Friday, May 30, 2014

The Anthem at Culture Project's Lynn Redgrave Theater

The Anthem, currently being staged at Culture Project’s Lynn Redgrave Theater on Bleecker Street in lower Manhattan, is an exquisitely stylized show.  The ultra-modern set, with its multitude of video screens and strobe lighting, is worthy of a Broadway production.  Futuristic costumes, intended to suggest what life might be like several centuries hence in some totalitarian dystopia, are just terrific.  Best of all is the play’s choreography, ranging from sensual dance to clip-clopping regimental marches and from cool roller-blading to the most extraordinary gymnastic, acrobatic and aerial feats.  The net result is that this is one hell of a show, a staged circus that I found to be immensely entertaining.

So much for the good news.

Now here’s the bad news.

While this original musical (with book by Gary Morgenstein, music by Jonnie Rockwell and lyrics by Erik Ransom) is being presented as “a radical retelling of Ayn Rand’s classic novella,” if truth be told, it likely would make Rand turn over in her grave.  Presumably inspired by Anthem, originally published by Rand in 1938, The Anthem cherry-picks phrases from the corpus of Rand’s work in a vain attempt at establishing some sort of identification with one of the Twentieth Century’s most polarizing and influential novelists and philosophers; it conflates Rand’s Objectivism with anarchy (which Rand abhorred); and it engages in the worst sort of ethically relativistic rationalizations which would have been anathema to Rand who tended to see things in terms of black and white.

Rand’s original novella falls into the literary genre of dystopic science fiction, as does George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  But from a literary standpoint, it is clearly not in a class with either of those works.  The world depicted in Anthem is preposterous, its characters are two-dimensional, and it is delivered in such sophomoric fashion as to make it difficult to take seriously.  All of which means that I wouldn’t recommend reading Anthem for its literary value.

On the other hand, Anthem is worth reading for its historical value in providing Ayn Rand fans and students of her work with a window into the evolution of both her literary style and her Objectivist philosophy.  In Anthem, one will find the seeds that eventually blossomed into Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged: Equality 7-2521 is clearly the precursor to Atlas Shrugged’s John Galt; Equality is a street sweeper who discovers an abandoned subway tunnel whereas Galt is a railroad track walker; Equality’s rediscovery of electricity foreshadows Galt’s invention of a machine that will change the world; Equality’s retreat to a sanctuary in the Uncharted Forest, whence he will embark on the creation of a new individualistic world, presages the creation of Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged; and on and on.  And Atlas Shrugged is such an important book in its own right, that that alone makes Anthem worth reading.

Anthem is set in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic dystopia in which much of the world’s knowledge has been lost (torches and candles, for example, are required to provide light and power since all knowledge of electricity is gone). The society is so collectivistic and anti-individualistic that even personal pronouns have been banned in human discourse (individuals refer to themselves as “we,” never as “I”).  Individual initiative is not merely discouraged but is prohibited and punished.  Inventions and discoveries are deemed to be less than valueless – they are outright evil – unless they are created collectively.

But one man, Equality 7-2521, somehow manages to break free of the collectivist society’s bonds.  He comes to see the light – both figuratively and literally – as he re-discovers electricity, finds a kindred spirit in his lover, Liberty 5-3000 and, with her, sets out to re-make the world into a free utopian individualistic paradise where “ego” is no longer a dirty word but the most sacred word of all.

And yet, while the world depicted in Anthem is a preposterous one, populated with cardboard characters, it at least exhibited the virtue of consistency.  Not so with The Anthem.  Equality 7-2521 becomes Prometheus (Jason Gotay) in The Anthem but here he’s less a seeker after liberty and individuality than an adolescent rebel without a cause.  His lover, Liberty 5-3000, becomes Athena (Ashley Kate Adams), the beautiful leader of a back-to-nature rebel band hiding in a forest.  The society is not one in which most knowledge – including that of electricity – has been lost.  On the contrary, it is very technologically advanced with the whereabouts of all of its citizens continually monitored on a universal electronic grid.  Yet for some unexplainable reason, light bulbs no longer exist and it is that – the re-discovery of a light bulb rather than the principles of electricity – that Prometheus stakes out as his claim to fame! 

In sum, The Anthem is a mash-up of a play that makes no logical sense and that bears little relationship to Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, let alone the original novella that presumably inspired it.  Go see this show by all means - for its brilliant set, its terrific costumes and, most of all, for its truly outstanding choreography.  Just don’t expect a rationally coherent story line, nor anything even remotely based on Rand’s novella or philosophy.

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