Wednesday, April 19, 2017

This Land Was Made For You and Me

In 1931, James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream as a concept that "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement." Thanks to the blatant xenophobia of Donald Trump and his gang of white supremacists, the image of the Statue of Liberty lifting her lamp "beside the golden door" has lost much of its meaning in 2017. In her famous sonnet entitled "The New Colossus," Emma Lazarus wrote:
"Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame."

This year may well go down in American history as the year immigration moved back into the spotlight. With an unending stream of Syrian refugees hoping to restart their lives, what we once took for granted as the American Dream has been upended with a perverse level of malice. More than 130 years after the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886 -- and after millions of immigrants sailed past her en route to Ellis Island -- the promise of shelter symbolized by her mild eyes has been replaced by the cold stares of U.S. customs agents at airports and border crossings. Any immigrant looking to be greeted with open arms would be better advised to head for Canada, whose new Prime Minster, Justin Trudeau, has a much warmer heart than America's 45th President.

It's fascinating to look at how immigrants and early pioneers who blazed a trail across America are depicted in opera and musical theatre. Think of the lyricism, magical realism, and wistfulness expressed in these three clips: the First Ballad from Benjamin Britten's 1941 operetta, "Paul Bunyan" (with a libretto by W. H. Auden); the tenderness of Baby Doe's final aria, "Always through the changing" from Douglas Moore's 1956 opera, "The Ballad of Baby Doe"; and the restless yearning of the title character in Carlisle Floyd's 1955 opera, "Susannah," as she longs to see the world outside the tiny Tennessee valley where she has always lived.






Compare that lyricism and wistfulness to the crass and cynical approach to "The American Dream" expressed in the following scene from Miss Saigon. Is it any wonder that Eric Trump recently described his father as "a man who has achieved every aspect of success -- wealth, family -- in fact so many people often come up to me and talk about him and the concept of the American dream. He is the epitome of the American dream."


The immigrant experience is being presented from radically different perspectives by two Bay area theatre companies. One deals with a contemporary situation; the other takes us back more than a 100 years to the era of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911.

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On August 21, 1986, an overproduced, overwritten musical named Rags opened at New York's Mark Hellinger Theatre after 18 previews. The pedigree of the show's creative team was most impressive.



What could possibly go wrong? In a word, everything (the show closed after four performances). In his review for The New York TimesFrank Rich wrote:
"Rags wants to cover so much ground that there isn't time for people who don't pull their thematic weight. The show recklessly tries to encapsulate the concerns of Henry Roth's 'Call It Sleep,' 'Abraham Cahan's ''Rise of David Levinsky' and Jerome Weidman's 'I Can Get It for You Wholesale.' It earnestly attempts to touch on everything from the heyday of the Yiddish theater to the birth of the I.L.G.W.U., the origins of ethnic machine politics, the conflicts between first- and second-wave immigrants, the advent of feminism, and the virtues of both Marxism and capitalism. The milieu may be melting-pot America, but the show itself is a stewpot in which the multitudinous ingredients either cancel or drown each other out."
New immigrants arrive at Ellis Island at the beginning of Rags
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 
"Perhaps inspired by his subject or by the presence of Miss Stratas, Mr. Strouse has really stretched himself here. Evoking composers as diverse as Joplin, Sousa, Weill, and Gershwin, he uses his music to dramatize the evolution of a vernacular American pop music, much of it fostered by immigrant Jews during the period in which Rags is set. Sometimes Mr. Strouse's ambitions run away with him, and sometimes he retreats from his own scheme to Broadway basics (as in a pandering Act II comic duet for a flirtatious middle-aged couple). Still, this music is worthy of further hearing -- doubly so when the star is expressing the churning excitement of a heady new urban experience in fragrant songs like 'Brand New World' and 'Blame It on the Summer Night.'"
Donald Corren and Julie Benko in a scene from Rags
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Although a studio recording was made in 1991 (in which Julia Migenes replaced Stratas in the lead role), the show was heavily rewritten for subsequent productions by the American Jewish Theatre in New York (1991) and the Colony Theatre Company in Los Angeles (1993) that used only nine actors. In 1999, The Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami and New Jersey's famous Papermill Playhouse used a newly-revised version of the show which featured 15 actors.

A new version of Rags created by Joseph Stein, Charles Strouse, and Wayne Blood of R&H Theatrics was used by The Lyric Stage in Irving, Texas for its 2006 production. Stephen Schwartz (who subsequently wrote the music and lyrics for Children of Eden, Wicked, Snapshots, and The Prince of Egypt) and David Thompson (The Scottsboro Boys) are currently at work on a new version of Rags to be unveiled at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut in October of 2017.

Donald Corren and Darlene Popovic in a scene from Rags
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In 1989, under the leadership of its founder and artistic director, Robert Kelley, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley was one of the first companies to stage Rags using a newly rewritten script. More than 30 years after the show's stillborn Broadway debut (and with numerous tweakings of script and score), TheatreWorks is once again presenting Rags to an audience that fell in love with it three decades ago. My only previous exposure to Rags was a stripped-down 2012 production by the tiny Willows Theatre Company at a small theatre in Martinez, California.




One can't help but look at Rags in the shadow of Ragtime, the 1996 musical based on E. L. Doctorow's novel that was directed by Frank Galati eight years after he had adapted John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath, for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. While both scores included elements of klezmer music, Ragtime boasted a superior book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.

What becomes obvious from listening to even a pared-down version of Rags is that, while its creative team obviously bit off more than they could chew, the team that subsequently worked on Ragtime had better luck with similar material. Even more ironic is the fact that TheatreWorks workshopped and subsequently presented the 2015 world premiere of Triangle, a musical about two parallel love stories affected by the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (with music by Curtis Moore and lyrics by Thomas Mizer), which is also a stronger piece of musical theatre than Rags.

Kyra Miller and Jonah Broscow in a scene from Rags
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Working with Joe Ragey's easily reconfigurable set and Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes, this 2017 revival of Rags did a solid job of highlighting its strengths without any need to apologize for its weaknesses. Thanks to Pamila Z. Gray's lighting and the sound design by Jeff Mockus, musical director William Liberatore was able to do the score justice (especially with "Brand New World, "Children of the Wind," Penny a Tune," and the title song, "Rags"). While certain musical numbers remain strong ("Easy For You," "Blame It On The Summer Night," "Three Sunny Rooms"), one can't escape the nagging feeling that, even though it may have been a labor of love, Charles Strouse may not have been the best composer for Rags.

This production used the latest version of the show's script and score, with Joe Ragey's evocative projections adding a much greater sense of period than might have been possible 30 years ago. Donald Corren was especially touching as Bella's stubborn and overprotective father, Avram, while Darlene Popovic landed her comedic moments nicely as the lonely widow, Rachel Halpern. Others in the cast included Noel Anthony as Rebecca's social-climbing husband, David Bryant as his political boss (Big Tim Sullivan), and Teressa Foss and Caitlin O'Leary as two of the sweatshop seamstresses.

Julie Benko and Travis Leland in a scene from Rags
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Kyra Miller shone as Rebecca Hershkowitz with Nic Roy Garcia portraying her young son, David, at the performance I attended. Julie Benko offered an extremely sympathetic portrayal of the stifled Bella Cohen (who dies in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire) with Travis Leland surprisingly endearing as the immigrant boyfriend she met while crossing the Atlantic Ocean and who embarks on an unimagined career selling phonographs. Danny Rothman gave an impassioned performance as Saul, the union organizer who falls in love with Rebecca.

Kyra Miller, Jonah Broscow, Donald Corren, and Julie Benko star in Rags
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In an interesting twist, the final scene included several cast members dressed in contemporary outfits, reinforcing Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr's claim that "The more things change, the more they stay the same." While Rags is not a great musical, it's a show worth seeing -- even if you're reminded of much more stageworthy musicals like Fiddler on the Roof, Ragtime, Triangle, and Fiorello! (at one point I could have sworn I heard something that sounded similar to a song from Cy Coleman's 1980 show, Barnum).

Performances of Rags continue through April 30 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here for tickets).

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If love is a many splendored thing, then it's safe to say that Saïd Sayrafiezadeh's biting and brutal new comedy, Autobiography of a Terrorist, is a multi-layered, intellectually complex, and splendid piece of work. As in Rags, the yearning to assimilate into American society is an ongoing narrative thread. However, whereas most stories which feature racism and xenophobia as key ingredients in the immigrant experience tend to focus on one aspect of the challenges faced after arriving in America, in the world premiere of his play, Sayrafiezadeh tackles a laundry list of challenges and grievances while attempting to explain what it was like for him to grow up in America during the Iran hostage crisis. What makes his new play such an intoxicating experience? He does it upside down and inside out with the same kind of dazzling dexterity demonstrated by Ginger Rogers who (lest we forget) did everything Fred Astaire did, but did it backwards and in high heels!

Damien Seperi and Alan Coyne in a scene from
Autobiography of a Terrorist (Photo by: Vahid Zamani) 

With Evren Odcikin directing this provocative new work for Golden Thread Productions, the playwright draws the audience into his backstory (an Iranian father who abandoned his family and a Jewish mother from upstate New York) by telling people that what they are about to see is "a collage of scenes" in which he will describe the problems he has encountered (whether auditioning for roles as an actor or trying to steer his play through a workshop reading without having it suffer excessive rewriting by people who feel compelled to change his story into one they would prefer to hear).

As Autobiography of a Terrorist demonstrates the degrading ways in which script alterations and casting changes are used to sanitize an author's writing -- and how one immigrant child who has felt oppressed for much of his life learns how to bully a younger immigrant child (while safely associating with a group of white Jewish children who have accepted him), it helps to remember that Sayrafiezadeh's play is subtitled "A fiercely funny dive into the absurdity of the immigrant experience in America."

Patricia Austin and Cassidy Jamahl Brown in a scene from
Autobiography of a Terrorist (Photo by: Vahid Zamani) 

As the playwright shows how humiliating it is for a well-trained Iranian-American actor capable of performing in numerous accents to try to please casting directors who can only think of him as a dark-skinned Disneyfied genie who should be break dancing to "Gettin' Jiggy wit It" in a commercial designed to sell donuts, Autobiography of a Terrorist heads further down the author's path into deeper and much darker issues. There are lots of laughs to be gained from asking actors to do weird and demoralizing things (such as climbing into an oven to hide from the police or taking over the author's role during a workshop production after the author has been forced out of his own play). Industry-specific issues (such as the whitewashing of roles written for brown-skinned characters and the desire of many non-Caucasian actors to savor what it must feel like to luxuriate in white privilege) are only two of the items Sayrafiezadeh takes time to explain to his audience.

Cassidy Jamahl Brown, Patricia Austin, Alan Coyne, and
Damien Seperi in a scene from Autobiography of a Terrorist 
(Photo by: Vahid Zamani) 

Under Odcikin's deft (and often breathless) direction, Golden Thread's ensemble of five determined artists jumps through acting hoops that range from hilariously fake attempts at empathy to painfully honest confessions; from surprisingly agile bits of physical comedy to heartbreaking moments of personal cruelty. As this all-too-timely play unfolds, it's easy to imagine that the audience is witnessing a perversely political adaptation of Noises Off. But that would be much too easy.

Sayrafiezadeh is absolutely fearless when it comes to pushing peoples' buttons. Describing what it was like for him (as a child) to hear the lyrics from The Beach Boys' hit song from 1965 ("Barbara-Ann") reworked into "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran," he turns the table on the audience by asking how uncomfortable it would make them feel to hear their friends singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb America!" As the company's founding artistic director, Torange Yeghiazarian, writes in her program note:
“It is surprising that, once again, the American President has identified Muslims and Middle Easterners as Enemy No. 1! When we chose Autobiography of a Terrorist by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh last year, I did not imagine just how relevant it would be today. Smart, funny, and poignant, Autobiography examines the many layers of hyphenated identity in America. It shows how distant political events shape a person’s life. Saïd is of mixed cultural background (Iranian and Jewish American). He examines the cycle of exclusion in the United States through this specific lens, but the story he shares could apply to any immigrant group or segment of society that has felt left out. This is what theatre does best: It complicates our understanding. It helps build community when we see ourselves reflected in someone else’s story.”
Jenna Apollonia as the Stage Manager in a scene from
Autobiography of a Terrorist (Photo by: Vahid Zamani)

While Patricia Austin, Cassidy Jamahl Brown, and Jenna Apollonia shine in supporting roles, the evening's top dramatic honors go to Damien Seperi (who appears as the playwright) and Alan Coyne, an actor who continues to amaze me with his astonishing agility and impressive physical comedy skills as well as his breathtaking talent for conveying moments of emotional vulnerability. Additional credit goes to lighting designer Cassie Barnes, costume designer Miyuki Bierlein, sound designer Sara Huddleston, and magic consultant Christian Cagigal.

Autobiography of a Terrorist is aimed at theatregoers who like to rise to a challenge and don't mind squirming in their seats when they are not laughing out loud. Performances continue at the Potrero Stage through May 7 (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer: