Thursday, April 17, 2008

We Live On a Political Stage

This is my Stage Matters column I sent in for the North Coast Journal published today. Apparently the email went awry...we're still sorting this out. Apologies are due to the folks at Dell'Arte I interviewed, and to Jeff DeMark, because their shows I write about here are this weekend.

So I'm posting the column in full here today.

The theatre of politics is pretty obvious in this presidential campaign year, but politics in theatre—that is, political and social issues of current concern as subject matter--is also especially evident on North Coast stages in 2008.

Several plays written in another time encouraged reflection on pertinent issues of today—and were likely chosen with that in mind. The year began with “Marat/Sade” at NCRT, which dealt with political violence, totalitarian repression and the gap between rich and poor. “Twelve Angry Men” at Ferndale Rep reminded us of fragile principles in our justice system, and the folly of discarding them. Dell’Arte revived “The Golden State,” which also touches upon economic disparities as well as perennial cultural issues, and North Coast Prep presented “The Crucible,” reminding us of the contagion of fear, especially when it is manipulated for political and economic gain.

Now Ferndale Rep is doing a musical that has the distinction of leading to several Supreme Court decisions concerning censorship and political speech. Today’s younger audiences for “Hair” may be a little baffled by some of the issues of central importance in the story, such as the major plot point of burning a draft card, and all the fuss about…hair. Both had immense symbolic importance in the 1960s, and caused of outrage and violence in the public sphere, and within families. Still, this play’s relevance to current issues of war, protest and repression are obvious, unfortunately.

Other current social and political issues seem clearly on the minds of second year students of the Dell’Arte International School’s MFA Ensemble in the piece they’re creating and presenting for the first time this coming weekend.

Between Two Winters on the Carlo Theatre stage Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2, is the result of an eight week process that began with students studying the nature of tragedy (Aristotle’s “Poetics” applied to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”) But when it came time to create a theatre piece, students were directed to find a subject in the newspaper.

According to Brian Moore, the student directing the piece, the story they selected was about a woman who was approached by the man who had raped her 20 years before. He asked her forgiveness, and she refused. Instead she initiated a prosecution, which caused controversy and criticism.

But in the process of writing the script, “it’s taken on a much different life of its own,” Moore said. “From that starting point, we’ve ended up in a much different place.”

Now the story takes place in Kuwait in the early 1990s, where the mayor of a city in Montana goes to honor the hero who saved lives during the oil field fires set by the retreating Iraqi forces in Gulf War I. The mayor is the woman who was raped 20 years before, the hero was her rapist, who has been in hiding ever since.

There are more moral and plot complications. The mayor is “a pretty notorious figure,” said Ronlin Foreman, the school’s director of pedagogical studies, who supervises the project. “She is a hyper politician with aspirations to the Senate, and has a real quality of vengeance in her life.” She also has a daughter for whom she also has political ambitions—who is the child resulting from that rape.

Where all this leads was still taking shape when I spoke with Moore and Foreman this past weekend. But for Foreman, the rationale for applying the tragic form to contemporary events is clear. “We have a surfeit of tragic occurrences,” he said “but tragedy in our day and age is a hard thing to come by. We think that we’re coming into a time when an admission of tragedy, of tragic flaw, is important.”

“Tragedy is a form that at its root pits the rational and ordered world against the world of terror and chaos,” according to a text these students use. “It deals with the human drive to step out of the chorus, to stand for and proceed into the hero’s journey…”

For this project, the chorus—which in Greek tragedy is the voice of the community that narrates and comments on the story—is represented by the media. “We’re planning to have a television camera onstage, broadcasting to monitors,” Moore said, “because we’re exploring how the media can make one of the characters the protagonist one moment, but suddenly shift to side with a different character.”

But the shifting chorus as well as the moral complexities of the situation challenges the classical definition of tragedy. “It’s hard a lot of the time to see the actions of these characters as sins, in the way that the Greeks did,” Moore explained. “We have a much different understanding of morality. We don’t bend to the will of the gods the same way the ancient Greeks did.”

So when I asked “Who is the tragic hero? What is the tragic flaw?” they both laughed a little uncomfortably. “Well, that’s what we’re working on right now,” Moore said.

Applying the tragic sense to these contemporary events remains an essential part of this exploration. “It’s a time when we say that it is important for someone to step out of the chorus—out of the people,” Foreman said, “as leaders—as people who expect to do something to change things.”

Foreman’s goal is to get the script right, so this weekend’s performances may turn out to be more like staged readings, he said. But the exploration will continue to a scheduled mid-May run of “Between Two Winters” at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco.

There are even some contemporary issues explored in the annual HSU dance concert this weekend (“Pure Abstractions,” Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 in the Van Duzer.) Then beginning next weekend, the 10th annual HSU Ten Minute Play Festival will include an unusual number of plays on social and political themes, including terrorism and interrogation, war and genocide. (Plus the usual comedies and fantasies, of course.) The festival runs April 24-26 and May 1-3.

This Saturday at 8 PM in the Arcata Playhouse, Jeff DeMark reprises his newest show, “They Ate Everything But Their Boots,” about the trials and tribulations of finding and renovating a Humboldt home. This will be only the third time DeMark has done this show since its premiere at the Bayside Grange in late 2006, and he promises some new material as well as an expanded musical presence by the Tiny Tims. Thanks to the mortgage crisis, there’s a new topicality as well to this typically funny, smart and generous DeMark show.

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