It’s early Sunday morning as I begin these words–very early, actually, for reasons I’ll get around to in a few moments. As a result I’ll assume, as usual, that anywhere from three to six days will pass before you actually read them. So I’ll verbally play with time, using rhetoric to throw my voice just a little bit into the future, much in the same way I usually do, so it all turns out right when you read it.
But ironically, verbal timeplay may be a little more difficult than usual this morning, because my own body seems to have lost its place in time. I still haven’t physically adjusted to the fact that I’m no longer in the Western European time zone where I’ve spent the past two weeks. It’s why I’m up so early: Since it’s a little after 9 a.m. in Milan just now, my body’s responding along those lines, despite the fact I’m in North Carolina where it’s–hmmm, six hours earlier. Something in me just hasn’t got the message yet.
Perhaps that’s why I’m particularly focused on issues involving elapsed time or delayed response, coming out of two shows from last weekend: Shakespeare & Originals’ world premiere of Loose Lips Sink Ships, and Oscar Wilde’s Salome at PlayMakers Rep in Chapel Hill.
For the six hours my body remains out of synch with my surroundings and those few days it takes for my words to catch up with you are nothing.
Not when they’re compared to an unflinching indictment of contemporary vanity and foolishness in power–from a 19th-century play about an atrocity two millennia before that. Nor when they’re set beside a 2,400 year-old political comedy whose message still hasn’t gotten through to members of the present American political administration.
It’s April 2003, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld still hasn’t grasped what Aristophanes knew in the fourth century B.C.
Forget publication and jet lag. This is civilization lag we’re talking, here.
And for better and worse, it seems the simultaneous blessing and curse of the human condition that such lessons must be repeated until they are learned.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why artists are moved to adapt, revive and reframe the classics: There’s always the off-chance that someone who desperately needs to, might actually get it this time.
Loose Lips Sink Ships is Dog and Pony Show artistic director Lissa Brennan’s update of Lysistrata, the Greek comedy at the center of The Lysistrata Project, a global arts anti-war protest on March 3. (Indeed, Brennan, who also is a contributor to The Independent, was a co-sponsor of one out of over 1,000 readings staged that day in 59 countries around the world.)
Her new comedy reframes the Athenian women of 410 B.C. as heroines in what appears to be an alternatively pacifist 1940s-era war-time comedy. As in the original, the Lysistrata character (here named Margaret) comes up with a novel way to end the war: by getting all women to deny men sex until hostilities cease.
Here Brennan plays Margaret as a cross between Ros Russell and early Lucille Ball, while her four broadly drawn compatriots (and their paramours) form two troops as ethnically diverse–and stereotyped–as any wartime comic book or B-grade platoon movie from the mid-century. Director Derrick Ivey eggs on a talented cast in this brisk send-up of pulp and genre conventions.
Meredith Sause amuses as Myrtle, a Jersey girl (and peroxide addict) with a heart of gold, while stage veteran Sherilyn K intones the mottled vowels of Olde England through the stiffest of upper lips. Flynt Burton indulges here as Wysteria, a tasteful Southern lady (and part-time dominatrix). But Hope Hynes’ nonstop apoplectic fit as Roxie, a character who could have stepped whole out of an old Honeymooners episode, was the verifiable caution of the show.
Just as broadly rendered are their, um, counterparts: Jay O’Berski’s salute to Cary Grant as Harry the sharkskin journalist; Jeff Detwiler’s prune-faced, big city Sonny; Lance Waycaster’s aloof refrain as Percival; Beau, newcomer Lucius Robinson’s clueless Southern grunt; and David Klionsky, whose gratifyingly grating Spike could have initially inspired Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to be Kind.”
Brennan’s rhymed couplets cornered the playwright on more than several occasions, and some really low-grade puns evoked robust hisses at one point from the audience. Still, O’Berski’s late monologue, debriefing the president and petitioning for peace, was wittily written, directed and acted.
It’s too bad Rummy wasn’t in the audience. This time, who knows? He might have actually gotten it.
In recent years I’ve watched a number of noted modern dance choreographers (including Pina Bausch, Martha Clarke, Rennie Harris and Pilobolus) attempt to fuse movement, theater and music into an artform that equally partakes of all.
In that same time, Archipelago Theater has been the most consistent–and at times, the only–regional theater group attempting to accomplish similar goals.
Indeed, the National Endowment for the Arts has recognized Ellen Hemphill’s and former collaborator Rafael Lopez-Barrantes’ striking collaborations, which forcibly shoved back the boundaries of performance and ably demonstrated that Wagner had not entirely exhausted, after all, the possibilities in the German term gesamtkuntswerk–a total work of art.
So it’s gratifying to see a director on another regional stage reach toward the same territory, as guest director Trezana Beverley does in the current PlayMakers presentation of Salome. Ms. Beverley, whose acting brought authority to the PlayMakers stage in the Ida B. Wells biography Constant Star, has clearly chosen her collaborators with care, selecting musicians, performers and a dancemaker seasoned from experience with Alvin Ailey, the African American Dance Ensemble, choreographer Jane Comfort and the similarly genre-bending Red Clay Ramblers.
It shows at a number of points in this production, particularly in the highly stylized movement of Duane Cyrus, cast convincingly here as Naaman, the executioner. At its best, Edward Butler’s low choral music is a culling song, coming ever closer, while Sandra Burton’s eerie choreography stretches Cyrus’ form to improbable lengths. Combined, the two transcend, particularly as Naaman stalks some of those nearest death. I couldn’t have been the only one in the theater whose hair stood up on the back of their necks as death’s angel drew near.
While purists might argue in places with Burton’s amalgamation of Capoeira, African dance forms and more conventional step, the combination (as garish at times as Marianne Custer’s costumes) ultimately makes sense, particularly given the locale where they take place: the palace of a rich, doomed fool–the drunk, unsavory Herod.
“Unflinching” is decidedly the word for a production where Salome finally does give the mouth of Iokanaan a long, sensuous soul kiss–when his head lies in a silver bowl at center stage.
But perhaps the single most disturbing thing in a show filled with unease was the familiarity of it all. The orgiastic sexual climax of Salome’s dance, the turn-on-a-dime mood swings of the pop diva title character, her deep and decidedly narcissistic injuries when denied the slightest whim: We know all this, and we know it well.
We know it from a generation of music video, Jerry Springer and a legion of other panderers have made these images expected, even the norm, in popular entertainment. As a result, this Salome isn’t so much a window onto our cultural past. Actually, it looks a lot more like a mirror.
Leaving the theater, some of the connections were easy to make. Our dancers appear, day and night, on hundreds of cable channels and the Internet. Rest assured, they are paid well for their work.
Our Herod? Barry Diller, Michael Eisner or George Bush–go ahead, take your pick.
But I couldn’t see the angel of death anywhere around me, no matter how hard I looked. Hmm. I wonder where on Earth it might be?
And our prophet? I really couldn’t tell you.
When they said, “Repent, Repent” / I wonder what they meant.
— Leonard Cohen, “The Future”