Reviewed by Will Stackman
Politically charged playwriting seldom makes it to the bigtime here in the USA. Moreover it's likely to get defanged in the process and confuse newspaper critics. Two recent productions of works from abroad, both originally written under repressive regimes, offer glimpses of the possible. Russian satirist Grigory Gigorin's "Forget Herostratus," a historical fantasy is having its American premiere over at the Theatre Cooperative in Somerville and a revival of Vaclav Havel's connected one-acts "Unveiling & Audience" done by Molasses Tank Productions at the Charlestown Working Theatre about two miles away at the foot of Bunker Hill Ave. were both competently acted and nicely presented. Neither attracted large audiences or serious attention. What comment there was remarked on the acting or suggested that Soviet era concerns were outdated, but skirted the playwrights' intentions.
Former Czech Republic president and previously-jailed dissident Havel's Absurdist plays are not the easiest scripts to produce. They frequently call for significant sets or special effects. However, Havel's had some success hereabouts with audiences capable of following an author's train of thought. For this revival, MTP took a minimalist approach which is quite effective, as in their last production of short pieces by Ionesco. Director Steve Rotolo and technical director/designer Duncan McCullough, co-founders of the company, used relatively simple sets, lighting, and sound to achieve the author's complex vision.
For "Unveiling," an elaborately redecorated apartment belonging to a desperately upscale couple was indicated by three modern chairs in a row. The only antique present was a spittoon on a five foot pedestal which served as a flower vase. All the other artifacts mentioned including the fireplace, plus the couple's infant son, a blazing fireplace and Switzerland appeared and disappeared on projection screens hung at the back. The refreshments were also briefly projected on a small screen held by the host. No further comment on transitory waste was necessary. The couple, played by Lyralen Kaye, director of Another Country Productions--the producers of SLAMBoston, an intermittent short play series--and Sean Stanco, recently seen over at the Devenaugh, are oblivious to the distress of their guest. Ferdinand Vanek, played by peripetatic Jason Beals, recently seen in the lead of "Violet" at the Footlight Club, is quite in the Czech tradition of the outsider Everyman. He's been fired from his position as a playwright for political reasons. Of course his friends spend the evening trying to convince him to get with the program, redecorate his own apartment, and have a child, rather than discuss his current circumstances Vanek leaves early as the pair become repetitive in classic Absurdist fashion; he has to get up early for his new job, rolling barrels in a brewery.
Vanek reappears in the second play, "Audience" meeting with his boozy boss. The brewery is simply indicated by backlit cutouts behind the projection screen plus a messy desk created from a door sitting on four beer barrels. Tony Moreira spends the play drinking beer after beer while working up to the reason he's called Vanek in. After eventually offering the new man the position of warehouse manager, he then reveals the price. The Foreman needs someone to write up the weekly reports on his employees which go to the authorities, including of course the one about politically suspect Vanek. On principle, our hero refuses, and receives a drunken lecture on social reality before the boss collapses in a stupor. But he returns in a brief coda to start the whole interview over again, leaving the audience to imagine whatever ending they might. Both Moreira and Beals time the series of complicated exchanges with finesse. The Ionesco-like impression of "Unveiling" becomes decidely Kafkaesque. These two plays taken together are probably more relevant today than when MTP first did them in 1999.
Over on Broadway, "Forget Herostratus" takes another tack. Briefly, Herostratus was the young wastrel who in 356 BCE burnt down the magnificent Temple of Artemis in ancient Ephesus, then claimed responsibility to insure his own enduring fame. Gorin, a Russian doctor turned satirist writing at the end of the Soviet regime, imagines the aftermath with a certain degree of cynicism. The title character, played by Harvard grad Dan Cozzens, who's been touring schools for the New Rep in "Cyrano" and in "Midsummer...." for Shakespeare Now! is no simple fool. He quickly bribes the jailer, played with comic menace by Paul Shafer, to summon the moneylender, one of John McClain's two parts. Herostratus offers the greedy man, in return for retiring all debts and a considerable sum of silver, exclusive rights to his autobiography and philosophical musings.
Meanwhile, the Persian governor of the city, played by Theatre Coop stalwart, Peter Brown, seen last month as Dr. Ozzy Mandias in "Dead White Males", is outraged at the loss of his city's main tourist attraction, and even more enraged at the seeming adulation being poured on this decadent youth. His young Greek wife, Clementina, played by charming Susan Gross, seen as the beleaguered new school teacher in "DWM", is sure that the handsome young man must have been frustrated in love. The Governor proposes to Cleon, the Judge, played by Dan Liston, seen this winter as Othello over at M.I.T., that it should be illegal to even mention the man's name. Cleon, a firm believer in the law, insists on a proper trial. Observing all this is the piece's most problematic character, a time-traveling historian who servers as the Chorus. This role, taken by IRNE winner Kortney Adams is intermittently visible to individual characters, especially the Judge. Adams, who incidently directed Liston in "Othello, " does her best to achieve the necessary distance, but this adaptation of Gorin's script doesn't make circumstances clear enough. Special lighting, sound, and even a bit of stage magic might have helped.
Most of adaptor/director Vladimir Zelevinsky's efforts are well-supported by the set and lighting created by the Coop's technical director Doc Madison, with able support from construction assistant Dan Hackett, scenic artist and sculptor Amanda Shuber and master electrician Fred Strong, not to mention appropriate props gathered by Tracy Gregoire. This production is as well presented as Zelevinsky's own medieval political fantasy, "What Time is It?" which premiered at the close of the Coop's season last spring. The characters are simply but effectively costumed by Tracy Campbell, who's done previous shows for the Coop, as well as costumes for Zeitgeist productions and TheatreZone's recent "The Grapes of Wrath." Over all, the Coop's somewhat rough and ready results were enough to suggest that more of Gorin's work should be seen here, and that this play deserves a slightly more elaborate production. Its examination of fame and political expediency is certainly timely, and its inevitable ending sobering for a putative tragicomedy.
One other unabashed political theatre production deserves a brief mention. Wesley Savick, director of Boston Playwright's big IRNE winner, Kate Snodgrass' "The Glider" and professor of theatre at Suffolk University, assembled a young cast to present an 80 minute freeform exploration drawn from the writings of activist historian Howard Zinn. Playing at BPT through June 5 the resulting theatre piece, entitled "Shouting Theatre In A Crowded Fire," pays tribute to the Group Theatre's "Waiting for Lefty" from the '30s and more extensively to the Living Theatre of the late '60s. Savick tries to find a current form of political expression for these fledgling actors. The result is inconclusive at best, with perhaps too much of the author/directors frustrations combined with the facile attitudes of his cast. Everyone's heart is in the right place, and the times are out of joint. Perhaps, buoyed by Zinn's leftist optimism, this show is a declaration by Savick that he intends to continue trying to find the current equivalent to the energy that earlier ensembles found in socially disturbing times. It's a fitful start, but almost the only one in town. Although the two shows above were effective, neither contains any call to action. It may be time for the theatre to move in that direction as well.
And down on the Cape this month at W.H.A.T., Gip Hoppe is premiering former Labor Secretary and erstwhile political candidate, Robert Reich's "Public Exposure", a political sex-comedy of sorts. The hour-long romp features Robert Kropf as a conservative talk show host contemplating running for president, Stacy Fischer as his former lover, a conservative pundit, and award-winning Laura Latreille, back down from Canada, as a plastic surgeon's before-and-after success story. Thereł´s more than a bit of Hoppe in this version of the script. Out in Provincetown for June, John Buffalo Mailer, is premiering "Crazy Eyes", a post 9/11/02 thriller involving a Wall Street guy feeling macho who abducts a Palestinian-American he suspects of being a terrorist. Reich's play is amusing at least; Mailer Jr.s, despite his own theatrical career, is at best overwrought. But both indicate the changed tastes of the summer community out on the Cape, even if neither is liable to change anything substantial.