Exploring the crossroads of religion, culture, and science through a Pagan lens

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No John Trumbull: Hamilton’s Stories and the Lives we Manifest

We all live in our own stories, and it is central to magickal practice that where we put our energy helps manifest out lives.  How we see ourselves and our actions becomes a script, a thought pattern that influences our lives.  Sometimes these stories are beneficial.  They give us inspiration and a goals to achieve.  Other times, thought patterns of failure or helplessness can hold us back.  

Often, the source of these thought patterns comes from literature, film, and pop culture.  Characters from story provide something to compare our lives to.  Witness the multiple quizzes that circulate social media promising to tell us which Harry Potter, Star Wars, or Game of Thrones character we “really are.”  Users eat these quizzes up, perhaps showing some internal need to identify with someone else’s story.

Any good story can provide characters to inspire us.  They help us reflect on our lives and bring some context to our own ways of living.  New stories keep coming to bring us new insights and context.  One of the most popular stories to enthrall people recently is the hip-hop inspired Broadway musical Hamilton.  Based on the seemingly uninteresting story of the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, Hamilton delivers a beautiful panoply of fascinating characters with competing motivations, offering a large arsenal of stories for viewers and listeners to identify with.

Perhaps part of the musical’s popularity, and certainly part of what provides an extra layer of interest in its characters is that these people truly lived.  They are not fictional characters. They navigated their own lives, struggled and fought with each other, made gigantic mistakes, and yet they did something extraordinary by creating a brand new nation from scratch.  Each one has a story; each one has a motivation; each one has real, not fictional struggles, which makes their lives more real to us and can give us both inspiration for a well-lived life and warnings against the obstacles to that life.  

This may be best stated by lyrics that were removed from the final show, but sung by The Roots in the opening of the Hamilton Mixtape.  In the song “No John Trumbull,” we are confronted with the fact that our founding fathers were not the patient and virtuous Greek god types we see in Trumbull’s famous painting depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence:

You ever see a painting by John Trumbull?

Founding fathers in a line, looking all humble

Patiently waiting to sign a declaration and start a nation

No sign of disagreement, not one grumble

The reality is messier and richer, kids

The reality is not a pretty picture, kids

Every cabinet meeting is like a full on rumble

What you’re about to witness is no John Trumbull

John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence: Not how it went down Source: Wikimedia Commons

Not depicted in Trumbull’s serene painting are the painful conflicts among the founders, nor each person’s internal struggles.  Hamilton provides both of these in spades, and they can be inspirational for any modern viewer.  Whether or not you are familiar, you are probably familiar with some of these thought patterns.  They may be within you, or they may be in someone you know.  They may help a life, and therefore be something to be encouraged, or they may provide a hindrance to living our best lives.  So here are some thoughts about these real people, and their prevailing thought patterns according to this immensely popular musical.


Alexander Hamilton: “In the eye of a hurricane there is quiet.”  Hamilton shoots from obscure poverty to fame and prestige because of the hurricane that almost killed him.  His essay describing his experience inspires charity, which gets him to New York and begins his improbable journey to power.  From there, he lives his life in constant chaos, seeking conflict and goading his enemies. From age 17, his life is a hurricane destroying every obstacle.  His only peace is found in chaos, and he seems to seek it out “nonstop.”  In our social media fueled world, it seems that so many of us seek discord and drama and their lives manifest exactly that.

Aaron Burr: “Talk less, smile more.” Hamilton’s executioner is also his foil.  He seeks peace and compromise at all times, sometimes at his own expense.  Misunderstood by the more opinionated characters, Burr seems to always be on the outside of every group.  Some of us are peace-seekers and adverse to confrontation, a fact that angers our more opinionated friends.  Of course, when peace fails and confrontation finds these folks, they struggle and make mistakes, as Burr does before he finally acknowledges, “now I’m the villain in your history.”

George Washington: “History has its eyes on you.”  The great leader is always conscious that his actions have lasting consequences, even when he is attacked for considering them. This is the thought pattern of those who, like a military general, see the larger picture and contemplate the consequences of everything they do.

Marquis de Lafayette: “I’m taking this horse by the reins, making these redcoats redder with bloodstains.”  Lafayette is fearless and brilliant.  He faces danger and always comes out on top.  This pattern can be seen in people who almost seem to have a golden touch and act with courage in whatever they take on.

Hercules Mulligan: “We in the shit now, somebody’s gotta shovel it.”  The larger than life Mulligan isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.  As a spy, he knee deep in his enemies.  Especially in the world of social media, it is common for people to get stuck in the misdeeds of those they disagree with instead of living their own lives.  

John Laurence: “I may not live to see our glory, but I will gladly join the fight.”  Laurence is a brave and idealistic soldier, yet he dies needlessly attacking the British after the war is basically over.  Some of us are unable to pick and choose our battles effectively and run directly even to the most futile and fruitless of fights.

Eliza Hamilton: “That would be enough.”  Eliza is her husband’s anchor and opposite.  Not ambitious, she yearns for a quiet life.  While this thought pattern can weigh us down, it can also provide a strong foundation for our ambitious loved ones.

Angelica Schuyler: “You want a revolution, I want a revelation.”  Brilliant and self-sacrificing, Eliza’s sister seeks mental stimulation to the point where intelligence in others is sexually attractive to her.  Unfortunately for her, her quest has to be balanced against her own line, “Nice going, Angelica, he was right.  You will never be satisfied.”  Many among us seek the next big thing, but find it always outside our grasp instead of being satisfied with what we have.

Charles Lee: “I’m a general, whee!”  We’re not all great leaders, and some of us are more interested in power and glory than doing the difficult work.

King George III: “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.”  This thought pattern is shown by those with an exaggerated image of their own importance who are unable to see their own faults in any situation, leading them to just make that situation worse.

Thomas Jefferson: “The emperor has no clothes.”  Hamilton’s enemy portrays him as a “vacuous mass,” an unrealistic dandy,  but Jefferson is the actual overdressed and under-accomplished aristocrat in this story.  His character echoes those of us who suffer from what is commonly known as “impostor syndrome” or those who project their own faults onto others.


Cabinet Battle: Jefferson v. Hamilton Source:

James Madison: “Get in the weeds, look for the seeds of Hamilton’s misdeeds.”  Madison doesn’t do direct confrontation.  He’s more like that negative guy in your office who spreads harmful gossip about the co-workers he doesn’t like. Some people enjoy acting as poison pill, but don’t have the courage to confront those they dislike.

Philip Hamilton: “Even before we got to ten, I was aiming for the sky.”  Philip’s innocence and desire to live up to his father’s example give him too much bravado and trust in others, with tragic consequences.  In our lives, there are those whose trust in the world allow them to be walked over by those who are willing to break the rules.

Maria Reynolds: “Just give him what he wants and you can have me.”  It’s unclear if Hamilton’s mistress was a conscious part of the sex scandal that plagued him. She debases herself for either Hamilton’s attention or her husband’s financial gain.  Some of us yield our own wills to others for purposes that do not serve us.

James Reynolds: “Uh oh, you made the wrong sucker a cuckold, so time to pay the piper for the pants you unbuckled.”  Manipulative and dishonest, Reynolds is willing to sell his wife for profit.  Some of us are more interested in results than methods.


All of these thought patterns can live within us and cause us to live our lives in ways that manifest them.  Like us, none of these characters are truly evil nor truly good.  They simply live with their own stories that fuel the way they live their lives.  And, of course, it is as simplistic to boil each of them down to one line as it is to boil ourselves down to one line.

But our stories motivate our lives.  What is your story?  Who tells your story?  How is it fueling what manifests in your life?  None of us is perfect like a John Trumbull painting, but neither were the subjects of his artwork, yet many of them lived good, meaningful, accomplished lives.  Choosing our own stories can help us manifest excellence, even if we are no John Trumbull.



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Lost in Translation?

Hamilton, the Broadway musical that has become a force in itself, has also become a force for me lately. The hip-hop inspired musical about the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore” who became America’s “10 dollar founding father” has broken fertile ground on Broadway and opened it to new directions and a new future inspired by a fresh genre of music that easily translates itself into storytelling.


While the lyrics pay homage to musicals past, invoking both South Pacific and The Pirates of Penzance early on, the show clearly sets its own course from the beginning, with people of color portraying the stark white founding fathers of the United States.  Perhaps by design, it also confronts some difficulties in translation.  How do black actors portray slave owners?  How can rap music be sold to an upper class, mostly white population?  Can Americans accept the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant playing the first Secretary of the Treasury, even though the man himself was an immigrant from the Caribbean?

Source: New York Times

One section in particular has recently caught my eye (and ear).  Early on, the group of patriots who will ultimately help overthrow the British introduce themselves over shots at a New York City pub.  One of them, the Marquis de Lafayette (himself both an immigrant and instrumental in the patriot victory) declares in broken English:


“Oui oui, mon ami, je m’apelle Lafayette

The Lancelot of the revolutionary set

I came from afar just to say ‘bonsoir,’

Tell the King ‘casse toi’

Who’s the best? C’est moi


Which roughly translates to:


“Yes yes, my friend, my name is Lafayette,

The Lancelot of the revolutionary set

I came from afar just to say ‘good evening,’

Tell the King ‘fuck you.’

Who’s the best? It’s me.”


It’s not the same when translated, is it?


At the same time, one of my favorite podcasts, “Stuff you Missed in History Class,” recently reported about a pair of human figures who were found embracing just before they died.  Originally, they were assumed to be women.  Recent evidence has proven them to be men, which inspired speculation that they must of been gay.  Oddly, when they were thought to be women, no one assumed homosexuality, but once they were shown to be males, modern sexuality expectations have been thrust upon them.  The modern story says: Why would men hug each other unless they were gay?


The truth is we don’t know.  We translate the things we see through our modern eyes and filter past evidence through our current understanding.  And just like the translation of Hamilton’s French lyrics conveys their literal meaning devoid of heart, attempting to explain why these two men were embracing at the end of their lives can never quite complete a fully contextualized understanding of who they were or why they were so close.


As Pagans, we see other difficulties in translation.  Unless you are immersed in Pagan practice, it can be challenging to explain your spiritual beliefs to others.  Especially in these days of social media, that can lead us to existing within our self-made bubbles.  If we only talk to people who understand us, then it will be easier to discuss our practice.


And yet, if we stay within our bubbles, we erect a barrier between ourselves and the outside world, making us more isolated and more difficult to understand.  We move more toward being the misunderstood men embracing each other than any kind of useful movement or world religion.  We become only vaguely translated through the eyes of others, our true hearts obscured, like trying to translate Lafayette’s rhymes directly into English.


Through his interactions with the American revolutionaries in Act 1, Lafayette’s English steadily improves.  By the end of the war, he raps in a fast and furious style because he has learned to understand his host culture and it has accepted him. With exposure, we can grow and change.  Isolated, we become marginalized.  Listen to each other.  Form bonds.  Try to see from others’ points of view.  Notice your own filters and attack them.  The truth lies beneath, often lost in translation.

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Finding the Hook in your Heart and Soul

I am an unabashed lover of all things Peter Pan.  Aside from the sheer brilliance of the story itself, a tale that speaks to both children and adults, I have always been fascinated by the many permutations and iterations the J.M. Barrie’s convention-breaking stage play about a flying child.  It is a mark of great literature that many readers over multiple generations can find new and interesting angles from which to approach an old story, and Peter Pan may have more retellings and alternate approaches than just about any other story.  Through these retellings, a story stands the test of time.  And time, in the form of threatening adulthood and the deadly Tic-Toc Croc, is the principal antagonist in the story of the Boy Who Never Grew Up.

Finding Neverland is one of the most interesting incarnations of the beloved story.  Based on a play by Allan Knee, the 2004 film presents the story of how the Scottish playwright Barrie dramatically altered his life, challenged London’s strict social norms, befriended a family of young boys who inspired him, and ultimately penned this enduring classic in the face of deep resistance.  It’s a lovely, touching movie.  

In 2015, the story hit Broadway as a stage musical.  Music is a powerful way to touch at your heart, and the show pounds its way into your senses near the end of the first act and never lets go.   

If you know the movie, then you know that the London theater establishment resisted Barrie’s fantastical idea of a children’s play not necessarily for children.  A nanny dog, flying children, and non-verbal fairies seemed like a terrible stretch to the minds of straight laced Edwardian England.  They were right, to an extent.  In the show, Barrie gets called out on his over-exuberant fantasy at the cost of anything interesting:

“You don’t even have a villain,” Barrie is told.  From there, he suffers the loss of all that is important to him.  He is alone.  In his outcast mind, struggling with how to achieve this play that will eventually make history, he is confronted by the darkest part of himself.  James Barrie comes face to face with his shadow self and his iconic villain: James Hook.  Barrie’s alter ego tells him:


“No need to be afraid

Every little shackle deserves it’s praise

Time to unshackle all your chains

Don’t be so cowardly I’ll change”


In a dark and scary moment for both Barrie and the audience, Captain Hook tells his creator

“You have to look in your heart in your soul

You must find a hook in your heart in your soul

ANd search every nook in your heart in your soul

Don’t live by the book in your heart in your soul

We live by the hook!”

finding neverland

“Stronger.” Source:

It was the conflict that was necessary to make a classic.  With the darkness, the conflict, Peter Pan blossomed from a limp fairy tale into a robust and enduring classic.  Peter Pan is made what it has become not by its fun and frolic, but by the creeping crocodile threat that contrasts with Peter’s playful denial:

  • Peter Pan almost dies to end the first act.  We go to intermission with our hero proclaiming, “To die would be an awfully big adventure.”
  • Tinkerbell sacrifices herself for Pan and her light fades toward death.
  • The Darling children are captured by pirates and threatened with their lives.
  • The Darling parents spend the entire story sick to death at the loss of their children.

Tic Toc.  Tic Toc.  

Our lives and our magical practice are the same.  We may prefer the easy moments, the fun and frolic of living in a state of Neverland-ish denial, but on its own that has no meaning.  We must face the Hooks in our own heart and soul, for it is our struggles and painful moments – and perhaps ultimately our victory over them – that give our lives greater meaning.  They create the awfully big adventure.  Barrie needed his hook.  Peter needed his shadow reattached.  We need our pains to know how we’ve triumphed.  They help us define ourselves and learn how to be, in the words of the first act finale, Stronger:


“I can run now so much faster

Now defeat won’t be my master

I will conquer the demons

I won’t have to wait any longer

I’ve got to be stronger”

There will always be difficult times ahead, but if classics can be written under adversity, we can also become stronger from that which does not kill us.  Our Hooks give our lives meaning if we can find them.


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Virtues of the Goddess: Reverence

As the calendar moves through October, our local theater options tend to turn toward plays with darker themes.  Early in the month, I was privileged to see two beautifully realized musicals that turn a shaded eye onto humanity’s condition.  The first was Sweeney Todd, the classic tale of the murderous barber of Fleet Street.  The other was a surprise: a powerful stage musical adaptation of Disney’s animated film The Hunchback of Notre Dame (itself adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel).  

Both of these musical feature pious, powerful men who become villains in their thirst for even more power and control over a woman who is unlucky enough to catch their fancy.  In both cases, these men result to a scorched Earth policy to force themselves upon the women they lust after, all the while maintaining an air of haughty propriety – a sense that everyone should be like them, and those who are not are unfit to live.  And yet, each show features an intense musical number where the pious villain breaks down in his weakness, turns to mush, then commits to his vile course of exploitation and murder.

Sweeney’s Judge Turpin whips himself in shame, then sexually advances on his adopted daughter.  This, of course, years after he acquired that daughter by raping her mother and falsely sending the girl’s father away to prison for life.

Hunchback’s Frollo, a Catholic priest, prays to his God, begs for help, then strikes out to burn Esmeralda at the stake if she refuses to submit to his sexual desires.  

Both excuse their actions through prayer, begging their god for mercy while offering none to the women who deny them.  Both use their positions of power and prestige as a sword to the throat of the innocent.  Both are objects of reverence in their own community who aren’t worth the ground their victims spit on.  

At the end of Hunchback we are give a powerful riddle to solve:

What makes a monster,

And what makes a man?

What Makes a monster? Wikimedia

What Makes a monster? Wikimedia


What makes a monster? Source:

What makes a monster? Source:


At the darkness of Samhain approaches, it came to me that the answer is the final virtue in this series: Reverence.  You can tell a “man” (to be inclusive, a person) by whom and what they revere.  In this case, actions speak louder than words.  Both villains make a show of revering their Catholic God, but in truth they revere power over others, control, abuse, and manipulation.  Without getting political, I think we can find a lot of people in our modern society like that.  These are the monsters.

Yet, there are others, people from all faith traditions and those who claim no faith, who revere the ideas and morals than make them “a man,” and their actions also reveal their loyalties.  Do they stand up for love?  Equality?  Fairness?  Do they live that every day?  Do they speak out for these things?  Do they truly live up to the moral code they espouse?  All of these can be done regardless of religious practice.  And if you truly revere these qualities, you live them.

And What Makes a Man?

And What Makes a Man?/ Source:


We get tested when things get dark in our lives.  As we approach Samhain, the time of darkness, we face toward our ancestors and we know that they know our true selves.  We come face to face with our death, and we know that what we revered in life will follow us in the memories of those who live after us, those who will call us ancestors.

What do you revere?  Would you rather be a “monster” or a “man”?

Virtues of the Goddess is a series on the eight virtues mentioned in the Charge of the Goddess and their relationship to the sabbats of the Wheel of the Year.  This is the final installment – Part 8: Reverence.


Scientology, Mormons, Witches, and Zombies: The Why

Over the last week I’ve had the chance to watch two different takes on alternative religions.  The first was Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Alex Gibney’s brutal documentary that eviscerates Scientology. The second was The Book of Mormon, the hit Broadway musicals co-written by the names behind TV’s South Park and Disney’s box office blockbuster, Frozen.

Book of Mormon

As much as I enjoyed both of them, I have to admit I have a little tinge of guilt when I see mainstream treatments of alternative religions.  As a Witch and a Pagan, I am myself a practitioner – and I would say beneficiary of – alternate spiritual practice.  I was blessed to be raised with no religious baggage (I was “unchurched,” as they say), but with an interest in the spiritual.  This gave me the ability to make my own choice,  and I chose the path that fed my intellect and inspired my heart.  I admire anyone who does the same, whatever faith they practice.


So, despite my chuckling at Going Clear’s picture of Galactic Overlord Xenu imprisoning his unwanted souls on Earth and seeding them into volcanoes, I was forced to look at the how odd my own spirituality may look to an outsider – any outsider.  Despite reveling in the audience’s reaction to one of Book of Mormon’s most hummable tunes:

I believe

That the Lord God created the universe

And I believe

That he sent his only son to die for my sins

And I believe

That ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America!


Or the quick little jab at Mormonism’s relative youth:


I’m gonna take you back to Biblical times: 1823!

I have to admit that my own religious practice, rooted as it may be in ancient history and timeless techniques, is a new expression that would look pretty silly to those who don’t have the context to understand it.  Joseph Smith was a mystic.  L. Ron Hubbard was, at least for a while, an occultist.  He hung out with Jack Parsons, one of the sharpest minds of his generation who was also noted Thelemite.  Granted, Hubbard stole Parsons’ wife, but the two were tightly involved in Crowley style occultism for quite a while.  As a Witch, mystical and occult practices are an everyday part of my life.  I can’t just laugh off the work of either man.


That becomes doubly true when you really look at the documentary and the musical.  The first 45 minutes or so of Going Clear present Scientology’s pseudo-scientific practice of auditing, which ostensibly helps people “clear” their life’s traumas and operate as their own individual and authentic selves.  Sounds like a pretty good goal to me.


Despite the rampant satire, Book of Mormon makes constant mention of the polite and friendly aura that seems to surround Mormons:

Liberation!  Equality! Let’s be really fucking polite to everyone!


I don’t agree with many of Mormonism’s social policies, but I can say that almost every Mormon I’ve met has been intelligent, kind, and really F-ing polite.  I can’t get into their heads, but they seem to be truly at peace.  Good for them.


So then I think, what if one of these writers decided to target Paganism, Wicca, or Witchcraft?  Am I laughing at someone else while silently dodging my own bullet?  Is that bullet coming for me at some point?  Would I have the class that the Church of Latter Day Saints has shown (or the money) to buy three full page color adds in the program for the musical about how crazy and nudist Gerald Gardner was?  Can you imagine a South Park inspired musical on him?

Gerald Gardner

Anything out of context looks silly.  The Great Rite?  Communion?  As a practitioner of a minority spirituality, should I be supporting these other non-mainstream faiths?


I think the answer, at least in the case of Scientology, comes later in the documentary.  Over and over, we see people abused for questioning doctrine.  We see those who leave the religion mercilessly harassed in their own homes by “Squirrel Busters” and other pro-church organizations.  We see members of the Sea Org, Scientology’s most elite organization, mercilessly tortured on the accusation of being apostates.  We see websites sponsored and organized by the faith specifically intended to discredit any “SP” (Suppressive Person) who speaks out against them.

Scientology Squirrel Busters

Witchcraft and Paganism, with their focus on seeking your own connection with the Divine, is the antithesis of that kind of cult mindset.  While “leaders” like that crop up at times, a symptom of our decentralized and Aquarian structure, they are often discredited and removed in the long run.  There is no one supreme leader to answer to, and after watching Going Clear, I’m pretty thankful for that.


I’ve been to Temple Square.   I’ve sat inside the famous Mormon Tabernacle and listened to its phenomenal acoustics.  I respect an alternate spirituality such as Mormonism.  But the problem comes when they see the need to enforce doctrine by excommunicating women who speak up for their own rights.  The problem comes when they fund laws like Prop 8 in my state, which sought to overturn the law and prevent marriage equality.  For those of us who try to live by the ethic of Harm None, it’s difficult to lend our full support to a spirituality that tends to enforce doctrine over kindness, oppression over love.


The most viewed post on my blog is a strange little pop culture piece I wrote comparing The Walking Dead to religion’s tendency toward science denial.  In that post, which still gets constant views even when I’m not writing, I compared Rick’s three questions:


How many walkers have you killed?

How many people have you killed?



…to the religious denial of reality.  I asked how your religion helps you, how much it forces you to deny reality, and why?  That post is viewed by new people every day.  I don’t know why, but it has something to do with Google Analytics.  I’ve called it my Zombie Post for many reasons.  It just keeps coming back.  It’s annoying.


Yet it expresses a truth about those of us who practice any spiritual path, especially an alternative one.


What are we willing to believe?  My practice is one of experience, not belief, so I really don’t care what someone believes. What are we willing to deny and oppress?  When any religion moves into this realm, they risk harming others.  There better be a damn good reason…


Why?  If it’s for power, money, or prestige, then it’s not really spiritual.  There’s nothing wrong with any of those things, but if you’re harming others in the name of faith in order to control them, then you’ve been corrupted.  If you believe “God lives on a planet called Kolob,” that’s fine.  If you believe Overlord Xenu inseminated you into a volcano, that’s cool too.  If you use either of those beliefs to harm those who don’t believe or have stopped believing, then you’ve become a zombie.  You’re mindless.  You’re living off of the living.  It’s always the Why that matters, not the What.






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Maleficent: a trend of reframing the villain

Everybody’s weighing in on Maleficent.  Any time you have a magical story, especially one involving dark but misunderstood protagonists, the pagan community climbs on board.  Add to that some very palpable metaphors about humans, greed, and our relationship with the Earth, and Maleficent has proven to be very popular in the community.


WARNING: This post contains spoilers


Wild Hunt columnist Heather Greene has done a wonderful job of both discussing these themes from the film and also reviewing it.  One of my favorite parts of her piece is her discussion of the film’s “fallen angel’” theme.  The framing of Maleficent the classic Disney villain as Luciferian figure who falls from grace, but ultimately succeeds in bringing balance and light to humanity, re-unifying the human race with paradise, was the heartbeat of this film and, for me, provided the energy that powered a large part of Maleficent’s story.


I’m not going to review Maleficent here.  Suffice it to say that I agree with Heather Greene and also wish that King Stephan’s story had been more fully realized.  We understand that he is dishonest at the very beginning when he is caught stealing jewels from the Moors; we also learn early on that he is ambitious.  These two qualities are a dangerous, MacBeth-esque pair that produced a very bad king.  I only wish that we had a little more of a glimpse into how he ascended so far up the ladder.


Still, the movie isn’t called Stephan.  Maleficent is the main character and Maleficent drives the story.  Thankfully, Angelina Jolie captures Disney’s dark fairy beautifully.

More importantly, I’ve become fascinated with a new trend in movies, stage, and television: the deconstruction, reconstruction, and retelling of classic stories from the villain’s point of view.  Maleficent seems to have cemented this theme into our pop culture consciousness.


The beginnings of this “Reframing” theme, as I’m calling it, goes back at least as far as Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.  In that musical, the stories from classic fairy tales intertwine with each other, and the Witch drives the action.  She isn’t the enemy to defeat; she’s more of a redeemed trickster who eventually gives up on humanity’s foolish ways.


The Wizard of Oz has been reframed more than once.  The most popular version, and perhaps was the first to truly re-cast the villain as the hero, is the book and musical Wicked.  The musical especially capitalizes of re-framing evil as good.  It begins with the Munchkins asking Glinda how someone can become as evil as Elphaba (later the Wicked Witch of the West).  Glinda, Elphaba’s high school bestie, blanches and tries to tell her story.


“Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?  After all, she had a father.  She had a mother, as so many of us do…”


Glinda goes on to reveal how Elphaba was ostracized for her green skin, had parents who hated her, and was forced to serve her wheelchair-bound sister.  She was smart and had knowledge of current events.  She could see outside the Wizard’s hegemony.  When she saw the Wizard doing evil things, she rebelled and became the victim of a vicious PR campaign to reframe her as “wicked.”


Speaking of the Wizard, Oz the Great and Powerful also re-casts a morally difficult character.  Sure, the Wizard is still a fraud and huckster from Kansas in this one, but at least he uses his skills to save Oz (and to create his enmity with the Witch of the West).


Arguably the most accomplished feats of re-framing, and certainly the most complex, are in TV’s Once Upon a Time.  The labyrinthine twists and turns taken within the elaborate plot of this story is a whole other post (or three).  Almost every character has a life in the Enchanted Forest (fairy tale land) and our world.  That means that every actor is playing at least two characters.  With time distortions, alternate worlds, and flashbacks, every character is different depending on where, who, and when he/she is.


This is particularly true for the two “evil” characters.  Rumpelstiltskin (Mr. Gold) is reframed as a coward, turned jilted husband, turned evil magician, turned regretful father, turned abandoned son, turned pawn shop owner, turned lover, turned hero, turned lunatic, turned slave, turned nice guy (but not really).  You can never really trust him, but you begin to understand and sympathize with his motivations.


The Evil Queen (Regina) is almost as complex, but she is in the more classic style of this genre: she didn’t begin wicked.  It was thrust upon her by the naive Snow White (Mary Margaret) and her ambitious mother, Cora.  As we see her history, we see her grow from starry-eyed to vicious and back again.


Once Upon a Time even succeeds at recasting Peter Pan as a really nasty villain while turning Captain Hook into a redeemed hero and lover.


Why spend so much time talking about these different stories?  Something about reframing bad guys clearly appeals to us.   I like to think it’s a sign of a maturing society, one which is learning to see good terms beyond black and white.  These characters not only contain lots of grey, they embody a whole spectrum of color.  Each of their actions needs to be evaluated on a much more finely calibrated scale than simply black hat/white hat.


A common argument against stories that reframe like this is that it isn’t the “real” story.  Maleficent did not turn her raven into a dragon- she became the dragon; J.M. Barrie never wrote anything that suggested that Peter Pan held Wendy Darling captive in Neverland. While this is true, it misses the point.


Reframing stories, especially classic fairy tales, is almost a postmodern exercise that allows us to deconstruct a tale and rebuild it to suit a different purpose.  It allows us to see that “the villain is always the hero of his/her own story” and encourages us to see things from different points of view.  In social psychology, out-groups are always believed to be both A) all alike and B) bad because they’re not like  us.  The remedy to this is to spend time with the other group and learn to see things through their eyes.  Reframing stories, in their ever-increasing popularity, give us more opportunities to do exactly that.  They help us see past the black white and grey and into the reds and greens and purples of someone else’s life.  This is a vital skill in our modern, internet-connected era.


Maleficent is a very successful exercise in reframing.  It brings us into the world of a character that always seemed so dark and foreboding and rewires her into a powerful, essentially good woman who made a couple really bad decisions.  We’ve all made bad decisions.  It also flips the script on the king and queen, changing them from a picture of radiant goodness in to greedy, manipulative, just plain awful people.  In both cases, it is when each accepts the intricacies of the other that there can truly be peace.

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Rent at Mysterium: the magic of youth

Rent is a musical about transitions in life and relationships.  The “in-between times” are always the most magical.  You can see it in a day: there is a special magic to sunrise, noon, sunset, and midnight, and of course we always feel a magic in the change of seasons.  These are times of transition, where anything is possible and the next phase is full of excitement and potential.

Rent, which just opened at Mysterium Theater in Santa Ana, CA,  is about the magic of a different transitional time: the transition from the young, carefree life of your early 20’s to the responsibilities and concerns of “mainstream” adult life.  Each character navigates the delicate gap between young fun and adult responsibility in their own way, and each one has to deal with the consequences of their choices.

For some, such as Angel and Roger, the choice to avoid responsibility leads to disease, addiction, and death.  For others, such as Benny, the choice to accept it leads to alienation from the friends they love.  The entire first act takes place on Christmas Eve, an important magical time in our culture, and follows the clashing of these two energies through the holidays of the next year until the characters are able to look back on their choices on the following December 24.  The characters of Rent grow and change through their clashes with life’s seasonal and personal transitions: New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, rehab, Halloween, love, illness, and death.  It is a magical year that transforms each character.

Mysterium has assembled a talented young cast that seems wise beyond its years as it tackles this very heavy rock musical.  Leading the cast are Ian James as small-time documentary filmmaker Mark Cohen and Luis Ochoa as his roommate, the brooding, HIV-infected Roger Davis.  James and Ochoa effectively carry much of the show, as they act as the central hub of the show’s intertwining storylines.  James plays Mark with a clear optimism that counterpoints poignantly with Ochoa’s desperate pessimism and desire to drive away any possible source of pain.

Rent: Mark Cohen sings La Vie Boheme

Ian James as indie filmmaker Mark Cohen sings the praises of “La Vie Boheme” to doubtful “yuppy scum” Benny (Vincent Anicento).
Photo credit: Robert Ladd

When Andrea Somera as Roger’s “born to be bad” neighbor Mimi throws a wrench into Roger’s plans to brood his life away, forcing him to see love and actually face pain, she brings out more and more emotion in Ochoa’s characterization of Roger.

The other catalyst to the show, the antagonist if there is one, is Vincent Anicento as Roger and Mark’s landlord/ex-friend Benny.  Anicento strongly portrays Benny’s noveau-riche cynicism, which drives the plot along.

In the midst of this clash comes the redemption love story of computer genius/anarchist Collins (Miguel Cardenas) and Bohemian drag queen Angel (Benjamin Alicea).  Alicea’s constant sweetness challenges the cynicism of Cardenas’ Collins, and we can see the genuine love between the two of them grow as their relationship gets stronger and stronger, constantly proving the transformative power of love in the face of doubters like Roger.

The final clash in the story is between idealism and realism, and it is represented by Mark’s ex Maureen (Jillian Lawson) and her new girlfriend, Joanne (Natasha Reese), a lawyer from a wealthy family.  Put-together and stern, Reese’s exasperation at Lawson’s free-spirit Maureen touches on some very believable conflicts any two people may have in a relationship.  Where Lawson is radiant and takes command of her stage time, Reese organizes and helps others perform, and both of those are exactly consistent with their characters.

Rent: Maureen's perfromance

Jillian Lawson as street perfomer Maureen Johnson commands the stage as she complains about gentrification, cyber-land, and cows that drink Diet Coke.
Photo credit: Robert Ladd

The cast navigates their way through emotional conflicts and terrifying challenges, often with humor, sometimes with terrible sadness.  Their characters transform through one magical year of transition, beginning and ending their journey on Christmas Eve, and each actor grows develops their character along their appropriate path.  Backing them up along the way is a talented chorus who each plays multiple roles as they provide the background for the journey of each main character.

Director Rovin Jay and choreographer Sonya Randall take full advantage of the small stage, but they are helped immensely in that endeavor by Eugene McDonald’s multi-level set.  The set for Rent is Spartan, as it takes place either in a bare New York apartment loft or in a homeless tent city on the streets of New York City.  But McDonald’s set incorporates stairs, a catwalk, and a set of moveable tables to create more variety within the bare stage.  Jay and Randall navigate their actors up, down, around, and across all of these simple set pieces to effectively create the illusion of a larger stage.

Sometimes the sound levels were off, and that can damage the storytelling.  Rent is a grungy rock musical, so it’s completely appropriate for the music to be loud.  But the story arc of the show is mostly told through its lyrics.  Only a little exposition is spoken, almost all of the story’s important points are told through song, so the actors’ voices need to amplified enough to be clearly heard over the rocking musical accompaniment.  This didn’t happen often enough, unfortunately, so some of the plot got lost.  This is a completely fixable problem, however.

Rent challenges us with life’s pain, from AIDS to drug addiction to suicide.  It also encourages us with life’s beauty: love, art, and friendship.  It tells us to find that magical place where they pain and the beauty meet so that we can transform our lives through all of our many Seasons of Love.


Rent at Mysterium Theater

19211 Dodge Ave

Santa Ana, CA 92705

(714) 505-3454

Performances February 21 – March 15

Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays: 8:01 p.m.

Sundays: 2:01 and 5:01 p.m.