By Arnold Sundgaard
Two years ago the GLTF Outreach Tour was Seeing Red, written by Daniel Hahn, which included verbatim transcripts of HUAC testimony. The Festival was producing The Crucible that season, and so we created an original work that provided a context for Miller’s work.
It was through performing in that show that I began my education in the Federal Theatre Project, Hallie Flanagan and all the rest. Ms. Flanagan petitioned to testify before the Dies Committee/House Committee on Un-American Activities to defend the important work that was provided to unemployed artists through the program.
By 1938 the Project was under attack for giving voice to socialist and communist sentiments … or at the very least, making capitalism look bad.
Several FTP plays were mentioned in our production, including Injunction Granted! (which Ms. Flanagan defended, even though she was not happy with the production - a text I am hoping to get my hands on) and Spirochete.
In my role as Texas Representative Martin Dies, I ask about this play (pronounced spy-rho-KEET) and when Ms. Flanagan (performed so magnificently by Elizabeth Wood) explains that it is an educational device about venereal disease, Rep. Dies blanches and changes the subject.
I have now, finally, read Spirochete. And I was surprised by two things:
1. It is educational but also very interesting.And when I say it is hilarious, I do not mean in that ironic, unintentional way. A good deal of it deals with the subject of syphilis with great, successful humor.
2. It is hilarious!
I do have two complaints. On is that the first act, a history of how Europeans contracted the disease from the native peoples of North America (okay, I am going to let that slide for the time being, that’s not the complaint) and leading up to the 20th century, which is broad, amusing, fast-paced, great fun. The second act, however, is about the journey to isolate and diagnose the virus, cure it and then de-stigmatize it in order to legislate testing to prevent it -- all worthy endeavors, but not handled with the same light hand.
The second disappointment is that the play does not come back to where it begins, with a young couple surprised and shocked that they must subject themselves to a blood-test before getting married. Trying to calm their nerves - and their offended sensibilities - is why we begin this journey, but we do not come back to them so it is never resolved.
Though this would never have made the cut in 1938 )when it was first produced) I would have loved to find out that one of them actually had it, if only because each are so offended by the very suggestion that they might.
Regardless. I could easily see this work directed by Raymond Bobgan at CPT or Clyde Simon at convergence-continuum, the non-linear narrative and moments of surrealism (not to mention a sad, recurring character called “The Patient” who suffers from the disease for over four hundred years) begs for either of these artists to raise this text to even greater levels of fantastic surprise and wonder.