Intersections

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


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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: nytimes.com

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: Playbill.com

What makes a monster? Source: Playbill.com

 

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? eddieonfilm.blogspot.com

And What Makes a Man?/ Source: eddieonfilm.blogspot.com

 

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.


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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.

clear

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?

Why?

 

…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.

DETAILS:

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.


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A tasty Sweeney at Mysterium

Mysterium Theater in Santa Ana has a history of tackling challenging productions.  A small theater, they always seem capable of taking advantage of every inch of space, turning their size into an advantage.  Effectively bringing big, technical shows with large casts into such an intimate space is a challenge, but when it’s done, it amplifies every single note and pushes the themes and emotions of the piece directly into your face.  It’s a challenge, but Mysterium always seems to succeed.

When you’re staging musicals, you can’t get much more challenging that Stephen Sondheim.  Known for his labyrinthine lyrics, Sondheim is popular for his creativity with both actors and audiences.  No one writes better songs that both showcase the actors’ talents and advance the story.  Actors want to perform Sondheim; patrons want to see Sondheim.  But Sondheim is really hard to sing.  For an example, check out his classic “Not Getting Married Today,” from his show Company.

While any Sondhiem show is tough to stage, when you combine both musical skill and stagecraft difficulty, his single most challenging show is probably Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  Big, in-your-face, and almost entirely musical, Sweeney barely fits in a small theater, but there’s just something incredible about being right there with the murderous barber, lunatics, and scumbags of London.  Mysterium pulls it off just right.

Sweeney Todd is everyone’s favorite musical about mass murder and cannibalism, but it really isn’t about that.  The driving force of Sweeney Todd is inequality and abuse of power.  The show paints the picture of a desperate city, run by corrupt and greasy officials who constantly grind their boots into the backs of the poor and needy, and its real story is one of sticking it to the establishment.  It seeks to make everyone uncomfortable.  You root for a murderer and hate law enforcement.  Like all out-of-the-mainstream ideas, Sweeney turns society on its head and confronts you with your own world seen from a new angle.

While Mysterium’s production doesn’t overtly tackle these themes, the way it pushes the gritty slums of 19th century London into your laps in this small space is enough to force you to feel them.  Beggars are just as likely to be in the aisles as on the stage.  The show is full of strong voices who relish their little stage and bring the audience to their feet in applause.

Foremost among them is the central couple, William Crisp as the revenge-obsessed barber Sweeney and Dyan Hobday as the Sweeney-obsessed meat pie baker, Mrs. Lovett.  Crisp is indeed “crisp” as Sweeney. Dressed in a costume reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe, his strong voice, fueled by simmering anger, carries the show through every hill and valley.  From the soft and pensive early scenes of “No Place Like London” to the crazed fury of “Epiphany,” Crisp dominates the stage with the emotion he desires.  When he finally cracks into the crushing sadness of the final scene, even that regret comes through realistically and tragically.

Hobday is an absolutely stellar Mrs. Lovett.  The role is iconically pinned to Angela Lansbury, and many actresses tend to attempt to re-create the role in her image.  Hobday avoids that temptation at all costs.  She makes Mrs. Lovett completely her own.  This is clear from her high energy opening “Worst Pies in London,” and remains all the way through.  Her gorgeous voice nails every nuance of every song, and it is backed up by a divine acting performance that succeeds on all levels.  Her performance would be perfectly at home on a professional stage.

Naathan Phan is a fixture at Mysterium, and it’s easy to see why.  His unassuming frame hides some wonderful acting and vocal talent, which is a great combination in his role of Tobias.  Phan is a born showman, so he shines in his of hawking both snake oil and meat pies, scenes that feature lyrics that many seasoned actors would shy away from.  His strong voice and more vulnerable nature are skilfully conveyed later in the tender “Not While I’m Around.”  Stan Morrow revels in the garish huckster Adolfo Pirelli, Tobias’ first employer.

As the lovers who throw a wrench into Sweeney’s plans, Adam Bradley Clinton brings a pure voice and a naïve tone to the sailor boy Anthony, which matches nicely with his intended’s full blown innocence.  Rachel Charest-Bertram’s Johanna brings truth to the lonely girl’s sweetness, and it is powered by her amazing soprano voice.

The nefarious partnership of Beadle and Judge mostly succeeds.  Luis Enrique Cejas is a bit young for the Beadle, and that can disturb the show’s plot, for the Beadle is supposed to have been at his post for at least 15 years.  Still, Cejas is very effective as the greasy, corrupt officer.  The same is true of Tom Royer’s evil Judge Turpin, although it would be nice to see a greater contrast between the Judge’s outward piety and inward nastiness.  This duality is a central theme to the show, embodied by its antagonist, and a little stronger dose of it would have been helpful.

The mysterious Beggar Woman is a tough character.  Ever-present, she seems to act as Sweeney’s conscience.  No one, including the audience, really knows why she’s there until the end, so it can be easy to misunderstand much of her action.  Kaitlyn Tice walks this line admirably, seeming to enjoy the mystery she is creating, especially when she brings her cries for “alms” into the audience.

Sweeney Todd has one of the most important ensembles of any musical.  The ensemble is its own character, portraying the citizens of London, contributing to the tone, and performing vital storytelling duties.  The ensemble fills the role of the classic Greek Chorus, filling in gaps in the story and supplementing the hero’s obsession with the voice of mad, gritty reason.  This chorus fits the challenge.

Owner/director Marla Ladd rises to the challenge of fitting this large, intense musical onto her small stage.  She uses every nook and cranny of Eugene McDonald’s creative set.  Sweeney requires at least two levels of set design, and McDonald is able to deliver four, making some of the storytelling sequences clearer and the ensemble sections easier.

Sweeney Todd was a classic long before Johnny Depp brought it to the screen.  It has stood the test of time because audiences get beyond the blood and guts and find some form of visceral truth to its portrayal of inequality of wealth and torturous abuse of power.  After the recent Kelly Thomas verdict, it’s clear that these themes have not gone away.  Even in a different country and a different time, the “rosy skin of righteousness” still seems to have a few blemishes.

Details:

  • Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  • Mysterium Theater
  • 19211 Dodge Avenue
  • Santa Ana, CA
  • (714) 505-3454

Remaining Dates:

  • January 16, 17, 18, 23, 24, 25; February 1, 2, 6, 7, 8 at 8:01 p.m.
  • January 12, 19, 26; February 2 at 7:01 p.m.
  • January 18, 19, 21, 26; February 1, 2, 8 at 4:01 p.m.


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Let it Go/Turn it Off

Robert Lopez is having a great couple of years.  A Yale graduate and Tony Award winning songwriter, Lopez co-wrote the lyrics to the smash hit Broadway musicals Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon.  This year, he has had even more success as one of the songwriters for the new Disney animated film Frozen.

As different from each other as Book of Mormon and Frozen seem, they actually explore some similar issues.  Both are marked by a quest to overcome self-doubt, suppression, and repressive misunderstanding to find the true self.  One works through the avenues of spiritual quest while the other focuses on the pressures of family and society, but ultimately they are both about letting your true self shine.

At the center of both the movie and the stage show is a fantastic, show-stopping number that screams out these themes to the world.  The thing is, while both numbers are rousing, they present opposite sides of the spectrum.

FROZEN

In Frozen’sLet it Go,” lead character Elsa powerfully resolves to stop suppressing who she is.  She gives in to the power she holds and defiantly creates a new life for herself.  The song is masterfully sung by Broadway superstar Idina Menzel and it is masterfully animated with gorgeous images of Elsa magically creating her new sanctuary.

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
Up here in the cold thin air I finally can breathe
I know I left a life behind but I’m too relieved to grieve

Let it go, Let it go
Can’t hold it back anymorLet it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care
What they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on, the cold never bothered me anyway”

“Turn it Off,” just like it sounds, is exactly the opposite.  Where “Let it Go,” celebrates the expression of your inner self, this song encourages you to shut it down.  Like all good satire, the tragedy in the message is hidden in humor and incongruity.  All of the characters are clearly feeling the sadness of the things they are suppressing, yet they gleefully tap dance in pink, sparkly vests while praising their inner lies.

Turn it off, like a light switch
just go click!
It’s a cool little Mormon trick!
We do it all the time
When you’re feeling certain feelings that just don’t feel right
Treat those pesky feelings like a reading light
and turn ‘em off

 

These two songs contradict each other, and as much as we’d like to celebrate Elsa’s joyful self-acceptance, she’s actually running away from a problem she created.  Her self-absorption obscures her responsibility to her kingdom, which is suffering under the artificial winter she created.  The cold may not “bother her,” but it’s killing her people.  They’re a little bothered.

But you can’t ignore your true self either, and the crystal clear satire of “Turn it Off” makes it quite obvious that this song’s advice is anything but helpful.

My sister was a dancer, but she got cancer,
My doctor said she still had two months more
I thought she had time, so I got in line
for the new iPhone at the Apple Store.

She lay there dying with my father and mother
Her very last words were ‘where is my brother?’

Turn it off!

A large part of my Path is the path of balance.  I seek to walk in this world as well as the world of spirit.  I seek to be magickal, but also pay the bills and be a good husband, brother, uncle, son, and friend.  I seek my Highest Self, sure, but not at the expense of denying physical reality.  In fact, my spirituality should enhance my experience of the physical world, not detract from it.  Whatever your Path, you probably seek a similar balance.

There are times when we have to turn at least some of it off, but that’s dangerous.  We’ll be just as unhappy as the musical tap dancing missionaries if we shut down too much.  Yet, we risk alienating our friends, family, and employers if we let it go more than we should.  Especially as members of a minority group of religions that is commonly misunderstood, that fulcrum between the two needs becomes ever finer and ever more difficulty to locate.

Sometimes we feel like we have found it, then some experience tells us that we’ve gotten off course.  But I think the conscious searching is the true path.  We walk that windy road between self-expression and polite quiet, and each new experience at work or at a family dinner or with a person with different spiritual ideas can cause us to lose sight of that road.  Perhaps if we are always consciously looking for that narrow, twisty road it becomes easier to keep walking in the right direction.