By Bob Shuman
Theatre watchers may contemplate how two plays, both directed by Orson Welles for the Depression’s Federal Theatre, have devilishly reappeared, not during a period of high unemployment, but in time for the Mueller Report. The first is The Cradle Will Rock, at Classic Stage Company (CSC), which plays until May 19, a sung-through worker’s opera, whose score can seem a paint-by-numbers overlay on songs by Kurt Weill (with Brechtian lyrics), specifically “Surabaya Johnny,” from Happy End, and “Tango Ballad” from The Threepenny Opera. The show, from 1937, was famously taken into a commercial run by its director, after a delayed opening; its first performance was sung by company actors from the audience, while Marc Blitzstein played his score on an onstage piano. Political divides, erupting from unions and concerns regarding socialism, forced the standoff and provided an early example of Welles’s artistic marginalization, a pattern to be continued during his Hollywood years (a campy movie, Cradle Will Rock, based on these events, by Tim Robbins, was released in 1999, starring Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Cherry Jones, and Bill Murray, among many others).
Minimalist director John Doyle, who tends to use actors who can double on musical instruments (Patti LuPone demonstrated her abilities on the tuba, in his Sweeney Todd, in 2005, for example), surrounds Blitzstein’s piano with salvage drums, and his only props are wads of cold, hard cash. Doyle has gathered professional singers, actors, and musicians (dressed in dungarees–scarves for women– working unmiked and laterally, while the audience sits on three sides) for his Steeltown, U.S.A., the domicile of the powerful, corrupt, exploitive businessman, Mr. Mister. Although Tony Yazbeck has an ultimate period look, perfect for casting by Elia Kazan, and goddess-sized Kara Mikula can make a surprising calisthenic move, this is a solid, professional, all-equals ensemble, which also includes the impressive talents of Ken Barnett, Eddie Cooper, Benjamin Eakeley, David Garrison, Ian Lowe, Lara Pulver, Sally Ann Triplett, and Rema Webb.
There would probably be little reason to think about Welles now—after all, the Federal Theatre Project was active from 1935 to 1939, until political pressure closed it down–had Doyle and director Sharon Ann Fogarty (whose Faust 2.0 ran until April 14 at the newly opened state-of-the-art theater space for Mabou Mines on First Avenue) not seen an analogy between the evil characters in these artistic properties and Donald Trump. The Mueller outcome may seem a shattering anticlimax (like the 2016 election results), in that the president has not been found to be an evil Mr. Mister or Mephistopheles. Quite the reverse appears to be coming to light, where collectives, such as media organizations, and maybe even theatres, have chosen product which dovetails with the serial rating bids of network TV.
Playwright Matthew Maguire does not mind directly alluding to Trump as the “Real Estate magnate” in his dense reimagining of the Faust legend, which has a sci-fi vibe and wants to teeter into the Theatre of the Ridiculous. His work does not congeal or find much tension—although the inherent episodic plot has been updated to include various elements, such as fine singing and dancing, as well as staring into camera lenses, both live and recorded. Faust can be animated enough to entertain children (across the street, at Theatre for a New City, a puppet version was, in fact, presented in March and April) and in the eighteenth century and beyond, according to the BBC, Goethe’s and Marlowe’s dramas were produced as marionette plays to bypass censors. What was agreed as incendiary was the theme of “challenging authority and the status quo, in fact, defying God.” A point which the Maguire script highlights is the idea that two souls can live in one body—one pulled to heaven and the other to hell, as well as the concept that those who strive will always be beautiful. The thought that God is a divine feminine might rankle prelates, but not Welles, who recommended Robert Graves‘s The White Goddess in order to understand his own work. Jim Clayburgh deserves accolades for his Mabou Mines set, based on the art of M. C. Esher, the most memorable design this reviewer has seen thus far in the year.
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F A U S T 2 . 0
ADAPTED FROM GOETHE BY
Sharon Ann Fogarty
Faust: Benton Greene*
Mephistopheles: Paul Kandel*
Helen of Troy: Angelina Impellizzeri*
Panthalis/Mary: Andrea Jones-Sojola*
Euphorion: Oliver Medlin
Paris/Gravdigger: Chris Rehmann
APPEARING ON VIDEO:
Greg Mehrten* (EMPEROR), Bill Raymond* (GOD/ARCHBISHOP), Jim Findlay (GENERAL), Terry O’Reilly (TREASURER), Karen Kandel* (CARE), Black-Eyed Susan (NEED), Gloria Miguel* (DEBT), Ching Valdez-Aran* (WANT), Rosemary Fine* (MOTHER), Molly Heller (DAUGHTER) Maude Mitchell* (BAUCIS), Arthur French* (PHILEMON), Sam Balzac and Jason Weisinger (GARDENERS), Chloe Worthington, Carina Goelbelbecker, Gabrielle Djenné, and Britt Burke (FLOWER GIRLS), Bella Breuer, Ruma Breuer, Julia Da-In Patton and Zani Jones Mbayise (GIRLS).
Set & Lighting Design – Jim Clayburgh
Costume Design – Marsha Ginsberg
Video Design – Jeff Sugg
Sound Design – Fitz Patton
Original Music – Eve Beglarian
Choreography – Kristi Spessard
Stage Manager – Gina Solebello*
Production Manager – Jørgen Noodt Skjærvold
Technical Director – Matthew Mauer
Assistant Director – Molly Heller
Assistant Stage Manager – Sam Gibbs
Associate Video Designer – Robin Ediger-Seto
Hair and Makeup Design – Mara Schiavetti
Associate Costume Design – Kat Jeffery
Assistant Set and Lighting – Eleanor Bryce
Sound Engineer – James Kogan
Production Assistant – Rebecca Tyree
Lighting programmer- Kent Sprague
Assistant Sound Designers – Sun Hee Kil & Bradlee Ward
Wardrobe – Crystal Kovacs
*Member of Actors’ Equity Association
Photos: “Cradle”: Joan Marcus; “Faust”: Mabou Mines
Copyright (c) 2019 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.