Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Those 60s Shows

August 27, 2012

Jack Willis and LBJ and Kenajuan Bentley as MLK. Photo by Jenny Graham/OSF 2012
It was rather a perfect weekend in Ashland, Oregon, with comfortable, clear summer weather and a slate of particularly strong and well thought out productions from The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The festival season, one of the strongest in recent years, runs through November with the outdoor Elizabethan Stage open until early October with plenty of Shakespeare and comedies to please just about anyone. But while there is a lot of the familiar, the two world premiere plays now on offer may be stealing the whole show this summer. They are undoubtedly a testament to the vision of Artistic Director Bill Rauch and the company’s commitment to producing new plays as part of American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. These two new works, Robert Schenkkan’s All The Way and UNIVERSES’ Party People, are the third and fourth fully-staged productions in the series. They are companion pieces in a sense, each delving into the civil rights movement and its aftermath from two different perspectives – the corridors of power in Washington, DC, and the community activism in the streets of America in the late 1960s. The two plays also may be the most successful shows yet to come out of the commissioning series.

Schenkkan’s All The Way is stunningly affecting. It’s that rare breed – a contemporary history play. It is easily the most successful and gripping example of its kind since at least David Hare’s 2004 Stuff Happens. The subject is Lyndon B. Johnson’s year in the U.S. President’s office from his swearing in following the assassination of John F. Kennedy until his election to his own full first term in the same office in 1964. Needless to say, the lead role of the tough, brash, arm-twisting Texan is a plum one, and Jack Willis gives a whirlwind, uncanny performance in creating the part. Schenkkan fleshes out historical events with dialog that cleverly rings of truth without succumbing to easy sentimentality. The role of LBJ in All The Way is the kind of vehicle big name stars will jump at in the hopes of a Tony award with its colorful language, nuanced characterization and cultural caché. Of course, the show is filled with numerous juicy roles of other major historical figures including Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Edgar Hoover, George Wallace, and more political and civil rights figures than you can shake a stick at. Schenkkan can’t resist including both former senators Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd in the mix as well to point out that even these august legislators failed to come down on the right side of history when it really mattered. Director and Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch keep all of this cacophony of voices focused and moving toward the inevitable. The show also benefits from one of the festival’s strongest suits, its rich ensemble of repertory players. The play is filled with dozens of roles and most performers take on several of them over the course of three hours in a variety of colorful American accents. But Schenkkan keeps the focus on the sweep of history allowing the inherent drama of the events to drive the action including the machinations behind the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the subsequent Freedom Summer of 1964 leading up to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in that same summer. This is powerfully moving stuff and it’s done expertly. And in the end it passes the greatest test of a history play – it makes your heart thrill with anticipation for events that you already know the outcome of in advance.

William Ruiz and Robynn Rodriguez. Photo by Jenny Graham/OSF 2012
Of course, while LBJ serves as the hero in All The Way, he is an overshadowing villain to the 1960s ex-radicals who populate UNIVERSES’ Party People. UNIVERSES is a New York-based theater collective whose primary members, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Steven Sapp, and William Ruiz, all serve as authors and performers in this new collaboration with the festival. Party People is much more loosely structured and revisits the lives of ex-revolutionaries of the Black Panthers and Young Lords movements that sprung up within the same civil rights movement depicted in All The Way. However this time around, UNIVERSES adds layer upon layer of other artistic traditions to the play including musical performance, dance, and live streaming video technology. The end result is bewitching to watch if not always successful in its broader purpose. The central conceit of the play, which at times seems grafted on to fit the poetry and musical performances contained within, concerns two young contemporary activists, Jimmy and his friend Malik, the son of a Black Panther currently spending life in prison. The two have concocted a gallery show cum tribute cum performance art piece in which they have invited a large array of former members of both movements to come together to tell their stories, meet one another again, and peruse a variety of objects and filmed testimonies from the period. What the guests don’t know is that the two have concocted a confrontational theater performance in which Jimmy dresses as a clown and proceeds to berate and interrogate their “guests” about the failures and inherent political and ethical contradictions in their actions at the time. In this way Party People owes as much to Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration as it does anything else.

It can make for some disquieting and uncomfortable moments in the show, which isn’t a bad thing at all. The hodge podge of musical and poetic elements is heady and often beautiful. But the tonal shifts don’t always add up and when they do, it exposes the lazy ideological heart of the work. A multitude of issues about the failings of these revolutionary movements and their aftermath are covered almost in a forced, check-list like fashion. In the end the only reason the architects of this contrived celebration, Jimmy and Malik, have to offer for its existence are hollow now ludicrous sounding tropes about the importance of digital and social media in communicating to young people about this important part of their history. If the filmed byproducts of the gathering aren’t available on Facebook, young people will never be able to access the history of their own revolutionary movements, the tired old canard goes. But if one can overlook this somewhat desperate ploy, the show still offers enough clever musical elements and a bracing visual staging that make the show a worthwhile counterpoint to the very same history so expertly depicted elsewhere at this year’s festival. Both shows will run through November 3rd.


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