Carla and the King of Siam

 

 

When I stepped off the plane in Bangkok, after 28 hours of transit time, I felt as though I’d stepped back in time. Placing my feet on the tarmac transported me, in a way, back to a simpler era, at least where travel is concerned. As I descended walked into the steamy evening and waked across the tarmac to the bus that would take us passengers to the terminal, I was reminded of arriving in Albuquerque in 1957, after a nearly-as-long flight from NYC. Then something thoroughly unexpected happened; I reverted to my then age.

Travel, especially over long distances through various time zones, can be like a drug. Sights, sounds, the very touchstones of reality can be altered so that the traveler walks in a kind of quasi-hallucinatory state, seeing, smelling, hearing, touching, tasting what may or may not be present. Entering the terminal, in my mind’s ear, a philharmonic orchestration of the Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I Overture rolled over me in flowing and ebbing waves emanating from the loudspeakers. Everywhere I looked were the multitudinous children of wise King Mongkut, and just to confirm that I had entered the realm of the play, I was sure that, right in front of me, standing next to the lifesize poster of Mongkut’s descendent, the current King of Siam, stood a prim but visibly amused woman, pursing her terribly British mouth and trying not to laugh at the antics of the children.

I hadn’t thought about the King and I — or even of the lovely pre-musical version Anna and the King of Siam — in many years, although as a youngster, I was moved to desire the life of a musical actress because of it. But I realized, once I had had a bit of sleep and had recovered some of my senses, that there was a logical reason why the images had so starkly assaulted me upon my arrival.

Like so many people in my generation, my first impression of the people of Thailand, formerly Siam, was created in the lush panorama of the movies. I took in the king’s exhortation to Anna that she learn to kowtow, in order to be a proper woman, and I believed that, however toothsome these people — of course, played in 1956 by beautiful but decidedly un-Thai actors — might be, theirs was a sycophantic, toady society, and they lived to serve their betters; women, moreover, were an underclass in a society of repressed people.

Further, like so many girls in the 1950’s, I believed that Lady Thiang’s plea to Anna to give in to the King, to beg for his approval, was exactly as Anna saw it, a paen to a kind of obeisance that a self-respecting Western woman must eschew. Boy was I wrong about the Thai. In its Western bias, the film actually fails to capture the spirit of the people in some extraordinarily insensitive ways.

From the moment I entered Bangkok, I was aware aware of the presence of lovely young models, male and female, wearing their prim, closely-tailored, white-gloved suits — costumes that misleadingly evoke a sense of a colonial Siam — posed welcomingly around the city. There is an ambience here that suggests the gentle sweetness of the people that both films were able to capture, and at every opportunity, they display a somehow disarming array of deference that belies the resolutely independent spirit of the Thai people.

Thai deference should never be confused with obsequiousness. Neither its women nor its well-oiled tourism machine and its well-trained personnel are in any way obsequious. I will talk more about the women in a later entry, but for now suffice it to say that whatever preconception I brought with me was shattered very quickly. There is a genuine respect underlying the deep nods that accompany the multi-meaninged prayer-hand greeting (called a wai) and the warm word of welcome, “Sawatdee-ka.”

These are a people who, unlike some of their more agoraphobic neighbors, take pride in sharing their culture with outsiders. They have nurtured and perfected a tourism industry that caters to pampering their visitors. In this endeavor, they know they’re good, and they don’t seem under any pressure to prove it to anyone.  They simply acknowledge that their guests are worthy of respect, as they themselves are. But they are not needy, not cloying, and they are unlikely to compromise their sense of propriety in the pursuit of pleasing their customers.

Surrounded by countries that have desired to dominate them — to greater and lesser degrees of success — and thereby to subvert the local character, Thailand has managed to ward off all conquerors. They alone among their immediate neighbors have never been colonies of European conquerors, have never been subservient to a western master. Except perhaps to the Western ideals of Capitalism. But who in the world is not?

The spirit of the local service staff can be seen in the style of their deference. They do not kowtow, they do not hesitate to look a stranger in the eye. They never hover, seeking to catch whatever crumbs of gratitude might fall from their guest’s wallet; they simply stand at the ready, willing to meet their customers’ needs but finding no necessity to go any further than requested. Among the myriad service industry folk who populate Bangkok, good morning or Sawatdee-ka and the joining of hands is not a display of supplication to the person being addressed; it is the simply a point of view. The hosts genuinely want their guests to know that their presence is appreciated. The visitor will never feel unfulfilled, but nor will the willing servant ever accept any level of deprecation. It’s a fine balance, intricate in its execution.

The second day I was in the city, at the Paragon Shopping Mall, was again reminded of King Mongkut and his progeny. Touring the river earlier that day, we had passed the King’s nephew’s palace — the king’s home was closed off for a celebration and procession, so we didn’t get to see it — a domicile that could have been the prototype for both films’ sets. Opulent, colorful, heavily guarded by sunny-dispositioned, smiling soldiers wearing their terribly British-affected uniforms, the palace stands colorfully among a varying population of river-front properties. It would be easy to assume, in the bias of a Western-trained eye , that all of this disparity is yet another example of the 99% being exploited and abused by the 1%. There is, obviously, plenty of that in every country, but along the river, people live in a manner they choose, a manner they have struggled to maintain, a manner they support would never willingly forfeit. And to even consider that every owner of a Riverside shack is too poor and too complacent to replace is an injustice to the people.

Later, when at an IMAX movie theater before a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, I was fortunate enough to witness the people’s devotion to their monarch first hand. Before the previews began, the houselights came up. An introductory strain of music played over the loudspeaker, and everyone stood, proudly, at attention. No one was monitoring the actions of the audience, and no one looked around to see if s/he was being watched. They simply, naturally stood in unison. The National Anthem played, and some of the people there sang. A pair of Russian tourists in the back of the house giggled nervously, not sure what to make of any of it. But the locals simply, gratefully, matter-of-factly sang a pledge of allegiance to their king. As soon as the music stopped, everyone sat down as a single entity and went back to munching on popcorn or twizzlers, but the moment was no less moving than the hats-off-no-kidding-around show of allegiance that precedes the beer drinking extravaganza at a football game.

It was all I could do to sit back down.  I felt like someone had just invited me to dance.

Lake Flower High Dive

Lots of children,

parents calling to them, encouraging,

or begging them to come back.

They laugh and swing out

off the high dive into the

dark water, where

they disappear, then emerge

sputtering, choking on their giggles,

delighted.

I stand at the top of the ladder

Hesitant to walk out onto the board

I am afraid of heights.

Lots of children,

my own siblings and others,

laugh at me and call out

“Dive!  C’mon,” beckoning me into the

dark water, where

I’ll disappear.  Will I emerge,

sputtering, choking on giggles,

delighted?

I venture out onto the plank

to look down, wondering what lies below

and if it matters.

Lots of voices now

“Do it!  Do it!”

I jump, and for the moment

I stop thinking . . .

just enjoy the

F

A

L

L

Times Square Apassionata

The other day, I heard a tour guide telling a walking tour, “Back in the days before Disney came to New York, Times Square was not so family friendly, but nowadays it’s been cleaned up, more like an urban amusement park.”  I sighed.  Remembering.

When I was 18, I had a job on 44th Street and 12th Avenue.  I lived in Queens, so to get to work, I took a bus to Main Street Flushing and then jumped on a still new-looking 7 Train, which took me to 42nd Street and 7th Avenue, from whence I walked west to the river.   My report time was 7:30; so, even in the summer, darkness lingered over most of my journey, and when I emerged from the tunnel into Times Square, the gray steam of early morning still dripped from the building overhangs.

The first time I made that journey, I entered the world hesitantly.  Times Square in the crepuscular minutes just before the sun rose was peopled by potentially terrifying characters.  I grew up in the granite-guarded isolation of the Adirondack Mountains, after all, and the only place I had encountered people like these was in the books and comics I read, the movies I went to see.  City of Night, Manchild in the Promised Land, Batman, Midnight Cowboy. Luckily, they were characters with whom I had an intimacy that promoted a modicum of understanding I did not have for myself. I didn’t know what they might think of me.

There was a small group of prostitutes who congregated together in front of the Lyric Theater, where the Hilton Theater is today, having coffee from a nearby greasy spoon, smoking and talking and giggling, perhaps too wired to go home to sleep or maybe waiting for someone to pick them up; I never knew.  I felt like I was in Junior High, having to pass the cool girls, hoping they wouldn’t make fun of me.

They didn’t. “Good morning, Sweetie,” a very large, older woman called to me; the others chimed in, warning me to be alert, to watch out for vagrants hiding in the shadows.  By the third or fourth day, they had coffee for me — I couldn’t drink it because I hated the “white Coffee” (extra cream) they drank, but I didn’t want to insult them, so I fake-sipped it as I headed west, thanking them profusely.  I lasted in the job (a story unto itself) for eight months, and every day in every kind of weather, the bevy was always there, expecting me when I emerged from the subway.

I finished work at 4, and the streets could be already pretty dark when I made my return trip.  I walked briskly East on 42nd Street from the river, one of many, mostly other members of the work force wrapping up their day.  I moved in sync with gal Fridays, clerks and typists in too much make-up, too-high spiked heels, too-tight mini-skirts, with office managers in dowdy, cheap suits, sensible flats, hats and gloves.  Construction workers stopped packing up their wares to shout their version of compliments at us as we walked or to jeer at the drag queens slinking along the edges of the buildings.  Well-dressed family men pulled their hats down over their eyes as they were sucked in by the blaring, undulating light of one of the many peepshow or porn  flick theaters that staved off the deepening darkness.

Cleaned up?  Times Square may be overrun with families now, but it’s far more tawdry, far less wholesome than the Times Square of my youth.

The Naked Cowboy and his imitators strut around in tightie whities, miming molestation of people’s adolescent daughters while parents laugh and snap photos.  A ridiculous-looking middle-aged man, wearing a headdress right out of a ’50’s western, parades his insignificant jewels in a skinny pair of black or white briefs as he drums a come-hither on a child’s tom-tom.  A massively wrinkled drag queen in a green bikini, her face and torso too red from an overdose of tanning rays, adjusts the Ms. Liberty crown perched on her head and collects tips in the sagging bottom of the over-packed bathing suit.  A vanful of migrant workers, bussed in from Queens and handed costumes in a lobby near the Discovery Museum, walk about as the dramatis personnae from best-known Disney films and television series, encouraging the kids to hug and fondle them.   In the center of it all, every Friday, a group of hate-spouting Black men spew ill-disguised racism and anti-semitism while tourists from around the world grab photos to send home on their iphones.

Who would call this wholesome?

I saw Batman talking to the Naked Cowboy the other day, and for a moment, it looked like Batman might ensnare the offending creep and carry him off in the Batmobile.  Wishful thinking.

Oh, well, even if he did, there’d be another to take his place.  It’s simple economics.  Just like they did in the late 60’s of my youth, people gotta make a living.  Come to think of it, the tour guide was right.  Times Square really is just an amusement park, and the revenues are where it’s at.

Munich Matters

When Dan Alon approached me to write the harrowing tale of his freakishly miraculous escape from the Munich Massacre, I was drawn to the tale for its depiction of the process of survival.  I had grown up in a family of traumatized escapees from disaster and holocaust, and none of them ever found the vehicle that could deliver them from their ghosts.  I was honored to offer my services to help build the transport for Dan’s journey.

At the time, I thought that my agenda would include an expression of compassion for the Palestinians.  I was emotionally conflicted about Israel.  While I understood the extreme importance of a Jewish homeland, I agreed with a close friend of mine, who used to joke that “They could ‘a’ just given us Miami.”

Frankly, Israel embarrassed me.  My grandfather had coerced my mother into abandoning her dream of making Aliyah (moving to Palestine) in 1939, and he often compared Zionists to all the other Europeans who had grabbed land from indigenous peoples around the world.  I believed that Israel should be forced to give back lands confiscated in the 1967 War, that Israel should take a more conciliatory stance.

 My point of view clouded my perception of the Munich Massacre.  Of course I never would have blamed the athletes for what happened, but I believed, like most Americans, that by disenfranchising the Palestinians and by discriminating against them, Israel was to blame by putting the athletes in harm’s way.

I was committed to sharing Dan’s as a cautionary tale — watch out, world because this could happen again, and watch out, individuals, you could survive, and then you will realize that living through the ordeal was the easy part of it all.  But I hadn’t considered the event’s other, more layered, implications.

That there is no excuse for what happened in Munich is self-evident.  A vile act of terrorism that usurped the sanctity of the Olympic arena and took eleven fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, nephews, cousins, friends from their loved ones cannot be justified or excused.  The athletes were non-combatants, and their deaths were pointless wastes of fine lives.

Eleven athletes killed at Furstenfeldbruck Airport on September 5,1972

The world clambered to give the terrorists the attention they sought.  The masked murderers of Black September became fixtures on nearly every television set in the world, and when all was said and done, they were hardly so much as chastised.  Until Mossad unleashed Operation Wrath of God, no real action was taken to so much as censure the perpetrators of the heinous violence; the Olympic Games themselves refused to skip a beat, carrying on as though nothing were amiss while half the hostages were strapped into helicopter seats and strafed with machine gun fire and the other half obliterated with an exploding grenade.

 The message was clear.  We may say the Olympics are on sacred ground.  We may pay lip service to the precept that the Games are separate from the world of politics, but Israeli journalist Yarin Kimor was right when he pointed out that “The minute you raise a flag, it’s all about politics.”  It was politically safer, more expedient for the IOC and world law enforcement agencies to just let this one go.  It was too highly charged an issue.  Take sides, and you rock the boat.  Instead, eleven athletes were sacrificed.  Nothing was really gained by the terrorists; the following year, perhaps spurred on by the Munich tragedy, the world — including the US, who had promised to defend its ally Israel — watched in silent complicity as Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the highest, holiest day of their year. . . just as they had stood silently by in the 1930’s, when everyone knew what the Nazis were perpetrating against the Jewish people.  Once again, the nations of the world stood by in hushed complacency and did nothing to lend a hand.  In the peace negotiations that followed, however, the US took the role of “peacemaker” and threatened sanctions should the Israelis prove less than propitiatory.

The world seems to believe that Israel is expendable.  Few seem to remember that less than 3/4 of a century ago, six million Jews died because they were unwelcome in the diaspora.  There was no safe haven then.  Even France, the country that first afforded citizenship to the wandering Jew, turned them out or fed them to the ruthless Nazi killing machinery; the US, my own beloved country where so many believe Jews to be firmly ensconced, denied entry to millions, despite the absolute knowledge that such denial meant certain torture and death to the shunned minions.

And there was no safe haven for the others who fell, like domino pieces, when no force prevented forfeiture of the Jews.  Hatred swallowed up great numbers of Poles, gypsies, unmarried professional women, gays, physically and mentally challenged citizens, Catholic priests, et cetera ad infinitum.

Where will they all go the next time they are so endangered?
 Forty years after Munich, the IOC continues to give tacit approval to the terror they allowed to happen.  Yet another Olympic Games will begin without the simple Moment of Silence the victims’ families have consistently sought.  The Arab nations call for the expulsion of Israel from the Games, and the IOC gives the same attention to that demand as they do to the request for the single minute of remembrance, a minute that says without words, “We are truly sorry.  What happened here was despicable, and we will never let another athlete on any team be treated this way under our watch again.”

Worse, the world looks on bemusedly when Australian swimmers post photos of themselves going to the Olympics carrying, of all things, machine guns.  Perhaps they are harmless idiots, these Aussies, but the message of the photo’s reception is that it’s okay to treat the massacre’s remaining family and friends as well as the athlete survivors with abject insensitivity.  The world shook its head and tsikatched at the boys, but there was no statement from the IOC that what they had done was intolerable, that no such behavior would be conscienced.

Munich Memoir: Dan Alon’s Untold Story of Survival is a first hand account of what it was like to be at the games when his friends, teammates, countrymen were taken and slain.  It reminds us how easily a tragedy can happen in a garden of peace and love.  It reminds us that we are all vulnerable, all candidates to stand one day as Dan did, in shoeless, shocked disbelief while people we care about are simply erased by others with a savage agenda.

It reminds us that we cannot ignore history.  It will not go away.  Let it be our teacher!

Catch a Flying Star.

Mary Martin as Peter Pan with Wendy (Kathleen Nolan), Michael (Joseph Stafford) and John (Robert Harrington), 1954

I was 7 when my mother took me to a friend’s house to watch the first telecast of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin.  While I loved Peter, I saw myself in Wendy(Kathleen Nolan), my more accomplished self, stuck in responsibilities, too pragmatic and obedient to just crow.  Jumping up and down with excitement, I watched her take off on her first flight, and I think that was the first time I remember crying for joy.  Wendy was saved.  No matter what, she’d never again be trapped in that holding pattern where a young lady is not allowed to be a child but isn’t yet respected as an adult.  From now on, when adults yelled at her, Wendy could escape, return to the joyous memory of flying.

Which made me wonder about Wendy’s mother.  Would she, like my mother, be impatient with the frivolity of childhood?  When Wendy was in her room writing about Peter, would her mother shame her into emerging from her cocoon to look after siblings?  Would Wendy’s mother be angry when Wendy slept too late after a night of fantasy-induced insomnia?  I concluded that Wendy’s mother must be far too enlightened for any of that.  No doubt, Wendy’s mom had had a spectacular childhood, and, as a result, took pleasure from her daughter’s fancies.  In short, Wendy’s mother was my ideal mom.  Every year, I’d watch Mary Martin fly away, leaving Wendy and Nana, and I wasn’t the least bit sad.  Because I just knew that Wendy was happily where she belonged.

How gratifying that Rick Elice has envisioned the perfect childhood for my imaginary mother.  His Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger), the heroine of Peter and the Star Catcher, who will be Wendy’s mother someday, is strong and brave and smart and competitive and obnoxiously self-assured; she leads the boys into their life of perpetual childhood, a life she has even designed for them.  She facilitates Peter’s epiphany that allows him to meet himself and laughs in the face of Captain Black Stache (Christian Borle) as she thwarts his evil and sets him up as the favorite prey for the omnipresent croc.  In short, Wendy’s mother Molly is exactly the kind of girl I wanted to believe my mother should have been because she was who I wished I were.

Boy (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger)

Wendy isn’t the kind of girl who’ll grow up to be a man-hating feminist.  Nor will she ever want to be one of the guys.  She is proud of her femininity and then reveals that she is also unafraid to be soft and vulnerable. Celia Keenan-Bolger captures her brilliantly, her perfect voice and demeanor cloaking the girl (or is she really older than we think?) in vari-colored nuances that make her starkly real while still a figment of our collective imagination.

Smee (Kevin Del Aguila) and Stache (Christian Borle)

 Wendy is not alone onstage.  She is surrounded by a brilliant company, swinging from role to role never dropping even a shadow of the thread.  Christian Borle could not be more enchanting as the company man and the dastardly Captain Stache. He chews up the scenery in a frolicking frenzy of masterful comic acting and then, to prove his true command of the craft, he revels in a line that pokes fun at himself for doing so — vowing that no croc is going to devour scenery while he’s onstage!

Peter and the Star Catcher Company

There’s no one who’s not terrific here.  Adam Chanler-Berat as Boy, Arnie Burton as Mrs. Bumbrake, and  Kevin Del Aguila as Smee may seem salient, but the whole ensemble deserves equal credit for bringing this romp to full-boar life.

 Peter and the Star Catcher misses not one single beat in this production, now playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theater (http://peterandthestarcatcher.com).  Directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers have found just the right pace, exactly the best staging, have chosen precisely the best creative team, and there isn’t so much as a single hiccup of error.

Which brings it all back to Rick Elice.  The best character in this play is The Play itself.  Pure theatrics at their most basically theatrical.  No pyrotechnics, no high gloss effects, jut flawless actors capable of endowing pieces of string with more life than a wilderness of monkeys.  Peppered with allusions to everything you’ve ever seen (or read) and loved before but rife with originality, this is a play that asks the audience to play along, to suspend disbelief in the suspension of disbelief and then gently forces us to believe long before Peter asks us to clap and prove it.

In the end, empowered by our own delight, we leave theater knowing that the vagaries of our lives and its multiple responsibilities will hereafter be mitigated by this memory of flying.