04/08/2014 03:02 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Inconvenient Truths

Throughout his Presidency, Barack Obama has struggled to restore America's middle class to its former greatness wherein, if people played by the rules, they knew that they at least had a chance to succeed. But when surrounded by cartoon villains like Mitch McConnell, Chris Christie, Antonin Scalia, and the Koch Brothers, it becomes obvious that the rules everyone takes for granted apply to some more than others.

  • Take, for instance, the case of 16-year-old Ethan Couch (the wealthy Texas teenager who killed four people and injured two others while driving drunk), whose attorney managed to keep him out of jail by claiming "affluenza" as a defense.
  • Or George Zimmerman who, thanks to Florida's Stand Your Ground law, got away with killing Trayvon Martin.
  • Or Woody Allen, who has once again come under scrutiny for charges of sexually abusing his daughter, Dylan Farrow (I strongly recommend reading Zoe Zolbrod's excellent article entitled Crimes and Misdemeanors: Woody Allen and What We Get Wrong about Sexual Abuse).
  • For those of us who remember the visceral rage that erupted in San Francisco when Dan White (who assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in their offices on November 27, 1978) was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder -- thanks to the use of his attorney's "Twinkie defense" -- the sad disgust that rises in one's throat every time money buys justice continues to burn like acid reflux.

After too many instances in which "the system failed," one tires of wondering what could have possibly gone wrong and starts to examine how cruelly the system is rigged to protect some while exploiting the vulnerability of others. From corporate neglect of workers' safety regulations to the fight for a living wage, it becomes increasingly obvious that the odds are stacked against some people while others manage to coast on white privilege, family legacies, and institutionalized inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity and/or sexual orientation. How these inequities are portrayed onstage can take several forms.

  • In classic Greek dramas, all slayings took place offstage.
  • In monologues, tragedies can be evoked and described by a narrator.
  • In certain plays (such as Peter Weiss's 1963 coup de theatre, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade), a highly stylized production may become a deeply transgressive piece of art.

Two recent world premieres in San Francisco accepted the challenge of shaking audiences out of their cocoons of denial by confronting them with words and images which could not be erased from their memories. Although each script employs a great deal of humor to sugar coat the brutality of the tragedy it presents, neither offers audiences a "safe night" at the theatre. These are definitely not the kind of shows whose aim is to please "the tired businessman."

* * * * * * * * * *

Brian Copeland (who has had a long association with The Marsh) is familiar to Bay area audiences for monologues such as Not A Genuine Black Man, The Waiting Period, and The Jewelry Box. A gifted storyteller, his shows usually center on autobiographical material which recalls what it was like to grow up in San Leandro.

In his newest show, Copeland takes a dramatic turn toward much grislier material. He begins The Scion with the simple statement that "Rules are rules" before explaining how he learned about the importance of rules from his mother and how some rules are applied differently from his grandmother.

Copeland's grandmother passed down many pearls of wisdom, including why she would never eat food that other people had cooked (a disturbing story that could traumatize any child). As a black youth growing up in a primarily white suburb, Brian had plenty of experience with racial profiling (as he explains to Piers Morgan in the following panel about George Zimmerman's trial).

The Scion is focused on setting the record straight about Stuart Charles Alexander, who may be the only person on Wikipedia whose headline is followed by the words "(businessman and murderer)."

Born in 1961 in San Leandro, Alexander was the proverbial local rich kid who could get away with anything because of his parents' fame and the popularity of the family business (the Santos Linguisa Sausage Factory). In 2004, Alexander was convicted of murdering three state and USDA meat inspectors (Jean Hillery, Thomas Quadros, and William Shaline) in his office on June 21, 2000.

Although Alexander chased a fourth inspector down the street while brandishing a loaded gun, Earl Willis managed to escape with his life. When police arrived at the Santos Linguisa Sausage Factory, Alexander confessed to the killings, offered no resistance, and offered himself up for arrest.


Brian Copeland (Photo by: Carla Befera)

Directed by Copeland's long-time collaborator, Dave Ford, The Scion delivers a riveting portrait of how white privilege convinces someone that the law simply does not apply to them. Although audiences may be expecting one of Copeland's more affable monologues about growing up in the Bay area, The Scion includes descriptions of the kind of violence and gore one expects to encounter on shows like Dexter.

What makes this show so gripping are Copeland's genial explanations of how everyone in the neighborhood knew that, as its short-tempered, violence-prone bully, Charles Alexander was a powder keg just waiting to explode. Yet no one in a position of authority would do anything to intercede because Alexander's family was so well connected.

In his monologue, Copeland doesn't just attempt to balance the grim realities of the "Sausage King's" murders with bits of humor that help to ease the tension. Instead, he starts to explore an often-neglected part of the backstory -- the lives of Alexander's three victims (all of whom were grandparents) and the effect their deaths had on their respective families.


Poster art for The Scion

Whether or not one remembers the murders and Alexander's ensuing trial and conviction, Copeland's show is a memorable theatrical experience.

* * * * * * * * * *

From Long Day's Journey Into Night to The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? many a playwright has taken aim at the sanctified image of the American nuclear family. Few, however, have played as outrageously cunning a game of Whac-A-Mole with this cherished cultural institution as Taylor Mac, whose newest play recently received its world premiere from the Magic Theatre. Attacking traditional family values with new weapons of psychological violence, theatrical audacity, and cultural snark, Mac puts a daring new spin on the old maxim that "You can't go home again."

With four characters who can barely cope with the rapidly shifting realities of their lives, HIR tackles everything from perpetual war to the thrills of a chemically enlarged clitoris; from discarded military veterans to forced infantilism with the kind of lewd panache, manic gusto, and fierce determination one expects to encounter in a hungry raccoon. Rather than a genuine circus, the audience is confronted with a circus of family life gone horribly and irretrievably wrong. Consider Mac's four woeful protagonists:

  • Arnold (Mark Anderson Phillips) was once the proud patriarch of his family. In his prime he was a cruel husband and seething racist whose work as a Roto-Rooter plumber in California's Central Valley paid the bills while he took sadistic delight in crushing the souls and self esteem of his wife and two children. However, as HIR begins Arnold is dressed in a rainbow wig, his face luridly covered with makeup, wearing little more than an adult diaper as he struggles for coherence. A stroke has reduced his mental capacity to that of an uncomprehending child. As a result, Arnold's not good for much of anything except, perhaps, his Social Security benefits when he dies. Father no longer knows best.
  • Paige (Nancy Opel) can no longer pretend that her husband is head of their household. With so much change coming at her so quickly, it is all she can do to keep her head above the water and try to hold things together as her family is reduced to squatting in the 30-year-old starter home they once owned. Old priorities of maintaining order in the family (or, for that matter, a clean household) have vanished into thin air although good grammar is still important. Paige's house now looks like the set for an episode of Hoarders. As she struggles to deal with new vocabulary, new rules, new feelings of sexuality, and terrifying financial insecurity, Paige sounds more and more like Elizabeth Warren whenever the senior Senator from Massachusetts switches into her "passionate lecturing" mode. When people don't follow her commands, she sprays them with a water bottle/mister.


Max (Jax Jackson) and Paige (Nancy Opel) welcome Isaac
home in Taylor Mac's new HIR (Photo by: Jennifer Reilly)

  • Max (Jax Jackson) was once Paige's daughter, Maxine, but has opted to discard any heteronormative labels, commence hormone therapy with testosterone, and grow facial hair as she embarks on the grand adventure of gender reassignment. Max has developed a perverse fondness for the power of the new vocabulary of transgenderism to fuck with Paige's mind. In the process of being home schooled by his mother, Max has convinced himself that Leonardo da Vinci was a transsexual and the Mona Lisa had a dick. When he turns 18, he hopes to emancipate himself from his parents and go live in a Radical Faerie commune.
  • Isaac (Ben Euphrat) is essentially the Prodigal Son returned home from the war in Afghanistan only to find anger and chaos instead of being warmly embraced and allowed to relax into a more orderly world. A former U.S. Marine who was dishonorably discharged (he got caught having a woman blow crystal methamphetamine through a straw placed into his asshole), Isaac's long hours as a mortuary assistant have triggered his gag reflex beyond the point of basic control. The mere sound of a kitchen blender being switched on is enough to trigger an episode of vomiting. With his father barely coherent, his mother headed for Crazy Town, and his former sister threatening to show Isaac her soon-to-be penis, taking on the responsibilities of the "man of the house" now resembles trying to herd a group of feral cats.


Ben Euphrat as Isaac in HIR (Photo by: Jennifer Reilly)

In her letter from the Producing Artistic Director, Magic Theatre's Loretta Greco writes:

"Joseph Campbell helped us to understand our need to tell and re-tell the same stories again and again. From the Greeks on, catharsis through narrative has been essential to our evolving humanity. HIR is one of those completely fresh yet deeply familiar stories. The Greeks, the Bible, and much of our beloved [Sam] Shepard are coursing through the age old bones of Taylor Mac's brand new play. Perhaps, most profoundly, Taylor has subconsciously re-dreamt the primordial urges found in Buried Child. Like Shepard's early work, Mac's writing defies available classification. It requires a searingly fresh vocabulary in which to discuss identity, sovereignty, and the state of humanity.

HIR exists within a heightened realism which, like life itself, often borders on the absurd. While Buried Child forged a new path by traversing a mythic America, HIR trades new ground with a more focused socioeconomic lens that animates this (very present) American life. It is no accident that we have programmed these two plays within the same season. Shepard's prodigal son returns home in search of himself to find that no one remembers him. In HIR, a son returns home from the war and finds that his entire family is under construction and absolutely nothing is as he remembered. Both homecomings reveal our primal need to dig up the past in order to move into the future. But how?"

Unlike Greco, I think there is a more interesting comparison to be drawn to Arlington, the musical about a military wife that received its world premiere from Magic Theatre earlier this season. In Arlington, Sara Jane becomes increasingly aware of her husband Jerry's disillusionment with and/or confusion about his mission as a soldier. In HIR, Isaac desperately tries to reinstate order in his home by giving each member of the family a carefully defined mission.

Unfortunately, what Isaac and Jerry were taught by their military instructors doesn't hold much water when the world that once defined them is blown to smithereens. With Sara Jane's support system rapidly fraying and Isaac's family making him wonder if lunatics are now running the mental asylum, all of the social structures these young patriots had been taught to make the cornerstone of their existence have been obliterated by a rapidly changing world that makes no sense.


Nancy Opel as Paige in HIR (Photo by: Jennifer Reilly)

Working on Alexis Distler's cluttered unit set, director Niegel Smith has done a stunning job of showing what happens to the American dream when all of its underpinnings are shattered. An almost unrecognizable Mark Anderson Phillips appears as a pitiable wreck of the former Arnold who is bullied by his wife. Jax Jackson's portrait of Max takes great relish in the gender confusion left in hir wake. In between puking episodes, Ben Euphrat tries his damnedest to soldier through the wreckage of his family until, to his horror as both a son and a veteran, he is given an ultimatum he never expected to hear from the woman who brought him into the world. Nor did he expect to hear his mother say "I would tell you to kill yourself here but I don't want to clean the mess."

Dominating the evening is a searing performance by Nancy Opel as the giddily vicious Paige and the jaw-dropping brilliance of Taylor Mac's script -- an exercise in take-no-prisoners imagination and frequently hilarious writing ("You can't wash plaid -- it's its own kind of filth. It's a statement saying I want you to know I care about not caring").


Isaac (Ben Euphrat) and Max (Jax Jackson) are two
confused siblings in HIR (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape