In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.
Poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht had been living in exile from Nazi Germany in Denmark for six years when he published "Motto," the famous epigraph to his Svendborg Poems in June of 1939. In less than three months, Hitler's invasion of Poland would plunge Europe into the swirling madness of World War II. By then Brecht was on the run again, to Sweden, Finland, and by 1941, to the United States, where he made his home in Southern California for the next six years. In 1947, Brecht was called to testify about past Communist affiliations before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and to the consternation of his friends, acting on the advice of his lawyers he agreed to do so. He denied Communist Party membership and named no names, but the following day, Brecht left for Europe, never to return. He eventually relocated permanently to East Berlin, where he died in 1956, a proud holder of the Lenin and Stalin Peace Prizes, at the age of 58.
As a Jewish émigré and committed Marxist during the rise of fascism in Europe, and later Cold War anti-communism hysteria in America, Brecht knew something about living, and singing, in and about the dark times. A friend first sent along his little verse to me shortly after 9/11, which until the election of Donald Trump on November 8, 2016, had been easily the darkest day of my political life.
Today, however, we find ourselves in a political crisis without precedent in American history. We've had wars, we've had depressions, we've had political assassinations, we've had widespread civil unrest and even a civil war. But never has our federal government been taken over by a group of people so utterly lacking in experience, judgment, competence, temperament, respect for the Constitution and laws, transparency and accountability--lacking even in their fundamental obligations to serve the public and protect and defend the country against foreign adversaries. We have elected the enemy, and he is us.
So yes, dark times. In this context, then, what is the role of the artist? To expose, to comment, to criticize, to amuse? Since last fall, it's been all of the above onstage in Los Angeles, where the theatre community has risen mightily to the challenge with a range of both original and classic material that in various aspects speaks directly to our unique and unsettling historical moment.
Under the guidance of artistic director and executive producer Marilyn Fox, Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice has just opened its revival of "Rhinoceros," the legendary but rarely performed absurdist parable by Eugène Ionesco, set in an unnamed French town in "the middle of the last century" where the populace inexplicably begins transforming into rhinoceroses. The Romanian-born Ionesco wrote it in 1959, informed by his youthful experience watching friends, teachers and colleagues increasingly embrace Romania's homegrown but Nazi-aligned fascist Iron Guard movement. Written and first produced in French, its English-language London premiere in 1960 starred Laurence Olivier and was directed by Orson Welles. Despite its critical and commercial success, and an extended run in a larger house, the clash of egos and backstage tension helped ensure that it would be the last stage play Welles would direct.
With its slapstick moments, broadly drawn characters, and sometimes nonsensical dialogue, audiences could easily mistake "Rhinoceros" for simple farce, or an anodyne endorsement of individuality against a tide of conformity, of letting your freak-flag fly, as did a lame 1973 adaptation reuniting Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in what played more like a flabby sequel to "The Producers" than taut political allegory. But the more discerning critics and playgoers recognized it for what it was: a horror story, as PRT's accomplished company properly plays it. Actor-playwright Keith Stevenson is Berenger, the play's baffled but ultimately brave everyman hero, while the production is directed sensationally under his nom de directeur "Guillermo Cienfuegos" by Alex Fernandez, a seasoned actor who plays Jean, the other leading role originated on Broadway by Zero Mostel. His transformation scene is truly a show-stopper.
Early last September--when we could still contemplate a totalitarian assault on our freedom from what seemed like a safe remove, with Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight giving Clinton a 69.6% chance of winning against Trump's 30.4%--we attended a different kind of political horror show: the current presentation of the Actors' Gang sturdy adaptation of George Orwell's "1984," directed by Tim Robbins. Effectively condensed into a torturous interrogation of Winston by his tormentor O'Brien, backed up by four nameless Party functionaries, the whole thing is imaginatively staged in the Gang's signature bare-bones format, relying more on lighting, sound, and creative blocking than on conventional sets, props, and costumes. Disturbing, yes--but like a ghost story that gives you a good shiver, secure in the knowledge that such things can't possibly happen in real life.
Until they do. And so in late November, still reeling in shock at the election results, we saw the Kirk Douglas Theatre's production of "Vicuña," a sharp and timely political satire that had been feverishly written, rehearsed, and mounted roughly between the primaries and Labor Day by Jon Robin Baitz, best known for "The Substance of Fire" and his prolific episodic and mini-series TV work. The story revolves around a vulgar, blustering Trump avatar, Kurt Seaman (Harry Groener), whose presidential campaign is in desperate need of a boost heading into the final debate. As he is being fitted for a bespoke vicuña suit--a sly if unsubtle nod to a notorious Eisenhower-era scandal--by a high-end tailor, Anselm de Paris (originally a poor Iranian immigrant who has reinvented himself), Seaman's racism, sexism, and narcissism emerges on full display. It's all too much for Anselm's woke, and outspoken, Muslim protégé Amir, who--to the embarrassment of his patron--fearlessly confronts Seaman over his intolerance. The play's happy ending seemed a safe bet on its opening night of October 23, when FiveThirtyEight gave Clinton an 86.2% chance of winning against Trump's 13.8%. Who could have known that only five days later, FBI Director James Comey's email announcement would, in Nate Silver's analysis, cost Clinton the election?
Finally, there was "Transition," a one-act maiden effort for last month's Hollywood Fringe Festival written by longtime entertainment reporter, commentator and author Ray Richmond. He imagines the awkward meeting two days after the election between Barack Obama (an uncannily convincing Joshua Wolf Coleman) and Donald Trump (a bombastic Harry S. Murphy), as the outgoing president earnestly attempts to orient his terminally inattentive and distractable successor about his new responsibilities. While lacking much dramatic structure or story arc, Richmond's play offered a wry but insightful exchange between two emphatically unequal characters.
It has been said that art is not a mirror, but a hammer; it shapes, not reflects. Small wonder, then, that along with his incessant attacks on a free press, independent fact-checking sources, and political dissent generally, President Trump's "America First" budget would eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for Humanities. In dark times, that's all the more reason to wield that hammer, as these artists have, with both force and purpose.