July 22, 2008


A Birthday rant

By Mark Langton

(Excerpt of a letter to Neal)

Dear Neal:

I turn 55 today.

However, first things first:

Just saw "The Dark Knight" and can easily say I'm putting it up there with the 10 great American movies of all time, it was that good, Heath Ledger was that good, I loved it that much. Maybe I'm still just in the first flush of sobriety again and loving everything I do or taste or smell or see, but I know my mythic archetypes enough to know a GREAT performance when I see one, and a GREAT, mythical, fucking GREEK, sin-eating, biblical, personification of satan and christ-slammin' yarn when I see one, and this is one. Wow. It's got everything, man. I'm talkin' black, white, yin, yang, good, evil, ego, id, disney, picasso, fellini, tarantino...I shit you not. It's got it all.

Actually, the movie is mostly style -- ah, but what style! -- with Heath providing the only real substance. And that's what makes more than just a good movie: Heath Ledger's Joker...! oH..my...god. SPASTIC. Everybody said no one could live up to the hype after he died, but let me tell ya, he so far surpasses the hype that he prolly will leave most movie audiences in the dust. (The one I saw it with was.)

As usual, I was the only one laughing at most of the stuff I laughed at, except for the all-knowing Alicia laughing beside me, and me with that "Neal" laugh that somehow got imprinted on me over the years, that low, suggestive, knowing laugh that only begins to bring others into the secret, killing joke if they have the capacity to get it to begin with, fuck 'em if they don't GET the joke, and Oyes, I hear you in my ears allatime, Neal, and often in my own voice, the way young men put their stamp on each other when they've gone through the same fire. THAT blood, it runs, ran, through Ledger's veins, you can tell, at a glance, especially if you've tasted it, like Kobain, like Bruce -- he's one part James Dean (that spastic opening scene in "Rebel" when you realize the police siren that you hear is coming out of his mouth), one part Jerry Lewis in "Nutty Professor," one part Brando, another part Stuart Smalley (he seems, actually, to be imitating Al Franken), with Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, De Niro, Mr. Rogers, the dual(dueling)selves of Sam Shepard's "True West" thrown in ....He is the anti-Bozo, Pennywise the Clown, my own worst nightmare, a dream come true... and just the best fucking acting job I have seen in years.

There are two scenes that left me frozen in my seat, my mouth agape -- one, where he's facing off with Batman during an interrogation in a holding cell where you realize at the same time Batman does that he IS Batman, that he's more than just evil, his Joker is not a comic book villain out for money or self-interest, he just wants to see the WORLD BURN....!!! His simplicity is fascinating, and, as the movie goes on, that simplicity, in itself, becomes a grotesque.

The other scene is one shot, actually, that, in the words of one local reviewer, deserves to be "anthologized, YouTube-ized and immortalized": The Joker is in the foreground, walking toward the camera, playing (and really, that's the only word for it) with a bomb detonator; huge explosions are going on behind him as he walks toward us, stiff and happy and hobbling, like a toddler. He practically tosses the scene away, and if not for the mammoth explosions going on behind him, it could almost go unnoticed. He's a child, and this is pure id. The banality of evil. Convincing all who see it that at the heart of existence isn't creation at all, but chaos. Has to be. It may be the most chilling thing I've ever seen on film.

(to be cont'd)

July 13, 2008

A profile of 'Othello's' David A. Moss

Finding balance
Former stand-up comic turns to acting, yoga with zeal

By Mark Langton
IJ Correspondent

“It was always about acting,” says former stand-up comic David A. Moss, presently cast in the title role of William Shakespeare’s “Othello,” now playing at the College of Marin.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he adds quickly, “I loved doing stand-up – and everything that came with it. I just got tired of three-chord rock. I wanted jazz.”

Charming, abrasive, funny and intense – by varied accounts, at once vulgar, elegant, ruthless and vulnerable – Moss’ journey from doing stand-up comedy to doing classical roles began in what was, according to Moss, the perfect spot for a serious actor to cut his teeth -- the wide-open stages of San Francisco comedy clubs during their heyday of the 1980’s.

If comedy was, as former S.F. Examiner columnist Bill Mandel once wrote, the “rock ‘n’ roll of the ‘80s,” then a growing subset of edgy, angry young comics like D’Alan Moss (his stage name at the time, an affectation that now makes him cringe) were clearly its punk rockers. Deliberately deconstructing the conventions -- even the vocabulary -- of tranditional stand-up, performers like Moss (“Bobcat” Goldthwaite also comes to mind) reveled in pushing the edge of the envelope. And, in Moss’ case, sometimes off the edge of the stage.

Veteran Marin comedian Mark Pitta, who competed with Moss in the 1984 S.F. Comedy Competition, was not surprised to hear that the intense young comic had become a serious actor. To Pitta’s reckoning, Moss was always a better actor than a stand-up. “When he did a joke,” says Pitta, “he didn’t tell it, he acted it out. He became the joke. So it was normal to think that he’d be more of an actor than a stand up.”

Pitta also remembers Moss as a snappy dresser. “I just dug out a video of that comedy competition in ’84. He wore these red shoes with blue pants and matching jacket….When I started out in stand-up I dressed from Mervyn’s – and he always looked like ‘Shaft’.”

Marin County comedian Michael Pritchard, who holds the distinction of having once won first place at the San Francisco International Stand-Up Competition the same year he won the S.F. Probation Officer of the Year Award, remembers Moss as being a little cranky.

“He was definitely one of the angry ones,” Pritchard says. But with ‘D’, the anger was legitmate…at least half of the time,” he chuckles. “There’s a reason for anger in comedy when it’s about injustice,” continues Pritchard. “And ol’ ‘D’ had lived his share of that. He had a razor-sharp edge, and you could tell, there was a deep, thick soul to this guy, an amazing person of amazing depth. And when he wasn’t being self-indulgent, he was one of those comics who dealt with social issues…who was willing to take risks, to deal with the question of race, to put his own identity crisis under a microscope, using it to mirror our own.

“And besides, I think anger was his juice,” says Pritchard. “I think he found his creativity there.”

If so, says Moss, then that “juice” was hard-won – and hard lived. Born in Cleveland, OH to a Caucasian mother and an African-American father, Joyce Englehardt and Elwood Moss, from as far back as Moss can remember he felt like an outsider. His father left when he was six years old (“Society was my father’s Iago…one night he tucked me in, kissed me good night, and I have not seen him since”), and soon afterwards his family moved to Oakland, CA.

Says Moss, “By the time I hit junior high, I had a white stepfather and two maternal twin sisters, Erika and Dierdre. Talk about your identity crisis! No one could place me in this white family. Was I Puerto Rican? Colored? Adopted….? I was just not emotionally equipped to handle it. I took it personally…thought something was wrong with me.”

That’s where his armor started, says Moss. He was always aware of the stares, the whispers, of being different, feeling different. As a result, the younger Moss began acting out, sometimes violently. By his own account, he never met a confrontation he didn’t like.

“As far back as elementary school, I was aggressive, combative, really psychotic,” he says, “and I don’t use the term loosely. By the time I got to high school I was constantly in fights, always in the principal’s office, always in trouble.”

By the time he was 14 or 15, Moss found an outlet in acting. “At first, I didn’t do much. Once I played Toto in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ That was great. I did some other school stuff, nothing remarkable.”

But where he found an outlet for his identity crisis in acting, he found an outlet for his rage in comedy. His moment of clarity came in 1979, when he saw Richard Pryor live at the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos. “It was an epiphany,” he says. “He came out and did 90 minutes, and the only time the audience was allowed to stop and take a breath was when he decided to take a sip of water. I just sat there, slack-jawed, dumbfounded. My friends thought I didn’t find him funny, but I was in shock. Shock and awe. I mean, he did a Doberman Pincher here, a monkey there, he would do hunters, the deer, the deer hunters hunting, even the gun, the flat tire….the freebase pipe and the fire -- and above all, he did his pain.

“And, I thought to myself, he’s not just telling jokes. He’s acting! I mean, I also saw Bill Cosby at the Circle Star, too, right around the same time, but this was something different. This was real theater. Edgy, scary, beyond funny. And at the same time, I thought, I can do this. I could combine the two! I could express that anger in me this way, and I didn’t have to adhere to anyone else’s words. In fact, at that moment I realized … that was the only thing I ever wanted to do.”

Moss threw himself into standup, going to open mikes, developing an act, a following -- and, by his own account, an attitude. “I started at about 15 or 16…doing Dan White jokes in suburban clubs -- which didn’t exactly go over very well. But I didn’t care…I never believed in the adage that you adjust your act to the crowed, to the office party or the Christmas party. If you hired me, you got what I did. I considered it a badge of honor that I never censored myself. If they told me not to cuss, I’d cuss even more. I wasn’t out to make friends. I reveled in scaring people. I liked working without a net. I liked digging a hole and seeing if I could get out of it. I knew I could be intimidating, and I loved it. I loved the power of it.

“You have to understand .The City was like Comedy Mecca back then. We were like rock stars. Plus, I got myself a SELF. Add to that, the girls, the power, the free drugs… “But no matter how fast I kept dancing, I was still miserable. I was still in pain. So dealt with the pain in the old-fashioned way. By using anesthesia.”

Michael Pritchard remembers the drug culture among comedians back then. “I think the entire scene was just amped in those days. There was this blizzard of cocaine that hit the scene in the early ‘80s…. I remember being concerned for ‘D.’ After my son was born, I had a family life, and I used to talk to all of the guys. You just felt helpless…I’d watch these guys literally killing themselves.”

None of which, despite all appearances, was entirely lost on Moss. Not only was he sleepwalking through his act, he became intuitively aware that his lifestyle was killing him, body and soul. “In order to keep you from knowing me, I just made you laugh. I got tired of having to be funny, even when I didn’t feel particularly funny. You can’t call in sick as a comic. And my offstage behavior and life…,” Moss shakes his head. It was like being a boxer -- how many rounds can you go before you’re jelly; what’s the score, who cares, you’re not swinging at anything. . I just got tired of standing behind not only the microphone but this image I’d created. And I knew it was eating me alive.”

So, he cleaned up his act and headed for the hills. A Larskpur resident, he took a psychology class at College of Marin, and found himself wandering around the drama department. “I used to peek through the crack in the doors at the Studio Theatre, Moss recalls, “and just stare at the naked lightbulb on the empty stage, thinking, damn, I miss that. I started to feel again that that’s where I belonged. I knew I had more to offer artistically besides stand-up, besides just being funny. I knew I had this ‘more’ to offer, and that the theater was the place to offer it.”

So he started taking acting classes at the College of Marin, finding himself drawn to classical roles. His restless mind rediscovered a fascination — and an aptitude -- for Shakespeare. He’d done a few scenes in class, actually played a young William Shakespeare in “Eleven Variations on Friar John’s Failure” (a Shakespeare parody/pastiche written by student prodigy Yuri Baronovsky), turning in an honest, nuanced interpretation of the young Bard, unfettered by the usual trappings of cape and quill.

But Moss credits drama department founder James Dunn for really opening his eyes, by casting him as the mad Malvolio in the COM production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”

Moss’s Malvolio was electrifying. A comic tour de force, heads above the other actors onstage, earning him a year-end mention as Marin Independent Journal’s “Performance of the Year.” He followed that with another comic truimph as Bassinet in Georges Feydeau’s 1886 classic French farce, “A Gown For His Mistress” (“Tailleur pour dames”), proving himself to be an expert farceur. (“Like Peter Seller’s Inspector Cloussea,” wrote one reviewer, “his awkwardness is comic ballet.”) He then topped his show-stealing turn as Bassinet with a nearly operatic, eerily feral Foxwell J. Sly, the leading role in Ross Valley Players’ production of Larry Gelbart’s “Sly Fox,” which won him rave reviews.

Moss also earned a reputation for being a consummate professional – always the first actor to be “off book,” walking into the first day of rehearsal with his lines already down. It became a point of pride for him that race never became an issue with casting. “I played people, not people of color. It just never came up.”

His work and his reputation preceding him, he was a clear choice for the lead in COM director’s upcoming production of Shakepeare’s “Othello.” He was then “pre-cast,” according to Moss, in what he considered to be the role of a lifetime – Othello.

But then something happened.

By his own account, Moss went into a tailspin. “The old arrogance came back. I started to rest on my laurels. I wouldn’t call it over-confidence…it was more like a warped sense of entitlement. I thought, hey the role was mine, so I didn’t have to work for it. I began resorting to old coping mechanisms, anesthetizing myself again…until I found that all the anesthesia did was douse my fire.”

According to Moss, director Taylor caught wind of this. “He called one day, and the way he put it was, ‘are you dealing with those demons again?’ At first I said I was drinking a little a bit, and then finally I told him the truth. That yes, in fact, I was.”

According to Moss, he then learned to his horror that director Taylor had promptly re-opened auditions in January for the role of Othello. THAT got Moss’s attention.

“It was perfectly understandable, Moss says, “and humbling, to say the least. He wasn’t confident in my being of sound mind and body for the show, and who could blame him? You don’t go into ‘Lear,’ ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Richard II’ without a Lear, Hamlet or Richard. I now look at as a gift. I learned that no matter how talented you think you are, that alone is not going to preclude your offstage behavior. I realized I was going to have to earn this one back.”

Moss began preparing for the audition like an Olympic athlete. He attended regular recovery support groups, crediting them with a leading him to a new spiritual path. He started lifting weights, running every day, and now swears by Bikrim Yoga, an extreme form of yoga whose practitioners work out in temperatures in excess of 100 degrees. Instead of going into seclusion, as he might have in the past when preparing for a role, he reached out and shored up his relationship with his family and best friends, crediting his sons Cameron, 16, and Devin, 13, with being instrumental in what he considers to be a bona fide spiritual reawakening. Above all, he threw himself into the text of Othello like a 16th Century scribe.

Needless to say, he aced the audition.

Director Taylor was impressed. “David came in prepared, as always, and just really amazed me with his grasp of the language, his understanding of the character’s world and circumstances. I was especially impressed with the amount of preparation. He knew what he was saying, which is not always the case with actors when they do Shakespeare.”

Asked what it is that sets Moss apart, Taylor says that one word in particular comes to mind: “Specificity. David doesn’t just investigate, he excavates the script for every nuanced action he can find.” Taylor continues, “Another word that comes to mind is fearless. He’s not afraid to try new things in rehearsal and performance. Now that’s rare.” According to Taylor, “Othello” is about more than jealousy or betrayal. “It’s about isolation, about an outsider struggling to assimilate. David’s understanding of the complexity of being a child of mixed- race parentage gives him a unique perspective on this role. I think David is in a unique position to project that, that sense of being an outsider,” says Taylor.

“We’re doing it the Studio Theatre, and at times the audience will be only inches away from the actors. So it should be a very visceral experience.”

Taylor chuckles. “With David, it’s always a visceral experience,” he says.

Marin Independent Journal
May, 2007

IJ photo/Jeff Vendsel