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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The "He's Not My President" Litany



    The country’s exhaustion with the 2016 election hung in the air like a fog when I went to vote at the Firehouse at Aramingo and Belgrade Streets. It was near 10 in the morning but the firehouse was empty. Gone also were the usual sidewalk canvassers who hand out sample ballots. The scene was so quiet I wondered if the firehouse was even still operating as a polling place. Even during boring primary elections, the firehouse had always been alive with activity, but not today.
    I entered the sleepy firehouse and headed to the area where the voting booths are located when a woman appeared out of nowhere and asked if I was here to vote.
    That’s a strange question, I thought to myself.  “Yes, I’m here to vote,” I replied, “I’m not a firefighter.”
   She handed me a sample Republican ballot just as a Democratic operative emerged from the shadows with a sample Clinton ballot. I didn’t inquire why they weren’t outside on the sidewalk meeting and greeting people (it was a beautiful day, after all), or why there weren’t a multiple campaign posters and sample ballots pasted to the firehouse walls. When I got to the registration table, I signed in and voted and when I left I noticed that I was still the only voter in the place.
    After voting, I removed the I Just Voted sticker from my jacket lapel and went about my business. I ran into a few neighbors. Maria from across the street was rushing to vote for Hillary, while Joey, holding his newborn son, announced with pride that he had just voted for Trump. Meeting these neighbors reminded me of the sermon I heard in church the Sunday before about the importance of voting. It wasn’t a partisan sermon, of course, just a friendly reminder of our civic duty.

    Later that day I went into Center City on a work assignment, then met a friend for coffee at a new café, Toast, at 12th and Spruce Streets. Toast is a nice place. It’s quiet and laid back, there’s no loud music so you can hear yourself (and others) talk. Since it was Election Day a wide screen TV had been placed in a central place so that customers could keep abreast of the news. The set channel was MSNBC where talking heads were running commentary on the results of a number of exit polls. Every exit poll gave Hillary a sizeable advantage, so by my second cup of coffee I was pretty much thinking of Hillary as the next president. After all, poll after poll had her ahead, so how could so many experts be wrong?  
    In Toast my friend admitted that he was mad at himself for not registering to vote. He told me that he was beginning to regret not registering because he was feeling the stirrings of political passion. “I’m suddenly feeling the itch to vote but I can’t do anything about it,” he said, shaking his head. I pointed a finger at him and told him he was a heel for not registering. “I know,” he added.  My friends are at least honest if not perfect.   
      I’ve heard people give all sorts of reasons why they don’t vote, the dumbest of which I think goes something like this, “Well, Mickey Mouse and Jack Parr never voted, so why should I?” Singer Joan Baez once told me during an interview that she refuses to vote because it’s all a charade and there’s never a legitimate choice anyway, so why bother. “It’s tiresome and exhausting that we have to go through this show every four years,” she said. While I’ve always loved Joan Baez, I can’t quite figure out this logic although I didn’t tell her this at the time.   
    In the café, people kept coming in and checking the TV screen, eagerly taking note of the exit polls. The exit polls certainly indicated that this would be an election without surprises. When I left the café and headed into the neighborhood again, I checked to see if the firehouse was still empty. There seemed to be a little more activity there, but not much. 
   After dinner, I set up camp in my study and prepared for a long night of election return watching. Almost immediately it became apparent that Hillary Clinton was in trouble. I dismissed this as a temporary glitch but when the trend accelerated I knew the nation was in for a surprise. This election was going to be America’s Brexit. After all, every national poll had Clinton ahead by 3 or 4 points sans the odd polls that had Clinton ahead by one point then Trump ahead by one point. Everyone had assumed that Clinton would win, certainly everyone in Philadelphia where the Clinton vote was so overwhelming even Sherlock Holmes would be hard pressed to find a core group of out and proud Trump supporters. “Philadelphia is in its own bubble,” as I told a friend who was mourning Clinton’s loss the day after Election Day. “Philadelphians were so staunchly pro Clinton the bubble kept them from imagining an alternate political universe.”
     Every news source in the country, from The New York Times on down, indicated that Clinton had it in the bag. A few news sources pointed to a Trump win, as did a large number of psychics and Tarot card readers who predicted a big surprise on Election Day. This surprise, they said, would shock the nation. I dismissed both the pro-Trump Tarot readers and the Clinton-biased mainstream media as drowning in wish fulfillment.  
   When Trump was declared President-Elect, I knew the polls and the media had screwed things up. How could so many professionals have preformed like clueless amateurs?  

      After Trump was declared the winner, protestors started hitting the streets, with many proclaiming that the President-Elect was not their president.
       When I heard this chant I had an attack of déjà vu.
       How many times have I said this to myself during my decades as a voter? And yet here were people in their twenties saying the same thing but for the first time.
   “Richard Nixon is not my President,” I said as an antiwar demonstrator and conscientious objector in 1972.
   “Ronald Reagan is not my President,” I said in 1980 when Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter.
   “Ronald Reagan is still not my President,” I said in 1984, when Reagan defeated Walter Mondale. 
    “George H.W. Bush is not my President,” I said in 1988, when he defeated Michael Dukakis.
     “George Bush Jr. is not my President,” I said both in 2000 and in 2004, but especially in 2000 when the Florida chad recount vote had the nation in turmoil.

   I’ve grown tired of saying this but the scary truth is that the United States is not a total democracy but a Republic. This means that the states cast their votes for President through the Electoral College. This means that very often half of the country is going to get a president they don’t like or agree with. That’s the way it goes in a Republic. It’s like the ups and downs in a marriage when both spouses have to give and take, concede, negotiate, compromise and make sacrifices on behalf of the other. George Bush Jr. may not have been “my” president, but he was still president of the United States, and he still mattered.
  Likewise, President Obama was still the president of all the birther conspiracy theorists and all the “He’s a closet Muslim” fanatics.  
      That’s why when I hear protestors say that Trump is not their president, I say, welcome to the club, folks. You now know what it means to be an American. I tell them to dig in their heels and get ready for decades of feeling this way because the results of national elections are not always going to agree with your views. The upshot is that you’ll get through this with a little bit of effort but setting cars on fire and promising to shut down Inauguration Day only raises the black and red flags of anarchy.  
    It’s good to be reminded that the United States is not a banana republic where you can just dispose of a leader because you object to his (or her) political views.  




The Porch, a Fishtown Tale

    A little known film, The Porch, about life in Philadelphia in the year 1955 surfaced recently. A friend announced its discovery when he found it among his old VHS tapes. The film, as it turned out, seemed to be in fine condition. While I had never heard of The Porch, I was very curious to see what it portrayed.
    When my friend, Zorro, started the film I could see right away that the production qualities were not the best. The images in this old black and white film had a faded, bleached out look.
  The Porch opens with a row house patio scene. At first it’s not clear where the patio is located. I assumed it was South Philadelphia but on closer inspection I was pleased to see that it was somewhere in the Riverwards. In an almost modernist way, the camera focuses on just the empty patio and keeps rolling although there is no action. Finally, we see a cat running from one end of the patio to the other. No doubt this pet or feral is chasing a bird. After this nothing happens for a while until a Mummer, decked out in feathers and a cape, struts in front of the camera.
    The Mummer’s cape is far humbler and simpler looking than today’s Mummer’s costumes. The Mummer has a heavily painted face and dances from one end of the patio to the other.  All of this happens without any music. He just keeps dancing and dancing, going forward and backwards and then twirling around in this very small patio where occasionally you can see the rooftops of other row homes in the area.  

   What struck me initially was that there was no dialogue. I wanted a script, a story but even as the film progressed there were only a series of kaleidoscopic images, namely of women lying in the sun. Who were these women? Some of them wore head bandanas and looked like Rosie the Riveter. It became clear that they are women of the neighborhood, mothers, daughters and grandmothers, the women of 1955.
     Suddenly a narrator’s voice is heard.
   “The sun is warm and life is good,” he says. The voice belongs to John Facenda. When the camera pans skyward a Budweiser billboard pops into view, and then Facenda’s voice resumes. “In Philadelphia, there’s always something to make you stop crying.”
   The thing is, nobody in the film was crying until a baby in a cradle appears on screen. The baby was indeed crying, shaking its little fingers while crunching up its nose and moving its head from side to side. Once again, Facenda’s voice is heard.  “You’re crying…well, you may have your reasons but think of all the fun that lies ahead.”   
   “These were really optimistic times,” I said to Zorro. “They had no idea that Vietnam War was just down the pike. Or that the assassination of a future President was in the wings. It’s good we don’t know what the future holds.”
    I no sooner said this than the images on screen seemed very familiar to me. Yes, by God, I was really seeing Aramingo Avenue in 1955, but not only Aramingo Avenue but East Huntingdon Street, Richmond Street and many smaller streets in my immediate neighborhood. The camera seemed to be on a topography tirade as it scanned the inside the old paint factory that stood at Huntingdon and E. Thompson. There in front of me were workers in endless assembly lines.  More close-ups of the streets—all meticulously spotless without a shred of litter, mind you— then that Mummer guy appeared again and proceeded to dance up towards York Street, twirling and twirling until he disappeared like a dot on the horizon.
      O Poor Mummer, I thought, where are you now?
       The camera then panned Lehigh Avenue where I caught a glimpse of the houses I still see standing today. I recognized windows and doors. There seemed to be a lot more parking spaces in 1955 and people were better dressed. No sweat suits and baseball caps. The women wore hats and many of the men wore baggy jackets and ties. Sometimes the suits were so baggy the men looked like clowns.
       Life seemed so formal then.
      To my dismay, a Strawberry Mansion bound route 39 Peter Witt SE car appeared on Huntingdon at Richmond Street.  Ah, the beauty of Richmond Street prior to I-95! Children played on the stoops of the row houses there as Chrysler New Yorker’s and a Chevrolet Bel Air and Corvette slowly drove by. In two years, the highly eccentric looking Ford Edsel would make its way down Richmond. How many people in the Riverwards would buy an Edsel?
   “Everything was ruined by I-95,” Zorro observed.  
    The Route 39 appeared again, stopping to pick up two women in long dresses. Were they going into Center City to visit Horn & Hardart or Stouffer’s? A man in a bowler hat wobbled into view from a side street--did he just leave one of the bars along Lehigh Avenue?—just as two kids in a homemade co-cart came barreling around the corner, almost crashing into a lamppost.
   Above a small corner store I spot a Camel cigarette ad, and beside that is a faded billboard featuring Marilyn Monroe.
     A Cadillac Convertible passes in front of the camera with an Adlai Stevenson for President bumper sticker. That’s when I remember that the country was gearing up for the November 6, 1956 presidential elections, when Dwight D. Eisenhower would beat Stevenson by almost 9 million votes.  The 1956 election was the last presidential election in which both major candidates were born in the 19th century.

   Then, in a very shocking scene reminiscent of contemporary behavior patterns, a man and a woman appear out of a house on Richmond with Eisenhower signs and proceed to chase after the Cadillac Convertible. They appear to be shouting slogans when one of them drops their sign as both manage to jump on the trunk of the Cadillac. They pound the car furiously with their fists. The Cadillac breaks, then speeds up, then breaks again in an attempt to throw them off the car. Eventually the motion does send the couple sailing across Richmond Street where they land in the gutter, unhurt but apparently dazed.

  “Election animosity is as old as the hills,” I mumble, as Facenda’s voice suddenly emerges, pleading for tolerance and unity.    
    By now I am very engrossed in this film, and ask Zorro why it’s never been shown on public television. The Porch isn’t even on You Tube, as far as I know, and it might even be virtually invisible except for random showings by private collectors.

     Perhaps the most eerie thing about The Porch is that so many of the characters who appear in the film, especially after the political attack scene, closely resemble the faces of neighbors and people I see today walking in the area.
    “Really, they seem to be the very same people,” I said, lurching forward in my chair and pointing to a face that was a dead ringer of a local business owner.
      “It can’t be him, Zorro said, “The film is from 1955.” But sightings of duplicate people only increased after this, and they really mushroomed when the camera panned a shopping crowd scene near Girard Avenue.  That’s when the huddled masses on the street going about their errands were none other than the very people I see every week in the Riverwards. I spotted Citizen’s Bank employees, Washington Bank employees, Stock’s Bakery employees and more, all of them in 1950s dress and going about their business as they do today, 70 years later. “They’re living two lives at once,” I told Zorro, “one in an archival film and the other in 2016.”
   “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” I muttered, reaching for the popcorn.
    I really flipped when I began to see the faces of the neighbors on my street.
   “How is this possible?” I said to Zorro.
         I soon stopped asking how this was possible but started to wonder how I could step inside the film to find out what was going on.  Certainly such a thing was possible. I knew I had to find a way to do it in order to warn these folks about I-95 (“Don’t let them build the wall!”) and to tell that fanatical Eisenhower couple that their fighting was not needed because Eisenhower would win anyway.
  But this would only be the beginning. I’d have a lot of other news and predictions to deliver even if nobody wanted to hear about the future.  
     Once again the camera panned the face of the baby in a cradle. The baby was still crying and moving its little hands as John Facenda repeated, “The sun is good and life is good.”  



Monday, November 7, 2016

(My) ICON Magazine October 2016 Theater Reviews

The Philadelphia Fringe Festival might as well be called Fringe Subsidy Publishing, LLC.  
Participating "artists" pay an entry fee and then rent a venue space, meaning that moneyed people with
minimal talent can become temporary ‘artists.’ The big challenge is coming up a zany, absurdist
 skit and  then getting your friends to be actors. Fringe Arts founder Ezra Buzzington, formerly known
 as Jonathan Harris, likes to say what the Fringe is not: sloppy, late, unprofessional, ego-driven
 or amateurist. This is definitely true in an alternate universe.    

Playwright George Brant says he spent 5 months researching his play “Grounded,” about drone warfare. “I wasn’t expecting to write about pilots,” he wrote, “but during my research I was struck by the fact that during Obama’s
first three months in office, he was using three times as many drone attacks as Bush did.”  Grounded became an off-Broadway hit in 2015 when Oscar winner Anne Hathaway was in the pilot’s seat. Philadelphia goes ‘drone’
 when director Kathryn MacMillan teams up with actress Kittson O’Neill for InterAct Theatre’s production of this famous one woman show (until October 23). O’Neill plays the pilot who bombs targets 12 hours a day without ever
 having to leave the Velveeta cheese comfort of her Air Force trailer.  How will all this armchair warfare affect
 the psyche of this hard working woman?  "What makes Brant’s play exceptional is its driving,
white-hot sense of identification with a woman who is not, on the face of it, a sympathetic character,” Scotland’s Scotsman reported.    (

The fish that audiences will see fall from the sky during the Wilma’s production of
 When the Rain Stops Falling has a counterpart in real life: the foot long (smelly) catfish dropped
 by a bird of prey that hit a woman in the face in Fairmount Park. You might as well call this bird
 That Stupid F*cking Bird, also the name of an adaptation of Chekov’s The Seagull by the
 Arden’s Aaron Posner. This irreverent, contemporary madcap take on The Seagull promises
 a lot of direct audience “addresses” and (according to a
2015 American Theatre Review), “rants about the uselessness of contemporary theatre” where “the
 word ‘sucks’ comes up often as does the F word that rhymes with it.” The play goes much deeper than
 hipster cur     the rants, however.  Scripted by Posner in 2013, TSFB has played all over the US to generally good reviews if
 only because there’s no subject like unrequited love to get audiences to shed a tear or clench a fist at
 their personal, unpleasant memories.   

  England’s Spectator magazine calls George Bernard Shaw “a smug and
 overrated babbler,” whose
 plays are “like reading a billion tweets at one sitting.” But this “nimblest of
 storytellers” continues
 to hit pay dirt with his classic Mrs. Warren’s Profession, about a high
 class prostitute and brothel
keeper played by 5 time Barrymore Award nominee, Mary Martello,
 who’s reunion with daughter
 Vivie (Claire Inie-Richards) at The Lantern (until October 9) sets off a
chain reaction with a number
 of predatory men. The legendary Martello delivers a flawless performance; she’s also fun to watch
 as she dons big Victorian hats. Inie-Richards captures the soulless quality of the unforgiving Vivie
 when Mrs. Warren comes clean about her job, though Vivie becomes human when she sheds a few
 tears. Vivie may be Shaw’s New Woman but she lacks her mother’s there there. David Bardeen as
 the blunt-to-the-bone, hyper masculine Mr. Praed gives the play its finest dialogue. Actor Daniel
 Fredrick as Frank Gardner becomes the classic image of the  beautiful Victorian lad in the style
 of Brideshead Revisited, while John Lopes as the Rev. Samuel Gardner and Andrew Criss as
 Sir George Crofts keep the acting levels in Mrs. Warren’s Profession pretty much close to perfect.   


The American classic, Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific has been packing them in at The Walnut Street Theatre. Catch this time capsule gem with powerful musical lyrics and surprising literary references (Andre Gide and Marcel Proust) before October 23.  This impeccable production is a credit to WST’s Artistic Director, Bernard Havard, and writer James Michener's 1947 novel, 'Tales of the South Pacific,’ from which the show is based. 




Philly Theater Reviews, ICON Magazine November 2016

                                      (My)  ICON  Magazine Theater Reviews November 2016 

   ‘Impressive’ describes Interact Theatre’s production of George Brant’s Grounded, a one woman show directed by Kathryn Macmillan starring Kittson O’Neill as The Pilot assigned to operate a fighter drone in the Middle East from an office in the Las Vegas desert. O’Neill is brilliant as she takes us through The Pilot’s various mental states, from delirious boredom when nothing happens to Zero Hour mania when she presses the deploy button obliterating her human targets. O’Neill is even better conveying The Pilot’s slow psychological deconstruction while spending weeks tracking a major terrorist leader. Her obsession with the target affects her marriage and invites a nervous breakdown: she is ultimately unable to kill the terrorist because his daughter, a mirror image of her own child, awakens her mother’s instincts. An unsentimental male colleague is then forced to complete the execution. Feminists may hate this play because it shows the vulnerability of a mother when it comes to emotion and the language of the heart.

 The little theatres in The Drake on Hicks Street are attracting a fair amount of attention. The petite Louis Bluver Theatre hosted Azuka Theatre’s presentation of How We Got on by Idris Goodwin, an 80s ode to teenage angst and rap. The Proscenium Theatre will present another world premier. Douglas Williams’ Shitheads (February 22-March 12), about a once popular Manhattan bike shop that is losing its customers to a competing business across the street. In yet another world premier, Azuka will present Philadelphia playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger’s  The Arsonists (May 3-21), a Florida swamp based story about a father and daughter inspired by the Greek tragedy, Electra.  Azuka Theatre is the first theater company in Philadelphia (and the nation) to offer Pat What You Decide (PWYD) for the entire 2016-17 season.  

      When Bruce Graham’s RIZZO premiered at Theater Exile last fall, reviews were good but mixed. PTC’s production of the play with the same cast (Scott Greer as Rizzo) was much improved, thanks to PTC dramaturge Carrie Chapter. The new production incorporated many references to the current presidential race.  The PTC Rizzo was an even more divisive and controversial figure than his Theatre Exile counterpart. At the Rizzo press preview, Executive Producing Director Sara Garonzik, who will leave PTC after the 2917 season, introduced former Governor Ed Rendell, who reminded the audience that Rizzo was a product of his times and, like everyone, a combination of both good and bad traits.   Philadelphia will never see another Frank Rizzo. Intensely charismatic on a personal level, the former mayor was half in love with tyranny, police raids, and police wagons roaming the streets picking up anyone who looked suspicious or out of the ordinary.    


Jen Childs, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of 1812 Productions looks great in a fat suit, especially when she’s playing Chris Christie. Childs has also invented her own character, Patsy, a South Philly stoop lady who dispenses bits of wisdom in Philadeliaeese. Patsy illuminated 1812’s 2016 version of its oft repeated show, This is the Week That Is, when she compared Hillary Clinton to “the Iggles” and Donald Trump to “scrapple.” The bi-partisan spoof no doubt “upset” political ideologues who want satire to reflect a particular bias. The non-stop laugh-a-thon starred Scott Greer and Alex Bechtel as Trump, and had skits on Vladimir Putin, climate change and Obamacare,

 Sharr White’s plays include Stupid Kid, Sunlight and The Snow Geese. The award winning playwright’s The Other Place premiered at The Walnut’s Independence Studio on 3. The unsettling drama about a successful neurologist, Juliana, who battles a failing marriage and a crisis involving her daughter, holds yet another nightmare: the fact that she may have the same kind of brain tumor that killed her mother. Independence Studio 3 lightens up somewhat with the Irish Repertory Theatre of New York’s adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales (Nov. 15-Dec. 23).  The New York Times writes:  “Thomas’s work is a cavalcade of imagery and sensation — the snowy sights, smells and sounds that marked the Christmases of his boyhood. “  Figgy pudding for all!