"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Sunday, July 29, 2012

OSF 2012: Party People (play review)


[Christopher Livingston is Malik, the Panther cub]
Party People
In an engaging device sometimes seen at OSF, this play begins in a sneaky way as two young men wander around the stage setting up their gear. Then the cast gathers in a sort of Chorus and begins to speak or sing. Immediately, I begin to cry.... I was there. Back in a time in the past that is seldom, if ever, portrayed in a way that I experienced it myself: the crazy time of the Sixties and Seventies that left so many with lifetime recurrences of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The struggle wasn't just about guns and who used
them, and those who participated weren't
all focused on violence; but neither does the play shy
away from telling unpleasant truths about gender conflict,
violence within and without, and betrayal.
No, I wasn't a Panther, but I knew what was going on and had my own different kinds of hardships during those years, as did my parents in those and earlier years. So I have to see this brilliant play and production as not just about Panthers and Lords, but as one facet of a much bigger, older story. One that the play correctly points out still goes on under the name of Homeland Security. Though this is early in OSF's ambitious "American Revolutions" play cycle, I wonder if any future play in the project will more truly speak of what revolution is.

The title seems to refer not just to the Party of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, but also to what is about to unfold: Malik and Jimmy (sons of a Panther and a Lord) are preparing for guests to arrive, and the space is an art installation. Their intention is not just to display photos and artifacts from the struggles of the Seventies, but, in an edgy spirit of contemporary art, to provoke their guests (whose lives the show exhibits) into unpredictable behaviors. So this is a complex setup: one evening, about history, yes, but for the characters, it's also a story about art, and a generational saga. It's one any child of activists can identify with. In this sense it reflects the change from one theory, and one expression, of revolution to another.

members of Universes 
The authenticity of the play comes from three years of interviews the authors (Universes) did with Black Panthers, Young Lords, and their grown children. But this isn't a documentary. It's theatre more akin to Shakespeare's histories than to the Living Newpaper of Federal Theatre Project days. If I have any criticism, it's that for the lazy viewer who isn't familiar with this time in American history, and what went down then (especially if they were alive then, but not aware of the truth behind the headlines they were fed at the time and the lies that have become the accepted version of events ever since) the story needs more clarity.

And also some editing might help tighten the focus. The element of the play where Malik and Jimmy seek to provoke their guests, and introduce strong elements of satire into the nostalgia, introduces a hostile clown and a game show that seem at first to ridicule the issues; I get the point, but for me there was a little too much of that. The guys want to provoke the participants, yes, but from my point of view they overdo it. From comments I overheard, some people were confused by those turns; probably, younger viewers would understand it better, as it has that mashup feel to it. Also, there were pop culture references older viewers might not catch, and because this confrontational style is a recent tactic of the younger generation in its street theater and demonstrations. (Though, actually, it has been around for a long time in one form or another - think of John and Yoko in Paris... or the Dadaists, come to think of it...)

Well, Shakespeare confuses me sometimes too, and there are excesses in his plays I don't relate to either, and that says more about me than it does about Shakespeare. They might be making further changes. This is a world premier, after all. The first performance I saw, a Preview, was basically a run-through (not quite the  "technical rehearsal" that OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch warned of  in some beginning comments, but there were some evident technical glitches), and the second time I saw it, only a week or two later, the play seemed to be altered in spots. I heard later that they'd cut one whole song, but I didn't miss it.

Liesl Tommy, Director
The power of the show comes from the sometimes astonishing poetry of the language (I can't wait to see the written script, as my way of thinking will always be text-based), the beauty of the music (many styles, reflecting characters and their historical periods and backgrounds), the skill of the performers (they are totally passionate), and the engagement of the audience (which, I'll admit, surprised me). And clearly this required an amazing director - Liesl Tommy (her production of Ruined, a while back, was equally intense and shattering).

With simultaneous multiple-screen projection and live performance, this is a multi-media musical revolutionary happening, and you just have to be there. I hope there will be many productions of this play in many places in the future, but they will have to incorporate different kinds and levels of technicality depending on the venue, budget, and changing times. The OSF's complicated simultaneous video presentation must call for some special equipment and skills, and the New Theater is rather unusual in its intimate mood and flexible seating. It would be interesting to see different interpretations of this play over time, and I hope there will be many.

I've seen Party People twice now, from different vantage points (I recommend seeing it at least twice, because it is so rich--once from the side, and once from the center, or close to it, of the "U" seating arrangement; the experience is very different in the intimate New Theatre). And if you don't already identify in some way with the politics of the Seventies, Panthers et al, I recommend you do a little homework; at least view the videos OSF offers, or see a Preface Plus. Then fasten your seatbelt and just experience the art of human revolution.

Update: nice article here - echoes many of my own experiences: http://www.osfashland.org/connect-with-us/explore-our-stories/2012/new-work/the-ripple-effect.aspx

Monday, July 2, 2012

OSF 2012: The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa (play review)


In this re-imagined version of one of Shakespeare's less stellar plays, Alison Carey has taken what I've always thought was a silly, barely defensible low comedy (which some believe was dashed off in a hurry) and translated it for early 21st Century audiences as a thoroughly contemporary and very funny light satire--all the while remaining wonderfully true to the original. Like the best sort of fan art (but at the level of world drama), it celebrates the original work with full understanding, even as it goes beyond it in a way that would delight the original author. As a period piece (that period) this play has never held any charm for me; but as a period piece (this period), at least in Carey's hands--and those of the company as well, of course, all of them brilliant--the play is funny, and surprisingly gentle. Out with the old that no longer works, and in with the new that does!

The incomparable David Kelley returns as Falstaff -in new clothes but knavish as ever
As you have probably read elsewhere (and if you have, you might want to skip this paragraph), Carey takes the awful Falstaff, a fallen knight out to resurrect his fortune by cheating local women, and makes him a Senator at the Iowa caucus. This opens the way for all kinds of satirical references to the knavery of our current political situation and the absurdity of many currently hot topics. Carey takes the marriage plot, in which Falstaff attempts to seduce married women, and recreates it in the context of gay marriage. And she takes the Elizabethan town of Windsor, England and turns it into Windsor, Iowa; in this wholesome and good-hearted context of the American "heartland," the fair-minded people go overboard in their embrace of same-sex marriage. The merry wives have their revenge, in a particularly Iowa State Fair way -- with environmental benefits. These alterations add a great deal to the original material, all of it utterly delightful, and the play is happy rather than cruel. I mean to say--cheerleaders! And they're really good, too.
Through a kind of theatrical alchemy, the earlier play is not changed but transmuted. The Elizabethan Stage sprouts rows of corn. The Shakespeare is still there: we see the over the top characters, verbal fireworks, and plot complications; the human foibles exposed and dissected even as moral standards of the time are given their required due; the mean tricks played by, and on, even meaner characters--and nothing is lost in this translation. As I said about Bill Rauch's brilliant "rock and roll" version of Midsummer Night's Dream the magical summer that one took Ashland by storm, I feel that Shakespeare would have loved seeing his play done this way. In fact he'd have been doing it himself if he lived now. I'm really quite certain of this. He would be reveling in the relative cultural freedom we have these days, and he would be pushing all the boundaries back even further. He would be offending and outraging people right and left. And his humor would be of our time, just as it was of his.
Slender-Shallow, a modern lesbian chainsaw sculptor
Probably to fully appreciate what Carey has done here it would help to be at least a little familiar with the original play, and from the comments I heard during Intermission and later at my hotel, many in the audience did not even take this first step. Yet even if you've never seen any Shakespeare before, this play surely must be very funny on its own terms; after all, Carey has all of Shakespeare's genius to play with. It would also help to be reasonably comfortable with gay marriage and know some lesbians, in order to appreciate the reversals of situations and values that Carey cannily exploits.

(For example, I overheard one woman who, in the context of saying she'd enjoyed the play, comment that some aspects of the production "didn't make any sense at all, like homosexual marriage in Iowa." She didn't know that Iowa has a strong civil rights record and passed the first gay marriage law and has upheld it ever since, even under Republicans [see, I did my homework]. Another theatergoer didn't see "why they had to add a German doctor - that's just too goofy" - clearly not knowing Shakespeare had written a French doctor.)  And then, judging by the fact that the play is considered "controversial' or off-putting by some people, clearly there are still plenty of people around who just aren't ready for a comedy that takes for granted the level of sophistication about gay culture present now in much of Middle America. Finally, as for those who say they have many gay friends but still consider this comedy "too much"--well, no comedy pleases all tastes. I'm glad they're all being pushed out of their comfort zone just a little [insert cartoon of me rubbing hands together in glee here].

As for myself, I loved almost everything about this play and so did most of the audience, most of the time, judging by the nonstop laughter, though a lot of people seemed to have mixed feelings ultimately and there wasn't quite the fervent kind of standing ovation most OSF productions enjoy. Well, that's their problem, and their loss, I guess. As OSF actor Jeremy Johnson said in a Park Talk on the same day that I saw the play, a production that offends nobody is boring; if some people leave at intermission, that means they're being challenged and OSF is doing its job. 

In short, if you want to see how Shakespearean comedy, in the right hands, can actually work, come to OSF this year. Bravo!