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Keyword: ‘Carl Mays’

Okay to Cry

July 10th, 2009 No comments

I just went down to Ingenuity to check out Mike Geither’s work-in-progress about the misfortunes of Cleveland sports: baseball in particular.ok-league-park-1891

The place at 1220 Huron was packed, which was great, and there was a constant flow of people in and out–hey, it’s a good-sized space that’s cool (temperature wise) and it’s where the restrooms are! But that wasn’t the reason for the crowd–or, if it was, Mike sure got them to stay around for a bit. The play was funny and engaging. Mike always manages to capture something mysterious that causes me great envy. There is something about theater that is mystical and it has to do with 1) engaging that sense of “let’s pretend” from when we were all children: the imagination; but it also has to do with engaging all the senses visual, aural, etc. And Mike manages to do that through his character Chris.

Wearing a white shirt which reads “Ketchup Cheats” in red lettering, Chris begins his discussion of Cleveland’s down-beat sports history with a story of his unfortunate arrest in the Lakewood Public Library for certain inappropriate acts in the bathroom and the stacks. He’s been on the Lakewood police blotter three times and has some unusual behaviors that are problematic when unexplained–and even somewhat problematic when explained. His brother’s death leads to some cemetery discussions which leads to Ray “Chappie” Chapman, the shortstop for the Cleveland Indians who was killed by a Carl Mays pitch (New York Yankees) in 1919. The hatred for New York and Boston teams is thus introduced with some vitriol and expanded with charts, quotes, and stats on payroll, ticker tape parades, and much more. Per usual, Geither does an excellent job of blending character psychology with quirky behavior in the face of monolithic forces that surround and dominate our lives: in this case, history and the events of baseball.

If you’re down at Ingenuity this weekend, I highly recommend seeing this Personal History of Cleveland Baseball.

Take Me Out — Richard Greenberg

September 10th, 2007 No comments

Take Me Out is a play by Richard Greenberg and is the story of the baseball team the New York Empires, but specifically about the coming out of star player Darren Lemming.

At Dobama, Lemming was very ably played by local actor Michael May. May is a fairly big–read strong–African-American man and my mind was invariably drawn to Barry Bonds as a model for the star-power incumbent in the character of Lemming (do lemmings really commit suicide?). Lemming is encouraged to come out by his close friend from the rival baseball team the Satellites, Davey Battle (played by Jimmie Woody), even though Davey doesn’t know at the time that’s what he’s encouraging Lemming to do. Davey is a Christian, God-fearing man who has a wife and three kids.

Lemming’s coming out is poison to the Empire clubhouse a fact that is discussed immediately in the play by Lemming and Narrator slash Shortstop Kippy Sunderstrom (played strongly by Phil Carroll) Just how much the clubhouse is poisoned is made very clear right off the bat (no put intended) by a series of short encounters with the Empire roster: when Lemming encounters Martinez (played by Javar Parker) and Rodriguez (played by Vincent Martinez) neither one will talk or even acknowledge him; Jason (played by Shaphan David Seiders) the awe-struck catcher who is confused about Lemming’s sexuality; and then there’s Toddy (played by Joe Gennaro) who comes right out and calls a spade a spade–saying that he knows Lemming is looking at his ass when he showers. The trouble in the clubhouse infects the team’s play and their many-game lead in the division goes on a downward slide to a half-game–taking the morale of the team right along with it. The coming out has personal implications for Lemming as well, as his accountant drops him and so do many of the sponsors for his endorsement packages. This results in Lemming getting a new financial manager, Mason Marzac (played extremely well by Caleb J. Sekeres), who is not only awe struck by the famous baseball star, but quickly learns the game and develops an inspired passion for it. With the morale plummeting, the only thing that stops the Empire’s slide is the hardly believable addition of a closing pitcher from class AA. This pitcher, Shane Mungitt (played with remarkable character by Baldwin-Wallace theatre major Fred Mauer) not only stops the slide, but if you believe the playwright provides the team with wins as well. The only drawback? Well, Shane is a thinly-veiled version of the Rocket, John Rocker, whose famous tirade about riding the 7-train in New York ran thus: its like ‘you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing.’ Only the character of Shane ends by saying, ‘taking a shower with a faggot.’ This new level of tension takes care of what was missed by Lemming’s coming out–that is, it alienates everyone in the clubhouse. Shane is suspended, but how long can you suspend a winning closer? Not long apparently, and after a few games suspension and a stuttering, heartfelt, soft-in-the-head apology (written, as we find out later, by Kippy), Shane is right back where he was: closing games. The quick re-instatement doesn’t sit well with Lemming who feels that he was the biggest target of Shane’s racially and homophobically fueled tirade, and leads to a scene between Lemming and the manager, Skippy, (played by Gregory K. White) that I felt was forced, ironic, and insincere–namely, Lemming charging that Shane is a disruption to the clubhouse. The tension rises to climax when Davey comes into the clubhouse before a game and has it out with Lemming about his being ‘perverted,’ to which Lemming responds, ˜drop dead.’ A fateful comment. The anger over the falling out with his so-called best friend leads Lemming to force himself onto Shane in a menacing shower scene–an action by Lemming whose sole intent is to revolt and scare Shane. The unpredictable event that transpires from this is that Shane, in a fit of homophobic rage, when he finally gets in to do some relief work, throws his first pitch right at Davey’s head and kills him–recalling the fate of Ray ‘Chappy’ Chapman the Cleveland Indian shortstop who is the only baseball player ever killed during a game–and that by a New York Yankee’s pitcher (Carl Mays). Chapman is buried in Lake View Cemetery. Enough on the history lesson though, as the fateful death of Davey is believed to have been the murderous intentional act by Shane; and believed by Lemming to be the result of his own action of grabbing Shane in the shower. The death, of course, falls hard on Lemming, who hours before the event told Davey to ˜drop dead.’ And Lemming turns to phone conversations with Mason for consolation and support; in contrast to Kippy, whom Lemming has moved away from (if he was ever close to him to begin with). After the smoke clears, Kippy and Lemming go and talk to Shane, presumably at a police station where he is being questioned about the intent behind his pitch. Much is revealed: the actions by Lemming in the shower; Kippy’s role in ˜coaching’ Shane’s letter; and that Shane is in-fact, a homophobic racist through and through. The revelation of Kippy’s role in Shane’s apology drives a wedge between Kippy and Lemming that appears to be a trenchant break. The Empires go on to win the World Series, driven presumably by their hatred of each other and fueled by an obsession to forget the season’s mess. And in the final scene, Lemming invites Mason, the financial manager with whom he has been talking long into the night, to go to the World Series party with him¦and they kiss. Presumably all has gone to hell, but Lemming has finally found something that he can stand behind and someone to love.

The most talked about feature of this play is undoubtedly the spectacle of flopping penises. After all, a majority of the play’s action takes place inside a locker room: and what to athletes do in there? I have heard and read much debate regarding the point of the showers and the shower scenes: i.e. is a working shower just spectacle? Is it too much realism? Does the shower distract from the play, that is, do audience-goers say ‘oh, wow, wonder how they got that set up?’ and stop concentrating on the action of the play? Are those naked men really necessary? Personally, I’m going to have to come down on the side of ˜yes,’ it is necessary. And here’s why: first, during a highly charged exchange that starts between Kippy and Toddy (in the shower, of course) Kippy remarks that in the shower they are now all overly conscious of their nakedness, they have conversations during which they make very sure that they make eyecontact and when they aren’t talking, no one even looks at another person. They are so afraid of being labeled gay that they are ashamed, self-conscious, and modest. It think this comment by Kippy taps the audience feeling as well, and reflects, indeed, makes the connection between the effect on the locker room that Lemming’s coming out had and the audience’s own queasiness with seeing all the naked men. The showers are necessary because, frankly, seeing naked men mime a shower would be very odd. Regardless, the decision was a good one.

Speaking of which, time for kudos. Take Me Out was directed by Scott Plate, who many of you may have seen in Dobama’s production of Thom Pain: based on nothing. It would be hard to argue that Plate didn’t to a fantastic job in that role and fundamentally changed the perception of Eno’s character. Here, Plate does a solid job of directing. The set design, which presumably he had some say in, was very well done; the choreography of all the field events; of course, the shower scenes; and the management of the actors in a large space that clearly required more strength of voice and stage presence than a smaller venue would have required. The tension builds where it should and is released were it should. The pace of the play is good and well-managed, as there are some perilous points where the play could have dragged to a halt if not managed correctly. The stage itself, designed by Jeff Herrmann, was a marvel. Yes, it was a baseball diamond made from white tape; but there is something viscerally satisfying about a baseball diamond, as Mason remarks at a passionate point in the play. What is perhaps amazing on both Plate and Herrmann’s part is the ease with which the stage design they used allows for movement between a space conceived as a locker room and space conceived as a baseball diamond for play. It reminds me of the almost ethereal set in Death of a Salesman, the manner in which reality and fantasy blend together. And indeed, the movement through time, memory, past and present are enhanced by this set and this approach to the play. The lighting was handled by Jeff Lockshine and worked very well to set the moods of vibrancy, when required, or the solemn blue of sorrowful remembrance. The baseball outfits were handled ably by Aimee Kluiber and the sounds of balls hitting bats, phone calls, and other elements by Richard Ingraham.

In terms of the play itself, Take Me Out is an issue play. Mostly, of course, an issues play about gays in sports and sports as a microcosm of America. There are more issues than this, of course: personal isolation, God and religion, our responsibility to the most vulnerable among us, etc. And in this regard it works in a pretty standard pattern of pairings: this character’s for this, this character’s against it, the characters have it out; tensions build over time and eventually abate or resolve, etc. Structurally, the play is a three act play with each act ending on a high note, or with a ˜hook.’ This may or may not serve the purpose of bringing people back from smoking outside. Although, I think the play was good and of sufficient strength that people should have come back. The main formal functional device for the play is Kippy as narrator (and Phil Carroll’s handling of it reminded me terribly of Matthew Broderick); and I’m not sure how I feel about the narrator as a device. I actually have two concerns with it: first, I don’t trust Kippy as a character, which makes me distrust him as a narrator; second, I don’t know if I like the narrator in a play period. The narrator sets a very odd tone in the dynamic with the audience–is the narrator a person with his own set of ideas, is it the author talking to me, what’s the real angle here?

The shining moments, are those when Mason is on stage, and I began to think that the character Mason was transparently channeling Greenberg, who is gushing about baseball. Mason gushes about the true democracy of the game (the leveling of everyman and yet everyman gets his shot, his moment at the plate, as well as the strict enforcement of the rules for everyone); the symmetry and numerology in the game (the perfect diamond, the pattern of 3 and its square and cube). These moments are truly beautiful, in my opinion and are shining testaments to baseball. There are truly inspired words here about baseball invoking for me a love of the game and the deep place it holds in our country’s life and history. The not so shining moments are the crude portrayals of some players, especially those who seem uncomfortable personally or morally with homosexuality. These people are portrayed as willfully loud bible thumpers or morons or outright racist homophobes. At its worst I would suspect the playwright of unabashedly associating all that is good with those who are gay or support gay people and all that is bad or stupid with those who are heterosexual. If one wished, one could examine the characterization of each player in Greenberg’s line-up to see how this all falls in line. Of course, the play is more complex than this, and the many other characters show the diversity of not only modern baseball, but, by implication, the complexity of veiwpoints in America today.

I could expand the tarp I’ve just thrown a bit and suggest that Greenberg goes hard on most all sports players (or, at least, baseball players). Now I’m quite certain that sports have their unique allotment of morons, but the portrayal here was often ridiculous. I found it equally interesting that the player chosen to be most representative of this brand of idiocy was the catcher portrayed as Jeff Spicoli-esque (for you young folks–or old–that’s a reference to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, bud!). The catcher position being quite possibly the most intellectual of all positions on the field: after all, the catcher must be intimately familiar with each batter and know pitch counts, direct the pitch choices, know weaknesses, pitch patterns, dissemble for the umpire, call signals for defensive alignments, and act as a psychologist to wound-up pitchers (pun intentional). Instead, Greenberg’s catcher is a moron and the shortstop (Kippy) is the genius. Except, Kippy’s presumptive arrogance is his undoing: he takes it upon himself to ‘interview’ Shane, the upstart AA pitcher (who pulls a closer from double-A anyway?); to presume to know his heart and provide him with the apology he doesn’t believe; to assume that he can plumb the depths of Lemming, much like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to play on Hamlet as a pipe.

Ultimately, I think I’m going through a phase and find that I’m looking for experiences in both my own writing and in that of others–or in performances as the case may be–that are less obvious in their meaning. That is not meant to be a put down or to say that plays that are driven and intentionally meaningful are bad or to be frowned upon, but most of my own first plays were heavily guided by this principle and were plot driven, intensely polarized in that characters squared-off and met on an ideological battlefield and truth was arrived at somewhere in between the two sides. Issue plays. Tension here, a little laughter here to lighten it up, something profound here–almost like making a soup: a dash of pepper, a bit of salt, some meat. But I’m trying to step away from recipes and move, perhaps, straining the metaphor, moving into grazing–or would it be a buffet?–you know, just try this over here, and then move along over to here and see what comes up, see what it all tastes like, hopefully it doesn’t poison me or make me too sick. I directly blame Mike Geither for this, blame being a lighthearted term in this case, as the encouragement to seek deeper waters and to really let things flow (from my unconscious and from my pen–fingertips–keyboard) came from him. Too many of my plays were driven to an end; this is not to say that there was no room for exploring the worlds that were created, but the end result is still pretty common and recognizable, as is the feel of the piece itself. It *feels* theatrical, put on, poised and purposeful; not spontaneous or energized: vital.

In the end, I think Take Me Out is a good play and I would recommend it. I don’t feel that it is a must see play–one that demands your viewing it; but it is a solid play with some very fine moments.

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