Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sunday Reading

La Mama Will Go On — Ben Brantley offers an appreciation of Ellen Stewart and her continuing experiment in theatre that will survive her.

It was almost exactly 16 years ago that I made my first visit to La MaMa in a professional capacity, as a new theater critic for The New York Times. I’d been there before as a civilian, usually under the influence. (I believe it was where I first saw a foghorn-throated drag queen named Harvey Fierstein.) But even then La MaMa had for me the whiff of another time, the patchouli scent of the 1960s, when downtown theater was longhaired, renegade and rude.

I wasn’t around for that heady heyday of La MaMa, the willful, playful brainchild of Ellen Stewart, who died on Thursday. Yet what I saw in the East Village theater that January night in 1994 turned out to be not only absolutely of the moment but also of the future. It was a rough-hewn, rowdy, dirty little play called “Stitches,” put on by a brother-and-sister team that presumptuously called itself the Talent Family. Their real names? David and Amy Sedaris.

David Sedaris, who was already somewhat known for his comic pieces on NPR, was pointed out to me as he schmoozed among the crowd by the guy I was with, who said that David also happened to be his house-cleaner. (That was Mr. Sedaris’s part-time vocation in those days.) The crowd was downtown cool, but nerdy cool, not annoyingly cool, with nary a designer label in sight.

As for the show itself — the story of an all-American popular girl who becomes a television star after her face is ground up by a powerboat propeller — it sent up all things trendy with anarchic, unedited, gross-out glee, like a 10-year-old scrawling all over mommy’s glossy magazines. I remember particularly a fashion-show segment in which all the actors, playing runway models, wore rubber bands on their faces, in emulation of the play’s mutilated heroine.

In retrospect, “Stitches” (which was directed by David Rakoff) reads as an alarmingly prescient take on the reality-show-driven celebrity culture that was then aborning. I suppose we should have heeded its warning, but anyone who saw it was laughing too hard to do so.

During the next few years I went back to La MaMa to see other productions from the Talent Family. (My favorite was called “One Woman Shoe,” which was the first work to display fully Ms. Sedaris’s skills as a master of the fine art of mugging.) And I learned that La MaMa was not just a holy shrine to a bygone era of far-out-man experimentalists. Unexpected and even prophetic art was still happening there.

More below the fold.

The Oblivious NRA — Fred Grimm on Florida’s ill-timed gun-running.

Two days after the horror in Tucson, the Florida Legislature reacted.

With most Americans still numbed by a crazed shooting spree that left six dead and 13 wounded, including an Arizona congresswoman, state Rep. Joe Negron offered up Florida’s own special answer to gun violence.

The representative from Stuart filed House Bill 45, which would prohibit any city or county from enacting ordinances that might impose gun or ammo restrictions beyond what’s proscribed in Florida’s famously permissive state laws. Negron’s bill, of course, was aimed at South Florida, where city and county commissioners have dabbled in such blasphemies as trigger guards and waiting periods.

His bill seemed a curious departure from a Republican philosophy that opposes federal meddling in state business. Yet Negron would make any local government official who bucks his particular dictates a felon, to be tossed from office and fined up to $5 million.

His timing struck folks who cling to the notion of a civil society as utterly callous, though Negron told the Sun Sentinel that his bill, filed Monday, had nothing to do with Tucson. ”It’s something I’ve been working on with the NRA and gun owners and it’s been in bill-drafting for over a month.”


The NRA — which in the past has championed such ditties as the right to bring a gun into the workplace and a version of a ”stand-your-ground” law that has given gun-wielding gangbangers a fine new legal defense — has more bizarre plans for the upcoming session of the Legislature. A so-called ”open carry” bill would grant Floridians the right to menace wimps cowboy style by donning unconcealed firearms, making the holster Florida’s newest fashion accessory. The bill has the endorsement of Gov. Rick Scott, who owes his primary win to the NRA.

The bill also would allow gun owners with concealed gun permits to pack heat on college campuses.

Soon, Florida will be like the Old West. Or the new Arizona.

First They Came For the Quakers — Several years ago the FBI investigated a Quaker meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, for anti-war activities because, y’know, those peace-niks with their silent worship and veggie potlucks really represented a threat to national security. Now via eastsidekate at Shakesville, we learn that the FBI sent in an undercover agent disguised as a Red Sox-loving lesbian to infiltrate an anti-war group in Minneapolis.

The Twin Cities activists who had their homes raided by the FBI last September are starting to learn more about why they’re being investigated by a Chicago grand jury in relation to material support of terrorism.

Lawyers for the activists have learned from prosecutors that the feds sent an undercover law enforcement agent to infiltrate the Twin Cities Anti-War Committee in April 2008, just as the group was planning its licensed protests at the Republican National Convention.

Going by the name “Karen Sullivan,” the agent blended in with the many new faces the Committee was seeing at meetings in the lead-up to the RNC. But she stayed active afterward, attending virtually every meeting.

“She presented herself as a lesbian with a teenage daughter, and said she had a difficult relationship with her daughter’s father, which is one of the reasons she gave us for not being more transparent about her story,” says Jess Sundin, a member of the Anti-War Committee and one of the activists who has received a subpoena from the Chicago grand jury. “It was a sympathetic story for a lot of us.”

Sullivan told the group she was originally from Boston but that she had had a rough childhood and was estranged from her family. She said she had spent some time in Northern Ireland working with Republican solidarity groups.

Sullivan at first said that she didn’t have any permanent address in the area, but she eventually got an apartment in the Seward neighborhood. She claimed to be employed by a friend’s small business, checking out foreclosed properties that he might buy. The cover story of a flexible job schedule let her attend all the meetings she wanted to, and to have individual lunches with other activists.

​”She really took an interest,” Sundin said. “It raised some suspicions among other members at first, but after the other undercover agents from the RNC Welcoming Committee came out, and no in our organization did, we figured we didn’t have any. Besides, we didn’t think we had anything we needed to be secretive about.”

Doonesbury — And the tweet goes on….