Gay is okay, officially, with the Swedish, Belgian, and even Israeli armies, but the American military has this little problem. It won’t register the idea that people who prefer same-sex erotic partners are always going to be attracted to a system that segregates the genders, puts them in uniform, and drills them into close-knit groups with strict discipline. The Pentagon’s tried every method to weed out gay (and, since World War II, lesbian) soldiers: bigotry, courts-martial, dishonorable discharges, segregation in psychiatric wards, public humiliation, and now don’t-ask-don’t-tell. But nothing works. You might as well try to weed dandelions out of a meadow; the prevailing winds will always carry them back in. It’s the Pentagon’s refusal to accept this reality that’s against nature.
And when man goes against nature, the results are inevitably dramatic, as proven by Another American Asking and Telling, in which author-performer Marc Wolf carries Anna Deavere Smith’s interview-and-impersonate tactics into the thickets of U.S. policy concerning gays in the military. Unlike Deavere Smith, Wolf has built in certain limits, both artistic and ideological. He displays a less extensive range of speakers, and tends to confine what we hear from them more strictly to the issue, where Deavere Smith might have looked for illumination in the atmosphere surrounding it. Without treating any of his speakers unfairly, Wolf also makes no secret of where his sympathies lie: Those who argue against open acceptance of gays in the military aregiven comparatively less stage time, and their arguments, when rational, tend to be succeeded by a better argument for the other side, as when a veteran combat officer’s talk about how disruptive influences weaken a unit’s fighting power is immediately followed by the recollections of a gay Vietnam vet who credits his overtly nelly humor and pluck with helping to bring his buddies out of the country alive.
Wolf, however, has strong justifications for tilting the material as he does. For one, the arguments against gays in the military aren’t arguments, merely clutches of fear-based or dogma-based bigotry, with which no rational discussion is possible. For another, he hardly needs the opposing side to articulate such opinions, which so many gay and lesbian soldiers carry within them. His terse, two-hour evening is dotted with anecdotes of secret terrors, clandestine affairs, the panic that follows the dawning of homosexual awareness.
And—the ultimate justification of Wolf’s approach—panic turns out to be the right reaction, because the stories that make Another American so gripping are a prolonged parade of horrors visited on gay soldiers, from bureaucratic spite and blackmail down to sadism, torture, rape, and murder. The Dominican-born naval officer who, early on, testifies before a Senate committee that he would refuse to serve on the same ship with gays because they’re “against God” might have some interesting things to say, from a moral standpoint, about the MPs who brutalized Marine recruit Ed Clayton, the army intelligence officer who turned Colonel Edward Modesto’s life into a hell of false accusations and public scandal, the navy man whose shoeprint was embedded in the face of Seaman Allen Hajdys’s corpse. Yes, gays and lesbians in the armed forces have ample reason to suppress their own instincts. “That’s something I’d be willing to lie about,” says an anonymous army lieutenant whose ex-lover has threatened to tell his commanding officer, while a retired colonel, sitting with her lesbian lover, talks about how she would never put a picture of another woman on her desk: “I had a picture of a dog.”
Wolf paints this picture of a dog’s life, as well as the righteous fury and bitter frustration that have emerged from it, with the simplest of means. Brian MacDevitt’s lights section off areas of the stage for him; David Van Tieghem’s sober sound design backs the conversation with passing planes or trams. The rest is left to Wolf’s body and voice, under Joe Mantello’s unobtrusive direction. The voice lightens or darkens to suit; the flexible body catches, without caricature, people’s habits of stance and gesture. Less flamboyantly assured than Deavere Smith, Wolf is sometimes better at anchoring his characters: Watch the way his eyes narrow in remembered fright as Clayton describes being raped in the Camp Pendleton brig, or the complex half-smile that overtakes Sergeant Miriam Ben Shalom as she describes how, after her judicial reinstatement, only black troops would sit with her in the mess hall.
Ben Shalom is Wolf’s key case, because, however much homosexuality preoccupies his characters, it has nothing to do with the real issue—which is, as Ben Shalom’s supportive commanding officer (an African American) puts it, “Who do I want beside me when I fight?” This has no more to do with sexual preference than with height or hair color, but the American military has this little problem. “They spend,” Ben Shalom says bitterly, “half a billion dollars a year on ferreting out queers.” Your tax dollars, pacific reader, and mine. And now the president who promulgated “don’t ask, don’t tell” has announced that it doesn’t work. Somebody’d better make sure his successor’s policy planners catch Wolf’s show.
** Sybille Pearson, in True History and Real Adventures, also has a little problem about asking and telling; hers has to do with learning to ask history the right questions and then figuring out how much to believe of what you’re told. Her sprawling tall tale of a play pushes this dilemma up against another contested era of American manliness, the Old West, circa 1890. A Scottish factory girl from Ontario, besotted with the image of Calamity Jane in a touring melodrama, runs off hoping to find the real Jane, with a variously motivated band of young drifters left behind when the melodrama folds. Pearson maps their free-form odyssey in abrupt, breezy scenes that at their best have an exhilarating playfulness. She mixes this quality, regrettably, with a schoolmarmish urge to impart 1990s lessons that correct the 1890s myths on points of race, gender, capital versus labor, and other matters by now all too familiar. While half the play seems to invite adults to fun and gentle mockery of the old stereotypes, the other half, pompously crushing the paper-thin myths against outcroppings of rocky fact, sounds like an extra-pedantic after-school special.
Pearson’s mixed results are doubly frustrating because the pine-scented freshness that wafts through so much of her script is zestily fanned by many parts of Michael Mayer’s busy, but rarely overbusy, production: G.W. Mercier’s showy, self-critiquing design, with its sly mix of 1890s stage conventions alternately played straight and cartooned; Angela Goethals’s crisp yet sweetly vulnerable performance as the heroine; the young, fiery clarity Adrienne Carter and Daniel Bess bring to the roles of her two best friends; and Kathleen Chalfant, in multiple roles, as a sort of cockeyed godparent to the enterprise, though with her voice painfully impaired by her long run in Wit. Even so, her snarling-drunk Calamity and her fake-Hapsburg aristo are the gems of the evening.
** Two bodies, the laws of physics firmly assert, can’t occupy the same space at the same time. This hasn’t stopped Andrei Serban from attempting to make two productions of Hamlet occur on the same stage simultaneously. In one of them, Liev Schreiber is giving a vigorous, lucid, and often moving account of the title role; in the other, Serban’s wildly random directorial choices have led everyone astray, till they all scream pointlessly, and do nothing that makes any sense whatever. Shakespeare has Hamlet say that the purpose of theater is “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to Nature”; the fuddy meers Serban holds up, borrowed from a long list of old European funhouses, mostly reflect his notion that, since others have staged Hamlet so many times, he’d better do something different. His sense of this need is so weighty that, when Schreiber’s Prince gripes about all the bad actors he’s seen imitate humanity so abominably, the players troop on with posters of every famous Hamlet from Sarah Bernhardt to Kevin Kline; one might reasonably respond that people who act in crass houses shouldn’t stone thrones.
Serban’s nothing if not lavish of effect: You get three ghosts and two Fortinbrases; Polonius wears a medieval gown and carries a mini tape recorder; Francis Jue, as Player Queen and Osric, always enters on fly wires. But his flood of gadgetry conveys no sense of the play; it merely makes Schreiber’s eloquent anguish seem more out of place than Hamlet feels in Claudius’s kingdom. Critics can only sympathize; I’ll review Serban’s interpretation, if he ever arrives at one, but this paper doesn’t pay me to inventory the contents of knickknack shops. In the new century, Santa, please bring me a theater with stronger motives and more cues for passion.