Notes from the Underbelly | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Notes from the Underbelly 

Hookers, losers, nutjobs and all that jazz take the stage in a retrospective of Stephen Goldberg's daring drama

Published June 16, 2004 at 6:10 p.m.

"This is where the humans live," Stephen Goldberg says, gesturing to the living room of his Killarney Drive home in Burlington's New North End. A right turn and a flight of stairs takes us down to the studio where the playwright and jazz trumpeter writes and records. Considering the characters Goldberg creates here -- some of the most unctuous to ever grace local stages -- the contrast with his suburban upstairs is stark.

It was here that he invented the characters for Don and Tom, cellmates in a prison for the criminally insane; Don's a pedophile murderer and Tom killed his parents as a kid. Tortured philosophy professor Arnold Gold, of Arnie Gets It Good, also dwelt here, in Goldberg's twisted imagination, before hitting the skids and hooking up with Gina, a medical student with a death obsession. So did the dozens of other misfits, charlatans, sociopaths and criminals who populate the more than 20 plays Goldberg has produced independently since the early 1980s. If his characters were to come to life and start filing out his front door, neighborhood property values would plummet.

The question on the playwright's mind these days is how to get audiences to file in theater doors. A yearlong retrospective of his work will kick off next Thursday, June 24, with "Scenes, Raps and Sounds," a showcase of monologues, scenes and live music at the FlynnSpace. The fundraising event will reunite his loyal players for a "best of" show. Waiting in the wings, however, is a collaborator this Bukowski-esque bard has never enlisted before: a producer.

Aimee Petrin, programming manager at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, is the organizational force behind the retrospective. She'll coordinate publicity and other details in mounting Goldberg's shows -- roughly one a month -- while also looking for guest directors and other theater companies to stage the work. Some directors are already on board -- filmmaker Allan Nicholls and Goldberg's musician wife, Rachel Bissex. And Goldberg and company are close to a deal with a youth-outreach organization to take his play One Mistake on a statewide high school tour. Writing the work was Goldberg's punishment for a DUI conviction in 2000.

Petrin concedes some uncertainty about the retrospective's ability to maintain such a breathless pace, but she's convinced the shows should go on. Never mind Goldberg's relative obscurity, his raw and raunchy theatrical voice, and the small audiences his works have typically drawn. "It's not glossy. It's not pretty. It's very evocative. It's in your face often," Petrin says. "But it's also very funny... I really respect his ability to put that out there."

Goldberg's retrospective begins in earnest when Interior Demolition with a Brando Obsession opens at the Shoebox Theater -- a.k.a. 135 Pearl -- on July 22. The story of three lawn-furniture salesmen whose lives are altered by an enlightened prostitute, the play reflects Goldberg's interest in what he sees as society's sick obsession with fame and success. On August 19, a run of End Zone goes up at the same venue. That play dramatizes an ex-football star-turned-car salesman's desperate struggle to regain his pride -- and his wife. A black comedy filled with rage and hope, End Zone epitomizes Goldberg's affinity for what he calls "beautiful losers."

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder in Goldberg's work. He's not interested in "a bunch of nice people on stage getting along together." Rather, he draws on his experience growing up on the streets of New York City. A jazz musician, he got to know many brilliant but self-destructive characters who'd given up their gifts for drugs, alcohol or the easy escape of failure.

Ensconced in his basement studio -- with a poster of jazz trumpeter and live-fast-die-young icon Chet Baker on the wall -- the 65-year-old author says he can revisit these characters at a safe distance. "You can stand back and look at them, and you don't have to hang out with them," Goldberg says. "I don't have to live dramatically, where at one point in my life, I did."

Yet the do-everything-yourself grind has taken its toll, and that's one reason for inviting outside directors. Goldberg has finally decided to adopt the technique behind his torrential, stream-of-consciousness writing process and improvisational jazz: "Get out of my own way."

The timing of the Goldberg retrospective owes something to recent hard times in his household. In 2003, Bissex endured -- and won -- a bout with breast cancer; her son from a previous marriage was stationed with the U.S. Army in Iraq; and Goldberg had both hips replaced. The whole dark year, he says, inspired him to plan something for when their troubles would finally be behind them.

That means his low-life characters' troubles are back with a vengeance. Goldberg's loose ensemble of actors, many of whom have amassed serious professional credentials since working with him, are eager to resume their down-and-out roles. Paul Schnabel, who appeared in Screwed, Curbdivers of Redemption and Arnie Gets It Good, now performs with the the San Francisco-based Riot Group. The troupe has enjoyed success, particularly in the U.K., for its sharp-edged brand of political theater.

One benefit of working with Goldberg, says Schnabel, was that he cranks out original work -- rare even in a city with an arty reputation. "There's something about new writing that's a lot of fun, especially for an actor," Schnabel says. That's especially true, he adds, when an author writes a role specifically for you, as Goldberg did in Curbdivers: Schnabel played "a has-been British movie star living on the streets of New York City with a gang of bums, basically." On that production Schnabel met the Riot Group's principal author, Adriano Shaplin, when the latter was still a local teenager. "He played a 40-year-old punch-drunk boxer, and he did it brilliantly," Schnabel notes.

For all the grit and grime in which Goldberg characters wallow, Schnabel insists the plays also "have a lot of poetry in them... Steve is a jazz writer. A lot of his plays have an improvisational feel."

They often have comic moments as well. Paul Soychak calls his character Artie, from Screwed, "one of the happiest murderous characters I know." Soychak's training includes London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and a master's degree from the Moscow Art Theatre School through Carnegie Mellon University. He credits Goldberg with making his acting years in Burlington "more bearable" -- following a bad theater experience that sent him packing to New York City for a spell. "You do this cheesy Midsummer Night's Dream, you lose faith, you leave, you come back, you do Steve Goldberg and stay," Soychak sums up. "They are dark, but they are dark comedies. I can't think of one that made me down in the dumps."

In a city where live theater tends to war-horse musicals and such standards as Our Town and The Miracle Worker, maybe a little darkness is a good thing. Allan Nicholls thinks so. Now a film director and sometime actor, his stage and film credits reach back to the earliest productions of Hair in New York City, the experimental theater of Richard Foreman, and the Robert Altman film epic Nashville. Nicholls learned of Goldberg by word of mouth. "I read several of Steve's plays and said, 'This guy's great. Why haven't I heard of him?'" he says. "I saw an honesty and a rawness and a definite emotion that didn't exist in other pieces I'd seen. For lack of a better expression, it was kind of like reality theater."

Nicholls went on to play Frank Sinatra in Arnie Gets It Good and to direct Goldberg's Burning Bridges, about a hard-luck jazz musician. The playwright himself played the jazz cat in a rare stage appearance.

Goldberg's uncompromising artistic expression is also what drew Bissex to him when they met in the '80s during a summer arts residence at Johnson State College. Bissex played "serial philosopher" Marcy in Goldberg's early work Sunspot: The Crime of the Need to Be Right, and she'll direct the play this November. "He challenges the norm, and he's not looking for an answer," Bissex says. "He's looking for passion. It's about the struggle and the risk... The way he deals with these things gives them a positive spin, at least poetically and philosophically. These are not happy endings, but there's hope in there and a lot of love."

Few would question that message, but Goldberg's plays have pissed off plenty of women, thanks to a preponderance of slutty girlfriends, prostitutes and philandering wives. Sue Ball, who played what she calls a "Mafia-esque" wife named Kara in Kong Wash and the med student in Arnie Gets It Good, isn't copping to the P.C. view, though. "These two parts that I had were amazing roles for women, gutter roles for women," she says. "It's a huge deal, this whole sexist issue... I find that to be the funniest fricking thing. What are these people thinking, where are they living, that they think this is sexist?"

Well, they may be thinking about Kara sleeping with her husband's brother, Gina's willingness to have sex at any moment and the fact that lacy negligees and tiny white tops are de rigueur wardrobe items for Goldberg's female characters.

But Ball, who now lives and acts in New York City, still isn't buying it. "I think that Steve has insight into a lot of the truth about what goes on between men and women," she says. "When his women are presented stereotypically, it's for a very specific reason, and the joke is really on the people who think he's a sexist pig. I've got to tell you, I find it some of the most liberating shit to do... There's something just so red-light-district gorgeous about his shit."

If Goldberg can call professional actors back to Burling-ton, why does his name draw a blank among so many theater aficionados? The answer may lie as much in the cultural life of Burlington as in the "citified" -- to use Goldberg's term -- tone of his plays. The city lacks an affordable, accessible downtown theater space -- the FlynnSpace is great but still too expensive for some. Most of Goldberg's plays were performed in bars, vacant storefronts, the now-defunct Rhombus Gallery or Champ-lain College.

Nicholls suggests the comfort zone that is Vermont may also insulate audiences from art that stings a little: "We suffer from the Green Mountain ga-gas," he says. "We're so in love with the Earth and what she's done that a little disruptive piece of theater might break the mood."

And then, of course, there are these times. Is a community addled by war, economic instability and the silent threat of refined carbohydrates ready for Goldberg redux? "It's a weird time to write about down and self-destructive people," he admits. Will the dramatist start writing sunnier plays? Not likely.

"Theater is about conflict," Goldberg says with a shrug. "Whether it's inner conflict or outer conflict, unfortunately it makes for interesting, exciting theater. It makes for interesting, exciting human beings."

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About The Author

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Esckilsen is a freelance writer and Champlain College professor who lives in Burlington.


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