Two weekends ago, my son donned a mask and long black cape and terrorized the inhabitants of his domain. He did this without remorse, without regret, attacking and killing those who threatened him, who threatened what he wanted and believed in…
My 26-year-old son did these things onstage as the Phantom of the Opera in Yeston & Kopit’s Phantom, but the fact that he was acting made it no less difficult to watch. I found myself empathizing with Erik, as this (superior) version of the story’s Phantom is named, and wishing for a way for him to “win” even though I knew in my heart that he couldn’t. Or could he? Anakin Skywalker was eventually redeemed, and I wonder if Kylo Ren ever will be?
Weston & Kopit’s Phantom is a very different telling of the familiar Andrew Lloyd Webber Phantom of the Opera tale. The latter is larger than life and mysterious, sad in his own way. Pathetic. But we don’t understand him, and as many times as I’ve seen that production, I don’t believe I’ve ever really felt compelled to try. This Phantom, however, is multi-layered and real, and he has a name by which he is referred both in the program and onstage. This phantom isn’t just a monster with a great costume and magnificent singing voice; this phantom is an everyman who was born with a hideous facial deformity that dictates his life. This Phantom is also a son. Played by my only son.
My boy has a knack for some of the more gut-wrenching roles out there. Though he’s played some good guys over the years and played them well, he has also played a few larger-than-life villains: Gaston in Beauty and the Beast as well as a slew of dark Disney characters, Javert in Les Miserables, Father in Ragtime who may not be a villain, per se, but was painted as one in my son’s recent national tour, and now the tragic Erik, the Phantom (currently playing at Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster, PA!). Perhaps it was the mask he wore without my seeing a glimpse of his full, handsome face, but more than once, I thought of two onscreen mothers whose sons did unspeakable things while hiding behind masks.
Shmi Skywalker died believing her son to be a hero. She only knew him briefly as handsome, beautiful Anakin, but we know that her death was at least part of the impetus for Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side. It makes perfect sense that Anakin committed his first acts of evil while he was still beautiful, a nod to the tragedy of his turn.
When we think of Anakin committing his first sins before the mask, it is even more interesting that Kylo Ren chose the mask without the physical need. Why? It’s clear that he admires his grandfather in a sad, twisted way, but what did he admire Darth Vader for, exactly? Did he really admire his grandfather’s evil, and that’s why he chose a similar costume? Perhaps it was to hide from his mother, Leia. And what about the change of name? Did Ben choose a new name for his Dark self because he didn’t need to cover a physical deformity? Did he simply think it was cool? I’m anxious to find out.
Which function does a mask serve, really? Does it cover infirmity of some sort, whether it is physical (Anakin and Erik, the Phantom) or emotional alone (Kylo Ren)? Or does it do more to spotlight the individual? I thought long and hard about this while watching my son perform Phantom. Would the world have been so unaccepting of his assumed ugly visage if his father had never covered it? Many people would still cringe at the sight of him, but others would come to know and understand him just as he is. Think: Vanessa in Deadpool. How about Anakin? His need for the mask is life-sustaining, but it is also larger-than-life. It’s worth noting that the apparatus that the Emperor chooses for Darth Vader is imposing. I’ve never thought that the black suit is standard burn victim gear, have you?
What about Kylo Ren’s mask? He actually scares me more without the mask, the intensity of his stare and breadth of his emotions on full display. Ben wears no mask as he brutally murders his father. With it, he seems more like a Darth Vader wannabe. Without it, we can see the evil reflected in his face. And what of Leia? She never seems to acknowledge Kylo Ren. To her, that person is Ben, first and foremost. Her sweet boy. Her son. Why else would she ask Han to bring him home? Clearly he has killed a lot of people, but she must see through the muck of the evil he’s done to the Light she believes to remain in his soul. That’s how I felt about the Phantom as I watched my son portray him. I’m sure that’s also why I understand Anakin no matter how cruel he is as Darth Vader. In spite of the muck and the masks, there is Light hiding underneath.
So many characters we know and love wear masks. They hide identities and deformities, passion and pain. In the cases of Anakin, Ben, and Erik, would they be better understood if they never wore masks, no matter how “ugly” they appear? Perhaps if they had risked it, they would truly know the power of unconditional love.
We all wear masks from time to time. What makes you put on yours? Let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org
*** Have to throw this out there… After reading this entry, my son texted me and told me that one day after the show recently, someone recognized him and said, “Man, you are like Kylo Ren!” Perfect. 🙂 ***
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