Party For A Native Son
How do we love our most famous author? Let the Steinbeck Festival count the ways.
Thursday, August 2, 2001
Namby-Pamby Nobel Prize Winner Joins Gym, Gets Gun: On Sunday morning at 8am, Monterey Herald columnist Joe Livernois reads his story "Stallone As Steinbeck: A Can''t-Miss Hit" at the National Steinbeck Center as part of a four-day celebration of the guy they call "America''s author."It''s a predictable thing that happens: The people of a town or region, when their ranks give rise to a star, adopt a certain regard toward that gifted native son or daughter that typically consists of about two parts proprietary pride to one part gratitude. In Monterey County''s case, of course, the high-wattage luminary is John Steinbeck, and our devotion to him is commensurate with his lordly status. Without him we''d be just another pretty place with good weather and more lettuce than we could possibly eat.
This coming February 27, Steinbeck would have turned 100. And so, as befits the proud and grateful recipients of a legacy, the National Steinbeck Center is throwing him a party. From August 2-5, the 21st Steinbeck Festival kicks off a year-long centennial celebration that will lead right into next year''s Steinbeck festival. This year''s event focuses on Steinbeck''s Monterey County origins, which attendees can experience through events such as lunch at Steinbeck''s family home in Oldtown Salinas and a bus tour of the ranch that inspired the story "The Red Pony."
The August 2 world premiere of Tortilla Flat anchors the festival with a raucous tale of 1930s-style bohemianism. The story focuses on a crew of paisanos (Spanish for buddy or friend) who live a freewheeling existence in a swath of Monterey shanty towns known as Tortilla Flat. The $35-per-ticket event is something of a party in itself and includes an opening reception at the Steinbeck Center at 5:30pm. The play follows at 8pm at Hartnell College, and the evening culminates with a 9:30pm dessert-and-coffee affair with the actors and director Richard Kuhlman, who got permission from the Steinbeck estate to adapt the novel to the stage.
"The play is about guys who live by their own values and own set of rules and are kind of insulted by money and the assumption that you would want to live your life any other way," explains Kuhlman. Most of the characters and cast are Mexican-American, including a trio of acting brothers from Salinas, an arrangement that stands in sharp contrast to the 1949 film version of Tortilla Flat starring Spencer Tracy and Heddy Lamar, which, as Kuhlman says, "was kind of a disservice to the story, with a bunch of white guys speaking in fake Spanish accents."
Among the creative challenges Kuhlman faced was how to portray a pack of wild dogs on stage. Ultimately, he decided to have the same six actors play the tribe of homeless men, group of children, and pack of dogs. Besides the amusement of the actors switching from kids to dogs to men, the play is funny (a poor family brags that their son has spent three years in the first grade) and packed with double-entendres.
"There''s a lot of sexuality and a lot of humor in it," Kuhlman says. "Steinbeck hinted at the sexuality, but to bring it to the stage, it can''t be so subtle; we''ve got a lot of making out and G-rated groping. Unfortunately, the women Steinbeck writes about are typically loose women, if they are not someone''s dear mother. Women''s parts are kind of limited, but we do have a lot of really excellent prostitutes, all madly in love with the lead character."
Hoping to shed some light on Steinbeck''s frequent portrayal of women as whores and ladies of low character, Mimi Gladstein, PhD, associate dean at University of Texas El Paso, offers "Women as Steinbeck''s Teachers," on Friday, August 3, from 9-10:15am.
"There is an inexplicable disjunct between the many capable, professional, active women he knew, respected, depended on, and loved in his life," she states, "and the mostly uneducated, non-professional--though often enduring-- women in his fiction. My presentation will cover the women who were his teachers during his formative years, from birth through his first marriage."
Among the festival''s other intriguing scholarly presentations are two on Saturday by Susan Shillinglaw, PhD, director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies and an English professor at San Jose State University. From 9-10:15am she presents "Steinbeck''s Family in Salinas," a history of Steinbeck''s family showing his relatives'' significance in his fiction. "Steinbeck was very attached to his parents and three sisters," Shillinglaw says. "To some extent, he is reinventing the family in his work. In Of Mice and Men, Lennie and George become a kind of family."
From 1:15-2:15pm, Shillinglaw introduces and shows Flight, a film based on a short story Steinbeck wrote about a young man fleeing after he commits murder in the Santa Lucia mountains.
"Flight is an initiation story that hinges on the whole idea of manhood and what makes a boy fully a man," Shillinglaw explains. "It''s quite an interesting film; it conveys Steinbeck''s feeling that a human needs to be understood in the context of their environment. Pepe is reduced to an animal state as he flees through the wilderness." Part of the film shows Steinbeck, who worked as a road laborer on Highway 1 during a summer off from Stanford, describing how the Central Coast inspired his work.
Too numerous to mention in detail are the festival''s other major attractions: the Saturday afternoon (2:30-3:45pm) "Steinbeck Remembered" presentation, which includes a dozen or more acquaintances of Steinbeck telling stories about him; Saturday night''s "Evening of Dinner and Dancing" (6:30pm-midnight); and Monterey Herald columnist Joe Livernois'' reading of a humorous story about Steinbeck and commercialism on Sunday morning. It may be hard to choose which to attend, but suffice it to say that on a weekend like this one, it''s going to be hard to miss.