Saturday, November 1, 2014

Paranoia For The People

Politics has a strange habit of finding its way to the stage. Whether tracking corruption and cronyism (Urinetown, LutherThe Cradle Will Rock, Fiorello!), the struggles of the impoverished and oppressed (Les Misérables, Finian's Rainbow, The Scottsboro Boys), or the terrifying power of the Third Reich (Cabaret, The Sound of Music, Bent), strange passions fill the hearts of men and women onstage.

Whether a script focuses on those who pursue power (Macbeth, Evita, The Best Man), or those who prefer to challenge the authorities (Hair, Flora The Red Menace, Assassins), its impassioned characters often harbor a fierce desire to up-end the status quo.

Attempting to craft a heavily political piece for the stage requires a playwright to sidestep numerous dramatic potholes and unexpected cultural obstacles. Despite a skillful use of music, multimedia, or theatrical style, audiences are often left wondering:
  • Will the language of the cause the playwright is showcasing become dated or obsolete?
  • Will the characters whose passion burns so strongly in their breasts seem believable, irrational, or ridiculous?
  • Will history (rather than the critics) judge this play harshly in retrospect as a piece of strained agitprop theatre?
Whether a show depicts a brutal pogrom which forces people to leave their homeland (Fiddler on the Roof) or a long-isolated island culture being corrupted by Western influences (Pacific Overtures), a creative team dealing with political issues must be committed to taking certain artistic risks. Few stylistic attempts at political irony have been as ambitiously layered and complex in their construction as the "Please, Hello" number from Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Pacific Overtures (1976).

Two new works with heavily political plots recently received their Bay area premieres from theatre companies in Berkeley. While some commented on how appropriate the location of their producing companies was to showcase works about people involved in revolutionary causes, these works could not be more different.
  • One was conceived as a farce; the other proved to be a compelling piece of musical theatre.
  • One attempted to demonstrate what happens to aging revolutionaries who can't get their shit together; the other focused on young revolutionaries caught up in the immediacy of political turmoil whose idealistic goals were sabotaged by personal betrayals.
  • One piece struggled to breathe life into a comedy that seemed dead on arrival; the other held its audience in a powerful dramatic grip from start to finish.
  • Both shows used slogans ("Power to the People," "Death to the Pigs!") familiar from the 1960s which may have sounded urgent 50 years ago, but now seem almost quaint.
  • Both had plots in which a beloved colleague turned out to be a government infiltrator who acted as a snitch.
  • Both challenge the audience to ask what happens to youthful revolutionaries who live long enough to become senior citizens.
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What if a playwright with a sizable track record of writing extremely timely political comedies crafted a farce that wasn't particularly funny? One might attribute the play's failure to bad timing or bad luck but, in the case of Michael Gene Sullivan's new play, Recipe, I have a very different theory.

Over the years, Sullivan (who is the playwright in residence for the San Francisco Mime Troupe) has written numerous pieces which are performed outdoors for free before an audience which has usually been picnicking, consuming alcohol and/or getting stoned before the show starts. When performances take place on a nice summer day, it's easy for members of the audience to be distracted. However, because Sullivan's new play is being performed in a tiny room that barely seats 50 people, it's nearly impossible to ignore its weaknesses.

Sister Janice (Jan Zvaifler), Comrade Lillian (Phoebe Moyer),
Diane (Velina Brown)  and Ruth (Tamar Cohn) in Recipe
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

Directed by Gary Graves, Recipe focuses on a group of aging women who comprise the Morning Glory Baking Circle for Revolutionary Self Defense. Over the years, their bake sales have raised a hefty amount of money which they have donated to a variety of leftist causes. However, several years ago they decided the group could have a stronger political impact if they saved their earnings for several years and made a more sizable donation to one cause. As a result, they're sitting on nearly $62,000.

While these women are well intentioned, they're remarkably naive about how today's media works. After sending out a press release, they're delighted to have received a request for an interview from Diane (Velina Brown), a reporter for a local radio station who (unbeknownst to the members of the Morning Glory Baking Circle for Revolutionary Self Defense) primarily supports herself by working as a clown named Sweetie Dimples.

Velina Brown as Diane (a/k/a Sweetie Dimples) in Recipe
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

The women who are all a-twitter about being interviewed include:
  • Helen X (Lynne Soffer), the leader of the pack who has an aversion to wearing watches and is therefore always calling out to those around her to get a fix on the correct time. An aging yet still libidinous lesbian, Helen resents insults which suggest that (like many women her age) she smells of lavender.
  • Comrade Lillian (Phoebe Moyer), Helen's lover and the most grounded member of the group. Unfortunately, Helen must put up with frequent accusations that her cake and clothes smell of fish whenever her nephew (a deep sea fisherman) spends time in her kitchen.
Comrade Lillian (Phoebe Moyer) and Helen X (Lynne Soffer)
are geriatric lesbian lovers in Recipe (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 
  • Sister Janice (Jan Zvaifler), an aging pothead revolutionary who likes to lace her baked goods with marijuana and, once high, can't stop talking about her sexual conquests.
  • Ruth (Tamar Cohn), the oldest and most strident member of the group. Ruth trusts no one, can recite each year the movement was betrayed by someone, and arrives packing heat. She also keeps wondering why no one wants to taste her muffin (a repeated joke that would probably have been killed if Recipe had gone through the usual organic process by which Central Works writes its plays).
Tamar Cohn as Ruth in Recipe (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

As Sullivan explains:
"Recipe is a play about a small group of older revolutionaries in the United States. I purposely didn’t set the play anywhere in particular; I wanted audiences to associate the play with the activist enclave nearest to them (places like Madison or Austin). I made the characters older women partly because there aren’t enough roles for women of that age (they are cast as grannies, wise older women, and widows). They're post-everything, just comic old kooks. Quite often, with stories like this, the drama is aging radical characters looking back -- it’s about whether they have been wasting their time all these years. Recipe has older characters who are still active and who regret nothing. The drama (and the political impetus) is whether these revolutionaries are still living up to their ideals today. A Berkeley audience will know and understand these characters -- older women with both political acumen and political naivete." 
Actor/writer/director Michael Gene Sullivan
"The other point was to show that women like these are still active, still politically alive now -- and not dependent on guys. The play is not anti-guy, it’s just that the guys are not important to the story. I want a big reaction from the audience -- love it or hate it -- a big engagement -- and I expect that from a Berkeley audience."
Although I didn't hate Recipe, I certainly didn't love it. I found much of Sullivan's writing to be quite tiresome, decidedly unfunny, and doubt that this play has much of a future. The ensemble of veteran Bay area actors (including Sullivan's wife, Velina Brown) did their best to bring his script to life, with Tamar Cohn chewing what little scenery was available and Phoebe Moyer's Comrade Lillian trying to bring some common sense to the proceedings. After the thrilling production of Dracula Inquest presented by Central Works this summer, Recipe had all the excitement of some very stale and soggy leftovers.

* * * * * * * * *
I was recently chatting with a friend about the infamous bell curve and how it impacts the lives of theatre critics. While some people imagine that everything a critic sees onstage is just "fa-bu-lous," the sad truth is that one wades through a lot of drek in order to savor an evening that is truly exceptional. First presented at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012, Party People is one of those thrilling examples of musical theatre that is not just revolutionary, but also about revolutionaries.

Although I did not see the production in Ashland, one noticeable change is the addition of numerous computer monitors spread all over Marcus Doshi's unit set which facilitate the merging of archival footage and live capture of the performance as it unfolds onstage (videographers and cast members can often be seen using a digital camera that allows them to get up close and in the faces of various performers).

The many faces of Malik (Christopher Livingston)
are seen  in Party People  (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The structure of Party People is as slippery as liquid mercury and yet, in some ways, oddly similar to 1971's Follies.

Malik and Jimmy work hard to guide the audience through lots of background material while trying to make sure that various relatives will attend their party (which is to take place in an art gallery while celebrating the debut of Jimmy's new act). The show unfolds with a frenzied energy that captures the racial oppression faced by those who formed the Black Panthers and the Young Lords in the 1960s.

Party People deftly builds the anger of its ensemble into a white-hot dramatic force.  Various personality clashes occur during the reunion as old wounds are revisited.

In describing what inspired the poetic theatre ensemble known as Universes to create Party People, Steven Sapp recalls that:
"We were looking at some footage of some Panthers and Young Lords' celebrations and reunions (they do them every year). You could see that different people had very different looks on their faces. A lot of them hadn't been around each other in a while -- maybe the last conversation they had with someone wasn't the most pleasant. There were suspicions of who was an agent and who wasn't. And all of a sudden they're thrust back into a room together to be Black Panthers and Young Lords.  Some things haven't been dealt with. Some people don't get along.

Especially in the communities we come from and the revolutionary and activist circle, there is a level of blessing you have to get in order to move forward.  You're supposed to give your elders a certain amount of respect. So for us, you could read 20 books about the Black Panthers and get some articles about the Young Lords, and see everything on YouTube, and you could write a play -- but that is very disrespectful.  You have to talk to them and it can be very intimidating.  But they really respect the fact that you come to them, face to face, to really hear where they're coming from."
Steven Sapp is Omar in Party People  (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Developed and directed by Liesl Tommy, Party People takes events that happened nearly 50 years ago and brings them blazingly alive with the pulse and drive of shows like Dreamgirls and The Scottsboro Boys. Late in the second act there is an exquisite development as the elders from both groups challenge Malik and Jimmy about their intentions, pointing out that they don't deserve to be taken seriously until they've gotten some real skin in the game.

"What have you sacrificed?" ask members of the older generation. The two young men then defend their curatorial work as researchers and videographers by pointing out that they are using the media tools of their generation to bring new life to the message of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords and, in doing so, seek to help younger generations appreciate the risks that were taken on their behalf.

It's a fascinating way of justifying the editorial freedom inspired by cut-and-paste technology that has often been used merely to appropriate the achievements gained by someone else's blood, sweat, and tears. In the case of Party People, it helps to build a bridge between two generations of revolutionary spirits. In light of recent developments in Ferguson, Missouri and other racially-tinged news stories, one cannot doubt the relevance and immediacy of Party People.

Blessed with Millicent Johnnie's choreography, Broken Chord's excellent sound design, vocal direction and original music, and the superlative projection design by Alexander V. Nichols, Party People features some memorable performances by Amy Lizardo, Reggie D. White, and Michael Elich in supporting roles. Not only does the show gain strength as a reflection of today's problems with racism in America, it's one helluva powerful piece of music theatre.

Christopher Livingston (Malik), Steven Sapp (Omar), and
Reggie D. White (Solias) in a scene from Party People
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Performances of Party People continue at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through November 23 (click here to order tickets).

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