the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Donny Osman's Cages (2012 Lost Nation Theater, VT)

Donny Osman - FTW

“Town Meeting” is annual gathering of Vermonters that sets the local government agenda for the coming year. In one of my first experiences at this event (I am from “away”) the delinquent tax collector was being publicly skewered for “not being tough enough”. The criticism was warranted. The tone was mean-spirited. Compounding the problem was the inarticulateness of the office holder and the relative fluidity of the verbal barrages by the pack of angry taxpayers. An older gentleman rose and took command. He immediately pointed to the difficulty of the position and the perils of being cruel to those who were down on their luck. One should not assume that every person who is behind on payments is a scoundrel and every civil servant who founders in delivering the cash is a weak kneed bleeding heart. While listening I felt ashamed that I had failed to rise to the occasion. Who was this man?

The answer came years later. Recently I attended an autobiographical one man show featuring Donny Osman; not - Donny Osmond. But the irony that Mr. Osman should share a similar name to a teenage bubble-gum star of the 1970s goes hand in hand with Mr. Osman’s world view. God often embodies opposites: God can be cruel/funny. As a mere mortal one should acknowledge life’s hardship but one has a responsibility to God, community and family never to forget to laugh. Mr. Osman has arranged a series of stories from a full life that has involved the theater, politics and family. The structure of the piece involves Mr. Osman sitting at a desk and loosely reading from notes and occasionally rising while a guitarist strums and picks - not so much music as appropriate collaboratory support. It is a mark of the musician’s talent that the focus stays on Mr. Osman and his tales. Ironically Mr. Osman’s tone is a dual mixture of apology and defiance. These are stories from his life: “they might not make much sense to you - but they are what makes me who I am.” There is a reference to “cages”. Everyone is emotionally placed in boxes and separated against their will. Life is, in a sense, a process of escape.

The stories he tells continue the theme of “duality”. They are heartbreaking/hilarious, fun/painful, silly/serious..... There are many deeply personal biographical moments - but once again the opposite is also true: Mr. Osman keeps his own counsel while bearing his soul. This is especially the case in sketches he makes of his parents. These were formidable people. His mother was a member of SNCC, a major civil rights organization. It is easy at this point in our history to underestimate the courage it would take to actively participate in the cause of unblemished righteousness. One might see grainy images of Martin Luther King reciting “I Had a Dream” and conclude that every person with a conscious would have wanted to bear witness. Truth be told: many moderates considered King a radical and others were unwilling to be associated with “trouble”. (The NY Times wrote an interesting article on the anniversary of the march commenting on the fact that on the day itself Washington DC was nervously gripped by fear; not celebration.) In short, Donny had a very brave outspoken mother. Her choice of spouse was equally dynamic. The senior Mr. Osman was a push-cart peddler who rose to own and operate a famous New York discount store. In one of the highlights of the performance the son speaks of the father handling a vendor. The man wanted to try to sell Donny’s father some goods at a high price. The senior Mr. Osman firmly explained that “he is an undertaker” and that these goods are, metaphorically speaking in terms of profit potential, “already dead”. This man must realize that if he wants to sell the goods it will be at a loss. This is the harshness of the market delivered by someone WITHOUT MALICE. I emphasize this as it is central to the father’s legacy. He was a businessman who never forgot that his measure was in the respect felt by his family, community and customers. The bottom line could never be found in a bank statement.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the performance was when Donny describes his mother’s passing. She committed suicide with the aid of clandestine medical staff after receiving a terminal diagnosis after her husband’s death. Donny and his brother bore witness. Whatever one’s personal views on end of life decisions it is important to acknowledge the boldness of this very public disclosure. It would be easy in our “reality TV” world to attribute this to the need for “sensationalization”. In Donny’s case the opposite is true. This revelation comes as a parable in his mother’s never-ending fight for social justice. Mr. Osman lets it be known that he believes strongly in personal end of life decisions being made by the patient . One sense the steely determination of his father with the vendor when he says “I did not know the names of the people who assisted my mother... but even if I did I wouldn’t tell you”.

One of the first stories involves a Vermont neighbor who helped Donny and his family when they first arrived. He was a hard drinking, trailer-living, porno-watching, gun totting family man. One senses Donny’s repulsion/fascination. They were friends; or more accurately “friendly”; people who could rely on one another in the custom of the country. Cities have conversation. Rural areas have dependable neighbors. The neighbors’ wife would look after Donny’s house when his family traveled. Donny recalls that his family returned from a trip and the local paper wanted his comment on the shooting. The shooting? It turns out the neighbor shot his wife in the head in front of their children. Donny let slip that this was one of three murderers he had encountered since re-locating to a sylvan ideal.

Donny tells us that his decision to move out of New York wasn’t motivated by any “back to the land” romanticism. He thought farming looked like “too much work”. All joking aside Mr. Osman never really reveals what prompted his pulling up stakes and settling, for four decades, in Vermont. It brought to mind Prospero’s penultimate lines at the closing of the Tempest:

And thence retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave.

Mortality is certainly a central focus of Mr. Osman’s work but it is Prospero’s opaqueness that creates the parallel. What about the other two thoughts? The irony of Mr. Osman’s autobiography is that it becomes hard to know what he thinks; although it is clear portrait of what he believes is right. The disconnect might lie in other matters that he unveils: he is a hypochondriac but has real medical conditions, he is a politician but has disdain for vulgar popularism, he needs constant re-assurance but is very much his own man.... At heart is the strange contradiction of a private person needing to escape the comfortable narcissism of self and “come clean”.

There are three central figures in Mr. Osman’s life who are barely mentioned: his wife, his brother and his son. Donny’s spouse is referenced as being the bedrock of his recovery from depression. The veracity of her courage fails to play dramatically. Who is she? The same is true for the missing son and scantly referenced brother. Obviously it is impossible to catalog all close relationships in a dramatic summation however some color on these specters might have illuminated other characters and actions. For example the afore-mentioned killer returns to greet Donny after his manslaughter term is served. One senses the surprise/repulsion but it is difficult to know what Donny would do if the murderer chose to re-kindle the friendship. There are also a strange “blank” in understanding his relationship with his parents. The respect and love is unquestioned.... but did they get along? Donny recalls: “everyone loved talking with my father” - this is distinct from “I loved talking to my father”. Donny describes the macabre moments waiting the two hours for the mother’s “medical assistants” to make their full exit. Once again the exasperation of having to be a part of this grim ritual is real.... but is he angry at his mother for creating this burden? Is their guilt at feeling rage? Is everything washed away by fulfilling his role as being the dutiful son? There is a great deal of expectation involved in having such dynamic role models - was this a factor in the choice of leaving New York? What was their reaction to his working in the theater? There is a long history of loving parents being skeptical of a stage career. In fact one of the first “talking” motion pictures, “The Jazz Singer”, documents the struggle of an artist shackled by parents well-intentioned, but misguided, concern. One wonders how a serious social activist and self-made retail magnate would react to having a son who is a professional clown? Had these wonderful parents placed Donny in their cage of expectations?

On a mechanical level the structure of the piece works against his being fully candid. By clearly delineating himself as the storyteller he is taking on the burden of facing the every-present judgement of the audience - not merely for a performance - but for a life’s work. “Cages” could be “set free” if Mr. Osman embodied the various characters he presents. Speak in the voice of his mother and father or even take on his own character as almost a separate persona. There are glimmers of Osman’s ability to inhabit the protagonists - brief shouts and jesters - we need more of this showing and less telling.

These technical suggestion should not take away from what Donny has created - this is a life’s work. There is an expression that young internet users employ when they wish to recognize an amazing performance - be it in sports, acting, class.... “FTW” stand for “For the Win”. The origin of this “shout out” is obscure but the idea is to exclaim “this is the best!” or “Amazing!”. Ironically this acronym had almost the exact opposite meaning for an earlier generation. During the turbulent 1960s some people would use “FTW” to mean “Fuck the World”... but it is important not to dwell on the negative... that could lead to darkness and depression. We have a responsibly to laugh and cheer. Remember the Book of Psalms while contemplating to the Book of Job. Life is hard... but good. Donny Osman - FTW!

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