Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Meghan Andrews

Why History? – Two productions lean on the past, differently, to speak to now

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The cast of “Indecent” at the Ahmanson through July 7.

The cast of “Ladies,” ending its run at Boston Court Pasadena this Sunday, June 30.

In the past week I have seen two theatrical endeavors – both nearing the ends of their runs – which tackle current social issues by looking at the past. In one case, the history is given theatrical flourish, but is fascinating in its poignant accuracy. In the other, an acknowledged incomplete understanding of history gives a playwright license to turn an antique moment in time into something it never was in order to make a point. Both work as pieces of theater, which fascinates me as a long-time teacher of history and a historian, as well as a theatrical critic.

Why use history to make a modern point? When is it essential that the history be true, and when doesn’t it matter that much? It appears it depends on the purpose history is given in the work itself.

The first of show for discussion, closing this Sunday, is “Ladies,” in its premiere run at Boston Court Pasadena. Playwright Kit Steinkellner uses the inspiration of four historical 18th Century intellectual women who formed The Blue Stocking Society, or (as the playwright says) were feminists before that term was invented, to explore the role of women as writers, artists, sexual independents and free spirits. In this case, the rather uninformed assumptions admitted by the play itself make for fuzzy history, but important social commentary.

The second show is the national tour production of Paula Vogel’s Tony-winning Broadway play-with-music, “Indecent.” At the Ahmanson only through July 7, the show essentially chronicles the life of a controversial 1907 play. Developed in the rich artistic world of eastern Europe’s Yiddish theater, where it was acclaimed, the piece ran into a firestorm when it opened much later, in English and heavily adapted, on Broadway. Why the difference, and what happened to those involved becomes a cautionary tale on the American Dream and the rise of authoritarianism.

Whether using historical figures as the poet does (i.e.: with less interest in accuracy than in spirit) to make a contemporary point, or telling a documentable story of increasing intolerance as a cautionary tale about echoes to be found in our society, the use of history is elemental to each production’s impact. That the role of history in one is pretty much the opposite of its role in the other is fascinating, in that they both succeed in placing a current issue in the longer story of human art and intellect.

In “Ladies,” director Jessica Kubzansky has the four Blue Stocking members emerge from a modern base, and revert to the modern narrative simply by putting on glasses. Thus the back-and-forth between a conceived repressive past and a questioning present become seamless and fascinating. The historical figures are real, and did exist. They include a novelist, a painter, a poet, and the woman who has brought these others together to, in this play anyway, advocate for women’s place in the arts.

How much of what results is an accurate look at the women’s lives, and how much is a modern lens clumping together more and less repressive time periods is immaterial to the point of the play. Rather, this is a playwright’s own wrestle with a past once inconceivable: that women rejected docility in favor of artistic expression before the concept of women’s rights was articulated in English culture. It is the wrestling which matters, not the really rather inaccurate sense of the society which created and either supported or rejected the Blue Stockings (a term which eventually morphed into a catch-all designation for academic-minded women in Britain).

Meghan Andrews, Carie Kawa, Jully Lee, and Tracey A. Leigh create the four women plus servants, husbands, and other occupants of their world, then shift to offer commentary not only on those women’s stories, but the playwright’s internal monologue concerning them. Costumes by Ann Closs-Farley allow quick character shifts, and even occasionally become characters all their own. The focus on women as physical beings, and on desires they may have had along the way is universal, and in the end history (such as it is here) becomes a mere tool for a very modern philosophical musing.

On the other hand, “Indecent” is the true story of Sholem Asch’s play “God of Vengeance,” written in Yiddish in 1907, about an oppressive father whose fortune comes from running the brothel downstairs, and his young, innocent daughter who finds true love – to that father’s horror – with one of the prostitutes below. After a long and successful run in Jewish theaters around Europe, with its leads becoming stars of note throughout that world, it heads to America, is a hit in Yiddish circles there, and then – in a bowdlerized version – becomes a scandal on Broadway, with its cast convicted of indecency.

The story is real, and in this case the history is told with considerable accuracy, yet the story itself is not entirely the point. Once again the tale of artistic freedom, embraced in one part of society and yet increasingly rejected by the more powerful as violating societal norms, and the echoes of that increasingly powerful provincialism and intolerance in our modern world, especially toward recent immigrants, give a gravitas beyond what is simply historical. Indeed, there are elements which speak to Carlos Santayana’s famous phrase that “those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.”

Steeped in the traditions of Jewish Europe, with much of the dialogue in Yiddish (in print and in translation to English on the wall above) there is a strong cultural center to the piece. Yet, at the same time, the openness of an artistic Europe is placed against the rigid rules of decency which infected even the segment of the Jewish population of the US anxious to achieve assimilation: where Yiddish culture is rejected for a shot at the American mainstream. Indeed, much has been written about the freedom of the culturally rich Yiddish art scene in New York in the early 20th century, and how it vanished. This in part because of fears of deportation as exclusionary immigration laws stifled attempts to use the US as escape from the rising terror – the “return to morality” via fascism – overseas.

The intolerance here is both internal and external, with those who cannot abide the loss of freedom returning to a Europe where soon more than freedom will be lost. Still, the moral authority which deems a famous play indecent, the sense of fear surrounding immigration policies, the perceived need to meld into the mainstream to avoid hatred, not to mention the intolerance toward a positive view of lesbian love, sounds a lot like the more judgmental elements of modern America.

Under the guiding hand of Tony-winning director Rebecca Taichman a remarkably versatile cast – Richard Topol, Elizabeth A. Davis, Joby Earle, Harry Groener, Mimi Lieber, Steven Rattazzi, and Adina Version, with musicians (who also are active characters) Matt Darriali, Patrick Farrell and Lisa Gutkin – sing, play, and dance as an elemental expression of culture. They create a myriad of parts to flesh out the story of the play, and its author who wrote only stories and novels, leaving his own play in a dust his actors could not, and the performers whose lives were forever changed by the parts they played. It is a powerful picture of disconnects, fears, and foundational beliefs.

In the end, it is striking to what extent each play’s historical context proves essential to the playwright’s point. Whether that arc of history is deeply, affectingly accurate as in “Indecent,” or almost an artifice, as in “Ladies,” giving a sense of the long arc of history provides a needed underpinning to talking about the world in which we currently live. And that, to some extent, is why history remains important: we are still human beings capable of making the same mistakes those before us did, or learning how not to, by looking back to look forward.

What: “Ladies” When: this production’s last two performances, Saturday June 29 and Sunday, June 30, are both sold out Where: Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena

What: “Indecent” When: through August 7, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $155. Info: 213-972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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“King Charles III” – Tradition vs Conscience

Jim Abele as Charles in KING CHARLES III at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jenny Graham]


In order to fully understand the tensions of the play now open at the Pasadena Playhouse, it would be helpful have some background in the last century of the British monarchy. By this I do not mean necessarily that fascination with the soap opera played out in public by the royal family in the last few decades, but the ways in which the monarchy has defined its role – and had that role defined for it – in what is otherwise a strongly democratic parliamentary system. What does it mean that the monarch “reigns but does not rule”?

This proves central to “Charles III”, Mike Bartlett’s examination of the constitutional and emotional conundrum facing the current Prince Charles almost as soon as he takes the throne. He, like all monarchs, must sign every bill passed by the parliament before it becomes law, but this is mostly a ceremonial formality. When one crosses his desk he feels is detrimental to his country’s freedom, what can he do? What should he do? What could any action mean to the delicate balance that is the British system?

What makes all of this particularly delicious is Bartlett’s conscious choice to tell the tale in Shakespearean format. There is a ghost speaking cryptic predictions. There is iambic pentameter. There is a moral dilemma played out in the rich format of formal dialogue. Though, by modern standards, this may make the play seem talky, at the same time it relishes in the echoes of Hamlet and Macbeth – the awesome and terrible load on those who wear the crown.

Jim Abele is Charles, a man who has waited a literal lifetime to attain the only job he has ever been trained for. As such Abele finds the balance of the formality of the job and the character’s deep passion for justice in ways which show both his warmth and his sense of command. Adam Haas Hunter, as William, suddenly a crown prince, emphasizes the stoicism and the festering frustrations of destiny, while Meghan Andrews creates in his wife a sense of command which portends a wrangle over definitions of power. Dylan Saunders’ Harry underscores the frustrating uselessness which is the fate of royal younger sons. Sarah Hollis stands out as the girl who introduces Harry to a reality outside the palace, providing a rounded sense of the real life Harry yearns for.

On the other side of the argument, both powerful and adversarial, is J. Paul Boehmer as the prime minister who finds himself in a tense standoff with a king with his own understanding of his role, the parameters of Britain’s (unwritten) constitution, and the needs of a people he may or may not understand. The resulting questions power the play. Is what the people want always the right thing to do? Is there a safety valve available through the monarchy for unwise governmental action? Are the royal family puppets of political forces who, in truth, find them superfluous?

Director Michael Michetti takes what could be a static and talky script and gives it fascinating legs, in part by bringing it out into the Playhouse audience space. Parliament is on the floor with the patrons, and the almost forbidding palatial spaces of David Meyer’s remarkable set provide the instant formality and distance which define the main conundrums of the piece. This, even by itself, helps move one past the details of British constitutional practice into the humanity of the characters and the fearsome angst of the choices being made.

“King Charles III” is, of course, a fiction. Still, by tying its format and emotional core to Shakespeare’s insightful portraits of former kings both real and imaginary, there is a larger concept at play than just wondering what Charles will be like when and if he ascends the throne. Rather, there is a real, active focus on the monarch’s role to “advise and warn”, and how that works in a world awash in sensational media and quick answers to complex questions. As such, it is a treat for the mind as well as the artistic sense.

What: “King Charles III” When: through December 3, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 8 p.m. Tuesday, November 28, and no performance on Thanksgiving, or at 7 p.m. Sunday, November 26 Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $96 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

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