”, a retired mixed race bisexual government worker who is a voracious reader and literacy advocate, two trans males share their experiences of living on the street, and a former resident playwright who was homeless for 44 days and nights in the city. “I am thrilled at our inclusion of transmen in this work,” Michael says. “It is a poorly represented community within a poorly represented community.”

On current controversies with media and transgender targeting, particularly the Dave Chappelle issue, Michael remarks, “I am glad it is generating passion. It is bringing up conversation on the plights of black trans women who are victimized at an alarming rate, we should not say victimized… we should say murdered. I am glad we are shedding light on that.”

Michael’s work has been described as “collisions of sex and death, of eroticism and grief,” but he has truly dug to an even deeper level. The Ache for Home takes its inspiration from the Maya Angelou quote, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” Michael Kearns work has always encouraged us to go, and live, “as we are.” He is the amalgamation of eroticism, grief, healing, and appreciating the richness of life itself.

He is the godfather of LGBT+ authenticity. In earlier days, he may have represented sex, he may have walked us through a period of darkness and death into the arms of the creation of the new family. He has now brought us home, and when we look at him, we see a new quality.

Wisdom.

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Rob Watson is the host of RATED LGBT RADIO, a national podcast and he’s one of the founders of the evolequals.com.

A gay dad, business man, community activist and a blogger/writer, Watson is a contributor to the Los Angeles Blade covering entertainment, film, television, and culture with occasional politics tossed in.

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Listen to the show here:

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Books

Book details fight to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Clinton-era policy was horrific for LGB servicemembers

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‘Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
By C. Dixon Osburn
c.2021, self-published $35 hardcover, paperback $25, Kindle $12.99 / 450 pages

When Senior Airman Brandi Grijalva was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, she talked with a chaplain’s assistant about some problems she had at home. The chaplain’s assistant said what she told him would be confidential. But when she revealed that she was a lesbian, the chaplain’s assistant no longer kept her conversation with him confidential. Grijalva, after being investigated was discharged.

Craig Haack was a corporal in the Marines serving in Okinawa, Japan. Haack, who had made it through boot camp, felt confident. Until investigators barged into his barracks. Looking for evidence “of homosexual conduct,” they ransacked everything from his computers to his platform shoes. Haack was too stunned to respond when asked if he was gay.

In 1996, Lt. Col. Steve Loomis’ house was burned down by an Army private. The Army discharged the private who torched Loomis’ house. You’d think the Army would have supported Loomis. But you’d be wrong. The army discharged Loomis for conduct unbecoming an officer because a fire marshal found a homemade sex tape in the ashes.

These are just a few of the enraging, poignant, at times absurd (platform shoes?), all-too-true stories told in “Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by C. Dixon Osburn.

As a rule, I don’t review self-published books. But “Mission Possible” is the stunning exception that proves that rules, on occasion, are made to be broken.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was the official U.S. policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual people serving in the military. Former President Bill Clinton announced the policy on July 19, 1993. It took effect on Feb. 28, 1994.

Sexual orientation was covered by DADT. Gender identity was covered by separate Department of Defense regulations.

Congress voted to repeal DADT in December 2010 (the House on Dec. 15, 2010, and the Senate on Dec. 18, 2010). On Dec. 22, 2010, Former President Barack Obama signed the repeal into law. 

DADT banned gay, lesbian and bisexual people who were out from serving in the U.S. military. Under DADT, it was not permitted to ask if servicemembers were LGB. But, LGB servicemembers couldn’t be out. They couldn’t talk about their partners, carry photos of their girlfriends or boyfriends or list their same-sex partner as their emergency contract.

It took nearly a year for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to go into effect. On Sept. 20, 2011, Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “certified to Congress that implementing repeal of the policy {DADT} would have no effect on military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion or recruiting and retention,” Osburn writes.

Before DADT, out LGBT people weren’t permitted to serve in the military. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was intended to be a compromise—a policy that would be less onerous on LGB people, but that would pass muster with people who believed that gay servicemembers would destroy military readiness, morale and unit cohesion.

Like many in the queer community, I knew that DADT was a horror-show from the get-go. Over the 17 years that DADT was in effect, an estimated 14,000 LGB servicemembers were discharged because of their sexual orientation, according to the Veterans Administration.

But, I had no idea how horrific “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was until I read “Mission Possible.”              

In “Mission Possible,” Osburn, who with Michelle Benecke, co-founded the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), pulls off a nearly impossible hat trick.

In a clear, vivid, often spellbinding narrative, Osburn tells the complex history of the DADT-repeal effort as well as the stories of servicemembers who were pelted with gay slurs, assaulted and murdered under DADT.

Hats off to SLDN, now known as the Modern Military Association of America, for its heroic work to repeal DADT! (Other LGBTQ+ organizations worked on the repeal effort, but SLDN did the lion’s share of the work.)

You wouldn’t think a 450-pager about repealing a policy would keep you up all night reading. But, “Mission Possible” will keep you wide-awake. You won’t need the espresso.

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