Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Back to "Bombingham"?

Recently, the United Church of Christ announced that it would permit (but not require) its congregations to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. Naturally, Virginians are responding to this news in the traditional Southern manner. Rick Sincere has posted details on an old-school church-burning that occurred in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, roughly an hour's drive from where I live.

Update (7/13): The white supremacists weigh in.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Washington, D.C. Reviews: Pacific Overtures and Emperor Jones

Two more reviews from the backlog, one still fresh and the other well past its sell-by date:

Emperor Jones at The American Century Theater: D.C.'s American Century Theater (known to locals as "TACT") specializes in little-seen 20th-century plays. I've seen only two other TACT productions: a spot-on staging of Robert Anderson's gay-themed classic Tea and Sympathy, and a brilliant revival of Orson Welles's Moby Dick Rehearsed that seemed to break all the rules of contemporary drama.

Now they've turned their efforts to a 1920 play by Eugene O'Neill -- and alas, it's The Emperor Jones, a negligible curio from the author's experimental Greenwich Village-Provincetown Players period. At a mere seventy-five minutes, the play never has time to wear out its welcome. But it has few of the surprising insights, and none of the attention to character that O'Neill would display less than two years later with Anna Christie (itself recently revived on D.C.'s Arena Stage).

Emperor Jones is the story of an African-American thug, Brutus Jones, who has crowned himself emperor of a small island in the West Indies and squeezed his subjects for everything they're worth. When he learns that the locals are plotting rebellion, Jones flees for his life into a dark forest ... but powerful spiritual forces on the island seem determined to prevent his escape. Before long, Jones is experiencing a hallucinatory journey into not only his own past, but the history of African-Americans throughout the hemisphere.

All of this sounds much more interesting than it plays: Essentially, The Emperor Jones is an extended monologue, with the title character becoming less articulate and more animalistic in every scene until he's reduced to a jibbering, cringing, barely clothed wreck. (In The Hairy Ape, O'Neill would return to the theme of a character transformed into a brutish beast, but Yank Smith never changes quite as completely as the hapless Jones.) The fun in this production lies largely in director Ed Bishop's ingenious staging -- from the insistent drumbeat (one of the then-revolutionary elements in O'Neill's script) to an impressive, impressionistic rendering of a Middle Passage voyage. But toward the end, when an actor steps out of the wings wearing a latex crocodile mask (again, it's called for in the script), the play takes an irreversible turn toward the ludicrous.

Still, television actor Bus Howard is a perfect choice for Brutus Jones. The role made Paul Robeson a star, and if Howard isn't quite as formidable a stage presence, he more than compensates with top-notch acting. Howard makes Jones's rapid descent into madness affecting, disturbing, and utterly believable. Yet he also emphasizes that Jones is no innocent victim: Jones may be a product of historical oppression, but he is also a corrupt despot. He has earned his fate, though his character is too thoroughly debased to achieve tragic awareness.

The Emperor Jones fell out of favor during the Civil Rights era, when conventional critical wisdom determined that the play was racist. Previous American Century productions have demonstrated how wrong such received wisdom could be, but I'm afraid this one proves it right. True, O'Neill deserves credit for writing a serious play about African-American history during the nadir of race relations in America. But he also succumbed, embarrassingly, to shopworn, white-supremacist stereotypes. In particular, O'Neill gives Jones a crippling fear of "haints" that could have come straight out of a minstrel show. What might have been a tragic look at the nightmare of oppression promptly turns into a glorified "darky-in-the-haunted-house" story.

Still, O'Neill completists will find TACT's Emperor Jones well worth a look. It shows the playwright in a playful Expressionist mode that couldn't differ more from the realism of his better-known dramas, and it contains the germ of a few ideas O'Neill would develop throughout his career. American Century's Emperor Jones plays at the Gunston Theater in Arlington through July 23. Tickets run $18-$26. For more information or to reserve tickets, call 703-553-8782 or click here.

Pacific Overtures at Signature Theater: While we're on the subject of fascinating misfires, let's turn to Signature Theatre's recent production of the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Pacific Overtures. Signature's last Sondheim production was a stripped-down revival of Follies two years ago. Director Eric Schaeffer's bleak reconception of the show jettisoned the usual "Felliniesque" trappings in favor of something that resembled an unholy cross between 42nd Street and Night of the Living Dead.

I wish I could claim that director Eric Schaeffer and the cast and crew at Signature had achieved the same level of success with Pacific Overtures. As originally directed by Hal Prince, the show was a budget-buster, presenting the past 150 years of Japanese history as a spectacular pageant. Elaborate costumes and sets, an opera-house orchestra, and an all-male cast of, if not thousands, at least a few dozen, ensured that the show would have a short run (a little over five months), despite one of Steven Sondheim's best and most-beloved scores. The 2004 Broadway revival, which scaled down the orchestra but still relied on spectacle and scenery, flopped even more egregiously, closing after 69 performances.

It would seem that Pacific Overtures is ripe for retooling, and Signature has obliged with a bold new production -- directed, once again, by Eric Schaeffer. On the conceptual level, it is nothing short of brilliant: Schaeffer has removed most of the colorful spectacle, and restaged the action according to the more traditional guidelines of kabuki theater. He has also whittled the cast down to a mere ten players, and reduced the orchestra to a pit band of seven musicians. The result is a major transformation: Sondheim's biggest and most impersonal show is now an authentic chamber work, and if the show's extended run in D.C. was any indication, it didn't have any trouble finding its audience.

So why did the show still fail?

No small part of the blame must go to John Weidman's unfocused book -- the weakest, I think, of any Sondheim show (which is saying something, since there are two other books by Weidman -- Assassins and Bounce -- contending for the title). Weidman's aim to create a different kind of Broadway musical is perhaps laudable, and in this respect he succeeded: Pacific Overtures is like no other musical, at least none I know. Unfortunately, the book is little more than a glorified history lesson, with no real dramatic tension and an unsatisfying deus ex machina ending. Sondheim's score, much of it in a more traditional musical-theater idiom, provides it with much-needed human warmth; songs like "A Bowler Hat" and "Poems" rank among the best character numbers in his entire oeuvre. Alas, Sondheim can't carry this show by himself, and Weidman's book doesn't do its share. Spectacle-driven productions of Pacific Overtures tend to obscure this weakness; Schaeffer's chamber staging, in contrast, emphasizes it.

The casting doesn't help matters much, either. I have no doubt that with the right ten actors, Pacific Overtures could work reasonably well onstage. Signature, alas, falls a few members short of the ideal. Signature regular Will Gartshore delivers an outstanding (and surprisingly emotional) performance as Kayama Yesaemon -- a low-level samurai turned bureaucrat who happens to be the closest thing this show has to a central character. But other Signature regulars, like Donna Migliaccio and Harry Winter, seem out of place here. Winter, a naturalistic actor who brings a generous humanity to every role he essays, seems ill-suited for the stylization of this show: He may look like a Kabuki actor, but he doesn't move or act like one. As the Reciter, a part originally written for a male baritone voice, Migliaccio is miscast. She has all the right moves, but she can't quite reach the low notes in Sondheim's score. The other female in Signature's cast, Channez McQuay, has a similar problem with the music, which suggests that Pacific Overtures is best served with an all-male cast, or at least with males in all the major singing roles.

The third major flaw in this production might lie with Schaeffer himself. Before he became a director, Schaeffer was a graphic designer, so it's no surprise that his blocking consists for the most part of suggestively arranged tableaus. This image-oriented approach has worked well for other shows, but it feels wrong here: Pacific Overtures is Sondheim's most rhythmic, percussive score to date, and the music demands a great deal of movement -- perhaps even dance -- from the players. To be fair, Schaeffer seems to understand the need for movement during the opening number, "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea," as well as in the second act (which is even more diffuse than the first, if you can believe that). For the final number, "Next," choreographer Karma Camp even has the entire cast perform several basic karate-like moves, bringing the show to an unsettling conclusion. But needlessly static moments outweigh the more fluid ones: When Schaeffer stages the joyous, pulsating number "Someone in a Tree,", he simply has his actors make their respective entrances and stand, stock-still, at the center of the stage. What should be the highlight of the show becomes a dull throwaway.

I don't know if I could have honestly recommended Signature's Pacific Overtures to you, gentle reader; perhaps that's why I waited until after the show closed to write this review. The show was a failure, I think, but not by means a complete one: Over time, as the overall concept grows in memory, and details recede into oblivion, this production will seem much better than it really was. Perhaps, now that Signature has unearthed the chamber musical at the heart of all that pageantry, a few adventurous regional theaters can take this little show and run with it, despite the obvious shortcomings. And if they make a little money off the deal, so much the better.

Signature's Pacific Overtures closed on July 10. Their next show, Urinetown, opens on August 16.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Photo of the Week: Carter Caves State Park, Olive Hill, Kentucky, 2000

Carter Caves SP, originally uploaded by My Stupid Dog.

The limestone canyons of northeastern Kentucky are honeycombed with tiny caves. Carter Caves State Park (about three hours' drive from Lexington) contains more than twenty of them. The park offers four commercial tours, but my favorite attractions here lie aboveground.

Smokey Bridge is one of three natural bridges in the park. None of them are exactly small, but Smokey is the largest, at ninety feet high and 220 feet wide. It's a short stroll from the park lodge. I'm taking this photo from a vantage point just outside the bridge opening. That backlit figure in the distance should give you a sense of scale.

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