Headshot photo by T. M. Holder

THE STAGES OF LIFE 

1984 

The Actors’ Gang

Reviewed by H.A. Eaglehart

The Actors’ Gang is home to some of the best productions I’ve seen presented in my nearly seven years attending LA theatre on a regular basis.

Their workshop-developed Harlequino: On to Freedom is one of my favorite plays in which Will Thomas McFadden has performed, but after seeing him in the leading role of Winston Smith in the premiere of 1984,  no doubt I will need to reconsider. McFadden brings the familiar character to life through his true insight into Michael Gene Sullivan's brilliant stage adaptation of the classic 1949 novel.

Four corners of a bleak room appear on a stage inventively surrounded on all four sides by audience members witnessing the story unfold, painfully at times, mere feet from their eyes. Actors’ Gang founder and artistic director Tim Robbins masterfully directs this reawakening of George Orwell’s 1984  into a journey attempting to recant the truth. From the safety of the bleachers I was able to reflect on the dismal state of a world turned asunder when freedom becomes a criminal crusade.

The litepanel monitors overhead hauntingly echo the voice of the company's founder and resident Academy Award-winner voicing the relentless questioning of Orwell’s infamous antagonist O’Brien, truthfully embodying Big Brother’s power over Winston, the message achieved without Robbins even needing to be physically present onstage.

However, this production features yet one more exciting surprise as, in the production’s 11th hour, the towering Robbins suddenly walks into the light and offers us the rare opportunity to see one of our greatest film actors performing live and in the flesh in the theatre he tirelessly worked to create.

Stellar ensemble support is truly the wings giving flight to this production and special props must be given to Gang favorite Bob Turton, who has gripped the helm or supported many of my favorite plays done at the troupe’s former Ivy Substation space.

From earlier this year playing the real-life Superman and making his directorial debut in Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer  to appearing as The Maniac in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Turton has proven there is no character his talents cannot embody—and 1984  is definitely no exception.

Here he plays three characters throughout the course of his two-hour plus performance, changing from a Party Member interrogator holding Winston accountable while facing the constantly-changing litepanel monitor flashing O’Brien’s voice, then morphing into Mr. Charrington, and finally becoming Parsons, a poor dimwitted fellow whose endearingly steadfast sweetness towards reality, even as Big Brother is finally marching him away for execution, wins our hearts in a manner Winston describes by noting, “He actually looks excited.”

Lee Margaret Hanson also steps up to the task of playing three ensemble characters and breathes life into the most important factor of rebellion in Orwell’s tale: love. Hanson embodies Winston’s lover Julia with the perfect flavor capable of driving Winston into a state of primal emotion, while also disgusting the three Party Members in the interrogation room.

At one point during one of Winston’s recanting monologues of his sexual affair with Julia, Turton's Party Member No. 3 goes into a rage set to kill Winston for fear the whole situation is actually Big Brother testing their loyalty. Hanson not only makes the state’s Party Members squeamish but also stirs the audience members sitting onstage who are made uncomfortable yet empathetic towards this horrific story of two people being destroyed for their love.

Tom Szymanski, who played the title character in Misadventure of Spike Spangle, Farmer, has a great knack for embracing vulnerable roles, never falling for the traps in acting. Here he is featured as two characters in this exceptional ensemble, becoming a focal catalyst in charging the play forward at full throttle. His inner monologue compels everyone to listen as he plays Party Member No. 1 literally standing on a soap box enforcing O’Brien’s every word.

The telling of this amazing story requires insurmountable stakes and Szymanski manifests the necessary larger-than-life presence of Big Brother, something which Robbins then masterfully fills further upon entering near the end of Act Two. Both of Szymanski’s brilliantly performed characters set the stage for Robbins’ paramount entrance, manifesting Orwell’s cautionary fable into the stake driven straight into the heart of rebellion.

Robbins both directs and acts in this version of 1984  with a fresh perspective that my virgin seven-year immersion into great LA theatre truly appreciates. He directs Sullivan’s adaptation with a fresh take on the Gang’s original 2006 production, which he also directed. I am willing to argue there is important relevance in Robbins’ 2019 reawakening of the play and my proof is the emotional impact his amazing ensemble had on the faces of my fellow young theatregoers seated across from us almost directly onstage.

Robbins is a daring, brave, powerful dynamo. Since 2006, his Actors’ Gang has taken 1984  all over the world and, in one of his program notes, it fascinates me that while performing the play to audiences in Spain and Argentina, audience members came up afterwards and talked to cast members about relatives of theirs who had been executed for committing the same “thought crimes” of which Winston is accused.

Robbins’ innate ability to tell timely stories in a relevant and truthful manner through his scholarly understanding of humanity can only be upstaged by his own startling performance as O’Brien. I was left amazed at his ability to take over an entire scene through his unparalleled talent as a storyteller.  

The times ahead in 2019 are as equally bleak as Orwell predicted for Winston’s fictional then-futuristic society. My day job has me working outdoors with thousands of children every year and the question kids ask me the most about current SoCal weather is, “Is this climate change?”

We are living Orwell’s bleak prediction and somehow Tim Robbins infuses the message with hope: hope in the power of our own humanity. He tirelessly leads as an actor, director, and activist, contributing so much back to his community. This personal commitment to the work is currently shining brightly at the Actors’ Gang, so please come see this revival of 1984 before it no doubt revitalizes the world once again by reminding us to fight back with c ommitment... and with love.

WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME 

Mark Taper Forum

There could have been no better way to kick off the 2020 season of LA theatre than attending the Taper for the national touring production of What the Constitution Means to Me.

The current climate in both politics and the climate itself should not be the only reasons for attending this nearly one-woman show, because aside from being a finalist in 2019 for the Pulitzer Prize this paramount play was also in contention for Best Play at the Tony Awards, as well as receiving a nomination for the performance of playwright Heidi Schreck in the role she originated. No discussion could be more imperative at this point in human history than one focused upon the oldest living constitution in the world.

What the Constitution Means to Me  has departed Broadway for a 40-week tour kicking off here in the Great City of Angels. Although Schreck graced the stage of the Helen Hayes Theater in the leading role playing herself, she is open to performing Constitution  for small-town audiences during the length of this tour but decided to skip the larger venue stops like Los Angeles to prioritize the other many other irons stoking the fire fueled by her incredible talent as an artist.

After two years on Broadway telling this personal life story of a woman defending a constitution that doesn’t protect women thanks to men such as Justice Scalia in the 2005 case of Castle Rock v. Gonzales, Schreck revealed to the LA Times  about this stint at the Taper that “I need a little break.”

I imagine the only task more difficult than being part of the audience watching Schreck onstage making her case for the public to acknowledge the true state of America’s culture which tolerates systemic abuse against women would be without a doubt attempting to fill Schreck’s shoes, which is exactly the task Tony-nominee Maria Dizzia not only attempts but knocks out of the park. Her performance as Schreck in this decades-defying adaptation is well worth the price of admission.

In an interview with the New Yorker,  Schreck reveals that while on Broadway she wrote herself this stage direction on the actual script: “HEIDI releases any last remnants of the buoyant, performative girlishness that is one of her lifelong coping mechanisms.” Personally, being a career professional in early human development is the only way I, a male audience member, was able to comprehend the often disregarded truths Constitution  is attempting to share with America and the world.

The dynamic transformation of womanhood demanded by this role is one Dizzia captures through not telling Schreck’s story by playing a victim. She doesn’t only successfully play someone weaving in and out of a 15-year-old version of herself, but by sharing the stories of four generations of women in Schreck’s family as if they were victims, along the way discovering the true Heidi Schreck on a journey that makes the loose-knit debate unfolding onstage worth the ninety-minute running time.

On the day of the Kavanaugh hearings Schreck told Sara Holden of New York Magazine, “Stories hold our cure.” Dizzia’s simplistic choices as a storyteller are the power behind Constitution,  becoming the play’s genuine portrayal of that electric charge forever sizzling within those on a stage set for public debate, something which I remember well from my college days.

Situation of circumstances is why Schreck’s friend of many years and fellow feminist activist Oliver Butler took on the role as director. Aside from being an Obie Award recipient for The Open House  in 2014, Butler also brings a dynamic to the production Schreck believes is important in building this play up from the ground.

In a 2018 Rolling Stone  interview Schreck explains, “It’s helpful to have [Butler’s] voice… as a white, heterosexual… I think we’ve both transformed each other’s thinking about a lot of things.” Successful art in an ensemble effort falls flat unless everyone involved brings their amazing talents to the table, which is what makes Constitution  an incredible start for 2020 whether you are a weekly reviewer or someone who frequents theatre once in a bright full moon.

Mike Iveson plays the perfect caricature of what I might imagine an American Legion debate facilitator to be in Schreck’s small town in rural Washington State circa 1989, beginning by telling the audience—already instructed by Dizzia that we should all imagine ourselves to be male American Legionnaires—to “turn off those alarm-type watches and any of those pager-type things and refrain from smoking except between the speeches.”

Iveson’s role is not the easiest considering his only task for portions of the play requires simply to sit on the sidelines with nothing to do. He holds his space well despite the cavernous depths of the Taper and ultimately compliments the story he’s attempting to tell when he strips his illustrious American Legion VA hat and transforms back into his actual self and, like Schreck, tells the audience his own personal experiences as a LGBTQ man in modern America.

The brightest star onstage no doubt all involved would agree is New York high school sophomore Rosdely Ciprian (alternating in the role here with LA-based freshman Jocelyn Shek), who comes onstage near the end to debate Schreck, the latter of whom has concluded, and I quote Schreck from a New York Times  interview, “I’ve realized I just don’t care about the Founding Fathers… I’m tired of their stories… I want to hear other people’s stories.”

There is no doubt in my mind that Ciprian’s story is the one Constitution  lifts high above the others and onto a pedestal from which the entire nation should learn. One of the many great lines Schreck has in the play is of her realizing children are the light shining back, revealing the way for her and all adults to keep moving forward. I can tell you the secret source of my own personal strength in this dire time in history has been my work with children as an early human development facilitator, which exposes me to literally thousands of young peoples’ stories every year.

True personal stories are in dire need of being heard in 2020, which is Schreck’s greatest triumph. In a hopeful world, her brilliant storytelling and the unique wonder of What the Constitution Means to Me  could help to inspire our nation to finally act before the wicked web Trump continues to spin on Twitter finally brings the whole kit and caboodle crashing down once and for all.

MONSIEUR CHOPIN 

Hershey Felder as Chopin by Travis Michael Holder

San Diego Repertory Theatre

Time is the ultimate test of true art, something once again proven by the words written and performed by Hershey Felder in Monsieur Chopin, his solo rendition paying homage to Frederic Chopin.

San Diego Repertory Theatre has graced SoCal once again with one of Hershey’s eight plays bringing great musical composers to life for audiences around the world. Over the course of my six-year immersion into theatre in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, it has been my great privilege to see Hershey breathe life into the great works of Russian composer Tchaikovsky and French composer Debussy at the Wallis Theatre in Beverly Hills, Beethoven at the Geffen Playhouse, and I cannot wait to see his return to the Wallis next summer to premiere a new play featuring him as Sergei Rachmaninoff.

George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, and Liszt are also composers whom I’ve yet to see arise from the crypt through the keys of Hershey’s mesmerizing talent as an actor, intellectual, and world-class pianist fiercely creating magic on the Steinway piano which travels with him around the nation.

Hershey is one of the greatest intellectuals of our time, successfully reintroducing audiences from all walks of life to the titans who shaped the conscious state of modernity. On his last weekend bringing Monsieur Chopin to San Diego Rep for an extended run, he transformed his rapt audience into students seeking piano classes from the proud Polish composer as he equally conjures the brilliance and bipolarity of the man, who lived in times when his condition was labeled as “melancholia.”

Recently Hershey commissioned my boyfriend to paint all eight composers he has portrayed so far over the last 25 years and so I have had the pleasure of seeing his portraits of Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Beethoven, Chopin, Gershwin, Berlin, Bernstein, and Liszt standing side by side, as real as seeing them alive within Hershey, who has indeed shattered the test of time.

He also shatters the fourth wall as Chopin, walking us through his life and the development of his celebrated collected works as he often turns to the audience subbing as students in his Paris salon, demanding we ask questions which are only a path to artistic development. “You may as well ask questions since you put 20 francs into the box,” Chopin tells us, pointing to a box gracing a table on the stunning set, designed by Hershey, where students in his salon placed their tuition in return for the right to learn from the great composer.

Audience members are challenged to pick at Chopin’s brilliant mind brought to life through Hershey’s incredible scope and uncanny faculty as an artist and intellectual. Experiencing firsthand Travis’ journey bringing these composers embodied within Hershey to life on canvas, I became aware of his acute attention to set lighting, which is an intricate essential in Hershey’s genius as a storyteller. Thanks to the lighting design talents of Erik Barry, Chopin’s internal soul evokes empathy and wonder in our own hearts as we empathize with the turbulent processes of life we all share.

Throughout the course of the evening we are taught by Chopin that a great artist viscerally paints the aura of being alive through tools like a Steinway, lighting design, and brilliant background projections. My love for Hershey’s work is accelerated by his innate gift for breathing life into immortal stories having withstood the test of time. He bridges the gap between the audience and the greatest musical compositions ever written.

I came to tears last year sitting in the audience at the Wallis witnessing Tchaikovsky take the stage, allowing us to step into the pain of his world as a gay genius in a time even darker than ours of Trump. The most important message in Hershey’s timelessness is to remind us we are not alone and the amazing fact about it all is, like Chopin, the great Hershey Felder only needs a piano to bring us into the story he has to tell.

We watch Chopin fall into the depths of depression as Russia rapes Poland and forces him to flee to Paris where he is a man without a country. I may be slightly paraphrasing but Chopin tells us, his students, “All I had left to fight with was a piano.” Hearing Chopin and Tchaikovsky relate their life stories in spoken word instead of printed words in a book is a transforming experience.

After the 2018 performance of Our Great Tchaikovsky, Hershey announced he would be traveling with it from Beverly Hills to Moscow, the prospect of taking the story of a genius homosexual composer to the capitol of the homophobic dictatorship of Putin, where gay people are brutally murdered and imprisoned, he admitted scared him.

Travis and I had a late dinner with Hershey and his associate director Trevor Hay after the performance. Rarely does anyone get the privilege of being invited to dinner with a true idol and I confess to being starstruck over the avocado dip and a lovely gin and tonic. As we strolled with Hershey through the Gaslamp District of Downtown San Diego back to our rooms at the Horton Grand Hotel, on an empty sidewalk I got the opportunity to ask how well his performance as Tchaikovsky was received in Moscow.

“I never went,” Hershey replied bleakly. “That’s how real the danger is in Russia.” In a world being overran by dictators, we all need to listen more to our artists, because only art will withstand the inequities and ruthlessness of time.

INVISIBLE TANGO 

Geffen Playhouse

Art is the secret of any great storyteller. Nobody could define the embodiment of great storytelling better than Frank Marshall, director of Invisible Tango, now playing at the Geffen Playhouse. When the producer of my favorite film franchises Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and the Bourne series decided to take on this theatrical project bringing the art of magic and storytelling together, my curiosity alone wouldn’t let me miss this 80-minute story told by Portuguese native card genius Helder Guimarães about his lifelong quest to understand the age-old creed of fate, “Everything happens for a reason.”

Guimarães humbly takes the stage, allowing us to see him exactly for who he is, a simple man holding a deck of cards, and his genuine courage naturally imbues the magician with the power to set any audience at ease. His simple use of theatricality brings the electrifying art of magic to life, swaying gradual control over everyone—myself included—no doubt manifesting Helder’s esteemed hero Max Malini, who performed his sleight of hand before royalty at Buckingham Palace in the first part of the 20th century.

All great storytellers strive to welcome us. Yet in Invisible Tango, Guimarães literally welcomes us into his home, recreated onstage in masterfully simplistic fashion by scenic designer François Pierre Couture (who knocked my socks off with his attention-to-every-detail set design for Jackie Unveiled at the Wallis Center last year), while original subtle jazz music by Moby played on an onstage turntable adds to the mystique. 

Witnessing a single card trick will be more than enough to make anyone slide to the edge of their seat realizing the courage of Guimarães is grounded in something far deeper than first appearances reveal. Deception is not an art, rather telling the truth is. For this reason, the brilliance of Helder comes from his natural ability to let people watch him prove the sincerity of his own truth. He brings the chaos we all share by living with an orange goon in the White House and, with the ease of his sleight of hand, shuffles all our cares and worries into his deck.

One of my greatest mentors in acting and purveyor of this very website always reminds me that art cannot be taught; it can only be nurtured. Invisible Tango is a breath of fresh air in America where the art of passing knowledge along to the future has all but erased stories like this, which Guimarães tells, in unison with performing card tricks, of an elderly clown who mentored him through secretly having an antique store owner slip him a journal with pages stained by rum and filled with many of the secrets to the card tricks now onstage at the Geffen.

The journal is devoid of the person’s name who poorly wrote down the tricks in it. Invisible Tango is Helder’s long quest searching for the mysterious author of the journal. His story and the magic become intertwined as we tango through the evening with Helder—and nobody can deny this master of cards successfully earns trust through proving in trick after trick that chaos can be wielded when grounded in truth.

Our fear of chaos comes from the human abhorrence to danger. Evolution reared us to avoid threatening situations. Experience in the stunt industry revealed to me the art in bringing danger to the stage. Greatly inspired by Malini, Guimarães eventually introduces us to the danger of chaos once certain he has won trust by proving capable of shuffling fate into submission before our very eyes.

The secret to the art of danger is suspense and Invisible Tango’s breakneck speed literally sends every last nerve in the audience over the edge when Helder takes a very real, very sharp dagger into his hand. Wielding the dagger as his magician’s wand, it’s during this most suspenseful sequence of the show that Guimarães’ hand slips and the dagger stabs the wrong card on a wooden tabletop, a mistake which Helder masterfully shrugs off by saying, “Hey, even I am human.” This amazing magician of illusion, even when caught for being human, still leaves the audience wondering if the mistake was simply an intentional/important/necessary part of imbuing us with his courage to believe in his magic.

Destiny takes a young Portuguese boy on a quest around the world, an Invisible Tango through the dark of evening by route of the story of an old mentoring clown in Buenos Aires and his journal of anonymously-written card tricks. We follow Helder Guimarães and his deck of cards from South America, to Scotland, and finally all the way to Los Angeles where learning the definition of “liability” in the fine print of his auto insurance policy has Helder questioning whether everything really does happen for a reason or not.

This delightful Geffen production left me in agreement with Helder’s philosophic summation on life, which is that destiny only requires us to find what makes each of us truly happy and then never letting go. Happiness may seem beyond reach with orange goons in office, but Helder’s courage quite literally proves to the audience with a simple deck of cards that anything is possible. All we must do is believe in a little magic.

 *  *  *

  EAT ME

Beginning at an isolated house so obviously cliché to the humble Salton Sea community it quite possibly might have appeared on an episode of Huell Howser’s California Gold, lead character Tommy, performed by the wonderfully talented Jacqueline Wright, appears in the first moments of the film to be a bit off-kilter.

We watch Tommy do an odd array of activities, including getting into a suitcase before hiding her giant dildos inside the liner of the couch and then pretending to stab herself in the gut with a huge kitchen knife before pouring every pill in the cluttered abode into a pet dish. Don’t be alarmed, this is not a spoiler alert, because nothing within the first minutes of Eat Me could prepare the audience for the plot that unfolds.

Wright originally wrote Eat Me as a very successful and daring play, which she has now adapted into a brilliant screenplay telling a story about that part of this country that “Great” simply cannot hide: the depressing truth. Prepare to be repulsed and disgusted, because that is exactly Wright’s intension in revealing the many unseen casualties of our judgmental society.

Art is the reflection of that which is within and finding relatability in Eat Me reminded me of how important art is—especially at this point in our nation’s history. It requires vision to tell a story about rape, masochism, and suicide without such repugnant sounding words losing the audience, a feat here surpassed by an acting ensemble paramount in showing us the real people behind labels defined in dictionaries or Google Search. Wright’s script and the movie’s ensemble, under the leadership of visionary director Adrian A.Cruz, appear to be wielded with such ease that it’s genius.

Halfway through the film, it became obvious that I cared about three distastefully misunderstood characters, who were behaving in ways most only dare type into words late at night on porn search engines. One of the many strokes of genius in this film is the ever-present TV Land-type station playing reruns of The Andy Griffith Show and the 1955 B-movie sci-fi classic Tarantula. And as this soundtrack of Americana drones in the background, right before our very eyes the greatness of our troubled country crumbles to pieces as Tommy becomes the newest addition to the #MeToo movement.

The important factor in this blood-soaked story is the undeniable undertone of dark humor. I was ashamed of myself for laughing at situations not just inappropriate but flat-out morally wrong by societal standards. Standards are pushed to their absolute breaking point—all to the audience’s inexplicable amusement. A perfect example is Michael Shamus Wiles (Magnolia, Pearl Harbor) as Frank, the older of the two rapists who break into Tommy’s remote country home, clearly a distasteful fellow upon his first appearance in the film.

Though given time, Frank soon had me snickering at his habitual vices normal people do every day, except that Frank isn’t having a normal day. He’s breaking into a house with the intent of raping Tommy, yet when he throws his helplessly drugged victim to the floor before ripping open the velcro to his back-support belt so that he can unbutton his pants—a habitual vice that he repeats throughout his brief scenes in the film—I couldn’t help but laugh. This film really is a wonderfully bad influence on normal people, the characters so relatable the audience lowers its guard. Good acting accomplishes that and Wiles shows his chops as a seasoned actor.

Nothing would work without the electrifying chemistry that Tommy finds with Brad Carter (Black Mass, The Revenant) as Bob, the second of the two rapists. Part of the intrigue keeping the audience glued to their seats is watching the power struggle between these two characters like a well-played game of chess. They are just two wayward lost souls with no greater star to chase suddenly brought together by a screwed-up universe, discovering things about each other through their violent encounter that leads one to wonder if Eat Me is actually a deluded love story.

Delivering a heartfelt monologue about his beautiful mother, Bob somehow manages to remove the “rapist” mask that society automatically places on such societal undesirables. Allowing us to see a misguided youth trapped inside a body that’s grown into a seriously disturbed individual, reflecting the part we play as a society that embraces inequality and has created these pitiful creatures bound to impulse and ignorance. To say Carter is a multifaceted actor would be an understatement; the simple genius in every choice he makes delivers an award-worthy performance.

After being exposed to Wright’s talent onstage last season in the equally crazy play Blueberry Toast, I went to this opening fully prepared to once again experience her total commitment and fearless embracement of the characters she takes on. I knew from theatre reviews of Eat Me as a play that as a film it promised nothing short of anarchy, and with Wright at the helm, I left expectations outside at the ticket booth with the lightly-salted organically-popped popcorn and the Junior Mints.

The many different unspoken layers of Tommy that gradually unfold are essential to the plot’s survival despite disgusting scenes involving rape and sadism. For the writer to also find discoveries within her own work proves how well-rounded Wright is as an artist, showing us this isn’t just a story about dildos and Cheese Puff-eating deplorables. She reveals a woman who could be any one of us trying to make do with what’s left of a deteriorating society haunted by the truth. Our own aspirations and disappointments rise up through Tommy’s heaving chest as she realizes that her rapist may have metamorphosed into something emotionally significant to her lonely heart. Again, this story is one wild ride, but Wright’s writing and acting pull it off successfully.

Cruz, who makes his directorial debut as a feature filmmaker, contributes the most compelling aspect of Eat Me. No novice to the art of great storytelling, this guy brings a world to life and evokes a palpable emotional connection with the audience in spite of the difficult content. Cruz’s career spans from the comic book industry to network television and, based off what I saw at the Arena Cinelounge theater on Sunday, Eat Me is only the beginning for this gifted Hollywood director.

I also must note the wonderful set design, which is so spot-on real life that it adds to the hilarity of the storyline. Cinematography, editing, and the music score by Martin Carrillo are so well-executed they’re invisible to the audience. At a key moment in Tommy’s descent into the dark depths of social taboo, the faint background rhythms of pounding drums actually raised the hairs on the back of my neck as it conjured a character onscreen who was releasing that primitive wild side within her residing in all of us. Eat Me is an amazing piece of work—daring and well worth experiencing on the big screen of a theatre.

   THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI 

Last year was one of the best for incredible screenplays, case and point being Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges) writes with the same bold simplicity that brings to mind other greats Sam Shepard and James McClure, giving this stellar ensemble sheer poetic verse in dialogue.

It is impossible not to see the relatability in McDonagh’s script to the world in which I grew in northern New Mexico, filled with such dysfunctional characters I had to keep reminding myself I was watching a film and not reliving the memories of my rural past. No surprise it took home Golden Globes for Best Screenplay, Best Director-Motion Picture, and Best Motion Picture. Clearly McDonagh is a seasoned writer, having proven himself many times before, and being at the helm of this fantastic piece of writing as director has earned him and his masterpiece the praise it deserves.

My jaw was dropping within the first ten minutes of watching Frances McDormand (Fargo, Hail, Cesaer; Burn After Reading) purchasing those three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a small rural town where everybody knows everyone and the little church house is the communal potluck/social center for the entire town.

It was no shock to see McDormand walk away with Golden Globe and the Critics’ Choice Awards for Best Actress in a Drama. Her stone-cold eyes literally burn straight through her fellow ensemble due to the rape and death of her only daughter (Kathryn Newton), but that’s only part of what makes McDormand’s performance riveting. She demands so much truth from fellow actors like Woody Harrelson (Zombieland), who plays the story’s infamous Sheriff Willoughby, and Sam Rockwell (Napoleon Dynamite, Cowboys & Aliens), who also walked away with Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice honors as Best Supporting Actor as Willoughby’s “cracker motherfucker” deputy.

This exceptional cast raises the bar and stakes to heights far above the small town of Ebbing to umbrella our entire nation, the tiny rural community now ruled by the very people whose “gang” Mildred Hayes (McDormand) accuses the local Catholic parson Father Montgomery (Nick Searcy) of joining—meaning the church. “You’re culpable,” she rails at him. “And when a person is culpable to altar-boy-fucking, or any-kinda-boy-fucking—I know you guys didn’t really narrow it down—then they kinda forfeit the right to come into my house and say a word to me. Finish your tea there, Father, and get the fuck outta my kitchen.”

That was one of the greatest monologues McDonagh penned in his screenplay because it’s the message that needs to be heard by every American as our elected president calls Africa and Haiti “shithole countries” and behaves like Ebbing sheriff deputy Dixon (Rockwell) throwing Red Welby (played perfectly by Caleb Landry Jones of Friday Night Lights and The Social Network), out of the second story window of the Ebbing advertising firm that leased those three billboards to Mildred and into the street in front of the entire town as Americans just stand by quietly and watch.

Other performances in the film that cannot be overlooked include Lucas Hedges, Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee last year for Manchester by the Sea, who doesn’t bring any less to the role of Mildred’s son. The scenes between Hedges and McDormand, alone in their small country house as they both deal with the brutal rape and murder of their sister and daughter, breaks the heart and are so accurate to McDonagh’s story that it took me back to the farm on which I grew up with my mother. McDormand and Hedges are absolute dynamite.

Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage plays the town “midget,” bringing another important facet of the screenplay to life in small town America. After Sheriff Deputy Dixon throws Welby into the street in front of Abercrombie (Clarke Peters) and continues to punch the tar out of the advertising agent right in the middle of Main Street, he just walks back to the Sheriff Station literally right across the street and, as he passes by Peters’ character, shouts back, “See? I got issues with white folks too.”

Color is not the only facet to prejudice in our country. Whether it’s an alcoholic Little Person who sells used cars, an advertising agent suspected of being gay, or a mother causing trouble with three billboards using the greatest threat to American ignorance: words. This is the thing that brings poetry to this film, baring the power to bring to life the problem facing our great democracy which stems from ignorance and poverty—both of which “the pigs” of Ebbing, Missouri use to maintain the status quo.

Carter Burwell (In Bruges, True Grit) also took home a Golden Globe for Best Original Score, another of the many components, including the production design by Inbal Weinberg (The Place Beyond The Pines, Frozen River) and cinematography of Ben Davis (Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange) contributing to the cohesive collaboration that make me confident Three Billboards Outside Missouri will be taking home a lot more gold before the end of our current award season.

  CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Andre Aciman's Call Me by Your Name  is a story about the life of modern 1983 society in reflection to the past, this beautifully written work of poetry instantly captures the audience with its wonderful simplicity, and impressive courage in championing the truth behind the fabric that holds our crumbling civilization together.

Screenwriter James Ivory (The Remains of the Day, Maurice) is fearless in his adaptation of Aciman's novel, the tale of artistically talented brooding 17-year-old boy Elio Perlman, played by the talented Timothée Chalamet (Interstellar, Homeland), who discovers a relationship with an ‘older’ surprisingly educated American named Oliver, performed by Armie Hammer (J. Edgar, The Social Network), who is assisting Elio’s father research ancient Greek and Roman sculptures dredged up from the bottom of a nearby lake.

Feelings unfold between Elio and Oliver in the glacially-paced countryside of Northern Italy in a fashion which could be likened to Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. It’s a story of a teenager discovering love with an older adult man and is masterfully directed by Luca Guadagnino (The Protagonists, Melissa P.).

Call Me by Your Name takes us out of our seats and carries us back to a more Hellenistic time where intelligence and compassion are acceptable human qualities. These are traits captured in Michael Stuhbarg’s (Steve Jobs, Trumbo) portrayal of Elio’s well-rounded father Mr. Perlman, who not only knows of the relationship that unfolds over the summer between his son and Oliver but also sees its pure reflection of the human spirit that Greek and Roman sculptors attempted to capture in the ancient bronze and marble statues he’s dredging up. He tells Oliver, as they are looking at projections of Greek statutes of boys, it’s as if they are “daring you to desire them.”

Saying this instant masterpiece is a “coming of age” romance is like saying the phenomenal Hedwig and the Angry Inch musical equates to Rock of Ages. Hedwig is a real person. I watched her pain unfold on stage at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, and I saw the same with Elio. A human being walking through life. Art.

Timothée Chalamet brings his own amazing talent to the screen for us to appreciate by exquisitely playing piano and helping to show us the emotional creatures hidden behind society’s taboos. This is an artistic portrayal of real life and the grounded vision of the entire ensemble makes this a feat in accomplishment. I fully expect to see this taking the nominations for gold this year.

The performances of the women in this stellar cast cannot be overlooked. Amira Casar’s (Arabian Nights, Age of Uprising) portrayal of Elio’s mother is an ever-present force that allows us to understand from where her son’s courage and strength comes. Her naked vulnerability in showing the understanding love of a mother and wife is chilling, and I couldn’t help but see my own mother who completely loves and accepts me as a 28-year-old gay man in a 5-year relationship with my 71-year-old boyfriend.

Life is more than a film, which makes this cast exemplary because I watched it in an American movie theatre with my boyfriend. The vast majority of the audience was heterosexual couples, all of whom only ever saw a story of people, like themselves, and not the stigma’s of societal perception.

Aside from Elio’s infatuation with Oliver, he is also love stricken with a young Italian girl named Marzia played by Esther Garrel (Love for a Day, Thirst Street), a very important performance allowing us to see the balancing act many young men play as they explore love. You can’t help falling in love with Esther’s Marzia as she watches Elio slowly push her away.

The best way of describing this film would be to quote Chekhov when he described his play The Seagull: “A great deal of conversation about literature, little action, tons of love.” It is a magical 2 hour and 12 minute adventure of suspense well worth the outrageous price of a movie ticket!

  ON THE ROAD

“In my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night.” Brilliant words written by the great Allen Ginsberg while in San Francisco in 1956. It’s impossible not to watch them on film without acknowledging Ginsberg’s work as a poet, since he figures so prominently under the pseudonym Carlo in Jack Kerouac’s timeless classic On the Road that director Walter Salles turned into a magnificent 2014 multi-award-winning entry in film festivals around the world.

The star-studded cast proves the importance that Kerouac’s words still hold for us today as the world still slowly crumbles beneath hate and the human condition. Every performance given comes from a place of true conviction from an ensemble that fights to drive this incredible story home for the audience just as its original creator intended.

The good direction of On the Road becomes immediately apparent from the beginning, and it’s easy to see why Salles was awarded Best Direction by the Sydney Film Festival. Perhaps it is just the amazing words of Kerouac that bring such life to the screen as we are introduced to a closeted/troubled Allen Ginsberg, played wonderfully by Tom Sturridge, and his sexy lover Dean Moriarty, whose life in real life was Neil Cassidy, played spot on by Garrett Hedlund. We see them stare into one another’s eyes looking for trust after just having had a three-way with one of the many girls that are passed through on the journey down Kerouac’s road.

You can’t help but see two young men searching for truth in their lives within a crumbling world of mediocrity. It’s a real treat to see both actors equally connected not only with the script but also each other. Again I think Kerouac must be given a lot of the credit, but you cannot ignore the great talent of this stellar cast. The pain of these characters just pours from Sturridge’s eyes as he quietly yearns for Dean to “just simply hold me.” While he and Sal Paradise, based on Jack Kerouac and performed by Sam Riley, sip liquor in the wake of Dean abandoning them to have sex with a girl, Ginsberg cries, “This is the first time sex has been part of my relationship with a man. Grief is closest. I’m 21. By the time I’m 23, I’m going to write a great poem. Then it’s all over for me.”

Based on the poem quoted at the beginning, it’s clear Ginsberg did indeed keep his word, but the pain and suffering in his writing becomes more understandable as we see Dean, the man of his dreams, wrench his yearning heart apart. The accomplishment in this film is that it gives reveals the importance in art; you can’t help but wonder if Kerouac would have ever written On the Road if equally great artists, like Ginsberg, hadn’t been a part of his life. Art inspires art in collaboration, and the performances of this cast are no exception.

Eight years under President Obama have given rise to a new generation of people that cannot see life in the same way that the post-World War II artists of the Beat Generation did, which makes it even harder us to understand the Civil Rights era that came as a result of the great literary movement that Kerouac, Ginsberg and many others inspired. On the Road is the story of mere children growing up in a devastated world being torn down by capitalism, communism, and fear of nuclear annihilation. These are characters that are seeing the world anew for the first time through the use of drugs, sexual freedom, and any other means available to discover truth.

Racing down highways built by President Eisenhower, whose predecessor says, “We must cut down on the price of living,” is constantly quoted by Dean and Sal both repeating the President’s words every time they steal gas or take food from country grocers. Proving that idealism has always failed our species, because of the state of our condition that doesn’t show any signs of changing. While at his parent’s house with Dean and some friends, Sal Paradise erupts at the news that General Douglas MacArthur banned kissing in the streets of Tokyo, shouting, “Who does that puritanical old fart think he is?!” If Kerouac were writing his timeless masterpiece today, I shutter to think what Sal and his friends would think now with Trump in office. The beauty of the writing truly shines through the screen as this story of raw naked pain unveils the close relationship that 1959 has with 2017.

Just like any journey down the road of life this film reflects the comings and goings of all the different people that pass through our lives by the memorable cameos made throughout the 124 minutes of drama. When Sal meets a Latina woman named Terry (the talented Alice Braga) who picks cotton for a living, we see Kerouac’s own desire to connect with the lives of those tread upon by—as Viggo Mortensen later puts it, “White Americans”. We see Sal turn a hand to working America’s cotton fields and then be mocked by his white overseers for being a white man mingling with Latinos.

The civil divides that tear us a part truly come to life as we watch Terry and Sal sweating both in the fields and naked on sheets of desire. Young souls with the strength to seek out the love and connection that makes us all human, while also realizing the insurmountable obstacles keeping us from uniting as one race. It’s heartbreaking to watch them constantly met with disappointment despite their best, often misguided, efforts in combating the horrid elements that many of us all want to change. Yet, while taking Sal’s mother to New York as a favor for feeding them, Dean is pulled over for a speeding ticket and Sal’s mother ultimately is forced to pay the fine proving that sex and love are not enough to survive in a world that revolves around the almighty dollar.

Watching the crucifixion of these relatable characters fighting for righteousness makes this film a true compliment to the book, a rare feat. From watching a stoned Amy Adams sweeping lizards out of trees with a broom in the dark, to getting to see Mortenson perform the part of real life William Burroughs butt-naked step into a tiny shed to breath in fumes to get high, this film is a rollercoaster ride that culminates into a magical experience.        

Kristen Stewart and Kristen Dunst are the leading actresses that form a striking duo of ‘Kristen’ prowess as they represent the women that get left behind on Sal and Dean’s journey down the road. We begin to see the consequences of Dean using his boyish charm to swoon the hearts of a world in need, ultimately leaving Stewart and Dunst shipwrecked upon the wayside., to which Dean later tells Sal, “As you get older all those mistakes just keep stacking up.”

Despite seeing Dunst’s heartbreaking performance as a lonely mother left alone who tells Dean as he packs his suitcase, “You know how much I gave up for you?” and being surprised by the usually predictable performance of Stewart, who was perfectly typecast as Marylou, it’s still hard to hate Dean even after hurting so many of the men and women in his life, because you understand that strong people simply cannot save everybody. Even a lifeboat will sink if too many cling to it.

While driving to California, Dean pulls over and picks up an Okie cowboy hitchhiker, played by American blues singer and songwriter Jake La Botz, who sings folks songs as they travel down the road into the sunset promising the Golden State. One of the lyrics that Bolz’s character sings that drives home our understanding of Dean’s predicament goes, “It’s hard to love what you kill.”

Steve Buscemi enters the story playing a salesman who travels to Denver with Dean and Sal after they abandon Dunst’s character and her and Dean’s baby in California. Buscemi is yet another example of the stellar ensemble, and performs the part of a guy looking to ensure that everybody around him remains “copacetic” to the score of commitment. Again, commitment reappears as an important part of the film, first with Ginsberg pining for Dean, and again as Buscemi later admits to Dean and Sal in a cheap motel that he really doesn’t like girls.

In the end, Sal gets to witness Dean become Buscemi’s bedtime top, which finally begins to crack his own love for Dean. Later Buscemi leaves them in Denver, to which Dean turns to Sal and says, “You see? Give ‘em what they secretly want, and they just panic.” The brilliance in Hedland’s talent as an actor comes as Kerouac’s curved out literary journey gradually begins winding down beneath the weight of reality, unveiling an arced performance that makes Hedland the perfect pick for Dean.

It oddly isn’t surprising that Dean arises as the dark hero of the story, because even his own strength isn’t enough to carry him through the story unscathed. Granted in the end he too ends up alone and begging to not be abandoned like all the loves in his past, but it’s his courage that makes him so endearing to the audience. Even the strongest crumble in the face of a world filled with millions of people all sinking. Leaving us to wonder if maybe the strongest people are actually those like Ginsberg and Paradise who remain committed to their art and those that they love.

I’m left with the somber tone of Ginsberg’s words, “There is no gold at the end of the rainbow.” Fortunately, anyone that gets to watch Walter Salles’ adaptation of Kerouac’s amazing story will agree that there is definite gold at the end of this cinematic journey On the Road.