Monday, February 14, 2011

Struggling To Overcome Patriarchal Roadblocks

Ever since 2010's midterm election, the scorn and disrespect shown by conservatives toward minorities and women has grown at an astounding pace. On Super Bowl Sunday, when President Obama sat down for an interview with Bill O'Reilly, the President's civility and restraint in the face of 42 interruptions in 15 minutes from Fox's troglodytic pundit was astonishing. Even the usually unflappable comedian Bill Maher described the experience as astoundingly disrespectful, telling MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell that:
"I just feel like the most difficult part of his job must be to squelch the rage that somewhere must be inside and say, I'm the President of the United States. You don't talk to me like this. I'm not some left -- I'm not Al Sharpton, you know. I won this job. And Bill O'Reilly, who claims he's such a patriot? How unpatriotic to treat a President that way! How does that look to other countries when you're interrupting and belittling?"
No sooner had the 112th Congress gone into session than, instead of delivering on their promises to create jobs, Speaker John Boehner led Republicans in an assault on women's reproductive rights and a severely misguided attempt to redefine rape. New York's Senator Kirsten Gillibrand didn't waste any time calling out Republicans for their slimy tactics.

Those of us who live in supposedly enlightened communities (where women are seen as an integral part of the work force that deserves equal pay for equal work) can easily forget the conditions that sparked the suffragette movement and helped the women's movement to gain strength and momentum during the 20th century. I certainly didn't expect to be reminded of events that might have contributed to the American women's movement on Super Bowl Sunday in the deserted downtown district of Martinez, California. But I'm grateful to Eric Inman, the Artistic Director of the Willows Theatre Company, for giving me that reminder in a most unusual format.

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On August 21, 1986, an overproduced, overwritten musical named Rags opened at New York's Mark Hellinger Theatre after 18 previews. The pedigree of the show's creative team was most impressive.

Poster art for the Willows Theatre production of Rags

What could possibly go wrong? In a word, everything (the show closed after four performances). In his review for The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote:
"Rags wants to cover so much ground that there isn't time for people who don't pull their thematic weight. The show recklessly tries to encapsulate the concerns of Henry Roth's ''Call It Sleep,'' Abraham Cahan's ''Rise of David Levinsky'' and Jerome Weidman's ''I Can Get It for You Wholesale.'' It earnestly attempts to touch on everything from the heyday of the Yiddish theater to the birth of the I.L.G.W.U., the origins of ethnic machine politics, the conflicts between first- and second-wave immigrants, the advent of feminism, and the virtues of both Marxism and capitalism. The milieu may be melting-pot America, but the show itself is a stewpot in which the multitudinous ingredients either cancel or drown each other out.

Perhaps inspired by his subject or by the presence of Miss Stratas, Mr. Strouse has really stretched himself here. Evoking composers as diverse as Joplin, Sousa, Weill, and Gershwin, he uses his music to dramatize the evolution of a vernacular American pop music, much of it fostered by immigrant Jews during the period in which Rags is set. Sometimes Mr. Strouse's ambitions run away with him, and sometimes he retreats from his own scheme to Broadway basics (as in a pandering Act II comic duet for a flirtatious middle-aged couple). Still, this music is worthy of further hearing -- doubly so when the star is expressing the churning excitement of a heady new urban experience in fragrant songs like 'Brand New World' and 'Blame It on the Summer Night.'"
Although a studio recording was made in 1991 (in which Julia Migenes replaced Stratas in the lead role), the show was heavily rewritten for subsequent productions by the American Jewish Theatre in New York, the Colony Theatre Company in Los Angeles, The Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, and New Jersey's famous Papermill Playhouse.

Rebecca Hershkowitz (Teressa Byrne) befriends Bella Cohen
(Nicole Frydman) as they travel across the Atlantic Ocean in Rags

It took a lot of guts for the tiny Willows Theatre Company to tackle such an epic story in the Campbell Theatre in downtown Martinez. Much to my amusement, the theatre's bar menu included the following specialty drinks:

In his director's note, Eric Inman writes:
"As I began my work on the show, I wanted to bring an intimate and sober look at a dark period of our history that inspired hope. Rags is not so much a drama, comedy, or tragedy, but a historical piece of theatre. The story is set within what seems like a year of these two women's lives, yet covers over 20 years of historical events. Tonight you will encounter the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Ellis Island, Tammany Hall politics, Emma Goldman's influence, and one of the greatest union strikes of American labor history. This is the most recent revised version of the show. Many characters have changed, songs have been added and subtracted. What stays constant throughout all the revisions are the haunting melodies and the passion of two women fighting to make their place in the world."

Rebecca Hershkowitz (Teressa Byrne), her son
David (Elliott Carr), and friend Bella Cohen (Nycole Frydman)
adjust to life in America in Rags.

One can't help but look at Rags in the shadow of Ragtime, the 1996 musical based on E. L. Doctorow's novel that was directed by Frank Galati (eight years after he adapted John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath, for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company). Ragtime boasted a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.

What becomes obvious from listening to even a pared-down version of Rags is that its creative team simply bit off more than they could chew and the team that subsequently worked on Ragtime had better luck with similar material. While certain musical numbers from Rags remain strong ("Easy For You," "Blame It On The Summer Night," "Three Sunny Rooms") one can't escape the nagging feeling that Charles Strouse may not have been the best composer to tackle this piece.

Many moments in Rags cue uncomfortable comparisons to shows that handled similar moments with far greater success (The Pajama Game, Fiorello, Little Me, Fiddler on the Roof). The small Willows cast worked hard to make the show work, especially Teressa Byrne as Rebecca Hershkowitz, Nicole Frydman as Bella Cohen, Nick Tarabini as Ben, Benjamin Pither as Saul, and Linda Sciacqua as Rachel.

One of the more telling moments in the script, however, comes when Rebecca and Bella realize that, although they fled pogroms in Russia and managed to survive the voyage across the Atlantic to New York, as long as they are dominated by the patriarchal traditions of their immigrant community, they can never be free. While Bella's death under horrendous working conditions in a sweatshop like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory offers a stern reminder of how far the women's rights movement has come, a new play by Theresa Rebeck reminds us that, as a society, we still have miles to go before we sleep.

Rebecca Hershkowitz (Teressa Byrne) comforts
Bella Cohen (Nicole Frydman) in Rags.

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In March of 2010 I attended a reading of a new play by Rebeck about sexism in the workplace. What, at the time, seemed like it was almost ready for a full stage production has since been fine-tuned into the raucously rude and hilarious show that received its world premiere at the Magic Theatre last Wednesday night. With only one cast change, the show has become tighter, sharper, and even more biting than it was at last year's reading.

Stu (Warren David Keith) Photo by: Jennifer Reiley

"What We're Up Against" is one of the stock phrases used by Stu (Warren David Keith), an aging alcoholic and highly misogynistic architect, who deeply resents the presence of intelligent women in his workplace. Stu feels he's been tricked by Eliza (Sarah Nealis), who was hired by David, the firm's CEO (who, not so coincidentally, is married to the boss's daughter).

The hard truth is that Eliza was hired because she is easily eight times smarter than the male architects at the firm and hungry for a chance to work and prove herself. What she runs into is a patriarchal culture in which all the men on staff are constantly jockeying for positions of power without ever really bothering to do any decent architectural work. The one woman in the office, Janice (Pamela Gaye Walker), is the female version of an Uncle Tom figure. The one man who actually understands Eliza's potential is Ben (Rod Gnapp), who is so fixated on solving a problem with some ducts in the remodeling of a shopping mall that he can think barely think of anything else.

Ben (Rod Gnapp) and Weber (James Wagner)
Photo by: Jennifer Reiley

Rebeck's script doesn't pull any punches. Her language is as coarse and salty as anything heard in a locker room. Her men feel severely threatened by the idea of someone getting ahold of them by their balls and are quick to label any intelligent member of the opposite sex as a manipulative bitch or a conniving cunt.

Eliza's predicament stems from the fact that she's been stuck in a converted broom closet and not allowed to work on any projects while Weber (James Wagner), the office's new golden boy (who was hired after Eliza) seems to be getting assigned to choice projects. An aggressive woman with a combative personality, Eliza doesn't mind getting down and dirty with the guys to get what she wants. Rest assured, her behavior scares the shit out of the male power structure in the firm.

Janice (Pamela Gaye Walker) and Eliza (Sarah Nealis)
Photo by: Jennifer Reiley

While What We're Up Against is aimed squarely at the high levels of sexism among people who are supposed to be judged on the merit of their professional skills and output, Rebeck's script surprisingly shadows the kind of Kabuki theatre we've witnessed between entrenched Southern white conservatives in Congress and Barack Obama, the black man who isn't about to ask them for their permission to do anything.

Loretto Greco has directed What We're Up Against with her usual keen eye for nuances in body language, nervous pauses, and assumptions of professional entitlement. G. W. Mercier's sleek unit set takes a minimalist approach to creating an office environment so that, just by having some stagehands cross the upstage area that serves as an office hallway, one gets the impression this is a firm where "important work" should be getting done.

What We're Up Against continues at the Magic Theatre through March 6 (you can order tickets here). Don't miss it!

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