The Playgoer: Whither Political Theatre: DC chapter

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Whither Political Theatre: DC chapter

And we thought New York had a problem with political theatre.

Washington Post's Peter Marks surveys the scene in the nation's capitol and finds a surprisingly spotty interest.

Then again, should it surprise us that such a square, "company town" (especially when dominated in all three branches by a philistine Republican administration) isn't chomping at the bit for public performances that challenge the orthodoxy of the talking points of the day. And certainly there is an "alternative" theatre scene in DC (with Wooly Mammoth and Studio Theatre heading the pack). But of the two major nonprofit institutions, The Shakespeare Theatre only does classics (albeit sometimes in a politically slanted production) and Arena seems to be settling into a Roundabout-style complacency. David Hare's story about Stuff Happens being passed on certainly sounds like Arena: "I've had responses from certain unnamed Washington theaters that said, 'Oh, we're always asked to do these kinds of plays.' "

(No matter what you think of Stuff Happens, shouldn't the ultimate Washington insider play be done there??? Or is everyone there all too familiar with the material now and can't face being faced with their own failure.)

Interesting that Marks also focuses on Ari Roth's Theatre J (J for Jewish). Roth was a panelist at the New York Theatre Workshop "Corrie" damage control events back in April, where he displayed a welcome honesty and engagement with controversy. However, Marks leads with how Roth passed on "Corrie" the play because "it wasn't right for a Jewish theatre." Fair enough, I suppose. The only Jewish characters are offstage enemies. And Roth expressed reservations about the play's one-sidedness at NYTW. But clearly it addresses one of the Jewish issues of the day, no? Also, the article later recounts how successful Roth was co-producing the DC premiere of "Homebody/Kabul." Where are the Jews in that??? (Unless you count Kushner.) The difference, of course, is that "Homebody" actually makes audiences feel good about fighting bad Arabs like the Taliban. "Corrie"prompts Jews to ask more difficult questions.

What's especially good about the article is that Marks does not take the Isherwood approach and muse all Jerry Seinfeld-esque about "What's the deal with political theatre???" His tone takes for granted that social engagement in the theatre is important, and so why don't we have more of it, especially at the very seat of power.

Interesting case studies abound. Here's just one:

"Most people have a subconscious threshold for their overtly political intake," observes Jeremy Skidmore, artistic director of Theater Alliance and one of a cadre of young directors making an ever deeper impression on Washington's theater scene. In the spring, he booked two political plays back to back: Lee Blessing's "Two Rooms," about hostage-taking in Beirut, and Colleen Wagner's "The Monument," a Canadian play about a victim of war crimes who turns the tables on her tormentor.
Skidmore says he will never make that mistake again.

Ticket sales dropped for the second play, despite good reviews. "By the time 'The Monument' opened, I was getting e-mails from regulars saying, 'Sorry we can't come see this, because we have had enough.' " Some of the correspondents were people involved in humanitarian causes.

"They spend all their days on human rights issues," Skidmore explains. "Spending their nights was really hard for them."

Not many people enjoy taking their work home with them. It's been said that Washingtonians don't like taking it to the theater either.

Just that first line should give us all pause.


Anonymous said...

Boy, are you unfairly harsh about Theater J. They have done and are still doing lots of work that addresses Israel and Palestine -- more than anybody in NYC can claim to have done -- and the work has often been very challenging for their audience. Since when did MNIRC become the one and only litmus test? Can't they decide it's not right for them without being accused of not addressing THE Jewish issue of the day -- they DO address it, just not with that particular play. (And who knows what else Roth might have said to Marks that didn't get quoted because it didn't serve what Marks was after.) And what is so bad about not liking the Taliban, pray tell? (Not that I agree that HB/K makes us feel good about not liking them --that is a very simple-minded way to think about how that play works).

Anonymous said...

I agree with the poster above. Characterizing Homebody/Kabul as a play that made audiences feel good about fighting the Taliban sounds like an almost willful misreading.

Playgoer said...

Two things:

1) About Theatre J, I agree I should take into account their whole body of work, which I should read more about. I do know from Roth's comments at the April panel that he has staged other pieces about Israel/Palestine. So I agree it was unfair for me to imply that they didn't . I was only referring to the references to them in Marks' article. And so perhaps Marks was unfair, too.

2) About "Homebody", though...
I realize Kushner wrote the play before 9/11 and the Afghanistan invasion, so obviously he is not deliberately commenting on our war against the Taliban. But it's not just my "willful misreading" of the play to suggest it can easily be *received* by post 9-11 audiences as justifying that action.

And hey--I think getting rid of the Taliban was a good thing, too! (If only they weren't coming back now...) Kushner should be praised as prescient enough to point to a human rights issue before others did, and claim it for liberals! (Before it became Bush's issue.) So I do not fault Kushner's writing the play, nor do I criticize what the play stands for.

However--can't we agree that the play has been relatively *easy" to produce post-9/11 (as opposed to, say, MNIRC) because its bad guys are basically the agreed on bad guys of the moment? Sure there's all sorts of complexity and hypocrisy with the father and the British intel man...but when it comes down to it, the edge-of-your-seat climax involves a taliban man posied with a rifle to the head of a woman with a burka. An image, frankly, the GOP is all for us replaying again and again.

Again, no matter what the author's intentions are here, I'm suggesting that now that this play has been shown in countless regional theatres, I'm sure Kushner can no longer control what it "means" in this "war on terror" climate he could not have anticipated when he wrote it.

In short, I'm suggesting there's not much "controversial" about Homebody anymore. It's also "easy" for American audiences to take because...where are the Americans? My question about that play has always been, Why did Kushner go all Brit and leave out his favorite target--his own government.

Anonymous said...

On the Theater J point, Playgoer backs down too easily in response to the challenge from Anonymous.

No one is saying that Theater J has an obligation to produce MNIRC or that they've been doing a poor job of addressing the Israel/Palestine issue.

The point made in the post, instead, is that Roth is on shaky groung to suggest (assuming Peter Marks has characterized him correctly) that MNIRC isn't right for a Jewish theatre.

I'd be interested in hearing Roth explain his thinking. But if he's reached that conclusion because of the play's subject matter, its point of view, or the audience assumptions it challenges, that's really too bad.

It would suggest he's caught the "balance" bug, or that he has a cramped vision of the range of perspectives that should appear on Jewish stages.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Roth just thinks it's not a very good play, and that it doesn't do a particularly good job of raising the issues.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Roth does think that.

But then it's odd that he would describe the play as not being right for a Jewish theatre in particular--instead of just saying he thought it was a weak piece.

Anonymous said...

Based on the fact that Theater J has certainly challenged its audiene on the issue before, and continues to do so, I expect he had somethign more complicated to say, but Marks whittled it down to suit his own purposes.

Anonymous said...

I hope you're right.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Just a quibble: The Taliban may have played host to a few famous Arabs ("bad Arabs," even) but they were Afghans and Pashtuns themselves. And regarding Kushner's play, I find it hard to know who we're supposed to feel for or against in that play, it's such a bloody mess. I would argue that it's only been produced, and just barely, because of the playwright's name and the names that attached themselves to it (Galati, Gyllenhaal), not because it's particularly "easy" on audiences. If "easy" means "boring," maybe.

Anonymous said...

Roth programs intelligently. Sorry I missed the NYTW panel he served on.

Perhaps he said MNIRC wasn't right for a Jewish theater because that is the sort of theater he runs.

Perhaps he also thinks it's a weak piece.

Perhaps he programmed HB/K because it is a piece by a major contemporary Jewish playwright. Plays by such people are one of Theatre J's continuing interests.

Playgoer said...

Perhaps I can offer some closure on the Theatre J debate by adding what I remember Roth saying about MNIRC at the NYTW panel. To give him credit for consistency, I believe he basically said then he would pass on the play because even though the subject matter involved jews it did not include a Jewish point of view. He also communicated that this lack of balance made it a lesser play in his view.

So technically it's not the same as insisting on "balance" per se. Just standing up for his own consituency.

I do agree, though, that the statement Marks quotes from him is unfortunate in implying the play somehow has nothing to do with Jewish audiences. Based on what I know of Roth, I will say I don't believe this is what he meant. Perhaps he hasn't figured out yet how to address the controversy head on.

Anonymous said...

and/or Marks is not an entirely honest reporter