Theatre of War:
As Troops Mobilize, So Do Directors and Playwrights on Stages Around the World
February 23, 2003
BY MICHAEL PHILLIPS
To revise a pet threat of President George W. Bush's: It has been months, not weeks, since America has found itself in the shaky grip of a strange historical pause. We wait for our administration and what allies it has to wage war on Iraq, or not. We wait for the latest flash of the "SHOWDOWN IRAQ" logo on CNN.
Yet judging from much of the world of entertainment, little has changed. Faux millionaires with carefully tweezed eyebrows conquer the TV ratings. Ben Affleck battles the cold filming a movie in Chicago and wins a superhero war on terror in "Daredevil." The film, entertainment television and music industries have their bubbles of topicality, but they can respond to the world only so fast. Their mission, as always: making a dime, rather than turning on one.
When it's alive and awake, the theater -- less corporate, lighter on its feet -- can move more quickly than other disciplines. A play such as "The Guys," honoring the fallen firefighters lost in the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, was written and produced just weeks following 9/11, at the Flea Theater in Lower Manhattan not far from where the towers once stood. Then it ran everywhere else for a while, including two separate Chicago engagements.
Apolitical in the extreme, "The Guys" may nonetheless signal a trend. As the whiff of war emanates from the White House, for the first time in years the theater feels like a place where world events in the making can be remade for the stage, speedily and purposefully.
It's a time when directors are thinking about the consequences of America's threatened war on Iraq. They're reading Greek and Roman classics in new ways, exploring why Seneca's "The Trojan Women" still speaks to our conflicted feelings about war. Or why an ancient Greek comedy with more sex jokes than an entire season of "The Man Show" is about to become the toast of 37 nations, all over again.
That remarkably far-flung theatrical anti-war effort takes place March 3. It is "The Lysistrata Project." Donations collected at the 18 scheduled Chicago area readings of the ancient Greek comedy -- dating from 411 B.C. -- benefit the Chicago office of Not In Our Name (www.nion.us), the national anti-war-on-Iraq organization. The subject of more than one seething Bill O'Reilly screed on Fox, the organization's controversial "statement of conscience" has been signed by Robert Falls of the Goodman, Steppenwolf Theatre artistic director Martha Lavey and Dennis Zacek of Victory Gardens Theater, among thousands.
The project, co-founded by New York-based Kathryn Blume, is billed as "the first-ever worldwide theatrical event for peace" on its Web site (www.lysistrataproject.com). The play by Aristophanes concerns Athens and the grinding Peloponnesian War against Sparta, which has gone on so long, the Athenian women decide to go on a chastity strike until the men swear off battle.
"Right now we're in this holding pattern," says Chicago project coordinator and actress Laura Scott Wade, who is overseeing readings everywhere from Chicago Shakespeare Theater to Chicago Dramatists to a costume shop in Batavia. "The government has paused right now. So in terms of the conversation, maybe we can get a word in edgewise."
As of this week, says co-founder Blume, the coordinated readings total nearly 581, in 37 countries.
"And I e-mailed Antarctica yesterday," she says.
Such a grass-roots effort is a world away from what Mary Zimmerman, last year's Tony Award-winning director for "Metamorphoses," is up to with "The Trojan Women."
A few months ago she was "being driven mad by every utterance made by our administration. In kind of an obsessive way, I was holding arguments in my head all night long. I was appearing on `Politically Incorrect' in my head. And I thought: I really should make a piece that has something to do with this."
The Goodman had already scheduled Zimmerman's revival of her popular "Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci." The season subscription renewal brochures were already in the mail. But she made her case to Goodman artistic director Falls and executive director Roche Schulfer.
"And this big boat," Zimmerman says of the Goodman, "managed to shift course midstream. They wanted to do it. Those guys know that our best work comes when our blood is up."
Like "The Trojan Women," Shakespeare's "Henry V" is a huge canvas of ideas, relating to patriotism, might and right. It can be painted in many different hues. During World War II Laurence Olivier filmed "Henry V" as a hot-blooded attempt -- successful, from every angle -- to rally British troops abroad and a war-weary populace at home.
This spring, director Nicholas Hytner stages "Henry V" as part of his inaugural season as head of London's Royal National Theatre. Given widespread public sentiment regarding British Prime Minister Tony Blair's backing of the threatened war, Hytner's production is likely to offer a more ambiguous and troubling portrait.
London's current hot ticket is a brash revue called "The Madness of George Dubya," which playwright Justin Butcher created in three days and rehearsed in six. It has been running for two highly publicized months, first in one small venue and then another. A bald rip-off of "Dr. Strangelove," it depicts a U.S. general who launches a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Iraq. President Bush is shown cowering in his bunker, wearing PJs and a cowboy hat. He rails against "Islamic tourist states," explaining that tourists are "brown folks who get on planes and come to America and do bad things. So we're having a war on tourism."
Conservative cultural pundit Michael Medved is among the Americans who hasn't seen Butcher's show, but is perfectly happy to crank off on it. "It's not worth a trip to London," he says. "I mean, sure, it could be one of the great dramatic contributions of our time, but . . . remember all those acclaimed anti-Vietnam War plays from the '60s? Where are they now?"
For the record, Butcher says he's just as hard on Blair as he is on Bush. Various commercial producers have scouted the show, which ends its North London run Sunday, and "Dubya" may end up on the West End. The show may also end up licensed to a dozen or so U.S. cities for independent production. Including, possibly, Chicago.
Political satire has a dangerously limited shelf life and, as such, the durability of "Dubya" remains an open question. Meantime, Butcher makes adjustments. "We've had to change the war deadline date again," he says with a chuckle. "There's an angry tirade in the climactic scene by the Iraqi ambassador, quoting Bush as saying the war will begin "in weeks, not months. Months is a banned word in this administration!"
"I just spent three hours clearing my e-mails," Butcher says from his flat in London, "predominantly from Americans who heard about the show through CNN." Butcher concedes that his show isn't about winning over the moderates, let alone those right of center. Of the responses he has gotten in recent weeks, he says, "the balance of sympathy has been in favor, about 70 percent, along the lines of: `Please bring this play to the States, it's great you Brits are doing this.
"And I've gotten some mail along the lines of: `I hope you have a terrorist attack in Britain' -- I couldn't bear to point out that we've had a few already -- or, `By doing your horrible play, you're saying "I hate you" to me.' By criticizing your unelected administration?"
Butcher's not alone there. Harold Pinter, one of England's front-rank playwright-dissidents, wrote the poem "God Bless America," which chides "the Yanks in their armoured parade/Chanting their ballads of joy/As they gallop across the big world/Praising America's God."
In a speech late last year, Pinter grabbed ahold of Bush's characteristic statement of moral clarity: "If you are not with us you are against us."
"[Bush] has also said `We will not allow the world's worst weapons to remain in the hands of the world's worst leaders.' Quite right. Look in the mirror, chum," Pinter said. "That's you."
Such opinions are unlikely to get Pinter invited to a White House international playwrights' gathering. The White House is unlikely ever to convene such a symposium in the first place. In January, First Lady Laura Bush canceled a poetry symposium after learning of some guests' plans to read anti-war work. Earlier this week, many of those poets gathered along with such literary stars as Arthur Miller at New York's Avery Fisher Hall.
Another war-inspired event, this one in the hit-and-run comedy category, has cropped up in the Boston area. Gip Hoppe's play "A New War," already a success in Cape Cod, Mass., opens March 7 in Somerville outside Boston. It takes place in the near future, at a 24-hour cable news channel "desperate to fill airtime," in the words of its author.
Closer to home, the writer-performers of Second City have been confronting a new world order, in varying degrees of comic outrage. The ongoing "Curious George Goes to War" at Second City e.t.c. has a sharper political edge than many recent Second City shows. The more mainstream mainstage revue, still untitled and due to open in a month, has been the subject of much trial and error in the current preview phase. All revues go through it; this one, says director David Razowsky, a little more than most.
"It's a hard time to be doing a show like this," he acknowledges. "Right now we're not working on much new material having to do with the war, because we're waiting for the other shoe to fall. When it comes to things so huge and topical . . . we're better off waiting."
Last Saturday's 11 p.m. performance found Razowsky's cast breezing through sketches that have been in front of audiences for months. The performers were trying out some new bits too. One old bit (titled "Nixon's Fault"), a short history of America's foreign-relations entanglements in the Middle East, had been recently updated. A new sketch introduced "the AmeriCorps Players," wherein a chipper group of improv artists worked an Iranian crowd, trying to find common ground ("You execute people, we execute people!")
One line among many, Razowsky says, has already been excised. "Where's your tact, Uncle Sam?" asks one actor of the guy in the red, white and blue stovepipe hat.
"I think I left it in the second World Trade tower," he says. The line got more of a nervous shudder than an actual, verifiable laugh.
On one side of comedy's fine line lies the risk worth taking; on the other lies jokes about Bush's IQ. "`Saturday Night Live,' `Mad TV,' those `satirical' venues are rife with that sort of thing because it's easy," Razowsky says. "The hard laugh is the human laugh."
The director concedes that "it's a hard time to be writing a show."
Feb. 15, on the other hand, was a great day to be doing street theater. As part of the anti-war rally on Devon Street, a marching band -- dressed as skeletons -- joined the multicultural fray. Chicago's anti-war protesters couldn't hold a candle to other U.S. cities in terms of numbers, let alone the hundreds of thousands in London and Berlin and beyond. But on Devon, sights such as the skeleton marching band were enough to convince you it was 1968 all over again.
"I gotta say, I am so not into that stuff," says the Lysistrata Project's Blume, laughing somewhat guiltily, regarding the cliche notions of guerrilla theater. "The question is, how do you balance the quality of the art with the quality of the message? Street theater tends to focus much more on the message."
An established playwright whom Blume admires for both art and message is Tony Kushner. The author of "Angels in America" and, more recently, "Homebody/Kabul," which takes place largely in 1998 Afghanistan at the time of the U.S. bombing of suspected terrorist training camps, has been active in the Not In Our Name campaign. He is revising "Homebody/Kabul" for this summer's Steppenwolf Theatre Midwest premiere.
He has also written an audacious piece, "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy," the title taken from Laura Bush's favorite author, Dostoevsky. In the play's first scene, which appears in a forthcoming issue of The Nation, the First Lady conducts a reading group with adorable children in PJs and bathrobes. The children, an angel informs the audience, are dead Iraqi children.
It "starts out like a cheap gag," Kushner says. "You think it's going to be, you know, dumb lefty agitprop. But then I hope it gets into something darker and more complicated."
No major American playwright has been more openly, wittily critical of Bush's policies. "This idea that every terrorist in the world belongs to Al Qaeda, like it's the James Bond enemy organization SPECTRE. We get rid of SPECTRE, we can rid the world of evil. It's a lunatic idea."
Revisiting "Homebody/Kabul," which tells the story of an Englishwoman's disappearance in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Kushner has only sharpened his beliefs regarding America's responsibility toward the region. "Unless we maintain a strong military presence and begin to pump huge amounts of money into Afghanistan," he says, we're asking for misery. "The country's still starving, still landmined. It's better off than it was under the Taliban. But it's still in trouble."
Troubling times, but Kushner says he's energized. "I always loved being a writer most during times like this. I find that my anger is a really good source of fuel."
A new Chicago theater company, Silk Road Theatre Project, was started by Malik Gillani and Jamil Khoury because of what Khoury perceives as the American media's "monolithic take on Arab people" in the wake of 9/11. It is a take, many believe, that has been encouraged by the Bush administration as its key players make their case for ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.
"This morning I was in the gym," says Gillani, whose family emigrated from Pakistan to Chicago when he was 7, "and there was Fox News talking about the latest Osama bin Laden tape. They kept saying: `And he has asked all Muslims to terrorize America!' I'm a Muslim and I'm thinking, well, he doesn't guide me . . . these people just cast me as a terrorist."
Silk Road's first show continues through March 2 at the Chicago Cultural Center downtown. Titled "Precious Stones," it's set in 1989 and concerns two women -- one Jewish, the other Palestinian -- falling in love. It was written by Khoury, born in Chicago to a Syrian father and an American mother of Polish-Slovak heritage.
"When we look at pop-cultural representations of Arabs and Muslims," he says, "it's either one-dimensional or demonized portrayals. So we're very consciously trying to counter the climate that's out there."
Should the bombs fall in March or April, will grass-roots efforts such as "The Lysistrata Project" take on a bittersweet aftertaste? Maybe, says Blume. "But I'd feel worse if we hadn't done anything."
Zimmerman is speaking up via her Roman colleague, Seneca, who was decreed a rabble-rousing enemy of the state and forced to commit suicide.
"I mean, who knows, what do I know? I'm just a theater director with an opinion," she says, by way of deadpan apology. "I have no idea if I'm just preaching to the choir. No idea. But I do know that the extreme agitation I was feeling all the time has dissipated, now that we're working on `The Trojan Women.'"
And Zimmerman takes heart, as well as a kind of comfort, in what she believes to be Seneca's anguished lesson:
"Anywhere you drop a bomb, it's ground zero to the people living there."