Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Top 10: An Ode To The Weirdoes

Happy April, friends! I’ve been a bit preoccupied with James & the Giant Peach rehearsals lately, so I’ve been neglecting my blog duties and my readers (both of them). To make my absence up to (both of) you, I’m gonna talk about something fun that we can all relate to: dysfunction!

What’s more validating than flipping the channel onto COPS or walking into a Walmart, watching the bong water of society just doing their thing, and realizing that (in comparison) you have your shit relatively together after all! But then again, a little quirk never hurt anybody. I almost pity people who strive to be perfectly normal.  For some reason, I have a slight fascination, soft spot, penchant, affinity – whatever you want to call it – for complex characters. Y’know, characters that seem to be a little sideways, mad, askew, abnormal, even unstable. I’m not saying that I want to hang out with these characters (or maybe I do…), but I often find the stories of not-exactly-normal characters to be far more interesting than your average, normal ones. I mean, what sounds more fun? Barber plots revenge, or Barber plots revenge while murdering people and baking them in pies in the meantime?  And dysfunction comes in many shapes and sizes, so there’s plenty of room for varying degrees of abnormality.

I present (in no particular order) an ode to the weirdoes in this Top 10 List of Dysfunctional Characters:

1. Judge Turpin – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Basically everyone in this show qualifies as “Pretty Darn Dysfunctional,” but none more than Judge Turpin. I had initially selected Sweeney Todd (aka Benjamin Barker) himself for this Top Ten, but the more I thought about it, Sweeney isn’t technically dysfunctional. Sociopathic? Yes. Twisted? Hells yeah! Creative? Absolutely! He disposes of his victims by baking them into pies for Pete’s sake! But dysfunctional? Not really. He seems to function pretty well in society. He’s just been dealt the shittiest hand ever and he simply snapped… really snapped.  The poor man was transported to friggin’ Australia on trumped-up charges because Turpin had a jones for the lovely Mrs. Barker. Upon returning to London, he finds that Turpin has since duped and raped Barker’s wife (who later poisoned herself and is now presumed dead) and has been raising his daughter, Johanna, as his ward for the last 15 years.  Jerkin’ Turpin often takes to creepily ogling the teenaged Johanna through keyholes while self-flagellating.  To get around these impure thoughts, Turpin (who can’t be a day under 104) decides to marry Johanna (who can’t be a day over 16) so he can ogle her guilt free! Just to clarify: he’s totally cool with falsifying felony charges on private citizens, raping and discarding another dude’s woman, technically kidnapping infants, voyeurism on teenaged girls, and marrying minors (without asking). But you better punish the ever-livin’ crap out of yourself if you lust after a nubile young lady that isn’t your wife (because, y’know, God commands us to quash that kind of sinful crap). And when he catches some ballad-singing sailor checking her out, he does the only logical thing: he commits her to an insane asylum.  I gotta say this shitbag of a lord justice seems way more dysfunctional than some shafted barber in need of therapy, don’t ya think?

2. The Goodman Family – Next To Normal
Next to Normal was a really tough show to watch. It portrays a woman with real psychotic issues who is mentally unable to cope with life after a devastating trauma.  This is a family that defines “dysfunction”. Suburbia ain’t all it’s cracked up to be for Diana (mother), Dan (father), and Natalie (daughter). Diana suffers from manic episodes, chronic depression, hallucinations/delusions, and bipolar disorder; not to mention suicide attempts, way too many pills, ECT therapy, and *spoiler alert!* conversing with her son who died in infancy 16 years ago but she sees him as a grown teenager. Once a bright, young architecture undergrad, Diana became unable to cope with everyday life after the tragic death of her infant son. She could no longer drive, hold a job, make lunch for her family, or even hold her second baby in the hospital. Yeah, the mom’s the one with the real problems, but her issues drastically ripple into her husband’s and daughter’s lives too. Dan spends the majority of the show trying to be strong and stable for his wife. He’s exhausted and frustrated from enduring every psychotic ordeal beside her, but he’s always there to catch her.  He’s hopeful, optimistic, and never admits his severe depression and that he needs help too until the very end. Natalie, though high-achieving and anticipating a promising post-high school future, grapples with making sense of her desperately dysfunctional family. Her whole life has been shadowed and tainted by her mother’s illness.  She resents Diana for occupying herself with a hero of a son that doesn’t exist over her real, living child. She has small stint of drug experimentation (i.e. taking her mother’s discarded pills) to try and numb the pain she feels. Though she fears that she might end up “crazy” too, she finds comfort in her unbelievably understanding boyfriend, who doesn’t seem the least bit frightened by Natalie’s personal demons (and they are pretty frightening). This is not the kind crazy I would wish for/on anyone. This is perpetual hurting and haunting dysfunction that sees very little happiness… But they try anyway. So kudos!

3. Big & Little Edie Beale – Grey Gardens
Your great-grandmother with dementia ain’t got nuthin’ on these two daffy broads! These ladies are probably equivalent to what would happen if you gave a Hamptons mansion to that crazy shopping cart lady who talks to herself on the corner and yells incoherently at people within 50 yards of her.  “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Bouvier (yeah, that Bouvier) Beale begin Act I as disgustingly rich, glittering, mother-daughter socialites in 1941. Act II fast forwards to 1973, where they have (inexplicably) become richly disgusting, nutty, mother-daughter hermits, living in total squalor.  Their now-decrepit titular mansion is overrun by feral cats, racoons (and a possum or two), fleas, human waste, and 1,000 bags worth of garbage (literally! Jackie Kennedy Onassis eventually paid to have the house cleaned up and the trash removed); violating countless health code regulations. Mother and daughter bicker about men, marriage prospects, independence, and corn (there’s actually a song that’s called “Jerry Likes My Corn” and it’s as dumb as it sounds). I saw this musical at the Players Club of Swarthmore and found it kind of odd; and not just because of the odd subject matter.  The musical never really touches on how or why these women decayed into the eccentric, impoverished weirdoes they are in Act II.  They just kind of assume that we know (there was a house theft while both women were out one night and they left the house less frequently after that. One thing led to another…). It also doesn’t explain why Little Edie started wearing sweaters on her head (she had alopecia totalis).  Whatever… I’m just gonna walk on the other side of the street and hope the men in white scrubs find them before they frighten some small children or something…

4. Norma Desmond – Sunset Boulevard
Norma Desmond, famed star of the silent film era, is your “Pissed Off Diva” type of dysfunctional (my personal favorite). She’s pretty functional in most other aspects of life, except for the belief that she’s still the bees knees to the rest of the world… and f*ck anyone who says otherwise! She’s also a tad suicidal, so she is a little on the unstable side. Like the Beales, she lives (almost) alone in a friggin’ huge mansion, but she hasn’t let it go to shit like the Beales and the only animal she keeps around is a chimp (which is dead and buried before we ever get to meet it). She has more money than Bill Gates (adjusted for inflation and spends it like . She’s middle-aged and showing it, but still plans on playing the 16 year-old ingénue (kinda like Madonna in Evita) in a movie she wrote a crappy script for. Everybody’s pretty much forgotten about her after her career died 20-30 years ago (like Andie McDowell or Eddie Murphy), but she still thinks she’s Jennifer Lawrence. She takes on a broke writer as her editor-slash-gigolo and *spoiler alert!* ends up killing him and having a massive mental breakdown when he shatters her “I’m still famous” fantasy and tries to walk out on her.  I like to think there’s a little Norma Desmond in all of us… at least all of us who do some degree of performing arts. No matter how flexible or easygoing or pleasant we may seem, we’re all spoiled, spiteful little bitch divas at heart. I think some are just better at hiding it than others… And anyone who says they aren’t is a dirty liar. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve practiced my Tony Award speech in the shower or silently shouted at a director “I AM THE GREATEST F*CKING STAR EVER!! WORSHIP ME, DAMNIT!!!” I can relate, Norma. I can relate.

5. Rose - Gypsy
Madame Rose isn’t exactly dysfunctional; she’s just fracking crazy with dysfunctional standards.  She is the ultimate stage parent who lives her dream life of stardom vicariously through her two daughters. Chief NY Times theatre critic, Ben Brantley has described Rose as "an armored tank on autopilot, which finally crashes only minutes before the final curtain.” Truth, Brantley. Truth. Over the course of her adult life, Rose drives away three husbands, her current boyfriend/agent, all the backup dancers in her daughters’ act, and one of her two children (the other one almost gets away too, but they hug it out before it’s too late) with her relentless ambition and makes absolutely no apologies. She takes her failed dreams that never came true and relays them to her daughters as actual dreams she’d had the previous night. She’s so starved for praise and approval that she smothers and presses all she has and wants on to her embittered children. Kinda sucky, right?

6. Don Quixote – Man Of La Mancha
Alonso Quijana, an impressionable old man who has read way too many books of chivalry has lost his mind and now believes that he should go a-questing as the knight-errant, Don Quixote de la Mancha. This poor dude’s living in a dream world. He gets into fights with windmills (they were GIANTS!), steals shaving basins to serve as headgear, and reimagines seedy prostitutes as noble ladies. Needless to say, he’s flat out nutty.  Luckily, he’s not one of those characters who snaps and goes postal. He actually goes the opposite way and embarks on a quest to battle injustice. Good for him. I find myself able to forgive this guy for all his weirdness because of the sheer awesomeness of the show’s songs. Seriously, have a listen to Brian Stokes Mitchell crushing “The Impossible Dream” and tell me you don’t believe in miracles…

7. The Phantom – Phantom of the Opera
The Phantom is your “Creepy, My-Parents-Didn’t-Love-Me Stalker” dysfunctional. I can’t begin to count the number of things wrong with this guy (I lightly touched on this in a previous article). I mean it’s not entirely his fault. The Paris Opera house lets him get away with SO much crap, no wonder he runs roughshod over everybody! Some people are on Team Raoul. Some people are on Team Phantom. I am personally on Team Raoul because I will not root for a team that permits elaborate kidnappings, hypnosis, manipulation, and/or murder in the name of love. That is not love, my friends. That’s just sick. Besides, how well does the Phantom know this broad anyway? Yeah, she’s hot and she’s got a beautiful voice, but that’s not adequate grounds for a relationship! I don’t care how much Josh Groban’s voice stimulates my femininity, I’m not gonna build fake mirrors in his bedroom that lead to a secret lair where I seduce him while playing a ginormous pipe organ (or maybe I will…). And can you imagine the number of health and building codes this guy is violating?! He’s got a friggin’ lake with a boat, more candles than a vigil at Vatican City, a Christine Daae shrine, and that ginormous pipe organ underneath the Paris Opera House (really? NO ONE heard/noticed all that down there?)! I’ll bet he’s not in the musicians’ union either. And don’t even get me started on the whole “I’m hideous” card he constantly plays. I don’t fear and reject you because you’re face is grotesque; I fear and reject you cuz I don’t want you stalking me or trying to kill my boyfriend! First of all, you’ve got a badass mask and a cape, so stop complaining. That almost makes up for your face entirely. Secondly, so what if half your face is gnarly? Have you seen Sarah JessicaParker’s face? She starred in a super popular TV show and was a child star, so you’ve got no excuse, my insecure friend!

8. Javert – Les Misérables
Obsessed is too small a word for Javert. He is of the belief that the law is infallible and lawbreakers are incapable of redemption. Now that’s a perfectly acceptable – though somewhat extreme – point of view to have. But this guy spends 15 years relentlessly chasing after a man who not only did the time for his crime (and then some) AND managed to turn his life around.  And it doesn’t matter the size of the crime. Valjean stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew and gets sentenced to 19 years. So the French system of justice seems pretty faulty to begin with.  Javert forgoes a family/social/home life and every other lawbreaker in France to harangue and harass one single dude who actually reformed himself. I immensely respect his integrity, discipline, and dedication to the law. But he doesn’t grasp or accept the concept that humanity is a flexible beast with a lot of gray areas. Criminals can change and laws can be bent. When Jean Valjean shows unprecedented mercy, even after being put through hell by his overblown shenanigans, Javert’s mind is blown.  He realizes that his idea of the justice that he has followed and invested into his entire life is severely skewed. He’s so conflicted over this understanding that he commits suicide. He’s been chasing after some boogieman that doesn’t exist for 15 years. It’s kinda tragic, but I can only sympathize so much cuz that is NO way to live! The only person more dysfunctional is the guy who cast Russell Crowe to play the character in the film version.

9. Fosca – Passion
Not many people are familiar with Passion or the character of Focsa.  But those who are familiar tend not to side with her. She is, for lack of a better word, pathetic. The sickly, self-deprecating cousin of an outpost army colonel falls for the handsome captain, Giorgio, about 47 seconds after meeting him.  When she is able to go five minutes without having a convulsive nervous breakdown, she can be found brazenly throwing herself at him. She obsessively follows him around, whines about her inability to have love or live a normal life, and even asks him to dictate a fantasy letter from himself for her. Though he repeatedly assures her that she is to remain firmly in the friend zone (because he’s downright repulsed by her), she insists that she is unable to stop stalking him because “loving you is not a choice.”  Honey, that’s not right. I’m sorry you’re extremely ill and lonely, but why drag the man you love (against his will) through that shitstorm with you? I don’t even want my loved ones around me when I’m hormonal so they don’t have to suffer too. Yet here she is in a fabricated affair, torturing this poor man who’s initially in a relationship with someone else. Haven’t you ever heard “if you love something, set it free”?  Cuz if you strangle and smother it the way you’ve been doing, you’re gonna kill it! Audiences were so repulsed by Fosca that during one performance, someone yelled, “Die, Fosca! Die!” when she was having one of her meltdowns.  But judge for yourselves! The whole thing is on YouTube! At least the score’s amazing (as always, Mr. Sondheim. As always).

10. The Cast of Assassins – Assassins
This one’s kind of self-explanatory. Anyone who makes an attempt on the life of a nation’s leader to impress Jodie Foster has a few major screws loose. If the title isn’t explanation enough, Assassins examines the views and “motivations” of several men and women who attempted (successfully or not) to assassinate a United States president. The show actually focuses very little on the act of assassination and primarily on their pre or post assassination activity. They converse with each other, explain their motives (it makes sense to them), and assert the importance of the American Dream. They speculate the simplicity of shooting a gun and the complexity of its consequences. They send tape recordings to Leonard Bernstein, campaign to be the French Ambassador, and eat KFC. The weird thing is that this show makes these murderous, mentally imbalanced nut jobs somehow very endearing. You’re obviously not questioning their lack of sanity or morals, because they’re sick, twisted people. But like Sweeney Todd, these characters are given souls and personalities on stage that make them appealing, funny, fleshed-out beings instead of just a mug shot you see on TV.

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: Ameselle’s Top Ten Broadway Nut Jobs. Agree? Disagree? I know my dad was toying with the notion of disowning me for not putting Sweeney Todd on the list.  What do you think?

Honorable Mentions:
Dr. Orin Scrivello, D.D.S – Little Shop of Horrors
Judd Fry – Oklahoma
Jekyll/Hyde – Jekyll & Hyde

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