A few years ago, when moviegoers in this country were just beginning to
learn about Abbas Kiarostami, I heard a crowd of New Yorkers berate him
for having put a snatch of Vivaldi onto a soundtr
At the Brooklyn Academy of Music this month, the Harvey Theater reclaims
its original name--the Majestic--with the arrival of director Sam
Mendes's beautiful renderings of Chekhov's Uncle Va
The great disparity in the critical reaction to Caryl Churchill's Far Away, now playing Off Broadway, serves to remind us that opinions are just that--neither right nor wrong, but rather we
Tom Stoppard's 'Coast of Utopia'
I don't know if it's some childhood image left over from Victory at
Sea or from a book of pictures my uncle brought back from the
service, but when I think about the war in the Pacific, I see pink
cumulus clouds piled high, one upon another, on the decks of aircraft
carriers. It's not the iconic image of violent battle that usually represents the war, but my imagination seems to be
telling me that the iconic images aren't the whole story, that serenity
and beauty coexisted alongside the bloodshed and were a large part of
the day-to-day reality of the war.
It's for similar reasons that I think the nitty-gritty details of life
near Ground Zero as presented in one of the first theatrical responses
to 9/11, comic monologist Reno's Rebel Without a Pause, appeal to
me so. They provide relief from the media's iconic packaging, which has
been beamed at us ever since the attack on the Trade Towers and the
(rarely mentioned) Pentagon attack.
With a deluge of energy, Reno, who lived near the towers from 1981,
relates what it was like in lower Manhattan "that gorgeous day." She
recreates the clicking sound, like the noise an old machine gun would
make, that was the sound of the floors collapsing into one another. She
exhibits dismay at the total absence of Conelrad and the Emergency
Defense System. ("Maybe this wasn't enough of an emergency.") She
tells a story about finding her ATM emptied out at 9 am and the bank
refusing to open its doors so customers could get their money.
But mostly it's the human reactions to catastrophe that are so
wonderful, so wildly hilarious. The rumors that the terrorists are holed
up with machetes in a macrobiotic restaurant on Prince Street; people
rushing home to have their televisions validate what they'd just seen
with their own eyes; and what Reno calls the "hierarchical bragging
rights of pain and knowledge"--New Yorkers one-upping each other over
what they knew and what they'd suffered.
Reno's warnings about changes in constitutional protections make for a
very disturbing second half of her monologue, though she herself doesn't
seem to fear the new spy agency powers: She gives voice to her every
political thought, no matter how out there it is. She points out how
cheaply reporters have been won over by chummy Don Rumsfeld, and she
contemplates Henry Kissinger being arrested for war crimes. Reno even
suggests that Florida be allowed to float down to Uruguay, "where all
the other fascists are."
She also reveals some interesting facts, like ones you find in this
magazine but not in the major media. For instance, Hamid Karzai, the new
president of Afghanistan, used to work for Unocal. And this from Frank
Lindh, who saw the show the night before I did: FBI agents treated his
son kindly because even they knew "he was a hapless kid."
After a while, I began feeling the tingle of what I hope was just my own
paranoia (although as I learned the last time--when Watergate lanced the
Nixonian pustule--paranoia can be a very accurate predictor of reality).
Reno talks about what is being done to our civil liberties in the
context of Christian fundamentalist influence on this Administration. At
342 pages, the USA Patriot Act, she suggests, wasn't written in the days
after 9/11, and the Padilla case has clearly crossed the line of
innocent until proven guilty. She builds a picture of how really
extremist the Bush people are and how far to the right the President has
taken the country. So far, in fact, that Colin Powell is the "Communist
of this Administration."
Such points may be made with laughter, but Reno brings a fierceness to
her criticisms and an urgency to her concerns about the current
Administration that we are only beginning to see in the big world, and
then over financial wheeler-dealering and privilege, not civil liberties
and constitutional guarantees.
You will walk away from Reno with a clear sense that the changes aren't
minor, and they won't fall only on bad guys and enemies. It's a real
turning point: Democracy is up for grabs.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe's free summer show, Mr. Smith Goes to
Obscuristan, likewise treats the aftermath of 9/11. In it,
Condoleezza Rice (Velina Brown) and Dick Cheney (Cheney lookalike Ed
Holmes) seek to sell the Bush presidency as an Administration that cares
about democracy, not profits, and so devise a plan to send 9/11
firefighter Jeff Smith (the always wonderful Michael Gene Sullivan) to
oversee the first free election in the Central Asian, formerly Soviet,
republic of Obscuristan. The winner of this contest is certain to be
warlord and privatizer Automaht Regurgitov (Victor Toman), since he is
the only candidate. That is, until the oppositionist Ralif Nadir (Amos
Glick) throws his hat into the ring, arguing that "people should vote
their hearts, not their fears." (Of course, had one or two percent of
Florida's Nader voters forsworn that advice, the Mime Troupe wouldn't
have a Bush Administration to satirize.)
(Or would they?)
Smith, who has been kept ignorant by outfits like SNN, the Selective
News Network, believes America wants freedom for everyone. He is,
however, disillusioned when it becomes clear that there is oil in
Obscuristan and that the Administration's real interest is that
Regurgitov win, since he will insure the atmosphere necessary for US
investment. Smith then sets out to prove that the ordinary American
doesn't want to screw Obscuristan over, and by the end of the day
rescues Nadir, who was kidnapped and branded a terrorist. He also helps
bring an SNN reporter and the US ambassador over to the side of a fair
shake for Obscuristan.
The Mime Troupe hits many of the right points: that energy sources are a
major factor in our involvement in Central Asia, for instance, and that
much of the weaponry in the area was originally supplied by the CIA. And
they raise questions about just how free our own elections are. Given
that, I was left pondering why Mr. Smith seemed so tepid and not
particularly funny compared with Rebel Without a Pause. It's
doubly strange given that the Mime Troupe brought in the usually very
funny monologist, independent filmmaker and former Nation intern
Josh Kornbluth (Red Diaper Baby and Haiku Tunnel) to help
write the script.
The difference is, I think, that Reno articulates things you hadn't
thought about, or says things you may have thought a lot about, but in
ways that create the old shock of recognition. As when she says, "The
people of Missouri were so worried about Ashcroft making decisions, they
voted for the dead guy."
There are moments like that in Mr. Smith. Barbara Bush (Ed Holmes
again, this time in a gray wig and pearls) explains the rules of the oil
game to George W., and the whole facade of her Betty Crockerdom smacks
right up against her tough capitalist intelligence. This is a Barbara
Bush who says, "Never send a member of the working class to do an
aristocrat's job." But such moments are rare. For the most part, the
Mime Troupe's most incisive statements, such as "Only an American would
confuse a fixed election with a real one" or "Welcome to democratic
nations like Saudi Arabia who protect human rights," simply restate our
perceptions or are so bitterly ironic that a lot of the laughter I heard
Given that the source of the satire is Capra's populist classic, Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington, I think the Mime Troupe missed a real
opportunity to have us question ourselves by asking, Who is Mr. Smith
and what is he about? In the mythos of Mime Troupe plays, the ordinary
American is decent and fair, and in every respect there's a lot of
daylight between him and the ruling class, and therefore between us and
what our government does in our name. The Mime Troupe believes that like
Jeff Smith, the ordinary American has been kept in ignorance by the
media, and that if he only knew what was really going on, he would rise
up and change things.
That conveniently ignores the fact that ordinary Americans are of many
minds, and that many of us do understand that our comfort is based on
the deprivation (and worse) of people in other parts of the world. So
then, you have to ask whether we feel we can't do anything about it or
whether we don't want to. How much is the ordinary American willing to
give up to see people elsewhere get a larger slice of the pie?
And what is the usefulness of a mythos of unquestioned fairness and
decency, and in this play, as in other Mime Troupe efforts, of a sellout
who regains her soul and of a decisive victory over the people's
enemies? It's positive, but does it send us out of the park feeling
hopeful and intent on action? Or do we feel that a lot of what we
witnessed was too simple and fantastic?
The appeal in Mr. Smith is ultimately to idealism, to looking out
for the other guy and doing the right thing. Reno, on the other hand,
talks about self-interest: that we are losing our rights and that some
of us were slaughtered. "The [US] government," she says, "created the
mujahedeen that came to my town and killed us." That seems a much
stronger motive for action.
Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan will be performed through Labor Day
in various Northern California locales (415-285-1717 or www.sfmt.org).
Rebel Without a Pause played a week at the Brava Theater Center
in San Francisco in June and went on to an extended run at the Lion
Theater on 42nd Street in New York City.
Although Chicano identity has been Luis Valdez's theme since all but the
earliest years of El Teatro Campesino, the guerrilla theater he founded
in the 1960s, getting a clear sense of his roots became doubly important
to him when his parents died in the mid-1990s. Valdez, the first Latino
playwright/director to reach Broadway and the creator of the bellwether Hispanic film Zoot Suit, had always been told his people were Yaquis from Sonora in northern Mexico, but he realized he knew very little about how they had
come to be California Chicanos.
So, in the late 1990s, he began to search his family's history and its
secrets, and what he discovered about the myths and contradictory
stories that had been handed down and about the little-known history of
the Yaqui wars in Mexico led him to write Mummified Deer, in some
ways his most personal play and his first new work for the theater in a
decade and a half (just ending its run at El Teatro Campesino in San
Juan Bautista). It's a play that uses the mythic, presentational
elements we've come to associate with Valdez's work, here present in a
Yaqui deer dancer, who together with the long arm of history defines
identity for the play.
Valdez founded El Teatro Campesino as an organizing and fundraising arm
of the United Farm Workers during the 1965 grape strike in Delano, where
he was born. The actors then were strikers who played type characters in
actos, short satirical sketches on strike issues performed at
work sites and in union halls.
But since splitting off from the union in 1967, the company has made
Chicano racial identity its focus. In the late 1960s and early '70s,
that specifically meant spiritual identity, with the theater reaching
all the way back to La Raza's Aztec and Mayan roots and making ritual
and myth, music and dance integral parts of its style.
Valdez was criticized at the time for abandoning the theater's
materialist viewpoint, and was criticized later in the decade and in the
1980s--when the entertainment industry began to understand the potential
of the Hispanic market--for his unabashed attempt to move into
commercial theater and filmmaking with Zoot Suit. Valdez's
response was that it was time for Chicanos to assume their place in the
mainstream and that separatism had been just a necessary phase that
prepared them to do so without losing their sense of identity. But it
was also clear that the young men in Zoot Suit had to reject that
aspect of pachuquismo, that very attractive, very essential part
of their identity as Chicanos, that was disruptive of society and
Lack of commitment to cultural authenticity seemed confirmed--certainly
to Latino actors who protested--in 1992 when Valdez attempted to cast
Laura San Giacomo, an actress with something of a bankable name but also
an Italian ancestry, as Frida Kahlo in the movie he was trying to make
about the artist. Valdez argued that the compromise was necessary to get
Hollywood to do movies with Hispanic protagonists at all and that the
movie would offer a picture of Latino life that was not gang- or
drug-based, i.e., nonstereotypical and presumably positive.
Maybe it's just the difficulty of a Chicano writer/director making
headway in the commercial world, but in truth, it's difficult seeing
Valdez as lost leader, as someone who's abandoned his roots, in San Juan
Bautista, the mission town where Mummified Deer has been playing
in a theater Valdez built out of a fruit-packing shed. By no means as
far off the beaten track as Glover, Vermont, where Bread and Puppet
escaped city life in the 1970s, it's still a small rural town a long way
from entertainment capitals and city attitudes.
The style of Valdez's new play also points to continuity. And for the
most part the inspired stylistic innovations that radical theaters
excelled in--in Mummified Deer for instance, a hospital bed
that's transformed into a train laden with Mexican
revolutionaries--still work their magic in Valdez's hands. The sudden
release of concentrated imagination thrills. But even when they don't
work, when they now seem more a part of tradition than vital and
expressive, their mere presence, like the continued earnest tone of his
writing in our smug, cynical time, suggests that Valdez hasn't
jettisoned the past.
In any event, the story itself makes it clear that roots are not easily
cut off. On a simple series of platforms, marked with what seem to be
petroglyphs and hung with plastic sheets that make the set look like an
ice cave--poor theater after all these years!--Mama Chu, a fierce,
84-year-old family matriarch, lies on a hospital bed, suffering from
abdominal pains. When the cause of her condition is diagnosed not as
cancer but as a mummified fetus that has been lodged in her womb for
sixty years, her granddaughter Armida, an anthro grad student at
Berkeley who's in search of the truth about her mother's life, begins to
pierce the maze of myths and half-truths that have made up Chu's story
and the family's history.
Along the way, secrets are revealed about paternity, incest and
migration. The ultimate source of these secrets and family myths isn't,
however, as in many plays, personal pathology. The half-truths and
inventions all proceed from a historic cause: the little-known Yaqui
genocide at the hands of Porfirio Diaz and the Federales, which capped
four centuries of little-known Yaqui resistance to European
In the end, it turns out that none of Chu's children as they're
presented in the play are hers. Her children were all taken away
and murdered in the genocide. She gathered Armida's mother, aunt and
uncle to her to fill the void. (The horrific description of the mass
slaughter alone insures that this play is not going very far into the
Powerful, serious material. And Valdez doesn't always treat it
reverentially, as many lesser playwrights would. The introduction of a
kind of grotesque humor makes it all the more powerful at times. As when
Aunt Oralia (Rosa Escalante) wonders, "Can't you just yank that little
sucka [the dead fetus] out?" or Uncle Profe explains the incest by
saying simply, "We were always very close."
To his credit, Valdez doesn't treat the Chicano family reverentially,
either. He understands that they can be quite conservative even though
they've been victims (or because they've been victims). He satirizes
them and creates a number of characters that, like the satirical figures
of the actos, are one-dimensional types. With an Oralia, that
works to project a sense of how self-protective she is about the past,
but this is ultimately a play of terrible family secrets, and having the
weight of those secrets fall on an Armida who is little more than a plot
mechanism and Berkeley-activist-type blunts the force of the drama.
It's not simply a matter of an uneven cast, one that ranges all the way
from the very adept and realistic Daniel Valdez (Uncle Profe) to
Estrella Esparza (Armida), who can barely make the words her own. It's
also the writing and the way Valdez as director has the characters
played. As director, he also pitches a number of the performances very
high. An actress like Alma Martinez, who plays Mama Chu, can obviously
change gears on a dime and sketch in a reaction or attitude with the
flick of a hand, but Valdez pushed her performance hard and makes it
vocally very forceful, as if constantly to remind us what a powerful
woman this is. The result is a lack of nuance, variety and sympathy that
sent me fleeing to quieter characters like Uncle Profe and Armida's
mother, Agustina (Anita Reyes).
Then too, the revelations about the past are far too complicated,
there's too much information coming at you generally, and what exactly
the deer dancer represents is obscure. Also, the symbol of the mummified
fetus at times feels contrived. All of which makes it difficult to take
in and feel comfortable with what Valdez is apparently going for in his
continuing exploration of what he understands to be a continually
evolving Chicano identity. That is, the sense that Chu's finally
confronting the Yaqui genocide results in her forgoing an operation and
keeping the fetus, which is an incarnation of both an indio past that is
dead and gone and a living Yaqui spirit that--bypassing the acquiescent
and self-deluding generation of aunt and uncle--Chu passes on to her
Occasionally in the murky wasteland of Broadway, where nostalgia reigns
and revivals rule, the hopeful theatergoer is led to an oasis advertised
as fertile enough to water the desert. Suzan-Lori Parks's
Topdog/Underdog, which has just won the Pulitzer Prize, is one of
these. Even if its success were to be
measured solely by the numbers of young people and black people, both
young and old, in the audience on any given night, Topdog could
be considered a healthy sign. Parks has been writing praise-winning
plays since the 1980s, but Topdog, which premiered last year at
the Public Theater, is the first one to make it to Broadway. For a play
by Parks it is uncharacteristically conventional--a straightforward
story with familiar characters that comes close to observing the
classical unities. Her earlier plays, such as The Death of the Last
Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Fucking A and The
American Play, are bold, disconcerting experiments in theatrical
form. But Topdog is more remarkable in some ways because it
unleashes the radical potential inside the well-made play.
Booth and Lincoln, two African-American brothers in their 30s, share an
SRO where all the action takes place. The time is a few days in some
city probably in the 1960s. The period, like the location, is
deliberately vague enough to warn us off the issue beat. This is not
social realism, even if it looks a little bit like it. Lincoln, the
elder brother, was once a legendary three-card monte dealer. He left the
game after his partner was shot, and has been working as a whiteface
Abraham Lincoln impersonator in an arcade. Customers can re-enact the
sixteenth President's last moments by stealing up behind the costumed
Linc and firing a cap gun into his skull. Legitimate work, maybe, but
humiliating from the point of view of little brother Booth, who hopes,
with Lincoln's help, to get himself into the street game as a three-card
dealer. He wants the women and the money and the props that come with a
dealer's success. He can move his mouth and he can move his body. He's
just no good moving his hands.
Lincoln, former master of this street hustle, is the topdog. As superbly
performed by Jeffrey Wright, he is sly, sometimes robotic and
calculating, all knowingness, drink and disappointment. Booth, played by
rap artist and actor Mos Def, the other half of the most thrilling duo
on Broadway, is the antic underdog--a self-deluded, sweetly homicidal
baby. We know, given their names, how they will end up. This is not the
The game is the point. Both brothers are trying to follow the moves in
their family history, looking for a clue to the winning card; they each
sense--but can't quite see--a pattern as formal and controlling as the
one in the game. Their father gave them these ridiculous names as a
joke. If their life is a game, it's one their parents quit when the boys
were still teenagers: First the mother moved on, and then, as if by some
mysterious prior agreement, the father vanished. (If this were a
strictly realistic piece, some of this retelling of family history might
sound slightly off. Nevertheless...) The brothers are still in the game.
Their moves may have been determined by some destiny or joke, but their
language flows. Parks writes dialogue so vigorous and beautiful and
hilarious you'd almost think these men were free. Lincoln has more lines
and better ones, but Mos Def's strutting, styling Booth is language made
The vivid exchanges between the brothers are punctuated by the dealer's
hypnotic, mechanical patter. Lincoln's is loose and hypnotic, Booth's
mechanical and jerky:
Lincoln: Lean in close and watch me now: who see thuh black card who see
the black card I see thuh black card black cards thuh winner pick thuh
black card that's thuh winner pick the red card that's thuh loser pick
thuh other red card that's thuh other loser pick thuh black card you
pick thuh winner.
Every time the patter appears, the relationship between the brothers is
slightly revised. Like the shabby set by Riccardo Hernandez, which
undergoes minor transformations that softly indicate rearrangements in
power and psychology, these improvisations are small, but they are all
the latitude these two men have been given. In addition to relying on
sleight of hand, three-card monte works by creating confusion about what
is real and what is part of the game. The dealer always has his shills
who work the crowd by seeming to be part of it; he usually pretends to
be reluctant to throw the cards. The question of what's real requires
some careful thinking, as Linc is wise enough to point out to his
heedless brother: "First thing you learn is what is. Next thing you
learn is what ain't. You don't know what is you don't know what ain't,
you don't know shit."
It's important to stress that as audience members, we often don't know
shit. We don't know when Linc is playing for real and when he is conning
his brother by letting him pick correctly. But Linc is being played too,
and soon enough the game slams shut on both brothers.
Theater pieces have been made from games like this since the
Renaissance. They appeal to audiences, and especially to critics,
because they invite us to indulge in the kind of metaphorical musings
that make us feel connected and smart. But Parks has always insisted
that her work must be immune to such readings. In interviews, where she
is either faux-na*f or simply exasperated with the press ritual that
accompanies every production ("I'm less interested in 'meaning,'
whatever that word means? I'm not quite sure, I keep meaning to look up
meaning"), she sensibly tries to redirect attention to what is going on
between the people in her play. And one of the pleasures of
Topdog is that it doesn't give us any time to work in our
"issues." George C. Wolfe has directed the play with a swift, inevitable
momentum that keeps us trying and failing to keep up with the winning
card. Like his work with other strong playwrights like Tony Kushner and
Anna Deavere Smith, Topdog's staging has none of the
tendentiousness he laid on Jelly's Last Jam or Bring in da
Noise. This is not August Wilson or Athol Fugard or Tom Stoppard. If
Parks has a black man in white face, she has a black man in white face.
If there is a game of chance, there is a game of chance. Lean in close.
Watch the moves and turn off the metaphors. These lives are the shit you
don't know about. That's why you have to look close.
The power of our response to the murder we have been expecting at the
end of Topdog is thus more visceral than either awe or pity; if
we have been watching closely, we experience just how it went down. We
begin as spectators, like the crowd around the dealer and his sidemen
(to indulge in metaphor). If we look away long enough to worry about
meaning, we'll miss the moves and the game will vanish, as it does on
the street with the first sign of authority (to extend the metaphor).
But if we pay attention, we will be in the game when the final card is
thrown. I think this special kind of immediacy is what distinguishes
Parks's work, especially the more experimental pieces, which draw us in
through their language but keep us off-guard with their form. And I
suspect that having taken the trouble to create it, she is determined to
safeguard it against too much talk and interpretation, especially of the
what-this-means-about-African-American-theater/life variety. This is the
stuff. This is it.
Despite an initial drop in attendance in the uncertain aftermath of September 11, and the changing of the guard at three major institutions, the London theater scene has rebounded with determination. Across the Thames at the Royal National Theatre, there's a bracing revival of Harold Pinter's chilling No Man's Land. Considered his most enigmatic work (playwright Patrick Marber calls the play "unknowable"), it's the one that is least revived among his many celebrated plays (The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming). In fact, Peter Hall's original production of No Man's Land in 1975 at the National, starring Ralph Richardson as Hirst and John Gielgud as Spooner, was so widely praised that only Pinter himself ventured to take on the role of Hirst thereafter.
Today, after twenty-six years, this darkly powerful play returns to the RNT under the author's direction, and the moonscape of Pinterland has never seemed starker. Critics have hailed its masterful cast, with Corin Redgrave and John Wood giving tour de force performances as Hirst, the debauched writer, and Spooner, the destitute poet he's met in a pub on Hampstead Heath and taken home to his elegant digs in a desperate search for companionship. There, Spooner is imprisoned in Hirst's sepulchral study by a pair of sinister servants, where Hirst invites him into an elaborate fantasy that they were once Oxford schoolmates. The scene of outrageous self-delusion--with Redgrave delivering one of Pinter's most mesmerizing monologues--is hilarious. But ultimately, No Man's Land is a harrowing portrait of failure, loss of memory and the past--a Lear and his Fool on yet another heath, suffering the terrors of loneliness and old age. It's also about the inability to write, a fear that plagued Pinter himself in the early 1970s. This is a landmark production of an elusive masterpiece, a haunting, menacing piece of theater that Marber (director of the 2000 revival of The Caretaker, starring Michael Gambon) describes as "clear and lucid as a dream, and like a dream it resists our need to know its meaning.... I'm not entirely sure I know what's going on in No Man's Land. But I'm not sure I want to know."
The writer's fear is a theme of another revival in London's season as well--Faith Healer, by the Irish poet-playwright Brian Friel (Philadelphia, Here I Come!; Dancing at Lughnasa), which premiered at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1980 and is now being given a luminous production at the Almeida Theatre. This gentle, elegiac play features four monologues by three characters--Frank, an Irish faith healer, part charlatan, part artist, played with self-deprecating charm by Ken Stott (award-winning star of Yazmina Reza's Art); Grace, his ruined wife, played by Geraldine James (of the BBC's epic Jewel in the Crown); and Teddy, the seedy talent agent who loves them both, in a remarkable performance by Ian McDiarmid, Almeida's joint artistic director. These three characters narrate the story, Rashomon-style, of the faith healer's return to Ireland after years of fruitless one-night stands in Scotland and Wales (he once allegedly healed a group of ten), where he attempts to restore his faltering powers. There he meets his tragic end. Under the delicate direction of Jonathan Kent, a tattered curtain sweeps across an empty stage and works theatrical magic, wiping away one monologue, revealing the next, as these stories interweave into a tapestry of three lives touched by tragedy. Like the faith healer whose powers are fleeting (and, eventually, self-destructive), so too Friel raises questions about the unpredictability of the writer's gift. In the end, only the gift of faith itself (whether miracles happen or not) and steadfast love abide, as the powers that can heal lives and artists.
In the midst of these distinguished revivals, a combustible new work on stage at the RNT's Cottesloe Theatre has exploded like a stick of dynamite. Gagarin Way is the first play of a 32-year-old Scottish writer named Gregory Burke, introducing a raw new world to the English-speaking stage and placing new Scottish theater at the table alongside the Irish and the impressive young voices of Conor McPherson (The Weir) and Martin McDonagh (Beauty Queen of Leenane).
Newly arrived from the Traverse Theatre, where it was the hit of the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, Gagarin Way is a fierce black comedy set in the storeroom of a high-tech computer factory in the industrial Scottish county of Fife. A frustrated factory worker, Eddie, and a hapless security guard, Tom, await the arrival of Eddie's accomplice, Gary, who is executing a scheme to kidnap a visiting multinational executive. Gary arrives with their prey, who is bound and hooded, and as the would-be thugs ponder his fate, they enter into an outrageous philosophical debate on existentialism, globalization, Marxism, anarchy and nihilism to express their disillusionment. The opening discussion on the relationship between Sartre and Genet is especially memorable: "The last thing you need after a hard day's gibbering pish on the Left Bank about how we're all subjects among objects is finding out you're a subject among no as many objects now you've got fucking Jean Genet out ay the jail."
This is a ferociously funny satire of terrorism and its bungling misguidedness (they kidnap the wrong person; Gary refuses to buy bullets as a cost-saving measure)--which takes a sudden, horrific turn and ends in heart-stopping violence. Written in colorful (and profane) Scottish dialect, and directed at dangerous speed by John Tiffany, Gagarin Way is a riotous, unpredictable and ultimately frightening ninety-minute ride of powerful, provocative theater.
An interview in the Daily Telegraph described Burke as a "barely literate dishwasher from the back end of post-industrial Scotland who had never written so much as a postcard, and who had to have 'who Harold Pinter was' explained to him when they ran into each other during rehearsals." This makes the accomplishment of this young, self-educated, first-time playwright all the more striking. Burke comes from a corner of Scotland that was staunchly communist in the 1960s, where streets in the village of Lumphinnans were named after heroes like Yuri Gagarin (hence, the play's title)--a region that took its politics seriously, with its coal-miner strikes in the 1980s and struggles against multinationals in the 1990s. A "prolapsed Catholic," as he describes himself, Burke dropped out of Stirling University after two years and "fulfilled a variety of vital roles in the minimum-wage economy," washing factory floors, working on assembly lines, etc. "I wanted to write a play about economics, it being the dominant (only?) theme in modern politics, and the source of real power in our increasingly globalised times. And I wanted to write about men and our infinite capacity for self-delusion." An inveterate humorist and storyteller, a keen observer of human behavior and an astute political thinker, Burke--who wrote his play well before September 11--offers terrifying and timely insights into the psychosis of terrorism and obsessive political ideology. His is a new and unique voice, for unique times. A tempest has blown down from Scotland onto the London stage, reminding us that the theater can be a place of prescience and prophesy as well as entertainment.
For those who prefer dry martinis at the theater rather than Molotov cocktails, there's a sparkling revival of Private Lives at the Albery Theatre on Charing Cross Road. This delectable drawing-room comedy by Noel Coward, crown prince of the genre, premiered in the West End in 1930, starring Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, and then went on to Broadway in 1931. It was one of his most popular and widely produced plays; Coward attributed its lasting success to "irreverent allusions to copulation...causing a gratifying number of respectable people to queue up at the box office." This comedic gem (written, legend goes, in four feverish days holed up in a Shanghai hotel) is celebrated for its insights into marital manners and mores, as well as its scintillating dialogue ("Don't quibble, Sybil") and unparalleled wit (playwright Christopher Hampton praises its portrayal of "bickering as sex pursued by other means"). Currently, it is enjoying a sleek revival with the sophisticated duet of Allan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, under the smart direction of Howard Davies.
Another revival from that glittering era also graces the West End. Director Peter Hall has resurrected The Royal Family, the George Kaufman/Edna Ferber valentine to New York's roaring theatrical twenties. This delicious old chestnut evokes all the glamour of Broadway's famed 1927-28 season when it premiered, which also included Dracula (starring Bela Lugosi), the Gershwins' Funny Face (featuring Fred and Adele Astaire), Rodgers and Hart's A Connecticut Yankee, O'Neill's Strange Interlude, Helen Hayes in Coquette, Mae West in Diamond Lil and the Hammerstein/Kern Show Boat. Sir Peter's revival of The Royal Family is its first London production since Noel Coward's in 1930, when Laurence Olivier starred as the flamboyant Tony Cavendish. The Cavendishes are of course meant to be the Barrymores, the First Family of the American Theater, with its gifted siblings Ethel, John and Lionel (Drew, Hollywood's current Barrymore, is John's granddaughter). The colorful Cavendishes are played by members of Britain's own theatrical royalty--including the charismatic young Toby Stephens (son of Dame Maggie Smith) and the commanding Dame Judi Dench (whose performance in the newly released film Iris confirms her regal reputation). The star of this showbiz revival, however, is a golden era in the Broadway theater. There is also a bouquet of musicals, including the elaborate (if controversial) South Pacific at the RNT, directed by Trevor Nunn, in commemoration of the centennial of Richard Rodgers's birth. In the West End, there is the RNT's pleasing My Fair Lady starring Jonathan Pryce, and Peter Nichols's irreverent Privates on Parade (a musical satire on the postwar British military in the Far East) is diverting audiences at the cozy Donmar Warehouse (where the current Cabaret now playing in New York was born).
Challenging, moving or simply entertaining, it's a season of healing and faith in the theater.
There is a moment at the end of the hourlong monologue that constitutes Act I of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul when I realized I'd be happy to sit and listen to this mentally promiscuous, verbally curious London housewife (played so superbly by Linda Emond) for another two hours. Or more. Like many theatergoers, I was soon to wonder why her thrilling meditation on history, calamity and Afghanistan had to be followed by the events of Acts II and III, when the Homebody has vanished, leaving her husband, daughter, a British aid worker and various Afghans to play out their all too obviously caricatured lives. Kushner wrote the opening monologue as a stand-alone piece for the English stage, after all. Surely it could have been left at that.
Or could it? The problem, if we are to take this theater piece as something more than a dutiful twitch of political concern, is that the Homebody and her monologue require some consequence to her wandering thoughts. For one thing, these thoughts are way too winning, and Kushner, whose writing oozes charm like toothpaste from a tube, knows the dangers of charm. The woman is talking about suffering, after all. She is speaking to us from the security of her living room, safe in her culpable life, dilating on the most hopeless of catastrophes. And we are listening from the comfort of our theater seats. The setting is 1998 and the United States has just bombed supposed terrorist camps in Afghanistan, one more episode inflicted on a place that, as a character later comments, is not so much a country as a populated disaster. The Homebody wants to tell us about buying Afghan pakools as party hats for her guests, for God's sake. She needs to describe finding them on an unnamed London street in a shop run by a man who has had three of his fingers neatly severed by--well, by the mujahedeen, by the Russians, by the Northern Alliance, by, in short, the calamitous history of his country. She is not at all immune to the horrible dislocations that the hats may represent or to the transformation they can effect on her life, or to the corruption of culture into consumerist junk. She reads to us from Nancy Hatch Dupree's heartbreaking 1965 guidebook to Kabul, goes from there to the antidepressants she and her husband take, and on to infant mortality rates and back again to the guidebook. In between she serves up the many cast-off bits of knowledge left by history's losers that she treasures as important clues to understanding whatever it is she needs to understand. She loves the world; she makes all the connections. The act ends. As I say, dangerously charming because the question remains: What exactly does a person do when faced with a calamity of historic proportions? When we are so overwhelmed, she says, we succumb to luxury. Or to words.
Instead, she goes to Kabul. Thus the unlovely Acts II and III begin with the aftermath of this latter-day Clarissa Dalloway's disappearance. She may, following one local account, "have been torn apart to pieces" by an angry mob, or she may have traded places with Mahala, a Muslim woman, so that, according to her hilariously xenophobic husband (the superb Dylan Baker), who has set off with their daughter (Kelly Hutchinson) to find her, "she can spend the rest of her life in what must never have been more than a Himalayan bywater at the best of times, draped in parachute sheeting stirring cracked wheat and cardamom over a propane fire." The point is she's gone, and her family can't mourn her any more than we do. From now on there is nothing for them (or us) but the harshness of history, as daughter Priscilla and her guide (Dariush Kashani) search for her mother's body, while her father moves swiftly from whiskey to heroin holed up with Quango Twistelton (superbly played by Bill Camp), an aid worker left over from the great colonial joke. Even the gruelingly spare sets make you want to leave your seat.
The transition from the lonely housewife's antic mind playing upon the great and tiny themes of the opening to the Brechtian drama of the last two acts asks a lot of an audience, but Kushner is used to waging war on the way things "have to be" in the theater. It's one reason that, even without having a major play produced since 1992's Angels in America, he seems to be among its principal saviors right now. Angels, among other wayward things, ran to something like seven hours on two separate nights; its ambition was huge, and the result was a vast, chaotic kaleidoscope that managed to bring nothing less than an entire zeitgeist into momentary focus. Homebody/Kabul has big ambitions too, so it's not surprising that its author is willing to court our hostility in pursuit of them. One hallowed rule of stagecraft holds that after a play has established its contract with the audience, the rules of the game can't be changed. Homebody violates its contract by abandoning the character, mood, pace and manner of address that have brought us into the evening.
Thematically, the shift makes sense. As the father and daughter struggle to understand the Homebody's act, they are able, by the end, to move from their domestic hurt to the universal disaster of Afghanistan. It is a painful struggle--especially for the audience, who must wait a long time for these thin characters to, so to speak, get out of the house. The daughter, who suffers from the therapeutic malaise of her inarticulate generation, is particularly annoying. This seems a deliberate choice on Kushner's part, but it's hard not to wince whenever she opens her mouth. It surprised me at first that a playwright who rarely uses stereotypes without shedding some light on them, whose plays are literature on the page as well as the stage, has written a character so easy to dismiss. Her father is more appealing because he has the outlandish bigotry of his class; but he too is a stock figure, enlivened by Kushner's willingness to give him better lines than he deserves. These are the sleeping souls of the Homebody's world, unmoved by any pain but their own, so perhaps they need to be thin until the very end, when they are transformed by love and suffering and loss. But their journey is so arduous, and often so irritatingly melodramatic, that by the time the transformation comes, it has too little force. Whether some of this is a matter of the pacing in Declan Donnellan's directing, it's hard to say.
The mullahs, poets, prophets and especially Mahala, the errant Muslim wife (played so well by Rita Wolf), leaven the action even when they are speaking in untranslated Pashto, a risky theatrical device meant to increase our discomfort and confusion. The playwright's insistence that many of the characters speak over each other at crucial moments is less effective, even if we get the point of the Babel. I much preferred two running jokes about universal understanding: Priscilla's guide speaks and writes in Esperanto: "It is a language that has no history, and hence no history of oppression," he says. "A refugee patois. The mad dream of universal peace. So suitable for lamentation." A seller of hats and a former actor (Zai Garshi) speaks in the universal currency of Sinatra: "The Taliban, yes? They go to extremes with impossible dreams, yes? And so my record player is smashed and all each of the LPs of me, Popular Frank Sinatra Sings for Moderns slips through a door a door marked nevermore that was not there before. It is hard you will find to be narrow of mind." Witty lines on serious matters, reminding us that this playwright has not given up on the possibility that mainstream entertainment can address big issues, that serious politics arise out of very basic needs, that theater can be a force for transformation. The issues of Homebody/Kabul may be complex and irresolvable, but the dramatic mission is not. It's as simple as Brecht's response to an interviewer who once asked him what theater should do: "Try to discover the best way for people to live together," he said. How many living dramatists other than Tony Kushner would know how to begin to do that?