Monday, February 19, 2024

#8 2024 NOTES ON RECENT READING: Rebecca Copeland’s THE KIMONO TATTOO

 

NOTES ON RECENT READING

Rebecca Copeland’s THE KIMONO TATTOO

By Samuel L. Leiter



As those who’ve followed this series since it began on Facebook in 2023 (before it started a new life on Theatre’s Leiter Side in 2024) are aware, the books discussed here are typically non-fiction and theatre-related. Rebecca Copeland’s The Kimono Tattoo (n.p.: Brother Mockingbird, 2021, 357 pp.), however, is an award-winning novel in the literary thriller genre. It does have an interesting reference to the noh theatre, its heroine is a student of traditional Japanese dance, and its chief background subject, kimono, represents a great traditional art that plays a major role on the Japanese stage. Nevertheless, The Kimono Tattoo is not about Japanese theatre (an academic specialty of mine). It caught my eye mainly because I’m a FB friend of its author, a noted scholar of Japanese literature and translator of Japanese fiction.

Because of my “acquaintance” with its author, I’ll not review her book in detail, but will offer just a few notes for those who might be looking for an often intriguing novel set in contemporary Japan by someone whose long residence there stamps her writing with authenticity. 

Copeland’s heroine, Ruth Bennett, shares certain similarities with her creator; both are the fluent-in-Japanese daughters of missionaries from the American South, and both are professional translators. But Copeland is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, while Ruth, although she has translated an important recent novel, makes her living as a translator of commercial brochures and the like for a Kyoto translation service. Then again, the novel is set in this century's first decade, and Ruth does have a backstory involving her having once been on the faculty of an American university. Aside from their missionary parents and mutual academic backgrounds, I have no knowledge of any other autobiographical connections. 

Tasked by a mysterious woman (for a substantial fee) with translating an in-process novel by a famous writer—missing and presumed dead—she discovers that the book is too close to reality, leading her down one dangerous rabbit hole after the other as she finds herself enwrapped in a web of threatening episodes. As several murders, passed off by the police as suicides, occur, Ruth finds herself enmeshed in a mystery tied to the world of traditional kimono making and design, a mystery that also involves Japanese tattooing, the yakuza, Japanese dance, child trafficking, a long-lost brother, and Tosa fighting dogs, not to mention the subtleties of the Japanese language.  

The Kimono Tattoo, published only in paperback, should make good beach reading with its straightforward yet often evocative prose, its fast-paced action, its vivid characters, and its well-researched subject matter. On the other hand, its multiple plot threads tend to get a bit tangled before Copeland unties the knots, the weeds into which Copeland’s research wanders can hold things back, and some of the far-fetched plot twists require a firm suspension of disbelief. Nevertheless, if you’ve got a yen for an intricately woven crime story embroidered with infusions of traditional Japanese culture, you might want to spend it here.

Monday, February 12, 2024

#7 2024 NOTES ON RECENT READING: Patrick Stewart's MAKE IT SO: A MEMOIR

 

NOTES ON RECENT READING

Patrick Stewart’s MAKING IT SO: A MEMOIR (2023)

By Samuel L. Leiter



Sir Patrick Stewart, one of England’s most respected actors, has an impressive resume for his classical theatre work, especially in Shakespeare, but his career includes countless roles in other plays, modern and antique, as well as on screens large and small. Stewart’s worldwide fame, however, rests not on his distinguished stage work, but mainly on his role as Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the Federation starship USS Enterprise in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and its multiple film and TV spinoffs, most recently Star Trek: Picard.

I have long been a great admirer of Sir Patrick but—full disclosure—I have never watched a single episode of the enormously popular series, nor any of its cinema progeny. I admit, however, to having watched all the show’s original episodes, starring William Shatner, during its three-year run from 1966-1969.

No matter, I got a full dose of Captain Picard and his crew from Stewart’s thoroughly engrossing new book, Making It So: A Memoir (New York: Gallery Books, 2023, 469 pp.)—its title a Picard catchphrase—about as smoothly digestible a personal account of a premiere actor’s life as one could wish. I know the word “memoir” is nowadays considered preferable for such works, but if anything could also be considered an autobiography this book is it.

Born into relative poverty in 1940 (seven days before me) in the town of Mirfield, in North England’s Yorkshire County, Stewart grew up in a tiny, two-room house with its toilet out-of-doors, a space that often served as the only place he could read in private, holding a candle to see in the darkness. He describes his upbringing, including his schooling, his friendships, and his hardscrabble life in general, in vivid detail, with close attention to his family circumstances: moody father, a decorated former army parachutist down on his luck after being demobilized; loving mother, a textile millworker, sometimes at her husband’s mercy; and two brothers, with one of whom he shared a bed until he was 14. He admits that for years he felt inferior about his working-class roots, Yorkshire accent, and incomplete academic education.  

He lovingly describes what growing up in Yorkshire, which he remembers with deep fondness, was like. Local accents like his play a big role in English culture, so he eventually was taught to ditch his in favor of what was called “received pronunciation.” At one point, however, an acting teacher observed how much more interesting his speech was when a bit of Northern England broke through.

Although academically only average, he was a voracious reader. He gained the affection and respect of a few teachers—especially Cecil Dormand—who had a huge influence on him, especially when he began to find fulfillment by acting in school projects and local amateur dramatic societies (“am-drams”). Never, at first, considering a theatre career, his jobs on finishing school at 15 included working as a furniture and carpet salesman and then as a cub reporter.

But, with Dormand’s support, he began taking long bus rides to study privately with Meg Wynn Owen on Saturdays (another famous actor, Brian Blessed, was also a student), and eventually, at 17, was accepted into the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, with a grant from a local council covering all his expenses. Theatre students will appreciate his exposition of the BOVTS training regimen he underwent.

They will also enjoy his expert insights and often funny anecdotes about acting, including wonderful stories in which he himself is sometimes the goat. Stewart’s love for acting and his enthusiasm in expressing it is one of his book’s great charms. While the persona he projects from stage and screen may sometimes seem stern, he reveals a warm, human sense of humor, often self-deprecating, that will endear him to his readers. Even now, at 83, he would love to do a TV comedy series.

The famously eggheaded—physically, not cerebrally—star even candidly discloses how, after his hair began thinning at 17, he was—after failed hair-growing treatments—as bald at 19 as he is today. His baldness may have hampered his career as a leading man, but it boosted his character-role appropriateness. His love life didn’t suffer, though, as the thrice-married actor’s cherished memories of girlfriends and lovers shows. Stewart offers loving tributes to each of his wives, beginning with the choreographer Sheila Falconer, to whom he was wed from 1966-1990 before the typical problem of show biz logistics made divorce inevitable.

After his two years at Bristol, things looked bleak back home in Mirfield, but before long he was offered a job as assistant stage manager and bit part actor at the Theatre Royal, Lincoln. Low level as it was, it was the start of a professional career, and he was on his way to nearly nonstop employment that would take him from polishing his craft in regional rep to an out-of-the-blue shot, at 21, playing tiny roles on a globe-hopping Old Vic World Tour with gorgeous actress Vivien Leigh (he offers lovely stories about her), more regional rep, and, ultimately, a long-dreamed of position with the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was only 25, a job he held for 14 years.

In 1975, he made his first feature film, Hennessy, but even after a few films (including Dune), and TV appearances, he remained a respected supporting actor, little known to the world at large; even the RSC only rarely granted him one of the big Shakespeare roles, while fellow thespians like David Warner and Ian McKellen became internationally known artists. It wasn’t until he lucked out with Star Trek in the 1980s, when he was in his mid-40s—a story he tells with brio—that he broke out into superstardom. Trekkies will love his many Star Trek anecdotes, the show having run seven years, with a movie franchise following.

Star Trek: Next Generation over, he returned to the stage with a well-received, one-man version of A Christmas Carol followed by leading roles in multiple plays, from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice (which he’s done four times), and Macbeth (also filmed). But he also landed in hot water when, starring on Broadway in Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, he gave curtain speeches criticizing the Shuberts for closing the show early.

His film and TV career flourished, including the X-Men franchise, in which he played Professor X (and cemented his friendship with Ian McKellen, with whom he’d eventually do the greatest Waiting for Godot I’ve ever seen, and, in repertory, an equally outstanding No Man’s Land, by Harold Pinter. His popularity even earned him a hosting job on SNL (which, he admits, bombed). However, his first two marriages broke up (he confesses to philandering) before he married a third time—lastingly, one hopes—to Sunny Ozell, a singer 39 years his junior, with whom he appears to have found true love.

Filled with wonderful memories, personal and professional, many worthy of a laugh, some more poignant, Making It So is for anyone interested in the life of a leading modern British actor during the last half of the 20th and first quarter of the 21st centuries. For all his success and acclaim, Patrick Stewart, for all his fame (he was knighted in 2010), remains starstruck by the greats of his profession, thrilled to be in their company, or, for that matter, with any talented professionals. His encounters with his idols, like Ian Holm, are unforgettable, while his anecdotes about celebrities like Sting, about whom he admits to having known nothing when they first met on the set of Dune, and the young Paul McCartney, will appeal to readers across the spectrum.

If Sir Patrick Stewart is anything like the modest man that this book projects, thankful for the good things that came his way, grateful to those who enabled them, and proud of what they led to, he’s someone whose hand I’d like to shake one day. Having spent a week in his company, I think it’s about time we finally spent some time together aboard the USS Enterprise. Beam me up! Or, to be au courant, make it so!

 

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

#6 2024 NOTES ON RECENT READING: Charles Busch's LEADING LADY: A MEMOIR OF A MOST UNUSUAL BOY

 

NOTES ON RECENT READING

Charles Busch’s LEADING LADY: A MEMOIR OF A MOST UNUSUAL BOY (2023)

By Samuel L. Leiter



Julian Eltinge (1881-1941) and Charles Busch (1954- ) are the names of popular actors who bookended the 20th century as America’s leading drag actors on the legitimate stage, both of them admired for offering uncannily convincing performances in female roles, which they took seriously rather than as burlesques. Scholars still debate whether Eltinge—whose offstage persona is said to have been decidedly masculine—was gay or not, but there’s never been any doubt about Busch’s preferences. As would be expected, they’re on full display in his amiably amusing, beguilingly bawdy book, Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy (Dallas, TX: Smart Pop Books, 2023, 271 pp.).

Busch’s memoir, a page turner account of his upbringing and prolific stage (mainly) and screen career, is crammed with entertaining, and sometimes touching, anecdotes about his family, friends, and productions, much as you’d expect from so clever, diverting, and unpretentious a personality (assuming, of course, you’ve seen a sampling of his work). A girlish boy raised by a middle-class, nonobservant, Jewish family in Hartsdale, a suburban town near New York City, he lost his beloved mother when he was not yet eight, and had a strained relationship with his father (with whom, however, he shared a fondness for vintage Hollywood cinema).

He was fortunate to have the love and support of his Aunt Lil, a wealthy Park Avenue matron. Much of Leading Lady is practically a paean to this nurturing woman. In one of his surprising revelations Busch says that, despite all the financial, psychological and emotional care she provided as he struggled to find his way, she could never bring herself to visit any of his performances, even though she was a theatre lover who often had taken him to Broadway shows.

Busch details the various paths he explored as he tried to discover his personal key to opening the doors to a theatre career. He swiftly takes us from his childhood through his teenage years at theatre camps and Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art, to his tenure as a theatre major at Northwestern University (where getting cast was impossible), to his off-campus stage and life experiences in Chicago, and then on to New York’s Lower East Side’s Off-Off Broadway scene and elsewhere. As he matured, he nourished his proclivity for campy comedy, often showing the influence of his lodestar, Charles Ludlam, doyen of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, to whom he pays reverent tribute. And, of course, he dutifully notes the many close friends, lovers, teachers, costars, techies, producers, directors, and assorted enablers who helped along the way.

Busch’s many non-theatre-related side hustles before he became a celebrity get plenty of page space, as well, most impressively his activity as a quick-sketch artist, which included stints at the Renaissance Faire in Tuxedo, New York. Crossing to the blue side, and definitely worthy of a true confessions memoir, is his frank and funny account of working in the gay sex trade. That last job was in the pre-AIDS days, but he thanks his lucky stars for surviving the AIDS crisis, which he writes about with compassion, having lost many friends; surprisingly, the one he most endearingly memorializes is not a gay man, but an offbeat actress named Meghan Robinson.

One of Charles Busch's Off-Off efforts, a 45-minute, one-act called Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, created for a low-rent Alphabet City group called Theatre-in-Limbo, was so well liked by audiences and critics (especially D.J.R. Bruckner of the Times), it earned a full Off-Broadway production in what became a record-busting multi-year run; the first Busch play I ever saw, it was a crucial gamechanger in his budding career.

From then on, there was little—apart from cardiac issues encountered in his 40s—to stop Busch, who made a specialty of writing plays (and screenplays) inspired by noirish Hollywood B-movies, with glamorous femme fatales on whom he could base the fabulously costumed and bewigged screen queens for which he became famous. But he didn’t appear in all his plays, as, for example, his devilishly funny Broadway hit, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, which starred Linda Lavin (later replaced by Valerie Harper), Michelle Lee, Tony Roberts, and a delightfully perfect, little-known octogenarian named Shirl Bernheim.

Busch captures the highs and lows of a rambunctious theatrical career that also includes several films based on his stage plays, like Psycho Beach Party and Die Mommy Die! He is very selective in choosing which of his works to discuss, so don’t expect an exhaustive exhumation of a prolific career that includes not only Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium, Times Square Angel, The Lady in Question, and Red Scare on Sunset, but Olive and the Bitter Herbs, The Tribute Artist, and even the relatively recent The Confession of Lily Dare, which I raved about here.

Busch is self-deprecating enough to dig into his less successful work, like his book for the musical Taboo!, starring Boy George. While happy to explain how he conceived his shows and what he considers their strong points, he’s not shy about confronting his shortcomings, both as a writer and performer. He knows how to tell a story simply, without unnecessary flourishes, and with good humor. Even when he has reason to, he never nastily trashes those who disappointed him, his critiques always being more understanding than bitchy, although his frustrations don’t go undetected.

Theatre fans will relish his descriptions of how some of Busch’s most significant work was developed, with all the backstage angst (and first-night chaos) that often goes into doing theatre. Starry names he places in the spotlight for great backstage stories, some briefly, others at some length, include, among others already named, Claudette Colbert, Joan Rivers, Raรบl Esparza, Milton Berle, Rosie O’Donnell, Patrick Swayze, Bea Arthur, Kim Novak, Angela Lansbury, and Carole Channing, with cameos by the likes of Stephen Sondheim and Greta Garbo. Admirers of comedienne Julie Halston, a hilarious mainstay of many Busch extravaganzas, will cherish the stories he tells of her before she became well known.

As his memoir declares, Charles Busch is, regardless of his birth-assigned gender, a true leading lady. While his book may not have the heft and detail found in such recent theatrical memoirs as Barbra Streisand’s or Patrick Stewart’s, both to be discussed in coming Notes, it’ll be much easier to read on the beach. It also contains a photo section on glossy paper, many of the pictures in color. Given its fondness for namedropping, however, it’s a crying shame that Leading Lady doesn’t have an index.

 

 

 

Sunday, February 4, 2024