Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Lady Sing the Red White and Blues

Performed drama was never Ayn Rand's forte, what with the lack of identifying human characteristics of her characters. Her novels are entirely her creation and so can at least be appreciated, if that is the word, as expressions of her personality. Generally speaking, they lose this consolation when they make the transition to stage and screen. The Fountainhead is redeemed by its high camp, but Atlas Shrugged, Parts 1 and 2 are simply dreadful, lacking in zesty enthusiasm, basic craft, or both. Austin Shakespeare's adaptation of Rand's novella Anthem is not quite so terrible, but neither is it terribly good either. Call it a faithful rendering of its source material.

My thoughts on the book, and its plot, need not be rehearsed here. Suffice to say that Ayn Rand's vision of a dystopia run by morons and the man (Matthew Lieff Christian) and his consort (Tina Johnson) who stand against it, is crippled by Rand's failure to see the absurd humor of the scenario. The stage show (awkwardly listed in the playbill as ANTHEM AYN RAND) changes little of the story or its telling, though it does make some specifications (more on that in a moment) and it also adds a couple "characters" into the mix, an old couple (Sofia Lauwers and Lelund Durond) that live at the House of the Useless. Their scenes do nothing to advance the threadbare story/parable of Equality 7-2521 and his discovery of individualism, but serve to flesh out the world a little by describing the loveless process of procreation at the House of Mating. They also give more stage time to supporting actor Lelund Durond, who manages the small miracle of adding little bits of stage business (an old fogey singsong of a collectivist hymn, some idle doodling) that inject personality and humor into his many walk-on roles.

Durond's relative liveliness jars with the po-faced solemnity of the rest of the proceedings, but without it the show would be unbearable. The other actors (including Alex Teicheira and Sarah Walker Thornton) try to make do by committing to the characters' straight-facedness. Of them, only Christian is able to make it work, mostly through the relaxing cadence of his voice, but even this grows one-note and tiresome midway through the show. The starkest example is, not surprisingly, the unintentionally funniest scene in the book, when Equality presents a council of scholars his rediscovery of electricity, and they spurn him because his invention would disrupt the work of the Department of Candles that is spread across divisions in multiple states. Played for laughs this would be an absurdist scream, but here it's merely ridiculous, like the final Knights Who Say 'Ni!' scene, but played deadly serious.

The actors are helped in no way by the adaptation by Jeff Britting (an affiliate, naturally, with the Ayn Rand Institute). The story is told, as in the original, by first-person past- and present-tense diary entries. This is deadly under normal circumstances--such narration in a book is the vehicle through which information is conveyed; onstage the actors and interacting characters are that vehicle, and narration makes everything that happens into a second-hand experience. With Rand's dour, wooden dialogue, in which everyone speaks with 'shall's and 'unto's and without using contractions, like a character in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, the characters are robbed of personality, and the story of any immediacy.

Perhaps the best element is the staging, but that's still problematic at best. The costumes by Theresa Squire are appropriate at least at least , drab sack-cloth getups befitting a wasted society. Director Ann Ciccolella wisely opts for minimal staging, using an open space dotted with upturned lighting instruments that stand in for trees, holes in the ground, and pools of water. Yet such a setup feels like it wants to be an immersive experience, with the (collective?) audience included and perhaps implicated in its proceedings. Instead it's held at a distance by the proscenium staging and, especially, the show's over-reliance on rear-projection that looks to be easily its most expensive aspect, with constantly changing animated backdrops and effects, and a score (composed by Britting) that rarely lets up.

These two, the music and projection, contributed to one of the few camp pleasures of the evening, at the very end, in which Equality-7-2521 and Democracy 2-5799 have returned to free those among them that also showed some initiative. The music swells and the video changes to sunlight bursting through the darkness, and the whole cast is chanting "I! I! I!" that holy word newly rediscovered. It's the one time that the show lets itself go over the top, and I was glad that the end-of-show applause followed thereafter so I could unstifle some of my laughter without being a churl.

The source material is bad enough, and the stage show can't save it, but there's one detail that makes it all immeasurably worse. That specificity I mentioned before? See, the book, to keep its fable-like quality, takes place in an indeterminate location, in which Equality discovers a tunnel with long-forgotten technology; this is where he goes to be alone and re-discovers electricity. In this adaptation this tunnel is concretized with a projection of the very distinct grid pattern of the tunnels of the DC Metro, placing the action explicitly within America's capitol.

As it happens, the federal government, the company of company town Washington, DC, is in the early days of a shutdown that could inflict considerable damage on the country's still fragile economy, as well as its capacity for scientific research and public health. This entirely avoidable shutdown is a product of Republicans in the House of Representatives who, in their belief that the long-debated, legislated, and Supreme Court-upheld Affordable Care Act is socialism, have decided that losing an election shouldn't stop them from getting their way, to hell with the consequences, which may include defaulting on our national debt in a few short weeks.

The intellectual godmother of these freedom-frying sub-Jacobins? Ayn Rand, of course. Fuck you very much, you hateful bitch. In death you may yet succeed where the Soviets failed in destroying this country.

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