Monday, October 10, 2016

Reflections On A Golden Lie

Boris Aronson's set design for the original production of Cabaret (1966) included a large mirrored surface suspended above the stage and pitched at such an angle that, upon entering the theatre and taking their seats, the audience could see their reflections looking back at them. Little did they know how much the show they were about to see would make them think about the demons residing within their souls.

Boris Aronson's set design for 1966's Cabaret

If art holds a mirror up to society, is society guaranteed to like what it sees? If that were the case, we would live in a world filled with preening narcissists. Perhaps one of the most provocative aspects of art is its ability to make us face up to the parts of ourselves we would prefer to ignore: the cruelty and hypocrisy of our behavior; the warts and blemishes on our skin; our bloated bellies and sagging jowls.

Oil paintings don't always generate a visceral response. Film is often filled with special effects and escapist fantasy. Back when video games were a new phenomenon, a teenager once asked a friend of mine what games he liked to play. Without hesitating, my friend replied "Reality. It's the toughest game there is."

Getting people who strive to ignore reality interested in learning how to cope with its pressures is a difficult task. As Julia Starr recently wrote:
“At Berkeley Rep, we believe that theatre can act as a powerful tool for comprehending the complexity of social issues and for finding empathy -- an idea that is far from new. Though nonprofit theatre’s focus on community engagement runs all the way back to the Federal Theatre Project in the 1930s (and through the regional theatre boom in the 1960s), patterns of funding have since shifted to place a greater importance on community support and involvement. Nonetheless, the legacies of the Federal Theatre Project and the regional theatre movement live on in resident theatres today through the deeply rooted belief that theatre can be a powerful channel to civic discourse.”
"As a subdivision of President Roosevelt’s Work Projects Administration created primarily to give jobs to unemployed artists during the Great Depression, the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) reimagined theatre in America, to quote its leader Hallie Flanagan, ‘not merely [as] a decoration but [as] a vital force in our democracy.’ With ambitious breadth, the FTP funded the production of affordable (if not free) theatre across the country, enlisting locals to do most of the work. Though the FTP’s administrative offices in Washington had little artistic sway over the work done by the theatre organizations under its auspices, productions often showcased issues of regional injustice and intolerance in contemporary American life and inspired community conversation on national issues. In 1962, the Ford Foundation approved a $9 million grant to strengthen regional theatres nationwide. In Ford’s footsteps, President Johnson established the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965 to provide federal subsidies to arts institutions.”

Gripped by the side effects of the Great Depression, America's political landscape became so tense that, in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously stated that "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Concerned by the rise of Fascism in Europe (and the threat of Huey Long's plan to run for the Presidency of the United States), in 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote a political thriller entitled It Can't Happen Here. With Father Coughlin spreading antisemitism through his radio broadcasts and a growing wave of anti-intellectualism, Lewis and John C. Moffitt adapted his novel into a stage play which, thanks to the Federal Theatre Project, had its world premiere in 21 theatres spread across 17 states on October 27, 1936.

Adapted by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre launched its 2016-2017 season with a new version of It Can't Happen Here directed by Lisa Peterson with costumes designed by Meg Neville and scenery designed by Rachel Hauck. For an audience that has been simultaneously fascinated and traumatized by 2016's race for the White House, the revised version of It Can't Happen Here offered little solace but plenty of food for thought. Paul James Prendergast's sound design and the excellent lighting by Alexander V. Nichols did a splendid job of heightening the speed with which America's democratic structure could be destroyed and showcasing the kind of police brutality with which its citizens could be terrorized.

David Kelly as Buzz Windrip in a scene from It Can't Happen Here
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What starts with insinuation and proceeds to intimidation and physical violence is a pattern that has been on display throughout the candidacy of Donald Trump. Watching the process accelerate onstage does not make it any more palatable. However, what makes this production so accessible is the fluidity of Lisa Peterson's staging (in which many actors take on more than one role) and the sense of urgency it conveys to the audience.

This is partly due to the speed with which this production came together. Many theatres like to plan their seasons with plenty of lead time. However, earlier this year, the artistic leadership of Berkeley Rep was confronted with the fact that they did not have a strong contender for their season opener. In the process of brainstorming potential titles that might relate to American politics (Hamilton was obviously not an option), It Can't Happen Here kept gaining traction.

Tom Nelis as Doremus Jessup and Scott Coopwood as Shad Ledue
in a scene from It Can't Happen Here (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Once the artistic team realized that the 1936 script needing to be updated, the decision was made to create a new adaptation. As the project's co-writer, Bennett S. Cohen, notes: "the material feels connected to my personal history because my father was blacklisted. He was an electrical engineer with the Radio Corporation of America and was a union activist. He was also a member of the communist party." Berkeley Rep's artistic director, Tony Taccone (whose dissertation was about the Federal Theatre Project) explains that:
"Lewis’ novel reads like it was ripped out of today’s headlines. Whether he’s describing the demagogue who wins the presidency based on the promise of making our country great again or the liberal newspaper editor who simply waits too long to take the threat seriously, Lewis’ understanding of our political system was precise and far-reaching. There are parts of the book that scream out that this is not about a moment in time. This is about a pattern in American history. Some of the parallels are so eerie that you have to ask yourself 'What is it about the system, the culture, the pathology that is endemic to this kind of political development? Whatever's going to happen onstage will be outstripped by reality. No matter what, it's not the same historical moment, and this is a piece of fiction. The excitement about getting past that and committing to a play is that this is more about America, about the challenges of democracy, and how people endure and recreate their lives in the face of enormous fear. There's this great line that the communist character, Pascal, has. He says Windrip [the presidential character] is just something that was vomited up; he's not the real issue. The real issue is what vomited it up."
Anna Ishida as Mary Jessup Greenhill and Charles Shaw Robinson
as Effingham Swan in a scene from It Can't Happen Here
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The production is anchored by the performance of Tom Nelis as Doremus Jessup, the editor of The Vermont Vigilance who opines about the danger posed by the rapid rise of Buzz Windrip (David Kelly) and the dangers his type of power-hungry narcissism pose to a society whose citizens are easily wooed by the promise of $5,000 to each and every one of them. Sharon Lockwood does some fine character work as Doremus's wife, Emma, and the cranky Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch.

Supporting roles are taken by Scott Coopwood as Jessup's disgruntled employee, Shad LeDue (who gains power once he becomes a supporter of Windrip's). Other members of the Jessup clan include Anna Ishida as Mary Jessup Greenhill, William Thomas Hodgson as her physician husband, Will Rogers as Jessup's son, Phillip, and Carolina Sanchez as Jessup's younger daughter, Sissy.

Carolina Sanchez, Tom Nelis, and Deidrie Henry in a scene
from It Can't Happen Here (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Deidrie Henry shines as the bar owner Lorinda Pike (who is Doremus's closest friend) while Charles Shaw Robinson tackles the slick villainy of Bishop Pike (a Father Coughlin figure) and Effingham Swan (a sadistic law enforcement thug who works for Windrip). Others in the cast include Alexander Lydon as Julian Falck, Mark Kenneth Smaltz as John Pollikop, and Gerardo Rodriguez as Karl Pascal.

The Jessup family tries to cross over into Canada in a scene
from It Can't Happen Here (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

It's important to remember that the original production of It Can't Happen Here took place long before television and social media had such a riveting effect on our lives (many have speculated about what might have happened if Adolf Hitler had been able to control television in addition to radio). On Monday, October 24, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the play's premiere, regional theatres, universities, and communities across the United States will present readings of Berkeley Rep’s new adaptation of It Can't Happen Here.

Performances of It Can't Happen Here continue at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre through November 6 (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
In 2011, Crowded Fire Theater presented the Bay area premiere of Young Jean Lee's satire, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (which tackled Asian stereotypes with a refreshing dash of sarcasm). The company recently launched its 2016-2017 season with the Bay area premiere of Lee's raucous treatment of African American stereotypes entitled The Shipment. Co-directed by the company's artistic director, Mina Morita, and resident artist Lisa Marie Rollins, The Shipment may have audiences wondering how, in this tense time when accusations of cultural appropriation are launched at the slightest provocation, a Korean-American playwright can get away with writing a play about African Americans.

William Hartfield and Nican Robinson perform Rami Margron's
choreography in a scene from The Shipment (Photo by: Pak Han)

How does Lee do it? By using a lightning-fast bit of authorial legerdemain (a brilliant gimmick revealed in the play's final moments) which leaves some members of the audience gasping in disbelief while others cringe with the shock of recognition. It's a trick which would leave writers like Rod Serling and M. Night Shyamalan cackling with glee.

Billed as "An Incisive Comedy That Upends Black American Stereotypes In Media and American Entertainment," The Shipment is divided into two sections. The first, played largely in front of a red curtain, has some elements of a minstrel show but satirizes the ways in which black performers have been seen onstage and on screen. Their comedy bits may range from a Good Cop/Bad Cop scenario to a scene in which two local drug dealers are slaughtered after "Mama" (Nkechi Emeruwa) announces her plans to take over their corner and their customers.

Michael Wayne Turner III, Nkechi Emeruwa, and Nican Robinson
are in the cast of The Shipment (Photo by: Pak Han)

Another routine involves a young black man named Omar (Michael Wayne Turner III) whose upscale parents want him to study so he can become a doctor or lawyer but whose dream is to become a rapper.

Michael Wayne Turner III as Omar in a scene from
The Shipment (Photo by: Pak Han)

Perhaps the most jaw-dropping segment is performed by Howard Johnson, Jr. as a stand-up comedian whose performance style and raunchy jokes resemble the work of Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy but whose particular fetish is talking about "poop."

Howard Johnson, Jr. portrays a stand-up comedian in The Shipment
(Photo by: Pak Han)

While Lee is obviously trying to push people's buttons with some the scatological jokes in Johnson's monologue, they pale in comparison to a joke so notorious that a documentary was made about it (The Aristocrats). Here's Gilbert Gottfried's rendition of that classic bit of blue humor.

The second half of The Shipment takes place in the apartment where Thomas (Howard Johnson, Jr.) has invited some friends over for a party. Unfortunately, it's not the kind of party anyone would really want to attend. A lonely and manipulative narcissist, Thomas is planning to commit suicide that night and wants to have some of the people he knows on hand. Tastefully designed by Deanna L. Zibello, his living room looks as if it could have been copied from an interior design magazine. Some of his friends are dressed in tuxedos. Tomasina (Nkechi Emeruwa) wears a stylish outfit designed by Keiko Shimosato Carreiro.

The cast of The Shipment (Photo by: Pak Han)

But as Thomas plays one manipulative trick after another on his guests (are they going to die with him?) it becomes obvious that this could be the kind of suicide that has been modeled after daytime soap operas. How his guests manage to survive draws plenty of laughter from the audience, but you'll need to experience Lee's play in person to understand why. The five-member ensemble (including William Hartfield, Howard Johnson, Jr., and Nkechi Emeruwa) does a splendid job with Lee's writing. Nican Robinson and Michael Wayne Turner III continually steal the show.

Performances of The Shipment continue through October 15 at Thick House (click here for tickets).

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