note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Lynn Heinemann
Multiple-award winning playwright Tony Kushner is known for fantasias exploring grand themes, often weaving historical figures into his dramatizations.
As proven by Zeitgeist's East Coast premiere of the five short plays compiled in "Tiny Kushner," Kushner's gift for embellishment is not limited by scope or length.
Real-life people woven into these plays include Richard Nixon's psychiatrist, Laura Bush, and two women who both died in 2002: Geraldine, former Queen of Albania whose life story includes exile and escapes over the mountains, and Lucia Pamela, an American eccentric whose self-professed credits range from being voted Miss St. Louis 1926 to having been to the moon where she recorded an album.
In the evening's opener, "Flip Flop Fly!" when chipper Lucia (Kara Manson) and dour Geraldine (Maureen Adduci) meet, in some post-life limbo (the moon according to Lucia, purgatory according to Geraldine), the juxtaposition of their life stories provides for delicious absurdity.
"You and me, we both had fantastical lives," Lucia exults, while Geraldine replies, "But mine happened.
Victor Shopov presents a tour-de-force performance in "East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis: A little teleplay in tiny monologues." (Kushner's knack for down-sizing his epics to one-act plays doesn't necessarily apply to shortening his titles.)
With no props but an emery board and a sheet of paper, Shopov believably portrays 22 characters from an African-American prison guard to a strung-out psycho, to teen-aged girls of various ethnicities, to an elderly Jewish accountant to Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The tale, presented in cinematic format, shows how New York City municipal workers tried to take advantage of a scheme to avoid paying taxes concocted by Jarvis, a right-wing anti-government activist from Indiana. While no one could deny Kushner's fertile imagination, this play was also based on an actual event.
David Miller's effectively minimalist scenic design uses only four benches to provide the settings for each play, and his sure-handed direction provides excellent sight-lines from every side of the in-the-round set-up.
In "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall be Unhappy," Laura Bush (Maureen Aducci) finds herself in a classroom ready to read to Iraqi children who've died because of U.S. actions. The children are invisible, but their fates are explained by their guardian angel (Kara Mason).
Laura Bush's shock at how these children died is at first informed by her husband's official party line ("It isn't right that you should have had to die because your country is run by an evil man who is accumulating weapons of mass destruction"). But, her own conscience and sense of guilt comes out ("we'll pay for your deaths one way or another").
Reading the Grand Inquisitor section from Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov, she likens the Grand Inquisitor (who questions the silent Jesus Christ and expounds on the nature of good and evil) to John Ashcroft, calling him "creepy."
She tells the children that at the end of "The Grand Inquisitor," "Christ kisses the Inquisitor on the lips. And the Inquisitor lets him go. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky lets this pass without comment. We call this ambiguity."
She then kisses the children and quotes again from "The Brothers Karamazov," "The kiss glowed in his heart. But the old man adhered to his ideas."
The indication seems to be that even though we see her as warm and sympathetic, she will not change her own public support of her husband and his politics.
If the evening has a theme, it may be of that sense of ambivalence. Kushner takes characters who should be evil, and makes them palatable; those who should be absurd, have a grain of truth; and even the angel might have a hidden agenda.
"Ambivalence expands our options," Hendryk (Craig Houk), a conflicted gay man tells his deeply troubled therapist in trying to convince her to take him back in "Terminating OR Sonnet LXXV OR 'Lass Meine Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein' OR Ambivalence."
It certainly expands Kushner's.