Shaun Baer

actor - singer - writer

Fast Food For the Mutants

AND OTHER MUSINGS ON HOWARD THE DUCK

Beverly (Lea Thompson) and Howard (voiced by Chip Zien) hide from the cops after an accident in the science lab.

Beverly (Lea Thompson) and Howard (voiced by Chip Zien) hide from the cops after an accident in the science lab.

My mind has been focusing lately on the epic fail of the 1986 cult “classic” Howard the Duck. Scoring an amazing 15% on Rotten Tomatoes, reviews range from “But the film, directed by Willard Huyck and written by Mr. Huyck and Gloria Katz, takes such a broad, farcical aim, that it becomes a melange of ''The Exorcist,'' ''Ghostbusters'' and ''Raiders'' itself,” from Caryn James of the New York Times, to “When the smoke clears, only one thing is certain: Howard the Duck has laid an egg,” from Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune. 

Yet despite the atrocious critical response, it remains one of the top ten favorites from my childhood. So, with Comic-Con coming up this weekend (which I will enjoy viacriously via social media) and a new genre project of my own in development, I revisited this scrambled skillet of a film to try and understand why I love it and what about it made such a lasting impression.

Let's start with a stellar cast. Hot off a Back to the Future success, Lea Thompson is crimped and punked out in stellar 80s attire. She and her sassy girl band “Cherry Bomb” are the closest we may ever get to a Jem and the Holograms live action movie (including the recent Jem and the Holograms live action movie). She brings a scrappy yet vulnerable balance to Beverly and audiences have no trouble connecting with her. Tim Robbins does a quirky turn as the nerdy scientist, a role I could connect with personally even back then.

And then there's Howard. Voiced by Broadway great Chip Zien (Into the Woods), his cynical commentary on American culture is bracing and sharp. And while the duck costume is definitely successful to a point, especially for it's time, the mechanics of the face can't keep up with Zien's sarcastic stamina. Nevertheless, the human performers connect to the voice and, for me, I look past the suit and see the character and story.

Now, let's talk story for a second. A number of reviews refer to the film as inconsistent and like two movies smushed together. First, you have the rom-com relationship of Beverly and Howard as he's adapting to life in “Cleve-Land.” Then, about halfway through, we launch into full-on alien action movie. That is technically true, but looking at it structurally, it works for me. Here's how.

For the latter half to feel more connected to the first, they could have sprinkled in scenes from the science lab, but for me this reveal half way through works because we, like Howard, have no idea how he got to Earth. We connect with him as he struggles to figure out where he is and what to do, and if they sprinkled in scientists along the way, I think the audience would lose the connection to Howard and Beverly which, in the end, it the heart of the film.

Back to Beverly's band for a second, Lea Thompson sounds great on the material written and co-performed by Dolby's Cube. A few years ago, a friend of mine was kind enough to share the soundtrack with me and I tend to go through annual phases of playing this on repeat. Now is one of those times. “Don't Turn Away” is a fun 80s love ballad and “Hunger City” is a rockin' blast. And the title song, of course, which closes the film as well, is just fun!

So, why does this film work so well for me? I think it stems from always being an outsider growing up. I was the kid on the playground playing “Star Trek” when everyone else was playing sports. I was Jewish and most of my school friends were not. Once I started to understand that I was gay, this outsider feeling only grew. So, I connected to both Howard and Beverly (and even Phil) and became strongly invested in their search for connection, acceptance and understanding. Which they all found in the end by producing an amazing 80s rock concert. So the next time you're wondering if you should give Howard the Duck another chance...”Don't turn away.” 

Hashtag Team Ashley

Captain's Blog - Stardate 61616.3

Time is something that completely baffles me. Always has and I suppose it always will. Don't worry, this isn't a "deep thoughts" blog. We need a break and there is nothing more shallow than my character in "The Boys Upstairs." All I mean about time is that I can't believe we only have ten shows left.

That's right...ten more chances to see "The Boys Upstairs."

Hopefully, our audiences will continue to grow. Last week, with such an abbreviated and short performance schedule, we had light houses for both our shows. Typically, houses pick up as a show moves to closing, and I anticipate that this will be true for us as well.

In fact, tonight I happen to know we have a pretty full house. My boyfriend is bringing an entourage to see the show. I'm calling the night "Hashtag Team Ashley." Or, if you're actually using hashtags, #TeamAshley. I'm so excited because for many of these folks, this will be the first time they see me on stage. A few are not fans of theatre at all, but are willing to see the show to support us both. I'm so grateful and can't wait for such an exciting, and likely intoxicated crowd!

If you're still interested in seeing the goofy comedy by Jason Mitchell "The Boys Upstairs" directed by David Zak and produced by Pride Films and Plays, please join us at Mary's Attic:

  • Tonight at 7pm
  • Friday, 6/17 at 7pm
  • Saturday, 6/18 at 7pm
  • Sunday, 6/19 at 5pm
  • Thursday, 6/23 at 7pm
  • Friday, 6/24 at 7pm
  • Saturday, 6/25 at 7pm
  • Thursday, 6/30 at 7pm
  • Friday, 7/1 at 7pm
  • Saturday, 7/2 at 7pm

You can find tickets by clicking here or by visiting goldstar.com.

If you come to the show tonight, check in at Mary's Attic on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram using the hashtags #TeamAshley, #TheBoysUpstairs, and #pridefilmsandplays. Can't wait to see all y'all Upstairs!

Hailing frequencies closed.

captain's blog: supplemental

I will be coming through with the #TeamJosh, #TeamSeth, #TeamEric, and #TeamLuke as we continue the countdown. This is a great group of men I have the honor of performing with. 

Safety in Theatre

Captain's Blog - Stardate 61516.3

Very recently in Chicago, a scathing piece of journalism reported that a long standing company member and artistic director of Profiles Theatre, Darrell Cox, has been abusing his female co-stars with mental manipulation, as well as sexual and physical abuse. His co-artistic director Joe Jahraus, served as an enabler by allowing and in ways encouraging this behavior. Today it was announced that Profiles Theatre is closing it’s doors permanently.

What the women endured in this theatre was heinous and terrifying. Misogyny and an oppressive patriarchy (or male privilege if you like) are definite problems in this country and in this business. By no means would I ever diminish this fact.

There have been some women in the Chicago community who have added their voices to this controversy and reminded us that it is not only women that are preyed upon, but that there are also instances where gay men are at risk as well. I not only appreciate these women including this in the discussion, but can speak from personal experience.

Thankfully, what I’ve gone through was never as dangerous or violent as the stories told by the women and men at Profiles Theatre, but here’s what I’ve got. Several years ago, working on a non-equity project out of a small university. I was very excited to be working with a director from New York. He had moved to the midwest with his partner. He’d been on Broadway. He talked a big game.

Over the course of the rehearsal process he made me feel very good about my work, and I was so excited to be performing a favorite role of mine. Then backstage, one night, all that changed. He pulled me aside, mid-performance and let me know that he had “always wanted to fuck my brains out” and anytime I was ready for him he’d be there. 

I had never given him any indication that I was interested in him. Never had I flirted or been overtly sexual with him. And in the middle of the two show day I felt violated and uncomfortable. I felt like all of his compliments and positive reinforcement was simply foreplay to prep me for his inevitable come-on. I wanted to walk out. I became very agitated.

I spoke with my fellow cast mates who supported me, but we weren’t friends. Later they spoke with the director as well who simply said, “Oh, Shaun doesn’t know how to take a joke. He should lighten up.” He and I never spoke about it and the show closed shortly thereafter.

I’m in a different community now than I was during that show, but thanks to Facebook I can see that some of my most respected colleagues in that community are friends with him on Facebook, have worked with him, and probably respect him. Maybe they would feel differently if I shared this story. Or maybe they would agree with him. I honestly don’t know.

This would unfortunately not be the last time a man with casting authority would approach me in this way. I would like to say that this extra attention, and my subsequent disinterest, has not impacted my career, but ours is such a subjective and fluctuating business that there is no way to be sure.

An interesting aspect of this has been the advice I’ve received from several other colleagues. Many have suggested that I use this attention to my advantage. That I’m attractive and men will look at me, so why not let them look as long as I’m clear that I’m not interested in more than casual flirting and being friendly. 

Maybe I’ve got more issues than should be talked about in a blog, but I don’t think I know how to play that game. I tried. I allowed hugs and flattering comments. I even returned a few. Then came the drunken Facebook messages, and the forced apology. And the worst part is, even as I write this blog, I have taken no action. I am complicit. I am unwilling to speak out beyond this vague post and let the situation be known to other professionals. I don’t know that I can afford to play this differently with so few lucrative opportunities in this town.

I have one more story and it isn’t mine. There was a well-respected director at a community theatre with a great budget and overall solid production value. I had several male friends who worked there. During one rehearsal, the director said to one of the men, “Your mustache would look great over my dick.” It obviously had an impact on him, since he and others relayed the story to me. Many other men had similar stories. Yet, they continued to audition for him, work for him, and apologize for him. “That’s just how he is,” or “he’s just playing around.”

I want to say that I refuse to accept that. I want to say that there is no show, job, award, or career advancement that is worth that kind of disrespect. Yet I can also understand how someone would endure this kind of behavior in fear of not getting work. Because clearly I have allowed it to some degree as well.

In our business, we all get close. We share our stories pretty readily and we invest in each other emotionally. We tend to be more physically affectionate with one another than, say, in a call center. But a hug or a peck doesn’t translate to permission.

I want to voice the following statement to my gay colleagues. Our shared sexuality is not an open invitation to approach me or other men uninvited. You are not welcome to my body just because we both like sex with men. If you are interested in me, know that I am into monogamy and am in a relationship, so I do not welcome your advance. If you feel you need to express it anyway, you should approach me with respect. And if I say no, which I will, that should be the end of it. If you cannot accept my disinterest in your advance without it affecting our professional relationship, then it is you who has the problem.

Hailing frequencies closed.

Tony, Tony

Captain's Blog - Stardate 61416.7

I need a break from fuming at the lack of gun laws and mourning the dead from the most recent shooting. There’s apparently another one happening right now at a Wal-Mart in Texas, so I’ll be able to get right back to that later this week. There may be some angry snark along the way but I will do my best.

So right now I want to bring it back to the art and talk about the Tony Awards this Sunday night. First and foremost, congratulations to James Corden. When 9/11 took place, it was the Tuesday before the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony. They postponed the ceremony for seven weeks before the event took place on November 4, 2001. Ellen Degeneres hosted and was brilliant. My favorite moments of hers included quotes like, “What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews,” or “they can’t take away our creativity, our striving for excellence, our joy…only network executives can do that.”

But James Cordon had a handful of hours to adjust his performance to address this tragedy, being heralded on the news at that time as the worst terror attack on our soil since 9/11, and later being acknowledged as the worst mass shooting on our soil ever.

He did a fantastic job. His authenticity, his sweet nature, and his gentle but clear ribbing of the business, of politicians, and above all his genuine joy made this a fantastic evening to celebrate life, liberty, and the pursuit of theatre. His opening number (below) made me feel like a kid again and renewed my faith that my goals are still real, valid, and true. As did the winner for best features actress in a play, Jayne Houdyshell, who talked about her 42 year career, only the last five or so being actually good years.

 

As we watched, our group of five gay men with ballots and beverages, this turned out to be the awards ceremony we didn’t know we needed to see. Our dear friend joked that his favorite part about the speeches, and sometimes about theatre people in general (he is an actor himself) is how they talk like they’re curing cancer every night. The fashion was better than usual, thanks to some help from Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who also added over 125,000 roses to the red carpet.

Speaking of the red carpet, we were able to stream the red carpet arrivals through our Apple TV, and one of the greatest things about that to me was seeing the unapologetic gay men and women on that red carpet with their partners, or boyfriends, not throwing their fists in the air and not demanding to be heard, but simply being. They felt free to be themselves and take interviews, flirt, smile, laugh, and dish the dish without pretending to be someone they weren’t. It’s a freedom I hope to see more of on the red carpets for film and television.

It’s hard to talk about these Tony’s without talking about Hamilton. It was pointed out to me that in 1976, A Chorus Line changed the art form and swept the Tony’s. Twenty years later came Rent in 1996. Now we have Hamilton. I’m a bad theatre gay. I have only listened to parts and pieces of this show. I try listening to it on my commute, but there are so many words and they are so meticulously placed and planned, that I need to set aside time to simply listen and absorb the show. Nevertheless, their eleven wins are incredible and I can’t wait to join the party.

Incidentally, Chicago, which originally lost to A Chorus Line in 1976, celebrated it’s 20th Anniversary on Broadway and is now the longest running American musical in Broadway History. Bebe Neuwirth was on hand for the celebration and looked fabulous. Bebe has played all three female leads of that show on Broadway throughout it’s run. Chita Rivera was also in the audience.

Another brilliant visual of the night was the diversity. All four winners in the acting category for musicals were people of color, and the nominees throughout the night were, for the most part, significantly well rounded. Especially compared to the #OscarsSoWhite fiasco earlier this year. Cordon even joked that the room was so diverse that Donald Trump was threatening to build a wall around the theatre.

There would be more time for grieving and anger the following day, but for those few hours we could find strength in the beautiful remarks of Frank Langella and Barbra Streisand, find community in the silver ribbons designed by six-time Tony Award winning costume designer William Ivey Long, and relish in the amazing performances from a talented group of fantastic artists at the top of their game.

Hailing frequencies closed.