Thomas Norgorski, of ABC News, reports that the Afghanistan war is now the nation's longest—yet, there are no protests. This country, acquiescing to a conflict where no useable weapons of mass destruction were ever found, while amassing a huge war debt, is letting it pass–even the theatrical community hasn’t responded vociferously (maybe because being produced is about as hard as it’s ever been). The acceptance may also have to do with the death tolls (about 1,000 soldiers have been killed in Iraq; in Vietnam, Norgorski tells us, more than 50,000 Americans died); today, too, there is no draft, the war isn’t splattered across the evening news, and, having agented a collection of them, war plays are not considered especially viable—they can get shut down fast (as was Joseph Papp’s CBS production of David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones in 1971, while the Vietnam War was still being waged). This is deeply ironic, for as Karen Malpede tells us in her introduction to Acts of War: Iraq and Afghanistan in Seven Plays (due out next January from Northwestern University Press, which this writer edited with her and Michael Messina): “Dramatic art arose as a complement to, perhaps also as an antidote, to war. . . . Aeschylus and Sophocles were generals, Euripides also fought.”
It’s not that there are no produced American plays on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: George Packer's Betrayed, Lydia Stryk's American Tet, Donald Margulies's Time Stands Still, and Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo come immediately to mind–but these are few and far between for a conflict that has been going on since 2001 (a larger commercial test of the genre will come when Time Stands Still appears on Broadway this fall; David Hare’s play The Vertical Hour closed there after 117 performances). There are other works, too, still without productions in America by known writers–Bill Cain's 9 Circles and Naomi Wallace's No Such Cold Thing, for example. But, for most, the Iraq war on stage is best known through a Scottish play, Black Watch by Gregory Burke, which played here at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn and won four British Olivier Awards (including Best New Play) in 2009 (it can also be seen on YouTube); theatergoers in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and New York will be able to see a cycle of twelve plays from Britain’s Tricycle Theatre in the fall, too: The Great Game (they're works on Afghanistan that were commissioned by Nicolas Kent and include Simon Stephens's A Canopy of Stars).
Malpede’s American production of her play Prophecy, starring Obie-winning actress Kathleen Chalfant in a part that was written for her, has also just opened—it first played in England in 2008. It’s important to have this take on Iraq because it comes from members of the U.S. experimental theatre vanguard—George Bartenieff as well as Malpede. You might even think you’re entering a time warp when you first take your seat at the East Fourth Street Theater (the play is scheduled through June 20) because you’ll be reminded of the kind of set and lighting you knew from seeing an Irene Fornes play, for example, at the old Theater for the New City on Second Avenue in the ‘80s. Bartenieff was a founder of TNC and Malpede one of its playwrights—she had also worked at the Living Theatre with Julian Beck, Judith Malina, and Joe Chaikin. It was, additionally, there that her dark, avant-garde play US was first produced. Recall Crystal Field, artistic director at Theatre for the New City, acting on a huge swing that went back and forth into the audience during that play. There were only a few actors, men played women and women played men and the theme took on domestic violence—one actor even demonstrated how to singly enact kissing another person with arms lifted and wrapped around neck and torso. For off-off Broadway literati and intellectuals, and the inevitable students, it was quite the artistic coup de theatre (the play was published in an anthology called Women on the Verge—which is still available on Amazon, in a newer edition). More recently, in 2001, of course, the collaboration between Malpede and Bartenieff resulted in I Will Bear Witness, a stage adaptation of the Victor Klemperer diaries, which won two Obie Awards.
Prophecy itself, despite the theatrical legacy, is as explosive as this week’s headlines—literally. This is because, besides Iraq, the play has the temerity to give voice to a pro-Palestinian stance—and we know what happens to people who take such positions: They’re reviled and drummed out of the press corps, as veteran reporter Helen Thomas was, after a crotchety answer to an on-the-spot question, which no one needed a Ph.D. to realize wasn't going to work. But, besides Helen’s senior moment, being sympathetic to Palestinians also gets booed at the Academy Awards; in 1978, Vanessa Redgrave had her career marked by the affiliation, and, unless they do them themselves, playwrights don't get their plays involving the subject produced in America—Malpede’s fate.
Prophecy works with time; it telescopes scenes, overlaps them, talks from different years. It makes use of realistic, presentational, and existentialist acting—Bartenieff is the master of the latter for anyone who has ever seen him play Beckett. The story involves an acting teacher (Chalfant) who is reminded of a past lover (who died due to war injuries received in Vietnam) by a current student (he’s dealing with the cost of the Iraq war). It’s a fully developed, well-made play that doesn’t feel old-fashioned, interpreted by a very committed cast, and it diverges into subplots about connections between academics and soldiers, international peace workers, parents, and children. “I think we are held here by threads, each one of us, by threads slim as the web of a spider, to the people we love, to our children” a Palestinian-Lebanese woman and U.N. worker says. “How easy it is for someone to walk through our web without seeing, to wipe away with one move of the hand, without ever knowing what they’ve done. . . . I sometimes think, what makes us human are these threads. . . .”
From the war that doesn’t end, from forbidden positions on impolitic subjects, from the ancient Greeks, comes a play we’re not supposed to care about or even see, if we respect the common wisdom. Don’t.
© 2010 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Karen Malpede wrote and directs this drama, about the ramifications of the wars in Iraq and Vietnam for a network of soldiers and protesters. Kathleen Chalfant, George Bartenieff, Peter Francis James, and Najla Saïd star.
Date: Previews begin May 29, opens June 8, closes June 20
Venue: East Fourth Street Theatre
Venue Address: 83 E. 4th St., New York, N.Y.
Venue Phone: 212-868-4444
(From the New Yorker)
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