Sunday, April 7, 2013

Period Pieces

George Santayana is famous for stating that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Yet one of the great things about history is our ability to look back on it in wonder (or wonder as we look back on it):
  • What would it feel like to witness or participate in such events?
  • What would it be like if we could travel back in time to a specific moment and change the course of history?
  • Was there something else happening in the background that historians have never known?
While plays that are set in a time and place far removed from today are often referred to as "historical dramas," "period pieces," or "sand and sandal epics," the knowledge of different historical periods bestowed on us through paintings, sculpture, and literature allows us to have fun with history. Documentarian Peter Greenaway (who describes The Night Watch (1642)  as the fourth most famous painting in history) has created two films about Rembrandt van Rijn's famous painting.

Consider this flash mob that was staged to celebrate the reopening of the world-famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

The wonderful thing about planning an historical drama is that there are many ways of tackling the subject (some more historically accurate than others). Terrence McNally recent premiered Golden Age, which focuses on backstage intrigue surrounding the world premiere of Vincenzo Bellini's 1835 opera, I Puritani. And who could forget how Peter Shaffer's hit play, Amadeus (1979) not only shocked classical purists but  went on to intrigue audiences worldwide with Milos Forman's 1984 film adaptation.

The Rivalry is a play by Norman Corwin which uses the actual text of the historic debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Friedrich Schiller's play, Mary Stuart, included a confrontation scene between England's Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots (although the two women never actually met). This scene became a focal point of Donizetti's 1835 opera, Maria Stuarda (based on Schiller's play) in which Mary calls Elizabeth a "vile bastard."

What happens when young, contemporary playwrights decide to try their hand with historical dramas? Two recent Bay area productions offered tantalizing results showcasing a wealth of imagination.

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I had no idea what to expect from Eli Wirtschafter's new play, American Shakespeare Riot, which was presented by the UC-Berkeley Department of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies in its black box theatre below Zellerbach Hall. A research fellowship allowed the playwright (who credits David Henkin's class on Antebellum America as deeply helpful) to spend a year researching the events and the period which shape this rowdy dramedy (billed as "a fictional play drawn from history").

Eli Wirtschafter in the Shotgun Players'
production of The Road To Hades

Because the playwright's program note is so deliciously entertaining, I will quote it in its entirety:
"In 1849, two rival actors played Macbeth on the same fateful night in New York. William Macready, the eminent English tragedian, and Edwin Forrest, the first American stage star. Ten thousand people gathered outside the Astor Place Opera House, demanding their 'right to hiss' Macready."
William Macready as Macbeth
"The militia, summoned to protect the theatre, fired on the mob and killed at least 20. In May of 1849, William Macready was closing his final American tour. He had become England's most prominent tragic actor through his dignified, intellectual portrayals. Through his career he struggled to elevate the status of the theatre, and his innovations anticipated the realism of later years."
William Charles Macready
"Edwin Forrest was one of America's first celebrities and an early champion for a distinct national culture. Working class fans adored his powerful, muscular performances and outspoken patriotism. He was most identified with the title role of Metamora: The Last of the Wampanoags, a play he commissioned to showcase American themes and his own physique."
Edwin Forrest as Metamora in
Metamora: The Last of the Wampanoags 
"Although Forrest felt kinship with Native Americans, his play erased their presence in the age of territorial expansion. Metamora imagines the death of the Wampanoag tribe in 1676; thousands of Wampanoag people are alive today."
A daguerrotype of Edwin Forrest
"Fanny Kemble and Charlotte Cushman were not directly involved in the conflict, but they were way too interesting to leave out. Kemble, daughter of a famous English acting family, around this time left her plantation-owning husband to return to the stage and become an abolitionist. Cushman, who would be the first internationally acclaimed American actress, more or less openly had female lovers through her whole life. For a time she was interested in Fanny Kemble."
Charlotte Cushman
"Ned Buntline pioneered the dime novel, invented Buffalo Bill, and (according to legend) provided the Colt Buntline Special used at the O.K. Corral. His full story is so fantastic it would have strained the believability of the play."
Ned Buntline (left) with Buffalo Bill Cody,
Giuseppina Moriacchi, and Texas Jack Omohundro
"Mose and Lize were archetypal characters from plays about New York street life. "Mose" plays were extremely popular at midcentury (the rough-and-tumble Bowery fire boy became an urban legend and American icon). The conversations involving Mayor Woodhull actually occurred (on his second day in office, as fate had it). Some dialogue comes directly out of his court testimony, a transcript of the decisions that led to disaster."
As the old saying goes, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" Upon entering the theatre, members of the audience found an insert in their programs with the following message:
"Theatregoers Arise!!
The hour has come to assert your lawful rights.
Hurl this page at the arrogant Englishman!!!"
Moments later, Thomas Hamblin (Tony Jin) arrived center stage to instruct the audience that, in keeping with the spirit of the mid 19th century, not only was it necessary to turn off all noisy devices, it was perfectly appropriate to express one's pleasure or displeasure with both the actors and the story. He then proceeded to lead the three sections of the audience in vociferous practice booing exercises (which would be heartily encouraged during the show).

Casting was equally nontraditional with Dominique Brillon as William Macready and Schuyler Girion as William Niblo (the proprietor of the Astor Place Opera House). Lauren Hart's portrayal of Matthew Cahill was joined by David Blanchard (Mose Humphrey), Emma Nicholls (Lize Stebbins), and Rupert Christopher Allan (Ned Buntline) as Bowery-based rabble-rousers who were loyal fans of Edwin Forrest (Aaron Reed Kitchin).

The wealthier theatregoers from uptown included Greg Zoumaras as General Charles Sandford and Lorenz Angelo Gonzales as Mayor Caleb Woodhull. Marisa Conroy played Charlotte Cushman (Lady Macbeth to Mr. Macready) while Rose Oser played Fanny Kemble (Lady Macbeth to Mr. Forrest).

I particularly enjoyed the performances by Aaron Reed Kitchin, Rupert Christopher Allan, and Marisa Conroy. Eli Wirtschafter is, without doubt, a talent to watch. I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

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While there are plenty of laughs to be found in the Marin Theatre Company's production of The Whipping Man, the truth is that Matthew Lopez's play focuses on three desperate men caught in a hideously tense situation that plays out over the three-day period before and after the April 14, 1965 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
  • Simon (L. Peter Callender) is one of the older slaves who spent his life on a plantation outside of Richmond, Virginia that was owned by a Southern Jew. Like most of the slaves who lived on the plantation, he was raised as a Jew.
  • John (Tobie Windham) is a younger slave from the plantation who was also raised as a Jew.
  • Caleb DeLeon (Nicholas Pelczar) is the plantation owner's son who is close to John in ways that go far beyond their chronological age. Having deserted his duties in the Confederate Army, Caleb has ridden his horse as far as the plantation before leaving it to die in the front yard. Having taken a bullet in his lower leg, he has managed to crawl and drag his wounded body into the battered ruins of the plantation house on a cold and stormy night.

Lincoln may have freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, but old habits die hard. In addition to the gangrene creeping up his leg, Caleb is still oozing white privilege. Unwilling to seek medical care at the hospital (because he lacks any proof of having been pardoned), he must rely on Simon to amputate his diseased leg with little more than a carpenter's saw and some whiskey to anesthetize the wound.

Needless to say there is plenty of emotional baggage between the three men (each of whom is keeping a deeply dark and unpleasant truth hidden). Having briefly met President Lincoln the day before learning that "Father Abraham" had been killed -- and been forced to amputate Caleb's leg --  Simon decides to hold a Passover seder on the day following his beloved President's death to celebrate his deliverance from slavery.

Simon (Peter L. Callender) has to amputate part of Caleb's leg
in The Whipping Man (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

This makes sense to Simon, a man of deep faith who has been raised in the traditions of the Jewish people. John (who has been stealing goods from the deserted homes in the vicinity) has managed to scrounge up some wine, eggs, and hard tack, which can be used in place of matzoh. Salt water and bitter herbs are readily available for the Passover seder plate.

In addition to a bone carved from the dead horse in the front yard (that can be substituted for the traditional lamb shank) and a brick that can be used instead of charoset to symbolize the mortar that built the Pyramids in Egypt, Simon still has his cherished Haggadah.  Although he cannot read Hebrew, he knows its contents by heart.

Only two items missing: yarmulkes and the afikoman.

Lopez (whose Somewhere was seen earlier this year at TheatreWorks in Mountain View) demonstrates an uncanny gift for finding the heart of forgiveness and the liberating power of closure in the strangest places. In The Whipping Man, he easily identifies the pain and humiliation heaped on slaves in the Deep South, while using the Passover service as a means of showing the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation on American slaves.

John (Tobie Windham) has a score to settle with Caleb
(Nicholas Pelczar) in The Whipping Man (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Jasson Minadakis has directed this co-production with the Virginia Stage Company with a remarkable sensitivity that brings out the very best from his three-man ensemble. I was particularly impressed with Kat Conley's set design and the sound design by Will McCandless.

Knowing that he is free at last, Simon's final exit gives surprising new meaning to the old phrase "Next year in Jerusalem!" Performances of The Whipping Man continue through April 21 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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