(part one)

None of the program notes or publicity materials for this season’s shows use the phrase ‘toxic masculinity,’ but the concept saturates the season even so. Across the plays, the rage and resentment of white male characters is the corrosive force that causes communities to crumble. And always it is aimless, baseless violence, unmoored from any sense of proportion or logic– this season takes, in short, the opposite of Hollywood’s favored anti-hero tack, asking not what pain caused this anger, but instead whether there is any remedy for the free-floating rage of men who think the world should, by rights, be theirs.

Jud Fry (Michael Sharon), Oklahoma!‘s only true villain, is also the only (apparently) straight, white man amongst the named characters: the peddler Ali Hakim (here stripped of his clownishly racist trappings, not least through being played by Barzin Akhavan, who is actually Persian) is bisexual, Ado Andy’s father is now his mother, the local Federal Marshal and Will Parker are both black. His toxicity therefore becomes linked, just as it so often is today, with thwarted privilege: not merely that he cannot bear losing to or being thought less than Curly, but that he cannot bear losing to a black woman. He cannot conceive of the idea that he has caused Laurey’s fear of him by lurking outside her window at night. He is someone who has learned no outlet for his disappointment and frustration except violence– violence that will turn, as the noose he keeps in his shed implies, either against others or against himself. But by the end of his first full scene, it is clear he has chosen others. 

Oklahoma! ends with the frankly shocking implication that once they have made that decision– once they have decided that harming other people is the only way to soothe their own hurt– men like Jud must be permanently removed from the community one way or another if that community is to peacefully survive. It’s a radical and perhaps disturbing thought. Directors often want to resist the idea that Jud is irredeemable, and to see the ending as written as an awkward oversight in the rush to a happy ending. But it clearly seems to be what Rodgers and Hammerstein intended to suggest. Laurey’s kindness only made him feel entitled to her; Aunt Eller’s praise of his work can’t undo his past resentments. Curly mocks him, but mockery doesn’t justify threats of rape and violence. Recent productions (including, apparently, the one now bound for Broadway) have tried to play up sympathy for Jud and point a more skeptical finger at Curly and the eleventh-hour mock trial that acquits him. But that’s a reading Rauch’s production undercuts in part by casting Tatiana Wechsler as Curly. Just as contemporary political discourse makes Jud’s violent threat seem all the more urgent and frightening, who today (as I discussed in the previous post) is going to argue in favor of turning a black woman over to the police?

In Othello, it’s masculinity in all races that is, perhaps, too destructive to endure, which leaves the tragedy fittingly answerless. This production, also directed by Rauch, is not really one that has any answers for the suggestion that the play is racist and sexist as much as it is about those things, but set alongside Oklahoma!, it paints an intriguing picture of the ways the corrosive anger of white men eats away at communities that might otherwise remain whole. Unlike Oklahoma!, however, Iago’s power lies not only in his own toxicity, but in spreading it to others: Cassio (Derek Garza), drunk by Iago’s engineering, spews Islamophobic mumblings at Barzin Akhavan’s Muslim Montano and readily mocks Bianca (whom he otherwise seems to like) at Iago’s urging; Othello (Chris Butler), of course, murders his wife. The question that makes Othello so uneasy today is whether Iago is merely revealing the darkness that was already present in these men– in Othello’s case, a frankly racist implication, given the stereotypical associations between black men and violence– or if his power is to explode the niggling fears and petty weaknesses we all have into something strong and uncontrollable enough to destroy these men. But whether he engenders the spark of violence or only fans it, the seething envy and obsessive hatred of Danforth Comin’s disturbingly changeable Iago is the center from which the play’s darkness springs, the force that drags Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, Bianca, and Emilia– all of them, in Rauch’s production, people of color– into a spiral of destruction, the women just collateral damage in a crusade whose true purpose he refuses, at the last, to reveal.

In one of the more intriguing cases of cross-play casting this season, Comins also plays Jakob, a 17th century Dutch fur trader in Manahatta, a new play by Mary Kathryn Nagle. It’s not hard to imagine the destructive role white men play in a play partly about the Dutch settlement of New York and the native Lenape people who encounter them. Unlike The Way The Mountain Moved, the season’s other play to touch on interactions between Native Americans and white settlers, Manahatta doesn’t believe in good intentions. Jakob, like Iago, comes to represent how the most brutal betrayals come from the people you thought you could trust– from the white men who were supposed to be different than the rest. The play’s parallel plot takes place in 21st century New York City, and Comins’ character there is altogether more open, and might provide a spark of hope for a more harmonious future: he expresses a willingness to learn to be better, and actually follows through with it. But then again, it’s 2008, and he’s an executive at Lehman Brothers. There are all kinds of ways to ruin lives.

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