Thursday, March 16, 2017

Zorba and the New School of Greek Philosophy

When I was an undergrad (Truman State University), I was obliged to take a basic, liberal science philosophy class.  I was skeptical - that I'd enjoy it, that it would be interesting, or even worthwhile.  I ended up not only loving the class, but having some thought-provoking and even paradigm-shifting moments that changed the way I conceived of the world from then on.
Even in Lego form, Zorba has style.
The textbook we used was a huge part of the appeal.  I still recall the title: Looking At Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter - it was tongue-in-cheek, to be sure, but the history and translation of the basic - and sometimes very esoteric - philosophical concepts - was solid.  We also learned about the great philosophers themselves - Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, many of ancient Greece, and their concepts and thought strategies, through illustration.  Perhaps that seems a little babyish for a college class, but there was a great power to using illustrations and imagery to communicate these ideas.  

Zorba, for me, and for the writer who conceived of him, knows this power of illustrating these philosophical concepts, too. Zorba the character could be called a hedonist, or a pleasure-seeker, a philosopher who can see the finite nature of life (and all its pain) and believes in grabbing hold of it how he chooses, when he chooses.  We see throughout the story that Nikos definitely goes through changes, but it cannot be said that Zorba doesn't also change a little bit, through his love for and attachment to Nikos (Zorba tries not to get too attached to anything, although it is clear he's very affectionate and strives for trying to do individual good). 
Don't do it, Socrates!
So what can Zorba's new Greek philosophy teach us?
  • Be kind. Approach everyone with a smile and a zest for life. Bring out something in THEM.
  •  Don't put too much stock in any one thing, whether it be your future, dependence on another, or a job.
  • The present is what matters.  The future is a 'pig's behind.' Logic, however, is 'a woman's backside.' Zorba's an ass man, what can I say?
  • Death is natural and inevitable.  Live each day as though you were going to die any minute.
  •  There is an inner and an outer you. The inner you is whatever you make it.  Maybe he is slender as a reed and wears a red carnation behind his ear.
  • If a person you like expresses interest in you romantically, call their bluff IMMEDIATELY.  Go after them.
  •  Good stuff happens; bad stuff happens, too.  God and the Devil always travel together.  Good and bad karma?
  • Old birds make the best stew.  
  • Finally, never wear another man's ring.  It is not manly.   
I'm going to miss Zorba and his zest for life.  In theatre, a lot of my friends have bucket lists - dream roles they'd love to do.  I love to hear about them, and cheer them on, but I don't really have any for myself.  I have always felt that since I'm still a newbie to the scene, I'm lucky to take much of whatever comes along - I kind of "hope for nothing" in that sense, and that IS a little freeing, as Zorba says.  Here's to Zorba, and to two more excellent weekends of theatre and philosophy...washed down with raki and ouzo, of course.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


In a particular scene in "Zorba," Zorba's young friend Nikos, annoyed by his older companion's encouragement to be what he feels is inappropriately forward and amorous, protests, "I am not an animal!"  Zorba, delighted by his friend's sudden fire, rejoins "Yes, you are!"  In this musical's delightfully passionate book, we're treated to a lot of Zorba's personal philosophies, and one of them being his attitude toward women, which is all at once tender and poetic as well as lusty, spontaneous and sanguine. Zorba is never apologetic, he's nearly always self-possessed, and while it seems like he encourages spur of the moment action without thought, he is driven by his own principles of seizing life, positions he's arrived at during life experience - as opposed to Nikos, who is learned and educated, but relatively inexperienced.  

If Nikos needs to get in touch with his animalistic side, the villagers could often do with a touch of his humanizing restraint and reflection.  All at once full of life and afraid of change, the Cretans are written as often superstitious, mocking, tribal, greedy and even murderous.  It's into this world that Nikos and the mysterious widow attempt to have a relationship, and are thwarted by the town's prejudice against one of their own, though shunned coupling with an outsider after rejecting their own.  Led by the men of the town who simultaneously desire (perhaps desire to control) AND despise this proud, reclusive woman, they surround her and have her killed for "driving" a young man to his suicide, while they conveniently absolve themselves of any role in his death (in the version of the play we have, it's written he's running from his tormentors - the townspeople - when he accidentally falls from a cliff's edge, rather than takes a proverbial lover's leap).

The townspeople are cloistered but intrigued about the arrival of Zorba and Nikos.  Wary of outsiders, they still treat Hortense, an older Frenchwoman who has lived on the island for decades, like a stranger.  Her house is the only decent lodgings in town (which a song assures us still isn't very good), and still the townspeople try to offer unappealing, primitive-sounding accommodations.  They are largely idle and are excited by the prospect of work in a mine.  One of the main characters basically lives on his odd jobs - being a messenger, carrying luggage, etc. - and the kindness of people like the widow.  Nikos even calls the island a "wild place," and we see the women descend like the "crows" in the song to pluck the widow's fine house clean just moments after her death.  In these moments, though - it is Zorba, not Nikos, who is the humanizing force.  He appeals to Nikos for calm after he shakes the hand of one of the murdering mob as the mine is opening, and asks him not to judge the scavengers that snatch the widow's belongings - "you can't hurt the dead. Only the living."

As individuals, we see the characters of the townspeople as colorful, curious, and passionate, if rough around the edges.  Together, however, they often are a faceless mob, mocking, grabbing, attacking, ravaging.  John Steinbeck, one of my favorite authors, loved to write about how mob mentality could destroy an individual's ability to think as well as human lives.  In literature as well as history, mobs are deadly at worst - part of peaceful protest training throughout the years has been to prevent a group of protestors from becoming the mob, from getting aroused to anger as a result of groupthink, because it's very easy to slip into the hypnotic power of the masses.  To Steinbeck, a person's ability to think individually and rise above the "phalanx" was key.  I'll never forget getting groped and grabbed at Mardi Gras years ago by I'm sure otherwise normally-acting men - somehow given license to do so by the rowdy crowds gathered.  I gave them the benefit of the doubt for their awful behavior - blaming it on mob mentality, hurricanes, and hormones, but it doesn't make it right.  If anything, it reinforced my belief that we should keep striving to be a voice of reason and rise ABOVE our "animal" instincts - Zorba knows the animal side of human nature and human psychology, but the important part is that he acknowledges that it's a two-sided coin.

So did Tom Joad.
In the mob scenes in this musical, we see Zorba, ever the rugged individualist, ever the singular philosopher, emerge as the hero - not a sinless person, by his own admission, but a self-possessed person who is fully in control of his own ability to react to a situation.  That's part of what makes him such an appealing character - he ACTS as opposed to just REacting, and he acts decisively and based on his own personal truths, while encouraging his friends to do the same.  What would Zorba do?

Friday, January 20, 2017

Vive la Difference

It's been a few weeks since we started rehearsals for Zorba, Kander and Ebb's spirited but occasionally apologetically brutal musical based on the book and movie, Zorba the Greek.  Set in early 20th-century Crete, the plot follows the story of a Niko, former Athens teacher who finds himself mixed up with the aging but lusty, spontaneous and impish title character while on his way to try to make his fortune by re-opening the island's mine - his new inheritance.

Good Call, Niko

The people of Zorba's world are full of life and welcome as they are often crude, superstitious and mistrusting.  As the two acclimate to Crete among its curious inhabitants, we see them embark on romances - one, Zorba and his paramour, the charming but companionship-starved Madame Hortense, and Niko with a quiet outcast, a mysterious widow who is both hounded by advances and rebukes from the other townspeople.  In the audience, we're treated to two seemingly different female figures who are remarkably alike in their unapologetic fearlessness to live and operate by their own rules despite constant mockery. Madame Hortense is a former courtesan who reminisces about her glory days protecting her adopted homeland through sexual favors (and having quite a bit of fun while doing it), while the Widow (that's all we know her by - a moniker which in itself evokes surviving a painful past and inner strength) chooses who to be kind to by who is kind to her.  The men of the town seem to want her, but also hate her for what they see as her prerogative to only show favor to certain men - mostly the humane ones.  I'll blog more on her later.  Hers is an age-old problem universal for all womanhood, in a way.  In Greek mythology, Venus (her Greek name was Aphrodite) was also self-determining in the face of being overpowered; myths recount that she chose her lovers - most famously, Mars, or Aries, god of war - after a husband was chosen for her, the decidedly duller Vulcan, or Hephaestus. 

Probably not a real blonde, though.
Around the women of Zorba, the story ebbs and flows, and is also led.  Among the villagers, there is an enigmatic figure that is known as the "leader," played in our cast by the outstanding Lindsey Jones.  I love that this strong, almost godlike lead role was written as a woman - a knowing, respected, wise and powerful woman who takes the aspects of the story - the journeys, the losses, the joys - and celebrates, mourns, witnesses and marks them with the audience and the characters alike.  She AND Zorba call us to be present for our lives through their songs and philosophies.  They both remind us to be participants in our own stories, to reach out, to speak out, to embrace immediacy, but also to accept and remember. What I appreciate is that as much as this is Zorba and Niko's story (Niko is our audience stand-in as we're on this journey), that this is a story that couldn't happen without these self-determined, independent-minded female entities.  After all, in Zorba's story - "man is only a passerby."

Friday, May 20, 2016

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

"Nuking" something in the microwave (that's not what's happening at all, by the way).  Experiencing the "fallout" from a fight.  Visiting a real or metaphorical "ground zero" of an explosion (or most famously, at the World Trade Center site after 9/11).  Having a "meltdown."  Going "nuclear" on someone or using "the nuclear option" in congress.  Setting in motion a "chain reaction." Even saying something is "the bomb" (which I sometimes still say, I'm a nineties kid, sue me).  Our global politics, our pop culture, our language...there's nothing atomic weaponry hasn't affected in the 70 years since its arrival.

Just a week into rehearsals, Atomic director Scott Miller commented that the musical was a bit of a departure from the type of bread-and-butter musicals New Line Theatre specialized in: the smart-ass, sassy, even absurdist comedy-dramas that are smart, but also often winking at the audience.  Atomic is not that.  It has moments of charm, humor, and even whimsy, but overall it's an earnest story, there's no irony in the performances.  What's so weird about that?  Well, because for years now, something as horrific as nuclear weapons and atomic warfare has been something of a joke, or sci-fi fantasy fodder.

Take one of the favorite cartoonists from my childhood, Gary Larson, creator of "The Far Side" comics.  He had a fascination with them, for sure. Guys fishing spot mushroom clouds in the distance, and happily declare all fishing rules and regs null and void; a practical-joking physicist stands behind a colleague - who's assembling a nuclear weapon - ready to pop a bag and scare him; suburban housewives eyeball warheads in their neighbor's driveways like a new Chevy, and other fun stuff.  This one is one of my favorites:

I had to ask my parents what the "trees with rings around them" were, and my dad's explanation was maybe my first exposure to nuclear weapons.  For a kid growing up in the cold war era, "nukes" were of such a horrific, world-ending power, the only way we can wrap our minds around them is to joke.  From the masterpiece Dr. Strangelove to  the infamous scene of "nuking the fridge" in the latest installment of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, nuclear weapons are still scary, but like many scary things, we make light of them, we fetishize them, we write them in, all to gain a better understanding of what they mean and what we ourselves think of them. 

That's not how this works...that's not how any of this works!

The challenge of Atomic is to set this aside for awhile.  To compartmentalize the aforementioned comedy, as well as bits of horror-porn like the shocking scene from Terminator 2: Judgement Day where our heroine is blown to pieces by an atomic blast as she watches a bucolic scene of innocence (it's always a bucolic scene of innocence, isn't it?) on a playground, even the famously over-the-top political ad by the Lyndon B. Johnson 1964 presidential campaign:

Atomic takes place at a time when people were only first conceiving of what atomic warfare meant.  Our main protagonist, Leo Szilard, over the course of the musical, is consistently trying to sound the alarm about the weapon's massive power and destructive capabilities.  In his moving song, "the atom bomb is here," he correctly envisions what the bomb actually does and how it looks to its victims.  It's a haunting moment.  The writers here did most of the heavy lifting.  For anyone exposed to pop culture in the past decades, it's a shocking and sobering trip back in time.  Our challenge in this musical is to put the audience there and to have them feel the stakes these scientists and military officials must have felt, before the bomb became more of a sci-fi boogeyman and a metaphor for human folly. I'll still read "The Far Side" though, any day, but it's great to see an art form take such a straight-ahead treatment of this subject.  I hope it gets audiences thinking and talking.  After all, the atom bomb is still here.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

World of Gray: The Aftermath of the Aftermath

When I was in college, my boyfriend at the time was getting his Bachelor of Sciences in History.  I was intrigued at the time by the book he was reading, Judgment at the Smithsonian.  The book details the exhibit which was to be - using the famous Enola Gay as the focal point -  but never was - calling it "Banned History."

Colonel Paul Tibbets Waves from his plane, the Enola Gay.

In short?  The original exhibit as planned, which was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was scrapped and censored for a far more sanitized, even patriotic approach. The person who originally conceived the exhibit was Martin Harwit, a Cornell University professor, former serviceman and historian at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  What apparently made it controversial was that it attempted to capture not only the events that led up to the bombing, but also the real and lasting impact the bomb had on the people who were affected by it, including the scientists who created it, to the military team that dropped it, to the victims of it.  It also questioned the common assumption that bombing the two cities in such a way saved lives instead of letting the war drag on.  As news of the exhibit spread, Veterans' groups complained to the then largely conservative congress, and the Smithsonian was forced to bow to public pressure and remove some of the more "controversial" images, including photos of destruction and burned victims, etc.  In addition, Harwit was forced to resign under the mounting pressure, almost in the same fashion Leo Szilard was pushed out of his own project.  There was a lot at stake - a fight over what really happened, a fight over the moral high ground and certitude.   We are still fighting this fight.  You only need to check out the Amazon reviews of Harwit's account to see how divided we STILL are on this, and what exactly constitutes "revisionist history," a term that's been fought over a lot in recent years.

After 9/11, we saw this same type of fight to elbow out nuances and details - gray area - in the "war on terror."  It became unpatriotic to even try to seek out why another cultural group - Muslim extremists -  might want to kill Westerners, short of empty explanations that "they're evil" or "they hate our freedoms."  It tends to have a chilling effect on discussion, even if it goes nowhere near unpatriotic sentiment.  We're uncomfortable with gray areas.  We don't like to see ourselves as culpable.
The Genbaku Dome today is the site of a peace memorial.

The Hiroshima Genbaku Dome following the bombing.

The 50th anniversary exhibit that never was - and what happened to it - has itself prompted a lot of writing and thinking about how  we teach history, and how we remember it, and, as the hit musical Hamilton asks, "who lives, who dies, who tells your story?"  The account in Judgment at the Smithsonian was probably a good meta-study for a student of history.

In Atomic, we see this play out from beginning to end in the production.  The questions still aren't answered.  When the song "What I tell myself" is sung toward the end of the show, it's a haunting "affirmation" of the decision.  "I did what I did 'cause I thought it the right thing to do..." but it's still just "what [they tell themselves]" just to be able to sleep - it's not what they necessarily believe any longer.  The plaintive lullaby tune of the song serves to underline the need to calm their own nerves about it.  Earlier in the production, the character Arthur Compton (played with steely-eyed gruffness by Ryan Scott Foizey) tries to reason with an agonizing Szilard (played brilliantly by Zak Farmer) by explaining to him how he sees past his own "World of Gray" where nothing is ever 100%, and relating why that is hard in particular for a scientist, who lives by exact figures. 

Throughout the musical, Szilard sees his research get away from him and become dangerous, almost like the chain reaction he helps discover.  On the whole, Atomic is another way, another art form, to find and air out these moral questions once again.  What it does well is that it makes the stakes once again feel high, even if the "language" of nuclear warfare, how we talk about it, and even the bomb itself - seem nowadays part of our everyday life...(to be continued).

Friday, April 22, 2016

Where is Home? Thoughts on "Atomic" during Passover

There's a scene at the beginning of Schindler's List where you see the Shabbos candles lit and burning, then the family fades out of the room, while the candles are left to burn into curls of smoke in an empty and darkened house.  Here one minute, gone the next; families, whole neighborhoods, millions of people disappeared.  The countries that Leo Szilard and his loved ones lived in while still in Europe - Hungary, Germany, England - were all affected by the war, but it was Berlin that he escaped in the nick of time, right under new chancellor Adolf Hitler's nose (this is mentioned in the Atomic song, A Little Fire). His sensing and foretelling the imminent danger - this time for Jews, dissidents, etc. - became a theme in his life.  There's a line that occurs twice from my character, Trude Weiss, "you have an annoying habit of being right" that highlights that ability.  If anything, he certainly had a true scientist's sense of hypothesis, not only for predicting nuclear chain reactions, but politics as well.  He was also able to convince many of his loved ones to escape before the war. Once in the US and working on the Manhattan Project, he moved about the United States for years, sometimes living with Trude, sometimes on his own.  It was something of a nomadic lifestyle, which some might say was not unknown to Jews for centuries. When the Hebrews left Egypt, they were also said to wander for forty years.  Indeed, there are allusions to Moses in Atomic that work both culturally and scientifically.  There was no map in either case, literal or figurative.

I'm guessing they were decidedly not dressed for the Renaissance, though.

Last week, we had the honor of hearing nuclear science history expert - and award-winning teacher - Kathleen Dwyer (set and lighting designer Rob Lippert's wife) share her fascinating knowledge of and passion for atomic physics.  One of the questions director Scott Miller asked was why the Germans had not come up with the bomb themselves.  Her response - and I'm paraphrasing - was something to effect of, "well, they got rid of all the people capable of doing it" - in other words, hoisted on their own petard of persecution.

If you don't mind being thoroughly disgusted, search keywords "Jewish," "scientists," and "Manhattan Project."  I did so innocently (while writing the last blog), and was shocked to see hateful, paranoid garbage from white supremacist group Stormfront pop up among the results.  Not having clicked on it, I could only assume it was being used as some sort of scare-tactic smear akin to The Eternal Jew, one of the nastiest pieces of antisemitic propaganda ever conceived, painting Jews as dangerous and destructive, which is nothing if not ironic.  I was merely searching on the idea that Kathleen hit on - several of the prominent scientists that gave birth to atomic physics were indeed Jewish: Einstein, Szilard, Teller, Oppenheimer, among others.  Indeed, Germany's loss was the allies''s especially stomach-turning that those who would carry the Nazi's hateful legacy would twist that contribution in such a way. 

In the musical, Trude pointedly and defiantly tries to make time to have shabbos in the states, insisting that they can't take it for granted, having seen the effects of growing antisemitism in Europe.  What horror must have been theirs, however - the whole world's, really - upon discovering what the endgame was to rounding up their friends and families back home: an attempt at utterly wiping out a culture from the face of the earth.  In another touching scene in Atomic, Leo and Trude collapse in disbelief at the news, struggling to grasp that the world they knew is gone, and realizing they cannot go home; there's nothing and no one to go home to.  "How can somewhere that's home when you're in it/feel so empty and cold the next minute?" and "How could we know?"  are among the questions they ask.  There are no answers.  The Holocaust stands out in history as grim and horrific proof that humans can, and will, do unspeakable things to whole entire populations of people in the name of fear and hatred disguised as nationalism.  May we never forget that.

Four glasses of wine at least?  Let's do this.

Tonight is Passover, and I have the honor of celebrating at a seder given by my boyfriend's family.  As I might have mentioned in previous blogs, I was born and raised Baptist, so seder isn't something I was brought up with, but I'd like to think I'm doing okay.  Heck, I even eat the gefilte fish!  That's big for a gentile. Still, more than just the food, I enjoy hearing the story and the tradition that's thousands of years old.   A colleague of my mother's while she taught French and Spanish at Ladue High School, one of the "tribe" himself, once explained to her that all Jewish holidays seem to follow a pattern: "they tried to kill us, but we're still here...let's eat."  Passover in a post-Holocaust world reminds us that while many - like Szilard and Weiss - were delivered from harm and obliged to wander, that so many others had their homes, their possessions, their legacies, their very lives erased.  So today, we can still celebrate the fact that great minds like Szilard's survived to make their mark. Chag Sameach (Happy holiday)!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Take a breath, close your eyes: starting "Atomic"

We began Atomic rehearsals last night. Whenever I begin a new project, I can never shake the nerves for the first few rehearsals. I've sung for New Line before, but only in the ensemble - which was unforgettable and amazing - for Jerry Springer: The Opera  and Bonnie and Clyde, but now I find myself in a larger and more complex role.  In the next few weeks, it's my job to give voice to a real person, one who gave voice to her husband and partner as well.

Trude with Leo (University of California San Diego)
That's a big honor for any actor, for certain.  Gertrud Weiss Szilard was a physician and researcher, a person who understood and respected science, and along with her partner, was genuinely trying to wrap her mind around the enormous implications - both extraordinary and very, very dangerous - of atomic physics. In the musical, she's often depicted as an educated twist on the neglected and even nagging wife, but she's also a support, part of Leo Szilard's conscience, and what in Yiddish is known as a noodge. (By the way, isn't Yiddish amazing)?

Speaking of all things Jewish, I'll be blogging more later about the singular experience of Jewish expatriates (especially scientists) later on in the rehearsal process, and about Trude's Jewish identity during and in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust.  Jewish culture is touched on more than a few times in this musical - most obviously their horror at what was happening back home.

Atomic physics cannot have had a greater impact on our 20th and 21st century imagination and politics.  I think it's important to remember that at the heart of this incredible realization that we could bring about the end of civilization in just a few moments were real human souls, ones that we should celebrate and have gratitude for.  More than just a scientific visionary, Szilard was gifted with a real humanity that saw the political and moral ramifications of unleashing their discovery on the world.  He was also an incredibly brave man.  For her part, Trude honored that bravery.  I'm eager to get into that and explore with this phenomenal cast and crew.  Let's sing about science!