With the country shifting even further to the right, it’s not surprising that theater, one of the most immediate of the arts, is taking up political themes once again. The 2001-2002 Triangle theater season promises to explore the connections between theatrical artifice and actuality, continuing a late-1990s sensibility that recalls the political bent and participatory philosophy of theater during the 1960s and ’70s. This trend defies the official return of big-budget Broadway extravaganzas ushered in over the last five years by the likes of talk-show maven Rosie O’Donnell. Following on last season’s productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Bent, as well as Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues at Triangle universities, a number of upcoming productions focus on overtly political themes.
Deep Dish Theater Company opens its second season with William Mastrosimone’s Cat’s-Paw, on Sept. 6 at University Mall in Chapel Hill. Mastrosimone, whose stage and film work focuses on violence in contemporary culture, argued, in a 1999 USA Today interview, that the entertainment industry needs to “look to ourselves and acknowledge the effect we have in the world.” He authored the acclaimed Extremities, a play (and later, a film) about a woman who averts a rape only to become the attempted rapist’s torturer, and in 1998 he wrote Bang Bang You’re Dead, to provide a forum for teenagers to discuss school violence. The latter play, set in the jail cell of a 14-year-old boy who has killed five classmates, is performed by student actors in high schools across the country royalty-free.
With Cat’s-Paw, Mastrosimone turns to environmental concerns. In it, a group of ecoterrorists kidnaps an EPA official, and when that strategy proves ineffective, their leader begins to entertain fantasies of suicide bombing missions and shoulder-fired missiles.
Playmakers Repertory Company inaugurates its 26th season in October with The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman, author of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Ben Brantley of The New York Times appropriately has dubbed the production “theatrical journalism.” Drawn from police records, court testimony and interviews that members of Kaufman’s New York-based Tectonic Theater Company conducted with several hundred residents of Laramie, Wyo., the performance dramatizes the responses of residents of the small university town to the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998. Described as a docudrama that evokes Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the project relies upon 10 actors to convey the testimony of 60 different individuals, including the doctor who treated Matthew Shepard, a Muslim feminist and a fundamentalist preacher.
Raleigh Ensemble Players, in their 21st season, will stage Bash: Latterday Plays, three one-acts by writer-director Neil LaBute, whose stage and film credits include Filthy Talk for Troubled Times, In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors and Nurse Betty. The three one-act plays, directed by REP luminaries Sean A. Brosnahan, Heather Willcox and C. Glen Matthews, are Medea Redux, about a woman’s relationship with a high-school teacher; Iphigenia in Orem, in which a Utah businessman confesses a crime to a stranger; and A Gaggle of Saints, about a young Morman couple and their disastrous anniversary weekend.
While less overtly political than Cat’s-Paw or The Laramie Project, LaBute’s work functions as social critique by brutally stripping away pretense and exposing both the characters’ self-serving moral code and the author’s own quasi-puritanical fervor. Terms like “caustic” and “scathing” are frequently invoked in discussions of LaBute’s work, and these pieces seem to be no exception. Bash goes up Oct. 18-Nov. 3 at Artspace in Raleigh.
In February 2002, the Drama Department’s Randolph Curtis Rand returns to Raleigh to direct The Suicide: A Russian Farce for Burning Coal Theatre Company. Nikolai Erdman’s dark comedy in two acts was banned in the Soviet Union for more than 50 years. Erdman worked in political cabaret and experimental theater during the early 1920s. In 1924, Meyerhold produced Erdman’s first play, The Mandate, which was so well-received that Stanislavsky and Meyerhold competed for Erdman’s next work. But The Suicide was banned by the Cultural Propaganda section of the Central Committee during rehearsals in 1928. After his exile to Siberia from 1933 to 1937, Erdman wrote screenplays for Soviet films, but never penned another full-length play. He died in 1970 in Moscow, a year and a half after the world premiere of The Suicide in Sweden.
The Suicide concerns a man whose wife mistakenly believes he plans to commit suicide. The confusion invites a number of people–idealists, ideologues, a priest and an intellectual–to plead with him to kill himself for a cause. Erdman’s satire seems an ideal choice for Rand, given his interest in juxtaposing text, history and performance, and his ability to draw out the emotional valences of each–evidenced by his startling and ironic treatment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Burning Coal last season.
Looking slightly beyond fall, we can see how a trend in local theater toward political themes carries through the theater season. In April, the Duke Players will present Mao II, adapted by Jody McAuliffe, a faculty member of Duke’s theater studies department, and Frank Lentricchia, of the literature program, from Don DeLillo’s PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel. The production incorporates a variety of media in order to draw attention to the effects of media images on both politics and artistic expression.
DeLillo’s characteristically complex novel explores art and isolation, secrecy, politics and crowds, through its depiction of a publicity-shy novelist named Bill Gray and a group of terrorists who have taken a poet hostage and want Gray to read the hostage’s poetry to the media. To adapt this novel as multimedia performance seems fitting: DeLillo claims that his idea for the book came from two newspaper photographs–one of a Unification Church group wedding of some 1,500 people, and one of notoriously reclusive author J.D. Salinger.
Also in April, REP’s Artistic Director Glen Matthews will direct Lebensraum, by Israel Horovitz. Like The Laramie Project, the play features a small number of actors who give voice to a much larger cast of characters. The 50 or so characters depicted are among six million Jews whom the German chancellor has invited to come home to the Fatherland in the early years of the 21st century. The title is an ironic play on Hitler’s concept of “living space.” Though it may sound benign, the highly ideological notion of a German Lebensraum depended upon Aryan conquest and colonization. The Lebensraum was a foundational principle that justified war and the dispossession and displacement of the racially inferior peoples inhabiting the land needed for the German race. In terms of the play’s subject as well as the potential it offers for creatively utilizing the metaphor of a living space built upon death, this choice resonates with the REP’s compelling presentation of Bent in the spring of 2001.
Finally, two productions focus on what might be termed the social politics of art. In January, PlayMakers Repertory stages Art, written by Yazmina Reza, a French actress, playwright, screenwriter and novelist, and translated by Christopher Hampton. The one-act comedy debuted in Paris in 1995, capturing the Moliére Award for best author, and has since been translated into 20 languages and performed around the world, winning the Tony for best play and the New York Drama Critics Circle award in 1998.
Art relies upon the device of modern art to chart the intricate course of friendships among three men who have known each other for 15 years. When one of the men buys a controversial art work–an abstract white on white composition that serves, according to New Criterion critic Mark Steyn, as “the perfect painting to hang a drama on”–this tabula rasa provides an occasion for the men to explore not only notions of art and of acquisitiveness, but also the absences in their emotional lives.
Whereas Reza investigates the way men’s friendships are mediated by art, South African playwright, actor and director Athol Fugard dramatizes links between art and freedom in his 1985 drama, The Road to Mecca. Burning Coal will perform Mecca in April 2002. Set in South Africa in 1974, the play is based on the life of Miss Helen Martins, an Afrikaner woman and proto-outsider artist who garnered posthumous fame for her sculpture garden. Miss Helen transforms her home into a work of art after her husband dies, decorating her home with candles and mirrors, and creating cement sculptures of owls, camels and mermaids. In materializing her vision of the illuminated city, Miss Helen alienates herself from her community–with the exception of Marius Byleveld, a clergyman concerned that she is dabbling in idolatry and who encourages her to move to a nursing home, and Elsa, a young liberal Cape Town schoolteacher. The play was made into a film in 1992, with Fugard directing and playing the role of Marius.
Whether the subject is art or politics, or, as is the case with a number of productions on this season’s slate, the relationships between them, Triangle theater has a great deal to offer this fall–and beyond–to audiences interested in entertainment that moves beyond spectacle to question the political sensibilities and responsibilities of artists and audiences.