Sunday, July 10, 2016

America Hurrah! (1966)

There’s that episode of Mad Men where Don’s second, younger wife, the aspiring actress, takes him to see an Off-Broadway play. The play is very modern (his wife is very modern), the actors are in contemporary dress, but wearing clear, plastic masks which make them appear uncanny.

They are not telling a traditional narrative, they are not recreating a scene from life on stage, there are intercut monologues, stories told with direct address, describing perhaps a single incident from many points of view. The set consists of featureless blocks. The actors sit, stand, turn, fall to the floor, roll over.

Don is either unimpressed by or made unhappy by a monologue by one of the actors about how he likes to drink beer while watching television commercials. This character talks about commercials, and he makes commercials sound awful. They make him ill. Don makes commercials for a living.

The play depicted on this episode of Mad Men (season five, episode nine: “Christmas Waltz”) is a real play. It is America Hurrah by Jean-Claude van Itallie, which opened almost fifty years ago in November, 1966.

"America Hurrah" on Mad Men
Admittedly, I would not even know about this particular play (we didn’t read it in college, it was not something produced when I was at school) had it not received a twenty-fifth anniversary revival at Dobama Theatre in 1994. America Hurrah was first produced in Cleveland at Dobama in 1969.

We have a paperback of the script on the shelf, and I was delighted to find it includes photographs from the original production at the Pocket Theatre. The design team at Mad Men, whose efforts to authentically recreate the time period have been exhaustively discussed, did a picture-perfect job of presenting the play for the program.

It was startling, almost touching. When do we see that, a theatrical moment painstakingly reproduced to be incorporated into an alternate narrative? First thoughts include the "Rocky Horror" scene in Fame (1980) or the "Sleep No More" episode of Gossip Girls.

I mean, we are talking about plays here.

The wife recently shared with me a collection of books on playwriting, books she has incorporated into her high school curriculum. I have been feeling a bit stuck this season and she thought they might help. I was curious to see one was written by van Itallie (The Playwright's Workbook) and so that’s the one I started with. After all, it features a highly impressive quote on the cover;
“Jean-Claude is the only playwriting teacher I ever had.” - Tony Kushner
Well, if he’s good enough for Kushner.

When I was at Last Frontier last month, I was struck by the quality of the work. Almost exclusively I was interested in the stories being told, by their plot and to an even greater extent their emphasis on good structure. And I was reminded why theater. That watching a profound event play out in real time by living, breathing people, capable of error or change, right in front of you, remains and will remain a necessary thing.

The works read and performed in the Play Lab during the day, and those we saw as fully-produced productions onstage in the evenings, were a healthy mix of the realistic, absurd and dreamlike, satiric and poetic, historic and fantastic. Above all I was impressed by the words. The words were all very good words. I felt the present and future of American theater is in good hands.

The Fantasticks (2016)
However, I have also recently been thinking about the kind of playful insanity that struck many theater creators mid-century, and the manner in which they intentionally threw off long-standing traditions of realism to embrace the artificiality of theater in a very obvious way.

This past spring, Great Lakes Theater produced the musical The Fantasticks. As was the case when GLT produced The Mousetrap a few years earlier, many I spoke with assumed they had seen this play somewhere, at some time, only to discover they only thought they had. The Fantasticks and The Mousetrap are each titles which hover just above the eyebrows, and about a half-inch back, nestled in the post-forebrain like some in vitro memory. You can picture it, but you were never actually there.

The Fantasticks tells a very simple story, which can easily be described as a tale where a young Romeo-and-Juliet-type couple are permitted to get married and start a life together and discover how challenging that can be. The production is intended to be highly presentational, with a set that resembles a nearly-bare stage, and modern dress. In the Off-Broadway production (still playing) that means the original early-1960s modern dress, at the Hanna the design was gently influenced by the present day, reflecting a geeky, retro charm.

Clare Howes Eisentrout & Pedar Benson Bate
The show has a narrator, who (as Shakespeare’s Chorus might describe, “prologue-like”) lays down the ground rules so the audience understands that what they see is a representation and in no way meant to be taken as literal. Perhaps in 1960 this was shocking. By 1970 you would find it a bit dated and by 1980 downright condescending. Today it is merely a quaint convention, mellowed by time. Oh, I remember this, I love this kind of stuff. Please go ahead.

I was delighted by the GLT production. Previously only familiar with that one song (you know the song) I was surprised to find there were a couple others which I really enjoyed, most notably They Were You, which is a lovely, lovely song. Having said that, I am not sure I would have been impressed with the text had the performance been in other hands. When you decide to present a play without a representational set, and your costumes are designed to resemble every day street clothes, it truly pushes the performers to be the central focus. And the words.

Twelfth Night (As Told By Malvolio)
This month we are presenting a forty-five minute adaptation of Twelfth Night, a production designed to be presented in area libraries. The library itself is meant to be the set, the only additional piece of furniture is a high school desk. Our four actors are in familiar dress (it’s set in the 1980s) and while they have been tasked with sharing teenage emotions, their primary goal is to present the poetry of Shakespeare with speed, passion and clarity.

Those up for a good time and a brief entertainment have been enjoying these performances very much. Anyone longing for Shakespeare sung in languid, mellifluous tones in Mid-Atlantic accents and draped in Renaissance-era costumery will be disappointed.

Which brings me back to Mad Men. Don was offended by the content, which he took as a criticism of his business, or of his character. Additionally, he may have been unimpressed or even uninterested in sitting in a chair for two hours only to have to watch people dressed exactly the same as he (a suit, a tie, leather shoes) just saying things directly to him, and not presenting an active story he might get lost in.

But then, as the camera cuts from the stage to the audience, we the viewers are also seeing the people on stage and also the people in the audience watching them. The audience in the television program is dressed the same as the actors on stage. The actors on stage are performing a play as part of a television program, performing the role of actors telling stories of modern life (from fifty years ago) as actors from today are sitting in the audience, performing the roles of people (from fifty years ago) whose own fictional stories are part of another story that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner chose to write about and comment on and that we watch on television today, just as the stories of real people (from fifty years ago) are what the playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie chose to write about and comment on in his play America Hurrah, which premiered fifty years ago.

Well played.

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