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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 show up 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