I am in the market for a good exorcist. There is a song lodged so firmly in my head that I might as well be demonically possessed. For several days, the Barenaked Ladies' aching "Brian Wilson" has been ricocheting nonstop through my head, thanks to the folks at Transparent Theater and their world premiere of artistic director Tom Clyde's Beach Boys-meet-Aquaman fantasia The Golden State.
The Golden State is strange, sad, giddy, and sweet in equal parts. It's very Californian, the juxtaposition of two very different mythologies and two very similar families. On land we meet two of the three brothers Wilson who formed the core of the Beach Boys. In the sea we meet Aquaman and his family, his queen Mera and their children Aqualad and Lana. Somewhere in between, perhaps in the area between the breakers and the shore that surfers call "the boneyard," there's an unlikely love story between an aging, reclusive pop star with serious mental-health issues and a fresh, innocent young sea thing. This relationship is fully embroidered with Beach Boys music that takes on new meaning from the unusual context.
Sometimes a piece of work has to be truly odd to ring true. I'm thinking Vonnegut right now, or Garcia Marquez's magical realism, in which the shock of the strange (Bokononite philosophy, a thousand yellow butterflies) forces us to look beyond the mundane things that cloud our vision. The true story of the Beach Boys is incredibly complicated and spreads out in a thousand directions, like the lights of Los Angeles as seen from the hills at night. Each part -- the Beach Boys and their families, children, parents, teachers, and hangers-on -- is a glittering street connected to the others yet running resolutely in its own direction. Even the smallest part of the real story (Brian Wilson's psychiatrist, for example, or the way Dennis Wilson behaved with women) can be impossible to understand through the official and usually contradictory narratives found in memoirs, biographies, and Web sites. The Golden State strips away much of what is extraneous: from the court battles and tremendous weight of the star machinery pressing down on the group, to hangers-on such as Charlie Manson and his Family, who actually lived with Dennis for a while just before the Tate-LaBianca murders.
We are left with the story of two brothers loving each other as best they can. They are seriously damaged spirits attempting to regain control of their lives. There's also a lot here about what it means to take responsibility for yourself, and about how parents do or don't prepare their children to become adults. Brian and Dennis's father Murry was by most accounts an abusive tyrant who scarred the boys for life, work they dutifully continued on their own with drugs and alcohol, effectively extending their childhood beyond all reasonable limits. Meanwhile, we learn that Aquaman has not been telling his children important things about the world they soon will face, an omission that ultimately will cost him dearly.
How to portray Aquaman on stage? Do we get the polite, bland Justice League flunky some of us grew up with on television, or the current comic-book version with long wild hair, a hook for a hand, and a face as rugged and unforgiving as the Marianas Trench? Clyde has wisely cast the rumbly voiced William Boynton as both Aquaman and Dennis. Boynton's voice alone is worth the price of admission, and well-suited to the character's more recent incarnation: implacable, majestic, and cruel. This is Poseidon, King of the Sea, not some smooth, inoffensive fellow who's only useful if the bad guys go near the water where they can be nipped at by dolphins. Conversely, Boynton plays Dennis as stoned and gently ineffectual. Dennis died just after Christmas 1983 when, drunk and depressed, he never returned from diving for discarded items in the slip where his beloved boat Harmony had been docked until it was repossessed. In Clyde's alternative universe, it's possible to believe that Dennis didn't actually die, but instead finally became the oceanic citizen he longed to be. The relationship between Dennis and his older (yet painfully childlike) brother Brian is gentle and warm. As the play makes clear, they started out as rivals, but eventually developed a closer friendship than Brian would ever know with any other member of his family.
The controversial psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy displayed a different sort of dedication to Brian. Landy worked with Brian over two separate periods -- first in 1975 and then again in 1983 -- to the eventual consternation of Brian's intimates. According to some, Landy was an evil Svengali out to get at the band's money, while Brian and others viewed him as an unconventional genius who got results that no one else could. Landy, who demanded "total therapeutic authority" over Brian, initiated an unusual and rather questionable therapist-patient relationship. He moved his entire staff into the Wilson home, wrote songs with Brian, suggested that he get a cut of the singer's income, and strictly monitored who Brian saw, what he ate, and how he spent all of his time. Under Landy's care, Brian eventually slimmed down from 340 pounds, got off drugs, and was finally able to start touring again after spending several years in bed eating nothing but candy bars and milkshakes. In his memoir, Wouldn't It Be Nice: My Own Story, Brian refers fondly to Landy as the man who saved his life, "my business partner, teacher, adviser, manager, protector, voice of sanity, collaborator, and closest friend." Cynically, I find myself wondering if Brian didn't just trade one authoritarian male, his father, for another, Landy. Clyde apparently sides with Brian's family; he's written Landy as downright creepy.
Garth Petal plays this creepiness to the hilt, especially in the monologue where Landy describes Aquaman's daughter Lana to the audience, describing "her little tits" with the same ill-controlled venom he's laced through much of the performance. Landy insists that Brian and Lana not see each other any more; Petal has the thankless task of playing the obstacle between the star-crossed lovers both as Landy and as Aqualad, heir to the throne. While they are very different in the details, both characters are so angry as to become opaque.
Liza Zapol isn't opaque at all as Aqualad's younger sister Lana. Naive and headstrong, Lana wants one thing and one thing only -- the nice "bubble-breather" she met on a forbidden trip "up" to the water's surface, a man very different from the two she knows. "He's big!" she enthuses to her mother Mera, "like a baby sperm whale, and with the same smile!" Mera is played efficiently by Tara Blau, who has more to do in her other role as Brian's old crush Caroline Mountain. I don't know what to make of the fact that in the last two shows that Clyde has directed, the women cast in the ingenue roles have been limited to the upper end of their emotional range; this makes two hyper heroines in a row. But Zapol has a very funny bit when she asks Dennis to sing for her.
Finally, there's Noah James Butler (most recently seen on the Transparent stage as Swanwhite's young king), who doesn't spring immediately to mind as tortured genius Brian Wilson. Butler is slender and blond, and I've only seen him play characters with tremendous self-confidence and moxie. Now that I've seen The Golden State, I still don't believe that it's Butler (padded, dyed, fidgety) in the lead role -- where he is tremulous, delicate, easily frightened, and unable to take care of himself. Some of the most affecting moments in the play are his, and they are often deadly quiet; Clyde use pauses and silence well. Contrasting the quiet moments are those when Brian and Dennis sing together; Butler's quavery falsetto briefly lights Brian and the relationship from within.
Butler plays Wilson lost, scared, and highly internal, exactly the way I would imagine him from the song buzzing through my brain -- "If you want to find me I'll be out in the sandbox/wondering where the hell all the love has gone." Maybe the act of writing that lyric out will have to serve as my exorcism, just as The Golden State itself is a vehicle for bringing to light the demons that haunted the legend behind the sound that shaped the myth of golden, sea-sprayed California.
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