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.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble Stages Stoppard's Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth

L-R: John Lenartz, Brian A. Costello, Alexis Powell, and Kyle Nunn in DOGG'S HAMLET.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was arguably the most brilliant and influential philosopher of the Twentieth Century.  In Philosophical Investigations, his posthumously published magnum opus, he up-ended the Augustinian view of language as being fully explicable in terms of signification – i.e., the traditional idea that all words, in all circumstances, may be understood as simply standing in for the objects, actions or qualities they represent.

That, of course, is the way children learn languages to begin with: they are shown five, red apples or a boy throwing a ball and are thereby taught what the words “five,” red,” “apple,” “boy,” “run,” and “ball” mean.  But is that all there is to it?

Wittgenstein never denied that such signification plays an important role in language, but he insisted that there was far more to it.  As an example, he imagined a situation in which two construction workers – A and B – shared a primitive language consisting only of the four words: “block,” “pillar,” “slab,” and “beam.”  Now if an observer, unfamiliar with the language, were to hear A shout out “Beam!” and then were to see B handing something to A, it certainly would be reasonable for him to conclude that the word “beam” merely signified whatever it was that B handed to A..  But what if it didn’t?  The word “beam,” as A used it and as B understood it, might actually have meant “bring me that object” or, if B were already aware of what A would want next, it might even simply have meant something like “Next” or “Here” or “Ready” or “OK.”

In the late 1970s, Tom Stoppard was so inspired by that passage in Philosophical Investigations and by the blacklisting of the Czechoslovakian playwright Pavel Kohout that he wrote two plays: Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth.  Both were based on Shakespearean classics (much as was Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead); both imagined the ramifications of speakers of different languages using the same words but with different meanings and/or understanding the same words in different ways; and the two plays were expressly intended to be produced together as Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth.

Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth was first staged on Broadway in 1979, closing after only 30 performances.  It is currently being revived in a splendid production off-off-Broadway by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at The Wild Project on East 3rd Street in Manhattan’s East Village.  It is a featured event of that troupe’s Tenth Anniversary Spring Rep season and it is well worth seeing.

Dogg’s Hamlet is a direct riff on Wittgenstein’s thought experiment regarding the meanings of words based upon their actual use rather than solely on their signification.  In Stoppard’s play, several high school students including Abel (Matt Stapleton), Baker (Kyle Nunn), and Charlie (Alexis Powell) are preparing a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in English.  The catch is that the students only speak Dogg which uses the same words as English does but with altogether different meanings (“useless,” for instance, means “good day” and “mouseholes” means “egg”) so that to them, what we understand as English is truly a foreign language.   When Easy (John Lenartz), a deliveryman who speaks English rather than Dogg, arrives with materials to build the play’s set – including bricks, cubes, slabs and planks - all hell breaks loose.

And that, of course, is because what Easy means by “brick,” “cube,” “slab,” and “plank” (which is what we and other English-speakers mean by those words) isn’t at all what Abel, Baker, Charlie and other Dogg-speakers mean by them.  To Dogg-speakers, “brick” means what “here” means to Easy; “slab” means “yes” or “okay”; “cube” means “thanks” or “thank you”; and “plank” means “ready.”  A collapsing Tower of Babel would seem inevitable – and it is.

Ultimately, Dogg’s Hamlet does include a comically abbreviated performance of Hamlet. And, as something of a bonus, Easy (and the audience) learn a little bit of Dogg to boot.

L-R: Morgan Rosse, Matt Stapleton, Antonio Edwards Suarez, Kyle Nunn, and Jason O'Connell in CAHOOT'S MACBETH.   Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Cahoot’s Macbeth pushes the envelope much further.  Stoppard dedicated this play to the Czechoslovakian playwright Pavel Kohout who, together with others, was prevented from plying his theatrical trade in his native country by the totalitarian Communist Government of Czechoslovakia.  In response, Kahout, Pavel Landovsky, and others formed the “Living-Room Theatre” troupe which supported itself by working as street-sweepers and waitresses by day while secretly performing plays in homes at night.

One such performance (of an abridged version of Macbeth), taking place in Cahoot’s Macbeth, is interrupted by the arrival of an Inspector (Jason O’Connell) who understandably sees in the troupe’s “acting without authority” a metaphorical attack on the authority of the Communist Government.  And once again, Easy appears – only this time he’s speaking Dogg rather than English!

Stoppard’s double bill is as effective as George Orwell’s 1984 in its depiction of the transcendent importance of language in human society, especially in repressed societies.  Its play on words, its coded references, its metaphorical allusions, all of which we have come to associate with Stoppard, are here used to bring about an affecting serio-comic conclusion to a double-barrelled tour de force.

All of the members of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble deserve recognition for jobs very well done, with most of them playing multiple roles in this difficult dual play assignment, but I was especially impressed by the performances of John Lenartz as the Falstaffian Easy, Jason O’Connell as the sinister Inspector, and Josh Tyson as the irrepressible Fox Major.  And kudos should go out to both scenic and sound designers for their creative and effective use of visual projections and musical mixes which added greatly to the show’s appeal.